Their souls danced, honouring his promise.
The ancient dhow stirred in the soft morning breeze, moving through the water like a sated lion, snuffling about the other boats on the harbour; some scurrying, some at anchor, some darting before a brief gust of wind. The lateen sails a bustling panorama of blood-red and sun-bleached white.
Set in Zanzibar in 1910, it is the story of two people falling in love from different worlds. Susan immerses herself in Zanzibar. Asim falls in love with this woman from the nation that killed his wife. Susan is a spy. Asim is the chief advisor to the Sultan of Zanzibar. Germany and France are holding secret negotiations to form a Pan European alliance, which would isolate Britain and destroy her power. Susan and Asim are caught up in all this and their love is finally dashed on the cold, hard reality of international high politics.
'A maharaja’s ruby cast on a Persian carpet by the blackest of hands'
Their souls danced, honouring his promise.
The ancient dhow stirred in the soft morning breeze, moving through the water like a sated lion, snuffling about the other boats on the harbour; some scurrying, some at anchor, some darting before a brief gust of wind. The lateen sails a bustling panorama of blood-red and sun-bleached white.
Aft, the woman's eyes searched the skyline, drinking in the architecture of Stone Town, the heart of Zanzibar; its jagged, cluttered silhouette so familiar, so much a part of her soul.
Abruptly, her eyes ceased their restless searching, jagged by an invisible hook, transfixed by the grand buildings on the northern shore, Beit-al-Ajaib, the House of Wonders, Palace to the great Sultan of Zanzibar. The distinctive architecture captured in the tropical light: coconut white outlined by contrasting shadow plays of pepper black.
A smile, ever so slight, started to play on the edge of her mouth then disappeared. A memory that should have been fond instantly turned to sharp unbearable pain. Her eyes hardened and moved on.
Without warning the captain threw the rudder over. Stumbling, the woman barked her shin on a wooden box, a rough-hewn coffin. She recoiled, knocking over an untidy stack of cane baskets. Imprisoned in the baskets, rusty cockerels, their scruffy heads straining through the latticework, snapped at her, cried out to her; their raucous din overwhelming her, drowning her.
Dimly, through the fog of noise, the strident swearing of the sailors in Kiswahili seeped into her conscious. Understanding, she smiled mirthlessly.
The coffin had been carelessly stowed, a chore, rather than a labour of respect or love.
“Hello, who are you? I am Oliver, is Edward at home?”
The words were spoken by a tall, impeccably dressed young man rushing into Edward’s flat, shaking off surplus water and calling for whisky while shoving his umbrella into a stand; a shaggy grey Irish wolfhound, impeccably dressed by saville row.
It was a blustery, grey, bitterly cold February afternoon in the heart of London. The wolfhound brushed a curl of soft auburn hair from his forehead and smiled charmingly.
Susan laughed, her hazel eyes dancing with the exhilaration of the new. “Yes, he is having a bath. I think he is trying to get warm. I’m Susan, Susan Carey, his sister.”
“Ahhh yes, from Australia. How do you do?” said Sir Oliver, smiling broadly and offering his hand. He had noticed the laughter in her eyes, and the depth, particularly the depth, intensified by jade flecks that made them striking and alluring. “So, you have arrived, good trip I trust.”
“I am very well thank you, and yes, it was a good trip,” replied Susan.
He laughed and glanced at the sitting room, “whisky?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, please come in…….. that was silly of me, after all, it is your flat.”
Oliver smiled and gestured for Susan to lead the way. He followed her into the room, and after helping himself to a generous portion of whisky, walked over to the fire.
Shortly after, Edward, wrapped in a huge ruby-coloured dressing gown and wiping soap from his ear strode into the room. He was of similar age to Oliver, late twenties, well built, if slightly podgy, with dark auburn hair and a full moustache. Susan looked up and smiled to herself, she could see now where he had picked up some of his new mannerisms.
“Thought I could hear voices. I see you two have met, no need for introductions then.”
