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The Pharaoh's Secret (NUMA Files 13) Clive Cussler 2022/7/22 13:55:16

Etienne continued looking through the drawer and then pulled out a binder. Inside was a stack of old papers.

“This is it,” he said.

He cleared a space on

the desk as Kurt righted a floor lamp and turned it on. The entire group pressed together, leaning over the desk, looking at a handwritten letter. Of all people, the letter had been penned by the disgraced Admiral Villeneuve.

“‘My esteemed friend Emile,’” Etienne said, translating for the group. “‘It was with great pleasure that I received your latest correspondence. After the disgrace at Trafalgar and my time in the care of the British, I never dreamed to have another chance at reclaiming my honor.’”

“Trafalgar?” Renata asked.

Kurt explained. “In addition to being at Aboukir Bay, Villeneuve was in charge of the French fleet during the Battle of Trafalgar, where Nelson defeated the combined French and Spanish armadas, effectively showing the world that England would never be taken and ending any hope Napoleon had of invading.”

Renata looked suitably impressed. “If I was Villeneuve, I might have stopped picking fights with the British in general and with Nelson in particular.”

Joe laughed. “He must have hated Nelson by that time.”

“Actually, he attended Nelson’s funeral while being held captive in England,” Etienne said.

“Probably just to make sure he was dead,” Renata suggested.

Etienne went back to the letter, running his finger beneath the text and continuing the translation. “‘You often mentioned that I saved your life by taking you aboard my ship and escaping from the mouth of the Nile. I do not overstate the truth when I say that you’ve returned the favor. With this breakthrough, I can go to Napoleon once more. I’ve been warned by friends that he wishes me dead, but when I bring him this weapon of weapons—this Mist of Death—he will kiss me on both cheeks and reward me, as I shall you. It is of utmost importance that this secret remain ours alone, but I promise on my honor that you shall gain your due as savant and as a hero of both the Revolution and the Empire. I have in my possession the rendering and partial conversion you’ve made. Please finish up and send me what you have on the Angel’s Breath that we may be safe as our enemies fall. I hope to meet the Emperor on favorable terms in the spring. Debt for debt. Twenty-nine Thermidor, Year XIII. Pierre-Charles Villeneuve.’”

“Conversion is another word for translation,” Renata noted.

“When did this all take place?” Kurt asked.

Renata took a stab at it, struggling to recall the strange arrangement of Napoleon’s Calendar of the Republic, which replaced the Gregorian calendar for a decade of his rule. “Twenty-nine Thermidor in year nine of the Republic was . . .”

Etienne beat her to it. “August seventeenth,” he said. “The year was 1805.”

“That’s a full decade before the groundbreaking work on the Rosetta stone,” Kurt said.

“It’s incredible,” Joe added. “And by that I mean some people might presume it’s not credible.”

“If we still had Emile’s diary, it could be proved,” Etienne said. “There were drawings of hieroglyphs inside, along with suggested translations. Even a short dictionary, of sorts. The time frame never dawned on me.”

Kurt considered it a good possibility. History was constantly being written and rewritten. Once upon a time, it was gospel that Columbus had discovered the Americas. Now even schoolchildren were taught that the Vikings, and possibly others, had beat him to it.

“So how come he never got credit for it?” Renata asked.

“Sounds like Villeneuve was insisting it remain a state secret,” Kurt said. “If it was connected to finding some weapon, the last thing any of them would want was the truth leaking out.”

“Especially considering that the British were in control of Egypt then and were already suspicious of Emile’s friendship with a French admiral,” Etienne added. “In fact . . .” He began leafing through other letters and bits of correspondence. “It’s here somewhere,” he said.

“This . . .” he said, pulling out another preserved sheet of paper. “This is a denial of travel presented to Emile by the British. In early 1805, he requested permission to return to Egypt and resume his studies. The territorial governor of Malta approved it, but it was rejected by the British Admiralty and he was denied passage to Egypt.”

Kurt took a look at the letter, written on official letterhead. “‘We cannot guarantee your safety to the interior of Egypt at this time,’” he read. “Where was he asking to go?”

“I don’t know,” Etienne said.

Renata sighed. “Too bad. That might have helped.”

“Did he ever try again?” Kurt asked.

“No. Sadly, he never got the chance. Both he and Villeneuve died a short time later.”