The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon
 

Border life in Montenegro
 

CONCERNING A CONFERENCE
 


THE AVENGERS.
 

THE day promises to be hot. Even at this early hour the sun is making his presence felt in a decided manner. It is Sunday, and the women of Andrijevica, justly famed for their beauty, are looking prettier than ever in their best clothes.

I am just finishing my toilet, which would have been embarrassing to a stranger unused to the local ideas of privacy; for since Stefan threw back the shutters to intimate that it was time to rise, I have been watched by frankly curious faces. Of the four walls but one is blank, two face on the street, and the third is pierced by a window into the bakery, and by a glass door. The men I did not mind; but when my host fetched his pretty wife to see me manipulate my tooth-brush, I felt that modern civilization has its advantages. I expostulated with Stefan, who looked surprised, but chased away the men and boys.

"The women do not matter," he said, and disappeared to water the horses. The adjutant, more carefully attired than usual, beckons to me as I emerge upon the street.

"All ready?" he inquires briskly. "We start in half an hour. Thy health, and may we have luck together."

A man has appeared with a tray, and the officer has helped himself to a glass of slivovic, tossing it off to his last remark. When the horses arrive I see the adjutant placing a formidable-looking bottle in his saddle-bag.

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"Ammunition," he calls to me, patting it affectionately. Then comes the Voivoda, resplendent in his surcoat of creamy white, and gold-slinged sword. We mount, and a few seconds later are clattering noisily out of Andrijevica, which slumbers like a good-natured war-dog in the warm sunshine, past the little church, where we should be to-day were it not for pressing business elsewhere. The pop (priest) is there, and waves us a God-speed, and a handsome bearded man hurriedly greets me, for we are old friends - the insignia on his cap proclaims that he is a kapetan, his beard and long hair a priest. Then down the steep bank to the river Lim, hurrying with all speed to the mighty, far-away Danube. We splash through pools, taking short cuts across the shallow winding stream, our dismounted escort trotting nimbly ahead, and keeping there in spite of detours.

Thus we clatter, splash, and jostle till the path climbs again the high bank and between the lofty hills enclosing us in a deep ravine, through shady damson-orchards (slivo), among fields of maize and vineyards, till the ravine shows signs of opening on to a great plain.

We are already skirting the frontier. The hills across the Lim are Albania, and a lonely tower on the last spur is a blockhouse of the Turks.

"How delightfully quiet and peaceful!" I remark to the adjutant. He smiles grimly.

"Three weeks ago it looked different," he answers, waving his hand towards the opposite bank of hills. "A few hundred Arnauts were firing then into this valley. Our men were up here to the left, and soon thou wilt see what we did as a hint to the Turks that they should keep better order in their land."

A bugle rings out crisply and suddenly - our escort close

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in, adjusting belts and bandoliers. We pass the bugler a minute later, a Turkish soldier, standing stiffly at the attention by the side of the path. Round the next bend the fertile plain of Berani unfolds before us, and a few hundred yards ahead is drawn up a compact little body of Turkish infantry.

"The border," says the adjutant, indicating a rude post, and canters up to the Voivoda. A group of Turkish officers with little white hoods on their shoulders approaches us; we dismount, and a tall, clever-looking Turk salutes the Voivoda and shakes hands. I am presented: it is the Miralaji or military governor of Berani. His staff takes up position in line on the right flank of the guard of honour, who present arms, and I, following the Voivoda's example, shake hands with each. Then they join us, and we walk together towards an arbour. A merry little fellow addresses me in French, introducing himself as the army doctor, and arrived at the arbour, the Miralaji motions us to be seated on the divan running round the three sides. An orderly brings a low table and a big bottle. Cigarettes are presented, tiny glasses are filled from the aforesaid black bottle, and we are bidden welcome in slivovic, though the Turks do not drink with us.

The ragged guard of honour marches back to the cluster of tents a little distance away, their slovenly appearance still more exaggerated by the mixture of red and white fezes in the ranks, while a disreputable-looking cut-throat mounts guard solemnly before the arbour. Then it is that I catch the eye of the adjutant, and, following its glance, I notice a blackened heap of ruins. So that is the hint which the men of Vassovic gave to the Turks three weeks ago. It was the fortress; and a wall, still standing precariously, shows the loopholes. For an hour we sit and

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talk, sipping our slivovic, accepting cigarettes continually from our attentive hosts. Not a word of the business on hand is spoken, and the conversation is light, uninteresting, and formal. I am beginning to wonder how the difficult affairs of the border will be settled, when the Voivoda and Miralaji rise and go alone for a stroll towards the lonely hill which stands like a sentinel upon the plain. I see it too is crowned with a blockhouse.

The conference does not last long, but I walk across to the han, which is filled with our escort and a crowd of Montenegrins. At least I take them to be so, for their costume is the same - even the Prince's cipher is on their caps, and they are all armed; but the adjutant tells me they live across the border and are subject to the Turks.

"In name only," he adds; "for when fighting comes, they help us. It is useful," he continues naively, "for thus are the Turks surrounded. They are all of Vassovic, and can muster 9,000 men. They it was who set fire to the fort."

"Are not the Turks annoyed?" I ask. The adjutant shrugs his shoulders expressively.

"What are they to do?" he queries. "They are not many, and we never commence the troubles."

The two chiefs return, calm and collected, as if their talk had been about the crops - which in a sense it has been - and then a squad of soldiers appear with dishes. Round a table we squat, a huge platter is put before us, wooden spoons and napkins are placed in our laps, and all fall to out of the common dish. Some help themselves with their fingers; but as we have all carefully had our hands washed, it is not so unpleasant as it would seem.

A few mouthfuls, and the platter is deftly whirled away.

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For the moment it annoys me, for its contents were good and I am hungry; but a second later and another dish replaces it. After ten minutes I recline indolently; the remaining procession of courses have lost their interest. Ten or a dozen courses are served up within half an hour, the majority curious mixtures which defy description; but all delicate, well-cooked, and appetising. I gaze around that barren cluster of tents, but no sign can I see of a kitchen that could produce such a meal, which, after the frugality of the Montenegrin cuisine, was a feast fit for Lucullus.

Coffee and cigarettes follow, and then our attentive Tommies bring water to wash our hands. I do not return to the arbour, for the Voivoda and the Turk are arguing a knotty legal point, but I seek the shade of a hut, and there lay me down to ruminate on my strange surroundings. The little doctor follows me, also three Turkish officers, and we recline on blankets speedily requisitioned from the tents. Stefan, too, appears, and a brilliant thought strikes me.

"Go," I say, "to the Gospodin adjutant's horse. In a saddle-bag thou wilt find "

But Stefan has gone - at times he is intelligent - and reappears quickly with a bottle. The Turks shake their heads sadly, if not wistfully, for have they not watched us the whole morning tasting that seductive beverage? I fill a cup, glasses we have none, and present it to the doctor.

"The Miralaji cannot see," I say softly, and the law does not forbid it."

The doctor looks surprised. "You have been in Turkey," he answers, and with a deprecatory gesture tosses it off.

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The ice is broken, and we spend a pleasant hour, during which Stefan is busily employed. A clatter of sabres proclaims that the conference is over, and Stefan, bulging on one side, hurries off to the horses.

"I thank thee for thy visit," says the Miralaji courteously. We bid an affectionate farewell, part more warmly still from my late companions, who look flushed, and then we canter past the guard of honour. A minute later and we are again on Montenegrin territory, and the adjutant is justly angered at finding that thieves have been at his saddle-bags.
 

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