WE were going to see the village outside Sarajevo where the Austrians built a race course and where Franz Ferdinand stayed the night before he died. The road was so extravagantly bad that we bounced like balls, and Constantine had a star of mud on his forehead as he told us, ‘Sarajevo has a soul like a village, though it is a town. Now, why has it the sort of soul that it has? In Sarajevo,’ he continued, as the car lifted itself out of a rut with a movement not to be expected from a machine, credible only in a tiger leaping out of a pit, ‘Slavs—and a very fine kind of Slav, endowed with great powers of perception and speculation—were confronted with the Turkish Empire at its most magnificent, which is to say Islam at its most magnificent, which is to say Persia at its most magnificent. Its luxury we took, its militarism and its pride, and above all its conception of love. The luxury has gone. The militarism has gone. You have seen what has happened to the pride. But the conception of love is still in the city, and it is a wonderful conception; it refreshes and revivifies—it is clean water and strong wind.’
‘What is peculiar about this conception of love?’ asked my husband, who had just been thrown on his knees to the floor of the car.
‘It is,’ said Constantine, failing to remove his stomach from the small of my back, ‘the conception of love that made us as small boys read the Arabian Nights with such attention, so that Grandmamma always said, “How he reads and reads! We must make a priest of him.” Is it not extraordinary, by the way, that all over Europe, even in the chaste nurseries of your own country, this should be regarded as a children's book? It is as if our civilization felt fear that it had carried too far its experiment of bringing up children in innocence but would not admit it, and called in another race to administer all the knowledge which had been suppressed in an exotic and disguised form, so that it can be passed off as an Eastern talisman engraved with characters which naturally cannot be read, though they are to be admired æsthetically.’
‘About this conception of love,’ said my husband, struggling up to a seated position and wiping the mud off his glasses. ‘You mean the old women arriving with messages and the beautiful women in darkened rooms, and the hiding in jars?’
‘Yes, that is it,’ said Constantine. ‘It is a conception of love which demands that it should be sudden and secret and dangerous. It seems to you that a man insults a woman if he wishes to make love to her without delay, and that a woman is worthless if she gives herself to a man before they have killed a great part of the calendar. Love may be as slow as the growth of a plant: a man and woman may come throughout many months to a full understanding of each other’s natures and take serious vows to fulfill each other’s needs. But there is also another love, so ecstatic that it could come into full being at a single encounter, that it would need only that encounter to satisfy the lovers.
‘If you offered them a lifetime together you could not offer them more than the night that follows when the old woman has opened the door. — No, the car is not going to turn over. And when you come back next year the road will be better. We are a young country, and we will do all, but we have not yet had the time. Such love could properly be engendered by a single glance from the eyes. Indeed it could not claim to be this kind of love, this ultimate affinity, if the most infinitesimal contact were not enough to declare it. That is why it must be sudden.
‘It must be secret because jealousy is a part of both this sudden love and the other slow-moving kind. A man who performs the miracle of keeping a woman happy for forty years cannot bear it that on one night during those forty years another man should be necessary for her happiness; and a man who meets a woman once and makes that meeting as fabulous in her memory as a night spent in the moon cannot bear it that he should not be the father of the eleven children whose noses she wipes. Hence these men must not know of each other. We roar like bulls about our honor, but so it is.
‘Also this love must be dangerous, or it would not be itself. That is not to say that one does not value a thing unless one has paid a great price for it—that is vulgar. But if a woman did not know that to lift her veil before a stranger was perhaps to die she might perhaps lift it when she had received no intimation of this great and sudden love, when she was merely barbarian. And indeed neither she nor her lover could fully consummate this kind of love without a sense of peril. They would not shut the eyes of reason and precipitate themselves into the abyss of passion unless they knew: this might be their last chance to experience it—or, indeed, anything else.
‘It is a more marvelous conception of love, I think, than anything other nations know. The French make love for the sake of life; and so, like living, it often falls to something less than itself, to a little trivial round. The Germans make love for the sake of death; as they like to put off civilian clothes and put on uniform, because there is more chance of being killed, so they like to step out of the safe casual relations of society and let loose the destructive forces of sex. So it was with Werther and Elective Affinities, and so it was in the years after the war, when they were so promiscuous that sex meant nothing at all. And this is not to speak ill of the French and Germans, for the love of life and the love of death are both necessary things. But this conception unites love and life in a single experience. The men and women in it have another dimension given to their lives, because they have kept in their hearts the capacity for this second kind of love. They are not mutilated by its suppression, and they have hope. All of them may yet have this revelation, and some of them have actually had it. I think that is why so many of the women here have lips and eyes that shine like children’s, and why the men are not bitter or grudging or hurried.
‘A sensuality that is also a mysticism,’ he cried, ‘what can a race invent better for itself? But here is Ilidze! Here is our marvelous Ilidze!’ He leaped in one second from well-buttered reverie to shaking indignation. ‘Ilidze, our Potemkin village! They built it to show the foreign visitors how well they had imposed civilization on our barbarism, just as Potemkin built villages on the steppes to impress the foreign ambassadors with Russian prosperity: hollow villages that were built the day before and were pulled down the day after. Come, look at their civilization, at our barbarity!’
