The insurgent provinces
IN THE RILO MOUNTAINS
THAT night we dreamt a wonderful dream. We were in a gloomy forest of pine, and it was very dark, when suddenly a chime of sweet bells rang out of the stillness, and we stood before a gleaming temple listening to a choir of men's voices, which filled the very forest with sound and light. Dreams break off unaccountably, and so it is this morning when, at six o'clock, we are pitilessly routed out into the stinging cold by the malignant Dimitri. With true Oriental leisure our traps are packed and laded up, and at eight o'clock we take our farewell of the Abbot (who inquires if the midnight Mass disturbed us), and of the monks and attentive gendarmes at the further gate of the monastery.
The sergeant of gendarmes is doubtful as to the wisdom of our intended journey across the mountains to Samakov, and questions our boy sharply for the tenth time if he knows the way. With many curses he replies that he has crossed the mountains a score of times.
"But much snow has fallen," remarks the sergeant, still inclined to doubt.
We turn to the monks, who say they think the journey may be made in safety.
"It is but seven hours," says one, and Jimmy, the energetic, grows impatient to be off. He has set his heart upon this ride and tramp across some of the finest mountains
in the Balkans. The morning is glorious, a clear sky, and the mountain ridges still tinged with the crimson promise of a day of sunshine. It is far too cold to ride, and we step off briskly, leaving the horses and baggage to follow at a more leisurely gait. Sloping gently upwards, the first hour is soon passed, and at a divergence of the paths we wait, listening for the crackle of breaking ice as our horses plod through frozen puddles.
"To the left," says our boy and guide, but soon the path dwindles away and is lost. In a foot of snow we come to a halt, whilst the boy admits that this is not the way, to Dimitri's intense and outspoken indignation. For many minutes the ravine echoes to the profane remonstrances of Dimitri and the no less blasphemous retorts of the boy, who ultimately takes a horse and retraces his steps.
We wait half an hour in a clearing, basking in the sun, now topping the imprisoning ridge. Had we been wise, we should have retraced our steps to the monastery, hired a guide, and started our journey afresh, but we were of buoyant and unheeding spirits, believing childishly the boy when he returned crying that he had found the right path.
Again we start, following a mountain torrent purling and roaring at our side, through a dense forest of pines, with here and there a glimpse of mountains rising almost perpendicularly above us. A light carpet of snow has filtered down between the branches, powdering the crisp earth under our feet. There are many obstacles to vary the monotony of the way, in the form of huge trunks fallen straight across the path. Some are easily circumvented, but one bids fair to bar further progress for good and all. The torrent at our end and a huge rock at the other make a detour impossible.
IN THE RILO MOUNTAINS.
IN THE RILO MOUNTAINS.
"Oh, for a squad of pioneers," murmurs the martial Jimmy, as we gloomily survey the enormous block of timber.
"Looks as if the path wasn't used much," I hazard, wondering if we were on the right track after all.
But Jimmy rises to the occasion, profiting by previous campaigning experiences, and, by dint of pulling in front and shoving behind, we literally push our ponies over, though each provokes our risibility when helplessly stretched across the log.
Then we climb, zigzagging, for a solid two hours up the end of the ravine, comforted by the foolish belief that one cannot climb for ever. Besides, our boy cheerfully declares that in an hour we shall reach the summit, and then it is a clear drop to Samakov.
Oh! accursed liar, and son of a liar.
Wet with sweat and snow brushed off the branches, we emerge on the top of the ravine, to find the stream merrily flowing downwards still and no encouraging trickle in the other direction to show us that the watershed is crossed.
"We will get over our climb first," Jimmy had said, "and then, resting on the top, with a view of Samakov at our feet, we can doubly enjoy our repast, knowing our labours are o'er."
It had sounded well, and I had agreed, but as it is now one o'clock, and the stream running with unabated vigour (Jimmy thought it must be fed by a big lake a few hundred yards away, but I was always sceptical of this, having long since lost my faith in Oriental guides), we decide to halt here. Spreading our coats on the snow, we chop a chicken in twain, and rend it with our fingers. It is a luscious meal, and the wine perfection. Singing blithely, we start again,
the weary climb forgotten, and even I am now prepared to accept the theory of a lake. Up we climb for two hours or more beside that accursed stream, till we begin to believe that Nature is playing us a cruel practical joke.
"It must come from heaven," says Jimmy, and we laugh somewhat forcedly.
We are above the belt of vegetation in a vast cauldron, but the mountains imprisoning us are as lofty as those when we left Rilo. We never knew that there were such high mountains, and we turn with oaths on the boy.
"How now, thou villain!" we cry, pointing at the wall of snow all round us. "Where is that view of Samakov awaiting us at the top of this condemned ravine? Are we to climb over that, too?" we demand, pointing at a precipice before us.
The boy nods foolishly, but savagely. It is plain that he is as lost as we are, and the prospect is not pleasing in that lone expanse of snow and stunted bush peering here and there through its fleecy covering.
