Home > The Mummy(3)

The Mummy(3)
Author: Anne Rice

"Samir, if you can believe in the curse, why can't you believe in an immortal man?"

"Lawrence, you play with me. I have seen the workings of many a curse, my friend. But an immortal man who lived in Athens under Pericles and Rome under the Republic and Carthage under Hannibal? A man who taught Cleopatra the history of Egypt? Of this I know nothing at all."

"Listen again, Samir: 'Her beauty shall forever haunt me; as well as her courage and her frivolity; her passion for life, which seemed inhuman in its intensity while being only human after all.'"

Samir made no answer. His eyes were fixed on the mummy again, as if he could not stop looking at it. Lawrence understood perfectly, which is why he sat with his back to the thing in order to read the papyrus, so that he would get the crucial work done.

"Lawrence, this mummy is as dead as any I have ever seen in the Cairo Museum. A storyteller, that is what the man was. Yet these rings."

"Yes, my friend, I observed it very carefully earlier; it is the cartouche of Ramses the Great, and so we have not merely a storyteller but a collector of antiquities. Is that what you want me to believe?"

But what did Lawrence believe? He sat back against the sagging canvas of the camp chair and let his eyes drift over the contents of this strange room. Then again he translated from the scroll.

" 'And so I retreat to this isolated chamber; and now my library shall become my tomb. My servants shall anoint .my body and wrap it in fine funerary linen as was the custom of my time now so long forgotten. But no knife shall touch me. No embalmer shall extract the heart and brain from my immortal form."

A euphoria overcame Lawrence suddenly; or was it a state of waking dream? This voice - it seemed so real to him; he fed the personality, as one never did with the ancient Egyptians. Ah, but of course, this was an immortal man...

Elliott was getting drunk, but no one knew it. Except Elliott, who leaned on the gilded rail of the half-landing again in a rather casual manner that he almost never assumed. There was a style to even his smallest gestures, and now he carelessly violated it, keenly aware that no one would notice; no one would take offense.

Ah, such a world, made up almost wholly of subtleties. What a horror. And he must think of this marriage; he must talk of this marriage; he must do something about the sad spectacle of his son, quite obviously defeated, who, after watching Julie dance with another, came now up the marble stairs.

"I'm asking you to trust in me,"  Randolph was saying." I guarantee this marriage. All it takes is a little time."

"Surely you don't think I enjoy pressing you,"  Elliott answered. Thick-tongued. Drunk all right." I'm much more comfortable in a dream world, Randolph, where money simply doesn't exist. But the fact is, we cannot afford such reverie, either of us. This marriage is essential for us both."

"Then I shall go to see Lawrence myself."

Elliott turned to see his son only a few steps away, waiting like a schoolboy for the adults to acknowledge him.

"Father, I badly need consolation,"  Alex said.

"What you need is courage, young man,"  Randolph said crossly." Don't tell me you've taken no for an answer again."

Alex took a glass of champagne from the passing waiter.

"She loves me. She loves me not,"  he said softly." The simple fact is I cannot live without her. She's driving me mad."

"Of course you cannot."  Elliott laughed gently." Now, look. That clumsy young man down there is stepping on her feet. I'm sure she'd be very grateful if you came to her rescue at once."

Alex nodded, scarcely noticing as his father took the half-full glass from him and drank down the champagne. He straightened his shoulders and headed back to the dance floor. Such a perfect picture.

"The puzzling part is this,"  Randolph said under his breath." She loves him. She always has."

"Yes, but she's like her father. She loves her freedom. And frankly I don't blame her. In a way she's too much for Alex. But he'd make her happy, I know that he would."

"Of course."

"And she would make him supremely happy; and perhaps no one else ever will."

"Nonsense,"  Randolph said." Any young woman in London

would give her eyeteeth for the chance to make Alex happy. The eighteenth Earl of Rutherford?"