The spa waited for us behind the scrubby, half-forested edge of a park, and indeed it was not pleasing. In earlier days it had certainly been better kept; it now looked like any of the other Yugoslavian spas, which are patronized by the peasants and small shopkeepers, and showed a certain homely untidiness, though nothing worse. But the place was unengaging in its architectural essence. A string of shapeless hotels were joined by a covered corridor to a central restaurant and pump room, a pudding of a place. Every building was smothered in heavy porches and balustrades and balconies of craftless but elaborate woodwork. The hotels were all closed at the moment; they did not open till the heat brought people out of the city. We strolled about looking for the proprietor of the Hotel Bosnia, the largest of the hotels, at which Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek had spent their last night.
‘I think they have kept the chapel that was made for their coming,’ said Constantine, ‘and I know they keep their room as it was, for I have seen it. It was the suite reserved always for the Royal Family and for the governor, and it was altogether Moslem, but a terrible Moslem. It was like a place I saw in your London when I was there for five days during the war, called the Kardomah Cafe—all little inlaid tables and a clutter of many things, whereas, as you have seen, the chief furniture of a Moslem house is the light. But here is a man with keys.’
They fitted, however, only the door of a little shop in the Hotel Bosnia’s arcade; but the man was glad to have a talk. ‘He says,’ said Constantine, ‘that they do their best to keep the place neat, but there is not enough money to do much. Many people come here in summer, but they are not rich, like the nobles who used to come here from Austria and Germany and England to see how beautifully Bosnia was being governed by the Austrian Empire. He would not have it different, however, though he has been here since a child and loves the place, for he is a very patriotic Yugoslav. But really it is disgusting, this Ilidze. They did nothing for the country, but they built these hotels and the race course which I am going to show you presently, and all the grand people came and looked at it and said, “Ah, it is so in Bosnia, all weeded gravel paths and new houses and good beer; it is too good for these cattle of Slavs.”’ He mimicked the tone of a fine lady, turning his face from side to side and twirling an imaginary open parasol.
The man with the keys had been watching. He suddenly threw down his keys on to the pavement and began to shout straight past us to the horizon: like the young man at Trsat, like the young man on the boat whose soup was cold. ‘Yes, yes!’ he cried. ‘And they had our men and women brought in to dance the kolo for them. We were for them the natives, the savages, and we had to dance for them as if we were bears at a fair.’ He bent and picked up the keys, then remembered something and threw them down again. ‘And what they did to us as soldiers! They made us become soldiers, and when a man goes into battle he may be called before his God, and they made us Christians wear the fez! Yes, the fez of the accursed Turks was the headgear of all our four Bosnian regiments!’
He picked up his keys for the second time and led us along the corridor to the railway station, which indeed was very grand, in the manner of Baden-Baden or Marienbad. ‘I find this grotesquely unpleasing,’ I said.
‘I did not bring you here to please you,’ said Constantine. ‘When I take you to see things that were left by the Turks and the Austrians it is not to please you—it is so that you shall understand. And now will you please look where I tell you? This station is very untidy, is it not? The paint has gone and there are no flowers growing in wire cases. Will you please look at the chestnut tree that stands in the middle of this piece of gravel outside the station? Do you see that there are growing round it many weeds? Now, I apply a test. If you are saved, if you know what the soul is and what a people is, you will be able to see that that tree is better now, standing among weeds, than it was when it was spick-and-span. For those weeds are the best we can do, they are all the order we can yet attain in Bosnia; and the spick-and-spanness came from another people, and was therefore nothingness—it could not exist here, because it was not part of the national process.’
‘There I cannot agree,’ I said. ‘I do not believe that it was wrong of the English to drain India and abolish suttee. I do not believe that the Pères Blancs did wrong in medicining the sicknesses of Africa.’
‘Do I not know such things must be done?’ said Constantine. ‘We Yugoslavs are stamping out malaria in Macedonia and we are raising up peasants that have been trodden into the mud by the Turks. But it should be done by one's people, never by strangers.’
‘Rats!’ said my husband. ‘If a people have wholly gone under, without a fringe that has kept its independence and its own folk ways, strangers must butt in and help it get on its feet again. The trouble is that the kind of stranger who likes helping unfortunate people usually does not get leave to set about it unless other members of his group see a military or commercial advantage to be got out of it. But if you mean that the Bosnians had enough force and enough remnants of the old Slav culture to look after themselves once they got the Turks off their necks, and that the Austrians had nothing to give them and had no business here, then I'm with you.’
‘Ah, you have said something true, and so untidy,’ complained Constantine, ‘and what I said was so beautifully neat.’
