2783106Short Stories from the Balkans — The RobbersEdna W. UnderwoodLazar K. Lazarević


I WAS riding with a soldier. It was one of those summer days when one would fight his best friend who had said that the hottest summer is preferable to the coldest winter. The sun poured down heat in a way to burst one's brain.

Across the fields of ripening wheat heat vibrated and trembled, and rose in waves toward the sun. The trees with their dry and withered leaves looked like sick people who were longing for a drink of water. The cattle in the fields were suffering and seeking the shade of the old apple trees. Not a bird moved; exhaustion lay upon nature, which seemed herself to have lost consciousness.

In the brain there was a hideous emptiness—a Sahara! One felt heavy and weary. It was not easy to breathe. I began to fear that I should never reach the little village alive.

But when at length I did get there I was like a gourmand who salts and peppers his soup before he tastes of it; so I wished a place of rest and comfort before eating. I was also concerned not to neglect my business, and I made haste to attend to my duties, and while I was thus engaged I was enjoying in prospect the rest that would be mine in the evening, and sleep.

Who has not ridden a day in the heat without water, and then rested at night in a pleasant place, does not know what enjoyment is. I could not, of course, foresee that that night I was not to close an eye. But that is the way it happened.

The inn was a poor, tumble down, dirty place in which the “room for gentlemen” was painted in such a manner that it looked like a coffin. All the rooms smelled of stale fish and poor brandy. So you can understand the pleasure with which I accepted the invitation of Ugricic to stay all night with him. That very day his brother’s son—who had finished his time of service in the army—returned. It was a large peasant house. The owner was well to do; the family was merry and good natured and they treated me royally. Most of all I enjoyed the good appearance of Ugricic’s brother’s daughter. A fresh colored, handsome peasant, vibrating with life and strength. She walked gracefully and firmly, and she was shapely.

We ate supper out of doors under the nut tree. She waited on us throughout the evening without speaking a word. She ushered me into the house, in the middle of which was the living room, in which there was a large fire place. Opening out of this room were two bed rooms. The one to the right was given to me. It was furnished with a wooden bed strewn with fresh hay, on top of which a sheet was spread and a pillow placed.

Beside the bed was a small table, and under the window a bench. On the wall hung a Turkish scimiter suspended by a strap that was torn and old. Beside the scimiter were two flint-stone pistols. This completed the furnishing.

I cannot accustom myself to the unlovely Serbian custom of having a young girl pull off one’s dirty boots. I did not permit her to do it and called the soldier.

She looked down at my boots and then she looked at me. Should I ask her to take a seat? She had not done so. What should I say to her? I made an attempt at conversation.

“Have you eaten your supper, Stana?”

“Not yet.”

“Why not?”


“Do you always eat so late?”



“Because of the work.”

“You have to wait on the older people first while they eat?”


“And then comes your turn?”


“Did you know that in the city the women-servants and men-servants eat together?”

She covered her mouth with her hand, and one half her nose, turned her head to one side, smiled shamefacedly and shrugged her shoulders.

“Isn’t it better that way?”

She still held one hand to her face, and again lifted her shoulders.

“I advise you to marry a boy from the city.”

She dropped her hand, seized one side of her skirt and shook it to and fro. Then she turned her face completely away and spoke as if she were addressing the wall.

“Do you want to wash your feet?”

“No, I do not. Go now and eat your supper. You have worked enough for one day.”

“Then God be with you,” going out without looking in my direction. I told the soldier to go to bed. I proceeded to hang my revolver upon the bed-post. Then I undressed, opened the window, and lighted a cigarette. At last I blew out the candle and stretched myself, wearily, upon the bed. Ah—what happiness was this!

Through the window the warm wind of summer refreshed me, and the new-mown hay I lay upon was sweet to smell. A cricket chirruped—for the rest there was silence. But I could not sleep.

Thoughts persecuted me, they were not exactly unpleasant thoughts, and I gave myself up to them, although the night was growing late.

It pleased me, too, to call up the picture of Stana. To be sure there was nothing romantic about her, but I was delighted with her vitality and her blooming youth.

Gradually pictures and thoughts grew dim. I saw Trifors, the coachman, riding upon a pump handle, and then he spread a cow’s skin out. Behind a door something rattled. I turn my head to see Stana carrying a cluster of ripe wheat heads. Just at this moment a wagon shaft hits me and pierces my body. I jump, strike my head against the bed-post, and sleep is all over for me.

I do not wish to light the candle, but it must be near midnight. Then the outer door opened softly, and I heard an indistinct noise. Through the crack of my door I can see the fire still burning in the kitchen hearth. By degrees the noise grows louder. The first words I heard were:

He—in there, sleeps.”

That was a man’s voice. A woman replied: “Of course!”

As God is good to me that is Stana.

I consider a moment whether to get up and join them. My hand was even reaching toward the door latch, when it occurred to me that I would probably be in the way.

Should I look and find out who it was? I peered through the crack in the door. She was evidently sitting there with her brother.

