Innocent in the Sheikh’s Harem – Excerpt
“Oh George, do come and see!” In her excitement, Lady Celia Cleveden leaned precariously over the side of the dhow in which they had just completed the last leg of their journey down the northern part of the Red Sea. The crew lowered the lateen sail which towered high above their heads and steered the little craft skilfully through the mass of other dhows, feluccas and caiques all jostling for space in the busy harbour. Celia clung to the low wooden side of the boat with one gloved hand, the other holding her hat firmly in place, watching with wide-eyed wonder as they approached the shore.
She was dressed with her usual elegance in a gown of pale green sprigged muslin, one of several which she had had made specially for the trip, with long sleeves and a high neckline which in London would have been quite out of place but which here, in the East, she had been reliably informed, was absolutely essential. A straw hat with a long veil, also essential, covered her distinctive copper hair, but her tall slender figure and youthful creamy complexion still attracted much attention from the fishermen, boatmen and passengers of the other craft currently vying for space in the busy port.
“George, come and see,” Celia called over her shoulder to the man sheltering under the scant cover provided by a tattered tented roof over the stern. “There’s a donkey on that boat with a positively outraged expression. He looks exactly like my uncle when a parliamentary vote has gone against him in the house,” she said with a gurgle of laughter.
George Cleveden, her husband of some three months, made no move to join her, and clearly was in no mood to be amused. He too was dressed with his usual elegance, in a cutaway coat of dark blue superfine teamed with a striped waistcoat from which a selection of elegant fobs dangled, and buckskin breeches worn with top boots. Sadly, though his outfit would indeed have been perfect for a coach journey from his mother’s house in Bath to his own lodgings in London, or even for the ride from his London lodgings to his small country estate in Richmond, it was very far from ideal for a trip down the Red Sea in the blazing heat of summer. The starched points of his neck cloth had wilted many hours ago. His head ached from the heat of the sun, and there was a very distinctive rim of sweat marking the band of his beaver hat.
George eyed his young bride, looking confoundedly cool as a cucumber, with something akin to resentment. “Blast this infernal heat! Do come away from there Celia, you’re making a show of yourself. Remember you are a British diplomat’s wife.”
As if she needed reminding! Celia, however, continued to marvel at the spectacle unfolding before her eyes, choosing to ignore her husband. It was something at which she had become surprisingly adept during the short period of their marriage, which had taken place on the very day upon which they had set out for the long journey to Cairo, and George’s new diplomatic posting. George, the collected, organised under-secretary who worked for Celia’s father, Lord Armstrong, at the Foreign Office, had proven to be a rather less than intrepid traveller. This left Celia, who was no more experienced than he when it came to traversing the globe, to manage as best she could the challenging task of getting them, along with their mountain of baggage, from London to Egypt via Gibraltar, Malta, Athens, and an unplanned stop in Rhodes when their scheduled ship failed to arrive, and much of their luggage disappeared. For this, and for a plethora of other minor mishaps which were the result of Celia’s naïve but plucky determination to get them in one piece to their destination, George blamed his wife. Damp sheets or no sheets at all, poor wine and much poorer food, insect bites and insect stings, nausea-inducing pitching seas, seas that were becalmed, George bore none of these with the equanimity Celia had so much admired in the man she had married. She put much of it down to the tribulations of travel, and maintained an optimistic outlook which she had intended to be reassuring, but which seemed to have rather the contrary effect. “How can you be so damned jaunty,” George had demanded during one particularly uncomfortable crossing, memorable for its weevil-infested ship’s biscuits and brandy-infested ship’s captain. But what was the point in lying abed and bemoaning one’s fate? Far better to be up on deck, watching hopefully for land, and admiring the school of porpoises with their comically smiling faces which accompanied them.
