Correspondence for the New York Evening Post

Albert Sonnichsen




A day and a Night in Kustendil

By Albert Sonnichsen


New York Evening Post (Saturday, January 7, 1905)

Saturday supplement

Pages 1 to 10


[Special Correspondence of The Evening Post]



Scans as a .pdf file (0.7 Mb)



Street scenes like opera, though bloodshed is not far off


The Soldier Chorus as It Marches to the Public Bath — A Babel of Many Voices — Reflections of the More Seasoned Folk Over Coffee at the Dragoman — The Disappearing Youth of the Night and What His Words Meant



KUSTENDIL, Rumania, December 11. — Here we are in the centre of a great white circle of gray ribbed peaks; everything beyond the town is white or gray, as far as the eye can reach, even to the sky above. The wine-colored tiles of the houses, visible from my window, show here and there in patches where the wind has brushed off the light covering of snow that fell last night, and the mountain stream that runs down the middle of my street gurgles under a thin, uneven crust of ice.


The winter is here in earnest now; we hear that we may be snowed in before many days, cut off from the great world outside. But the Kustendilskis do not care — Kustendil is a world in itself. If the great world outside does not choose to interest itself in Kustendil, Kustendil can rise to a similar lofty indifference. So we do not worry about how deep the snow lies in the pass. The last post from Sofia has just arrived, so it isn't likely a few months' blockade will interfere with its regularity; a thaw is bound to come before it is due again.


Ours is a lively thoroughfare; all the peasants coming in with asses or ox carts loaded with produce pass under my window, turbaned and red-feezed cattle dealers from Albania or Macedonia, fur-capped Bulgars in heavy sheepskin jackets and broad, red sashes peeping out between the lapels. Some wear peaked hoods, like cowls, which, together with the bagginess of their trousers above the knees and their heavy walking staves, give them a quaint, Elizabethan appearance. There are women, too, in the peasant dress of the land, a wonderful combination of colors, suggestive of grand opera chorus, especially if the girls are young and pretty, as a good many are, for grandma doesn't come to town much in this cold weather.


From my window it is very much like grand opera. It is Saturday morning, the liveliest day of the week. What has suggested opera to me is a deep, growing chorus of men's voices coming in from up the street, at least a hundred voices, strong, increasing in volume, rolling over all the town, echoing back from the steep, snow-streaked cliff that towers up as a background to the houses opposite. I have heard that song every Saturday morning since I have been here, so I know that the soldiers are coming in from the barracks to wash at the hot springs that splitter up in the middle of the town. With a sudden increase of the low roar, they turn the corner, march into view and are passing, the same fur-capped peasants lifted out of their picturesque costumes into long, gray overcoats and heavy boots. They, too, wear the high-peaked, green cowls, which make them look like so many long-cassocked monks; grand opera monks, of course. I feel vaguely that something has gone wrong, because they do not form in a semi-circle before my window and point their right hands upward while they roar but that mighty chorus. I feel the same about a troupe of young village girls passing a few seconds later humming a refrain of the soldier's song together, but half a dozen woolly little donkeys trotting in after them spoil that effect. They (the girls) see my bare head poked out of the window and they begin to giggle. "Gospodin!" cries one in feigned alarm, "there's an icicle above you — its going to drop on the back of your neck." That raises a loud laugh — at my expense.


"Buy a young sow, Gospodin," shouts another; "see, she's as fat as an egg." More laughter. I cannot afford to compromise my dignity, so I draw in and slam the window to. But the glass is not thick enough to close out their peals of merriment. My impression was that the audience should do the laughing.




I am gradually becoming conscious of a new sound from outside, growing more distinct through the sudden ceasing of ail other noises, it comes as a law, continuous murmur, rising and falling by a note or two, a low, solemn chant, that I do not recognize. There are a number of peasants against the low wall opposite, their fur caps removed, all facing down the street toward the town. As I open the window again the chant bursts in on me in all its monotonous volume; two bearded priests in blade cassocks and high black head-gear appear, one swinging burning incense, the other carrying an open book, both chanting. More priests march in, four abreast, all chanting, all bearded to the waist, twenty in all. They might have stepped out of "Aida", if the chorus were not so solemn: it is deeply impressive, even to one not of the Bulgarian Church. Every person in view up of down the street is standing, head uncovered and bowed.


