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An Adventure in Cyprus by David Ker

1878

"So this is Cyprus?" cries my English companion, Mr. James P——, turning his glass with a critical air upon the glorious panorama that lies outspread before us in all the splendor of the June sunrise. "Well, upon my word, it's not so bad, after all!"

Such a landscape, however, merits far higher praise than this thoroughly English commendation. To the right surge up against the bright morning sky, wave beyond wave, an endless succession of green sunny slopes which might pass for the "Delectable Mountains" of Bunyan. To the left cluster the vineyards which have supplied for nineteen centuries the far-famed "wine of Cyprus." In front extends a wide sweep of smooth white sand, ending on one side in a bold rocky ridge, and on the other in the tall white houses and straggling streets and painted church-towers and gilded cupolas of the quaint old town of Larnaka, which, outlined against a shadowy background of purple hills, appears to us as just it did to Cœur de Lion and his warriors when they landed here seven hundred years ago on their way to the fatal crusade from which so few of them were to return. And all around, a fit frame for such a picture, extend the blue sparkling sea and the warm, dreamy, voluptuous summer sky.

"Wasn't it here that Fortunatus used to live?" says P——. "I wish I could find his purse lying about somewhere: it would come in very handy just now."

"You forget that its virtue ended with his life," answer I; "and, moreover, the illustrious man didn't live here, but at Famagosta, farther along the coast, where, I dare say, the first Greek you meet will show you 'ze house of Signor Fortunato,' and the original purse to boot, all for the small charge of one piastre."

Our landing is beset by the usual mob of yelling vagabonds, eager to lighten our pockets by means of worthless native "curiosities," "antiques" manufactured a month before, or vociferous offers to show us "all ze fine sight of ze town, ver' sheap." Just as we have succeeded in fighting our way through the hurly-burly a venerable old Smyrniote with a long white beard, in whom we recognize one of our fellow-passengers on the steamer, accosts us with a low bow: "Want see ze old shursh, genteelmen? All ze Signori Inglesi go see zat. You wish, I take you zere one minute."

"All right!" shouts P—— with characteristic impetuosity: "I'm bound to see all I can in the time. Drive on, old boy: I'm your man."

Away we go, accordingly, along the deep, narrow, tunnel-like streets, flanked on either side by tall blank houses such as meet one at every turn in Cairo or Djeddah or Jerusalem, between whose projecting fronts the sunny sky appears like a narrow strip of bright blue ribbon far away overhead, while all below is veiled in a rich summer twilight of purple shadow, like that which fills the interior of some vast cathedral. But ever and anon a sudden break in the ranked masses of building gives us a momentary glimpse of the broad shining sea and dazzling sunlight, which falls upon many a group that a painter would love to copy—tall, gaunt Armenians, whose high black caps and long dark robes make their pale, hollow faces look doubly spectral; low-browed, sallow, bearded Russians; brawny English sailors, looking down with a grand, indulgent contempt upon those unhappy beings whom an inscrutable Providence has doomed to be "foreigners;" stolid Turks, tramping onward in silent defiance of the fierce looks cast at them from every side; sinewy Dalmatians, with close-cropped black hair; dapper Frenchmen, with well-trimmed moustaches, casting annihilating glances at the few ladies who happen to be abroad; and barefooted Greeks, with little baskets of fruit or fish perched on their heads—ragged, wild-eyed and brigand-like as the lazzaroni who rose from the pavement of Naples at the call of Masaniello.

"Awful rascals some of these fellows look, eh?" remarks P—— in a stage whisper.

"Yes, their faces are certainly no letter of recommendation. There is some truth, undoubtedly, in the last clause of the old proverb: 'Greek wines steal all heads, Greek women steal all hearts, and Greek men steal everything.'"

But at this moment our attention is drawn to a crowd a little way ahead, the centre of attraction being apparently a good-looking young Greek from the Morea, whose jaunty little crimson cap with its hanging tassel sets off very tastefully his dark, handsome face and the glossy black curls which surround it. He is leaning against the pillar of a gateway in an attitude of unstudied grace that would charm an Italian painter, and singing, to the accompaniment of his little three-stringed guitar, a lively Greek song, of which we only come up in time to catch the last verse:

Look in mine eyes, lady fair:
There your own image you'll see.
Open my heart and look there:
There too your image will be.

The coppers that chink into the singer's extended hat show how fully his efforts are appreciated; but at this moment P——, with the free-and-easy command of a true John Bull, elbows his way through the throng, and calls out: "Holloa, Johnny! we only got the fag-end of that song. Tip us another, and here's five piastres for you" (about twenty-five cents).

