Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey through Yugoslavia, Rebecca West

Macedonia (South Serbia)
 
 
Ochrid V

ON our way back to lunch we went into the chapel of Sveti Naum and found the sexton holding to the tomb a child of seven or so with a large head and a tiny hydrocephalous body, and calling over its shoulder to its mother, "Now you kneel down and start praying." But she continued to walk up and down, wringing her hands. She had a handsome face, though if one had seen her working in a field one might have thought her brutish; and probably she was, in some respects. She turned to my husband and cried, "But what am I to say? You've been educated, you must know what I ought to say!" "Don't talk to the gentleman," said the sexton, "talk to God." "But that's just what I don't know how to do," she complained. "I don't know what to say to God about this, there's so much to say; I don't know where to begin, it's such a strange thing to have happened." I thought again how malicious fate had been in choosing people with minds like this to be governed for five centuries by the Turks, who are so destitute of speculative instinct that they have no word for "interesting" in their language.

Just then the Doctor monk and Constantine came in and announced that we must go and have lunch as quickly as we could and hurry back to Ochrid, because Bishop Nikolai wished us to go to his palace that afternoon. We were extremely embarrassed by this, because we knew this invitation could only be a courteous acknowledgment of some money which my husband had given to one of the priests in Ochrid for his church. But nothing could have been less possible than to refuse this invitation. Gerda and Constantine naturally saw no reason why we should not accept, and though Dragutin showed us that he did, he made it plain also that it was no use resisting. In this place such an invitation was a royal command. So at three o'clock our automobile climbed the heights of the old town, which looked brilliant yet rigid under the heavy crystal of the afternoon heat, and we paid a visit which the East attended to in its own way, preventing it from being what was intended, but making it an unexpected delight.

It was entirely unlike a visit to an English episcopal palace. In a steep alley, behind a pointless door, we found a neatly tumbledown house and garden. So farms look where the folks have much to do and little money but mean well. On the long grass in the garden a boy wearing a school own cap played with a mongrel puppy, and a beggar slept face downwards. We went up from an entrance hall which had once been a stable and was not greatly altered, by a rickety staircase, to the Bishop's office, where four men sat and talked, two in peasant dress, two in Western dress. The Bishop, we were told, had not yet returned from a midday service some miles away. So we settled down to wait in a pleasant sleepy coolness. The room was exquisite; the wooden ceiling and a moulded recess, delicately carved and surrounded with plaster leaves, were of the properest imaginable proportions. For a time we leaned from the window and looked at the lake, which was now blinding white and seemed to rise in the middle, like a plate piled high with light, and at the hillside, where the strong sunshine lay on the earth that is crimson in the morning and evening hours and made it seem a pinkish breath blown on the rock; we looked down on the roof of Sveta Sophia, which even to the bird's eye reveals the elegance of its mass, the appropriateness of this tribute paid by an emperor to his heavenly peer; we looked at the shiny black buds of an ash-tree that sheltered the sleeping beggar.

Three-quarters of an hour passed. They brought us black coffee, but the afternoon was drowsy and we sank back in our chairs. Bees circled round a vase of lilacs on the table, an old priest talked politics with Constantine, the four men talked of a dispute about land in a village near Struga. I looked at the delicious ceiling and wondered to what period it belonged. It might have been early seventeenth-century work, but one can never be sure about what was done here after the Turkish conquest, for time stood still, and an isolated district would go on century after century repeating an idiom that had long perished in the rest of Europe. I ceased to care, I woke after an hour, and a servant brought us another round of black coffee, this time with a piece of Turkish delight on a toothpick in each saucer, because the Bishop was so very late. A tortoiseshell cat strolled in, and was told by the old priest that it had no business there, but so civilly that it jumped up on his lap and curled itself into a closed circle. Then the servant came in and told us that a telephone message had come to say that the Bishop's automobile had had a breakdown far away, and that there was no use waiting longer.

