I plan over the coming year, in any hiatus of inspiration for the normal blogs, to publish in chapter instalments a blog edition of my first novel, The Simurgh and the Nightingale. I hope that you will enjoy it. Remember it is a novel, a blend of fact and imagination! The first instalment is the original preface and the first chapter. At the end of the book there will be a glossary of some of the terms and ideas used in the book. Comments are welcome. Bon Voyage!
The Simurgh and the Nightingale - A Novel
(Blog Edition Part I)
A few years ago, while conducting research into the development of medical and hospital facilities that accompanied the frenzied period of mosque construction of the early Ottoman empire, I happened upon, in the Topkapi Sarayi Muzesi, a bound series of letters from one Seilim Zeitun Oglu to the Sublime Porte, written about 1640, detailing his plans to have a new mosque and hospital for the insane built in Tavanshanli, a small town on the Anatolian Plateau south of Ulu Dag, the ancient Bithynian Mount Olympus.
While leafing through the folio I came across two letters which were not bound in with the others. The first was very fragile - made as it was from a very old type of cotton parchment. Its faded writing was in a language that I did not fully recognise but was to discover later was old Norman - French. The second letter was on fine Italian linen paper and written in Arabic to the same Seilim Zeitun Oglu. It was signed by a Catherine Cullen. This unusual combination of a letter in the maghribi style of North African Arabic, written by a woman, and with a western name at that, immediately aroused my interest. It was the subsequent translations of these letters that were to send me on a quest, the story of which is outlined in the following pages.
All of the people and events portrayed are real, apart perhaps, from the name Slavujovic. I feel certain that this was a pet-name and Djivo’s true surname was Sorkocovic, a family mentioned often in the 17th Century Ragusan Archives that are preserved in Dubrovnik. I have retained the use of the Slavujovic name in deference to the original letter that I discovered in the Topkapi.
With regard to the city of Ragusa. Today we know it as the city of Dubrovnik although from the seventh century until Napoleon’s invasion in 1806 it was known as the City and Republic of Ragusa. Originally a walled town founded on the small islet of Lausa by refugees from the Roman settlement of Epidaurum (modern Cavtat), it was eventually linked by a narrow causeway to the mainland opposite - where Slavs had established a small village near an oak grove (dubrava ). This is the origin of the modern city’s name.
Throughout the book I have used the historical abbreviations CE and BCE to denote the Common Era. For those readers unfamiliar with their use these terms are the exact equivalent of AD and BC respectively but are more acceptable in historical terms to the other religious calendars. I have included a glossary, which is by no means complete and also a number of maps from my own collection to illustrate the geography.
I hope you will enjoy some, or all, of the story that follows. Remember always that it is firstly a story of love and perseverance set in its time. The early seventeenth century was a remarkable period in our history and if any part of the story stimulates you to explore the era or issues in question more, then it has been worth it. To any academic historians who take the trouble to read the book, please forgive the many inaccuracies that you discover. I have by necessity needed to invent dialogue.
Lismore Castle, Ireland. Midsummer’s Eve 1634
Richard Boyle the Baron Youghal, 1st Earl of Cork and joint Lord High Treasurer of Ireland was sitting at his bureau, pensively stroking his goatee beard. This was more square cut than those sported by many of his contemporaries and he started pulling at a loose marginal hair as he read the recently delivered letter.
26th May 1634
The Earl of Corke,
Right Honourable and most honoured Lord
I am commanded by the Lords of the Admiralty to send you this lettre. The fleet recently gathered to patrol the Gibraltar narrows left the Downs on Easter-day in the morning. On the same night the gale freshened and such a breaching sea followed that it brought up the longboat of the Merhonour to the ship’s quarter, dashing it to pieces. In addition 2 demi-culverins were lost through a rent on the same quarter.
Make order for another longboat to be constructed in Youghal and for replacement of the iron pieces. Capt. Vaughan of the Lion’s Whelp who carries this lettre is accompanied by His Majesty’s master shipwright, Goddard, who will assist in this matter. Goddard is further commanded to proceed with the King’s Purveyor to mark out from your southern estates oak suitable for his commissions, as previously agreed.
Since I last closed on the matter, Frizzel our consul in Algiers has informed the Foreign Secretary that one of the female captives taken in Baltimore by the Dutch renegado Morat Reis was redeemed by a Mr Job “Frog” Martino an agent from Livorno in February of last year. No other information is to hand as to this woman’s name. Of the 100 or so captives that landed in Algiers alive, 84 are awaiting redemption, Frizell cannot account for the remainder.
I assure you of my continuing efforts to effect the return of all. My Lords of the Admiralty again have directed that no moneys should be sent.
I trust this finds you in rude health. For myself the scratchy hand of this lettre is the result of my quill arm be in a scarf for the second blood-letting to quit myself a feverish indisposition. I remayne your Lordship’s to be commanded - your servant
Secretary of the Admiralty.
