Chapter Fifteen – Forbidden Love

He had stayed away from these things all winter. As he listened to Nihal, places, flooded with light and streams of colour, were opening before his eyes, and he was seeing a scene on the Odéon stage, one of the Concordia’s wild revels; then naked shoulders, arms, little, delicate, white satin evening shoes were gliding through his mind’s eye in swift flight. Then he was feeling a deep yearning in his heart; his life ought to be tumbling about in the thrills of that world. How had he spent the unending nights of an entire season in the armchairs of this sad, worn yalı, with the lethargy of an old, ailing cat that sought to escape the cold of death by crawling under the braziers?

There was no doubt that he loved Bihter; never in his life had he had such a deep, enduring affair. Of course this was his first and last love; but would it always continue in this fashion, with the same meetings, the same words spoken at the same moments, the same kisses exchanged with the same vows of devotion, like a marriage in meaning and melody?

Slowly, he had begun to wish for novelties, for different flavours in the palette of this romance. In the first weeks there had been things that made them shiver with fear; until they had possessed each other entirely, while there were still distances to be overcome in their love, they would feel a thirst for the satisfaction of their desires. But later, when there was nothing more to be expected from the continuance of this affair, the quiet hours had begun, those monotonous hours whose calm was like death throes. There was nothing of the passions, the thrills, the frenzies, the tears, the wild struggles to love each other better, in short, nothing of that urgency that ever replenishes a romance; they were no longer even jealous of each other…

Behlül, in complete contrast to his expectation, was finding in Bihter a soft, gentle woman; she had a way of coming to his room, as if obeying some rule, that made even Behlül feel uneasy; they could find no time to desire each other in this relationship. Behlül was realising, though not quite clearly, that in the hands of this woman he himself was beginning to take on the part of a woman. He was the one who was sought out in his rooms, the one who was taken and possessed whenever he was desired. While he could not examine it fully, he felt that the manner of this affair was belittling to him, and in the depths of his heart, in a place kept secret even from himself, he felt an enmity towards Bihter.

By his account, there was some pleasing loveliness missing in this delicious woman; in their love-making, Bihter became so material, she consented to all of Behlül’s passionate desires with such surrender, that what might have been generous turned against her and became contemptible things that made her common and disgraceful. Nothing was denied Behlül, no desire of his was thought excessive. But he relied on the pleasure of being rejected, on pleading, on the object of desire being hard-won.

One night, as an idea that would surely be spurned, he had wanted to get Bihter drunk. She would cry out against the idea; he hoped that she would not consent to this wish with a wanton weakness. Then to search for this woman’s intoxicating love, to conquer her, would be a great satisfaction. However, when Bihter agreed, the thought of making her drunk disgusted Behlül. This incident remained an unfinished joke between them; but in Behlül’s heart at least, there was a resentment towards her borne of her failure to refuse.

This resentment rose from being unable to respect Bihter. For men to love a woman, they need to be able to respect her; towards dishonourable women, even in the most violent loves, they never fail to feel a certain contempt. While he avoided analysing his feelings clearly, Behlül had at last begun to see Bihter as a woman who escaped her marriage bed and entered the intimacy of another’s room, and at night, in his room, sinking into the armchair by the stove, scanning a few pages of Paul Bourget — that ruthless anatomist of women — he would at one and the same time wish for Bihter to come, and dread her coming.

If Bihter had only been angry at him, and not spoken to him for a few weeks, yes, if they were only odds for a few weeks, if Behlül waited for days in order to see her for just five minutes and finally convince her to forgive him, and then if they tearfully threw themselves in each other’s arms… he felt that then he would not be thinking the thoughts that now came upon him involuntarily.

The last days of this one season’s affair had been such a hurly burly beginning of an era for Behlül that during this period, unwilling, not yet feeling clearly the tedium of romance, he would find flaws in the woman he loved. All the dream flowers that ornamented her in the spring of love would appear withered, and the reasons that had once been invented to love, would slowly become reasons not to love. In Behlül’s eyes, Bihter was always that gorgeous, and singular woman. In her dress, her conversation, her way of sitting, her way of unfolding her fan, her way of tucking in her veil, the way she could give her face a new expression with a few expert touches of her hair, the smile that made the dimple at the corner of her mouth waver, the way she lifted her brows and gave the simplest word the beauty of poetry, with a thousand little nothings; the effect that he had when he first saw her still continued. He was aware that he would never have any power left over from desiring this woman, but the ease with which this romance had begun and was continued, the calm of this love devoid of danger, of incident, of noise, left him free for such long hours in comfort that he was finding time to think.

