Scarab, lady, ten piasters, very cheap, lucky scarab, come from king’s tomb, very old, very cheap! Scarab, lady, lucky scarab…Six piasters?”
The price always comes down If the customer doesn’t respond. I kept right on walking, ignoring the pedlar who trotted alongside me, his grubby black-and-white striped robe flapping around his bare heels. It was hard to ignore the scarab, since this very small businessman was waving it right under my nose. But I managed not to look at it. I didn’t have to look at it. I knew it wasn’t worth six piasters, or even six cents. It didn’t come from a king’s tomb, it wasn’t lucky (what is?), and it wasn’t very old. Probably about twenty-four hours old.
“Wait a minute, Althee-a. You’re going too fast again. And I wanna look at this stuff.”
That awful whine again! For five long days I had been listening to Dee complain. From Idlewild to Orly, through the salons of half the famous couturiers of Paris, from Orly to Fiumicino, through more salons, from Fiumicino to Cairo, from Cairo to Luxor. From there to eternity, it seemed.
I glanced at the girl, and the sight of her did nothing to relieve my annoyance. She was a spoiled mess, from her bleached hair, now wilting into wisps under the impact of Upper Egyptian heat, to her padded figure crammed into clothing that was too new, too expensive, and too tight. There was a jarring note in the general picture of uncouth youth—the unwieldly plaster cast and the crutches.
I stopped walking, feeling like a heel—and resenting the poor little wretch even more because she made me feel like a heel.
“Sorry, Dee. I was just…I’m sorry. Where’s your father? Isn’t he meeting us?”
Dee shrugged. I gathered that she meant the gesture as a negative reply to my question, but it was hardly necessary. The air-terminal building was emptying rapidly as our fellow passengers from the CairoLuxor plane headed for waiting taxis and buses. There was no one present who corresponded to the picture I had formed of Dee’s father—a man of middle age, since Dee admitted to seventeen years, a wealthy man, since he could afford to indulge his daughter in Parisian frocks and a companion-me—to nurse the cast and crutches from New York to Egypt. There was nobody there but just us tourists and the horde of insatiable pedlars, swarming like big black-and-white flies over every chunk of human flesh. An unattractive simile, I had to admit. But I was not in an attractive mood. Ever since we touched down on Egyptian soil my insides had been feeling faintly queasy, and the feeling got worse the farther south we came.
I turned back to Dee after my survey of the building to find that her open interest had attracted a particularly insistent crowd of the black-and-white robes.
“Scarab, lady, five piasters! Come from king’s tomb, bring much luck…”
Our own original pedlar had managed to press his wares into Dee’s hands. That, as all good pedlars know, is half the battle. Dee grinned, and held the scarab out for my inspection. It was the usual oval, about an inch and a half long. The dull blue-green surface was roughly cut into the stylised beetle shape, and the underside had some crude scratches which were meant to be hieroglyphic writing.
“It’s a fake,” I said-too loudly, too emphatically. With the word the sensation of queasy discomfort that had haunted me coalesced into a stab of almost physical pain.
Surprised by my near-shout, Dee stared at me.
“What’s the matter? You look absolutely green. Sun got you already?”
“I guess so…Let’s find a taxi before they’re all taken. Your father must be meeting us at the hotel.”
“Okay, okay.” She was good-natured, I had to admit that. She handed the scarab back to its reluctant owner and batted her artificial lashes at him. “Sorry, buster. No sale.”
“Yes, yes, you buy!” The pedlar’s voice rose to a heartrending shriek. “Four piasters only! Lady, you buy, you say you buy-”
I wasn’t thinking. I cut him short with one curt Arabic phrase. It was almost worth the blunder to hear his outraged shriek fade into a gurgle of surprise. Almost.
“Hotel Winter Palace,” I told the taxi driver, and busied myself easing Dee and her cast into the cab. Mentally I was cursing myself, in both English and Arabic. I hadn’t been in Luxor for five minutes and already I had made my first mistake. After all the effort I had gone through to turn myself into just another tourist…
As the taxi bumped off down the road in a cloud of dust, I took out my compact. My nose actually did need powdering, but that wasn’t what worried me. I needed to reassure myself that my new face looked as different as I meant it to.