As he was speaking, Edward walked to the side table and grabbed a whisky decanter by the neck. He glanced at Oliver who nodded. A long finger snaked into one of the tumblers followed by the distinctive clink of crystal. He swept the decanter off the table and carried it to where Oliver was sitting. After pouring the whisky, he sank into a lounge chair and sipped from his glass, enjoying the warm glow as it spread through his body.
Suddenly he sat up exclaiming, “Sorry sis, would you like something to drink?”
“Kind of you to remember, but no thank you, and yes, Oliver has already inquired.”
Edward nodded and sank back into his lounge chair.
They chatted, tentatively at first, getting to know one another. Edward had not seen Susan for two years and was unsure how his sister would take his new relationship. Oliver was intrigued by Susan. An attractive, self-assured young lady of high intelligence with a degree was a rare find. And, as fate would have it, she was also a trained and experienced teacher. He suggested a picnic at Oxford, which was met with ready acquiescence. Arrangements were made for the following Sunday.
“I’ll see if the Rolls is available,” mused Oliver. “Must ring father, haven’t spoken to him in ages.”
Oliver, Sir Oliver Marchmaine, was an unaffected young man of intense intelligence who saw life as a great adventure to be lived to the full. He was also unyieldingly loyal to his country, England, which is why he had joined Military Intelligence on leaving Oxford.
It was 1910 and Europe was stirring. It was a time full of interest, intrigue and danger. The European chessboard was becoming increasingly complex, the moves more subtle. A time when an unexpected move or feint could have profound consequences.
Regaining her balance, the woman’s eyes were drawn, hesitantly at first, resisting back to Beit-al-Ajaib. She wondered if it was still the same. Still the same centre of power and intrigue that had been so much a part of her life all those years before; that had defined her life.
She remembered those first few moments, remembered standing in the foyer of the palace, .………… remembered the breathtakingly beautiful Persian tapestry ........
The sea breeze stirred her clothes. She smiled a little sadly, and in her mind the tapestry gently swayed. Two small apparitions ran giggling up the stairs: two small exquisitely rich burkas disappearing along the first floor landing. Childish squeals of mischief and joy left in the air.......
“Move to seaward, you accused of Allah! Move!”
Her thoughts were clawed back to the dhow, the captain crashing the tiller over to avoid another boat on the crowded harbour. The woman instinctively ducked her head to avoid the heavy boom as it swung over her, the rusty cockerels squawked their raucous indignation, their heads straining through the latticework, relentless.
The collision avoided, the dhow continued on its way. The cacophony dying down to the occasional command by the captain or the cry of a seagull.
The woman's thoughts returned to Beit-al-Ajaib
…………. laughing and giggling, girls of seven or eight. A door on the first floor slammed and all sounds of them disappeared. Silence. The woman smiled. She could see herself, a young woman, dressed plainly, unselfconsciously, her sexuality tantalisingly just out of reach, hidden beneath the thin veil of her clothing. She remembered standing alone in the foyer, looking around, perplexed. Asim came through a door to the left of the tapestry.
The woman started and looked around. Then, realising, was cold again. Alone again. Alone, rocking to and fro to the rythm of the sea. Alone, beside a rough-hewn coffin.
At the appointed hour a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, driven by a Chauffeur and containing a picnic basket “picked up” at Harrods floated down the road and stopped outside the flat. Susan was in awe of the car’s luxurious interior and readily accepted a glass of champagne. They motored up to Oxford through the English countryside where the drab colours of winter were just beginning to give way to the insistent freshness of spring, the sun streaking through the billowing grey cumulus in great shafts of light.
They wandered along the banks of the Thames, idly watching the punts drifting on the river. Oliver pointed out where the rowing regattas took place and informed Susan that the Thames was called the Isis at Oxford.
“What did you study?” inquired Susan.
“I took a first in Classics,” replied Oliver.
“What do you do now?” asked Susan. Then, correcting herself quickly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Oh, that’s all right. I’m in the army.” Oliver gave this information with a charming smile.
