"Chapter XII." by Edith Durham (1863-1944)
"Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances!"
THE return of Prenk Pasha to his people was the final act in the great drama of the Coming of the Constitution.
The other Christian tribes had light-heartedly rejoiced, filled only with child-like belief that any change must be for the better, and a wild hope that some Power was about to intervene and save them. Mirdita and Kthela alone hung back, silent, cautious. They would not exchange their little lamp of liberty for the patent flarelight of the New Constitution, till they felt satisfied of the truth of its much-advertised advantages. Others sang and fired volleys; the men of the Mirdite mountains remained dumb among their rocks.
"The Mirdites are coming to-morrow," said Rumour–"on Thursday–on Saturday–one day next week." But they gave no sign. Then the Djimiet (Young Turk Committee) in Scutari became anxious and annoyed. It believed that a brain, and a canny one, was responsible. The Young Turk is the son of the Old Turk, and the Djimiet thought to attain its end by assuming a bullying attitude. It sent a letter to the Archbishop of Scutari, bidding him inform the Abbot of the Mirdites that if his tribe did not at once come down to Scutari and accept the Constitution, he must take the consequences. To this the astute Abbot replied, with the courtesy for which he is renowned, that, in the first place, he was not under the Archbishop of Scutari; in the second, he was possessed of purely spiritual power; he therefore could not interfere in temporal affairs; the Mirdites, of course, had a Prince, but he, most unfortunately, was in Constantinople, and there was no one to command them. He added that it had never been the custom of the Mirdites to meet in Scutari, but always at the centre point of the tribe, the old Church of Shpal (St. Paul).
The Djimiet realised of a sudden that even Young Turks make mistakes sometimes, communicated at once with Constantinople, and after nearly thirty years of exile, Prenk Pasha was returned to his native land, almost as fast as it was possible to send him.
The Abbot had conquered. The excitement was great. The Moslems of Scutari were furious–talked of shooting Prenk when he arrived. But the Christians were filled with a great joy. The-Man-that-was-born-to-be-Prince was coming, and all would be well. I learned much of the Divine right of Kings–the mediæval faith that put the fate of a people in one man's hands. Of Prenk Pasha himself, folk could tell me nothing at all. They were uncertain even whether he could still speak Albanian. But of his capacity to rule, to set wrong right, they had no shadow of a doubt. "He is the son of Bib Doda, and the blood of the Dukaghins is in his veins."
The restoration of an exiled Prince to his people in a wild, mediæval land–in the twentieth century–was an event that for dramatic interest could have no rival. It cried to me, and I went.
The gathering of the tribesmen was fixed for September 30, 1908. Prenk Pasha was to be two days on the way.
Marko and I left early, so as to be well ahead, and rode over the parched plain and through the shrunken Drin, which was yet deep enough to flow over the tops of my boots, though I twisted my feet up as high as they would go.
We pulled up at the han at Naranchi, on the borders of Mirdita. The hanjee, a Scutarene, was all agog with the approaching event. The men of Mnela, the border village of the Dibri bariak, were coming in force to hail and escort their chief.
In another half-hour down they trooped at a double, all of a pack, firing as they came–small, dark men for the most part, wiry and eager–the most notorious robbers and skilled cattle-lifters of the district. Rattle, clatter, over the loose stones, followed their priest–a long, black figure, on a strong, white horse. The wall of a ruined cottage, burnt for blood, served as a look-out post, whence the Mnela men took it in turn to scan the plain anxiously. The rest sat, as is their wont, in a circle, and debated the coming event.
At first sight of the distant cavalcade there was a great cry, and a party rushed off to meet it. The remainder drew up in rude order by the wayside–tense, listening. Distant shots–the replying ones–he is coming, he is coming! In a cloud of white smoke, and the dan-dan-dan of the rifle-shots, Prenk Pasha–befezzed, and in uniform gold-corded–cantered up on a white horse with his escort, drew rein, and threw himself from the saddle. A roar of rifles rang out, as Mnela, in a solid mass, fired over our heads. And then it was obvious that Prenk Pasha was a stranger in the land. He recoiled, deafened from what, to the tribesmen and myself–for I had been under fire on and off for two months–was only a pleasing exhilaration.
