Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Part IV

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.

TREBINJE is the nearest town to the Dalmatian coast that exhibits what life was like for the Slavs who were conquered by the Turks.

We found ourselves slipping down the side of a broad and fertile valley that lay voluptuously under the guard of a closed circle of mountains, the plump grey-green body of a substantial river, running its whole length, marked by poplars and birches. We saw the town suddenly in a parting between showers, handsome and couchant, and, like all Turkish towns, green with trees and refined by the minarets of many mosques. These are among the most pleasing architectural gestures ever made by urbanity. They do not publicly declare the relationship of man to God, like a Christian tower or spire. They raise a white finger and say only, 'This is a community of human beings, and, look you, we are not beasts of the field.' But I kept my eyes on the mountain, wondering which gully had seen the military exploits of my admired Jeanne Merkus.

That, now, was a girl, one of the most engaging figures in the margin of the nineteenth century, sad proof of what happens to Jeanne d'Arc if she is unlucky enough not to be burned. She was born in 1839, in Batavia, because her father was Viceroy of the Dutch East Indies. Her mother came of a clerical Walloon family, and was the divorced wife of a professor in Leyden University. Jeanne was sixth in the family of four boys and four girls. When she was five her father died, and she was brought home to Holland, where she lived with her mother at Amsterdam and The Hague until she was nine. Then her mother died and she went to live with an uncle, a clergyman, who made her into a passionate mystic, entranced in expectation of the second coming of Christ.
It happened that when she was twenty-one she inherited a fortune far larger than falls to the lot of most mystics. Her peculiar faith told her exactly what to do with it. She went to Palestine, bought the best plot of ground she could find near Jerusalem, and built a villa for the use of Christ. She lived there for fifteen years, in perpetual expectation of her divine guest, and conceiving as a result of her daily life a bitter hatred against the Turks.

When she heard of the Bosnian revolt she packed up and went to the Balkans, and joined the rebels. She came in contact with Lyubibratitch, the Herzegovinian chief, and at once joined the forces in the field, attaching herself to a party of comitadji led by a French officer. We have little information as to where she fought, for very little has been written, and nothing in detail, about this important and shameful episode of European history. We have an account of her, one winter's night, struggling single-handed to fire a mine to blow up a Turkish fortress among the mountains when all the rest of her troop had taken to their heels, and failing because the dynamite had frozen. It is almost our only glimpse of her as a campaigner.

Jeanne's more important work lay in the outlay of her fortune, which she spent to the last penny in buying Krupp munitions for the rebels. But as soon as the revolt was a proven success the Austrians came in and took over the country, and in the course of the invasion she was captured. She was set free and allowed to live in Dubrovnik, but she eluded the authorities and escaped over the mountains to Belgrade, where she enlisted in the Serbian army. There the whole population held a torchlight serenade under her window, and she appeared on the balcony with a round Montenegrin cap on her fair head.

But there was to be no more fighting. The action of the Great Powers had perpetuated an abuse that was not to be corrected till thirty-five years later, and then at irreparable cost to civilization, in the Balkan Wars and the First World War. There was nothing for Jeanne to do, and she had no money to contribute to the nationalist Balkan funds. The Turks had seized the house in Jerusalem which she had prepared for Christ, and, not unnaturally, would pay her no compensation. We find her moving to the French Riviera, where she lived in poverty. Sometimes she went back to Holland to see her family, who regarded her visits with repugnance because she talked of her outlandish adventures, wore strange comitadji-cum-deaconess clothes, smoked big black cigars, and was still a believing Christian of the ecstatic sort. It is said that once or twice she spoke of her lost spiritual causes before young kinsfolk, who followed them for the rest of their lives.

The members of her family who remained insensible to her charm carried their insensibility to the extreme degree of letting her live on Church charity at Utrecht for the last years of her life, though they themselves were wealthy. When she died in 1897 they did not pay for her funeral, and afterwards they effaced all records of her existence within their power.

