THE refectory is a long bare room, opening on one side on a small garden, through which dashes one of the miniature canals. It is on the first floor, and steps lead down into the garden at one end, and at the other into the gloomy space behind the high altar.
Our host is absent as we enter the room, which is tenanted by two Albanians. Their rich silver ornaments proclaim them to be influential, and indeed one is a traveller, for I saw him months ago in Cetinje. Round their necks hang curious chains, attached at their waists to the magnificently mounted great revolver butts. The white serge costume is elaborately bordered with black braid, and they wear quaint rings. Yet their huge stature and fearless looks destroy any impression of dandyism. They would shoot as straight and as recklessly as any of their clan, in spite of their showy attire.
The hand of Padre Giulio they kiss reverently, and me they greet civilly with a grip of the hand. They even yield up the comfortable home-made armchair to me, and we sit solemnly round the table while the henchman of our absent host prepares the inevitable coffee. They glance in kindly manner at me, and ask the padre if I am fatigued (how often am I to hear that question?) I reply that I am, and thirsty and hungry. I am dying for a cup of water, which Padre
Giulio sternly refuses until I have drunk the coffee. A few other men stalk in majestically; they are the headmen who have the right of entry into their priest's house, but, of all, I am the only one who displays curiosity. Whatever these wild clansmen feel, as regards my person or the object of my visit, they conceal under a most careless and indifferent exterior.
A hearty laugh sounds in the adjoining kitchen, and with a hasty exclamation Padre Giulio jumps up and hurries out.
A few moments later and he reappears with a sturdy red-faced Franciscan, of goodly paunch and jovial expression.
"Padre Giovanni;" and I am warmly clasped by the hand, and welcomed in musical Italian.
He sits opposite me and we are left alone. That conversation will linger with me amongst my most prized recollections. Of his life in his lonely parish far away in the impenetrable fastnesses of the Clementi, he tells me; of beautiful Naples, his home, which he last saw forty years ago.
"Forty years ago!" I repeat, gazing at his athletic figure. True, his hair and short-cropped moustache are white, but it is the face of a man in his prime.
"My son," he answers cheerfully, "I was thirty when first I saw the mountains of Albania. To-day I have walked eight hours to this place, and I am no slow walker or bad climber. My parish extends over many mountains, and sick have to be visited at all times and at all hours. Four hours to a distant member of my flock and four hours home is nothing strange. My seventy years, grazie a Dio, sit but lightly upon me."
Again he laughs - what a splendid laugh! - showing a set of teeth worthy of Friar Tuck, yet accustomed, as that worthy was not, to the hardest of provender.
Then our host, Padre Gioacchino, comes in, and bestows on me the kiss of peace. He alone of the three monks is Albanian born, though he too has studied in Italy at Florence.
Tall, gaunt and black-haired, he has still something of the Albanian clansman in his manner, though his tonsure, brown habit, and fluent Italian, remove the impression.
With many apologies he bids us set to, as the evening meal is served up. Alas! it is still a fast day; and before me - who would have welcomed a juicy steak - is set a dish of macaroni, cooked in an oil that forces me to think of the process of cleaning firearms.
It is too horrible for words. Mechanically I swallow a few mouthfuls, and snatch a glass of wine. The wine is worse than the oil.
Not even my appetite or my thirst can overcome the horrors of that dish and that wine. I am on pins and needles lest my good host should notice my aversion, for have I not said that my hunger was enormous?
I am saved from starvation by a second course of excellent fish. But are two small fish enough to satisfy a man who has, since daybreak, trod in glaring heat one of the most difficult paths in Europe? Ponder it, ye beef eaters, and pity!
There is a consolation, namely tobacco, and, the meal finished, tobacco tins come out of capacious pockets in the folds of cassocks, and a bottle of spirits, native distilled, from a cupboard.
Then we talk. Ah, what a talk we have! Fancy telling men the news who have seen the last newspaper years ago; men who get "the latest" from the mouths of savage hillmen fresh from the markets of Scutari or Podgorica!