“Now you see, sister, I have served in the army and been about in the world. Now I’m through with it—it is behind me. Now I have something different to see to—if God is good, I will marry you off and then take a wife for myself— I—”

She was silent.

“Do you know something? Look here—I know all about it. I wish you had told me yourself instead of making me hear it from other people. And then—besides—you know I hate him.”

She was still silent.

“I—I want you to know—I know him well. He better get it out of his head. I will not let you marry any one poorer than I am. I’ll find a fellow for you myself—and a fine one!”

She got up, went to the wood basket, took a piece and threw it upon the fire. He, likewise, turned his back to me. He spoke slowly then as if he were weighing each word: “I’m next to him—that fellow—that Trino. He needn’t run about my house—and my sister—I won’t put up with any tricks from him.” Then he went on, his voice rising higher in anger: “Who is he and what is he? A German! That's what he is, sister. He came from Germany. I—I know all about it. When he first came he had some papers—dirty and worn—about as large as your hand. He took them to Jews in the village and they gave him money for them. Now he hasn’t even any more of them. He is as poor and as bare as a stone. Just has that little farm. Who knows where he found money to pay for it? Yes, yes! And what kind of papers are they? I know that—too! Once he had a piece of writing from the German Emperor—to our head officer. It said to seize Trino. But no!—he sold some more papers—and got some money and he gave the money to the officer, who said to him: ‘Go home. Behave yourself well. You are a Serbian, and a Hungarian is no better than a Turk. He does not believe in God or the Mother of God.’ Now—how’s that! And how does it happen that the officer says to him—whenever he is in the village, he slaps him on the back and calls: 'How are you, my hero?' There's a brave one for you! He bullies all the small fellows. But he don’t dare touch a good strong one! That’s a fact! Once—before I was a soldier—I got drunk and cursed his German mother. He didn’t say a word. Not one word! Only—‘Why do you do that?’

“I reply:

“‘Oh—just because!’

“Then he—‘Let up! Let up!’

“I replied: ‘You just come over here if you dare!’ and to that he answered:

“‘I don't want to, Zivko—don’t want to.’

“And I—‘You don’t dare to, you big blunderer—’ When Radojka Milicie called him a German, he wanted to beat her, and then he began to cry, when the teacher began to explain that he wasn’t a German but a good Serbian. He cursed the village people when they called him a German. And how he looks. Don’t know how to cross his trouser straps like us—goes around like a cripple. And his mother is a German, even if she wears a done-up braid. That don't prove anything. And I know, too, that Germans worship holy St. Martin! He does. Don’t that prove it? More than that he cuts grain with a scythe! That's the truth. And I know all about the way you flirted with him the day all the peasants helped Stoyevic! I tell you not to look at Trino again. I’ll curse his German mother tomorrow again—and then you’ll see. He’s a coward. He does not dare do a thing!

Some one knocked softly and the two jumped up. Three men entered. I could only see one. He was young, handsome, and wore silver buckles on his coat. The face was blackened with powder, weapons were stuck in his belt, in his hand he carried a pistol.

“Good evening,” he said harshly.

The girl was afraid but Zivko replied:

“Bad luck to you if it is God’s will.” I saw no more for the three men had closed the door behind them, they came nearer and leaned against the very crack through which I was looking. I heard noise—then groans—and the suppressed cry of Stana:—“Robbers!”

I was terrified. I procured my revolver and went back to the door again. Just at this moment I heard at my window—“Pst pst!” and I turned.

“Sir, give me Zivko’s pistol from the wall there, quickly! Do not hesitate. I am Trino Trifunov. Quick—there are robbers here! Quick, quick!”

The danger was urgent. I understood and concluded that this man must be Trino, the German, Stana’s weapon. I did not delay but handed him the pistol. Would a robber ask me to lend him a pistol?

Now it was my turn. I saw that my revolver was in condition. And while I did it I trembled like an aspen leaf. For the first time in my life I realized that I did not carry this weapon about with me in vain; but I confess I was a good deal more afraid of my own revolver than of the robbers. How could I kill a human being! On the contrary—I would sooner have died myself.

“Hands up! Surrender!” they thundered by the outer door. That was enlightening to me. I opened my door, stepped to the threshold holding my revolver and began to holler:

“Surrender! Surrender!”

Outside I saw a man who held a pistol, aimed at the robbers, one of whom held Stana’s mouth so she could not call, while the other was strangling Zivko, who was beginning to turn blue.

For a second the robbers hesitated in their work. One fired toward the rescuer in the door; the second struck with his yatagan the chain that held the iron kettle over the hearth, and it fell, putting out the fire. Then two shots were fired. Darkness reigned.

I began to fire at the ceiling to give myself courage. I was very careful not to hit anyone.

Then there was confusion. Suddenly someone was shoved into the room which was mine. I could not see who it was. Then I heard some one slip up to a door and shove the bolt.

Now an alarm had been given outside. Evidently two of them were here. The fire flickered up for a moment.

