Sulina – named after the chief of a Cossack horde – is the gateway to the Danube. Hereabouts, the grain went out and the gold came in. The key to this gateway passed during the course of time from one pocket to another, after endless battles, by arms and by intrigue. Europe, after the Crimean War, came into possession of this key, which it grasped tightly and would not give away – and not even to the gatekeeper, who should by rights have held it, did they decide to entrust it. Sulina, like Port Said at the mouth of the Suez Canal – a miniature Tower of Babel – lying at the terminus of a global waterway, lives only because of the life of the port. This town, created by the needs of navigation – without industry, without agriculture – is doomed to be wiped off the map of the land as soon as another river mouth is chosen as the main Danube port. Until then, the transient human settlement expands and contracts according to the barometer of the annual harvest. The populace doubles in years of plenty and decreases in time of drought. Whence this motley crowd? Sailors, merchants, craftsmen, porters, crooks, vagabonds and women, women of every species. Ravenous birds of prey, thirsting for gain, they gather here like locusts on the narrow strip of land between the Danube and the sea. As if by miracle, there appear offices, shops, cafés, bars, taverns, cabarets, places of merriment and debauchery – they spring up in but a few days, like mushrooms. By the electric light, the elevators rumble all night. Through them pour torrents of grain, like gold dust, from the barges into the ships that bear the daily bread over the seas to other lands. The commerce of risk, games of chance flourish, and the money passes swiftly from one hand to another. Storybook times. Songs, shouts, scandals, robberies, fraud, a furious appetite for pleasure, a raucous, debauched life... until the tap of export is turned off. A bad year, a poor harvest, and the entire maritime fair disappears as if by magic – like partridges, they all scatter in a single night. And many, wherever they are to be found, often in the direst poverty, sit looking at the sky, dreaming of seven fatted cows, waiting to return to the promised land, where the grain grows in good years watered by the rains of heaven, and in bad years sprinkled with the sweat of the Romanian peasant. The district of night bars, where sailors on shore leave after long journeys found cheaply purchased pleasures, was discreetly placed at the edge of town, towards the lake where the reed forests of the Delta commence. The red lights gleamed from afar, like lighthouses to guide ships in the night. And because the quarter was not paved, but had only a road strewn with sand dunes, the sailors named it the Sahara. The beau monde found entertainment in the centre of town, at the Engliterra – a variety club with "chambres", the only "cosy spot", as its new owner dubbed it. Mr Pericles Papadaki, a taciturn, man, as grave as a magistrate, very respected, a philanthropist and verger at the church, had organised this new European establishment along modern lines, thanks to the experience his lawful wife had had in this type of commerce. The landlady, Lola, Polish in origin, an artiste by trade, retired before giving up the nightlife, preserved the traces of a ruined beauty. Her white, powdered hair, like the wig of the Marquis de Pompadour, still earned the admiration of the entire clientele. Decorative, imposing and severe, Lola sat enthroned as the authority of the house, conducting like a kapellmeister everything that moved in the Engliterra, an enterprise rightly reckoned as her own work. It was an ingenious and well-studied organisation, which saved all appearances. In front of the variety club, the only "cosy spot", with an entrance at the back from another street, there was a mysterious house with drawn curtains and numbered rooms. It was there that the artistes lived. Two different houses, two establishments with separate administrations, but with the same master and the same purse. The second house was run discreetly and tactfully by Madame Simon, nicknamed by the officers the Red Enigma. It was as if someone had flicked a brush full of red paint in her face, so freckled were her cheeks. The widow of a Jewish commissioner from Canton, murdered during the Boxer rebellion: it is said that she had received handsome compensation from the Chinese government. An old Englishman, a ship's captain, who had taken part as an officer in the expedition of European fleets to China, claimed that he had met this woman embarked on the famous packet boat, transformed into a floating café chantant
