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.”
“Then why doesn’t she have a name?” Martha asked from the settee where she was trying not to seem too interested.
“She did at one time, to be sure,” Caruthers said. “But it appears that, at some point, someone went through the trouble of chiseling her name off her sarcophagus.”
“Why ever for?” she asked.
“There’s no telling. Perhaps someone held a grudge against her and wanted to erase her name from history. Or perhaps it was merely vandals doing what they do best. The cemetery in which she was found had been targeted by graverobbers in ancient times. Though luckily, our little priestess’s mummy was not disturbed,” he replied.
“How sad that she doesn’t have a name,” Mrs. Caruthers said. “When will the unwrapping begin?”
“Right now,” Thomas said, grinning. With a penknife in hand, he began searching for a good place to start. When he found one, he paused for a brief moment, thinking that it was rather a shame to be undoing so nice a binding. The little priestess was one of the best-looking mummies he had ever seen. Her wrappings were so neat and tidy and regular. Someone must have loved her very much, Thomas thought, to have hired such a skilled professional to perform her mummification.
He gave the linen strip a tug, but age had cemented it in place. Using his penknife, he sawed through the binding, careful not to cut through to the mummy beneath. Once it was finally loose, he gave a triumphant little “Hah!” and began peeling it away.
“This is so exciting,” Mrs. Garrison said to Mrs. Caruthers. “None of my friends will be doing anything like this tonight. I can’t wait to tell them.”
On the settee, Martha rolled her eyes again and finished off her sherry, but no one noticed. Everyone’s focus was on the unwrapping.
Caruthers and Garrison helped shift the mummy from side-to-side as Thomas unwound the bindings. The linen was stiff and fragile to handle, and the ancient ointments in which it had been soaked left a grimy, sticky residue on his fingers.
The bindings were several layers thick, and the linen sometimes snapped off in his hands. But, by the time the clock read a quarter to midnight, she was nearly free. Her legs became visible first. They were … remarkably well-preserved.
Thomas had seen many mummies in the decade and a half that he had worked for the museum. Some were preserved better than others, but none had ever looked anything like the little priestess.
Her skin had withered some and had turned a sickly grayish-yellow color but, all in all, she looked more like someone who had been dead a week, not thousands of years. The only mummies to which Thomas could compare her would be those that had been preserved naturally in peat bogs. But the process of creating bog mummies was much different than the process that the ancient Egyptians had used. Thomas didn’t know how to account for the little priestess’s appearance.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Caruthers said, breathless.
“She looks almost alive,” remarked Garrison.
“I maybe wouldn’t go that far,” Thomas said, continuing to unwrap her. “But, certainly, she does not look like someone who has been dead as long as she has.”
“Why might that be?” Mrs. Caruthers asked. She had been slowly circling the table during the unwrapping, trying to see all that could be seen.
“It’s quite clear that whoever performed her mummification was a professional,” her husband answered. “But even so, there must have been special conditions at play in her tomb which helped minimize the decomposition process. It will require further investigation to know for sure.”
Thomas only half-listened to the exchange as he continued unwrapping the little priestess. He was having a hard time processing what he was seeing. He did not understand why she had not dried out like the other mummies he had examined. Every so often, his fingers would graze her body and, though her skin was hard and leathery, the flesh beneath still had some give. It made him almost ill, and he wished that he could stop unwrapping her. It felt suddenly wrong, dirty, like he was defiling her—that was the word that kept coming to his mind. Defiling. But they were all watching him and he could not stop. Even if he did stop, one of the others would step in and continue the job.
He glanced at Caruthers and Garrison, hoping to find some trace of his own reticence and discomfort on their faces, but saw none. Even Mrs. Garrison, who had previously been afraid of the mummy, now watched it with keen interest, like she was watching a play. They all wore the same expression, and Thomas could only describe it as lascivious.
Are these really my friends? he thought. His hands were beginning to tremble slightly; he willed them to stop, but they would not stop.
He glanced up again and, this time, his eyes found Miss Hines, but she did not share the expression of the others. She looked serious. Enraged, even. And she was not watching the mummy, either. She was watching him. The tremor in his hands grew worse.
As he began unwrapping her torso, he no longer attempted to keep the coils of linen in neat little spools. He let the long strands tangle around his feet and a few times, he tripped, stumbling first into Garrison and then into Mrs. Caruthers. Neither seemed to give his sudden clumsiness much notice.
Only thin strips remained crisscrossing her body. One breast had been exposed by his handiwork, and it remained round and shapely, the nipple dry, dark, accusatory. The mummy had a mole beneath her collarbone, and it gave Thomas pause. It was a coincidence, he told himself. Nothing more than a coincidence.
