Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Part II

Violence was indeed all I knew of the Balkans,' writes Rebecca West, 'all I knew of the South Slavs. And since there proceeds steadily from the southeastern corner of Europe a stream of events which are a danger to me, which indeed for years threatened my safety and deprived me forever of many benefits, that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny. The Balkan Peninsula was only two or three days distant, yet I had never troubled to go that short journey, which might explain to me how I shall die, and why.' So it was that in 1937 Rebecca West, with her husband, set out to explore the Balkans, and particularly Yugoslavia, to see for herself why the fate of the Continent and of England has so often been threatened by the Powderkeg of Europe. The story she brought back with her annihilates distance, and touches every thoughtful reader.

IX

But it matters. He saw, before we went to bed that night, that what happens to these people matters a great deal. As we stood on the steps of the statue there came towards us a Constantine, treading delicately among the pigeons that cover all the pavement in the market square where there are no stalls. He brought his brows together in censure of two of these pigeons which, in spite of the whirling traffic all around them, had felt the necessity to love. 'Ah, les Croates!' he murmured, shaking his head; and as we laughed he went on, 'Mind I can see that you two also are thinking of committing a misdemeanor of taste. Not so gross, but still a misdemeanor. You are thinking of going up to look at the Old Town, and that is quite wrong. Up there are villas and palaces, which must not be seen in the morning. In the evening, when the dusk is sentimental, we shall go and peer through the gateways and you will see colonnades and pediments more remote than those of Rome, because they are built in the neoclassical style that was the mode in Vienna a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago; and you will see our little Slav contribution, for in the walled garden before the house we shall see iron chairs and tables with nobody sitting at them, and you will recognize at a glance that the person who is not sitting there is straight out of Turgenev. You cannot look at Austria as it was the day before yesterday, at us Slavs as we were yesterday, by broad daylight. It is like the pigeons. But come to the Cathedral, which is so beautiful that you may see it now or any other time.'

So we went up the steep street into the Cathedral Square, and looked for a time at the Archbishop's palace, with its squat round towers under their candle-extinguisher tops, and then went through the Cathedral's nineteenth-century false front into the dark and stony plant forms of the Gothic interior. It has been cut about as by a country dress maker, but it has kept the meditative integrity of darkness considering light, the mathematical aspiration for some thing above mathematics which had been the core of its original design, and at that moment it housed the same intense faith that had built it. This was Easter Eve; the great cross had been taken down from the altar and lay propped up before the step, the livid and wounded Christ wincing in the light of the candles set at His feet. It was guarded by two soldiers in the olive uniform of the Yugoslavian army, who leaned on their rifles as if this were a dead king of earth lying in state. As I looked at them, admiring the unity enjoyed by a State which fights and believes it has a moral right to fight, and would give up either fighting or religion if it felt the two inconsistent, I saw that they were moved by a deep emotion. Their lips were drawn outward from their clenched teeth; they were green as if they were seasick.

'Are they tired? Do they have to guard the cross for a long time?' I asked cautiously. 'No,' Constantine answered, 'not for more than an hour or two. Then others come.' 'Then they are really looking like that,' I pressed, 'because it is a great thing for them to guard the dead Christ?' 'Certainly,' he replied. 'The Croats are such Catholics as you never did see, not in France, not in Italy; and I think you ask that question because you do not understand the Slavs. If we did not feel intensely about guarding the dead Christ, we should not put our soldiers to do it, and indeed they would not do it if we put them there—they would go away and do something else. The custom would have died if it had not meant a great deal to us.' For a long time we watched the wincing Christ and the two boys with bowed heads, who swayed very slightly backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, like candle flames in a room where the air is nearly still. I had not been wrong. In Yugoslavia there was an intensity of feeling that was not only of immense and exhilarating force, but has an honorable object, proceeding from realist passion, from whole belief.