Boyle looked it over twice more and having left it down, stood up and moved across the room to the bay window. Here the late afternoon shafts of sunlight were being broken up and scattered by the lead glass that had been recently installed by the craftsmen he had brought to Lismore from Lorraine. He put his hand out to touch one of the small panel panes, their relative clarity making a pleasant change from the dense stained-glass that had previously been in place. He loved the comfort of this small salon with its high vantage point from where he could look down at the Blackwater river as it coursed easterly in front of the castle.
Today, after the recent rains, the river was in full spate and he could see some of his locally hired fishermen struggling as they endeavoured to set the trout nets. Even as he watched, one of the men appeared to wade too far from the bank and slipping on the steep bed was suddenly captured by the force of the swirling sienna-brown current and sucked down-river.
Boyle continued watching as a river boat was quickly launched in pursuit of the drowning man. Opening a window and leaning out to get a better view he wavered slightly and then pulled back, daunted somewhat by the huge vertical drop to the river below. As he withdrew he was distracted by a shaft of lead-blue sunlight briefly catching the polished surface of the diamond ring he wore on his small finger. “That is a good omen,” Boyle murmured to himself as he closed the latch.
Today also had been the anniversary of his arrival in Ireland, impoverished, in 1588 and the ring - a present from his mother - had been one of his few possessions. Looking now at the dancing facets made him reflect on how quickly time had passed and how the time had been passed. Not all his ventures had been successful and indeed the years had included two short spells of imprisonment accused of falsifying land transactions. His marriage to his first wife, Joan, had provided him with a rich dowry and land in Munster but their time together was all too brief as she had died during childbirth. She and their stillborn son were buried in Buttevant and even now, decades later, he would make an annual private visit to their graves pausing to whisper to her headstone of the events that had transpired in the previous year.
His second wife had also died - about four years previously - but their union had been blessed with fifteen children, twelve of whom had survived, intelligent and affectionate. His aggressive implementation of Crown policy in Ireland, for which he made no apology, was matched by a stealthily acquired personal affluence. He had a famed eye for an opportunity to enhance his wealth and both he and his enemies considered that his greatest coup had been taking the opportunity to purchase Sir Walter Raleigh’s Irish estates when in London to report on the Battle of Kinsale to Queen Elizabeth. Finding further favour at court he had been appointed Lord Chief Justice and subsequently joint Lord Treasurer of Ireland. ‘Yes indeed,’ he thought to himself. ‘he had lived and loved enough for many men’s lives.’
Behind him the door of the salon opened and a heavy set man entered the room. Boyle threw one more glance at the activity on the river bank before turning to greet his guest. He was quite animated and reaching for a tasselled chord by the fireplace pulled it once. The far-off sound of a tinkling bell could just be heard. “Jephson, those fools in the Admiralty . . .” Boyle stopped as his secretary walked in and retrieving the letter from the nearby bureau and handed it to him. “Mulkere, make out such an order and address it to my son, Lord Dungarven. I will attach my seal when it’s done. The order is to be dispatched with Captain Vaughan who leaves with the Whelp on the morning’s ebb tide from Youghal for Kinsale. Also. Write a note to William Hull in Leamacon with regard to the news of the captive. Captain Vaughan can carry that as well.”
The secretary nodded silently and began to withdraw. His youthful face, scarred by smallpox, was kept self-consciously bowed.
“Wait a moment Mulkere.” Boyle barked as he remembered something else. “There is another matter. Send word to the head gillie on the river and tell him to report to me, directly.”
The young secretary once again bowed his head gravely and then left quietly.
“Nobody can read my writing.” Boyle shrugged apologetically as he looked over at his visitor. “In any event Mulkere is an excellent fellow, educated by the friars in Lismore. Originally from near your estates I . . .”
“You were saying about the Admiralty. . .” Very few people would interrupt Boyle but Sir John Jephson was an old friend whose counsel the Earl of Cork regarded highly. Jephson had married into the large estate of the Norris seigniory of Mallow but was well versed in the ways of the Admiralty having been Governor of Portsmouth until 1630. The political repercussions from the murder, in that port, of the Duke of Buckingham had hastened his early retirement to Ireland.
“The Privy Council at the prompting of the Admiralty have decided that no government-supported redemptions are to be paid for the captive Christian English held in Barbary. At last count there was about six hundred in Algiers alone, and that does not include Scots or Irish. They consider the redemptions promoted by the Spanish Trinitarians and their like, are only encouraging further raids by those bastard corsairs to our shores. The Admiralty hope to force the renegades into releasing their captives by blockade and trade sanctions. French pox !” Boyle was getting angrier. “The pirates take captives for ransom, be it in ducats, reals or pounds, and little other reason. Having exhausted the coasts of Iberia and equipped with better ships they are now raiding our shores with greater frequency and with near total impunity. Why, even last year my son was nearly taken while travelling for his wedding. The Admiralty should spend more time on getting their fleet in order. In my opinion trade sanctions directed against the pirates of Barbary are the Admiralty’s equivalent to a pisse in the wind. In any event they appear willing enough to pay the bloody Dunkirkians so I wish they would be more consistent.”
