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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Florence Bell

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Gertrude Bell
Lady Florence Bell
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1 letter, plus envelope

The train between Lyon and Geneva [Genäve]. Sat. 29. Dearest Mother. It's a shockingly long time since I wrote to you. We were so run off our feet at Algiers [Alger] that I had no time for anything. We are in a great state of excitement about Alan's wife. We found a telegram last night at Lyon containing a code word we can't interpret. We hope to hear more at Geneva. I wonder whether Mrs Clifford feels inclined to claim it! I was so sorry to hear about Lisa's father, I didn't write to her but if you see a fitting occasion you might express to her my very sincere sympathy.
Well, you know I'm very glad to have been to Algiers. It's certainly an experience unlike any other. The extraordinary luxuriance of the place is quite astonishing. All the gardens were walled and roofed with roses and full of every kind of beautiful flower and creeper which one has been accustomed to see blooming sparsely in conservatories. Round the little horse shoe arches of my bedroom window a purple bouganvillia clustered and made quite a warm glow in my room with its deep colour through which the light passed. Lilian and I used to sit out of doors after dinner on the terrace looking down over the town and onto the lights of the harbour and the wide still bay, with a sweet smell of roses everywhere and the garden full of nightingales behind us. Do you remember how Hugo used to say "It's too fretty![sic]" Algiers is almost too fretty, everything seems to have run into a mad luxuriance - even the architecture which is all twisted columns and twisted arches, and twisted elaboration of designs and everywhere tiny marble courts with fountains in them, roofed over with banksia roses. But it's very beautiful to see. I could wish man were not so vile! Aunt Lizzie is the very most wearisome woman that the Almighty ever invented, I do think. I like Lilian and I like the Wigrams; Clara is rather a sweet person - I had a cheerful lunch with them on Wednesday. The Stobarts were at the hotel the first day after we arrived - she giggles, Mittie does, that's about all there is to say about her except that she is rather silly. The Peases were there too; he rode with us twice and we thought him very pleasant and surprisingly uninsular. He told us quite simply, amusing stories of his Biskra[?] time - how he had got to know some Arabs and slept in their tents and so forth. He was also very much interested by all the local history and had found out something about it. He is at a dreadfully loose end now, poor dear, for he doesn't dare to take his wife home till June and they have to hang about abroad for another month. She is a charming little woman; they say she is better but she is despondent about herself and it's terribly pathetic to see her looking so delicate and so brave and sweet. They came down into the Arab town one morning. I must tell you one extraordinary thing we saw - I think it will frighten you! When the Moors conquered Algiers they found a holy man living there who obstinately refused to change his religion. Accordingly to prove to him the error of his ways they buried him alive in a block of cement and built him into the breakwater. A few years ago, when they were repairing the very place where tradition said St Geronimo was buried, they came upon a hollow block of cement. They lifted it out very carefully and ran some plaster into the hole, which when it hardened gave them a perfect cast of the figure of a man lying face downwards with his hands tied behind his back. This cast we saw - it was really almost too horrible; one could see the absolute expression of the man as they stamped him down into the cement; his lips were puffed out as though he were holding his breath and trying to keep out the mortar. We had another nice expedition into the Arab town walking all over its crooked narrow streets and watching the odd way the people go on and 'ow [sic] they do. Arabs and Moors were a very interesting East and quite new to me. Our rides too were pleasant, especially the last one when we left the beaten track and made our way through vineyard paths and {through} grass fields looking like England, a very fertile England, until you suddenly came upon a hedge of prickly pears and enormous aloes at the end of them. Still in spite of all its advantages we felt we had had about as much as we could stand by Thursday! You see Aunt Lizzie was always with us! I think it was a very good plan Papa went; the Wigrams were very grateful to him and so were all the maids and people at Mustapha Rai's. By the bye Clara told me to tell you Miss Somers is a great success. She seems a nice woman and gets on capitally with the children. I like the children. I'm very sorry for the poor little things. However they seem happy enough. We had a rough crossing and I regret to tell you I succumbed, much to my shame! I retired to bed and stayed there - so did all the other women Papa said. There were some rather nice people on board, though I didn't see much of them. Their name was Bisset - he was a good and cheerful soul in the artillery who had travelled all over India. The thought of all he had seen weighed upon him dreadfully - specially the tombs, he had seen all the tombs and he couldn't get over it! When I asked him if he had been anywhere in Algeria he invariably replied "No, I've seen so much of the East you see. And then all the tombs! - I've seen every tomb in India!" I daresay it would be depressing. We are going to have a pleasant day I think. I am looking forward to Geneva and the lake. Papa is brisk and sunburnt. Ever your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

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