Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter I

Over the Border

At Semlin I still was encompassed by the scenes and the sounds of familiar life; the din of a busy world still vexed and cheered me; the unveiled faces of women still shone in the light of day. Yet, whenever I chose to look southward, I saw the Ottoman’s fortress — austere, and darkly impending high over the vale of the Danube — historic Belgrade. I had come, as it were, to the end of this wheel-going Europe, and now my eyes would see the splendour and havoc of the East.

The two frontier towns are less than a cannon-shot distant, and yet their people hold no communion. The Hungarian on the north, and the Turk and Servian on the southern side of the Save are as much asunder as though there were fifty broad provinces that lay in the path between them. Of the men that bustled around me in the streets of Semlin there was not, perhaps, one who had ever gone down to look upon the stranger race dwelling under the walls of that opposite castle. It is the plague, and the dread of the plague, that divide the one people from the other. All coming and going stands forbidden by the terrors of the yellow flag. If you dare to break the laws of the quarantine, you will be tried with military haste; the court will scream out your sentence to you from a tribunal some fifty yards off; the priest, instead of gently whispering to you the sweet hopes of religion, will console you at duelling distance; and after that you will find yourself carefully shot, and carelessly buried in the ground of the lazaretto.

When all was in order for our departure we walked down to the precincts of the quarantine establishment, and here awaited us a “compromised” 1 officer of the Austrian Government, who lives in a state of perpetual excommunication. The boats, with their “compromised” rowers, were also in readiness.

After coming in contact with any creature or thing belonging to the Ottoman Empire it would be impossible for us to return to the Austrian territory without undergoing an imprisonment of fourteen days in the odious lazaretto. We felt, therefore, that before we committed ourselves it was important to take care that none of the arrangements necessary for the journey had been forgotten; and in our anxiety to avoid such a misfortune, we managed the work of departure from Semlin with nearly as much solemnity as if we had been departing this life. Some obliging persons, from whom we had received civilities during our short stay in the place, came down to say their farewell at the river’s side; and now, as we stood with them at the distance of three or four yards from the “compromised” officer, they asked if we were perfectly certain that we had wound up all our affairs in Christendom, and whether we had no parting requests to make. We repeated the caution to our servants, and took anxious thought lest by any possibility we might be cut off from some cherished object of affection:— were they quite sure that nothing had been forgotten — that there was no fragrant dressing-case with its gold-compelling letters of credit from which we might be parting for ever? — No; all our treasures lay safely stowed in the boat, and we were ready to follow them to the ends of the earth. Now, therefore, we shook hands with our Semlin friends, who immediately retreated for three or four paces, so as to leave us in the centre of a space between them and the “compromised” officer. The latter then advanced, and asking once more if we had done with the civilised world, held forth his hand. I met it with mine, and there was an end to Christendom for many a day to come.

We soon neared the southern bank of the river, but no sounds came down from the blank walls above, and there was no living thing that we could yet see, except one great hovering bird of the vulture race, flying low, and intent, and wheeling round and round over the pest-accursed city.

But presently there issued from the postern a group of human beings — beings with immortal souls, and possibly some reasoning faculties; but to me the grand point was this, that they had real, substantial, and incontrovertible turbans. They made for the point towards which we were steering, and when at last I sprang upon the shore, I heard, and saw myself now first surrounded by men of Asiatic blood. I have since ridden through the land of the Osmanlees, from the Servian border to the Golden Horn — from the Gulf of Satalieh to the tomb of Achilles; but never have I seen such ultra-Turkish looking fellows as those who received me on the banks of the Save. They were men in the humblest order of life, having come to meet our boat in the hope of earning something by carrying our luggage up to the city; but poor though they were, it was plain that they were Turks of the proud old school, and had not yet forgotten the fierce, careless bearing of their once victorious race.

