ZABLJAK: THE KAPETAN'S WIFE
BROAD rolling downs on one side, scattered pines just sparsely dotting the green sward, then increasing in numbers till a dense forest stretches towards and up the sides of the Colossus of Montenegro, the Durmitor. A rude collection of houses lining a short and very wide road-if such a name can be applied to a mere grass plot trodden into a network of footpaths, - which ends abruptly with the last house, resolving into a mere thread leading over the shoulder of the mountain to far-away towns. How immeasurably distant seems everywhere else in the world as one stands in little Zabljak, Montenegro's farthest village in the north. Even the lonely line of telegraph-posts appears an incongruity as with painful straightness it leads away from the town to be speedily lost in the pine forests beyond.
It is eventide, drifting clouds are descending upon the village. Gone is the majestic mountain in a dense mist of driving clouds, drifting down upon us as if to crush the little cluster of houses at its feet. How different was the morning! - the sun shining gloriously on the great snow fields, tinging the mass of peaks with a roseate hue, softening the harsh outlines and brightening the gloom of the pines.
Then I had strolled to the little church, which stands apart from the village upon a tiny hill, past the simple square building of wood where lives the Prince when he seeks the
solitude of Zabljak and his beloved Durmitor - a house as simple as that of his peasant subjects with but a little outhouse for his train. Round the church lie the mountaineers in their last long sleep, quaint gravestones above them, waiting till their Maker shall wake them once more. They have but exchanged the peace of the mountains for the calm of sleep, for here is no border turmoil, and men live at peace with each other. And dotted over the downs, as far as the eye can reach, stand other little hillocks fenced in with massive rails, as is even this resting-place - the cemeteries of the mountaineers who live in scattered groups.
Men of great stature are they, with rough-hewn features, gaunt and wiry. The solitude of the mountains has entered into their souls, and they move with a dignified quietness and the easy grace of hillmen. They are more curious than the Montenegrin of the border, and seem almost unfriendly in their manners. It is what I have oft heard of the men of Northern Montenegro, but I have sojourned many days in their midst, and am sorry that to-morrow I must leave them.
How they flocked into my primitive bedroom when I have sat there, watching with frank, wondering eyes as my pen flies over the paper. "And thou art writing about us," said one burly giant, breaking at length the awed silence, "that thy people may learn how we live and how we die?"
"How swiftly thy pen moves," remarks another. "Verily I have never seen the like. When our Kapetan writes an order his pen moves thus." And he illustrates with his horny hand that has never held a pen the movement of a man writing with painful effort.
"Hush, ye fools!" murmurs a third. "How can the English Gospodin write when we chatter so idly?"
And in the evenings when doors are barred to keep out the biting cold of night, we have sat together playing wondrous games of cards of childlike simplicity, for rounds of raki, yet with the intentness of born gamblers; or by day we have journeyed up the mountain side to the lofty summit to gaze upon the marvellous panorama. All Montenegro lay at our feet, the Sandjak of Novibazar, nay even the distant borders of Servia, can be faintly seen, where live the kin of these men divided but by that narrow tract of land for five centuries. Still, there is not a man who does not hope one day to be re-united and form once more a mighty Serb empire. Alas, for the dream, Austria lies between the sister countries, and that is Sarajevo almost due north, where is an army corps of soldiers with batteries of mountain guns, which can follow the most intrepid hillman into his very fastnesses, hurling shells where rifles are no longer of use.
But what good in telling these simple men that the day of small countries is ended? They would not believe even if they understood. There have been sheep slaughtered in far-away glades and roasted whole, and we have sat and feasted, returning in the gloaming to the lonely village.
These ragged men have given us of their best and deemed it all too little. They would fain keep us here a month, and each day they propose new trips, to the rocky gorge of the Tara or to ancient monasteries beyond the mountain.
I ponder upon these things as I lean upon the rails of the graveyard, drawing my greatcoat tighter about me, thinking of the sweltering heat of August in the plains below, which I left a few days since. And as I retrace my step the clouds have descended on the village. Misty figures stalk mys-
teriously to and fro. Groups of wiry ponies stand tethered in all directions, and the faint outlines of the high conical roofs of the houses are dimly seen. Zabljak has a style of architecture of its own. Upon massive foundations of roughly hewn stone rest baulks of timber. Unlike other Montenegrin houses, all have first floors, and not a few, rude balconies. There are not more than thirty houses in all, and these are snowed up more than half the year.
We noticed great poles upon our journey across the downs, which led persistently upwards for two long days. They are the guides of these men when snow covers all paths and tracks for months together. They guide the letter-carrier on his monthly visit in the winter, and the enterprising trader who brings all the necessaries of life to these frugal villagers.
The quiet is intense. No lusty Montenegrin plays upon the gusla or sings of the deeds of heroes. Save from one house, whence comes the sounds of revelry, all is silent. That house I enter. It is the abode of the Kapetan, whose guest I am, and seated round a table I find the genial judge from Cetinje, sent to settle differences of crops and boundaries, a professor likewise from Cetinje, a merry soul, and a Bohemian botanist, who is revelling in the flora of the Durmitor.
