"Chapter IV." by Edith Durham (1863-1944)
WE left early next morning for Seltze-Kilmeni, piloted by the old man, and followed a stony track to Rapsha, whose people derive from Laj Gheg, son of Gheg Laz.
Here we found one of the Albanian virgins who wear male attire. While we halted to water the horses she came up–a lean, wiry, active woman of forty-seven, clad in very ragged garments, breeches and coat. She was highly amused at being photographed, and the men chaffed her about her "beauty." Had dressed as a boy, she said, ever since she was quite a child because she had wanted to, and her father had let her. Of matrimony she was very derisive–all her sisters were married, but she had known better. Her brother, with whom she lived–a delicate-looking fellow, much younger than she–came up to see what was happening. She treated me with the contempt she appeared to think all petticoats deserved–turned her back on me, and exchanged cigarettes with the men, with whom she was hail-fellow-well-met. In a land where each man wears a moustache, her little, hairless, wizened face looked very odd above masculine garb, as did also the fact that she was unarmed.
From Rapsha we made a tremendous descent on foot, zigzagging through fine beechwood down a bad stony track to the river Tsem in the land of the Kilmeni–a descent of not much less than 2000 feet. Beyond the river was Montenegrin territory, the land of the Triepshi tribe. From far above, the old man pointed out the spot on the right bank of the green torrent, where two Franciscans were cut to pieces by Moslems two hundred years ago. A crude chromolithograph of their martyrdom, widely scattered among the Christian tribes, still cries to the people for blood-vengeance. In the mountains there is no Deus caritas, but only the God of battles. The ensanguined figure of Christ on the Cross calls up no image of redemption by suffering, but only the stern cry: "We are at blood with the Chifuts (Jews), for they slew our Christ. We are at blood with the Turks because they insult Him. We are at blood with the Shkyars (Orthodox) because they do not pray to Him properly." And strong in this faith, the mountain man is equally ready to shoot or be shot for Him.
I thought, then, rather of the martyrdom I should have to suffer in crawling up this height on the return journey. The Franciscans were out of their pain, and had done with Albania, and I was not yet half-way round.
Han Grabom, at the bottom on the river's edge, welcomed us heartily. There was a large company of men and beasts.
Montenegro was but a few yards away across the Tsem. Hard by were the ruins of a Turkish blockhouse, attacked and destroyed last summer (1907) by the Montenegrin troops, who, at the same time, plundered the han. The people complained bitterly of Montenegrin aggression. Nor could I learn the rights and wrongs of this frontier fray. Montenegrin officials replied to me that the kula was burnt because it was on Montenegrin territory, but its ruins are certainly–according even to their own maps–on the Albanian side of the border.
The han was plundered because the Kilmeni helped the Turkish Nizams in the kula's defence. I asked why–as they so hated the Turks–they had given help. It was because Montenegro was Kilmeni's worst enemy. They could not let Montenegrin troops come over their border without fighting them. "It was for our own land that we were fighting." The Kilmeni-Montenegrin frontier, drawn arbitrarily by the Powers after the Berlin Treaty, is one of the many running sores then created; frontiers that seem to have been designed only in order to make lasting peace impossible.
The border, said Kilmeni, was properly marked with stones where it was not river, but the Montenegrins never kept to it.
It is interesting to hear both sides of a case.
I had heard another version of the same tale five years ago on the other side of the line which blamed Kilmeni.
A local hero at the han insisted on standing us drinks. He had roused great excitement last year by challenging a man of another tribe to fight a duel, a rare thing now, though it was common thirty years ago, when each man wore a yataghan. People were braver then, he said. "Now it was thought a fine thing to pick off a man from behind a rock; that has been brought in by civilisation. "
Four or five hundred armed men, of either tribe, flocked to see the fun. It seemed certain the "duel" would end in a pitched battle between the tribes. The Elders, greatly anxious, made a sitting, and saved the situation by inducing the two foes to swear brotherhood.
Having eaten, I lay down on some planks outside the han, meaning to have an hour's sleep while the men fed within.
But the first Englishwoman at Han Grabom was too great a novelty to be wasted. I was just "off" when I was poked up by the kirijee. He had told the company that I could "write" (i.e. draw) people. They had never seen people written, and I must come and write some to prove the truth of his words.
ALBANIAN VIRGIN, RAPSHA.
BOY OF BOGA IN FULL DRESS.
I went into the stuffy han, and drew the hanjee making coffee and another man at the sofra, which gave vast satisfaction to every one, except myself, for by then it was time to start.
Following the Tsem's left bank to where Tsem Seltzit and Tsem Vuklit meet, we crossed Tsem Vuklit on a fine stone bridge–Ura Tamara: old Turkish work, which seems to show that the Tsem valley was formerly a much more important thoroughfare than now–and went up the valley of the Seltzit; the track, remarkably good, having been lately put in complete repair by a tribesman at his own expense. The scattered houses of Seltze lie at the valley's head, where it widens and is fertile. Springs gush freely from the ground. A cataract leaps from the mountain above.
The houses are well built of hewn stone. Seltze has a greater air of well-being than any other district of Maltsia e madhe.
The people are of a fine type and most industrious. The cultivable land is well watered by little canals, but there is not enough to provide corn for all. Seltze lives mainly on its flocks. Each autumn the tribesmen migrate with great herds of goat, cattle, and sheep to seek winter pasture on the plains near Alessio, where the tribe owns land, the women carrying their children and their scant chattels upon their backs; and toil back again in summer to the pastures of the high mountains a long four days' march with the weary beasts.
