Aboard the Phaeton, 1799
Mary hit the floor of the ship’s squalid cabin with a dull thud, jolting her awake and sending a pain so sharp up her spine that Zeus might as well have hurtled a thunderbolt into her backside. She tried to breathe, but the fetid odors—dank wood; stale, trapped air; foul clothing; and the urine and excrement of humans and animals—were unbearable partners with the sickness that went along with the early stages of pregnancy. The stench she’d briefly escaped during her nap came rushing back in to claim space in her nostrils, and she gagged. Her head spun like scum swirling under a bridge, but that was nothing compared to the sick feeling in her stomach. On this voyage, sleep—when one could come by it through a good dose of laudanum mixed with iron salts, all dissolved with strong liquor in a syrupy elixir—was her only respite from the miseries of sea travel.
She reached up for the glass in which the good doctor had mixed the medicine, drained it, then stuck her tongue in deep enough that her face formed a suction as she licked up the last of the metallic-tasting liquid.
Her illness had been so relentless that Dr. MacLean—sober when on call during the day—had insisted that the captain dock at ports along the way to Constantinople. But the few times they had gone ashore, Mary had to walk through the cities with ammonia soaked rags covering her nose and mouth, her only protection from the plague that raged through Europe’s ports. The disease had been carried into the towns, the radical doctors of the day now professed (and Dr. MacLean concurred), on little rat feet. Apparently, as human passengers disembarked, so did the rodents, whose fur housed the fleas that transmitted the pestilence. These risky shore excursions were not even worth the temporary relief from the discomforts of the ship. The flea-and-lice-infested inns, replete with greasy, rancid food and the most inhospitable hosts, in which Mary and her party slept made conditions on board seem almost luxurious. Mary told herself daily (hourly, truth be known) that retaining her good cheer despite the horrible conditions boded well for her ability to meet the challenges she would undoubtedly face as a diplomat’s wife in the strange and exotic land of the Turks.
These inconveniences were a small price to pay for the glorious life that awaited her. She was married to Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin, the handsomest aristocrat ever to emerge from Scotland, who at the early age of two and thirty had been appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey. At this crucial juncture of history, when England’s alliance with the Ottomans against Napoleon and the French was in its infancy, her Elgin had been charged with nurturing the delicate relationship with the Sultan. Elgin’s mission was to reassure the Sultan that the alliance with England would hasten Napoleon’s defeat in the Ottoman territories, particularly Egypt. Everyone knew that Napoleon had invaded Egypt to gain a stronghold from which to take India away from the English. And that, His Majesty King George III had told Elgin, simply would not do.
Oh yes, Mary reiterated to herself for the hundredth time, it was the king himself who had suggested to Elgin that he apply for the ambassadorship to Constantinople. Which was why Mary now found herself—pregnant, dizzy, and nauseous—lying on the hard floor of the malodorous compartment of the Phaeton. She was there by the express and direct wish of the king. Surely the rewards would be worth the temporary agony.
Mary was leaning over on her elbow so that she could massage the pain shooting through her backside, when she heard Masterman approach. It could only be Masterman, her lady’s maid, for the footsteps were not heavy like Mary’s husband’s or those of any of the members of his staff or of the ship’s crew. Mary stared up at the horrid green curtain—her only means of privacy these many weeks—waiting for her maid to push it aside. “If it isn’t the color of vomit!” Mary had exclaimed the first time she saw the curtain, for she had just performed that very act, riding out the first of many violent storms she was to face at sea. Now, the putrid green thing was swept aside, and Masterman peeked in, her eyes quickly moving from the empty cot to Mary struggling on the floor.
“I was thrown quite out of my cot,” Mary said, answering the older woman’s unspoken question. “Is there a storm?”
“The captain is taking advantage of a brisk gale to give chase. The earl wishes you to remain below.”
“Give chase?” Mary bolted upright, shaking off the dizziness. “To French gunboats?”
