The Snake, the Crocodile and the Dog
By Elizabeth Peters
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Peters
All rights reserved.
"Some concessions to temperament are necessary if the marital state is to flourish."
I believe I may truthfully claim that I have never been daunted by danger or drudgery. Of the two I much prefer the former. As the only unmarried offspring of my widowed and extremely absentminded father, I was held responsible for the management of the household—which, as every woman knows, is the most difficult, unappreciated, and lowest paid (i.e., not paid) of all occupations. Thanks to the above-mentioned absentmindedness of my paternal parent I managed to avoid boredom by pursuing such unwomanly studies as history and languages, for Papa never minded what I did so long as his meals were on time, his clothing was clean and pressed, and he was not disturbed by anyone for any reason whatever.
At least I thought I was not bored. The truth is, I had nothing with which to compare that life, and no hope of a better one. In those declining years of the nineteenth century, marriage was not an alternative that appealed to me; it would have been to exchange comfortable serfdom for absolute slavery—or so I believed. (And I am still of that opinion as regards the majority of women.) My case was to be the exception that proves the rule, and had I but known what unimagined and unimaginable delights awaited me, the bonds that chafed me would have been unendurable. Those bonds were not broken until the death of my poor papa left me the possessor of a modest fortune and I set out to see the ancient sites I knew only from books and photographs. In the antique land of Egypt I learned at last what I had been missing—adventure, excitement, danger, a life's work that employed all my considerable intellectual powers, and the companionship of that remarkable man who was destined for me as I was for him. What mad pursuits! What struggles to escape! What wild ecstasy!
I am informed, by a certain person of the publishing persuasion, that I have not set about this in the right way. She maintains that if an author wishes to capture the attention of her readers she must begin with a scene of violence and/or passion.
"I mentioned—er—'wild ecstasy,'" I said.
The person gave me a kindly smile. "Poetry, I believe? We do not allow poetry, Mrs. Emerson. It slows the narrative and confuses the Average Reader." (This apocryphal individual is always referred to by persons of the publishing persuasion with a blend of condescension and superstitious awe; hence my capital letters.)
"What we want is blood," she continued, with mounting enthusiasm. "And a lot of it! That should be easy for you, Mrs. Emerson. I believe you have encountered a good many murderers."
This was not the first time I had considered editing my journals for eventual publication, but never before had I gone so far as to confer with an editor, as these individuals are called. I was forced to explain that if her views were characteristic of the publishing industry today, that industry would have to muddle along without Amelia P. Emerson. How I scorn the shoddy tricks of sensationalism which characterize modern literary productions! To what a state has the noble art of literature fallen in recent years! No longer is a reasoned, leisurely exposition admired; instead the reader is to be bludgeoned into attention by devices that appeal to the lowest and most degraded of human instincts.
The publishing person went away shaking her head and mumbling about murder. I was sorry to disappoint her, for she was a pleasant enough individual—for an American. I trust that remark will not leave me open to an accusation of chauvinism; Americans have many admirable characteristics, but literary taste is rare among them. If I consider this procedure again, I will consult a British publisher.
I suppose I might have pointed out to the naive publishing person that there are worse things than murder. Dead bodies I have learned to take in my stride, so to speak; but some of the worst moments of my life occurred last winter when I crawled on all fours through indescribable refuse toward the place where I hoped, and feared, to find the individual dearer to me than life itself. He had been missing for almost a week. I could not believe any prison could hold a man of his intelligence and strength so long unless ... The hideous possibilities were too painful to contemplate; mental anguish overwhelmed the physical pain of bruised knees and scratched palms, and rendered inconsequential the fear of enemies on every hand. Already the swollen orb of day hung low in the west. The shadows of the coarse weeds stretched gray across the grass, touching the walls of the structure that was our goal. It was a small low building of stained mud-brick that seemed to squat sullenly in its patch of refuse-strewn dirt. The two walls visible to me had neither windows nor doors. A sadistic owner might keep a dog in such a kennel ...
Swallowing hard, I turned to my faithful reis Abdullah, who was close at my heels. He shook his head warningly and placed a finger on his lips. A gesture conveyed his message: the roof was our goal. He gave me a hand up and then followed.
