Article published on July 22, 2011.
Years ago, when Yashim first entered the sultan’s service, Fevzi Ahmet was his mentor. Ruthless, cruel, and – in Yashim’s eyes – ultimately ineffective, he is the only man who makes him afraid. And now Yashim must confront the secret that Fevzi Pasha has been keeping all these years, a secret whose roots lie deep in the tortured atmosphere of the sultan’s harem, where normal rules are suspended and women can simply disappear.
Once again, Yashim and his friends encounter treachery and politics, played out against the backdrop of 1840s Istanbul.
The yali is made of wood silvered by the sun, dry as tinder.
As evening falls, the timbers begin to cool. Beams settle; boards contract. Cracks ease around the window frames, whose latticed
glass flames orange with the setting sun.
The pasha’s two-oared caïque skims like a cormorant up the Bosphorus towards it, away from Istanbul.
He leans into the cushions, his back to the setting sun, and lets his mind rove idly across the water, over the surface of his ambitions
and his desires.
He checks himself. He is not a superstitious man, but praise and pride attract the evil eye; certain thoughts are better left unframed.
Almost guiltily, he turns his head. The yali stands so beautifully at the water’s edge, looking out across the Bosphorus to the hills of Asia beyond. The evening meal has been taken, and he imagines the murmur of voices as his household prepares for sleep. He can almost hear the yali settling, its old bones composing themselves for the night, wooden joints creaking and crackling in the dusk.
He turns his head – and puts out a hand, as if it were in his power to stop what is about to happen. As if he could fit the house in his own palm, and keep it safe.
Between his outstretched fingers, the yali is ablaze.
It burns so beautifully, as if a wild spirit were dashing through the rooms. A window explodes, and against the evening sky the sparks fly up like shooting stars. Galaxies twist from the staircase; suns blaze in every room.
The rowers glance back. They miss a stroke.
Over the crash of falling timber and the snapping of the flames, the pasha hears screams from the harem apartments, upstairs.
When the caïque touches the marble stairs, the pasha flings himself onto the shore. His mouth is open, sweat rolling down his face.
He races from one end of the burning house to the other, moaning. He feels the heat on his face. He can no longer hear the screams.
But he hears, instead, someone call his name.
‘Fevzi Pasha! Pasha!’
Two arms thrust a bundle from a window. The pasha reaches up.
The roof sags, dropping a sudden flurry of flaming shingles, which spin to the ground. The pasha leaps back. The figure at the window is gone. The window is gone.
The flames are driving a firestorm: the pasha feels the wind snatch at his cloak, drawing him back towards the yali.
He cradles the bundle to his chest and stumbles away.
The gate bursts open, and a crowd of men surges in with buckets, hooks, ladders. But it is far too late. As the men run by, the pasha hears timbers break and the sky is lit up.
He does not turn back.
– 1 –
Cannon boomed across the Bosphorus. White smoke, the colour of mourning, billowed low over the water.
Sultan Mahmut II was dead. He had come to the throne of Osman as the turbaned ruler of a medieval empire, and had died in a frock coat and a fez. In his long reign he had given the Ottoman Empire French saddles, a constitution of sorts, modern drill and percussion rifles. He had destroyed the ferocious janissaries, as an obstacle to progress, and he had lost Greece to the Greeks and Crimea to the Russians and Egypt to an Albanian adventurer called Mehmet Ali Pasha. He had built himself a modern palace, at Bes¸iktas¸, where he maintained a harem like sultans of old.
The harem was in pandemonium.
‘You are the Kislar aga, Ibou. You must help them to leave,’ Yashim said quietly. ‘The sultan’s harem is your domain. The sultan has died, and the women must move on.’
The Kislar aga, the master of the girls, shut his eyes and pressed his fingers against his smooth cheeks. ‘They – they do not want to go, Yashim.’
‘Abdülmecid is sultan now. Any moment he may arrive here, at Bes¸iktas¸, and he will bring his women.’ Yashim gestured to the
The Kislar aga took a deep breath and started up the stairs. ‘You must come with me. We must get the women away.’