“It appears thus,” Masterman said dryly, standing aside and making way for her mistress. Masterman had been with her since Mary’s girlhood and had long ceased to argue for practical measures. Why shouldn’t the young, newly married, pregnant countess put herself and her fetus—firstborn heir to all manner of money, land, and titles—at risk of being struck by one of Napoleon’s cannons? To mention the obvious would do no good. Masterman picked up Mary’s robe and followed the younger woman out of the hole. When Mary recovered from her moment of excitement, she was sure to notice that she was wearing only a nightgown.
On deck, Mary felt none of the queasiness that had troubled her every moment during the voyage. It was as if the sea air, cooler than it had been for days as it moved across her face, blew away all her ailments—the asthmatic choking disease that she shared with her husband (which was how they knew that they were inalienably meant for each other); the morning sickness, which despite its moniker knew no time of day in her body; the unrelieved seasickness; and, most incurable of all, the loneliness she’d felt for her home and for her parents since the day she told them goodbye.
But all that be dashed at the moment as she balanced herself against a taut rope, making her way along the undulating deck as the Phaeton raced through choppy waters. She tried to ignore that the wind was hardening her nipples into uncomfortable little cones. She looked down to see them making a tent in the linen sheath and realized that she was rushing toward her husband and the ship’s crew in a state of undress. She turned around to ask Masterman to fetch an appropriate garment when she saw the woman, not two paces behind, holding her dressing gown at the ready. Slipping into it, Mary turned toward the helm and nearly collided with two sailors, their arms full of shot brought from below, who were rushing toward the cannons.
On deck, the crew manned ten of the frigate’s thirty-eight guns. Mary could see the American vessel that sailed with them for protection taking the lead. Nothing annoyed Captain Morris more than the fact that the American ship was faster than the Phaeton, but Mary was grateful that the swifter vessel could buffer their ship against the early rounds of fire.
They’d been fired upon before. Napoleon’s gunboats dogged any English vessel on the Mediterranean, civilian or otherwise. Some weeks ago, off the sunburnt coast of Africa, a gunboat had taken them by surprise, its cannon fire rocking the sea. Mary had begged to stay on deck to observe, but Elgin virtually carried her below and held her on the cot while the explosions created chaos in the waters around them. The Phaeton was not hit directly, but Mary could feel the impact as the shot exploded just yards away, tilting the boat so far to one side that she ended up on the floor on top of her husband. Shaken, the two turned away from each other and regurgitated their barely digested lunches.
This time, she would not miss the action. She had just written to her mother that though the voyage was spent in sickness and fear, she was developing quite a new and wonderful character, a mature one that would serve her well in her future as ambassadress and beyond. She was unafraid; the excitement completely obfuscated the queasiness and dizziness, she could not help but notice. She was determined to witness firsthand whatever exchange of fire was about to happen. The sky was gray and foreboding, but the fresh air cleared her lungs, and she ran up behind her husband, threw her arms around him, and hugged him. He turned abruptly.
She loved looking at her husband. She had fallen in love with him the first time she saw him, what with his tall figure; his thick blond hair; his deep, intimidating brow; and his fi ne, aristocratic nose—not one of those thin little parcels that sat so unceremoniously upon the face, but a feature that bespoke of elegance and nobility. Not to mention his stately carriage that belied the more passionate elements of his character with which he’d been acquainting his young bride—his sexual appetites and expertise.
“What the devil, Mary? Get below before you’re knocked into something.”
“Not a chance, Your Lordship,” she replied. She could tell by the look on his face that he loved, but wrestled with, the fact that his wife was the disobedient sort. She imagined that admiration and indignity were waging a battle behind those gorgeous blue eyes. She knew that he did not want to be seen by his staff, the crew, or the officers in their blue and white—all of whom were staring at the disheveled countess in her dressing gown—as a husband whose authority could be questioned. But he also adored having a wife who had courage.
The ship lunged forward, throwing her into his chest. “Oh, all right,” he said. “But if fire is returned, you will go below. That is an order from your lord and commander.”
