The Vanishing Man by R. Austin Freeman
Chapter VIII. A Museum Idyll
Whether it was that practice revived a forgotten skill on my part, or that Miss Bellingham had over-estimated the amount of work to be done, I am unable to say. But whichever may have been the explanation, the fact is that the fourth afternoon saw our task so nearly completed that I was fain to plead that a small remainder might be left over to form an excuse for yet one more visit to the reading-room.
Short, however, as had been the period of our collaboration, it had been long enough to produce a great change in our relations to one another. For there is no friendship so intimate and satisfying as that engendered by community of work, and none--between man and woman, at any rate--so frank and wholesome.
Every day I had arrived to find a pile of books with the places duly marked and the blue covered quarto note-books in readiness. Every day we had worked steadily at the allotted task, had then handed in the books and gone forth together to enjoy a most companionable tea in the milk-shop; thereafter to walk home by way of Queen Square, talking over the day's work and discussing the state of the world in the far-off days when Ahkhenaten was king and the Tell el Amarna tablets were a-writing.
It had been a pleasant time, so pleasant, that as I handed in the books for the last time, I sighed to think that it was over; that not only was the task finished, but that the recovery of my fair patient's hand, from which I had that morning removed the splint, had put an end to the need of my help.
"What shall we do?" I asked, as we came out into the central hall; "it is too early for tea. Shall we go and look at some of the galleries?"
"Why not?" she answered. "We might look over some of the things connected with what we have been doing. For instance, there is a relief of Ahkhenaten upstairs in the Third Egyptian Room; we might go and look at that."
I fell in eagerly with the suggestion, placing myself under her experienced guidance, and we started by way of the Roman Gallery, past the long row of extremely commonplace and modern-looking Roman Emperors.
"I don't know," she said, pausing for a moment opposite a bust labelled "Trajan" (but obviously a portrait of Phil May), "how I am ever even to thank you for all that you have done? to say nothing of repayment."
"There is no need to do either," I replied. "I have enjoyed working with you, so I have had my reward. But still," I added, "if you want to do me a great kindness, you have it in your power."
"In connection with my friend Doctor Thorndyke. I told you he was an enthusiast. Now he is, for some reason, most keenly interested in everything relating to your uncle, and I happen to know that, if any legal proceedings should take place, he would very much like to keep a friendly eye on the case."
"And what do you want me to do?"
"I want you, if an opportunity should occur for him to give your father advice or help of any kind, to use your influence with your father in favour of, rather than in opposition to, his accepting it--always assuming that you have no real feeling against his doing so."
Miss Bellingham looked at me thoughtfully for a few moments, and then laughed softly.
"So the great kindness that I am to do you is to let you do me a further kindness through your friend!"
"No," I protested; "that is where you are quite mistaken. It isn't benevolence on Doctor Thorndyke's part; it is professional enthusiasm."
She smiled sceptically.
"You don't believe in it," I said; "but consider other cases. Why does a surgeon get out of bed on a winter's night to do an emergency operation at a hospital? He doesn't get paid for it. Do you think it is altruism?"
"Yes, of course. Isn't it?"
"Certainly not. He does it because it is his job, because it is his business to fight with disease--and win."
"I don't see much difference," she said. "It is work done for love instead of for payment. However, I will do what you ask if the opportunity arises; but I shan't suppose that I am repaying your kindness to me."
"I don't mind, so long as you do it," I said, and we walked on for some time in silence.
"Isn't it odd," she said presently, "how our talk always seems to come back to my uncle? Oh, and that reminds me that the things he gave to the Museum are in the same room as the Ahkhenaten relief. Would you like to see them?"
"Of course I should."
"Then we will go and look at them first." She paused, and then, rather shyly and with a rising colour, she continued: "And I think I should like to introduce you to a very dear friend of mine--with your permission, of course."
This last addition she made hastily, seeing, I suppose, that I looked rather glum at the suggestion. Inwardly I consigned her friend to the devil, especially if of the masculine gender; outwardly I expressed my felicity at making the acquaintance of any person whom she should honour with her friendship. Whereat, to my discomfiture, she laughed enigmatically; a very soft laugh, low-pitched and musical, like the cooing of a glorified pigeon.