Whenever he noticed himself thinking like this, he would give himself a shake and wish to stop thinking. In love, if the heart begins to be silent and the mind begins to exercise its skills, that love becomes an ailing child, with noxious medicines running through its veins rather than fresh blood. He would keep himself from thinking in order to spare this child those vile medicines.

How many times, as he thought in this way, had he accused Bihter for the ease with which the romance had begun and was continued. That fall, that defeat that had come about at such an unexpected moment in his room, through a few words that had been dared to be spoken for the first time, he considered a fault.

Bihter had not left Behlül any opportunity to demonstrate his skill. He had found himself as confused as an artist on the stage, being applauded before he had been able to perform his piece, with Bihter in his arms. This woman, who had fallen so easily, still continued to give her love to him with the same ease. Even the short period of a guilty conscience that had followed the first fall seemed to Behlül’s eyes a half-finished, badly-written comedy where the curtain fell suddenly. Since then, Bihter did not appear to feel the mortification, the shame of this affair. But Behlül now felt that mortification, that shame. How many times, when she was in his arms, had he wanted to shake himself, and say, ‘but don’t you feel what a sordid affair this is!’ He was forgiving himself, and all of the reasons he found to forgive himself were becoming excuses to lay the blame on Bihter. The woman who had come to take him, still persisted in coming to take him, and he saw himself as an innocent murder weapon in her hands.

As he sat thinking thus, busying his brain with searching out the responsibility for this forbidden love, he would suddenly check himself from following his reason, and find a sentence to safeguard his love against his thoughts.

‘See what men are,’ he would say. ‘They are never satisfied. If they no longer want to love, they find an excuse to burden women with all the faults of their fall and its banality, and then look for ways to demean the poor wretches by also laying the charge of not loving at their feet.’

Whereas not loving Bihter was for him a cost that he could not recoup. He considered this woman a paradisal elixir that he could drink forever even after his thirst was slaked. From the moment he lost her, he was sure he would long for her violently. In this romance, Behlül was like a patient with his own fingers on his pulse. Yet the illness continued to broil with the secret treachery of a deep, fiery volcano.

He even used Firdevs Hanım as an excuse to disparage Bihter. This woman, who was once the brightest face in Istanbul’s elite, leisurely class, now looked so strange to Behlül in her laughable attempts to appear fresh, but strange in such a disgusting way that upon all of the splendour of the Melih Bey set, from this pall, there seemed to spread layer after layer of clouds and far off, on a vague horizon, Bihter’s face was being darkened by the shadows of these clouds. This mother was like a future page of her daughter. He could see her, too, in an inexorable vision, lying on a chaise longue to rest her aching knees as she squeezed the hand of a boy whose beard was just coming through. After Firdevs Hanım’s singular life of pleasure, the unnatural faces and the risible outfits that were born of her slowly ailing mind were so much the painful oddities of a bankrupt youth that as an entertainment they could  only make one cry.

Behlül could still see the eyes of this woman who clenched her teeth to keep from crying out at the pain in her knees, whose dyed, pale yellow hair was puffed up with hair rats, with her strange red-black dress and the vest that left her wrinkled arms bare, and he was finding such a resemblance between these eyes and Bihter’s eyes that he could not keep himself from imagining, behind this vision, the face of a Bihter past fifty, painted with a sickly pleasure.

Sometimes he would find fault with himself too. In this affair, he was acting with the clumsiness of a boy trying to manage his first romantic experience. He too had done nothing to divert this relationship from its calm course, even to invent those sought-after passions and excitements. He had spent a long winter season thus, in the slumber of a placid romance, resting his weary head on the soft pillows of matrimony with all the docility of the lovesick.

Nihal was continuing to play without pause, closing the books and throwing them on the carpet as she finished a piece, abandoning those she did not like, and beginning something else. As she ran out of things to play before her, she would ask Behlül, without turning her head, ‘what else? What else?’

