AT A CAFÉ IN PODGORICA
MY friend Albert is sitting pensively in the cafe in the billiard-room of the Hotel Europe. Personally I am feeling far from well myself, and the reason is the same in both cases. Last night we were the guests of Buto, the Turk. Seated on cushions on the floor, with little dwarfed tables before us, we had been literally feasted for nearly two hours. Many were the marvellous dishes set before us, excellently cooked, and served by Buto's servant, a youth in spotless raiment. Buto's pleasant, handsome face had beamed upon us throughout, only clouding when we half refused a course, urging us to rest awhile, "because," he said, "there is much more to come" and peeping through the door in the darkness outside, his pretty sisters had stolen glances at us, fleeing quickly if they thought we had seen them, to return again shyly in a few minutes. Not even veiled would Buto let them come in, for he is a strict Mussulman in some respects.
"My wife I would let you see, but my sisters, no."
Little did he think that at that very moment, behind his back, one of them was gazing at me unveiled, and blushing with a look of longing in her beautiful eyes.
Then Buto's uncle, the bairaktar (standard bearer), had come in, his hand full of cigarettes, and we quaffed our wine to him with many winks, for he, wicked old man, dearly
THE CAFÉ, PODGORICA.
loves a glass when he is alone with us. Buto too has drunk beer, and even "aqua vita," as he calls it, becoming, I grieve to say, uproariously merry afterwards, when he has visited us in our own houses. But neither will drink before the other, though both know that the other has failed, not once, but often.
"Buto, drink wine with us," we said. "Thou hast tasted pork."
It will be long ere he forgets the time when we were at Ostrog together, and he inadvertently had eaten a mouthful of ham, saying afterwards with wry face that "it was accursedly salt."
For the fifteenth time the aged bairaktar tells of his visit to the Prince at Cetinje when the Crown Prince Danilo married; how he was singled out from the guard of honour and introduced to the then Crown Prince of Italy. "See," had said Prince Nicolas to his son-in-law, "this is one of my finest old veterans, but what signify these two Turkish medals?"
"They were given me, O Gospodar, for the heads of two Montenegrins that I brought home from Spuz when I fought for the Turks."
"Tak, tak," he says laughing, disclosing his toothless gums, and with a movement of the arm he again illustrates the motion of beheading with the scimitar.
"Thou art old, Deda," said the Prince, but the bairaktar unabashed gave answer -
"Maybe, Gospodar, but I can still pull a trigger, my arm can wield the scimitar, and still I love the women."
Then the Prince and his royal son-in-law had hurriedly departed.
"How old art thou, bairaktar?"
He shrugs his shoulders.
"Nay, I know not, but I think it must be more."
We are awaiting the doctor, who is wont to join us at this hour. At the marble-topped tables, on primitive chairs, sit many groups of men, half of them Albanians or Turks. The walls are bare of ornament and the balls fly off at unexpected angles from the greasy cushions of the billiard-table. Two elderly men are playing "Russian billiards" with great keenness and well content with the uneven table over which the balls audibly jolt. One is a Montenegrin with crossed scimitars and the lion insignia on his cap. He is the "Kommandir" of the Zeta, a post of no little importance where the borders are in constant uproar. Yet his good-tempered visage, which even a pair of huge moustachios does not make fierce, shows that the responsibility sits lightly upon him. His adversary, strangely like him in face and figure, is a huge Albanian in white close-fitting breeches braided in quaint patterns, black high-top boots, jaunty black and gold jacket and white fez.
In his country he was once the chief of a powerful clan. The handsome revolver in his sash is the gift of the Sultan when he formed one of the Imperial bodyguard at Constantinople. Then while home on leave the order came for the disarming of the Albanian clans. Thus was Sokol Baco, for that is his name, placed in a great dilemma, for his clan, in common with the others, refused to obey. He chose to forswear his allegiance to his sovereign rather than be held a traitor by his own people. He led the clan against the Turkish army sent to enforce the order, and was defeated, though he beheaded with his own hand two high Turkish officers. When his clan was subjugated temporarily, Sokol
Baco was a fugitive and an outlaw; thus to-day he is an exile in Podgorica and supporter of Prince Nicolas, against whom he fought in many an action in the seventies.
All the notabilities of the town are here. There sits his worship, the Mayor, talking earnestly with portly Captain Tomo, chief of police. Poor Tomo has much to suffer at our hands, for he fails to understand that his pompous manner impresses us not one whit. When I meet him and say "Dobro jutro, Gospodin Kapetan," and the shades of evening are deepening, he pauses to explain in aggrieved tones that "jutro" means "morning." And every time I make that mistake he stops, solemnly shaking hands and explaining. Yet once I saw a man give him an impertinent answer, saying "Thou hast no sense"; "But some power," responded Tomo, and sent the man to prison for three days.
At another table I see old Vuko, who for thirty years has taught school in the rugged mountains of Kuc, his wrinkled face framed in a huge grey beard, marking him amongst this beardless assembly. It is a relic of the days when he was a priest. I know him well, for he sits at my side daily for meals and tells me the stories of the time when Voivoda Marko began the last great war alone against the Turks with no one but his trusty tribe to help him. He too battled on the slopes of Fundina - which rise so majestically at the end of this broad valley - in that famous action where the men of Kuc annihilated an overwhelming army of Turks, and inspired the whole of Montenegro to take up arms once more, and thus commenced the most successful campaign they ever undertook.
So it is with half the men who sip their coffee or their glass of raki, when they talk of the days of their youth. Then is the time to listen. No wonder the young men pray for war
as the greatest blessing the Almighty can bestow. They are very jealous of their elders, and their hearts beat high with longing, causing these otherwise good-humoured giants sometimes to overflow in the direction of the border or even to quarrel amongst themselves.
"It is an hour past his time," I remark. "The doctor cannot be coming this evening."
And even at that moment I see the tall lean figure of the overworked doctor coming towards us. His district is large and "accidents" are frequent. He apologizes for his unpunctuality, but he says two men have just been brought in, one shot through the throat and the other with nine axe wounds on his head. "The former," he concludes with a seeming callousness which is far opposed to his goodness of heart, "I have packed off to the hospital in Cetinje. He is dying, and that I never allow my patients to do. A hopeless case and off he goes to Cetinje to die in peace."
Yet never has the doctor been called in vain, however great the distance
- and it happens that he must sometimes ride ten miles into the heart of
the mountains; however stormy the night, at a moment's notice he is in
the saddle with his little bag stuffed with surgical appliances, chiefly
for the treatment of bullet wounds.
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