Read He Shall Thunder in the Sky Online
Authors: Elizabeth Peters
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #History, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Suspense, #Horror, #Crime & Thriller, #Historical, #Fiction - Mystery, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Women Sleuths, #American, #Mystery fiction, #Adventure stories, #Crime & mystery, #Detective and mystery stories, #Women archaeologists, #Archaeologists, #Mystery & Detective - Historical, #Traditional British, #Mystery & Detective - Series, #Middle East, #Egypt, #Ancient, #Egyptologists, #Peabody, #Amelia (Fictitious character), #Detective and mystery stories; American, #Peabody; Amelia (Fictitious character)
He Shall Thunder in the Sky
(an Amelia Peabody mystery)
To my daughter, Beth, with love
Then Re-Harakhte said:
Let Set be given unto me, to dwell with me and be my son. He shall thunder in the sky and be feared.
— Chester Beatty Papyrus
The Judging of Horus and Set
he Editor is pleased to present the result of many months of arduous endeavor. Sorting through the motley collection that constitutes the Emerson Papers was no easy task. As before, the Editor has used the contemporary diary of Mrs. Emerson as the primary narrative, inserting letters and selections from Manuscript H at the appropriate points, and eliminating passages from the latter source that added no new information or insights to Mrs. Emerson’s account. It was a demanding project and the Editor, wearied by her labors and emotionally wrung out, trusts that it will be received with the proper appreciation.
Information concerning the Middle East theater in World War I before Gallipoli is sparse. Military historians have been concerned, primarily and understandably, with the ghastly campaigns on the Western Front. Being only too familiar with Mrs. Emerson’s prejudices and selective memory, the Editor was surprised to discover, after painstaking research, that her account agrees in all important particulars with the known facts. Facts hitherto unknown add, the Editor believes, a new and startling chapter to the history of the Great War. She sees no reason to suppress them now, since they explain, among other things, the curtailment of archaeological activity on the part of the Emersons during those years. As the Reader will discover, they had other things on their minds.
o George W. Johnson, who graciously supplied me with hard-to-find information about World War I weaponry, uniforms and other military details. If I put the wrong bullet in the wrong gun, it is my own fault.
And as always to Kristen, my invaluable and long-suffering assistant, who, in addition to innumerable other contributions, listens to me complain and encourages me to persevere
he wind flung the snow against the windows of the coach, where it stuck in icy curtains. The boy’s breath formed pale clouds in the darkness of the interior. No foot warmer or lap robe had been supplied, and his threadbare, outgrown overcoat was not much protection against the cold. He felt sorry for the horses, slipping and laboring through the drifts. He’d have pitied the coachman, too, perched on the open box, if the man hadn’t been such a sneering swine. One of her creatures, like the other servants, as hard-hearted and selfish as their mistress. The chilly night was no colder than the welcome he anticipated. If his father hadn’t died . . . A lot of things had changed in the past six months.
The coach jolted to a stop. He opened the window and looked out. Through the swirls of snow he saw the lighted panes of the lodge. Old Jenkins was in no hurry to open the gates. He wouldn’t dare delay too long, though, or she would hear of it. Finally the door of the lodge opened and a man shambled out. It wasn’t Jenkins. She must have dismissed him, as she had often threatened to do. The lodge keeper and the coachman exchanged insults as the former unbarred the gates and pushed them open, straining against the weight of the snow. The coachman cracked his whip, and the tired horses started to move.
The boy was about to close the window when he saw them, shapes of moving darkness that gradually took on human form. One was that of a woman, her face hidden by a bonnet, her long skirts dragging. She leaned heavily on her companion. He was not much taller than she, but he moved with a man’s strength, supporting her swaying form. As the coach approached, without slackening speed or changing direction, he pulled her out of its path, and the carriage lamps illumined his face. It would have been hard to tell his age; snow blurred the pale features that were twisted into a demonic grimace. His eyes met those of the staring occupant of the coach; then he pursed his lips and spat.
“Wait!” The boy put his head out the window, blinking snowflakes off his lashes. “Confound it, Thomas — stop! You — come back. . . .”
