Macedonia (South Serbia)
IN a cab drawn by two horses named "Balkan" and "Gangster" we trotted out of Skoplje through market gardens where tomatoes and paprikas glowed their different reds, and climbed a road up the hill behind Skoplje that is called the "Watery One" because of its many springs. The cab was hardly a cab, the road was hardly a road, and the cabman was a man of irrational pride, which we wounded afresh each time we got out of the cab because it was about to fall over the edge of a ravine. There is a lot of emotion loose about the Balkans which has lost its legitimate employment now that the Turks have been expelled. But it was pleasant to walk along the hedges and sometimes pick the flowers, and sometimes look back and see the snow mountains framed between the apple blossom and the green-gold poplar trees, and watch the Moslem girls, who with an air of panic working in their faces, whisked their veils over the face when they saw Constantine and my husband, who, on the contrary, were talking about Bernard Berenson. Also there was good conversation with strangers, as there always is when Constantine is there. An old Moslem was sitting on a rock beside a field of corn under a hawthorn tree, and as he was breathing very heavily, Constantine stopped and asked, "Are you ill, friend. " "No," said the Moslem, "but I am old and I cannot walk as far as I used to do." Constantine said, "Well, this is a very pleasant place to rest." "That is why I chose it," said the Moslem. "I pressed on, though I was breathless, till I came to this rock. For since I am so old that my soul must soon leave my body, I look at nature as much as I can."
When we came to Neresi it was as I had remembered it, arustic monastery, as homely as a Byzantine church can possibly be, a thing char might be a farmhouse, as it stands in a paddock, had it not been that there appear in it domes that are plainly bubbles blown by the breath of God. From the fountain at the corner of the paddock children drew water, dressed in their best for a kolo; the plum tree that nuzzles a corner of the church was in full flower; a small dog was chasing its fleas and in its infant folly transferred itself constantly from spot to spot as if hoping co find one specially suited to the pursuit. All was well in this world, and there came out of the priest's house the little priest whom I find one of the most sympathetic characters in Yugoslavia.
He is a tiny creature without sin. His eyes, which shine out of a tangle of eyebrows and wrinkles and beard, are more than bright, they are unstained light. He is an exile, for a tenuous and exquisite cause. He is a Russian monk, but he was not one of those who fled from the Bolsheviks; he belonged to the great monastery on the island on Lake Ladoga, which is on the borders of Finland and Russia and exists to this day. He left this beloved place, where he had been since his early boyhood, to live in a lonely village, where there are more Moslems than Christians, in a climate that to his northern blood is abominable, because he would not consent to the adoption of the modern calendar. There had been a great many disputes in the monastery itself as to whether they should adhere to the old Church calendar, which is a fortnight after the ordinary world calendar, as the Orthodox Church in some respects still does in Yugoslavia, or should keep the modern world calendar. These disputes became so violent that the Finnish Government, a cool body mainly Lutheran in its origins, lost patience and bade the monks adopt the modern calendar or leave the monastery. So, for that and no other reason, did the little creature leave all that was dear to him.
Nothing, indeed, is more reasonable in the terms of his type of mysticism. On a certain day you will look up to heaven and think of the Mother of God as she was at the moment of the annunciation and she will bend down and accept your thoughts and lift them up in her heavenly sphere. What is the good of it all if you start looking up and sending her your thoughts on quite another day from that on which she has bent down to accept them? He felt as if he was being condemned to a lifetime of imbecile and heartrending activity, just as one would if every day one were forced to go to a railway terminus and wait for some beloved person who had in fact arrived at that station a fortnight before. I like such literal mysticism. It shows a desire to embrace the adored spiritual object and hug it till it passes into enjoyment of the boon of material existence, which is proof of a nature that would be kind and warm, and that would prefer the agreeable to the disagreeable. I think of the little man as of the old anthropomorphist heretic hermit, who was told that he must cease to believe that God was a person with a human body, having arms and legs and eyes and ears, and must worship him as a spirit, and who went away with tears, repeating the text, "They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him." As it is easier to love an abstraction than a material person, since an abstraction demands no daily sacrifices, has no slippers to warm, and needs no hot supper, this was to his credit as a human being, though not as a theologian.
We talked to the little man, and asked him how time went, and he said it went well, but he grieved, as he had when I saw him before, at the lack of fish. At Lake Ladoga he had eaten fish nearly every day, wonderful fish straight out of the water, and there was none in this village. Also he was used to tea, and here they drank coffee and the tea was not good. We asked him if he were not lonely, and he said, "On the whole, no, for there is God." Then we were joined by the owner of the flea-bitten dog, an elderly woman who had come here from near Belgrade because all her family, all her five sons and daughters, had chosen to give their lives to their country here. She was quite elderly; most and perhaps all of her children must have made this decision before the war, when it meant self-condemnation to an indefinite sojourn in an insanitary Hell with considerable chances of sudden death. My husband and I wondered if we would perhaps find ourselves moved by some extraordinary reason to go to die where we were not born; but as both these people were sitting smiling so happily into the sunshine, to find an answer seemed not so vital as one might suppose.
