A Blow in the Dark

An air of indescribable sadness hangs over a deserted town. Any one who has ever passed through a shepherd village, from which the inhabitants have gone for the summer, expecting to return again when the first snows of autumn drive them down from the mountains, has experienced this feeling. Here is the fountain, where the slender, merry maidens met at sundown, to gossip and fill their water jars; here is the café, where the old men gathered together under the platane tree and smoked and dreamed of the long ago; here is a secret nook, guarded by sweet poverty vines, where lovers held tryst in the fragrant twilight. But all is lonely, lonely.

The waters splash with a melancholy sound, the tables and chairs are gone from under the platane tree and the lovers—let us hope they are fled together. The spirit of loneliness dwells where man has been and is not—in a tenantless house, in the chamber of death, by the embers of a camp fire in a vast wilderness. As you follow the streets of a deserted town you hear nothing but the splash, splash of the waters of the fountain or the enquiring twitter of some little bird. Perhaps a cat, tamed more by solitude than by hunger, tiptoes to meet you, purring with diplomatic fervor. But these sounds do not break the silence, they are its foil, its background.

Galata was deserted because its inhabitants had fled two days before from the terrible Turk. Thanks to a timely warning, most of the people had succeeded in getting away, though an occasional corpse proved how narrow had been the escape of the entire population from sudden death.

Kostakes and his little troop now marched through an olive orchard, whose gnarled and venerable trunks had perhaps witnessed the cruelties of the only oppressors worse than the Turk—the haughty, treacherous and inhuman Venetians; they climbed a flight of steps cut in the natural rock and followed a street paved with cobblestones from the walls of partly ruined houses to the village square.

Here the men stacked arms and dispersed among the houses, looking for temporary quarters. Curtis could not help admiring the soldierly way in which everything was done. In ten minutes after their arrival the square looked like a little Indian village filled with wigwams of muskets, and sentries were pacing patiently up and down at all possible places of approach. This was evidently a town of considerable importance, as some of the houses facing the square were two-storied, and in one or two instances the projecting beams supporting the balconies were of carved marble. The fountain, too, that stood beneath a disheveled willow, whose roots drank at the overflowing waters, was of marble.

Three carven swans, the successive wonder of as many generations of unkempt children, swam full-breasted from a square pedestal, each hissing a clear, thin stream into a circular stone basin. An inscription informed posterity that the marble hero who sat atop of the inevitable column was Petros Nikolaides, former mayor of Galata,—an euergetes of imperishable memory. Mr. Nikolaides, with white goggle eyes, looked over the house tops, the olives and cypresses and away to the distant purple hills. His chin was small and cloven with a deep dimple and one side of his drooping mustache had been stoned away twenty years ago by mischievous boys.

Panayota and her father were led to a respectable looking stone house facing the fountain and two sentries were stationed before the door.

“Ah, well,” said Kostakes amiably to Curtis, “we shall be quite comfortable here, eh? Will you do me the honor to dine with me?”

“I shall be delighted,” replied the American. “It is I who shall receive the honor.”

“No, no! I protest, Monsieur. It’s quite the other way. We’ll have a table set here under this tree. Ah, we shall be very cozy. Voilà! I shall be able to offer you some fresh cheese. If there’s anything left, trust to my rascals for finding it!”

A soldier was dragging a stuffed goat-skin from the door of a grocery. At a sign from Kostakes, he set it on end, and ripped open the top with his knife, disclosing the snowy contents.

“Voilà, Monsieur! And no doubt we shall be able to find you some excellent wine, though you must excuse me from joining you in that. Mohammedans do not drink wine.”

Kostakes leaped lightly to the ground, and gave his horse to an orderly. Kostakes was a handsome young fellow, almost boyish, and yet with an insolent, aristocratic air. His features seemed to combine sensualism and cruelty with a certain refinement. His lips were too thick and too red, and his chin was square. It was evident at a glance that his under front teeth closed even with the uppers. His nose was his cruel, sensitive feature. It came down straight from his forehead, thin as a knifeblade, and the nostrils had a way of trembling when he talked. Curtis threw his good leg over the horse’s mane, and sat, woman fashion, eyeing the Turk. He could not, somehow, reconcile this gentlemanly, smiling young officer with the nightmare that continually haunted him—Michali in the burning building, wounded and screaming vainly for help. There was a sort of ghostly relief in the reflection that the poor fellow must have been over his sufferings long ago. But to burn to death! Ugh! How long does it take a man to burn to death?

“Does your foot pain you?” asked Kostakes, with genuine solicitude. “If those barbarian Greeks had not shot my surgeon—very cruel people the Greeks, especially the Cretan Greeks. When you know them better you will find that they are not half-civilized.”

