"Chapter III." by Edith Durham (1863-1944)
"In a Somer Sesun whan softe was the Sonne
Went I widen in the Worlde, Wonders to here."
IT was Friday, May 8, 1908, and Scutari was asleep–even the dogs were still curled up tight in the gutters–when we started on foot and purposely oozed out of the town by the wrong road in the grey dawning. The kirijee and the two horses met us in the open. It was not until we had mounted that I felt the journey had really begun at last.
There is a peculiar pleasure in riding out into the unknown–a pleasure which no second journey on the same trail ever affords.
The great mountains towered mauve in the beyond across the plain. We turned our horses off the rough track, and, following the kirijee, plunged them breast-deep into pink asphodel, hoary with dew, forcing a passage through it in a wide circuit over Fusha Stojit till we struck the Serb village of Vraka and were well beyond the gendarmerie outposts. Whether this elaborate precaution were necessary I doubt. To me it was unpleasing, but I had been assured by all the consulates I consulted that it was the only way. It lost us an hour and a half but afforded great satisfaction to the kirijee and certainly added a Near Eastern flavour to the expedition.
Vraka greeted me cheerfully, but we left the cowrie-decked women behind us and pushed on. Beyond Kopliku–a small Moslem tribe–the plain rises and is rocky in parts. Its name, Pustopoj, an obvious corruption of the Servian pustopolje (desert land), tells of Servian days.
The kirijee here lost the track. We wandered fruitlessly for an hour and a half till we struck the dry bed of the Proni Thaat, and following it up, came to the bridge that spans it–Ura Zais–and to the han.
What with dodging Ezzad Bey's gendarmerie and losing the way, we had made little progress, but it was noon and past, so we halted for a midday meal.
A han is usually a ramshackle shanty that in England would not be thought fit for a cow of good family. Its window is iron-barred, and the wooden flap that shuts it by night lets down by day, and forms a shelf on which folk sit cross-legged. Within, rows of bottles and a barrel or two loom through the darkness. Furniture it has none, and its floor is mother earth.
A friend in need is a friend indeed. Travellers make a point of abusing "the miserable Turkish han." I forget all its shortcomings and only remember the many times I have stumbled in storm-drenched and exhausted, and it has warmed and dried me and revived me with coffee and rakia. It has done all it could for me–which is more than can be said for any hotel starred by Baedeker.
We sat beneath a rude pergola of branches with other wayfarers, Skreli men. We were now in the lands of Skreli. The lively hanjee rattled away in Albanian and Servian. His predecessor had been shot for blood, thirteen years ago–there was his grave by the path. Talk ran on ghak (blood). They treated it from all points of view, from the serious to the humorous, but most of all from the point of view of the man that is born to it.
And from this point of view must it be seen to be understood. It is the fashion among journalists and others to talk of the "lawless Albanians"; but there is perhaps no other people in Europe so much under the tyranny of laws.
The unwritten law of blood is to the Albanian as is the Fury of Greek tragedy. It drives him inexorably to his doom. The curse of blood is upon him when he is born, and it sends him to an early grave. So much accustomed is he to the knowledge that he must shoot or be shot, that it affects his spirits no more than does the fact that "Man is mortal" spoil the dinner of a plump tradesman in West Europe.
The man whose honour has been soiled must cleanse it. Until he has done so he is degraded in the eyes of all–an outcast from his fellows, treated contemptuously at all gatherings. When finally folk pass him the glass of rakia behind their backs, he can show his face no more among them–and to clean his honour he kills.
And lest you that read this book should cry out at the "customs of savages," I would remind you that we play the same game on a much larger scale and call it war. And neither is "blood" or war sweepingly to be condemned.
The hanjee told how a few days ago two men (whom he named), blood foes, had accidentally met at his han. Being with friends and meeting under one roof, it was not etiquette to shoot. They drank coffee together and became so friendly they swore peace for six weeks. The company thought this an excellent joke and laughed heartily.
Having finished our scrambled eggs and fried slices of sheep cheese, we set out again for Bratoshi in Kastrati Sypermi (Upper Kastrati) and soon entered Kastrati land.
The track wound up a mountain-side of bare grey rocks. The horses, sorry beasts at best, were wearied out and the rest of the way had to be tramped. Down below lay, like a garden, the fertile plain of Lower Kastrati, and Scutari Lake blazed silver in the afternoon light. It was aksham, past–we had been thirteen hours on the way–when we finally came to the church of Bratoshi.
The young Franciscan in charge made us very welcome, and his charming old mother bustled round to make ready supper.
The name Kastrati is said to derive from the Latin castrum, which is not impossible, for the main road from Scodra to Dioclea must have passed through Lower Kastrati and have needed guards to protect it.
The tribesmen, however, relate that their name comes from their hero, George Kastrioti, the great Skenderbeg. "When Skenderbeg died we sat by the wayside and wept. The Turk came by and said, 'Why weep ye?' and we said, 'We weep because we have lost our sword!' And he said, 'I will be your chief sword'" (Sergherdé).
"Then he read us the Sheriat (Turkish Law) and said, 'You must cease your grief. Take off your black Ghurdi'" (the black, short jacket which, according to tradition, is mourning for George Skenderbeg and named after him) "'and put on the Turkish Ghiubé.'
"But we answered, 'Christians are we, and Christians have we ever been! We cannot take Turkish law. Neither can we wear Turkish garb. We are ruled by the Canon of Lek Dukaghin.' Then he offered us the waistcoat that we still call Jelek, saying, 'Je Lek'" (Thou art Lek.) "So came we under the Turk."
This curious little tale with its fantastic etymology is of great interest, inasmuch as it definitely connects Skenderbeg with a northern tribe. For it is more probable that he should have taken his name from the place than the place from him.
BOY OF KASTRATI.
Kastrati consists of one bariak of five hundred houses and, as do all tribes, has a definite tale of origin. It traces descent from the famous fighting stock, Drekalovich of Kuchi, which in turn derives from Berisha, by tradition one of the oldest of all Albanian tribes. Kuchi, since the war of '76 –'77, has been included politically within the Montenegrin frontier. Actually, it first threw in its lot with Montenegro in 1835, but–together with Piperi, another tribe of at any rate partially Albanian blood–revolted in 1845 when Prince Danilo tried to make them pay taxes. The rising was suppressed, but Kuchi revolted again later. Montenegro owes the subsequent acquistion of the territory to the heroism and military skill of Marko Drekalovich, who with his tribe, after harrying the Turks of Podgoritza for many years, sick of Turkish rule, joined forces with Prince Nikola when war against the Turks was proclaimed. He lies buried on the heights of Medun, the Turkish stronghold which he captured after a heavy siege, and his name is famous alike in Albania and Montenegro.
The Kuchi are now largely (entirely?) Serbophone and Orthodox. When they became so I do not know.
From Drekalovich, then, "a long while ago" came one Delti with his seven sons to the land of Kastrati. They fought the people they found there, said to be Serbs, beat them, took land and settled. And from Delti and his seven sons descend three hundred houses of Kastrati. The remaining two hundred are of mixed origin; some, doubtless with truth, are said to derive from the conquered Serbs. They are all now Catholic or Moslem, and Albanophone but Serb names, notably Popovich, show they have not always been so.
