Short Stories from the Balkans/Furor Illyricus

2547687Short Stories from the Balkans — Furor IllyricusEdna W. UnderwoodA. von Vestendorf




WHEN he finished I reached him my hand, wished him joy, and promised that I would come to the wedding, and the rest of the army men, too, who were off duty.

It was in truth a good marriage for both. He was young and honest, even if he was a trifle hot-headed. She, the elder of two very pretty sisters, had been somewhat nervous during the period of betrothal in the house of her father, rich Perovic of Salona, so great was the change from the quiet convent in Triest where she had been educated.

I, myself, had played the part of wooer for my sergeant with the old man, after it had been found out that the tears of the women and the honest words of the young sergeant himself were helpless. What they could not effect, the gold braid and medals of the commanding officer effected easily. And so he gave in, and since the beginning had succeeded so well,—the dowry was arranged and the wedding day set in the midst of many cups of coffee and little glasses of céta and cigarettes.

One thing only stood in the way: the old man as a Montenegrin took the part of the Serbs, while Fabriccio was to all appearances useless as a soldier. In his heart he was on the side of the earlier lords of the land, from whom he had descended.

Then the wedding day drew near. The intervening time had not passed wholly free from disagreements—but at length it passed. The old man in fact seemed to take a liking to his future son-in-law, in somewhat the same manner in which he had been fond of his own son, who, against his will, had married a poor Italian girl. He disinherited the son. The pleading and tears of the women, the intercession of the priest, and the Archimandrite of S. Saba—could not move him. He would not permit the name of his son to be mentioned in the house because he was master there.

In the place of this disobedient fool, he was determined to turn over the wharf and the rope making plant to Fabriccio, until his term of army service had expired. He was a very different man from that poor, miserable musician, Pero.

The wedding day had come.

Through the multitude of carriages of an unbelievable range of styles, we made our way along the sand of the highway, then through tremulous chestnuts to the cathedral. There in the dusky, gold-shimmering interior the ceremony was performed according to the rites of the Eastern church.

Upon huge silver platters of an antique and barbarous make, bread was offered by young priests, who wore long hair. Noiselessly these two young priests walked in and out of the doors of the painted wall which hides the altar from the curious. Sometimes they carried heavy altar books and sometimes silver vessels.

Lower sinks the white-veiled head of the bride, who, with the handsome, earnest soldier, was kneeling by the front bench. Louder rose the shattering thunder of the chorus, with its strange rhythm, its monotonous repetitions in a long forgotten language. Like trumpets that mysterious singing rings out, then there comes the deep bell tone, and from the door to the right—seen through a cloud of incense—approaches the Archimandrite in an ornate robe of gold, with cap and staff, accompanied by priests, accompanied by little boys who are swinging censers.

My little companion who beside me to the right is standing behind the bridegroom, signals to me and lifts the little crown and holds it out over the head of the one kneeling in front. I follow her example and do the same for the bride. Then came the questions and answers. The white-bearded bishop embraces the young man and kisses him first on the right and then upon the left shoulder; he embraces the bride, who kisses his sleeve.

Then comes my turn and that of my little companion, whose shy glances tell me to do what the others have done. For a brief time I hear about me only the rustling of stiff garments, the soft scuffling of feet, as one face after the other bends to touch my shoulder and that of the maiden—old women, young women, men, boys, people whom I never saw and shall never see again.

And then came the procession back, a long string of carriages moving through a heat that resembled hades, moving slowly through the dust, between beechen hedges and tall cypress trees. The little one beside me spread out her white veil as well as she could to shield me from the sun, and her little crown of flowers, pale roses and myrtles,—is resting against my shoulder, and the dust circling round us shuts us in like a wall.

Cannons roar. We are in front of the villa of Perovic. It is really only a massive, four cornered tower dating from imperial days with frequent additions, which had been added to it in the course of centuries, having been built out of the heaps of surrounding ruins. It consisted of huge, unadorned, white-washed rooms, and provided most sparingly with furniture. Only in the great entrance way—the tinello—was there furniture.

Some art loving ancestor had adorned the walls with pictures. In the midst of bright red fields a little nymph—a little picture of a nymph making music, painted just as craftsmen painted on the walls of Pompeii, and framed in the most baroque old Italian manner. There are decorations above the doors, here and there a frieze—wreaths of flowers, fruit. In a huge room opening out of this the table is set, about it are coarse chairs with straw-woven seats, which before had been placed around the walls of the tinello. Beside the huge old candelabra, there are large fine mirrors, in heavily ornate frames, and some old ship's chests, otherwise the room is empty.

A heavy odor of food pervades the house. Upon the damask cloths which cover the table and fall to the floor on all sides is placed—upon common little plates—the hors d'œuvre, which consists of black and green olives, sardines in oil, slices—paper thin—of splendid salami from Verona and Mailand, celebrated ham from Punta Rosa, dried figs and diminutive glasses of old Treberschnaps, which is not inferior to the finest Cognac.

In front of each guest a plate, and at first of fine porcelain of all brands, and then afterwards English stoneware; with them knives, forks, and spoons of finest silver, and later knives and forks with wooden handles and made of pewter, which had been borrowed from a road-house near by.

