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A home in a harem wouldn't do for Cordelia. ...
A home in a harem wouldn't do for Cordelia. Her mother had created a scandal by dragging Cordelia along as she traveled the world. Now, her death had left Cordelia stranded in Turkey--where the pasha decreed she would be his next mistress. But running away with Englishman James Preston seemed outrageous. Original.
The cry of a muezzin at the nearby mosque, calling the faithful to the dawn prayer, woke Cordelia as usual. She rolled over on her back on the cotton-stuffed mattress, pulling the quilt about her, for the night air held an autumnal chill.
"Allahu akbar!" A mournful, insistent wail. "God is great! There is no god but Allah. Prayer is better than sleep."
The sky still showed dark through the spaces in the elaborately carved wooden screen covering the glassless window. The bowl of roses beside it was invisible, though it perfumed the air. She'd give herself a few minutes more, until the muezzin had finished his call to all four points of the compass.
"Allahu akbar! Come to prayer."
She always felt a twinge of guilt at not heeding the call, even though Mehmed Pasha, her mother's lover, said few Turkish women were taught the prayers. A lifetime spent abroad, far from the Church of England she'd been baptized into, had left Cordelia with nothing but an echo from long-ago nursery days:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,
Bless the bed I lie upon.
Who were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Men, of course.
"Allahu akbar! Mohammed is the prophet of Allah."
Mohammed--another man. Religion was just one of the ways men ruled the world at the expense of women.
She threw back the quilt, shivering. A quick wash and she put on baggy trousers, a high-necked shift of fine gauze edged with embroidery, and a long-sleeved waistcoat. She checked the money in her leather drawstring purse before fastening it at her waist. It was reached by a slit in the side seam of the garment she put on next, an ankle-length kaftan, close-fittingacross the bosom and tied with a girdle. Pulling on soft leather socks, she hurried to the window for the best moment of the day.
The wooden houses opposite, their upper storeys projecting over the street, were still in darkness, but the sky was light now. Minarets and domes, ethereal as the fabled palaces of the Djinn, hovered above a golden haze of mist off the Bosporus mingled with the smoke of countless cooking fires. Cordelia watched as the sun's first rays added a rosy glow to the vista.
By then the men had finished their prayers and the street below her window was growing busy. Turbaned artisans and shopkeepers on their way to work; a string of heavy-laden pack mules with blue beads around their necks to ward off the Evil Eye; water-carriers; boys running to the mosque school; scavenging dogs and cats; porters bent double by the baskets and bundles on their backs; milkmen and yoghurt sellers shouting their wares; sherbet peddlers clinking tin cups; veiled women on their way to market--with a sigh, Cordelia turned from the scene, so much more picturesque and less smelly than when she was down there among them.
She crossed the richly patterned rug--Mama said Turkey carpets were much admired in England--to the mirror, where she rebraided her long fair hair. Since coming to Istanbul, she had been glad her eyes were brown instead of Mama's celestial blue. To the ignorant and superstitious, blue eyes were a sign of the Evil Eye. As it was, with a shawl to hide her hair and thrown across the lower part of her face, she could go to market without attracting notice, safely anonymous in her Turkish clothes.
No one would point her out as the daughter of the notorious Lady Courtenay, divorcée and kept woman, nor offer to take her into keeping. In some ways, Cordelia quite approved of Turkey.
She went downstairs. The two maids had made tea and set out on a low table a simple breakfast of bread, peaches, and fresh white cheese. Bare feet silent as a mouse, Aisha scurried up to Cordelia's bedroom to roll up the mattress, air the bedding, and sweep the carpet. Amina knelt on the floor beside the divan where Cordelia sat down.
Pouring tea, Amina chattered, giggling, about the handsome young charcoal seller who had brought his wares to the door earlier. Cordelia understood Turkish quite well enough to follow the girl's prattle, though the Arabic alphabet with which it was written still baffled her. Throughout the wandering years, her gift for languages had proved invaluable. Mama spoke only French, adequate for communication with her noble lovers but useless for everyday life, for shopping in Naples or arguing with landladies in Berlin.
Ibrahim, the eunuch, short and chubby in his dolman and loose, calf-length trousers, came in from the courtyard. Like the maids, he had been a slave, presented as a gift to his mistress by Mehmed Pasha. For once in agreement, Lady Courtenay and Cordelia had promptly given all three their freedom, thus earning their utter devotion.
Bowing to Cordelia, Ibrahim told Amina to cease her foolish nonsense. "If you had more sense," he said in his high-pitched voice, "you could be sent to market as Mehmed Pasha intended so the Bayan need not go."
"But I like to go," Cordelia reminded him. In Istanbul it was a special pleasure because each vendor arranged his goods in elaborate patterns to attract the attention of buyers. But ever since she could remember, she had enjoyed searching out the freshest fruits and vegetables, the best cuts of meat, at the lowest prices. When they were in funds, she always bought flowers. In the good times Mama teased her for her thrifty ways, but often enough, between lovers, every penny saved meant the wolf kept from the door a little longer.
Because Mama absolutely refused to sell a single one of her jewels unless the bailiffs were on the doorstep.
