20. SERBIA REVISITED, AND GREECE
Fifteen minutes out from Sofia the train plunges again into mounting defiles between ever more towering hills, through tunnel after tunnel. Stony peaks coloured wonderfully in reds and browns and subtle greys seem animals crouching, so living is their texture. Southward the crinkled Balkans march across the sky, blue with distance. It is a breeding-place of hard men and fighters. Two hours, and we are over the divide, screaming down beside a stream that leaps in cascades. A dry, hot, little valley opens out, ringed around with arid mountains; there lies Tsaribrod, the last Bulgarian station, piled high with heaps of army supplies and buzzing with troops. A neat little town with substantial houses and public buildings, two factories, good roads running east and north, schools, electric lights, and a sewer system. A neat little station paved with concrete, where the ticket-agent who was so cordial when we stopped there four months ago, leans from his window to shake hands. The train roars through a tunnel, and twists between precipitous hills. Where they open out a little, arid and quivering with heat, lies Pirot, the first town in Serbia.
What a contrast even between these two first cousins - Bulgars and Serbs! The town straggled out, an overgrown village, all deep, wide houses roofed with Turkish tiles; no school visible. On the dirt platform before the ramshackle wooden station, a customs officer, the station-master in gold-lace uniform with a sword, a policeman in blue with red facings, and a sword, too, and two army officers, were having an animated discussion, entirely oblivious of the train. The rapid, flexible eloquence of the Serbian language struck on our ears like a jet of fresh water. Around them in easy familiarity crowded peasant soldiers in shabby grey uniforms, sandals, and the distinctive crushed-in cap of the Serbian army, listening and joining in the argument.
'Mr Pachitch!’ cried the station-master vehemently: 'Mr Pachitch is no true Serbian! His father was a Bulgarian and his mother was a Turk! Who couldn't make a better prime minister than any Young Radical?' He pounded himself on the chest. 'Why I myself -'
The customs officer slapped the major on the shoulder, and burst into a shout of laughter. All the soldiers laughed, too. Down at the end of the station fence, reservists of the last call were coming through a gate, one by one, while a sergeant, called their names on the roster and ticked them off. Old men and young boys they were, in every variety of improvised uniform, tattered sandals on their feet - but all with the military cap and all equipped with new rifles. A boy who could not have been more than sixteen, so drunk that he could hardly stagger, reeled through with his peasant mother holding him upright. The tears streamed down her face; she wiped his sweating face with a handkerchief and straightened his lapels, and patted him twice on the chest. Growling, he made for the sleeping-car. A policeman grabbed him by the arm. 'Forward!' he yelled; 'get forward into the box car!' Without a word the boy threw his arms around the policeman and they fell to the ground, a waving mass of arms and legs. Everybody laughed. An incredibly aged man with one arm came hobbling up on a stick and touched a grey-haired giant who bore a rifle. He turned and they kissed each other on the mouth. Tears ran down the old man's face. 'Do not let the Bulgars through!' he shrilled....
The customs officer came into our apartment. He simply glanced at our passports and never touched the baggage.
'You came from Sofia?' he said eagerly, sitting down and offering cigarettes. 'What is the news? We've been hearing exciting rumours here. Is Bulgaria going to war? She'd better not - we'll march to Sofia in two days!'
'But if Austria and Germany attack you?'
'Pooh, they tried it once! Let them all come! Serbia can whip the world!...'
Ahead of us, as the train rattled along, rose a great chorus from five box cars full of soldiers. They were singing a new ballad about the Bulgarians, which began:
'King Ferdinand, the Bulgar, got up one day in his palace in Sofiaand looked out the window,
And he said to his son, the Crown Prince Boris: 'My son and heir, it is a fine day and the Serbian army is very busy,
So I think if we attack their women and children we may not be defeated....'
One's first impression on crossing the Greek frontier is of a mob of money-changers, boot-blacks, venders of chocolates and fruit and last week's papers - shrewd, brown little traders of harsh, quick speech and keen eyes. Three years ago there were no Greeks whatever in this arid mountain valley of southern Macedonia; now it is all Greek. That is what happens in every new Greek country; all but the lowest peasants tilling the soil are forced out by the most bitter economic competition - and even they are working for Greeks. The Rumanians are gay and graceful; the Bulgars honest and friendly; the Serbs witty, brave, and charming; after these the Greeks seem a stunted, unfriendly people without any flavour.
I think I must have asked a hundred Greek soldiers what they thought of the war. Now the salient characteristic of Balkan peoples is bitter hatred of the nearest aliens. The Greeks hated the Serbians normally, but when they spoke of the Bulgars it was in terms of torture and burning alive..
Venezelos they idolized almost to a man; but I found that they would even vote against him, for they thought he meant to force them into war - and the Greeks did not want to fight. But Greeks are very sentimental; you only have to wave a flag and shout 'glory' to them, and they will go to war for a good cause or a bad one. Greek ambitions are limitless. They consider themselves the heirs of Periclean Athens, of the Byzantine Empire, the conquests of Alexander the Great, and the far-flung colonies of the ancient Greek city-states. An editorial paragraph from a Greek newspaper displays their ordinary frame of mind:
'Greece, which has a history five thousand years old, and is the mother of Western civilization, should not let itself be surpassed by nations who have managed to assemble their children under their hegemony, as Piedmont dominated Italy, as Prussia dominated Germany. The Hellenic nation should not show itself incompetent, powerless, and inferior to certain new states, such as Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, which are so many mosaics constituted in Europe by barbarians coming from Central Asia.'And this in face of the fact that the new Greek provinces are inefficiently and corruptly governed, and that Athens itself is a hotbed of lies and bribery. A typical-example is the Greek railroad official who was bribed by Germans to hinder the mobilization of the Greek army. And remember, that the first time the casus federis of the Greco-Serbian treaty was ever invoked Greece refused to fulfil her obligations...
The last day I was at Salonika a great cloud of black smoke appeared at the foot of the gulf; a little destroyer steamed full speed for the city and anchored off the quai. Three boats were landed, containing English officers in campaign uniform, with the red tabs that mark Staff officials, twenty-five boxes and trunks, and a couple of British marines carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. The baggage was piled in the street and the officers went into the Hotel de Rome. In fifteen minutes the rumour was all over the town that Sir Ian Hamilton was in Salonika. Wild excitement seized the Greek officials. Around the two sentries guarding the baggage prowled a solemn, uneasy circle of policemen. A dense mass of townspeople stood silently watching. Hot wires clamoured the news to Athens. Frightened officials cried: 'What does it mean? What shall we do?'
In the meantime we had run into the King of England's Messenger on his way home through Italy with despatches from the Balkans. He was pretty reasonably mellow with much Scotch and soda, as we went to lunch in the Hotel de Rome.
Five tables away from us sat the general himself - a tall, bronzed, solid Englishman with a grey moustache - and all his Staff. He and the King's Messenger bowed to one another. A few minutes afterward a waiter came to our table.
'General Hamilton would like to speak with the King's Messenger.' Our friend rose, reeling slightly, and went over. Pretty soon he came back, holding on to chairs and piloting himself with difficulty. He sat down at the table and grinned.
'It is too, too funny,' he said weakly. The old duffer wants me to go immediately to Athens and ask the British ambassador for instructions.
'Damme,' he said to me, 'what the devil have they sent us here for?
Here I am - and not a word of instructions. What the devil do they want
me to do?'
That night we took ship for Piraeus and home. Next morning, steaming
down between far islands that lay like clouds on the sea, we met twelve
transports full of British troops on their way to Salonika.
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