Zenovia’s secret (Chapter 4)

Posted by: Maria Atalanti

Published on: 26/06/2022

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This text is the product of fiction. None of the characters described are real. In this chapter, Penelope Delta and Ion Dragoumis are real, historical figures. Their connection with the characters of the novel is fantastic

Alexandria 1905

Fifteen years had passed from the time Zenovia went to Alexandria. She had joined society for good and had met all the important Greek merchants who worked with her husband. One family with which they had frequent contact, was the Benaki family. People very rich with aristocratic origins and strict principles. Zenovia, despite the huge leap forward she had made in her education and cultivation, knew that she could not reach the members of the Benaki family. These were highly sophisticated individuals, associated to music, poetry, literature, could talk about any subject and their point of view was important. So, she was careful in her conversations with them so as not to seem ignorant or misinformed.

In 1905, the middle daughter of the family, Penelope, returned to Alexandria. She had married in Athens in 1895 the wealthy Phanariotes merchant Stefanos Delta. Together they had three daughters, Sophia, Virginia, and Alexandra. They were the perfect couple, according to the social norms of the time.

Zenovia and Penelope were of the same age. They were both born in 1874. The first in a mountainous village of Paphos and the second one in a rich house of Alexandria. The first did not receive any education in her childhood and the second had received, at home, the best education that existed in her time. They both grew up with strict principles, to the standards of the societies they had lived in.

Their first meeting took place at the Benaki’s house, in an event organized for the return of Penelope and her family to Alexandria. In an environment, where everyone was talking and no one was listening to what the other was saying, the recommendations were made, and a spontaneous sympathy was born between the two women. Zenovia invited her to her house and Penelope did not refuse.

Thus, a friendship began between them, from those that are rarely created. Zenovia saw in her an extremely refined woman, full of sensitivity and richness of spirit, while Penelope saw in Zenovia an authentic, unpretentious, and dynamic woman.

Soon, Penelope’s return took an unexpected turn. Alexandria’s society began to buzz with gossip. Penelope had fallen in love with the Vice Consul of Greece in Alexandria, Ion Dragoumis! Benaki’s daughter, a married woman with three daughters, in love with a flirtatious young man. Scandal! Disgrace!

Ion Dragoumis was the son of the politician and Prime Minister Stefanos Dragoumis. He was a deeply politicized person and together with his father and son-in-law Pavlos Melas organized the Greek Orthodox communities against the Bulgarians, contributing to the Macedonian Struggle. He was also a poet and a writer.

The meeting was fatal for both. She fell madly in love with him, and he surrendered to the charm of this, so beautiful and cultured woman. Penelope was desperately divided. Her love gave her wings and energy and her place in society kept her tied to the earth. Because of her honesty and the principles with which she grew up, she confessed her love for Ion to her husband in the hope that he would free her from their marriage. But that did not happen, and she kept being trapped in an unresolved dilemma.

Zenovia heart anxiously the gossip about her friend, without ever taking part. One day when they were alone, she spoke to her:

-You know very well that the society of Alexandria is buzzing about your relationship with Ion Dragoumis. I am not concerned about all this, and I don’t care. But if you want to talk to me and open your heart, I will always be here to listen to you, without judging you.

-My good friend, it’s not easy to talk to. But I know the purity of your heart and your confidentiality. And I need to talk about it. I have always had a conventional marriage with a man who was approved by my family and fulfilled the conditions of society for my class and origin. I can’t say that I didn’t love him in the past or not loving him now, but what happened to me when I met Ion was something that I didn’t know a person could feel.

-I thought that love is the relationship that a married couple has with each other. I had never fallen in love before. The magnetic force that drew me close to Ion, started from deep inside me and extended to every pore of the body, to every hair of my head. This man represents for me the food that pervades the cells of my body and the water of my spirit. I wanted and I want to be with him all the time, to talk to him, to listen to his voice, to learn his thoughts and to share my own with him.

-But I am tied with chains called marriage, called children, called origin, called Benaki family. My father has become furious, with the gossip that circulates. I did not try to mislead him, nor do I have the power to abandon Ion. My life is a vicious circle. It’s the most powerful and the most magical thing that has ever happened to me.

-Despite the longing of my soul, I have so far respected my marriage. Our relationship is platonic, but I don’t know how long this can last. I am afraid that this dilemma, this disease, will shatter my existence. But I’m happy it happened to me. I would have spent my life without getting to know erotic love. And erotic love is perhaps the ultimate emotion that a person can feel.

Zenovia remained silent for a while. She did not know if there were any words that could rest her friend.

-I have no intention of judging you, nor of admonishing you. I recognize the fire that burns your soul and I can see your face lit by its flames; My dear friend, with all the privileges that life gave you, beauty, riches, intelligence, education, an excellent family, you chose the fire of love, which can destroy you. My own life is exactly the opposite. I live happiness in a marriage that began without love, but was built on love, giving, and understanding. Perhaps this is a safer recipe for happiness. But it certainly doesn’t catapult you into heaven. Still, you could be right. In this short life we live in, it is worthwhile to experience the ultimate, even if we risk setting ourselves on fire. I, probably, would n’ t chosen it. But I don’t reject your choices. And above all, I do not dispute the fact that it is the fate of person to fall into the traps set by the gods during one’s life.

-Sometimes you don’t choose. You follow. She continued thoughtful.

On that day Penelope may not have left vindicated, but perhaps relieved. She spoke to someone who did not judge her, to someone who may not have agreed, but she understood. That was very important to her.

