Guardian of the Horizon main page
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
unprecedented 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 preeminent 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 had -- I admit -- been
We had been excavating in the Valley of the
Kings at Luxor, my favorite 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 were there under
sufferance, allowed to work 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
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 had 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 equally skilled copyist. Not to mention our foster
daughter 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 tomb 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 M. Maspero, the distinguished head of the Service des Antiquités. Maspero
really had no choice but to accede to Davis's 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 housekeeper, caught
a nasty cold that refused to yield to treatment; she went snuffling drearily
around the house, and Gargery, our butler, drove me wild 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 fulfills his marital obligations moved 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 thoughts 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
"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
his 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
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 English public schools, and Ramses 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 thought 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 David'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 of 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 everybody except Nefret detested him. It was
impossible to discipline the evil-minded beast, however, since Nefret always
took his part. After an insolent survey of the room, Horus settled down at her
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
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
"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
the 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
"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 his 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
"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 of 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 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've had nothing to
do with them for years."
"Not since Ramses presented Lady Carrington
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
"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 so easily solved.
"Confound it, Peabody, I am not the one who is
making difficulties! It only remains for Ramses to make up his mind."
The foregoing is excerpted from The Guardian of
the Horizon by Elizabeth Peters. All rights reserved. No part of this book may
be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers,
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