Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Part V

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.

Later that afternoon we drove out of Sarajevo by the road that leads to Treboviche, the mountain which rises too near the town and too steeply to be seen from it. The craned neck can only see its foothills. Halfway up, we stopped the automobile and stood on a grassy ledge to look at the orchards and villas beneath us, all little pots of spring jam, like the villa by the race course. On a ledge above us were standing some gypsies, eight or nine girls in jackets and trousers of printed curtain stuffs, and two men who were jumping and gesticulating in front of them, the upturned toes of their leather sandals looking like cockspurs. Something about the gestures of Constantine's plump little arms as he showed us the city brought them tumbling about us.

A good many people of the lettered sort recognize Constantine from his caricatures in the papers; but the unlettered see him for what he is with astonishing quickness. He has only to swing an eloquent hand at a street corner and there are men and women about us looking at him with an expression which sums up the twofold attitude of ordinary folk to the poet: a mixture of amused indulgence, as of a grownup watching a child at play, and ecstatic expectation, as of a child waiting for a grownup to tell it a fairy story. These ran down the grassy slope and stood about us giggling in a circle of crimson and plum and blue and green and lemon and cinnabar, the wind blowing out their full trousers and making them hug their shawls under the chin. They bring a lovely element into a community which allows them to exist without sinking into squalor. It is as if one could go out and make love to a flower, or have foxes and hares to play music at one's parties.

We went back to the chalet and drank warming coffee under the pictures of the boy king and his mother and his murdered father. They are found in every public place in Yugoslavia, even Croatia. I think they are present in anti-Serb territory because they are sold by some charitable society which nobody wishes to refuse. But in other parts, where there lingers the medi&aeligval conception of the king as a priest of the people, they have nearly the status of holy pictures. At the back of the room sat a handsome young man playing the gusla and singing, apparently the proprietor, and two very pretty young women, all with that characteristically Slav look which comes from the pulling of the flesh down from the flat cheekbones by the tense pursing of the mouth. On the face of the murdered king there was the same expression, hardened to woodenness by the fear of death coming from assassination without or tuberculosis within.

'When you look at things, try to remember them wholly because you have soon to go home to England. I think of a story I heard from a monk of how King Alexander came to see the frescoes in his monastery, which contained portraits of the Serbian kings of our old Empire, in the thirteenth century —real portraits, mind you. Before one he stood for three quarters of an hour, looking terribly, as one would look on one's father if he came back from the dead, sucking him with the eyes. The monk asked him if he had a special cult for this king, and he said, "No. For all kings of Serbia must I have a cult. All kings I must understand, in order that the new dynasty be grafted on the old. And this king I must make a special effort to understand, since nothing that is written of him makes him quite clear to me." You see, he was a mystic, and because the channel of his mysticism was Yugoslavia, nobody outside Yugoslavia can understand him.'

'There is something,' I said, 'that has been worrying me. Listen. The predominantly German character of the Hapsburg monarchy and the concessions they had to make to the Hungarians meant that the Austro-Hungarian Empire oppressed its Slavs and feared the kingdom of Serbia as a dangerous potential ally to these discontented subjects. At the same time there were these economic conditions in the Austro-Hungarian Empire which meant that there must sooner or later be a revolt, in which the discontented Slavs would be specially likely to do the brunt of the fighting. Therefore precisely this war that happened in 1914 was bound to happen sooner or later.'

'But certainly,' said Constantine. 'It had nearly happened in 1912, when Franz Ferdinand's friends nearly succeeded in starting a preventive war over Albania.'

'Then it mattered not at all what happened in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914,' I said.

Constantine was silent for a minute. The man behind us stopped playing his gusla, as if he understood what had been said. Constantine said, 'In a sense you are right. The little ones need not have died. And of the two big ones the poor angry one could have gone on shooting his beasts, and the poor striving one could have continued after the little things the other poor ones did not want her to have. We should have had the World War just the same.'

'What a waste!' I said.

'Well, Sarajevo is the one town I know that could bear with equanimity the discovery that her great moment was a delusion, a folly, a simple extravagance,' said Constantine. 'She would walk by her river, she would sit under the fruit tree in her courtyard, and she would not weep.' After a pause he added: 'But she is not an imbecile. If she would not weep it is because she knows we are wrong. By the attentat she took the war and made it a private possession of the South Slavs. Behind the veil of our incomprehensible language and behind the veil of lies the Austrians and Hungarians have told about us and our wrongs, the cause of the war —more than that, the reason for the war —is eternally a mystery to the vast majority of the people who took part in it and were martyrized by it. Perhaps that is something for us South Slavs, to know a secret that is hidden from everybody else. I do not know.'


