THE LANDS OF THE SERB
Mary E. Durham
driven the road many a time since, and I have been again to Ostrog, but
I shall never forget that day three years ago when I went there for the
first time. It was the only part of that journey about which our advisers
said we should find no difficulty; "foreign languages'" were spoken, and
there would be no trouble about accommodation. We started from Podgoritza
early and in high spirits.
The valley of the Zeta is green and well cultivated. It narrows as we ascend
it, and an isolated hill crowned with the ruins of a Turkish fortress stands
up commandingly in the middle. This is the "bloody" Spuzh of the ballads,
the stronghold that guarded the former Turkish frontier. Montenegro at
this point was barely fifteen miles across, and Spuzh and Nikshitje gripped
it on either hand. From being a border town with an exciting existence
Spuzh has subsided into an unimportant village. Danilovgrad, on the other
hand, a few miles farther on, a town founded in memory of the late Prince,
is full of life, and though a bit rudimentary at present, shows signs of
soon becoming large and flourishing. It is possible now to drive
right up to the lower monastery of Ostrog by a fine new road, but this
did not yet exist on my first visit, and we pulled up at Bogatich - a poverty-stricken
collection of huts and a tiny church. A tall, lean, sad-eyed Montenegrin,
with hiss left arm in a sling, came out of the little "han" to greet us,
bringing with him a strong whiff of carbolic. They were a melancholy little
household. His wife, who brought water for our reeking horses, had had
her right arm taken off an inch or two below the elbow, and carried the
bucket horribly in the crook of the stump; They cheered up when they heard
we wanted a guide to the monastery, and called their daughter from the
shed for the purpose.
She came out, a shy, wild-looking thing of about fifteen, barefooted, her knitting
in her hands, accepted the job at once, tied our two hand-bags on her back
with a bit of cord, and we started up in search of the unknown, armed with
a leg of cold mutton, a loaf of black bread, a sketch-book, and a flask
It was midday, and almost midsummer; the air was heavy with thunder, and no
breath of a breeze stirred as we scrambled up the loose stones. The girl
snorted loudly like a pig, to show us the way we should go, and took us,
in true Montenegrin fashion, straight up from point to point without heeding
the zigzags of the horse-track except where the steepness of the rock compelled
her. The way soon became steeper and steeper, in fact a mere rock scramble,
and it was abominably hot; and when suddenly our plucky little guide, who
had as yet shown no signs of fatigue, gave out all her breath with a long
whistle and pointed to the nearest patch of shade, we gladly called a halt.
The great advantage of a girl-guide is that she takes you to the right
place and you can rest on the way. Little boys as a general rule are vague
and inconsequent; they pick up crowds of friends en route, even
in the most desolate and apparently uninhabited spots, and you don't generally
arrive at your destination. Either they don't know the way, or they
conduct you to another spot, for reasons of their own.
We sat with our girl, and made futile attempts to converse with her. It was
a wild, lonely spot, and save the rough track worn by generations of pilgrims,
as rugged as it was created. Great grey limestone rocks arose around us,
with sturdy young trees sprouting in the crannies; a small grey snake wound
its way over the sunbaked stones, and a tortoise scrambled about the grass
alongside. The valley shimmered in a hot haze far below, and beyond towered
the bare crags of the opposite mountains. We seemed a very long way from
anywhere. Appearances were however deceptive, as a short scramble brought
us to a wall, a gateway, and some buildings. The girl seemed to think we
had now arrived, and we imagined that we were about to find the guest-house
where French, Italian, and German were spoken. We passed through the gateway
on to a long wide shelf on the mountain side, 1900 feet above the sea.
Two or three very poor cottages stood at the entrance, and at the farther
end a tiny church, crudely painted with a maroon dado of geometrical patterns,
and three small houses all apparently shut up and uninhabited. Not a soul
was to be seen. The girl went into one of the cottages and fetched a tin
pot of cold water which we all drank greedily, seeing which the cottage
woman came out and supplied us with as much as we required, and gave us
a bench to sit on. She was mildly concerned at our appearance for we had
sweated all through our shirts, and the girl had left a black hand-print
on my back, but she spoke no word of any other language but her own, and
speedily retired again to her cottage. We sat on the bench and pondered,
feeling very forlorn. If this were Ostrog, as the girl assured us with
vigorous nods, it was not worth the roasting scramble. We were miserably
disappointed, but decided that, as we had come to see Ostrog, we would
see it properly, and that, if there were any inhabitants, they had not
finished the midday siesta. We squeezed into a patch of shadow and cut
up the mutton and black bread with a pocket-knife; the girl gladly assisted,
and ate like a wolf, bolting large chunks with great appetite. There was
quite a cheery lot of brandy in the flask, and as we carefully packed up
the remains of the meal, in case of a siege, we felt very much better.