The nearest approach to a date that I obtained was that the Church of Gruda was the oldest in Maltsia e madhe, and was 380 years old, and that the Church of Bratoshi Kastrati–third oldest–was built soon after the Delti settled. This definite statement, that the Delti arrived less than 380 years ago, is of much interest, as in spite of the Skenderbeg story in the land, it makes their arrival subsequent to Skenderbeg's death (1467).
Skenderbeg's place of origin is wrapped in mystery. Many places claim him. According to the most recent research (see Pastor's Lives of the Popes, and Hertzburg's Byzantiner und Osmanen), Skenderbeg was of Slav origin, passed his life in his native mountains, and first leapt to fame when he beat the Turks at Debra in 1444, and inaugurated Albanian independence; and the tale of his captivity among the Turks is mythical. Dufresne du Cange, quoting Flavius Comnenus, gives as Skenderbeg's great-grandfather, one "Constantinus Castriotus, cognomento Meserechus, Æmathiæ et Castoriæ Princeps."
Meserechus must be surely the modern Mazreku, now a parish of Pulati; and if Æmathiæ may be taken as Matija, it would account entirely for Skenderbeg's father being Lord of Kroja, since Matija lies just behind Kroja. These two names, and the fact that he was a Catholic, connect him entirely with the North, and make the popular tale that he derived from Castoria, in the south-east, highly improbable.
Whereas, if the family originated from Kastrati, the tradition that the Slav inhabitants there were overwhelmed and displaced by the Albanian Kuchi, would account for the fact that no more definite tale of Skenderbeg, than the one quoted, exists there.
It is an interesting fact that most of the celebrated leaders of North Albania and Montenegro seem to have been of mixed Serbo-Albanian blood.
I found Kastrati ruing the day when it had accepted the mixed rule of tribe and Djibal.
Already at the han I had learned why Scutari was refusing permission to travel in the mountains. The tribes of Maltsia e madhe, exasperated against Schahir Bey, the then Sergherdé, were in open defiance. Their charges against him were many and bitter, and they swore they would have no more of him.
I had planned to stay some days at Bratoshi, but was urged to go at once to Skreli to the Feast of the Translation of St. Nikolas, the tribal saint, where the tribes would gather in their best array. So, as all the world was going to Skreli, to Skreli I went. Among our company was a Kastrati man from Podgoritza in Montenegro, whither he had fled from blood some years ago. He spoke Serb well, and was in the highest spirits, for the fact that by coming to the feast he risked his life, added much spice to the outing.
"How many have you killed?" I asked. "Eight–up till to-day," said he cheerfully. A Moslem had shot one of his sons, whereon he had shot four of that Moslem's near relatives, and flitted over the border. It pleased him much. The Moslem would mind it far more than being shot himself. He joked about his fellow-tribesmen: "Wild people," said he.
"Art thou wild, too?" I asked. "No, no," said he, adding with a beaming smile: "I've killed many men though, Christians and Moslems, and God willing, I will shoot some more. Now I am going to pray to St. Nikola."
He had a son in training as a Montenegrin officer, and was loud in praise of Prince Nikola. His grand-children will probably be Orthodox and Serbophone, and his great-grandchildren swear they have been Serb from the beginning of time. And thus for centuries have the Balkan races been made.
The track to Brzheta led up over stones to the ridge of the mountain, where a rough wall marked the frontier of Kastrati and Skreli, and then down a stony zigzag, too steep for the horses, which were led round. The church and church-house stand in the valley of the Proni Thaat. The priest of Skreli, whose own bishop describes him as "tiny but terrible," brimming with energy and hospitality, was making great preparations for guests. On a feast-day, he declared, two or three more or less made no difference, he could find room for me somewhere.
Beyond the green bed of the valley rose, snow-capped, the wall of mountain that parts Skreli from the Pulati tribes. Skreli tells a tale of origin from Bosnia.
I paid visits. The people, most friendly, were delighted to let me "write" their houses. They are of stone with tiled roof. The ground floor is stable. The dwelling-room above is approached by an outside staircase of stone or wood, which leads often to a large covered balcony. The windows are few and small. The fire is lit on an open hearth at one end, the smoke escaping through the unceiled roof. Behind the hearth is a recess in the wall to contain cooking utensils. Many houses have a wattled larder standing on posts in the yard, especially to keep milk in. Every house expected guests.
In the evening the priest's guests began arriving–two Franciscans, two priests, and last not least, the deputy Archbishop of Scutari–and the fun began. As each and his retainers got within howling distance they yelled aloud, hailing their host.
The priest of Skreli then dashed wildly to the window, leaned perilously far out, and hurled his voice back, at the same time emptying a revolver. The visitor replied with a volley, rode up full clatter, rushed upstairs and helped to yell and fire greetings at the next comer. They were all young, and were in the highest spirits–for a mountain mission priest gets very little fun in his life–when the Archbishop turned up. Finding them there, he pretended at first to be severe, for the feast-day to-morrow was a Sunday, and without his permission none were supposed to absent themselves from their own parishes on a Sunday. However, they all vowed that all their own parishioners were coming to the feast, and that it was their duty to come and look after them, and the Archbishop was soon as festive as every one else. Meantime guests were arriving at all the other houses, and a continuous rifle-fire swished and tore down the valley. We sat down to supper, a most ecclesiastical party. I found myself on the right hand of the Archbishop, the solitary female among six churchmen. But they all spoke some language I did, were immensely kind, and all invited me to visit their tribes.
After supper was a sing-song, the typical Albanian songs that are like nothing else. The Albanian scale is not as the modern European scale, but is all semi-tones and fractional tones. Nor has the music regular time. Its rhythm is hurried or slackened according to the singer's dramatic instinct, and the words are incredibly drawn out over long minor turns and ups and downs that few English throats could imitate. To the uninitiated it seems to begin nowhere and leave off anywhere, until, after a few weeks, the ear, accustomed as it were to a new language, recognises both tune and rhythm, and airs that at first seemed all alike become distinct. They are national and original and not without charm, and are sung always at the top of the voice, and that an artificial one, high for men, low for women. The two sexes sing so much alike that I once mistook the voice of a little girl of thirteen singing in the next room for that of a man. Her delighted parents said, "She has indeed a very beautiful voice."
Marko and the churchmen all had huge voices and the roof rang. One song was of a widow who had two sons. The elder went to the mountain and turned robber. His mother believed him dead. The younger stayed with her, but having to cross the mountains for business was shot at from behind a rock and mortally wounded. As he lay dying the two brothers recognised one another. Horrified, the elder was about to shoot himself, when the younger cried, "Do not kill both our mother's sons. Go to her and tell her I have gone to a far country, and that you will stay with her." He died, and the robber returned home.
Another was of a youth who had gone to visit a friend. He rapped on the door with the butt of his revolver. It went off and killed him, and the song mourned his fate.
The feast really fell on the Saturday. It was kept on Sunday because Saturday is a fast-day, and you cannot feast without roast mutton. Early Sunday morning the guests poured down the zig-zag in a living cataract on the one side, and flocked from the valleys on the other–from Hoti, from Kastrati and Boga, all in their best–men first, their women following. As each batch came in sight of the church they yelled for the priest; bang, bang went fifty rifles at once; swish-ish-ish flew the bullets; pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop replied the priest's old six-shooter. Before midday the meeting-ground round the church was packed with magnificent specimens of humanity. The visitor to Scutari rarely sees the really fine mountain man–he is either at feud with the Government or owes blood, and sends his women to the town when business is necessary.
