The Hippopotamus Pool (Amelia Peabody Series #8)by Elizabeth Peters
What could be more intriguing to Amelia Peabody and her irresistible, irascible husband, Emerson ("the Father of Curses"), than meeting a masked stranger who offers to show them an Egyptian queen's lost tomb? The mysterious disappearance of that midnight visitor before he can disclose the secret! Thus begins Amelia's newest adventure along the Nile. Helped, or… See more details below
What could be more intriguing to Amelia Peabody and her irresistible, irascible husband, Emerson ("the Father of Curses"), than meeting a masked stranger who offers to show them an Egyptian queen's lost tomb? The mysterious disappearance of that midnight visitor before he can disclose the secret! Thus begins Amelia's newest adventure along the Nile. Helped, or hampered, by two teenagers, their son, Ramses, and their beautiful ward, Nefret, the Emersons set sail for Thebes to find the hidden tomb of Queen Tetisheri. With them is a timid (or is she?) governess named Miss Marmaduke. Soon to join the expedition are Amelia's sister- and brother-in-law, Evelyn and Walter, whose marriage is going through a rocky patch. As usual, archaeology is only one of Amelia's concerns, as the Emersons encounter murderers, kidnappers, grave robbers and ancient Egyptian curses. The tomb, of course, will hold a stunning surprise. And the Hippopotamus Pool? It's an ancient Egyptian story of war and wits that Amelia is translating... and that alerts her to a hippo of a different stripe: a nefarious, overweight art dealer who may become her next archenemy. Or perhaps not - for another nemesis is lurking under the Saharan sun, a master of disguises, a caliph of crime, a veritable vizier of villainy. Will Amelia meet her match?
Like many of the previous seven in this series, a wordy confusion of vile intentions, powerful enemies, dramatic rescues, excruciatingly detailed forays into the ancient past, and Amelia's cool. Fans of the latter may love it, but most readers will be numbed by the heavy-handed plotting.
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The Hippopotamus Pool
By Elizabeth Peters
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Elizabeth Peters
All rights reserved.
The Trouble with Unknown Enemies Is That They Are So Difficult to Identify
Through the open windows of the ballroom the soft night breeze of Egypt cooled the flushed faces of the dancers. Silk and satin glowed; jewels sparkled; gold braid glittered; the strains of sweet music filled the air. The New Year's Eve Ball at Shepheard's Hotel was always an outstanding event in Cairo's social season, but the dying of this December day marked an ending of greater than usual import. In little more than an hour the chimes would herald the start of a new century: January the first, nineteen hundred.
Having just completed a vigorous schottische in the company of Captain Carter, I sought a quiet corner behind a potted palm and gave myself up to speculation of the sort in which any serious-minded individual would engage on such an occasion. What would the next one hundred years bring to a world that yet suffered all the ancient ills of mankind—poverty, ignorance, war, the oppression of the female sex? Optimist though I am, and blessed with an excellent imagination (excessively blessed, according to my husband), I could not suppose a single century would see those problems solved. I was confident, however, that my gender would finally achieve the justice so long denied it, and that I myself would live to see that glorious day. Careers for women! Votes for women! Women solicitors and women surgeons! Women judges, legislators, leaders of enlightened nations in which females stood shoulder-to-shoulder and back-to- back with men!
I felt I could claim some small credit for the advances I confidently expected to see. I myself had broken one barrier: as the first of my sex to work as a field archaeologist in Egypt, I had proved that a "mere" woman could endure the same dangers and discomforts, and meet the same professional standards, as a man. Candor as well as affection compels me to admit that I could never have done it without the wholehearted support of a remarkable individual—Radcliffe Emerson, the most preeminent Egyptologist of this or any century, and my devoted spouse.
Though the room was filled with people, my eyes were drawn to him as by a magnet. Emerson would stand out in any group. His splendid height and athletic form, his chiseled features and bright blue eyes, the dark hair that frames his intellectual brow—but I could go on for several pages describing Emerson's exceptional physical and mental characteristics. Humbly I acknowledged the blessings of heaven. What had I done to deserve the affection of such a man?