Though the province of Servia generally has obtained a kind of independence, yet Belgrade, as being a place of strength on the frontier, is still garrisoned by Turkish troops under the command of a Pasha. Whether the fellows who now surrounded us were soldiers, or peaceful inhabitants, I did not understand: they wore the old Turkish costume; vests and jackets of many and brilliant colours, divided from the loose petticoat-trousers by heavy volumes of shawl, so thickly folded around their waists as to give the meagre wearers something of the dignity of true corpulence. This cincture enclosed a whole bundle of weapons; no man bore less than one brace of immensely long pistols, and a yataghan (or cutlass), with a dagger or two of various shapes and sizes; most of these arms were inlaid with silver, and highly burnished, so that they contrasted shiningly with the decayed grandeur of the garments to which they were attached (this carefulness of his arms is a point of honour with the Osmanlee, who never allows his bright yataghan to suffer from his own adversity); then the long drooping mustachios, and the ample folds of the once white turbans, that lowered over the piercing eyes, and the haggard features of the men, gave them an air of gloomy pride, and that appearance of trying to be disdainful under difficulties, which I have since seen so often in those of the Ottoman people who live, and remember old times; they seemed as if they were thinking that they would have been more usefully, more honourably, and more piously employed in cutting our throats than in carrying our portmanteaus. The faithful Steel (Methley’s Yorkshire servant) stood aghast for a moment at the sight of his master’s luggage upon the shoulders of these warlike porters, and when at last we began to move up he could scarcely avoid turning round to cast one affectionate look towards Christendom, but quickly again he marched on with steps of a man, not frightened exactly, but sternly prepared for death, or the Koran, or even for plural wives.

The Moslem quarter of a city is lonely and desolate. You go up and down, and on over shelving and hillocky paths through the narrow lanes walled in by blank, windowless dwellings; you come out upon an open space strewed with the black ruins that some late fire has left; you pass by a mountain of castaway things, the rubbish of centuries, and on it you see numbers of big, wolf-like dogs lying torpid under the sun, with limbs outstretched to the full, as if they were dead; storks, or cranes, sitting fearless upon the low roofs, look gravely down upon you; the still air that you breathe is loaded with the scent of citron, and pomegranate rinds scorched by the sun, or (as you approach the bazaar) with the dry, dead perfume of strange spices. You long for some signs of life, and tread the ground more heavily, as though you would wake the sleepers with the heel of your boot; but the foot falls noiseless upon the crumbling soil of an Eastern city, and silence follows you still. Again and again you meet turbans, and faces of men, but they have nothing for you — no welcome — no wonder — no wrath — no scorn — they look upon you as we do upon a December’s fall of snow — as a “seasonable,” unaccountable, uncomfortable work of God, that may have been sent for some good purpose, to be revealed hereafter.

Some people had come down to meet us with an invitation from the Pasha, and we wound our way up to the castle. At the gates there were groups of soldiers, some smoking, and some lying flat like corpses upon the cool stones. We went through courts, ascended steps, passed along a corridor, and walked into an airy, whitewashed room, with an European clock at one end of it, and Moostapha Pasha at the other; the fine, old, bearded potentate looked very like Jove — like Jove, too, in the midst of his clouds, for the silvery fumes of the narghile 2 hung lightly circling round him.

The Pasha received us with the smooth, kind, gentle manner that belongs to well-bred Osmanlees; then he lightly clapped his hands, and instantly the sound filled all the lower end of the room with slaves; a syllable dropped from his lips which bowed all heads, and conjured away the attendants like ghosts (their coming and their going was thus swift and quiet, because their feet were bare, and they passed through no door, but only by the yielding folds of a purder). Soon the coffee-bearers appeared, every man carrying separately his tiny cup in a small metal stand; and presently to each of us there came a pipe-bearer, who first rested the bowl of the tchibouque at a measured distance on the floor, and then, on this axis, wheeled round the long cheery stick, and gracefully presented it on half-bended knee; already the well-kindled fire was glowing secure in the bowl, and so, when I pressed the amber up to mine, there was no coyness to conquer; the willing fume came up, and answered my slightest sigh, and followed softly every breath inspired, till it touched me with some faint sense and understanding of Asiatic contentment.

Asiatic contentment! Yet scarcely, perhaps, one hour before I had been wanting my bill, and ringing for waiters, in a shrill and busy hotel.