But it was where the race course drew its white diagram on the gardeny plains that the irrelevance of the Austrian intervention appeared most apparent. The scene was now enchanting. All over the course, sheep and cattle were grazing on the turf, ringing faint little bells as they were pressed on by greed slow-moving as abstinence or met the active air, not quite a wind, which flowed quietly down the great tawny valley that led back to Sarajevo. Where there was not grass, the earth showed red, and the poplars stood like jets of chill green-gold light. Scattered on the plains were the rough white farms and cottages of Christians; and on every slope which promised a fine view there stood a Moslem villa, smoothly and solidly white among the white clouds of its orchard. One such villa stood on a little hill close by the race course, as compact a delight as if an enormous deal of Spring had been boiled down till it would fill just a little pot, according to the method of making rose-leaf jam.
And the white rails, of course, recalled another delight. I saw a string of horses going like a line of good poetry, under a roofless morning on Lambourn Downs. I remembered what the author of the Book of Job had said about the horse: ‘The glory of his nostrils is terrible. He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength. … He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.’ A pleasure, undoubtedly, but how irrelevant to the starving Bosnian peasant, and how irrelevant, how insolent to Sarajevo!
The scenery before me was distressing in its evocation of Austrian society as it was in the time of Franz Josef, as Metternich had foreseen it must become if the Empire were not allowed some measure of freedom. Banality rose from the tomb and stood chattering about the lawns: women with heavy chins and lively untender eyes and blond frizzes of hair under straw boaters, wearing light blouses and long skirts and broad waistbands; men with the strongly marked expressions of ventriloquists’ dummies, with sloping shoulders and ramrod backs. They chattered loudly, with the exaggerated positiveness of those who live in a negative world. They were bound by etiquette and recognized no discipline; they were the descendants of connoisseurs, yet neither produced nor appreciated great art; they sacrificed all civil interests to a military caste that proved as soon as war broke out to be wholly civilian in everything but its splendid, suicidal valor.
These people had come to govern, to change, to civilize such men and women as we had seen in Sarajevo: the Jews with their tradition of fine manners and learning; the Moslems with their houses full of light and their blossoming gardens and dedication to peaceful nature; the old women we had seen in the market place, whose souls had attained to wit; the men whose long strides were endurance itself, who would know, like our friend with the keys, that an honest man must not dance before tyrants.
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 mediæval 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 brassières, 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 siècle, 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.’
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.
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 mediæval 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.
We ate too large a lunch, as is apt to be one’s habit in Belgrade if one is man enough to stand up to peasant food made luxurious by urban opulence of supply and a Turkish tradition of subtle and positive flavor. Those soups and stews and risottos are as good as any I know. And the people at the tables round about one come from the same kitchen; rich feeding, not too digestible, but not at all insipid. Some of them, indeed, are definitely indigestible, beings of ambiguous life, never engaged in any enterprise that is crystalline in quality.
It is said that Belgrade is the centre of the European spy system, and it may be that some of these people are spies. One about whom such a doubt might be hardened came up to me while we were eating our chicken-liver risotto, an Italian whom I had last seen at a night club in Vienna. I remembered our meeting because of his answer to my inquiry as to what he was doing in Austria. ‘I come from Spain, but I have never good fortune,’ he said; ‘I hoped to bring here a bullfight, but the bull, he will not come.’ This did not, of course, refer to a startling example of animal sagacity, but to the change noticeable in the attitude of the customs officials as the animal passed from territories within the orbit of Cretan culture to those outside it. The unhappy beast had started on its journey as a symbol of life, glorious in the prospect of meeting a sacrificial death, and ended it as something like a fallen girl, to be rescued by bloodless humanitarians. Today when I asked the Italian a like question about his presence he made a more optimistic answer. ‘I am about to take up very, very great concessions,’ he said; ‘a pyrites mine in Bosnia.’ But I think the pyrites, ‘he will not come.’
The vitality of these Yugoslavs to be seen at midday in this or any other big Belgrade hotel is in astounding contrast to any English gathering of the sort. It is one of the disagreeable features of English life that nearly all Englishmen are ill, and that the minority who are not are so surprised by their well-being that they acquire an illusion of superiority on all grounds and become ‘hearties.’ These Yugoslavs have never had an ache or pain in their lives. Yet all the historical factors involved should by rights have produced an opposite effect; for all the Yugoslavs over thirty-five must have taken part in a military campaign of the most appalling nature, and all adults below that age have undergone as boys privations and dangers such as never threatened French or English or German children.
I could understand why English diplomats, always the most delicate of a delicate class, hated being en poste among the Balkan peoples; but I could guess also at another reason why they should hate it. These Yugoslavs were not only very well, they were certain in any circumstances to act vigorously: and it would be impossible to foresee what form that action would take. In the Yugoslavian villages one felt certain of the peasants’ vigor and the predictability of their conduct. They might be intensely individual in their emotions and their expression of them, but they would follow a tested tradition. Here one had no such certainty. These men in the hotel dining room were not united by the acceptance of any common formula. This gave them the alien and enigmatic character of wild animals: the lion and lioness drinking at the stream in the Kalemegdan were not more sealed from one in their feeling and thinking than these jolly, healthy men. I asked myself in vain, ‘What will they do?’ And I asked myself also the more important question, ‘what would they feel that they could not do?’
