Haremlik: Lives of Turkish Women - Demetra Vaka

A Flight from the Harem

As the boatmen rowed me swiftly from one bank of the Bosphorus to the other, and then along to the Serai Bournou, I gazed at the illuminated city which displayed itself before my dazzled eyes. It happened that Constantinople was making herself beautiful that summer night, to celebrate the anniversary of her ruler, the Commander of the Faithful.

Near and far the slender minarets were covered with microscopic, many-colored oil lamps, in various designs, the half-moon being the favorite. The balconies of the houses of the wealthy were playing the same tune, on a lower key, as the tall minarets, while the banks of the most beautiful river in the world were masses of lights. The city was alive; the harbor was filled with ships adorned with strings of lanterns from mast to mast; and the horizon was ablaze with fireworks. One would say that even the sky partook of the festivities: its deep indigo was picked out in golden stars, while a silvery moon was gazing coquettishly at the thousands of half moons that strove to reproduce her grace.

Arrived at the house of my Rossetti lady, a slave took charge of me; and when I was bathed and perfumed, and dressed in soft, Oriental clothes, I was left to my own devices. I crouched on the low divan by my window and peeped through the lattice at the splendors outside.

The door of my room creaked, and as the light from the hall shone in I saw that it was my hostess who had entered.

"Os-geldi! Os-geldi!" she called out. Her two outstretched hands got hold of mine, and she drew me to her bosom. "My little blossom, what are you doing here in the dark? Are you helping Allah to weave garlands for your romances?"

"I was looking at the beauty outside."

"Nay, my little jasmine, from the tone of your voice I know that you were in dreamland. Some time dreams will be made true; and may they come true in your life."

There was a pathos in her voice that I had not detected at our previous interview. Rossetti's poem came back to me, and I said aloud, gazing at her beauty:—

"Her body bore her neck as the tree's stem

Bears the top branch; and as the branch sustains

The flower of the year's pride, her high neck bore

That face made wonderful with night and day."

"Why do you say those lines?" my hostess asked.

"Because you make me think of them."

"Do you mean that I look like Rossetti's paintings?"

"I rather think you look like his poems: you are the embodiment of them."

"And am I this to you?"

"Yes, you are this to me. Ever since I first saw you I have been drawn to you. By rights I ought to be somewhere else to-night, but I am with you. It was of you I was thinking when you came into my room. Do you know, I do not even know your name. That does not matter, though, for to me you are my Rossetti lady."

The Turkish woman sat on the divan, near me, her fingers playing with my loose hair.

"You are a sweet-scented little bride," she said irrelevantly. "Where is the bride-groom, little one?"

"Your slave just gave me a heliotrope bath," I explained; "and as for the bride-groom, I am afraid his grandsire died heirless."

"Yavroum, you are a very dear person, and I hope some day you will know the joy of being a wife." She was silent for a long time, and then asked, suddenly: "Shall I tell you why I insisted so strongly at the bath-party that you should come to see me?"

"Then it wasn't because you liked me?"

"Yes, indeed, dear little flower of the pomegranate tree. The minute my eyes met yours I knew that I liked you, and I knew that you belonged to us Oriental women. That is why I asked you to come. I wanted to ask you to do something for me, something which I can only trust to few; and if I come to you with my troubles the first minute of your being under my roof, it is because I do not want you to feel that after you have broken bread with me you will be obliged to do what you would not wish to. I will tell you everything, and if when you have heard me you wish to go away and forget me, the little boat you came in is waiting for you."

My pulse quickened. What could she be going to ask me to do?

"Yavroum," she went on, "before I tell you anything, do you know where this dwelling of mine is?"

"No, you asked me to meet the boatman so late that I scarcely know in which part of the country it is."

"I am very glad. I want you not to know, for your own sake."

