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Title:  The Hungarian Gentleman Farmer
Author: Baroness Orczy
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 2000211h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  March 2020
Most recent update: March 2020

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The Hungarian Gentleman Farmer

Baroness Orczy

Published in the Windsor Magazine, August 1909

So much has been said and written lately concerning the peasant proprietor in the more Eastern countries of Europe, that the fact has been a little overlooked that this same peasant proprietor is more a creature of the future than of the immediate present.

In some of the agricultural districts of Central Hungary, the richer class of peasantry is certainly buying up in the shape of small holdings, and with the help of the local Agricultural Banks, such large estates as sometimes come into the open market; but this latter event is still very rare, and in Eastern and Upper Hungary, for instance, the peasant proprietor does not exist as yet.

All the land is in the hands of the nobility and what, for want of a better term, we might call the county gentry—ancient families, with long lines of ancestry behind them, with no more thought of alienating the land, which has been handed down from father to son for hundreds of years, than of selling one of their own children.

Enthroned in his château, which is mostly of mediaeval origin, the Hungarian landowner keeps up—all unconsciously, perhaps—the old feudal ideas which modern civilisation has done very little to modify.

He is the supreme lord on his own estate, a little king within the boundaries of his realm. He is the only employer of labour within measurable distance, and the entire population on his land is dependent on him for subsistence, and—truth to tell—he does employ the entire able-bodied population on his estate, to work for him in one capacity or another.

A curious mixture of primitive simplicity and lavish extravagance is his chief characteristic. He is in the strictest sense of the word a farmer. An overseer— of the peasant class himself, but with a certain education or knowledge which has placed him somewhat above his fellows — remains as a sort of intermediary between the lord and his labourers.

But at all seasons of the year, at all hours of daylight, the lord himself will drive about from one corner of his estate to another and keep an eye upon the work of the farm.

Primarily the land is expected to yield a sufficiency for the upkeep of the family home, for my lord and my lady, their sons and daughters, married and unmarried, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all find room in the spacious abode, and live on the products of the land.

They eat their own beef and mutton, they kill and eat their own pigs and poultry, of course; my lady and her daughters wear underlinen woven by the peasant women from the flax which grows on my lord’s estate. Exquisite white linen it is, too, daintily embroidered by rough, toil-worn hands; but the wool with which that embroidery was fashioned came from the back of my lord’s sheep, and was dyed in the village with a few primitive pigments found on my lord's own ground.

I have a typical Hungarian home in my mind at the present moment, situated in the lowlands of Hungary, a mediaeval château forming part of an estate of about ten thousand acres. The house is most comfortably and completely furnished; it is what in English we should describe as “well-found” in every way, and all the furnishing inside the house, with the exception of the silver, the glass, and the best china, was made or manufactured on the estate.

The furniture, chiefly of acacia wood, which grows in enormous profusion in this part of Hungary, was made and carved by those of the villagers in divers generations who had talents for carpentry. The carpets of roughly dyed wool were woven by the women—wives of coachmen, of gardeners, or other labourers—and were a miracle of softness, warmth, and cleverly bended, if somewhat crude, colouring. The huge earthenware stoves, so typical and picturesque in Eastern Europe, were made up of beautiful majolica tiles baked and fired in the fields outside the village. The table linen was hand-woven, of fine white linen thread, the sheets and coarser cloths of home-grown hemp. The fireirons and kitchen utensils had been forged by the local smith.

And in the household Madame la Comtesse and Mesdemoiselles her daughters go about in home-made tweeds, which for warmth and comfort leave nothing to be desired, and wear soft shoes of half-tanned leather made in the village, which for durability and ease put all hygienic footwear to shame.

Of ready money there is but little in this otherwise gorgeous country home. With the exception of a part of the labourers’ wages and certain little luxuries, such as coffee and sugar, which come down from the nearest town, almost everything can be paid for in kind—even the wages.

I have before me as I write the wages list belonging to a large estate in Hungary. It is quite typical. The doctor heads it: his duties are to look after births in the village and to mend a broken leg when necessary. He receives four hundred kronen a year —about sixteen pounds in English money —and has the use of a cottage, but he also has eight measures of wheat as part salary, so many measures of oats, and loads of maize and straw, so much hay and wurzel for his cow. And so on in a descending scale, down to the unskilled labourers, the women who help at the threshing, the boys who mind the pigs, at a living wage of about forty or fifty kronen a year—about two pounds—and so many sacks of potatoes and maize.