But George could not be so easily distracted, and eventually Celia had learned to keep her fascination for all things strange and colourful to herself. Foreign climes, or at least Eastern foreign climes, clearly did not agree with George’s constitution. Which was rather a pity, since fate had brought them here, to a clime so foreign Celia had never even heard of it, and had been forced to ask one of the consuls in Cairo to point it out on a rather large and complicated map which he kept under lock and key in his office.
“A’Qadiz.” Celia said the word experimentally under her breath. Impossibly exotic, it conjured up visions of closed courtyards and colourful silks, of spices and perfumes, the heat of the desert and something darker and more exciting she could not put into words. She and her next sister, Cassandra, had read the Arabian tales, A Thousand and One Nights, in French, sharing an edited version with their three younger sisters, for some of the stories hinted at distinctly decadent pleasures. Now here she was in Arabia, and it looked even more fantastic than she had imagined. Watching from the dhow as the dots on the harbour became people and donkeys and horses and camels, as the distant buzz became a babble of voices, Celia wondered how on earth she would be able to convey to Cassie even a tenth part of what it actually felt like.
If only Cassie were here with her, how much more fun it would be. As quickly as the very un-wifely thought flashed through her mind, Celia tried hard to suppress it, an act rather more difficult than it should be, for though she had been married for exactly three months, one week and two days, she did not feel at all like a wife. Or at least, not at all like she had expected to feel as a wife.
The match was of her father’s making, but at four-and-twenty, and the eldest of five motherless girls, two of whom were already of marriageable age, Celia could see the sense in his proposal. George Cavendish was Lord Armstrong’s protégée. He was well thought of, and great things were expected of him. “With a hostess like you at his side, he can’t fail,” Papa had said bracingly, when he first put forward the idea. “You’ve cut your teeth in diplomatic circles as my hostess, and a damned fine fist you’ve made of it. You can hold your own with the best of them, my girl, and let’s face it Celia, it’s not as if you’ve your sister’s looks. You take after my side, rather than your mother, I’m afraid. You’re passable enough, but you’ll never be a toast, and it’s not as if you’re getting any younger.”
Celia bore her father’s casual assassination of her appearance with equanimity. She neither resented nor envied Cassie her beauty, and was content to be known as the clever one of the five Armstrong girls. Elegance, wit and charm were her accomplishments, assets which stood her in excellent stead as her father’s hostess, and which would stand George in equally excellent stead as he rose through the diplomatic ranks, as surely he would, if only he managed to shine in this posting. Which of course he would, if only he could recover his equanimity and accustom himself to being away from England.
George, it seemed, was the type of man who needed the reassurance of the familiar in order to function properly. It had been his idea to postpone the consummation of their vows. “Until we are settled in Cairo,” he had said, on their wedding night. “There will be enough for us to endure on our journey without having to contend with that as well.”
Even at the time his words had struck her as somewhat ambiguous. Though lacking a mother’s guidance, Celia was not entirely unprepared for her marital duties. “As with so many things in life,” her stately Aunt Sophia had informed her, “it is an act from which the gentleman derives satisfaction, and the lady endures the consequences.” Pressed for practical details, Aunt Sophia resorted to obscure biblical references, leaving Celia with the vague impression that she was to undergo some sort of stamina test during which it was vital that she neither move nor complain.
Slightly relieved, though somewhat surprised, given Aunt Sophia’s certainty that gentlemen were unfailingly eager to indulge in this one-sided game, Celia had agreed to her husband’s proposed abstinence, spending her first night as a married woman alone. However, as the nights passed and George showed no inclination to change his mind, she could not help wondering if she had been wrong, for surely the more one postponed something, the more difficult it became to succeed? And she wanted to succeed as a wife, eventually as a mother too. She liked and admired George. In time, she expected to love him, and to be loved in return. But love was built on sharing a life together, and surely sharing a bed must play a part in this? Lying alone in the various bunks, pallets and hammocks which marked their progress across the globe, Celia swung between fretting that she should do something about the situation, and convincing herself that George knew best, that it would all come right in the end.
