On leaving the pretty little township, we had considerable difficulty in forcing our way through the flocks which continually blocked the road. All the way we ploughed through herds of cattle and stampeding sheep and goats, much to the disgust of their shepherds. These men, chiefly vicious-looking Albanians, with loosely-slung rifle, and round their waist a bandolier of cartridges, lend a wildness to the lonely road which is likely to mislead the new-comer; and should one of them empty his revolver light-heartedly in the air, to be answered by another some distance away, the impression is considerably heightened.
The road climbs to a good height immediately and commands a fine view of the valley with the little river winding in and out. In winter the effect is that of a great flood, for everywhere partially submerged trees and bushes show above the water. But in reality it was only a natural course of events, for in summer the water recedes and leaves great fields on which crops of maize are grown, while during the winter or rainy months the whole district of fertile land becomes again submerged. This view of the Rijeka was decidedly one of the prettiest in the country, combining, as it does every now and then, glimpses of the lake and the majestic Albanian Alps.
Always followed by our rival party, we halted at a wayside inn to refresh both man and beast. These inns are quaint little places. There is seldom any other floor than that already provided by Nature, which has been beaten flat.
We called for coffee, and partook of the country's wine, to whose acidity we never accustomed ourselves, and entered into conversation with our convivial companions. One, a horse dealer, spoke excellent Italian, and we met him often afterwards in the course of our travels.
When we had finished our libations, we naturally wished to have the bill or rather to know how much there was to pay.
"Nothing," was the answer.
"But we have had ——" It is not well to particularise—it was a thirsty day.
"There is nothing to pay," the woman reiterated.
The other party had guiltily slipped out of the room and climbed into their carriage, and our driver became impatient to maintain the lead. With mixed feelings we followed him out, and in another second were off again at a gallop.
It was always like that in Montenegro. We have gone into an inn or cafe and drunk a liqueur (a polite name for the fiery but wholesome local spirit), when a fresh glass will be silently placed before us. We have waved it away.
"Not ordered it," we would say.
"That man has," answers the boy, and points at a smiling Montenegrin on the other side of the room. Sometimes, and very often too, other guests follow suit, and the result is trying. We gave up visits to cafes afterwards, except when we were on pleasure bent and had an hour to spare. Hospitable, reckless, poverty-stricken Montenegrins—one can travel far before another such a race can be found.
The last two hours of the drive are uninteresting, chiefly because eight hours in a carriage is trying. Podgorica comes in sight long before it is reached, in the form of a cluster of trees on a grassy but dead-level plain, out of which two minarets show their graceful spires. The background is imposing, lowering Albanian mountains rise abruptly to their lofty heights from the level of the plain.
For an hour we drove along the plain, and passed a solitary building situated on a slight eminence. It was Krusevac, one of the Prince's country palaces, or, to be more correct, Prince Mirko's palace, as "Voivoda" or Duke of the Zeta, which ancient and historical title is his. Then for some distance we skirted the Moraca, driving in an opposite direction to Podgorica till we came to the "Vizier" bridge, over which we crossed and retraced our way to the town.
The River Moraca is a large mountain torrent, into which the Zeta flows only a short distance away from the town. It rushes over great boulders, forming here and there formidable rapids, between two deep banks, which, without any warning, break off suddenly from the flat and form precipitous sides fully two hundred feet deep. Two or three hundred yards away, no gap or break in the plain is observable. Sometimes the river swells almost to the top of its banks, and then the effect must be terrible. There is a ford near Podgorica, which the peasants use to avoid the long detour by the bridge, but woe to the man who makes a false step. Three women, carrying loads of wood, lost their footing during our stay, and were drowned. In its waters we swam every evening, and even in midsummer, when the river is low, the strength of the current required an expert and powerful swimmer to breast it, and it was invariably very cold.
The bridge, built by an old Turkish Vizier many, many years ago, is most picturesque, and completely in keeping with the rocky banks and the foam-flecked, emerald-green waters rushing beneath. From this bridge a man once sprang into the depths below, to show that he was not intoxicated. As a matter of fact he was, but he emerged dripping a hundred yards lower down, unhurt and at least in his right mind.
There used to be a deep indentation in a stone of the bridge parapet—during our stay in the country it has been plastered up—which credulous Montenegrins relate to be the cut of a Turkish horseman pursuing a fleeing Montenegrin. The story goes that the Turk severed the Montenegrin's head from his body, and so violent was the stroke that he cut into the stone wall as well.
Again, just before the town, two slabs, standing exactly thirty paces apart, mark a similar episode, and the headless man is said to have run that distance before falling. This legend—which, furthermore, has many eye-witnesses still living in the town who swear to the truth—is more capable of belief if one takes into consideration the flight of a decapitated fowl in any of our poultry yards.
The road entering Podgorica is very similar in appearance to that which leads into Cetinje, only the first impressions are considerably wilder and more uncivilised than that of the capital. Hundreds of Turks and Albanians are smoking their evening "tchibouque" in the streets, and scowl in no friendly manner at the stranger. Some of them, namely, the merchant class, are, however, excellent people, travelled and educated, as we found out afterwards. The Albanian and Turk are the enterprising merchants of Montenegro, and improve on acquaintance, which is sometimes necessary.
We had a lonely, solitary feeling as we drove through the crowd of loiterers, and were glad to descend at a presentable-looking hostelry. How often first impressions are wrong we proved to the full in this instance.
Podgorica saw more of us than any other town during our stay, for we made it afterwards our headquarters. It would be difficult to forget that mountain-bounded valley and the town with its bustling streets of picturesque humanity. And then those sunsets! The peaks towering behind bathed in crimson, and the intervening hills rising one above the other to the furthermost summits like a giant staircase, rich in a mysterious purple. As we walked back from our evening swim, over the short, springing grass, that scene at sunset never abated its charms one whit. And we were always glad on entering the town that no one wore plain, ugly European clothes but ourselves. The national costumes, so full of colour, blended harmoniously with our feelings, and have left behind them an indelible picture.
Podgorica—Its central position—Our headquarters—Easter in Montenegro—Our experience of it—We view the town—The prison and its inmates—Christian and Mahometan friction—The modern town—The market and the armed buyers—The Black Earth—Easter customs—Montenegrin methods of doing business.
If it were not for the dangerous proximity of the Albanian border, Podgorica would have been made the capital of Montenegro. It is favourably situated for a trade centre, and, owing to this fact, has naturally gathered a large population (the largest in Montenegro), approaching ten thousand. Lying on a rich and fertile plain, within easy reach of the Lake of Scutari, and connected by good roads with Cetinje and Niksic, it is within market distance, so to speak, of Kolasin and Andrijevica. From these districts, and from the Albanian borders, the people flock in crowds, and the Podgorican market is by far the most important in the country. But—and it is a big "but"—in this case the Albanian frontier is only an hour's walk away, and it would never do to risk the persons of the Royal Family and the Ministers in a sudden Albanian raid, and troubles and disturbances are of everyday occurrence.
We made Podgorica our headquarters during our sojourn in the land of the Black Mountain mainly for its central position, but also for the opportunity afforded us there for studying Montenegrin life.
It would be difficult to forget our first visit to the town. It was Easter Sunday evening when we arrived at the Hotel Europa, and after seeing our luggage carried in, started out on a tour of inspection, and also to present our letter of introduction to Dr. S., the veterinary surgeon of Montenegro. We had not got more than fifty yards from the hotel when we were forced to beat a hasty and ignominious retreat. At Eastertide, which is one of the biggest feasts in the Greek Church, beggars, halt and maim, blind and tattered, pour into all the larger towns of the country. They come from Turkey, Albania, Bosnia, and Dalmatia—in fact, from everywhere within reach—and make a rich harvest, for the Montenegrin opens his heart, his hand, and his house at Easter. In our innocence we imagined this to be the normal state of affairs in Montenegro, and were greatly cast down.
But our worthy host armed himself with a big stick, and we sallied forth again under his guidance. Even then it was no joke, and the house of Dr. S. came as a haven of refuge. Anyone who has been in the East knows what an amount of persistency and endurance the Oriental beggar possesses.
We were received as old friends and welcomed to the Easter table, which was set, as in any other Montenegrin house at this season, for anyone and everyone who has the remotest claims of acquaintanceship.
Several men were present, to whom we were at once introduced; amongst others a canny Scotchman, the only Britisher living permanently in the country. We were a cosmopolitan gathering. There was Dr. S., a Roumanian, an Austrian ornithologist, a Scotchman, our innkeeper was a Macedonian, and two or three Montenegrins. From that evening date many of the pleasant friendships which we made in Montenegro.
