A tall, thin, angular woman came through the door of the hotel.
Immediately a hand was thrust up at her. It was holding something grey, crumbly and rubbery—rather like old fish— from which a faint aroma arose.
‘What is this?’ she said, sniffing suspiciously.
‘Real mummy!’ said the voice behind the hand. ‘Genuine mummy flesh! Only ten piastres!’
‘Thank you, no!’ said the woman firmly.
Her initial hesitation, however, proved fatal. In a moment they were all round her. Other hands pushed out brandishing bits of bandage (mummy linen), bits of wood (mummy coffin), bright blue saucers straight from the tombs (well, near them, at any rate), genuine old scarab beetles (and some of them were), little wooden images of the gods, little clay images of scribes (such is our fate), little plaques of rough clay engraved with religious images and little coloured wooden Ships of the Dead.
She tried to brush past.
Something was held up in front of her to block her way. It was a mummified arm, complete with fingers.
As she recoiled, a voice said: ‘For you, Madame, for you!’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘For you especially!’ the man insisted.
‘Thank you, no.’
A young man in a white European suit and a fez came through the door behind her and at once released a torrent of Arabic so impressive that even the hardened owners of the hands were taken aback. The porters lounging at the doorway, shaken, rushed forward and chivvied them from the terrace.
‘Why, thank you, Mr Trevelyan!’ said the lady in a cool American voice. ‘You come to my rescue yet again!’
The young man bowed.
‘A pleasure, Miss Skinner.’
He looked up and saw the man sitting on the terrace.
‘Gareth!’ he said. ‘This is a bit of luck!’
Owen had just been thinking how nice it was to see so many old swindlers of his acquaintance back in town, only that day arrived from Upper Egypt where they had been passing the winter selling pillaged or fabricated antiques to the tourists on Cook’s Nile steamers. He recognized some of the old faithfuls. That surely was—
And then Paul Trevelyan had come through the door.
‘Gareth! There’s someone I’d like you to meet.’
He shepherded the woman across.
‘Captain Owen,’ he said, ‘the Mamur Zapt.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Captain Owen,’ she said, extending a hand, then sitting down in one of the chairs opposite him. ‘But who or what is the Mamur Zapt?’
‘It’s the traditional Arabic title of the post I hold.’
‘And what post is that?’
‘It’s a kind of police post.’
‘You are a policeman?’
‘Yes,’ said Owen, ‘yes. You could say that.’
The woman frowned slightly. She was about thirty and had a long, thin, sharp face. Sharp eyes, too.
‘There seems some doubt about it,’ she said.
Paul Trevelyan came to his assistance.
‘Captain Owen looks after the political side,’ he explained.
‘The post was originally Head of the Khedive’s Secret Police,’ said Owen.
‘But, of course, things are very different now.’
They certainly were. For this was 1908 and although the Khedive was still the nominal ruler of Egypt and Egypt was still nominally an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans were no longer in power.
Nor were the Egyptians, for that matter. The new rulers of Egypt were the British, who had come into the country thirty years before to help the Khedive sort out his chaotic finances: come and stayed.
‘The British seem everywhere,’ said Miss Skinner.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that. We’re advisers only, you know.’
‘And you yourself,’ said Miss Skinner pointedly, ‘you are an adviser, too?’
‘Whom do you advise?’
‘Oh, lots of people. The Khedive—’
Formally, that was.
‘The Chief of Police—’
Who happened to be British.
‘Mr Trevelyan’s boss?’ asked Miss Skinner.
The Consul-General. The British Consul-General, that was. The man who really ran Egypt.
‘You could say that,’ said Owen, smiling.
‘I get the picture,’ said Miss Skinner.
‘Miss Skinner’s interests are archæological,’ said Paul firmly, deciding that it was time to re-route her.
‘And statistical,’ corrected Miss Skinner. ‘There are a number of things I wish to look into while I am here.’
Behind her back Paul raised his eyes heavenwards.
