Just at sunset one day in the last week of March, 1897, a caique set sail from the harbor of Piræus, ostensibly laden with cognac for Cairo, but in reality carrying a small revolving cannon and a large number of Gras rifles to the insurgents in Crete, who had risen for the hundredth time and were fighting desperately for liberty and the Christian faith. There were several large barrels, conspicuously marked "Koniak" in Greek characters, on the deck, and a number of boxes that bore the legend, "Two dozen bottles from Kambas, Athens." The legend was not untruthful, for one of the huge casks, at least, contained the fiery liquid attributed to it; numberless others, in the hold, were filled with guns, and the boxes below deck were packed with ammunition.
There were other things, too, in the caique's cargo intended for the Cretan heroes—articles of a seemingly pacific nature, such as hams, hardtack, flour, sausages, olives and beans. These had been declared contraband by the admirals of the great powers, and the whole cargo, should it be seized by any of the warships prowling about the ancient island, was doomed to confiscation. The captain, a thick-set, square-shouldered Greek, in greasy blue suit, soft woolen shirt and felt hat, held the long tiller in his left hand and made the sign of the cross repeatedly with his right.
"Holy Virgin be our helper," he muttered. "St. Nicholas protect and help us!"
A stiff breeze was blowing and the vessel leaned over, like a tall man shouldering his way through a storm. The three young men standing upon her deck maintained their equilibrium by shooting one leg out straight, as though it were the prop of a cabin built on the side of a hill; the other being shortened to half its length by bending at the hip and knee.
A strip of canvas stretched on ropes, to keep the waves from rushing over, ran the whole length of either side. Stern and prow were equally pointed, and the iron rings of the boom, that clutched the main masts like the fingers of a closed hand, creaked monotonously. Two jibs, fluttering full-breasted before, seemed to pull out for the open sea, as a pair of white doves might in old time have drawn the bark of Aphrodite. The waters of the bay, that lay like a rolling plain of green meadow grass and blood-red anemones in the dying sun, was shredded into lily-white foam by the ship's iron plowshare and hurled carelessly into the broad road that streamed out behind.
At their right a great fleet of old-time sailing ships, many of them painted green, lay rotting at their anchors. These had been gallant craft in the Viking days of Greece, faring to the coast of Russia, to England and Spain and convertible in a week's notice from peaceful merchants into blockade runners and ships of the line.
Two natty officers stepped to the prow of a Russian gunboat, that was white and trim as a bride, and fixed their glasses keenly on the caique.