“Are you still up? Paille? It must be close on three.” Alain Baundilet was sitting on a sack of grain toward the aft of the dhow, his features unreadable in the light of the waning moon.
Jean-Marc Paille started at the unexpected words, then did his best to appear calm. “I didn’t see you there,” he said.
“Small wonder,” Baundilet sighed. “There’s another sack, a little way along the deck, if you want it.” He took his huge linen handkerchief and swabbed at the back of his neck. “I can’t sleep when it’s like this, so hot and still.”
“It’s like suffocating,” said Jean-Marc, trying to sound more experienced than he was. He pulled out his watch and squinted at it in the sudden glare as he struck a lucifer and held it near the lace. “I make it two forty-nine.”
Baundilet chuckled. “Suffocating at two forty-nine. Or smothering. The sheets were more weight than I wanted to bear. The air is weight enough. Well, at least my wife isn’t with me. Can you imagine anyone lying close to you in this heat? It’s unthinkable.” He smoothed his lapels. “She’s one to droop in the heat, in any case. I’d never bring her here; it wouldn’t be right.”
“You left your wife at home?” Jean-Marc asked, horrified that anyone could do such a thing.
“Better than having her here.” He sensed the younger man’s disapproval and raised his hand placatingly. “Good God man, look around you. You see what the Moslems are. Look at this place. This is no country for a Frenchwoman. We have other things to occupy our thoughts. Wives get underfoot, Paille, as you’ll find out as soon as you acquire one.” He slapped at his neck suddenly. “Damned mosquito. Big as a beetle.” He stared at his fingers, but could not tell if he had killed the insect or not. “Lots of beetles in Egypt, and they’re not all scarabs, either. I found one digging, last month. Thing was as big as my hand, I swear it was. It gave off the most appalling stench.”
“Oh,” said Jean-Marc, the matter of wives forgotten; he was enchanted by what he heard, though he was not very fond of beetles; he was caught up in the thrill of his adventure.
“You’ve got to be careful digging,” Baundilet went on, enjoying the way Jean-Marc listened to him as if mesmerized. “It’s not just beetles you have to look out for. Scorpions, now they’re what you have to be careful of out here. They’re deadly, for one thing, and you don’t always see them. One of the natives took a bite from a scorpion not long ago; his suffering was dreadful. So take no chances. Be careful of scorpions. Snakes, too, though some of them aren’t very dangerous. Don’t take risks with them, either, whatever they’re like. Better safe than sorry, that’s my way.” He looked up at the sails. “The designs haven’t changed very much, you know. That lateen-like rig, and the long reach up the river. Going upstream, the wind’s almost at your back. Coming down, you must use the current and the boats are harder to control. This river shapes everything in Egypt. It always has. The ships of the Pharaohs wouldn’t look too out of place today, at least not the ordinary ships.”
“Have you found any references to ships in your studies?” Jean-Marc asked it eagerly, and cursed himself for sounding naïve. He changed his tone, making it more confident, or so he hoped. “Have you some proof of that? Have you found a ship from the time of the Pharaohs?”
“Some. You see them in the wall paintings. There’s been broken bits of gilded wood, and they might be ships, or catafalques or…who can tell?” Baundilet sighed and shook his head, folding his handkerchief with care before returning it to his pocket. “Can’t keep linen crisp here. It’s useless to try.” He squinted at the steersman, who was pointedly paying them no heed. “He speaks a little French, you know. Not a lot, but enough to get along. He listens to us. So think about what you say when you see these fellows about. Most of them are ignorant and only a little removed from savagery, but there are those who are crafty and capable, who seek to profit from us and the things we do. It would be unwise to forget that.”
“Thanks. It’s good to be warned,” said Jean-Marc, not knowing how he was to determine which of the Egyptians he encounterd actually spoke French and which did not.
“Oh,” said Baundilet as he got to his feet, stretching a bit. “One more thing. I suppose I ought to mention that we have another person joining our expedition, just recently arrived, in fact.” His smile—if it was a smile—was gone almost before it began. “There’s a woman: young, wealthy, one of those aristos who got through the Revolution and has been allowed to remain French. Her family probably bribed someone or made a pact with the Church. Whatever the case, she has lands and money and some sort of title. She has said she has a genuine antiquarian interest, and so far as I know, it’s true. She’s rented a villa near Thebes, and she’s paying handsomely for the privilege of digging in the sand with us. Her fees have assured us another six months here, no matter what the university may decide. I don’t suppose she’ll find it interesting for long, which is why I demanded so much money at the first, but while she’s along, we won’t be bored. We’ve an opportunity for variety, that’s my assumption.”
