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

Macedonia (South Serbia)
Ochrid III

THE next morning we woke late and breakfasted under the ash trees by the lake, in the best day this spring had yet given us. The lake was blue and feathered by a light wind, and the red fallow fields and the green pastures were mirrored so indistinctly that they formed a changing abstract pattern, lovely to watch. The mountains on the far shore were a hazy silver, but near at hand all was sharp-cut. Across the bay every house in old Ochrid showed its individual distinction, which was often of the slightest nature, lying in the curve in a pediment, the thrust of a bracket that held up a projecting upper story, but was always as important, in its architectural sphere, as the length of Cleopatra's nose. Time went on, and the hour approached when we should go to the service conducted by Bishop Nikolai. We had made the extremest efforts to inform ourselves exactly when and where this was to take place. We had even taken the precaution, on leaving the pastrycook's agreeable party, to go to the church, which was small but filled with the idea of magnificence, and eras strangely set in a pretty cottagey garden full of lilacs and irises, on a road running down from the fortress, and there Dragutin had sought among the neighbouring houses for the sacristan, from whom he had learned beyond all possibility of doubt that the Mass was to be celebrated the next day at half-past nine. But at twenty-five-past nine Constantine and Gerda were not ready, and when we knocked on his door he said that it was all right, the service did not begin till ten. We corrected the impression and went downstairs again and sat in the automobile.

At a quarter to ten Dragutin left the wheel and ran into the hotel, adopting the methods of one trying to make geese leave an outhouse, waving his arms and shouting, "Aide! Aaide!" (This means "Come on" or "Go out," and indeed any movement which is sought to be imposed by one person on another.) Five minutes later he hustled out Constantine and Gerda, and at ten we were where we had often been before, driving against a tide of glowing worshippers, hurrying away from their refreshment. But the urgency had gone from these people, they were standing about and gossiping. I burst into tears and said to my husband, "You will never see Bishop Nikolai, and it is ridiculous, because there is no reason why you should not, and you ought to see him, because he is what these people like." "But you shall see him," said Dragutin. He jumped out and spoke to a passing priest, jumped back and swung round the automobile till it headed for the alleys of the old town again, and brought us to a spot which in that town of delicate desolation was singularly bald in its decay. We got out and stood on a ledge; below us a long untended garden ran down to some houses that were mere lath and plaster, and above us, beside a house which had lost its whole facade and had grimly replaced it with a sheet of rusted iron, was the mouth of an alley that rose to a plot of waste ground. A few steps up this alley was a doorway, and Dragutin said, "Go in there and you will find the Bishop, the church is having its feast." I went in and found an unkempt garden before a small and battered church, full of people who were all looking at the loggia in front of it. There was Bishop Nikolai at the head of a table laid for a meal, where some priests and a nun, a man in uniform, and several men and women in ordinary clothes were sitting, all with their faces turned towards him. I was surprised that the feast of a church should be a real feast, where there was eating and drinking.

Bishop Nikolai stood up and welcomed us, and I knew that he was not at all glad to see us. I was aware that he did not like Constantine and that he was not sure of me, that he thought I might turn and rend any situation at which he permitted me to be present by some Western treachery. I did not greatly care what he thought of me, for I was too greatly interested in him, and any personal relations between us could not aid my interest, for I could get everything out of him that I could ever get by watching him. He struck me now, as when I had seen him for the first time in the previous year, as the most remarkable human being I have ever met, not because he was wise or good, for I have still no idea to what degree he is either, but because he was the supreme magician. He had command over the means of making magic, in his great personal beauty, which was of the lion's kind, and in the thundering murmur of his voice, which by its double quality, grand and yet guttural, suggests that he could speak to gods and men and beasts. He had full knowledge of what comfort men seek in magic, and how they long to learn that defeat is not defeat and that love is serviceable. He had a warm knowledge of how magic can prove this up to the hilt. He had a cold knowledge, which he would not share with any living thing, of the limited avail of magic, and how its victories cannot be won or the material battlefield where man longs to see them. He was so apt for magic that had it not existed he could have invented it. He saw all earth as its expression. When he greeted our undesired party, when he turned to command order in the mob of peasants and children and beggars that filled the garden and looked over the walls from outside, there was a blindish and blocked look in his eyes, as if he asked himself, "Of what incantation is this the end? What is the rite we are now performing? Is this white magic or black?"

