THERE is a feeling of suppressed excitement in the air this evening. It is nine o'clock, and the billiard-room of the Hotel Balsha is unwontedly crowded, to the great inconvenience of the players, a neat young Turk and a grizzled old Montenegrin. The terms "billiard-room " and "hotel" are perhaps misleading, suggesting leather lounges and other appurtenances of civilization; but beyond the war-worn table, with its patched cloth and springless cushions, and the fact that sleeping accommodation is provided upstairs or in the kitchen, and on shakedowns in the dining-room, according to the number of guests - none are ever turned away - there is nothing to justify the use of these names.
The governor of Podgorica is upstairs in his room, closeted with the brigadier and the captain of gendarmes. Messengers are constantly coming and going, and it is significant that they all carry rifles this evening. On the stairs, on the landing above, and in the hall, are at least a score of men standing, leaning on their rifles. In vain I attempt to pump Milan, the governor's private secretary, who has just come in and seated himself at our table.
"I know you are hatching up a little war or something," I expostulate, "otherwise old Captain Tomo of the police would not have declined a glass of wine. He was visibly
swollen with importance when he went up to the governor just now."
But Milan only smiles vaguely in answer.
"It is a wet night," he says, and I glance at the rain-washed window. Through the blurred glass is a face, indistinguishable yet familiar, and I look closer. There is a movement as if a finger is beckoning from outside, and with a muttered excuse I leave the room. It is Petar, my friend the gendarme, a merry soul, and the companion of many a midnight escapade in the old Turkish quarter, where he has watched over us when we have serenaded the Turks. He draws me cautiously under the shelter of a doorway, and tells me in an impressive whisper to get my rifle.
"Cover it under thy mantle," he adds. "Let none guess that thou art armed, and then meet me at the corner."
Hurriedly I edge my way through the waiting men, and in my room I hear the subdued voices of the governor's council through the thin partition.
Buckling on my revolver, and slipping a magazine into the carbine, another in my pocket, covering all in the folds of my greatcoat, I carelessly, though with beating heart, push through the crowd again out into the stormy night. Petar grins appreciatively as I tap the carbine and thank him for warning me. Glancing hastily around to see that no one is watching us, he takes the path towards the border, and in an instant we are swallowed up in the darkness. The clock chimes the half hour, and a few seconds later the voices of the muezzins from their lofty perches break the stillness of the night with their final call to prayer.
SilentlyPetar leads the way along the little river Ribnica - I well content to wait till he shall explain - his soft opankis making no sound on the stone-strewn ground, till he pauses,
and, climbing down the steep river-bank, halts under the shelter of a cave. Taking off his broad struka he lays it on the ground, and with our backs against the wall we recline at our ease. I give Petar my tobacco-tin and ask for an explanation; but first he deftly rolls two cigarettes, and in the light of the match I see that his face is wreathed in smiles.
"Nizams are coming," he says, blowing out the fragrant smoke and chuckling. "They are coming to raid the sheep on Lazo's farm over yonder."
"How dost thou know?" I ask impatiently. "Have they telegraphed their departure to the governor?"
"Nay," says Petar; "but Achmet the Turk has betrayed them. He has bought the right to return to his home in Podgorica with this information. Thou knowest he stole rifles not long ago?"
I nod, and ask how he knows this.
"Achmet's brother is my friend, Gospodin. And ere the governor knew, I had thought of thee, but dared not speak till now for fear that they would guess I was telling thee. At midnight they come and cross the river at the ford, and there we shall await them."
"How many come?" I inquired.
"Six, a dozen perhaps, not more," he answers; "but it is not them we fear. The firing may bring the Albanians down to the border, for it is but a rifle-shot distant. Now wait here till another hour is past, and then I will take thee to the spot where thou canst see all in safety."
"Hast thou no fear that we may not, too, be fired at by our friends?" I query. "The night is very dark, and how can the others distinguish us?"
"Nay," says Petar; "for that I have arranged. I am
detailed with a score of others to watch the ford, and at eleven o'clock we meet there." His voice is reproachful as he adds, "Dost thou think I would lead thee into danger?"
I apologize, knowing well the caution taken by these reckless men for the safety of their guests; yet I muse how good Petar will safeguard me when the bullets fly at random. The time passes quickly, for Petar is an interesting talker, and the clock chimes out again.
"It is time," he says, and we rise, enveloping ourselves in our cloaks. He walks along the tiny path below the overhanging cliff; for the Ribnica lies in a deep cutting, and not another word does he vouchsafe till, with a hoarse whisper, he answers a crisp challenge. Then other figures rise from the surrounding boulders. All the men I know, and silently they push forward and grasp me by the hand in welcome. Then Petar takes me to another cave smaller than the last, and with a natural parapet, over which I clamber. Once inside I see that no bullet can penetrate here, and smile at the thoughtfulness of these men. It is a weird scene. I can just distinguish the rough outlines of the great boulders which strew the river-bed, and opposite is the outline of the lofty bank, straight and unbroken. The river rushes with a gurgling, pleasant sound over the shallow ford, and now, except Petar, who is peering intently over the parapet, not a soul is to be seen. The darkness has utterly swallowed up that little crowd of men, yet I know each boulder hides a keenly vigilant Montenegrin, like the watcher at my side, with rifle ready in the hand. Still the rain beats down, and I fall a-dreaming as the minutes drag wearily by. Perhaps I doze, when suddenly Petar lays his hand on my arm and points. With a start
I follow the direction of that hand, and at first see nothing. Petar relaxes my arm, and I see that he is aiming. Then I see shadowy figures moving noiselessly between the boulders, and my heart beats to suffocation. I count six of them gliding in single file, a pace or two separating each from the other. But two or three boulders divide the foremost man from the ford, who pauses instinctively, holding up his arm as a signal. The next instant a voice rings out, "Halt and surrender!" For an answer the six rifles of the Turks crash in the silence. Then the rifle at my elbow cracks with a report like thunder, flashes dart out from every boulder, and Petar has leapt the parapet. Scarce knowing what I do, I follow him, and a figure rushes up towards us. Petar clubs his rifle, but the fugitive deals him a mighty blow with his fist and he reels backwards, but recovers himself and sends a bullet after the flying man. Then follows a death-like stillness for a few seconds, and the leader of the Montenegrins shouts an order to cease firing in the ravine and assemble on the cliff. Some scatter over the great plain, and now a shot rings out in the distance, then another and another, till the whole country-side would seem to be alive with the reports of rifles. The great slope of Fundina becomes a bed of fireflies, as the peasants turn out and pass on the alarm to their brethren in the mountains.
"Thou wast foolish to leave the cave," says a voice at my elbow. It is Petar, wiping the blood from a cut in his forehead.
"Why do they fire on the hills?" I ask. My voice surprises me, and I am ashamed, for it trembles. "Are the Albanians attacking in force?"
"Nay, Gospodin," says Petar grimly; "none now will
venture across the border to-night. That is the signal of alarm, and ere thou returnest to the town it will be full of men."
And it was so. The street before the hotel is thick with men, many thousands
of them, in bands under the leadership of their officers. Even as I go
to my room, tired and wet to the skin, I hear still the distant tap of
rifles from the border, and to this strange music, mingling with the buzz
of the men in the street below, I fall asleep.
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