Just at sunset one day in the last week of March, 1897, a caique set sail from the harbor of Piræus, ostensibly laden with cognac for Cairo, but in reality carrying a small revolving cannon and a large number of Gras rifles to the insurgents in Crete, who had risen for the hundredth time and were fighting desperately for liberty and the Christian faith. There were several large barrels, conspicuously marked “Koniak” in Greek characters, on the deck, and a number of boxes that bore the legend, “Two dozen bottles from Kambas, Athens.” The legend was not untruthful, for one of the huge casks, at least, contained the fiery liquid attributed to it; numberless others, in the hold, were filled with guns, and the boxes below deck were packed with ammunition.
There were other things, too, in the caique’s cargo intended for the Cretan heroes—articles of a seemingly pacific nature, such as hams, hardtack, flour, sausages, olives and beans. These had been declared contraband by the admirals of the great powers, and the whole cargo, should it be seized by any of the warships prowling about the ancient island, was doomed to confiscation. The captain, a thick-set, square-shouldered Greek, in greasy blue suit, soft woolen shirt and felt hat, held the long tiller in his left hand and made the sign of the cross repeatedly with his right.
“Holy Virgin be our helper,” he muttered. “St. Nicholas protect and help us!”
A stiff breeze was blowing and the vessel leaned over, like a tall man shouldering his way through a storm. The three young men standing upon her deck maintained their equilibrium by shooting one leg out straight, as though it were the prop of a cabin built on the side of a hill; the other being shortened to half its length by bending at the hip and knee.
A strip of canvas stretched on ropes, to keep the waves from rushing over, ran the whole length of either side. Stern and prow were equally pointed, and the iron rings of the boom, that clutched the main masts like the fingers of a closed hand, creaked monotonously. Two jibs, fluttering full-breasted before, seemed to pull out for the open sea, as a pair of white doves might in old time have drawn the bark of Aphrodite. The waters of the bay, that lay like a rolling plain of green meadow grass and blood-red anemones in the dying sun, was shredded into lily-white foam by the ship’s iron plowshare and hurled carelessly into the broad road that streamed out behind.
At their right a great fleet of old-time sailing ships, many of them painted green, lay rotting at their anchors. These had been gallant craft in the Viking days of Greece, faring to the coast of Russia, to England and Spain and convertible in a week’s notice from peaceful merchants into blockade runners and ships of the line.
Two natty officers stepped to the prow of a Russian gunboat, that was white and trim as a bride, and fixed their glasses keenly on the caique.
“Curse you!” growled the captain, involuntarily opening his hand, the Greek sign of an imprecation.
“St. Nicholas strike you blind! Look all you will, and again I’ll cheat you.”
But the time had come to tack, and he shouted the order to the sailors. The convenient canvas was shifted, the helm was put over, and the caique bore straight for the narrow mouth of the harbor.
A great sail was thrown out on either side like a pair of wings. The vessel turned its beak to the south and swooped down the wind like a hawk. The three young men stood with their feet apart now, their legs of equal length.
“By Jove, that’s glorious!” shouted one of them, his accent betraying the American—probably the Bostonian.
The sun stood on the tiptop of Salamis, saying good-night to the world. Athens was a pillar of purple dust, shot through and through with lances of flame. The stately columns of the Parthenon were of liquid amber. The church on the summit of Mount Lycabettus caught fire and blazed. The mountain itself was hidden in a column of dust and the church floated in mid-air. Then suddenly, as if by a stroke of some grand, celestial magic, the glow died from everything as the blood fades from a frightened face. The Parthenon was a pale, stately white, the ghost of the temple of a moment ago; the church on the hill had turned gray—ashes in place of fire. The sun had dropped behind Salamis. But now came a greater wonder: Hymettus and all the hills that surround the lovely plain of Attica took on a deep, quivering, unearthly tint of violet. This light was delicate, fluffy, spiritual. You fancied it was fragrant; you imagined that all the fresh spring violets of a hundred worlds had been plucked and poured sea deep over the hills.
