THE ROAD RUNS ALONG THE COAST BETWEEN ROCKY BANKS dripping with the golden hair of broom. The hillside above and below us was astonishing in its fertility, although even here the rain was diluting the spring to a quarter of its proper strength. There was everywhere the sweet-smelling scrub, and thickets of oleander, and the grey-blue swords of aloes; and on the lower slopes were olive terraces and lines of cypresses, spurting up with a vitality strange to see in what is black and not green. Oaks there were-the name Dubrovnik means a grove of oaks; and where there were some square yards of level ground there were thick-trunked patriarchal planes, with branches enough to cover an army of concubines. The sea looked poverty-stricken, because, being here without islands, it had no share in this feast served up by the rising sap. There was presented a vision of facility, of effortless growth as the way to salvation. This coast, in ancient times, was a centre of the cult of Pan.
There were, however, other interesting residents of a supernatural character. Somewhere up in the mountains on this road is the cave in which Cadmus and his wife suffered their metamorphosis. They were so distressed by the misfortunes of their children, who were persecuted by Hera, that they begged the gods to turn them into snakes. Ovid made a lovely verse of it. When Cadmus had suffered the change
... ille suoe lambebat coniugis ora
inque sinus caros, veluti cognosceret, ibat
et dabat amplexus adsuetaque colla petebat.
quisquis adest (aderant comites), terrentur; at illa
lubrica permulcet cristati colla draconis,
et subito duo sunt iunctoque volumine serpunt,
donec in adpositi nemoris subiere latebras,
nunc quoque nec fugiunt hominem nec vulnere lœdunt
quidque prius fuerint, placidi meminere dracones.3
It is an apt symbol of the numbness that comes on the broken-hearted. They become wise; they find comfort in old companionship ; but they lose the old human anatomy, the sensations no longer follow the paths of the nerves, the muscles no longer offer their multifold reaction to the behests of the brain, there is no longer a stout fortress of bones, there is nothing but a long, sliding, writhing sorrow. But what happened to Cadmus was perhaps partly contrived by the presiding deity of the coast, for he was the arch-enemy of Pan, since he invented letters. He made humankind eat of the tree of knowledge; he made joy and sorrow dangerous because he furnished the means of commemorating them, that is to say of analysing them, of being appalled by them.
That was not an end of the strange events on the coast. We learn from St. Jerome’s life of St. Hilarion that when (in the fourth century) the holy man went to Epidaurus, which was a town founded by the Greeks not far from here, he found the whole district terrorized by a monster living in a cave near by, who could draw peasants and shepherds to his lair by his breath. It was certainly Cadmus; literature has always found readers. St. Hilarion went to the mouth of the cave and made the sign of the cross and bade the dragon come forth. It obeyed and followed the saint as meekly as might be back to Epidaurus: all literature worth naming is an expression of the desire to be saved. There the saint said to the townspeople, ‘Build a pyre’; and when they had done that, he said to the dragon, ‘Lie down on that pyre.’ It obeyed. The townspeople set the pyre alight, and it lay quietly till it was burned to ashes. Without doubt it was Cadmus, it was literature. It knew that it was not a dragon, it was a phoenix and would rise restored and young from its ashes; it knew that pagan literature was dying and Christian literature was being born.