“A young woman? What would she be doing here?” Jean-Marc thought of his beloved Honorine and how he had felt about her accompanying him on this expedition, even if it had been possible. “Why did she come?”
Somewhere off near the shore there was a splash and a thrashing. Jean-Marc looked toward the sound, his eyes wide; Baundilet went on as if he had not heard.
“The guess within the group is that she’s run away from her husband. You know what the aristos are like. Why else would a woman set herself up in a villa outside Thebes? This is no place for someone like her. Moslem law won’t give her much more satisfaction than her husband, and if she imagines herself with a sheik for a lover, she’ll have a long time by herself. Foreign women don’t appeal to Moslems. Most of the Egyptians have wives to spare and take their outside pleasures with boys.”
Jean-Marc could think of nothing to say. He nodded several times to encourage Baundilet to go on.
Baundilet was growing more pleased with his own observations. He moved a little closer to Jean-Marc. “I’ve given her some thought these last several days. She might be one of those women who seeks her own sex for pleasure, of course, but Egyptian women are cloistered as nuns, most of them. If they are inverted, they express it behind walls, where other women are. Besides, they do things to them when they’re children—take out part of their female apparatus, the little nib, you know, and the inner lips; sometimes sew the mons veneris partly closed to ensure virginity—that don’t lend themselves to women’s perversions.” His laughter was derisive.
“Then what is this Frenchwoman doing?” asked Jean-Marc, trying to consider everything Baundilet had said so casually.
“She is amusing herself. What else can it be?” Baundilet announced this as if it were his most recent discovery. “Aristos are like that, even now. She wants something new in her life, something that she can boast of when she is in high company. She wants a reasonable excuse to keep away from her husband without compromising herself. A trip to Egypt is just the thing, now that we have a little clue to the meaning of all those endless inscriptions.” He took out his handkerchief again and swabbed his forehead. “In a month or so, she’ll know enough to make it possible to return to Paris with her pride intact, a trinket or two, her reputation as a scholar assured, and her husband will dare not question her about her time in Egypt.” He laughed, this time not at all nicely.
“What if she really does care? Couldn’t she have a serious interest in antiquarian scholarship?” asked Jean-Marc.
“She would not be a pretty creature with money if she were. Women who care about scholarship are crabbed and ugly, disappointed by family and without hope of a husband, and none of those words fit la Montalia. Strange name, isn’t it? From Savoie, or so I have been told, where they’re almost Italian, some of them. Dark hair, a neat figure, the most amazing eyes, almost like violets, and an elegant manner. A century ago they would have fought duels over her.” He laughed again. “Well, that is the woman who is joining us. You will want to make your bow to her soon, for I miss my guess if she is not one to stand by form.”
Jean-Marc nodded, his mind distracted. “I will call on her.”
“Fine; fine.” Baundilet started along the deck, then looked back at Jean-Marc. “Have you brought any shaving soap with you? Proper shaving soap? We’re almost out, you know.”
“Actually, no, I haven’t,” said Jean-Marc. “I didn’t realize we would need outside supplies of soap. But I believe I have three bars packed with my things. Will that do?” This shift took him by surprise and he answered with more candor than he had intended.
“Let me have one, will you? I want to freshen up in the morning, look my best. I’m afraid my jaw is about to turn to a complete rash with the muck I’ve been using. They don’t understand about proper soap here. Everything is oil and sandalwood.” He rubbed his hand over his chin to make the point, and then he added, “I hope you do well with Mademoiselle de Montalia. Someone ought to, and she does not seem to trust me, no matter how much money she has paid me.”
“Trust you?” Jean-Marc was genuinely surprised. “What is her explanation for that?”
“She doesn’t offer one. Women of her sort don’t.” He folded his arms and cleared his throat, preparing to make a crucial statement. “Someone is going to have to keep watch on her, but not too obviously. She isn’t one of these women who can be left alone. She’s too curious.”
Jean-Marc frowned. “But why is that a problem?”