Prenk Pasha had arrived. There was a certain irony about the fact that the man who had left as a prisoner–treacherously kidnapped on board a Turkish warship–was now returning to the land of his birth, in Turkish uniform, as aide-de-camp to the Sultan, and attended by two Turkish guardian angels–Young Turks in officers' uniforms.
The halt was short. It was already late. We remounted. The Pasha, with his cousin, Kapetan Marko, and his escort, pushed on, I following, up the valley of the Gjadri. We were stopped to receive hospitality at the house of a headman–the most celebrated cattle-lifter of them all–where we sat on a scarlet carpet, drank rakia, and ate tepid mutton with our fingers, the Young Turks kindly pulling off lumps from the main animal for me.
The Pasha showed no desire to prolong this meal. We remounted, and hustled up the mountain-side towards Mnela as fast as the shades of night allowed. The sun had gone down sullen in a purple storm-cloud, leaving blood-red gashes over the indigo mountains. We clattered up a zigzag–I following the white horse in front of me, that showed as a luminous spot in the gloom–till we saw the sudden red blaze of beacon fire, beyond the small oak wood that hid the priest's house.
It was an unusually large house; but even so I do not know how guests, escort, and servants all crowded into it–but they did.
I dined in state with Prenk Pasha, Kapetan Marko, the Padre, and the two guardian angels.
The Pasha, like a man in a dream, overwhelmed by a whirl of half-remembered, half-forgotten bygones, paced the room uneasily, too much excited to eat. "What tricks I played here when I was young!" he said, half dazed, "and now all the old generation are gone! I know no one–no one." He broke off abruptly, and I thought of "The Man that was." "You know, Mademoiselle," he added, with a laugh, "it is said that they are all robbers, and I am a robber chief!"
The Young Turks were hungry, and did justice to the boiled mutton. They were Djimiet young men, and held golden views of the Constitution. Not having been up country themselves, they were most anxious to hear how I had found things. One was fluent in French; we got on well. I told of the state of things at Djakova and Luria, and the views of Kosovo vilayet.
He was rather taken aback. The idea of possible difficulties surprised him.
"The plan was," he said, "to send Hodjas to the mosques, all through Ramazan, to explain liberty and equality to the people–all would be arranged. They were only ignorant."
I suggested that ignorance was one of the most dangerous of enemies, and reflected that the preaching of the Hodjas would not mend matters–which was the case. It was even then Ramazan, the towns swarmed with Hodjas, and that Ramazan was the worst on record for years.
"Alors vous trouvez Mademoiselle que notre Constitution n'a pas encore réussi?" he asked naively.
"Succeeded!" said I. "How can a Constitution succeed in a few weeks? You have not begun yet. All the difficulties now begin. There are the Serbs, the Albanians, the Bulgarians, the Turks, the Greeks, the Vlahs, who all are of different temperaments and have quite different ideas. It is true that they all disliked the old Government, but if they will like the new one–that is quite another thing. The Albanian question, for example, is of great difficulty, and needs quite special treatment."
"Oh mon Dieu, mon Dieu," said he, "il faut arranger quelquechose." He harped a great deal on the Albanians. England's help was what he reckoned on. If only England would help. He was very young, and, according to his own account, had not been much in the interior of his country at all.
The blessed word Constitution seemed to be to him a sort of talisman, certain to put all right. But it leaked out later that, in spite of his optimism, he was aware that there were "flies in the ointment." He became confidential.
"After you had left, Mademoiselle," he said, "a certain Englishman arrived here. He, like you, wished to go up to Djakova and Prizren. We discussed if we should send him, and decided to send him with a guard of suvarris." He looked at me interrogatively.
"That," said I wickedly–for I knew perfectly well what escorts are for–"was not necessary. Under your Constitution all is peace, is it not? For myself, I have travelled everywhere without arms or escort in those parts without difficulty."
We looked at one another. He knew that I knew–and I knew that he knew, and he said sweetly: "That is true, but see, Mademoiselle, this was a little affair of politics. It appears that this Monsieur was the secretary of a political society, very powerful, which has even worked much for Bulgarians. Therefore we thought it better he should travel with an escort. Vous comprenez, n'est pas?"