"Is that really so important? Our titles, our money, the endless maintenance of our decorative and tiresome little world?"  Elliott glanced around the ballroom. This was that lucid and dangerous state with drinking, when everything began to shimmer; when there was meaning in the grain of the marble; when one could make the most offensive speeches." I wonder sometimes if I should be in Egypt with Lawrence. And if Alex shouldn't peddle his beloved title to someone else."

He could see the panic in Randolph's eyes. Dear God, what did the title mean to these merchant princes, these businessmen who had all but the title? It wasn't only that Alex might eventually control Julie, and thereby control the Stratford millions, and that Alex himself would be far easier than Julie to control. It was the prospect of true nobility, of nieces and nephews roaming the park of the old Rutherford estate in Yorkshire, of that miserable Henry Stratford trading on the alliance in every despicable way that he could.

"We're not defeated yet, Elliott,"  Randolph said." And I rather like your decorative and tiresome little world. What else is there when you get right down to it?"

Elliott smiled. One more mouthful of champagne and he must tell Randolph what else there was. He just might...

"I love you, fine English,"  Malenka said to him. She kissed him, then helped him with his tie, the soft touch of her fingers against his chin making the hairs rise on his neck.

What lovely fools women were, Henry Stratford thought. But this Egyptian woman he had enjoyed more than most. She was dark-skinned, a dancer by profession - a quiet and luscious beauty with whom he could do exactly what he wanted. You never knew that kind of freedom with an English whore.

He could see himself settling someday in an Eastern country with such a woman - free of all British respectability. That is, after he had made his fortune at the tables - that one great win he needed to put him quite beyond the world's reach.

For the moment, there was work to be done. The crowd around the tomb had doubled in size since last evening. And the trick was to reach his uncle Lawrence before the man was swept up utterly by the museum people and the authorities - to reach him now when he just might agree to anything in return for being left alone.

"Go on, dearest."  He kissed Malenka again and watched her wrap the dark cloak about herself and hurry to the waiting car. How grateful she was for these small Western luxuries. Yes, that kind of woman. Rather than Daisy, his London mistress, a spoilt and demanding creature who nevertheless excited him, perhaps because she was so difficult to please.

He took one last swallow of Scotch, picked up his leather briefcase, and left the tent.

The crowds were ghastly. All night long he'd been awakened by die grind and huff of automobiles, and frenzied voices. And now the heat was rising; and he could already feel sand inside his shoes.

How he loathed Egypt. How he loathed these desert camps and the filthy camel-riding Arabs, and the lazy dirty servants. How he loathed his uncle's entire world.

And there was Samir, that insolent, irritating assistant who fancied himself Lawrence's social equal, trying to quiet the foolish reporters. Could this really be the tomb of Ramses II? Would Lawrence grant an interview?

Henry didn't give a damn. He pushed past the men who were guarding the entrance to the tomb.

"Mr. Stratford, please,"  Samir called after him. A lady reporter was on his heels." Let your uncle alone now,"  Samir said as he drew closer." Let him savor his find."

"The hell I will."

He glared at the guard who blocked his path. The man moved. Samir turned back to hold off the reporters. Who was going into the tomb? they wanted to know.

"This is a family matter,"  he said quickly and coldly to the woman reporter trying to follow him. The guard stepped in her path.

So little time left. Lawrence stopped writing, wiped his brow carefully, folded his handkerchief and made one more brief note:

"Brilliant to hide the elixir in a wilderness of poisons. What safer place for a potion that confers immortality than among potions that bring death. And to think they were her poisons -  those which Cleopatra tested before deciding to use the venom of the asp to take her life."

He stopped, wiped his brow again. Already so hot in here.

And within a few short hours, they'd be upon him, demanding that he leave the tomb for the museujn officials. Oh, if only he had made this discovery without the museum. God knows, he hadn't needed them. And they would take it all out of his hands.

The sun came in fine shafts through the rough-cut doorway. It struck the alabaster jars in front of him, and it seemed he heard something - faint, like a whispered breath.

He turned and looked at the mummy, at the features clearly molded beneath the tight wrappings. The man who claimed to be Ramses had been tall, and perhaps robust.