Since then Epidaurus has changed its name twice. It was destroyed by the barbarians in the seventh century and its population fled ten miles further north and founded Dubrovnik, or Ragusa. But after a time some stragglers returned to the ruins of the sacked city and built another of a simpler sort, which came to be known as Ragusa Vecchia. Now it is called Tsavtat, which is said to be a Slavonic version of the word ’civitas.’ We stopped there and found that the story about St. Hilarion and the dragon was perfectly true. It cannot be doubted. The town lies on a double-humped dromedary of a peninsula, and the road can be seen where the dragon trotted along behind the saint, looking as mild as milk but sustained by its inner knowledge that not only was it to be reborn from the flames, but that those who kindled them were to know something about death on their own account. It was aware that when we visited the scene fifteen hundred years later we should be able to see in our mind’s eye the tall villas which it passed on the way to its martyrdom, and the elegant and serious people who held their torches to the pyre; and it knew why. It knew that one day the sailors and crofters would come to live among the ruins of the town and would delve among the burnt and shattered villas and take what they would of sculptures and bas-reliefs to build up their cottage walls, where they can be seen today, flowers in the buttonhole of poverty. It knew that the peasants’ spades would one day attack a part of the peninsula which, in the Greek town, had been the jewellers’ quarter; and that afterwards intaglios on the hungry breasts and rough fingers of people who had never known what it was to satisfy necessity, would evoke a dead world of elegant and serious ladies and gentlemen, otherwise sunk without trace. ’Lie down,‘ St. Hilarion was obliged to say to the dragon, ’lie down, and stop laughing.‘
Yet even that was not the last event to happen here as it does nowhere else. Two seafaring families of this place became rich and famous shipowners, and just after the war a woman who had been born into the one and had married into the other conceived the desire that Mestrovitch should build a mausoleum for herself, her father, her mother, and her brother. She held long discussions with the sculptor, and then she and her father and her brother all died suddenly, for no very probable medical reason; and the mother had only time to make the final arrangements for the execution of the plan before she joined them. There is something splendid and Slav about this. They had resolved to provoke an analysis of death by their own deaths, and hastened to carry out their resolution.
Mestrovitch made the mausoleum in the form of a Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels, standing among the cypresses in the cemetery on one of the two summits of the peninsula. It is characteristic of him in the uncertainty with which it gropes after forms: there are some terrible errors, such as four boy musician angels who recall the horrid Japaneseries of Aubrey Beardsley. There is no getting over the troublesome facts that the Turkish occupation sterilized South Slav art for five hundred years, and that when it struggled back to creativeness it found itself separated by Philistine Austria from all the artistic achievements that the rest of Europe had been making in the meantime. But there are moments in the Chapel which exquisitely illustrate the theory, the only theory that renders the death of the individual not a source of intolerable grief: the theory that the goodness of God stretches under human destiny like the net below trapeze artists at the circus. The preservation offered is not of a sort that humanity would dare to offer; a father would be lynched if he should do so badly for his son. Yet to die, and to know a meaning in death, is a better destiny than to be saved from dying. This discussion Mestrovitch carries on not by literary suggestion, but as a sculptor should, by use of form.
But this coast belongs to Pan. In this mausoleum Cadmus goes too far, he delves into matters which the natural man would forget and ignore, and he is punished. The sexton in charge of this cemetery, whose work it is to show visitors the tomb, is a cheerful soul who has taken up mortuary interests as if they were football or racing. He has himself tried his hand at sculpture, and his carvings are all excruciating parodies of Mestrovitch, criticisms which none of his enemies have ever surpassed in venom; and, as every artist knows, there are tortures which a dragon dreads far more than the pyre.
From Savtat the road goes inland and passes one of those Dalmatian valleys which cannot be true, which are an obvious Munchausen. In winter they are lakes, not swamps but deep lakes, which can be swum and fished and rowed over in quite sizable boats; I have seen one as long as Derwentwater. In spring an invisible presence pulls out a plug, and the water runs away through the limestone and out to sea by miles of subterranean passages, and instead of Derwentwater there is dry and extremely cultivable land. Thereafter we came back to the sea and the town of Hertseg Novi, where wistaria and fruit blossoms and yellow roses frothed over the severely drawn diagram of military works, to which the Bosnians and the Turks and the Venetians and the Spaniards have all contributed in their time. In the distance we saw, and did not visit because the hour was wrong, the sixteenth-century monastery of St. Savina, where King Alexander of Yugoslavia delivered to himself an intimation of his approaching death. He had visited it many times, but when he went there just before he embarked for France, he did not pull the rope that rings the bell to announce the coming of a guest. He walked past it and rang the passing-bell.
It is to be noted that his very presence there is an indication of some of the difficulties inherent in the State of Yugoslavia. This was the first Orthodox monastery we had yet seen in the whole of our journey through the country. The piety which made him visit it could not have endeared him to his Catholic-Croat subjects in the North and on the coast; and they would not have shared in the passionate interest he felt in the treasures of this church, which comprise some holy objects in the possession of the Nemanyas, the great dynasty that made the Serbian Empire, because those emperors had no historical association with them. Yet if the Karageorges had not been sustained by the Orthodox Church and their pride in their medieval past they could never have driven out the Turks or defended themselves in the Great War or freed their fellow-Slavs from the Austrian yoke. There are, as Metchnikoff said, disharmonies in nature, and probably the greatest of them is our tendency to expect harmony in nature.
