THE MASS ON THE PLATEAU
IT is Sunday.
A goodly concourse of shepherds accompanies us towards the lonely altar, where to-day mass is to be celebrated. The whitest of head-cloths almost cover the stern visages of the men, the most elaborately trimmed white serge jackets and trousers fit their graceful figures like a glove. Their rifles are polished to brilliancy, likewise the long steel barrel of the revolvers.
We climb a terribly steep hill, and from its summit we gaze once more on that wild chaos of mountains and gorges. It is a break-neck ride, and down the other side we must perforce dismount. The change of scenery is sharp. Gone are the verdure-clad slopes and mighty beeches, the snowpeaked mountains and the gloomy valleys. We are in a vast basin of barren grey rock, and the village we are approaching is almost invisible, built, as are the rude hovels, of the same grey stone. Little blue spirals of smoke ascend into the bluer heavens, and the wood of the roofs is weather-beaten into the same neutral tints of the rocks. Even the hardy inhabitants in their dead whits clothes form no relief in that dull picture. Snow lies in gleaming patches everywhere, and every hut has a huge block of frozen snow before its door, which, melting slowly under the midday sun, gives the shepherds water.
Now they come out and answer our hails, and men bear
me into a wretched shanty. It is soon full to overflowing. The same warm welcome is extended to me as if I had lived all my life amongst them, viz., a grip of the hand (the Albanians do not shake) and the kiss which is not a kiss, but the laying together of cheeks.
Milk and snow, a delicious cooling beverage, is given me in a tin cup. Raki is produced, and soon I feel as if I had indeed lived my life amongst these good men.
We do not quaff our raki without ceremony. The Albanians are the personification of ceremonial politeness. Every time the glass is raised the drinker first praises the Saviour and then toasts his host.
Some Montenegrins troop in, a gay plash of colour in that black and white gathering. With them I can converse, and very animated grows the scene. Open-handed, open-hearted hospitality is showered on all.
Tot after tot is almost forced down my throat, and soon the potent spirit goes to my head. I remonstrate, but in vain. A jovial giant, with long drooping moustachios, claps me on the back and intimates that the priest is snoozing in the farther corer. He seats himself at my side with the bottle and glass. They bring me more cheese, and the giant, splendidly handsome, plays the very tempter with the raki. He takes my cap and sets it on his head. Shouts of laughter follow this action, for the effect is comically incongruous. Gently I refuse more spirit, and lie back well contented, my eyes roving over these merry, careless faces, and over the rifle and revolver-stacked wall.
Does my cigarette go out? - a dozen hands hold a glowing ember. Is it finished? - a dozen hands roll me a new one, and laugh when I know not which to take.
Padre Giulio wakes up, and it is time to proceed to the
church. A hundred men accompany us; a few hundred yards distant a compact little body of women are trudging along parallel to us. A vast grey plain stretches out before us. It is the church. Its walls are distant mountains, its ceiling is the blue firmament, and the altar is a pile of stones far away in the centre. Surely God cannot be worshipped in a more imposing edifice, for His hands have built it, and His children who worship there have never doubted Him.
It is a huge barren plateau of great altitude, and as far as the eye can see rise hill-top and snow-peak. Soaring far above the rest, jut the jagged fangs of the Proclotea. Once a village was here, but the inclemency of the exposed heights has driven the inhabitants to more sheltered spots. Where now a rude pile of stones serves an altar for this annual mass stood a church. Its outline can still be traced in a border of stones. Scattered around are the merest skeletons of the former huts.
An Albanian unslings his rifle and slowly fires five shots. It is the bell, not softly pealing o'er hill and dale, but crashing out sharply in the clear atmosphere, summoning warlike peasants to their devotions, its echoes clashing back harshly as it strikes a wall of stone.
Soon from all directions come knots of worshippers, rifles are stacked round the whilom walls of the church, and while the monk deftly decorates the altar, they squat and lie around. I find my youthful schoolmaster, and he is curious to know how I have fared. Men come and greet me, talking through the medium on the schoolmaster, and many are the strange questions that they ask.
Why do I come to such a barren spot? Do I find this wild life bearable? I answer, and they are dumb with
wonder that a stranger should dwell willingly even for a few days in their midst. Yet how do they know of another world, which they have not seen and have but dimly heard of? The friar comes to tell me that all is ready, and we are silent. Behind the crucifix upon the altar peep the muzzles of a dozen rifles, and the priest in his scarlet chasuble commences. I withdraw a little distance to watch the whole scene. All are kneeling save a few Montenegrins, who stand stiffly, yet reverently, throughout, for they belong to the Greek Church. The mass has a more intimate character than had the mass in Selce, and I feel infinitely more drawn to the men of Trijepsi than to their brethren of Clementi. A quiver goes through the throng as the Host is elevated. The women throw themselves on their faces; the men kneel upright with outstretched hands; the Montenegrins bow their heads, crossing themselves.
The service is ended. We form a circle of the captains and head men, and Padre Giulio excuses the plainness of the ritual.
"The stones are very rickety," he says, "and the wind is so strong that I could scarce stand steadily."
Milk and snow are mysteriously produced. My old villain of the village has a full bottle of raki, and we sit and talk and laugh from sheer light-heartedness. A dear old boy urges me to learn their language and dwell awhile amongst them, "for," he says, "we have learnt to love thee."
My old villain says, with many hearty claps on the back, that he will truly journey to Podgorica ere I leave the land, and there drink with me, "Not one oka (a quart and half) but two okas of raki, we will drink until we can drink no more." I breathe a prayer that he may not find me then.
The sun is high in the heavens. There will be feasting to-day in all the mountain villages, and my mouth waters as I hear of lambs roasted whole, and I would fain break my fourth day's fast there and then.
We part from the Kommandir, who, with clasped hand, thanks me for the honour I have done him in accepting his poor hospitality, and begs my pardon for the roughness of the fare.
"It was a day of fasting," he says, "otherwise my fattest lamb would have been slaughtered to do thee honour. Thou must come again."
We lay our cheeks together, and I feel as if I am parting from an old friend.
Our new hosts bring the horses, and with many shouts of "Farewell!"
and shots from our revolvers, we separate. Soon the plateau is ringing
with the rifles. The youth of the clan are holding their Sunday shooting
[Back to Index]