The insurgent provinces
THE LIGHTER SIDE
A HUGE bare room, two or three martial pictures on the wall, and sitting round a long table set out for a meal, a score of Bulgarian officers. It is the mess of the mountain batteries stationed in Samakov. Trim, well-set-up young fellows they are, smart in their dark blue double-breasted tunics and black velvet facings, springing smartly to their feet as the Major ushers us into their midst. There are a few other guests, a staff captain, one or two infantrymen and a dragoon subaltern, all tanned to a deep red by the fierce sun and biting wind from the mountains.
We are greeted warmly with a hearty handshake and installed at the head of the table, whilst an artillery subaltern remonstrates with his major that he did not warn them.
"He is always doing this," he remarks apologetically to us in French.
A gigantic gunner, the mess waiter (he must have been 6 feet 6 inches), sets food before us, and when we have eaten our fill and the wine flagons have been more than once emptied, those officers who speak foreign languages congregate around us. There is one battery commandant, a bearded captain, who speaks German, and a subaltern who has studied in Vienna, one who speaks French, and another Italian, whilst the Major puzzles us in English. There were others too trying us in Russian, Hungarian, and other uncouth languages. In this babel of tongues we can scarce
hold our own, but we are very happy. A man can travel far before he can meet a more congenial company than the Bulgar officers. The French-speaking subaltern sings us a song with a rousing chorus. He has a fine baritone, and gives us "Dio possente" as an encore. Jimmy basely betrays me, and I give them "The Midshipmite," but my revenge soon comes, and Jimmy must make a speech, impassioned and fiery, and he thunders at the admiring circle sentiments of liberty, and the glory of a soldier's life. If Jimmy cannot sing, he can make a speech, and, not to be confined to this one kind of entertainment, he gives us an exhibition of the British cavalry sword exercise, amidst a scene of wild enthusiasm, with the sabre of the dragoon.
The Major follows on the mandolin, which he plays really well, and in a series of most eloquent speeches we drink to the health of the King - God bless him - Prince Ferdinand, the Bulgarian and the British armies; even the British correspondents are not forgotten.
The mess waiter solemnly presents us with postcards, duly addressed, stamped and postmarked, bearing views of the batteries at drill, which an officer has secretly dispatched to the local post office during dinner, and Jimmy makes a speech in French. Ye gods, how hard to keep one's face at such a trying moment, when to laugh would be to give the show away.
Up gets the table, round after round of vociferous cheering, and before we know where we are we form part of the ring dancing the "Horo" most vigorously. It is a trying dance, and breathlessly we drop out, whilst these men of iron dance on to a state of frenzy.
"Auld lang syne," right foot on the table and linked
hands (to the astonishment and delight of the Bulgars - they soon caught the melody), and home to our inn, with promises to meet outside the town in the morning.
The tap of drums, hoarse commands and bugle calls awake us next morning. The square below our windows is full of grey-coated infantrymen, two thousand of them, drawn up in quarter columns of companies. We remember our promise to start an hour or two earlier on our long drive to the railway, see the garrison at drill, and be photographed. The sound of singing is coming down the road, the slow, measured, marching song of the Bulgarian army, and a mountain battery swings up - a few minutes later and the second arrives. Our comrades of last night salute us, and soon the garrison has marched off to await us on the downs outside.
Half an hour later, and our carriage, four horses yoked abreast, is bowling after them. We find the sward a mass of grey, the infantry battalions have piled arms, the artillery have unlimbered. A table covered with a white cloth and spread with every variety of tinned foods, flanked by huge bottles of raki, is placed at the side of the road, and here the Major awaits us with a cheery " Good morning."
The trumpeter sounds "the officers' call," and from all directions troop the officers of the garrison. A group of artillerymen start the " Horo,"a subaltern leading off, and we eat sardines and quaff raki to the jig of the Bulgarian bagpipes. Meanwhile the Major, an ardent amateur photographer, is arranging his picture. A pile of ammunition boxes are our seats, flanked with a couple of mountain guns, and when we are "arranged" the Major solemnly takes us.
Then more breakfast and informal toasts, a few hundred
burly soldiers forming a respectful but obviously admiring audience, and we go to our carriage.
"Next spring, may we meet again," is our last toast. A rumble of ill-suppressed applause shows that the men have heard and understood. A soldier cries "Macedonia," and a roar of cheering goes up. Hand grips are exchanged, and while with limp arms we enter the carriage, 2,500 men are lining the road. The driver lashes the horses and the Major raises his cap and shouts, "Now!"
Two thousand five hundred deep-chested men respond, and in a state of frenzied intoxication we rise to that magnificent crash of sound. Till the bend of the road hides the scene that roar of farewell cleaves the very skies.
"By Jove! what a grand send-off," I articulate weakly.
"If there is only war next year," piously responds Jimmy.
GENERAL TZONTCHEFF RECONNOITRING.
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