“He is a Lieutenant-Colonel,” added Edward. “He looks quite spiffing in his uniform.”
The chauffeur walked up to let them know the picnic was ready. They were soon seated on tartan rugs and enjoying a sumptuous lunch complete with vintage champagne served in long stemmed crystal glasses. Susan talked of her interest in Africa, especially Zanzibar. She said that she particularly hoped to travel there while she was living in England. Sir Oliver was most interested in her passion for Zanzibar. He seemed to know a lot about the place. As they were taking one last walk for the day he told Susan of some photos of Zanzibar he knew of. They had been taken by an old friend of his who had just returned from a visit to Sir Edward Clark, the Consul General in Zanzibar.
“Would she like to see them?”
Susan’s face lit up instantly, animated with glee and anticipation as she smiled her assent.
Oliver was to arrange dinner at his friend’s flat one evening the following week , and let Susan know.
“You were sent by Sir Edward Clark?” asked Asim.
The question was asked directly, merely to ascertain the relevant information. He did not respond to her femininity. Did not glance she remembered, allowed herself to remember. The counterpoint between the masculine and the feminine was missing. Something in him, that part of him, had withered to the point of extinction. She did not know that then. That was to be part of her journey.
“Yes, my name is Susan, Susan Carey. I am the teacher.”
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Carey. My name is Asim abd–al-Aziz. You will please follow me.”
Asim turned and walked over to a white marble staircase. Susan remained standing at the door, a bag either side of her. Two large carpetbags made of a scuffed tartan canvas. They had large rounded leather handles worn to a dull buff colour where time, sweat and constant use had taken their toll, a parting gift from her father. “Take them, they were part of my travels, now they will be part of yours.”
A fleeting, fond memory. She stooped to pick up the bags.
“Leave them, the servants will take them to your room. The Sultan is waiting, come.”
Asim waited while Susan walked over the rich mosaic of tiles to the staircase, before turning and walking up to the first floor balcony. He turned once again to see that Susan was following, then walked to a smaller wooden staircase that led to the third floor. He stopped once again. Seeing that Susan was still following, he continued walking down the corridor to where two guards, in immaculate white uniforms, with gold-handled scimitars buckled to their side, stood at either side of a set of huge double doors. The guards opened the doors, ushering Asim and Susan into the waiting room of the Sultan.
On the opposite side of the room sat a rotund and sweating man dressed in a tomato-red caftan. He was busily typing on an ancient typewriter and did not look up. His exquisitely carved desk was completely clear except for the typewriter and an ivory telephone. He wore a gold coloured fez and occasionally mopped his face with an enormous green handkerchief, the gold tassels on the fez swaying as he moved.
“We will wait here,” said Asim.
Susan stopped and looked around the room. It was sparse, yet every feature spoke of immense wealth.
The telephone rang. The man at the typewriter picked up the handpiece and listened for a few seconds. He mumbled some words in Arabic before carefully placing it back on the cradle and glancing over to Asim.
“We are to go in,” said Asim, without expression and without glancing at Susan.
He walked towards the right-hand door; a large, heavy door, ornately carved, with mother-of-pearl inlaid throughout the intricate design. He stopped and turned.
“Please come over and be ready.”
Susan walked over and stood behind him. He knocked once. A guard opened the door and Asim strode through, stopping after three paces. He raised his hand to his forehead.
“Salaam, Your Highness. Miss Susan Carey, the teacher sent by Sir Edward Clark is here.”
His voice was impassive.
“I heard that you were particularly interested in Zanzibar, Susan. So I have concentrated most of the slides on the time I spent there." Lord Cavendish gesturing to a servant to close the curtain and start the slide show. “I was lucky enough to be introduced to the Sultan by and old school friend, the British Consul General, Sir Edward Clark. The Sultan attached his chief aide, Asim abd-al-aziz, to escort me. Though I’m not sure if it was, indeed, more to keep an eye on me. Still, on with the show! Susan, this is a picture of the old Stone Town. It has a history stretching back over a thousand years. Most of the stone buildings you see were built last century.”
