31 Dec. Sunset. Outside the tomb of Atum-hadu. On the Victrola 50: “I’m Sitting on the Back Porch Swing (Won’t You Come Sit by Me, Dear?).”
My darling Margaret, my eternal Queen whose beauty astonishes the sun,
Your father and I are heading home tomorrow, back to you—the luxurious riverboat north to Cairo, a night at that city’s Hotel of the Sphinx, then by rail to Alexandria, and from there we have booked victorious passage on the Italian steamer Cristoforo Colombo, ports of call Malta, London, New York, from where we shall catch the very first train to you in Boston. You shall embrace your fiancé and your father by 20 January.
Upon my return, our wedding will, of course, be our most pressing business. Then, after refreshed preparations, I shall lead a second expedition back here to Deir el Bahari to conduct a photographic survey of the wall paintings and clear the artefacts and treasures from the tomb. All that remains this evening is to seal up the tomb’s front, leaving my find exactly as I discovered it. And then posting you this package. My messenger is due here presently.
Nothing stands in our way now, my darling. My success here, your father’s reinstated blessing—all is precisely as I promised. You will be relieved to know that your father and I are again fast friends. (Thank you for your “warning” cable, but your father’s misplaced anger back in Boston could never have survived his time here in my company!) No, he congratulates me on my find (“our find, Trilipush!” he corrects me), sleepily sends you his love, and sheepishly begs you to disregard those foolish things he told you of me. He was under terrible strain, surrounded by jealousy and intriguers, and now he is simply delighted that I have forgiven him for succumbing, even for an instant, to such corrosive lies. And now we are returning to you, just as you will return to me.
Of course, if you are reading this letter, then I have not, for reasons I can only speculate, made it safely back to Boston and your embrace. I did not arrive trailing clouds of immortal glory, did not drape around your white throat this strand of whitest gold I am bringing you from Atum-hadu’s tomb. And I did not, taking you gently aside, under the double-height arched windows of your father’s parlour, brush away your tears of joy at my safe return, and quietly ask you to give me as soon as it arrives a package (this package), that you would be receiving from me shortly, stamped with the alluring postage of far-off Egypt, addressed to me in your care, to be opened by you only in case of my extended and inexplicable absence.
No, events will proceed just as I have foretold, and you will not read this letter. I shall arrive before it, shall gently take it from you before you open it, and all of this will be unread, unnecessary, a precaution known to no one but me.
But. But, Margaret. But. You have seen as clearly as anyone the malevolence of those who would have us fail, and one never knows when fatal accidents or worse might befall one. And so I am taking the liberty of sending to you the enclosed journals. Dear God, may it all arrive safely.
Margaret, you are now holding, if the besuckered tentacles of my enemies have not yet slithered into the Egyptian postal system, three packets, arranged chronologically in order of composition. They open 10 October, with my arrival in Cairo at the Hotel of the Sphinx, thoughts of you and our engagement party still effervescent in my head. Journal entries never meant for publication are intermingled with those that were, and with elements of the finished work. Much of the journal is a letter to you, the letter I never found the right moment to send until now. I intend to untangle all that back in Boston. The second packet begins when I exhausted my supply of the hotel’s stationery and in its place relied on the generosity of colleagues at the Egyptian Government’s Antiquities Service; several score pages are on the letterhead of the Service’s Director-General. Finally, I have nearly filled one very handsome Lett’s #46 Indian and Colonial Rough Diary, the preferred journals of British explorers whilst working in faraway heat and sand, advancing knowledge at the risk of their very hides. Do not worry: the pages torn from its back are none other than the pages of this letter. Together the three documents compose the rough draft of my indisputable masterwork, Ralph M. Trilipush and the Discovery of the Tomb of Atum-hadu.
Also, I am enclosing the letters you have sent me here, your words, kind and cruel intermingled. Seven letters, two cables, and the cable I sent you that was thrown in my face yesterday. And your father’s cables to me.
I just replaced the stylus, my last but one. This is a lovely song.
I am trusting a boy to serve as my messenger to the post.
Over time, Margaret, there is erosion. Sands abrade, rubble obscures, papyri crumble, paints decay. Some of this is, of course, destructive. But some erosion is clarifying, as it scours away false resemblances, uncharacteristic lapses, confusing and inessential details. If, in the course of writing my notes, I have made here and there a wrong turn, misunderstood or badly described something I saw or thought I saw, well, at the time one thinks, No matter, I shall edit when I return home. And I shall. But, of course, should I be beaten to death and shoved inside a gangly Earl’s travelling trunk and then hacked to pieces and my shreds lazily flipped overboard to peckish sharks, well, then, a pity indeed that I did not edit my work when I had the chance. I shall then need a brilliant and courageous redactor who can puff away dusty speculation to reveal stark, cold, obsidian and alabaster truth. You will provide that clarifying erosion.
We come to the crucial task I am entrusting to you, my muse-become-executrix. You are now the guardian-goddess of all that I have accomplished. These writings are the story of my discovery, my trouncing of doubters and self-doubt. I am entrusting to you nothing less than my immortality. I am relying on you, despite everything, for whom else do I have? If something should happen to my body, then you are now responsible—by opening this package, by reading these words—to ensure that my name and the name of Atum-hadu never perish. It is the least you can do for me, Margaret.
You will oversee the publication of this, my last work. Insist on a large printing from a prestigious university press. Stamp your pretty foot and demand shelf space in all major university libraries, as well as with the major Egyptological museums in the USA, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and in Cairo. And the general public! Cover your ears, Maggie! For there will be a clamour like no one has ever heard when the news escapes. But hold them all at bay until you are ready. Do the work as I am telling you, insist that the book be printed exactly as I say, and give the vultures nothing else.
