Charles Dickens, Household Words, vol. VIII, 1854, Moldo-Wallachia

Posted on September 13th, 2009 by admin and filed under Uncategorized
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from the collection of the Prelinger Library, published by Archive.org, p. 84 sqq.

Based on the full text version, with my spell checking. Hopefully it will be identical with the original text, including printing mistakes, different spelling etc.

MOLDO-WALLACHIA.

Beyond railways, beyond diligences, beyond post-chaises, out of the track of travellers, but full in the high road of conquest from the
north to the south, lie the sister provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia, which, for shortness, some are accustomed to designate as Moldo-Wallachia. Their names have become notorious of late by taking place in the vocabulary of political writers and speakers ; but it may be doubted — certain vague statistics set apart — whether in most men’s minds any ideas at all are connected with them. When we talk of Paris we picture to ourselves the Place de la Concorde or the Boulevards ; an allusion to Berlin implies a recollection of Under the Linden Trees ; to Naples of the Strada di Toledo ; but who thinks of the Po de Mogochoya at mention of Bucharest, or has any [p. 85] associations whatever with Curt d’Argis and Kimpolongo ? Let us try to connect a few images, a few forms, a few colours, with these words. This is the best way to extend our sympathies in that direction.

Moldo-Wallachia is little more than a huge farm, giving employment to some three or four millions of labourers. It is not, however, a farm laid out on the principles of Mr. Mechi, but an eastern backwoods farm, very vast and straggling; here and there cut up by patches of original desert and extents of primitive forests, made rugged by spurs of mountains and watered by boisterous rivers, navigable tor the most part only by fallen trees. These rivers flow from the Carpathian mountains, which divide the country to the northward from Austria, and fall into the Danube, which divides it from Turkey. There is a kind of postern-gate to the East, ill-closed by the Pruth, a river that has often been mentioned this year. In neither of the Principalities are there many roads worthy of the name. The cities, villages, or farming stations, are generally connected only by tracks and bridle-paths.

The geological construction of Moldo-Wallachia is essentially volcanic. Its mountains contain many craters frequently in a state of eruption. Sulphur and bitumen are plentiful. In some parts little spurts of liquid metal are seen, from time to time, breaking from the schistous rocks, flowing a little way like melted lead, and then condensing to the hardness of iron. In various places, of late years, miniature volcanoes have been known to start up from the ground and flame bravely away for a few days amidst corn-fields and pasturage. The Prathova river, in certain parts of its course, becomes tepid or hot, or even boiling, according as it flows or not over subterranean galleries of fire. Earthquakes are frequent. It is not long since nearly the whole of the city of
Bucharest was destroyed — Po de Mogochoya, and all. The shock was felt whilst the principal inhabitants were at the theatre listening to one of the dramas of Victor Hugo. Many persons perished, and an immense amount of property was of course lost. In the countries, however, that are subject to these epileptic fits of Nature, such accidents are quickly forgotten and their consequences repaired. They serve, indeed, the purpose of revolutions or sanitary bills in more civilised lands. Bucharest, at any rate, like Paris and London, has been induced to widen its thoroughfares and improve the build of its houses.

A great part of Moldo-Wallachia, especially towards the mountains, is clothed in forest. In few countries are beheld more magnificent oaks ; and travellers talk of having seen thousands with trunks rising straight more than eighty feet without branches. Mingled with these splendid trees, or covering the higher slopes with their dull verdure, are enormous firs, that would delight the eye of the ship-builder. Besides these, there are elms and beeches of prodigious size, with wild pear trees and senna, maple, cherry, and yew trees, with many others. All these grow in a tangled mass — grow or fall together, beaten down by the tempest or uprooted by rushing inundations. ” In the low country the millet has no more husk than the apple has rind in the high,” says the Wallachian proverb, to picture the fertility of the country. Its vast plains, indeed, are covered in the season with splendid crops ; of which those
who travel to Galatz can say something. These districts are counted now, as they have always counted, among the granaries of Europe. It is worth remarking, that a young French gentleman, who has studied political economy, has lately recommended the Moldo-Wallachians to neglect the culture of the ground and take to the manufacture of cotton cloths, in order to escape from the commercial tyranny of perfidious Albion. The mysteries of supply and demand, however, the definitions of value, and the influence of tariffs, do not lie in our way at present. We are not going to discuss what is a pound, but to explain what is the Wallachian substitute for a railway. Before visiting or describing a country in detail, it is good to know what means of locomotion it possesses.

