Maria (Chapter 5)
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 03/10/2021Back to Blog
(This story is the product of fiction, and all characters are fictional; the historical elements included are real)
Nicosia October 1878
The events of the last few months have been overwhelming. The British had managed to convince the Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, to grant Cyprus to them. Britain’s Prime Minister Disraeli was convinced by his military experts, that with the acquisition of Cyprus, they would have at their disposal one of “the keys of Asia”. The pro-Turkish policy pursued by the British, from the time of the Turkish-Egyptian crisis, as well as the skilful manipulations of their ambassador in Constantinople, Austen Henry Layard, resulted in the signing on June 4, 1878, the Anglo-Turkish defence treaty, and the simultaneous military occupation of Cyprus.
On the 12ht of July 1878, the British arrived in Nicosia with mules loaded with six penny coins, to distribute them to the inhabitants, and many promises that they would pay all the late salaries, to annihilate any possible reaction of the Muslim inhabitants of Nicosia, who were superior to the Christians. The Greek Christians were thrilled with the arrival of the British.
When, on July 25 of the same year, the first English High Commissioner, Sir Garnet Wolseley, arrived in Nicosia, Archbishop Sofronios welcomed him with a warm speech and many hopes.
Sir Garnet Wolseley settled in the Kykkos Monastery, outside the walls of Nicosia. At the same time, many officials and soldiers had begun to arrive. In addition to the housing needs that were presented, there was also an immediate need for interpreters.
Antonios Philippou did not hesitate, when asked, to offer his services to the new conquerors. He was fluent in English, Greek, Turkish and French and knew the English law. The finesse he had acquired by living many years in Paris and London, was welcomed by the British.
He was appointed to the service of the military commander of Nicosia, Michael McCain, and his wife Evelyn. They were a very decent couple, with no children. Antonios, in addition to his daily duties, which he performed flawlessly, began to make friendships with the couple, especially with Mrs. Evelyn McCain.
When at some point Mrs. Evelyn McCain expressed the wish to have a maid who spoke English, so that she could communicate, Anthony spoke to her about Maria. His description was very eloquent and detailed, which made Mrs. McCain impressed and very interested in Maria’s case.
Of course, it was not at all easy to distract Maria from the Turkish family and take her to the McCain house.
Mrs. McCain, despite her husband’s objections, began to devise with Antonios a plan to get close to the family and do everything she could to acquire Maria.
For two months Antonios taught her Turkish so that she could, even rudimentary, communicate with Mrs. Fatma and negotiate the transfer of Maria to her home. Antonios knew that Fatma anyway wanted Maria to leave the house, because she was afraid that in the future she could be a potential rival, but master Suleiman certainly did not want to lose Maria. That is why everything had to be done very carefully. They had decided, from the beginning, that Antonios would not appear.
Mrs. McCain began to take frequent walks in the area and admire the architecture of the few beautiful houses, the most impressive being this family home on Yeni Mosque Street. It was obvious that it was an old mansion of the Lusignan*. At its entrance it had a Gothic apse with a frame and decorative finishes. At the top it had a shield and various decorative weapons on the sides. One could also see traces of Byzantine windows. In front, a wooden gazebo was erected, according to Muslim customs. It was obvious that they had neglected it, and it had lost its former glory.
Mrs. McCain found a way to ask to see the lady of the house and seek permission to visit the house and see the interior.
Fatma felt very flattered and invited the English lady to come inside to have a coffee. The house inside was decorated with heavy oriental furniture and divans, but neglected. They sat comfortably in the living room, had their coffee, and ate oriental sweets, baklava and kantaifi. It would be comical for someone to try to understand their conversation. Mrs. McCain with her broken Turkish and with winks, was trying to thank Fatma, and Fatma was constantly talking trying to impress Mrs. McCain, who understood almost nothing. However, at some point, she asked to see the rest of the house and the garden.
Fatma had no problem showing her the rest of the house, but she was hesitant about the garden. She knew that Maria was there, and they did not want anyone to see her. But Mrs. McCain insisted and with the lack of communication that existed, she could not prevent her from moving towards the garden. She hoped, therefore, that Maria would not appear.
Maria, however, had been informed by Antonios to make her presence obvious. As soon as Fatma saw her, she became wild and started yelling at her to go away. But Mrs. McCain stopped her and asked who the little girl was. Because of the wretchedness of the clothes she wore, Fatma compulsorily called her a servant for the animals.
Mrs. McCain had learned the rest by heart and continued in impeccable Turkish:
-My dear lady, I see that you have several servants at home. I have recently come to Cyprus, and I do not yet have as many servants as I need. Could you please give me this little girl, who does not seem to be one of your important servants? I will pay you well.
And she pulled out of her bag three golden English pounds.
Fatma’s eyes opened wide. She saw the golden coins shining in the English woman’s hand, she thought about the danger run because of Maria, in relation to her husband and on the other hand she was afraid of her husband’s reaction, if Maria disappeared.
It did not take long for her to decide. She would sell Maria. She would take the golden coins for herself and escape this potential rival. Her husband would spend days noticing Maria’s absence, and she would tell him that she had run away. What could he do to her after all? He would not kill her!
She stretched out her hand to grab the golden coins, but Mrs. McCain closed hers. She tried to make it clear to Fatma that she would only take the golden coins when she would hand over Maria.
In a pantomime of movements, grimaces and gestures accompanied by a few Turkish words, the two women agreed that in the evening, after sunset, a carriage would come outside the house and stop only for a few seconds. Within those seconds the aliysi – verisi (the transaction), in the Turkish expression, would take place.