A sudden lurch of the ship threw the American against the man at his side.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, “or perhaps you do not speak English?”
“O, yes,” replied the person addressed; “not perfectly, but sufficiently to make myself understood. Permit me to introduce myself.”
Producing a large leathern pocketbook, he extracted from its recesses a card. The hand that presented the bit of pasteboard was large, pink and well groomed. The American read:
Lieutenant de Cavalerie.
Lieutenant Lindbohm read on the card which he received in return,
Mr. John Curtis.
“I am happy to meet you, Mr. Curtis,” said the Lieutenant, politely lifting his straw hat and then drawing it down over his ears with both hands. The hat was secured to the button-hole by means of a shoe string, and had a startling habit of leaping to the end of its tether every few moments.
“And I you, Lieutenant,” replied Curtis heartily, extending his hand.
“You are going to Crete?”
“No, to Cairo,” laughed the Lieutenant.
“O, we’re all onto the secret, or we wouldn’t be here. And I’m mighty glad there’s somebody going along who can speak English. I hope we’ll be good friends, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be, I’m sure. I’m just out of college—Harvard, you know—and the governor told me to take a trip around the world. He believes in a year of travel to kind of complete and round out a man’s education.”
“I find it an excellent idea,” said the Lieutenant, grabbing for his hat, that a sudden puff of wind had swept from his head.
“Isn’t it? It’s jolly. Well, I’m going to surprise the governor. I’m going to write a book—sort of prose ‘Childe Harold.’ I wish I had the knack to do it in verse. I thought this Cretan business would make a great chapter, so I went straight to the president of the committee and told him I would write the struggle up from a Christian standpoint. Nice old fellow. Said he would do anything for an American, and put me onto this snap. I ought to find some good material down there. I’m glad the governor can’t hear of this thing till I get ready to tell him.”
“That is, the governor of New York?” asked the Lieutenant.
“No. Ha, ha, ha! My governor—my old man—my father, you know.”
“Ah, I beg pardon. You will see that I do not know the English so well.”
The Lieutenant was forty years of age or thereabouts. His straw hat, extremely long gray Prince Albert coat and russet shoes combined to give a somewhat incongruous effect to his attire. He carried a slender rattan cane, that was faintly suggestive of a rapier, and which he had a habit of twirling. This was not theatrical. It was rather a betrayal than an exhibition. Blue, very light blue eyes, straw-colored hair, a horse-shoe mustache, six feet three of stature and a slight stoop in the shoulders—such was Lieutenant Peter Lindbohm of the Swedish or any other army, brave fighter in the Argentine, in China, in South Africa. He could smell burning powder half way around the globe, and was off at the first telegram announcing the declaration of a new war. He was brave as a lion, and seemingly immune from danger. He always offered his sword to the under dog first, and if it were refused, gave the other side second choice. He preferred to fight for liberty and right, but felt it a necessity to fight somehow. He looked at you with innocent, inquiring eyes; his manner was gentle as a woman’s and his smile as sweet as a babe’s.
“You have given me your confidence,” he said. “I will give you mine, though there is not much to tell. I am a soldier by profession. I was down among the Boers when I heard of this trouble in Crete. I had hoped for war there. I was also at Majuba Hill, you see, and President Kruger knows me. But the English will not attack now, so I decided in a moment. I yust came right along, hence my straw hat.”
Another leap into the air of the article in question had called the speaker’s attention to it. Though he spoke grammatically correct English, he mispronounced his “j’s” whenever taken off his guard.
“A soldier cannot draw his sword in a better cause than in behalf of these brave Cretans, who have won their liberty a dozen times over,” he added, drawing his cane from his left thigh as though it were a sword.
“In the name of my country, thank you,” said the third of the trio, a very young Greek, with a round face, a brilliantly tinted olive complexion and large, liquid, chestnut eyes. He was a small man and excitable in his actions. He wore a business suit, a heavy ulster and a flat derby hat.