Presently we went into the church and saw the frescoes, which are being uncovered very slowly, to wean the peasants from the late eighteenth-century peasant frescoes which had been painted over them, for the peasants like these much better than the old ones, and indeed they are extremely attractive. They show tight, round, pink little people chubbily doing quite entertaining things, as you see them represented in the paintings on the merry-go-rounds and advertising boards of French fairs, and exploited in the pictures of Mare Chagall and his kind; and it would be a pity to destroy them if they were not covering fine medieval frescoes. When my husband saw the older frescoes I could see that he was a little disappointed, and at last he said, "But these are not like the Byzantine frescoes I have seen, they are not so stylized, they are almost representational, indeed they are very representational."
It is, of course, quite true, though I have doubted whether we are right in considering Byzantine frescoes highly stylized since, on my first visit to Yugoslavia, I went through the Sandjak of Novi Pazar, which is the most medieval part of the country and saw peasants slowly move from pose to pose distorted by conscious dignity which made them exactly like certain personages over the altars of Ravenna and Rome. But the Serbo-Byzantine frescoes are unquestionably more naturalistic and far more literary. In looking at some of these at Neresi there came back to me the phrase of Bourget, "la vegetation touffue de King Lear," they are so packed with ideas. One presents in another form the theme treated by the painter of the fresco in the little monastery in the gorge; it shows the terribly explicit death of Christ's body, Joseph of Arimathea is climbing a ladder to take Christ down from the Cross, and his feet as they grip the rungs are the feet of a living man, while Christ's feet are utterly dead. Another shows an elderly woman lifting a beautiful astonished face at the spectacle of the raising of Lazarus: it pays homage to the ungrudging heart, it declares that a miracle consists of more than a wonderful act, it requires people who are willing to admit that something wonderful has been done. Another shows an Apostle hastening to the Eucharist, with the speed of a wish.
But there is another which is extraordinary beyond belief because not only does it look like a painting by Blake, it actually illustrates a poem by Blake. It shows the infant Christ being washed by a woman who is a fury. Of that same child, of that same woman, Blake wrote:
And if the Babe is born a boy
He's given to a Woman Old
Who nails him down upon a rock,
Catches his shrieks in cups of gold.
She binds iron thorns around his head,
She pierces both his hands and feet,
She cuts his heart out at his side,
To make it feel both cold and heat.
Her fingers number every nerve,
Just as a miser counts his gold;
She lives upon his shrieks and cries,
And she grows young as he grows old.
It is all in the fresco at Neresi. The fingers number every nerve of
the infant Christ, just as a miser counts his gold; that is spoken of by
the tense, tough muscles of her arms, the compulsive fingers, terrible,
seen through the waters of the bath as marine tentacles. She is catching
his shrieks in cups of gold; that is to say, she is looking down with awe
on what she is so freely handling. She is binding iron around his head,
she is piercing both his hands and feet, she is cutting his heart out at
his side, because she is naming him in her mind the Christ, to whom these
things are to happen. It is not possible that that verse and this fresco
should not have been the work of the same mind. Yet the verse was written
one hundred and fifty years ago by a home-keeping Cockney and the fresco
was painted eight hundred years ago by an unknown Slav. Two things which
should be together, which illumine each other, had strayed far apart, only
to be joined for a minute or two at rare intervals in the attention of
casual visitors. It was to counter this rangy quality in the universe that
the little monk had desired to maintain contact between his devotions and
their objects. His shining eyes showed a faith that, bidden, would have
happily accepted more exacting tasks.
We had had a number of bad evenings with Gerda. She was not easy in the daytime. A number of expeditions had been darkened, it seemed without cause, till I discovered that when we jumped out of the car, as we were sure to do quite often, to see a view or a flower or a kolo, I sometimes got in and sat on the right, which was where, she strongly felt, she ought to sit since she was the wife of a Government official. But over our evening meals she was at her worst, for it was then, after the business of sightseeing was over, that she was able to cultivate her ingenuity. Before Constantine came down she would try to correct any pleasant impressions of the country we might have received during the day. She would tell us, "You do not understand how horrible this country is. You think it is grand when they talk of Serbian pioneers. You do not know what that means. Everybody who goes into the Civil Service and wants to get a good post must volunteer to work here in Macedonia for three years. That is abominable. I knew a woman doctor and she came down here, and they made her go to the smallest mountain villages and teach the people about health and the care of children and it was terrible, the peasants were just like animals, so filthy and stupid. Do you call that right to make an educated woman of good family do that.:" "But if one acquires territory that is not fully developed one must do that sort of thing," said my husband. "One is bound to have trouble and loss until it is done. We have had to do exactly the same thing in India." "You have done exactly the same thing in India?" repeated Gerda. "Yes, there are many English people in India who spend their lives doing such work among the natives, both missionaries and civil servants." Then, as Constantine took his place at the table, she said to him in Serbian, "Here our friend is telling us that the English do all sorts of philanthropic work among the natives in India. It is wonderful what hypocrites they are."
