Ran Awayby Barbara Hambly
The prolific Hambly returns to her popular Benjamin January series with a tale that jumps from New Orleans in the late 1830s, with free man of color Januarya musician, surgeon, and Underground Railroad conducternavigating between the French, American, free black, and slave communities, and back to Paris, 10 years earlier, when he was married to Ayasha,
The prolific Hambly returns to her popular Benjamin January series with a tale that jumps from New Orleans in the late 1830s, with free man of color Januarya musician, surgeon, and Underground Railroad conducternavigating between the French, American, free black, and slave communities, and back to Paris, 10 years earlier, when he was married to Ayasha, his first wife. Connecting the two time frames is January's friend, Hüseyin Pasah, known as "The Turk," who is believed to have strangled his two concubines and thrown the bodies out a window. January isn't buying that. He knows the Turk from their time together in Paris and doesn't believe he would harm the women. Investigating the case, January treads a thin line, as always, knowing that his freedom and that of his present wife, Rose, and their baby son could so easily be taken away. Who would vouch for January as a free black if he was caught by a white slave trader in the wrong part of town? Hambly seamlessly combines two mysteries here, the one in the Paris backstory, which has January and the Turk searching for one of the concubines, and the one in the present involving the attempt to clear the Turk of the concubines' deaths. The touching portrait of January's love for his two very different wives as well as the incredible period detail and rich atmosphere make this stand out among historical mysteries. Suggest it to readers who also enjoy Jason Goodwin's Investigator Yashim series.
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A Benjamin January Novel
By Barbara Hambly
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2011 Barbara Hambly
All rights reserved.
October 1827, Paris
January opened one eye, squinted against the light in the room.
He'd woken briefly just before dawn, when Ayasha had risen to pray – a habit she'd retained from her childhood, though she had become a Christian and went to Mass as dutifully as any of the other inhabitants of the building. He'd heard the bells of St Séverin strike seven before he'd slipped back into dreams. It was broad daylight now.
Not satisfied with this tepid response, his wife yanked wider the bed curtains, pulled up her skirts and flounced on to the bed in a great whoof of petticoats, straddling his body on the faded coverlet. Offended, Hadji the cat sprang from the pillow, retreated to the window sill that overlooked – far, far down – the Rue de l'Aube, and commenced washing, with the air of Pontius Pilate: I haven't the slightest idea who those creatures are.
'Zahar?' January drew his hand from under the blanket – the October morning was bitterly cold – and groped for her brown knee.
Her fingers closed on his wrist, strong and warm as a child's. Her black hair, braided and tucked in a great curly pile on her head, had come down in wisps around her face: she looked like a desert witch, inexplicably masquerading as a housewife in a dress of green-and-white muslin. 'There is one who needs your help,' she said.
'You want me to break into the harem of Hüseyin Pasha and see one of his concubines?'
'The girl is ill.'
'I'll be even more ill if I'm caught. I've seen his guards.'
'You won't be caught, my husband. The Lady Jamilla – his wife – will let us in —'
'Oh, he'll understand that.' Shuddering with cold, January washed with all possible speed in the basin before the hearth which served the big room for both heating and cooking and, on spring nights when all the gratin had left Paris for their country estates and there wasn't quite enough money for candles, sometimes lighting as well. The nobles who had returned to Paris in the wake of the Bourbon kings a dozen years previously valued January's talents as a musician, and Ayasha's as a dressmaker, sufficiently to afford them a living decent enough, and at this season they were flocking back to the city demanding entertainment and new clothes. So there was coffee, soft cheese, butter and jam on the domestic end of the long work-table. In a huge willow basket beside the door, January saw shining lengths of silk, blonde lace, gauze like a breath of lilac mist, covered with a towel against the depredations of Hadji and Habibi. Ayasha had been visiting a customer.
Ayasha poured coffee, plucked chunks of sugar from the tin box on the table and added a dusting of cinnamon. 'Hüseyin Pasha has forbidden any in his household to see farangi doctors,' she said. 'He says they will bring evil ideas with them and corrupt the household. I told the Lady Jamilla that you were not like the others; that you were taught by wise women as well as by idiots at the Hôtel Dieu, and that you don't bleed and puke and stick clysters up peoples' —'
'In other words, that I'm not a doctor at all,' said January. 'Just a surgeon – a bone-setter.'
