This matter of the marriage rolled about the house for a while in the guise of a strange joke. Adnan Bey jested openly, and whenever he saw Behlül and Nihal, he laughed and said, ‘ah, the betrothed couple!’ Even Nesrin and Şayeste laughed at this. But it was Nihal and Behlül themselves who laughed most of all. Between them it had become a game that they kept playing.
After this marriage jest came about, while, like everyone else, he did not view it as anything more than a childish amusement, there were moments when Behlül, standing near Nihal, felt something that melted his heart, and made him think involuntarily, ‘but this marriage isn’t impossible, after all.’
Then he would remember the other. ‘But Bihter? What about Bihter?’
After his first betrayal of Bihter, after Kette, it might have been thought for a while that everything was over between them. Days had passed, and he had not been able to spend five minutes alone with Bihter. She always looked upset, and he thought that she would never forgive his three days’ absence, assumed that she would not even desire an explanation. Nevertheless, he did not want even to consider the possibility that he had lost Bihter; he was sure that she would return to his arms through some small happenstance. This certainty was a sort of consolation to the pride that smarted from Bihter’s indifference. While the fact that Bihter had not come and asked him for an explanation had saved him from a great difficulty, this silence between them had become a respite from their tiresome romance, and even gave him the too-great freedom to return to Kette, and to gather from that blonde girl the last drops of love nectar that had been left half drunk. Imagining that after Kette, he would return to Bihter warmer, more eager, he yet found passions in himself for that wanton girl, demanding satisfaction. One thing he did not wish to acknowledge: being tired of Bihter!.. This would be a great blot on the pleasures of his love life. According to him, Bihter was one of those women who might be betrayed, but who could never be subjected to the baseness of being abandoned. Behlül even felt a fancy to be abandoned by Bihter, to feel the pains of being jilted by this woman.
Just as he had become convinced that Bihter would not come to his room without a renewal of their relationship on his side, one night had seen her return to this long-abandoned love nest. She was surely coming to extract from him a belated explanation. Yet this explanation was so quickly imparted, and was so easily accepted, that Behlül had been astonished. Bihter had paid a debt to her womanly pride, had believed, had been deceived, had allowed herself to be betrayed, in order to save face. In truth, she had come to this room to be deceived once again. Now Bihter’s self-esteem no longer prevented her from being in partnership with a wretch, with one of those who sold their bodies to every candidate to love. This woman, upon discovering that betrayal, was closing her eyes, and hiding herself between the black walls of a false security in order not to see the shivering vision of a wretch, not to sense the remnants of that scent in these arms that once again embraced her.
While Behlül had been certain that he would see before him a Bihter who was mutinous, elevated by her surging pride, seeing her thus accepting of infidelity, he had been unable to keep back a feeling of coldness. And so Bihter had entered into a partnership with others, who knew what others. Behlül kept disappearing, and after each disappearance, he found Bihter, who came to him in meek acceptance, smaller and having lost yet more of her distinction. Then he would be merciless, and want to belittle this woman. Now the nights when they were together were spent needling each other. Often, after Bihter had hurled a retort at him, out of the remainder of her pride, she would bolt before they had even exchanged a single kiss; but she would always be the one to renew their tie, and take upon herself the responsibility for their arguments.
Little by little this woman was being crushed in Behlül’s hands, becoming a worn-out wretch who would be an instrument to the most sordid desires; even their love-making was taking on a dismal hue. Behlül no longer took care to preserve the distinction of this choice romance; each time, Bihter became more like another one of them, and the self-esteem that occasionally wanted to recoil could not continue to find the power to revolt.
Behlül had many times spoken to her of Firdevs Hanım. ‘She knows it all,’ he would say, ‘you will see one day she will let us know it.’
Bihter would answer Behlül’s anxiety. ‘What if she does know?..’
Neither of them had the courage to mention Adnan Bey. Only when the jest about his marriage to Nihal came up, Behlül would assure her that this was defence against any suspicions that may arise among the household. When this joke was mentioned, a line of sad forbearance would appear on Bihter’s lips, she would look at Behlül coldly, without saying a word. The scheme that had begun in jest, she felt, was reaching an acceptance in Adnan Bey’s heart that was beyond the import that the jest deserved. This woman, who secretly assented to Behlül’s infidelities with whoever he wished, found the joke about this marriage so enormously painful that whenever she saw Behlül and Nihal chatting, she grew pale.
