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The surgujal - the turban with the triple gold circlet - was on the head of Mahmud, but the sword, the sword of dominion, was in the hand of Halil Patrona. The people whose darling he had become were accustomed to regard him as their go-between in their petty affairs, the host trembled before him, and the magnates fawned upon him for favour.
In the Osman nation there is no hereditary nobility, everyone there has risen to the highest places by his sword or his luck. Every single Grand Vizier and Kapudan Pasha has a nickname which points to his lowly origin; this one was a woodcutter, that one a stone-mason, that other one a fisherman. Therefore a Mohammedan never looks down upon the most abject of his co-religionists, for he knows very well that if he himself happens to be uppermost to-day and the other undermost, by to-morrow the whole world may have turned upside down, and this last may have become the first.[Pg 204]
So now also a petty huckster rules the realm, and Sultan Mahmud has nothing to think about but his fair women. Who can tell whether any one of us would not have done likewise? Suppose a man to have been kept in rigorous, joyless servitude for twenty years, and then suddenly to be confronted with the alternative - "reign over hearts or over an empire" - would he not perhaps have chosen the hearts instead of the empire for his portion?
On the evening before, it is announced by the blowing of horns that the morrow will be the Feast of Halwet. On that day no man, of whatever rank, may come forth in the streets, or appear on the roof of a house, or show himself at a window, for death would be the penalty of his curiosity. The black and white eunuchs keeping order in the streets decapitate without mercy every man who does not remain indoors. Notices that this will be done are posted up on all the boundary-posts in the suburbs[Pg 205] of the city, that strangers may regulate their conduct accordingly.
On the day of the feast of Halwet all the damsels discard their veils, without which at all other times they are not permitted to walk about the streets. Then it is that the odalisks of one harem go forth to call upon the odalisks of another. Rows upon rows of brightly variegated tents appear in the midst of the streets and market-places, in which sherbet and other beverages made of violets, cane-sugar, rose-water, pressed raisins, and citron juice, together with sweetmeats, honey-cakes, and such-like delicacies, to which women are so partial, are sold openly, and all the sellers are also women.
Ah! what a spectacle that would be for the eyes of a man! Every street is swarming with thousands and thousands of bewitching shapes. These women, released from their prisons, are like so many gay and thoughtless children. Group after group, singing to the notes of the cithern, saunter along the public ways, decked out in gorgeous butterfly apparel, which flutter around their limbs like gaily coloured wings. The suns and stars of every climate flash and sparkle in those eyes. The whole gigantic city resounds with merry songs and musical chatter, and any man who could have seen them tripping along in whole lines might have exclaimed in despair: "Why have I not[Pg 206] a hundred, why have I not a thousand hearts to give away!"
And then when the harem of the Sultan proudly paces forth! Half a thousand odalisks, the lovelinesses of every province in the Empire, for whom the youths of whole districts have raved in vain, in garments radiant with pearls and precious stones, mounted on splendid prancing steeds gaily caparisoned. And in the midst of them all the beautiful Sultana, with the silver heron's plume in her turban, whose stem flashes with sparkling diamonds. Her glorious figure is protected by a garment of fine lace, scarce concealing the snowy shimmer of her well-rounded arms. She sits upon the tiger-skin saddle of her haughty steed like an Amazon. The regard of her flashing eyes seems to proclaim her the tyrant of two Sultans, who has the right to say: "I am indeed my husband's consort!"
In front and on each side of the fairy band march four hundred black eunuchs, with naked broadswords across their shoulders, looking up at the windows of the houses before which they march to see whether, perchance, any inquisitive Peeping-Toms are lurking there.
Dancing and singing, this bevy of peris traverses the principal streets of Stambul. Every now and then, a short sharp wail or scream may be heard[Pg 207] round the corner of the street the procession is approaching: the eunuchs marching in front have got hold of some inquisitive man or other. By the time the radiant cortège has reached the spot, only a few bloodstains are visible in the street, and, dancing and singing, the fair company of damsels passes over it and beyond. Scarce anyone would believe that those wails and screams did not form part and parcel of the all-pervading cries of joy.
Meanwhile in the Etmeidan a much more free-and-easy sort of entertainment is taking place. The women of the lower orders are there diverting themselves in gaily adorned tents, where they can buy as much mead as they can drink, and in the midst of the piazza on round, outspread carpets dance the bayaderes of the streets, whom Sultan Achmed had once collected together and locked up in a dungeon where they had remained till the popular rising set them free again. In their hands they hold their nakaras (timbrels), clashing them together above their heads as they whirl around; on their feet are bronze bangles; and their long tresses and their light bulging garments flutter around them, whilst with wild gesticulations they dance the most audacious of dances, compared with whose voluptuous movements the passion of the fiercest Spanish bailarina is almost tame and spiritless.[Pg 208]
"Gül-Bejáze! Gül-Bejáze!" resound suddenly on every side. The bayaderes recognise the woman who had been shut up with them in the same dungeon, surround her, begin to kiss her feet and her garments, raise her up in their arms on to their shoulders, and so exhibit her to all the women assembled together on the piazza.
