On Secret Service in Albania
AT the beginning of November, 1915, I was suddenly ordered to report in Rome ‘for service in the Balkan peninsula.’ The invasion of Serbia by the Central Powers had just been launched. An Austro-German force was invading the country from the north. The Bulgars were attacking from the east, and one of their armies, by a lightning march on the Nish-Salonica railroad, had cut off the possibility of retreat to the south. There remained for the Serbians but one line of escape — to the west, across the snowclad, trackless mountains of High Albania. They proceeded to take it, adding one more to the long list of violations of neutral territory by the two sides in the war. Not that anybody worried about the Albanians.
When I reached Rome, I learned that even in Albania the Serbians were not to be in peace. The King of Montenegro had just completed the last of a long series of similar financial transactions, and sold the Lovchen position, which defends Getinje, to the Austrians. The Austrians would now be able to overrun Montenegro and invade Albania from the north. This meant that the exhausted Serbians would have to be withdrawn to the south of Albania, which was strongly held by the Italians, and from there shipped, as transport became available, to whatever place of refuge could be found for them. But what if, during their evacuation of Albania, the Bulgarians were to attack them in the flank, debouching from the Albanian mountains to catch them on the march along the littoral? If the Bulgarians thought it worth while, there was nothing to prevent them. But would they care to detach the force necessary for the purpose? That was what they wanted to know in Rome; the plan was that I should make a journey into the interior and obtain information as to the Bulgar intentions.
My first idea, when I landed from an Italian destroyer at Durazzo, was to ascertain the attitude of the Albanian chieftain Essad Pasha, who, since the collapse of the Prince of Wied and the international régime, had assumed the responsibilities of government over a greater part of the country. Essad was ostensibly pro-Ally; but it occurred to me that, in this hour of the Allies’ collapse, he might well be inclining to make overtures to the other side. If so, what better way of accomplishing my mission than to act as his emissary to the advancing Austrian? My inquiries, however, soon convinced me that I had done the Pasha an injustice. He adhered, in fact, continuously to the Allies, with more loyalty than they later displayed to him. He made no attempt to approach either Austrian or Bulgar; and when the day came for the Allies to abandon Durazzo before the Austrian advance he left his own country with them sooner than desert the Allied cause.
I concluded accordingly to travel, as I had done many times before, as a doctor of nondescript Levantine nationality, carrying European drugs. With my drugs, I knew I should be anywhere welcome. I had equipped myself, as soon as I arrived, with a fez. I now engaged a Mohammedan kiriji or muleteer, who spoke Turkish, and purchased a couple of saddlebags in the bazaar. One other purchase I had made in Rome — three gold signet-rings from Castellani’s, which I had had engraved with large Prussian eagles. For what purpose I intended to use them, I could not have said. But in those days, and in that part of the world, I reckoned that a Prussian eagle was a useful bird.
Twenty-four hours later three sorry ponies were slowly picking their way across the marshes that lie between Durazzo and Berat. On the first was Moharrem, the kiriji; the second was a pack animal; the third I bestrode myself, ‘traveling’ — as they say of the Prince of Wales — ‘as the Earl of Chester’: to be exact, as ‘Yussuf Effendi.’ Moharrem believed — at least I hoped he did — that I was a Turkish agent going to join the Turkish officers said to be with the Bulgarian army now closing on Monastir. At any rate I had been at some pains to place this story in quarters where I knew he would inquire. In the Balkans, I have found, the best way to keep a true secret is to confide a false one to a few chosen friends. I am not sure that my experience in this respect is peculiar to the Balkans.
On the sixth day we reached the confluence of the Osum and Devol at the mouth of the wide valley at the head of which is Berat. To the north was the gorge of the Devol. Looking up it I caught sight in the distance of a party of men, forty or fifty in number, with rifles slung on their backs.
' Who are these? ‘ said I to Moharrem.
He looked at me. ‘God knows!’
I looked at them again, and then at him. ‘ Komita ? ‘ I said interrogatively. He grinned. ‘Call them, Moharrem. It may be they need my drugs.’
Moharrem put his two hands over his ears — to prevent the drums bursting with the effort of the call — and, making his voice carry as only those can who are accustomed from boyhood to shout from hilltop to hilltop, gave the long-drawn-out Albanian call: ’O Maltsoret! (Ho, mountaineers!)’