Yes, he had slept through an entire season. He was seeing Nihal’s profile, and as he thought, his eyes were growing blurry, and Nihal’s thin face was rising shimmering as if through a wavering mist. As he watched Nihal, he was whistling along to a tune she was playing. Suddenly he wondered, what was it?

‘What is it you’re playing, Nihal?’

‘How should I know? You just gave it me…’

Nihal, continuing to play with her right hand, showed him the cover with her left hand.

Behlül peered down. ‘Ah, of course,’ he said.

It was a song that had been all over Beyoğlu a year ago, and he had heard it for the first time at the Concordia from a Dutch girl. He had ordered this piece specially at that time. As Nihal played, Behlül saw himself among his wild companions at the Concordia. On the stage was Kette, that coquettish girl, with a smile that showed all her little, white teeth, her blonde — almost white — hair curled into a cat-like coiffure, and with the expressions of her small, yellow eyes that emphasised the dirty implications of this song’s suggestive stanzas, as she threw them out one by one like alms to the hungry, greedy audience who waited to plunder pieces of her youth and beauty; and this audience, afire with this young and beautiful girl’s flirtations, parched by the flame of their unsatisfied desires, opened their mouths and with a howl that emptied their breasts of those heaving desires, sang the chorus along with her. It was as if this girl, standing on the stage with her elegant feline hair, invited the madly bellowing crowd to charge, and finally during the chorus, held them in a wild embrace, squeezing them with her arms as if to break their bones.

Meanwhile, everyone talked of the girl’s virtuousness, estimated her to be no older than sixteen, and invented strange adventures about her. Her father, it was said, was a sailor whose ship was lost off the coast of Australia; her mother, a respectable widow, was placing her daughter on the small stages of the big cities. Kette, with her fame of remaining a jasmine floating atop the filthy water of these theatres, became a wild, maddening object for those who had grown tired of so easily attaining their desires in these circles. That winter, even those who disparaged the Concordia had brought with them the deep hunger that boiled up out of those desires, worn out with being satisfied. But no vows, no offers ever went beyond the stage, and the audience fell at the footlights, like futile waves that fell swooning at the steepness of a stone wall. Only once or twice had she allowed herself to be invited to dinner, but always accompanied with her mother, who, beneath her worn mourning gown, showed the suffering of a squalid life…

And the fact that this sixteen-year-old girl, this girl who sang the bawdy favourites of the small theatres in the most risqué fashion, would not accept anything more than a plain dinner under the chaperonage of her mother had been turning all of Beyoğlu wild. Everyone was in love with her, everyone was at the Concordia, everyone was singing that chorus.

Then suddenly, at the end of winter, Kette was forgotten, and a whole summer went by. These celebrities are so much like delicate flowers that one season is enough to kill them. Kette was at the Concordia again this winter, again she would accept nothing more than a dinner alongside her mother; but now there was no one there. Among those central to Beyoğlu life, the first spell of obsession over this girl had subsided, doubtless because some other craze had been discovered. Why had this alteration taken place? No one knew… Many stories had circulated about Kette. One in particular was believed. People swore that this girl had been taken by that old woman — who was anything but her mother — from a house in the Hague documented by police, and brought on a hunt for a wealthy marriage, and that she had spent the whole summer in the house of a journeyman barber. Now it was said that Kette was willing to exclude her mother from the dinner invitations she accepted, and those who had dedicated their lives to the Concordia the previous winter believed this story so completely that they saw no reason to try to confirm it.

Behlül, who had been obsessed with Kette like everyone else, believed this story like everyone else, and had even forgotten her entirely. When Nihal played that song in the middle of his meditations, Kette’s face, buried in the oblivion of a long year, had woken, and he felt an ineluctable desire to see her again. 

Was she still at the Concordia?

He was laughing as he posed himself this question. He was surprised that he could have fallen so far from that life as to be left so ignorant. He would go tonight, he would dine Kette this very evening. He had decided in a second; then he thought of Bihter. Was this not an infidelity to her? He pitied Bihter. ‘Poor woman!’ he was saying to himself. If she ever knew what Behlül was thinking, how she would weep. No, no, she would never permit such baseness.

