Althea Tomlinson comes back to Egypt as just another tourist, showing the country to a spoiled seventeen-year-old. That's what she tells herself, anyway. Really, though, what drives her is a desire to discover the truth behind her father's disgrace and subsequent death.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Elizabeth Peters (1927-2013) was a New York Times bestselling author whose novels were often set against historical backdrops. She earned a PhD in Egyptology at the University of Chicago. She also wrote bestselling books under the pseudonym Barbara Michaels.
Grace Conlin (1962-1997) was the recording name of Grainne Cassidy, an award-winning actress and acclaimed narrator. She was a member of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC, and won a Helen Hayes Award in 1988 for her role in Woolly Mammoth's production of Savage in Limbo.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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. ...
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