One night she had admitted it. ‘This jest is killing me,’ she had said.
Behlül, laughing as he kissed her, said, ‘are you mad? A marriage with Nihal! Is it possible? You are forgetting that Nihal is a child. And then, it isn’t possible to stop this jest…’
This assurance would placate Bihter, but would not free her from her pain. Yes, Nihal was a child, but she was a fifteen-year-old child. No, this jest could not be stopped, but how was its realisation to be hindered? Whenever she asked herself this, she would wring her hands and writhe in her agony.
Behlül could not always remain indifferent to this jest. Occasionally, he would lose himself in contemplation of the delicate poetry of Nihal’s slender face, and feeling something melting in his soul, would ask himself, ‘who knows? Perhaps that love and poetry that I’ve been seeking is in this one.’
Then, without meaning to, he would examine his love life, relive all his old memories in seconds, and having finally sketched a confused face in which Bihter’s shiny black hair was entwined with Kette’s almost white-blond hair, he would tie up this string of memories with a final knot. At last? Yes, what would happen at last?.. He found all of these devoid of poetry, these flowers of his memory had a dry, lifeless quality. Who knew? Maybe the soul of love, the poetry of life was hidden in the pure bosom of just such an unopened bud.
He could not always manage himself in his interactions with Nihal. Every day, a speck of his identity as an older brother was vanishing, and he was beginning to see her as a young woman. Sometimes he would feel a mad desire to take her by the shoulders and breathe in her freshness like the vague scent of a delicate flower. Then he would chide himself, and spend days trying to act indifferent towards her, taking care that the jest about marriage would remain no more than a game between them, to be used as an excuse for merriment.
One day, as Behlül was drawing a strange portrait in the corner of a newspaper, Nihal had entered his room, and walking around Behlül, who pretended not to notice her, had finally stopped behind him, and reaching over his shoulder had taken hold of his pencil. Behlül was sitting unmoving, silent, as if still unaware of her, holding the still pencil, with Nihal’s small hand and the wrist that brushed his lips. Then, slowly, his fingers crept up the pencil and took hold of Nihal’s fingers. Nihal did not pull her hand away. When Behlül touched this thin, delicate hand in his hand, and sensed the translucent wrist with its blue veins at the corner of his lips, he felt something melt in his heart. He brought this hand to his lips, and inhaled its scent with an uncontrollable sensual weakness. Nihal still did not withdraw her hand, but left it there, with her breast leaning slightly against Behlül’s shoulder. There passed a moment of intoxication between them that melted their two souls in an ephemeral embrace. Suddenly Nihal shook herself, as if something that had fallen asleep in her had awoken, and pulled her hand away.
Sitting down next to Behlül, she said, ‘my dear betrothed, won’t you explain to me why people marry?’
There was such a strange innocence in her question, such a sweet childishness in the way she opened her eyes wide in expectation of an answer, that Behlül slipped out of the tattered remnants of the momentary poetry that had conquered him a second ago, and laughed.
‘Because,’ he said.
After that momentary lapse, Behlül had made a great effort to return once again to his usual indifference. The Behlül who responded to Nihal’s question with a ‘because!’ was not the same Behlül who had involuntarily put her hand to his lips a minute before.
‘Because!.. Because!..’ Nihal said, imitating him. ‘Do you know who you sounded like when you said that? Mlle de Courton!.. She was always answering me like that. Whenever I asked her a difficult question,’ — Nihal was taking on Mlle de Courton’s French accent — ‘she would nod her head, and say, “because”. Oh! These half-answers have caused me to lose so much. See, now I will never be able to understand why everyone gets married.’
As she spoke, Nihal was pretending to be forlorn, but all of a sudden she thought of something. ‘Wait a minute,’ she said. ‘Tell me something else. One must be in love to marry, mustn’t one? I know that much, but this love is apparently different from the way I love my father, or Bülent, or this or that person. So what is it, please, that makes that love different from others?’