Finally, all that was left was to uncover her face. Thomas did not want to do it. He considered stepping back and telling Caruthers and Garrison that they would have to continue without him, that his hands were growing tired, that he was beginning to feel ill. But his throat was dry, and he knew his voice would crack if he tried to speak. Besides, he felt responsible for the whole thing, and he didn’t want to abandon the little priestess now. The unwrapping party had been his idea. The selection of the mummy had been his responsibility, too. Sir Creston’s team had brought back a veritable cache of mummies to choose from; the little priestess’s crate had simply been the easiest to access and the lightest to carry.
He pulled the first strip of linen from her face and a thin piece of skin along her jaw came away with it. Beneath, the flesh had turned dark brown, and it rippled like a scar from a bad burn. He tried to be more careful from then on as he lifted the linen away. He was so intent on his task, on preventing any more damage to her countenance, that he did not notice her features until the last of the wrappings fell away and, when they did, he screamed.
As Thomas Bankhead retreated in a panic, stumbling backwards, and falling heavily into his desk chair, the others crowded around the mummy to see what had so horrified him. The Caruthers and Garrisons looked to each other in confusion. The little priestess’s features had been wonderfully preserved, and they could see that she had been a pretty woman. Not stunningly beautiful, but certainly pretty. There was nothing horrifying about her that they could see.
Martha alone understood what had frightened her cousin. She saw it immediately and from the pure shock of the realization, dropped her empty sherry glass on the floor, snapping the stem in the process. She pressed her palms against her cheeks and shook her head back and forth, wholly rejecting the scene before her.
“My God,” she said. “Oh, Marion.”
As the blackness crept into the corners of Thomas’s vision, the grandfather clock in the hall struck midnight. The new century was born, and from outside came the sounds of his neighbors cheering and singing and popping off firecrackers. Inside the flat, only silence.
Thomas had always had a problem taking things that did not belong to him. As a child living in a small village in Sussex, he had stolen eggs from his neighbor's henhouse and palmed small items from Mr. Baker’s dry goods store. He didn’t do it out of greed, though, or because he thought that, as the vicar’s son, he was entitled to certain things. No, he did it out of boredom. Pure boredom. The other children were dull, uneducated. They didn’t understand the things he said and didn’t want to play with him. The grownups were not much better. His mother, bored with village life, went to live with her sister in Paris when he was eight and never came back. His father, by contrast, hated the city. He liked the simplicity of the country, liked being an educated man among farmers and laborers. That way, he did not have to work very hard to impress anyone yet was still impressive. Intimidating, even. Only young Thomas saw through his vestments to the man inside: lazy, arrogant, and capable only of parroting information that he had heard from someone more intelligent and creative than himself.
At ten, he stole a neighbor’s horse and rode it at breakneck speed through town. Did it just to see if anyone could catch him, and what they would do about it if they could. His father was the one to catch him. What he did about it was send Thomas to live with his Aunt Hester and Uncle Oscar in London. Far from being a punishment, being sent away turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him. In Martha, he finally found a playmate who could keep up with his shifting temperaments, and his desire—his need—to discover and explore. In his aunt and uncle, he found the parents that he had never really had. They were even-tempered, warm. They were intelligent and cosmopolitan without being arrogant or cold. They were the first to introduce him to the museum where he would one day work.
Uncle Oscar was old friends with one of the governing board members and, after Thomas had completed school, he had helped him get on with the archeology department.
At the museum, he felt as though he had finally found the place where he belonged. There, his love of adventure and discovery was not laughed at or challenged. Instead, it was encouraged. Nobody thought him strange or called him a troublemaker either. He finally felt accepted, and that his life, previously so aimless and turbulent, had a purpose after all.
And it was at the museum that he met Marion. When he first saw her, he had been confused by her presence. He rarely saw women at the museum because an invitation was needed to be allowed in, and women were rarely awarded invitations. Curious, he had approached her and asked if she needed help.
“I’m quite alright, thank you,” she said sharply, but not unkindly. “I know this room well enough and don’t require a guide.”
“Ancient Greece,” he said, glancing around at the statues and broken amphorae that surrounded them. “Are you a student?”
“No,” she said simply, moving away from him.
He knew that he should let her be, that she was signaling to him that she didn’t want to be bothered, but he couldn’t help himself. There was something about her that drew him in.
Most people would have called her pretty, but she had a way of carrying herself that made her more than that. She was a small woman—slight, with brown eyes and dark blonde hair. Her clothes were current, fashionable without being flashy. Her voice was light, but firm. When she spoke to Thomas, she looked him straight in the eye.
“Are you a writer?” he asked. “Perhaps you’re writing a novel that’s set in ancient Greece. Or, maybe it’s set in a museum much like this one.”
“No,” she said, and when she said it, he caught her trying to suppress a smile. He considered this encouragement.
“Oh, I know! You want to be an archeologist. Like me. Dig up old lost stuff out in the desert and then make up something impressive to put on its plaque for a museum.”
“Does it look like I get my hands dirty?” she asked, holding up her gloved hands to show him how neat and tidy—and expensive—they were.
“Certainly not,” he said. And then, unable to stop himself from being at least a little cheeky, “But maybe you’d like to try.”
