On re-entering Montenegro we dismounted on the bank of the River Lim; the Voivoda pointed out a stone on the opposite side about three hundred yards distance, and taking a rifle he fired at it. In a few seconds we were all shooting at it in turn, the Voivoda acting as umpire with the aid of my field-glasses. It seemed a risky thing to do in a country so easily alarmed, but no rapid firing was allowed.
The shooting was moderately good.
As the last shot had been fired, and some of us already mounted, a corporal from Andrijevica came up at a trot, bringing a telegram for the adjutant. It contained the notification of his promotion to a captain.
This led to a salvo of revolver-shots and cheers, and we proceeded on our way.
At the first khan (Morina) we stopped for coffee, and found two or three hundred men assembled under the command of the district captain. Had anything happened to us, revenge would have come very quickly. Here our additional escort left us, and our long ride home was commenced, which ended in the dark.
It was a nasty ride, for both P. and Stephan's horses came down repeatedly, and the path was constantly about two hundred feet above the Lim. It requires care in the daytime, but in the uncertain light of evening it was distinctly dangerous. Both horses were done up, and Stephan lost his temper, and we saw him in his true colours, as he kicked and beat his unlucky animal. It was not till I took very energetic measures that he would stop, which amused the Voivoda immensely.
P.'s horse was ill—in fact, it was his last journey. A few days afterwards he died from inflammation of the lungs, contracted at Velika that day.
We went for a few days' shooting on the Vasojevicki Kom, and were handed over by the Voivoda to one called Vaso, a rich peasant of the district. He swore to be answerable for our safety, with his head and all that was his, and we lived with him for many days on the side of the mighty mountain.
The shooting was not good, however; it was not the season, but otherwise our stay was very pleasant. The grassy plateau was about five thousand feet high and bitterly cold at night; below us, on either side, stretched great beech forests, and the Kom rose abruptly before us.
Our hut was large and roomy, but draughty to an extreme. At night the icy wind whistled through its crevices, and we had to bury our heads in blankets. The whole family shared it with us, and in one corner stood an unwearied calf, too tender to brave the cold of the outside.
Those evenings which we spent round the fire are impossible to describe adequately. Tired from a long day's tramping and sliding through the forests, often wet to the skin from heavy showers, the peace and warmth of that camp fire were delightful.
The shepherds came from far and near, and asked us many questions: if we carried an apparatus for making banknotes (this is not meant as an insult, but a common belief that Europeans can fabricate their paper-money at will—a belief of which we had sadly to disillusionise them); if our glasses could show us Belgrade, and so on—questions sometimes so difficult to answer that we had to give them up. Then they would talk of themselves; the older men would tell of past deeds, of fighting and bloodshed, and the fitful glow of the fire would light up their animated faces and picturesque costumes.
Great simple children they were, unknown in the art of lying, and yet they repeat stories of bygone battles and slaughter, which they have heard and believed, as gospel truth. Like Esau, with the smell of the field upon them, they love to listen, too, to stories of unknown lands, where the houses are even larger and finer than those of Cetinje or Podgorica, which towns many even have not seen; but too much of the outside world one cannot tell them, for then they look hurt at being deemed so childish. They are curious, too, as are all children, and love to examine the clothes which we strange foreign creatures wear. There they sit on the hard earthen floor, as happy and contented as princes, nay, more so, for they have no cares to trouble them. They proffer us their tobacco tins, accepting ours in return, touching their caps as they do so; then the cigarette, deftly rolled, is lit by a glowing ember, which they rake from the fire, and the now burning cigarette is handed to us to light from. Again we all touch our caps, for it is rigid etiquette, in accepting a light, to acknowledge the courtesy by a half military salute. In the corner the calf will moan, and we, now half asleep, will stretch out our weary limbs, draw our coats and blankets over us, and to the murmur of the now subdued conversation, find forgetfulness in sweet sleep.
I remember a conversation with a boy of about fifteen, who was out shooting with me, and acting as my guide and beater.
It was nearing sunset, and we sat and rested on a ridge which overlooked both sides of the valleys.
He asked me so many questions that I asked him if he had never even been to Podgorica.
"No," he said, "I shall never go."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because I am content here. If I went to that great town, I should be ashamed of my ragged clothes. I should want to buy the beautiful things which they tell me are to be bought in the shops, and not having money I should be sad. No; it is better never to have seen such magnificence."
"But," I argued, "if thou goest to Podgorica, thou wouldst find work. Even I could get thee employment."
"No," he repeated; "my home is in the mountains. In time I would have to return here, and I should be miserable with the remembrance of those happy days."
This boy had been taught at the school, and he told me the capitals of the great countries, which were nothing more than empty names to him. He knew, also, a few words of German, about two phrases, though how he picked them up was hard to make out.
He liked to ask me questions about England, Montenegro's friend in past times of trouble, and seemed surprised to hear that I had seen snow before I came to his land.
His father said that the boy was stupid and a dreamer, but I thought differently of him.
P. joined me, and together we watched the sunset. On our left towered the Kom, and running in an unbroken chain circled a mountain range, ending in the setting sun. Low down an angry bank of clouds hung over the distant peaks, and into this mass of black and grey the sun, in all its glory of yellow and gold, sank slowly. The hills between us seemed wild and mysterious. Away to our left, in gloomy confusion, the Albanian Alps reared their heads, lit here and there with a red gleam of sunlight. At our feet, shrouded in impenetrable blackness, lay two steep ravines. The sun sank, leaving a weird eerie feeling behind, and we found ourselves strangely cold.
We spent many days with Vaso, shooting with indifferent results, but revelling in the glories of nature.
We leave Andrijevica—Our additional escort—The arrival at our camping-place—In an enemy's country—The story of one Gjolic—Our slumbers are disturbed—Sunrise on the Alps—We disappoint our escort—"Albanian or Montenegrin?"—A reconnaissance—The Forest of Vucipotok—The forbidden land—A narrow escape—We arrive at Rikavac—Rain damps our ardour—Nocturnal visitors.
We left Andrijevica finally one morning about eight a.m. for our many days' ride along the Albanian frontier to Podgorica. Everyone turned out to bid us farewell, from the Voivoda, who expressed his regret that we had seen no one shot, downwards. The Voivoda's son and a small party accompanied us to the outskirts of the town, where a quaint notice-board bears the inscription that, on pain of a fine, shooting is forbidden within the prescribed limits.
Here, after much hand-shaking and promises to come again, we mounted, and drawing our revolvers, replied right merrily to the farewell volleys of our friends. It is a pleasant custom that—shooting at parting.
We rode for two or three hours along the Perusica valley till we came to a small and scattered village, Konjuhe, where we dismounted for a rest. It was the birthplace of the Voivoda, and his brother still lived there. He was immediately sent for. When he heard of our proposed tour, he insisted on our taking an additional escort (besides Dr. S., and Stephan our servant, we had engaged another man, named Milan, in Andrijevica) of at least two men, as the country was just now in a very dangerous condition. The necessary guard was soon found, and after a long halt owing to a heavy shower, we were able to proceed on our way, first carefully loading our rifles and overhauling our revolvers. Our two men were quite celebrated for a famous raid into Gusinje, in which they had played an active part a short time ago. They had killed several Albanians, and captured two hundred sheep. As the Albanians would shoot them at sight, they seemed hardly fitted to act as an escort; but then every man from that part is engaged, more or less, in a blood feud across the border.
We commenced climbing almost directly, and the ascent lasted for the rest of the day. The scenery was grand. On our right the majestic Kom, still covered with snow; falling away precipitously to the left was the deep ravine of Terpetlis, through which a mountain torrent dashed; and rising high on the other side, and forming the boundary between Montenegro and Albania, was a magnificent rocky ridge. We dismounted at one point to breathe our horses, and made our midday meal off wild strawberries.
Further on we passed from the Vasovic into the Kuc. These two, the most warlike clans of Montenegro, were formerly under Turkish rule, and bitter foes. But when war broke out, they forgot their old enmity and joined hand-in-hand with Montenegro to drive out the still more hated Turk. Since then they have lived together in peace and harmony.
On nearing our camping-ground for the night, our two guards ran on to draw the fire from any concealed Albanians, while we followed more leisurely. The scenery was wild in the extreme, though differing very slightly from that which we had experienced during the last few weeks. Great woods stretched half-way down the mountain to the torrent, and up again on the further side. Immense boulders, with an occasional tree growing out of a crevice, and every here and there clumps of firs, every yard affording excellent cover for a hidden enemy.
Our destination was Carina, a collection of stone huts on an open green slope, which reaches up to the rocky sides of the Kom. It is the highest point inhabited in Montenegro by the shepherds in the summer, and lies over five thousand feet above the sea-level. During this period of the annual migration to the hills, the district is comparatively safe. The Albanians do not attack large parties, but rather stragglers, as larger numbers have an unpleasant habit of organising themselves into avenging bands to repay the visit with interest.
Not a soul was to be seen anywhere, not a living being of any description. In a shower of pelting rain we took possession of the largest hut. It is decidedly annoying to get thoroughly wet at the end of a long day, and the prospect of a night in damp clothes was in no way pleasing. The hut was damp and cold, and it had the chilly feeling which only comes from a long period of emptiness, and strikes to the marrow. But our men turned to with a will, cleaning out the hut, strewing it with very wet rushes, and piling up a big log-fire in the middle. We were pretty hungry, too, a couple of eggs at six a.m. and a few strawberries at midday are not much to go on, and we had been in the saddle for over ten hours. Stephan had brought amongst other things some raw bacon, which he gave me, but, hungry as I was, I could not face that. Later on, a happy thought struck me, and I went and toasted it over the fire. I do not recollect ever relishing food so much in my life. About a couple of hours later a lamb had been roasted, and we were able to make a decent meal.