We went down the alleys into the main street of Ochrid in an afternoon that was already cooler, that had begun to breathe freely again. The visit had been extraordinarily pleasant, though it had been nothing at all, and least of all a visit. Constantine and Gerda had gone on ahead, and we dawdled, feeling charmed by everything. It happened that this was one of the several times in the day when the little boys come from the bakeries with trays of rolls, and my husband bought two of the kind we specially liked, little sticks of bread so fine that it was nearly pastry, dusted with poppy seeds, and we went into the big cafe near the lake and ordered coffee and milk to drink with them. It must be admitted that this was sheer voluptuousness, for we were neither hungry nor thirsty, but surely it was of the mildest conceivable sort. Only a very small insect could have called it an orgy. Yet when Constantine and Gerda came into the cafe and sat down beside us, she said to him, "These people are always eating and drinking. I wonder if all English people are such gluttons." As she spoke she picked up my roll and began to eat it.

This mattered little, for just then the little boys with the trays came into the cafe and my husband bought me another, but there followed a conversation which was excessively disagreeable in its imbecility. The waiter asked me if I was an American, and when I told him that I was not but had often visited America, he asked me if I had ever been to Dallas, Texas, where his brother was a pastrycook. I said that I had once been there, and that it was full of very good-looking people, and we talked a little. As he turned away, Gerda said, "Since you know America, I wonder if you know how American women do their hair?" "How they do their hair?" I repeated. "Why, like other women I should have said, but they spend more time on it." "No, no," said Constantine, "this is something very curious, you should hear it if you do not know about it. It is the way they keep their hair in order between their visits to the coiffeur." "But they have no special way," I said, "they all have permanent waves, and many of them wear hairnets, many more than European women do." "No, they do not have permanent waves," said Gerda, "but every night they screw up their hair into little curls with toilet paper. That is what an American lady did with whom I travelled on a Danube steamboat, and she told me that all American woman did the same." "There, is that not strange," said Constantine, "you have been to America and she has not, and yet she knows something about the Americans that you do not." "Wherever she went," Gerda told him in Serbian, "she would see nothing. I tell you, she is a fool." "I suppose this is the kind of conversation one will have in Hell," said my husband. "One canít do anything with it, it's so silly," I said. "I wish to God I thought it was from all points of view," said my husband, "but I think it is a part of something rather large. It is the kind of conversation a Roman woman might have had if she had been travelling with a Carthaginian woman in the third century before Christ. Eat up your roll and we will go. By God, she has eaten the second one too."

But just then there came up to us a lawyer of the town, whose home I had visited with Constantine the year before, who had heard that we were in the cafe and had hurried down to say that his wife would be glad to see us. I was pleased to go, for she was a woman of special heroic quality, who as a beautiful young girl had come here in the old Turkish days, to teach in a Serbian school, knowing that this was a Bulgarian district and therefore bitterly hostile to Serbs, but believing that it was Bulgarian only because of the propaganda of the Russians. She is a Demeter, her hair is still thick and yellow though she is not young, her voice is rich like clotted cream, and she has a "green finger"; flowers from her garden filled the vases, special in colour and perfume, and the slatko she gave us was not only unusually abundant, including quince and cherries and plums, but was all made of the fruits from her orchard, which were bigger than any others we had seen.

She had wished to see us half from quiet, abounding hospitality, and half from a measure of loneliness and despondency, arising from political origins. She realized, like all the finer people we met, that with all his faults Constantine was a passionate patriot, and she had wanted his sympathy. They had a long talk about local politics in Serbian, which Constantine supposed I could not understand but which I was able to follow. She and her husband were grieved because the feeling of the town was still so pro-Bulgarian. They were even doubtful whether, if a plebiscite were taken, Ochrid would opt to be incorporated with Yugoslavia or Bulgaria. They were downcast about this, not chauvinist. It must be remembered that when the Serbians were attacked by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Bulgarians joined their assailants all Serbs thought of them as traitors to their Slav blood, and that there were incidents in the war which poisoned this issue. There is a white column on the hillside not far from Ochrid which catches the eye from a long way off but which is never visited; it commemorates four hundred Serbians who stopped here on the 1915 retreat, being sick and starved and weary, and were shot down by the local Bulgars. Also the Serbs of Ochrid, including this woman, were interned in Bulgaria during the war and were dealt with untenderly. She was heartbroken because Macedonians of Bulgar sympathies should not have been united to the Serbs by twenty years of what seemed to her not at all harsh treatment, and that they should not have recognized that the tyranny which threatened them from without was far greater than any restrictions they had to fear from within. "I cannot understand them," she mourned; "if Italy conquers us there is an end to all liberty for all of us, for Serbs and Bulgars, for Yugoslavia and Bulgaria."