“May I do myself the great honor to present myself?” He spoke stilted English, and evidently composed his sentences before uttering them. Curtis, fresh from Æschylus and Plato, and an excellent course of modern Greek, had no difficulty in translating the legend on the proffered card: “Michali Papadakes, Student in the National University of Greece.”
“I am a Cretan, and I go to fight for my country. The Turks have burned my father’s house and his three villages. They have cut down his olive trees, insulted my sister and murdered our tenants. My family are now in Athens, refugees. I go against my father’s—what do you call it?—command. But had I remained at Athens I should have been a lâche—a—”
“Coward,” interposed the Lieutenant, seizing the young man’s hand. “It is you who do us the honor.”
“By Jove, you’re the right sort!” cried Curtis. “I’m glad to know you.”
“I go to kill Turks,” continued Papadakes, shaking both his clenched fists in the air. “They may kill me, but not till I have paid to them the debt which I owe. At least, I shall with my blood the tree of liberty water.”
When John Curtis suddenly flew off on a tangent to Crete from the Puck-like circle that he was putting around the earth, he acted under the impulse of youth and its ever present enthusiasm. He arrived at Athens in the midst of tremendous popular excitement. Great throngs were gathering daily in front of the king’s palace, waving banners and throwing their hats in the air. Curtis could see it all plainly from the balcony of his hotel on Constitution Square. Occasionally some member of the throng would mount the marble steps, and, throwing his arms wildly about, begin to speak; but the speech was always drowned in a hoarse roar.
Curtis at first could not understand a word that was said, but he felt himself seized with a growing excitement. If he started for the Acropolis or the Garden of Plato, he forgot his intention and found himself running, he knew not where, and longing to shout, he knew not what; for as his ears became accustomed to the sound, he observed that the whole city was shouting the same words, over and over again.
“What is it they are yelling all the time?” Curtis asked himself repeatedly, “and what are they singing? Tra-la-la, tra-la-la la!” he was humming the tune himself. A certain pride prevented his seeking information from the hotel proprietor or of one of the officious couriers. He had been no mean Grecian at Harvard, and had read “Loukes Laras” in the modern vernacular. He could speak modern Greek fairly well with the fruit men of Boston. He would solve the mystery himself. And he did. It came to him like a revelation. Three words, scrawled or printed, began to appear on all the whitewashed fences and walls of the city. With some difficulty he found a copy sufficiently plain for a foreigner to read: “Zeto ho polemos”—”Hurrah for War!”
Then he listened again. Ten minutes later he was in the midst of a swaying, struggling throng before the palace shouting “Zeto ho polemos!”
At dinner he heard his waiter humming the tune that seemed on the lips and in the heart of the whole world, and he asked, “What are you singing?” The boy, with eyes blazing, recited in Greek two or three stanzas that sent a chill to the roots of Curtis’ hair:
I know thee by the lightning
Of thy terrible swift brand;
I know thee by the brightening
When thy proud eyes sweep the land!
From the blood of the Greeks upspringing
Who died that we might be free,
And the strength of thy strong youth bringing—
Hail, Liberty, hail to thee!
It was the grand war hymn of Solomos, one of those songs that march down the years, fighting like a thousand men for liberty.
Curtis was twenty-two, and imagined himself an ancient Greek or a Lord Byron. He would get into this thing somehow. He went back to the hotel and thought it over, and then he discovered that he had been carried away by excitement.
“I’m crazy,” he said; “I’d have gone anywhere with those chaps, and the fact of the matter is, I ought to be in Jerusalem at this minute. I’ve overstayed my time here four days now.”
But his enthusiasm for the Greeks and their cause would not down. There had been another massacre of Christians in Crete and the king had sent Colonel Vassos with an army to seize the island in the cause of humanity. Prince George had followed soon after with the torpedo squadron.
“I’d be a chump to enlist as a common soldier,” thought Curtis; “besides, I couldn’t do much good that way, and the governor never would give me money enough to fit out a company with.”
