5 January 1885, Letter to the Editor, Continental Gazette
A week has passed since C. A. York’s body was found, and authorities in Cairo are no closer to solving the mystery. Now, rather than investigate further, they choose to accuse the mutinous hand of some fellahin, one of the poor nameless, faceless basket-carriers York employed to sift the rubble from the entrance of the tomb he was in the midst of excavating. What nonsense.
A man who was no friend of the natives would have certainly pulled his weapon upon the first sign of anything untoward. Yet I have it on good authority that a handgun was found in York’s breast-pocket.
Who is next? I ask. There is a murderer among us, and by diverting blame onto some hapless natives, and seeking thereby to turn a simple matter of criminal mischief into a strike against the misguided independence movement, the authorities put us all at risk.
—An interested party
I am sure that you have heard all about the recent ruckus in Egypt, but please do not be worried on our account. The authorities have assured us that the Mahdi will not make any further inroads, and if he does, well our boys will give him a sterner fight than he has seen up until now, I can promise you.
I do wish, though, that you had kept the news of that archaeologist’s death to yourself while you were down here. Now Lansing is going on and on about a mummy’s curse and you know that I have so much trouble trying to keep him from running off and exploring on his own. If we make it out of Egypt without Lansing becoming trapped in some tomb or a hidey-hole it will be a miracle. Malcolm says I should be happy the boy shows an interest in history, but why does it have to be such a dank and dreary sort of history? All bats and mummified corpses and cursed talismans. Why can’t it be boring old English libraries and ivy-covered abbeys?
You can tell I must be missing home if I am going on like this.
Miss you dearly, Your sister Lottie
Dear Mrs. Petunia Framingham,
I have received your inquiry on behalf of Miss Covington. I am afraid that the investigation into her brother’s death is still in progress. I have no information to provide at this time.
Please do pass on my condolences to Miss Covington.
As to your other concern, please be assured that the British military considers the welfare of the crown’s subjects a very top priority. The incidents to which you refer are aberrations in what is otherwise a peaceful and mutually beneficial collaboration between the British government and the Egyptian people. We only want what is best for the natives, and they, in turn, are grateful for the safety and security that our government provides in such turbulent times. Your sister and her family are in no immediate danger.
Sincerely, M. Walton, Lt. Gen.
I have gotten myself into something of a bind and I hope that you will help me.
No, it’s not money, but thank you for thinking so highly of me.
It is information I need, and the kind of information which you are far more likely to come across than me. Remember York? Yes, that York. Well, I met his sister. A Miss Melissa Carrington Bridgewater Covington. She sent a note to the office introducing herself as the sister of York and inviting me to dine with her.
You can imagine how surprised I was. I barely knew her brother. I am not quite certain how she identified me. York did not seem to be the sort to prattle, and anyhow, he would not have had much to say about me that was worth repeating, especially into the sainted ears of a chaste younger sister.
A sister! She is nothing like her brother. Different fathers, same mother, or so I gather. Miss Covington was not very forthcoming on the details. I suppose that I understand that. I would not want it bandied about that I was York’s relative were I so unfortunate.
(That was rather mean. Please forget I said it.)
We dined at R—.Quite proper of course. One of the best establishments in town. I wondered how a sister of York’s could afford such a place—he was always begging for more money to play about in the dirt—but I take it that she is fairly flush with funds.
I told her that I did not know that York had a sister, and she mentioned something about a falling out. She hinted at some sort of disagreement between mother and son.
I have the impression that she is very disappointed that her brother died before the family could be reconciled, and she has fixed on finding out more details about what happened to her brother as a way of setting aside her grief.
That is where you come into it. I know that you are in a position to question those closest to York at the time of his death. Would you consider looking into this for me? It would be a tremendous favor to Miss Covington—and to me, as I have taken an interest in Miss Covington’s welfare while she is in town.
She will only be in Cairo until the end of next month. She is anxious about the recent unrest and wants to return to her family in England—she is travelling with friends—and I take it that her father is not doing very well.
