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A P 16 - Guardian of the horizon

By Clifford Lopez,2014-06-25 16:52
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A P 16 - Guardian of the horizon

GUARDIAN OF THE HORIZON

    ELIZABETH PETERS

    TO CHUCK

    Aka Charles E. Roberts, owner of several of the world’s greatest

    bookstores, to whom I one many hours of good talk, good gin, and friendship of

    the highest order

     ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

For many of the details of desert travel I have drawn upon, and am indebted to, The Lost

    Oases, a remarkable book by a remarkable man. Ahmed Mohammed Hassanein Bey, an Egyptian, an Oxford graduate, and a fine athlete, was the first person to cross the Libyan Desert a journey of three thousand kilometres- by camel caravan, from Siwa to Darful. He located the “lost oases” of Arkenet and Ouanet and fixed their locations for the first time. Though his epic trip took place fifteen years after the Emersons last visited their “lost oasis”, the conditions were pretty much the same. His accomplishments have been to some extent overshadowed by those of later explorers, who used motor vehicles instead of camels, but he was deservedly honoured by the Royal Geographical Society with its Explorers Medal.

     As always, I want to thank my dedicated prereaders, Dennis Forbes of KMT, Kristen Whitbread of MPM Manor, Erika Schmid, and of course Trish Lande Grader of William Morrow, who have perused the entire interminable manuscript and made suggestions and corrections. Any remaining errors are my responsibility.

     EDITOR‟S NOTE

    Just when the Editor believed she was nearing the end of her arduous task of editing the Emerson papers, a new lot of them turned up. They include most of the journals from the so-called missing years, plus miscellaneous letters, newspaper clippings, recipes, lists, receipts, and several unpublished articles. The circumstances under which this discovery was made need not be discussed here. Suffice it to say that Mrs. Emerson‟s

    heirs are no longer threatening legal proceedings and have reached a tentative agreement with the Editor that allows her to produce this volume. It is based on Mrs. Emerson‟s journal for the 1907-08 season, and thus immediately follows the events

    described in the journal published as The Ape Who Guards the Balance. The editor‟s

    reasons for selecting this particular volume are twofold: first, she was dying to know what happened when the Emersons returned to the Lost Oasis; second, up to this time she had only one journal for the years between 1907 and 1914, a period of great importance in the professional, political, and emotional history of various family members. It is hoped that eventually this gap will be filled in; and the Reader may rest assured that astonishing revelations remain to be disclosed.

     As before, the Editor has included relevant portions of Manuscript H, written by Ramses Emerson. It seems unlikely that Mrs. Emerson ever read this manuscript, which Ramses seems to have abandoned shortly after the birth of his children (any parent can understand why). One other set of documents provided useful information the letters

    herein designated as Letter Collection C. They were found in a separate bundle. Obviously they never reached the persons to whom they were addressed, but were

    collected by Mrs. Emerson after the events to which they refer, for reasons which should be evident to any intelligent Reader.

ONE

    When we left Egypt in the spring of 1907, I felt like a defeated general who has retreated to lick his wounds (if I may be permitted a somewhat inelegant but expressive metaphor). Our archaeological season had experienced the usual ups and downs

    kidnapping, murderous attacks, and the like to which I was well accustomed. But that

    year disasters of an unprecented scope had befallen us.

     The worst was the death of our dear old friend Abdullah, who had been foreman of our excavations for many years. He had died as he would have wished, in a glorious gesture of sacrifice, but that was small consolation to those of us who had learned to love him. It was hard to imagine continuing our work without him.

     If we continued it. My spouse, Radcliffe Emerson, is without doubt the pre-eminent Egyptologist of this or any other era. To say that Emerson (who prefers to be addressed by that name) has the most explosive temper of anyone I know might be a slight exaggeration but only slight. His passions are most often aroused by incompetent excavators and careless scholarship, and during this past season he has I admit been

    sorely provoked.