Etiquette demanded that the Skreli people, being the hosts, should not wear their best clothes, it is for the guests to do all the peacocking. And peacock they did. Many carried splendid silver-mounted weapons, and even though wearing revolvers, thrust great silver ramrods in their belts, for "swagger." Snow-white headwraps dazzled in the sun–crimson and gold djemadans and jeleks, the short black ghurdi, and the splendidly decorative black braiding of the tight-fitting chakshir (trousers), and the heavy silver watch and pistol chains–set lavishly with the false rubies and turquoise loved of the mountain man–set off the lean supple figures to the greatest advantage. The majority belonged to the long-faced, aquiline-nosed type, with long, well-cut jawbone, eyebrows that slope downwards, and either hazel eyes and brown hair, or grey-blue eyes and fair hair. All had shaven heads, the unshaven patch varying in shape and position. To study head-tufts one must go to church festivals. Only then are a number seen uncovered.
Notes of Variety of Head-shaves in Kastrati and Skreli.
Of the headwrap the Scutari Christians always say, "They took it from the Turks." But Henry Blunt, writing in 1650, gives a curious legend to the effect that it originated at the battle of Thermopylæ, had been worn ever since, and was adopted by the Turks. This, though the Thermopylæ part is doubtless fabulous, is of interest as showing so early as 1650 a belief that the headwrap was long pre-Turkish, in Europe.
The women, who trooped after their men, also wrap the head. They too are shaven all round the temples and their faces look extraordinarily large and blank. Some are also shaven in a strip along the top of the forehead, but the shaven strip is often covered by a fringe brought down over it. This is all the hair that shows, and is darkened by dye or oil. Unmarried girls have often quite fair hair.
Girls and women are differently dressed. The girls' dress is of thick, stiff, white wool with horizontal black stripes. The skirt and bodice are joined, and the bodice is open at the sides. The outer garments of both men and women are commonly open under the armpits for ventilation.
Under the dress the girls and women of these parts wear a shirt with long sleeves, and no other garment save the long stockings knitted in fancy patterns of red and black or black and white. Married women wear a black bell-shaped skirt of stiff, heavy wool, striped with dull crimson (native dyed) or purple (bought in Scutari). The bodice is open at the side, and a thick epaulette, heavily fringed, covers the shoulder. Over the skirt is a heavy striped apron of the same stuff. And round the waist is a great leathern belt five or six inches wide, studded thickly with small nails. More inappropriate wear for a married woman could hardly be invented. On the head is a flat black cap on the crown of which is sewn a crescent, or a double crescent, of silver-gilt filagree. Or a similar design is worked in gold thread. This crescent the Christian women say they have always worn, and that it is not Turkish. In this they are probably correct. The crescent and sun are very commonly tattooed together with the cross on all these Christian tribes-folk, men and women. This seems to be the remnant of some old pre-Christian belief not connected with Mahomedanism at all. The Moslems do not tattoo the crescent but a double triangle.
The church-bell rang, the church was packed, Place was given to visitors, and most of the Skreli tribe knelt on the ground outside.
A week's besa had been sworn for the festival, so that all blood foes could meet as friends.
After church there was a rush for the rifles, stacked outside; a shooting competition began, accompanied by a general fusillade. And all were so gay and friendly it was hard to believe that they nearly all owed, or were owed, blood.
About three o'clock the whole gathering broke up with amazing speed, to dine with their Skreli hosts. Firing continued light-heartedly till late at night, but no accident marred the festa. Festas do not always pass off so well among the wilder tribes. The Archbishop told how, when he was parish priest in a Pulati tribe, he once had seven shot dead just outside his church on the feast of the patron saint.
There being no hay or corn, the horses of the entire party had been turned loose to browse in the copses. Consequently we awoke to a horseless dawn. The sturdy ecclesiastical steeds, not seeing the fun of fasting on a feast-day, had all bolted in search of richer fare, the Archbishop's along with the rest.
My humble kirijee horses, having no superfluous energy, were found after an hour's search. Leaving the horseless churchmen disconsolate on the balcony, we started for Lower Kastrati with a Kastrati man–brother of the one who had brought us–a lively fellow, with shaven temples and hair plastered down in a straight fringe over his shaven forehead.
He had enjoyed the festa vastly, and fired off his whole belt of cartridges–forty. This is all that most men possess. They buy caps and powder, cast their own bullets, and perpetually refill their empty cartridge-cases. The ease with which a Martini cartridge is filled is the main reason of that weapon's popularity. As a quick firer it cannot of course compare with the Mauser. But it wounds far more severely, and drops its man when the Mauser fails to stop him, and, as there is always plenty of cover from which to get a near shot, it has many admirers. Many people told me that for a real good old-fashioned wound the good old flintlock with a dram of powder well rammed down, carrying a huge bullet, nails, and other fancy articles, was a sure thing at close range.
GRAVE, BETWEEN SKRELI AND BAITZA, SHOWING PORTRAIT OF DECEASED'S FAVOURITE HORSE.
CROSS AT VUKLI, WITH PORTRAIT OF DECEASED.
We walked all down the valley of the Proni Thaat, a strip of cultivated land sown with maize and tobacco, flanked by grey, grim Karst, which nought but centuries of foresting can hope to tame. By the track side we passed a Christian grave, adorned with a cross and a rude relief of a saddle-horse. Both guide and kirijee said it was customary to carve a man's favourite horse on his grave. Does it tell of the days when a warrior's horse was buried with him?
I saw other examples.
We turned off Proni Thaat at Ura Zais, and struck over the flat plain to Baitza, past rich fields where the crops were guarded from the Evil Eye by horses' skulls set on poles, or their modern substitutes, twisted petroleum cans whitewashed. A cross gave yet further protection.
The church and priest's house of Baitza stand on a fair plain that lies but little above the lake level, and smiles with crops, cherries, figs, and almonds, but is malarious in summer.
The church-tower is marked by the builder's name, Selim, Debra.
The best builders in North Albania are Moslems from Debra: dark, short men–Albanophone, but wearing the dolama (long coat) of the Slav, belted with an orange sash.
Though possibly of mixed blood, the Moslems of Debra are some of the Slavs' worst persecutors, and are mainly responsible for the Albanian's sinister reputation in England.
In the graveyard is a cross of a type common in many parts of the country. Three rudely carved birds are perched, one on either arm, and one on the top. The natives say the bird is pllum (dove), and that it is per bukur (for beauty). It is, however, only another way of keeping off Syy kec (Evil Eye). The cock, throughout the Balkan Peninsula, is the bird famed for this. A grotesque cockyolybird adorned the headbands of the Herzegovinian women. It is possible that on Christian graves the dove–the conventional emblem of the Holy Ghost–is a substitute for the former bird of magic. But dove-like bronze annulets occur in early Bosnian graves.
Christians and Moslems, of which there are a good many in Lower Kastrati, live together on perfectly friendly terms. Religious persecution never takes place within a tribe. It is intertribal when it occurs.
We strolled round. Folk were as eager to see me as I, them. We entered the first house that asked us, and climbed up to the dark dwelling-room.
