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THE DANUBE BARRIER
"EET'S alo-ong vay ..." sang Vrbashki, "to Tipperaree, eet's a lo-ong vay to go-o...." The dipthongs were to much for him always. "Maiku! What a language."
"Come on, try it again."
"Eet's a lo-ong vay ... No, no, wait: Eet's a lo-ong vay ... Well, what in the name of the Mother of God does it mean anyway?"
"Yes, and look here, Nikola, what does that national song of yours mean? How does it go? Vrbashki! Sing that other one, will you. I want to know what that one means."
He was good with a guitar, and he sang well.
"God sev ar gresus kin ..."
"Yes, yes, that's the one. Zhika does it with his choir. What does it mean, Nikola? I mean, it's a sort of national song, isn't it?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, Sasha, the words are very ancient. You couldn't compare it with a modern political song. You see— well, what I mean is that it isn't a political song. People sing it, of course: yes, they sing it, but they don't necessarily pay much regard to the actual words."
Sasha was lying on his back in the straw, his cap over his eyes and sucking a stem of grass. He had been about all the previous night and now was waking up again in the late afternoon.
"Still, I'd like to know what it means." Sasha has an unshakable thirst for knowledge. He regards it as his duty to know as much as possible, and he likes to study me in a quiet way.
"It's quite simple. 'God'—that's God; 'sev' that's save; 'ar kin' that's our king—God save our king, just like that. And the rest of it's all about that. Very old words, you know. Not much political significance."
"Oh," says Sasha, squinting up at me with his left eye, his right eye fixed firmly on the ceiling, "I see." He considers these two apparently inseparable ideas "God" and "king" and says nothing more. They have given a dubious account of themselves in Serbia.
One of the duty couriers comes in. He is a lad of seventeen or so, his skull cropped of hair, a look of permanent surprise and expectation on his face. "I say, Sasha," he says, diffidently, "got anything to read?"
"D'you mean you've finished the material I gave you? Really read it?"
"Well, there were difficult bits. But I read most of it. I gave it to Blackie to read."
"Have you read 'Free Voivodina'?"
He shifts from one foot to the other, anxiety written in his round red face, in the hang of his arms held limply at his sides, in his pleading voice.
"My God, don't be silly, Sasha. You know we got 'Free Voivodina' last week." He digs into a trousers pocket with one large crooked hand, and brings out a little tobacco and a packet of papers. "My God, we've all read that by this time." With dexterity his large stiffened fingers roll a cigarette.
"Wait a minute," and Sasha rolls over and reaches for his satchel. "Hm, here's 'Extracts from Leninism': no, you can't have that, it's too advanced.... Here's 'Borba': have you read 'Borba'?"
"Maiku, Sasha, you're losing your memory. You gave us 'Borba' two weeks ago: we've got absolutely nothing to read."
Sasha rummages in his satchel. "Then you can have 'How I Learnt.' That's a book by Maxim Gorki. You haven't read that, I suppose?"
"No, we haven't read that. Anyway, who's Gorki? Sounds like a foreigner."
Yes, Gorki was a foreigner. Gorki was a Russian who was born under the old regime, under the dictatorship of the Russian emperors. He was a man of no origins, born in a stable or something similar, just like a horse would be born. And his father died of cholera when he was very young because cholera was rife in Russian cities; and it was rife because there was no sanitation and the workers had to live like pigs. They lived like pigs and never learnt to read or write and consequently could not be said to have had any culture whatsoever. That had been, indeed, one of the most serious handicaps of the great October Revolution: the shortage of men with culture, of men who had read books and could write easily on paper.
"Well, what else would they write on, Sasha?"
On nothing else, of course. But writing on paper meant that a man could sit down and express what he thought in words that exactly fitted what he thought. It did not mean simply writing "Sasha" or "Milovan" or an order for blankets from the Podrucha. It meant that a man could write down everything that might come into his mind, and write it down in such a way that others would understand everything he had wanted to say. The workers could not do that: they had never been taught, for they were treated like pigs and pigs would never need to write on paper.