Then down the wide white path from the houses came a man, an old, old man in
Western garb. He tottered up, and we hailed him in all our known languages;
French and Italian failed, but he responded to German, and started at once
on his own autobiography. He was an old soldier, he had fought under Karageorgevich.
Now he had retired here to end his days. "They " had sent him here, and
"they" had made him dig his grave. It was waiting for him on the mountain
side. He was very lonely, and had no one to talk to. As soon as we could
stem the torrent of his remarks, we asked him about quarters for the night.
"Had we an introduction from the Archimandrite at Cetinje ?" "No ?" Then
we had better go back where we had come from, and we had better start at
once, if we meant to get to Nikshitje that night. We were appalled. He
repeated obstinately, "You must go, and if you take my advice, you will
go at once. I can do nothing for you. They," he admitted mysteriously,
"cannot bear me. It is useless for me to ask them. They can speak nothing
but Serbian, and you will not be able to make them understand. They would
have to send for me. Moreover, they are asleep." He pointed to "their"
house. We asked when "they" were likely to wake up again, and he said it
would be in about an hour's time. We doubted his statements, for his air
was very malevolent, so as our little maiden was already coiled up on the
ground fast asleep, we thought it would be just as well to rest until "they"
could be appealed to. The old gentleman "who had no one to talk to" went
off and indulged in an animated conversation with the cottage woman, while
we dozed under a tree. When we aroused ourselves again, not much rested,
we saw the shutters of "their" house were now open, so we marched up to
the front door, knocked, and awaited results tremulously.
Nothing happened; we knocked a second time, and fled down the steps. Immediately
the door flew open, and there was the Archimandrite of Ostrog himself,
in long black gown, crimson sash, and high velvet hat - a little old man
whose thin iron-grey locks flowed on his shoulders. He came rushing down
the steps and shook us by the hands, saying, "Dobar dan, dobar dan " (good-day),
as heartily as though he had been expecting us and we had come at last.
We said, "Dobar dan," also, with enthusiasm, and then the conversation
came to an abrupt conclusion. He showed us with great ceremony into his
sitting-room, and made us sit on the sofa, while he sat opposite on a chair.
We felt acutely uncomfortable - not one single word of English, French,
German, or Italian did the good man know. We made him understand that we
had come from England, which amazed him, and that we had walked from Bogatich.
Then we stuck hopelessly and helplessly, while he, undaunted, went on in
his native language. It seemed as if our climb to Ostrog had failed, and
that flight was all that was left for us. We got up and said "good-bye"
politely. Our departure he would by no means permit. "Sjedite, sjedite!
" he cried, waving us back to the sofa, and down we sat again, feeling
much worse. A Montenegrin about six feet four inches in height, clad in
a huge brown overcoat, answered his summoning bell, and presently returned
with two glasses of cold water on a brass tray which he offered to us ceremoniously,
towering over us and watching us with lofty toleration, as a big dog does
a little one. He waited patiently until we had drunk every drop, collected
the glasses, and silently retired from the room backwards.
A horrible silence ensued. We took out our watches and showed them to each other,
in hopes that the Archimandrite would then understand that our time was
really up. But no. A fearful wrestle with the language followed, and lasted
till the Big-Dog Montenegrin reappeared, this time with two cups of coffee.
We obediently began to consume this, and the Archimandrite, despairing
of ever making us understand single-handed, instructed his servant to fetch
the gentleman-who-spoke-German. Through him we were at once informed that
the Archimandrite offered us hospitality for the night in the house over
the way. We were much amazed, and accepted gratefully. With
apologies, he then inquired if we were married, and hastened to assure
us that there was no disgrace attached to the fact that we were not. We
were slightly dismayed when we were told we now had the Archimandrite's
gracious permission to visit the shrine, and that we were to start at once.
We were put upon the right track and left to our own devices. We had been
up since five, and had only had a scrappy, unhappy doze under the tree,
so we told each other we would go to sleep on the first piece of ground
that was flat enough. Having zigzagged up some way through die wood, we
lay down on a piece of grass, and should have been asleep in a minute had
not two natives appeared, an old man and a handsome lad. They seemed much
interested and concerned. I merely said it was very hot, and hoped it would
be enough for them. Not a bit of it. They started an argument. I said I
didn't speak the language, so they shouted to make it clearer, and kept
pointing up the path. What they meant I did not know. It was evident, though,
that the Handsome Lad did not mean to be trifled with. He squatted alongside
of us and shouted in my ear, while the old man sat down and showed signs
of staying as long as we did. So we wearily started upwards again, and
the Montenegrins, delighted at having made us understand, went their way
much pleased with their own cleverness. We dared not rest again, and soon
reached the upper monastery of Ostrog, which was so strange and unexpected
that the sight of it did away with all thoughts of fatigue at once.