Susan was enraptured, absorbed into each photo. She yearned to go there, to feel the air, to be a part of the life of that ancient and exotic city; to immerse herself.
Lord Cavendish and Sir Oliver watched Susan with interest. They encouraged her questions and ensured that Edward had sufficient port and cigars not to notice that they drank very little and were paying, perhaps, a little more attention to Susan than decorum and good manners dictated.
After Susan and Edward departed, Lord Cavendish and Sir Oliver adjourned to the study, poured themselves a whisky and sat down on an ancient leather couch opposite the fireplace. The fire crackled and danced on the hot coals, black acrid smoke drawing up the chimney. The two men sat in silence, contemplating the flames and enjoying the excellent whisky.
“Well, what do you think, Freddie?” inquired Sir Oliver.
“I think she would do quite nicely. She is intelligent, has an obviously genuine interest in the place and the right qualifications to take on the role of a teacher. It’s a bit of luck that the Sultan insists that his children are given an English education.” Lord Cavendish took a sip of whisky and smiled. “I hope a teacher from the colonies won’t be questioned, and we definitely have to thank her parents for giving her elocution lessons, almost sounds as though she were raised here in England. Yes, worth a try.”
Sir Oliver smiled. “Yes, definitely worth a try,” he agreed in a thoughtful voice. “I am, however, worried that we will be sending her in to some danger. I feel as if I am imposing on the friendship I have with her brother.”
“Nonsense. We are talking about some minor skirmish to get low-grade background information. She won’t be required to do any real spying. Shouldn’t think they will shoot her, you know.”
Sir Oliver winced a little.
“This is not a joking matter, Freddie.”
“Didn’t say it was. It will be useful and I dare say she would enjoy it. She seems awfully keen on the place. I found it full of mosquitoes and damnably hot. Still! Another whisky old man before you depart?”
“Yes, thankyou,” said Sir Oliver holding out his glass. Lord Cavendish poured two generous fingers of twenty-year-old single malt Macallam into each glass. “Who should recruit her do you think?”
“I think it should be the both of us. Arrange the luncheon and tackle the big brothers,” replied Lord Cavendish.
“Where, precisely, may I ask?”
The inquiry came from the back of the room in a rich, deep baritone, speaking clearly of culture and breeding. It had the distinctive elocution of Eton and Cambridge, where the Sultan had been educated. It was a voice used to command. There was more than a hint of amusement in the voice.
“I am sorry, Your Highness.”
Asim turned around and beckoned to Susan, who had remained standing on the other side of the doors, unsure, hesitant.
She walked into the room and stood beside Asim.
The Sultan was standing on the opposite side of the room before an open window. He was dressed in the white robes of an Omani Sultan. The distinctive head cloth, the kufiyya, made of exquisitely fine cotton held in place by coils of gold rope, the agal. His smile was relaxed and urbane. His features were also that of a falcon, though softer, more open. His eyes were dark, intelligent and sparkled with humour. Incongruously, Susan noticed that his teeth were immaculate. He walked across the room to greet Susan.
“I am so pleased to meet you, Miss Carey, please have a seat. Tea?”
The Sultan indicated two richly upholstered chairs positioned either side of a delicate oval table. The French windows leading out to the balcony were opened to allow in a soft sea-breeze which washed through the room. Susan was enchanted by the tropical panorama set out before her: by the exotic landscape; by the unique architecture of Stone Town; by the deep-water harbour with its wharves and cranes; by the myriad dhows, up to two thousand, darting and jostling on the water. There was movement, colour, sound and smell. It was alive!
The Sultan waited for Susan to be seated before gesturing to the harbour. “It is beautiful, is it not?” There was a strong note of pride in his voice. “The history of this town goes back nearly two thousand years. My people, the Omani, have ruled here for fourteen hundred years. Do you like children, Miss Carey?”
The question came abruptly, taking Susan by surprise.
“Why, yes.” She replied.
“Why did you choose to take the position?”