It is the old, mediaeval system of barter. Coin of the realm invariably wanders into the pockets of the Jews. They are the only real traders, and they keep or own most of the inns and drinking-places. There, ready money must be paid, and the labourer who is inclined to spend his wages in drink can easily do so.

But the landowner has nothing to do with that. By law he is obliged to pay part of his employés’ salaries in money. Before 1848 there were any number of Hungarian landed proprietors owning ten or twenty thousand acres and a fine château, whose yearly income in money would be below forty pounds a year.

The emancipation of the peasantry from serfdom has altered this somewhat. The Government compulsorily bought up such parts of large landed estates as constituted a village, and gave the cottages to the peasantry. So the gentleman farmer now no longer needs to house and feed his employés: he gives them so much with which to feed themselves.

The only difference it has made to him is that now when the Jew trader comes round after wood or to buy pigs, my lord has to sell for money.

He is the most contented individual in the world, in spite of the fact, or because of the fact that he knows absolutely nothing of what is going on around him. He does just read his newspaper which arrives daily from Budapest, and has vague ideas that all Austrians are thieves and scoundrels, and that therefore a union with Austria is necessarily fatal to Hungary; but, as a matter of fact, the political situation of his country does not interest him in the least; it does not affect the richness of his wheat or the weight of his maize-heads.

A keen sports man, he is unhampered by any game laws. In Hungary no one is allowed to carry a gun unless he owns so much land, and the owner of land—and therefore of game—naturally makes his own laws for its preservation.

His chief characteristic is hospitality, almost barbaric in its lavishness—his guests, his friends, his relations, all are welcome, as long as there is room in the house. What matter to him if ox, sheep or calf has to be specially slaughtered to feed the gay multitude who come to visit him? He has plenty and to spare.

Of town and town life he knows nothing. Budapest is noisy, and the automobiles are smelly. He prefers driving his magnificent horses in teams of fours or fives along the roads where right and left the rich fields belong to him. There are at the present moment any number of high-born Hungarian noblemen of ancient lineage and large estates who never from year’s end to year’s end go beyond the boundaries of their own estates.

Since the days of their youth and compulsory military service they have never been to the capital; they never go to theatres nor read current fiction. Nature is the only book they know: the varying seasons, the coming rain, the growing calves and foals. There is no social intercourse for them, save among themselves.

Wheat in Central and Lower Hungary, maize in the more eastern parts, are the staple products. Just enough cattle to keep the big house well supplied with milk, butter and meat, very few sheep—and those mostly for the sake of the wool, and a hundred pigs or so, constitute what is technically called out there live stock.

And then there are the horses. Most gentlemen farmers breed horses. The pasture is good, the strain excellent for riding or driving. The Government is the chief customer for good, sound three-year-olds for military purposes. In September every year, the Remount Department sends a commission round to the various horse-breeders to buy up the horses that are suitable for its purpose.

A colonel, two captains, and a veterinary surgeon-captain come to spend a morning at the château, entertained by the owner thereof, and to select the horses. For a few hours then a glimpse of the great outside world seems to penetrate within the old walls. The colonel will probably talk of the great military event of the day: the Boer war, the Russo-Japanese, as the case may be. The younger captains will refer to the autumn races in Paris or England.

My lord and my lady listen—interested, and do their best to make the colonel’s short stay a pleasant one, while mesdemoiselles sigh involuntarily and vaguely at thoughts of Paris! a fairy, unreal city to them! But this does not last: time is short and business is once more resumed. The colonel selects the horses which my lord has set aside as likely to suit the military authorities, the veterinary surgeon inspects and passes them. A final cup of coffee, a glass of silvorium, and the brilliant band ride away, leaving behind them an echo of gay and distant doings, interesting, perhaps, for the moment, worthy, perhaps, of an indulgent and kindly smile for those ephemeral and senseless forms of pastime, the crowning of kings, the political squabbles, the makings of war and peace.

Then with a sigh of unconscious relief my lord and lady turn towards the orchard, where the apples have to be gathered in, and find absorbing interest in the new malady which this year has affected the old poplar trees, and for the next twelve months happily forget that there is any other land save this land of plenty, any other country save this little, half-forgotten corner in Central Europe.


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