TO ŠAVNIK BY NIGHT
"THE way leads through this forest. Ye cannot miss it. Besides, there are the telegraph poles. God go with ye."
And so saying, the man handed me back my carbine, which for the last hour he had obligingly carried - thereby relieving me and making himself childishly happy - and swung off with long strides across the grassy uplands to his hut.
We paused for a moment. The great valley which lay at our feet, covered with belts of beech forest, was magnificent, yet disgust was pictured on our faces, rather than the appreciation that such a scene deserved.
For a few yards we ride on, and then Stefan with a comprehensive curse dismounts. I follow suit, and for a weary hour we lead our steeds down a terribly steep path, through a wood so dense that the fast fading light fails at times even to penetrate it.
"Lucky there is some light left," is my comment as I stumble over a decayed trunk and cast a hasty glance down the abyss at the side of the track.
Steep slopes await us when we reach the open once more. The time is eight p.m., which hour should have seen us snugly ensconced for the night in the little inn at Šavnik, according to the most liberal calculation.
Stefan draws my attention to the fact that we have lost
the telegraph poles. No matter, we spy them at the foot of a hollow and slide towards them. Our horses make the journey chiefly on their haunches. Poor beasts, they are tired, and the grass is slippery, their round flat-shod hoofs affording them no hold.
We meet a shepherd girl driving a flock of sheep, and mechanically Stefan inquires the distance to Šavnik. She is distressingly shy, but we catch the response.
"One hour." And Stefan groans.
"That means two hours at least," he grumbles, "and another accursed wood to cross."
I vouchsafe no answer, indeed I have no expressions left, and repetition is monotonous.
At Nikšic a man had said that the journey to Šavnik could be accomplished in ease within six hours. A second man had drawn me aside and called the first man a liar in my ear.
"Four or five hours at the uttermost," he had said, and urged me to tarry awhile.
Then yet another came, and with many oaths and reflections on the intelligence of the other two, told us that we must allow eight hours to reach Šavnik. He was the most plausible of all, and to him I listened, for he said -
"In the days when the Turks ruled these lands, they sent couriers, men mounted on swift horses and with relays on the way. These men did the journey in four hours, and thus do they reckon still. What signifies 'one hour' to these ignorant asses?"
I admitted its elasticity from former experiences and allowed eight hours.
Then after two hours we had inquired the distance of a wayfarer.
"Another three," came the cheering response, and our spirits rose.
"Then eight hours is too much," we said, and laughed blithely. For what man does not rejoice on a long journey when he hears that the distance is less than he had thought? It is true that shortly afterwards another traveller had crushed us somewhat by prophesying that not even nightfall would see us in Šavnik. Yet we looked upon him as a pessimist, and paid no further heed.
Thus we had pushed on throughout the day, hearing different times from every one we asked, though all declared it near and easily to be reached. Yet the farther we rode, so did the proportionate number of hours between us and our goal increase - imperceptibly sometimes, just half an hour more, and sometimes remaining stationary even though a full hour had elapsed since last inquiring.
Well may the reader ask, "Why inquire? Why not push on regardless of the opinion of ignorant peasants?" Good reader, my excuse is my frail humanity and a longing to hear that we were not riding in a circle.
And now night had fallen upon us, and all we knew was that Šavnik lay in the ravine at our feet and not a soul and not a hut for miles.
The moon sheds a fitful light, just showing us the path, and the ghostly telegraph poles. We are on foot - it is far too dangerous to ride, and then we plunge into a forest. Still the path is broad and well-defined, showing up dully against the impenetrable gloom of the surrounding thickets. Here and there a break in the overhanging branches gives us enough light to consult our watches. Then even that is taken from us,[for the fickle moon has retired for the rest of the night beyond yon mass of mountains.
Heaven be praised, there are no rocks strewn along the path. It is surprisingly even and smooth for Montenegro, and I call this cheering observation to Stefan, behind whose horse I am plodding.
"If Šavnik lies in a valley why should we climb?" comes the angry response through the heavy darkness.
It is true, and I wonder with much misgiving why for some time we should have steadily climbed. A shout ahead and an abrupt halt, which jams me between the rear of the leading horse and the head of my own. I extricate myself and stumble forward to Stefan, who has fallen over some obstacle. A match discovers a rotting trunk lying across the path and we make a small detour. On again and then a full stop. The path seems to end in a blank wall of trees. No amount of matches discovers a path, and the effect of that tiny flicker of light only tends to blind us more, heightening the pall-like darkness tenfold.
We hold a council of war and consult my map and my watch. From the former we learn nothing beyond the fact that there is only one path for miles around - which we knew before - and from the latter that it lacks but two hours to midnight.
Where can this thrice-accursed Šavnik be? It must be close, perhaps within hail; and then the telegraph wire, where is that? The poles have long since disappeared and the wire hangs from tree to tree. As well seek for a pin in the utter darkness as that tiny thread above us somewhere in the trees.
"They are expecting us below," says Stefan. "Let us fire a few revolver shots."
The idea is good, and I do so. In that vast immensity of night the reports sound puny, and beyond the sudden dis-
appearance of my horse in a thicket, they remain unanswered. After much shouting, I regain Stefan with my steed, bruised and torn with my scramble through the primeval forest in the dark.
"Let us retrace our steps till we find the wire,"says Stefan, and we do so. Then once more we go forward, straining our eyes to catch a glimpse of that tantalising thread above us.
On we go, tired, hungry and cold, for the plateau lies very high, and once more the thread fades into obscurity, and not even the fallen log do we meet again. It is hopeless now, and at a break in the trees I load my carbine as a forlorn hope. Stefan gives the word that he has the horses fast and I let fly.
Crash after crash, roll after roll, comes back from the surrounding valleys and ravines. It is magnificent and weird and even awakens a comment of admiration. Stefan remains unappreciative and suggests another shot. Again that wonderful play of echo, and across the succeeding silence comes the barking of a dog. Straining in the awful stillness we hear nothing more and resign ourselves to the inevitable - a night in the woods without covering, without food, and without water.
The horses are tethered on the dew-soaked grass, and we lay ourselves down. The very silence seems full of sounds, strange and unaccountable. In my semi-stupor I swear I can detect the sounds of carriage wheels and hastily call Stefan. He too springs to a half-sitting posture, then it dawns on him where we are; and were our social positions reversed he would kill me in his wrath, for, poor fellow, he thinks I am hoaxing him.
Do we sleep? I know not. Dawn comes, and stiff,
PRINCE MIRKO'S PALACE
chilled to bone, and wet, we rise. Above our head stretches that wretched wire, now dripping with the heavy dew.
We find the fallen log, our empty cartridges, and even the burnt matches. The blank wall resolves itself into the simplest of paths, and ere the sun has warmed the sides of the great ravine we are drinking coffee in pretty little Šavnik.
One more blow, bitterest of all to bear. As we prepare to leave our inn the landlady presents me with a bill. Supper and bed is written upon it and forms the largest item.
"Thou didst order it by telegraph, Gospodin, and it was ready for thee
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