From Cairo, With Love

By: Nancy Campbell Allen

Venice Harbor was filled to capacity. Valentine Baker viewed the scene with wide eyes and a smile she couldn’t seem to contain. Masts shot high into the sky, and sailing ships vied for space with steamers, gondolas, and small canopied craft that ferried visitors to their destinations. She was in Venice, and the very next morning she would be on her way to Egypt. She had gone from living a conventional life in a conventional English village to being an Independent Woman who traveled the world with flair.

Well, she amended, she wasn’t certain she contained any amount of flair, really, but at least she was doing something different—something wonderful! The world was only three years’ shy of saying goodbye to the nineteenth century and ushering in the twentieth. Valentine was convinced that 1897 was a grand time to be alive, and she planned to take advantage of every amazing moment.

As preparations were made for the passengers to leave the steamship and transfer to a covered ferry, Valentine bounced on her feet, belatedly realizing she was demonstrating a decided lack of flair. She stopped bouncing and made every effort to stay still; to be a credit to her cousin’s lofty status as a countess.

Evangeline Stuart Bellini, “Eva” to family, was Valentine’s maternal cousin; she had been married for two years to Count Matteo Bellini, formerly Europe’s most sought-after bachelor. Evangeline was an accomplished artist, and the Bellinis were visiting Venice from their home in Florence for the second Biennales, a prestigious art show and competition. Valentine squelched a now familiar stab of apprehension at visiting her cousin, having last seen her nearly seven years ago. So much had transpired over the years. Eva’s stepfather had been imprisoned for making an attempt on her life, and her stepsisters were sent away to school. Eva and Valentine had become friends anew, through correspondence, after Eva’s wedding.

Valentine was the youngest and only girl of seven children. When her parents died, she went to live with her second eldest brother, Samuel, his wife, and their four children. He had just become a solicitor and was looking for a home in which to raise his family. Eva graciously offered her family home near London in exchange for care of the grounds and household upkeep. Samuel accepted her generous offer. Valentine spent her time helping her sister-in-law with the children and the move to a new town.

Valentine, struck by the beauty of the country home and its gardens, wrote Evangeline to thank her for her generosity and to offer felicitations on her recent nuptials. Eva warmly responded, and the two exchanged letters, becoming fast friends through their correspondence. Both young women regretted the loss of contact in earlier years. Valentine realized both she and Eva would have benefitted from the company of the other—Eva had been all but a prisoner in her own home and Valentine had never felt as though she belonged anywhere. Her brothers were kind, their wives gracious, their children playful and loving, but always living on the generosity of her brothers constantly reminded her of her own lack.

A breeze blew across the harbor and lifted curly black tendrils of hair away from her face. She clutched her hat in her fingers and knew she probably ought to secure it in place on her head, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. The air was brisk, fresh, and alive with a myriad of sights, smells, and sounds. She didn’t want to obscure any of it by wearing a hat. It was silly, she knew, but she hated hats. Even as a child they’d been a nuisance to her. Constantly falling off, getting knocked askew, or trampled under her own feet as she played with her brothers—hats represented containment, a notion she’d always chafed under.

Her brothers had all the freedom in the world to run roughshod over life if they chose. However, once Valentine entered her teen years—it would have been earlier had mother been able to force it—Valentine had been . . . obliged . . . to rein in her activities and pay closer attention to more feminine pursuits that didn’t suit her personality.

Valentine shook off the dampening thoughts and smiled at the porter who assisted her transfer, along with her trunk, to the dock and then onto the small human-rowed ferry. She’d traveled the bulk of her trip—a delightful series of train rides south through the continent—with an elderly woman who had taken her leave of Valentine when they reached Italy. Val had traveled alone the rest of the way to Venice. It marked the first time in her twenty-four years of life she’d done anything remotely like it, and she gloried in the rush of euphoria the simple circumstances had produced. She was traveling! Alone!