We left Sarajevo in the early morning, picking our way over the peasants who were sleeping all over the floor of the station. Nothing we believe about peasants in the West is true. We are taught to think of them as stolid, almost physically rooted to the soil and averse from the artificial. Nothing could be less true, for the peasant loves to travel, and travels more happily by train than on horseback. In old Spain I first remarked it. At the junctions, trains used to stand packed as they are in the English Midlands, where there are myriad commercial occasions to set people traveling; but these had nobody in them except peasants who can have had the slenderest material motives to leave their homes. Now that Yugoslavia is self-governing and there are fewer restrictions, every train and motor omnibus is stuffed with people amiable with enjoyment, as if they were going to a Cup Tie, but with no Cup Tie whatsoever in view.

The journey out of Sarajevo is characteristic, leisurely and evasive and lovely. The train starts at the bottom of the bowl in which the city lies, and winds round it and comes out at a nick in the rim. There is a high station at the nick, and there one looks down for the last time on the hundred minarets, the white houses, and the green flames of the poplars. Thereafter the train travels through a Swiss country of alps and pine woods, with here and there a minareted village, until it goes into a long wooded gorge, which has one superb moment: where two rivers meet, they thunder down on each side of a great rock that has been sharpened by ages of their force to a razor-edged prow. Sometimes we looked at the scenery and sometimes we slept, and often we listened to Constantine, who throughout our entire journey, which lasted thirteen hours, talked either to us or to some of the other passengers. The first time I was in Yugoslavia, Constantine took me down to Macedonia so that I could give a broadcast about it, and when we arrived at Skoplje I thought I should have to run away because he had talked to me the whole time during the journey from Belgrade, which had lasted for twelve hours, and I had felt obliged to listen. Now I know that in conversation Constantine is like a professional tennis player, who does not expect amateurs to stand up to his mastery for long, who expects to have to play to relays, so sometimes I did not listen to him until I caught one of the formulas which I know introduce his best stories.

'My town is Shabatz,' said Constantine, and I listened, for all his best tales begin with those words. 'I should like to take you to see Shabatz. But it is not as it was. You might not be disappointed by a visit, but I should be, because I should not be able to introduce you to all the people that were there when I was young, and now are dead. There was an old man I was very fond of, yes, and I loved his wife, too. He had made something of a fortune out of army clothing, and he made it honestly, for he was a good, patriotic man, and did not cheat the poor soldiers. So with his money he could follow his mania, which was for the new thing, for Science, for the machine, for the artificial, the modern. You may not remember it, for I think it came earlier with you than with us, but there was, some time ago, a rage for such things. It was partly due to your H. G. Wells and his imitators, and it was partly due to our ideas about America, which we then believed to be entirely covered with skyscrapers and factories. I had it myself a little, which is how I became friendly with the old man.

'I was only a boy then and I grew out of it, but the old man was firm in the faith; and his wife —who, I think, never believed in it at all, but who loved him very dearly —followed him. I have said he was very rich, and so he was able to have the first sewing machine in our town, and then the first gramophone, and then the first motorcar, which, as we then had no roads for motoring, was of no use to him, but sent him into ecstasy. And there were many other objects on which he gratified his passion, far more than you would believe. His house was full of them.

'The clothes of my friend were very strange also. He would not wear peasant costume, of course, but as soon as he had adopted Western costume he rebelled against that too, and he had ties that fastened with snappers and trousers that were made in one with a waistcoat. But he was worse about his wife's dress. He made her wear knickerbockers under her skirts, which our women used not to do, and which for some reason shocked them. Trousers they know from the Turks, and skirts they know, but trousers under the skirts—that they think not decent. And when he heard of brassieres, those too he sent for and made his wife wear them; and as she was an old peasant woman, very stout, they had to be lengthened, and even then they remained clearly to be seen, never quite accommodated to her person. And he was so proud of having everything modern that he could not help telling people that she was like an American woman, and was wearing knickerbockers and brassi&egraveres, and then the poor thing grew scarlet and suffered very terribly, for our women are modest. But she endured it all, for she loved him very much.

