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Chapter XXXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

Seizure of English Travellers in Attica "by Greek Brigands: Negotiations for their Ransom: The Brigands demand an Amnesty before delivering up the Captives: Amnesty Refused: Conduct of the Greek Government: Troops moved up to Oropus: The Brigands murder four of the Captives: Great indignation in England: The matter is debated in Parliament - Naval and Military Estimates - The Budget - Bill to enable Clergymen to relinquish their Orders - Death of Sir Frederick Pollock - Of Lord Clarendon - Death of Charles Dickens: Sketch of his Career.
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All minor legislative undertakings of the year, even the Land Bill and the Education Act themselves, were for the time wholly eclipsed and driven out of public memory by news which arrived in England, by telegraph, on the 22nd of April, - news fraught with personal loss and sorrow to many, and which roused throughout England generally a storm of grief and indignation. It had been known for some days past that a disgraceful outrage had been perpetrated upon English travellers in Greece; that four Englishmen - Lord Muncaster, Mr. Herbert (Secretary to the British Legation at Athens), Mr. Frederick Vyner, and Mr. Lloyd - together with the Secretary to the Italian Legation, Count de Boyl, had been captured by a band of Greek brigands, as they were returning to Athens, on the 11th of April, from an expedition to Marathon, and carried off into the mountains by the brigands. It was known also that Lord Muncaster had been sent back into Athens to get together the heavy ransom agreed upon (25,000); that the English and Greek Governments were in constant communication upon the subject; and that the safety of the captives depended upon the attitude of the Greek Government towards the brigands, who had sworn that if any attempt at pursuit or recapture were made, they would instantly massacre all their prisoners. Still, though the public anxiety had been considerable, a prosperous issue out of the existing difficulty had been more or less confidently expected; after which, it was hoped that the English Foreign Office would know how to bring pressure to bear upon the Greek Government to induce the members of it to act with greater vigour and severity in the future towards that shame and scourge of Greece, the banditti which infest her mountains, and at that time threatened even her most civilised and populous districts. What, then, was the public horror and amazement when the mournful telegram of the 22nd of April arrived, bringing news of the murder of all their prisoners by the brigands, in consequence of the rash and inexplicable action of the Greek Government, who had sent out troops against them, after solemnly pledging themselves that nothing of the kind should be attempted. Bit by bit the sad story reached England, together with the last letters and last words of the victims, while the conduct of both the English and Greek Government in the matter received abundant criticism and explanation in both Houses of Parliament. The motives of all persons concerned were made clear, and it became evident that the clue to the whole matter was to be found in the corrupt state of public feeling and political parties in Athens.

The facts, then, were these: On the morning of the 11th of April, a party of residents and tourists, comprising Lord and Lady Muncaster, Mr. Herbert, Mr. Vyner, Mr. Lloyd, his wife and child, and Count de Boyl, set out from Athens to visit the battle-field of Marathon, that famous crescent-shaped piece of flat sea-shore, where the destinies of Europe were once staked upon a single throw, and the "teeming East" received that decisive check, the importance of which to subsequent European history none can over-estimate. Modern research, guided by ancient records, has mapped out the battle-field for us; and the tourist may now wander over it if he likes map in hand, and identify for himself the various Greek and Persian positions. " That little plain," says an eminent modern traveller and geographer, "enclosed on three sides by the rocky arms of Parnes and Pentelicus, while the fourth is open to the sea, is the most characteristic of battle-fields. The mountains from which the Greeks descended, the shore along which the Persian ships were ranged, and the marshes at the two sides by which the invaders' movements were impeded, and which formed a prominent feature on the walls of the Poecile at Athens, are all conspicuous. High above rises the summit of Pentelicus, from which the shield must have glistened in the sun, which, according to the report, was held up by the Alcmaeonidae as a signal to the Persians." And he goes on to describe how even in the ancient days of Greece the sides of Pentelicus, and of the other mountains round Marathon, were infested by lawless and troublesome folk, who, " having nothing to lose by revolution," were always disturbing their quieter neighbours; so that the band of the Arvanitaki whose doings we are about to describe were but the last of a long line of marauders.

