The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon



THE heat of the day has passed. With my head upon a pillow of coats I lie at full length on the bottom of the canoe, lazily listening to the swish of the water as my paddlers slowly wind in and out of a narrow channel. A dreamy peace pervades the scene, which very strongly resembles a deserted backwater of the Thames. The stillness is unbroken save by an occasional far-away hail of fishermen, or the grating croak of a grey heron in the bushes. Up in the bows, out of reach of temptation, lies my gun.

Knowing my queer tastes, the ancient mariner at the stern turns sharply inwards, and in a few seconds we are floating in a vast inundated forest. Gnarled and twisted trunks and fantastic branches surround us, and bow takes in his paddle, swinging us along cleverly with his hands. It is a quaint sight, this submerged woodland glade. It seems unreal and fairy-like. A leafy canopy shuts out the heavens, and all is shrouded in a gloomy mysterious light.

Ever nearer comes a chorus of hoarse unmusical croaking as we approach a colony of grey heron. We come so noiselessly that the birds do not perceive us, and under their round, flat-bottomed nests we gaze unnoticed at the ungainly occupants. Their long necks, lanky legs, and unpleasantly grating voices are hard to reconcile with the graceful bird skimming with steady rhythm, neck drawn and legs trailing behind, across the wide blue heavens.


Unlike their white brethren the crane, they build their colonies in the most accessible places, knowing that neither their flesh nor feathers are valuable. The air is full of the whirr of wings as the parent birds soar homewards, circling above the tree-tops before finally returning to the bosom of their families. We pass on, and now the forest thins as we near the open water once more. Another vigorous push and we are out upon the great lake. Not a breath of wind disturbs its glassy surface, which sparkles refreshingly in the setting sun.

The helmsman looks at me interrogatively and I nod. It is getting late, and there are those duck for supper. We round the apex of the forest, and there is the tiny chapel and living house of the Monastery of Vranjina, my temporary home. How pretty it looks, perched half-way up the steeply sloping hillside! There is a pleasant feeling of subtantiality about the grey stone buildings, the rocky hill, and the sturdy green trees after the watery islands and swamps of the lake.

Some fishermen preparing to camp on the island hail us as we would pass, wishing us a good evening. One man comes down to the water's edge and beckons to me.

"What wouldst thou, Mirko?" I call, for he is well known to me.

"Wilt thou not share our supper, Gospodin?" he answers. "We have caught some splendid fish."

It is a beautiful picture. Groups of men are busily engaged in preparing the frugal meal; some are fetching wood and lighting small fires, while others are cleaning the fish or mending nets. They are all fine big men, brown as berries and clad in the tattered red-and-blue national costume. One group sings a wailing ditty, and the long-drawn-out



tones go pealing over the lake, while behind them the hillside rises steeply into the clear evening air.

I take my gun and land, for the scene pleases me - it is also really nearer to the monastery. Mirko gravely shakes my hand and learns with evident disappointment that I cannot eat with him. He reminds me how often he has accepted my hospitality, and yet I always refuse his. I comfort him with assurances that I will certainly visit him in his home, though mentally I pray that I may be spared this ordeal. Invitations to the houses of enthusiastically friendly peasants are not to be lightly accepted, unless one is possessed of the digestive powers of an ostrich and the capacity of a Falstaff. But my friend does not let me go without further mark of his favour. He selects the largest fish and ceremoniously presents it to me, while others draw near with an enormous black bottle.

"To prevent fever," says one. "For the appetite," says another tempter, pouring out a small tumbler of spirits. "Long life and health!" he continues, giving it to me, and hastily I swallow it. Then we all shake hands, and I wish them a good night in God's keeping, and to their melodious and pious answers I take my leave. The singing follows me up my rocky path towards the monastery.

I find the good priest before the chapel on the little plateau that commands such a grand view of the lake. He is clad in the national garb, his holy profession proclaimed only by his long hair and beard and tiny black cap. His face is grave and tender, and he smiles as he sees me, wishing me "Bon soir." The good man is very proud of his French, though his vocabulary does not consist of more than a dozen words. I disappear round a projecting rock, and as I approach him from behind noiselessly, over the rich


carpet of grass, I see that he has my carbine and is taking aim at various objects in the lake. Thus have I often surprised him, for he has all the Montenegrin love of firearms, and will while away hours firing imaginary shots. This evening I have a magazine in my pocket. I slip it into the carbine.

"At what shall we shoot?" I ask. He shakes his head as I smilingly offer him the carbine. He will not shoot himself in reality, but I delight in tempting him.

"At that stump at the end of the willows. Or is it too far for thee? It must be five hundred yards."

I nod approvingly, for Montenegrins are wonderful judges of distance, and adjusting the sight I seat myself beside him.

"Take a fine sight," he murmurs in my ear. "It is less than five hundred."

The rifle cracks and a jet of water spurts beside the stump.

"A good shot," he nods. "Thou canst shoot like a Montenegrin."

It is the greatest compliment that he can pay, and he says it every time I shoot well. Silently I place the weapon in his hands, ready for the next shot. Mechanically he takes aim and-bang-again that tiny column of water spurts up, but not so near the stump as mine. The worthy priest rubs his shoulder and looks at me reproachfully.

"I forgot that it was loaded," he says; but his features relax as he meets my laughing face. I reload for him, and he takes it again, this time with a deprecatory shrug of his shoulders.

"Ah, but the Gospodin Pp has not forgotten," says a voice behind us. It was a splendid shot, and an old man, house-servant and sacristan, who has approached us from the chapel, rubs his hands gleefully, challenging me with his


eyes to do better if I can. The priest's tan darkens into what would be a blush in a fair-skinned man, and he gives me back the carbine with the air of a man putting sin behind him. Then he rises with a murmured apology and departs with his aged factotum, leaving me alone with the grandeur of the evening view. The Albanian Alps are bathed in a pink light, standing out so clearly that they seem almost within rifle-shot. Yet miles of glassy lake and vast swamp separate us. Above the willow islands at my feet a few belated crane are circling, their white plumage showing up vividly against the deep green of the trees. The sun is sinking rapidly behind the rugged Rumija, whose edges are silhouetted into almost painful sharpness in the crimson glow.

The singing of the fishermen in the distance would seem if anything rather to heighten the feeling of loneliness and utter stillness, and a sweet peace steals over me. Harshly the voice of Stefan calls me back to earth and to supper. Regretfully I enter the refectory and take my seat beside the priest, who is eyeing hungrily the roast duck before him. I know he is blessing me - firstly for breaking his solitude, and secondly for insisting on meals of meat every day, of which he in courtesy is bound to partake.

" 'Tis better than goats' cheese and maize bread," I say with a profane wink at the hermit. The answer is indistinct, as from one whose mouth is full; but he gratefully fills my glass with wine such as is not to be had for love or money in the whole country-side.

"Thanks," I say.

"To God the thanks," he answers reprovingly.

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