2784197Short Stories from the Balkans — NajaEdna W. UnderwoodKsaver Šandor Gjalski



FOR some time I had known that my companion Pero was unhappy. He was silent and self contained, but whenever I was with him for any length of time I felt that something weighed heavily upon his soul.

One evening we were walking by the bank of the Danube, in the neighborhood of D——. It was a warm night of summer. Friendly little stars mirrored themselves in the water, when the thin clouds slipped off them. From the village the wind brought the sound of violins, and from the thickets called nightingales. Below rushed the river, and from a black, unsightly mass some distance away, came the ponderous rolling of a mill-wheel. Then from the mill or from a boat, rose the voice of a girl in song. Pero started nervously and then paused:

“That’s her song!” He stood in silence until the song died away upon the darkness. Then he told me his story. Here are the words:

“When I think of her I am overwhelmed with grief and longing. I saw her first in the forest. I was hunting quail, but the heat was so great I was forced to seek shelter of the trees. She stood near wdth her herd, stitching busily on a bright colored apron. I paused to look at her. I had never seen such a beauty before. It was not easy to find words to address her. At last I asked her, I think, the way to the village. She did not answer at once. She seemed more engrossed in her sewing and she did not even look at me. I repeated the question, whereupon she replied in an unfriendly manner, and more with her hand than with words.

“Fearful heat!” I exclaimed, wiping the perspiration from my forehead. I took the gun from my shoulder and seated myself upon a tree stump.

The girl acted as if I were not there.

“Who are you, child?”

She did not answer. She moved on a little way as if she were about to follow the herd.

“Can’t you open your mouth?” I began roughly, like a peasant. “Why don’t you tell me your name?”

“What business is that of yours? I’m from that village—there—” she said, as in the act of going away. She stopped sewing and called the herd together which had scattered.

“What business is that of mine? Among Christian people it is customary to tell your name when it is asked. Are you Tejka or Miljenka or Mara—?”

“No; I am the Naja of Toscha Nedeljković.”

Then she became very red and ran away.

The devil take the hunt!—I thought, and turned and followed the girl.

After that I was in the forest every day with Naja. At first she was shy, and would not come near. Sometimes she was ugly tempered if I approached her as a peasant would. By degrees she became accustomed to me and confiding, and said that I was not just like the other gentlemen. She chattered about her household duties, the gossip of the village. She declared the village boys were angry because she worked no more in the spinning room, and did not join in the Kolo dance.

“And why don’t you?”

“How do I know? I don’t want to. Do you know what village people say? They say that in the spinning room many things are spun besides yarn. They say, too, that the girl who laughs in the spring, weeps in the fall. But I jest and laugh. But my father says a peasant has no reason to laugh. I suppose he means because of the land-measuring.”

“You mean the commensuration?”

“Something like that.”

“What business is that of yours, Naja? That’s an affair of men—not women.

“True. But I can talk of it with you, if I don’t with others. I have heard—everyone says so in the village—that our pope has plotted with the indznir[1] to give the old graveyard to the rich estate owners—and to give the peasants a new one somewhere in the forest.”

“Well! That does not concern you, does it?”

“Why doesn’t it? My ancestors, my grandfather and my great grandfather are there. That graveyard has belonged to our race ever since we came from Bosnia, and now the land-owners want to drive their cattle over it and give us a graveyard in the forest where the wolves are, and the foxes.”

I looked at her in astonishment. She had become pale and she looked at me with eyes that reminded me of the Montenegrin maiden in Čermak’s painting of the “Death of the Voyevode.”

My love affair with her was not really much more important than this. That is the reason I did not know what a deep place she had made in my heart. I did not find out until it was too late.

