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

Macedonia (South Serbia)

A Convent Somewhere below the Skopska Tserna Gora

IT is said that many have been cured of madness by drinking of the spring in the orchard of this convent, and I do not doubt it, for this is a very pleasant place, and I fancy that in Macedonia, as in the rest of the world, the mad are usually those who have been surfeited with the unpleasant. We met the fat old Abbess in the poplar avenue, and she said, "I am so glad that you have come back to see us again," and there was written in her eye, "now that I have a rare, an inestimable, and sacred treasure to show you, far more precious than any icon or holy spring," for she was infatuated with the child she led by the hand. She took us up into her parlour and a nun was sent to bring us brandy and sugar and water, and she explained how she came to have this unique treasure in her possession. The child's mother was a French schoolmistress at Bitolj, and had sent her there to make a good convalescence after scarlet fever and diphtheria, a story which explained much that had been puzzling, for indeed this was the plainest little girl one could well imagine, a spindly little girl, an Indian-famine little girl.

"You must recite, my dear," said the Abbess, "you must recite to the foreigners and the gentleman from Belgrade." She could not bear us to go home without seeing the prettiest thing we should ever see. So after the child had stood on one leg and then on the other, and had pleated the edge of her petticoat till she was told she should not, she repeated a Serbian hymn and sang a French song all about les peurs and la nature, in the classic treble of the infant French voice, in the voice that Renh Clair gave to the morning glories in A Nous la Liberte. When she had finished she stood on the point of her sharp little nose in the immense slopes of the Abbess's bosom.

By now the young nun had come back with the brandy and the sugar and water, and she stood with her arms akimbo and her chin forward, adoring the child. "Who is that bishop with the very fine head?" said my husband as he drank, nodding at a photograph on the wall. I had asked the very same question when I was here for the first time the year before, and she had looked at the photograph and had said, "He is the Metropolitan who received me into the Church, he was burned alive by the Bulgarians," and her eyes had darkened. She had talked of the dead man for a long time. This time she said the same words, but her eyes did not darken, they went back to the child at once, and she said, "We have been here twenty-six years, never have we had a child here before, it is such a joy as I could not have believed." Perhaps the cock crowed, but it was in Paradise.

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