Haremlik: Lives of Turkish Women - Demetra Vaka


It had been hot all day long, oppressively so; and even now that it was dark, the heat had not relented. Pera, that city of curious noises, was sending up to me the echoing shouts of its venders. In Constantinople the small merchants carry their wares on their backs, and advertise their quality by power of lung. To the conglomeration of advertising tunes was added the shrill monotonous barking of the world-famed dogs, who bark, apparently, with the simple desire of adding to the noises of the hot city; for they bark even when eating.

The mixture of sounds about me was rapidly depressing me, when a servant came into my room, stumbled over a chair, in the semi-obscurity, and handed me a note.

"A slave, mademoiselle, brought it, and is waiting for an answer."

A slave! The word was poetry. It opened a vista of large, bare Turkish rooms, of low, linen-covered divans, of filmy clothes, bare feet, absolute inaction, cooling sherbets—and of quiet. I opened the note and, with the help of a candle, read:


The wind brings me joyous news of your sweet presence in our miserable city. No wonder the sky is bluer and the scent of the flowers sweeter. Will you not, Allah's beloved, gladden a human heart by your luminous presence? Come to me! Hasten to my bosom, so that I may tell you how happy I shall be to see you again. I live now at Chartal. Tell me the train which will be honored by you, and slaves will meet you.


"Well," I muttered to myself, "I am glad she does not attribute this intense heat to my luminous presence." And to her flowery note I scribbled an answer in pencil, on the back of my card, telling her that I would come to her on the next afternoon boat.

And it was at the quaint landing of Asiatic Chartal that a spacious ox-wagon met me; and, contrary to all Ottoman etiquette, it was my hostess herself who was there to receive me,—Mihirmah, in a loose, pale-blue silk garment, looking as cool as the European women looked hot and uncomfortable in their tight clothes.

"Dear little thunder-storm, do forgive me for coming myself," she begged, while we were embracing. "I had to come. But you shall be left alone to rest as soon as we reach home."

The word "thunder-storm" made me laugh. "Mihirmah, dear, I haven't heard that name applied to me for years. Horrible as it sounds, and great a reflection as it is on my temper, yet it does me good to hear it."

"Why! Do you mean to say that you don't get angry any more when poor Turkish children wish to oppose you?"

"You forget that I don't live among Turkish people any more."

"Well, you are among them now, praise be to Allah!"

With that we stepped into the ox-wagon. There we reclined on the soft mattresses, while the dark silk curtains with their gold tassels flapped in and out, a kind of Eastern electric fan—primitive, but very attractive.

After a drive of a mile and a half through streets as yet unspoiled by Europeans, we came to Mihirmah's dwelling. It was a rambling old structure, half stucco and half wood, and, like most Turkish houses, surrounded by an immense old-fashioned garden, inclosed by a tall wall. The house was almost overhanging the sea of the Propontis, and not far from the house were tents, where one could camp out at a moment's notice.

All the slaves were in the hall, as we entered, and threw rose-blossoms over us. My hostess turned to a pretty young slave of about fifteen, and said:

"Guselli [beauty] here is your mistress. You are to love her as you love your own face, and to take care of her as if she were your own eyes."

With this she kissed me and went away. All the slaves followed her, bowing to the floor, and kissing their fingers to tell me that I was welcome. Guselli and I were left alone to bathe and to rest.

When I opened my eyes a few hours later, I was covered with flowers, and my hostess was leaning over me, coaxing me to awake.

"You lazy little thunder-storm, I have been sitting here waiting to welcome you formally to my home, and you have allowed your spirit to wander thousands of miles from here. Get up, and let us go to the garden, where dinner has been waiting for us ever so long."

As I played with the flowers I also examined my hostess, clad in a yellow silk enter้, her throat bare, and her head adorned with amber beads.

"My dear," I exclaimed, "do you know that you have more than fulfilled your promise? You are stunning."

"I know it," she said simply. She lifted me to my feet. "But now we must run!"

And run we did, down to a part of the garden overhanging the sea. There our dinner was served, beneath the light of Chinese lanterns, while the soothing waves of the Propontis rhythmically lapped the foot of our garden wall.

So far I knew absolutely nothing of Mihirmah's grown-up life. I had seen nothing of her for ten years. We had been friends in childhood, and even after she had gone from Constantinople to Broussa to live, we had written to each other for several years. That night, when we were comfortably settled in her room, I asked her:—

"Mihirmah, tell me all about yourself—and how did you find out that I was here?"

