Home > The Mummy(8)

The Mummy(8)
Author: Anne Rice

"Thank you, Oscar,"  he said with the usual smile as he took his first glass of white wine.

"Not a moment too soon, old boy,"  Randolph said to him wearily." They're going to unveil the ghastly thing now. Might as well come along."

Elliot nodded. Randolph looked dreadful, no doubt about it. He'd had the wind knocked out of him by Lawrence's death. But he was doing his best here, it was obvious.

They moved together into the front ranks - and for the first time, Elliott laid eyes upon the startlingly beautiful coffin of the mummy.'

The innocent, childlike expression of the golden mask charmed him. Then his eyes moved to the bands of writing that girded the lower portion of the figure. Latin and Greek words written as if they were Egyptian hieroglyphs!

But he was distracted as Hancock of the British Museum called for quiet, tapping a spoon loudly on a crystal glass. Beside Hancock stood Alex, with his arm around Julie, who looked exquisite in her black mourning, her hair drawn severely back from her pale face, revealing to all the world that her features had never needed fancy coifs or other adornments.

As their eyes met, Elliott gave Julie a little melancholy smile, and saw the immediate brightening in her that always greeted him. In a way, he thought, she is more fond of me than of my son. What an irony. But then his son was staring at these proceedings as if he were utterly lost. And perhaps he was, and that was the problem.

Samir Ibrahaim appeared suddenly at Hancock's left. Another old friend. But he did not see Elliott. A bit anxiously, he directed two young men to take hold of the lid of the mummy case and wait for his instructions. They stood with eyes downcast as if faintly embarrassed by the act they were about to perform. And the room went dead silent.

"Ladies and gentlemen,"  Samir said. The two young fellows at once hoisted the lid and moved it gracefully to one side." I give you Ramses the Great."

The mummy lay exposed for all to see; the tall figure of a man with arms crossed on his breast, seemingly bald and na**d under its thick discoloured wrappings.

A collective gasp rose from the crowd. In the golden light of the electric chandeliers and the few scattered candelabra, the form was faintly horrible as they always are. Death preserved and mounted.

There was an uneasy sprinkling of applause. Shudders, even uneasy laughter; and then the thick bank of spectators broke up, some drawing in for a closer look, then backing off as if from the heat of a fire, others turning their backs on the thing altogether.

Randolph sighed and shook his head.

"Died for this, did he? I wish I understood why."

"Don't be morbid,"  said the man next to him, someone Elliott ought to remember, but didn't." Lawrence was happy - "

"Doing what he wanted to do,"  Elliott whispered. If he heard it said even one more time, he would weep.

Lawrence would have been happy examining his treasure.

Lawrence would have been happy translating those scrolls. Lawrence's death was a tragedy. Anyone who tried to make anything else out of it was a perfect fool.

Elliott gave Randolph's arm a gentle squeeze and left him, moving slowly towards the venerable corpse of Ramses.

It seemed the younger generation had decided en masse to block his progress as they surrounded Alex and Julie. Elliott could hear her voice in snatches as conversation regained its spirited volume all around.

"... a remarkable story in the papyri,"  Julie explained." But Father had only begun his translation. I should like to know what you think, Elliott."

"What was that, my dear?"  He had just reached the mummy itself and he was staring at the face, marvelling at how easily one could discern an expression under so many layers of decomposing cloth. He took her hand now as she moved close to him. Others pressed in, trying to get a good look, but Elliott stood his ground rather selfishly.

"Your opinion, Elliott, of the whole mystery,"  Julie said." Is this a nineteenth-dynasty coffin? How did it come to be fashioned in Roman times? You know, Father told me once, you knew more about Egyptology than all the men at the museum."

He laughed softly to himself. She glanced about nervously to make sure Hancock was nowhere near. Thank God, he was in the thick of his own little crowd, explaining something about those scrolls, no doubt, and the row of exquisite jars along the wall beneath the mirror.

"What do you think?"  Julie prodded again. Had seriousness ever been so seductive?

