THE ROVING ENGLISHMAN
THE religious establishments of foreign countries have one excellence in which they stand in honorable contrast to our own. It is, that important institutions of great public utility are often founded and supplied by their revenues. Many of the high dignitaries of the church abroad have incomes beside which even that of the Bishop of London would appear to a disadvantage; but nearly all have far other claims on them than our prelates; claims to which they are also compelled by law or usage to satisfy very strictly. I could give a dozen instances in point, easily; but, one will serve my purpose just now, and we will therefore confine ourselves to it: premising merely that it is one of many.
Let us not be too proud to learn. We have so often stood in the honorable relation of teachers to other nations that we can afford now and then to turn pupils with a better grace. If in the present instance, the lesson comes from a long way off and from a place whence we are not generally in the habit of receiving lessons of practical benefit, this is no reason why we should receive it less kindly or be especially surprised. Minerva’s self might, I dare say, have learned something new in the poorest Spartan village.
Having now introduced my subject respectfully, I proceed to say that there is in the town of Castro, at the distant island of Mytilene in the Aegean Sea, a small establishment which I am sure no one would be sorry to see imitated in London upon a larger scale. It is a Travellers' Home, built and supported solely by the revenues of the Greek Archbishopric. I very much doubt if any part of them be better employed.
It is a very plain house, and is divided into a vast number of small rooms without furniture of any kind. Each room has a fire-place, several commodious cupboards, and a strong door with a strong padlock to fasten it: there is a common fire for all the inmates of these rooms, presided over by the solitary single gentleman who has charge of the building.
The object for which this place was first erected, was as a temporary resting-place for the more humble travellers who flock to the capital of the island, to take part in the solemn festivals of the Greek Church; but its advantages have since been extended to all travellers who have no home elsewhere. The only title to admission is decent apparel. The right to remain any reasonable time is acquired by quiet, orderly conduct, and an understanding, strictly enforced, that each traveller shall keep, and leave, the room allotted to him perfectly clean.
There is no charge for this entertainment. The traveller may give if he pleases, but nothing is required of him. The numerous respectable people who avail themselves of the establishment generally pay something towards a fund which is understood to go in part to the keeping of the building in good repair; but the contributions are very small, and by far the greater part of the visitors pay nothing.
It is impossible to think, without satisfaction, of the many people whose necessities while travelling are thus provided for; whether they bring an air mattress and comfortable coverings with them, or whether they sleep on the hard floor; whether they purchase a comfortable dinner of the snug elderly gentleman, or whether they bring a crust of dry bread in their pocket. Nobody knows how this may be, neither is it evident to any man whether his neighbour pays or does not pay. There is no apparent difference between the moneyed guest and the poor one; each has his own room and his own lock and key. It is the only place of public entertainment, I think, I ever saw where poverty is allowed to be quiet and decent in its own way.
It was on the serene afternoon of a grey day, late in the autumn, when I first visited this place. I had sent away my horses, for the wind blew chilly, and, lighting a cigar, had walked musingly among the mysterious streets of the little town of Castro, until chance led my steps to the traveller's home. Finding myself before a house of such size, I inquired what it was, and, having received an answer, I passed unquestioned through the open gate. The wind sighed heavily along the narrow street, and I remember that an involuntary awe came over me as I seemed to be led by some other power than curiosity up the spotless stairs of freshly planed wood, and along the silent corridor, until I stopped before a door, where there sat a woman wailing. There is something so august in sorrow that I should have passed on respectfully; but that her outstretched hand detained me.
"Oh, Frankish Lord!" cried the woman, in accents of
despair, “save him, for he is dying!" She pressed my hand to her quivering lips
as she spoke, after the fashion of the East, and I knew that her simple heart
was full of the popular belief that the Franks or Europeans all have a knowledge
of the healing art.
"Alas! Mother," I answered in the simple idiom of the country, "I have no power to save him."
But she detained me in the strong spasm of her grasp, and the next minute I stood within the chamber of death, and was abashed before the nameless majesty of death.
I knelt beside the bed very gently and humbly, and took the hand of the sick lad. I dared not meet the mother's imploring look for there was no mistaking the prophecy or the languid fluttering pulse, or the foam gathering on the lips, and the glassy eyes. But even as 1 knelt, a strange light seemed to pass over the boy's face changing its expression wholly. When it was gone, his head gently fell back, and I knew that all was over; for that light was the ray which comes through the gates of heaven when they open to receive a soul. A low continued moan only broke the stillness as I rose. Oh deal with her gently, this bereaved mother! For her last child is lying cold beside her; and though her darling is gone to the fields where the night comes not, neither is there shadow of darkness, yet she cannot follow him! Oh deal with her gently, for the hand of the Chastener is heavy upon her! As I turned to go from the last home of the boy-traveller, a something which had before lain heavy on my heart was rebuked, and I felt how the little ills of life sink into nothing beside such a grief as this!
A SAINT’S BROTHER.