I do not have time to edit just at the moment; events are moving too fast here. And we leave tomorrow. So I shall do it myself when I arrive safely home, but, allow me to provide contingent guidance if events should unwind elsewise.
For example, as I look at them now, certainly some of the early sketches seem not to have been entirely complete. The eye plays tricks in dim light, when one is hurried, but the final drawings are unquestionably precise, so those first efforts can go. And you will extract my ongoing letter to you, my private or overly candid diary entries here and there. What is only for you and what is for all the world fall away from each other; the division is an easy one to see, if you are careful. I was overeager as a diarist and as your correspondent at the beginning. There is no need to publish anything about you and me, the parties and the partnerships. I was excited, and for good reason, Margaret, as history will attest. And I see now also some stray meditation, releasing a little scholarly steam here and there, my second guesses allowed some room to stumble about only to suffocate in the open air. A careful reading, I beg of you, a careful reading in private, careful editing, and then find a typist (call Vernon Collins), use my illustrations from the notebooks, just the last group of them, when Atum-hadu’s paradoxes were all clear, and I at last understood what I was seeing.
If you must be my widow, M., then you will also be my wind. You will gently erode away the inessential. I started crossing bits out just now, but I do not have time, and I might cut into bone, so look here: I shall make your work as simple as I can: the relevant material in order: Kent, Oxford, the discovery of Fragment C with my friend, his tragic end, you and I falling in love, your father’s investment, Atum-hadu’s tomb in all its splendour, the insightful solution to his Tomb Paradox, sealing up our find for a later return, your father and I heading home, our unfortunate murder. Or not, of course. It could not be clearer. Burn the rest as the marginalia of a scholar’s early drafts.
The sunset here is unlike anything I have ever seen. The colour as the sun melts into the changing desert cliffs—such colours do not exist in Boston or Kent. These are the hills and cliffs where my life’s story is indelibly etched.
Last stylus. I do love this song.
If, Margaret, you are reading this letter, sobbing, horrified at your double loss but girding yourself and your pen for the vital tasks ahead of you, then I do not hesitate to accuse from here, before the commission of the dreadful crime itself, the maniacal Howard Carter, whose name you may perhaps have heard in recent weeks, the half-mad, congenitally lucky bumbler who tripped over a stair and fell into the suspiciously well-preserved tomb of some minor XVIIIth-Dynasty boy-kinglet named Trite-and-Common and who, in his crippling jealousy, has several times threatened my person in the past months, both whilst sober and whilst intoxicated on a variety of local narcotic inhalants. If I have neglected to note in my professional journals Carter’s unceasing attitude of hostility and barely contained violence towards me, such delicacy is only a pained professional courtesy to a once-great explorer, and is, moreover, an example of that certain bravura I have always displayed and you have always admired. Thus I have ignored his repeated threats to make me and my “noble patron, Mr. Chester Crawford Finneran, disappear inexplicably.” Obviously, should your father and I not step off the Cristoforo Colombo in the port of New York, you may be quite certain that we were done in by Carter or one of his thugs, like his money-man, a lanky English Earl, whose mild manner frays and scarcely covers a vicious character, stretch it though he does, or by their hideous orange-haired confederate, whom you know only too well.
Most beautiful Margaret, these months have not lacked in misunderstanding between us. But for all the harsh letters and harsher silence you sent me, I know that your love for me remains just as my love for you; there is nothing in this life that I value more highly than your embrace. The gramophone recording has come to an end again and now only wheezes in exhaustion.
That was my last stylus from the hundreds I brought with me. The thought that I have seen you for the last time, that I shall never again hold you, trembling in the breezes that dance through your ballroom when the windows swing open to the garden, that the pallor of your throat and the colour of your limbs will never again be revealed to me seizes me so roughly that I can scarcely write now. I cannot bear the thought that I shall never see you again. I cannot bear it. I cannot bear that you will think of me as your father described me, not as I really am, as I know you saw me, at the start. Please think of me at our happiest, when you were most proud of me, when you found the hero you had so long been seeking, the only man you could imagine, when we talked of the world at our feet. Please think of me like that, my darling darling. I love you more than you can know, in ways you will never imagine.
I will see you soon, my love.
Sunset on the Bayview Nursing Home
December 3, 1954
Dear Mr. Macy,
I am in receipt of your letter of the 13th November and I’m delighted to make your acquaintance, if only by post. I’m sickened to hear of your lovely aunt Margaret’s passing. It’s my dearest wish that she thought of me fondly now and again. We met in times of crisis, high drama. You never forget those, I can tell you. She was a beautiful, vibrant woman when I saved her back in ’22. I never saw her again after I brought to justice the man who caused her suffering.
I’m certainly most intrigued by your “small request to tap into [my] no doubt excellent memory.” True enough, sir, it is still excellent, and I’ll make an extra effort to prove it to you. In my day, I was known for having perfect recall.
I might also add that you’re no insignificant sleuth yourself to have tracked me here to this hellhole of a pensioners’ house, this human wastebin, thirty years after the facts, young Mr. Macy. Should the investigative field ever interest you professionally, I think you well-suited, and that’s high praise, that is, coming from me. Of course, maybe you’re the sort of fellow who doesn’t have to work at all, eh?
To answer your first question, which maybe was only politeness showing off your breeding, even in a letter to a stranger, but nevertheless, the answer is: bored. Bored nearly to death, thanks, which I suspect is the idea behind these places. Drink up the last of our savings and then bore us to death to open up the narrow, sagging bed and one of the few stinking pots to piss in, ’cause the next old fellow’s crossing his legs for it.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips. Copyright © 2004 by Arthur Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.