Lord Carnavon

Lord Carnavon is also a pioneer of the automobile.  He drives very fast on straight roads – at least he does from the day that cars allow him to drive relatively fast – and he says:

“In a car, it is only the crossroads that are dangerous.  And I never speed at crossroads.”

Lord Carnavon does not forsee that an accident can occur on a perfectly straight road, if the road’s surface is in bad condition.  And, one day in the Summer of 1902, while driving in the Schwalbach Forest, in South Germany, he notices, twenty metres in front of him, a trench dug in the middle of the road by workmen who are installing water pipes.  He brakes desperately…  too late.  At the last moment, Carnavon aims his car along the side of the road, but a wheel strikes a big stone.  The car turns over on the driver, while Carnavon’s valet, Edward Trotman, who has followed him everywhere for the last twenty-eight years, is thrown from the car, landing in the grass, ten metres away.  Slightly dazed, but otherwise unharmed, Trotman rises and sees His Lordship trapped under the car.  Carnavon is not moving.  He isn’t even moaning.  Panicked, the valet runs to some workmen in a field, fifty metres away.  One of them is holding a bucket of water.  Without taking the time to explain, Trotman grabs the bucket and runs towards the car, chased by two workmen, crying out “stop thief!”.  He empties the whole bucket over His Lordship’s face.  Immediately, His Lordship starts to move, he starts breathing, his heart starts to beat again.

The “ressuscitated” Earl is in a very bad way.  Apart from cuts and bruises all over his body, he has a broken jaw and a broken wrist;  his face is so swollen that it no longer looks human – his palate is also broken – and he’s blind…  He regains consciousness long enough to ask:

“Have I killed someone?”

He is reassured on that point, and again passes out.

Until the end of his life, he will suffer from health problems, having one operation after another.  He very quickly recovers his sight, but he breathes with difficulty, his organism is not coping.  His doctor tells him that he will have to be very careful.  In the state in which he finds himself, the slightest bronchitis could kill him.  He thinks that it would be imprudent to spend Winter in England…

Any normal Englishman would have taken the train for the Cote d’Azur, and settled down in the cosy comfort of a luxury hotel, in Nice or Monte Carlo.  Not Lord Carnavon.  He chooses Egypt.  And more precisely, the Valley of the Kings.  At the beginning of 1903, he visits the sites where egyptologists have been digging for nearly a century, looking for the fantastic civilisation of the pharaohs.

***

Real passion is needed to launch into this adventure for, at the epoch when Lord Carnavon erupts (and the word is not too strong) into the Valley of the Kings, most of the egyptologists, are packing, or are about to pack their bags.  It is thought that the Nile valley has now delivered all its secrets.  Since the Assistant Director of the Cairo Museum, Emile Brugsch, penetrated the great necropolis of Deir el-Bahri, in 1881, everything has been searched.  One false note spoils Emile Brugsch’s joy.  At Luqsor, as he is about to embark on the boat to take his treasures to Cairo, a cohort of poorly dressed Arab women, wives of fellahs, comes towards him.  The women tear their clothes and untie their hair like antique mourners.  Some are hurling, others moaning.  They follow Brugsch all the way to his boat, aggravating him with their lamentations, where the word “curse” is continually repeated.  Brugsch is greatly troubled by it.  Not that he believes in any spells or a “vengeance” of the dead.  Rather, he was asking himself if certain fellahs, who consider the tombs and the mummies inside them with superstitious fear, are not going to think themselves invested with some sort of divine mission, and try to punish those who had profaned them…  However, nothing happens, nothing more than the lamentations of the mourning women;  Brugsch and his precious cargo arrive in Cairo with no problems.

As far as profanation goes, the Western archaeologists are rather late.  For centuries, millenia in fact, the pillage of tombs is a flourishing local industry.  Eleven hundred years before the present era, the empire of the pharaohs had temporarily collapsed into anarchy.  Bands of pillagers roamed the Nile valley looking for food, for famines were frequent, but also any gold or jewels they could find.  At different times, several of these bands forced entry into tombs.  One thousand years before the present era, under the XXIth Dynasty of priest-kings who were contemporaries of David and Solomon, there already remained very little of the funeral treasures of the great pharaohs.  Not content with swiping precious objects, the thieves did not hesitate to open or break sarcophages, to strip the mummies of their bandelettes, and to break them to steal the jewellery they were wearing.  The kings sometimes tried to limit the damage by walling up the pillaged tombs, or even by moving the most isolated and most frequently raided ones.

Fear of the “curse” of the pharaohs is certainly less well-known one thousand years before the present era than in the middle of this era’s XXth Century.  It apparently doesn’t bother the “primitive” Egyptians, or their descendants:  in 1900, an armed band knocks out the guards of Amenophis II’s tomb, near Thebes, and penetrates the sanctuary.  The pharaoh’s mummy is pulled from its sarcophage, the bandelettes are ripped off, all for nothing, for the gold and jewels have been gone for ages.  But the last remaining pieces of art near Amenophis II disappear.

A young archaeologist of twenty-five, Inspector of Antiques in the region of Thebes, is called to evaluate the damage.  His name is Howard Carter, and he will soon meet Lord Carnavon.

***

To be continued.

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