The Leopard of the Sea: A Stamboul Night's Entertainment

AFTER it was quite dark, a man who strolled by happened to catch sight of my camera. He stopped and began to examine it. I discreetly lit a cigarette in order to show him that the camera had a proprietor. He continued his inspection, as much as to show me that he had known I was there. Then he took out his tobacco box, rolled a cigarette with deliberation, came up to me, saluted me politely, and lighted his cigarette from mine. It is the custom of the country, you know. Nobody has any matches. I suppose somebody did once, but since then everybody has gone on taking the sacred fire from everybody else.

Having made the second salutation of usage, the stranger showed no haste to be off. Indeed, after standing a moment, he sat down on another stone near me — not so near as a Greek would have done. From that, and from his silence, and from a certain easy awkwardness about him, I guessed that he was a Turk.

‘ Do you make postcards ? ’ he asked at last.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I am just taking a picture.’

‘Ah, you have a whim.’

‘Yes,’ I assented, ’I have a whim.’ And I smiled to myself in the dark at the pleasant idiom.

‘Why do you take pictures now, when it is dark?’ pursued my companion. ‘There is a very pretty view from here in the daytime, but can your machine see it at night?’

I did not mind his inquisitiveness. There was nothing eager or insistent about it. It was simple and natural, and there was a quality in it that I often feel in the Turks, of being able to take the preliminaries of life for granted. The man was evidently not of the higher classes, but neither was he of the lowest. I could make out that he wore European clothes and no collar.

’I want to get the lights of Ramazan,’ I explained to him. ‘I took one picture at sunset, so as to get the shape of Yeni Jami and the way the Golden Horn lies behind it, and afterwards I shall take another on the same plate, for the lights.’

‘Ah!’ he uttered, as if perfectly comprehending my whim. And after a pause he added, ‘They must make a great feast at Yeni Jami to-night. They have not lighted one lamp yet.’

It was true. The minarets of St. Sophia, the Suleïmanieh, all the other great mosques that ride the crest of Stamboul, already wore their necklaces of gold beads, while mysterious pendants began to twinkle between them. We watched one spark after another spell ‘O Mohammed!’ above the dome of St. Sophia, and a golden flower grew out of the dark between the minarets of Baïezid.

‘Do you come from far?’ suddenly asked my companion.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘from America.’

‘From America,’ he repeated. I could see by his tone that the name did not suggest very much to him. ‘ I have been to many countries, but I have not been to America. How many days does it take to go?’

‘Eh,’ I replied, ‘if you pay very much and go half the way by train you can do it in eight or nine days. If you go all the way by steamer it takes about three weeks.’

‘Then it is not so far as Yemen,’ remarked my companion.

‘Oh, have you been to Yemen?’ I asked in turn. ‘I have been to many countries too, but I have never been to Yemen.’

‘I never would have gone if I had known. But now they go most of the way by train.’

‘Did n’t you like the sea?’ I ventured.

‘Fire is for the brazier and water is for the cup,’ returned my companion somewhat enigmatically.

A flicker came out against one of the dark lances of Yeni Jami, and then three small lamps — which were glass cups of oil with a floating wick — dropped into place one above another. Presently three more appeared beside them, and three more, until the lower gallery of the minaret was set off with its triple circlet of light. There was an interval, during which one could imagine a turbaned person picking his way up a corkscrew stair of stone, and the second gallery put on a similar ornament. I was wondering whether the turbaned person would have to climb all the way down to the ground and up into the other minaret, when lights began to flicker there too. But what I really wondered was what my companion meant by his odd proverb.

‘Have you been much on the sea?’ I asked, hoping to find out.

‘Eh, my father was a stoker on the Leopard of the Sea, and when I was thirteen or fourteen I went on board too. The captain took a fancy to me, and when I grew up they made me a lieutenant. But we only went outside once; that time we went to Yemen.’

‘Oh!’ I exclaimed, beginning to be interested in my man and resolving to seize him by the leg if he got up from his stone. ‘ What sort of a ship was the Leopard of the Sea?’

‘Did n’t you ever hear of her?’ he asked in surprise. I did n’t answer and he went on, ‘She was not a battleship, if that is what you mean. They called her a cruiser. She was an old steamer they bought in Europe. Sometimes she carried soldiers to the Dardanelles, but most of the time she lay in the Golden Horn.'

