Cairo, May 1997
I am obsessed with Anna Winterbourne's brown journal. She has become as real to me as Dorothea Brooke. I need to fill in the gaps, to know who the people are of whom she speaks, to paint in the backdrop against which she is living her life here, on the page in front of me.
I go to the British Council Library, to Dar al-Kutub, to the second-hand bookstalls even though they've been moved from Sur el-Azbakiyya up to Darrasa and browsing among them is no longer so pleasant. I even write to my son in London and ask for cuttings from old issues of The Times.
And I piece a story together.
London, October 1898 to March 1899
The light is like nothing Anna has ever seen before. Day after day it draws her back. Day after day it scatters itself on the rich carpets, on the stone or marble floors, on the straw matting. It streams through the latticed woodwork, tracing its pattems on mosaic walls and inlaid doors and layered fabrics, illuminating flowers and faces and outstretched or folded hands.
Anna looks down at her own hands, folded tight in her lap: her wedding band gleaming dull against the pale skin, her knuckles raised ridges of paler white. She unclenches her hands, stretches out the fingers and replaces the hands gently, open, on her knees.
He is not himself. I have heard this phrase before, and now itfalls to me to use it. Edward, my husband, is not himself.
For seven months I followed, with Sir Charles, all news of the events in the Soudan. For seven months I prayed for his safety and for his return unharmed. And now he is back I hardly know him. He is grown thin, and though his face is flushed with the sun of the south, it is as though a pallor lurks beneath.
Mr Winthrop has seen him and says he has caught some infection of the tropics and shall be well again with tranquillity and nourishing food and, later, exercise. Upon his insistence (Mr Winthrop's) I go out for a walk in the air each day. And I have taken to walking to the South Kensington Museum, which is a most beautiful and calming place and where I have come upon some paintings by Mr Frederick Lewis. They are possessed of such luminous beauty that I feel in their presence as though a gentle hand caressed my very soul.
On a low bed, pressed into a pile of silken cushions, a woman lies sleeping. Above her, a vast curtain hangs, through the brilliant billowing green of which the Duid shadows of the lattice shutters can be made out, and beyond them, the light. One wedge of sunshine--from the open window above her head--picks out the sleeper's face and neck, the cream-coloured chemise revealed by the open buttons of her tight bodice. A small amulet shines at her throat. Anna glances at her watch: she has ten more minutes.
Today I found Sir William Harcourt in the hall, taking his leave of Edward and Sir Charles. Sir Charles, shaking him repeatedly by the hand, said (in his usual robust fashion) that it was a sad day for England when a man like Sir William resigns from the Leadership because of the conversion of the Party to Jingo Imperialism. He spoke harshly of Rosebery and Chamberlain calling them men of war and Sir William said it was the spirit of the age and he was grown too old to fight it. Edward became much agitated and retired to his chamber. He refused to allow me to sit with him or bring him tea.
It is now eight weeks since Edward returned from the Soudan, and, I would have thought, time enough for him to grow well again, but for all that ails his body, I now fear that worse is a sickness of the spirit. He will not speak to me about anything of consequence and barely answers when I address him on commonplace matters. He will sit listless in the library for many hours and yet start if someone should enter of a sudden, so that I have learned to make some small noise before entering a room and to conduct a business with the doorhandle. He cannot bear the clatter of the teacup against its saucer--
So Anna has taken to placing folded muslin napkins under the cups. She knows he will not drink his tea, but he accepts his cup from her hand and suffers her to sit with him--no, suffers her to sit in the same room, for she cannot be said to be truly with him. She cannot, for instance, guess what thoughts are at this moment in his mind. Except that they are not thoughts of a happy--or even comfortable--nature. He sits upright in the big chair, his grey woollen dressing gown belted neatly at the waist, his hair combed back, his moustache hiding his upper lip, the lower lip drawn. His eyes fix upon some object behind her left shoulder, then move to the shrouded window, then down to the floor. They never meet her own. A muscle works, from time to time, in the clean-shaven jaw. He is waiting for this formality of tea-drinking to be over so that she may leave him.
'Edward,' says Anna, 'I have been speaking with Mr Winthrop, and he agrees that a change of air could do you good--'
'Edward, dearest, we could go down to Horsham for a few days. You can ride, be out in the air--'
'No, Anna. I am going nowhere.' He still does not look at her, but his grip on the arm of the chair becomes tighter, and his voice, though not raised, pitches itself a note higher. 'Will you please understand that? Nowhere. If you wish to go--'
'But Edward, I have no wish for myself. I only thought--'
'Let us not talk of this. I have no wish, no strength--'
'Please, dearest, calm yourself.'
Anna puts down her cup and rises to bend at his side. She puts her hand on his, trying to ease her fingers between his palm and the armrest. When she fails, she simply lets her hand lie on his.
'You must not become agitated. We will do nothing that you do not wish. I have no desire except to help you; to help you come back to yourself. Please, dearest, will you not tell me what I can do?'
When there is no answer, Anna bends further and places her lips and then her cheek against his brow. It feels hot and slightly damp. Edward Winterbourne pats his wife's hand as it lies on his and disengages his own.