     We had been excavating in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, my favourite site in all of Egypt. The concession for the Valley was held by an irritating elderly American, Mr. Theodore Davis, who was more interested in finding treasure than in scholarly research; we where there under sufferance, allowed to word only in the lesser, more boring tombs. Still, we were there, and we would be there again in the autumn had it not been for Emerson.

     The trouble began when Mr. Davis‟s crew discovered one of the strangest, most mysterious tombs ever found in the Valley. It was a hodgepodge of miscellaneous funerary equipment, much of it in poor condition, including a mummy and coffin and pieces of a magnificent golden shrine; and if it has been properly investigated, new light would have been shed on a particularly intriguing era of Egyptian history. In vain did we offer Mr. Davis the services of our staff. Abdullah, who was still with us, was the most experienced reis in Egypt, our son Ramses was a skilled linguist and excavator, and his friend David an Nefret, to whose excavation experience was added medical training and a thorough acquaintance with mummies. Only an egotistical idiot would have refused. Davis did refuse. He regarded excavation as entertainment, not as a tool in scholarly research, and he was jealous of a better man. He wanted no one to interfere with his toy.

     Watching Davis “rip the tombs apart” (I quote Emerson) was trying enough. The

    denouement came on the day when the mummy fell apart due to careless handling. (It might not have survived anyhow, but Emerson was in no state of mind to admit that.) Face handsomely flushed, blue eyes blazing, impressive form towering over that of the withered old American, Emerson expressed his sentiments in the ringing tones and rich vocabulary that have earned him his sobriquet of Abu Shitaim, Father of Curses. He included in them Mr. Maspero, the distinguished head of the Service des Antiquités. Maspero really had no choice but to accede to Davis infuriated demand that we be barred from the Valley altogether.

     There are many other sites in Luxor. Maspero offered several of them to Emerson. By that time Emerson was in such a state of fury that he rejected them all, and when we sailed from Port Said we had no idea where we would be working the following season.

     It was good to be back at our English home in Kent, and I make it a point to look on the bright side, but as spring turned to summer and summer wore on, my attempts to do so failed miserably. It rained incessantly. The roses developed mildew. Rose, our admirable house-keeper, caught a nasty cold that refused to yield to treatment; she went snuffling drearily around the house, and Gargery, our Butler, drove me with his incessant prying and his pointed hints that he be allowed to come to Egypt with us in the autumn. Emerson, sulking in his study like a gargoyle, refused to discuss our future plans. He knew he had been in the wrong but would not admit it, and his attempts to get back in my good graces had, I confess, not been well received. As a rule I welcome my husband‟s attentions. His thick black locks and brilliant blue eyes, his magnificent physique, and how shall I put it? the expertise with which he fulfils his marital

    obligations mover me as they always had; but I resented his efforts to get round me by taking advantage of my feelings instead of throwing himself on my mercy and begging forgiveness.

     By the end of July, all our tempers had become strained. It continued to rain, Emerson continued to sulk, Rose continued to snuffle, and Gargery‟s nagging never stopped. “Oh, madam, you need me, you know you do; only see what happened last year when I was not there to look after you - Mr. Ramses and Mr. David kidnapped and you carried off by that Master Criminal chap, and poor Abdullah murdered and –“

     “Do be quiet, Gargery!” I shouted. “I asked you to serve tea. I did not invite a lecture.”

     Gargery stiffened and looked down his snub nose at me. I am one of the few people who is shorter than he, and he takes full advantage. “Tea will be in shortly, madam,” he said, and stalked out.

     I seldom shout at the servants in point of fact, Gargery is the only one I do shout at. As a butler he was something of an anomaly, and his unusual talents, such as his skill at wielding a cudgel, had proved helpful to us in the past. However, he was no longer a young man and he certainly could not have prevented any of the disasters that had befallen us. I sighed and rubbed my eyes. It was need I say? raining. The drawing

    room was a chill, shadowy cavern, lit by a single lamp, and my troughts were as cold and dark. Gargery‟s words had brought back the memory of that awful day when I held Abdullah clasped in my arms and watched in helpless horror as scarlet drenched the white of his robes. He had taken in his own body the bullets meant for me.