‘How did she happen to go to Yemen?’

The experience of a lengthening career has taught me that information may sometimes be obtained by asking for it, and this time my strategy was successful.

‘It was an idea of Sultan Hamid. One night, late, late, an aide-de-camp from the Palace came on board with an officer in chains, and said that we were to take him at once to Yemen. Ten minutes later another aide-de-camp came to say good-bye to the officer, from the Sultan, and to give him his promotion as general and to make him a present of five hundred pounds. They said he was a Circassian prince and that he had been plotting. It was a lie. But Sultan Hamid believed it. And how was he to know that you cannot start for Yemen like that, in ten minutes? It was not his trade. It was ours; but none of us were on board, and we had no coal, and no food, and nothing, and the people from the Palace said we must be gone before morning. So sailors came to wake us up — as many of us as they could find — and there was great calamity. And we did start before morning. We got a tug to pull us, and we went around to Küchük Chekmejeh, in the Marmora, and there we staid till we were ready to start. It took us two or three weeks. The machine was old and broken, and we had to get an Englishman to mend it. And the Leopard of the Sea had been lying so long in the harbor that no one could find her bottom. It was all grown with bushes and trees, like a garden. And what mussels grew in the garden! And what pilaf they made! We picked off all we could, and we ate them ourselves till we were sick of them, and we sold the rest. The mussels of the Leopard of the Sea were famous in Constantinople. Afterwards we were sorry we had sold the mussels though. When at last we started for Yemen each one of us had ten loaves of bread and some olives and cheese. We did n’t know how long we would be on the way. At the end of three days we had only just passed the Dardanelles and the cheese and olives were gone. A day or two later the bread was gone too, though we were still far from Yemen.’

‘How about water?’ I asked.

‘Water we had, thanks to God! We had a machine for making the water of the sea sweet. It was only food we did n’t have. We had to stop at an island and get some.’

‘What island was it?’ pursued I, in curiosity, wondering how far the Leopard of the Sea got on ten loaves of bread a man.

‘How should I know? It was an island in the White Sea.’ By which he meant not our White Sea but the Mediterranean. ‘I did n’t ask the name. Greeks lived on it. The governor of course was a Turk. We were very sorry when we left it. The sea began to show himself after that. Until then we had not known him.’

‘Were you sick?’

The darkness hid on my face the grin without which this question may not be asked.

‘ My soul! Who is not sick when the wind blows on the sea — unless he is accustomed? We were not accustomed. How should we be? We had never put our noses outside the Dardanelles. It was worst for the captain and me, because we had to stay on deck and steer whether we were sick or not. But we got accustomed by-and-by. And the captain taught me a little about the machine which points its finger at the Great Bear, and about the papers wherein are written all the lands and islands of the earth. And after two or three weeks we found Egypt. It seemed to me a miracle. When I saw it lying white and flat on the edge of the sea and the captain said it was Egypt, I said to myself, How do we know that it is Egypt? It may be Persia. It may be England. But it was Egypt, thanks to God! And if it had not been for the Circassian I don’t know what we would have done. He was a very good man. The aide-de-camp who brought him from the Palace said that he was to be kept shut up in a small room and that he was to eat nothing but bread and water. But we were all shut up and none of us had anything but bread and water, and not always that. And so the captain very soon let the Circassian do what he liked. And when we got to Egypt the Circassian bought food and coal for us, out of the money the Sultan had given him. For we had none. We had spent all we had at Küchük Chekmejeh and at the island. Then we went on, through the river that goes into the Arabian Sea. We had orders to take the Circassian to Jeddah, but at Suez they brought us a telegram telling us to go on without stopping to Hodeidah, and afterwards to bring the Circassian back to Jeddah. At Hodeidah however we found another telegram which said that we were to go on to Bassorah, for some soldiers.’

‘To Bassorah!’ I exclaimed.

I began to feel hopelessly choked up with questions. I wanted to know more about the Circassian. I wanted to know more about the captain. I wanted to know more about everything. The man whom chance had brought for a moment to a stone beside me had an Odyssey in him, if one could only get at it.