Baundilet wagged his finger at Jean-Marc. “We do not need someone of her sort keeping track of what we do. It isn’t fitting. We’re reasonable men, not from her class. We don’t go on these expeditions solely for amusement.” He touched his watchfob. “It’s one thing to have her digging with us, so long as she doesn’t collapse in the sun, but it’s quite another if she starts interfering with our work.”
“Yes,” said Jean-Marc after a moment. “I see that.”
“Well, then, I suppose I can rely on you to keep me informed of everything she gets into.” This time his smile was wider, hungrier. “Mind you, there are a few things she might get into that would suit me very well.”
The implication was not lost on Jean-Marc, who tried to hide his astonishment with a wordly laugh. “Because you have left your wife at home, is that it?”
“Certainly in part,” said Baundilet, then concealed a yawn with his hand. “I’ve told you she’s an attractive woman. It is better than taking chances with whores, isn’t it?” He cleared his throat. “I think I’ll try to get some sleep. It won’t be easy, but…”
Jean-Marc rose at once. “I was thinking the same myself,” he told Baundilet. “It will take me a while to get used to this climate.”
“Yes; it’s hard for all of us at first,” said Baundilet. “Well, Paille, good-night, then.” He turned away with no more comment and made his way toward the narrow cabin door. There he paused, but whether it was to look at Jean-Marc or to cast a last glance at the steersman, it was impossible to tell.
After another half-hour of sitting on the deck watching the moon drop down the night and listening to the groan of the sails and lines, the occasional indefinable noises from the shore, and the endless slap of the river against the prow of the boat, Jean-Marc decided to renew his attempt at sleep. He returned to his cabin and made sure that the shutters were adjusted to let in what little breeze there was. As he undressed, he considered what Alain Baundilet had told him, and could not make up his mind if he thought the leader of the expedition was joking or not. Surely a man like Baundilet would not compromise his standing as an antiquarian by seducing a woman of wealth and position, married or not. He arrived at no satisfactory conclusion before sleep at last overcame him.
Well before ten, the morning was hot, the sun bright off the surface of the Nile as it burned along the sky. Unfamiliar birds coasted over the water, their cries like the sound of lambs calling to their mothers. Jean-Marc stood at the side of the dhow, his eyes shaded as he followed the progress of the birds, wishing he knew what they were. He felt a bit light-headed, as if he had drunk a tot too much brandy. The only excuse he could offer himself was fatigue, for he had not been able to sleep more than four hours; he did his best to concentrate on the progress of the dhow up-river.
“Liking what you see?” The speaker at his arm was Ursin Guibert, the expedition’s man-of-all-tasks who had accompanied Baundilet down-river.
“I don’t know yet,” Jean-Marc confessed. He was a trifle disoriented, and so did not wonder that Guibert should speak to him; ordinarily he would not converse so easily with a servant.
“It takes time,” said Guibert, who had come to Egypt as a sergeant in Napoleon’s army, remaining as a civilian guide when the troops left. Now, though his clothes were fairly European though years behind the fashion, he covered his head with a kind of turban and his face was as dark and weathered as that of the steersman. He was thirty-nine and looked sixty. “The first three years I was here, I thought I’d never know it, never feel a place for myself. I thought I only wanted to go back to France. But that changed.” He smoked a pipe, the long-stemmed sort made of clay. He filled it now, tamping the tobacco with care. “I’ve never learned to like these water pipes the natives smoke. I don’t like what they put in them much, either. I’ll take my intoxication from wine and brandy, thank you, and not from a handful of herbs.” He lit up and drew in the smoke. “There’s tobacco in the supplies. I made sure of that.”
Remembering what Baundilet said the night before, Jean-Marc asked, “What about shaving soap?”
“Alain is worried about that again, is he? Shaving soap!” Guibert chuckled through his clenched teeth, and the pipe quivered. “He is forever afraid that he will not be able to give himself a decent shave. I’ve never failed him, but he continues to fret. He must always have something to bother him.” This was more amusement than complaint, and he did not continue to comment on his employer. “Ah. Look.” He pointed across the river toward the western bank. “Look there. Shadufs, they’re called. They use them to irrigate the fields. The counterweights lift the waterbuckets, you see.”
“Yes,” said Jean-Marc, looking at the devices with fascination. “How ingenious.”