The Sultan had asked the questions as he took his seat opposite Susan. He beckoned for a servant to bring the tea. Before Susan could reply the Sultan smiled charmingly and asked, “milk and sugar, or lemon? The tea is of exception quality, I suggest lemon.”
The Sultan spoke in rapid Arabic to a servant who started to prepare the tea.
“Please, try some of this sweet, it will prepare your palate.” The Sultan picked up a silver platter and offered it to Susan.
“Thank you,” she replied, selecting an azure blue sweet lightly dusted in powdered sugar.
“What do you think of the tea Miss Carey? Is not the lemon more refreshing?” asked the Sultan, sitting back in his chair and gazing intently at Susan, his tea-cup held in his left hand.
Susan sipped her tea. “Yes, I am enjoying it, thank you,” she replied. “The lemon is certainly more refreshing.”
“Where were we, ah yes…… why do you like children? Do you come from a large family? I have eight children, they are a delight! Yes, all of them!”
“I have two brothers and one sister. I am the eldest girl. My elder brother is currently a resident at Guys Hospital in London. My younger brother is studying engineering at University. My sister has just returned from Paris where she studied design under Paul Poiret.”
“A Doctor and an engineer! Your parents must be proud of them. You are a teacher I see. A very well qualified teacher.”
“Thank you. I gained my degree in history and linguistics and then qualified as a teacher. Yes, I love children and I care passionately about them. They place their trust entirely in your hands, I could not let them down.”
“I am so pleased. Thank you. Asim will take you to meet Princess Khalida who will show you to your rooms. Goodbye Miss Carey, it has been a pleasure talking you.”
The Sultan placed his teacup back on the table and stood up, smiling, a dissmissal. Susan put her unfinished cup on the table, spilling a little, stood up and walked over to Asim who turned and led the way back through the doors.
Sir Oliver arranged the luncheon on a day he knew Edward would be busy at the hospital. It was served at a small round table made from exquisitely carved walnut. The table nestled in a bay window overlooking a park opposite the flats where a grove of stately Dutch elms, their branches stark and rugged after bearing the brunt of a bitter English winter, stood in splendid majesty. It was a cold, grey day and the children playing in the park were dressed in an assortment of coloured cardigans: splashes of red, green, blue and white. A squeal of delight, or a cry of childish glee drifted up to the flat.
After serving lunch the butler left the room, quietly shutting the door behind him. Lord Cavendish reached over the table and poured Susan a glass of German Riesling. Wine was his passion and he had one of the finest cellars in England.
“German wines are unique. The climate is the key, my dear. They have,” at this point Lord Cavendish swirled the wine in his glass, sniffed it and took a sip with obvious satisfaction, “an intense, fruity aroma and what we wine buffs call ‘long flavour’; it lingers on the palate.” Lord Cavendish took another sip of wine. Sir Oliver sat back; it was best to get it over with. There was simply no stopping Lord Cavendish once he settled into his favourite subject. “The classic Rieslings are from the Mosel producer Dr. Loosen, or from von Hovel and the Rautenstrauch Karthäuserhof estate in the Saar and Ruwer valleys.” Susan, the linguist, was impressed by Lord Cavendish’s pronunciation. He took another sip, “the quality ultimately depends on the skill of the winemakers. Drink up my dear! This is a Berncasteler Doctor Riesling Auslese 1908. I have a dozen cases sent over each year, it will compliment the grouse, don’t you think Oliver? After dessert, we will have Eiswein, that is ‘Ice-wine’ in English. The grapes are left on the vine until they freeze. A precise temperature of minus seven degrees Celsius is required. The water content is removed as ice and the resulting wine is sweet, luscious and concentrated. I am sure you will enjoy it. Now, I must ask you, would you by any chance like a job in Zanzibar?”
Susan had just taken a sip of the Riesling and was enjoying the complex fruity aftertaste when Lord Cavendish asked the question. At first she thought she had misheard.
“I beg your pardon, did you say a job in Zanzibar?” asked Susan, perplexed.
