Looking up, Clementine saw a plethora of stars twinkling on a canopy of black that was in places almost blue, sometimes red, if maybe only imagined, and silver as the darkness merged with the light. The night air was cold and crisp as it generally was in the desert. Temperatures would drop from above forty degrees Celsius to close to zero the moment the sun dipped below the horizon.
“I never thought it could be so beautiful out here. It is beyond belief.”
“Yes, the longer I stay in this place, the less sorry I feel for you, Stirling. It is magical and the people are so kind,” said Royce.
“Only a shame there’s no good gin or ale about.”
“Trust you, Rory Bennett, to think of that,” said Mary, slapping her husband on the shoulder.
Elizabeth giggled. “I am surprised your man is not black and blue with all of the hits he gets in one day.
“Oh, don’t ye go minding yourself about this big lout. He’s made of iron, he is.” Mary stroked Rory’s cheek tenderly. “It’s the only thing a big bloke like this understands – isn’t it, luv.”
Rory chortled. “Yes, blossom. I am not one to disagree with yer wise words.”
“Well, ye did when ye left for this war of yours five years ago. Ye nearly had me entertaining the notion of divorcing ye.”
“Lucky for Stirling he was there, Mary,” said Clementine seriously.
The expression on Mary’s face softened. “Yes, ye are right. My man got your man out of the heart of it. But Stirling saved him many times before that. Also, thanks to him, my man’s a captain now. He brings good wages home and that’s a far cry to what we’re used to.”
“It was a pleasure and Rory deserved it. He is a very able man and an exceptional officer. The men respect and revere him,” said Stirling, joining in the conversation. “It is only very fortunate that the abolition of the commission based system in the army has come through. Now, good men like Rory will be able to distinguish themselves and climb the ranks without having to pay exorbitant sums.”
“Well, Rory, did ye hear that and coming from Cardigan’s right-hand man. It truly was a lucky day when I bumped into ye. Fleecing folks’ pockets in the West End ye were, as I remember.”
Rory smiled at his wife. “Not as lucky as I was in finding ye. Ye made an honest man out of me. And ye gave me three fine and healthy children.”
Clementine smiled. She missed little Henry. Her three-year-old son was back in England with his doting grandmother. Her own mother had taken to her grandmotherly duties with the enthusiasm both Elizabeth and Clementine had expected of her. Royce and Elizabeth’s little girl was with her, too.
Henry was born a little under a year after Clementine and Stirling’s wedding. As it turned out, their vigorous physical attraction to one another had paid off. Not a day had gone by, during their honeymoon that they were not entwined with each other the moment they had reached the privacy of their chamber.
It made Clementine smile when she thought of Stirling’s tender but masculine way with her. To this day, she never tired of being close to him. Looking up at the stars again, she thought of all that had had happened since meeting him.
Falling in love with him was a kind of temporary madness. It had erupted like an earthquake until it gradually subsided into something a little more manageable, pleasant and a solid foundation for the future.
When that happened, she had already worked out that their roots were to forever become so entwined together that the mere notion of being apart from Stirling was inconceivable. Because that was what love was. It was knowing that someone special was out there no matter where that may be.
Love was not only the feeling of breathlessness, it was not excitement, it was not the desire to mate every second of the day. It was not lying awake at night imagining that he was kissing every part of her body. No…that was not only it. For that was just being in love, a state into which any person can convince himself or herself they were in. Love itself was what was left over, when just being in love had almost burned away. It didn't sound very exciting, but it was!
Clementine and Stirling had been through so much. The war had nearly robbed them of their love. She frowned when she thought of that. No, said her heart. Nothing could have torn them apart. Their love was stronger than that. Stronger than injury, doubts, fear, violence, hate and worry.
They had surmounted each obstacle and had come out on the top still loving one another and being in love. Clementine and Stirling could easily switch on the passion they had shared at the beginning of their relationship whenever they wanted to. Seeing him now, reminded her just how handsome she found him.
Stirling’s face was split into two spheres – one blackened by the night and the other orange and red because of the fire. Off and on, the flames would flicker when the night breeze caught them, inducing them into a little dance. Like careful fingers, they would caress his face with tender light, making Stirling appear more romantic than ever.
When he would smile in her direction, Clementine knew that he harboured the same love for her. Staring into his eyes, she found herself trying to rediscover the moss green hue she found so appealing. Pressing her lips together, she realized, time and time again, that she would have to wait until the next day when the sun shone.
