Short Stories from the Balkans/The Swine Herd

2835812Short Stories from the Balkans — The Swine HerdEdna Worthley UnderwoodWalther Netto




APPROACH of evening in a land of black mountains. Fine, cold rain like a winding sheet. A highway crawling along the narrow valley, about half way up the height, like a man bent over a stone, or a goat; from afar it looks like a woolen thread stretched across a cliff.

The wet rocks shone like black coals, or metal mirrors. Now and then a ray of light from the west slipped across the barren waste.

It was cold. What difference did it make if it was? In the cell of a cloister I knew there was a hearth kept warm for me; I was hastening toward the warmth, toward people—even if they were silent people—toward the smoke of homes and the cheerful light.

Beside me holding the reins sat the owner of the cart; huge, raw-boned, grey, crabbed. Behind his brow colossal thoughts were crowding. We were driving at top speed. Silence had reigned between us for some time.

He had offered me a seat beside him with a gesture of the hand which said: “Perhaps it will give you pleasure to drive through a couple of villages with me. You know, of course—” They all have the manners of dethroned princes. He had used his whip with the grandezza of a capitalist upon the Corso in Buda.

Still it rains. It is cold.

I wrap myself closer in my sheepskin. For hours we have not exchanged a word. Why should we?

Then the highway makes a sharp curve—and—suddenly, the horse jumps to one side, curves back and neck, stiffens his front legs, while myriads of stars shoot from his iron shoes—and stops. We are all but thrown out. What is the trouble? Now imagine—I lift my head and try to see—what a strange thing is life—I see—a long road black with hogs. Fifty, a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand—even this gives you no conception of the number. Thousands of hogs crowding around a swine herd.

And the swine herd sits upon a milestone. He holds a one-string violin upon his knee, from which from time to time he draws two notes, one high and one low, as accompaniment to a song. With the dignity of a royal bard, with the calmness of a ruling prince, he addressed his people—his herd of hogs. Thus Homer spake; thus Ossian sang.


“Stop a bit. Prince,” I begged, addressing the driver of the cart.

“Stop a bit—”

Eh bien! There's time enough.”

“What are days anyway? What are weeks? Time is merely a stop-watch for people who calculate in an office.”

And the man sitting upon the milestone was saying: Beloved swine, my brethren—Pan Strahinja’s life has now reached its zenith, just as a wanderer reaches the summit of the mountains, or the sun the zenith of the heaven, and the midday had bleached his head. But do not think for a moment that the fire within his falcon eyes had lessened. They were still glowing coals, they were the gleaming heads of bunched swords, and they sparkled like the great gem on the middle finger of his long white hand. You remember it, my swine.

It was on a night in the sixth decade of his life. A sultry night, a scent-heavy night of high summer. Pan Strahinja lay upon his couch, in a tent richly hung with rugs and embroideries, whose gold-threaded walls gleamed in the reflection of a swinging lamp of bronze. He had just put aside his weapons, his robe of state, and slept—exhausted—after the princely meal he had just given in honor of a Turk.

Do not believe, my dear swine, that the great Pan Strahinja had sought out a Turk for a friend, or—No! You must understand—eh, my swine?—that great people have obligations. The Turk had just been his guest. But I suppose you do not understand that, do you? Anyway it doesn't make any difference.

Well, as I said before. Pan Strahinja lay upon his couch and slept. And beside him lay a woman. She lay there naked, playing with her long, unbound, golden hair—holding it up and looking through it at the swinging lamp of bronze.

On a chain of pallid silver about her neck she wore a great shining gem which was the color of the sea. The stone lay between her breasts, just as if one had dipped up ocean water in one's hollow hand and let it drip down there, and as if she dare not move lest it should slip away.

Now she folded her arms under her head in order to lift herself up a little, and she looked from time to time toward the door of the tent, and then toward Pan Strahinja, who slept beside her. And now see what happens, my swine! Pan Strahinja slept there, and so might he have kept on sleeping for hours. All of a sudden a great thought slipped across his sleeping brain, and in order properly to consider the thought, he opened his eyes. Pan Strahinja opened his eyes, and as he slowly turned them upon the rich walls of his tent, with a superb indifference—he finds— What in the name of the three devils is it that he finds? He finds the place beside him empty. Now what do you say to that, my swine? The woman was gone. There was no use of thinking about it more; the woman was gone.

For an instant Pan Strahinja draws his hands across his brow; for an instant he meditates. The dinner he gave had indeed been a wild orgy. The devil take dinners like that! Again he looks at the place beside him; it looks just the same. The woman was gone.

And Pan Strahinja—listen, my swine—the great Pan Strahinja roared. He roared like a bull. He roared until the swinging lamp of bronze began to tremble. He roared until his sword shook in its scabbard; roared until the guard awakened from their napping, and seized their spears; until the horses in the stalls began to whinny— The woman had been stolen. A moment of meditation.

There was no room for doubt. It was self evident. It was clear as daylight. It was the Turk who had stolen her. He had shown her to him in the evening just as he had shown him his horses, his weapons, and his dogs. Of course it was the Turk! The Turk—that little crooked legged, insignificant, dirty Turk! She was with the Turk! And Pan Strahinja—the great Pan Strahinja began to laugh like the spirits of a thousand mad men.

