The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon




THE light is stealing into my bedroom and bids me rise up and take leave for many days from beds, sheets, and similar luxuries. The room I hardly noticed last night, though we partook of our frugal supper therein.

The remnants are still upon the table, and around it a few primitive chairs and a rickety sofa; upon the walls are a few religious prints - one is of St. Francis himself. In the farther corner, upon another smaller table, is a quaint assortment of articles. Could I sketch, what a sensation that "still life" would make! There are the vestments, sacred vessels, and breviary open, showing the odd type of the print; and mixed up in this churchly collection are my revolver, my bandolier full of shining cartridges, and my trusty hunting knife. Surely a characteristic picture of Roman Catholic Albania, and a fitting frontispiece to my coming tour.

Padre Giulio is shaving without a glass; but from force of habit he stands before the window, and a huge Albanian revolver and bandolier around his picturesque person, stalks in bearing water fresh drawn from the well.

The air is keen and refreshing, stimulating the young friar to song. He has a capital tenor, and he is trolling the serenade from "Cavalleria Rusticana" to a wondering group of Albanians without.

"What hast thou in thy saddle-bags?" he asks later, as we are packing up.


"Biscuits," I answer; "on which I can live without other food."

Padre Giulio looks incredulous as I propound the virtues of Protene, and ends by wagering that I cannot exist for two days without meat. I accept readily, little knowing that to-day and to-morrow are rigid fast days.

At last we are ready, and in high spirits set forth upon our journey, the Franciscan an odd figure, in habit and cowl, upon his splendid horse. The pace is too fast for my pony, and the monk insists on changing mounts, for he is half my weight. It is a grand idea, and removes the only drawback to my enjoyment of the tour.

A two hours' ride brings us to the verge of the great forest of Korito, and into its cool depths we plunge. We are joined by a handsome young Albanian with the typical clear-cut Grecian features so often seen amongst the Albanian highlanders. He accosts me in pure Italian, causing me nearly to fall from my horse in astonishment, for he is dressed, as are the rest, with rifle upon his shoulder and revolver in his sash. He is the schoolmaster of Zatrijebac, he tells me, as he walks at my stirrup, and has studied for four years at the Gymnasium in Cetinje. Italian he learnt from the Franciscan - hence the purity of his accent.

"It was easy," he explains" modestly, "as I speak Latin." Padre Giulio cites a Latin quotation, and, like a flash, the Albanian corrects him in an error.

"Yes," admits the monk, "thou art very intelligent; but see, thou carriest a rifle as even the most ignorant of thy clan. What dost thou fear? Surely thou knowest the carrying of arms is absurd and but a relic of barbarism. Set, then, thy brethren a good example."


The youthful schoolmaster gravely shakes his head.

"Nay, father, it is not so. We must carry arms to protect ourselves against wild animals and - men. Only last night the wolves came down and ate a goat and a sheep; and as for the men, thou knowest, father, as well as I."

And he points to the bullet-riddled habit of the friar.

"Dost thou find much time to shoot?" I ask.

We have halted under a giant beech tree, and are munching biscuits. The schoolmaster takes an empty box, perhaps three inches by four, and runs swiftly to a fallen log some seventy yards away. There he props it up, and returning, takes his rifle. No need to load, for rifles are not carried for show, and squatting beside me, he aims long and carefully. Bang! the tiny box falls down, and another Albanian, dining near as "marker," brings it to us, neatly perforated.

"And does thy carbine shoot as well?" he asks, smiling, for it is a difficult shot.

"We cannot shoot so well as ye," says Padre Giulio, and would hinder me. "These men shoot as soon as they can walk."

Bang! The marker brings us the box again, grinning delightedly.

"Nearer the centre than mine," says the schoolmaster, admiringly. "Nay, but do all the English shoot as thou? I have read that ye are not armed, and yet thou hast shot as if thou wert born with a rifle in thy hand."

I blush, and congratulate my luck, mentally thanking the practice of bygone days on peaceful rifle ranges in England and big game shooting in East Africa.