She robbed Constantine’s talk of all its quality. It is his habit, a harmless one, to begin a reminiscence, which is probably true and interesting, with a generalization based on it which is unsound but arresting. It is his way of saying, "Wake up! Wake up!" and nobody minds. Once at dinner he put down his wineglass and announced, "I do not think, but I know, I absolutely know, that most men do not die a natural death but are poisoned by their wives." Now my husband knew, and I knew, and Constantine knew that such a statement was stark nonsense, but we also knew that it was the prelude to a good story. But my husband said, "Indeed?" And I said, "Do you really think so?" and Constantine began to tell us how after he had worked for some time in Russia as an official under the Bolsheviks, to save his life, he could bear it no longer and he decided to escape. First he had to lose his identity and this he did by picking up a gipsy girl and travelling with her for two months from fair to fair as a palmist, till he got down to the Roumanian border. Again and again while he was reading women's hands they asked him if he could supply them with poison for the purpose of murdering their husbands. Nature, it is well known, always supplies its own antidote, and if it is natural for men to feel superior to women it is also natural for women to feed them with henbane when this superiority is carried past a joke. This story is borne out by the number of people who have been tried in Hungary during recent years for supplying poison to peasant women. Whatever Constantine wished to tell us in this connection we did not hear, for Gerda said crisply, "Dear me, I am glad that I am in the company of clever people who can believe such things as that most women poison their husbands." "But it is true," began poor Constantine. "Is it?" said Gerda. "I am only a simple woman, and I do not write books, but such things seem to me too foolish." There was then a wrangle in Serbian which left Constantine red and silent.
On all the occasions when Gerda had thus tied a tourniquet round the conversation, she would sit and watch me thoughtfully, making remarks in Serbian of which I could usually catch the meaning, which had always the same subject matter and style. "They must be very rich. Those two rings of hers must be worth a lot. But of course he is a typical English business man. Good God, how rich the English are!" "But how stupid she is, how stupid! She cannot possibly be a good writer. But of course there is no culture in England." These remarks I did not translate to my husband, but sometimes she could not bear him not to know that she was being rude to me, and she would say something uncivil in German, and sometimes her rage against us would flood her face with crimson.
After we had been to the theatre to see Yovanovna, an actress who was an old friend of Constantine's, play the leading part in a classic Serbian play, she was so melancholy with her hatred of us and England, so flushed and heavy with it, as one might be with the advent of a cold or influenza, that I went to bed early rather than have supper. Presently my husband came in and sat on my bed, and faced me with the air of one making a confession. "My dear," he said, "I am in the position of one who has gone into voluntary bankruptcy and still finds himself liable to imprisonment for debt. Tonight I thought Gerda so intolerable that I made up my mind to get rid of her. Good God, why should we not have this holiday. All this last year, when we were going through that terrible time with your aunt and my uncle dying, we promised ourselves we would have this short time together, doing nothing but seeing new things and being quiet. Why should we have this woman who hates us tying herself round our necks? Besides, how do we know when she will not mortally offend some of the people that we meet? So I suddenly made up my mind at supper that I would stand it no longer. After all, we can go to Ochrid alone, and we can see what is to be seen, without Constantine. It will be less delightful, for he is the most entertaining companion in the world, but it can be done. I said therefore over the supper-table, 'There will be too many of us in the car tomorrow.' I disliked the sound of my own voice intensely as I said it, but I set my teeth, and went on, determined to behave just as badly as she does. 'Three and all our luggage will be just as much as the car will carry. Your wife, Constantine, must travel by the motor bus to Ochrid, since you certainly must accompany us if we are to visit the monastery of Yovan Bigorski.' I believed that they would be silent for a moment and that Constantine would say, 'I am sorry, this arrangement will not suit me. My wife and I will be obliged to go to Belgrade tomorrow morning.' But there was a moment's silence and then they agreed. Now, I have behaved just as badly as she does, but I had gained absolutely nothing by it." I cared less than he did for the depressing moral aspect of the situation. I simply said, "I believe we shall have to go about with Gerda for the whole of the rest of our lives."
So the next morning we had an uneasy breakfast, and Gerda left by the eight o'clock bus, telling us bravely that she did not mind. We sat at a table in the street, drinking coffee and sheep's milk until the Ban's car came. A French journalist who was staying in the town delayed a moment to ask me whether I knew the works of Millet on the Serbo-Byzantine frescoes, bought some lilac from a passing boy and laid it on my table. Constantine, away for the moment to buy stamps, and my husband, away for the moment to buy tooth-paste, each met the same boy and had the same idea. An old Turk stood by and watched the increase of the purple heap on my table and over his face spread the thought, "These people are fond of lilac. They buy lilac. Since they have bought so much they might buy more." So we saw him go down a side street and look up at a small wall over which some lilac was bobbing from someone else's garden. There was a little negotiation with a barrel drawn from a neighbouring yard, and then the ragged aid legs shinned up the wall, a ragged turban and a lean old forearm worked among the branches. He brought back a very respectable armful, considering his age and the circumstances. It seemed hardly possible not to buy it.
