The Capsina / An Historical Novel

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An Historical Novel.


E. F. Benson

Author of

“The Vintage” “Limitations” “Dodo”

“The Judgment Books” etc.

With Illustrations by G. P. Jacomb-Hood






The little town of Hydra, white-walled and trailing its skirts in the Ægean, climbs steeply up the northeastern side of the island from which it is named, and looks towards the hills of Argolis on the mainland and the setting of the sun. Its harbor sheltered from the northern and southern winds, and only open towards the west, where the sea is too narrow ever to be lashed into fury by gales of that quarter, was defended in the year 1819 by a very creditable pier and a good deal of swift and rakish shipping. The inhabitants lived a life somewhat sequestered from their oppressed and down-trodden countrymen, supporting themselves by enterprises of fishing and the humble sort of commerce, and the hand of the Turk, then as now lustful, cruel, and intolerable, lay but lightly on them, for the chief products of the island itself were only stones and cold water, untaxable goods. But something of the spirit of stones and cold water, something of the spirit, too, of that quickly roused sea, soon made furious, soon appeased, but always alive, had gone to the making of the men of Hydra; and they were people frugal and hardy, resourceful and industrious, men of the wave and the mountain. Of its various clans—and its regime was highly feudal—that of Capsas was the wealthiest and most influential; but just now, a tragic prologue to this tale, a blow so direful had fallen on those much-esteemed men, and in particular on Christos Capsas, a youth of about two and twenty, that the clan generally, and Christos in particular, were in a state of paralyzed inaction strange to such busy folk. It had happened thus:

The head of the clan, Nicholas Capsas, had died some nine months before, leaving an only daughter, Sophia, henceforth officially called the Capsina, just nineteen years of age. The clan all remembered that they had warned each other that trouble would come on account of the Capsina, and they found to their unspeakable dismay, and without a grain of pleasure in the fulfilment of their prophecy, that their gloomy forebodings were completely accomplished. Sophia was a girl of much greater force of will than it was at all usual to look for in a woman, for the most refractory women, so the clan believed, chattered and scolded, but obeyed. The Capsina had struck out a new and eminently disconcerting line in following her own desires in silence, deaf to remonstrance. The beginning of trouble had been a very stormy scene between her and her father when, following the invariable law of clan etiquette, she had been betrothed on her eighteenth birthday to her cousin Christos, on whom now so paralyzing a consternation had fallen. She had submitted to the ordeal of formal betrothal only on condition that she should marry Christos when she thought fit, and at no other time. Such an irregularity was wholly unprecedented, but Sophia declared herself not only ready, but even wishful to throw the betrothal wreaths into the fire sooner than marry Christos at any time not fixed by herself, and the ceremony took place only on this understanding. Three months later her father had died suddenly, and when Christos on this morning, one tremble of timorousness, but conscious of the support of the entire clan, went to the Capsina, offering his hand and heart, to be taken by her with the greatest expedition that mourning allowed, she looked him over slowly from head to heel and back again, and said, very distinctly, “Look in the glass.” This her betrothed had rightly interpreted as a sign of dismissal.

Sophia, after hurling this defiance at her family, gave Christos time to retreat, and then went about her daily business. Her mother had died some years before, and since her father’s death she had had sole management of the house and of all his business, which was ship-building. But she had been accustomed from the time she could walk to be in and out of the building-yards with him, and the outraged clan, even in the unequalled bitterness of this moment, would have confessed that she was quite capable of managing anything. She was tall and finely made, and the sun had joined hands with the winds of the sea to mould her face with the lines of beauty and serene health. Her eyes and hair were of the South, her brow and nose of her untainted race, her mouth firm and fine. She watched Christos out of the gate with all the complete indifference her great black eyes could hold, and then set off down to the ship-yard where a new brig was to be launched that day.