     “So, Sitt, am I dying?” he gasped.

     I would not have insulted him with a lie. “Yes,” I said.

     A spark lit in his dimming eyes, and he launched into the familiar complaint. “Emerson. Look after her. She is not careful. She takes foolish chances …”

     Emerson‟s face was almost as white as that of hi dying friend, but he managed to choke out a promise.

     I had not realized how much I cared for Abdullah until I was about to lose him. I had not realized the depth of his affection for me until I heard his final, whispered words

    words I had never shared with a living soul. The bitter knowledge that I would never hear that deep voice or see that stern bearded face again was like a void in my heart.

     The door opened and my foster daughter‟s voice remarked, “Goodness, but it is as gloomy as a cell in here. Why are you sitting in the dark, Aunt Amelia?”

     “Gargery neglected to switch on the lights,” I replied, sniffing. “Curse it, I believe I am catching Rose‟s cold. Ramses, will you oblige?”

     My son pressed the switches and the light illumined the three forms standing in the doorway Ramses, David, and Nefret. The children were usually together.

     They weren‟t children, though; I had to keep reminding myself of that. Ramses had just celebrated his twentieth birthday. His height matched Emerson‟s six feet, and his form, though not as heavily muscled as that of his father, won admiring glances from innumerable young ladies (and a few older ones).

     Some persons might (and indeed did) claim that Ramses‟s upbringing had been quite unsuitable for an English lad of good family. From an early age he had spent half the year with us in Egypt, hobnobbing with archaeologists and Egyptians of all classes. He was essentially self-educated, since his father did not approve of schools at all. He had been an extremely trying child, given to bombastic speeches and a habit of interfering in the business of other persons, which often led to a desire on the part of those persons to mutilate or murder him. Yet somehow I could not claim all the credit, though heaven

    knows I had done my best he had turned into a personable young man, linguistically

    gifted, well-mannered, and taciturn. Too taciturn, perhaps? I never though I would see the day when I regretted his abominable loquacity, but he had got into the habit of keeping his thoughts to himself and of concealing his feelings behind a mask Nefret called his “stone-pharaoh face”. He had been looking particularly stony of late. I was worried about Ramses.

     David, his best friend, closely resembled him, with his bronzed complexion, curly black hair, and long-fringed dark eyes. We were not certain of Davis‟s precise age; he was Abdullah‟s grandson, but his mother and father had been estranged from the old man and David had worked for a notorious forger of antiquities in Luxor until we freed him from virtual slavery. He was, I thought, a year or two older than Ramses.

     Nefret, our adopted daughter, was the third member of the youthful triumvirate. Golden fair instead of dark, open and candid instead of secretive, she and her foster brother could not have been more unlike. Her upbringing had been even more extraordinary than his or David‟s, for she had been raised from birth to the age or thirteen in a remote oasis in the western Desert, where the old religion of Egypt was still practiced. We had gone there a decade ago, at considerable risk to ourselves, in search of her parents, who had vanished into the desert, and we had no idea she existed until that unforgettable night when she appeared before us in the robes of a high priestess of Isis, her gold-red hair and rose-white complexion unmistakable evidence of her ancestry. I often wondered if she ever thought of those strange days, and of Tarek, prince of the Holy Mountain, who had risked his life and throne to help us get her back to England. She never spoke of him. Perhaps I ought to be worrying about her too.

     I knew why David‟s dark eyes were so sad and his face so somber; he had become engaged this past winter to Emerson‟s niece Lia and saw less of her than a lover‟s heart desired. Lia‟s parents had been won over to the match with some difficulty, for David was a purebred Egyptian, and narrow-minded English society frowned on such alliances. I was thinking seriously of going to Yorkshire for a time, to visit Walter and Evelyn, Lia‟s parents, and have one of my little talks with them.