But after a week in Cairo, with George restored almost to his pleasant and amusing self, he had still shown no interest in joining his new wife in her bed. Plucking up all her courage, Celia tried, extremely reluctantly, with much stumbling, blushing and almost as many vague biblical references as Aunt Sophia, to broach the subject, a particularly difficult task given her lack of any certain knowledge of what the subject actually entailed. George had been mortally offended.
He was trying to be considerate, to give her time to adjust to married life.
They barely knew each other.
It was highly unnatural of Celia to show such a morbid interest in these things which all the world knew only women of a certain class enjoyed.
And finally, he was doing her a favour by restraining himself from imposing what he knew she would find unpleasant upon her, and she had thrown that favour in his face!
Celia had retired, confused, mortified, hurt and a little resentful. Was she so unattractive? Was there something wrong with her? Certainly, George had implied that there was.
Or was there something wrong with George? Not her first un-wifely thought, but the most shocking. She banished it. Or tried to. In the absence of any other woman to consult – for she could not quite bring herself to confide such intimate matters in the forbidding Lady Walshingham, the wife of the Consul General of Cairo – she had resolved to write to Aunt Sophia. But it was such an awesome task, and putting into words what she feared seemed to make it more real, and perhaps George was right, it was just a matter of time, and so she had instead written colourful descriptions of all she had seen and all she had done, and made no reference at all to the fact that her husband continued to spurn her company after dark.
When this special assignment on which they were now engaged had come up, it was with immense relief that Celia had turned her attentions to their preparations for the trip. She had accompanied George against the express wishes of the Consul General. A’Qadiz was no place for a gently bred woman, apparently, but on this matter George stood firm and refused to go without her. Impressed by what he took to be a newly-wed husband’s devotion to his wife, Lord Wincester had most reluctantly agreed. Under no such illusion, Celia prepared to resume her role as chief nurse, comforter and courier with an air of sanguinity she was very far from feeling.
The scenery through which they had sailed was enchanting. The deep waters were clear enough for her to watch the shoals of rainbow coloured fish just by hanging over the back of the boat. Reefs, with coral all the shades of sunset and sunrise could be seen just below the surface, shimmering like tiny mystical cities, teeming with life. Along the shoreline were palms; orange, lemon and fig trees; olive groves and a myriad of plants with scents so heady that it was, she said to George at dusk one night, like being inside a huge vat of perfume. “It’s playing havoc with my hay fever,” he sniffed, putting paid to the eulogy she had been about to deliver.
The port of A’Qadiz in which they had now arrived looked impossibly crowded, swarming with people swathed in long robes. The women were all veiled, some with light gauze such as Celia’s own, others draped in heavier material, with only slits for their eyes. A stack of enormous terracotta urns stood on the quayside waiting to be loaded for transport north. Through the open doors of the warehouses could be glimpsed bales of silks in a rainbow of colours, and hundreds more of the large urns.
As the dhow pulled alongside, it was the noise which struck Celia next. The strange, ululating sound of the Arabic language, with everyone talking and gesturing all at once. The high-pitched braying of donkeys, the rumbling of carts on the rough stony ground, the low-pitched bleating of the camels which reminded Celia of the rumbling noise her father made when he was working up to an important announcement. Picking up her skirts and leaping lightly to the shore, careful to make sure her veil remained in place, she couldn’t help thinking that the camels themselves, with their thick lips and flaring nostrils, looked rather like Aunt Sophia.
She turned to share this mischievous thought with George, but he was clambering awkwardly to the shore with the assistance of two of the crew, cursing under his breath, and frowning heavily in a way that did not bode well for his temper, so she made a mental note to share it instead with Cassie, in her next letter. Rummaging in her reticule for her little bottle of lavender water, she tipped a few drops onto her handkerchief and handed it to her husband. “If you wipe it on your brow it will cool your skin.”
