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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Capture

By Edmond About (1828–1885)

From ‘The King of the Mountains’

“ST! St!”

I raised my eyes. Two thickets of mastic-trees and arbutus inclosed the road on the right and left. From each tuft of trees protruded three or four musket-barrels. A voice cried out in Greek, “Seat yourselves on the ground!” This operation was the more easy to me, as my legs gave way under me. But I consoled myself by thinking that Ajax, Agamemnon, and the fiery Achilles, if they had found themselves in the same situation, would not have refused the seat that was offered.

The musket-barrels were leveled upon us. It seemed to me that they stretched out immeasurably, and that their muzzles were about to join above our heads. It was not that fear disturbed my vision; but I had never remarked so sensibly the desperate length of the Greek muskets! The whole arsenal soon debouched into the road, and every barrel showed its stock and its master.

The only difference which exists between devils and brigands is, that devils are less black than they are said to be, and brigands more dirty than people suppose. The eight bullies, who packed themselves in a circle around us, were so filthy in appearance that I should have wished to give them my money with a pair of tongs. You might guess, with a little effort, that their caps had been red; but lye-wash itself could not have restored the original color of their clothes. All the rocks of the kingdom had stained their cotton shirts, and their vests preserved a sample of the different soils on which they had reposed. Their hands, their faces, and even their moustachios were of a reddish-gray, like the soil which supports them. Every animal is colored according to its abode and its habits: the foxes of Greenland are of the color of snow; lions, of the desert; partridges, of the furrow; Greek brigands, of the highway.

The chief of the little troop which had made us prisoners was distinguished by no outward mark. Perhaps, however, his face, his hands, and his clothes were richer in dust than those of his comrades. He leaned toward us from the height of his tall figure, and examined us so closely that I felt the grazing of his moustachios. You would have pronounced him a tiger, who smells of his prey before tasting it. When his curiosity was satisfied, he said to Dimitri, “Empty your pockets!”

Dimitri did not give him cause to repeat the order: he threw down before him a knife, a tobacco-pouch, and three Mexican dollars, which compose a sum of about sixteen francs.

“Is that all?” demanded the brigand.

“Yes, brother.”

“You are the servant?”

“Yes, brother.”

“Take back one dollar. You must not return to the city without money.”

Dimitri haggled. “You could well allow me two,” said he: “I have two horses below; they are hired from the riding-school; I shall have to pay for the day.”

“You will explain to Zimmerman that we have taken your money from you.”

“And if he wishes to be paid, notwithstanding?”

“Answer that he is lucky enough to see his horses again.”

“He knows very well that you do not take horses. What would you do with them in the mountains?”

“Enough! What is this big raw-boned animal next you?”

I answered for myself: “An honest German, whose spoils will not enrich you.”

“You speak Greek well. Empty your pockets.”

I deposited on the road a score of francs, my tobacco, my pipe, and my handkerchief.

“What is that?” asked the grand inquisitor.

“A handkerchief.”

“For what purpose?”

“To wipe my nose.”

“Why did you tell me that you were poor? It is only milords who wipe their noses with handkerchiefs. Take off the box which you have behind your back. Good! Open it!”

My box contained some plants, a book, a knife, a little package of arsenic, a gourd nearly empty, and the remnants of my breakfast, which kindled a look of covetousness in the eyes of Mrs. Simons. I had the assurance to offer them to her before my baggage changed masters. She accepted greedily, and began to devour the bread and meat. To my great astonishment, this act of gluttony scandalized our robbers, who murmured among themselves the word “Schismatic!” The monk made half a dozen signs of the cross, according to the rite of the Greek Church.

“You must have a watch,” said the brigand: “put it with the rest.”

I gave up my silver watch, a hereditary toy of the weight of four ounces. The villains passed it from hand to hand, and thought it very beautiful. I was in hopes that admiration, which makes men better, would dispose them to restore me something, and I begged their chief to let me have my tin box. He imposed silence upon me roughly. “At least,” said I, “give me back two crowns for my return to the city!” He answered with a sardonic smile, “You will not have need of them.”

The turn of Mrs. Simons had come. Before putting her hand in her pocket, she warned our conquerors in the language of her fathers. The English is one of those rare idioms which one can speak with a mouth full. “Reflect well on what you are going to do,” said she, in a menacing tone. “I am an Englishwoman, and English subjects are inviolable in all the countries of the world. What you will take from me will serve you little, and will cost you dear. England will avenge me, and you will all be hanged, to say the least. Now if you wish my money, you have only to speak; but it will burn your fingers: it is English money!”

“What does she say?” asked the spokesman of the brigands.

Dimitri answered, “She says that she is English.”

“So much the better! All the English are rich. Tell her to do as you have done.”

The poor lady emptied on the sand a purse, which contained twelve sovereigns. As her watch was not in sight, and as they made no show of searching us, she kept it. The clemency of the conquerors left her her pocket-handkerchief.

Mary Ann threw down her watch, with a whole bunch of charms against the evil eye. She cast before her, by a movement full of mute grace, a shagreen bag, which she carried in her belt. The brigand opened it with the eagerness of a custom-house officer. He drew from it a little English dressing-case, a vial of English salts, a box of pastilles of English mint, and a hundred and some odd francs in English money.

“Now,” said the impatient beauty, “you can let us go: we have nothing more for you.” They indicated to her, by a menacing gesture, that the session was not ended. The chief of the band squatted down before our spoils, called “the good old man,” counted the money in his presence, and delivered to him the sum of forty-five francs. Mrs. Simons nudged me on the elbow. “You see,” said she, “the monk and Dimitri have betrayed us: he is dividing the spoils with them.”

“No, madam,” replied I, immediately. “Dimitri has received a mere pittance from that which they had stolen from him. It is a thing which is done everywhere. On the banks of the Rhine, when a traveler is ruined at roulette, the conductor of the game gives him something wherewith to return home.”

“But the monk?”

“He has received a tenth part of the booty in virtue of an immemorial custom. Do not reproach him, but rather be thankful to him for having wished to save us, when his convent was interested in our capture.”

This discussion was interrupted by the farewells of Dimitri. They had just set him at liberty.

“Wait for me,” said I to him: “we will return together.” He shook his head sadly, and answered me in English, so as to be understood by the ladies:—

“You are prisoners for some days, and you will not see Athens again before paying a ransom. I am going to inform the milord. Have these ladies any messages to give me for him?”

“Tell him,” cried Mrs. Simons, “to run to the embassy, to go then to the Piræus and find the admiral, to complain at the foreign office, to write to Lord Palmerston! They shall take us away from here by force of arms, or by public authority, but I do not intend that they shall disburse a penny for my liberty.”

“As for me,” replied I, without so much passion, “I beg you to tell my friends in what hands you have left me. If some hundreds of drachms are necessary to ransom a poor devil of a naturalist, they will find them without trouble. These gentlemen of the highway cannot rate me very high. I have a mind, while you are still here, to ask them what I am worth at the lowest price.”

“It would be useless, my dear Mr. Hermann! It is not they who fix the figures of your ransom.”

“And who then?”

“Their chief, Hadgi-Stavros.”