What revelations would the twenty-sixth dynasty have for the nineteenth century?
He sipped from his glass of dreadful rosé, wondering if it had been taken from an ancient amphorae entombed with the mummies themselves. It tasted like dried wool. The Egyptians had much to commend them, but winemaking was not among their finest talents.
Albert, or Bertie, as his mother Queen Victoria called him when he happened to be in her good graces, was surrounded inside the viceroy’s palace by the closest confidantes of his entourage on this trip through Egypt: his elegant wife, Alix; the British explorer, Sir Samuel Baker, along with his unconventional wife, Lady Florence Baker; Lord Raybourn, the queen’s man, sent along to discuss the canal’s opening ceremonies with Isma’il Pasha, the Egyptian viceroy; and Colonel Christopher Teesdale, the prince’s equerry who’d distinguished himself during the Crimean War fifteen years ago.
All agreeable company except for Lord Raybourn. He was too serious and too concerned with the political events in Egypt, remaining locked up with the Viceroy for hours at a time, going over the minutiae of the flotilla lineup and what speeches would be given and by whom.
Why did his mother need to send a tedious old peer to Egypt for such donkey work? Surely some parliamentary bureaucrat could have done it. Was Lord Raybourn’s real purpose to serve as his mother’s eyes and ears, to report on the Prince of Wales’s activities?
To add further pall over the trip, there were no interesting women in the traveling party other than Mrs. Baker, whose dramatic life story as a young Hungarian princess, kidnapped and nearly sold into a harem before being rescued by her future husband, stretched credulity a little far. And Mrs. Baker was far too devoted to her husband to consider the prince’s affections.
Why wasn’t Raybourn working on a private entertainment for the prince, like those involving exotic music and veiled, nubile Egyptian girls that Isma’il Pasha had provided during their cruise down the Nile—rather than worrying about whether the British flag would fly higher than the French one during the opening ceremony?
Bertie looked affectionately at his wife, Alix, who had taken days to recover from the indignation brought on by his visit to meet Pasha’s harem. She was a good woman, and patient, but didn’t understand his voracious appetite for variety in all things. By God, he wasn’t yet thirty years old and there was so much to experience. At least he knew that she was loyal despite his weakness for beauty, and would never spy on him for his mother.
Nor would Lady Susan Vane-Tempest. As much as he’d enjoyed Pasha’s entertainments, Bertie was yearning for his current mistress. He’d considered bringing her along, but that would have been asking too much of his tolerant wife.
Enough ruminating. After days of nodding approvingly at the progress of tons of dirt being shoveled out of the middle of the desert, Bertie was ready for something interesting, and what lay before him was vastly interesting.
The mummy was part of a cache of some thirty mummies supposedly discovered together in a tomb. Sir Samuel insisted the mummies couldn’t possibly be as old as the seller claimed, but what did it matter? A mummy unwrapping party would be great fun, and Bertie planned to send the rest of the cache to museums throughout England and the world. Maybe he’d even send one to Mother’s ostentatious Victoria and Albert Museum, although the British Museum might have a quibble with that idea.
“Who would like to be the first to pull on a bandage?” he asked.
“I’ll do it,” Florence Baker said, getting up from her chair and approaching the table where the mummy lay. She went straight for the corpse’s feet, and unwrapped a length of linen wrapping from there. “Everyone knows a corpse’s smelly feet is the last place the underworld spirits would search for valuables, so there’s probably a nice nugget of gold hidden here.”
“Flooey, you are just a pip,” her husband said, laughing.
Her strip broke free without a trinket appearing.
“Now I’ll try,” Sir Samuel said. “I’ll go for the opposite end, shall I?” He loosened a strip of tattered cloth from around the mummy’s head. Again, nothing.
Everyone took turns repeatedly, trying to unravel a strip under which a piece of gold, a precious gem, or other tiny artifact had been hidden for the deceased’s underworld journey.
It was Lord Raybourn, though, who had the first success, holding up his trinket for all to see. “What is it? Some kind of amulet?” Raybourn said.
“That’s an ankh,” Sir Samuel said. “It’s the symbol for life. May you enjoy the richness of life here and in the afterworld.”
“Huzzah!” Colonel Teesdale said, raising his glass. Everyone joined him in the toast, although the prince felt less than enthusiastic over cheering his mother’s spy.
The group continued playing until the final trinket was found, a scarab discovered by Alix in the mummy’s hand.
“What happens with our friend here?” Teesdale said, nodding at the table, which now contained the unwrapped body, resembling a piece of petrified wood.
The prince considered this. “Keep your linen strips and trinkets as souvenirs, and let’s draw straws to determine who the lucky recipient will be to display him in his study.”
After a brief discussion over whether a married couple should have two straws or one—and deciding that they should have two—the group pulled straws from Teesdale’s hand.
“Ah, Your Highness, you enjoy good fortune,” the colonel said. “Where will you display your great find?”
“The princess and I must think carefully on it,” he said, but he was already developing a grand idea for it: somewhere prominent inside Windsor Castle, where it would be sure to give his mother apoplexy. Perhaps then she’d quit sending nannies along to watch over him whenever he left England’s borders.
Anthony Fairmont, the Viscount Raybourn, was heartily sick of Egypt. The heat, the tourists, the European girls looking for husbands, the shouting in the streets that passed for civilized conversation…for God’s sake they even had periodic locust plagues, although it was no wonder the Almighty was still trying to get the nation’s attention.
How was it that Prince Albert Edward found this place so delightful?
Even Raybourn’s stay along the lush area along the Nile during the Prince of Wales’s tour had been little compensation for his misery. He just wanted to complete his duties and return home to England and what awaited him there.
