Macedonia (South Serbia)
THE scarecrow was a true citizen of Bitolj, for the town constantly presents pictures so strange that the mind can take them only as symbols, though they never disclose their significance. As the dusk fell we went out for a stroll under the acacia trees by the river, and looked into the shops, which were little bright caves in the darkness. At the great mosque, whose swelling cupola and towering minaret and lovely plaster decoration speak of delicacy and power, of a clean hand holding a sword, we stared through a wrought iron gate and saw a procession of grave and beautiful elderly men passing under the acacias to the porch, their fezes shining as crowns of mystery because the evening glow caught the white bands which betokened them to be Moslem priests. We were halted by the second and really affecting German war memorial: a carillon in an old tower which twice a day rings out "Ich hatt' einen Kameraden, einen bessern findst du nicht," evoking pictures of golden-haired boys dying thirsty and fevered in this land which is cruel even for the hardy brown amongst us. We hung behind a Jew of the tall hawk-like kind and his wife who wore a close cap rimmed with gold sequins and a purple gown of seventeenth-century Spanish fashion; and we saw them go softly, murmuring Spanish, into a home refined almost to decadence in its contempt for the exuberant and its concentration on propriety. We left this peepshow only because we had risen early and were to rise early again, and on the way home a final emblem and mystery was disclosed to us and not explained. The sound of passionate speech made us look through a doorway, and there in a warehouse, with sacks of grain lying on the floor and ropes hanging down in loops from the rafters, under an oil-lamp stuck in the wall, a man leaned on a broken column of classical appearance, entirely inappropriate to the place, and addressed three men as if he were preaching them a gospel. They looked at him with grave and pursuivant anxiety, for each word he spoke was taking him farther away from them. One man began to stir uneasily, and it could not be told whether he was going to surrender to the speaker and throw himself at his feet, or rebel against him and strike him. But as we watched our attention was distracted by the rhythm of a sleeper's breathing, close at hand. We looked about and found that a man in peasant dress with a mountaineer's round fur cap was standing just beside us, leaning against the hinged frame of the door, fast asleep. He was a giant, perhaps seven feet tall.
The day gave us other mysteries, though of a more prosaic sort. As we had motored into the town from Resan I had seen a tumbledown mosque with some very elaborate tombs in white marble carved in the Moslem Regency style which I find so enchanting and so surprising; and we went there in the early morning to take some photographs. For half an hour or so we scrambled over the rough ground .and through the long grasses, among tombs which, if they were mere columns, were leaning drunkenly to right or left, and if they were solid erections were burst asunder by bushes which, like the poppies and cornflowers beside them, derived rich colour and profligate growth from the unconfined dead. The monuments were well worth a film or two. They had apparently been produced by a pastrycook under the influence of Persian art. Such sugary little scrolls and swags, such sissy little flowers in pots, such coy little etchings of swords on the soldiers' tombs, so much valid accomplishment lavished on invalid objects. There is here a double paradox. This is so odd a form of art to have sprung up among a military people, and so odd a form of art to be treated with such wild negligence. When an elderly lady makes an exquisitely hem-stitched handkerchief or a beautifully embroidered baby's gown it is not suffered by her or those to whom she gives them that they should go into the rag-bag; and even less is this the case when it is not a female but an ephebe who is responsible for the craftsmanship. Yet it seems to be no protection whatsoever to an object in Moslem possession that it precisely accords with Moslem taste.
But this was not the only paradox to be detected at this mosque. Two veiled women came out of the mosque to see what we were doing, bundles of dusty blackness, who were caretakers, with the difference that it was evidently not expected that they were to take any care of the place. They took us in to see it, and it was inside as it was outside. I think that nowhere in England or America would there be a plot of ground so disordered as this graveyard, unless it were the garden of a home inhabited by a lunatic; and the mosque itself was used as a store by the peasants who farmed the neighbouring land. They had piled hurdles and coops and hoes between several wooden tombs which must have belonged to men of great eminence, for they were painted green, which is the Prophet's colour, and were surmounted by little globes on which there hung rotting kerchiefs which had originally been laid there by pious hands. The plaster had fallen from the walls in thick scabs, but had left two frescoes intact, one a landscape of ochre palaces among blue trees, another a whimsey of bluish curtains caught back with rose-coloured bows that might have been the work of any Madison Avenue decorator. As we looked at them the plank cracked under my feet, and there was a sickening turmoil below. From a hole in the floor on the other side of the room a rat scurried to the open, holding a nameless white object in its mouth.
It seemed incredible that in a city full of Moslems half a dozen pious workmen should not have joined together to put in order a place that had obviously been a centre of worship for many honourable families; and the place seemed to imply the decadence of a pithless people until we went out, and saw through an open door the home of the caretakers, which was formed by partitioning off a space from the porch of the mosque. It was impossible to imagine a room that spoke more clearly of an established civilization, a society which took it for granted that to live in cleanliness and order is agreeable. The bare boards were ferociously clean, along the wall a bench made of old packing-cases was covered with cushions of hues chosen by an educated taste, and on the walls were pieces of rugs which, though they were stitched and faded, at least alluded to the finest aesthetic traditions of the East. On a little inlaid table stood a brightly polished ceremonial coffee-set and a little loom, where a fine linen towel was being woven in an exquisite design. "Good God," said my husband, "one can never be sure of anything in this country."
