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I HAVE ROBBED THEIR NOSTRILS OF THE BREATH OF LIFE
AND MADE THE DREAD OF YOU FILL THEIR HEARTS.
MY SERPENT ON YOUR BROW CONSUMED THEM.
--The Poetical Stela of Thutmose III
He woke from a feverish sleep to see something bending over him. It was a shape of black ice, a tall featureless outline that exuded freezing cold. He tried to move, to cry out. Every muscle was frozen. Cold air touched his face, sucking out breath, warmth, life.
We had gathered for tea on the veranda. It is a commodious apartment, stretching clear across the front of the house, and the screens covering the wide window apertures and outer door do not interfere with the splendid view. Looking out at the brilliant sunlight and golden sand, with the water of the Nile tinted by the sunset, it was hard to believe that elsewhere in the world snow covered the ground and icy winds blew. My state of mind was as benevolent as the gentle breeze. The delightful but exhausting Christmas festivities were over and a new year had begun -- 1922, which, I did not doubt, would bring additional success to our excavations and additional laurels to the brow of my distinguished spouse, the greatest Egyptologist of this or any age.
Affectionately I contemplated his impressive form -- the sapphire-blue eyes and ebon hair, the admirable musculature of chest and arms, half bared by his casual costume. Our son Ramses, who had acquired that nickname because he had the coloring of an Egyptian and, in his youth, the dogmatism of a pharaoh, sat comfortably sprawled on the settee, next to his beautiful wife, our adopted daughter Nefret. Faint cries of protest and distress drifted to our ears from the house the dear little children and their parents occupied; but even Nefret, the most devoted of mothers, paid them no heed. We were well accustomed to the complaints; such sounds always accompanied the efforts of Fatima and her assistants (it took several of them) to wash and change the children. It would be some time before the little dears joined us, and when a carriage drew up in front of the house I could not repress a mild murmur of protest at the disturbance of our peace.
Emerson protested more emphatically. "Damnation! Who the devil is that?"
"Now, Emerson, don't swear," I said, watching a woman descend from the carriage.
Asking Emerson not to use bad language is tantamount to King Canute's ordering the tide not to surge in. His Egyptian soubriquet of "Father of Curses" is well deserved.
"Do you know her?" Emerson demanded.
"Then tell her to go away."
"She appears to be in some distress," Nefret said. Her physician's gaze had noted the uncertain movements and hesitant steps. "Ramses, perhaps you had better see if she requires assistance."
"Assist her back into her carriage," Emerson said loudly.
Ramses looked from his wife to his father to me, his heavy black eyebrows tilting in inquiry. "Use your own judgment," I said, knowing what the result would be. Ramses was too well-brought-up (by me) to be rude to a woman, and this one appeared determined to proceed. As soon as he reached her she caught hold of his arm with both hands, swayed, and leaned against him. In a breathy, accented voice she said, "You are Dr. Emerson, I believe? I must see you and your parents at once."
Somewhat taken aback by the tide, which he had earned but never used, Ramses looked down at the face she had raised in entreaty. I could not make out her features, since she was heavily veiled. The veils were unrelieved black, as was her frock. It fit (in my opinion) rather too tightly to a voluptuously rounded figure. Short of prying her hands off his arm, Ramses had no choice but to lead her to the veranda.
As soon as she was inside she adjusted the black chiffon veils, exposing a countenance whose semblance of youth owed more to art than to nature. Her eyes were framed with kohl and her full lips were skillfully tinted. Catching my eye, she lifted her chin in a practiced gesture that smoothed out the slight sagging of her throat. "I apologize for the intrusion. The matter is of some urgency. My name is Magda Petherick. I am the widow of Pringle Petherick. My life is threatened and only you can save me."
It was certainly the sort of introduction that captured one's attention. I invited Mrs. Petherick to take a chair and offered her a cup of tea. "Take your time," I said, for she was breathing quickly and her face was flushed. She carried a heavy reticule, which she placed at her feet before she accepted the cup from Ramses.
Leaning against the wall, his arms folded, Emerson studied her interestedly. Like myself, he had recognized the name.
"Your husband was Pringle Petherick, the well-known collector?" he inquired. "I believe he passed away recently."
