THE MORNING AFTER
THOU sleepest even as a man that hath had no rest for many nights," says Petar smiling. I rub my eyes, for the room is full of sunlight. "Come," he goes on, "thy horse is ready saddled below, and I will show thee the spot where we fought last night."
Quickly I dress myself, and the events of last night crowd into my brain, confused and indistinct as a dream. Gone is that mysterious army of men which had filled the street last night, and the only indications of the storm are lowering banks of clouds rolling over the mountains in the distance. Refreshed by the rain, the earth smells sweetly in the keen morning air, and drops sparkle on the trees in the sunshine.
Few people are about: my horse prances and chafes at the bit as we cross the little bridge, climbing the short steep ascent to the great plain of the Zeta. With long quick steps Petar walks at my side, and ever and anon he looks up at me with his bright smile. His tanned face shows no traces of the long vigil through the night which he and others have kept.
"No," he says in answer to my question, "there came no more visitors. They were but a handful of half-starved soldiers from a frontier blockhouse seeking food. Had they but surrendered we should not have fired, but they sought their death." And Petar shrugs his shoulders.
It is not far across the plain. In half an hour we reach the fatal spot, where many men stand and lie about on the rain-sodden ground. Across the level sward towards the border not a soul can be seen; then come little houses, square and uninteresting - they are the guardhouses; and after them the mountains rising steeply into the banks of clouds. Doubtless they are dotted with waiting men, who would dearly love to descend on the plain and try conclusions with the Montenegrins. But woe betide the man who ventures to-day within range of the frontier guards!
"See," says Petar, leading me down a steep path towards the foaming stream, "here they came. Each of these boulders hid a man, and here it was that the leading man halted. He must have caught some sound. Dost thou remember?" I nod vigorously. Never shall I forget that terrible second when those doomed men paused on the brink of eternity. "They fired at random. Look at the stars on the rocks, though not one fired a second shot. Come," and he goes towards the little cave that sheltered us. We turn a corner abruptly, and there at my feet lies a horrid sight. A man, in the ragged uniform of the Turkish infantry, half lies, half sits, with one knee drawn up as if in vain endeavour to rise. His hands have dug deep holes in the soft earth as he fought against death, and on his upturned face is depicted in awful colours his last agony. Sick and faint I turn to go; but Petar indifferently points to the little bloodstained jagged holes in the uniform. "Seven," he says laconically, checking them off with his finger.
"Good shooting," I answer, with what must be a ghastly smile, and I go towards another gendarme who is munching bread a little distance away. He proffers me a piece,
which I refuse, and take a draught of raki from the bottle at his side.
"Thou art pale," says the man, glancing at me keenly. "Hast thou, too, watched through the night?"
My reply is indistinct, and I seat myself upon a rock. It is indeed a scene fitted to doings of death, yet the warm sunshine lends to it an air of peace. Jagged boulders dot the ravine in all directions, and in and out winds the path from the bank above to the water's edge, where with a twirl the river broadens out to the ford. The banks shelve inwards, forming a series of caves, and here and there masses of rock hang threateningly, awaiting the time when they, too, shall break away to join the confusion below. Petar joins us, and indicates a spot close by.
"There the other man struck me in his flight. He ran up that steep bank with eight bullets in him, and the ninth he got from me. That killed him, though he kept on for several hundred yards."
I see that Petar will not let me off, and I follow him up the path the stricken man took. Filled with wonder at such vitality, I emerge panting on the plain that ends so abruptly, as if cut with a knife at the river-bed. Two hundred yards away he lies face downwards, his foot caught in a bramble. He is a magnificent man, of herculean proportions, and through his back is the bullet-hole which Petar proudly claims as his work.
"Another fled, wounded too, and one of the border guards shot him with his revolver. Wilt thou see him too?"
I decline. "It is enough," I respond.
"This will make good writing," says Petar beaming, "will it not? And wilt thou speak of me?"
I signify that he will be the hero of the story.
"In England ye have no such fights?" he asks, rolling me a cigarette.
"We have no borders," I explain. "It is an island."
He looks disappointed. Plainly England sinks in his estimation, and I hurry to explain that in past days we had many such border raids when English and Scot were as Albanian and Montenegrin.
"Then we have our colonies," I add, and tell him of tribal wars in Northern India, of the Dervishes and the Zulus, and what I can remember at the moment. He is impressed.
"Then it must be good to be an Englishman," he says, nodding approvingly.
A group of horsemen is approaching, and Petar springs to the attention. It is the governor, a handsome, big man, and some of his officers. He smiles as he sees me.
"I was afraid that you would have been here last night," he says in Italian, shaking hands. "I have special orders for your safety."
"The secret was very well kept," I answer, with a reassuring glance at Petar, who is looking uncomfortable.
"You must not ride near the border - it will be very dangerous for a few weeks," and turning to Petar he gives him an order not to leave my side or let me wander farther away in this direction. Petar salutes, and winks at me as the governor rides off.
Then we go back to breakfast, which he takes with me after many protests
as to the honour I am doing him.
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