Book 6 of the Lady of Ashes Series.
Undertaker Violet Harper and her husband are attending the long-anticipated opening of Egypt’s new Suez Canal, which has been masterminded by the brilliant French engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps. Fireworks, galas, and canal cruises are all part of the planned festivities at stops along the way.
But when two men are found murdered, it becomes obvious that there are malevolent forces among the revelers…who will stop at nothing to keep Violet from discovering the truth.
The genesis for this story came when I was writing Stolen Remains, the 2nd book in the Lady of Ashes series. In it, Violet solves a mystery peripherally involving the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. At the same time, my editor was encouraging me to periodically move Violet around, so that she isn’t “stuck” in London. “Well,” I thought. “Why not send Violet to Egypt? Imagine how much murder and mayhem there could be at a big international event like that!”
Thus was the story born, out of my editor’s request to send Violet out of town.
I must confess, I knew very little about the Suez Canal (that’s someplace in the Middle East, right?) before I began writing Stolen Remains, but between that book and now A Grave Celebration, I have learned what a remarkable achievement it was; one that would have major international ramifications through the 21st century.
The concept of a canal through Egypt that would connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea had been attempted as far back as ancient times, then revived by Napoleon, whose surveyors wrongly miscalculated the two sea levels and abandoned the idea.
It was really the efforts of the brilliant French diplomat and engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, that resulted in a canal successfully being dredged through the area.
The canal’s building was fraught with problems: cost overruns, staffing issues, enormous egos, political interference…in other words, just a typical government project!
Did you know…?
- The Statue of Liberty was initially intended for the Suez Canal. In 1869, the sculptor of the statue approached de Lesseps and the Egyptian government and tried to convince them to let him build a sculpture called “Egypt Bringing Light to Asia.” It would be the statue of a woman in Egyptian peasant robes, holding a massive torch, which would serve as a lighthouse guiding ships that entered the canal. He was not taken up on his offer, but the sculptor, Bartholdi, didn’t give up on his idea, and eventually another version was unveiled in New York Harbor in 1886.
- De Lesseps tried—and failed—to build the Panama Canal. After the great achievement of the Suez Canal, he turned his attention to cutting through the Isthmus of Panama in Central America. Alas, the disease-ridden jungle proved more than he could manage, and the project descended into chaos; not helped by the fact that a massive fraud and conspiracy scandal was triggered when de Lesseps’ canal company failed in 1889 after burning through $260 million with no results.
I have to say, this was the most complicated Lady of Ashes story I’ve written. My Kensington editor had advised me that it is always good to lift your protagonist out of his or her environs and place a story in a new locale to keep up reader interest. That was in the back of my mind as I contemplated a new story for Violet.
Because Violet’s arc had reached 1869, I did a quick search on 1869 events and learned that that was the year the Suez Canal had opened. And that dignitaries and royalty from all over Europe were in attendance for it. That sold me; I knew Violet could depart for a completely foreign location while solving a murder during the opening celebrations.
The Suez Canal was the passionate work of Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French engineer who was an absolute genius. Although he would later fail to dig the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal was a wonder of technology for its time. Currently owned by Egypt, the valuable passageway through that country was fought over for many decades by other countries.
The story was complicated because of all of the foreign dignitaries gathered in one location for the celebration. I needed to learn customs, accents, and attitudes of multiple cultures, as well as layering in many real figures from history.
I hope you enjoy the result.
It was a relief to be on terra firma again, Violet thought. They had been nearly two weeks at sea, and although the journey had been uneventful, there was only so much sea air and salt spray she could take. Not to mention the fact that their quarters, while not uncomfortable, had given her some serious bouts of stomach roiling as she tried to sleep while they tossed to and fro in the water.
However glad she might have been that they were docked, though, was nothing compared to how overwhelmed she was by what awaited them on shore. She knew that a major international event would attract a great deal of attention and fanfare, and the port didn’t disappoint her expectations. It looked like an enormous, glittering festival, dominated by two stages that faced each other, one flying the French colors and one flying the Egyptian flag. Countless numbers of people surged around every available square inch of space.