Then he thought of the book.
“I have it!” he cried. “I will show up this Cretan question to the whole civilized world. I’ll get right out among the people. I’ll describe them as they are—their manners and customs. I’ll see some of these villages that the Turks have burned, and I’ll get a lot of stories of outrages from the peasants themselves. I’ll touch the thing up, too, with history and poetry.”
John Curtis inherited from his father a strong will, and the sort of courage that grows with the danger which requires it. He had also inherited a regulating strain of Yankee caution. His mind was like a pendulum, caution taking the place of the attraction of gravity. Just at the moment when it reached the highest point of oscillation there was an ever present force waiting to pull it the other way. But at present he was only twenty-two, and the struggle between New England prudence and youthful enthusiasm had not yet been decided.
Besides, his mother had bestowed upon his nature a tinge of romanticism, and that impulsiveness which sometimes becomes rashness in a man. He was rather short in stature, with a thick neck, long arms and sinewy hands. His closely cropped hair was dark brown, and his mustache was more of a promise than a fulfillment. There was a healthy color in his boyish cheek, neither ruddy nor pale. The fact is that John Curtis had been an all-around athlete at college, whose fame will last for many a day.
As he stood now upon the deck of the caique, he looked every inch the thing that he was, a wholesome, healthy-minded American youth—clear grit, muscle and self-reliance. He wore an English yachting cap and a heavy new ulster. Suspended from his shoulder by a strap hung a camera.
Night came on, with a fresh breeze and a sea that rose and fell like a great carpet when wind comes in under the door. It melted the stars of the underworld and washed them into unstable and fantastic shapes. But overhead the constellations and the myriad suns bloomed with passionate, lyric splendor; Jehovah’s garden where he walks in the cool of the day; God’s swarm of golden bees, wind-drifted to their hive beyond the thymey hills.
The three comrades—for hearts strike hands in a moment on the sea or in the wilderness—sat silent upon the deck. A sailor approached on tiptoe and offered Curtis a guitar. Without a word the American passed it to the Greek.
“But perhaps you play and sing,” said the latter, offering the instrument to the Swede.
“My friend is right,” replied the latter. “Any language but Greek would be profanation here.”
Without further protest Michali struck a few chords of a wild, sweet air, and commenced to sing in a low voice, a song that is known wherever the waves of Greece plash in the sun or her nightingales lift their voices by night in the lemon orchards. The sailors and the captain caught up the melody and assisted, for what Greek does not know:
NIGHT’S FIRST STAR.
The first of all the stars of night
In heaven is shyly beaming.
The waves play in their gowns of white
While mother sea lies dreaming.
Among the leaves on gentle wing
A balmy zephyr flutters,
The nightingale begins to sing
And all love’s sorrow titters.
For you the zephyr sighs, my love,
In passion low and tender,
For you the little stars above
Dispense their yearning splendor.
For you the tiny waves, ashore
Their garnered foam are bringing;
For you his love song, o’er and o’er
The nightingale is singing.
For you from yonder mountain high
The moon pours out her measure,
For you all day I moan and sigh,
My little dear, my treasure!
A moment of silence, which is, after all, the best applause, followed the song. Then someone ejaculated a long-drawn-out “Ah!”—a mingled sigh of wonder, joy and admiration, followed by a chorus of “Ahs!” and a shout of “There she comes.” Curtis and Lindbohm sprang to their feet and looked around. An uncouth sailor, with shaggy capote thrown over his left shoulder, was pointing with outstretched arm at the rising moon. The entire crew were gazing at a great golden disc that was slowly sliding into view from behind a mountain. A long trail of light fell athwart the caique, and seemed to pave the way to a group of shadowy islands, now dimly visible. They were sailing across a golden road, through a shower of impalpable gold dust. Higher and higher rose the glorious sphere, until merely its edge rested on the mountain top; there it clung for a moment and then swung loose into the starry sky. In the mystic, unearthly glow, the faces of the rough sailors were idealized. They looked at one another in silent wonder. Curtis partook of the awe, the joy. He felt as though he were in a grand temple and the goddess had revealed herself; and so did these poor descendants of ancient Greece, though they knew it not. The American had seen the moon rise before in Greece, but never on the sea and never in the society of genuine, unspoiled children of the country. It was a revelation, a birth of glory, a miracle.
