Friday, March 09, 2007
Confessions of a Macedonian Bandit
by Albert Sonnichsen
(New York: Duffield & Co., 1909)
Chapter XXIV: Confession of the Melancholy Brigand
After leaving Apostol we began gradually shaping our course northward. Crossing the River Vardar we came into Kukush, and there, in the extensive cane brakes of Lake Amatov, we met and spent several days with Damion Grueff. He was on a tour arranging the elections of delegates for the coming annual general congress, to be held up close to the Bulgarian frontier. I took, then, a photograph of this prominent leader; I little thought then of the value this portrait would have to Macedonians. A little more than a month later Grueff was killed in a skirmish with asker.
There were just six of us, and for five days we had been dodging military patrols, which is no college sport under a hundred rounds of ammunition, a Manlicher rifle and a twenty-pound, goats' hair cloak. On the sixth day we came to the lower slopes of the Strumitza Mountains, in Northern Macedonia. We wiped the perspiration out of our eyes as we gazed tip at the cool, blue ridges.
"We will go up there," I said, and my army of five men exclaimed unanimously that I uttered the wisdom of a great general.
But apart from. the promise of security, those mountains held in them another object of keen interest to me, for through their forests wandered, a man whose anonymous fame once spread over all Europe and America. I longed to meet him and hear the other side of a story which for six mouths filled the leading columns of American newspapers and many pages of American magazines.
We waited up in a timbered gorge, and on the third day came a spider-legged. courier clambering down the rocks, with an.answer to my letter. It read:
"I shall wait for you below the White Oak Peak. Impress the courier into your service."
We traveled hard all night, and when a misty morning broke, we were toiling laboriously up a steep mountain side, through dense oak saplings whose leaves had already been turned dark brown by the first frosts of the coming winter. A shrill whistle from above encouraged the file of us to another spurt of effort, and we came up on a level space among a crowd of husky chetniks. There was the usual silent. exchange of the kiss of brotherhood, and we all, dropped down in a . wide circle about a fire. A tall, garrulous man was holding forth; lie talked like one who might have ideas to expound.
"Is that Hristo Tchernopeef ?" I asked my neighbor, a
quiet little man who as yet had not spoken.
"No," he said, in very clear, crisp Bulgarian, smiling humourously, "I am Hristo Tchernopeef." I turned on him instantly.
"Then you," I said, "are--it was you, was it--who kidnapped Miss Stone?" He nodded, with a grim smile.
"It was I," he admitted. "But don't condemn me without a hearing. You, as a brother brigand, should be more just. I want you to understand how it was--for them, I don't care a damn." He waved his hand toward the frontier; I knew he meant all Europe.
He was a small man with a face which, when in repose, was that of a peasant; straight, brown, wiry hair, cut short, sticking up obstinately; round features, dark grey eyes under heavy eyebrows, and a small sandy mustache. It was, as I say, a peasant's face, but when he smiled--in that smile was all that was super-peasant in Hristo Tchernopeef.
For two days we talked on other matters; but it was these discussions on the relative merits of Manlicher and Mauser, Evolution versus Revolution, and whether there is a proletariat in the Balkan countries, a question on which good socialists may differ, that begot that degree of intimacy which brought the story on of itself.
We had strolled away from the camp to an open glade on the mountainside from which we could clearly see the Rilo peaks, dividing Macedonia from Bulgaria. In the intervening distance lay the theater of the famous incident., And so the subject came up again.
"Yes," he said, "it was Yani Sandanski and I, with eighteen good, husky lads who did it. God! Who would have thought it was going to last five months. No, I don't care who knows it now-you might call it the "Confession of a Melancholy Brigand.". They, the editors and the diplomats, will vouch for the brigand, while you have it on my authority that the adjective fits."
"Yes, it must have been dangerous business," I said, sympathetically.
"Dangerous!" he repeated, contemptuously. "You don't understand me: I wasn't referring to the danger. If you were older, and long married -- have you ever found yourself in a position of strong opposition to a middle-aged woman with a determined will, all her own? She assuming the attitude that you are a brute, and you feeling it? Firm opposition, not with physical violence; that would be a relief, hour by hour, day by day--"
"But that isn't the story," I objected.
"Perhaps not. I am only creating an atmosphere; that comes from reading the literary supplement of our revolutionary organ. I only wanted to give you the right aspect from my point of view. I want you to understand this," and he raised his hand to the grey hairs on his temple. He thought a moment, then plunged abruptly into his story.