The Albanians are no longer tolerant, they are respectful; but of this more anon.


On we ride; but at the scattered village of Korito the schoolmaster bids us farewell. "Thou art coming to my village in a few days," he says. "A riverderci."

The rest of the day is glorious. Spur after spur of forest-clad mountain is crossed. One hour we are up in the open, and the next down in the cool and shady depths of the beech forests. Shepherds' huts are scattered here and there, and at many we pause to quaff a bowl of milk.

It is late in the afternoon when we emerge on the downs of Grec'ija, commanding one of the finest views of mountain panorama it has ever been my lot to witness. Sheep and goats are grazing everywhere in great flocks, guarded by armed shepherds; and from all directions comes the echo of their shrill whistling. Grec'ija is the farthest summer pasturage of the clan of Zatrijebac, and the grey-haired man who is hurrying towards us is the chief of the clan. Here he lives with his family and flocks throughout the summer months, when Albanian and Montenegrin alike forsake their substantial houses of stone in the valleys and migrate to the grassy uplands to live in the rudest huts.

The chief greets us warmly; him I know from former visits, and he wears, not the Albanian head-cloth, but the Montenegrin cap, for the prince has named him Kommandir. The shield and crossed Turkish scimitars are the insignia, and in war he commands the clan.

The hut is long and narrow. One half is occupied with the sleeping places-beds of grass covered with skins. Little children are playing inside by the flickering light of the wood fire, but they speedily hide in dark corners as we enter. The housewife comes shyly forward to kiss our hands, and stoops at once to remove our boots. It is the custom to sit bootless in Albanian homes.


We regale ourselves on bowls of milk and cheese while the monk makes friends with the children, chiefly through the aid of my biscuits. In each box is an assortment of salted and sweet biscuits and one solitary stick of chocolate. Padre Giulio breaks open box after box and gives away my treasured chocolate.

"Thou dost not mind?" he asks. "The little ones love these sweet things."

"Of course no," I answer, with forced enthusiasm; for I too have a sweet tooth.

The chief brings out the raki, and while he plies us with tots, Padre Giulio expatiates, in Italian, on his virtues.

"Throughout the land there does not breathe a better man. He is good, and verily a man of God."

Good Kommandir, Padre Giulio was right. Thou art honest and upright, fearing God and His commandments, a bold and fearless fighter when danger threatens thy clan, a man who once having given his word would never break it. To meet and know such men as thou - wild and savage as the world would call thee, not seeing thy sterling merits - is a privilege to be thankful for. Having given thy hand in friendship, no harm can come to me and mine so long as I stay with thee; and in danger thou wouldst sarcifice thy life rather than harm should come to me, and, in doing so, see nothing noble in the deed but thy plain duty. Such as thou show us what God meant when He created man.

I walk out into the gloaming, and this is what I see: great gnarled stumps in the foreground, grey rocks upon the green sward, and, falling away suddenly from my very feet, the deep mysterious ravine of the Cievna. The depths are veiled in gloom, almost terrible when the eye strives to fathom them, like some awful horror we have read about in our child-


hood, the abode of dragons and dreadful serpents. The shades of the countless men who met bloody deaths would seem to be fighting their fierce border battles once more; the Turk descends again in his hordes, burning and ravaging till his turn comes and the Albanian surprises him in an artfully laid ambuscade. No quarter is given; it is a battle of extermination. And rippling softly the little Cievna runs on, all heedless of the crimson stains in its limpid pools, towards the plain of the Zeta, to other scenes of bloodshed.

Behind, a wall of mountain rises, and yet another and another, till the horizon is bounded by the mighty Proclotea. That staircase of rugged ridges is superb.

Right and left tower forest-clad hills, resounding now with the cries of the shepherds and the sharp barking of the dogs. From the hut comes the gentle murmur of conversation.

A horse neighs close by, and there, under a pair of beeches, graze our steeds, and to those faithful animals I go before turning in. They have had a hard day, but now they have their reward in that rich grass.

"Amico mio," sounds from the hut, "come, thy bed is ready."

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]