8. BREAKING INTO BUCOVINA
Early the next morning we came out of our lodgings to the shrill sound of Yiddish blessings and reproaches mixed, and found the Jew smirking and rubbing his hands.
'What's the carriage?' I asked, suspecting further extortion. The Jew pointed to a temporary scaffolding such as is used for digging artesian wells, upon which sat an incredibly discouraged-looking mujik. On closer inspection we discovered wheels, fastened to arbitrary places with bits of wire and rope; and apparently unattached to the structure, two aged and disillusioned horses leaned against each other.
'B-r-r-r-r-r-r!' said the mujik to these animals, implying that they would run away if he didn't. 'B-r-r-r-r!'
We mounted, while the Jew abusively impressed upon his driver that we were to be taken to Zalezchik, through Boyan and Zastevna; he also told him to get whatever money he could out of us.... At the end of this tirade, the peasant rose and stolidly beat the horses with a long string fastened to a stick, shouting hoarsely: 'Ugh! Eagh! Augh!' The horses awoke, sighed, and moved experimentally - by some mechanical miracle the wheels turned, a shudder ran along our keel, and we were off!
Across the bridge into Austrian Novo Sielitza we rattled, and out upon the hard road that led frontward, slowly gaining upon and passing a long train of ox-carts driven by soldiers and loaded with cases of ammunition. Now we were in Bucovina. On the left, low fields green with young crops stretched flatly to the trees along the Pruth, beyond which rose the rich hills of Rumania; to the right the valley extended miles to cultivated rolling country. Already the June sun poured down windless, moist heat. The driver slumped gradually into his spine, the horses' pace diminished to a merely arithmetical progression, and we crawled in a baking pall of dust like Zeus hidden in his cloud.
'Hey!' We beat upon his back. 'Shake a leg, Dave!'
He turned upon us a dirty, snub-nosed face, and eyes peering through matted hair, and his mouth cracked slowly in an appalling, familiar grin - with the intelligent expression of a loaf of bread. We christened him immediately Ivan the Horrible....
'Ooch!' he cried with simulated ferocity, waving the string. Aich! Augh!'
The horses pretended to be impressed, and broke into a shuffle; but ten minutes later Ivan was again rapt in contemplation of the infinite, the horses almost stationary, and we moved in white dust....
Slowly we drew near the leisurely sound of the cannon, that defined itself sharply out of the all-echoing thunder audible at Novo Sielitza. And topping a steep hill crowned with a straggling thatched village, we came in sight of the batteries. They lay on the hither side of an immense rolling hill, where a red gash in the fields dribbled along for miles. At intervals of half a minute a gun spat heavily; but you could see neither smoke nor flame - only minute figures running about, stiffening, and again springing to life. A twanging drone as the shell soared - and then on the leafy hills across the river puffs of smoke unfolding. Over there were the towers of white Czernowitz, dazzling in the sun. The village through which we passed was populous with great brown soldiers, who eyed us sullenly and suspiciously. Over a gateway hung a Red Cross flag, and along the road trickled a thin, steady stream of wounded - some leaning on their comrades, others bandaged around the head, or with their arms in slings; and peasant carts jolted by with faintly groaning heaps of arms and legs....
The road slanted down until we were close to the crashing batteries. For hours we drove along behind a desultory but gigantic artillery battle. Gun after gun after gun, each in its raw pit, covered with brush to shield it from aeroplanes. Sweating men staggered under the weight of shells, moving about the shining caissons; methodically the breech snapped home and the pointer singsonged his range; a firer jerked the lanyard - furious haze belched out, gun recoiled, shell screamed - miles and miles of great cannon in lordly syncopation.
In the very field of the artillery peasants were calmly ploughing with oxen, and in front of the roaring guns a boy in white linen drove cattle over the hill toward the pastures along the river. We met long-haired farmers, with orange poppies in their hats, unconcernedly driving to town. Eastward the world rolled up in another slow hill that bore curved fields of young wheat, running in great waves before the wind. Its crest was torn and scarred with mighty excavations, where multitudinous tiny men swarmed over new trenches and barbed-wire tangles. This was the second-line position preparing for a retreat that was sure to come....
We swung northward, away from the artillery, over the bald shoulder of a powerful hill. Here the earth mounted in magnificent waves, patterned with narrow green, brown, and yellow fields that shimmered under the wind. Through valleys whose sides fell like a bird's swoop were vistas of chequered slopes and copses soft with distance. Far to the west the faint blue crinkly line of the Carpathians marched across the horizon. Tree-smothered villages huddled in the immense folds of the land - villages of clay houses unevenly and beautifully moulded by hand, painted spotless white with a bright blue stripe around the bottom, and elaborately thatched.