“Yes, Your Lordship and Commandership,” she said, with a touch of the saucy inflection she knew aroused him. “But if the gunboat is a danger, then why is it running from us and not attacking us as the last one did so unabashedly?”
“Because Captain Morris has taken this one by surprise and has gone on the offensive.”
“But we are so far away!”
“That is the point of the American vessel, Mary. Protection. They will fire first, and take the first rounds. At least that is the present strategy.”
“Are we to remain passive?”
“May I remind you that there are on board an ambassador on an urgent mission, his entire staff, and his beautiful wife, all of whom must be protected? May I remind you that you are a civilian? And a pregnant one? Will you please behave as the latter, and not as a boatswain or a gunnery officer?”
“What I should like to be at sea is my own master at arms, for then I would never confi ne myself below when there is action to be seen above.”
Elgin shook his head, suppressing a smile before the ship lurched forward, sending the two of them into a pile of rope on the deck floor. Except for the guns, the ammunition, and basic supplies, the deck had been cleared in anticipation of attacks. Elgin grabbed the rope and held on to Mary so that she would not crash against the wet planks. He was opening his mouth to command her to return below, Mary was sure, when one of the officers lowered his lookstick.
“Messenger approaching the ship,” the officer called out. Elgin rose, balancing himself with one hand on the rocking deck as he helped Mary to her feet. A gust of air hit her face as she stood, and she worked hard to regain steady breathing. If one of her choking fits took hold, Elgin would surely send her back to the miserable hole of a cabin, even if he had to carry her himself. For one brief moment she fantasized that that might not be so objectionable, given what usually happened whenever Elgin carried her into a bedroom, but she did not think that she could suppress her disgust at the cabin—or guarantee their privacy behind the flimsy curtain—long enough to make love. At any rate, Elgin’s attention had already returned to the sea, where he directed Mary’s gaze to a rower in a dinghy carrying what appeared to be an American officer toward them.
The crew waited impatiently as the officer made his way up the ladder and onto the boat; the men were certain that he carried with him orders for firing the guns. He conferred briefly with Captain Morris and his officers, and then approached Elgin. “Sorry for the alarm, Lord Elgin,” he said. “The vessel we’ve been chasing is not a French gunboat at all but one belonging to the American navy. We shall have a peaceful afternoon after all.” He bowed to Mary. “So sorry for the fright, Lady Elgin.”
“Oh no, sir,” Lord Elgin said. “No need to apologize to Lady Elgin. She adores a good round of cannon fi re, do you not, my dear?”
“Yes, quite,” Mary said. “I shall try to recover from the disappointment.”
When the officer left them, Elgin turned to his wife. “Are you so disappointed to have averted danger? You did not like being fired upon the last time.”
“That was the young Mary Nisbet,” she said. “The one who grew up on solid and secure Scottish soil. Now that I am grown and a woman and a wife and the Countess of Elgin, I wished to try out my new bold character. I could face Napoleon himself if need be.”
Elgin’s face suddenly turned serious. “Then I shall enlist you in helping me to face my staff. They are very unhappy with the conditions on the ship—as are we all—and each, in his own insinuating way, has begun to ask that certain luxuries be afforded him once we are ensconced at the Porte. I must sit them down and make it clear that except for the salaries negotiated before we set sail, they are entirely on their own.”
In the city of Athens,
in the fourth year of the
Thirty-Year Truce with Sparta
I want you to behave meekly, and not at all like yourself,” Alkibiades said, dragging me by the arm at a pace faster than my tall platform shoes would allow me to walk. “If Perikles sees what you are truly like, he will promptly rescind any offer to help us.”
“Slow down! You are bringing me to him like a slave to market!” I protested.
Though it was very early in the day, the marketplace was crowded. The vendors had already set up their stalls, and the slave women were negotiating loudly with them for fish, cheese, olives, and oil, disturbing the tranquility of the morning. One of the women smelled a length of sausage, throwing it back in the vendor’s face.
“Everybody knows that you mix the offal of the cow with dog meat and try to pass it off as first-class sausage!” she cried. “My master demands high quality!” The man saw that I was an amused witness to this exchange, and he shook his head helplessly.
