In Which the Truth Cannot Be Ignored
A few scrawny cats and a beggar scrabbled among gently smouldering heaps of rubbish. A swirl of black vultures circled overhead in lazy loops, keen-eyed for anything dead or dying. The naked sun slammed down like a hammer upon the poor anvil that was Kit’s throbbing head, smiting through the thin cloth of his sweat-soaked turban. “My kingdom for a straw hat,” he muttered, blinking in sunlight so hot it dried his eyeballs in their sockets.
An endless avenue of pale, human-headed sphinxes stretched before him, its end lost in the shimmering heat haze. Somewhere in that wavering mirage lay the ruins of one of the ancient world’s wonders: the Great Temple of Amun. It was somewhere in the temple complex at the end of the avenue, Kit had been informed, that he would find the man he had come upriver to meet. Squinting his eyes against the glare bouncing up from the white-paved street, he started walking. After only a minute, he was wishing he had not been quite so hasty in rejecting Khefri’s suggestion that he hire a donkey for the journey. “It’s a straight shot to the temple, right?” he had said. “How bad can it be?”
To take his mind off the heat, he tried to imagine why Wilhelmina had been so insistent that he meet this man. What did Young know that could help them? He also wondered how much Wilhelmina had told this fellow about the quest they were conducting, and consequently how much he might risk saying. That, Kit decided, would be the first thing he must discover.
After a leisurely boat ride down the Nile, and a brief stop to haggle for the turban, Kit and Khefri had shaken hands and parted company at the steps of the Winter Palace hotel. “ Shukran, my friend,” Kit had said. “If I have need of a boat, I will come looking for you.”
“May God be good to you, Kit Livingstone,” replied the young man. “Farewell.” The last Kit had seen of him, the young man was hurrying back to join his cousin in the boat.
Following Wilhelmina’s instructions, he had presented himself to the concierge at the reception desk and asked for the parcel that, all being well, was waiting for him. The concierge, a robust Egyptian in a black frock coat and fez, disappeared into an office, returning a moment later with a package. He held it in his hand and regarded Kit dubiously. “Could this be the parcel, sir?”
“Why, yes, I believe so.”
The fellow hefted it in his hand, but made no attempt to deliver it.
“May I have it, please?”
“Do you have anything for me?”
“Ah, no,” answered Kit slowly. “I don’t think so.”
“Nothing at all?” wondered the fellow.
“No. Nothing at all. Why? Was I suppose to have something for you? I was not given anything-”
“A small gift, perhaps?” He regarded the parcel in his hand.
“Oh!” said Kit, as understanding broke upon him. “Yes, I see.”
The concierge smiled.
“But I am terribly sorry,” Kit offered. “I don’t have any money. I’ve been in the desert, you see.” He turned out an empty pocket. “Nada. Nothing. Sorry.”
With a shrug, the fellow handed over the small packet, and Kit wandered into the lobby to open it. About the size and thickness of an old-school exercise book, it was wrapped in brown paper and tied with string; a small hand-lettered note had been stuck in where the ends of the string were tied in a neat bow, and it was addressed to him. It read: Kit: Do not open this package. Take it-unopened-to Dr. Thomas Young at the Karnak temple dig just outside Luxor. You will find him there from late spring to early autumn. The parcel will serve as your letter of introduction. He will know what is to be done. Remember, DO NOT open this package. Not even a little!
He turned the parcel over. The folded flaps were sealed with a blob of old-fashioned sealing wax. Beside the seal was a message: Do not even THINK about opening this package!
“Okay! Got it,” muttered Kit. “Sheesh, what a nag. I won’t open the stupid package.”
