Down the Danube
As a girl I dreamed of one day floating down the Danube to some continuous waltz magic woven by its blue waters and the shore birds and breezes. I would glide between lush meadows, where boy shepherds blew their reed-flutes and girl shepherdesses wound their spindles as they tended their goats and pigs; down past the green fields of the Banat, through the Iron Gates of Roumania, to the very Southeastern Sea. And after the great reaping of dreams and terrors, in this post-war summer of 1920, one pearl-gray morning in Budapest, my dream seemed about to come true. I was standing in one of the handsome granite alcoves of the mounting parapet of Buda Hill, my eye sweeping the four long bridges that span the great river, and past them to Pest, the mist-dimmed city of towers and domes on the farther stream-side, when my tall, blue-eyed, weather-browned friend D—, American Relief representative in Hungary, appeared beside me in the carven archway framing my picture.
‘Old Francis Joseph knew how to do some things,’ he said, with a handwave toward the mounting stairways and galleries of the hill-face and the massive stone palace crowning it. ‘I wonder if he is looking down from his immortal parapet on this gift to free Hungary,’ he laughed; ‘and on the other stone-heaps he spent his life piling up for free Croatia and free Czecho-Slovakia, and free Herzegovina, and all the rest. I fancy he’s gripping his balustrade pretty hard to keep from falling off in an eternal rage over the strange, staying powers of granite! — Sorry, I have no good news,'—he turned swiftly,—‘ but, from all I can gather, the Polish frontier will continue hermetically sealed for ten days, and the JugoSlav railway strike seems established as a normal condition. You are blocked north and south: no Warsaw, no Belgrade, unless’ — he paused a moment — ‘ you care to chance the river. It looks inviting enough, down there in the sunlight, does n’t it? — calm, broadsweeping, mysterious, silently writing history, as it has written it for ages. See, just beyond where the mist is lifting from the chestnut trees of the Pest boulevards, how heavily weighted with flower-spikes they are; this is Budapest’s month of months. All of which should persuade you not to take this ’ — he drew a yellow ticket from his vest pocket; ‘regular passenger boats are not running; but there happens to be a fairly decent little one setting off for Belgrade at ten to-night, expecting to reach there by seven tomorrow evening. I just succeeded in reserving this last obtainable place, though in the hope that you would not want it.’
But I did want it, and at ten D— went with me down to the quay, where, in the dim light, we could just distinguish the old-fashioned side-wheeler, piled high at both ends with nondescript freight. We crossed on a narrow plank to the deck, where, covering all its space, lay weary men and women and children. Dark-skinned Slavs for the most part, many with red or yellow kerchiefs about head or shoulders, they lay or leaned or crouched in the shadow, dumbly patient, just thankful, as they huddled there, to be moving on at last.
I threaded my way among them, D—helping me, to a tiny cabin at the bow of the boat. He peered apprehensively into the rude room.
‘Still bent on seeing it through? ’ And then, quickly deciding that I was, he added cheerily, ‘Well, you’ve only a night and a day of it, and the day ought to be comfortable enough. You have but one change — at Baia, at nine in the morning. Best luck!’
Steam was up; a sailor hurried him off. We strained at the worn ropes, and then glided softly into the night stream. I was alone with the densely herded human freight.
I walked down my narrow corridor and looked over the sea of dark faces drooping on shoulders or pillowed on odd bundles of poor precious possessions. Serb, Greek, Bulgar, Croatian, Roumanian, so lately thrust by sinister forces one against the other, were lying peacefully enough now in the close fraternity of a mortal fatigue, inert as driftwood tossed on the beach after the storm. And more poignantly eloquent than the apostrophe of a Dante or a Keats was the gratitude for the recurring respite of oblivion written in the relaxed shoulder, the drop of the thin arm over the bundle, the heavy eyelid. They were sleeping; I, too, would sleep. I took off my hat and stretched out on my narrow bunk.
D—had said cheerily, ‘No change except at Baia at nine’; but about five o’clock I heard a boatman calling, and peered out, to see the human mass shaking itself into activity. We were to be left here on the river-bank, to be picked up later by some other boat; this one was recalled to Budapest.
