THE SOURCE OF THE CIEVNA
DEBATING 'THE START.
"TO-DAY thou hast a treat in store," says Padre Giulio, as in the fresh of the morning we ride along the downs, towards a forest. "I know no spot more beautiful than that which we must pass this morning. But art thou giddy?"
I reply that mountaineering is my hobby.
"Yes," says Padre Giulio, doubtfully. "But our path to-day is no ordinary one. I have traversed it many times, but the first time I well remember the agonies I suffered."
"Where horses can go -" I begin.
"Nay, our horses we leave behind in another hour. This journey can be done only on foot."
Ever steeper grows the descent, and at last we yield up our horses. One of the escort cuts me a stick, and, faith! I want it. We have now crossed the border, and are in the domains of the notorious clan of the Clementi. In Montenegro they bear the worst of names, and many are the stories told of their fierce and savage raids.
"For the love of God go carefully!" exclaims Padre Giulio, as I come slipping and sliding after him. "Look!" and seizing me firmly by the hand he bids me look beneath me. We are on the brink of a precipice the sight of which makes my blood run cold, so suddenly and abruptly does it sink from the curtain of bushes before us. Two thousand feet below - we cannot see the base - races a rivulet, a thread-
like path skirts it, and opposite rises another wall as sheer as the precipice upon whose summit we stand. Far away to the right are a village and a church, looking so ridiculously tiny as to be unnatural.
"That is Selce, our destination," says the padre. "We have many weary hours between us."
Very carefully now we proceed, sliding on the slippery grass, and clutching at bushes. No need to adjure me to caution after that terrible glance into the ravine at our right, mercifully screened by a curtain of trees!
Then the forest breaks off suddenly, and brings us face to face with the source of the Cievna. Speechless, I sink to the ground to gaze upon that wild view. Below us is a deep gorge, and a narrow plateau, similar to the one on which we are resting, faces us.
Our guide is halloing vigorously, and soon we hear faint answering shouts. With the glasses we can just distinguish a white-clad figure moving slowly across the background of green vegetation, to work round the head of the gorge towards us.
Out of the living rock a rush of creamy water plunges into the steaming depths. A little higher, a streak of silver is purling down the precipitous mountain. Shelves of pine-clad rock rise in ridges, until the final barrier of naked cliff cuts into the blue sky in a wild, jagged outline. It is the source of the Cievna, romantic and savage enough to characterize its mission as boundary between two nations who have lived in blood feud with one another for five centuries and more.
And while I sit and gaze in awe at that majestic view, the man whom we had seen opposite approaches us. He is to take us down to Selce, which our former guide cannot do, owing to clan differences. He is a villainous-looking
ruffian, belying with that savage exterior his good, kindly soul.
"Thou art looking upon a scene that few strangers have witnessed," says the padre at length, as we prepare to continue our way. "Our guides do not remember the last occasion when a foreigner trod this path."
I had heard much of the mysterious, unknown source of the Cievna, and appreciated the privilege that was mine. But I look in vain for the path that we are to tread. There is nothing but a fantastic gorge at our feet.
"Yet that is our way," says the monk, smiling as he follows my eyes. "Now thou canst understand why I asked if thou wast giddy."
"I am not giddy," I answer proudly, though inwardly I have many qualms. For a little way the former guide accompanies us, and the two Albanians display an anxiety lest I should slip (which would be fatal), that is almost embarrassing. For some hundred feet we descend steeply, and now the gorge surrounds us like the walls of a prison.
A thread, scarce more than a foot wide, skirts the bare rock, and disappears round the bend of a cliff whose summit overhangs the base. At least we can walk upright, and that is nothing more than keeping a steady head. This is no place to contemplate the roaring cascade whose thunder is in our ears, as we move onwards along the track tending, but gradually, downwards. The corner is passed, and the length of the gorge lies before us. The cliff has receded somewhat from our path, which is, however, still upon a steeply slanting angle, and above us we now see clearly how the summit overlaps the base. In one place we see the massive baulks of timber which the peasants have dropped in bee line from the top, two thousand feet above.
"It was here that a woman fell last year," explains the padre, and scarcely have the words left his lips when we round a bend and find an old woman and two young girls staggering under huge loads of wood. They are standing helplessly in a group, and as we come up to them the woman and a girl lie down on the upper side of the path to let us pass, and we see the second girl in a terrible predicament. Her foot has slipped over the lower side, and she is balancing on her knee between life and death. The load upon her back is too heavy to permit her to rise, and the loose earth on the shelving bank below allows no foothold.
A grasp of a hand, and she is up safely once more on the path, smiling gaily, as if it were a most common accident. Yet another few seconds and she would have been a shapeless mass, dyeing the clear pools of the torrent below.
Our guide has told me continually that lower down the path is better, but his words were a delusion and a snare.
We are bathed in sweat, and have been going downhill steadily the whole time, when we reach the stream itself.
How gloriously beautiful are those limpid pools in the smooth worn basins and cups it has slowly hollowed out of the iron rock during the countless centuries that it has roared and rushed down that ravine! How tempting for a bath! But it is as cold as ice, and we are spent with fatigue and hunger.
For five hours we have painfully crawled down those cliffs without food and without water. It is seven hours since we started. My arms and ammunition weigh tons, it seems, as I lay them upon a convenient rock.
"Put away thy note-book," says the padre, as I would make some entries. "Who knows who may be watching us?"
A wash, and we start again for the remaining walk that is still between us and our goal. We are in a fertile valley, rich in vegetation, and sheltered from all rough breezes by projecting mountains.
Gardens of fig-trees, cherries, and damsons surround us. Clusters of grapes border our path, and little fields of tobacco stretch up and down the slopes on either side.
The clansmen have diverted the foaming Cievna into scores of life-giving canals, irrigating the steep slopes, crossing our path with a cooling swirl to spread over the rich green sward beyond.
Substantial huts are passed. Here and there a lounging Albanian greets us coolly, but not unfriendly. Women are hurrying about their household duties, and the tinkle of the church bell greets us over this scene of sylvan peace and beauty.
It is hard to realize that this is the home of a part of the savage Clementi, fiercest and most pitiless of border clans, whose deeds have been sung in my ears for many months past.
But their appearance bears out their reputation. There is the church, and the neighbouring house of the priest standing upon a little eminence, and scores of men are grouped about the entrances and in the paths. Wild, handsome men, each with rifle on his shoulder or in his hand, revolver in belt, and bandolier crammed with cartridges at his waist, stalwart and fearless; true specimens of an untameable race, who require blood for blood and do not shirk their debts when their time comes. They salute the priest reverently, me with indifference, yet many have never seen a being clad in European fashion in their lives.
We climb the steps into the broad court before the church,
and Padre Giulio hastily whispers to me to do even as he does. I realize that I am being keenly watched, as I follow the monk across the square, and at a sign from him I reluctantly place my carbine against the wall of the church beside a dozen other rifles, and crossing myself, as he does, enter the church.
"Tired and thirsty as I know thou art," whispered he, as my gaze wanders over that kneeling, silent throng of armed men, "thou must first kneel and pray at the altar. Remember to cross thyself when I do, and follow my every movement. If these men think thou art not a Catholic thy life may be endangered."
Then he pushes through the worshippers, and at the rude altar rails
he kneels. The whispers of the devotee sound like the murmur of water in
my ears as I follow his example. At my left hand is the shaven head of
a giant who, in his excitement, has prostrated himself on the stones, and
his face rests on the altar step.
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