Yashim followed reluctantly as the Kislar aga bustled through the gallery, clapping his hands. ‘The carriages are come, ladies! To the carriages!’
Not one of the women paid him the slightest attention. They had spent years learning how to behave, how to speak, how to be beautiful, devoting their lives to the service of the sultan. Now the sultan was dead and carriages were to take them away.
They wanted to wail and scream, and to mourn.
To mourn the sultan, their youth, their hopes.
And grab what they could, while there was still time.
– 2 –
Above the gardens of the palace, in the smaller quarters reserved for the crown prince, Elif leaned at a window and watched the pigeons through the lattice. Each crump of the guns shook the heavy air and sent clouds of birds fluttering from the domes of Istanbul. From the leads of the Süleymaniye they rose high above the Golden Horn; clapping their wings from the low rotunda of Ayasofya, where the Horn bled into the waters of the Bosphorus; billowing from the domes of the Grand Bazaar, and from the single hemisphere of the Grand Mosque on Üsküdar. Again and again the pigeons clattered into the sky, and then fell back.
‘It will not be long, Elif.’ Melda lay on the divan, twisting a lock of black hair between her hennaed fingers. ‘The aga will call for us very soon.’
Elif murmured a lazy assent. She had known that the old sultan had been about to die. Everyone knew. When he went, he went: a day and a night before they put him in the ground. You couldn’t wait longer; not in this heat. Dead, buried, and the cannon booming out to tell the world that Abdülmecid was sultan now.
High in the sky, something moved: the whirling speck caught Elif’s attention. She raised her chin a fraction.
She heard the distant thump of the cannon, and watched the hawk drop. She saw its talons extend, and the spurt of blood and feathers as it struck.
As the hawk sailed to the ground, clutching its prey, Elif saw the imperial caïque approaching from the Golden Horn. Under its fluttering canopy sat the new ruler of the empire, Abdülmecid, sixteen years old, fresh from his investiture at Eyüp, at the tomb of the Companion of the Prophet.
She turned from the window.
‘Abdülmecid has been girded with the sword of Osman,’ she said. She ran her hand across her stomach. ‘It’s time we joined him, don’t you think?’
– 3 –
Abdülmecid’s girls ran as a herd, sweeping past a black eunuch on the steps, across the polished marble floors, streaming up the wide shallow staircase to the harem.
At the top of the stairs, the girls paused.
The wailing and keening for the departed sultan had given way to tantrums and the gnashing of teeth. Doors flew open, and slammed. Women dashed in all directions. Children were running aimlessly from room to room. The black eunuchs stood about wringing their hands. Matrons bawled, while slender Circassians squealed, their blonde ringlets all askew; somebody was dragging at the curtains in a little room. Bags and boxes were piled pell-mell in the hallways. A girl sat on a box, crying into a broken mirror.
Abdülmecid’s girls paused, pretending astonishment: eyebrows arched, fingers to horrified lips.
‘It’s disgusting,’ Elif said.
‘Süyütsüz,’ Melda corrected her: undignified.
Elif nodded. Undignified was better. It was a proper harem word. The harem had a language that was all its own: words and phrases that you had to learn unless you wanted to look like a novice. It went with a way of speaking that was softer and more sibilant than the street language of the ordinary Turks, grander, more easy-going. That harem lisp was like having soft hands: it showed your rank. The voice of a harem girl was like a caress.
But not today.
Elif stuck with Melda, who seemed to know where she was going.
– 4 –
The lady Talfa stepped out of the room, hand across her mouth, the sound of cannon and the screaming in her ears.
She saw women sweep down the corridor, hammering at the doors, dragging at each other’s clothes and baring their teeth, like wolves.
A vase wobbled on its stand, between two windows. As the lady Talfa watched, a skirt brushed against the stand. A woman flung back her hand and caught the rim of the vase as it circled. It swung wide and went over with a smack, shivering to pieces on the wooden floor.
Slippered feet trampled over the fragments.