I saw the group turn at the call, unsling their rifles, pause, and then sit down to await us. It was nearly half an hour before we reached them, leading our ponies over the stones of the steep hillside. As we went, I instructed Moharrem as to what he should say.
‘ Tun gat thietr! ‘
‘ Tun gat thietr! ‘
‘ My Effendi is an Osmanli and would speak with you, if you understand Turkish.’
‘We are Christians. We speak Albanian only. Be our interpreter!’
‘My Effendi is a Christian. He is a doctor.’
Disappointment at the unwarlike character of my profession clearly outweighed any gratification that may have been felt at the orthodoxy of my religious beliefs.
’Hakim esht! Nuk esht zabit! (He is a doctor! He is no officer!)’ I heard them mutter.
‘He is a doctor, and he is an officer. He is a hakim-zabit (medical officer) of a celebrated regiment. He has in his saddlebags medicines from Europe for those who need them. He would know where you are going.’
I left Moharrem to conduct the conversation, while I distributed pills. The procedure was, as usual, simple, being in the main independent of diagnosis. No member of the party was willing to forgo the opportunity of European dosing, and any inequality of distribution would have been resented. My pharmacopoeia in primitive countries comprises three drugs — calomel, opium, and quinine. I have made them up in large repulsive-looking boluses of evil taste. The calomel is colored red, the opium brown, and the quinine white. These I prescribe in cases of illness. For other cases, where there appears to be nothing the matter, I keep a black-colored pill flavored with asafœtida but otherwise devoid of all medical properties. This is generally regarded as the most powerful pill of the four and is much sought after. With this modest equipment I have found that a sound reputation as a working physician may be built up in most Oriental countries. When each man had received his pill I rose to go.
Moharrem in rapid Turkish phrases conveyed to me the upshot of his conversation. There were ‘Turks,’ it appeared, — that is to say, Mohammedan Albanians,— in the mountains beyond Berat, who were organizing bands of irregulars, or committees (komita) as they are called in the Balkans, at one medjidieh a week and free bread and ammunition. These men were going up to a village called Tomoritsa on the chance of a little rough shooting. They had been told to ask when they got there for Hassan Bey, a former major in the Turkish army, who was in charge of the medjidiehs and the cartridges. They knew nothing of any Bulgarian troops in the neighborhood, regular or irregular. They believed the Bulgarians had captured Monastir. I listened, stroking my moustache.
‘Ask them if they will come with me by way of Berat,’ I said.
‘We will not come by Berat. If we were seen in Berat, the zaptiehs (gendarmes) would take our rifles and send us home or put us in prison.’
‘By whose authority?’
‘By the authority of Essad.’
I said nothing. They watched me curiously. I called the eldest of the band. ‘Take this,’I said, giving him one of my signet-rings, ‘and when you come to Hassan Bey ask to have speech with him apart, and give him the ring. He will know from whom it comes, and the meaning of the bird which is cut on it. Show it to none other on the road.’
The old man looked at the eagle, and his eyes opened wide. Great prestige at this time had that eagle in those parts. Mechanically he laid it on his heart. Then he held my stirrup for me to mount, and amid salutations of the profoundest respect we turned back in the direction of Berat.
There is a ferry on the Devol River, by which the traveler from Durazzo must cross to reach Berat. When we came to the spot, we found the ferryman had his boat out on the bank, and was endeavoring to put a patch on a hole in the bottom. We must therefore wait till he had finished. There was another passenger waiting by the riverside, and his appearance startled me. He was a Franciscan friar, one of those who serve the mountain churches in the region of Scutari. In that part of Albania the Christian Albanians are Catholic; but in the neighborhood of Berat, where we were, they are Orthodox, and a Latin friar in the robe of a Franciscan was something like, shall I say, a Scotch minister with a plaid round his shoulder Walking down the Strand — an unusual and yet not an unintelligible phenomenon. It flashed through my mind, what an excellent disguise it would have made for me, if only my Albanian had been rather better. The Franciscans in north Albania have mostly been educated in Italy, many of them arc Italians by birth, and all speak Italian as a second mother-tongue. I addressed the stranger in that language. He said his name was Pater Xefi, and he was on his way from Scutari to Berat. His Italian was very bad, and he clearly had difficulty in understanding me. My suspicions were at once aroused. I tried to catch him off his guard.