"Yonder is the wife of Halil Patrona!" they cry, and Rumour quickly flies with the news all through the city. Everyone of the bayaderes dancing among the people has something to say in praise of her. Some of them she had cared for in sickness, others she had comforted in their distress, to all of them she had been kind and gentle. And then, too, it was she who had restored them their liberty, for was it not on her account that Halil Patrona had set them all free?
Everyone hastened up to her. The poor thing could not escape from the clamorous enthusiasm of the sturdy muscular fish-wives and bathing women who, in their turn also, raised her upon their shoulders and carried her about, finally resolving to carry her[Pg 209] all the way home for the honour of the thing. So for Halil Patrona's palace they set off with Gül-Bejáze on their shoulders, she all the time vainly imploring them to put her down that she might hide away among the crowd and disappear, for she feared, she trembled at, the honour they did her. From street to street they carried her, whirling along with them in a torrent of drunken enthusiasm everyone they chanced to fall in with on the way; and before them went the cry that the woman whom the others were carrying on their shoulders was the wife of Halil Patrona, the fêted leader of the people, and ever denser and more violent grew the crowd. Any smaller groups they might happen to meet were swept along with them. Now and then they encountered the harems of the greatest dignitaries, such as pashas and beglerbegs. It was all one, the august and exalted ladies had also to follow in the suite of the wife of Halil Patrona, the most powerful man in the realm, whose wife was the gentlest lady under Heaven.
Suddenly, just as they were about to turn into the great square in front of the fortress of the Seven Towers, another imposing crowd encountered them coming from the opposite direction. It was the escort of the Sultana. The half a thousand odalisks and the four hundred eunuchs occupied the whole width of the road, but face to face with them were advancing[Pg 210] ten thousand intoxicated viragoes led by the frantic bayaderes.
The execution of this command bordered on the impossible. The whole space of the square was filled with women - a perfect sea of heads - and visible above them all was a quivering, tremulous white figure which they had raised on high.
"Make way thyself, thou bearded old witch," she cried; "make way, I say, before the wife of Halil Patrona. Why, thou art not worthy to kiss the dust off her feet. Stand aside if thou wilt not come along with us."
Ah! before they had time to whirl their swords above their heads, in the twinkling of an eye, their weapons were torn from their hands, and their backs were well-belaboured with the broad blades. The furious mænads fell upon their assailants, flung them to the ground, and the next instant had seized the bridles of the steeds of the odalisks.
The Kizlar-Aga was fully alive to the danger which threatened the Sultana. The whole square was thronged with angry women who, with faces flushed and sparkling eyes, were rushing upon the odalisks. Any single eunuch they could lay hold of was pretty certain to meet with a martyr's death in a few seconds. They tore him to pieces, and pelted each other with the bloody fragments before scattering them to the winds. Elhaj Beshir, therefore, earnestly implored the Sultana to turn back and try to regain the Seraglio.
Then she buried the point of her golden spurs in the flank of her steed, and urged it towards the spot where the most frantic of the mænads stood fighting with the mounted odalisks, tearing some from their horses, rending their clothes, and then by way of[Pg 212] mockery remounting them with their faces to the horses' tails.
Gül-Bejáze, whom the women had brought to the spot on their shoulders, wrung her hands in her desperation, and begged and prayed the Sultana for forgiveness. She endeavoured to explain by way of pantomime, for speaking was impossible, that she was there against her will, and it was her dearest wish to humble herself before the face of the Sultana. It was all of no use. The yells of the wild Bacchantes drowned every sound, and Adsalis did not even condescend to look at her.
"Because she is fairer than thou."
Adsalis' face turned blood-red with rage at these words, while Gül-Bejáze went as white as a lily, as if the other woman had robbed all her colour from her. There was shame on one side and fury on the other. To tell a haughty dame in the presence of ten, of twenty thousand persons, that another woman is fairer than she!
When they saw the tears in the eyes of the Sultana, everyone for a moment was silent, and suddenly, amidst the stillness of that dumb moment, from the highest window of the prison-fortress of the Seven Towers, a man's voice called loudly into the square below:
There at the window of the Seven Towers stood Achmed, in whose hands was now a far more terrible power than when they held the wand of dominion, for in his fingers now rests the power of cursing. It is sufficient now for him to point the finger at those he loves not, in order that they may wither away in the bloom of their youth. Whomsoever he now breathes upon, however distant they may be, will collapse and expire, and none can save them; and he has but to pronounce the name of his enemies, and torments will consume their inner parts. The destroying angel of Allah watches over his every look, so that on whomsoever his eye may fall, that soul is instantly accursed. Since the death of Ispirizade the people fear him more than when he sat on the throne.
And Achmed stretched forth his hand towards Adsalis. Those who stood around the Sultana felt a feeling of shivering awe, and began to withdraw[Pg 215] from her, and she herself durst not raise her eyes.
And having uttered these words, Achmed withdrew from the window whither the noise of the crowd had enticed him, and the multitude clamoured as before; but now they no longer tried to force the suite of the Sultana to make way before Gül-Bejáze, but escorted Halil Patrona's wife back to the dwelling-place of her husband.