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

Macedonia (South Serbia)
 
 
Bitolj I

WE lingered so long beside the lake that we had to have lunch at Resan instead of going on to Bitolj. In this meagre little town we had a better lunch than I have ever been given in an English cathedral town, with good chicken soup, lamb and paprika stew, and excellent yoghourt. Because my husband and I were contented Gerda became flushed with anger, and began to complain to Constantine in Serbian. "These people," she said, "haven't had the decency to ask me to go on to Petch. They'll expect you to go on with them, you're useful to them, and I can go home to Belgrade by myself, that's what they expect." It was true that we had not asked her to go on to Petch. We had felt under no obligation to prolong the torment of the last fortnight, during which she had never expressed any emotion towards us milder than hatred. My husband and I strolled out of the restaurant into the street, and in a stationer's shop, where I bought a magenta tin pencil-sharpener that sharpens one side of a pencil better than any other I have ever possessed, he said, "We must tell poor Constantine that we can go to Petch quite well without him. We cannot tolerate this any longer." And when we got back to the automobile this was precisely what Constantine told us. "I will give you introductions to a functionary I know there," he said, "and I will go home with my wife, I have been away for long enough."

We mounted to a pass between bare mountains that as we approached was exactly spanned by a rainbow, and stopped on its height to see the deep bluebell line of Lake Prespa for the last time. Dragutin pointed to a purple cloud that dragged twisted veils across a grey-green sky, one cloud out of many such, and said, "Thunder!" A minute later, in that very cloud, a sword flashed. He enjoyed the storm, singing a Wagnerian chant as he drove, but it ended in pelting rain, and we had to drive past fields of wild narcissus without picking any. He paused once to point out very respectfully a village where all the men went to America to work in automobile factories and then came back to buy land. "Dodges they have made, and Buicks, and Chevrolets, yes, and Lincolns," he said, his voice full of what Wordsworth described as natural piety. Then we followed the trough of a valley about which we all used to read in the last war; for Bitolj is Monastir. This valley and these mountains were occupied by German and Austrian troops, joining with their allies the Bulgarians in the East against the Greeks. Here innumerable men of all these armies were killed and died of wounds and fever; and to those who were spared Monastir and Macedonia are names standing quite simply for torture.

Yet Bitolj is one of the fairest of all cities. It lies at the valley mouth and spills out into wide plains, shading itself with poplar groves; and till full summer there are snow peaks to be seen beyond the plains. It is one of those cities which prove to our amazement that we Westerners have never even begun to understand what town-planning means. Thirty-five thousand people live in it, yet from every point of the compass it looks like a garden, and there is no part of it so congested or squalid that it would be unpleasant to live in it. The hovels here are hovels, but they are accidents, they mean that somebody has been unfortunate and lost his money or his wits. Its commercial quarter is delicious: two lines of neat shops like boxes run on each side of a little river in the shade of acacia avenues. There is no town I know where an open door more invariably discloses a sensuous and crafty garden; and the cats I apply here a serious test of civilization are plump and unapprehensive. The women, even the poorest shop-assistants, dress with simple elegance which would be respected by such dressmakers as Alix and Maggy Rouff, and the whole population is kind without intrusion. This was the Turkish capital of Macedonia, and there is visible an urban tradition of immense antiquity.

But I have a special reason for feeling tender towards Bitolj. It is the only place I have ever visited where the whole community rose to defend me. When I was here with Constantine we were walking down the new High Street, deep in conversation, when a miserable old Moslem woman, like all her kind veiled and swathed in black, tottered out of a doorway to beg of me. I gave her a two-dinar piece. We went back to the hotel and drank coffee; and when I came out a miserable old Moslem woman tottered forward to beg of me. I gave her a dinar. We then crossed the river into the old town and were bargaining with a Jewish dealer in embroideries when a miserable old Moslem woman tottered forward to beg of me. I gave her a two-dinar piece. I returned to the new town and was about to enter the hotel when a miserable old Moslem woman tottered forward to beg of me. I was about to give her a two-dinar piece when a large number of people rushed forward to stay my hand. Though I had had no idea that anybody was taking the slightest interest in my doings, much less following me, they were in a position to tell me that each time it had been the same old Moslem woman, and that to catch me a fourth time she had bargained with a cab-driver to take her the short drive across the bridge at the fee of half a dinar. This last touch seemed to the population to introduce a sordid element into the transaction which did their town no credit.