We ran along a coast that was pretty in a riverside way, though it was edged with the intended cruelty of naval warfare, with dockyards and out at sea the iron sharks of torpedo-boats and submarines. But then it suddenly became lovely, we were in the Bocca di Cattaro, the Boka Katorska, the winding natural harbour, of which one has read all one’s life; and like a Norwegian fjord, it made an effect that was to the ordinary landscape as ballet-dancing is to walking. The channel became wilder in shape as it became milder in surface, it narrowed to a river and widened to a bay, then flung itself away like a shawl and lay cast down between rocks in an unpredictable line. Above us the mountainside was cut with ledges where spring stood at different stages, sometimes showing the clearest green of early woodlands, laced with wild fruit-blossom, sometimes only as the finest haze over winter darkness of tree and soil; and high above all, pricking the roof of the sky at its full height, was the snow-covered peak of Mount Lovchen. But to Norway there was added here the special Dalmatian glory: a great deal of the coast is edged with a line of Venetian Gothic palaces and churches.
The channel drew to its narrowest. Here a King of Hungary once closed it with a chain. We passed a waterfall, which, according to the custom of this limestone country, burst straight from the living rock, and came on Rishan, one of the oldest inhabited towns in the world. It was the capital of old Illyria, the seat of Queen Teüta. It is a little place that has had the breath beaten out of its body, for it has been invaded again and again since the time of the Goths onward, and has suffered also earthquake. It is a grotesque fact that when the Crown Prince Rudolf was taught Croat, the court chose as his tutor not a learned professor from Vienna or Zagreb, or any of the cultivated gentlemen to be found in the Dalmatian cities, but a country squire from this town.4 Battered though it is, it keeps the exquisite imprint of the coastal taste, and it has something of the hardy quality of the town opposite Korchula where the sea captains lived; nets hang bronze over the golden and lilac stone.
Perast a few miles further along the fjord is finer and larger, with a surrealist touch added to its Venetian Gothic charm. For beside the harbour an unfinished church, hardly more than an open arch, stands in front of a large and completely finished church, in very curious relations to its campanile, like one distracted before a superior, like Ophelia before the Queen; and many of the palaces have been cleft asunder by earthquakes, and are inhabited by Judas trees and fig trees and poplars and wistaria vines, which are wildly contortionist, hanging over a richly carved balustrade and forcing an entrance back to the house through a traceried window a story higher. But Perast offers a touch of familiarity to the ear, and to the eye. Its name comes once into the life of Peter the Great, who, in the course of one of his five-year plans, sent sixteen young nobles here to go to sea with the local sea captains to learn the art of navigation. The boys must have blinked at the South, at the sea, at the discipline, all new to them. And set in the bay are two islands, lying two or three hundred yards out, both covered with low buildings, one bare of all but stone, the other guarded by some cypresses. At the second every visitor must feel a startled, baffled stirring of recognition which afterwards they will probably repudiate.
But the recognition is right. This is the island on which Arnold Böcklin based his horrid vision of what happens to Bubbles and His Majesty King Baby when the goblins get them because they don’t watch out: ‘Die Toteninsel,’ the Isle of Death. But the original is a curious contrast to the picture. The island is as if one met the reverse of a common experience, it is like seeing a photograph which represents a woman as bloated and painted, and finding that she is in fact a sunburned young athlete. It is a chaste, almost mathematical arrangement of austerely shaped stones and trees. A boatman rowed us out, and we found it the most proper and restrained little Benedictine abbey of the twelfth century, ruined, but still coherent. We walked about it for a little, and found some stately tombstones that belonged, the boatman said, to the families that lived in the palaces on the mainland, which we could see lying on the shore and on the hillside among the spring woods. The names on the tombs were all Slav, Venetian though the place seemed to the eye.
