1. THE COUNTRY OF DEATH
We rubbed ourselves from head to foot with camphorated oil, put kerosene on our hair, filled our pockets with moth-balls, and sprinkled naphthaline through our baggage; and boarded a train so saturated with formalin that our eyes and lungs burned as with quicklime. The Americans from the Standard Oil office in Salonika strolled down to bid us a last farewell.
'Too bad,' said Wiley. 'So young, too. Do you want the remains shipped home, or shall we have you buried up there?'
These were the ordinary precautions of travellers bound for Serbia, the country of the typhus - abdominal typhus, recurrent fever, and the mysterious and violent spotted fever, which kills fifty per cent of its victims, and whose bacillus no man had then discovered. Most doctors thought it was carried by clothing lice, but the British R.A.M.C. lieutenant who travelled with us was sceptical.
'I've been up there three months,' he said, 'and I've long ago stopped taking any precautionary measures whatever except a daily bath. As for the lice - one gets used to spending a quiet evening picking them off one.' He snorted at the naphthaline. 'They're really quite fond of it, you know. The truth about the typhus is that no one knows anything about it at all, except that about one-sixth of the Serbian nation is dead of it ...'
Already the warm weather and the cessation of the spring rains had begun to check the epidemic - and the virus was weaker. Now there were only a hundred thousand sick in all Serbia, and only a thousand deaths a day - besides cases of the dreadful post-typhus gangrene. In February it must have been ghastly - hundreds dying and delirious in the mud of the streets for want of hospitals.
The foreign medical missions had suffered heavily. Half a hundred priests succumbed after giving absolution to the dying. Out of the four hundred odd doctors with which the Serbian army began the war, less than two hundred were left. And the typhus was not all. Smallpox, scarlet fever, scarlatina, diphtheria raged along the great roads and in far villages, and already there were cases of cholera, which was sure to spread with the coming of the summer in that devastated land; where battle-fields, villages, and roads stank with the lightly buried dead, and the streams were polluted with the bodies of men and horses.
Our lieutenant belonged to the British Army Medical Mission, sent to fight the cholera. He was dressed in full service uniform, and carried a huge sword which got between his legs and embarrassed him frightfully.
'I don't know what to do with the bally thing,' he cried, hurling it into a corner. 'We don't wear swords in the army any more. But we have to out here, because the Serbians won't believe you're an officer unless you carry a sword ...'
As we crawled slowly up between barren hills along the yellow torrent of the Vardar, he told us how the English had persuaded the Serbian Government to stop all train service for a month, in order to prevent the spread of disease; then they ordered sanitary improvements in the filthy towns, compelled anti-cholera vaccination, and began to disinfect whole sections of the population. The Serbians sneered - these English were evidently cowards. When Colonel Hunter, unable to secure decent quarters, threatened the authorities that if one of his men died of typhus he would abandon Serbia, a storm of irony burst. Colonel Hunter was a coward!
And the Americans were cowards, too, when, with half their units infected,
they abandoned Gievgieli. To the Serbians, the taking of preventive measures
was a proof of timidity. They regarded the immense ravages of the epidemic
with a sort of gloomy pride - as mediaeval Europe regarded the Black Death.
The gorge of the Vardar, as if it were a sterile frontier between Greek Macedonia and the high valleys of New Serbia, broadened out into a wide valley rimmed with stony hills, beyond which lay mountains still higher, with an occasional glimpse of an abrupt snow peak. From every canyon burst rapid mountain streams. In this valley the air was hot and moist; irrigation ditches, lined with great willows, struck off from the river, across fields of young tobacco-plants, acres upon acres of mulberry-trees, and ploughed land of heavy, rich clay that looked like cotton country. Here every field, every shelf of earth, was cultivated. Higher up, on bare slopes among the rocks, sheep and goats pastured, tended by bearded peasants with huge crooks, clad in sheepskin coats, spinning wool and silk on wooden distaffs. Irregular, white, red-roofed villages meandered along rutted spaces where squat little oxen and black water-buffaloes dragged creaking carts. Here and there was the galleried konak of some wealthy Turk of the old regime, set in yellow-green towering willows, or flowering almond-trees heavy with scent; and over the tumbled little town a slender grey minaret, or the dome of a Greek church.