It was distressing that I could only repay the good-will by seeming to agree with them, although I have never liked a beggar so well as that spirited old lady, just as I have never liked a waiter so well as one in a cafe on the edge of the river who also would not have been approved by the public-spirited population of Bitolj. It was a small cafe, patronized only by young men who kept their hats on, pushed well down over their ears, while they drank coffee and played moulin with an air of cheating. It was inappropriately decorated by reproductions of Royal Academy pictures in which the courtiers of Louis XV were represented as perpetually testing their very tight white satin knee-breeches in the minuet. When Constantine put down a ten-dinar piece for our coffee, for which he should have been given eight dinars change, the waiter's hand flickered over it for an instant and he said innocently, "Funny thing, I thought there was a ten-dinar piece there. Did you pick it up again?" I suppose that if I had been looking at his hand I would have seen nothing, but I was staring past him at one of the Royal Academy pictures and the corner of my eye saw the coin run up his palm in the cuff. He was quite amiable when he was asked to send it down again.

Bitolj has, in fact, a great deal of that amusing rascally parasitism which is a part of the Arabian Nights atmosphere; and in the past it must have been an Arabian Nights city. There is a proof of the Turkish wealth the town held in the fabulously extravagant marble tombs that fill the Moslem graveyards with colossal wedding cakes; and there were then many very rich Greeks sitting by the fountains in their shady gardens, and some very rich Jews. But it suffered a great deal of material damage in the war, and still more some years later from an accidental explosion which accounted for many of the wrecked houses one can see all over the town. People who can see no good in Yugoslavia complain bitterly that she has ruined Bitolj by making Skoplje the administrative capital of the province; but it is hard to see how she could have been expected to keep as a capital a town that was only on a branch railway line and within a few miles of a frontier, when Skoplje was on a main line and nearly a hundred miles from the frontier. Still, Bitolj should have a future as a tourist centre, for when the acacias are out it is a fantastically lovely city, veiled in white flowers and sweet scent. There is a cafe on a hill-top outside the town which is in the centre of an acacia wood, and it is an exquisite pleasure to sit there on the evening of a hot day and watch the sunset discovering the fourteen minarets of the city and lengthening the poplar shadows on the plains.
 

Because of rich memories I was eager to go out and show my husband the sights of the town as soon as we had put our luggage in the hotel. But I was not sure that all was going to work well when I met Constantine in the corridor and he said, "Yes, I think we must go out we will go out with you. I will make my wife a pleasure by taking her to see the German war memorial." The German war memorial at Bitolj is one of the most monstrous indecencies that has ever been perpetuated. They invaded Serbia and looted and burned their way through it and then planted themselves on these hills and murdered Macedonia with their guns, till they were beaten out by the superior merit of the Allies. It has seemed good to them to bury their dead on the top of a hill where their guns were mounted for the martyrdom of the city, and to build a wall round it which gives it the likeness of a fortress. Nothing could say more plainly that they have no regret for what they did there, and intend to come back and do it all over again as soon as they are given a chance. It is the only war cemetery I have ever seen that is offensive; and it is doubly offensive, for it insults both the country where it stands and the unhappy soldiers who are crammed pell-mell inside it, without a single record of their names or their regiments. There could be nothing more disagreeable than to accompany Gerda on a visit to this unfortunate symbol of her race, but there was no help for it, as at that moment she came out of her room and said, "I am so glad that after all we are finding time to look at the poor dead soldiers from my country; I had thought that you would not give me that pleasure, and of course you must decide where we are to go, not I."