But our boatman plainly wished us to make a move, he kept on looking over his shoulder at the other island, and explaining that the baroque church there was very beautiful, and that many miracles had been performed in it. ‘He does not like us being here,’ I said; ‘perhaps there are snakes.’ But when we rowed to the other island we found he had wished to take us to it simply because he lived there, and his dog had been wearying for his company. He had been quite right in thinking this important, for it was a unique animal. Its coat, which was of drab tow, struck one as uncoiffed. Apparently dogs must pay some attention to their toilet, since it could be seen at a glance that this one paid none, being preoccupied with holy things. It had fervent sherry-coloured eyes and was the very dog for a miraculous shrine, for it had such a rich capacity for emotional life that it could hardly have retained any critical sense of evidence.
If this dog had a fault, it lay in giving to God’s creatures too much of the feelings that it should have reserved for the Creator. It greeted the boatman, who could not have been away from it for more than half an hour, and offered us its friendship, as it might have broken an alabaster box of ointment over our feet and washed them with its hair. It had a baroque excessiveness, perfectly matched to the place where it lived. This island is artificial, banked up round a small rock, and it is covered with a marble pavement, on which there stands a Renaissance church, holy yet swelling its lines like the bosom of a well-nourished female saint. There is a lovely and insane piece of furniture, or masonry, left out on this pavement: a large marble table, upheld by crouching giants. Inside, the church is lined with some Italianate pictures, themselves passable, and set against a background of some two thousand votive tablets, worked in silver, an encyclopaedia of the silversmith’s art and the moods of the pious. There is among them one large work which is a masterpiece: it is a bas-relief showing the Turks coming down the mountains to attack Perast and being driven back. It is Renaissance work that has been preserved from its own sins by the virility of the people who practised it.
As we left, the dog promised to pray for our own salvation and expressed its intention of lighting a candle before the altar of Our Lady for the safety of its master during his journey to the shore and back. I suggested that we should ease its emotional strain by taking it in the boat with us, but this caused it great distress, and even seemed to shock the boatman. I suppose it had taken a vow not to leave the island. As we rowed away it ran round in circles, barking wildly, its head down, while behind it a totally superfluous archway, the curve of its span as sweet as the drip of syrup from a spoon, framed the grey glass of the sea by the shores of ancient Rishan. I blushed a little for the dog’s abandonment, and was glad that no cat was by to sneer. She must have been a thorn in the side of her spiritual adviser.
There is a city named Dobrota, which is a string of Venetian palaces and churches along the coast, four miles long. It is a city, it is gloriously a city, for it was made so by the Republic on account of its exploits in naval warfare against the Turks. In one of its churches is the turban taken from Hadshi Ibrahim, who fell at Piræus by the swords of two soldiers from this parish. And the place is not dead, though the earthquake struck here also, and the stained purple of the Judas tree appears suddenly between cleft walls. The Yugoslavian Navy and the liners draw many of their crews from Dobrota. The sea gives these places an unending life.
In Kotor, too, there might be death. It was once a great city. It was part of the great medieval Serbian Empire, and after that was destroyed by the Turks it belonged to Hungary and then to Venice, and became superbly rich. The route from Dubrovnik to Constantinople ran through it, and it carried on a caravan trade on its own account, which it combined with sea trade to Italy. There are in the town thirty chapels built, none meanly, by private families. But all this was stopped by Napoleon’s attack on foreign trade. That, and the actual fighting he brought down on this unoffending coast, destroyed a gentle and eclectic culture. Later, the rule of Austria paralysed any movement towards recovery. A great many of the mountain tribes about here were irreconcilable, particularly on the hills by Rishan, and Austria policed the coast with a persistent nagging inefficiency that kept it poor and undeveloped and sullen.
It lies at the fjord-head, pressed almost perpendicularly against the barren foothills under the mountains which are scaled by the famous road to Tsetinye; and it is cooped up by military fortifications. Always it is a little cold. The sun shines on it only five hours a day in winter, and summer is not long enough to correct the accumulated chill. A labyrinth of alleys and handkerchief-wide squares leads from beauty to beauty. There is a tenth-century cathedral, rough but with a fine front, two towers joined by a portal that forms an arch. Inside there is a doorway from a ninth-century church that stood on the same site, which is superbly carved; among a design of interlacing strands, like our Celtic borders but of superior rhythm, two devils snatch at two escaping souls; all persons concerned are violent but serene. There is a treasury, untidy as the jewel-case of a rich woman who has become careless of such things through age and trouble, still stuffed, in spite of Napoleon’s army and its requisitions: I have never seen such a show of votive arms and legs made in silver, and there were some touching crosses that had been borne hither and thither in the long wars between the Christians and the Turks. And there is a bishop’s palace beside it, with good capon lined, and grown with climbing flowers.