‘But you fool,’ he suddenly said to himself, ‘you will do this especially for Bihter, to love her the better…’

Yes, he had to go, this was what was necessary for the continuation of his love for Bihter. ‘Would you play it again, Nihal?’ he asked her.

He wanted to hear that piece again. Kette had now found a completely fresh life in his heart. Yes, he would go. Then something occurred to him. This time, there was a physical obstacle. He found a solution to that, too. Stopping Nihal, he said, ‘Nihal, do you know how much I owe you?’

Behlül was always borrowing from Nihal; between them there was ever an account current that left Behlül  indebted. Nihal sneered but did not answer.

‘Look, Nihal, from now on I’m friends with you, but you know, working for no pay isn’t really in my nature. Where’s your purse, Nihal?..’

Nihal was so used to Behlül’s unceremonious ways, that she nodded towards her coat’s left pocket. Behlül emptied the purse into his palm. He was taking all of it. Nihal was not so rich, but it was better for them to combine their funds so that one of them was rich, than for them both to be only half-rich. Besides, he was expecting to receive some money from his father next week, and for the first time he was to give Nihal a loan.

‘Isn’t that so, Nihal?’

Nihal, without listening or comprehending, nodded. ‘Yes,’ she said.

‘I’m going, Nihal. Shall I bring you anything from Istanbul?’

Nihal turned around, abandoning the piano. ‘You’re going to Istanbul? Right now?’

Yes, he was going right now, but the fault was Nihal’s. Her playing had given him the urge to spend the night in Beyoğlu. Nihal laughed, and without replying, returned to her instrument.

Bihter chanced upon Behlül in the hall as he was putting on his gloves.

‘Are you going out?’ she asked.

Behlül, avoiding eye contact, and busying himself with a difficult button on his gloves, said, ‘yes. Only to pop down to Istanbul, barely a two hours’ absence…’

Instantly he regretted lying. There was even something like anger in his regret, this affair that required him to account for every hour was becoming a burden that made him want to rebel. ‘I may not return tonight,’ he added.

He had raised his eyes to view the effect of these last words, and he saw Bihter turn pale.

‘But,’ said the young woman, after a brief hesitation, ‘you had promised me this night.’

Behlül had forgotten his promise. With difficulty he checked an overflow of emotion that almost turned him into a rude, hard man. In the end, this woman was becoming a bore with her love that interfered with his smallest liberties.

‘It isn’t certain that I won’t return,’ he said, to avoid a harsh reply. ‘I only tell you just in case. With such weather, such sunshine, something in my veins seems to be kindled. It urges me to escape the close air of the house, to wander, to turn towards the empty horizon and fill my lungs…’

He was looking at Bihter with smiling eyes, as if he were beguiling a child; suddenly he had to stop himself. The chill of the lie in his own voice froze him. There had now appeared, at the corner of Bihter’s mouth, in that vague dimple that often trembled with a mirthful shadow, the injured smile of a wretched woman’s heart who felt the first collapse of its desires. With a woman’s instinct, a woman who had begun to be deceived, who had not been first in being unable to love, Bihter had understood that this man who stood smiling before her, trying to invent excuses, was lying. What sort of lie was this? Why was he lying? She did not know, but she was certain of the lie, she had seen it clearly in Behlül’s eyes.

In the depths of her being she felt a great pain, as if something was being killed. She could not add another word, nor make him speak, so she made no answer. But there was something in her look that said to Behlül, ‘you are lying!..’ Behlül understood the meaning of this look, and tried to elude his lie with another lie.

‘Shall I tell you the truth, Bihter?’ he asked. ‘I’m escaping Nihal, yes, running from her… Only think, when her governess arrives in a little while there will be such a to-do. I know Nihal, she’s saving her whole tantrum for later. And then, since I must say all, I also pity Nihal a little. I am such a weak man in matters like this. Do you understand? The best thing is to avoid this commotion entirely.’

Bihter was listening, silent, and pale. Behlül wanted to escape this speech that had not shown the tendency to end as it had begun.

‘And then, who knows,’ he said, ‘maybe tonight, when no one is around…’

He could not finish his sentence; they both started at the sound, far off, of Nesrin and Şayeste arguing. Such a quiet conversation in the hall was an inexcusable imprudence.