Blood feuds among the Seltze folk are almost nonexistent. This is due largely to the sweet influence of the Franciscan, their Padre, a man much beloved, who has been twenty years among them, and refused lately to be made bishop for he would not leave his flock.
Upon the Montenegrin frontier he admitted sadly there was much trouble. Either party appropriates the beasts that it finds on what it claims as its own side of that "floating" frontier. And there is naturally a flavour about mutton so obtained which the home-grown does not possess.
So was it on the borders of Scotland and England "in the brave days of old." Seltze rejoiced at having captured a hundred and fifty sheep; the Vasojevich across the border retorted by lifting a hundred and ten. The hundred and ten belonged not to Seltze but to the next bariak, Vukli. "We scored," said Seltze, greatly contented. Two years ago matters culminated in a fight; Seltze repulsed two Montenegrin battalions and killed sixteen of the enemy.
The Padre had very many times kept the peace.
His church was crowded on Sunday, though it was not a feast day. And the eager attention with which his flock, asquat on the floor, listened to a very long sermon, showed he had chosen well when he refused to leave them.
An Albanian congregation is a quaint one to preach to. When it is moved, it groans in sympathy and assents loudly. And when it does not agree–it says so.
After church, to the Padre's great entertainment, the congregation mobbed me, as pleased as children with a new toy.
Specially introduced to me by the men was one of the "Albanian virgins," a very bright, clean woman of about forty, clad in enteri and cotton breeches and a white cotton headwrap like a man's. She was most friendly, said she had no brothers, but stood as brother to her sister who was married. She had never meant to marry, and had always dressed as a man. Had a gun at home, but rarely carried it as she was afraid. She thought for women "this was best." She fumbled in her breast, and pulled out a crucifix and rosary which she held up as a defence. The men indignantly said this was not true–she was as brave as a man really.
The Padre said a herdsman's life was the only way to get a living. A woman who will not marry must adopt it, and is safer in a man's dress from the border Moslems. Formerly a great many women went thus as herds. He had now only a few in his parish.
A girl from the neighbourhood of Djakova is said to have served undetected many years in the Turkish army.
This is the tale of Kilmeni as told by the Padre, some Kilmeni men, and the old man.
It is a large tribe of four bariaks, Seltze, Vukli, Boga, and Nikshi, and is descended from one Kilmeni (Clementi), who had four sons, from whom the four bariaks originated.
Most families, said the Padre, can give complete genealogies.
There is also other blood in the tribe. The bariak of Seltze is divided into two groups, of which the one Djenovich Seltze is brother to Vukli. The other, Rabijeni Seltze, is of another blood, and came, according to the old man, from Montenegro near Rijeka, but this the Padre strenuously denied, saying its origin was not known.
The four bariaks are intermarriageable one with another.
The tribe holds much ground, occupying three valleys that, roughly speaking, lie parallel with one another–Seltze in the valley of Tsem Seltzet, Vukli and Nikshi in the valley of Tsem Vuklit, and Boga at the head of the valley of the Proni Thaat. Seltze (300 houses) is entirely Catholic, as are Vukli (94 families) and Boga (75 families). Nikshi out of 94 families has 10 Moslem.
Kilmeni's adventures have been many. Never content to submit to Turkish rule and fearful of its extension, the tribe, seizing the opportunity when Suliman Pasha, beaten in Montenegro, was in hot retreat (1623), swooped down on him from the mountains and cut the Turkish army to pieces.
The Turks sent a punitive force. The headmen of Kilmeni were executed, and the tribe expelled. But with unbroken courage it bolted back on the first opportunity, and again attacked the Turks in 1683, when they were fighting Austria. Later, in 1737, when Austria was striving to wrest from the Turks that portion of Servian territory which she still desires to posses, she called on Kilmeni to help. But in the fight at Valjevo Austria lost very heavily. The surviving Kilmeni troops dared not return home and face Turkish vengeance, but fled with their allies and settled in Hungary.
Some of their descendants visited Seltze two years ago, and told how they still married according to Kilmeni customs. The bride is led three times round the bridegroom's house, an apple is thrown over the roof, she is given corn, and as she enters the house must step over the threshold with the right foot, and beware of stumbling; and must take a little boy in her arms (this is to ensure bearing a male child, and is common to Montenegro and Albania). Then she is led three times round the hearth.
The corn recalls the confarreatio of the Romans.
Seltze was half empty, folk having not yet returned from the plains. Such as were there received me very hospitably. I sat by many an open hearth, and heard of Kilmeni life. Much we talked of that dire being the Shtriga, the vampire woman that sucks the blood of children, and bewitches even grown folk, so that they shrivel and die. All Kilmeni, and indeed all the tribes, believe in her. She may live in a village for years undetected, working her vile will.
Kilmeni had a sure way of catching her. It is to keep the bones of the last pig you ate at carnival, and with these to make a cross on the door of the church upon Easter Sunday, when it is full of people. Then if the Shtriga be within, she cannot come out, save on the shoulders of the man that made the cross. She is seen, terrified, vainly trying to cross the threshold, and can be caught.
She, and she alone, can heal the victim, who withers and pines as she secretly sucks its blood.
A Djakova man told vividly how his father had saved a child.
