A SYRIAN LEGEND
KOJA, the son of a shipwright of Beyrout, became the hero of story simply from excessive constancy of his attachment to Lisa, the daughter of a Maronite merchant. No one knows to what nation Koja belonged, or is quite sure of the epoch of his existence. But as mountains in a misty atmosphere seem far off as soon as you recede a little from them, so in the East, where history sheds no steady light on the past, popular personages who have only just died are often removed to an indefinite distance back in time. This point, however, is of no moment. Men who become famous from the mere display of the affections are always near neighbours. We feel for Petrarch, whose house has left no ruins at Vaucluse, just as if he were living in the next street. More so, perhaps; because time flowing over his story, has washed away everything but the sparkling gold. So is it with Koja. There were men who hated and persecuted him in his life; but they are gone, and all now join in lamenting his long separation from Lisa.
The meeting of the two lovers was accidental. One morning, Lisa, who began to find the woman’s apartment, to which she had been confined during her father’s absence at Damascus, somewhat dreary, asked Margota, her aunt, to take her forth, that she might wander on the borders of the sea. The good old lady was well-nigh struck dumb by the request. “All the saints bless thee!” cried she; “has a Marid (evil spirit) been whispering in thy ear? Why, here am I, at this respectable age. I’ve lived all my life long at Beyrout, and never once have I desired to go down to the water’s edge.” Upon this Lisa laughed, and told to her aunt the story of the dove who lived with the tortoise, and who one day expressed a desire to go and eat olives on a hill that was almost out of sight. The tortoise objected, and made a long speech to show the impropriety of such a step; but the dove flashed round and round in the sunlight, and replied, “My friend, you mean to say that you have no wings.” So, off she flew.
Margota understood from this that her charge would steel out alone, or with one of the slave girls, to satisfy her wish; and with many grumblings began to get ready, first putting on a veil as thick as a towel, then an ample gown of yellow silk, and then a black cloak like a domino. Afterwards she wanted to take all off again to don her yellow boots in greater comfort; but Lisa, who had disguised herself in five minutes, would not allow such a delay, and calling to Zurifeh, the slave girl, went down into the court. Margota followed, grumbling at her willfulness; and so they went forth into the narrow streets, and proceeded in the direction of the sea.
Instead of going down to the port, always full of noisy Greek and Arab sailors, they took a circuitous direction, and reached the water’s edge about a mile outside the town. “It is a beautiful evening,” said Lisa. “Very cold,” quoth Margota, shivering; and indeed a sea-breeze was blowing gently in their faces, and making their silk garments flutter as it passed. The water, however, far out, seemed as placid as the blue heavens above; whilst near at hand small waves, or rather ripples, came creeping up the sandy beach a few inches, and then retreating to return again with a rustling sound. Lisa took off her shoes – she had no stocking – and ran out to try and catch what seemed to her floating diamonds – star-fish that were poising themselves near the surface, now expanding, now contracting, and ever leaping out of reach of her hand.
The proceeded slowly until they came to the ledge of a rock that jutted some hundred feet into the sea. By this time the wind had freshened a little, and a cloud of spray occasionally played about the extreme end of the point. Margota voted for a return, and tried to force a cough; but Lisa insisted on running out along the ledge, and away she went. Her guardian, tired and annoyed, sat down on the sand to wait for her to return with Zarifeh; both remained looking lazily at the sun, which, with vastly enlarged circumference, was just poising itself near the cloudless horizon – a globe of fire in a sea of light.
The time seemed long, and Margota at last said to Zarifeh, “My sight is weak, and I do not descry Lisa on the rock.” The slave girl turned her sharp eyes in that direction, and rousing from her apathy, cried: “She is not there!” So, she ran forward, while Margota, whose boots were full of sand, followed slowly. The black girl arrived soon, and standing on the rock, shaded her eyes from the sun and looked around. “Where is the child?” cried Margota. “Out of the sea,” was the reply. “She is going away!”
On reaching with much difficulty the summit of the rock, Margota to her dismay saw at some distance out on the purple waters, moving towards the golden wake of the sun, a boat impelled by a small sail, and though she distinguished two persons in it. “Ha!” exclaimed Zarifeh, with a meaning smile, “Lisa has a boatman friend, and he is taking her away. See how the sail swells and bends. But she is not afraid. She stands up clapping her hands; her veil is fluttering; and the stranger is worshipping her face.”
Margota could see nothing of all this; but began wringing her hands, for she knew how terrible would be the anger of the father when he heard of what had taken place. The matter, however, was not so serious as she and Zarifeh had at first feared. Lisa, on going out along the rocks, has seen a boat floating near the other side, with a young man seated in it. In the East, when once the formal rules of propriety are disregarded, nature shows itself in its utmost simplicity. Without meaning any harm, Lisa called out, “O, young boatman! this is the first time that I have seen the sea; and I long to ride for one half-hour on its bosom. Take me with thee.”