Every word she spoke seemed to add to the romance of the situation. I was to learn the story of my Rossetti poem, and I felt sure that it could be nothing less than a wonderful love story. Bits of all the Oriental tales I knew came thronging to my mind. I was afraid to utter a word, lest I should break the spell and she should withhold her confidence from me. In my sojourn among the Turkish women I had always been expecting to come across some wonderful, out-of-the-common romance; but their lives, when seen near at hand, were generally as uneventful as the most conventional Western life. Now, at length, I felt that I was to learn of one that would come up to my expectations.

"I was once a very beautiful woman," my hostess began in the simple, unself-conscious manner of the East.

"Mashallah! are you not now?" I cried. "I would give my soul to look like you."

She smiled.

"Yes, I know I am good-looking still; but a woman nearing thirty is not the same as at twenty; and when I was twenty I was very beautiful indeed. I was born and brought up in Asia Minor, where my father was a governor. My maternal grandmother, a woman of advanced ideas, sent a French lady to educate me, when I was only three; and when I was fifteen, and my mother died, I was brought to Constantinople and married to my husband, who is ten years older than I am. Three children were born to us, and my life ought to have been very happy. And it would have been if my head had not been full of French stories. I read all the time, and it made me feel that I, too, had the right to be a heroine.

"One day, when I was twenty years old, I was going from my home to Foundokli in my little caique. It was a hot afternoon and I had my feredjé thrown back a little, and only had my veil around my face, not over it.

In midstream we met another caique in which was a young foreigner. When he saw me, he cried something aloud in his own tongue, and from his look I knew that it was of me he spoke. So I drew my veil close over my face and brought the feredjé around me. This did not discourage the man, however, and he ordered his caique to follow mine. It was a very dangerous thing he did, and had my eunuchs been with me there would surely have been trouble.

"He followed us to where we were going, and then went away, apparently thinking that that was my home. Two days later I had partly forgotten the incident, though I did think a good deal of the man and his good looks, when his boat happened to meet mine again. He exclaimed, this time in French: 'At last I have found her!'

"I don't need to go into particulars, but the man did everything in his power to come into my life. My husband was away at the time, and I was alone, and lovesick, perhaps. The foreign man managed to send me letters. At first I resented his writing to me, and would hardly read them; but he was very young and handsome, and he wrote me such letters as they write in books, and my head became so turned by the romance of it that some months after the time he first met me, I left my husband, my home, and my babies, and went with him."

My Rossetti lady had been telling me her story in such a quiet, restrained voice that at first even this climax did not seem startling.

"Have I told you that he was an Englishman, and what they call a lord in his country? He took me to Scotland, and there married me. The first three years went like a dream. He did not keep me behind latticed windows, but he kept me under closer watch than I had ever been before, and guarded me as if he could never be sure of me; though I was constantly in society and saw a great deal of that world which had always been such a mystery to me. I don't know whether I loved him during those three years or not. All I can say is that my life was like a picture-book whose leaves were turned very fast. He took me to his mother. He was an only son, and she was very kind to me. I do not think that besides his mother any one knew that I was Turkish. He took me to his court, and I met his queen; and we went from one place to another all over Europe. He was very rich and liberal, and everywhere we went I had a house of my own, but I was always a prisoner.

"It was in the south of France that my baby was born. To think that Allah could bless such a union with his most wonderful gift!" she cried, clasping her hands to her heart. "It was a little girl, and Edgar named her Hope, because he said she was the hope that I at last belonged to him entirely.

"When they put the baby into my arms I knew why Allah had sent her to me. It was like the breaking of a spell, the lifting of a veil from my clouded vision, and I saw my past life, my husband, and my babies loom up as if from another world. From that minute I had no peace of mind. Whether asleep or awake there was only one thought with me: my husband. I began to remember all the little things he had done and said to me, and gradually I began to worship him. I wanted him as I never knew before that one human being could want another. And all that time I was loved, almost devoured, by the man who had taken me away from my home. I could not bear it. I began to plan and plan how I might go back to my own people and my own country.

