Border life in Montenegro
THE RIVER LIM.
ON THE BORDER.
IT is just a year ago that I last visited a certain little town named Andrijevica, and was subjected to much disappointment. The rumours which met me by the way today were certainly encouraging, but then things have a knack of blowing over and settling down in an amazingly short time on the Montenegrin borders.
However, I have come to stay until "something happens," a statement which calls forth great enthusiasm, for, within five minutes of my arrival, the room which has been placed at my disposal at the local baker's has filled with old acquaintances. There is Milos, the herculean son of the Voivoda, strong as a bull, yet as ticklish as a young maiden - a failing which it is useful to know when he gets playful and will wrestle; the veteran Corporal Slavo, who went with us last year to Velika when we were surrounded by an excited mob of Albanians on the way, and who afterwards presented me with his pistol, a family heirloom; and smart young Marko, likewise a corporal, but half his comrade's age and of a boisterous disposition. He is very quiet and sedate to-day, yet I remember the last time we met - he and I had danced together, the quaint leaping dance of the Montenegrins. How the worthy borderers had laughed and applauded, and he had to be with difficulty restrained from
firing his revolver into the ceiling of the very room in which we are now formally seated in a ring, with tobacco-tins and miniature bottles of raki gravely circulating.
There are others, too, the young Kapetan and mayor of the town, the Voivoda's orderly, the "human telegraph," and the postmaster, of whom more anon, for I catch sight of the Voivoda himself walking down the street with his adjutant. A minute later and we are shaking each other effusively by the hand, and I am led to a han, for they are convivial souls in Andrijevica, and the raki the best in the land. At the Voivoda's right hand I am lovingly pressed into a chair, and the table before us is loaded with glasses, for the guests are many. I heave a sigh of contentment, for of all the border clans the Vassovic are the most sporting, splendid men, one and all. High and difficult passes cut them off from the rest of Montenegro, and the hawk-nosed Voivoda at my side is invested with nearly autocratic powers. He wields them well and judiciously; and how often by tactful diplomacy he has averted the invasion of his country by enormous hordes of savage Albanians, he alone can tell. In a sense he holds one of the most responsible posts in the Balkans, if not in Europe. Who can foretell the consequences should an army of Albanians overrun north-eastern Montenegro? and more than once it has been but a touch and go.
With a merry twinkle in his keen grey eyes, he lifts his glass. "Thou hast no business to be here just now," he says gravely; " but I bid thee welcome all the same."
"Then I shall see something," I begin; but he cuts me short.
"We do not speak of it," he says still more gravely, but his eyes twinkle the more. "To-morrow we confer with the
Turkish governor on the frontier, and perhaps further bloodshed will be avoided."
"Thou art too official, Gospodin Voivoda," I say, and we all laugh and clink glasses. But the Kommandir and right-hand man of the Voivoda takes pity upon me. He is a soldier pure and simple, and he draws me on one side.
"Thou didst promise me last year," I say.
"I have not forgotten. Thou shalt come with my battalion, for we shall have more fighting; that I promise thee if thou hast patience and a little time."
"To-morrow, though, is a conference," I murmur.
"Mere talk," rejoins Lazo, the Kommandir (commanding officer of a battalion). "It is not against the Turks that we fight officially, but against the Albanians. We have grass to mow on the borders on our land, and this the Turks will not allow. They say the land is theirs, but it is not so, and we shall mow the hay. It is ready waiting for the scythe."
He speaks this last sentence grimly, pausing suggestively before he proceeds. "For days a Commission was here striving to settle this question in peace. But thou knowest the Turk - words, nothing but words; and while even the Turkish officials were with ours, the Albanians came down and fought. Too much talk is not good, and our patience is exhausted. We, the men of Vassovic, will be put off no longer from that which is ours."
"Quite right, Kommandir," I answer; "the sooner the better." And the slender, grey-haired officer-grey not from age, for he cannot be more than thirty-five, but perhaps from countless border-fights - shakes himself and laughs.
"But will the Voivoda let me go with ye? " I ask suddenly.
"Ask nothing and go; we do not speak of these things," he repeats, winking.
Evening is coming on apace, and the scene is very peaceful. Men walk up and down the only street slowly in twos and threes. At the doors of the little houses women congregate and gossip. Now a man swings along, rifle slung from shoulder, saluting smartly as he passes our table - he is from the mountains, which surround the town as a wall. A horse clatters loudly up the steep path from the river, where his rider has been watering it, sitting bare-backed and riding like a cowboy. Our glasses clink, are emptied and refilled instantly by the attentive host. Jokes, laughter, and toasts follow in confused succession, but not a word of war or of fighting - beyond a jest at my expense - for such topics are of too little interest.
It is very pleasant, and I feel as if I were in the midst of old and dear friends. Then the moon rises slowly over the ridge before us, and still we sit on, chatting of many things. Half a dozen Albanians stride past, likewise with rifle, bandolier, and revolver, taking a short cut across Montenegrin territory. It is characteristic of the Montenegrin that he lets the Albanian come and go as he pleases, opens his markets to him, does not require him to yield up his arms at the border, nor refuses him permission to travel in safety, even with a border feud in certain proximity. This is all the more remarkable when the Montenegrin would be shot down within half an hour of crossing the frontier.
For fun I put the question why they allow their enemies to come thus armed into their country.
"Are we cowards?" comes the scornful answer.
"But is it politic to show perhaps thy weakness?"
"Vassovic can put ten battalions in the field, and at a
moment's notice," says my neighbour, "besides another twelve from the mountains round Berani. This they know; what need have we for secrecy?"
"To-morrow I leave at seven o'clock," says the Voivoda, rising. The Kommandir winks at me.
"I shall be ready myself, for I contemplate riding towards the frontier," I answer.
The Voivoda smiles as he wishes me good night. "Then thou must go well armed," he says, "for our borders now are dangerous."
We part with much laughter.
"Thy supper will be spoilt," says Stefan, my servant.
"What hast thou been doing this last hour?" I ask him as we walk across the broad street. He is in an unwontedly jovial humour.
"I have cleaned and oiled our rifles, Gospodin," he answers.
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