The voice was low and rough and it came from behind as dusk fell.
It was the hour of the evening prayer, when you could no longer distinguish between a black thread and a white one, in ordinary light. George pulled the paring knife from his belt and sliced it through the air as he turned. All over Istanbul, muezzins in their minarets threw back their heads and began to chant.
It was a good time to kick a man to death in the street.
The grainy ululations swept in sobbing waves across the Golden Horn, where the Greek oarsmen on the gliding caïques were lighting their lamps. The notes of prayer rolled over the European town at Pera, a few lights wavering against the black ridge of Pera Hill. They skimmed the Bosphorus to Üsküdar, a smudge of purple fading back into the blackness of the mountains; and from there, on the Asian side, the mosques on the waterline echoed them back.
A foot caught George in the small of his back. George’s arms went wide and he stumbled toward a man who had a long face as if he were sorrowing for something.
The sound swelled as muezzin after muezzin picked up the cry, weaving between the city’s minarets the shimmer of a chant that expressed in a thousand ways the infirmity of man and the oneness of God.
After that the knife wasn’t any good.
The call to prayer lasts about two and a half minutes, but for George it stopped sooner. The sad-faced man stooped and picked up the knife. It was very sharp, but its end was broken. It wasn’t a knife for a fight. He threw it into the shadows.
When the men had gone, a yellow dog came cautiously out of a nearby doorway. A second dog slunk forward on its belly and crouched close by, whining hopefully. Its tail thumped the ground. The first dog gave a low growl and showed its teeth.
Maximilien Lefèvre leaned over the rail and plugged his cheroot into the surf which seethed from the ship’s hull. Seraglio Point was developing on the port bow, its trees still black and massy in the early light. As the ship rounded the point, revealing the Galata Tower on the heights of Pera, Lefèvre pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve to wipe his hands; his skin was clammy from the salt air.
He looked up at the walls of the sultan’s palace, patting the back of his neck with the handkerchief. There was an ancient column in the Fourth Court of the seraglio, topped by a Corinthian capital, which was sometimes visible from the sea, between the trees. It was the lingering relic of an acropolis that had stood there many centuries ago, when Byzantium was nothing but a colony of the Greeks: before it became a second Rome, before it became the navel of the world. Most people didn’t know the column still existed; sometimes you saw it, sometimes not.
The ship heaved, and Lefèvre gave a grunt of satisfaction.
Slowly the Stamboul shore of the Golden Horn came into view, a procession of domes and minarets that surged forward, one by one, and then modestly retired. Below the domes, cascading down to the busy waterfront, the roofs of Istanbul were glowing red and orange in the first sunlight. This was the panorama that visitors always admired: Constantinople, Istanbul, city of patriarchs and sultans, the busy kaleidoscope of the gorgeous East, the pride of fifteen centuries.
The disappointment came later.
Lefèvre shrugged, lit another cheroot, and turned his attention to the deck. Four sailors in bare feet and dirty singlets were stooped by the anchor chain, awaiting their captain’s signal. Others were clawing up the sails overhead. The helmsman eased the ship to port, closing in on the shore and the countercurrent that would bring them to a stop. The captain raised his hand, the chain ran out with the sound of cannon fire, the anchor bit, and the ship heaved slowly back against the chain.
A boat was lowered, and Lefèvre descended into it after his trunk.
At the Pera landing stage, a young Greek sailor jumped ashore with a stick to push back the crowd of touts. With his other hand he gestured for a tip.
Lefèvre put a small coin into his hand and the young man spat.
“City moneys,” he said contemptuously. “City moneys very bad, Excellency.” He kept his hand out.
Lefèvre winked. “Piastres de Malta,” he said quietly.
“Oho!” The Greek squinted at the coin and his face brightened.
“Ve-ery good.” He redoubled his efforts with the touts. “These is robbers. You wants I finds you porter? Hotel? Very clean, Excellency.”
“No, thank you.”
“Bad mans here. You is first times in the city, Excellency?”
“No.” Lefèvre shook his head.
The men on the landing stage fell silent. Some of them began to turn away. A man was approaching across the planked walk in green slippers. He was of medium build, with a head of snowy white hair. His eyes were piercingly blue. He wore baggy blue trousers, an open shirt of faded red cotton.
“Doctor Lefèvre? Follow me, please.” Over his shoulder he said: “Your trunk will be taken care of.”
Lefèvre gave a shrug. “À la prochaine.”
“Adio, m’sieur,” the Greek sailor replied slowly.
Excerpted from The Snake Stone by Jason Goodwin. Copyright © 2007 by Jason Goodwin. Published in October 2007 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.