BY MARY HEATON VORSE
THE rain fell in Mitrovitza and thinned the streets of women and little girls, and it was as though it washed the color from the world, for the women of Mitrovitza wear trousers of orange and vests of green, while their head-dresses are saffron and pale yellow. No women in all Serbia are as brilliantly dressed as the Jewish women of Mitrovitza. They look equivocally at the men from their long eyes, for the town is a sink where the races and tribes of the Balkans meet. Here they eddy and swirl about one another; then they stream out over the roads through Albania to Montenegro. They go south to Uskub and north over the mountainous paths of the Great Retreat. Here come the Albanians from the hills in their white homespun clothes, braided boldly in black with the slash of their red sashes around their waists, while the soldiers of France and England meet those of Serbia in all the streets. Some come to Mitrovitza and see in it a great and wicked city and drink of its wickedness; and some see in it a lost and vicious little hole, a town part Turkish, part Albanian, and part Serb. For here begins the welter of the irreconcilable hates of Macedonia.
I walked past the shop where the Albanians were weaving rugs; past the bazaars, outside of which hung kerchiefs of scarlet and green and white and lemon and orange; and over the bridge, looking for bread for my journey. Turkish women, black even to their veils, hurried past me in hasty stealth. A cart drawn by water-buffalo waggled by. I stopped at the bread-shop, where the old Turk, in a well-wound turban, white stockings on his feet, sat cross-legged beside his piles of round, flat loaves.
A coal-black "madagash"—a French Colonial—his red fez on his black head, asked, in Serbian, "How much the bread, Turko?"
At a little distance a little boy stood watching me. He was dressed in rags, but so is half of Serbia. His gaze, uninsistent, speculative, and suffering, did not leave me, so I went to him and asked him if he were hungry, at which he shook his head, settled himself closer within his rags, and slopped off, the mud clinging to his big opankas.
I passed him again as I turned my back on the town, its strolling soldiers, its swarming boys, its tortuous byways ankle-deep in mud, and its white minarets.
The station, like all those of Turkish towns, was distant from the city and isolated as a pest-house, for the Turk feared and mistrusted the railway and kept the abomination as far away as he could.
No train was ready; no engine was in sight; nothing indicated the departure of the Uskub train but the groups of soldiers standing patiently in the rain by the track, which stopped with finality near some ruins. Some were in ragged overcoats laden with equipment-packs holding out their overcoats like bustles. Some were in mustard khaki—cloth bought from the English. Some in horizon blue, bought from the French—a nondescript, rag-tag army, bronzed, lean, formidable, and composed of gentle, innocent men.
Time passed; the slate-colored rain fell as the little engine puffed up oisily, as though to look at us, and puffed away, Groups of people laden with bundles and boxes came down the hill. They were wet and forlorn, and gradually they filled up the station-agent's room. I sat on my duffle-bag; the woman from Madnavo sat on her valise, her head in her hands, and the Turk from Mitrovitza huddled in the doorway.
The soldiers began to talk to pass the time.
"Where do you come from?"
"I go to Nish—"
"I have not seen my family for eight years—"
"I go to Salonique—"
A light feeling of friendship moved among us—a fresh breeze that cleansed the air, stagnant with waiting. They began to laugh. A soldier in horizon blue came up to me.
"Have you any one to carry your bags, sestra? No? Then I charge myself with them."
The Turk from Mitrovitza sat on his bundle and sang. The air smelled of wet clothes, of garlic, of packages of food.
The engine puffed up again; some of the soldiers climbed into the wagons. We still waited. The ragged boy I had seen in town stood on the platform. Presently he began to cry. He cried without violence, but as though the hopelessness of life had made his tears well over. The soldiers gathered around him, kind in their curiosity. "Why do you cry, mali?" they asked. He cried on disconsolately, without answering.
Then his story dripped out slowly, like rain falling. He raised his head and looked at the soldiers and talked without emphasis, with the manner of recounting the inevitable. There was no protest and no hope in his voice.
"He is an orphan. He has no one—he has no one at all," they reported.
The women clucked sympathetically: "Poor mali, poor boy!"
