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.

Gregorievich had arranged to take us on Easter Monday into the country, with Constantine and Valetta and some young Croat doctors. It is a sign of the bitterness felt by the Croats against the Serbs that because we were in the company of Constantine and Gregorievich, who were representatives of the Yugoslavian idea, very few Croats would meet us; and Valetta, who came to see us because of an existing friendship with us, was slightly embarrassed by the situation, though he concealed it. These Croat doctors were ready to come with us because it was our intention to visit first a castle belonging to a great Hungarian family who still used it as a residence for a part of the year, and then go on to another castle owned by the same family, which was used as a sanatorium for tuberculosis by a Health Insurance Society. This gave them a professional excuse. But it snowed all through the night of Easter Sunday, and we woke to an Arctic morning, so we telephoned to ask Valetta and these doctors to come all the same, though the expedition would obviously have to be canceled. They came and proved to be delightful young men, graduates of Zagreb University, with hopes of postgraduate work in Vienna and Berlin and Paris, and we were having a pleasant conversation over our coffee and boiled eggs when the door opened and Gregorievich came in, and we saw that we had done wrong.

It is of the highest importance that the reader should understand Gregorievich. If it were not for a small number of Gregorieviches, the Eastern half of Europe (and perhaps the other half as well) would have been Islamized, the tradition of liberty would have died forever under the Hapsburgs, the Romanovs, and the Ottoman Empire, and Bolshevism would have become anarchy and not a system which may yet be turned to many uses. His kind has profoundly affected history, and always for the better. Reproachfully his present manifestation said to us, 'Are you not ready yet? '

We stared up at him, and my husband asked, 'But is not the weather far too bad? '

He answered, 'The sun is not shining, but the countryside will be there all the same, will it not? And the snow is not too deep.'

'Are you sure?' my husband asked doubtfully.

'I am quite sure,' answered Gregorievich. 'I have rung up a friend of mine, a General who has specialized in mechanical transport, and have told him the make of our automobiles, and he is of the opinion that we shall be able to visit both castles.'

There, as often before and after, Gregorievich proved that the essential quality of Slavs is not, as might be thought, imagination. He is characteristically, and in an endearing way, a Slav, but he has no imagination at all. So now he conceived of an expedition to the country as being undertaken for the purpose of observing the physical and political geography of the district, and this could obviously be pursued in any climatic conditions save those involving actual physical discomfort. Nevertheless the Slav quality of passion was there, to disconcert the English or American witness, for it existed in a degree which is found among Westerners only in highly imaginative people. As he stood over us, grey and grooved and severe, he palpitated with the violence of his thought: 'These people will go away without seeing the Croatian country side, and some day they may fail Croatia for the lack of that knowledge.' His love of Croatia was of volcanic ardor, and its fire was not affected by his knowledge that most of the other people who loved Croatia were quite prepared, because he favored union with the Serbs, to kill him without mercy in any time of crisis.

We rose, abashed, and filed out to the automobiles; and indeed at first the weather was not too bad. We went out of the town in a light drizzle, passing a number of women who were hurrying to market. They wore red kerchiefs on their heads, red shawls and white skirts, and carried red umbrellas in one hand, while with the other they pulled their skirts high over their red woolen stockings, so high that some showed their very clean white drawers of coarse linen edged with elaborate broderie anglaise. There was a Breughel-like humor about their movements; their faces showed that there was nothing brutish about them. This was very marked among the old women. Slavs grow old more beautifully than the people of other races, for with the years their flesh clings closer to the bone instead of sagging away from it. This ribbon of laughing peasants ran beside us, in an unbroken comic strip, right out into the country, where they exercised their humor with extreme good temper, for the automobiles raised fans of liquid mud on each side of them and everyone we met had to jump some distance into deep snow to keep her clothes dry and clean. But they all made a joke of it. In one village, where the plaster houses were all painted a deep violet which was given great depth and vibrancy by the snow and the grey sky, a lovely young girl laughingly put her umbrella in front of her and mocked us and herself with clownish gestures that were exquisitely graceful and yet very funny

Then we saw nobody. The snow began to fall thickly. People at the door of a cottage smiled, waved, shivered theatrically, and banged the door. We passed through a broad valley paved with the dark glass of floods. In the driving snow a birchwood looked like a company of dancing naked nymphs; the hills were hidden, and there was nothing but the mist. Sometimes it parted and we saw a gross-towered, butter-colored Schloss. Our companions told us what Austrian or Hungarian family had lived there, and what it was now: a textile factory, a canning plant, a convalescent home.

