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.
XXXIV

I slept, and woke up into a world of mirrors. They stretched away on each side of the railway, the hedges breathing on them with their narrow images. We were passing through the floods that every year afflict the basin of the Danube and its tributaries, and to me, who love water and in my heart cannot believe that many waters can be anything but pleasure heaped upon pleasure, there came a period of time, perhaps twenty minutes or half an hour, of pure delight.

But presently the floods were blotted out from me as thoroughly as if a vast hand had stretched from the sky and scattered earth on the waters till first they were mud and then land, because Constantine had come back into the compartment after an absence I had not noted, his face purplish, his black eyes hot and wet, his hands and his voice and his bobbing black curls lodging a complaint against fate. He sat down on the feet of my husband, who till then had been asleep, and he said, 'On this train I have found the girl who was the first real love of my life. She was of my town, she was of Shabatz, and we went to school together, and when we grew to the age of such things —which among us Serbs is not late —we were all for one another. And now she is not young any more, she is not beautiful, she has more little lines under her eyes even than you have, but it can be seen that she was very beautiful indeed, and that she is still very fine, very fine in the way that our women sometimes are, in the way that my mother is fine, very good for her husband, very good for her children, and something strong beyond.

'It seems to me it would have been very well for me if I had made this girl my wife before the war and had come back to her, for I had terrible times when I came back from the war and it would have been good if I had had a grand woman like this to stand by me. But she would not have me, though we had been sweethearts for two years. I knew that when I left Shabatz to go to the Sorbonne she was glad to see that I was going, and all the way to Paris I was glad that it looked very well and as it should be, and I the man was leaving her the woman and going to a far place and having new adventures, because I knew that was how it was not and that she was tired of me. Never did I write to her because I was afraid she would not answer.

'But now when I saw her here on the train I knew that it was a pity it was so, and I said to her, " Why did you treat me so? When I was young I was very handsome and my father was very rich and already you knew I was a poet and would be a great man, for always I was a Wunderkind, but you did not want me, though I think that once you loved me. What was wrong?" At first she would not tell me, but I kept asking her, and then she said, " Well, if you trouble me so for so long a time, I will tell you. There is too much of you! You talk more than anybody else; when you play the piano, it is more than when any other person plays the piano; when you love, it is more than anybody else can bear —it is all too much, too much, too much!"

'Now, that I cannot understand. I talk interesting things, for I have seen many interesting things; not one man in a hundred has seen so many interesting things; your husband has not seen so many interesting things. And I play the piano very well; also I love with great delicacy of heart, and I am a great experience for any woman. And you must ask my dear wife if I am not a kind man to my family, if I do not do all for my little sons. Now, all these things are good things —how can I do them too much? And I am sure that at first she loved me, and when she saw me here in this train she was so glad to see me that her eyes shone in ecstasy. Why, then, did she become weary and let me go to Paris with all things finished between us? Why does she now become cross and tell me there is too much of me? Why have I so many enemies, when I would only do what is good with people, and when I would ask nothing but to be gentle and happy? I will go back and ask her, for she cannot have meant just what she said. It was not sensible, and she is a very fine, sensible woman.'

When he had gone my husband sighed, and said, 'Good old Constantine. Now in all my life I have never got on a train and met a woman I used to love. Indeed, except on the Golden Arrow and the Continental Expresses, which do not count, I have never met anybody I knew on a train, unless we were going to the same country house. Yes, just once. Going down to Norfolk I once met my old matron at Uppingham. But that was indeed quite agreeable. Really, I prefer it that way. It seems to me that the proper place for the beloved is the terminus, not the train.'

'I am, however, traveling with you on this occasion,' I reminded him.

'Yes, my dear, so you are,' he said, closing his eyes.

I myself slept after a time; and when I awoke he was still asleep and it was night, and a conductor was telling me that we were near Belgrade. We packed our books and collected our baggage and went to look for Constantine.

