No Role for a Gentleman
It was in the Temple of the Muses that Laurence Bretton first saw her; a slender, dark haired young woman standing by the far side of the circular counter, her features partially hidden by the wide brim of a fashionable bonnet. She was engaged in conversation with a clerk whose eagerness to assist was all too evident, but whose frequent blushes and stammering replies seemed to indicate a greater interest in the lady than in whatever she was attempting to buy.
‘We do carry…an extensive selection of books dealing with the Ottoman Empire,’ Laurence heard the young man say. ‘Many of which I’ve read and can recommend myself. Reynier’s State of Egypt after the Battle of Heliopolis was most informative and I have…a very good copy of that in stock.’
‘As it happens, so do I,’ the lady replied in a brisk though not unkind manner. ‘And while I found Mr. Reynier’s perspectives entertaining, they were not detailed enough for my liking. Have you a copy of Volney’s Travels through Syria and Egypt? The second volume?’
Volney? Laurence knew that name. Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney, was a French philosopher and historian who had spent several months in Egypt and Greater Syria, and who had written his Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie upon his return to France in 1785. Even to a scholar it was relatively dry reading and as such, hardly seemed the type of book a flower of English womanhood would be enquiring after.
Curious, he moved closer, in time to hear the clerk say, ‘Regrettably, we do not have a copy of that particular book in stock, but if I might suggest—’
‘Could you order it for me?’
The request was accompanied by a smile of such sweetness that the young man actually gulped. ‘Well, yes, of course, though I don’t know how much luck I will have in finding it. Perhaps Savary’s Letters on Egypt?’
‘Again, entertaining, but I have been told Volney’s book is far more detailed.’
‘It is,’ Laurence said, slowly stepping forward. ‘And while it does not have as many sketches as I would like, his rendering of the Temple of the Sun at Balbec is quite exceptional.’
The lady turned her head, the quick movement setting the feathers on her bonnet swaying and treating Laurence to an unobstructed view of an exceptionally lovely face. Eyes, large and expressive framed by dark lashes that appeared even more so against the pale gold of her complexion, stared back at him, but with curiosity rather than alarm. ‘It is?’
‘Yes. I would be happy to lend you my copy as long as you promise to return it to me once you are done.’
A pair of sable smooth eyebrows rose above a small nose lightly dusted with freckles. ‘You would lend such a valuable book to someone with whom you were not acquainted?’
‘No, I would lend it to someone I knew to be as interested in the subject as I,’ Laurence said with a smile, ‘after having taken the liberty of introducing myself so that we would no longer be unacquainted.’ He touched the brim of his beaver hat and bowed. ‘Laurence Bretton, student of history and reputable lender of slightly used books. And you are…?’
His inquiry was met by a startled pause and then by a flash of amusement in eyes the colour of Cleopatra’s emeralds. ‘Joanna Northrup. Dedicated researcher and devotee of all things Egyptian.’ She extended her hand. ‘It seems we are well met, Mr. Bretton.’
The proffered hand was encased in a smooth calfskin glove, but it was not the directness of the reply or the firmness of her grip that took Laurence by surprise. ‘Northrup,’ he repeated thoughtfully. ‘Not, by any chance, related to Mr. William Northrup, former Oxford lecturer and archaeologist involved in explorations in the upper Nile Valley in Egypt?’
Her look of startled surprise was followed by one of cautious interest. ‘He is my father. Did you have the good fortune to attend one of his lectures?’
‘Regrettably no, though given his fondness for throwing chalk, it may have been to my advantage.’
‘He does have exceptionally good aim,’ she agreed.
‘I know of several gentlemen willing to attest to it. Nevertheless, I would have liked the opportunity. He is a legend to those who have an interest in the study of ancient Egypt.’
‘And have you such an interest, Mr. Bretton?’
Recalled to the hours he had spent devouring anything he could find about the Rosetta Stone, a centuries old block of igneous rock discovered in Egypt and said to be the key to translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Laurence nodded. ‘You could say that, yes.’