Tucking the packet under his shirt, he had then made his way to the old temple. When he finally arrived at the shattered remains of the temple gate, he was perspiring from every pore, the sweat drying almost instantly as it hit the dry desert air. The huge blocks of the fabled pylons-the great slant-backed walls flanking the temple entrance-lay tumbled on the ground, though the parts of the wall extant rose to the height of several stories. Many of the courses still bore their original paint, and the colours glowed in the fierce light. Through the now-empty gate he could see collapsed pillars and more jumbled heaps of rubble across a very lumpy landscape, most of which was covered with low acacia bushes, stunted palms of various sorts, and coarse, scrubby saw grass. More beggars reclined idly in the broken doorways, while in the shadows he could see the furtive shapes of feral cats.
Kit wiped beaded sweat from his face, put his hand to the cargo he carried beneath his shirt, and started into the temple courtyard, climbing over a heap of rubble and into what had once been an immense expanse of gargantuan columns shaped like bundles of papyrus; some of these stood upright, proudly supporting their connecting lintels as if bearing the weight of the clear blue sky above. His presence was quickly seized upon by the more enterprising beggars, who hobbled to greet him with toothless whines and filthy palms outstretched. “La, shukran,” he told them as firmly and politely as he could.
“Sir! Sir!” one of the beggars called in English. “You need a guide, sir?”
“No, thank you. I’m fine.” Kit did not even look up, since to do so would only encourage the fellow. “Thanks all the same.”
“You are looking for someone, maybe?”
At this, Kit glanced around to see a wizened Egyptian in a very dirty kaftan and skin like creased leather standing perfectly still a little apart from the importuning gaggle of his comrades in rags. “You are looking for someone,” the man repeated. “I think so.”
“Yes,” admitted Kit, instantly regretting his lapse. “I am looking for someone-an Englishman, actually.”
“You are looking for Dr. Thomas Young, perhaps,” suggested the bold fellow.
“The very man,” confirmed Kit, pulling up short. “Do you know him?”
“I know him, sir.” The Egyptian raised his voice and shouted a single word of command, and the others promptly ceased their mewling and silently drifted away. To Kit, he said, “Your friend is not far.”
“Thanks,” said Kit, much relieved. “But I don’t want to put you to any trouble. If you could point me in the right direction, I’d be much obliged.”
The man smiled, his teeth a flash of white in the tangle of his matted beard. “It is no trouble. Please, follow me.”
Despite his obviously much reduced state, the man held himself with great dignity, walking through the crumbling ruins-shattered monuments on every side-as through a palace entire, treading lightly on the stones beneath his feet. Kit trailed along behind him, stumbling now and then over the rough, uneven surface, mindful of the treasures buried only a few feet underground. He had a vague memory of having seen photos of what in his day was-or would be-called the temple complex of Karnak-a vast acreage of honey-coloured buildings inscribed with every manner of hieroglyphs imaginable. The tumbled remains of the once-great temple now trampled underfoot would one day rise again. The acres of broken blocks would be set one atop another once more, the carvings would be lovingly restored, the walls and lintels, obelisks, and innumerable statues of gods and men would be reclaimed from the waste and wilderness of uncaring eons, and the whole made accessible to the tourists who would fill the hotel boats that would be built to ply the Nile and spill their human cargo over the ancient sites in a living flood.
But this- this wracked ruin was how the place looked before excavation became a big business in the land of the pharaohs. Considering what the sprawling temple complex would eventually become-yet another heritage site swarming with short-shorts and baseball caps-Kit much preferred seeing it like this: a forest of half-fallen columns and collapsed structures, many still bearing their original paintwork, with here and there a smaller temple or storeroom completely intact, standing firm against the ravages of time. Aside from the beggars and stray dogs-did the two always go together?-there was no one. Not a single T-shirt shop or Coca-Cola sign in sight. And Kit was the only foreigner.
The beggar guide led him through the haphazard maze of devastation, past primitive campsites of squatters and mounds of garbage-the locals dumped here, obviously-and over fallen remnants of mighty Ramesses’ imperious statues, at last reaching a small, square building, the front of which was obscured by a toppled obelisk. Around the back of this structure Kit glimpsed a white flap of canvas; a ramshackle lean-to of timber and canvas had been set up over a sizeable hole. Six or eight men in dirty blue kaftans and black turbans stood around the edge of the hole, ready to receive baskets full of sand and rock that were being lifted up to them.
