tagChain StoriesTalisman Ch. 5: Victoria Grace Tilden

Talisman Ch. 5: Victoria Grace Tilden


As if the rumble wasn't distracting enough, the hot wind began to intrude on her thoughts as well. An endless ocean of sand flew by on the right as her nose braved the continuous assault of blighted streams, wheat fields, cattle herds, caravans along the road, and smelling worst of all, the natives in the outer coaches. It'd been days since they'd begun travel and two hours in this heat, but it felt longer. Perhaps it was the months preceding that made it so.

A handkerchief clutched to her nose and mouth as protection against the smoke and dust coming in the open windows, Sarah McAuley leaned in close to her charge. "Are you unwell, Miss Victoria? You have scarcely said a word since the port." She coughed lightly and covered up again.

"I am very well, Miss McAuley. Just a little fatigued." She breathed deeply just once, then the smells reminded her not to do that again.

"It's so hot." Sarah mopped the sweat from her brow and covered up again.

"I think it will be more comfortable once we've arrived." Sarah tried to appear pleasant as though their arduous journey could be considered in such a manner.

Victoria nodded affirmatively to the shorter woman who'd worked for her family these past few years.

Satisfied, Sarah crouched lower into the seat, hiding her face in the folds of her traveling skirt

Victoria worried about their luggage. It had been thrown onto the top of the carriage. She looked up. On the rack above them, two hatboxes and a Gladstone bag jostled against one another as mile after mile of uneven track clattered by. Old and rickety - like me, her grandfather would say - certainly not the Orient Express. Her glance set her mind to wondering if it was still there at all.

"I do hope that our baggage is secure." Victoria pointed up as she shouted over the din.

A muffled "What?" answered from Sarah.

She tapped her shoulder, but Sarah refused to budge. A final glance to the roof told her to forget what she could do nothing about and she settled back onto the upholstered backing of the seats. A heavy sigh escaped her lips as the sand dunes flowed by. Thousands of them, exactly the same, yet different like the waves at Brighton in the summer. Her family vacations spent there felt like this when she was young - exciting, new, and little adventures around each corner.

However, at the end of this journey Michael would be waiting. He'd written her every week about the progress he was making with Sir Ceril Winthrop's company: the delays, his fears, the grand opportunities. What was it he expected of her? Would he still feel as close in spirit as they had this past spring? Why had he sent for her at this moment in time?

She grabbed Sarah as the train lurched and slowed down. Impatient, she got to her knees on the seat, placed a hand on her hat and leaned out the window to look. Blinking though the onslaught of smoke and dust, she saw the river approach out of agricultural fields. A single boat sailed upstream. Small buildings and villages appeared.

A hand pulled at her backside, hauling her into the cabin. "Miss Victoria, what do you think you're doing? Have a care; you are risking your life when you put your head out of the window. If you are not concerned for your own sake would you at least consider the consequences for me?" Sarah puffed herself up, spitting out the words.

Victoria had a grin ear-to-ear. "It's the Nile. Look. Isn't it wonderful?"

Sarah leaned closely into her shoulder as they both watched a large section of the ancient river drop into view. They smiled at one another and hugged as they marveled at their first sight of the river's waters.

The young woman was giddy now, not tired any longer. "I can't believe we're almost here."

"And look up ahead, that must be Cairo." Sarah pointed at the buildings fast approaching alongside the tracks.

"Will we travel to Sir Winthrop's company first or do we have time to see any of the sights?"

Sarah gave her a funny look. "Miss Victoria, must I remind you of our status. We're not here as tourists. We're in the employee of Sir Ceril Winthrop now and sightseeing will have to done if and when we have time of our own. I fully expect a carriage waiting at the station when we arrive."

"Oh, I had not realized that you had notified them of our arrival." The excitement of the new fled her shoulders and they drooped.

"This morning from Alexandria after we docked. I've sent a telegram." Sarah McAuley had reverted to her role of efficient Companion and chaperone, the brief moment of informal intimacy had past. Sarah saw the sudden lull in her spirits and nudged her with an elbow. "Perhaps young Mister Berringer will be there to greet you, Miss Victoria?"

She smiled quickly and looked out the window as the center of town near Opera Square slid into view. She knew that Sarah was attempting to lift her spirits, but a mention of Michael wasn't necessarily the best medicine. There were so many unanswered questions about their betrothal. If you are getting married, you can only do it for one of two reasons, her mother had always told her: financial security or…the other she could not remember.

