Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter VII

Cyprus

There was a Greek at Limasol who hoisted his flag as an English vice-consul, and he insisted upon my accepting his hospitality. With some difficulty, and chiefly by assuring him that I could not delay my departure beyond an early hour in the afternoon, I induced him to allow my dining with his family instead of banqueting all alone with the representative of my sovereign in consular state and dignity. The lady of the house, it seemed, had never sat at table with an European. She was very shy about the matter, and tried hard to get out of the scrape, but the husband, I fancy, reminded her that she was theoretically an Englishwoman, by virtue of the flag that waved over her roof, and that she was bound to show her nationality by sitting at meat with me. Finding herself inexorably condemned to bear with the dreaded gaze of European eyes, she tried to save her innocent children from the hard fate awaiting herself, but I obtained that all of them (and I think there were four or five) should sit at the table. You will meet with abundance of stately receptions and of generous hospitality, too, in the East, but rarely, very rarely in those regions (or even, so far as I know, in any part of southern Europe) does one gain an opportunity of seeing the familiar and indoor life of the people.

This family party of the good consul’s (or rather of mine, for I originated the idea, though he furnished the materials) went off very well. The mamma was shy at first, but she veiled the awkwardness which she felt by affecting to scold her children, who had all of them, I think, immortal names — names too which they owed to tradition, and certainly not to any classical enthusiasm of their parents. Every instant I was delighted by some such phrases as these, “Themistocles, my love, don’t fight.” — “Alcibiades, can’t you sit still?” — “Socrates, put down the cup.” — “Oh, fie! Aspasia, don’t. Oh! don’t be naughty!” It is true that the names were pronounced Socrahtie, Aspahsie — that is, according to accent, and not according to quantity — but I suppose it is scarcely now to be doubted that they were so sounded in ancient times.

To me it seems, that of all the lands I know (you will see in a minute how I connect this piece of prose’ with the isle of Cyprus), there is none in which mere wealth, mere unaided wealth, is held half so cheaply; none in which a poor devil of a millionaire, without birth, or ability, occupies so humble a place as in England. My Greek host and I were sitting together, I think, upon the roof of the house (for that is the lounging-place in Eastern climes), when the former assumed a serious air, and intimated a wish to converse upon the subject of the British Constitution, with which he assured me that he was thoroughly acquainted. He presently, however, informed me that there was one anomalous circumstance attended upon the practical working of our political system which he had never been able to hear explained in a manner satisfactory to himself. From the fact of his having found a difficulty in his subject, I began to think that my host might really know rather more of it than his announcement of a thorough knowledge had led me to expect. I felt interested at being about to hear from the lips of an intelligent Greek, quite remote from the influence of European opinions, what might seem to him the most astonishing and incomprehensible of all those results which have followed from the action of our political institutions. The anomaly, the only anomaly which had been detected by the vice-consular wisdom, consisted in the fact that Rothschild (the late money-monger) had never been the Prime Minister of England! I gravely tried to throw some light upon the mysterious causes that had kept the worthy Israelite out of the Cabinet, but I think I could see that my explanation was not satisfactory. Go and argue with the flies of summer that there is a power divine, yet greater than the sun in the heavens, but never dare hope to convince the people of the south that there is any other God than Gold.

My intended journey was to the site of the Paphian temple. I take no antiquarian interest in ruins, and care little about them, unless they are either striking in themselves, or else serve to mark some spot on which my fancy loves to dwell. I knew that the ruins of Paphos were scarcely, if at all, discernible, but there was a will and a longing more imperious than mere curiosity that drove me thither.

For this just then was my pagan soul’s desire — that (not forfeiting my inheritance for the life to come) it had yet been given me to live through this world — to live a favoured mortal under the old Olympian dispensation — to speak out my resolves to the listening Jove, and hear him answer with approving thunder — to be blessed with divine counsels from the lips of Pallas Athenie — to believe — ay, only to believe — to believe for one rapturous moment that in the gloomy depths of the grove, by the mountain’s side, there were some leafy pathway that crisped beneath the glowing sandal of Aphrodetie — Aphrodetie, not coldly disdainful of even a mortal’s love! And this vain, heathenish longing of mine was father to the thought of visiting the scene of the ancient worship.

The isle is beautiful. From the edge of the rich, flowery fields on which I trod to the midway sides of the snowy Olympus, the ground could only here and there show an abrupt crag, or a high straggling ridge that up-shouldered itself from out of the wilderness of myrtles, and of the thousand bright-leaved shrubs that twined their arms together in lovesome tangles. The air that came to my lips was warm and fragrant as the ambrosial breath of the goddess, infecting me, not (of course) with a faith in the old religion of the isle, but with a sense and apprehension of its mystic power — a power that was still to be obeyed — obeyed by ME, for why otherwise did I toil on with sorry horses to “where, for HER, the hundred altars glowed with Arabian incense, and breathed with the fragrance of garlands ever fresh”? 13

I passed a sadly disenchanting night in the cabin of a Greek priest — not a priest of the goddess, but of the Greek Church; there was but one humble room, or rather shed, for man, and priest, and beast. The next morning I reached Baffa (Paphos), a village not far distant from the site of the temple. There was a Greek husbandman there who (not for emolument, but for the sake of the protection and dignity which it afforded) had got leave from the man at Limasol to hoist his flag as a sort of deputy-provisionary-sub-vice-pro-acting-consul of the British sovereign: the poor fellow instantly changed his Greek headgear for the cap of consular dignity, and insisted upon accompanying me to the ruins. I would not have stood this if I could have felt the faintest gleam of my yesterday’s pagan piety, but I had ceased to dream, and had nothing to dread from any new disenchanters.