He half-expected her to storm off, maybe call him something uncouth. What he did not expect was for her to grin. Not a big grin, or a long one, but a grin nonetheless. And then, almost as soon as it was there, it was gone. Her face settled back into indifference.
“Since you clearly will not let me be until I tell you why I’m here,” she said, drifting over to a display of ancient coins, “I am waiting on my husband.”
“Your husband?” he repeated, hoping his voice did not betray his disappointment.
“Yes, my husband. Sir Creston.”
Sir Creston. Even as she said it, he could not believe it. Sir Creston? He was more than twice her age and a fool. Everybody knew he was a fool too, and the worst kind at that. The kind that didn’t know what he was and carried on as if everyone looked up to him, thought him wise and judicious. Thomas tried to picture the bumbling old man, with his bushy mutton chops and bald, babyish head, strolling arm in arm with the woman before him. He could not imagine it. His mind rejected the image as false and incongruent.
“Surely not,” he said, smiling nervously. He thought she must be having a laugh at his expense. “He’s nearly seventy and you’re—”
The look she gave him then told him not to finish his sentence. He felt his stomach sink to the floor. The smile quickly disappeared from his face, and he cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to speak out of turn.”
“It’s quite alright,” she said, releasing a breath that sounded as if she had been keeping it in a very long time. “I’m not simple. I know what you think. I know what people think, what they say behind his back. Behind my back.”
“You don’t know what I think,” he said quietly.
She turned to him, a look on her face that was both pitying and sad. It was then that the old man himself entered the hall. As he sauntered over to his wife, Thomas saw that his shirt was stained with the remains of his lunch, and that his waistcoat was misbuttoned. He could not help but feel embarrassed for the woman who called herself his wife.
“There you are, my dear,” he said, the sound of his walking stick striking the marble floor, almost deafening. “I see you have cornered Mr. Thomas Bankhead, one of our junior archaeologists.”
“It’s a pleasure to formally make your acquaintance,” she said, holding out her hand. When he took it, she pumped it up and down like the Americans did. Before releasing her grip, she gave his hand a quick squeeze that he did not understand.
“Ah, Marion. Marion,” Creston said, shaking his head in amusement. “You spent too much time with those Yankees in Cairo. I tell you, Mr. Bankhead, you really must get out to old Cairo if you want to get on in our field.”
“Of course, Sir Creston,” he said. He had already been to Egypt twice, both times on expeditions funded by the old man, but he wasn’t about to contradict him.
“Come along, my dear,” he said, drawing his wife’s arm over his own. “We don’t want to be late for dinner.”
“I’m sure we will meet again, Mr. Bankhead,” she said, allowing herself to be led away. “Until then.”
“Until then,” he repeated. He watched them until they had left the hall.
After that day, Marion became a regular visitor to the museum. Sir Creston would often express his surprise and delight that his wife finally seemed to be taking an interest in his passion. But it soon became clear to Thomas that she had no more interest in the old bits and pieces that her husband dragged back from dusty, faraway lands than she had ever had. She was coming to the museum to see him.
When the affair began, he felt the same thrill he had experienced as a child, raiding Mr. Brooke’s henhouse and splattering his spoils across the face of his father’s church. But soon, he began to grow anxious. Not that Creston would find out—the only thing he noticed or cared about was how many plaques in the museum bore his name. Nor was he anxious that his colleagues would find out. He realized that he didn’t care if they did, even though it would almost certainly mean his termination. A part of him wanted them to know, just like how, as a child, he had always really wanted to get caught.
His anxiety stemmed from the inescapable fact that he loved Marion and didn’t know what to do about it. He had never really wanted any of the things he had stolen as a child, and so had never cared when they were inevitably returned by his father, destroyed, or lost. The only thing he had cared about was the thrill. But now, the initial thrill was gone, replaced by the gnawing agony of knowing that he wanted Marion desperately, and that there was nothing he could do about it.
He took refuge in fantasy, imagining how they would escape Sir Creston. They would run away to France. That was where people always went to carry on affairs uninterrupted, wasn’t it? That was what people did in plays and novels. It was what his mother had done. Or, they would flee to America, take up assumed names. Move out west. He could pan for gold or something. People still did that, didn’t they?
Eventually, he began sharing his fantasies with Marion, speaking of them as if they were real plans. As if they could really escape. Marion put him straight.
“People like me can’t run away,” she told him blandly one afternoon. They were at his flat, in his bed. “If someone like me disappeared, then they would have my picture in all of the newspapers. We’d be found before we could ever even reach our destination.”
“We would travel in disguise, naturally,” he said, brushing a finger over the mole beneath her collarbone.
“Naturally,” she mocked. “And what would we do when we got wherever we were going?”
“I would find work and provide for you.”
“You? Work?” She laughed, but it wasn’t a kind laugh. “I know you think what you do at the museum is work, but it isn’t. You could never make enough to provide for yourself, let alone for me.”