"Djimlah told me, and that you were going to stay some time with her. And I thought if you could do that, you might also be able to come here to me, little white lamb. And you do love me as much as ever, do you not?"

I reassured her. She embraced me several times, and gave me assurance of her own undying affection; then asked: "Now tell me how the world has treated you?"

"Treated me!" I repeated, knowing that in Oriental eyes matrimony was the only treatment worth recording. "It hasn't treated me at all. I am earning my living."

"My! But it must be funny!" Mihirmah cried.

"It is, when you view it from a palace, with hordes of slaves to wait on you, and fairylike garments to adorn you; but it is not funny when you walk side by side with stern reality. But now for yourself. Out with it! Are you married?"

Mihirmah's merry face clouded. She was no longer the gay and reckless girl of a moment before.

"Yes, little heart, I am," she said.

I knew from her tone that there was sorrow in connection with it. "No children?" I asked. "No boys?"

"Oh, yes, one boy, one girl. You will see them to-morrow—perfect beauties!" And in her maternal pride her face was happy again.

She did not volunteer more, and there was no use my trying to get the story bit by bit. I knew Turkish women too well. When the time should come to tell me, there would be no necessity for questions. It would be told simply and frankly, as only Turkish women can talk.

Two nights later I heard it. All day long Mihirmah was restless. Upon her babies and upon me she lavished an immense amount of caresses. She proposed various excursions; yet no sooner did we decide upon one than the plan was given up and another considered. The whole household was affected by her mood. There was no singing among the slaves, no chattering, no laughter. Even the children sat upon the rug at their mother's feet and played quietly. The boy, a dear little fellow, would get up often, throw his arms around his mother, and lisp: "Mudder, Ali Bey, the little, loves his mudder—loves her ever so big." Mihirmah would take the child in her arms, kiss him wildly; then hold him away from her, looking into his eyes, and sigh deeply as she put him back on the floor.

At night, as we sat together by the latticed windows and inhaled the sea air mingled with the perfume of flowers, Mihirmah said:—

"Little thunder-storm, when do you think we earn the right to live?"

"I don't know. I never thought about it. When do you think we do?"

"When we conceive a great thought, form a great wish, and perform a good act. I have had the first two, but I never had the last—though Allah gave me the chance once."

Under her breath she added: "Will he ever give me the chance again?"

She was silent for several minutes after this. I waited for her to speak.

"Do you remember Ali Machmet Bey?" she asked me presently.

"Indeed I do. Don't you know how you and I used to trot after him and call him our prophet and our patissah?"

"You cared for him, did you not, little mountain-spring? But you left Turkey and forgot him. I left Constantinople, too, but never, never forgot him. How could I? He was the best and most generous boy of all our playfellows."

"Yes," I assented, "and warm-hearted and strong-headed, quick to take offense, and quick to forgive and apologize."

As I spoke a scene of my childhood came back to me. It was in a high marble hall, with a cistern at one side. Ali Machmet came to the chain of the bucket and held it. I came afterward and insisted that I must draw water first. We fought, and All Machmet struck me on the head with the chain. No sooner, however, had the chain landed on my stubborn head than he came to me, took from his pockets all he had,—a penknife, a wooden soldier, and five piastres,—and even now I can hear the little boy say: "Take any of these, only say that you forgive me."

I, the greedy little girl, said: "I want all of them if I am to forgive you."

"Take them!" he answered. "Only let me sleep one more night with my soldier,—I will explain to him why he must go,—won't you, thunder-storm?" I gave him back the soldier and the knife, and told him he might draw the water first from the cistern; for his wistful tone when he spoke of his soldier melted my heart; but the five piastres became common property, and we feasted on them that afternoon.

As I was lost in my reminiscences, Mihirmah put her hand on mine. "What are you thinking about, dear one?"

"About Ali Machmet," I answered.

"It is about him I am going to tell you. His image never left my heart, and when his mother chose me to be his wife I went to him as happy as one is in dreamland. My little boy was born in less than a year, and my little daughter a year later. She was only a few months old when I heard my mother-in-law—she is dead now, and may Allah forgive her!—tell to another woman how she made our match. She did not know that I was listening, and I listened because I expected her to say that my lord had loved me from childhood. Instead she said that he had not wished to marry and had repeatedly refused, and that only when she had begged on her knees that she should be permitted to hold his baby before she died, had he given in—he was her only child, you know. When I was proposed to him, he had answered: 'Oh, she will do as well as any other.'

