IT had been a merry day, the merriest in fact of the whole trip. In the early morning we had ridden to a far-away village; the path had been difficult to negotiate on horseback or on foot; over grey rocky hills, sliding down rocky downs, or stumbling along rocky valleys. Once my horse had begun sliding down a particularly steep slope, and I was already wondering what I should look like below, when half a dozen men sprang like lightning to my side, and arrested farther downward progress by sheer strength.
Then we had arrived at the village, mass had been celebrated in a hollow in the vast basin of grey, and we had fortunately found a resident shepherd there who had been a member of the winter church choir. So the mass had been choral, and I, standing aloof, had watched the startling splash of colour in that dreary waste, and listened to the fresh musical voices of priest and chorister pealing through the rock-bound valley. The congregation was small; only the shepherds of a tiny village perched up the hillside, a few hundred yards away, were present.
Afterwards an old man had taken me under his wing, too much so, for soon the atmosphere became highly convivial.
Others came and bore us off to another hut, till I began contemplating riding home, precipices or no precipices, at a hand-gallop. The monk snoozed discreetly in a corner, and left me to the tender mercies of my hosts. One wound the
Albanian head-cloth about my head, and all laughed in pure light-heartedness. With roast meat and milk, with cheese and raki, laughter and song, hour after hour was whiled away in the cool, dark interior, whilst outside the sun shone down in a cruel white glare. Some Montenegrins joined the throng, and once more I could express myself freely. A pretty maiden ministered to our wants, her face of that pure, clear-cut Grecian type so often seen amongst Albanians, and when the jokes began to broaden, lo, the padre woke up and declared it time to go. And faith it was; I rose with alacrity, yet sorry to leave my merry friends. The old man kissed me, not once, but often, and as we rode up the sun-scorched hill the villagers turned out en masse, giving us a rousing parting fusillade.
The Montenegrins insisted on a short visit to their village on our way back, and more raki, tempered with black coffee, was forced upon us, until it was with feelings of thankfulness that I topped the last ridge and caught sight of the huts which formed our temporary home.
The villagers were at play, their recreation chiefly consisting in target shooting. The air resounded with the sharp cracks of the magazine rifles, and the duller ones of half obsolete Martinis.
We pass such a group of marksmen, and amongst them I spy my schoolmaster friend.
"Ah, at last thou hast returned! Come and shoot," he cries, brandishing his rifle over his head. "My comrades have heard of thy prowess."
"The devil!" I murmur, and swing off my horse. There are times when fame is not desirable, and I feel it at this moment, but refuse to shoot I cannot. Modesty these men would misunderstand.
"Maintain our honour," calls the padre, as he rides on, and I am left with the riflemen.
A wild group surrounds me, and I am granted a respite while my carbine passes from hand to hand, its mechanism explained by Padre Giulio's henchman, who never leaves me. We are standing in a little walled-in space before a hut, and two hundred yards away up the hillside are a row of little white stones, five in number. These are the targets.
"Let them shoot awhile, for I am still shaky from the ride," I say to my interpreter, and, nothing loth, they do so, each man resting his arms on the low wall. The grey chips fly round the white stones, and at last a stone is hit. The stone is soft and splinters into dust. A cry goes up, and from behind a boulder the "marker" appears to place another target.
"Now!" says the schoolmaster, and I slip a magazine into the breech.
As I stand out into the ring, bravado making me scorn a rest, a hush falls on the assembly. They do not realize that I have an immeasurable advantage in a light weapon, hair trigger, and special sights.
I fire rapidly, and the fifth stone dissolves into a white puff. The men, who have been as silent as the grave until I bring down my empty carbine, burst into a storm of applause. Foremost in their congratulations are the schoolmaster and the monk's henchman: both had felt their reputations - as well as mine - at stake, and now their relief is great. I retire quickly, breathing fervent prayers of thankfulness, for these men would have taken no excuses of "light," "wind," or "mirage." In their eyes the good shot is the man who hits.