I was not surprised. One gets accustomed, in Europe, in these days, and especially in the East, to being suddenly dropped at any hour at any point on the map. At best, traveling means patching a way out of bits of active parts. I had long since discarded all luggage but a little handbag and a pair of saddle-bags that I could throw over my shoulder. These I picked up, and then squeezed in and along with the motley Slavic company to the rough river wharf, where I looked about for some person who could speak a Western language, — perhaps German or French, — of whom I might ask information, if I needed it.
I found him, or rather them, a little apart from the crowd, deep in talk. As I dropped my bag nearby, Herr A——, a Viennese of middle-age, thin, and wearing a neat but worn checked suit, was saying to a heavier-set, dark-eyed Serb engineer, —
‘No, nor should I have chosen this interminable river; but after waiting two weeks on the railway strike, I was ready to board a barrel. Just when I had pulled my steel plant into shape again and could say to you Serbians, “I’ll take orders,” you shut the door! But I’ll carry this contract to Belgrade,’ he laughed, tapping an inner pocket, ‘if I have to swim there. And if your government signs, it will mean bridge-and-rail parts for Jugo-Slavia, and life for us both!’
‘Voici! Votre espoir!’ — The Serb pointed to a dingy little craft pulling in toward our patient group on the wharf. And turning to bow and pick up my bag, ‘Allow us, madame. I hope you have known the river before. The war has laid its blighting hand here as elsewhere. However,’ he added cheerily, ‘some day will see another sparkling fleet plying its waters, though’ — and his voice saddened — ‘outside capital will have to set it afloat, England’s capital probably; her companies are working hardest to win the prize, for prize it undoubtedly is.’
By six we were in mid-stream again, without solace of coffee, but cheered to see the banks gliding away in our rear.
‘I can understand your reopening your mill doors,’ the Serb continued; ‘but I cannot understand where you are getting the iron and coke to take in through them.’
‘Iron? My dear fellow, ploughs to shells, and then shells back to ploughs; that is one transmutation that persists through the ages. Yesterday it happened to be ploughshares to shells; today I reverse the process.’
The bundle-bearing voyagers were settling themselves for another sleep, though the dissolving river mists were just beginning to unveil charming glimpses of velvety green fields dotted with low-hooded, thatched farm cottages.
‘But coke?’ the Serb persisted.
‘Simple enough. Your government tempts Czecho-Slovakia with golden wheat; Czecho-Slovakia delivers coke to my mill; I deliver steel parts to Belgrade.’
‘You observe that we are back again at the beginning, madame,’ — he smiled half-cynically, half-whimsically, — ‘at the simple, primal business of bartering and coöperation.’
They elaborated possibilities of coöperation all the way to Baia, the Hungarian-Jugo-Slav border port. There I had expected to see a town; but I found nothing but a primitive wharf platform and a rude shed or two; the village lay some distance away, at the base of low hills. We tried not to look what we felt, as, crowding off, we realized that breakfast would remain again but an expectation.
Before we were well ashore a flock of frontier officials swooped down upon us, with their ‘high treason for all of you’ gesture. There is something comic in the almost hysterical officiousness of these guards of the new nations, if one has saved from the wreckage enough of one’s sense of humor to see it. I watched the near hurly-burly, and the dumb, patient line of victims, stretching from the dingy little boat into the sheds. Well, probably these young nations would calm down, once they were fairly certain of being able ever to grow up.
And then my turn came. ‘My bag? Yes, look through it.’ I knew that I carried neither the forbidden paper money of neighboring countries, nor tobacco.
‘To the next shed, madame; your passport will be returned only after a personal search.’
‘But I am exempt from search. I have all sorts of official papers; that is a special, a diplomatic passport.’
‘Macht nichts!’ my fiercely moustached inspector shouted, with a grandiloquent gesture, waving me again toward the shed.