(I tried to set her mind at ease about the unrest. I do not think it very likely that these fellows are capable of organizing themselves into anything approaching a real army. But do you know, I think she just might be sympathetic to the Egyptian independence movement. As an aside, by way of explaining my work, I happened to mention the fulfillment I found in following such a humanitarian calling. Well, her eyes flashed, and she asked me just how much help we were really giving to the Egyptians. ‘We take a great deal, too,’ she said. When I asked what she meant, she replied, ‘My own brother would not even let them keep their dead bodies.’ I was shocked at that, and I am sure my surprise must have shown on my face, because she rushed to apologize. I hope she does not represent the majority of opinion back home. If she does, we are really done for. But I am probably exaggerating the scene—Miss Covington is such a sweet, gentle creature; she could not possibly mean everything she said—and whatever her thoughts on the independence movement, she deserves to know what happened to her brother.)
And before you ask, I swear that I have no motive other than wanting to help a fellow countryman. It does not seem quite right that a chap can die, so mysteriously like that, and nothing be done about it.
Will you help me?
I am looking into your mystery not because I have any inclination to help you (you cheat at cricket and you know it), or because I think Miss Covington deserves it (she sounds insufferable), or because York’s name inspires any pangs of loyalty (he was a pig if ever there was one), but because we are all of us English and if we do not take an interest in one another’s welfare, we are surely done for. (You might explain this last sentiment, if it is not too much trouble, to your Miss Covington. And ask her if she would like to join the Egyptians—to the cause of whom she is so obviously devoted—and go around in a head scarf, the third of four wives in a wealthy old man’s harem. With women like Miss Covington harboring such foolish notions, I reckon it a blessing that their sex is denied the vote.)
It is fortunate for the two of you that a civil servant loves nothing more than an unsolved murder. It is just the thing to stifle all of that frustrated desire for progress and “civilization.”
But my contacts in the office were no help. Everyone was very tight-lipped about the status of the investigation. They were still embarrassed, I think, that they had yet to discover a real lead, especially after they were forced to reverse course when the native fellow they grabbed off of the street turned out to be such an important personage. (Mistaken identity is bound to happen when the natives look so very much alike.)
So I did what any British civil servant does when faced with a problem that needs resolving. I went to my club.
Below, you will find a more or less faithful record of the conversation that transpired after I brought up York’s name, everything set down pretty much as it was uttered, both so that you may admire my skills of narration and so that you will have no cause to accuse me of having left anything out.
“Tthhing issss,” Johnson slurred. (You recall him, I’m sure, from that night in that village by D—. He had enlisted the services of that dancing girl—what was her name?)
Johnson was a little drunk, but Americans are always a little drunk, aren’t they? “You had to know the man. A fellow like you, you couldn’t—”
“Why couldn’t he?” demanded another gentleman whose name I never did learn.
“Isss notthhing perssssonal.” Johnson drew himself up haughtily.
“But I knew York,” I said. “That is the problem.”
And the room laughed.
(But that was always the problem with York, wasn’t it? A perfectly nice fellow, as long as you had never met him face-to-face. There was something about him—I know you must have noticed it. He was so damned arrogant. He assumed that everyone was an idiot, and only because we had no interest in his little mummies. Not that it would have mattered; I have heard his fellow Egyptologists couldn’t bear him either.)
King shook his head. “I admit that I only encountered him once. I was escorting an acquaintance through the valley—”
“An acquaintance?” Ferrin jeered.
“A nice young lady,” King replied, ignoring the rub. “We were stopping at all of the more popular tourist destinations.”
“Which wouldn’t have included York’s tomb.”
“No, but the other excavators had shut down operations for a few hours to avoid the heat. Yet, York’s site was still busy with the scurry of laborers, all of whom seemed loath to incur York’s disfavor.”
A few nods confirmed the wisdom of that.
“Unbeknownst to York, we watched as he directed the basket-carriers down the slope. We were still watching when he seized a pick-axe and shook it at O’Donald.”
“Fortunately,” O’Donald piped up from a corner of the bar, not without a smile, “I have an alibi for the night of York’s murder. So you will have to find another suspect.”
Raising a glass to acknowledge the point, King continued to paint us a picture, as it were, of the site of York’s excavations. “Comfortable in the shade cast by the cliff, we observed as York demonstrated those unerring qualities that have earned him such high praise in the obituary column—a proud defender of the crown’s efforts to look after Egyptian interests. Some young children were laboring to sift the rubble, and York paid special attention to their supervision, as they kept trying to run off to play. One of York’s nastier jokes involved an elaborate engineering feat, stones piled up in such a manner that when one of the children clambered back that way—as one was sure to do—the child would take a short tumble.”
