CHAPTER III - CONSTANTINOPLE
EVEN if we don't take a part in the chant about "mosques and minarets," we can still yield praises to Stamboul. We can chant about the harbour; we can say, and sing, that nowhere else does the sea come so home to a city; there are no pebbly shores - no sand bars - no slimy river-beds - no black canals - no locks nor docks to divide the very heart of the place from the deep waters. If being in the noisiest mart of Stamboul you would stroll to the quiet side of the way amidst those cypresses opposite, you will cross the fathomless Bosphorus; if you would go from your hotel to the bazaars, you must go by the bright, blue pathway of the Golden Horn, that can carry a thousand sail of the line. You are accustomed to the gondolas that glide among the palaces of St. Mark, but here at Stamboul it is a 120 gun ship that meets you in the street. Venice strains out from the steadfast land, and in old times would send forth the chief of the State to woo and wed the reluctant sea; but the stormy bride of the Doge is the bowing slave of the Sultan. She comes to his feet with the treasures of the world - she bears him from palace to palace - by some unfailing witchcraft she entices the breezes to follow her * and fan the pale cheek of her lord - she lifts his armed navies to the very gates of his garden - she watches the walls of his SERAI - she stifles the intrigues of his ministers - she quiets the scandals of his courts - she extinguishes his rivals, and hushes his naughty wives all one by one. So vast are the wonders of the deep!
* There is almost always a breeze either from the Marmora or from the Black Sea, that passes along the course of the Bosphorus.
All the while that I stayed at Constantinople the plague was prevailing, but not with any degree of violence. Its presence, however, lent a mysterious and exciting, though not very pleasant, interest to my first knowledge of a great Oriental city; it gave tone and colour to all I saw, and all I felt - a tone and a colour sombre enough, but true, and well befitting the dreary monuments of past power and splendour. With all that is most truly Oriental in its character the plague is associated; it dwells with the faithful in the holiest quarters of their city. The coats and the hats of Pera are held to be nearly as innocent of infection as they are ugly in shape and fashion; but the rich furs and the costly shawls, the broidered slippers and the gold-laden saddle-cloths, the fragrance of burning aloes and the rich aroma of patchouli - these are the signs that mark the familiar home of plague. You go out from your queenly London - the centre of the greatest and strongest amongst all earthly dominions - you go out thence, and travel on to the capital of an Eastern Prince, you find but a waning power, and a faded splendour, that inclines you to laugh and mock; but let the infernal Angel of Plague be at hand, and he, more mighty than armies, more terrible than Suleyman in his glory, can restore such pomp and majesty to the weakness of the Imperial city, that if, WHEN HE IS THERE, you must still go prying amongst the shades of this dead empire, at least you will tread the path with seemly reverence and awe.
It is the firm faith of almost all the Europeans living in the East that Plague is conveyed by the touch of infected substances, and that the deadly atoms especially lurk in all kinds of clothes and furs. It is held safer to breathe the same air with a man sick of the plague, and even to come in contact with his skin, than to be touched by the smallest particle of woollen or of thread which may have been within the reach of possible infection. If this be a right notion, the spread of the malady must be materially aided by the observance of a custom prevailing amongst the people of Stamboul. It is this; when an Osmanlee dies, one of his dresses is cut up, and a small piece of it is sent to each of his friends as a memorial of the departed - a fatal present, according to the opinion of the Franks, for it too often forces the living not merely to remember the dead man, but to follow and bear him company.
The Europeans during the prevalence of the plague, if they are forced to venture into the streets, will carefully avoid the touch of every human being whom they pass. Their conduct in this respect shows them strongly in contrast with the "true believers": the Moslem stalks on serenely, as though he were under the eye of his God, and were "equal to either fate"; the Franks go crouching and slinking from death, and some (those chiefly of French extraction) will fondly strive to fence out destiny with shining capes of oilskin!
For some time you may manage by great care to thread your way through the streets of Stamboul without incurring contact, for the Turks, though scornful of the terrors felt by the Franks, are generally very courteous in yielding to that which they hold to be a useless and impious precaution, and will let you pass safe if they can. It is impossible, however, that your immunity can last for any length of time if you move about much through the narrow streets and lanes of a crowded city.