It was getting rapidly dark now, and watch had to be kept outside. The horses were picketed close at hand for fear of wolves, as well as Albanians. By the time that we had finished eating, night was upon us. It was pitch dark and no moon. Rather reluctantly I turned out to do my share of sentry-go in the bitter cold. But it was decidedly interesting, as one of our party began to tell stories of the usual blood-curdling nature. On emerging from the hut, I thoughtlessly remained standing for a few seconds in the low doorway which, as the fire was blazing brightly inside, showed up my figure strongly against the surrounding gloom. Before I knew where I was I was roughly seized by a man and thrown forcibly into the darkness. He intimated that I must be a fool to court death in that manner. For all we knew, he said, a dozen Albanians might be hiding around us and waiting for such an easy shot. And when I was not allowed to smoke, I realised that we were in an enemy's country.
Watch was kept all night by two men, one sitting on the roof, or on an elevation which commanded it, and the other patrolling round with a sharp eye on the horses. The roof must always be watched, for the Albanians usually creep up and climb on to it—it is always conveniently low—they then remove a board and shoot the sleeping inmates.
During my watch I was told the following story, which brings out many interesting traits of the Montenegrin character.
A certain man named Gjolic, of the tribe of Vasovic, killed two men of his clan over a love affair, and promptly fled to Gusinje, the country just opposite Carina, and inhabited by a tribe of Albanians, famed for their blood-thirstiness and hatred of strangers. The only passport to their land is crime, and no one but a fugitive from justice can hope to enter, or leave it, alive. Gjolic swore to have revenge on his clan, and in this respect he was a notable exception. He came repeatedly across the border, often in broad daylight, shooting anyone whom he met. He soon became the terror of the whole Vasovic. In the neighbourhood of Carina he had shot many shepherds, and last autumn he murdered a youth of sixteen. This was too much, and two men laid their heads together. To obtain the necessary right of entrance to Gusinje, they crossed over into Turkey and deliberately stole a cow, taking care at the same time that they should be arrested and sentenced to punishment. Their plan acted admirably, and they effected their escape, fleeing to Gusinje, where they were received in a friendly manner. But Gjolic was away, and for six months they waited for him in patience. At last news came that he was on his way home, and could be expected on a certain day. So the men went out to meet him, and began shooting fish in a river where he must pass. Fish shooting is a common and favourite sport of the people.
"God help you," said a voice, "has your luck been good?"
It was Gjolic who spoke.
"Our luck is good," they answered, and following an imaginary fish with their rifles, they turned on him.
Crack! Crack! Gjolic was dead.
That scene I shall never forget. The starless night, all round the land lying enshrouded in impenetrable darkness, the low voice of the Montenegrin which rose with his excitement, but sank again immediately to a hoarse whisper, and on the barely discernible roof of the hut a black figure, with rifle at the ready, sitting motionless.
It was eleven o'clock when I turned in, and the next man took his rifle and went outside to relieve one of the watchers. A roaring fire was kept going, for it was very cold, and round it lay the others sleeping, each with his rifle and revolver by his head. "And we are in Europe!" I said to myself, as I lay down to sleep, which, in spite of the mighty snoring of Dr. S., came almost immediately.
It seemed but a few minutes since I had closed my eyes when a shot rang out, bringing me to my knees in an instant. It is not advisable to rise quickly in these huts without taking the roof into consideration, as I had learnt by bitter and repeated experience. Everyone awoke, except Dr. S., who snored on peacefully. However, I roughly awoke him, and we all dashed out, rifle in hand.
One of our sentries stood peering into the gloom, and swore that he had seen a figure moving. We lay down and waited, but nothing came.
Then slowly the day began to dawn, and with it our anxiety diminished. I went to get a cup of coffee, preparatory to climbing a part of the Kom. One of our guards, of course, accompanied me. That is the worst of these districts, we could never move a step without being followed. It was like being under police surveillance. Furthermore, I should have preferred to climb with a good stick; but no. Again that iron control ordered me to take my carbine, and loaded too.
We reached a high ridge just in time to see the sun rise, and it lit up the snow-clad mountain-tops with an indescribable beauty. But so much has been written about the splendours of Alpine sunrises that it is needless to say more about it. Yet it was as beautiful as anything to be seen in Switzerland or the Tyrol. The ridge commanded a view in both directions. The Albanian Alps and the mountains behind the Moraca lay before us in one vast panorama, the latter looming up so close that it was difficult to believe that so many days' hard riding lay between us.
After climbing one of the lower peaks, we descended again to our hut, which we reached shortly after six. Everyone was busy, washing, packing up, or even sleeping, which is an equally important business. To snatch half an hour's sleep here and there is an enviable art, and cannot be overrated. But, perched on a low stone wall, sat a guard all the time. Daylight does not imply safety.
After breakfast, luxurious with toasted bacon, I emerged from the hut to find an excited group outside, one of whom was even lying down and aiming.
"He is watching us. It is far better that we should finish him now than allow him to go on and report our movements," said the man, fingering his trigger lovingly.
On looking I saw an Albanian about six hundred yards away, half hidden behind a boulder. The idea of shooting a man in this way did not seem quite sporting, and Dr. S. agreed with me. The men were extremely disappointed at our refusal to allow them to shoot. "He will follow us till we reach the wood," they said, "and then we shall repent it." The Albanian shortly afterwards disappeared, and we proceeded with our packing.
About eight o'clock we left Carina, and had rather an unique experience in riding across several large snow fields which were quite hard, though the horses decidedly disliked the experiment. About an hour's ride brought us to a tiny church, solidly built of stone and standing on a ridge overlooking the whole country. It is used by the shepherds who migrate annually to the pasturages in this district. Only a few months ago the Albanians had broken into it and utterly dismantled it. On the iron door and on the shutters huge dents and even bullet splashes were plainly visible. Our Albanian we found here awaiting us, which was a plucky thing to do. Our guards hailed him with the cry of "Albanian or Montenegrin?" But he answered, "Friend." I think that our men showed him our rifles rather ostentatiously, and, as we were all armed with magazines and had plenty of ammunition, he must have thought that we should scarcely afford the desired sport. We did not see him again, though he took the same path which we were going to take. This incident put us very much on our guard, and we made preparations for the further journey with mixed feelings. Before us lay the dense wood of Vucipotok, which is the most ill-famed spot in Montenegro. It stretches unbrokenly down to Gusinje, and the bridle path which traverses it is the border line between the two countries.
It was then settled that a guard and myself should climb a small hill overlooking the wood and its approach. However, we saw nothing, and soon rejoined our party. Before entering the wood, in the open, were two or three stones erected to murdered men—it is customary in Montenegro to put up either a pile of stones or a slab of rock where the body has been found. Inscriptions on the stones are very rare, the Vucipotok is too dangerous to waste much time in it, but wherever these stones are seen, a dead man, as often as not headless, has been found. Such memorial stones are to be found all over the country, but not in such plentiful profusion as we saw them now.
Everyone dismounted, and with rather uncanny feelings we entered the forest. First of all went one of our escort, and then in single file, about ten paces apart, we followed. Rifles were held at the ready, and every boulder and tree carefully scanned. The path was atrocious, strewn with great stones, so that walking was no easy matter. When a particularly large boulder was reached, we would halt under its shelter to enable the horses to come up—they were following behind under the charge of one man. We did not exactly stroll through that wood.
Every few paces stood a memorial stone. There was one put up to the memory of ten Montenegrins who were all shot down without seeing their enemy. Everyone shoots at sight here, and had we met our Albanian friend of the early morning, matters would have gone sadly with him. At one point I insisted on taking a photograph—much to everyone's disgust. The spot was where a famous Kuc general had been murdered. His head was taken in triumph to Scutari. Oddly enough, we ate our midday meal at his grave, for his friends took his body away from here and buried it in an open place directly overlooking the valley of Gusinje. I was rather hurried over the operation, as the Montenegrins distinctly objected to standing still, but they were all very tickled about it.
The Vucipotok is used by young Montenegrins as a means of showing their bravery. They go straight through it alone, with their rifles over their backs, smoking cigarettes. This constitutes an act of reckless daring in their eyes. Some even go through, at some distance from the path, on the Albanian side. We met one young man leading his horse and strolling along as unconcernedly as though he were in Cetinje—so that we almost felt that we were being unduly impressed with a sense of danger. But afterwards we met another party who were proceeding with greater caution than we were. And then there were those memorial stones.
At last the wood ceased, and in a clearing we made a halt. Our Montenegrins looked relieved. For themselves they have no fear, but had one of us been hit, the disgrace for them would have been unspeakable. It would have necessitated a raid into Albania of the most extensive kind, and hundreds might have fallen; the Montenegrins guard their visitors as they guard their honour, and in that case, life is only a secondary matter.
We now climbed a very steep hill. At the top we had to dismount, as a narrow path, just wide enough for a horse, skirted along a great precipice, looking straight down about one thousand feet. It was a wonderful view, but not to be recommended to those suffering in any way from giddiness.