Koja – for it was he – looked up listlessly. He had been sailing about all day, endeavouring to divert his thoughts from themes which trouble youth, and when the wind had fallen, had suffered his boat to float where it listed, just giving now and then a sweep with the oar, more from habit than design. Thus he found himself brought face to face with Lisa. He complied mechanically with her request, wondering who this maiden might be who was thus out by herself, against all the customs of the country. His fancy suggested that it might be a spirit. She stepped lightly on board when the boat floated up to a projecting ledge; and when the little mast was shipped, and she began to feel the tiny craft glide away from shore, everything was forgotten but the delight of the moment – Margota, and Zarifeh, and prudence, and her father’s displeasure – everything was forgotten but the delight of thus passing along like a shadow over the purple waters in the light of the setting sun. Perhaps, too, company so new to her, a handsome youth, who gazed upon her with a bewildered look of admiration, and who seemed silently to entreat her not to notice that the breeze had unveiled her, and that she, whom no strange man had ever beheld, was pouring love into his heart – perhaps this was the chief cause of his forgetfulness. Love at first sight is common in the East – where beauty can rarely be marked for a longer space of time than a falling star takes to shoot across one-quarter of the heavens. Before the shrill cry of Zarifeh came from the shore, Koja loved Lisa, and Lisa loved Koja, and the destiny of the one became indissolubly united with that of the other.
When Zarifeh called out in the strange wailing voice common to her people, Lisa said to her lover, “We must return; and we must part. This is the flowertime of our lives; afterwards will come the withering sun of adversity.” Koja took her hand and placed it in a ring, and said, “If we must part, keep this token. We may never meet again; but it will be a means of communication. If good fortune is with me, it will retain its brightness; if evil, it will dim. If I cease to love, and the grave opens for me, it will become black.” Lisa wept at the thought of her lover’s death, and took the ring. They exchanged no more words; and presently afterwards the young girl leaped from the boat upon the extreme point of the rock and listened to the approach of her guardian. She did not reply to them, for her eyes and her mind were following Koja, who was sailing on towards the open sea – out, out, towards the place where the sun had gone down – moving to and fro like a shadow, for light was gradually fading, the sail growing gradually dimmer and dimmer until the eye confounded it sometimes with the great white birds that were coming landward, flying low and wearily along the waters. At length it faded altogether, because night began to come rapidly on; then Lisa said, “I came down to the sea-side with a soul; now it is gone. This is only the form of Lisa. My soul is floating over the waters. Let us go home; the wind is chill, and life’s heat has departed from me.”
“Woe! woe!” murmured Margota. “The master of that boat was a magician; and he hath cast a spell upon the girl. What have I done?”
So they returned to the house; and Lisa remained day after day lamenting the loss of her soul. She knew that love, such as hers, was destined in this world to bring unhappiness to those who suffered it. Marriages among her people are not based on affection. A husband is chosen by the father, and the daughter is not even asked if she can hope for happiness with him. There was no chance that Koja would be selected; for she knew he was of a different race, a race who worshipped God in a different manner, made bows and prostrations in the Church according to another ritual, kissed the palm of the priest’s hand instead of the tips of his fingers, and was altogether, therefore, an alien and an enemy. She also knew that the merchant, her father, had quarreled with the father of Koja for the possession of a ship, so that there was a feud between them. The idea of struggling against law and custom never occurred to her; and she sat down in the chamber, which had appeared in the morning so bright and cheerful, to nurse the young love that had been born, as sadly, as if the grave were already open to receive it.
In the meanwhile, Koja, who equally understood that a fatal passion had taken possession of him, continued sailing out, long after the sun had set and darkness had come on – heavy at first, but then partly dissipated by the moon, which rose over the distant mountains of Lebanon. He felt that in the idle life which he had hitherto lead by his father’s indulgence, the great love which he had conceived would prove poison to him; and he resolved at once to dissipate his energies in adventure. No thought of relations or friends troubled him; and the narrator does not take the trouble to form a justification. Passion is always selfish; and all poets or romancers in the East identify themselves with those who yield to it, and never dream that any other duties have a claim. Away sailed Koja, until he saw a ship with many sails moving slowly along in the moonlight. He hailed it, and went on board, and voyaged with it to the Grecian islands, and then to the Frank countries, and back to Egypt. He went on shore, and, pursuing his travels for many years, visited Habesh and the Hejaz, and El Hind, and Ajern, and many other countries. In all these places many beautiful women became enamoured of him, and sent to him flowers which they had perfumed with their sighs; but he listened to none, and when they remonstrated with him by messengers he departed from that city and went to another. His heart was wholly occupied with Lisa, whom it seemed impossible he should meet again.
The young girl was equally constant, and spent the chief part of her time in watching the ring which Koja had given her, to know whether it retained its brightness. Sometimes it dulled a little; and as she was unwilling to believe in misfortune, she reproached herself with want of care, and took soft linen and rubbed it; but it changed not by her efforts, obeying all the varied fortunes of the departed one. This ring is not supposed to have been originally endowed with any miraculous powers, but derived its marvellous quality simply from the intensity with which Koja had wished for a means of communication with his beloved one.