If you are not particularly pressed for time, which no one ought to be in that part of the world, it is best to use the great waggon called the Kerontza, which resembles the vehicles in which the burly boors of the Cape sleep and smoke in their journey from one kloof to another. It is of solid construction, and well roofed with leather. A large family, with all their luggage and paraphernalia, even their cocks and hens, may travel in it ; and perhaps there could be no more romantic way of spending six months than in jolting about in one of these lumbering chariots amidst the plains and forests of Wallachia. The people of the country generally go from place to place on foot, or mounted on horses, buffaloes, or oxen. Asses are little used; those humble quadrupeds being treated with the same unchristian contempt as in most other European countries. Asia and Africa are their paradise. Among the Boyards, however, it is fashionable to make use of what is called a Karoutchor, a kind of vehicle peculiar to the country, and which we sincerely hope may ever remain so. As a traveller has already remarked, it holds a position in the scale of conveyances, a little above a wheelbarrow and a little below a dungcart. It is, properly speaking, a trough, a box without a cover, three feet long, two feet wide, and
two feet and a half high. It rests, of course without the intervention of springs, upon the axles or beams ; and is poised upon four wheels made of solid wood, more or less rounded by means of a hatchet. Perhaps Boadicea’s war-chariot was something of the make of a karoutchor. Not a single nail [p. 86] enters into its composition. The harness is as primitive as the vehicle. To a single shaft, generally with the bark on, eight, ten, or twelve horses are fastened by means of long cords, with collars at the end through which the heads of the beasts are passed. Three surijions or postillions mount three of the hoirses without saddles, without stirrups, and without bridles ; and these are all the preparations made to travel express in Wallachia.

If you have courage enough to undertake this mode of progression, you present yourself to the Aga or the Ispravnick of the city you inhabit, and inform him of your desperate intention, and also of the place you want to reach, the day on which you wish to set out, and your address. This information is set down upon a piece of paper, which it is necessary to show to each post-master on the way. The chief formality, however, consists in paying the whole fare in advance — a precaution probably taken because there exist so very few chances of your arriving safely at the end of your journey, and because it would not be decorous to exact payment from a dead traveller.

When the fatal moment has arrived, and you have said adieu to your friends and made your will, the karoutchor comes dashing up to your door ; and it is considered wisest, if you really intend to travel, to leap in without taking a moment to think of the onsequences. The Ispravnick has given a thought to your comfort. You will find an armful of hay, not very sweet, it is true, to sit upon ; and whilst you are arranging it underneath you, the chief surijion will utter his “all right” in the shape of a savage cry, as if he were about to whirl you to the infernal regions, will crack his enormous whip, and thus give the signal of departure. Off you go — with a frightful jerk and an ominous hop of all the four wheels at once; for they have not yet got used to go round. They will get into the habit one by one, never fear. You feel the necessity at once of clutching hold of the edge of your abominable post-box, as an awkward rider seizes hold of the pommel of his saddle. The neighbours shout out a long farewell, or look commiseratingly at you, as if you were going to be hanged ; ruthless boys laugh at your deplorable countenance ; and the postillions yell like mad. Thus you arrive at the gates of the city, exhibit your passport — shame preventing you from getting out — submit probably to the last extortion you will suffer in this life ; and rush into the open plain.

Now the three postillions begin to show themselves in their true character. You have already had some ugly suspicions. They are not postillions. They are demons. They are carrying you away, soul and body, to their great master. As soon as they have the wide horizon of plain and forest around them, they begin to scream with delight, and to exhibit their infernal joy under a false pretence of singing. The first in rank sets up a discordant rhythmical howl, sometimes as gay as the psalms on a witch’s sabbath, sometimes as dreary as the shrieks of ghosts disturbed in their midnight evolutions. Then the others join in in chorus, and you would assuredly stop your ears if your hands were not fully employed in holding on. Meanwhile, these wretches accompany their screams with the most furious gesticulations, wriggling their bodies into all manner of postures, leaning now this way, now that, lashing furiously the herd of wild animals that is bounding under them; and giving, indeed, every additional proof that is necessary of their supernatural character.

