Kéraban the Inflexible (Part 1)/Chapter 6

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From an administrative point of view, Turkey in Europe is divided into "vilayets" (governments or departments), administered by a "vali" (governor-general)—a sort of prefect nominated by the Sultan. These "vilayets" are subdivided into "sanjaks" or districts governed by a "moustesarif," into "kazas" or cantons administered by a "caïmacan;" and "nahaies" or communes, with a "moudir" or mayor. This, as will be perceived, is something like the French system of administration.

But, as a matter of fact, Kéraban had few if any points of contact with the authorities of the "vilayets" of Roumelia, which cuts the route from Constantinople to the frontier. This route keeps, as nearly as possible, to the shores of the Black Sea, and shortened the journey he had to make.

The weather was very pleasant for travelling. The heat was tempered by a refreshing breeze from the sea, which came in an uninterrupted course across the somewhat flat country. First the fields of maize, barley, and rye, with vineyards, which are widely cultivated in the Ottoman empire, met the eye. Then came forests of oaks, pines, beech, birch; then clusters here and there of plantains, Judas-tree, laurels, figs, St. John's bread-tree, and, particularly near the sea, pomegranates and olives identical with those of the same latitude of lower Europe.

Leaving the gate of Jeni, the carriage took the road to Choumla, whence a branch-road leads to Adrianople by way of Kirk-Kilisie. This road follows, and many times crosses, the railway which puts Adrianople, the second capital of the Ottoman empire, in communication with Constantinople.

As the carriage was being driven rapidly alongside the railway, the train overtook the travellers, and a man put his head out of a railway carriage to have a look at the chaise, which was proceeding at a great pace.

This traveller was no other than the Maltese captain, Yarhud, who was on his way to Odessa, where, thanks to the speed of the train, he would arrive long before the uncle of young Ahmet.

Van Mitten could not resist his impulse to call the attention of his companion to the train, which sped past them at a high speed. Kéraban merely shrugged his shoulders.

"Eh, friend Kéraban, they get to their destination very quickly," said Van Mitten.

"Yes, when they do arrive at it," replied Kéraban.

Not an hour was lost in this the first day of the expedition. As money in plenty was forthcoming, there were no delays in procuring horses: the animals were quite as willing as the postillions to work for a master who paid so handsomely.

The travellers passed Tchataldje, by Buyuk Khan, by the watershed of the tributaries of the Sea of Marmora, by the valley of Tchorloxa, by the village of Yeni Keni; then by the valley of Galata, across which, if the legend be true, are dug subterranean canals which used to supply the capital with water.

At nightfall the carriage stopped, but only for an hour, at the long, straggling village of Serai. As the provisions the travellers carried with them were more particularly destined for consumption in the localities where it would be difficult to procure food even of inferior quality, it was decided to keep the store in reserve. So Kéraban and his companions dined at Serai, and the journey was then resumed.

Bruno, we may venture to say, found it somewhat unpleasant to pass the night in the "dicky" of the carriage, but Nizib had no such feelings, and accepted the situation as a matter of course. He slept soundly, and set his companion such a good example that he could not do otherwise than profit by it.

The night passed without incident, thanks to the long and winding road which formed the approach to the town of Viga, and avoided the rude slopes and marshy ground of the valley. Van Mitten much regretted that he could not see that little town, which contains about a thousand people, almost all Greeks, and which is the seat of a bishop. But he had not come to see. He was the companion of the inflexible Kéraban, who did not trouble himself to collect any impressions of his journey.

About five o'clock the next evening, after having passed the villages of Bounar-Hissan, Jena, and Uskùp, the travellers threaded a little wood wherein were several tombs. In the graves underneath lay the remains of the victims of a band of brigands who had at one time infested the neighbourhood. The travellers then reached a fair-sized town containing about 16,000 inhabitants, called Kirk-Kilisse. This name, which signifies "Forty Churches," is justified by the number of religious edifices. It is situated in a valley, the sides and bottom of which are occupied by houses, and which Van Mitten and his valet explored in a few hours. The carriage was put up in the court-yard of a respectable hotel, where Seigneur Kéraban and his companions passed the night, and started again at daybreak.

During the day (19th of August) the postillion cleared the village of Karabounar, and in the evening, late, arrived at Bourgaz, which is situated on the gulf of that name. The travellers slept that evening in a "khan," or kind of rude inn, which certainly was not so comfortable as the post-chaise.

