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

Macedonia (South Serbia)
Ochrid II

WE sat for a time by the Church of Sveti Yovan. There were no yellow flowers any more, but a great deal of small purple stock. Presently the lake became a savage green and it grew cold, and we climbed a hill to the fortress, which is no more than a small encircling the summit, girt with olive orchards and country houses built in the Turkish style, now wistful in decay. We let Constantine and Gerda go on ahead and trespassed among the fruit trees of the loveliest of all these houses, which, with its pale plaster, its grey and crumbling woodwork, was like a ghost, not nearly as substantial as the blossom round it. But a violent storm opened above us like a flower, and we hurried down towards the hotel. We had not got far, however, when Constantine and Gerda called to us from a garden. They were sitting at a table under an acacia tree with a dozen people, and they said, "Come in, it is the birthday of the man who lives here, and they want us all to drink a glass of wine."

There came forward to welcome us a young man who looked like a great many Londoners, who might have been the office wag in a small City business, and his wife, who was lovely but too thin and too pallid. There is a great deal of anemia among Yugoslavian women. We sat down at a table, and they gave us a great deal of wine, very quickly, and even more food. There was a tart filled with spinach, exquisite yoghourt, and a wonderful sweet made of flour drawn fine as coconut and flavoured with orange and chopped nuts. The husband explained that he had made all these himself, since he was a pastrycook, and deserved no credit, for his family had been pastrycooks since timeout of mind, "as many of our people are," he said, "for we are Bulgarians." He said that he had three brothers away working abroad. "Where are they?" asked Constantine. There was a pause. We had been in the town over twelve hours, and of course everybody knew that he was a Government official. "One in Australia and two in Bulgaria," said the pastry-cook. These were evidently not only Bulgarians, but Bulgarian adherents, who kept up the connection with the country of their allegiance.

Just then it came on to rain, and the feast had to be moved into the house. There was a fat man, a chauffeur, who turned this into an entertainment by carrying in the dishes in the manner of various local dignitaries. In the house we found the owner's mother, who was one of the slender handsome old ladies for which Ochrid is so remarkable. We found that the refinement of her type was not a mere matter of appearance: she had fine manners, she knew certain things well, and she could express herself with perfect precision.. The room where we sat was curiously like a Turkish room, with a wooden bench covered with cushions running along each side of the room, some rugs hung on the walls, and no other furniture. This was surprising, as the whole family was so definitely not of Oriental type, and the young people, who were all wearing Western clothes, could have been taken for English or French. The pastrycook's wife started showing us the embroideries she had done for the house, which were infinitely distressing; she had inherited the national dexterity of the Macedonian woman, but she had employed it on the most frightful designs that could ever be found in an art needlework shop in Brighton. It is an odd thing that when these women drop the Byzantine tradition of design, even though they have been themselves inventing interesting variations of it, they show no discrimination and will copy with delight the crudest naturalist representations of fruit and flowers in vile colours on grab backgrounds; yet it cannot be said that they are without taste, for they often make themselves the most beautiful dresses in the Western style. Just then Dragutin turned up with the car, for he had already learned in a cafe in the centre of the town where we were, and thought it was a long way for us to walk home in the rain. But the pastrycook would not let us leave yet, so my husband drove back to the hotel, to fetch a box of sweets we had brought on the chance of such an occasion as this.

When my husband had gone the old mother showed me a photograph of her son who was in Australia, and the girl he had just married, who was a luscious Jewess. The fat chauffeur seized the photograph and held it out at arm's length, rocking himself from side to side and making smacking noises. Another picture showed the young couple surrounded by their friends at their wedding reception. "The dear girl," said the old mother, "he is going to bring her back here in a few years' time. " The mind started back at the thought of the tragedy this statement might foretell. The girl and her friends looked pleasant people but plainly they were dominated by manufactured goods; they would set an immense value on their automobiles, their radios, their refrigerators, and the cinema, and it might be that they could not exist apart from command over machines. It was odd that the degree to which the girl would be able to understand this distinctively Christian home would depend on the degree to which she had remained distinctively Jewish. If she had maintained that link with tradition she might realize the nature of this home, with its hearthstone founded on the past.