We overlooked the great Vucipotok wood through which we had just passed, and the whole valley of Gusinje. When we reached a place where we were able to turn round with comfort, we stopped for the view. A long, narrow valley, inclosed by the Procletia or "Damnable Mountains," through which a river could be seen flowing, lay at our feet. This was Gusinje, the forbidden land. With the aid of field-glasses the town of Gusinje itself could be just distinguished, a square and apparently walled-in town. Very picturesque it looked in the bright sunshine, the great green woods in the foreground, the solemn and majestic snow mountains and the peaceful valley. Yet it is inhabited by the most villainous and treacherous cut-throats in Europe, an absolutely untameable tribe, who would die to the last man to preserve their independence.
[Footnote 4: This, however, is not the case, as we afterwards learnt.]
When the path broadened out slightly our two guards left us and returned home. Both emptied their magazines into the air at parting, which we answered, and the din was tremendous. Below us was a small village or collection of shepherds' huts, and, in that moment, confusion reigned supreme. The men seized their rifles, the women rushed into the huts, dogs barked, and horses stampeded. It seemed rather thoughtless to thus alarm the village, but, on being remonstrated with, the men only laughed and fired another shot. Had it been a town below us the result might have been more serious.
A little further on, we stopped for rest and food at a narrow pass overlooking Gusinje on the one side and Montenegro on the other. The murdered Kuc general, whose memorial stone we had seen earlier in the day, was buried here. Strange that his body should find its last resting-place overlooking the home of his murderers.
By using the Montenegrin telephone (the art of talking at great distances), we ordered some milk from the village below, and drank it with that enjoyment which is only known to a thoroughly hungry and thirsty man.
Our afternoon's ride was again particularly stiff. Climbing one hill, Dr. S., who was leading, missed the path, a very easy thing to do, so undefined as it sometimes is. He got on to a very steep and rocky bit of the hill and his horse lost its footing. It began stumbling and slipping about in a most alarming manner. We held our breath for the next few seconds, for a long fall was in store for him, and certain death. He tried to dismount, and succeeded in getting off his horse, but his foot stuck in the stirrup, the horse still sliding on. Fortunately, the animal recovered its balance, and Dr. S. extricated himself, but it was a nasty moment. That is the worst of the Montenegrins; they rely so implicitly on the sure-footedness of their ponies that they ride up anywhere, only condescending to dismount for very steep descents. And accidents often happen when horse or man, or even both, are killed; but this presumable laziness affords no example to others.
About five p.m. we began anxiously inquiring the whereabouts of our night quarters. The usual Montenegrin quart d'heure was given—and rightly enough. A sharp descent, lasting over an hour, made painfully on foot, saw us in a great hollow basin among the mountains, with the pretty lake of Rikavac at the further end and a small collection of wooden huts.
To these we proceeded and were met by the village Fathers. Dr. S. was well known here and they had recognised him coming down. Five dear old boys they were, who kissed Dr. S. most affectionately, one unshaven old ruffian including me in his salute. I do not appreciate the Montenegrin custom of kissing among men; it is not pleasant. An empty hut was immediately put at our disposal. It was the most primitive and tumble-down habitation that we had had as yet. Of course it rained. It was almost the first rain on the trip, and we had to lie up here a whole day as P. was unwell and unable to ride. Everyone turned out to make the hut comfortable, but it was not a success. I lay down outside and promptly fell asleep, when a sharp thunderstorm came on and drove me inside. There was not a dry corner to be found. The rain came through in steady rivulets everywhere. There was no getting away from those persistent little streams, either head, body, or feet had to suffer—and the fire refused to burn. Added to that, the whole population crowded in to look at us. It was no fun at all Stephan stood cursing in German that he could not get near the fire to cook, and that he would not cook at all if the mob were not cleared out. This Dr. S. refused to allow, as it would be considered inhospitable.
In course of time the rain stopped and our visitors left us, but only temporarily. Stephan cooked and we went outside to dry ourselves. The food was then ready, and after putting away a good meal we were able to view the world with more equanimity.
After supper it came on to rain again and damped us thoroughly before going to bed. I was very annoyed to find, after having discovered as I fondly imagined a dry corner, that one of my pockets was full of water. I should not have been so irritated had my tobacco been in another pocket; it was a leather coat and held the water beautifully. Then we tried to go to sleep. My pillow was a stone, like Jacob's, and though I tried covering it with my coat it was of no avail, since the cold forced me to put it on again. I do not mind a hard bed, but a hard pillow is distinctly objectionable. We were just on the point of sleeping when in stalked two men for an after-supper smoke and chat, and one of them, to P.'s intense disgust, sat on his feet. It cost Dr. S. all his diplomacy to hint that we had been up since three a.m. and were disinclined to talk.
More memorial stones—We get wet again—Unwilling hosts—A fall—The Franciscan of Zatrijebac—The ravine of the Zem—Methods of settling tribal differences—A change of diet and more pleasant evenings—A fatalist—Sunday morning.
Punctually at eight a.m. next morning we took an affectionate farewell of the Fathers, though I mounted hurriedly first to avoid the repetition of the welcoming chaste salute.
Our path lay for two hours over a rocky and barren country similar to the naked Katunska district round Cetinje. Gone were the rich green pasturages and wooded valleys in exchange for a waste of grey rocks. But a large wood was ultimately reached, only a little less dangerous than the wood of Vucipotok. Similar precautions were observed in passing through—in fact, our carbines were carried loaded again all day. The Albanian border was never more than a rifle-shot away. Numerous gentle reminders of the dangers of the path existed in the shape of memorial stones all the way along. We met several families, all fully armed of course, driving their flocks before them to the mountain grazing-grounds of the Kom.
It was about one o'clock when we emerged on a large barren plateau. On the further side, just across the border, lay the Albanian village of Korito, which Dr. S. knew, and where we intended spending the rest of the day and night.
Half-way across, a sudden storm of rain and hail came down, and I have never got wet through so quickly in my life. Within five minutes, the water was running out of my boots. My leather coat, though waterproof, let regular rivers down my neck. It was a rain that would not be denied, and icy cold.
In that waterspout we sat and waited while Dr. S. hunted up his friends; but apparently they had all left, with their flocks. A few Albanians appeared, and by the dint of much persuasion Dr. S. induced them to show us an empty hut. As soon as they had done this they left us, looking at us in an unfriendly and suspicious manner. We got our baggage in as quickly as possible, and by this time we were shivering with cold. No wood could be seen, and Dr. S. again sallied forth, and by the aid of small bribes some wood was brought and we soon had a fire burning.
However, our natural buoyancy rose again with the fire, and we made a very light meal off the food that we had with us. It was not more than a few mouthfuls apiece, but nothing could be got here. Then we solemnly stood round the fire and dried ourselves, the steam rising like pillars of cloud, and hiding our figures from each other. The warmth was very agreeable and comforting.
Several Albanians now crowded in, examining our arms, and were so unfriendly, not to say threatening, that we hastily reconsidered our plans. Firstly and foremostly, we had no food, watch would have to be kept all the time, over the horses and at the hut, using up two men, so the prospect was not pleasing.
So we saddled up and left about three for Zatrijebac, four hours' distance, happy to be rid of our unwilling hosts.
The difference between the treatment of strangers by Albanians and Montenegrins was very marked.
Our path led us through the great wood of Kostice, and, owing to the recent heavy rain, the track, never very plain, was in parts entirely obliterated. Twice we lost ourselves, and once more a drenching shower came on, repeating the morning douche. Still we plodded on with stumbling horses over the slippery way till we emerged on the great plain or plateau of Zatrijebac. Zatrijebac is an Albanian clan several thousand strong who live under Montenegrin rule. They serve as Montenegrin subjects in the army, give no trouble except in occasional border fights with rival Albanian clans, and their bravery is proverbial. Further, they are Roman Catholics. The country is most curious, great slabs of stone lying about in a promiscuous fashion as if it had once rained them, and the path was certainly the most vile of the whole trip, which is putting it as strongly as possible.
[Footnote 5: I have since learnt differently.—R.W.]
It was climbing or rather scaling a small rock that my long-expected fall came. Alat, my horse, floundered badly at an angle of forty-five degrees and lost his balance completely. The doctor, who was behind, shouted to me to pull him up, but as I was sliding off his back with a broken girth at an ever-increasing velocity, I was unable to follow this very excellent advice. Down I came heavily on the stones, luckily on the high side of the path, landing on my back with my legs all mixed up in Alat's. My saddle and saddlebags followed me in quick succession, and something hit me violently over the head—that was my carbine. Providentially Alat stood still, and my cartridge belt saved my back.
I got up when I could sort out my legs, making remarks to Dr. S. about that girth which he said afterwards were quite artistic. Many, many years ago the girth may have been good and strong, and it had undoubtedly seen better days. Next I sought one named Stephan. He had always assured me that it would last another week. Montenegrins are careless about such things.
The rest of the way I had to walk, which dried me, as the path was steep and tiring. At the house of Dr. S. in Podgorica we had met a young Franciscan monk, a Neapolitan and a great student. He at once invited us to visit him in Zatrijebac, where he is the spiritual shepherd, and to spend a few weeks with him. On approaching a roofless church, in the course of rebuilding, we espied this young monk rushing to meet us. With all the fervour of his race, he embraced and kissed us repeatedly, welcoming us to his home. He gave me his bed, and the other remaining one was put at P.'s disposal, and he would not hear of our leaving next day or the next.