The next day our newly-made friends showed us Podgorica. It is divided into two distinct parts—the old, or Turkish town, and the new Montenegrin town, which dates from the conquest of 1877. The two halves are separated by the River Ribnica, which flows in a deep bed before the crumbling walls of the Turkish quarter. At one angle of the town the Ribnica enters the Moraca, Montenegro's biggest and most important river.
Most picturesque is the old Turkish quarter, still surrounded by the same bastions and walls which not so long ago defied the Montenegrin army. But the houses, as well as the walls, are fast falling to ruin; for at the order of the Prince the market has been removed to the other side, and, in comparison with the new town, there are few inhabitants left. The fortifications still bear witness to the fierce struggle which took place before them, and one bastion was breached more successfully than ever Montenegrin cannon had done, by lightning, during the bombardment. Many of the older inhabitants, as well as the walls, show traces of the former conflict, a noseless man being no great curiosity.
Not for nothing has the Montenegrin won his fame as one of the fiercest fighters in the world. He was never outdone in atrocities by his enemies. It was the rule of war (and is now, to a great extent) to either behead one's prisoner on the spot, or, if the day had been exceptionally heavy, and more heads could not be carried conveniently, noses were taken instead. Perhaps the phrase "to count noses" originated in these lands. However, it usually ended the same, for the noseless man would, as a rule, bleed to death; but some have lived through it, and can be met with anywhere in Montenegro or Albania.
Many fierce fights took place in and about Podgorica, and the ghastly picture of victorious Montenegrins at the conclusion of an affray, sitting in groups, each with a small or large heap of heads and noses before him, "counting the bag," has many eye-witnesses still living.
In the Turkish town lies the prison, soon to be the only one in Montenegro. A new wing is rapidly nearing completion to accommodate the female prisoners, who are at present incarcerated in Cetinje. We visited the director that Easter Monday morning, and were received unofficially in his quarters. We always had great fun with that man—a pompous individual filled to overflowing with the importance of his position, and, not unlike men similarly afflicted, most aggressively stupid.
As a great favour, and after our united persuasion, he allowed us at last to look from a window overlooking the courtyard of the prison. As in Cetinje, the prisoners walk without let or hindrance in the spacious walled-in courts before their cell doors. Being Easter no man was chained, a privilege they owe to the Prince, who always releases the prisoners from their fetters during the great festivals; one wretched individual, however, we noticed more heavily manacled than even a murderer of the worst kind. He was, we were informed, a dangerous madman, though, poor devil, he looked harmless enough, slouching round and round the yard. The primitive custom of confining dangerous lunatics (for the harmless are allowed their full liberty outside) in the common prison is soon to be done away with. A large lunatic asylum is rapidly nearing completion near Danilovgrad—another memorial of Prince Nicolas' improvements.
The prisoners were sleek and fat—those imprisoned for long terms or for life bearing witness of the good treatment which they receive at the hands of the authorities. One youngish man in particular attracted our attention, a merry laughing fellow whose girth had reached alarming proportions. He was imprisoned for life, and his crime, which sat so lightly upon him, had been a particularly atrocious and dastardly murder for plunder—a crime practically unknown in Montenegro.
Imprisonment is more real here than in Cetinje. There is none of that delightful promenading up and down before the prison walls, hours pleasantly whiled away with a friendly visitor from afar over a pint of wine. The only glimpse of the outside world that these prisoners obtain is when a few of them fetch water daily from a well outside the walls.
As we gazed upon the strange scene from the window above, of prisoners and warders amicably chatting together, others squatting in groups over a harmless game, a horrible voice disturbed the serenity of the picture. Then at a closely barred window a face appeared, with matted hair and long unkempt beard. It was the face of a madman; with terrible curses he filled the air, and we looked inquiringly at our cicerone.
"That man is a political offender," came the answer. "For fifteen years he has waited his trial, and now he has become hopelessly insane. Many years ago he endeavoured to stir up a revolution against the Prince, and fled to Vienna, where he carried on his treasonable propaganda. But he was enticed back, and thrown into solitary confinement such as those who are traitors to their Prince receive. For an hour every day these prisoners are allowed to walk in the yard, but this man from the first refused to avail himself of the privilege, and now he has become what you see."
"Will he never regain his freedom?" we asked.
A shrug of the shoulders was all that our guide vouchsafed, and with that awful voice ringing in our ears we were glad to turn away.
Two mosques still exist, and are in use, for the Turkish population is fairly large, though owing to recent events rapidly diminishing, but the Prince does everything in his power to cultivate a friendly feeling with the Mahometans. His country is the asylum for the persecuted Turk as well as the fugitive from justice, and, if his crime is political, he will be warmly welcomed.
But, Woman again has upset the best of intentions, and within a year four elopements of Turkish girls from their homes with Montenegrins have taken place in Podgorica. These girls have been baptised and married to their Christian lovers. A worse insult to the Mahometan faith does not exist. But of this more anon.
The modern town is painfully plain and uninteresting. Montenegrins have no knowledge or love of architecture. Each house is built solidly of stone, square and undecorated. Even the palaces of the Royal Family are of puritanical simplicity externally.
There are the law courts, post and telegraph offices, and police-station all in one, a school, and a market-place, with a very ugly memorial to the fallen Montenegrins in the last war. Otherwise, the town is laid out with broad streets, all planted with trees, exactly like a South African township.
Building plots are free, the only obligation to the owner being that he must run up the outside walls of the house at once. The roof and internal work can be completed at leisure. A large part of the town consists of mere shells of houses, the owners waiting for the means of completion.
Some little distance from the town, across the Moraca, is the Prince's palace of Krusevac, which he occasionally visits. It stands quite alone on a slight eminence.
The view round Podgorica is one of the most fascinating features of the place. It is one of those perfect views which never tire, and always present some new beauty, and the armed rough men in their brightly coloured and novel costumes are in complete unison with the picture. These national costumes seem so absolutely fitting to Montenegro that the otherwise plain and uninteresting buildings of the town are turned merely into a background for the ever-moving stream of colour. The Turkish bazaars with their gaudy wares hung out into the street, the red-jacketed Montenegrin, the Turk in pure white, the Scutarines in their distinct and original costume, and the Albanians who flock in hundreds to the market in coarse white serge, heavily bordered with black braiding, rifles over their shoulders and a bandolier round their waists, make a never-ending picture. We never wearied of wandering about the streets on market days. Then the town is filled to overflowing with a multi-coloured crowd, and every man from a distance brings his rifle.
How odd it looked at first to see an Albanian with perhaps a shilling's-worth of field produce spread out before him, and at his side a rifle loaded and cocked; or, again, a Montenegrin boy of perhaps fourteen, with his rifle across his knee! To keep order in this formidably armed crowd of men, many animated with the fiercest racial and religious hatred of each other, are some dozen Montenegrin gendarmes, armed, as is every Montenegrin, with but a heavy revolver.
Deadly enemies meet on the market-place, men standing in blood feud with one another, and speak, often expressing a fervent prayer soon to be able to put a bullet into the other at the first opportunity, but—outside the town. Podgorica is mutually held as neutral territory, and is very rarely violated. This is strange where men fear not death.
But, outside, perhaps but half an hour from the outskirts of the town, these men will meet and shoot and kill; for murder, or sudden death, to use their euphemistic way of looking at matters, is by no means uncommon.
There is a great tract of land about an hour's ride from Podgorica characteristically called the "Crna Zemlja" or Black Earth. It is neutral, lying between Montenegro and Albania, and the man who sets his foot on it carries his life in his hands. Men who know, say that every inch is soaked in blood. It is overlooked by some small hills from Albania, and is covered with long pampas grass, affording good cover for a man, and they shoot there for love of killing.
But to return to Eastertide.
It is a good time to visit Montenegro for first impressions. The Montenegrin outdoes himself in open-handed hospitality; every house is open, and everyone visits his neighbour. The best chamber in the house, as often as not the only living-room among the poorer classes, is set out with all the good things the owner possesses. On the table stand meat, eggs, bread, wine, and spirits; and it is a grievous insult to leave that room without tasting, and tasting liberally, of all. This lasts three days, and it is more than enough.
And we were particularly honoured, being Englishmen and strangers: one might say we were painfully honoured. What quantities we were forced to eat and drink! At one house, that of a poor man, who lived with his wife in a tiny room, we were presented with a bottle of Munich beer, his greatest treasure, given him once by a friend who had travelled. He doubtless considered it a luxury of a priceless kind, and it cut us to the heart to drink that man's beer. But we had to; he took no denial, barely tasting it himself.
We might have stood it fairly well were it not for those eggs, hard-boiled Easter eggs, the shells coloured red or blue. This institution is a positive torture to the unfortunate digestion, which suffers untold torments at Eastertide.
There is a game played with these hard-boiled eggs which reminds one forcibly of schooldays. Two men each select an egg, and one, holding his egg firmly, allows the other to endeavour to crack it, only the pointed ends being used.