"Perfectly," said I.
"And," he continued triumphantly, "it appears that we succeeded even marvellously. All that he saw impressed him so well that already he has held a conference about our Constitution, full of enthusiasm." We both laughed. All the world's a stage. I wondered if I were watching the last scenes of a farce or the beginning of a great tragedy. The Constitution seemed the link that joined the sublime and the ridiculous.
Prenk Pasha wisely made no remarks.
At Kalivaci, where I pulled up at the han at noon next day, the farcical element predominated. Marko and I, not wishing to cumber the Pasha's train, had started early by another trail.
The hanjee, flushed and excited, was swinging by his arms from a beam over his gateway.
"Don't come here," he cried; "I can do nothing for you. Prenk Pasha is coming to-day, and I am quite drunk."
On learning that we should be satisfied with the loan of a cooking-pot, a fire, and some water, he asked us in, and dropped from his beam, and, while Marko blew up the fire, which was in the yard, and warmed up the remains of yesterday's lunch, told us that he had been thirty years in this place, and had twelve packhorses. Had tried to do a little business exporting sumach and hides, and importing sugar and coffee, but had suffered greatly. Whenever the pay of the Mirdite zaptiehs was in arrears (and, as it depends on the Turkish Government, this is often the case), they close the road, and "hold up" all goods upon it till the pay is forthcoming. They were quite honest, he said, and always returned the goods, but the hides were often ruined by a fortnight's detention–not to speak of loss of work through delaying the horses along with them.
"But now Prenk Pasha is coming. We shall have law and order, and all will go well. I'm going to be drunk and happy all day."
He sat and beamed on us, but refused a glass of our rakia on the grounds that he was quite drunk enough, and did not mean to be too drunk to greet Prenk Pasha with gunshots when he arrived.
We left with many promises to return some day when he was sober, and dine sumptuously; and, leaving the valley, struck up over hills that, thick with sumach scrub, blazed in a glory of gold and crimson against the intense blue of the mountains beyond; for the sumach, one of Mirdita's chief exports, lives usefully and dies beautifully.
At even we came to the church of Kacinari, high on the hillside. The priest was not yet home, but the cavernous, black-raftered kitchen was full of company. We sat round a great fire that burnt in the middle of the floor; while one tinkled music on a tamboritza, another roasted coffee and turned the fragrant seeds, smoking and black and shiny, on the carved shovel-shaped tray to cool–and all talked.
Mirdita did not mean to give itself away. Would accept no Moslem rule; brook no interference with its privileges, and was in no mood for conciliation, for the Catholics, so cruelly persecuted last winter and spring (1907-1908) near Djakova and Prizren, were, for the most part, of Mirdite blood. Mirdita had been on the point of descending to protect and avenge them, and would have done so by now had it not been for the universal besa, which it could not refuse to swear, all other tribes having accepted it. All their hopes were centred on now on Prenk Pasha. As for the Constitution, it was only one more Moslem trick, "a flam of the Devil." European intervention was the only possible cure.
Our host, two more large priests, and one small Franciscan came in soon, all bound for Shpal on the morrow.
September 30th dawned bright and breezy. We started early, the Franciscan heaped up on a wonderfully active donkey, the rest of us on horseback, and all the men of Kacinari trailing snake-like after us over hill and dale. Our journey was neatly timed. We arrived at the trysting-place just before the Pasha. The wood round the little church, the heart of Mirdita, was full of tethered horses; the bare hillside beyond, crowded with Mirdites, grouped according to their bariaks. The men and boys of Prenk Pasha's house stood foremost, anxious and eager for the first glimpse of their Head. And the man upon whom all hopes hung came at the head of his escort, upon his white horse, and rode around the great gathering. A mighty cry arose. Some thousand bullets ripped with a tearing swish between the hills as he passed.
The impossible had happened; the Prince had returned to his people. He dismounted with the air of one that knows not if he be asleep or awake. It is hard to be called on suddenly to play the part of a demi-god.
