One rather unpleasant incident occurred during our stay, which very nearly ended seriously.
The lakes and swamps over which we shot lay at about an hour and a half's walk from the town, and it was necessary to be there by daybreak. We had ordered our paddlers to await us one morning at dawn, and on our arrival were considerably annoyed to find no one there but a boy. After a short wait we started, taking the boy and the larger londra, or canoe, Marko and Stephan paddling as well. A longer delay would have spoilt our morning, as the fowl disappear long before the sun is well up in the heavens. About an hour later we discerned a boat paddling furiously towards us, and, coming alongside, the inmates proved to be our missing crew. Seizing our canoe, the spokesman addressed our boy, abusing him roundly, saying he had stolen his canoe, and demanded the paddles peremptorily. The boy looked at us helplessly, and naturally refused, for we were in the middle of a lake. The man then became livid with rage, rocked our canoe violently, threatening to overturn us into the water. Then his hand dropped on his revolver, and in his face appeared unmistakably the lust to kill. All this passed so quickly that we had listened to the altercation in open-mouthed astonishment. The rage and violence took us utterly by surprise, for nothing of the kind had ever happened to us before from the naturally courteous Montenegrins. However, now the man's rage communicated itself to us, and in the twinkling of an eye both Marko and myself had covered him with our firearms—we both had guns at our side—and Stephan began to talk. Stephan was a violent-tempered man, and now he let himself go. He spoke for some minutes, and it was lurid. The muzzle of my carbine began to wobble, for his fluency and comprehensiveness were distinctly amusing, while our attacker, who soon let go the butt of his revolver, listened with pained but undisguised admiration. "And now, thou accursed one," wound up Stephan, after he had paid attention, in his burst of eloquence, to the man's family, antecedents, personal appearance, and probable future, "go back to the hotel, and await my master's return! Thou knowest the law. For even laying the hand on thy revolver in anger, and against strangers in our land, thou wilt be thrown into prison, and thou wilt receive ten months. I will come and see thee, and listen to the music of thy clanking chains, and we will talk of to-day's doings!" By the time Stephan had finished, abject fear was depicted on the man's face, and his companions showed signs of having heard enough. Murmuring apologies, they sheered off, and with a slow and thoughtful rhythm paddled back the way they had come.
On our return to the inn several hours later the three men were standing stiffly outside the door, cap in hand and thoroughly scared. He who had attacked us spoke tremblingly, offering as an excuse that they had fished all night and had but gone for some food before taking us out again. They were direly poor, he said, and the fear of losing their wages had upset them, the long night without sleep had destroyed their powers of reasoning, and—would we forgive them for the dastardly outrage? Needless to say we dismissed them, as do the magistrates, with a caution.
We met amongst other Montenegrin officials the district doctor, an interesting man of varied experience. At his invitation we witnessed the annual vaccination, which is compulsory in Montenegro.
Outside the door of the principal mosque the doctor and his assistants and some other officials took up their position one morning and waited. Shortly afterwards crowds of children appeared on the scene, mostly in charge of their Turkish fathers or elder brothers, some of the latter scarcely able to carry their little burdens. Very rarely a Turkish mother appeared, closely veiled, but the Christian mothers invariably came; that is, the Albanian Christians from the outlying villages. Very quaint are these women in a most picturesque costume and carrying their infants in a cumbersome and unwieldy cradle slung on their backs. It was a very varied assortment of babies which was presented to the doctor, many of the Turkish children being so emaciated and such a mass of repulsive sores, that many were sent away as too weak. Most of them shrieked with fear, but a few came up smiling, one and all comforted by their protector, either Turk, child, or fond mother. The fathers invariably showed the most distressed concern. It was a comical sight; outside the rails a motley crowd of interested spectators and waiting children, and in the inclosure the doctor pricking his patients one after the other in a most indifferent manner. His clerk noted the names, and we, with some of the local grandees, drank tiny cups of coffee and looked on.
The Albanian or Turkish element is very strong in Dulcigno, and they are the only Montenegrin subjects exempt from compulsory military service. The Montenegrin authorities told us that they were very peaceable and industrious, giving no trouble whatever. It is, after Podgorica, the largest town in Montenegro, and does a lot of trade in small sailing-boats down the coast. As many as seventy-five per cent of the men are usually away at sea, carrying the Montenegrin flag as far as Constantinople. It is quite cut off from the rest of Montenegro, except by a mule track connecting it over a difficult mountain path with Antivari and the rest of the country. By sea it is connected by the Austrian-Lloyd weekly Albanian Line, and by one or two smaller steamers which occasionally call there, with Cattaro and the Albanian coast towns.
We ride to Scutari—The Albanian Customs officials—We suffer much from Turkish saddles—Arrival at Scutari, and again pass the Customs—"Buon arrivato"—Scutari and its religious troubles—The town and bazaar—A slight misunderstanding, Yes and No—We return to Rijeka by steamer—The beauties of the trip—Wrong change—The prodigal son's return, when the fatted calf is not killed.
Before we left Dulcigno it was necessary to have our passports vised by the Turkish Consul, as we intended returning to Podgorica via Scutari. We had to go through a lot of tedious formality, though the Consul was a most pleasant man, and laughed at the precautions which his orders forced him to take. But as he supplied us with horses and an escort—for the path is considered somewhat dangerous—we resigned ourselves to the inevitable with a good grace. Our guns and carbines we were forced to send back to Podgorica with Stephan, as the law is very strict against the introduction of firearms into Albania, where, however, even the poorest peasant goes fully armed. But as strangers our weapons would have been confiscated on the border. Verily the ways of the Turk are passing strange.
We made a start at four o'clock one morning just as the sun was appearing above the hills, and the day promised to be extremely hot. Our horses were fairly good, and the man who constituted our guard, an Albanian, seemed a pleasant fellow, which much belied his appearance. A more villainous-looking face, with half his teeth missing, could hardly be imagined. However, the whole way he rolled us cigarettes most industriously, rarely taking one from us. Our saddles were Turkish, and were our first experience of them, and, it is to be hoped, the last.
The high road, or rather path, to Scutari, is considered good for Montenegro. In reality it is a mere track, in places paved with cobblestones atrociously laid. It is odd that many important districts in this country are entirely unconnected by roads with the neighbouring towns, and consequently such things as carriages do not exist. As an instance, the whole of the country lying beyond Rijeka towards the sea, containing two important towns, and in size about an eighth of Montenegro, possesses one short road—from Virpazar to Antivari—and one carriage.
Our path lay for the first three hours through a richly vegetated country, and the scenery at times was quite English, owing to the amount of oak trees which overhang the path. But at nearly every open space was a Turkish graveyard. The indiscriminate way in which the Turks bury their dead is most extraordinary.
We reached the River Bojana, and rode along the bank some time before we came to the ferry. It is a broad and swiftly flowing river of quite imposing size. The heat was now getting tremendous, and a friendly Albanian picking apricots on the roadside gave us many handfuls, which proved very acceptable.
Two Albanians came across in a large barge in answer to our hail, and we and our horses—the latter, by the way, stepping into the barge most unconcernedly—were piloted across. Here we entered Albania, and were examined by a fierce-looking Customs official. He turned our baggage out on to a mat, and evidently meant to overhaul it thoroughly, when a few Daily Graphics caught his eye. After that he dismissed the remainder of our things with a wave of the hand, which our men promptly repacked, and retired into the papers. A lot of other men came up, and we were pleased to afford so much delight with our illustrated journals.
As we were drinking coffee in the very primitive inn, a heavy thunderstorm came on, and deluges of rain, keeping us here for about an hour, when it cleared up sufficiently to proceed. Our landlord at Dulcigno had packed us up a meal with a bottle or two of wine at our orders, and we, now being hungry, inspected the basket. It was, to put it mildly, distinctly disappointing, and not fit to eat or drink. Added to this, my hunting knife was stolen, and we were very glad to get on again.
The rest of the ride was the reverse of monotonous. The path was now as slippery as grease, and our horses floundered at every other step, and at times we plashed through quagmires, and became bespattered from head to foot. Several men passed us with rifles slung over their shoulders, but interchanged salutations with our guard. With the exception of one small revolver, we were unarmed and practically helpless. A short time after our ride through this district, a stranger was killed. It is very unfair to refuse foreigners the permission to carry any arms through such dangerous parts, when it is considered a disgrace to go unarmed by the inhabitants. Our saddles, too, were beginning to cause us much discomfort. After the first few hours on a Turkish saddle, every movement of the horse becomes agony.
We reached the outskirts of Scutari about seven hours after our start, and the town is entered by a great bridge. But before coming to the bridge we rode through a great assembly of Albanians, judging from their different costumes, from every part of the country, with their flocks and herds for the market. The men were lying about singly or in groups, sometimes under a rough tent, while the women attended to their wants and to the flocks. Each man was heavily armed with rifle and revolver, and turned lazily as we passed, with no friendly looks, plainly intimating that we were intruders. Still they were fine, fierce-looking men, though their expression is not nearly so prepossessing as that of the Montenegrin. It was a strange scene of life, but only one of many that abound in and about the capital of Albania.
At the bridge we had to dismount and cross on foot, and a very painful operation it proved after so many hours in the saddle.