"November of last year," she said. "A date that is engraved on my heart." She pressed her hand over that region of her person and launched, without further preamble, into the description I have already recorded. "He woke that morning from a feverish sleep . . .
"This is what killed him," she finished. Reaching into the bag, she withdrew a rectangular box painted with crude Egyptian symbols. "He had purchased it only a few weeks earlier, Unaware that the curse of the long-dead owner yet clung to it."
A long pause ensued, while we all tried to think of an appropriate response. It had occurred to me, as I feel sure it has occurred to the Reader, that there was a certain literary air about her narrative, but even Emerson was not rude enough to inform a recently bereaved widow that she was either lying or demented.
"If I may ask," Ramses said, after a while, "how is it that you were able to describe his death so -- er -- in such vivid detail? He was -- that is to say -- he was dead, wasn't he?"
"He lingered for a while," said Mrs. Pringle Petherick composedly.
"Oh," said Ramses.
Nefret, who had been staring fixedly at Mrs. Petherick, said, "Forgive me, but your face is familiar. Aren't you Magda, Countess von Ormond, the novelist?"
Aha, I thought. That explains the accent. According to her publicity releases the countess came from a noble Hungarian family. She had fled that country during the upheaval of the world war.
The lady's mouth opened in a wide, pleased smile. "You have read my books? I will be happy to sign the ones you have with you."
"I didn't bring any with me," said Nefret, her expression bland as cream. "I saw you several years ago at a literary luncheon in London. At that time, I believe, you were not married."
"My dear Pringle and I became one only a year before his dreadful death. And, now," she continued, "the curse has fallen upon me. Twice I have beheld that grim black figure, and my intuition tells me that the third time will mean my death. Take it. I beg you!"
She thrust the box at Ramses. Eyeing it askance, he stepped back. I took it, and was about to lift the lid when Mrs. Petherick let out a ladylike shriek.
"Don't open it! I never want to see that evil little face again!"
"Am I to understand," I inquired, "that you are passing the -- er -- curse on to us?"
"But you are experienced in dealing with such things," Mrs. Petherick exclaimed, rolling her black-rimmed eyes. "You can do it safely. You have done it before. I have heard the stories."
The stories to which she referred were lurid newspaper articles, many of them written by our journalist friend Kevin O'Connell. Though in every case the purported curse had been proved false, and the evils attributed to it had been found to be caused by a human criminal, many readers remembered the sensational theories and ignored the rational explanations. If the woman actually believed we could cancel curses and defeat evil spirits, she had to be acquitted of deliberate malice.
The children would soon be joining us, and I did not want their juvenile imaginations stirred up by such nonsense. I was about to suggest to Mrs. Petherick that she tie a stone to the confounded thing and toss it in the Nile, when Emerson cleared his throat. His sapphirine eyes were bright and his handsomely tanned face bore an expression of amiable concern. Curse it, I thought.
"Very well," he said. "You may leave it with us, madam. I will perform -- er -- I will take care of the matter."
Mrs. Petherick leaned back in her chair, ignoring Emerson's hint. "What are you going to do? Return it to the tomb from which it was stolen?"
"That might prove a trifle difficult," Ramses said, with a critical look at his father, "If, as I assume, it was purchased on the antiquities market, there is little hope of tracing the original thief and finding out where he obtained it."
"Hmph," said Emerson, giving his son an equally critical look. "You know my methods, Ramses. Rest assured, madam, that you need not give the matter another thought. Good day to you."
This dismissal was too direct to ignore. Mrs. Petherick rose to her feet, but made one more attempt to prolong the conversation. "It killed my dog, too," she offered. "My poor little Pug. He choked and twitched, and was gone, just like that."
Fatima, seeing that we had a guest, had managed to detain the children, but I could hear them expostulating in their high-pitched voices. Emerson heard them too; he got Mrs. Petherick to the door of the veranda, but not before she had told us where she was staying and had asked to be informed when the curse had been officially lifted. She added, with an air of complacency quite at variance from her initial distress, "Perhaps I should participate in the ceremony."
"That will not be necessary," said Emerson, shoving the lady into her carriage and motioning the driver to proceed.