"After I heard these words I ran into the garden. I shrieked, I tore my hair. I became ill, and begged Allah to take me to him; but he meant that I should live. When I became well again, I could not look at Ali Machmet,—I could not bear to hear him speak,—so I left him and came here to my grandparents, with my babies and a few of my slaves. I told my grandmother that I had left my husband for the present. He came to see me, but I refused to see him. Then his mother was taken ill and died, but this did not bring about any change between us. Ali Machmet saw my grandmother and arranged things with her very liberally indeed; not once did he complain.

"You see, little blossom, he did not care for me. He came constantly to see the children; for he loved them dearly. My heart was full of madness, and I even hated my children because he loved them. Sometimes I used to think that I should like to kill them and throw their corpses at him and say: 'You took me so that I might give children to your mother. There are the children! I took their breath away because it was mine.' I came very near doing it, too, for I know now that I had a kind of madness.

"Then a desire to make him jealous, to torture him in some way, came upon me; and without any more thought I made one of my faithful slaves write him an anonymous letter telling him that I had a lover. But I ought to have known better; for Ali Machmet is not the kind of man to believe anonymous letters.

"Finally, in despair, I wrote a love-letter, such a one as I could write only to Ali Machmet himself, with a foreign name on top, signed it with my name, and sent it to my husband. In two days he was here with the letter. I was in my room with the children. He did not have them taken out. He came and sat near me, took the little girl in his lap, and put the boy in mine. Then he took from his portfolio the letter, gave it to me, and waited. I read the letter, and did not say anything. He asked me quietly if I had written it.

"I nodded my head.

"'To whom did you write it?' he asked.

"'To you, since you have it,' I said." Mihirmah's eyes filled with tears, and a sob came to her throat.

"Dear little mountain-spring, I told him just the truth and nothing else; but his eyes were full of anger, and I knew he could kill me if he did not master himself.

"'Mihirmah,' he said, 'I want you to tell me where I can find this man.'

"How could I tell him, since there was no such man? I had only wanted to make him jealous and bring him to me. I told him that there was no such man.

"He took my hands and put the one on the head of my boy and the other on that of my girl. 'For their sake!' he said.

"The old jealousy of mine came back to me fiercer than ever. I jumped up, and in doing so threw the boy to the floor, and he began to cry. All Machmet picked up the child and soothed it for a while. Then he put him down and came over to me.

"'Mihirmah,' he said very quietly, 'if you don't want to live with me you need not, but you must not be a wicked woman. I am going away now. In a week you must write me this man's name.' How could I? There was no such name."

"But, my beautiful Mihirmah," I exclaimed, "why didn't you write him the truth?"

"Yes," she said quietly, "it was the one chance Allah gave me to perform a great, good act and earn the right to live; but I did not; and in ten days I was a divorced woman. He cast me off as he would a garment that had served its purpose. I had given him a boy, and I was good for nothing more. This thought tortured my heart enough to kill it and turn it to ashes; but my humiliation, and this new proof that he did not care for me, did not cure me of loving him."

Mihirmah took my hands and almost crushed them between hers. "Little blossom, I love him now more than I ever did before, and there are days, like to-day, when every bit of life in me cries out for him. I shall go mad for love of a man who puts me out of his life as easily as one brushes away a speck of dust. But he has been generous in all of his settlements. He even left me my children, on the condition that I was to remain a good woman, and that he should take the little girl away when I was unworthy of her.

"Two days after he divorced me he took the eunuchs away. You understand, blossom, what that means? I was no longer a wife—no one cared for me any more. I could take my choice, and be good or bad. I fought myself for months after this to keep my hands from doing violence to my body. Then the old people were taken ill, first the one and then the other, and both died. Caring for them occupied my mind for a year."

"Is Ali Machmet married again?" I asked.

"Oh, no, dear one! He does not care for women. His heart is in the army. He has only one wish, and that is to get the ear of the Sultan and tell him all that our army needs to be powerful again. For years now he has been waiting and hoping; but his superiors are men of the old regime, they do not believe in new guns and new methods. They prevent him every time from having an interview with our Caliph."

"How long is it since he divorced you?" I asked.

