Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


A Russian Town made Clean - Military Officers - The Mark of a Crime - Rival Dynasties, Obrenovitch and Karageorgovitch - King Milan - King Alexander and Queen DragaAustria's Hand in the Plot - Breaking into the Palace - The Search for the King and Queen - A Woman's Shriek - Murder of the Queen's Brothers, of Ministers and Officials - Where the King and Queen were Buried - Indignation of the Powers - The Servian People not Responsible for the Crime - Plot and Counterplot - The Serbs a Nation of Peasants - The National Garb Dying Out

WHEN YOU have got south of the Danube, crossed the sprawling Save, left Hungary and its swarthy Magyars behind, you feel, despite the testimony of your map, that you have stepped out of Europe into Asia.

Yet Belgrade, high-perched, and turning the eye of its citadel toward the twin and quarrelsome empire of Austria-Hungary - the wolf which constantly frightens little Servia that it is going to be gobbled up, only the other wolf, Russia, also hungry, is showing its teeth - is not at all Asiatic in appearance. It is bright and white, broad-streeted, and clean, wide-spreading. The people are Slav, fair, bony, not well-set; but occasionally you note a tinge in the skin, a cast of the eye, a thinness of the nostrils which tell of splashes of Tartar, Magyar, even Turkish blood.

Belgrade, however, is European-outwardly. It looks like a Russian town made clean. Had I been


borne from Paris to Belgrade by the agency of the magic carpet instead of by the service of the Orient Express, I should have concluded I was in a Russian city where the scavengers had been busy, and the citizens had profited by lectures on sanitation and the advantages of whitewash. Not that Belgrade is devoid of odour. In the lower town it breathes upon you - the soft, rather quaint smell which greets you in the East, maybe antiseptic, possibly decayed Turk, and certainly flavoured with defective drainage. Within easy memory Belgrade was a Turkish town. Slobberly Turkish soldiers and wheezy Turkish guns looked over the citadel and ramparts. But the Turk has gone, save a few decrepit old men who sit in the cellars of the lower town, puff their narghilis, slither to the little mosque, as shaky as themselves, kneel on the ragged carpets and worship Allah, slither back again to their narghilis, and philosophically resign themselves to kismet.

The Servians have rebuilt their capital. Evidence of the Turkish occupation is removed. Electric tramcars whiz along the streets; the electric light blinks at you as, in the dusk of a sultry day, you sit beneath the limes and sip Turkish coffee - the one legacy of the Turkish occupation the Servians accept. The smart German waiter at your hotel has learnt English at your favourite restaurant in London, and the price charged for a second-rate bedroom is the same as that at Ritz's or the Savoy. Belgrade is doing its best to acquire European habits.

There is never a moment in the streets when the


eye can escape a military officer. The officers are as handsome, as well-set, and carry themselves with as jaunty a bearing as any in Europe. They are neat and well groomed; their garb-peaked caps, close-fitting and spotless white tunics, and crimson trousers-is distinctive. I did hear Servians complain that their officers are fonder of the card table and the cafe than of military study. When I saw the officers of a cavalry regiment give a display before King Peter I was surprised such fine fellows on such excellent horses should ride so badly.

It is permitted to young officers all the world over to have a little swagger of demeanour. In Belgrade you notice that the extra swagger is with those who wear on the breast an enamelled Maltese cross with golden rays between. That is the first signal you get - notwithstanding the up-to-dateness of Belgrade in aspect and attire - that you are among a people who do things the rest of Europe could not do. The medal is the acknowledgment by King Peter to those soldiers who took part in the bloody assassination of King Alexander and his consort Draga on that dread night in June, 1903. The officers are proud of the barbarous deed. They have a lighter, brisker step than those who have no such medal. You are startled at the number of officers who wear it. Yet I never saw it worn anywhere outside Belgrade. The explanation is that King Peter keeps near him the regiments which betrayed Alexander and placed Peter on the throne of Servia - a very unstable throne. Other regiments, not implicated in the conspiracy, possibly resenting the


disgrace brought upon their country, have been carefully distributed throughout Servia. The danger of concerted retaliation is small.