"Really, Emerson," I said. "What ceremony? You made no promise, but your failure to deny her suggestion was a tacit --"
"Well, what else could I have done?" Emerson demanded. "The woman was in considerable distress. Her mind will now be at ease."
"Oh, bah," I said. "Are you familiar with the literary (I use the word loosely) works of Countess von Ormond?"
"Good Gad, no,” said Emerson.
"I've read some of them,” Nefret said. "The Vampire's Kiss was her first. All her novels are about vampires and curses and hauntings."
"Quite," I said. "I suspect that the vivacious account of her husband's death was the first paragraph of her next novel. She means to use us and our questionable reputation with the newspapers in order to get publicity. I understand that her sales have been falling off."
"The later books aren't nearly as entertaining as the first four or five," Nefret said critically. "They were really quite good. I had to leave the fight on all night while I was reading Sons of the Werewolf. "
"Good Gad," Emerson exclaimed. "I had no idea you indulged in such trash, Nefret. Peabody, why did you let her --"
"I do not believe in censoring the reading material of adult persons, Emerson."
"In fact it would be a question of the pot and the kettle," said Emerson. "Your penchant for sensational novels like those of Rider Haggard --"
"Which you also read on the sly," I retorted. "Hypocrisy does not become you, Emerson. To return to the point, I do not intend to allow the woman to make use of us. I will return that object to her tomorrow, unopened, with a stiff note."
"Not unopened," said Emerson. "Aren't you even a trifle curious about the accursed object?"
"It is only a crude wooden box, Emerson, not even ancient."
"Ah," said Emerson. "But what is inside the box? Your analysis of the lady's motives may be accurate, my dear, but it overlooks one interesting fact. Petherick was a wealthy, discriminating collector. She may have purchased the box in Cairo, but if the contents came from Petherick's collection, they will be worth looking at."
He took the box from me and was about to lift the lid when I exclaimed, "No, Emerson. Not now. Put it away."
Seeing that our visitor had departed, Fatima opened the door to the house and the juvenile avalanche descended. There were only two of them, and they were only four years old, but they made enough noise for a dozen and moved so rapidly that they gave the impression of having been multiplied. As usual, they dashed at their grandfather, who tried to hide the painted box behind his back. He was not quick enough.
"It is a present!" Carla shouted. Her black eyes, so like those of her father, shone with anticipation. "Is it for me?"
Her brother, David John, who had his mother's fair hair and blue eyes, shook his head. "The assumption is without foundation, Carla. Grandpapa would not have a present for only one of us."
"Quite right," said Emerson. "Er -- this is a present for me."
"Did the lady give it to you?" Carla demanded.
"Yes," said Emerson.
"Because -- er -- because she is a kind person."
"Can we see what is inside?"
David John, whose methods were less direct than those of his sister, had already headed for the tea table, where Fatima had placed a plate of biscuits.
"Don't you want a biscuit?" Emerson asked Carla.
Carla hesitated only for a moment. Insatiable curiosity won over greed. "I want to see what is inside the box."
Emerson tried to look severe. He did not succeed. He dotes on his grandchildren, and they know it. "I told you, Carla, that it is not for you."
"But it might be something I would want," Carla explained coolly.
“It is something you may not have," said Ramses, drawing himself up to his full height of six feet and fixing his small daughter with a stem look. Not one whit intimidated, Carla stared back at him from her full height of three feet and a bit. She was comically like her father, with the same black curls and dark eyes, and downy black brows that were now drawn into a miniature version of his frown.
I said, “David John is eating all the biscuits."
My understanding of juvenile psychology had the effect Ramses's attempt at discipline had not. Carla ran to get her share and Nefret informed her son he had had as many biscuits as he was allowed. A discussion ensued, for David John had inherited his father's Jesuitical skill at debate, and Nefret had to counter several arguments about the needs of growing children for sugarcoated biscuits. While they were thus engaged, I gestured to Emerson.
"Now you have aroused my curiosity," I admitted. "Open the box, Emerson."
The object inside the box was roughly cylindrical in shape and approximately thirty centimeters long. That was all we could make out at first, since it was swathed in silken wrappings tied at intervals with tightly knotted gold cords.
"She was taking no chances, was she?" Ramses said, while his father picked at the knots and swore under his breath. "It could be an ushebti, it's the right shape."