"Two long years, dear one, and I have never seen him since. He sends for the children once a week, and keeps them a day and a night with him. That is why you did not see them the first night you came. They were with him. When they come back they talk incessantly of him to me, and though every word they say is a new burn to the old wound, I make them say it over and over again, to be tortured the more."

Mihirmah put her head in my lap and cried for hours. It was almost daybreak before I managed to soothe her and put her to sleep. The next morning she was ill and had to stay in bed, but the morning following she was herself again, and begged me to forgive her for letting her sorrow interfere with my pleasure.

I don't know when I have ever met with more real unhappiness than hers. It was not so much the open outburst as the following days of suppressed suffering that impressed me. I began to wonder if I could not possibly help her—to wonder what the result would be if I went to Stamboul to Ali Machmet's house and told him every word his wife had told me. One minute I thought it a very simple and perfect plan; the next I was not so sure.

Thus several days passed, when suddenly little Ali fell ill.

I went to his room to see him. He had quite a high temperature. "Do you think it can be the measles?" I asked his mother.

She was kneeling beside the child's couch, her cool cheek resting against his hot one.

"No, the little villain has been eating green fruit, he tells me."

I was dejected at the answer. A plan had come to me which the measles would help. Yet I would not give up so easily. I seized Mihirmah's hand and dragged her away from the bed.

"Come with me," I said breathlessly. In the next room I faced her. "Mihirmah, little Ali may be dangerously ill. Send for your husband. Telegraph him, and he will be here to-day or to-morrow."

"But, my lovely jasmine," Mihirmah protested, rather bewildered, "little Ali is not ill enough to send for his father. He will be all right in a day or two. It is his little stomach, that's all."

"But, my darling Mihirmah," I cried, more excited, "don't you see that it does not matter how sick the child really is."

She shook her head. "I have shammed to my husband once, and I am a divorced woman. I will not sham again."

"Mihirmah, has little Ali ever been sick before?" I asked.

"No, he never has. He is his father in looks and in health."

"Well, then, don't you see that Allah is giving you another chance? Send for Ali Machmet; if nothing comes of it you will at least have seen him."

There we stood: I, the Greek, with the instinct of the merchant, wishing to manufacture an opportunity; she, the Oriental fatalist, willing to suffer the will of Allah, but not to avail herself of conditions that needed manipulating. But I had made up my mind that on this day the Greek should win—and I did.

It took time, however, and the telegram was sent so late that there was not time for Ali Machmet to come that day. Mihirmah, when the telegram was sent, retired to her room and prayed for hours to Allah. I sat by the child. I, too, was praying to my God; but I rather think that our prayers were as different as the languages they were addressed in; for I was praying that little Ali might at least have the measles.

That night Mihirmah slept little. Like a white spirit she roamed all over the house, and about the garden.

The morning came, a very lovely one, unruffled by the storm that was going on in our hearts. I don't know how far Mihirmah's prayers had travelled toward Allah, but mine, thanks to the proverb, "Aide-toi et Dieu t'aidera," were being answered; for I had seen personally to little Ali's stomach, and my simple measures were acting efficaciously.

The first afternoon train brought Ali Machmet. By that time I had succeeded in convincing Mihirmah that the boy really had all the symptoms of measles. I had become desperate; for she had told me that as soon as her husband arrived she would throw herself at his feet and confess her ruse to him.

As soon as I saw Ali Machmet coming on horseback, I rushed to the child and took off him the ten or twelve coverlets which I had on him, to accentuate his fever. Then, almost by force, I dragged the mother to the bedside, there to await the coming of her husband; and I myself, too excited to do anything but stand about in the garden and tear my handkerchief to pieces, waited the result of the meeting.

Ali Machmet had brought a doctor with him, who stayed with the child some time. Then the doctor went away, and Ali Machmet and Mihirmah were alone by the child's bed. When a slave came and told me that the master had retired to the pavilion we had prepared for him in the garden, I went into the sick-room. Mihirmah, white as a sheet, sat staring at the sleeping child.

"What did the doctor say?" I asked.

Mihirmah looked at me as if she did not know who I was, at first; then she answered that the doctor had said the child did not have the measles, although the vomiting was a bad sign.

I chuckled inwardly, knowing that were I to tell Mihirmah what had caused the vomiting there would be trouble for the Greek infidel.

"What did Ali Machmet say to you?" I asked.