However, she loved Michael or, at least, felt she did. With so little knowledge of what love felt like, how was one to know when confronted with it? He was financially secure with a respected profession, a substantial income and good prospects from his family's business concerns. He treated her with the utmost respect and care. Forever the gentleman, he still found time to tell her how he felt about issues and didn't mind listening to her opinions from time to time when he told her about world events. If that wasn't behavior enabling a marriage, then she didn't know what was.

She'd missed their carriage rides through the park and walks around Cambridge the past six months. She'd attended concerts and lectures in the stead of his company to fend off loneliness. Was it possible that they could begin where they'd left off and in such an odd place?

At the train station, Sarah went about the business of arranging for two porters, at least it seemed like they worked for the railway company, to fetch their baggage off the roof and stack it near the entrance.

It was sheer misery waiting. If could be, it was even hotter inside the building than out. Sarah returned from her endeavors and marched right past her.

"Where are you going? Is the carriage here?" She waved, but Sarah strode on.

"I'm going to check the street. The coachmen have not arrived nor or there any messages." With a turn of her heel, she disappeared around the corner.

Victoria could feel sweat trickling down her back. In front of the pile of trunks and bags, she paced for a bit, trying to start a breeze, but succeeded in only making herself hotter. She couldn't stand it any longer and unbuttoned her jacket, throwing it on top of the pile. This helped a little, but it was still very hot and with no breeze at all… Where was Sarah? She unbuttoned her cuffs and collar, then closed her eyes as she fanned herself with her hat.

"Goodness, I wasn't gone that long was I?"

Victoria looked up at Sarah. A large, older swarthy man stood beside her in British khakis.

"Oh, I didn't hear you return." Victoria slid off the trunk, donned her hat and started rolling her sleeves back down.

"Miss Victoria, cover yourself up this instant. There are many men about." Sarah looked at her sternly.

"But it's so hot." Victoria gave her a whining tone and gesture.

"That is no reason for you to start going native. There are standards an Englishwoman should maintain, no matter where in the world she is. We can wash at the hotel when we arrive. Until then, let's remember just how far from civilization we've ventured."

Sarah turned to her right and gestured at the large man. He had a large unkempt black mustache with flecks of gray and a line of hair between his eyebrows. His belly protruded beyond his belt buckle and his messy gray hair stuck to his face. He smiled in Victoria's direction, but stared keenly at her breasts. Victoria looked down. Her cotton blouse was stuck wetly to her skin at the bodice. The pink of her skin showed through. She quickly glanced back at the man's eyes, flustered, and grabbed her jacket, putting one arm into it. The man just smiled more broadly.

"Mr. Perridopolis, this is Miss Victoria Tilden. Miss Tilden, this is Mr. Perridopolis. He is Sir Ceril's foreman on the dig at, ah…dig at Giza. He has brought our transport."

Victoria finished pulling on her jacket as Mr. Perridopolis extended a huge hand in greeting.

"Please, Miss Tilden, call me Tony. Everyone does." He had a deep voice and a very harsh Greek accent.

Victoria started to reach out to the hand, but stopped when his smiling eyes dropped between her lapels, glancing furtively at her breasts again.

She closed her jacket with both hands and replied coldly. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Perridopolis, but as you are a - fellow employee, I will address you accordingly. Now, which way is our carriage?"

Sarah quickly turned, but Tony spoke first. "I'm sorry, I must apologize. Our accommodations here are not perhaps what you are used to, Miss Tilden. I have a wagon and three camels outside for us…"

"A camel? A camel for me to ride? How ridiculous! Mr. Perridopolis, I have not the faintest notion nor the desire to learn how one rides such a creature."

Sarah held up her hands and shrugged. "Nothing to be done, I'm afraid. I must confess for our friend here, Mr. Perridopolis, that the arrangements were apparently made last minute. Mr. Berringer was intending to come, but due to issues, he had to stay behind. That is correct, Mr. Perridopolis?"

"Yes, terribly sorry. The best I could find on such quick notice. Please, uh, ladies. This way." Tony bowed and gestured towards the door leading to the street.

Staring worriedly at Sarah, Victoria finally made her feet move past Tony and they headed outside.

Stepping outside, the sun baked into them instantly.