It was full of people whose talk was bitter lament. All the five large tribes having refused further obedience to the Sergherdé, the men could no longer go to the bazar. They were fierce, hopeless, sullen. Last year the Sultan had wished to cede part of Kilmeni's best grazing land to Montenegro, to please the Powers. What right had the Sultan to cede their territory? If he wanted to give land, let him give Stamboul that belonged to him, not land that had belonged to Albania before ever the Turks came. What has the Turkish Government ever done for us? There is not a road in the country. Give us a just government. We are poor and ignorant. The Turks will do nothing except for bribes. We shall never have justice from them. They vowed they would be loyal to any foreign prince that would lead them. Twenty-five years ago, they had believed that salvation was in sight, but Austria had betrayed them. Now they knew not to whom to turn nor whence to obtain ammunition with which to fight free.
Two of the melancholy household were guests, flying from blood, the burden of their maintenance falling on their hosts. Once was but fifteen, from Skreli, and had just killed his first man. He was a big, dark boy, who did not look his age. I think his first blood lay heavy on him–not as a crime, but as a momentous act that had brought him up suddenly against the raw facts of life. He sat silent. The first flush of victory had worn off. We spoke with him. He had been to school in Scutari, and could read and write a little. Now he could return there no more. An outcast, dependent on charity for his bread, his steps were dogged by the avenger of blood. The situation dazed him. Why did he kill his man? He was obliged to by the law. His hosts added that the Turkish authorities had ordered his parents' house (as he had not one of his own) to be burnt down, but, as the tribe was at feud with Scutari they would not obey.
The second guest was a weary-looking man of about forty. He too said he "had been obliged to kill. is no government, God help us! You must kill the man that injures you yourself by the Old Law or he will treat you worse and worse." The family sheltering the two, was also at blood, and only the women could go out and about. They discussed which Power could save them. The Austrian consul, they said, was no use. He had lately visited them and was a coward. "We made coffee for him and he let his wife take it first. He was afraid of a woman!"
"That," said Marko, "is the custom alla franga."
"I would never let my wife eat with me," said the man that owed blood. "She must stand and wait till I have finished. Consul indeed!" And he roared with laughter–a momentary flash in the general gloom.
We left the dreary, blood-stricken house and went on, to be stopped very shortly by a party of men and women, whom the appearance of a total stranger greatly alarmed. They stopped me to learn what I was about. We sat down obediently, and made a solemn declaration that I had not come to seek treasure, and did not propose to remove untold sums of gold in the night. Their minds relieved on this point, an old man at once asked us to his house, a miserable one-roomed hut with a mud floor, and windowless. The loom, with a strip of cotton half-woven, stood in the doorway, where alone there was light enough to work by. The ragged lean old man led us in with a courtly grace, gave us the only two stools, and set his son to make coffee. I meanwhile drew the loom. They were delighted. They had never before seen a woman who could write, and never any one that could "write" a loom. In the mountains folk never differentiate between writing and drawing, I am not sure if they realise they are different processes. One suggested that a "writing woman" would be a good sort to marry, but Marko said that kind would not fetch wood and water, which damped the enthusiasm.
When I rose to go the old man asked if we had a roof for the night. "We are poor. Bread, salt, and our hearts is all we can offer, but you are welcome to stay as long as you wish."
It gave me joy to know that even in the bitterest corners of the earth there is so much of human kindness.
At even I sat with my three men on the grass before the church and watched the stars come out in the cloudless sky. Then there came a woman whom they called in jest a "nun"; one of those sworn to virginity because she has refused to marry the man to whom she was betrothed as a child. This "nun" sat along with us and chaffed the men in a very worldly style. The kirijee, roaring with laughter, told how such a nun had been servant to a priest in the neighbourhood. So spotless was her character, and so devout was she, that all said she would be taken straight to Paradise when she died. On the priest's death she shocked the whole tribe by marrying a Moslem from Gusinje! Now she could never come back with her husband, for it meant blood.
I asked her age when she married. She was forty, and her first betrothed had married another long ago. I said it was most unjust that a woman of forty should be bound by a promise made for her before she was born. She had been driven to the sin–if sin it were–of marrying a Moslem because no Christian had been brave enough to marry her. They replied indignantly that she had blackened the honour of her first betrothed, and also that of the twelve witnesses before whom she had sworn virginity, and they hoped, most uncharitably, that by this time she was miserable and repentant. But she was away on the other side of the Prokletija (Accursed Mountains), and I never learnt how the tale of the woman that married a Moslem ended.
Our Kastrati guide offered to lead us on to Bridzha in Hoti, whither we were bound. We started in the early morning. The track over the lower Kastrati plain is good–the red earth, well cleansed of pebbles, is sown where there is enough of it. Wych elm and scrub oak grow in the rocky parts. We struck inland, riding parallel with Licheni Hotit (Lake of Hoti), a long swampy arm of the lake that runs into the plain, and here divides Kastrati from Hoti. Along it, on the Kastrati side, are the low hills, the scene of the hapless rising of May 1883, to which the people refer when they declare that "Austria betrayed them." Thus runs the tale. An "Hungarian," calling himself Delmotzi or Lemass in various places, journeyed through the Great Mountains and spoke everywhere of freedom. A commission was then on foot to determine the Albano-Montenegrin frontier. He told them more land would be torn from them. If they would rise and save it they should have the support of the Austro-Hungarian Government, which did not wish Slav borders extended.
"I believed him," said an old man who had guided the stranger. "O God, I believed him! I believed we were to win freedom from the Turks. He asked how long our ammunition would hold out, and we said, 'Two weeks.' 'Help will come in four days,' he told us."
Then Kastrati and Hoti rose and took the Turkish authorities unawares. Had all the tribes risen at once there is little doubt that, for a time at any rate, they could have swept all before them. But either the "Hungarian's" promises were unauthorised or Austria's plans changed. Most of the priests then were foreigners under Austrian influence. They held back their flocks, who were eager to fly to the rescue, and said the orders had not yet come. Meanwhile the Turkish troops hastened to the spot. The luckless insurgents held the low range of hills, defending themselves with the ferocity born of despair. When their ammunition was all but exhausted they hurled themselves in a final frenzy on the soldiers, dragged in dead bodies and tore cartridges from the belts of the living and the dead. The Austrian consul, Lippich, and the French consul intervened to stay the final massacre. An armistice was proclaimed, and the survivors, under promise of safe-conduct, were persuaded to go to their homes. Then the Turks fell on them separately, slaughtered many, and burnt their houses. "May God slay him that putteth his trust in a Turk," says the Balkan proverb.
What was behind it all we shall never know. That Austria was implicated the people say is proved. For one of the leaders–furious at betrayal–went straight to Vienna to demand compensation. A card given him by the "Hungarian" obtained him an immediate interview with Baron Kallay, who offered him a post in the Bosnian gendarmerie (which he indignantly refused, for he would not leave his native land), and gave him a small sum of money. The "Hungarian" has never been heard of since, but the people still talk much of the railways and roads that he promised them.
We crossed the border of Kastrati and Hoti. The church of Bridzha showed a solitary speck of white high up at the end of the valley. It seemed miles from anywhere. I asked if any house of those clustered at the mountain's foot would give us a midday meal. To the Bariaktar's house, said the Kastrati guide decidedly, we would not go, because he was a Moslem. But he knew a large Christian house where we should be well entertained.
It was a mass of planks and poles, for the owner and the men of his house were busy enlarging it. We entered up a crazy ladder, through a hole in the wall, and plunged into a huge cavernous blackness lighted only through broken roof-tiles, by three Jacob's ladders of sunlight, up which smoke-angels twirled and twisted. The two tiny loopholes at the further end showed only as stars in the gloom
Our welcome was warm. Cushions and sheepskins were strewn for us, and a woman cast a great faggot on to the fire that glowed red under a huge hood at the far end of the room. Slowly, as my eyes grew used to the plunge from dazzle to darkness, I took in the wonderful scene in detail.