As if to comfort herself with the fruitfulness of the earth, which stands by man in spite of his political errors, she went out of the room, and came back with a brood of week-old chickens in an apron. She tipped them out over a writing-table, and let them cheep and perk among the inkwells and the blotters, smiling though her brows were still joined by worry. Then there was a knock at the door and it appeared that, as sometimes suddenly happens to travellers, we had been received by the social soul of the town. The old schoolmistress who had been at the feast in the church had sent along to say that she knew the lawyer and his wife were coming along to her Slava, and that it would be pleasant if she brought the foreigners along with her too. This was delightful, if only for the light it cast on the town's intelligence service, but I was also enchanted at the opportunity of seeing a Slava (the word means "Holy"), which is the distinctive social custom of the Serbs. It looks like a birthday on a very generous scale; all day the family keeps open house and offers food and drink and amiability to all friends and acquaintances and even passing strangers. But it is an inherited date, which never varies from generation to generation, and it is said to be the anniversary of the day on which the ancestor of the family who first forsook his paganism received baptism. This is plausible. One of the constituents of the feast is a dish of boiled wheat, like our frumenty, which is called by a word meaning "something killed by a knife for a sacrifice." The inference is that the new-made Christians were told that they need not kill beasts at the altar of their new god, but could eat a dish of wheat instead. That we came too late to see, but we were given some of the Slava cake, which also makes some reference to conversion. It is a very large and extremely rich cake of wheat-flour sweetened with honey, almost like a cold pudding, and historians have traced its connection with fertility cults; but it has to be made in a mould marked with the name of Jesus Christ, and it has to be blessed by a priest who eats the first slice.

Constantine had gone back to the hotel, to telephone his office in Belgrade; but Gerda and my husband and I went with the lawyer and his wife, and joined a circle of people, numbering about twelve, who sat round the old schoolmistress's bright, bare room. She was obviously very happy simply in the act of entertaining, no matter whom she entertained, and told us stories of her career as a spy during the last war. The first time she had even seen the sea, that was, and she was frightened enough anyway, but the ship she was on had to go and be torpedoed. Still it had all been great fun, and she only hoped the young people would have as good a time as she had had. Every five minutes two pretty little girls in their early teens, who were her adopted daughters, carried round trays covered with little cakes and conserved fruits and glasses of wine. Presently an old peasant woman, who was the grandmother of one of the little girls, came in and was given a chair of honour. Supping her wine, she asked the lawyer about a case in which he had lately taken part. A Christian and a Moslem, it seemed, had combined in a small job of highway robbery and had quarrelled over the division of the spoil, at which point a second Christian had come in and had helped the Moslem murder the first in return for a small share. The second Christian had confessed, and he and the Moslem had been sentenced to fifteen years.

Everybody became very animated, and it was evident that the case had caused a stir in the neighbourhood. This struck me as an extraordinary testimonial to the work of Yugoslavia in Macedonia, since under the Turks highway robbery was so common that a man never travelled unless he had money enough to engage an armed escort. There was evidently a great divergence of opinion about the sentences. The old peasant woman said she had heard endless discussions about this in her village, and she simply didn't know what to think about it, so she wanted to hear what people who could read and write thought. The schoolmistress, who had been brought up in an established Serbian town, said, "No doubt about it at all, they should both have been hanged," but the lawyer, who had been born and brought up in Macedonia, disagreed. It turned out, however, that he was doubtful about the confession. I guessed that there was some suspicion that the police might have resorted to the third degree, a practice which had been firmly implanted in this part of the country by the Turks, and which even the most conscientious administrators find it difficult to extirpate. But the lawyer went on to say that, as for the robbery part of the charge, he did not think that that should have been punished so heavily, for after all it was a rich man whom they had waylaid, and all wealth was stolen from someone. The old schoolmistress said, "Oh, shucks! I hat sort of thing can be gone into on the Day of Judgment, but here below it is better to leave it alone, and take it that in the meantime a man can't have what isn't his." The lawyer said that that was all very well, and that is a rule we live by now, but he thought we must try for something better. "Oh, you two are always trying for something better, I know you do, and I love you for it, but this Auntie," said the schoolmistress, tapping herself on the chest, "this Auntie can't rise to it." So the lawyer and his wife laughed and kissed her good-bye, and we left with them.