Before daybreak I left the house to go hunting. When I reached the village all was quiet. The road led past the farm of Nedeljković. In the plum garden by the brook, I saw Naja. She had just washed her face and was in the act of combing her hair. She looked enchantingly young and pretty. Her long black hair hung unbound, and through her little shirt which was open, I saw her breasts. At this sight I could not restrain myself, but rushed up to her, flung my arms about her and kissed her. With a loud cry she freed herself from my arms. At first she had not been angry because she thought it was just one of the peasant boys, but when she turned and saw me, she was confused and tried to cover her breasts with her bare arms. Now I was sorry for what I had done.

“Dear, beautiful Naja!” I exclaimed.

“If I were dear to you, you wouldn’t have done that!” was the reply, moving away out of reach. I stood and stared at her not realizing that a peasant could have fine feelings. I had injured her. I had tried to play with her like a peasant boy.

She walked across the garden, sat down by a bed of pinks and wept. For shame I did not dare approach her. After a while she glanced over at the place where I was standing, and I thought her face brightened, that a little beam of joy stole out of her reddened eyes. In the meantime the sun had risen above the horizon, and a rosy brightness fluttered over the plum trees and the thin grass stalks. Upon a sudden the garden burst into a glory of rose color and white, and only across the distant valley still hung the violet tints of night. Everything else smiled under the light of the new day. Above me in a plum tree, a little bird sang as if its throat would burst. I breathed deeply, my soul expanded and I did not try to know if the new light upon her face was merely that of the rising day. “Naja! Naja!” I exclaimed triumphantly, and started toward her. Just then some one called me. I heard loud, merry laughter. I turned and saw my friend Geza, the landowner, behind me. He was a hunter, too, and fond of playing pranks. I was ashamed and wondered if he had heard my shout of triumph. I breathed easier when I learned from his conversation that he thought it was just an ordinary love affair. I went with him, and I did not dare look back toward Naja.

Later that day I did not meet her, nor the next nor the next. On the fourth day I was summoned to a distant place. There I remained four months and probably I should have stayed longer, had I not been summoned to the district court.

Twelve hours later I learned how important the affair was. In Naja’s village the peasants had risen in revolt against the land allotment. The plowmen of the landed proprietors who tried to plow the fields which had belonged to the peasants were knocked down and beaten. The peasants took the village elders, the mayor and the pope, and shut them up in a guard house. Military aid was summoned, and I was detailed to head it. Unfortunately I had the reputation of being an energetic man. I do not know that I was really energetic, but the fact remained that I had succeeded in putting down the most stubborn uprisings, not only among the peaceful, indolent Slavonian people, but among those Croatians in whom there is some of the blood of the peasant, King Gubec, who led the peasant revolution of 1573. I had always considered it my first duty to serve the government. O, greatly regretted folly! Such follies clothe themselves in all sorts of high sounding names. But in the end, like truth, they must stand naked. I was fully under the sway of this belief then, and supposed I was reaching heights of power, when I showed no indulgence to the rebellious people.

This time I did not worry at all as to whether I should be able to put things in order. I considered the report exaggerated, and thought calmly of the day when, with a battalion of soldiers, I should enter the village. In addition I was thinking happily that I should see Naja again. I had forgotten all about the talk with her about the land allotment. I did not for a moment connect the revolt in any way with Naja, although I was told that, during my absence, a peasant girl had come a number of times to inquire about me.

“Wasn’t it Naja?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but I tell you she was a beauty. You probably know well enough who she was, young man,” declared my old landlady with a sly laugh.

“Shut up!” I replied. I wanted to shake off her inquisitiveness.

“Why did you not tell her where I was?”

“Why should I? You were too far away. And then I thought perhaps it would make you angry. God knows how peasant girls carry on these days.”

“Don’t talk such nonsense!” I interrupted. I hastened out to buy Naja a silk handkerchief and some fine knitting yarn. I was impatient to see her again. During the ride to the village I thought a good deal more about her than about putting down the revolt.