The mother brought out yet another photograph, this one showing the son standing with the rest of the staff in the restaurant where he worked, and they asked Constantine to translate the inscription that was painted on the wall. They were evidently puzzled when he had spoken, and made some speculations about the ascetic and exalted character of Australians, which seemed to me unfounded; and I found that Constantine had rendered "Cleanliness is our motto" as "Purity is our creed." Then the mother said that her son wanted her to go to Australia, but she would not go. She said she had heard that in these big towns people had no neighbours, that actually people might live on one story of a building and not know the people on the others. That was dreadful, you couldn't even say it was like the animals, it was quite a new sort of wickedness. But she had done something about it: she had written to the son in Australia and the sons in Sofia and told them that she would come to see them if they sent the money, and they sent it, and she put it in the bank. Otherwise they would have spent it, and they'd be glad of it some day, for the absurd wages that young people got nowadays couldn't go on for ever. Pourvu que cela dure, Letizia Bonaparte used to say.

By this time I was becoming anxious because my husband had not returned, for the hotel was only five minutes away, and it was possible that Dragutin had for once been too clever about racing up and down these cobbled alleys. They noticed my distress, and one of the men went out to see if he could find the automobile. The old lady went to the window and said, "Look, there are some gipsies going up to the fortress. That's funny. I don't know why they would go up there this afternoon. They were all up there yesterday; they go up there every year on that date, because a gipsy was once buried inside the fortress that day. And the odd thing is the poor silly things don't know who it was. I've asked them again and again, and they just say, 'Oh, he was one of us, and a great chief, but we don't remember his name, for it was all a long time ago.'" I thought she was giving this information in a forced manner, and I saw that it was to distract the attention of Gerda and myself from what was going on at the other end of the room. There Constantine was standing with the husband and his friends opposite a frame containing several photographs which was hanging on the wall, oddly high. The young men were whispering into his ear and shielding their mouths with their hands, and he had assumed the expression of an indulgent man of the world. Soon afterwards the wife came in with a fresh bottle of wine, and I used the social movements this caused as an excuse to edge up to the frame. It contained several photographs marked Lille and Anvers and Bruxelles, all but one representing a young man of the year 1900, with a bowler hat and a short tightly waisted coat and a thick tie and waggish trousers, a rude but spirited imitation of the Boni de Castellane "Oh, what a cad I am" pattern. The exception, which was marked Lille, showed a woman with a Roman nose and a bust of like minatory curve, and a chignon like a brick. Constantine said to me, "The man was the old lady's brother, who went to be a pastrycook in Belgium and France; the woman was his mistress. It is the great shame and glory of this family that they had an uncle who had a French mistress, and the old lady sometimes says she will take her photograph out of the frame and burn it. But that is how the frame was sent to them, and he is dead, and the mistress is dead also, and so she does not like to make away with it, and indeed they all feel that there is something strange and gay about it."

A little while afterwards I went to the endow and looked out in vain, and said, "I wish I knew what had happened to my husband!" At that the young wife exclaimed, "Now this is very curious! Haven't you always heard that English wives were very cold to their husbands? But just see, she's anxious, she's really very anxious about him." "Well," said the old mother, "he looks a very good man, I'm sure he'll be a kind husband, and don't tell me there's any part of the world where women don't like kind husbands." Then the friend who had gone out to look for my husband came running in, clapping his hands and crying joyfully. "He is safe, thanks to God he is safe, but there has been an accident!" The company responded to this announcement with a handsome interest, and listened with cries to his account of how the car had fallen into a ditch and had had to he dragged out by oxen. When my husband came in with the sweets he was greeted as one returned from death, and another bottle of wine was opened. When the exclamations died down the fat chauffeur looked at us over his glass, sighed sentimentally, and said, "Yes, they're fond of each other all right, look how close they are sitting and they aren't young either."

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