I remembered what English people who had lived in the Balkans had told me of dishonesty and punctilio, grossness and delicacy, avarice and handsomeness, coexistent in the same person; of statesmen who had practiced extremes in patriotism and in peculation, not at different times in their career, but on the same day; of brutality that took torture and bloodshed in its stride and suddenly turned to the tenderest charity. Surely this meant that not only I but the Yugoslavs were unable to answer the questions. They were not yet familiar with the circumstances of urban life.
Urban life takes a deal of learning. We saw further evidence of that when we went out to view the procession of children that always on this day, April 24, marches through the street along the ridge of Belgrade, to receive the blessing of the Patriarch at the Cathedral, which is near the park. We took up our places near the central square among a mob of infatuated parents, and languidly kind big brothers and sisters who were too old to walk in the procession, and bubbling and dancing little brothers and sisters who were too young and had for the most part been given balloons for compensation. There was a great deal of apprehension about, for every child had had new clothes bought for the occasion, and this worst of springs ranged drably overhead, sometimes spilling heavy pennies of rain—and the procession was forty minutes late.
All that was forgotten, however, every time one of the children in the crowd lost grip of his balloon, and we all saw it rise slowly, as if debating the advantages of freedom, over the wide trench of the cleared street. Then we all laughed when, as usually happened, since the wind was short of breath, the balloon wobbled and fell on the heads of the crowd on the other side of the road.
But in spite of all this good humor the occasion was not as pretty as we had hoped, because the little children were so remarkably fragile and pasty-faced. ‘It is perhaps because they have been waiting so long in the cold,’ suggested my husband. But that was not the reason, for the children who were walking briskly in the procession were just as pallid and dull of eye and hair. ‘I cannot understand it!’ I said. ‘Why should the Serbs, who are so superbly healthy when they grow up, be such weakly children?’ That was to say, in fact, that the Serbs had not mastered the technique of bringing up children in town.
‘What a calamity it is that the Serbs consider it of such importance to have a great capital,’ I said to my husband. ‘Think of all the new ministries, and look at these poor teachers.’ As remarkable as the pallor of the children was the neediness of their instructors.
They bore themselves with dignity, and their faces were for the most part thoughtful and dedicated. This was to be expected, for the profession of teacher offers not the steady job which the peasant longs for above all else when he leaves the soil, but a special heroic prestige. Before the Balkan wars all the young bloods of both sexes with a turn for letters took teaching diplomas and went down to Old Serbia and Macedonia, which were still Turkish provinces. The Great Powers had forced Turkey to permit the establishment of schools with foreign staffs for the benefit of the Christians among these subjects; but the result was hardly what could have been expected from such a benevolent intervention. No area since the world began can have been at once so highly educated and so wildly uncivilized.
Macedonia was important to all Europe because a power that got a foothold there had a chance of falling heir, by actual occupation or by economic influence, to the territories of the dying Ottoman Empire. So the land was covered with schools staffed by nationalist propagandists, who, when they hailed from the neighboring Balkan powers, took their duties with more than normal pedagogic ferocity. Serbia and Bulgaria and Greece all founded schools which aimed at making the Macedonian infants into Serbs or Bulgars or Greeks who could be counted on to demand the transfer of the province to whatever state had secured their adherence. Quite a number of the schoolmasters and schoolmistresses in these competitive establishments were shot, or were not shot only because they shot first. This situation was not wholly ended by the war. So the teachers in Yugoslavia are often heroes and fanatics, as well as servants of the mind; but as they walked along the Belgrade streets it could easily be seen that none of them had quite enough to eat or warm enough clothing or handsome lodgings or all the books they needed.
It must be admitted that this city, with its starved professional classes, its lavish governmental display, and its pullulation of an exploiting class, sometimes presents an unattractive appearance. I did not like Belgrade that evening when I sat in the hotel lounge and watched the bar fill up with high- colored, thick-necked, stocky little men, whose black moustaches were lustreless as ape’s hair. There had been some sort of conference upstairs in a private room, with two foreign visitors, one pale and featureless and round, like an enormous Dutch cheese, the other a Jew as Hitler sees his people. I think the dreams raised at that conference would never be realized in all their rosiness. No party was going to be left, as the others hoped, with the horns and the hoofs as his share of the carcass. But everybody would do pretty well except the general public here and in the rest of Europe, who were going to provide the carcass.
The extent of the damage that is done to the state by its financial and industrial adventures is not easy to compute. I do not believe that it is nearly so much in terms of money as the Yugoslavs outside Belgrade allege. The great fortunes in Yugoslavia come from shipping and timber. There may be some large villas in Belgrade whose owners could not explain how they came to be able to build them; but then there are very few large villas in Belgrade. Nor are there many large cars, or expensive restaurants, or jewelers, or furriers. It looks to me as if all the city’s speculators absorbed a much smaller proportion of their country’s goods than England and the United States. But to a community of peasants it may well seem that such rewards for the middleman are altogether exorbitant; and indeed the political consequences of such a privateering strain in society are altogether disastrous for a new country.
