From The King of the Mountains, by Edmond About, Translated from the French; with a Critical Introduction by Andrew Lang; a Frontispiece and Numerous Other Portraits with Descriptive Notes by Octave Uzanne; The French Classical Romances Complete in Twenty Crown Octavo Volumes, Editor-in-Chief Edmund Gosse, LL.D; New York : P. F. Collier & Son; 1902; pp. v-xvi.
EDMOND ABOUT AND GREECE
EDMOND ABOUT visited Greece in 1851. He seems to have set out with school-boy and Byronic ideas of Greece, and to have been disappointed. He found that the women were plain, that the classic Ilissus was “a little damp when it rains,” that there was, and could be, no Hellenic aristocracy. A generation earlier, every one, in the spirit of égalité, had been equally drubbed by the Turks, and aristocracy cannot be made out of such materials. He admitted, in contradiction of a German theory, that the modern Greeks are not Slavs, but he had little else what was good to say of them. Even Greek courage is “prudent and reflective”; Canaris is a rare exception. Greek love of liberty is mere hatred of order : Greek equality is mere jealousy. “This important person is a traitor, the other a thief; the next suborns murder : the purest have infamous morals. No Greek is esteemed in Greece.” The Greeks abroad are patriots, the Greeks at home are politicians. vi Their chief concern is to shut out from Greece the foreign or heterochthonous Greeks. A Hellene of the Isles, who may have fought in the War of Independence, but has not settled in the country before 1838, may not even hold the post of a rural policeman. (Law of February 3, 1844.) As for honesty, “Greek” is a proverb for a cheat. As a Whig observer says of the Highlands, about 1750, the very poorest country people are the most honest. “The most honest men of Athens would be suspicious characters in France and England.” The forests are regularly burned, and, of all things, it is dangerous to cross a river by a bridge. Under “Justice” we read, “There is no justice in Greece.” As to finance, “Greece has been bankrupt from her birth.”
As to Brigandage, the King (the Bavarian Otho) has people suspected of brigandage about his person. It is a political weapon. A man who wishes to upset a Ministry has a few Bœotian villages burned, and then denounces the Minister. The Government then tortures Bœotians who have voted against it. An instance occurred in 1852. A Deputy, M. Chourmouzis, gave a catalogue of the tortures in the Assembly; they will all be found in The King of the Mountains. An Eubœan brigand, chief of a large vii band, actually threatened Athens, as Keppoch, in 1689, threatened Inverness. But a sub-prefect on his travels is as awkward a customer as a mountain robber.
This is a brief summary of a few of the things which About said about the Greece of Otho, in his La Grèce Contemporaine. The book is undeniably witty, but much of it is conceived in the spirit of the Society Journalist. M. About was particularly facetious under the solemn shade of the Lion-Gate of Mycenæ. The lions reminded him of his early sketches in school note-books. “The infancy of Art is very like the art of infancy.” The Atridæ are “cette race de coquins,” “un gibier de cour d’assises.” The point of view is that of the Fourth Form. Certainly About was not a sympathetic critic. La Grèce Contemporaine made a noise. The author would have been less safe in Greece than M. Daudet in Tarascon. He replied to the cries of an infuriated people by The King of the Mountains, which did not pour oil into their wounds. Unhappily his caricature was presently too well justified by the Marathon massacre. No further from Athens than the scene of her most famous victory, the salvation of Greece as of Europe, several English tourists were captured, and, when their ransom did not arrive, viii were massacred. The murderers were hunted down and shot, the death-blow of organized brigandage in Greece, but the mismanagement and the scandal had been terrible.
On the whole subject, Great Britain had very little right to throw the first stone at Hellas. Up to, and after, the union of the crowns under James VI, the Border had been a picture of the Graæco-Turkish frontier. Jocky o’ Peartree, Jock o’ the Side, Kinmont Willie and company, were merely Klephts, or Palikaris. As late as the end of the seventeenth century, Scott of Satchells defends the memory of these heroes as not thieves, but freebooters. They were the outposts and sentries of Scotland, the best of light cavalry, though —
“ They sought the beeves that made their broth,
In England and in Scotland both. ”
Harden would harry Elibank as readily as a Greek brigand would burn a Greek village. In the old Romaic songs, in Passow’s, Fauriel’s, and other collections, the women deplore the raids of Greek brigands as much as of Turks. (Some examples are translated by Miss Garnett. The language of the ballads, and of the country people, is the natural Romaic, the ancient rural dialect of Greece, with Turkish and Slavonic contaminations. ix It is, necessarily, more difficult to understand than the Greek of the Press, which, practically consists of classical words, with modern western grammar, idiom, and newspaper stereotyped phrases.)
The Highlands, like Greece, were given to brigandage down to 1745. We have not Whig evidence alone. The Duke of Gordon, in a letter to Lovat, remarks that cattle robbery is almost universal. MacDonnell of Barisdale organized theft on a large scale. The recesses of Knoydart were the home of this King of the Mountains. His men raided from Sutherland to Stirlingshire, having branch establishments in Rannoch and Lochaber, and joining hands with the Macgregors about Loch Lomond. Yet Barisdale engraved verses from Virgil on his broadswords, and was intimate with the Countess of Sutherland. Like the King of the Mountains, he was an amateur of torture, and had invented a new kind of rack. The opinion of the country, as the Memoir of Cluny shows, saw little or no moral wrong in stealing cattle, while deprecating ordinary theft. A traveller was safer all over the Highlands than in Hampstead, for the idea of capturing people and holding them to ransom was alien to the Highland genius. Except on this one point, the x Border, three hundred years ago, and the Highlands of 1745, were precisely on the moral level of the King of the Mountains. In one way they were worse, for the Scottish brigand chiefs were educated, and were men of birth, while the Greeks have no noblesse. Consequently some of the educated Highland leaders, unlike their men, were demoralized, and were guilty of private and public treacheries, which would have made the hair of Hadji Stavros stand on end with horror.