The custom-house was situated immediately at the other end of the bridge, and here we entered. In the guard-house, full of disreputable-looking Turkish soldiers, were hung rifles and revolvers on nails in great number and variety, which the mountaineers have to leave on entering the town precincts. The custom-house official was peacefully sleeping when we came in, and had to be awakened. We were led to a divan, and cigarettes and coffee promptly brought to us while our passports were examined. In a quarter of an hour we were allowed to proceed, but a man came running after us saying that our baggage had not been examined. He gently hinted that he had no wish to examine it all if ..., and we understood. We forced a handful of backsheesh in his seemingly unwilling hand, and slowly, with many muttered exclamations, climbed into the saddles. We even did not scorn the friendly aid of a low wall, so painfully stiff were we.
A short ride round the once mighty and historical fortress of Scutari, past a ruined building liberally painted with white crosses, said to have been once the Cathedral, and where we had noticed that Christian Albanians piously crossed themselves on passing, led us to the famous bazaar.
It was not our first visit to Scutari (we had visited the town by steamer from Montenegro on several previous occasions), but as we clattered through the evil-smelling alleys filled with a surging mass of more or less unclean humanity, we were struck more forcibly than ever with the picture. At times our passage was blocked by the crowds, and misshapen figures and hideous faces would peer out of doors and shop windows at us, and swaggering Albanians would jostle each other, their belts for the most part empty, though many were armed in spite of the stringent rules to the contrary. Slowly we forged our way through this seething crowd, and emerged on the open road beyond, leading to the town proper, which lies about half-an-hour's distance away.
At the hotel we dismissed the man (and the horses), who remarked with a certain grimness, in Italian, "Buon arrivato," and we staggered into a meal which our eight-hour fast and torture had rendered extremely necessary.
Though Scutari, strictly speaking, does not belong to this account of Montenegro, it is still so interesting, being in former days part of Montenegro, that it deserves some mention.
The actual town is Mahometan, three-quarters of the inhabitants belonging to that faith; but as the surrounding mountains are all Christian, and it is the seat of the Roman Catholic Bishopric of Albania, religious feuds are common. The Christian Albanian belongs literally to the "Church Militant," and emphasises his feelings occasionally by throwing a dead pig into a mosque. On other occasions playful Albanians have been known to tie white cloths round a fez, thereby imitating the headgear of a Mahometan priest, and so parade through the town. Very naturally the Mahometans object to it, and trouble ensues. About a year ago Scutari was in a state of siege, and closed to trade for a fortnight.
The consular quarter of the town is really quite fine, and here all the rich merchants, of whom there are very many, live in large houses often beautifully fitted up and surrounded by a formidable wall. A street where such houses are situated is externally very gloomy, nothing to be seen but high walls pierced by massive gates. Behind those walls, however, are lovely gardens and imposing houses.
[Footnote 3: This has again happened since writing the above.]
The consulates are very much in evidence, with guards of splendid-looking Albanian kavasses. Politically only Austria and Italy are vitally interested in Albania, and these countries have large consular staffs and fine buildings and post offices.
Owing to the absence of the British Consul, we went to see the acting Vice-Consul, who is a Scutarine, and a very courteous gentleman. Like all the rich merchants of Scutari, he spoke Italian fluently, and through him we got an insight into the merchant houses. An extremely aged kavass, in the long white skirt or kirtle worn largely in Scutari, and with the British Arms emblazoned on his fez, respectfully kissed our hands, and we were told that he had been in English service for over forty years. But he could not speak a word of any language except Albanian.
The Vice-Consul placed another kavass at our disposal to accompany us on our explorations of the town, and gave him further permission to attend us on our proposed ride to Podgorica. This latter idea we were forced to give up ultimately, as the roads were considered too dangerous. As a matter of fact, a big shooting affray took place in the district through which we should have traversed a few days afterwards.
Quite one of the sights is Mr. Paget's house (of Paget's Horse fame), situated in the heart of the town. The clock tower affords a fine view, though the time that it keeps is startling to the new-comer. As is known, the Turks have a time of their own, which has a difference of four hours and a half to our time. It is misleading to get up at an early hour, say six o'clock, and find that it is already half-past ten. And again you feel you ought to be sleeping at one o'clock at night, till you remember that it is really only about eight o'clock.
In the bazaar of Scutari representatives of every clan in Albania can be seen, and each tribe has his distinctive dress, so that the variety of national costumes to be seen there can be imagined. The Scutarines are of course very much in evidence, clad in a jaunty sleeveless and magnificently-embroidered jacket, silk shirt, and enormous baggy breeches of black, and heavily pleated. How heavily pleated they are can be gathered when twenty to twenty-five yards of a kind of black alpaca are used for one pair of knee-breeches. White stockings and a red skull-cap—not the high Turkish fez—with a huge blue silk tassel reaching to the waist, complete the attire. Their women-folk look picturesque in a large scarlet cloak, with a hood half covering the face.
The student of Albanian costumes can make a complete study of the subject in Scutari, rendering a journey into the vast country beyond almost unnecessary.
We always took a camera with us, but with very poor results. It is against the Mahometan religion to be photographed, neither are photographers looked upon with pleasure. We did once plant our camera in the main street of the bazaar, to the great anger of a policeman who ordered us off, luckily after we had secured a picture.
When we were quite new to Scutari, it happened we were waiting for a boat to take us off to the steamer, when we were struck with a particularly fine old Scutariner in red fez and long flowing skirt. Through the medium of an interpreter, I politely asked the permission to take his picture. He solemnly nodded his head backwards, and I, rejoiced at so good a subject, hurriedly erected the stand. When I next glanced at him, his face was purple with rage, and he made a threatening movement. For a moment I was quite at a loss to understand the why and wherefore, until our interpreter hastily explained that it was against the old man's religion.
"But he said 'yes,'" I expostulated. "At least he nodded."
"That means 'no,'" said the interpreter.
"What does?" I demanded. "Saying 'yes,' or nodding it."
Then the man explained to me at some length, as I repacked my camera, that in the Orient to shake the head means "yes," and a nod—a quick elevation of the chin accompanied by a click of the tongue—is negative. This custom is largely adopted in Montenegro, particularly amongst the peasants, but even then we never quite knew if a shake of the head was meant in the Turkish or European sense. It is a confusing and irritating habit, and takes months to get accustomed to.
Visitors to Montenegro usually spend a day in Scutari, for the route by steamer is the only perfectly safe way of entering the town. Passengers by the steamer are not required to have their passports vised, if they state their intention to the official, who promptly boards the steamer on its arrival, to return by it next day. But names and particulars are carefully noted and laid before the Governor. During this particular visit, we were already well known to the Turkish officer in charge of this department, a pleasant little fellow, inordinately proud of his French which he had just learnt; but still he worried us greatly, calling daily and even sending obvious spies to find out how long we really meant to stay and our object. We tried to impress upon him that we had no base intentions on the town, and were really quite harmless individuals, but he remained friendlily suspicious till he bade farewell to us on board the little steamer Danitza.
It is about four hours to Plavnica, and the trip across the lake is very fine, surrounded as it is by magnificent mountains and dotted with tiny wooded islands along its northern bank. We did not disembark at Plavnica, the nearest point for Podgorica, but proceeded via Virpazar up the river to Rijeka, the final station of the steamer and connecting link with Cetinje. The voyage up to Rijeka is delightful, as the boat threads her way through a narrow channel between lofty green hills. It is a picture of as true sylvan beauty, peace and quiet, as can be found on many of the upper reaches of the Thames.
At Rijeka we waited in an inn for the carriage, which we had ordered by telegraph from Cetinje to take us back to Podgorica, and were startled to hear a revolver-shot fired in the village. Everyone was running excitedly to a certain small "dugan," or shop, and thither we also directed our steps and found a bleeding Montenegrin standing over a prostrate and insensible Turk.
What had happened was as follows. The Montenegrin had bought some tobacco from the Turk, and claimed to have been given two kreutzers (under a halfpenny) short in change, whereupon the Turk accused the other of having hidden it.
"Thou art a liar!" promptly cried the Montenegrin, and received a bullet in the thigh as an answer from the enraged Turk. Not seriously hurt, the Montenegrin, equally quickly, drew his revolver and, using it as a club, knocked the Turk insensible; in fact, he was thought to be dead. However, we afterwards heard that he had recovered.
Shortly afterwards we were spending a few days in Cetinje, and were again witnesses of the final act of another small drama which was enacted about this time.
One morning we saw about twenty Montenegrins brought into the town heavily chained, and on inquiry we were told the following story.
A young man, whom we will call Andreas to prevent confusion, had been for some time in Austria, and not finding work he returned to his village, named Ljubotin, half-way between Rijeka and Cetinje, or, to be more correct, just below the Bella Vista in the hollow. He arrived in the night, penniless and in a desperate condition, and waited outside his widowed mother's house till he saw that all the men, his relations, had left and gone to work in the fields. Entering the house he demanded money of his aged mother, who indignantly refused him—he seems to have been a bad lot altogether—and as he threatened to take it by force, she hurriedly called in the village kmet, or mayor, to protect her. But the kmet was also aged and infirm, and brought a young man with him. This young man remonstrated with Andreas, who was breaking open the chest, and said—
"Give me thy revolver."