Gold seals of America! I bit my lip, realizing the possible high cost of laughter. But I stood firm, determined not to submit to this indignity (I had gone through with it once at the electric fence barring Belgium from Holland), from which my papers clearly protected me; determined also not to lose the few life-saving American bank-notes I carried. I knew that a week earlier an American had been stripped of his.
But unhappily resistance and argument seemed to be gaining me nothing, nor could the efforts of my kind friends, caught in their own net, extricate me from mine. In the stifling little shed, gradually the interest of all other patient victims focused upon me. A sad-eyed, black-haired woman, wearing a yellow kerchief crossed gracefully over her breast, nodded her support.
I turned to them all; could not someone get a message to the village burgomaster? How helpless one was! If I could but connect with Vienna or Belgrade, matters would be settled at once.
‘It is enraging, madame, but I am afraid your case is hopeless. They intend to hold your passport.’ The Viennese stood beside me.
Then suddenly I remembered a slip of paper in my bag, which I had forgotten on this river-trip because I was so far from headquarters. Its few typewritten lines stated that I was associated with the American Relief Administration; it had been signed, hastily, by Herbert Hoover.
‘I wonder if that would help?’ I said, as I slipped it into Herr A—’s hand.
He hurried off to the adjoining shed, and in what seemed no time, there where we seemed to have lost all count of time, he returned, accompanied by an official whom I had not before seen, who bowed ceremoniously, — the tired crowd pressed forward, — as he offered me my passport. ‘Will madame honor me by accepting it?’ And would I honor them — brushing back the crowd as he pulled forward the one deskchair— by being seated? Unfortunately no breakfast was to be had. But he hoped venders would arrive shortly from the village with baskets of bread for sale. And unfortunately he must announce that a message had just been received, saying that the rail strike had spread to the river. He could not say if we would be carried farther. But if a boat should come for us, he would inform the captain at once that I was a passenger, that everything possible might be done for my comfort.
I forgot my reply; I recall only grasping my precious passport, and dropping into the chair, and being glad for my friends that their anxiety was at an end.
The word passed from lip to lip,— ‘Hoover,’—and then we were silent before the fact and its significance. When would arbiters of the fate of peoples understand? Naturally, during the war years I had had experience and knew of others’ experience in the potency of what that name represented. But somehow, in the midst of this forlorn little bundle-bearing company, stranded on a remote bank of the Danube, its triumph over all high seals and ribbons seemed almost uncanny.
The morning was nearly gone. We went down to the river’s edge to look again for a boat. This time there were five of us, for we had been joined by a keen-eyed Hungarian on a mission to Sofia, and an elderly officer, once a colonel high in the Austrian army, and now without a profession, though he still wore, carefully protected by a shabby overcoat, a long buff-colored army dress-coat with silver buttons, his pride three decades ago.
The colonel had presented himself with a deep bow. ‘I have the honor, madame; Ukrainian born, I became a naturalized Austrian citizen, bringing up my family in the beautiful Hungarian Banat region. This morning,’ — he drew a picture of a wife and three children from his buff coat-pocket,— ‘ thanks to the benign decree of an allwise Peace Conference, I present to you my family of Jugo-Slavs! I desert this good friend from Vienna,’ he laughed, slapping Herr R— on the back, ‘to join this good brother from Belgrade!’ He took off his worn colonel’s dress hat, and carefully rubbed the dust from it with his sleeve.
‘No boat in sight, madame.’
Nothing stirred on the broad river as it basked in the bright noontide light.
‘And, what is infinitely sadder, no breakfast in sight!’
‘True,’ said the Serb; ‘but since we must either swim or wait, why not make a merry waiting of it? Madame, at least, has a chair; we can improvise some others and a table out here in the open — the air in the shed chokes one.’ And they set about it.
While they worked I prepared a surprise. I still had, tucked away at the bottom of my bag, an emergency supply: a dozen lumps of sugar, a tiny tin of Sterno, and a few ounces of George Washington coffee. And when they triumphantly announced the table achieved, I set my store in the middle of it. With a shout one ran to dip a little pan of water from the river; we lighted the Sterno with as great care as if it had been an altar-lamp, and settled ourselves in a circle around it, each with his traveler’s cup set in anticipation before him. And warming to the prospective drink, we made a further exchange of visiting cards, and passed around again the pictures of those dear to us.