Nearby, a black-robed sophist walked with alacrity, posing questions to the young boys who raced to keep up with him; they were shouting “Yes, master” and “No, master” to the questions he asked while flailing his arms about like an angry bat. I slowed down to listen to the lesson, but Alkibiades jerked me away, dodging the peripatetic classroom and crossing the square, where moneylenders sat under colorful tents doing their daily business amid other sellers of goods.
For a hefty man, Alkibiades walked quickly, driven by his meanness and his desire to get me out of his household. How my sister tolerated him on top of her at night was beyond me. I knew that she complied; sleeping in the room next to theirs, I often heard his heavy grunting, followed by the sigh of release that brought blessed silence. Now, his belly shook from side to side as we trudged along, crossing the western side of the agora, where the Council House and many of the government buildings were organized. Hundreds of men were lined up in the shade of the buildings’ colonnades.
“Alkibiades! What are you doing with that tasty morsel? She’s not your wife.”
I heard a bunch of my brother-in-law’s cronies cackling even before I turned around to see the smug faces and ever present paunches of men his age. They were standing in the jury lines—the favorite daily pastime of interfering old men who had nothing better to do than pass judgment on their fellow Athenians. Perikles had passed a law that jurors had to be paid, and now the elders of the city fought for the privilege.
“This is my sister-in-law, if you must know,” Alkibiades answered. “I am taking her to meet Perikles to see if he will take her off my hands.”
“I’ll take her off your hands,” one of the men said. I looked down, not because I was shy, but because I had to prevent myself from cursing him.
“I’d like to see a pretty little thing like that in my hands,” said another. “I need a young wife. The old one wore out and died on me!”
This brought even more laughter.
“She is an orphan with no dowry,” he said.
“In that case, she is not so pretty,” the man replied.
“And she is a metic—a foreigner—so you can’t marry her anyway,” Alkibiades snapped, rushing past them. “Good day, gentlemen. Can’t keep the ‘great man’ waiting.” He said it grudgingly, so that they would know that any groveling he was about to do before Perikles was a ruse. All the old men snickered, as if they shared his sentiment, and we sped away.
We were to meet Perikles under the Painted Stoa, one of the many colonnades in the agora that protected the Athenians from the fierce July sun. I looked across the plateau to the Temple of Hephaestus, sun bouncing from its strong marble pillars, and then up to the Akropolis, where I could see men at work on the exterior of a temple to Athena Parthenos, at the moment a skeleton of marble columns that was supposed to become the most majestic building in Athens. I trembled to think that I was waiting to be introduced to the very man who was responsible for commissioning this grand monument.
Kalliope, my sister, had braided ribbons into the crown of my long, light brown hair. I powdered my face to appear fairer, and I wore our mother’s hammered gold necklace and matching earrings with little pearlescent tortoises. I borrowed my sister’s platform sandals, since I knew that Perikles was tall and I wanted to appear statuesque rather than petite, with its implication of submissiveness. I had no aspiration of having him fall in love with me—far from it. My highest ambition for the meeting was to be seen as a woman who was too respectable to serve in a brothel.
“Keep your head tilted nicely to the side and your eyes cast downward,” my brother-in-law instructed me. “Do not look Perikles straight in the face. That’s a clear sign of insubordination in a woman, and I don’t want you showing him your brazen ways.”
My sister had met Alkibiades when he came to Miletus, where we were born; it was a coastal city in Ionia situated south of the great city of Ephesus, which had been fought over many times by Greeks and Persians. He had been exiled from Athens on a political charge and could not wait to return, Athens being the center of the world, as he liked to say, and the rest of it, her appendages. He always complained of my big appetite—for food and for conversation and could not wait to “unload” me on a husband, some Attic farmer “who could keep my mouth full.” While we traveled on the boat, leaving behind Miletus and everything we knew, he cautioned me to be quiet and soft-spoken while he shopped for a husband for me. He was worried that I would let on about my “knowing,” which would render me an unsuitable wife.