A woman with a handsome face worn with suffering but not ascetic, showing a mouthful of gold teeth, stopped and greeted Constantine with pleasure, and I remembered it was one of the chambermaids where Constantine and I had stayed last year. She was glad to see us and showed it in a curiously fantastic and highfalutin way; and I remembered what Constantine had told me about her and the little blonde Slovene who was the other chambermaid. He had said, "Today my blind would not go up so I called them in to see it. But it was not serious, it was only that some plaster had fallen between it and the wall, nothing was broken. So I said to the chambermaid, 'Nothing is bad so long as it is unbroken,' and she said, looking a little vricked at me, 'Nothing is unbroken in these sinful days.' And then they both laughed a great deal, and they looked at my pyjamas, and said how gay they are, and if I wear such gay pyjamas when I am alone, how very gay they must be when I have a companion, and I say, 'It is not the pyjamas that make the gaiety when one has a companion! ' and at that they were so delighted that they ran out of the room, and then they ran back again and laughed some more, and then they ran out again. And now they like me very much, for that conversation represents something wonderful to them, it was a high-water mark of delicacy that they will perhaps never touch again. For they never talk to anybody about anything else than these matters, because they have nothing else to talk about to people who are strangers, who cannot talk about local things. But usually they have to talk about them to people who make jokes that are too bad, who are rude to them, who cannot be counted on not suddenly to show their teeth and become brutal. But I did not say a rude word, I was elegant with them. I am kind. So months after, years after, they will say to each other, 'Do you remember the gentleman who came from Belgrade with the English lady, and who talked to us in that wonderful, witty, drawing-room way? ' And it will be just that which I said to them." And here was proof that Constantine was right.
The handsome young chauffeur, whose name was Dragutin, said farewell to his wife, a slender dark child who looked like one of the Russian ballet, by chance heel-bound. We rushed through the broad valley, past the ruined mosque, past poppies and poplars and the last fruit blossom, to the town of Tetovo, which stands among many apple orchards. It is famous for those apples; there are songs about them; you may know that the hem of the hyperbolic East has touched here when you are told that some of them are so fine that they are transparent and that when you peel them you can see the pips at the core. We went out and drank black coffee at a coffee-house in a dusty market-place, and the bald-headed man who kept it came up with a tray of cakes and said, "Did you expect to see Dobosch Torte here? Did you expect to see Pozony here? Did you expect to see Nusstorte here?" and we said that we had not, and he said, "I will explain to you how this has happened. Once upon a time I had a very large bakery in Skoplje. I had many men working for me, and I backed the bill of a friend of mine for two hundred thousand dinars, and he ran away. So I had to sell all I had and start here afresh, and in a place that my wife hates, for she is a very cultivated lady, she comes from the north of the Danube. I have had to labour for five years like a convict, to face life with a clean forehead, and it is not even that I was foolish, for I was bound to back his bill, since in my beginning he had backed mine." He made us take some cakes for our journey, and a piece of sucking-pig. "For nowhere," he said, "will you find cakes as good as mine and there are few sucking-pigs like this. The whole of it weighed only eight pounds, and it is like butter." He mentioned food only objectively, but nothing is more certain than that he was a very greedy man. It was good to think that he had this consolation, living in such a remote place, in undeserved ruin, with a very cultivated lady.
On the outskirts of Tetovo we passed a mosque on the edge of a river which had a strange and dissolute air, for it was covered with paintings in the same Moslem Regency style as the harem in the Pasha's palace at Bardovtsi. Not an inch but had its diamond centred with a lozenge or a star, all in the most coquettish, interior decorator's polychrome. It languished in the midst of a sturdy Oriental wall, with square openings in it barred by wooden grilles, very fierce and very mystic. Rain had begun to fall but this mosque was so curious a thing, so inappropriate in its contrast to its builders, that we sent a boy for the key and waited for it, though he was long in coming. On the other side of the river were ruins of a Turkish bath; about us faultlessly proportioned Turkish houses slightly projected their upper stories; a little way off the house of a Turkish merchant, painted periwinkle blue, stood in a garden great enough to be called a park, lovely enough to be called by the Midi name for a garden, un paradoux. Not a dog barked. The quarter was tongue-tied with decay.
When the key came we entered into an astonishing scene, for every inch of the mosque inside was painted with fripperies in this amusing and self-consciously amused style. There was a frieze of tiny little views, of palaces on the Bosporus with ships neatly placed in the middle of the sound, of walled gardens with playing fountains and trees mingling their branches as in agreement, and on the ceiling were circles containing posies or views of buildings, Persian in origin but as remote from their origin as is London of today, though they were all that nearer. The vaulting under the galleries was painted with roses which proved that there must be a Turkish expression meaning "too divine." It was like being inside a building made of a lot of enormous tea-trays put together, the very most whimsical tea-trays that the gift department of Messrs. Fortnum & Mason would wish to provide. In this erection a fierce people had met to worship their militant prophet. I understand nothing, nothing at all.