‘Then I wonder if you would be interested in attending a lecture my father is giving at the Apollo Club tomorrow evening? Attendance is by invitation only, but…’ Miss Northrup dug into her reticule and pulled out a card, ‘if you present this at the door, you will be admitted.’
Laurence glanced at the card, upon which the address of the club, and underneath, the initials, JFN, had been written. ‘Thank you, I will most certainly attend. I wasn’t sure if your father was still involved in Egyptian explorations, given that I haven’t heard much about him for quite some time.’
‘We have not been much in society of late,’ Miss Northrup said, her glance briefly dropping away. ‘We suffered a series of…unfortunate deaths in my family and are only recently emerged from mourning.’
‘I am sorry to hear that,’ Laurence said, aware from the expression on her face that the memories were still painful. ‘Such things are never easy.’
‘No, they are not, especially when one’s life is so drastically altered by the outcome.’ Miss Northrup paused, as though reflecting on some private memory. Then, she drew a bracing breath and said, ‘However, we bear it as best we can and move on.’
‘Yes, we do,’ Laurence said, seeing no point in telling her that while the dramatic changes in his own life had not been inspired by such grievous events, they had kept him fully occupied in areas that had nothing to do with archaeological exploration. ‘At what time does the lecture commence?’
‘Seven o’clock, but I suggest you come early if you wish to secure a good seat,’ Miss Northrup said. ‘Given that it is Papa’s first lecture in quite some time, we are expecting a large turnout.’
‘Then I shall make every effort to do so,’ Laurence said, tucking the card into his pocket. Then, because it was important that he know, said, ‘Will you be in attendance as well?’
‘Oh yes. While my father is one of the most meticulous archaeologists I know, he tends to be considerably less so when it comes to organization of his lectures,’ Miss Northrup admitted with a smile. ‘He would no doubt leave half of his notes at home and end up wandering off into a lengthy dissertation about the pyramid of Djoser, which has nothing to do with his more recent work in the area around Thebes. I am there to make sure he adheres to the program.’
Observing the fashionable gown, the elegant bonnet and the cashemire shawl fastened at the throat by a fine pearl brooch, Laurence was hard pressed to imagine the delicate creature before him taking an interest in what his youngest sister had once called the most boring subject on earth. ‘You don’t find the subject a little dry?’
‘Not at all. I have worked at my father’s side for a number of years, transcribing his notes, organizing and labelling his finds, even helping him to map out his future expeditions. And last year, during a visit to the temple complex near Dendera, I was fortunate enough to find the most incredible piece of—’
‘You found at Dendera?’ Laurence repeated in astonishment. ‘Are you telling me you actually went to Egypt with your father?’
It was a mistake. The lady’s eyes narrowed, and her lovely smile cooled every so slightly. ‘Yes, I did. My second trip, in fact, and in many ways, even more remarkable than the first. Words cannot describe the size and scope of Tentyra, or the magnificence of the Temple of Hathor. Such things truly must be seen to be appreciated.’
‘Of that, there can be no doubt. And I meant no offence,’ Laurence said, aware that she had misinterpreted his reaction and clearly thought less of him as a result. ‘I am simply envious of your good fortune in being able to visit a country I have been reading about for so many years. To travel up the Nile and to see firsthand the wonders being discovered in the dessert would be the culmination of a dream.’
She raised an eyebrow, but her voice was doubtful when she said, ‘It would?’
‘Good Lord, yes. Oh I’ve read all the books, studied the drawings, even talked with gentlemen who’ve been there,’ Laurence said, ‘but nothing could possibly replicate the experience of actually standing in a crowed street in Cairo, being assaulted by the sounds and smells of the markets or deafened by the babble of a thousand voices. One must go there in order to experience such things.’
The lady tilted her head, as though in reconsideration of her first impression. ‘And is it your intention to go there one day, Mr. Bretton?’
‘I sincerely hope to, yes,’ Laurence said, knowing that if the opportunity were presented to him, he would go in a heartbeat. The consequences—and there would be consequences—could be dealt with once he got back. Right now it was important that he convince Miss Northrup of his sincerity, since he had obviously damaged his credibility and commitment to the field by having had the audacity to question hers.