When I got downstairs my husband had already got into the automobile and was sitting beside Dragutin, so I could not warn him where we were going. Ordinarily he would have been a sympathetic visitor to a German war memorial; from his earliest childhood his life had been divided between Germany and England, and there might well lie in one of the graves some boy he had known at kindergarten in Hamburg. But this is not an ordinary war memorial, and his reactions to it were as mine. When he got out of the automobile he looked up the steep hillside and exclaimed, "But what's this?" I hastened to his side and said, "The German war memorial." He answered "Nonsense! It's some sort of fortress." I hurried him on in front of Constantine and Gerda, explaining the unfortunate outing to which we had been committed, and we reached the top some time before they did. My husband gaped at the building, which is quite simply a high circular wall, entered by a pit of a door in a low squat tower. "But it is nothing but a fortress dominating the town of Bitolj!" exclaimed my husband. And what an odd cemetery, because it is immensely massive yet so small that it can hold hardly any soldiers." "There are three thousand of them," I said," packed into a small circle and covered with a kind of heath that was brought from Sweden, I do not know why." "Poor devils!" said my husband. We tried the door but it was shut. "It does not matter," I said, "there is nothing there, only a black marble coffin, carved with the names and arms of the German states, standing just inside the door, and on the ceiling above it is a mosaic of an eagle with its wings outstretched." "But this is not at all German," said my husband; "think of the intense family feeling in German life, of the affection that is shown all over a German graveyard. But what is least pleasing is its insult to this country, for it makes a threat of return. Well, here they are, we shall say no more."

We walked round the memorial, looking up at the snow mountains towards Lake Prespa, looking down at the deliberate loveliness of Bitolj, and when we had made the circuit we found Constantine and Gerda standing at the entrance. "It is most beautiful," she was saying, "it is a most worthy memorial." Then she turned to us and said, "Why do you say nothing about it? You don't like it. I looked up from below and I saw you standing here and looking at it with your English coldness. I suppose you think it ridiculous that Germans should have a war cemetery, we ought to be buried like beasts." "No, no," said my husband, "we were only saying that we did not like it so well as that really beautiful German war cemetery outside Belgrade." "That we thought more beautiful than any we had ever seen in France," I added. "I was not speaking to you," said Gerda, and turned back to my husband. "And why do you not like this cemetery so well?" she cried. "Why not?" "Oh, God!" said my husband, suddenly despairing. "I don't like it because it pays no sort of respect to the individuals who are buried in it and because it is a tactless reminder of the past to an invaded people."

Gerda threw up her arms and shouted to the sky, "Now he has insulted my people! He has insulted my whole people! It ought to be published in the newspapers that English people say such things, just to show what sort of people they are. But we Germans don't do such things, because we are too kind, and we want to be friends with England! But think of it, here I am, far from my home, and he insults my blood, the German blood!" Her face was crimson and she was weeping. Slowly and heavily she began to run down the hill. Below her a checkerboard of green and crimson hills tilted towards the wooded mountains, on a straight road beside a winding river cattle and carts trod slowly among jets of sunlit mud, the well-bred town sat white under its red roofs among its shady gardens. We saw Dragutin, who was standing beside the car, look up, catch sight of her, and fold his arms, tilting his head on one side. Constantine breathed, "The Germans are all like this. They are a terrible people." My husband said, "Nonsense, many Germans are not a bit like this," and then, being an exceedingly polite man, stopped in great embarrassment, since what he had been going to say must obviously have been something like, "Your wife is indeed terrible, but that's because she's herself, not because she's German." Instead he said, "I am very sorry that I have offended your wife." Constantine said miserably, "Oh, it is all right, everybody knows that you English cannot help being tactless," and began to walk downhill, kicking the stones in front of him, like an unhappy child.

"Oh, why did you say it?" I complained, as wives should not, while we followed him. "God knows I was making the most hideous faces at you." "I could not help it," my husband said ." I knew that she would go on and on insulting both of us till she got the truth out of me, so I let her have it. But how disgusting it all is! To create a scene over a war cemetery! Over a lot of dead boys! It is worse than the Bishop's feast." "It is all part of the same thing," I said. "Religion and death are not so important as being a German, nothing must exist except Germanity." When we came to the foot of the hill, Dragutin was sitting at the wheel with a discreet expression and Gerda was walking round and round the automobile. My husband went up to her and said, "I am sorry that I offended you," but she flung away from him, crying, "Do you suppose that words can heal the wound you have dealt me! How can you expect me to tolerate hearing the German people being called tactless'" She said to Dragutin, "Open the door, I am going to sit beside you," but paused to tell us, "And this car in which you can hardly bear me to travel, you will be more comfortable in it henceforward, because I am going back to Belgrade. I cannot stay any longer with people who insult me and my people."

