The Mummy, page 1
PART • 1
THE CAMERA flashes blinded him for a moment. If only he could get the photographers away.
But they had been at his side for months now-ever since the first artifacts had been found in these barren hills, south of Cairo. It was as if they too had known. Something about to happen. After all these years, Lawrence Stratford was on to a major find.
And so they were there with the cameras, and the smoking flashes. They almost knocked him off balance as he made his way into the narrow rough-hewn passage towards the letters visible on the half-uncovered marble door.
The twilight seemed to darken suddenly. He could see the letters, but he couldn't make them out.
"Samir," he cried. "I need light."
"Yes, Lawrence." At once the torch exploded behind him, and in a flood of yellow illumination, the slab of stone was wonderfully visible. Yes, hieroglyphs, deeply etched and beautifully gilded, and in Italian marble. He had never seen such a sight.
He felt the hot silky touch of Samir's hand on his as he began to read aloud:
" 'Robbers of the Dead, Look away from this tomb lest you wake its occupant, whose wrath cannot be contained. Ramses the Damned is my name.' "
He glanced at Samir. What could it mean?
"Goon, Lawrence, translate, you are far quicker than I am," Samir said.
" 'Ramses the Damned is my name. Once Ramses the Great of Upper and Lower Egypt; Slayer of the Hittites, Builder of Temples; Beloved of the People; and immortal guardian of the kings and queens of Egypt throughout time. In the year of the death of the Great Queen Cleopatra, as Egypt becomes a Roman province, I commit myself to eternal darkness; beware, all those who would let the rays of the sun pass through this door.' *'
"But it makes no sense," Samir whispered. "Ramses the Great ruled one thousand years before Cleopatra."
"Yet these are nineteenth-dynasty hieroglyphs without question," Lawrence countered. Impatiently, he scratched away at the loose nibble. ' 'And look, the inscription's repeated-in Latin and in Greek." He paused, then quickly read the last few Latin lines.
" 'Be Warned: I sleep as the earth sleeps beneath the night sky or the winter's snow; and once awakened, I am servant to no man.' "
For a moment Lawrence was speechless, staring at the words he'd read. Only vaguely did he hear Samir:
"I don't like it. Whatever it means, it's a curse."
Reluctantly Lawrence turned and saw that Samir's suspicion had turned to fear.
"The body of Ramses the Great is in the Cairo Museum," Samir said impatiently.
"No," Lawrence answered. He was aware of a chill moving slowly up his neck. "There's a body in the Cairo Museum, but it's not Ramses! Look at the cartouches, the seal! There was no one in the time of Cleopatra who could even write the ancient hieroglyphs. And these are perfect-and done like the Latin and the Greek with infinite care."
Oh, if only Julie were here, Lawrence thought bitterly. His daughter, Julie, was afraid of nothing. She would understand this moment as no one else could.
He almost stumbled as he backed out of the passage, waving the photographers out of his path. Again, the flashes went off around him. Reporters rushed towards die marble door.
"Get the diggers back to work," Lawrence shouted. "I want the passage cleared down to the threshold. I'm going into that tomb tonight."
"Lawrence, take your time with this," Samir cautioned. "There is something here which must not be dismissed."
"Samir, you astonish me," Lawrence answered. "For ten years we've been searching these hills for just such a discovery. And no one's touched that door since it was sealed two thousand years ago."
Almost angrily, he pushed past the reporters who caught up with him now, and tried to block the way. He needed the quiet of his tent until the door was uncovered; he needed his diary, the only proper confidant for the excitement he felt. He was dizzy suddenly from the long day^s heat.
"No questions now, ladies and gentlemen," Samir said politely. As he always did, Samir came between Lawrence and the real world.
Lawrence hurried down the uneven path, twisting his ankle a littie painfully, yet continuing, his eyes narrow as he looked beyond the flickering torches at the sombre beauty of the lighted tents under the violet evening sky.
Only one thing distracted him before he reached the safety zone of his camp chair and desk: a glimpse of his nephew, Henry, watching idly from a short distance away. Henry, so uncomfortable and out of place in Egypt; looking miserable in his fussy white linen suit. Henry, with the inevitable glass of Scotch in his hand, and the inevitable cheroot on his lip.
Undoubtedly the belly dancer was with him-the woman, Malenka, from Cairo, who gave her British gentleman all the money she made.
Lawrence could never entirely forget about Henry, but having Henry underfoot now was more than he could bear.
In a life well lived, Lawrence counted Henry as his only true disappointment-the nephew who cared for no one and nothing but gaming tables and the bottle; the sole male heir to the Stratford millions who properly couldn't be trusted with a one-pound note.
Sharp pain again as he missed Julie-his beloved daughter, who should have been here with him, and would have been if her young fiance" hadn't persuaded her to stay at home.
Henry had come to Egypt for money. Henry had company papers for Lawrence to sign. And Henry's father, Randolph, had sent him on this grim mission, desperate as always to cover his son's debts.