"When, as a girl, I had read about European life it had seemed to me so attractive, so wonderful. But when I came to taste it, it was empty and bitter. European women have no friends, as we understand them. They have no leisure hours to think and to dream, and to come to know themselves and their God. They do not even have time to take care of their children; and nurses, with whom they would not for anything in the world associate themselves, are intrusted with the sacred duty of forming their children's minds. Indeed there is nothing sacred in a European woman's life,—at least, yavroum," she modified her statement, "not in the lives of the women I have seen. Do you know, little bride of the river, that though Edgar had kept me so close to him, lots of men had told me things they had no business to tell me. Oh! I was sick of it all. Not once in all those dreary years had I met with people who said, 'If Allah wishes it,' 'If it is the will of Allah.' But I prayed and prayed to my great Allah to let me return to my own people. And he heard my prayer.

"We were in Scotland, and an uncle of Edgar's died, leaving him an estate and money. Edgar had to go, and could not take me with him because I was ill. As soon as he went out of the house I took pen and paper and poured my whole heart out with it, and sent it to my husband. I implored him to take me back, even if he now had other wives; to give me just a little corner, from which I could watch him and be near him.

"I sent the letter, and waited. How slow the days were, and at the end of each there came a letter from Edgar full of his wild love for me, which sickened my heart. Two weeks had gone by; Edgar was to come back soon now, and no reply had reached me.

"One evening as I was sitting in my room, the tears trickling down on my breast, the footman came to tell me that a tall, dark gentleman, who refused to give his name, wished to see me. I ran downstairs, and there in the hall stood my husband.

"He took me into his arms, tears and all, and an hour later I escaped with him, and came back to my home. Before I left Scotland I wrote a letter to Edgar, telling him that my husband had come for me, and that I was going home to my people.

"Yavroum, can you believe it, but my husband still loved me, and my place in his heart was still empty and waiting for me. He forgave all; for he understood.

"A month had not gone by when Edgar was in Constantinople. He came straight to my husband and accused him of stealing me away from him. It was a very dangerous thing to do, and any other man than my husband would have had him killed and thrown into the Bosphorus. But Ahmet Ali ordered the carriage and told Edgar to come with him and see me in my Stamboul home. There he brought him into the sitting-room and left him with me alone.

"When Edgar saw me he held out his arms for me; but the sight of him filled me only with loathing.

"I can never forget him, never. Yavroum, whatever your life may be, be careful with men. If you hurt one of them, and he turns on you his sad eyes, they will follow you through life. Sometimes when you will forget and be happy playing with your baby, that baby will look at you as the man did, and there will be no joy for you. If you ever belong to one man, even though you may think that there is no great love in his heart for you, stay by him, and do no wrong.

"I was full of bitterness that day for Edgar. I accused him of having done me a very great wrong, though, in truth, the wrong was mine. When I told him that I did not love him, that I never had loved him, that it was a silly girl's whim that took me to him, I think he would have killed me if my husband had not stepped in. Then he turned furiously on Ahmet, and would have killed him, I know, had not Ahmet been too quick and too strong for him. He had a white cloth, wet with some chemical, in his hand, and forced this over Edgar's face; and after a terrible struggle he threw him to the floor, and there he presently lay as if dead, though Ahmet said he was only unconscious. Then instead of killing him, my husband had him put on a ship that was going away.

"I did not hear of him again until two years later, when Ahmet told me that Edgar had been killed, and that his child was under my husband's care. And now, yavroum, I come to where I must ask you to help me. Edgar's mother is having search made everywhere for the child; even the Sultan has been approached by the English ambassador. I want you, yavroum, when you go back to America, to write a letter to her and tell her that Hope is happy and well; and that, considering that she has Turkish blood in her, we are bringing her up as a noble Osmanli woman should be brought up. Should the child, however, when she grows to be a woman, seem unhappy in Turkey, we will send her back to her in England. But I must teach her now, while she is little, something of the greatness of Allah. Here, yavroum, is the address to which to write."

Mechanically I took the piece of paper with the address on it, and stared at my Rossetti lady as she finished her story and made her request.

She was looking at me imploringly.

"You will, yavroum, will you not? For if the old duchess makes much fuss, I am afraid I shall lose the child."