There are but two other Roman Catholic churches in Montenegro, in Antivari and Dulcigno, in fact only where the Albanians are in sufficient evidence.
[Footnote 6: The Austrian Legation in Cetinje has also its own chapel.]
We had intended to visit Zatrijebac at the beginning of our mountain tour, but the district was considered unsafe at that time. A quarrel over the appointment of a new captain had led to the relations of the disappointed candidate shooting the brother of the new captain. Two boys, aged fifteen and sixteen respectively, had ambushed their victim, and put no less than seven bullets into him at a distance of four hundred yards, which is pretty good shooting. The boys got away across the border, but wholesale arrests took place, and it is not well to visit districts thus excited. The young Franciscan repeated to us the story that evening round the kitchen fire, where we spent very many happy hours. He spoke of it sadly.
"The vendetta is a terrible thing," he said. "It respects neither the laws of God nor man."
Our host would not rest till he had shown me the famous view, and Dr. S. accompanied us. As one stands outside the church, a magnificent panorama is spread out, seemingly without a break. But should one wish to ascend the mountains opposite so temptingly near, a great ravine must be first descended. Ten minutes' walk brings one to the edge of a precipice 2,400 feet deep, so appalling and so sudden that one's breath is momentarily taken away. It is a spot to sit and meditate on the grandeur of the work of the Master of all architects. The majesty of that mighty ravine is, indeed, awe-inspiring.
At the bottom, a mere tiny thread, flows the Zem, a river which has often run blood, and whose source is hardly known as it rises in the unknown Procletia, "the Accursed Mountains" of history. A wall of mountains rises beyond. Steep and precipitous as is the descent on the Zatrijebac side, still a path trodden daily by mountaineers winds and zigzags down to the bottom. Then as we seated ourselves on a carefully selected and safe ledge and gazed on this unique picture, the monk told us of a bloody battle fought not so very many years ago by the men of Zatrijebac and the clan of Hotti who inhabit the opposite mountains. It was a quaint illustration how questions of boundary lines are settled without the aid of expensive Courts of Arbitration.
When the new frontier was laid down at the conclusion of the late war, the River Zem was Montenegro's limit. On the hill beyond lies a grazing-ground which has been used as a summer pasturage by the Zatrijebac from times immemorial. Though technically now belonging to Albania, and in particular to the clan of Hotti, the Zatrijebac still continued to drive their flocks across the ravine. The Hotti remonstrated, and finding this of no avail, took possession of the plateau. Their opponents coming over found the rival clan posted in a seemingly impregnable position on every point of vantage on that steep ascent. Though armed with inferior rifles (in those days), they attacked at once, and by reckless bravery came to hand-to-hand conflict. Then a terrible encounter ensued, men seized each other and threw themselves over the cliffs, and to complete the utter discomfiture of the Hotti, the Kuc came to the assistance of their neighbours and the Hotti were nearly annihilated. Since then no questions have been asked, and annually the cattle and sheep of Zatrijebac graze in peace in Albania.
It was a very similar dispute which has happened so very recently at Mokra near Andrijevica.
Supper gave us a much needed change of diet. Boiled fowl and vegetables came as a luxury after days of tough and stringy lamb. We sat at a table again too, on chairs, and felt quite ashamed of our recently acquired habits.
The evenings round the kitchen fire were just as delightful as our hut experiences, and if possible, more novel. Here we had fierce Albanians, with their half-shaven heads and scalping lock, and a scholar, a student of philosophy, a man of wonderful ideals, in the form of the young Franciscan, instead of unkempt shepherds.
[Footnote 7: Since writing the above another tribal disturbance has taken place between the Zatrijebac and the Hotti. This time it was the Hotti who drove their flocks, also from time immemorial, to a certain spot in Zatrijebac, and as the latter tribe have since cultivated the intervening ground, they felt justly irritated. As the only real argument is the rifle, they met and argued the point in this fashion in February, 1902, and many fell on both sides. A notable incident which is worth recording is, that a man of Hotti fought on the side of the Zatrijebac against his brethren and was killed. His body was afterwards handed back and his clan demanded to know if he had fought as a man. "In the front rank," was the answer. Then they took the body and gave it an honourable burial and agreed to let the dispute drop. In this action our friend the monk had his habit riddled with bullets whilst attending the wounded.]
Round the fire another evening an argument as to the wrongs of Fatalism, i.e. God's Will, led to a characteristic story by the monk in defence of his views. Dr. S., like many men who lead such lives as he does, was a rigid fatalist.
An Albanian found his enemy in vendetta, working in a field. Hiding himself, he prayed to God and S. Nicholas to direct the bullet.
"Lord," he prayed, "should I hit this man in the breast, then I shall know that I do this deed by Thy Will."
He laid his rifle on a stone, took careful aim, and the other fell dead shot through the breast.
"By God's Will I killed him," he answered, when the priest endeavoured to impress upon him his crime.
The lighter side of nature was given us by another story.
Shortly after the priest's arrival at Zatrijebac a half-naked man came to him. The worthy friar took pity on him and gave him a clean white shirt of his own.
On the following Sunday during the Mass, as he turned to his congregation to give the Benediction, to his horror he saw the man with the shirt drawn over all his ragged clothes, in a front row. It was with the greatest difficulty, he concluded, that he could restrain a smile.
We were afforded a novel and striking scene before we left Zatrijebac in the form of an open-air Mass on Sunday.
The church being in the course of rebuilding, a rough altar had been hastily constructed, or rather knocked up—for it was of most crude workmanship—of wood planks on a small grass plot.
From nine a.m. onwards the people began to assemble, coming from all parts of the large and straggling district, and sat about in groups gravely talking. Towards eleven o'clock a large number of peasants had arrived, and the altar was covered with not a fair white cloth as usual, but with something suspiciously resembling a long and not overclean towel. A tiny crucifix was placed upon it, and the young priest robed himself there in sight of the whole congregation.
A group of elder men knelt or squatted on the small open space immediately in front of the High Altar, but the majority of worshippers ranged themselves under the shade of some small trees and on the low surrounding walls.
These same trees bear weekly a strange and incongruous fruit, for they are used as pegs whereon the Albanians hang their rifles during service. All round, the walls are stacked with rifles, for, like the Puritans of old, they come to church fully armed with rifle, handjar, and revolver, and round their waists, the inevitable bandolier of cartridges.
On approaching the altar every man pushed back the cloth which is swathed round his half-shaven head, and kneeling, piously crossed himself. The older men displayed even more reverence, and kissed the earth. The younger men were much the same as their cultured and civilised brothers, lounging through the service, half seated on a wall, and barely crossing themselves.
But the general effect was one of great reverence and striking in the extreme. We watched this strange congregation with great interest, and during the most sacred part of the service, when all, even the blase young men, prostrated themselves, the effect was unique.
Picture a cut-throat, shave half his head, leaving a tuft of hair on the back by which he kindly assists his victor to decapitate him, expecting a like consideration in return, long drooping moustachios, clad in Turkish clothes, a belt full of cartridges, with revolver and murderous-looking yataghan artistically displayed—of such was this congregation. Men who half-an-hour afterwards would shoot an enemy in the course of a vendetta, or otherwise, without any thought of remorse. Yes, and coolly cut off his head and bring it home to his admiring wife and daughters, now so discreetly and respectfully kneeling behind them. This is not an over-drawn picture. It happens often.
Of such consisted the congregation under the green trees, blue sky, brilliant sunshine, in that perfect landscape this Sunday morning. And of such is peopled a part of the vast country of Albania. A people who hold human life as nothing—a reckless and brave nation of devout Roman Catholics.
At the conclusion of the service we came in for a lot of inspection, and going in to dine soon afterwards we chanced to look out of the window overlooking the scene of the morning Mass. Still a great crowd hung about, and on the late High Altar sat men smoking cigarettes. After dinner we bade farewell to our young host, amidst honest regrets on both sides. The Franciscan had given us a new insight into the mysteries of life.
A modern hero, and our sojourn under his roof—Keco's story—The laws of Vendetta and their incongruity—We return to Podgorica—The Montenegrin telephone—An elopement causes excitement—The Sultan's birthday—The reverse of the picture—A legal anomaly.
"At Fundina," said Dr. S., "you will meet one of the modern heroes of Montenegro. A man named Keco, whose fame has reached to the uttermost ends of the land."
We had bidden farewell to our host and were riding past the last houses and huts of the clan of Zatrijebac on our way to Fundina. The path tended downwards, and shortly the great plain of the Zeta burst suddenly into view as we rounded a corner of the mountains. Beyond lay the Lake of Scutari with its background of mountains.
It was early in the evening when we reined in our horses before a modest stone house and dismounted. It was Fundina, a straggling village built on the sloping sides of a mountain from which it takes its name.
Voivoda Marko, the hero of Medun, defeated the Turks on these slopes in the first engagement of the last war, successfully inaugurating the campaigning which secured to Montenegro all the territory through which we had been riding for so many weeks, including the towns of Podgorica and Niksic, and the great valley now stretched at our feet.
Podgorica lies like an oasis of green trees on the rolling, but treeless, plain.
The Albanian border is but a rifle-shot away, and the village of Dinos and the fortress of Tusi are plainly to be seen.
We decided to spend the night here and hear Keco's story, though Podgorica was only three hours' distance. It would be a fitting finish to our mountain tour to sleep on the battlefield of Fundina, and in the house of a modern hero.