It is important to note that nothing evil was known of Jeanne Merkus. Her purity was never doubted. But she never achieved martyrdom, and the people for whom she offered up her life and possessions were poor and without influence. She therefore, by a series of actions which would have brought her the most supreme honor had she acted in an important Western state as a member of the Roman Catholic Church, earned a rather ridiculous notoriety that puts her in the class of a pioneer bicyclist or Dr. Bloomer....

It was a poor day for the market. A storm had been raging over the mountains all night, and as the year was still early, and the crops light, most of the peasants had not thought it worth while to get up at dawn and walk the seven or eight miles to Trebinje. There were a few handsome women standing with some vegetables before them, soberly handsome in the same vein as their plain round cap and their dark, gathered dresses, gripped by plain belts. We saw a tourist level a camera at two of these. They turned away without haste, without interrupting their grave gossip, and showed the lens their backs. These were very definitely country women. They wore the typical peasant shoes of plaited thongs, and by their movements it could be seen that they were used to walking many miles, and they bore themselves as if each wore an invisible crown of immense weight—which meant, I think, an unending burden of responsibility and fatigue.

There were also about the market place plenty of Moslems, the men wearing the red fez, the women in the black veil and overall made of a straight wide piece of cotton pulled in at the waist by a drawstring. 'Turks,' said the guide, and he was talking nonsense. Nearly all the Moslems in Yugoslavia except in the extreme south, in Macedonia, are Slavs whose ancestors were converted by the Turks, sometimes in order to keep their properties, sometimes because they were Bogomil heretics and wanted defense against Roman Catholic persecution. This is preeminently the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina; the true Turks left at the time of the Austrian occupation.

'Look!' said my husband, and I found that he was enraptured at the sight of the fezzes and the veils, for though he had spent some time in Istanbul and Ankara, that had been since the days of Ataturk and his reforms.

'Do you think the veil adds charm to the female?' I asked.

'Yes, in a way,' he answered; 'they all look like little Aberdeen terriers dressed up to do tricks, with those black muzzles sticking out.'

One stopped, and offered to sell him some white silk handkerchiefs of offensive aspect, with tatting at the corners. His taste in linen is classical; she was not fortunate. Nor were any of the six others who sought to sell him such handkerchiefs at various points in Trebinje. 'I don't like their handkerchiefs and I don't like them,' he decided. 'No doubt they're perfectly respectable, but they waggle themselves behind all this concealment with a "Naughty Nineties" sort of sexuality that reminds me of Alley Sloper and the girls, and the old Romano, and the Pink 'Un and the Pelican.'


This was not the last we were to see of that peculiar quality. A little Moslem boy handed us a leaflet which announced that tourists could visit an old Turkish house in the town, formerly the home of a famous Pasha, which was complete with its original furniture and its original library. We found it in the suburbs, standing among gardens where spring was touching off the lilac bushes and the plum trees—a house perhaps a hundred or a hundred and fifty years old. It was a very pleasing example of the Turkish genius for building light and airy country houses that come second only to the work of our own Georgians, and in some ways are superior, since they hold no dark corners, no mean holes for the servants, no rooms too large to heat.

This stood firm and bright and decent, with its projecting upper stories, the windows latticed where the harem had been, and its two lower stories that had their defended Arabian Nights air of goods made fast against robbers. Across a countryish courtyard, almost a farmyard, was the servants' house, where the kitchens and stables were. Down some stairs to the main door, which was on the first story, ran a pretty, smiling girl of about sixteen, unveiled but wearing a gold-braided jacket and pink trousers, which here (though not in other parts of Yugoslavia) are worn only by Moslem women. Behind her came an elderly man wearing a fez and a brocade frock coat. On seeing us the girl broke into welcoming smiles, too profuse for any social circle that recognized any restrictions whatsoever, and left us with a musical-comedy gesture. 'Turkish girl,' said the man in the frock coat, in German. 'Then why is she unveiled?' asked my husband. 'She is too young,' said the man in the frock coat, his voice plump to bursting with implications.