It was market day. When we got back to Bitolj peasants from the mountains and the plains were sitting on the low walls that edge the river embankments, facing the shops, with their goods in little heaps at their feet. First of all the men sit in a line, with bundles of onions and garlic and baskets of early strawberries and tangled masses of hens tied together; and then the women sit with their lesser goods before them, basins of eggs and little handfuls of spinach and clusters of dark-red paprika, the sunshine pouring through the acacia branches and lying in bright diamonds on the white kerchiefs they wear on their heads. The goods brought by some of the women are so trifling that it can hardly be doubted they come to market not so much for commerce as for gossip, which is as animated here as it was in Sarajevo. When my husband photographed some of them and got involved with a donkey which poked its head over his shoulder, they all laughed and joked with us, quick in speaking and in taking up other speakers' points.
While we were playing with a goat and its kid a man in an offensive suit came up and asked us in American what on earth we were doing in such an uninteresting town as Bitolj. He himself was a Macedonian, but he had early emigrated to Toronto, and was a shoemaker there, and had come back just for a holiday, and he thought this a Godorful place. We spoke to him of America, but after the fashion of his kind he knew nothing of it except cheap automobiles, road-houses, and radios. It cannot be too firmly stated that the average man who emigrates from one of the more primitive countries to America is lost to European civilization without being gained by American civilization. The subsequent generations he begets may acclimatize themselves to the new tradition, but the state of vacuity in the mind of the man who actually makes the transition cannot be exaggerated. He is removed from the economic Hell with which Europe punishes the people who perform the function most necessary to its survival and grow its food for it, and he is lifted to what is for him the economic paradise with which America rewards the people who help it to get into debt by making unnecessary manufactured goods. Therefore his primary needs are so astonishingly well satisfied that he believes himself contented; but he forgets everything that his own people have learned about birth and love and death. This would have happened to him just the same, of course, if he had emigrated to any really big city in Europe which was thoroughly remote from his tradition; but he is much more likely to go to America.
The state of idiocy which this transition had induced in this particular man can be judged from the fact that he winked at us, jerked his thumb over his shoulder, and said, "Going to the Paris Exhibition, hey?" To get away from him we left the cattle market, and joined a small crowd centred round two men sitting at a table, who were all looking at a white pack-horse that was being led up and down. "I think this is the market where they sell the goods of the peasants who cannot pay their taxes," said Constantine. "If that is so, let us buy the white horse and give it back to its owner," said my husband. Constantine danced with joy. If he had been left a fortune he could not have been more pleased. "Do you mean it?" he asked. "Do you really mean it?" "Yes, I think it would be an agreeable thing to do," said my husband.
Constantine bounced through the crowd, crying to the officials, "Stop! Stop!" as if he had ridden with Dirck and Joris from Ghent. He gave something to the occasion quite beyond our power. The officials acted up to him and received the news with great pleasure, and when they had ascertained that it would cost my husband three hundred dinars, which is about six dollars, and made sure that he would go to this outlay, they announced the news to the people round them, who behaved like a stage crowd, turning to each other and making gestures of surprise. The main person concerned turned out not to be there. The owner of the horse, his friends assured us, was running round Bitolj trying to find a moneylender who would let him have the money without security. But the details of the gift were not settled quickly, for the officials had to draw up a deed of gift, by which my husband returned the horse to the owner, and before he had signed it there was a scuffle at the back of the crowd and the people near me said, "Here he is! Here he is!" I turned and saw a bearded man wearing a round fur cap and tawny homespuns, but I thought they must be mistaken, for he was showing no signs of pleasure, and was indeed baring his teeth in fury and lifting a club as if to strike a little group of people who had just been assuring us that they were the owner's friends.
"That cannot be he," I said, but a fattish young man in a saxe-blue sweater answered, "Indeed it is, but he does not yet understand. Are you Americans?" "No," I said, "we are English. ""English or American, you have done a good deed," he said sententiously, "but I hoped you were Americans, for I love America very much." "So do I," I said. "Are you going back soon?" "No," he answered; "when I was in America I made a big mistake. All my people here have been smugglers, father and son. Before the war we were smugglers at Riyeka on the borders of Montenegro and Turkey, and since the war here in Bitolj, for the Greek frontier is very close. So when I went to America I thought that smuggling was there as it is with us, wrong but not very wrong, and I used to take liquor in over the Canadian border on a truck, and I did not think nothing of it. Then one day there was a bit of shooting and I was sent up for a stretch. But what I do not like is that afterwards I was deported. It is terrible," he said, as if he were singing a folk-song, "to be deported by a country which you love." He became scarlet, his eyes filled with tears. I found myself saying sympathetically, "Never mind, never mind, lots of my friends have been deported," though this is not true.
Gulping down his sorrow; the young man said, "But here is the owner of the horse; now he understands what you have done, and he wishes to thank you." "But what did he think at first that we had done?" "When you looked at him before," explained the young man, "he was saying to his friends that they had done ill by him in letting you buy the horse, for anybody could see from the clothes of you and your husband that you would want an excessive rate of interest for the money you had lent him. He took your husband for a kind of moneylender we have here who have no homes and grow exceedingly rich by travelling from market to market and getting peasants into their power. He meant no harm. It is a mistake that anybody might have made." My husband said sadly, "We have been taken for itinerant moneylenders, my dear, and you have committed yourself to the curious statement that many of your friends have been deported from the United States. I think it is perhaps time that we left this town." But now the owner of the horse was standing in front of us, wringing my husband's hand and sputtering gratitude out of a mouth full of long white wolfish teeth. "But what is he talking?" asked my husband. Surely it is not Serbian. Perhaps he is a Greek." "No, he is not talking Greek," I said, "he is talking tough baby. Listen." "Gee, I am really grateful to you," he was saying. "This will bring me luck, it sure will, and I'll say it ought to bring you luck too. Now won't you let me treat you to jus' a little whisky? No? Not just a shot?" At my elbow the shoemaker from Toronto had appeared. "Is it true that you have bought this man's horse back for him'" he asked. "For crying out loud, why did you do it? Why did you do it?"