"I warn you," remarked the doctor, "that Keco much belies his deeds by his appearance."
Keco was not in his house when we arrived, and we had our ceremonial and inevitable black coffee brought to us on a small natural platform of rock overlooking the magnificent valley.
Shortly afterwards a small and insignificant man approached us, with haggard looks and grey hair. He greeted the doctor effusively.
"This is Keco," said Dr. S.
As he took the tobacco tin which was proffered him his hands trembled so excessively that the rolling of a cigarette was a work of art.
"His nerves are gone," explained the doctor. "He lives in hourly danger of his life."
Keco soon left us to prepare our meal and quarters for the night, and it was not till after supper, when we were seated round the fire in his little house and smoking, that he would consent to tell his story. Even then he spoke at first reluctantly, but soon warmed to his subject. His wife was always present and looked anxious. Several men were in the room.
"Though my hands tremble and my hair is growing white," he began, "yet I do not fear death. We must all die, and I know that my fate must speedily overtake me. This house I have built for my wife, and stocked with what money I had, to provide for her. They shall not kill me easily. Twice have they tried. The first time I was in the fields when men fired at me from a long distance. I took my rifle and made a detour, and, as my enemies recrossed the border, I was there waiting for them. But I did not hit one. Another time seven men hid themselves only thirty yards away from my house, in the evening, but they dared not shoot then, for my wife was by my side."
"You know," explained the doctor, "the life of a woman is sacred; should a woman by the greatest accident shoot a man, the vendetta falls on her husband—she may not be touched; or, should a woman be killed in a vendetta, even by the merest accident, the shame would be unspeakable. The murderers and their families, or even their clan, would be blotted out, for in such revenge all would join. Keco's wife never leaves his side after dusk, and, you see, she has saved his life once already within his knowledge; who knows how often unawares?"
"Tell us the origin of thy blood-guiltiness," said we. Dr. S. had told us the story, but we wished to hear it from his lips.
"I had a cow which was my pride," went on Keco. "She yielded more milk than any other cow and of a far better quality. Men praised the milk and the cheese when I took it to the market in Podgorica for sale, and none more than Achmet, a Turk from Dinos.
"One morning I went to milk my cow, and could find her nowhere. My most treasured possession was gone. I searched for her all that day and the next on the mountain sides, but in vain. On the next market day as I wandered gloomily across the market-place of Podgorica, Achmet, the Turk, accosted me.
"'Where is thy milk?' he asked, 'which is so wonderful, and where are thy marvellous cheeses?'
"I replied that I knew not, and would have passed on.
"'Make thy mind easy,' continued Achmet, an evil smile spreading over his face, 'for I have thy cow.'
"'Ah! she has strayed across the border,' I cried. 'Thank God she is found.'
"'She strayed across the border,' said Achmet, 'but under my guidance. Thou hast not lied. Her milk is indeed of the good quality that thou hast boasted. For a Christian dog like thee she is far too good.'
"To this hour I wonder that I did not strike him dead. My rage rendered me powerless to move or see. It was as if a black cloud descended over my eyes. When I recovered, Achmet was gone.
"For many weeks I went to the Law Court whenever I visited the market, demanding the restitution of my cow by legal means, and each time was I put off by answers and promises. And Achmet was always on the market-place taunting me with tales of the cow and her calf. For she had calved. But the law is strict, and I never dared shoot him whilst in the town, and this the coward knew.
"When I saw that I should get no help from the law, I took two men from this village. They are here in this room," he said, pointing to two men seated near us. "And one morning I went across to Dinos. I did not go at night, like the thief, but when the sun was highest, and when all could see me. I left my comrades outside Achmet's house, and went in alone. There I found my cow and her calf, but only the women were present. So I drove the cow and the calf out of the door towards my comrades. Then, lest any should think that I was afraid, I fired my rifle into the air. Very soon the men came running from the fields, and amongst them Achmet and his son. When they saw me and my cow, they came towards me firing, but being unsteady from running, the bullets flew wide. Then I took careful aim and shot Achmet dead, and then his son. We then ran quickly, and though men pursued us, they were afraid to come too near lest I should shoot them likewise, and so we came back to Fundina in safety. Since then the men of Dinos wait for me, and they will kill me soon, for the insult is very great that I have put upon them, and the fame of my deed has travelled into all lands." As he said this his eyes lit with fire, and the spirit of heroism shone out in the seemingly timid-looking man.
"Must thou stay here, in Fundina?" I asked, "where thy enemies are so near. Why not go to Cetinje or Niksic?"
"Men know me for a hero," he answered proudly. "What would they say if I ran away and sought safety elsewhere? I should be a double coward, for I should leave my brothers to inherit my fate. No, I shall wait here till they come, and they shall not find me unprepared or sleeping. See, every night I make my bed in a different place, sometimes in one room of the house, sometimes in the bushes outside. They never know where I shall sleep, for these dogs love to kill their enemy in the night."
Silence fell upon us as Keco finished. The wood fire crackled and flickered, lighting up fitfully the serious faces of the men sitting round.
Half guessing our thoughts, Keco said—
"To-night no attack will be made. We shall keep guard outside."
We felt abashed. We confess thoughts of a nocturnal assassination had not pleased us, and yet these wild mountaineers had already provided for such a contingency. When we went outside the house before turning in, Dr. S. pointed out the figure of a motionless sentinel leaning on his rifle some little distance away.
"It is odd that the women are so respected," I remarked to the doctor, "when no other law seems recognised. Do they never take part in a vendetta?"
"Never as a woman," said the doctor. "If it should happen that a woman is the last surviving member of a family, the rest having been killed in a vendetta, she may continue the feud, but as a man. She then assumes the clothes of the opposite sex, procures arms and cuts herself off from the world, living as a hermit. Do you remember that Albanian woman at Easter time in Podgorica who kissed me so fervently?"
We nodded, for we had been much amused at the scene. A wild-looking, unkempt Albanian woman had kissed the doctor most effusively.
"Though she had assumed the woman's garb for the Easter festival, she is to all intents and purposes a man, and hence the man's kiss of peace. She then asked me for a revolver which I had promised her some time ago."
We turned in soon after, but not before we heard another story.
Two cairns on the road to Plavnica, and but half an hour from Podgorica, had often been pointed out to us. They were erected to the memory of an attack made on four gendarmes in connection with a long-standing vendetta. A party of Albanians had hidden themselves in two hollows beside the main road at night and as the gendarmes passed they fired into them, killing one and badly wounding two others. This happened shortly before our arrival.
Another scene had been enacted a few days ago which they now related to us, to prevent us perhaps thinking too much of Keco's story, and dreaming of it.
The men of the Zeta had sworn revenge for the death of their gendarme, a famous man and great favourite, but at the time Prince Nicolas had sternly forbidden reprisals. But such things are not forgotten, and a man had crossed the Zem into Albania. Coming on a party of men working in a field, he had fired, but his aim was unsteady, and he only wounded his intended victim slightly. Then he fled, hotly pursued, and received a bad wound as he crossed an open space. Still he managed to elude his pursuers for the time being, and reached the River Zem. Here his strength failed him and he clung, half fainting from loss of blood, to the bushes fringing the bank, unable to go any further. In this position a man of the clan Hotti found him, as he was coming along the river. Having heard the shots and seeing a bleeding Montenegrin, he put two and two together and promptly shot him. The other Albanians, directed by the report, now came up, and literally hacked the corpse to pieces. So the Zeta peasants are now two deaths to the bad. In conclusion, we were told that the authorities have reason to believe that the murdered man had been accompanied by others on his raid into a friendly country and were seeking for these men most diligently to punish them severely.
For their violating the border laws?
No, for deserting their comrade, and leaving him to meet his death alone, and the sentence for this craven deed is ten years.
Next morning we rode into Podgorica, and comparative civilisation, after a period of roughing it of the hardest description. We had often gone from five a.m. till seven or eight p.m. on a couple of eggs and an occasional glass of milk, and had hard going all the time. It proved to us pretty conclusively how we of civilised lands disgustingly and habitually overeat ourselves.
We finished considerably harder and more fit than at the start, and we had lived the whole time as the Montenegrins of the mountains live.
One remarkable gift of which these mountaineers are possessed, and which deserves special remark, is that of long-distance talking. Men can speak with each other in the higher altitudes at distances of five miles and more, where our ears could hardly distinguish a faint sound of the human voice. Children are accustomed to it at an early age, and the quaint sight of a mother conversing with her child guarding some sheep on a neighbouring hillside is often to be witnessed. This gift must be acquired young, it seems, for Dr. S., who has lived twelve years amongst the Montenegrins, could neither make himself heard, nor understand, though he said that he had given himself much pains to learn the art.
As we rode into Podgorica that morning, we were struck by meeting several groups of the Turkish inhabitants hanging about outside the town. Arriving in the town, only Montenegrins were to be seen in the streets, walking somewhat ostentatiously up and down, their natural swagger greatly exaggerated. The news of the elopement of another Turkish maiden soon reached us, and that day at dinner, an officer, detailed to prove the matter, told us the story.
