A House in Athens

I PICK up the morning paper and read that my friend’s house in Athens is besieged by the royalists because her brother is a Venizelist: he has escaped and taken refuge with the American Legation. The house — as many besides myself will remember — stands opposite Hadrian’s Gate, within the ‘city of Theseus,’ that portion of Athens which even to the Roman Emperor seemed venerable and adorable. The street on which the hospitable door opens points the way to the Acropolis. Within the door is a little courtyard on which, in almost ancient fashion, the various rooms open. When I first visited my friend, a quarter of a century ago, quivering with youth and enthusiasms, I used to come out from my bedroom at night to stand on the balcony above the courtyard and look up, in the moonlit solitude, to the southern, broken columns of the Parthenon.

The thought that now this house is in danger from the supporters of a foreign king, who, at the behest of a Hohenzollern, has betrayed the Greek democracy, fills me with emotion. I am frightened and grieved by the peril besetting my friends, angered and depressed by the catastrophe which threatens the soul of their country.

‘Discord, Macedon, and Rome
And lastly thou! ’

But the Turk was not the last, if the Prussian is to dictate the overthrow of Venizelos and turn into ‘ashes, wrecks, oblivion’ the slowly maturing fruits of that liberty for which Shelley sang and Byron died.

The morning mail brings me a letter from an American who is still patiently excavating in Greece. The peasant in whose house he is living had just explained to him the present apparent confusion. ‘The King and Venizelos’ — the phrasing is the archaeologist’s — ‘have made a pact, one to support the Allies, the other to please Germany; they will continue to be at daggers drawn until it is perfectly clear to both in agreement which side is to win the war, whereupon one of them will go over to the other’s camp and together they will give the coup de grâce to the defeated armies and win a great place for Greece in the world.’

I find myself smiling at the landlord’s notion of the shrewdness of his own people and the blindness of foreigners, and touched, in spite of myself, by his success in keeping an unspoiled faith in a king who only a few years ago led the Greek army to victory and a statesman who has led Greek minds to the noble vision of a regenerated democracy.

My rage, seemingly so ungovernable, begins to seek bounds. I have been feeling that I never wish to set foot again in a self-betrayed Athens. But now there flash upon my inward eye the places which my friend and I often visited together, walking out from her house into the Attic plain. Except when you walk southward, straight toward the sea, — the bright green, or blackish purple, the turquoise or foamy blue gulf of the Ægean, — you face in any direction some one of the mountains of Attica. Here is Pentelicon, its deep purple cut into by the white quarries and by vivid patches of red, upturned soil; here, the slopes of Parnes, so lately devastated by fire, so rich when I last saw them in pines and plane trees, poplars and oaks and cypresses; and here, in a long line stretching north and south, lies Hymettus. When the sky is dull, its whole substance, with the stark rocks revealed, looks gray and cold and hard, and yet superbly modeled. When the sun is shining and the air is clear, dark purple shadows cover the mountain, marking out. its folds and slightest ravines. And when there is a haze, a delicate veil of blue hides all the rocks and depressions, and modeling gives way to color. Sometimes wet clouds cling to the summit and creep down over the side in thin gray fog. There are dark days in Athens, when in embatt led array clouds hang low over Hymettus, Pentelicon, and Parnes. Then it is not possible to discern beyond the Attic borders the god-haunted ridges of Cithæron and Helicon.

The plain, where one is walking, is almost as barren as the Spartans left it in the Peloponnesian War. My friend tells me, with frank contempt, of Sophia’s desire to cover it with fruit trees in German abundance and orderliness. At present only pink and white almond blossoms in the spring mingle with the gray-green olives, the black-green cypresses and yellow-green pines. In the winter the plane and beech trees carry pale gold leaves. When the winter passes wild flowers begin to appear. A rare green field is turned into shadowy blue by speedwell. Up on the Acropolis poppies and mallows, daisies and pale lilac dandelions creep out among the ruins. Anemones grow everywhere, sometimes close to clumps of asphodel. And on the sides of Parnes, among the rocks and rough shrubs, we used to pick cowslips and crocuses and cyclamens. Only at well-watered Cephissia can nature become properly efficient, producing the vegetables and garden flowers which are sold in Athens.