A crumbling parapet shielded us from sight, and Abdullah let out his breath in a gasp. He was an old man; the strain of suspense and effort had taken their toll. I had no sympathy to give him then, nor would he have wanted it. Scarcely pausing, he crawled toward the middle of the roof, where there was an opening little more than a foot square. A grille of rusted metal covered it, resting on a ledge or lip just below the surface of the roof. The bars were thick and close together.
Were the long days of suspense at an end? Was he within? Those final seconds before I reached the aperture seemed to stretch on interminably. But they were not the worst. That was yet to come.
The only other light in the foul den below came from a slit over the door. In the gloom of the opposite corner I saw a motionless form. I knew that form; I would have recognized it in darkest night, though I could not make out his features. My senses swam. Then a shaft of dying sunlight struck through the narrow opening and fell upon him. It was he! My prayers had been answered! But—oh, Heaven—had we come too late? Stiff and unmoving, he lay stretched out upon the filthy cot. The features might have been those of a waxed death mask, yellow and rigid. My straining eyes sought some sign of life, of breath ... and found none.
But that was not the worst. It was yet to come.
Yes, indeed, if I were to resort to contemptible devices of the sort the young person suggested, I could a tale unfold ... I refuse to insult the intelligence of my (as yet) hypothetical reader by doing so, however. I now resume my ordered narrative.
As I was saying: "What mad pursuits! What struggles to escape! What wild ecstasy!" Keats was speaking in quite another context, of course. However, I have been often pursued (sometimes madly) and struggled (successfully) to escape on more than one occasion. The last phrase is also appropriate, though I would not have put it quite that way myself.
Pursuits, struggles and the other sentiment referred to began in Egypt, where I encountered for the first time the ancient civilization that was to inspire my life's work, and the remarkable man who was to share it. Egyptology and Radcliffe Emerson! The two are inseparable, not only in my heart but in the estimation of the scholarly world. It may be said—in fact, I have often said it—that Emerson IS Egyptology, the finest scholar of this or any other era. At the time of which I write we stood on the threshold of a new century, and I did not doubt that Emerson would dominate the twentieth as he had the nineteenth. When I add that Emerson's physical attributes include sapphire-blue eyes, thick raven locks, and a form that is the epitome of manly strength and grace, I believe the sensitive reader will understand why our union had proved so thoroughly satisfactory.
Emerson dislikes his first name, for reasons which I have never entirely understood. I have never inquired into them because I myself prefer to address him by the appellation that indicates comradeship and equality, and that recalls fond memories of the days of our earliest acquaintance. Emerson also dislikes titles; his reasons for this prejudice stem from his radical social views, for he judges a man (and a woman, I hardly need add) by ability rather than worldly position. Unlike most archaeologists he refuses to respond to the fawning titles used by the fellahin toward foreigners; his admiring Egyptian workmen had honored him with the appellation of "Father of Curses," and I must say no man deserved it more.
My union with this admirable individual had resulted in a life particularly suited to my tastes. Emerson accepted me as a full partner professionally as well as matrimonially, and we spent the winter seasons excavating at various sites in Egypt. I may add that I was the only woman engaged in that activity—a sad commentary on the restricted condition of females in the late-nineteenth century of our era—and that I could never have done it without the wholehearted cooperation of my remarkable spouse. Emerson did not so much insist upon my participation as take it for granted. (I took it for granted too, which may have contributed to Emerson's attitude.)
For some reason I have never been able to explain, our excavations were often interrupted by activities of a criminous nature. Murderers, animated mummies, and Master Criminals had interfered with us; we seemed to attract tomb-robbers and homicidally inclined individuals. All in all it had been a delightful existence, marred by only one minor flaw. That flaw was our son, Walter Peabody Emerson, known to friends and foes alike by his sobriquet of "Ramses."
All young boys are savages; this is an admitted fact. Ramses, whose nickname derived from a pharaoh as single-minded and arrogant as himself, had all the failings of his gender and age: an incredible attraction to dirt and dead, smelly objects, a superb disregard for his own survival, and utter contempt for the rules of civilized behavior. Certain characteristics unique to Ramses made him even more difficult to deal with. His intelligence was (not surprisingly) of a high order, but it exhibited itself in rather disconcerting ways. His Arabic was of appalling fluency (how he kept coming up with words like those I cannot imagine; he certainly never heard them from me); his knowledge of hieroglyphic Egyptian was as great as that of many adult scholars; and he had an almost uncanny ability to communicate with animals of all species (except the human). He ... But to describe the eccentricities of Ramses would tax even my literary skill.