Quite a lot, in fact. I would be the first to admit that my physical characteristics are not particularly prepossessing (though Emerson has, in private, remarked favorably on certain of them). Coarse black hair and steely gray eyes, a bearing more noted for dignity than grace, a stature of indeterminate size—these are not the characteristics that win a man's heart. Yet I had won the heart of Radcliffe Emerson, not once but twice; I had stood at his side, yes, and fought at his side, during the remarkable adventures that had so often interrupted our professional activities. I had rescued him from danger, nursed him through illness and injury, given him a son ...
And raised that son to his present age of twelve and a half years. (With Ramses one counted by months, if not days.) Though I have encountered mad dogs, Master Criminals, and murderers of both sexes, I consider the raising of Ramses my most remarkable achievement. When I recall the things Ramses has done, and the things other people have (often justifiably) tried to do to Ramses, I feel a trifle faint.
It was with Ramses and his adopted sister Nefret that Emerson stood chatting now. The girl's golden-red hair and fair face were in striking contrast to my son's Arabic coloring and saturnine features, but I was startled to note that he was now as tall as she. I had not realized how much he had grown over the past summer.
Ramses was talking. He usually is. I wondered what he could be saying to bring such a formidable scowl to Emerson's face, and hoped he was not lecturing his father on Egyptology. Though tediously average in other ways, Ramses was something of a linguistic genius, and he had pursued the study of the Egyptian language since infancy. Emerson feels a natural paternal pride in his son's abilities, but he does not like to have them shoved down his throat.
I was about to rise and go to them when the music began again and Emerson, scowling even more horribly, waved the two young people away. As soon as she turned, Nefret was approached by several young gentlemen, but Ramses took her arm and led—or, to be more accurate, dragged—her onto the floor. The frustrated suitors dispersed, looking sheepish, except for one—a tall, slightly built individual with fair hair, who remained motionless, following the girl's movements with a cool appraising stare and a raised eyebrow.
Though Ramses's manners left something to be desired, I could not but approve his action. The girl's lovely face and form attracted men as a rose attracts bees, but she was too young for admirers—and far too young for the admiration of the fair-haired gentleman. I had not met him but I had heard of him. The good ladies of Cairo's European society had had a great deal to say about Sir Edward Washington. He came of a respectable family from Northamptonshire, but he was a younger son, without prospects, and with a devastating effect on susceptible young women. (Not to mention susceptible older women.)
The seductive strains of a Strauss waltz filled the room and I looked up with a smile at Count Stradivarius, who was approaching me with the obvious intention of asking me to dance. He was a bald, portly little man, not much taller than I, but I love to waltz, and I was about to take the hand he had extended when the count was obliterated—removed, replaced—by another.
"Will you do me the honor, Peabody?" said Emerson.
It had to be Emerson—no one else employs my maiden name as a term of intimate affection—but for an instant I thought I must be asleep and dreaming. Emerson did not dance. Emerson had often expressed himself, with the emphasis that marks his conversation, on the absurdity of dancing.
How strange he looked! Under his tan lurked a corpselike pallor. The sapphire-blue eyes were dull, the well-cut lips tightly closed, the thick black hair wildly disheveled, the broad shoulders braced as if against a blow. He looked ... he looked terrified. Emerson, who fears nothing on earth, afraid?
I stared, mesmerized, into his eyes, and saw a spark illumine their depths. I knew that spark. It was inspired by temper—Emerson's famous temper, which has won him the name of Father of Curses from his admiring Egyptian workmen. The color rushed back into his face; the cleft in his prominent chin quivered ominously.
"Speak up, Peabody," he snarled. "Don't sit there gaping. Will you honor me, curse it?"
