Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter V

Infidel Smyrna

Smyrna, or Giaour Izmir, “Infidel Smyrna,” as the Mussulmans call it, is the main point of commercial contact betwixt Europe and Asia. You are there surrounded by the people, and the confused customs of many and various nations; you see the fussy European adopting the East, and calming his restlessness with the long Turkish “pipe of tranquillity”; you see Jews offering services, and receiving blows; 8 on one side you have a fellow whose dress and beard would give you a good idea of the true Oriental, if it were not for the gobe-mouche expression of countenance with which he is swallowing an article in the National; and there, just by, is a genuine Osmanlee, smoking away with all the majesty of a sultan, but before you have time to admire sufficiently his tranquil dignity, and his soft Asiatic repose, the poor old fellow is ruthlessly “run down” by an English midshipman, who has set sail on a Smyrna hack. Such are the incongruities of the “infidel city” at ordinary times; but when I was there, our friend Carrigaholt had imported himself and his oddities as an accession to the other and inferior wonders of Smyrna.

I was sitting alone in my room one day at Constantinople, when I heard Methley approaching my door with shouts of laughter and welcome, and presently I recognised that peculiar cry by which our friend Carrigaholt expresses his emotions; he soon explained to us the final causes by which the fates had worked out their wonderful purpose of bringing him to Constantinople. He was always, you know, very fond of sailing, but he had got into such sad scrapes (including, I think, a lawsuit) on account of his last yacht, that he took it into his head to have a cruise in a merchant vessel, so he went to Liverpool, and looked through the craft lying ready to sail, till he found a smart schooner that perfectly suited his taste. The destination of the vessel was the last thing he thought of; and when he was told that she was bound for Constantinople, he merely assented to that as a part of the arrangement to which he had no objection. As soon as the vessel had sailed, the hapless passenger discovered that his skipper carried on board an enormous wife, with an inquiring mind and an irresistible tendency to impart her opinions. She looked upon her guest as upon a piece of waste intellect that ought to be carefully tilled. She tilled him accordingly. If the dons at Oxford could have seen poor Carrigaholt thus absolutely “attending lectures” in the Bay of Biscay, they would surely have thought him sufficiently punished for all the wrongs he did them whilst he was preparing himself under their care for the other and more boisterous University. The voyage did not last more than six or eight weeks, and the philosophy inflicted on Carrigaholt was not entirely fatal to him; certainly he was somewhat emaciated, and for aught I know, he may have subscribed somewhat too largely to the “Feminine-right-of-reason Society”; but it did not appear that his health had been seriously affected. There was a scheme on foot, it would seem, for taking the passenger back to England in the same schooner — a scheme, in fact, for keeping him perpetually afloat, and perpetually saturated with arguments; but when Carrigaholt found himself ashore, and remembered that the skipperina (who had imprudently remained on board) was not there to enforce her suggestions, he was open to the hints of his servant (a very sharp fellow), who arranged a plan for escaping, and finally brought off his master to Giuseppini’s Hotel.

Our friend afterwards went by sea to Smyrna, and there he now was in his glory. He had a good, or at all events a gentleman-like, judgment in matters of taste, and as his great object was to surround himself with all that his fancy could dictate, he lived in a state of perpetual negotiation. He was for ever on the point of purchasing, not only the material productions of the place, but all sorts of such fine ware as “intelligence,” “fidelity,” and so on. He was most curious, however, as the purchaser of the “affections.” Sometimes he would imagine that he had a marital aptitude, and his fancy would sketch a graceful picture, in which he appeared reclining on a divan, with a beautiful Greek woman fondly couched at his feet, and soothing him with the witchery of her guitar. Having satisfied himself with the ideal picture thus created, he would pass into action; the guitar he would buy instantly, and would give such intimations of his wish to be wedded to a Greek, as could not fail to produce great excitement in the families, of the beautiful Smyrniotes. Then again (and just in time perhaps to save him from the yoke) his dream would pass away, and another would come in its stead; he would suddenly feel the yearnings of a father’s love, and willing by force of gold to transcend all natural preliminaries, he would issue instructions for the purchase of some dutiful child that could be warranted to love him as a parent. Then at another time he would be convinced that the attachment of menials might satisfy the longings of his affectionate heart, and thereupon he would give orders to his slave-merchant for something in the way of eternal fidelity. You may well imagine that this anxiety of Carrigaholt to purchase not only the scenery, but the many dramatis personae belonging to his dreams, with all their goodness and graces complete, necessarily gave an immense stimulus to the trade and intrigue of Smyrna, and created a demand for human virtues which the moral resources of the place were totally inadequate to supply. Every day after breakfast this lover of the good and the beautiful held a levee, which was often exceedingly amusing. In his anteroom there would be not only the sellers of pipes and slippers and shawls, and such like Oriental merchandise, not only embroiderers and cunning workmen patiently striving to realise his visions of Albanian dresses, not only the servants offering for places, and the slave-dealer tendering his sable ware, but there would be the Greek master, waiting to teach his pupil the grammar of the soft Ionian tongue, in which he was to delight the wife of his imagination, and the music-master, who was to teach him some sweet replies to the anticipated sounds of the fancied guitar; and then, above all, and proudly eminent with undisputed preference of entree, and fraught with the mysterious tidings on which the realisation of the whole dream might depend, was the mysterious match-maker, 9 enticing and postponing the suitor, yet ever keeping alive in his soul the love of that pictured virtue, whose beauty (unseen by eyes) was half revealed to the imagination.

