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

Macedonia (South Serbia)
Ochrid IV

GERDA and Constantine looked quietly happy. "I did not make too much of my speech," said Constantine, "but this is Bishop Nikolai s stamping ground, he must be allowed to do all the shining here. I was thinking that now your husband has seen the Bishop it would be a good thing if we went to the little monastery where we went with the poet last year. It has a very pretty view and it would be a good end to such a nice morning." I thought it was an excellent idea, for we certainly had to go somewhere, we could not stay where we were, and I remembered the monastery as a pleasant place in the hills behind Ochrid. We had gone there with a young poet of the town to find a place where he could read Constantine his verses without all his friends looking on, but it had not proved very suitable for this. A little dog in the cloisters belonging to a nun had howled incessantly because his mistress had gone into the town to do some shopping; and the priest, a sturdy old man of seventy with ten children, of whom either six or seven, he said, were sons, was distressed by the proceedings. He kept on muttering, "Verses, tut, tut! It's all right to make up a song in one's head; but to write it down, you can't tell me that's not a waste of time." The old man was relieved when the poetry-reading was finished and he could take us down to the village and introduce us to his mother, who was sitting on the edge of a fountain with several companions of her own age.

Macedonia makes one doubt many things that one has previously believed, and in nothing is it more unsettling than in its numbers of immensely aged people. They must be old, though probably not as old as they say, but still very old, because one finds them living in the same house with five generations of their descendants. Yet Macedonians have shocking teeth. It is possible that dentists are such deceptions as Solomon said that strange women were, that our puritanism has persuaded us to go to the dentists because the drill hurts, and that what we heed today is more dental caries.

But when we got to the monastery the priest and his family had gone, and there was a new priest, a man in his late twenties from Debar, sensitive and a little sad, obviously not robust, and wearing spectacles with very strong lenses. He took us into the church and showed us the frescoes, which were very bad modern peasant stuff; there was a Last Judgment which represented the saved as fitted with hard little haloes like boiled eggs, the apotheosis of the good egg. We looked at Ochrid, lying beyond the green and crimson plains against the white silk of the lake, and then we would have gone away had it not been that the priest was so gently eager for us to stay. We did not want to eat for we had already had both breakfast and the church meal, which had comprised really a great deal of wine and lamb and fish and eggs and garlic, and it was not yet noon; but he hurried away with a shining face and got us some wine and sheep's cheese and eggs, and took us up to his room to eat them. The room was bitterly poor. The mattress of his bed was laid not on a bedstead but on timber trestles, the towels were poor wisps of cotton, and there were no rugs on the floor and no books. He sat and smiled at us and asked questions about life outside Macedonia, of which he seemed to know very little. He spoke with something that was not quite curiosity, that was more tactile; the effect was as if a very gentle blind person were running his finger-tips over one's features.

Suddenly his face fell and we heard the clattering of feet coming up the wooden staircase, very fast. He put down his wineglass and drew his hand across his forehead. The door was thrown open and a nun hurried in, a woman of about fifty-five or sixty. She said, "Thank God you're still here," and sat down on the priest's bed and asked who we all were, panting for breath and fanning herself. "Well, well," she said, the second Constantine had finished introducing us, "you're all very interesting people, but I've had an interesting life, you can't say I haven't, you wait till you hear it. "The priest uttered a low sound expressive of agony and fatigue. "I am a Serbian," she began after she had taken a full breath, "I come of a very rich family of the Shumadiya, and I was married very young, naturally enough, for I was very beautiful and everybody in the world wanted to marry me. I was early left the childless widow of the eldest of four rich brothers, and all of them loved me very much, all my family and my husband's brothers, I was their darling and I had everything a woman could want. So I was proud and I was beautiful, I was very beautiful." I said to my husband, "But this woman has never been beautiful." My husband said in choked tones as if he were making a grave accusation, "She is like a milkman's horse."

