French Kiss, 1798

17 November 2010

Phoebe slid gingerly down from her camel to find herself standing in the middle of a bustling, crowded street, lined on both sides with stalls selling amazingly hued red, yellow and orange spices, flowing tunics and curiously shaped shoes, brightly coloured carpets and sweetly scented, luscious piles of oranges, dates and melons. It was quite unlike anything that she had ever seen before and for the first time since she and her brother had set out on their adventure several weeks earlier, she truly felt herself to be thousands of miles away from the grey, rain soaked streets of her native London.

If she felt a pang of homesickness as she considered this fact, it was quickly forgotten as she looked about herself with excitement. She breathed deeply so as to savour the heady aroma of spices and rich perfumes that drifted through the air and sighed with contentment as she looked up above the rooftops at the beautiful, intricate minarets and towers that reached up to the perfectly azure sky.

Beside her an elderly woman dressed in long black cotton robes gesticulated dramatically as she argued enthusiastically about a pair of live chickens with a grinning stall holder. Phoebe had not been in Egypt for long enough to pick up much of the language but the crux of the conversation was clear and she watched with amused interest as the woman won her point, disdainfully hurled some coins at the man then stomped off down the street with her chickens clucking furiously under her arm.

Phoebe heaved a sigh; after several long days spent riding her stubborn and rather malodorous steed across the desert from the port of Alexandria to Cairo, it was an immense relief to finally be able to stand, albeit shakily on solid ground and to be surrounded by the noise and vigour of a lively city once again. The locals stared at her curiously as they went past, but she lifted her chin and resolutely stood her ground, cheerfully smiling and nodding to them until an insistent tug on her sleeve made her look sharply down to see a young boy dressed in rags looking back up at her with a cheeky grin on his grimy face. Instinctively she pulled out her purse, just as her parents had always taught her to do when faced with someone less fortunate than herself and quick as a flash his hand was out, waiting for the inevitable coin.

‘Miss Trafford!’ Ahmed, their guide was jumping and down and waving his red leather fly swat to get her attention. ‘Miss Trafford, please remember what I said about not giving money to beggars!’

She smiled at him, knowing that an outright refusal to do as she was told would get her nowhere and could lead to many hours of belligerent sulking. ‘Of course, Ahmed.’ She calmly opened the purse and with a smile handed the boy the expected coin before watching with fond amusement as the urchin swiftly vanished back into the crowd. ‘Do you know when my brother will be back?’

‘Not long now, Miss Trafford,’ was the grinning reply. ‘I sent my best boy with him to make sure he didn’t get lost. They’ll be quite safe together.’

Phoebe sighed. ‘I do hope that you are right, Ahmed.’ Her brother George, Lord Trafford was universally hailed as one of the most learned classical scholars of his generation but had absolutely no common sense at all. In fact, his fond sister had often suspected that the bizarre vagaries and rituals of the ancient world made far more sense to her odd sibling than the exciting age in which he himself dwelled.

Their journey to Cairo had been all his idea of course. He’d exchanged letters and books with the famous Vivant Denon and many other leading French scholars of antiquities for several years and had been totally beside himself with excitement when Denon had told him about General Bonaparte’s projected invasion of Egypt and novel plan to take as many scholars as possible with him to study the flora, fauna and, most excitingly, the archaeology of this mysterious land.

Phoebe smiled wryly now as she recalled her brother’s brooding, almost sulky mood once his initial excitement had dissipated and he realised that the somewhat trivial to him matter of his own country being at war with France meant that accompanying his friends to Egypt, a place that he felt he ought to rightfully be, was unlikely to be anything more than a wistful daydream.

This mood did not last long of course as it took only a few days before he was happily piling enormous, dusty leatherbound atlases on the dining table and poring over them with much furrowing of his brow and exclamations of dismay during supper. At first, Phoebe had watched him with dismay but then gradually, and despite herself, she began to be interested and then actively involved in helping him chart the route.

‘You’ll be coming with me of course, my dear?’ he had asked one night as they sat together at the table, their dinners sitting untouched at their elbows and their heads close together as Phoebe used her finger to trace a line across the desert from Alexandria to Cairo.

‘Of course.’ It had not actually occurred to Phoebe that his plans might include her, but now that he had mentioned the matter, it seemed to her that nothing was more right or natural than that she should travel to Egypt at his side. After all, it had always been her most secret and fervent desire to see more of the world than Bath and the comparatively small area of London that was considered suitable for a well bred young lady.

Her closest friends, women that she had known ever since girlhood, had been scandalised and rather appalled when she had shared her plans with them. Women of their class did not jaunt about the world like savages, they told her, and those that did were so eccentric, unwomanly and worst of all, sadly tanned and freckled by their adventures that they couldn’t possibly be considered acceptable in polite society any more. Was that really what their dearest Phoebe wanted for herself?

Their dearest Phoebe had listened, nodded and smiled in her usual calm and patient way but beneath the cover of the cashmere shawl that she held in her lap, her hands itched to slap their silly, smug faces and she found that actually she did not care one jot what they or indeed anyone else thought of her.