I strolled on by her side, speculating a little anxiously on the coming introduction. Was I being conducted to the lair of one of the savants attached to the establishment? and would he add a superfluous third to our little party of two, so complete and companionable, solus cum sola, in this populated wilderness? Above all, would he turn out to be a comely young man, and bring my aerial castles tumbling about my ears? The shy look and the blush with which she had suggested the introduction were ominous indications, upon which I mused gloomily as we ascended the stairs and passed through the wide doorway. I glanced apprehensively at my companion, and met a quiet, inscrutable smile; and at that moment she halted outside a wall-case and faced me.
"This is my friend," she said. "Let me present you to Artemidorus, late of the Fayyum. Oh, don't smile!" she pleaded. "I am quite serious. Have you never heard of pious Catholics who cherish a devotion to some long-departed saint? That is my feeling towards Artemidorus, and if you only knew what comfort he has shed into the heart of a lonely woman; what a quiet, unobtrusive friend he has been to me in my solitary, friendless days, always ready with a kindly greeting on his gentle, thoughtful face, you would like him for that alone. And I want you to like him and to share our silent friendship. Am I very silly, very sentimental?"
A wave of relief had swept over me, and the mercury of my emotional thermometer, which had shrunk almost into the bulb, leaped up to summer heat. How charming it was of her and how sweetly intimate, to wish to share this mystical friendship with me! And what a pretty conceit it was, too, and how like this strange, inscrutable maiden, to come here and hold silent converse with this long-departed Greek. And the pathos of it all touched me deeply amidst the joy of this newborn intimacy.
"Are you scornful?" she asked, with a shade of disappointment, as I made no reply.
"No, indeed I am not," I answered earnestly. "I want to make you aware of my sympathy and my appreciation without offending you by seeming to exaggerate, and I don't know how to express it."
"Oh, never mind about the expression, so long as you feel it. I thought you would understand," and she gave me a smile that made me tingle to my finger-tips.
We stood awhile gazing in silence at the mummy--for such, indeed, was her friend Artemidorus. But not an ordinary mummy. Egyptian in form, it was entirely Greek in feeling; and brightly coloured as it was, in accordance with the racial love of colour, the tasteful refinement with which the decoration of the case was treated made those around look garish and barbaric. But the most striking feature was a charming panel portrait which occupied the place of the usual mask. This painting was a revelation to me. Except that it was executed in tempera instead of oil, it differed in no respect from modern work. There was nothing archaic or even ancient about it. With its freedom of handling and its correct rendering of light and shade, it might have been painted yesterday; indeed, enclosed in an ordinary gilt frame, it might have passed without remark in an exhibition of modern portraits.
Miss Bellingham observed my admiration and smiled approvingly.
"It is a charming little portrait, isn't it?" she said; "and such a sweet face, too; so thoughtful and human with just a shade of melancholy. But the whole thing is full of charm. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it. And it is so Greek!"
"Yes, it is, in spite of the Egyptian gods and symbols."
"Rather because of them, I think," said she. "There we have the typical Greek attitude, the genial, cultivated eclecticism that appreciated the fitness of even the most alien forms of art. There is Anubis standing beside the bier; there are Isis and Nephthys, and there below, Horus and Tahuti. But we can't suppose that Artemidorus worshipped or believed in those gods. They are there because they are splendid decoration and perfectly appropriate in character. The real feeling of those who loved the dead man breaks out in the inscription." She pointed to a band below the pectoral, where, in gilt capital letters, was written the two words, "[Greek: ARTEMIDORE EUPsUChI]."
"Yes," I said, "it is very dignified and very human."
"And so sincere and full of real emotion," she added. "I find it unspeakably touching. 'O Artemidorus, farewell!' There is the real note of human grief, the sorrow of eternal parting. How much finer it is than the vulgar boastfulness of the Semitic epitaphs, or our own miserable, insincere make-believe of the 'Not lost but gone before' type. He was gone from them for ever; they would look on his face and hear his voice no more; they realised that this was their last farewell. Oh, there is a world of love and sorrow in those two simple words!"
For some time neither of us spoke. The glamour of this touching memorial of a long-buried grief had stolen over me, and I was content to stand silent by my beloved companion and revive, with a certain pensive pleasure, the ghosts of human emotions over which so many centuries had rolled. Presently she turned to me with a frank smile. "You have been weighed in the balance of friendship," she said, "and not found wanting. You have the gift of sympathy, even with a woman's sentimental fancies."
I suspected that a good many men would have developed this precious quality under the circumstances, but I refrained from saying so. There is no use in crying down one's own wares. I was glad enough to have earned her good opinion so easily, and when she at length turned away from the case and passed through into the adjoining room, it was a very complacent young man who bore her company.