‘ Reverentia vestra,' I said suddenly in Latin, ‘non est italica? (Your Reverence is not Italian?)’
‘Albanicus sum (I am Albanian),’he replied without hesitation in the same tongue.
‘At nonne in Italia fecisti studia? (But were you not educated in Italy?) ‘
‘In Austria feci, Spectabilis, in seminario quod est ad Œnipontem. (No, sir, in Austria; in the seminary at Innsbruck.) ‘
‘Then in God’s name,’ said I in broad Viennese dialect, ‘let us speak German.’
‘Ah! Dear God!’ he replied with a most unpriestly grin, ‘what a pleasure to hear anyone speak Viennese again!’
But further than this he would not reveal himself, though we made the final stage into Berat together, and had much talk by the way. When we parted, I was not best pleased with the encounter. I felt tolerably certain that, whether or no he was really a priest, and whether or no he was really an Albanian, — Moharrem was doubtful; he certainly spoke Albanian well, —he was in any case acting on the present occasion as an agent of the Austrian Government. What he thought of me, I could not tell. If I were acting in the same interest as himself, it must seem strange to him that he should not have heard of my coming. The disquieting reflection presented itself that he probably regarded me with much the same suspicions as I regarded him; and there was this unpleasing difference between our respective positions that, once in Berat, he would be among friends and I should be among enemies. It was in a greatly sobered frame of mind that I rode into the Han in Berat.
Berat boasts a Turkish bath. I turned into it with the double intention of evolving a policy and wiping off the fatigues of the journey. As I sat down in the hot chamber and made myself a cigarette, I saw coming in at the door a boy of seventeen or eighteen, whose face I was convinced I knew, though the name for the moment escaped me. He caught sight of me, stared, then rushed at me and embraced me warmly. Ah! I remembered. It was the son of my friend Bedri Bey, the head of an old Albanian family which had fallen on evil times. I had first known them in the days of their prosperity, when they lived in feudal state in their family castle in the hills to the west of Lake Ochrida, not far from the Greek frontier. In the troubled days of the Wied regime Greek troops had effected what is technically known in reports to the League of Nations and similar documents as a ‘redemption of Albanophone Hellenes’; that is to say, they had seized the family’s land and divided it among Greek settlers, sacked the castle, and driven out the family without a piastre to their name. Bedri was now living in the house, and on the charity, of a former tenant, now a flourishing tradesman in Berat. The son Salih, whom I remembered as a small boy, was eager to go to America. He began at once to consult me as to the feasibility of the project, and I advised him to the best of my ability. We talked of old times, and I was pleased to find that he wasted no lamentations on the past; his interests were all in the future. So it should be with youth. His talk was always shifting to America.
‘Come and stay with us, Effendim,’ he said. ‘What will my father say to me, if I tell him I have left you in the Han? And then you can tell me more about America.’
I was not sorry to accept his offer of hospitality. The publicity of the Han, and the stories which I knew Moharrem would be telling, were anything but agreeable to my plans. Accordingly, having completed the various processes of the bath, we went round to the Han, where I picked up my saddlebags and paid off Moharrem. I was glad to hear that he proposed to return to Durazzo on the following day, if the horses were sufficiently rested. I told him I should myself be continuing my journey toward Monastir about the same time.
I had, however, made up my mind that if I could obtain sufficient information in Berat I would go no farther but would make my way back to Valona, the port in the extreme south, which had been since the outset of the war in Italian occupation. Unfortunately there was little information to be had from my kind hosts. Salih, who was a youth of many friends, sometimes brought news home with him; but the poverty of the family necessitated their leading a secluded life, and they were out of touch with the political intrigue which I could see was raging in official circles in the town. The Mayor, I gathered, was Essad’s man, and in loyalty to his master’s falling cause had rejected all overtures which had been made to him, whether from Austrian or from Turkish quarters. The town indeed was full of Turkish and Austrian emissaries whom the Mayor was not strong enough to arrest. As to Bulgarian agents, I heard no mention of any such from Salih. But that said little; those who were employing me would not thank me for purely negative intelligence of this sort. I must have something more definite to report. I could see no chance of obtaining it.