In the Ottoman dominions there is scarcely any hereditary influence except that which belongs to the family of the Sultan, and wealth, too, is a highly volatile blessing, not easily transmitted to the descendant of the owner. From these causes it results that the people standing in the place of nobles and gentry are official personages, and though many (indeed the greater number) of these potentates are humbly born and bred, you will seldom, I think, find them wanting in that polished smoothness of manner, and those well-undulating tones which belong to the best Osmanlees. The truth is, that most of the men in authority have risen from their humble station by the arts of the courtier, and they preserve in their high estate those gentle powers of fascination to which they owe their success. Yet unless you can contrive to learn a little of the language, you will be rather bored by your visits of ceremony; the intervention of the interpreter, or dragoman as he is called, is fatal to the spirit of conversation. I think I should mislead you if I were to attempt to give the substance of any particular conversation with Orientals. A traveller may write and say that “the Pasha of So-and-so was particularly interested in the vast progress which has been made in the application of steam, and appeared to understand the structure of our machinery — that he remarked upon the gigantic results of our manufacturing industry — showed that he possessed considerable knowledge of our Indian affairs, and of the constitution of the Company, and expressed a lively admiration of the many sterling qualities for which the people of England are distinguished.” But the heap of commonplaces thus quietly attributed to the Pasha will have been founded perhaps on some such talking as this:-

Pasha. — The Englishman is welcome; most blessed among hours is this, the hour of his coming.

Dragoman (to the traveller). — The Pasha pays you his compliments.

Traveller. — Give him my best compliments in return, and say I’m delighted to have the honour of seeing him.

Dragoman (to the Pasha). — His lordship, this Englishman, Lord of London, Scorner of Ireland, Suppressor of France, has quitted his governments, and left his enemies to breathe for a moment, and has crossed the broad waters in strict disguise, with a small but eternally faithful retinue of followers, in order that he might look upon the bright countenance of the Pasha among Pashas — the Pasha of the everlasting Pashalik of Karagholookoldour.

Traveller (to his dragoman). — What on earth have you been saying about London? The Pasha will be taking me for a mere cockney. Have not I told you ALWAYS to say that I am from a branch of the family of Mudcombe Park, and that I am to be a magistrate for the county of Bedfordshire, only I’ve not qualified, and that I should have been a deputy-lieutenant if it had not been for the extraordinary conduct of Lord Mountpromise, and that I was a candidate for Goldborough at the last election, and that I should have won easy if my committee had not been bought. I wish to Heaven that if you DO say anything about me, you’d tell the simple truth.

Dragoman [is silent].

Pasha. — What says the friendly Lord of London? is there aught that I can grant him within the Pashalik of Karagholookoldour?

Dragoman (growing, sulky and literal). — This friendly Englishman — this branch of Mudcombe — this head-purveyor of Goldborough — this possible policeman of Bedfordshire, is recounting his achievements, and the number of his titles.

Pasha. — The end of his honours is more distant than the ends of the earth, and the catalogue of his glorious deeds is brighter than the firmament of heaven!

Dragoman (to the traveller). — The Pasha congratulates your Excellency.

Traveller. — About Goldborough? The deuce he does! — but I want to get at his views in relation to the present state of the Ottoman Empire. Tell him the Houses of Parliament have met, and that there has been a speech from the throne, pledging England to preserve the integrity of the Sultan’s dominions.

Dragoman (to the Pasha). — This branch of Mudcombe, this possible policeman of Bedfordshire, informs your Highness that in England the talking houses have met, and that the integrity of the Sultan’s dominions has been assured for ever and ever by a speech from the velvet chair.

Pasha. — Wonderful chair! Wonderful houses! — whirr! whirr! all by wheels! — whiz! whiz! all by steam! — wonderful chair! wonderful houses! wonderful people! — whirr! whirr! all by wheels! — whiz! whiz! all by steam!

Traveller (to the dragoman). — What does the Pasha mean by that whizzing? he does not mean to say, does he, that our Government will ever abandon their pledges to the Sultan?

Dragoman. — No, your Excellency; but he says the English talk by wheels, and by steam.

Traveller. — That’s an exaggeration; but say that the English really have carried machinery to great perfection; tell the Pasha (he’ll be struck with that) that whenever we have any disturbances to put down, even at two or three hundred miles from London, we can send troops by the thousand to the scene of action in a few hours.