It wasn’t a disguise—nothing so crude as that. It was protective colouring, a frightened animal’s defence against predatory enemies. Nature helps the hunted animals, but I had to help myself. I had widened my mouth with lipstick, turned my hazel eyes brown through a careful selection of eye makeup. The most effective change of coloration was the one I had applied to my hair. I couldn’t do much about the style; my hair is too thick and curly for any but the simplest of short cuts. But I had been a brunette for twenty-five years, and the new ash-blonde curls looked startling.
Forty dollars worth of peroxide, a new lipstick, and a kit labelled “Eye Magic”—that was the new Althea Tomlinson. Probably even that small effort had been unnecessary. After all, none of them had seen me for ten years. I was, as they used to say, “slow to develop.” At fifteen my figure had been a neat, uncomplicated 30-30-30; Jake used to say I made my dresses by fitting them around a tree trunk. They wouldn’t recognise the shapeless, sloppily dressed tomboy in the blonde young woman wearing a well-tailored blue linen suit which displayed a well-tailored figure.
Not that I was vain about my figure. It was just my bread and butter—with no jam on the bread. Modelling sounds like a glamorous occupation, but modelling bathing suits and sweaters for a mail-order catalogue has all the giddy fascination of digging potatoes. It doesn’t pay all that well, either—especially when every extra cent is popped into a little envelope marked “vacation.” Vacation? Rest, relaxation, change of scene…Admittedly I had indulged in a bit of irony when I labelled that envelope.
My thoughts were falling back into the old familiar rut. In an effort to distract them I glanced at Dee, but she seemed to have no need of my ministrations. She was staring out the window, apparently fascinated by the view. The airfield lies in the desert, away from the modern village of Luxor, but our driver was pushing his rattling machine to its limit—a mad, breathtaking thirty-five miles an hour. Over that excuse for a road it felt like sixty. With clashing gears and flapping fenders we roared towards the town, which is right on the Nile, in the middle of the fertile regions which border the river on either bank. Ahead I could see the vivid greens of the fields and the graceful shapes of date palms. The colours were almost dazzling in their intensity after the sun-bleached rock of the desert. Above it all stretched the illimitable sky of Upper Egypt, of a blue so pure and intense that it suggests a rare type of Chinese pottery.
I was chagrined to realise that my eyes were blurred, and not by the dust which surrounded our progress. Egypt is not a kindly land. The lush green fields are only thin strips masking the merciless desolation of the desert. But there was something in the clear air and the ruthless sunlight—something that got into one’s blood like malaria, a nostalgia no medicine could cure.
“…fakes?” said Dee.
I jerked as if she had slapped me.
“Were all those things the men were selling fakes?” she repeated, sublimely suppressing syntax.
There was the cure for my relapse into sentimentality. One key word, functional, operative.
“Fakes,” I said, trying it out. “Yes. They were all fakes. Most of the fellahin make them. Jolly little home industries. Scarabs, ushabti—those are the statuettes. All fakes, forgeries, imitations … ”
The taxi swung in a wide exuberant curve, cutting off my list of synonyms and throwing Dee against me. She straightened up with a muttered word that lifted my eyebrows. Modern teenagers really got a liberal education.
At first 1 didn’t recognise the hotel. That was good; too many fond old memories had hit me in the last half hour. Since my time the management had added a handsome new section, and it was at the plate-glass doors of this part of the hotel that the taxi stopped. I paid the driver what he asked, which was stupid; everyone in Luxor expects, and enjoys, a good loud argument over prices. But I was afraid that if I started haggling I might forget myself again. A tourist who speaks fluent gutter Arabic is worth mentioning during the evening gossip session. The grapevine works quickly in small towns all over the world.
I hadn’t realised how hot I was until the air conditioning in the lobby hit me; I felt my whole body sag with sheer delight. It evidently affected Dee the same way, for she dropped heavily into the nearest chair and closed her eyes.
“I’m absolutely dead,” she announced flatly. “See about things, will you? Dad must be around somewhere.”
I looked “around,” but since I had never seen a photograph of my temporary employer, I didn’t expect to find him. Almost any of the lounging male tourists in the lobby might have been my middle-aged, rich Mr. Bloch. It takes money to winter in Egypt, and it takes most men half a lifetime to accumulate that much money.