I laughed. “Of course, York is being lauded now by all and sundry as the very embodiment of English manhood.”
“The loudest defenders are English, so they ought to know.”
“They must not have any real inkling of the man’s character, or else they want to disguise their own motives for doing the fellow in.” This was from O’Donald.
If you do not know O’Donald, I should tell you that he is a physician by training and an archaeologist by passion; one of those poor souls who has no choice but to burn the candles at both ends. Though he is happier among the dead than the living, he has a truly generous spirit—and you must realize how much that distinguishes O’Donald from his employer, York.
Once, when O’Donald and York were out surveying, they happened to come across a hovel, the residence of an elderly woman and a young girl. The latter had recently suffered an injury to her hand and the old woman hadn’t the skill to do more than dress the wound with old rags. O’Donald wanted to tend to the girl’s injuries, but there were some tombs in the area which York wanted to map. York was particularly adamant on the subject, fearing, I assume, that the shifting sands of a few hours might bury his blessed tombs forever. He and O’Donald had a bit of a row over it. But in the end, O’Donald had his way, and once he was done stitching up the girl’s hand, the old woman offered him a charm. Of course, York promptly confiscated the item—as remuneration for letting out his employee’s services, I suppose. I happen to know the collector who was talked into buying this trinket from York, and this collector has assured me as to the item’s antiquity, quite a remarkable feat I think, given that O’Donald saw where the old woman had fashioned the charm and several others just like it in a back room of the hovel in which she and the young girl lived, supporting themselves with the sale of counterfeit antiquities. (And I don’t suppose anyone can blame them, as long as people like York keep buying the stuff off of them.)
But I digress. Let us return to the discussion of York’s murder.
An annoying fellow by the name of Bailey—do you know him? A nasty, weasel-like creature—ventured to proffer a suggestion. “The gentler sex shouldn’t be ignored. The killer was probably female.”
“The wife of a civil servant? Victim to an improper suggestion in the dining room at Shepherd’s?” King inquired jokingly.
“No, an entertainer.”
The sneer with which Bailey pronounced that last word left no doubt as to his meaning. You as well as I know of York’s reputation in those circles, after what we witnessed.
(Well, I still submit that York was innocent, that is, that he was not guilty of the more serious crime. And anyhow, what did the girl really have to look forward to in life? No, despite what you say, I am quite certain that, whatever York’s role in that business, it was not intentional. Besides, if consorting with that sort—you know what sort—if that is really enough to blacken a man’s character, then who among us would be able to hold up his head in public?)
Bailey smiled blearily and said, “I have it on very good authority that York frequently employed the services of such creatures.”
Mitchell, trying to smooth over Bailey’s faux pas, laughed. “And I know of one who claims she can trace her ancestry all the way back to a temptress who performed for a pharaoh. Congenital venality, I suppose.”
“Which is why no one should ever continue in their parents’ profession,” King replied.
“Even if she can dance the head off of John the Baptist?” Mitchell asked, to a roar of laughter.
“So who is left?” I asked when most of the amusement had died down. “The papers point the finger at a fellahin,” I reminded them. “One of York’s basket-carriers, but that seems a trifle on the nose, sure to undermine any sympathies with the so-called ‘independence’ movement.”
(I wonder, though, what your Miss Covington would say if it turned out that her brother was indeed killed by a radical. Would she continue to harbor sympathies with their cause?)
“York’s gun was found in his breast-pocket,” Richardson pointed out. “Had he suspected anything, it would have been drawn.”
Butler demurred. “Surely there was someone in Egypt who didn’t want this York dead.” (Butler is only recently arrived, fresh on assignment, and he never met York, or else he would have known better than to ask such a question.)
Mitchell huffed. “It’s true, York was not irredeemably wicked. I know that he once rescued a poor dog from the streets, taking the flea-bitten beast into his heart and home. They say no man can be all bad if he has a dog to love him, and York was certainly adored by the pitiful creature. Alas, the sentiment was not returned. One day, York and some sporting fellows were taking shots at a line of cliffs. When York missed a particularly easy shot, he said that he had a better target, and put his gun to the hound’s temple. Even then, it was groveling at his feet.”
