GOOD morning, Gospodja. Canst thou brew us a black coffee?"
The woman had run out of the hut at the clatter of our horses' hoofs, as they followed us up the last steep hill to Fundina. The day was still young, yet the sun burnt down on us with such lusty vigour that coats had been long discarded and our weapons were weighty nuisances.
"God greet ye, Gospodini," she says, bending over our hands in turn. "Coffee ye can have and a draught of spring water. More we have not in our poor han."
She is a sturdy black-eyed woman, stern and serious as a man, but her eyes have the look of sleeplessness and long vigil.
"Where is Keco, thy husband?"
"Away in the fields above. I will send for him." She nods towards the lofty slope above us, which terminates in a sheer precipice of grey rocks. The village - half a dozen huts - straggles up the hill, and one or two houses dot the valley below; but otherwise it is a wild and desolate scene, the doorway of the mountainous regions of north-east Montenegro and the alpine wilderness of Albania. At the foot of the slope stretches the vast plain of the Zeta, with pleasant Podgorica in its middle, a tiny oasis in that rolling veldt, from which we have journeyed this morning.
MONTENEGRIN OFFICERS IN GALA COSTUME.
"Let him be," we answer, "for towards evening we return. Is he well and still unhurt? "
"He is well, thanks be to God!" responds the woman briskly, setting water to boil in a tiny tin can among the smouldering ashes of the wood fire on the floor. She blows the embers into flame, talking disjointedly as she does so -
"We have not slept this night. They were seen towards dusk, and we watched till daybreak. Treacherous dogs! - look here. They have begun firing at women - God curse them!"
In her skirt she displays a ragged bullet-hole, and spits with contempt on the earthen floor.
"Yes," she continues, "to draw my man they fired at me while he was in the hut, but he had his revenge. Two of them took remembrances back to Dinoš."
Dinoš is a village behind the ridge opposite, in Albania, inhabited by a set of cut-throats and thieves, who since Keco avenged an insult by shooting two men in the street at midday have rested not to wipe out the shame. Seldom has such a deed of reckless bravery been done in these lands as that of crossing the border in broad daylight and killing his enemies in full sight of the entire village. This Keco has done, and his fame as a hero is great in Montenegro. Grimly and contemptuously he sits and waits for the bullet that must finally lay him low, but he watches incessantly. A few more deaths have been added to his reckoning since then, and the men of Dinoš are more wary. Still it is a terrible life to lead for him, and perhaps more so for his young wife. We mention this to her as she hands us our coffee deftly on a tray. She laughs scornfully.
"My man must die, but not yet. When he does I shall
be the widow of a hero, and as proud as any woman in the land. First he will kill many yet."
"Thou hast no children, Gospodja. Art thou glad?"
"Yea, I am glad. My mother bore seven sons, and all were killed one night on these hills in a blood-feud. Their heads were taken to Dinoš, but my mother stole across at night and brought them back. Thus they were buried as men. I remember that night, and then I am glad that I am barren." She pauses for a moment. "God punish me for my words, for who shall avenge my husband? Who is more fitted than a son?"
"What do we pay thee?" we are saying.
"What thou wilt. Ye are very welcome."
The sun is nearing the farthermost range when we again draw rein before Keco's house. We are late, for in the mountains we had struck upon an old acquaintance, one Achmet Uiko, assassin, murderer, and very good fellow when not actively engaged in business. We had met him saddling up outside a wayside han on the border two hours' distance from here, in the company of a villainous set of Albanians in spotless white head-cloths, the head-gear of the clan of Gusinje, perhaps the most treacherous clan of the whole of Albania. Achmet had insisted on playing host, and in the midst of that assembly in a half-dark room we had consumed much raki. Each man sat with his rifle between his knees, and eyed us with suspicious curiosity. Then Achmet had proposed to us to visit him in his little fortress on the border, given him by a generous Prince, and spend the night.
"Thou hast long promised to come," he had said to me, to whom once he had narrated the story of his life - a story as full of adventure and hair-breadth escapes as any ever
written - and told of his murders with a simple ingenuity that caused his listener to pinch himself repeatedly. I urged lamely the expense of the horse, which I must return that evening, being hired; but he had promptly offered to pay for it himself. I accepted; but the trusty Stefan, my servant, had got into trouble in the meanwhile with a man of Gusinje who had demanded to examine his rifle. Stefan has no tact, and even Achmet admitted it were better to go.
"Hadst thou gone," said Stefan, as we rode away, "I would have accompanied thee; but we should not have seen Podgorica to-morrow nor the next day. Treacherous scoundrels!"
And I had great difficulty to prevent the fiery ex-Hungarian sergeant from shaking his fist at the group.
"We should have been safe with Achmet," I expostulate. "He has eaten bread in my house."
"I trust not any man who lives across the border, or who comes from there." (Achmet is a Christian Turk, though now a loyal subject of the Prince.)
That is the worst of Stefan. He is prejudiced, and not a safe man to take amongst Albanians or Turks.
The villagers of Fundina are congregated on the little stone platform before Keco's house. The men, each with his rifle, greet me impulsively, for they know me well. They chase away the too curious children, and the next moment one has borne off my field-glasses to a delighted group, and another who has seen my carbine before, is demonstrating the mechanism of a sporting carbine to an appreciative circle of soldier-peasants.
Then Keco comes and kisses me - a middle-sized man of about forty, modest and unassuming, with nothing of the fire-eater in his appearance.
"I declare thy life suits thee," I tell him. "Thou art looking splendid."
Last year when we were here - it was a short time after his celebrated deed - he was wasted and nervous, and his hand shook so that he could scarce roll a cigarette.
"I have got used to it," he answers, smiling. "Yet they are worse now than ever. There is much money on my head," he adds proudly, "and the men of Dinoš are very poor."
We drink our coffee and prepare to go. The light is rapidly failing.
"Ye cannot go down to-night. No man takes this path at dark. Sleep here and leave at daybreak."
I refuse. Last year we slept here once, and a dozen men kept watch and ward throughout the night. The choice is the same - the chance of an ambuscade on the path down to the Zeta or a midnight alarm up here.
"Then ye must take men with ye," insists Keco, and is immovable in this resolve.
An embrace and we part, accompanied by two talkative jovial men, whom we send back, sorely against their will, round the next bend.
Then darkness comes, and we dismount, to stumble and fall over the rock-strewn track, often losing it, and bruising our feet sorely.
Stefan slings his rifle and walks with drawn revolver in his hand. It is a weird journey, and we start at every bush. At last the lights of Podgorica twinkle over the gloomy plain, and the little Ribnica shines as a silver band in the pall-like darkness. Past the cairns erected to fallen Turkish marauders, and then the tinkle of a sheep-bell proclaims that all danger is over. The shepherd is beguiling his weary
vigil with a pipe, on which he is playing a quaint tune.
Before the inn sits the governor, and his brow is black.
"It was the choice of two evils." I conclude my explanation, and we
go in to a well-earned supper.
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