The cause of this posture of affairs, in Scotland, as in Greece, was the existence of an ancient in face of a modern and orderly society. The Turkish conquest had never conquered the Klephts of the hills any more than the law had reached Knoydart. “Take care of yourselves in Sutherland, the Law has come to Tain,” wrote a friend of the old state of things. The Klephts always represented a race otherwise subdued : they supplied the most resolute and ruthless fighters of the War of Independence. They could not easily sink into peaceful orderly citizens, and had no turn for the learned professions which the Greeks prefer to more laborious industries. The impoverished kingdom could not easily put them down, and Klephtdom, like Highland cattle-stealing, or Border moss-trooping, was the nurse of soldiers. In spite of the xi example of Lochiel, the chiefs could not be induced to frown on practices which kept their following always in military practice. Like the MacDonnells, the brigands were devout; like all these predatory races, they had abundance of home-made poetry, ballads of love, war, and robbery, popular tales and legends. If they were on friendly terms with some Athenian politicians, in that respect they only the more resembled the mosstroopers. King James VI is said to have made use of Jocky o’ Peartree. Greece was not abnormal, she was belated — that was all.
A people of extraordinarily keen wits, a people with a hereditary turn for unscrupulous finesse, for city life, for the bar and the rostrum, has been held under a barbarous, cruel, and disorderly domination for nearly four hundred years. When that yoke was taken off from without or shattered from within, the vices of slaves could not be eradicated in a moment, nor could order, among the wild mountain men, be at once imposed. The Bavarian King was unfit for his almost impossible task. Even the mountaineers had not the old Highland devotion to the ancient houses of their chiefs. Everything was chaotic, and the worst corruptions of democracy and civilization were developed among the Athenian politicians; from the days of xii Themistocles a race not remarkable for scruples. The veering enthusiasms of the Agora remain what they were when Alcibiades said, about Democracy, “Concerning manifest absurdity, why waste words?” The peculiarity of Greece was the existence of the extremely modern within four or five miles of the extremely archaic — the robber bands of Hadji Stavros. It was as if the MacDonnells and Camerons had tenanted the Pentlands in the age of David Hume and Lord Monboddo. A satirist, like About, could not have a finer theme, and his King of the Mountains gained a wide popularity. With illustrations by Doré, a version appeared in a cheap English magazine. Swift would have rejoiced in About’s opportunity. He could make cosmopolitan fun. The German botanist, so brave, simple, and honest, deeply in love without knowing it, is the literary ideal of the German, before the war of 1870. The British banker’s wife, with her appetite, her ungracious ingratitude, her slogan, “I am English, I will write to the Times,” is a fair enough caricature of that terrible being — the rich, middle-aged, middle-class British female. It is not possible to defend her, and it does not seem easy to reform her. She is inaccessible to ideas; but is Mary-Ann, the blonde Miss Anglaise, to grow up even as her mother? xiii Mary-Ann’s daughters, or granddaughters, are learned archæologists at this day, and fight over the ancient Greek theatre with German professors. English girls in Greece are not so rare as when Miss Skene was taken for a ghost in the darkling Treasure House of Atreus, and frightened tourists away. Poor Photini, with her thick waist and flat feet, is a reaction against the Byronic Maid of Athens. The grave irony of the King of the Mountains is worthy of Swift : his item of expenditure, “Repairs to the road to Thebes, which has become impracticable, and where, unfortunately, we found no travellers to rob,” is inimitable. Rob Roy never would have dreamed of repairing the road to Aberfeldy. “Paid to journalists” is also good : Rob did not finance the Caledonian Mercury, and the King’s sketch of a theory for subsidizing the Lower House, and reorganizing Greece on a basis of black-mail is far beyond the loftiest conception of Barisdale. Pericles, the officer of carabineers, is perfect, “had education, spoiled by the living in town,” sunk from brigandage to pocket-picking. The tortures suggested for the German (pp. 245-249) are carefully rehearsed, as has been said, from a speech made in the Greek Lower Chamber, February, 1852, cat and all. The sudden outbreak of treason against the brigand xiv King represents About’s idea of Greek loyalty and gratitude from the days of Aristides and Themistocles. It was impossible among the Highland clans (despite an exception in 1746), owing to the chiefs’ hereditary patriarchal authority. But Hadji Stavros has no more sacred hold over his crew than John Silver had in Treasure Island. The fight around the cave, and the attempt to escape by the water-fall, are much in the vein of Stevenson, and do credit to About’s versatility. Though, as he says, the truest histories are not always those which have come to pass, the massacre of Marathon proved that About did not deal in mere mythology. To understand Greece, is, of course, to pardon her, and gratitude to the mother of art, poetry, freedom, civilization, the bulwark of Europe against the East, must make us not only forgive, but help and hope for the cause of the little kingdom. La Grèce Contemporaine and Le Roi des Montagnes are, in short, caricatures of the same amusingly unscrupulous sort as Dickens’s American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit. We barbarians never have adored Greek character, old or new. We find the valour of even Homeric heroes “prudent and reflective.” We remember the double-dealing of Alcibiades and Themistocles with distaste, and forget the parallel iniquities of xv Marlborough, Sunderland, and Godolphin. Human nature does not really differ much anywhere, but we are especially sensitive to our own faults when exhibited by the sons of the Achæans.