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.
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XXVII

We knew we should try to get some sleep before the evening, because Constantine was coming from Belgrade and would want to sit up late and talk. But we hung about too late in the bazaar, watching a queue of men who had lined up to have their fezzes ironed. It is an amusing process. In a steamy shop two Moslems were working, each clapping a fez down on a fez-shaped cone heated inside like an old-fashioned flatiron and then clapping another cone on it and screwing that down very tight, then releasing the fez with a motherly expression. 'What extremely tidy people the Moslems must be,' said my husband; but added, 'There must be some festival tomorrow. We will ask the people at the hotel.' But we were so tired that we forgot, and slept so late that Constantine had to send us up a message that he had arrived and was eager to go out to dinner.

When we came downstairs Constantine was standing in the hall talking to two men, tall and dark and dignified, with the sallow, long-lashed dignity of Sephardim. 'I tell you I have friends everywhere,' he said. 'These are two of my friends; they like me very much. They are Jews from Spain, and they speak beautiful soft Spanish of the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, not the Spanish of today, which is hard and guttural as German. Now they will take us to a cafe where we shall eat a little, but it is not for the eating they are taking us there; it is because they have heard there is a girl there who sings the Bosnian songs very well. It is not for nothing that there are so many mosques in Sarajevo; this is truly the East; and people attach great importance to such things as girls who sing the Bosnian songs, though they are very serious people.'

The men greeted us with beautiful and formal manners, and we went down the street to the cafe. It could be seen they liked Constantine half because he is a great poet, half because he is like a funny dog. But at the door they began to think of us and wonder if they should take us to such a place. 'For us and our wives it is nice,' they said, 'but we are used to it. Perhaps for an English lady it will seem rather strange. There are sometimes dancers ... well, there is one now.' A stout woman clad in sequined pink muslin trousers and brassiere was standing on a platform revolving her stomach in time to the music of a piano and violin, and as we entered she changed her subject matter and began to revolve her large firm breasts in opposite directions. This gave an effect of hard, mechanical magic; it was as if two cannonballs were rolling away from each other but were forever kept contingent by some invisible power of attraction.

'Your wife does not mind?' asked the judge and the banker.

'I think not,' said my husband.

As we went down the aisle one of the cannonballs ceased to revolve, though the other went on rolling quicker than ever, while the woman cried out my name in tones of familiarity and welcome. The judge and the banker showed no signs of having witnessed this greeting. As we sat down I felt embarrassed by their silence and said, in explanation, 'How extraordinary I should come across this woman again!'

'I beg your pardon?' said the judge.

'How extraordinary it is,' I repeated, 'that I should come across this woman again. I met her last year in Macedonia.'

'Oh, it is you that she knows!' exclaimed the judge and the banker, and I perceived that they had thought she was a friend of my husband's.

I was really very glad to see her again. When Constantine and I had been in Skoplje the previous Easter he had taken me to a night club in the Moslem quarter. That form of entertainment which we think of as peculiarly modern Western and profligate was actually far more at home in the ancient and poverty-stricken Near East. In any sizable village in Macedonia I think you would find at least one cafe where a girl sang and there was music. In Skoplje, which has under seventy thousand inhabitants, there are many such, including a night club almost on a Trocadero scale. In this small Moslem cabaret I think there was nobody more opulent than a small shopkeeper, but the performers numbered a male gypsy who sang and played the gusla, a very beautiful Serbian singer, a still more beautiful gypsy girl who sang and danced, and this danseuse de ventre, who was called Astral When Astra came round and rattled the plate at our table I found she was a Salonica Jewess, member of another colony of refugees from Ferdinand and Isabella who still speak Spanish, and I asked her to come and see me the next day at my hotel and give me a lesson in the danse de ventre.

She was with me earlier than I had expected, at ten o'clock, wearing a curious coat frock, of a pattern and inexpert make which suggested she had hardly any occasion to be fully dressed, and that she would have liked to be a housewife in a row of houses all exactly alike. The lesson in the danse de ventre was not a success. I picked up the movement wonderfully, she said. I had it perfectly, but I could not produce the right effect. 'Voyez vous, madame,' she said, in the slow French she had picked up in a single term at a mission school, 'vous n'avez pas de quoi.' It is the only time in my life that I have been reproached with undue slenderness; but I suppose Astra herself weighed a hundred and sixty pounds, though she carried no loose flesh, like a fat Western woman, but was solid and elastic. After the lesson had failed we sat and talked.