Mihirmah broke down completely at my words. It was like a fierce rain on a hot summer's day. She cried in torrents, and that was all I was destined to know, for the door opened and Ali Machmet came in. She did not see him, but I did, and rearranged my batteries a little, but not too much, for I was as afraid as ever of Mihirmah's tongue.

He came near, and put his hand on her head. She was startled and turned her tear-stained face toward him. There are tears and tears—ugly tears and pretty tears, tears that annoy and those that attract; it all depends on the attitude of the onlooker. I suppose Mihirmah's tears were very pretty to her former husband, for he was very gentle and kind to her.

"And now, Mihirmah, you had better go to your room and rest a little," he said to her, after he had soothed her.

She obeyed him instantly, and I was left alone with him. I knew he was very far from guessing who I was. In a voice as much like a child's as I could make it, I said:—

"Take them, only let me sleep one more night with my soldier,—I will explain to him why he must go,—won't you, thunder-storm?"

Then I laughed and gave him my hand, and it did me good to see how glad he was to see me. We chatted for a half-hour or so, and then the slave came to say that dinner was ready.

"Of course you will eat with us, Ali Machmet?" I said. I saw protest written all over him. "If you do not, you are very cruel, because it is my only chance to see you."

When I had him caught, I hurried to Mihirmah's room.

"Mihirmah, my dear one, there are two roads to men's hearts, according to an old foolish Greek proverb; through their stomachs, with good food, and through their eyes, with good looks. You are, and you must look, pretty."

I found I did not have to urge her to this, and it was a terribly attractive Mihirmah, with her pale face and tremulous lips, who came into the dining-room. Our meal was a happy one. I was happy because I felt that things were going well. I knew that Mihirmah must be happy, in a bitter and sweet way, in her husband's presence; and who can tell, but that he was happy, too?—at any rate, he did not look as if he disliked it.

We finished eating the twenty-odd dishes that were served us, and had come to the fruit, which is the best part of a Turkish meal, as the serving force retires and the conversation takes a more intimate tone and lingers on sometimes for an hour. All was going well when my bad angel whispered to me to ask Ali Machmet about his work and the army.

"The little fellow will never know what his illness has cost his father," he said in a sad voice. "For years now I have been trying to reach our Caliph, but forces stronger than my own always kept me out of his sight. To-day, at last, I was going to have my interview. The palace-physician had consented to smuggle me in to him, and all the chances were favorable. Now the opportunity is lost, and I may never have another."

There was a noise of broken dishes, of a chair overturning, and Mihirmah was at the feet of her husband. I felt that all my scheming had been in vain.

"My lord, master of my life and my death," Mihirmah was wailing, "I have ruined your chance. I brought you here when perhaps I ought to have waited."

I jumped to my feet, and ran to her. "Listen, Mihirmah! Let me take Ali Machmet to the pavilion and have a talk with him. I promise I will tell him everything."

"No, little thunder-storm," she said, "you go to the garden. I must speak— I must suffer alone."

Ali Machmet had risen and was trying to lift his wife from her kneeling position. He looked, bewildered, from one to the other of us.

I tried to speak to him; but Mihirmah first implored, then commanded me to go to the garden and leave her alone with him. I went, but not to the garden. I sat at the head of the stairs, to keep the slaves away if they should appear, and to be at hand if Mihirmah should need me.

Opposite the stairs was a long window, and through the upper part of it, which was not latticed, I could see the sky. My tongue mechanically was praying: "Oh! Allah, help her!" I repeated it over and over. A shooting star fell, and my prayer caught it. My superstitious soul leaped. "My prayer caught the shooting star," I found myself saying, and then I kept on praying.

It seemed years that I sat on those stairs— till I could not stand it any longer. Making the sign of the cross three times over my heart, I crept toward the fatal room. I opened the door ever so little and peeped in; then quietly I drew back and went out into the garden.

"Remember, lady," I apostrophized myself, while I tried hard to keep the dry sobs from my throat, "you have done a great act, and according to Mihirmah you have earned the right to live."

Then I looked up at the friendly sky and laughed, while tears at last came streaming down; for what I had seen in the closed room was what, according to the Orientals, causes Allah to smile, and the flowers to grow more beautiful, and the birds to sing their sweetest song: for in the closed room above, Mihirmah's head was nestling on her husband's heart, and Ali Machmet's face was radiant as that of a lover.