But this harmless if childish custom once led to a vendetta. A man once cracked such an enormous quantity of eggs, that in the evening he was challenged to show his marvellous egg, which he persistently refused to do. This led to words and words to revolvers, and the man was shot. Then the egg was found to be a clever imitation in stone.
Though Podgorica is the trading centre of Montenegro, business is not carried on in the same brisk way as in other lands.
We once wished to send a parcel of feathers home, and went accordingly to the post office. It was towards evening then, and we were informed that the postmaster was "not at home," and were asked to come next day. The following morning we again visited the post office, when the contents were carefully noted, and long lists filled out which took roughly about half an hour; at the end of which time a head was thrust out of the window, asking us to call in about an hour and pay. This was because no post-office clerk is allowed to receive money; he is strangely enough not always honest, and the postmaster was again out. At the end of the hour we returned and paid.
Another time I tendered a gulden in payment of a telegram, and had to wait a quarter of an hour while a boy was sent into the town to obtain change.
In matters of business it is well to possess one's soul in patience. A more unbusinesslike set of people is hard to be found, yet in driving a bargain they are remarkably shrewd, to put it kindly.
Even in such trivial matters as purchasing a hen no indecent hurry is shown. Such a transaction may take days. For instance, you wish to buy a hen, and signify the same to a man, and he will say—
"I have a hen which I can sell thee, but it will break my heart. Such a hen, and such eggs! I feel I cannot part with her."
"Very well," you say; "don't make yourself miserable; I'll buy one somewhere else."
"But give me till to-morrow. It is too sudden."
And he goes away. If you are not in a hurry, it does not matter and you wait. It is amusing.
Next day he will come again and say that he has another hen nearly as good as the first, but, as he loves you and respects you, he will part with his beloved hen at a consideration, and names a price far beyond its worth. You refuse, and state your price for the good hen, the ordinary market price, which he indignantly refuses and departs. In a few hours he will come again, bringing a hen which, almost with tears, he tells you is the hen—his beloved hen.
"Take her," he says, "as a present."
Whereupon you press upon him the market price, which of course he takes, and the matter is finished.
Such little episodes are trying at first. The Montenegrin loves money—it is his curse, or rather the curse of every country on the brink of civilisation—but he also loves to play the gentleman, who hates sordid money transactions. He will often make you a present and afterwards send in an extortionate bill.
But, usually, you make him a monetary present at once, which he takes with thanks, at your own price.
If it were not for money, what an ideal race the Montenegrins would be! But then that is the same with a good many people.
Medun—Voivoda Marko—His life and heroism—His part in Montenegrin history—Our ride to Medun—His widow—We visit his grave—The death dirge—Montenegrin customs at death—Target practice—Our critics—The hermit of Daibabe—We visit Spuz—A typical country inn and a meal—The Turkish renegade gives his views on warfare—Dioclea.
During our repeated sojourns in Podgorica we made several excursions to places of interest in the neighbourhood, chief amongst which was a visit to Medun, Voivoda Marko Drekalovic's grave.
Medun lies in the heart of the mountains, about four hours' ride from Podgorica, and is the capital (if one can apply such a high-sounding name to a ruined fortress and two or three houses) of the Kuc. The Kuc is a large province inhabited by one of the most warlike tribes of Montenegro, and only recently came under its rule, though their sympathies were never with their Turkish rulers. The fact that it borders on Albania is significant, and accounts for its fighting qualities.
Voivoda Marko was largely instrumental in bringing about the last war with Turkey, which was so successful to Montenegro, when the Kuc, Podgorica, Niksic, the entire provinces of East Montenegro, the Brda, and the sea-coast from Antivari to Dulcigno were won and confirmed to Montenegro.
The famous battle of Fundina was won by Marko and his tribe alone against an overwhelming Turkish army before war had been officially declared with Montenegro.
Beginning life as a shepherd boy, Marko ended his days as Voivoda (or Duke), and his name is famed in many a song and beloved by the Montenegrins as one of their greatest heroes. Many were the stories of his reckless bravery, which one of his relations told us. Before he had reached the age of twenty he had killed many Turks in single encounter, and was in consequence outlawed. He lived for some years in the mountain fastnesses of his land, and together with a handful of adventurers, who had cast in their lot with his, made descent after descent on any bands of Turkish soldiers that happened to pass through his domain. His fame soon reached the ears of Prince Nicolas, who sent for him and placed him for some years in his bodyguard—that corps d'elite of the Montenegrins.
At the age of twenty-five he returned home and harassed the Turks to such an extent that he could not show himself openly by daylight. Like another and more famous outlaw in the days of the kings of Israel, all those that were bitter of soul came down unto him, and he became captain over them. By night he descended upon the Turks wherever he could find them, and made great slaughter among them. The Governor of Podgorica, then Turkish, Yussuf Mucic by name, offered a large sum of money for his head, but no one could be found willing to meet that terrible man whom legend and story had endowed with supernatural powers. Finally, a criminal consented to attempt the deed on the promise of his liberty, and this led to one of the most incredible episodes in Marko's life. The criminal lay in wait for him on a lonely part of the road near Rijeka, and as Marko was passing along he stepped suddenly on to the road pistol in hand. Marko in no way attempted defence, but simply transfixed the man with a glance. The wretched man in an ecstasy of terror shot himself, so penetrating was the glance which the Voivoda had given him. So runs the story. Suffice it to remark that Marko arrived safe and sound the same evening in Cetinje, and a dead criminal was found on the next day by the roadside. Now Yussuf, the Governor, was himself a soldier of some repute, and when he heard of the failure of his messenger he boastfully expressed a desire to meet the celebrated Marko in single combat. On this challenge being reported to him Marko rode off on a half-tamed steed at midday into the heart of Podgorica, and reined up before the Pasha's house. In fear and trembling the Turks hastily closed their bazaars and houses as that fearful horseman galloped through their streets. In a loud voice Marko cried—
"I am here, Yussuf, to answer thy challenge. Wilt thou now come out and fight with me?"
But fear filled the heart of the craven Turk, and he sent a woman to the window to say that he was away from home. Marko knew this to be a lie, and cried so that all should hear him that henceforth the challenge was annulled. "I do not fight with cowards," he said, and again galloped away unmolested.
Such was the power that superstition had weaved around his person that he was commonly believed to be invulnerable, which belief was afterwards belied by the fact that he carried two bullets with him to the grave.
After this public insult to Yussuf, it was known that he would spare no pains to take Marko's life, and a touching episode is told of the love which Marko's tribe bore to him. His people were ever ready to sacrifice their lives for him, and in this instance it was deemed necessary to remove the obnoxious Pasha. Accordingly a cousin of Marko journeyed to the Podgorican market with a pistol concealed in a load of wood. He lay in wait before Yussuf's house and shot him down as he emerged. The Turkish populace literally cut him to pieces—a fate which the devoted man well knew would befall him.
This and other events led up to the attack made by the Turkish troops on the tribe of Kuc, when, at Fundina, Marko and his small tribe smote the Moslems hip and thigh. The rest is a matter of history. He had died but a few months before our visit, and by his last wish was buried in the little fortress of Medun, which many years ago he had stormed at the head of a handful of men under circumstances of great bravery.
The ride thither gave us our first taste of the mountains. Rough, stony paths through rocky ravines, sometimes skirting deep precipices, and all round the intensely wild and magnificent mountains, led us to the great gorge where Medun is situated. Perched on a seemingly inaccessible crag, stands the famous ruined fortress, and at its foot Marko's house.
We were made welcome by his widow, a regal woman of middle age, and still strikingly handsome. Her dead husband was not only a great hero, but a poet and historian, and one of the most remarkable features of his life was that, at the age of forty, he taught himself to write, and made his name famous as well in the Serb literary world. He had always treated her as his companion, and not as the average Montenegrin treats a woman—as a being of inferior quality and a better class of servant. Marko had a wonderful character; a great athlete, perfect rifle-shot, and a military warrior and leader of men, he brought home during his campaigns over one hundred Turkish heads; but he was also a refined gentleman, a true poet, and merciful to his enemies. He was a notable exception in the matter of prisoners—he always let them go unharmed, sometimes escorting them himself to a place of safety.
Our visit gave much gratification to his widow, who was pleased that strangers from such a distant land should wish to visit her husband's grave, and she was hospitality itself.
After a rest and food in her house, she conducted us herself up the steep winding path to the grave. We came abruptly upon a small plateau in front of a tiny chapel. The scene was striking in the extreme. There was the grave, with a rough pile of stones at the head, on which were placed the dead man's "handjar," revolver and sword, and many wreaths. Two lighted candles were flickering in the wind, and in a semicircle stood a group of rough, fully-armed mountaineers, the retainers of the Voivoda. It was stormy, and great gusts of wind and rain dashed round the rocky fortress, and in the distance a rugged pile of mountain peaks towered up into the descending mist.