, which had caused a huge sensation at the time by anchoring in the midst of the allied squadrons, within the radius of the besieged port of Vei-hai-Vei. It was whispered that Madame Simon, who had purposely chosen Sulina as her base, at the crossroads of global trade routes, had secret links to a large international trust of proscribed commerce, but one tolerated by the moral brigades of all nations. The Romanian ports had always played an important role in this traffic as a connecting point for the waterborne transport of livestock from Galicia and Romania to Turkey, Egypt and the Far East. How had Evantia become the star of the Engliterra? One evening, as she was sitting alone on a bench by the quay, downcast, abandoned, not knowing whither to head, a saving angel had appeared to her. A lady primly dressed in black, whom she had never seen until then, sat down beside her and gently and sweetly spoke to her, comforting and encouraging her: "You are still young and beautiful, my girl, you must live... have complete faith... I shall be a mother to you... you will live well... beloved by all..." The girl did not understand everything, but she saw that she was being proffered a life raft by a benevolent hand. How? In the world there were also such good and merciful souls, whom she had never known. The woman in black, the manager of the Engliterra, had long since had her eye on the Negress, since she had seen her once, dancing an exotic dance, learnt in childhood. She had been following her, waiting for an opportune moment at which to take her in her clutches. The experienced businesswoman had realised very well that this girl could be an appreciated "number" in the programme, and an attraction for the enterprise she ran so competently. And she had not been deceived: in a short while, Evantia was proclaimed the star of the nightclub. "You will dance foreign dances known only to you. Nothing more!" the director told her from the start. Then she accustomed her to being not so wild and to drinking as much champagne as possible. In the end, she asked her to be genteel, so as to attract customers and to do what her colleagues did too, under the label of artistes at the Engliterra, the sole "cosy spot". EPILOGUE
In a few years... how many transformations... Sulina was in agony... The Mouth of the Danube was silting up... Where there had been water, now there was land... The huge sandbanks, borne by the river, were growing from the sea like islands, blocking the channel. Day and night they worked, vainly dredging the bottom of the sea. Nature would not be vanquished. The laden ships no longer had sufficient depth. Some waited out at sea, while others, anchored in port, were unable to leave. It was grievous. Navigation blocked. Commerce ruined. People alarmed. What is to be done? To commence work on another mouth of the Danube. Sulina must be abandoned. The population was falling year by year. The town was emptying. The port was dying. The doctor, old man Tomitza, the Patriarch of the Delta, one day suddenly collapsed, hand clutching his heart. He closed his eyes, as serene as ever, murmuring, as usual, into his white beard, the same snatch of a sentence that he had never in his life managed to finish: "La vie... la vie... c'est la vie..." Doctor Redbeard replaced him at the hospital. Strange... that man, a misanthrope, misogynist, bitter, he had the sweetest woman in the world – he had married Miss Sibyl, who shattered all his paradoxical theories. Mincu, romantic and sentimental – in an irony of fate – had married Mitza Balot. Otherwise, Mrs Captain Merry Mincu, former coquette, was appreciated in society as a model wife. Mincu's first love – the woman he adored, the centre of the universe – lived alone, isolated, in a garret in Bucharest, teaching silk-painting classes. Angelo Deliu, the conqueror, had aged quickly. He lived alone, unhappy, inconsolable. Of his glorious past, of all those adventures for which he was envied, there remained no durable link, no comfort, for he had never loved. Only the mechanism of memories – he would say melancholically – still caused him to vegetate in solitude on this earth. The little Negress, Evantia's daughter, adopted by Miss Sibyl, grew up to be pretty, coffee-coloured, like a chocolate doll. At first, the children, all of them fair, would not let her play with them. She used to wash herself constantly, to become white, and she often wept for the misfortune of not having blond locks and because people called her "gypsy". Stamati Marulis was imprisoned and released, for lack of evidence that he had burnt the house down. A month later he was locked up once more... in the madhouse. He was not angry. He thought he was a millionaire. A ship owner. All day long he would reckon up. Every morning, when a factory whistle blew, he would run down to the gate, to his ship that was calling him in the port. Mr Tudoraki, the customs officer, now