Maria (Chapter 4)
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 26/09/2021Back to Blog
(This story is the product of fiction, and all characters are fictional; the historical elements included are real)
Ship Otranto – Summer 1926
Lady Mary William Moore was sitting in the living room of the ship, gazing at the sea from the opposite window, drinking her tea. Her journey to Cyprus had begun.
The last few months have been full of preparations. She handed over the house in Notting Hill to her daughter and husband, packed all her personal belongings in two trunks and booked this trip to Cyprus. She arranged for some furniture to be sent to her parents’ house in Essex and some of them were sent to the house, rented for her by the wife of the new military commander, in Nicosia. When she boarded on the ship and the two trunks were transferred to her first-class cabin, she realized for the first time that the account of her life was really these two trunks, and she was terrified. Lady’s title, towers and grandeurs were sidelined and evaporated. Everything is in vain, she thought. Will I find out what does really worth in life?
The ship Otranto made the trip, Great Britain – Australia. She transported immigrants to this distant country, a colony of the British. She would stop in Famagusta to pick up migrants from Cyprus and continue her journey through the Suez Canal. In Famagusta, Lady Mary William Moore, would disembark.
In recent months, despite the preparations and the hustle and bustle, she let her mind free and tried to remember. She began to remember some scenes and some events, perhaps because now the pressure was gone from her life, maybe because she knew it was time for her to learn the truth. The first thing she remembered was her meeting with the teacher, Antonios Philippou, under the foliage of the fig tree. When he began to teach her the alphabet and bring her books, she thought this was paradise. She could not imagine greater happiness. She did not care that she was ill-treated at home, a wonderful thing had entered her life, called knowledge. The magical world that had opened in front of her was beyond any possibility she could imagine, in the orchard where she was living with the hens and rabbits.
Suddenly, she heard a voice next to her.
-Excuse me, lady, could I sit with you? My name is Kristian Hubertus, and I am a Swedish Archaeologist.
Mary was surprised. She lifted her eyes and saw a tall, blond, sturdy man, about her age, looking at her with his blue eyes. What impressed her was the glow in his gaze. She was accustomed to seeing a listlessness in the light-coloured eyes of most people she knew, and felt magnetized by the appearance of the charming gentleman. She replied politely:
-Please do sit down. I am Lady Mary William Moore and I travel to Cyprus
-What a coincidence, Mr. Hubertus continued, I travel to Cyprus too. I am sent by the Prince of Sweden, Gustav Adolf, to prepare the archaeological mission that we will send next year to Cyprus. I started from England because I teach history and archaeology at the University of Oxford.
-Wonderful! I would love to know about your mission to Cyprus. It sounds very interesting, Mary replied. You know I have lived many years in India, with my late husband and a few years in Egypt and I have studied a lot in relation to the history of these peoples. I have grown up in Cyprus, but unfortunately I do not know anything about its history. I’m all ears.
-First, allow me to offer you a drink, my Lady, and I will tell you what I know about Cyprus and the mission we are preparing as a country. I see you drink tea. Would you like something else?
-Yes, thanks. I’d have a liqueur.
After ordering their drinks, Mr. Hubertus began to tell Lady Mary William Moore, the history of the upcoming Swedish expedition to Cyprus.
-The initial invitation was made by the Swedish consul in Cyprus Loukis Z. Pierides, a very important and educated Cypriot. The first Swedish archaeologist to visit Cyprus was Einar Gjerstad in 1924. Gjerstad made his first trial excavations in Kalopsida, while at the same time he deepened in the study of the island’s prehistory. This year, he published in Uppsala his remarkable book Studies on Prehistoric Cyprus. You know, my dear Lady, Cyprus is a very interesting case for any archaeologist. Due to its location, all the peoples of antiquity passed from here and left their traces. Phoenicians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Lusignans, Venetians and even yours, Richard the Lionheart. Of course, we should not forget the most recent history with the conquest of Cyprus by the Ottomans in 1571, and you British who, if I am not mistaken, in 1923, with the Treaty of Lozane, you have annexed the island. Its position makes it very interesting for any power that has or wants to have interests in the region. Unfortunately, it has been devoured by looters and illegal excavations. That is why Mr Pierides has asked for our help.
-You know, even though I grew up in Cyprus I haven’t travelled much, and I don’t know enough about its history. I had a great teacher in Cyprus, Antonios Philippou, who taught me to speak Greek – I speak and read fluent Greek, ancient and modern – Turkish and French. I have studied the ancient Greek writers and, as I told you, I have studied the history and philosophy of the Indies and I know a lot of Egyptian history.
-Very interesting what you are telling me, my dear Lady! You could help me communicate with the locals, since you speak Greek and Turkish, he said with a laugh.
-Do not laugh, Mr. Hubertus, I would be happy to do so. I am very interested in your work and the archaeological mission you are preparing.
-Well, then let me accompany you to dinner to continue our conversation.
-I will see you in the dining room, around 8.00.
When she returned to her cabin, Mary sat on her bed, surprised by herself. She was not used to chatting with strangers and even with such intimacy. She could not deny it. Mr. Hubertus was a very charming and terribly interesting man!
Mary was used to receiving the attention of men. Most of them approached her for her beauty, others for her spirit, others for both. But she was not easily fascinated. Her husband often said this, when his friends teased him because his wife was attracting male gazes.
-Don’t worry, he used to say, they’re looking at her, but she’s looking at the books on the shelves of the library, behind them!
Fortunately, she thought, that her husband was not jealous. They did not have much in common with William, but it would have been a big problem if he was jealous of her. Of course, she herself had never given him a reason. On the contrary, he was flattered that this beautiful and witty woman was his wife. Of course, the same was not true of the wives of the men who were gazing at her, but that was another story.
