Border life in Montenegro
"WE are certain to have more fighting. I say it, who know the borders since my childhood and, I repeat, our men will mow their grass even if ten thousand Albanians are there to stop them. Do not hurry away just when everything looks so promising."
It is the adjutant pleading with me to stay at least another week; and force of circumstances has compelled me to declare that to-morrow I must leave the Vassovic for more peaceful regions.
We are sitting, as is our wont every evening, round a little table before the han, with the inevitable bottle of raki before us. The street is nearly deserted, and quiet reigns supreme. It is always thus in Montenegro - such vivid contrasts that one is ever inclined to pinch oneself to obtain evidence that it is not a dream. And now the soft moonlight, the quaint rustic houses, the distant gurgle of the river, and the musical voices of my companions all go to make up a scene of rural peace and beauty, far away from the turmoil of the world, such as can be found in an Alpine village or a North-country hamlet. Then it is that I pinch myself and see that the men around me are clad in martial garb, with revolvers in their sashes. Their talk is of bloodshed, and the figure walking slowly down the street has a rifle over his shoulder.
"Thou saidst that thou wouldst go once with me to the
border pasturages," says a dark man of athletic build in reproachful tones.
"That was before I knew thee, O Telegraf," I respond amidst a chorus of laughter; for he that spoke is the champion courier of Montenegro, so famed throughout the land for his speed that he has been nicknamed "the human telegraph." During the last great war he bore messages for the Gospodar from one end of the country to the other, establishing records that never will be broken.
"I would go slowly," answers the Telegraf, though with a gratified smile - he is justly proud of his reputation.
"What thou callest slow, O Milotin, is for strangers still too fast," I answer; "not till thou art lamed will I go with thee."
"Goest thou by the Kucki Kom?" asks another.
"Yes," I answer, "for I have many friends there with their flocks."
"And when wilt thou return to us? Next year?"
"I know not, my brothers," I say with a heavy heart, for I love these men.
"Perhaps next year, perhaps never again. I am bound for other lands, and Montenegro is far away. One thing only would bring me quickly, and that is war."
"Ah," sighs the adjutant dismally, "when will that be? Now it is so difficult. It is all politics, politics, men talking with each other in distant cities, mapping out our fates with pens on paper. We, the smaller nations, are but pawns upon the great chess-board."
A gloom settles upon these sturdy warriors, chafing under the restraining influence of the Great Powers; no longer able to cut up a Turkish army, raid an adjoining clan or sack a fortress, for every move is telegraphed to Vienna, St. Peters-
burg and Constantinople ere it be scarcely conceived in the warlike brains of these soldier children. Verily, it was better in the older days, when Europe cared nothing and knew less what the sons of the Black Mountain did or would do. And the young men chafe when their elders tell of those glorious times, and their hearts beat wildly as they listen to the guslar, singing of heroes and bloody battles.
One of the men begins such a song, chanting half under his breath. The others move restlessly, until they too join in, and the soul-inspiring words roll out in gathering volume till the burgher on night duty comes to remind them of the law which forbids singing after dark.
"Let them sing," I say. "It is my last evening and I will bear the blame."
"Thou knowest that thou canst not be punished," says the adjutant. "Nay, the law must be obeyed."
We part for the night. A few hours pass and I am again upon the street shaking these true men by the hand. They bestow upon me the kiss of brotherhood, and sorrowfully I walk my horse up the steep path which leads to the giant Kom. There is a chorus of revolver shots as I dive into the wood, more eloquent at parting than words, and I replace too my smoking pistol in the holster, wondering if ever I shall see those honest, sun-burnt faces again or hear the crack of rifles in anger on those turbulent borders.