"Are you afraid of your husband killing it?" I asked.

The horror in her face showed me that we had got beyond the bounds of possibility.

"Oh, no! only she might have to be sent into Asia Minor, to my husband's mother, and then I should not have the chance to watch over her myself, and to give her back to England, if she should desire it."

"Hanoum, why don't you send her now ?" I asked. "She is English through her father, and she is the only child that grandmother has."

My Rossetti lady's face was again nearly as horror-stricken as before.

"Give the child to be brought up among that godless set of people. No! no! I could not do it! Besides, my pasha would never hear of it. He says that the little girl is partly I, and that he could never give any part of me, no matter how small, to the infidels."

"Do you want me to write under my name or yours?" I asked.

"Neither, yavroum. Just any name, and no address. I shall give you a little miniature of the child, and several pictures. Send them to the grandmother, and tell her that once a year pictures and news of the child shall be sent to her, and that little Hope is well and happy."

"How can I say that, since I have not seen the child?" I protested, rather feebly.

"You shall see her to-morrow."

I was not happy in the situation. I had had my fill of romance, to be sure; but I had been dragged into playing a part in it that I did not particularly approve of, although I knew the futility of trying to play any other part than that assigned to me. I looked out of my latticed window upon the Bosphorus, and as I looked the mystery of the East again stole over my senses. I turned my eyes to the woman, slim and graceful, and of a beauty that I could well believe had inspired the love it had in two men of alien races, and my Western prejudices fell from me.

"Dear Hanoum," I said, "I will do what you ask me to do." Then emboldened by the favor I was going to do for her, I asked, as perhaps only in that dark room of another world I could have asked: "Do you love your husband as much as you thought you did?"

She leaned over and took my hand.

"Dear little blossom, you don't know what love is, do you? I love my husband a million times more than I ever did before, though the past can never be undone, and whenever I feel my husband's eyes upon me I shudder at the thought that he may possibly be thinking of that other man. A woman can never belong to two men—never! A woman is a flower, and cannot be touched by two persons without being polluted. The past always comes between, yavroum; but out of that sorrow I can be a good mother, a good wife, now when the storm no longer blows, though the trees have fallen, and the wreckage is all around me."

She leaned forward on the divan, held her palms upward, and prayed to her God:—

"O Allah, take care of the living, and forgive the dead!"

It seemed all in keeping with the night and the woman, looking more than ever like the embodiment of a poem, a greater poem now than Rossetti ever wrote. She was the East itself: the mysterious East, with its strange ideas of love, and death, and of religion.

After one of those silences that seem a natural part of an Oriental conversation, my Rossetti lady drew me to her and kissed me, saying:—

"Little crest of the wave, you have helped to give peace to one who has brought storm to life. May the doing of this for me be rewarded with a fund of happiness from which you may draw daily." She rose to her feet as she spoke. "Come, let us go down where you can meet my lord and my children."

They were in the dining-room, and had apparently been awaiting us; for along the wall stood a row of motionless slaves, one hand, in military style, straight down at their sides, the other supporting the dishes that were on their heads.

"This is my husband," said my hostess, putting my hand into that of Ahmet Pasha. "Our American friend."

"We are happy to have you among us, young Hanoum; and this anniversary of our great Pattishah will be doubly celebrated by us hereafter," he said, with simple sincerity.

Ahmet Pasha was a Saracen evidently, not a Turk, and as I looked at him I did not wonder that my Rossetti lady had left the Englishman and come back to him: I only wondered that she had ever left him. In his splendid uniform and his decorations he was an almost ideal hero. I was surprised at his taking dinner with us, but heard later that he always ate with his wife except when there were Turkish women present.

The children were very pretty and healthy looking, and most devoted to their mother. After the meal was over we were taken to the Sultan's palace, where a midnight banquet was served to a thousand pashas and foreign grandees. We women sat with the women of the palace in the gardens, watching the fireworks, and refreshed with sweets and sherbets every five or ten minutes.