I went to the desk, feeling mildly exasperated with the elusive Mr. Bloch. He was a widower with an only child; one would think he would be hovering, anxious to embrace his darling daughter. However, the desk clerk’s response to my question left no doubt that we were expected, and impatiently. There was a flurry of bellboys and buzzers and telephones; and a few minutes later a tall, grizzled man emerged from one of the elevators and came towards me.
“Miss Tomlinson?” His voice was a surprise after Dee’s nasal New York twang; it was soft, very deep, and held a suspicion of a drawl. At my nod he extended a large, well-manicured hand and gave me a firm grip. His face was pink and closely shaved; it wore an expression of sleepy affability that was attractive. Decidedly I preferred Mr. Bloch to Miss Bloch. It was only reasonable to assume, however, that he preferred her to me, so I led the way to the chair where Dee had collapsed. She looked as if she had fallen asleep. I poked her, and was rewarded by signs of life.
“Oh,” she said, blinking, “Dad. Hi.”
Bloch gave her gingerly peck on the cheek. He had the same look I have seen on the faces of other fathers of adolescent females—wary, alert, and apprehensive, the look of a man defusing a live bomb. I found it quite pathetic.
Unlike certain of her contemporaries, Dee was at least polite. She allowed her father to take her arm and nodded agreeably as he explained that he hadn’t been able to get us rooms near his suite in the new section. The hotel was crowded to the roof.
“I’m afraid the old section isn’t air-conditioned,” he said, eyeing her nervously. “But it gets real cool here at night. And you may find it kind of quaint.”
We walked through the doors into the older section—and straight into my past.
Fifty years ago the Winter Palace must have been the last word in elegance. Ten years ago I had fallen in love with its fin-de-siècle graciousness, its wide central staircase with the gilt balustrades, its music room with the red plush chairs. We always spent a night or two in the hotel before settling down for the winter in the efficient but dreary quarters at the Institute. We couldn’t really afford it, but that was one of the ways in which Jake differed from the usual penny-pinching archaeologist. We did things first and worried about whether we could pay for them later. Actually, Jake never did worry much about saving money. Sometimes, as I got older, I lectured him about it, but it was hard to be stern with Jake; he had a way of dismissing criticism with a quirk of his eyebrows and a hilarious comment. I used to wonder whether my mother could have handled him better, but that was one subject we never discussed—the one subject that drove all traces of humour from Jake’s face and voice. It had been hard for him, being left with an infant daughter and a memory—just one of those rare, one percent casualties in a medical category which is statistically safer than driving a car. I had no memories of loss myself, but I was always conscious, I suppose, of trying to fill a gap. In the minor, superficial aspects, I succeeded. Jake and I had fun together, more in the manner of contemporaries than as father and daughter. Certainly not like this dreary child and her worried dad…
The rooms had shrunk and become shabbier. But my bed looked just like the one I remembered from my last visit, so high I had to use a chair to climb into it, enveloped in a great white cloud of mosquito netting that were gathered into a magnificent lace-frilled crown above the pillow. The first time I climbed into one of those beds I felt like a royal bride.
I offered, in duty bound, to help Dee get settled, but Mr. Bloch said he would take care of that himself. He wanted to have a long-chat with his baby. The nice man also told me that he intended to pay for my room—I had been so good to his little girl. Dee and I both came close to choking at that one. I had been barely civil to the child, and she, I knew, considered me the dullest prig since Queen Victoria.
Of course I thanked Mr. Bloch. Then he thanked me; and Dee—nudged—thanked me, and I probably would have thanked Dee, for heaven knows what, if Mr. Bloch hadn’t gathered his daughter together and removed her, leaving me alone—with my memories.
I have had better company.
I don’t know how long I would have stood there in the middle of the room, as animated as a stone column, if something hadn’t happened to jar me out of my trance and remind me of another friendly old Egyptian custom which had slipped my mind.