HE was the brother of a saint, and his friends were rich; so they dressed him in his best, and they put his turban on his head (for he was of the old school), and they bore him to the tomb upon a bier, and coffinless, after the custom of the East. I joined the procession as it swept chanting along the narrow street; and we all entered the illuminated church together.
The Archbishop strode solemnly up the aisle, with the priests swinging censers before him; and with the odour of sanctity exhaling from his splendid robes. On went the procession, making its way through a stand-up fight, which was taking place in the church, on through weeping relatives, and sobered friends, till at last the Archbishop was seated on his throne, and the dead man lay before him stiff and stark. Then the same unctuous individual whom I fancy I have observed taking a part in religious ceremonies all over the world, being yet neither priest nor deacon, hustles up, and he places some savoury herbs on the breast of the corpse, chanting lustily as he does so to save time.
Then the Archbishop takes two waxen tapers in each hand; they are crossed and set in a splendid hand-candlestick. He extends it towards the crowd, and seems to bless it mutely, for he does not speak. There is silence, only disturbed by a short sob which has broken from the over-burdened heart of the dead man's son. Hush! It is the Archbishop giving out a psalm, and now it begins lowly, solemnly, mournfully: at first, the lusty lungs of the burly priests seem to be chanting a dirge; all at once they are joined by the glad voices of children—oh! so clear and so pure, sounding sweet and far-off, rejoicing for the bliss of the departed soul.
They cease, and there comes a priest dressed in black robes; he prostrates himself before the throne of the Archbishop, and carries the dust of the prelate's feet to his forehead. Then he kisses the Archbishop's hand, and mounts the pulpit to deliver a funeral oration. I am sorry for this; he is evidently a beginner, and twice he breaks down, and gasps hopelessly at the congregation; but the Archbishop prompts him and gets him out of this difficulty. A rascally young Greek at my elbow nudges me to laugh, but I pay no attention to him.
Then the priests begin to swing their censers again, and their deep voices mingle chanting with the fresh song of the children, and again the Archbishop blesses the crowd. So now the relatives of the dead man approach him one by one, crossing themselves devoutly. They take the nosegay of savoury herbs from his breast, and they press it to their lips. Then they kiss the dead man's forehead. When the son approaches, he sobs convulsively, and has afterwards to be removed by gentle force from the body.
So the relatives continue kissing the body, fearless of contagion, and the chant of the priests and choristers swells through the church, and there lies the dead man, with the sickly glare of the lamps struggling with the daylight, and falling with a ghastly gleam upon his upturned face. Twice I thought he moved, but it was only fancy.
The Archbishop has left the church and the relatives of the dead man are bearing him to his last home without further ceremony. It is a narrow vault just outside the church, and the Greeks courteously make way for me—a stranger. A man jumps briskly into the grave; it is scarcely three feet deep; he arranges a pillow for the head of the corpse, then he springs out again, laughing at his own agility. The crowd laugh too. Joy and Grief elbow each other everywhere in life: why not also at the gates of the tomb?
Then two stout men seize the corpse in their stalwart arms, and they lift it from the bier. They are lowering it now, quite dressed, but coffinless, into the vault. They brush me as they do so, and the daylight falls full on the face of the dead. It is very peaceful and composed, but looking tired, weary of the world; relieved that the journey is over!
Stay! For here comes a priest walking slowly from the church, with his mass-book and censer. He says a few more prayers over the body, and one of the deceased's kindred drops a stone into the grave. While the priest prays, he pours some consecrated oil upon the body, and some more upon a spadeful of earth which is brought to him. This also is thrown into the grave. It is not filled up; a stone is merely fastened with clay roughly over the aperture, and at night there will he a lamp placed there, which will be replenished every night for a year. At the end of that time the body will be disinterred; if the bones have not been thoroughly rotted away from the flesh and separated, the Archbishop will be called again to pray over the body; for there is a superstition among Greeks, that a man whose body does not decay within a year, is accursed. When the bones have divided, they will be collected and tied up in a linen bag, which will hang on a nail against the church wall. By and by, this will decay, and the bones which have swung about in the wind and rain will be shaken out one by one to make daylight ghastly where they lay. Years hence they may be swept into the charnel-house, or they may not, as chance directs.
I have said that he was the brother of a saint. It is well, therefore, that I should also say something of the saint himself. The saint was St. Theodore, one of the most recent martyrs of the Greek Church. St. Theodore was born about fifty years ago, of very humble parents, who lived at the village of Neo Chori, near Constantinople. He was brought up to the trade of a house-painter, an art of some pretension in Turkey, where it is often carried to very great perfection. The lad was clever, and soon attained such excellence in his craft that he was employed at the Palace of the Sultan. The splendour of the palace, and of the gorgeous dresses of some of the Sultan's servants, fired his imagination. He desired to remain among them; so he changed his is faith for that of Islam, and was immediately appointed to a petty post about the palace.
Three years after his apostacy and circumcision a great plague broke out at Constantinople, sweeping away the Sultan's subjects by hundreds, with short warning. The future saint grew alarmed, a species of religious mania seized upon him. He tried to escape from the palace, but was brought back. At last, he got away, in the disguise of a water-carrier, and fled to the island of Scio.
