WHEN I had clasped my knife, and was ready to lie down in the shade with that placid quietude that follows the breakfast of snakes and travelers, it seemed to me that I heard the tramping of horse’s hoofs. I put my ear to the ground, and ascertained the fact that two or three horsemen were coming up behind me. Two minutes later appeared two ladies mounted on hired horses, and equipped after the manner of traveling Englishwomen. Behind them walked a servant whom I had no trouble in recognizing — it was Dimitri.
I politely stepped out of the way of the two ladies, who did not seem to pay much attention to my salutation. I shook hands with Dimitri, who told me in a few words all that I wanted to know.
“Am I on the road to Paris?”
“Yes, we’re going there too.”
“Then I can go along with you?”
“Who are the ladies?”
“Englishwomen. His lordship stayed at the hotel.”
“What sort of people?”
“Pooh! London bankers. The old lady is Mrs. Simons, of the house of Barley & Co.; the lord is her brother; the young girl her daughter.”
“Matter of taste. I prefer Photini.”84
“Are you going as far as the fortress of Phile?”
“Yes. They have hired me for a week. Ten francs a day and provisions. I organize their excursions. I started with this one because I knew I should meet you here. What wasp is stinging them now?”
The old lady, put out at seeing that I had borrowed her servant, had made her horse trot along a road, on which, in the memory of horses, no one had ever trotted. The other animal tried the same trick, and, if we had chatted a few minutes more, we should have been left far behind. Dimitri ran to rejoin the ladies, and I heard Mrs. Simons say to him in English:
“Don’t ever leave us. I am an Englishwoman, and I intend to be well served. I don’t pay you for talking to your friends. Who is that Greek whom you’ve been gossiping with?”
“He is a German, madam.”
“Ah! What does he do?”
“He is botanizing.”
“Ah! Is he an apothecary?”
“No, madam, a scholar.”
“Ah! Does he know English?”
The three “ahs” of the old lady were uttered with such varied intonation that I should like to have recorded them, had I been a musician. They indicated by fine shades of expression how I was gaining in the esteem of Mrs. Simons. Nevertheless, she did not speak to me, and I followed the little group in silence. Dimitri did not dare to talk to me; he walked on in front like a prisoner of war. Miss Simons did not turn round, and I could not judge in what way her ugliness differed from that of Photini. What I could see 85 without indiscretion was taht the young Englishwoman was tall and superbly set up. And the glimpse I caught of her neck would have made me think of the swans in the zoological gardens even if I had not been a naturalist.
Her mother turned round to talk to her, and I quickened my pace in the hope of being able to hear her voice. I am insatiably curious, and I just arrived in time to hear the following conversation:
“I’m warm, mama.”
Now, Dimitri had counted on having his two ladies breakfast at the inn at Calyvia. Unfortunately, the inn was deserted, and its door closed. When Mrs. Simons discovered this fact, she started a very loud quarrel with Dimitri, and, turning round, showed me a profile as sharp as the blade of a Sheffield knife, and two rows of teeth like fences. “I am English,” she said, “and I have the right to eat when I am hungry!”
“Madam,” answered Dimitri piteously, “in half an hour you shall breakfast in the village of Castia.”
From the inn to the village the road is particularly detestable. It is a narrow slope between a huge mountain and a precipice that would make the very mountain-goats dizzy. Mrs. Simons, before risking herself on this infernal path, on which the horses had hardly space for their four hoofs, asked if there were not another road. “I am English,” she 86 said, “and I was not made to be rolled down precipices.” Dimitri praised the path; he assured her that there were a hundred worse ones in the kingdom. “At least,” answered the lady, “lead my horse by its bridle! But what will become of my daughter? You had better lead her horse. But I don’t want to break my neck, either. Couldn’t you lead us both at once? Oh, this detestable road! It may be well enough for Greeks, but it wasn’t made for English people. Am I not right, sir?” she added, and turned to me graciously.
Regularly or not, I was introduced at last. I bowed with all the elegance I was master of, and said in English:
“Madam, the road is not as bad as it may at first sight appear. Your horses are sure of foot. I know them from experience. And then, with your permission, you can have two guides — Dimitri for yourself, and me for the young lady.”
