Excerpt from Mr. Impossible

The sound of an English voice--an English woman’s voice--was more welcome than Rupert would have guessed.

He had been growing exceedingly bored. The feminine sound instantly revived his good humor.

He knew which of the females had spoken. His eyes had long since grown accustomed to the darkness. Though both women were veiled, the taller wore European dress. He knew she was not only English, but a lady. The cultured accents of her clear, musical voice--a trifle unsteady at present--told him so.

He could not, however, determine whether she was old or young, pretty or not. He knew, too, that one could never be absolutely certain of a woman’s figure until she was naked. But looking on the bright side, she must possess all the necessary parts--and if she’d made it down all those hundreds of stairs, she couldn’t be decrepit.

“Mrs. Pembroke, may I present Mr. Rupert Carsington,” Beechey said. “Mr. Carsington, Mrs. Pembroke has generously agreed to pay for your release.”

“Have you, indeed, ma’am? That’s deuced charitable of you.”

“It is nothing of the kind,” she said stiffly. “I’m buying you.”

“Really? I’d heard the Turks were severe, but I never guessed they’d sell me into slavery. Well, well, you learn something new every--”

“I am buying your services,” she cut in, the musical voice frosty.

“Ah, I stand corrected. And which services would you be requiring?”

Rupert heard her sharp inhalation.

Before she could retort, Beechey said smoothly, “It is an assignment, sir. Mr. Salt has released you from your regular consular duties so that you may assist Mrs. Pembroke in searching for her brother.”

“If all you want is a brother, you’re welcome to one of mine,” Rupert said. “I’ve four. All saints. Ask anybody.”

He was not a saint and no one had ever mistaken him for one.

The lady turned toward Mr. Beechey. “Are you sure this is the only man available?”

“How did you contrive to lose your brother, by the way?” Rupert said. “In my experience, the feat’s impossible. Everywhere I go, there they are. Except here. That was one reason I jumped at the chance when my father offered. It came as a vast relief, I’ll admit. When he summoned me to his study, I thought it was going to be one of those devil-and-the-deep-blue-sea choices, like the one he offered Alistair three years ago: ‘Get married or suffer a fate worse than death,’ or something like that. But it was nothing of the kind. It was, ‘Why don’t you go to Egypt, there’s a good boy, and find your cousin Tryphena some more of those stones with the picture writing on them.’ Stones and-- What else did she want? Those brown rolled-up thingums. Paper rice or some such.”

Papyri,” came the melodious voice, strained through gritted teeth, by the sounds of it. “The singular is papyrus. The plural is papyri. The Latin word derives from the ancient Greek. It is a paper made, not from rice, sir, but from a reed plant native to these regions. The articles you refer to, furthermore, are not ‘thingums,’ but valuable ancient documents.” She paused, then said in milder, puzzled tones, “Did you say ‘Tryphena’? You do not refer to Tryphena Saunders?”

“Yes, my cousin--the one with the hobby-horse about the comical picture writing.”

Hieroglyphs,” said the lady. “The decipherment of which-- Never mind. Attempting to explain to you their importance would be, I have not the smallest doubt, an expenditure of breath to no purpose.”

She turned abruptly, in a delicious rustle of silk, and started away.

Beechey hurried after her. “Madam, I do apologize for detaining you in this disagreeable place. Naturally you are distressed. However, I must beg you to recollect--”

“That man,” she said in low but still audible tones, “is an idiot.

“Yes, madam, but he’s all we’ve got.”

“I may be stupid,” Rupert said, “but I’m irresistibly attractive.”

“Good grief, conceited, too,” she muttered.

“And being a great, dumb ox,” he went on, “I’m wonderfully easy to manage.”

She paused and turned to Beechey. “Are you sure there’s no one else?”

“Not between here and Philae.”

Philae must be a good distance from here, else the lady wouldn’t be scouring the dungeons of Cairo for help, Rupert thought. “I’m as strong as an ox, too,” he said encouragingly. “I could lift you up with one hand and your maid with the other.”

“He’s cheerful, madam,” Beechey said, sounding desperate. “We must give him that. Is it not remarkable how he’s kept up his spirits in this vile place?”

Obligingly, Rupert began to whistle.

“Obviously, he doesn’t know any better,” she said.

“In the present circumstances, fearlessness is a great asset,” Beechey said. “The Turks respect it.”

The lady said something under her breath. Then she turned to the Turk who’d brought them--someone important, apparently, with an immense turban--and said something in one of those impossible oriental tongues. The big-turbaned fellow tsk-tsked a good deal. She talked some more. He didn’t seem happy. It went on.

“What’s she saying?” Rupert called out.

Beechey said they spoke too quickly for him to follow.

The maid drew closer to Rupert. “My mistress bargains for you. I am sorry for you that your wits are so slow. When we came, she was willing to pay almost the full price, but now she says you are not worth so much.”

“Really? How much were they asking?”

“With all the bribes, it came to three hundred purses,” she said. “A white girl slave--the most expensive slave--is only two hundred purses.”

“I don’t suppose you know what three hundred purses amounts to in pounds, shillings, and pence?” Rupert said.

“It is more than two thousand English pounds.”

Rupert let out a soft whistle. “That does seem steepish,” he said.

“This is what she tells the sheik,” the maid said. “She says you are of little worth to anybody. She says your head on a pike would be good for entertaining the Cairenes, but this is all the value she sees. She tells him that lords are as common in England as sheiks in Egypt. She says only the oldest son of an English lord is valuable, and you are one of the youngest. She says your father sent you away because you are an imbecile.”

“Astonishing,” he said with a laugh. “She can tell all that--when we’ve only just met--and in the dark, too. What an amazingly clever woman.”

The turbaned fellow launched into a harangue. The lady shrugged and started to walk away.

The price of release was ridiculous; no one in his right mind would pay it, including Lord Hargate. All the same, Rupert was disappointed to see her depart.

Searching for her brother could be interesting. It had to be more interesting than digging in sand for broken chunks of stone, and a good deal more amusing than prying papyri from the clutches of ancient corpses. Yes, he knew what the correct word was. If he’d heard it once, he’d heard it a thousand times from Tryphena. He’d said it wrong only to hear Mrs. Pembroke’s reaction--and that was highly entertaining.

Now he might never find out what she looked like.

The maid left to follow her mistress. Beechey threw up his hands and started after them.

Rupert watched the taller feminine figure until the gloom swallowed her up.

Then the turbaned man called out something.

Mrs. Pembroke re-emerged from the gloom, and Rupert’s heart gave a small but unmistakable leap.