Further on among the cold alleys there is a twelfth-century Orthodox church. Here in Kotor there are many Orthodox. It has a tiny separate church within its aisle, a box within a box, a magic within a magic. It reminded me of what I had forgotten, the difference between the dark, hugged mystery of the Eastern Church and the bold explanation proffered by the lit altars of the Western Church. Round an icy corner was a Romanesque church built in the fourteenth century yet adorned with the eagles of pagan Rome. Here there is the crucifix of a suffering Christ, with a crown of real thorns and hair made of shavings, which is ascribed to Michelangelo by a learned monk of the seventeenth century, who must have been a great liar; and here one mounts some steps before a side altar and looks down through glass on the Blessed Osanna, a Montenegrin saint who died nearly four hundred years ago, but keeps about her rags and tatters of skin and bones a look of excited and plaintive sweetness. It is odd how Catholicism and Orthodoxy modify the Slav character. In the Orthodox parts of Yugoslavia they do not believe that it is the part of women to lead consecrated lives though they should be pious, and there are very few convents.
‘Nothing ever happens in Kotor,’ one would think. We thought it proven by our guide’s insistence that on one day of the year, in February, something does happen in Kotor. Then the Guild of Sailors parades the streets in medieval costume, bearing the weapons their ancestors used to fight the Turks, and there is a ceremony at the cathedral, unique, and I believe not strictly permissible, when the relics from the treasury are laid on the altar and are censed alternately by two leading citizens, one Roman Catholic and one Orthodox. We are far from the seats of authority here, and Slavs are individualist. ‘Is it still a great show?’ we asked doubtfully. ‘Surely,’ said our guide. ‘We have lost our merchants, but we still have our sailors, which is more important.’
It was an agreeable answer to hear from a man who was wearing an overcoat so threadbare that it showed its weft. He proved he meant it by taking us through the Town Gate to the quay, and saying proudly, ‘Here are our sailors.’ They were walking in the pale evening sunshine, with the mountains behind them curving over the fjord like a blown wave: they were indolent as highbred horses when they are not ridden, and their faces were quietly drunken with stored energy, which they would know how to release should they one day be at Piræus, and a pirate pass them wearing a turban. ‘If I had not been born in war-time, so that as a child I had many sicknesses,’ said the guide, ‘I too should have been a sailor.’
IV. Home by Gruda
Our chauffeur was the son of a Swabian, which is to say a German belonging to one of those families which were settled by Maria Theresa on the lands round the Danube between Budapest and Belgrade, because they had gone out of cultivation during the Turkish occupation and had to be recolonized. His father had come to Dubrovnik before he was born, and he can never have known any other people but Slavs, yet quite obviously Slavs struck him as odd and given to carrying on about life to an excessive degree. He himself, particularly when he spoke in English, attempted to correct the balance by under-statement. Hence, when we approached the village of Gruda, on our way from Dubrovnik to Kotor, he turned his head and said, ‘Nice people.’ He meant, it proved, that the men and women of this district were undistinguishable in appearance from gods and goddesses. This was one of those strange pockets one finds scattered here and there at vast intervals in the universe, where beauty is the common lot.
‘But why,’ the chauffeur was asking himself, ‘make a fuss about that?’ He put the question to himself with a kind of stolid passion, when we passed through the village again on our way home to Dubrovnik, and a group of three young girls, lovely as primroses in a wood, came towards us, laughing and stretching out their hands and crying out, ‘Pennies, pennies,’ as if they were not only begging but were ridiculing the ideas of beggary and benevolence alike. Since we were on the return journey we knew we had time to waste, and hammered on the glass and made the chauffeur stop. He slowed up under protest. ‘They will beg,’ he said. ‘Why not?’ said my husband. They were, indeed, most prettily prepared to do so, for each of them carried a little bouquet of flowers for an excuse.
