THE MAJOR'S STORY
"O you are going back to Montenegro?" asked the L. Major as we sat on the deck of the Pannonia after dinner, steaming swiftly between the dim outlines of the myriad of islands and scogli that fringe Dalmatia's coast.
"You have been through part of Albania, I think you said?" he added as I answered his previous query in the affirmative.
"Yes," I replied. "I can't keep away from those countries."
The Major laughed. He was a big man and showed the traces of much hard service in the "Occupations-gebiet."
"It is easy for you to travel there as an Englishman," he said, "but for me it was a very different thing."
"You know the country too?" I asked in surprise. "When were you down there?"
"Oh, many years ago, on secret service. In fact, I went everywhere, and some of my experiences were decidedly unpleasant."
There was a general movement of deck chairs being drawn up a bit closer, and somebody offered the Major a cigar.
"You would like to hear one?" asked the Major as he took the proferred weed and lit it.
"Rather, Herr Major. Fire away," said I, voicing a chorus of acquiescence.
The Major lay back in his chair and puffed meditatively for a few minutes.
"You know the Miriditi, I suppose?" he began, turning to me. I nodded. "Well, a quaint episode occurred to me there many years ago. There is no bloodshed or anything of that kind attached to the yarn. Fortunately I escaped all that sort of experience during my travels on this mission, otherwise I should not be here to-night. There are few people wounded when these beggars begin shooting, as I daresay you all know.
"I was travelling at the time on the confines of the Miriditi clan, one minute over their border, the next amongst the Turks, and I halted one evening with my guides, or rather escort, in a han perhaps three days' journey from Scutari. I was dog-tired too, for we had been going steadily all day over most villainous paths, and a certain amount of anxiety added to the strain. The men with me - they were Miriditi - were none too friendly, and had accompanied me more because my way was theirs than for any other reason.
"I entered the han, the ordinary hovel, one room, earthern floor, a few stools and rickety benches, and a wood fire burning in the middle. A lot of men were crowded inside, mostly crouching round the fire and talking. Two or three were men of Miriditi and the rest were hillmen of other clans, and a few Turks.
"My greeting was returned civilly enough, but as I sat and ate what little food I had still left, I noticed that the conversation, fairly loud and animated when I entered, dropped to desultory whispers. It was only too apparent that I was not welcome, and indeed I noticed one of my own men whisper a remark to one of the other Albanians, who
passed it on, whereupon I was furtively looked at, and I began to feel uncomfortable. Naturally I disguised my feelings, and, calling for coffee, I squeezed into the ring around the fire and rolled myself a cigarette. When it was finished I waited, but no one offered me a light."
"A deuced bad sign," I remarked, well knowing the courtesy of these men in such respects at ordinary times.
" If I had been in doubt before as to the feelings of these men, I had none now," continued the Major. "I saw that they had something against me and that anything might happen. So I reached for the tongs, and, selecting a glowing ember, lit my cigarette with as much nonchalance as I could muster.
"A big clansman now got up from the other side of the ring and immediately a hush fell on the assembly, so sudden that the burning of the wood crackled like pistol shots in that uncanny silence. I can see that man now as he stalked round the room with all the swagger of an Albanian clansman, an insolent dare-devil expression on his cut-throat face, and his revolver - a huge silver-mounted weapon - sticking out suggestively from his bandolier of cartridges. The butt was turned outwards from his belt and carried as are all revolvers when the owner is in blood-feud or in a dangerous country. Usually, you know, it lies close against the body, under the leather flap of the weapon belt. He stopped deliberately behind me. I felt him standing there for I feigned an utter indifference to his movements, and then he spoke.
" 'Give me a light, O stranger,' he said abruptly.
"I turned round as casually as possible and looked him up and down. He held an unlit cigarette in his right hand, the other was resting carelessly on his belt,
" 'There is the fire and there are the tongs,' I answered. 'Help thyself as even I have done.'
"Then I turned my back upon him and waited with a cold chill running down my spine.
"He muttered a curse, and suddenly all the squatting men rose with one accord, leaving me sitting there alone with the Albanian. I glanced quickly round the room, and the sight which met my eyes did not reassure me. The men of Miriditi, including my own men, were standing together, their backs against a wall, and facing them were the rest - the other clansmen and the Turks. None touched their weapons - every one feared to do that - and one by one they silently left the hut.
"In a few minutes I was left alone, with a presentiment that either a volley of bullets would be poured into the room the next second or that I should be shot down when I emerged.
"What did I do? Why, the only thing left me. I sat on, finished my coffee, rolled another cigarette and awaited developments. No man can travel in these lands without turning a thorough fatalist, and, as it happened, I did the right thing.
"Five, ten, it may have been thirty minutes later the big Albanian walked in alone, and sat down beside me.
"I had just prepared another cigarette when he, to my surprise, reached down and handed me a burning stick.
"I saluted and proffered my tobacco tin, which he gravely accepted. He smoked half the cigarette before he spoke."
" 'Thou art an Austrian officer and a spy,' he said calmly, 'but thou art also a brave man. Come, I will be thy guide and will lead thee to a place of safety for this night. The others would kill thee, even as I would have
done an hour ago. Only this must thou promise, that thou leavest this country at daybreak, else -' and he paused suggestively.
"Then he rose and, bidding me follow him closely, led me to another hut, where I was well received and slept the sleep of the just."
"Were you not afraid to trust yourself in his hands alone after that?" remarked a tourist as the Major called for a pint of wine.
"That shows you know nothing of the Albanians," remarked the Major somewhat shortly.
"Quite so," I added, and then the engine bells tinkled, and a few minutes later we were alongside the quay at Spalato.
"Let's spend the hour we are here in the Cafe Chantant," remarked the Major to me as he put down his empty glass with a sigh of contentment.
And I agreed.
THE BALKAN STATES, 1904.
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