“Yes, young lady, that is just what I asked. Teacher to be specific, teacher to the Sultan’s children. He likes to have them taught English and to imbue our ways. You may have to take some elocution lessons. Although I must say that awful Australian twang is all but missing. Anyway, what do you think?” replied Lord Cavendish.
“I am stunned. I really don’t know what to say. Of course I am interested, it would be a dream come true. My mother insisted that I have elocution lessons and I was particularly interested in phonetics at University..... I am so sorry, I’m babbling.”
Susan had answered slowly, one sentence at a time, showing that she was collecting her thoughts. “So, I would be teaching the Sultan’s children? That sounds very grand.”
“Yes, quite,” replied Lord Cavendish. “Don’t let the grouse get cold, had them bought in from my estate specially, cook always does wonders with them.”
Sir Oliver smiled and turned to Susan.
“I’m afraid that tact was never one of Freddie’s strong points. I suggest we concentrate on enjoying lunch and Freddie and I will endeavour to answer any questions you might have.”
The three ate in silence for several minutes.
“Why are you offering me the job?” asked Susan. “It doesn’t make sense. I wouldn’t have thought that the Sultan of Zanzibar uses the British Consulate as his employment agency.”
“Quite right,” nodded Lord Cavendish, stabbing at a breast of grouse. “Normally, of course, they would not. However, we got wind of the position and offered to help. Or at least, the Consulate did. Quite astute young lady. Where to from here do you think Oliver?”
“Who is ‘we’?” asked Susan
“Ahh ...” exclaimed Lord Cavendish, “who indeed. As I said Oliver, quite astute.”
Sir Oliver raised one eyebrow in surrender.
“I am with Military Intelligence, specialising in Africa, specifically in East Africa. Zanzibar is of key strategic importance in that part of the world,” said Oliver. “It has a very useful deep water harbour you see. The Sultan was looking for a teacher and we thought that it would be prudent to have someone in the Palace. We had been casting around when you turned up. I was impressed by your interest in and knowledge of Zanzibar, as well as your academic qualifications and obvious intelligence. We seek the best and the brightest in our profession.” At this Susan gave a deprecatory look. Sir Oliver was quick to respond. “There is no room for self-effacement. You are exactly as I describe, which is why we are talking to you. One does not apply for a job in this profession.”
“That is all very well, gentlemen. What makes you think I would be interested or, indeed, suitable?” broke in Susan.
“You are definitely suitable,” replied Lord Cavendish. “We are about to find out if you are interested. We do this because very few can, and, we believe that it helps keep the British Empire strong. And that, we believe, is in the best interests of not only ourselves, but the world in general.”
“And if you are wrong?” questioned Susan, looking Lord Cavendish in the eyes.
“We are not,” replied Lord Cavendish.
Sir Oliver looked directly at Susan and continued. “We believe that our work helps to keep the ebb and flow of world affairs in balance. Clandestine detente, if you will. Much can be said through informal channels that cannot be said formally. It is the Great Game. Every country does it. It can be very exciting and takes you to places you might never get the chance to see. We have all afternoon, Susan, please ask as many questions as you like, before making up your mind.”
“What, exactly, are you asking me to do?” inquired Susan, looking at each of the men quizzically.
“Essentially, just keep your eyes peeled and let us know what the gossip is,” replied Sir Oliver. “We are after background information. Nothing dangerous or complex.”
“Will I have any training?” asked Susan
“Yes,” replied Lord Cavendish, “you will spend one month training before you go. Basic guff. Enough to know what to look for and what and how to report it.”
“I expect I will think of many questions along the way, but I am interested.”
Susan spoke the words slowly and thoughtfully.
“You know that no-one must know, including your brother. It is not only for your safety, but it would jeopardise the operation if any hint were to leak out,” said Sir Oliver, looking directly into Susan’s eyes.
“I understand,” replied Susan, a little disconcerted at the steel in his eyes. Sir Oliver liked to portray himself as the jovial, solicitous English nobleman, somewhat amateurish in his demeanour and approach. However behind that boyish facade was the hardness and determination, along with a touch of ruthlessness, that had won an Empire.