When we had left the crowd, no single member of which asked us for money, though it was proved that we had enough to be generous and some of them had probably not enough to eat, we went back towards the town and came by chance on a little street where a number of women, and women only, were sitting on the kerb. "They are selling dresses," I said with delight, and so they were: new dresses for such peasant women as had come into the town to work and had neither the homespun cloth nor the leisure to make their own clothes and were still shy of Western attire, and old clothes that had such fine embroidery on them that they would be worn again. All these dresses were of the standard Slav pattern. They were made of white or cream homespun linen and were embroidered lavishly on the hems and sleeves and more sparingly around the neck. Nearly all of these were serious works of art. That will not be believed by those who know only the commercial peasant art of Central Europe. The cross-stitched blouse of Austria and Hungary is tatty and ill-bred, rightly regarded by the aristocrat and the highbrow as vulgar and by the proletarian as funny. It fails because the themes of peasant art are so profound and its technique so intricate that it requires a deliberation hardly to be found elsewhere than in peasant life or in the sphere of scholarly and dedicated people not in the least likely to make blouses. Women distracted by the incoherent interests of the modern town, or working at the rate necessary to make a living anywhere in the orbit of a modern town, will not have the experience to form the judgements about life which lie behind most of these embroideries, nor the time to practise the stitches and discover the principles of form and colour which make them strike the eye with the unity of flowers. A precisely similar process of degeneration can be seen in Tin Pan Alley, where the themes that are dealt with by folk-song and by the lyric poets are swallowed by shallow people in a hurry and immediately regurgitated in a repulsive condition.
But these old women, who looked at once hearty and tragic, who were able to grin broadly because early and profuse weeping had made their faces unusually mobile, were dealing in uncorrupted merchandise. All the embroidery had a meaning. The first I picked up had a gay little border to its hem, a line of suns with rays, half an inch across, with trees in between them and stars dancing above them. The suns had black centres and rays, and their circumferences were alternately orange and green, and the trees were alternately green and blue, and the stars were green and blue and brown. The design stood on a black line of stitching, under which were two broken lines of stitches in all these colours, and then there was a corded edge oversewn with buttonhole stitches in black, deep blue, light blue, crimson, green, and purple, with the black predominating so that there was an effect of darkness stirring with the colours of creation. But the little sons and trees and stars would not take creation too seriously, it was as if fun was being poked at it. This significance was no fancy of our own, for the woman who sold it to me and her friends smiled as they spread it out for us, and looked grave as they showed us one that was my second choice. On this some woman with a different temperament had given up her mind to thought of the majestic persistence of nature and its untender character, and had fixed on the linen a number of dark upright trees, breaking into aloof flowers, harbouring indifferent birds. The design was so highly stylized as never to tempt the eye to mere gaping by its representation of fact; it refused to let the trees be more than the symbols of a mood.
I found yet another design that was purely abstract. Bars and squares of black with raised designs and touches of purple in the solid background depicted no natural object whatsoever, yet evolved certain exaltations. It appears doubtful whether Tolstoy ever saw a peasant. In the imbecile work What Is Art? he asserts that peasants appreciate only pictures which inculcate a moral lesson, such as, for example, a picture of a woman giving food to a beggar boy, and that only a person perverted by luxury can care for art which was created without a specific didactic aim. If he had put his head out of his winder and looked at his own village, he would have seen – for embroidery of this kind is done, with varying degrees of merit, all the way up Eastern Europe from the Black Sea to the Baltic – that peasants, more than any other class in the modern community, persistently produce and appreciate art which is simply the presentation of pleasing forms. It was not improbably because Tolstoy was a bad man that he wished art to do nothing but tell them how to be good, and perhaps these peasant women can permit themselves their free and undidactic art because their moral lives are firmly rooted. They had been trodden into the dust by the Turks, condemned to hunger for food and to thirst for blood, but they had never forgotten the idea of magnificence, which is a valuable moral idea, for it implies that the duty of man is to make a superfluity beyond that which satisfies his animal needs and turn it to splendid uses. I bought here a wedding dress perhaps twenty or thirty years old. It was a composite of eight garments, a fine chemise, a linen dress embroidered round the hem and sleeves till it was almost too heavy to be worn, a purple velvet waistcoat braided with silver, a sequin plastron to be worn over the womb as a feminine equivalent to a cod-piece, and a gauze veil embroidered in purple and gold. It was a memory of Byzantium and the Serbian Empire; solemnly it put sequins where the emperors and empresses had worn precious stones, it made of its wool and its flax and what it could buy from the pedlar something that dazzled the eyes a little as the Byzantine brocades had dazzled them much. Even so in the folk-songs of these parts do they sing with nostalgia of gold and silver, not as wealth, not as mintable material, but as glory to be used for shining ornament.
That they should remember glory, after they had been condemned for so long to be inglorious, is nest to be taken for granted, as an achievement within the power of any in their place. A tradition is not a material entity that can survive apart from any human agency. It can live only by a people's power to grasp its structure, and to answer to the warmth of its fires. The Churches of Asia became extinct not because Islam threatened them with its sword, but because they were not philosophers enough to be interested in its doctrine nor lovers enough to be infatuated with the lovable throughout long centuries and in isolation. But these Macedonians had liked to love as they had been taught by the apostles who had come to them from Byzantium, they had liked the lesson taught by the emperors that to wear purple and fine linen encourages human beings to differentiate themselves in all ways from the beasts, they had liked, even inordinately, the habit taught them by Byzantine art of examining life as they lived it and inquiring into their destiny as it overtook them; and since they had still their needles they turned to and managed to compress those strong likings into these small reflective and hieratic designs.
