Kéraban the Inflexible (Part 1)/Chapter 3

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"My lord Kéraban," was very much "on the surface," to employ a modern term. This was the case physically as well as morally. He was, in face, about forty years old, at least fifty in his figure, and actually forty-five. Yet his face was intelligent, his figure majestic. He wore a beard, turning grey, which was cut rather close, and divided into two points. His eyes were black and piercing, as sensitive to passing impressions as the most delicately adjusted scales to the weight of a grain. His chin was square, his nose somewhat hooked, and this feature added to the natural piercing appearance of the dark eyes. His lips were parted sufficiently to display his white and even teeth. His forehead was high, and displayed a vertical fold or line—a true type of obstinacy—between the bushy black brows. Kéraban's face was peculiar, and one not easily forgotten by any one who had ever seen it, if only once.

Kéraban, in his dress, remained faithful to the old Turkish costume of the time of the Janissaries. The large turban, the capacious trousers, the sleeveless waistcoat garnished with enormous buttons, the shawl around the waist already sufficiently developed by nature, and, finally, the caftan with its majestic folds. There was nothing European in this style of dress, which contrasted strongly with the modern costume of the Orientals. It was designed to repress the invasions of industrial enterprise, a protest in favour of local colour which had a tendency to disappear, a defiance hurled at the edicts of the Sultan Mahmoud, who had upheld the modern costume of the Turk.

It is scarcely necessary to add that Seigneur Kéraban had a servant—a man about twenty-five years of age, named Nizib, so thin as to drive Bruno to desperation, and clad in the same ancient costume as his master. As he never contradicted his master in words, so he assimilated himself to Kéraban in dress. He was a devoted valet, but absolutely devoid of any ideas of his own. He always said "Yes" in advance; and, like an echo, repeated unconsciously the last phrase of the influential merchant. This was the surest way of being of his master's opinion and to avoid reprimands, of which the Seigneur Kéraban was prodigal.

Both master and man reached the Top-Hané by one of the narrow streets which descend from Pera. Kéraban as usual was speaking in a very loud voice, without caring whether or not he was overheard.

"Well," he was saying, "may Allah protect us, but in the time of the Janissaries every one had the right to do as his fancy dictated, when evening had set in. No; I will not submit to these new police regulations, and I will go by the streets without a lanthorn, if it please me to do so, although I may tumble into a puddle or break my legs over a stray dog."

"Stray dog," assented Nizib the Echo.

"So you need not worry me with your stupid remonstances," continued Kéraban, "or by Mahomet I will pull your ears so long that an ass will be jealous of you, as well as the driver."

"The driver," said Nizib, who, by the way, had not ventured upon a single expostulation, as one may imagine.

"If the inspector of police fine me, I will pay the fine: if he put me in arrest, I will go to prison. But I will never give way on this point, nor on any other."

Nizib made a sign of assent. He was quite ready to follow his master to prison if circumstances so fell out.

"Ah, you new-fashioned Turks," exclaimed Kéraban, as some Constantinopolitans, clothed in their modern dress, passed him. "Ah, you would make laws, and alter our old customs, would you? Ah, when I cease to protest. . . . Nizib, did you tell my caïdji to wait with the caïque at the steps of Top-Hané at seven o'clock?"

"Yes, at seven o'clock."

"Why is it not there?"

"Why is it not there?" echoed Nizib.

"I suppose because it is not yet seven."

"It is not yet seven."

"How do you know that?"

"Because you say so," replied Nizib.

"Suppose I were to say it was five o'clock?"

"Then it would be five o'clock," said the human echo.

"One is not so stupid as that!"

"No, not so stupid," was the answer.

"This fellow by such constant agreement will end by causing disagreement," muttered Kéraban.

At this moment Van Mitten and Bruno reappeared, and the latter kept urging his master to leave the city.

"Let us go on," he said, "by the first train. This Constantinople, indeed! This the capital of the Commander of the Faithful! Never!"

"Be quiet, Bruno," said Van Mitten; "calm yourself."

The sun was setting and had already dipped behind the hills of old Stamboul, leaving the Top-Hané in a sort of penumbra. The twilight prevented Van Mitten from recognizing Kéraban as they crossed the quay from opposite directions; but it so happened that they met, and each, in his anxiety to pass, got in the other's way. This produced a balancing movement which is ridiculous to a beholder.

"Well, monsieur, I may pass, surely!" said Kéraban, who was not a man to yield the path to any one.

"But—" said Van Mitten, who in his anxiety to be polite effectually precluded the passage.

"I tell you I will pass, sir."

"But—"again said the Dutchman, and he was about to explain when he suddenly recognized the man with whom he had such important business.

"What! My friend Kéraban?" he cried.

"You!" exclaimed Kéraban. "You! here—in Constantinople?"