That tragedy was one of the blood marks in a long, wretched royal vendetta, the end of which is not yet. The story of it all is like an historical novel, with more than the usual amount of plotting, counter-plotting, daring deeds, dark crimes, and the love of women. Servia has had much buffeting. At the time England was settling down under the Norman Conquest, the Serbs, tribes which in unknown times had wandered to the Balkan Peninsula from the Ural Mountains, coalesced, and the Servian empire arose. Afterwards came the Turk. The resistance was valiant, but the Serbs were crushed. The Ottoman pressed on, crossed the Danube, and advanced toward Vienna itself. Later came the pushing back of the Turk. He was forced below the Danube, and Servia was the buffer which bore many blows whilst the Moslem, fighting hard, backed Asiawards. In time, at the beginning of the eighteenth century,the Serbs themselves rose against their Turkish masters. The great leader was Karageorge (Black George), a swineherd say some, a brigand say others, a brave man certainly. One of his aids, another brave man, was Obren. Karageorge, after long struggle against the Turks, lost heart and retired to Hungary. Obren continued the resistance and broke the power of Turkey. He became king. He was the founder of the Obrenovitch dynasty, of which the murdered Alexander was a son. Karageorge desired the crown. Obren refused. Then the vendetta


began. The Obrenovitch dynasty was overthrown. The Karageorgovitch dynasty began.

And for a century Servia has been a hotbed of conspiracy between the rival houses. Murder has provided the step to the throne. Though Milan Obrenovitch, father of Alexander, was the darling of the soldiery, because he cut the last thread which bound Servia in vassalage to Turkey, and made Servia an independent kingdom, he only reached the throne by murder. He was a dominating personality, but he had the morals of a Tartar chief, and his treatment of his beautiful Queen Natalie - now living quietly in the Riviera mourning her murdered sonmade him the disgrace of Europe. He lost favour with the Servian people. Probably fearing the assassin's bullet, he abdicated in favour of his son Alexander, a mere boy, and retired to his amours in Vienna and Paris.

Alexander had much of his father in him. That he was boorish and unintelligent is untrue. But when he reached the full power of kingship he showed a stubbornness that was the despair of those about him. He was quick in understanding, had almost genius for reaching the root of a matter. But advice and argument were things he never heeded. He displayed what was almost a madman's eccentricity in his thorough enjoyment of upsetting Government plans. He would acquiesce in a Ministerial proposal, and then begin plotting to upset it. He regarded the discomfiture of his Ministers with unfeigned delight. There were two Houses of Parliament - the Senate, and the House of Representa-


tives. When he found the Senate opposed to his will, he rose one morning, abolished it, reverted to a Constitution of ten years before, and appointed another and obedient Senate - all in about half an hour. That sort of conduct he considered clever. But it aroused bad thoughts in the country.

Then came Draga. She was the widow of a Belgrade official - a beautiful woman, with soft and captivating eyes, an excellent conversationalist; she had all the personal qualities which fascinate men. When she was thirty-two and Alexander was eighteen she became his mistress. The relationship was quite open. That Alexander had the deepest and most sincere affection for Draga is undoubted. Her influence over him was tremendous. She was the only person in the world who exercised power over the King's actions. And though, according to the moral standpoint, the relationship was bad, Draga's influence was good. Alexander was too headstrong to care whether he was personally popular. Draga did her best to restrain the King's immoderate conduct. Her power in the Court was great, though probably not so great as generally thought. Endeavours were made to estrange the King from Draga. Even the Oriental method of bringing young and sprightly actresses before him was adopted. It was no good. Alexander would look at no other woman than Draga. His friends in the European courts thought the liaison would stop on the King's marriage to a princess - a necessary proceeding, for Alexander was the last of the Obrenovitch line. It was possible to find him a bride among the German


princesses. Would he agree? Yes; and he left the details to be arranged by his father, the exiled Milan, and the Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria. A suitable German princess was found, all the purely personal arrangements were made, the time arrived for the announcement to be made to the world. Then, as usual, Alexander fooled everybody. He married Draga.

The Serbs, who did not concern themselves much so long as the woman was only the King's mistress, felt they had been slapped in the face. There were the customary stories, that Queen Draga was little other than a strumpet, that she had been the mistress of other men before she met King Alexander: stories most likely untrue, but not unnatural among a people who smarted under insult. She was hated. Nothing the King did unwisely but Queen Draga was always seen behind the action.

Draga was a woman as well as a queen. She had old scores to pay off in regard to other women who held their skirts on one side in former days. There was the snubbing of women against whom there was no scandal. Draga's two brothers were given high places in the army, and they, presuming too much on their relationship with the Queen, were unpopular with their brother officers. Draga was an ambitious woman. She desired that one of her own blood should ultimately succeed Alexander as king. The news spread that Draga was about to present Alexander with an heir. A great Paris specialist was brought to Belgrade and said it was so. Then rumour got to work. It reached the Austrian Court.