The path ended on a terrace cut in the rock 2500 feet above the sea.
The small guest-house stood against the mountain side, and a flight of
newly made steps led up through a stone doorway to a series of caverns
in the cliff face, cunningly built in and walled up to form tiny rooms,
which cling to the rock like swallows' nests. The big natural arch of rock
that overshadows them all is grimed with the dead black of smoke, and two
great white crosses painted on the cliff mark the shrine. Straight above
rises the almost perpendicular wall of bare rock, and far below lies the
valley. This is the eagle eyrie that, in 1862, Mirko Petrovich, the Prince's
father, and twenty-eight men held for eight days against the Turkish army
of, it is said, ten thousand men. The Turks tried vainly to shell the tiny
stronghold, and even a determined attempt to smoke out the gallant band
failed. Mirko and his men, when they had used all their ammunition and
had rolled down rocks upon the enemy, succeeded in escaping over the mountains,
under cover of night, and reached Rijeka with the loss of one man only.
It is a tale which yet brings the light of battle to the eyes of the Montenegrin
and sends his fingers to caress the butt of his revolver, and must be heard
from Montenegrin lips to be appreciated. A hundred years before, thirty
men held this same cavern against an army, and wild as these tales sound,
the first glance at the place forces belief. Twice only have the Turks
succeeded in occupying it. Once after Mirko and his men left it, and once
in 1877, when Suleiman Pasha held it, sent the proud message to Constantinople
that he had conquered Montenegro and that it was time to appoint a Turkish
governor - and was soon in hot retreat to Spuzh, losing half his men on
the way. The lower monastery has, on the other hand, been burnt and rebuilt
some ten times.
We sat and stared at the scene of these wild doings. The black, smoke-grimed
cavern told of the fierce struggle, and the great white cross of the holy
man whose body rests within. Sveti Vasili (St. Basil), a local saint, was,
early in the eighteenth century, Metropolitan of the Herzegovina. In his
old age he sought refuge in the mountains from Turkish persecution, and
passed his last days in this remote cavern cared for and reverenced by
the Christian peasants. Shortly after his death they scooped out the rock
and formed and dedicated to him the tiny chapel where his body still rests.
His shrine is held in the profoundest veneration, and on Trinity Sunday
(O.S.) pilgrims flock thither in thousands, tramping on foot from Bosnia,
the Herzegovina, from Albania, even from the uttermost corners of the Balkan
peninsula - a wonderful and most impressive sight. Not Christians alone
but also Mohammedans come to the shrine of St. Vasili of Ostrog, for "four
hundred years of apostasy have not obliterated" among the Bosnian Mussulmans
a sort of superstitious trust in the efficacy of the faith of their fathers,"
and they come in hopes of help to the shrine of the man who suffered for
it. And so also do those strange folk, the Mohammedan Albanians. I have
passed the night up there in pilgrimage-time, when the mountain side was
a great camp and the greater part of the pilgrims slept by watch fires
under the stars; but in spite of the mixed nationalities and the difference
of religion, perfect order prevailed, and I saw many acts of friendliness
and consideration between folk from very different parts.
The precious relics have always been removed in times of danger, and saved
from the fate of those of the Serbian St. Sava, which were publicly burned
by the Turks. They were, of course, removed during the last war. The coffin
is not a weighty one and the soldiers were strong, but it became so heavy
as they were carrying it down the valley that they knew not what to do.
This they took as a sign from the saint that they should stop. They awaited
the Turks, and triumphantly defeated them. At the close of the war the
relics were restored to the chapel without any difficulty.