If the politicians of a state are dominated by ideas, then few parties form. There are certain natural classifications which establish themselves: those who are for repression and those for freedom, those who are for the townspeople and those for the peasants, those who are for the army and those for finance and industry, and so on. Sometimes these groups stand sharply defined and sometimes they coalesce into fewer and larger groups. But there is only a limited number of such class)fications, and of the combinations that can be formed from them. But if there are a thousand financiers and industrialists in a country, they can, especially when they are Slavs, turn political life into a multiplicity of small slippery bodies like a school of whitebait. In the ten years after the granting of the Yugoslavian constitution in 1921, twenty-five different governments held office. There is nothing more necessary for the country than a steady agrarian policy; there have been as many as five Ministers of Agriculture in thirteen months.
It was to end this gangsterish tumult that King Alexander took the disastrous step of proclaiming a dictatorship in l909. This introduced what seemed to be a change for the better, but most Yugoslavs would say that it produced no change at all, for it ultimately put into the saddle Stoyadinovich, who was hated throughout the length and breadth of the country. That hatred was extraordinarily widespread. He was hated chiefly because he was said to be a tyrant and enemy of freedom.
Whether Stoyadinovich imprisoned many people or not was hard for a stranger to tell. My impression was that the regime was far more indulgent than German Naziism or Italian Fascism. I have heard malcontents loudly abuse the government freely w hen sitting in a cafe or by an open window giving on a lane, and I have often received through the ordinary post letters in which my Yugoslav friends abused the Prime Minister and signed their names. I have been told several stories of atrocities which on investigation turned out to be either completely untrue or exaggerated.
But sometimes the hand of Stovadinovich fell very heavily indeed. It sometimes fell vexatiously on the intellectuals. I have known of a provincial lawyer of the higllest character who was sent to prison for two months for treasonable conversation on the evidence of an ignoble personage who had before the war been an Austrian spy in Belgrade. The real damage done to the intellectuals lay not in the number of such cases or the severity of the sentences, but in the insecurity arising from the knowledge that they could happen at all. But I believe that the hand fell with a murderous heaviness on the working classes. An English friend of mine once traveled with a party of young men being sent down from a Bosnian manufacturing town to Sarajevo by a night train. All were in irons. The gendarmes told him that they were Communists. I expect they were nothing of the sort. Real Marxian Communism is rare in Yugoslavia, for it is not attractive to a nation of peasant proprietors and the Comintern wastes little time and energy in this field, but the word is extended to cover the mildest of Left activities. These young men had probably done nothing worse than try to form a trade union. It was against such as these, I believe, that the Stoyadinovich regime brought up its full forces.
Consideration of this bias brought one to the reason that the more serious-minded among the Yugoslavs gave for their hatred of Stoyadinovich. They knew that their abominable prison systerm could not be reformed in a moment, they knew that they were often difficult and ungracious under government. But they could not forgive him for representing the thick-necked, plundering little men in the bar. Those men were his allies, and they were united against the rest of Yugoslavia. He was against the peasants, against the starving schoolmasters, against the workmen who had been brought to town and poverty like lambs to the slaughter.
It is plausible, yet I do not think it is true. Certainly Stoyadinovich represented the financial and industrial interests of Belgrade, but he may not have meant to be his country’s enemy. I have known Englishmen and Frenchmen who have done business with him, and they all received honest, even handsome treatment at his hands, which seemed to be part of a certain Augustan attitude, hardly consonant with carelessness for his country’s interest. The truth is, I suspect, that he was astonishingly naïve, and that his naïveté was cut to an old-fashioned pattern. The clue to that was supplied every evening to anybody who would listen to it by the radio. I have never turned on the radio in Yugoslavia without hearing a full account of everything the Prime Minister had done on the previous day, delivered in accents that would have been appropriate had he been a commander in chief that had just escorted an invading army over the frontier.
I felt a rush of dislike towards the men in the bar. I detected in them a strong resemblance to certain types found in Western cities during the last century, to pictures representing the financial adventurers who dominated Paris under the Second Empire, to the photographs of City men which can be seen in the illustrated papers of the nineties, named as founders of enterprises not now extant. Idiotically, they were not only copying a system that was far from ideal, but imitating those who had proved incapable of grasping such success as the system offers.
Belgrade, I thought, had made the same error. It had till recently been a Balkan village, which had its character, of resistance, of determined survival, of martyred penury. This was a very sacred Balkan village; the promontory on which it stood had been sanctified by the blood of men who had died making the simple demand that, since their kind had been created, it might have leave to live. Modern Belgrade has striped that promontory with streets that had already been built elsewhere much better. I felt a sudden abatement of my infatuation for Yugoslavia. For a century Serbia had been exposed to the peculiar poisons of the nineteenth century. I had perhaps come a long way to see a sunset which was fading under my eyes before a night of dirty weather.
