Stealing Athena

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  • Copyright: 2009-04-28
  • Publisher: Anchor
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The author of the bestsellingLeonardo's Swanstraverses the centuries into the hearts of two extraordinary women to reveal the passions, ambitions, and controversies surrounding the Elgin Marbles. The Elgin Marbles have been displayed in the British Museum for nearly two hundred years, and for just as long they have been the center of a raging controversy. InStealing Athena,Karen Essex chronicles the Marbles' amazing journey through the dynamic narratives of Mary Nisbet, wife of the Earl of Elgin, the British ambassador to Constantinople, and Aspasia, the mistress of Perikles, the most powerful man in Athens during that city's Golden Age. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the twenty-one-year-old, newly wed Countess of Elgin, a Scottish heiress and celebrated beauty, enchanted the power brokers of the Ottoman Empire, using her charms to obtain their permission for her husband's audacious plan to deconstruct the Parthenon and bring its magnificent sculptures to England. Two millennia earlier, Aspasia, a female philosopher and courtesan, and a central figure in Athenian life, plied her wits, allure, and influence with equal determination, standing with Perikles at the center of vehement opposition to his vision of building the most exquisite monuments the world had ever seen. Rich in romance and intrigue, greed and glory,Stealing Athenais an enthralling work of historical fiction and a window into the intimate lives of some of history's most influential and fascinating women.

Author Biography

KAREN ESSEX is the author of Kleopatra, Pharaoh, and the international bestseller Leonardo’s Swans, which won Italy’s prestigious 2007 Premio Roma for foreign fiction. An award-winning journalist and a screenwriter, she lives in Los Angeles, California.


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 vio-lent 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 fine, 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 confine 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 fire, 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."

As the winds began to pick up and the skies darkened in anticipation of a storm, Elgin called his staff to a meeting on the deck, announcing that he wished to elucidate certain facts about the terms of their employment. "It must be stated clearly. Each of you is responsible for his own expenses while in my employ," Elgin said. "Which are to be paid either from your salaries or from your private funds, whichever is more agreeable to you."

Mary looked at the men's faces; each man seemed to be fighting to repress his shock at this news.

"But Lord Elgin—" began Mr. Joseph Dacre Carlyle, an earnest man somewhere in his thirties or early forties, Mary guessed. Carlyle was an orientalist from Cambridge who spoke and read Arabic. Elgin had hired the scholar as a linguist and communicator, and as a decipherer of the rare and ancient texts Elgin hoped to collect while in the East. But Carlyle had made it known that his true purpose was to distribute Arabic versions of the Bible to convert the Muslim heathens to Christianity. His idealism would now be tested, Mary thought as she watched him absorb Elgin's news.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from Stealing Athena by Karen Essex
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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