It was a vast room–so vast that, though stacked with goods, the twenty-seven persons in it only made a tiny group at either end. Far away at the great hooded fire the women, silhouetted black against the blaze, were making ready the midday meal.
The red flare danced on the smoke-blackened rafters of the roof. Rudely painted chests, twenty or more, containing the belongings of the family, were piled and ranged everywhere. Arms and field tools hung on the walls and from the tie-beams on wooden hooks. Flour and much of the food-stuffs were in large hollow tree-trunks–dug-out barrels. An indescribable jumble of old clothes, saddles, bridles, cartridge-belts, was strewn over all in wild confusion.
The bedding–thick sheets of white home-woven felt, pillows of red cotton, and plaited reed-mats–was stacked on the chests.
The floor was of thick, short, axe-hewn planks; the mighty walls, against which nothing less than artillery would be of any use, were of bare, rough stone. Dried meat hung from above, and long festoons of little dried fish for fast-days.
It was more like a cave than a house. There was something even majestic and primeval in its size, its gloom and chaos. Nor did even cavemen live with much less luxury.
At midday the men trooped in from building. Coffee and rakia flowed. The sofra (low round table) was brought and a large salt sheep-cheese, cut in chunks, put in the middle, to help down the rakia.
The Kastrati man was specially pressed to drink; his presence caused great mirth. The "joke" was a peculiarly Albanian one. Not only was Kastrati at blood with Hoti, but Kastrati had blackened the honour of the very house in which we were sitting, so bitterly, that the whole of both tribes was involved. Except with safe-conduct of a Hoti man–or under the protection of a stranger, as was the case–my gay young Kastrati could not have crossed the border-line save at the peril of his life. But he had chosen to come right into the lion's jaws, and the "cheek" of him pleased every one immensely. All drank healths with him, he was the honoured guest, and they discussed pleasantly how many bloods would be required before peace could be made. The house-master was quite frank; five was the number he thought necessary. And the Kastrati thought that five would satisfy them too. He was told, however, that this visit was all very fine, but that, though he might carry out his bargain and take me as far as Bridzha, he was to go no farther. I asked rather anxiously how he was to get back, as I did not want to have to return in order to shelter him. They laughed and promised him safe-conduct. It was "all in the game."
Our host was lavish in his hospitality–proud of being a Hoti man, proud of his large house, and delighted to tell all about it.
Thank God, he had not only enough for his family but for all his friends. I was welcome to stay as long as I liked. Flocks had he in plenty. His fields, when rain fell, yielded eight horse-loads of maize. (A tovar–horse-load–is 100 okes. An oke is nearly 2 1/2 pounds). If there were only a decent government and a man could be sure of his own, they would be very well off. The Turks?–he hated them. No justice to be hoped there. He deplored the blood system, but with no government a man must protect his honour and his goods according to the usage of the mountains. His house contained eight men-at-arms, six women, and eight children, also eight brand-new Mausers which had cost twelve napoleons a piece. (The amount spent on arms and ammunition is out of all proportion to other expenses). The Mausers and the new belts, full of glittering cartridges, were exhibited with pride–mainly, I believe, to properly impress the Kastrati and show him Hoti was ready. As he possessed nothing more modern than a Martini, he was deeply interested.
Four of the eight armed men were young and unmarried. Of the six women, one, an active and wiry old lady, was the family's grandmother; another, the widow of our host's brother, who had been shot a few months ago.
Our host was house-master, and had the fates of all in his hands. I asked him the price of a wife in these parts. "Twenty napoleons for one from my house," he said; "some will take as low as sixteen. I call that giving a girl away. You don't get one from me at that price. This one here," he pointed to an infant of eight months tightly swaddled in a large wooden cradle, "is already sold. I've had fifty florins down, the balance to follow when I send her to her husband."
At what age did he send a girl?
"Never under sixteen. It isn't healthy. Many people give them younger, I don't."
"And when do you give a boy a wife?"
"Never under eighteen. I would only marry a boy at sixteen if there were not enough women to do the work of the house, and I had to take another. But it is better not."
Nor would he admit that there was anything wrong in the system of infant betrothal, though Marko pointed out that the Church had recently forbidden it. He regarded his women as chattels, and would allow them no opinion.
Only if a woman were sworn to virginity did he allow her equal rights with a man. He knew one who was forty now. Her only brother had been shot when she was ten. Since that she had always worn male garb. She had a house and a good deal of land. I asked if the men ate with her. He slapped his thigh and said: "Of course! she has breeches on just like mine and. a revolver."
Of the strength of the mountain women he boasted greatly. Any one of them, he declared, could start from here with a heavy load of wood to sell in the bazar of Scutari, be delivered of a child without any help by the wayside, take child and wood to the bazar, sell the wood, make purchases, and return home all right.
Some one told the tale of a Pasha of Scutari. Having met upon the road a heavily-laden woman carrying the child she had just borne, he questioned her, and at once returned to his wife, who was expecting a child shortly. "Look here," said the Pasha, "I know all about it this time; I'll have no more fuss! The mountain women can shift for themselves, and you must too." His wife, a wise woman, said nothing, but waited till the Pasha had gone out. Then she bade the servant saddle the Pasha's Arab steed with a wooden samar and take it to the mountains to fetch firewood. When the Pasha came home he found his beautiful Arab raw-backed, broken-kneed, and exhausted. Furious, he asked his wife how she had dared treat it so.
"My dear lord," she replied, "you said I must do as the mountain women, so I thought of course your horse could do as the mountain horses."
Every one laughed. The women brought warm water in an ibrik and soap, and a clean towel for each. We washed our hands, the sofra was spread with the men's dinner. We squatted round (I am always classed with the buck-herd) and the women withdrew to a respectful distance.
The soup, fowl, eggs, and milk were excellent. We ate with wooden ladles from a common platter. The Kastrati took the breast-bone of the fowl and held it against the light, scrutinised its markings, and declared it foretold no evil to this house–which was very polite of him.
The Hoti took this stiffly and made no comment.
We washed our hands and rose from the sofra. The women hurried up and carried the remains to the other end of the room, where they devoured them.
The grandmother superintended the women's work, and was giving orders all the time. Two women of the household were kept all day and every day bread-making. The slap, slap as they whacked the heavy maize dough was ceaseless. It was kneaded in a great dug-out trough, beaten into a thin slab on a circular wooden shovel, and slipped on to the hot hearthstone (or into a dried clay dish made tough with chopped pig's bristles), and baked under an iron cover, piled with hot wood-ash. Baked all unleavened and eaten hot and steaming. Four loaves were made while I was there.
Maize bread is eaten throughout the mountains–not because corn is lacking, but because the people infinitely prefer maize. They will even buy maize when it is double the price of corn. The maize is very coarsely ground, and the bread incredibly heavy. The people eat very large quantities; it is their staple food. They are so used to its weight that they declare corn bread is no good–you never feel full.
When well made it is fairly palatable and very nourishing; but when badly made is a deadly compound and, I believe, the cause of the distended abdomens of the more weakly children. The hot, half-cooked stuff is washed down with quantities of cold water.