“No man,” he explained to me, “wants the responsibility of maintaining a female relative, especially one such as you who is lousy at housework and who considers herself above drudgery. You’re useless in my household. In my opinion, you’d make a sorry wife, and an even sorrier slave. Pity the man I trick into marrying the likes of you.”
No amount of cajoling by Kalliope would cause him to treat me nicely. He did not like women such as myself. After our mother died, my sister, named after a Muse, but having none of the characteristics of one, had assumed most of the domestic responsibilities, and I grew up with the freedom of a motherless child. My father was amused by my verbal abilities and allowed me to go to the marketplace and listen to the lectures of Thales the Sage, who was first in wisdom among all astronomers. He had studied the stars in Egypt with the priests of higher learning, who taught him how to predict solar eclipses, making him seem more magician than scientist, until he wrote down the formulas by which such things could be foretold. From Thales, I learned the equations of geometry, for he said that it was important to understand space because all was contained within it. He taught us how to know the height of things by measuring shadow. He believed that the gods were in everything, an inexplicable intelligence that animated all living things as well as the natural forces. He spent hours explaining that there was no difference between life and death—an argument that, at thirteen years old, I could not apprehend, and still cannot in any reasonable or practical way. It was my privilege to listen to his last lectures, as he was a very old man in those days. He died when I was fourteen, in the year of the fifty-eighth Olympiad, sitting in his chair watching an athletic competition. From him, I learned how to lay out an argument; how to reason my way through an incomprehensible, abstract thought with careful and persistent inquiry, allowing it to reveal itself to me slowly like a flower opening to the sun.
“Your father let you run wild in the marketplace,” Alkibiades had said as we were crossing the sea to Athens. “He nearly ruined you for any man. Fortunately, you are pretty. That will go a long way toward getting someone to take you off my hands. And it shan’t be a moment too soon for either my pleasure or my pocketbook.”
But when we arrived in Athens, we discovered that Perikles, in an effort to limit citizenship, had just passed a law making marriage between an Athenian citizen and a metic illegal. Alkibiades was furious, thinking he was stuck with me.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I can always sell you into prostitution or concubinage.”
My sister pleaded with him, shedding many tears over this threat. “Please, dear husband, I could not live if my sister was forced to submit to such a fate.”
“If you can convince her to keep quiet and be a good girl, I will try to help her,” he said to Kalliope. But privately, he continued to threaten me with a life of prostitution. If he could prove that I had lost my virginity—he said he could establish this by raping me—under Athenian law he could sell me to a brothel and obtain a good sum of money.
My sister continued to beseech him to seek a respectable situation for me, so he decided to take his complaint directly to Perikles, whose law had spoiled any plans to marry me off, and who had just divorced his wife. Perikles assured Alkibiades that he would not change a new law for the sake of one girl’s fate, but agreed to “take a look” at me to see if he had any ideas as to what might be done with or for me.
“Just remember, Aspasia, you have no father and no dowry. Worse, you’re a glutton for food, and your education has made you a glutton for conversation. You are the very opposite of all that is desirable in a woman,” Alkibiades said as the Painted Stoa came into sight. “When you meet Perikles, you must act very sweetly to make up for your shortcomings.”
Thales believed that men were better than women, and Greeks better than all barbarians. Athenians carried the philosophy one step further, believing that citizens of Athens were better than all other Greeks. Perikles, though a member of the democratic faction, had been born an aristocrat and was said to be more imperious than any of his conservative opponents. I was terrified to meet him. Busts and statues of him appeared in public parks and buildings all over the city. He controlled the government, it was said, by the force of his personality, the breadth of his vision, and the power of his oratory, though the only office he held was that of general. Born into the nobility, he had changed the laws of governance so that common men might hold high offices. He was described as both grand and egalitarian. In his private life, he was parsimonious to the extent that the comic playwrights mocked his cheapness, but he spent public funds extravagantly. He was a paradoxical, enigmatic, and totally incomprehensible man. And I was to be at his mercy.