When Astra came to our table later that evening she told me that she hoped to be in Sarajevo for some weeks longer, and that she was happier here than she had been in Skoplje. 'Ici,' she pronounced, 'les gens sont beaucoup plus cultiv&eacutes.' As soon as she had gone I found at my shoulder the Swabian chauffeur from Dubrovnik, whom we had paid off that afternoon. 'Why is that woman talking to you?' he said. He always disconcerted me by his interventions. I was always afraid that if I said to him, 'What business is this of yours?' he would answer, in the loathsome manner of a miracle play, 'I am Reason' or 'I am Conscience,' and that it would be true. So I stammered, 'I know her.'

'You cannot know such a person,' he said. 'Do you mean you have been in some cafe where she has performed?'

'Yes, yes,' I said. 'It was in Skoplje, and she is a very nice woman. She has a son of whom she is very fond.'

'How do you know she has a son?' asked the chauffeur.

'She told me so,' I said.

'You do not have to believe everything that such a person tells you,' said the chauffeur.

'But I am sure it is true,' I exclaimed hotly, 'and I am very sorry for her.'

The chauffeur gave me a glance too heavily veiled by respect to be respectful, and then looked at my husband, but sighed, as if to remind himself that he would find no help there. Suddenly he picked up my bag and said, 'I came to say that I had remembered I had forgotten to take that grease spot out with petrol as I had promised you, so I will take it outside and do it now.' He then bowed, and left me.

I thought, 'He is really too conscientious. This is very inconvenient, for now I have no powder.' But of course he would not have thought it necessary for me to have any powder.

But my attention was immediately diverted. A very handsome young man had come up to our table in a state of extreme anger; he was even angrier than any of the angry young men in Dalmatia. He evidently knew Constantine and the judge and the banker, but he did not give them any formal greeting. Though his hair was bronze and his eyes crackled with blueness, and he might have been brother to the two Moslems we had seen talking politics in the park that afternoon, he cried out, 'What about the accursed Turks?'

The judge and the banker made no reply, but Constantine said, 'Well, it was not I who made them.'

The young man insisted, 'But you serve our precious government, don't you?'

'Yes,' said Constantine, 'for the sake of my country, and perhaps a little for the sake of my soul, I have given up the deep peace of being in opposition.'

'Then perhaps you can explain why your Belgrade gangster politicians have devised this method of insulting us Bosnians,' said the young man. 'We are used,' he said, stretching his arms wide and shouting, 'to their iniquities. We have seen them insulting our brothers the Croats, we have seen them spitting in the faces of all those who love liberty. But usually there is some sense in what they do; they either put money in their pockets or they consolidate their tyranny. But this crazy burlesque can bring them no profit. It can be done for no purpose but to wound the pride of us Bosnians. Will you be polite enough to explain a little why your horde of thugs and thieves have formed this curious intention of paying this unprovoked insult to a people whose part it should be to insult rather than be insulted?'

The judge leaned over to me and whispered, 'It is all right, madame; they are just talking a little about politics.'

'But what has the government done to insult Bosnia?' I asked.

'It has arranged,' said the banker, 'that the Turkish Prime Minister and Minister of War, who are in Belgrade discussing our military alliance with them, are to come here tomorrow to be received by the Moslem population.'

'Ah,'said my husband, 'that accounts for all the fezzes being ironed. Do many people take the visit like this young man ?

'No,' said the banker. 'He is a very extreme young man.'

'I would not say so,' said the judge, sadly.

At that moment the young man smashed his fist down on the table and cried into Constantine's face, 'Judas Iscariot! Judas Iscariot!'

'No,' said poor Constantine to his back, 'I am not Judas Iscariot. I have indeed never been quite sure which of the disciples I do resemble, but it is a very sweet little one, the most mignon of them all.' He applied himself to the business of eating a line of little pieces of strongly seasoned meat that had been broiled on a skewer; and when he set it down wistfulness was wet in his round black eyes. 'All the same, I do not like it, what that young man said. It was not agreeable. Dear God, I wish the young would be more agreeable to my generation, for we suffered very much in the war, and if it were not for us they would be slaves under the Austrians.'

XXVIII

One morning we walked down to the river, a brightening day shining down from the skies and up from puddles. A Moslem boy sold us an armful of wet lilacs; a pigeon flew up from a bath in a puddle, its wings dismissing watery diamonds. 'Now it is the spring,' said Constantine, 'I think we shall have good weather for our trip. Yes, all will be very well.' When he is pleased with his country he walks professionally, with his stomach well forward. 'But see what we told you the other night,' he said, as we came to the embankment and saw the town hall. 'Under the Austrians all was for the Moslems. Look at this building—it is as Moslem as a mosque, yet always since the Turks were driven out of Bosnia the Christians have been two thirds of the population. So did the Catholic Hapsburgs deny their faith.'