“I could try.” He sat up against the pillows, trying to impart that he was being absolutely serious. That he wasn’t playing games. “Wouldn’t that be better than how things are now?”
“You don’t mean that. You don’t like this any more than I do.”
“You don’t understand what I mean,” she said. “I should get dressed.”
He grabbed her arm, tried to keep her from leaving the bed, but she wrenched herself free. Picking her things up off the floor, she began to dress herself. He watched, staying where he was, knowing that he had to say something, do something, before the moment was lost.
“Leave him,” he said, hearing the desperation in his voice and not caring.
“You know very well I can’t do that.”
“On what grounds?” she snapped, throwing her blouse against the mattress. “He’s never beaten me. He’s never strayed. I don’t think he’s ever even said a harsh word to me. Oh, he has grounds to leave me, certainly. But he never would. He hates change too much.”
“How could you ever marry someone like that?” he said, matching her heated tone. “How could you be such a fool?”
He regretted it as soon as he had said it but, by then, it was too late. Her face crumpled, and he feared she might cry: that he had made her cry. But instead, she only furrowed her brow and glared.
“You don’t know anything about the life I lived before you met me. Don’t pretend as if you do.”
“Then tell me. Please. I want to know, Marion. I want to know everything about you.”
“Maybe another day,” she said, slipping on her shoes. “I need to be going now.”
“Please, think about what I said. I know my ideas can be ridiculous, but I’m sure we can think of something.”
“There’s nothing to think about. There’s nothing to be done.”
She was fixing her hat in his dressing mirror. She was about to walk out the door. He would have said anything to make her stay, but there was only one thought running through his mind then. And so, it was the thought that he voiced.
“He’s old,” Thomas said. “He can’t live forever.”
He saw her face blanch in the mirror.
“Don’t say things like that,” she said lowly, almost whispering.
“I have to go,” she said, making for the door.
“Marion,” he said, standing, reaching out one hand, letting it fall. Not knowing what he was going to say until it was said. “I—I love you.”
She paused. Without turning from the door, she replied, “I love you as well, Thomas.”
Then she left.
Afterwards, he was glad he had said it. He didn’t find the letter she had slipped beneath his pillow until that night as he was climbing into bed and, as soon as he read the first line, he knew that those had been the last words he would ever speak to her. And so, he was glad that they had been those words.
He didn’t bother reading the rest of the letter before dressing hurriedly and rushing down to the street to hail a cab. By the time he got to the Crestons’ townhouse, it was already awash in panic. All of the lights were blazing; maids were crying in the front garden. A man in a police uniform stood on the front steps, speaking to an old woman who looked like a housekeeper.
Thomas had known that he would be too late. He had known, even before he had left his flat. But how could he not have gone? How could he not have tried?
Knowing that there was nothing to be done, that his presence would only cause greater confusion and grief, he told the cabbie to take him home. Once there, he read the rest of the letter:
Ever since my wedding day, I have kept a bottle of morphine hidden in my dressing table. Tonight, I am going to take it all. Do not think you had anything to do with this decision, for you did not. I was always going to do this and, if anything, you kept me here longer than I would have stayed otherwise.
I know you think that we can be together, but we cannot. I do not want to be a divorced woman and have people sneer at me in the street. You do not want to be saddled to a divorced woman, either. It would destroy your career and your reputation. You would end up hating me, and I would end up hating you. Then we would both truly have nothing, and I am too vain to be both destitute and
I am sorry this letter is not more enlightening or pathetic. I know you deserve more, but I have nothing more to give. Perhaps I will see you in the next life, and then things will be different. Until that time, know that I am sorry I was not the person you thought me to be.
Lady Marion Creston
At first, he was angry because he did deserve more than a letter that said nothing that had not been said before. But after a while, he realized that it said everything that it needed to say. He had always been too arrogant to recognize that he had never meant to her what she had meant to him, and at last the truth of it all was before him, plain as could be on the page. He could not deny it anymore.
He could not bear to part with the letter because it was all he had left of her and because, one day, he might discover something new, an answer of some sort, hidden between its lines. He hid it behind a lithograph of Waterloo in his bedroom, not because the picture had any connection to Marion whatsoever but because he knew by the thick buildup of grime on the frame that the maid never bothered to dust it, and so wouldn’t accidently find his hiding spot. He took it out once in a while. He never discovered anything new.
The mummy that he unwrapped on the night of December 31, 1899 was not Marion, obviously. It just looked a lot like her. But, even though he knew it was not Marion, the shock of seeing a face that so closely resembled hers caused his world to momentarily go black. Though he had warned his guests about fainting, it was he who spent the first few minutes of the new year slumped unconscious on the floor.
In the morning, as most of the city slept off the previous night, he sent for Caruthers and Garrison to help him move the mummy back to the museum. He hadn’t slept at all and knew that he could not keep the thing in the house if he ever wanted to sleep again. Also, he thought that it was desperately important—though he didn’t know exactly why—that Sir Creston never see the mummy and so, he wanted to transport it on a day when he knew the old man would not be at the museum. After packing it in its crate and returning it to the archaeology department’s storeroom, he instructed Caruthers and Garrison to help him move it to the most remote spot that they could reach. There were many crates of mummies stored there—so many that some would likely never be unpacked. He hoped that no one would ever disturb the little priestess again. No one besides himself, that was.