You would have thought that this practical dreaming must have soon brought Carrigaholt to a bad end, but he was in much less danger than you would suppose; for besides that the new visions of happiness almost always came in time to counteract the fatal completion of the preceding scheme, his high breeding and his delicately sensitive taste almost always came to his aid at times when he was left without any other protection; and the efficacy of these qualities in keeping a man out of harm’s way is really immense. In all baseness and imposture there is a coarse, vulgar spirit, which, however artfully concealed for a time, must sooner or later show itself in some little circumstance sufficiently plain to occasion an instant jar upon the minds of those whose taste is lively and true. To such men a shock of this kind, disclosing the UGLINESS of a cheat, is more effectively convincing than any mere proofs could be.

Thus guarded from isle to isle, and through Greece, and through Albania, this practical Plato with a purse in his hand, carried on his mad chase after the good and the beautiful, and yet returned in safety to his home. But now, poor fellow! the lowly grave, that is the end of men’s romantic hopes, has closed over all his rich fancies, and all his high aspirations; he is utterly married! No more hope, no more change for him — no more relays — he must go on Vetturini-wise to the appointed end of his journey!

Smyrna, I think, may be called the chief town and capital of the Grecian race, against which you will be cautioned so carefully as soon as you touch the Levant. You will say that I ought not to confound as one people the Greeks living under a constitutional government with the unfortunate Rayahs who “groan under the Turkish yoke,” but I can’t see that political events have hitherto produced any strongly marked difference of character. If I could venture to rely (which I feel that I cannot at all do) upon my own observation, I should tell you that there was more heartiness and strength in the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire than in those of the new kingdom. The truth is, that there is a greater field for commercial enterprise, and even for Greek ambition, under the Ottoman sceptre, than is to be found in the dominions of Otho. Indeed the people, by their frequent migrations from the limits of the constitutional kingdom to the territories of the Porte, seem to show that, on the whole, they prefer “groaning under the Turkish yoke” to the honour of “being the only true source of legitimate power” in their own land.

For myself, I love the race; in spite of all their vices, and even in spite of all their meannesses, I remember the blood that is in them, and still love the Greeks. The Osmanlees are, of course, by nature, by religion, and by politics, the strong foes of the Hellenic people, and as the Greeks, poor fellows! happen to be a little deficient in some of the virtues which facilitate the transaction of commercial business (such as veracity, fidelity, &c.), it naturally follows that they are highly unpopular with the European merchants. Now these are the persons through whom, either directly or indirectly, is derived the greater part of the information which you gather in the Levant, and therefore you must make up your mind to hear an almost universal and unbroken testimony against the character of the people whose ancestors invented virtue. And strange to say, the Greeks themselves do not attempt to disturb this general unanimity of opinion by an dissent on their part. Question a Greek on the subject, and he will tell you at once that the people are traditori, and will then, perhaps, endeavour to shake off his fair share of the imputation by asserting that his father had been dragoman to some foreign embassy, and that he (the son), therefore, by the law of nations, had ceased to be Greek.

“E dunque no siete traditore?”