Zenovia was constantly thinking about her friend and her dilemma. She could not decide what was the right thing to do. And maybe there was no right or wrong. The course of life would shape the future. And she knew that very well herself. Deep down she knew that the future consolidates and shapes the present. What today is incomprehensible, tomorrow it will make sense in the order that governs the universe.

But her concern was not only that. Now Zenobia was 31 years old, and her husband was around 70. His health was no longer so good, and he easily got tired. They had visited the best doctors that Alexandria had at the time, and they all prescribed: rest and healthy diet. Zenobia did everything to help him. She would go to work with him every day, make sure he was healthy eating and was rested as much as he could.

Demetrios was overwhelmed with the care of his young wife. He often teared up when he thought about how much he owed her.

-It’s me who owes you to you she told him. You gave meaning to my life and filled the absolute void with interesting action.

One day Demetrios asked her to sit down because he wanted to speak to her seriously.

-Please, he told her when he started talking, don’t interrupt me until I’m done. I want you to listen carefully to what I am going to tell you. When I decided to marry you, everyone was telling me that it was nonsense to take a girl for a wife, at my own age. Deep down I understood that they were right, but I had already fallen in love with you and when you finally accepted, nothing could stop me from taking you for my wife. With such a young wife I expected many joys in my life, but I’ve never imagined that this girl could stand up to me like a mother.

-When I talked to you about my childhood, I didn’t analyze much the issue of deprivation that I always carry, for the fact that I didn’t have a mother to take care of me. This lack is perhaps my biggest complaint in life. And you, such a young woman, you give me what I was deprived of, so generously, that not even my own mother could give me. I can’t describe my emotion and gratitude for that.

-Zenobia started to say something here, but Demetrius stopped her.

-Please don’t interrupt me. Listen to the end of what I’m trying to tell you. Although no one knows God’s thoughts, chances are that in a few years I will die. When this happens, I want you to know that it is my desire to marry a younger husband so that you can live your life as you deserve. I will transfer all my assets to you, so that you are rich and independent and can make your choices, without restrictions; You already know very well how to run our business. I believe that you will be the best guardian for our son, and you will direct him correctly, as you have done so far.

Zenovia was upset by this conversation. She did not even want to hear what Demetrios was saying. She really loved him and the prospect that she would lose him terrified her. However, she controlled herself and replied:

-You talk about your approaching death as if it is at the next turn of the road. I do not accept that! I will do everything in my power for you to live many more years. Since you are referring to it, however, I would like to clarify a few things for you. If for you I am a mother, for me you have been a father, the best, the most affectionate, loving father that has ever existed. You don’t owe me anything. I owe you everything.

-Although I would not like to discuss the macabre issue of a possible death of yours, it is nevertheless important to clarify this to you: if you pass away, Demetrios,, I will also leave Alexandria. My life is in Cyprus. You may transmit the house and factory to our son. I will go to live at our home in Ktima. This house is the most precious thing you have given me so far. I am happier to milk the goats than to live in luxury and take part in glamorous dinners. With you, all this makes sense. Without you it doesn’t. So, take these thoughts out of your mind. Your property belongs to our son.

The whole conversation brought tears to the eyes of both. But deep down they knew that all this was an imminent possibility. Zenovia got upset, but Demetrios began to think. He took his wife’s words very seriously. He had to find a way to secure her financially, wherever she wanted to live. Nothing would be left to chance. Her desire to spend the rest of her life in Cyprus complicated things somehow, but he would find a solution.

The next morning, he visited his friend, the banker, Antonios Papadopoulos. He asked him if there were banks in Cyprus and if there was a way to deposit an amount in his wife’s name. His friend promised him that he would investigate the matter and inform him. Demetrios left relieved.

Zenovia, after that day, took more care of Demetrios. The thought of losing him terrified her. She would never have expected that a relationship so important to her, would be born from a marriage, which she was forced to have. Although Evangelos had not yet turned fifteen, she would take him with her to the factory, whenever he had no school. He had, as well, to start being trained in the secrets of the job.

The involvement with the company did not particularly excite Evangelos. He was a very handsome teenager, tall, blond, who preferred to go out with his friends instead of learning about the cotton trade. But here Zenovia was adamant. No one could soften her. Neither Demetrios, nor Evangelos. The child needs to learn the basics of the job, now. And so Evangelos, despite his protests, had begun to receive his first lessons in the complex world of the commerce.

No matter how much Zenovia was concerned about organizing her own life, she did not forget her friend and the drama she was experiencing. In the evenings, when she lay down to sleep, she tried to imagine Penelope and her feelings. She did not know how, but she found, in a way, that her friend’s life looked like an ancient tragedy she once attended to. They had gone with Demetrios to one of the theaters to see a performance presented by a troupe that came from Greece.

Oedipus Tyrant was called. It was the most shocking thing she had seen or heard in her life:  The son who killed his father and got married to his mother, not knowing who they were. That is how the gods wanted it. They led his footsteps and created the circumstances of life for him to unknowingly commit these crimes. Her friend, the so moral and honest Penelope, was caught in this net and did not have the strength to take a decision. And any decision was fundamentally damning.

-Do we choose in our lives, she wondered?

She thought of her own life. Who could have ever imagined that she would take such ways when she was a little girl in the mountains of Paphos? And who still knows where she will be led?

She shuddered. It is so irresponsible to judge each other when no one knows which is the next crossroads they will encounter and how fate will be waiting for them there.

She sent all her love to Penelope and fell asleep. Tomorrow would dawn a new day. And she had to be strong.




Penelope Delta

Ion Dragoumis


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