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.

'This is a very delightful place,' said my husband the next morning. It was Easter Sunday, and the waiter had brought in on the breakfast tray dyed Easter eggs as a present from the management, and we were realizing that the day before had been wholly pleasant.

'Of course, Austria did a lot for the place,' said an Englishman, a City friend of my husband, who was staying in the hotel and had come to have breakfast 'I suppose so,' said my husband, and then caught himself up.

'No, what am I saying? It cannot be so, for this is not in the remotest degree like Austria'

There came into the room Constantine and Gregorievich, who was still a little cold to us because of the company we had kept on the previous night. 'What has Austria done for you?' asked my husband. 'Nothing,' said Constantine; 'it has not the means. What can a country without history do for a people with a glorious history like the Serbs?'

'I was talking of Croatia,' said my husband.

Gregorievich said anxiously, as if he had been detecting himself looking in the mirror, 'The answer stands.'

'But the Austrians have their history,' objected my husband.

'No,' said Gregorievich, 'we are its history. We Slavs in general, and we Croats in particular. The Hapsburgs won their victories with Czechs, with Poles, and above all with Croats. Without us the Austrians would have no history and if we had not stood between them and the Turks, Vienna would now be a Moslem city.'

The Englishman laughed, as if a tall story that knew its own height had been told. Gregorievich looked at him as if he had blasphemed. 'Is it a little thing that only yesterday it was decided that Europe should not be Islamized?' he asked.

'What does he mean?' asked the Englishman.

'That the Turks besieged Vienna in 1683 and were turned back,' said my husband, 'and that if that had not been it is possible that they would have swept across the whole of Europe.'

'Is that true?' asked the Englishman.

'Yes,' said my husband.

'But it's not yesterday,' said the Englishman.

'To these people it is,' said my husband, 'and I think they are right. It's uncomfortably recent. The blow would have smashed the whole of our Western culture, and we shouldn't forget that such things happen.'

'But ask them,' said the Englishman, 'if Austria did not do a lot for them in the way of sanitary services.'

Gregorievich looked greenly into the depths of the mirror as if wondering how he showed not signs of gayety but signs of life under the contamination of these unfastidious English. 'Your friend, who showed no emotion at the thought of the spires of Vienna being replaced by minarets, doubtless would expect us to forgive the Austrians for building oubliettes for our heroes so long as they built us chalets for our necessities. Are you sure,' he said, speaking through his teeth, 'that you really wish to go to hear Mass at the village of Shestine? It is perhaps not the kind of expedition that the English find entertaining.'

We drove through a landscape I have often seen in Chinese pictures; wooded hills under snow looked like hedgehogs drenched in icing sugar. On a hill stood a little church, full to the doors, bright inside as a garden, glowing with scarlet and gold and blue and the unique rough warm white of homespun, shaking with song. On the women's heads were red handkerchiefs printed with yellow leaves and peacocks' feathers, and their jackets were solidly embroidered with flowers, and under their white skirts were thick red or white woolen stockings. Their men were just as splendid in sheepskin leather jackets with applique designs in dyed leathers, linen shirts with fronts embroidered in cross-stitch and fastened with buttons of Maria Theresa dollars or lumps of turquoise matrix, and homespun trousers gathered into elaborate boots.

The splendor of these dresses was more impressive because it was not summer. The brocade of a Rajah's costume or the silks of an Ascot crowd are within the confines of prudence, because the Rajah is going to have a golden umbrella held over him and the Ascot crowd are not far from shelter, but these costumes were made for the winter in a land of unmetaled roads, where snow lay till it melted and mud might be knee-deep, and they showed a gorgeous lavishness, for hours and days and even years had been spent on the stuffs and skins and embroideries which were thus put at the mercy of the bad weather. There was lavishness also in the singing that poured out of these magnificently clad bodies, which indeed transformed the very service. Western church music is almost commonly infantile, a petitioning for remedy against sickness or misfortune, combined with a masochist enjoyment in the malady; but this singing spoke of health and fullness.

The men stood on the right of the church and the women on the left. This is the custom also in the Orthodox Church, and it is reasonable enough. At a ceremony which sets out to be the most intense of all contacts with reality, men and women, who see totally different aspects of reality, might as well stand apart. It is inappropriate for them to be mixed as in the unit of the family, where men and women attempt with such notorious difficulty to share their views of reality for social purposes. From this divided congregation came a flood of song which asked for absolutely nothing, which did not ape childhood, which did not pretend that sour is sweet and pain wholesome, but which simply adored. If there be a God who is fount of all goodness, this is the tribute that should logically be paid to Him; if there be only Goodness, it is still a logical tribute. And again the worship, like their costume, was made astonishing by their circumstance. These people, who had neither wealth nor security, nor ever had had them, stood before the Creator and thought not what they might ask for but what they might give. To be among them was like seeing an orchard laden with apples or a field of ripe wheat endowed with a human will and using it in accordance with its own richness.

This was not simply due to these people's faith. There are people who hold precisely the same faith whose worship produces an effect of poverty. When Heine said that Amiens Cathedral could only have been built in the past, because the men of that day had convictions, whereas we moderns have only opinions and something more than opinions are needed for building a cathedral, he put into circulation a half-truth which has done a great deal of harm. It matters supremely what kind of men hold these convictions. This service was impressive because the congregation was composed of people with a unique sort of healthy intensity.

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