The door flew open, hitting the wall with a bang that sounded like a pistol shot. It was only the chambermaid, bringing fresh towels, but it might just as well have been a waiter or a bellboy. Knocking on doors is not a Luxor custom, nor is locking those same doors. When people go out they lock the doors of their rooms, but during the day it is imperative to have the door not only unlocked but ajar, in order to cultivate a cross-breeze. Luxor’s climate is that of the desert—cool at night, hot during the day.
I took the towels, and a shower, locking the door before the second operation. Then I called Room Service and ordered tea sent up. I unlocked the door—the waiter would have been terribly hurt if I hadn’t—and went out on the balcony, which had a round iron table and two wicker chairs. I hadn’t meant to sit down. But it was impossible to glance briefly at that view and leave it.
The hotel is on the east bank of the river, along with the modern village and the ancient temple ruins of Karnak and Luxor. Across the Nile, which now reflected all the colours of the sunset, lies the west bank. Today, as in ancient times, there are several small villages on the west, but it is preeminently the land of the dead.
It was strange, I thought, that the west should be the direction of heaven in so many widely separated mythologies. Tir na nOg, the Islands of the Blessed, Amenti…And then, as I watched the sun go down in a blaze of glory, I knew that it wasn’t strange at all. Like man, the solar orb vanished inexorably into darkness; but it passed in flaming triumph.
The rich golden light made luminous the greens of palms and cotton fields on the west bank, and gilded the rugged heights of the western cliffs. On the placid breadth of the river the triangular sails of the graceful boats called feluccas dipped and swayed with the current. Boats were still the only bridge between east bank and west; and modern tourists crossed the river, as the ancients had done, to visit the houses of the dead—tombs and temples set into and against the rocky heights of the cliffs behind which the sun went down daily in fiery death.
The waiter burst in with my tea. His show of haste was cancelled by the tepid state of the tea; he had probably stopped along the way for a chat with the pretty black-eyed maid. The sun dropped below the top of the cliffs, leaving the sky splashed with crimson and gold, and streaks of purple. Luxor specialises in gorgeous sunsets. But the cliffs are high; the sun still had some way to go before dropping below the invisible horizon. It was light. Light enough to read.
I took the letter out of my purse. I had read it dozens of times; the cheap paper was frayed along the folds. I smoothed them out with careful fingers and glanced again at the words I already knew by heart.
Beg to write this letter hoping that you are enjoying good health and ask the Almighty to keep you in safety.
Beg to ask you, honourable Miss, to come again to Luxor. There is a need to informing you of a matter which is important. It is a matter of your revered father, on whom be peace. It is a matter of importance. Beg to hope that you will come soon.
Longing to your early coming,
Your most obedient
Reis Abdelal Hassan
The writing was small and precise, but tremulous with the uncertainty of old age. Abdelal must be nearly eighty. For forty of those years he had been head man of the excavations. I had known him all my life. This was the only letter I had ever received from him, and on the basis of those formal paragraphs it was hard to imagine why he had bothered to write this one. Something about Jake. Something-surely—about that black episode of ten years ago. But why, then, had he waited ten years to tell me that “matter of importance?” What could he know that was so important? The affair had never concerned him. It was not the main body of the letter that had brought me thousands of miles in such disorganised haste. It was the scrawled Arabic under the signature:
Do you remember the day in the Place of Milk when you were the Great Queen Nefertiti, and I your faithful vizier? We played a game then, when you were a child. But now you are a woman, and I am old. The thing I know you too must know, and you must come now to hear of it; for the steps of the Gatherer of Souls sound louder in my ears.
He had always been half a pagan at heart; I used to accuse him, only partly in jest, of believing in the old gods whose images he helped to discover. He was tall and thin, his mahogany face covered with fine wrinkles like lines drawn in hardened plaster. When he smiled displaying the brown, broken teeth of his generation and class, the plaster cracked, and he looked quite a lot like the famous painting of St. Francis in Assisi. I used to go and have tea with him in his house. He had two little twin boys—lean brown babies with brilliant white grins. He had taught me most of the Arabic I knew.…
The night came with desert swiftness. A curtain of stars dropped into place against a blue-black sky. The western cliffs, retaining the last of the fading light, shone faintly luminous, like rose-gold spectres of themselves.