The Emperor Francis Joseph wanted definite information. Two great Viennese specialists were sent to Belgrade. They reported that not only was it not so, but it was a physical impossibility. The mystery has never been cleared up, but the belief in Belgrade is that Queen Draga was in collusion with her married sister, and hoped to introduce to the Serbs a baby nephew as the son of King Alexander. No wonder, with this story-book proceeding taking place in their midst, the people of Servia were beginning to seethe with indignation against Alexander and Draga. Servia had had enough of them. They must be got rid of. But the Serb people contemplated nothing more drastic than exile.

Meanwhile there was living on the banks of Lake Geneva, very modestly, Prince Peter Karageorgovitch, the claimant of the Servian throne for the rival dynasty. He was a widower with two sons and a daughter. His wife had been a daughter of Prince Nicholas of Montenegro. When she died Prince Nicholas stopped the payment of the income from her dowry. So Prince Peter Karageorgovitch lived quietly.

There was an anti-Obrenovitch party in Servia, working secretly for the overthrow of the ruling dynasty and the re-establishment of the Karageorgovitches. When you talk to men in Belgrade you hear that Austria found much of the money for subterranean propaganda, and then you are told in a whisper - for once you get below the surface in Belgrade you breathe conspiracy - that Austria's motive was not simply to provide Servia with a more


promising sovereign, but really to cause disruption in the state, bring about civil war, give Austria an excuse in the sacred name of peace to intervene, to pour her troops into Servia - and to keep them there.

Then came the deed of June 10th, 1903. There had been a family supper party at the Palace. Midnight had gone, and the King and Queen had retired to bed. All was still. Then uproar. A couple of regiments hurried through the streets of Belgrade. Heavy guns rattled, and soldiers were supplied with ammunition. "The King is in danger," the soldiers were told - which indeed he was, though the troops did not know what part they were to play. The Palace, all in darkness, was surrounded. A signal was given. The traitor within the walls should have unbolted the doors. No response. It was given again. No response. Curses, but no time to be lost. Conspirator officers crashed the door. The traitor who was to have given entrance was in the lethargy of intoxication. His brains were blown out.

To the room of Alexander and Draga! All was turmoil. An aide-de-camp of the King appeared affrightedly. To the royal apartment I He refused. He was shot dead. The bedroom was reached; the lock was broken. The bed had been occupied, but the King and Queen were gone. They must be found. Minutes were valuable. The town would soon be roused; the police would be summoned; regiments a mile outside Belgrade would arrive. Then the conspirators would be shot down like dogs. They searched eagerly, ravenous for


blood; but in vain. They found another aide-decamp. He knew nothing of the flight of the King and Queen. Revolver at his head, he was directed to lead the search. He led to a little room where was the electric light installation. With his foot he smashed the connection. There was black gloom. Matches were struck, and death was the payment for that kick.

Stricken with dismay at the miscarriage of their plans, the conspirators groped their way to the servants' quarters. They got candles. Hurry! or their lives would be forfeit for the wild endeavour of the night. The Palace was searched. Gone! Frenzy struck the conspirators. They fired their revolvers into every cranny.

And the town was aroused. The police dashed up. Rifle shots and ranged cannon drove them back. News of the revolution reached the troops beyond the town. Officers spurred up, were met and were killed. The troops before the Palace began to murmur, to waver. Let the other troops come up and there would be war in the streets. "In the name of Christ, hurry!" was the blasphemous cry of the conspirators outside. Enraged, maddened, distraught with terror at the miscarriage of their designs, the conspirators inside the Palace pursued their search. They fired at random, and into walls. A bullet pierced a thin lath partition. There was the shriek of a woman. "By God, we've found them!" It was a cupboard where Draga's gowns were kept. The door was broken open.

There, in the flicker of candle light, stood the


King and Queen, pale to ashen hue. But one moment they looked on their hunters. Alexander stepped in front of Draga to protect her. It was only for an instant. They sank beneath the bullets. The animals, not content with the death of their quarry, slashed the dead with their sabres - horrible, awful mutilations.

"Hurry up, for Christ's sake, hurry up!" was the cry. The troops beyond the gates were on the point of revolt. The window was raised. "It is all over," was the reply. "Prove it; let us see!" Then, in the dark of the night, with no light but the uncertain flicker of the candles, two figures, ghastly and blood-smeared, were flung from the first storey window into the grounds below. The revolution was accomplished. In an ugly, half-naked heap lay the last of the House of Obrenovitch.

But the gory work of the night was not yet ended. The house where Draga's two brothers lived was surrounded. When told of their fate, all they asked was a cigarette and a glass of water. They drank the water, and whilst smoking their cigarettes they were shot. Other detachments visited the houses of the Prime Minister, the Minister for War, and officials who might exercise authority against the revolutionaries. They were murdered, some before their wives and little children. Between thirty and forty lives were claimed in those awful two hours.