Once you have set out, you feel yourself reduced to a most miserable state of insignificance. You are utterly forgotten. The surijions think of nothing but their songs and their horses. They have not even a glance to spare for the karoutchor. On they go, whether there be a road or not, caring only to swallow so many miles in the least possible space of time. The tracks in the African deserts are often marked by the bones of camels that have fallen under their burdens ; those in Wallachia are marked by the bones of madmen who have undertaken to travel post. But the surijion cares not for — notices not — these lugubrious mementoes of former journeys. He skips lightly over them all. Ravines, torrents, ditches, patches of brushwood, are dashed through with railroad rapidity. The horses seem to take delight in this infernal race. They too forget that they have anything at their heels, and struggle desperately which shall be foremost. A steeple chase is nothing to it. If you are a very bold man, the excitement keeps you up for half an hour ; but then alarm rushes into your soul. Not one of the postillions deigns to turn his head. He is not there for conversation. He has nothing to say to you. As to stopping, or going slower, or not going quicker, the idea is absurd. At length, in all probability, a wheel breaks, the trough falls over, and the traveller is shot off into some deep hole, with a broken leg or collar-bone, and is thankful that he is not quite killed. Still on goes the karoutchor, rendered lighter by this slight accident; and it is only on reaching the next relay, that the surijions turn round and perceive that they have lost a wheel and their passenger. Peace be to his manes — his fare is paid.

The distinguishing characteristic of Moldo-Wallachia being the absence of cities, travelling is not very prevalent among the people. It
is true that each principality possesses nominally a capital, and that Bucharest and Jassy contain a considerable agglomeration of inhabitants. Both these places, however, though they exhibit some tendencies to civilisation, though they put on fragments of French [p. 87] costume as the savages put on the inexpressibles of Captain Cook — are little better even “now than vast villages. The true life of the Danubian provinces is in the country — in the plains that stretch from the banks of the Danube towards the Krappacks and Dneister — out amidst the fields where grew, probably, the corn which made the bread we, sitting here at breakfast in London, have this day eaten — out into the forests that furnish the wood with which Constantinople is built — out into the districts where men live like moles in the earth, and where you may ride over the roofs of a village without suspecting its existence, unless your horse
stumble into a chimney hole.

If Moldo-Wallachia possessed a proper government, and were insured against the dangers of conquest, it would probably produce ten times the amount of grain it now produces. The cultivated fields, so far from succeeding one another in unbroken succession, are loosely scattered over the country, and divided by patches of forest and waste land, and sometimes by vast extent of marsh. They are allowed to lie fallow every other year from the want of a proper system of manuring. The seed time is generally in autumn; but if
a short crop is feared, an inferior quality of grain is sown in other lands in the spring. Six oxen drag a heavy plough, which makes a deep furrow. Every year, as in a new country, virgin tracts are brought under cultivation to replace others, which have been wilfully abandoned, or have been ruined by violent inundations of the Danube, or its tributary torrents. These newly-conquered fields are first planted with cabbages, which grow to an enormous size, and are supposed to exhaust certain salts which would be injurious to the production of wheat, of barley, of maize, of peas, of beans, of lentils, and other grain and pulse. Maize was first introduced into these countries in the last century, and yields prodigious returns.

The Danubian provinces are familiar to the Englishman chiefly as corn-growing countries ; but we must repeat, in order to leave a correct impression, that great portions of them are still clothed in primaeval forest. Patriots, taking this fact to be a sign of barbarism, insist that the wood-lands are every day giving way to cultivation, and pride themselves on the fact ; but a grave Italian writer, who seems to fear that some day the world will be in want of fuel, deplores this circumstance, and attributes it to what he considers an extravagant, absurd, and almost impious use of good things granted by Providence, namely, the custom of paving a few of the principal streets, or rather kennels, of Jassy and Bucharest with wood. The worthy man, however, might have spared himself the anxiety which this hideous waste appears to have created in his mind. There is no danger that Moldo-Wallachia will soon be disforested, and the sentimental, perhaps, will rejoice in this fact, when they know that the vast seas of foliage which form the horizon of the plains and roll over the mountains are inhabited by prodigious colonies of nightingales. In no place in the world are there found so many of these delightful songsters as in Wallachia. In the months of May and June it is considered to be one of the greatest enjoyments that man can taste, to go out by moonlight and listen to the concert of nightingales, swelling full and melodious above the rustling of the leaves, and the rattling of small water-courses. Benighted travellers often stop their waggons by the side of some forest-lake that spreads over half a glade, on purpose to listen to this marvellous music, and then after having feasted their ears for a while, give the order to march, upon which, amid the clacking of whips, the shouts of the drivers, and the creaking of the wheels, all those sweet sounds are stifled, and you are brought back as it were from fairy-land to the country of Boyards, serfs, and gipsies.