But Gorki was a pig who turned himself into a human being, and into a human being who could write down things on paper as well as any man of his day. Gorki was a great man. And when he was an old man, too, some of his friends asked him to write down on paper the exact way in which he had taught himself—for he had had to teach himself—to read and write. And the result of this was a book called "How I Learnt." ...
"All right, Sasha, we'll read that. He wasn't a Bosnian, was he? They're like pigs, those Bosnians. Maiku! Just like pigs——
No, he wasn't a Bosnian, but a Russian. And it was incorrect to say that Bosnians were pigs because they were human beings, and the importance of this was very great in that Bosnians and Srem-folk were part of the same nation; and to say that Srem-folk were better than Bosnians was undoubtedly a reactionary point of view, and not one that could be tolerated.
"Well, Sasha, I didn't mean that. But you know yourself how——
But Sasha seems to have gone to sleep.
Milovan goes out with his book and Sasha wakes up again.
"Prikane," he says to a pale-faced man who is tapping away at the typewriter, "what've you got there, Prikane?"
"What have I got here, Sasha? Well, Sasha, my Sasha, what have I got here? My Sasha, my friend, I've got a report. A magnificent report I've got."
"Wouldn't you read it to us?"
"Read it to you, Sasha, my boy? Is that it, eh? No, no, I can't do that. 'Tisn't finished yet." Prikane is a tailor's apprentice from Mitrovitsa, and the repetitive swing of his needle seems somehow to have got into his tongue.
Vrbaski is crooning to himself in a corner, the straw heaped up under him. He has a dark face, tense and delicate.
"Hi, Vrbaski, what've you got for to-night?"
"Same to you, Prikane: 'tisn't finished yet." He sings softly, then says: "No, but seriously, it's a pity Lalitsa isn't here."
"What, that Bachka one?"
"Hm. Then we could do 'Dunava' in three voices—with Mara, too."
"Yes, but you can sing that yourself?"
"Of course, but not like Lalitsa. Lalitsa sings it like a bird... O Dunave, Dunave plave ..."
"Yes, yes—Lalitsa sings it like a bird. Nikola, have you ever heard Lalitsa sing 'Blue Danube'?"
"Once I did ..." That was weeks ago, in the earliest spring when hazel catkins still hung from their twigs like yellow caterpillars, and the sky was blue-grey and torn with a north wind, and the earth still soft and clinging underfoot. We were returning across the Frushka Gora from a visit to the Danube; there were Shatsa and Branimir and myself, and two others who had come across the river from Hungary with news that gave us much to think of; and we had left the villages along the Danube in silence, thinking our own thoughts and wondering what might be done next. We had skirted behind Banoshtor where the houses came down to the water's edge and the church stood by the river like a watch-tower, white and slim and silent; and then came into the woods where Dule and the Odred had fought a battle the summer before, the spot still marked by a broken bridge, scarred with old splinters; and walked across the hills to Grabovo, seeing where the ploughland in that valley lay unfilled and desolate. Shatsa and Branimir hung behind, in ardent conversation now, whispering furiously at each other because they had both been so long in the Bachka that whispering was a habit with them. Lalitsa walked in front because he knew where shortcuts lay, and as we went up over the curve of ploughland that leads across to Grabovo he began singing quietly, a sweet high tenor that came as if by miracle from his round red face.
O Danube, blue Danube ...
Behind us as we went plodding upwards over that curve of ploughland was the broad silver stream of the Danube, now high in flood and more than a thousand yards in width, a broad silver mirror in which the sky lay in limpid pale reflection; and beyond the Danube stretched the Bachka in brief sunlight, a flat green land sown with slim populars and the white spires of churches; and the mind's eye could run up across that flat green land, silent and bathed in sunlight, until it came in the course of seven hundred miles to the foothills of Ruthenia and the blue Carpathian crests.
O Danube, blue Danube ...