“Surely nothing so ordinary," I objected. The little servant statues, placed in the tomb to serve the dead man in the afterlife, had been found in the thousands; most were of crude workmanship and cheap materials such as faience.
"Why not?" Ramses inquired. "The notion of a curse is pure superstition; it can be attached to any object, however humble."
"Petherick wouldn't have owned anything humble," said Emerson.
But his wife might have purchased something of the sort to add verisimilitude to her sensational account. I did not voice this sentiment, since Emerson would not have accepted it. Anyhow, I told myself, it would do no harm to have a look.
Since neither Emerson nor Ramses carried even a small penknife (David John was an accomplished pickpocket and particularly interested in sharp objects), Emerson had to go into the house to get a knife with which to cut the cords, the knots being beyond even my skill. By that time, I candidly admit, we were all agog with anticipation. Even Nefret abandoned her maternal duties and came to lean over my shoulder as Emerson removed the wrappings.
Sunset light set the small statue aglow, as if a fire burned within. This was no crude ushebti, of common material; it was the golden figure of a crowned king. His face was youthful, rounded and faintly smiling, his half-bared body gently curved. He wore an elaborately pleated kilt, the lines of which had been rendered with exquisite precision. The small sandaled feet and delicate hands were models of graceful beauty.
Nefret caught her breath and Emerson gave me a triumphant look. Even Ramses's normally enigmatic countenance betrayed astonishment verging on awe.
"How beautiful," I murmured. "There is nothing evil about this face."
"The devil with that," said Emerson, lifting the statuette out of the box. "Where did it come from? Where did he get it? How could such a thing come onto the antiquities market without causing a sensation?"
"Is it genuine?" Nefret asked breathlessly.
Emerson weighed the statuette in his hand. "Forgers don't use this amount of solid gold."
We agreed to postpone further discussion until the children had been sent off to bed. Our friends the Vandergelts were dining with us, and as Emerson and I dressed I inquired, "Are you planning to show it to Cyrus?"
"Hmph," said Emerson.
I had learned over the years how to interpret Emerson's wordless grunts. "You must, Emerson," I said. "We can't keep the statue, YOU know, it is far too valuable. An ordinary accursed ushebti is one thing, but this --"
"Yes, yes, confound it," said Emerson. "I intend to pay her for it."
"If she had wanted money, she would have asked for it."
"Everybody wants money," said Emerson. He pondered the matter for a moment and then went on, "It is odd, though, that she would hand over something so valuable to complete strangers in order to support a fantastic story which could have been equally well served by a cheap antiquity such as an amulet or ushebti."
"Better served," I admitted. "One of the monster-headed Egyptian gods like Tausert or Sobek would be more likely to appeal to a melodramatic mind like hers. How much is this object worth, do you suppose?"
"You ought to know better than to ask me, Peabody. I never purchase antiquities and I do not follow the vagaries of the market."
"All the more reason to invite Cyrus's opinion. He too is a collector, as well as a knowledgeable and respected excavator."
"Hmph," said Emerson. This time it was a tacit acknowledgment of the correctness of my statement.
So Emerson took the little box with him when we went to the drawing room. He had adamantly refused to assume proper evening dress, which he hates, but I had managed to persuade him into a tweed coat and a nice sapphire blue tie, selected by me. Given his own way, he would have gone to dinner in the same open-necked shirt and unpressed trousers he wore on the dig -- a costume which, I would be the first to admit, becomes his stalwart form to best advantage. However, certain standards must be maintained.
We found Nefret and Ramses waiting for us. Ramses was dressed like his father, but Nefret, who enjoyed pretty clothes and had enough money to buy all she liked, wore a clinging frock of Nile green that set off her golden-red hair, The Great Cat of Re had also condescended to join us. He was the only cat in residence that year, Nefret's unpleasant old pet Horus having passed on to whatever hereafter awaited him (I hoped it was someplace uncomfortable). The Great Cat of Re -- who was always referred to by his full name -- was more agreeable and a good deal more ornamental than Horus had been: striped gray and white, with a tail as bushy as a Cavalier's plume. He had arranged himself at the feet of Ramses with the expression of a creature who expects to be admired.