Under the Painted Stoa, a gigantic pavilion with murals of the historical battles between the Greek people and their foreign enemies, I saw a head of dark, curly hair rising above a crowd of men. The owner of this hair stood quite still before the colossal painting of the Battle of Marathon, almost as if he belonged to the scene on the wall rather than with the men who vied for his attention. He was composed, appearing to listen to them, but with an air of detachment. The men were interrupting one another, gesticulating, laying out some sort of argument or perhaps issuing a request, but he merely shifted his eyes from one speaker to the next. Alkibiades waved at him, and he looked past his petitioners and met my eyes, staring at me for several moments. His face was inscrutable. He waved off the men who were making their appeal and walked toward us. He was a full head taller than me, even with my platform shoes. He had a long face, deep-set intense brown eyes, and a nose so straight it might have been drawn with a mathematician’s ruler. He walked with purpose. His beard was short, dark, and curly. The comic playwrights who called him Onion Head, making fun of his long face and big head, had exaggerated. I thought he was solemn and handsome.
He did not smile and he barely looked at Alkibiades.
“So this is the lady in question.”
“Yes. My wife’s sister, Aspasia of Miletus. Out of the goodness of my heart, I brought her with us to Athens when I was able to return from exile. She is under my guardianship.”
It pained Alkibiades to pretend that he cared for me at all, but he was afraid that if he revealed to Perikles how awful he thought I was, it would foil his plans for getting rid of me. Perikles said nothing, but stared at me, and I, against my brother-in-law’s instructions, stared back.
Nervous, Alkibiades continued. “I had hoped to find her a respectable husband, but thanks to the law you passed while I was away, no citizen can marry her.”
“Well, then. There it is,” Perikles said, as calmly as if he were commenting on the weather. Barely looking at Alkibiades, he took me by the arm and ferreted me away. I did not look back, but smiled to myself, imagining the look of shock on Alkibiades’ face. It took me a few moments to realize that the most powerful man in Athens was taking me away and that I should consider being afraid of what he would do with me. But I could not fear him. I felt—and without any reason—that I was under his protection.
We walked a short distance, saying nothing. Somehow, the quiet was not uncomfortable. Then he turned to me and said, “I almost lost a great friend yesterday.”
“Did he malign you in some way?” I asked, surprising myself with how natural my tone sounded, as if talking to a great statesman was something I did every day. I cannot explain it, but I felt that I had immediately connected with some essential thing inside this man.
“No. He is a great man, a great friend, and a great mentor. He might have died in my neglect. I should have been sending him money. By the time I remembered to look in on him, he was very ill.”
“Was he elderly?”
“Yes, quite so.” Now he was looking at me with his great chestnut eyes.
“Then perhaps he was merely sick with old age and not because you were not there to tend to him.”
“But he blamed me. I went to his bedside and begged him not to die, for I could not continue without his wise counsel. He answered, ‘Perikles, even those who use a lamp must put oil in it so that it gives light.’”
“Are you his only resource for sustenance?” I asked, for it seemed impossible that a man held in esteem by Perikles would not be taken care of by other men too.
“He was a great teacher. Unlike the sophists, he prefers not to take money for his labors. He is dependent upon me now. His neglect is a stain upon my character.”
“Why is he so special to you? Is he an elder in your tribe?”
“His name is Anaxagoras. He taught me to reason and to inquire. He showed me—and many others—that the mysteries of the world had solid explanations that one might decipher with enough investigation. The world needs minds such as his. I do not want to be responsible for the loss of him.”
“Oh? I am interested in pursuing these sorts of inquiries myself,” I said. “Might you give an example of some of his ideas?”
He looked down at me from his position of greater height, skepticism on his face.
“He has demonstrated that the sun is not a god but a very hot rock that is larger than the Peloponnese. He taught that the universe is not ordered by the whims of the gods, but by a pure intelligence that suffuses all things.”
“I believe that he must have been under the influence of my teacher, Thales of Miletus,” I replied. “I am certain that he devised this theorem first.”