Next morning they found the road parted with the coast, and ran inland towards Aïdos; in the evening the party arrived at Paravadi, one of the stations of the little railway from Choumla to Varna. They then traversed the province of Bulgaria, to the southern extremity of the Dobroutcha, at the foot of the last spurs of the Balkan chain.

At this point the difficulties became serious: there were so many swampy valleys, so many forests of aquatic plants to be passed, through which it was almost impossible for the chaise to make way, and where its progress disturbed from their retreats thousands of wild fowl. The Balkans form a very important mountain chain. In its range between Bulgaria and Roumelia it detaches many spurs northward, which extend in undulations almost to the Danube.

Hereabouts Kéraban's patience was sorely tried.

When it became necessary to cross the extremity of the chain before descending into the Dobroutcha the tremendously steep slopes and awkward corners rendered it quite impossible to drive the carriage round. So the horses had to be unharnessed several times in these narrow roads only suitable for horses alone, and all these arrangements took up a great deal of time, and gave rise to considerable ill-temper and much recrimination. When the horses were taken out, the carriage-wheels had to be blocked and lifted round, and above all "greased" with a considerable handful of piastres, which the postillions put into their pockets, declaring all the time that they must retrace their steps.

Kéraban had good ground for inveighing against the existing government which permitted the roads to get so greatly out of repair, and which did so little to facilitate travelling in the provinces. The "divan" would not put itself out, except to impose taxes and restrictions of all kinds. Seigneur Kéraban knew all about it! Ten paras to cross the Bosphorus indeed! He always harked back to this fixed idea, which continually oppressed him. Ten paras: ten paras, forsooth!

Van Mitten took very good care not to answer Kéraban. The very suspicion of contradiction would have enraged his inflexible companion. So Van Mitten, by way of appeasing his friend, found fault with all governments, and the Turkish administration in particular.

"But it is not possible that there could be such abuses in Holland!" exclaimed Kéraban.

"On the contrary, there are, my friend," replied Van Mitten, who was desirous to appease his companion at any cost.

"I tell you there are not," retorted the latter. "It is only in Constantinople that such things are possible. Do you mean to tell me that they would put a tax upon caïques at Rotterdam?"

The tremendously steep slopes and awkward corners.

"We have no caïques there," replied Van Mitten.

"That is no matter."

"No matter—what do you mean?"

"Well, supposing you had them there, your king would never venture to tax them. Now don't tell me that this new-fangled Turkish government is not the very worst in the world."

"The worst! not a doubt of it," responded Van Mitten, who was anxious to bring the discussion to a close.

And so, the better to put an end to what after all was a mere conversation, he took out his long Dutch pipe, and the appearance of the pipe made Kéraban anxious to stupefy himself also with the fumes of his narghilé. The carriage was quickly filled with tobacco smoke, and the glasses had to be let down to permit it to escape. So, by degrees and under the influence of the weed, the obstinate one became silent and even calm, until some trivial incident aroused him to the realities of the journey.

It became necessary, in the absence of shelter, to pass the night of the 20th of August in the carriage; and it was only when morning dawned that the last spurs of the Balkans were crossed, and the travellers found themselves beyond the Roumanian frontier in the more suitable roads of the Dobroutcha.

This region is almost a peninsula, formed by a great bend of the Danube, which, after turning northwards towards Galatz, bends to the east again towards the Black Sea, into which it discharges itself by many mouths. Indeed, the isthmus, so to speak, which unites the "peninsula" to the Balkans, is circumscribed by the portion of the province situated between Tchernavoda and Kustendjé, which are connected by railway. But south of the railroad, the country being essentially the same as the northern portion, topographically speaking, one may say that the plains of the Dobroutcha have their birth at the base of the last hills of the Balkan chain.

"The good country," the Turks call this fertile tract wherein the land belongs to the first occupant. It is, if not inhabited, at any rate traversed by Tartar shepherds, and populated by Valaques in the portions near the river. The Ottoman empire owns a considerable portion of this land, which exhibits a succession of plateaux, scarcely intersected by any valleys, which extend almost to the forests by the mouths of the Danube. Upon the even roads the chaise proceeded rapidly. The post-masters had no occasion to grumble here when their horses were harnessed, or if they did it was only to keep themselves in practice.

Their progress was rapid, so fast indeed, that on the 21st of August the travellers "changed" at Koslidcha and the same evening reached Bazardjik.

At the latter place Kéraban determined to pass the night, and let every member of the party enjoy a good rest, of which Bruno was greatly in need, though he prudently kept his opinion to himself on this subject.