XXXV

We walked out of our hotel towards the park that lies beside it, the Kalemegdan, which is the special glory of Belgrade and indeed one of the most beautiful parks in the world. Its charm was separating us from everything else we knew, as good parks should do. We went through an area that is common to all parks, no matter where they may be, where nurses watch their children play among lilac bushes and little ponds and the busts of the departed nearly great. Then there is a finely laid out flower garden with a tremendous and very beautiful statue to the French who died in Yugoslavia during the Great War, by Mestrovich, showing a figure bathing in a sea of courage. Many people might like it away and replace it by a gentler marble. But the pleasantness of this park is such an innovation that it has hardly earned the right to put all grimness from its gates. For this is the old fortress of Belgrade, which till the end of the Great war knew peace only as a dream.

Ever since there were men in this region this promontory must have meant life to those that held it, death to those that lost it. Its prow juts out between the two great rivers and looks eastward over the great Pannonian Plain (superb words, the flattest I know) that spreads across Hungary towards Central Europe. Behind it is the security of broken country and forest. Here, certainly, not to begin at the beginning, the Illyrians made a stand against the Romans and were driven out. Here the Romans made a stand against the Huns and the Avars, and were driven out. Here the Slavs joined the Huns and were oppressed by them, and for a brief space enjoyed peace under the Byzantines, but were submerged by the Hungarians, until war between Byzantium and Hungary brought a victorious Greek army to the foot of this rock. Then the Serbs came, and knew imperial glory under the Nemanyich dynasty; here the petty Serbian kings who had failed to uphold that glory made their last stand before the Turks. But the Hungarians, with typical Christian frivolity, claimed it for nearly a hundred years, harrying the Serbs so that they could not beat back the Turkish army, and Belgrade fell to Suleiman the Great in 1521. The Hungarians paid their score five years later, when the Turks beat them at Mohacs and kept them in servitude for a hundred and fifty years. Then the tide turned; the maniac Vizier Kara Mustapha was defeated outside Vienna and brought to this very place to be strangled. Then, in 1688, the Austrians swept them out and took the fortress, but lost it two years later, and it was not retaken till Prince Eugene of Savoy came down on it in 1717.

So far the history of Belgrade, like many other passages in the life of Europe, makes one wonder what the human race has lost by its habit of bleeding itself like a mad medi&aeligval surgeon. But it may be that not much has been wasted that we miss. Those who are preserved to unfold the buds of their being often produce very repulsive blossoms. In 1739, by a hideously treacherous agreement, the Austrians handed Belgrade and its Serb inhabitants to Turkey. This was, however, not such a calamity for the Serbs as it appears, for they had been so oppressively governed by the Austrians that many had already fled into Turkish territory, though the treatment they received there could be described not as good, but better.

The Great Powers were always there to turn incidents, sometimes out of base greed, sometimes out of sheer idiocy, into wounds and humiliations. Their guilt can be judged from the conduct of the English in June 1862. One evening in that month two Turkish soldiers sitting at a fountain fell into a dispute with a Serbian youth, and killed him. In the subsequent disorder a Serbian policeman was killed and another wounded. This started a race riot which lasted all night. The Serbian Cabinet and the foreign consuls and the Turkish Pasha joined together to take measures to stop it, and peace was believed to be restored when the garrison of the fortress suddenly opened fire on Belgrade. For four hours the unhappy town was bombarded. Not until the foreign consuls took the courageous step of pitching their tents on the glacis between the town and the fortress were the guns silenced. After this the British Foreign Once took a step memorable in its imbecility. Lord John Russell, without making any inquiries whatsoever, decided that the incident had occurred because the Serbians had violated their treaty obligations to Turkey; and he put forward the strange suggestion that Austria should invade Serbia. Fortunately Austria perceived that she could not choose a more dangerous moment and sent no troops. It is a relief to remember that four years later English influence induced the Porte to withdraw from Serbia altogether. Foreign students of our politics must be puzzled to find that this change in attitude was due to the substitution of a Conservative for a Liberal government.