"He was going to Uskub to look for work, and now he has not money enough, he finds. He can get nothing to do, no place to stay in Mitrovitza."
The women rested kind eyes on him, hands went to pockets, soldiers brought out money.
The boy stood looking out over the railway. He was twelve or thirteen; his grotesque rags once had been men's clothes. On his head was a battered cap. His face was brown and sharpened with hunger. His eyes were like a dog's, wistful and frightened and set far apart. The rags of his homespun coat dripped about him—his torn socks were pulled over his trousers, Serbian fashion—and on his feet were opankas, a sort of moccasin tied on with thongs, these, too, man's size.
He seemed so lost and so forlorn that a chill crept over us. He stood there unconscious, his gaze lost in the distance, isolated by his dirt, unattached, humble, standing a little bent, as though the weight of life were too heavy for him to bear. All at once the day was more cheerless, the station seemed the remotest place in the world. We shivered a little and moved restlessly about. We could not forget him, though he made no demands on us, did not even notice us. He did not ask our friendship or our attention, but stood there in the fading light, waiting humbly. He seemed not like a child, but a symbol of the lost children, crawling miserably over the roadways of the world, sleeping, as he had recently done, in the mud of ditches.
Our chatter flared up and died, for always our eyes went back to him and to his somber significance. I went up to him with a soldier in horizon blue who spoke French with me.
"Ask him where he comes from?"
"He come from Stenia," the soldier translated. "His father fell in the first offensive. His mother died of typhus. Then he worked for a farmer for nearly three years. He was a poor man. When his son came back he could keep the boy no longer. He paid him and told him to find work in some other place. That was soon after New-Year's. He has been looking for work for nearly two and a half months—they do not want such little boys."
He told his story monotonously, without emphasis, without protest, with very faint gestures of his grimy hands. He told it with a deadly air of indifferent matter-of-factness. A common tale. I could not bear his isolation. I suffered from his loneliness.
"Please ask his name." I said for I felt if I knew that it would save me from his seeming to be a symbol of the desolate company of children disinherited by war. At the soldier's question, the boy turned to me.
"Milorad Bachinin," he told me.
We straggled slowly to the train. The troops entrained in the carriage. We got into a box-car—the little group of soldiers and civilians who had made of one another the friends of an hour. We disposed ourselves on the floor; we pulled our blankets over us.
"Sestra, sit here. So you shall be out of the draft."
"Sestra, let me arrange your things. Are you comfortable so?"
"Gospodja Draga, draw up, draw up. Do not leave us for strangers!"
Laughter and talk. The bleak box-car became an encampment and its cold walls were warmed by friendship. The boy sat down on a bale of goods; delicacy made him withdraw himself. He was so dirty that in any other country he would be a pariah, but here no one made him feel this.
The conductor ca»me among us encamped on the floor, perched on bales, done up in Pirot rugs, or sitting on our bags.
"Who are you traveling with?" he asked Milorad.
"With the American sestra," he answered, without hesitation,pointing at me.
The conductor nodded. The soldier in horizon blue smiled.
"A quick lad—children are not supposed to travel alone," he explained.
We undid valises; we opened musettes and packages and began to eat our supper. Every one remembered Milorad.
"An egg, mali?"
"A bit of meat, mali?"
He ate hungrily, smiling at me across the others, searching my eyes at each gift of food, as though to say, "I have an egg, sestra—bread." He must share these happinesses with me.
The night wore on. We had long since lighted our candles, and they made long shadows.
Milorad sat always on the bale of goods, isolated by misfortune. He sat relaxed, his dark eyes fixed on nothing, a forlorn picture of the fatherless. I turned away my head, and then I was conscious that he was looking at me, and we smiled across the others' heads.
"What will become of him?" asked Gospodja Draga. She asked it impersonally of the world of Serbia, of America. "What will become of Milorad Bachinin? If he were a little older—but twelve and not strong—there is little enough work now." He sat disturbingly quiet and mutely asked all of us, "What will become of Milorad Bachinin?" Will he go on from town to town, asking for work at doorways, cold, hungry, more and more beaten, more and more despairing? The train rattled on in its slow progress.