"Thus I give it thee," answered Andreas, and drawing his revolver he shot the man dead.
Andreas then fled out of the house into the fields, and the murdered man's relations speedily gathered together and pursued him. They espied the fugitive running and fired at him, whereupon Andreas threw up his arms and fell to the ground. His pursuers thinking him dead, left him. Andreas was in reality shamming, and crawling through the bushes saw his uncle at work and promptly fired at him.
This time he met his deserts, for his uncle, unhurt, returned the compliment and shot him through the head.
These shots brought the original pursuers to the spot, and seeing Andreas dead, and shot by his uncle and not by them, they began abusing the old man for taking their lawful prey from them.
He bared his chest dramatically, saying that as he knew that the vendetta must continue, they should shoot him then and there and end the matter. But they would not, and going further found another relation of Andreas; this time a young man, and the pride of the family. They shot and wounded him slightly. He fired and mortally wounded one of his attackers, which was as far as they got.
The gendarmes had come and arrested them all, and these were the men of both sides, which we had seen that morning.
As we knew several of them personally, we were doubly interested.
Preparations for our tour in the Brda—We start—Where it is not good to be giddy—A trying ride—Our inn—Nocturnal episodes—The journey continued—Pleasant surroundings—The Montenegrin quart d'heure—Arrival in Kolasin—We meet the Governor—Visiting—The Band of Good Hope—The Crown Prince's birthday—We are ashamed.
The preparations for our tour through the mountainous districts of North-East Montenegro, known as the Brda, took a few days.
We had some difficulty about horses, though ultimately P. and I secured two good animals for ourselves, but the third, destined for the bulk of our baggage and Stephan, was a dilapidated apology for the equine race. As a matter of fact, it stood the trying journey in a remarkable manner.
Then there were a few pots and pans for cooking purposes to purchase, some necessary additions with which to supplement our humble fare, and two days' rations of meat and bread.
It made a formidable pile when we reviewed it one morning at daybreak, though we had cut down our baggage as close as possible. It took Stephan about an hour to load up, and when he had finished, he had left no room on top for himself.
We carried ourselves each a carbine, revolver, and bandolier of cartridges, and a pair of saddlebags; but what with a camera, camping utensils, guns and cartridges, sleeping-coats, etc., the pack-horse was full up. However, there was no help for it, and Stephan had to walk the first day.
We left Podgorica about 6.30, accompanied by Dr. S., who came with us partly on business and partly out of friendship. As he knew the country perfectly, he did much to render our tour more interesting.
The mountains ascend abruptly, and our path was for some hours along the turbulent Moraca, which we met at the end of the plain. In five minutes we were surrounded by mountain scenery. Some little way up the valley a bridge is in the course of construction across the stream, and will form part of the projected road from Podgorica to Kolasin. On its completion, we were told, it would be the highest bridge in the Balkans. Men were working on a loose and steeply sloping bank of crumbling earth a few feet above a precipitous rock, which overhangs the Moraca, at a height of two hundred and fifty feet.
"They very rarely fall," said Dr. S. in answer to our unspoken question.
It made us giddy and sick to watch them. But our own position was often not much safer. The path see-sawed up and down; one moment we were splashed by the spray of a waterfall as it dashed into a creamy pool, and the next we were up on a dizzy height, with one foot hanging over a precipice, gazing on the foam-flecked mill-race below. Verily, it is no journey for a giddy man to take. A single false step on the part of the horse would send both it and its rider to a sudden death. With the ordinary mountain pony, for the horses are practically only that, it is not necessary to guide it—in fact it might be dangerous. The Montenegrin rides with a loose rein over the most ticklish ground, only tightening his grip on descending a very steep hill to help his horse when it occasionally stumbles.
Despite a slight nervousness, we were still able to appreciate to the full the grand scenery of the valley of the Moraca. It turned out to be quite as fine as anything we saw in the mountains.
About four hours after our start we crossed the stream by a wooden bridge and dismounted at an inn. Stabling our horses in the ground floor, we ascended to the upper regions where the human beings live, and clamoured for food.
Raw ham and, of course, eggs were all that was to be had, and, as it turned out, it was our only meal that day. The flies were terrible, but Dr. S. comforted us, saying that every hour would bring us to higher regions and consequently fewer flies. A prophecy which was only partially fulfilled.
We made the best of our repast, and after an hour's rest we made another start. We left the river now, and seemed to climb a breakneck hill for interminable hours. The region was barren and absolutely waterless, while the heat was tremendous. I only remember one view during that broiling ride. We had reached a great altitude, and were crossing a narrow ridge. On one side was the Moraca, and on the other the Mala, both streams mere threads in the hazy distance.
It was the want of water that tried us more than anything. About midday we halted for a while at a small village, and under the refreshing shade of a large tree. Some young men kindly fetched us a little water in a dirty vessel, which tasted abominably.
Another long climb and we at last found shade, and rode for the rest of the afternoon through beech forests. If the path had been bad before, it was worse now, and it was a perfect marvel how the horses kept their feet. I was somewhat unfortunate in my horse Alat, who was blind in one eye, so that I always had to guide him over difficult places. This kept me for ever on the alert, and became trying. At every hut we pulled up and asked for milk, but invariably got "Nema" (I have none) for an answer. The Montenegrins are singularly laconic at times.
Now began a long descent, so atrocious that we had to dismount and climb down on foot, leaving the horses to pick their way as best they could, and about seven p.m. we reached the house where we were to spend the night. It consisted of two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom, the sole furniture of the latter consisting of two wooden bedsteads.
There was no food, except a half lamb, which Stephan had brought on the pack-horse, and its condition was unpleasant from its many hours' exposure to the sun and attendant flies. It took over an hour to cook, and by that time our ravenous hunger had passed, stilled by a few quarts of delicious milk. The inn—for such was the character of the house—unlike similar institutions of more civilised lands, had neither accommodation for man nor beast. There was no hay for our hungry horses, who had to wait for two hours while a man took an hour's climb up a mountain to the next village and brought back a load of 45 kilos (100 lbs.) on his back. A little thought can be given to this fact. Suffice it to say that this lean and athletic man took off his shirt and literally wrung the sweat from it. This, too, at the end of a long day's work. Part of the hay served for our beds, and little enough it seemed too.
P. and I were given the two beds, or rather we were forced to take them, and I turned in at once, after looking at the mutton broth, and fell asleep immediately. In the night I was awakened by a child crying in the room, and in the dim light I was startled to see the floor—empty when I went to bed—strewn with sleeping figures.
A heap that I rightly guessed was the doctor, moved uneasily.
"Doctor," I said softly, "are you awake?"
"Yes," came the answer. "A small child has evidently mistaken me for its father or mother. Will you have it?"
I feigned sleep.
Other figures were snoring peacefully and emphatically, but the tiny inmates of my hay bed were painfully awake and sleep seemed banished. However, I must have slept again, for when I awoke the room was empty, except for Stephan, who was packing up. We had a wash in the stream and made a hurried breakfast, and were off by a fairly early hour. Stephan had found a horse, which must have come as a blessing to him. He had walked yesterday about thirty miles. The path was much better to-day, and we were enabled to make better pace. At a small village named Lijeva Rijeka we made a long halt to allow the doctor to transact some official business. We ate up what meat we had left, and had great fun with the village big-wigs.
Strangers are beings of rare occurrence in the mountains, and we always came in for much "courteous curiosity." Dr. S. and Stephan enjoyed answering inquiries as to who we were immensely. One time we were engineers making plans for the new road; another time we were enterprising merchants about to open up the country; and once a man remarked, when he was told that I was the British Minister, "And wears patched trousers?" He referred to the knee pads of my riding-breeches.
Our arms, as was only natural to this fighting race, attracted great interest. The carbines, of the Austrian Mannlicher system, invariably went the round to a chorus of delighted appreciation. Likewise our field-glasses, through which they would look for hours.
Shortly after leaving this village we had a fortunately short but exceedingly steep hill to climb, which brought us on to a magnificent plateau of rich green grass, carpeted with wild flowers. From this point onwards the scenery changed completely. We were in the Alpine regions. It was very beautiful, the trees covered every hill with a mass of green foliage, and every here and there a snow-capped mountain peak would appear. Not only was the scenery different, but the dwellings of the peasants took quite another style of architecture; conical thatched roofs of a height out of all proportion to the size of the house, and a massive verandah or loggia built into the house, The inhabitants are snowed up for many months every year, and have to lay in great stores of food. But how delightful it must be here in winter! What an opportunity for snow-shoeing! The peasants can do the journey to Podgorica in about half the time on their primitive snow-shoes.
The ride from here to Kolasin was nearly perfection. We skirted rushing mountain torrents, through woodland glades and soft green swards; the air was glorious and cool, for though the sun was powerful there was an abundance of shade. One drawback, however, a drawback sufficient to mar our happiness, was not denied us. Every mile or so we had to plunge through a quagmire, equal to the worst South African mudhole, which is saying a great deal. Much care had to be exercised to prevent the horses getting fairly bogged or breaking their legs, but all passed without an accident, though our condition at the end of the day was awful. We were bespattered from head to foot.