"It was the child of a neighbour. I saw it. It was dead–white and cold. And my father cried, 'I know who has done this.' He ran out and seized an old woman, and dragged her in.
"'You have killed this child,' he roared, 'and you must bring it to life again!' My God, how she screamed, and cried by all the saints that she was innocent! 'Spit in its mouth!' cried my father, and he held her by the neck–'Spit, spit!'
"For if she did not spit before the sun went down, it would be too late and the child could not live again. But she still screamed, and would not. And my father drew one of his pistols and clapped it to her head–'Spit, or I shoot!'
"She spat, and he threw her outside and she ran away. We waited, and after an hour some colour came to the child's face, and slowly it came to life. My father had saved it. And I swear by God this is true, for I saw it with my own eyes."
The Shtriga can torment her victim by aches and pains. The wife of this same Djakova man was horribly overlooked, and had pains in her joints and limbs so that she could scarcely walk. Nor could they find the guilty Shtriga. All remedies failing, in despair, though Christians, they sought help of a Dervish well versed in spells. He cut some hair from the top of her head and some from each armpit, and burnt it, saying some words of power. And as the hair burnt, the pains fled and came back no more.
A grim safeguard there is against Shtrigas, but it is hard to get. You must secretly and at night track a woman you believe is a Shtriga. If she have been sucking blood, she goes out stealthily to vomit it, where no one sees. You must scrape up some of the vomited blood on a silver coin, wrap it up and wear it always, and no Shtriga will have power over you.
A hapless woman in Seltze had lost all her children, and believed that her mother-in-law was the Shtriga that slew them. Infant mortality in North Albania is cruelly high. The wretched mother that sees one little one after another pine and die knows not that they are victims of ignorance–the cruellest of all Shtrigas. The child, tight swaddled, lies always in a wooden cradle, over which is bound, with cords, a thick and heavy woollen cover, the gift of the maternal grandmother when the first child is born. It is as thick as an ordinary hearthrug, and shuts out almost all air. If the child be a healthy one, it is taken out of doors and carried about a good deal, and as soon as it can crawl has plenty of fresh air, but if sickly it is released only from its prison by death. It is always indoors; the unhappy mother takes the most jealous care that not for a single moment shall it be uncovered. She even gives it suck by taking the whole cradle on her knee, and lifting only the tiniest corner of the fatal cover. To touch it with water she thinks would be fatal. Filthy, blanched by want of light, and poisoned by vitiated air, the child fades and dies in spite of the amulets hung round its head and neck to ward off the Shtriga and the Evil Eye.
One mother had lost all seven of her children, each under two years; and another five, and was in agony over the sixth. She believed her breast had been bewitched and that her milk was poisonous. She turned back the suffocating cover for me to see the child. It had no symptoms, so far as I could learn, of its food not agreeing. But it was white as a plant grown under a pot. I begged her to uncover it, wash it with warm water, and take it out of doors. In vain. Children were never uncovered; it is adet (the custom). And what is adet is unchangeable. Only the very strong survive, and they become extremely enduring.
No words can tell the misery of the sick in these lands, who, swarming with lice, rot helpless on a heap of ferns or filthy rags in a dark corner till death releases them. No doctor has penetrated these wilds, nor any teacher save the Franciscans, whose medical knowledge is usually of the slightest.
Seltze told me a quaint moon superstition. Hair, if cut at the new moon, soon turns white. It must be cut with the moon on the wane, and then always keeps its colour. A man with a white mustache said it was owing to his having clipped it at the wrong time.
The houses are a far better type that those of Kastrati and Hoti. Solidly built, with two rooms–one often ceiled and with shelves–with high-pitched shingled roofs, some even with a chimney–and seldom with a stable under. They are some of the cleanest I met with.
Seltze is the only place in Maltsia e madhe that has a school–built and taught by the Padre, the Man-who-would-not-be-bishop.
He stood, a dark figure, against the church as I left. I turned in the saddle at the top of the slope to shout "a riverderci" to him, with the hope that it may come true. For he is one of those who have made a small corner of the world the sweeter for his presence.
Vukli was my destination. But the snow lay thick on the pass 'twixt it and Seltze, half-molten, unpassable for horses. We had to return down the valley to Ura Tamara, and ascend the valley of Tsem Vuklit–the track fair and the vale wide and grassy, a great loneliness upon it, for neither man nor beast had come up from the plains. Some primitive dwellings, made by walling up the front of caves in the cliff high above, caught my eye. At the head the valley is wide and undulating. We rode straight to the little church and its house, which formed one building. Out came the most jovial of all Franciscans, Padre Giovanni, stout and white moustachioed, but bearing his seventy-five years lightly. An Italian by birth, one of the few foreigners left in the Albanian Church, he has spent forty years at Vukli–said he was now Albanian, was priest, doctor, and judge, and that in Vukli he meant to end his days.
We sat on the doorstep, while he made hospitable preparations within.
The old man was heartily welcomed as a legal expert. He was honoured and respected everywhere. Vukli, as Seltze, was almost free from blood within the bariak, but one of the few cases of blood was at once laid before him for his opinion.
We sat round, while the Man-that-claimed-blood told his tale. His only son had wished to marry a certain widow, and gave her in token thereof a ring and £T.I. But her parents, whose property she was, would not recognise this betrothal, and sold her to another.