“And despite all of this,” Butler asked, “York was accepted into the best homes?”
“Worse!” O’Donald huffed, and then paused as all eyes turned towards him.
He was clearly wondering if he was about to go too far.
“Buck up, man,” I encouraged him. “You’re among friends here.”
A chorus of murmurs rose in support.
A sort of resolution came over O’Donald’s face. “When a person’s dependent on a patron for his support—” He shook his head. “You can understand why I might want to hold my tongue. Well, the night of York’s murder, there was a fairly prestigious meeting. Not your kind, no government-types, I mean. But there was more than a fair share of luminaries from the Egyptian branch of archaeology. And York was there, of course, the subject of far too many toasts. They were congratulating him for his success last season. You know he discovered—I discovered, really—that side chamber in tomb 13B.”
O’Donald’s eyes narrowed at the memory. He had obviously been keeping his resentment in check for some time.
“You probably have no interest in such things,” he continued, “but we really do covet our little discoveries. York was always a little perverse, though. The more his fellow Egyptologists heaped him with praise, the more belligerent he became. The night in question saw him consuming far more than his share of spirits, but that is no excuse. He accused us of mockery. It was clear, he said, that we all thought that he had wasted the current season in fruitless searches. He supposed that all of Egypt thought he should surrender his concession to someone worthier. Well, he would deny us the satisfaction of that. Whatever it took, he said, he would find his tomb, the one that had been eluding him all season. He would prove himself superior to us, and demonstrate once again his place at the head of our field. Concluding this fantastic little speech, York stormed out of the banquet, and out of the hotel, apparently. I spent the rest of the evening in the company of Lord S—, returning with him and his wife to his villa. We learned of York’s death, just as you did, the following day.”
“Are you telling us that York rode out into the valley, alone, inebriated, and in the dead of night?” King asked.
“What could have justified such a mad exploit?”
“Perhaps he had arranged to meet someone,” Mitchell suggested.
“Who?” I asked. “Who would seek an assignation in such a desolate place at such a time?”
“One of those nasty tomb-robbers,” Bailey sniveled.
“York was convinced that someone was trying to disturb his work,” O’Donald said. “He had decided to hire night watchmen, but he had yet to do so.”
“Was someone trying to disturb the excavations?” King asked.
O’Donald snorted. “An undead spirit perhaps.”
“Really gentlemen, I think we all know what happened,” Butler declared, somewhat pompously. “I envision York that night: drunk, reckless at the best of times, and infuriated by the imagined insults of his rivals. He was not a man to rest at such a time. If his rivals were trying to goad him into relinquishing his concession, perhaps it was because they knew he was about to come across something of real value. He hurried to the valley, and began the climb—”
“The climb?” Mitchell asked.
“How else do you explain the broken bones? He must have been climbing. Remember, he was found at the base of the cliff where he’d been looking for his tomb, with the hilt of the knife driven into the rock. It is a difficult climb, but not impossible.”
“You think he found his tomb?” O’Donald asked.
“He found it, and found a tomb-robber in the midst of plundering its contents. There was a struggle, and York was overpowered. He was not a small man. Even drunk, he would have put up an impressive fight. Perhaps there were two men up on the cliff-face with him. One stabbed York in the back, and the other shoved him over the side.” Butler glanced at O’Donald, “Your tomb is still there, but whatever is worth finding has already been removed by these looters, who were attracted to the site by York’s own investigations.”
“Then how will we apprehend the culprit?” O’Donald asked. “The murderer and his accomplices, whoever they are, will be hiding in the countryside.”
“You must find the tomb,” Butler replied. “Surely there will be some identifying marks left on the walls, the name of the tomb’s occupant. No doubt at least some of the items removed from the tomb also bear this name. You see, I credit myself something of an amateur archaeologist. York’s murderer will hold off on selling the stolen items for a while, for fear of drawing attention. But once the goods appear on the market, you will be able to trace them back to the guilty party.”
O’Donald seemed somewhat taken aback by Butler’s neat dissection of the case. I think we were all rather impressed.