Out of Tetovo we drove along a road between wide marshes trenched with yellow irises, lying between high hills where green terraces climbed to a blue barrenness, streaked by snow. Presently we came on the motor bus, which had broken down. We uncomfortably felt it our duty to stand by till it recovered. Gerda was standing with a Turkish woman in her late thirties, in widow's weeds, who was fat in the curious way of beautiful middle-aged Turkish women. She did not look like one fat woman, she looked like a cluster of beautiful women loosely attached to a common centre, and she was multiplied again by her excess of widow's weeds, which were enough for the bereaved of a small town. Her smile advertised sweetness under a thick layer of powder, like Turkish delight. She was, she said, the widow of a Belgrade actor, going home to see his parents at Debar. The bus started and we went ahead of it to Gostivar, which is another town shaped by the Turkish luxury that has departed. About the market square, which was edged with richety shops and characterless cafes and one Regency Moslem house that might have been a summer-house designed in our day for a lady of title by some international epicene, men walked about holding squealing lambs in their arms. We left the town and climbed up the mountainside to the pass, and saw how the comitadji were able to carry on their warfare, for we saw for the first time the Macedonian beechwoods and limewoods, leafy and stunted and dense. Under their green mantle an army could have its being and be invisible a quarter of a mile away. We stopped on the heights to look down at Gostivar, now a pool of russet roofs dripping across the river to a lower shelf, with minarets and poplars planted by it cunningly, and at the valley that drives broadly back to Tetovo between snow-brindled mountains to the ultimate pure white peaks. Dragutin left his car and at once cried out, as if hailing a fellow-soldier, and pointed his hand straight above him. An eagle soared above us with a chicken in its claws. We went on and came to the pass, a marshy stretch where there was still winter, and the trees and bushes were bare. Cattle and horses grazed, and they were ornery; it is an American word but it was made for Balkan beasts. On the wetter patches storks stood on one leg, all facing one way.
At an inn on which a stork sat immensely and superbly, as if not knowing that it was an inn, but thinking of it simply as what it sat on, we had a meal of excellent fish. Then the bus drove up, and Gerda came in. My husband, who was transfixed with horror at this turn his device had taken, plied her with fish and bread and wine, and asked her if she had had a comfortable journey. "Yes," she said, "several people have asked me why I am travelling by bus when my husband and friends are travelling in a car, but I have explained that these are English guests and they had to have the most comfortable seats." My husband ceased to offer her anything at all, he retired into himself and suffered.
Gerda ate in silence for a time and then she addressed herself to Constantine. "The Turkish widow," she said, "asked me if I had been to see Yovanovna, and I said that I had. She asked me if I considered her attractive, and I said yes, quite attractive. And then she said, but Yovanovna is more than quite attractive, she is very attractive. She must be, for she has had so many lovers. Then the woman asked me if I had ever heard of the famous poet called Constantine, and I said I had, and she said that all the world knew that he had been Yovanovna's lover for many years." After a moment Constantine said sadly, "Ach, what a wicked woman to say that to somebody she has just met in a bus!"
Just then the conductor put his head in at the door and said that he had lost time on the road, and he must start again at once. Gerda rose and went, and Constantine followed her. "But the Turkish widow must have recognized Constantine!" I exclaimed. "Her husband was an actor and for years Constantine was a dramatic critic, and anyway everybody knows him from the caricatures." "Of course the Turkish widow knew him," said my husband, "but what on earth can Gerda have been saying to the Turkish widow to make her land such a good one as that?" At this moment Constantine returned. He sat down and ate sucking-pig very pensively. "I have a very strong impression," he said, "that my wife would have liked to say something very disagreeable to me, but could not find what to say."
The road fell from the pass through a rocky gorge, sordid at first with rockfalls, which widened out into the valley that I had remembered as one of the loveliest things I had ever seen, where steep hillsides, far apart enough to be seen, fell again and again into the shapes that Earth would take if she found pleasure in herself and what she grows. Voluptuously the beechwoods stretch up to the snow, the grasslands down to the streams, the crags with their poplars and ashes come forward like the elbows of a yawning woman. There is a village on these hillsides which I think the most beautiful I have ever seen, anywhere in the world. It is called the Sorrowing Women, a name which, in a countryside where tragedy has till now been the common lot, must mark some ghastly happening. White houses, bluish white, all built tall, like towers, and yet like houses, with grey-brown roofs, stand on a ledge below the snow and beechwoods, and around them grow ashes and poplars and below a lawn falls to the river. There is one minaret. A path winds down through the lawn. The village has a unity like a person, one is disappointed that it cannot speak, that one cannot enter into any relation with it, that one must go away and leave it.
A few miles further on was a monastery that I had to visit for a special purpose. It was no hardship. The view from the monastery, which lies high, is one of the best in Europe, taking the eye the whole journey from the snowfields to the springing corn, over sculptured earth that it seems must have been composed with joy. Also the Abbot is one of the most completely created human beings I have ever met. When we went into the galleried courtyard he was coming down the staircase from the upper story, having heard our automobile as it wound its way up the hairpin bends through the limes. We knew he was on his way, because a servant standing in the courtyard looked up at the staircase and made a gesture such as might be used by an actor in a Shakespearean historical drama go announce the entrance of a king; and indeed the old man presented a royal though equivocal appearance, his face shining with a double light of majesty and cunning. He knew Constantine well, and gave him a comradely greeting, because he was a Government official. He himself had been appointed to this important monastery because he gad been an active pro-Serb propagandist in Macedonia before the war and could be trusted afterwards to persuade to conformity such Albanians and Bulgarians as were open to persuasion, and to assist the authorities in dealing with the others. He faintly remembered me from my previous visit, and it crossed his mind that my husband and I might be persons of consequence, since we were accompanied on our travels by a Government official, and a child could have detected him resolving to impress us and charm us. But also the thought of the vastness of the earth, and the great affairs that link and divide its several parts, made his mind stretch like a tiger ardent for the hunt, because he knew his aptness for such business.