     Nefret‟s cat, Horus, did his best to trip Ramses up when they came into the room together, but since Ramses was familiar with the cat‟s nasty tricks, he was nimble enough to avoid him. Horus detested everybody except Nefret, and discipline the evil-minded beast, however, since Nefret always took his part. After an insolent survey of the room, Horus settled down at her feet.

     Emerson was the last to join us. He had been working on his excavation report, as his ink-speckled shirt and stained fingers testified. “Where is tea?” he demanded.

     “It will be in shortly. Come and sit down,” Nefret said, taking his arm. She was the brightest spot in the room, with the lights shining on her golden head and smiling face. Emerson loved to have her fuss over him (goodness knows he got little fussing from me these days), and his dour face softened as she settled him in a comfortable chair and pulled up a hassock for his feet. Ramses watched the pretty scene with a particularly blank expression; he waited until Nefret had settled onto the arm of Emerson‟s chair before joining David on the settee, where they sat like matching painted statues. Was it perhaps the uncertainty of our future plans that made my son look as gloomy as his love-struck friend?

     I determined to make one more effort to break through Emerson‟s stubbornness.

     “I was in receipt today of a letter from Annie Quibell,” I began. “She and James are returning to Cairo shortly to resume their duties at the Museum.”

     Emerson said, “Hmph”, and stirred sugar into his tea.

     I continued. “She asked when we are setting out for Egypt, and what are our plans for this season. James wished her to remind you that the most interesting sites will all be taken if you don‟t make your application soon.”

     “I never apply in advance,” Emerson growled. “You know that. So does Quibell.”

     “That may have served you in the past,” I retorted. “But there are more expeditions in the field every year. Face it, Emerson. You must apologize to M. Maspero if you hope to get-

     “Apologize be damned!” Emerson slammed his cup into the saucer. It was the third cup he had cracked that week. “Maspero was in he wrong. He was the only one with the authority to stop Davis wrecking that bloody tomb, and he bloody well refused to exert it.”

     Despite the bad language and the sheer volume of his reverberant baritone voice, I thought I detected the faintest tone of wavering. I recognized that tone. Emerson had had second thoughts but was too stubborn to back down. He wanted me to bully him into doing so. I therefore obliged him.

     “That may be so, Emerson, but it is water over the dam. Do you intend to sit here in Kent all winter sulking like Achilles in his tent? What about the rest of us? It‟s all very

    well for David; I am sure he would prefer to remain in England with his betrothed, but will you condemn Ramses to say nothing of me and Nefret - to boredom and

    inactivity?”

     Ramses put is cup down and cleared his throat. “Uh -excuse me-

     Emerson cut him short with an impetuous gesture. A benevolent smile wreathed his well-cut lips. “Say no more, my boy. Your mother is right to remind me that I have obligations to others, obligations for which I will sacrifice my own principles. What would be your choice for this season, Ramses? Amarna? Beni Hassan? I will leave it to you to decide.”

     He took out his pipe, looking very pleased with himself as well he might. I had

    given him the excuse for which he yearned. It was what I had intended to do, but a certain degree of exasperation prompted me to reply before Ramses could do so.

     “I believe the Germans have applied for Amarna, Emerson. Why cannot we return to Thebes, where we have a comfortable house and many friends?”

     “Because I swore never to work there again!” Emerson moderated his voice. “But if it would please you, Ramses … You know your opinion carries a great deal or weight with me.”

     “Thank you, sir.” Ramses‟s long dark lashes veiled his eyes.