Two girls ran past, hand in hand, laughing. The lady Talfa saw the colour in their cheeks, the sparkle in their eyes.
She stepped forward.
‘Who are you? Where do you think you’re going?’ she hissed.
Elif’s head whipped around. She saw a woman in the doorway. ‘It’s our turn now, auntie,’ Elif spat. She laughed at the shock on the older woman’s face and her pretty blue eyes narrowed. The woman was jowly and pallid and she had lost her waist.
Elif cupped her hands beneath her breasts. ‘We’re the pretty girls.’
She saw the look of hesitation on Talfa’s face and her glance shifted over Talfa’s shoulder. ‘What’s this room, Melda? What’s in here?’ she said, tugging at her friend’s hand.
But the other girl drew back impatiently. ‘I know where to go, Elif. Don’t waste time.’
Elif shrugged. ‘All right, you lead.’ As she sped off she half turned her head: ‘Better get packing, auntie!’
Talfa blinked. She had seen the carriages drawn up in the courtyard, and the women stuffing the sultan’s treasures into little bags. It was all they had, whatever they could carry off.
But they could have been allowed to leave the harem in peace, with dignity.
It was a serious blunder for which Ibou, the chief black eunuch, should be made to pay.
The lady Talfa gripped the door frame as another burst of wild laughter rang down the corridor, followed by an anguished scream.
– 5 –
Elif and Melda reached the stairs at the end of the corridor and scampered up them, giggling and breathless.
At the top they had a corridor to themselves. They chose a door and burst into a room that overlooked the Bosphorus.
A woman was shovelling the contents of a small table into a bag.
They all stared at one another. Then the woman screamed and Melda sprang at the woman and slapped her on the cheek.
‘Stop that! Stop it! What are you doing with that bag?’
The woman tightened her grip. ‘This is mine! Get out!’
Melda made a grab for the bag. The woman yanked it back and the table went over.
Elif snatched at the woman’s scarf. Melda kept her eyes on the bag. ‘What’s in there? What are you stealing?’
They heard running footsteps in the corridor and one of their girls put her head around the door, then withdrew it again.
The woman with the bag seemed to have trouble breathing. Her eyes bulged and her face went red. Elif gave the scarf a last savage tug and Melda went for the bag. The woman staggered and let it go. ‘It’s mine,’ she choked.
‘Drop it, auntie. If it was yours you’d have packed it by now. Go on, get out!’
They shoved the woman into the corridor. She was wringing her hands, but there were two of them and there wasn’t much she could do. Melda and Elif put their backs to the door and watched the handle rattle.
After a while they heard more people running in the corridor. The handle went still.
The two girls turned to each other and burst out laughing.
Later they looked into the bag. It was pathetic what those women tried to carry off – right down to their kohl, and half- used bottles of rose water, and little paper talismans. The woman they’d surprised had obviously thought she could get away with the coffee pot! Even if she’d been the coffee kalfa it didn’t belong to her. The rest of the stuff in the bag was almost certainly stolen, too. All that money – and she wasn’t even pretty.
Elif shrugged. Those women were old and their sultan was dead. She thought of the woman they’d frightened on the floor below. Perhaps they should have seized her room.
It is our turn now, she thought, as she examined the scarf. It wasn’t even torn.
But Elif had made a serious mistake.
The woman on the floor below was the lady Talfa. She was neither particularly young, nor particularly pretty. But she had no plans to leave. She took no orders from the chief black eunuch.
The lady Talfa was not one of the late Sultan Mahmut’s slaves.
She was his sister.
New girls could come in. Her nephew Abdülmecid could move into his new palace chambers. But for now, and always, this harem was her home.
She stamped her foot. Where was Bezmialem? The sultan’s mother should have been here, taking control of her son’s girls. The young validé.
Talfa glared down the corridor and saw a familiar figure in a brown cloak.
‘Yashim!’ she cried. ‘Can’t you do anything? Can’t you stop all this – this noise?’
– 6 –
Yashim ordered the halberdiers to move the baggage to the carriages: the new girls were already beginning to paw at it themselves. The soldiers moved slowly, with infinite gentleness, eyes down; the women lunged and clung to their arms.