‘I am sure our Finance Department will be glad to help you,’ said Owen, who had a grudge against the Finance Department.
Miss Skinner pursed her lips.
‘It is the flesh and blood behind the statistics that interests me. I am not sure that Finance Departments are so good at that.’
‘I am taking Miss Skinner to see some of the excavations,’ said Paul doggedly.
‘Fascinating!’ said Owen.
The vendors of antiquities, recovered, had regrouped in front of the terrace and were now beginning to slide their wares beseechingly through the railings. Miss Skinner looked down.
‘Fake!’ she pronounced.
‘But nice, don’t you think?’ said Owen, who rather liked the blue scarab beetles and admired the workmanship that went into the barques.
‘I am only,’ said Miss Skinner, ‘interested in the truth.’
There was something of a pause.
‘And where,’ asked Owen chattily, seeing signs of desperation in Paul, ‘were you planning to go?’
‘Der el Bahari, primarily.’
‘Oh, there are lots of things to see there. You’ll find it very interesting,’ Owen assured Miss Skinner.
‘There’s an American team up there at the moment,’ said Paul. ‘I gather they’re making some promising finds.’
‘I know Parker,’ said Miss Skinner. ‘I’m afraid I don’t like his methodology.’
‘Ah well,’ said Owen, ‘you’ll be able to help him put it right, then.’
He felt something touching his foot and glanced down. A particularly resourceful vendor had laid out some ushapti images on a piece of coffin and was poking it under the table for them to see.
Miss Skinner picked up one of the images and turned it over between her hands. She seemed puzzled.
‘It looks genuine,’ she said, ‘but—’
‘It probably is genuine.’
‘But how can that be?’
‘It might even come from Der el Bahari. That’s where a lot of these men came from.’
Miss Skinner’s eyes widened.
‘You mean—these things are stolen.’
‘Accumulated, say. Perhaps even over the centuries. The ancestors of these men, Miss Skinner, built the temples and tombs in the Valley of Kings. And ever since they have been, well, revenging themselves on their masters.’
‘Then they are grave-robbers,’ cried Miss Skinner, ‘and must be stopped!’
As Paul piloted Miss Skinner down the steps, the vendors closed in again. The man with the mummified arm pushed his way through the crowd and waved it once more in her face.
‘For you, Madame, for you!’
‘No,’ said Miss Skinner, ‘no.’
‘For you especially,’ the man insisted.
• • • • •
‘Grave-robbers!’ said Monsieur Peripoulin hotly. ‘That’s what they are!’
‘That’s what they are!’ the Frenchman insisted. The sweat was running down his face, which wasn’t surprising since he was wearing a dark suit and a stiff, high, white collar, which was, apparently, what he always wore at the Museum.
‘Just tourists,’ said Owen.
‘Not the ones I’m talking about,’ Monsieur Peripoulin declared. ‘Tourists go to the bazaars and buy a few souvenirs. These men usually go straight to the excavations and buy there.’
‘They can’t, surely,’ said Paul. ‘Excavations are closely controlled these days and all finds have to be listed and reported to the Director of Antiquities.’
‘Closely controlled!’ said Monsieur Peripoulin scathingly. ‘If you believe that, you’ll believe anything!’
Paul sighed. The meeting had been going on for two and a half hours now and it was past midday. He had been relying on the French habit of dropping everything at noon and going for lunch, but the elderly Frenchman seemed as determined as ever.
‘What exactly, Monsieur Peripoulin, are you proposing?’ he asked wearily.
‘A licence system,’ said the Frenchman immediately. ‘That is what we need. Anyone wishing to export an antiquity should have to obtain a licence first.’
‘Don’t we have that already?’ asked Carmichael, from Customs. ‘Or the next best thing to it. If anyone wishes to export antiquities they have to send them first to the Museum.’
