In Which a Burden Shared Is a Burden Halved
The dig at Karnak was abandoned for the rest of the day in favour of other, more pressing investigations. Dr. Young, having recovered from the shock of Kit’s revelations, was now in the grip of scholarly excitement and, in a fit of exuberance, treated Kit to a meal at Luxor’s newest sensation, the Golden Ibex Hotel, recently erected to cater to the city’s nascent tourist trade. There on a table spread with clean linen, he fed his new friend on substantial Egyptian fare and began a preliminary examination of the nature and mechanisms of his latest discovery: ley travel.
Unfortunately, the scientist’s enthusiastic queries very soon outstripped Kit’s own very limited experience and understanding. “I honestly wish I could tell you more,” Kit finally confessed as they sat staring at the remains of the meal. “The real expert was Cosimo, my great-grandfather. He is the one who got me involved in this, and the one who knew the most about it. I’m sure he could have told you far more than I can.”
“He sounds like a man after my own heart,” said Thomas. “I should have liked to meet him.”
“If only that were possible,” replied Kit gloomily. “Sadly, Cosimo is no longer with us.”
Thomas, catching the note of grief in his companion’s voice, raised his eyebrows. “Am I to understand that his passing was quite recent, then?”
Kit, suddenly unable to speak, merely nodded.
Thomas sat back, regarding Kit across the table. “Forgive me, but I am puzzled. I had assumed-”
“That he must have passed many years ago?”
The doctor nodded.
“Cosimo and Sir Henry died only a couple days ago.”
“My dear fellow,” said Thomas, his physician’s manner coming to the fore; he reached across to pat Kit on the arm. “I am truly sorry. Please, accept my sincerest condolences.”
Kit thanked the doctor for his sympathy and proceeded to tell his host about the untimely demise of Cosimo and Sir Henry. Thomas listened to the sorry tale, hands folded beneath his chin as Kit unburdened himself of the weight he had shouldered since landing in Burleigh’s clutches. “It is up to us-Wilhelmina, myself, and Giles, that is-to carry on the work of those two good men.”
“A most noble ambition,” affirmed Thomas. “I salute you, sir. Moreover, I stand ready to aid the enterprise in any way I can.”
“Thanks. You don’t know what a relief it is to hear you say that.”
A white-coated waiter in a blue turban came to remove the dishes. Dr. Young spoke a few words of Arabic to him, and then rose. “Come, we will continue our discussion in the garden. The walk will do us good.”
They crossed the dining room to a pair of French doors that opened onto a canopied terrace. A pebbled path led into a palm-shaded garden, lush with tropical vegetation. They strolled among lime-green tree ferns and dwarf figs. Peace returned to Kit’s soul. After a moment, he asked, “What did Wilhelmina tell you-about all this, I mean-however did she explain it?”
“Well!” sighed Thomas. “She said the most outrageous thing I have ever heard uttered from a rational human being. She told me in no uncertain terms that she was a traveller from another dimension who had come to enlist my aid in helping her locate a very valuable artefact which was believed to be buried somewhere in Egypt.”
“Wilhelmina can be very… forceful.”
“I thought her demented, of course,” replied the physician. “In my professional practice, I occasionally encounter people suffering from various forms of delusion and insanity. However, those were merely her introductory remarks. I offered her refreshment and sought to keep her talking so that I might observe her better and improve my diagnosis of her particular hysteria.” He smiled suddenly. “That was where she captured me, the dear girl.”
“The more she talked-lucidly, calmly, with animation, intelligence, and fervour, but entirely lacking any of the more explicit signs of mental aberration-the more fascinated I became. In short, I allowed her to spin me such a splendidly impossible tale that I confess I was wholly taken in by the audacity of her creative invention.”
Thomas raised a finger in his own defence. “Not that I did not argue-I put forth numerous and vigorous objections, which she could not entirely answer. Neither did she back down from her assertions. In the end we made a bargain. In exchange for my help, she would provide me with undeniable proof that her claims were genuine.”
Thomas Young glanced at Kit, and his voice softened with awe. “I thought it all a splendid lark. I never dreamed what she said might have even the slightest smidgen of veracity in it. Just think-the ability to travel at will through time and space.” His gaze lost focus for a moment as he contemplated anew the enormity of the implications of the new reality that had broken in upon him. “You must excuse me,” he said. “I still find it all but impossible to credit.”
“So do I,” Kit assured him, “and I’ve made the leap a few times.”