In another corner sits a group of wild men of strange dress, horse dealers from Plevlje, listening open-mouthed to Stefan, who on my entrance abruptly ceases talking with a guilty look.
"What lies hast thou been telling again, O Stefan?" I ask him, for he loves to relate strange stories of our travels. He meditates an answer, but Ljubica, the Kapetan's wife, brings in a steaming bowl of stewed lamb, and with hungry shouts from the other table, I am bidden fall to. A second
invitation is not needed, and soon our host is toying with a greasy pack of cards, placing the while a great bowl of raki at our side.
"God give thee better luck this evening," he says to me piously. "Thou didst pay for many rounds last night."
"Make coffee, Ljubica," says one of the players, some hours later.
Pretty young Ljubica - which, being interpreted, signifies Violet - looks up in surprise. It is past ten, an hour by which all Montenegrins are fast asleep after their day's labour, which has commenced long before the sun has topped the cold, snow-clad peaks.
"It is late," she murmurs, "and the fire is out."
But the man who spoke hears her not. It is her young husband, the Kapetan of the Montenegrin mountain village, and he is intent on the game.
The room is furnished in the barest manner possible: benches along two sides, a rude table, one or two stools, and in the corner opposite the door is the bar, knocked up in evident haste with untrimmed planks. On the wall behind are some shelves with a collection of bottles upon them. The sole decorations are a couple of coloured posters, both setting forth the advantages of certain cigarette papers, for the Montenegrins are inveterate cigarette smokers, and roll their own cigarettes. Both designs are so startlingly incongruous that the stranger's attention is riveted upon them alternately. The one portrays a girl in a low-necked dress, seated in a most indelicate fashion on a velvet chair, while at her elbow is a marble and gilt table; a bottle of champagne set temptingly in a pail of ice is at her feet. The second picture takes the stranger to a West Indian island, where a ravishing maiden reclines in a hammock
amongst a grove of palms, and a young man in a beautiful striped suit sits beside her.
Involuntarily the gaze wanders to the gnarled, weather-beaten features of the inhabitants of this village, which is snowed up half the year, the other half being spent in border feuds, vendetta amongst themselves, or in tending their flocks. Great rough men, revolver ever at hand in their sashes, yet good-hearted and hospitable to strangers in their own way.
One of them thumps a card down with a mighty blow, and another mutters a curse - it is the way of card players all over the world - as Ljubica goes out into the night. The kitchen is outside the house, in a hut, and thither she proceeds with a little sigh. The night air is nipping, though this she does not seem to feel, in spite of her dress being of the thinnest material. The quaint conical roofs loom out indistinctly in the driving mist, and even a few flakes of snow are falling though it is midsummer. The rows of houses bordering the wide grass-grown street seem unreal in the semi-darkness which the moon is endeavouring in vain to dispel. Some twenty huts form the village, and then the broad street breaks up into tracks leading across the downs in various directions. Roads there are none nearer than two days' journey on foot or on horseback - it is the same for walker or rider over these mountain-paths - but the lonely telegraph-posts lend a mistaken air of civilization as they stretch away into the weird depths of a pine forest.
Ljubica has entered the miserable hut and is painfully blowing the almost cold embers into a glow upon the earthern floor. She has lit a candle, which only intensifies the gloom and blackness of the remote corners. A few pots, grimy
and rude, hang on a chain from the smoke-blackened rafters, and a few blocks of wood used as chairs when visitors come, constitute the kitchen furniture.
The glow of the awakening flames illumines the thin features of the girl-wife, for she is little more. A year ago she was the fairest maiden in these parts, plump, with full features, yet a year of married life has made her look ten years older.
Though she is the wife of the Kapetan, or chief of the district, she must work the same as if she were the poorest peasant woman, yea, the overworked "general" of a struggling family in far-away England has an easy life compared with hers. From daybreak till night she works. She cleans the house and cooks the food, besides waiting on her husband, ready to do his slightest wish, ever ready and willing.
The duties of a mother are added to the rest, and even now the plaintive wail of her firstborn calls her to her most loved work of all.
The coffee is brewed, and she hurries back to the house with the fragrant beverage. She pours it into tiny cups and serves them on a tray to the men, who thank her not, not even with a glance. For a moment she lingers in the room, the man sleeping in a corner turns restlessly in his sleep, and then she goes up the rickety stairs to her child.
As she takes the infant to her breast a roll of thunder echoes amongst the mountain peaks, and from the room below comes the hoarse murmur of voices.
Her eyes are heavy with sleep, yet not even now can she call herself her own. Patiently, and with a look of love, she clasps the little one to her bosom.
Is she happy? Is she contented?
I think she knows not the meaning of the words. What she is doing her mother has done before her, without a murmur and without a thought of another life. In a sense she is both happy and contented. Her husband does not beat her, neither does he abuse her. Why should he, indeed, when he finds such dog-like obedience? And few Montenegrins drink to excess.
Now she puts the little one in its cradle, and on a mattress on the floor she lays herself down beside it.
The child cries still, and mechanically she rocks the cradle with her
hand. The dull thud of the rockers beats a monotonous tattoo on the floor.
Then the child sleeps, and Ljubica has earned a few hours' rest.
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