I believe I am not lacking in courage, but it required all the courage I possessed to accede. I did not suppose Emerson had the vaguest idea how to waltz. It would be quite like him to assume that if he took a notion to do a thing he could do it, without the need of instruction or practice. But the pallor of his manly countenance assured me that the idea terrified him even more than it did me, and affection rose triumphant over concern for my toes and my fragile evening slippers. I placed my hand in the broad, calloused palm that had been offered (he had forgot his gloves, but this was certainly not the time to remind him of that little error).
"Thank you, my dear Emerson."
"Oh," said Emerson. "You will?"
"Yes, my dear."
Emerson took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and seized me.
The first few moments were exceedingly painful, particularly to my feet and my ribs. I am proud to say that no cry escaped my lips and that no sign of anguish marred the serenity of my smile. After a while Emerson's desperate grip relaxed. "Hmmm," he said. "Not so bad, eh, Peabody?"
I took the first deep breath I had enjoyed since he took hold of me and realized that my martyrdom had been rewarded. For so large a man, Emerson can move with catlike grace when he chooses; encouraged by my apparent enjoyment, he had begun to enjoy himself too, and he had fallen into the rhythm of the music.
"Not bad at all," Emerson repeated, grinning. "They told me I would like it once I got the hang of it."
"Ramses and Nefret. They were taking lessons this past summer, you know; they taught me. I made them promise not to tell you. It was to be a surprise for you, my dear. I know how much you like this sort of thing. I must say it is a good deal more enjoyable than I had expected. I suppose it is you who ... Peabody? Are you crying? Curse it, did I tread on your toes?"
"No, my dear." In shocking defiance of custom I clung closer to him, blotting my tears on his shoulder. "I weep because I am so moved. To think that you would make such a sacrifice for me—"
"A small enough return, my darling Peabody, for the sacrifices you have made and the dangers you have faced for me." The words were muffled, for his cheek rested on the top of my head and his lips were pressed to my temple.
A belated sense of decorum returned. I strove to remove myself a short distance. "People are staring, Emerson. You are holding me too close."
"No, I am not," said Emerson.
"No," I said, yielding shamelessly to his embrace. "You aren't."
Emerson, having "got the hang of it," would allow no one else to waltz with me. I declined all other partners, not only because I knew it would please him but because I required the intervals between waltzes to catch my breath. Emerson waltzed as he did everything else, with enormous energy, and between the tightness of his grasp and the vigor of his movements, which had, on more than one occasion, literally lifted me off my feet, it took me some time to recover.
The intervals gave me the opportunity to observe the other guests. The study of human nature in all its manifestations is one no person of intelligence should ignore—and what better place to observe it than in a setting such as this?
The styles of that year were very pretty, I thought, without the exaggerated outlines that had in the past distorted (and would, alas, soon again distort) the female form. Skirts fell gracefully from the waist, sans hoops or bustles; bodices were modestly draped. Black was a popular shade with older ladies, but how rich was the shimmer of black satin, how cobweb-fine the sable lace at throat and elbow! The sparkle of gems and of jet, the pale glimmer of pearls adorned the fabric and the white throats of the wearers. What a pity, I thought, that men allowed themselves to be limited by the meaningless vagaries of fashion! In most cultures, from the ancient Egyptian until comparatively modern times, the male swanked as brilliantly as the female, and presumably took as much pleasure as she in the acquisition of jewels and embroidered and lace-trimmed garments.
The only exceptions to masculine drabness of attire were the brilliant uniforms of the Egyptian Army officers. In fact, none of these gentlemen were Egyptians. Like all other aspects of the government, the army was under British control and officered by Englishmen or Europeans. The uniforms denoting members of our own military forces were plainer. There were a good many of them present that night, and in my imagination I seemed to see a faint shadow darkening those fresh young faces, so bravely mustachioed and flushed with laughter. They would soon be on their way to South Africa, where battle raged. Some would never return.