At first, he did his best to hide his trips to the storeroom. He knew that there was something wrong about going to see her. He knew that she was not Marion and that he had disturbed the little priestess’s rest enough already. That he should leave her alone. But she looked so much like Marion. Even though it made him absolutely, unbearably miserable, he continued his visits, long past the point where he should have given them up. After a while, he stopped caring if his colleagues knew that he was going to look at the mummy. It became a regular part of his routine. Some of them had known Marion, and some had not. Those that had already started to piece the whole thing together. He heard them whispering behind his back, but he didn’t care. Part of him enjoyed the infamy. Part of him always had.
These visits went on for months and then, one day, he found that he could not even stand to be in the same building as the mummy anymore. The grief it caused him was too great. It was killing him. It was driving him mad. He grew angry at the little priestess. He hated her for looking like Marion, and he hated his life for turning into one of those morbid melodramas that he had always laughed at and disdained. He wished someone would take her away to someplace unknown to him so that he would never have to think about her again. He began going out of his way to avoid the storeroom. If he needed something from it, he would wait until he heard one of his colleagues heading that way and then ask him to retrieve the needed item. It got to be a problem. His work suffered. He didn’t want to be there, and many of his colleagues didn’t want him there either. They were beginning to think him more than a little strange and troublesome.
He wished he could leave the museum and never return, but he didn’t know what else he would do. He had always thought that his work was important, that he was helping to uncover knowledge that had been lost for centuries. But he was beginning to realize that he was still just stealing eggs from someone else’s henhouse. He was still taking things that did not belong to him, ripping artifacts from the earth and spiriting them away to England, away from the descendants of the people who had buried them in the first place. He was a plunderer, he realized. He was no better than the graverobbers who had desecrated the little priestess’s tomb. In fact, if he was honest about it, he was one of those graverobbers now, paid in salary instead of gold. Despite these revelations, when an expedition to excavate a newly found tomb near Karnak was announced, he made sure that his name was on the list. He was desperate to get away and did not care what he had to do in order to achieve that end. He didn’t just want out of the museum: He wanted out of London, out of the whole damned country. He wanted to go somewhere that did not remind him of Marion.
He spent the next two years on the dig site in Egypt. At first, he still thought of Marion. He knew that she had been to Cairo with Sir Creston, and he could not stop himself from wondering if she had stayed at this hotel, or visited that bazaar, or watched the sun rise over the pyramids. In ancient times, the Egyptians had believed the sun rising to be Osiris, emerging from the land of the dead each day, and this knowledge brought strange thoughts to his head. But, once the dig got underway, he became so busy that he thought of her less and less until she returned to the backrooms of his mind where she faded like a ghost that no one believes in anymore.
Eventually, the time came for him to return to London. He hardly slept the night before his voyage because every time he began to doze off, he dreamt that a desiccated figure, draped in rotting linen scraps, stood at the foot of his cot. From the corpse’s withered mouth and empty eye sockets poured hundreds upon hundreds of scarab beetles that swarmed his body, desperate to force their way into his mouth, down his throat. He would wake from these nightmares feeling as if the insects were still on him and, no matter how long or hard he brushed at his face, the sensation would not go away.
He had thought himself cured of whatever spell the little priestess had put him under, but the dream brought back disquieting memories. During the journey home, he redoubled his efforts to forget—to forget Marion, to forget the mummy, to forget everything from the prior few years that had caused him to doubt himself and succumb to self-pity. He spent every waking hour up on the ship deck with his fellow archeologists, playing cards and trading stories. When night would approach, he was always the first to take out the whiskey bottle and pass it around. He found that if he drank enough, the dreams would not come.
Once back home, he felt he had shaken off the worst of it. He did not entirely feel like his old self—not yet, at least—but he no longer hated the museum or feared the storeroom. He made an effort to get back on good terms with his colleagues and to keep up with his work.
About a week after his return, Martha came to see him at the museum. She knew that he had not been himself since that fateful New Year’s Eve party, and so was pleased to find him in improved spirits. He told her all about the dig and brought her back to his workbench to show her some of the pieces he was working on. It pleased her to see him excited about something productive and sensible again.
“It’s a relief to hear you’ve given up those daft notions you had before you left,” she said. “Thinking your job wasn’t important or that you were doing something immoral. What rubbish. I think all of this is absolutely brilliant.”
“Thank you, dear.”
"I mean, it’s like that nice Mr. Caruthers says: If the museum and its benefactors are going to finance these digs, then naturally they should get to keep whatever they find.”
“Oh, I do like this,” she said, bending over a small statuette cast in gold. Though it had spent a millennium buried in the sand, the metal glimmered and glinted as it always had. Gold, at least, was eternal.