The old women were pleased at our enthusiasm. They are of course apt fully conscious of the part their embroideries play in the preservation of their ancient culture:. when an Englishwoman plays a sonata by Purcell she is not likely to feel that she is maintaining English musical tradition. Yet these women are certainly aware that they are about some special business when they sew. I am told by an Englishwoman who has collected such embroideries for twenty years and knows their makers well that it is an esoteric craft, those who are expert in it do not give away their mystery. Many of the themes which often reappear in the designs have names and symbolic meanings which are not confided to strangers, and a woman will sometimes refuse to discuss the embroidery she has worked on a garment made for her own use. When they marry they make caps for their bridegrooms and about these they are always resolutely reserved. Here is, indeed, another proof of the impossibility of history. There cannot be taken an inventory of time's contents when some among the most precious are locked away in inaccessible parts and lose their essence when they are moved to any place where they are likely to be examined carefully, when their owners are ignorant of parts of their nature and keep secret such knowledge of them as they have.
I bought several dresses and jackets and hung them over my husband's
obliging arm while I sought for more; and he would not let me take any
of them from him when we turned homeward towards our hotel. We stopped
as we came to the bridge over the river, and looked for the last time at
the lovely line of women sitting in the shadow of the white acacia trees,
their veiled heads dappled with sunlight. "We must come back again," I
said, "again and again to the end of our lives." "Yes, indeed we must,"
said my husband, "but just see what is happening here." A couple of peasant
women had stopped and were turning over the dresses on his arm with some
expressions of approval. "Well, they evidently think we've got good taste,"
he said complacently. But they began to name a sum, first in Serbian, and
then, as we made no response, in Greek and in Vlach; and Constantine, who
was still glowing with happiness over the business of the white horse,
now became happier still. "They think that you are carrying those dresses
over your arm because you are trying to sell them," he cried joyfully.
"Do you see, they cannot conceive a state of affairs in which a husband
would carry anything for his wife, and the only people they know who wear
Western clothes and concern themselves at all with peasant things are shopkeepers,
and so they do not realize at all that you are English and very grand,
no, not at all." "My dear," said my husband, "it is not twelve o'clock
in the day and we have already been mistaken for itinerant moneylenders
and second-hand clothes dealers. But I think that the curious statement
you made about all your friends having been deported will do us the most
harm in the end. Who in the world will they think we are? Mr. and Mrs.
Al Capone en vacances? But doubtless Bitolj will turn it all to favour
and to prettiness."
Sometimes a country will for days keep its secrets from a traveller, showing him nothing but its surfaces, its grass, its trees, the outside of its houses. Then suddenly it will throw him a key and tell him to go where he likes and see what he can. That afternoon and evening Macedonia passed into such a confidential mood regarding her Serbs and Bulgars. Our instruction began while Constantine was seeing Gerda of to Skoplje by the one o'clock train; she was to stay there another night, and then return to Belgrade. We spent this last half-hour in a cafe that lies among thick acacia woods in a little hill a mile or so outside the town. It was a holiday and there were many young students from the gymnasium (which is here what the English call a secondary and Americans a high school) sitting about in the darkness cast by the dense white flowers, some of them strumming on guslas. Presently one of them saw that my husband had dropped his matchbox and came to pick it up. "Are you Germans?" he asked. "No, but I speak German," answered my husband. "You are doing business here, or travelling for pleasure?" the boy went on. "For pleasure. My wife came here a year ago, and she liked it so much that she insisted on bringing me here."
The boy nodded gravely, "Without doubt Macedonia is the most beautiful place in the world. But of course tourists are very rare here, because the Government does nothing to bring them. All, all goes for Dalmatia, the Government spends all its money there and has none for us. Look at the huge hotels they have there, and what we have here." "The ones here are quite good enough for us," said my husband, "but in any case I don't think Macedonia can ever compete with Dalmatia as a tourist centre, because it takes too long to get here. It takes us English only a little over twenty-four hours to get to the Adriatic, and about three days to Ochrid." "They should make a road so that you can go directly here from the Adriatic," said the boy obstinately. "But that nobody has done since the Romans," said my husband. "Why cannot it be done now?" he asked firmly. "They had certain advantages," said my husband wearily; "the route from the Adriatic to Macedonia ran through exclusively Roman territory, whereas there is now another country named Albania which is involved. Also they employed slave labour, which made it much easier."
After a pause the boy said, "Did we but belong to Bulgaria, as we ought to considering we are all Bulgarians, it would be done and well done." He looked with dreamy eyes at the snow peaks, and sighed. "You cannot think what a shame it is that we do not belong to Bulgaria, and that we should be linked with Yugoslavia, for Yugoslavia is a poor country and Bulgaria is very rich." "I do not think," said my husband, "that Bulgaria is a very rich country. I do not think that Yugoslavia is a rich country, but I am sure that Bulgaria is not richer. And I am a banker, and I should know such things." "But everybody lives very well in Bulgaria," sulked the boy. Then a new flame drove through him. "And why will they not let us go to Bulgaria as we will! All of us have relatives there, and they will not let us go to see them. I have an uncle who has a factory for making sweets in Sofia, and they will not give me a passport when I want to visit him." "That I think idiotic of the Yugoslavian Government, unless you mean to do it a mischief," said my husband, "and I know that all over Yugoslavia you will find Croats and Serbs and Montenegrins who think the same, and some day they mill help you to alter such things." "The Croats and Serbs!" scoffed the boy. "They would never let us have our freedom! And if there were any good Croats and Serbs, which I doubt, how could they get their will done in Belgrade? That is a disgusting city. They are all Tziganes there. If Yugoslavia is a decent country, why is their capital so full of corruption?"