At daylight next morning the travellers proceeded with fresh horses in the direction of Lake Karasou, an immense shaft or reservoir, the waters of which pour themselves into the Danube in dry seasons when the river is low. About twenty-four leagues were accomplished in twelve hours, and at eight o'clock in the evening the carriage stopped at the station of Medjidie on the Kustendjé and Tchernavoda Railway. This town is quite a new one, but it already boasts of twenty thousand inhabitants, and promises to become more important.

At this station the travellers were obliged to wait till the line was clear, greatly to Kéraban's disgust, who was in a hurry to reach the khan in which he proposed to pass the night. But a train was on the line, and fifteen minutes elapsed before it proceeded. A torrent of invective was accordingly poured forth upon railway administration in general, which permitted all kinds of ill-doing, and not only smashed those travellers who were foolish enough to travel in the carriages, but hindered others who objected to use the railway.

"At any rate," said Kéraban to Van Mitten, "an accident will never happen to me in a train."

"Who knows?" returned the Dutchman somewhat imprudently.

"I know it!" replied Kéraban in a tone which brought the conversation to an abrupt conclusion.

At length the train moved away from the station; the gates were opened, and the carriage was permitted to pass. The travellers then reached the khan, where they were enabled to lodge comfortably in the place which was named after the Sultan Abdul Medjid.

Next day they crossed a desert to Babadagh, but so slowly was the journey made that it was deemed advisable to continue it through the night. In the evening, about five o'clock, Toultcha was reached. This is one of the most important towns in Moldavia, and in such a city, containing representatives from nearly every country under heaven, Kéraban had no difficulty in selecting a suitable hotel. Van Mitten also had time to explore the town and the amphitheatre, which is very picturesquely situated.

On the next day, the 24th of August, the travellers crossed the Danube, and it need scarcely be said that the origin of the name of the river was the subject of a lively discussion between Kéraban and Van Mitten, who argued from the Ister or Hister of the Greeks to the Roman name Danuvius, which in Thracian language signified "cloudy." They argued from Celtic, Sanscrit, Greek, and whether Professor Windishman was wrong or Professor Bopp was right, till Kéraban as usual reduced his adversary to silence by saying that Danube came from the Zend word "asdanu," which means the "Rapid River."

But rapid as it may be, its course is not sufficiently quick to carry away all its waters; and consequently inundations of the Danube have to be calculated on. Now Kéraban in his obstinacy did not make any allowances for this, and, notwithstanding all remonstrances, persisted in crossing the delta of the Danube.

He was not alone in this determination—that is, hundreds of aquatic birds were also crossing; but he ought to have recognized the fact that, if nature had made these residents web-footed, it was because they would have to inhabit a swampy region liable to inundations.

The horses and the carriage were, however, quite unfitted for such a transit; and the route was practically through a marsh which was almost impassable. Notwithstanding the advice of the postillion, and Van Mitten's remonstrances, Kéraban gave the order to go on. So the men obeyed him. The consequence was that towards evening the carriage became embedded in the slough, and the horses were quite unable to extricate it.

"The roads are not properly attended to in this country," said Van Mitten.

"They are as they are," replied Kéraban, "and just what you might expect under such a government!"

"We should do better if we retraced our steps and endeavoured to find another way," said Van Mitten.

"On the contrary—we shall do better by continuing our journey and not changing our route at all"

"But how are we to get on—?"

"Get on? By sending for some more horses to the nearest village. It makes little difference whether we sleep in the carriage or in an inn, does it?"

There was nothing to be said to such an argument as this. The postillion and Nizib were despatched for extra horses to the next village, which was not so very far away. They could not be expected to return, however, much before sunrise. So Kéraban, Van Mitten, and Bruno had to reconcile themselves to the fact of passing the night in that vast plain, as desolate a "steppe" as the deserts of Central Australia. Fortunately the carriage, already embedded to the axles, gave no signs of sinking any deeper in the quagmire.

The night was very dark. Great clouds came down very near the earth, chased by the winds from the Black Sea. Though there was no actual rain, a thick mist from the saturated ground arose like an Arctic fog. Nothing could be seen at a greater distance than ten paces, and the lamps of the carriage threw only a perplexing gleam through the mist, so that it would have been better, perhaps, to have extinguished them. It was possible that the light might attract some undesirable visitor; but when Van Mitten said so, the obstinate Kéraban argued the point to such a length that it was quite lost. The Dutchman was right nevertheless, and had he been sharp enough to suggest their being left lighted, Kéraban would no doubt have had them extinguished.