Women's work in such a house is extremely heavy. They have scarce an idle minute save when sleeping. They fetch the firewood and all the water; and as they tramp to and from the spring with the heavy water-barrel bound by woollen cords to their shoulders, they spin or knit incessantly. They weave and make all the elaborate garments, doing the wonderful black braiding of the men's trousers according to traditional pattern. Even the braid itself is hand-plaited in eight threads over a half-cylinder of basket-work, which the plaiter holds on her knee, tossing the clicking bobbins from one side to the other, and pinning up the finished braid with swift dexterity. Dozens of yards are needed for one costume; but it is a work of art when finished.
The black wool is mostly natural wool of black sheep. The dull crimson used to stripe the dresses of the married women is home-dyed in all outlying parts. Near Scutari imported dyed wool is beginning to be used. The leathern opanke (sandals) worn by all, and made of dried raw hide, are all home-made. Only the heavy, nail-studded belts of the married women are bought in Shkodra. These form part of the bride's costume, are some five or six inches wide; and heavy as cart-harness. The sight of one resting upon the abdomen of a woman in an advanced state of pregnancy is painful in the extreme, but it appears to cause no inconvenience to the wearer.
We crawled out again into the sunlight. Our host and his seven armed men wished us, "Tun giat tjeter " (Long life to you), and we passed out of his domain by the row of bleached ox, sheep, and horse skulls, that were to guard him from the grim unseen.
The climb to Bridzha was in the full glare of the sun, over rocks far too rough for riding. My men faced it reluctantly. We crowded, half-way up, into patch of shade that lay like spilt ink over the white stones, and the Kastrati told us the tale of blood.
A maiden, daughter of the very house where we had dined, had been married into Kastrati but a few years ago. Her husband died a year later, leaving her childless. She was therefore returned to her father to whom she belonged, and he wished to marry (i.e. sell) her again. This she violently opposed, threatening to escape to the Moslems and turn Turk if it were done. She wished to return to her parents-in-law at Kastrati, and to this both families consented.
When she had been there a year, news came to her father in Hotl that she was with child by her brother-in-law. The men of her house were furious at the stain, as they considered it, upon their honour, and flew to avenge it. One of the men with whom we had just dined went hot-foot to Kastrati, found the brother-in-law alone, shot him dead in his own house, and got safely away. This was but a few months ago, and both tribes were furiously at blood. Hoti's honour was not yet sufficiently cleansed–Kastrati had blood to wipe out. But such is the fidelity with which the laws of blood are observed, that our man had dared enter the house that was the centre of the feud.
The child was as yet unborn, and, whether girl or boy, it and its mother must be kept at the expense of Kastrati.
I asked if blame or punishment were given to the woman, which surprised every one. They considered her as a chattel, and in no way responsible.
This Kastrati-Hoti tragedy shows that in Maltsia e madhe the practice of taking a brother's or cousin's widow as concubine–if it ever existed here–has been extinct long enough to be held shameful, at any rate by Hoti.
We finished a weary crawl in the sun to the church house of Bridzha, on a shelf 380 metres above sea-level, overlooking all the plains of Kastrati and Hoti, the Liceni Hotit, and the Lake of Shkodra, to Rumia, the great mountain over the Montenegrin border.
The Padre was away, but had hospitably left orders that I was to treat his house as mine.
We parted with our Kastrati guide, who lamented loudly that blood forbade him to guide me further. Hoti was polite, but very firm on this point; and supplied a new guide, a tall, lean old man, with keen grey eyes, a heavy fair moustache, and a kindly smile. Wiry and active, he said he was sixty-five, though he looked younger, but he added, with a laugh, that sixty-five was nothing. His uncle had lived to be ninety-six, his grandfather to an hundred and thirty. If folk were not shot, they lived to a great age here in the mountains.
He was a mine of traditional law. And I found his information corroborated everywhere.
Hoti, he said, was one bariak, made up of 500 houses, of which three only, those of the Bariaktar's family, are Moslem. Seven generations ago they were all Christian; then there was a great fight–he believed at Dulcigno, but was not quite sure. The Vezir of Shkodra was commanding, and summoned the mountain tribes to the fray. The town was impregnable till Hoti and Gruda charged. Ulk Lutzi of Hoti was first in. All Hoti and Gruda followed, and the town was taken.
"Said the Vezir of Shkodra to Ulk (i.e. the wolf), 'Thou art a hero! Thou shalt be a Moslem as we are, and choose what reward thou wilt.' Then," said the old man, laughing, "Ulk said he would like the right to let his horse stand at the entrance of the bazar without paying tax for it. The Vezir granted it, and made him first Bariaktar of the mountains. Kilmeni used to lead, but that day Hoti was made first and Gruda second of all the tribes of these mountains when they go to war in the north. And so it is to-day. Going south Mirdita leads; but as Ulk turned Moslem, God has not blessed him, and his line has increased but to three houses in seven generations."
This tale tallies fairly with history. About the middle of the eighteenth century Mehemed Bushatli, Vezir of Scutari, with the aid of the mountain tribes, captured Dulcigno, which had become an independent city of pirates, and burnt its flotilla of pirate vessels. Early marriages make generations rather shorter in Albania than in West Europe.
"The tribe of Hoti," said the old man, "has many relations. Thirteen generations ago, one Gheg Lazar came to this land with his four sons, and it is from these that we of Hoti descend. I cannot tell the year in which they came. It was soon after the building of the church of Gruda, and that is now 380 years ago. Gruda came before we did. Gheg was one of four brothers. The other three were Piper, Vaso, and Krasni. From these descend the Piperi and Vasojevichi of Montenegro and the Krasnichi of North Albania. So we are four–all related–the Lazakechi (we of Hoti), the Piperkechi, the Vasokechi, and the Kraskechi. They all came from Bosnia to escape the Turks, but from what part I do not know. Yes, they were all Christians. Krasnichi only turned Moslem much later."
Of these four large tribes, of common origin, Piperi and Vasojevich are now Serbophone and Orthodox. Piperi threw in its lot with Montenegro in 1790, but whether or not it was then Serbophone I have failed to learn. Half of Vasojevich was given to Montenegro after the Treaty of Berlin, the other portion still remains under Turkish rule. Vasojevich considers itself wholly Serb, and is bitter foe to the Albanophone tribes on its borders. Krasnich is Albanophone and fanatically Moslem; Hoti is Albanophone and Roman Catholic.
What turned two tribes into Serbs and two into Albanians, and which was their original tongue, I cannot say; but probably they were of mixed Serbo-Illyrian blood, and their language was influenced by the Church to which either chose to adhere. It is said that the Albanophone Krasnichi were Catholic before turning Turk.
The date three hundred and eighty years ago gives us 1528. In 1463 the Turks conquered and killed the last king of Bosnia; but the whole land was not finally incorporated in the Turkish Empire till 1590 (about). The traditional date of emigration falls well within the period when the Turkish occupation was spreading, so is probably approximately correct. A large communal family, with flocks, would be some time on the way.
The old man said modestly that if I were really interested in his family, he would like to give me his family tree, and did so,–from Gheg Laz, through his second son, Djun Gheg, down to his own great-grandson, a strapping child, the apple of his great-grandsire's eye.
"I have been told," said I, "that Nikaj is also a brother of Hoti?"
