The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon




WE have broken our fast with dishes of lambs' lungs and liver, cheese roasted with milk into a mess somewhat resembling "Welsh rarebit," a mess of maize meal, oil, and cheese, the whole washed down with copious draughts of half-frozen milk and judicious, if frequent, tots of raki.

The women have drawn our boots from our feet, and Padre Giulio is already snoring upon his pile of rushes and sheepskins.

It is the afternoon after the mass on the great plateau of Kostice, and we are quartered in the summer residence of an Albanian magnate who, with his three stalwart sons, his wife and their wives and one or two nondescript old women - perhaps his mother and his aunt - inhabit a rude hut fourteen feet by eight, into whose limited space the padre and I are squeezed. It is entered by a primitive door four feet in height, its walls are loosely piled blocks of grey stone and odd planks, while logs of wood constitute the roof.

Inside this chimneyless abode smokes a fire upon the earthen floor, and along the substantial but airy walls are piled the coarse blankets and sheepskins used to cover the hardy limbs of this motley assembly at night. It is typical of the irregular collection of huts which constitute this


solitary mountain village, grouped together in a small cup in the midst of this waste of grey hills. Our host, a handsome man in his prime, is bidding his numerous womenkind "be still," in a stentorian whisper, half causing the padre to start uneasily in his post-prandial nap, and through half-closed eyes I watch him. He has regular, clear-cut features, a fine mouth partially covered with a luxuriant moustache, and most kindly eyes. The head-cloth is pushed back, disclosing his head shaven to the crown, and the thick bush of hair hanging on his neck. As I drop off to sleep, I hear the shots and shouts of the mountaineers firing energetically at improvised stone targets outside. Then Padre Giulio wakes me, and the women pour cups of icy water over our heads and hands, and we stroll slowly away from the village.

Preparations are in full swing for the coming feast of meat. Below our hut lies a hollow, and here men are busily chopping and shaping huge stakes; carcases of lambs are being spitted, and low walls of stones erected to keep in the heat. Against the grey background these men in their black and white dress are scarcely distinguishable, and form but a part of that neutral-tinted picture.

Others are bringing wood, and in each little square of stone fires are lighted, with the lambs now ready, four in each square. In the bright sunlight the flames scarcely show, and thus we leave the busy scene.

Up rough tracks trodden by sheep and goats we climb, past the holiday riflemen, who pause to salute the priest, and out on to the vast hillside, sparsely vegetated with tufts of coarse grass. Everywhere bleat great flocks of sheep, seeking with difficulty a meal on these barren heights. All is grey, an eternal grey like unto a stormy ocean, wave-


tossed, bleak and cold, yet overhead stretches a rich canopy of blue, and beyond, in the distance, rise the forest-clad slopes and mountains of Clementi.

With great discrimination, proving former visits, the monk leads me to a spot where the rocks have formed a natural bench, and here we seat ourselves to gaze upon that distant panorama. The greyness ends abruptly, changing mercifully into the rich green of the beech forests. To our extreme left the Kom rears its mighty peaks to heaven. But this imposing mountain is eclipsed by that rugged pile before us, the Proclotea. How fitting is its name, the "damned mountain" of ancient history!

Out of the beautiful green they jut like the broken teeth of a comb from a bed of moss. The snow is lying deep on many of their inhospitable ridges, while the fangs are so inaccessible and steep that not even snow can find a resting place upon those virgin heights, never yet trodden by the foot of man.

To-day there is scarce a peak in the world that men have not climbed and explored, yet here in Europe stands a mountain as wild as any, where to climb is death. The savage clansmen round its base let no stranger pass, and they themselves have nothing to seek where even the goats find no reward. A few brave men have ventured to its base to find the muzzles of rifles barring further way. The Albanian saying that the life of a man is worth but the price of a cartridge is no vain boast, and one which travellers remember sometimes to their cost, when the rifles have begun to speak it.

Strange, passing strange, is this land before us, lying opposite to Italy, by steamer but a few hours away, and I must fain speak of it to my companion, separated only by


twenty-four hours' travelling from his native city of Naples.

"Yes," he admits, "but the difference! These men seek only to keep what is their own. Their honesty and morality is beyond comparison with that of the people proud in the possession of so-called civilization, so near, yet so immeasurably distant."

"And their love of murder?" I venture.

"We kill, too," he replies sadly, as we slowly turn our backs on that glorious view. "Their murders are those of mistaken honour and custom. They do not assassinate those to whom they have sworn allegiance or friendship, neither do they kill for gain. Ah! if we could only teach them that commandment, what a race of men they would be!"

And I am forced to admit this truth, as we sit half an hour later in the hut of the captain of the village. With what courtesy and tenderness does this burly giant attend to our wants, divining our wishes ere they be spoken, setting before us his little all with the grace and unaffectedness of a true gentleman.

Never did I witness a single wounding action, or hear an ill-chosen word, the whole time that I spent in these men's midst.

Then we stroll on towards our hut, and on the way I pass the little pond surrounded by a morass. It is the only drinking water for the beasts, and they sink up to their barrels in the slush. Active men with poles stand around, lifting a cow more firmly sunk than the rest as with a lever. Even in the watering of their cattle must these hardy men meet with difficulties. From all sides the flocks and herds are wending their way downwards towards this quagmire previously to being driven into the stone corrals before


their owners' huts. The deep hollow before our hut is now a veritable huge kitchen - a score of sheep arc roasting slowly, turned leisurely by their brawny turnspits.

The young schoolmaster joins me, for the friar has gone on, and other men come plying me with questions. As the light fails I rejoin the friar, sitting on a stone before the hut and overlooking the hollow.

"What a scene for Dante!" he says softly, his eyes resting on the strange view before us.

It is indeed a very Inferno. In the deepening twilight the similarity is rapidly heightened till the impression thus won becomes ghastly. Moving vaguely, the grey figures hover around the fires, the roasting carcases assume a horribly human appearance, till a picture of hell, or souls in most awful torment appears, worthy of inspiring the brush of a Wiertz.

Two men near us begin to sing, and the monk, rapidly translating between the long-drawn-out verses, tells me of a bloody deed near Scutari, when Mahometans massacred Christians, and of the terrible revenge which the hill-men took.

The ridge of hills opposite is sharply silhouetted against the last glimpse of the setting sun. A man, or devil, rakes a fire below, and a shower of sparks suddenly and briefly illumines the uncanny scene, heightening the weird effect. Here and there a flame shoots up, vividly disclosing the figures of squatting, gloating men, the jagged edges of the rocks, and the cruel spits.

I am almost thankful when the friar bids me come to rosary and we seek the warmth and homeliness of our hut.

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