Thankfully, the earnestness of his reply must have convinced her of the true extent of his interest, for she nodded briefly and said, ‘Then I will offer you a few words of advice. If ever you do go, be sure to stay at Shepheard’s in Cairo. It is an exceedingly civilized hotel and the view from the terrace is quite splendid. Also, when dealing with the locals, take time to negotiate anything you are offered. You will be hideously overcharged if you do not.’
‘Thank you,’ Laurence said, relieved he had not done irreparable damage to a relationship he had every intention of pursuing. ‘If I am ever fortunate enough to find myself haggling over the price of a fellukah, I will be sure to remember your advice.’
‘A fellukah is fine if you are only looking for transportation across the Nile, but if your trip is to be of a longer duration, I would suggest a dahabeeyah,’ the lady said. ‘They are far more comfortable, some being quite luxurious, though the price will reflect that, of course.’
‘Of course.’ This time, Laurence knew better than to smile, though he was strongly tempted to do so. He’d never met a woman who knew what a dahabeeyah was, let alone one who was able to tell him it was the preferred method for travel along the ancient river. ‘Shall I bring Volney’s Travels with me to the lecture tomorrow evening?’
‘If you wouldn’t mind. Unless…’ Miss Northrup turned back to the clerk, who was still gazing at her with adoration and said, ‘is there any chance of you being able to procure a copy of the book for me before then?’
The young man’s face fell. ‘I shall do my best, but I very much doubt it.’
‘Ah. Then I would be most grateful for the loan of Volney’s Travels, Mr. Bretton,’ Miss Northrup said, turning back to him with a smile. ‘And I promise to return it as soon as I am able. As one who has experienced the difficulty in finding reliable source materials, I know how hard it is to let such an exceptional volume out of your hands.’
‘In this case, I have no concerns,’ Laurence assured her—knowing that as long as she had the book, he had an excuse for seeing her. ‘Volney and I will see you at the Apollo Club tomorrow evening. Good day, Miss Northrup.’
‘Good day.’ She started to turn away, and then stopped. ‘Oh, Mr. Bretton, there is…one more thing.’
Laurence turned back. ‘Yes?’
She opened her mouth to speak, but then a tiny furrow appeared between her brows and she closed it again. Clearly, she wanted to say something but for whatever reason was reluctant to do so. In the end, she merely shook her head and smiled. ‘Never mind. You will find us upstairs in the Oracle Room tomorrow evening. Please try not to be late. And don’t forget to bring the card.’
It was not what she had been going to say. Laurence was certain of that. But hardly in a position to demand that she disclose what had so briefly tugged at her conscience, he simply assured her that he would not be late, offered her a bow, and then returned to his earlier browsing, all the while blessing the Fates for having sent him to this particular bookshop on this particular day.
To think he would actually be sitting in on a lecture given by the renowned archaeologist William Northrup! It was almost too good to be true, especially given the time he had devoted of late to activities that, while necessary to his family’s wellbeing, did absolutely nothing to quench his thirst for knowledge. He was first and foremost a student of history and tomorrow evening, he would have an opportunity to talk with like-minded gentlemen about the exciting discoveries taking place in the area of Egypt known as the Valley of the Kings.
It was a long time since he had found himself looking forward to anything as much...except to seeing the intriguing Miss Northrup again, Laurence admitted, casting another glance in her direction. A woman of rare beauty, she obviously shared her father’s love of ancient Egypt, and contrary to what society expected, had been allowed to travel with him to share in the excitement of his explorations. There had been no mistaking the enthusiasm in her voice when she had spoken of her impressions of the ruins at Dendera, and if she had worked at her father’s side for so many years, there could be no question that her interest in the subject was genuine.
Laurence could think of no other young lady—and he had met a great many over the last eight months—who would welcome such an adventure, which was all the more reason for getting to know the charming and decidedly intriguing Miss Joanna Northrup a great deal better.