The vehicle lurched, throwing him to the floor. Raging, he scrambled up and thumped on the closed aperture. Either Thomas did not hear him or — more likely — he ignored the shouted orders. A few minutes later the vehicle stopped in front of the house. He jumped out and ran up the steps, breathless with anger and haste. The door was locked. He had to swing the heavy knocker several times before it opened. The butler’s face was unfamiliar. So she’d got rid of poor old William too. He had been with the family for fifty years. . . .
The entrance hall was semicircular, in the classical style — marble columns and marble floor, shell-shaped niches in the curved walls. While his father lived, the alabaster urns in the niches had been filled with holly and pine branches at this season. Now they were empty, the pure white of walls and floor unrelieved. In the door to the drawing room his mother stood waiting.
She wore her widow’s weeds well. Black suited her fair hair and ice-blue eyes. The soft, lightless fabric fell in graceful folds to her feet. Unmoving, her hands clasped at her waist, she looked at him with unconcealed distaste.
“Take off your wet things at once,” she said sharply. “You are covered with snow. How did you get —”
For once he dared interrupt. “Tell Thomas he must follow my orders! He refused to stop and let me speak with them — a woman, and a boy with her . . .” His breath caught. The change in her expression was slight, but like all young, hunted animals, he had learned to recognize the movements of the enemy. “But — you know, don’t you? They were here. You saw them.”
She inclined her head.
“And you sent them away — on such a night? She was very frail — ill, perhaps —”
“She always had a tendency toward consumption.”
He stared at her. “You know her?”
“She was my dearest friend, close as a sister. Until she became your father’s mistress.”
The words were as brutal and calculated as a blow. The color drained from the boy’s face.
“I would have spared you that shame,” she went on, watching him.
“Shame?” He found his voice. “You speak to me of shame, after driving her away into the storm? She must have been desperate, or she would not have come to you.”
“Yes.” A thin smile curved her lips. “He had been sending them money. It stopped when he died, of course. I don’t know where he got it.”
“Nor do I.” He tried to emulate her calm, but could not. He was only fourteen, and their temperaments were as different as ice and fire. “You kept a close hand on the purse strings.”
“He squandered my dowry within a year. The rest, thanks to my father’s foresight, was mine.”
He ran to the door, flung it open, and rushed out. The butler, who had been watching, coughed. “Your ladyship wishes . . . ?”
“Send two of the footmen after him. They are to take him to his room and lock him in, and bring the key to me.”
found it lying on the floor of the corridor that led to our sleeping chambers. I was standing there, holding it between my fingertips, when Ramses came out of his room. When he saw what I had in my hand his heavy dark eyebrows lifted, but he waited for me to speak first.
“Another white feather,” I said. “Yours, I presume?”
“Yes, thank you.” He plucked it from my fingers. “It must have fallen from my pocket when I took out my handkerchief. I will put it with the others.”
Except for his impeccably accented English and a certain indefinable air about his bearing (I always say no one slouches quite as elegantly as an Englishman), an observer might have taken my son for one of the Egyptians among whom he had spent most of his life. He had the same wavy black hair and thick lashes, the same bronzed skin. In other ways he bore a strong resemblance to his father, who had emerged from our room in time to hear the foregoing exchange. Like Ramses, he had changed to his working costume of wrinkled flannels and collarless shirt, and as they stood side by side they looked more like elder and younger brother than father and son. Emerson’s tall, broad-shouldered frame was as trim as that of Ramses, and the streak of white hair at each temple emphasized the gleam of his raven locks.
At the moment the resemblance between them was obscured by the difference in their expressions. Emerson’s sapphire-blue orbs blazed; his son’s black eyes were half veiled by lowered lids. Emerson’s brows were drawn together, Ramses’s were raised; Ramses’s lips were tightly compressed, while Emerson’s had drawn back to display his large square teeth.
“Curse it,” he shouted. “Who had the confounded audacity to accuse you of cowardice? I hope you punched him on the jaw!”
“I could hardly have done that, since the kind donor was a lady,” Ramses replied, tucking the white feather carefully into his shirt pocket.