retired, lamented to one and all the fact that he had not done like the others, that he had not lined his pockets in the service of the Customs. At the maritime cemetery, there were two graves side by side, on the right, in the Orthodox section: those of Penelope and Nikola. Another two to the left, in the Catholic plot: those of Evantia and Master Jak. Lulu, the monkey with no master, had gone to the pension. The doctor of the bacteriology laboratory found an opportunity to conduct some interesting experiments, inoculating her with a series of deadly microbes. Lulu was sacrificed on the altar of science, for the benefit of mankind. Redbeard brought him up to date on everything. From the ship, Neagu went straight to the cemetery to see Evantia's grave. Alone, downcast, he wandered for two days along the quays and the beach. He saw once again with misty eyes the places that had once been the delight of his life. The perfume of the past and the power of memories seemingly breathe life into the places where you have lived, loved, and once suffered. A corner of a landscape, in which even the air remains charged with love, evokes in you for a few moments the buried past in the regret and melancholy of old age. Neagu relived with amazing lucidity those days of spiritual agitation, of intense happiness, of torturous doubts and manifold suffering, when his entire life depended upon a chimera. He could still hear the echo of his first love. He felt the thirst of love as a spiritual need... but a sad shadow covered the past. He sought for himself, for he was no longer the same. He no longer recognised himself. And when he resignedly climbed the ship's gangplank, at the hour of departure, he seemed to have aged ten years. A dull force had bowed him. The ship now at sea, and he, aloft, on the bridge, cast his eyes over the vast expanse of the Delta, as though over a map laid at his feet. Between the burnished forests of reeds and the golden band of the beach, there loomed a spot on the horizon, like an island of greenery – the maritime cemetery. ...There, in the marshy soil of the Delta, remained buried a part of his life – Evantia... ...A poor exotic plant... torn up... transplanted... it had not acclimatised... it had withered... suffered... died. The ghost of his first love was to weigh upon his existence... And when he felt that he wavered, overwhelmed by pity and regret for lost happiness, Neagu had collected himself, and in order to come to his senses, to master himself, he cried tensely to the steersman at the helm: "Turn to starboard... Eight degrees south... Full speed ahead!" And he turned his eyes away, peering toward the mouth of the Danube, which was vanishing aft. And all of a sudden, in his mind there appeared – as a verdict of fatality... the death of Sulina. "Yes! The town is doomed... Towns too live and die... a human settlement, beneath our very eyes, destined to vanish." The port of Sulina closed completely and forever. Man retreats, vanquished in the battle with nature. He attempts to open another river mouth. Abandoned Sulina vanishes as a town. Created by the needs of navigation, it has no reason to live when the navigable way moves elsewhere. In the likeness of Sulina, a new port town will inevitably be built at another mouth of the Danube. On the map, Sulina will mean a small fishing village, abandoned on the seashore. Who knows how many centuries will pass before the earth of this empty ants' nest will be disturbed? Who knows how many scholars, peering through their spectacles, will rack their brains to reconstruct a vanished world from a few bones or unearthed shards? The skeletons and skulls discovered here, so various, will muddle science, will provoke endless discussion as to the human type that once dwelled on these shores. The archaeological Sulina will of course be a new puzzle of races, on which thousands of tomes will line the library shelves. Will science solve the mystery of Sulina's past? Will it lift even a corner of the veil that will cover a buried world, fallen for so long into oblivion? Will science decipher, from fragmentary remains, the life that once existed here? A cosmopolitan town – Sulina – a mosaic of races at the mouth of the old Danube. But what about us, what knowledge do we have of the towns of the Euxine Sea, from the time of Darius Hystaspes, who passed here with his army, by the mouths of the Ister, wandering in the land of the Scythians, in the steppes of today's Russia? And Neagu finds himself philosophising, as usual, during the long night watches, on the bridge, alone beneath the starry firmament. He turned to check the helm. The magnetic needle was quivering with life, enclosed in the glass box of the compass. "That's the way! Good! Full speed ahead!..."
by Jean Bart (1874-1933)