"A new country," said my husband, "may have a corrupt capital without being corrupt itself. When America was already a great and noble country its politicians were extremely venal, and Washington was full of what you would call Tziganes. That only means that political machinery does not spring up of itself, and that it has to be manufactured at precisely the moment when the best of the population is tempted away by the more adventurous work of exploiting its resources, so naturally the slimy and parasitic second-raters get hold of the government first. That will all straighten itself out later. As soon, in fact, as you and your friends combine with the Croats and Serbs and all the people in the country who care about decency and toleration." "We have begun," said the boy proudly, "these are my special friends, sitting on the bank round the young man with the gusla. We are in correspondence with such groups in Ochrid and in Prilep and in Veles. But naturally they are all Bulgarians."
"Are you going to a university?" said my husband. "Yes," he said, "I am going to Germany to study engineering next year. The Germans are very good people, they were with Bulgaria in the last war; some day Hitler will join with her again and they will fight Yugoslavia and give us back our freedom. Then we will have our rights. Do you realize that none of us here are allowed to join the Communist Party?" "I am afraid," said my husband, "that if you think that Hitler is going to fight Yugoslavia for the purpose of getting you and your friends the right to join the Communist Party you will be very much disappointed. But do many of you want to be Communists?" "No," said the boy, "it does not seem to have anything to do with us, things are so different here. We are more interested in the roots of things. We discuss all the most important subjects and we are not trammelled by our parents' prejudices. Myself, for instance, I am convinced that Jesus Christ was not a divine person but a philosopher, and a very great one. Indeed I think that Jesus Christ and Socrates were perhaps the greatest philosophers that have ever been." He paused and nodded his head several times, very gravely, staring under knit brows at the distant snow peaks. "And also," he added, "we of our group do not let our sisters use any make-up."
When we left him he said, "I wish you had met my mother, she is a very remarkable woman. I do not say that simply because she is my mother, for I think family feeling is old-fashioned and ridiculous. But she has proven her worth by her patriotic work for Bulgaria. When she was a young girl and life was very dangerous, she went to Struga." She had, in fact, been the opposite number to the yellow-haired woman we had seen in Ochrid who had shown us her chickens; and I am sure that she was equally heroic, for this boy, though at present a juggins, had the makings of a superb creature. "How are you going to Skoplje?" asked the boy. "By Veles? Ah, how I wish I could go with you, for in Veles there lives –––––, a lawyer who is a great Bulgarian patriot. We read of him in the Serbian newspapers, which attack him shamefully. Later we will go to see him, though no doubt the police will persecute us afterwards. Well, good-bye, I am much obliged to you for our conversation. I always like to improve myself by talking with men and women of the world."
We drove out of Bitolj through plains covered with flowers, with clover and buttercups and tall daisies, and a kind of meadowsweet slimmer than ours, past a brown pool full of buffaloes lying like pieces of meat in a stew, and were met by death on one of its most idiotic missions. The dogs of Macedonia are for the most part a handsome and heroic breed, reared to be ferocious for very good reasons. In the days of brigandage they had to protect their masters' crops and herds by day, and at night warn the household of raiders. They see so few automobiles that they never learn what they are, and see them as animals of a rare and formidable sort which have to be headed off their master's property like any others. On the way to Prilep a heavy white dog, thickly furred as a chow, held firm to this mistaken notion of our nature and ran by us barking with a most likeable gallantry. A hole in the road sent us swerving towards the field it guarded, and it fulfilled its duty as it saw it. It went for the automobile's bonnet as for the head of a hostile animal. We saw its white body fly through the air and fall among the standing corn, a good twenty yards away. It was a mere stupid lump when it flew through the air, it dropped as if it had never lived. One could not help but weep. "So must many Serbs have died who thought they must attack the Bulgars," said my husband, "so must many Bulgars who thought they must attack the Serbs."
Prilep lay on the plains before us, under a range of hills castellated with outcrops of rock; before we could enter it we drew to the side of the road to let pass a train of shaggy fierce-eyed nomads, hurrying along on heavily laden pack-horses on their way up to the chalets on Kaimakshalan for the summer's cheese-making. When we were crossing the market-place of Prilep, which is an agreeable country town struggling with heat and dust, me heard someone calling Constantine's name, and saw a man in a tight black suit running towards us. "Get in, my friend," said Constantine, "I am taking these English to the monastery of Prince Marko, and I will drop you here on our way back." He appeared to be a Serbian official in charge of the education of the town, and he was stuffed fuller with grievances than any human being I have ever seen. As soon as he sat down beside Constantine a jet of complaint burst from him, not a weak little whining trickle but a great spout, sent out under heavy pressure, worthy of the principal fountain in a public park. "He isn't letting up at all," said my husband, "and in a minute he will cry. What on earth is the matter with him?" "He talks of some difficulty in administration," said Constantine hastily and without candour. The poor man was still at it when we left the car and walked up a steep incline towards Prince Marko's monastery, and my husband said, "I wish I knew what was worrying him, he's got such a nice, pig-headed, earnest face." "He certainly is carrying on," I said, "and at such a rate that Constantine has not been able to get in a word edgeways for some minutes. Is this a record?" "But, good Lord, do you know what he is saying?" asked my husband. "Listen! Listen! it is most extraordinary." The man in tight black clothes had stopped on the edge of the platform in front of the church, and was jumping up and down in front of an immense and burning panorama of plains and mountains and sky, and looking far hotter than any of them, and shaking his fist at some absent object of his hatred. "Yes," I said, "it is perfectly true; he appears to be saying, 'Lord Buxton! Lord Buxton!' Now I know what it is. Lord Buxton is a pro-Bulgarian, and this poor man is a Serbian official who is complaining that the Bulgarians here do not appreciate his ministrations, and that they are encouraged in insubordination by such foreign sympathizers."