"No, no," said the old man, "not brother. But part of Nikaj is related to Krasnichi by a later generation, and so to us also, and we cannot marry them. They come from the houses of Bijeli-Krasnich and Mulo-Smaint. Shaban Benaku, the celebrated chief of Krasnich, is straight from Krasni, brother of Gheg Laz, my forefather. And half the tribe of Triepshi, the stem of Bakechi, is of Hoti blood. We cannot marry them. The other half–the Bekaj–we can. They are not our blood; they come from Kopliku. Triepshi belongs to Montenegro now, but is all Catholic. When Gheg Laz and his sons came here, there were already people here."
Some one suggested they were Shkyar (Slavs), but the old man was positive they were not. "They were a very old people. No one knew whence they came. Some said they were like Tartars. My grandfather said they were very strong and active, and could leap over six horses at once, and that they ate acorns and horse-flesh. Twelve houses in Hoti are descended from them, and with these we can marry. They are other blood. They are called Anas." (Anas, in the Albanian dictionary of the Bashkimi society, means "indigenous.") Nor could the old man see that, after thirteen generations of intermarriage, the stocks of Gheg Laz and the Anas must be very considerably related. There was none of the same blood, he declared. Female blood does not count.
But the idea of marrying within the stock Gheg Laz seemed to him so impossible, he would not admit that even in the remote future it could ever take place. "We are brothers and sisters. It would be a great sin."
This detailed story of tribal origin and relationship, straight from native lips, is of much interest. Most of the Albanian, also most of the Montenegrin, tribes have a similar tale–the flight of their ancestor to escape Turkish persecution.
We left Bridzha for Gruda at 5.30 A.M., with the old man as guide. The track went over loose rocks and stones along a steep mountain side. Then came a descent over the other side, into a wooded, cultivated hollow, where stood Hoti's second church, that of the men of Treboina, who trace their descent from Pyetar Gheg, fourth son of Gheg Laz.
The priest was away, his man down with fever and parched with thirst. We gave him of our few lemons, for which he was pathetically grateful, as were we too for some bread to eat, for–as is the custom of the land–we had started on two thimblefuls of black coffee.
Further riding was impossible. We left the kirijee and the horses behind us, and started on foot.
There was no breath of air. The cloudless sky–a hard metallic blue–shut down on us like a lid. The sun blazed and beat back off the white rocks in a blinding dazzle. The track was all loose stone broken in sharp angles, or boulders, with scrub oak in the crevices. We toiled on to the edge of a mighty cleft, the valley of the Tsem, and saw below us the green torrent. Far away on the left–quivering white in the heat–on a plain at the mouth of the valley was what looked like a large village. The sun caught a white minaret, needle-pointing to the sky.
"Podgoritza!" said the old man briefly.
Podgoritza! I thought of the Hotel Europa–it seemed a little heaven below.
I was drenched with sweat, dizzy with heat, had had six days crowded with new events, new knowledge–severe and incessant physical and mental labour and very little sleep. Why suffer torture in an aching wilderness when Podgoritza would receive me joyfully?
I had only to descend the valley, the plain would be easy going. But I could not show my face in England and say the North Albanian mountains had beaten me in six days.
I dared not look at the map, nor ask how much further we had to go, lest I should "funk" it, but followed the old man dumbly, zigzagging down the steep, shadeless, stony descent to the banks of the Tsem. I was nearly dead beat when I got to the bottom.
There was one tree. A girl was sitting under it plaiting braid on a basket frame. Other shade there was none. The heights had been breathless–the valley was a bakehouse. I imagined we had almost arrived and that the worst was over, till Marko, who is stout, gasped, "And now we have to go up the other side, O God!"
We tried to get water from the torrent, but its banks were steep rock and we could not reach it. Necessity is the mother of invention. I lowered my open umbrella into the stream and baled up a quantity. We drank, and I poured an umbrellaful over my head and shoulders, which pulled me together.
We crossed the torrent on a balk of timber. It was impossible to stay below, as there was neither shelter nor food, and it was the very hottest time of the day when we started again. The track zigzagged over loose stone up a slope so steep that in England we should call it a cliff, and the rocks were burning hot to touch. The old man was going strongly. Marko and I crawled and staggered. He had no protection for his head but a fez, and suffered horribly from heat. Half-way up he was so bad that I feared lest he should be sunstruck before we could get up. A hole in the cliff gave shade. We crowded into it. I opened Marko's shirt and fanned him with my hat. The old man spurred us on with the news that another half-hour would take us to the church. A final struggle, and we came out on a plain cultivated and wooded–but no church was to be seen. The next twenty minutes were the hardest I ever did. I was barely conscious, but the path, luckily, was good, and the church soon came in sight.
When we arrived there was no house–a new one in course of erection some way off was all that could be seen–and no human being!
At the back of the church was a hovel with the door shut. The old man hammered. I leaned against the wall, quite done. A long parley from above took place. Then a Franciscan opened the door. He spoke German, and said he was very sorry, but could not take us in. He had only camped here while his house was building.
But Albanian hospitality is unfailing. He was a son of the soil, and as soon as he realised my plight he took pity and asked us to share what he had.
It was pitch dark inside. We crossed a filthy stable on a plank, climbed a crazy ladder, and came into a room–crowded with workmen at dinner–squalid and airless.
The Padre put a rickety stool by a rickety table. I sat down. An icy sweat broke out on me, and, as all my surroundings disappeared in blue and black circles, I dropped my head on the table with just enough sense left to say: "Give me drink. Open the window."
"You will catch cold," said the Franciscan.
"Open the window," said I. He kindly did so, and brought me a glass of very strong rakia. I gulped it down. It burned holes in my empty stomach, but it brought back life. I knew where I was again, and asked for food.
The poor Franciscan was horrified at my greed. He said patience was a beautiful thing. I knew it was, but thought bread better. He pressed rakia upon me. One dose was very well, but I knew a little more would make me as sick as a dog. I begged for bread. He was a kind man and gave me a piece. I dipped it in the rakia, and by the time the fried eggs were ready was fit to eat a good meal. I do not think I ever felt so grateful to any one as to that Franciscan–more especially as I must have been a great nuisance to him.
He offered me his own bedroom–the only other room in the house–and I slept for three hours. Marko slept on a plank in the church, and the old man somewhere else. We had all had enough.
When I awoke I went out, as in duty bound, to see the neighbourhood. But I had no energy to interview the many natives who came to see me, save one, a cheery fellow who had won much popularity by shooting several Turkish soldiers from the nearest frontier blockhouse. All the tribesmen hate having Turkish blockhouses planted among them.
Supper, as is native custom, was not till nearly ten o'clock. by which time I was dropping with sleep. The Franciscan was particularly pleased to see the old man, and bade him sup with us. At his own request he sat on the floor at a sofra –chairs and tables not being his wont–ate hugely and enjoyed himself vastly. Was delighted to yarn about the tribes.
Gruda is reckoned at five hundred families. About half of them are Moslem. But there is no difficulty between them and the Christians.
I asked how long these of Gruda had been Moslem.
"They have stunk for seven generations," said the Franciscan.
"Stunk?" said I.
He explained, and the rest of the company agreed, that all Moslems stink. You could tell by the smell as soon as a Moslem entered the room. He was amazed I had not remarked it. I ventured that in some districts Moslems washed more than Christians, but was told that washing has nothing to do with it. It is the Islamism that stinks. And this is the common belief of the mountain Christians.
