THE LANDS OF THE SERB
Mary E. Durham
LADY AMONG THE ROCKS
"To drawe folk to Heaven by fairnesse
By good ensample, this was his busynesse.
For Christe's lawe rind his apostles twelve
He taught, but first he followed it himself."
A rough jolt over the wide bare plain; a heavy rainstorm blurring the bleak mountains
of the Turkish frontier; no living being in sight save an Albanian woman
with her few sheep cowering under the lee of a bush ; cut off from the
rest of the world by the enshrouding mist, we drove over one of the desolate
places of the earth in quest of the little church among the rocks. Of a
sudden the sun burst through, hot and brilliant; the plain quivered, golden
and glittering, through the rising steam ; the clouds parted and rolled
back, and revealed the mountains all around us, fiercely, vividly blue,
and as lonely as the day they were created.
Two small rocky hills rose up out of the plain, and our driver pulled up suddenly.
"You must go on foot," he said; "it is not far," and he pointed to a stony
track round the hillside. Doubtfully we started among the rocks and wild
pomegranates, till turning a corner we struck a well-marked footpath, and
saw the tall black-robed figure of our friend awaiting us at the top of
the ascent. "I saw a carriage across the plain," he said, as he came forward,
"and I knew it must be you." He welcomed us cordially, and turned towards
his little domain. A bare stone wall built up against the hillside with
a big wooden cross at the top, and a tiny cottage with a patch of cultivated
ground close by, were all that could be seen of it. All around were wild
and untouched rock and bush. "My little church," he said, as he led the
way to the entrance, "was not built by hands. It was made by God.
His church among the rocks." He crossed himself, and we entered.
He lit a taper and held it aloft. We were in a long narrow cavern, water-worn,
with traces of stalactite deposit on the rough walls. At the farther end
the altar candles burned brightly, lighting up the picture of Our Lady
over it, and making the rest of the cave darker by contrast. "See," he
said, " it is veritably a church ! Is It not in the form of a cross ?"
and he showed us how a smaller cave opened into it on either side, making
a rude nave and transept. The walls at the chancel end were painted with
saints and angels, quaint and stiff, their archaic Byzantine forms in perfect
keeping with the rough surroundings, and therefore true decoration. "When
I have celebrated the Messe here," he continued "when I have prayed all
alone in the silence, then holy things come to me, pictures, vous savez,
and I paint them here upon the wall." He held up his taper and threw light
upon a great head of Christ. "This is the last I have made. There is no
paint left," he added simply. "Nor do I know really which is the proper
way to use it. I cannot, I think, take long to learn. My poor attempts,
they give pleasure to my people, and they understand."
He led the way into the tiny transept on the left. "Here, you see, I have
made for them the Holy Sepulchre" ; and we saw by the light of the little
taper a bier covered with a black and gold cloth, and a painting of the
dead Christ. " They come to me, the poor wayfarers, for consolation, so
weary, so suffering. I tell them of Him. I bring- them in here and I show
them the wounds on His feet. Then they understand. So I can teach them.
To help the afflicted, that is religion. Some days I write, songs of religion,
of the visions that I see ; for the light that is given to us we must employ
to show the path to others." He looked inspired as he stood there, a majestic
black-robed figure, the taper, like a guiding star, in his hands, the light
of the altar candles falling on his finely cut spiritual features, the
solitary sentinel of this Christian outpost. "The church of God, built
by His hands in the wilderness; to care for it is all my life," he said
humbly. He extinguished the lights, and we stepped out into the sunshine.
By the side of the church he pointed out a second cavern in which rises
a clear spring of water, the same, maybe, which carved the nave and transepts.
It makes the hermitage possible in this otherwise waterless spot, and flows
off underground to hew its way silently through the rock.
We turned to say good-bye to him. "But no !" he cried, "you have come so far
to see me, I beg you will rest for a while in my house. When shall I again
see visitors from England?" He led the way into his cottage; visitors,
not only from England but from the outside world at all, are scarce with
him. I think we called to his mind a whole host of recollections
; for he started at once, and the time flew as he unfolded the story of
his life in little sentences, earnestly and quickly, from time to time drawing
his black gown across his breast with a swift dramatic action that gave
point to his speech. He had been educated in a Russian university, and
thence had gone to Paris. He regretted not having visited London. "It seemed
so far," he said; "now it seems that I was so near!" But all the time the
mountains called to him. "I cannot live away from the mountains and my
poor Montenegrins. In the great towns, it was here that I wished to be. I intended
to come here and to make a large monastery. But my family did not wish me to lead
the religious life. My grandfather was a rich man - not what in England
you would call rich, but rich in Montenegro. When I became religious, he
gave me none of the money, not any. I have not been able to carry out my
plan. It was God's will. My work is here. It is to help my poor Montenegrins
to keep their faith. Without faith what is a nation ? Ah ! I have travelled
and I have seen sad things. But in your country, mademoiselle, they have
faith. The Church of England and our Church, they have differences, that
is true, but they are slight. We are all Christians ; there are so many
points upon which we can agree. We must not let those others separate us.
