The insurgent provinces
WE had dined wisely and well, an immense improvement on hotel fare, and my gratitude towards my host was heart-felt. With true Hungarian hospitality he had annexed me from the moment I had arrived in Uesküb, though my introduction was of the flimsiest. Together we had visited Pachas and Beys whom he knew from prolonged residence in that most memorable of towns, the capital of old Servia. With true Hungarian chauvinism he nobly seconded British independence, and together we had broken Turkish regulations and walked the streets at night without lanterns. The more we had been challenged the more we had been delighted, even joyfully standing at the muzzle of the challenging sentry's Mauser till the city police arrived and set us free, with much inward cursing.
"On no pretext whatever is a sentry" - so ran the orders of the Governor - "to fire on a European, neither is he to be arrested."
And we, knowing this, traded on our privilege to the full, to the helpless indignation of subordinate officials.
"Why should we of the West cringe to these dogs of the East?" said the Hungarian, sublimely ignoring the origin of his nation and the scarcely defined geographical position of Hungary, which is far more Oriental than Occidental.
But his enthusiasm was contagious, and I cheerfully aided and abetted him.
The night before my departure for the South and pastures new, our evening meal had been unusually hilarious, thanks to the potent Magyar wine. Even the third in our midst, the hyper-nervous Bulgarian attache, forgot for the time his fear of sudden death. A fourth had joined us over coffee, liqueurs, and cigarettes, a Turk of the Turks, but a pleasant fellow withal.
On the principle that spirits, however potent, are not wine, and consequently not forbidden by the Prophet, he cheerfully imbibed tot after tot of generous Benedictine with visible effect. Verily, it is time for the Prophet to return and reframe the law, since the invention of strange drinks. Even champagne has been declared but sugared water, which is true as far as the local production is concerned, but is libellous, though convenient, when applied to the genuine product.
"And now the evening is still young," queries the Hungarian, reclining lazily on the divan, "what dost thou say to a café chantant, O Effendi? "
"It would pass an hour, and the brandy is good," responds the Turk from the other corner, with somewhat humid eyes.
The little Bulgarian gasps.
"I dare not," he says. "It would be madness at such a time. Why, even to-night -"
"Cease croaking," cries the Hungarian, "It is for our visitor to decide. It will be a novelty, at any rate, for you."
Nothing loth, I agree, and a few minutes later we are on the moonlit street. Before us stalks the Bulgarian kavass with ponderous lantern, which sheds fitful gleams on the rough cobbles. To-night, with a Turk and a Bulgarian present, we must perforce observe the law which commands
A STREET, UESKÜB.
every wayfarer after dark to illuminate the way with humble candle.
Like will-o'-the-wisps, lights dance across the fine old bridge and up the gloomy street before us. Turks pass or cross our path, and ever and anon a sentry with shouldered rifle peers suspiciously at us out of the darkness of a side alley. Patrols of ragged soldiery stalk by, ever with that keen glance of suspicion - for dynamite and massacre are in the air, and no God-fearing European walks the streets at night.
Our guiding lantern swings into the broad entrance of a rickety house where stands a policeman, noting carefully all those who pass in or out.
We emerge into a dimly lit, forlorn garden. At the back there are arbours - save the mark - under whose dust-laden branches sit a few groups of dissipated-looking Turks, or maybe Greeks. It is hard to tell the difference between a Turk who has lost his faith and a Greek who has never possessed one.
Occupying the centre of the garden is the strangest group of all. A dozen Albanian redifs are sitting round a large table, each with a rifle between or across his knees. Bandoliers of shining cartridges encircle their waists and bayonets peer suggestively from the folds of voluminous sashes.
They glance coldly at us as we seat ourselves not far from them at a primitive table with legs of various length.
The stage alone remains to be examined, and, my faith! it is worthy of inspection. An empty wooden box, bearing an inscription to the effect that once its contents were "superfine petroleum" serves as a step to better things above. It takes some negotiating, for it rocks and creaks ominously as a member of the orchestra returning to his
instrument - an excruciating violin - puts it to its novel use.
There are four or five wretched individuals upon the stage, who constitute the orchestra, a couple of fiddles, an equally worn piano and drum and cymbals. On one side sit two forlorn-looking women, the gay Chansonettes of other and better lands. Above them all swing smoking and evil-smelling oil lamps, which painfully disclose the pervading misery of the place. An unusually heavy step brings down from the dilapidated wall a bit of plaster - what there is left - and the wooden framework behind grins forth like some uncanny skeleton. The jangling melody ceases and a "Chansonette" steps wearily forward, to sing some melancholy love song in Greek. She finishes, and with a plate descends to collect a few copper coins from the absolutely indifferent audience. We surprise her into a momentary flash of interest when we throw a few silver piastres into the sadly held plate. The Albanian redifs shift their rifles as they dive into capacious breeches pockets, and then she returns to her chair.
Every few minutes the policeman on guard outside looks in and walks slowly round the garden, and once an officer commanding a patrol enters and speaks with the redifs. They do not trouble to rise, but answer him in monosyllables, carelessly if not insolently. Then the officer glances at us and retires.
In due course the second Chansonette steps forward and wails in Serb, but with a watchful eye on us. She has heard of those silver piastres. We do not disappoint her, and her step is lighter than that of her predecessor.
It is very sad and mournful, and soon we retire. The Hungarian wishes me to visit another, which he declares is
more lively - it could not be more deadly, as the Bulgar sagely remarks. The second place of giddy entertainment is near the Consulates, and the nearer we approach the more the sentries and patrols increase.
Wild gipsy music assails our ears, and through a throng of appreciative soldiery and gendarmes, congregated round the entrance, we find ourselves once more seated in an oil-lamp-illuminated room.
Three villainous Jewish gipsies, two men and a woman, are shouting a Turkish song in unison to the accompaniment of a zither, the true gipsy instrument. It is not without a certain wild beauty in its savagery and noise.
The audience is in harmony with the music, wild, savage, and noisy. There is but one redeeming feature, the face and figure of a young girl who is sitting in barbaric costume upon the stage. Ever and anon her eyes travel scornfully over the room, scanning the half-sleeping men and depraved officers. A glance at us plainly asks the reason of our presence, but it is only a glance, and she relapses into stony indifference.
Then she dances, and were it not for her expression, she might be taken for a modern Mignon; but, in spite of her undoubted beauty, the depths to which she has sunk are only too visible.
"Let us go," I say at length, and we emerge once more into the clean night air and to bed.
A little dissipation in Uesküb goes a long way.
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