     Nefret had brought several of the new kittens. Like Horus, they were descendants of a pair of Egyptian cats we had brought home with us years before. One of Horus‟s few

    amiable attributes was his tolerance of kittens, and he endured their pounces and bounces without protesting; but when one of them knocked over the cream pitcher, he was a first at the puddle. Emerson, who is fond of cats (except Horus), found this performance highly amusing, and he was wringing out one of the kittens‟ tails with his napkin when Gargery appeared with a hand-delivered note.

     “Well, will you listen to this?” I exclaimed. “The Carringtons have asked us to dinner. Or such effrontery! They will be happy to come to us, at our convenience. Ha!”

     Emerson growled and Ramses raised his eyebrows. There was no response at all from David, who probably had not even heard me. Nefret was the only one to respond verbally.

     “The Carringtons? How Odd. We‟re had nothing to do with them for years.”

     “Not since Ramses presented Lady Carringtons with a moldy bone from the compost

    heap,” I agreed. “It seems they wish us to meet their niece, who is visiting.”

     Nefret let out a shout of musical laughter. “That explains it! Ramses, do you remember the girl? She was at the reception we attended last week.”

     “The reception you forced me to attend.” Ramses‟s eyebrows, which are very thick and dark and expressive, took on an alarming angle. “I cannot say that the young woman made a lasting impression on me.”

     “You obviously made a lasting impression on her,” Nefret murmured.

     “Don‟t be ridiculous,” Ramses snapped.

     Nefret gave me a wink and a conspiratorial grin and I considered my son thoughtfully. His curly black head was bent over the kitten he had picked up, but his high cheekbones were a trifle darker than usual. Another one, I thought. He had pleasing looks and nice manners (thanks to me), but the persistence of the young women who pursued him was unaccountable!

     “You must remember her,” Nefret persisted. “Dark-haired, rather plain, with a habit

    of tilting her head to one side and squinting up at you? I had to detach her by force; she was hanging on to your arm with both hands-

     “May I be excused, Mother?” Ramses put his cup down with exaggerated care and got to his feet. He did not wait for a reply; holding the kitten, he left the room with long strides. After a moment David, who had followed the exchange with furrowed brows, went after him.

     “You shouldn‟t tease him, Nefret,” I scolded. “He does nothing to encourage

    them … does he?”

     “Not this one.” Nefret‟s laughter bubbled out. “It was funny, Aunt Amelia, she thought she was being soooo adorable, and poor Ramses looked like a hunted fox. He was too polite to shake her off.”

     “Well, this is one invitation I can decline with pleasure,” I declared. “Would that all our difficulties were son easily solved. Emerson –“

     “Confound it, Peabody, I am not the one who is making difficulties! It only remains for Ramses to make up his mind.”

From Manuscript H

    Ramses sat on the edge of his bed with his head in his hands. Another day had passed without his having got the courage to tell his father the truth.

     He looked up at the sound of a tentative knock at the door.

     “Come in, damn it,” Ramses said.

     “Some people might interpret that as less than welcoming,” said David, standing in the doorway. “Would you rather be alone?”

     “No. I‟m sorry. Come in and close the door before Nefret takes in into her head to follow you.”

     “You can‟t go on treating her like this, Ramses. You‟ve been avoiding her as if she were a leper and snapping back at her whenever she speaks.”

     “You know why.”

     David sat down next to him. “I know that you love her and you won‟t tell her so. I don‟t understand why you won‟t.”

     “You aren‟t usually so obtuse, David. How would you feel if a girl you thought of as a dear little sister sidled up to you and told you she was desperately in love with you?”

     David smiled his slow, gentle smile. “She did.”

     “But you were already in love with Lia when she spoke up,” Ramses argued. “And her announcement can‟t have come as a complete surprise; don‟t tell me there weren‟t sidelong looks and blushes and well, you know the sort of thing. Supposing you

    hadn‟t returned her feelings then how would you have felt?”

     “Embarrassed,” David admitted after a while. “Sorry for her. Guilty. Horribly self-

    conscious”.