All sorts of people hung about the stations - men turbaned and fezzed and capped with conical hats of brown fur, men in Turkish trousers, or in long shirts and tights of creamy homespun linen, their leather vests richly worked in coloured wheels and flowers, or in suits of heavy brown wool ornamented with patterns of black braid, high red sashes wound round and round their waists, leather sandals sewed to a circular spout on the toe and bound to the calf with leather ribbons wound to the knees; women with the Turkish yashmak and bloomers, or in leather and woollen jackets embroidered in bright colours, waists of the raw silk they weave in the villages, embroidered linen underskirts, black aprons worked in flowers, heavy overskirts woven in vivid bars of colour and caught up behind, and yellow or white silk kerchiefs on their heads. Many wore a black kerchief - the only sign of mourning. And always and everywhere gypsies - the men in a kind of bright turban, the women with gold pieces for earrings and patches and scraps of gay rags for dresses, barefooted - shuffling along the roads beside their caravans, or lounging about the rakish black tents of their camps.
A tall, bearded man in black introduced himself in French as a Serbian secret-service officer whose job was to keep us under observation. Once a dapper young officer came aboard and questioned him, nodding to us. The other responded.
'Dobra! Good!' he said, clicking his heels and saluting.
That station,' remarked the secret-service man as the train moved on again, 'is the frontier. We are now in Serbia.'
We caught a glimpse of several big, gaunt men lounging on the platforms, rifles with fixed bayonets slung at their shoulders, without any uniform except the soldiers kepi.
'What would you?' shrugged our friend, smiling. 'We Serbians have no longer any uniforms. We have fought four wars in three years - the First and Second Balkan Wars, the Albanian revolt, and now this one— For three years our soldiers have not changed their clothes.'
Now we were passing along a narrow field planted with small wooden crosses, that might have been vine poles, spaced about three feet apart; they marched beside the train for five minutes.
'The typhus cemetery of Gievgieli,' he said laconically. There must have been thousands of those little crosses, and each marked a grave! There came in sight a great, tramped-down space on a hillside beyond, honeycombed with burrows leading into the brown earth, and humped into round hutches of heaped-up mud. Men crawled in and out of the holes, ragged, dirty fellows in every variety of half-uniform, with rifle-belts crisscrossed over their breasts like Mexican revolutionists. Between were stacked rifles, and there were cannon with ox-yoke limbers and half a hundred springless ox-carts ranged along the side, while farther on the hobbled oxen grazed. Below the mud huts, at the bottom of the hill, men were drinking from the yellow river that poured down from a score of infected villages up the valley. Around a fire squatted twenty or more, watching the carcass of a sheep turn in the flames.
'This regiment has come to guard the frontier,' explained our friend. 'It was here that the Bulgarian comitadjis tried to break through and cut the railroad last week. At any moment they might come again.... Is the Bulgarian Government responsible, or did the Austrians pay them? One can never tell, in the Balkans.'
And now, every quarter mile we passed a rude hut made of mud and twigs, before which stood a ragged, hollow-cheeked soldier, filthy and starved-looking, but with his rifle at present arms. All over Serbia one saw these men - the last desperate gleaning of the country's manhood - who live in the mud, with scanty food and miserable clothing, guarding the long-deserted railroad tracks.
At first there seemed no difference between this country and Greek Macedonia. The same villages, a little more unkempt - tiles gone from the roofs, white paint chipped from the walls; the same people, but fewer of them, and those mostly women, old men, and children. But soon things began to strike one. The mulberry-trees were neglected, the tobacco-plants were last year's, rotting yellow; corn-stalks stood spikily in weedy fields unturned for twelve months or more. In Greek Macedonia, every foot of arable land was worked; here only one field out of ten showed signs of cultivation.