Several halts at hans were made during the day for rest, food, and milk, and about three p.m. we struck the River Tara, and had crossed the water-shed of the Adria and the Black Sea. We followed the Tara till Kolasin, where we arrived about seven o'clock.
Montenegrins have no idea of judging time and distance, which is curious. There is another favourite way of describing a distance: by cigar (cigarette) smoking. You will be informed that the distance is one cigarette, which means that the traveller has time to smoke one cigarette on the way. As an ordinary smoker consumes a cigarette in about ten minutes, the distance would seem small, but it is not so. It is better to reckon two hours. Quarters of hours and cigarette-smoking measurements take a lot of learning, and cause much vexation to the spirit before they are mastered. When the stranger has mastered them, he ceases to ask, and patiently waits. One word of warning to intending travellers. If you are told that the next village is two hours away, then rest awhile and eat and drink, for two hours means "X."
About seven p.m. we clattered up the little street of Kolasin, which is the capital of the same-named district.
It is a beautiful mountainous tract of country, as unlike to Montenegro proper as is the sun to the moon, richly wooded with dense primeval beech forests, full of rushing streams and rich pasturages. The little town itself is rather uninteresting; it has about 1,500 inhabitants, all Montenegrin, for the Turk has almost entirely disappeared. Only in a ruined mosque and one or two dilapidated Turkish houses is the traveller reminded that once the Unspeakable was master here. The houses are all built with the afore-mentioned high conical roof and of substantial aspect.
Our inn was a curiosity, and as we drew rein before it we noticed a crowd of men in the balcony of the first or top floor, for here the ground floor was devoted to stabling. Doctor S. hastily whispered that the Governor and General of Kolasin was one of the men upstairs. On going up the rickety stairs, we were at once introduced to him, and received most friendlily. He was a small wiry man, and reminded one strongly in appearance of Lord Roberts. Also, he spoke excellent German, having studied years ago in the Viennese Military Academy. Very kindly he promised to assist us during our stay in every way, and invited us to his house next morning.
We overlooked the Market Square and had real beds, though the only available room was tiny. Dr. S. and Stephan slept somewhere else. After the heat of the valley, we found the air very keen up here; Kolasin lies over 3,000 feet, and is the highest town of any size in Montenegro.
On the following morning we visited the Governor Martinovic formally in his house. It is only recently that he has ceased to be the Artillery General of Montenegro, a post which he held all through the Turkish war, taking part in all the important engagements.
His ambition is to see the road connecting his district with Podgorica finished, which would bring the two towns within a six hours' drive of each other, instead of the present two days' very hard riding. The benefit to Kolasin is obvious. At present the vast beech forests, literally rotting, could be utilised, for wood is dear in the barren districts of Montenegro. Pyrite, too, is found in great quantities. In fact, Kolasin is cut off from the rest of the country. Everything must be painfully carried on horses or mules, and for a woman, other than a peasant, it is a journey of great difficulty. Side saddles are things unknown, and we heard of one lady, the wife of a foreign minister, who bravely undertook the journey, spending six days on the way from Podgorica. The Governor gave us a graphic description of the difficulties that he had experienced when he brought his family up here.
We also visited the local doctor, a most extraordinary individual with a crank. He had started a Montenegrin temperance society, called the "Band of Good Hope." At present, I believe, the three hundred odd members were all from Kolasin, and it was meeting with very little encouragement. The cultivation of plums for the manufacture of spirits is a staple industry, and these peasants wish to know what they shall do with their fruit. Besides, as the Montenegrins very rarely get drunk, it seems rather an unnecessary movement, and the Prince himself does not favour it.
Bismarck once said that England's greatness began to diminish when the "three-bottle man" died out; perhaps Prince Nicolas has like thoughts of his hardy subjects, who certainly can consume enormous quantities of alcohol with impunity. Besides, it would destroy a large source of the revenue, which Montenegro cannot afford to do. In the meantime the gallant three hundred feel very unhappy.
The few days that we spent in Kolasin were passed pleasantly in daily excursions into the surrounding country shooting, though with indifferent results. The Crown Prince Danilo's birthday came one day during our stay, and Governor, staff, and officials went to church attired in glorious raiment. They literally sparkle in gold lace embroidery, orders, and decorations, and for a gorgeous but absolutely tasteful effect commend me to the gala dress of the Montenegrin high official. It is the most artistic blending of gold, crimson, blue, and white.
After the service spirits were served out free on the market-place (what agonies must the three hundred have suffered!), and a dance was formed. The national dance—in this instance the "kolo"—is usually performed by men, though the women do sometimes join in, and it is a slow and stately measure.
The men place their hands on each other's shoulders and form a ring, which, however, is never completed. New men can join in, but a space is always left open. One step is taken sideways to the left, and then three to the right, and the movement is accompanied by singing. The singers are three or four men on the opposite horns of the circle, who alternately chant verses in honour of the Prince.
The ring of men slowly danced their way from the Market Square to the Governor's house, where more spirits were given, and an accordion player joined the ring.
Loud cries of "Zivio!" followed the cessation of every movement. We followed and went in to the Governor, to offer our congratulations and drink His Royal Highness's health. The room was quite full, two or three men being rough peasants, relations of the Governor. There is very little class distinction in Montenegro. Often the humblest peasant can claim relationship with the Voivoda, or Duke, of the province, and will always be cordially received.
We felt quite ashamed of our appearance—leather coats, collarless shirts, and so forth—amongst such rich costumes. The complete outfit of a Montenegrin dandy costs over forty pounds, and takes a bit of beating.
Carefully tucking our rough riding-boots under our chairs, to avoid marking the contrast with our host's resplendent jack-boots of patent-leather, and buttoning up our coat collars, we endeavoured to make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible in this brilliant assembly. But in spite of our tramp-like garb, we were always highly honoured guests.
Montenegro's oldest building—The ride to the Moraca Monastery—A perilous bridge and ascent—The Abbot's tale—We inspect the monastery—The health of the King is drunk—The relative merits of Boers and Montenegrins—The Abbot makes us presents—We visit a peasant's house and a Homeric feast—A feu-de-joie—Departure from Kolasin—We are mistaken for doctors again—Raskrsnica.
In Montenegro there are, strangely enough, with one famous exception, no buildings of any great antiquity. This, however, can be easily accounted for by the repeated invasions of the Turks, who ravaged the land with a merciless fury. Montenegro was the only Balkan state which they were unable to bring to obedience, and the struggle, which began after the battle of Kossovo, has, perhaps, not reached its final stage yet, though other enemies have supplanted the Turk.
Far away in the heart of the mountains, and perched on the top of a high cliff, at whose feet the turbulent mountain torrent Moraca races past, there is situated a monastery, which takes its name from the river below.
This monastery is the only building that has escaped the scourge of the Turk, and, though often attacked, only once has it been partially burnt. Like its famous sister at Ostrog, it is constructed in a position where Nature has provided the best means of defence, and this the hand of man has skilfully utilised and improved. It was founded in the year 1252 by one of the sons of the famous Servian king, Stephan Nemanja, and dedicated to S. Nicholas. Right well has the saint watched over and protected his feof.
During our stay at Ostrog the Archbishop of Montenegro impressed upon us most strongly the necessity of visiting Moraca before leaving the country. He himself had lived there many years as the Archimandrite, and was besieged by the Turks during his sojourn within its walls.
So, accompanied by a guide, with whom the Governor of Kolasin had provided us, we made an early start one morning for the monastery. We had a perfect ride through dense beech forests, skirting a noisy little stream, of which we were able to obtain a glimpse every now and then through a break in the trees. On either side of the ravine the hills rose steeply to some height. We soon passed a lonely cross in a small clearing, erected to the memory of five Montenegrins who had been surprised and murdered there by the Turks.
It is always so in Montenegro, when the traveller is filled with a sense of peace at the grandeur of the wild mountainous scenery, or the beauty of a sylvan forest glade, a rough cross, or cairn of stones, will be pointed out where men have met a sudden and violent death.
Once, as our path led up a steep incline, our guide told us graphically how that, a few weeks ago, both a horse and its rider had fallen down the one hundred feet into the river below. The path was very narrow, and he strongly advised us in passing to take care, which remark seemed slightly superfluous after the vivid description with which he had just favoured us.
Crossing the stream we dismounted, and climbed to a small grassy plateau on which a church is being built for the shepherds of the district. It commanded a beautiful view. The path now ascended to a great height, and much walking had to be done, for a ridge of hills lay between us and our destination. At the top the valley of the Moraca could be seen with a magnificent background of rugged mountains. A breakneck descent of two and a half hours, most of it on foot, brought us to the river, which was crossed by a picturesque and broken-down bridge. On a cliff opposite stood the monastery.
While leading my horse over the bridge I chanced to rest for a moment on the central arch to enjoy the view. The guide, who was behind me, thrust me unceremoniously forward. It is not always safe to admire scenery from Montenegrin bridges. Certainly, on inspecting the bridge from below, he seemed to have shown no unnecessary caution. Two of the arches had completely given, and may collapse at any moment.