There she stood all morning among the workmen, bareheaded to the sun and wind, directing, and often helping with her own strong hands, and though it would have seemed that she had her eyes and all her mind at the work, she yet found time to glance through the open gate on to the pier, where she could see a talking knot of her clan gathered round the rejected Christos; and, in fact, her mind was more given over to the difficult question of what step she should next take with regard to the question of marriage than to the work on hand. For, indeed, she had no intention of marrying Christos at all. Since her father’s death her work and position had become more and more absorbingly dear, and she did not propose to resign her place to a somewhat slow-minded cousin, whom, as she had candidly declared on her betrothal, she loved only as much as is usual among cousins. The question was how to make this indubitably evident.

The ship was to be launched about mid-day, and, as the time drew near, Sophia began to wonder to herself, not without a spice of amusement, whether the clan would think it consistent with the correct attitude of disapproval to attend the launching to which they were as a matter of course invited. After the barrel of wine, in which the success of the new ship would be drunk, had been hoisted on deck, she even delayed the event a few minutes to give them time if they wished still to come. But it was evident that she had offended beyond forgiveness, and she stood alone on the ship when she hissed stern foremost, true to an inch, into the frothed water. Sophia, ever candid, was not at heart ill-pleased at the absence of the clan, for as she was godmother so also she was peculiarly mother to the new ship, departing therein from certain formulated rules as to the line of the bows and the depth of the keel, which, so she thought, if made deeper would enable her to sail closer to the wind, and she loved her great child more than she loved her betrothed. She had even, which was unusual with her, spent several intent and sleepless hours in bed at night when the ship was yet on the stocks, her mind busy at the innovations. Surely the ships that others built were too high in the water, especially forward; a sudden squall always made them sheer off into the wind, losing way without need. A less surface in the bows was possible. Again, a longer depth of keel would give more grip on the water and greater stability, and it was with much tremulous hope and frequent misgivings lest this new departure should involve some vital and unforeseen error that she had laid down the lines of the ship in a manner perfectly new to the shipwrights of the island.

And as the building progressed and the timbers of the hull rose to their swifter shape, her hopes triumphed over misgiving, and she felt that this new ship was peculiarly hers—hers by the irresistible right of creation, not shared with any.

She stayed on board till a late hour that evening, seeing to the hoisting of the tackle by which the masts should be raised the next day, absorbed in the work, and dwelling with a loving care on the further details, and it was nearly dark, and the workmen had gone ashore an hour already when she rowed herself back to the yard. Not till then did her mind return to the less enticing topic of Christos, which she had left undetermined, and she walked home slowly, revolving the possibilities. Her great, stately watch-dog, a terror to strangers, and not more than doubtfully neutral to friends, received her with the silent greeting of a wet nose pushed into her hand, and when she had eaten her supper, the two went out on to the veranda. That was the companionship she liked best, silent, unobtrusive, but sensitive, and she took the great brute’s fore-paws and laid them on her lap, and talked to him as a child talks to its doll.

“Oh, Michael,” she said—the adoption of a saint’s name to an animal so profane had greatly shocked the clan, but the Capsina remarked that he was a better Christian than some she knew—”oh, Michael, it is an impossible thing they would have me do. Am I to cook the dinner for Christos, and every evening see his face grow all red and shiny with wine, while he bids me fetch more? Am I to talk with the other women as sparrows twitter together in a bush? Am I to say I love him? Oh, Michael, I would sooner stroke your hair than his. Then what of the cousins? They will call me an old maid, for many cousins younger than I are married. But this I promise you, great dog, that unless I love I will not marry, and what love is, God knows, for I do not. And if ever I love, Michael—yes, they say I am fierce, and of no maiden mind. So be it; we will sail together in the brig Sophia, for so will I name her—you and I and she. And if some one, I know not who, comes from the sea, all sea and sun, some one not familiar, but strange to me and stronger than I, you shall be his, and the ship shall be his, and I shall be his, all of us, all of us; and we all, he and I and you and the ship, will go straight up to heaven.”

