CHAPTER V. THE PEASANT NATION.
The Serb a Hater of Town Life - A State without Towns - The Servian Pig - Why British Trade is Dwindling - Peasant Proprietorship - A Country Ruled by Local Government - Taxation - Military Service - A Simple, Genuine Folk
SERVIA is the real peasant state of the Balkans. The first proof is that the Serb, contrary to the tendency in other European countries, hates town life. The shop windows, the electric lights, the clatter of cabs have no attraction for him. When he comes into a town it is to sell or to buy something, and then get to his homestead as quickly as possible. The life of the hills, its wildness, even its eeriness, has laid hold of him.
He is emotional. So he loves well and hates well. He will do anything for you if he loves you; if he hates you he will kill you, and mutilate your body afterwards.
His tastes are simple. Civilisation, with its cheap excursion trains and music halls, has not reached him. His main amusement is to attend a Church festival, where not only is he conscious of doing good to his soul, but he is able to meet his friends, eat, drink, and be merry. On the eve of the Sabbath he puts on his best clothes, and the women put on their gaudiest of frocks. They meet on the sweep of green before the church. The local gypsies - tall, swarthy, handsome, most of them - provide shrill music, while the Serbs,
clasping each other by the hand, sing mournfully and gyrate sedately. It is a melancholy dance. But they are sure they are having a capital time.
Except Belgrade, there are no towns worth the name. The "towns" are really big villages, with very wide streets and single-storeyed, unpicturesque houses. Everybody "makes promenade" in the evening. In the dusk the few paraffin lamps in drunken lamp-posts make the local inn - rather meagre in the daylight - quaintly bright. There are dozens of tables and hundreds of chairs. Everybody gathers, whole families, the merriest throng in the world. There are no rich people; but wine is cheap, the coffee is good, the food is plain and inexpensive. From the ordinary point of viewthat of the man who lives in London, for instance - they are people to be commiserated. But not a bit of it. They are light-hearted and contented. And, after all, light-heartedness and contentment are worth much.
Of course, Servia is an agricultural country. Its soil is good, and the yield is abundant. Some Serbs look to manufactures increasing the material wealth. But that is the road to losing money and securing heartache. The Serb is not deft in manufacture; factory life would be intolerable, because it would mean employer and employed, and the Serb has a quixotic repugnance to being anybody's servant. If he is wise he will keep to his husbandry and pig-rearing. He is a good farmer when his holding is small - as it generally is. I travelled long miles in the interior, and noticed how every
available yard was under close cultivation. No country has so frugal and industrious a peasantry - not even France.
The Servian pig is "the gentleman who pays the rent." The growing of pigs and exporting them to Austria is the staple industry. Indeed, pig-breeding may be called the one trade of Servia. When a Serb is well-to-do, the money has come from pigs. There is, however, a speck on the prosperity. Austria is not only the big customer, but it is the big neighbour. Sometimes Austria is inclined to play the bully and make Servia do things that little Servia does not want to do. "Very well," says Austria, "you have swine fever in such a village; swine fever is a terrible thing; we could not think of subjecting Austrian swine to the possibility of contagion from infected swine; therefore we prohibit any Servian pigs entering this country." Ruin stares Servia in the face! It is no use protesting that the swine fever is so infinitesimal that it does not matter. Austria is adamant. Servia yields. It does what Austria wants it to do - gives Austrian wares a preference over those of Germany and France. And just at the time Servia gives in, Austria kindly decides that the swine fever in Servia is not very bad after all, and the prohibition is removed.
Servia cannot do anything commercially without the sanction of Austria. Austria has about half the imports into Servia, and takes practically all the exports. British trade is dwindling: firstly, because Continental competitors have the advantage
in transport; secondly, because British merchants will not give the long credit, Austrians and Germans will; thirdly, because the Briton insists on issuing his catalogues in English, and writing his business letters in English, which the Serb does not understand.