Ramses's eagle eye immediately fell on the box his father held.
"So you mean to let Cyrus in on this?" he inquired.
Emerson frowned. "I do not know why you put it in those terms, my boy. Surely you don't mean to imply I would keep this remarkable discovery to myself? Even if I could."
The regret in the last phrase brought a smile to Ramses's tanned face, and Nefret laughed aloud.
"You cannot," I said firmly "We haven't even begun to discuss the ramifications of this business. I confess that my initial interpretation of Mrs. Petherick's motives has been shaken. An ordinary amulet would have served the purpose if she wished only to -- ah, here are the Vandergelts. Prompt as always! Good evening, Cyrus -- Katherine -- Bertie, dear boy. But where is Jumana?"
Jumana was a member of our dear departed reis Abdullah's family, not a Vandergelt, though Katherine's son Bertie had more than once attempted to persuade her to become one. After completing her training in Egyptology, she had joined our staff but she lived at the Castle, since Cyrus's palatial home near the Valley of the Kings was more commodious than our humble abode.
Bertie's amiable countenance darkened. "She said she had to finish a paper. The girl thinks of nothing but work."
"She bears a heavy burden on those slender shoulders," I said. "As the first Egyptian woman to practice Egyptology, she feels she must outshine all others. An admirable attitude, in my opinion."
Having served our guests with their beverage of choice, Emerson flung himself into a chair and took out his pipe. "We had a most interesting visitor this afternoon," he said. "A Mrs. Pringle Petherick."
Animation lit Cyrus's lined countenance. "Petherick's widow? What's she doing in Egypt? Pringle said she hates the place."
Emerson countered with another question. "Were you a friend of his?"
"As good a friend as one die-hard collector can be with a fellow who is after the same artifacts," Cyrus said. "I saw his collection one time -- some of it, anyhow. He frankly admitted he had some pieces he could never display, since he'd got them illegally. He'd do anything, pay anything, to get what he wanted. Say!" He leaned forward, his eyes brightening. "Is his widow putting the collection up for sale? Is that why she called on you, to get your advice? Emerson, old pal, you wouldn't cut me out, would you?"
"That never occurred to me," Ramses said thoughtfully. "It makes better sense than her nonsense about a curse, though it's an extremely roundabout way of capturing your interest, Father."
"Not necessarily," I said. "If she knows anything about your father, she must realize he would reject a request for assistance in marketing the antiquities. Perhaps the statue could be considered a sample. It certainly succeeded in capturing his interest."
"What are you talking about?" Cyrus demanded. "Sample? Statue?"
"And what's this about a curse?" Katherine asked.
I recounted our conversation with Mrs. Petherick. Being in receipt of several grunts and meaningful glances from Emerson, I stopped short of describing the statuette. He wanted to spring it on Cyrus himself.
"How can she believe anything so preposterous?" Katherine exclaimed.
"I don't know why it should surprise you, Mother," Bertie said.
The oblique reference to Katherine's former career as a spiritualist medium brought a frown to that lady's face. After years of happy marriage and complete respectability, she would have preferred to forget that part of her life -- which, I should add in justice to her, she had taken on solely as a means of earning a living for herself and her orphaned children. Generous soul that he was, Cyrus regarded Bertie and his sister Anna as his own, and Bertie had repaid his stepfather's kindness by becoming his affectionate and skilled assistant in his excavations.
"It isn't at all surprising," Cyrus said impatiently. "The world is full of people who can't think straight. Come on, Emerson, let's see the thing."
Emerson removed the statuette from the box and held it up.
The effect was all my husband could have desired. Cyrus actually and literally went white. Bertie leaned forward, his eyes wide. Katherine was not so violently affected, since she had not the expertise to understand what it was she saw, but even she exclaimed in admiration.
"I presume this was not one of the objects you saw when you visited Petherick," said Emerson.
Cyrus shook his head. In silence he held out his hand -- it trembled perceptibly -- and Emerson gave him the statue.
"Mrs. Petherick said he did not acquire it until shortly before his death," I said.
"She . . ." Cyrus cleared his throat. "She gave you this? In exchange for what?"