For some days I remained in the house, making a pretext of illness. At length I ventured out with Salih, and sat for a while in a café. I had scarcely sat down when at the other end of the room I saw the Franciscan friar with whom I had traveled from the Devol, sitting with a companion. He was a friar no longer. He wore ordinary civilian clothes with a fez, and his companion displayed ostentatiously the astrakhan cap of an Ottoman officer. Our eyes met, and my salutation was not returned. I made up my mind quickly. It was useless to wait on in Berat, if I was already an object of suspicion to the dominant party in the town. The only question was how to leave it. But before I went I felt it my duty, as a last chance of obtaining the intelligence which I wanted, to interview the Mayor. It was true, my presence at the Konak, if remarked, would reveal to the TurcoAustrian party my true colors. It was true also that the Mayor would be unable to afford me any protection. Nevertheless I decided to attempt to obtain an interview. If possible, I should see him that very afternoon; and then, if I could get horses, I should leave the town the same night.
‘O Salih!’ I said suddenly, turning to my companion; ‘do you know anyone at the Konak? I wish to see the Mayor before I go.’
‘Do not go, Effendim,’ he said, ‘Stay a whole year with us. When you go, I shall be very sorrowful. But if you wish to see the Mayor, we shall ask Ali Bey Seltse, who is his secretary. Ali’s house and our house are friends.'
‘Let us go now,’ I said rising. We made our way round to the Konak, a square barrack-like building in the centre of the town. It had three floors, each with a central corridor out of which rooms opened on either side. The corridors were as usual full of people sitting peacefully on the floor, waiting to see officials. The Mayor’s room was on the second floor. As we made our way up the staircase, I heard half a dozen revolver-shots. General commotion followed throughout the building. A knot of men, some of them with revolvers in their hands, came rushing toward the staircase shouting at the top of their voices. We stood aside to let them pass. It did not seem to me that anyone made any effort to stop them. The corridor outside the Mayor’s room was packed with people, all talking at once. Salih was beside himself with excitement.
‘Stay here, Effendim,’ he whispered to me. ‘I shall try to see Ali, and find out how it all happened. Hassan Bey has shot the Mayor!’
He disappeared. I listened to the talk of the bystanders. Suddenly I heard cries of ‘ Haide! Haide! (Make way!)’ and a lane was parted in the crowd for — of all things in the world — a travel-stained officer and a couple of troopers, all three in Bulgarian uniform. ‘What!’ I said to myself, ‘is the event itself about to give me the intelligence I have been seeking?’
The crowd had been half silenced by the apparition of the three strangers in their foreign uniforms. ‘ Who are they ?' ‘Austrians!’ ‘Bulgars!’ I heard whispered all round me. Just at this moment a man standing near me, deluded either by his own excitement or by some fancied likeness which he saw in my features, pointed at me and cried: —
‘ In the name of God! There is Hassan himself come back!’
The crowd about me cleared as if by miracle. The words had been spoken in Albanian, which the Bulgarian doubtless did not understand; but he caught the ‘Hassan’ and the surprised ‘Bismillah! (In the name of God!)’ and saw the crowd automatically make room to right and left of me. He stopped, saluted, and held out his hand.
‘Hassan Bey Bimbashi? ‘ he said with a smile, in Turkish. ‘I am Lieutenant Grekoff.’
I took my courage in my hands. ‘You are welcome,’ I replied in the same language, smiling. ‘Come in here, and we will talk.’
I opened a door at random. By great good luck the room was empty. As I shut the door on him, and the two troopers took post outside, I heard whispers from the crowd: —
‘That is not Hassan.’
‘It is one of them.’
But Lieutenant Grekoff did not understand Albanian.
As I shut the door behind the Bulgarian, I knew that at any moment our interview might be interrupted; the real Hassan might return; even if we were left alone it was impossible to say how long I should be able to support the rôle of imposture which I had assumed, without betraying myself. But I had no time for reflection. I set myself at once to play my part.
‘The deed is done,’ I said, making the gesture of wiping my hands, ‘ the Mayor has been killed.’
‘Pardon?’ he said.
‘The Mayor is dead.’
‘It was doubtless necessary.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Allow me,’ he continued, taking from an inner pocket of his litewka a pair of letters, ‘to present my credentials.’