Let us suppose the reader to be wending his way according to this primitive style, through one of the vast plains that stretch westward from the Dimbowitza. If it be summer there is little danger, even after midnight, from the wolves ; and the bears remain up amidst the krappacks. You may, therefore, jolt along in safety, unless you happen to deviate into a morass, or upset into one of the crevices, which so frequently occur. It is pleasant to travel by night on account of the great comparative coolness of that time ; but nothing can exceed the delight of moving leisurely along in the early hours of the morning, when the air is full of grey light, and the skies are covered by flights of birds on the look out for a breakfast ; when bustards go rustling through the underwood, when partridges start up from the dewy grass and take semicircular flights to get out of the way of the intruders, and when awkward storks are seen perched upon boughs watching for serpents and other reptiles to take home to their young. The sunrise in those districts is wonderfully fine, clear, and red. Once the winter season passed the weather is balmy and agreeable, except in the afternoon, when the fierce heat shrivels the vegetation, and causes the traveller to droop. This is why the dark hours, or those which usher in the day, are preferred for travelling ; and if you are out in the plains at that time, you are sure to hear the discordant creaking of wheels approaching or receding in different directions, just as in the enchanted forest to which Don Quixote was taken by the humorous (and not very amiable) hospitality of his ducal hosts.

The approach to a Wallachian village in these wild regions is remarkable. On emerging perhaps from a sombre wood, along the skirts of which hang white patches of morning mist, you dimly, see signs of cultivation, fields of maize or wheat and beds of cucumbers and [p. 88] cabbages. So you begin to have thoughts of eggs an poultry, and leap out of your slow-moving waggon and push on, expecting, if you are quite a novice, to descry comfortable looking cottages, and it may be the steeple of a village church. Whilst you are gazing ahead in this vain expectation, a slight breeze wafts a strong odour of smoke around you, and looking attentively you see a few blue ringlets coming up from the ground just in front. Presently some slight elevations may be distinguished, scattered over what appears to you a patch of rough grass land, and now and then a wild-looking figure rises mysteriously, flits along a little way, and then drops into the earth. These are Moldo-Wallachians making their morning calls. You have stumbled upon a village or rather upon a human warren. The houses are mere holes dug in the ground, with a roof composed of long poles, which are covered with earth and thatched with the grass that naturally grows. This style of living was adopted by the people of these unfortunate countries for the sake of concealment from the marauders, to whose inroads they have always been subject on every side.

The villages are dug as far as possible from any line of route ordinarily used. They rarely contain more than a few hundred inhabitants, and are subject to a tax, the amount of which is fixed according to the supposed number of the houses. For example, a village set down as containing a hundred dwelling places, has to pay four hundred piastres. The Ispravnick, or governor of the district, receives a list of villages from the treasury, with the sum required from each affixed, and sends an agent to inform the people of their liabilities. It often happens that a village is set down as containing more or less houses than it really does. If there is a greater number, that is to say, if the estimate of the treasury is under the mark, the peasants collect in a public meeting to discuss in what proportion each is to benefit by the mistake. At these meetings they shout, quarrel, and even fight. But though wounds and death sometimes occur, nothing ever transpires before the tribunals. It is a family quarrel in which no stranger interferes. When matters are settled the head man of the village collects the various items of the tax, and carries the sum to the agent, who has no call to meddle otherwise in the matter. But if, as often happens, the village contains fewer houses than are set down, the peasants collect and nominate a deputation entrusted with the duty of representing the overcharge in the proper quarter. If they cannot obtain redress they often abandon their houses or holes, and separate and pass into neighbouring parishes and districts, leaving their old dwelling places entirely deserted. After a little time, of course, taxation pursues them in their new retreat. In this way the population remains unsettled, and we never meet with what in other countries would be called rising towns. It is calculated that in the two principalities there are about five thousand boroughs and villages, most of them of the character we have just described. However, on the mountains, the houses are above ground, and are not disagreeable in appearance or uncomfortable to live in. Near most villages may be seen long granaries, if they may be so called, of peculiar construction. They are often about three hundred feet in length, six feet high, and three or four feet wide, and are made of open trellis work. In them the maize is thrown, and being dried by the wind is preserved, when necessary, for several years. It is, on this account, that the cargoes of maize from Galatz are seldom or never injured on the passage, whilst those from Egypt and other places, being shipped whilst yet half-dried, often corrupt on the way.

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