“Possibile, signor, ma almeno Io no sono Greco.”

Not even the diplomatic representatives of the Hellenic kingdom are free from the habit of depreciating their brethren. I recollect that at one of the ports in Syria a Greek vessel was rather unfairly kept in quarantine by order of the Board of Health, which consisted entirely of Europeans. A consular agent from the kingdom of Greece had lately hoisted his flag in the town, and the captain of the vessel drew up a remonstrance, which he requested his consul to present to the Board.

“Now, IS this reasonable?” said the consul; “is it reasonable that I should place myself in collision with all the principal European gentlemen of the place for the sake of you, a Greek?” The skipper was greatly vexed at the failure of his application, but he scarcely even questioned the justice of the ground which his consul had taken. Well, it happened some time afterwards that I found myself at the same port, having gone thither with the view of embarking for the port of Syra. I was anxious, of course, to elude as carefully as possible the quarantine detentions which threatened me on my arrival, and hearing that the Greek consul had a brother who was a man in authority at Syra, I got myself presented to the former, and took the liberty of asking him to give me such a letter of introduction to his relative at Syra as might possibly have the effect of shortening the term of my quarantine. He acceded to this request with the utmost kindness and courtesy; but when he replied to my thanks by saying that “in serving an Englishman he was doing no more than his strict duty commanded,” not even my gratitude could prevent me from calling to mind his treatment of the poor captain who had the misfortune of NOT being an alien in blood to his consul and appointed protector.

I think that the change which has taken place in the character of the Greeks has been occasioned, in great measure, by the doctrines and practice of their religion. The Greek Church has animated the Muscovite peasant, and inspired him with hopes and ideas which, however humble, are still better than none at all; but the faith, and the forms, and the strange ecclesiastical literature which act so advantageously upon the mere clay of the Russian serf, seem to hang like lead upon the ethereal spirit of the Greek. Never in any part of the world have I seen religious performances so painful to witness as those of the Greeks. The horror, however, with which one shudders at their worship is attributable, in some measure, to the mere effect of costume. In all the Ottoman dominions, and very frequently too in the kingdom of Otho, the Greeks wear turbans or other head-dresses, and shave their heads, leaving only a rat’s-tail at the crown of the head; they of course keep themselves covered within doors as well as abroad, and they never remove their head-gear merely on account of being in a church; but when the Greek stops to worship at his proper shrine, then, and then only, he always uncovers; and as you see him thus with shaven skull and savage tail depending from his crown, kissing a thing of wood and glass, and cringing with base prostrations and apparent terror before a miserable picture, you see superstition in a shape which, outwardly at least, is sadly abject and repulsive.

The fasts, too, of the Greek Church produce an ill effect upon the character of the people, for they are not a mere farce, but are carried to such an extent as to bring about a real mortification of the flesh; the febrile irritation of the frame operating in conjunction with the depression of the spirits occasioned by abstinence, will so far answer the objects of the rite, as to engender some religious excitement, but this is of a morbid and gloomy character, and it seems to be certain, that along with the increase of sanctity, there comes a fiercer desire for the perpetration of dark crimes. The number of murders committed during Lent is greater, I am told, than at any other time of the year. A man under the influence of a bean dietary (for this is the principal food of the Greeks during their fasts) will be in an apt humour for enriching the shrine of his saint, and passing a knife through his next-door neighbour. The moneys deposited upon the shrines are appropriated by priests; the priests are married men, and have families to provide for; they “take the good with the bad,” and continue to recommend fasts.

Then, too, the Greek Church enjoins her followers to keep holy such a vast number of saints’ days as practically to shorten the lives of the people very materially. I believe that one-third out of the number of days in the year are “kept holy,” or rather, KEPT STUPID, in honour of the saints; no great portion of the time thus set apart is spent in religious exercises, and the people don’t betake themselves to any such animating pastimes as might serve to strengthen the frame, or invigorate the mind, or exalt the taste. On the contrary, the saints’ days of the Greeks in Smyrna are passed in the same manner as the Sabbaths of well-behaved Protestant housemaids in London — that is to say, in a steady and serious contemplation of street scenery. The men perform this duty AT THE DOORS of their houses, the women AT THE WINDOWS, which the custom of Greek towns has so decidedly appropriated to them as the proper station of their sex, that a man would be looked upon as utterly effeminate if he ventured to choose that situation for the keeping of the saints’ days. I was present one day at a treaty for the hire of some apartments at Smyrna, which was carried on between Carrigaholt and the Greek woman to whom the rooms belonged. Carrigaholt objected that the windows commanded no view of the street. Immediately the brow of the majestic matron was clouded, and with all the scorn of a Spartan mother she coolly asked Carrigaholt, and said, “Art thou a tender damsel that thou wouldst sit and gaze from windows?” The man whom she addressed, however, had not gone to Greece with any intention of placing himself under the laws of Lycurgus, and was not to be diverted from his views by a Spartan rebuke, so he took care to find himself windows after his own heart, and there, I believe, for many a month, he kept the saints’ days, and all the days intervening, after the fashion of Grecian women.