"If I had him in Mladnova," said the soldier in horizon blue, "I would give him a home." He was dark and swift of motion, eager toward life, eager to help, eager to talk. Love of life and of laughter shone from him. "I have a little commerce in Mladnova. A store-that boy would help."
"A great help—a good thing for you." they answered.
"But how to get him back from Uskub?"
"Yes, how?" they agreed, with resignation.
"I may have to walk from Metrovitza—two hundred kilometers. He could never walk so far, poor boy!"
The night wore on. Some slept in abandoned attitudes at the other end of the car. Some soldiers drank too much and sang monotonously and noisily.
Milorad sat there, a hunched, grotesque figure, bobbing with fatigue; his shadow waggled about with monstrous levity in the candle-light. Suddenly I had to know what would become of Milorad Bachinin.
"Is it true?" I asked the soldier, softly, for Gospodja Draga slept. "Will you really take him?"
"If I could bring him back," he assured me. From Mitrovitza there is no railway. The back of Serbia is broken and no railway joins the north and south, so those going to Belgrade must walk or get taken by chance camions.
"I'll see you get taken by camion, the Red Cross or the English," I promised.
"Then it's settled. I take the lad." He smiled at him.
"Will you go with him?" I asked Milorad. He looked at the soldier gravely.
"I will go," he answered, but without a smile, his eyes on me.
The floor of the car became littered with people lying in the awkward abandon of sleep, as though slain on the battle-field of fatigue. The hoarse shouting of the guards brought us startled to our feet. We had arrived. We reeled out under our burdens on our unsteady feet, walking along like people hypnotized, sleep-walkers. My soldier in horizon blue carried my things.
"How shall the boy find you?" I asked.
"We'll find each other," he said, with his easy assurance. "We'll meet on the streets. Every one goes up and down the main street in Uskub."
"And does he understand where to find me?" I asked him.
He turned to Milorad. The boy looked at me very earnestly, a long look, as though he were trying to make up for his lack of words, and made his reply with his grave eyes always fixed on me. And then the station which had sucked us into its dim interior spewed us forth onto the dark streets.
I expected that he would be there waiting for me the next morning, but the street was empty of him. I thought somehow that he would find me and that he would be anxious about himself, about his clothes, for I had promised him new ones, and as to whether I had gotten transportation for him. Then I went out, down through the main street of Uskub.
There were shops where Albanians soldmilk; shops with round Turkish bread, Greeks selling sweets that looked like poison—candy of bright green, candy of cerise. Yet the Turkish children eat them without dying. And farther, threading the crowd, are the closely veiled Turkish women, swathed in black robes; red-fezed bootblacks clamored impudently; donkeys and buffalo-carts, and the Jugo-Slav soldiers—volunteers from America—in their neat-blue uniforms. Through the shifting pattern of Turk and Christian, of Serb and Albanian, through all the multicolored rags that clad them, I searched for Milorad.
He had disappeared, and so had all the company of the night before. The soldier had gone and the woman from Mladnavo; they had gone, nor could I find one of them, although all day my eyes sought through the shifting tide of people which eddies and breaks perpetually over the bridge.
The town was empty to me and full of fear. What would become of Milorad Bachinin was my business, nor would the thought of him leave me as I went about my work in storehouse and hospital. Always my eyes sought through the crowds for his dumpy figure clad in unclean rags, and vague fears hunted through my mind. I looked for him perpetually in that little shuffling group of misery that waited, wanly hopeful, before the Red Cross headquarters.
Next morning my eyes sought for the thousandth time the group of faithful little boys perpetually waiting against the high yellow wall opposite. He was standing there, drawn apart from them, leaning against the wall, which was something adversity had taught him when it taught him that boys are cruel to misfortune. His somber eyes were fixed on the door.
I saw him before he saw me, as he stood there in an attitude of terrible patience; his arms were crossed on his breast. One could see how weary he was. He had perhaps slept all night outside the station gate and got up to wait when the first ox-cart creaked up with its load Then he saw me and came flashing toward me; his clumsy coverings could not hide his swift beauty. The joy he felt, the darting swiftness of his lithe young body triumphed. His flight to me was like a leaping, happy animal.