“That is the goddess, Isis,” he said. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Indeed,” she said carefully. She remembered that the mummy had been a priestess of Isis and decided that she better steer the conversation in a different direction. “Will you be joining me tomorrow at the opera? It’s Verdi, your favorite.”
“I would love to,” he said. “Will your companion be joining us? Or have you already grown tired of her?”
“Whatever are you talking about, dear?”
“Your companion. That Miss Hines. You brought her to that horrid party,” he said. He didn’t have to specify which party he meant.
“You must be mistaken,” she said, unable to hide the growing unease in her voice. “I don’t know anyone named Miss Hines, and I have never employed a companion.”
“You brought her to my flat. You introduced me to her.” He knit his brow, wondering how she possibly could have forgotten. “The plain girl. She hardly said a word, wouldn’t drink or play cards. Had these unnerving eyes.”
“Really, Thomas,” she said, trying to chuckle, unable to quite get it out. “Do you honestly think I would associate with such a creature?”
“No,” he said slowly. “No. I suppose you wouldn’t.”
“That’s right. You must have your dates confused. Someone else must have brought her to some other party.”
“That must be it,” he said, but his voice did not sound convincing. “I’m suddenly feeling very tired. I must be getting confused.”
“Thomas,” she said, frowning. “Why don’t you let me see you home now? We can share a cab.”
“That’s alright. I need to put my things away and finish this report.”
“I really think you should call it a night.”
“Marion, please.” He immediately realized his mistake and stammered, “M-Martha, I mean. I’m terribly sorry.”
“You need to go home. You need to get some rest,” she urged.
“I will,” he said, taking her hands in his. “I promise I’ll leave just as soon as I put my tools away. I can’t leave them out, or Robeson will throw a fit in the morning.”
“Well,” she said, still unsure. “As long as you promise you’ll go home straightaway.”
“I can stay if you want me to. It’s no problem, really.”
“I don’t want you to stay,” he said with more force than he had intended. “I’d like for you to get home before dark, is all. You know I don’t like you going about at night.”
“Alright, Thomas,” she said. “I’ll go. But I’ll see you tomorrow, correct?”
“Correct,” he said, forcing a smile.
He made a show of cleaning his tools until he was certain that she had left the workroom. He listened until the sound of her heels clacking through the marble hall faded and then, looking around to make sure that he was finally alone, he allowed himself the release of panic that he had been carefully holding in. As his hands began shaking, the paintbrush he was grasping fell and clattered loudly onto the worktable. The tremor in his hands spread throughout his body, racking him so violently that he feared he might have a seizure. As he shook, the bench beneath him wobbled under his shifting weight, its legs beating wildly against the floor.
And then, with a final, tremendous shudder, he regained control of himself. The tremors stopped and he sat unnaturally still, his palms flat against the table, his breaths labored and ragged. A cold sweat had broken out across his body.
He tried to calm himself with reason: Martha was probably correct. Miss Hines had been at a different party. He was confused. Even as these thoughts came to him, he knew that they were false. He knew that Miss Hines had been at the New Year’s Eve party. He had been drinking that night, of course, but not enough to imagine an entire person into existence.
Perhaps Martha was playing a trick on him. Tomorrow night, she would laugh at him for falling for it. That theory was equally ridiculous, though. She knew that he had not been well lately and would never do anything so cruel.
He searched his memory, trying to recall the exact moment that he had met Miss Hines. Hadn’t Martha introduced her to him? He thought a moment and then decided that no, she had not. In fact, now that he really thought about it, he couldn’t remember anyone introducing him to Miss Hines. But, if that were the case, then how did he know her name? Had she merely been a gatecrasher, and his mind, tipsy with champagne, had invented both a name and a backstory to explain her presence? If that were the case, then Martha would have remembered her being there. The party had not been large enough to lose anyone amidst the crowd.
He considered and then immediately dismissed the idea of asking Caruthers and Garrison. If Martha had not seen the girl then, surely, they hadn’t either. He must have invented her. He must really be cracking up.
Rocking back and forth on his bench, Thomas tried to think on what he must do now. He did not want to call on his physician. He feared that would win him nothing but a one-way trip to Bedlam. He had never been inside the asylum, but he had passed by it often enough. The image of that bleak building, with its countless tiny windows and great, bulbous dome, flashed into his mind’s eye. He pictured himself standing behind one of those windows. They were built high and narrow so that the lunatics could not leap through them and escape. He knew that he would not be able to stand confinement among the insane. It would be like being back in the village in Sussex, only worse and, this time, there would be no Aunt Hester and Uncle Oscar to rescue him. This time he would die there and, much worse still, he would have to live there. He was not an old man; he surely had many years of life left and could not stand the thought of spending them at Bedlam.