“For God’s sake, not now, are you determined to show me up, Celia?” George batted the scrap of lace away.
It fluttered to the ground, where four almost naked children contested for the honour of retrieving it and handing it back. Laughing at their antics, Celia thanked them all solemnly in turn. By the time she looked up, George was disappearing into the crowd, following the trail of their baggage, which was being carried on the heads of the crew of the dhow, ushered on its way by a man dressed in flowing black robes.
Struggling through the small forest of children’s hands clutching at her dress, her gloved hands, her long veil, Celia made slow progress. The colours dazzled her. In the relentlessly glaring light of the sun, everything seemed brighter, more starkly outlined. Then there were the smells. Sweet perfumes and incense, spices that tickled her nose, the dusty dry of the heat, the strong musty smell of the camels and donkeys, all combined to emphasise the incredible foreignness of the place, the far-awayness, the overwhelmingly exotic feel of it.
Except, she realised, stopping amid her small entourage of children to try and locate the train of her luggage with her husband in its wake, it was really she who was the foreigner here. She could no longer see George. Had he forgotten all about her? Panic and a spurt of temper made Celia instinctively push back her veil in order to obtain a better view.
A startled hiss came from the people in her immediate vicinity. The children all turned their heads away, covering their eyes. Fumbling for her veil with shaky fingers, she managed to catch the gauzy material in a hat pin, and grew flustered. Where was George?
Anxious now for a glimpse of her husband, she cast a frantic look around the crowds. The docks were set into the shade of a low outcrop, many of the storehouses and animal pens built into the rock itself. Celia’s eyes were drawn to the top of the hill, where a lone figure sat astride a magnificent white horse. A man, dressed in traditional robes, and if anything even more magnificent than the beast which bore him.
Outlined against the blazing blue of the azure sky, dazzling in his white robes, he looked like a deity surveying his subjects from the heavens. There was something about him, an aura of authority, a touch-me-not glaze which dazzled and at the same time made her want to reach out, just to see if he was real. He both compelled and intimidated, like the golden images of the pharaohs she had seen in Cairo. And like the slaves in the murals she had seen on the walls of the temple the day she had finally persuaded George into taking a sight-seeing trip, Celia had an absurd desire to throw herself to her knees at this stranger’s feet. He seemed to command adoration.
Where on earth had that come from? Celia gave herself a little mental shake. He was just a man. An extremely striking man, but a mere mortal all the same.
He was dressed entirely in white, save for the gold which edged his bisht, the light-weight cloak he wore over the long loose tunic which all the men here favoured. There was gold too, in the igal which held his head dress in place. The pure white of this ghutra fluttered like a summons in the light breeze. It fell in soft folds, and must be made of silk rather than cotton, she noted abstractedly. Underneath it, the man’s face showed in stark relief. His skin seemed to gleam, as if the sun had burnished it. It was a strong face, with the clean lines of his cheeks, his nose, his jaw, contrasting sharply with the soft, sensual curve of his mouth.
His eyes were heavy-lidded, a little like her own. She could not see their colour, but Celia was suddenly acutely aware that his piercing gaze was trained directly on her. She was not veiled. He should not be looking at her thus, yet he showed no sign of looking away. Heat began to seep through her, starting from somewhere in her stomach, creeping up down at the same time. It was the hot sun! It must be, for it was most unlike her to feel so unsettled.
“My lady?” Celia turned to find the man who had taken charge of their bags standing before her, his hands pressed respectfully together as if he was praying.
Reminded by his averted eyes to pull her veil back into place, Celia dragged her gaze away from the god on the hill top and returned the gesture with a slight bow.
“I am Bakri, I have been sent by my master, His Highness the Prince of A’Qadiz, to escort you to his palace. I must apologise, we were not expecting a woman.”
“My husband does not travel well. He needs me to take care of him.”
Bakri raised a brow, but swallowed whatever words he was about to say. “You must come,” he said. “We must leave soon, before night falls.”
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