"Here is Ahkhenaten--or Khu-en-aten, as the authorities here render the hieroglyphics." She indicated a fragment of a coloured relief labelled: "Portion of a painted stone tablet with a portrait figure of Amen-hetep IV," and we stopped to look at the frail, effeminate figure of the great king, with his large cranium, his queer, pointed chin and the Aten rays stretching out their weird hands as if caressing him.
"We mustn't stay here if you want to see my uncle's gift, because this room closes at four to-day." With this admonition she moved on to the other end of the room, where she halted before a large floor-case containing a mummy and a large number of other objects. A black label with white lettering set forth the various contents with a brief explanation as follows:
"Mummy of Sebek-hotep, a scribe of the twenty-second dynasty, together with the objects found in the tomb. These include the four Canopic jars, in which the internal organs were deposited, the Ushabti figures, tomb provisions and various articles that had belonged to the deceased; his favourite chair, his head-rest, his ink-palette, inscribed with his name and the name of the king, Osorkon I, in whose reign he lived, and other smaller articles. Presented by John Bellingham, Esq."
"They have put all the objects together in one case," Miss Bellingham explained, "to show the contents of an ordinary tomb of the better class. You see that the dead man was provided with all his ordinary comforts: provisions, furniture, the ink-palette that he had been accustomed to use in writing on papyri, and a staff of servants to wait on him."
"Where are the servants?" I asked.
"The little Ushabti figures," she answered; "they were the attendants of the dead, you know, his servants in the under-world. It was a quaint idea, wasn't it? But it was all very complete and consistent, and quite reasonable, too, if once one accepts the belief in the persistence of the individual apart from the body."
"Yes," I agreed, "and that is the only fair way to judge a religious system, by taking the main beliefs for granted. But what a business it must have been, bringing all these things from Egypt to London."
"It was worth the trouble, though, for it is a fine and instructive collection. And the work is all very good of its kind. You notice that the Ushabti figures and the heads that form the stoppers of the Canopic jars are quite finely modelled. The mummy itself, too, is rather handsome, though that coat of bitumen on the back doesn't improve it. But Sebek-hotep must have been a fine-looking man."
"The mask on the case is a portrait, I suppose?"
"Yes; in fact, it is rather more. To some extent it is the actual face of the man himself. This mummy is enclosed in what is called a cartonnage, that is a case moulded on the figure. The cartonnage, was formed of a number of layers of linen or papyrus united by glue or cement, and when the case had been fitted to the mummy it was moulded to the body, so that the general form of the features and limbs was often apparent. After the cement was dry the case was covered with a thin layer of stucco and the face modelled more completely, and then the decorations and inscriptions were painted on. So that, you see, in a cartonnage, the body was sealed up like a nut in its shell, unlike the more ancient forms in which the mummy was merely rolled up and enclosed in a wooden coffin."
At this moment there smote upon our ears a politely protesting voice announcing in sing-song tones that it was closing time; and simultaneously a desire for tea suggested the hospitable milk-shop. With leisurely dignity that ignored the official who shepherded us along the galleries, we made our way to the entrance, still immersed in conversation on matters sepulchral.
It was rather earlier than our usual hour for leaving the Museum and, moreover, it was our last day--for the present. Wherefore we lingered over our tea to an extent that caused the milk-shop lady to view us with some disfavour, and when at length we started homeward, we took so many short cuts that six o'clock found us no nearer our destination than Lincoln's Inn Fields; whither we had journeyed by a slightly indirect route that traversed (among other places) Russell Square, Red Lion Square, with the quaint passage of the same name, Bedford Row, Jockey's Fields, Hand Court, and Great Turnstile.
It was in the latter thoroughfare that our attention was attracted by a flaming poster outside a newsvendor's bearing the startling inscription:
"MORE MEMENTOES OF MURDERED MAN."
Miss Bellingham glanced at the poster and shuddered.
"Horrible! Isn't it?" she said. "Have you read about them?"
"I haven't been noticing the papers the last few, days," I replied.
"No, of course you haven't. You've been slaving at those wretched notes. We don't very often see the papers, at least we don't take them in, but Miss Oman has kept us supplied during the last day or two. She is a perfect little ghoul; she delights in horrors of every kind, and the more horrible the better."
"But," I asked, "what is it that they have found?"