"My promise that I would take upon myself the wrath of the original owner," said Emerson with a superior smile. "Bad luck, Vandergelt. Had you my reputation for superstitious hokery-pokery, she might have gone to you."
"Don't tease, Emerson," I said.
The drawing room door opened, and Fatima appeared. "Dinner is --" Before she could finish the sentence, a man pushed past her and entered the room. He was tall and cadaverously thin, the black of his evening suit matching windblown ebony hair, his long face as white as his shirtfront; but I believe no one took much notice of his appearance at that time. Our attention was concentrated on the pistol he held.
"Give it back," he cried, waving the weapon wildly. "Give it to me now, and no one will be hurt."
His hungry eyes were fixed on the statuette. Clutching it still more firmly, Cyrus took a step back. "Now see here, young fellow," he began.
"Don't argue, Vandergelt," said Emerson. "If the statuette is his property, we must certainly return it. Sir, may I suggest you put the gun away? There are ladies present."
The appeal had an effect reason had not. The fellow's high white brow wrinkled. "I beg your pardon," he said.
He took his finger off the trigger and lowered the weapon a trifle; it now pointed at my feet instead of my head. This was something of an improvement, but not entirely reassuring. I smiled graciously, holding his gaze, and Ramses, who had been edging sideways in that noiseless fashion of his, caught hold of the fellow from behind, gripping his right wrist and forcing his arm down. The weapon thumped onto the floor and the intruder let out a cry of pain.
"It was locked on safety," said Ramses coolly.
"Very good," said Emerson, who had, of course, been aware of the maneuver from the start. "You had better keep hold of him."
The intruder stood passive in Ramses's grasp, his head bowed. Cyrus took a handkerchief from his breast pocket and mopped his brow; Katherine sank back in her chair with a long sigh. Fatima had prudently retired to the farthest corner of the room, but had betrayed no signs of alarm, since she took it for granted that we could handle any situation, up to and including armed assault.
"Sitt Hakim," she said somewhat accusingly, "dinner is --"
She got no further with the announcement than she had before. This time the person who pushed her aside was a woman, smartly dressed in a beaded evening frock and a cloak trimmed with marabou feathers. She let out a piercing scream flung the cloak aside, and rushed at Ramses. "How dare you! Release him at once!"
She began pounding at Ramses with clenched fists. Ramses raised one arm to protect his face, and Nefret, swearing, went to his assistance. Avoiding the flailing fists, she administered a sharp kick on the ankle. The woman sat down suddenly on the floor.
"Well, really," I said in exasperation. "It appears we are not to dine anytime soon. Young woman, who the devil are you, and what do you mean by this?"
The fall had knocked the breath out of her, and some sense into her. Despite her undignified position, limbs asprawl, long dark hair loosened and skirt crumpled, she maintained an air of self-possession. "I came for my brother," she said. "Adrian, have they hurt you?"
Holding his mute, unresisting captive with one arm, Ramses said, "The only damage inflicted on anyone has been done by your brother and you. Is it his habit to threaten strangers with a pistol?"
She hadn't seen the pistol until then. Her lips tightened and she looked up at Ramses with a stare that held more of accusation than apology. For a moment their eyes locked. Then she got slowly to her feet, straightening her skirt. She was tall for a woman, and her bearing was more manly than feminine -- feet apart, shoulders squared. Her hair was long and black and lustrous; it had come loose from its combs and hung untidily around her face. Her eyes, of a soft hazel, were her most attractive feature; her nose was prominent and her lips thin. "Apparently I misunderstood the situation," she said coolly. Her gaze turned to me. "Are you are the one they call the Sitt Hakim?"
"It is my Egyptian soubriquet, meaning Lady Doctor," I said. "Dating from my early days in this country, when I endeavored in my humble fashion to alleviate the sufferings of the local people. You, however, are not entitled to use that name, since --"
"Peabody!" Emerson said in a loud voice.
"Nor that one," I said. "Only my husband employs my maiden name as a title of affection and --"
"Amelia," said Emerson even more loudly.
I know Emerson is out of temper with me when he employs my given name, I nodded, in acknowledgment of his implicit complaint, and said to the young woman, "You will address me as Mrs. Emerson, and apologize for your rude intrusion. You and your brother have probably spoiled our dinner. Fatima, will you tell cook we will be a few minutes longer?"