While we chatted, an unfortunate breeze had sprung up, and I watched the diminishing Sterno and the little pan with growing concern. The colonel, who had never taken his eye from the vagrant flame, was the first to share my anxiety. Suddenly he leaped to his feet, all but upsetting us as he did so. ‘Madame, I have it. I have been in America once; we have forgotten something!’ And he ran down to the bank, where he found four large flat stones. These he cleverly arranged in the middle of the table. — ‘A campfire, madame!’ Setting the Sterno inside his rocky wind-screen, ‘Now, cups ready!’ he cried. Then followed the bubbling and the spooning of the precious powder, and the passing of the sugar. I shall not forget how the colonel’s fingers closed over his particular lump. We drank to a happier day for all the countries represented, past and present, and to the clarified future of the whole bewildered world!
Herr A—set his cup carefully before him.
‘You were amused, madame, over the colonel’s checkered career in citizenship. I wonder what you will think of that of my family. There were six of us, brothers and sisters, all particularly close, and all happily married, devoted Austrians. To-day one brother finds himself in Czecho-Slovakia, another is a Jugo-Slav. One of my sisters, living in Temesval as a Hungarian, had to go to Vienna for an operation. After six months she returned to find Temesval Serbian. Later, she went to Vienna again for six months, returning this time to Temesval in Roumania! Of six, I am the only Austrian left; our inseparable family belongs to-day to six rival nations!’
‘But will not such family ties influence the rivalries of nations?’ I asked.
‘ Possibly — a very little — for a generation,’ he smiled sadly.
‘That reminds me,’ said the Serb, ‘of my Belgrade friend, who hates the Italian more than most Jugo-Slavs hate him. In fact, he came to the capital from his home somewhere near Fiume, because he thought he could help to check him better there. And then he woke up one morning in Belgrade, to find his home acres declared Italian!’
‘That is why’ — the colonel rose and bowed elaborately — ‘ I present myself, Jugo-Slav for to-day!’
‘You are right,’ the Hungarian broke in, while I prepared a second exciting cup all round. ‘You will soon be again a Hungarian, for Hungary is bound to recover the Banat. You saw the crape still hanging from our flags and above our church-doors at Budapest. It will hang there until we regain enough of our productive land to feed ourselves.’ He leaned toward me to whisper, ‘And to you I can confide, madame, we see our opportunity coming. Only let Communism be set up in Belgrade and Bucharest, and we will walk over these borders of error and take back at least a part of what belongs to us. ’
Poor, tired, excited man: he saw it all happening just that way. And I did not doubt that we had some of the fomenters of his Communism in the crowded customs shed, bound along with us for beyond Baia. As he talked of mobilization, I remembered that there were not enough bandages or disinfectants in the Hungarian hospitals to care for a handful of wounded.
Our Belgrade engineer had been listening intently. ‘You will be interested to know,’ he said quietly, ‘that on my recent errand to Budapest, where I went to contract for skilled workmen for Serbia, and, incidentally, where I was surprised by the numbers begging to be allowed to sign up, I took especial pains to leave your own Communists with you. Of the last one hundred and fifty laborers applying I accepted fifty.’
He looked out across the river, drained his cup, and continued, ‘Yes, you must have a certain area of production, a certain potential wealth, if you are to exist at all as a nation. But you want more than you need; Serbia wants more than she needs; all nations want more than is good for them. Restricted territory, greater cohesion, a happier history, is my slogan. But I belong to an unpopular minority. In this post-war chaos few see far. What have we won with our Greater Serbia? Our Jugo-Slav state? Croatia and Slovenia envy Belgrade her political leadership; we’ve got the Moslem problem with Herzegovina and Bosnia; we’ve got the peril of Italian ambition. Greater Serbia may be a big idea, but to my mind she would have been happier small.’