"My son," said the man, "would have paid for her fully, and she wished to marry him. Then was he very angry, and would shoot her husband. But he bethought him, the husband was not guilty, for perhaps he knew not of her betrothal. The guilty ones were the men of her family who sold her. To clear his honour, he shot one of her brothers. Then another brother shot my son, and I have no other. I want blood for my son's blood. They are to blame. They first put shame on him, and then killed him."
The old man thought long over the case, and asked questions. Then he said one was dead on either side, and it were better the blood were laid. He advised a sitting of Elders (a medjliss ) to compound the feud–which was also the Padre's advice. All who heard agreed with the old man, save him who heard the cry of his son's blood, and he would hearken to nothing else.
What was the woman's point of view? In these tales, she has neither voice nor choice–adet (custom) passes over her like a Juggernaut car.
To judge by a twentieth century and West European standard the feelings of a people in such a primitive state of human development would be foolish. It is perhaps equally foolish to attempt to analyse them at all. Here, as in Montenegro, women tell you frankly that, of course, a woman loves her brother better than her husband. She can have another husband and another child, but a brother can never be replaced. Her brother is of her own blood–her own tribe.
On the deck of an Adriatic steamer, at night under the stars, an Albanian once told me the Tale of the Mirdite Woman, with a convincing force which I cannot hope to repeat.
The Mirdite woman was sent down from the mountains and married to a Scutarene. She dwelt with him in Scutari, and bore him two sons. Now the brother of the woman was a sworn foe to the Turks, plundering and slaying them whenever chance allowed. And they outlawed him and put a price upon his head. But he feared no man, and would come at night into the town to sup with his sister and return safely ere dawn. The Turks heard this, and went to the woman's husband with a bag of gold–two hundred Turkish pounds–and tempted him. He had never before seen so much gold. And they said, "It is thine when thou tellest us that thy brother-in-law is here."
On a certain night the outlaw came down from the mountains to the house, and, as is the custom, he disarmed in token of peace. Scarcely had he given up his pistols, gun, and yataghan, when the Turkish soldiers rushed in and slew him, helpless.
His sister, weeping in wild despair, went back with his body to the mountains of Mirdita, singing the death-wail. And they buried him with his people. She came back, still mourning, to her home. And lo! Her husband was counting gold upon his knees. She looked at it and asked him, "Whence comes this gold?"
Then he was afraid, for he saw in her eyes that she knew it was the price of her brother's blood. And he spoke her softly, saying: "All knew of thy brother's coming. If he did not wish to lose his life, why came he? Sooner or later the Turks would have slain him. It is better that we have the gold than another."
But she answered not. Then he told her of the much good that the gold would buy, and she answered "Aye" dully–as one that speaks in sleep. But ever she heard the cry of her brother's blood. And when it was midnight and all was still, she arose and took her dead brother's yataghan. She called on God to strengthen her arm–she swung it over her sleeping husband and she hewed the head from off his body. Then she looked at her two sleeping children. "Seed of a serpent," she cried, "ye shall never live to betray your people!" and them too she slew. And she fled with the bloody yataghan into the night and into the mountains of Mirdita.
It is an old tale. I cannot fix its date. In its raw simplicity it is monumental, and embodies all that there is of tribal instinct and the call of blood.
The Man-that-claimed-blood rose, unconvinced by the old man's judgment, and went away to his lonely hut. The talk, from blood, naturally drifted to wounds. The old man was not only a legal authority but a surgeon of repute. He had recently gained much fame and the large fee of thirty florins–the largest he had ever received–for saving a soldier's leg, and told the tale with modest pride. The soldier was kicked by a horse; the result was a compound comminuted fracture with both bones badly shattered. He demonstrated on his own leg the position of the bones and the point of fracture. The Turkish military doctor wished to amputate–the wound was very foul. The soldier refused to lose his leg, left the hospital, and sent for the old man.
"If the ankle is broken," said the old man judicially, "you can never make it right again. If a man is shot through the knee he generally dies–but three finger-breadths above the ankle and below the knee is safe. You can always save the leg if you are careful."
With his home-made forceps he removed seventeen splinters of bone. When he was sure he had removed all, he washed out the wound thoroughly with rakia. (Rakia is distilled from grape juice; when double-distilled it contains a considerable amount of alcohol.) Never, said he, should a wound be touched with water–always with strong rakia. He then plugged and dressed the wound with a salve of his own making–the ingredients are extract of pine resin, the green bark of elder twigs, white beeswax, and olive oil. The property of the elder bark I do not know. The pine resin would provide a strong antiseptic. He brought the ends of the bones together, bound the leg to a piece of wood, the bones united in three weeks, and in six the man was walking about again with a rather shortened but very serviceable leg.
In gunshot wounds he was expert. For "first aid" his prescription was: Take the white of an egg and a lot of salt, pour on to the wound as soon as possible and bandage. This, only temporary till the patient could be properly treated with rakia and pine salve as above. The wound to be plugged with sheep wool, cleaned and soaked in the salve. The dressing to be changed at night and morning, and at midday also if the weather be very hot. Should the wound show signs of becoming foul, wash again with rakia as often as necessary.
This treatment he had inherited from his grandfather, who had had it from his. The exact proportions and way of making the salve he begged to be excused from telling, as they were a family secret.
It is an interesting fact that antiseptic surgery should have been practised in the Balkan peninsula a couple of generations, and who knows how much more, ago, while West Europe was still washing out wounds with dirty water.