'Please, Anna. There is no need to be so concerned. It is just a matter of resting.'
Anna stands beside him. She knows he would not welcome her sitting down again. But this is not some womanly folly; they are all concerned. The servants go about their business with muffled tread. Visitors leave cards to which she replies with polite notes saying that Edward finds himself indisposed, but as soon as he is better... His father is concerned to the point of anger. Yesterday afternoon she had entered the library to find him speaking to the butler. When he heard her at the door he had come forward and taken her hands.
'Ah, Anna. I have just asked Wilson to take all the shot out of the guns. Just a precaution, you know. No sense in having all that lead lying around. What d'you think?'
'Yes, of course, Sir Charles,' she had agreed. 'There's no need for it.'
And when Wilson had left the room and closed the door behind him, she had allowed the fear to show in her voice and eyes. 'You don't really think, do you?'
'No, no. Of course not. Of course not.' He had paced away from her, the erect soldier's figure striding to the end of the library table. 'I hope you don't mind, my dear--' He gestured at his boots. 'I rode over suddenly, you know.'
Anna shook her head. Halfway back he stopped and struck his fist against the back of a chair.
'By God! You'll pardon me, my dear, but I feel like taking a whip to him. If he had not the stomach for it, what drove him to go? He requested that commission --he would not be denied.'
'He believed he was doing the right thing.' And also, she thought, he wanted action, adventure, purpose, a mission...
'I told him, though. I told him this was not an honest war. This was a war dreamed up by politicians, a war to please that widow so taken with her cockney Empire--Ah, what's the use?'
He paused, and Anna came to stand beside him. Together, they stared out of the window at the trees darkening in the quiet square. He turned to her.
'You should get out, my dear. This is no life for a young woman.'
'I do get out, Sir Charles. I go out every day, for an hour. Mr Winthrop said I must. He said I must walk in the air. I go out every day at three, and I don't come back till four o'clock. Edward likes to rest then, you see--'
'But your little face is getting quite peaky, Anna, my dear.' He had put his hand to her chin and under that gentle touch she had felt the tears rise to her eyes--as they are rising now.
'Edward, dearest, is there anything you would like? Anything that I can fetch or do?'
'I think I should rest now, for a while.'
For shame, for shame, Anna. To be weeping for yourself now, at such a time. All your thoughts should be bent on him, devoted to him. He is in need of rest, and he cannot find it.
How different this homecoming has been from that of his father when, as a child of ten, recently bereft of my mother, I lay on a corner of the smoking-room carpet, studying the map of Egypt Sir Charles had given me and listening to him tell of how they beat Urabi and took Tel el-Kebir. And I heard him talk of heroism and treachery and politics and bonds, and I felt his anger at the job he had been made to do.
But Edward will not speak and I am afraid. I have not dared voice the thought, but I am afraid we are in the grip of something evil--my husband is in the grip of something evil, something that will not allow him to shake off this illness and come to himself.
Caroline Bourke tells me that Sir William Butler, meeting General Kitchener upon his arrival at Dover, said to him, 'Well, if you do not bring down a curse on the British Empire for what you have been doing, there is no truth in Christianity.' And Kitchener simply stared at him. I asked her what he meant. What had they done beyond taking the Soudan and restoring order? And she said she did not know--but with such dark looks as left me full of foreboding. I long to ask my husband what this means, for my instinct is that there is a key here to what ails him, but I am afraid. He is so changed and now is unable to take any nourishment but the thinnest broth and some crusts of bread.
Anna stands up and walks slowly round the gallery, coming to a stop in front of an old man, his white beard and turban set off against a wall of golden brick hung with pages of white, inscribed paper. Before him, on the floor, robed in vivid reds and blues, sit the children he teaches. A sun-striped cat reclines on a green cushion watching a pair of doves pecking at the spangled mat. In the half-open doorway, the smallest of the children hesitates.
In the street, Anna starts to hurry. It is four o'clock and the light is fading fast.
I have failed him. I am constantly and repeatedly failing him. If I could but find the key to the locked door of his mind, I could sweep out all the terrors that lurk there. And he would be well again.
For I know there are terrors and they have to do with the mission he has been engaged upon, which culminated earlier this week in the signing of the Soudan Convention. An event which has greatly angered Sir Charles and his friends so that they have written to The Times:
What would be said in private life, if a guardian and trustee who had undertaken to manage the estate of a minor, allowed the estate to run to ruin and then took possession of it as being worthless? In 1884 we forced the Egyptian Government to abandon the Soudan and leave it derelict, and now, the opportunity having occurred, we are taking possession of the country as belonging to nobody. It is a comment on the tone of the age that we should be doing this with the apparent approval of the whole world, moral and religious.
It would also appear, according to the Convention signed by Lord Cromer and Boutros Pasha, that we are saddling on Egypt the whole cost and labour of the war of reconquest not yet completed and making her budget responsible for the Soudan deficits.
This invention, the British Empire, will be the ruin of our position as an honest Kingdom.
Sir Charles tells me that George Wyndham said to him plainly that it is agreed by the Powers that the aim of African operations is to civilise Africa in the interests of Europe and that to gain that end all means are good.