A rugged giant comes towards me, and bears me off by main force to his hut a little distance away. His young wife,
tricked out in a multitude of bangles and silver chains, is overwhelmed. She darts angry glances at her beaming husband - who is conversing fluently, all heedless that I understand scarce a word - for all the world as if she were the wife of a Western gentleman surprised in disorder by a sudden visitor brought in by an unthinking but well-meaning husband.
She draws him on one side. I can imagine her saying: "Really, how thoughtless of you! Here are all the pots lying about the room and not one washed up. Whatever will your friend think of us? And we haven't a thing worth eating in the house. How often have I begged you to give me a few minutes' warning and not take me by surprise like this! One good thing, it is holiday time, and I have my best dress on."
And he, unfeeling brute, roars heartily, and tells her to bring a dish of cream and a ladle. That is evidently what he does say, for soon she brings me, blushing deeply, a bowl of delicious cream and a wooden ladle. Placing her hands upon her breast - and here the resemblance to the West ceases - she meekly withdraws.
Out comes the bottle of raki and a glass, and squatting opposite each other we feel as if we had known each other for years. The shooting outside has nearly ceased, and then it stops altogether, whilst shouts of laughter proclaim that some other game is in progress.
As soon as I decently can, I take my leave, not without difficulty, because my host evidently thinks I should first consume the two or three quarts of cream and the bottle of spirits. I succeed in conveying to him by signs that I really cannot, and, bending ourselves double, we leave the hospitable roof.
The village has congregated round a small natural amphitheatre watching the younger men - nay, and some elder ones - disport themselves at games which I have seen played by little children in other lands.
Now they are surrounding two men in a ring. One of the pair in the centre is squatting, whilst his companion, with both his hands upon the other's head, seeks to keep the yelling circle at bay with his feet. The idea is to smack with unnecessary violence the squatting man's head, but care and speed must be exercised, for the guardian's feet dart out in all directions. Nay, with a firm support on the human pedestal, he gives a right and left almost simultaneously with beautiful accuracy, right in "the wind." The victims only cough a little and laugh, and then a brawny warrior gets home with a thud on the victim's head, that makes mine ache with sympathy. The guardian has now to act as target, and doubtless the men he injured take care that his releasing clout shall be without dispute.
Soon they tire of this, and take each other on their broad backs standing in a circle. A ball of hard-knotted headcloth - I had nearly said handkerchief or towel - is given to one of the "riders." He feints once or twice, and then throws with all his force at another couple. The "rider" in his effort to catch it capsizes, and amidst shrieks of laughter "horse" and "man" roll to the ground, whilst the others scatter. A game like rounders follows, the men struck fairly with the ball having to take the place of "horse." And so they play on, displaying an enormous amount of energy and high spirits.
Then they play leapfrog as lustily as schoolboys, and all the little children of the village stand around, the only serious people in that merry crowd. At a seemly distance
stand the women folk, some holding infants in their arms. Doubtless the little ones are longing for the time when they may join in these merry games, which should be theirs by right.
It is the elder men who sit in the front places, and many a toothless gum is displayed in a hearty roar of laughter when a young man rolls headlong in the sand.
As I leave this quaint throng of topsy-turveydom, they begin a new game. One man binds his opanki (shoes) round his head as giant ears, and hides behind a wall. Two others, one on all fours barking loudly as a dog, the other with a gun, starts out to stalk the "hare." The human dog scents the human hare, the huntsman levels his piece and cries "bang," and amidst cheers the quarry rolls on his back. It is nothing but "hide-and-seek," adapted to their sporting instincts.
As I rejoin the monk on the slope above, we still hear their boisterous laughter and shouts.
"Great children, are they not?" says the padre, "but only on a few days in the year do they play thus. Life is otherwise a very serious matter to these men, where death lurks behind almost every boulder."
We pause a moment before continuing our stroll. The animated scene is below us. The good man's face grows very soft.
"I love to see them thus," he says, but his smile is sad. "I have seen
them in very different moods."
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