A very steep and dangerous path leads up to the plateau on which the monastery is situated. It was nearly the cause of a serious accident to me, for my saddle gave, and began to slip backwards. Had the horse made one false step at this critical moment I should have been dashed over a precipice of eighty feet. Just before the gates stands a small inn, where we left our horses and proceeded on foot.
The monastery strongly resembles a fortress, for the massive walls surrounding it are liberally loop-holed, and it can be entered from one side only. We entered a large courtyard with buildings on all sides. At the back a great mountain ascends obliquely, and in front an inaccessible precipice descends to the river. It was doubtless a tough morsel for the Turks in the olden days, though modern artillery would make very short work of it.
The Archimandrite, or Abbot, soon came down and welcomed us most cordially, conducting us to his room, where we were regaled with the inevitable strong black coffee. He was a big, handsome man, with the long beard and hair which all the priests of the Greek Church wear. Quiet and benevolent as he looked, he is famed throughout the whole country as a mighty warrior; for in times of war the priests fight with the soldiers for their beloved freedom. Strangely enough, in the last war with Turkey he played an important role in saving the very monastery of which he is now the spiritual head. He was then a colonel, and commanded a battalion. The following story of the rout of the Turks is taken down from his own lips.
In those years (1876-7) all this district was in the hands of the Sultan, and the Turks had just made an unsuccessful attack upon the Monastery of Ostrog. Their army, under the command of the famous Mehmet Ali Pasha, was retreating on Kolasin, pursued by the Montenegrins. On reaching the Monastery of Moraca they halted with the intention of first destroying it, and Mehmet Ali placed a battery in a commanding position on the opposite heights for the bombardment.
Unknown to the Turks, half a battalion of Montenegrins were stationed there as garrison, and the Pasha, thinking that he had but a handful of priests to deal with, sent down a small detachment to effect an entrance. The gate was opened, and they were enticed inside. Hardly had the last man set his foot within the courtyard when the Montenegrins fell upon them and beheaded them every one.
The Turks, deeming all safe, sent a second detachment to assist in bringing out the booty, and they met with a similar fate. Then Mehmet began to suspect that something was wrong, and made preparations for a bombardment; but it was too late. A brigade of pursuing Montenegrins had come up. They fell upon him from flank and rear, and a horrid slaughter ensued.
It must be confessed that the account seems incredible, and is, doubtless innocently enough, greatly exaggerated. But the worthy Abbot distinctly stated that out of 25,000 Turks only 2,000 or 3,000 escaped. It was indeed "a terrible tale of a Turk that is ghastly and grim and gory." The Montenegrins were but men 1,800 strong, just three battalions, one of which was commanded by Michael Dozic, the Abbot, and his battalion it was that took the Turks in the rear, throwing them into utter confusion.
To-day the peasants still find heaps of bones in the crevices and hollows of the rocks.
After this very pleasant story, we descended into the courtyard, which is formed in a semicircle. In the centre stands the church. It is built in the shape of a cross, and its porch and interior are gorgeously adorned with the most quaint frescoes; indeed, every particle of the walls and ceiling is covered with frescoes of the most crude design and vivid colouring, and the altar-screen is magnificently gilded. The colours are well preserved, and seem as fresh as when the monks first laid them on, for the painting all dates back to the time of the foundation.
It was somewhat horrifying to find that the frescoes behind the altar-screen were completely scribbled over. At first we put this down to impious tourists who delight in leaving their miserable names on the most historical buildings; but, on closer inspection, we found that they were copious notes in the form of a diary. The Abbot told us that Mitrofan Ban, the Archbishop, had written them during his lengthy abbacy many years ago.
There is another church, or rather tiny chapel, within the monastery which is about a century older than the rest of the buildings, and the interior is likewise covered with frescoes of the same crude and vivid painting. They represent scenes from the life of S. Nicholas, and the chapel is only used once a year during the pilgrimage which takes place on the feast of their patron saint.
Every year large numbers of Montenegrins flock to the monastery to offer prayers and offerings. Just outside the walls stands a small cannon, with a Turkish inscription, which four Montenegrins carried away one night from Kolasin when that town was in Turkish hands. Not only the bravado of such a deed, but the athletic feat of carrying such a weighty object over that difficult country, are very characteristic of this people. It is fired annually during the feast of S. Nicholas.
The worthy Abbot was greatly annoyed to find that we had ordered food below, and still more when he heard that we were returning to Kolasin the same afternoon. He repeatedly urged us to spend a few days with him, but, enjoyable as the visit would have been, previous engagements forbade our acceptance.
A second priest waylaid us as we were leaving for our meal, and carried us off to his room, where more coffee was served. He had travelled much in Turkey and the Black Sea, and we had a very pleasant conversation, but, after a short time, the pangs of hunger forced us to excuse ourselves. Our humble meal, which we partook of in the best chamber (and only bedroom), was hardly over when the young priest again rejoined us, bringing with him an enormous bottle of wine. Very solemnly he filled our glasses, and proposed the health of His Majesty King Edward VII. Our surprise was so great that we almost forgot to drink. And then came many questions as to the progress of the Boer war, questions with which, by the way, we were often assailed by the more intelligent classes during our travels.
To quote an instance which happened to myself once in Cetinje. While waiting outside the monastery for the appearance of the Prince, who was attending divine service within, I entered into conversation with a gendarme. We spoke of many things, and to my surprise, for he was but an ignorant peasant, he inquired as to the progress of the war. He asked the nature of the country, on which subject I was luckily able to enlighten him. Parts of it are not at all unlike Montenegro. At this he pricked up his ears.
"Thou hast been to the Transvaal?" he asked with increased interest. "Are the people brave like we are?"
"They are brave," I said, "but not as ye are. They only shoot at long distances, and object very strongly to hand-to-hand fighting."
The stalwart Montenegrin looked puzzled.
"Shooting is good," he answered; and after a pause he added, "at first, but that is not fighting. It is an empty glory to shoot one's enemy, if one cannot prove it afterwards." I knew he was alluding to the decapitating process. "And then the wild charge, the cutting with the handjar when rifles are thrown away—that is fighting."
I explained that our soldiers loved the bayonet as much as the Montenegrin loved the handjar.
"But what can you do when the other side won't wait for it?" I asked.
"Then they are cowards," he answered judicially. "Are thy countrymen all as big as thou art?" he continued thoughtfully, feeling my biceps and scrutinising me closely.
"Some of them are bigger," I said.
"Then the Boers will have no chance," he said emphatically, and at this moment the Prince emerged from the church. This personal allusion to my size I took as a great compliment, for in a land where physical strength is an all-important factor candid appreciation of this kind is not meted out to one and all alike.
Extremely fatigued after our early start and long ride, it was an effort to keep from falling asleep, and noticing this the priest left. We were both comfortably asleep in corners when the wretched landlord appeared with armfuls of sheets and pillows at the order of the priest. He cruelly woke us up and proceeded to make beds. After that all thought of sleep was gone. Furthermore, in dirty and dusty riding-clothes one has not the heart to lie down on spotlessly clean sheets.
Soon afterwards the horses were ready, and we cantered up to the monastery to take our leave. But leave-taking was no such easy matter. Our pockets were filled with dried fruits, and after we were already in the saddle the Abbot presented us with packets of incense which he hurriedly fetched from the church. Waving him and the other fathers a last farewell, we started on our long ride back to Kolasin.
During our rambles in Kolasin the doctor took us to a peasant's house whom he knew very well. This acquaintance proved one of our most pleasant recollections of the country. The head of the house was a fine-looking man, lean and active, and possessed many decorations for past acts of bravery in the field. His son was in prison at the time for some political offence, but his daughter-in-law and two little babies, besides two or three unmarried daughters and sons, were living with him. The whole family outdid themselves in courtesy to us, and we were, as usual, considerably embarrassed by the behaviour of the women-folk. Though we went several times to the house, they would rarely seat themselves while we were present, and invariably kissed our hands in coming and going.
The doctor played games of cards with our host, but the united efforts of P. and myself failed to discover any method or system in the game. The doctor tried to explain at first, but after five minutes we begged him to desist. So we sat and looked on, drinking cups of black coffee and endeavouring to make friendly overtures to the babies, who openly showed that they considered us distinctly dangerous.
The house itself was curious. The ceiling was low and the walls were of great thickness. The windows were so small that it was barely possible to squeeze one's head through the opening. The idea of the house is to obtain the maximum amount of warmth, for the cold of these mountainous regions is intense in winter. In summer, however, these houses are delightfully cool.
The evening before our departure from Kolasin we were invited to an open-air feast at the peasant's country house.
The "country house" was, it is true, only a rough wooden shanty, but, as our meal was outside, it didn't matter.
When we arrived, after an hour's walk, we found a table set out with a white cloth and three wooden chairs on a green slope overlooking the valley of Kolasin. It was a delightful spot. Some little distance away the last few turns were being given to a lamb roasted whole on a spit over an open fire.