We were taken up to the parlour, which was very clean and handsome, like the whole monastery. It had been a pilgrimage much beloved by various neighbouring towns which had been prosperous under the Turks because of their craftsmen, particularly in the eighteenth century, so the church and the monastery have been richly built and maintained. The servant brought us the usual coffee and some wine which the Abbot, though he was sparkling with good-will, poured out for us without any marked air of generosity, for which I respected him all the more. I had seen him roll his eye round us and come to the perfectly sound judgment that my husband and I were too Western to enjoy drinking wine in the afternoon, and he very sensibly regretted that he had to waste his good wine in this ceremonial libation. Then we settled down to a talk about international politics. He expressed confidence in England as the only country which had remained great after the war, partly because he wanted to please us, but partly because he had collected a certain amount of evidence, some of it true and some of it false, which seemed to him to prove our unique distinction. The part that Mussolini had played in financing and organizing Macedonian disorder made him regard Italy as a debauched and debauching brawler; and he had an insight into Hitler that came from his knowledge of the comitadji. He recognized that Hitler was one of those who preferred to send out others to fight rather than to fight himself, and that the Nazis were the kind of rebels who forget that the aim of any rebellion should be to establish order. "They are unrulers, Hitler and Mussolini," he said. A sudden thunder working in his eye, he said, "I am sure that Hitler does not believe in God"; and he added, after a minute, as if someone had objected that perhaps there was no God, "Well, what will a man like that believe in if he does not believe in God? Nothing good, it is certain." I think that in a single second he had boxed the compass, and passed from religious passion to scepticism and back again to faith, though now of a more prudential sort.
I noticed all this through a haze of pleasure caused by the man's immense animal vigour, and his twinkling charm, which was effective even when it was realized to be voluntary. His disingenuousness failed to repel for the same reason that made it transparently obvious. It was dictated by some active but superficial force in the foreground of his mind; but a fundamental sincerity, of the inflexible though not consciously moral sort found in true artists, watched what he was doing with absolute justice. All his intellectual processes were of a hard ability, beautiful to watch, but it was surprising to find that they were sometimes frustrated by his lack of knowledge. "France," he said, "is utterly decadent. It must be so, for she is atheist and Communist." "But indeed you are mistaken!" I exclaimed. "I know France well, and the country is full of life, a sound and sober and vigorous life." "If it interests you," said my husband, "French literature has not for long been so generally inspired by the religious spirit as it is today; and France is not Communist but democratic." "But democracy is an evil thing," said the Abbot, assuming a sublime expression of prophetic wisdom, "it is always the beginning of Communism." To hurry past this occasion for disagreement he began to talk about Mr. Gladstone and all that he had done for the South Slavs in their struggle with the Turks. This is a subject about which I never feel at ease, for I am not sure that Mr. Gladstone would have retained his enthusiasm for the Balkan Christians if he had really known them. Their eagerness not to be more sinned against than sinning if they could possibly help it, which was actually a most healthy reaction to their lot, might have repelled his ethical austerity. But I forgot my embarrassment in wondering whether the Abbot knew that Mr. Gladstone had been a leader of a democratic party. The answer was, of course, that he did not. His life had been spent in a continuous struggle for power, which had given him no time to pursue knowledge that was not of immediate use to him; and indeed such a pursuit would have been enormously difficult in his deprived and harried environment. But his poetic gift of intuitive apprehension, which was great, warned him how much there was to be known, and how intoxicating it would be to experience such contact with reality; and that perhaps accounted for his restlessness, his ambiguity, the perpetual splitting and refusion of his personality.
The Abbot showed us the church, which was very rich, with a gorgeously carved iconostasis and some ancient treasure; and as he closed the door he said to Constantine, "Of course the English have no real religious instinct, but they approve of religion because it holds society together." He wagged his beard gravely, infatuated with his dream that it is negotiation which makes the world go round. As we crossed the courtyard he halted and called angrily to his servant, pointing to a broken jar that lay among its oil on the cobbles. My eye was caught by the grime on his hand, and I could no longer contain my curiosity. I asked Constantine, "How is it that the Abbot is himself dirty when the monastery is so clean, and he obviously has a passion for order?" He answered, "He does it to be popular, because the older peasants think that a priest ought to be dirty if he is a really holy man," answered Constantine; "it is all the same to him, he would be clean if they wanted it." "What does she want to know?" asked the Abbot. "She is wondering what you were before you were a monk," invented Constantine. The Abbot glittered with his memories. "I was all," he said.
He took us out on a gallery that overhung the famous view. Under snow ridges the woods were a bronze and red mist, and lower down were green and shone like wet paint; then came the wide bosom of the terraced hillside, with its scattered villages white among their fruit trees and poplars. "How I would love to walk on that long snow ridge!" exclaimed my husband. "The Englishman says he would like to be up there on the snow," said Constantine, "I believe he does that sort of thing in Switzerland." "Tell him I have been there many times," said the Abbot, "there is not a peak in these parts I have not climbed." He looked at them, snorting with the aerial voluptuousness of the mountaineer, and his pectoral cross stirred on his cassock and gave out brilliance from its jewels. "That is a fine cross," said Constantine, and there followed a conversation from which it emerged, though at first not at all clearly, that it was a kind of cross which could be worn only by a monk on whom the Patriarch had conferred a certain honour, and that the Abbot had earned that honour the previous year, by inspiring some peasants in the neighbourhood to rebuild a ruined monastery; but that the cross was not a new possession, since he had bought it years before, when he had first taken orders, in the anticipation of rising to great heights in the Church. He admitted it with a certain reluctance, as if he knew ambition was too strong in him, but went on to say that what he must do next was to reconvert certain Serb villages which in the last years of Turkish oppression had become Moslem and taken to speaking Albanian. He pointed to a village on the hillside opposite. "You see the minaret? It means nothing. Five years ago I made them see reason, and they turned the mosque into a church." There was the expertise of Tammany about him.
