An hour later the entire party was strolling up the uneven path towards the Auberge. David had at first refused to accompany them.
“They are tedious and uninteresting,” he said irritably. “They spend all their time falling out of windows and trees. In any case, I have no time. I need to finish that article for JEA.”
“Your articles are always late,” Augusta pointed out. “Anyhow, I finished it for you this morning.”
“What? You finished –!” shouted David, jumping up and making for the door. Bellows reverberated round the house as he snatched up his defaced property, his lunch lying forgotten between Augusta and Sphinx.
He was still growling now as they swung along the path, some of the younger ones lifting their voices in one of the latest pop songs. Augusta, apparently unaware of his wrath, was at the head of the group, chatting with Charlie.
“So, what’s the big secret?” she said eagerly. “I love discovering new things.”
“Well, if I tell you, you won’t be able to discover it, will you?” Charlie grinned at her. Phoebe, on her other side, smiled.
“You should be careful about what you tell Mum about secrets. Last time Dad told her he had one, she ended up locked in a filthy tomb for about six hours. With mummy.”
“With – but whose?” Charlie looked at Augusta, slightly confused.
“She meant the other sort of mummy,” said Augusta. “The dead sort.”
“Egyptian mummies,” said Phoebe quickly.
“Oh, I see!” Charlie laughed, the colour returning to her pale cheeks. “For a moment I couldn’t imagine what you meant.”
“I’m not surprised.” Phoebe eyed her mother severely. “I sometimes wonder whether you’ve got any common sense, Mum. I don’t suppose she thought of mentioning that we’re Egyptologists, Mrs Maynard. You see, Dad told her he’d found a mummy, but kept the location a surprise. Which Mum, obviously, regarded as a challenge, so she went off and found it. And got shut in with it. For six hours.”
Charlie was laughing helplessly.
“No, she didn’t tell us,” she said. “Are you really – all of you?”
“Our family have been Egyptologists for generations,” said Phoebe, with a wry smile. “I don’t know whether you’ve heard of Professor Radcliffe Emerson, but he was my great-grandfather. The younger twins, John and Lottie, aren’t really into archaeology, but the rest of us – well, I can’t imagine life without it.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Egyptian history,” Charlie said. “My husband’s a politician, and I’ve found I rather enjoy that world myself, though I must admit that I was afraid I’d never fit into it.”
With her small, pointed face, masses of blonde curls and casual dress, Phoebe could well imagine her having some difficulty. But then, charm could cover a multitude of deficiencies, and if there was one quality Charlie possessed in abundance it was charm.
“I’m afraid our involvement in politics was limited to Egyptian nationalism – all a bit before my time, though. We keep well out of all that now, though Mum – oh, is this it?” she said, quickly changing the subject as Augusta frowned.
“Here we are,” said Millie, who had been just behind them with Amy, both of them making dogged conversation, and John, who had ignored most of their attempts to draw him in. Sphinx had succumbed easily to the blandishments of Poppy and piggybacked her most of the way up to the Auberge.
Ricky and Randa were frankly enchanted by the echoes and would have spent the entire afternoon standing at the stout fence screaming at the mountain wall. Even Constance Rose forgot her dignity as an acolyte of Bat and flushed pink with pleasure as the Egyptian invocation she chanted chimed back at her, sounding strange and unearthly.
“Not bad,” said Phoebe kindly. “There are some pretty good echoes in some of the wadis in Egypt, too.” She caught Millie and John glancing at one another, and raised her eyebrows in surprise. Still, she didn’t think it would be long before they came under Mum’s spell – there weren’t many people who failed to be fascinated by Augusta, and then, she hoped, they would become reconciled to the whole family. And if not, well, there would probably be a few other people up here. That Hilda woman, for example, had looked rather interesting.
Charles came out of the inn carrying a large number of glasses of lemonade on an enormous tray.
“Come on, people,” he said. “Help yourselves and find a pew.”
Phoebe, Amy and Sphinx took their glasses with polite thanks. David drank his in one enormous gulp, then slammed the glass down on the table.
“Muck!” he said. “If this is the secret of this bloo –” He caught his wife’s eye and changed tack mid-word. “Blooming – bah.” He bared his teeth at Charles in what he evidently believed to be a polite smile. “Delightful beverage. However, I feel the need of something a little stronger this afternoon.” He strode off into the inn.
“So,” said Phoebe, who, unlike the rest of her family, was aware that the Maynards found this behaviour a trifle unusual. “The echoes are the – um – Secret of the Auberge, are they?”
“Yes,” piped up Poppy, who was sitting so close to Sphinx that she was almost in his lap. She looked up at him. “Do you like them? I think they’re lovely.”
“They are excellent echoes,” said Sphinx. “And a very good secret.”
He looked round, trying to identify the source of a peculiar creaking sound in the vicinity. They all stared at the pair of toothless, sunburnt old men who were sitting at the next table, smoking vigorously and emitting gusts of wheezing laughter.