Mrs. McCain thanked Fatma and walked away with grace and dignity. In the evening a carriage, with Mrs. McCain inside and as a driver the teacher disguised, stopped outside the house on Yeni Mosque Street, for a few seconds, as if something was wrong with the horses, and it started immediately. Fatma gave Maria and took the three golden coins. No one understood anything.
Days passed, for anyone in the house, to realize Maria’s absence. They did not see her often. Fatma sent another servant to feed the animals a few times, and sometimes she went by herself. The English woman’s visit had been forgotten, and no one combined the two events. Her husband had become furious, that they let Maria leave. But he could not go to the police. He also had a lot to hide…
Mother Ayşe, who had understood everything, did not speak. She hoped that this event, would take away from her son many sins, and that the little girl would have a better future.
When they arrived at the McCain house, Maria was terrified and trembled all over, even though the teacher had prepared her for it.
Mr. McCain, who disagreed with the whole operation, was angry and insisted that they should report the incident to the police if they thought that the girl’s presence in that house was illegal. Now you two are Illegals, he told his wife and the teacher. Angry as he was, he turned to leave the room, and then he saw this little girl, in her wretched rags, crying silently and trembling.
Surprised by himself, he knelt and hugged her, trying to comfort her.
-What’s your name? He asked in English.
-Maria, replied, the little girl.
-Maria, these two – and he showed his wife and the teacher – have taken you away from your house. Do you want to go back home, or do you want to stay with us?
Maria lifted her eyes and looked at the room. How different it was from the place where she lived! Then, without thinking about it any more, she ran and took the teacher’s hand.
-Ι want to stay with the teacher, she whispered. I don’t want to go back. I want to learn a lot of things. I love to learn.
Mr. McCain stood up and said decisively:
-Evelyn, the matter is closed. The little girl, Maria, will not stay with us as a maid. It would be illegal. We will adopt her, and she will stay with us as our daughter! Tomorrow I will write to my lawyers in London.
And he got out of the room.
Evelyn McCain was not prepared for this development. She did not know if she had to rejoice. She was confused. The teacher, the same.
But when they gave a bath to Maria and put on her first clothes, Evelyn McCain had no doubt that she would like, this beautiful and brilliant little girl, to be their daughter.
Evelyn McCain was a very intelligent woman, giving and open-minded, but at the same time she was possessive and could intrigue to achieve her goals.
She decided that Maria would not be their adopted daughter, but their real daughter, for everyone else. While her husband was setting out the legal aspect of the matter, she organized the plan through which Maria would appear a day, like Mary McCain.
In any case, everyone was new to Cyprus and did not know each other. So, when asked if she had children, she would say about her daughter Mary, who was in a school in Switzerland and would be coming to Cyprus soon.
She made sure that no servants stayed in the house in the evenings and had Maria isolated in a room. There, daily, the teacher came and taught her. Not only, Maria was not bored, but she was also excited.
When everyone left, Mrs. McCain would take Mary to the room, which she was supposedly preparing for her daughter who was to come from Switzerland, and played the role of mother with devotion.
She bathed Mary and combed her curly hair, put her to bed and told her stories about London, sometimes she would read her fairy tales, but more importantly she explained to her how a good little girl behaves in the world.
It was such a magical situation for Mary that she did not even notice that she had lost all freedom. In fact, she had no idea what freedom meant, since all she knew was the garden of the Turkish house and the animals she took care for.
Mrs. McCain was quite anxious when she would present Maria to her friends. She knew she had no social education and skill. She grew up among the animals. On the other hand, very few children had the knowledge that Maria had. Besides, she had taught her so well what she should say and what she should not say, that she hoped that in the end she would succeed.
The first presentation took place in a small circle, so the little girl would not be scared because of the crowd, since she was not used to. Mrs. McCain was completely surprised with Maria’s comfort. In the innocence of her soul, all these people with the wonderful clothes and smiles, were for Maria/Mary a new expression of the wondrous world in which she had begun to live. She answered with joy and enthusiasm their questions, making sure to follow the instructions her mother had given her.
So, the first contact with society was for Maria a triumph. Other public appearances followed, and Maria was doing great. Evelyn McCain knew that behind her people were gossiping about how it is possible that such a modest couple, gave birth to such a beautiful girl with black hair, but she was not interested. Mary was, for her, her own daughter.
McCains, meanwhile, had ordered a bunch of toys from London. Dolls, tea sets and anything a little girl would like to play. Fortunately, her dad also ordered her a train that was running on rails, because Mary was not particularly interested in playing with the dolls. She preferred, to Evelyn McCain’s dismay, to play with her dad and the train.
One day, a soldier came to the house to bring an envelope to the military commander of Nicosia and found him lying on the floor playing with Mary and the train. He was so surprised that the envelope fell to the floor, next to the train.
Just as the wind blew that year and the occupation of Cyprus changed hands, so it dragged in its path, Maria, who became Mary, and began a new course in the world’s changing movements.
*This mansion exists until today. It is in occupied Nicosia and has been restored. I would like to express my thanks to the Architect, Mrs. Agni Petridou, for the relevant information.
Great Cyprus Encyclopedia
Lefkosia – the capital of Cyprus – Archduke Luding Salvator of Austria
Photo of the mansion as it looks today: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lusignan_House#/media/File:Nicosia_01-2017_img25_Lusignan_House.jpg