A MONTENEGRIN MOTHER
THE BLACK EARTH
THE marriage ceremony has been duly solemnized. Back to the house of the youthful bridegroom have trooped the wedding guests, not with the accustomed feu de joie of revolver shots - that is prohibited just now for political reasons - but with much noise and broad jesting. It was an odd procession, judged by Western ideas. Not till three days have passed can the husband claim his wife, and she has been conducted to her new home by her two sponsors, under whose supervision she must remain till the days of feasting are over. Therefore has the procession been divided into two parties, that with the bridegroom taking precedence, led by a stalwart bairaktar, bearing aloft the Montenegrin standard. To lend distinction to Montenegrin weddings some person or persons of distinction, very often strangers to the families concerned, are invited. In most cases it is an officer of the standing army who, together with the standard-bearer, heads the procession. To-day they have captured a foreigner, though he is no stranger to these good people, and he is much gratified at the invitation. And what is more, he is an Englishman, who ranks after the Russian in the estimation of the Montenegrins. Therefore the bridegroom increases his natural swagger - that haughty swinging stride, shoulders well braced back and chin held up into the air, can be called nothing else - pulls
the butt of his hip revolver into a more prominent position and gazes upon his fellows with frank self-consciousness.
He is a good-looking young fellow, barely eighteen, yet sturdy and apparently many years older. It is by no means an early age for these plainsmen to hurry into the bonds of wedlock, and from the time that they can carry a rifle with effect they count as men.
The sun is flaming over the peaks of the Rumija when we reach the lowly habitation, which is shared by the bridegroom's father and uncle alike, and the smell of roasting meat assails our nostrils as we in turn plunge into the mysterious depths of the common living-room.
The bride, a chubby maiden with rosy cheeks, must serve the guests to-day. To-morrow it is her husband's turn to do the honours. Very prettily she brings us the great bottle of raki; and a low table, laden with a mass of doughy indigestible cakes, is pushed before us. It is a wearying ordeal, and one more capable of testing the digestive organs than anything else in the world. Roast meat, chicken, maize bread, and the afore-mentioned cakes are thrust almost literally down the capacious throats of the guests. The bottle, be it wine or raki, circulates unceasingly; but enough - these feasts must be experienced and not described too minutely.
The company is composed of the typical swarthy men of the Zeta, not so athletic perhaps as their brethren in the mountains, yet accustomed for a score of generations, nay, more, to ceaseless border warfare. I dare wager that there is scarce a man or youth in that assembly who has not tasted blood, and some, I know, are fresh from the fight where they slew ten Albanians and wounded as many more. And that fight took place but a few days ago upon the plain
before our very door. In that skirmish our youthful bridegroom won his spurs, and very proud he is too of his first kill.
He sees me looking at him now, and he pauses, bottle in his hand, to drink my health for the twentieth time. Then he drinks and comes to my side.
"It is poor fare, O Gospodin," he says with a frank smile, "but it is the best we can give thee."
I expostulate, and lead him outside the hut to inhale a few breaths of clear air after that smoke-laden atmosphere.
"Listen, Marko," I say, "such feasts are not for me. Nay, I mean no offence. But I must sleep awhile this night. Tell thy mother that she shall give me a blanket that I may rest for a few hours."
"But not yet," exclaims Marko in alarm. "We have scarce begun."
"Six hours already have passed, and I am tired. But one hour more I will stay with thee. Then let me sleep in a corner, lest to-morrow I am too fatigued."
"Thou dost not look so weak," responds young Marko, "but be it as thou wilt. Thou art master here. But canst thou sleep amidst such noise?" he asks as a burst of rough singing comes from the hut.
"Try me," I say, and he turns smilingly to call his mother. She comes, good soul, at her son's command, and her wrinkled face lights up with pride as she looks at him. The moon has illumined the plain with the clearness of day; and that picture of the young mother, so aged in appearance, listening with respect to her stalwart son's wishes, the hut behind, with its invisible but noisy occupants, and the distant rugged mountain panorama will ever stay graven on my memory.
"In a few minutes I will be with thee," says Marko; "I go but to attend to the horses."
And again I dive into the hut.
The minutes pass, and still the bridegroom does not return. Sleep weighs ever heavier on my weary eyelids, for I have ridden far to-day, and I beckon to the mother.
"Fetch Marko, mother," I say; "I would wish him good-night."
She goes with a reverence, and I wait impatiently. In a momentary lull I almost fancy I catch the wail of a woman when she mourns her dead, but it is impossible, and I shake the drowsiness from me.
"Marko bids thee sleep." I start, for I have nodded on my stool, and it is the voice of his mother speaking in my ear.
"Where is he?" I exclaim, rubbing my eyes, for she seems strangely white and the lines deeper on her toilworn face. But her voice is as steady as ever, and I laugh at my imagination.
"Marko is called away," she says quietly. "Thou wilt see him in the morning. Sleep now, Gospodin. All is prepared, and thou art tired."
Willingly I follow her to a corner in the room and stretch myself thankfully upon a pile of sheepskins. The last I hear is the mother of Marko repeating her message to me to the noisy guests. It is nothing unusual. Every Montenegrin is a soldier, and he may be required for a spell of night duty on the near border at any moment.
The grey light of early morning is creeping through the open door as, yawning, I stagger to my feet. I have been awakened by a friendly but vigorous shake, and the nocturnal carousers are standing round the mother of Marko.
As I join them she conducts us from the hut to the outhouse where the horses are stabled. She is leading the bride by the hand. At the rude door she pauses.
"I told ye last night that my son was called away, and that to-morrow ye would see him again. Maiden, go to thy husband. He awaits thee within."
She pushes the girl almost roughly inside and once more turns to us.
"Ye have caroused, and I have let ye. He would have wished it so."
A horror-struck voice from the hut freezes my blood.
"Marko, my husband!"
Then all is still, and I push inside. He is lying there, a blue mark on his temple where a horse has kicked him. Upon his fair young body lies the girl unconscious. His mother leaves us for an awful minute gazing at that tragic picture, then she pushes us out.
"Go," she says, " leave him to his women."
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