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The Lioness of Morocco

By:Julia Drosten

Part One

The Blue Pearl of the Atlantic 1835 to 1840

Nothing shall ever happen to us except that which God has ordained for us. And if you put your faith in God, He will guide your heart. For God knows all things.

—the Koran

Chapter One

London, June 1835

The fifteen clerks taking their lunch break in the counting house of the Spencer & Son Shipping Company almost choked on their food.

There at the door stood Sibylla Spencer, visibly out of breath and pressing an envelope against her chest as she looked from one startled face to the next. The boss’s twenty-three-year-old daughter normally visited only once a year, when she and her stepmother distributed Christmas presents.

Yet it was not Christmas but the middle of June. It did not bode well that Sibylla had appeared unannounced, distraught, and, it would seem, unaccompanied in the rough masculine world of the Port of London. At least this was what Mr. Donovan, the lead accountant, feared. He stepped away from his desk with some hesitation.

“Your father is in a meeting with the dock committee, Miss Spencer. He should be back within half an hour. Do you wish to wait for him? Peter”—he motioned to one of the apprentice clerks—“get a chair for Miss Spencer.”

As Sibylla impatiently shook her head, another voice came from a desk near the window. “This seems urgent. I shall escort you, Miss Spencer, if you will allow me. I was on my way to the docks anyway.”

A tall young man with an elaborately tied silk cravat, stylishly tight vest, and highly polished shoes took a briefcase from his desk, walked over to Sibylla, and bowed briefly, folding his tall frame in half like a pocketknife.

“Benjamin Hopkins,” he said in a slightly nasal, vaguely arrogant voice. “I’m your father’s leading purchasing agent.”

Relieved, Donovan retreated to his desk. Benjamin heard muttering and felt the piercing eyes of his coworkers on his back. All of twenty-eight years old, he had managed to become the right-hand man of shipping and business magnate Richard Spencer. And he never missed an opportunity to make the boss aware of his colleagues’ smallest mistakes. That, along with his fastidious attire and affected speech, led to widespread dislike and ridicule.

Yet if Benjamin was sweating under his high-collared shirt, it was not because of the palpable hostility from his coworkers, but rather the scrutiny of Sibylla’s sapphire-colored eyes. She studied him for some time without uttering a word and, just as he feared he would be turned down, she nodded. “Very well, Mr. Hopkins.”

Benjamin breathed a sigh of triumphant relief. “I certainly hope that you are not bearing bad news,” he said, looking at the envelope in her hand.

“That’s hardly any concern of yours, Mr. Hopkins.” She turned on her heel and hurried down the stairs.

As Benjamin snatched his coat off the hook and slipped it on, he overheard someone say quietly, yet distinctly, “Just look at that bootlicker; now he’s going after the boss’s daughter.”

“What’s keeping you, Mr. Hopkins? I’m in a hurry,” Sibylla called.

Benjamin strode through the door with his head held high.

Sibylla was already settled in her elegant two-seater. “Come on, Mr. Hopkins! Or are you averse to a woman holding the reins?”

“Oh, on the contrary, I would consider it an honor to be your passenger!” he exclaimed, climbing in next to her.

“Let’s not exaggerate now, Mr. Hopkins.” She clicked her tongue and the brown hackney mare pulled so forcefully that Benjamin lost his balance and fell against the seat. But even Sibylla’s disdainful look was not enough to shake his confidence.

Over the course of yearly company Christmas parties, he had seen Sibylla turn from a child to a graceful young woman. She’d had many suitors, but her willfulness and sharp wit had proved too daunting for all of them. Before long, she had gained a reputation for being intent on controlling a man, and this deterred many. Benjamin, on the other hand, saw an opportunity. Company gossip was swirling around Richard Spencer’s fear that his daughter might end up an old maid. And the greater that fear, the less likely he would be to object to a son-in-law like Benjamin, who had neither an impressive family tree nor a fortune of any note.

“What is this meeting my father is attending?” Sibylla asked as she maneuvered through the hustle and bustle of carts, stevedores, sailors, dock agents, laborers, and employees of the surrounding offices.