It is then that a shot rings out - oh! blessed sound! and we see a man leaping nimbly on the steep side nearest us. We hail him, and, fearful lest he should escape, we ride towards him at the best pace our ponies can go. He comes wonderingly towards us, an old man, but as active as a goat, and we recognize in his brown homespun clothes, bandolier, and rifle, an insurgent.
"Would ye go in this direction to Samakov?" he asks somewhat scornfully. "Another hour and ye were across the border, and would have been shot by the first Turkish patrol."
We promise him untold wealth if he but show us the path to Samakov. We do not wish, we say, to cross the border.
"Good," he replied; "I will put ye on the path, but ye cannot reach Samakov to-night. It is ten good hours from this spot, and the way is hard."
We glance at our watches - past three, and ten hours to this man means fifteen to us - and then at each other blankly. But Jimmy is blithe.
"We are tough," he says cheerfully; "and, besides, there is no alternative."
The logic is unanswerable.
"Follow the path trodden in the snow," says the ancient man-at-arms, pointing up the side of the wall. "Ye cannot miss it, it is fresh made by a band that passed but a few hours since, and God go with you."
He pockets his gift gratefully, and we start up the mountain, too steep to ride, and deep in snow. It is one of the most trying climbs that I can recollect, and wicked thoughts are in my mind as I cough up that ascent, watching Jimmy, to whom I can give three stone, skipping lightly up and shouting down encouragement. If I am angry, Dimitri is more. Poor man, when I brought him from the sun-scorched plains of Salonica he little dreamt of mountaineering in the snow on altitudes he had never even seen.
Somewhere near the top we call a halt. One path goes on over the summit of the vast hogbacked ridge, and the other stretches parallel as far as the eye can see. A flock of chamois are gambolling four hundred yards away.
Now even the genial Jimmy is grave. It is four o'clock, which means another hour and a half of light. There is not a human being or habitation within reach, and we are as utterly lost as if cast down in the middle of the Sahara. The cold is intense (we were at an altitude of close on
8,000 feet, as we discovered afterwards), and our only chance of ever getting anywhere is to follow one of two tracks, which a snowstorm or high wind could obliterate in five minutes. Luckily the heavens are clear. All round stretch naked cold mountains, deep in snow, an unparalleled view under normal circumstances, and one worth tramping hours to see, but now bitterly cruel.
We have three courses before us: to try the path over the ridge, or the parallel path, or return to the valley below, making for ourselves a rude shelter for the night and descending once more to the monastery to-morrow. The last seems the most sensible, but we decide on the second, sending on the boy - who is glad enough to escape from our proximity, which he evidently considers dangerous - with orders to send back help at the first village. Poor fools, we still fondly imagine that two or three hours away there must be a village.
Then we mount - I landing on my left shoulder in the snow at the first attempt, from sheer fatigue - and ride on. Goodness knows how long we rode, every bend showing us that path still stretching across the snow of this never-ending ridge. Jimmy has disappeared round a corner, the boy has long since vanished, and Dimitri, with the led baggage horse, which gets half buried every hundred yards, and has to be painfully extricated, and I, plod thoughtfully on. My horse flounders and falls, giving me another snow bath, but proceedings have now become mechanical till I hear Jimmy's "Coo-ee" in the distance. Then there follows a shot. At last the end of the interminable ridge is reached, and there are men with horses climbing slowly towards us.
I see Jimmy gesticulating wildly and hallooing some
thing, which at last I interpret to mean something about a guide.
With feet frozen to lumps of ice and biting wind chilling me to the very marrow, I accost the cavalcade. They are insurgents convoying a dozen ponies laden with food and ammunition to a band in eruption across the border. A picturesque ruffian promptly offers to come with us. It is good Angelico, of whom much more anon, and I see him now, his cheerful swarthy countenance with its gleaming teeth, for he was ever smiling; his neat uniform of black serge, white gaiters to the knee, with embroidered crosses upon them, crossed bandoliers well filled with cartridges, traversing his broad breast and round his waist (he was carrying 200 rounds), and rifle slung from shoulder. I was too tired to notice the others, but I mentally apostrophized Angelico as our guardian angel. Certainly he would guide us to Samakov.
"But," I ask," how far to the nearest village?"
"Three hours," he answers genially.
"That will do," I answer, for it is half-past five, and the light is failing fast.
" Jimmy," I cry, "at eight, or nine at the latest, our troubles will be over."
And we push on blithely down that great gorge, all unheeding a stupendous mountain before us, the highest of all as yet; but with our eyes on the valley which drops away at its side.
Angelico invites us to try shots at stones and rocks with his rifle, and he approves our marksmanship with cheerful grins. We feel like men who have successfully surmounted a trying ordeal and owe ourselves a little recreation.
But we cross the gorge, and, before we are aware of it, are heading up that colossus before us.
"Great Scot, have we got to climb that, too?" ejaculates Jimmy. "Why, we've been climbing since eight this morning. Looks as if there was no downhill at all in these forsaken mountains."
I groan audibly, but Angelico laughs merrily.