I held the letter between my hands, and all at once it was as if 1 felt Abdelal’s hard leathery palm. There was a desperate urgency beneath the inherent dignity of his written words. I had sensed it earlier. Now, so near the source, the pull of his appeal was strong enough to make me burn with impatience.
“You blasted fool,” I said aloud, and rose stiffly from the hard wicker chair. I was becoming entirely too susceptible to moods and premonitions. Abdelal was not the man to waste money on newfangled ideas such as airmail. His letter had taken three months to reach me. Whatever it was he wanted, it could wait one more day.
* * *
On my way to dinner I tapped on Dee’s door, but got no answer. Evidently she and her father had already gone down.
They were in the lobby of the new section when I arrived, their heads cozily together. Bloch looked up and saw me and immediately beckoned me to join them. I did, and accepted the offer of a cocktail.
Dee was resplendent in a dress which I had not helped her select in Paris. In fact, I had tried to talk her out of it. Not that it wasn’t gorgeous, but black chiffon, sequins, and black pearls seemed inappropriate for a seventeen-year-old. It looked particularly silly next to the white plaster cast, which had Dee’s pink toes sticking out of the end of it.
At any rate, she looked stunning in it; her figure was very well developed. I decided my reaction was at least fifty percent jealousy. With wry amusement I contemplated my own demure, flowered Dacron sheer. It had bare shoulders, with only the narrowest of straps, but it was obviously not Lanvin, or even Lord and Taylor.
“You look mighty pretty,” said Mr. Bloch, beaming at me.
“Thanks,” I said dryly.
“Feels real fine to sit here with two pretty young ladies,” Mr. Bloch went on, in his soft drawl. “Wish I could ask you to have dinner with us, Miss Tomlinson, but I stupidly made a date already—it’s sort of a business dinner, you might say.…”
Mr. Bloch was almost too good to be true, but I didn’t find his old-fashioned manners ludicrous or laughable. On the contrary, they were as soothing as soft music.
“I knew a fellow once named Jake Tomlinson,” Mr. Bloch continued calmly. “You’re his little girl, aren’t you?”
I couldn’t have been more stunned if a friendly old family sheep dog had turned and sunk his fangs into my hand. Trying to articulate a convincing No, I met Bloch’s blue eyes and saw knowledge and recognition, and shrewdness that saw through my lie even before I voiced it.
“Yes. I’m Jake’s daughter.”
“I was terribly sorry to hear of his death. A great loss to his profession. He was one of the finest archaeologists I ever met, and one of the nicest guys.”
My breath came out in a gasp, and I ducked my head into my glass of vermouth. He didn’t know the whole story—only the tidy lie John had constructed. Thank God for that, I thought.
“Well, now,” Bloch’s voice flowed on, “here I was going to ask you if you wanted to join us in a little tour tomorrow. I want Dee to see the Valley of the Kings and some of the sights across the river. Old stuff to me, but she hasn’t seen them, and to tell you the truth, I never get enough of Egypt. But I guess an expert like you would be bored with tourists.”
“Oh, no,” I said, recovering myself. Here was the opening I needed—a chance to get across the river to Abdelal without being conspicuous. Sooner or later John would find out that I was here—oh, yes, he’d find out. But I didn’t dare face him without all the ammunition I could collect. “Thank you, Mr. Bloch. I’d love to come.”
“Good.” Bloch’s slow smile spread across his rather plain features. “How about joining us for dinner too? It’s John I’m meeting—young Michael too. Be like Old Home Week for you. Have you called the Institute yet?”
I shook my head dumbly.
“Who’s John?” Dee asked—and received my sincere, if silent, thanks. The question and answer gave me time to collect my wits.
“Why, now, honey, you’ve heard me talk about him. John McIntire—Dr. McIntire—he’s the head man at Luxor Institute, the place the university maintains down here. You’ll like him. And,” Mr. Bloch added, with a twinkle, “you’ll like his assistant, Mike Cassata. He’s more your age. How old is Mike, Miss Tomlinson?”
“Yes, my dear?”
“I’m…I’m traveling sort of incognito…I don’t mean literally, I had to give my real name, after all, it’s on my passport. But I’d rather not meet John and…and the others right now. I wanted to have a few days to myself before I called them.”
