Vaccines are on my mind—I just got my second dose of Moderna two days ago. I didn’t set out to write about vaccination programs when I first conceived The Price of Glory three years ago. Even when my hakima (female healer) took shape and I realized that vaccination was a vital part of the work those women did in historical times, I didn’t realize how timely the topic would be. But here we are. Do get vaccinated. Do wear a mask. But now, enjoy this bit from the first chapter of my lovely book for WIP Wednesday. It is a bit of Amelia Peabody, a bit of Indiana Jones, but a story all its own.
“It is the will of Muhammad Ali Pasha, Khedive of all Egypt, and for the good of your house, Mahmoud,” the woman declared in a carrying voice.
The khedive, the sultan’s viceroy, had power of life and death over these people. As Richard Mallet, known to his family as Aeneas, shouldered his way forward, voices around him whispered the word hakima, healer. Richard had heard of the hakimas, Muhammad Ali’s famous women doctors, but he had never witnessed one at work. His impression had been that they were often drawn from the daughters of enslaved members of Muhammad’s army. This woman’s cultured, unaccented Arabic surprised him. So did the ring of authority in her voice. He angled his neck for a closer study, but he saw only her back, unbowed, and yet neither defiant nor subservient.
She ignored the curses of her opponent. “Do you wish me to return with police?” She spoke with calm assurance.
The big man rang more curses on the much-hated police, but he wisely stopped short of cursing the khedive himself. When he raised his staff, Richard pushed forward to stand next to the woman, his eyes fixed on the quarterstaff. “What sort of dog beats a woman?” he demanded.
“A fearful one,” murmured a soft but emphatic voice at his right elbow. “And he is not a dog.” She spoke English with a hint of a French accent.
She raised her voice and spoke to the man threatening her in a firm voice. “My vaccinations will do no harm, Mahmoud. They keep the pox from your house. The khedive so orders it, to keep the pox from this city.”
The hands gripping the staff loosened and the man glanced up at the women in the windows, and back at his opponent. “You do not know your place, woman. You will make my wives unruly.”
“I will make them healthy,” she replied calmly.
Richard studied the woman closely. He had been given the impression many of the hakimas were Nubian or Abyssinian. Most Egyptian women went in public unveiled, but this one had her face covered, something he had only seen before among the highest classes. Her skin, what he could see of it, appeared to be sun browned but not black. No Abyssinian, this one. She ignored him.
“You rule your house with wisdom,” the woman said to her adversary, her voice gentle, “and thus you will want to keep sickness far from it. I will bring my services with your blessing and benevolence.”
Mahmoud peered up at the windows again. “The butcher’s wife had a fever for two days after your vaccinations.”
“Chills only, and for two days only as I warned her. Now she will be safe from the disease for her lifetime.”
After an uncomfortable pause, one hand let go of the quarterstaff and the end dropped to the ground. Richard felt rather than saw the woman next to him start forward.
Mahmoud wavered, his gaze darting around the crowd. “Be gone. There is here nothing for you,” he growled at them. He looked back at the woman. “My mother will accompany you. You will obey her in all things,” he insisted.
“Of course. It shall be as you wish,” the woman said, bowing slightly.
The crowd began to drift away at that, disappointed that the conflict ended, uncertain who won the encounter. Richard Mallet knew the woman had, and he admired her determination. The house of Mahmoud would endure vaccination today. She turned and peered up at him.
“Your assistance was not needed, but well meant,” she said. “I thank you.”
Richard, too stunned to reply, watched her open-mouthed. The gaze that met his held absolute confidence and authority. A mystery lurked in its depths, and the eyes were uncommon, just like the woman herself. Her eyes were a stormy blue-green, something not impossible in an Egyptian, but unlikely. Extremely unlikely.