A MOUNTAIN MONASTERY
THE Greek coasting steamers are somewhat uncertain. You can never tell just when they will arrive or depart. The wilfulness of the managers and the wilfulness of the weather are factors in this uncertainty. Though the sea was mercifully calm, we were twenty-four hours late in starting from Corfu for Cephalonia. We boarded the steamer at eight o’clock in the evening. A beautiful moon turned the water into silver, and a brilliant sunrise burnished it with gold.
Cephalonia has an area of two hundred and sixty square miles and about sixty-eight thousand inhabitants. The coast is rugged and abrupt; it is indeed a mountain rising from the sea. Seen from a distance, especially from the south, one might imagine it to be some vast sea-monster that had come to the surface to breathe, its arched back rising high in the air. The loftiest mountains have an elevation of five thousand feet. As early as the fifth century before Christ the Corinthians established a footing here. Like Corfu, Cephalonia, after becoming a part of the eastern empire, passed into the hands of the Venetians and the Turks, and then into those of England, but in 1863 reverted to Greece.
Of the sixty-eight thousand inhabitants two only were English, and one of these was our devoted friend and host. Mr. Stretch had said to us as we left Corfu, You will breakfast in Argostoli with my cousin Alfred Woodley.” As we sailed into the winding bay of this port we saw among the crowd of boats with their importunate boatmen a large yawl manned by half a dozen sturdy Greeks whose dark faces contrasted strongly with the handsome English face in the stern. Though of English birth, Mr. Woodley is an example of the cosmopolitan relations which one may sustain in these Greek islands. ” Though I talk English with my father,” he said, ” I always speak Italian with my mother, who came from Italy; with my sister, who was brought up in France, I speak French; and to my brother in Russia I write in Greek.”
Two sea-water mills are among the curiosities of the island. The water runs in from the sea, passes through a deep natural channel in the rock and has sufficient fall to turn a large mill wheel. To find just where the current from the sea goes has baffled investigators. It mysteriously disappears in the rocky caverns. But this phenomenon of under-ground rivers and mysterious channels is not uncommon in Greece. In former times two mills were worked by the current; one is now abandoned and the other is not regularly used ; but the water continues to flow as of yore and hides its course some-where in the interior of the island.
Before dinner, which was to be breakfast, we took a long walk by the shore to the old tide mills. The first mill was not running, so in disgust, hunger, heat and dust, Mavilla sat down by the roadside and waited for the more energetic sightseers, who trudged another mile to the second mill. I mention this because it was on this occasion that she excavated the little torso of which she is so proud. “I was idly digging,” she said, ” among the rocks and sand with my red umbrella, hoping to find a stray bit of pottery, when I suddenly unearthed a little figure about three inches long, minus head, arms and legs. Still, it was not to be despised. From a dismembered torso Michael Angelo derived his inspiration. Originally the little figure was probably a child’s toy. How much more touching than if I had found a broken vase, or a common bit of chiselled marble ! In no museum have I ever seen a torso just like my little treasure, nor do the archaeologists who have seen mine know how to classify it. At all events, it must be recognized as one of the unexpected discoveries of the day ! ”
The darkened rooms of Mr. Woodley’s rambling great house on the hillside were a refreshing retreat after the white heat of the sultry village. The house was full of old pictures, antique furniture and quaint odds and ends which suggested an English home; but the fig-trees and palms in the court and the out-of-door breakfastroom were Oriental. The dinner, with its fresh fish and game, was delicious, from soup to melons.
In the cooler part of the afternoon we started in two carriages for a drive up the mountain to the convent of Saint Gerasimo and thence across the island. Mr. Woodley accompanied us, and his man-servant took charge of the extra wagon which held our light traps.
Cephalonia is an island of rolling stones. One seldom sees such miles of stone walls as cross and crisscross the brown hillside vineyards. Not only is the land terraced and graded and crazy-quilted by these walls, but there are piles of stones in the middle of every field. Hour after hour we toiled up the winding road, for the monastery of Saint Gerasimo lies far above the sea. Windmills crown every hilltop, currant vines grow among the stones, and hardy olive-trees bend under the force of the harsh mountain winds. There is little else to break the monotony of the heights. We passed no villages and almost no houses, but occasionally we met a peasant on a mule going down to the sea for supplies, or were overtaken by some Argostoli pilgrim carrying a votive offering to Gerasimo’s shrine. There were a few shepherds with their flocks, and from the olive-trees we heard the girls singing unmusical Greek songs in a nasal drone, while they gathered the ripe fruit.
