"WHOSO SHEDDETH MAN'S BLOOD"
RUBBING my knees, somewhat surreptitiously I must confess, I mentally breathe an additional prayer of thanks that the long and monotonous rosary is concluded. Besides, I am very hungry; the mountain air has given me an appetite, whetted by the wearisome chanting, and now by our hosts with tots of raki.
The hut is lit fitfully by the flames of the wood-fire, and through the open door, drawing off clouds of penetrating blue smoke, I see mysterious figures busily employed in dissecting a carcase. The work is evidently strenuous, for with a contempt of the sharp night air, a veritable young giant has stripped himself to the waist. Now he comes in, bearing a great wooden tray whose burden makes fine play of his muscular arms. A table has been placed before us, a slab of wood raised a couple of inches from the ground by pegs, and our host selects the daintiest morsels of roast lamb and offers them to us. Should he overlook a particularly dainty bit, another of our attentive circle grasps it with sinewy fingers and adds it to our already alarming pile.
I murmur to the monk to cry enough, but he laughs.
"Hast thou not clamoured for meat these last three days?" he says.
"Yes," I respond meekly; "but I want to eat something again to-morrow."
Our friends do not eat yet themselves, they wait, watching our onslaught with evident pleasure. At last the men yield to our entreaties, and at a little distance from us they fall to with an energy that is not pretty to see. Padre Giulio's henchman has mysteriously supplied us both with knives and forks, though how he has carried them I know not; for mountaineers know not such things, and tear and worry their bones with all the experience of four-footed animals. Even now they still discover a tender piece of flesh and pass it over to our laden platters.
Still I comfort myself that I personally superintended their ablutions, and, after all, we do not always know what happens in the seclusion of our own kitchens.
We have eaten enough - nay, more, to be candid - and I retreat into a corer, where, with my back propped up against the rocky angle of the stone walls, I smoke a contemplative cigarette. I wonder where these men stow all those blocks of meat, men who live usually on two bowls of maize meal a day and thrive. One by one they drop out of the ring, and recline as we do round the walls of the hut. A woman comes first to us and then to them and laves our hands. It is a necessary ablution. Then, the men having been satisfied, these faithful women withdraw to the farthermost corner and devour the remainder. They are comparatively soon finished - it would be indelicate of them to disturb their lords unduly with the sound of their noisy eating - and the last remnants are cleared away from our sight. The lids of tobacco tins snap as they pass from hand to hand, all is decorous and polite - the Albanian is once more a polished gentleman. Peace reigns supreme, as we puff our fragrant cigarettes, a peace not disturbed by the distant sounds of song rising from the adjacent huts. I know that round the
rude walls of each hut is seated just such another ring of grave and thoughtful men, undergoing the pleasant process of absolutely healthy digestion. And somehow the repulsiveness of the gorge vanishes for do not these men lead lives of austere frugality for, roughly, three hundred and sixty days of the year? By all means let them have their little failings, if it be one; other nations who eat more prettily have their little failings too.
A happy thought strikes me, and I whisper it to the monk, who is lying back at full length, his fine head pillowed on his hands beside mine.
"Of course," he answers, and translates my request into soft Albanian.
An embarrassed conference follows, and some young man, upon whom the choice of the men has fallen, coughs a little nervously. Then he raises himself and begins to sing. Albanians have powerful voices that never tire. They can sing as vigorously at the end of a day's march as at the beginning, and long-drawn notes, which conclude every verse, testify to their magnificent lungs, which would be the envy of every professional singer.
"Ah, I am glad he is singing that legend!" remarks the padre. "Wait, I will tell it to thee afterwards."
And so I lie and listen to those wild notes rolling out into the darkness, to mingle with a dozen other songs resounding in the peaceful night. Though each listener could sing the song himself, he listens attentively, if impassively. There is no interruption till the youth concludes, and smiles shyly his acknowledgment of our thanks. Then the padre draws closer to me and begins the tale which has just been sung.
It told of a beautiful Christian maiden and her two brothers, whom she loved as dearly as they loved her. They lived in a
town at some distance from Scutari, and a young man courted the girl and found favour in her and her brothers' sight. But the Turkish Pacha, governor of the town, likewise loved the girl, and as religion forbade him to marry her, he set about to gain his unlawful desires in another fashion. It was easy enough, and on a trumpery charge the brothers and the girl's lover were removed to Scutari in custody. The same night the defenceless girl found herself in the Pacha's harem. She was feasted, and, hiding her feelings, bided her time. When the hour for retirement came she followed her captor to the sleeping-room, but with tears and lamentations she begged one more favour.
"I am a Christian maiden," she said, "let me pray once more to my God."
The Pacha granted her request, and stood discreetly on one side.
The maiden had gained what she wanted, and snatching a dagger hanging on the wall, crept silently towards him. He heard her, but it was too late. He turned towards her with outstretched arms to receive, not the fair Christian, but the dagger in his heart.
There was no sound, and the girl fled unperceived and silently. A few days later she reached Scutari, finding also her brothers, now set at liberty, and her lover. She married him and a child was born to them. Some years passed; her brothers being suspected of the murder had fled, but now had returned and lived in hiding for awhile in the city.
There was still a great reward on their heads, and this the husband knew. Very soon he learnt from his wife that her brothers were in Scutari, and he gave them through her an invitation to come and feast at his house. Then he told the authorities.
The brothers came, and whilst feasting, soldiers bore them off to prison and to death. When the woman learnt of their fate she took her husband's handjar and sharpened it till it was as keen as the blade of a razor. She prepared a feast, even as it had been prepared for her dead brothers, when they had been lured to their fate, and bade her husband and her little son partake of it.
Quietly she drew the terrible handjar from the folds of her dress, and with a single blow she severed her husband's head from his body. A second blow, and her son's head rolled likewise on the floor.
"As I slew my husband, lo! my heart leapt for joy,
Yet when I killed my son, my heart burst with agony."
"That is the last verse," concluded the padre.
The Albanians were watching me with a curious intentness. The story had been well told, far better than I can tell it, and, I feel cold.
"Yet why did she kill her son?" I venture, at length.
"Her two brothers were killed," he replies. "The revenge of blood requires an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and it was the son of her brothers' betrayer. The laws of the vendetta are rigid and holy in these people's eyes."
"Holy?" I repeat, looking at the friar. He looks sad.
"It is even so. More holy than the Catholic faith to them."
"And canst thou not teach them otherwise?"
"I have tried, and they answer with a text. There are hundreds of such stories, my friend, and they are all true. Such things happen to-day and will happen to-morrow.
Come, let us now sleep; the men are tired. There are many things which we cannot understand."
Ready hands prepare our beds. As I lie down a man draws up the covering to my breast as deftly and tenderly as a mother laying her child to rest, saying -
"Rest well, friend, in the care of our Saviour."
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