In the year preceding the present narrative, Ramses had shown signs of improvement. He no longer rushed headlong into danger, and his atrocious loquacity had diminished somewhat. A certain resemblance to his handsome sire was beginning to emerge, though his coloring more resembled that of an ancient Egyptian than a young English lad. (I cannot account for this any more than I can account for our constant encounters with the criminal element. Some things are beyond the comprehension of our limited senses, and probably that is just as well.)
A recent development had had a profound though as yet undetermined effect on my son. Our latest and perhaps most remarkable adventure had occurred the previous winter, when an appeal for help from an old friend of Emerson's had led us into the western deserts of Nubia to a remote oasis where the dying remnants of the ancient Meroitic civilization yet lingered. We encountered the usual catastrophes—near death by thirst after the demise of our last camel, attempted kidnapping and violent assaults—nothing out of the ordinary; and when we reached our destination we found that those whom we had come to save were no more. The unfortunate couple had left a child, however—a young girl whom, with the aid of her chivalrous and princely foster brother, we were able to save from the hideous fate that threatened her. Her deceased father had called her "Nefret," most appropriately, for the ancient Egyptian word means "beautiful." The first sight of her struck Ramses dumb—a condition I never expected to see—and he had remained in that condition ever since.
I could only regard this with the direst of forebodings. Ramses was ten years old, Nefret was thirteen; but the difference in their ages would be inconsequential when they reached adulthood, and I knew my son too well to dismiss his sentiments as juvenile romanticism. His emotions were intense, his character (to put it mildly) determined. Once he got an idea into his head, it was fixed in cement. He had been raised among Egyptians, who mature earlier, physically and emotionally, than the cold English; some of his friends had fathered children by the time they reached their teens. Add to this the dramatic circumstances under which he first set eyes on the girl ...
We had not even known such an individual existed until we entered the barren, lamplit chamber where she awaited us. To see her there in all her radiant youth, with her red-gold hair streaming down over her filmy white robes; to behold the brave smile that defied the dangers that surrounded her ... Well. Even I had been deeply affected.
We had brought the girl back to England with us and taken her into our home. This was Emerson's idea. I must admit we had very little choice; her grandfather, her only surviving relative, was a man so steeped in vice as to be an unfit guardian for a cat, much less an innocent young girl. How Emerson persuaded Lord Blacktower to relinquish her I did not inquire. I doubt that "persuaded" is an appropriate word. Blacktower was dying (indeed, he completed the process a few months later), or even Emerson's considerable powers of eloquence might not have prevailed. Nefret clung to us—figuratively speaking, for she was not a demonstrative child—as the only familiar objects in a world as alien to her as Martian society (assuming such exists) would be to me. All she knew of the modern world she had learned from us and from her father's books, and in that world she was not High Priestess of Isis, the incarnation of the goddess, but something less—not even a woman, which Heaven knows was low enough, but a girl-child, a little higher than a pet and considerably lower than a male of any age. As Emerson did not need to point out (though he did so in wearying detail), we were peculiarly equipped to deal with a young person raised in such extraordinary circumstances.
Emerson is a remarkable man, but he IS a man. I need say no more, I believe. Having made his decision and persuaded me to accept it, he admitted to no forebodings. Emerson never admits to having forebodings, and he becomes incensed when I mention mine. In this case I had a good number of them.
One subject of considerable concern was how we were to explain where Nefret had been for the past thirteen years. At least it concerned me. Emerson tried to dismiss the subject as he does other difficulties. "Why should we explain anything? If anyone has the impertinence to ask, tell them to go to the devil."
Fortunately Emerson is more sensible than he often sounds, and even before we left Egypt he was forced to admit that we had to concoct a story of some kind. Our reappearance out of the desert with a young girl of obviously English parentage would have attracted the curiosity of the dullest; her real identity had to be admitted if she was to claim her rightful position as heiress to her grandfather's fortune. The story contained all the features journalists dote on—youthful beauty, mystery, aristocracy, and great amounts of money—and, as I pointed out to Emerson, our own activities had not infrequently attracted the attentions of the jackals of the press, as he was pleased to call them.
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