'Yallah! She'd never let you near the girl if I said that. The girl is with child,' pleaded Ayasha, her great dark eyes filled with distress. 'She is far from her home, Mâlik. Sitt Jamilla fears that one of the other wives has poisoned her because the Pasha is away in London. Please come.'
January pulled his shirt and trousers on, and a warm, if shabby, waistcoat that dated from his first days in Paris, when he'd still been under the impression that liberté, egalité, and fraternité applied to men of African descent in the medical profession.
He'd arrived in France from his native Louisiana in 1817, aged twenty-two. The long wars between England and France had just ended: the likelihood that a sea voyage undertaken by a man of his color would end in some planter's cane field in Barbados had shrunk to an acceptable minimum. Armed with an introduction from the libré who'd taught him surgery in New Orleans, he had been admitted for training at the Hôtel Dieu, and later had been hired there as a surgeon.
But by that time he'd learned that he could make far more money playing the piano at the entertainments given by such families as the Polignacs and the Noailleses – recently returned to France after living abroad since 1789. This had mattered little to him then. He'd shared a garret in the Rue St-Christopher with two of the other junior surgeons and had been perfectly content. But one morning an eighteen-year-old Berber dressmaker had brought into the clinic one of the girls from her shop, bleeding from a botched abortion.
When he'd emerged from the hospital not long afterwards, he had found the young dress-shop keeper weeping in an alley for her dying friend and had walked her back to her rooms.
To take a wife, a man needed more money than could be got as a surgeon in a clinic.
As a musician, he didn't make a great deal – not enough to purchase a new waistcoat for everyday wear. But the room in the Rue de l'Aube was only a few doors from Ayasha's shop, and times – January hoped – would improve.
Provided he didn't get himself beheaded by the Pasha's guards for breaking into a harem in the Rue St-Honoré.
'What's the girl's name?' he asked as they descended four flights of narrow stairs – seventy-two steps in all – to the street. On the landing of the deuxième étage – back home the Americans would have called it the third floor – the door of the upholsterer Paillole's chamber stood open and Madame Paillole could be heard berating her eldest son for Heaven only knew what transgression. With Jacques-Ange it could be anything. On the premier étage the wives of both Renan the baker and Barronde the lawyer, who despised one another, stood listening intently, and they leaped apart at the appearance of January and Ayasha. Madame Barronde vanished into her husband's apartment – which occupied the whole of the premier étage and was the most elegant in the building – and Madame Renan ('Such a woman would not have been called Madame in my day,' Madame Barronde was rather too fond of saying) went downstairs to her husband's shop.
'Her name is Shamira,' Ayasha replied. They crossed the tiny yard behind the bakery, where moss grew on grimy cobbles amid smells of bakeshop and privies, circumvented the pump, ducked under the laundry of the students who occupied the attic, and followed the damp little passway out to the street. 'She is the youngest in the harîm, only seventeen. Hüseyin Pasha bought her only a few months before he left Constantinople for Paris, just after the New Year. He has brought the whole of his harîm, and both his wives ...'
'And a platoon of scimitar-wielding guards?'
'Only ten, Lady Jamilla says.' Ayasha's blithe tone indicated that she considered her husband more than a match for ten scimitar-wielding Turks any day of the week. 'Alors, copain,' she added, in slangy street-French, and waved to old Grouzier who ran the Café l'Empereur on the other side of the narrow street. 'And anyway, he has taken four of them to London with him,' she went on, as if this improved matters. 'And two of those who remain are eunuchs. There are four other eunuchs in the household: two to serve in the harem, and one each for the Lady Jamilla and the Lady Utba, who is also with child.'
She ticked off these facts on her strong brown fingers: short, like a child's, though her small square palms were as wrinkled as an old lady's. 'Hüseyin Pasha is a great friend of the Sultan – so great that His Highness merely sent him to Paris when he spoke out against the Sultan bringing in men of the West to train the Army and teach young men science and medicine. He is a great hater of all things of the West and says they foul the hearts of the true followers of God's Law ... Is it true that the Sultan's mother was French?'