‘Such a little question, Nihal, can drive me to subjects that can’t be explained to you. For instance — best choose an example close to home — for instance, Nihal, how do you love me?..’
Nihal closed her eyes and shrugged. ‘How should I know,’ she said. ‘Is it certain that I even love you? I don’t think I do; at least, how to put it? I don’t love you in a way to marry you. Now see, I must admit that this joke about marriage amused me quite a bit at first, but now it’s all different!.. I’m quite tired of it!..’
There was such a sweet, such a childlike complaint in Nihal’s voice as she said this that it inevitably added a light quiver to her tone of teasing. As she spoke, Behlül watched her absently. For some time now he would have these moments of involuntary abstraction whenever she stood before him. He was seeing things in her that he had not noticed until then, things that he had seen but passed over without understanding them. Nihal was not beautiful in the usual sense, there was something better than beauty in her that absorbed and beguiled the eye with its irregularity, its unusualness: charm. Her whole body, her whole face was composed of delicate things; through a strange irony she was taller and more slender than her name. Then these delicate things, matching the vagueness of the colours, from her dusty, ashen blonde hair, from her eyes that were now light and now darkened by the worries that fell upon her, from her fair skin under which the waves of pink came and went, in finer and finer detail, made her look like a small portrait painted with only a few strokes, and only few hues, with the chance gift of colours forgotten on a painter’s brush. The preservation of this physicality had lent Nihal a perpetual childishness. Nihal, who now at fifteen remained a child to all around her, appeared to be destined to stay that way even tomorrow, when she was called a woman, a wife, or a mother. Behlül was the nearest witness to her girlishness. Nihal had spent that long period of crisis in puerile tantrums over the agonies and the tortures that left her spirit in ruins. Today, at this moment, the Nihal standing before him, interlacing her fingers in a childish gesture peculiar to her, and telling him that she was tired of this joke about marriage, this Nihal was still a child. But within this Nihal who hid a deeper soul-sickness beneath the immaturity of that painful crisis, perhaps beneath the surface of this childishness, of this admission, was a new state of being whose meaning was not yet understood, which made her heart ache. As Behlül wondered about this, a new life seemed to breathe upon the mouldering flowers of love in his heart, an intoxicating, numbing breath of poetry. To have awakened in this young girl’s naive soul, the first shiver of fear, to sprinkle upon her ephemeral dreams, the first lights of poetry and fantasy, opened such a clean and bright prospect of a new life for his heart, worn and wearied of all sorts of passions, that Behlül, once again defeated by Nihal, asked, ‘but why does it bother you? Is there something preventing this jest becoming serious?’
This question quivered with such a moment’s involuntary intimacy, that Nihal looked at him wide-eyed, as if facing something which frightened her. Then, replying only to the first part of Behlül’s question, she said, ‘do you know why this bothers me? Let me try and explain it to you. But let me warn you, it is a bit complicated, and I don’t understand it very well either. When everyone’s laughing at this joke, I suddenly feel an urge to take offence, to turn the joke into an argument. Then I have to force myself not to give a harsh response to my father, or to Firdevs Hanım. But wait, let me tell you something else. I never tire of telling you things, do I? You know that very well. But would you believe it? I’m tired even of telling you these things. I seem to keep getting tired of you. See here, we had decided to be friends, but if this joke continues much longer, it won’t be possible. If you won’t be upset with me, may I confess to you one more thing? All I want to do now is to stay away from you, from everyone who makes this joke, to shut myself up on my own; everyone in the house takes every opportunity to talk of it, everyone except Beşir… Oh, if you knew, now I love him more than anyone else. Do you understand? I mean to say that if you stopped talking of this jest, I would begin to love you again, too.’
Behlül had listened to the overflowing confessions of this pure, child’s heart with astonishment. When Nihal was finished, he reached out and took her hand, and with a faint trembling in his voice, said, ‘no, quite the opposite… Let us talk of it, Nihal. Why should this jest remain no more than a thankless game?’
Nihal laughed, trying to pull her hand away. ‘Look, now it is my turn,’ she said. And once again imitating Mlle de Courton, she added, ‘because!’..
Behlül wanted to make her speak. ‘No, tell me, just tell me why?.. Why not?’