The work, however, was done. The Revolution was complete. There was now time for the officers


to drink wine and display their bloodstained swords to the women in houses of ill-fame.

The conspirators promenade the streets of Belgrade to-day with wives and sisters on their arms; they make lowly obeisance before the altars of the Servian Church; they are merry and happy beneath the trees, where they sip their coffee and listen to the lustful music of the Tzigane bands. And they are proud of the white enamelled cross, with the golden rays, that they wear above their hearts.

I visited the place where the dead King Alexander, aged twenty-six, and the dead Queen Draga, aged forty, were unceremoniously tossed to burial with none so merciful to say a prayer for the peace of their souls. In the dawn, and conveyed in a common cart, they were buried behind the door of the little church of St. Mark in the old cemetery. A couple of rough wooden crosses lean against the wall. On one is painted "Alexander Obrenovitch," and on the other is "Draga Obrenovitch." That is all. Some day, maybe, they will be buried with the circumstance befitting their rank, and with charity towards the frailties of their humanity.

Europe was rightly indignant with Servia for this the latest crime to blacken its annals. All the foreign Ministers were withdrawn as a mark of disapproval. But when Prince Peter hastened to Belgrade to secure the kingship, and be crowned with an iron crown made from part of the first cannon his ancestor Karageorge directed against the Turks, the Russian and Austrian and the other


European Ministers came trooping back to bow the knee to King Peter. Only Great Britain held aloof. The Ministers told the Court they would not attend a New Year celebration if the conspirators were allowed to be present. The Court salaamed and were very sorry, but the officers who took part in the Revolution could not be excluded. So the Ministers left again. In a week or two the Russian Minister was back. Austria, fearing its rival might secure the diplomatic upper hand, sent her Minister also, post haste. Then came the German Minister and the rest. Still the British Government held aloof. The Serbs laughed. "You," they said to the Ministers, "come here to squeeze advantages from Servia. Only Britain has acted consistently."

In their hearts the Serbs admire England for refusing to recognise King Peter. But they regret it, and nobody feels more hurt than King Peter himself. He is a kindly man, but he feels an outcast among kings. Neither he nor the Crown Prince has caught the favour of the populace. The King lacks tact, and sometimes fails to do the things which touch the popular fancy. When he drives through the city, officials turn into shops or down by-streets rather than salute him. As for the crowd, there is no cheering, and seldom the raising of hats.

Do the Servian people approve of the drastic means by which Alexander and Draga were removed? I am positive they do not. It is true they wanted to get rid of Alexander and Drags,


but their thoughts did not travel beyond exile. It was the Army, and only a section of the Army, which conspired to free Servia by murder. Then why did not the Serbs rise, repudiate the conspirators and the new king? Because the Serbs, whilst having a warm love for their land, have a touch of the Asiatic, shrug-shoulder acceptance of facts. Alexander and Draga were dead. Another revolt would not bring them again to life. Besides, they were not deserving of tears. A king was wanted. Why not Peter Karageorgovitch, who was a Serb, and the descendant of their national hero? And what would civil war mean? Much bloodshed undoubtedly. Worse, for already Austrian troops were massing north of the Danube ready to invade Servia to restore order. The Austrians would come to stay, and the days of Servia as a nation would be gone. That was the real factor which guided the Serbs in their acquiescence in the new order of things. They felt and feel that their country stands disgraced in the eyes of the world. But that is not so bad as becoming an Austrian province.

Get below the surface of things in Belgrade and you hit conspiracy at every point. You hear of a movement to place the conspirators, the King included, on their trial, and let the lot be shot. You hear of a movement to bring an illegitimate son of King Milan to the throne. There are raisings of the eyebrows; that would be restoring the Obrenovitches, and the last was supposed to die with Alexander. You hear of the country repudiating all Obrenovitches and all Karageorgovitches


because they have made Servia a land of vendetta. You hear of a movement to offer the throne to a Montenegrin prince who would come with clean record and yet be of Serb blood. Sometimes envious eyes are cast across the frontier where Bulgaria has made such strides under a foreign prince. But the Serbs are a proud people; they would chafe under the idea of a foreigner being their king. So that possibility is only mentioned to be dismissed.