Victoria shielded her eyes with her an arm and held one hand up, covering the troubling light. "My God, is that the sun? I feel like I'm under a lens."

Sarah pushed at her. "Get over there under that market awning in the shade. That's all I need - you fainting on the street. Go on, now."

Tony yelled at a couple of men, who hurried inside and began streaming back and forth with their luggage, piling it into a huge wagon that stood beside the curb. As they got closer, Victoria realized its drab color was the result of a thick coating of dust that covered every visible part of the conveyance.

Victoria stood quietly in the shade trying to think of anything that would take her mind off the smell or the heat. She looked at the marketplace surrounding the small square in front of the railway station. Nearby, several covered carts were full of melons and freshly picked vegetables. She couldn't imagine that the area could be so conducive to such amazing agriculture.

Behind the cart was an old man sitting near the wall. Victoria walked to the cart and the old man looked up. Around his eyes crawled flies for which he showed great tolerance, shooing them away quietly. His gown ended abruptly below his knees, as he didn't have any legs. Victoria covered her startled expression and backed away.

She bumped into someone and instantly smelled a viciously sweet smell - French perfume. She turned to look. It was Tony, smiling down at her.

"Goodness gracious, Mr. Perridopolis. Did you see? That poor man …" Sarah couldn't stop herself from rudely pointing at the cart.

"Yes, he's been in that same spot for years. His family raises the melons." Tony waved. The old man smiled a toothless smile.

"We are ready. Would you like assistance?"

"Assistance? What do you mean assistance, Mr. Perridopolis?"

Tony backed away and held out his hand. In it were reins holding a camel.

Sarah was already on the back of one with a young man leading it in the street. Shocked and wide-eyed, Victoria looked at the big eyes of the camel standing over her. They were surrounded with the self-same flies of the old melon man. Just as she met its alien gaze, it honked and spit, splattering her skirt.

Victoria screamed. The smell of the spittle rankled her nose, breaking her composure. "My God. Do they always do that?"

"Not all the time. Can I give you help?"

"Hurry up, Miss Victoria. This is thrilling. Quite the view up here." Sarah rocked in the saddle behind the little man leading her camel, but smiled down at her all the same.

Victoria nodded at Tony.

The big Greek smacked the animal in the leg with a little stick, but the camel just barked and roared back at him. "Down, down!" Tony yanked at the reins, but still the camel refused to lower itself to the ground for mounting.

"It looks like the camel doesn't want to. Maybe I could just walk?" Victoria backed up closer to the market wall.

Frustrated, Tony approached Victoria. "There's no more time for this. We have to go. Now." Tony picked Victoria up off the ground and carried her to the camel.

"Okay. Well I… Wait! What are you…? Put me down!" Never had she been manhandled in such a manner. The situation was compounded by the fact that this man was not only a relative stranger, but also a foreigner from the lower serving classes. "Mr. Perridopolis! How dare you. Put me down this instant! I am warning you, I shall inform Sir Ceril of your unwarranted behavior."

He appeared to be oblivious to the impropriety of his actions and the possible consequences. "Quit struggling. This won't take a second." Tony pushed her up the side of the camel, but Victoria kept fighting him. She slipped once, but Tony caught her - one hand on her butt and the other across her breasts.

"Unhand me, you - you scoundrel. I shall inform Mr. Berringer!" Indignant and embarrassed, Victoria couldn't make any headway.

Tony smiled. "I told Mr. Berringer I would fetch you. So, what is it going to be? Do I have to carry you or do you ride the camel?"

Victoria gazed at him with quiet anger.

"Right, camel it is." He grabbed her hips and pushed her up onto the saddle. She slapped at his hands until she was in place and he let go.

Gesturing like a jockey, Tony admonished the young woman. "I would hold on tightly, Miss Tilden. Camels - not easy to ride."

Tony climbed up onto his camel and with the words, "Hut! Hut!" he was off down the road. The loping walk of her camel, nearly tumbled her off into a ditch when they first started, but after a street corner or two, she understood the motion, but had to pay attention at every step as it jostled her side-to-side.

Sarah rode alongside her. Two chatting, young Egyptian boys led their camels along, carefully avoiding any beggars and other street traffic.

"Miss Victoria, isn't this exciting? Romantic even, like something in a novel?" Sarah had a faraway look in her eyes like you might get when thinking of something pleasant.