The stages were simply the largest edifices in a sweeping vista of striped tents, garland-festooned buildings, and people of every imaginable nationality. Rows of buildings had signs in multiple languages identifying them as jewelry makers, butchers, gold sellers, coffee shops, and there were others selling candies, vegetables, pigeons, and eggs. There was even a lumberyard, full of cut logs and sawn planks, as well as a place to hire out camels.
Violet glanced down at her dress, a pale blue frock edged in black, unadorned except for a black bow with its ribbons trailing down the skirt. Was it stylish enough for such an international exposition?
As she disembarked into the afternoon sunshine with Sam’s hand lightly, but protectively, at her back, she felt like a piece of glass in a necklace full of priceless gemstones. Heavens, why did she care about such a thing all of a sudden? She was a woman who wore mourning dress as a raven wears its black feathers—a natural part of her being, her raison d’être. What difference did it make if she wasn’t clad in a rich burgundy-and-white-striped shawl over a royal blue tunic like that flawlessly complected woman welcoming newcomers? Or if she didn’t have ability to carry off the rich burgundy-and-silver ensemble of that laughing woman standing next to a man in matching colors?
As if sensing her sudden insecurity, Sam lifted his hand from her back, crooked his arm, and offered it to her as he smiled down at her. “I hope this country is prepared. The legends of Cleopatra have nothing on my wife.” He tapped his cane twice on the gangplank for emphasis. “Their scribes might have to start creating new mythology.”
“Oh, Sam.” Violet knew it was foolish to feel so ridiculously pleased, as though she were a giddy young girl receiving her first compliment from a beau, yet she briefly leaned her head against his arm in appreciation. That arm was clad in a Union infantry shell jacket, with its single row of bright brass buttons running up the front and adorning the wrists. Their ship’s captain had initially expressed disapproval that a member of the British delegation would wear a foreign uniform, but he eventually just shrugged and said, “Americans,” before piloting back to Great Britain.
The Harpers’ belongings were being transferred to HMS Newport, a vessel that carried the Prince of Wales and the ambassador to Constantinople. Newport had been part of a flotilla of foreign dignitaries sailing down the Nile for the past several weeks to tour Egyptian sites as guests of the khedive.
Violet had only been invited to the opening ceremonies, not the luxurious sightseeing trip, and so she and Sam were now joining the British delegation’s ship.
It was just as well that she hadn’t been invited on the exotic trip down the Nile, since at the time she was completing a murder investigation on a remote estate in Nottinghamshire for a very peculiar duke. If she had abruptly left for Egypt, a devious criminal might have gotten away with more than one murder.
At Sam’s waist was a leather scabbard containing a saber given to him by a superior officer as a personal gift for brave service at Marye’s Heights during the battle at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Sam had been wounded in that battle, hence his limp that was either worse or better depending on the weather. Today, though, the jacket seemed to have the effect of making him as tall and erect and proud as she had ever seen him. Violet hadn’t been sure about his selection of clothing for the evening, but now she realized that it was perfect, given the number of men on shore ostentatiously adorned in epaulets, ribbons, and medals.
Violet took a deep breath as they reached the end of the gangplank. There they were greeted by the woman in the scarlet shawl, whom Violet could now see held a basket and was offering up what appeared to be filled cookies to the disembarking passengers. Next to the woman was a man in a formal black suit who held out a hand in greeting. He was tall and thin but stooped, with leathery sunburnt skin and hair the color of storm clouds. It all suggested someone whose disposition didn’t quite agree with his task, but then he smiled at them, and the impending doom parted and decades washed away from his face.
“Mr. and Mrs. Harper?” he asked. “I am Sir Henry Elliot, the ambassador to Constantinople. I received a telegraph that I was to meet your ship and see that you made it onto HMS Newport with the rest of the delegation. First, though, you must try one of these,” he said, indicating the proffered basket.
Violet hesitated, so the ambassador reached in himself. “Ah, yes, my favorite,” he said, happily taking two of the rich little golden treats and popping one in his mouth, immediately followed by the other. He took approximately two chews before swallowing. “Fig rolls, Mrs. Harper. Trust me, the cuisine here is just as exotic as the landscape.”
