IT is a magnificent morning late in April, and the generous sunshine has tempted me from my work. Spring is nowhere more merciful than in the Katunska of Montenegro, that "rough rock throne of Freedom," and especially in the high-lying valley of Cetinje. Spring comes suddenly in the night, turning the cold grey hills which prison-like encircle the valley into tender green. The little gardens, the parks, and the ancient trees which have witnessed the coming of the ravaging Turk, burst forth into blossom and leaf, and forgotten are the rigours of the past winter, forgotten already weeks ago, at one or two hours' distance from Cetinje. Spring has long since clothed the valley of Rijeka and the Bocche di Cattaro in verdant splendour before she suddenly remembers little Cetinje hidden away in the rocks. But then she comes quickly, bringing with her a melodious orchestra of thrushes and blackbirds, while at night she fills the air with the sweet music of the nightingale, even causing the unpoetical inhabitants of the marshes, the frogs, to yield their self-imposed task of nocturnal serenading to the new-comers.
I pass out of the little town, which ends so abruptly, and wend my way towards the end of the valley, hardly more than a quarter of an hour away. The birds are singing delightfully in the bushes of the hills and I am half tempted to plunge into the leafy bower, but I am lazy. The sun
is hot and enervating, so I turn townwards and compromise matters by climbing one of the miniature hillocks which litter the dead level of the plain. A path leads to the summit by gentle gradients, and I seat myself on a rock for a while, gazing over the little red-roofed town.
Before me lies the house of the Crown Prince and his park to the left. I see the green-shuttered monastery and the red-brick Biljar, the only two buildings of any antiquity in the town which was twice destroyed by the relentless Turks. The simple palace of the Prince adjoins the Biljar, the house of his ancestors, and beyond cluster the irregular houses of his subjects. At the far end I see the barracks, before which exercise red-jacketed soldiers, calling back memories of far-away England. Then the houses cease and the narrow little plain runs on till the further barrier of imprisoning rocks is reached.
The clock of the monastery chimes the hour, reminding me of an appointment, and slowly I descend and traverse the park. I catch a glimpse of a red-jacketed sentry lounging at the gate of the Crown Prince's garden and again another in the simple courtyard of the Prince. I pass the Biljar and come upon the square, facing a low stone building of ugly aspect. It is the prison, and many are the times that I have visited it, talking with the prisoners. It is upon this square that they are allowed to walk for hours daily, without let or hindrance, and practically without a guard, for it is entirely unenclosed. Friends and relations come from afar, bringing gifts, and seat themselves freely amongst their unfortunate brethren. The stranger is reminded of the real character of the scene only when the clank of a chain and the shambling gait of a prisoner attracts his attention. Then he looks closer and sees many men wearing
ponderous fetters on their ankles. Inquiry will tell him that these are the criminals of Montenegro, not, however, common thieves or rascals, but men who have defended their honour in the vendetta. They are nearly all murderers, though no such harsh term is applied to them in Montenegro, and indeed he can look in vain for a depraved type of face.
The inmates differ in no way from their countrymen at liberty outside, who would act in precisely the same manner under similar circumstances, and having avenged their honour, would cheerfully receive the punishment awarded.
I notice a group on the square and pause wonderingly. It is compact, and I see several familiar figures. There is the Chamberlain of the Prince, one of his adjutants, and several of the judges from the Supreme Court. A row of prisoners is before them, all unchained, for to-morrow is Easter, and at Eastertide the chains are all removed for the space of a week.
As I draw nearer, the group opens, and I see the Prince rise from a chair and walk slowly across the square. Here again he halts and seats himself. I know now what is the meaning of the visit. Every Easter the Prince goes to the prison and personally satisfies himself as to the justice of the sentences.
Now he is receiving the women, who inhabit the farther wing of the prison, and I draw as near to the group as I am allowed. I am angered that I have come so late, for I should dearly love to have heard the audience of the male prisoners, whose stories I mostly know.