On we ride, up the spurs of the mountain: soon the valley of the Lim stretches out behind us as we halt to breathe the sturdy little horses, and far beyond lies the plain of Berani. To our right, above a medley of hills and valleys, rises the barrier ridge of the Moraca, a day and a half's ride from here, and on our left the mountain fastnesses of Albania. Soon we are under the shadow of the Kom, precipitous and
barren, clothed in dense black forests till the naked rocks rise sheer above our heads.
We are still an hour from our destination when we hear shots echoing fantastically along the ravines at our feet - the ravines which separate us from the Albanians. The young Kommandir who is riding with us checks his song abruptly, and the others hastily unsling their rifles - there are several men riding with us who have been to Andrijevica for provisions, thus constituting the escort which otherwise I should have been bound to take.
"It may be nothing," remarks the Kommandir carelessly. "But rifle fire in these parts and at this time usually means but one thing. Ah! It is so," he adds as a regular volley rings out. "Let us ride quickly."
There is no need for the last remark. At the imminent risk of our necks we urge our steeds into an unwonted canter.
It is ticklish work, riding hard along narrow paths with a drop of a few hundred feet beside us. Still those reports, which sound ever nearer, are an incentive which even communicates itself to our horses, and soon the huts of Carina show themselves as we break out from the forest. Here it was that last year we spent the night in the then deserted shepherds' village, keeping a weary vigil lest our advent should have been witnessed by marauding bands.
To-day there is no mistake about the meaning of those reports. A battle royal is in full swing as we, now dismounted and proceeding more circumspectly, approach that scene of wonderful mountain grandeur. Behind a rock we leave our horses; and in open order we work down towards the village, where not a soul is to be seen. The women and children are cowering inside the substantial stone-walled
huts and the men are likewise invisible. It is a weird picture - this crackling of unseen rifles - but opposite, on the great cliffs overhanging the intervening ravine, we can see the white puffs of the Albanian Martinis. And they too have seen us, for the bullets soon come "zipping" around us, driving us to take speedy cover, of which there is luckily plenty, excepting only the young Kommandir, who walks towards my sheltering stone and coolly borrows my field-glasses. I hear a bullet strike the stone as he surveys the scene, and then he lies down, aiming long and carefully.
But the reports of the Montenegrins are getting more distant. They are obviously working down the ravine and up the other side. Soon the puffs opposite dwindle in number, and now I see faint blue rings creeping up where formerly the heavier smoke of the old-fashioned breechloaders was to be seen.
It is a fascinating spectacle, and I gaze as one enthralled, until I hear a bugle call and awake to find myself alone and with a ravenous appetite.
Somewhat ashamed, I rise and walk toward the village. Men are coming in by driblets, and the women appear at the low doorways. Now and then a shot still rings out, but the pauses grow longer, until the accustomed peace reigns once more supreme over the Alpine pasturages.
Friends arrive, chuckling gleefully, and I am invited to a much-needed repast. Seated round a wood fire, I pinch myself again most vigorously.
"They fired at us as we drove our flocks to yonder grazing ground," says one who is cleaning his rifle. "They said they would, but they have paid for their insolence. I myself shot two. I saw them fall."
"And I shot one too, father," says a boy of fifteen with a
happy smile. "I fired at his smoke, perhaps five shots" - here he counts his cartridges - "no, six, it was, and then he tumbled into the bushes at the side."
"Six cartridges, my son," says his father reprovingly. "That is many, and they are dear. To-morrow thou must go to the Voivoda and buy more."
Montenegrins do not waste ammunition needlessly.
The boy's face clouds momentarily, but it clears again as he repeats, "I saw him fall into the bushes."
"And ye?" I ask. "How many have ye lost."
"We know not yet," says the man who is standing in the doorway. "Perhaps two. They are looking for them now in the forest. They do not shoot as straight as we. Ah, poor Milos, and he just married."
I follow him to the door. They are carrying the form of a handsome youth still in his teens upon a stretcher of rifles. A woman begins to wail horribly - the death song. I shudder.
"A reckless youth was Milos, but very brave," says the man at my side,
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