He would go to Martha. He would go to her straight away. She would help him figure out what to do, and he knew that she would never let them take him away to Bedlam. If the worst came to pass, then he would allow her to lock him away somewhere in her house. Confinement was still an abhorrent thought, but it was better by far to be confined with Martha than with the lunatics. Grabbing his coat from its peg beside his workbench, he stood and spun around to face the door. His heart did a flip and flew into his head and he stumbled back against the table, jostling his tools. Someone was standing in the doorway, watching him with wide eyes.
“You aren’t real,” he said. “Go away.”
It was Miss Hines again, returned to plague him. She looked exactly as she had at New Year’s Eve—same white dress, same plain face, same implacable eyes. She stood in the doorway with her hands folded neatly over her stomach, her head cocked slightly to one side and her face expressionless.
“You aren’t real,” he said again. His hand scurried like a crab across his worktable, searching for some object with which he could defend himself. His fingers fell on something slender, heavy, and cold. He hoisted it over his head as if to throw it, a movement that caused his hand to hit the lantern above his workbench. As it swung back and forth, it caused shadows to sweep across the room. He began to see strange shapes form in the half-light. Things swarming there in the dark. They swarmed about Miss Hines, about her dress and her face. When the light fell on her, they disappeared, but he could still hear them moving. The sound they made reminded him of beetle wings clicking together, and he thought of his dream. Scarabs, fighting their way in to flood his mouth and throat. He gagged.
His fingers tightened over the object in his hand and he glanced down at it. It was the gold statuette of Isis that Martha had fawned over. His eyes bounced from it to the phantom and back again. A shadow darted over her face then and, as it did, he could have sworn that her eyes glinted yellow. That long, thick horns protruded from her head.
“Oh God,” he said. “Oh God. What’s wrong with me?”
As the words left his mouth, he became aware of the clicking sound of the swarm growing louder, closer. He looked down to see a shimmering pool spreading toward his feet. When the light fell on it, it did not disappear, but instead glimmered like a sea of iridescent green pebbles, tumbling one over the other. These were not pebbles, though. Not at all. They were the ghastly insects from his dream come to life, raring to finish what they had then begun. The first of them butted against the toe of his shoe and frantically, he kicked at it and shoved himself up onto the worktable. As he tucked his legs to his chest, he became aware of the tight, pained whine escaping his lips, but he was powerless to stop it.
“What do you want?” he cried as he kicked at the beetles scurrying along the edge of the table near his feet. “Call them off me, God damnit! Tell me what you want from me.”
Miss Hines—or whoever she really was, for certainly she had possessed many names throughout the endless centuries—unclasped her hands. Immediately, the beetles fell back and returned to the dark folds of her dress. She beckoned him to follow her and so he did, fearful that the beetles would return to claim him if he resisted. As he slid off the table, the statuette fell to the floor, the impact denting the soft metal of its wings. In the morning, Robeson would have a fit over the damage.
As he followed the phantom through the museum’s back hallways, he prayed, but not to any god of man. Thomas Bankhead prayed to Marion.
Please, Marion, he recited in his head. Please don’t let me be mad. If ever you loved me, please help me now. I know I do not deserve your help. I know I have done many wicked things and have probably brought this upon myself. But please, Marion, please deliver me from this hell.
As he silently repeated his sinner’s prayer, the phantom led him through the museum’s deserted halls. Only a few lights blazed here and there and sometimes, when she passed into the shadows, he again thought he saw the horns atop her head. They were broad and bovine. The buzzing and hissing of the scarabs moving in the folds of her skirt was deafening, interminable. He pressed his hands to his ears and tried to track the horns as they appeared, but he was unable to. They were there and then they weren’t. His eyes were not fast enough to register the moment of transformation.
Thomas knew where she was taking him and he was very afraid, but he couldn’t stop. Couldn’t turn away. He was more afraid of what the phantom would do if he ran than of what she was leading him to.
The closer they drew to the storeroom, the colder the museum became. Thomas shivered, his arms stiffening and his elbows digging into his ribs. When he stepped into a patch of light, he exhaled and noticed that his breath fogged.
The smell of mildew returned as well, and a terrible image came to him then of Marion’s coffin collapsing under piles and piles of sopping English soil, the rank, stale water creeping in and drip-drip-dripping into her open, unseeing eyes. He blinked and blinked but the image would not go away because it was a product of his mind, not his sight, and so he could not stop himself from picturing her body bloat, her smooth skin turned gray and rotten with the damp.
A few steps ahead of him, the phantom hummed gently, and the sound made him tremble.
When they reached the hallway that led to their destination, a dim disk of light sparked to life on the crown of the phantom’s head. But once he saw what crept along the corridor walls, he wished for darkness. The scarabs. They blotted out the plaster entirely, crawling over one another, their legs click-clacking over the others’ backs, their wings hissing in agitation. Thomas held his breath against the fecal smell of them.
At the end of the hall, the storeroom door opened. The phantom passed into the blackness, her faint light doing little to cut through the gloom.