Not an old man, like the creature lying in the Cairo Museum. But then this Ramses claimed that he had never grown old. He was immortal, and merely slept within these bandages. Nothing could kill him, not even the poisons in this room, which he had tried in quantity, when grief for Cleopatra had left him half-mad. On his orders, his servants had wrapped his unconscious body; they had buried him alive, in the coffin he had had prepared for himself, supervising every detail; then they had sealed the tomb with the door that he himself had inscribed.

But what had rendered him unconscious? That was the mystery. Ah, what a delicious story. And what if - ?

He found himself staring at the grim creature in its bindings of yellow linen. Did he really believe that something was alive there? Something that could move and speak?

It made Lawrence smile.

He turned back to the jars on the desk. The sun was making the little room an inferno. Taking his handkerchief, he carefully lifted the lid of the first jar before him. Smell of bitter almonds. Something as deadly as cyanide.

And the immortal Ramses claimed to have ingested half the contents of the jar in seeking to end his cursed life.

What if there were an immortal being under those wrappings ?

There came that sound again. What was it? Not a rustling; no, nothing so distinct. Rather like an intake of breath.

Once again he looked at the mummy. The sun was shining full on it in long, beautiful dusty rays - the sun that shone through church windows, or through the branches of old oaks in dim forest glens.

It seemed he could see the dust rising from the ancient figure: a pale gold mist of moving particles. Ah, he was too tired!

And the thing, it did not seem so withered any longer; rather it had taken on the contour of a man." But what were you really, my ancient friend?"  Lawrence asked softly." Mad? Deluded? Or just what you claim to be -  Ramses the Great?"

It gave him a chill to say it - what the French call a frisson. He rose and drew closer to the mummy.

The rays of the sun were positively bathing the thing. For the first time he noticed the contours of its eyebrows beneath the wrappings; there seemed more expression - hard, determined -  to its face.

Lawrence smiled. He spoke to it in Latin, piecing together his sentences carefully." Do you know how long you've slumbered, immortal Pharaoh? You who claimed to have lived one thousand years?"

Was he murdering the ancient language? He had spent so many years translating hieroglyphs that he was rusty with Caesar's tongue." It's been twice that long, Ramses, since you sealed yourself in this chamber; since Cleopatra put the poisonous snake to her breast."

He stared at the figure, silent for a moment. Was there a mummy that did not arouse in one some deep, cold fear of death? You could believe life lingered there somehow; that the soul was trapped in the wrappings and could only be freed if the thing were destroyed.

Without thinking he spoke now in English.

"Oh, if only you were immortal. If only you could open your eyes on this modern world. And if only I didn't have to wait for permission to remove those miserable bandages, to look on ... your face!"

The face. Had something changed in the face? No; it was only the full sunlight, wasn't it? But the face did seem fuller. Reverently, Lawrence reached out to touch it but then didn't, his hand poised there motionless.

He spoke in Latin again." It's the year 1914, my great King. And the name Ramses the Great is still known to all the world; and so is the name of your last Queen."

Suddenly there was a noise behind him. Henry:

"Speaking to Ramses the Great in Latin, Uncle? Maybe the curse is already working on your brain."

"Oh, he understands Latin,"  Lawrence answered, still staring at the mummy." Don't you, Ramses? And Greek also. And Persian and Etruscan, and tongues the world has forgotten. Who knows? Perhaps you knew the tongues of the ancient northern barbarians which became our own English centuries ago."  Once again, he lapsed into Latin." But oh, there are so many wonders in the world now, great Pharaoh. There are so many things I could show you. ..."

"I don't think he can hear you, Uncle,"  Henry said coldly. There was a soft chink of glass touching glass." Let's hope not, in any case."

Lawrence turned around sharply. Henry, a briefcase tucked under his left arm, held the lid of one of the jars in his right hand.

"Don't touch that!"  Lawrence said crossly." It's poison, you imbecile. They're all full of poisons. One pinch and you'll be as dead as he is. That is, if he's truly dead."  Even the sight of his nephew made him angry. And at a time such as this...

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