“Here is the man you are looking for,” said his guide.
Kit regarded the ring of workers and thought there must be some mistake, and was about to say as much when a voice called up from the hole. “ Shukran! Shukran! That will be all for now!”
A white straw hat appeared at the edge of the hole, followed by a round, whiskered face, flushed red by the man’s recent exertions. The fellow took one look at Kit and put out a hand. “Greetings, friend! I am Thomas Young. How do you do?”
Stepping to the edge of the hole, Kit bent and extended his hand to receive a hearty handshake. “Kit Livingstone, sir. I am well, thank you.”
“Would you mind terribly?” asked Dr. Young, still gripping Kit’s hand. “A small assist would be most useful.”
“Not at all,” replied Kit, who gave a solid tug.
The fellow scrambled out of the pit and patted the dust from his beige linen suit. “That is better.”
He straightened and, hands on hips, stood regarding Kit, his grey eyes keen behind small round steel-rimmed glasses. A compact, tightly knit man, he gave the impression of barely contained energy, like a coiled spring. Beneath his tropical linen he wore a white shirt and a waistcoat of yellow silk. The boots on his feet were of the heavy, serviceable type a military man might favour. “So!” he cried at last. “Here you are!”
“Here I am indeed,” confirmed Kit. The physician stood gazing at him as at a prize exhibit in a zoo until Kit, growing uncomfortable under the man’s scrutiny, blurted, “I believe we have a mutual friend.”
“Yes,” agreed Thomas Young amiably, “I rather believe we do.”
“Striking girl,” said Thomas, stirring himself. “Most remarkable young woman. Possessed of a strength of will one encounters only rarely. A genuinely unique individual.”
“She’s all that,” conceded Kit.
“Come, sir, it is the heat of the day. We must not stand out here jawing like a pair of yahoos. I have a jug of lemon water standing by. Splendidly refreshing. Will you share a drink with me in my tent?”
“I would be delighted,” replied Kit, falling into the more formal rhythms of nineteenth-century speech. “I am positively parched.”
“Khalid!” shouted Thomas. “We are retiring to my tent. Rest the workers now and give them something to eat and drink. Tell them we will resume at the usual time. When you have done that, join us, please.”
The servant made a slight bow and then, turning, clapped his hands for attention. As the workers moved off, Kit observed, “You sent him to look for me.”
“I did,” replied the doctor, leading the way to a large tent that had been erected in the scant shade of twin palm trees. “Every day at this time he went to look for you. I thought if you came at all, it would be in the morning. It is just too hot later. It is still early in the season,” he said, “and already it is beastly-much too warm for this time of year.” He stepped to the entrance of the tent and held aside the opening flap. “I fear I shall soon be forced to suspend excavations. Pity.”
Kit ducked under the flap and into a commodious, well-ventilated space that was less tent than open-sided marquee. Two sides were hung with gauzy material; periodically, a servant would come by to sprinkle it with water using an olive branch and a wooden pail-a primitive but surprisingly effective form of air-conditioning. The reprieve from the heat and hammering sun was instant and welcome, and Kit could not help offering up a sigh of relief.
The interior was divided into two distinct areas: a working place with a desk and lamp, three folding chairs, and a wicker settee, and a sleeping place with a cot shrouded by insect netting; the two were divided by a standing screen of woven palm fronds. The slightly uneven floor was covered by heavy Egyptian carpets laid one atop another. It was, Kit decided, the temporary abode of a well-seasoned traveller, one who knew and understood his surroundings. This was further demonstrated when the doctor removed the lid of a covered bowl and drew out a roll of wet cloth. “Put this around your neck,” he said, passing the roll to Kit. He took one for himself and draped it around the nape of his neck. Kit did likewise and instantly felt the better for it.