Dragutin asked for no orders, and we were too shaken to realize that we had given him none. He drove us through the town to the ruins of Heracleia, the Roman city which lay a mile or so beyond it on the Via Egnatia, the Roman road that ran from the Adriatic through Albania to Salonika and Constantinople. Its excavations are at a stage that can interest only dogs and archaeologists, and my husband and I went and sat for a few minutes in the Orthodox cemetery, which straggles over the hillside near by. I have a deep attachment to this cemetery, for it was here that I realized Macedonia to be the bridge between our age and the past. I saw a peasant woman sitting on a grave under the trees with a dish of wheat and milk on her lap, the sunlight dappling the white kerchief on her head. Another peasant woman came by, who must have been from another village, for her dress was different. I think they were total strangers. They greeted each other, and the woman with the dish held it out to the new-comer and gave her a spoon, and she took some sups of it, To me it was an enchantment; for when St. Monica came to Milan over fifteen hundred years ago, to be with her gifted and difficult son, St. Augustine, she went to eat her food on the Christian graves and was hurt because the sexton reproved her for offering sups to other people on the same errand, as she had been wont to do in Africa. That protocol-loving saint, Ambrose, had forbidden the practice because it was too like picnicking for his type of mind. To see these women gently munching to the glory of God was like finding that I could walk into the past as into another room.

I had liked it, too, on that first visit, when our guide had looked over the plains towards the town and had said, "Look, there's a funeral coming. But it's only someone old." "How can you tell that?" I had asked. "There are so few people following the hearse, and they walk so slowly," the guide explained. "When somebody young dies then the whole town thinks it a pity and comes to the funeral. Look, here is the tomb of Anastasia Petrovitch. She was only twenty and you can see from the photograph on her cross how beautiful she was. Everybody in Bitolj turned out for her, the road from the town was still black with people when she had been carried into the chapel. But when old people die, it is natural, and nobody cares except a few other old people." And presently the hearse and the procession arrived, and truly enough all the mourners were old. We went with them into the chapel and held lit tapers in its darkness and heard the unfalsified grief of the Orthodox Church office for the dead. "What a parting is this, my brethren! What a lament is made of this happening! Come then, embrace him who is still for a little while with us. He is to be handed over to the grave, he is to be covered by stone, to dwell in the shadows, and to be buried with the dead. All of us, his kin and his friends, are to be separated from him. Let us pray the Lord to grant him rest."

We saw Constantine coming along the woodland path, through the leopard patches of shadow and sunlight. "There is one thing," I said to my husband, "you were awful, unspeakably awful, not to have held your tongue by the German cemetery, but at least we have got rid of Gerda." "There you are wrong," said my husband. "I am not," I said. "Did you not hear her say that she would go to Belgrade tomorrow rather than stay with people who have insulted her?" "I heard her," said my husband, "but she will not keep her word. Think of it, tomorrow we are going up Kaimakshalan, the mountain where the Serbs drove out the Bulgarians and won the decisive battle of the Eastern Campaign. It is evidently a pleasant expedition. She will certainly stay for it, and she will certainly be no more agreeable. But at Skoplje, if you and I have to get up in the middle of the night and go away in secret, this thing must end." When Constantine got to us he was beaming. "Now you will see that my wife is really a very sweet woman," he said, "she has said that to please you she wills that we all go now to the French war cemetery." In embarrassment, therefore, we drove to what is one of the most affecting places in the world. It lies out on the plains among flat fields edged with willows and poplars, and it is a forest of flimsy little wooden crosses painted red, white and blue, each with a name or number, and each with its rose tree. It must have cost as little as such a cemetery could cost, and it must be a comfort to the kin of the dead to see that they lie so neatly and apart. There are seven thousand of them, and they have not yet stopped coming, for the shepherds still find skeletons up in the mountains and bring them down next time they go to market. Thus had Gerard Michel just returned to the plains after twenty-three years. He had been tied up in a linen bag, and it could not be believed how pitifully light he was in the hand. When we set him down in the little outhouse where he awaited a priest and the gravedigger and went out into the open air, that seemed now to smell more strongly of life than is commonly noticeable, the snow peaks were red in the sunset, and every cross had its long slanting shadow. "Think," said Gerda, as we looked on the wide field of graves, "think of all these people dying for a lot of Slavs."

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