The three spent the afternoon talking and arranging the details for Susan’s training. The position would first have to be confirmed, and then Susan would let everyone know that she was going to Zanzibar to teach at a missionary school. Before leaving she would spend one month training in Scotland, ostensibly under the guise of taking a holiday. As a low level operative it would be little more than a background briefing and basic fieldwork.
“I am not permitted into the harem. Princess Khalida will show you to your rooms. I will arrange a meeting tomorrow to go through your duties.”
As Asim was speaking, the door on the opposite side of the room opened and a woman walked through. She wore a ruby coloured scarf lightly wrapped around her head. The scarf was fixed by a white-gold pin set with a large, egg shaped pearl. Her eyes were striking; dark, intelligent. Eyes that looked with obvious delight and fascination at Susan.
Asim bowed formally to Princess Kahlida.
“This is Susan Carey, the teacher, Your Highness.”
Asim turned and left the room. Susan walked over to Kahlida, who smiled, and beckoned for Susan to walk through the door. After checking that it was securely shut, Kahlida removed her scarf.
Her face was that of a woman who had once been strikingly beautiful, but whose features were now sharply defined by tragedy. Her smile, once fresh and full of joy, was a faint echo of that, no longer trusting easily. Her friendship, while intense, was flawed.
“It’s so tedious, yet the men do not feel secure without it. We feel we must humour them, poor lambs.” Kahlida spoke in a soft, cultured voice. She then laughed and held out her hand to Susan.
“Welcome to our Harem. It will not be, perhaps, how you envisaged it. It is our community of women and children. Harem originally meant sanctuary in Persian.”
Susan took Khalida’s hand and smiled back. She noticed that Khalida’s dress was exquisitely cut and probably from one of the exclusive Parisian fashion houses, Doucet, Pioret,………Jeanne Paquin. Probably Jacques Doucet. Susan smiled, a little sadly, remembering her mother, her sister.
“Yes. At first it gave me a start when they said I was to be assigned to a harem. Sir Edward’s little joke I suppose. I’m so glad to be here. I fell in love with Zanzibar the moment I arrived.” Susan hesitated, “Your Highness.”
“Please, Khalida. Yes, it is a rich and intriguing city. So much colour and life, so much history in the stones. Here, we walk on stones that have born the tread of explorers, slaves and warriors. There is much to discover, much to live. Come, I will take you to your room.”
At the end of the corridor they walked out onto a balcony that overlooked a large inner courtyard. Kahlida led Susan to a door halfway along.
A beautiful young woman of Masai heritage stood at the door. She made a slight bow of her head to acknowledge Kahlida.
“Susan, this is Subira, she will be your personal servant.”
Susan smiled at Subira, “Hello, I am pleased to meet you.”
“Thank you Miss,” replied Subira impassively.
As they entered the room, Susan was spellbound by an ancient Persian Kilim hanging on the opposite wall. It was hundreds of years old and priceless.
“Would you show me Zanzibar, Kahlida?” asked Susan impulsively, as she walked up to gaze at the Kilim. “I do not mean just the buildings, I mean the real Zanzibar, the scuffed stones.”
Khalida smiled. “Yes, Susan, I would enjoy that.” Her voice showed interest but was, as yet, uncommitted. She paused, looking at Susan, assessing her. “For now, however, would you like to settle into your room and rest? I will take you to the baths later and introduce you to the other women.”
“Yes, thank you, it has been a tiring morning.”
The training interested Susan enormously. She learnt of the history of Zanzibar and the current state of play between the colonial powers of Great Britain, France and Germany, also the interplay of Austria-Hungry and Russia; the strategic importance of the Middle East, India and the Suez Canal; the significance of the deep-water port at Zanzibar. Her main task, once she was safely ensconced in the Palace, would be to report who visited and try to determine from the general talk whether the Sultan was pro-British or pro-German. The British knew that the Germans were clandestinely courting the Sultan, with an eye on the deep-water port, and that the Sultan had family ties to Germany.