Beside the desk stood a small tripod bearing a large oval tray of brass; on the tray were a painted pottery jug and several upside-down glasses. A shallow bowl of almonds sat beside the jug, and it was to this that Thomas Young was first drawn. “Here, my good fellow, get some of these into you,” he said, offering the bowl.
Kit took a few of the heavily salted almonds and popped them into his mouth; his host did the same.
“You need the salt in this heat. It’s good for you. Prevents heat prostration.” Returning the bowl to the tray, he waved Kit to a chair. “Please, sit down, Mr. Livingstone. We will rest awhile and chat.”
Kit lowered himself into the canvas chair and accepted a glass of the pale yellow liquid. It was tepid, but the sharp tang of the lemon made it palatable. Thomas settled into his chair behind the desk and sat gazing at his guest from behind an untidy mass of papers and various drawing utensils. Kit sipped his water and waited for his host to begin.
“Do I dare ask if you have brought something for me?” wondered Thomas at last.
“As it happens,” replied Kit. He placed his half-empty glass on the tray and, fumbling at the buttons on the front of his shirt, produced the brown paper package he had retrieved from the hotel. “I was instructed to deliver this to you unopened. As you can see, I have obeyed these instructions.” He rose and, holding it in both hands, ceremoniously placed the paper-wrapped bundle on the desk before his host. “I am happy to pass this to your care.”
Thomas made no move to pick it up, but sat with his hands folded before him, regarding it quizzically. “Do you know what is inside the wrapping?”
“No, sir, I do not,” replied Kit. “I was not told. Do you?”
“In part.” Thomas raised his eyes to Kit and then returned to his survey of the parcel. “If it is what I think it is…”
Kit waited. The archaeologist neither altered his gaze nor made any move to pick up the packet. He simply sat staring at the string-bound square.
“Dr. Young?” said Kit after a moment. “Is anything the matter?”
“If this is what has been promised, history will change.” He raised his eyes once more, his round glasses glinting in the soft light of the tent. “You know that, do you not? The world will change.”
“Right.” Kit nodded. He could wait a little longer for that.
Outside, the braying of a donkey echoed across the ruins. As if in response to the sound, the doctor drew a sharp intake of breath and pulled the package closer. He lifted it, diffidently balanced between his hands-the very picture of a man trying to delay an action he might well regret. Kit could sympathise. Who could guess what Wilhelmina had put in that parcel?
“The thing must be done, I suppose,” Thomas said and, with trembling fingers, untied the string and peeled open the paper wrapping to reveal a curious assortment of objects: an old shilling coin, a letter, a newspaper clipping, and several printed pages that appeared to have been torn from a book-more or less what might be found in the average scrapbook-nothing that appeared likely to be of much importance, let alone world-shattering consequence.
Kit watched as his host examined the coin, then put it aside and lifted the letter, scrutinising it front and back. The letter was in Mina’s hand and addressed to Christopher “Kit” Livingstone in the care of Dr. Thomas Young. The white envelope was sealed and stamped, but the stamp had not been cancelled. Thomas placed the letter before him on the desk. “This alone would have been enough,” he murmured.
“Sir?” wondered Kit.
“See here,” Thomas said, pointing to the stamp-a simple black postage stamp with an engraved silhouette of a young Queen Victoria with the words one penny beneath-a fairly unremarkable example, to Kit’s eye.
“The stamp, yes?”
“This stamp as you call it”-Thomas touched it lightly with a fingertip-“has never been seen before-at least not by me.”
“May I?” said Kit, picking up the letter. “I see the letter is addressed to me.”
“By all means,” said the doctor. “You must open it at once.”
Kit slid his finger under the flap and drew out a single piece of plain white paper that read: Kit-If you are reading this, you have met Dr. Thomas Young-the last man in the world who knows everything. Trust him with your life. Ever yours, Mina. And that was all.
