PART I. BULGARIA, 1903.
Because he lived among a simple folk,
Because his village was between the hills.
A TEARING wind blew out of the darkness down the ill-lit main street. The café lights at the corner and the chinks of the shuttered street-windows glimmered through a whirl of dust, leaves, scraps of paper and powdered rubbish which the gale whisked up and carried with it.
In the gloom of a wall, sneezing in the thick smother, we waited and watched the street corner. Across the road a dark form stood in a doorway and watched the watchers. Now and then a man passed, hunched against the wind and holding his hat on. Suddenly round the corner came a short figure hurrying past us with a wave of the hand. At ten yards' distance we followed, stumbling over the rough roadway with the grit filling eyes and nostrils, till our guide slowed down at a deserted corner and let us come up with him.
"It's all right," he said in a hoarse whisper; "he will be there. Come quickly and make no noise."
On again down an utterly dark alley, falling over great stones and splashing through an invisible stream which ran down the middle. At the end
was a high wall over which sounded a threshing of branches. The short man rat-tatted a private signal on a high double door. As we stood silent a gust carried a rush of dry leaves round the wall, and a roaring of wind and trees came out of the darkness behind it. A girl opened the door, barred it after us, and led through dark tree-masses up invisible steps and down a narrow passage to where a little oil lamp burned weakly in a low room.
We sat down on a red Turkish divan which ran all round, and stared at each other. Here we had come, with all the time-honoured ceremonial of conspiracy, to find a local insurgent leader, guided and introduced by (of all people in the world) an elderly American missionary. Later on I found out what an understanding there is between the missionaries and the fighting-men, who tell their plans with confidence to the foreigners when they would not trust a fellow-countryman. The missionaries always knew what was going on. But that night the idea was new, and I secretly commended the old gentleman's sporting blood in working the mystical ropes of this finger-on-lip sort of business.
A sallow-faced man, with a short black beard and moustache, came in with a handful of papers, glancing suspiciously at us; but the sight of our reverend friend reassured him, and sitting down the two talked in Bulgarian. The insurgent wore an ordinary black coat and soft black hat tilted back. Behind him had come his despatch-bearer, a young peasant, who sat upright on the divan in the dim
background. Whilst the wind howled in the window-chinks the missionary unfolded our proposal to join one of the chètas, or bands, on the frontier.
"Ah! can they walk?" asked the leader. "It is hard work, mind you; they may have to climb all day."
We thought we were equal to it.
"And it will mean carrying a rifle and ammunition - probably fighting."
We would do what we could in that direction too. And now, for our part, what about getting our news and sketches sent back?
They would undertake to send a special messenger whenever practicable to bring them down to the nearest post-office.
Question and answer ran on in the same guarded undertone. As we sat, all four heads together, it reminded me of nothing so much as a game of "clumps" in a drawing-room at home, only that our faces could not approach in expression the tense seriousness which goes to the unravelling of that knotty problem, "animal, vegetable, or mineral?" The oily flame of the little lamp was right behind the insurgent's head, and his face - all in shadow - melted into the black of his beard and humped shoulders. The yellow light touched the grey locks of the old missionary and emphasized the wrinkles which always gave the suggestion of a smile to his face. Old Skip's fine profile was sharply outlined against the glare, as he tapped thoughtfully on the crown of his battered straw.
It was arranged in the end that the young warrior sitting there in the corner should carry to the leader of a band in the mountains the offer of the two volunteers, and with all speed return with the answer. In two or at most three days we should know what were the prospects of seeing life with the avenging hillmen.
Meanwhile we must possess our souls in as much patience as might be, and work up the leg-muscles. Finally, we were sworn to profound secrecy as to our visit and all things connected with it.
The exit from the darksome scene was made in the same cloak-and-dagger fashion as the entrance, and it only needed "Peace, caitiff, we are obser-r-ved," or, "Aha! let us dissembul," to complete the blood-curdling effect. No doubt it was all very necessary, but it takes a long time for the
serious conditions of life in those blade-and-bullet countries to soak into the easy British mind. At any rate, it lacks a proper appreciation of the melodramatic, and is apt to look upon itself lurking in secret places with an unseemly levity.