The women who served the late sultan were to leave for Eski Saray, the Old Palace, for centuries a home for the harem beauties whose sultan had died. Some – the lucky ones, maybe – would marry, entering the harem of some Ottoman officer of the guard, or a pasha of the civil bureaucracy. The rest could hope for little more than to drag out their existence behind the walls of the Old Palace, forgotten and ignored.
Getting the luggage away made things easier: the women followed their belongings. Others – dragging their fingernails down their cheeks, or cramming their things into little sacks – felt suddenly resigned to do what Yashim suggested. They were drawn to him, just as the lady Talfa had been; they relied on him, as Ibou the chief black eunuch relied on him, instinctively.
Against the bright plumage of the harem women, Yashim’s brown cloak was modest almost to invisibility. He spoke quietly, in a room that rang with shrieks and tears; his gestures were restrained.
There was a stillness in Yashim that made the women pause, and listen. His low voice wearied and fascinated them, as if it carried an echo of the burdens of life. It was the voice of a man, perhaps: yet Yashim was not, quite, a man himself.
Yashim was a eunuch.
By evening the women had taken to the carriages, and gone.
Upstairs, in her new room, Elif picked up her oud and began to play.
Further along the corridor, a pale woman reclined on her divan, shading her eyes with the back of her hand.
Bezmialem had heard the pandemonium and locked her door. She sought only peace and seclusion.
At her moment of triumph, when her son returned to the palace as sultan, Bezmialem had a headache.
– 7 –
The halberdier swung back the door of the gatehouse. Outside Yashim saw a small closed carriage, with another soldier holding the door.
‘Where are we going?’
‘We must be quick, efendi.’
Yashim climbed into the cab and the halberdier slammed the door. Yashim heard him shout something to the driver and then, with a lurch that shot him back into the buttoned leather seat, they were off. The carriage squeaked and swayed; Yashim wound his fingers around a leather strap in the dark. The windows of the cab were tightly curtained, but he could feel the drumming of the wheels on the cobbles and the slick lurch when they left hard ground for muddier, unpaved streets.
Yashim peeled a curtain aside and peered out. The driver pulled on the reins; the cab’s pace lessened; the door was flung open and a young man in a Frankish uniform and cap saluted Yashim.
They crossed the Horn in a four-oared caïque in silence; Yashim was too tired for conversation and the officer’s chin was sunk into his collar. On the other other side they climbed to the High Gate, which gave its name – Sublime Porte – to the Ottoman government.
As they bustled up the steps the young man’s sword clinked on the marble; then they were through the front door, scurrying down corridors where anxious faces peered at them in the candlelight, where doors opened noiselessly at their approach.
At last the cadet threw open a door and ushered Yashim with a sweep of the hand into the private chamber of the grand vizier, the man who held the reins of empire for his sultan’s sake.
– 8 –
A lamp was burning on a great mahogany desk.
The rumble of the vizier’s voice came from the divan, placed in an alcove at the far side of the room. Yashim half turned, in puzzlement.
‘Husrev? Mehmet Husrev Pasha?’
As he approached the divan, he could make out a heavy figure sitting cross-legged in the half-light, wearing a Circassian shawl and a tasselled, brimless cap.
As the pasha gestured to the edge of the divan, his ring caught the light. It was a sign of office, but until now Yashim had seen the ring of the grand vizier on someone else’s hand.
‘Changes, Yashim efendi,’ the old pasha growled, as if he had read Yashim’s mind. ‘A time of change.’
Yashim settled on the edge of the divan. ‘My pasha,’ he murmured. He wondered how the change had been made, what had become of Midhat Pasha. ‘I was detained at the palace. I offer you my congratulations.’
Husrev fixed him with a weary stare. His voice was deep, almost a whisper. ‘The sultan is very young.’
‘We must be grateful that he can draw upon your experience,’ Yashim replied politely.
The old pasha grunted. He pressed his fingertips together in front of his face, brushing his moustache.
