ACROSS THE BORDER
BRIDGE OVER THE MORACA.
THERE seems very little danger about the place, neither did the ride hither give any other impressions than that of an ordinary canter over a particularly level piece of country.
We are sitting in a room, which consists of windows and mats. Beyond a few rickety chairs produced for us and one or two Albanians squatting cross-legged on the floor, it is absolutely bare. The room, being on the first floor, commands through its many windows, devoid of glass, a view of the great square of Tusi, its fringe of disreputable hovels and attendant multitude of scavenger dogs. A little farther away to the left is a stream, and a primitive bridge leading to a simple building, before which squads of Turkish infantry are learning the new Prussian march. To the right a small hill rises from the level plain, on the top is a fort, and, broken occasionally by similar little hills, the great plain stretches away till it ends in the shimmery haze of the Lake of Scutari. Immediately behind the town is a great barren mountain, the first of the chain that tumbles in wild confusion from the plain of the Zeta, right across to Servia.
Just below us sits an aged man washing his head; presently another old man approaches him with a razor and shaves his face and head. Across the ford, disdaining the use of the bridge, three unwieldy creaking two-wheeled
carts with enormous loads of hay are drawn by patient oxen. The drivers, wild-looking men, their heads and faces swathed in cloths, each with a Martini rifle swinging picturesquely and handily from the shoulder, urge the oxen forward with long sticks. Two or three children in fezes are busily scraping ox-hides with knifes, and lithe maidens in wide trousers cross the square with large pots of water on their heads. There is an air of sleepy indifference about the picture quite at variance with the rumoured dangerous character of the inhabitants; but all the same, should a Montenegrin show his face amidst this peaceful scene, his life would be worth just about two minutes' purchase.
That is why Buto the Turk has accompanied us, and the other man is an Austrian driver carefully wearing a European peaked cap. We stand a round of coffee, and rise perceptibly in the estimation of the other guests. One of them rolls us cigarettes, and they bring us little cups of sweetened milk.
Albert, a victim to the picture post-card craze, suggests sending a collection away to his friends, and we go to the post-office and inspect the cards. Owing to the amount of writing and elaborate decoration on the face of the card, he decides to send them, even if there is no picture on the back.
There is small chance of their ever reaching their destination, as I know from experience. "Also," says the genial postmaster, "a mail went yesterday." "The next leaves?" we query. The postmaster signifies with an eloquent gesture that this is a matter beyond him, and one to be decided by divine will.
We write about a dozen cards, and stop because there are no more. We have used up his stock and apologize. The postmaster smiles, and says politely that it does not matter.
In a month or so he is expecting more and in the meantime the good people of Tusi must write letters. Then he discovers that we must affix an additional stamp, the cards being for inland use. As this distinctly adds to the highly effective appearance of the cards, we cheerfully buy the extra stamps, but of these he has only eight. Before we leave we have to tell him the names of the addressees and the destination, for him to add in Turkish characters. This gives rise to much quaint phonetic spelling, and when we pay we find each card has cost about double that of a foreign letter in other lands. Buto explains this to the postmaster with much heat and gesticulation, but without success. We leave him solemnly stamping each card, taking great care - as he shows us - that the post-mark shall be clearly legible.
I have a few lines of introduction to the military commandant from the Turkish consul at Podgorica, and this we proceed to present in state. The Beg lives in a two-storied building: the ground-floor being in a dilapidated condition, he inhabits the upper story, and at his door stands a very ragged sentry, who presents arms as we pass. It is, even for us, an unwonted honour, and impresses Albert greatly. An unkempt officer presents us, and we bow towards an elderly Turk, who uncurls his legs preparatory to rising. We all shake hands very solemnly, and are waved to a bench opposite. Buto and the Beg converse in Turkish, while we drink coffee and accept cigarettes from the other two men in the room, a hodja (priest) and a civilian. This ceremonial duty over, we again bow, shake hands, and leave the room, to every one's relief, the ragged sentry again according us full military honours. We negotiate the broken staircase with caution, and decide that we have seen
enough of Tusi. Ten minutes later we are in the saddle and cantering out of the town, preceded and followed by a dozen Turkish soldiers. It is only half an hour to the border, it is true; but accidents have happened, and the mountaineers are very much on the war-path just now, since nine of them were shot a few weeks ago.
At the border blockhouse, over which waves a very faded specimen of the Star and Crescent banner, we part from our escort, and pause for a moment on the narrow bridge spanning the historical Cievna. Deep down in a great fissure the green water rushes as through a sluice. It is broader below than at the top, over which a man could jump with ease. With a swirl and a roar the water rushes past, breaking here and there into foamy patches. Many a hunted man, both Albanian and Montenegrin, has poured his life-blood into those clear waters. Few streams in Europe have witnessed such cruel deeds of death as has the little Cievna. Its source is in the unknown Proclotea, "the accursed mountains " of history, and indeed of to-day, for none can penetrate them. For the greater part of its course it forms the border-line between two races living in perpetual feud with each other, and has been crossed and recrossed thousands of times by men intent on murder and with the lust of blood in their hearts.
We ride on. The evening is yet young, and Buto proposes a longer way home. We ford the Ribnica at the same spot as did the ill-fated Turkish soldiers from the very blockhouse we have just left, and note the mournful little cairns erected at the spots where Montenegrin bullets laid them low.
A young man of Kuc', on his way to his mountain home, joins us as we walk our horses for a spell. He strides beside
Buto a little distance from me, yet I can overhear the conversation. He inquires in flattering terms as to who I am.
"An English general," answers the mendacious Turk, "just from the Transvaal war."
The young mountaineer gazes at me in wonder and with great respect. He also thinks I do not understand his language, and I blush at his compliments on my general appearance and probable accomplishments.
"Yes," continues Buto, indulging freely in this opportunity for "embroidery," "and he has one thousand florins a-day to spend as he likes. Even now in Tusi he has spent above thirty florins in coffee for the whole village."
I consider the well-meaning Buto has sufficiently perjured himself,
and urge my steed into a gallop. It is dark when we ride into Podgorica
by another road than that we should have ordinarily used. It is a thoughless
action, and causes the aged bairaktar and other friendly Turks to
tramp to the borders seeking us that evening. It is well to be punctual
in the Zeta, and to keep to the regulation paths and routes, should one
wish to spare anxiety to expectant friends.
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