But some of this threatened degeneration was still a long way from consummation. This hotel may have longed to slip off its robust character and emulate the Savoy and the Crillon and the Plaza; but its attempt was not well under way as yet. A newcomer had arrived in the bar; the stocky little men were now greeting with cries of love and trust another of the kind who would have betrayed them for about the sum that would have made them betray him, lifting their glasses to him and slapping him on the back with the exaggeration of children playing the game ‘in the manner of the word.’ That I might have seen in London or Paris or New York. But in none of those great cities have I seen hotel doors slowly swing open to admit, unhurried and at ease, a peasant holding a black lamb in his arms. He took up his place beside the news stand where they sold Pravda and Politika, the Continental Daily Mail, Paris-Soir, the New York Herald Tribune. He was a well-built young man, with straight fair hair, high cheekbones, and that look of blindness which comes from its antithesis, from abnormally clear sight. His suit was in the Western fashion, but he wore also a sheepskin jacket, a round black cap, and leather sandals with upturned toes; and to his ready-made shirt somebody had added some embroidery. He looked about him as if in search of someone. Twice he went to the door of the bar and peered at the faces of the stocky little men, so it was plain that he was waiting for one of their kind; and indeed the middle class in Yugoslavia is so near to its peasant origin that any of them might have had such a cousin or nephew. But the one he sought was not there, so he went back to his place by the news stand. He stood still as a Byzantine king in a fresco, while the black lamb twisted and writhed in the firm cradle of his arms, its eyes sometimes flashing as it turned like small flat luminous plates.
The chief problems of Yugoslavia were its poverty and the antagonisms felt by sections of the population that had different cultures. When lying Alexander had cleared up the arrears of work that could be settled by a firm and legible signature, he looked these problems in the face and made some gallant attempts.
To tackle the economic problem, he tried to develop the country’s industries, but luck was against him, for the world slump began in the autumn of 1929. In any case Yugoslavia is primarily an agricultural country, and cannot know prosperity until an answer is found to man’s world-wide refusal to pay a fair price for the food he eats. He also took steps to heal the antagonisms among his subjects, which showed him a very strange man, pedantic, doctrinaire, morally earnest, intellectually naïve, and, at that moment, desperate and alone. The problem was enormously intricate. It sprang from the inclusion in the same state of two kinds of Slavs: Slavs who were the inheritors of the Byzantine tradition of culture and the primitive Christianity of the Orthodox Church, and had been informed with the tragic conception of life by the defeat of Kossovo and the ensuing five hundred years of slavery; and Slavs who had been incorporated in the Western bourgeois system by Austrian influence and who were spiritually governed by the Roman Catholic Church, which owes its tone to a Renaissance unknown to the other Slavs, and were experienced in discomfort but not in tragedy. To reconcile these two elements, the king enforced certain measures which bring tears to the eyes by their simplicity.
He changed the name of his state from the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes to Yugoslavia, the country of the South Slavs; and, forbidding the use of the old regional names such as Serbia, Bosnia, and the rest, he cut it up into nine provinces, called after the rivers which ran through them—except for Dalmatia, which was called the Littoral. He forbade the existence of the old regional political parties. It was a shameful thing that Serbia, with its glorious history of revolt against the Turks, should cease to be an entity, and that the Serbian regiments which had amazed the world by their heroism should have to send their colors to the museums and march under the new and as yet meaningless flag of Yugoslavia.
There is no doubt that at this time the king went too far in his desire to conciliate the Croats. He relaxed his devotion to the Orthodox Church, so that he should not seem too alien from his Roman Catholic subjects. He also took a step that was offensive not only to the Serbs bu to common sense when he tried to abolish the use of the Cyrillic script in the Serb districts and replace it with the Latin script used by the Croats and in Western Europe. This Cyrillic script has a great historical significance for the Serbs, for it is a mondification of the Greek alphabet made by Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius for the use of their converts when they came to evangelize the Slavs in the ninth century. But it is also much better suited to render the consonants peculiar to the Slav languages; it is the same script used by Serbia’s neighbor, Bulgaria, and almost the same as that used in Russia, and it can be mastered by any intelligent person in a couple of days.
While these measures widened the gulf between the king and his Serb subjects, they did not bring him an inch nearer the Croats. It was then that Italy found an opportunity to get her foot into Croatia and play the same part there that she had played in Macedonia. She had an advantage in finding a willing ally in this enterprise in Hungary, which had lost Croatia and the rich Danubian territory of the Voivodina to Yugoslavia and looked for revenge; but otherwise the soil was more difficult. The Croats had practised a steady policy of resistance to Hungarian rule, but it was maily passive; and their rulers had not, like the Turks, accustomed them to the idea of murder. Hence the terrosrists hired by Italy and Hungary to organize a movement on IMRO lines had, at first, little success. Neither then nor later did they win over the main body of the Croat Peasant Party, or indeed of any Croat political party. It is said that after a year’s work there were not more than thirty active adherents of the new organization; and though it established training camps in Italy and Hungary, these could not be filled. At enormous expense agents were sent everywhere that Croats were seeking their fortunes, — France, Belgium, South America, the United States, — to recruit them with cock-and-bull stories of how the serbs were massacring their brothers by the thousand. Even thgis was not too successful, and the Hungarian camp was driven to decoying Yugoslav peasants over the border and kidnapping them.