The widow left us, and, kneeling at the grave, quietly kissed the cold stones, praying for a few moments in deep silence. Not a man spoke or moved as we stood with bared heads and waited. Slowly rising, she came to us and led us into the chapel, a bare shell, not even furnished with an altar, and with the original earthen floor.
"My beloved husband wished to be buried in here," said the widow, "but it was not allowed. The Prince wished him to be buried in Podgorica, as he was never courtier and was so beloved and honoured by his people—more than the Prince himself. But my husband called me to his side, and with his last breath made me swear to bury him in this chapel, or at least in front of it. And when the order came that he should be buried below, I swore to shoot myself on his grave, and the men of Kuc swore to take his body up here, even if they had to fight every inch of the way. So it was allowed that he should be buried here, but we shall bury him in the chapel, for that I promised him as he died."
And she took my hand solemnly in hers, illustrating her oath to the dying man, and I shivered in that gloomy chamber as her impassioned voice echoed in its arches.
Suddenly a wailing of women broke upon the utter silence which ensued, and nearer and nearer came that weird singing as it approached the summit. The women were chanting Marko's death dirge. At last, as they passed the little window, we went outside and saw four women, dishevelled and weeping, approach the grave, kneeling on one side. The widow left us again and knelt alone opposite.
One woman only sang at a time, a series of extempore verses telling of the life and deeds of the hero—his accomplishments and goodness—in the poetical language of this wild people.
"Oh, thou grey falcon, who was so mighty a hunter as thou?"
"Who indeed shall now wield thy bloodstained sword?"
"Oh, thou wolf, who is worthy to take thy place as our ruler and father?"
And the others beat their breasts and tore their hair, wailing in a wild unison, until the singer was exhausted and then another began.
Here and there a deep sob broke from a man, but otherwise the ring of men with bowed heads remained in dead silence and immovable as the rocks around them.
It was one of the most impressive scenes it has been our fortune to witness, but we were glad when the widow rose and conducted us back to the house. Some letters and poems of the Voivoda were shown to us, and one of the letters to a friend then present in the room was read aloud. The great rough Montenegrin was so touched at hearing the words of his master and lord, that he turned away his head and sobbed. All this time the women ceased not with their wild lamentations, and even after we took our leave and started on our rough ride home in pouring rain, that death dirge followed us, echoing in the ravines and mountains.
Since then we have often heard the death dirge sung in Montenegro. Sometimes in a house in passing; again, an old woman trudging to market will sing the death dirge of a relation, perhaps dead many years. But we never heard those piercing, wailing notes without having the picture of Medun recalled vividly to our memory.
When a man dies he is laid out in the sitting-room, and all the friends and relations are summoned. Then the men enter the room singly and approach the corpse. Tearing open their shirts they beat themselves with their fists on their naked breasts, often tearing the flesh with their nails, and give vent to ear-piercing wails. Each new-comer strives to outdo his predecessor in excesses, and horrible scenes ensue. But the Prince discountenances this custom, and it is slowly dying out, but only in the upper classes.
We often took our rifles and went out into the country for a little target practice, and always succeeded in attracting a group of spectators from adjacent villages or huts. Towards Albania we were requested not to go for shooting, as the noise of rifle-shots is apt to mislead the surrounding villagers. Even when shooting in other directions, we were carefully warned not to fire rapidly, but to shoot slowly and deliberately, as at target practice.
Rapid firing is "the alarm," and would mobilise a brigade of infantry within an hour or two.
On one occasion we were shooting at a somewhat difficult object about one hundred and fifty yards away. We were trying to hit it, standing, and had not succeeded. A group of some twenty men had collected, and they soon began to make facetious remarks. One offered to bring the target nearer. Another said he would stand target for a few shots—we shouldn't hit him. So we gave one or two of them our rifles and told them to hit it. Immediately they selected stones as rests, and lay down for their shot.
"Ah," said we, "we can do that; shoot as we do, standing, and without a rest."
"That," they said, "is not shooting—who shoots like that in war?"
But we were inexorable, and needless to say they failed to hit anywhere near.
The Montenegrins are good shots enough, if they can take long and deliberate aim, steadying their rifles on walls or rocks, but otherwise they are miserable marksmen.
Quite close to Podgorica there lives a hermit, a wonderful man who has hewn out of the living rock a tiny chapel, a store-room, and a passage leading to the chapel. He has only just completed it, and we inscribed our names in his new book as his first visitors.
The hermit, a priest of most refined manners and appearance, named Simeon Popovic, was most delighted at our visit. He spoke Russian and French fluently; his story is quite a little romance.
Before he took Orders he had been a soldier, and was a rich man. It was while he was absent on a campaign that his wife eloped and his relations robbed him of all his money. He returned home to find himself wifeless, dishonoured, and a beggar. Then he became a priest, and a vision appeared to him, showing him Daibabe, where he now lives, commanding him to go and build a church. He refused the offer of a rich priorship and came to this place, possessed of no means whatever wherewith to commence his life's work. Unable to buy building materials, he began to hollow out a church from the rock, without help or money of any kind, beyond that given him by the pious but direly poor peasants of the neighbourhood. The labour must have been immense, but there it stands a monument to man's perseverance and faith.
Simeon is reckoned as a saint by the peasants; they come to him from all parts of the country, bringing their sick, and many cures are said to have been effected there. He is a vegetarian, and subsists solely on the products of his little garden.
Spuz lies on the River Zeta, and must be reached by a bridge. It is always safer to dismount when crossing a Montenegrin bridge, off the main roads. This was no exception, but the scenery was delightful. Rising immediately at the back of the village is a steep hill crowned by a mighty fortress. It was held formerly by the Turks, and the peasants say that it was built by them; but the architecture is distinctly Venetian and an exact counterpart of many fortresses in Dalmatia.
It is strange, however, for there are no records that the Venetians ever came further inland than Scutari.
The inn at Spuz, where we dined, was as other country inns (or krcma, or han, as they are locally termed from the Turkish): earthen floor, a bench, a few primitive stools and beds in the only reception-room. The table is invariably rickety, so are the stools; but a tablecloth, knives and forks are always mysteriously produced for guests even in the most out-of-the-way places.
While our repast was being prepared we had a revolver shooting competition outside the door, to which the whole village flocked. One of the men made a very fine shot from his saddle at a tree-stump in the river, about two hundred and fifty yards away, and hit within a few feet. It proved the accuracy and carrying distance of the Montenegrin revolver.
After our meal, consisting of raw ham, eggs (oh, those everlasting eggs!), and a peculiar and nondescript kind of meat, about which we asked no questions, the village captain called on us and bore us off to his house for coffee.
This man, a Turkish renegade, was one of the most interesting men whom we met. He was a marvellous talker—in fact, he never stopped during our visit. How the subject came up has passed my memory, but suddenly he rushed out of the room and brought back a handful of little medals.
"Look," he said, "each medal represents a human life, a head. We have these given us for every head we bring back in war. Do you think I am proud of them, and there are more than fifty? No, I weep when I see them. When I had seized my foe by his hair preparatory to cutting off his head, a vision of his mother, his wife, and his sisters appeared before me, and I could have wept as I struck off his head. Why should I kill this man? I asked myself. I know him not, he has done me no harm, yet because it is war, arranged by princes and kings, we must become murderers. And why should I kill him? because others would misconstrue my act of mercy if I did it not, and brand me a coward, aye and worse, a traitor. Why should I make that mother childless? why must I rob that loving wife of her husband? Why I be the means of making those little children fatherless and orphans?"
I confess the picture that he conjured up of solemnly and with streaming eyes cutting off his enemies' heads—and he had owned to over fifty—as he thought of destitute homes and weeping women and children, seemed decidedly tragi-comic; but the old man was earnest enough, and was quite unconscious of the grim humour of the situation.
"Why," he went on, excitedly pacing the room, "why do not the German Emperor and the King of England fight out their quarrels alone? Why drag thousands of men from their homes and farms to fight their quarrels?"
Again the idea of our King fighting a solemn duel, with perhaps Maxims, over a question of an island in the Pacific, with the German Emperor, while admiring millions looked on and applauded, caused a smile which we with difficulty repressed from diplomatic reasons.
He took his scimitar now in his hand.
"Look, too, at the generals," he said excitedly, "directing battles from safe places, while hundreds of innocent lives are thrown away in an assault which that general has ordered from his place of safety. Once," he went on—"I was fighting for the Turks then, and commanded a body of soldiers—a general came to me, saying, 'Storm that hill,' and I answered, 'No; thou art our leader, lead us to the assault.' And he refused, saying, 'How can I direct the battle if I lead this attack—who shall take my place if I fall?' And I drew my sword"—and here he suited his action to his words—"and said I would kill him if he did not take his true position as leader of men and lead us to the attack—then I and my men would follow wherever he went. And the general, who was a brave man, led us to the assault and fell—but we took the hill and the battle was won."