As we walked back to the hotel by the darkening lake, I said to Gerda, "Thank you very much for translating what they said for us," and she replied, "It is all very well my translating it, but did you understand it? Do you realize what horrible people they are? They are all Marxists." My husband said, "What do you mean? What they were saying has nothing to do with Marxism. It sounded more as if the lawyer and his wife were old-fashioned Christian Socialists, but they might not even be that, they might be simply humanitarians." Gerda repeated, her face heavy with hatred, "They are all Marxists."
 

     ROAD

Gerda drove with us from Ochrid to Bitolj, for it is a journey of only a few hours, and there could be no pretence that it meant prolonged discomfort if she joined us. Constantine sat beside Dragutin, who gave him some very good gossip. "You'll never guess who I saw walking down by the lake yesterday evening. The Kostitches, those people who have got that big draper's shop at Skoplje and another at Bitolj and another at Kossovska Mitrovitsa. They must be staying down here, she's got a sister married to a functionary here. They're nice people and made of money, they've got dinars the way other people have lice. But they've one trouble, they haven't got any children. It worries them terribly. They feel, and of course there's sense in it, that there's no good having all that money if they've nobody to leave it to. They're always in and out of the church praying about it, and they've spent a fortune on doctors. Well, if old Kostitch would give me a good dinner and a hundred dinars, she would have a boy all right. I know money shouldn't come into that sort of thing, but he's a rich man and would never miss it. However, I think she's a poor creature. He once sent her alone to Vienna to see a doctor, and a sensible woman would have done something else than see a doctor, but I know the maidservant of her best friend, and she says she didn't. But here, we must stop, there's something me ought to see."

He made us walk to a slope where the red earth was bare and blasted, and showed us a tiny pot-hole, with as much steam as comes from the spout of a kettle, when it is first boiling. "That's a volcano, that is," he said, "and though it's small it works. Any poor beast that comes near it Ė pouf! he's dead." I did not believe a word of it, and then I looked down and saw beside my foot the shrunken body of a hedgehog, cut down in the flower of such sins as a hedgehog may have. It was Dragutin's day, the earth behaved as he saw it. For when we got to the top of the pass the car suddenly leaped forward and then stopped, and he jumped out and ran back on our tracks. He returned very sadly, saying, "I thought I had killed a snake, but it isn't there." A little later, the car made the same sickening leap again, and this time the snake was maimed, and was easily finished off with a heavy spanner brought down on its head and its heart. "Look at the black lattice on its back," he said, gloating over its carcass, "that shows it's a really dangerous snake, kills in half an hour; there's a lot of them about here." I asked Constantine, "Do many people die of snake-bite here?" He tried to do his best for Macedonia. "Not nearly so many as in Bosnia. In Bosnia very many people die of snake-bite. But," he added patriotically, remembering that Bosnia also was in Yugoslavia, "they are not really very many."

After that the road dropped to broad red plains planted with corn and vines, and brought us to the dull town of Resan, which has the air characteristic of towns on southern plains of having been pressed flat by the heavy thumb of the heat. It is historically-remarkable on two counts: in 1903 it was the scene of a magnificently courageous rising of the Christians against the Turks, and here Mustapha Kemal first formed his idea of the Young Turk movement and spread it among his followers. We sat down in the central square and drank coffee and a man came up and spoke to us in American. He was a man of about forty-five, who had been in Chicago for ten years and had recently returned here on some family errand. We asked him if he could remember anything of the 1903 insurrection, and he said he could. He had wakened out of his sleep and had run out into the street, and seen the sky all red over the Turkish barracks. Then there had followed a terrible time, and he and many other boys had never seen their fathers again. We were then interrupted by the approach of George, the Statesman's Despair.