The feast was soon served up. The entire lamb, on a great wooden platter, an enormous bowl of milk, eggs, sheeps' cheese, and unlimited spirits. The women-folk waited on us and kept our platters full. Other men with their wives joined us, not to partake of this Homeric feast, but to see us gorge ourselves. It may not be a nice expression, but we were literally forced to eat to an uncomfortable state of repletion. They took no denial, and even then the lamb was not nearly finished. These mountaineers eat meat only on great festivals, and consume enough to last them for the next few months. They did not realise that we were content with sufficient to last us for the next few hours.
Our glasses, too, were kept replenished with the potent spirit of the land, and our respective healths were drunk, on the average, once every three minutes. When this began to pall they toasted each other, in which we had naturally to join, and these were followed by patriotic toasts. It was rather an uproarious evening.
About ten we took our leave, and our hosts drew their pocket cannons and started firing; we naturally replied, and a deafening fusillade went on till every man had emptied his revolver. With singing ears we returned to our hotel to find the town alarmed, excited groups were congregated in the Market Square. Our feu-de-joie was speedily explained, and the men flocked into the inn. As a slight return for the fright we had given them, we paid for a few quarts of spirits. The Governor overlooked our law-breaking, for after dark firing is not allowed, and no doubt he envied us in his heart, for, poor man, he is in the clutches of the Band of Good Hope, much, we heard, to his disgust.
We left next day, and had a hearty send-off from the town, who turned out en masse to witness our departure. The local doctor was not present. We had found no favour in his eyes.
Shortly after leaving the town we passed the Montenegrin Militia, hard at their weekly drill. No uniform is worn, every man coming in his everyday clothes, bringing only his rifle. But they drill very well and the discipline is excellent. A company was being dismissed as we came up, and a large number accompanied us for a long way.
The ride was magnificent that afternoon. The way wound up and up, and our last glimpse of Kolasin showed us the little town far away below us.
The usual Montenegrin trick was again played successfully on us, the "only two hours' ride" developing into a journey of six hours. But to-day we did not murmur; it is only at the end of a long and trying day that this style of humour is out of place.
For two hours our path threaded its way through dense beech forests. At one spot P. and I had ridden on so far in advance of the others that we dismounted and waited for them to come up. In the interval I was assailed by a man with a bandaged head. Doctors always wear European clothes in Montenegro, and without further inquiry, this man proceeded to sit down before me and remove his bandages, disclosing ultimately a ghastly eye.
"What must I do for it, Gospodin Doctor?" he asked at length, for beyond the usual greeting he had not spoken. One glance was sufficient, and P. got up and left us.
"Take it away!" I said, with averted face. "I am not a doctor, and never shall be."
I felt him looking at me with his uninjured eye. These simple peasants are always under the impression that our modern education comprises that of medicine.
"But, Gospodin, it has been like this for weeks," he went on, "and is very painful."
"There is a doctor at Kolasin. Go to him. He will be pleased."
Evidently much hurt at my indifference, he slowly replaced his bandages and departed. Then our party caught us up, and we continued our way.
Later on we emerged from the woods, and, still climbing, we rode for the remaining distance on magnificent grassy slopes far above the forest belt. Several snow-patches still lay unmelted in the shady hollows, and often far below us. From this ridge we obtained our first good view of the lofty Kom, the second highest mountain in Montenegro, and our ultimate destination.
These great downs, across which we rode, had been only thrown open to the public, so to say, a few days ago, and were full of flocks of sheep and goats and large herds of cattle, grazing to their hearts' content after their long winter's imprisonment in the villages below. The Government fix the date when the shepherds may migrate into the mountain pasturages and when they must leave again for the lowlands.
We overtook or met several parties of Montenegrins, and even Turks, for the border is not far distant, travelling from place to place. We were viewed with obvious interest, and invariably greeted with respect, though there is nothing of subservience in a Montenegrin's salute. He feels himself in no way your inferior as a man until you have proved your superiority in shooting or physical strength.
In this part of the country Dr. S. always told the peasants that we were engineers, as a road is being contemplated.
About seven p.m. we branched off from the main path, and descended on foot a steep path into a thickly wooded valley. In a clearing of the trees stood a collection of wooden huts, a summer village of shepherds, called Raskrsnica.
It was our halting-place, and as our visit had been notified, we were received by a schoolmaster and taken to his hut, which was placed at our disposal.
No schools are held during the summer months, and the teachers often turn shepherds, as in this case, and migrate with their flocks to the mountains.
A typical mountain hut—Costume of the north-eastern borderers—Supper and a song—We go out hunting, and cause excitement—The Feast of Honour—We ride to Andrijevica—Andrijevica and our inn—The Voivoda—We go to church—Turkish visitors—Alarums.
It was nearly dark by the time that we were unloaded and had got our traps into our hut. As half our time was spent in similar constructions during our mountain tour, it may be as well to describe them now.
They are usually built entirely of wood, rough, irregularly hewn planks, and no attempt is made to make them air-tight; often great crevices gape, through which a hand can be put. The roof is generally fairly water-tight. A man can stand up-right in the middle, but the roof slopes steeply down to the sides. The word "can" is used advisedly, i.e. if one is able to breathe the densely smoky atmosphere at the top. Chimneys or outlets in the roof to permit the smoke to escape are unknown, and when cooking is going on, or at night when a roaring fire is kept burning, the appearance of the hut from outside gives a stranger the impression that it is on fire, and that the flames must burst out at any moment. It leaks smoke at every crevice.
Inside is an open space reserved for the wood fire, and a primitive arrangement, often a chain suspended from the roof, for hanging the cooking pot. A few blocks of wood serve as easy-chairs, beds there are none, an armful of rushes or grass, which is usually damp, serving their purpose. On entering, the new-comer will first cough violently, then choke, and finally make a hurried exit to the fresh air. Summoning courage and with a fresh supply of oxygen, he dashes into the hut again, and throws himself on his heap of rushes. As the smoke rises, the atmosphere on the ground is less dense, but the penetrating smell of the burning wood is sufficiently strong to make his eyes pour with water. These are first impressions; later on, he can even sit up, and after a few days will be able to walk comparatively slowly in and out of the hut.
Usually at the back is a small partition, behind which a rough shelf can be found, laden with the day's milking and cheese. The whole family sleep in the hut, no division separating the men from the women. But the Montenegrin peasant sleeps in his clothes, so privacy is considered unnecessary.
Dr. S. was here officially to inspect the flocks, and had an appointment with the district captain. He was not there, and shortly after our arrival a man turned up, delivering a message from the captain, somewhat in the following fashion.
"Sir, it is my privilege to be the bearer of the captain's message. The captain would have you know that he will do himself the honour to meet you here to-morrow in the early morning."
The man stood smartly at the attention and saluted at the conclusion.
It is extraordinary the grandiloquent language which even the most humble peasant will use, and he speaks with the polished ease of a gentleman.
The baggy blue breeches and red jackets are not worn in these regions, and are replaced by white woollen tight-fitting trousers and jackets, bordered with black braid. In fact, the dress strongly resembles that worn by the Albanians, except that the black braid is narrower and less elaborate, and the national cap of Montenegro is carried instead of the white head-cloth or fez. The costume is national, and has not been altered to that of the Montenegrin proper, because it is considered warmer. The first time that Prince Nicolas visited his new subjects a man said to him in that characteristically familiar way in which the Prince's subjects are wont to address him:—
"Gospodar" ("Lord," and the universal form of address for the reigning Prince), "wilt thou not exchange thy blue breeches for our white trousers. They would suit thee better."
The answer of the Prince is not recorded.
Stephan called us into our shanty when the evening meal was ready. Our host wished to slaughter a lamb, but we deferred that till the morrow, and we ate what we had brought with us. It was, barring the smoke, a delightful experience, and its charm never diminished. That hour spent before turning in, after supper, when the tobacco tins circulate, and the shepherds crowd in from the neighbouring huts, made an impression which it will not be easy to forget.
The fire, with its dancing flames and uneven light, shows up the ring of men squatting round it. Everything beyond is shrouded in impenetrable gloom, throwing out the wild picturesque figures, with their bronzed and honest faces, in bold relief. The ruddy glare rounds off all hard corners and softens every inharmonious line, flashing fitfully here and there on a steel revolver barrel. The musical voices rise and fall, and outside the stars are shining. All is peace and calm.
That first evening a young shepherd, strikingly handsome, with clean-cut features, went outside and sang a wild Albanian song in our honour, his weird chanting echoing in the mountains. Then came a crackling of pistol-shots from the near distance, a novel way of applause. With very happy feelings we rolled ourselves in our great coats and went to sleep.
Next morning we rose at five, and had a delightful wash in a stream of icy-cold water. As usual, our ablutions caused much amusement. The mountaineer contents himself with a ladle of water poured into his hands. Very shortly afterwards the captain arrived. He insisted on going out shooting with us, as well as the schoolmaster. We plunged into the forest and were soon deep in the excitement of stalking.
P. was with the captain, and the schoolmaster and myself soon lost them. Later on, I too lost my companion, and it being near our advertised time for dining, I made my way back, which presented very little difficulty. On coming in view of the clearing I was received with shouts. Not being gifted with the Montenegrin skill at hearing and talking at great distances I walked on, and was ultimately able to distinguish the question as to where I had left P. I answered that I had not seen him for hours, and passed on to our hut.