“Are you trying to make me believe that you studied with Thales?”
“I am not trying to make you believe anything. The sophist tries to convince. The philosopher merely inquires. I am rather stating a fact, which you may believe or not according to your desire. Whether you believe me, sir, does not make what I say either true or false.”
He did not answer me, but walked with me in silence. I had no idea where he was taking me, and I did not think I should ask. We walked up a hill to a dwelling not much larger than the one I had grown up in.
“This is my home,” he said. I was surprised. I thought that the leader of the Athenian people would live in a grand mansion. “I’ll have the slaves bring us a tray of food and some wine. Come with me.”
We walked through the courtyard and up the stairs to a bedchamber, and I, all the while, noticed the plain décor. “This is your room,” he said. “I am sure you’ll be comfortable. Ask for whatever you like.”
He shared a bowl of dates with me, and some cheese and bread, asking me various questions about Thales and my early life in Miletus. Then he left the house, and I wondered what I was supposed to do. The slaves were reluctant to speak with me. I explored the house in search of the women’s quarters where I might find a grandmother or aunt or sister to indoctrinate me in the ways of the household, but there seemed to be no other women living on the premises. I remembered that Perikles had recently divorced his wife. Perhaps she had taken all of the women of the house with her back to her family’s home. I resigned myself to confinement in the room he had said was mine and waited to see what was going to become of me. Perhaps he would offer me to one of his friends, or marry me off to some lesser man in his service. Finally, darkness settled over the household. All was quiet, so I lay on the bed and went to sleep.
Late into the night, I heard Perikles come into the room. “Why is a lamp not lit?” he asked, standing over me in the dark.
“Because I do not sleep with a light,” I answered.
“Why are you not prepared for me?”
“Because you did not share with me your plans for the evening.”
He pulled the sheet from my body. I was not wearing any clothing. He looked at me dispassionately, sliding his hand up my leg. I pulled away, grabbing the sheet and hiding my nakedness.
I braced myself, waiting for an outburst of ire, but he looked more baffled than insulted. “You are not honoring the terms of my agreement with Alkibiades.”
“We had agreed that if I was pleased with the sight of you in the marketplace I would take you for my concubine.”
“Your concubine?” I pulled the sheet tighter against my body and looked around the room for a means of escape. It was not a rational reaction, but all I wanted to do was run away.
“Alkibiades assured me that you are highly experienced in the ways of the courtesan. He said that you had pleased him many times.”
“My own sister’s husband? That would be depraved!”
Perikles shrugged. “I have heard of such things.”
“Sir, I am as virginal as Athena herself. I’ve never been touched by any man, much less engaged in a sexual act.”
“Surely you are lying,” he said, pulling away from me but scanning my face for a sign of dishonesty. “I must tell you that money has changed hands, compensation for all the food you’ve eaten since your father died, and for the two dresses that your sister made for you—one out of linen and one out of wool of good quality.”
He certainly had all the facts. Kalliope had squeezed the money for the fabric out of her meager household budget so that I would look nice.
Perikles looked bewildered, a sentiment that I both appreciated and welcomed as I let this information wash over me. After all, he could have done with me whatever he liked—taken me against my will; returned me in a fury to my brother-in-law, who would surely have punished me severely for not pleasing the mighty Perikles; sent me to a brothel; or beaten me in anger and thrown me out into the darkness.
“He said you were an expert in the sexual arts,” Perikles insisted, trying to make sense of it all. “I believe that is the precise word that he used.”
I quickly assessed my options. Here was a man who was not, at least at this moment, using the supreme power that he held over me to bully me. With the exception of my father, I had not had the acquaintance of such an individual. Even the wise Thales lorded his superior status over me, always making me grateful for being allowed to listen to his words. I looked at Perikles’ hands, which were surprisingly slender, with long tapered fingers and clean square nails. They were altogether delicate for a man who had distinguished himself as a general. I decided that I could imagine, in fact would invite, those hands laying themselves on my body.
“I am not lying. I have never done this before. But I am willing to learn.”