For several days the “Holy Mary,” as the caique was called, cruised among islands that seemed to float in an opal sea. Some of them were steep rocks, on which a single shepherd dwelt with his flocks. Often as they flitted through the shadow of a precipice that rose, high and stern as the walls of a medieval castle, which a few scattered pines were perilously scaling, a shaggy head would look down from the overhanging battlement and shout some salutation in Greek. At other times they skirted green valleys, guarded at the shore by a band of sentinel cypress trees, tall and straight; through these, tiny streams came leaping and laughing down to the sea. Arcadian villages, gleaming white in the sun, sat peacefully on distant cliffs, or straggled down through olive orchards toward a bit of whiter beach; old monasteries dreamed in green and lonely nooks.
On a cloudy afternoon, when the wind was blowing fresh and fair, and the waves that ran behind shivered blackly ere they broke into foam, the captain set all sail and headed straight for the northern shore of Crete. The caique plunged like a child’s rocking horse. The three passengers went down into the little cabin, that smelled of bilgewater and stale goat’s cheese. A smoky lantern, hanging from a hook in the roof, cast a flickering light on the rickety ladder, the four plank walls and the eikons of Mary and Nicholas, that peered from round holes cut in tawdry squares of silver. There were two bunks and a table that, when not in use, drew up its one leg and fell back against the wall. Curtis and his two companions rattled about in the narrow room like peas in a fool’s gourd. Every few moments water slopped and sputtered on the deck and brine dripped down through the thin hatches. When Curtis heard the spray patter over the planks he thought of the rats that used to run over the garret floor of a farmhouse where he sometimes slept when in America. The Swede produced one of those ineffable cigars that one buys in Italy by the meter, broke off a couple of inches and offered the stick to his companions, who refused. Soon a smell resembling burning goat’s hair filled the cabin.
“Ah,” sighed Lindbohm, “what a comfort is tobacco!”
Poor Michali collapsed in a spasm of coughing seasickness.
Curtis, gnashing his teeth and declaring that he would not yield, scrambled up the ladder and butted the hatches open with his head. The most incongruous ideas kept running through his brain, sick as he was. As he sprawled out upon the deck and the two trapdoors fell behind him with a slam, he thought of a jack-in-the-box that had been given him on his fourth Christmas. Curtis rose cautiously erect, and threw himself at the nearest mast. It was not raining, but occasional faint electric flashes revealed a lurid world full of inky waves.
“There’s no danger at all in this sort of thing,” he muttered, “if these beggars understand their business.”
The hatches came down again with a slam. Michali, kneeling upon the deck, gave vent to his sufferings in elliptical groans. At the point of greatest diameter they were suggestive of a strong man vainly striving to yield up the ghost.
“Come here, old man,” shouted Curtis, “the fresh air will fix you all right in a minute.”
“That tobacco,” gasped Michali, “would have made me to be sick on land or sea.”
“What’s going on up there?” asked the American. The three sailors were gathered about the captain and all were talking excitedly. Michali listened. The stinging spray was whipping the sickness out of him.
“They see the signal,” he replied. “Ah, there it is!”
High up and far away flickered a ruddy flame. No object was distinguishable near it or anywhere else. It simply glowed there alone in the darkness, like a witch’s candle. Had there been any earth or sky it would have been half way between them.
“It is our beacon,” exclaimed the Greek, “we shall sail straight for that and we come to the part of the shore where we the landing make. They have light it far up in the mountain, that all who see may think it a shepherd’s camp.”
Curtis was seized with uncontrollable excitement. Crawling to the cabin, he shouted down to the Swede, “Come up, Lieutenant, we’re nearing land!”
