The Dreadful Death of Victor HugoBy Patrick POIVRE D’ARVOR Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor
All around her, men were fanning themselves or wiping the sweat off their foreheads. Their tight collars prevented them from breathing freely in the stifling heat of Upper Egypt in May. As everyone was trying to please the hostess, however, no one dared loosen their ties. She herself did not seem to mind the heat. Not a drop of sweat, not the slightest fanning gesture. She sat smiling in her taffeta and organdie dress, smiling and gazing at each of those males eyeing her greedily and doing their best, inspite of the scorching heat, to make languid small talk. The most wordy of all was a charming Egyptologist (charming, that is, to those whom he did not speak ill of, namely those few guests who, as soon as they left, were sent back to François Tinville’s usual crowd of whipping boys).
“Did I tell you that this very morning on the boat I received a message from the Baronne des Roches, dean and goddess to us all archeologists. She mentioned our colleague, d’Angles, who is slowly recovering after falling off his horse. ‘Is he really going to survive this?’ she wrote. ‘Dear Lord, now I’m going to have to hold on tight!’ She hates him.”
The audience let out a burst of laughter, slightly dimmed on account of the heat, then Tinville went on: “By the way, do you know the story of my great-aunt de Saintonge who as she lay dying still said -”
“We do know, dear François,” the fair Delphine interrupted with a soft tone and not a hint of harshness. “Tell us instead about that future Winter Palace they’re building on the east shore.”
The year was 1886, and this construction, already well under way, was the talk of the town in the small French community of Luxor, just as much as that Eiffel tower project, over which a lot of ink was being spilled into the Nile. The Nileflowing lazily around the dahabeya of our heroes, carrying along all the garbage of the three-hundred-soul small city as well as the reeds and the lotus flowers ripped by the river upstream. Riding among the feluccas, the boat drew everyone’s stares and envy, with its slender frame and its two masts, and most of all its six narrow but gorgeously decorated cabins. No one had ever seen cabins on even the biggest feluccas. Lunch was drawing to an end, as indolently as the flow of the water, made yellow by all the alluvia carried along from the source of the Egyptians’ king river-the river of the origin of the world. Back then, in spite of the work accomplished by Burton and Speke, one had yet to pinpoint the exact locations of the Nile’s multiple sources, its very first drops seeping from the north of Lake Tanganyika, more than 3 000 miles away from Luxor…
Now, in the dead hour of the afternoon, the Nile seemed to be taking a nap. As happened every day, the British archeologists had to the interrupt their research, in spite of the staunch endurance of the English people, who would sooner have boiled to death under their colonial hats than lose face. The native workers were the ones deciding to take breaks whenever the sun was too hot. And since the sun was emollient, and the heat even more so, everyone on board the dahabeya was more or less asleep. Everyone, that is, except the indefatigable Tinville and her delightful hostess, who never seemed to have enough of such a learned man’s babbling.
Presently, however, he went silent and gawping all of a sudden.
“Delphine, Delphine,” he cried after recovering his senses, “turn around. That leg-”
For a split second, Madame de Girardin, who was so chaste and proper in public, checked the way her dress was draped. She thought she might have let her calf or her knee protrude inadvertently, which would have been quite unbecoming in such company.
“Delphine, behind you! In the Nile, that foot bobbing away, that red water-”
Delphine de Girardin got up and went to the ship’s rail. The water was red indeed, a crimson hue, blatant against the beige tones of the river, but there was no foot nor leg to see.
A few seconds later, all the guests, woken up by Tinville’s shrieks, were standing shoulder to shoulder above the waters of the Nile. But the flow was too powerful for them to keep sight of the suspicious zone.
“What was that you saw, dear François?”
“There, right behind you, suddenly, two jaws. I’m sure it was a crocodile.”
“Jaws or legs, my friend? There’s a difference, you know.”
“One leg between two jaws!”
A quiet exclamation went through the party: “Ah!” they all said at once. Some, struck by fear, took one step back. What if that crocodile was still lurking around the boat? What if it was still hungry?
The usually talkative François Tinville had nothing to say. He was mute and white as a sheet. Seeing such an unexpected physical transformation in him convinced the others he hadn’t been joking and something serious indeed had just happened right under their noses.
“Pull yourself together, my friend,” Delphine begged while fanning the archeologist with his own hat. “Give yourself some air,” she added, proceeding to loosen his tie. Tinville stood up straight again; as a true gentleman from the Périgord, his modesty had been offended.
“Do not bother, Delphine, I’m quite alright. It was just a stroke of emotion.”
“So now tell us, what exactly did you see?”
“I couldn’t say for sure. I was quietly talking to you about I don’t even remember what, being such a chattering box, when my attention was suddenly distracted by a sharp noise and a great
swirl in the water. I clearly saw a leg that seemed to be struggling, then a crocodile closing its jaws upon that foot. Then the water turned red and I passed out.”
“No you did not, dear friend, you did not pass out; we were right there.”
“Well I almost did; I lost my mind, but I beseech you to believe me. I did see it happen!”
“We believe you, dear François, which is precisely what worries us. There’s no two way about it: either it was someone swimming, which no one has ever done in the Nile since Moses in his little cradle, or some crew member who might have tripped over the ropes or lost his footing after bringing tonight’s dinner on board during our short stop by the temple. Head-waiter, could you please tell us if everyone in your crew is accounted for?”
The head-waiter, approaching with bow and scrape to receive his mistress’s instructions, started yelling at the boatswain in a supposedly Arabic mumbo-jumbo. A few shouts erupted on the deck, then spread to the inferior level; then came more delicate-sounding discussions, and finally the head-waiter gave his verdict. Everything’s fine, Madam, everyone’s on board: the eight crew members, the four waiters, the cook and his two assistants, as well as myself, if I may,” he concluded with a sorry and affected tone.
“You may indeed! Actually, we’d already noticed, you see… No bones broken after all, dear François,” she smiled, “you can breathe again.”
Upon hearing those words, the archeologist, far from rejoicing, seemed even more unable to regain his composure and his prolixity.
“Delphine, I am glad for your servants. But are you sure we are all well on board? I think we’d better call the roll.”
“Well now, aren’t we the worrisome kind. It seems to me we’re all there. But how many were we, to start with? I can’t recall. I just remember I’d had fears that we would be thirteen at the table, but this was resolved at the last minute. So we were twelve or fourteen, I can’t remember which. Head-waiter!”