It was strange talk to hear from such a man, little better than a savage, yet unlike any of his adopted countrymen. That man in a civilised country would have made himself known and even celebrated.
Not far from Podgorica, at the junction of the rivers Moraca and Zeta, lie the remains of the once famous Dioclea or Dukla, as it is locally called. The town is of Roman origin, and was surrounded by a complete moat, which the Romans formed by digging a channel between the rivers. It must have been a place of immense strength in the olden days, but successive generations of warfare, which raged so pitilessly in this district, have levelled it to the ground, and to-day little or nothing can be seen from the adjoining roadway. On approaching there is also very little to be seen, here and there a wall, and small fragments of mosaic floors. Coins and other relics are still found in large quantities, and it seems a pity that excavation, which could do so much, has been only carried on in a very halting and desultory manner. Legend and history relate that the famous Roman Emperor Diocletian was born here, and gave his name to the town. The district of Dioclea, which was one of the seven confederate Serb states formed by Heraclius to repel the attacks of the Avars, is in reality the germ of modern Montenegro.
Achmet Uiko tells his story—Sokol Baco, ex-Albanian chief—Shooting on the Lake of Scutari—Our journey thither—Our frustrated nap—Arrival at the chapel—The island of Vranjina—The priest—Fishing and fishermen—Our visitors—We return to Podgorica.
One market day, walking through the streets of Podgorica, we overheard a strange conversation. A Montenegrin Turk was sitting on a stone, when two Albanians approached him. Touching his revolver, one of the Albanians said—
"Sooner than own the whole of Montenegro, would I empty this into thy body."
The Turk, a small man, with slightly grey hair, looked up, and said indifferently—
"And thy desire is mine."
So they separated.
Almost immediately an acquaintance joined us, and we asked him the meaning.
"That man," said he, "is the famous Achmet Uiko. A terrible man, who has killed many men, and at the present moment there is an enormous sum of money on his head in Albania."
We then went to him, and asked him to come to our hotel to-morrow, and to tell us the story of his life. He consented readily, saying that he would be with us at nine next morning, "if," he added significantly, "nothing occurred to detain him."
It happened that evening that an Englishman arrived on a short tour through the country, believing firmly that everything was as safe and as orderly as the average stranger thinks. A Turkish girl had been abducted from her home shortly before, and the town was in a state of great excitement, as it was the second case within the last few weeks. A rising of the Turkish inhabitants was feared nightly, and the house where the girl was confined—previous to her marriage with her Montenegrin lover—was carefully guarded by a score of armed Montenegrins.
We took the Englishman to this house, and as we were showing him the men with rifles around the doors and windows, we heard sounds of a sharp rifle fire some distance away on the border. Not long afterwards a Montenegrin doubled into the town with a report that heavy firing had been taking place at the village of Dinos. Nothing further came of it, but our countryman went to bed with other ideas of Montenegro.
We awaited Achmet next morning, but at nine he had not arrived, and we began to wonder, as the hours went by, if his fate had at last overtaken him. But at noon he turned up, as quiet and self-possessed as yesterday, and excused himself in the following way. The Albanians who had expressed such murderous desires upon him yesterday at the market lived in Dinos, and he had spent the night in emptying his magazine rifle repeatedly into their village.
"To show these dogs," he concluded, "that they cannot express such wishes to me with impunity."
His story, which is given shortly here, was taken down from his lips, but it is impossible to reproduce the man's quaint phraseology. He spoke in an indifferent way, and detailed all the circumstances in a most matter-of-fact manner and without the faintest trace of boasting.
He was born in Podgorica, then Turkish, and at fifteen fought in his first battle, killing three men. At seventeen he had a fight in the town, and was forced to flee to Scutari, where, shortly afterwards, he entered the Turkish service as a gendarme. He took unto himself a wife, but finding her faithless, he laid a trap to catch her and her lover together, when he killed them both. After this Achmet returned to Podgorica, where he was at once seized and imprisoned for his original offence, but he soon broke out and fled to the Albanian mountains. Here he lived as a robber until things began to get too hot for him, and he fled to Bosnia. In Bosnia he was the guest of a Serb, who befriended him, and when a Turk seduced his benefactor's wife, he killed the Turk to show his gratitude, and again was forced to flee the country. He next turned up in Antivari, where he was promptly imprisoned, but he overpowered the warder, took his rifle, and again escaped.
At this time the town captain of Dulcigno had been murdered, in revenge for a deadly insult, by a young Kuc, named Jovan, and Achmet was sent for, on the promise of pardon if he would follow Jovan into Albania and kill him. This he did, bringing Jovan's head with him as evidence. For this he received a large reward, and the Prince of Montenegro, having heard of him and his deeds, sent for him, pardoning all his previous offences, besides giving him one hundred napoleons.
Achmet now settled down at his present home near Podgorica, but was caught by the Turks and imprisoned on a false charge for four months, when he was able to prove an alibi.
Achmet fought in many border fights with the Montenegrins against the Albanians and distinguished himself greatly. Two Albanians once attacked the son of a famous standard-bearer, whose life he saved, capturing the assailants alive and bringing them into Podgorica. For this act the Prince gave him an old fortress for his home, and where he still lives.
Later on Jovan's brother, whom he had killed near Dulcigno, came early one morning to Achmet and fired at him; but Achmet caught him, and again brought his prisoner alive into the town, where he received ten years' imprisonment. These deeds are all the more remarkable as he brought his captures alive and delivered them over to justice. It is, firstly, not customary to take men alive; secondly, the feat is of extreme difficulty, for men fight to a finish in these lands.
Achmet is known to disappear periodically for several weeks, but of these affairs he would say nothing. But the most striking and romantic episode of this marvellous man's life has yet to be told.
Recently he was caught by his now arch enemies, the Turks, and imprisoned in the powerful fortress of Tusi, a few miles from Podgorica. Not content with putting on the usual extremely heavy chains, they added to their prisoner a second set of fetters. But friends smuggled into his possession a file, concealed in a loaf of bread. He filed through his chains, and the day previous to his escape he noticed a lot of straw bedding lying at the foot of the fortress walls. That night he completed the filing of the fetters, broke open the cell-door, and rushing through the sleeping soldiers he jumped the wall, landing without hurt on the pile of straw bedding below. Though fired at and pursued, he escaped unhurt.
We heard many such stories, but the story of Achmet was certainly the best, and these men do not lie. As the man took his leave, he gave us a pressing invitation to visit his fortress home in the mountains.
"I will slaughter my best lamb," he added, as a special inducement.
There was another highly interesting personality living in Podgorica, an ex-Albanian chief and refugee from his country, named Sokol Baco. This fine old fellow, standing well over six feet, looked fifty instead of his sixty-five years, and had an equally interesting past. As a youth he had fought in many battles for the Turks, and was eventually selected with five other young men of high standing for the personal bodyguard of the Sultan. While on leave, which he was spending in his Albanian home, the order came for the disarming of the whole of Albania. Sokol's tribe refused, as did most of these warlike clans, though Sokol advised obedience. But his clan remained obdurate, and he was placed in the awkward predicament of being either considered a traitor by his countrymen or by his Sovereign. Sokol threw in his lot with his clan, and led them in battle against a Turkish force; but though he fought like a lion, the clan were defeated, and he was forced to fly. For many years Sokol lived in the Albanian mountains, half robber and wholly patriot; but the pursuit became too keen, and he came to Podgorica, where he entered the service of Prince Nicolas. His new Prince he serves loyally, and is highly esteemed in Montenegro, where he will doubtless end his days.
While still comparatively new to the country, we once went for a week's shooting to the Lake of Scutari. Water-fowl abound there in marvellous numbers, consisting chiefly of crane, heron, thousands of duck, and a fair number of pelicans.
We had selected the island of Vranjina for our headquarters, known in history as the site of a famous treaty signed there between the Montenegrins and Venetians in the first half of the fifteenth century. It lies at the north or Montenegrin end of the lake.
As we were given to understand that we could drive to the lake, or at least to the River Moraca, and thence take boat to the island, we loaded our carriage with ample luggage. With our guide's usual and admirable mismanagement, we were landed after a two hours' drive on the banks of the Moraca, unable to get further without the carriage toppling down a steep bank into the rapid river. The driver unceremoniously bundled our traps on to the ground and drove happily off. The only person in sight was a diminutive girl, whom the guide promptly impressed into our service, and an appalling load was heaped upon her. Then a small boy appeared, and so we were able to make another start. The day was exceedingly hot, but we got some shooting to make up for it. We crossed the river in a crazy ferry, found some men, and later on a boat, and reached the famous village of Zabljak about one o'clock. The village is still overlooked by a formidable fortress, but in the rude collection of huts it was hard to see the ancient capital of Montenegro, the home of the famous Black Prince dynasty.