Instead, he was in conference every day with Isma’il Pasha, negotiating the fine points of what nation would have precedence at November’s opening ceremonies, then he endured the prince’s activities all night into the wee hours of each morning. Was there anything less dignified than drawing straws over the dusty, mummified remains of some ancient being?
Now this. His meeting with Ferdinand de Lesseps had started amicably enough inside the Frenchman’s Cairo villa, although de Lesseps was prickly, as though a dung beetle was running up and down his arms beneath his skin.
“How do you find your stay in Egypt, Lord Raybourn? It ees to your liking?”
“I am impressed with the progress you have made on the canal.”
“It ees an achievement magnifique for France. And the prince, he ees pleased with his visit?”
Yes, the prince’s satisfaction was really the question, wasn’t it?
“He is very pleased with the variety of, ah, entertainments he has been provided. Attending the bazaar incognito was an especial pleasure for him.”
De Lesseps smoothed his mustache, his nerves momentarily calmed. “Oui, I recommended that outing to Isma’il Phasa. But I do not think you are pleased here, Lord Raybourn. Do you have zee wife and children at home you miss? Maybe zee grandchildren?”
Raybourn cleared his throat. This was not a topic he wished to discuss with the Frenchman, no matter how important he was. “My wife died in eighteen thirty-seven, trying to give me another son, who didn’t survive. I have three living children and one grandson to remind me of her, though. What of you, monsieur? Is your family back in France?”
De Lesseps spread his hands. “I am as you are, my lord. My wife, Agathe, and my son, Ferdinand Victor, died within weeks of each other in eighteen fifty-three. I still have two other sons still living, but it ees not the same ees it?”
“No, although we must bear up and continue on, monsieur.”
“Oui. It was only when I had the impulse to create the Suez Canal that I was régénérer, made new. You understand?”
Raybourn knew exactly what it meant to have the heart and mind return from an early grave, but that was his own closely held secret. Unfortunately, de Lesseps wasn’t done probing.
“Do you look for another wife, or at least an amour, my lord?”
Raybourn shrugged. “We’ll see. What of you? Will you re-marry?”
“Ah, for now I am wedded to the Suez Canal. But once it ees finished, maybe I will find another wife. I believe I can make a good case as a husband. I have a long diplomatic career, you know, and have been consul to Cairo, Rotterdam, and Barcelona, among other postings. Of course, right now it ees the completion of the canal that is in some jeopardy, non?”
Raybourn didn’t like the new tone de Lesseps adopted as he started pacing in front of him. The insects were active under the man’s skin again. Maybe it was better to remain on the topic of marriage.
“It ees my concern,” de Lesseps said, “that your Victoria la reine and your parlement are working against me. They do not wish this project to be successful.”
“That isn’t true, monsieur.”
“Then they do not wish me to have my full glory in it.”
Raybourn was silent.
“Aha! I am correct in this. It ees why you have ignored my complaints about the blackmailer who threatens to destroy this project.”
“Monsieur de Lesseps, you can hardly expect the British government to—”
But Ferdinand de Lesseps wasn’t listening as he paced more furiously, working himself into a righteous lather as he enumerated all of Great Britain’s crimes against him.
“This blackmail, it ees an outrage! What will your government do to see to my satisfaction? I am, how you say, persécutés by this man. He believes he ees greater than Ferdinand de Lesseps, but this ees not so. I am le roi, like a king, here in Egypt. I tell this man, ‘go here,’ and he goes here. I say to this one, ‘dig at this spot,’ he digs until I say stop. The viceroy ees mon ami, will do anything I wish. But he cannot help with what I wish now, which is for this blackmailer to be found and run through with the sword.”
Lord Raybourn hoped he was successfully maintaining an interested look, one that was tinged with concern. He badly needed a glass of brandy, but would settle for a cup of Egyptian beer. De Lesseps was too agitated to notice his guest’s needs.
“…You see that the people, they cheer me in the streets for what I am doing for their country and for the world. But this little insect of a man threatens to expose me. It is…it is…intolérable. Why am I so badly treated when you, monsieur, your Mr. Stephenson used corvée labor here not long ago?”
Raybourn shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It was unfortunate that Robert Stephenson, who was responsible for Egypt’s first standard-gauge railway being completed in 1854, had used corvée labor.
“Monsieur de Lesseps, you must understand that Stephenson was not under as much scrutiny as your canal is. Also, his was a vast construction project that required thousands of men, and—”
“Lies, all lies. The Suez Canal project ees the largest construction project ever in the history of humanity. Stephenson’s railroad, pah! Your country uses corvée labor when it suits you, but castigate me for it. Now I have this little blackmailer attempting to ruin me.”
“I will telegraph the prime minister and ask him—”
“Non. If your government gets involved, your newspapers will get involved. I will have no notoriété on this project, not when I am so close to completion.”
Lord Raybourn spread his hands. “What do you want from me, monsieur?”
The Frenchman stamped his foot. “I want action! Immédiatement. You must find him and prosecute him.”
What de Lesseps was asking was impossible. Raybourn might be a peer, but he was not the police. Perhaps he could send a discreet message back to Scotland Yard.
“If you will not do this, I will find another way,” de Lesseps said. “But it will be better for you if you take care of it, Lord Raybourn.”
After finally escaping de Lesseps’s verbal clutches, Raybourn returned to his quarters, where he found a telegram waiting for him. It was well coded, with specific instructions in it. Instructions that suddenly made his life very bleak.
Unedited contracted excerpt, Copyright 2013 Christine Trent.