The musician seems to understand him, and with a slight preliminary flourish on his instrument pours forth, in a voice as clear and rippling as the carol of a bird, a song which may be thus translated:

Men fret, men toil, men pinch and pare,
Make life itself a scramble,
While I, without a grief or care,
Where'er it lists me ramble.
'Neath cloudless sun or clouded moon,
By market-cross or ferry,
I chant my lay, I play my tune.
And all who hear are merry.
 
When summer's sun unclouded shines,
And mountain-shadows linger,
I watch them dance among the vines
As quicker moves my finger;
And so they sport till day is o'er,
And black-robed Night advances,
And where the maidens tripped before,
The lovely moonbeam dances.
When 'neath the rush of winter's rain
The dripping forests welter,
The shepherd opes his door amain,
And gives me food and shelter.
I touch my chords, I trill my lay,
The firelight glances o'er us,
And wind and rain, in stormy play,
Join in with lusty chorus.
'Mid rustling leaves, 'neath open sky,
I live like lark or swallow:
There's not a bird more free to fly
Than I am free to follow.
And when grim Death his bow shall bend,
My mortal course suspending,
Oh may my life, howe'er it end,
Have music in its ending!

Such music, supplemented by such a voice, strongly tempts us to remain and hear more; but our impatient guide urges us onward, and in another minute we stand before the dark, low-browed archway of the old church which we have come to see.

The quaint architecture of the outside is strange and old-world enough, but when we enter, the dim interior, haunted by weird shadows and ghostly echoes, has quite an unearthly effect after the bustling life of the city. As is usual in Greek and Russian churches, there are no seats of any kind, the whole interior being one wide bare space, dimly lighted by the two tall candles on the altar and a few little oil-lamps attached to the pictures of saints adorning the walls. The decorations have that air of tawdry finery which is the most displeasing feature of the Eastern churches; but the four frescoes at the farther end (representing the Adoration of the Magi, our Lord's Baptism, the Crucifixion, and the Descent into Hell), rude as they are, have a grim power which takes hold of our fancy at once. Dante himself might approve the last of the four, in which the lurid atmosphere, the hideous contortions of the demons, and the surging flight of the half-awakened dead, with their blank faces and stony eyes, contrast magnificently with the grand calmness of the divine Figure in the centre—a perfect realization of the noble words of Milton:

Some howled, some shrieked,
Some bent their fiery darts at thee, while Thou
Sat'st unappalled in calm and sinless peace.

The only occupant of the building is a tall, dignified-looking priest, who at once takes upon himself the part of expositor; but he is suddenly interrupted by the hurried entrance of a man who whispers something in his ear. The priest instantly vanishes into the sacristy, and, reappearing with something like a casket under his arm, goes hastily out, muttering as he passes us some words which my comrade interprets as "Follow me."

We obey at once; but, in truth, it is no light matter to do so, for the good father sets off at a pace which, considering the heat of the day and the weight of his trailing robes, is simply astounding. Up one street, down another, round a corner, along a narrow lane—on he rushes as if bent upon rivalling that indefatigable giant who "walked round the world every morning before breakfast to sharpen his appetite."

"By Jove!" mutters P——, mopping his streaming face for the twentieth time, "what he's going to show us ought to be something special, by the hurry he's in to get to it. Anyhow, it's a queer style of showing us the way, to go pelting on like that, and leave us to take care of ourselves. I'll just halloo to him to slacken speed a bit."

But just as he is about to do so the priest halts suddenly in front of a high, blank wall of baked clay, in the midst of which a door opens and swallows him as if by magic. We come tearing up a moment later, and are about to enter at his heels when our way is unexpectedly barred by an ugly old Greek with one eye and with a threadbare crimson cap pulled down over his lean, sallow face, which looks very much like a half-decayed cucumber. "What do you want?" he growls, eying us from head to foot with the air of a bulldog about to bite.

We explain our errand, and are electrified with the information that we have been on the point of intruding ourselves into a private house; that the priest's business there is to pray over the master of it, who is dangerously ill; and that, in short, we have been "hunting upon a false scent" altogether. Having imparted this satisfactory information, Cerberus shuts the door in our faces (which are sufficiently blank by this time), and leaves us to think over the matter at our leisure.

"Confound the old mole!" growls P—— wrathfully: "if he didn't want us, why on earth did he tell us to follow him, I should like to know?"

"Are you quite sure that he did say so?" ask I. "What were the Greek words that he used?"

"'Mê akolouthei,' or something like that."

"Which means, 'Don't follow,'" I retort, transfixing the abashed offender with a look of piercing reproach. "If that's all that's left of your Greek, you'd better buy a lexicon and take a fresh start. However, there's nobody to tell tales if we don't, that's one comfort."

And so ends the first and last of our adventures in Cyprus.

David Ker.