The ambassador flicked away crumbs, then pointed to an area near the stage that was flying French colors. “Kindly join us over there at dusk.” He inclined his head and moved away quickly, a man undoubtedly on many missions this afternoon.
Violet tentatively took a cookie from the woman and bit into it. The sweet and heady tastes of honey and cardamom burst inside her mouth like no sticky Chelsea bun back home could ever hope to accomplish. “Mmmm,” she said as Sam reached for a serving and made his own appreciative noises.
They moved further along, slowly making their way to where the stages were. There were throngs of people milling about in anticipation of the forthcoming ceremonies. All around them was a whirlwind of spicy cooking smells, brightly clad people, and the chattering of an endless number of languages.
“Is this the opening of the Suez Canal or the Tower of Babel?” Sam asked as he waved away a young boy who was attempting to sell them a caged pair of doves. Violet saw that her husband surreptitiously handed the boy a coin, causing the child to frown in confusion when Sam still shook his head no at accepting the cage. The boy gleefully darted off to the next set of Europeans he saw.
“Labor for the canal came from many countries,” Violet said. “Until recently, much of the labor was conscripted in some way. Monsieur de Lesseps was blackmailed over it, remember?” Violet had nearly been killed in solving a problem for the queen related to the canal, but it had resulted in Her Majesty’s invitation for the Harpers to attend the ceremonies.
“Of course.” Sam frowned at the memory, a time when he’d been off in Sweden working with Mr. Nobel. He had been very angry with himself at the time for having no notion of his wife’s distress, and Violet now regretted bringing it up.
They were completely distracted from the topic, though, by the blast of trumpets coming from one of the delegation ships. Violet and Sam turned, as did thousands of others, and nearly everything hushed in response to the heralding of something—or someone—important. Six liveried trumpeters stood on one end of a ship’s deck, blowing as mightily as if they were playing Jewish shofars and making a call to action inside a temple.
The impressive ship’s sails had been furled out of the way, as if to part for the great esteem and illustriousness of whoever was about to emerge. Now that they had the attention of everyone ashore, the trumpeters marched in a precise row toward the center of the ship, where three each lined up on either side of the gangplank.
Sam put a hand up to shield his eyes from the glaring sun. “Can’t tell what nationality the flag is,” he said.
Violet squinted up, too. “Austrian, I think?”
The trumpeters blew again, but this time it was not simply a blast but a tune, presumably an anthem. As it rose in crescendo, a figure in military uniform, gleaming medals across his chest, appeared on deck and waved solemnly to the crowds before exiting along the gangplank. He carried himself stiffly and with remarkable precision, almost as if he knew how to maintain an exact distance between his feet with each step he took. A well-dressed servant followed the royal figure at a considerable distance.
Violet remarked, “Sam, I believe that’s the emperor of Austria!”
Off to her right, Violet noticed a woman clad in an officer’s cap with her skirt looped up to reveal bright yellow leggings making her way to the bottom of the Austrian ship’s gangplank, where she gazed up at the man with a smile on her lips. The emperor looked straight ahead until he reached the shore, and as the trumpeters made a closing blast, he bowed for far too long over the woman’s hand and kissed it, then offered his elbow as Sam had done to Violet earlier. Who was this woman? She couldn’t possibly be his wife, for obviously she would have been on the same ship with him.
Curious . . .
The man rose from the woman’s hand and greeted others who now surrounded the woman. Among them was an older, mustachioed man, solidly built with a mane of white hair. Standing meekly behind him was a young slip of a girl, certainly no older than Susanna, whose attending maid seemed more confident than her mistress. His granddaughter, perhaps? The murmur of indistinguishable voices floated over to Violet. Maybe it was the warm sunshine relaxing her, or maybe it was the ambrosial fig rolls settling contentedly in her stomach, but despite the fact that she felt like a reporter for a society magazine, or maybe even the Illustrated Police News, her great curiosity caused Violet to be less concerned about her appearance. Now she wondered more about the members of the various other delegations with whom they would be sharing time and space for the next week.