‘To Bassorah, ya!’ he said before I could stop him. ‘And a time we had getting to Bassorah — more than two months. It was so hot we could not sleep at night, and again we had nothing to eat. And worst of all, the machine that made the water of the sea sweet got a hole in it, we used it so much, and after that the water was only partly sweet. And it was so bad we tried to find water on the land, and one night we went too near and sat.’ (By which the lieutenant of the Leopard of the Sea meant that they ran aground.)

‘We sat for two weeks, trying to get away. It was good that the wind did not blow in that time. In the end I don’t know whether more water came into the sea or what happened, but all of a sudden we found that we could move. Then another calamity came on our heads. Although we had been sitting for two weeks we had been burning coal most of the time, trying to get away. So before we got to Bassorah no coal was left. The Circassian had bought more than we needed to get to Jeddah or even to Hodeidah, but we never expected to go any farther. So we spent all our time finding wood for the machine. We burned up all the doors, all the chairs, all the tables, all the boats. We cut down walls in the ship, we tore up decks. And then we only just got into the river of Bassorah.

‘At Bassorah how good it was to put our feet on the earth! And if you knew what a country that is — hot, flat, dirty! They speak Arabic too, which none of us could understand but the Circassian. And thieves! We had already burned up most of the ship, but they would have stolen the rest if we had let them. So although we had come to land we still had no peace. And twelve hundred soldiers were waiting for us and expected to be taken away immediately. They had been in Arabia seven years, poor things, although when they went the government promised that they should stay only three. There had been three thousand of them in the beginning. More than half of them had died, not from bullets but from the sun of that country and its poisonous air. And not one of them had been paid or had had a new uniform in seven years. You would have wept to see them — how ragged and thin they were, and how they begged us to pay them and take them away.

‘How could we take them away or pay them? We had not been paid ourselves for four or five months, and we had no food or water or coal, and nobody would give us any. We went to the governor, we went to the general, we went to everybody; but not a para could we get. The Circassian still had a little money, most of which we used in telegraphing to Constantinople. And still no money came. We had to sell our watches, our clothes, anything we had left. One day we even sold two windows — you know the little round windows in the wall of a ship? A fat Arab wanted them for his house. What could we do? We had to live. We could n’t find any others to take their places and so we nailed kerosene tins over the holes — one inside and one outside. They looked very funny, like blind eyes. They were at the bow, one on each sided.'

My companion paused a moment, as if musing over the blind eyes of the Leopard of the Sea. Then he rolled himself another cigarette. I noticed for the first time that the minarets of Yeni Jami were fully alight, and that other lights were beginning to hang in the darkness between them.

‘In the end it was the Circassian again who got us away from Bassorah. He gave the captain the last money he had and told him to telegraph to Sultan Hamid and say five hundred pounds must be sent to us immediately or we would go to Europe and set the Circassian free. How was Sultan Hamid in his palace to know that we had no coal and could not go to Europe if we wanted to? But the next day the governor came to the captain with five hundred pounds and a decoration, which he pinned on his coat with much speech, and invited him not to let the dangerous Circassian go. The dangerous Circassian was there listening with the others, and the governor liked to speak with him more than with any of us, because he was an effendi and knew all the people of the Palace. The governor after all, poor man, was no better than an exile himself.

‘So at last we started back to Jeddah, with money in our pockets and bread in the cupboard and coal in the machine. The captain took care to put a lot in the place where the windows had been that he sold, to keep the tin tight against the wall of the ship. We got along very well that time. We reached Jeddah in forty-five days. Before we got there the captain told the Circassian that he would not give him to the governor but that he would give another man, one of the soldiers, and say it was the Circassian, and bring the Circassian back to Egypt and let him go. But the Circassian would not allow him. He said it was not just that another man should be punished in his place, and that they would find it out in Constantinople and punish the captain and the governor and there would be many calamities. Even when the captain wept and kissed his feet, the Circassian would not allow him. You see they had lived together for so many months and had suffered so much together that they had become friends. Ah, he was a very good man. Because he was a good man God rewarded him, as you will see.’

I did not see at once, however, for my companion stopped again. And when he went on it was not to give me any essential light on the history of the mysterious Circassian.

