I AM bidding farewell to the last vestige of comfort before the post-office in Podgorica. It is noon, and time that I should start on my six hours' ride to Zatrijebac. The heat is intense on the plain, but we have to climb steadily, almost immediately after leaving the broiling plain of the Zeta, up that great pile of grey rock on whose rugged slopes are dotted the houses of Fundina, our half-way resting-place.
With carbine slung from shoulder, revolver on my hip, and a bandolier of cartridges round my waist, I am saying "good-bye" to the trusty companion of other journeys, Stefan. I cannot take him with me, for he would get himself and probably me shot within an hour of crossing the border. Stefan is no diplomatist. He hates and mistrusts an Albanian as he would poison, and - says so, or at least, shows it so plainly that mere words are unnecessary. For the fiftieth time he adjures me not to let my carbine out of my hand or the revolver from my side.
"Thus thou canst never be surprised, Gospodin, and if thou art ever prepared, maybe thou wilt come safely back."
His tone shows that he hardly dares hope for even this contingency.
The great Albanian smiles grimly and significantly at Stefan. He has been sent to guide me up the mountain
(though Heaven knows I have been the way often enough), but he is Padre Giulio's henchman, and has come to fetch me as a compliment. He understands little of the Serb language, but that he has grasped the meaning of Stefan's warnings is clear. Friend Stefan must take care when next he walks near the frontier.
"You will get sunstroke riding in this heat," cheerily sings out the vet, mounted on his wiry little pony. "Wait till the evening - it is madness to start now."
I remark somewhat stiffly that what he can do is not necessarily impossible for others.
"Ah, but I am used to it," he retorts. "Anyway, leave us your address. It is quite likely that you will get picked off over there, even if you escape sunstroke."
"Comforting! " I muse, as I remember all the warnings that I have received during the last few hours - in short, ever since I arrived late last night, when the aforesaid Albanian rose up from the shadow before the door bidding me start with him there and then. Once before I had made that journey at night, and the memory of my experiences caused me peremptorily to refuse. Then he handed me a letter from friends who had gone up that day and expected me to supper on the lofty plateau of Zatrijebac.
I mount the wretched pony. He is nowhere near up to my weight, but the only steed that was to be found, as the vet basely stole the horse that I bargained for. The bridle is characteristic of the beast, being a weird contrivance, half rusty chain and half string. There is no time for further search. I passed my word months ago to be in Zatrijebac this evening.
"S'Bogom, Stefan. So long, doctor," and we are off.
Whew it is hot. The vet was right. The sun-dried
plain, cracking with the heat, is like a fiery furnace. Even the lean Albanian, striding a yard before my pony's head, sweats. Half an hour of this and we begin the ascent up that rock-strewn track to Fundina that I have so often anathematized. At intervals the Albanian leaves me abruptly, disappearing behind a clump of stunted bushes for a few seconds, to emerge with some article of clothing that he deposited there on the way down as the heat increased.
Very slowly the houses of Fundina grow larger. There, at least, we can drink a "cup of coffee" at the han kept by the hero Keco. At last we are there, but the Albanian swings on resolutely. Our conversation is constrained, as I know no word of Albanian and his knowledge of Serb is very limited.
He shakes his head emphatically as I shout to him to stop. "Water is farther on. There we will stop," he says in broken Serb.
Then I remember the blood feud in which Keco lives with the Albanians, and say no more.
At the spring we halt, and my guide, with his rifle ever to hand, lies down full length to rest, after quenching his thirst with deep draughts.
An hour later and we are well up the last ridge that separates us from the uplands of Zatrijebac, and behind us lies the great plain of Zeta, with the Lake of Scutari beyond. I am alone; tired of the stumbling gait of my pony, I have dismounted and walked on ahead. A hail - was not that my name? But no, impossible; who should call me by my European name up in these lonely wastes of grey rock?
"Halt, or we fire!" and mechanically I pause, but only a second, for the challenge is in English. Reposing in a rare
grass dolin, or hollow, lay my good friends, the doctor from Podgorica, and Albert.
"At last!" exclaims the doctor, brandishing a bottle. "Why didn't you turn up last night? There was feasting at Padre Giulio's, and we waited for you till after midnight. This is our last bottle of wine; all that remains of the battery we carried so painfully to Zatrijebac yesterday."
Then they tell me of the supper last night, how Padre Giulio sang old, half-forgotten Neapolitan love-songs, and how they went out into the night every half hour to listen for the shots which I would fire on nearing the church.
"We wrote to you," says Albert, reproachfully. "The Albanian had orders to bring you at any hour, immediately on your arrival."
Chatting and laughing, we spend an hour together, till a glance at my watch shows me that it will be dark before I reach my destination.
"The padre has left for Albania," declares the doctor. "He thinks you are not coming."
"But I promised to be there this evening, not before," I answer.
"Ah, yes! but that was months ago. He says you have perhaps forgotten."
We part. The thought is not pleasant, for, if true, it means a nocturnal ride to catch the Franciscan, and I love not midnight rides on the borders.
The light is failing fast as I near the church and its little living house. I have again pushed on ahead and on foot. Not a soul is to be seen. Then the padre has left without me. Impatiently I cross the little lumber-strewn garden towards the kitchen, and open the door.
Round the wood fire sits the old familiar group, just the
same as when I last left: three or four sturdy Albanians squatting, with head-cloths thrust back, showing their shaven crowns; the good housekeeper and her children, and beyond, half in the shadow, the brown-robed friar. I am not recognized at once.
"Jesus Christ be praised! " I say. It is the only Albanian I know, and the usual formula of greeting.
"Carissimo amico!" shouts the friar, impulsively rushing to embrace me. "We awaited thee yesterday."
"Thou hast not gone? I had heard thou hadst given me up."
"No. Thou gavest thy word to be here to-night and I knew thou wouldst come. Coffee, Katrina. Come, sit here, for thou must be weary, and to-morrow we leave at dawn."
While supper is being prepared, we stroll into the moonlit garden, and Padre Giulio climbs a damson-tree to shake down the unripe fruit. On a low wall we sit and talk, resuming our old arguments on religion and politics, he telling me of his latest efforts at the pacification of his unruly parishioners, and the hopelessness of it all. His fresh, impassioned voice, talking in his beautiful Italian, rings over the peaceful scene. Such exquisite stillness, such beautiful thoughts, and the cool of the rocky uplands after the burning heat of the plains, act like balsam to the weary spirit. In the distance the moon is shining on the snow-clad peaks of the Proclotea, whither we are journeying to-morrow.
Verily the lot of Padre Giulio, alone in that wild land, amongst these
savage but honest men, is an enviable one to him who is tired of the emptiness
of the world outside.
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