When the excitement of the emperor had subsided, and the throngs went about their business, Violet and Sam continued to wander. In the midst of the crowds, they came upon two children playing a sprightly game of leapfrog. Finding a bench in a nearby shady spot under an empty market awning, they amused themselves watching the children play. After a half hour of entertainment, they made their way to the spot the ambassador had previously indicated. It would seem that each delegation had received the same instructions, for the area was teeming with Europeans, including a man Violet knew well: Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, nicknamed Bertie by Queen Victoria.
Before Ambassador Elliot—who had just joined them, out of breath as if he had just run from England itself —could begin introductions, the prince approached Violet and Sam.
“It would seem I am never to be rid of the undertaker,” he said. The words seemed harsh, but his tone held no malice. “At least you do not look the part, Mrs. Harper, and you are indeed quite fetching in your gown. A decided improvement on old Lord Raybourn.”
Raybourn had accompanied the prince on his previous trip to Egypt back in March. Raybourn’s murder had sparked an investigation that had placed Violet in the unenviable position of irritating the pleasure-loving prince.
Violet curtsied, finding the self-confidence she had briefly lost when initially leaving the safety of the ship. “Your Highness, fear not, as although I do not look the part, my undertaking bag is being transferred to your ship as we speak, in case there is an emergency embalming I need to perform.”
She tilted her head and offered him a challenging gaze. The prince had caused her no end of trouble during one of her investigations for the queen, and she would permit no one—not even the heir to the throne—to cause her a disturbance on this pleasure trip.
At first she thought she would be sharply reprimanded, so horrified were the expressions on the faces of everyone else around them, but the prince simply laughed. “You all must be very careful,” he instructed the assembled group. “Mrs. Harper will discover your darkest secrets and drain them out of you with needle and tube.”
The others followed his lead, laughing politely, but the prince’s endorsement clearly hadn’t relieved them of their discomfort.
Violet smiled politely, too. It wasn’t the first time Violet had earned aristocratic reproach, and she doubted this would be her final moment in doing so, either. At least her profession was out in the open before everyone already, and she wouldn’t have to endure a protracted series of disapproving clucks and grimaces. The disapproval surrounded Violet now like hornets from a hive that had just been poked, buzzing about, not sure what they were venturing out for.
Violet had been nearly bludgeoned, stabbed, and scalded to death before, so an assembly of bejeweled and beribboned noteworthies scowling at her could be dispatched simply by ignoring their imagined or real disapproval, whereupon the hornets would return to the nest.
The meek girl, though, did not seem repulsed by Violet. In fact, her intense gaze was one of open curiosity. That curiosity appeared to be genuine, not that of a hornet contemplating a juicy grasshopper.
The young woman staring at Violet made her way past the woman in the outlandish dress, a maid close on her heels.
“Madame,” she said haltingly, “I remember your name. Were you not responsible for assisting de Lesseps in a peculiar situation a few months ago? I am Louise-Hélène Autard de Bragard, and we are to be married back in Paris after the ceremonies are concluded.” The young woman, whose mouse-brown hair was an uncontrolled mass despite a plethora of pins protruding from beneath her hat, stuck out a hand and shook Violet’s. Louise-Hélène’s other hand clutched a necklace that she quickly shoved into her dress pocket. Violet caught the flash of a cross as the beaded item disappeared into the gown.
Was there a hint of trembling in the girl’s hand? She couldn’t possibly be twenty years old, and yet here she was, surrounded by the most illustrious, powerful leaders of the civilized world—her fiancé included. Perhaps she felt as out of place at the moment as Violet did.
“Pleased to meet you, mademoiselle,” Violet said as she held the girl’s hand. “Warmest felicitations on your upcoming nuptials. It was my honor to assist Monsieur de Lesseps,” Violet replied as the much older, mustachioed man joined them and put a possessive hand to the girl’s elbow.
“I am de Lesseps,” he announced. De Lesseps wore his name with the confidence of a man who was used to great success in his life, as if “de Lesseps” were a title of grandeur, which Violet supposed that in some ways it was.