One of the most wretched inns that it was our lot to find in Montenegro received us and our baggage. The village of course turned out to inspect us, and watched us eat our meal with interest. It was of the usual kind, consisting of eggs, raw ham, eggs, and dessert of more hard-boiled eggs, washed down with a remarkably sour wine.
After this repast we retired for a short nap into the room beyond. P. was tired and got on one bed, but I, displaying more caution, lifted the pillow before I trusted myself to the arms of Morpheus. My fore-sight was rewarded better than I deserved, and I had P. off his bed in the twinkling of an eye. As an explanation which his threatening attitude demanded at once, I silently lifted his pillow. It likewise teemed with life, and we postponed our post-prandial slumbers till a more fitting occasion.
At the foot of the village the Moraca flowed past, now a formidable and swiftly running river. We were amused to see several oxen driven into it, and swim serenely to the opposite bank.
Only one small canoe could be found for us, which would ordinarily hold one man besides the two paddlers, with comfort. Into it were crowded three men and a quantity of baggage. In addition, it leaked, and periodically we were turned out on to a muddy and marshy bank while the canoe was bailed out.
This end of the lake is very curious, a series of natural canals run in all directions through vast swamps which only afford foothold in the height of summer. The thrifty peasants utilise the dry season to plant fields of maize, for the scorching sun dries these swamps in a very short space of time. In the winter or early spring, they are nearly or quite under water. As the lake is reached, small islands of dense willow trees grow out of the water, and in these islands are vast colonies of waterfowl. The effect is decidedly pretty, but very irritating to the sportsman, as the birds hide in the centre, and it is nearly impossible to force one's way in, even by wading.
We reached our destination, a little chapel with a house for the priest adjoining it, locally termed a "manastir," built on a rather high and conical hill on the south end of the island of Vranjina. The view from the chapel, as we afterwards found, was superb. The whole lake spreads out in its vast expanse. Scutari, or rather the hill behind which it lies, can be seen dimly in the distance. To the right, the Lovcen and the Rumija rear their lofty heads, and divide the lake from the Adria beyond. Away to the left the rugged snow-clad Albanian Alps stretch as far as the eye can see, piling themselves up in a wild and grand confusion. Several green submerged willow islands lay at our feet, round which crowds of snow-white cranes were circling. Such was our view as we reached the plateau in front of the chapel that evening, tired, hungry, and irritated, but still appreciative.
The priest, or "pop," clad in the national costume, as indeed are all the country clergy, and only distinguishable from his wild-looking parishioners by his uncut hair and beard (the Greek Church do not allow their ministers to cut their hair or beards), met us in a friendly manner, but absolutely refused to take us in at first. He said he had absolutely nothing in the house but a little goat's cheese, and no beds. However, we were desperate; to go to the village meant another hour's cramp in the canoe, and perhaps no better accommodation than here. Here we would stay, and starve.
By dint of much persuasion, the priest produced a mattress, and a man was sent down to the village to procure anything that he could find, and so we stayed in the monastery a week, and really enjoyed ourselves. We used to go out shooting at daybreak in canoes with two paddles apiece, and again in the evening, for the heat was overpowering about midday.
The method of fishing here is distinctly interesting. A large number are required to work the net, but they make enormous hauls. The procedure is as follows: One large boat is anchored near the shore and made fast to trees, and a huge net is taken out and spread in a circle, the ends being kept in the stationary boat. Two men, naked, stand a few feet from the boat in the water, keeping the sides of the net down and preventing the escape of fish as the circle is gradually narrowed by the men in the boat slowly pulling it in. The last bit requires their united efforts, for it is full of fish, some of considerable size. At the conclusion of the "haul" one of the men chose two of the largest fish and threw them into my canoe as a present; as thanks I lent my tobacco-tin, which they gratefully emptied.
Montenegrins carry tobacco in a tin and roll their own cigarettes; no other form of smoking is known amongst them, except the tchibouque by some of the older men, a relic of Turkish times. The tobacco is excellent, being often equal to the best Turkish, and ridiculously cheap.
We owe these worthy fisherfolk thanks for having given us one of the finest moonlight effects that it has ever been our lot to witness. We were returning home late one evening in our canoes, and as we rounded a corner of the island we came suddenly on their encampment. The men in their ragged but artistic costumes were sitting round numerous camp-fires cooking their evening meal on the bank, which sloped gently upwards, an old ruined fortress or "kula" forming a background.
As we gazed the moon came slowly over the brow of the intervening hill, illuminating the scene with its soft and silvery radiance, blending fantastically with the ruddy flames of the fires. Cooking-pots steamed and bubbled, and one group of men broke into an old Montenegrin fighting song, the water of the vast lake sparkled and danced in the distance, and we felt that only we and this rough group of fishermen were alive in the world.
It was an idyllic life that we led during our stay at Vranjina, though every comfort known to civilisation was lacking. We lived as did the hardy fishermen of the island, and a hard life it proved to be. The heat, however, was something tremendous, quite precluding any exertion from ten in the morning till the late afternoon. We had even in the early morning to use the greatest care to keep our necks and arms covered from the scorching rays of the sun, for bad blisters and burns were the sure reward of carelessness. The concussion of rapid shooting combined with the heat often brought on headaches so violent that to fire another cartridge was exquisite torture. One thing we did not suffer from, and that was loneliness.
The news of our visit spread to all the neighbouring villages, and we had a constant stream of visitors. Our swim, which we took after our early morning shoot in a delightfully cool spot, where a spring bubbled into the lake, was invariably witnessed by a group of fishermen, and very much amused they were too over our hair-brushes, soap, and other toilet articles.
They sometimes ascribed powers of healing to us, and were evidently quite distressed when we endeavoured to impress upon them our entire ignorance of medicine. Once a man insisted on baring his leg and showing me a horrible wound which would not heal.
Another time the school was marched out from the village of Vranjina, probably to have an object-lesson in geography. Doubtless the boys, after having seen real live Englishmen, would henceforth display an intelligent interest in the position of the British Isles. They came and spent a morning with us, and the young teacher, who spoke good Italian, asked us many questions, such as a young child asks his father, and equally difficult at times to answer.
Our messing arrangements were of the simplest, raw ham and eggs forming the staple food. We bought a lamb once, but it only lasted one meal, as everyone developed an extraordinary appetite—the parson, Lazo our servant, and all the men in the vicinity.
When we left we had the blessing of our worthy priest and fervent invitations to return again soon from some of the fishermen. One of the men took a great fancy to us, urging us to come to his house in Vranjina then and there, and "we would," he said, "drink gallons of wine," going on next day. "At any rate," he said, as we gently refused, "let us have a big drink together when ye come again."
We arranged our return to Podgorica ourselves, and got back within five hours, shooting a fine pelican on the way, which was the last shot that we fired on the Lake of Scutari.
Stephan our servant—Virpazar—The drive over the Sutormann Pass—Antivari and Prstan—The beauty of the bay—We are delayed by contrary winds—We are rowed to Dulcigno—We make the acquaintance of Marko Ivankovic—A story concerning him—We shoot together—An episode on a lake—Vaccination—The Turkish inhabitants.
For our journey to the sea-coast towns of Antivari (Bar) and Dulcigno (Ulcinj) we deemed it advisable to take a servant with us, and our choice fell on Stephan, a Hungarian by birth, but a ten years' sojourn in the Land of the Black Mountain had completely Montenegrinised him, if we may coin a word. As he was our constant companion for several months, it would be well to describe him.
Every statement that Stephan made had to be liberally discounted—this we found out afterwards—for he was a born liar, and not a skilful one at that. He had one marvellous story about a large sum of money lying in his name in a bank in Hungary, which he must fetch in person, but he could never save enough money to make the journey. This was an obvious falsehood. But the story of his coming to Montenegro seemed true. He was a sergeant of an Austrian infantry regiment, and had attempted to cut down his superior officer in a fit of rage, severing his ear with a sabre. He fled to the Montenegrin border, which was quite close to his garrison, and has been in Montenegro ever since, wearing the national costume and married to a girl of the country. Stephan was certainly a most violent-tempered man, but he was often entertaining, full of fun, a decent cook, and could sing a host of odd songs and snatches picked up in Austrian garrison towns. Otherwise he was a thorough Montenegrin, though he considered himself vastly their superior. His temper at other times would be vile, but the mastery over himself was really great, and after a sharp remonstrance he could change his mood completely.