"It was after the downfall of Sarafoff, and Prince
Ferdinand had captured the machinery of our committee of representatives in Sofia by putting General Tsoncheff into it. Tsoncheff, the prince's friend. Of course, we repudiated him. We, in the interior, were not going to recognize as our representative a Bulgarian general appointed by Prince Ferdinand.
"But Tsoncheff not only insisted that he was our representative, but that he should govern the whole Macedonian revolutionary organization. Fancy a German admiral coming over to your United States and declaring himself your prime minister. You would either kick him out, or laugh at him. But Tsoncheff's rank impudence was backed by Ferdinand's gold, which bought men, guns and ammunition. And with the pretence of revolution he began sending big armed bands across the frontier, to oust us out of our rayons.
"Of course, we resisted. But just then happened the Salonica betrayal, and the whole Central Committee and dozens of other able leaders, on whom we depended for the financing of supplies, were arrested and sent into close exile into Asia Minor. The organization collapsed; in all Northern Macedonia only Sandanski and I were left. It was then that Tsoncheff began running his bands across the frontier to conquer the revolutionary field.
"We met them, first with protests, then with armed force. Men we had in plenty, for the population was behind us, but empty handed men aren't much good in such work. There was no Central Committee to assist us, even with advice. And the means of appealing for help to the Macedonian immigrants in Bulgaria was denied us. You see, the Macedonians in, Bulgaria hardly knew how, things stood, for our revolutionary organ had fallen into the hands of Tsoncheff from Sarafoff. So the people got their version of it, and continued sending in their contributions to Tsoncheff.
"It was a desperate situation. It looked as if we and the whole organization would be swept out of existence and Prince Ferdinand's hirelings would possess themselves of the field, to do with it as they liked. To add to the aggravation, Tsoncheff hired and sent over an old brigand who had operated in the Rilo Mountains in the early days before the organization had driven him ont, old Dontcho, who captured Christians and Turks alike for ransom and kept the money for himself. The people detested him.
"Sandanski and I were together. We were now so poorly equipped that we didn't even dare to meet Tsoncheff's bands; we had to run from them, as if they were asker. We needed money. So we determined to capture some wealthy Turk and get a few thousand liras ransom. Once we tried and failed. At that time there came to us a chetnik who had been a student in the American school in Samakov. 'Capture one of the, missionaries,' he suggested;
'and the Turkish government will pay the ransom immediately to avoid complications.'
"The idea took us with fever heat. You understand, it wasn't pleasant to contemplate--we had never even captured Turks for ransom. But Tsoncheff's bands were pouring in on us. When we heard that Dr. House was coming across the country, we decided to take him. Dr. House has always been a friend of the peasants; when we heard that he had decided not to come our way, I, for one, only half regretted it.
"A few days later we heard that Miss Stone was in Bansko, and would be traveling south in a few days. Down we rushed to Bansko. I didn't mind Miss Stone so much. She often preached against us, telling the poor peasants that God would right their troubles, and not the "brigands." All harmless stuff--nobody took it seriously, but it made the business less difficult for us to gulp down.
"There was a garrison in Bansko, and the villagers couldn't even get food out to us. But for two days Sandanski and I were in the village, dressed as peasants, watching Miss Stone and arranging plans. It was the villagers who persuaded us not to do it in Bansko; they feared reprisals. The courier who afterwards was guide to the party was our man; he took them to us.
"You will remember how we dropped down on them as they passed, all of us disguised as bashi bazouks, but so famished that we hadn't the presence of mind to refrain, from pork when we tore open the lunch hampers.
"Sandanski and I had decided to take a Bulgar woman with us as Miss Stone's companion. We really wanted to be as decent to her as was possible. But the elderly woman we had chosen was taken so ill she couldn't be moved.
"There were a lot of young girls in the party, but we were afraid of the gossips. `There's Mrs. Tsilka," said the guide. `She's married.' We liked her looks; she wasn't too young, and she looked matronly. But if we had known what was coming--the baby, you know--we'd have taken our chances with an unmarried woman. Or we'd have done without a chaperon. We paid heavily for conventions."
"How about the Turk you killed?" I put in.
"Oh, the one we used for making an "impression?" he replied with sarcastic bitterness. "To make them realize that we meant business? The papers had it that way. Took an innocent life to create an artistic effect. No. We don't have to strain after effect.