"Where did you sleep, Milorad?"
"In a cafana."
"Have you eaten?"
He nodded, his eyes still on me.
"Your soldier—have you found him?"
He shook his head and spread out his hands. He had never trusted this promise; now he relinquished it with the fatality of the abandoned. My Serbian had run its short course. I called to one of our English-speaking soldiers.
"Explain this paper to him," I said. "There is a letter to the English military at Mitrovitza and one to the Americans. He is to go in the first camion of ours that comes through with his voynik."
Milorad nodded, folded the paper, and hid it carefully among his rags.
"He is to watch continually for his soldier." He nodded again. "This afternoon he is to come here and go with me for fresh clothes, to the Red Cross store-house, and he is to go with me now to town."
I was leaving before light next day for Salonika, and I wished him to have something for the journey.
"Sestra, he says he would like to know your name," the soldier told me.
Milorad repeated it carefully, as though committing to memory something precious.
He looked up at me. "My sister—moya sestra!" be said, and then my name. What love there was in that voice! Then we went along, Milorad repeating to himself, over and over, my first name, which was all he could remember, and then, "Sestra—sestra—sestra," like a song, the most caressing song in the world. It came from the center of the heart of love. He was singing it to me, so unconscious that he didn't even know that his happy lips were busy with this song of his. Some time I listened to him, while the spectacle of Uskub—its soldiers, its beggars, its Albanians, and Turks—flowed before my eyes, as though hastening to some incredible masquerade.
I changed my French money in the shop of an old Jew who had in his window gold from every land; rubles and sovereigns, Turkish coins I didn't know, and golden louis. And when I would have given Milorad this money, he held his hand up in a gesture faint, imploring, deprecating.
"Not money—not from you, my sister—only love—forget I am a beggar," the little gesture said; it was faint, protesting, lovely. He who needed all things could bear to take from me only the things of the spirit. He wished me not to think that he was a beggar.
We had a wordless battle of coaxings, of smiles, and since he could not say no to something I wished, he took it, still with his deprecating protest, and then gently, almost as with reverence, he took my hand in his and pressed it to his brown cheek.
He looked up at me and love streamed from his eyes, and the radiance of it transfigured him. He was so happy that he walked along in a sort of quiet ecstasy. He was so happy that it hurt me to look at him.
He had never wanted, he had never suffered, he had never hungered, be had never been unhappy. We exchanged swift looks full of mutual understanding. We laughed together over the droll things in the street, and wondered over the width of the river and the vastness of the town, the height of the minarets pointing their white fingers to heaven, for Milorad had never been in a big town before. He had never been happy before.
What had happened? Why were we so happy in walking down together through the harlequin crowd in Uskub streets?
I had not the answer; it came to me only with tears. Now I was happy, and my happiness had no name and no reason. I was happy with a deep content; drinking in the warmth and loveliness of the moment, not looking forward with the fear of to-morrow, with even knowledge of to-morrow cast out.
I record this as the high moment, higher even than when we got his clothes at the Red Cross store-room, walking proudly ahead of the crowd waiting for distribution.
I was so happy that I forgot during all that afternoon that I must say good-by to him that night. And then, as I called a soldier to interpret for me, it came to me as a frightful and unbelievable fact.
"Tell him that I am to go to-morrow to Salonika," I said, "and he must look for his soldier. If his soldier doesn't come, he shall stay here with the American mission."
In answer to this he had something to say. Putting his hand upon the soldier's arm, he talked to him with eager confidence. I saw pity growing in the soldier's face.
"He says it is better that he shall go with you. He says he is sure his voynik will not come. He says he wishes to go with his sestra."
A numbness came over me. What could I say to him? How could I explain? What use to tell him that I was reporting at Salonika for orders, that I might be sent toor Greece, that all this was out of my hands. I knew he would not understand, for all places were equally near and equally distant to him. He knew nothing about orders, or passports, or the thousand restrictions. He was talking again eagerly.
"He says many boys like himself have been sent to foreign countries. He says let him go with you. He will work for you. He says it is better for you that he goes with you!"