‘Talk that way to Poland,’ the colonel laughed. ‘Look at her now. We should be mourning to-day over what will most surely happen to-morrow unless she draws that victorious army in. Pilsudski is a great general, but either he or his Warsaw party has lost balance. Has anything ever been able to stand against the mass power of Russia? The Poles will pay the inevitable price of chauvinism.’
‘ But Poland claims that she is n’t trying imperialistically to widen her territory — only to protect it by helping White Russia and Ukrainia to independence. Is n’t it imperative that she secure herself through some such buffer states against the peril of the East?’ I asked.
‘She needs more to be turning her energy onto her own vast plains crying for development; the other thing is too dangerously near an attempt to extend them.’
‘Yes, Poland will pay,’ Herr A— said; ‘ but there is too much basic power and genius in the Polish race to be crushed by one, or several, failures. Some day those great plains’ millions will strike a steadier pace; Poland will ziz-zag on to a brilliant future.’
‘Yes, but that is all aside from these river plains’ — the Hungarian pointed toward them; ‘they are my people’s natural feeding ground, we starve without them.’
His eye followed the stream.
‘Sight a boat,’ said the colonel, ‘and you ’ll soon be feeding in Belgrade — or Sofia, if you prefer. Gentlemen, on this you will all agree: had the allwise Council but arranged for a few more plebiscites, our individual and collective troubles would have died before birth. Madame, you should be able to judge impartially — you have been looking on the practical workings of that inspired plebiscite theory — write a true volume and evoke sardonic laughter. Of course, we must admit that any council, however supreme, would necessarily have muddled some geography; and that minor matters, such, for instance, as whether people could meet together at all in certain mountainous regions innocent of all means of transportation, to express their common will, might be easily lost sight of. The leaving of Poland surrounded chiefly by a ring of festering plebiscite sores might also be explained, and so on, and so on. But why follow down the amusing list? However our opinions vary, we all recognize one fact, and that is that what was needed was for some group of men of average intelligence and average sense of justice to mark off the new frontiers and announce that they were the best possible under the impossible circumstances, and then order everybody to work! That’s what the people really wanted; that’s what they want to-day — to have things settled, so they can get to work. However, madame,’ — with another of his delicious mocking gestures, he slipped a packet from an inside pocket, — ‘one can continue to be happy despite even plebiscites. Who knows that there may not after all be even something to be said for a varied repertoire in national hymns? Once I was a colonel in the Austrian army; now I trade in these.’ He spread about a dozen rare postage-stamps on the table. ‘And at least these will do more for my wife and my children than the pension we tried to run six months ago.’
He swept them back into his pocket.
Under the slanting rays of the fouro’clock sun we watched the last flickering of the Sterno and the last scraping of coffee-dust from the can; but as yet we saw no fleck of an approaching boat on the river. And finally the men rejoined the weary, patient crowd in the shed. About five o’clock one of them came hurrying back, to announce that a boat was reported on its way to us — we would be carried as far as Belgrade, the last company to move forward; for the river-rail tie-up was complete.
It was an ancient, odd-looking little side-wheeler that ran in alongside the wharf shortly afterwards, and a tiredlooking, light-haired, blue-eyed young captain who stepped ashore.
He presented himself: ‘Madame, I apologize for the boat, but it is the best I can offer. I had to set off on an hour’s notice, so I took what there was. We have, unfortunately, neither lights nor compass, nor food nor water, though I hope to pick up something to eat on the way. Nor is there a cabin of any sort for you. I would be honored to offer you mine, but I have been three nights without sleep and I cannot. I will get you to Belgrade — that is all I can promise.’
He bowed and went back to his wheel.
We found one big general room, with tables and stools, into which the motley throng herded, beginning, as quickly as they could fall into seats, saving games of cards, or letting their heads fall upon their arms as they sank again into swift sleep. As dusk fell, a sailor stuck three candles into the mouths of bottles and set them on tables, and their faint glimmering through the thick air fell strangely on the silent, packed company, apparently entirely oblivious whether this were boat or train or wharfshed; bent on just one thing, on forgetting where they were. The air soon became unbreathable, and our small group pushed out through the narrow door and up to an open deck-space back of the captain’s wheel. Here we found a few benches between the two frail lifeboats, one swung on the port and one on the starboard side. Clouds were rapidly blotting out the early evening stars; occasional light flurries of rain wet our faces, but we determined to spend the night in the open.