“If you will let one of your men help me dismount,” said Curtis, “I will take a wash. I am glad to see that dinner is so nearly ready. I assure you I am half famished.”

“One of my soldiers, Monsieur! I would never permit such a thing. I will help you myself. So—so! Ah! How is the foot?”

The American placed the wounded member on the ground and attempted to bear his weight upon it. To his surprise, it seemed much better. But a happy thought, an inspiration, took possession of him. He seized the leg tightly with his hands above the knee and sank upon the edge of the water basin.

“I—I believe it’s worse!” he groaned.

“Allah forbid!” cried the Turk. “It is from the long ride. When you have rested it will be better. Now let us wash and eat something—a soldier’s frugal meal.”

Curtis attacked the repast with the zest of a ravenous appetite. The salt cheese, the brown bread and the country wine seemed to him viands fit for the gods. The orderly brought several heads of long Italian lettuce, which he washed at the fountain and cut lengthwise. They ate it like asparagus or celery, dipping it in salt. The American thought it delicious, and rightly. He would never again be able to relish the pale, tasteless chips sold in America for lettuce at brigand prices. He saw that Panayota and her father were also eating.

“Sensible girl,” thought Curtis; “means to keep her strength up. We’ll outwit these Turks yet.”

He touched glasses with Kostakes, who was disposed to be convivial, albeit in water.

“Do you know, Monsieur le Capitaine,” Curtis said, “I cannot decide which is the greater sensation—the pleasure of eating or the pain of my foot. Do you think, if blood poisoning should set in, you have anybody here who could amputate it?”

“Now, Allah forbid!” cried the Turk again. “By day after to-morrow we shall reach a Mohammedan village, and there we shall find a doctor.”

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A Critical Moment

They laid the wounded Cretan on the lounge in the parsonage. He was pale as death from loss of blood, and kept snapping at his under lip with his teeth, but he did not groan.

“We are a pair of storks now,” he said, smiling at Curtis, and then he fainted away. Curtis cut the trouser from the wounded leg. A ball had struck the shin.

“It’s not badly splintered, old man,” said the American, as Michali opened his eyes again. “I don’t know anything about surgery, but I should think the proper thing would be to wash it, support it with some splints and bind it up tight. Shall I try it?”

“What you need?” asked Michali.

“Some warm water, two or three straight sticks and a piece of cloth that I can tear up into strips.”

The wounded man called for the necessary articles and they were soon brought. Curtis washed the blood away carefully.

The end of a piece of bone pushed against the skin from beneath and made a sharp protuberance.

“I’m awfully sorry, old man, but I’ve got to hurt you—like the devil, I’m afraid.”

“All right, my friend,” replied Michali, “only do not be long.”

“No, only a minute. Here, lie on your back. That’s right. Now take hold of the sides of the lounge and hang on tight. That’ll help you. I know it from having teeth filled. Now, tell this old man to take hold of your ankle so, with both hands, and pull, slowly, carefully, till I say ‘stop,’ and not to commence pulling till I say ‘now.’ You’d better explain—your Greek is some better than mine.”

Michali explained.

“Does he understand?”

“Perfectly.”

Curtis put his hand about the broken shin in such a way that he could push the fragment of bone into place.

“This can’t be wrong,” he reflected. “At any rate, there’s nothing else to do.”

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A Demand and a Coward

All the morning of April thirtieth Curtis saw nothing of Panayota. She was gone into the fields and upon the hillsides with the other women and the children of the village to gather flowers for the May-day festival. Late in the afternoon the whole town set out for Hepta-Miloi, or Seven-Mills, the place in the mountains where, year after year, they were accustomed to hold this innocent and beautiful celebration, one of the most fragrant and lovely of all the inheritances from the days of the aesthetic old gods. Laughing, singing, shouting merry sallies and replies, the procession scrambled up the stony, winding street of the village, laden with baskets and gayly colored bags filled with provisions. Everybody, too, carried flowers—flowers in baskets, in aprons, in the hands. There were donkeys and dogs innumerable. Some of the donkeys carried tables strapped to their backs, with the four legs sticking up into the air, and giving the impression that, if one of the animals should keel a somerset into a ravine, he would be sure to light upon one or the other of his two sets of feet. Upon others of these nodding, shambling little animals rode such of the villagers as could not make so arduous a journey on foot: a picturesque old man in holiday costume, resplendent in bright, new fez, ruffled shirt and gaudy sash; here and there an old woman who had made the same journey every year for the last forty years; and several strings of small children, four and five on a donkey’s backbone, like monkeys on a limb or kidneys on a spit. The demarch, in accordance with the dignity of his office, rode at the head of the procession, side by side, when the road was not too narrow, with Papa-Maleko, whose animal was nearly covered by his flowing black robe, and who held an umbrella over his tall hat. Lindbohm had refused the luxury of a mount and strode sturdily along with his hand upon Curtis’ saddle. Up and up they climbed beyond the last plumed outposts of olive groves into the kingdom of the pines. At times they walked by the side of a deep chasm at whose bottom swirled, darted and leapt a stream of molten silver or of ink, according as it flashed in the setting sun or crept beneath the shadow of dank ferns or deep green trees. At such times Curtis’ moth-eaten, blue-gray beast walked upon the ticklish, imminent edge of destruction, loosening rocks and bits of earth that went scurrying into the waters far below. Entreaty, threats, blows upon the side of the head with the rope that did service as a bridle, were of no effect to make him walk elsewhere.