And I—I could do nothing but take him by the shoulders and speak to him in English and kiss him and explain again through my soldier that he must try to find the man who might take him to his home, and that the people in the Red Cross would look out for him if he did not go.
I was still stupefied with sleep when I left my home next morning. The city wore the livid face of dawn, when coming life and the approach of death have so close a resemblance. The same damp wind cut our faces that had greeted us when we arrived. The weary men and women who trickled down the street walked like somnambulists. Some drove animals which staggered as though laden with fatigue. Rain fell in a light drizzle.
We drew up to the station, and from the dusk came Milorad's swift figure. Had he waited all night? I do not know. I only know that my heart expected him. He ran to me smiling, and yet tense with anxiety. I knew what was in his mind. I knew that he thought I could not leave him since he could not leave me.
"Ask him if he has looked for his voynik," I asked the officer with me.
Again Milorad made that faint gesture of his—of relinquishment, of negation. He had never expected his voynik. He had always known that this home was illusion. He began helping the soldiers with my bags and bundles, plodding ahead, the drizzle of rain crusting his new coat in minute drops.
He clasped my hand and put it to his cheek with that lovely gesture of his as he said to me, "Sestra, sestra!" but I knew that my name meant, "Take me with you; I cannot leave you." He turned to the officer with me and spoke in a low voice rapidly, insistently.
"He says to let him go. He says it is better so. Do not go without him."
"Explain to him—make him understand how it is. Make him see that I'm not deserting him."
The officer talked to him earnestly, but Milorad looked only at me. Then, as our eyes held each other's, suddenly I understood both our joy and our pain. Suddenly I knew what miracle had happened to us.
I knew when he had looked at me first he had accepted me for his mother. He did not know this. He had no name for it. He had loved me when he first met me. All his being had gone out to me. Now I knew why I was so happy when we walked down Uskub streets together. We had recognized each other in the wide spaces of the world.
"Mother!" his heart had cried.
"Son!" mine had answered.
"Mother! Mother! Mother!" he had sung.
I had listened with the silent shining happiness that can never come from the song of a lover.
"I have needed you so, mother."
"I have loved you so, son."
"Mother, I looked for you in every face."
"Son, disguised in your rags, I knew you, and my heart leaped at sight of you."
We were strangers, and we did not speak each other's language, but the spiritual bond of mother and son was ours. Not a very good mother—not watchful enough, not patient enough; Milorad a boy on whom adversity had put its cramping hand, with no high courage, nor with the promise of much high endeavor—but to him the love of my heart flowed out, and in my heart were the things Milorad had found in none of the compassionate women of his own land. I loved him not for his goodness, but for his need of me, and because I must.
Now there came to him slowly the bitter knowledge that I, his mother, was leaving him to loneliness and misery. His pain welled over in tears, his sobs racked him and left him gasping. I have never seen a child feel such grief as that which bankrupted Milorad of hope. He had not believed I could go. He came to me and pleaded with me, his words rushing out in the torrent of his tears. I did not need to know what he said; he was emptying his heart. He threw the treasure of his love before me, and his belief and his pain. People came up to comfort him. Then among the crowd came the woman from Mladnavo.
"Has his soldier not come?" she asked. "Then as I come up next week from Salonika he may come with me. Will you come with me, mali?"
He did not hear her; his eyes sought mine in the agony of his loss which shut out all other things. Slow tears came to the woman's eyes.
"I will be kind to him, sestra," she promised.
"Listen, Milorad," I said. "Gospodya Draga will come for you next week."
He only knew I spoke to him. He only answered: "Take me with you."
The train moved. I could no longer see his face for my own tears.
He is safe; he does not walk the highways of the earth, nor sleep in ditches. He is not chased, hungry, from door to door. The woman from Mladnavo is good to him—but she is not his mother. Once by chance he encountered her; he knew her, he loved her; and for a happy moment our love flowed together. But when I look out over the implacable silence that divides us, I wonder if it would not have been better if we had not met. At night when I tuck my children in—my children, so safe, so secure—my children who have never had to weep for me, I wonder where you are, Milorad. I bless you, and I imagine you saying "Sestra" in your sleep.