It is only a funeral; a rich man's funeral, a rare enough sight here. There are few then in town who could afford twenty priests at their funerals. But the solemn chant has spoiled me for work. Besides, nobody stays indoors Saturday morning.


The streets are throbbing with life; a sea of bobbing, brown and black fur caps. The centre of activity is about the old mosque with the broken-off minaret. Its four walls are lined outside at their bases with the stalls of local merchants who have all trained their voices to that seductive pitch which draws to them buyers from the furthermost edges of the crowd. There are peanut and chestnut venders, from whose penetrating visions my friend and I desire to escape, as does every prominent citizen of the town, for they know us all by names. Too late; one young devil among them with a voice like the blast from a mortar gun roars out:


"Oi! oi! oi! — hot, good chestnuts; 'Gospodin Ivanoff, will you not buy? — you — Gospodin!"


He shouts our names thus until we have escaped down a side street, and some other good, staid burgher of the town comes in for his share of public notice. Some flee, as we did; others hasten nervously to buy.


We have come in among the woodsmen down from the mountain villages with firewood to sell. Their loaded, donkeys and ponies toil heavily and slowly through the crowd like cargo boats in a choppy sea. They are charging ninety centimes a cargo, which is obviously an outrageous price when you consider that it can't last over a week during this cold weather. During the summer months those same foresters were humbly glad to sell at seventy centimes — now they can afford to display a haughty indifference towards us, for the citizens are bidding against each other. They coldly stare upon us, stolid-faced, arrogantly conscious of our helplessness, but there is some consolation in knowing that summer comes again to hurl their pride into the dust.


It is more cheerful to drift in among the rosy-cheeked village girls, all in a row, clapping their hands and stamping their feet, and breathing out puffs of vapor from under their peaked, green hocus, their laughing faces barely visible. It is not safe to banter with them unless you have absolute command of the language. Most of them have butter and cheese to sell, cheese that is pale and damp, and bears the imprint of newspapers of bygone years it has been wrapped in. It is tempting to stop and read some of these bits of journalism backwards, because they are backwards. It is good practice for me, too, only the maidens think I am inspecting with an eye to purchasing, and keep poking the cheese over so that there isn't time to decipher it all. I notice that my friends are similarly possessed of that desire to read the cheese reprints of last year's newspaper announcements. An Americas merchant might have seen by this time great advertising possibilities.


At about noon the crowds begin to thin out, or to scatter rather, for they are still about. They are going to fling themselves into what dissipations the town has to offer. The city band, a real brass band, comes out and plays national music. The people catch hold of each other's hands and dance tip and down the streets in long strings; two steps forward, one backward two forward, and so on, around corners, up the sidewalks, always drifting back to the music again.


It must not be supposed that these dances are confined to the villagers who come to town; by no means, everybody piles in, young and old, poor and well-to-do, all fit one long democratic bunch, lawyer clasping hands with peasant, men with women, grandfather with granddaughter with a general glee that is good to see. For a long time I thought there was only one man in all Kustendil who had not joined the dance; the big, long-bearded, gold-buttoned, shoulder-strapped chief of police, a cold proud man, the very image of a Russian admiral, wrapped in four or five thicknesses of awe-inspiring dignity, the personified essence of official majesty. I had been very much impressed, for in America we have no such men just like him, at least not where common people can come in contact with them. Instinctively I bowed in reverence.


To-day I can hardly believe my eyes. There he is in the middle of the string, grasping the hand of a roguish young girl on one side and that of a seventy-year-old grandpa on the other, kicking up his heavy, booted legs with the frivolity of a comic opera king. The spectacle is demoralizing, to say the least. His fat cheeks are puffed out, red streaks of vapor shoot but from his beard, a smile breaks out over the august sternness of his countenance. It is too much. It only remains that he should trip over that long dangling sword of his to complete his downfall in my estimation. My friend and I withdraw—to the Dragoman.