A young Montenegrin had won the heart of the maiden, and accompanied by a friend, he had gone to the wall of her house and given a preconcerted signal. The girl had come, but a dispute now arose between the men as to who should ultimately marry her, and she, in great disgust, had told them to go away and settle the matter. It seems that the girl had no particular wishes as to whom she should marry. At last the friends arranged matters satisfactorily and the girl was abducted, if one can call an elopement an abduction. However, in the eyes of the Turks it was a forcible abduction, and the fact that the girl was related to the most influential Turk in the town did not improve matters. The Beg had demanded the restitution of the girl at once and punishment of the offenders. The Prince had sent officials to settle the dispute. The girl, however, very naturally refused to be given back, as she would probably have been killed, and insisted on her baptism and marriage taking place forthwith.
As the officer said to us—
"This is a free country, and we shall not give back the maiden against her will."
This had incensed the Turks beyond measure. The town was being patrolled nightly, and the Beg attempted flight to mark his anger. But this the Prince would not allow, and the Beg was stopped by gendarmes as he was entering a carriage one night. Only if he first gave up his orders, decorations, and his sword of honour, and, furthermore, took his wives and belongings with him, could he leave the country.
Such was the state of affairs on our return. At night we went armed, and really had hopes of seeing a street fight. One evening a shot was fired in the town, and in the twinkling of an eye men turned out rifle in hand. Nothing came of it, and the crowd of several hundred armed Montenegrins slowly dispersed. Had further shots been fired, we were told, the peasants from far and near would have taken up the alarm, and in an hour thousands would have flocked into the town. No wonder the Turks were chary of taking revenge into their own hands.
[Footnote 8: Again, since writing the above, this statement has been fully proved. In February, 1902, a party of Turkish soldiers, half starved in their frontier block-houses, attempted a raid into Montenegro. They were accompanied by a brother of the famous Achmet Uiko; whose story has been related elsewhere. In spite of the caution which the raiders displayed, the news reached Podgorica as soon as they had crossed the border and seemingly eluded the vigilance of the Montenegrin frontier guards. A party of Montenegrins lay in wait for them in Dr. S.'s summer garden (a spot where we had often spent many pleasant hours) and the Turks were challenged. As an answer the marauders fired at their unseen challengers, doing no harm, but an answering volley killed two of them. The rest were captured, one only making good his escape, and were brought into the town. But the volleys had alarmed the whole district, hundreds of men pouring into Podgorica from all the neighbouring villages and hills, till many thousands had assembled. —Cetinje, March, 1902.]
But the mischief done was great. Many families emigrated, much to Prince Nicolas' anger, for he encourages by every means in his power the extension of the Turkish population. They bring trade and cultivate the lands far more diligently than the Montenegrin warriors.
So it was that we witnessed during these few days the festival of the Sultan's birthday, which seemed strangely incongruous considering the mixed feelings of the inhabitants.
In the morning, all the town officials called on the Turkish Consul. The militia were formed up and the whole, led by the Montenegrin War Banner, proceeded in solemn procession to the principal mosque. On their return, a royal salute was fired from a bastion of the old wall, and in the evening the town was illuminated.
It was an extraordinary sight, and one not easily to be forgotten. All the houses stuck candles in every window, by order of the Prince; the market-place and the War Memorial were covered with lamps, but the most striking feature of all was the illumination on a small hill immediately behind the old town. This hill overlooks the town, and was covered by rows of lamps. In the streets Turks, Albanians, and Montenegrins jostled each other; at peace, at any rate, for one evening.
A day or two later, a very different spectacle could have been witnessed. The main street leading to the church on the outskirts of the town was lined by waiting Montenegrins, and not a Turk was to be seen. Soon a carriage drove rapidly from the church, with a blushing Montenegrin girl and a gold-embroidered Montenegrin at her side. It was the late Turkish maiden, now a radiant Montenegrin bride and Christian. Several Turks had been caught endeavouring to approach the church with revolvers concealed, but were promptly turned back.
And so ended an eventful week.
One day, quite by accident, we discovered the arrest-house, or place where prisoners are detained pending their trial and sentence. We were passing a door which led down by a few steps into a courtyard, when an acquaintance of ours accosted us.
We went inside and spoke to him for some minutes. He was a merry individual and a clerk in a Government office.
He requested us to bring our camera and photograph him on the next day. Then he moved and a chain clanked. Neither of us had realised that this was a prison till that moment, though we had passed that door many times.
Next day we came again, and took a picture of our genial friend, whom we found seated and playing the gusla to a crowd of other prisoners, some exceedingly heavily chained.
One or two guards came up and we spent an hour in a pleasant chat.
Our friend was only "in" for a few days for making a rude remark about the Chief of Police. The chained men were mostly murderers, if we may use such a harsh term for those who are compelled to kill their enemies by the relentless laws of the vendetta, and who would be punished by the laws of man should they prove themselves guilty of cowardice.
The vendetta in Montenegro is a legal anomaly. Men are punished in either case.
S. Vasili and Ostrog—Our drive thither—Joyful pilgrims—Varied costumes—We meet the Vladika of Montenegro—The ordeal of hot coffee—A real pilgrimage—The shrine of S. Vasili—The ancient hermit—A miracle—Niksic—The gaudy cathedral and the Prince's palace—We are disappointed in Niksic.
Though we visited the famous Monastery of Ostrog at the very beginning of our visit to Montenegro, and Niksic at the conclusion, both places lie so near together that we put them now in this order for the sake of simplicity.
It was our good fortune to be enabled to witness the annual pilgrimage to the shrine of S. Vasili, which takes place during the Greek Whitsuntide.
Ostrog is the Lourdes of the Balkans, as many equally miraculous cures take place as at the Roman Catholic rival in the Pyrenees. The Serb-speaking races from far and near flock there in enormous numbers, as well as many Mahometans and Catholics.
S. Vasili (or Basil) was a native of the Hercegovina and a holy man of great repute. About a century ago he had a vision telling him to travel to Montenegro, and there to found a monastery. Accordingly he set out, taking with him a great quantity of building material, and chose a spot not far from Podgorica, on the right bank of the Zeta. But in the night the material disappeared, and S. Vasili hunted high and low. After a weary search it was found at Ostrog, and there he built his place of retreat, living many years, working many miracles, and dying as a saint. He is buried there, and it is said that any believer has but to visit the shrine, and whatever his wish may be, it will be fulfilled. Thus cripples have walked back the way which they were carried, sick have been made whole, and the mentally afflicted have gone away rejoicing. Certain it is that many wonderful cures are yearly effected there.
Furthermore, the name of Ostrog appears often in the glorious annals of Montenegrin history. The oft-told tale of Prince Nicolas' father, Mirko, "The Sword of Montenegro," who was besieged in that inaccessible cleft in a precipice with a handful of men, is one of the most famous feats of Montenegrin arms. The charred cliffs still bear silent witness to the efforts which the Turks made to burn out the little garrison by throwing bundles of flaming straw from above.
Ostrog is about six hours' drive from Podgorica. The road passes along the River Zeta, leaving the village of Spuz on the right, and past the flourishing little town of Danilovgrad, soon to be the connecting town between Cetinje and Niksic on completion of the projected road.
There is nothing of interest in Danilovgrad, though the market is of some importance. A little way beyond the town a nearly complete building can be noticed. It is the lunatic asylum.
From this point onwards the road ascends slowly but steadily until a deep valley lies to the right, and the Zeta assumes quite diminutive proportions. The mountains opposite rise to an ever-increasing height, until a few tiny buildings can be made out by the help of field-glasses. It is Ostrog. That morning we could make out the tents and booths of the pilgrims, and a dark mass of surging humanity. But it is still a very long distance away. The road climbs up to the head of the valley to the village of Bogetic, full that morning of the carriages of the wealthy pilgrims. During the Whitsun festival carriages are scarcely to be procured in the whole of Montenegro, or in Cattaro either.
We broke our fast here, and then drove for another mile or so where a path leaves the road, and the pilgrim has either to proceed on horseback or on foot. We had to go on foot, and a very long and tiring walk it proved to be. Besides Dr. S. and his factotum, Lazo, we took another man with us, a wretched puny individual, but seemingly possessed of more endurance than any of us. He led us by a short cut over rocks, and up slippery breakneck walls of cliffs, over which our guide skipped nimbly, and having reached the top seemingly hours before us, sat down and beamed benevolently.
Half-way, the rain came down in sheets, and we took shelter in a wayside inn, or rather hut. It was crowded with returning pilgrims whom the threatening weather had forced to depart earlier than is their wont.
As the weather momentarily cleared, we pushed on, and the remaining distance was one of the most interesting walks it had been our fortune to witness. A ceaseless stream of pilgrims poured down the rocky path. It came on to rain again, but one and all wished us luck in the name of God and S. Vasili. Nearly every costume of the Balkans was represented. The Bosnian, in sack-shaped baggy trousers, fitting the lower leg, either of crimson or blue cloth, a smart-coloured Turkish jacket, a broad shawl round his waist displaying armouries of knives and pistols, on his head a fez wound round with a huge turban cloth, mounted, or leading a pack-horse; his wife in coarse black trousers; the Hercegovinans, with breastplates of silver ornaments, exquisite in workmanship and of great antiquity; sombre Servians, and white-clad Albanians, whose trousers are embroidered with black braid in fantastic tracing; fez, head-cloth, and neat little Montenegrin cap; trousers of red, pink, blue and black; gigantic Albanians in high riding-boots, sitting their horses like Life Guardsmen; Macedonians, Greeks, and even pure-blooded Turks; Montenegrins in creamy white frock-coats worn over gold-braided crimson jackets; and dark-blue costumes with red worsted tassels of the poor Dalmatian peasants—all passed us in bewildering confusion.
