The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon



THE hot July sun is burning down on the white courtyard of the prison with a painful glare. It is no wonder that few prisoners are about and have sought the cool of the cells; still, one or two are lying on mats in the shade, tossing restlessly. The tossing produces a melancholy sound - that of the clanking of a heavy chain - for we are inspecting the lower prison, where only the long-sentence men are kept, and they are all chained.

The prison building is on our left, a large one-storied structure standing in a great space surrounded by walls and divided into court-yards. The top floor is distinct from the lower and has its own yard on the other side.

We enter the long corridor, and the old warder runs along flinging open every door. The prisoners jump to their feet - there are two in each cell - as we pass, answering cheerily the governor's greeting. They are busy eating the midday ration, too, and thrust it from them as we enter each cell in turn.

"Seat yourselves," says the kindly governor. "Ah, God greet thee, Stano, how art thou?"

A fine-looking man rises and answers -

"May thy luck be good, Stefan; I am well, thanks be to God."

There is no shame in the men and nothing overbearing in the manner of the governor. It is more to me that they



show this marked respect: the same respect that they would show me should I visit them in their wild mountain homes.

And why should they show shame? Rather they would hang their heads if they were not here, for seventy-five per cent. are imprisoned for acts of the vendetta. The governor himself must do the same deed should bad luck ever bring him to a similar pass, or lose his honour.

Yet there are others here, criminals, men who have stolen or swindled, men without honour. Pah! we do not talk of them in Montenegro.

Another door is opened, and two bearded men rise quickly, eyeing us suspiciously. They are evidently superior men, and both are bearded, signifying the vocation of the Church or of the learned professions, where they learn the custom in the world outside. One is immensely tall and his hair and tangled beard are black as the night. He seems familiar to me, and I look at him closely. With a smile he awaits the recognition, which comes like a flash, and he kisses me thrice.

Good Janko, ex-judge of the Montenegrin law courts, I have eaten at thy board and laughed at thy merry talk and tales of thy university life in St. Petersburg. Ah, thy head was never strong and wine excited thee, otherwise thou wouldst not be here, still awaiting trial, for nearly a year already, in chains and with the prospect of a long and uncertain imprisonment. Thou didst insult thy Prince at his own table, not understanding in thy cups that he was but teasing thee.

"Keep up thy heart, Janko; when next I visit Kolasin I will sit again with thee, and this will seem like a bad dream."

"If God wills," he says simply.


And we pass on.

One door remains closed. The governor orders it peremptorily to be opened, but the warder whispers in his ear.

"He will not," explains the governor. "He says he knows thee. It is Lazovic, the swindler, the rogue."

The name calls up a memory of Vienna, the stately Ring and the Hotel Imperial, the karavanserai of kings and princes. A tall handsome man with a blonde beard emerges from its portals, dressed in the height of fashion, and the servants doff their caps. Is he not a Petrovic and brother of the Prince of Montenegro?

I too had looked at him curiously, not knowing this country in those days, and my impression was good. A fine race that breeds such men as that, I thought, and he had passed on.

The man behind the door is the same, and he owes many of my friends money. Perhaps he was one of the most daring adventurers in Europe. Every capital knows him, and in each he has acquaintances, who consider even his present punishment inadequate. And afterwards I too had met him, not knowing at the moment that it was the same man who had impressed me so in Vienna, and was delighted with his personality, his charm of manner, and his knowledge of the world.

"An ass without a face," remarks the governor, applying the strongest expression of contempt existent in the Serb language. "Our dark cells," he adds, indicating a row of dimly lit but airy dungeons, all empty.

Then we walk across the broiling yard, through another gate, to the upper prison. Here we inspect large rooms with rows of beds, round which dozens of pleasant-faced men sit.


"May your luck be good," comes as one man from the saluting prisoners, in answer to our salutation. In vain I seek, as below, amongst the long-sentence men, for one bad face, one that shows a trace of crime stamped upon his features. Should one of them escape, the others are given their liberty and hunt their shameless comrade high and low over their native mountains, returning at the appointed day and hour with or without the fugitive.

Again I recognize many. That young giant of six feet six inches, weighing perhaps sixteen stones, is only twenty-two, and has got three years for drawing his revolver with intent to kill. See how he smiles and draws himself up to his full height and beams down upon me. Thy blood must cool, my friend, before thou art trusted out again with a loaded revolver in thy sash.

Now we visit the women in a separate building, no doors or bars between them and liberty. They giggle delightedly as I enter the long clean rooms, and the governor turns to me with a comical look of surprise. A few months ago they were still in the old prison at Cetinje, and I hasten to tell him that I have often had the pleasure of a cup of coffee at their hospitable hands, and that the opanki on my feet were made by that fair and blushing maiden in the corner. They never escape, for theirs are never long sentences, and escape means flight to a strange land and loss of honour in their own.

In another separate wing are the dangerous lunatics. Here each has his own cell, barely furnished. It is the most interesting visit of all.

In one sits an Albanian, his back towards the door. At his side are a dozen match boxes and a heap of tobacco. He takes no notice of us whatever, and the governor calls


to him sharply to salute. He turns his head in our direction, touches his lips with his hand, then his forehead, and then his eyes, and we leave him still greeting us in his mad way.

"He cut the throats of his father and mother," says the governor.

Then we come to a big man with an enormous beard. He stands erect.

"Who is the stranger? " he asks proudly.

"The Prince of Wales, your Majesty," answers the governor gravely.

"I am pleased to see him," and he waves his hand to me. On the wall is a rude drawing of the head of a man. It is a mere caricature, such as little children draw on their slates. "Zar Shas" [1] is scrawled in letters on either side. Shas is his name.

Yet when he came to prison eleven years ago he was sane. He was a political agitator and sought to stir up strife amongst the subjects of the Prince, and this is the worst offence in Montenegro, for such men are seldom tried.

He has a terrible voice. When we walk down the corridor again into the yard we hear him singing. It is horrible. Then he strides down after us, his head held high, and with a majestic movement he pushes through the group surrounding us.

Another man is speaking to us.

"It is not right that the sane should be shut up with the mad," he says.

And indeed he talks coolly and intelligently, but in his eyes is a fierce look belying his words.

"Were a minister imprisoned, he would surely come to

1. I.e. Czar or Emperor.



this department," he continues, "for he is verily more mad than I am."

The governor orders chairs to be brought, and in the shade before his house we sit and talk. A warder brings at my request a chain, such as the majority of the prisoners wear. They are terrible things to carry, weighing nearly thirty pounds.

"It is a cruel punishment," admits the governor, "but in what other land have the prisoners such a pleasant life?"

I reflect much on these words as I wend my way through the quaint old Turkish quarter of Podgorica.

Where indeed can such contrasts of barbarity and clemency, of advanced civilization and mediaeval methods be found as in the prison system of Montenegro?

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