Victoria couldn't possibly understand how this situation warranted such vision.

"We're riding camels in Cairo, making way to our lodgings near the sands of the great desert outside Giza. Absolutely incredible, wouldn't you say?"

Victoria couldn't. "Not the words I would choose, Sarah. At least, not at the moment. Did you see how that ruffian grabbed me?"

"Who?" Sarah still looked oblivious.

"Tony. Tony the Greek… Whatever he is."

"He's the foreman, dear, of the Egyptian laborers. And you were being difficult."

"I was being difficult? This is ridiculous. Who wouldn't be? A week on a ship. Four hours on a train barely holding together. It's a wonder we didn't suffocate. And now camels? In this blazing heat? Really, Miss McAuley, I think you are forgetting your station. How dare you address me as dear."

"Don't upset yourself, dear, you'll just make yourself hotter. Remember, beyond the point of positive action in difficult proceedings, you simply have to lie back and let them pass."

Victoria closed her eyes and sighed heavily. Sarah always quoted her father to her when she started getting upset. It had always had the annoying effect of calming her. The wagon filled with their luggage trundled along behind them, kicking up a wall of dust to passersby, although, they didn't seem to mind at all.

As they lazily rocked along on the back of the camels, a cool breeze kicked up from their right. Victoria wasn't sure at first, but after a time, she could see the banks of the Nile coming closer and closer between buildings. She turned to Sarah.

"How much longer to Sir Winthrop's?"

"Oh, let's see. Not long until we get to the crossing. "

"The crossing?"

"Yes, we transfer the camels to a ferry to take us across the river. Then, another camel ride to our accommodations. About two and a half hours, not long."

"Two and a…? Not long? On these things? I'll be a cripple! Oh, my God." Victoria wanted to cover her sour face, but couldn't release the steely hold she had on the saddle for fear of falling off.

"Watch your language, young lady. I've been lax on you up until now, but we're getting ready to be amongst civilized ladies and gentlemen quite soon, so, please watch that filthy mouth of yours." Indignant, Sarah's Welsh face screwed her eyebrows up to her hairline.

Having no further options, she tried to clear her mind and picture her family's home north of London, where her father managed his cattle: the rolling hills, the oak trees, her mother's garden… Victoria thought of Michael just then. With all of this to go through just to see him, he might be the least of her worries by the time they arrived.

* * *

"Is she here? Has she checked in?" Michael Berringer ran up the steps to the main lobby. He took off his Pith helmet and did what he could to dust his trousers and shirt.

"Slow down, Mr. Berringer. I'm certain they've not arrived as of yet. We still have time to get one of these lackeys to fetch us a round. What?" Sir Ceril rolled out of the saddle and dropped carefully to the ground. Heaven forbid that he might misstep in front of his lessers. He was out of breath by the time he reached the lobby doors. Michael approached, looking left and right.

"It would appear that you are correct, Sir Ceril. No one's registered." Michael continued to look for heads in the lobby.

"Come now, Berringer. You'll work yourself into a tizzy. You there, boy!" He gestured with his riding quirt at a hotel bellboy.

The youngster turned on his heel and approached. "Yes, sir. May I be of assist…"

"Of course you may, my good lad. Go tell Mr. Kranar at the bar to draw a pint for Mr. Berringer and myself and clear space at the bridge table."

"Yes sir. Will that be…?"

"Sir Ceril, I must protest. My fiancée will arrive at any moment." Berringer was indeed beside himself. The elderly gent steadied his young friend with a firm hand on his shoulder.

"Just a minute. Remember this. Your young lady has traveled a very long way and the last thing she will want is for her man to witness her state of affairs at the moment of her arrival." Sir Winthrop's steely blue eyes bored into the younger man's.

Berringer's shoulders relaxed. "And I'm sure she'll want to have time to make herself presentable, unpack and the like. You're right, as usual, Sir Ceril Winthrop."

Winthrop smiled and slapped him on the shoulder. "And will you stop calling me that. My name is Ceril. Every time I hear "Sir Ceril Winthrop," I expect my bullheaded old father to accost me. God rest his soul."

The boy stood at attention awaiting his orders. Winthrop stared at him for a moment.

"Get on to the bar, boy. Make it snappy and there'll be another tuppance for you."

"Yes sir. Right away!" The boy hurried out of the parlor.

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