‘And you were at the palace?’
‘Sultan Mahmut’s women were slow to leave.’ Yashim bit his lip; it was not what he should have said. Not when Husrev himself had moved so fast.
Perhaps Husrev Pasha thought the same, because he gave a dismissive snort and slid a sheet of paper across the divan. ‘Report from the governor of Chalki. A dead man, in the cistern of the monastery.’
‘Who was he?’
The pasha shrugged. ‘Nobody seems to know.’
‘But – he was killed?’
‘Perhaps. Probably. I want you to find out.’
‘I understand, my pasha.’ For the second time that day, he was being asked to do someone else’s job.
Husrev Pasha’s heavy-lidded eyes missed little. ‘Have I said anything to displease you, Yashim?’
Yashim took a deep breath. ‘Is it not a matter for the governor, my pasha? The kadi, at least.’
‘Would I send for you if it was enough to direct the kadi? The governor?’
Yashim heard the anger in his rumbling voice. ‘Forgive me, my pasha. I spoke without thinking.’
To his surprise, the old vizier leaned forward and took his knee in his massive paw.
‘How old are you, Yashim?’
‘I have seen what may happen when a sultan dies. When you were a little boy, Yashim. We thought the sky was falling on our heads. Bayraktar’s Janissaries stormed the Topkapi Palace. In the provinces there was fear – and fighting on the streets of Istanbul. The Muslims afraid of the Greeks.’
Yashim listened, and said nothing.
‘The city is quiet today,’ the old pasha continued. ‘But the weather is hot, and the sultan is young. I am a little afraid, Yashim. Men have hopes I do not yet understand. Some have demands. Between demand and threat you cannot pass a horsehair. And the state is weak. Russia, as you know, gains every day at the expense of our people. Moldavia and Wallachia are occupied by the tsar’s troops, to the mouth of the Danube. Serbia rules itself, with their aid. Georgia and the Armenian lands are under Russia now.’
He cracked his huge knuckles. ‘Egypt is strong. Long ago, we could count on Egypt; that time is past. Mehmet Ali Pasha is not to be trusted. We are caught, Yashim, between hammer and anvil.’
He picked up a pile of documents at his elbow and let them drop heavily onto the divan. ‘With these, I must govern this empire. I must keep the peace.’ He shrugged. ‘This is a dangerous time for all of us, Yashim, and I do not know exactly where the danger lies. Perhaps from a corpse in the Christians’ well.’
‘I understand, my pasha,’ Yashim replied. ‘Your eyes must be everywhere.’
‘If not, Yashim, they would fill with tears.’ He rubbed a massive thumb and finger over the bridge of his nose. ‘Tomorrow morning will be sufficient,’ he said.
– 9 –
Stanislaw Palewski, Polish Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, put up a hand to steady his straw hat as a light wind threatened to tip it by the brim.
‘This,’ he remarked, ‘is better than Therapia.’
Yashim, beside him on the bench, grunted assent. When Istanbul lolled in the dog days, under the summer sun, the other European
ambassadors liked to retreat to their summer residencies at Therapia, up the Bosphorus; only Palewski remained in town. He lacked funds; he lacked a summer residency; he lacked, in point of fact, a country.
It had been Yashim’s idea to invite Palewski to spend a cooling day out on the water, travelling to the island of Chalki and back. Yesterday’s work in the harem had exhausted him, and the cannon booming out across the water had sounded like the blood pounding in his own head. The breeze at Marmara blew as well as the breezes of Therapia, and at a fraction of the cost: a ticket to the island could be had for a sequin – a seat on deck, a view over the water, a chance of seeing dolphins, and a glass of sweet tea into the bargain.
Palewski was Polish, from his tongue to his heart, and represented a country that no longer existed – at least, it was not recognised by any of the Christian courts of Europe. The Ottomans sustained the notion that their old proud foe existed still; they accepted the credentials of an ambassador whose country had been swallowed by its neighbours. They even sustained the ancient custom of paying the ambassador a stipend for his maintenance, for magnanimity was the mark of a great empire, and old habits died hard; but the stipend was small and did not stretch to summer residencies.