     “And that is exactly how Nefret would feel. She thinks of me as a rather amusing younger brother. You heard her just now, teasing me about that confounded girl, laughing at me …” He propped his chin on his hands. “I‟ve got to get away for a while. Away from her”.

     “It‟s that hard?” David asked. “Being with her?”

     “It‟s bad enough seeing her every day,” Ramses said despondently. “If only she weren‟t so damned affectionate! Always patting and hugging and squeezing my arm –“

     “She does that to everybody. Including Gargery.”

     “Exactly. It doesn‟t mean a damned thing, but I can assure you that it doesn‟t affect Gargery as it does me.”

     He couldn‟t tell David the worst of it – the burning jealousy of every man who talked

    to Nefret or looked at her because at one time he had thought she was beginning to care for David. He had dreamed of killing his best friend.

     A peremptory pounding on the door brought him to his feet. “It‟s Nefret,” he said. “Nobody else knocks like that.”

     He opened the door and stood back. ”Shouldn‟t you be changing for dinner?” he asked pointedly.

     Nefret flung herself down in an armchair. “Shouldn‟t you? I‟m sorry I teased you about that wretched girl, but really, Ramses, you‟re losing your sense of humor. What‟s the matter?”

     Ramses began, “I don‟t know why you should suppose-

     She cut him off with a word she would not have used in his mother‟s presence.

    “Don‟t you dare lie to me, Ramses Emerson. You and David have been eyeing each other like conspirators- Brutus and Cassius, creeping up on Caesar with daggers drawn! You‟re planning something underhanded, and I insist on knowing what it is. Don‟t stand there like a graven image! Sit down you too, David and confess.”

     She was enchanting when she was angry, her cheeks flushed and her eyes wide and her slim form rigid with indignation. A lock of hair had come loose; it curled distractingly over her forehead. Ramses clasped his hands tightly together.

     Then her eyes fell. “I thought we were friends,” she said softly. “We three, all for one and one for all.”

     We Three. Friends. If he had had any doubts about what he meant to do, that speech dispelled them. After all, why not tell her? She wouldn‟t care. Friendship can endure separation. A friend wants what is best for her friend. Only lovers are selfish.

     “I want to go to Germany this year to study with Erman,” he said abruptly.

     Nefret‟s jaw dropped. “You mean – not go to Egypt with us this autumn?”

     “Obviously I can‟t be in two places at once.”

     She put out her tongue at him. “Why?”

     “I need some formal grounding in the language, formal recognition. A degree form

    Berlin would give me that.” The speech came glibly; he had practiced it a number of times, preparatory to delivering it to Emerson. “I‟ve learned a lot from Uncle Walter, but Erman is one of the best, and his approach is different. He thinks I can earn a doctorate in a year, given my past work. I enjoy excavating, but I‟ll never be as good as Father. Philology is my real interest.”

     “Hmmmm”. Nefret stroked her rounded chin, in unconscious imitation of Emerson when deep in thought. “Well, my boy, that is a stunner! But I don‟t understand why you‟ve been so secretive. It‟s a reasonable ambition.”

     Ramses hadn‟t realized until then that he had been hoping against hope she would object. Obviously the idea of a long separation didn‟t disturb her unduly. Friends want

    what is best for friends.

     “I‟m glad you agree,” he said stiffly.

     She raised candid blue eyes and smiled at him. “If it‟s what you want, my boy, then you shall have it. You haven‟t got up nerve enough to tell the Professor, is that it?”

     “Yes, well, cowardice is one of my worst failings.”

     David‟s elbow dug into his ribs and Nefret‟s smile faded. “I didn‟t mean that. You‟re afraid of hurting him. That‟s what I meant.”

     “Sorry,” Ramses muttered.

     “We all feel that way,” Nefret assured him. “Because we love him. But sooner or later he‟s got to accept the fact that you – and David and I are individuals with our

    own ambitions and wants.”