But this withdrawal did not yet bring peace to the fortress. In front of her lay Hungary and Austria, greedy for her. Behind her lay Russia, greedy for her. Both wanted to snatch the Balkans from the hands of the dying Ottoman Empire. When the young Serbian state tried to placate Austria, Russia raged. In its rage it financed the Bulgars to turn against the Serbs, filling them with hopes of Balkan ascendancy which have ever since complicated and embittered the international situation. Later the Great Powers met at the Congress of Berlin and gave Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Austrian Empire, and thereby left Serbia helpless and humiliated. In 1905 Serbia resisted Austrian commercial aggression by a tariff war which was known as 'the pig war' and formed a customs Anschluss with the Bulgars. So Austria's hatred for Serbia grew day by day, till in 1914 Princip's bullet acted as a catalytic to Central European passions, and the Austrian monitors bombarded the fortress from the Danube. In 1915 it was occupied by Austrian troops, not to be freed until 1918. Now its ramparts and glacis shelter, with their mellow bluishrose brickwork, a sequence of little flower gardens which stuff the old ravelins and redoubts with pansies and tulips and forget-me-nots. It is the prettiest and most courageous piece of optimism I know; but for all that I think the Yugoslavs wise to have Mestrovich's statue by, to remind them of the imbecile ferocity of their kind.

There is another statue by Mestrovich in Kalemegdan. It is the war memorial of Yugoslavia itself, the glorious naked figure. It can only be seen imperfectly, for it stands on the very top of a column at the prow of the promontory, high up above the waters, which it faces; on the park it turns its back, and that is all the observer can see. This is not according to the intention of the sculptor, nor is it a sacrifice made to symbolism, though it is very apt that the Yugoslavian military spirit should look out in vigilance and warning towards Hungary and Austria. It happens that the statue is recognizably male, so the municipality of Belgrade refused to erect it in the streets of the town on the ground that it would offend female modesty. But the Serbs are not only peasants in prudery, they are artists and have some knowledge of handicrafts, so they saw that it was natural for a man cutting out the shape of a man to cut out the true shape of a man; they felt, therefore, no Puritan hatred of the statue, and their peasant thrift told them that it would be wicked waste to throw away a statue well carved in expensive material by an acknowledged master. So up it went, buttocks to the fore.

And beautiful it looked, outlined against the landscape, which lay under the floods as a human being in a bath; the face of the land, its trees and houses, were above the water, but the body was wholly submerged. These floods were even threatening the low platform that lies below the slope which drops, purple with lilacs, from the prow of Kalemegdan. But the low grey barracks down there were still occupied; on the nacreous surface of an exercise ground there walked in twos and threes a number of soldiers wearing round Cossack caps and long full-skirted coats opening over scarlet breeches. The scene had the air of the beginning of a ballet, because each body was so tautly sprung in its trained perfection. There were two dovecotes in the compound, one a pleasant faded jade-green, the other earth-brown. Sometimes two soldiers would stand underneath one of these cotes and cry out or clap their hands so that the doves whirred out and traveled a low arc to a corrugated iron roof. But for the most part these young men strolled about talking with a peculiar intensity that was untinged by homosexuality, but spoke of male friendships more acute and adventurous than anything we know in the West. To look at them was to understand the military conspiracies that have been the special difficulty of Serbia during the last fifty years.

By now the surface of the floods was hacked into choppy waves which became a coarse trembling silver where the sunlight pierced the gray-violet clouds. We shuddered and took refuge in the fortress. It is immense. It is shaped by the Oriental tradition which obliged a ruler to symbolize his greatness by the size of his habitation. Some of it the government has not yet had the time or the money to take in hand. There are void corridors and cells, as the Turks left them seventy years ago; but in other parts there are all sorts of military establishments, tennis courts, and a museum, which holds as a grisly and suspicious exhibit the automobile in which King Alexander was assassinated at Marseille. It is not to be comprehended why the French authorities let it leave the country. It is an old-fashioned vehicle which was seven years old in 1934 and had been clumsily refitted with new coachwork after a smash and had actually been used for the transport of better-class criminals. The French chauffeur is known to have protested against being made to drive a king in such a piece of old iron. It is right that the automobile should be in Belgrade, for it beautifully symbolizes the way the Western Powers have dealt with the Balkans. There also, in the landward ramparts, is a charming Zoo of the Whipsnade sort. Grey skies bring out the color of flowers and animals: a lion and lioness drinking at a stream shone like topazes. But it was no use; the day was growing colder; we went back to our hotel.

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