I bowed and, taking the letters, glanced rapidly through them. The first was a general letter of introduction ‘To the Officers of the Allied Imperial Royal and Imperial Ottoman Armies,’ requesting all possible assistance to Lieutenant Grekoff, of the 31st Reserve Infantry Regiment, attached to the General Staff of the Bulgarian Army in Macedonia, and charged with a special mission in Albania. It was written in German and Turkish. I handed it back to Grekoff. The second letter, written in the same two languages, was addressed to myself, that is to say, to Hassan. It ran as follows: —
SECRET GENERAL STAFF
No. — 11/24 December, 1915
New Year, A.H. 1334
The bearer of this letter, Lieutenant Grekoff of the Royal Bulgarian Army, is directed to present it to Major Hassan Bey (retired) of the Imperial Ottoman Army, or to the properly accredited representative of the latter.
The High Command of the Bulgarian Army now in Macedonia views with the warmest sympathy the efforts being made under the direction of Hassan Bey to raise detachments of irregulars in the mountainous region between the Lakes and Berat, and will afford him every possible assistance and financial support. Lieutenant Grekoff is instructed to discuss with Major Hassan Bey the most effective means by which this support may be afforded and an organized liaison may be established between Major Hassan Bey and the Bulgarian High Command.
For the present, however, the necessity of safeguarding adequately the lines of communication of the Army in Macedonia, as also the exigencies of an eventual advance in the direction of Salonica, preclude the Bulgarian High Command from hoping to be in a position to detach any considerable number of troops in support of Major Hassan Bey.
With regard to the further intentions of the Bulgarian High Command Lieutenant Grekoff is fully informed and is empowered to discuss them with Major Hassan Bey.
GRIGOHIEFF, General of Cavalry Chief of the Intelligence Section of the General Staff of the Macedonian Army
‘I cannot conceal from you, Lieutenant,’ I said, as I pocketed the letter, ‘that this is a disappointing letter.’
‘Pardon?’ he said again. I perceived that he had difficulty in understanding my Turkish. His own certainly was of the very roughest, such Turkish as the rude peasants from Anatolia speak, with a minimum of Arabic and Persian words. I proceeded to embellish my own with every literary and poetic expression that I could recall.
‘I say,’ I said, ‘that when the crops have been promised the sunlight they will not ripen in the light of a minished moon.’
Poor Grekoff began to look anxious. ‘Pardon me,’ he said, ‘do you speak German? Or French? Or I can even speak a little English.’
‘Alas!’ I replied, ‘I speak only Turkish and Albanian. But my comrade, Mchemet Ali, who is even now waiting for me, speaks Bulgar. And there is Rifaat, who was at the Robert College; he speaks English as the poor eat bread. Spik good inglis Rifaat,’ I added in the last-named tongue, with a friendly grin. ‘Now I shall make a proposal, Lieutenant. We have much to do here before sundown. The Berati townspeople will do nothing against us; but we are not yet certain how Essad’s zaptiehs will turn. Do you send your horses to the Han, and repose yourself till the evening. In the evening I shall send to the Han for you, and then we shall hold a conference with Mehemet Ali and Rifaat to interpret. Have you understood me? Do I say well? ‘
He hesitated. Did a shade of suspicion cross his mind? I hardly think so. At any rate he assented.
‘Come!’ I said, rising, ‘ I shall accompany you to the Han.’
With my heart throbbing against my ribs I opened the door. Who might be outside, or what might happen when we appeared, I could not tell. The two Bulgar troopers sprang to attention. The crowd, ready to acclaim the appearance of power, made a path for us, and saluted as we passed rapidly along the corridor and down the stairs. Outside the Konak an idea came to me.
‘We have a hammam in Berat,’ I said to Grekoff with a smile. ‘ What do you say? Will you send your horses to the Han, and repose yourself with a bath after the fatigues of the road?’
‘Excellent,’ he said, and turning to one of the troopers said something rapidly in Bulgar. The man saluted and rode off with the horses. Grekoff, one of the troopers, and myself proceeded rapidly across the square to the bath, where I called in a loud voice for the hammamji. He appeared in much agitation, which was increased at the sight of the strange uniforms.
‘Give every attention to this officer,’ I said truculently, ‘and see that you relieve him of the fatigues of his journey.’ I had an afterthought. ‘Charge his bath,’ I added, ‘to the New Administration’— I repeated the words sternly— ‘the New Administration of the Town.’