“Baundilet thinks the ancients used something like them, as well. He’s found a wall painting that shows something like them, in any case. He’ll be preparing drawings of it for presentation, along with sketches of the shadufs we see now, to make his point. He’s never been one to overlook an advantage. Very ambitious is our Alain. He’s got his sights set high.” Guibert rested one hand on the rail, swinging around to watch the wake of the dhow. “And what about you, Paille? What are you looking for in Egypt?”
“Why, antiquities,” said Jean-Marc, too promptly.
“Of course,” Guibert said, then added, “But what besides? There must be something more. If all you wanted was antiquities, you could arrange to purchase them in Paris.”
“Oh, no,” Jean-Marc protested. “No, buying them is nothing. Anyone with money—he said the word bitterly, for he had so little of it—“can purchase anything if he has patience and determination. It means nothing to buy antiquities. What is important is to discover them, to find what has not been found before, and to bring it to the attention of the world.”
“Ah,” said Guibert with a single nod. “Fame. It is fame you want. Well, there is fame to be had here, of a sort, that’s true enough.” He laughed. “But it is not for everyone, is it?”
Jean-Marc flushed, and tried to make himself believe it was the heat and not his vanity that caused it. “Fame is trivial,” he said, wishing he meant it. “The discoveries are important, the learning. These ancient people have much to tell us. To be able to come here when so much is new, well, it is an opportunity few teachers have. It must be an honor to any scholar to add to the knowledge of the world.”
“And his own reputation, incidentally,” said Guibert with a smile and a nod. “You need not be ashamed of what you seek. If you are willing to come this far and to labor like the meanest peasant under the most grueling conditions, you will earn your fame, your reputation. I have no reason to cavil with you for what you want.” He took his pipe from his mouth, seeing the hard set to Jean-Marc’s mouth. His manner grew more amiable. “Best to stop this before it gets started. I have nothing against you, Paille, or your goals. We will be part of the same expedition for quite a while, you and I. In places as isolated as Thebes, we cannot afford rancor. It’s not wise to take what I say now in offense, for it will only lead to problems between us, which neither of us wants. Do we?” He held out his gnarled hand. “It’s the East, don’t you see? It changes you if you stay here.”
Jean-Marc took Guibert’s hand reluctantly. “I’m sorry if I misunderstood you. I hope we will work well together.”
“Very tactful,” approved Guibert. He remained silent for a few minutes, then remarked, “You’ll want to get your hat. If you stand in the hot sun without something on your head, your brains will broil.” With that warning, he strolled away down the deck, humming to himself.
As he watched Ursin Guibert move away, Jean-Marc attempted to discover for himself what their exchange—for he could hardly call it a conversation—had been about. Was Guibert putting him on warning? Of what? Why? Try as he would, Jean-Marc could make no sense of it. He ambled toward the prow of the boat, doing his best to appear nonchalant. There was so much new to him that he could not quite keep from staring. At last he came to a halt and stood watching the curl of the water where the boat parted the river.
“Finding anything?” Alain Baundilet asked as he came up behind Jean-Marc.
Jean-Marc shook his head as he glanced over his shoulder, then shrugged. “Nothing. I think the heat is making me a bit silly.”
“It can do that,” said Baundilet with scant interest. Seeing that Jean-Marc was bareheaded, he added, “Just guard against it.” He indicated the sun. “Ursin told you about hats, didn’t he?”
“He said something, yes,” was Jean-Marc cautious answer.
“Well,” Baundilet said, indicating his own hat, “you’d do well to put yours on. The day isn’t going to get any cooler until several hours after sundown.” His smile was so facile that it had almost no reality at all. “I don’t want you left prostrate by the heat.”
“I’m hardy enough,” said Jean-Marc, adding indignantly, “Why is it that everyone thinks all Europeans cannot endure the desert?”
“Because most can’t,” Baundilet said curtly. “I certainly wouldn’t come out without this.” He tapped the brim. “Go on. Get your hat. Then join me in my cabin and I’ll show you what we’ve been working on. That’ll give you a notion of what we’re trying to do.” He clapped Jean-Marc on the shoulder, adopting an attitude of good fellowship. “It’s easy to feel lost when you first arrive in Egypt. It’s an overwhelming place. But if you let me have a little of your time, we can avoid the worst of that, I hope. Once you’re acquainted with the project, you’ll settle in well.”