The box again flew open and this time Lindbohm was the jack that bobbed out.
“Why, it’s dark as a pocket,” he said, “how can any one see whether land is near or not?”
Curtis seized the Lieutenant’s head gently with both hands and turned it toward the signal. The Swede whistled softly.
“Yust so,” he said.
After another twenty minutes a sailor brought a lantern from the cabin and hung it to a hook on the forward mast. For over an hour there had been no lightning, and now a sudden flash hissed and died as though one had attempted to light a match in a gusty room. There was but a moment of light, but that was enough. There, a quarter of a mile distant, extended beckoningly and invitingly toward the little vessel, were the arms of a narrow bay; and down the shore, perhaps a mile away, a gunboat stole stealthily and slowly along.
To the left a stretch of coast, perhaps two miles in length, ended suddenly in a towering cliff. By turning they would have the wind square in the sails and would be making straight for the promontory. This expedient evidently occurred to the captain, who knew every inch of the Cretan coast as well as he knew the deck of his own caique, for he instantly gave the necessary orders.
“It would never have done to put into the bay,” observed Lindbohm, “they would have us like rats in a trap. That’s one of the blockading squadron. They’re looking for yust such people as we are.”
“They haven’t seen us, glory to God!” cried Michali.
The three passengers had crowded about the captain, who stood at the tiller. The caique was now skipping from crest to crest like a flying fish.
“To St. Nicholas and the Virgin I give equal praise,” devoutly responded the captain.
The words were hardly out of his mouth before the gunboat began to whip the sea with her search light. Up into the clouds shot the spreading lash, as though spitefully wielded by a giant arm, and then, “whiz,” it struck the waters where the caique had been five minutes before.
“Katarra!” cried the crew in chorus, rolling the “r’s.” Katarra is the best substitute in the world for a good English “damn,” which is exactly what it means.
“What orders is he giving?” asked Curtis.
“To put on all sail,” replied Michali. “I hope he don’t tip us over.”
“With the wind squarely behind us there’s no danger,” said the Swede, who, having Viking blood in his veins knew a sailing boat by instinct. “If the masts and the canvas hold, we are all right, and the devil himself can’t catch us.”
Again the whip fell, again and yet again. At last it struck fairly upon the little ship with blinding radiance. Curtis gave vent to a surprised “Ah!” as he had sometimes done in a theater, when the electricity had been unexpectedly turned on after twenty minutes of midnight murder or burglary on the stage. A sailor was luridly sprawling in the air, half way up the foremast, and the two others were pulling at a rope. The faces of the little group at the tiller looked ghastly in the unnatural light. The caique rose and fell with the long striding motion of a fleet horse running close to the ground. At regular intervals a discharge of fine spray swept length-wise of the deck and stung the face like handfuls of rice, flung at a wedding.
The light was now a great triangle, lying on the sea, and the caique was flying toward its base. The promontory seemed to slide rapidly toward them along one of its sides.
A gun boomed in the triangle’s apex. Curtis and Michali ducked their heads and closed their eyes tight. The captain and crew again cried “Katarra” in chorus, and Lindbohm laughed.
“Blank,” he said sententiously; “that means ‘lay to.'”
The promontory slid nearer. Another gun, this time with a sharp, coughing sound, followed by a crescendo-diminuendo scream, like the demoniac wail of winter wind.
“A shell,” explained the Swede. “That means business. If they’re Russians, they can’t hit us. If French, they probably won’t, in this sea. If English, they probably will. We must yust take our chances. What does the captain say?”
“Here’s the point,” translated Michali, “once around that they will never find us.”
Curtis looked. The steep cliff photographed itself indelibly upon his mind. It towered high above their heads, rude, grim, and perpendicular, but at its base a spur of land sloped into the water, like the foot to a mighty leg. And as he looked, a crashing sound was heard, and the little vessel shivered and lurched, wounded to death.
“English, by damn!” cried Lindbohm. “Can you swim?”