Of rough rule-of-thumb knowledge he had a good deal–showed where the main arteries ran, where it was dangerous to cut and where safe. I asked how one learned surgery. He said first you must have good hands and good fingers (his own were very fine), and you must think a good deal, and remember what you had seen in one patient and apply the knowledge to the next similar case. Above all, never be in a hurry, and be quite sure before you cut. You must think things out for yourself. Of anæsthetics he naturally knew nothing, and his very deliberate methods would be more than a West European could bear. But the Balkan peasant does not appear to feel pain so acutely, and suffers scarcely at all from "shock."
Apoplexy, he said, was caused by too much blood in the head. He had recently been called to a woman who was struck suddenly speechless and quite paralysed down one side. He bled her from the temple on the afflicted side and seven times from the arm on the other side. Next day she was better. He bled her five times. She made a good recovery and was now walking about, though slightly lame.
One must be guided by circumstances. A man came to him a short while ago with a crushed finger. When he had removed the fragments he found the ends of the bone too pointed and splintered to set well. So he sawed them straight with a little saw of his own making, set them, and made a good finger, but short.
Knowing that the Montenegrin native surgeons of old were well known for trephining, I asked the old man what he could do for a badly broken head. "Ah," said he, "the head is very difficult. It is like an egg. First there is the shell, then the skin, then the brain. If that skin is broken you can do nothing–the man must die. But if the broken bone only presses on it you can save him. You cut like this"–he indicated a triangular flap on the head of the man next him–"and turn it back. Then you pick out the broken pieces very carefully and raise the bone from the brain. But you cannot leave the brain unprotected. You must cut a piece of dried hard bottle-gourd to fit the place–it is round like a man's head. You can find a piece that fits exactly. It must be quite hard. Then you replace the flap over it and sew if necessary and dress with the salve, and his head will be as good as ever."
The kirijee at once said, with enthusiasm, that he had been so treated at the age of sixteen; had been knocked on the head in a bazar riot, brought home unconscious, and only recovered when the bashed-in bone was removed. Had had a large piece of gourd in his head ever since. It made no difference, except that he had to scratch his head oftener that side than the other.
The company examined his head with much interest. The old man had never cut out bone himself, only removed broken pieces. But there was a man in Mirdita, he said, very clever at skull-cutting. He had recently removed a very large piece from the skull of a badly injured and unconscious man. (A very large part of the left parietal, according to the description.) Had replaced all with gourd, and made a complete cure.
The company listened with deep interest to the old man's tales. We had another of the successful extraction of a bullet, and heard how he had slung a horse with a broken leg and healed it. He was greatly pleased with my interest, but sighed and said: "I know nothing. You were born in a happy land. I could have learned. I have it here." He touched his head. "I might have been some use. Now I shall die as I have lived–a poor old man among the goats on the mountains."
The old man squatting on a rock became a sublime and tragic figure–the victim of a pitiless Fate–a wasted power, whose skill might have benefited half Europe. My heart bled for him–but at the back of my consciousness I asked myself if he would be any happier hurrying from one fashionable patient to another in a thousand-guinea motor-car through streets that stink of petroleum.
The Padre meanwhile was very busy housekeeping. We should have sent him a wireless telegram, he said. Telegraphing in Albania was far quicker than in any other land. Which is a fact. All news is shouted from hill to hill. "Shouting" gives no idea of it. The voice, pitched in a peculiar artificial note, is hurled across the valley with extraordinary force. Any one that catches the message acts as receiver and hurls it on to its address. And within an hour an answer may be received from a place twelve hours' tramp distant. The physical effort of the shout is great. The brows are corrugated into an expression of agony, both hands often pressed tight against the ears–perhaps an instinctive counterpressure to the force with which the air is expelled from within–the body is thrust forward and swayed, face and neck turn crimson, the veins of the neck swell up into cords. There are few places where it is harder to keep an event secret than in the mountains of Albania. News spreads like wildfire. The fact that a man has been shot upcountry reaches Scutari next day at latest, often with many details.
"Theft is impossible in Kilmeni," said the Padre, laughing; "the whole tribe hears the description of an article as soon as it is missed. Every one knows if some one has a few more sheep than yesterday."
At supper the genial old Padre sat at the head of the table, flanked by the two largest, fattest cats I ever saw. If he did not give them tit-bits fast enough, they slapped him smartly with their paws, which highly delighted him. I think he is the one perfectly contented human being I ever met.
"If I were born a second time into this world, I would again be a Frate," said he; "and if a third time, a third time Frate, in the Albanian mountains, with my people and my little house, and my books and my cats. I hope to die here without ever seeing a town again."
My unmarried condition pleased him much. He enlivened supper with an extremely plain-spoken sermon de Virginitate, till Marko protested that he had led a virtuous married life for twenty years, and did not consider himself a sinner. Which called down on us a yet plainer spoken address de Matrimonio and de–sundry other things expounded in much sonorous Latin, which, fortunately, Marko did not understand, and which "called a spade a spade."