“Let me alone, Trino,” called Zivko, and threw himself upon the floor. He felt a hand clutch his throat.

Outside there were shrieks and sounds of loud voices. Old Ugricic was making his way along, carrying a hatchet, and the younger fellows with anything they could pick up. One carried a candle. All were frightened. It was just as if a wild animal had broken loose, and everyone was saying:

“What’s the trouble? What’s the trouble? Where is it?”

At length the neighbors came hurrying in and then there was noise and confusion. House and yard were filled with people, moving about and asking questions.

In the middle of the kitchen, or rather the living room, stood a young, vigorous man, with the belt and head-covering such as are worn here. He wore very wide trousers, and shoes. That was Trino. Around him the crowd surged. He did not speak and seemed greatly excited. Zivko, covered with blood and wounds, was rubbing his neck. Stana, white as a piece of linen, was standing in one comer. She evidently could not pull herself together from the fright.

Then the head man of the village arrived, the clerk with a gun and a bottle of ink, and the school master with the broken leg of a chair.

“What’s the trouble?”

Zivko was scratching his back.

“This is it—that criminal Nicodemus has fallen upon the village—and our house. And if it had not been for him—he points to Trino—I would have lost my head and God only knows what would have happened.”

“Where are they? Follow me, people, with your weapons! Let’s pursue them. Quick! Catch them!” shrieked the town clerk.

“They have escaped,” was the reply.

“By the devil’s mother one escaped—the others were caught,” explained Trino.

He pointed to the door of my room.

“My dear little brother, they have jumped out through the window,” I answered.

“Yes, by the devil’s mother. Isn’t your soldier under the window?”

We were all amazed.

“Take your weapons! Surround the house! Be careful all of you—they’ll defend themselves!” commanded the head of the village.

“Give me the ax!” suggested Trino. “Here are your pistols lying on the floor.”

In fact on the floor were three, four pistols. Trino tried to open the door but it did not yield. He lifted the ax, and struck with the back of it against the door, which fell open. At that instant a shot came from there, grazing his head, taking away his cap, and then hitting the ceiling. We had completely forgotten the two pistols belonging to Zivko which hung on the walls of that room.

“Now go ahead, brothers!” commanded the head man of the village. “Go ahead! City clerk, have you a weapon?”

Despite the city clerk, the robbers showed an inclination to defend themselves, but when Trino threatened with the ax they threw away their yatagans and surrendered.

They had already made a hole in the wall with their knives, and if we had delayed they would have escaped. We captured them. We found we had the robber chief Nicodemus and one companion.

“Now bring the third, Andrew! Bring him here!” commanded Trino.

“What third do you mean?”

“The one who kept watch,” replied Trino. “I tied him to a plum tree under the window, and the soldier who is with the gentleman guarded him,” declared he, turning to me.

“You are another Kraljevic Marko.”[1]

While this was going on Zivko stood lost in thought, without paying any attention to anyone. Then he looked at Trino, dropped his eyes and walked up to him.

“Trino, brother, do not be angry. I thank you like a brother. That—you know!”

His eyes were wet.

“If you like, we will be brothers—we will kiss.”

Trino did not answer. He wiped his mouth with the skirt of his shirt, and then they kissed. Everyone praised Trino and wondered at his bravery. Zivko dug around on the hearth for ashes to put on the wound on Trino's head.

“Now,” said the city clerk to Trino, “you will receive the two hundred ducats reward for the capture of Nicodemus.”

Trino started in surprise. Quickly he looked across at Stana, who blushed to the ears, and who wished to run away.

“Wait! Where are you going?” called Zivko, who was still by the hearth and had overheard the village clerk’s words. “Will you desert my house like this?”

Day was coming. They tied the robbers still more securely. Brandy was brought in and Trino and Zivko kept embracing each other.

And Stana?

She was waiting like a child who cries for a plaything, and then at length gets it. Her cheeks were like ripe peaches, and laughingly she turned her eyes from time to time upon Zivko.

On the day of the Assumption of the Virgin, I saw in the market square, Trino and Zivko, Stana and her mother. Stana wore the headdress of married women.

I met there, too, the head man of the village. I remembered the adventure and said to him: “Tell me—who is this Trino. What kind of a fellow is he?”

“An honest, hardworking fellow. He was not born here, and once he served in the army. But once when an Hungarian officer cursed his saint he ran a bayonet through him. And then he made his escape to Serbia.

Twilight came on. The dancing grew merrier. Trino’s shoe strings and leggings were worn just like those of Zivko. He flung his legs and leaped about merrily in the dance. People crowded about, called, shrieked and drank. The dust was so thick one could not breathe. Roast meats were served, guns roared, glasses were broken, bag-pipes shrilled; the scent of food floated about. The gayly decorated Zivko boasted about his new brother: “No one born is strong enough to wrestle with him. There isn’t any other Trino—he is a genuine Serb!”

  1. The national hero of Serbia.