Oh! let me be charitable to all who write, and to all who lecture, and to all who preach, since even I, a layman not forced to write at all, can hardly avoid chiming in with some tuneful cant! I have had the heart to talk about the pernicious effects of the Greek holidays, to which I owe some of my most beautiful visions! I will let the words stand, as a humbling proof that I am subject to that immutable law which compels a man with a pen in his hand to be uttering every now and then some sentiment not his own. It seems as though the power of expressing regrets and desires by written symbols were coupled with a condition that the writer should from time to time express the regrets and desires of other people; as though, like a French peasant under the old regime, one were bound to perform a certain amount of work UPON THE PUBLIC HIGHWAYS. I rebel as stoutly as I can against this horrible, corvee. I try not to deceive you — I try to set down the thoughts which are fresh within me, and not to pretend any wishes, or griefs, which I do not really feel; but no sooner do I cease from watchfulness in this regard, than my right hand is, as it were, seized by some false angel, and even now, you see, I have been forced to put down such words and sentences as I ought to have written if really and truly I had wished to disturb the saints’ days of the beautiful Smyrniotes!

Which, Heaven forbid! for as you move through the narrow streets of the city at these times of festival, the transom-shaped windows suspended over your head on either side are filled with the beautiful descendants of the old Ionian race; all (even yonder empress that sits throned at the window of that humblest mud cottage) are attired with seeming magnificence; their classic heads are crowned with scarlet, and loaded with jewels or coins of gold, the whole wealth of the wearers; 10 their features are touched with a savage pencil, which hardens the outline of eyes and eyebrows, and lends an unnatural fire to the stern, grave looks with which they pierce your brain. Endure their fiery eyes as best you may, and ride on slowly and reverently, for facing you from the side of the transom, that looks long-wise through the street, you see the one glorious shape transcendant in its beauty; you see the massive braid of hair as it catches a touch of light on its jetty surface, and the broad, calm, angry brow; the large black eyes, deep set, and self-relying like the eyes of a conqueror, with their rich shadows of thought lying darkly around them; you see the thin fiery nostril, and the bold line of the chin and throat disclosing all the fierceness, and all the pride, passion, and power that can live along with the rare womanly beauty of those sweetly turned lips. But then there is a terrible stillness in this breathing image; it seems like the stillness of a savage that sits intent and brooding, day by day, upon some one fearful scheme of vengeance, but yet more like it seems to the stillness of an Immortal, whose will must be known, and obeyed without sign or speech. Bow down! — Bow down and adore the young Persephonie, transcendent Queen of Shades!

8 The Jews of Smyrna are poor, and having little merchandise of their own to dispose of, they are sadly importunate in offering their services as intermediaries: their troublesome conduct has led to the custom of beating them in the open streets. It is usual for Europeans to carry long sticks with them, for the express purpose of keeping off the chosen people. I always felt ashamed to strike the poor fellows myself, but I confess to the amusement with which I witnessed the observance of this custom by other people. The Jew seldom got hurt much, for he was always expecting the blow, and was ready to recede from it the moment it came: one could not help being rather gratified at seeing him bound away so nimbly, with his long robes floating out in the air, and then again wheel round, and return with fresh importunities.

9 Marriages in the East are arranged by professed match-makers; many of these, I believe, are Jewesses.

10 A Greek woman wears her whole fortune upon her person in the shape of jewels or gold coins; I believe that this mode of investment is adopted in great measure for safety’s sake. It has the advantage of enabling a suitor to RECKON as well as to admire the objects of his affection.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44