The man made abject salutations, and with a profusion of compliments ushered the Bulgarian into the coolingroom. I turned into the open. A sudden downpour of rain had begun, and the passers-by and the loafers, who had followed us from the Konak, were seeking cover. It was perhaps my salvation. I turned into a side street, doubled back, and hurried through the rain unperceived, till I came to the house where old Bedri lived. I had burned all boats now; I must leave Berat at once, or I should never leave it alive; that was certain. But I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had accomplished my mission with a degree of completeness which an hour before I could not have believed possible.
I found Salih had returned without me and the family were collected in the single apartment which served as a living-room and as a sleeping-chamber for the men. Old Bedri Bey hailed me as I entered.
‘My son,’ he said, ‘Salih tells me you have spoken of departure.'
‘O Bedri Bey,’ I replied, ‘it is as Salih has said, and for good reason.’ I passed my hand across my throat with a gesture which is well known in Albania.
The rheumy eyes of the old man lit up and the others all looked at me with animation. ‘You have taken blood?’ said Bedri.
‘Not here and now,’ I replied, ‘but in the cafe this morning I have seen a brother of blood (relation of a man I had killed). It is for this reason that I must go, and that at once.’
They all, much interested, agreed.
I had something else to say. I had made up my mind from the first that, if I could possibly reconcile it with my own plans, I should take Salih with me to Europe, and give him the opportunity which he craved of restoring the fortunes of his house in America. I now asked Bedri Bey if he would allow his son to accompany me; I told him that when we reached Europe I proposed, with his permission, to take the responsibility of sending the boy to America and launching him there. The old Bey received my proposal in silence, while Salih, whose face had filled with rapture when he first heard the proposal, — for I had said no word to him previously of my intentions, — sat and watched his father anxiously. The women wept. Emigrant sons and parents who know they will see them no more make up the same sad story in Albania as in the rest of the world. At length the old man spoke.
‘Be silent!’ he said to the women. ‘It is for Salih to answer what our guest has said.’
The boy looked at the ground for a moment; then he caught his father’s hand and kissed it. ‘My father is Lord of the House,’ he said in a low voice; ‘what he says, I shall do.’
Pride and anguish wrestled in the old man’s eyes. ‘A good answer!’ he cried. ‘Let all listen and say if my son has not spoken worthily. But I can read
— who better?—the thoughts of my son’s heart. The tree is old, and lives only in one branch. Now comes the gardener. “The tree is like to fall,” says he, “pity the living branch should fall with it. Lop rather, and plant in new soil.” So it is understood. So it was to be.'
It was just after nightfall when we started. We were mounted on two horses which I had purchased from the owner of the house, whom Bedri had summoned and let into the secret. We took no pack animal. I carried my saddlebags behind my saddle, and Salih had a sack of oats behind his. Bedri’s family, like many other Moslem Albanian families, belongs traditionally to the Bektashi sect; and there was in the house the dress of a Bektashi traveling dervish. This I assumed for the journey. It was arranged that I should represent myself as a kind of house dervish or family chaplain, accompanying Salih to the coast on his way to complete his education in Europe. I confess the disguise afforded me particular satisfaction. I had caught up — some might say I had outstripped — the Franciscan on his own ground; and so strong is professional jealousy that I even caught myself wishing my rival could be there to see me!
In the bosom of my inner garment I bestowed the precious letter which I had taken from Grekoff. But first with red wax, of which I always carry a small stick, I made two impressive-looking seals at the foot of the document. The first I sealed with one of my signetrings, the second with that large Turkish coin which is called a medjidieh. The medjidieh bears on its obverse the ‘Tughra,’ the ornamental monogram of the Sultan, which is known — or, I suppose one must now say, used to be known — by sight to every Moslem, even to the illiterate. To those who cannot read, a big red seal naturally appears the most important part of a letter, and if it should prove necessary to use my letter as a credential I wished it to be equally impressive with the learned and with the ignorant.
My plan was to leave Berat by the eastern road to Monastir, to travel for a couple of miles, and then fetch a complete semicircle in the foothills that surround the town, so as to join the western road to Valona at a point some ten miles below Berat where the stream of the Osum is bridged. This manœuvre occupied the greater part of the night. It was but an hour before dawn when we reached the bridge. We crossed, turned into the woods that flank the river bank, and I made Salih sleep while I fed the horses and kept watch. So far all had gone well. Whatever perils the journey might have in store for us, Berat at any rate now lay behind us, and there was no sign that my escape had been observed.
