Book 2 of the Lady of Ashes series
After establishing her reputation as one of London’s most highly regarded undertakers, Violet Harper decided to take her practice to the wilds of the American West. But when her mother falls ill, Violet and her husband Samuel are summoned back to England, where her skills are as sought-after as ever. She’s honored to undertake the funeral of Anthony Fairmont, the Viscount Raybourn, a close friend of Queen Victoria’s who died in suspicious circumstances—but it’s difficult to perform her services when his body disappears…
I originally wrote Lady of Ashes as a standalone piece of historical fiction. My publisher, however, was intrigued by the idea of a lady undertaker. Since that novel had some light mystery elements to it, I was asked to continue Violet’s adventures as a series.
This was an intriguing challenge for me, as I was not used to what was required of mystery plotting. How do you make innocent people seem guilty, and guilty people seem innocent? How do you throw in red herrings to mislead the reader?
My editor’s first instruction was, “Get Violet back to London, quick!” You, dear reader, can decide if that was done well.
March 1869, Musafirkana Palace, Cairo, Egypt.
“This has been a profitable trip, has it not, my dear?” The Prince of Wales gazed down at his prime acquisition during their tour of Egypt: a mummy, which the seller said dated to Egypt’s twenty-sixth dynasty.
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.
Excerpt copyright 2014 Christine Trent.