     “What is it you want?” Ramses asked.

     She shrugged and smiled. “Nothing I don‟t have. Work I love, a family, the best friends in the world … I‟ll help you persuade the Professor. We‟ll miss you, of course, won‟t we, David? But it‟s only for a year.”

     She got to her feet. “Just leave it to me. I‟m going to break it to Aunt Amelia first.

    Then it will be all of us against the Professor! If worse comes to worst, I‟ll cry. That always fetches him.”

     He had risen when she did; they were standing close together, only a foot apart. She put out her hand, as if to give him a friendly pat on the shoulder. He took a step back and said, “Thank you, but I don‟t need anyone else to do my dirty work for me. I‟ll tell Father tonight, at dinner.”

     She let her hand fall, flushed slightly, and left the room.

     “Ramses,” David, began.

     “Shut up, David.”

     “Damned if I will,” David said indignantly. “She was offering to help, in her sweet, generous way, and you froze her with that cold stare and speech. What did you expect, that the idea of being parted from you for a year would miraculously arouse latent passions? It doesn‟t work that way.” After a moment he added, “Go ahead and hit me if it will make you feel better.”

     Ramses uncurled his fists and turned to the desk. He opened a drawer, looking for a cigarette.

     “I‟m sorry,” David said. “But it you don‟t get over your habit of bottling up your feelings, you‟re going to explode one day. For God‟s sake, Ramses, you‟re barely twenty, and the family wouldn‟t hear of your marrying anyhow. Give it a little more

    time.”

     “Always the optimist. You don‟t see it, do you? You wouldn‟t, though; you don‟t want anything more from her than she is capable of giving you. What I want may not be there at all.” He offered the packet to David, who took a cigarette and leaned against the

    desk.

     “Are you still harping on that? Far be it from me to deny that you have to beat women off with a club, but there must have been a few who didn‟t react. Nefret is one of them so far. It doesn‟t mean she‟s incapable of love.”

     Ramses felt himself flushing angrily. “Believe it or not, I‟m not that egotistical. Maybe you‟re right. I hope so. But doesn‟t it seen been in love, not even once? Lord only knows how many men have been in love with her. She flirts with them, practices her little wiles on them, makes friends with them, and then turns then down flat when they get courage enough to propose to her. All of them! That‟s not natural, David. And don‟t tell me I wouldn‟t have known. Nefret‟s not the sort to hide her feelings. The

    signs are unmistakable, especially to the eyes of a jealous lover which, God help me, I

    am. After all, we don‟t know what happened to her during those years before ….”

     He broke off and David gave him a curious look. ”The years when she lived with the

    missionaries in the Sudan? What could have happened, with them looking after her?”

     It was the story they had concocted to explain Nefret‟s background when they brought her back to England. Not even to David had Ramses told the true story of the

    Lost Oasis with is strange mixture of ancient Egyptian and Meroitic cultures, and Nefret‟s role as the priestess of a heathen goddess. Like his parents, he had sworn to keep the very existence of the place secret.

     “You‟re on the wrong track, I tell you.” David leaned back, long legs stretched out, face sober. “I believe that in this case I can claim to understand her better than you. I had to make the same transition, from one world to another, practically overnight

    from a ragged slave, beaten and filthy and starved, to a proper young English gentleman.” He laughed. “There were times when I thought it would kill me.”

     “You never complained. I didn‟t realize … I ought to have done.”

     “Why should I complain? I had to wash more often than I like and give up habits like

    spitting and speaking gutter Arabic and going about comfortably half-naked, but I was at least familiar with your world, and I still had ties to my own. Can‟t you imagine how much more difficult it was for Nefret? Growing up in a native village, completely isolated from the modern world … It must have been like Mr. Well‟s time machine -

    from primitive Nubia to modern England, in the blink of an eye. Perhaps the only way she could manage it was to suppress her memories of the past.”

     “I hadn‟t thought of that,” Ramses admitted.