‘Will you tell the girls, yenge,’ he said in a loud voice, ‘that they shouldn’t go to bed without lighting the fire in my room. I might come back tonight…’

Upstairs, Nihal’s piano continued to play. Bihter was dazed, unable to think of the reason for this incident that had taken her in one moment from the easiest happiness and thrown her into an awful anguish. Listening to the thunder of the piano above her that rolled on with a sound like the end of the world, she waited. She could only ask herself one thing, through the clouds in her brain: ‘so, so now the lies have begun?’

She had forgotten the details of this short conversation at the moment, even if she forced herself to remember, she would not wish to. Only that lie, that lie that had been read clearly in Behlül’s eyes, lived on. Then slowly, as the tumultuous storms of that music swept away the  debris of the worlds that had been destroyed by great whirlwinds, the clouds in her brain began to drift apart, leaving behind fragments of memory. She relived, one by one, every agonising moment of the short exchange that had taken place, standing right here, within the space of two minutes. She heard Behlül’s duplicitous voice speaking all those false words. He pitied Nihal, did he? To say so was to rebuke her. Then those clouds opened up still more distant horizons of memory, and showed her all those forgotten things, things that had not seemed important enough at the time to be worth remembering, trivial utterances from their interviews of the past few weeks, little nothings that were only now strengthened, and gained meaning. In a couple of minutes, the young woman had felt that beside her house of love, an abyss heretofore unseen and unsuspected, had opened its huge, dark maw and breathed its cold, frigid breath on her face. She could not find the strength to go upstairs and walk past Nihal. She threw herself into her husband’s study.

And upstairs, little Nihal, in order to avoid flinging her frail body — shaken once again by the final blow of her awful grief — to the ground, not to flail and writhe with the sorrow of a throttled dove from her agony, from the rage of her agony, from the overflow of her helpless wretchedness, was playing every wild piece that she could remember, and creating a commotion worthy of judgement day. As she played, those aches that would reach up from the nape of her neck and tear at her brain seemed to be piercing her head with their claws, unpicking her veins with those talons that gained strength moment by moment. Suddenly, her child’s arms stiff, her fingers frozen on the piano, unable to move her head which felt as if it were nailed to her neck, she let out a cry of pain, and ceased playing. Then she felt someone run towards her, catch her in his arms as she wavered, and holding her lightly, place her on the chair that Behlül had recently vacated. This swoon had only lasted a minute. It was like a storm that never broke; Nihal emerged from this faint with smiling eyes. Then she saw Beşir at her feet, chafing her hands that were as cold as ice, his gentle Abyssinian face frozen with pallor.

‘Beşir, is it you?’ she asked.

Yes, it was him. Today, after the garden, he had followed her with the loyalty of an enthralled shadow, and had waited there, at the top of the stairs, by the glass door. He had seen Behlül kiss Nihal on the corner of her eyebrow, and then, when he had gone, he had quietly drawn closer with who knows what need of his poor humanity. He had waited silent and still, feeling what dejected devotion for Nihal, for whom he would gladly have laid down his life, feeling all of her agonies, and feeling his own spirit crushed under those agonies.

He was watching Nihal with a glint of loyalty in his eyes, and Nihal wanted to console him with her smile.

‘Only a little faint! From weariness…’

Then, gathering her authority, she added in a strong voice, ‘you are not to tell anyone, Beşir, do you understand? That is my wish.’

Then the loyal spark that had kindled in Beşir’s eyes a second ago was covered by a cloud, a cloud of tears, and unable to find the strength to hide the ache in his soul any longer, he nuzzled his thin, delicate face that looked like a finely painted toy, into Nihal’s lap, and sobbed and sobbed…

Nihal let him. She leaned her head on the back of the armchair, and sat with a profound smile of relief in her eyes, feeling great consolation in the purity of the tears that were falling onto her knees. Finally she had found the tears that could openly be shed for her unspoken sorrows, and these tears welled up from Beşir’s innocent soul, from his aching soul that bled with who knew what drops of weeping poison.

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I write about literature, language, love, and living off your pen. Also, fortifying fiction, personal amelioration, and tea.

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