My husband polished his glasses and looked again at the man in tight black clothes. "How absurd this is," he said, "because this is just the kind of man a Buxton would like, a good and noble prig." I rushed Constantine's defences by saying, "What have the Bulgarians been doing to your friend, and how does Lord Buxton come into it?" He squeaked back, "Lord Buxton came here, with a secretary who like himself was very foolish, and they come only to see what Bulgaria tells them to see and never to see what Yugoslavia is doing here, which as you know is well and very well, and he cannot think why men who are English as Mr. Gladstone was should be on the side of movements that are financed by the Italians and that devil Mussolini, and they say we are very harsh against them, and it is no wonder if we were at one time, for they were bad with us, and they put us in danger and we had many things to do, and now how is it when he cannot punish youths for spitting in the classroom without them telling him they will call on Lord Buxton." "How surprised our essentially liberal Lord Buxton would be to find himself considered as an ally of Fascism and a bulwark of the spitting habit," said my husband. "And how certain it is that all this man says is true! It has the muddled and disappointing quality of life." At this point the man in tight black clothes recalled our presence and was seized by the memory of something that he ought to do. He pointed at an archway and called out a few passionate words to Constantine, keeping his eyes on us the while. "My friend wishes you to notice," said Constantine, "how the Bulgarians painted the Bulgarian colours on this archway during the war, though this is the monastery of Prince Marko, and it is certainly a Serbian monument. Also he wished me to show you how they defaced certain Serbian frescoes and inscriptions." "Good God," said my husband, "it is as if we went on chewing over the Wars of the Roses. But I suppose we might if we had been enslaved since and now had to start afresh. Still, that makes it no less of a bore."
That is very true of all disputes between the Serbs and the Bulgars that are based on historical grounds. Both parties, and this applies not to old professors but to the man in the street, start with the preposterous idea that when the Turks were driven out of the Balkans the frontiers recognized when they came in should be re-established, in spite of the lapse of five centuries, and then they are not loyal to it. The frontiers demanded by the extremists on both sides are those which their peoples touched only at the moments of their greatest expansion, and they had to be withdrawn afterwards because they could not be properly defended. The ideal Bulgaria which the Bulgarians lust for, and nearly obtained through the Russian-drafted Treaty of San Stefano in 1878, actually existed only during the lifetimes of the Tsar Simeon, who died in the tenth century, and of the Tsar Samuel, who died about a hundred years later. The Serbs are as irritating when they regard their Tsar Dushan not only as an inspiration but as a map-maker, for his empire had fallen to pieces in the thirty-five years between his death and the defeat at Kossovo. The only considerations which should determine the drawing of Balkan frontiers are the rights of the peoples to self-government and the modifications of that right to which they must submit in order to keep the peninsula as a whole free from the banditry of the great powers. But the historical approach gratifies the pedantic side of the Slav, and so it has never been abandoned.
I forgot the man in tight black clothes in another matter of antiquity at that moment, for the Abbot and two monks had come out of the monastery to greet us. The Abbot, who was a Serbian of the best type of pioneer who comes down to Macedonia to work in the Church or medicine or education, greeted us with great warmth, not so much for our own sakes, I think, as because we were not the two monks. These were Russians, and they exhibited to an intense degree that detachment from their surroundings which is characteristic of the White exiles in Yugoslavia, and which has always struck me as unpleasing, except in the case of the little monk from Finland at Neresi. They are certainly unworldly, but only because of a superficiality so extreme that it cannot lay hold even of the surface of things. They had an air of being here only because they had missed all the trains in the world. The Abbot took us up into the gallery used for the entertainment of guests and gave us slatko, and immediately I was faced with an object which solved a riddle that had been vexing me for some time. The riddle lay in the character of Prince Marco, the Serbian hero who is the subject of many folk-songs. He was a real personage, the son of a fourteenth-century Serbian king and himself Prince of Prilep, but he is also a legend, a symbol of the extrovert, and therefore dear to a people that swings back and forth between extroversion and introversion, and knows quite well which is the pleasanter extreme. He was prodigiously strong, he carried for weapon a mace weighing sixty pounds of iron, thirty pounds of silver, and nine pounds of gold. His horse, Piebald, was the fleetest in the world and understood the human tongue; and from one side of its saddle swung the mace and from the other a counterweight of red wine in a skin, for Marko was a hard drinker though he was never drunk. He was a great fighter and chivalrous. When he killed Moossa Arbanassa, the Albanian rebel, he wept and said, "Alas, alas to me, may the gracious God forgive me that I killed a far better knight than I am," and took the severed head and rode back with it to Constantinople and flung it at the feet of the Sultan. When the Sultan started back in alarm Marko cried, "Since you sprang away from Moossa's head now he is dead, I wonder what you would have done if you had met him when he was alive?"
It must be noted that it was for the Sultan that Marko killed Moossa Arbanassa. That is a reflection of the historical truth. Marko was defeated by the Turks and though he kept his princedom of Prilep it was as the Sultan's vassal; and he was obliged to fight against the Christians. This he did not take robustly, but, it appears, sadly and scrupulously. It is told of him that, before the battle of Rovine in Roumania in 1399, he said, "I pray God to give the victory to the Christians, even if I have to pay for it with my own blood." And that prayer was answered. Yet it is told of him with equal conviction that one morning he was riding along a road when Piebald stumbled and shed tears; and when he wondered at this portent a fairy who was his adopted sister announced to him that as he was now three hundred years old he must die. So he killed Piebald, for the horse had been his for a hundred and sixty years, and they could not well be parted now, and gave him a fine funeral. Then he threw his mace over the mountains to the sea, shouting, "When that mace comes up from the sea then such a one as I am may again appear on earth," and, lying down on the green grass, gave himself to the most cheerful death recorded in literature.