His men ran to the door of his tent.

“What is the matter, master?”

“Nothing. I was dreaming—ha, ha, ha—I just dreamed that you brought me the crown of the Serbs—you dogs. Didn't you? Well—very good. Now go—go.

Hardly are they out of sight when he whistles for his black slave. A few moments later a stallion stands saddled in front of the tent. He puts on his sword; it leaps from the belt toward him like a woman. And then comes his greyhound—Karaman—and leaps toward him. He swings into his gold-worked saddle, and away he rides, out upon the heights, in the sweet, star-clear night.

What a picture, my swine, what a picture! And what a thought! Pan Strahinja under the light of the moon, riding upon a stallion from whose mouth the white foam falls and clings in flecks to breast and shoulder—Pan Strahinja, riding away in the night after the pale, blond slave-child.

She had soft, strange movements she had learned from the animals of the wild. She had slender, graceful limbs and cool, sweet skin; skin cold to the touch like the skin of an Indian serpent—like the chill of the interior of sunless temples.

Ahead already stands the tent of the Turk. In a moment he has crossed the enclosure and his stallion waits by the door. Slowly he has slipped from the saddle.

He pushes the curtain back, and not like a stranger—calmly—as if he himself were master there. And then he looks upon the Turk—and the woman. All he can see of her is her long gold hair, falling from a divan to the floor. The rugs upon the floor of the tent are thick and soft. They do not hear him. Is it laughter that is shining in his eyes? Is it anger? No. It is merely the cool observation of the judge who weighs the battle.

“There is something beautiful—noble—about love,” Pan Strahinja was thinking. “I will have a picture of this scene made for myself sometime—in gold.

Then Pan Strahinja lifted up his voice. He spoke just as if he were talking about the weather.

“Listen, my friend.”

“The devil!” shrieks the Turk.

“Listen, my friend. I might have killed you just now. But if I had your blood would have flowed down over this little serpent. The thought of that displeases me.”

That was well said, my swine. Don’t you think so? That’s the way distinguished people talk. What could the Turk say to that? Not a thing! So they were the only words spoken.

Now it was plain that the Turk must gird on his sword, then Pan Strahinja and the Turk walked out of the tent, out upon the hills, under the star-clear sky.

It was a procession worthy to look upon. Ahead walked Pan Strahinja and the Turk, side by side, just like friends. Next, with long, swinging strides came the stallion; behind the stallion the blond woman, hastily wrapped in a mantle of purple silk, and around them played the white greyhound with its giant leaps.

Do you suppose—you swine—that they went at each other like peasants? Is that what you think? Listen! They spoke as if races listened—nations—as if great armies stood behind them.

Thus spake Pan Strahinja, the naked sword in his left hand, while with his right hand he accompanied his princely words which were something like this:

“I am Pan Strahinja, the son of the great Pan Soundso, and the grandson of the exalted Pan Soundso, who lost his life in the glorious battle by the White Water. You know about that—And I took to me a woman for the pleasure of my nights. There she stands—a woman with the graceful body of the roebuck—and the nature of a serpent. What difference does it make? The Patriarch of Stamboul himself gave her to me—his friend—to me, the great Pan Strahinja. And one night a Turk came, and—”

This was the way he spoke.

Then the Turk began: And—that, we will leave to him—he spoke after the manner of heroes. You should have heard it, my swine, for I assure you it was not bad.

And now the fight began.

What a picture! Strength against cunning; the splendor of the lion against the cunning of the serpent. What a fight! The air trembled when the great swords swept through it. But neither hesitated. The fight became cruder and wilder. The Turk disables Pan Strahinja’s leg. Then the greyhound leaped to his throat. Pan Strahinja whistled him aside. The woman seized the mantle of Pan Strahinja, but the stallion struck at her with his hoofs. Ravens circled over their heads like black ships of a giant fleet. At length they roll down the hill together. There they lie. The eyes of the woman who stands gazing down upon them—the indifferent eyes—grow larger, grow rounder, with horror. The greyhound stands beside her ready for the plunge, like a trained leopard of the chase, and the stallion has the fire of battle in its blood.

The light of coming day can not penetrate the rocky cavern where they have rolled together, and where the great Pan Strahinja, with a hand of steel, is slowly choking the Turk to death. Ha!—my swine! He killed him with his own hand.

Then he freed himself, drew his golden dagger, and cut off the head and walked quickly, carrying it, to the high land.

He fastens the head to the saddle, lifts the woman up, swings himself to place and rides calmly away toward his tent.

A few months later the Patriarch of Stamboul visited the great Pan Strahinja, when he was setting out on his journey to Rome.

He saw hanging in the corner of his tent a skull.

“Whose is that?”

“A Turk.”

“How does he earn such honor?”

“Do you remember the woman whom you gave me for the pleasure of my nights? He wanted her.”

“And you—did you kill her?”

“Friend,” replied Pan Strahinja, “suppose someone stole your great ruby, and you found both the thief and the ruby, what would you do with the thief?”

“I would kill him.”

“And then would you throw the ruby away?”

“I’d be damned if I would!”



  1. The writer of this story followed in the wake of the armies and wrote of the country he saw. This story was first published about three years ago.