“There will be a war within the next five years.”
This piece of startling information was imparted to Susan by Major Peter Croft, the instructor responsible for teaching her the art of spying. Major Croft had soft, indistinguishable features and a rather sharp, aquiline nose. He was handsome in an unremarkable sort of way, with a charming, self-effacing smile that very seldom appeared. He was of medium height and build. All in all, Major Croft did not stand out in a crowd. In effect, he had the perfect features for a spy.
They had been discussing the strategic considerations relating to the Indian Ocean in the context of the current naval build up of Great Britain and Germany.
“So that is why the activities of Germany on the East African coast are of interest?” noted Susan.
“Yes, Zanzibar is potentially a vital deep-water naval base there,” said Peter.
“I would have thought that European affairs were not be of particular concern to Zanzibar,” observed Susan. “Why would they want to antagonise the British?”
“It all depends. As I said, we would not like to see Zanzibar fall into German hands. We do not have a large presence there and if there was a sudden uprising then it is unlikely we could hold it. If that happened, while we were otherwise engaged in say a war on the continent, then it would require significant resources to re-take the island. All best avoided in the first place. The Sultan is, as far as we know, pro-British. However we cannot take that for granted. Indeed, we have found it dangerous to take anything for granted.” Peter sat down and took a packet of cigarettes from his tunic pocket. He offered one to Susan, who declined. He proceeded to light one and drew in the smoke with obvious satisfaction. “The Sultan is not directly concerned with European affairs, but he will be concerned with which side might win in the event of armed conflict. He is a highly educated and shrewd leader. He will be looking to do the best by his country. If he considers that it is in the best interests of his country to side with the Germans then that is what he will do. Or, at least, that is what we think he will do.”
Peter finished his cigarette and looked over to Susan.
“Susan. Do not take what you will be doing for granted. It may not be directly dangerous. However, there is always an element of danger when you are spying. Before you leave here I want you to think very carefully about why you are going and whether it is worth the risk. Having said that, I think you will do well, as long as you simply keep to observing. Don’t, under any circumstances, become active. If you see anything that would require more then you are just to report it. Do you understand?”
“And remember,” exhorted Peter, “do not make any attempt to contact the embassy for the first few weeks. There is no hurry. Settle in and establish yourself. Observe. And do not write anything down that could be compromising. After the first month the embassy will issue an invitation to you for a garden tea. It is a regular and established practice. At the tea you will be contacted and given further instructions.”
“Yes, I understand,” replied Susan, nodding again.
A fleeting doubt crossed Peter’s mind, but he dismissed it and smiled. “You will be fine. You are one of the most intelligent operatives – I’m sorry, I did not mean to lapse into jargon – ‘person’ I have trained.”
At the end of the month, Susan went back to London to say farewell to her brother and receive her final instructions before sailing to Zanzibar. She spent a quiet weekend with Edward and wrote to her family. On the following Tuesday, Sir Oliver picked up Susan and Edward in his car and drove them to the wharf where Susan was to catch the steamer to Zanzibar.
“Good luck Susan. Remember to give my regards to Sir Edward,” said Sir Oliver holding out his hand.
As Susan was walking up the gangway Edward turned to Sir Oliver.
“She should be back in a year. I hope she will stay in London when she returns.”
“Yes,” replied Sir Oliver thoughtfully. “She should be.”
Susan looked around the room and hugged herself. This was a dream come true. She couldn’t quite believe it. She fell back on the bed, her arms outstretched, and looked up at the intricate Persian designs on the ceiling. She felt the sea breeze gently washing around her and could smell the salt in the air. In the distance she could hear the sounds of a bustling port, of dhows jostling for position after travelling across the ocean on the monsoon winds. She shut her eyes.
This was all perfect.
Her mind tried to shut out the insistent thoughts.
Enjoy the moment.
British Intelligence. Keep my eyes open. International intrigue?
Well, there does not appear to be much to see. Mmmmmm, that air smells delicious. I AM HERE!