She remembered then, at the age of seventeen, when her mother had sent her to London to her sister Susan. Her goal was to find her an aristocratic groom and according to her plan to get her married and all of them live in London. Of course, things did not happen exactly the way she wanted them to be.
Despite the confidence she had gained, with her mother repeating to her every moment that she was a McCain, daughter of the military commander of Nicosia and had nothing to fear for in life, when she arrived in London she felt lost, out of her waters.
At first, she thought that everyone was looking at her because she did not know how to behave properly, like an English aristocrat. But soon Aunt Susan opened her eyes.
-My precious, she told her, everyone is looking at you because you’re not just beautiful. You’re a beauty. As your pitch-black hair frames your white skin and, as your eyes shine with huge eyelashes and, I’m sure you don’t know, but your lips are very voluptuous! As for your body, you are like an ancient Caryatid.
How embarrassed she was by Aunt Susan’s description! Except her dark childhood, which was as if she did not exist, she devoted the rest of her life to learning. She never bothered with her appearance. Her clothes were chosen by her mother, and she was completely happy with it.
Slowly – slowly, she got used to living with her rare beauty and managing the bridegrooms who surrounded her full of desire. Although she continued to study at the university, she felt the constant pressure from her mother to choose someone to get married, and then she decided to make her revolution, within the narrow confines that her life allowed her.
Among so many English nobles, she chose William Moore, the son of a lord, who by the death of his father. Would also become a lord. He was an officer of the British army, quite nice, tall, blond, and sturdy. He was also a smiling, pleasant, humorous man, a keen dancer and seemed to really love her. But his main advantage, for Mary, was that he was a military man and hoped that they would not live the rest of their lives in dull London but would travel to the colonies. Of course, she would have preferred to travel to Cyprus, but she could not be sure of that.
William was clear with her when he asked her to marry him.
-I want you to promise, he told her, that wherever I go you will follow me, always (he underlined the word “always” emphatically”). I may become a lord in a few years’ time, but I do not intend to give up military life. I will be a soldier until the end of my life. You are ready to become the wife of a soldier.
-Yes, William, she told him. I will always follow you wherever you go.
Of course, years later she regretted this promise, but at that moment she believed that she had made the right decision.
Her mother, on the other hand, was not at all happy to lose her daughter, but she could not refuse her to marry a lord. After her daughter’s marriage, she returned to Cyprus.
-Why did I remember all this, Mary thought and started getting ready for dinner.
Throughout her life she has been an elegant, extremely elegant lady, but not particularly a coquette. Her natural beauty did not require her to wear makeup, so she was almost always completely naturally. Tonight, though, she wore a particularly elegant blue dress, put a little blush on her cheeks and a discreet perfume behind her ears. She wore some lovely earrings with blue sapphires, which lit up her eyes and set off for the dining room.
-Mary, she said to herself, beware. That’s not your goal right now!
At dinner, they did not stop chatting with incredible fervour. They had so many things in common that both were interested! By the end of the evening, they had become so familiar that they had left the formalities and each of them called the other by their first name.
They talked about Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922 and the incredible treasures found, since it was the first undisturbed pharaoh’s tomb to be discovered.
Kristian Hubertus had very strong views on the subject.
-You will see, he said, that a hundred years from now archaeologists and scientists will still be studying this tomb. Incredible treasures have been found in there.
-Did you hear, he continued, about the recent death of Gertrude Bell, in Baghdad? Great loss, for Britain, the Arab world and all the women of all times.
Mary did not hear this news and was unpleasantly surprised. She told him about a meeting with Gertrude Bell in Cairo in November 1915, following the death of her beloved Dick Doughty – Wylie at Gallipoli. This great woman was devastated, but she did not want to show anything.
-Life was hard to her, Kristian said. Such an educated woman with such incredible abilities, who despised the Victorian English society of 1886 and not only was educated in Oxford, at a time when no woman was educated, travelled everywhere, made so many archaeological discoveries, studied Arab culture as no one else, but could not enjoy love.
-You know, Mary continued, Dick Doughty – Wylie wasn’t her only love. In 1892, she had met Henry Cadogan in Tehran and fell in love with him. He is the one who introduced her to the study of Arabic language and Arabic poetry. Unfortunately, her father did not consent to marry him, and this cost her unimaginably. In 1893 Henry Cadogan died, although many say he committed suicide.
-Dear Kristian, Mary continued, I’ve figured out that you can’t have it all. Life will take something back from you, to balance what it has given to you. Gertrude was so gifted and had so many abilities! She was a mountaineer, archaeologist, writer, poet, diplomat, dedicated her life to Arab culture and the Arab world. Her achievements were miraculous, and perhaps no other woman would ever make it. The Arabs called her Queen of the Desert and respected her unimaginably, those who consider women to be subordinate beings! Life did not give her the right to enjoy love. Hard? Life through human eyes is both hard and unjust. But who knows what is the meaning of everything, in the endless circles of the universe?
Suddenly they realized that everyone had left the dining room. They got up and, after saying goodnight to each other, promised to meet the next day to continue their conversation.
Mary returned to her cabin cheerful. She had not felt like this for years. She had a very nice evening with a very charming and interesting gentleman.
Surely the rest of the trip would go by pleasantly. The path she had taken to find her past began with optimistic omens.
She laid down on her bed, and from one side the rhythmic shake of the ship, and from the other side the sweet memory of the evening that had passed, gave her a deep, happy sleep.
Gertrude Bell, A Woman in Arabia (The writings of the Queen of the Desert)