All night the storm raged. Sheets of rain crashed on the bed-room windows, doors banged and the old hostelry creaked under it. Through all the racket the Oof-bird slept serene, and in every little lull the diapason of his thunderous snores vibrated through the partition wall, outrivalling the elements.
In the morning to our bedsides came Koy-etcetera, the interpreter, who had some refugees to show us and bid us hurry to see them. But breakfast was not to be so lightly skimmed over. Three boiled eggs, very hot, clasped gingerly in the left hand whilst the right works a large spoon, take an appreciable time to eat. With these appeared an army of drinking ware - a small cup of Turkish coffee of sickening sweetness, a jug of boiled milk, a sturdy cup in which to mix the two, and a glass of cold water. All these multiplied by three make a majestic spectacle. Whilst they were being treated with due attention poor Koyo fidgetted about like a cook whose surprise dish is being spoiled by overwaiting, but at last he got us started.
The hills had each a cap of snow and it was much colder, but the sky had cleared and the mud was slowly stiffening under the sun and a south-westerly breeze. Through a gate in a high paling we came into a yard where men were clustered in
groups and women sat on planks about the sides. The men's fezzes stamped them refugees before their dull, hunted look proved it. The women crouched together holding their small children, or carrying the smallest slung on their backs in blankets.
Men and women looked tired - dead tired and sick of life, and well they might be. Their village, Belitza, had been rushed by the Turkish soldiers in the old style - repeated to weariness - and such of the village folk as could get away made a rush for the hills - nearly all women, carrying their children and helping the old men. As they ran the black-guards fired into them; some dropped, others sprang forward, hard hit, to fall in the awful scramble up the hill-side. Looking back, they saw the smoke rise over their homes and knew they should never see them again except as black ruins. On the hill-crest the women sank down, breathless. One of them, taking the child from her back, found it dead, shot through the head. A day and a night and another day they tramped, fell, recovered and tramped again, living on the scraps of food they could beg from shepherds or wood-cutters on the heights of the Rilo Dagh. Up there, in the snow, one of the women gave birth to a child, and, marvellous to say, it was still living. So, with an escort from the frontier-post, these miserable outcasts struggled into Samakov. Between two and three hundred there were, counting the youngsters. How many were killed or captured in the village, shot on the hillside, or lay dead of exhaustion on the crest, none knew. Many of them had come in
wounded, and the least hurt of these sat here nursing a roughly-tied arm or head till the doctor could see them. Some of the little girls - tiny things of six or seven, with old, serious faces - carried a baby brother or sister tied on their backs. The weight of responsibility seemed heavier on them than the weight of the infant.
Here and there was one - woman or boy - stupid with fear, who turned moaning to tear the wall with frantic fingers at the sight of a stranger.
A call from the corner of the yard brought the men and boys round a cart piled with brown loaves, which were served out to them by one of the Relief Committee of the town - good folks, who gave i their money and their labour to keep those weary fugitives alive. This was no new work to them. All summer the broken wanderers had been coming in from the sacked villages, all with the same story and in the same distress. Rilo Monastery, in the hills, had harboured thousands, and was overflowing. Most of its overflow came down to Samakov and there found a permanent refuge. In
a large barrack-like building they made their home, sleeping on rugs and old clothes between the wooden pillars of its great upper room. Here in the corners were little bivouacs, the family circle sitting round its meal of bread and onions, eating mechanically. On the white wall hung one or two of the striped satchels they carry their belongings in - empty.
With his back to a pillar squatted an old, wizened man, less cast down than the rest. Wagging his hand he gabbled to a heedless woman beside him. He was ready enough to talk to our Jew, and as the clacking went on his thousand and one wrinkles actually hitched themselves into a grotesque grin. He wound up with a snap, and two quacks of laughter like an old drake. Amazed at this hilarity in the midst of misery we demanded his story, and having heard it acquitted him of all offence. He was a proud man that day, for he had done a Turk in the eye, which is to a Macedonian peasant as though he had won the He was a mason, and the Turk had ordered him to build a house. Hardly was it begun when the Moslem employer left the district, first - with most unusual generosity - paying his builder for the whole of the work. Two days later (this is where you laugh) the mason was driven over the border by his employer's own countrymen with all the money in his pocket and all the work left for somebody else to do. For sixty years the Turks had robbed him, but now he had got a bit back. Yes, he believed his brother was missing, but we must excuse his smile. We left the old fellow slapping his leg and coughing
in his glee. Truly he "builded better than he knew."