‘Unless there is a storm, and that seems improbable, we’ll come through decently enough,’ Herr A— said; ‘with the real darkness our captain will anchor in some sheltered spot; for since the war, boats have not traveled this sinuous river at night; and after dark, this one, with neither compass nor light, will not budge until dawn.’
We were just then passing a series of the odd ark-shaped floating flour-mills, familiar to Danube travelers, and an occasional dusty miller appeared on an extending platform, to watch us chug by. Off in quiet fields herds of sheep and pigs massed darkly in the gathering dusk. We began tramping up and down our few square yards of space as if they were the long deck-stretch of an ocean liner.
‘ Serbia is the land of pigs and prunes. You know that, madame? Progress depended on her being able to market the pigs across her borders. But Austria, through her pet system of differential customs, managed to bless and prosper the pigs of Hungary, calling across to Serbia, “Eat your own.” Now, while the wise men have been discoursing on this or that remote and profound origin of the war, madame, the plain and near fact is that the cause was pigs!’
‘The colonel may be further from wrong than we think,’ the Serb laughed.
A sickle moon slipped out from under a cloud-rack, and then as quickly slipped under another.
‘I wonder where we are to anchor?’ Herr A—broke the silence.
‘ It does n’t look much as if the captain were wondering,’ the colonel answered.
And certainly we were pushing on through the drizzle and the dark.
Nine, ten, eleven o’clock — we were thoroughly chilled and increasingly anxious. The men, after a brief conference, chose the Hungarian to question the captain as to why he was proceeding against all custom and caution.
And just then the captain appeared. ‘I am distressed for you, madame; I have only this hospitality to extend,’ — he offered me a precious candle, — ‘and to say that I have improvised a sort of cot below, where you can at least stretch out, if you will.’ And he hurried aft, leaving our question unasked.
If I went below, the men might crowd with the others in the big room where they could at least dry out. I decided to find my way to the cot.
‘This is just about the spot, madame,’ Herr A—said, as I was turn-
ing to climb down, ‘where the two large passenger boats collided a few years ago — here in mid-stream, in the night. One of them went to the bottom in five minutes — most of the passengers caught like rats in their cabins —’
‘A pretty tale,’ I laughed, ‘to cheer a stranger on her way down to a dark pit in a tub like this!’
‘Who knows — our happy company may meet again before morning’ — the colonel had the last word always. ‘However, you are wise to go down, madame; in the end, legs and back, young or old, imperiously demand something flat. May you repose!’
Down I climbed and, by the candle’s light, stumbled onto my cot in a low, squarish, cell-like place at the bottom of a narrow stairway. As I took off my hat, determined to snatch what sleep I could, I recalled my girlhood Blue Danube dream and laughed. Then I slept.
I must have been lying inert about half an hour when, suddenly, a terrific crunching and crashing threw me to my feet. I remembered the narrow stairway and leaped toward it, but already outstretched arms barred my way.
‘You cannot pass, madame,’ a voice said through the blackness. — I could hear the crying above me, a confused shouting and rushing about. — ‘ There is no danger, but each must remain where he is.’
‘A hole! We are sinking!’ someone screamed.
‘ I will obey every order of the captain once I am up where I can breathe,’ I answered, as I beat my way under the outstretched arm; ‘but I refuse to stifle here.’
I felt sure that my companions were trying to find me in our chosen place on the top deck. And somehow, through the surging, helpless human mass, I fought my way foot by foot to the place, asking, when I could hold someone, ‘Do you speak German? Can you tell me what has happened?’
But they could not speak it or did not know. We seemed to be listing, but were otherwise motionless. As I beat my way upward, I could hear above all the tumult the captain shouting, and answering shouts through the blackness.
