Border life in Montenegro
LAUGHING and singing we had returned to-day on our way from the feast on the frontier towards Andrijevica. The generous sun heightened the beauty of the verdant hills, and it was easy to forget that the grim spectre of Death was hovering hungrily over those pleasant ridges.
We had ridden for more than an hour carelessly and light-heartedly, when a group of serious men suddenly appeared before us, standing immovably across the narrow path. They were evidently awaiting us, and the expression on their bronzed features checked jest and smile alike. The Voivoda dismounted at the first word, which I, being at the rear, did not hear, and entered a hut at the side of the path. The men trooped in after him and closed the door.
Death can make his presence felt, and as I waited in silence before that door I knew that he had claimed another victim, and slowly I too dismounted. I had not long to wait: the door opened again, and the burly form of the Voivoda pushed through. Behind him I saw a figure laid out upon the earthen floor, and then the adjutant beckoned me to enter. Cap in hand I obeyed his gesture, but, prepared as I was, my heart leapt with a sudden burst of anger.
A fair-haired boy lay stiffly at my feet, and no second glance was necessary to tell how he had met his death. His young body was riddled with bullets, the white serge
tight-fitting suit showing only too plainly where each wound had sapped his life-blood. A typical shepherd-boy, with that rare beauty which perfect health gives to her favourites, such as the traveller can meet in hundreds on the rolling Montenegrin downs tending huge flocks of sheep - hearing him sing the war-songs of his country, full of life and spirits, breaking off at intervals to whistle shrilly to his charge. And such a boy had been foully murdered - it could be nothing else with one so young - cut off perhaps in the midst of his song.
"To-morrow I meet thee here," I heard the Voivoda say to the peasant bearing the officer's crossed swords upon his cap. "Have fifty men to accompany me, and send word that I would speak with the chief of the Albanians who have done this deed."
Then were our horses brought, and slowly we rode away. Before we reached Andrijevica I had learnt the story of the foul deed. It was, alas! only too like many similar deeds that are perpetrated yearly on the wild borders. The boy had strayed with his flocks too near the frontier, and men - Turkish soldiers they were - had hailed him roughly, telling him to go back. And the boy, with the courage of generations of heroes, had answered that so long as he was on his father's land he would go back for no one. Then shots rang out, and the boy fell, hit in seven places by cowardly bullets; Albanians came and drove away the flocks: such was the sad story which another shepherd-boy had brought to the indignant clansmen who had fetched the poor corpse away. But Death had laid his icy hand on yet another victim. Ere we had ridden another hour, came a man to us with the report of a suicide. In a tiny house, nestling up the hillside in a cluster of vines,
lay a woman gasping out her life with a self-discharged revolver-bullet in her body. Even as we reach the house she has yielded up the ghost, maddened to the deed because she thought an incurable disease possessed her.
I have written here my own impressions: neither death affected the sturdy clansmen one whit beyond a longing for a speedy revenge in the former case. The grisly reaper has no terrors for the men of Vassovic; even the father of the boy was self-contained - nay, even proud that his son had shown a brave front to those dogs of Turks. They are fatalists, one and all. "We must all die once, and a bullet is quickest, and is an honourable death." So speak the border clansmen, and thus have spoken their fathers and their fathers' fathers, counting death upon a sick-bed as unworthy of a man.
I have watched the Voivoda. There is a certain grimness in the set of his jaw, but he utters no word of his plans for the morrow. He is as good-natured as ever, and accepts with alacrity an invitation to dine with me in the evening. The meal was as boisterous as any eaten by jovial, careless men, and when my guests depart the night is well advanced.
Confused by the events of the day, heated by the potent libations, I stroll out upon the moonlit street to smoke a last cigarette. There is such an air of calm and peace upon the scene that I pass my hand wonderingly over my brow. A youth is standing in the shadow of a house telling a maiden the old, old story. She has evidently slipped out to this nocturnal rendezvous by stealth. As I approach she makes as if to fly, but the youth stays her, and he wishes the Gospodin Englishman good night with an unaffected laugh.
From the bed of the river I see a group of men, perhaps
a dozen in all, swinging up towards the town. All have rifles, and their white garb looks ghostly in the moonshine. They come in silence, too, and swiftly. As they draw nearer I see that some are carrying a burden on their shoulders. With a little cry the girl hides behind the house, and with noiseless tread the men march by. The lover has joined me, and he doffs his cap, crossing himself mechanically.
The burden is a dead man upon a stretcher. The moon shines down on his ghastly features, and shows a great dark patch upon the canvas.
In utter silence the men stride on - we do not greet in that presence - and in another minute have turned a corner.
"That is the second in two days," says the youth; "to-morrow we shall repay."
From behind the house the girl steals back shyly, and I leave them to continue their sweet love-making undisturbed by that grim procession. Yet to-morrow it may be the fate of the youth, who has already forgotten that there is a to-morrow. I return to the main street. It is quite deserted save for the gendarme, who is patrolling thoughtfully and slowly, rifle upon his shoulder and cigarette between his lips.
"We have but a few hours' sleep," says Stefan, as he pulls off my boots. "At dawn we must creep out of the town before the Voivoda, else he may stop us. A guide will meet us at the ford. I have filled thy bandolier."
Five minutes later and Stefan is snoring loudly. Sleep does not come
so easily to me to-night, but when it does, I dream of that ghostly procession
which passes noiselessly and swiftly and in silence, bearing in its midst
a man with face upturned towards the gentle moon.
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