‘Yes, but that’s only to determine export duty,’ said Monsieur Peripoulin. ‘We put a value on it—and that’s not always easy, let me tell you: what value would you put on the
Sphinx?—seal the case and notify the Mudir of Customs.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’ asked the man from Customs.
‘It just goes ahead automatically. No one makes a conscious decision.’
‘We make a decision,’ said Carmichael. ‘We decide what level of duty applies.’
‘Yes, but you don’t ask yourselves whether in principle the thing should be exported at all. It’s that kind of decision I’m talking about.’
‘Just a minute,’ said Paul, chairing the meeting on behalf of the Consul-General. ‘Are you suggesting that we should interfere with the free flow of trade?’
‘These things cannot be seen solely in terms of money,’ declared Monsieur Peripoulin stoutly. ‘They are part of Egypt’s priceless heritage.’
‘I quite agree,’ said the man from Finance: an Egyptian. He was an Under-Secretary—which was a sign that someone somewhere was taking the meeting seriously—and his name was Abu Bakir.
Paul raised an eyebrow.
‘Naturally, works of art have an intrinsic value,’ he said smoothly. ‘Once they are on the market, however, they have a market value.’
‘The question is: how do they get on the market?’ said Abu Bakir.
‘It is not their value that I am concerned about,’ said Monsieur Peripoulin, ‘but their location.’
‘That, too, is determined by the market.’
‘But ought it to be? That is what I am asking. It is an issue of principle,’ the Frenchman insisted.
‘Yes,’ said Paul, ‘but which principle? At this stage in Egypt’s development I would have thought the overriding necessity was to ensure Egypt’s economic health. And that is best done by adherence to the principles of Free Trade.’
‘I am afraid,’ said the Egyptian, who was, after all, from the Ministry of Finance, ‘that I have to agree.’
‘What?’ cried Monsieur Peripoulin, throwing up his hands in dismay. ‘You are willing to see Egypt’s treasures disappear?’
‘I did not say that,’ said Abu Bakir. ‘I did not say that.’ He turned to Paul. ‘Can we return for a moment to a distinction Monsieur Peripoulin made earlier?’
‘What distinction?’ said Paul, glancing at his watch.
‘The one between the ordinary tourist and the specialist buyer. As far as the ordinary tourist is concerned, I think I agree with you: we should not interfere in the ordinary processes of trade. With respect to the specialist buyer and the exceptional item, however, I find myself tempted by Monsieur Peripoulin’s licensing proposal.’
‘I don’t think we can take a decision on something as major as that today.’
‘Perhaps not, but I don’t think we ought just to leave it. Perhaps we can ask Customs to look into it and report back?’
‘We could do that,’ assented Paul.
It being past lunch-time, everyone was prepared to agree and the meeting broke up. As they walked out, Monsieur Peripoulin put a hot hand on Owen’s arm.
‘All this is missing the point. Licence, not licence, that is not the point. What happens when the goods don’t come to us at all?’
‘They should all come to you.’
‘But what happens when they don’t?’
‘Ah well,’ said Abu Bakir over Owen’s shoulder, ‘that’s where the Mamur Zapt comes in.’
‘Not the Mamur Zapt; the police,’ said Owen.
‘The police!’ said Monsieur Peripoulin dismissively.
‘I’m inclined to agree with you,’ said Carmichael, from Customs. ‘The police can’t do much about it. Half the staff goes out under Capitulatory privilege.’
‘That’s why I said the Mamur Zapt,’ said Abu Bakir.
• • • • •
‘I don’t want to have anything to do with it,’ said Owen.
‘Very sensible of you,’ said Paul.
‘If it’s tied up with the Capitulations we won’t get anywhere.’
The Capitulations were privileges granted to European powers by successive Ottoman rulers in return for organizing international trade.
‘True,’ said Paul.
‘In that case that’s something for the Foreign Office, not me.’
‘Mm,’ said Paul.
‘In fact, I wonder why I was there at all. Who called the meeting?’
‘You did?’ said Owen, surprised.