They were a little family now and Clementine had never known such bliss. One entry in her journal said as much:
The day little Henry came into this world was the happiest in my life. I have never seen such perfection in another human being. Actually, I never thought it possible that two people who are in love could create a being so magical with only their bodies and two beating hearts.
Yet, when I saw my husband holding our baby boy for the first time, I knew where that perfection came from. My darling Stirling looked so happy cradling his son. He had whispered sweet nothings to him before returning Henry to my protective motherly embrace.
It was in that moment when my heart came to a halt. The way he looked into my eyes told me all that I needed to know. He loves me with all of his being. The words that followed found their way to my very core: Clementine, you have given me two of the greatest gifts a man can ever receive in his life: One, a woman’s love and two, a child. I love you, my darling Clementine and I always will.
Clementine had shed happy tears after that. Stirling had taken her into his arms and she had known that things would be all right for the rest of her life. She had everything she wanted.
“A penny for your thoughts, darling?” asked Stirling, eying his wife.
She looked so beautiful in the weak light. Her golden hair shimmered in a fiery orange colour, dropping lower with the tresses that hung loosely from her head. Seeing Clementine in the magical and silent surroundings of the desert made him feel like it was the first time he had laid eyes on her.
He would never forget that day. Clementine had been perfect. There had been nothing that stood in her way. Not even the rambunctious Lord Cardigan could hold a candle to her. She had swatted away his every lewd remark with her customary feminine spirit.
Nothing had changed in the years past. Clementine supported her mentor in the newly established nursing school at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London for four days of the week. Unlike her friend Sally, Clementine had not succumbed to the more sedate role of the archetypical Victorian wife. She and Florence were busy writing pamphlets and books on the art of nursing. She managed all of that and was still an exceptional mother to Henry and a very devoted wife to Stirling.
Clementine smiled at him. “Oh, I was just thinking how wonderful it is to be married…” She paused. “And to have a son. I do miss him so.”
“You know that we couldn’t have taken him with us, Clementine,” said Stirling, leaning in to caress her cheek.
“I know.” She stared into the darkness beyond the campfires. In the distance, she could make out some of the palm trees that formed a part of the oasis in the Sahara Desert.
Tents made of fabric woven with camel and goat’s wool stood amongst them and occasionally underneath them. They belonged to Ahmed’s tribe.
Clementine had taken an immediate liking to the thin and practically toothless man who had saved her husband’s life after the shipwreck. Stirling had insisted they return to him so that he could return the money he had loaned him when he had left for France. More importantly, Stirling wanted to thank him and his tribe for making him feel as if he was a part of their community.
Stirling had never mentioned just how close the two of them had become. Upon arrival in the settlement, Stirling had immediately committed himself to the daily activities that formed a part of Berber life. He and Ahmed had worked side by side, communicating verbally and when that did not suffice with hand signals. Royce and Rory soon joined in, while Clementine, Mary and Elizabeth had been introduced to Ahmed’s three wives and the other women in the tribe.
Industriousness was all around them on a daily basis. Young men in turbans and sweaty white smocks would thresh the grain, using whips to drive a half dozen donkeys tethered in line to a stout wooden beam. As the animals plodded through the grain, the dust would fly up and catch the sun like powdered gold. In the small surrounding fields of wheat and alfalfa, men ploughed by mule, and reaped by hand.
Every morning when Clementine arose and wandered through the village, swathes of children followed her, crying, “Arrumi!” or “Roman!”, which was an offhand tribute to the rulers sixteen centuries gone and the name by which Berbers still referred to Westerners.
As the days went by, Clementine realized that little appeared to have changed since the days of the Romans: barefoot boys used sticks to prod sluggish cattle toward their pens; turbaned men sharpened scythes on whetstones; women trudged by with amphorae of sloshing water on their backs.
Yet, despite the archaic nature of her surroundings, Clementine found it surprisingly refreshing to be away from the bustle of London. It was like a second honeymoon that had also reached the insides of the tent she shared with Stirling. After only one night at the oasis, they were back to being only in love all over again. That sentiment that had grown into mutual respect and always respecting the other had been replaced by such carnal wanting that Clementine found herself thinking that she was in a second re-enactment of the novel, The Lustful Turk.
It made her wonder how Ahmed catered to his three wives. If any one of them was as demanding as she had become, then he would have his work cut out for him when the sun slipped below the horizon.
When she heard a string of rapidly spoken Tuareg, the Berber language in the south of Algeria, Clementine looked back to the campfire. Ahmed was addressing Royce who frowned back at him. It impressed her how Stirling managed to step in and converse with the Berber so freely.