The discrepancy between these two accounts of his death is paralleled in various accounts of his life. It is not as if the one version were written by somebody who stuck to the facts and the other by somebody who either did not know the facts or preferred to use fantasy and was determined to make a story of it, but as if they were written about two different people quite unlike in character. One ballad represents him as drawing on himself his father's curse by refusing to bear false witness support his claim that the Tsar Stephen Dushan had left him his empire. Another represents him as a captive in pagan hands, gaining his freedom by promising to marry the daughter of the Saracen prince who holds him, on condition that she steal her father's keys and let him out. But once they are on their way to Christian lands he realizes he cannot keep his promise, she is too black, too queer, too outlandish, and he kills her. "Too bad," he says, with a little sincerity, but with confidence in his power of forgetfulness. One of the two personalities disclosed in these poems has a sensitive conscience. The other has none.
In the gallery I saw, built into the wall, a carving representing a round and jolly rogue, stark naked, riding a very large horse. "Where does that come from?" I asked. The Abbot said, "It was part of the original church here, which was built just before the time of Prince Marko, and was pulled down in the eighteenth century to make room for the one that is standing now, and they put it in this building, which was built about the same time. But I am told that we should not have it here, for the little man was a god who was worshipped here in pre-Christian And so it was. It was the Thracian Rider, a deity worshipped all over ancient Thrace and Macedonia, whom some think to be a form of Rhesus, the hero of whom Homer wrote. He had a long lease of life, for the Roman legionaries of Thracian origin went on worshipping him, and his shrines are found wherever the legions went, and in Rome itself. You may find several sculptures representing him in the Budapest Museum. The mystery of Prince Marko was solved. There had been two similar processes and a synthesis of the results. The cult of the Thracian rider was practised in Prilep, and was driven underground by Christianity; but it never left the hearts of the people, who in this uncomfortable life liked to think of a comfortable immortal, happy as eternities long, unacquainted with pain. Even so, when prince Marko was lowered from power to vassalhood he too never left the hearts of the people, who under the yoke of the Turk liked to think of the milder yoke of this reflective Christian prince. Therefore the two became fused in the common mind, the happy god, the sad mortal, and the imagination of folk-song followed now one strain and now another in this entanglement of opposites.
When we went down the hillside, the man in tight black clothes running before us to show us a cliff where the Bulgarians had defaced a fresco portraying a Serbian king, we saw below us Dragutin standing by the car in an attitude of deep depression. "He is in bad humour," said Constantine, "we will find that he has been worsted in some conflict with an animal." And when we got to him he mournfully told us that he had seen a very big snake among the stones and had let it get away. He did not recover his spirits till our road took us to a mountain called Babuna, covered with low beechwoods which for time out of mind had sheltered rebels. Here the first Bogomils, the Manichaean heretics, had taken refuge, establishing themselves for so long that they gave the place its name; for they were then called Babuni; and here the Haiduks and the comitadji had hidden, all through the Turkish occupation. "Rebels gave this place its name," said Constantine, "and it gave its name to one of our greatest rebels. For all our Serbian comitadji, who worked for the liberation of Macedonia, took false names, lest some time their kinsmen should have to pass through Turkish territory; and the most gifted of them, who sheltered among these woods for much of his life, called himself Babunsky." Dragutin gave out a round-mouthed roar of homage as he heard the name.
About us Macedonia changed into what I think is its highest state of beauty, though many travellers call it dreary. It is certainly bare, merely stippled with trees in the valleys, and veined rarely by rivers; but it is superbly sculptured. In passing through it one receives a very pure apprehension of majestic form. Sometimes we passed fields of opium poppies, with their tool, large, positive beauty, their fleshy green leaves and stalks, their pure white and austere purple flowers; and sometimes mosaics of water, divided by fine lines of mud, and just pierced with the sharpest, highest, most vibrant green imaginable, an F-sharp-in-alt green. Dragutin shook his fist at them. "It is rice," said Constantine; "the Government wants to stop it, for it causes terrible malaria, but we cannot, for the people are terribly poor, and rice pays them better than anything else." In the late afternoon we came to what is the second greatest pleasure I have ever derived from the nose. The greatest is to be enjoyed driving through the Midi in the darkbat the time of the vintage, when farmers have laid the pressed wine-skins as manure on the fields outside the town, and there rises through the warm night an ether of drunkeness, potent yet delicate, winier than any wine. Here in Macedonia I learned that honey is not so successful as one believes, that no bee ever realizes its full intention, and that the perfumer is a clumsy bungler who never cracks the fragile crib he covets, by approaching a town built in the Turkish manner, with a multitude of little gardens, at a time when the sun had been working for many hours on the acacia trees. The air was more than scented, it was flavoured, it was dense with the essence of flowers.
It was Veles that we were approaching, a town that a great many people admire on their way to Athens: its elegant dilapidated Turkish houses, painted in refined colours, hang on each side of a rocky gorge cleft by the rushing Vardar. We racketed through the narrow streets to the heights of the town, inconveniencing the inhabitants not so much as might be expected, for it seemed to them that we were doing something very dashing and courageous, and they smiled at us as if we were swashbuckling cavaliers. We came to a great church that stood on the hillside, so high that it enjoyed the day while the evening clouded the town beneath, among lawns and stone terraces and giant planes, abundantly watered by the stream from a fountain. It had the same strange aspect as the Cathedral at Skoplje, of forms handled with competence but without comprehension, and indeed it had been built by the same four brothers. There was an Italian Gothic apse which revealed their command over their craft and their ignorance of it. They had copied it from buildings they had seen when they were working in Italy as stone-masons, but as they knew nothing of the forms that lay between it and its remotest ancestry they had missed its essential quality. Its handsomeness looked blind. Inside it was full of profounder incongruities, admitting elements that were discordant not only from the point of view of architecture but as matters of religion and culture. Here too the pulpit was like a mimbar in a mosque, the preacher climbed extremely steep steps and spoke to the congregation from high under the rafters; and there were immensely broad galleries, completely Islamic in tone, in which there were separate chapels for the women, and great tables and benches set aside for social occasions. The proportions of the place were wildly wrong. The architect had believed that if a church was built unusually high in proportion to its base it would look majestic instead of leggy. But the error was magnificent, and the handling of its stone, particularly the marble, made comprehensible the terror the Turks felt before of the Slav subjects, the terror that made them never rest in their efforts to geld them by famine and massacre.