As we sat and looked at the knot of little cliff huts, a figure quite in keeping
with them came through the doorway and slowly approached us. A magnificent
old giant, with a silver beard and long white locks that flowed upon his
shoulders, and showed him to be a priest. A tall black astrachan cap was
on his head, and in spite of the heat he wore a heavy cloak of dark blue
cloth lined with fur, a long blue tunic, and wide knickerbockers shoved
into heavy leather boots at the knee. His high cap and his big cloak gave
him great dignity, and he welcomed us with superb stateliness. Then, intimating
we were to follow him, he conducted us to his residence. It was a narrow
little cave fronted in with planks. Here we had to sit down while he fumbled
at what was apparently a small cupboard door. He threw it open, and behold
- an oil painting of himself, set in a gorgeous gilt frame that contrasted
oddly with its rough surroundings. It was evidently a presentation
portrait, and he sat down beaming by the side of it, for us to have every
opportunity of admiring the likeness. We spread all our scanty stock of
Serbian adjectives of approval about recklessly, and the result was that
from some mysterious corner he produced a black bottle and a small liqueur
glass, opaque with dirt. He held the glass up to the light and looked at
it critically ; even he realised that it was unclean ; then he put in his
thumb, which was also encrusted with the grime of ages, and he screwed
it round and round. No effect whatever was produced on glass or thumb,
for the dirt in both cases was ingrained. For one awful second he contemplated
his thumb, and I thought he was going to suck it and make a further effort;
but no, he was apparently satisfied, and he filled the glass with a pale
spirit, which we hoped was strong enough to kill the germs. We drank his
health with a show of enthusiasm which seemed to gratify him, for he patted
us both affectionately.
He then showed us up a wooden step ladder to a still tinier cavern, a dim
cabin almost filled up by his bed, whose not over white sheets betrayed
the unpleasing fact that Ostrog was still subject to nocturnal attacks
and much bloodshed. In a glass case on the wall hung his two medals, one
Russian, the other Montenegrin, and, next these, three signed and sealed
documents in Cyrillic characters. He began reading out place-names in Montenegro,
Bosnia, and the Herzegovina, pointing to his medals, and would gladly have
"fought all his battles o'er again," if we could but have understood him.
His great treasure he displayed last, a large and handsome walking-stick
elaborately mounted in gold filigree set with plates engraved with the
said names. His admiration for it was unbounded, and he handled it respectfully.
The rugged old giant, and his trophies, standing huge in his tiny lair
up in the heart of the mountains, the light from the little window falling
on his silver hair and beard, the glittering filigree, the dim squalid
background, his pride and glee over his treasures, and the royal air with
which he showed them, conjured up a whole life-drama in one swift instant.
He broke the spell himself by putting the stick carefully back into its
case, and, bowing and crossing himself reverently before a little ikon
of Our Lady, led the way out to the chapel.
The entrance was a low, narrow, rough-cut slit; he bowed twice and crossed
himself, saw that we did the same, then stooped down and went into a small
irregular cavern, its rough-hewn walls rudely frescoed with Byzantine figures.
It was very dark; one small window, hacked through the cliff face, and
the narrow doorway alone lighted it. Upon the rough ikonostasis he pointed
out the figure of St. Vasili in bishop's robes. Then slowly and solemnly
he began lighting the candles, striking a light with flint and steel. It
took him a long- time, and his age was betrayed by his tremulous hands
and evidently weak sight. When he had finished, and the cavern was a twinkle
with tiny flames, he approached the shrine. Removing the covering, he fumbled
with the lock, opened it, and then threw back the lid slowly and respectfully.
There lay the embalmed body of the saint; the slipper-clad feet, the embroidered
robes, and the gold crucifix on the breast, only, showing. Modern science
and ancient faith had combined for perhaps the first and the last time,
and the face and hands of the saint were neatly covered with carbolised
cotton-wool. I was jolted back into the twentieth century with a rough
shock. The sense of smell - perhaps because it is a wild-beast one - brings
up its trains of associations more swiftly than any other, and the life
of the old world and the life of the modern one leapt up in sharp contrast.
To the old man, on the other hand, the scent was the odour of sanctity. He
was filled with awe and reverence, and gazed at the body like one seeing
a wondrous vision for the first time. He bent down slowly and kissed the
slippered feet, the crucifix on the breast, and the cotton-wool over the
face, crossing himself each time. Then, fearful lest we should omit any
part of the ceremony, he seized us each in turn by the back of the neck,
poked our heads into the coffin and held them down on the right spots.
We followed carefully the example he had set, and completed our pilgrimage
to the shrine of St. Vasill. He slowly closed and locked the coffin, and
rearranged the drapery upon it. Then we debated together as to how an offering
was to be made. He, however, helped us out of the difficulty. He took a
small metal bowl from the window, placed it reverently upon the coffin
and counted some very small coins into it ostentatiously, clink, clink,
then turned his back discreetly and began slowly extinguishing the candles.