"I cannot go with you this morning, Bayan," said Ibrahim. "I have summoned a litter for the Lady." He used the English word. "She wishes to visit the Jewish jeweller before the heat of the day. There is a ring to be reset."
Lady Courtenay patronized Aaron the Jew because he spoke a little English, supplemented with a few words of French. Besides, she didn't have to keep her face covered in his presence. She was by no means so enamoured of Mohommedan modesty as her daughter.
Finishing her breakfast, Cordelia went upstairs to wish her mother good morning. Attar of roses vied with the fragrance of fresh roses in half a dozen vases. Drusilla Courtenay, was just stirring, still-golden curls a-tangle amid the heaps of soft pillows, covered in rich brocades and velvets, with which her room was strewn. She gave Cordelia a sleepy kiss.
"Take care, my darling Dee, and do remember to buy some lokoum, the kind with pistachios. But don't go eating more than a piece or two or you will grow plump."
"I don't mind, Mama." After all, she had no prospect of attracting a respectable man, and the other kind she did not want. "I'll see you later."
She and the barefoot maid put on shoes and wrapped white muslin shawls about their heads. Carrying baskets, they set out, picking their way down the street between slops and heaps of rubbish, replenished as fast as the red-smocked sweepers cleaned.
The morning was still pleasantly cool, so Cordelia took her time. She stopped at a friendly bookseller's to see if he had any volumes in a language she could read. As usual, his stock consisted mostly of copies of the Koran, large and small, but he had something for her. He produced it diffidently, for the first thirty-four pages were missing and the rest stained by salt water.
"I had it of a sailor," he explained. "I would not have taken it but I thought you might be interested."
It was a collection of English poetry, so the missing pages scarcely signified. Cordelia gladly handed over a silver akche for such a prize to add to her meagre, often-read library, as fiercely protected as her mother's jewels.
At last, their baskets full, she and Amina turned homeward. The girl continued to scan the faces of the passers-by and glance up every street, hoping to see her handsome charcoal-seller.
"Look, Bayan," she said, pointing up one of the steep, narrow alleys as they stood aside to let a string of camels pass. "Isn't that our Lady's litter? I think I saw Ibrahim."
Cordelia turned away from the haughty, cantankerous beasts. A litter was coming down the alley, its bearers treading carefully on the mucky, slippery slope. If Ibrahim was there, he was hidden now by a porter with a huge basket of fish.
"Make way!" shouted the first bearer. The curtains of the litter parted as its passenger peered out.
The porter lowered his burden to the ground and stood aside, against the wall. Instantly a dozen half-starved cats appeared from nowhere, swarming towards the fish. Amina giggled as the porter grabbed for the basket. He caught up one handle but missed the other and a stream of fish slithered over the side, a torrent of reddish, silver-scaled mullet rushing down the steep alley.
The front bearer tripped over a cat. The litter tilted flinging the passenger out head-first onto the fish. In a tangle of clothes she slid helpless down the hill.
Mama! Cordelia sprang forward to catch her, slipped on a fish, fell over a cat, and on hands and knees saw her mother end up under the feet of the last camel in the train. Its hoof caught her golden head as it passed, and it passed on, haughty, oblivious.
Lady Courtenay lay still.
"What happened? I shall see those responsible punished, you may be sure!"
Cordelia couldn't stand the man, his corpulent body in a kaftan richly embroidered in silver and gold thread, his shaven head beneath the tarboosh and turban, his eyes like prunes. How could Mama bear to let him touch her?
How could Mama have borne to let him touch her?
"Allahu aalam--God is all-wise--but tell me," said Mehmed Pasha impatiently. He sat down on the divan and beckoned her to join him.
She didn't want to sit beside him, nor to sit on the floor, in a position of subservience. As if he understood her silent rebellion, Ibrahim piled two cushions on top of each other and bowed her to the seat.
"It was an accident, no one's fault." In a flat voice, Cordelia recounted the absurd events leading up to the tragic end.
Through the haze of grief, she was aware of the absurdity. Nonetheless, never would she forgive Mehmed Pasha for his hearty laughter. Resentfully she finished the story, resenting Mama, too, for dying a death as indecorous as her life.
The maids wailed and beat their breasts. Faithful Ibrahim had tears in his eyes.
The pasha sobered. "Allahu aalam. God knows best and he is merciful. Drusilla was a fine woman, a beautiful woman. You are not so beautiful but you are younger and a virgin. I shall allow you forty days to mourn and then I shall come."
"No!" Cordelia sprang to her feet. "No, I shall never be your mistress, your concubine. I shan't be any man's mistress, ever!"
"Don't be foolish, girl," he chided indulgently. "You have no family to take you in, and no respectable family would take in the daughter of a whore anyway. You have no choice. Or rather, I allow you a choice: if not here in this house, then in my harem. In forty days, I shall come for you."
Signalling to Ibrahim to help him up, he strutted out, confident of his victory. A pasha of the Ottoman Empire need fear no defiance from a mere female, alone in the world.
If only Mama had left her baby behind when she ran away from her husband with that first lover! Cordelia stood with clenched fists, head bowed. Daughter of a whore--that was what she was. But it was no fault of hers. Need it mean she must become a whore in her turn?
Posted August 25, 2010
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