Occasionally we saw two oxen, led by a woman in bright yellow head-dress and brilliantly coloured skirt, dragging a wooden plough carved from a twisted oak limb, which a soldier guided, his rifle slung from his shoulder.
The secret-service man pointed to them. 'All the men of Serbia are in the army - or dead - and all the oxen were taken by the government to draw the cannon and the trains. But since December, when we drove the Austrians out, there has been no fighting. So the government sends the soldiers and the oxen over Serbia, wherever they are wanted, to help with the ploughing.'
Sometimes, in details like these, there flashed before our imaginations a picture of this country of the dead: with two bloody wars that swept away the flower of its youth, a two months' hard guerilla campaign, then this fearful struggle with the greatest military power on earth, and a devastating plague on top of that. Yet from the ruins of a whole people, imperial ambitions were already springing, which might one day threaten all southern Europe.
Gievgieli shares with Valievo the distinction of being the worst plague-spot in Serbia. Trees, station, and buildings were splashed and spattered with chloride of lime, and armed sentries stood guard at the fence, where a hundred ragged people pressed murmuring - for Gievgieli was quarantined. We stared through the fence at a wide, rough street of cobbles and mud, flanked by one-storey buildings white with disinfectant; at almost every door flapped a black flag, the sign of death in the house.
A stout, mustached man in a dirty collar, spotted clothing, and a smutty Panama pulled down over his eyes stood on the platform, surrounded by a dense circle of soldiers. He held a small wild flower on high, and addressed the secret-service man volubly and excitedly.
'See!' he cried. This flower I found in that field beyond the river. It is very curious! I do not know this flower! It is evidently of the family of the orchidae!' He scowled and fixed the secret-service man with a menacing eye. 'It is not of the family of the orchidae?'
'It has certain characteristics, indeed,' said the other timidly. 'This tongue....But the pistil -'
The fat man shook the flower. 'Nonsense! It is of the family of the orchidae!'
The soldiers round about broke into a hum of argument: 'Da! Orchida!' 'Ne je orchida!' 'But it is evidently an orchid!' 'What do you know of orchids, George Georgevitch? At Ralya, where you come from, they haven't even grass!' There was a laugh at this. Above it rose the fat man's voice, insistent, passionate: ‘I tell you it is an orchid! It is a new kind of orchid! It is unknown to the science of botany -'
Robinson caught the infection of the argument. 'Orchid?' he said to me with a sneer. 'Of course it's not an orchid!'
'It is an orchid!' I returned hotly. 'It is formed very like the lady's-slippers that we see in American woods -'
The fat man wheeled around and erupted into broken English, glaring at us. 'Yes, yes!' he said eagerly. 'The same. Are you Americans? I have been in America. I have tramped through Kansas and Missouri, working on the farms of wheat. I have walked through the Panhan'le of Texas, with work at the cattle-ranch. I am on foot gone through Seattle to San Francisco, to Sacramento, crossing the Sierras and the desert to Yuma in Arizona - you know Yuma? No? I am studying all kind of farming from first-hand for to apply these experiences to Serbian farms. My name is Lazar Obichan. I am an Agro-Geolog, and secretary in Department of Agriculture in government at Belgrade. Yes.' He cleared his throat, waved his elbows to make a space in the crowd, and seized us each by a lapel.
