John Eyre: Part Three
Hotel des Anglais
Monday, 13 June 1842
Dearest Blanche, —
Forgive my long delay in replying. I have only just this morning arrived in Cairo, and found a whole stack of your letters awaiting me. You will think me a bad correspondent. I assure you, I’m not. Only a very tired lady who has spent far too much time of late on crowded conveyances and not enough of it seated in front of a writing desk.
What a journey I have had! There is so much to tell you that I don’t know where to begin. First, the weather: do you remember those summers so long ago when we would strip down to our shifts and bathe in Mr. Eshton’s pond? The heat of those days is nothing to the blazing sun of Egypt. It’s so indescribably hot here, my dear, that it’s all I can do to breathe. But I love it for all that, which I suspect owes more to my current state than any tolerance for the temperature.
At last, I’m free to travel as I will! You alone will not take such a proclamation as being indecorous. You know what I suffered living under Mama and Papa’s thumb, and then again when I was obliged to mourn them. Their loss will always be a great pain to me, but I can’t help but be thankful for it now I’m in full control of my fortune and my destiny.
I say full control—what I mean is, as much control as I can exercise given the constant meddling of our family attorney, Mr. Hughes. You would think that a year and a half on the continent in the wake of losing my parents would have been enough to satisfy his ideas of propriety. All those months spent in mourning, and the tedious ones that followed after, visiting European museums and taking tea, as bored and restless as ever I was in England.
Mr. Hughes was opposed to my coming to Egypt. He subscribes to a traditional view of womanhood. Believes our place is in the home, and all of that. He’s even gone so far as to advise me to marry. And perhaps I shall do, eventually. But not right away. I’ve resisted the bonds of matrimony this long. I won’t tumble into them the very instant I’m taking my first steps of freedom.
You will say that there’s no danger of falling into matrimony at my age. At eight and twenty, I’m all but an old maid. But believe me, dear, my fortune will compensate for a great deal. With some men—I shan’t call them gentlemen—it will even compensate for my strident personality.
Thus, I am resolved to be on my guard. When I do marry, it will be for love, and not because I have been compromised by a fortune hunter. My maid, Agnes, remains with me wherever I go, as does my manservant, Mr. Poole. You were right about him. A man of few words, but brawny and capable. He never asks questions, simply does what I tell him to do.
Tomorrow we visit the pyramids and the Sphynx. I’ve been advised to hire a native translator, known as a Dragoman, to accompany us. And I mean to do so directly after I’ve finished this letter.
What else can I tell you? I have seen the Mediterranean Sea at moonlight, the chaos of the bazaar at Alexandria, and have ridden down the streets of Cairo on the back of a temperamental donkey. I have begun to feel that my life before leaving England was a long and terrible dream. I don’t mean to imply that all of it was unhappy. There were many moments of joy, your friendship chief among them; however, the greater the distance I’ve traveled, the more alive I feel. Things are brighter, more fragrant, engaging all of my senses.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t still look the part of a dull English spinster. But I mean to remedy that. This evening, if there is time, I will purchase more suitable clothes at the bazaar. It’s too hot for silk and taffeta, and all of my blacks and lavenders make me look a full decade older.
With that, I must close, my dear. The bell is ringing for tea. Please write back when you can with all the news from home.
Hotel des Anglais
Thursday, 14 July 1842
Dearest Blanche, —
The most extraordinary thing has happened. A gentleman doing excavations among the ruins at Thebes has discovered the entrance to an intact tomb. It was hidden beneath the debris of several other tombs, and no one had any notion of its existence until earlier this week. Tomorrow evening, they are finally going to open it, and speculation among the hotel guests is high as to what might be found there.
I am determined to be present for the opening, and wish you could be here to witness it as well. How long ago it seems we were both marveling over reports of ancient Egyptian tombs in Papa’s archaeological journals, and dreaming we could view mummies and funereal artifacts in situ. But I won’t reproach you for refusing to accompany me on my travels, though I do believe you might have given it more consideration than you did. How much fun we could have had together in Paris and Rome!
All that aside, I must admit that a year and a half on the continent has done little to prepare me for the experience of Egypt. This past month has gone by in a whirlwind. Along with Agnes and Mr. Poole, I have seen all of the sights, and made friends with many of the residents of the hotel. But I yearn to expand my horizons beyond the other British guests, some of whom I’ve already encountered multiple times during my travels across France, and during the voyage to Alexandria. Our Dragoman, Farouk, has been a great help in that regard. He seems to know everyone in Cairo, and has a passing acquaintance with the foreman at the dig, as well. He promises to introduce me to him when we arrive in Thebes.
We will be traveling up the Nile by steamer ship first thing in the morning. The heat has only increased since last I wrote. We’ve been obliged to keep indoors in the middle of the day, only emerging in the early dawn hours, or later in the evening after the sun has set and it’s grown a little cooler. When they open the tomb, they will do so by lantern light. It’s all quite thrilling, my dear. I cannot think how I will manage to sleep tonight knowing the treat that lies before me tomorrow.
Until then, I remain, your loving friend,
Hotel des Anglais
Tuesday, 19 July 1842
My Dear Blanche, —
You will find this a disappointing letter, I fear. As you can see from the direction, I have returned to Cairo. Thebes did not live up to expectations at all. I arrived there on Friday for the opening of the tomb, only to discover—along with the rest of our party—that the sarcophagus was empty. Farouk explained that it had been ransacked, probably many hundreds of years ago. There were broken jars, and some pieces of statuary, but no sign of the mummy who had been interred there. It was all quite deflating.
But I haven’t returned to Cairo empty handed. While in Thebes, I met the most delightful lady. Mrs. Wren is a widow who is touring Egypt as I am. She’s been here since the spring, and knows ever so much about the place. She took me under her wing at the dig, and yesterday, accompanied me back to Cairo. Indeed, she was already staying here, at a nearby hotel. I can’t think how it is we’ve never encountered each other until now.
You would like her very well, my dear. She’s older than we are—somewhere in her middle forties, if I was to hazard a guess. And yet, still rather strikingly beautiful, with dark hair and eyes, and a sun-bronzed complexion. The very picture of a lady traveler in her flowing robes and veiled hats.
Mrs. Wren is intelligent, as well. I’ve observed her speaking flawless Arabic to the servants, and equally flawless French to the maître d’hôtel. Her ancestors were English, but she was born on the continent and has spent many years living in Eastern Europe along with her brother. I have not met him as yet, but Mrs. Wren promises to introduce me this evening at dinner. If Mr. Rochester is half as charismatic as his sister, I’m sure I will be smitten.
I must stop now to bathe and change. I shall write again tomorrow with a full report. God bless you, my dear.
Excerpt from John Eyre copyright © Mimi Matthews, 2020.
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