BRIDGE OVER THE ZETA.
HIDDEN away in the heart of a pine forest, overshadowed by the mighty Durmitor, lies the "Black Lake." Thither we have walked this morning, guided by a sturdy youth through the depths of the majestic forest from little Zabljak, that most desolate yet romantic of mountain villages in the far north of Montenegro. Birds twitter gaily and blithely from the hidden recesses of the sombre green foliage, breaking the solemn silence with their music, which even our footfall on a carpet of moss and dead leaves does not disturb. And thus we threaded the wood till we found ourselves suddenly face to face with one of the most glorious mountain landscapes in the world.
Our guide leads us to a rude stone bench commanding the whole lake.
"It is the Gospodar's favourite resting-place," he says, and well we understand. Many hours has the Prince sat on this spot, gazing, as we do, at Nature in its purest form, solitude, unspoilt by mankind and undisturbed. What beautiful thoughts must have come into that poet's mind!
With a sigh of perfect contentment we let our eyes wander round the scene. Lofty pines are reflected in the limpid green depths of the unruffled water. The great mountain surrounds it on three sides, clothed with pines till vegetation ceases and the sun glares fiercely on the vast snow fields high up upon the huge pile of rugged mountain.
Far away opposite rests a little island, floating, it would almost seem, so glassy is the water. Wild duck are circling round it in mad flight, for our guide has thoughtlessly fired his rifle a second before at a group of tiny specks resting in the lake. The report echoes and re-echoes from gorge and ravine till a battle seems to rage upon the heights.
As the last echo dies away, lo! the soft tinkling of cow bells peals musically across the water and we see little shepherd boys driving their charges down to drink from amongst the trees. Shrill voices mingle with the bells, for the boys are talking with each other across the miniature bays.
Then we strip for a swim, but the water is icy cold in spite of the mid-August sun, and when we resume our seats the guide proposes a shot at the nearest snow patch glistening above our heads on the steep sides of the "Great Bear."
"What dost thou say?" queries the youth as he fingers the sight.
"Fifteen hundred metres," I hazard.
"One hundred too much, if not more. Take my rifle and shoot at fourteen hundred," he retorts carelessly.
I aim and miss.
"It is even as I thought. Thirteen hundred metres and thou wilt hit the snow," he says, smiling.
Again the rifle crashes out and a tiny spurt of white shows how correct is his judgment of distance.
Then we shoot at swimming duck once more, and shout with delight when the water shows how near was our aim. Shooting is the Montenegrin's only real pleasure, and we have an impromptu match at a submerged stump, just discernible on the bank of the little island.
We splinter it after many shots, and strolling on we stalk
more duck, firing at them from our leafy cover. But it is not to kill them that we shoot. It is but an excuse to hear the music of a rifle intensifying the magnificent silence around us.
Rain begins to patter through the trees; and we are now far away at the farther end of the lake, swinging ourselves along the steep banks from branch to branch when the wood is too dense to penetrate, or pushing aside the bushes when our guide would cut off a bluff.
The rain is coming down in sheets. The great drops dance a merry measure upon the surface of the lake, and the swish of the tree tops sounds pleasantly, but we are getting wet. Not that it matters much; but the guide leads us to a tree more luxuriantly leaved than its brethren, and as we squat upon the ground he gathers twigs and brushwood, enough to catch flame, and deftly he plies the little fire with ever larger sticks till we have a log fairly ablaze and we must perforce draw back from the heat.
Not so the youth. Like all Montenegrins, he seems impervious to heat and cold alike, and with his clothes nigh scorching, his fingers often in the flames as he adds more fuel, he draws a piece of lamb from his capacious breeches and roasts it before our hungry gaze.
We have raki and bread, and while the rain patters indignantly over our heads, ever and anon sending a fizzling splutter into the fire, or down our necks, we eat our feast, enjoy it as if it were served us in our far-away homes, and snap our fingers at God Pluvius.
There are no remnants of the feast, except a few crumbs remain for the birds. Tobacco tins appear, and with the first puff of the fragrant cigarettes conversation flows in easy channels.
A temporary diversion is caused by the appearance of a snake, which comes unbidden to the feast and the warmth. Stefan slays him and throws the still writhing body to the guide. The fearless youth turns pale and shudders, and when I twit him with his fear of a dead and harmless snake, he retorts -
"Snakes or Turks, alive or dead, I never trust."
The conversation grows more disconnected, and when I address a remark after a lengthy pause, lo! a deep snore is my only answer. Both men are sleeping soundly, and when I grow tired of the monotony and wake them, both declare they have but closed their eyes a moment.
Stefan swears with many oaths that he would never be so discourteous, but alas! he is a liar in this respect, for surely never was there a man more gifted in snatching odd moments of sleep under the strangest of circumstances than Stefan.
But it is time to go, the way is long, and we shall be wet to the skin.
Our last glimpse of the "Crna Jesero" shows us its waters lashed with rain, spurting as if under a volley of rifle bullets, and above; the clouds have covered the great mountains with an impenetrable mantle of mist.
Farewell, Black Lake, beloved of thy Poet-Prince; the elements cannot
impair thy wild grandeur.
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