But the Croat terrorists had their successes. They were far from inefficient. They distributed treasonable newspapers and pamphlets all over the world, many of them persuasively written. They started an able and unscrupulous propoganda office in Vienna, which wounded the king’s feelings bitterly and succeeded in poisoning European opinion; and they practised here, no less successfully than on the Bulgarian frontier, the art of placing bombs on international trains. This caused the Yugoslav Government endless trouble. It was usually foreigners who were injured, and that made trouble with their governments; and the foreigners who were not injured showed themselves curiously irritating in their reaction to the measures that were taken for their protection.
So the king dealt with Coratia by the light of his own wisdom, which proved insufficient. He could not send an army to deal with the unrest. It would have ruined the national prestige to admit the existence of civil war, and indeed the actual state of affairs was a good deal short of that. Many people traveled through Croatia at this time, without observing any disruption, and the bulk of the populace never ran any physical risks whatsoever. So to deal with the unrest the government sent Serbian or pro-Serb gendarmerie, who without any doubt treated the Croats with hideous brutality. There were many reasons for this.
It must be remembered that when they came to grips with the terrorists financed by Italy they were dealing with men who habitually practised mutilation and had been known to torture a man for three days before they killed him. Since a Serbian policeman in Croatia was faced with many different types of Croat dissident and usually had no means of distinguishing between them, it is not surprising that very often mild and inoffensive Liberals were subjected to treatment that would have been appropriate, and then only according to Mosaic law, when applied to professional assassins and torturers. There was also, as a disturbing factor, the appaling police tradition, which lingered in a form that was bad enough in all territories which had once been Hapsburg and in a far worse form in territories which had been Turkish. The police were regarded as a body that had to get results satisfactory to the supreme power in the state and had better not be questioned by lower powers on how it got those results, lest it should take a revenge. This encouraged a spirit of enterprise that was usually regrettable in its manifestations—notably regrettable in Croatia when the police themselves started murdering Croatian politicians whose absence they thought likely to facilitate their tasks.
It would be easy to exaggerate the extent of this situation. Atrocities did not happen everwhere or every day. But it was a detestable situation, and though the king did not hear the whole truth about it, owing to the independencc of the police, he heard at least enough to make him realize that the policy of suppression was a mistake and that he must make another attempt at a policy of reconciliation, since even if that failed it would smell better than the other.
Every independent thinker in Croatia was now anti-Serb, and had been thrown into the arms of the foreign terrorists. In September 1931, the king had the unhappy idea of proclaiming a new constitution w hich virtually annulled the principle of popular representation. A senate was established of eighty-seven members, no less than forty-one of whom were to be nominated by the king. Ministers were responsible to thc King and not to parliament, and were to be nominated by the king. The ballot was no longer secret and voluntary, but open and obligatory. With a free parliament thus abolished, and freedom of speech and freedom of the press long ago abolished, the Croats had to take what means they could to defend themselves by secrct arming and appeals to foreign opinion. This was precisely what Mussolini had designed, yet the king showed no signs of retractation. He had lost the Croats, and he had not kept the Serbs.
Yet the king was far more successful in settling his affairs abroad than at home. In the international sphere his naïveté did not betray him but inspired him. It sent him forward to offer his hand to ancient enemies, whose surprise disarmed them, so that they found the friendliness in them awakening and answering. He laid the foundations of a most necessary structure, which might have subserved the peace not only of his people but of all Europe, when he repudiated the hostility between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia that had been encouraged by Russia and envenomed by King Ferdinand.
This reconciliation would not have been possible without King Alexander’s eager acceptance of King Boris’s advances. He did much to sweeten Bulgarian feeling by his visits to Sofia and Varna, which, indeed, were among the most fearless acts recorded of any sovereign. All the Balkan peoples like a man with courage. And when King Boris delayed giving proper diplomatic expression to the new friendship, owing to the influence of Italy on some Bulgarian politicians and the tropism of lifelong hatreds in others, King Alexander paid other visits that were designed to hurry him up. It was his aim to keep Italy at bay by uniting his neighbor states into a bloc resolved to keep the southeast of Europe inviolate.
His very first meeting with the King of Bulgaria showed a certain dimming of the monarchic tradition, a certain muting of martial music as it had been heard through history. It happened that in 1930 King Boris had married Princess Giovanna of Italy, who was cousin to King Alexander, as their mothers had been sister Princesses of Montenegro. The first meeting of the kings had to take place timidly, under the shelter of this cousinly relationship. It was represented that, on a return journey to Sofia from Paris and London, Queen Giovanna was overcome by her sense that blood was thicker than water and felt that she must see King Alexander. In response King Alexander came down to the railway station and drank cofee with them in a waiting room, specially decorated in the gloomy fashion habitual on such occasions, during the hour’s halt the Orient Express always made at Belgrade. There had been some dealings between the two countries, but King Boris had not dared to make the more definite overtures which would have justified King Alexander’s proposing a visit to the Palace. But once they were all standing on the platform, Queen Giovanna forced the diplomatic pace by kissing King Alexander as if she really meant it, putting her arms on his shoulders as if there were a strong goodwill between them all which might do great things for them if they let it. King Alexander was stirred out of his usual formality into responsiveness, and in the waiting room they talked and laughed together with the warmth of real loyalty.