At last I gained the upper level, and then four tiny lights showed a long, dark boat that had crashed against us in a sidewise collision. Our upper starboard railing and its amusing little lifeboat lay splintered on the deck. Obviously the big boat was safe, and so close that I could have stepped across to her. I tried to, but a sailor pulled me back.
My comrades had not yet found me, and I could not distinguish faces in the night. The captains were shouting more and more angrily, and despite the rain and confusion, I could see that the big, black, safe boat was slowly extricating herself and pulling away from us.
‘After four crossings of the submarined ocean, how stupid to be caught in a river-trap!’ I said to myself. ’If only my friends would find me and I could know what to expect!’
And just then the Hungarian caught my arm. ‘At last, madame; I hope you have not been too anxious. I have not been able to find out the exact damage, but there is not a big hole or we should already be at the bottom. Our captain’s steaming ahead in this impenetrable blackness was criminal enough; but that other captain is either drunk or a fool. He was pulling six boats and had swung the whole cable procession across the river, in such a way that anything else moving either up or down must inevitably crash into it. Part of his cable is wound around our prow and in our propeller; if the impact had n’t somehow swung him around against our side, we should have no chance. You can still see his lights off there at the left where he is trying to recover his train. Our sailors have a lantern now and are trying to find out just what our condition is. I ’ll follow them if you will wait here, and report to you in a few minutes.’
As he moved away in the darkness, I heard a cheery voice close beside me: ‘Ah, madame, have we indeed succeeded in disengaging ourselves from our too-friendly neighbors of an hour ago? I have been searching for you everywhere in this crying crowd, but vainly. I do not affect the midnight bath but — ’
The Hungarian was back: ‘Nothing definite yet — ’
His sentence broke, as he turned us swiftly toward the port side.
We saw with horror that the evil boat had turned: instead of proceeding upstream she was heading straight toward us and must inevitably strike us amidships. Others saw, and again the night was filled with shouts and running and screams; and above all again our captain’s voice battled with the distance. Would the oncoming captain hear? The ship would strike us at right angles.
‘Madame, I am a fair swimmer,’ the Hungarian said; ‘M. V— is a better one. If you will place your arms so,’ — they quietly gave me the position,— ‘we should be able to help you. Our main chance is in keeping cool.’
What unutterable folly, what madness on the part of both ships! On she came, — we shuddered in our impotence, — the captain shouted hoarsely now, desperately.
‘You’re in a strange country, madame, but we’ll see you through—’
Only a few yards away and still heading directly amidships — and then, or I should not be telling about it, our frantic captain’s voice did carry across, the other did hear and slow down. We steeled ourselves for the impact — a dull thud, and we were partly thrust sideways, partly lifted from the water, then settled down again, the imprecations of the accusing captains filling the air.
By this time our nerves were frayed. The men determined to take matters into their own hands, for we seemed indeed at the mercy of madmen. Hastily the Hungarian was again chosen to go to our captain to demand a clear statement of our condition, and a promise that under no circumstances were we to move another yard until dawn.
‘No hole,’ he reported; ‘the upper walls are crushed, the engines damaged, the sailors have already unwound a heavy cable from the prow and are working on the propeller. But the captain insists that he must move as soon as he can repair his engines; for his plight is desperate here in the darkness, in midstream, at the mercy of the current. If the sailors succeed (and Serbian sailors are geniuses when it comes to patching up damage), he will move forward to some anchoring-point, and wait for the dawn.’
‘Are we not, indeed, to enjoy a midnight, but, perhaps, a morning bath?’ a familiar laugh cut across the report.
And then we waited. We could hear the calls of the sailors below struggling with the cable, and catch an occasional flash of their lantern through the drizzle. The evil boat was now well off again and apparently safely lost to us in the blackness ahead. What hours it seemed in the chill and dark before wo felt the straining of the engines, and heard the slow crunching and grinding of the crippled propeller! We were moving! But to anchor or to new perils? We stood still enough now, listening, peering. Long hours, it seemed; but it was really not later than three o’clock when the engines stopped again and we could hear the boatman making ready to drop anchor.