Many were deserted, smashed, and black with fire - especially those where Jews had lived. They bore marks of wanton pillage - for there had been no battle here - doors beaten in, windows torn out, and lying all about the wreckage of mean furniture, rent clothing. Since the beginning of the war the Austrians had not come here. It was Russian work....
Peasants smiling their soft, friendly smile took off their hats as we went by. A gaunt man with a thin baby in his arms ran forward and kissed my hand when I gave him a piece of chocolate. Along the roadside stood hoary stone crosses inscribed with sacred verses in the old Slavonic, before which the peasants uncovered and crossed themselves devoutly. And there were rude wooden crosses, as in Mexico, to mark the spots where men had been assassinated....
In a high meadow overlooking the distant river and the far-rolling plains of Bucovina we came upon a camp of Turcomans - their saddled horses staked to graze and their fires burning. Cruel-faced and slant-eyed, they squatted about the cook-pots or moved among the horses, barbaric notes of colour in this green northern field, where, perhaps, their ancestors had camped with Attila a thousand years ago. Beyond the river cousins of theirs lay in the enemy's trenches - beyond the ethereal mountains in the west was Hungary, the rich land where the scourges of God from Asia had finally come to rest. Where the road dipped again into the valley was an old stone chapel, circular in form and surrounded by a graceful colonnade. It was now gutted, and the horses of Turcoman officers were stabled inside....
At any cross-roads we always knew the right road to take, because Ivan invariably took the other. Although born and bred at Novo Sielitza, fifteen miles away, he had never travelled so far abroad. Worse, his porous memory could no longer hold the name of our destination, no matter how often he repeated it. Every little while he turned and peered at us, groaning. 'Zalezchik!' we shouted in chorus, and he fell to larruping the horses with uncouth cries. He pulled up sometimes, until we pointed to a native and made signs for him to ask the way.
'Good day,' mumbled Ivan. 'Which is the road to -'
‘The road to where, friend?' asked the man.
Ivan scratched his head.
'Where do you want to go?'
Ivan grinned sheepishly.
'Zalezchik!' we bawled - and Ivan repeated - 'Ah, yes, Zalezchik!'
At noon, we zigzagged up a steep mountain into a pine forest, and met a long train of trucks coming down, loaded with the steel floats of a pontoon bridge. Big Don Cossacks on wiry ponies escorted it, their hair-tufts sticking rakishly out under their caps.
'Aie, Barin!' shouted one of the drivers, pointing southwest. 'Eto Pruth? Is that the Pruth?'
Two days!' he cried, patting his pontoon. 'Two days we cross the river.... Czernowitz!'
Still they passed, clanging along the top of the mountain. We plunged down through the forest, meeting the great wagons crawling up with shouts and snapping whips. Steeper and steeper; the trees thinned, and suddenly fell away altogether, and the tremendous panorama of the valley of the Dniester opened out - squares and parallelograms and arcs of variegated colour clashing and weaving in a mighty tapestry of fertile fields, great rounded folds of earth, sweeping grandly like the ground swell, rambling white granges ship-like along the ribbony roads, and villages lost in the hollows. The pontoon-trucks staggered up, drawn each by eight horses and twenty soldiers who pushed, shouting in unison - for a mile down the hill the road was filled with lumbering big floats rocking from side to side, straining horses flecked with white loam, broad-shouldered men curbed with an agony of effort....
Now we were entering a new land. Though the peasants still wore white
linen, their head-dress changed; some wore tall round caps of black fur,
others high, bell-crowned hats such as Welsh women used to wear. The Slavonic
crosses gave way to tall Catholic crucifixes, decked with all the instruments
of the Passion - the spear, the sponge, the gloves, the hammer. We met
people who spoke no Rumanian - Polish began to i c-place it. Granges where
whole patriarchal families had lived stood along the road - immense houses
containing living-rooms, stables, barns all under one roof, with a road
running through the middle of the building from front to back. It was a
blasted country, seared with battle, and with the triple passing of two
great armies. The trampled grain was sickly yellow in the fields; whole
villages in ruins gaped empty, except for Russian soldiers, and few men
were to be seen except the aged and crippled - only women and children,
with furtive eyes and sunken faces. In the fields among the growing crops
old trenches crumbled in, and rusty barbed-wire entanglements straggled
through the wheat everywhere. For miles along the left side of the road
gigantic new trenches and artillery positions were building in frantic
haste. Thousands of soldiers swarmed over the landscape, the afternoon
sun flashing on their lifted spades. Wagons loaded with tools and barbed
wire impeded the road. Near Zastevna, we saw peasant women and children
digging under the superintendence of non-commissioned officers, a long
file of them carrying out the dirt in head baskets. Why this feverish activity
here, twenty miles behind the positions occupied by the Russians only a
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