No sooner said than done. Without awaiting an answer, I stepped forward , and took the bridle of Mary Ann’s horse. And as I turned toward the young lady, and as the wind raised her blue veil, I saw the most adorable face that had ever upset the soul of a German naturalist.
I conducted Mary Ann up to the village of Castia, which we found to be as deserted as the inn of Calyvia. Poor Dimitri took the trouble of knocking at two or three doors to make sure that the inhabitants had not all gone to sleep. No one was there. He only succeeded in scaring a poor cat, which, swift as an arrow, disappeared in the woods.
This time Mrs. Simons lost her temper. “I am an Englishwoman,” she said to Dimitri, “and I am not to be made fun of with impunity. I shall make complaint at the legation. What! I hire you to take me for a promenade in the 87 mountains, and you make me travel along precipices! I order you to provide breakfast, and you expose me to starvation. We intend to breakfast at the inn, and the inn is abandoned. I am patient enough to follow you to this frightful village, and the inhabitants have all absconded. It isn’t natural. I have traveled in Switzerland, which is likewise a mountainous country, and yet I never wanted for anything there. I always breakfasted at my regular time, and even ate trout! Do you understand me?”
Mary Ann tired to calm her mother, but the good lady would not listen to anything. Dimitri explained to her that most of the villagers were charcoal-burners whose business took them into the woods. At all events there was no time lost yet; it was not yet eight o’clock; and he was sure, within ten minutes, of finding an inhabited house where breakfast could be obtained.
“What house?” asked Mrs. Simons.
“The farm of the convent. The monks of Pentelicus have large estates about Castia. They keep beehives on them. The good old man who manages the farm always has wine, bread, honey, and chickens. He will give us breakfast.”
“He will have gone out, like everybody else.”
“If he has, he can’t be far off. It is swarming time now, and he can’t leave his hives.”
“God and see then; I’ve had enough of traveling for this morning. I have made a vow not to mount again until I have eaten.”
“It will not be necessary for you to mount, madam,” said Dimitri, with a guide’s patience; “we can tie our horses here, and arrive more quickly by walking.”
Mary Ann persuaded her mother to agree. She wanted so much to see this good old man. After a fifteen minutes’ 88 walk we saw the house, and before it a human shape. It was the good old man, who turned out to be a young fellow of about twenty-eight, fat and merry. All Greek monks have the honorary title of good ole man. Age does not matter.
The old man, when he saw us coming, raised his arms to heaven with a gesture of complete stupefaction. “Here’s a curious fellow,” said Mrs. Simons. “What is there to be astonished at? Has he never seen English people before?”
Dimitri, who ran on ahead, kissed the old man’s hand, and said with a curious mixture of respect and familiarity.
“Bless me, Father. Wring the necks of two chickens; you’ll be well paid for them.”
“Wretch!” cried the monk, “what are you doing here?”
“We want breakfast.”
“Haven’t you seen the abandoned inn?”
“And the empty village?”
“If I had met anybody, I wouldn’t have climbed up here to you.”
“Then you are in collusion with them?”
“With the robbers!”
“Are there robbers in the mountains?”
“Since the day before yesterday.”
“Where are they?”
Dimitri turned to us and said:
“We haven’t a minute to lose. The robbers are about. Let’s run to our horses. A little courage and speed, ladies, if you please!”89
“But this it too much,” exclaimed Mrs. Simons, “without having breakfasted!”
“Madam, your breakfast might come to cost you very dear. For Heaven’s sake, let us make haste!”
“But this is like a conspiracy. You have made up your mind to make me die of hunger! Now it’s robbers! As if robbers really existed! I don’t believe in robbers. The newspapers deny their existence. Moreover, I’m an Englishwoman, and if any one were so much as to touch a hair of my head, why —”
Mary Ann was not quite so self-possessed. She threw herself into my arms, and asked if there were any danger of our being killed.
“Of our being killed — no. But of our being robbed — certainly.”
“What do I care?” cried Mrs. Simons. “Let them rob me of everything I have, but let them give me my breakfast. That’s what I want!”