The women (who were for the most part Montenegrin) showed up well in comparison with their sisters from Sarajevo, whose attire is, to say the least, comical. For in the larger towns of the Austrian occupation territory they are undergoing the stage from East to West, and appear in huge Turkish trousers and cheap, gaudy European blouses. The contrast between the Sarajevan and the graceful Montenegrin is positively ludicrous. But of all the costumes, male and female, the palm must be given to the Montenegrin. They carry themselves with a princely air, and their picturesque costume is a model of good taste; for Montenegro is, as Mr. Gladstone has remarked, the beach on which was thrown up the remnants of Balkan freedom. After the battle of Kossovo, all the Serb nobility who would not submit to the Turk fled to Crnagora, and the traces of heredity are easily to be recognised in their superb carriage.
It was well after midday when we reached the plateau on which the lower and modern monastery is situated. We entered through a gate into a wide path bordered with booths in which crowds of joyful pilgrims sat refreshing themselves. In spite of the departing crowds that we had passed, the place was still densely packed, for over twenty thousand people visit Ostrog. We squeezed into one of the booths and sat watching the surging mass pass to and fro.
The mixture of costume was even more marked than on the path below. It was a brilliant kaleidoscope of colour. Nothing but colour—colour. Very rarely could a man in European clothes (the richer Dalmatians) be noticed, and he seemed strangely out of place and harmony.
As we sat and gazed, two Bosnian minstrels, from bad memory and an indifferent ear, began playing on a fiddle and a guitar, and though their music was atrocious, the wild Turkish songs which they sang gave the finishing touch to the scene. It was not till they began playing snatches of music-hall airs, such long-forgotten tunes as "Daisy," that we hurriedly moved on.
The Archbishop, Mitrofanban, heard of our arrival soon after, and immediately sent for us. When we approached, he was sitting on the steps of a house, surrounded by a brilliant staff of Montenegrin nobles and many priests, while below a great crowd of pilgrims stood in a ring, watching the national dance, which was being performed before His Grace. The dance stopped as we drew near. The Archbishop received us very kindly—this was our first meeting with him—and expressed his pleasure to see strangers from such a distant land in Ostrog. He assigned a room to us in his house, and gave orders for us to be fed during our stay. Murmuring our thanks, we attempted to withdraw, but we did not escape before we had solemnly drunk the usual coffee. It was rather an ordeal to consume that very hot coffee in the face of the multitude, and we were painfully conscious of our many shortcomings in personal appearance. Muddy and half-wet riding clothes and flannel shirts do not seem to go with crimson and gold, high boots of patent leather, and sparkling orders. A Horseguardsman's uniform would be more in keeping. When we left, the dancing resumed and was kept up till a late hour that night. We noticed another national dance at Ostrog. A much more barbaric performance than the stately and solemn movement of the ring dance, or kolo.
In this case two performers dance at a time, a man and a woman. A small ring is made by the spectators, who also supply the relay couples. The man endeavours to spring as high as possible into the air, emitting short, Red Indian yells, and firing his revolver. The woman gives more decorous jumps; and, keeping opposite each other, they leap backwards and forwards across the small open space. After a few minutes they are unceremoniously pushed aside, after giving each other a hasty kiss, and another couple takes their place. This goes on ad lib., and we were soothed to sleep by those wild yells.
Next morning we were up bright and early, and about seven o'clock commenced the actual pilgrimage. A steep and stony path winds up through a dense wood for about an hour. Fanatical pilgrims make this journey sometimes barefoot, but the ordeal is sufficiently severe without these little additions. The whole way is lined with beggars, sometimes hardly recognisable as human beings, who must reap a rich harvest by the exhibition of their ghastly woes. They constitute the ordeal.
Maimed stumps of limbs, deformed children, repulsive and festering sores, and other diseases too foul for description were proudly exhibited at every step. A cap was placed invitingly in front of each, and partly filled with alms already given. In piteous agony diseased hands and quavering voices besought us in the name of God and their saint to alleviate their sufferings with the gift of a kreutzer. It was not a sight that will lightly escape the memory.
We reached the top, hot and nauseated, but were fully compensated by the unique view. The monastery is built under an overhanging precipice which rises to a giddy height above. The charred rocks bear telling evidence to the miracles which have saved the little edifice from burning.
We went straight to the shrine, through a little door scarcely more than four feet high (the wooden lintels of which being the handiwork of S. Vasili were piously kissed by the Montenegrins), through two long and narrow passages hewn from the living rock and emerged suddenly in a small rock chamber, dimly lit by an oil lamp and about twelve feet square. The five of us filled the space, and, as our eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, we were able to distinguish a wooden shrine taking up the whole length of one side—where the mortal remains of the Hercegovinan lay. Another side was occupied by an open coffin containing the vestments and crucifix. On a chair sat a Greek priest who rose when we entered. At the foot of the shrine lay a cripple.
We stood for some minutes in utter silence, and then followed the lead of the doctor, who approached the coffin and kissed the crucifix, which a priest gave to us all in turn: a plate for alms lay on the vestments: then the woodwork of the shrine was likewise kissed, and we emerged again into the narrow gallery.
The heat had been intense in the little chapel, and we were in that limp and exhausted state that one experiences in a Turkish bath.
The gallery was open on one side where a large bell was fixed, and this our puny guide struck four times vigorously in the sign of a cross without a word of warning.
After the impressive solemnity and silence of the preceding minutes, we nearly jumped out of our skins, and when our injured hearing had sufficiently recovered so that we could distinguish the sound of our own voices, we demanded an explanation of this apparently childish and wanton outrage.
He said that he had struck the bell for the renewal of his strength. It appeared an unnecessary request.
Dr. S. explained that pilgrims strike the bell on emerging from the shrine, praying for some special benefit.
We next went up a lot of steps to a platform under the shelving cliff where there was a beautiful spring of water. The view which it commanded was magnificent. Below us lay the lower monastery and the deep valley of the Zeta, the mountains rising again sharply on the further side; to the right and left stretched wooded slopes.
Then we descended again and paid the priest a visit. This man, over eighty years of age, has spent forty years of his life as a hermit in that rocky crag. With the exception of Whitsuntide and the occasional visits of pilgrims, he lives entirely alone, subsisting on vegetables. His appearance was most patriarchal, his snowy white beard and saintly look impressing us greatly. When he heard that we were from England, he embraced and kissed us repeatedly, much to our embarrassment. His joy knew no bounds, and he kept us with him in his rock-hewn cell for a considerable time. He even consented to be photographed, for the first time in his life, facing the ordeal with unflinching courage.
The descent to the lower monastery was made in record time, and with half-closed eyes. We found the Archbishop standing in the shade of an enormous tree surrounded by a large ring of Montenegrins. He beckoned to us, asking us for our impressions, and needless to say we solemnly drank coffee. This beverage began to pall before we left Montenegro.
After partaking of a splendid meal (for the country), washed down with wine such as is not to be obtained elsewhere in the land, we paid a farewell visit to His Grace and departed.
Already the booths were fast disappearing and a mere handful of peasants remained. Many pilgrims journey from seven to eight days on foot or on horseback to Ostrog, over mountain passes and barren regions; so that the pilgrimage is very real.
Before we leave Ostrog, we will mention one of the miracles which we had the opportunity of authenticating.
A wretched Turk living to-day in Podgorica, a cripple crawling painfully on hands and knees, once made the pilgrimage to Ostrog. Friends carried him to the shrine, where he lay all night. Then he rose up and walked back to Podgorica rejoicing, with those who had carried him the day before. As he crossed the Vizier bridge, he sceptically remarked that he would have been healed without undergoing the farce of the pilgrimage. Straightway he fell to the ground, the same helpless cripple that he was before.
The Turk and the witnesses still live—in fact it happened but a few years ago—to tell the tale.
The road to Niksic, which we left to proceed to Ostrog, climbs to the height of 750 metres in crossing the mountain ridge dividing the valley of the Zeta from that of Niksic. The scenery is throughout fine and wild. In a succession of serpentines, the road descends sharply on to the great plain, the fertile valley of Niksic.
The town can be seen immediately on leaving the mountainous gorge, the cupola of the cathedral standing up boldly from the surrounding flat.
A long viaduct is crossed, built by the Russians, at the foot of the mountain, for in the winter floods are common, and Niksic was at times nearly cut off from the rest of Montenegro.
Niksic is probably the coming capital of Montenegro. In fact, it has been but a question of money that has prevented the removal of the Government from Cetinje a long time ago.
The Prince has recently built himself a large palace, the Russians have erected a large church, and roads are now in the course of construction connecting it with Risano on the Bocche di Cattaro, and Cetinje, and again with the Cattaro-Cetinje road.
When these roads are completed, Niksic will have a most central position, and the unquestionably rich and fertile plain can be opened up. Without doubt it is the coming trading centre, and already it is running Podgorica very close.
The day after our arrival—we had arrived in the night—we saw the town under most unfavourable conditions. A violent thunderstorm had raged incessantly for many hours, and the streets were in parts inundated. Water was pouring in miniature waterfalls from the ground floors of many houses which possessed a higher background. Braving the elements, and often making detours to avoid the lakes, we walked to the palace and the church. Both lie together outside the town.
