A WALK IN THE MOUNTAINS
IT is not good to walk in Montenegro, that is to say, for long distances, either for reasons of economy or for one's health. Rather accord with the horse-owner, however exorbitant may appear the terms, or spend a few hours more on the journey and go the roundabout way by road.
Such advice I mentally swear to give any unsuspecting foreigner should I ever reach Virpazar alive. I look at my watch and find it is ten o'clock. By this time they assured me last night in Cetinje that I should be eating a sumptuous breakfast at Vir, if I got off by five a.m. I had started before five, in a steady drizzle, accompanied by a guide who had driven me to distraction the night before. We had spoken of terms; and I had offered one gulden fifty kreutzers. For a five hours' walk this was liberal payment, but he had demanded twice the amount. I remained seemingly firm, meaning to go eventually as far as two guldens. He gazed at me reproachfully, and then said he was not sure of waking at four o'clock - could he sleep in my house? I suggested it to Reinwein, my worthy landlord, who became abusive and put my feelings into strong but picturesque language. A Montenegrin not able to rise at four o'clock! It was too absurd. I offered with much sarcasm my alarum clock; but the jest fell flat, as he had never heard of one. Then he reverted to the question of payment, and narrated at length the expenses he would incur by travelling with me
to Vir. There was his bed to pay for that night, food for the next day, and damages to shoe-leather, until I began to wonder at this strange man and the workings of his intricate brain. Again I used sarcasm, and inquired if I should pay his rent at home for the coming quarter as well. It struck him as a good idea, and his countenance brightened. Then it was that I lost all patience and demanded back the fifty kreutzers hand money I had given him, saying I would find the way alone.
"That thou canst not do, Gospodin. Give me one gulden sixty kreutzers and I will be with thee at half-past four tomorrow. Dost thou agree?"
Such was the way this intelligent man schemed to get an extra five farthings out of me. I had lost half an hour and my temper.
As the clock of the old monastery chimed out five we had already climbed out of the valley of Cetinje. Two hours later we halted at a primitive han (Montenegrins use the word han instead of the more universally known word "khan") for coffee, with an egg beaten up into a fine cream as a substitute for milk.
"How far from here?" I asked on leaving.
"Three hours for thee, two for a Montenegrin," was the answer, and it had irritated me; so, in a blinding snow storm (on the 1st of May), I did my best to make the pace. I wonder to-day that I did not break my neck down that awful path into the valley below. It was a hillside to be negotiated with care and at leisure, not to be skipped down as if one was hurrying down an ordinary flight of stairs. My guide leapt blithely from one jagged point to another, as sure-footed as a mountain goat, waiting for me every hundred yards with an apologetic look as I stumbled and
slid after him. Not only are these paths used by human beings and goats, but also by mountain torrents in wet weather.
And now it was ten o'clock. Vir was nowhere in sight, and a feeling of great wrath arose within me as I contemplated the sole of one of my boots flapping idly in the wind. Both heels looked as if they had been chopped at with an axe, and my feet felt as if they had been inside during the operation. Thoughts of missing the diligence from Vir to Antivari assail me. It goes only every other day, and if I find it gone, that means another weary climb on foot over the Sutormann Pass, down to the coast beyond, for I wish to catch the weekly steamer to Cattaro. It does not do to miss connexions in out-of-the-way places like Vir.
We push on and meet a youth. We greet each other fervently.
"It is three-quarters of an hour away," he answers. "May God go with you!"
I am tempted to whistle a merry tune, for I can last another hour, and so can my boots. It was too soon to whistle, and it made my guide whistle too - it is funny how catching whistling i s -which set my teeth on edge. Montenegrins have no idea of tune, and confine themselves to a compass of four or five half tones. It is distracting to a point of madness after ten minutes.
Eleven o'clock, and we are still bounding along a seesaw path, and have crossed and recrossed the swollen river a dozen times with a skill which Blondin would have admired. I am now indifferent to personal danger. What matter if I miss my footing on the rocks jutting out of the foaming stream or stumble on the precipice above, death will be equally quick. And the diligence leaves at twelve.
The scenery was probably magnificent, now and then I catch glimpses of it, great hills towering above me on either side; but my feet are far too tender to permit my eyes to wander above me. I begin to talk to myself aloud, in English, so as not to shock my simple guide. Eleven-thirty, and I tap my revolver with a murderous longing to kill all the people who said the journey could be accomplished with ease in five hours. They had given me to understand that to do it in six hours we should have to dawdle by the way, to pick flowers and smoke cigarettes at the more beautiful spots. On a macadamised road and dead level it might be done in five hours, but then a Montenegrin scorns a well-made road. He infinitely prefers to skip like a young ram in the hills, a simile which whiles away another ten minutes, as it does not seem quite right. The steeper the path and the more strewn with rock and boulders, the faster he goes on his way rejoicing.
It is twelve, and now I am apathetic. I do not call aloud to myself any longer, to the mystification of my guide, who always thought I was trying to keep up a conversation with him. I am oblivious of the nails running into my heels, and I do not place my feet with the care I did when a year ago I left Cetinje one cold and dismal morning full of hope and pride in my youthful vigour. The most casual observer will notice, too, that my step has lost its wonted elasticity, and that a lethargy has come upon me, making my movements mechanical. I muster up a little energy to address my guide.
"Go, thou liar and son of liar. Hurry forward to the town, and if by any chance the post is still there, stand by the driver with thy revolver till I come." He springs forward - I had hoped he would kill me for
the insult - and I am left to plod wearily after him. At last I see the little cluster of houses of Vir. At twelve-thirty I stagger into the market-place.
"The diligence is still there," says my guide, who has run lightly towards me. I breathe a prayer of thankfulness and of repentance for the remarks I have made, which might have blighted the very trees.
"But it is full," he adds as an after-thought.
I do not faint, I do not even swear - dumbly I walk to the inn. A man I know from former visits, the village jack-of-all-trades, follows me.
"Cut them off," I say as he proceeds to unlace what were a few hours ago a pair of strong boots, ironically called in other lands shooting-boots, suitable for mountaineering and long walking tours. "Thou mayst keep them and the other things too." These were once a pair of socks.
Then a fair maiden comes in with a tub of warm water and insists on tenderly bathing my poor feet. At any other time I should have indignantly refused her kindly ministrations.
"Thy feet are very beautiful," she says as she dries them on a soft towel; "but they are not fitted for our stony paths. Thou hast never walked barefooted."
"Indeed," I answered mechanically. "I thought I had to-day."
Then cramp in various parts of my body precludes further intelligent
conversation, and I am discreetly left alone with my thoughts.
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