The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon



I RAISE my fingers towards my cap as I enter the low and dingy coffee-house. The greeting is returned by all present, and finding a vacant chair in a corner by the window I seat myself. No one comes to me for an order; I can sit there quite quietly, for there is not even a moral compulsion to drink anything. If I desire a coffee, a glass of unpleasant wine, or a tot of raki, I must loudly state my wish to the young man behind the counter.

The assembly is worth studying. At a table in the far corner sits a group of officers in red and black braided waistcoats, over which they wear a short red jacket hussar fashion, with the sleeves hanging empty from their shoulders. One of them I recognize as an adjutant of the Crown Prince, formerly a cavalry officer in the Servian army. There are many such in the service of Montenegro, driven across the border by political discontent. Beside him sits a young giant, only twenty-eight, yet general commanding the artillery. Five years ago his father, whose fame is sung to-day by every strolling guslar or troubadour, was shot in a blood-feud in broad daylight before the very café where we are now seated.

As a hero he had lived, and as a hero he died; for as he lay in his death-agony he drew his revolver, and with his last breath he fired and killed his assailant fifty yards away.


Near them sit three men in European clothes, but with the Montenegrin cap upon their heads. Two of them are professors at the Gymnasium, the other a teacher of the common school. He is a fine handsome young fellow, his dark complexion suggesting other blood than Montenegrin. He is dressed entirely in black; even the crown of his cap is of the same sombre hue instead of red. His expressive eyes are sad but determined. It is the face of a man with a purpose, and to whom life has no pleasant prospects. He may well look serious, for on him rests the task of avenging his two brothers and an uncle, who all fell in the vendetta only a few months ago at his home in the valley of the Zeta, shot down without a word of warning in their very houses by an avenging band of Albanians. I remember how the story was told me one evening in pleasant Podgorica, which is only an hour distant from that bloody scene.

And now the last male survivor is sitting in the same coffee-house with me, teaching children the blessings of education and civilization by day, with the grim spectre of Vendetta ever at his elbow. Some day he must don the national garb and, rifle in hand, go forth to the home of his enemies, to kill or die in the attempt to vindicate his family honour.

Strange thoughts of this wonderful people cross my brain as I dreamily sip my coffee, and I can see a man creeping from boulder to boulder in a wild land towards some fields where men, clad in white serge and round whose shaven heads are wound great cloths, are peacefully tilling small oases in the rock-strewn wilderness. He lies behind a stone, cautiously thrusting his rifle before him, and takes long and careful aim. A sharp crack, a little puff of blue smoke, and with a scream one of the husbandmen springs high in the



air, tumbling in an inert mass in a furrow. The others seize their rifles, which lie close at hand, with ear-piercing yells, scattering like rabbits. Again the rifle speaks, and another falls, but answering shouts from the village proclaim that help is coming. The avenger must fly, and fly quickly, if he will save his life. I see him running, bending almost double; but he has been seen, and bullets star the rocks around him. Suddenly he stumbles, recovers himself for a few yards, and then with a deep-drawn sigh he falls forward motionless on his face.

I look at the young school-teacher and shiver.

Four German tourists come in noisily. I saw them arrive an hour ago from Cattaro. I heard them order their carriage to be ready again in three hours.

"Quite enough time to look round the place," said one. "It is a dismal hole, but one must look round to say we've been here."

Now they choose picture postcards and sit down to enrich the Montenegrin post by a few shillings, telling their relations and friends that they have been to Cetinje and don't think much of it.

"Rather a change after the Kaiser Café," says the young man with an aggressive moustache and hard voice, his wonderful green civilian costume proclaiming him to be a Prussian lieutenant.

"Yes," says another, with a contemptuous glance at the barren room. "How absurd to see every man armed when the country is so tranquil! "

"Now that Montenegro is at peace, it were well to spend money on better clothes rather than on senseless pistols carried only for show," remarked a bearded man who looked like a professor. "The poverty and ragged attire of my


neighbours is appalling, yet each has an expensive revolver."

I looked at the table next to these intelligent students of human nature. It was occupied by half a dozen weather-beaten men, each well over fifty, clad in ragged attire. On their breasts were rows of dingy medals, whose tawdriness again excited the contempt of the Prussian officer.

Yet those medals represented fierce-fought actions against overwhelming forces of disciplined and fanatical foes, stretching over a period of half a century - battles where each warrior was accounted as nought if he did not display at least half a dozen heads as evidence of his prowess when they bivouacked at night on the corpse-strewn battlefield.

Any of those poverty-stricken warriors I should be proud to call a friend, knowing if I did so that wherever I should meet them, and under whatever circumstances, I could reckon them to share with me their last crust, and in danger they would first yield their lives before harm came to me.

The Germans leave, and I watch them on the street standing for a few minutes in bright sunlight. Though by no means small men, they look puny and insignificant beside those herculean figures which stride with measured tread, taking their after-dinner constitutional. With trailing shawl swinging gracefully from their broad shoulders, picturesque raiment of blue, white, and gold, hand on revolver-butt, and fearless look, they make the sons of civilization and big cities seem contemptible beside them.

I am glad when the tourists remove their disturbing presence from that harmonious picture.

An aged man enters the café: he is greeted with marked respect, especially by the ragged veterans at whose table he seats himself.

"May God protect ye!" says the old man, grasping each



by the hand and kissing them twice on the lips. On his cap he carries the insignia of Voivoda, the highest rank after the Prince. These same men he has led to battle in past days, for he is chief of the Piper clan, and the hero of many a deed of reckless bravery. In Montenegrin warfare the chief leads his men to the assault, and on his recklessness hangs often the issue. He sighs deeply, and I know the reason. Yesterday evening I saw a telegram put in his hands telling him that his only son lay mortally wounded in his mountain home. A bullet of the vendetta had treacherously laid his first-born low. As he read it, the man whose contempt of danger is sung by every guslar sat down and wept.

As I pay and go I hear the old chieftain thanking God that there may be hope for his son's life.

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