At eight that evening we went to a restaurant beside the Cathedral to dine with a great editor leader of the Croat party (which is fighting for autonomy under a federal system) and his wife. Valetta was there, but Constantine was not. The editor, though he himself is a Serb by birth, would not have sat down at the same table with an official of the Yugoslavian Government. And Gregorievich was not there, not only for that reason, but because he would not have sat down at the same table with the editor, whom he regarded as evil incarnate. He had come in for a glass of brandy, and on hearing where we were to spend the evening he had sunk into greenish gloom, because of the sins of the world. Yet this editor also would have died for the Slav cause, and had indeed undergone imprisonment for its sake before the war. He is still facing grave danger, for he ran his movement from the point of view of an English pre-war Liberal, who abhorred all violence, and he not only attacked the Yugoslavian Government for the repressive methods it used against Croatia but also attacked those Croats who used violence against the Government and who accepted Hungarian and Italian support for terrorism. Like Bishop Strossmayer, he risks losing his only friends. He is a great gentleman, an intellectual, and a moralist, and has carved himself, working against the grain of the wood, into a man of action.

As we talked of the political situation, there ran to our table a beautiful young Russian woman, who could be with us only half an hour because she was supervising a play of hers about Pushkin which had been put on at the National Theatre a few nights before and was a failure. She brought the news that this amazing Easter had now produced a blizzard. On her golden hair and perfect skin and lithe body, in its black dress, snowflakes were melting, her blood running the better for it; and failure was melting on her like a snowflake also, leaving her glowing. 'They are hard on my play!' she cried, choked with the ecstatic laughter of Russian women. 'Ce n'est pas bien, ce n'est pas mal, c'est mediocre!' The editor, smiling at her beauty and her comet quality, tried to upbraid her for her play. The drama, he said, was a great mystery, one of the most difficult forms of art. All men of genius have tried their hand at a play at some time, and he had read most of them. These people, I realized, could make such universal statements. Both the editor and his wife knew, and knew well,—in addition to their native Serbo-Croat,—English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Latin, and Greek.

Nearly all these dramas, the editor continued, were bad. The drama demanded concentration on themes which, by their very nature tempted to expansion, and only people with a special gift for craftsmanship could handle this problem. And one enormously increased this difficulty if, as she had done, one chose as one's theme a great man, for what could be more obstinately diffused than the soul of a great man? Often, indeed, the soul of a great man refused to be reduced to the terms necessary even for bare comprehension! And especially was this true of Pushkin. Which of us can understand Pushkin? At that the editor and the editor's wife and Valetta and the Russian all began to talk at once, their faces coming close together in a bright square about the middle of the table. The talk had been in French, it swung to Serbo-Croat, it ended it Russian. My husband and I sat tantalized to fury.

There was nothing more indicative of the high level of culture among these people than their capacity to discuss the work of one amongst them with complete detachment. But before the Russian went she made a last defense. For a short time she had found herself united in experience with Pushkin, and even if that union covered only a small part of Pushkin it was worth setting down, it might give a clue to the whole of him. Looking past her at her beauty, in the odd way that men do, the editor said, though only to tease her, 'Experience, indeed! Are you sure you have enough experience? Do you think you have lived enough to write?' She answered with an air of evasion suggesting that she suspected she might some day have a secret but was too innocent to know what it might be, though she was actually a married woman at the end of her twenties if not in her early thirties: 'I will not argue that, because the connection between art and life is not as simple as that!' But then her face crinkled into laughter again: 'Sometimes the connection between art and life is very close! Think of it, there is a woman in the crowd in this last scene whose cries always give a lead to the others and have indeed given the end of the play much of its effect, they are always so sad. The audience cannot hear the words the actors in the crowd are using; they only catch the accent of the whole sentence. And as this woman had caught the very accent of anxious grief, I listened to what she had to say. And she was crying: "O God! O God! Let Pushkin die before the last bus leaves for my suburb!"' She turned from us laughing.

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