E. F. (Edward Frederic) Benson.

The Capsina online

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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

"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.

"It is not my wish," she said, "to hurt the feelings of any one, but I
will not violate my own. As you perhaps have heard" - and the slightest
shadow of a smile passed over her face, for she knew that nothing else
had been spoken of for the last four-and-twenty hours - "my cousin
Christos has asked me to fulfil my betrothal to him, and I wish to make
my answer known to you all. You understand me, then: I will not marry
my cousin, either now or at any other time. I have here" - and she took
up from the table the deed of the betrothal - "I have here that which
is witness of my betrothal to Christos Capsas. With the approval of
my family and clan I will tear it up and burn it. If there is any one
here who objects to this, let him say so, and I will tell you what I
shall then do. Without his approval, and without the approval of any
one else, I shall send to the town for the notary, procure witnesses,
and sign my name to this other deed. I am no hand with the pen, but so
much I can write. In it I bequeath all my property, to which I am sole
heiress - for my father, as you know, died without a will, suddenly - not
to my clan, nor to any one of my clan, but to the priests."

A subdued murmur of consternation ran round the table, and the elder
Christos called gently on the names of five or six saints, for the clan
were not on good terms with the church, and the Capsina herself had
threatened to loose Michael on the first priest who set foot uninvited
in her house. A paralyzed silence succeeded, and Sophia continued her

"See," she said, "I am perfectly in earnest. We are prouder, as our
proverb says, than they of Maina, and, being proud, I for one do not
threaten things which I am unable or unwilling to perform. Perhaps
marriage seems to me a different thing from what it seems to you. But
that is no reason that I am wrong or that you are right. My betrothed I
believe to be an admirable man, but I am so made that I do not choose
to marry him, nor, at present, any other man. And now the choice is
with you. I destroy in your presence and with your consent both these
papers, or I will sign in your presence and without your consent that
which only needs my signature. I will leave you here for half an
hour, and when I return, Christos Capsas, the father of Christos, my
betrothed, will tell me what you have decided. Uncle Christos, you will
please take my place here and tell the servants to bring you more wine
when you want it. You will find the white wine also very good, I think."

And with these paralyzing words the Capsina dropped her eyes, bowed
with a wonderful dignity and grace to the clan, who rose to their feet
despite themselves at the beauty of the girl, and marched into the

At the end of half an hour she returned, and standing a moment in her
place turned to the elder Christos.

"You have decided," she said, and taking up the two deeds in answer to
a nod from her uncle, she tore them across and across. Then she gave
the pieces to a servant.

"Burn them," she said, "there, out in the garden, where we can all see."

Certainly the Capsina had a sense for the dramatic moment, for she
stood quite still where she was in dead silence until a puff of wind
dispersed the feathers of the ash. Then she turned briskly and filled
her glass.

"I drink prosperity to him who was betrothed to me," she said, "and
wish him with all my heart a better wife than I should ever have made
him. And here," she cried, unbuckling the great gold belt, "take your
wife to-morrow, if you will, or when you will, and here is my gift to
the bride."

And she handed the gorgeous thing across to her cousin, clinked glasses

Online LibraryE. F. (Edward Frederic) BensonThe Capsina → online text (page 1 of 27)