“Who?” I demanded.
“What does it matter? It is not the first I have received, nor will it be the last.”
Since the outbreak of war in August, a good many fowl had been denuded of their plumage by patriotic ladies who presented these symbols of cowardice to young men not in uniform. Patriotism is not a quality I despise, but in my humble opinion it is despicable to shame someone into facing dangers from which one is exempt by reason of gender, age, or physical disability. Two of my nephews and the sons of many of our friends were on their way to France. I would not have held them back, but neither would I have had it on my conscience that I had urged them to go.
I had not been obliged to face that painful choice with my son.
We had sailed for Egypt in October, since my dear Emerson (the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other age) would not have allowed anyone, much less the Kaiser, to interfere with his annual excavations. It was not a retreat from peril; in fact, we might soon be in greater danger than those who remained in England. That the Ottoman Empire would eventually enter the war on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary no one of intelligence doubted. For years the Kaiser had courted the Sultan, lending him vast amounts of money and building railroads and bridges through Syria and Palestine. Even the German-financed archaeological expeditions in the area were believed to have an ulterior motive. Archaeology offers excellent cover for spying and subversion, and moralists were fond of pointing out that the flag of imperial Germany flew over the site of Megiddo, the biblical Armageddon.
Turkey’s entry into the war came on November 5, and it was followed by the formal annexation of Egypt by Britain; the Veiled Protectorate had become a protectorate in reality. The Turks controlled Palestine, and between Palestine and Egypt lay the Sinai and the Suez Canal, Britain’s lifeline to the east. The capture of the Canal would deal Britain a mortal blow. An invasion of Egypt would surely follow, for the Ottoman Empire had never forgiven or forgotten the loss of its former province. And to the west of Egypt the warlike Senussi tribesmen, armed and trained by Turkey, presented a growing threat to British-occupied Egypt.
By December Cairo was under martial law, the press censored, public assemblages (of Egyptians) forbidden, the Khedive deposed in favor of his more compliant uncle, the nascent nationalist movement suppressed and its leaders sent into exile or prison. These regrettable measures were justified, at least in the eyes of those who enforced them, by the increasing probability of an attack on the Canal. I could understand why nerves in Cairo were somewhat strained, but that was no excuse, in my opinion, for rude behavior to my son.
“It is not fair,” I exclaimed. “I have not seen the young English officials in Cairo rushing off to volunteer. Why has public opinion concentrated on you?”
Ramses shrugged. His foster sister had once compared his countenance to that of a pharaonic statue because of the regularity of his features and their habitual impassivity. At this moment they looked even stonier than usual.
“I have been rather too prone to express in public what I feel about this senseless, wasteful war. It’s probably because I was not properly brought up,” he added seriously. “You never taught me that the young should defer to their elders.”
“I tried,” I assured him.
Emerson fingered the dimple (or cleft, as he prefers to call it) in his chin, as was his habit when deep in thought or somewhat perturbed. “I understand your reluctance to shoot at poor fellows whose only crime is that they have been conscripted by their leaders; but — er — is it true that you refused to join the staff of the new Military Intelligence Department?”
“Ah,” said Ramses thoughtfully. “So that bit of information is now public property? No wonder so many charming ladies have recently added to my collection of feathers. Yes, sir, I did refuse. Would you like me to justify my decision?”
“No,” Emerson muttered.
“Er — no, it is not necessary.”
“I am greatly obliged to you,” said Ramses. “There are still several hours of daylight left, and I want to get out to the site. Are you coming, sir?”
“Go ahead,” Emerson said. “I’ll wait for your mother.”
“And you?” Ramses looked down at the large brindled feline who had followed him out of his room.
Like all our cats, Seshat had been named after an Egyptian divinity, in this case (appropriately enough) the patroness of writing; like most of them, she bore a strong resemblance to her ancestress Bastet and to the tawny, large-eared animals portrayed in ancient Egyptian paintings. With a few exceptions, our cats were inclined to concentrate their affections on a single individual. Seshat favored Ramses, and kept a close eye on his comings and goings. On this occasion she sat down in a decided manner and stared back at him.