In the centre of the little ring sits the massive figure of the Prince, clothed in the long pale blue coat of the upper classes, over which again he is wearing a sleeveless jacket,
THE WOMEN PRISONERS.
stiff with gold and silk embroidery. The chair looks ridiculously small under him as he leans slightly to the right, listening to the statement of a blind judge. Other judges stand close to him, and that tall young fellow in the smart red and gold uniform of the royal adjutants is also of the house of Petrovic and nearly related to the Prince. His prominent nose and fine eyes remind me strongly of his cousin Prince Mirko. He catches my eye and winks at me profanely, for we battle together nightly at billiards. A dozen brawny men stand to the right and left of the royal bodyguard, and the grizzled veteran who is looking at me suspiciously is the royal standard bearer, as the gold emblem on his cap of a cross and standard combined proclaims. Opposite the Prince are a dozen women with folded hands and downcast eyes, and one by one they step forward while a clerk reads from a paper their names, crime, and sentences. Some are dismissed at once and go dejectedly away; their chance has gone for another year.
But now a young woman is before the Prince, wearing the cap which tells one she is unmarried. The Prince turns to his advisers and puts a few short and pertinent questions. Then he turns again to the girl.
"I pardon thee," he says.
She bows deeply. She may not speak or raise her eyes, but I see her bosom heave as she turns and rushes through the waiting throng. "Pardoned," I almost hear her cry, and crossing herself repeatedly, she is heartily embraced and kissed by her late and less fortunate companions. It is too far away to hear what they are saying.
Again another woman, this time married, with the coil of hair worn crown fashion, from which descends a black cloth on to the shoulders. I just catch that she has been con-
victed of neglect of her children. Again the Prince turns to the blind man at his side.
"How many years has she?"
"Five, lord, two of which are finished."
"Be kinder to thy children," says the Prince. "Go; thou art free."
Another has the half of her sentence remitted and likewise crosses herself and is impulsively kissed in the background. But one poor old woman I see struggling with her emotion. I know her story. It is long and sad. She is the victim of another's sin. Will she get a hearing, I wonder? because if so then will she surely regain her liberty. But another is called before her and at this moment the bells of the monastery peal out in a chime. The Prince rises from his chair and turns towards the church, crossing himself with bared head. The girl passes me laughing gleefully, saying -
"I am free, I am free," and the Chamberlain reminds the Prince that time is flying. One or two more cases and the Prince rises again. He recognizes me, and returns my salute graciously, to the consternation of the trusty standard bearer, who has watched me throughout as if I were a dangerous anarchist.
The poor old woman has not had a hearing. She sinks to the ground sobbing piteously, while around her others rejoice and sing - those that have been pardoned or have had their sentences reduced. "Do not lose hope, old woman," says the young director, patting her shoulder. "All will yet be well. I myself will see to it. Ah, you are here," he says to me, for we are friends. "No, I cannot come with you now. To-morrow is a great feast in the prison, and I must see to the meat and the wine. It is a present from the Prince."
I look at my watch and discover that I have forgotten my appointment.
Next morning pleasant strains of music mingle in my dreams. Half waking at the unusual sound, half sleeping, I hear the solemn bars of a hymn, played by a military band, wafted through the open window.
"Christ is risenWith a bound I spring from my bed to the window. It is Easter Day. Below, in the glorious sunlight of early morning stand two Montenegrins. They kiss each other thrice as they exchange their deep-toned melodious greeting. Tiny drops of dew glinting like diamonds hang from the beautiful green leaves of the trees opposite, and from all directions I hear men calling to each other the glad tidings of Easter. Harsh or shrill voices are seldom heard in Montenegro. The mountaineers have a deep-chested, full tone when they speak, that turns the Serb language - uncompromising as it looks in print - into one of the most musical languages that I know.
Christ is risen indeed."
Hurriedly dressing, I descend into the square before the palace of Prince Nicolas. On the farther side is a tiny church; one or two trees cast a luxuriant shade upon the open space before it, and here is gathered together a vast concourse of men. Drawn up in a solid body is the battalion of recruits, who three weeks ago were tilling the ground or tending their fathers' flocks in the wild mountain pasturages beyond the naked Karst of the Katunska. Big, strapping young fellows, born soldiers, every one of them; in neat short red jackets, baggy blue breeches and white gaiters, they stand motionless, awaiting the appearance of their lord.
From the church appears at length the well-known figure of Prince Nicolas, and like a roll of thunder burst out the greetings of the waiting men.
"Zivio, Gospodar," echoes back from the hills as that stern weather-beaten visage relaxes into a kindly smile, and with a military salute he passes on into his palace.