With a sigh and a murmured prayer (all a mere woman can offer in a world where men determine the fate of the young and helpless) I returned to my study of human nature. Those who were not dancing sat or stood around the room watching the intricacies of the cotillion, or chatting with one another. A good many were acquaintances of mine; I was interested to observe that Mrs. Arbuthnot had gained another several stone and that Mr. Arbuthnot had got a young lady whom I did not recognize backed into a corner. I could not see what he was doing, but the young lady's expression suggested he was up to his old tricks. Miss Marmaduke (of whom more hereafter) had no partner. Perched on the edge of her chair, her face set in an anxious smile, she looked like a bedraggled black crow. Next to her, ignoring her with cool discourtesy, was Mrs. Everly, wife of the Interior Minister. From the animation that wreathed her face as she carried on a conversation across Miss Marmaduke with the latter's neighbor, I deduced that the lady, swathed in black veiling, was a Person of Importance. Was she a recent widow? No lesser loss could dictate such heavy mourning; but if that were the case, what was she doing at a social function such as this? Perhaps, I mused, her loss was not recent. Perhaps, like a certain regal widow, she had determined never to leave off the visible signs of bereavement.
(I reproduce the preceding paragraphs in order to demonstrate to the Reader how much can be offered to the serious student of human nature even in so frivolous a social setting as that one.)
It would be my last social event for some time. In a few more days we would leave the comforts of Cairo's finest hotel for ...
Well, only Heaven and Emerson knew where. It was one of his engaging little habits, to delay until the last possible moment before telling me where we would excavate that year. Irritating as this could be, it had a certain titillation, and I amused myself by considering the possibilities. Dahshûr? We had never finished exploring the interior of the Bent Pyramid, and pyramids, I must confess, are a passion of mine. Amarna would be equally to my taste, however, since it was there that my first romantic experiences with Emerson took place. The Theban area, too, had its attractions: royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the majestic temple of Queen Hatshepsut ...
My meditations were interrupted by Nefret and Ramses. Her rose-petal cheeks aglow, the girl dropped into the chair at my side and glowered at her foster brother, who stood with arms folded and face expressionless. Ramses had graduated to long trousers that year—the sudden elongation of his lower limbs having made that decision advisable on aesthetic if no other grounds—and with his curly hair brushed into a rampant crest, he resembled a critical stork.
"Ramses says I may not dance with Sir Edward," Nefret exclaimed. "Aunt Amelia, tell him—"
"Sir Edward," said Ramses, prominent nose quivering, "is not a suitable person for Nefret to know. Mother, tell her—"
"Be quiet, both of you," I said sharply. "I will be the judge of who constitutes a proper associate for Nefret."
"Hmph," said Ramses.
Nefret said something I did not understand. I supposed it to be one of the Nubian swearwords to which she resorted when in a temper. Temper, and the heat of the room, would have reduced any other female countenance to an ugly state of red-faced perspiration, but she could never appear other than beautiful; her cornflower-blue eyes sparkled wickedly and the sheen of perspiration that bedewed her skin made it glow as if lit from within.
"Ramses," I said, "please go and ask Miss Marmaduke to dance. You owe her that courtesy, since she is to be your tutor."
"But Mama—" Ramses's voice cracked. Ordinarily he was able to control the inevitable fluctuations, from soprano to baritone, that mark a lad's adolescence; on this occasion emotion had made him lose control, and his use of the childish form of address which he had recently abjured was further indication of perturbation.
"I believe your hearing is not deficient, Ramses," I remarked.
Ramses's countenance resumed its normal impassivity. "No, Mother, it is not, as I am sure you are aware. I will of course obey your command, for such I take it to be despite the manner in which it was couched, though I cannot but regard the use of the word 'please' in this context as a meaningless—"
"Ramses," I said loudly, for I knew perfectly well what he was up to; he was quite capable of continuing the sentence until it would be too late to lead the unfortunate Miss Marmaduke onto the floor.
"Yes, Mother." Ramses turned on his heel.
Her good humor restored, Nefret laughed and gave my hand a conspiratorial squeeze. "It serves him right for being so impertinent, Aunt Amelia. Miss Marmaduke is a perfect old maid!"
Excerpted from The Hippopotamus Pool by Elizabeth Peters. Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Peters. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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