The rest of the evening was spent discussing whether O’Donald would be able to continue work on the site without York—whether funds would still be made available by York’s patrons or if the concession would be revoked—and debating whether the community of collectors most likely to purchase any of the stolen goods could be induced to assist in the search for York’s murderer. (I take it that collectors are by nature a nasty and avaricious lot.)
I confess that I have become more than a little eager to unravel the mystery of York’s murder. It is a pretty puzzle. I am making additional inquiries and will tell you what I learn.
I have looked into all of the avenues of investigation that you mentioned regarding York’s murder and can assure you that they are completely stalled. No one is making any progress on those fronts.
As for other, more obscure theories, I can only say that I have no evidence for any of them, and I have never heard anyone else offer the necessary proofs, which does not stop the subject from being bandied about whenever there is an opportunity. The gossipers know only this: for all that York pretended to be a fool, and utterly out of sympathy with even the most pitiable native concerns—to the point that he did not know more than a smattering of the peoples’ varied dialects—he is said to have communicated on more than one occasion with the more ardent and extremist of the native rebels. Presumably these fellows could have offered York some help in locating a few hidden caches of treasure, but what could York offer in exchange? Money? Why deal with a man whom they must have despised for depriving their nation of so many valuable ancient baubles? I know these people would be willing to sell their own children for a mere handful of coins, but I am certain York must have paid a dear price for whatever he was given.
I can tell you that York was sighted more than once in certain villages where A—’s supporters are known to find refuge. I have not forgotten how York remained behind while the rest of his countrymen were fleeing en masse. Remember the week the riots broke out in W—? I happen to know that York was visiting the area, supposedly making one of his regular tours of the region in search of unusual curios—a nice cover for espionage. We all know how mad York was for his mummies, and that he had friends aplenty in the civil service, friends with information that would be of great service to rebels willing to trade a few desiccated corpses in exchange for some intelligence about British troop movements.
Once there is an arrest for York’s murder, I shall not be at all surprised to learn that the killer is one of York’s old friends from the civil service or a battle-wearied veteran of Egyptian descent, both having more than enough cause to suspect York of playing one side against the other.
I wish that I could be of more help, but you understand how it is, sifting through rumor and innuendo.
I know that I have often pretended to have visions of one sort or another, and I sometimes even trick myself into believing that I have really seen what I imagine. But you know this time I think it must be true, because how could I possibly imagine such a horrible thing, and without any external stimulation or suggestion?
I have enclosed an article about the murder of an Egyptologist, in case you have not read about it yet. Would you believe me if I told you that I saw him die? Oh, I was not there—not in corporeal flesh, at least—but I saw it all the same. I was there, in spirit. In dream.
What I saw was awful. A nightmare—only I know that it was real.
The truly horrible part was that I recognized the man in my dream, even though we only met the one time.
I know you will say that I must have heard about this Egyptologist’s death and that I forgot about it, only to recall the whole thing via a dream. But then how could I know about the knife? That was kept out of the papers at first. And I am certain that papa did not tell me about the murder until after I had already dreamt about it.
In my dream, this Egyptologist found his tomb—I am given to understand that he had been searching for the entrance to this burial chamber for several months prior to his death—and I dreamt that he found it at last, hidden up there on the narrow ledges and sheer slopes of the cliff he had been searching.
And I saw what he saw—does that make any sense? I could see him there, standing precariously on the ledge, and I could also see through his eyes. And it was while looking through his eyes that I saw—
I want to believe that it was merely a trick of the eye, a shadow darting across the moon. I recall the moon was full that night, and the light must have struck the wall of the canyon with uncanny brilliance. I should think that even a man as cruel as C. A. York—that was his name; I do not know what the C. or the A. stood for—I imagine that even a man as cruel as York must have been impressed by the sight of the moonlight on the canyon walls. I remember that he glanced up.
I know that you are immune to such things, but for anyone else, I tell you that the sight alone would have been enough. That gleaming rock and the awful spaciousness of that blue-black sky.
Taken aback by the sight, York seemed to become faint—in awe, I suppose, as in that emotion once inspired by the gods of old—and this brief encounter with anything approaching the sublime was enough to—
But I saw something else, too. Or rather, I think that York saw something else up on that cliff with him. I should say that it was just a tomb-robber, one of the natives who profits by selling misbegotten antiquities.