Before we left Constantine told us that the pious peasant women of the district gave the monastery garments which they had worked to be sold to visitors from other parts of the country, who found the regional designs a novelty; and I asked, "May we buy some?" "That I am sure you can do," answered Constantine, "but I think he will charge you a great deal." When the Abbot heard what we wanted he opened a large cupboard, which was stuffed with these offerings, picked from here and from there, and spread what he had taken on the floor. This choice betrayed his characteristic dualism. It was made with an infallible taste, with the most profound wisdom about beauty; as I satisfied myself later, he had brought us out the best of his store. But his movements showed a certain contempt for the garments he handled and for us. It was evident that with his intellect he despised beauty, perhaps because of the incalculability which makes it useless to ambition. He watched us with real and radiant charm as well as a sneer while we put by a pair of woollen stockings knitted in a brilliant flower pattern, an apron woven in crimsons and purples, and a Debar head-dress of fine white linen embroidered in colours with crosses inscribed within circles.
As we turned over the heap to make some other purchases Dragutin put his head round the door and said, "I have come to see what all of you are doing, for it is time we were on our way to Ochrid, if we are to get there before dark." It could be seen from the greeting the Abbot gave him that they were on terms which were familiar but not good. As Dragutin was a strong pro-Yugoslav and had taken part in the guerrilla war against I.M.R.O. in this very district, he had probably often visited this monastery; and in the discontent there was between them one saw the sag of the Fuehrer prinzip, the tendency of all leaders to sit about between performances among their followers, accepting their praise until the weaker of them become sycophants and sending them on inglorious errands until the more villainous of them become parasites, hardening against the nobler of them because of their unamenability, and sometimes reacting in fury against the basely amenable because of the treachery to the first high hopes of the cause. There had evidently been a matter of favours rescinded, or of services withheld, and perhaps a combination of both. "You have chosen well," said Dragutin, looking at the garments on the floor. Without the slightest self-consciousness, since he was a manly young Serb, he coiffed his head with the Debar kerchief and tied the apron round his waist, and looked as much like a beautiful young girl as he could. "Do not our women dress themselves handsomely?" he asked in pride.
The Abbot watched him closely. He was pleased because young Yugoslavs were so upstanding and so decent, displeased because of the recollection of some offence against authority, which half of him admitted to have been justified. Moved by the desire to be friends again with this brave and honest young man, he turned back to the cupboard, groped for a minute or two, and took out a long linen sash, dyed red. "For you," he said to Dragutin; but his duplicity, which as always was quite transparent, revealed that in his heart there passed the words, "I must make this young man feel liking for me again, it is not safe to have him as an enemy." "Ha, ha, I'm in luck!" cried Dragutin, stripping off his kerchief and the apron, and winding the sash round and round his slim waist in bullfighter fashion. But he did not really forgive, and I had an impulse to be carping and resentful. The Abbot had made us as dualist as himself. For while we were criticizing him our sense of his superiority overarched us like a sort of fatherhood. Dragutin and I alike would have been amazed if his courage or his cunning had failed, and in time of danger we would run into the palm of his hand. We knew quite well that he cared for nothing but an idea, and that his heart regarded his own ambition without approval. If his ways were tortuous, those of nature are not less so, as the geneticist and the chemist know them. To reject this man was to reject life, though to accept him wholly would have been to doom life to be what it is for ever.
Before we left the Abbot thanked me again for the gift I had brought him, which was a signed photograph of Mr. Lloyd George, a statesman for whom he felt a passionate devotion, and who had sent it with sympathetic good-will. Dragutin could not stop talking about him for long after we had driven away. "Did you have enough of him?" he asked. "A good priest he is not. Bad priests there are in our Church, and good priests, and I know which he is. Once I went up to that monastery and I said, 'Father, I am hungry. What have you got to give me to eat?' and he said, 'Nothing.' But I knew where to look, and there I found a most beautiful little chicken, and I ate it all up. The Abbot came in as I was finishing it, and he was very angry. He said, 'Dragutin, you are a bad man,' and I said, 'No, I am not a bad man, but I was a hungry man.'" It is not easy to imagine this exchange taking place between a rural dean and a chauffeur in England. But in Orthodox Yugoslavia a monastery is still what it was in primitive times and under the Turks, a church where a Christian can pray, a place where he can picnic with his friends, a refuge where he can ask for a meal and a bed. Anybody can go to a monastery and sleep and eat there for three days. Not only in theory but in a considerable measure of fact the Church is a socialist institution.