It grew colder. We stopped in a little town and went into the hotel and warmed ourselves with plum brandy, which is the standard odd-time drink in Yugoslavia. The landlord spoke to us proudly of the place, telling us they had a beautiful memorial to some Croat patriots in the market place, and that not far away they had found the skeleton of a pre-historic man. We said we knew how that had happened. The poor man had been taken for a nice drive in the country by Gregorievich. This delighted Gregorievich; it was pathetic to see how pleased he was because the young Croats could lay aside their hatred of Yugoslavia and joke with him for a little. He was very happy indeed when, because he had pretended to be aggrieved, we drank another round of plum brandies in his honor. Then we started out again, into hillier country, where the snow was still deeper. At the top of a hill our automobile stuck in a snowdrift. Peasants ran out of a cottage near by, shouting with laughter because machinery had made a fool of itself, and dug out the automobile with incredible rapidity. They were doubtless anxious to get back and tell a horse about it.

Now the snow was so thick on the wooded hills that the tree trunks were mere lines and the branches were finer than any lines drawn by a human hand. No detail was visible in the houses of the villages at the base of the hills. They were blocks of soft black shadow edged with the pure white fur of the snow on the roofs. Above the hills there was a line of mist that drew a dull white smudge between this pure black-and-white world and the dark grey sky. There was no color anywhere save certain notes of pale bright gold, made by three things. So late was this snowfall that the willows were well on in bud; their branches were too frail to carry any weight of snow, save in the crook of the branches, and the buds were too small to be discernible, so each tree was a golden-green phantom against the white earth. There were also certain birds flying over the fields, bouncing in the air as if they were thrown by invisible giants at play; their breasts were pale gold. And where the snow had been thickest on the banks of the road it had fallen away in a thick crust, showing primroses. They were the same color as the birds' breasts. Sometimes the road ran over a stream, and we looked down on the willows at its edge. From this aspect, the snow that their green-gold branches supported looked like a white body prostrate in woe, an angel that had leaped down in suicide from the ramparts of the sky.

We passed through a village, still as midnight at midday, and stone blind, every door and window closed. 'Think of it,' said Valetta, 'in all those cottages there are sitting nothing but dukes and duchesses, barons and baronesses.' The peasants here had received an Emperor handsomely when, through the stupidity of his nobles, he had found himself tired and wounded and alone after a day's hunting, and he ennobled the whole village by patents of perfect validity.

And a little farther on was our journey's end. We got out of the automobile and found ourselves at a lodge gateway with what were recognizably 'grounds' behind it, the kind of grounds that were made in England during the nineteenth century after the Georgian and Regency schools of landscape garden, shrubby and expensive and futile; these sloped to the base of an extremely steep sugar-loaf hill which had something like Balliol on the top of it. As we gaped, a mist swooped on us and all was suddenly veiled by the whirling confetti of a gentle snowstorm. Not unnaturally, nobody was about.

'What can have happened to them all?' asked Gregorievich. He went and pounded on the door of the porter's lodge, and when an astonished face appeared at the upper windows he demanded, 'And where is Nikolai? Why is Nikolai not here to meet us?'

'He is up at the castle,' said the porter; 'he did not think you would be coming.'

'Thought we were not coming!' exclaimed Gregorievich. 'What made him think we were not coming?' It had distressed him very much to find that Valetta and the Croats and my husband and I seemed unable to grasp the common-sense point of view that if one wanted to see a castle one went and saw it, no matter what the weather was, since the castle would certainly be there in spite of the weather; but he had excused it because we were by way of being intellectuals and therefore might be expected to be a little fanciful. Here, however, were quite simple people who were talking the same sort of nonsense. He said testily, 'Well, we will go up and find him for ourselves.'

We climbed the sugar-loaf hill by whimsically contrived paths and stone steps, among fir trees that were striped black and white like zebras because of the branches and the layer of white snow that lay on each of them, while the porter, who was now invisible to us through the snow, cried up to the castle, 'Nikolai! Nikolai! They have come!' I was warm, because I was wearing a squirrel coat, but all the men were shaking with cold, and we were all up to our knees in snow. At last we came to a walk running round some ramparts, and Nikolai, who was a very handsome young peasant with golden hair and blue eyes framed by long lashes, dropped the broom with which he had been trying to clear a path for us and ran towards Gregorievich, crying, 'How brave you are to make such a journey in this weather!' 'Lord above us,' said Gregorievich, 'what does everybody mean?'

We passed through a mediaeval portal into a mediaeval courtyard with a well that had been there, probably, ever since there was a castle—which was for about six hundred years—and passed into the nineteenth century. There were ramparts and great halls and galleries and staircases built in the baronial style which owed so much more to literary than to architectural inspiration; and they were covered from floor to ceiling with hunting trophies. It recalled the story of the old Hungarian count who was heard to mutter as he lay dying, 'And then the Lord will say, "Count, what have you done with your life? " and I shall have to say, "Lord, I have shot a great many animals." Oh, dear! Oh, dear! It doesn't seem enough.' Nobody but the fool despises hunting, but as a sole offering to the Lord it was not enough, and it might be doubted if this was the right kind of hunting. These trophies spoke of nineteenth-century sport, which was artificial, a matter of reared beasts procured for the guns by peasants, and so essentially sedentary that the characteristic sportsman of the age, commemorated in photographs, had a beard and a paunch. The whole castle made it seem likely that its inhabitants of the generation that had set its mark on the place had not hunted or indeed done anything else really well.