Vukli, all Christian, consists of ninety-four families, all from the same stock. It marries chiefly with Seltze. A wife is cheaper than in Hoti, and costs twelve napoleons. The houses are, as usual, scattered far and wide. An Albanian parish is no easy one to work. A priest has often a four hours', even six hours' tramp to reach a dying man, and no matter what may happen at the other end of the parish, cannot get there in the same day. As at Seltze, the people are very industrious, are pastoral, and have plenty of high pasture. Vukli has a fair share of cultivable land, well cleaned of stones, which are all used for wall-making. Big boulders are laboriously drilled with crowbars and blasted with gunpowder. It often takes a week to destroy one rock–but they do it. And the larger part of the population migrates to the plains in winter with the flocks, wasting weary days on the march over rough tracks and bearing their burdens on their backs.
The houses are, like those of Seltze, clean and well-built. The head of the entrance-door is, as is usual in many parts of North Albania, semicircular, and the arch formed not of voussoirs but hewn from a solid block. This, almost always the case with arched doors' heads throughout the land, shows that arch construction is not at all understood.
It is in the graveyard that Vukli's originality is to be found. This, as is usual where timber is cheap, is full of wooden crosses; but local art has stepped in and transformed the emblem of Christianity into a "portrait" of the deceased. The chef-d'oeuvre is that of a doughty warrior. His face is carved above, two arms are added, his Martini and revolver are shown on the arms of the cross. It is incomparably grotesque. A serpent wriggles up one side to show, I was told, his fierceness. The serpent not unfrequently appears on graves, and may be connected with now forgotten beliefs. On the other hand, it is customary in the ballads of the Montenegrins to call a great fighting-man ljuta zmija (fierce serpent). But in the course of time new meanings may be attached to old symbols.
The Padre laughed when he found me admiring this cross. "Very un-Christian," he said, shaking his head; "but they do like it so." Vukli, as Seltze, suffered much from the Shtriga–one wretched woman had lost all her eight children–and also from the Evil Eye (Syy kec). So powerful is this, that a man had recently, to prove his power, gazed at a bunch of grapes, which had withered upon its stem and dropped to the ground before the awestruck spectators.
Syy kec is one of the curses of Albania. Against it, throughout the land, folk wear many charms. Blue glass beads adorn the halters of most of the horses; children have a coin tied on the forehead; the Catholics wear crosses, sacred hearts, medals of the saints (these mostly from Italy), and amulet cases, triangular, holding such Latin texts as they can get the priest to write for them. These, too, are bound to the horns of cattle and the manes of horses, to prevent the latter from being spirit-ridden by night by oras or devils.
There is a very good charm (Djakova) against all these. You must kill a snake, and cut off its head with silver. The edge of a white medjidieh (large coin) sharpened, will serve–you must dry the head, wrap it up with a silver medal of St. George, have it blessed by a priest, and it will protect you so long as you wear it. A piece of a meteorite is a protection against gunshot. Were it not for these safeguards, it would be hard to live in the land. The devils appear often at night, as fiery sparks dashing about, and then, no matter how well the traveller may know the way, he cannot find it. Nor until the first cock-crow (about two hours after midnight) can he go farther. After that they are powerless, and vanish–as did Hamlet's ghost under similar circumstances. Albania lives in the primitive times when real miracles happen that none doubt–when man has no power over his own fate, but writhes impotent, smitten on the one hand by the wrath of God and tormented on the other by the powers of evil. He faces his doom stoically. Eghel–"It is written."
It is good to live in this atmosphere. Many is the tiny, giddy ledge I have crept round without hesitation, driven forward by the cheery shout: "Go on! It is not Eghel that you will die here." Which I could not have done had an English friend been screaming: "For God's sake, don't try. You will break your neck!" There are countless advantages in travelling with natives only.
Vukli was fascinating, but the time for going came. I was bound for Boga and Shala. Again the heights were not passable for me. I must go back on my trail by Kastrati and Skreli, and ascend the valley of the Proni Thaat. I could do it in two days, but must start early, said the Padre. He advised 3 A.M. He saw to the re-shoeing of the horses the previous afternoon. They need nails or shoes renewing about once a week on these tracks. Three A.M. is a dree hour. I pleaded for five, but was bidden remember the heat. I did. I thought of the way to Gruda as a nightmare of agony. So I agreed, but said I must go to bed early. According, however, to Albanian custom, it was little short of 11 P.M. when I succeeded in lying down on some sheepskins. There was not enough time to waste over dressing and undressing. I seemed to have scarce laid down, when knocks aroused me, and I was told coffee was ready–and the horses. Giddy with sleep, but terrified of waiting for the sun, I crawled out half conscious. The Padre, as gay as ever, hoped I had had a good night. He had–very. The regulation two nips of black coffee woke me a little, and I said good-bye regretfully to my jovial old host, went out half dazed into the chill, grey, sleeping world, and started down the hill over loose stones, on foot. The effect of the coffee wore off before I was half-way down. I reeled with sleep, and fell heavily with a clatter that woke me. Marko and the old man were distressed, but I had fallen much too limply to be hurt.
"You woke me too soon," I said. "You know I don't like it."
"But to get up very early is so healthy!" persisted Marko.
"I can't help that. Four hours out of the twenty-four is not enough. I went too late to bed. Supper was late."
"But it was quite early! Only two hours after sunset!"
I did not enter into the fruitless argument about the sun setting late in summer, because in Albania it always sets at the same time–twelve o'clock. "In England maybe the sun sets later in the summer, but with us never."
At the foot of the hill I mounted, slung the bridle on my arm, hung on to the saddle-bow with both hands, shut my eyes and dozed, waking with a jerk whenever the horse stumbled or I nodded forward.