Yet I know that it wasn’t a tomb-robber. It wasn’t anything as ordinary as that.
And I know you’ll say that I am being a sensationalist. You will say that I have got my head all full of fantasies again and that this sounds like something borrowed from the lurid pages of grisly fiction.
I saw it though—there on the ledge with York. With the moonlight gleaming, it was lit up, plain as day.
And I know just what the valley looks like at midday, too, because a young gentleman took me on a tour of the site a few days before York’s death. So I saw the valley at high noon, all on fire with the sun beating down on the cliff walls, and the laborers still carrying baskets even though all of the other excavators had given their workers a break because it was so hot.
I saw another thing that afternoon in the valley: I saw York playing the cruelest of jokes. I almost hesitate to tell you, but I know that you will not divulge anything I say.
I saw York playing dirty tricks on the youngest of his little workers.
I thought of asking my escort to complain to York about it—to tell him to stop it—but why should York pay any heed to what I think? And then there might have been a row.
And thinking about it a bit more, it occurs to me that the little ones almost deserved it. Not that they weren’t children—they were. But they had been given a task to do. It was their job to clear away some of the rubble by putting the rocks into baskets, which were then carried away by the adults. Instead, the young ones were running around, playing, the way children do. And when York would yell at them, they would just stare at him dumbly.
I know that they were just innocent young things, but they were being paid for their work. It was not very hard work either. I tried to lift a few of the stones myself, just to see, and it was not that difficult. I do not think that I could do it all day, and certainly not day after day, but I was not born to this kind of labor the way that the Egyptians are. They are quite strong; their ancestors built the pyramids, after all.
I am sure that you are asking what any of this has to do with my dream. I ask you to picture it, the scene I described, with that gleaming rock and the awful spaciousness of that blue-black sky. I ask you to imagine York taken aback by all of that. And maybe there was something else on that rock with him, some angry spirit, determined to protect its tomb. Or maybe that was just my imagination. Anyhow, York fell. I dreamt his fall. Such an awful sight, York clawing at the air and crying out. A strangled cry, cut short when he hit the ground, his back driven down onto a little pocket knife that, a few days ago, I myself saw York angle into place there, between some rocks at the base of the cliff, in a cruel joke meant to cripple any innocent child who went skipping across the rocks in harmless play.
The newspapers say that York was stabbed from behind, the knife being driven into the rocks when he fell. But I know that it was really the other way around. He fell, and when he hit the ground, his own knife was driven into his back, a knife that he had himself left angled upright, there amongst the rocks.
I have not told anyone about what I saw, or about my dream, and I know you will keep my secret. What would people think of me, if I told them that I had seen York playing such a mean joke on little children and had said nothing about it? If, heaven forbid, a child had been crippled, it would not have been my fault. I am just a woman. What could I have done?
So you will forgive me for not writing more. There is just so much—between this and—
Did you hear about the riot in Alexandria? I think that these people really do mean to destroy themselves and us with them, which just goes to show how foolish they are.
Next time, I will tell you some more about the young man who took me to see the tombs. It was such a strange experience, wandering amongst those chambers of the dead—positively unearthly. I know that you will laugh at me, but I would swear that I recognized some of the scenes painted on the tomb walls, and once, I even predicted beforehand that one of the tombs was going to open to the right just after the entrance—the tomb was laid out just as I said it would be. You needn’t share your thoughts on reincarnation with me; I have heard them all before. But I would not be surprised to learn that I once lived out a whole life as a proper Egyptian priestess, carrying out the rites of the goddess Isis.
Egypt is such a—
I hardly know how to describe it. I am not quite myself here.
Or else I am more myself here than ever before, and if that is the case, then I do not know who I am.
Have the butterflies returned to the garden yet? I wish I could see them right now.
Author’s note: This story is inspired by Flaubert in Egypt, Ruby Hamad’s “How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Colour,” and my struggle with the implications of my work as a white historian of Roman Egypt.
The Mahdi was an Islamic messianic figure who led a military campaign against British/Egyptian rule of the Sudan. He made decisive inroads against British forces until his death in 1885. Egypt achieved independence from the British government in 1922, but Britain continued to interfere in internal Egyptian politics for several more decades.