We thronged into the wood, where, under a great tree, was spread a carpet. He took his seat upon a chair, his crimson fez making a brilliant blot on the greenleaf background. Then all his male relatives–many born since he was exiled–were presented to him. I thought of the Forest of Arden, where they "fleeted the time pleasantly as in the Golden Age"–as each in turn strode up, "an hero beauteous among all the throng" dropped on one knee, and did homage, kissing his chieftain's hand with simple dignity. The tribesmen stood around in a great circle, the sunflecks dancing on their white clothes, and glinting on gunbarrel and cartridge-belt.
There came a pause. Nature, exhausted by emotion, needed food; moreover, it was midday. I shared a cold sheep's liver with the two Young Turks, who though it was Ramazan, made each a hearty lunch, as was noted by the tribesmen with contempt, for a Mirdite holds that to break a fast is the one unpardonable sin. The red wine flowed, and the cold mutton was hurled about in lumps. A few minutes emptied the bottles and bared the bones.
We awaited the coming of the Abbate. Mirdita without the Abbate is "Hamlet" without the central figure. Nor had we long to wait. His gold-banded cap shone over the heads of the crowd, that parted and let him through on his fat white horse, gay with a gold saddlecloth, followed by the rest of the priests of Mirdita.
We went out on to the bare hillside. There was no room among the trees for the great concourse now assembled. The men of the five bariaks–Oroshi, Fandi, Spachi, Kusneni, and Dibri–and the neighbor tribe of Kthela squatted or knelt in a huge and dense circle.
It struck me suddenly that among some two thousand five hundred armed men I was the solitary petticoat. The Young Turks and I were the only anachronisms–blots on the old-world picture. The Abbate stepped into the middle, and spoke with a great voice that rang over the land. His words were weighty–"The Constitution was the will of the Sultan. Mirdita would remain loyal to him–but would retain, as before, her privileges, and be self-governed according to the Cannon of Lek Dukaghin–from this day forth those laws would be truly enforced. Blood-vengeance was to cease. Peace was to be sworn until Ash Wednesday, 1909, by which time all bloods were to be pacified; and hereafter any man that kills another shall be banished, not only from Mirdita, but from all Albania. Robbery between the tribes was to be stopped, and the law enforced (for one thing stolen two should be returned), even were it necessary to summon three battalions from Scutari to help to enforce it."
Prenk Pasha briefly confirmed the Abbate's speech; Kapetan Marko stepped forward and emptied his revolver over us; the circling crowd fired in return, and broke up at once into the five bariaks, which withdrew–each with its priests–to discuss the momentous announcement.
PRENK PASHA AND A "YOUNG TURK" AT SHPAL, MIRDITA, ON PRENK'S RETURN FROM EXILE.
It was a very momentous announcement. I could only admire the skill and policy of the Abbate, who, after working for fifteen long years with all the means in his power to cleanse the land of the curse of blood in vain, had seized this supreme moment in the tribes' existence–the return of the man whom they were born to obey–to make a bold effort to crown his labour and wipe out the custom finally and for ever. If he succeeded, this day was the end of the old life, its sins and sorrows.
The Mirdites are a silent people. The meetings of other tribes are a continuous roar, as each shouts the other down. But there was no clamour from the five groups that discussed in earnest undertones the question of "to be or not to be." How was a man to keep his honour clean if he might not shoot? vexed many an honest soul. It is better to die, said they, than to live dishonoured. It seemed doubtful, very doubtful, if the tribe, as a whole, would accept the terms that had taken but a few moments to explain. Finally, hereditary loyalty to the Chief triumphed over private passions–each priest came forward and announced that his flock was agreed. Peace was proclaimed till Ash Wednesday, 1909, and by then ways and means were to be determined.
The five bariaks spread again in a great circle. The Abbate had triumphed. He stood erect in the centre, ordering with uplifted arm the final volleys, as the Pasha rode round acclaimed by all.
The great meeting was over, the white groups melted away, like snow on the mountains. The Pasha, the Abbate, and all the chief actors in the scene filed in long procession down to the valley of the Fani i vogel, on their way to the Abbate's Palace at Oroshi. Soon none were left on the historic spot, but the dead asleep in the lonely graveyard. A chill wind arose, and the autumn leaves fell in showers. For better or for worse, a page had been turned in Albania's history. The summer had gone, the year was dying. I had seen the Land of the Living Past.
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