Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Part III

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.

THE steamer which makes the hour's journey from Split to Trogir was full of Germans, and I wondered more and more at the impossibility of learning the truth. I have been given to understand, partly by what I have read and heard and partly by parades I have seen in Germany, that Germans are a race of beautiful athletes tense with will, glossy wish efficiency, sinister with aggressiveness. The German tourists who had surrounded us in every hotel and on every steamer since we got to Dalmatia were either pear-shaped fat or gangling thin, and in any case wore too much flesh packed on the nape of the neck, and were diffident, confused, highly incompetent as travelers, and not at all unkindly. There was, I suppose, no contradiction here, only proof that Germany has been divided into two nations—a pampered young pretorian guard and the badgered, undernourished, unregarded others. These were the others. But they also were of Hitler's Germany; for the steamer dawdled along the coast from portlet to portlet, and on each landing stage there were standing a crowd of Dalmatians, tall, lean, upright in pride of body. The tourists stared at them and spoke of them as if they were odd and dangerous animals. The German hatred of the Slav had been revived and reenforced.

Across a milk-white sea, with two silver hydroplanes soaring and dipping to our right and left, we came to the town of Trogir, which covers a minute island, lying close to the coast, in the lee of a larger island. It is one of those golden-brown cities: the color of rich crumbling shortbread, of butterscotch, of the best pastry, sometimes of good undarkened gravy. It stands naked and leggy, for it is a walled city deprived of its walls. The Saracens leveled them, and the Venetians and the Hungarians would never let them be rebuilt. Now it looks like a plant grown in a flowerpot when the pot is broken but the earth and roots still hang together. On the quay stand Slavized Venetian palaces with haremish latticework fixed to screen the stone balconies, to show that here West meets East, brought thus far by Byzantine influence and perpetuated by the proximity of the Turks.

Trogir was an inveterately heretic city. In its beginning it was a Greek settlement and later a Roman town, and then it was taken over in the Dark Ages by wandering Paulicians. In the twelfth century, however, the town was sacked by the Saracens, and the inhabitants were dispersed among the villages in the mainland. That, however, did not break the tradition of heresy, for when the king of Hungary collected them and resettled them on their island they soon fell under the influence of Catharism. One wishes one knew how this heresy compared with orthodoxy as a consolation in time of danger.

Our friendly guide took us on from the Cathedral to see the scene of one of the narrowest escapes from annihilation that are written in all history. We walked out of the city on to the quay through a gate which still keeps the handsome stone lion of Saint Mark that was the sign of Venetian possession, surmounted by the patron saint of Trogir, Saint Giovanni Orsini. A bridge crossed a channel hemmed with marble and glazed with the reflection of many cypresses, and joined Trogir to a mainland that showed us a little level paradise under the harsh bare limestone hills, where the pepper trees dropped their long green hair over the red walls of villa gardens, and Judas trees showed their stained, uneasy purple flowers through wrought-iron gates. "You see, it came very near, so near that it could not have come any nearer," said our guide.

He spoke of the time in 1241 when the Mongols, seeking to expand the empire made for them by Genghis Khan, conquered Russia and swept across Europe to Hungary, putting King Bela and his nobles to flight. While the king vainly petitioned the other Christian powers to help, the invaders swept on towards Vienna and then swung down to Croatia, burning, looting, killing. King Bela tried to stand firm at Zagreb, and sent his Greek wife and their three children to seek safety on the coast. These were ranging in panic between Split and the fortress of Klish, just behind it in the mountains, when the king joined them frantic with fear. It is doubtful if even our own times can provide anything as hideous as the Mongol invasion, this dispensing of horrible death by yellow people made terrible as demons by their own unfamiliarity. It is true that the establishment of the Mongol Empire was ultimately an excellent thing for the human spirit, since it made Asiatic culture available to Europe; but as Peer Gynt said, "though God is thoughtful for his people, economical that he isn't!"

The king and a tattered, gibbering multitude of nobles and soldiers and priests, bearing with them the body of Saint Stephen, first king of Hungary, and many holy objects from their churches, trailed up and down the coast. Split received them magnificently, but the king struck away the townsmen's greetings with the fury of a terrified child. The shelter they offered him was useless. They might not know it, but he did. He had seen the Mongols. He demanded a ship to take him out to the islands; yellow horsemen could not ride the sea. But there was none ready. He shouted his anger and went with his queen and his train to Trogir, which is within a short distance of many islands. He fled to a neighboring island, which is still called "The King's Shelter." Some of his followers went with him, but enough stayed in Trogir to carpet the place with sleeping men and women when night fell. Worn out by fatigue, by hunger, by fear, they threw down wherever they could on the floors of all rooms, in every palace and hovel, all over every church, on the flags of the piazza and the alleys, on the quays. Their treasure cast down beside them, they slept. Every boat too was covered with sleeping bodies and upturned faces, and the rocks of every island.

The Mongols came down on the coast. Nothing could stop them. But at the sea they met a check. They had thought the king must be at Klish or Split, and they were repulsed at both. The shelter offered by the Splitchani was not as negligible as the king had thought. The Mongols were used to unlimited space for their operations, and to attack fortifications from a terrain bounded by the sea or sharply broken ground presented them with a new problem. But they found their way to Trogir; and on to this bridge across the channel they sent a herald who cried out in a loud voice the minatory moral nonsense talked by the aggressor in any age: "Here is the commandment of the Kaidan, the unconquerable chief of the army: do not uphold the crimes of others, but hand over to us our enemies, lest you be involved in those crimes and perish when you need not."

For the herald himself the delivery of this message must have been the supreme moment of his life, either for perverse joy or for pain, because those who heard him tell us that he spoke in Slav as a Slav. He must have been either a traitor or a prisoner. Either he was dooming his own people, whom he loathed, to their ruin, and his words were sweet as honey in his mouth; or he loved his people, and he found his words bitter as gall.

The guards of Trogir made no answer, for they had been ordered by the king to keep silent. Then we find—which is not common—history following a line to which we are accustomed in our private lives. We have all heard spoken tremendous words which must unchain tragedy, we have all recognized the phrase after which there can be nothing but love and happiness; and afterwards nothing has happened, life goes on precisely the same, there is the vacuum of the anticlimax. But in history the pushed boulder usually falls. In Trogir, however, it was not so. After this tremendous moment, nothing happened. The herald cried out his tremendous message, the guards kept silent; and presently the Mongols went home. It is thought that they were considering whether they should ford or bridge the channel when they received news that their supreme chief, Ogodai, the son of Genghis Khan, had died in Asia, and that the succession was in dispute. They went back at a trot, just taking time to sack and kill on their way through Southern Dalmatia, where they burned the lovely city of Kotor, and through Bosnia, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

Trogir breathed again. The king returned from his islet, and took his nobles and his armies and his priests and the dead Saint Stephen and the holy jewels back to Hungary. But the queen had to stay in Dalmatia for some time, till her two little daughters, Catarina and Margareta, died of a sickness they had contracted during their flight. Their tombs can be seen in Diocletian's mausoleum at Split.

It is the kind of secret that time takes with it: whether the heretics of Trogir leaned on their faith and found it bore them, in those hours when the Mongol sword hung over their heads. But it can be deduced that in a general way it did them no harm, for they came out of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance strong in art and gallant.

Part One: January 1941
Part Two: February 1941
Part Four: April 1941
Part Five: May 1941
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