Nihal replied without hesitation. ‘Because, because one must love to marry, mustn’t one? That’s what everyone says, and you seemed to agree a moment ago. Since I don’t love you at the moment. I love you, but, do you understand?’
Nihal had finally withdrawn her hand and stood up, and was standing before Behlül. Behlül stood up too, and this time with the earnestness of a confession, said, ‘however, I do love you, Nihal. While I had not given it more importance than as a strange joke to begin with, today, specifically at this moment, do you hear me, Nihal? I don’t see any impediment to my going to my uncle right now and saying, ‘this joke has gone on long enough as a joke. Give me Nihal, and let it all be done and dusted.’
This sentence had left his mouth in one breath. Nihal was standing, her lips white, her temples throbbing. Suddenly they turned at the sound of a movement. Bihter, looking pale, had pushed open the door and entered the room. Behlül bit his lips. Had she heard?..
‘Behlül Bey,’ said Bihter, in a tight voice, ‘will you be going down to Istanbul today? There is an errand for you!’
As she spoke, there was a fierce significance in the eyes she directed to Behlül. Nihal was leaving the room without waiting any further.
Behlül, overcoming with difficulty a surge of anger, had only said, ‘yes.’
As soon as Nihal had left the room, without even waiting for her to walk out of earshot, Bihter sat and with the passion of a woman who was ready for anything, her breast heaving, a deep resolve in her eyes, said, ‘this joke has gone on long enough. You will agree that it cannot go on any longer.’
All at once, an ungovernable feeling of defiance had woken in Behlül, against this woman who came to his room like this, in spite of all dangers. He answered instantly.
‘I was just talking to Nihal about that. I think it’s time for this joke to be turned into a reality.’
Bihter’s wretched love wailed with an ache that seemed to tear her breast. A growling, choking cry escaped her mouth. In a low, wild voice, she said, ‘ah!’ For a second she halted, unable to continue. Then, her feelings overflowing, ‘so you finally admit it,’ she said. ‘Finally all the games are over, you no longer even feel the need to deceive me, is that it? But this marriage will not be, do you understand? Everything, yes, everything, even Kette… See, I even know her name, yes, even Kette, but not Nihal. Only this wedding will not happen.’
At that moment Behlül decided to break everything, to belittle this woman, to make them enemies with one unforgettable insult.
‘There is something other than this joke that has gone on too long. That tie is finally turning into an unbearable bondage, which gives you the right to go through my pockets and read my letters, to listen in at the door to my room to hear what’s spoken inside. That tie does not give you the right to prevent me from marrying.’
In that second Bihter was not the Bihter who was crushed and disparaged by her affair with Behlül, the Bihter who withstood everything. She had become the Bihter that Behlül had imagined, had wanted to see, the Bihter who had come to protect the rights given to her with wild, predatory claws. She answered instantly.
‘Perhaps not from any marriage, but I consider the prevention of this marriage more a duty than a right,’ — she was letting out a fierce laugh — ‘marrying your uncle’s daughter!.. And that uncle who…’ — she stood up in sudden anger — ‘but don’t you understand that the woman who entered just now could have said to her, “this man who is deceiving you was deceiving me too, until this moment. He cannot be a husband to you, because he had given himself to someone else first: to me!” Such a marriage! But this is something even worse, even viler. This is murder…’
Behlül had trembled before this threat, but he did not wish to be defeated. ‘You forget that between us there is something even viler, a greater crime.’
Bihter took a step back, and answered this cruel insult with a long sigh of hatred. ‘Oooh,’ she said.
So this love, which once promised to be a worthy, sacred thing that enlivened her, coming from this man’s mouth, that cleansed her fouled nerves, was now being thrown in that wretched, believing woman’s face like a filthy crime. She recalled that green love nest that had been repeated by this man like a dream refrain, in the instance that their affair was discovered. She had believed this lie; she had believed all this man’s lies. Oh! How cruelly she was deceived!.. They were looking at each other in silence, with great enmity in their eyes. At one point Bihter was afraid of collapsing in tears before this man who insulted her, and not wanting to remain there any longer, she walked away without another word.
She had one last hope. A vague hope… Perhaps this man would not wish to simply relinquish her, as she left, he would run after her, take her hands and say, ‘no, if there’s any lie between us it’s this, all else was true, yes, only those were true!..’ But Behlül had not moved, and had allowed her to leave without bestowing so much as an entreating look.