It was not that they were of poor stock. They had the courage to be Illyrian patriots; and they had other graces too. There were portraits of them which showed people with good strong bones and fully human faces. The loveliest showed a red-haired girl, daughter of another famous Hungarian family, who had come here as a bride in the seventeenth century, slender and witty and proud. A descendant of hers, a hundred and fifty years later, painted by a disciple of Winterhalter, showed the same resilient health of mind and body. But something had happened to these people which had deprived their external lives of meaning, had made them cumberers of the earth. That was their connection with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their taste had been, at first, excellent. Testimony to that existed, because by the mercy of God every fool has always known that old china and books are precious; they had some very pretty majolica and Moustiers china, and a number of eighteenth-century books, notably a very pleasing edition of Voltaire. But the rooms, which were themselves often of fine proportions, for parts of the castle had been left as they were within a baronial shell, were cluttered up with the most hideous furniture of the sort that was popular in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the second half of the nineteenth century, walloping stuff bigger than any calculations of use could have suggested, big in accordance with a vulgar idea that bigness is splendid, and afflicted with carving that made even the noble and austere substances of wood ignoble as fluff. It would have been interesting to know where the later inhabitants had put the old furniture that must have been displaced by these horrors.

A malady had fallen on these people, which could be detected in the paintings. Their old family portraits were beautiful. As everybody who has visited the Budapest Museum knows, the Hungarian portrait painters of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were artists of great accomplishment and coherent vision, who saw how great lords and ladies and their robes and jewels fall into a pattern. But having the honor of employing these artists did nothing for the education of these people. For a time they seemed to have learned something, for they had some delicious bizarre pictures of the late eighteenth century, depicting savages as lovely as fireflies, in islands as lovely as branches of flowering shrubs seen at night by a ray of light from an unshuttered window. But thereafter the deterioration had been profound. They bought flushed nudes which would have set a cannibal's mouth watering, and immense and static historical pictures which made it seem as if the wretched human animal had suffered only that there should be tableaus vivants at an eternal charity performance.

And one of the family had indulged in the greedy indelicacy of amateur art. She had been a woman of enormous energy; a fashionable portrait painter had represented her, full of the uproarious shire-horse vitality common to the women admired by Edward VII, standing in a pink satin ball dress and lustily smelling a large bouquet of fat roses in a massive crystal vase, apparently about to draw the flowers actually out of the water by her powerful inhalations. This enormous energy had covered yards of the castle walls with pictures of Italian peasant girls holding tambourines, lemon branches, or amphorae which exactly represented what is meant by the French word niaiserie. They proved that bad art is in fact an evil thing, that it is morally perverse. For they showed a complete indifference as to what an Italian peasant girl was really like; and it could not be doubted that if the painter had had to deal with such a girl on the human plane she must have failed in charity towards the girl, from sheer ignorance of what her needs and appetites would be.

These active and silly pictures, the clumsy furniture, and the lines of rubbishy and justly forgotten books in French and German and English which had been added to the library during the last hundred years, made this castle seem poor with a real poverty that was only mocked by the many evidences of material wealth. In the same room with these Italian girls was a portrait of a male member of the family, a Hungarian general gorgeous in a white and gold uniform, physically superb, and solemnized and uplifted by the belief that he had mastered a ritual that served the double purpose of establishing his personal superiority and preserving the civilization as he knew it. By contrast to the world outside, with its vast tracts of snow and its cold that burned like heat, this place seemed minuscule and drab, and man's obligation to separate himself from nature presented itself as an enforced retreat into tameness and insignificance.

I left my companions and turned back to another bedroom which had an enchanting view of a little lake that lay, now a sheet of snow, among wooded knolls of an artificial grace at the foot of the sugar-loaf hill. I found Gregorievich sitting on the windowsill, with his back to the view, looking about him at the hideous pictures and furniture with a dreamy and absorbed expression. 'It would be very pleasant to live this way,' he said, without envy, but with considerable appetite. This was the first time I had ever heard him say anything indicating that he had ever conceived living any life other than his own, which had been dedicated to pain and danger and austerity; and I could be sure that it was not the money of the people who lived in the castle, not the great fires that warmed them or the ample meals they ate—it was their refinement that he envied, their access to culture. I had never thought before what mischief a people can suffer from domination by their enemies. This man had lived his whole life to free Croatia from Hungarian rule; he had been seduced into exalting Hungarian values above Croatian values by what was an essential part of his rebellion. He had had to tell himself and other people over and over again that the Hungarians were taking the best of everything and leaving the worst to the Croats, which was indeed true so far as material matters were concerned. But the human mind, if it is framing a life of action, cannot draw fine distinctions. He had ended by believing that the Hungarians had had the best of everything in all respects.

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