"That Turk--Albanian; rather--was a becktchee -steward to a landlord who squeezed the villagers. They came to us--long before this--and said that if we didn't kill this man they couldn't see what good the organization was to them. , You know becktchees--the good ones, and the bad ones--but we kill neither for mere squeezing. But this swine raped two peasant girls-one after the other. That's all there was to him."
"Were the two women frightened?" I asked.
"Naturally. That first night's march took the breath out of them. But afterwards--well, we were inexperienced. We gave them a month, believing we should have the money from Constantinople in a week. Of course, we wanted them to take it seriously. Those missionaries are different from us, but we know that some of them are in earnest. We had one fear--she might decide to martyr herself. Fortunately she didn't.
"So we arranged dramatic scenes. I was best at them-- that's why I am the Bad Man. But Yani Sandanski has the instincts of a French dancing master. I've, seen the perspiration stand out on his bald head, with winter frost about us. I've seen him go off by himself among the trees and clench those big hands of his and grind his teeth. Well, he got his reward. He was handed down to history as the Good Man."
"But what happened when the first term expired?"
"Ah, that was it. Bluff never pays, nor were we used to bluff. We tried to keep it up. But what can you do with an angry, elderly and very respectable woman glaring at you? Once she made a sudden move with her umbrella-she always carried that umbrella--and her Bible and the old bonnet--well, it may have been imagination on my part, that move with the umbrella, but I stumbled backward through the doorway of the hut, to save my dignity. But I didn't save much of it.
"She wouldn't allow smoking. She didn't forbid it by actual injunction, you know, but so: `Have you human hearts, or have you absolutely no regard for helpless women?' In a shrill voice, you know. You couldn't smoke in her presence after such a scene."
"In Miss Stones' narrative," I put in, "she once refers to the superstitious fears of one of the chetniks; altogether you have the impression of very ignorant peasants. Who were the chetniks?"
His lips curled as he answered:
"There was Krusty Asenov; you've heard of him. He was a school teacher with a college training. A big, strong fellow, whom Miss Stone refers to as Metchkato, "the Bear." We all had pseudonyms. Poor Krusty, he was killed in the insurrection.
"Then there was "Tchaoush." He was Alexander Eleav, also a school teacher, with a half finished university training. Dontcho killed him, with an axe, while he was sleeping. And there was the doctor. He had studied medicine, in Paris, I believe. That was Petrov. Saave Michaelov was with us; you've seen him, tall and aristocratic--superstition didn't bother him much. And Peter Kitanov, voyvoda of Djumaysko, with us now, he with whom you were discussing Ibsen's "The Lady from the Sea" last night. School teachers, most of them, turned out of their position for their radicalism.
"I've no doubt that Miss Stone's attitude was sincere, but it's amusing, considering a little incident that comes to my mind now: She got after Krusty Asenov with her Bible-- wanted him to read a marked chapter. He said, `I'll read your chapter if you will read a pamphlet I have. You look into my creed, and I'll look into yours.' She agreed; he took the Bible, and gave her some socialist pamphlet, by Kautsky, I believe. Next day he asked her if she was ready to exchange views. I believe she really tried, but she couldn't understand it. Perhaps she wasn't used to the terminology. Krusty recited some of the verses of her chapter, by memory. `You see,' he said, `it's easier for me to learn your creed than it is for you to learn mine.'
"Then came the baby. It was about then that my hair turned grey. Fancy, a new born baby on the trail with you! How often haven't you had to put your head into a cloak to muffle a sneeze. Then think of a healthy, whooping baby with you, the country teeming with. asker and Tsoncheff's brigands. But--it's strange how a helpless baby acts on you, especially if you have been away from women and children long. It was the death of our authority then. I think, perhaps unconsciously, Miss Stone, as well as the mother, came to regard us a little more humanly after that. I am sure, too, that our fear of asker and Dontcho wasn't a purely selfish one. When the fight with Dontcho did come off, how the boys did jamb those women down into a hole. I wasn't there at the time; I was on Dontcho's flank, while the others got out of the way with the women, and Sandanski tells me they clung to him as if they didn't relish that kind of a rescue.
"You see, Tsoncheff had Dontcho after us, to 'rescue' those captives. He didn't want us to get that money. It would have served his purpose as well to have those women killed on our hands. You know that Macedonia would have been turned upside down and raked with a fine comb if anything had really happened to them. And if, by any rare chance, we had escaped that, Grueff and the rest of them would have killed us when they, came out of prison. As it was they disapproved when they heard of it, but then we already had the money. I tell you the various kinds of danger we were in set me perspiring many a night.