Half-way down the valley the old man had friends. He hailed them loudly, and out they came with a bowl of fresh milk and some cheese. We breakfasted. It was the old man's prescription to wake me up properly.
We got to Han Grabom without adventure. There I was greeted by another of the "Albanian virgins" in male garb, who begged me to take her with me to England. She said she always had to come home along the Montenegrin frontier, was terrified of being picked off by Montenegrin sharpshooters, and had no money to buy a gun. She would like to live in a safe place. She had no brother, was one of five sisters. Two were married. The other three all dressed as men, and worked the family land.
After Han Grabom was the ascent to Rapsha. Luckily you can ride up places you cannot ride down. Part walking–in the most risky bits–part riding, we came to the top in good time. Though it was quite hot enough, the sun was off.
At nightfall we pulled up at a han in Kastrati. It was one of the occasions when I have really appreciated a han, for I was drenched with sweat and bruised with tumbling about. The hanjee lit a fire, and I dried by it while Marko chopped the head off a fowl and set it stewing.
I woke next morning to the sad fact that I must say good-bye to the dear old man. We were in Kastrati. Hoti and Kastrati were in blood; he had safe-conduct back, but must go no farther.
He made a touching farewell speech, begged me to write to him from London–the Padre would read it to him. Afterwards he visited me each time he came to Scutari, haunted by a vague hope that I could do something for his unhappy land.
The hanjee piloted us down to Brzheta in Skreli, where we picked up another man and went on to Boga by an easy trail up the dry valley of the Proni Thaat on its right bank, crossing to the left near the village of Skreli.
Boga–seventy-five families, all Catholic–unlike its brethren of Vukli and Seltze, was rather badly in blood. Two brothers had recently been shot by their own relatives.
For those interested in "dove crosses" I may mention that at Boga and at Snjerch (St. George), near the mouth of the Bojana, now Montenegrin territory, the finest examples are to be found.
The priest and his old mother welcomed me, but, on hearing I was bound for Shala, begged me not to attempt the pass. The snow was very deep, half molten, and sliding, and the descent on the other side extremely precipitous. In no case could the horses cross it. I took their advice. The return journey down the valley was amply worth while for the quite magnificent spectacle of the snowy mountains of Skreli, dazzling against the turquoise sky above a dark pine belt. Just above Brzheta we crossed the stream bed, and struck away from it southwards to Rechi, through Lohja–a small tribe of one bariak, made up of eighty Moslem and forty Christian houses. It has a mosque and a hodza, and shares a priest with Rechi, the tribe next door–also mostly Moslem. Rechi-Lohja is of mixed stock, mainly originating from Pulati and Slaku, and was originally all Catholic.
Grizha, another small, one-bariak tribe, hard by, is, I believe, all Moslem, also Kopliku on the plain below.
Rechi we reached through a forest of monumental chestnuts. The church and house, which are new, stand high on a shelf with a great free view over the sweep of plain and the lake of Scutari. The priest of Rechi, a keen student of Albanian custom, was full of information both about Rechi and Pulati, where he had spent several years.
He told us of oaths which, if very solemn ones, are always sworn in Rechi and among all the Pulati tribes on a stone as well as on the cross: "Per guri e per kruch " (By the stone and the cross). The stone is the more important and comes first. At a gathering of Elders to try a case, the accused will often throw a stone into the middle of the circle, swearing his innocence upon it.
A man when he has confessed something extra bad, and received absolution, generally says, "I suppose I must bring a stone to church next Sunday?" The stone is carried on the shoulder as a public sign of repentance. And, though told it is not necessary, he usually prefers to bring it. The priest of another district held that the publicity of stone-bringing had such a good moral effect that he never discouraged it. His parishioners sometimes brought very large ones. Whether in proportion to the sin, I know not.
The priests say that, in spite of all their efforts, their parishioners all regard the shooting of a man as nothing compared to the crime of breaking a fast–eating an egg on a Saturday. Fasting in Albania means complete abstinence from any kind of animal food.
In the autumn of 1906 the Albanian clergy went to Ragusa to greet the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who represented the Emperor Franz Josef, Protector of the Catholic Church in Albania. It was arranged that on Saturday they should dine with the priests of Austria, and upon the same fare. This made something like a scandal among their Albanian parishioners, who thought it a plot to seduce their priests from the right path. "That Pope," said a man to me, "is only an Italian after all!"
We talked of soothsaying–the reading of bones–a custom I first saw in the mountains of Shpata, near Elbasan. The bone must be either the breastbone of a fowl or the scapula of a sheep or goat. No other will serve. It is hard to get people to explain the manner. Putting together facts obtained from the Rechi priest, a man from Djakova, and others, the result is as follows.
To read your own future the bone must be that of an animal you have bred. One bought is useless. A fowl must be decapitated; if its neck be wrung, said the Djakovan, the blood will go the wrong way and spoil the marks.
A good seer can tell at once if the beast be bought or bred.
The bone is held up against the light and the markings of marrow, &c., in it interpreted. The art of how to apply them correctly is jealously concealed.
"I asked a man," said the Rechi priest, "how he read the bones. He said, 'When you see little black marks on paper you know they mean "God," "man," and so forth. I cannot read them, but when I see little marks in the bones I can read them and you cannot.'"
