OSTROG: THE ARRIVAL
THE heavy post-diligence rolls away towards Nikšic' with a merry farewell from the bluff driver and many pious commendations to St. Vasili from the occupants of the coach. The 'five hours' drive from Podgorica had been an eventful one even for Montenegro. Firstly, we had driven through a terrible thunder-storm, which had made the much-coveted box-seat rather a disadvantage than otherwise. In spite of umbrellas kindly handed out of the window by fair Montenegrins, the partial use of the driver's oilskins, and my own so-called waterproof coat, the rain was not to be denied. An old gentleman inside, with his wife and two pretty daughters, had been quite distressed, and invited me fervently and oft to squeeze in with them, a request which received much mute support from the maidens, who blushed sweetly as their father pointed to the limited space between them. But I was thoroughly wet, and I nobly refused the temptation.
Then I had lost my servant Stefan, who had preceded me on horseback, and had evidently only too willingly sought the shelter of a wayside han. Knowing him from former experiences, I resigned myself to the loss of his services for the best part of the day.
In the little town of Danilovgrad we had halted for half an hour while the horses were changed. My friend the
doctor from Podgorica had charged into me, buried in a huge umbrella, as, by an acrobatic feat of balancing, I attempted to run the water out of one of my top-boots. When he saw who it was he apologized, explaining that for two nights he had had no sleep. Two evenings ago he had been ruthlessly torn from our midst by a telegram informing him that a man had been wounded by an axe in this town, and he had hurried off on horseback to his help. I conjectured that this man had kept the doctor up two nights.
"Oh, he is bandaged up and doing well," said the doctor; "but last night a man has been shot. His enemy met him on the street and promptly put a bullet through his stomach. He is on the point of death, though I have done what I could for him." At that moment the commandant came up with a crowd of armed men, for the dying man's friends were excited.
"The place is in a state of revolution," said the doctor, hurrying off, and a moment later the driver of the Montenegrin post called to me. As we drove out of the town I saw the doctor entering a small house surrounded by a group of earnest men. From an upper window an old man with a white strained face looked down on the rain-swept road, and on his shoulders wept a young woman. I saw her shoulders heaving convulsively, and I shuddered as I glanced at the next window with its drawn curtains. Then the storm broke out afresh, lightning cleft the mist-laden air, and the thunder roared in short sharp cracks like the firing of heavy guns. Ever higher wound our road as we climbed the side of the valley, and as a bad dream of the night the storm rolled away behind us. The heights of Ostrog loomed out of the mist far away on the opposite side of the broad valley, and the sun shone on the white tents and buildings
of the monastery, whither I was journeying. We passed a flock of sheep peacefully grazing on our left in a sheltered hollow, watched by a huge white dog. A hurried exclamation by the driver made me jump, and he pulled up the vehicle short, pointing with the whip at a huge eagle swooping down. Breathlessly we watched that fatal swoop, I muttering futile regrets that my gun had been left behind. A howl of pain and the eagle was beating up again with his prey. We could hear the swish of his mighty wings, when suddenly his victim writhed in that grip of iron and bit him in the throat. Then we saw the eagle release his hold, and the animal fell heavily to the ground. For once the eagle's eye had failed him, and he had captured a Tartar in the form of the dog, which, evidently badly hurt by the talons and by the fall, lay yelping in his pain. The driver would not stop that I might descend to look at the plucky beast, and we were off again to the running fire of oaths and much whip-cracking with which he urged on his four horses.
"O asses, and offspring of asses, why do ye no work? Dost thou think, O Alat, that thy brethren shall pull and thou do nothing? O asses, accursed beasts, that make my life a burden!" And the whip cracks on the back of any that relaxes for a second the tension on the traces. With a running fire of such comments, interspersed by ejaculatory efforts at conversation with me and frequent dips into my tobacco-tin, he has beguiled the weary hours since five that morning.
"O asses," I hear him cry again as he leaves me on the newly completed road to Ostrog; for last year it was indeed a pilgrimage undertaken with much groaning and vexation over a typical seesaw Montenegrin track. I overtake a party of red-turbaned Bosnians leading wiry ponies and
followed by their women-folk. They have journeyed from Sarajevo, which they left six days ago, and are pausing for a moment by the wayside. One by one they shake hands solemnly with me, answering my "God greet ye!" with the universal formula of "May thy luck be good!" Then an aged Montenegrin accosts me with a hearty inquiry as to the state of my health, and even as I answer him the whitewashed walls of the upper monastery appear far above us through a break in the trees. The old man forgets me on the spot and turns his eyes upwards, to where lies the body of St. Vasili, crying with joy and pious thanks that it has been permitted him to come once more to Ostrog. The road ceases to climb, and I emerge on a long plateau, and by a gate enter the precincts of the lower monastery. Rows and rows of white-covered booths stretch up to the left, where men are busily occupied driving in long stakes and fixing the tent coverings. Girls are washing bottles and cleaning pans, and every one is bustling with the hurry of preparation, for in two days' time thousands of hungry and thirsty pilgrims will be clamouring for food, eager to break their long fast. At the farther end stand the substantial buildings of the monastery, the episcopal palace, and the tiny church, all opening on to an broad space, in whose centre grows a great tree.
The venerable Archimandrite receives me with open arms and leads me to my room, which the good bishop has placed at my disposal. Father Peroni is a wonderful little man, and that evening as we sit over our wine he tells me the story again, how exactly forty-nine years ago he formed one of the little band of thirty Montenegrins who, under the leadership of the Grand-Voivoda Mirko, held the upper monastery for ten days against fifteen thousand Turks.
Those were stirring times, and my heart beats faster as he tells me how Mirko, the father of the present Prince, called even by the Turks "The Sword of Montenegro," during the siege seized a shell which had penetrated through a window and threw it back, down the precipice, into the midst of the raging Moslems, where it exploded: how the Turks vainly attempted to burn them out by throwing flaming straw upon the roof from the cliffs above, and how the Montenegrins at last came from all sides to their help. Those Turks on the cliffs were hurled down, and their bodies whizzed through the air past the monastery, and were dashed to pieces far below. As he speaks I can picture the wild scene once more. Attacked from all sides, the Turkish hordes look around them helplessly, wondering whence comes this hail of bullets. But their doubts are soon put to rest as well as their earthly troubles, and through the smoke dashes the gallant bairaktar or standard-bearer, followed by a band of reckless warriors, matchlock discarded, heavy handjar in hand. Even the fanatical courage of the Mussulman avails nothing against that savage rush, and with the despairing screams of their comrades hurtling through the air from the cliffs above them, they turn to fly. But whither? They are surrounded, and the rich green slopes become a bloody shambles. "How many fell?" I ask. The abbot shakes his head. "A thousand? " He smiles.
"In one pit alone we put eight hundred, and there were many such. To-day thou canst still find their bones on these heights, and thou needst not seek for long.
With a deprecatory shrug of his shoulders he bids me goodnight, and I retire to dream of headless corpses, of a fierce battle with an eagle in mid-air, of falling hundreds of feet, catching a glimpse as I do so of the rock-crowned little
monastery, and as I near the earth I fall in the arms of a driver who
calls his horses asses. Then comes a great roaring as of mighty waters,
and I awake to find the church bells ringing within a few feet of my window,
calling the faithful to the early mass.
[Back to Index]