He bade us take seats at the table, and I looked round and saw some people whom I had met at Ochrid on the first visit. There was the Abbot of the Monastery of Sveti Naum, which lies at the other end of the lake: an old man with a face infinitely fastidious, yet wholly without peevishness, a Macedonian who was a priest under the Turks and lived all his youth and manhood under the threat of sudden death and yet remained uninfected by the idea of violence; and there was a red-haired priest who sings marvellously, like a bull with a golden roar, and laughs like a bull with a golden nature, and who is much in request in Ochrid for christenings and weddings. Others were new: among them a schoolmistress who had been a Serbian pioneer here long before the Balkan wars, a jolly old soul; an immense officer of the gendarmerie, a Montenegrin, like all Montenegrins sealed in the perfection of his virility, as doubtless the Homeric heroes were; a functionary who was in charge of the Works Department of Ochrid, a dark and active man, one of those enigmatic beings who fill such posts, facing the modern world with a peasant strength and a peasant reticence, so that the stranger cannot grasp the way of it.

We all began to eat. The crowd in the garden bought rolls from pedlars, and ice-cream cones from a barrow that was standing under the church steps. We at the table had cold lamb, hard-boiled eggs, sheep's cheese, cold fried fish, unleavened bread and young garlic, which is like a richer and larger spring onion. The Bishop said to my husband, with hatred of Western Europe's hatred of the Balkans in his voice, "This is something you English do not eat, but we are an Eastern people, and all Eastern peoples must have it." He gave me a hard-boiled egg and took one himself, and made me strike his at the same time that he struck mine. "The one that cracks the other's egg shall be the master," he said. It was to amuse the people and to give himself a moment's liberty not to think, for he was heavy with fatigue. Ever since Easter he had been going from church to church, carrying on the sorcery of these long services, and offering himself as a target for the trust of the people. He had to go on to some other church, and soon he let the crowd see that he must before long dismiss them.

They grieved at it, they gobbled up their rolls and ice-cream cones or threw them on the ground and crushed forward to the table. Bishop Nikolai stood up and cried, "Christ is risen!" and they answered, "In-deed He is risen!" Three times he spoke and they answered, and then they stretched out their hands and he gave them eggs from a great bowl in front of him. This was pure magic. They cried out as if it were talismans and not eggs that they asked for; and the Bishop gave out the eggs with an air of generosity that was purely impersonal, as if he were the conduit for a force greater than himself. When there were no more eggs in the bowl the people wailed as if there were to be no more children born into the world, and when more eggs were found elsewhere on the table the exultation was as if there were to be no more death. There was a group of little boys standing by the Bishop, who wailed and cheered with the passion of their elders, but had to wait until the last, since they were children. To these Gerda now began to distribute eggs from a bowl that was near her.

This was the moment that we all fear when we are little, the moment when some breach of decorum would put an event into a shape so disgusting that nobody who saw it could bear to go on living. Later we learn to disbelieve in this moment, so many of the prescriptions laid on our infant mind are nonsense, but we are wrong. The word "shocking" has a meaning. There are things that shock, other than crimes. We did not feel any special shame at Gerda's action because we had come to the feast with her, we had not got to that yet, it was to come later. For the moment we simply participated in the staring horror that was shown by everybody at the table. The children to whom she held out the eggs took them awkwardly, not knowing what else to do, and then withdrew their attention from her, like animals turning from one of their kind who is sick. Bishop Nikolai, turning towards her and dropping his eyes as if he were looking at her through his lids, was like Prospero, letting by in silence one of his creature's faults. But Gerda felt in the bowl for another egg and was about to hold it out to the children, when my husband said to her, "You cannot do that." She hesitated, then drew back the corners of her mouth in an insincere imitation of a motherly smile, and said, quite untruly, "But some of the children were crying." Her hand went back to the bowl, and it was not certain what she would do, or what Bishop Nikolai would do, when a distraction came to save us.