Taking the omnibus of the Anglo-Montenegrin Trading Company, rudely dubbed "the Hearse," to Plavnica, the station for Podgorica on the Lake of Scutari, we transferred our luggage to a huge barge, or "londra," and were slowly punted out on to the lake through one of those extraordinary canals which intersect the marshy land at this end of the lake. There the good ship Danitza, owned by the same company, awaited us, and conveyed us to Virpazar, past our island of Vranjina and its little chapel.
Virpazar is the scene of the Montenegrin Vespers in 1702, and one of the richest villages in the district. Prettily situated up a long estuary of the lake, it is nothing but a collection of about twenty small houses, with arched ground floors, the people living on the first floor. The village is frequently flooded in the winter.
The importance of this village lies in the fact that it is the connecting link—and a very bad one at that—between the rest of Montenegro and the sea. But no road connects it with the mainland, and travellers from Cetinje or Podgorica must take the steamer from either Rijeka or Plavnica to Virpazar, and from thence a good road leads over the Sutormann Pass to Antivari. A road which is being built between Virpazar and Rijeka will supply a long-felt want. At present, when the Prince or Crown Prince wish to visit their favourite residence on the sea at Topolica, near Antivari, the horses have to be sent by a roundabout mountain path from Rijeka, taking many hours, while the Princes take steamer and have a tedious wait in the inn at Virpazar.
To this inn we went—there was no choice about it; it is the only one, and, moreover, there is but a single room for guests, serving as dining and sleeping apartment. Though we arrived at midday, we had to wait till the following day at noon for the postcart—twenty-four hours in this very uninteresting hole.
But we hobnobbed with the local grandees, for there is the district law court here (the captain and magistrate have their residences in the village), and managed to pass the time fairly agreeably. In the evening we sat under the trees in front of our humble yet princely hostel, and talked of many things to our newly made friends. The frogs in the marshes made a terrific noise, almost drowning our conversation.
Next morning we entered the post-chaise, in which we had wisely booked all the four seats, and made a start on our six hours' drive. What would have happened had other travellers arrived is hard to imagine. A wait of forty-eight hours till the next post went would have probably caused annoyance, and this carriage was literally the only means of conveyance on this side of Montenegro. It goes one day and returns the next. Fortunately, passengers are extremely rare. The drive was of great interest, winding up in a series of sweeping curves between magnificent hills. The ridge on our left was the site of a great battle in the last war, when a small Montenegrin force dislodged a large Turkish army and captured Antivari and the long-coveted sea. The danger and recklessness of the feat was apparent from the road, and it was evidently not expected by the Turks, for a false step on those rocky heights meant certain death.
The top of the Sutormann Pass (2,700 feet) was reached in about four hours, and now the deep blue Adria was spread out before us, and our tortuous descent commenced. Commanding the pass still stands a mighty but much-battered fortress, taken by the gallant Montenegrins in that memorable battle. But nowhere could the historical old town and fortress of Bar, or Antivari, be seen. In fact, not till we were within a few hundred yards of the town, was a single house in view. It is hidden from sight in a hollow, surrounded by a forest of olive trees.
All of a sudden the carriage drew up at a recently built stone house, ornamented with the trophies of war. Piles of cannon-balls, old cannon, splinters of shells are tastefully arranged on the walls. Immediately in front of us stood the once famous fortress of Bar, now a shot-riddled and ruined mass of stone, a mere shell of its former strength.
Even then the town is hardly apparent, but in a few seconds one enters it down a steep and slippery path of well-worn stones. On either side are Turkish bazaars, out of which Turkish faces peer at the infidel dogs. There is very little of the Montenegrin element apparent. We only walked through the town once, as our destination was Prstan, the actual seaport of Antivari.
We were somewhat rudely disillusioned. After an hour's drive along a flat and ugly road, we espied a collection of some half a dozen houses. Two or three of them are large and modern in appearance but that was all. Was this, then, Antivari, Montenegro's important seaport and the bone of contention with Austria?
Right well has Austria maintained its control of this little port. One large house is that of the Austrian Vice-Consul, who lives in solitary state, watching everyone who passes through the port. Opposite, on the further horn of the bay, lies Spizza, an Austrian military station. Antivari is, indeed, but Montenegrin in name.
Right on the shore and in the centre of the large bay stands a white house, a short distance from the Austrian frontier, which is Topolica, the favourite residence of the Crown Prince. Square, undecorated, and uninteresting, it is almost an exact counterpart of the other Montenegrin royal residences. Yet its position is superb. From either corner of the bay, where the mountains meet the sea, stretches an unbroken chain of mountain peaks, rugged and forbidding, but extremely picturesque. Witnessed at sunset when the soft lights mellow the sharp outlines, and the sombreness of the mountains is tinged with red, the fascination which this place holds for this lover of nature, Prince Danilo, can be well understood. We spent two days revelling in its wild solitariness.
Our hotel was distinctly quaint, but we were very comfortable. Again we had but one room for all, but it was clean, and the hostess, an Austrian, an excellent cook.
We hoped to have started on our further journeys the following day, and found a small sailing vessel anchored in the bay; the captain consenting to take us on to Dulcigno. It was an Albanian boat, manned by about half a dozen cut-throats, and in spite of warnings we arranged to leave next day. Anything would be preferable to a ride of eight hours over mountain tracks on mules to Dulcigno; and we were all well armed.
But the next day brought contrary winds, and we were forced to spend another day in Prstan. That day a large Italian steamer arrived and anchored in the bay, to take Prince Nicolas to Italy for the christening of his little granddaughter. Shortly before dark he arrived, attended by two adjutants, and after speaking a few words to the harbour captain, who respectfully kissed his hand, embarked in a boat, and was pulled on board the steamer. We were again struck with the immense breadth of his figure, clad in a long, grey military overcoat, which makes him look much shorter than he really is. He is really a typical-looking prince of a race of freeborn mountaineers. As he receded from the shore, we drew our revolvers and joined in the parting fusillade, shouting "Zivio" as lustily as any of the little handful who had awaited him.
The agent of the Austrian Lloyd Steamship Company came to our rescue on the following morning, as the Albanian boat made no preparations for starting, and offered to take us in his own boat to Dulcigno. This we gladly accepted, and about midday started in his large and roomy boat, built for sailing or for rowing, and manned by four Montenegrin sailors.
The wind failed us most of the way, and our four men propelled us with long oars or sweeps which are worked standing up and facing them, a method of rowing common in the Adriatic. It is a splendid exercise, but like everything else it wants practice, as we speedily found out when we took a turn.
Coffee, without which no true Montenegrin can exist, was made en route, and proved highly acceptable.
Luckily we had taken a supply of food with us, though we had been told that we should be in Dulcigno for supper, and this again we devoured with ravenous appetites as the long hours wore on. The coast was monotonous, a never-varying bank of hills descending to the water's edge. Here and there a tiny village could be seen, but otherwise no life, and little vegetation.
Not till nine o'clock in the evening did we reach Dulcigno, and the impression that the lights in the houses on the hillsides made is not easily to be forgotten. It seemed like a colony of spacious and luxurious villas on well-wooded slopes. In pitch dark we arrived at a quay, and groped our way out of the boat, and were led to the inn. Great knockings and shoutings summoned the innkeeper from his early slumbers. While waiting in the darkness below, the Turkish muezzins ascended the many minarets, and began the evening call to prayer. The weird chanting from so many voices (there are seven mosques in Dulcigno) in the otherwise utter stillness had a most uncanny effect.
It was a strange arrival.
Our inn was slightly less primitive than the preceding ones. We had a tiny bedroom apiece, and there was a room downstairs for eating purposes, though we were always able to take our meals outside under the trees.
Dulcigno, or Ulcinj, is certainly the prettiest town in Montenegro, though it is to all intents and purposes Turkish in appearance. Built partly on a hill overlooking the sea, it descends into a small bay where the occasional passing steamers anchor. Well wooded and hilly, it is really a delightful spot, though the Turkish element may or may not detract from its beauty according to personal taste. The irregular houses, the mosques with their slender towers, the bazaar, and the gaily-dressed if dirty crowds that circulated between the rows of shops—gave a distinctly pleasing effect. The heavily-veiled women, wearing in addition to the veil a thick cloth cape with a capacious hood, amused us greatly, for on meeting us, lest our bold eyes should pierce their disguise, they would stop and turn their faces to the wall. What these poor creatures suffer from the heat in these ponderous cloaks can only be imagined, and Dulcigno is by no means cold.
Though the fantastic picture conjured up the night of our arrival by the twinkling lights, peeping out of the dark foliage, on the hillside was not realised, still the entirely different picture of the reality was equally pleasing.
We called the next morning on the harbour captain, an Austrian and ex-sea-captain, who received us most kindly and courteously. Through him we were at once able to make the acquaintance of one Marko Ivankovic, a hunter of great prowess, whom we immediately engaged to attend us for the shooting in the neighbourhood.