They were at a reception that evening in what Old India hands called the Residency and new English ones the Consulate-General. The house was, indeed, in the style of English building in India, designed to protect against the heat rather than against the cold. The floor was tiled, the roof domed, the windows shuttered and the doors arched. Through one of the arches Owen could see Miss Skinner talking to Abu Bakir.
‘Yes. It’s moving up the political agenda.’
‘The export of antiquities?’
‘People are getting interested.’
‘What people? Peripoulin goes on about it, I know, but—’
‘Other people. People outside Egypt.’
‘They’re the ones who are buying the stuff!’
‘Yes. But other ones are asking questions about it.’
‘About us exporting antiquities?’
‘And other things, too. About our stewardship, for instance, of Egyptian treasures.’
‘We’re looking after them all right, aren’t we? Old Peripoulin—’
‘We’re selling them off. At least, that’s how some people see it.’
‘We’re not selling them off. Private individuals are. That’s nothing to do with us.’
‘Isn’t it? Some people think it is. Some people think there ought to be a regulatory framework.’
‘I see. So that’s what the meeting was about.’
‘It’s very important,’ said Paul, ‘that people get the right impression.’
‘Maybe. I still don’t see why I had to be there, though.’
Across the room Miss Skinner was now talking to Peripoulin and another Frenchman, L’Espinasse, the Inspector of Antiquities.
‘There’s that damned woman. Why are you spending time on her, Paul?’
‘Her uncle could be the next President of the United States.’
‘If he wins the election in a year’s time. He’s sent her out here on a fact-finding mission.’
‘You’d better make sure she finds the right facts, then.’
‘I am sticking to her like glue,’ said Paul.
Miss Skinner came towards them.
‘Perhaps you gentlemen can explain to me why it is that all the people in the Antiquities Service are French? No, don’t tell me! Can it be that the English concentrate on the money and leave the culture to the French?’
‘Shame, Miss Skinner! There are eminent English archæologists working in the service, too!’
‘And are there Frenchmen working in the Ministry of Finance?’
‘We work a lot in French,’ said Paul truthfully but evading the point. ‘Egypt’s links with France go back to the time of Napoleon.’
‘The first of the spoilers!’ declared Miss Skinner. She waved a hand at Owen as she moved away. ‘I’m so looking forward to tomorrow!’
‘What’s this?’ said Owen.
Paul looked uncomfortable.
‘I was hoping you’d come round for a drink.’
‘And bring Zeinab.’
‘Certainly. But why particularly bring Zeinab?’
‘Miss Skinner would like to meet her.’
‘She’s never heard of Zeinab. Unless you’ve been telling her!’
‘She wants to meet an Egyptian woman. An ordinary Egyptian woman.’
‘Well, Zeinab’s not exactly ordinary—’
‘She’s the nearest I can get. You won’t believe how difficult it is in Egypt to meet an ordinary woman.’
‘I’ll see if she’s free,’ promised Owen.
‘I’m trying to get Miss Skinner’s mind off antiquities. The Woman Question is my big hope.’
‘Just a minute: antiquities. One of Miss Skinner’s hobby-horses doesn’t happen to be the export of Egypt’s treasures, does it?’
‘As a matter of fact,’ said Paul, ‘I believe it does.’
Monsieur Peripoulin bestowed a fatherly pat as he went past.
‘A useful meeting!’ he said. ‘At last things are beginning to move.’
‘That meeting,’ said Owen, ‘it wouldn’t have anything to do with Miss Skinner’s being here, would it? The fact that you called it, I mean?’
‘It’s been in our minds a long time,’ said Paul.
Some time later in the evening Owen came upon Miss Skinner and Abu Bakir having an earnest chat in one of the alcoves.
‘I was just explaining to Mr Bakir,’ said Miss Skinner, her face slightly flushed, ‘that my friends and I are very concerned about the fact that so many of Egypt’s remarkable treasures are departing her shores.’