A fine pair they are, Lawrence thought grimly-the ne'er-do-well and the chairman of the board of Stratford Shipping who clumsily funneled the company's profits into his son's bottomless purse.
But in a very real way Lawrence could forgive his brother, Randolph, anything. Lawrence hadn't merely given the family business to Randolph. He had dumped it on Randolph, along with all its immense pressures and responsibilities, so that he, Lawrence, could spend his remaining years digging among the Egyptian ruins he so loved.
And to be perfectly fair, Randolph had done a tolerable job of running Stratford Shipping. That is, until his son had turned him into an embezzler and a thief. Even now, Randolph would admit everything if confronted. But Lawrence was too purely selfish for that confrontation. He never wanted to leave Egypt again for the stuffy London offices of Stratford Shipping. Not even Julie could persuade him to come home.
And now Henry stood there waiting for his moment. And Lawrence denied him that moment, entering the tent and eagerly pulling his chair up to the desk. He took out a leather-bound diary which he had been saving, perhaps for this discovery. Hastily he wrote what he remembered of the door's inscription and the questions it posed.
"Ramses the Damned." He sat back, looking at the name. And for the first time he felt just a little of the foreboding which had shaken Samir.
What on earth could all this mean?
Half-past midnight. Was he dreaming? The marble door of the tomb had been carefully removed, photographed, and placed on trestles in his tent. And now they were ready to blast their way in. The tomb! His at last.
He nodded to Samir. He felt the ripple of excitement move through the crowd. Flashes went off as he raised his hands to his ears, and then the blast caught them all off guard. He felt it in the pit of his stomach.
No time for that. He had the torch in hand and was going in, though Samir tried once again to stop him.
"Lawrence, there could be booby traps, there could be-"
"Get out of my way."
The dust was making him cough. His eyes were watering.
He thrust the torch through the gaping hole. Walls decorated with hieroglyphs-again, the magnificent nineteenth-dynasty style without question.
At once he stepped inside. How extraordinarily cool
His heart beat too fast. The blood rushed to his face, and he had to cough again, as the press of reporters raised the dust in the passage.
'Keep back!'' he shouted crossly. The flashes were going off all around him again. He could barely see the painted ceiling overhead with its tiny stars.
And there, a long table laden with alabaster jars and boxes. Heaps of rolled papyri. Dear God, all this alone confirmed a momentous discovery.
"But this is no tomb!" he whispered.
There was a writing table, covered with a thin film of dust, looking for all the world as if the scholar had only just left it. An open papyrus lay there, with sharpened pens, an ink bottle. And a goblet.
But the bust, the marble bust-it was unmistakably Graeco-Roman. A woman with her tight wavy hair drawn back beneath a metal band, her drowsy half-lidded eyes seemingly blind, and the name cut into the base:
"Not possible," he heard Samir say. "But look, Lawrence, the mummy case!"
Lawrence had already seen it. He was staring speechless at the thing which lay serenely in the very middle of (his puzzling room, this study, this library, with its stacks of scrolls and its dust-covered writing table.
Once again, Samir ordered the photographers back. The smoking flashes were maddening Lawrence.
"Get out, all of you, get out!" Lawrence said. Grumbling, they retreated out of sight of the door, leaving the two men standing there in stunned silence.
It was Samir who spoke first:
"This is Roman furniture. This is Cleopatra. Look at the coins, Lawrence, on the desk. With her image, and newly minted. Those alone are worth-"
"I know. But there lies an ancient Pharaoh, my friend. Every detail of the case-it's as fine as any ever found in the Valley of the Kings."
"But without a sarcophagus," Samir said. "Why?"
"This is no tomb," Lawrence answered.
"And so the King chose to be buried here!" Samir approached the mummy case, lifting the torch high above the beautifully painted face, with its darkly lined eyes and exquisitely modeled lips.
"I could swear this is the Roman period," he said.
"But the style ..."
"Lawrence, it's too lifelike. It's a Roman artist who has imitated the nineteenth-dynastic style to perfection."
"And how could such a thing happen, my friend?"
"Curses," Samir whispered, as if he had not heard the question. He was staring at the rows of hieroglyphs that circled the painted figure. The Greek lettering appeared lower down, and finally came the Latin.
"Touch not the remains of Ramses the Great" Samir read. "It's the same in all three tongues. Enough to give a sensible man pause."
"Not this sensible man," Lawrence replied. "Get those workers in here to lift this lid at once."
The dust had settled somewhat. The torches, in the old iron sconces on the wall, were sending far too much smoke onto the ceiling, but that he would worry about later.
The thing now was to cut open the bundled human shape, which had been propped against the wall, the thin wooden lid of the mummy case carefully laid upright beside it.
He no longer saw the men and women packed at the entrance, who peered at him and his find in silence.