‘Pennies, pennies!’ they cried, laughing, while we stared at them and adored them. This was no case of a racial tendency imposing itself on the mass, each germ-cell had made an individual effort at beauty. One was black, one was chestnut, one was ash-blonde; they were alike only in their golden skins, their fine eyebrows, their full yet neat mouths, the straightness of their bodies within their heavy black woollen gowns. ‘Have you any pennies, my dear? I have none,’ said my husband, full of charitable concern. ‘Not one,’ I answered, and I turned to the chauffeur. ‘Give me three tenpenny pieces,’ I said. ‘Three tenpenny pieces!’ he exclaimed very slowly. ‘But you must not give them three tenpenny pieces. Three tenpenny pieces! It is very wrong. They should not beg at all. Begging is disgraceful. And even if it were excusable, three tenpenny pieces is far too much.’
There was much to be said for his point of view. Indeed, he was entirely right and we were wrong. But they were so beautiful, and in spite of their beauty they would be poor all their lives long, and that is an injustice I never can bear. It is the flat violation of a promise. Women are told from the day they are born that they must be beautiful, and if they are ugly everything is withheld from them, and the reason scarcely disguised. It follows therefore that women who are beautiful should want for nothing. ‘Please, I would like to give it to them,’ I besought the chauffeur, ‘just three tenpenny pieces; it’s not much for us English with the exchange as it is.’
He did not answer me at once. His nature, which was so profoundly respectful of all social institutions, made him hate to refuse anything to an employer. At last he said, ‘I have only one tenpenny piece on me.’ As I took it we both knew that we both knew that he lied. Glumly he started the engine again, while the lovely girls stood and laughed and waved good-bye to us, a light rain falling on them, the wet road shining at their feet, the creamy foam of the tamarisk on the bank behind them lighter in the dusk than it is in the day, but the yellow broom darker. ‘I wonder how old those girls were,’ said my husband, a few miles further on. ‘Let’s ask the chauffeur. Since he’s a native he ought to know.’ The chauffeur answered, ‘They were perhaps fifteen or sixteen. And if they are encouraged to be impudent when they are so young, what will they be like when they are old?’
The day after our expedition we went to see the treasury of the Cathedral. This is now fairly easy, though it can be seen only once or twice a week at a fixed hour; it is typical of the stagnancy which covered Dalmatia under Austrian rule that before the war it was hardly to be visited, since the clergy took it for granted in that darkened world that a traveller was more likely to be a thief than a sightseer. A visit still takes time, for Dalmatians, like Croatians, sometimes find that difficulty about being at a particular place at a particular hour for a particular purpose which they believe to be characteristic of the Serb. With a crowd of fellow-tourists we sat about for half an hour or more after the prescribed moment, in the great baroque Cathedral, a creamy, handsome, worldly building. Then a priest, not old but already presenting a very prominent stomach, came in with the keys and took us through the safe-doors into the treasury, which is divided down the middle by a low spiked barrier. We waited in a line along this, while the priest went behind it and opened a large number of the cupboards which lined the room from floor to ceiling. He took from them object after object and brought them over to us, carrying them slowly along the barrier so that each of us could see them in detail.
Some of these objects were very beautiful, notably a famous reliquary containing the head of St. Blaise, which is the shape of a skull-cap six inches high and six inches across, and is studded with twenty-four enamel plaques of eleventh-century Byzantine work, austere and intense portraits of the saints. There were some other good Byzantine and Serbo-Byzantine pieces, which the priest seemed to reckon as less interesting than the numerous examples of commonplace Renaissance work in the treasury. Though the Catholic priests in Croatia and Dalmatia are pleasant and well-mannered they have none of that natural taste and aptitude for connoisseurship which are often found in quite simple priests in France and Italy. This one, indeed, felt little tenderness towards the arts. He showed us presently a modern crucifix, highly naturalist but very restrained and touching, which had been made by a young man of the town in his early twenties; and when the stout Swiss woman beside me asked if the sculptor had fulfilled his promise, he replied, ‘Ah, no, he died at twenty-four of drink. It’s always so, with these artists.’ ‘Yes, indeed!’ agreed the Swiss, and they shrugged their shoulders and nodded darkly, preening their flabbiness in superiority over a race who must necessarily follow a discipline stricter than they could ever have imagined.