“You must teach me this skill at the earliest opportunity. I do insist upon it.”
“Well, why not?” said Kit. “But getting back to Wilhelmina and the bargain you made with her, why did you go along with it if you believed it was some sort of mental illness?”
“Because, my dear fellow, Miss Wilhelmina made me give her my word as a gentleman that, providing her assertions proved true, I would help you.” He chuckled to himself. “She can be a most persuasive and determined young lady.”
“The proof-the coin, the clipping, and the pages from the book-that convinced you,” observed Kit.
“Not forgetting the postage stamp,” added Thomas. “Yes, I am convinced. You see, King George sits on the throne of England at the moment. Princess Victoria is a mere child, and not even in the direct line of succession. Yet, apparently, she is to become queen with her image on every coin. Extraordinary!
“But the book is the thing that removes all doubt. That book has been in my mind for quite some time. As president of the Royal Society, I’ve been collecting my papers and organising them, of course, for the last several years. But I have not submitted them to be published as they are nowhere near ready yet, and more remains to be done.”
They reached the end of the path, turned around, and started back the other way. The afternoon had dwindled, and the heat of the day was fading somewhat. As they walked together, Kit felt he had found a true friend, a person of integrity, one whom he could trust. He was still uncertain about how much to reveal about the problem of Burleigh and his thugs, but that was more out of a genuine concern than any wish to obfuscate or deceive. Having just secured a new and trustworthy ally, he did not want to risk scaring him away.
So they strolled in companionable silence, watching the shadows lengthen on the path as evening hastened on.
Thomas, pensive and brooding over the earthshaking revelations of the day, at last confessed, “Just when I begin to imagine I have achieved some pinnacle of understanding, reached the summit of the highest climb… I scramble the last few feet to the top only to see that I have merely gained a foothold on a narrow plateau and that entire new mountain ranges rise before me, serried ranks of peaks, each one higher than the last.” He laughed softly to himself. “I feel that way now.”
Kit nodded in commiseration. “I feel that way all the time.”
“Time… strange stuff,” mused Thomas. “Time is the central mystery of our existence. It confines and defines us in many ways. We are obedient to its inexorable mechanism throughout our lives, and yet we know almost nothing about it. Why does it flow in only one direction? What is it made of? How is it regulated? Is it everywhere the same for everyone? Or might its substance or speed be altered by mechanisms as yet undiscovered?”
“I think Albert Einstein had something to say about it,” put in Kit.
“Who? I do not believe I know the gentleman.”
“No,” said Kit. “I don’t suppose you would. But he caused quite a stir in my world.”
“Tell me about your world. What is it like-is it very different, the future?”
“Well, where to begin?” wondered Kit. “I guess things are-”
Young stopped on the path. “No! Wait. Do not say another word.”
“Whatever you tell me could have unforeseen implications. There could be disastrous repercussions.” He pulled on the corner of his moustache. “I must think about this. I must consider it most carefully.”
“Okay,” agreed Kit. “You know best.”
“Where were we?”
“You were talking about the mystery of time.”
“Indeed. Sometimes I think that if we could only gain a knowledge of the working of time at its most fundamental level, we might at last begin to understand something of the mind and purposes of God.”
“I’m not so sure,” Kit replied. “It seems pretty random to me-but I’m no expert.”
Thomas regarded his companion for a moment, then turned his gaze up into the clear blue sky. “Do you know why I am here in Luxor?”
“To dig up history, study the past-that sort of thing?”
“Partly,” said Thomas. “But only in that all this digging and study serves a far greater ambition.”
“To unravel the mystery of tombs.”
“The pharaohs’ tombs?”
“ All tombs.” At Kit’s quizzical expression, he said, “Since the human creature became a conscious being, we have made tombs and graves for our dead. Is this not so?”
“It is a fact. From one end of the world to the other, and in every successive age from the dawn of human consciousness until now, and from the simplest societies to the most sophisticated, we have made graves and tombs for our dead. Have you ever stopped to consider why?” Thomas peered at him expectantly. “Why engage in such an expensive and ultimately pointless activity, if death is the final, irrefutable answer to all of life’s questions?”
“Maybe,” Kit ventured, thinking of how he rued leaving Cosimo and Sir Henry unburied and unmourned, “we don’t do it for them, but we do it for ourselves.”
Thomas commended this response. “Very good! Yet, if we do it for ourselves alone, what do we hope to gain by such taxing endeavour? For, if annihilation is all there is at the end of life, then tombs ultimately make no sense whatsoever.”
