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Our Servian Cousin
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Our Little Servian Cousin



     DUSHAN had a secret, and little Militza, his sister, weeding in the strip of flower garden on one side of the long, low, rectangular house which was her home, shrugged her shoulders impatiently as she thought of it. It was certainly most unjust that she should not be told! She had had no peace of mind since she discovered Dushan and three of his companions holding a conference behind the cattle-shed.

     At first she had pleaded with Dushan that he tell her, promising the most absolute secrecy; but he had scornfully answered that "little children mustn't try to be too wise, or they'll get into trouble."

       "He hadn't any right to be so saucy," she said, quite out loud, to herself, shaking her little head, by way of emphasis, "for I am already eight, and he is only twelve!" Then she went on so vigorously with her work that she uprooted some basilicum, or sweet basil, which is considered a sacred plant by the Servian peasants. This somewhat startled her, and she quickly tried to repair the mischief.

       Suddenly, however, she arose, threw her trowel crossly from her, and stood for a while shoving her sandaled feet back and forth in the ground, and pondering how the mystery might best be solved.

       At last, with a sigh, she sat down by the house, leaning her little brown head against the whitewashed walls, and dosing her eyes that she might think quite undisturbed.

     The garden was on the south side of the house, and the warm spring sunshine and the air, fragrant with the scent of herbs and early blossoms, made it a pleasant place in which to dream. But Militza was not dreaming; she was busy planning, now a discovery of the secret, and then, with vigorous nods of the head, a clever way of revenging herself by having a secret of her own!

       Up in the gables the doves cooed in the untiring fashion of their kind, while on the roof a stork seemed to be examining the chimney as a possible place for a nest; but the very serenity of all this had to-day an irritating effect on the little girl.

       It was the beginning of Easter time, which to the Servians is known as "White Week," and when, having discarded all her plans as impracticable, Militza rather gloomily entered the house, she found her mother busy preparing the eggs for Easter Sunday. Having washed her hands, she gravely took her place beside her, and was soon intent on her work of making original designs of wax on each egg. These eggs were afterwards to be dyed a brilliant red, so that, when the wax should be removed, a white pattern would be left.

       Militza had first tried her hand at egg decoration when only six years old, and now, at eight years, succeeded in making some simple, but very neat, patterns. Her mother watched her grave face with an amused expression; and at last surprised the little girl by asking: "So Dushan refuses to part with his secret?"

     Militza looked up from her work eagerly.

     "Why, mother, do you know?" she inquired.

     Her pretty mother nodded her head. "Yes," she answered, "but don't ask me. I'm sworn to silence! Only, don't take it so seriously. It's to be a big joke."

     Now, how was Militza not to take it seriously? She looked gloomier than ever, so, to comfort the child, her mother told her a story about the sweet basil that grew in their garden.

     "The Basil," she said, "complained to the Dew that, for two nights, it had not fallen on her.

     "'I was away,' answered the Dew, 'watching a great marvel. A vila1 had a quarrel with an eagle, each claiming ownership of the mountain. At last the vila broke the eagle's wings. Then the young eagles set up a cry, for they wondered what would become of them now. A swallow flew up (all swallows are great travellers, you know), and promised to carry the young birds to the wonderful land of Ind, where the clover reaches up to the shoulders of the horses and the sun never sets.'"

     Militza's bright little face had almost a smile as her mother finished. "Oh, mother," she exclaimed, "Spring is surely here for, do you know? the stork has returned to her nest on our chimney!"

     Just then Dushan's voice was heard outside. Quickly removing her work, the little girl ran to join her brother. Dushan assumed as unconscious an air as possible, as she came up, even to humming a careless tune; but he quite expected her. He found it very pleasant to be suddenly of so great importance, and such a mystery, to his sister, and he strutted about with what he considered a royal air, every now and then saying or doing something to lead Militza to think that she was on the path of discovery, and then laughing with delight at her being "taken in."