'Not French French.' January smiled, with a trace of pride. 'Creole French, from the sugar islands. She was kidnapped by pirates in the Mediterranean on her way to a convent and sold to the Sultan's father back before the Revolution. I've heard she was a cousin of the Empress Josephine, but that's always sounded to me like the kind of story someone would make up.'
'I'll bet her father sold her himself for two centimes.' Ayasha adjusted the ribbons of her bonnet. In the raven cloud of curls her earrings glinted, gold cut in the primitive spiral patterns of the desert where she'd been born, like the flicker of a pagan smile. 'He won't let them leave the grounds – Hüseyin Pasha won't let his wives leave, I mean – and has forbidden them to wear Western clothing: For whom does a woman wear these garments, he has asked, save for her husband, who hates the sight of these immodest shapes? It's why I was called upon today, while he's away —'
'To make the Lady Jamilla a Turkish entari of Lyon's silk?'
'Sahîf.' She poked him with her elbow. 'That's what the Lady Utba thinks – and what she's having me do. But the Lady Jamilla looks ahead to the time when the Sultan will summon them back and make Hüseyin Pasha dress his wives in the style of the West. She plans to have the fashions of Paris all ready, to shine down every woman of the court. Which she cannot do,' she added encouragingly, 'if she lets harm befall you.'
'That sound you hear,' responded January politely, 'is my sob of relief at the assurance that all will be well.'
The hôtel rented by Hüseyin Pasha stood amid handsome gardens on the Rue St Honoré, near the city's northern customs barrier. It was an area that still boasted market gardens and drying grounds among the small cottages of artisans; garden beds lay fallow in the chill flash of cloud and sunlight, and there was a strong smell of backyard poultry and cows. A lane flanked by a yellow sandstone wall ended in a stable gate. 'We're here to see Bellarmé about the milk,' Ayasha casually informed the single groom they met as they crossed the stable court toward the kitchen.
January raised his eyebrows. 'You told Madame already that we'd be coming?'
'I knew you would not turn your back on a girl who is in trouble and afraid, far from home.'
'When I get sewn in a sack and thrown in the river I'll take comfort in the thought of my virtue.'
'Mâlik ...' She looked up at him – compact and voluptuous, she stood almost a foot shorter than his towering six-foot-three – with the expression of an adult being patient with a child's fears of the platt-eye devil beneath the bed at night. 'The guards are as lazy as other men. With the Pasha gone, they scarce even trouble to patrol —'
And immediately gave the lie to her words by yanking him through the doorway of the stone-flagged dairy beside the kitchen to let a servant pass: a black man whose slim build and sharp features marked him, to January's eye, as of the Fulani tribe. Hüseyin Pasha's ordinance about proper dress seemed to extend to his servants: the man wore billowy Turkish pantaloons – salvars – and a long tunic of bright orange wool, his shaved head covered by a scarlet cap. January wondered if this man had consented to come to this chilly Infidel country, or if, like the girl Shamira, his master had simply ordered him to pack.
Ayasha slipped from the dairy, glanced through the door of the kitchen, then motioned January to follow her. The kitchen – considerably larger than their room on the Rue de l'Aube – was redolent of saffron and cinnamon, and of the straw-packing of broken-open boxes in which, presumably, the master's favorite spices had been shipped. They passed swiftly through and went up two steps into a pantry scented with coffee. So far, only the aroma of spices hinted that the house was occupied by other than some French noble and his family. The dishes on the white-painted shelves were Limoges, the glassware Bavarian crystal. When Ayasha pushed open the door at the far end of the long, narrow room, January caught a perfectly French glimpse of pale-green boiseries and an oil portrait of a disconsolate-looking gentleman in a powdered wig.
But from the table beneath the portrait a woman sprang to her feet, dark eyes above the edge of her veil flooded with relief. 'You have come!' Her French was heavily accented.
'Did I not promise?' The woman followed Ayasha back into the pantry, and January bowed. 'Sitt Jamilla, this is my husband, Benjamin, al-hakîm.'
Her eyes touched his, then fleeted aside. 'This way, please come.' Her voice was a beautiful alto. 'It go bad for her. Fear ...' She gestured, as if trying to summon from air words that she was too shaken to recall; long slim fingers, polished nails stained with henna. Then she gathered her veils about her and led the way to the backstairs. As he followed her up the narrow treads the drift of her perfume whispered back to him, French and expensive.