'I know how she loved him, for I became involved in her heart. Young men are very callous, and when I had got out of my boyhood I laughed at my old friend behind my hand. When I came from Paris after my first year at the Sorbonne, I went to see them, and out of wickedness I began to tell them preposterous stories of new machines which did not really exist. Some of them might have existed, indeed some of them have come to exist since then. I remember I told them an American had discovered a system by which houses and trains were always kept at the same temperature, no matter what the weather was like outside. It is air-conditioning; it is now quite true, but then it was a lie. And I went on telling more and more absurd stories, until I said, "And of course I was forgetting —there is the artificial woman that was invented by the celebrated surgeon Dr. Martel. That is quite wonderful." And my old friend said to me, "An artificial woman? What is that? A woman that is artificial! For God's sake! Tell us all about it!"

'So I went on and on, telling many things that were not at all true, and my friend listened with his eyes growing great, and then I looked at his wife and her eyes were great too, and they were full of pain. Then my old friend said to me, "But you must get me one —you must get me an artificial woman!" He could afford all, you see, and I realized she had known that he was going to say that, and that she was terribly sad, because she knew that she was his real wife and that she would not be able to keep him from an artificial mistress. So I said it was not ready yet —that Dr. Martel was working on it to improve it, and that it could not be bought; and then I sweated hard to tell him something that would make him forget it, and drank more plum brandy, and I pretended to be drunk. But before I left he came round to my house and told me to bring him back an artificial woman, that he did not care how much it cost, and that he would sell all he had to be possessed of such a marvel.

'So it was every time I came back from Paris on my holidays. I would go to their house and he would talk of other things for a time, but only as a little boy who has been well brought up and knows that he must talk to the uncle for a little while before he asks, "And did you not forget my toy train?" But sooner or later he would say, " Now about the artificial woman? Is she ready yet?" And I would shake my head and say, "No, she is not yet ready." Then I would see his wife's face grow so happy, and young and soft. She had him a little longer. Then I would explain that Dr. Martel was a very conscientious man, and a very great surgeon, and that such men like to work very slowly and perfectly. And then I would put my hand up so that she would not hear, and I would tell him some story that would not be very decent, of how the artificial woman had broken down under experiment, but the old man would listen with his eyes right out of his head.

'I felt very ashamed when the wife came to see me at a time when the cold wind had made me bad with my lungs, and I said to her, "Aunt, you are too good to me. I have done nothing for you," and she answered with tears in her eyes, "But you have been as good to me as a son. Do you think I am so simple that I do not know the artificial woman must long ago be finished, with such a clever man as you say working on it? You tell my husband that it is not so only because you know that I could not bear to have such a creature in my house." There was nothing at all that I could say. I could not confess to her that I had been a monkey without making it plain to her that her husband had been an ass. So I could do nothing but kiss her hand and tell her that always, always I would protect her heart from the artificial woman.

'The last year of my studies was the last year before the war, and then I did not come back for my holidays at all. I was studying too hard —philosophy under Bergson and the piano under Wanda Landowska. And then for years I was a soldier and all people were swept away, and it did not seem to matter to ask how or where they were. So it was not till years later that I heard what had happened to my two old friends. It is a terrible story to me, not only because I had a sort of love for them, but because it is typical of us Slavs. Do you remember —no, we none of us can remember it, but we all have read of it —that at the end of the century people believed that something had happened to humanity and that we were all decadent and were all going to commit suicide? Fin de si&egravecle, the very phrase means that. Everything takes a long time to reach this country, and this talk arrived here very late, in 1913, and in the meantime it had been translated into German and it had become heavy and morbid and to be feared. It came to this poor silly old man and he learned that the most modern thing to do was to kill yourself, and so he did it. He became very melancholy for a time, working at it as other old men work at learning chess, and then went into his stable and hanged himself, to be modern, to have an artificial death instead of a natural. I think he was probably sure that there was immortality, for, though he believed he was a freethinker, I do not believe it ever crossed his mind that he would not live after death. And soon afterward his wife also hanged herself, but I do not think there was anything modern about her reasons —they could not have been more ancient. In Shabatz many strange things happened, very many strange things indeed, but I think that of all of them nothing was ever more sad.'

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