The excitement seemed to wax, and Dr. S. speedily enlightened me as to the cause. Both the captain and the schoolmaster had returned, i.e. they had stood and talked from a hill about a mile away, saying that P. was lost.
"Well," I said, "P. knows at what time we eat, and I have never known him to be late for a meal yet. And it is in an hour's time."
"But the woods are dangerous. There are bears. The Albanian frontier is not far away. He can lose himself for hours," were among the remarks that I could hear.
"Considering that he has a magazine carbine and a revolver, I don't think that we need be afraid. It is easy enough to find one's way back, and P. will have the sense to watch the sun. He has been out alone before in his life," I remarked, feeling rather irritated.
Then an old lady began abusing me for having deserted him, "and he so young, a mere child," etc., until I fairly lost my temper.
"You must not take it amiss," explained the doctor, who knew me. "It is only their love for you."
"Thanks," said I. "But that is enough. If that old lady doesn't stop expressing her love for me shortly ——. Look here, doctor," I continued, waxing wrath, "you stop her. You understand the more talkative sex better than I do. I'll stop the men."
About ten minutes before dinner P. turned up, serenely unconscious of the trouble, telling us how he had found a delightful shepherd, who had carried him off to his shanty and feasted him on bread and milk, but that he was still ravenously hungry. The incident did not close here either. When P. heard of the anxiety caused by his absence he took it as a personal insult to himself, and began abusing everyone in his turn. But all the same, the people remained obdurate, and we were never left alone, though they let us ramble whither we wished.
Our dinner that day was a kind of feast of honour to the captain. The lamb was served, as usual, whole. Half a dozen men joined us besides our party. The doctor, P., and I had knives and forks and a plate apiece.
"Help yourself to all you want at the beginning," said the doctor kindly. "Take as much as you think you can possibly stow away."
We were glad afterwards that we had followed the doctor's advice, for when we had finished helping ourselves the men fell upon that lamb and rent it limb from limb with their horny hands. Montenegrins have not pretty table manners. Forks are superfluous, a hunting-knife will do for the bread, and spoons are only used for fluids, when they dip in the common bowl.
That evening we went out shooting in another direction, and were amply rewarded for an exceeding tiring climb, although deer were not abundant. In fact, the moment that the shepherds take possession of the mountains, game nearly always disappears, returning with the peace and solitariness of the autumn.
On the following day we left Raskrsnica at an early hour en route for Andrijevica, which lies at a considerably lower altitude than Kolasin. Consequently we had a lot of downhill work. We had another magnificent view of the Kom on our way, but otherwise our ride of about six hours was uneventful. Andrijevica is first seen from a great height, and really looks quite close.
"Half an hour," said our guides, "will see us in the town."
The descent was of a breakneck description, and had to be done on foot. The heat was tremendous, and, the way proving to be an hour and a half, our tempers suffered. It was about noon when we rode into the little town or village, for it is nothing more, though the capital of the Vasovic district, Montenegro's most eastern and consequently most dangerous possession. It borders on Gusinje, the wildest and fiercest of Albania's clans.
The office of the Governor, or Voivoda, to give him his proper Montenegrin title, corresponding to our word Duke, is therefore no sinecure. His position calls for more diplomacy and acumen than any other in the country. A false move, a thoughtless action or word could plunge the tribes of Northern Albania and Montenegro in a fierce warfare. But a few weeks after our departure, war very nearly did break out at Mokra, over a dispute as to the rights of a small grazing-ground, and was only averted at the last moment. Then Andrijevica was full of troops, for 25,000 Albanians stood fully armed on the border, and a pistol-shot would have started an invasion of Montenegro.
The little township is prettily situated on a slight eminence at the junction of the Lim and the Perusica, the former a tributary of the Danube. It has a population of five hundred clad in the white Albanian dress, and is celebrated, rightly or wrongly, for the beauty of its women. Certainly our landlady was a pretty enough looking woman of most refined manners. The men are very fine-looking fellows. The country all round is magnificent.
Our inn was also the town bakery, and we had a nice large bedroom well stocked with flies, and real beds, though in daytime it was the dining and drawing-room combined.
Really many of the inns we visited in Montenegro could be aptly described by the song sung in London a few years ago of a coster describing his home. He informed the audience that if they wanted to see his library, his kitchen, or his best spare bedroom, "You just stops where you is." In slightly more grammatical language, it could be well applied to these hostels.
Towards evening we were taken and presented to Voivoda Lakic Voivodic, who was sitting in semi-state before the house of a rival drinking-place.
He had a remarkably strong face, and was of powerful build. Speedily we were introduced to his adjutant, the town captain, and other officials, and a great circle was formed of which we were the centre of attraction. Our arms were brought out and examined with great glee and appreciation; also our field-glasses came in for their usual share of admiration, and our clothes were likewise carefully overhauled.
When we laughingly said that we hoped for some sport with the Albanians and perhaps to shoot a few, our popularity was complete; our backs were clapped, and a great scene of joy and enthusiasm took place. Such remarks are liable to be taken rather literally in this region.
We gave the Voivoda and his adjutant a dinner one evening, the best that we could manage, though it certainly was not the kind of feast to which one would ordinarily invite a Duke.
Being five of us, our table was not big enough, so we joined on a second smaller and lower table at which the doctor and P. sat. P. put a salt-cellar between the upper table and the lower, saying that as they now sat "below the salt," they could behave as they liked. It was a most uproarious meal, and later on the Voivoda retired to a bed which was just behind him to laugh himself out.
On Sunday we went to church—at least we went to the church and met the Voivoda outside. It was a very hot day and the little edifice was crowded. We had a suspicion that the worthy Voivoda came late on purpose. He just glanced at the crowd which had overflowed into the open space before the door, and to the relief of his staff proposed a quiet cup of coffee instead. Under the shade of the trees, discreetly apart from the merrymakers who were celebrating the Mass of a departed comrade, we sat in the customary ring and were served with coffee. It was a pleasant hour, and as the Voivoda, who was a bit of a wit, if somewhat irreverent, said, "This is better than inside."
The church was about a quarter of a mile from the town and lay almost hid in a beautiful wood. The bells, as is often the case, were hung about a hundred yards away from the church on a wood scaffolding, and on the green grass sat many groups of Montenegrins.
The occasion was a feast. Mass was being said for the soul of a man who had recently died, and it is the custom for the dead man's relations to give a feast to all comers. Large dishes of roast lamb were being handed round to the men who sat in circles, the women eating apart, and much spirit was drunk. About six priests were also present, feasting.
We had altogether a very merry stay in Andrijevica, and the men of Vasovic are sturdy, honest, fearless, and excellent companions.
Once, as I was admiring an old pistol worn by a man who was visiting us—for men were continually dropping in on us at any hour, in a most unceremonious fashion—he promptly took it off and gave it to me. It had been carried thirty years by a priest, he told me, before it came into his possession, and had killed at least twenty men. Afterwards I gave him a present of six florins.
There are no police in Andrijevica, but the population take their turn to patrol the town at night with rifles. This is not to keep order amongst themselves, but as a guard against an eventual raid of Albanians. Crime is unknown in this mountain town.
One afternoon we were startled to see half a dozen Turkish officers ride into the town, accompanied by an escort of Turkish soldiers, all fully armed. They were proceeding to Gusinje, where fighting had been taking place and many men had been killed. It is very curious to observe the way that the Turkish and Montenegrin authorities visit each other, for the intricate formation of the border often necessitates the traversing of a small portion of the other's country. Owing to the danger, everyone goes fully armed. The greatest possible harmony reigns between the Turks and Montenegrins, as the formidable array of Turkish decorations which adorn the breasts of all Montenegrin border officials will testify. The Albanian is the only cause of trouble, and it is chiefly against him that the Albanian borders are garrisoned by Turkish troops.
In the above-mentioned border dispute, the Turks sent down a formidable army to assist the Montenegrins and prevent an incursion into a friendly state. Truly things have changed very much, for it was not so very many years ago that Albania held aloof when Turk and Montenegrin were fighting. Their sympathies, if for either side, were with the Montenegrins, and now the hated Turk throws himself into the balance for Montenegro.
No man goes any distance unarmed. A rifle is part and parcel of his being. So it is that visiting Albanians carry theirs too, and it is no uncommon sight to see eight or ten Gusinje men, conspicuous by their white head-cloths, rifles slung over their shoulders, and a girdle of cartridges, come into Andrijevica to market, or perhaps even to consult the Voivoda on a question of blood-guilt.
No one knows in these parts when an alarm will be given, either by trumpet-call or rapid magazine firing, and each man must be ever prepared to hurry to the appointed rendezvous at a moment's notice. If he be guarding his flock, eating at home, or carrying produce to the market, it is the same; his rifle must be ready to his hand and everything left standing to answer the call to arms. Life is very real on these turbulent borders, and a chance dispute may assemble a brigade of Montenegrins and a horde of Albanians, each ready to attack the other on the spot. The shepherd private knows where to find his section commander, the latter, on completion of his section, meets his company officer, companies assemble, battalions form, and the brigade is ready within an hour or two.
Such is the state of affairs to-day along the whole Albanian frontier, but nowhere to such a degree as in the provinces bordering on Gusinje.