Halfway to the monastery is a picturesque and unattractive inn. We stopped to rest our horses and let our drivers refresh themselves. The inn-keeper’s wife hospitably invited us to come upstairs. We picked our way among the hens which were scratching on the earthen floor of the common room and climbed to the upper story by a ladder on the out-side. There, in the only bedroom which the inn boasted, the proud housekeeper showed us the window-pane where King George of Greece had scratched his name with a diamond. Leaving the others to feign awe and admiration for the royal signature, Mavilla peeped into the next room. “It was a bare attic, with bunches of herbs, uncanny dried octopods, and rude farm implements hanging from the rafters, and on the floor I gasped with delight, visions of pantry shelves, plum buns and fruitcake flashing through my mindwere piles of dried Zante currants ! As our apples are stored at home, so these cur-rants were heaped everywhere in generous profusion. Pleased to find us so appreciative, our hostess straightway filled our hands and pockets and hats. What a feast we had ! The supply lasted us for days, weeks, months. In fact, a short time ago, when unpacking some Greek trophies, we found one of the small boy’s handkerchiefs wound round a wad of Zante currants.”
At dusk we approached the monastery, passing through a straggling village on the edge of the plateau. An arched gateway opened into the convent courtyard, where a young priest with a Christ-like face was pacing to and fro between the little chapel and the big plane-tree in the centre of the enclosure. On the balcony of one of the long buildings sat two or three of the nuns, with their black shawls drawn over their heads. Below them were some monks mending a farm wagon. As we drove into the court-yard they hospitably welcomed us, and while the men unharnessed our horses, the sisters led us up into the refectory, where the long tables were already lighted by candles and antique lamps. The sisters were delighted to see Mr. Woodley, who frequently visited the convent, and they chatted together in rapid vernacular Greek which we could not begin to understand. The supper, which had been brought ready cooked from Argostoli, was spread and the hospitable nuns added fresh eggs and honey to the feast. Rather regretfully they withdrew while we ate, but no sooner had we finished than they reappeared and invited us to visit their inner court.
The monastery of Saint Gerasimo is really a nunnery with an abbess and a few priests and acolytes who conduct the religious services in the chapel. The country people respect and love the abbess, or Mother Superior, as do the inmates of the convent, where she has been for over thirty years. She lives in the main building, which stands between the men’s court and the women’s. The latter was the more interesting, with its row of little whitewashed houses, each having a bit of garden under the windows, shaded by vines and fig-trees. In each tiny house live two sisters, whose busy fingers decorate their livingrooms with embroidery, patchwork and knitted tidies. Some of the younger girls were drawing water at the well as we crossed the courtyard. Several others ran out to peep at us, holding back with shy curiosity. One sister had been to France, and she was pushed forward as interpreter. The rest kept behind her, clinging to one another’s skirts; but they soon lost their fear and followed us into the chapel.
The monastery is distinguished for two things,the remains of Hagios Gerasimo, and the underground cell in which he lived. Neither of them was particularly attractive, but the little sisters would have been disappointed if we had not begged the privilege of seeing what is left of their patron saint. To the chapel we went, then, where the priests and the little boys who drone the responses were already gathered. Anastasios the priest asked us to write our Christian names on a bit of paper. Then we took our places in the stalls, with the other worshippers, and service was conducted for our especial benefit. On a great shelf built into the wall lay what had once been Gerasimo, a poor brown mummy, laden with rings and votive jewels. Before his shrine the priest stood chanting a prayer. Now and again we could catch our own names ” Guilielmos,” ” Triantaphylle,” ” Mavilla ” as he presented each one to the saint. Then, when the introductions were over, we were allowed to step within the sacred enclosure, and bow before his saintship. The fervor of the worshippers made the service solemn, and even we Americans were touched.
The very small hole in the floor, through which we had to wriggle down into the saint’s cell, shows that Gerasimo must have been an abstemious man. How could a man dig a hole for himself in the rocks underground, and live in that foul dampness, when he might have enjoyed God’s sunshine? But men thought differently four hundred years ago, and Gerasimo was considered wise and holy and possibly clean.