In front of the bridal couple are two vases of fragrant flowers.

A nephew of the head of the house acts as master of ceremony and points the guests their places. At the right of the bride the bishop, next the bride's mother. On the left of my sergeant, I, beside me Gianettina, my charming little companion for the day. Opposite the bride sits the father, by him his friends and companions. They are insolent, much-bedecorated old men, with long, hanging beards; knives and silver pistols are stuck into their girdles. They wear little black caps on their heads, and they sit and stare greedily down at the little plates.

They are put out and constrained by the presence of the women, and perhaps likewise by me. They speak Serbian and my little neighbor blushes when she translates their speeches for me softly. She knows I know no Serbian, and she never forgets to add to the answer in Italian, that she hopes the gospodin will learn Serbian. She tells me the names of the men, who are for the most part relatives of her father. When she comes to a young man in a white coat, who has hard, crabbed features, her face grows sad: “Once he asked to marry my sister, and she refused him. Papa, however, liked him! Ah!—what blows fell on Nine then;—but she didn't give in.” Would he like to marry you now I suggest? “No, no. She wouldn't have him either. Besides she was altogether too young,” she hastened to explain.

The banquet begins.

Two serving maids and the nephew of the head of the house enter with huge, four cornered bottles; one little drink and a dried fig open the meal. That is the custom evidently to banish the taste of cigarettes which are always in evidence. Then wine is poured into glasses—the heavy, thick, inkblack wine of Lissa—and each one selects his favorite morsel from the plates. Before the sugared eggs are passed around the wine takes effect—only a few clean out their plates with rye bread—and next comes the minestra, then baked macaroni with hashée made from the entrails of young lambs; fowl roasted in sugar, small barboni baked in oil, baked ink-fish with citron, pullets cooked with fresh vegetables and beef and served upon huge platters. First one and then another of the guests hands over to the attendants first the silver pistols and then the knives; then they unfasten the heavy leathern girdles and loosen their neckbands. Louder and more boisterous rises the laughter, redder the faces, even the face of my little companion grows rosy when I insist that she translate for me some of the witticisms.

Now, fritolli are brought in, round sweet cakes fried in oil, turkeys, from which each one cuts a slice, or rather tears it off, as it happens. Fresh wine is continually brought, while the master of the house announces the year and place of vintage; wines from the islands, from Greece. Occasionally a guest rises and drinks the health of the bride's father, the bridegroom or some guest. Outside in the court-yard are heard the noisy voices of workmen and servants who are eating at a long table. The Perovic family have never been niggards.

The heat is insufferable despite open doors and windows; and I long for the fresh air and coffee. How long can this debauchery continue? At length the champagne comes and after that the special dish of honor.

Upon a long wooden tray, borne by two servants, a roast lamb is brought, and placed upon a serving table which is shoved up to the lower end of the large table. With a lordly gesture the master of ceremonies steps forward, takes up a large knife, ground thin as a hair. The master of the house speaks a few words. Then all the young people sitting round the table bow their heads quickly and cover their eyes with the edge of the table cloth. All laugh and talk and holler. My little companion whispers to me to do just what the others do. I see the master of ceremonies lift a huge knife, and then with one blow which makes the glasses dance, sever the entire roasted lamb. One more blow and the “jaraz” lies cut in four parts.

The guests drop the edge of the table cloth, wipe their eyes and hair—the ones who did not skilfully hide and shelter themselves with the cloth. The master of the house congratulates the master of ceremonies upon his skill and dexterity.

This officially ends the meal. To be sure cakes and fruit are brought in, but only the ladies taste of them. The men continue to drink. The Archimandrite rises, thanks the master of the house for the banquet. The kissing of shoulders begins again, and I attempt to take advantage of the opportunity by making my own adieux, when the hands of my little companion grab me by the arm and she whispers: “Please don't go now. I'm afraid! I'm afraid!” I see that she is watching anxiously a little group at one end of the table.

Beside the master of the house stands that young gloomy looking man—the wooer whom Nine had rejected. He is smiling scornfully and whispering in the ear of the old man. The old man laughs in an ugly manner, swallows glass after glass of wine. Then he pounds on the table and roars: “Who mentions his name, he is dead!” The others nod approval, slap him on the back, and touch drinking glasses with him. In the meantime the gloomy looking man goes up to talk with the bride and groom. His face is sad and tragic. He is telling them something that affects them deeply. The young bride nods approval, my sergeant pulls down his coat, straightens up and clears his throat, and walks up to the old man.

I saw Fabriccio standing beside the old man. I saw him place his hand upon the old man's shoulder, and then I heard his words as if echoing through a strange silence:

“Father—on this happy day, let us not forget poor Nicolo, who with wife and child and poverty—”

There was no way to help now. With distended eyes, white with rage, the old man jumped up. I saw Fabriccio stagger back, then start to run after the old man through the open door. There was noise and confusion on the stairs—then I saw the little bride throw herself upon the dead body of Fabriccio.

Three days later they found the old man in hiding in a house of ill-fame. Poor little Nine!