In the drizzle we waited for the dawn, while the sailors worked steadily on engines and propeller. I was surprised to see, with the first faint light, instead of the low river-banks of the afternoon before, high bleak cliffs on our right. I shivered as I thought back to the darkness.
By five we were again in motion in midstream.
‘Had we but saved the coffee-can, madame!’ (The colonel was taking a morning constitutional.)
We had traveled quietly enough about an hour down the broad river, shimmering under the early sunshine, when again sudden cries and shouts to the captain to stop cut the stillness, as the crowd surged toward the stern of the battered boat. ‘Man overboard!’
Yet the captain did not hear, and we were leaving the unfortunate there struggling in the midstream current. A prisoner, escaped from his guard, he was, who had taken his one chance for freedom, and now found his hope to gain the barren shore vain.
At last the captain understood, and managed to turn the boat sharply about and hurry upstream. We watched the dark head rise and sink again and again below the water. Then we stopped to lower our one remaining frail lifeboat; tired sailors manned it, and searched for over half an hour, to return with only a cap.
The captain looked a ghost as he stood aloof from us all, waiting for them. As we furtively watched him, not one of us had the heart to hold against him our night’s experience. Like so many others in those sad, wartortured lands, he was underfed and overworked, too wrecked in body to be wise.
A little later in the morning, the colonel stopped in his promenade beside me. ‘You may have been too disturbed to realize it, madame, but you have been favored, on this voyage, with a vivid illustration of the method of progress our eager new Ships of State seem to have adopted. Their captains of helpless millions are no less mortal or ignorant or selfish than these two on whose mercy we have hung. Their state ships have set out as swiftly and as unprepared for the journey as this one that has all but given way under us. Their captains have n’t had time to learn that they can’t have the river to themselves. And their millions are for the most part as unconscious of what is carrying them and whither as our weary patient herd below. You were right when you said you had not the heart to charge the captain with our pleasant evening. He clearly has n’t been able to pull himself together after the demoralizing years. He may get hold of his business only after a few crashes in the dark. And, personally, I can’t blame the traveler for being bewildered and unrealizing. During five years the whole universe has seemed to topple about him; the miracle is that captain or people attempt the river at all. I shall smile till the end, madame; but the universe has fallen about me, too. One must have been through it with them to measure what even dumbly reëmbarking means.’
He continued his marching.
I recalled what a San Franciscan responsible for the feeding of the people of parts of Macedonia and Southern Serbia had recently said to me. For about six months he had been handling the only relief food-supplies in that region. ‘In the beginning I talked like most newcomers,’ he said: ‘I was impatient with the poor service I got in my offices, with the endless delays, the ineffective work. “I could put an average American on that job and get it finished in three hours; here I’m lucky if it is done in three days,” I often complained. And now I can’t tell you how it gets on my nerves to hear an echo of my own criticism. Now I know what they are getting to eat and what they are not getting. I can’t yet make out how any one of them has come through the five years of hunger and snow and dread. Just one thing is perfectly clear to me, and that is that I could n’t pull off one solid hour’s work a day on their stomachs. I’ve come almost to considering any page of bookkeeping they hand me as a sort of oldfashioned Methodist prayer-meeting testimony of spiritual victory.’
The bleak cliffs had given place again to flowery fields, the whole river vista was growing increasingly lovely, enlivened now occasionally by picturesque shore villages. When we steamed up alongside one of them, I saw the colonel hurry ashore, to return with an exquisite cluster of wild-grown lilies of the valley which he had bought of a little girl. As he offered them to me, smiling and bowing low, I caught the swift look that passed between the other men of our group — they were making silent count of his possible remaining pennies. Then I was aware of a certain mistiness in their eyes as in my own.
Toward sunset we caught our first glimpse of Belgrade — Beo-grad, the White City, wide-flung along the low bases of hills, and brightly gleaming down upon us.
‘There is more of the river if you like, madame,’ the Serb laughed; ‘spectacular beauty beyond, and the famous Iron Gates. But the White City invites and welcomes you.’