We wavered, our faces turning back to Trebinje. 'Come in, come in,' cried the man, placing himself between us and Trebinje. 'I will show you all—old Turkish house, where the great Pasha kept his harem—all very fine.' He drove us up the stairs, and shepherded us through the main door into a little room which in its day had been agreeable enough. Pointing at the latticed windows, he said richly, 'The harem was here—beautiful Turkish women wearing the beautiful Turkish clothes.' He opened a cupboard and took out a collection of clothes such as may be found in any old clothes shop in those provinces of Yugoslavia that were formerly occupied by the Turks. 'Very fine, all done by hand,' he said of the gold-braided jackets and embroidered bodices. 'And look—trousers!' He held up before us a garment of white lawn, folded at the ankle into flashy gold cuffs, which could never have been worn by any lady engaged in regular private harem work. 'Transparent,' he said. Coyly he sprang to another cupboard and brought out a mattress. 'The bed was never left in the room,' he said; 'they took it out when it was needed.' There was unluckily a third cupboard, with a tiled floor and a ewer. 'This was the bathroom. Here is where the Turkish lady kept herself clean—all Turkish ladies were very clean and sweet.' He assumed a voluptuous expression, cocked a hip forward and put a hand on it, lifted the ewer upside down over his head, and held the pose.

Undeterred by our coldness, he ran on to the next room, which was the typical living room of a Turkish house, bare of all furniture save a bench running along the walls and an ottoman table or two, and ornamented by rugs pinned flat to the wall. I exclaimed in pleasure, for the view from its window was exquisite. The gray-green river we had seen from the heights above the city ran here through meadows deep in long grasses and pale flowers, and turned a mill wheel; and the first leaves of the silver birches on its brink were as cool to the eye as its waters. Along this river there must have wandered, if there is any truth in Oriental miniatures, a young prince wearing an ospreyed fez and embroidered garments, very good-looking then, though later he would be too fat, carrying a falcon on his wrist and snugly composing a poem about the misery of his love.

'I should be obliged,' said the man in the frock coat, 'if the well-born lady would kindly pay some attention to me. Surely she could look at the view afterwards.'

'Shall I throw him downstairs?' asked my husband.

'No,' I said, 'I find him enchantingly himself.'

It was interesting to see what kind of person would have organized my life had I been unfortunate enough, or indeed attractive enough, to become the inmate of a brothel. So we obeyed him when he sharply demanded that we should sit on the floor, and listened while he described what the service of a formal Turkish dinner was like, betraying his kind with every word, for he took it for granted that we should find all its habits grotesque, and that our point of view was the proper one. 'And now,' he said, rising, and giving a mechanical leer at my ankles as I scrambled off the floor, 'I shall show you the harem. There are Turkish girls, beautiful Turkish girls.'

At a window in the passage he paused and pointed out an observation post in the roof of the servants' house. 'A eunuch used to sit there to see who came into the house,' he said. 'A eunuch,' he repeated, with a sense of luxuriance highly inappropriate to the word. He then flung open a door so that we looked into a room and saw three girls who turned towards us, affected horror, and shielded their faces with one hand while with the other they groped frantically but inefficiently for some colored handkerchiefs that were lying on a table beside them. Meanwhile the custodian had also affected horror and banged the door.

'By God, it is the Pink 'Un and the Pelican,' said my husband.

Then the custodian knocked on the door with an air of exaggerated care and, after waiting for a summons, slowly led us in. 'Typical beautiful Turkish girls,' he said. They were not. Instead of wearing the black veil that hides the whole face, which almost all Yugoslavian Moslems wear, they wore such handkerchiefs as Christian peasant women use to cover their hair, but knotted untidily at the back of the head so that their brows and eyes were bare. 'Now they are cultivating our beautiful Turkish crafts,' he explained. They were not. Turkish embroidery and weaving are indeed delicious; but two of these wenches held in their hands handkerchiefs of the offensive sort that my husband had rejected in the market place, and the third was sitting at a loom on which a carpet which ought never to have been begun had been a quarter finished.