‘I told you about the soldiers we brought from Bassorah, who had been in Arabia seven years and who had never been paid. They were so glad to leave Bassorah that they made little noise about their money, and the general promised them that they would get it in Jeddah. But when they heard the story of the Circassian, how he telegraphed to Sultan Hamid and got money for us, they said it was a shame that he did n’t get money for them too: they had gone seven years without a para. And when the general of Jeddah told them that they would be paid in Constantinople they made much noise. They would not believe that the general had no money, and they brought the Circassian into it again and said he must telegraph to Sultan Hamid. They could not understand! It was only when the general threatened to keep them in Yemen and send the Leopard of the Sea home without them that they were quiet.

‘We were sorry to leave the Circassian in Jeddah, but we were glad to start away at last. It is the country of the Prophet, but, vallah! it is a dirty country! We came quickly enough up to Egypt. The Leopard of the Sea walked more slowly than ever, because the hole in the machine for making the water of the sea sweet spoiled the water, and the bad water spoiled the machine of the ship. Still, we went forward all the time. And in Egypt, thanks to God, there was no telegram. And our hearts became light when we came once more into the White Sea, where it seemed cold to us after Yemen. The captain said he would stop nowhere till we got to the Dardanelles, lest he should find a telegram. But our calamities were not quite done. It was because of the soldiers again. After they smelled the air of their country once more and ate bread every day, something came to them. They went to the captain one morning and said, “We wish to go to Beirout.” The captain told them he could n’t go to Beirout. He had orders to go to Constantinople. What did they wish in Beirout? They merely answered, “ We wish to go to Beirout.” And in the end they went to Beirout. What could the captain do? They were a thousand, with guns, and we were forty or fifty; and they were very angry. They said they were fools ever to have left Arabia without their money and they were tired of promises.

‘So we went to Beirout. The soldiers told the captain that he need not mix in their business: they had thought of a thing to do. Only let him wait till they were ready to go. And half of them staid on the steamer to see that he did not go away and leave them. The other half went on shore and asked where was the governor’s palace. Every one was much surprised to see six hundred ragged soldiers going to the governor’s palace, and many followed them. When they reached the palace the soldiers asked for the governor. A servant told them that the governor was not there. “Never mind,” said the soldiers, “ we are six hundred, and on the ship there are six hundred more, and we will find the governor.” Then they were told to wait a little and the governor would come. And the governor did come. For I suppose he was not pleased that there should be scandal in the city. Also it happened that he had very few soldiers of his own, because there was fighting in the Lebanon. He received the six hundred very politely, and gave them coffee and cigarettes, and asked them what he could do for them. And they told him their story, and what they had suffered, and how many of them had died, and that they had never been paid, and they said their hearts were broken and they wished their money. The governor said they were right, and it was hard for a man to go seven years without being paid; still, he was not their general; how could he pay them? “You can telegraph to Sultan Hamid,” they said, “and he will send you the money. We shall wait here till the answer comes.” And they waited, the six hundred of them.

‘They made no noise and frightened no one, but they sat there on the floor with their rifles on their knees, and smoked cigarettes with the soldiers of the governor — who pitied them and said they would never drive them away. And by and by the governor came back and said he had heard from Sultan Hamid, who said it was a sin that his children should be treated in that way, and they should have their money. And then he called a scribe, and they made an account, and the soldiers took the money. It came to eight or nine thousand pounds. And a mistake was made by the scribe, and some soldiers got too little, and the governor gave them what was owed. And the soldiers said they were glad they had not been paid in seven years — to get so much now.

‘The captain was not pleased by this work, for it put us back many days and he thought Sultan Hamid might be angry if he got too many telegrams asking for money. However, the captain was pleased and we were all pleased to get away from Beirout with no more trouble. But of course the soldiers were the most pleased, who smelled their own country again after seven years, and who had their money at last. They sat on the deck all day counting it, and singing, and some had pipes which they played, and those who were Laz or Kurds or Albanians danced the dances of their country. But before long the sea began to dance, and then they stopped. And byand-by, the wind blew so hard they could not stay on deck. We did not mind, because we were accustomed; and the wind was from the south, which helped us. But they were not accustomed, and they were very sick. The ship was so small and they were so many that downstairs there was no room to turn without stepping on a sick soldier. And water poured down from above, and they all got soaked as they lay on the floor. If we had not burned up all the sofas and tables and chairs in the sea of Bassorah there never would have been beds enough for them. And at last there came a night when even the captain and I began to think. The ship went this side, the ship went the other side, waves rolled back and forth in the cabin, everywhere there were cracks and macks till we thought the Leopard of the Sea would crack in two. By God, it was a night of much fear. But what is there more than kismet? It was our kismet that that also should pass.’