Now there were shouts in the yard and everybody clattered and tumbled down the staircase to join a gathering of all the men. In the middle of the crowd an official stood aloft and monotoned a "Proclamation" from the Sultan of Turkey. - This Much-enduring but Merciful Monarch, though greatly distressed at the heartless desertion of a number of his Christian subjects, had decided, in his open-hearted clemency, to allow them to return to their homes (!), where they should henceforward live a glorious life of peace and ease under Bulgarian officials.
The heartless deserters discussed this magnanimous offer in little groups, but they were wiser in their generation than the Concert of Europe in all its years, and they knew by that experience which does not appeal to Governments - the intimate knowledge of the man on the spot - that this was another embodiment of the great god Humbug, whose other names are Fudge, Bunkum, Rot, and many more less delicate. So they preferred the career of the refugee to the Sultan's Peace, and answered "Néma, néma," ["No, no."] to the taker of votes.
And there they stayed, contented and comfortable, better fed than they were at home, but an increasing burden to the town. For although money was coming into the country from Europe and America, it did not cover all the needs, and the frontier towns and Rilo Monastery were hard
put to it to keep their refugee camps going. The big relief centres, like Burghas on the Black Sea, which took the exiles of the Adrianople district, were manned by Europeans - mostly English - and Americans, who worked as they always have done in like cases, and to them the greater part of the subscribed funds was sent. Here in Samakov, popes and townsfolk did their part in keeping the outcasts clothed, housed and fed for months. The young men generally went out with the bands and a few of the elder ones were given some work in the town, but the rest seemed to do nothing but eat, sleep, and sit about in the yards.
The Oof-bird, as you may imagine, had not let many hours go by without discovering a citizen who hoarded obsolete lucre, and in due time we all repaired to the house of the same. In a charming little clean white room we sat on the universal divan and pored with faces of deep wisdom over the relics of bygone cash, displayed on a black cloth by their proud Bulgarian owner. From the number pushed aside with disparaging comments by our collector I gathered that the "pool" was a fairly valuable one, and sure enough the two of them were soon hard at it in German, insulting each other's judgment like a couple of horse-dealers.
Skip and I, being out of the ring in this contest of professional pleasantries, were getting rather bored, when to us entered two bewitching nymphs bearing the fruits of Lebanon and pleasant spices. The leading syren was black as to the hair and eyes, but her face was fair and she smiled divinely.
Her sister, more demure and shy, had hair of brown and eyes of blue, with fine dark lashes. The first of these visions of beauty of course went for the handsome man, and was soon laughing and spilling water over Skip's fingers. To me came the maiden with the down-cast eye, shyly presenting a tray of white-powdered sweetmeats. There were also a handful of small spoons and two or three glasses of water. I looked up for instructions, but the dark lashes were still down. Nothing for it but to chance the ceremonial and do the obvious. In went a spadeful of the white confectionery, none other than the "Turkish Delight" of our childhood under its grown-up name of Lokoum. Oh, cloying, speech-destroying stuff! At that moment she looked up and fired a question from the azure eyes.
"Oh, yum-yum! Ha-h-m!" (gulp) "Très gut! - Sehr bon!" (agonised dash for the water). Restored to consciousness, I saw that Skip had taken the water first and the stickjaw after, so I believe, on points, I won. My silent sylph was delightful and hardly smiled. When I had persuaded her to sit down I gathered that she was learning French, but was very timid about exposing her ignorance. But then those quiet ones always know a great deal more than they pretend to. Our host, having finished about square in his fight with the Oof-bird, turned to exploit his charming daughters, and found they were both doing pretty well.