They made, perhaps, an unlikely couple, Palewski and Yashim; though anyone who had seen them together on the deck of the island ferry might have noticed that both, in their way, were conservatively dressed. Palewski’s coat was well cut, in the old fashion, if slightly shabby, and his waistcoat was more colourful than the age prescribed; while Yashim’s embroidered waistcoat and white pantaloons belonged to a style that was fast disappearing in the capital. Most Ottoman gentlemen followed the lead of their late sultan in adopting dress coats and tight black trousers, beneath a scarlet fez. Yashim wore a fez, but it was swathed in a strip of linen, some twelve feet long, which he wound tightly around his head as a turban. On his feet he wore the comfortable leather slippers that the Ottomans had always worn, before the sultan persuaded them into tight-laced boots and woollen socks.
An odd couple, then, but with more in common than might have at first appeared – not least a shared desire to escape the summer heat and enjoy the breezes out to sea.
The largest of the Prince’s Islands advanced swiftly over the sun-pricked waters. The sails were furled, one by one; the canvas slapped, the chain ran out, and soon the boat was drawn alongside the quay. The Greek sailors stepped ashore with coiled rope and lazy familiarity.
A few minutes later, Yashim and his old friend had exchanged the sea breeze for the equally welcome shade of the ancient limes that flanked the path up to the monastery of Hristos. The air smelled of charcoal and roasted meat where the kebab vendors had set up their braziers in the shade; the cool white walls of the island houses and their ochre pantiled roofs peeped through the trees. Others shared their path: veiled women in long striped coats, a sailor in a shirt without a collar, a Greek priest in high canonicals, little boys on errands with bare feet, and a stout woman in a headscarf who rolled along after her donkey, its panniers stuffed with reeds.
Close to the gateway of the monastery, set back from the avenue, stood a small café.
‘Sherbet, Yash. They’ll do a pear syrup here, too,’ Palewski suggested, steering his friend gently by the arm towards the café path.
Two men swerved past them, running up the hill.
‘So hot,’ Palewski murmured, raising an eyebrow.
Cushions were scattered on carpets spread beneath the boughs of an enormous pine, whose resinous fragrance perfumed the air. A boy in a waistcoat took their orders: he seemed distracted, glancing now and then through the trees towards the avenue of limes.
‘Pear, not apple,’ Yashim corrected him. ‘Pear for my friend, and coffee, medium sweet, for me.’
The two friends lay in companionable silence, watching the sky through the boughs of the tree. Rooks cawed in the upper branches; further off, Yashim could hear a murmur of indistinct voices like wind soughing in the pines.
Palewski dipped into his pocket. He brought out a slim volume bound in soft red leather, which he opened and began to read.
Yashim struggled for a few moments with the curiosity that comes over anyone when they watch someone else with their nose in a book. Then he gave up.
‘Pan Tadeusz – again,’ Palewski replied, with a smile.
‘The national epic,’ Yashim murmured. ‘Of course.’
‘Really, I never tire of it,’ Palewski said. ‘It is the Poland I represent. Poland in the old days.’ He sighed. ‘I wrote to Mickiewicz, proposing a French translation.’
‘The poet? And did he reply?’
Palewski nodded. ‘Of course, he could do it himself. He lives in Paris. But he said he’d be delighted if I’d like to try.’
‘And you’ve begun?’
‘Awfully hard, Yashim.’ Palewski leaned back and closed his eyes. He flung up a hand towards the trees and began to recite:
Litwo! Ojczyzno moja! Ty jestes jak zdrowie.
Ile cietrzeba cenic, ten tylko sie dowie,
Kto cie stracil. Dzis pieknosc twa w calej ozdobie
Widze i opisuje, bo tesknie po tobie.
Yashim could not understand the words; he had stopped listening. He could hear a sound like angry bees, buzzing farther up the
avenue; now and again he heard shouts.