"Oh, they are the remains of some poor creature who seems to have been murdered and cut in pieces. It is dreadful. It made me shudder to read of it, for I couldn't help thinking of poor Uncle John, and, as for my father, he was really quite upset."
"Are these the bones that were found in a watercress-bed at Sidcup?"
"Yes. But they have found several more. The police have been most energetic. They seem to have been making a systematic search, and the result has been that they have discovered several portions of the body, scattered about in very widely separated places--Sidcup, Lee, St. Mary Cray; and yesterday it was reported that an arm had been found in one of the ponds called 'the Cuckoo Pits,' close to our old home."
"What! in Essex?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, in Epping Forest, quite near Woodford. Isn't it dreadful to think of it? They were probably hidden when we were living there. I think it was that that horrified my father so much. When he read it he was so upset that he gathered up the whole bundle of newspapers and tossed them out of the window; and they blew over the wall, and poor Miss Oman had to rush out and pursue them up the court."
"Do you think he suspects that these remains may be those of your uncle?"
"I think so, though he has said nothing to that effect, and, of course, I have not made any such suggestion to him. We always preserve the fiction between ourselves of believing that Uncle John is still alive."
"But you don't think he is, do you?"
"No, I am afraid I don't; and I feel pretty sure that my father doesn't think so either, but he doesn't like to admit it to me."
"Do you happen to remember what bones have been found?"
"No, I don't. I know that an arm was found in the Cuckoo Pits, and I think a thigh-bone was dredged up out of a pond near St. Mary Cray. But Miss Oman will be able to tell you all about it, if you are interested. She will be delighted to meet a kindred spirit," Miss Bellingham added, with a smile.
"I don't know that I want to claim spiritual kinship with a ghoul," said I; "especially such a very sharp-tempered ghoul."
"Oh, don't disparage her, Doctor Berkeley!" Miss Bellingham pleaded. "She isn't really bad-tempered; only a little prickly on the surface. I oughtn't to have called her a ghoul; she is just the sweetest, most affectionate, most unselfish little angelic human hedgehog that you could find if you travelled the wide world through. Do you know that she has been working her fingers to the bone making an old dress of mine presentable because she is so anxious that I shall look nice at your little supper-party."
"You are sure to do that, in any case," I said; "but I withdraw my remark as to her temper unreservedly. And I really didn't mean it, you know; I have always liked the little lady."
"That's right; and now won't you come in and have a few minutes' chat with my father? We are quite early, in spite of the short cuts."
I assented readily, and the more so inasmuch as I wanted a few words with Miss Oman on the subject of catering and did not want to discuss it before my friends. Accordingly I went in and gossiped with Mr. Bellingham, chiefly about the work that we had done at the Museum, until it was time for me to return to the surgery.
Having taken my leave, I walked down the stairs with reflective slowness and as much creaking of my boots as I could manage; with the result, hopefully anticipated, that as I approached the door of Miss Oman's room it opened and the lady's head protruded.
"I'd change my cobbler if I were you," she said.
I thought of the "angelic human hedgehog," and nearly sniggered in her face.
"I am sure you would, Miss Oman, instantly; though, mind you, the poor fellow can't help his looks."
"You are a very flippant young man," she said severely. Whereat I grinned, and she regarded me silently with a baleful glare. Suddenly I remembered my mission and became serious and sober.
"Miss Oman," I said, "I very much want to take your advice on a matter of some importance--to me, at least." (That ought to fetch her, I thought.) The "advice fly"--strangely neglected by Izaak Walton--is guaranteed to kill in any weather. And it did fetch her. She rose in a flash and gorged it, cock's feathers, worsted body and all.
"What is it about?" she asked eagerly. "But don't stand out there where everybody can hear but me. Come in and sit down."
Now, I didn't want to discuss the matter here, and, besides, there was not time. I therefore assumed an air of mystery.
"I can't, Miss Oman. I'm due at the surgery now. But if you should be passing and should have a few minutes to spare, I should be greatly obliged if you would look in. I really don't quite know how to act."
"No, I expect not. Men very seldom do. But you're better than most, for you know when you are in difficulties and have the sense to consult a woman. But what is it about? Perhaps I might be thinking it over."
"Well, you know," I began evasively, "it's a simple matter, but I can't very well--no, by Jove!" I added, looking at my watch, "I must run, or I shall keep the multitude waiting." And with this I bustled away, leaving her literally dancing with curiosity.