"And," said the nun, "I was very coquettish. See, I had one flaw in my beauty" – she tilted up her tall nun' s hat to show us what it was– "I had a very high forehead. People used to say to me, 'You have the brow of a professor,' and I used to weep all night because I had this one fault, and then I took to covering it with curls, with little, little, fine curls which took hours to make. And I sang, and I danced, and I was cruel with those who loved me, and so the time passed. But once I dreamed – I dreamed a most wonderful dream." She caught her breath and stared in front of her. The priest made a gesture which made me recall those lines in which Coleridge fixed for ever the feelings of those who listen to a long tale when they want to do something else:

The Wedding Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.

But she continued. We were as fresh blood in the vampire's mouth.

In her dream, she told us, the Mother of God had appeared before her, holding a most beautiful child, which she had put into her arms. She had felt the weight and warmth of the child as she held it and experienced a most wonderful glow of joy; and when she woke up she could not believe that it had not really happened. She was worried by this dream, and had told everybody about it, but nobody could tell her what it meant, though once her mother had said to her, "I believe that dream means that you will have this child, but it will not be yours, it will be called by another name." Some years passed and she went to a Christian Belief meeting and heard a young theological student make a speech, and as he spoke she had to grip her seat to prevent herself from falling unconscious on the floor, for she recognized him as the child of her dreams grown into a man. At once she sought him out, and as he was an orphan she adopted him as her son. Soon she found a rich girl for him to marry, and then there was trouble. He would not marry this heiress, for he had fallen in love with a poor girl, who was not only poor, but tuberculous.

"I was very angry," said the nun, but then a priest in a monastery said to me, 'Your son will marry the girl he loves, but it will last only three days,' so after that I did not work against his marriage, though I made him promise that he would not sleep with her, for fear he should get tuberculosis." Then, three days after they were married, the girl had fallen dead in her husband's arms while they were standing together by a window. The nun's attitude to this happening was that of a fisherman who pulls in his line and finds a very large fish on the end of it. A short while afterwards, while she was in Albania, staying with a friend, she had heard that the bereaved boy had announced his intention of becoming a monk, so she and the friend had immediately started for Belgrade and tried to prevent him.

At this point in the story the nun stamped on the floor to show just how hard she had tried to prevent him; and the poor young priest went and looked out of the window, pressing his forehead against the glass. But it had been no use, she continued, her adopted son said that he had promised his wife that if she died he would become a monk. So she had said that she would become a nun, and had done so. And her friend from Albania had been so impressed by the proceedings that she also had become a nun. "Not," said this nun, "that that was much sacrifice, for she was over sixty and not at all good-looking. But I, who was young and beautiful and had everything, I was now to live on nothing, on what people gave me, on what my dog might have had when I was rich. Now did you ever hear such a story in your life?"

One rarely had, for it was purely nihilist. It disclosed no amiable characteristics on the part of the teller, it seemed to consist solely of a capacity for obsession; it disclosed no sense of anybody else's characteristics, the other persons were faceless puppets, though certainly as she went on one had a curious fancy that the theological student talked to his adopted mother downward from the branches of a tree. "Did your English friends ever hear such a story?" gleefully demanded the nun, looking in to our faces and slapping us on the back. "Now you must come and see my room." Over her bed hung an immensely enlarged photograph of herself when young, which showed that she had indeed never been beautiful, that my husband had been right, she had always had the long-faced vivacity of not the best sort of horse. She must have rushed through life stamping and shouting and adopting people who were not of her kind and adopting careers for which she had no vocation, and preventing life from forming a coherent pattern.

We went back to the priest's room for a little while but it was useless. She sat and talked, her bony hand twitching on her lap with a desire for activity which had no relation to those movements which actually produce any result, to the movements one makes in playing a musical instrument or writing; and the priest watched her in a silence he would not have broken even if she had let him. He would have to live with this woman in this small monastery which was at least five miles from the town till his ecclesiastical superiors removed him.

When we got into the automobile Constantine turned to us and beamed. "There is our true Slav mysticism," he said, "I am glad that you are not to leave Yugoslavia without seeing something of that side of our lives." "Yes," said Gerda, "she is like someone in Tolstoy."

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