After we had contemplated them for some time, while they wriggled on their seats and tittered to express a reaction to my husband which both he and I, for our different reasons, thought quite unsuitable, the custodian said, 'Now we will leave the ladies by themselves,' and, nodding lecherously at me, led my husband out of the room. I found this disconcerting, but supposed he had taken my husband away to show him some 'beautiful Turkish feelthy peectures,' in which case they would be back soon enough. As soon as we were alone the girls took off their veils and showed that they were not ill-looking, though they were extremely spotty and had an inordinate number of gold teeth. They suggested that I should buy some of the offensive handkerchiefs, but I refused. I meant to ask my husband to give them some money when he came back.

To pass the time I went over to the girl at the loom and stood beside her, looking down on her hands, as if I wanted to see how a carpet was made. But she did nothing, and suddenly I realized she was angry and embarrassed. She did not know how to weave a carpet any more than I do; and the girls with the handkerchiefs did not know how to sew—they were merely holding them with threaded needles stuck in them. They all began to laugh very loudly and exchange bitter remarks, and I reflected how sad it was that slight knowledge of a foreign tongue lets one in not at the front door but at the back. I have heard poems recited and sermons preached in the Serbian language which were said to be masterpieces by those who were in a position to judge, and I have been unable to understand one word. But I was able to grasp clearly most of what these young women were saying about me, my husband, my father and my mother.

But the scene was horrible, because they looked not only truculent but unhappy. They were ashamed because I had detected that they could not sew or weave, for the only women in the Balkans who cannot handle a needle or a loom are the poorest of the urban population, who are poorer than any peasant and cannot get hold of cloth or thread because they have no sheep. The scene was pitiful in itself, and it was pitiful in its implications, if one thought of the fair- mannered and decent Moslem men and women in Trebinje and all over Yugoslavia, sad because they knew themselves dead and buried in their lifetime, coffined in the shell of a perished Empire, whose ways these poor wretches were aping and defiling. I could not bear to wait there any longer, so I left them and walked through the house, calling for my husband. The search became disagreeable, for I opened the door of one or two rooms and found them full of trunks and bundles lying on the bare floor, stuffed with objects but open and unfastened, as if someone here had meditated flight and then given up the plan on finding that the catastrophe which he had hoped to escape was universal.

I called louder, and my husband answered me from a room by the main door. 'What did he take you away for?' I asked. 'He didn't take me away for anything but to give you the thrilling experience of seeing those wenches unveiled,' he said.

The custodian came forward and said, 'I have been showing your husband these beautiful Turkish books; they have been in this house for many centuries.' He thrust into my hand a battered copy of the Koran, which fell open at a page bearing a little round label printed with some words in the Cyrillic script.

'Oh, Lord!' I said. 'Look! This is the stamp of a Sarajevo secondhand bookshop.'

'Really, this is all too silly,' said my husband. 'It is like charades played by idiot ghosts round their tombs in a cemetery.'

We went out into the courtyard, followed by the custodian, who seemed at last to realize that we were not pleased by his entertainment. 'Do they speak Serbian or not?' he asked our guide. 'No, I don't think so,' our guide answered. The custodian looked puzzled and decided to assume that life as he knew it was continuing in its usual course. So he gave us the Turkish greeting by raising his hand to his forehead, exposing that national custom to our patronage or derision,-- he did not care which it was, so long as we tipped him,—and he said, 'Now you have met a Turkish gentleman and seen how all Turkish gentlemen used to live.' My husband gave him money, and we walked away very quickly.

The guide said, 'Were you pleased with the visit? It is interesting, is it not?'

My husband asked, 'Who is that man?'

'He used to be the servant of the owner of the house,' said the guide.

'Who is the owner?'

'He is a Moslem baron,' said the guide. 'Once his family was very rich, now he is very poor. He furnished this house and put his servant in charge of it, and I think the money he gets from it is nearly all that he has. He lives far out in the country, where it is very cheap.'

When we were driving out of the town I said, 'I hate the corpses of empires—they stink as nothing else. They stink so badly that I cannot believe that even in life they were healthy.'

'I do not think you can convince mankind,' said my husband, 'that there is not a certain magnificence about a great empire in being.'

'Of course there is,' I admitted, 'but the hideousness outweighs the beauty. You are not, I hope, going to tell me that they impose law on lawless people. Empires live by the violation of law.'

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