"Yes, 'tis I," replied Van Mitten.

"Since when have you been here?"

"Since this morning."

"And you did not call on me the very first—"

"On the contrary," replied the Dutchman, "I went to your office, but you were not there, and they told me I should find you here at seven o'clock."

"They were right," replied Kéraban, shaking the hand of his correspondent with great vigour. "My dear Van Mitten, I never—no, never—expected to see you in Constantinople. Why did you not write?"

"I quitted Holland so hurriedly."

"On business?"

"No, simply travelling for a change. I had never been in Constantinople, nor in Turkey at all, and I wished to return the visit you paid me in Rotterdam."

"Very good. But how is it Madame van Mitten is not with you?"

"Well, the fact is, I did not bring her," replied the Dutchman, hesitating. "Madame van Mitten is not so easily moved. So I came alone with my valet Bruno."

"Ah, yonder lad," said Kéraban, nodding at Bruno, who believed he ought to bow to the Turk with his hands to his forehead, like the arms of a semaphore.

"Yes," replied Van Mitten. "He wished to leave me just now and go—"

"Go away!" exclaimed Kéraban. "Go home again without my permission!"

"Yes, he finds your capital too dull. There is no life about it, he thinks."

"It is nothing but a mausoleum," said Bruno. "There is no one in the shops, there are no carriages in the streets. There are only ghosts in the city, and one cannot even smoke a pipe!"

"But it is the Ramadan, Van Mitten," said Kéraban. "We are in full fast!"

"Ah, so this is the Ramadan," and Bruno. "Well now, if you please, what is the Ramadan?"

"A time of fasting and abstinence," replied Kéraban. "While it lasts we are forbidden to drink, smoke, or eat—that is between the rising and setting of the sun. But in half an hour hence a cannon will signify the close of the day."

"Ah, now I understand what those fellows meant by their cannon-shots!" exclaimed Bruno.

"We recompense ourselves fully during the night, though, for the abstinence practised by day," continued Kéraban.

"So," said Bruno to Nizib, "you have had nothing since morning because it is Ramadan?"

"Because it is Ramadan," replied Nizib.

"Well, that system would very soon make me thin," exclaimed Bruno. "Why, it costs me a pound a day to live, at least!"

"At least," assented Nizib.

"But," continued Kéraban, addressing Van Mitten, "wait until after sunset: you will be astonished. You will perceive a complete transformation—a dead city will prove a living one. Ah, you new-fashioned Turks, you have not yet entirely concealed the old customs under your modern veneer. The Koran holds good against all your absurdities. May Mahomet strangle you!"

"Good friend Kéraban," replied Van Mitten, "I perceive you are still faithful to your ancient usage."

"It is more than fidelity, Van Mitten; it is obstinacy. But tell me, my worthy friend: you will remain some time in Constantinople, will you not?"

"Yes; and even—"

"Well, then, you belong to me. I will take care of you and be responsible. You shall not leave me."

"So be it; I am yours," said Van Mitten.

"And you, Nizib, you must look after yonder valet," added Kéraban, indicating Bruno. "I charge you particularly to modify his ideas concerning our wonderful capital."

Nizib made a sign of assent, and at once carried Bruno away into the midst of the crowd, which was becoming more and more compact.

"Now I think of it," said Kéraban suddenly, "you have come very opportunely, Van Mitten. Six weeks later I should have been far away from Constantinople."

"You, Kéraban?"

"Yes; I should have embarked for Odessa by that time."

"For Odessa! Indeed!"

"Well, if you remain so long, we can go to Odessa together. Why should you not accompany me, eh?"

"Why, you see—"

"Nonsense: you will come, won't you?"

"I rather counted upon resting after such a long and fatiguing journey."

"Very well, you shall rest here. Then you can repose at Odessa afterwards for three weeks."

"Kéraban, my friend—" began the Dutchman.

"I won't listen to you, Van Mitten. You are not going to annoy me at our very first meeting, I suppose? You know I am right, and am not easily put off."

"Yes, I know," said Van Mitten; "yet—"

"Besides," continued his friend, "you do not know my nephew Ahmet, and you really must become acquainted with him."

"You have already spoken of your nephew to me—"

"Say rather, my son: but I have no child. Business, you know; all business. I never have had five minutes to spare to get married in."

"One minute is enough," replied Van Mitten seriously; "and very often one minute is too long."

"You will meet Ahmet at Odessa," said Kéraban. "A charming fellow. He detests business, for instance; he is somewhat of an artist, and trifles with the Muses; but charming, charming! He resembles his uncle in nothing, and obeys him without argument."

"Friend Kéraban—"

"Yes, yes; I understand: it is for his wedding that we are going to Odessa."

"His wedding!"