The Serbs are democratic. They have no nobility. Of rich men, such as we of the West understand by the expression, they have none. Country estates do not exist. I doubt if in all Servia, with its three millions of population, there are half a dozen private houses in which a dinner party could be given to twenty people. One of the characteristics of Belgrade is the smallness of the residences. They are neat, clean, have gardens, and tell the story of general, frugal comfort. The servant question has extended to Servia. A Serb, man or woman, thinks it degrading to be in service to someone else. So in the hotels servants usually are German, whilst in the private houses the womenfolk attend to the needs of their families. The consequence is that the Serb, though goodnatured, is little given to entertaining. Occasionally a big supper is provided at the Palace, and everybody who is anybody - eight hundred out of a population of about seventy thousand - is invited. So unused is the Serb to this kind of entertainment that he scrambles for the cigarettes,


pockets dainties for friends at home, and has been known to leave with a bottle of wine under each oxter. Usually he dines with his friends at the cafe, spends a merry, laughing hour, and goes to bed early. I have walked along the main street of Belgrade at ten o'clock at night and not encountered a soul.

The nature of a race is not altered with a change of clothes. And although Belgrade looks European, the Serb is still the peasant of a hundred years ago, with peasant tastes, peasant virtues; he is simple-mannered, kind, sentimental, and yet with a smouldering fire in his heart, the result of centuries of oppression and struggle and fight-a fire which, when it bursts into flame, shows that the Serb has much of the blind fury of the savage.

There is a little picture gallery in Belgrade, where are a few good pictures and many indifferent. But there are some on view' which, from their subject, would be excluded from any Western gallery. They are very "bluggy" pictures. The place of honour is given to a big canvas representing a grey ledge of rock in the Albanian mountains where an Albanian has been decapitated, his head placed between his legs, whilst his wife and child stare distractedly at the gazeless eyes. There is a plenitude of "purple patch" in the picture. Another scene is that of a woman just ending the operation of cutting a man's throat. The eyes of the dead man are repulsive, the skin has the sallowness of death, the throat-well, the custodian put his finger on it and told me it was very


fine. The attractiveness of these pictures - if attractiveness is the proper word - is in the gore.

The old Serb garb is disappearing amongst those above the peasant class, save some middle-aged ladies who still retain the costume of their mothers -full but plain skirt, a zouave jacket fringed with gold or silver lace, a low-crowned, red Turkish fez, rather on the back of the head, while the hair plaited in one long coil is twisted round the fez, so that it cannot be seen from the front, and only the red disc of the top is seen from behind.

Men and women usually dress in the European style. At the fall of the sun all Belgrade comes out to promenade the streets, the ladies dressed as prettily and much in the same way as the ladies at an English watering place. The shops devoted to the sale of picture postcards are as many as in any French, German, or English town. There are plenty of picture postcards of King Peter, plenty of portraits of King Peter in the hotels. But nowhere in any part of Servia did I see a picture of Alexander. Even the coins bearing his effigy have been withdrawn from circulation. The authorities would wipe his memory from the public mind.

Here and there is a touch of Servian colour. In the market-place are gathered the peasants with their wares for sale - big flat cheeses of sheeps' milk, piles of grapes and peaches, mammoth melons, masses of brilliant tomatoes. The men, lithe and lank, sunbaked of cheek, wear skin caps, an upper garment of white - half-shirt, half-smock - trousers white and like a pair of shrunken pyjamas. Their


legs are swathed in rough home-spun stockings, generally with a red band; on their feet are crude sandals thonged across the instep and round the ankle. The peasant women are plain of feature and inclined to podginess; they wear short petticoats and have gaudy handkerchiefs tied over their heads. The Belgrade housewife does her own marketing, and there is much haggling. A man wanders through the crowd singing he has sweet drink to sell. Priests of the Servian Church, men with long black hair, black whiskers, and in long black gowns, receive salaams. A policeman, looking like a soldier, and with a horse pistol in his belt, marches along carrying a document. He is followed by an official who beats tap-tap-tap on a kettledrum. There is a halt, and the drum rolls. Everybody makes a rush and gathers round the policeman, who in a mumbling voice, not to be heard half a dozen paces away, reads a proclamation. Tap-tap-tap, and a move is made elsewhere.

Out on the dusty country road I heard the shrill call of the bugle. A detachment of young soldiers came swinging by, with a long stride and dip of the body, like Highlanders on the march. There was no smartness. Their dark blue forage caps and dark blue breeches were grimy with dust, their cotton smocks would have been benefited by a wash, their boots were down at heel. Stuck in most of their caps was a bunch of clover, or a couple of ears of wheat. The officer, on a capital horse, was neatness itself.

From a turn of the road came a clanging sound.


Here were forty prisoners, gruesome fellows, all chained, clanging their way, talking loud and laughing. An escort, with swords drawn, walked alongside. Further on, the highway was being repaired by convict labour. As the men, tawny sans-culottes, heaved the pick, they had the tune of their chains for music. At intervals soldiers rested on their rifles, ready to curb their charges should any be seized with a desire for quick exercise.

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]