The ruins (the fragments of one or two prostrate pillars) lie upon a promontory, bare and unmystified by the gloom of surrounding groves. My Greek friend in his consular cap stood by, respectfully waiting to see what turn my madness would take, now that I had come at last into the presence of the old stones. If you have no taste for research, and can’t affect to look for inscriptions, there is some awkwardness in coming to the end of a merely sentimental pilgrimage; when the feeling which impelled you has gone, you have nothing to do but to laugh the thing off as well as you can, and, by-the-bye, it is not a bad plan to turn the conversation (or rather, allow the natives to turn it) towards the subject of hidden treasures. This is a topic on which they will always speak with eagerness, and if they can fancy that you, too, take an interest in such matters, they will not only think you perfectly sane, but will begin to give you credit for some more than human powers of forcing the obscure earth to show you its hoards of gold.

When we returned to Baffa, the vice-consul seized a club with the quietly determined air of a brave man resolved to do some deed of note. He went into the yard adjoining his cottage, where there were some thin, thoughtful, canting cocks, and serious, low-church-looking hens, respectfully listening, and chickens of tender years so well brought up, as scarcely to betray in their conduct the careless levity of youth. The vice-consul stood for a moment quite calm, collecting his strength; then suddenly he rushed into the midst of the congregation, and began to deal death and destruction on all sides. He spared neither sex nor age; the dead and dying were immediately removed from the field of slaughter, and in less than an hour, I think, they were brought on the table, deeply buried in mounds of snowy rice.

My host was in all respects a fine, generous fellow. I could not bear the idea of impoverishing him by my visit, and I consulted my faithful Mysseri, who not only assured me that I might safely offer money to the vice-consul, but recommended that I should give no more to him than to “the others,” meaning any other peasant. I felt, however, that there was something about the man, besides the flag and the cap, which made me shrink from offering coin, and as I mounted my horse on departing I gave him the only thing fit for a present that I happened to have with me, a rather handsome clasp-dagger, brought from Vienna. The poor fellow was ineffably grateful, and I had some difficulty in tearing myself from out of the reach of his thanks. At last I gave him what I supposed to be the last farewell, and rode on, but I had not gained more than about a hundred yards when my host came bounding and shouting after me, with a goat’s-milk cheese in his hand, which he implored me to accept. In old times the shepherd of Theocritus, or (to speak less dishonestly) the shepherd of the “Poetae Graeci,” sung his best song; I in this latter age presented my best dagger, and both of us received the same rustic reward.

It had been known that I should return to Limasol, and when I arrived there I found that a noble old Greek had been hospitably plotting to have me for his guest. I willingly accepted his offer. The day of my arrival happened to be the birthday of my host, and in consequence of this there was a constant influx of visitors, who came to offer their congratulations. A few of these were men, but most of them were young, graceful girls. Almost all of them went through the ceremony with the utmost precision and formality; each in succession spoke her blessing, in the tone of a person repeating a set formula, then deferentially accepted the invitation to sit, partook of the proffered sweetmeats and the cold, glittering water, remained for a few minutes either in silence or engaged in very thin conversation, then arose, delivered a second benediction, followed by an elaborate farewell, and departed.

The bewitching power attributed at this day to the women of Cyprus is curious in connection with the worship of the sweet goddess, who called their isle her own. The Cypriote is not, I think, nearly so beautiful in face as the Ionian queens of Izmir, but she is tall, and slightly formed; there is a high-souled meaning and expression, a seeming consciousness of gentle empire, that speaks in the wavy line of the shoulder, and winds itself like Cytherea’s own cestus around the slender waist; then the richly-abounding hair (not enviously gathered together under the head-dress) descends the neck, and passes the waist in sumptuous braids. Of all other women with Grecian blood in their veins the costume is graciously beautiful, but these, the maidens of Limasol — their robes are more gently, more sweetly imagined, and fall like Julia’s cashmere in soft, luxurious folds. The common voice of the Levant allows that in face the women of Cyprus are less beautiful than their brilliant sisters of Smyrna; and yet, says the Greek, he may trust himself to one and all the bright cities of the Aegean, and may yet weigh anchor with a heart entire, but that so surely as he ventures upon the enchanted isle of Cyprus, so surely will he know the rapture or the bitterness of love. The charm, they say, owes its power to that which the people call the astonishing “politics” (p???t???) of the women, meaning, I fancy, their tact and their witching ways: the word, however, plainly fails to express one-half of that which the speakers would say. I have smiled to hear the Greek, with all his plenteousness of fancy, and all the wealth of his generous language, yet vainly struggling to describe the ineffable spell which the Parisians dispose of in their own smart way by a summary “Je ne scai quoi.”

I went to Larnaca, the chief city of the isle, and over the water at last to Beyrout.

13 “ . . . ubi templum illi, centumque Sabaeo Thure calent arae, sertisque recentibus halant.” — Aeneid, i, 415.

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