Toward sundown we issued from the woods and continued our journey. Deserting the customary road, which runs through the marshesof the littoral, we turned up a side valley into the barren Malacastriot Mountains, which project into the littoral between Valona and Berat. We had not gone far before we came to a solitary house by the side of the stony track. It showed no lights, and we thought it was uninhabited. As we passed, however, we were hailed from within, and a couple of zaptiehs strolled out to the door.
‘Who are you? Where are you going?’
"I am called Dervish Mustapha. I am going with this young Bey to Valona.’
‘What is in that sack?’
‘Oats,’ said I tartly, ‘O man of Essad.’
‘There is no Essad,’ he observed genially. ‘We were Essad’s men; now we are the men of Hassan Bey, of the Sultan, of the Austrians — God knows.’
‘This dervish has a fat pack,’ said the other zaptieh, fingering my saddlebags. ‘In the name of Hassan Bey it is necessary that we should open these saddlebags and divide between us what it is not lawful for dervishes to possess.’
I wrung my hands, and loudly protested, signing at the same time to the hot-blooded Salih to say nothing. The zaptieh took no notice of either of us, but proceeded placidly to slit open the end of one of my bags. As it ripped, the signet-rings fell out on the ground.
‘O Said!’ he cried to his companion, ‘it is gold! They carry gold!'
I now felt fairly certain they were after loot only, and had not been sent to watch for us. ‘Look, blockhead,’ I said in a new tone of voice, ‘at the image which is on the gold.’
He stared at the eagles on the signets. He looked at me. He looked at his companion.
‘Does a traveling dervish carry Imperial eagles,’ I asked, ‘or such writings as this?’ and plunging my hand into my bosom I drew out and opened before him the precious letter. The two zaptiehs bent over it. They could not read, for they looked at it upside down; but the two seals caught their eye. The conjunction of the Tughra and the Eagle, and my possession of signets bearing the same eagle, were too much for them.
‘ These are troubled times. There are strange people about,’ whispered the first zaptieh to his companion. ‘Better to give back the rings, O Ahmed.’
With a bad grace the other handed me the rings and the letter, muttering something about the irksomeness of police duties. I continued to chaff him while he sewed up the ripped saddlebag. Meanwhile Salih gave the first zaptieh some of our oats. This last was a humorous dog. By way of farewell, as we turned to go, he crooked his palm, and set up a mock appeal for alms: ‘Shayid Ullah! Shayid Ullah!’ He had caught to the very life the Bektashi drone. I esteem the gift of mimicry. It counts for much in my profession. I took the two rings from my pocket,
‘Catch, brother!’ I said, laughing, and I flung them the rings.
They stood gaping, too mystified to thank me. I rode off still laughing.
‘Why did you give them the rings,’ said Salih, ‘and how did you come by that letter of power?’
I told him what I could of the truth; it was not much, for the secret was not mine to tell, but that of the Government which employed me. To turn the conversation I offered to teach him English; and with this diversion we occupied that and the three succeeding nights.
We met no more zaptiehs, and passed without adventure through the mountain villages. But there was little food to be had, and we and our horses were spent when on the fourth day we reached the ridge of the Malacastra and looked down upon the blue waters of the Vojusa thousands of feet below. The descent was even more trying than the ascent, and one of the horses collapsed and had to be abandoned. We were too exhausted to attempt to cross the Vojusa by swimming; and we could only follow the course of the river to the Italian bridgehead downstream.
It was with a sigh of relief that I caught sight of the first olive-gray cloaks of an Italian infantry picket. Naturally we were arrested by the Italians, and my letter was confiscated. It was some time before I was able to establish my identity; but when at length the necessary authority was received from Valona they were loud in their congratulations.
Salih and I made the last stage of our journey to Valona in an Italian automobile along an Italian road, our stomachs distended, after long fasting, with Italian hospitality. It was Salih’s first introduction to Europe.
‘Europe is very sweet,’ he said to me, fingering the leather cushions of the automobile, and watching the posts of the field telegraph rush by. ‘ Compared with Europe, Albania is nothing.’
‘Is it not, Salih?’
He looked at me. His lip quivered and he burst into tears.