Beyond the plain where the convent stands rises Mt. Aenus. The view from its summit is the finest to be had in the Ionian islands. We planned to climb it in time to see the sunrise. ” Please have the mules ready and wake us at three,” we said, as we went to our rooms.
At three the convent bells and the clatter of hoofs beneath our windows woke us. It was raining hard. No sunrise, no mountain ! We mournfully gathered in the refectory to decide what we should do.
“In the first place,” said our practical escort, ” let’s have some tea.” So we sat around in the dim candle-light and held an informal “afternoon tea” at 3 A. M. on Sunday. Glimmering through the rain we could see the lights of the chapel, where the monks and the sisters were already at mass. We splashed across the court and slipped in behind the pillars. The service was antiphonal. On one side stood a young priest who was reading the liturgy at a rate which would have made the most rapid phonograph green with envy. What a cataract of words ! And all the time his eyes were scarcely on the book; one of them at least was busy scanning the new-comers. It is not a common event to have such a party at early morning prayers. On the other side stood an old priest at a second reading-desk with a large illuminated prayer-book which now and then caught the drippings of the candle he held in his hand.
The old priest invited Mavilla and myself to look over with him and follow the Greek text. We each held a naked candle, while the priest kept track of the place with one of his fingers. He had been a sailor in his early days and had seen a little of the world. His literal devotion to the service did not prevent him from keeping up a broken conversation with us, which he interjected between the responses.
“You come from America?”
” Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison What part? ” From Boston.”
Ah ! Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison I was there once. It was many years ago.” Then another volley of Greek addressed to Heaven, and suspended at the proper pause to make sure that his communications with earth were not cut off. The expression ” Lord have mercy” (Kyrie eleison) when he learned that we were from Boston seemed to us strangely inappropriate. He was greatly pleased to establish this relationship, and more than the ordinary amount of melted candle dripped upon the sacred page. The service was thoroughly mechanical, and I did not see why a phonograph run by water power would not have been as devotional. But it was a free and novel lesson in the modern Greek pronunciation.
” I moved away,” says Mavilla, ” and let the priest talk with my father. The stone floor was cold, and I was sleepy. Two or three nuns were nodding in their stalls ; another, crouched on the floor, was rocking back and forth, throwing up her hands and moaning. The little choir boys yawned, and pulled each other by the sleeves when it was time for their responses. The splash of the rain mingled with the monotonous drone of the priest; the incense made me dull, and the candles flickered weirdly before my sleepy eyes.”
” When will the service be over? ” I whispered to Mr. Woodley.
” In three hours,” he replied cheerfully. ” It lasts every morning from two to seven.”
Mavilla gave one look at the picturesque two by the reading-desk “the dark, gray-bearded priest and the pale clergyman, paler than ever in the dim candle-light” and quietly stole back to bed. It was not long before the paternal clergyman followed.
For their hospitality the monks made no charge, but accepted with thanks the contribution we offered. I was told that there were some sixty women and some twenty men at this monastery, which serves as a sort of hospital for the surrounding country, people with mental as well as physical derangements being sent here for cure.
By six o’clock in the morning the rain had ceased, but the clouds hung heavy over the mountain-peak, and it was too late to make the ascent. We decided, therefore, to drive across the island to Samos on the east side, where we might hire a sloop for Ithaca. We said adieu to the monks and their mountain shrine. The carriages which had brought us from Argostoli, on the west side of Cephalonia, we had retained over night, so that we were able to proceed directly to Samos without retracing our steps. The ride over the mountains, from which the clouds had lifted, afforded one of the grandest views in the Ionian Isles, the island of Zante appearing in the south, and the rocky ridge of ” far-seen ” Ithaca looming up to the east. Before noon we had reached Samos. Some of the suitors of Penelope lived here. It is situated in a beautiful bay on the strait which divides Cephalonia from Ithaca. The town is small and has no such importance as it had in Homer’s days, and probably could not furnish any rich princely suitors to a modern Penelope. In the small village hotel there were hanging two pictures of very indifferent artistic quality, which, to the only Americans on the island of Cephalonia, were suggestive of modern Greek affinities. One was a picture of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, the other a view of Niagara Falls. These were as much of a surprise to us as a picture of Athene or the Parthenon would be in a remote Montana ranch. With gratitude and regret we bade our generous friend Mr. Woodley goodby, and after hiring a barca set sail for Ithaca.