‘I’ve made a start, Yash, but it’s picking the words. And matching the rhyme –’
Yashim bent forward and touched his knee. ‘Don’t go away,’ he said.
‘But I haven’t given you my translation yet.’
Yashim had scrambled to his feet. ‘I’ll listen later.’
‘Your coffee’s coming.’
‘I’ll be back.’
He went to the avenue and turned up the hill. A few hundred yards ahead he could make out the wooden gate of the monastery. The gate was shut, and outside it a few dozen men were standing in a semicircle, their backs towards Yashim.
‘Open the gate!’
A man stooped and picked up a stone, which he threw against the wooden gate. Soon the whole crowd was hurling stones, which thunked against the heavy wooden planks.
Yashim moved to the edge of the circle.
‘What are you doing?’
The man beside him turned his head sharply. ‘The unbelievers, efendi. They have the body of a Muslim in there. They are hiding him.’
Yashim frowned. ‘How do you know that?’
‘At night, they will feed him to the dogs!’
Yashim put up a hand. ‘How can you know so much? Have you talked to them, inside? Have you seen this Muslim?’
The man turned angrily. ‘Open this gate! We are Muslims!’
Yashim glanced back. More men were surging up the avenue; some were shaking their fists.
Ever since the Greeks of Athens had secured their independence, Greeks and Turks had been like flint and steel, striking sparks that threatened to set the empire alight. Husrev Pasha was right, these were uncertain times. The weather was too hot – and a man was dead.
Yashim put his hands in the air and stepped out in front of the gathering crowd.
‘Listen to me.’
The men paused, curious.
‘Listen to me. I am from the palace.’
A bare-headed man stepped forward. ‘The unbelievers! They treat the Muslims like dogs!’
Yashim laid a hand on the man’s shoulder, and invited him to sit down. He opened his arm, gesturing along the line. ‘All of you, please. Sit down.’
The men began to form knots. After all the noise, the quiet voice of the stranger seemed almost hypnotic. Some squatted, and one or two of them actually sat, crossing their legs.
‘We will find out what is going on here,’ Yashim continued. The name came to him at that moment. ‘Where is Mullah Dede?’
The men looked around. Mullah Dede was not there.
‘Fetch the mullah. Go.’
‘Who are you?’ It was a fat man in an open shirt. He had his hands on his hips and he was glancing right and left. ‘Who are you, from the palace?’
‘I am Yashim.’ He spoke quietly, but loud enough for the men to hear. A wary look appeared on the fat man’s face. ‘And your name?’
‘I am . . . Hasan.’
Men are driven by fear: and they fear only what they do not know.
‘Will anyone else give me their name?’
Men looked away, feeling the ground with their eyes.
Yashim could see the figure of the mullah climbing briskly up the avenue. ‘When Mullah Dede comes we will all sit quietly, while he and I discuss the matter.’
The mullah walked in slowly through the ring of men, looking from right to left. He saw Yashim, and salaamed.
‘What is this gathering, my son? They say the monks have taken the body of a Muslim. Can this be true?’
‘We will ask the monks,’ Yashim replied.
‘Yes, that is the best way.’ Mullah Dede nodded slowly. ‘We will enter, and speak with the abbot.’ He turned to the men squatting on the ground. ‘Go, all of you. Go in peace, and if we have need of you again, I will call.’
Yashim glanced at Hasan. He was swaying, as if uncertain what to do; eventually he turned away and began to go down the hill. Many joined him; a few, however, only moved further off, and squatted under the trees, planning to see what happened next.
‘And now,’ said Mullah Dede, ‘we will knock on the door, and hope that we are answered, inshallah.’
‘Inshallah,’ Yashim echoed.
– 10 –
At the sultan’s palace at Besiktas, the lady Talfa was jingling an enormous bunch of iron keys threaded onto an iron loop.
‘Some of you girls,’ she announced, ‘will receive keys yourselves as you settle to your duties. That will be a matter for the Kislar aga to arrange, with my help, naturally.’
They were on the ground floor of the palace, where the windows were shuttered on the inside with diamond-shaped lattices to prevent anyone from looking in.