About eighty houses of Gruda spring from Berisha, reputed one of the oldest, if not the very oldest, Albanian tribe–a tribe that does not tell of immigration but claims to have been always in its present home. The rest of Gruda came from the Herzegovina between three and four hundred years ago. The church of Gruda, Prifti, is said to be the oldest in Maltsia e madhe, founded by the Herzegovinian branch, which is called Djell, and claims to have been Catholic when it came.
The house-building men corroborated the old man's tale. He had heard it all as a boy from his grandfather.
"It is true that we cannot write in a book," he said, "but we have it all written here." He tapped his forehead. "We are an old people. The Romans were in this land a long time ago. They fought the Mirdite tribe on the plain of Podgoritza." The Franciscan laughed at him, but the old man stuck to his tale. "I had it from my grandfather, and he from his. And the ruins of the Roman town are there now."
As I jotted down all the talk in the cover of my sketchbook, I had hanging over me, like a Damocles' sword, that I must start next day and retramp that weary way back to where we had left the horses. I could not trespass longer on the Franciscan's hospitality.
It was near midnight when we turned in, and we turned out in the grey dawn. We descended the cliff, and were up the other side before the sun's rays penetrated the vale, and reached Treboina in less than half the time we had taken the day before.
Poor Marko never forgot the climb to Gruda, and referred to it as the "road to Calvary," for which he was severely taken to task by the Franciscans.
Treboina welcomed and fed us. The old man, who had been much distressed at my collapse the day before, wrapped me in a coat as soon as I arrived to prevent my being chilled, sat me by the window, gave me black coffee, and withheld cold water till he thought me cool enough.
Treboina asked how we had slept at Prifti. I said my sleep had been only a horrible dream of cliff-climbing in which I had grabbed at burning rocks, waking every time with spasmodic clutches. Nothing could be better, said the company. The dream of climbing-up was one of the very luckiest, even better than dreaming of fishing.
The return to Bridzha was largely uphill, and the horses were rested, so riding was possible. A thin film of cloud tempered the sun. A great glass-snake (Pseudopus pallasi ) hurried out of our way, and to my surprise the old man correctly said that it was not a real snake but only like one. There was a smaller kind, he added (i.e. the Blindworm)–quite harmless and blind, but it was said that on Fridays it could see for a few hours. The old man and Marko agreed that the common land-tortoise, boiled in oil, was not only good eating but very efficacious in cases of lung disease.
The Catholics of Dalmatia also eat land-tortoises. The Orthodox peasants, on the other hand, I have found regard them as most unclean.
We arrived early at Bridzha, and all my desire was for a night's rest.
The Albanians have a custom, cruel to those that are not to the manner born. No matter what is the time of year, they eat rather before midday and again one hour after sunset, or even later. This means that in the summer it is rarely before ten, and one goes eleven or even twelve hours between meals.
Sunset in Turkish time is twelve o'clock. They therefore maintain, nor could I ever convince them to the contrary, that supper is always at the same hour all the year round. As soon as they have eaten they lie down to sleep, and they get up with or rather before the sun. In the summer you get no food till too tired to eat it–and almost no s1eep. Whereas in the winter your supper is ready at 5.30 or 6, and your host, dropping with sleep at 8 P.M., quite puzzled, says reproachfully: "You used to say one hour after aksham was too late. Now you say it is too early!"
How the people exist in summer on the small amount of sleep they take, I cannot imagine; they do not seem to require a siesta.
The sleep I needed was a standing joke–no one really believed it, and they conspired to prevent me at first, without the least idea of the torture they inflicted.
At Bridzha I had a room to myself and could undress. Supper of course was late, but I meant to sleep out my sleep next morning.
It was but 5:30 A.M. when I was waked by a thunderous banging at the door.
"What is the matter?" I asked.
"Are you ill?"
"Ill? No. What do you mean?"
"The sun has been up more than an hour. Why don't you get up?"
"Because I want to sleep. Go away."
"But it is so late. You must be ill. Let me fetch you some rakia."
I fell asleep at once only to be roused again at seven, This time by a whole party. "Are you still ill? Here is some rakia. The sun has been up," &c. &c.
It was useless to try for further rest. I got up and came out. Great joy from all the worthy people to see I was alive and well. They were sorry if they had disturbed me, but they had got up at 3 A.M.–for no valid reason–and when hour after hour passed, and they found I had locked the door and they could not get in, and did not answer when they first knocked, they thought perhaps I was dead! Thank God, I was safe, but it was very unwholesome to sleep so long.
The old man came to take me to his house to see his great-grandson. And there in the little mud-floored hovel–where nearly all that was left of the four generations dwelt crowded together–he told me the tale of his life. His father had died when he was a child. An uncle took charge of him, and set him to watch goats on the mountain-side. "And always I wanted to learn. I knew I could. I am not stupid. I feel that I have something here." He touched his forehead. "One day in Scutari a gentleman–a foreigner I think–talked with me. He asked me if I would like to learn, and said to my uncle, "The boy is clever. I will put him to school and pay for him." Ah, how I wanted to go! But my uncle said it was nonsense. He wanted me for his goats. I lost my only chance. Then all my young days there was war. Ah, those days when I was young and we thought we were fighting for freedom! But it was all in vain. We are a lost people. The strength is going from my arms. The land is always poorer and more miserable. I am a poor old man that can neither read nor write, and I shall die as I have lived, among the goats on the mountains."
Afterwards and from others–for the old man never boasted of his own exploits–I learned that he it was who had gathered the tribesmen and come to the rescue of the town of Tuzhi, when the Powers ordered it to be ceded to Montenegro. The Turkish troops had already been withdrawn when he started on his forlorn hope–but the resistance he and his offered was such that the town of Tuzhi has not been ceded to this day. Nor did the saviours of Tuzhi meet with any reward from the Turkish Government for which it was saved.
The old man spoke sadly about it, and with much bitterness. I ventured to ask if it would not have been better to have accepted Montenegrin rule for the purpose of having law and order.
"No," said the old man, "Nikita is a brave man. For the Montenegrins he is very good. If we had a Prince like that, we should be much more grateful than they are. But he is our enemy. For thirty years he has had Albanian subjects; their little children are forced to learn Serb. They may have no school in their own tongue. Better to wait and hope for freedom some day than take a rule that tries only to kill our faith and our nationality. In all these thirty years he has built no church for his Albanians in Cetinje."
And this was the universal opinion throughout the Christian tribes. But for the attempt to Slavise them, very many, probably whole tribes, would ere this have thrown in their lot with Montenegro.
It is strange that all the centuries have not taught even the great Powers, that all attempts to forcibly suppress a language result only in bitterness unspeakable–and race hatred that slumbers never, but lies ever waiting its opportunity.
This land, for which they have so suffered, is no justissima tellus. For endless toil it yields back little. Its great stretches of bare rock, its grim valleys, are symbolic of long lives of futile effort and unfulfilled hopes.
At night we sat at supper with the Padre, who had just returned, when suddenly the stillness without was broken by four gunshots.
"Ah!" he cried, "some one is killed." We leaned far out of the open windows. The whole desolate, trackless land lay silent under the cold moonlight–as though all the world were dead.
He hurled a question from out our house in a long howl that tore through the night like a shell; and the answer rang back swiftly. A certain family had just finished making a limekiln, and the shots were to celebrate the event. The Padre drew back into the room, and crossed himself with a sigh of relief.
I remember the episode with curious vividness; for it was the first. Some weeks later, such is the force of habit, I often did not notice gunshots at all.
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"Dedicated to Margaret Kosvanec, 1904-1999."