When the merchant returned from Damascus his first talk was of a husband for Lisa; but the young girl, knowing there was but one means of escape, feigned madness and went about the house with flowers and straw in her hair, singing wildly. Margota and Zarifeh knew the cause of this, but they dared not reveal it; and so the merchant grieved, and Lisa remained a maiden, pitied by the whole city. Koja was forgotten, except by his father, who set up a cenotaph for him, and mourned over it for a whole day once a year – the anniversary of the day on which the youth had disappeared, floating away in his boat towards the setting sun.
Time passed on; and Lisa was no longer a young girl, but a full-grown woman, still beautiful; yet no longer sought in marriage. She remained in her father’s house; while her sisters, who were mere children when the meeting with Koja took place, all found husbands, and soon brought pretty babies for her to admire and nurse. One night, after seven years had gone to the past, the merchant, happening to be sleepless, heard a voice raised in lamentation. So, he got up and went in its direction, and found that it proceeded from his eldest daughter’s room. He listened, and heard her saying: “Oh, Koja! and art thou near the gates of death? Has sorrow overtaken me? Is my bridegroom about to be taken away!” The old man marveled at these words, and quietly raising the curtain that closed the room, beheld Lisa sitting on the carpet with a lamp beside her, holding a ring in the bright light, and shedding tears. “What is the sorrow of my daughter?” said he, gently. She looked up, without any expression of alarm or surprise, and replied: “The last hour is approaching, and I know not where he is or what are the means of protection.” Then she showed the ring, which had lost all its brightness, and seemed as if made of old copper. The merchant understood that she has nourished some secret affection, and repented that he had not sought to learn the reason of her madness. He was not very aged – his passions were less strong than of yore – his ambition weaker – his prejudices almost worn away; and therefore, when Lisa told him her story, he sympathized with her, and said: “Perchance the young man may yet live, for the ring is not yet black; and there is no limit to the power and mercy of God.” As he spoke, the gold assumed a still darker hue; and Lisa shrieked and fell senseless on the carpet.
Now, it happened that at this time Koja was returning with a caravan across the desert that separates Arabia from Syria. The simoom blew, and obliterated all signs of the track. The caravan wandered – water failed – death began its work. Koja, though hardened by much travel, suffered the extreme of thirst. Making a last effort, he left the caravan, and wandered away through the sand. Weakness came over him – he sank down, and there seemed no means of escape. He thought of Lisa; and as he felt death coming on, prayed to be united to her in heaven. Then he lost all memory and consciousness; and the ring darkened almost to an ebony-colour. Death had indeed just stretched its hand over him when a troop of maidens from an encampment near at hand, which had been concealed by a hill, came by, on their way to search for some camels that had strayed. One of them saw the dying man, and revived him at first by pressing he most lips to his. Then she called to one of her companions who had a gourd, and sprinkled his face with water. Afterwards she made him drink. Then they took him up as if he had been a child, and carried him to the tents, where he was tended all night by the women, while the men went out to save the remnants of the caravan. It is needless to add that, before morning, the ring had almost resumed its brightness, and that the heart of Lisa was glad again.
A fresh peril awaited Koja. The Bedouin girl who had saved him, loved him, and with rude simplicity claimed from him, first, the sacrifice of his faith; and then, when he had told his story of his long-abiding passion, she could not understand that engrossing kind of attachment, urged her youth, her attractions, her wealth, her services, and even uttered threats. Koja remained unmoved; and at last Fatmeh said, “I will go with you to that distant city, leaving my father, and my friends, and my country, and learn if there be a woman who can love you absent for seven years. If it be true, she shall be thy wife, and I will be thy wife also.” Koja smiled, and explained that people of his faith could marry but one: a principle which Fatmeh approved, though it disarranged her plans. They escaped together; for the girl said she was determined to view this marvel of fidelity, and perhaps secretly hoped for herself. Wonderful adventures happened to them on their road. But at length Beyrout was reached, and Koja and Fatmeh stood before the gate of the mansion in which Lisa lived: both disguised as beggars. They asked for shelter, and it was granted. Lisa wondered at the marvellous brightness of the ring; it shone more like a diamond than a piece of gold. She went out into the courtyard and beheld Koja. Neither time nor altered dress could conceal him from her; rushing forward she seized his had and covered it with tears and kisses, saying, “Oh, my master! and hast thou at length returned to gladden me?” Koja embraced her and then turned towards the spot where Fatmeh had stood. But the Bedouin girl had disappeared, and was no more heard of in Beyrout.
The merchant father of Lisa exacted but one condition, before he would consent to the marriage of the constant lovers, - that Koja should join the Maronite communion. He easily acquiesced, having, no doubt, learned wisdom from travel. So, after a long period of suffering came a longer period of joy.
Were men less divided into sects and classes, there might have been no materials for this legend. We must take the world as it is, however. Half our miseries are of our own making; and some of the finest qualities of humanity are expended in overcoming obstacles to happiness, which nature has not created.
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