“Why the letter to William Hull?” Jephson got up from his chair to join Boyle who again was looking out the window.
“Oh that. Hull is rumoured to have good connections with the pirates from Barbary and in his role as deputy Vice-Admiral for Munster many of the English settlers in the coastal towns look to him for leadership. It is important that any news of the captives is relayed.” Boyle tapped at the window.
“What captives are you talking about and what is the news?” Jephson had taken an iron pipe from his pocket and recovering an ember from the fire began lighting it. The white smoke drifted and danced in the shafts of light and drafting upwards surrounded Boyle with a ghostly fog.
“One of the female captives has redeemed herself after only two years. Most unusual. I wonder . . .” Boyle did not finish. The door opened and his secretary returned with the finished letters. Boyle read them carefully before reaching for a quill and dipping it in a small inkwell that was recessed into the bureau’s walnut surface. In a heavy hand he signed himself ‘Corke’ beneath the neat and precise penmanship of Mulkere. His secretary then blotted dry the signatures, folded the letters and after applying melted wax to the join, moved aside to allow Boyle affix his seal. Once done Boyle then handed the letters back to his secretary. “Give these to Captain Vaughan.”
His secretary took the letters and immediately turned to leave.
“Mulkere.” The Earl did not look up as he spoke but stood there, somewhat distracted, staring down at his hands as he gently rotated the diamond ring on his finger.
“My Lord?” His secretary’s face lifted and he appeared slightly anxious.
“Send in some Madeira for Sir John and myself and tell the cook we will be ready to eat shortly.”
The muted thud of the oak doors closing behind Mulkere appeared to break Boyle’s moment of reflection. He went to the fire and taking a poker vigorously stoked its embers before adding another log. An evening chill was settling on the room.
“The female captive. You were wondering?” Jephson scented a story and the thought of some of his host’s excellent Madeira lubricated the enquiry.
Boyle hesitated for a moment as the salon door opened again. One of his liveried butlers brought in the decanter of wine and poured them both a glass before retiring. Without looking up from the fireplace he then continued. “I wondered whether it could have been Catherine Cullen.” His tone was subdued.
“Catherine Cullen? Who are you talking about Richard? You still have me at a loss,” Jephson said, somewhat irritated.
Boyle sighed and ignoring his friend’s impatience stood up and retrieved the two glasses. He passed one to his guest. “Your good health.” Jephson raised his glass in acknowledgement. Boyle then started pacing the floor. “What is more annoying John, is that I had warned the Admiralty three years ago about how vulnerable Baltimore was to pirate raids. They did nothing.”
Jephson began tapping his pipe furiously on the hearth stone. “Boyle. If you do not get to the point soon I will surely harm you. I still do not know what you are talking about.
Boyle laughed. “Come John. Let us go to dinner. I gather there is some fine woodcock as well as oysters, skerrets and sweet-breads.” Boyle tidied his desk and then in better spirits took Jephson by the arm and led him towards the door. “I thought I had spoken to you previously about Catherine Cullen.”
Jephson shook his head.
“You remember me speaking of Ould Osbourne, my late wife’s cousin and guardian?” Jephson nodded. “Well after his own wife died, Osbourne decided to live out his remaining years in Baltimore. In recent times his sight had deteriorated with cataracts and I arranged for Catherine Cullen to go and see him. She is a barber-surgeon with a skill for eyes whom I had made the acquaintance of in Dublin. She was only there a day when catastrophe struck. I felt responsible in some way and kept it secret in the hope of effecting her release through Hull’s contacts in Sale. Very few people know she was taken, as Hackett a fisherman from Waterford who had helped the Turks raid the cove, was tried and hanged at the very next assizes.’
Jephson once again shook his head, an exacerbated smile on his face. “What catastrophe do you speak of Richard? What Turks?”
Boyle suddenly realised that his friend was truly at a loss to know what he was talking about. With a belly-laugh he slapped him on the back nearly causing Jephson to spill his wine. “I am so sorry John. I had forgotten that with your own troubles in Portsmouth you would be forgiven for not knowing about the raid.”
Jephson smiled. “For the last time Richard, I entreat you to tell me the full story.”
The door of the salon had closed behind them but Boyle’s voice could still be faintly heard from the corridor. “About three years ago in . . .”
© R.J.Derham 2001, 2009. First Published by Collins Press 2001 ISBN:1-898256-47-0