She laughed softly at herself, and buried her face in the dog’s shaggy ruff. “Oh, Michael,” she whispered, “the cousins are all saying how queer a girl I am. So perhaps am I, but not as they think. I should be the queerer if I married Christos, and yet to their minds my queerness is that I do not. Why did you not bite him when he came here this morning? for so he would have run away, and this thinking would have been saved. Yet you were right, he is a familiar thing, and we do not bite what is familiar. Perhaps, when the strange man comes, I shall hate him, although I do nothing else but love him. Yet, oh, I am proud, for we are prouder, as the proverb says, than the Mavromichales of Maina. But, Christos, he is slower than a tortoise, and less amusing than a mule; oh, well enough no doubt for some, but not for me. Perhaps I shall marry none; that is very likely, for the men I see here, for instance, are not fit things to marry, and so, I make no doubt, they think me. And there is always the ship-building. Oh, we will get very wise, Michael, and sail our ship ourselves, and see strange countries and over-sea people. There must be some one in this big world as well as I, and yet I have not seen him, but we will do nothing without thinking, Michael, unless it so happens that some day we no longer want or are able to think. Perhaps that—there, get down, you are heavy.”

She pushed the dog’s paws off her lap, and, rising from her chair, went to the end of the veranda to look out upon the night. The full moon swung high and white among the company of stars, and the sea was all a shimmer of pearly light. A swell was rolling in soft and huge from the south, and the end of the pier was now and again outlined with broken foam. Beneath the moonlight the massive seas looked only a succession of waving light and shadow, and the rattle of the pebbles on the shingly beach outside the pier in the drag of the swell came rhythmical and muffled. The Capsina, in the unrest and ferment of her thoughts, was unwittingly drawn towards that vastness of eternal and majestic movement, and slipping her embroidered Rhodian hood over her head, she whistled softly to Michael, and went down through the strip of garden towards the shore.

She passed along the quay and out beyond the harbor; all the wandering scents of a night in early summer were in the air, and the rough strip of untrained moorland which lay beyond the town was covered with flowering thyme and aromatic herbs, rooty and fragrant to the nostrils. She walked quickly across this and came down to the shingly beach which fringed the promontory. All along its edge the swell was breaking in crash and flying foam, for the south wind of the day before had raised a storm out to sea, and several ships had that day put in for shelter. Far out she could see a pillar of spray rise high and disappear again over a reef of rock, gleaming for a moment with incredible whiteness in the moonlight. Michael snuffed about in rapturous pursuit of interesting smells among the edge of rough herbs that fringed the beach, making sudden excursions and flank movements inland, and grubbing ecstatically among the tussocks of cistus and white heath after wholly imaginary hares. By degrees Sophia walked more slowly, and, coming to the end of the promontory, stopped for a moment before she began to retrace her steps. No, she could not marry Christos; she could not cut herself off from the thrill that her large independence gave her, from working for herself, from the headship of the clan. For her she thought was a wider life than that of the women of her race. How could she limit herself, with her young, strong body, and the will which moved it, to the distaff and the spinning-wheel? Christos! He was afraid of Michael, he was afraid of the sea, he was afraid of her. But how to make this clear to demonstration to the clan was beyond her. Moreover—and the thought was like a stinging insect—there lay at home the deed of her betrothal to her cousin.

She whistled to Michael and turned back into the town. Several groups of men were scattered along the length of the quay, and the Capsina, walking swiftly by, saw that Christos was among them. She hung on her step a moment, and then, with a sudden idea, turned round and called to him.

“Christos Capsas,” she said, “I would speak to you a moment. Yes, it is I, Sophia.”

Christos disengaged himself from the group a little reluctantly and followed her. He was a somewhat handsome-looking fellow, but rather heavily made, and slow and slouching in his movements. The Capsina, seeming by his side doubly alert, walked on with him in silence for a space, and then stopped again.

“See, Christos,” she said, “I have no wish to offend you or any. If what I said this morning was an offence to you, please know that to me now my words were an offence. Yet I will not marry you,” and on the word she suddenly flared out—”oh! be very sure of that! And I have something to say to the clan. Be good enough to tell them that I expect all the men to dinner with me to-morrow, when I will speak to them. You will come yourself. Yes? Let me know how many will be there to-morrow early. Good-night, my cousin. Michael, be quiet, and come with me.”