In French he asked, 'Is she poisoned?'
'I think.' She touched her finger to her lips as they passed the door on the premier étage – what they would call the second floor back in Louisiana, the main level of salons and reception rooms – and ascended to the private apartments above. Frankincense pervaded these upper reaches, penetrating even the confines of the enclosed stair. January had already guessed the Pasha kept his concubines on one of the upper floors of the house, but the ascent filled him with the sensation of being cut off from escape. One could leap from the windows of a salon on the premier étage and risk no more than a sprained ankle. A drop from one of the dormers on the roof would be a serious matter.
'Vomit —' In the thin light that came from the stair's few small windows, the Lady Jamilla's slim hands conjured the meaning, in case she had the word wrong. 'Bleed in womb, little ...' Her fingers measured half a thimble-full. 'Fall down. Hear noise.' Then she pressed her hand to her chest, drew two or three gasping breaths.
January nodded his understanding. 'She has not lost the child yet?'
The Lady shook her head, reiterated the gesture: only half a thimble-full. 'Yet so afraid. All afraid.'
All except the equally-pregnant Lady Utba, I'll bet ...
At the top of the backstairs the Lady paused to listen at the door. The smell of incense was stronger here, even through the shut door, but could not cover the stink of sickness. She opened it, led him through into what had probably once been a servants' hall, now converted to the usages of the harîm. A low divan and a scattering of floor pillows touched January's consciousness even as he crossed toward the single door that stood open, his boots sinking into four or five layers of carpet, in the Eastern fashion. A huge brass brazier radiated gentle heat from the center of the room; a second, much smaller than the first, stood in the smaller chamber to which Jamilla led him.
A skinny maidservant in black knelt beside the divan that had been built around three sides of the little chamber. The pillows that heaped such low benches during daylight hours were still piled at both sides, and a young girl lay among the sheets and quilts of the longer central section. Jamilla said something to the maidservant, who sat back on her heels and shook her head. Between the hijab that concealed her hair and the niqaab that veiled her face – both businesslike black cotton – dark eyes stitched with wrinkles wore a look of grief and defiance; she responded in something that might have been peasant Turkish, but the disobedience was as clear as if she had spoken French.
Jamilla waved toward the door and repeated her order, and the maid shook her head violently. The girl on the divan, January saw, had been dressed in a long gown that covered her from throat to ankles, a servant's camisa, he guessed: black, substantial, and all-encompassing. She was veiled, even her hair. The room stank of vomit and sickness, the sheets were stained and wet, but the garments and veils were dry and clean.
Do they really think I'll be overwhelmed with lust at the sight of a poor girl spewing her guts out as she aborts her baby? Anger swept through him, at the insanities of traditions that branded every woman as nine times more passionate than the poor men whose lusts they commanded; that cautioned that all Africans were animalistically lascivious – as the educated and philosophical third President of the United States had so tastefully put it.
Or were Jamilla and the maid simply doing what they could to maintain their innocence, should word of all this reach Hüseyin Pasha? The girl was never unveiled before the Unbeliever, and never left alone with him ...
He wondered if that would save them, or the girl.
And God only knows, he reflected, what the girl herself thinks, or feels ... or what language she speaks, even. If the Pasha bought her only a year ago, how much Turkish would she have learned to speak to the servants? Or with her master ... if he considered conversation with his bed-mates a part of their duties.
January knew most American masters didn't. 'Does she speak French?' he whispered, and again the Lady made the little half-a-thimble-full gesture with her fingers.
Excerpted from Ran Away by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 2011 Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Barbara Hambly holds a degree in medieval history from the University of California and has written novels in many genres, from mysteries to science fiction and fantasy. Married to science fiction writer George Alec Effinger, she lives in Los Angeles and teaches at a local college.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Interesting to see how free blacks (and Turks) fare in 1827 Paris and in 1837 New Orleans. Wonderful to learn more about Ben January's life in Paris with his first wife Ayasha!
It was bitter-sweet to finally meet January's first wife Ayasha. I liked the split viewpoint, and I appreciated January's internal conflict in loving both Ayasha and Rose. I also liked the mystery, although it almost took a back seat to the love stories.
Go to night result two. Froststorm is there.