As the grandfather clock in the hall finished striking the eleventh hour, Thomas returned to the parlor where his guests were drinking sherry over a game of whist—all except Miss Hines. She was not drinking and was sitting by herself near the fire. He wondered whether she belonged to one of those dull, new religions that didn’t allow people to drink or smoke or play cards and decided he didn’t care enough to find out. With a broadening grin, Thomas clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention. They all looked to him, eyes glossy with drink and excitement.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he began. “Friends and family. First, let me say how pleased I am that you all came tonight. This place can get rather lonely at times and it’s nice, every now and then, to see the old dame shake out her cobwebs and catch a few live ones for dinner.”
“Really, Thomas,” Martha said. She had already had a few too many drinks, as per usual, and was beginning to slur her words. “You’re speaking as though you’re readying to drink our blood.”
“I’d like to keep all of mine, thanks,” Garrison said, patting his large belly and glancing at his wife to see if she'd smile. She did.
“Nothing like that,” Thomas said. “I assure you. But the hour has arrived to introduce tonight’s special entertainment.”
He paused a moment to let the women titter at this new amusement. Miss Hines alone did not titter, nor did she look amused. In her seat by the fire, she had half-turned to listen and watch him from the corner of her eye. It was spooky, being watched like that.
He felt a chill beginning to run up his spine, but he quickly shook it off and continued his speech.
“My two colleagues and I racked our brains for weeks to come up with something extraordinary for this extraordinary night,” he said, nodding to Caruthers and Garrison. “Though our combined brain power is considerable, it wasn’t until last week that inspiration finally struck. And so, with a little planning and a lot of carrying heavy crates up and down stairs, I do believe we have managed to put together a most unique entertainment for this most unique of nights.”
“What is it? Ices?” Mrs. Garrison asked her husband, the dimple in her chin growing more pronounced when she smiled. She was as round as he was but, where his hair was dull and growing thin, hers was thick and golden—the color of harvest wheat.
“Please don’t keep us in suspense,” said Mrs. Caruthers. She was a tall woman with a sharp, angular face and dark hair going iron at the crown. Her eyes were bright, though, and intelligent.
“If you will all follow me to the study,” he said, stepping backwards into the hall, “then I shall show you what we’ve cooked up for this—the final night of the most glorious century the world has yet known.”
It was cold in the hall: colder than usual, though only Thomas seemed to notice. He also seemed to be the only one to detect the hint of mildew in the air, and he hoped his guests did not think that his house always smelled so dusty and unclean. He glanced over his shoulder to see if any
of them had noticed the strange odor. If they had, they didn't say. They chattered amongst themselves as he led them down the hall, and their excitement made him forget the strange chill and the mildewed smell. They made him feel giddy, almost like a child.
“I must warn you before we enter,” he said, pausing at the study door. “What you are about to see may be strange, even shocking. Please, take a moment to prepare yourselves and, if anyone begins to feel faint, do let me know. It wouldn’t do to have anyone pass out and miss ushering in the new century.”
“I don’t think it’s ices,” Mrs. Garrison whispered to Martha, who rolled her eyes in response.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Thomas said, turning the doorknob and slowly opening the door. “Please, step this way.”
He let them file past him into the room. Martha barged in first, as per usual. The married couples went next, the women clutching their husbands’ arms. Miss Hines came last. Her head was bowed but, just as she stepped over the threshold, she looked up and for the briefest second, met Thomas’s eye. Her gaze was dark, and it sent a jolt through him. As children, he and Martha had played a wintertime game where they would sneak up on each other and stuff snow down the back of the other’s shirt. That was what her gaze felt like. It felt like snow against his skin.
“I hope you’re enjoying yourself, Miss Hines.”
“Indeed,” she said, a little distant. It wasn’t really an answer and Thomas knew it.
As he followed her into the room, he heard his guests gasp and whisper to one another as they appraised the shape on the table.
Mrs. Garrison hung back, clinging tightly to her husband’s arm, refusing to be led closer to the form. Mrs. Caruthers, older and braver, ventured closer. Thomas saw her eyes light up as she bent over the table, and he knew that she was delighted by the turn the night was taking. Martha, who alone had brought her sherry glass, extended her index finger and used it to lift one corner of the sheet.
“Patience never was your favorite virtue,” Thomas said, knocking the sheet away from her.
“Well, if you would get on with it,” she replied, arching her eyebrows. Though nearly forty, she was still a handsome woman with delicate features and rich, mahogany hair. She had never married, and Thomas had never been entirely sure if that was by choice, or because she had never met a man willing to put up with her whims and vices.
“I’m trying to,” he said, shooing her away. The smell was much stronger in the study, and it tickled his nose, the feeling trickling down to his throat. He had to clear it before speaking again. “Everyone, allow me to introduce our guest of honor.”
With one fluid movement, he pulled back the sheet, sending a cloud of dust billowing into the air. It took a few moments before the coughing and sneezing ceased, and then he heard his guests gasp—even the men who were already in on the surprise. Draping the sheet on an empty chair, Thomas turned to face the figure that lay waiting for him.
She was small, even by Victorian standards, though surely the centuries in the desert had done much to wither her frame. The smell of the desert and the tomb still clung tightly to her linen bindings—a dusty, almost oaken odor that reminded Thomas of a long-vacant house. He didn’t know where the musty scent in the hall came from, though; her body was far too dry to allow mildew to cultivate.
Despite the great number of her kind that he had seen in his life, the sight of her lying there still sent a sharpness shuddering through his stomach and bladder. The wrappings made it easy to forget that it was a body on the table. A dead woman. They made her seem almost like a doll or statue: something that had never breathed the air or walked the earth. When his mind did return to the fact that it was a corpse resting near him, it made his hands feel cold and unsubstantial, like they were filled with air instead of bones and flesh. He flexed his fingers to get his blood moving again.
Mrs. Caruthers was the first to step forward. She asked, “Are we going to unwrap it?”
“We are,” he said. “But first, a few words about our guest: As you can see, she is an Egyptian mummy. She dates to the Thirteenth Dynasty and was found in a burial pit near Thebes. We know that she is, in fact, a 'she' because her sarcophagus bore markings indicating that she was a priestess of the goddess, Isis.”
“Most unusually, we don’t have her name,” Caruthers added, stepping forward. He was tall like his wife, with an impressive handlebar moustache that he had waxed to perfection for the occasion.
“Do they normally have names?” Mrs. Garrison asked.
“Oh, yes,” Caruthers continued. “If a family was going to go to the expense of commissioning a sarcophagus for their loved one, then they would naturally want that person’s name engraved on it for posterity.”