Dragoman (recovering his temper and freedom of speech). — His Excellency, this Lord of Mudcombe, observes to your Highness, that whenever the Irish, or the French, or the Indians rebel against the English, whole armies of soldiers, and brigades of artillery, are dropped into a mighty chasm called Euston Square, and in the biting of a cartridge they arise up again in Manchester, or Dublin, or Paris, or Delhi, and utterly exterminate the enemies of England from the face of the earth.

Pasha. — I know it — I know all — the particulars have been faithfully related to me, and my mind comprehends locomotives. The armies of the English ride upon the vapours of boiling caldrons, and their horses are flaming coals! — whirr! whirr! all by wheels! — whiz! whiz! all by steam!

Traveller (to his dragoman). — I wish to have the opinion of an unprejudiced Ottoman gentleman as to the prospects of our English commerce and manufactures; just ask the Pasha to give me his views on the subject.

Pasha (after having received the communication of the dragoman). — The ships of the English swarm like flies; their printed calicoes cover the whole earth; and by the side of their swords the blades of Damascus are blades of grass. All India is but an item in the ledger-books of the merchants, whose lumber-rooms are filled with ancient thrones! — whirr! whirr! all by wheels! — whiz! whiz! all by steam.

Dragoman. — The Pasha compliments the cutlery of England, and also the East India Company.

Traveller. — The Pasha’s right about the cutlery (I tried my scimitar with the common officers’ swords belonging to our fellows at Malta, and they cut it like the leaf of a novel). Well (to the dragoman), tell the Pasha I am exceedingly gratified to find that he entertains such a high opinion of our manufacturing energy, but I should like him to know, though, that we have got something in England besides that. These foreigners are always fancying that we have nothing but ships, and railways, and East India Companies; do just tell the Pasha that our rural districts deserve his attention, and that even within the last two hundred years there has been an evident improvement in the culture of the turnip, and if he does not take any interest about that, at all events you can explain that we have our virtues in the country — that we are a truth-telling people, and, like the Osmanlees, are faithful in the performance of our promises. Oh! and, by-the-bye, whilst you are about it, you may as well just say at the end that the British yeoman is still, thank God! the British yeoman.

Pasha (after hearing the dragoman). — It is true, it is true:— through all Feringhistan the English are foremost and best; for the Russians are drilled swine, and the Germans are sleeping babes, and the Italians are the servants of songs, and the French are the sons of newspapers, and the Greeks they are weavers of lies, but the English and the Osmanlees are brothers together in righteousness; for the Osmanlees believe in one only God, and cleave to the Koran, and destroy idols, so do the English worship one God, and abominate graven images, and tell the truth, and believe in a book, and though they drink the juice of the grape, yet to say that they worship their prophet as God, or to say that they are eaters of pork, these are lies — lies born of Greeks, and nursed by Jews!

Dragoman. — The Pasha compliments the English.

Traveller (rising). — Well, I’ve had enough of this. Tell the Pasha I am greatly obliged to him for his hospitality, and still more for his kindness in furnishing me with horses, and say that now I must be off.

Pasha (after hearing the dragoman, and standing up on his divan).3 — Proud are the sires, and blessed are the dams of the horses that shall carry his Excellency to the end of his prosperous journey. May the saddle beneath him glide down to the gates of the happy city, like a boat swimming on the third river of Paradise. May he sleep the sleep of a child, when his friends are around him; and the while that his enemies are abroad, may his eyes flame red through the darkness — more red than the eyes of ten tigers! Farewell!

Dragoman. — The Pasha wishes your Excellency a pleasant journey.

So ends the visit.

1 A “compromised” person is one who has been in contact with people or things supposed to be capable of conveying infection. As a general rule the whole Ottoman Empire lies constantly under this terrible ban. The “yellow flag” is the ensign of the quarantine establishment.

2 The narghile is a water-pipe upon the plan of the hookah, but more gracefully fashioned; the smoke is drawn by a very long flexible tube, that winds its snake-like way from the vase to the lips of the beatified smoker.

3 That is, if he stands up at all. Oriental etiquette would not warrant his rising, unless his visitor were supposed to be at least his equal in point of rank and station.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44