But these people believed themselves to be lovers of the arts; presently the priest brought from the cupboards an object which he dandled and beamed upon while he showed it to the spectators, who responded by making the noise that is evoked by the set-piece of a firework display. I stretched my neck but could see nothing more than a silver object, confused in form and broken in surface. When it came to the Swiss woman I could see that it was a basin and ewer which are mentioned in many guide-books as the pearl of this collection. They are said to have been left by a certain archbishop to his nephew in 1470, but a blind and idiot cow could tell at once that they are not so. Such disgraces came later.
Nothing could be more offensive to the eye, to the touch, or to common sense. The basin is strewn inside with extremely realistic fern-leaves and shells, among which are equally realistic eels, lizards, and snails, all enamelled in their natural colours. It has the infinite elaborateness of eczema, and to add the last touch of unpleasantness these animals are loosely fixed to the basin so that they may wobble and give an illusion of movement. Though Dubrovnik is beautiful, and this object was indescribably ugly, my dislike of the second explained to me why I felt doubtful in my appreciation of the first. The town regarded this horror as a masterpiece. That is to say they admired fake art, naturalist art, which copies nature without interpreting it; which believes that to copy is all we can and need do to nature; which is not conscious that we live in an uncomprehended universe, and that it is urgently necessary for sensitive men to look at each phenomenon in turn and find out what it is and what are its relations to the rest of existence. They were unaware of our need for information, they believed that all is known and that on this final knowledge complete and binding rules can be laid down for the guidance of human thought and behaviour. This belief is the snare prepared for the utter damnation of man, for if he accepts it he dies like a brute, in ignorance, and therefore without a step made towards salvation; but it is built into the walls of Dubrovnik, it is the keystone of every arch, the well in every cloister. They surrounded themselves with real art, the art that moves patiently towards discovery and union with reality, because to buy the best was their policy, and they often actually bought the best. But they themselves pretended that they had arrived before they had started, that appearances are reality. That is why Dubrovnik, lovely as it is, gives the effect of hunger and thirst.
But the priest assumed that I would wish to look long on the basin, and bent towards me over the barricade to put it as close to me as possible; and I learned how far worse than aethetic pain the vulgarer physical sort can be. My right hand was transfixed with agony. I had rested it on the top of one of the spikes in the barricade, and now it was being impaled on the spike by the steady pressure of the priest’s immense stomach. I uttered an exclamation, which he took for a sign of intense appreciation evoked by his beautiful basin, and with a benevolent smile he leant still closer, so that I could see the detestable detail more plainly. His stomach came down more heavily on my hand, and my agony mounted to torment. I tried to attract his attention to what was happening by spreading out my fingers and twitching them, but this seemed to make no impression whatsoever on the firm rubbery paunch that was pressing upon them.
This filled me with wonder. It was odd to arrive at middle age and find that one had been wrong about much that one had believed about human anatomy. I tried to speak, but the only words that came into my mind came in an incorrect form which I immediately recognized and rejected, ‘Tonventre, dein Bauch, il tuo ventre, tvoy drob, I must not say that,’ I told myself, ‘I must say votre ventre, Ihr Bauch, il suo ventre, vash drob.’ But at that it still seemed an odd thing to say to a priest before a crowd of people. I found myself, in fact, quite unable to say it, even though I taunted myself with displaying, too late in life, something like the delicacy which made Virginia refuse to swim with Paul from the shipwreck, because she was ashamed of her nudity. I uttered instead a low moan. The priest, certain now that I was a person of extreme sensibility, swayed backwards and then forwards. My husband, even more certain on that point, dug me savagely in the ribs. I uttered a piercing scream.
The priest recoiled, and seemed about to drop the basin, but my pleasure was mitigated by the fear that my husband was going to strangle me. I held out my hand, which was bleeding freely from a wound in the palm. ‘Ah, pardon!’ said the priest, coming forward bowing and smiling. He was taking it lightly, I thought, considering the importance which is ascribed to like injuries when suffered by the saints. ‘But, my dear, what was it?’ asked my husband. ‘The priest’s stomach pressed my hand down on the spike,’ I said feebly. ‘It can’t have done!’ exclaimed my husband. ‘He would have felt it!’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘about that we were both wrong.’ ‘What was it?’ asked the Swiss woman beside me. ‘It was the priest’s stomach,’ I said, imprudently perhaps, but I was beginning to feel very faint.
