Chapter X. The Adventure Of The Fifty Hostages
Gallipoli lies by the Sea of Marmora, and looks out across it to the green hills of Asia, just where the blue Marmora narrows into the Dardanelles. It is one of those crowded little Turkish towns set on a blazing hillside - tangled streets, unpainted, gray, weather-warped frame houses, with overhanging latticed windows and roofs of red tiles; little walled-in gardens with dark cedars or cypresses and a few dusty roses; fountains with Turkish inscriptions, where the streets fork and women come to fill their water-jars - a dreamy, smelly, sun-drenched little town, drowsing on as it has drowsed for hundreds of years. Nothing ever happens in Gallipoli - I speak as if the war hadn't happened! The graceful Greek sloops, with their bellying sails and turned-up stems and sterns, come sailing in much as they must have come when the Persians, instead of the English and the French, were battering away at the Hellespont. The grave, long-nosed old Turks pull at their bubble pipes and sip their little cups of sweet, black coffee; the camel trains, dusty and tinkling, come winding down the narrow streets from the Thracian wheat country and go back with oversea merchandise done up in faded carpets and boxes of Standard Oil. The wind blows from the north, and it is cold, and the Marmora gray; it blows from the south, and all at once the world is warm and sea and sky are blue - so soft, so blue, so alive with lifting radiance that one does not wonder the Turk is content with a cup of coffee and a view.
Nothing ever happens in Gallipoli - then the war came, and everything happened at once. It was a still May morning, a Sunday morning, when the English and French sent some of their ships up into the Gulf of Saros, on the Aegean side of the peninsula, over behind Gallipoli. Eight or ten miles of rolling country shut away the Aegean, and made people feel safe enough. They might have been in the other wars which have touched Gallipoli, but a few miles of country were nothing at all to the guns of a modern battleship.
An observation-balloon looked up over the western horizon, there was a sudden thunder, and all at once the sky above Gallipoli rained screaming shells and death. You can imagine - at any rate remembering Antwerp, I could very well imagine - how that hurricane of fire, sweeping in without warning, from people knew not where, must have seemed like the end of the world. You can imagine the people - old men with turbans undone, veiled women, crying babies - tumbling out of the little bird-cage houses and down the narrow streets. Off went the minaret, as you would knock off an icicle, from the mosque on the hill. The mosque by the water-front went down in a cloud of dust, and up from the dust, from a petrol shell, shot a geyser of fire. Stones came rumbling down from the old square tower, which had stood since the days of Bayazid; the faded gray houses squashed like eggs. It was all over in an hour - some say even twenty, minutes - but that was long enough to empty Gallipoli, to kill some sixty or seventy people, and drive the rest into the caves under the cliffs by the water, or across the Marmora to Lapsaki.
Now, while the bombardment of Gallipoli may not appear from a merely human point of view, a particularly sporting performance, yet, as most of those killed were soldiers, as Gallipoli had been a staff head-quarters not long before and always has been a natural base for the defense of the Dardanelles, the attack was doubtless justified by the rules of war. It happens, however, that people who live in defenseless, bombarded towns are never interested in the rules of war. So a new and particularly disturbing rumor went flying through the crowded streets of Constantinople.
It is a city of rumors, this beautiful, bewildering Bagdad of the West, where all the races of the world jostle each other in the narrow streets, and you never know how the man who brushes past you lives - let alone feels and thinks. The Constantinople trolley-cars are divided by a curtain, on one side of which sit the men, on the other the veiled women. When there are several women the conductor slides the curtain along, so that half the car is a harem; when there are none he slides it back, and there is no harem at all.
And life is like that. You are at once in a modern commercial city and an ancient Mohammedan capital, and never know when the one will fade out like a picture on a screen and leave you in the Orient, facing its mystery, its fatalism, its vengeance that comes in a night.