Through the doorway from the alley a beggar came into the garden. He was old and in rags and very filthy, and it could be judged he was blind, for he was tapping his way with a staff, and his eyes gleamed like dead ash. He stopped and asked that he should be led to the Bishop, and half a dozen people busied themselves in bringing him up to the table. Once there he said some words of greeting to the Bishop, threw back his sightless head and shuddered, laid his foul hands on my husband's shoulders to steady himself, then stood upright and burst into song. "I do not know who this man is," said the red-haired priest in my ear, "he is not of Ochrid. And this hymn he is singing is very old." That it might well have been, for it proceeded from the classic age of faith, before the corruption and masochism had crept in, before the idea of the atonement had turned worship into barter. It adored; it did not try to earn salvation by adoring; it adored what it had destroyed, and felt anguish at the destruction, and rejoiced because death had been cheated and the destroyed one lived. Again the sunshine seemed part of a liberated radiance.

He ceased, crossed himself with a gesture not of self-congratulation but of abandonment, and the Bishop called him to the table, gave him his blessing, and filled his hands with bread and lamb and garlic and eggs. He went away and sat on the grass under a fig tree and ate his meal, licking the meat off the bones very happily, and we all talked easily at the table. "There used to be many beggars like this in the old days," they told us. "It was believed that when a man became blind it must be because God wished him not to see but to think, and that it was his duty to leave his home and go where the spirit called, living on what people gave him. But now there is doubt everywhere and nobody thinks of such things." The occasion was entirely restored. At length Bishop Nikolai made a speech proposing the civil servant as president of the church council for the coming year, a speech full of gentle little jokes, and led the children's cheers for him. Then he made a civil reference to my husband and myself, expressing pleasure that people should come all the way from England to Ochrid; and I found the pale old Abbot of Sveti Naum standing by me, like a courteous ghost, holding out an egg in his thin hand. "He says," translated the Bishop whose English is beautiful, as befits one who once preached in St. Paul's Cathedral, "that he is giving you this to take to your parish priest, as a symbol that the Anglican Church and the Orthodox Church are united in the risen Christ, not the huried Christ, but the Christ who lives for ever. Have you got a parish priest?" he inquired very doubtfully. I said, truthfully, but perhaps evasively, "I will take it to my cousin, who is priest of a church that was built when the Anglican Church and the Orthodox Church were one," and I tied up the egg in my handkerchief. Bishop Nikolai watched my fingers absently, his hands tightening on the edge of the table, ready to take his weight when he rose.

Then the moment which had been averted returned. Constantine got on his feet and began to make a speech. I do not know what he said, but the Bishop was Prospero again, this time a wearied and infuriated Prospero who had at last lost patience with his creatures. He raised his great head and emitted a look the like of which I had not seen, as of a god ordering that the sun should eclipse the moon and thereafter do its work. But Constantine was not affected, because he was engaged in an enterprise that was itself not without grandeur. For Gerda's monstrous action had denied the validity of magic, and had asserted that an egg given by a human hand must be the same as an egg given by any other human hand; and there had come to annul her action an action, as extraordinary, and indeed more extraordinary, since an ecstasy of well-being is more difficult to come by than a convulsion of pain, and the blind beggar had made his declaration that magic keeps all its promises. So Gerda had been forgotten, and indeed forgiven. But out of loyalty to the strange land where they had lived together, in isolation from the common custom, Constantine was committing again what she had committed, in order that it should stand in spite of the exquisite correction it had received; and he performed this action in the way that would give her pleasure, on a lower plane than hers. When she had given away the eggs it had been with a certain dignity, as if she were the competent mother of a family; but he was now the Jewish comedian. He stood up in clothes crumpled with travel before these people, who were not used to short and stout Jews that jump about and are voluble, who know only the tall and hawk-like Jews that move quietly and are silent, and before their wondering gaze he waved his little arms and spoke so fast and loud that a speck of foam showed on his lower lip. The Bishop could not support the spectacle. He surged out of his chair and, looming about the small Constantine, bade the children give three cheers for him. But when they had finished Constantine went on speaking. The Bishop filled his glass, pouring the wine so wildly that the cloth round it was purpled, and stretched out his huge arm over the table, in front of Constantine's flushed and shining face, and drank a toast to the company. Even then Constantine still went on speaking, so utterly fixed was he in his double intention, which every moment disclosed a more dreadful beauty, to uphold Gerda in her attack on the world, and to uphold her in her contempt for him. The Bishop beat down his glass on the table, said his farewells with a stateliness that was the calm at the heart of a storm, thrust back his chair so that it fell into the hands of the children behind him, and strode out of the garden, the crowd shuffling after him. Soon there was nothing to be seen but the trodden grass. We were left standing at the table, the other guests looking at us curiously.

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