I found out, however, that reports of the revolt had not been exaggerated. I came, indeed, just in time to rescue the pope and the village elders. The guard-house had already been set on fire at one comer. But we had a comparatively easy time in the village. In some of the open fields it was not much harder. The few peasants threw themselves flat upon the ground to prevent the plowing. They complained that the rich men had bought up the courts and the elders. But when the soldiers with bayonettes drew near, and pressed a few of them to the wall the crowd ran away. It was harder work in the forest and the pastures. Here weapons had to be used. But the great centre of opposition was the graveyard. There almost the entire village was assembled. Young and old men, women and children. They were each provided with some sort of weapon even if it were only a stick.

A few had guns, scythes and hoes. A ragged lubber pounded upon a drum as if he were “possessed.” Before we reached there it was a sight to see; they were laughing, yodeling, cursing and cracking jokes.

They are noisy! A good sign. A barking dog does not bite. When we came in sight there was a silence. There was something awe inspiring in the gleam of bayonettes, something disagreeable, like the writhing of a serpent, and the effect was not lost upon the people. Fright disabled them for a moment. I made use of this opportunity to tell them to go back to their homes. But—either I spoke in a different manner than usual—or my voice did not have the usual firmness, the effect failed. A deafening cry followed my words.

“We will not yield! The pope and the elders sold us! They took the best fields themselves and then went over to the proprietors. What shall we do when they rob us of everything? And now the hungry wolves haven’t enough; they want to take away the graveyard where our fathers, and our fathers’ fathers have slept for ages—since we came from Herzgovina two hundred years ago.”

Then I recalled Naja’s words and trembled. I darted forward with no other object in view than to see if she was there. I took a breath of relief when I did not see her. What would she think of me if she saw me here? Would she not hate me. To the devil with the whole affair!

The anger of the peasants increased. The more I delayed the more angry they became. To an angry man or a wild animal one must never show lack of determination. It will be mistaken for weakness. The peasants were making bold to attack the soldiers. The captain turned to me to give an order. At length the uproar increased until I did not know what to do. At length, with an effort, I made myself calm. I gave command to attack. The peasants received the soldiers with rocks and shots. Blood shedding could not be avoided. In spite of that knowledge I told the soldiers to fire into the air. The peasants guessed this and did not move.

“You don’t dare to shoot. We belong to the emperor. The emperor is our father. He will not let you shoot down his people. Have no fear!”

That was my answer. The crowd began to hoot at the soldiers. A fight developed in which four soldiers and fifteen peasants fell. The crowd fled and we held the graveyard.

Suddenly upon a hilltop a woman appeared. She implored the crowd to turn back, not to fear nor to run away.

“Cowards! At a shot you run like rabbits. If there is a man here let him come to me! What do you think will become of you if you desert the graves of your fathers? Here! here! Now if you are such heroes fire at my breast!”

I recognized the voice of Naja, as she threw open the embroidered shirt, and uncovered a breast as white as the snow. It took me a few seconds to comprehend the sad situation. Blood pounded in my ears. My mind was dulled. A command of the captain aroused me. I saw him lying on the ground bleeding. Then I do not know exactly what happened, whether or not I gave an order—I only remember this picture—Naja, her white breast spotted with blood. Then I saw her fall.

What happened afterward I did not care. I ran to her. She knew me. She could not speak, but I threw myself down upon the grass beside her. I covered the wound with a cloth, then I bore her to the village, out of the noise. I had scarcely placed her on her bed when she died.

When I tore myself free a moment from the grief that overpowered me and got up, her wide, dead eyes were looking straight at me.

With her all my joy died, too. Could a man do worse than I did? And why was I her murderer? For the pleasure of them who are not well disposed toward the peasants. Remember: “The voice of the people is the voice of God!”

Pero had finished. We had reached his dwelling in the meantime. His thin features were white; upon them I read the greatness of his sorrow.

When two years later I read that he had been killed in the battle of Zajćar, I thanked God. But whenever I think of Naja, the peasant girl, hope brightens my heart. A nation that has daughters like her—such a nation need have no fear of the future.

  1. Indznir—engineer.

 This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1935, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 88 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1961, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 62 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse