The Return of the Pharaoh by Nicholas Meyer: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQSeptember 28, 2021
As the Turkish police began to dig up the remains, Holmes and I gratefully sniffed the morning desert air. It was chilly at this hour but the heat would soon become insupportable.
“Remember Nietzsche’s dictum,” the detective remarked, lighting his pipe. “Nothing not written in blood is worth reading.”
“Or writing, in this case,” I rejoined.
He smiled in agreement. “Deﬁnitely one for the books. One of your books,” he added with a twinkle.
Now that the ghastly business is well and truly over, I’ve been urged—by no less a personage than Sherlock Holmes himself—to set down the particulars. The detective, typically ambivalent about my efforts to chronicle his cases ( his attitudes range from the sarcastic: “You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism,” to the fulsome: “I am lost without my Boswell”), was uncharacteristically blunt on this occasion: “The whole thing is so fantastical, so utterly without precedent, it must be recorded, as we may be sure the official version will be a whitewash. Will there even be mention of the last three victims, let alone the identities of the ﬁrst three?”
“Do you make it a total of six?” I asked. “Surely Bechstein was a fool and can we be certain Phillips—”
“Ah, but can we? The difficulties multiply with the cadavers,” he interrupted. “And you are not counting the Swede, who, granted, took his own life. That would make seven. No, my boy, only you can tell the whole story, though,” he added. “I very much doubt you’ll be believed at all events. And mind, go easy on the scenery. There’s plenty to go ’round.”
Yes, the worst is now behind us. And yet, as I reﬂect on the whole improbable time, I cannot help but think what a close-run thing it was and how nearly Holmes and I—to say nothing of the poor duchess and Mr. Carter—came to grief. And so, bearing in mind his caveats, I shall now attempt to relate the entire wretched affair, consulting my journal when I kept notes, having recourse to my memory when I was too distracted to do so, and keeping scenery to a minimum.
To be completely accurate from the outset, there was in fact a seventh victim, though I am not certain he can properly be said to add to the body count, though his corpse was deﬁnitely among the rest. That would make a total all told of eight.
And that does not take into account the one who went mad.
In this, as in other matters, the reader must judge for himself.
Cairo proved to be a city of unrelated neighbourhoods, a random juxtaposition of grand boulevards that might have been created by Haussmann in Paris, exclusively populated by Europeans and other Westerners. In Suleiman Pasha Street¹were many examples of the city’s former French occupiers, whose architecture, language, and signage still predominated, but round a corner and a hundred paces farther you found yourself in a Muslim or Jewish quarter amid narrow alleyways, seemingly unchanged for centuries.
The pyramids, as I’d been informed by Thurston, were indeed not far off, but I decided to postpone that visit in the hope that one day Juliet might accompany me.
Instead, referring occasionally to my map, I wandered through the vast metropolis, glimpsing such sights as the recently opened Hotel Semiramis with its innovative rooftop restaurant and the Egyptian Museum, housed in attractive pink stucco and dominating the enormous Ismailia Square, before brieﬂy getting lost in the Khan el-Khalili souq. Contrasted with the expanse of the square, the souq proved a warren of tiny, squalid, misaligned passageways dating from the Middle Ages, swarming with ﬂies and reeking with a pungent mixture of cooking ﬁres, orange peel, incense, and offal. I examined bolts of dyed cotton, hammered copper and brass platters, trays and kettle-ware, offered by sharp-tongued, dark-eyed bargainers, haggling through missing teeth. “Salaam, effendi, baksheesh!” In wooden cages dangling above us, parrots of green, red, and yellow plumage chattered like belowstairs gossips. Egyptian men, Muslim and those I took to be Coptics² were everywhere in evidence, as were Europeans and women (with their parasols), leisurely enjoying the Paris of the East.
Well-born Egyptian women, on the other hand, were typically veiled, while female peasantry wore overcoats, head scarfs, and Turkish-style face coverings called yashmaks. Only their eyelids, suggestively rimmed with kohl, glimpsed through varied masks, and the occasional jangling of jewellery, as I chanced near enough to hear it, hinted at other, more colourful, aspects of their lives.
Later my peregrinations found me at the beginning of Burjouan Alley of the famed Avenue Muizz where I gaped at the enormous Mosque-Sabil of Sulayman Agha al-Silahdar, established during the era of Muhammad Ali Pasha.
Time ﬂew by without my realising it, but a gathering dryness in my throat put me again in mind of my original project, downing a brandy and soda at Shepheard’s celebrated watering hole, the so-called “American” or “Long Bar,” and there I made my way.
Given the events that were to unfold, I have wondered since at my decision. Would the outcome have been changed for any of the principals had I simply returned to the Khedivial? Self-evidently not. The thing was already set down in the book of Fate. Some cosmic wheel or other was already spinning and I was a mere cog within it. No action I took or failed to take that day would have altered matters.
Wandering beneath Shepheard’s vast porte-cochere and entering the sprawling ediﬁce, I could not have been more surprised had I stepped into the basilica of the Vatican. Massive pink granite pillars, sprouting amid gigantic palm fronds, were evidently meant to evoke Egyptian or ancient Babylonian temples. (At the time I could not have told the difference.) With its lofty ceilings, gilt ﬁligree, Berber rugs, polished teak, stained glass, gigantic mirrors, and terraced gardens, the hotel’s opulence beggared many a palace. The famous “Long Bar” I soon discovered was so- named not because of its exceptional length but rather because of the wait before you were acknowledged by one of the overtaxed barmen.³ The venue proved almost exclusively patronised by military personnel of various nationalities and ranks, all waving arms and stamping their feet for service. Many of the junior officers, I was bewildered to see, were milling about in uniform. In peacetime I could never recollect such a thing, but here were British, French, and American lieutenants, subalterns and the like, some even wearing what paltry decorations they boasted, clinking glasses and boisterously clamouring together, not unlike the chirping parrots of the souq.
Waving my hands for service like an agitated orchestra leader, I found myself standing beside a tall, rail-thin colonel in mufti. He sported a monocle, steel-grey hair, and a beaked nose I had seen before.
“Haven’t we met?” I hazarded with a queasy sensation that we had.
“Arbuthnot,” he introduced himself in an aristocratic drawl, not deigning to so much as glance in my direction.
But what really surprised me was his regimental green tie and pin, proclaiming him an officer of the Northumberland Fusiliers, my old regiment. No, that is not precise. What truly captured my attention—and indignation—as I studied his reﬂection in the mirror behind the forest of multihued bottles before it, was the large gravy stain on that selfsame green tie. To be still more precise, it was not the gravy stain itself but its shape that infuriated me. As I had so often noted before, that shape was reminiscent of Madagascar. I knew enough to lower my voice.
“You have not been in Afghanistan, I perceive. Holmes, why are you in Egypt wearing my regimental tie?”
¹Today Talaat Harb Street
²As opposed to Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Christians belong to one of the self-named Oriental Orthodox Christian sects, largely based in the Middle East.
³Rebuilt since in pallid approximation near the site; the original Shepheard’s burned to the ground in the 1950s.
Copyright © 2021 by Nicholas Meyer. All rights reserved.