CHAPTER 1 - NORTHGATE HALL

Page 1

 

     The plateau was silent after a powerful desert storm. Violent winds had scoured the sand from a massive slab, which now lay exposed. A single hieroglyph stood out starkly, etched deep into the stone.
     “What do you make of it, Salim?” muttered an Englishman as he examined the ancient carving with his intense blue eyes.
      “There is no mistaking it, Baron. It is the Eye of Horus, a symbol of protection—a warning,” replied Salim. “I have a bad feeling about this. We should not disturb what lies below.”
     “You people are so superstitious,” growled the baron. “This is the twentieth century, man! We have entered many tombs and hidden chambers. Whatever is down below us has been buried for thousands of years. Order the men to lift the slab!”
     Lingering momentarily, Salim's eyes beseeched the baron to change his mind, but the Englishman’s face was set like granite. Reluctantly, the Egyptian departed to do his employer’s bidding. Back in his tent, the baron continued to ponder the hieroglyph, but the heat made him drowsy. His head slumped forward. An hour passed and it was hotter still. Awakening with a start, he felt the perspiration oozing from his skin. Salim burst in. “We have moved the stone!” he said, panting.
    Stepping out of the shade of the canvas, the Englishman and his assistant walked into the burning light. The huge slab stood ominously in the distance, lifted intact and supported by a row of heavy wooden staves. With the slab removed, two steps cut into solid bedrock were visible. Below the steps lay grey-gold sand and rubble. Eyes narrowing, the baron inspected the site. “This is obviously the entrance to an underground chamber. Get the men to dig!”he commanded.
     Drinking deeply from a water bottle, the baron returned to the tent. A sturdy journal, faced in red buffalo hide, lay on a battered wooden desk. The book was magnificently bound, tough, and built to endure the test of time. The baron kept a separate journal for each of his expeditions. They stood testament to his excavations and many discoveries. Opening the journal, he began the job of transcribing the hieroglyph and associated notes onto a fresh vellum page.
     It was late in the evening when Salim returned. “With your permission, Baron, the men would like to retire for the night,” he said, tired and drained from the long day’s heat.
     “By all means,” responded the baron, “but we will start again at first light. Tell them to serve the meal as soon as it is ready. An excellent day’s work, Salim, my friend. An excellent day’s work!”
     It was a blessed relief when the sun sank below the horizon and the sky grew black. Fed and rested in the cool of night, the men were up early, as directed by the baron, and the digging began again in earnest. Five days of hard labour followed. It was early evening on the sixth day when the rubble had been fully cleared. Making his way down the stone stairway, the baron entered the passage—a passage that had been hacked millennia ago, through solid limestone. Pausing in the darkness, he called out, “Salim, bring me a torch.”Bursting into flame, the torch filled the passage with dancing yellow light. Ahead of him, the baron could see the entrance to the tomb. “Bring the torch closer,” he commanded as he reached the end of the passage. “There are definitely no hieroglyphs, but the entrance to the tomb will be behind these blocking stones,” he muttered.
     Looking reassuringly at his assistant, the baron said with steady confidence, “Take heart, Salim. The eye cannot harm us. It is just a symbol from a long dead religion. Break down the wall!”
     Salim looked at the Englishman, his eyes widening with fear. “Let us turn back now, Baron Northgate, before it is too late. I am not a coward, but something is not right in this place. We should leave now!” he pleaded.
     At heart, the baron was an atheist and he despised the superstitions and simpering fears of the lower orders. He regarded the Egyptian closely. Salim was tall and skinny, with thinning black hair, a smooth narrow face, and a short broad nose. Small black eyes peered from behind a pair of round-rimmed spectacles.
     “Salim, you surprise me,” the baron replied. “Surely we are rational men of science, not to be swayed from our task by primitive superstition. This could be a significant discovery! Tell the men to break through to the tomb. I will brook no procrastination. “Walking briskly, the baron made his way up the passageway and back out into the desert. Soon, the crash of iron against stone could be heard, echoing from below. 
     As the sun began to sink, the scent of burning tobacco drifted into the air. Inhaling deeply from a Cuban cigar, the baron began to smile. This was a moment to savour and the excitement was mounting. Although a man of average stature, the baron’s face was broad and strong, its strength accentuated by a thick black mutton-chop moustache. Every inch an aristocrat, he was confident, articulate, and impervious to criticism. During the depressing gloom of British winters, he amused himself in exotic lands, searching for lost treasures. The remainder of the year was spent running his estate and business empire. Algernon Northgate was a very rich man, but a man easily bored and always ready for a new challenge.
     Salim emerged from the passage. The dust was making him cough, and his eyes were watering. Squinting at the baron through the grime-coated lenses of his glasses, he spluttered, “We have broken through, Baron Northgate!”    
     “Marvellous!” shouted the Baron, grabbing a torch and descending rapidly into the passage. Dust was heavy in the air as he pushed his way past the diggers and thrust himself through a large, gaping hole. Standing stock-still, his eyes began to scan the chamber. Walls painted and carved with elaborate hieroglyphs and portraits of men and beasts danced in the light of the flames.

“No one is to enter!” he yelled suddenly. “Keep the diggers back!”

 

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