Near the sophisticated Parisian city, in any direction, shepherds and their flocks abound. Often a woman, dressed in dull blue, leans against a tree and spins while she keeps an eye on her goats. One afternoon, accompanied by a friend, we followed a gray-haired old peasant as he was taking his donkey home from a day’s marketing in Athens. He courteously accepted a cigarette from our man, and the two smoked and talked together along the highway. In his little village we found the streets peppered with children, and with women who gossiped at the corners as they plied the distaff or held the latest baby. The men were housing the sheep which had been pastured on Hymettus, and feeding the donkeys which had busily carried burdens all day long. One of the patient little beasts was rolling over and over, in an ecstasy of freedom, on a heap of straw in front of his master’s hut. Every one wished us a ‘ beautiful evening,’ and every one in doing it wore a happy air, except one old, old woman whose face was too set in sorrow to change, as she bowed gravely and spoke the words with exquisite courtesy. From the outer corners of the village streets we could look toward the Gulf of Ægina; from the inner corners we could see the near foot-hills of Hymettus. We loitered in the primitive one-roomed tavern for the excellent Turkish coffee obtainable anywhere in Greece, and as we came out, just as we opened the door, we saw, across the plain, the Acropolis, silvery gray in the late gray afternoon, aloof and still, rapt from all commerce with our kind.

My last walk with my friend led us out from the southern side of the Acropolis. The clouds were gathering and sinking upon Hymettus, a fresh wind blew from the sea. We made our way across the plain to a hillock which is the private burying-place of friends of my friend. The graves lie about a tiny chapel erected for prayers. We sat in its open porch and looked out beyond Pirteus to the noble hills of Salamis. The gulf was very green. In our talk we drifted from Salamis to Shelley, from the war of independence to the modern political situation. Venizelos, the man from Crete, had just been elected prime minister. King George, respected and shrewd, was holding on to his throne, although his sons had been removed from the army. Constantine, the Crown Prince, in civilian clothes, and Sophia, unpanoplied, if unchastened, were appearing at lectures in the German archæological school and climbing the Acropolis with the rest of us to hear the great Dorpfeld expound the architecture of the Propylæa. How little we foresaw the events close upon us — the Balkan War, the recall of the royal princes to military commands, the assassination of George and the enthronement of Constantine as king and popular hero in one!

The wind grew cold and we rose and walked around to the side of the chapel from which we could see the Acropolis. I reminded my friend of the night of our youth, twenty years before, when we had sat in the moonlight on the steps of the Parthenon and she, the Athenian-born, had shocked me, the passionate pilgrim, by wishing she were in Florence.

‘That was Wanderlust,’ she answered, — we did not in those days avoid German phrases, —‘not unlike your own which brought you here.’ We talked of my imminent departure, and she wondered if I would ever return, as I had already twice before. ‘But, of course!’ I protested. ‘It is a home of the spirit. How can I not come back?’

We turned homeward, walking toward that citadel which, as a Turkish commander told his Sultan in 1820, ‘the nations of unbelievers regard as their own house.’ After skirting the Dionysiac theatre, we turned into the broad street which runs by Hadrian’s Gate, and came to my friend’s door, passing in to charm and cheer.

Now this house — like our common House on the rock above — is in danger from forces set in motion by one nation of unbelievers which denies immortal Athens and seeks to resurrect dead Sparta. As the Spartans laid waste the Attic plain, are these Germans laying waste the Athenian spirit? Are they making void the liberty and humanity handed down by the ancient democracy to a people which wrestled with the Turk and demanded constitutional rights from its first king?

In the beauty of the Attic plain there is an extraordinary spiritual power. Those who dwell with it often wonder whether this unique quality comes from the pervading restraint in color and form, from the strength of the hills, or from the presence, from street-corners and fields and mountain-tops, of the height which bears the temple of Wisdom. The first time I climbed up the Acropolis it was in the company of a German. I regretted my ignorance of much that lay around me and he said to me, ‘Do not be troubled because you do not yet know about these things. Love them first. The rest will follow.’ He died long ago, but there must be many left in his country who will not forever submit to Sparta. St. Paul, with a superb disregard for nationalism, talked of a spiritual commonwealth. Its citizens — we must assure ourselves — will yet join in what Paul’s Athenian forerunner described as a ‘recall of the noblest in the soul to a vision of the most excellent in the ideal.’

It is incredible that some day, in the spring, when new-born flowers are creeping out among the ruins, I should not return to Greece. My bitter anger gives way to the passionate hope that I may then be willing again to ascend the steeps of the Acropolis with a German. As I look down from there upon Mars’ Hill, where the Christian declared the Unknown God, — Him who is not far from every one of us and who hath made of one blood all nations of men, — I am emboldened to hope that my friend herself may receive us together in her house in Athens.