After leaving Behlül’s room, Nihal had gone upstairs, and found her father sitting with Firdevs Hanım. Firdevs Hanım, beckoning her, had said, ‘Nihal! Look what your father is saying!’ Nihal, curious, had drawn closer. Then Adnan Bey, laughing as if from the effects of a joke, had said that since Nihal was now to become a bride, there was now no excuse not to buy her that set of emeralds that had so taken her fancy.
Firdevs Hanım lost no opportunity of accustoming Adnan Bey, a little more every day, to the idea of this marriage. Today, it seemed as if something else had been decided between them. Before Nihal could reply, he said:
‘Nihal! We decided something else. We’re sending you to the island in a few days, to your aunt. To begin with, a change of air is necessary to your health, and then it seems your aunt has been complaining of being neglected…’
Nihal had not hidden her delight at this scheme. ‘Really, papa?’ she was saying, ‘if you knew how bored I’ve been here since she left…’
Nihal was speaking of Mlle de Courton. Since her departure, there had been hours of unending boredom in this house — she was tired of everyone, she could not read, there was something suffocating in the atmosphere. Then she would take one of the girls, along with Beşir, and go out onto the quay, and walk around for a long while, feeling refreshed by the cool air.
In the beginning, she had enjoyed the jest about marrying Behlül; then it had become a topic that somehow oppressed her. She would think about it inadvertently at night, and be unable to sleep. There was a voice in her heart that told her: avoid Behlül. It sounded like Mlle de Courton’s voice. Truly, had she not once told her something of the sort? She could not remember very well. One night, perhaps in a dream, someone — was it Mlle de Courton? — had leaned in and whispered these two words in her ear. Since then, these two words had rung in her ears.
One time, gathering her courage, she had said to herself, ‘since a girl must become a bride, in that case, instead of it being someone else…’
After she had found the courage once, she had continued to repeat this involuntarily, and with each repetition she would want to escape herself, to be sequestered as if she had committed some great offence. For a few days she promised herself to try not to pay any attention to the talk about marriage, but that jest followed her around the house, dogging her steps. She was particularly tired of Behlül. She could no longer treat him in a brotherly way. She discovered in herself, ungovernable nervous impulses. Since this jest was invented, it was as if an unknown hand was scattering cold drops upon the intimacy that had existed between them.
Nihal had noticed something: Bihter did not talk about it unless forced to. While Nihal had taken this as evidence of Bihter’s guardedness towards her, but she had later reached the conclusion that Bihter was dissatisfied with the idea of this marriage. Seen in this light, the jest had gained value in Nihal’s eyes. Unable to consent to the cessation of anything that tortured Bihter, she had covertly allowed everyone to speak of it, and even gave secret encouragements.
One day, Şakire Hanım and Cemile had come to visit. They came rarely, and only stayed for one night. This time they were bringing important tidings. Cemile was to be a bride, the engagement had taken place, and the wedding was to take place shortly. A founder’s son had asked for her hand, a good lad, it was said, working in his father’s shop, and they had a house in Süleymaniye. The details brought forth long anecdotes from Şakire Hanım’s lips. As Nihal, in her excitement, was kissing and embracing Cemile, Nesrin informed them of the news that was circulating around the yalı.
‘You don’t know, I suppose,’ she said, ‘that we are to have a wedding too…’
They told Şakire Hanım. They no longer spoke of it as a joke; Nihal, pretending not to hear, had busied herself with Cemile, and allowed them to prattle on. Only at one juncture she had noticed Şakire Hanım indicate something to Şayeste and Nesrin with a look, and say, ‘well?’
This meaningless question seemed rich with significance. Nihal kept them a week. During this time, she hoped to happen upon something that would explain the connotations hidden in that question. By the time they left, she was still not privy to anything that would add import to that question, but in her mind she kept seeing Şakire Hanım indicating someone out of the corner of her eye, and saying, ‘well?’ For some unknown reason, she was finding some connection between this and Bihter’s dissatisfaction.