The Prince of Wales stepped forward and introduced Violet to de Lesseps. The older man’s eyes twinkled. “You cannot mean to say that I was rescued from blackmail by a belle femme who buries dead bodies?”
“Sadly, yes,” the prince said. “She seems to appear at the oddest times. But you will become accustomed to her apparent omnipresence, monsieur. We all have.”
De Lesseps mustache broadened with his smile at the prince’s remark.
Again, there was no malice in the prince’s tone, and he even took it upon himself to introduce Violet to the other delegation members milling about nearby.
The elegant woman in the nautical-themed clothing was Eugénie de Montijo, the empress of France, who was in attendance without her husband, Emperor Napoléon III, who had pressing affairs of state keeping him back in his home country.
Violet recognized the man who had been accompanied by the earlier ceremonial trumpet fanfare as he disembarked from the ship, and the prince introduced Austrian emperor Franz-Josef, who had left behind his own empress, Elisabeth. Standing near Franz-Josef, Eugénie, and Louise-Hélène were people Violet assumed to be a valet and two maids, given their lesser dress and deferential posture, plus the fact that they were not made part of the introductions.
A stout olive-complected man in yet another military uniform and a pail-shaped burgundy hat now joined them. “Monsieur de Lesseps, my men will be ready to start fireworks at seven o’clock,” he said. His manner was deferential to the Frenchman, so much so that Violet was surprised to learn that this was Isma’il Pasha, the khedive of Egypt.
“Yes, I expect a stunning show, Pasha,” de Lesseps said, almost offhandedly. Was de Lesseps’s reputation and stature such that he could speak in such a manner to the sovereign head of Egypt?
“It will be perfect, monsieur,” Pasha said, nodding his head rapidly, his hands folded in front of him.
As Pasha moved off, presumably to ensure that the volatile fireworks understood their responsibility for perfection, the Prince of Wales shook his head. “A shame, that is,” he said, drawing a cigar from inside his jacket. “Why the viceroy of Egypt kowtows to a Frenchman is beyond me. Now if it was an Englishman . . .”
Franz-Josef’s man appeared promptly at his side with a glass cylinder. The man flicked a metal lever on the jar, and a jet flame hissed from a nozzle on it.
Bertie drew deeply, and Violet thought he might expound on his sardonic comment after exhaling a long plume of smoke, but he merely said, “Looks like the Russians are entertaining themselves elsewhere, Mrs. Harper, so I’ll introduce you later.”
He inclined his head at her and signaled to Sam to join him as he moved into conversation with de Lesseps and Franz-Josef.
Louise-Hélène engaged Violet in animated chattering while the men stood about talking inanities with their chests puffed out as far as possible. It was as though verbal battle lines had been drawn across Austria, France, and Great Britain, with the United States observing.
In heavily accented English, de Lesseps’s fiancée talked about everything from the shopping at Port Said to the mummy-unwrapping parties she had attended along the Nile. It struck Violet that the girl was nervous and her ebullience seemed to mask some sort of dislike, maybe even fear. Louise-Hélène frequently cut looks in Eugénie’s direction, but the poor girl was neither sophisticated nor nearly as discreet as she may have thought she was. What was the source of her animosity? For her part, Eugénie seemed not to notice that the girl was even there, going over to cling to Franz-Josef’s arm and concentrate her attention on the men’s conversation.
Louise-Hélène’s prattling was rudely interrupted by Eugénie’s maid, whom Louise-Hélène introduced as Julie Lesage. She was a haughty woman dressed in far more expensive clothes than either Violet or Louise-Hélène. Of course, she was probably wearing her mistress’s cast-off and altered clothing. Violet estimated she was in her midtwenties. Julie would have been an attractive woman with her fair hair and skin, and large green eyes, but her expression was hard and embittered, thus shattering her beauty.
“I noticed you purchased a little alabaster pyramid today, Mademoiselle de Bragard. I’m surprised you didn’t also pick up a toy camel to complete your ancient pyramid tableau to play with in your cabin.” The young woman smirked at her own joke.