And there below us as we went up over the curve of ploughland was the greatest waterway of Europe, and moving upstream like toy boats on a pond of glass, scarcely moving against the strong unseen current of the river, were strings of barges behind a tug, the Liechtenstein or Babenberg perhaps with great paddles flanged on either side and tall upright funnels, black smoke rising from the funnels like a tuft of cotton wool, a wooden toy on a pond of glass.
And from there another memory, a morning early in the New Year that was bright with shafts of sunlight in grey cloud, when Vintse and I were living in Susek in wait for Shatsa; and Vintse was keeping a fatherly eye on me on behalf of the Odred. We had gone out that morning along the river bank towards Ilok and lay on a low overhanging cliff counting the tugs and barges that sailed up and down the river on Germany's business. Vintse was complaining that they would not let him go back to his brigade. It wasn't, he said, as if he were not sufficiently experienced or tried in battle; he was forty-three and a famous fighter: that was common knowledge. It was simply that he liked to do things in his own way. We walked upstream along the bank, Vintse leading. He was a grey old peasant in ragged clothes and a battered felt hat, with a belt and German rifle and clips of ammunition protruding from the broken-down pockets of his coat. Vintse was an original partisan, a partisan in the proper sense of the word: that is, a man who had taken to the woods in the very early days because he sided of his own initiative — without the group pressure of society to urge him—against the enemy, and would do against the enemy whatever he felt able, and in his own way; and he thought himself to be his own master and no man else's. He represented in himself the first and necessary phase of their revolt: the individual whom disrupted forces in society had splintered from his ancient mood and custom of submission, and forced into active resistance to the pressure of dictatorship and tyranny. But like many of the older peasants in the movement, Vintse had remained firmly in the first phase when the second—the integration of individuals who had revolted in a group which would represent them and press their claim for a new form of society—was already in advanced development. And Vintse could see no great advantage in the formation of a new society. He feared its bonds almost as greatly as he had feared the bonds of the old group that was now shattered in pieces. He was for individual freedom, for anarchy of the individual. He wanted none of these new things except peace and personal liberty.
We lay on the bank above the Danube and counted the barges going by. Vintse pontificated gravely on the contents of their cargoes. "Jam," he said, "all those barrels full of jam. Simply jam," pointing contemptuously to a barge loaded deep with wooden barrels. An amazing amount of jam went past us that morning. It was one of the things I remember most vividly. Every barge that passed us appeared to be carrying jam.
"But look here, Vintse, they can't all be jam. I mean, not just jam like the stuff you put on bread-and-butter." He eyed me askance, his face dark with irritation. "My God, I've been living beside this river for forty-seven years and I ought to know jam when I see it. Why, they've been carrying jam up this river ever since I was a boy. Enough jam for all the world, the rascals."
"But where does it come from, Vintse?"
"Oh, from down there, from Roumania. The river flows down into Roumania, you know, and that's where the jam comes from." "And what do they do with all this jam?"
"My God, what do you think they do with jam? They don't put it in aeroplanes, and they don't put it in tanks, I can tell you: they stuff it down their throats, the fat Shvabs, that's what they do with it, the rascals."
The barges moved at snail's pace upstream, the tugs puffing clouds of black smoke into the wind. We could see the pilot standing at his wheel: if we had not wished at that time to keep Susek free of suspicion from the enemy, since we used Susek as terminal for crossing the Danube, we could have shot him easily. But Ilok with its garrison of five hundred mixed troops was only five miles upstream, and discretion was advisable.
Not being much amenable to discipline, since all discipline in Vintse's view was associated with terror and compulsion and the old dictatorship, with gendarmes and corruption, Vintse had found it difficult to fit himself into the structure of the new people's army. Seeing the trend of his thoughts, they had gently reprimanded him and sent him back to his village to take charge of the Susek home-guard, keep an eye on strangers, represent the army, and in general lend an air of local authority to the Odred. These duties he discharged with a light of bitter zeal in his one effective eye—he had lost the other in a brawl long ago—and with much fond complaint. Now he kept a sort of watch upon the Danube, and counted barrels of jam for me.