The gentlemen of the party before setting out had made stringent inquiries in Athens respecting the rumoured presence of brigands in the country round Marathon. Mr. Herbert had received official information to the effect that Attica was safe, and, the Government declared, perfectly free from brigands. Still, to guard against any possible danger, the Government engaged to send with ^them an escort of four mounted gendarmes, who were to be joined en route by others. Thus provided, they set out, and, after such a day as a party of cultivated people were likely to spend in such a place as Marathon, they were driving back to Athens in the warm spring evening. Only the four gendarmes were in sight of the carriage - two riding in front, and two behind;. but the inmates knew that at least six foot-soldiers were a little way behind them, while it was rumoured that a further body of twenty-five soldiers had left Marathon in their wake, ready to render help if necessary. What followed may be described in the words of Mr. Erskine's despatch of the 12th of April to Lord Clarendon. " Just before they were to change horses," he says, " and as they were approaching the bridge of Pikermes, at about twelve or fourteen miles from Athens " - a romantic spot, where the road runs through a deep cleft between two hills, and where the high banks on either side, covered with wild olive-trees and arbutus, might well afford a tempting shelter to lurking banditti - " they were suddenly fired at from the brushwood bordering the road; and at the first discharge the two gendarmes in front fell, badly wounded from their horses. The carriage then stopped, and the whole party were compelled to alight, and, with the two remaining mounted gendarmes, were hurried up the side of the mountain" - Mount Pentelicus, famous in old Greek days. In the midst of the general panic and uproar, the six foot-soldiers came up and opened fire on the brigands. But, alas! they were now too late, whatever their help might have been worth a few minutes earlier. The brigands - -of whom Mr. Herbert counted at least twenty-one - had formed themselves into a compact square, of which their captain made the centre. Thus arranged, they retreated gradually under the fire of the soldiers, which must for some little time have placed the lives of the prisoners in the utmost danger. Seeing that they produced no effect, and fearing to injure those whom they had been ordered to protect, the soldiers at last discontinued the pursuit, and made off to Athens to give the alarm. The eight unfortunate travellers found themselves wholly at the mercy of this wild-looking band of black- browed men, who dragged them roughly up the slopes of Mount Pentelicus without any regard to the fatigue of the ladies and the strength of the little child who clung to them. At the top of the mountain a halt was made, and the ladies were told that they were to be immediately sent back to Athens, in a country cart which happened to be at hand. Ink and paper were supplied to Mr. Herbert, and he was peremptorily ordered to send by them to his friends in Athens a demand for the immediate payment of a ransom of 32,000. Driven by the countryman who owned the cart, the poor ladies - one of whom (Mrs. Lloyd) little knew that she had parted from her husband for the last time on earth - made their way back to Athens. "Soon after ten o'clock at night," says Mr. Erskine, " Lady Muncaster and Mrs. Lloyd drove up to Her Majesty's Legation, and gave me the details which I have now furnished to your lordship. I returned immediately to General Soutzos, and urged him to issue the most stringent orders against any further pursuit of the brigands by the troops, which he solemnly promised me should be done." On the morning of the 13th, a note, conveyed by one of the mounted gendarmes - who had been liberated at the same time as the ladies - reached Mr. Erskine from Takos, the chief of the brigands, saying that if in three days a sum of 50,000 was not forthcoming for the ransom of the " lords," and if all pursuit throughout the kingdom was not suspended, the prisoners would be put to death. In the course of the day Lord Muncaster arrived in the capital, sent by the brigands to negotiate for the ransom. He brought the same message. Let the troops once come into collision with the brigands and the lives of all the captives would be at once sacrificed. Mr. Erskine, of course, renewed the most strenuous representation to the Greek Government on the subject, and received in return from the Minister for War, General Soutzos, a solemn assurance that the brigands should remain unmolested till the prisoners were safely restored. General Soutzos treated the whole matter very lightly, would not allow for a moment that the lives of the prisoners were in any danger, and said that he had no doubt the amount demanded for their ransom might be considerably reduced, if their friends felt inclined to make any difficulty about it. No thought of bargaining with the brigands, however, entered Mr. Erskine's or Lord Muncaster's head, and the ransom was speedily collected with the help of the chief banker in Athens, who showed himself most active and efficient. But, alas! no sooner was the money forthcoming, and means of transporting it secured, than a new element entered into the situation, and darkened the whole aspect of affairs. This was no less than a demand on the part of the brigands for a complete amnesty for all offences, not only for themselves, but also for such members of the band as had once belonged to it, but were now in prison. And should this fresh demand be refused, they again threatened to destroy their prisoners. The Greek Government found themselves thrown into a fatal dilemma, and it was to their reckless attempt to extricate themselves from it that the whole of "the subsequent tragedy was owing. " For," says the special commissioner of Blackwood's Magazine, " this demand was made to place the Ministry in the terrible alternative of treachery