I cannot believe George truly meant that 'all' means are good--but he is Under-Secretary for War and is bound to espouse more warlike principles than Sir Charles would think right.
I wish to ask Sir Charles to speak to Edward about the Soudan and to try to unlock--but I fear Sir Charles is too impatient and of too volatile a temper. My father would have been a better man for the task, for it was in his nature to be gentle--
Dear God, dear sweet Lord Jesus, I pray constantly for my husband's mind and for his soul. He is grown weaker and cannot or will not leave his room.
* * *
Caroline came to visit and told me how they say Kitchener's men desecrated the body of the Mabdi whom the natives believe to be a Holy Man and how Billy Gordon cut off his head that the General might use it for an inkwell. It cannot be true, for if it were--I truly fear for Edward now.
* * *
Sir Charles tells me that Billy Gordon confirms the story of the cutting of the head, but is angry that the deed is imputed to him--but he will not say who did it. Sir Charles did not wish to speak of this at first, but when he learned how much I knew already, he saw that it could not be helped and that it would be kinder to allow me to speak with him, for surely there is no one else to whom I can talk of this.
Oh, how I wish now more than ever for the presence of my beloved mother! For I feel sure she would advise me on some simple, womanly way to reach my poor, imprisoned husband. I have no confidante save Caroline Bourke and she, I fear, carries my own personal interest--as she sees it--too close to her heart to be able to advise me how I can best help my husband.
* * *
Edward brings up everything we give him now. His stomach cannot retain so much as a cupful of thin gruel and I fancy he is attempting to purge himself of all manner of things. I beg him to take heart, for our Lord surely watches over him as he watches over us all and God judges the actions of men but surely too He
judges them by their hearts and their minds, else how can one act be held distinct from another? And surely that distinction He would make--but Edward turns away.
Meanwhile, I find out that General Gordon's sister has distanced herself from this expedition all along. She has said that if it is to avenge her brother, then she does not wish him avenged and she is certain he would most strongly have not wished it himself. She says she knows the Mahdi had not wished General Gordon dead but rather had wanted him alive so that he could exchange him for the freedom of 'Urabi Pasha, the exiled leader of the Egyptian uprising of 1882. She tells anyone who will listen that her brother was among the first to come forward when Mr Blunt set up the fund to defray the expenses for the defence of 'Urabi, and that he had said, 'Here's the money, I'll wager 'Urabi pays it back himself in a couple of years.'
Each day now brings fresh horrors and Edward sickens so that I cannot bring myself to leave the house, nor do I wish it but content myself while he sleeps with a turn about the garden--the garden in which all things appear so brown and bare and dead that it would seem impossible that May will come and all will be in leaf again--and yet, today, I spotted the cheery white of the first snowdrops: the usual five, faithful to their usual place at the base of the old plum tree--and I was filled with a kind of melancholy hope--
Sweet Mary, Mother of God, I pray for my husband's soul as I pray for the souls of all the men who were joined in that terrible event--
The papers are full of it: an army of 7,000 British and 20,000 Egyptian soldiers loses 48 men and kills 11,000 of the Dervishes and wounds 16,000 in the space of six hours.
Winston Churchill promises to publish a book that tells how General Kitchener ordered all the wounded killed and how he (Churchill) had seen the 21st Lancers spearing the wounded where they lay and leaning with their whole weight on their lances to pierce through the clothes of the dying men and how Kitchener let the British and Egyptian soldiers loose upon the town for three days of rape and pillage.
The Honourable Algernon Bourke, Lady Caroline's kinsman, tells Sir Charles a heavy 'butcher's bill' was ordered for the day and communications with London were cut on a pretext so that no tempering word might find its way to the General...
Oh, I do so completely fear for my husband now, for if it is true and if he took part in those terrible deeds, he who puts honour above all else and truly thought that in embarking on this expedition he embarked on a brave and honourable task, I cannot now see how he can put it behind him--most particularly when he is so ill in body and at the mercy of the fever which burns him up for hours and leaves him, when it does, limp and so weakened that he can barely take the water that we put to his lips.
Edward Winterbourne died on 20 March 1899.
He had stood on the plain of Umm Durman and the thought that had hovered around him in 'Atbara, in Sawakin, in the officers' mess--the thought that he had for weeks held at bay--rose out of the dust of the battlefield and hurled itself full in his face in its blinding light. And once that thought had revealed itself and taken hold, the fanatical dervishes transformed themselves in front of his eyes into men--men, with their sorry encampments, with their ragtag followers of women and children and goats, with their months of hunger upon their bodies, and their foolish spears and rifles in their hands, and their tattered banners fluttering above their heads. Men impassioned by an idea of freedom and justice in their own land. But still they planted their standard and still they rushed forward with their spears and it was too late, too late to do anything but stand and fire.
I have told Sir Charles that I believe that in his heart Edward was just and honourable to the end. And that I believe that, at the end, he stood closer to his father in his convictions than he was able to say. I trust this may--in time--provide him with some comfort.
Excerpted from The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif. Copyright © 2000 by Ahdaf Soueif. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Photo credit: Robert Lyons