In the coming weeks, while I prepared for my new responsibilities, I did not think of taking photographs. On my days off, I attended the only libraries I knew in Avignon, the second-hand bookstalls at the edge of the markets. There, I went looking for La Circassia.
At one stall I was shown a book about the academy painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme, illustrated with lithographs pasted into the pages. Printed in 1909, on the fifth anniversary of the sculptor’s death, it was a year older than I was, and very tired. The pages were foxy and rotten and the lithographs were small and poorly printed, but among the nymphs, duelists, and gladiators, the snake charmers and bathers, there was a small portrait, A Veiled Circassian Lady, painted 1876.
I bought the book.
Another stall had a map, cut from an English book: Narrative of a Residence in Circassia, by James Stanislaus Bell, Esq. I asked what ‘Esq.’ meant. Was it an honour? The paper seller though it meant écuyer, a minor noble. His neighbour thought it meant that this Bell was an English gentleman. Then we studied the middle name. Stanislaus. Would it be the mother? Was it a family alliance? We could not decide.
I bought the map.
Another seller of tired books pointed out a filthy translation of Byron’s Don Juan. He turned the pages until he found the passage he remembered, in the fourth canto, and read the story of a sweet Circassian girl, sold as consort to a Sultan’s harem.
But to the narrative:—The vessel bound
With slaves to sell off in the capital,
After the usual process, might be found
At anchor under the seraglio wall;
Her cargo, from the plague being safe and sound,
Were landed in the market, one and all,
And there with Georgians, Russians, and Circassians,
Bought up for different purposes and passions.
Some went off dearly; fifteen hundred dollars
For one Circassian, a sweet girl, were given,
Warranted virgin; beauty’s brightest colours
Had deck’d her out in all the hues of heaven:
Her sale sent home some disappointed bawlers,
Who bade on till the hundreds reach’d eleven;
But when the offer went beyond, they knew
‘T was for the Sultan, and at once withdrew.
I bought that book too.