….. Dearest Regan, you cannot imagine my utter dismay however when I bumped into my former suitor, Opus 1870, in the lobby of Shepheard’s of all unlikely places. I saw him last that horrid day we had that dreadful row on Ladies’ Day at Ascot for nothing more than my hat, which he considered ‘unfortunate’. Unfortunate indeed was my ever contemplating him for a husband! Appearances can so deceive one! Opus left for India, so I later heard it said, and is now returning to London by way of Cairo with his new bride Malabah. I must say she does appear fully capable of a good deal spicier and far more exotic than any of Madame Laché’s stunning hats. I should not be thought impertinent if I write that she seems to me a woman with an interesting past, whereas I, dear Regan, consider myself a woman with a future!
I have yet to tell you of the most delightfully charming companion I have met during my stay in Cairo, a dashing yet mysterious gentleman – most assuredly a gentleman – of English and Portuguese ancestry I have given the nickname Senhor Douro. I understand he is en route to Khartoum on some mysterious errand he will not reveal. Meanwhile I shall have the inestimable pleasures of his elegant company at least as far as Philae.
Yesterday, as we all scurried about on our countless errands to acquire supplies for our journey, Senhor Douro accompanied me through the labyrinthine, myriad bazaars of Cairo where we chanced upon the perfumers’ quarter, its presence announced several alleyways away by the heady fumes of rose, the jasmine and orange blossom so beloved in Egypt, sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh and all the scented treasures of the entire world confined within a few dark and winding alleyways off the jeweller’s streets of the bazaar.
In a shop scarcely larger than my Kensington wardrobe, full of wooden drawers crammed with essences, a splendidly attired Egyptian brought out phial after phial onto the small counter at Senhor Douro’s command, attars, rose ottos and perfumes so enticing, their splendor rivaled any you might find in London or even Paris. There, I could not help but purchase a perfume of such peerless beauty; it could only be a lily, a lily of the utmost delicacy yet with just enough fiery spice at its heart to prove itself a lily of the East. I have worn it since to Senhor Douro’s delight and my own no less. Cairo on its own is such an overwhelming assault to all the senses, and this marvelous perfume makes even the dusty, perpetual heat somehow easier to bear.
So all our company gathered at the dock this afternoon, only to find that Blenheim had disappeared. The manager at Shepheard’s sent word that he had already departed, which news left us quite dismayed until an hour or so later when he finally appeared, supremely unconcerned with his delay, and with another companion for our Nile journey he introduced as his fiancée, Miss Bluebell. Miss Bluebell has in the hours since our departure proved herself quite charming and far more approachable than Blenheim.
It was late afternoon when at last we set off. Our crew maneuvered with oar and pole through the chaotic traffic of dahabeeyahs like our own, feluccas and barges, the Cook’s tourist steamer and the endless ebb and flow of Egyptians, tourists, carriages and sedan chairs, donkeys and camels at the river docks. Cairo receded behind us as we sailed under a good wind past Mamelook palaces and pleasure gardens at the river’s edge and ever present ahead and on our right was that quintessential image of Egypt you and I have known and loved since our childhood nursery books – the pyramids of Giza, looming on the western horizon and the lowering light as if made of solid gold. I shall not see them properly until my return up the river, but oh, Regan, no manner of preparation or guide books can quite prepare you for the sight!
Now, as the sun sets on the western bank of the Nile, our company sits on the covered upper deck of the Saqqara, roofed over against the merciless Egyptian sun. Mr. Blenheim smokes a pipe, exudes English elegance and restraint and pores over maps of the river and our journey ahead, while Miss Bluebell corrects him in some of his assumptions of Egyptian history with a great deal of lighthearted charm. Mr. Quercus is below in his cabin, while seductive Artemisia has found an unexpected friend in Malabah, who shares stories of her previous life in Cochin of the many spices. Opus, who I’ve always thought magnificent when moody, stands at the railing watching the stars being lit in the sky, and Professor Endymion laughs with the intriguing Senhor Douro over the chessboard. Lily of the Valley has gone to her cabin to prepare for the dinner our crew are preparing on deck, and I sit at a table in the twilight wrapped in a cloud of Nile lilies as I write you, dear sister. By the time we arrive at Luxor, I shall have a fair pile of letters to send! I can scarcely contain my excitement at the journey ahead of us all, and the tales I may tell you when I return to London.
Be well, dear Regan, tell Papa I know he will forgive me some day, and spare a thought or two for your adventurous, wayward sister.
Yours, always –
Back in the 21st century as I fold up the letter and place it back in the box, I can well imagine that this unknown Cordelia’s adventures – in scent as in life – are only just beginning, and so are my own, through a Penhaligon’s Scent Library!
- ‘A Journey Down the Phial – Part Two’ was written by our guest blogger Tarleisio. Tarleisio of Scent Less Sensibilities (http://scentlesssensibilities.blogspot.com) coaxes the genies out of perfume bottles, where they tell their fragrant stories through her prose.
You can follow her on Twitter @tarleisio