THE view is worth the climb, though Stefan, leaning on his rifle and mopping his brow, replies in monosyllables to my outburst of enthusiasm. The horses are nodding their heads vigorously,and their breath comes in short snorts, bearing witness to the heat and the long ascent. For four hours we have climbed from the valley of the Zeta, now stretched out like a map below us, with the great Lake of Scutari beyond, already hazy in the coming heat. Before us lies the rocky tableland of Zatrijebac, and a mere speck in that sea of boulders is the little red-roofed church, our destination. The day is Sunday, and we are going to mass there and to rejoice the heart of good Father Giulio, the young Franciscan pastor of this savage flock. Great snow-clad mountains rise up before us, a medley of jagged peaks and sombre ravines forming Northern Albania. We have not been more than a rifle-shot away from the border since we left Podgorica at daybreak. We walk down the steep path, our horses following us like well-trained dogs. At the foot we mount, and now the first houses of that scattered parish of Zatrijebac are passed, and from the many paths groups of men are converging on the main track. It is the congregation, and they are going to church, like the Covenanters of old, armed to the teeth. They are a pure-blooded Albanian clan under Montenegrin rule, clad as are their
brothers in the mountains opposite, with but small distinctions in their costume, such as mark the different tribes. In common, too, with the rest of Northern Albanians, they are devout Roman Catholics, yet the Prince reckons them as his trustiest subjects. Not for nothing do they speak of their courage as proverbial. "As brave as the men of Zatrijebac" is a saying, and honestly they have earned the compliment, and right well do they maintain it.
Under a large tree some dozen men have halted; friends hail them from the hillsides, and they are waiting for them.
"God greet ye!" we say as we approach; but they give us the Albanian answer, "Well met, O brothers! "
Splendid men they are, in spotless white, the jackets with that quaint zigzag bordering of black braid which marks the clan. About their heads they wear long cloths, wound first round the top of the head, then round their sun-burnt faces, and finally about their neck. Tight-fitting black-braided trousers and a bandolier of cartridges as a sash, in which is stuck a long revolver, make up their picturesque attire.
They join us, and we ride on in the midst of that armed throng as if bent on a dare-devil border foray rather than to God's house. Rifles are slung as only the Albanians carry them, hanging from the right shoulder, nearly at right angles from the body, and hand resting on the butt. Few speak Serb, and one walks at my side.
"Is it loaded?" he asks, with a glance at my carbine. "It is well," he says, as I show him the magazine. "We have treacherous neighbours," and he nods at the hill on our right.
Fully a hundred men have joined us ere we near the church, and I canter on to greet the Father, who is doubtless meditating on his sermon. The churchyard is full, and all
press to the low wall in undisguised amazement. They take me for the doctor, the only being they deem it possible to visit them in European clothes. One comes hurriedly forward unbandaging his arm, and a woman inquires at what hour I shall vaccinate.
A few minutes later, after nearly effecting an entrance by force - the Albanian housekeeper expostulating indignantly at my intrusion till she recognized me - and I am enfolded in the arms of the impulsive monk. A stalwart Albanian, fully armed, likewise bestows on me the kiss of greeting: he is the young sacristan. We sit and talk, for it is a year since we met, and my eye falls on certain jagged holes in the brown habit of Father Giulio. I had heard the story how his habit was riddled with bullets a few months ago while ministering to the dying on the field of battle. He notices my glance, and smiles deprecatingly.
"After mass," he says.
A few privileged old men come in bearing their weekly gifts - one a bottle of milk, another a cheese. They use the universal Catholic Albanian salutation, "May Jesus Christ be praised!" Father Giulio nods, and the sacristan goes out. A few moments later and a bell sounds over the peaceful scene. It is the signal for prayer, and a wild chanting commences.
"Pater noster," explains the young priest. "Now follows the Ave Maria. I have taught them to sing these prayers, but it was hard. Their idea of music is so different from ours," and he sighs, thinking of sunny musical Italy and her grand singers; for he was once a student of philosophy in Rome, a gay young cavalier of ancient lineage, and still can sing the love-songs of his native city of Naples - though he does so reluctantly, and only when he has been enticed down for
a few days' change to the semi-civilization of Podgorica.
"Even now they have brought an element of their own music into mine."
It is indeed a strange music, rising and falling in quaint cadences, oddly like the weird chanting of the shepherds on the lonely mountain pasturages, yet breaking suddenly off into the old-fashioned Catholic intonations.
"I must prepare now," he says. "You can stand by the high altar if you will and watch the congregation."
But I know, pious as are the Albanians, my presence there would sadly detract from their religious duties, and I go round to the main portal and enter there.
What a quaint sight!
First come the women and girls, the younger ones greatly excited at my appearance; then the men, their head-cloths thrust back on their shoulders, disclosing half-shaven heads and great tufts of hair at the back. Inside the altar-rails are boys and three or four men, and they are the choir. Their singing is execrable. All are kneeling, or rather squatting on their feet, save two Montenegrins of the Orthodox Church - gendarmes responsible for the order of the district - and they are standing motionless in the midst of this strange assembly.
The service proceeds. At the most sacred part one and all prostrate themselves on the earthen floor, and the priest, clothed in rich-coloured vestments, is the only familiar object which meets the eye. The server is the same Albanian who rang the bell for prayer, and as he censes the priest and then the congregation, the incongruity of the scene is brought home; for he is in the full costume of an Albanian clansman, bandolier and revolver complete. He, too, collects the offertory, stalking in and out of the pros-
trate worshippers, clanking the coins in a tin can as he goes. Should one have no small money he opens the can and counts out the required change.
Strangest of spectacles! With mixed feelings I emerge in the open. Round the walls are stacked rifles, from the branches of the trees hang rifles, all loaded, and amongst them is the trumpet ready to blow the alarm. Two hundred yards away is the border. In the shade of a tree bearing such quaint fruit upon its branches I await the conclusion of the mass, and then the monk joins me, and we walk to the edge of the ravine of the Cievna, a view well-nigh unparalleled in the world. Three thousand feet below, the little stream winds like a silver thread; opposite, the mountains rise far above us in height, towering in chains one above the other. The sides of the ravine are inaccessible save here and there where a path zigzags down into the depths and up again on the other side. Those snow-capped peaks look so near that the heat is intensified by that cool contrast.
"It was here they fought. A little below us," says the monk, pointing to a shelving crag, "and there it was that I got these holes in my habit. It was dusk, you see, and they probably could not distinguish my dress. Also it was the most hotly contested point. We had two killed and five wounded at that spot. Yes; it was about the pasturages, of course. I did my best to stop the fight, and called them all to church; but while I was preaching the first shot was fired. Then of course it was no use speaking more, and I went with them. No; I was not afraid. Why should I be? My place is amongst my flock at all times. But they are brave, my flock. Sixty of them only against one thousand, and they drove them back till darkness stopped them.
Afterwards it was dreadful when they brought the dead to the church and watched over them all night. That was worse than the battle. Over there, on yonder precipice, they fought twenty years ago. Come; it is time for dinner."
A young woman clothed in black - she could not be more than eighteen - passes us.
"She is one of the widows," says Father Giulio, acknowledging her reverence.
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