The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon



WE had company up that fearful ravine. As we left the peaceful village of Selce we had been hailed, and soon afterwards a handsome middle-aged man had joined us with his little son. He was from Grudi, a distant clan, and was journeying to his home by our way. His dress was richer than that of his fellows, and in his features that grave refinement was noticeable which is so oddly in contrast to these men's lives. His Martini was beautifully polished and inlaid at the butt, while his ten-year-old boy - a serious, sturdy little chap - was armed with a Martini carbine, which he carried as lightly and as unaffectedly as if it were a plaything. Round his little waist he wore an exact counterpart of his father's well-filled bandolier, and even wore a small revolver.

As we commenced the long and weary ascent, the ravine echoing with the rifle shots of the departing pilgrims, Padre Giulio informed me that this man from Grudi was in a blood-feud with others of his clan. Only a few weeks ago he had shot a man, and his life was now in hourly danger. That was why his son was so elaborately armed. Once during a halt we made at a point where it was possible to rest awhile, and I challenged the little boy to a trial of carbines. The little chap had been eyeing curiously my Mannlicher, and he smiled delightedly as I showed


him the mechanism of the magazine. When I let him fire a shot from it, I laughed outright at his manifest joy, whereat he blushed, and was chid by his father. He made a fairly good hit at a rock opposite, and then spoke long and earnestly to his father. Padre Giulio translated.

"He wants such a carbine. It does not kick like his own Martini, and to be able to fire five shots without reloading must be beautiful."

That was the gist of his remarks, and, to please him, I took a shot from his carbine. Many men object to the kick of the Martini carbine, and I myself remember the days of sore shoulders when that weapon was the arm of the Cavalry. Yet, here was a little boy who stood up to the concussion as nonchalantly as if he were a war-worn veteran. And how the kick jarred his whole body!

We found a large party awaiting us as we emerged from the rocks of the ravine on to the well-wooded but terribly steep slopes stretching up to Grec'ija.

"Father," I said, breathing heavily, "let us rest awhile. The remaining distance is steepest of all."

Then the padre had smiled, and shown me our horses grazing through the bushes.

Very slowly we rode up, pausing continually to breathe our struggling horses, till I would have dismounted in sheer pity.

"Nay, my son; they are used to it," remonstrated the monk. "Besides, we can buy new horses when these die. When we die, the matter is more complicated."

Meditating on this truth, I rode on till the open downs of Grec'ija rolled out before us, and the Kommandir bore us into the hut to coffee.

It is finished, and I go outside into the paling day. I


find a group of men sitting in a ring, conversing musically together, for the Albanian language is very pleasant to the ear. Sheep are being driven down by children as nimble and sure-footed as they are, shepherds whistle shrilly, and dogs bark sharply.

I am tired. My senses are soothed with the pastoral beauty of the scene, and I would lay myself full length on the soft grass, when my companions suddenly become alert. They are now kneeling, and there, on the lonely downs in the fast-fading light, Padre Giulio commences to chant the rosary. It is a scene I often witnessed afterwards, but never shall I forget the solemn effect of this evening.

The shepherds repeat the prayers from memory, chanting in rough unison. I kneel likewise, and my eyes wander over that quaint group of rough men.

The pure profile of the monk's upturned face shows clearly against the heavens, the glory of the twilight enhancing the ascetic beauty of his face. Near him kneels the man from Grudi, his hands but lately washed from the blood of his enemy, and living on when every prayer may be his last; his face is very earnest, yet loving; and as the little child of the Kommandir toddles to him, with one strong arm he encircles him, bidding him be still in a gentle aside. His son, the boy warrior, is on the threshold of his young existence. His eyes are sad and wistful, and old, for he has learnt the mysteries of death, when others at his tender age are playing innocent games. At his side lies the carbine which makes him a man at ten years of age. The rest of the circle is composed of young athletic men; there is not one of them but has often faced the deadly bullet.

The bleating of a flock of lambs mingles with the mono-


tonous singing, and one of the youths springs up quickly to head them off.

The simple service concludes, and the monk links his arm in mine as we stroll to the edge of the great slopes. Far away opposite, forest fires are raging fiercely in the distance, on those mysterious ridges.

"Does it not remind thee of a city illuminated by Chinese lanterns?" says the young priest softly. "I have seen many such spectacles in Naples during the Carnival. When I was a student still, I mingled in those gaily lit streets. Afterwards I watched them, even as we are watching these fires now - from the terrace of our monastery overlooking the city."

"And thou wast even so far away as now?" I answer gently. The idea is poetical and the likeness startling.

"Nay," says the monk. "In Naples those lanterns were still farther away than this illumination of nature."

I understand. We watch the glow deepening and intensifying in one spot, paling in another; and as we turn towards the hut in answer to calling voices, we see great tongues of flame leaping up into the starlit heaven from the forest through which we journeyed a few hours since.

In the hut we seat ourselves on blocks of wood, and cheese and raki are given us, while a woman stirs a yellow mixture in a cauldron over the wood fire; two young children standing near us holding chips of flaming wood, acting the part of living torches. From time to time they seek new bits of wood, as the old burn down, or blow the half-smouldering chips into brighter light.

Then comes the mixture from the cauldron, maize ground into flour, cheese and milk kneaded into a doughy paste, stodgy and satisfying. We eat it from the pot with long



wooden spoons. The men eat long after I have laid aside my spoon, appeased yet hungry.

Tired out, I soon lie down to rest between the monk and the man from Grudi. They soon sleep, but not so I. There is another guest sharing the hospitality of the Kommandir, and with him he speaks, replenishing the fire from time to time as it burns low. The baby cries, and I am strangely restless. I sleep and wake again. An arm is lying across my chest. I gently return it to its owner, the man from Grudi. The monk shouts in his sleep, his legs are mixed up with mine, and I rearrange our nether limbs. Again the baby wails.

Thus passes the night, part waking, part dreaming, part sleeping, till a hand firmly grasps my shoulder. Starting up, I see the kindly face of the Kommandir. He is holding a cup of milk and coffee in his other hand, and lo! the morning light is streaming in through the open door.

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