And so it was that she found herself two months later, standing on a dusty street in Cairo as a call to prayer floated melancholy and beautiful through the air and stall holders offered her countless bowls of succulent, sticky dates. She could see her brother pushing his way through the crowd towards her, looking harassed and hot and accompanied by a large man with a long red cotton scarf tied around his head as a turban.

‘What a relief,’ Phoebe said with a smile when they reached her. ‘I thought you were never coming back.’

‘I told you that I wouldn’t be long, my dear,’ George said, hunching one shoulder in a manner that told his fond sister, who was long used to his odd moods, that he was becoming irritable and probably in need of a nap. ‘I do wish that you wouldn’t fuss over me.’

‘I was joking with you, brother,’ Phoebe said, turning to the other man. ‘You must be Azizi,’ she said, remembering just in time not to offer him her hand to shake.

‘I am charmed to meet you, Miss Trafford,’ he replied with a grin, offering her his hand which turned out to have a firm, confident grip. ‘It is a pleasure to behold you at last.’ Azizi had been recommended to them by Vivant Denon himself as the perfect guide and helpmate for all newcomers to Cairo. ‘If you are ready to go, I will take you now to your lodgings.’ He gave a little sigh and shake of his enormous head. ‘The French have taken all of the best residences in the city, but I think that you will be pleased by what I have managed to secure for you. It is the home of one of my friends and for the right price…’

Phoebe laughed. ‘But of course, I can imagine just how it was.’ She linked arms with her brother and they followed Azizi’s immense bulk down the street, amused by the way that everyone he encountered bowed and scraped out of the way. ‘Monsieur Denon was perfectly right – there can be no better person to help us here,’ she whispered to George. ‘I can’t wait to see the house that he has found for us.’

Her brother shrugged. ‘As long as it has room for my books and makes you happy, then I will be content,’ he replied with a smile and squeeze of her hand.

‘I think that it is truly marvellous here,’ Phoebe said fervently, staring about herself with wonderment. ‘I wonder why we haven’t seen any French soldiers yet? I was under the impression that Cairo was quite overrun with them.’

Her brother gave a short laugh. ‘How unobservant you are, my dear Phoebe,’ he said, pointing ahead to the trademark flash of navy blue uniforms and cold glint of sunshine striking steel in the midst of the swirling, bustling crowd.

‘Shhh,’ Azizi whispered over his shoulder. ‘If we are lucky they will not observe us.’

Phoebe could feel her heart thumping quickly within her chest as she watched the soldiers sauntering along. She had known, of course, that their trip to Cairo might well be dangerous but her brother had been airily confident that they would be unmolested there, especially once his identity and friendship with Denon, who was himself a friend of Bonaparte, was known. It had all seemed so simple at the time but now that she actually found herself in a foreign city, thousands of miles away from home and surrounded by French soldiers, the avowed enemies of her own country, Phoebe began to wonder if her faith in her brother’s judgement was perhaps a little misplaced.

‘Monsieur, madame!’ Her heart sank and they unwillingly halted before slowly turning around to face their challenger, a tall, broad shouldered soldier wearing a large black plumed hat that even to their unexperienced eyes denoted an officer. His brown eyes flickered over Phoebe, making her self consciously reach up and pat her auburn hair which she had attempted to hide beneath a soft black linen scarf before he quickly turned his attention to her brother, who shrank back at her side.

‘May I ask, Monsieur, what brings you to Cairo?’ He spoke in heavily accented English, which made it clear that there is no point in any subterfuge and although his manner was gravely polite, there was an undercurrent of insolence that made Phoebe feel distinctly uneasy and she looked around for Azizi and Ahmed, who had also stopped and were keeping a wary distance.

‘I am Viscount Trafford,’ George said, his voice becoming slightly shrill as it was wont to do when he felt panicked. ‘I am here for the antiquities. It’s all perfectly straightforward.’ He felt in his pockets and produced some crumpled letters. ‘Many of your most celebrated scholars will be able to vouch for me.’

‘I see.’ The officer looked again at Phoebe. ‘And this young lady is your wife, Lord Trafford?’

‘I am his sister.’ Phoebe lifted her chin and met his gaze defiantly, noticing how his eyes looked almost amber in contrast to his bronzed skin. ‘And who might you be or are we not allowed to ask?’

He grinned then, his teeth a flash of white in his tanned face. ‘Of course you may ask. You are not my prisoner, Mademoiselle Trafford.’ He removed his hat and bowed, his long sun bleached hair falling into his eyes so that he was forced to shake it back. ‘I am Colonel Sébastien des Anges.’

‘Am I supposed to have heard of you?’ Phoebe asked, raising one eyebrow as she looked him over, taking in his firm, strong legs in their tight white long breeches, his broad chest beneath the tricolor sash that he wore tied across his coat, the faint shadow of dark stubble on his jaw and the mocking line of his sensuous lips.

Colonel des Anges laughed. ‘No, Mademoiselle, you are not obliged to have heard of me,’ he replied, straightening up and replacing his hat, pulling it down low over his straight black eyebrows. ‘I must confess that I am wondering why a lady of your rank and clearly gentle breeding should find it advisable to accompany her brother on such a reckless adventure.’