to the constitution; or, by refusing to do this, rejecting the demands of two powerful nations, and possibly sacrificing lives which these countries would not suffer to be unavenged." Under the constitution which secured the throne of Greece to Prince George of Denmark, the King and ministers were pledged to put down brigandage, the curse of Greek society, with the utmost rigour of the law. How, then, grant such an amnesty as this to the most powerful and most notorious band in Greece? Besides, the Ministry felt from the first that there was more in the demand than met the eye. Such a condition formed no part of ordinary brigand law, and would not have occurred spontaneously to any band of lawless men who saw the prospect of getting a large sum of money immediately after releasing their prisoners. It appeared only too clearly afterwards that the demand was originally none of their making, and that they were throughout supported and influenced by the corrupt and reckless chiefs of the Greek Parliamentary Opposition. It was a party more, meant to secure the downfall of the Ministry; and the brigands, no less than their unfortunate prisoners, were but pieces in the game. Once suggested, the notion no doubt caught the fancy of Takos, the head of the band, a man of superior education to the rest; and elated by the rank and importance of his captives, he may have made up his mind to secure every possible advantage. The other members of the band were by no means eager for the amnesty, and when a few days later they were flying before the soldiery they bitterly reproached their chief with having demanded it. Takos, however, backed by his secret advisers, stuck to his novel terms, persuaded that the Government would be compelled to deal with them. The Ministry fully understood who were the wire-pullers in the matter, though they were unable to lay their hands upon any single individual, so cleverly were the transactions conducted; and they were at no loss to comprehend the threat of the Opposition. " Refuse the amnesty, and see what answer you will give to the charge of culpable ignorance as to the vicinity of the brigands to Athens, and the still more glaring culpability of your mock measures of protection - your escort that never escorted, your officers to whom no orders were issued, and who showed themselves utterly ignorant of the duty they had to perform. Concede the amnesty, and prepare to meet a Chamber indignant at the dishonour of a violated constitution, and a King compelled to break a pledge he had sworn to maintain." Fully alive to the gravity of the situation, Mr. Erskine sent telegram after telegram to Lord Clarendon. Lord Clarendon's answer was clear and peremptory. England could allow no constitutional consideration to weigh against the lives of her subjects. The Greek Constitution had been violated before in the same manner, in the Cretan insurrection and in other cases; and Englishmen were not to be sacrificed to keep a weak Ministry in power. The Ministry meanwhile were preparing a desperate attempt to recover their reputation and escape from the snare laid for them. They hoped for a successful coup de main, which should at once rescue the prisoners, annihilate the brigands, relieve the Government from the responsibility of the ransom, and strengthen the position of the Ministry. At the same time Mr. Erskine was still allowed to believe that, although the amnesty could not be granted, no movement of the troops against the brigands would be permitted until the prisoners were safe. Relying upon this, Mr. Erskine sent a messenger to the brigands, reiterating the assurance of the Government, that no pursuit would be attempted; and entreating that they would leave the mountains and bring their prisoners down into the plains, where such delicate men as Mr. Herbert and Count de Boyl need not be exposed to all the hardships of an open-air life. The brigands, who had vowed to trust the word of no Greek minister, believed Mr. Erskine, left their mountain camp and brought their captives down to the village of Oropus, where they seem to have been on the whole fairly wall treated. A few days were then taken up in fruitless negotiations, conducted by a certain Colonel Theagems, on behalf of the Greek Government - a man afterwards denounced by Sir Henry Bulwer, in the House of Commons, as the real murderer of the prisoners - and by Mr. Erskine, on behalf of England. Mr. Erskine even went so far as to take upon himself the responsibility of offering the brigands an English ship-of-war, then anchored off the coast, to convey them from Greece to any destination they liked to name, hoping that by the offer the difficulty of the amnesty might be surmounted. Colonel Theagenis, on his part, made the singular proposal, that if Takos and some of his band would surrender themselves for a day or so, and undergo a mock trial at Athens, a free unconditional pardon should be granted them - a proposal which Takos treated with open scorn. " Move your assizes and your judges out here among the mountains' - try me where I am, and sentence me where I stand," was his haughty reply when the messenger of Colonel Theagenis tried to explain to him constitutional necessities. " Let the men who have made this constitution, unmake it," he is reported to have said on another occasion. " I am in no hurry. I can wait a year if need be." In fact, the heads of the whole band had been tinned by the discovery of the importance of their prisoners, and Takos was a willing tool in the hands of his subtle advisers in Athens, who bade him ask all or nothing. "The brigands," says Count Delia Minerva, Italian Minister at Athens, " no sooner learnt that there were two Secretaries of Foreign Legations among the party captured, than they began dancing and jumping with frantic joy."

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Pictures for Chapter XXXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

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