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Authors: Tom Holland

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The Sleeper in the Sands

BOOK: The Sleeper in the Sands
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THE SLEEPER IN THE SANDS
By
TOM HOLLAND

 

Copyright © Tom Holland 1998

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All characters in this publication other than those clearly in the public domain are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

ISBN 0 349 11221 5

Tom Holland is the author of
The Vampyre, Supping With Panthers, Deliver Us From Evil
and
Attis.
He lives in London.

 

To Mattos,
A Pharaoh amongst friends

 

Author’s Note
There are many ways of spelling Egyptian names. Throughout this novel, I have copied Carter’s own.

The names of Pharaohs are capitalised.

 

Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn,
From the mischief of created things;
From the mischief of Darkness as it overspreads;
From the mischief of those who practise Secret Arts;
And from the mischief of the envious one as he practises envy.

‘Surah al-Falaq’ (The Daybreak), from the Koran

 

 

THE TALE OF THE GOLDEN BIRD

All night he dreamed he was searching. He imagined himself lost in a labyrinth of stone, where there was nothing to be found save for shreds of mummy wrapping, and papyri from which the writing had long since been erased. Yet always, even as he stumbled through the darkness and the dust, he knew that ahead of him, buried somewhere in the rock, there was a chamber waiting, a wondrous, hidden tomb; and it was this certainty alone which kept him from despair. Still he stumbled on; and he imagined, as he did so, that he was drawing near the tomb. He reached out with his arms, as though to part the rock. For a moment he imagined that he caught a glint of gold, and at once he felt a joy that seemed to justify his life. When he looked again, though, the glint had disappeared, and he knew that the mysteries of both his life and a far more distant past remained in darkness. He reached out a second time. He thrashed with his arms. But still no sign of gold - only rock and sand and dust . . .

All at once, Howard Carter jerked awake. He sat up, breathing very hard -- and yet realising, as he did so, that he felt almost refreshed. He blinked. The early morning sun, still warm despite the lateness of the year, was already casting a bright rectangle across the far side of the room -- and yet it was not the sun which had woken him. Carter blinked again, and rubbed his eyes. As he did so, he heard it: the singing of a bird.

He gazed across the room. He had brought the canary with him from Cairo just a week before, a golden bird inside a gilded cage. He rose from his bed, and crossed to it. He remembered what the workmen had cried when he had first arrived back to start the season’s digging, his servant carrying the gilded cage behind him. ‘A bird of gold,’ they had proclaimed, ‘it will surely bring us luck! This year we will find,
inshallah,
a tomb of gold!’

Howard Carter certainly trusted so. Yet even as he bent down to feed the canary, his smile was grim. For he did not need reminding that he was in desperate need of luck - more luck, certainly, than he had been granted in the past six years. So much effort -- and for so little return. His patron, he knew, was already losing faith; it was only with difficulty that Lord Carnarvon had been persuaded to fund one further, final season. If they were to locate the tomb, the sealed tomb of gold, the tomb which might win them an undying renown, then it would have to be within the next few months. The next few months ... or not at all.

And yet, no matter that an unplundered tomb had never been found in the Valley before, he knew that it was out there. Not once had he doubted it. Howard Carter paused a moment, gazing at the bird; then he rose suddenly and crossed to a desk, where he reached for a key and unlocked the bottom-most drawer. From its depths he drew out a sheaf of faded papers. His grip on them tightened as he pressed them hard against his chest.

Suddenly, the bird began to sing again, and the music that it made, in the clear light of the Theban dawn, did indeed seem golden.

Howard Carter returned the papers to their place and locked up the drawer. He had work to do. An excavation was awaiting him in the Valley of the Kings.

The water-boy grimaced and settled down his load. The day’s work on the site had only just begun, and the great earthen jar was still full up to the brim. The boy rubbed his shoulders, then gazed enviously about him. He wanted the chance to dig, the chance to find the hidden tomb of gold. Carrying water about all day, running and fetching for the older men, what hope did he have of finding anything at all?

He scuffed the dirt before him idly with his toes. Scratching at it, he felt flat rock just beneath. He crouched down and began to sweep more energetically, using his hands. As he exposed it, the rock seemed to fall suddenly away.

One of the workmen called out to the boy, demanding water, but the boy ignored him. The workman crossed to him, angry, his hand upraised. Then all at once his arm dropped back by his side as he gazed in silence at what the boy had exposed.

There was a step. It had been hewn from the rock. It seemed to lead downwards, down into the earth.

The silence still lay thick in the air, like the haze of white dust, when Howard Carter arrived at the site. The labourers were all staring at him, and he knew at once that something had been found. Ahmed Girigar, his foreman, stepped out from the crowd. He bowed, his face set, and pointed with his arm.

For a moment, Carter imagined that his heart had stopped: that all the Valley, the very sky, were melting and plunging into that single moment.

Then he nodded brusquely. Still silent, he passed through the line of workmen. As he did so he heard it muttered amongst them, rising fast into cries of excitement and awe, that what had been found was ‘the tomb of the bird’.