Home again, and my Rossetti lady took me to her room and showed me the necklace of red rubies her husband had given her that day, as is customary on public anniversaries, and the neglect of which would have been equivalent to a notice of impending divorce. Next she opened her jewelry box and asked me to choose from it anything that took my fancy, since she wished to give me something. While we were examining the jewels, and when she had begun to let down her hair, Ahmet Pasha sent word to ask if he might come in and join our conversation. The Turks quite often turn night into day when the fancy takes them. We did that night; thus not going to bed until after five o'clock.

As we sat there on the divan, my Rossetti lady had her hair loose on her shoulders, except for a ribbon holding it back from her face. Ahmet Pasha gathered a strand of it in his fingers, and turned to me.

"Did you ever see anything more exquisite in your life?" he asked.

I had to admit that I had never seen anything to equal it.

"Nor is there a woman more charming," he said, his Turkish politeness not permitting him to declare in the presence of another that she was the most charming of all.

My Rossetti lady took his hand and kissed it in silence; and I thought I saw, together with love, the gratitude of a woman who has sinned and has been forgiven.

In the forenoon of the next day the Turkish lady came to the house. With her were her slaves and a child. At once I recognized whose child it must be.

I took her on my lap, and spoke to her in English.

"Little girlie, what is your name?"

The child looked at her mother, put her little finger in her mouth, and whispered:—"I am mother's little Hope. But they call me Salihé Hanoum now."

"Do you like things here?" I asked.

"Yes; and soon I am coming back to live with mother"; and with the words she scrambled down and ran to my Rossetti lady.

This day was the last time I ever saw any of the household of Ahmet Pasha. In a few days I went to Russia, and some six weeks later returned to Constantinople to take the steamer for Naples, where I was to meet the boat for America. The steamer was one of those semi-freight affairs that carry more cargo than passengers, and spent a day or two each at some eight ports before reaching Naples. On the quay, as I was embarking at Constantinople, a young Englishman had been introduced to me by a member of the Greek Legation. We two were the only first-class passengers who made the whole trip to Naples, and naturally we became well acquainted by the time we reached Sicily.

The night that the boat stopped at Palermo we were sitting on deck. It was a warm October night, brilliant with starlight, a night whose witchery plays the mischief with the tongues of people. My Englishman lost the reserve that he might have kept under a northern sky, and began to tell me why he had come to Turkey.

"It was a wild-goose chase," he said, "and I tell you I never wish again to have much to do with your Turkish friends. I was hunting for a child, the child of my cousin; but I might as well have been trying to kidnap the Sultan." And interlarded with "don't you know's" and "fahncy's," he told me the story which two months before, again on a wonderful southern night, gloriously illuminated, a Turkish woman had told to me.

"You see Edgar could not stand it," he concluded. "Two years after she left him he blew his brains out. No one knew the woman was Turkish, except his mother, and now myself. I met her once, and I tell you she was the kind of a woman a man would go mad over. Immediately after Edgar's death the child was stolen, and my aunt was almost prostrated by it. That is why I have been hunting through Turkey for her."

"What makes you think that the child is in Turkey?" I asked, making my voice as steady as I could.

"Oh, the husband sent a letter from Paris, saying that he had taken the child to bring up in the truth faith; but you see we don't know where they are. We don't even know that they live in Constantinople, and Turkey is beastly big when you go on a hunt like mine. All the same, I have an idea that had I stayed much longer in the capital I should have disappeared, too, and no one would ever have heard of me again, although I had the help of the Embassy."

My eyes were fixed on the lights of Palermo, and on Monte Pelegrino beyond, and I did not speak. Perhaps my English friend thought I was not as much interested in his account as I might have been. If he had only known how interested I was!

I thought of the addressed envelope down in my trunk, and of the miniature and the photographs of an English child. But this was not mine to tell, nor would it have helped him if I had.

The lights of Palermo twinkled cheerily at us across the water; but behind them Monte Pelegrino seemed to loom sardonically, as if it were amused at the tiny struggles of the insects at its feet, who called themselves men.