“I’m certain a lovely young lady such as you would rather talk about more entertaining subjects,” Benjamin replied with his most charming smile. Alas, what had proven so effective with other women earned him no more than a look of annoyance.

“Would I be asking if I weren’t interested?”

Benjamin laughed sheepishly. “Well, it’s about trade with the Maghreb, that is to say, trade with Northern and West Africa. Your father, as president of the West India Dock Company, received a letter from the general consul of the British government in Morocco. The sultan is extending an invitation to British and Continental traders. His coffers are empty after many years of war against the rebellious Berbers. Trade with the Moroccan Jews has stimulated the domestic economy, and now we are supposed to improve overseas trade.”

“Isn’t it dangerous there? I’ve heard of pirates taking Christians hostage and selling them as slaves.”

“I’m impressed by your knowledge, Miss Spencer.”

“I read often. Most of all about foreign lands I’ll probably never see.”

He nodded as he wondered if she might be satisfied with the carefree society life of attending tea parties or receptions wearing the latest fashions and exchanging the latest gossip.

“Fortunately, the pirate problem along the coast is under control,” he explained. “Some local rulers have been effectively bribed and others intimidated by our navy. The sight of our battleships is very impressive, I can assure you. And Sultan Abd al-Rahman’s invitation means lucrative business.”

“So the members of the dock association are deciding whether to send ships to Morocco?”

“Yes, they’re discussing the port of Tangier on the Mediterranean and Mogador on the Atlantic. The trouble is that it’s difficult to find people willing to work in an uncivilized Arab country.”

“Mogador,” Sibylla muttered to herself. “How mysterious!”

Benjamin eyed her surreptitiously. She was slender, with a straight back, and almost too tall for his taste. The wind played with her hat and the lace flounce of her dress that stuck out from under her light coat. Her blonde hair blew a bit around her face, but he was able to see her lashes and her elegant nose. Her delicate white skin and wind-reddened cheeks intensified his impression that this English rose belonged at an elegant ball rather than at the loud and dirty Port of London.

“Well, Mr. Hopkins. What’s your verdict, having examined me so intensely? Do you judge me with a businessman’s eye, assessing the same way you do barrels of rum and sacks of coffee? Do you deem me a pretty but useless package?” Her tone was mocking but her look was searching.

“F-f-f-forgive me,” he stammered. “But if I may say so, you are a balm to the eyes of any man, and it would never occur to me to compare you to a barrel of rum or a sack of coffee. That would insult not only your beauty but also your integrity, which you have once again demonstrated to me.”

“What a shameless flatterer you are, Mr. Hopkins!” she said, shaking her head.

Benjamin wisely decided to dispense with any further compliments. “Turn left up ahead and then go along the high brick wall.”

Sibylla guided the gig from the frontage road onto a narrower path running parallel to a canal that connected the Thames with the West India Docks.

“My goodness!” she exclaimed as they passed a hall from which emanated the pounding noises of steam engines. “This place is nearly as busy as Oxford Street.”

“And the urgency to unload wares is the same, only in much greater quantities,” Benjamin added.

Her eyes sparkled with excitement. “Now I understand why my father always says that the port is London’s raison d’être.”

Three- and four-mast barques—big, stable West Indian ships—were lined up close to each other. The entire dock was on a peninsula, the Isle of Dogs, surrounded on three sides by a wide bight in the Thames. Thirty years ago, the West India Docks were built as part of the first commercial harbor installation in London separate from the river, with two large basins that could accommodate a total of six hundred boats and were connected to the Thames by a sophisticated system of canals.

“Here, on the east side, is the entrance and exit passage for the ships,” Benjamin explained to Sibylla. “First, they go to the import dock to unload their freight. Then they go on to the export dock to take new freight on board, and then on to a wider canal to head out into the world.”

“How marvelous to think that, thanks to these ships, people all over England are able to enjoy coffee, tea, and sugar from the Caribbean.”

Benjamin nodded absentmindedly, his mind back on the young woman’s letter. “Surely it must have been very urgent news that prompted a respectable young lady to set foot in this place?”