"Can't possibly be Ramses the Great, my dear,"  he said." But then you know that."  He studied the painted lid of the coffin again, and once more the body nestled in its dusty swathing." An excellent job, I must say that. Not many chemicals were used; no smell of bitumen whatsoever."

"There is no bitumen,"  Samir said suddenly. He had been standing on Elliot's left and Elliott had not even seen him,

"And what do you make of that?"  Elliott asked.

"The King has given us his own explanation,"  Samir said.

"Or so Lawrence told me. Ramses had himself wrapped with all due ceremony and prayers; but he was not embalmed. He was never taken from the cell where he wrote his story."

"What an amazing idea!"  Elliott said." And have you read these inscriptions yourself?"  He pointed to the Latin as he translated:"  'Let not the sun shine on my remains; for in darkness I sleep; beyond all suffering; beyond all knowledge...' Now that is hardly an Egyptian sentiment. I think you'll agree."

Samir's face darkened as he looked at the tiny letters." There are curses and warnings everywhere. I was a curious man until we opened this strange tomb."

"And now you're frightened?"  Not a good thing for one man to say to another. But it was true. And Julie was merely enthralled.

"Elliott, I want you to read Father's notes,"  she said," before the museum gathers up everything and locks it in a vault. The man doesn't merely claim to be Ramses. There's a good deal more."

"You're not referring to the nonsense in the papers,"  he asked her." About his being immortal, and loving Cleopatra."

Strange the way she looked at him." Father translated some of it,"  she repeated. She glanced to the side." I have the notebook. It's on his desk. Samir will agree with me, 1 think. You'll find it interesting."

But Samir was being dragged away by Hancock and some other fellow with a brittle smile. And Lady Treadwell had accosted Julie before she could go on. Wasn't Julie afraid of the curse? Elliott felt her hand slip away from his. Old Winslow Baker wanted to talk to Elliott right now. No, go away. A tall woman with withered cheeks and long white hands stood before the coffin and demanded to know if the whole thing might be a practical joke.

"Certainly not!"  said Baker." Lawrence always dug up the real thing, I 'd stake my life on it."

Elliott smiled." Once the museum has these wrappings off,"  he said," they'll be able to date the remains successfully. There will be internal evidence of age, of course." 

Chapter 5

"Lord Rutherford, I didn't recognize you,"  said the woman.

Good Lord, was he supposed to recognize her? Someone had stepped in front of her; everyone wanted to see this thing. And he ought to move, but he didn't want to.

"I can't bear to think of their cutting him open,"  Julie said half in a whisper." This is the first time I've seen him,"  she said." I didn't dare to open the case on my own."

"Come along, darling, there's an old friend I want you to

meet,"  Alex said suddenly." Father, there you are! Do get off your feet! Do you want me to help you to a chair?"

"I can manage, Alex, go on,"  Elliott replied. The fact was, he was used to the pain. It was like tiny knives in his joints; and tonight he could feel it even in his fingers. But he could forget about it, entirely, now and then.

And now he was alone with Ramses the Damned, with a lot of backs and shoulders turned to him. How splendid.

He narrowed his eyes as he drew very close to the mummy's face. Amazingly well formed; not desiccated at all. And certainly not the face of an old man, such as Ramses would have been at the end of a sixty-year reign.

The mouth was a young man's mouth, or at least that of a man in his prime. And the nose was slender, but not emaciated - what Englishmen call aristocratic. The ridges of the brows were prominent and the eyes themselves could not have been small. Probably a handsome man. In fact, there seemed little doubt of it.

Someone said crossly that the thing ought to be in the museum. Another that it was perfectly gruesome. And to think, these had been Lawrence's friends? Hancock was examining the gold coins on display in their velvet-lined case. Samir was beside him.

In fact, Hancock was making a fuss about something, wasn't he? Elliott knew that officious tone.

"There were five, only five? You're sure of it?"  And he was speaking so loudly one would have thought Samir was deaf, not merely Egyptian.

"Quite sure. I told you,"  Samir said with a touch of irritation." I cataloged the entire contents of the chamber myself."