Here he made the acquaintance of a priest, to whom he confided his intention of becoming a martyr. The priest is said warmly to have commended this view of the case; for martyrs had been lately growing scarce. Instead of conveying the young man, therefore, to a lunatic asylum, he took him to the neighbouring island of Mitylene; seeing, doubtless, sufficient reasons why the martyrdom should not take place at Scio; where he might have been exposed to awkward remonstrances from his friends, for countenancing such a horror.
So the priest accompanied him to Mitylene where the first act of the tragedy commenced by the martyr presenting himself before the Cadi or Turkish Judge. Before the Cadi he began to curse the Mussulman faith, and threw his turban at that magistrate's head. Taking from his bosom a green handkerchief, with which he had been provided, he trampled it under foot; and green is a sacred colour with the Turks. The Cadi was desirous of getting rid of him quietly, considering him as mad, as doubtless he was. But he continued cursing the Turks so bitterly that at last an angry mob of fanatics bore him away to the Pasha. This functionary, a quiet, amiable man, tried also to get out of the disagreeable affair; but the young man raved so violently that the Turks around began to beat him; and he was put into a sort of stocks till he should be quiet. At last the Turks lost patience with him, and his martyrdom began in earnest. He was subjected (say the Greek chronicles from which this history is taken) to the cruel torture of having hot earthen plates bound to his temples, and his neck was then twisted by fanatic men till his eyes started from their sockets; they also drew several of his teeth. He now said that he had returned to the Greek faith in consequence of the advice of an Englishman; which so appeased the Turks, that they offered him a pipe, and wanted to dismiss him. But he soon broke out again, and asked for the sacrament. He also asked for some soup. Both were given to him, the Turks offering no opposition to the administering of the former. When, however, he once more began to curse and revile the prophet, some fanatic proposed that he should be shortened by having an inch cut from his body every time he blasphemed, beginning at his feet. The Cadi shuddered and interposed, saying, that such a proceeding would be contrary to the law; which provided that a renegade should be at once put to death, that the faith of Islam might not be insulted. Then the mob got a cord to hang him. Like many other things in Turkey, this cord does not seem to have been fit for the purpose to which it was applied; and the struggles of the maniac were so violent that it broke. But they did hang him at last; thus completing the title to martyrdom with which he has come down to us. For three days his hanging body offended the daylight, and the simple country folk cut off bits of his clothes for relics. After a while he was carried away, and buried with a great fuss; the Turks having too profound a contempt for the Greeks to interfere with their doings in any way. Then, after awhile, application was made to the Patriarch of Constantinople to canonize the mad house-painter; and canonized he was. His body was disinterred, and mummified with great care. It is wrapped up in cotton, and the head is inclosed in a silver ease. Both are shown to the devout on the anniversary of his martyrdom. The cotton sells well, for it is said to have worked many miracles, and to be especially beneficial in eases of epilepsy.
The anniversary of the Martyrdom of St. Theodore occurred on the same day as his brother’s funeral. I asked if the reputation of the saint had anything to do with the honours paid to his brother "Yes," was the answer, "the relatives of the saint are naturally anxious to keep up his reputation; which is like a patent of nobility to them. None dare to offer them injury or wrong, for fear of the martyr's anger.
For the rest, the festival of St. Theodore was as pretty a sight as I would wish to see. His body was enshrined in a neat temple of green leaves, and was placed in the centre of the church. The pilgrims arrived at dead of night to pray there. They were mostly women, and seemed earnest enough in what they were about. I did not like to see them, however, buying those little bits of cotton which lay mouldering round the mummy, and putting them into their bosoms
The church was well lighted; for Mitylene is an oil country. Innumerable lamps hung suspended from the roof everywhere, and some were decorated with very pretty transparencies. If you shut your eye for a minute, they seemed to open on fairy land rather than reality. The hushed scene, the stillness of which was only broken by the pattering feet of some religious maiden approaching the shrine, shawled and mysterious, even here, had something very quaint and fanciful in it. I could have stopped there all night watching them as they passed, dropping buttons (substitutes for small coin given in churches) into the salver of a dingy priest, who sat in the aisle, tablet in hand, to receive orders for masses to be said for the sick or the dead. I liked to watch the business manner in which he raised his reverend hand to get the light well upon his tablet, and adjusted his spectacles as he inscribed each new order from the pilgrims. At last, however, he gathered up his buttons and money, tying them in a bag; and glancing round once more in vain for customers, he went his way into the sacristy. I followed his waddling figure with my eyes till the last lock of his long hair, which caught in the brocaded curtain, had been disentangled, and he disappeared. Then, as the active individual in rusty black, whom I have mentioned as so busy in the ceremony of the morning, seemed desirous of having a few minutes' conversation with me, I indulged him. It was most difficult to perceive from the tenor of his discourse, that he was desirous of receiving some token of my esteem in small change. It cost little to gratify him; and then, as the church was quite deserted, we marched off together.
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