Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey through Yugoslavia, Rebecca West

Macedonia (South Serbia)


ONE wet evening I saw a gentleman wearing a fez come out of one of the Minnie Mouse houses in the new town of Skoplje and with a deep sigh, as if to him the world seemed more obstinately rainy than it does to the rest of us, open his umbrella and set himself to picking his way among the puddles. "That is the Pasha of Bardovtsi," said my friend; "there are no pashas now, but that is what he would be if there were any, and he is not anything else, so that is what we call him. But you must go to Bardovtsi, it is quite close, and nobody lives there now, and you ought to see what a pasha's palace was like." So one afternoon me borrowed a car from the Governor and drove out to a point in the valley under the Skopska Tserna Gora, where there was a thickly wooded village, and many people walking through air throbbing with distant music towards a festival, in white clothes and tall fantastic head-dress, dappled by sunlight falling through the leaves. We came at last on a patch of grassland and a great wall, set with watch-towers at either end, in which there was a ramshackle door in a lordly gateway. But it was locked, and when our chauffeur beat on it there was no answer. He crossed the grassland to a farm and called up to the balcony, but there was silence. Everybody we had seen had been walking away from the village.

Our chauffeur became very angry. He was a handsome and passionate young man who had never been denied anything in his life. He battered at the door till it appeared about to split, and then it was slowly opened by an old man carrying a scythe, his hand cupping his ear. Behind him an acre of long grass shook its ears, and we saw beyond it the cool prudence, the lovely common sense, of a Turkish country house, as they built them a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago. The Turks and the Georgian English have known better than anyone how to build a place where civilized man can enjoy nature. The old man with the scythe said we could go where we liked, he had only bought the hay rights and was getting the grass in because the young people had to go to the kolo. "Yes," he said with a chuckle, "they have to go to the kolo, but all the same they know no way of keeping off the rain."

This acre of grass was one of three paddocks which lay within the great wall, themselves divided by walls. We went to the door on the left, stamping our feet as we went, for fear there were snakes, and looked over more long grass to a solid profligacy of richly coloured bricks such as the Turks loved. There was stabling there for sixty horses, housing for an army of retainers. We went back to the house, a black stork screaming suddenly above our heads. But we could not go in. As we opened the door we saw that the staircase in the hall was barred, and for good reason. A host of ravens fled from the glassless windows, and when some lumps of masonry fell from a ceiling somewhere too many unseen living things scuttled and rustled on the floors where we must walk for real comfort of the mind. We were able only to look through the dimness and see that all the proportions were wise, that it must have been light without flimsiness, and firm without heaviness, and that in the heat the coolness must have been stored here as in a reservoir. Then we went to the wall on the right and through a gateway, and saw a house, only a little less large, that had been the harem. There also we startled many ravens, but it was still safe to enter it, and we went up the stairs to that delicious landing-room which is the special invention of Turkish architecture, where one sits in the freshness of the first story and can look down the well of the staircase and see who is coming in and out of the rooms on the ground floor. It is the spirit of harem intrigue insisting that, to make the game more sporting, all the cards shall be laid on the table straight away. This room was decorated in the curious Turkish Regency style that is so inexplicable. It is hard to imagine why at the end of the eighteenth century, and at the beginning of the nineteenth, when the Turks were still the fiercest of military peoples, they had the houses decorated with paintings which recall the Regency style, not as it was in its own age (which would not be surprising, for some of our eighteenth-century men were terrible as any Turks) but as it is rendered in pastiche by Mr. Rex Whistler. There were on these walls pictures of Constantinople and the Bosporus, framed with the most affected of swags and segregated by comic mock pilasters, which were not even Strawberry Hill, which were painted by somebody who seemed to be saying, "How amusing it was when people thought it amusing to paint in this way." We went through the other rooms delicately, and we found that there were bathrooms and water-closets, several of them, such as there cannot have been in a single house in England or France or America at that time.

We were wandering entranced in a world of delicate, clean people, surrounded by refined fragilities, when the chauffeur followed us upstairs. He had not joined us before because he had been catching a pigeon, which now fluttered between his two hands. There is a veil between the animal world and those of us who dwell in towns, but there was none to him. Wherever we were, he saw the animals as quickly as he saw the human beings who were present, the stoat or the lizard or the swallow fledgling; and to the animals he must have seemed a god, so swiftly did he stretch out his hand to caress those he favoured and kill those in his disfavour. He looked round him and said "Ah, the old pig! The old pig of a Turk! Twenty-five women he had here, the old woman says." He tried to say no more but his rage was too great. He whirled his joined hands round in a circle, the pigeon rattling its startled wings inside them, and began to shout. He was a Serbian from Nish, where they drove out the Turks only a little over sixty years ago. "And there were many of our Christian women that were brought here! And they would not have children by our women! Our women they made to have abortions! They cut our women to pieces!" Ravens of specially lethargic disposition fled croaking to the light. "Aide, aide, out of it!" he cried, clattering down the stairs.

The old man stood resting on his scythe. He was proud that we had come to see the palace. It had belonged to Avzi Pasha, he said, and he watched for our faces to lighten. Avzi Pasha, he repeated. But nobody knows anything of him today for there are fewer archives here than there were in Bosnia. To a generation's conflict with a government, to a personality whose virtues and vices made half a dozen countrysides smile or weep, there is often no clue except some crumpled pieces of paper, mostly referring to religious properties. Avzi Pasha, the old man told us, had been a very rich man, a very great man, he had been so great – he waved his feeble arm– that the had even sent his own army against the Sultan in Tsarigrad. But that did not serve, of course. Till the Sultan fell before the armies of the world he did not fall. Avzi Pasha was driven out, but there was another pasha here, and yet another, and they were all grand, but then the land was made free, and there were no more pashas, and the palace was as we saw it.

His voice grumbled as he said it, and I thought he might perhaps be regretting that the palace was not as it had been. I said, "Will you ask him if it is better now with him than it was then?" It had been only age and a day's mowing that had made his voice drag. He threw down his scythe at our feet, he joined his hands and shook his head, and laughed at the simplicity of the question. "In those days," he said, "we did not know the harvest as a time of joy, half the crops went straight away to the Pasha, but then the tax-collectors came back, and they came back, and they came back, and they said, 'This is for him also. It is another tax.' We never knew how little we had." I thought of the Germans on the train from Salzburg. "If only we could tell what we had to pay..." It is that, apparently, and not the single great injustices, the rape of the beloved to the harem or the concentration camp, but the steady drain on what one earns, on what should be one's own if there is justice in earth, or Heaven, that cannot be borne.

Again the chauffeur began to shout. "And the stables! The beautiful stables! The people had to fetch all the stones from a quarry five miles away for nothing!" "The harvest was not a time of joy," repeated the old man. "Never did I think," said my husband, "that I should hear a man speak of the Revolt of the Pashas as a thing his people remembered; I will give him fifty dinars." When the old man saw the coin he gaped at it, and bent down and kissed my husband's hand. "Would anybody on the Skopska Tserna Gora kiss my husband's hand if he gave them money?" I asked the chauffeur. "No," he said, "but they were in the mountains and these people were on the flat lands. They were defenceless against the Turks."

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]