He had ordered the canary brought to the site, to encourage the workmen as they cleared away the rubble. It was also -Carter could not deny this to himself - a feeble attempt to calm his own raging nerves, for since his boyhood he had always been a lover of birds, and found in their singing a source of great comfort. But although his expression, that first long day and the next, appeared perfectly composed, his thoughts remained a tumult of terrors and wild hopes, and he barely heard the canary’s song. Nothing filled his ears but the chink of spade upon rock, as slowly, step by step, a stairway was revealed.

It was almost sunset when the first part of a doorway was at last exposed. Howard Carter stood at the top of the steps, barely able to move, every nerve numbed by his sudden doubts. To be so close to a miraculous success . . . and then to be disappointed -- the horrible possibility shadowed all his imaginings. Yet his step remained measured as he slowly descended towards the door, and his face as granite-calm as it had been throughout the day.

His hands, though, were unsteady as he reached out to brush the dirt from the doorway. There was a seal upon it, he realised suddenly; and he began to shake so much that he had to rest his palms upon the ground. As he did so, he inspected the seal. He recognised it at once: a jackal triumphant above nine bound captives -- the motif of the necropolis of the Valley of the Kings.

Carter breathed in deeply. He had seen the symbol often enough before, stamped upon the other tombs of the Valley -- but they had all been plundered. He reached out to touch the block of stone before him now, to trace with his fingertip the pattern of the seal. Elsewhere, the guardianship of the jackal had been in vain; what reason to believe that it might not have been so here? Again, Carter began to sweep at the dirt upon the doorway, and as he did so he observed a heavy wooden lintel at the top of the block. At once he called for a pick and, using its point, very delicately began to carve out a peephole. When it was completed, he pulled a flashlight from his pocket, then narrowed his eyes and peered through the gap.

He could make out rubble. It was blocking a passageway. Stones had been tightly packed from the floor to the ceiling. There appeared no evidence of the rubble having ever been disturbed. Whatever lay beyond it was surely still in place.

Slowly, Carter lowered his flashlight. He rested his forehead against the dusty block of stone.

Something, clearly, was waiting to be found. Something which had been immured with the utmost care.

But what?

What?

Carter rocked back with sudden impatience on to his haunches. He had to know; he had to make certain. He began to sweep at the doorway again, examining it carefully for a different seal, one which would identify the owner of the tomb. It seemed impossible that it could not be there, for it had been the remembrance of a name, he knew, in the Ancients’ philosophy, which had served to keep the soul of the departed alive. And who was to say, Carter thought with a sudden lurch of wonder, that such an assumption had not been correct -- that fame was indeed the truest immortality?

Still, though, he could find nothing exposed to his view, and even as he continued to sweep, he grew suddenly frantic with uncertainty. He began to scrabble at the dirt with his fingers, seeking to lay bare a further portion of the door -and then, as he did so, he suddenly froze. He had felt his fingers brush something and as he began work again, clearing the dirt now with all the care he could muster, he saw that he was exposing a tablet of baked clay. It appeared to be intact, stamped along one side with a line of hieroglyphics. Carter eased the tablet free. He rose to his feet, studying it carefully, his lips mouthing the words as he sought to make sense of the script.

It seemed to the workmen, studying their employer, that the colour had suddenly drained from his face.

‘Please,’ Ahmed Girigar, the foreman, asked, ‘what is it, sir, what does it say?’

Carter appeared to start, and then his expression grew as frozen as it had been all that day. He made no reply but, climbing the steps, reached for a cloth and carefully swaddled the tablet in its folds. Then he turned to the foreman as he gestured at the stairway. ‘Fill it in,’ he ordered. ‘We can proceed no further until Lord Carnarvon has arrived. Fill it to the surface, then conceal the site with rocks. I want it to seem as though the tomb was never here.’

Not until late had Howard Carter ridden home. The cliffs had loomed steepling against the brightness of the stars, and upon the winding road which led from the Valley, lonely and abandoned, the shadows had seemed black with the silence of the dead. There had been no one to observe him, no one to glimpse the expression on his face. Yet only as he drew near to his house did Carter permit himself to relax the muscles in his jaw, to betray with a sudden smile his sense of triumph and joy. He remembered the guards he had left up on the site, the most trustworthy of his workmen, how excited they had seemed - almost, he thought, as excited as himself. He smiled once again. Almost - but not quite.

As he swung down from his saddle, he glanced about him as though to make certain that he was not somehow still lost within a dream. All, though, was just as he had left it that morning: his house a fragile oasis of green amidst the jagged rocks and dust, as near to the ancient realm of death as it was possible for any man to live. All still seemed silent, but Carter knew that here, away from the Valley, amidst his lovingly tended trees and straggling flowers, the night would be filled with the motions of life. He glanced up. He had heard the sudden beating of wings and saw a bird swooping at great speed, then turning intricately, in pursuit of insects. It was well disguised, but Carter could recognise the mottling of the nightjar all the same, for there was not a bird in all Egypt which he did not know. ‘
Teyr-el-mat’
he murmured to himself, employing the phrase which the local Arabs used. ‘Corpse-fowl’, it meant -- a bird of ill-omen.

BOOK: The Sleeper in the Sands
13.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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