"Finally we were so hard pressed that we took a big chance. We crossed the frontier into Bulgaria. We were there quite a while,' and it was a period of rest. We were over there a few miles out of Kustendil, where the barracks are, but nobody dreamed we were in that neighborhood. It was then I went to Sofia and saw Mr. Dickenson, the American representative. He thought me a common peasant, hired by the brigands; Peter Kitanov's brother, Sandy, acting as interpreter, in French. I didn't look as if I understood even Bulgarian, the dress I was in. 'Ten thousand francs,' he said, `not a sou more.' We couldn't come to terms.
"When I was in Samakov," I said, "one of the missionaries told me that when the committee met the 'brigands,' there was such, a remarkably intelligent man there that they thought it must have been Grueff's comrade, Gotze Deltcheff. Who was he?"
"That was only Krusty Asenov. Deltcheff--he was the only one of the big leaders not in prison was down in Monastir at the time, and knew nothing of the affair till it was over. And there was the story that Sarafoff was in it--asininity-- Sarafoff, Prince Ferdinand's creature, fellow creature to Tsoncheff."
"What became of the money when you got it?"
"A committee took charge of it: D____ S_____ in Sofia now, and old M_____ in Dubnitza, you know them both, men whose integrity is above suspicion. The third was Gotze Deltcheff. Tsoncheff knows what became of part of it--to his cost. But most of it financed the insurrection of 1904 in Monastir. And then," here he smiled at me, "I got some of it. They gave me five liras to make a Christmas visit home. The others got nothing."
We remained silent a long time, he meditating. I had heard much of this story before, from others.
"And Dontcho," I remarked, half to myself, "is now a prosperous, honored citizen, living in his own house in Dubnitza."
"I know," he answered, murkily. "They lionized him in the press. Though he's collected more ransoms in his time than ten Miss Stones would have brought. But we're the outlaws. I am indifferent for myself--but the-others--most of them died for their ideas--never had so much as a lira in their ragged pockets. But they were only brigands. God! What greasy hypocrites they are! The smug diplomats and editors and the clergy, with their hanging jowls and rotund bellies. Yes, brigands, we are. They allow our women and small babies to be outraged and. slaughtered, and when we ask them for help, only to stop it, in the name of Christ, they give us soft, lying words. And then, when we give one of their women a few months' worry and discomfort, which we more than share with her, only to give us the means to save a million women from death, or worse, we are brigands. Because it was one of their women, they didn't worry about poor Mrs. Tsilka, no, it was only Miss Stone. For that we are brigands, outlaws, criminals. No, damn such a civilization. It isn't real."
So he would usually express his bitterness, for we had many more talks on the subject. He impressed me strongly, as he did all those young teachers who collected around him, though he was not a man of much school made education himself.
I often regret that I did not make the short detour necessary to meet Sandanski in Razlog. I feel that his was the leading mind. He it was who ended the last of Prince Ferdinand's intrigues in Macedonia by removing Sarafoff from the field of activity. He and.Tchernopeef are the leaders of the socialist wing in Macedonia, who would have substituted economic action for armed force. When the Young Turks declared the constitution, these two and their associates were the first to respond by laying down their arms. The Young Turks received them with open arms in Salonica. Nor is this to be wondered at, for the Young Turk movement is as much begotten of socialism as is the revolutionary movement in Russia. To-day chetas in Macedonia are things of the past.
To-day, as I write this, I read in a newspaper correspondent's despatch that Sandanski led the vanguard of the Young Turk army to the gates of Constantinople with a company of one hundred Bulgars, followed by mixed battalions of Greeks, Jews and Turks.
The success of the Young Turks has, indeed, saved me the usual prophetic utterances which are proper at the end of any book of this kind. I would not, when I began this narrative, have predicted the things that have come to pass since. That Turks, Bulgars and Greeks should march shoulder to shoulder on Stamboul to depose the Sultan, as they are now doing, would then have been a prophecy to be laughed at by all sane men of political understanding. Already these good, sane men of ponderous understanding are intriguing to turn back the tide of evolution. But there is an ideal behind Young Turkey to which Turkey is only incidental.
On the night of November 9th, Vladi and I, with a dozen others, scurried across the frontier; and my Macedonian experiences were ended.