A brilliant staff follow him, in red and gold, blue and white, their breasts glittering with stars and decorations, the sunlight glinting on steel scabbard and revolver barrel, a sight not to be surpassed for colour at any European Imperial pageant. Amongst them I see a few men in cocked hats and sombre blue uniforms embroidered with gold, and recognize the foreign Ministers. Up the steps into the hall of the palace they troop to congratulate the Prince of Montenegro personally and break their long fast, for none have touched meat during the last week.
An air of gaiety and joy pervades the air, later in the day the gusla can be heard in many a house and the voices of men singing.
In the best room of every house (with the poorer classes often the only room) a table is set forth covered with a white cloth. It groans under a load of roast lamb and other meats, of wine and many kinds of spirits. Conspicuous on every table is a plate of eggs coloured red or blue, many with the legend traced in fantastic characters that "Christ is risen."
Throughout the day a constant stream of visitors comes and goes. Any one with the remotest claims of acquaintance is made as welcome as the closest relation or dearest friend. It is a season of unbounded hospitality and real feasting. It is one of the few occasions during the year that the peasants taste meat, and even the upper classes have
observed Lent rigidly, fasting two entire weeks and many days besides.
I enter such a house. A cheery young Montenegrin whom I know well lives there with his pretty wife, who looks more charming than ever in her gala costume. Like her husband, she is wearing the long open coat of pale blue. A crimson velvet jacket beautifully embroided in gold covers her shoulders and arms, leaving the snowy under-vest of linen visible; a skirt of flowered silk and a rich silver girdle complete her tasteful attire. Her hair is coiled in a massive plait round her head and a lace mantilla falls upon her shoulders.
Petar, her handsome husband, kisses me on the lips, returning my greeting heartily. The wife kisses my hand and brings me a chair. We sit while she brings me a little of all the good things upon the table. I taste the food and drink a glass of wine to their prosperity. Then I select a coloured egg with care, testing the more pointed end on my teeth. Petar laughs delightedly.
"Thou knowest our custom," he says, and likewise chooses an egg.
I hold the egg in my hand, the pointed end upwards, while Petar taps it with his egg. Neither cracks, and then I tap Petar's egg. It cracks. Petar gives me his broken egg and chooses another with more care. Again we tap, and again his egg is broken. Other men come in and watch our harmless game with interest. My egg vanquishes one egg after another, and Petar retires from the contest.
"Thou hast a good egg," says a new comer, "but I have a better; this one," he says, drawing a purple egg from his capacious breeches' pocket, "has cracked eleven to-day."
"Mine is better," I answer gravely, and we tap. A shout greets my victory again.
"Verily it is a hard shell," says my adversary, handing me his egg with a sigh. "That is seventeen in all that it has broken."
My pockets are bulging with cracked eggs, for it is the custom to take those captured in the fight, and I decline further contests. It reminds me of my school-boy days when we battled with chestnuts on a string. Yet in Montenegro the game is played every Easter in every house, by grizzled veterans of a hundred fights and youths proud in the possession of the rifle which proclaims them men and active members of that soldier race.
It is a trying day, and the two days which follow it. One eats and drinks from morn till night as friend and acquaintance are visited. It were better if the days of fasting followed, instead of preceding Easter.
The season has pleasant recollections for me, for I saw Montenegro for the first time at Easter. Then I arrived unknown and unfriended, a tourist knowing nothing of the land, its people, or its customs. Yet everywhere I went I was made the honoured guest of "town captain," and humble peasant alike.
It did me good after the stiffness and mistrust of Northern and Western Europe, and the impression then won has never been effaced.
On my way home I pause at the post office. Two red post-coaches are standing outside waiting for the mails for Cattaro and Podgorica. There is but one passenger, and in curiosity I draw nearer and peer inside the gloomy box-like interior. Who travels at such a season when families unite days before? It is an old woman, her face is lined and
furrowed, yet a great happiness illumines that care-worn countenance. I start as I recognize her: it is the poor old woman who strove so piteously yesterday at the prison for a word with the Prince. I remember the sad picture of the woman sobbing on the stones and the comforting assurance of the director. He has kept his word and she is free. She is going home to her loved ones.
"Christ is risen," I say, giving her my hand through the window.
She kisses it passionately and tears of gladness choke the answer. The driver cracks his whip. As the clumsy vehicle rumbles away I catch a blessing from her lips which makes me bare my head
"Christ is risen indeed."
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