Your Church has shown great friendship to ours. Your Archbishop has sent
us a letter not long ago. It has given great pleasure. Your Church is a
Church ; you have deacons, bishops ; but in Switzerland - the Protestants
- that I cannot understand. It is sad.
"Savez-vous," he went on, "I know what a war is. I was a soldier in our last war. We
are all soldiers here, you see." "Where were you ?" I asked. "It was in
the valley of the Zeta - the Turks came down." He stared wide-eyed at a
vision of horror and broke off. "It is too horrible to speak of - these
scenes ; it is all horrible in war. I have seen it. Pray God that we shall
have peace. But a day of trial is coming to my poor Montenegrins. Ah, mademoiselle,
you understand them. They are so uncivilised and so rough, but they are
so good, so simple. You, who travel among them, know how good they are.
You will tell them in England - will you not? - of my poor people. Civilisation
brings knowledge and many, many wonders, but it does not bring happiness.
These poor good people, they have no idea what life is out in the great
world, and it is coming to them. And I know what it means, this civilisation.
I have lived in Paris - in Paris, savez-vous," he said vehemently. "All
I can do is to help them to keep their faith. Till now they have lived
with God and the mountains. Here they come to me, the poor, the afflicted,
they come to me for help. Some nights I give shelter to as many as fifteen
wayfarers. Then they tell me their troubles, and I pray with them. Some
of them," he admitted regretfully, "have not lived quite rightly. In the
morning I celebrate the Messe in my little chapel, and then they go on
their way comforted. On Sundays many people come, and I speak to them,
here before the chapel, the words that are given to me. It is very little
that one needs in this life. We have so short a time here."
A boy, his pupil and his only companion in his hermitage, came in with coffee,
and the giving and the accepting of this simple refreshment seemed to give
our host great pleasure, he questioned us about our relatives, and told
us of his own. "Once," he remarked, quite casually, "I was married," but
he did not pursue the subject, he told us of the days when there were only
twenty houses in Cetinje - when the chiefs of the land used to meet in
council with the Prince, all sitting on the ground in a bare shed where
a sheep was roasting for their dinner; how the Prince used to sit under
a tree and try prisoners ; how there were no roads, no towns, only a few
collections of thatched huts. All this only twenty years ago! The poetic,
imaginative nature of the Montenegrin. "He lives with the things he imagines.
Even now, you see how he carries his gun, his revolver, his knife! He likes
to think that he is guarding his house and his land. The weapons are a
symbol to him. No Montenegrin likes to go unarmed. In the evening, when
he returns to his little cottage, his wife meets him. She takes his sum
and puts it in the corner. His weapons are laid aside. It is all
peace ; he is returned to his wife and children. That is old life. Now
it is even said that a railway will be made. But who knows? Where can there
be money for such an undertaking? Truly railway companies and all such
things seemed impossibly remote as we sat in this lonely hermitage listening
to the hopes and fears of the ascetic visionary. When we arose to say good-bye,
he stood over us in the doorway and gave us his blessing.
We stepped out into the world again, and looked over the rough moorland plain.
The Turkish frontier fort shone white upon the mountain side some three
miles away, and there was no other sign of life as we stared over the lonely
land. He read our thoughts at once. "It is a wild spot, yes, and a rough
journey that you have made to see me. Few strangers have yet been here.
One day three of your countrymen came, but you are the first Englishwomen.
It is lonely, and even a little dangerous. You must not try to cross the
plain when it is dark, for there are bad men who rob and kill. Yonder,
that is Albania. It is so easy for them to come across. Even last night
there were armed men ; they came up towards my little house and they threatened
me with their guns." "And what did you do?" we asked eagerly. "I stood
here," he said simply, "and I cried to them, 'The Lord God has said, Thou
shalt not kill.' Then they went away," he added, after a pause, in a matter-of-fact
What a scene ! The fearless figure alone under the night sky, and the gang of
human beasts shrinking awestruck down the rocks as they heard out of
the darkness "the voice of one crying in the wilderness." We said farewell.
He stood at the top of the path for a few minutes watching our descent,
and as we turned the corner we saw his tall dark figure turning towards
the little chapel "which is his life."
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