Thomas paused at the threshold. If he entered, he did not think that he would return, but if he did not enter—his mind didn’t have time to think on the outcome before he suddenly felt thick straps of some stiff, rough material tightening around his wrists, pulling him forward like a lead on a dog. If he tried to resist, the invisible straps tightened painfully and tugged him with such force that he feared they might dislocate the bones of his wrist. Unable to withstand it, he began moving forward again.
As he followed the phantom through the maze of shelves and crates, Thomas thought he heard muttering in the darkness. The voices sounded a long way off. Some of them were wailing. Others were laughing. It was as if a funeral and a raucous party were happening at the same time, the attendees of each competing to drown the other side out. He clung to the hope that the voices came from the street outside but knew that the walls of the museum were far too dense for that to be possible.
The path the phantom cut through the storeroom was one he had taken many times and he understood that no matter what came next, this was the last time he would ever walk it. If he managed to make it out alive, he would never, ever return to the museum.
The phantom glided up to the crate that contained the little priestess and pressed her hand against the lid. The voices quieted enough for Thomas to hear the squeak of metal against wood. Nails, easing themselves out of the crate. They tumbled to the ground with a metallic echo, pinging like wind chimes as they fell. The phantom lifted her hand and stepped backwards. As she did so, the lid began to shake and slide off onto the floor.
Even though from where he stood, he could not see inside, he knew that the little priestess laid there waiting for him. His mind raced as he tried to imagine what was to come. He envisioned her rising from the crate, her eyelids fluttering open to reveal the empty sockets beneath, her arms lifting upwards, reaching out for him, wanting to take hold of him forever and ever. His abdomen tightened at the thought of this, and his breath caught deep in his chest.
The little priestess did not rise. Instead, the phantom stood aside and motioned for him to approach the box. He did so slowly, warily. He had to pass closely by the phantom in order to comply, and he felt his entire body stiffen. As he passed her, he caught the faint of whiff of bonfires and musky herbs and desert sand and decay. An image flashed before his eyes: women wailing as a human heart, still dripping red, was placed onto a golden scale.
Just as suddenly as it had come, the vision was gone, and he did not know if the heart had been deemed light enough.
He approached the box timidly, like a child approaching the altar during communion. She laid there just as he had left her two years before. The only thing that changed was her crate. It seemed too large for her small body and indeed, it seemed as if there now was room enough for a second mummy to be positioned beside her. It was with that revelation that he understood what he had been brought there to do. He looked back at the phantom to be sure. She lowered her chin. Affirmation.
“No,” he said. His voice was low and hoarse. “No, no, no!”
The phantom did not move. He looked back at the box and at the empty space. He wanted to resist, but it called to him. It would always call to him. Even if he left, even if he fled to the farthest lands, he knew that it would draw him back. There was no escaping it because that was his place, the true place where he belonged. It had been prepared just for him, and he would have to come to it sooner or later.
Thomas Bankhead had never belonged anywhere before. Even with his aunt and uncle, he thought now, he had never quite fit in. He had always been different, an outsider. A fraud, a liar, a thief. And now that he finally knew where he belonged, it did not fill him with anything like warmth or comfort. Instead, it filled him with the most profound dread.
Is this really where I go? he thought. Is this really where it ends for me?
Inside his head, a voice that was not his own answered: It did not end here for the priestess. Why should it end here for you?
The horror of this thought that had not come from his own mind but had been in his head nonetheless caused the last of his reserve to crumble. There was only one place for him to go, and so he went. As he reclined back into the box beside the little priestess, he crossed his arms over his chest and stared up into the rafters above. A face appeared above him, the face of the phantom, and then a second appeared behind hers. It was the dog-headed one, his fetish in one hand and his flail in the other.
These were the last faces he saw before the lid slid back into place, plunging him into blackness. It was the same blackness in which the little priestess had rested and waited for a millennium. Her soul may have wandered at times, true. Surely that was how she had become Marion Creston. But it had always returned to the darkness—to the place where it belonged. As the nails wormed their way back into the wood, Thomas wondered if there had once rested beside her a mummy that bore his features. He knew that her grave had been desecrated, her name erased. Perhaps the vandal, who he could not help but imagine as wearing Sir Creston’s face, had stolen away her lover’s body. How long must she have waited for him to return to her?
As he listened to the sound of other crates being stacked on top of the one in which he reposed, peace came to him at last. It would be years—decades even—before he and the priestess would be disturbed. Perhaps they would never be disturbed at all. Perhaps their crate would sit there in the storeroom, ignored and hidden away, while the world changed and moved on and forgot about the museum, just as it had forgotten about the statue of Ozymandias in the old Shelley poem. Perhaps they would be able to enjoy this new millennium together after all.
As the noises above ceased and the storeroom fell silent, he heard the figure beside him shift. It rolled over and extended its arms, embracing him at last.
MACY HARRISON is an English and composition adjunct in Dallas, TX. She has been in love with horror since she was a wee little gremlin. Her work will also be appearing later this year in the anthology Horror USA: Texas.
Artwork by the Novel Noctule team.