“He wants to know whether you and Elizabeth were the man and woman who waited outside of Clementine’s and my chamber with a silver platter when the marriage was consummated.” Stirling chuckled when he saw his friend and Elizabeth’s faces darken with embarrassment.
“Stirling, what on earth for?” asked Clementine who was equally embarrassed.
“Well, you see, it is Berber tradition for the bed sheets to be presented to the family after the husband and wife…”
“Got to it,” snorted Rory, sniggering. He promptly received a slap from Mary for his uncouthness.
“Yes, Rory, that about sums it up. And it is also a kind of proof that the bride was a virgin,” said Stirling.
“Not too different to us, if you ask me.” Rory received another withering stare from his wife.
Clementine watched and listened as Stirling told Ahmed that this was not usual practice in England. The Berber looked surprised as his English friend spoke. When Stirling was finished, Ahmed immediately started voicing more questions. Judging by Stirling’s laughing, Clementine knew some more out-dated or maybe even stranger Berber traditions were being explained to her husband.
“Ahmed just asked me how much livestock I received on the day of our nuptials and whether you were an obedient wife.” Stirling flashed a smile in Clementine’s direction.
“Well, you can tell Ahmed that I am obedient to the point of you being reasonable. No woman should have to obey her husband if she does not agree with him,” said Clementine.
“But those words are written in the bible, my love: to love and to cherish and to obey.”
Rory’s snigger was immediately quashed when Mary pinched him somewhat too harshly.
“Let’s stick to the loving and the cherishing, Stirling. I will even give thee my troth. However, never get it into your head that just because you are a man that you have the power over me. I will decide for myself thank you very much, Colonel Whitt Whittaker.”
“As will I,” added Mary.
Elizabeth and Royce found the conversation very much to their amusement. They just sat there by the campfire holding hands while Stirling translated as best he could.
Again, Ahmed frowned. After a moment’s contemplation, quick-fire Tuareg spewed from his mouth.
“What did he say now?” asked Clementine.
“Ahmed asked me why I brought along only one wife. He said that after all of this time, I must have found at least a second one since we parted ways.”
Clementine swallowed deeply. “More wives?”
“Yes, Berber men are allowed as many wives as they like actually,” said Stirling matter-of-factly.
“Oh, really. Are you feeling jealous, husband?”
“No, you are more than enough for me to handle, my dear. More than one woman – perish the thought. I’d be exhausted.”
“Here, here,” said Rory. “I wouldn’t be alive to tell the tale.”
As the men vented their mirth, their women studied them carefully to make sure their reactions weren’t too much in favour of the notion of polygamy.
“What’s Ahmed asking you now?” said Mary who was totally fascinated by the wiry Berber.
“He asked me whether Clementine would agree to me having more wives. It is after all the prerogative of the first wife to give her permission.”
“Is it now,” said Clementine.
“I suppose that’s something,” added Mary.
“You two are hilarious. You are acting as if Rory and Stirling are going to run off in search of more spouses,” said Elizabeth, giggling.
“They would never do that. And besides, they’d never survive it,” hissed Mary.
Everyone around the fire started laughing. Even Ahmed who did not understand the words joined in. When they calmed down, Stirling got to his feet.
“It is time I turned in. Darling wife, are you coming with me?”
“If there are no other wives I don’t know about waiting in our tent, I shall”
He grinned at her. “Oh, that’s impossible. I’d need your permission for that, sweetheart.”
“Is that the only reason, you cad?” said Clementine, tucking her hands under her arms so that Stirling could not take one of them.
“My dear, sweet love. I could never have any other woman but you. You are what makes life worth living. Now, come along, enough of this.”
Clementine smiled sweetly. All around her, the other women prodded their husbands for similar declarations of their love. She took Stirling’s proffered hand and allowed herself to be lifted to her feet. After bidding everybody good night, Stirling and Clementine walked off in the direction of their tent.
“Am I enough for you, Stirling?”
He stopped in his tracks and turned to face his wife. “You are all and everything I ever wanted in a wife. No other could surpass that. What I feel for you is beyond even my comprehension. I love you with all my heart, Mrs Stirling Whitt Whittaker.”
She smiled as a searing glow filled her up from the inside. “And I you, Mr Stirling Whitt Whittaker.”
As their lips touched, Clementine knew that wherever she was in the world, home would always be where Stirling was. In that moment, the Saharan Desert was where she most wanted to be. It was where the love of her life was and that was all that mattered.
Where they were once only two people staring into each other’s eyes, they were now two people looking ahead together, creating a bright future – a future where they and young Henry and the baby that grew in her womb would reside.
Ah, before you go...
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