"I bet," said Dragutin, as the road wound along between two walls covered with the spilling greenness of limewoods, on which villages rested like white birds with spread wings, "that the Abbot did not give you his best wine. That he keeps for the good of his own soul." "But we did not want his best wine," said Constantine. Dragutin thought for a long time and said, "That's not the point. A priest should. want to give you his best wine, whether you want it or not." Now we came out on a rougher valley, where the river ran strongly, into a smell of sulphur that became a reek and, at a point where hot springs fell to it over a cliff, a suffocation. "They're fine baths," said Dragutin, "and you can stay at the hotel beside the falls for ten dinars a day." "Ten pence a day! How can that be?" asked Constantine. "Oh, easy enough," said Dragutin, "here a hotel-keeper can buy a lamb for twenty dinars, feed his guests, and sell the skin for ten dinars. Yai! The ways I could make money if I had nine lives!"
The valley broadened to wide Biblical plains, stretching to distant mountains that were of no colour and all colours. The ground we looked on was sodden with blood and tears, for we were drawing near the Albanian frontier, and there are few parts of the world that have known more politically induced sorrow. Here the Turks fostered disorder, lest their subjects unite against them, and here after the war Albanians and Bulgarians fought against incorporation in Yugoslavia and had to be subdued by force. There was no help for it, since the Yugoslavs had to hold this district if they were to defend themselves against Italy. But to say that the conflict was inevitable is not to deny that it was hideous. This land, by a familiar irony, is astonishing in its beauty. Not even Greece is lovelier than this corner of Macedonia. Now a violet storm massed low on the far Albanian mountains, and on the green plains at their feet walked light, light that was pouring through a hole in the dark sky, but not as a ray, as a cloud, not bounded yet definite, a formless being which was very present, as like God as anything we may see. It is a land made for the exhibition of mysteries, this Macedonia. Here made manifest a chief element in human disappointment, the discrepancy between our lives and their framework. The earth is a stage exquisitely set; too often destiny will not let us act on it, or forces us to perform a hideous melodrama. Our amazement is set forth here in Macedonia in these tragically sculptured mountains and forests, in the white village called the Sorrowing Women, in the maintained light that walked as God on the fields where hatreds are like poppies among the corn.
Constantine cried as we took a road to the right, "Where are you taking us, Dragutin? This is not the way to Ochrid." "No," answered Dragutin, "but it is the road to Debar, and they must see Debar, of which it was said, 'If Constantinople is burned down Debar can build it up again,' Debar which is now in Yugoslavia." "Perhaps you are right," said Constantine, "also it seems to me that I once drank wine in Debar, and that it was good. We may perhaps find a bottle." "I think you must have been young and happy when you drank it," said Dragutin, "for the wine here is not very good. But we can try it." Low on the hillside facing the plains and the Albanian mountains, lay our Debar: a double town, its white houses collected in an upper pool and a lower one, its minarets and its poplars placed so that the heart contracted, and it became an anguish to think that one would not be able to recollect perfectly its perfection. Within the town we found an elegance that made the luxury of Tetovo and Gostivar seem mere fumbling, and we perceived that this place had been the subject of a miracle for which all artists would pray, though they might be much relieved if their prayers were not answered. In the early Middle Ages it was famous for its craftsmen, for its goldsmiths and its silversmiths, its woodcarvers and weavers and embroiderers; and when the Turks came against them they were lost only to be saved, for they were immured with their tradition at its height. They were thus protected for five centuries from the grossness which infected their fellow-workmen in the West when life became commercial and ideas confused. I could not find out whether metal-work of the highest order was still carried on in Debar, but up till the Balkan wars it had craftsmen who could work gold and silver in the Byzantine manner. All over the Balkans there are to be found on altars Debar crosses, which enclose minute and living sculptures of the life of Christ in filigree which is not trivial, which has the playful vital purpose of tendrils. Some of the men who made these have been dead since the fourteenth century, others still live.
All the city breathes of instruction by a gifted past. At least one out of every three women wears the Debar head-dress, and of these white veils spotted with scarlet or crimson circles inscribed with crosses in purple or some other shade of red, almost none fails to be a masterpiece o f abstract design. It is not written that men or groups should achieve such perfection by the first efforts of their eyes and hands; it is the fruit of more failures than are within the scope of one generation. And this tradition is visible not only in the special talents of the town but in its general air of urbanity. It lies on the wild frontiers of Albania, and through the streets run the cold torrents shed by the snows of the peaks above, where generation after generation of men whom tyranny had turned to wolves lurked and raided, yet here the people moved as the citizens of great cities should but do not, treading neatly on fine narrow feet, carrying their heads neither too high nor too low, not staring at the stranger and coldly lowering their eyes should he stare. They walked between houses worthy of them, which spoke of good living as proudly as any Georgian mansion, but with the voice of ghosts, for the roofs were buckling and the windows broken and boarded, and the wild grasses grew long in their gardens. There lay on this lovely town the shadow of ruin which must deepen, which could never pass. It was not conceivable that history could take any turn which should restore Debar to prosperity. Its beauty was the spilled sweetness from a cup that had been overturned, utterly emptied, and shattered. On the plains the light walked no more, and the green hills round the town, pricked askew with the white tombs of the careless Moslem dead, seemed to be saving a final word. In a country where death devoured that which most deserved to live, the Abbot's lechery for life, his determination to defend it by cunning could be seen as precious.
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