A flight of steps lead up an artificial mound, over-shadowing the somewhat barrack-like palace, where stands the new cathedral. It is the most striking edifice in the whole country, surmounted with a dingy light yellow cupola. It is not pretty or tasteful, but it is distinctly imposing, and one can well realise the marvellings that it has given the simple Montenegrins. Inside it is severely plain and void of any furniture, except the thrones for the Royal Family. Round the walls are lists of the men who have fallen in recent wars.
The platform on which the church stands commands a view of the country. The simplicity of Prince Nicolas' palace is thus accentuated, for it is situated on perfectly open ground, and there is no garden or any railings round it. Naked and forlorn, it gives the spectator a sad impression of poverty. On another side is the old Church of Niksic, ridiculously small and half-ruined. The Russians did a good deed, for the comparison is absolutely absurd if a comparison can be drawn between a hovel and a S. Peter's.
The town is a long straggling collection of small houses, very uninteresting and plain, and beyond lies the historical ruin of the old fortress, stormed by Prince Nicolas in person.
In the town itself, broad streets and an enormous market-place are the only features.
We spent a few days in Niksic, but in this instance we were never able to rid ourselves of the first impressions, and we left gladly, though the town was not without its humour. It contains the only brewery in Montenegro, a ramshackle place and producing very poor beer. The post office is a tumble-down outhouse, also we were shown the house which would in the course of time be the Bank of Montenegro.
It is hard to realise that Niksic is the coming town, in spite of its gaudy cathedral, but progress makes sometimes wonderful strides.
Our visit to Niksic was a failure all round. We arrived to see the Prince ride out of the town at the head of a great cavalcade for the mountains, and again missed the opportunity of presenting ourselves.
Our intended tour to the Durmitor, Montenegro's highest mountain, was frustrated, owing to the Prince's retinue having taken every horse in the place, in addition to the weather having completely broken up, and so we missed one of the finest parts of the country.
The Club and its members—Gugga—Irregularities of time—The absence of the gentle muse and our surprise—The musician's story and his subsequent fate—The Black Earth—A typical border house—The ordeal of infancy—A realistic performance which is misunderstood—Concerning a memorable drive—A fervent prayer.
Before we leave Podgorica for good our readers must be introduced to the Club. It was not a club in the English sense of the word, but P. and I always called that hour or two at sunset so delightfully spent in the company of that cosmopolitan gathering, the Club. Podgorica was our base, from which we made all our trips and excursions, so that we were there off and on during the whole of our lengthy sojourn amongst the sons of the Black Mountain. From the "members" we gleaned many stories of past and present vendettas and quaint customs which we had not had the good fortune to witness ourselves. Amongst the regular members was of course Dr. S., who was three nationalities rolled into one—to explain, born in Roumania, he entered into Austrian service and became an Austrian subject, and finally twelve years in Montenegro had quite "Montenegrinised" him. He was very angry if we told him this. In the course of his duties as sole veterinary surgeon he had travelled, and travelled continually from one end of the land to the other, there was not a corner or collection of huts where he had not been. He had been snowed up in winter in the mountains, attacked by wolves, and shot at by Albanians, and had witnessed many a scene of the vendetta.
Another even more interesting character was L., an Austrian, who for years had been employed by scientific institutions in ornithological and geological research in Montenegro and Albania. He had carried his life in his hands for weeks together amongst the untameable mountaineers across the border. A man whose terribly hard life had turned him into a man of bone and muscle, rivalling the most active Montenegrin in strength and endurance. And what a fund of anecdote and adventure he could reel off! Without doubt he was one of the most interesting and fascinating men we have ever met; a perfect rifle, gun, and revolver shot, fine horseman and entertaining companion.
Then there was a Montenegrin professor, he was the father of the party, though the tales he told were not at all becoming to his age and learning. He spoke about eight languages well and perhaps that had slightly turned his brain. Once he had served a term of imprisonment for an outspoken criticism, and when he became tired of it, he sent an ultimatum to the effect that if he were not released at once, he would break out himself, take a rifle and bundle of cartridges and hold the Lovcen (a high mountain) against all comers. The originality of his threat gained him his freedom. Since then he has kept a closer guard over that unruly member and only unburdened himself in the seclusion of the Club. Otherwise P., myself, and a young and intensely patriotic Scotchman completed the list of regular members.
We had a few occasional "country members," officers and officials whom some of us knew well from Cetinje or Niksic, but we were mostly alone. At first we met in the garden of one Petri, a good-tempered giant of about six feet eight inches, but in spite of our patronage he managed to ruin himself at cards and so we were forced to adjourn to an old Albanian rascal named Gugga. What fun we had with that dear old boy, whom we irreverently called Skenderbeg! One day in a moment of ill-advised confidence he had told us that he was descended from that great Albanian hero and patriot. But he was an educated and travelled man, having lived for many years in Venice, spoke an excellent Italian and correspondingly atrocious German, which latter he delighted to inflict upon us. He was most amusing in his hatred and contempt of the Montenegrin peasant.
Gugga kept a big shop, and when irritated by a customer he had a regular formula which loses much of its wit when translated, as it rhymes in Serb. The humble Montenegrin is remarkably feminine in the way he shops. He will spend half an hour in the store examining everything with great curiosity. At last he will ask the price of a certain article. Gugga, whose choler has been slowly rising during his customer's long and tiring inspection, gives a purposely indistinct answer, whereupon the Montenegrin will inquire "What does he say?" Gugga, furious at being spoken to in the third person, turns savagely upon the astonished Montenegrin saying—
"What dost thou say? What dost thou mean? What stinks here? Get out, ass and son of an ass."
Another famous saying of his was in speaking of Montenegro, its past and present rulers. "This land," Gugga would say in all seriousness, "was first accursed by God, its maker; then by Diocletian, then by the Sultan, then by our Gospodar (Prince), and lastly by Gospodin Milovan." Gospodin (Mr.) Milovan was the last Governor of Podgorica, a man always endeavouring to introduce modern improvements into the town, much to the disgust of its inhabitants who are nothing if not conservative, and amongst other sufferers was our friend Gugga. He substitutes the word "blessed" for "accursed," according to his audience.
We met after the arrival of the mail diligence from Cetinje about half-past six or seven o'clock in the evening. Proceedings usually commenced with a heated argument as to the time, the last comer being accused of unpunctuality. It was always an unsatisfactory argument, for no member ever had the same time as another. A sort of go-as-you-please time was kept in the town, but as either your watch invariably gained ten minutes in the day—according to the town clock it did—or lost a quarter of an hour, no one had any confidence in the official time, and each swore to the regularity of his own timepiece. One great advantage of this discrepancy of time was that try as one would, one was never late for an appointment. Somebody was sure to be present to back up an indignant protest, that you were five minutes early.
One evening was particularly memorable, it was in Petri's garden, then, that we had met as usual. P. was in a pensive and sentimental mood, usually caused by the magnificent sunsets. From our table we commanded a splendid view of those crimson-tinted peaks in the far distance, and the mysterious purple gloom which, like a rich robe, covered the intervening hills. By some strange coincidence the subject of music came up, and P. bitterly lamented the absence of that gentle muse from such grand surroundings. I don't believe there is a piano in the country except at the girls' school at Cetinje. The Scotchman had suggested the gusla as a substitute, and had been met with derisive laughter, for he had made the suggestion in all good faith. He was one of the most unmusical men I have ever met. The professor had followed this up with a learned discourse on the gusla, and the lesson to be learnt from it in the origin and development of modern music, when suddenly the sounds of a violin, being tuned in the room behind us, arrested his flow of speech. In another few moments the unseen musician began to play, and a deep silence fell upon us, for he was playing our music and recalling memories of bygone days. Snatches from Italian opera, and old well-known songs followed each other as we sat in the twilight and listened, conjuring up pictures of opera-house and concert-hall in this far-away land. Then the music ceased, and the tinkling of coins on a plate proclaimed the status of our serenader. In a few minutes a ragged, fair-haired boy stood before us, wearily holding a plate in his hand. As we dived into our pockets the doctor asked him in Serb, who he was and whence he came. He gazed blankly in answer, and P. said to me, "He looks quite English." A joyful smile lit up his tired face as he answered—
"I am English, sir. I will fetch father; he will be so pleased."
His father came out, a battered violin under his arm, and we were all struck with his miserable half-starved and ragged appearance. He played to us, he did not even play well, poor fellow, but still we listened appreciatively, and then some of us took him home, fed him, and we all contributed to his wardrobe. We were all of different sizes and build, and the result was sadly comical. Before he left us he told his story. It was not new or even interesting, but intensely pathetic; one of a large family, fair education, and finally a clerk at L80 a year. A pretty typewriter, marriage, and no help from his father. First the girl wife was dismissed, and then the boy husband. The child was born, and the mother died from lack of proper nourishment and comfort. For a few years the father earned a few coppers by playing before public-houses in the East End, and then took to the road. Somehow or other he found himself on the Continent, and after many years he had turned up here. It was all very vague and incoherent. Often starving, homeless, and speaking no language but his own, is it to be wondered that the man had lost count of days, years, and time? Now he had a desire to journey to Greece, why, he knew not, but he clung to it with all a weak man's obstinacy. We could never let him trudge through Albania, and so the Scotchman procured him a free passage to Corfu by steamer. He left us one morning, leading his son by the hand, and over his shoulder a sack containing his worldly possessions, a sorrowful, ludicrous, and pitiful picture.