The very best is the breastbone of a black cock with no white feathers on him. The keel is the part used. The fate of the owner of the cock and that of his family is read in the thickness at the end (A)–up it runs a line of marrow; a hole in this indicates his death; a break, an illness, or catastrophe. Their situation shows the time at which they will take place. Deaths or accidents to the family are shown in branches of this main line. Red spots mean blood. Public events are foretold on the sides of the keel (B). Marvellous tales are told of the truth of these prophecies, and they are widely believed. So absolutely indeed, that there seems little reason to doubt that the terror they inspire has actually caused death.
An only son, well known to the Djakova man, was at a family feast. He held up a fowl's breastbone, and threw it down with a cry. His father asked what was the matter. The son said, "In three days you will bury me." The horrified father picked up the bone, and saw it was only too true. He wailed aloud, "In three days we shall bury you!" All his kin cried over him, the youth blenched and sickened, and could not eat. And in three days he was dead, and they buried him.
"When he read in the bone that he must die, he died," said the Djakova man.
Seeing that I looked sceptical he added, with very much more truth than he was aware of, "It would not kill you because you do not believe it. We believe it, and so it is true to us."
It is conceivable that the panic wrought by a vivid imagination and the pitiless insistence of all his family, would kill a subject with a weak heart–the condemned man dying, so to speak, of "Christian Science."
When Shakir Pasha was made Vali of Scutari, a mountain man, picking up a bone, cried out, "He will only be Vali six months!" This was so unusually short a time that the man was laughed at, but the Vali was transferred in six months' time.
At a wedding feast the bone said that one of those present would be found dead near a rock in a short time. A fortnight later the bridegroom fell over a precipice and was killed. And so forth.
Such is the faith in the bones, that I have more than once been met with a refusal to read them on the grounds that it is better not to know the worst.
As I write the rough draught of this, in Scutari, at the end of November 1908, with war clouds thick on all the frontiers, and discontent already smouldering against the Young Turks, the mountain men are seeing blood in all the bones, "perhaps before Christmas, certainly by Easter." 1 When the elements of war are near, the balance of power may be upset by such a trifle as a fowl's breastbone, and things come "true because we believe them."
The people, said the priest, still hold many pagan beliefs of which they will not talk. They put a coin in the mouth of a corpse previous to burial, but seem unable to give any explanation beyond that it is adet (custom). There is also, he said, a lingering belief in lares. He had seen a vacant place for the spirits of the dead left at family feasts. And at Pulati he had found traces of a belief in two powers, one of light and one of darkness, and thought that the sun- and moon-like figures found as a tattoo pattern are concerned with this.
On Sunday the sick and the afflicted flocked from an early hour. The priest had had several years' medical training, and cares for the bodies as well as the souls of his people. His church is always well filled. A crowd of out-patients waited at the door on Sunday. Mass on Sundays is not celebrated in the mountain churches till eleven or later, to give the scattered parishioners time to come. While waiting, we were interviewed by a local celebrity, an old man of Lohja, who boasted that, though a hundred and ten years old, he had sinned but twice in his life. Nor would he admit that in either case he had been guilty. The sin each time was theft, and he had been led astray by bad people. I asked how many men he had killed. He said with a cheerful grin, "Plenty, but not one for money or dishonourably." He was an alert, hooky-nosed old man with humorous grey eyes. When some one doubted his age, he poured out a torrent of historic events which he vowed he recollected. It was suggested then that I should "write" old Lohja. He was immensely flattered, and sat a few moments. When every one recognised the sketch a look of great anxiety came over his face, and most earnestly he prayed me never to destroy what I "had written about him." The same moment the sketch was torn he was certain he should drop down dead–and after living a hundred and ten years that would be a great pity. I duly promised never to part with it and relieved his mind.
The priest chaffed him about his "two sins," saying he was a very bad old boy and had done all the things he should have left undone, and never came to confession. The latter charge he admitted very cheerily–after a hundred years, confession was not necessary; moreover, he had confessed his only two sins years ago, so had no more to say.
We left that afternoon for Rioli, but a two and a half hours' walk over a ridge and up the valley of a crystal-clear stream that turns many corn-grinding and wool-fulling mills, both of the usual Balkan pattern. In the fulling mill a large wooden axle, bearing two flanges, is turned by a water-wheel. The flanges, as they turn, catch and raise alternately two large and heavy wooden mallets, made preferably of walnut, which falling, pound and hammer the yards of wet hand-woven woollen material (shiak) which is heaped in a box beneath them. In forty-eight hours it is beaten into the cloth that is the common wear of Bosnia, Montenegro, and North Albania.
Corn-mills are often very small–a tiny shed on posts over a little cataract that shoots with great force through a pipe, made of a hollowed tree-trunk–the exit hole very small–against a small turbine wheel. The upright axle passes through the two stones, turning the upper one. The corn is fed from a wooden hopper, its flow ingeniously regulated by a twig that plays on the surface of the upper stone. Mills are generally private property of a group of families, each grinding its own corn in turn.
The church of Rioli stands high on the right bank of the valley, that is here richly wooded. In the cliff on the opposite side is the cave in which Bishop Bogdan refuged from the Turks in the seventeenth century.
Rioli is a small tribe of one bariak, I believe of mixed origin. It belongs to the diocese of Scutari.
We now left the Maltsia e madhe group and the diocese of Scutari for Pulati.
1 And shortly after Easter the rising in Constantinople took place.
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