"He will cry," said Fatima darkly.
Our former cook had burned the food when we were late. This one wept.
"Tell him we will be as quick as we can. Young woman, I will give you ten minutes to explain, apologize, and remove your -- er -- impetuous brother. You might start by introducing yourself."
"Harriet Petherick. This is my brother, Adrian." Her eyes went back to Ramses. "I beg you will let go of him. He is quite calm now. Aren't you, Adrian?"
"Yes, of course." He gave a brief, embarrassed laugh. "I can't think what came over me. Come along, Harriet, we mustn't keep these people from their dinner any longer."
"Not just yet," said Emerson, removing his pipe from his mouth. "Ramses, let the fellow go. And pick up that damned gun. Excuse me for not rising, Miss Petherick; I do not consider that your behavior warrants your being treated like a lady. Sit down, both of you, and explain yourselves. I take it that you are the children of Pringle Petherick, whose widow called on us this afternoon."
Miss Petherick nodded. She led her brother to a settee and sat down next to him, holding his hand in hers. Ramses scooped tip the pistol and examined it.
"German," he said.
"A war souvenir," said Adrian Petherick, smiling.
Bertie let out a soft exclamation and came forward, staring at Petherick. If he had intended to speak, he was not given the chance; Miss Petherick at once launched into the explanation I had requested.
"Mrs. Petherick is our stepmother. We accompanied her to Egypt, at her request, on what she described as a sentimental pilgrimage in memory of her dear departed husband, We had no idea that she had the statue with her, or what she intended to do with it, until she returned to the hotel this evening and informed us she had given you one of the most valuable objects in Father's collection. We are both fond of Mrs. Petherick, and Adrian is quite protective of her. He believed you had taken advantage of a grieving woman who is not, perhaps, as intelligent as she might be. His indignation explains his action, I believe."
"No, it does not," said Emerson. "Your high-handed manner may intimidate some persons, Miss Petherick, but I am not one of them. Does your brother often have attacks of dementia?"
She reacted as if he had struck her, with a loud gasp and a hand raised in protest. Emerson's steady blue gaze did not alter. After a moment she said, "It is not what you think. He has never injured anyone. He would not have injured you."
"Hmph," said Emerson. "We will leave that aside for the moment. Mrs. Petherick told us that the object she gave us was accursed. That it had killed her husband, sucking the breath out of him."
There was no reaction from young Mr. Petherick, who was staring off into space. His sister frowned. "I am not surprised she should say that. But her superstitious fantasy does not alter the facts of the case."
"How did your father die?" I asked.
"Of purely natural causes," said Miss Petherick. "He had a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed. The second finished him."
Emerson took out his watch. "Let me be brief. Maaman will be sobbing into the soup, and I want my dinner. I will of course pay Mrs. Petherick a reasonable price for the artifact, or return it to her, should she prefer that."
"She wants it back," said Miss Petherick. "She sent us to retrieve it."
"Oh, come now," Emerson shouted. He had kept his temper under control until that moment, but hunger always makes him irascible. Brother and sister flinched, and Emerson skewered them with a terrible glare. "You insult my intelligence, young woman. I don't know who the legal owner of this object may be. I intend to hang on to it until I find out. I shan't bother asking you, since I wouldn't trust your word in any case."
Miss Petherick recognized that she had met her match. She scowled.
"Hmph," said Emerson. "Do you know from whom your father purchased the statuette?"
"Did he ever discuss his purchases with you?"
"So your only interest in his collection is in its monetary value?"
The young woman flushed angrily. "You have no right to imply that."
"Oh, bah," said Emerson. "Go away."
Miss Petherick rose. "If that is your attitude, Professor Emerson --"
"Ramses," said Emerson. "Hand Miss Petherick her wrap and escort her to her carriage."
When Ramses attempted to put the garment around her shoulders, she snatched it from him. "Come, Adrian," she said. Her brother stood up, smiling vaguely. She took his arm and swept out of the room, followed by Ramses.
"Dinner," said Fatima, in a near shriek, is served."
The foregoing is excerpted from The Serpent on the Crown by Elizabeth Peters. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022