The girls avoided one another’s eyes, anxious not to be thought overbold. Many of them hoped to receive a key and to be allotted an important task. They had already inspected the laundry, under the lady Talfa’s direction: there would be a laundry kalfa, maybe two. They had looked into rooms containing the coffee sets for the coffee kalfa to manage; a silver room, stacked with plates, trays, and ewers; a china room, whose china kalfa would preside over the proper storage and cleaning of the Chinese porcelain.
The lady Talfa had familiarised them with each part of the building she knew so well. Baths had a key; so did the dressing rooms, where the sultan’s linen would be stored, properly folded and stacked away, and his frock coats, brushed every day and inspected for any sign of moth or dirt, with lengths of silk and muslin for his turban. There was even a slipper room, to which a slipper kalfa would possess the key.
The girls who followed the lady Talfa were used to luxury, but the scale of Besiktas bewildered them; the number of potential responsibilities and duties excited them. Some of them had forgotten their training and wandered open-mouthed, eyes darting from precious silks to the immaculate polished parquet and marble on the floors. All of them were feeling weary, and slightly overawed.
Which was just how the lady Talfa wanted it, as she turned a key in the cellar door.
‘Bring the lantern,’ she said, ‘and follow me.’
They descended a stone staircase. Some of the girls reached out to clutch each other: it was quite dark, and the shadows that raced across the vault overhead seemed sinister and demonic. Somebody tripped and squealed.
At the bottom of the steps, the lady Talfa turned and held the lantern at her shoulder. Her face was plunged into shade. The girls, feeling the cold, shivered; they wondered why they had been brought down here.
‘I have a duty, as the senior lady in the palace, to pass on a warning. The harem has many rules, as you know, and many traditions. Some of these ensure the smooth running of the sultan’s household. Some are upheld for your comfort and protection.’
The girls stood still, listening.
‘There is one rule above all that you will be expected to obey, and that is the rule of silence. We are a family. We will have our disagreements and our rivalries, no doubt, as a family will. But what goes on here, in the sultan’s harem, is a matter for us and for no one else. You will see and hear things that will surprise you. Perhaps they will even upset you. But these are for us, and for us only. Do you understand?’
The girls murmured assent. They understood they had to keep their secrets.
Now, they hoped, the lady Talfa would lead them all upstairs, out of this dank cellar.
But the lady Talfa had turned, swinging the lantern. ‘The penalty for a girl who talks, or infringes the most serious regulations, is severe and horrible. Look.’
The lamplight settled, and the girls craned their heads, peering into the gloom.
‘Do you see the table?’ Talfa demanded.
They nodded. It was a plain wooden table with four stout legs. On the table lay several coils of thin cord.
‘Can you see that the table stands on a block of stone?’
Talfa crossed to the table and set the lantern down.
‘A girl who disobeys the regulations here will soon find herself on this table. She will be strapped down, unable to move. Then, one of the eunuchs will engage the engine.’
The girls were wide awake now. They shuffled closer together, unwilling to come too near to where the lady Talfa stood behind
the table like a priestess at the altar.
‘The engine, hanum?’
‘A turning engine. When the lever goes down, the table will start to spin. Around and around, faster and faster. The stone here’ – she tapped her slippered foot – ‘slides back, and as the table turns it begins to sink down through the floor.’
She paused, as if she expected a question: but the girls were far too nervous to ask it.
‘Under this floor there is a tunnel, from the Bosphorus.’ She held up a finger and rotated it in the air. ‘Once it is set in motion, the engine cannot be stopped. The table sinks into the water, and the girl is drowned.’
The girls stared at the table wide-eyed.
‘Some of you may have heard about this place already. It would be better that you had not: the girl who spoke of it – well.’ She pursed her lips; there was no need to spell it out. ‘None of you, I am sure, would want to make the same experiment.’
She picked up the lantern and walked back to the steps. The girls behind her jostled for position, each of them trying to climb hard on the lady Talfa’s heels. No one wanted to be the last to leave that cold, dark vault.