"But look here, why don't your chaps come and bomb Ilok?" For the villages along the south bank of the Danube, Ilok and its Ustashe were the beginning and the end of all evil, and it was inconceivable to them that Ilok should remain unbombed. Londonski Radio would broadcast that a thousand bombers had raided Cologne; and later they would see with their own eyes the massive squadrons of Flying Fortresses which went overhead almost every day on their way from Italy towards a target in the north. To the end they would hold it against us that we would not bomb Ilok, Susek and Banoshtor, Neshtin and Cherevitch were solid in this.
"You can bomb Cologne. Why can't you bomb Ilok? For God's sake tell them what trouble we have at Ilok with those Ustashe, the rascals."
"But, I mean, Vintse; there's other places with more Fascists that we have to bomb first."
This time he was really angry.
"Maiku!" he says, and much else besides. "Now where in the world can you find more Fascists than in Ilok?"
We plod homewards in silence, for there is really no answer to this. The river is a broad silver flood below us.
O Danube, blue Danube ...
Yes, Lalitsa could sing like a bird, a silver-throated bird, and he sang O Dunave, Dunave plave as we went that morning upwards over the curve of ploughland that leads into Grabovo, and behind us lay the plain of Hungary, the broad silver stream with its toy steamers and their cotton-wool smoke, and the plain beyond, the flat green land picked out with the slim white towers of churches and poplars that were mistily green.
Vrbashki croons to himself in a corner, and Sasha is lying on his back in the straw, apparently asleep, his boots thrown off for better comfort; and Prikane is tapping away a report of the political situation in Ruma, and Dule is giving orders concerning the disposition of Bosko's battalion; and for the moment all is well and as it should be.
From the window of our headquarters we can see the inch-long corn upon the hillsides, emerald green as the hills slope downwards into the basin of the Sava; far away, twelve miles at least, there are the smoking chimneys of Mitrovitsa barely visible in the plain, and just beyond, for this is the waist of the hourglass that is Srem, we can see the shining white thread of the Sava as it bends south towards Shabats. Above the house the trees on Glavitsa are already blurred with foliage, the larch and chestnut saplings frilled with young leaves; from the cover of these trees, above the house, we could see on fine days the blue hills of Serbia, the Tsail Planina, and even, sometimes, the solitary crest of Avala below Belgrade, seventy miles away and more.
In the evenings we ride into Gregurievats, a mile away, and gossip there with a crowd of people. Only about seventy houses have been burnt down in this village, and much therefore remains. Until the previous November it was held by a local German garrison which First Brigade, in a lightning strike from Bosnia, had liquidated to the last man; since then, Gregurievats has become a principal seat of partisan government, and any number of interesting characters can be found there.
On a moonlit night it is pleasant to linger late in the village and then to ride slowly homeward through the dusk, well-fed, drowsy with talk, already half-asleep. Rumours of a coming enemy offensive on the Frushka Gora are reaching us with rising frequency, perhaps provoked by the ease with which we land stores on Glavitsa in full view of at least half a dozen garrisons. At first, when they heard the aircraft overhead they thought they were going to be bombed and blew all their air-raid sirens in a chorus that was lovely to hear, but afterwards they learnt better and went on sleeping, aware only that the partisans in the Frushka Gora, those blood-thirsty Bolsheviks, were stronger by a few more machine-guns, mortars, bags of high explosive, and anything else the Allies could think of sending them. These rumours of a coming offensive are not yet sufficiently precise to cause us alarm, and our work goes on, ignoring them, at full speed.
As we pass the sand quarry outside Gregurievats where two hundred and fifty Serbs are buried we turn in our saddles and look back. The forest of vine-sticks that runs back from behind the little quarry is silhouetted by the afterglow in the western sky. The vine-sticks are like so many crosses.
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