Chapter 1 - Page 2

It was the year nineteen hundred and two. Rain pattered gently off the enormous bay window of the library at Northgate Hall. The library was an impressive room, with huge bookcases extending a full fifteen feet above the floor. The bookcases housed a vast array of literary and scientific works, including the journals of Baron Algernon Northgate.
     The baron sat at a large desk, with his latest journal open. Sinking back into a big leather chair, he closed his eyes. Nothing dramatic had happened when he had entered the tomb, he recalled. Indeed, the few artefacts he had found had been modest and represented the basic paraphernalia of death in the Egyptian New Kingdom; or at least that is what he had led Salim to believe. He had, in fact, found something—something of profound significance that he had long been searching for. But that would have to remain a secret, one of his many secrets. The tale that he related to the authorities in Egypt was that the most notable find was the two mummies in their stone sarcophagi, and the sad story told by the hieroglyphs painted on the walls of the tomb. The bodies were of a mother and her young daughter. The woman had been the wife of a courtier during the reign of Tutankhamen. One terrible day there had been a boating accident on the Nile and her daughter and husband were drowned. A single body was recovered from the water—that of her daughter. The mother, driven to total despair, killed herself. Mother and daughter were buried in the chamber. Well, that is the story that the hieroglyphs told.
     The journey home had been uneventful. The baron was glad to be back in the freshness of a late English spring. The mummies and artefacts would arrive tomorrow. As was his custom, he would display the mummies for friends and relatives before donating them to a museum or selling them. They would not remain at Northgate Hall for long. His wife and daughter were none too comfortable with dead bodies lying around the place, even if they were embalmed and three thousand years old.
     Northgate Hall had been the ancestral home of the Northgates for the best part of three hundred years. The Hall was approached by a long tree-lined carriage drive. It was a very large and imposing building, standing thirty metres at the gable, and constructed of meticulously cut Cotswold stone. In keeping with the architectural style of the time, the vast house had an impressive series of tall chimneys with multiple smoke stacks. It was extended forward at either end into two large wings. A more recent structure that had been designed in the style of the main building, but smaller in stature, had been added to the east wing; this was used as a museum by the current Baron Northgate. To those viewing Northgate Hall for the first time, the whole effect was impressive, if not a little daunting.
     It was late morning of the following day before the clatter of hooves could be heard on the driveway. Peering out from an upstairs window, the Baroness’s deep blue eyes registered her husband standing below, ready to greet the approaching wagons. Her slender body was dressed for riding. She was a dazzlingly beautiful woman, with long luxuriant flaxen hair. Strikingly sensuous, she had the look of a goddess, with her high cheekbones, full lips and small aquiline nose.
     “More corpses, no doubt,” she sighed in mild exasperation. “Algernon is still a boy at heart. He loves to collect dead things to shock and amaze his friends.”
     The unloading of the wagons went smoothly. The four stocky removal men had had plenty of experience moving artefacts to and from Northgate Hall. As always, they were very keen and helpful; the baron was a very generous tipper. The two sarcophagi were wheeled into the museum on big trolleys and positioned to take centre stage in the Egyptian room. "The grand unveiling," as the baron liked to call the lifting of the sarcophagi lids, would take place in the evening, after dinner. Friends and family had been invited to view the explorer’s latest finds. Dinner came and went and a small crowd had gathered in the Egyptian room. Arriving in full black tie eveningwear, the baron took up his position in front of his audience. Clearing his throat, he began to relate the story behind the discovery of the two mummies. As soon as he had finished speaking, four men who worked for the Northgate Estate took their cue and stepped forward. Crowbars in hand, they began to prise the lids off the sarcophagi, which had been elaborately carved and painted in the likenesses of a beautiful young woman and a small girl, both dressed in the costumes of the period. With a great deal of shuffling and grunting, the heavy stone lids were lifted and moved to one side.
     Now the mummies lay exposed in their wooden coffins—the body of an adult with arms crossed on its breast, tightly bound by ancient wrappings, and the body of a small child similarly bound with arms crossed. In the light of the chandeliers, the larger of the two mummies looked faintly terrifying. Mummies were, after all, bodies that had been preserved from decay: bandaged sculptures of death.
     Continuing with his tale, the baron told the faces gathered before him, now staring with a mixture of curiosity and concentration, about the hieroglyphs that he had found on the walls of the lost tomb. He told them of the tragedy that they depicted, of the death of a child, the loss of a husband and the inconsolable grief of a mother, a grief that led to a self-inflicted death. When he had finished his rendition, the baron invited everyone to come and take a closer look at the mummies. With growing excitement, the gathered assembly moved slowly forward towards the sarcophagi. Some, who had never seen a mummified body before, lingered at the rear. Slowly, the mummies were surrounded by people. They gazed at the bodies lying before them, stiff and bound in bandages.

By its nature, a mummy was a mystery, a human being that had once walked and breathed in the distant mists of time, still intact, but mercifully hidden by its wrappings. It never failed to chill, this vision of the ancient Egyptian dead. Christopher, the young son of Baron Northgate, reached out to touch the adult mummy, but recoiled in sudden fright. There was something deeply unsettling about the body before him. He stared at the bandaged face—narrow, gaunt and almost menacing.

 

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