     “No, you are obsessed with her - er- sexuality. It I may use that word.”

     “It‟s a perfectly good word, ”Ramses said, amused by David‟s embarrassment. “I think you‟re gone a bit overboard with the English-gentleman role, David. Perhaps

    you‟re right, but it doesn‟t help. Being away from her for a while will let me get my feelings in order.”

     “Maybe you‟ll fall in love with someone else,” David said cheerfully. “A pretty little fräulein with flaxen braids and a nicely rounded figure and … All right, all right, I‟m going. Just think about what I‟ve said.”

     Ramses put down the vase he had raised in mock threat and sat on the edge of the bed, with his chin in his hands, remembering. David‟s words had brought it all back –

    the strangest adventure of his life. They didn‟t speak of it, but he thought about it often. How could he not, with the daily sight of Nefret to remind him of how she had come to them?

    They had made plans to work in the Sudan that autumn. The region south of Egypt, from the seconds cataract to the junction of the Blue and White Niles, had been for ten years ruled by the Mahdi and his successors religious fanatics and reformers. The

    Europeans who had not managed to flee were imprisoned or killed, along with a good many of the local inhabitants.

     Emerson had wanted for years to investigate the little - known monuments of the ancient civilizations of Nubia or Cush, to give the region another of its many names.

    He believed that the Napatan and Meroitic Kingdoms had been more powerful and vibrant than most Egyptologists admitted, genuine rivals to the ancient Egyptian monarchy instead of barbarian tribesmen. When the reconquest of the Sudan by Anglo-Egyptian forces began in 1897, he talked his wife into following the troops as far as Napata, the first capital of Willoughby Forth, a friend of Emerson‟s, who had vanished with his young wife during the conflagration of the Mahdist revolt. Emerson had scoffed at the message, which purported to be from Forth himself and gave directions to a remote oasis in the Western Desert filled with treasure.

     For once Emerson had been wrong. The message was genuine, and the map correct. After Reginald Forthright, Forth‟s nephew, set off into the desert in search of his uncle,

    the Emersons followed, accompanied by a mysterious stranger named Kemit, whom they had hired to work for them. It had been a disastrous trip from start to finish the

    camels dying one by one, his mother falling ill, all their men except Kemit abandoning them in the desert without water or transport. Ramses had been ill too sunstroke or

    heat prostration or dehydration, he supposed. One of his last memories of the journey was the sight of his father, lips cracked and tongue dry, plodding doggedly through the sand with his wife in his arms.

     They would never have made it if it hadn‟t been for Kemit, who went ahead to bring a rescue party. As they learned when they reached the isolated oasis, ringed in by cliffs, Kemit‟s real name was Tarek, and it was he who had carried the message from Forth to England. It was some time before they found out why.

     He would never forget his first sight of Nefret, wearing the white robes of the High Priestess of Isis, with her hair flowing over her shoulders in a river of gold. She had been thirteen, the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Now that he was older, he was better able to assess the flagrant romanticism of that image and its effect on a ten-year-old boy; but he still thought she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, as brave and clever as she was lovely. Tarek had been in love with her, he had as good as said so: “For who could see her and not desire her?” Yes he had kept his word to her dead father, who had wanted her to return to her own people. Realizing he could not get her away without help, Tarek had made the long, perilous journey to England in order to bring the Emersons to the Lost Oasis. In doing so he had risked his life and his throne. He had been a fine-looking young man, chivalrous as a knight of legend; it wouldn‟t be surprising if Nefret still cherished his memory.

     Goddamn him, Ramses thought; how can I or anyone else compete with a hero like that? Tarek had fought like a hero too, sword in hand, to win his crown. They had repaid part of their debt to him by helping him in that struggle, each in his or her own way. Emerson had been at the height of his powers then not that he had lost many of

    them and some of his exploits rivalled the achievements of Hercules and Horus.

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