Violet was aghast at the maid’s treatment of Louise-Hélène. De Lesseps’s betrothed had good standing to verbally smack the maid into the crowded waters of the canal, but instead seemed as apprehensive of the maid as she was of Eugénie. Louise-Hélène’s maid bit her lip as though pinching back a retort. The animosity between the women was palpable.
Violet felt an unexpected rush of affection, or perhaps it was solicitude, for this Louise-Hélène, who reminded Violet of her own dear daughter, Susanna, who was seven thousand miles away in Colorado with her husband.
“I should love to see your acquisitions,” Violet said warmly. “Perhaps there will be an opportunity this week. Actually, I would be grateful for your recommendations for shopping here at Port Said since we only have this evening here before heading to Port Ismailia in the morning.”
Louise-Hélène blushed, bringing attractive color to her face beneath that wild mane of hair barely subdued by her hat. “I am happy to give you recommendations. Isabelle, take my parasol, please,” she said, handing her own maid her umbrella and now using her free hands to gesture around at the shore. “Do you see the tall green tent in the distance? That marks the entrance to the Arab shopping district. That is where you can find the artifacts anciens.”
“Or the most amateurish fakes,” Julie murmured derisively. Isabelle responded in a whispered stream of furious French that Violet couldn’t follow.
Obviously pretending not to hear, Louise-Hélène swung her hand around and pointed off to another tent top, closer and more readily visible over the heads of the crowds. “That red tent is where the European district begins. My fiancé has ensured that not only are goods from the delegation countries well represented, but that there are stalls from all of the countries that have provided workers for the canal. It is quite magnificent.”
“Thank you,” Violet said. “I shall have to pry my husband away from what is surely talk about tonnage and sail plans to have him escort me shopping. I would very much like to try the Arab district first.” She was about to signal for Sam’s attention, but Julie opened her mouth first.
“So you are the best the British queen can send here to represent her country? A handler of dead bodies? Is your husband the grave digger?” She exuded mockery and disdain.
Violet’s first instinct was to snarl a retort, but instead she took a deep breath. “I am but a minor member of Her Majesty’s delegation. She has bestowed a great honor upon us, and I will not see her disparaged,” she said evenly, but Julie’s expression told Violet that the other woman realized she had scored a point. What hold did this maid have on Louise?
By this point, Eugénie must have been bored by the men’s talk, for she had rejoined the women. The empress was even more elegant up close than she had been from a distance. It was a wonder that Franz-Josef was the only man fawning over her. From her perfectly coiffed hair to her graceful hand movements, Eugénie exuded grace from even the very threads of her couturier-made clothing, despite how flamboyant it was.
“Did someone mention shopping?” she asked. “I was stuck on board during this afternoon’s shopping expedition while Julie fussed with my hair. Ma chérie,” she said, addressing Louise-Hélène, “you don’t know how fortunate you are that your hair has such . . . fullness so that you do not need to be consumed with endless hours of primping and smartening.”
Louise-Hélène went red once more at the apparent insult. “Yes, Your Highness,” she said through gritted teeth. Violet was certain the girl would have broken down in tears if her pride hadn’t been a firmly erected wall around her emotions. “Madame Harper is planning to go to the Arab district for souvenirs. Perhaps you would like to join her. There is also the European district—”
Eugénie, though, seemed not to notice Louise-Hélène’s discomfort. “Ah, yes, I will certainly visit the European district. I must see if the emperor will escort me.” She merely had to flutter her eyelashes in Franz-Josef’s direction and the emperor was upon her, his servant in his wake. Eugénie laughingly told the emperor of her desire to shop, and he immediately offered an arm to her. It wasn’t difficult to see how he could be besotted with her, her tiny nose wrinkling when she smiled, her teeth like perfectly shaped pearls, radiant against the sun’s rays.
Poor Louise-Hélène. She must feel like an utter wallflower against Eugénie’s charms. Not to mention that Eugénie was the empress of France.
Violet was distracted by this line of thought as Franz-Josef entered into a heated discussion with his servant, eventually snapping, “You vill do as you are told!” before turning on his heel with Eugénie and leaving the rest of them behind.
Excerpt copyright 2016 Christine Trent.