As Nick Hunt is currently in the vicinity of the Hungarian-Romanian border on his walk in Paddy’s footsteps to Constantinople, I thought that it might be an appropriate time to publish this extract. It is one of the most memorable pieces of Paddy’s writing. What a way to spend a hot summer’s afternoon!
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
First published in The Spectator in 1986. This version 18 June 2011.
One day when we were invited to luncheon by some neighbours, István said, ‘Let’s take the horse’ and we followed a roundabout uphill track to look at a remaining piece of forest. ‘Plenty of common oak, thank God,’ he said, turning back in the saddle as we climbed a path through the slanting sunbeams, ‘you can use it for everything.’ The next most plentiful was Turkey oak, very good firewood when dry, also for stable floors and barrel staves. Beech came next, ‘it leaves scarcely any embers’; then yoke elm and common elm, ‘useful for furniture and coffins’. There was plenty of ash, too — handy for tools, axe-helves, hammers, sickles, scythes, spades and hay rakes. Except for a few by the brooks, there were no poplars up there but plenty by the Maros: useless, though, except for troughs and wooden spoons and the like. Gypsies made these. They settled in the garden and courtyard of the kastély with their wives and their children and whittled away until they had finished. ‘There is no money involved,’ István said. ‘We’re supposed to go halves, but, if it’s an honest tribe, we’re lucky to get a third. We do better with some Rumanians from out-of-the-way villages in the mountains, very poor and primitive chaps, but very honest.’
In a clearing we exchanged greetings with a white-haired shepherd leaning on a staff with a steel hook. The heavily embroidered homespun cloak flung across his shoulders and reaching to the ground was a brilliant green. His flock tore at the grass among the tree-stumps all round him. Then a path led steeply downhill through hazel woods with old shells and acorns crunching under the horses’ hooves.
It was a boiling hot day. On the way back from a cheerful feast, we went down to the river to look at some wheat. Overcome by the sight of the cool and limpid flood, we unsaddled in a shady field about the size of a paddock, took off all our clothes, climbed down through the reeds and watercress and dived in. Swimming downstream with lazy breaststroke or merely drifting in the shade of the poplars and the willows, we talked and laughed about our recent fellow guests. The water was dappled with leafy shade near the bank and scattered with thistle-down, and a heron made off down a vista of shadows. Fleets of moorhens doubled their speed and burst noisily out of the river, and wheat, maize and tiers of vineyard were gliding past us when all at once we heard some singing. Two girls were reaping the end of a narrow strip of barley; going by the colours of their skirts and their embroidered tops, braid sashes and kerchiefs, they had come for the harvest from a valley some way off. They stopped as we swam into their ken, and, when we drew level, burst out laughing. Apparently the river was less of a covering than we had thought. They were about 19 or 20, with sunburnt and rosy cheeks and thick dark plaits, and not at all shy. One of them shouted something, and we stopped and trod water in mid-Maros. István interpreted. ‘They say we ought to be ashamed of ourselves,’ he said, ‘and they threaten to find our clothes and run off with them.’
Then he shouted back, ‘You mustn’t be unkind to strangers! You look out, or we’ll come and catch you.’
‘You wouldn’t dare,’ came the answer. ‘Not like that, naked as frogs.’
What are these for?’ István pointed to the branches by the shore. ‘We could be as smartly dressed as Adam.’
‘You’d never catch us! What about your tender white feet in the stubble? Anyway, you’re too respectable. Look at your hair, going bald in front.’
‘It’s not!’ István shouted back.
‘And that young one,’ cried the second girl, ‘he wouldn’t dare.’
István’s blue eye was alight as he translated the last bit. Then without exchanging another word we struck out for the shore as fast as crocodiles and, tearing at poplar twigs and clumps of willow-herb, bounded up the bank. Gathering armfuls of sheaves, the girls ran into the next field, then halted at the illusory bastion of a hay-rick and waved their sickles in mock defiance. The leafy disguise and our mincing gait as we danced across the stubble unloosed more hilarity. They dropped their sickles when we were almost on them and showered us with the sheaves; then ran to the back of the rick. But, one-armed though we were, we caught them there and all four collapsed in a turmoil of hay and barley and laughter.
‘Herrgott!’ I heard István suddenly exclaim — much later on, and a few yards round the curve of the rick — smiting his brow with his hand. ‘Oh God! The bishop! The Gräfin! They’re coming to dinner, and look at the sun!’
It was well down the sky and evening was gathering. The ricks and the poplars and the serried rows of sheaves and haycocks were laying bars of shadow over the mown field and a party of birds was flying home across the forest. István’s hay-entangled hair was comically at variance with his look of consternation and we all laughed. Extracting strands of hay and the clinging barley, we tidied Safta and Ileana’s plaits, disordered by all this rough and tumble, and set off hand in hand with them for the river, István and I on tiptoe. ‘Poor feet,’ they murmured. After goodbyes we dived in and started the long swim back, turning many times to wave and call to those marvellous girls and they waved and answered until they were out of earshot and then, after a bend in the river, out of sight as well.
This piece first appeared in The Spectator in 1986; it forms part of Between the Woods and the Water (John Murray, £8.99). © Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1986.