It was the lamest excuse for an excuse I’d ever heard, much less invented. But Mr. Bloch was that rare and vanishing personage, a gentleman. He didn’t even blink.
“Why, that’s all right. I understand, I won’t say a word. Want to surprise them, do you? In that case, my dear, you’d better run along. I’m expecting John any minute.”
Unlike her father, Dee didn’t bother to conceal her disbelief. Chin propped on her hand, she studied me through narrowed eyes, smiling slightly. Maybe she thought Mike had jilted me, ten years back. That was the type of motive she would think of. I didn’t care. It was better than the truth.
I arranged to meet father and daughter next morning for the promised tour, and then I fled. If John was expected any minute, I wanted to get out. Yet a perverse curiosity made me linger in the doorway, where a big, ugly, potted palm cast enough of a shadow to make me feel safe from casual glances.
I had forgotten that John’s glance was never casual.
His appearance was a dreadful shock. He hadn’t changed at all.
His hair had always been prematurely white, and it had always contrasted theatrically with his tanned skin and the big black moustache he cultivated with such care. He carried himself with the same arrogance, chin outthrust, body poised and straight as a lance. In his dark suit and tie he looked not so much ill at ease as impatient with such time-consuming frivolities as polished shoes and pressed trousers. The clothes he wore on the dig looked as if they had never been near an iron. When I was fourteen I was madly in love with him. When I was fifteen I knew that I hated him more than anyone in the whole world.
His companion was the one who had changed. I hadn’t believed Mike could get any taller; ten years ago he had towered a foot over my sixty inches. Now he was twenty-eight and more than six feet by a good four inches. His hair was almost as light as John‘s, a silly sun-bleached primrose against his brown face. I knew, from reading the university bulletins, that he was now an associate professor and second in command of the Luxor staff. In my day he had been the infant prodigy of the Egyptology Department, and a pain in the neck. Only three years older than I was, he behaved like a patronising grandfather. He called me “the infant,” and I retaliated with all the silly practical jokes I could think of. Rubber spiders swam in his tea, plastic ink-blots appeared on his manuscripts, and whenever he sat down, things blew up or made vulgar noises. Come to think of it, maybe he had some justification for that “infant.”
I forgot my feeble disguise, and my hate, and the potted palm. I felt as if I were caught in one of those nightmares where you stand stark-naked in the middle of Times Square. Then John, who always had an uncanny awareness of things he wasn’t supposed to see, turned his head and began to rake the room with his intent gaze.
I was saved by Mr. Bloch, who was beginning to feel like my guardian angel in a somewhat incongruous disguise. He rose, waving, and John saw him. John’s face broke into one of his sudden electric smiles—white teeth framed by two deep laughter lines, eyes alight and shooting sparks—and he walked over to Bloch’s table. Mike trailed him, looking vague. “Satellite,” I thought nastily.
All at once I was as limp as a dishrag, all tension gone. The worst was over. I had seen them, and they weren’t demons; they were just men. Men engaged in a particularly humiliating job—buttering up a rich man in the hope, no doubt, of a nice fat contribution. It was an unavoidable part of the profession, since there is never enough money to satisfy the lust of archaeologists for digging things up. My father always hated it, but it was a job often assigned to him because he was so damned charming, as he used to say.
John wasn’t charming. He bellowed like a bull when people annoyed him, which they often did, and he had a store of invectives that sounded nastier from him than they did from anyone else. He must like Bloch, or he couldn’t have put on that big dental grin. He never was any good at pretending.
Careless of the glances I was attracting, rooted like a statue in the doorway, I contemplated myself and felt my self-confidence increase. They wouldn’t know me; not in a million years.
However, I waited till the other party was seated before I sneaked into the big dining room, and I took a table as far away from them as possible. I couldn’t help noticing that Dee was finding Mike just as fascinating as her father had promised. His back was turned to me, but I watched her give him the works—pout, fluttering eyelashes, outthrust bosom, and all. And he didn’t exactly recoil in horror.
I left the dining room while they were lingering over coffee and went straight up to my room. Courage was one thing, and confidence was another thing, but I didn’t want to press my luck. I had seen John, and John hadn’t seen me, and that was fine with me.
Copyright © 1968 by Elizabeth Peters