‘And I was explaining to Miss Skinner,’ said Abu Bakir, smiling, ‘that many of us in Egypt are concerned about that also.’
‘True,’ said Owen, ‘very true.’
‘Mr Bakir was explaining to me the Nationalist position.’
‘Not just the Nationalist position,’ said Abu Bakir quickly, his smile disappearing. ‘It is one, I believe, that the Nationalists share with the Government.’
‘Although, as you were saying, the vested interests of the big landlords make it very difficult to get anything through the Assembly.’
‘I was giving Miss Skinner some of the political background,’ Abu Bakir explained.
I’ll bet you were, thought Owen.
‘There are political difficulties, it is true,’ he said out loud, ‘but I think we’re beginning to face them.’
‘Yes,’ said Miss Skinner, ‘Monsieur Peripoulin was telling me about some meeting you had had recently.’
‘Oh yes,’ said Owen. ‘a very important meeting.’
‘Meetings are all very well,’ said Miss Skinner, frowning, ‘but it’s the action that results from them that is important. I understand, for instance, that there is a widespread evasion of the controls on the export of antiquities. What is being done about that?’
‘Ah,’ said Abu Bakir, ‘but that is just where we are taking action. The Mamur Zapt—Captain Owen here—is about to take steps to stamp that out.’
‘Are you?’ said Miss Skinner, beaming. ‘Oh, I’m so glad. I shall follow what you do with great interest.’
• • • • •
Owen was sitting in a café in the Ataba-el-Khadra watching the world go by. The Ataba was a good place for that because it was at the end of the main street, the Muski, which connected the old native city with the new European quarters. The square was, moreover, the main terminus for nearly all of Cairo’s trams.
At any hour of the day and deep into the night the Ataba was a tangle of trams, arabeahs—the characteristic horse-drawn cab of Cairo—great lumbering carts carrying stone, great lumbering camels carrying forage for the city’s donkeys and horses, native buses, of the open-sided ass-drawn variety, motor-cars (a few; tending towards the stationary) and sheep.
Quite why there should be so many sheep in the Ataba was a mystery. Certainly the Arabs were very fond of their fat-tailed Passover sheep and shopkeepers liked to keep one tethered outside their premises, to eat up the garbage, it was claimed; but why so many should be wandering loose in this most hazardous of places was hard to comprehend.
You would feel something nudging your knee and look down and there would be a sheep painted in blue stripes and often with a child’s shoe hanging round its neck on a cheap silver necklace.
The answer lay, perhaps, in the fact that despite the trams and despite its proximity to the new European quarters the Ataba remained obstinately part of the native city. The people you saw were the ordinary people of Cairo: blue-gowned labourers, veiled women in black, office workers in suits and tarbooshes, the red, pot-like hat of the educated Egyptian, shopkeepers in striped gowns and tarbooshes but with a turban bound round the tarboosh.
The hawkers, too, of whom there were very many, were ones who served the ordinary Egyptian rather than the tourist. Instead of the souvenir-seller and dirty-postcard-seller of the great hotels you saw the brush, comb and buttonhook-seller, the pastry-seller, the lemonade-seller and the water-carrier.
It was two different worlds and despite the incessant clanging of the trams and the shouts of the street vendors Owen on the whole preferred this one to the hotel one.
He had been visiting the fire station on the Ataba and afterwards had adjourned with the chief, as was proper after transacting business, to the coffee house. They sat there now benignly watching the mêlée in the square.
‘So what would you do,’ asked Owen, ‘if you wanted to get out and your way was blocked?’
‘I would ring my bell and shout.’
‘But nearly everyone else in the square is ringing a bell and shouting,’ Owen pointed out.
‘I would exhort them,’ said the Fire Chief.
And by the time you got anywhere, thought Owen, half the city would have burned to the ground.
‘Is there no other exit?’
The Fire Chief pushed back his tarboosh and scratched his head.