“Of course,” said Jean-Marc at once. He nodded to Baundilet. “You’re right about the hat. I suppose I’ve been stubborn.”
“Not difficult when you’re first here. It’s strange to us, and we don’t want to give up the ways we know,” Baundilet said with greater geniality. “I remember how I clung to the best French ways when I first arrived here. I thought I was being sensible; I supposed it was correct, to insist that Egypt be Paris, or at least Marseilles.”
Jean-Marc’s laughter was as polite as it was expected. “I’ll try to accustom myself to Egypt.”
“Good,” Baundilet approved. “No sense fighting the place.” He indicated the shore where almost a dozen cattle stood half-submerged at the edge of the river, guarded by two scrawny under-sized boys. “Even the people here now, they don’t quite belong. No one can. It’s older than any of us.”
“It’s older than any of us,” Jean-Marc repeated under his breath as he followed Baundilet down the deck, wondering for the first time at his audacity at coming here.
* * *
Text of a letter from the Coptic monk Erai Gurzin at Edfu in Upper Egypt to le Comte de Saint-Germain in Rotterdam.
* * *
To the Teacher of the Great Art, Saint-Germain, greetings in the Name of God and the Eucharist;
* * *
Your letter reached me at last, taking longer than might be expected because the first messenger went to the First Cataract at Aswan, thinking to find the monastery there. It is, as it has been since its founding sixteen hundred years ago, near the ancient temples of Rameses II. The messenger was three weeks late making the delivery because of this misunderstanding.
We have done as you requested, and marked the grave of Niklos Aulirios with a stone that is not Christian. The inscription you provided, in Greek, has been carved into it. The monks here were not wholly pleased, but they accept that Aulirios was a good man, living a Christian life without benefit of baptism, and so they agreed at last to let him lie at the entrance to the monastery garden, near the wall. It may be that his death played some part in their decision, for he would not have faced that firing squad if he had not stopped those French soldiers from destroying those ancient inscriptions. Most of the monks believe that he did a right thing in protecting the inscriptions, though they were from the time of Rameses II and not Holy Writ. We pray for the repose of his soul, as well.
I have obtained permission to travel north to Thebes, and I will endeavor once I am there to make contact with this Madelaine de Montalia who is there to discover what she can about the Egyptians of the Pharaohs. Your description of her is intriguing; I have not met many European women, and those I have were not of her sort, or so I suppose from what you tell me. I find it difficult to believe that she is as serious in her scholarship as you claim, but I have never known you to err in your judgment. If this woman is of your blood and has your capacity for knowledge, I ought not hold her in suspicion because she is French and young.
There have been an increasing number of Europeans coming to see the ancient monuments here. Last winter there were over thirty of them at Philae, all rapt at what they saw, though they had no understanding of it. I was hired by one party because of my knowledge of French and English, which money I have given to my monastery. I doubt they realized I am a Christian, for the faith of Coptics is not expressed in ways familiar to them. These Europeans were amazed at everything they saw, but aside from their own outrageous speculations, had no real desire to know anything of the Egyptians who built Philae, or any of the rest. I suppose we must expect more visitors, and accept that most of them do not wish to know more than that the language is strange and the people who made these things are gone.
From the tone of your letter, I dare to hope that your Madeleine de Montalia is not the same as these. Assuming she is willing to accept me as her tutor, there is a great deal I can impart to her. As you know, for you have greater knowledge than I, she can discover much if she is able to see beyond her own country and language into the hearts of strangers. Her dedication to the study of vanished peoples, you tell me, is deeply felt. That would be a welcome change from showing pylons to Europeans who wish only to stare. How worthwhile it may be, if she is half the scholar you describe. It would please me to be able to do this, for it might in part repay all that you have been willing to teach me, and for which I pray for your benefit every morning. God will show favor to those who guide His servants, and you have opened the door for me as no other teacher but God’s Word has done.
I will supply you with reports on the progress of this Madelaine de Montalia You have my word before the altar that I will not let her being young and French blind me to her abilities. I vow that if it is my power to prevent it, no harm will come to her.
In the Name of God,
Erai Gurzin, monk
According to the European calendar, June 29th, 1825
Monastery of Saint Pontius Pilate, Edfu
Copyright © 1990 by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro