The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon




I HAVE slept late and have seen my host but for a few hurried seconds. Padre Giulio bore me off to the church when he first caught sight of me, and then likewise left me.

Rather mournfully I have lazed about in the garden, an object of great curiosity to the women-folk, who do not hide their curiosity, and then sat down in the refectory to embody my impressions in writing. I was lonely, I confess it, for not to one of these people could I address a word. Then a splendid specimen of manhood stalked in, and I, mindful of the many warnings not to be seen writing, hastily hid my note-book.

The man gave me his hand and sat down opposite. He did not attempt conversation, and for this I admired him. How often have ignorant peasants of civilized lands, whose language I have likewise not understood, plied me with loudly spoken questions, imagining, presumably, that strength of voice must convey their meaning.

This man slowly rolled a cigarette and presented it to me gracefully, lighting it, too; and then did likewise for himself. Whence have these men their manners? This inborn courtesy I never ceased to notice.

Contentedly he sat and smoked, while my eyes wandered over his picturesque person and dwelt on his silver chain


and on his revolver butt, which was beautifully ornamented with stones and silver filigree work.

When he left me I followed him through the kitchen into the room beyond. A few men were standing round a little window facing outwards away from the church. I approached, and immediately one and all courteously retired from the window and left me in sole possession.

What a scene!

A stretch of greensward is before my eyes, and in the centre grow two giant beech trees. Under their rich canopy stands a rude altar, and squatting in the luxuriant shade are a mighty assembly of Albanians. Where the shadow abruptly ends in a zigzag ring round the trees, so do the kneeling Albanians, and scattered in odd groups are further knots of worshippers seeking the scanty protection of diminutive trees. Even these hardy people find that fierce glare too strong for them to kneel in for any length of time. Leaning out I notice that the wall of the house is a veritable armoury; hundreds of rifles and carbines stand against it, of every pattern and date. It is a wonderful picture.

Worshippers continue to arrive in parties of threes and fours. Standing their rifles aside, they join the congregation, pushing into the already crowded space. Some of the late-comers erect common cotton umbrellas, big enough to shelter two or three. The women hold aloof, and form a compact group by themselves.

An unoccupied space attracts my attention. Can it be reserved for higher personages not yet arrived, or is it holy ground? No, it cannot be the latter, for a curious mule strays upon it, gazing in wonder at its kneeling masters, and two dogs commence a rollicking fight. At last I dis-


cover that it is the course of one of those miniature irrigation rivulets, and is a swamp.

Then Padre Giovanni appears, clad in vestments, and commences the service, assisted by the other two friars, clad soberly in their brown habits.

The colour effect is superb. The ground tone is green, the rich dark green of the grass, and the lighter shades of green upon the mountain sides rising steeply from the valley; white is predominant amongst the Albanians, relieved by quaint black trimmings; the women have red embroidery upon their pretty black and white dresses. The priest, in gorgeous gold chasuble heightened by the sombreness of his brown assistants, is the centre-piece of that white crowd, and round about, pervading all, is the intense glare of the sun.

And as the service proceeds, and the choir chant wildly, the feeling of unreality steals over me, not to be shaken off. The Host is elevated, and a subdued cry goes up from the now prostrate throng. It is a wonderful, wonderful picture.

Then Padre Giovanni preaches. His ruddy face, close-cropped moustache, and white hair are plainly visible to me from my point of vantage. His voice, at first dull and passionless, sounds hollow, until, in truly Italian fashion, it rises, gains strength, and rings out like a clarion over the scene.

In the middle of the sermon I see a Turkish patrol marching up, a mounted officer in a little white cape at their head. They halt below my window and the officer curtly dismisses them. They lounge about indifferently, never relinquishing their magazine rifles, and the impropriety of these Mahometans' behaviour strikes a note of discord in the picture. The same thought occurs to the officer,


and he orders them round the corner, out of sight. The ragged soldiery slouch away, and the officer comes up to where I am standing. He expresses surprise as he comes suddenly upon me, but is charmingly affable and courteous. His sergeant and corporal have followed him.

All this time the voice of the preacher rises and falls in oratorical passion outside, and then it ceases. Banners are fetched from the church, and the congregation form into a great procession. Round the church and its garden they march, the priest holding aloft the sacred Host. By the time the head of the procession has reached the door of the church the last of the followers has not left the place of worship. The Turkish soldiers shock my feelings unspeakably as they lie and squat, within a few feet of prostrated Albanians. I even wonder that the Albanians do not rise and slay these scoffing dogs, who themselves would not hesitate to kill, were the positions reversed.

Padre Gioacchino addresses a few farewell words to his flock, urging them to maintain order, and the feast of St. Stephen is almost over. There is one ceremony yet to be performed. Why do the men with one accord rush to their rifles? Is it a sudden alarm?

A shot rings out sharply, another, and then a deafening fusilade follows. Each man discharges a cartridge into the air. It is the conclusion of the festival, a fitting one for these warrior Christians.

The court is crowded to suffocation with a seething mass of men, flames spurt from their up-pointed rifles, jets of smoke almost hide the scene, while a hail of bullets flies upwards to the deep blue heavens and their Maker. Even as we salute our kings and princes with the firing of guns, so do these men greet the King of kings.


The fusilade diminishes little by little, till only here and there a rifle cracks as a belated man reaches his weapon. Then it ceases altogether, and peace reigns once more in the solitude of that mountain gorge.

The friars come up and bear me off to dinner and to break their fast. Not indeed with meat, for they hold this feast day, which chance has ordained to fall on a Saturday this year, as a fast day. To-morrow they will eat meat, but not on the eve of Sunday. Here these good men seek the days of fasting rather than minimise them.

Wretched sinner that I am, I receive this news with inward wrath, for have I not been denied meat these last three days for similar reasons?

Yesterday my fare was but two fishes, and the day before some cheese and milk. What wonder that an undercurrent of material joy pervaded me throughout that long morning when I contemplated roast mutton for dinner?

"To-morrow at noon," whispers Padre Giulio, to whom I have confided my misery. "It is not long to wait, and then thou canst feast even as an Albanian."

I smile wanly, drawing in my revolver belt two holes, and attack the dish of evil-smelling macaroni, till I forget my weak self in the inspiring talk of that hale veteran, Padre Giovanni. A pleasant, merry meal, and the hour of our departure comes.

Good fathers, receive again my thanks, which I then too feebly expressed in words. I am learning what men can be.

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