Thomas, in the meantime, had picked up the coin and now held it between his thumb and forefinger, turning it over and over with a look of bewilderment on his face-an expression Kit guessed was highly unusual for the man. He passed the shilling piece to Kit for examination. The silver coin bore the profile of Victoria on one side and, on the other, a crown with the simple words one shilling beneath. Below Victoria’s disembodied head was the date: 1835.
“Have you ever seen the like?” asked Thomas.
“Yes, I have,” replied Kit, handing back the shilling. “Many times.”
The English gentleman simply nodded and laid the coin beside the letter. He picked up the newspaper clipping, glanced at it, and then looked at Kit. “Have you ever been to Kew Gardens?” he asked.
“Once or twice,” replied Kit. “It is a well-known attraction. People go there for picnics and a pleasant day out.”
The doctor set aside the clipping and, placing his hands flat on the printed pages torn from the book, he said, “This, I believe, will be the ultimate test.”
Kit could not think how to respond to this, so remained silent.
“Unless I am very much mistaken, our mutual friend will have provided me with undeniable proof that what she has claimed, outrageous though it seems, is in fact the naked truth.”
He then lifted the pages and, with a slightly trembling hand, offered them to Kit. “Would you read it to me, please?”
Taking the loose sheets, Kit scanned the top one quickly on both sides. It was merely the title page-torn hastily from the spine, it would seem, judging from the ragged edge; the reverse contained part of an acknowledgement by the author. “You want me to read this?”
“Please,” replied Thomas Young, removing his glasses and closing his eyes.
Kit cleared his throat and began: “A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts, by Thomas Young, MD. A new edition with references and notes by the Rev. P. Kelland, MA, FRS. London and Edinburgh. Printed for Taylor and Walton, Upper Gower Street. 1845.”
Kit glanced up at his audience. Young was sitting very still, his eyes closed. Kit turned the page over and continued reading: “Having undertaken to prepare a course of lectures on natural philosophy to be delivered in the theatre of the Royal Institution, I thought that the plan of the institution required something more than a mere compilation from the elementary works at present existing, and that it was my duty to digest into one system everything relating to the principles of the mechanical sciences that could tend to the improvement of the arts subservient to the conveniences of life.”
He paused for breath and waited. In a moment Thomas nodded, and Kit resumed: “I found also, in delivering the lectures, that it was most eligible to commit to writing, as nearly as possible, the whole that was required to be said on each subject, and that even when an experiment was to be performed it was best to describe that experiment uninterruptedly and to repeat the explanation during its exhibition. Hence it became necessary that the written lectures should be as clearly and copiously expressed and in a language as much adapted to the comprehension of a mixed audience as the nature of the investigations would allow…”
The doctor gave out a groan, and Kit broke off. Thomas Young sat still as a sphinx, eyes closed, outwardly composed. The only sign of an internal struggle was to be seen in his hands, which were clasped so tightly together the knuckles were white.
“Would you like me to continue?” asked Kit, his voice breaking into the intense reverie of the man behind the desk. “Is everything all right?”
“No,” breathed the physician. “Nothing is right.” He opened his eyes and looked at Kit with an expression of wonder and despair. “It is from a book- my book. That is what your Wilhelmina has brought me as proof of her assertions.”
“Yes, so I gather, but-”
“That is the trouble.” Thomas stretched a finger towards the page in Kit’s hand and gestured mutely at it as if at the certificate of his own death. “This book is not yet published. In fact, it is not even finished.”
Kit could imagine how that might be a problem. “Oh,” he said, trying to sound sympathetic. “I see.”
Thomas’ glance became sharp. “Do you?” he demanded. “I submit that you do not see the half, sir! This-” He snatched the page from Kit’s grasp. “This scrap of paper comes to me from another world and a future not my own, a world where all I have thought and done is already past-where I am dead and buried and the things I see before me, now worn with age, are yet to be.” The doctor shook his head again. “Do you see it yet? Time is out of joint, and reality merely a delusion. All I have believed about the world is a mirage, a chimera, a fantasy. My work, my science… worthless. How,” he asked, his voice falling to a lament, “how am I to live in light of that?”