AN EVENING IN THE MOUNTAINS
EVENING IN THE MOUNTAINS.
THE day had been long and tiring. Our ponies hang their heads wearily as we climb a zigzag track through a gloomy beech-forest, and we anathematize our neighbours, the Albanians, whose unruly habits compel us to carry rifle, revolver, and bandoliers in a peaceable country.
The trees are thinning now, and with a sigh of relief we emerge on a great plateau which ends in the mighty Kom, the loftiest peak in Montenegro. Its jagged ridge, like the fangs of wolves, casts fantastic shadows across the deep ravine, and to our right the sun is sinking into a bed of cloud, angry and threatening. The sky above has that wonderful transparent radiance which comes only at eventide, and the lowering clouds are sharply silhouetted with a border of bright gold. All round our high tableland a confusion of mountains reminds us of a storm-tossed ocean. This lofty snow-clad range on our left that towers wall-like into the sky, tinged here and there with patches of crimson sunlight, is Albania's barrier. Only a deep densely wooded ravine separates us from that cruel and murderous people.
That is why the shepherds who are driving flocks of sheep and goats and herds of cattle to the corrals amongst the cluster of wooded huts carry for the most part rifles. Magazine rifles replace the pastoral staff in Eastern Montenegro. The tinkling of cow-bells is wafted pleasantly across the evening stillness, broken by the shrill whistle of the
shepherds. From the huts curl little columns of blue smoke, and we can almost smell the stewing lamb which we have ordered for our supper by a forerunner. And there he is, waving his arm to show us our quarters for the night.
At a rudely constructed hut of uneven planks we draw rein. It is the typical summer abode to which the Montenegrin, who then turns shepherd, migrates with his family and flocks for the hottest months.
"May God protect ye!" says our host, a giant of six feet six inches, a splendid specimen of manhood in his prime: lean, lithe, without an ounce of superfluous flesh, clad in close-fitting white serge, bordered in curious patterns with black braid; on his head the universal little black-and-red Montenegrin cap, and at the waist, girdled by a manycoloured sash, sticks the inevitable 18-inch-long revolver.
"May thy luck be good, O Vasso!" we answer, for such is his name, while willing hands hold our stirrup-leathers and take our rifles as we swing off our sturdy ponies.
Stooping, for the door of the hut is not high, we enter into the dense atmosphere. A fire is burning on the hard earthen floor, over which hangs a sooty caldron by a hook and chain from the roof. A comely woman is stirring its contents, but she ceases her work and comes forward with a deep curtsey to kiss our hands.
"Art thou well, Gospodja?" we ask.
"God has given me good health, thanks be to God!"
The stinging smoke drives us outside into the keen mountain air, for there is no chimney. It forces an exit through the cracks and crevices of the roof and sides of the hut, of which there are many, as we shall realize if a cold wind is blowing to-night.
As we stroll along the narrow path trodden through the
long luxuriant grass we meet a pretty maiden. She is clad in a short skirt and bodice, and on her forehead is perched a coquettish little cap, tied under her chin with a gay scarf; she is carrying a pail of creamy milk. As we approach she draws to one side and faces to the front with downcast eyes and humble mien. We think we see a roguish twinkle in those dark eyes, but we may not greet her. It is not etiquette to notice such inferior beings as girls.
We are barked at by fierce sheep-dogs, luckily securely chained, and saluted by muscular giants, while the children crowd to smoke-reeking doorways to gaze in undisguised wonder at us strange beings. They, at least, have never seen European clothes, neither indeed have many of the men, who ill-conceal their curiosity at our appearance. The Montenegrin, however lowly be his standing, is innately courteous and well bred, to an extent that would shame many a so-called civilized nation.
Later on, after supper, when we unbend round the fire, they will beg leave to handle our clothes, and will ask many questions.
Cap in hand, a boy trots after us. With uncertain voice he tells us that it is an honour to him to bear us the message that our meal is ready and awaiting our pleasure.
We retrace our steps quickly. We have eaten nothing to-day but two eggs at Andrijevica when the morning was still grey, and our mid-day meal was a capful of delicious wild strawberries gathered by our attentive escort.
We half sit, half lie on a pile of rushes over which sheepskins have been spread, and enjoy a feast of stewed lamb and onions, washed down with draughts of still warm milk. It is a long time before our smarting and watering eyes become accustomed to the penetrating smoke; but it passes,
and we recline, contented and happy, at peace with the whole world.
"Stefan, the raki," and good Stefan beams as he produces an enormous bottle of native distilled spirits. He has cheerfully carried that extra weight during our long march to-day. We fill our tin mugs to the brim, sip the contents, and pass them to Vasso and his brother.
"Health and long life!" they say to us in turn, and in a gulp the fiery spirit disappears as if it had been water.
Now other men troop in, some standing rifles in the corner, and, gravely saluting us, they squat in a ring round the fire. Coffee is brewed - an honour which we can never escape - and a tobacco-tin is handed to us. We give ours in exchange. Cigarettes are deftly rolled, and one shepherd next us rakes with his fingers a glowing ember from the fire. Handling it as if cold and dead, he lights his cigarette and passes it to us.
We light our cigarettes from his and give it back to him, and we all touch our caps. A light must ever be acknowledged by a half military salute. The bottle is soon half empty, and we lean back lazily contemplating the firelit scene. What a subject for a painter!
The flickering flames, glinting fitfully here and there on steel revolver-barrel, throw out the massive figures of the squatting mountaineers in strong relief, and intensify the gloom beyond. All harsh lines are softened harmoniously, and the rugged but pleasant features of the men, whose serious eyes seldom leave our faces, seem more brown than ever in the ruddy glow.
We talk of many things. We answer questions so childish in their simplicity that we are hard put to explain: they ask us of other lands, of our home, where weapons are never
carried except by soldiers, of houses larger even and more splendid than the Prince's modest palace in Cetinje. Mirko, that grizzled veteran in the farther corner, smoking a grimy tchibouque, a habit he has acquired from fighting the Turks when he was but a youth, never tires of telling how he once saw the Crown Prince's palace just after completion. We dare not tell them all the truth, for then they would gaze at us in pained incredulity.
We suggest a song, and a youth with clear-cut classical features rises obediently at his father's command and goes out into the night. Then a wild, weird chant of battle with the Mussulman rings out in the stilly darkness. Through the open door we can see the stars shining brightly in a cloudless heaven. The wailing notes of the war-song re-echo from the mountains, cows low, and an occasional bark proclaims that the dogs are keenly alert for the prowling wolf and marauding Albanian alike. The song ceases abruptly, and a crackle of pistol shots in the distance signifies that other listeners have heard and appreciated the warlike sentiments.
Sleep weighs down our eyelids. One by one the men leave us with a deep-toned melodious commendation to God's keeping, and we are left alone with our host and his family. We draw our coats and sheepskins o'er us, for the night will be bitterly cold, and to the carefully modulated tones of the men we drowse.
The unweaned calf in the corner moans plaintively, and then we hear
no more, and sink into the blessed, dreamless sleep of fatigue.
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