‘Well—’ he was just beginning, when on the other side of the square there was a fierce squeal of brakes and a tram-bell started jangling furiously. An arabeah veered suddenly and there were agitated shouts.
A crowd seemed to be gathering in front of one of the trams. It looked as if there had been an accident.
A policeman somewhere was blowing his whistle. Owen could see him now pushing his way through the crowd. The crowd, unusually, parted and Owen caught a glimpse of a still form lying beside the tram.
It seemed to be a woman, a European.
He got to his feet. The Fire Chief, used to dealing with accidents, fell in beside him. Together they began to force a way through the crowd.
Even in that short time it had grown enormously. It was now well over a hundred deep. Traffic everywhere had come to a stop.
Some of the other trams had started ringing their bells. People were shouting, sheep bleating. As ass began to bray. It was bedlam.
The whole square now was an impenetrable mass of people. Owen looked at the Fire Chief and shrugged.
Over to one side was a native bus, totally becalmed. The driver had given up, laid his whip across the backs of his asses and was waiting resignedly. His passengers, content to watch the spectacle—all Cairo loved a good accident— chattered with excitement.
The Chief laid his hand on Owen’s arm and nodded in the direction of the bus. They made their way towards it.
The bus was one of the traditional sort and was basically a platform on wheels. From the corners of the platform tall posts rose to support a roof. The sides were open and the wooden benches faced towards the rear.
The Chief put his foot on the running-board and jumped up. The next moment he was shinning nimbly up one of the posts and clambering on to the roof.
Owen followed, less nimbly. For an instant one foot hovered desperately in the air. Then someone caught hold of it and gave a heave, the Chief caught his arm, and he levered himself up on to the roof.
He could see now right across the crowd. There was a little space beside the tram where some arabeah drivers and the conductor of the tram were holding back the crowd. The driver had collapsed against the side and was clasping his head in his hands, his face turned away.
The crowd by the tram suddenly eddied—a horse, it looked like, had objected to being hemmed in—and Owen caught another glimpse of the woman.
Something about her seemed familiar.
And the next moment he had slid to the ground and was fighting his way through the crowd towards her.
‘Make way! Make way!’
Someone looked up at him and took it into their head that he was the doctor.
‘Make way for the hakim!’ he shouted. ‘Make way!’
Others took up the shout.
‘The hakim! Make way!’
The crowd obligingly parted and hands tugged him through. He arrived dishevelled beside the tram and looked down. There, lying so close to the tram that she was almost beneath its running-boards, was Miss Skinner.
‘I did not see her!’ said the driver tearfully. ‘I did not see her!’
Somebody had stuffed a jacket under her head and a water-carrier was tenderly, uselessly, splashing water on her face.
There was no blood.
‘Get an ambulance!’ said Owen.
The cry was taken up and passed through the crowd and at its back someone ran off into the café. But the Ataba was totally jammed and the ambulance, like the fire-engine, would be unable to get through.
And then, over the heads of the crowd, something was being passed, and there, scrambling over people’s heads and shoulders, nimble as a monkey, was the Fire Chief.
A stretcher was passed down and, a moment later, the Chief arrived.
He dropped down on his knees beside Miss Skinner.
‘God be praised!’ he said.
‘Be praised?’ said Owen harshly.
‘She is not dead.’
The Chief seized a water-skin from the carrier and squeezed some of the water out on to Miss Skinner’s face.
Her eyes opened. For a moment they remained unfocused. And then the sharp look returned.
‘What is going on?’ demanded Miss Skinner.
‘An accident,’ said Owen. ‘You’ve had an accident. Just stay there for a moment. You’ll be all right.’
Miss Skinner’s eyes closed again. The Fire Chief dexterously wedged the stretcher under her. Cooperative hands hoisted it into the air. It was raised head high so that it could be passed back over the crowd.
As the stretcher lurched upwards Miss Skinner’s eyes opened again.
‘Accident?’ she said sharply. ‘That was no accident! I was pushed!’