Now, though we will not go so far as to say that he was the sole object of our visit to Dulcigno, still he did certainly influence our plans. Once, during our very first stay at Podgorica, we met an Austrian ornithologist and sportsman who told us a wonderful experience of his at Dulcigno with this very man, Marko Ivankovic. He had come to Dulcigno one night by steamer, to spend a few months in this paradise for sportsmen, and as he entered a lowly inn, a man of almost repellent aspect sat brooding gloomily, evidently lost in a fit of abstraction. This man gave no greeting to the new-comer, who sat down at the further end of the table and ordered food. Shortly afterwards the man rose and silently left the room. An hour later this same man reappeared in the doorway, cap in hand, and humbly asked permission of the ornithologist to seat himself at the same table. The permission was readily given, and the man (it was Marko) came near and attempted to kiss L.'s coat. This action signifies the greatest humility, and is only accorded to persons of the highest rank. L. remonstrated strongly, saying—
"Why dost thou kiss my coat? I am a man like thyself, and no prince. What wouldst thou from me?"
"Sir, I see that thou art a hunter (L. had his dogs with him), and I would fain be thy servant."
L. wanted a man, and from his conversation he soon gathered that this was no inexperienced huntsman, and so they spoke of terms. But Marko at first would not hear of anything of the sort, saying he would serve for nothing. Naturally L. refused to accept his services gratis, and at last an arrangement was made that Marko should first prove his capabilities and serve a term of probation. Even then Marko refused to take money, but a present of a gun or some article to the value of his services at so much a day.
With this plan L. was forced to be content, and two days afterwards the expeditions into the neighbouring country were commenced. To tell the story in L.'s own words:—
"After we had been together some weeks Marko became gloomy and cast down, unlike his usual merry self. It was no easy task to persuade him to tell me what was the matter. It appeared that he was in debt, and should not the money be paid very shortly, his house and all that was his would be seized. Of course I gave him the money, which happened to be more than his due up to that day, and he took it as a loan. This condition he insisted on, and I laughingly assented."
It was then that we first heard of Achmed Uiko, who told us the story of his life in Podgorica. Jovan, of the tribe Kuc, had been publicly beaten in Dulcigno at this time, and in revenge had shot the Governor, who had ordered this ignominious punishment. Jovan had fled to Alessio, in Albania, with a price upon his head, and certain persons came to Marko to beg him to follow the assassin and bring back his head. Marko was then in L.'s service, and confided his dilemma to his master, who told him that if he but harboured such thoughts he was not fit to be his servant. Marko then refused, and Achmed Uiko accepted, murdering Jovan in a boat while fishing, and the head was subsequently displayed in Dulcigno. This is a noteworthy episode, for it led to the abolition of corporal punishment and of the barbarous custom of displaying heads on poles.
[Footnote 2: This story was published in the Wide World Magazine, and is reproduced with the Editor's permission.]
To return, however, to the story:—
"After several weeks I made a day's tour with Marko to the Bojana. At the mouth of the river, which you know is the outlet of the Lake of Scutari, a large island has been formed by a stranded ship which sank there, and all the debris, logs, and other rubbish have formed a delta of some size upon the wreck. It abounds in game, and thither we journeyed one morning early, reaching it some few hours later by a small boat in which we ferried ourselves across. During the day a great storm sprang up, precluding all chance of returning to the mainland that evening. In a hut of boughs we spent a miserable night, drenched to the skin by the incessant rain. Not till towards evening of the following day could we recross, and it was bright moonlight when we commenced our weary tramp, heavily laden and wet, to Dulcigno. The neighbourhood is dangerous, both Albanians and Montenegrins shoot at sight, and care must always be exercised.
"Perhaps we had covered half the distance, when Marko suddenly and without a word of warning threw the bags and other things he was carrying to the ground. 'It is a dog's life, nay worse, that I lead with thee. My health is ruined, my clothes spoilt, and not a kreutzer do I get.'
"I was furious at the man's infamous lie, for he was still several guldens to the good, and even more so at the disadvantage he had taken over me. Here we were alone in a wild and dangerous district, miles from home, and not a human being near.
"'Thou liest, thou ungrateful dog. Thou art an ass without a face.'
"As I said this in my rage—it is a terrible insult to call a man a faceless ass—Marko's face was transformed with speechless fury. His high cheek-bones and black curly hair always made him unprepossessing, for his was a distinctly negro type of face, and now with his lips drawn back like a snarling wolf, disclosing his yellow teeth and gleaming eyeballs, he looked like a fiend incarnate. I shudder now when I recall that moonlit scene.
"His hand dropped like lightning on the butt of his revolver, but in the moment I had sprung back a pace and covered him with my gun, which I was luckily carrying cocked.
"'Thy hand from the revolver,' I cried, 'or thou art a dead man.' Slowly his hand sank to his side. 'Pick up those things at once and carry them before me, or as sure as there is a God in heaven I will shoot thee like the dog thou art.'
"As if every movement was of the greatest exertion he picked up the traps, saying as he did so, 'Thou shalt remember these insults.'
"'Be still!' I cried, covering him with my gun, 'and now precede me.'
"And in this fashion we returned to my house. He threw the load into a corner of the room, and at the door he returned and repeated his warning, vanishing in the darkness.
"From this time onwards I shot alone. Try as I would I could get no one to come with me, and this I put down to the worthy Marko's influence. Thrice I saw him while out shooting, but only once within speaking distance. I then called to him 'Marko, I know thou wilt try and kill me; but listen, I am married and have a wife and child at home. For their sakes I ask thee to shoot at me from the front, and thus give me a chance to defend myself.'
"He smiled strangely again, saying, 'Thou wilt remember thy insults,' and disappeared.
"I always took cover when I saw him, but nothing happened, and the eve of my departure arrived. The steamer left in the early morning, and just as dawn was breaking and I was still in bed Marko entered the room. He approached my bed, and laid upon the table by my head the sum of money I had advanced him to repay his debt. Then he spoke:—
"'I saidst that thou wouldst remember the insults thou hast put upon me. Here is thy money, and now listen to my story. Thou hadst scarce set foot in Dulcigno when thy death was planned by an enemy, and I was hired to do the deed. That was why I would take no wages, for I was already well paid; besides, it was thought that thou wouldst then certainly engage my services. I was to accidentally shoot thee while hunting. What more easy than to stumble and for my gun to explode? But when I knew thee, then I could not kill thee thus. I tried to provoke thee that night, knowing thee to be a violent-tempered man; I provoked thee into insulting me. I hoped thou wouldst have struck me, and then it would have been easy. Thou wast very near death at that moment, for in spite of thy gun I could have shot thee, but thou hadst grown too much into my heart. Even in my rage I was powerless. And now here is thy money. I have kept my word, and am an honourable man.'
"I sprang from my bed and stopped him. 'Who was my enemy?' I cried.
"'One who knew thee in Bosnia. This man had hoped that thou wouldst visit him, and thy coffee was ready poisoned. When I left thy service another man was hired to kill thee, but I followed thee wherever thou went. Thus didst thou see me these three times.'
"I knew now who my enemy was. A man exiled by the Austrians for treasonable practices whilst I was still an official in Bosnia. Marko accompanied me to the ship, but not until I swore on my honour to otherwise throw the money into the sea would he accept it, and then only that which he had actually earned, not a kreutzer more, for I would have willingly made him a present. Thus Marko Ivankovic went out of my life, but I shall never forget him."
Such was the story we heard one evening in Podgorica, and which we were here able to prove in part. When Marko heard that we were friends of his former master, his face lighted up with joy, and he kissed our hands. During our stay he was always with us, a devoted attendant and servant. Another very interesting phase of his life had been spent in the Hercegovina, where he fought as an outlaw for many years against the Austrians. He still possesses two mementoes of his adventures in that land, one in the form of an officer's undress jacket, technically called a "blouse," and the other of a more permanent character, namely, a maimed hand. He and his band were surprised one night by gendarmes, and a fierce hand-to-hand fight ensued, during which an Austrian aimed a cut at Marko with his sword. Marko caught the blow on his hand and held the blade fast, but the gendarme drew back the weapon sharply and severed all the tendons of his hand. Marko cannot now open his hand, but his wounder was sped to the happy hunting-grounds there and then, as he modestly relates.
Shooting of the same kind as on the Lake of Scutari is to be found in abundance all round Dulcigno. Unfortunately the Bojana and the afore-mentioned island at its mouth was closed to us. The evening of our arrival two men had been shot there, and it is doubtful, even had we insisted on going, whether the authorities would have permitted it. It is not good to visit localities just after shooting affrays. In this instance the peasants on both sides were excited, and we reluctantly gave up the trip to which we had looked forward for some time. However, there was plenty left to shoot over, and we had much good sport with pelican, duck, and crane.