Today, after hearing about the plans to go to the island, Nihal went into her room. She was going to finish a letter she had begun writing to Mlle de Courton. She had received three long letters from her, and had responded with three letters of her own that were almost small books. She was telling her governess of everything, giving pages of details on hundreds of trifling matters. She had thus far only omitted one subject: Behlül. She was eager to talk of this subject above all else, but just as she was on the verge of giving in to this urge, a voice would warn her, ‘avoid Behlül!’.. As she added another leaf to her letter today, to mention the trip to the island, she was writing, ‘I will take only Beşir.’ Then, her pen suddenly skipping to another subject, she added, ‘I almost did not tell you about Beşir. He is ill… No one in the house sees it except for me. Whenever I talk about his illness everyone laughs at me — including him. But believe me: Beşir is ill! How can I describe it? He now has such a languid way of walking, such a spiritless look in his eye, such a faded hue to his skin, such a pained, heartbreaking edge to his smile, that whenever I notice these things, I feel like crying for my Beşir…’
Nihal was not mistaken; Beşir was ill. There was something that made him gaunt, that, in reversing the usual course of life, made him grow smaller year by year, that made this little Ethiopian look like a broken doll with his limp arms that seemed without joints, with the heavy legs that were dragged up the stairs, with the haggard manner of his whole body that seemed to be sinking under the wearying weight of a perpetual load. At times, when he came in upon some errand, or as he listened to some instruction, he would forget himself, and have to employ a superhuman will-power to shake himself free. Whenever Nihal asked him, ‘but what’s the matter, Beşir?’ he would open his thin lips, show his bright, even teeth in a pained smile that hid some deep, unknown sadness, and say, ‘nothing!’ This nothing would sum up the dismay of this unfathomable soul, the awful, indecipherable riddle that even he could not figure out, with a clearer and more poignant expression than any language. The dark cares of this eternally unknown soul constituted such a wretched nothing, that this word, this nothing that wailed with the lament of an affliction that was hidden in his smile — that smile that made him appear to be dying of poison — spoke to everything, explained it all.
One day, Nihal had asked for his hand to help her jump from a broken pavement, and through her glove, had felt Beşir’s bare hand burning with a fever in this cool air.
‘Beşir! You’re feverish. Are you ill, Beşir? Come on, let’s take you home. Something warm for you, and straight to bed…’
Nihal had boiled some tea for him, and pouring plenty of cognac in with it, had forced him to drink. In between Nihal’s small attentions, Beşir seemed content to die. But despite Nihal’s insistence, it was impossible to keep him in bed for longer than a day; only in this matter, laughing, and by laughing making amends, would he disobey her. As often as Nihal talked to him of his illness, he would shake his head, and say, ‘there’s nothing wrong with me.’ And there was such confidence in this reply that everyone would laugh at Nihal, and even Nihal would become convinced that she had been deceived.
Then she had news that he would wander about the garden or around the quay at strange hours of the night, in the cold. There had been complaints from the selamlık. Şayeste and Nesrin had told her how they had huddled in fear under their blankets for hours one night, thinking there was a burglar in the house. When they asked Beşir, he would sometimes deny it, and sometimes he would simply say, ‘I couldn’t sleep.’
One day, on his return from an outing with Nihal, he had got a tickle in his throat, and had coughed a dry, hacking cough for hours on end. From that day on, the tickle would return, and a cough that seemed to made the whole yalı wheeze like a diseased lung would be heard.
Then Nihal would be confused, and would not be able to determine what was to be done. One day, Bihter happening upon her once again brewing something, had said, ‘what’s there to fuss about? He’s taken a cold, that’s all. If he didn’t walk about in the frosty air at night…’
When May arrived with its warm days, there came a moderation to Beşir’s coughs; but he had emerged from these coughing fits crushed, with a sunken look as if he had aged. After Nihal had given him the news that they were to go to the island, he had said, ‘we’ll walk around in the sun together, won’t we? Then we’ll call Bülent too, and he can come straight there from school. We can ride donkeys again like we used to. Only poor Mlle de Courton will be missing…’
Beşir was gladdened by the news of this island visit almost to the extent of finding his old joyfulness, then for a moment it looked as if the shadow of a vague worry fell upon his eyes, and he seemed on the verge of asking something, but he remained silent…
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