A BORDER TOWN
IT is midday as our little cavalcade clatters through the main and only street of the mountain village of Andrijevica. To-day its importance as capital of Montenegro's most north-easterly and exposed province is enhanced by the fact that its border is threatened by Albanians.
The great chieftain and persecutor of the Christians, Mullah Zekka, is only four hours away with 20,000 men, eager to be led against their hereditary foes. And the Montenegrins are only too willing to give them every satisfaction in their power.
The street is full of armed men; officers, only distinguishable by swords and the insignia of rank on the rim of their caps, hurry to and fro. One or two batteries of small wicked-looking mountain guns are drawn up in the open market place.
All is bustle and hurry, while an animation pervades the scene such as is to be witnessed at an annual school treat in far-away peaceful England. War is indeed a recreation to the Montenegrins, and now, after twenty years of formal peace, they can scarcely believe their luck.
We dismount at the inn: it is lucky that we telegraphed to the Governor, else we might have slept in the open that night. Our host, combining the duties of hotel-keeper and baker, superintends the transference of our slender baggage
IN A BORDER TOWN.
into our bed-, dining-, and common reception-room combined.
His pretty and refined-looking wife kisses our hands as we enter the room, and asks for our orders as to food. There is no choice except as to the mode of preparing the lamb.
Then we stroll through the town, acknowledging salutes right and left. Five high Turkish officers and a ragged-looking escort pass us, threading their way in single file through the jostling humanity. At the house of Voivoda Lakic they halt and dismount. An angry crowd forms a ring round the house and awaits the reappearance of the Turks.
The order of events is sadly reversed nowadays. Twenty years ago it would have been a delegation of Albanians who would have come to confer with the Montenegrins as to the best means of defying the Turk. To-day Turkish regulars are scheming with the Montenegrin generals to prevent an Albanian invasion.
At Mokra 10,000 Turkish soldiers are under arms, ready to attack Mullah Zekka the moment he violates Montenegrin territory. And this troubles the worthy chieftain, who, if it were not for this unexpected difficulty, would now be burning and ravaging in the valley of the Lim.
A grizzled veteran, whose breast is covered with a row of dingy medals, curses the Turk in an impressive and comprehensive manner. Had he known the legend of the "Walrus and the Carpenter," he would have quoted the words of the outraged moon. It was not right of the Turk "to come and spoil the fun."
We pluck his sleeve gently, and he turns on us quickly.
"May God protect thee, Mirko Dost thou remember us?"
Both his hands fly out and he kisses us. Does he remember us? Of course he does. That night on the slopes outside the little town of Kolasin, had we not feasted on a lamb roasted whole, and drunk raki, not wisely but enthusiastically? Ah! and at midnight, when the parting toast was drunk standing, with revolvers in hand. What a racket we made as each man emptied his glass and his revolver, to the intense indignation of the local doctor, who was battling with the convivial natives of his district and preaching the blessings of total abstinence to an unappreciative audience. As we trooped back to the market-place, had we not found a hundred armed men assembled, under the impression that the Albanians were raiding the farms? What a wigging the Governor gave us next morning, his eyes twinkling with amusement the while!
Of course Mirko remembered us, and he proclaimed our prowess with loud voice to his hoary comrades. At the han opposite we seat ourselves, and blush at his praise of us as he, divining the object of our visit, tells how the Englishmen love fighting for fighting's sake.
The medals on his breast show that in '58 he fought the Turks; again in '62, when they had penetrated as far as Rijeka, and their outposts stretched to within rifle-shot of Cetinje. Those were evil days for Montenegro; but again in the campaign of '76-'78 the sons of the Black Mountain carried all before them, for ever shattering the dreams of the Turk and vindicating their independence to the world. That medal of pure gold is the Montenegrin Victoria Cross. We touch it and ask
"How many heads hast thou brought home, O Mirko?"
He shakes his head. That he will never tell, he says;
he is a junak (hero) but no boaster. The number was enough, he adds proudly.
"And wilt thou fight again? Art thou not too old?"
We ask this purposely, and smile as he springs to his feet.
"I am only sixty-two," he answers, and taking his rifle by the muzzle he holds it at arm's length. "Am I weak? May the good God let me die in battle, for I have four sons to take my place if I fall. My one desire is to die when the rifles speak around me, and with the smell of powder and of blood in my nostrils. If we fight now, I will send with ye such men as will lose their heads before they forsake ye. Ye shall see how they fight, and it will be good. But I fear it will be peace," he adds, as the Turks emerge and ride away.
We leave him and his comrades piously and fervently praying to the God of battles, and seek the governor.
As we sit in his room a few minutes later, awaiting the ceremonial coffee, we hear the truth. There will be no fighting, says the Voivoda, the Turks will stop it. Even in his official tones we can detect a tinge of disappointment.
"We are ready," he adds; "but nowadays war is too serious to be lightly undertaken."
And so it came to pass. A week later the troops had vanished and Andrijevica resumed its peaceful aspect. But it will not be for long, and then we hope to journey thither again, perhaps with better luck. It will indeed be a battle of giants, fought under past and gone conditions, when the rifle-fire is only the necessary prelude. It is the handjar and yataghan that decide the day after rifles are thrown away in that headlong rush, and the battlefield becomes a shambles.
Then will the aged Mullah Zekka look down from Paradise and cheer on his trusty clansmen, for he met his
death in Ipek a few months afterwards at the hands of a rival chieftain. Revolver in hand, he died as befitted the most powerful chieftain of his day, and perhaps since the time of the great Scanderbeg. At a word from him 30,000 clansmen assembled to resist the Sultan or attack the Christians, whoever they might be.
Turks and Montenegrins may well congratulate themselves on his timely
removal, though the world has yet to witness the revenge which will surely
be taken by his fierce adherents.
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