Chapter XI. With The Turks At The Dardanelles
The little side-wheeler - she had been built in Glasgow in 1892, and done duty as a Bosporus ferry-boat until the war began - was supposed to sail at four, but night shut down and she still lay at the wharf in Stamboul. We contrived to get some black bread, hard-boiled eggs, oranges, and helva from one of the little hole-in-the-wall shops near by, watched Pera and its ascending roofs turn to purple, and the purple to gray and black, until Constantinople was but a string of lights across Galata Bridge, and a lamp here and there on the hills. Then, toward midnight, with lights doused and life-belts strung along the rail - for English submarines were in the Marmora - we churned quietly round the corner of Stamboul and into the cool sea.
The side-wheeler was bound for the Dardanelles with provisions for the army - bread in bags, big hampers of green beans, and cigarettes - and among them we were admitted by grace of the minister of war, and papers covered with seals and Turkish characters, which neither of us could read. We tried to curl up on top of the beans (for the Marmora is cold at night, and the beans still held some of the warmth of the fields), but in the end took to blankets and the bare decks.
All night we went chunking southward - it is well over a hundred miles from Constantinople to the upper entrance to the straits - and shook ourselves out of our blankets and the cinders into another of those blue-and-gold mornings which belong to this part of the world. You must imagine it behind all this strange fighting at the Dardanelles - sunshine and blue water, a glare which makes the Westerner squint; moons that shine like those in the tropics. One cannot send a photograph of it home any more than I could photograph the view from my hotel window here on Pera Hill of Stamboul and the Golden Horn. You would have the silhouette, but you could not see the sunshine blazing on white mosques and minarets, the white mosques blazing against terra-cotta roofs and dusty green cedars and cypresses, the cypresses lifting dark and pensive shafts against the blue - all that splendid, exquisite radiance which bursts through one's window shutters every morning and makes it seem enough to look and a waste of time to try to think.
It is the air the gods and heroes used to breathe; they fought and played, indeed, over these very waters and wind-swept hills. Leander swam the Dardanelles (or Hellespont) close to where the Irresistible and Bouvet were sunk; the wind that blew in our faces that morning was the same that rippled the drapery of the Winged Victory. As we went chunking southward with our beans and cigarettes, we could see the snows of Olympus - the Mysian Olympus, at any rate, if not the one where Jove, the cloud-compelling, used to live, and white-armed Juno, and Pallas, Blue-Eyed Maid. If only our passports had taken us to Troy we could have looked down the plains of Ilium to the English and French ships, and Australian and French colonials fighting up the hillside across the bay. We got tea from the galley, and-with bread and helva (an insinuating combination of sugar and oil of sesame, which tastes of peanuts and is at once a candy and a sort of substitute for butter or meat) made out a breakfast.
A Turkish soldier, the only other occupant of the deck, surveyed these preparations impassively; then, taking off his boots, climbed on a settee and stood there in his big bare feet, with folded hands, facing, as he thought, toward Mecca. The boat was headed southwest, and he looked to starboard, so that he faced, as a matter of fact, nearly due west. He had knelt and touched his forehead twice to the bench, and was going on with the Mussulman prayer when the captain, a rather elegant young man who had served in the navy, murmured something as he passed. The soldier looked round thoughtfully; without embarrassment, surprise, or hurry stepped from the settee, pointed it toward the Asiatic shore, and, stepping up again, resumed his devotions.
Five times that day, as the faithful are commanded, he said his prayer - a sight that followed us everywhere that week. One evening after dusk, on another boat, a fireman came up from below, climbed on a settee, and began his prayer. Several passengers, who had not seen him in the dark, walked in front of him. He broke off, reviled them in true fire-room style, then with a wide gesture, as though sweeping the air clear ahead of him all the way to the holy city, began at the beginning again. Soldiers up in the Gallipoli hills, the captain on the bridge, a stevedore working on a lighter in the blaze of noon with the winch engines squealing round him - you turn round to find a man, busy the moment before, standing like a statue, hands folded in front of him, facing the east. Nothing stops him; no one seems to see him; he stands invisible in the visible world - in a world apart, 'indeed, to which the curious, self-conscious Westerner is not admitted, where, doubtless, he is no more than the dust which the other shakes from his feet before he is fit to address his God.
The Marmora narrowed, we passed Gallipoli on the European side, where the English and French hostages had had their curious adventure the week before, and on into the Dardanelles proper and the zone of war. It was some forty miles down this salt-water river (four miles wide at its widest, and between the forts of Chanak Kale and Kilid Bahr, near its lower end, a fraction over a mile) from the Marmora gateway to the Aegean. On the left were Lapsaki and the green hills of Asia, cultivated to their very tops; on the right Europe and the brown hills of the peninsula, now filled with guns and horses and men.