But there was defiance in their laughter. This meeting sprang from the revolt of one of the Italian royal family against Mussolini. Three heirs to the blood of kings were conspiring, not without trepidation, to give the people peace in spite of a blacksmith’s son.
There was a new factor, however, to confound all the certainties. There were two sorts of people. There was the people as it had been since the beginning of time, working in the villages, small towns, and capitals. But there was also a new people, begotten by the new towns which the industrial and financial developments of the nineteenth century had raised all over Europe—towns so vast and intricate that in coping with the problems of their own organization they lost all relationship to the country round them, so that even though they were called capitals they were not, for a head should have some connection with its body; towns planned in the biological interest of only the rich, and careless of the souls and bodies of the poor. The new sort of people had been defrauded of their racial tradition, they enjoyed no inheritance of wisdom; brought up without gardens, to work on machines, all but a few lacked the education which is given by craftsmanship: and they needed this wisdom and this education as never before, because they were living in conditions of unprecedented frustration and insecurity.
So among this new people, by a miracle that may be called grace, resist all these assaults on their stock, and are as the best of the old people. But there are those who succumb, never ripen and infantile, and so react to their frustration and neccesity, as infants react to hunger, by screaming and beating out at what is nearest. One such, named Lucheni, had killed Elizabeth of Austria in 1898. But this kind had grown in power since then. This is not to say that they had become wiser, or had discovered a formula that would medicine their distress; it was only that htere were more of them, and that, conscious of their numbers, they had learned to scream orders as well as complaints. So when King Alexander, having achieved the Balkan entente, visited France to discuss the new power’s future relationship, he was struck down at Marseille not by a hungry vagrant, but by a ruler who was in a position to tyrannize over the royal blood of his country as he had tyrannized over its peasants and workmen. A form of government had arisen which was by far more disgusting than any of the governments of the immediate past, though they had been nasty enough. The Great Powers had perpetuated Balkan misery by the Treaty of Berlin. They had been resonsible for many ugly deaths in high places—Prince Michael of Serbia had been killed by an Austrian conspiracy; Queen Draga and King Alexander Obrenovich might have lived to old age had it not been for an Austrian intrigue; Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek were doomed by Austrian maladministration. They had been responsible for many ugly births in low places: Lucheni and Mussolini would never have come to be in a just economic system. But at least they knew when they had sinned that there was sin, at least they were aware that there was good and there was evil. But this the new rulers of the world did not know. ‘Violence,’ said Mussolini in the unmistakeable accents of moral imbecility, ‘is profoundly moral, more moral than compromises and transactions.’ Time had rolled backward. It seemed likely that man was to lose his knowledge that it is wiser being good than bad, safer being meek than fierce, fitter being sane than mad. He was not only forgetting the Sermon on the Mount, he was forgetting what the Psalmist had known. And since these things are true it was certain that, once man had forgotten them, he would be obliged, with pains that must be immense, to rediscover them.
Belgrade, to tell the truth, is a mournful city. Even in spring, when the young lovers owalk among the flowers in Kalemegdan, and their elders sit in the restaurants talking politics with a new and rosy vehemence because their nostrils are filled with the savor of roasting lamb and piglet, its underlying mood is an autumnal doubtfulness. The winter is going to be very long and hard. Is it going to be worthwhile living through it for the sake of what lies beyond? And those who wonder are not ignorant of what winter is, nor are they cowards. This mood is one of the deep traces left on the capital by Alexander Karageorgevich’s personality. It is still his city. If one of the mediæval Serbians who painted the frescoes in the monasteries came to life and covered a wall with Belgrade, he would certainly show the murdered king floating on his bier above the city; and if the picture were to be a valid symbol it would show the king’s tenacious and reserved face changed by doubtfulness, its reserve breaking to betray a doubt whether its tenacity had been of any avail.
Each Serbian ruler has proved something by his reign. More than once it was proved by this curious sovereignty, newer than the United States and as old as Byzantium, that a small state could defeat a vast empire; always it was proved that it is terrible, even in victory, to be a small state among great empires.
It was given to Alexander to give new proof of these arguments, and to prove others also. By the expansio of his state beyond the limits of his people’s culture, Serbia had been forced into guilt. It was, evidently, a moral necessity that small peoples should form small states, and the price extracted for the defense of morality looked to be more than men’s bodies can afford to pay. This the king had known well, as he drove stiffly through the streets of Belgrade. A dictator himself, he was the first ruler in Europe to learn what an enemy dictatorship must be to order. He knows it still better as he floats over the city on his bier. For his murder went virtually unpunished.
Part One: January 1941
Part Two: February 1941
Part Three: March 1941
Part Four: April 1941