The Dragoman, the retreat of Kustendil's sophisticated manhood, of men who know life as it is, of men who have known life's bitter disappointments. Here we gather of evenings about the tables, smoking, discussing politics, the war, the latest reports from Macedonia, having served to us Turkish coffee, lemonade, tea, very mild beer and, to some of the older men, plum brandy. Naturally to such men dancing seems a trifle frivolous. The landlord of the Dragoman realizes that, so he has had imported at great expense, he says, something that could divert the minds of more serious men —a phonograph. It stands in a corner of the room, trained on us as though it were a heavy piece of artillery, threatening death to those of frivolous minds. A favored few of us have inspected the records. There are selections from "Carmen," "Aida" and "Faust," Turkish songs and one American band piece, which the proprietor terms the "Washingtonski Marcha." When this is fired off everybody looks darkly in my direction, but they should know I am no composer.


The first day this concert was set going, a song from "Aida" was inserted, sung by Melba, according to the inscription. Suddenly we all saw the agitated faces of two villagers peering anxiously in through the glass door. Somebody opened and finally got them inside. Their agitation increased visibly as the soprano reached her top notes. They would have gone again, but we restrained them. Finally the song died out in one last, despairing shriek.


"What do you think of it?" demanded my friend grimly.


"What do I think of it," repeated one of the peasants indignantly, "I don't think much of it. What enjoyment can it be to gentlemen to close a poor cat up in a barrel just to hear the poor creature squalling through a funnel stuck into the bunghole? That is no play for gentlemen." Then they left us in disgust, we much crestfallen at the rebuke.


It is late, and the crowd in the Dragoman thins out. Outside the night is clear and crisp, except for a pale blue mist that hangs over the hot springs where the cliffs rise abruptly out of the town. The four minarets are encircled by thin, delicate circles of light, for it is a Turkish holy week, the bairam, and the faithful are at prayer in the mosques. Once more I am at my window, open, for the soft light of the brilliant stars over the snow covered roofs is beautiful to see. There is an absolute silence over all, the good jolly peasants have crawled into the hahns and are sleeping. Against the lighter sky to the westward are the heavy black silhouettes of the mountain peaks, cut where the glass across the frontier leads into Macedonia. It is beautiful, peaceful, quiet — one might almost fall asleep on the sill.


A noise inside the room brings me in. A young man, a mere boy, stands lighting a cigarette by the lamp, his fur cap set jauntily on one side of his head. His costume is not one you see about the streets; heavy, tight trousers, legs wrapped in white woollen leggins, wound about by crossing thongs of leather from the cowhide sandals up to the knees, a tight-fitting jacket criss-crossed by strips of hide, and about his waist a cartridge belt. He has been in the house several days, quartered on the landlady. She is from Macedonia, so is he, originally. He speaks a little English, for like hundreds of his countrymen, he has been in the American missionary schools.


"What you see?" he demands goodnaturedly, "It is dark, not so? Ha! So much better for us." He joins me at the window.


"Ha! my friend." he continues, "you write, eh!" Now is not much to write. But wait. One—two—perhaps three months — who can say yet? - then you shall write very much. You shall tell them why the blood shall flow and the men shall die — over there." He waved his hand toward the pass. A faint whistle comes up the street. The lad reaches out his hand — then he is gone.


Around the corner came two figures, barely visible in the gloom below. Another appears from the house opposite. More from another corner, the narrow street swarms with them, all moving silently up the street, away from the town, toward the pass. Then they are gone.


So it has been for many nights past. So they pass through here, doggedly marching onward, all in one direction, silently, stealthily, the unpaid soldiers of an almost hopeless cause. More will pass for many nights to come, in spite of the utmost vigilance of those who would hold them back. Then will come a long interval, until one fine, starry night such as this the staid, peaceful citizens of Kustendil shall took out of their windows, and they shall see in the sky above the pass the lurid, red glare of hell thrown open in the land beyond. Kustendil has seen it before, Kustendil shall see it again, before the melting of the snow.


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