But actually it is the Moslems who have most reason to complain of this town hall, for their architecture in Sarajevo is exquisite in its restraint and amiability, and even in modern times has been true to that tradition. But this was designed by an Austrian architect, and it is stuffed with beer and sausages down to its toes. Within, however, it is very agreeable, and remarkably full of light; and in an office high up we found a tourist bureau, conducted with passion by a man in the beginnings of middle life, a great lover of his city. He dealt us out photographs of it for some time, pausing to gloat over them, but stopped when Constantine said, 'Show these English the room where they held the reception which was the last thing the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his Archduchess saw of their fellow men.' The head of the tourist bureau bowed as if he had received a compliment and led us out into the council chamber, not unsuccessful in its effort at Moslem pomp. 'All is Moslem here,' said the head of the tourist bureau, 'and even now that we are Yugoslavian the mayor is always a Moslem, and that is right. Perhaps it helps us by conciliating the Moslems, but even if it did not we ought to do it. For no matter how many Christians we may be here, and no matter what we make of the city,—and we are doing wonderful things with it,—the genius that formed it in the first place was Moslem, and again Moslem, and again Moslem.'

But the three reception rooms were as libelous as the exterior. They were pedantically yet monstrously decorated in imitation of certain famous buildings of Constantinople, raising domes like gilded honeycomb tripe, pressing down between the vaults polychrome stumps like vast inverted Roman candles. That this was the copy of something gorgeous could be seen; it could also be seen that the copyist had been by blood incapable of comprehending that gorgeousness. Punch-drunk from this architectural assault, I lowered my eyes and the world seemed to reel. And here, it appeared, the world had once actually reeled. 'It was just over here that I stood with my father,' said the head of the tourist bureau. 'My father had been downstairs in the hall among those who received the Archduke and Archduchess, and had seen the Archduke come in, red and choking with rage. Just a little way along the embankment a young man, Chabrinovitch, had thrown a bomb at him and had wounded his aide-de-camp. So when the poor mayor began to read his address of welcome the Archduke shouted out in a thin alto, "That's all a lot of rot. I come here to pay you a visit, and you throw bombs at me. It's an outrage." Then the Archduchess spoke to him softly, and he calmed down, and said, "Oh, well, you can go on." But at the end of the speech there was another scene, because the Archduke had not got his speech, and for a moment the secretary who had it could not be found. Then when it was brought to him he was like a madman because the manuscript was all spattered with the aide-de- camp's blood.

'But he read the speech, and then came up here with the Archduchess, into this room. My father followed, in such a state of astonishment that he walked over and took my hand and stood beside me, squeezing it very tightly. We all could not take our eyes off the Archduke, but not as you look at the main person in a Court spectacle. We could not think of him as royalty at all, he was so incredibly strange. He was striding quite grotesquely; he was lifting his legs as high as if he were doing the goose step. I suppose he was trying to show that he was not afraid.

'I tell you, it was not at all like a reception. He was talking with the Military Governor, General Potoriek, jeering at him and taunting him with his failure to preserve order. And we were all silent, not because we were impressed by him, for he was not at all our Bosnian idea of a hero. But we all felt awkward because we knew that when he went out he would certainly be killed. No, it was not a matter of being told. But we knew how the people felt about him and the Austrians, and we knew that if one man had thrown a bomb and failed, another man would throw another bomb, and another after that if he should fail. I tell you it gave a very strange feeling to the assembly. Then I remember he went out on the balcony—so—and looked out over Sarajevo. Yes, he stood just where you are standing, and he too put his arm on the balustrade.'

Before the balcony the town rises on the other side of the river, in a gentle slope. Stout urban buildings stand among tall poplars, and above them white villas stand among orchards, and on higher still the white cylindrical tombs of the Moslems stick askew in the rough grass like darts impaled on the board. Then fir woods and bare bluffs meet the skyline. Under Franz Ferdinand's eye the scene must have looked its most enchanting blend of town and country, for, though it was June, there had been heavy restoring rains. But it is not right to assume that the sign gave him pleasure. He was essentially a Hapsburg—that is to say, his blood made him turn always from the natural to the artificial, even when this was more terrifying than the primitive; and this landscape showed him on its heights nature unsubdued, and on its slopes nature accepted and extolled.