"It is the very last one," he says soothingly, "and the village is then quite close, where I shall find ye most comfortable beds, food, and - think of the roaring fire."
"Well, there can't be any larger mountain than this," adds Jimmy, and we peer blankly at the mass of snow jutting up into the fast darkening sky.
We do reach the top. It is eight o'clock, and pitch dark. What we should have done without a guide the Lord only knows. Below twinkle the lights of the village. Oh, how close they look; and, a stone's throw farther, more lights, those of Samakov.
"How far?" we ask mechanically.
"Only two hours," comes the ever cheerful voice of Angelico out of the darkness.
We curse him, for did he not say three hours in all to this haven of rest now a full three hours ago? He heeds not our ingratitude, and during that descent, when the hours multiplied and did not decrease, he ever maintained that laughing voice of indifference to our plaints and offensive remarks. (N.B. - Afterwards he told us that, seeing how tired we were when he first met us, he intentionally lied "to keep our spirits up.")
But what a view we should have had from this summit, though why the road was made over the very topmost
pinnacle of one of the very highest peaks in the neighbourhood passed our understanding.
The walk down the mountain is like a bad dream. It is too steep and far too dangerous to ride, and down we flounder, one moment gasping at the edge of a precipice, the next up to our waists in a snowdrift. All the long climb drawn out in the past twelve hours is concentrated in these last three hours' sharp drop. The village lights are will-o'-the-wisps, receding from our hungry gaze. We are dead-beat, only Jimmy keeps up a semblance of good spirits, though even he confesses that this is his record. As for Dimitri, he frankly owns that he thinks he is dying, and plainly indicates that in his opinion I have basely lured him on to his miserable fate. I turn upon him and rend him with words; Jimmy pushes on out of earshot. Two hours of this, and suffering nature gives out. A chasm of inky darkness yawns before us. It is a pine forest. We do not believe Angelico any longer, and we half decide to camp here for the night. At least we are out of the snow, and shall not freeze. We have a bottle of wine left, but the cold has turned it sour, and we hurl it from us.
Again Angelico prevails, and, walking on each other's heels, we plunge into the darkness of the forest. It is our last trial, for when we emerge we are in the valley, and can ride once more. One village we pass through, barked at viciously by a score of dogs. Angelico is adamant here. "The next village is only a quarter of an hour away, and much larger," he says. "There I have friends, and this is the truth, by God."
Dimitri is in a terrible state. He can neither walk nor ride, and a fever has seized him, so he declares in pitiful accents. To-morrow, he prophesies, he will be seriously ill.
Two men with rifles, clad in sheepskins, start up out of the darkness, but they are friends of Angelico, who dispatches them ahead to warn the burgomaster, and a few seconds later houses surround us, and we plash through slush and puddles till Angelico bids us dismount before a house which is illuminated. He runs up the steps, and bearded faces peer through the window at the sound. A conversation follows, whilst we stand freezing but indifferent below.
"It is all right," comes Angelico's cheery voice; "come up here."
We obey, but discover that Dimitri is missing, and Angelico, after ushering us inside, departs hurriedly in quest of him.
We walk into a fiercely heated room, blinded at first by the light, and discover ourselves in the midst of a band of insurgents, the burgomaster shaking us respectfully by the hand. When we have collapsed on a bed we gaze upon our hosts. Bearded and bronzed, all young and sturdy fellows, clad in the brown homespun uniform now so familiar to us, peaked European caps on their heads, and white embroidered leggings. Two or three are rolling us cigarettes, another is brewing us a cordial on the red-hot stove, and when, a few minutes later, it has coursed like fire through our veins, a few puffs of fragrant tobacco smoke inhaled - lo! our fatigue is forgotten like a bad dream of the night. Rifles are stacked in a corner, bales of provisions and ammunition form lounges for these warriors, and trumpets are hanging on the otherwise bare whitewashed walls.
Angelico rejoins us soon with the missing Dimitri, and one of the band tells us of Angelico's cunning with the trumpet - how he knows all the Turkish calls, and blows
them to lure battalions to their death. And Angelico, nothing loth, takes a trumpet and blows the Turkish bugle march, deafening our ears and amazing us greatly. He gives a further selection of Turkish bugle calls, and recounts the last time he played the march "across the border," which resulted in the "bag" of a whole company of Turks.
Meanwhile, in another house, our beds are being prepared, and when we are led thither we find a score of villagers awaiting us with milk and wine and food, each eager to make us comfortable, a dozen hands unstrapping our bags, others pulling off our boots. We are too tired to eat, and sleep to the accompaniment of the excited villagers' talk, startled only into a momentary wakefulness by stentorian "sshs" of the more considerate.
And Angelico, who has already marched fourteen hours that day, when we are soundly asleep starts off to Samakov, three hours distant, to order a carriage, and is back again before we are awake, awaiting us with coffee and milk next morn, as fresh as if that very moment he had risen from a twelve hours' sleep in bed.
Angelico, here are our very best respects. You are one of the right
sort, and may you live to see your country free.
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