He allowed just sufficient time to carry out the approved ritual, and hurried
back eagerly to inspect the bowl. It appeared that we had acted quite correctly
on this occasion also. Coming out through the narrow door into the open
air again, we prepared to go ; but the old man stopped us, pointed upwards,
and shouted for someone. The "someone" came, and turned out to be the Handsome
and Haughty Lad who had so cruelly chivied us down below. He gazed at us
with a superior smile, and in obedience to his orders led us up to a yet
higher cavern, where he showed us a spring of very cold clear water. This
is highly prized by the pilgrims to the shrine, who all bring bottles or
gourds to fetch some away in. The Lad, I think, expected us to do so, and
as he had, as he imagined, made us understand by shouting before, he tried
the same system again with great violence. We hastily remunerated him for
his trouble, in hopes of changing his ideas, and he was sufficiently mollified
to shake hands with us. Whereupon we said good-bye, and left him.
Evening was drawing in when we reached the lower monastery, and service had just
come to an end in the little church. The Archimandrite, followed by his
small congregation, came out as we approached. We were sleepy, dirty, and
hungry, and the prospect of another interview in Serbian before getting
food or rest was almost too much for us. To our dismay, we were again conducted
to the Archimandrite's sitting-room. Our relief was great when we heard
the words, "Vous parlez francais, mesdemoiselles ?" and we were introduced
to a tall man in the long black robes and high cap of the Orthodox ecclesiasts.
Singularly beautiful, his long brown hair flowing on his shoulders, he
stood there more like a magnificent Leonardo da Vinci than a living human
being. He spoke gently and kindly in the oddest broken French, expressing
himself in little rudimentary sentences, begging us to be seated and telling
us we were very welcome ; "for we are Christians," he said simply, "and
is not hospitality one of the first of the Christian virtues ? I, too,
am a guest here tonight. But you who have come so far to see us, it is
the least we can do for you. From England," he repeated, "alone, all the
way from England to see Montenegro, quelle voyage ! veritablement des heros
! In Montenegro you are as safe, vous savez, as in your own homes, but
the journey - all across Europe, that is another thing !" The Archimandrite,
he explained, regretted that our room was so long in being prepared for
us. "It is because we have had a pilgrimage here lately and have had to
accommodate very many people. Therefore there was no place suitably furnished
for you, but they are putting down the carpets, and it will soon be finished."
We were horrified, and begged they would not take so much trouble ; but
he would not hear of it. "Oh, it is a great pleasure to us all to know
that in England there is such a good opinion of Montenegro that two ladies
will come all alone into our country and trust us; that the English should
wish to know us! "I felt like an impostor; it was embarrassing to be given
hospitality as the bearer of good-tidings from Great Britain, but to our
innocent-minded entertainer the idea seemed quite simple and sufficient.
He had nothing but good to say of everyone. For the two small boys who
came in with the usual cold water and coffee, he was filled with admiration
- their build, their muscular limbs, their honest, open faces. "Montenegrin
faces," he said, "ah! but they are beautiful my faithful Montenegrins!
It is my life," he went on, "to help these poor people. I have a church,
a little, little church, away among the rocks. It is there that I live.
If I had known, mesdemoiselles, before, that you were travelling this way,
it would have given me great pleasure to show it to you. But I did not
know until yesterday "; and he added, with a smile at our astonishment,
"Oh yes, in this country, vous savez, one hears of all strangers."
The conversation was broken off by the announcement that our rooms were ready,
and we all went over in a solemn little procession to the house over the
way, the two ecclesiasts, the four servants and ourselves, and were shown
in with many apologies for the poorness of the accommodation. The dear
good people were putting the finishing touches when we entered, and had
arranged two large rooms most comfortably. The Archimandrite satisfied
himself that the beds were all right. Then both gentlemen shook hands with
us and wished us good-night, and withdrew. An anxious quarter of an hour
followed, during which we wondered whether we were going to be fed or not,
and regretted that we had bestowed the remains of the bread and mutton
on the girl; for we had been knocking about since five a.m., and it was
now eight p.m. Then there came a most welcome knock at the door, and we were
taken to a large dining-room and a good dinner. It was a solemn meal. We were waited
on by four men, who came in and out silently, supplied our wants, stood at attention
and gazed at us stolidly. The largest was about six feet four and built to match,
but extremely tame in spite of his weapons and his size. I don't think
he had the least idea how very small he made us feel.
Early next morning the Archimandrite and our friend were already about, and came
to see us breakfast and to beg that we would write our names in the visitors'
book. We said all that we could in the way of thanks to our kind entertainer;
he murmured a blessing over us, we shook hands, and were soon wandering
down the mountain side.
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Land of Montenegro