Perhaps Franz Ferdinand felt a patriotic glow at the sight of the immense brewery in the foreground, which was built by the Austrians to supply the needs of their garrison and functionaries. These breweries, which are to be found here and there in Bosnia, throw a light on the aggressive nature of Austrian foreign policy and its sordid consequences. They were founded while it was still Turkish, by speculators whose friends in the government were aware of Austria's plans for occupation and annexation. They also have their significance in their affront to local resources. There is an abundance of cheap and good wine here. But what was Austrian was good, and what was Slav was bad.

It is unjust, however, to say that Franz Ferdinand had no contact with nature. The room behind him was full of people who were watching him with the impersonal awe evoked by anybody who is about to die; but it may be imagined also as crammed—how closely can be judged only by those who have decided how many angels can dance on the point of a needle—by the ghosts of the innumerable birds and beasts who had fallen to his gun. He was a superb shot, and that is certainly a fine thing for a man to be, proof that he is a good animal, quick in eye and hand and hardy under weather. But of his gift Franz Ferdinand made a murderous use. He liked to kill and kill and kill, unlike men who shoot to get food or who have kept in touch with the primitive life in which the original purpose of shooting is remembered. Prodigious figures are given of the game that fell to the double-barreled Mannlicher rifles which were specially made for him. At a boar hunt given by Kaiser Wilhelm, sixty boars were let out and Franz Ferdinand had the first stand: fifty-nine fell dead, the sixtieth limped by on three legs. At a Czech castle in one day's sport he bagged two thousand, one hundred and fifty pieces of small game. Not long before his death he expressed satisfaction because he had killed his three-thousandth stag.

This capacity for butchery he used to express the hatred which he felt for nearly all the world, which indeed, it is safe to say, he bore against the whole world, except his wife and his two children. He had that sense of being betrayed by life itself which comes to people who wrestle through long years with a chronic and dangerous malady; it is strange that both King Alexander of Yugoslavia and he had fought for half their days against tuberculosis. But Franz Ferdinand had been embittered by his environment, as Alexander was not. The indiscipline and brutality of the officials who controlled the Hapsburg Court exceeded anything that was ever seen at Versailles. It happened that for some years it looked as if Franz Ferdinand would not recover from his illness, and during the whole of this time the Department of the Lord High Steward, believing that he would soon be dead, cut down his expenses to the quick in order to get the praises of the Emperor Franz Josef for economy. Penniless in spite of the great art collections he had inherited, he was grudged the most modest allowance, and even his doctor was underpaid and insulted. This maltreatment ended when it became obvious that he was going to live, but by that time his mind was set in a mould of hatred and resentment, and though he could not shoot his enemies he found some relief in shooting, it did not matter what.

It may be conceived, therefore, that even as the game which Saint Julian Hospitaler had killed as a cruel hunter appeared before him on the night when he was going to accomplish his destiny and become the murderer of his father and mother, so the half million beasts which had fallen to Franz Ferdinand's gun, according to his own calculations, were present that day in the reception hall at Sarajevo. One can conceive the space of this room stuffed all the way up to the crimson and gold vaults and stalactites with the furred and feathered ghosts, set close, because there were so many of them—stags with the air between their antlers stuffed with woodcock, quail, pheasant, partridge, ptarmigan, and the like; boars standing bristling flank to flank, the breadth under their broad bellies packed with layer upon layer of hares and rabbits. Their animal eyes, clear and dark as water, would brightly watch the approach of their slayer to an end that exactly resembled their own.

For Franz Ferdinand's greatness as a hunter had depended not only on his preeminence as a shot, but also on his power of organizing battues. He was specially proud of improvement he had made in the hunting of hare: his beaters, placed in a pear-shaped formation, drove all the hares towards him so that he was able without effort to exceed the bag of all other guns. Not a beast that fell to him in these battues could have escaped by its own strength or cunning, even if it had been a genius among its kind. The earth and sky were narrowed for it by the beaters to just one spot, the spot where it must die; and so it was with this man. If by some miracle he had been able to turn round and address the people in the room behind him, not with his usual aggressiveness and angularity, but in terms which would have made him acceptable to them as a suffering fellow creature, still they could not have saved him. If by some miracle his slow- working and clumsy mind could have become swift and subtle, it could not have shown him a safe road out of Sarajevo. Long ago he himself, and the blood which was in his veins, had placed the beaters at their posts who should drive him down through a narrowing world to the spot where Pincip's bullet should find him.

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