They did know of the South African war, but not of its conclusion (then) some months ago. I tell them of the fall of the Venetian Campanile, and they groan in sympathy with the calamity which has befallen the Queen of Cities. I outline the present political situation in Europe, and my words are drunk in, even as water in the sand of the desert. The fact that I write impresses these worthy friars greatly, and Padre Gioacchino, politician as are all Albanians, makes a wonderful suggestion.
"Write a long article, my son," he exclaims enthusiastically. " Thou knowest us and the bravery of my nation."
It is to suggest an alliance against Europe that would assuredly destroy the balance of the Powers.
England, Italy and - Albania.
I promise, though I feel myself a liar as I give my word.
Little by little they are persuaded to talk of themselves. They do so unwillingly at first, and it is of the deeds of others that they chiefly speak.
They tell of past martyrdoms, when brothers of the Holy Order of St. Francis first came to Albania. How Padre Ferdinando once preached for three days impaled upon a stake, and a bishop was hanged in full canonicals. Gruesome tales they tell of the past, yet they speak with pride and envy of these Sowers of the Seed.
The churches, nestling in the hollows of the mountains, were built by them, their hands carved the wood and chased the stone. Choirs of boys they have trained to sing at high mass, and those that are willing they teach to read and write. Of one commandment only they cannot compel the observance - it is the sixth.
They tell of vendettas, bloody and cruel, a war of families to extermination; of border fights and intertribal fights.
Of my good friends, the clan of Vassovic, I hear the same accusations that I have listened to, in Andrijevica, of them, the Clementi.
"We are a peaceful clan," say the fathers. "It is the Montenegrins who are wicked and treacherous."
"To-day," says Padre Gioacchino, "I hear that three more of our shepherds have been shot by the bloodthirsty Montenegrins."
I smile discreetly, for this is the talk of the Sons of the Black Mountain. Besides, it is humorous to hear the Clementi call themselves "peaceful," much as I learnt to love them.
The talk reverts to Europe proper - though on the map of Europe, I never feel that these lands belong to the most civilized of continents - and I listen as the two Neapolitan refresh their memory of their beloved home.
Padre Giulio is fresh from Naples, comparatively - what are three years to forty? - and Padre Giovanni is curious. It is but human.
"Father," I ask him, "dost thou wish to go back to thy native land?"
"Nay, my son," he answers seriously. "I have no wish. Should I be recalled, I would go. If not" - he pauses, smiling sweetly. "Remember, I am seventy."
"I love my Albanians," says the young and impulsive Padre Giulio, "but -" and he too pauses sadly.
"My country," remarks Padre Giovanni, jovially, "is now Albania. I declare I am more Albanian than Italian."
Padre Giulio stifles a yawn. I look at my watch - the only watch in the place. It is 9.30, a late hour for those who rise with the sun at midsummer.
"Good-night, my fathers; and I thank thee, Father Gioacchino."
"We thank thee, my son," chime in all three. "We still appreciate the world, even if we are not of it."
I am conducted to a tiny room off the refectory, and left alone.
It is a beautiful night. As I look out of the little window I become very thoughtful. The scene is brightly lit by the moon. Underneath me is the courtyard of the church, surrounded by a low wall. Beyond, the valley is bathed in silvery glory, the steep mountain sides frowning in the shadow; and over all is the peace that passeth man's understanding.
A party of men are approaching with lithe swinging strides, ghostly in their white apparel, rifles projecting at the characteristically Albanian angle from their broad black-clad shoulders. They halt in the yard and kneel to pray for a few minutes, the moon shining on their upturned features, chiselling their austere faces into an additional severity. Then they draw off into a sheltered corner for the night. They are pilgrims to the morning festival. Others come, and still I gaze on.
It is midnight when I lay my watch beneath my rough pillow and lie down to rest.
Yet it was but as a moment.
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