     Everything was forgotten after supper, however, for there was to be an impromptu dance on the village green, to which everybody was invited, and to which, of course, everybody would come. There were many such dances all through the Easter season, and indeed at other times, as well, especially, perhaps, on the Servian holidays, of which there is one almost every other day in the year! This excess of holidays always gives an excuse for merrymaking and may partly account for the light-heartedness of the Servian peasant.

     As the dance was to break up early, many of the younger children were allowed to attend. It was a bright moonlight night, and, shortly after an early evening meal, the people began to gather, the women in their short, gay, picturesque costumes, and the men in sober-hued, home-made garments. There was much joking and laughing and snatches of song.

     Shortly after, seven immense fires were lit, and then the musicians, who played on flute, bagpipe and fiddle, struck up one of the national dances, and at once a merry company of young men and women, holding each other by the hands, formed a half-circle. First, all moved a few steps to the left, and then a few steps to the right, and then a few steps backwards and forwards, and the dance (kolo) was in full swing.

     While this was going on, the older folks chatted together in groups, or strolled slowly about, while the children watched and applauded the dancers, or played merry games of hide and seek among the various groups, getting usually into everybody's way, but sublimely unconscious of the fact.

     As nine o'clock approached, however, the people began to disperse, for clouds, threatening rain, had gathered in the sky, and all were anxious, besides, for a good night's rest for the morrow.

    On Shrove Tuesday the little village, with its long, low, box-like houses, all very much like that in which Dushan and Militza lived, seemed to swarm with children, all in a state of delightful excitement, for this day is also the "Witches' Day," and the children felt the responsibility rest on their little shoulders of seeing that not a single witch was about!

     "Did you see that the shells of all the eggs used at your home were crushed, to-day?" one eager little girl asked Militza, whom she met.

     "Yes, indeed," was the response, with a superior air. "Do you think I don't know that the witches could use them for boats in crossing streams if I didn't?"

     There was a strong odor of garlic wherever the children moved, for, without exception, all had pieces of it tied to strings and hung like amulets around their necks. These were to be placed under their pillows at night, as the strong odor was supposed to be particularly obnoxious to witches.

     Here and there, large groups formed, and told marvellous witch stories, which were received with grave looks, testifying either to the children being good actors or to the stories being received at their face value.

     "Now," said one of Dushan's chums, a tall lad with a particularly merry look in his eyes, "one thing is certain, and that is that any woman who is a witch has only to rub a special kind of grease into her armpits, and, if she pronounces the right words, she can then fly off and take supper with other witches whenever she likes. Petar Popovich told me that the words were: 'Avoid the thorn, avoid the trees, and carry me straight to meeting.' He told me, too, he had the right kind of grease, for he had bought some for two dinars2 from the gipsies. I was much interested when he asked me to try it with him. You can imagine how anxious I felt, and also that I was a bit scared.

     "We met together in a field, when it was quite dark. Petar had the grease with him, and we rubbed and rubbed as directed, and then solemnly repeated the formula--"

     Here the merry eyes drooped, as the boy made an impressive pause.

     "Well, what happened?" eagerly asked several voices.

     "I'll leave that for you to imagine," was the languid response, as the mischievous boy skipped away.

     But, exciting as Shrove Tuesday was, it could not last ,longer than the allotted time, and Militza found herself again tormented with tile thought of Dushan's secret. In the meantime she devoted all of her spare moments to the preparation of more eggs.

     At last Easter Sunday came. The village had quite a festal air, for the housewives had not stinted their efforts to have everything spotlessly clean for the day. One could not doubt, too, but that everybody who appeared on the streets was in holiday attire, both because of the way in which they carried themselves and because of the gay colors to be seen.

     Dushan secretly admired his mother, who was still a young woman, when she appeared, ready for church, in a full silk skirt, just short enough to show the embroidered white linen gown beneath, and a snowy chemisette, trimmed with hand-made lace. Over this was a gold and silver embroidered bolero of tanned skin, with the fleece inside, open in front, and edged with black yarn. Covering the front of her skirt was a woollen apron, beautifully hand-embroidered with original designs. Her long, dark-brown hair was coiled around a kind of fez, decorated with seed pearls of considerable value, which had come down to her from her great-great-grandmother.