She looked at me closely, then turned to her husband. He, like everybody else in the room except the priest, who had returned to his cupboards, had his eyes fixed on me. I heard her say, ‘She says it was the priest’s stomach.’ He looked at me under knitted eyebrows, and when he was nudged by his neighbour I heard him answer the inquiry by repeating, ‘She says it was the priest’s stomach.’ I heard that neighbour echo incredulously what he had been told, and then I saw him turn aside and hand it on to his own neighbour. Though the priest came back with the ewer which was the companion to the basin and fully as horrible, containing a bobbing bunch of silver and enamelled grasses, he was never able to collect the attention of his audience again, for they were repeating among themselves, in all their several languages, ‘She says it was the priest’s stomach.’ It seemed unfair that this should make them look not at the priest but at me. ‘Let us go,’ I said.
Out in the open air I leaned against a pillar and, shaking my hand about to get rid of the pain, I asked my husband if he did not think that there was something characteristic of Dubrovnik, and dishonourable to it, in the importance it ascribed to the basin and the ewer; and we discussed what was perhaps the false finality of the town. But as we spoke we heard from somewhere close by the sound of bagpipes, and though we did not stop talking we began to move in search of the player. ‘But the Republic worked,’ my husband said, ‘you cannot deny that the Republic worked.’ ‘Yes,’ I agreed, ‘it worked.’ The music drew us across the market-place, which lies just behind the Cathedral, a fine irregular space surrounded by palaces with a robust shop-keeping touch to them, with a flight of steps rising towards the seaward wall of the town, where baroque domes touch the skyline. There were some fiercely handsome peasants in the dark Dalmatian costume sitting with their farm produce at their feet, and some had heard the bagpipes too and were making off to find them. We followed these, and found a crowd standing outside a building with a vaulted roof, that looked as if in the past it had formed part of some ambitious architectural scheme, perhaps a passageway between two state offices. Now it seemed to be used as a stable, for there was horse’s dung on the floor; but that would not explain why there was an upturned barrel on the floor, with a penny bottle of ink and a very large scarlet quill-pen lying on a sheet of newspaper spread over the top. Just inside the open doors stood a very old man, dressed in the gold-braided coat and full black trousers of a Bosnian, playing bagpipes that were made of nicely carved pearwood and faded blue cloth. He had put the homespun satchel all peasants carry down on the floor; the place did not belong to him. He played very gravely, his brow contorted as if he were inventing the curious Eastern line of his melody, and his audience listened as gravely, following each turn of that line.
‘Look at them,’ I said; ‘they are Slavs, they believe that the next Messiah may be born at any minute, not of any woman, for that is too obvious a generation, but of any impersonal parent, any incident, any thought. I like them for that faith, and that is why I do not like Dubrovnik, for it is an entirely Slav city, yet it has lost that faith and pretends that there shall be no more Messiahs.’ ‘But wait a minute,’ said my husband; ‘look at these people. They are all very poor. They are probably the descendants of the workers, the lowest class of the Republic. That means that they have never exercised power. Do you not think that they may owe to that very fact this faith which you admire, this mystical expectation of a continuous revelation that shall bring man nearer to reality, stage by stage, till there is a consummation which will make all previous stages of knowledge seem folly and ignorance? The other people in Dubrovnik had to exercise power, they had to take the responsibility. Perhaps none can do that unless he is sustained by the belief that he knows all that is to be known, and therefore cannot make any grave mistake. Perhaps this mystical faith is among the sacrifices they make, like their leisure and lightheartedness, in order to do the rest of us the service of governing us.’
‘Then it should be admitted that governors are inferior to those whom they govern,’ I said, ‘for it is the truth that we are not yet acquainted with reality and should spend our lives in search of it.’ ‘But perhaps you cannot get people to take the responsibility of exercising power unless you persuade the community to flatter them,’ said my husband, ‘nor does it matter whether the governed are said to be lower or higher than their governors if they have such faces as we see in the crowd, if wisdom can be counted to dwell with the oppressed.’ ‘But they are hungry,’ I said, ‘and in the past they were often tortured and ill-used.’ ‘It is the price they had to pay for the moral superiority of the governed,’ said my husband, ‘just as lack of mystical faith is the price the governors have to pay for their morally unassailable position as providers of order for the community. I think, my dear, that you hate Dubrovnik because it poses so many questions that neither you nor anybody else can answer.’