“Look here, Lindbohm,” cried Curtis, “I’ve told you my address. If I plunge down yonder giddy height, write to my governor, will you? And don’t trouble to pick up the pieces.”

“What’s the matter?” shouted the demarch, looking back.

“This donkey will surely fall with me.”

“Bah! Let him have his head. He knows his business. No donkey ever falls.”

“What if he does? Cannot a stork fly?” asked a black-eyed, roguish maiden, who possibly thought that the American could learn good Greek from more than one pair of lips. This sally evoked such an inordinate peal of good-natured laughter that Curtis was unable to think of an appropriate reply, and contented himself with pulling a rose from the basket hanging at his saddle and throwing it at the saucy girl.

In the purple twilight they came in sight of the first of the seven mills. A tall, slanting barrel of masonry received the water that turned the stone wheel that lay upon its face in a small building covered with reddish brown tiles. The miller and his wife, dusty as moths, came out to greet the merry throng that poured into his little plateau with much shouting and singing and strumming of guitars. Two or three shock-headed youngsters peeped from behind the building, and a girl, probably three years old, clothed only in a flour sack that reached to the middle of her stomach, ran, like a frightened chicken, to cover in the folds of her mother’s dress. The child was glowing with health and beautiful as an infant Dionysus from the broken arm of a Hermes carved by Praxiteles himself. And now they were come into a region of rank, water-loving trees, great ferns and streams of water that slipped smoothly and silently through square sluices of white masonry. The mills were close together. At the fourth in number they stopped and found that brave preparation had already been made. The plateau before the mill-house was here larger than ordinary and in its midst grew a wide-spreading oak from a lower branch of which hung a powerful lamp, protected from the wind by a glass cage. At the foot of a shielding wall of rock, several lambs were fragrantly roasting upon long wooden spits, and by each an old man squatted, so intent upon turning the carcass that he scarcely looked up to welcome the gay and noisy villagers.

“How go the lambs, Barba Yanne?”

“Is it tender, think you, Barba Spiro?”

“Are they nearly done, Kosta? Holy Virgin, what an appetite I’ve got!”

“And I!”

“And I!”

With a perfect babble of such exclamations, mingled with much laughter, and many shouted orders and directions, Ambellaki took possession of the place where it had elected to outwear the night with song and feasting and to welcome the First of May. The tables were unstrapped from the backs of the donkeys and set in line. Cloths were spread and candles were lighted in candlesticks surmounted by protecting glass globes. Chairs were taken down from others of the donkeys, and two or three long benches were produced by the miller. A dozen pairs of strong hands were extended to Curtis and he was assisted from the back of his wilful beast to a comfortable seat.

“Whew! I’m glad to get down from there,” he exclaimed to Lindbohm. “I think I’ll stay here till my foot gets well and walk back. Looks jolly, doesn’t it? And how good those lambs smell! I believe I could eat one all by myself.”

Plates, bottles containing oil floating upon vinegar, decanters of wine, great piles of crisp salad, loaves of brown bread, sardellas arranged upon plates like the spokes of a wheel, tiny snow drifts of country cheese—began to appear upon the table. Lindbohm entered into the spirit of the occasion with genial enthusiasm. Although he could not speak a word of Greek, he blundered everywhere, eager to assist. He lifted the children from the donkeys, pulled plates and provisions from the baskets, and washed the long tender lettuce at a place where the water leapt from one conduit to another. All this time the old men were patiently turning the lambs. Every now and then one of them would dip half a lemon into a plate of melted butter and rub it over the brown, sizzling flesh. Beneath each of the lambs was a shallow bed of ashes. The coals that glowed there were not visible, for, in roasting meat à la palikari, the best effects are obtained if it be slowly done. The proper roasting of a lamb is a matter of supreme importance. Reputations are won thereby in a single day, and as easily lost. The meat must be done clear through, evenly and just to a turn—not one turn of the spit too many nor too few; it must be so tender that it is just ready to drop from the bone, and have that delicious flavor which is imparted from the coals of the fragrant wild thyme, but it must not taste smoky. Verily a great art this, and the old men who sat squat at the cranks of the spits had no time for social distractions. Everything was ready now except the lambs, and a great silence fell upon the company. One young fellow, who offered to lay a small wager that Barba Yanne would be the first man ready, was sternly rebuked by the priest:

“Silence! do you not know that this is the critical moment, and you may spoil everything by distracting their attention?”

So they waited for a seeming eternity, sniffing the delicious aroma and watching the appetizing contest with hungry eyes. At last the young man of the wager broke the spell by crying:

“Na! I should have won.” For Barba Yanne was indeed rising slowly to his feet, painfully straightening out the hinges of his aged knees.

“Praise God!” shouted a chorus of voices.

“Do you not see that it is ready?” asked Barba Yanne reproachfully.

“O, yes!” exclaimed the demarch, “we must take it up. If it stays one instant over time on the fire the delicate flavor will be ruined.”

Half a dozen men sprang towards the fire, but Lindbohm, comprehending the action, was before them all. Lifting the lamb by one end of the spit, he advanced towards the tables, and looked inquiringly about.

“What shall I do with it?” he asked Michali. “There is no plate big enough, and if I lay it on the table it will spoil the cloth.”

Shouts of laughter greeted the Swede’s evident perplexity, and even the bare teeth of the spitted animal seemed grinning at him in derision.

“But you do not put it on the table,” cried Michali running to his assistance. “You stick the sharp end of the spit in the ground and stand it up by the side of the tree. So—that’s right. Head up.”

The demarch now approached Lindbohm and laughingly offered him a Cretan knife and a huge fork.

“He wants you to carve,” explained Michali. “It is a great honor.”

“No! no!” cried the Swede, pushing the demarch playfully back. “I do not know how. Besides, I am too weak from hunger. Moreover, I haven’t the time.” And he seated himself resolutely at the table. The demarch therefore carved, and piled the meat upon plates which the girls held for him. Before he had finished, Barba Spiro brought his lamb and solemnly stuck it up by its partly carved mate.

“Shall I cut up this one, too?” asked Kyr’ Nikolaki; he had finished with number one. “Or shall we eat what we have first?”

“We will begin on this one,” said the priest, “and I will carve the second.” After a playful struggle he dispossessed the mayor of the knife and fork and led him to the head of the table. Then the good priest reverently bent his head and made the sign of the cross, and all of his flock followed his example. Even Lindbohm and Curtis, watching carefully, did as the others. And now the feast was on in earnest, silently at first, till the sharpest pangs of hunger were appeased, with song and laughter later in its course. The three guests and the older members of the community sat at the table. The others and the children found seats upon the ground, in the doorway of the mill-house, on the water troughs. Conversation began in full-mouthed remarks as to the quality of the lamb.

“This is marvellous!”

“A masterpiece.”

“Tasty.”

“A miracle. Done just to a turn. Neither too much nor too little.”

“Bravo, Barba Yanne,” said the mayor, in judicial tones, raising his glass meanwhile.

“Barba Yanne! Barba Yanne!” shouted the entire board, and there was a great clinking of glasses. The old man swelled and flushed with pleasure.

“I ought to know how to roast a lamb,” he said. “I have done it this thirty years.”

A girl brought the head of Barba Spiro’s lamb and laid it before the demarch, who plucked out one of the eyes with a fork and passed the morsel to Curtis, who took it and looked inquiringly at Michali.

“What am I to do with it?” he asked.

“Eat it. It is the most delicate tid-bit of the whole lamb—sweet, juicy, delicious.”

“I’ve no doubt it’s juicy,” replied Curtis, “but I couldn’t eat it to save my life. It looks as though it could see. Excuse me, Kyr’ Demarche,” he continued in Greek, “I do not care for the eye. If you will give me a little more of the meat, please—” and he passed his plate.

“Not like the eye!” shouted everybody in astonishment. Lindbohm took the succulent morsel from Curtis’ hand, and swallowed it with a loud sipping sound, as though it were an oyster.

“Kalo! kalo!” he exclaimed, smacking his lips.

