So there he was, tail between his legs, retreating from Moscow, back to Paris, and the world never the same again.
I see it’s nearly a year since I happened across the tale, and from Richard Halliburton’s Seven League Boots I finally got my hands on his source volume, The Veiled Empress, Benjamin A Morton, published by G P Putnam in 1923. And interesting it most certainly is, though Halliburton, as was his wont, fixed on the romance of it all.
But it’s all there, the childhood in Martinique and finishing in the mother country. And the capture by corsairs on the voyage home until eventually passing into the harem of Constantinople, rising to become the Valideh Sultan, the Queen Mother. As it happens the piracy was not, as I first imagined, somewhere of the coast of Africa, but within sight of Palma, Mallorca.
Morton takes us firstly to Martinique and paints portraits of the women of the isle, shows us the styles of the early 20th century, and points to the vital roles the island’s girls have played over the years, from the wife of Louis quatorze, to Jospehine, and of course to her cousin Aimee.
Now it’s pretty easy for me today to find information, in a matter of seconds, on the 1812 Treaty of Bucharest. But it’s hard to look back a century from here and to imagine what Morton’s researches might have entailed. But he it was who put into the equation what the historians in the previous hundred years had overlooked; and that was Aimee’s revenge for her scorned cousin from Martinique.
The treaty was signed by Sultan Mahmoud, Aimee’s son, and ratified by Tsar Alexander I the day before Napoleon invaded Moscow. Five years previously Mahmoud’s predecessor, Selim III entered into the peace of Tilsit with Alexander, carving up a buffer between the various warring factions. But after Selim’s murder Mahmoud continued the war with Russia.
Then Aimee heard of Jospehine’s fate and the rest, as they say, is history. As Halliburton had told us Aimee was quite a woman. As she lay on her deathbed her Muslim son summonsed the Superior of the Convent of Saint Antoine. The Sultan’s guards escorted him to the port of Galata, where a caique with a dozen pairs of oars awaited.
In a sumptuously decorated chamber a woman lay in agony. Her son dismissed the two black guards and he himself left his mother’s bedside, with his final words to her:
My mother, you have wished to die in the religion of your fathers, let your wish be fulfilled. Here is a priest. And he withdrew to a corner of the room.
For an hour Father Chrysostome remained alone, listening to the words, the regrets, the tears. When the prince returned to the bedside he raised the consecrated wafer and placed it on the lips of the invalid. At this moment the sole witness flung himself face dowm, calling upon Allah!
The Father was returned to his convent by the same caique and the same guards, greeted by anxious priests disturbed at the summons. He prostrated himself in silent meditation, for the soul of Aimee Duboc de Rivery, mother of Sultan Mahmoud.
Halliburton took us to the Queen Mother’s burial place, and Morton gives us the translation of the poem on her catafalque. Aimee was known, as was the custom in the harem where women lost forever their former names, by one name. Hers was Naksh, beautiful, for she was The Beautiful One. The inscription has a date, 1233 in Arabic numerals, which is the Mohameddan year that began on 10 November 1817. Morton confirmed elsewhere that it was indeed in 1817 in the common era that Aimee had died.
At the time of Morton’s writing there were few vague remnants of memory of an infidel Valideh Sultan, but as he says, in Nantes, in Martinique, in a quiet home in Paris, the memory of her seems to cling like the elusive fragrance of an almost vanished perfume.
And aren’t we glad that some of Richard Halliburton’s works are back in print today.