‘I am sent here to study soil, climate, and crop conditions of New Serbia. I am an expert. I have invented a new method to tell what can be grown in any soil, in any country. It is automatic, simple, can be appli' by anybody - a new science. Listen! You give me the humidity - I put her there.' He poked Robinson stiffly in the shoulder-blade. 'Then you give me the mean temperatoor - I put him there.' A jab near Robinson's kidney. 'From humidity I draw a vertical line straight down, isn't it? From mean temperatoor I draw horizontal line straight across.' He suited the action to the word, furrowing the artist's diaphragm. His voice rose. 'Until the two lines meet! And the point where they meet, there is the figure which gives the evaporation for one day!' He poked us simultaneously in the chest to emphasize each word, and repeated: The Evaporation for One Day!' He threw both hands up and beamed upon us, pausing to allow this to sink in. We were impressed.
'But that is not all I have in my mind,' he went on heavily. 'There is a vast commercial and financial scheme - immense! Listen! After this war Serbia she will need much money, much foreign capitals. From where will he come? From England? No. England will need all at home. France and Russia will be absolute exhausticated. No capitals from Europe. Where then? I tell you. From America. America is rich. I have been in her and I know how rich. Listen! We will establish a Serbian-American Bank with American capitals and American managers. It will sit in Belgrade. It will lend money to Serbians - big profit! Serbian law allows to charge twelve per cent interest - twelve per cent! It will loan to farmers at big interest. It will buy land from poor people, split up in small pieces and sell back at four hundred per cent profit. Serbians poor now, will sell land cheap - but Serbians need land, must have land. We are bankrupted here now - you can buy - how do you say? - you can buy all Serbia for a music! Then these bank, she will open in Belgrade a permanent exhibition of American products and take orders - American shoes, American machines, American cloth - and in New York she will open one of Serbian products and take orders. Make money - big! You shall write about in your papers. If you have capitals put in these bank!'
On the station a bell was ringing. The station master blew a horn, the engine whistled, the train began to move. We tore our lapels from Mr Obichan's thumbs and ran. He raced along with us, still talking.
'Serbia is very rich country in natural resources,' he shouted. 'Here there is soil for cotton, tobacco, silk - very fine alluvial lands. Southern slopes of hills for vineyards! Farther up in mountains wheat, plums, peaches, apples. In the Machva prunes -' We swung on board. 'Minerals -' he yelled after us. 'Gold - copper - Labour cheap -' And then we lost his voice. Later on we asked a Serbian official about him.
'Lazar Obichan?' he said. 'Yes, we know him. He is under observation - suspected of selling military secrets to the Austrian Government!'
Late in the afternoon we halted on a siding to let a military train pass - twelve open flat cars packed with soldiers, in odds and ends of uniforms, wrapped in clashing and vividly coloured blankets. It had begun to rain a little. A gypsy fiddler played wildly, holding his one-stringed violin before him by the throat, which was carved rudely to represent a horse's head; and about him lay the soldiers, singing the newest ballad of the Austrian defeat:
'The Swabos * came all the way to Ralya,
But no further came they -
Hey, Kako to?
Yoy, Sashto to?
They won't soon forget Rashko Pol,
For there they met the Serbs!
Hey, how was that?
Yoy, why was that?
'And now the Swabos know
How the Serbs receive intruders!
Hey, Tako to!
Yoy, that was how!'
[* Swabos - Austrians.]
Every regiment has two or three gypsies, who march with the troops, playing the Serbian fiddle or the bagpipes, and accompany the songs that are composed incessantly by the soldiers - love-songs, celebrations of victory, epic chants. And all through Serbia they are the musicians of the people, travelling from one country festa to another, playing for dancing and singing. Strange substitution! The gypsies have practically replaced the old-time travelling bards, the goosslari, who transmitted from generation to generation through the far mountain valleys the ancient national epics and ballads. And yet they alone in Serbia have no vote. They have no homes, no villages, no land - only their tents and their dilapidated caravans.
We tossed some packages of cigarettes among the soldiers in the cars.
For a moment they didn't seem to understand. They turned them over and
over, opened them, stared at us with heavy, slow, flat faces. Then light
broke - they smiled, nodding to us. 'Fala,' they said gently. 'Fala
lepo! Thanks beautifully!'
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