And so the feast wore on. When it was not possible for anybody to eat another mouthful, Turkish coffee was prepared over the miller’s foufous, two or three little portable stoves, circular and made of sheet iron; and cigarettes were lighted. Under the soothing influence of the mild Cretan tobacco silence fell again, disturbed only by the soft splashing of waters. Through a rift in the branches of the giant oak Curtis could see the bright, silver bow of the new moon, and, far below, a glittering star, like the tip of an arrow shot athwart the night. The girls were tumbling the flowers into a pile beneath the lamp: bright red geraniums, clusters of the fragrant heliotrope, April roses, small, red and very sweet; aromatic basil, myrtle with its bridal green. Then they sat down about the heap and began to weave garlands, using the myrtle as a background for the pied coloring of the blossoms. A nightingale sang somewhere among the trees behind the old mill, the waters never ceased to murmur and gurgle in the moonlight, and a faint breeze from the far sea brought a message of cherry trees in bloom. A young man sitting on the ground with his back against the tree played a few chords upon a guitar, and sang, with much feeling, one line of a couplet:

“My little angel, sugar sweet, angelic honey maiden”—

That he was not improvising was evident from the fact that all the Greeks present joined him in the second line:

“Oh sweeter than cold water is, that angels drink in Eden!”
For several moments he strummed the strings softly and then sang:

“If I should die at last of love, my grave with basil
cover;”—
and again came the response,

“And when you water it perchance you’ll weep for
your poor lover!”

The words even in Greek did not mean much, but they sounded very beautiful to those simple peasants, for they were associated with many such scenes as this; they carried the memories of some back to childhood, of others perhaps to their wedding day. They made Panayota think of the little cottage among the Sphakiote mountains, and of her mother singing as she paddled the white clothes at the brook. The words contained the untranslatable spirit of poetry, the power to move the heart by association rather than by their meaning.

Some one proposed a dance; one by one the sturdy mountaineers took their places in a line and soon, hands linked, they were bounding beneath the flickering lamp in the wild Pyrrhic. Loud calls were made for different members of the company, famous as leaders, and these led the line in turn, vying with one another in difficulty of steps executed. When Lindbohm arose from his seat and took his place at the tail of the line, he was welcomed with shouts of “Bravo! bravo!” He had observed the simpler steps of the minor performers carefully, and acquitted himself with so much credit, that the girls, their hands full of flowers and half-finished wreaths, arose and came forward, clapping their palms and shrieking with delight. And when the handkerchief was handed to him and he was motioned to the head of the line, he did not refuse, but leapt into the air, whirled about under the arm of his nearest neighbor, snapped his fingers in time to the music and cut other terpsichorean pranks, to everybody’s intense delight.

But dancing is hard work, and even youth will tire. The last capable leader had done his part, and even the girls, with much laughter and many feminine shrieks and protests, had been pulled to their feet and given a turn, when Michali was asked to tell again the story of the shipwreck, as many there present had only heard it at second hand. He complied, and his vivid and picturesque narrative held his audience in rapt attention. When he had finished many were fairly carried away with excitement, and a loud-voiced and indignant clamor arose concerning the state of Crete, the action of the powers and matters of like import.

“Silence! silence!” cried the mayor, rising to his feet and hammering on the table. “These are not matters for the May festival. Our village, moreover, is in no danger from the Turks. We have always dwelt quietly and peacefully behind our mountains, making our cheese, harming no one, suffering no harm. However that may be, this is not a suitable occasion to discuss war and politics.”

“True! true!” shouted his faithful constituency.

“I am to blame,” said Michali, “for the manner in which I told the story. I will, therefore, make amends by singing a song, quite suitable, I think, to the occasion. Spiro, play me the accompaniment.”

After the applause had died, revived, and died away several times like flames that are brought to life by vagrant gusts of wind, Spiro, the owner of the guitar, offered to sing.

“Mind that it’s perfectly proper for the ears of the ladies,” cautioned Papa-Maleko, as the young man seated himself in a chair and prepared to play.

“He has a fine voice,” said Curtis in Greek, when Spiro had finished.

“O, Spiro is one of our most famous singers,” replied the demarch. “And now, Kyr’ Yanne, it’s your turn.”

“He means you,” said Michali in English. “Yanne is the Greek for John. He means to be very friendly, to show that you are one of us.”

“I will sing you,” replied Curtis, without the least hesitation, “a Greek song that I have myself written,” and turning to Michali, “I can’t quite explain that in Greek: it is an American college song that I have translated into Greek. I have read it over two or three times to Panayota and she says she understands it. Indeed, she has changed it a little.” And he sang in a baritone voice of indifferent timbre, but with great spirit, the following words to the tune of “The Man Who Drinks His Whiskey Clear”:

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