Quite unmistakably, Hancock shifted his gaze to someone across the room. Elliott saw it was Henry Stratford, looking quite splendid in his dove-grey wool, with a black silk tie at his throat. Laughing and talking nervously, too, it seemed, with Alex and Julie and that crowd of young people whom Henry secretly loathed and resented.

Handsome as ever, Elliott thought. Handsome as when he was a boy of twenty, and that narrow elegant face could flash from a beguiling vulnerability to a chilling viciousness.

But why was Hancock staring at him? And what was he whispering now in Samir's ear? Samir looked at Hancock for a long moment, then gave a languid little shrug, his eyes moving slowly over Henry also.

How Samir must loathe all this, Elliott thought. How he must loathe that uncomfortable Western suit; he wants his gellebiyya of watered silk, and his slippers, and he should have them. What barbarians we must seem.

Elliott moved to the far corner and slipped into Lawrence's leather chair, easing it back against the wall. The crowd opened and closed at random, revealing Henry again moving away from the others, and glancing uncomfortably to right and left. Very subtle, not like a stage villain, but he's up to something, isn't he?

Henry slowly passed the marble table, his hand hovering as if he meant to touch the ancient scrolls. The crowd closed again, but Elliott merely waited. The little knot of persons in front of him shifted finally, and there was Henry, yards away, peering at a necklace on a little glass shelf, one of those many relics which Lawrence had brought home years ago.

Did anyone see Henry pick up the necklace and look at it lovingly as if he were an antiquarian? Did anyone see him slip it into his pocket and walk away, face blank, mouth rigid?

Bastard.

Elliott only smiled. He took a sip of the chilled white wine, and wished it were sherry. He wished he had not seen the lithe theft. He wished he had not seen Henry.

His own secret memories of Henry had never lost their painful edge, perhaps because he had never confessed what had happened to anyone. Not even to Edith, though he had told her many other sordid things about himself when wine and philosophy had made it seem imperative that he do so; and not to the Roman Catholic priests to whom he occasionally went to speak of heaven and hell in passionate ways no one else would tolerate.

He always told himself that if he did not relive those dark times, then he would forget them. But they were horridly vivid even now, some ten years after.

He had loved Henry Stratford once. And Henry Stratford was the only lover Elliott had ever had who tried to blackmail him.

Of course it had been an utter failure. Elliott had laughed in Henry's face. He'd called his bluff." Shall I tell your father all about it? Or shall I tell your uncle Lawrence first? He's going to be furious with me ... for perhaps five minutes. But you, his favourite nephew, he will despise till the day you die because I

shall tell him all of it, you see, down to the sum of money you're demanding. What was it? Five hundred pounds? You've made yourself a wretch for that, imagine."

How sullen and hurt Henry had been; how utterly confounded.

It should have been a triumph; but nothing took the sting from the overall humiliation. Henry at twenty-two - a viper with an angel's face, turning on Elliott in their Paris hotel as if he were a common boy out of the gutter.

And then there had been the little thefts. An hour after Henry had left, Elliot! had discovered that his cigarette case, his money clip and all his cash were missing. His dressing gown was gone; his cuff links. Other items he could no longer remember.

He could never bring himself to mention the whole disaster. But he would have liked to needle Henry now, to slip up beside him and ask about the necklace that had just found its way into his pocket. Would Henry put it with the gold cigarette case, and the fine engraved money clip, and the diamond cuff links? Or lay it off on the same pawnbroker?

It was ail too sad really. Henry had been a gifted young man; and it had all gone wrong, despite education and blood and countless opportunities. He'd started to gamble when he was no more than a boy; his drinking had become a disease by the time he was twenty-five; and now at thirty-two he had a perpetually sinister air that deepened his good looks and made him curiously repulsive in spite of them. And who suffered for it? Randolph, of course, who believed against all evidence that Henry's descent was his father's failure.

Let him go to hell, Elliott thought. Maybe he'd sought some glimmer with Henry of the flame he'd known with Lawrence, and it was all his own fault - seeing the uncle in the nephew. But no, it had started as an honest thing in its own right. And Henry Stratford had pursued him, after all. Yes, to hell with Henry.

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