The black beauty was a nailer at German,
and in about thirty seconds Skip and she were humming some song of the Fatherland - the old rascal pleased as Punch and wagging his finger to the time. Papa looked as if the thing was getting just a little overdone, which reduced the demure one to monosyllables, though the effect on the black-eyed witch was not so marked. Anyhow it seemed time for a move, and with bowings and glowing compliments we took our leave of the two charmers and their monied parent. Alas! we never saw the Bulgarian beauties again. The next time we called they were kept safely out of sight, so - as a mark of displeasure - we struck the old man off our visiting list.
Outside the town were some barracks inhabited by a cohort of warriors who appeared, from Koyo's brilliant word-pictures, to be a mountain battery. To make sure I penetrated their outer march - a rickety rail fence - the next morning. In the unguarded buildings I found a grey-coated officer with a knowledge of French which he greatly underestimated, who with characteristic good nature spent the morning walking his foreign visitor round the barracks and making all things clear. His long, double-breasted coat of dove-grey fitted him admirably, and the smart blue peaked cap with black velvet band finished off a neat and attractive kit.
They were at war strength and the barrack rooms were packed full. As each was entered the men in the room stood smartly to attention and remained so till we went out again. Wooden make-shift cots, hastily put together, touched each
other all round the room. Each was broad enough to hold four palliasses, which were down, with grey blankets laid neatly over them, and behind each pillow a small stick with a label bearing the man's name and number. Under the cots were the men's wooden chests in which they kept all their belongings, so there was no marching-order kit getting dusty on a shelf. Round the wooden pillars up the centre of the room were stacked Männlicher carbines, the last pillar surrounded by the sergeants' curved swords. A trophy of trumpets and a framed copy of orders completed the furniture of this Spartan chamber, in which a hundred men lived and slept; forms were unnecessary - if they wanted to sit down they sat on the beds. Everything in the room from floor to window-panes was scrupulously clean, and the sword-guards were a sight. Like the men that fought at Minden,
'They didn't grouse nor shirk at an hour's extry work,In the stables the same order and cleanliness. Boards were slung down between each of the ponies and over him on a brass plate was his name in Russian letters. All the gun-ponies are Bulgarian. The Gunners - Field and Mountain - are the only arm who use the native animal; they find them just as useful as mules for hill work and much easier to get. The officers, like the cavalry, ride Hungarian horses.
They kept 'em bright as gold."
My guide was indefatigable.
"Would you like to see the cook-house? - Come along. Of course the cooks and the boilers are all doing double work just now - these hungry fellows of ours get through tremendous quantities of tchorba. Look at those sturdy rascals there " - pointing to a squad on the square. "New draft of recruits we've just got up, and they eat twice as much as the duty-men. Here are the boilers." We dived under the low door of the cook-house.
"Try some of the soup, won't you?" The big sinewy cook brought a long-handled dipper and ladled out the red pottage, of which immeasurable depths swam in the two great boilers. I have had many a worse plateful in West-end restaurants. The soldier's menu in Bulgaria is a simple matter: Soup au choix and nothing else, barring
the brown bread he eats with it. What would happen to "Tommy" with his joints and cuts, his puddings and pies and jams and all the other oddments that go to gratify but rarely satisfy his exacting taste - what would become of our dear man-at-arms if it were proposed to him, in barracks, that he should support his tender frame for one short week on vegetable soup? Oh, ye quartermasters, think of it!
They have no liquor served out to them, and there is no canteen. If they feel a desire to mingle strong drink they must go to the town drinking-shops; but they are not great topers and "drunks" are practically unknown.
Walking back with my grey-coated friend, we met the Major commanding the battery and some of the other officers, and an invitation to dinner followed. The major, a little hearty man with a 'Navy' beard, could manage a little English, which terrible tongue was then tormenting his leisure moments. He spoke it slowly but with conviction.
That night at the hotel, whilst some roast lamb was under discussion (there is no season of the year at which roast lamb cannot be got in the Balkans), arrived some fellow news-hunters from Dubnitza, and with them the Barnacle. His collar was a richer shade of grey and his grin was let out two holes. He was "engineering the trip."