She swallowed down her first swift temptation to tell him to mind his own business and instead forced herself to smile. ‘I do not see what is so unusual about my situation, Colonel des Anges,’ she said in a low voice, suddenly aware as if for the first time that everyone in the street had stopped what they were doing in order to stare at them both. ‘We women get few opportunities to travel much further than our own front doors and so why not seize every chance we get to see the world and broaden our horizons?’

He gave her a curious look and then nodded. ‘I understand,’ he murmured.

‘Do you, Colonel?’ She couldn’t help looking a little incredulous. ‘Forgive me, but you are a man and a soldier and at liberty to go wherever you choose.’

He smiled then, rather sadly. ‘I have three younger sisters, Mademoiselle Trafford,’ he said, this time in French, which made her feel even more like there was just the two of them standing there. ‘They live at home in Paris with my mother and have never travelled more than ten or maybe twenty leagues beyond the city. When I go home and tell them about my adventures, they sit on the edge of their stools and hang onto my every word, their eyes gleaming as they imagine places that they will never see for themselves. It is very sad.’

To Phoebe’s disappointment, he suddenly seemed to recollect the incongruity of their situation and his manner very subtly changed to become more distant. ‘It is very sad,’ he repeated, this time in English, his tone brisk and business like so that she could have no doubt that the subject was closed and the moment had passed.

‘What are you going to do with us?’ her brother interjected with an impatient side long look in her direction. ‘You have no reason to imprison us, Colonel des Anges! We have done nothing wrong and have every right to be here!’

Colonel des Anges gave a thin lipped smile. ‘I think that General Bonaparte is the best judge of who has a right to be here,’ he remarked with an impatient look. ‘Your men can take your luggage on to your quarters,’ he nodded to Azizi and Ahmed, ‘but I am afraid that you and your sister will have to accompany me to the General’s head quarters at once.’

‘This is preposterous!’ George spluttered. ‘How dare you! You can’t take us prisoner!’

‘Sssh, George,’ Phoebe hushed him and gently placed her hand on his arm, forcing him to calm himself and look at her. ‘The Colonel has already said that we are not prisoners,’ she cast him a questioning look and he gave a curt nod of agreement. ‘I think that we should do as he says and I am sure that once you have explained matters to General Bonaparte then we will be free to return to our house.’

George looked as though he would very much like to lose his temper again, but instead he made an effort to control himself and gave a half hearted shrug. ‘I had hoped to begin my tour of the local excavations immediately, but I can see that I shall have to postpone my plans.’

Phoebe smiled and patted his arm, casting the Colonel a look of apology that he affected not to notice, his attention instead being engaged with a group of soldiers who had arrived upon the scene and who she understood were to be their escort to Bonaparte’s headquarters. ‘There, there, George,’ she murmured. ‘There will be plenty of time later on to make a start on your work and just think, we are about to meet Napoleon himself!’ Despite herself, she couldn’t help but feel a thrill of excitement at the prospect of finding herself in the presence of the most celebrated and feared man in Europe, of whom they had heard so much.

‘I don’t care about that!’ George said shrilly. ‘I just want to be left alone with my books!’

As soon as Azizi and Ahmed had left with the baggage, Colonel des Anges led the way, striding slightly ahead of Phoebe and her brother as he led them through the narrow, crowded streets of the city that had seemed so entrancing so earlier on but now seemed dangerous and hostile. ‘It is not far,’ he called over his shoulder at one point. ‘I hope you don’t mind walking.’

‘Oh, not at all!’ Phoebe retorted. ‘It is quite my most favourite activity and especially on such a hot day. What could be better?’

He stopped then and turned back to her. ‘Would you like me to find a mule for you, Mademoiselle?’ he asked gravely with not even the hint of a smile. ‘Are you perhaps one of these invalid English ladies that one hears so much about?’

‘No, certainly not.’ She noticed that he was no longer meeting her eye and that the line of his gaze was rather lower than was quite proper.  ‘I really wish that you would refrain from looking quite so intently at my bosom, Colonel des Anges,’ she remarked tartly.

He had the grace to smile and she caught her breath as she looked at him, thinking that it was a pity that he did not smile more often. ‘It is not your bosom that I am looking at, Mademoiselle Trafford, delightful though it undoubtedly is,’ he replied with grave courtesy. ‘I am instead fascinated by the pendant that you are wearing. Is it perhaps a family heirloom?’

‘Oh.’ She blushed, feeling oddly disappointed as she reached up to touch the lapus lazuli eye set into an ornate gold surround that she wore around her neck. ‘No, not exactly, Colonel. It belonged to my mother and she gave it to me just before she died. I have worn it ever since in her memory.’

He nodded almost absentmindedly. ‘The blue matches your eyes,’ he remarked after a long pause. ‘It is quite astonishing.’

‘You are not the first to have said so,’ Phoebe retorted with a devilish little smile as she looked up at him.

‘I can well believe it,’ Sébastien replied with a little bow before walking quickly ahead again.