"Certainly. Ahmet is going to marry a lovely girl, Amasia, daughter of my banker Selim—a true Turk—like myself. We shall have a regular fête; it will be splendid. You will be there."

"But I should prefer—if—"

"It is all arranged," interrupted the inflexible Kéraban, cutting short Van Mitten's last feeble protest. "You can never have the face to resist me."

"I should like to—"

"But you can't. There!"

At that moment Scarpante and the Maltese captain, who had been walking up and down the open space, approached the two friends. Seigneur Kéraban was saying to his companion,—

"That's understood. In six weeks at latest, we will start for Odessa together."

"And the wedding wilt take place—"

"As soon as we arrive," replied Kéraban.

Yarhud whispered to Scarpante,—

"Six weeks! We have plenty of time."

"Yes, but not too much; however, the more the better," replied his friend. "Don't forget, Yarhud, that before the six weeks have passed, Seigneur Saffar will have returned to Trebizond."

So they continued their promenade, but with eyes and ears open.

Meantime Kéraban had continued his conversation with Van Mitten.

"My friend Selim," he said, "is always hurried, and my nephew is in tremendous haste and more impatient still for the conclusion of the marriage. I must tell you that they have some reason for their impatience. The young lady must be married before she is seventeen, or she will lose a fortune of one hundred thousand pounds (Turkish[1]) which an old fool of an aunt has left her under that condition. Her seventeen years will expire in six weeks. So I made her listen to reason, and told her that the marriage need not take place till the end of next month.

"Your friend Selim has no objection, then?"

"Naturally, none."

"And Ahmet—"

"He is most willing, of course. He adores Amasia, and I approve. He has plenty of time for marrying, and has no business at all. You can understand his anxiety, being a married man, Van Mitten."

"Yes, oh, certainly!" replied the Dutchman. "But it is a long time ago, and I can scarcely remember all about it."

"But, though in Turkey we are forbidden by etiquette to inquire concerning the health of our friends’ wives, it is not forbidden in the case of strangers. I hope Madame van Mitten is quite well?"

"Oh, yes, thank you. Quite well; very well indeed," replied Van Mitten, who did not appear very much at his ease. "Yes, perfectly well. But always suffering, you know. Women, as you are aware—"

"No, no; I don’t know anything about them,” interrupted Kéraban. “Women! No. Business, as much as you like. Macedonian tobacco for the cigarettes, Persian for the narghilés. My correspondents at Salonica, Erzeroum, Latakia, Bafra, Trebizond, not omitting my good friend Van Mitten of Rotterdam. For thirty years, I have exported tobacco from these places to the four corners of Europe."

"And smoked them too!" said Van Mitten.

"Yes, smoked too, like a factory chimney; and may I ask you, do you know anything better in the world?"

"Certainly not, friend Kéraban."

"I have smoked for forty years, my friend: faithful to my chiboque and my narghilé. They constitute my whole harem, and there is not a woman in the world that I value at a pipe of tompéki."

"I am quite of your opinion," replied the Dutchman.

"Now that I have got you here,” said Kéraban, "I am going to keep you. You shall not escape me. My caïque is coming to meet me and carry me across the Bosphorus. I dine at my villa at Scutari, and will carry you across."

"That is, of course, if—"

"I will carry you across," reiterated Kéraban, "do you hear? So, make up your mind; are you going to make excuses?"

"No, I accept," replied Van Mitten. "I am yours, body and soul."

"You shall see what a charming place I have got. I built it myself, under the cypress-trees, half-way up the hill of Scutari, in full view of the Bosphorus and Constantinople. Ah, your true Turk is always on the Asiatic side. Here we have Europe—yonder is Asia, and our progressionists in frock coats cannot carry their ideas so far. They would stultify themselves if they crossed the Bosphorus. Come, let us go to dinner."

"You may do as you please with me," replied Van Mitten, resigning himself to his impetuous friend.

"And you cannot help yourself," he replied. Then turning round he called out, "Nizib! Where is Nizib?"

The valet, who was walking about with Bruno, came hurrying up with him when he heard his master’s voice.

"Has the caïdji arrived with the caïque?" inquired Kéraban.

"With the caïque!" said Nizib.

"I will thrash him, he may be sure. Yes, he shall have a hundred strokes of the stick."

"Oh!" exclaimed Van Mitten.

"Five hundred," continued Kéraban angrily.

"Oh!" exclaimed Bruno.

"A thousand," cried the merchant, "if he disappoints me!"

"Seigneur Kéraban," said Nizib, "I see your boatman. He has quitted Seraglio Point, and in ten minutes will have reached the steps yonder."

While Kéraban loitered about with impatience, leaning upon the arm of Van Mitten, Yarhud and Scarpante did not cease to observe him closely.

  1. About 90,000l. English money.