Slowly, he raised the knife and sliced through the brittle husk of dried linen, which fell open immediately to reveal the tightly wrapped figure beneath.
There was a collective gasp from the reporters. Again and again the flashes popped. Lawrence could feel Samir's silence. Both men stared at the gaunt face beneath its yellowed linen bandages, at the withered arms so serenely laid across the breast.
It seemed one of the photographers was begging to be allowed into the chamber. Samir angrily demanded silence. But of these distractions, Lawrence was only dimly aware.
He gazed calmly at the emaciated form before him, its wrappings the color of darkened desert sand. It seemed he could detect an expression in the shrouded features; he could detect something eloquent of tranquillity in the set of the thin lips.
Every mummy was a mystery. Every desiccated yet preserved form a ghastly image of life in death. It never failed to chill him, to look upon these ancient Egyptian dead. But he felt a strange longing as he looked at this one-this mysterious being who called himself Ramses the Damned, Ramses the Great.
Something warm touched him inside. He drew closer, slashing again at the outer wrapping. Behind him, Samir ordered the photographers out of the passage. There was danger of contamination. Yes, go, all of you, please.
He reached out and touched the mummy suddenly; he touched it reverently with the very tips of his fingers. So curiously resilient! Surely the thick layer of bandages had become soft with time.
Again, he gazed at the narrow face before him, at the rounded lids, and the sombre mouth.
"Julie," he whispered. "Oh, my darling, if only you could see ..."
The Embassy Ball. Same old faces; same old orchestra, same old sweet yet droning waltz. The lights were a glare to Elliott Savarell: the champagne left a sour taste in his mouth. Nevertheless he drained the glass rather gracelessly and caught the eye of a passing waiter. Yes, anodier. And another. Would that it were good brandy or whisky.
But they wanted him here, didn't they? Wouldn't be the same without the Earl of Rutherford. The Earl of Rutherford was an essential ingredient, as were the lavish flower arrangements, the thousands upon thousands of candles; the caviar, and the silver; and the old musicians sawing wearily at their violins while the younger generation danced.
Everyone had a greeting for the Earl of Rutherford. Everyone wanted the Earl of Rutherford to attend a daughter's wedding, or an afternoon tea, or another ball such as this. Never mind that Elliott and his wife rarely entertained anymore in either their London town house or the country estate in Yorkshire-that Edith spent much of her time in Paris now with a widowed sister. The seventeenth Earl of Rutherford was the genuine article. The titles in his family went back-one way or another-to Henry VIII.
Why hadn't he ruined everything long ago? Elliott wondered. How had he ever managed to charm so many people in whom he had no more than a passing interest, at best?
But no, that wasn't the entire truth. He loved some of these people, whether he cared to admit it or not. He loved his old friend Randolph Stratford, just as he loved Randolph's brother, Lawrence. And surely he loved Julie Stratford, and he loved watching her dance with his son. Elliott was here on account of his son. Of course Julie wasn't really going to marry Alex. At least not any time soon. But it was the only clear hope on the horizon that Alex might acquire the money he needed to maintain the landed estates he would inherit, the wealth that was supposed to go along with an old title, and seldom did anymore.
The sad part was that Alex loved Julie. The money meant nothing to either of them, really. It was the older generation that did the scheming, and the planning, as they have always done.
Elliott leaned against the gilded railing, gazing down at the soft drift of young couples turning beneath him, and for a moment, he tried to shut out the din of voices, and hear only the sweet strains of the waltz.
But Randolph Stratford was talking again. Randolph was assuring Elliott that Julie needed only a little prodding. If only Lawrence would say the word, his daughter would give in.
"Give Henry a chance," Randolph said again. "He's only been in Egypt a week. If Lawrence will take the initiative ..."
"But why," Elliott asked, "should Lawrence do mat?"
Elliott knew Lawrence better than Randolph knew him. Elliott and Lawrence. No one really knew the whole story, except the two men themselves. At Oxford years ago, in a carefree world, they had been lovers, and the year after they'd finished, they had spent a winter together south of Cairo in a houseboat on the Nile. Inevitably the world had separated them. Elliott had married Edith Christian, an American heiress. Lawrence had built Strat
But their friendship had never faltered. They had spent countless holidays in Egypt together. They could still argue all night long about history, ruins, archaeological discoveries, poetry, what have you. Elliott had been the only one who really understood when Lawrence retired and went to Egypt. Elliott had envied Lawrence. And there had been the first bitterness between them. In the small hours, when die wine flowed, Lawrence had called Elliott a coward, for spending his remaining years in London in a world he did not value; a world which gave him no joy. Elliott had criticized Lawrence for being blind and stupid. After all, Lawrence was rich beyond Elliott's wildest dreams; and Lawrence was a widower with a clever and independent daughter. Elliott had a wife and son who needed him day in and day out to regulate the successes of their wholly respectable and conventional lives.
ANNE RICE SERIES:
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