The fact that Servia has practically no poor is due to the industry of the people, and the system of peasant proprietorship. Every little homestead is a family commune, whilst in some of the mountain districts is the Zadruga, or communal village. The village is really one big family; everything is held in common. The oldest man is the guide, ruler, and despot. He decides whether a man and a woman shall marry or not. And here one drops across a difference between Serbs and more enlightened communities. To get daughters married is the desire of most parents in Western Europe; to delay their marriage is the endeavour of Serb fathers and mothers. The Serb woman is a first-rate worker in the fields. So whilst there is no objection to a son marrying, because he remains in the family and brings in a woman worker, the departure of a daughter means the loss of a worker. Every grown man can claim five acres of land from the Government. That usually goes into the family plot of land. Other land may be bought, and, possibly, may be lost to the moneylender. But those five acres are sacred. They cannot, nor can their yield, be claimed for debt. So, be a man ever so poor, he has still his five acres.
Now although Servia has a Parliament elected
by manhood suffrage - every man who pays about twelve shillings a year in indirect taxes having a vote - the main governing authority is local. The District Council, elected every year by the peasants, manages the local finance; it is also a combined County Court and Petty Sessions. The Government only concerns itself with large matters. Murderers are usually shot on the spot where they committed their crime.
The Serb is democratic. Nobody, except the King, has a title. Property is equally divided between the sons. Education is free, from the elementary school up to the University. Corporal punishment is prohibited. Practically everybody belongs to the Servian National Church; but though the priests are personally popular, the Serbs are not church-goers except at festival times. Then the pic-nic is as much an attraction as the opportunity to worship. The Serbs are a moral people. Also, as is natural in a mountain people, they are superstitious. They hang out a bunch of garlic to keep away the devil, and if a widow desires to get married again she hangs a doll in the cottage window to give male passers-by due notice of the fact.
The taxes of Servia are light; but light as they are, reduction is the popular cry of the politicians. Rather than pay rates the peasants of a district give two or three days' labour in the year for road-mending. The consequence is that the roads are uncertain. A Servian road is much like the young lady in the poem who wore a curl in the middle of her forehead, and who, "when she was good, was very,
very good, and when she was bad she was horrid." I have seen stretches of road in Servia as good as any to be found in an English home county. Also I have seen others.
Servia has conscription. Every man, from his twenty-first to his forty-fifth year, is liable for military service. Pay - as is all official pay in Servia - is very low. When I looked at the smart young lieutenants, I wondered how they could be so gorgeous on £72 a year. The peace strength of Servia is just over 20,000 men. In time of war well over 300,000 men could take the field. Each young fellow serves two years; afterwards he is in the reserve, liable to thirty days' service per annum till he is thirty years of age, eight days' service till he is forty, and afterwards only liable in emergency. The Serb bears what is often called "the burden of conscription" willingly, and as a matter of course. It is the natural thing; it exists in the surrounding countries. The Serb knows that any day he may be called upon to fight for his existence as a nation. All told, the Servian population is not yet three millions.
Personally I keep a warm corner in my heart for the Serbs. It was De la Jonquiere who called them "a brave, poetic, careless, frivolous race." Frivolity is hardly a description to apply to the people as a whole, though it does apply to a few in the capital who ape the ways of Vienna on a miniature scale. Merry, heedless of mechanical progress - or he would find other means of threshing corn than 'letting horses run through it on a patch of beaten ground, or letting oxen trail a board in which flints are inset
as a means of pressing the wheat from the ear - independent, not mindful much of education, knowing his people have a noble though tragic history, but making no attempt to assimilate the old culture, jealous of Bulgaria, afraid of Austria, the Serb is really a relic of the mediaeval age.
I have sat beneath the trees chatting with these simple, genuine folk. They loved to hear of London, of New York, of Paris, but with no envy: rather with the interest of a child in a fairy story. They wanted little or nothing from the outer world. Their coarse linen shirts, rough brown homespun jackets, and trousers, their crude shoes, their beadstudded belts, their sheepskin caps, had all been made on their own peasant plots. The women, when tending the cattle or going to market, always had a hunk of flax or tousle of wool which they spun between their fingers as they walked. In lieu of the evening newspaper, a blind old man told a story of how the Serbs fell at Kossovo beneath the onslaught of the Turks. When the moon rose, big and brilliant, there was the inn to go to, with wine at twopence a flask.
Travelling is not expensive. About a sovereign a day is charged for
a phaeton and pair. At the neat town of Kralievo I had supper, coffee,
cognac, and mineral water, a decent bedroom, and breakfast, at a total
charge of three dinars, about half a crown.
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