The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon



IT is evening. The slopes of Ostrog resemble the tented camp of a mediaeval army as the flickering lamps of oil flash on silver corslets and bejewelled sword-hilts thrust in gay sashes. I see men in enormous red turbans - long drooping moustaches lending a ferocity to their sun-burned faces - jostling other giants in fez or little round cap as they go to and fro in the tents. Wild Turkish music mingles with a monotonous chant, to which a ring of men are solemnly dancing, and on the highest tier of tents a group is watching a pair of dancers who are vying with each other in the agility of their leaps. A hum of humanity ascends to the starlit heaven, punctuated by short, sharp yells and the hails of one who has lost his friend in the press and is calling him by name.

Yet it is the twentieth century, and I am walking with a Viennese doctor, a German clerk, and a Turkish merchant, at Ostrog, during the annual pilgrimage. Furthermore, the day is Sunday, at the conclusion of the festival, and the pilgrims are indulging in a few hours' well-earned enjoyment and gaiety. All will have left by the morning except a handful of Montenegrins, and many have journeys of more than a week across the wild mountain passes into the furthermost parts of Bosnia, the Herzegovina, and Dalmatia. They came fasting and laden with gifts, touching no meat or wine


till they had laid their offerings at the tomb of St. Vasili and made their confession at his shrine.

On the raised porch of the palace sits the benevolent Vladika (bishop) of Montenegro; beside him is a war-worn Voivoda, his costly dress contrasting strangely with the black cassock and purple sash of the bishop. A group of priests surround their spiritual chief, who not more than half a century ago ruled the land as prince as well as bishop.

A huge ring of Montenegrins with linked arms are majestically dancing the kolo before him, singing quaint verses of the Gospodar when, twenty-five years earlier, he led them and their fathers to the last big war against the Turks. With one step to the left and three to the right, keeping time to their song, they slowly circle round the open space. Beyond the dancers stands a crowd of on-lookers many deep, steadfastly regarding the bishop on the steps above.

We watch the spectacle too, and converse in our tongues, when I notice a youth at my side who stares at me in open-mouthed wonder. I frown upon him, but not for a second does he relax that intense gaze. Half angered, I speak to him, asking why he stares at me so fixedly. He smiles frankly.

"I watch but thy lips when thou speakest in this strange tongue," he says. "I have never heard another tongue but mine own."

We edge our way outwards and go to the tent of Stefan for a glass of his excellent wine. He sees us coming, and unceremoniously bundles half a dozen guests from their seats on a long plank placed on upturned boxes.

"Seest thou not who comes?" we hear him say to one old man who is slow to move. Many are the war medals on his breast, and in his hand he holds a long tchibouque.


"Nay," say I, seating myself at his side; "we are the strangers here, and I would talk to this old junak" (hero).

"As strangers must ye also be honoured," answers the "hero"; but his face lights up at my words. In his sash he carried a magnificent handjar, worth ten times the cost of his ragged clothing, and with a mute request I draw it from him.

"It has bitten the necks of many of thy countrymen," he says to Buto, the Turk, our friend, and we all laugh, for no ill-will is borne to-day.

Three kids are bleating piteously as a burly Montenegrin feels their ribs callously. He releases one from the tree to which they are bound in the circle of light before the tent, and another gives him an evil-looking knife. Shouldering the kid, he walks away. Before we leave he brings a skinned carcass back, and our host tempts us with the kidneys, which he will roast on the fire over there in the corner. Skilfully others spit the still warm body on a long stake, and bearing it off they place it over the fire, where a boy thoughtfully acts as turnspit. Many are the lambs and kids slaughtered and thus roasted whole to-day, and the cries of the victims mingle with the talk and laughter of the feasters.

We pay and go, passing another tent close by, which is oddly empty compared to the others. Its owner looks worried, for to him come few guests. There are not many who care to sit at the table of the traitor Juro. Since he sold his own brother for three hundred guldens, delivering him into the pitiless hand of the vendetta, all luck and prosperity have left him - ay, and his life is in danger from his own relations.

The Turkish music attracts us, and thither we wend our



way. The booth is the most crowded of all, but again place is made for us on the instant. All is laughter and good humour in that bright-coloured assembly. The stormy music is at times well-nigh inaudible.

"Fear not," I say, laughing, to a sweetly fair maiden beside whom chance has seated me.

She sits blushing and with downcast eyes, for by rights she should stand when men sit, and I and my clothes are still more strange. Others hear me, and a storm of merry chaff arises which still more embarrasses the shy girl. She looks like some fawn startled in a woodland glade, and the roses on her cheeks deepen.

"My sister is not wed," calls a tall young fellow, with a meaning laugh.

"Alas! she does not love me," I answer in the same spirit, as the serving-man brings huge bottles of wine.

Time flies apace amidst this gay scene, and when the Turks rest from their music, the Montenegrins sing. Not for a moment does the merriment pause till I hear the first word spoken in anger that day. Stefan, my servant, has found his seat appropriated by a man wearing the insignia of an officer of militia, during the few minutes he has gone to attend to the horses. It comes like a flash. The intruder, a swarthy, ill-tempered man, shouts an insult, refusing to move. There is a lull in the noise, and Buto, the Turk, speaks him fairly.

"Thou liar and cheat," comes the answer, and Buto leaps like an arrow from the bow from his seat on to the table towards the man, who has at last jumped up and has drawn his revolver. But Buto never reaches him. In a second the intruder has been seized and is thrown down the steps to the path below. I follow, for I fear a shot fired at random into the crowded booth; but I find the man pinioned, his


revolver in the hands of a stern-looking man, in whom I recognize one of the secret police. Seeing me, he salutes.

"I ask thy pardon," he says; "this man will be severely punished, and it will be many months ere he can again lay his hand on revolver when strangers are present."

We will beg him off in the morning, for already the heat of wine is leaving him, and he looks at us appealingly.

The incident is forgotten at once, and all is merriment again, though when the Turks who are from Bosnia strike up an Austrian military march, a Montenegrin rises and tells the leader to play some other tune, "else," he adds, "we will bind thee to the tent pole."

"I must go," says the doctor; "at noon I must be in Podgorica, and it is seven hours' ride."

We look at him in astonishment, and he as an answer nods towards the heavens. The stars are paling fast, and over the hills steals a faint glow of crimson. In the coming light men are saddling horses and hurrying to and fro. A string of pilgrims is already leaving the monastery gates. Ere the sun has topped the mountains, peace and solitude will reign o'er the heights of Ostrog once more. From the many paths leading into the valley comes the crackle of pistol-shots. It is the farewell of the Montenegrins.

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