Two priests came to us over the green lawns through the golden afternoon, clean and handsome men. One said, "We are so glad you have come to see our church, nobody visits it, and surely it is very beautiful. It looks very rich, as rich as the church at Bitolj; but Veles was never rich like Bitolj, it was only that all the Christians in the town gave what they could, and all the Christians in the villages around for many miles." And the other said, "Is it not wonderful that the Turks thought they were insulting us when they made our fathers build their church outside the town, and that it meant that we have the most beautiful site in Veles, and that all the mosques are below our feet?" "Sit down on the bench," said the other, "and I will bring you slatko, for here in this fountain we have the most beautiful water, cold and lively as a living thing." They sat beside us while we drank, and said, "And we have a precious grave here. Have you seen it? There it is, the white marble one by the cobbles. It is only to see that grave that people come here on week-days, and often they turn back without seeing our church. But still we are very pleased they should come and reverence that sacred stone." "Who lies there?" "Babunsky the comitadji," said the priest.
"Babunsky!" breathed Constantine. As we followed him down the cobbles we passed Dragutin, who was standing by the fountain, communing with his water-god. "Did you know Babunsky was buried here?" Constantine asked him. "Was I not at his funeral?" answered Dragutin. We all stood before the headstone on which it was written that beneath it lay Yovan Babunsky, 1878–1920. "But I saw him not long before he died," said Constantine, "and he looked far older than that." "So he did," said the older of the two priests. "I knew him well when I was young, and what you say is true. But who could wonder? How many nights of his life did he sleep in a bed? How many days did he eat no food but the berries from the bushes? And he was wounded many times, and often fell sick with fear. All this our Serbian brother did for our sake, that Macedonia should be free."
In Veles our automobile developed a fault, and Dragutin had to tinker with its innards for half an hour or so. Constantine fell asleep in the back seat, and my husband and I strolled through the dusk about the town, which was just coming to life again after the heat of the day, not to work, but to stretch itself and enjoy the full knowledge that soon it would sleep again. We lingered before some little shops, tiny caves of flimsy woodwork, with their minute stocks, that amounted to perhaps a hundred jugs, or twenty rolls of cloth, or a few basins of yoghourt and rice porridge. We turned a corner into a street where the shops were larger and more Western in their merchandise. I noticed that several of them were not shops at all, but lawyers' offices. Here there was a chemist, there a lawyer, here a draper. How amusing it would be if we found Charles Russell or Sir William Jowitt in between Heppell's and the Burma Ruby Company in the Strand," I said,. and we stood for a moment watching one of these lawyers seeing a client to the door of his shop, at first out of curiosity, and then out of friendliness, for the lawyer was a finely made man, with an air of noble destiny about him. He would always be overapprehensive, but only about others; for himself he would show a gentle, stately carelessness. When he had been left alone he remained standing at his threshold for a little, looking out in the dark, as if he knew that in the end it must take all, but showing only the faintest melancholy.
As he closed the glass door I looked at the name on his sign; and I clutched my husband's sleeve. "Look! Look!" I said. "This is the lawyer of Veles whom the schoolboy in Bitolj told us was such a Bulgarian patriot! Let us go and talk to him and find out what the situation really is, for he is sure to speak French or German, and it would be most interesting, for I believe this is a centre of Bulgarian agitation." When we went into the office the lawyer looked up with unhurried vigilance and dismissed a servant who was in the room, telling her to bring us black coffee. As soon as she had gone, my husband explained why we had come. "The boy said you had done great things for the Bulgarian cause," he ended, "and said that he and his friends hoped to come and see you." The lawyer smiled. "He was a good boy, I expect," he said, "full of courage, full of heart." "Yes," we said. "I could weep at what you have told me," he said. He spoke a slow, old-fashioned French that was a very suitable medium for his gentle and precise personality. "Yes, I could weep. For you see, I am not a Bulgarian patriot. I am not even a Bulgarian. I can be quite sure about that, for when I was a child I saw my father, who was a Serbian schoolmaster in a village between here and Prilep, murdered by Bulgarians because he was not of their blood."
He made an anxious deprecating gesture. "But I try to remember that only as a grief and not as a wrong, for I should be a great fool if I did sot admit that had he been a Bulgarian schoolmaster it might easily have happened that he was murdered by the Serbs. But there is another reason why I try to think of my father as having died, and not as having been killed. I believe it is time we stopped thinking of such little things as whether we are Serbs or Bulgars. I believe we should rather realize with a new seriousness that we are all human beings and that every human being needs freedom and justice as much as he needs air to breathe and food to eat. In fact, I am an opponent of the present Yugoslav Government. I am not at all the friend of Monsieur Stoyadinovitch. And that is how the confusion that has brought you to me has arisen. For the official press, in an effort to discredit me, has started a legend that I am a Bulgarian who is working against Serbian interests. There could not be a blacker lie." I gaped, seeing at work the some process that had united Prince Marko and Rhesus. "But do not be distressed," he said kindly. "I shall think more kindly of the lie now it has given me the pleasure of your visit. Will you take some Turkish delight with your coffee?"
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