The Voivoda's invitation—Concerning an episode on our ride to Velika—The fugitive from a blood-feud and his story—We arrive at Velika—The men of Velika—The menu—Border jurisdiction—A shooting-match—The Kom—Pleasant evenings—A young philosopher—Sunset.
One evening the Voivoda invited us to ride with him on an official visit to Velika, an offer which we eagerly accepted.
Velika is a narrow strip of Montenegrin territory lying practically in Albania, or rather Gusinje, for the men of Gusinje owe and give no allegiance. Velika is not cut off from Montenegro, but the mountain connecting it with, so to speak, the mainland is steep and almost inaccessible, besides entailing a long and weary detour of many hours. Therefore our path to-day would lead us across an intervening strip of Gusinje territory.
Next morning at an early hour saw us in our saddles, the Voivoda having first ascertained that our arms were in good order. "Not that there is any danger," he said. "But we never know if anything may happen, and it is well just to be prepared."
Besides the Voivoda, we were accompanied by his adjutant, a lieutenant in the standing army, who had studied in Italy, and an escort of about six men, armed with modern magazine rifles. Later on, this escort was materially increased.
About three hours' ride up the magnificent valley of the Lim brought us to a khan, and here we found another half-dozen men awaiting us, and another officer. These preparations seemed rather formidable for a journey of about an hour through a friendly country, but we knew already the uncertainty of the Albanian temper, and did not wonder.
As we led our horses across a rickety wooden bridge, the Voivoda called to us and said we were now about to enter Albania, and spoke of the temporary armed alliance between England and Montenegro, which remark seemed to please him greatly. A great cairn of stones marked the border, and the adjutant reined in his horse, for we were going to ride in single file, to tell us that it would be better to unsling our carbines. "It looked better," he said. Many Albanians could be seen working peacefully in their fields, and huts dotted the mountain-sides. It was a scene of agricultural peace, enhanced by magnificent scenery.
Suddenly, at some distance, two rifle-shots were distinctly heard, and the calm of the picture was as rudely and suddenly disturbed as if an earthquake had happened. The peaceful peasants stooped, throwing away the spade, and in exchange each had a Martini rifle in his hand, which he rapidly loaded from the bandolier of cartridges round his waist. Men rushed out of the slumbering cottages, and a great shouting commenced.
"It is nothing," said the adjutant. "They become excited like this very often."
But I noticed our escort closing in, and every man's face wore a look of great interest. Still we rode on, just as if nothing unusual were happening.
To our left the hill ascended to a great height, and about one-third of the way up a belt of trees commenced, stretching to the top. Towards this wood ran hundreds of Albanians, and disappeared from view. I confess that I had a most uncomfortable feeling that I was being covered by many unseen rifles. We should have stood a poor chance had they begun firing at us, for there was practically no cover near.
But our pace, that of a smart walk, neither increased nor decreased, and it ill became me to show my innermost feelings to these fearless mountaineers who so evidently considered this sudden excitement a most everyday occurrence.
The noise of the shouting, however, continued, and was answered by men in all directions. It was a regular pandemonium of yelling fiends, for the Albanians are not beautiful to look upon.
Suddenly a man appeared from some bushes close to our little party and headed straight for us, running like a deer.
He had barely reached us and seized my stirrup leather, on which he hung, panting heavily, when from the woods emerged a pursuing crowd, brandishing their rifles as they ran. Within a few minutes we were surrounded by about a hundred and fifty Albanians, whose gestures were not to be misunderstood.
They wanted to kill the man at my stirrup, who looked beseechingly up to me for protection. Why he selected me I have no idea, and I did not relish the compliment at all. Our escort formed a meagre ring around us, and we were forced to halt.
"Are they going to shoot?" I asked the adjutant, who was next to me, in excusable excitement, "because if so, I would like to dismount."
It was not a pleasant feeling, perched up on a horse within fifty yards of reputed good marksmen.
"Oh no," answered the officer, "they only want the man, not you."
"Still, you are not going to hand back the man, are you?" I asked in Italian.
"We must hear what the Voivoda says," said the adjutant, shrugging his shoulders.
I looked at the man, while an excited conversation was carried on by our party and the Albanians, and found him a pleasant-looking young man; his breath was coming in great gasps from his heaving breast, but otherwise he showed no traces of excitement.
"Save me," he said in broken Serb. "They fired at me as I was working in my field. I am blood-guilty."
All this time his pursuers were evidently debating if our lives must be sacrificed as well, for to shoot the man meant killing some of us at any rate.
At this juncture several Albanians came to us and ranged themselves on our side, and amidst still greater excitement we began again moving forward.
"It is all right," laughed the adjutant, who throughout preserved the same air of utter indifference. "They daren't shoot, the cowards, and we shall take him to Velika with us, and then decide what to do with him."
"You don't seem to mind this sort of thing much," I said, "but for a beginner like myself it appears rather nervous work."
"Oh no," he answered. "I live here, and have been in many border fights. They always make a noise like that, and they very seldom shoot at big people."
"But if they do?" I queried.
"Oh, well, we must all die once," he laughed.
In another half-hour we passed the second landmark, and were informed we were again in Montenegrin territory. Our friendly Albanians left us, and rifles were more carelessly carried.
"What hast thou done?" I asked the fugitive at my stirrup. "Tell me thy story."
"I am a doomed man; my days are numbered," he said, smiling, and rolling a cigarette. "But life is sweet, and I wish to live a little longer."
Strange, this man who was at death's door barely an hour ago, was smiling and smoking happily as he walked by my side. He had a most fascinating smile and laughing eyes, and now that the immediate danger was over he had forgotten it.
"Some months ago in my village, many hours from here, a woman fell in love with me," he said. "She was beautiful and I loved her too, but not so much as she loved me, for I feared her. She hated her husband, who beat her. One evening she came to me when her husband was away and told me that she loved me and that we would fly together. 'I love thee as I hate my husband, and see, if thou wilt not do this, I will break my spinning-wheel before thee.' And I trembled, for now I knew that my life was doomed. For should I not take her, she must kill me as sure as there is a God in heaven, and if I fled with her, her husband and his relations would surely track me down. And she was very beautiful, and we must all die. So we fled here that same night. What could I do?" he asked, smiling again.
"But why stay here?" I asked.
"Because," he answered, "my brothers live here and I must stay here till I die. If I am not to be found, then my brothers must die for me. It will not last long, for there are many bags of money on my head. My enemy is a rich man."
"But," he went on, "wilt thou ask the Voivoda, who is a good man, to give me a magazine rifle and some cartridges? See my rifle, it is old, and I have but five cartridges left. For thee he will do it, and so I can die fighting a good fight, and perhaps can kill two or three of my enemies first. To-day I have wounded one."
"I will ask the Voivoda," I replied, "though I doubt if I have any influence with him. Ask him thyself."
I did ask the Voivoda, but he said the thing was impossible. He had no rifles to give away. But our fugitive continued his request at intervals for the rest of the time that he was with us.
At Velika, a collection of half a dozen houses, very charmingly situated in a valley, we halted and rested for many hours while the Voivoda transacted business and received reports from a very young officer who held this dangerous command. We commented on his youth, and were told that his father, recently dead, had held the position, and that he had inherited it. "Besides," continued our informant, "he is quite up to his work."
As we dismounted, our escort unloaded their rifles, the snapping of locks and breeches bringing the excitement of the last hour or two vividly back to our memory.
The men of Velika were fierce-looking and of great stature. Rifle, handjar, and revolver were carried by all. Our escort were equally fine men, that fearless look so characteristic of the Montenegrin race, being accentuated here. Yet the faces are pleasing, honest, and good-tempered. There is to be found in the world no more splendid specimens of fighting humanity than the Montenegrin borderer. Brave, reckless to a fault, with absolutely no fear of death, inured to every hardship, and able to live and thrive on the barest fare, they are typical of the old Viking, chivalrous and courteous, with the purest blood of the Balkans flowing in their veins.
Our meal was sumptuous. Fish shot in the river by one of our escort on the way, a bowl of ground maize cooked in oil, raw ham, eggs, bread, cheese and onions, the whole washed down in draughts of fiery spirits. Not a feast, I grant you, in an epicurean sense, but highly acceptable in Montenegro. We were waited upon by two women, who were always most careful to leave the room backwards. Our meal was very jolly, and at its conclusion we took corners in the room and slept. About three p.m. we started again for home, taking the fugitive with us.
He had decided to return to his farm, but as we neared the Gusinje strip of land where he lived the extreme nervous tension of the morning returned to him. Poor devil, it would be difficult to forget the sharp sighs which burst from him, when his control over himself left him for a moment, but it was with a smile and a cigarette between his lips that he left us, bounding over the ground like a deer.
In all probability he is dead by now.
In Gusinje we made a lengthy halt, while the Voivoda settled several boundary disputes between the inhabitants, our escort taking up commanding positions all round us and keeping a very sharp look-out.
It would seem that the Voivoda has right of jurisdiction in this strip of land, though how we were unable to elicit. At any rate Albanians came and stated their cases, bringing witnesses, and amongst great noise the Voivoda gave his judgments, which seemed to be final.