George, it appeared, had been in America for five years, ending in 1928. He had worked in Detroit and had made fifty dollars a week. He had had to come back to do his military service, and could not get readmitted to the United States. "But I want plenty to go back," he said, "America fine country, nopoty outtawork, nopoty poor." We suggested that he might find a difference if he went back now. "No," he said, "you don't know Tetroit. Nopoty there poor, nopoty outtawork." The man from Chicago began to scream at him and wave his arms. We had evidently stumbled into a dispute that had, I suppose, gone on in this dreary little town for years. He turned to us and shouted, "I keep on tellin' this guy there's been a depression!" "Nother thing," continued George, "there's no taxes in America. Nopoty heard of such a ting. No army, neither." The man from Chicago held his head and groaned. My husband and I left them to it, and went off to gape at the Officers' Club which the Ataturk made the centre of his conspiracy. It is a white square house, which has a strange and fateful look because the big balcony that used to run across the first story has been taken away, and the brackets that once supported it project like gallows-heads, and the glass door that led on to it now opens on nothingness. Beside it a tumbledown house, that must have been a pretty villa in the great garrison days, lies strangled in its lilacs.

At the cafe we found Gerda eating bread and kaymak, which is a substitute for butter much nicer than sounds possible, made by boiling milk down to skin and compressing the skins. It was an innocent action, but she felt it ran counter to her pretensions of asceticism, and she explained, "I would not be eating this as a rule, but when I saw Dragutin killing the snake I felt so upset that I had to have something to eat. Did that not strike you as a barbarous thing to do?" When she had finished we made a detour and left the Bitolj road to have a look at Lake Prespa, which nobody I know of has ever visited except Edward Lear of the limericks, who mildly penetrated to its shores so long ago as eighteen-fifty, in pursuit of subjects for his pretty and oddly sensible water-colours. We came to it by a chain of villages where life must be ghastly in the winter winds and ghastlier still in the summer heat, but which were full of lively-eyed people. We stopped to laugh at two water buffaloes lying with consequential expressions in a stream too shallow for them while nimble boys and girls, all with skins of rose and gold and some with gentian eyes, splashed them with the water. Beyond marshes where storks and pelicans stood among tall white grasses, we found the lake, hyacinth-blue among mountains that were no colour at all, that were simply the colour of light which has met something hard and can go no further. It is as beautiful as Lake Ochrid, but not magical, not sacred. An authentic miracle is worked on the water at Sveti Naum.

On the far shores woods fell steeply to the water, and nearer they made a small green blur on the deep blue waters. "On that island," said Constantine, "was the palace of the Bulgarian Emperor Samuel, he who had a mighty Balkan Empire in the tenth century, and was defeated by the Byzantine Emperor Basil known as the Bulgar killer, though to modern ideas he did worse than kill. He took fifteen thousand Bulgarians captive, and all he blinded, save one in every hundred, to whom he left one eye, so that they might guide the rest home to their Emperor. And when he saw his army all blind he could no more, for he was a true emperor, though he was a Bulgarian, and he died." "Can we go to the island?" I asked. "It is not fortunate," said Constantine, "there the frontiers of Greece and Albania and Yugoslavia all meet, and there are many soldiers all jealous of the honour of their countries and with nothing to do, and so they would shoot, and also there are on the island many enormous snakes." So we walked about on a little headland high above the lake, where there were many flowering bushes and deep springy turf, arid we breathed the unbreathed air and saw the untarnished light. "Glory be to God!" said Dragutin, jumping up and down. "It's as good as asphalt, this turf." "Listen," said Constantine, "he is in his soul a chauffeur, he speaks in chauffeur's images, he sees a chauffeur's world. It is like the pray a Frenchman wrote, a play which was supposed to be written by a dog for dogs, and began with the direction, 'Le rideau se leve sar un os.'" "And glory be to God!" cried Dragutin. "These herbs smell good! Lie down and roll on it! That's the way to enjoy it!" So we all threw ourselves down and rolled; and a shepherd came by and watched us, nodding and smiling. "Yes, it's good, "he said, "but you ought to come here in July or August, it smells even better then."

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