I saw it was time to open the shutter of my camera, for the lights between the minarets of Yeni Jami had grouped themselves into the image of a ship. It seemed an odd coincidence. When I sat down again on my stone, after pinching the bulb, the lieutenant of the Leopard of the Sea continued to stare abstractedly at the little bark of gold sailing in the dark sky.

‘Who shall escape his destiny?’ he uttered at length. ‘For six months we had had no peace. We had lacked bread. We had suffered storms. We had sat on the floor of the sea. We had been burned and frozen. We had been robbed. We had been worse off than beggars. We had been unjustly treated. We had eaten all manner of dung. But no harm had come to us, thanks to God! And the morning after that night was like a morning of paradise. The sun was bright and warm. The sea was blue, blue. There was no wind. There were hardly any waves, for we were among the islands again. We could see on them the flowers of almond trees and peach trees. The soldiers said they heard the birds. They had forgotten all their calamities, the soldiers, and were sitting on the deck again, counting their gold, singing, playing pipes, dancing. And in front of us we could see the mountains of the Dardanelles.’

He sighed, telling the beads of the string he carried as he went over the memory in his mind.

‘There was only one thing. The Leopard of the Sea sat very low in the water. Why not, after the rivers that came in the night before? I thought nothing of it. We pumped, but we did n’t mind because we were so near home. I saw, though, that the captain was thinking. I asked him if he was afraid they would make trouble for us about the telegrams and the money. Sultan Hamid often did things for reasons that were not apparent, and he never forgot.

‘“God love you!” said the captain. “I think nothing of that. But do you remember those windows we sold in Bassorah? Those are what make me think. We needed bread then, it is true, and no one can blame us. Also we nailed the tin on very tightly. But in the storm I kept thinking of them. And you see the bow now is lower than the stern. Those blind eyes are under water.”

‘“They will still see the way to Stamboul,” I told him. “There is plenty of coal behind the tin.”

‘“Yes,” he said, “but coal is like rice. It drinks up water, more and more, without your knowing it.”

‘“Eh, if we have a pilaf of coal in the ship, what matter?” I said.

‘He laughed.

‘“I would not mind so much if we had not burned the boats. Just look downstairs and see if there is much water about.”

‘I looked, and I could n’t find any to speak of. I went down to the engine room, without telling them why I came, and there was very little. What they were thinking of down there was the machine. It had become more and more rotten, from the bad water, till it would hardly work. The door of our house was open in front of us, but when we would have run to it like boys, the Leopard of the Sea could only walk, slowly, slowly, like an old man.’

He had left out enormously, and I realized in the end that I had small notion what manner of man he was himself. But I am bound to say that he did make vivid, as we squatted there on our neighborly stones, the final case of the Leopard of the Sea.

‘Why should I make much speech? The old man never found the door of his house. It was because of his blind eyes. But until the last moment we hoped we might get to the Dardanelles. The sea became more and more quiet. It was more beautiful than anything I have ever seen, like blue jewels with light shining through them. A great purple island stood not far away, and white houses were on it. And sails played like children on the floor of the sea. It was so beautiful and so still that the soldiers were not frightened. They noticed that the ship settled in the water, but the captain told them it was nothing. He asked me what we should do — whether we should let off steam to keep the machine from blowing up. We finally decided not to. We might reach land after all, and steamers and ships were all about us. While if we let off steam and signaled for help, there would be much confusion and the soldiers might make another calamity; for they were very simple. “Akh! if they only had n’t made us go to Beirout!” the captain said. “We would have been at home by this time.”But we were very sorry for them.’

He stopped again for a moment, yet I knew in my perverted literary heart that it was wholly without melodramatic intent.

‘The sun set. Night came — a warm night of stars. I remember how they looked, and how the soldiers sang on the deck, and then how the Leopard of the Sea suddenly began to run — but down, pitching forward.’

I wondered many things, but chiefly if he would say anything more. It seemed indecent to ask him. Presently he did, though not just what I hoped. First, however, he leaned over and patted the ground.

‘The earth!’he said. ‘The earth! I like to feel that under my feet!’

Then he got up, made me a courteous salaam, and left me on my stone to stare at the little ship of light hanging over the dark mosque.