"Say, but I know de ropes. Dese natives cann't make much off me, I tell you. Dat team I get for Mr. Cinch, now, it's a crackajack team."
"That you got? " says Mr. Cinch. " I thought I got it." The Barnacle hastily looked for a dropped cigarette.
There was news of sorts. The uproar in Macedonia seemed to be petering out. Most of the bands were making for home and winter quarters, and the west side was nearly quiet again. The Bulgarian Government was going to make a strong show of stopping all bands crossing from this side, to balance a promise from the Turks that they would take some of their troops off the frontier. All distinctly bad for two people who wanted to get over the border with one of those prohibited bands in a day or two, and also to see some small bickering when they got there. Still, we pinned our faith to the chief conspirator and the magic lamp, and hammered on the table for "William," the crop-headed serving boy.
"Vino?" says he. I nodded. There is a wise saw that says a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse, but it is no better than a flat negative to a keen-eyed Bulgar. The two signs that come to us more naturally than speech - that have been to us as rod and staff since childhood - are plucked from under us, and we are left defenceless, or worse, for our own trusted weapons are turned against us. It is easier to write with your left hand than to shake your head when you are thinking "Yes," or to nod for "No." It can only be done by an effort of concentration and iron will-power such as goes to the pulling out of one's own tooth. "Learn to say 'No'" is a good precept, but "learn not to
say 'Yes' when you don't want to" is the one for the Eastern countries, and the learning has cost me, for one, a round sum in solid cash; besides which it has on several occasions caused the natives and myself to think ill of each other, and to say things which we were sorry for afterwards.
Another disastrous belief of theirs is that when you wave them away you are beckoning them to approach, the natural consequence being that all the people you least want to know, such as beggars with loathsome diseases, press round with touching affection. I do not know what their sign is for "Go away," but I used a peculiar gesture of the foot at close quarters which left them no doubt in the matter.
Betimes in the morning we bid our valued friend the Oof-bird a fond farewell as he left us for Sofia with the temporary owner of the crackajack team. As the gorgeous equipage lurched away, the Barnacle, on the box, was loudly assuring all hands of his intimate knowledge of the route. Poor Barnacle! He was shot dead in the public gardens at Sofia a few months afterwards as a suspect. With all his bluffing I am sure he had not the power in him to do any harm. How pleased he would have been to know that he had reached the dignity of being dangerous!
During the morning a visitor was announced, and the insurgent leader came in with many regrets that as yet no news had come down about our joining the chèta. The troops on the frontier, he said, had been very strict the last few days in
preventing the crossing of any bands into Macedonia, so evidently the Government order was really meant this time. To-morrow or the next day the decision would arrive, and all must be ready for a start at an hour's notice. It was already arranged that the Jew should get the native skin shoes and flannel leggings if necessary, and with a blanket each and a haversack for food and writing gear we should be ready for the war-path. The idea of going over for a couple of nights to Rilo Monastery was cancelled, that we might be on the spot when the answer came.
Next day was mail-day, so arranged that the stuff might reach London in plenty of time for the weeklies. Keeping up the Natal tradition, we never shaved on mail-day till the work was off. The two little bedroom tables were pulled out, garnished with paper and great store of tobacco, and there followed many hours of solemn silence with an occasional voice demanding the name of a bridge, or the number of troops at Nastikoff. The flies buzzed in and out of the open windows, the shabby draggle-tailed geese took dust-baths in the baking street, and Skip's indelible pencil straggled on and on. Whenever he was at a loss for a word it was his habit to scratch his head with the point of this pencil to stimulate his brain; indeed, it wandered indifferently up and down his person till by the end of the day he was all over purple blotches. Then he would charge the post-office with his fat envelopes, full of fierce determination not to miss the mail, and the people would fade
away from before him at the sight of that tattooed face as they would before an armed cannibal.
With the work safely off, soap and water flew through the air, razors
flashed and hair-brushes waved. Each man put on his other shirt, tied his
tie or folded his stock with fearful precision, and sallied out to dine
with the Mountain Gunners.
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