     Militza, who, loved bright colors, looked like a pretty flower or a gay butterfly in her quaint costume, cut not unlike her mother's, but embroidered in red. A sleeveless vest, which she wore, was also red. It was of velvet and decorated with gold and coral buttons.

Dushan's Mother.

     Dushan and his father were dressed in thick homespun of a dark color. Dushan's white shirt reached almost to his knees, as a blouse, and was encircled by a band at the waist. Over this he wore an open jacket or vest. His trousers were tucked into heavy stockings with a broad, flowered band at the top, such as we sometimes see in this country on bicycle or golf stockings. He wore a wide-brimmed sailor hat; but his father had on the conventional cap of sheepskin, and the usual big, leather, peasant sandals with straps around the ankles.

     "Christ is risen!" the people called to one another by way of greeting.

     "He is, in truth!" was the response.

     After church, the eggs were produced, every adult visitor receiving one and every child several.

     A band of gipsies wandered from house to house, singing, wishing good luck, and playing on the typical gipsy instruments of violin, zoorle (the Turkish clarionette), talambasse, and drums. They expected, and generally received, a piece of money.

     These gipsies were more or less feared by the children, and by many of the peasants, as well, for they are supposed to be gifted with marvellous powers.

     As Dushan once put it, "They have only to lift a finger to make any one love you, or despise you, as they choose."

     In the afternoon the children gathered together in groups for an egg-breaking contest.

     "Here, Militza, let's rap eggs," said one of Militza's little neighbors to her.

     "Immediately," was the merry response. The two children then faced each other and tapped their eggs together. After three taps Militza's broke, and according to custom, she had to surrender it to her playmate, who at once put it into a little basket which she carried.

     "You won this time," Militza shouted, as she prepared for a contest with another friend; "but perhaps I'll win the next!"

     Later, eggs, colored black, were carried to the neighboring churchyard, and left on the graves in token of the resurrection.

     Easter Sunday was not the only day of celebration. Easter Monday was almost as important, and scarcely less so was the day after. Swings had been erected on a neighboring hillside, and the girls, and some of the younger boys, kept them going throughout the days. Oh, what fun it was to see who could swing highest, or to play that one was travelling on some magical airship above the clouds!

     The boys, in the meantime, were differently engaged. Dushan was with a group of wrestlers, who were surrounded by interested comrades. Further on, feats of running and jumping were performed, while stone and dart throwing proved to many a fascinating pastime.

     The adult persons were there, too; the younger dancing, the older sitting in groups, chatting, eating, and drinking, and apparently never tiring Of hearing or relating strange or laughable anecdotes.

     A dance by two Montenegrin men was especially admired, and brought out loud applause.

    This was followed by two peasant girls springing lightly forward, their arms apparently glued to their sides, but, despite this one awkward feature, every movement was full of grace. At the end, the girls embraced, and were followed by another couple, and these by still another.

     Militza enjoyed herself so greatly that she rarely now thought of her brother's secret. When she did, it seemed quite insignificant. So, when Monday evening came, she was quite startled to see the kitchen door suddenly open, and a strange company enter. They were dressed in bear-skins, their faces were covered with pumpkin masks, with beards and mustaches of flax attached; one of them even had horns and a tail.

     "Ha! ha! ha!" laughed the older people, trying to peer into their faces. Militza did her utmost to keep out of their reach. To her embarrassment she found herself persistently followed by one of the number, and at last cornered. Then she instinctively threw out her hands, and quite unintentionally, displaced the mask of her tormentor! To her amazement she found herself staring into Dushan's rather startled eyes.

     "Why D--," she began; but a warning finger was raised before she had finished. The mask was hastily re-adjusted, and Militza eagerly followed the group to the door, where a crowd of entranced children were awaiting them, ready to tag at their heels as they made further visits.


1 Mountain spirit.

2 A dinar is about twenty cents of our money.

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