The clan signified their intention of accepting the Capsina’s invitation in large numbers, for they too felt that their family affairs must come to a crisis, and that something explicit was needed. The Capsina, they were sure, would supply this need. As the day was warm, she gave orders that the dinner should be served in the veranda, and that the barrel of wine which had been put on board the brig should be brought back, for it was her best. All morning she attended to the things for their entertainment, first going to the market to buy the best of the freshly caught mullet and a lump of caviare, wrapped up in vine leaves, and choosing with care a lamb to be roasted whole over the great open fireplace; then, returning to see that the pilaff of chicken was properly seasoned, that the olives were dried and put in fresh oil, and herself mixing the salad, flavoring it with mint and a sprinkling of cheese and garlic. After that the rose-leaf jam had to be whipped up with cream and raw eggs for the sweets, and another pot to be opened to be offered to the guests, with glasses of cognac as an appetizer; cheese had to be fetched from the cellar, and dried figs and oranges from the store cupboard. Then Michael, to whom the hot smells were a tremulous joy, must be chained up, and in the midst of these things there arrived a notary from the town, who, at Sophia’s dictation, for she had but little skill at writing herself, drew up a deed and explained to her where the witnesses should sign or make their mark. By this time it was within an hour of dinner, and she went to her room to dress, and think over what she was going to say.

Sophia had an inbred instinct for completeness, and she determined on this occasion to make herself magnificent. She took from their paper-wrappings her three fête dresses, one of which had never been worn, and looked them over carefully before deciding between them. Eventually she fixed on the new one. This consisted of three garments, a body, a skirt, and a long sleeveless jacket reaching to the knees. The body was made of fine home-spun wool buttoning down the side, but the whole of the front was a piece of silk Rhodian embroidery in red, green, and gold, and a narrow strip of the same went round the wrists. The skirt was of the same material, but there was stitched over it a covering of thin Greek silk, creamy-white in color, and round the bottom of the skirt ran a trimming of the same Rhodian stuff. Before putting the jacket on she opened a box that stood by her bed, and took from it four necklaces of Venetian gold sequins, one short and coming round the neck like a collar, and the other three of increasing size, the largest hanging down almost as far as her waist. Then she put on the jacket, which, like the other garments, was bordered with embroidery, and draping her hair in an orange-colored scarf of Greek silk, she fastened it with another band of Venetian gold coins, which passed twice round her head. Then, hesitating a moment, she went back to the box where her gold ornaments were kept, and drew out the great heirloom of her clan, and held it in her hand a moment. It was a belt of antique gold chain, more than an inch in width, each link being set with two pearls. The clasp was of two gold circles, with a hook behind, and on each of them was chased the lion of Venice. Scroll-work of leaves and branches, on which sat curious archaic eagles, ran round it, and eight large emeralds were set in each rim. Sophia looked at it doubtfully for a moment or two, and then fastened it round her waist, inside her jacket, so as to hide the joining of the body and skirt.

Her guests soon began to arrive, the first of them being Christos, the father of her betrothed, with his son. The old man had determined to be exceedingly dignified and cold to Sophia, and as a mark of his disapproval had not put on his festa clothes. But the sight of that glorious figure, all color, walking out from the shade of the veranda into the brilliant sunlight to meet them, took, as he said afterwards, “all the pith” out of him.

Sophia received him with a sort of regal dignity as befitted the head of the clan: “You are most welcome, Uncle Christos,” she said, “and you also, cousin. I was sorry that your business prevented your being able to come to the launching of the new boat, but perhaps you will like to see her after dinner.”

Uncle Christos shifted uneasily from one foot to the other.

“I had no idea you would be so grand, Sophia,” he said, “and I have come in my old clothes. Christos, too, you slovenly fellow, your shirt is no fresh thing.”

The younger Christos’s fustanella was as a matter of fact quite clean, but he smoothed it down as if ashamed of it.

“But, Sophia,” went on the old man, “they will not be all here yet. I will run to my house and be back in a moment,” and he fairly bolted out of the garden.

Christos and Sophia were thus left alone, but Sophia was quite equal to the occasion, and spoke resolutely of indifferent things until the others arrived. By degrees they all came, the elder Christos the last, but in the magnificence of all his best clothes, and they sat down to dinner. And when they had finished eating and the pipes were produced, Sophia rose from her place at the head of the table and spoke to them that which she had in her mind.

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