“True,” Kit allowed.
“True- unless,” countered Thomas quickly, “there is something more than mere physical existence, something that lies beyond the grave, something even our most primitive ancestors knew that we moderns seem to have forgotten.”
“What did our ancestors know?”
“That is the riddle of the tombs,” declared Thomas. “And that is what I am trying to discover.”
Kit considered this for a moment. “After all your work, you must have some theories.”
“Oh, I do,” Thomas assured him with a laugh. “In my avocation as a scientist, there is no shortage of theories. Indeed, it is the one commodity we have in admirable abundance.”
“So, what’s your theory about the tomb-building?”
“It is all of a piece with the very plain and simple fact that we are immortal.”
“I don’t feel very immortal,” admitted Kit, a little unsettled by the turn the conversation had taken.
“But you are-and so am I!” Thomas declared. “All human beings, by virtue of having been born into this world, are immortal beings-not our material bodies; those are sadly quite fragile, inasmuch as they are bound by the laws of matter and time. The spirit, however, is indestructible. It obeys different laws.”
Dr. Young turned on the path and started back to the restaurant. “Do you have a place to stay?” he asked.
“Not as such.”
“Then you will be my guest.” He glanced at Kit. “Unless you have any objection?”
“None whatsoever,” Kit replied. “Thanks.” He looked at the hotel facade rising above the palms. “You have rooms here?”
“My dear friend,” chided Thomas lightly. “I am but a simple London doctor. I cannot afford to stay in such luxurious accommodation. Besides, it is not convivial to my work. Instead, I have a dahabiya.”
Thomas chuckled. “It is a kind of sailboat. You will have seen them on the river. As it will soon be dark, I suggest we go there now, if you have no objection.”
“Lead on, Doctor.”
They mounted the steps and made their way through the hotel lobby and out onto the street where three lonely mule-drawn carriages waited for passengers. Thomas called a few words to one of the drivers, they climbed into the carriage, and they were soon clip-clopping along the road fronting the river. The sun was low, turning the hazy sky a warm golden orange and the Nile to molten bronze. They passed through a market-a chaos of shops no bigger than broom closets; flimsy kiosks constructed of cloth and palm branches and held together with, so far as Kit could see, bits of raffia twine; and street sellers whose place of business was merely a hand’s breadth of cloth spread out on the ground to showcase their meagre wares.
The press and confusion of people were daunting, the cacophony of voices alarming. The carriage slowed to a crawl. Thomas bought a bag of dates from one of the sellers and some onions from another; the carriage did not stop for these transactions, but squeezed through the heaving throng of merchants and customers at a pace slower than walking.
Dr. Young’s boat was moored a little distance downriver, away from the noisy centre of the town. Once away from the crush, the coach rolled briskly past a row of large and very ornate colonial-style buildings that housed government administration offices.
“It isn’t time travel,” said Kit, repeating to himself what Cosimo had told him. Why was that so hard to keep in mind? “Ley travel is not the same as time travel. We have to keep remembering that-at least, I do.”
“You are right, of course,” agreed Thomas.
“What you said about being dead and buried and everything being worthless and all-that’s not exactly true.”
“I suppose not. Forgive me, I was not thinking very clearly and spoke in haste.”
“You were right about time being out of joint. The different worlds overlap somehow, and history gets a little slippery. But just because Wilhelmina found your book already published in one world doesn’t mean that what you’ve done in this one is worthless. None of us ever knows what impact we have on the world around us.” He shrugged. “We can only live the life we’ve been given, and we have to do the best we can with it-no matter what is happening in any other world or universe. Just do the next thing-that’s all we can do. Anyway, I expect the work you’ve done here is just as valuable to this world as it was in the world where Mina picked up your book.”
“That is a gladsome thought,” observed the doctor. “I shall accept it in that generous spirit.” He thought for a moment, then asked, “Do you suppose that if I were to visit that world-where our Wilhelmina retrieved my book-I should meet myself composing it?”
Kit frowned. “Is it possible to meet yourself in another world?” The thought had crossed his mind, but he had never asked Cosimo for clarification on this precise point. There was still so much to learn. “Maybe,” he conceded. “Cosimo never told me one way or another. I don’t know.”
“Well,” allowed Thomas, “we shall add that to the growing list of questions to be investigated when we are more at leisure to do so.”
They talked on, and soon the carriage rolled to a stop at a large mooring. “It is called The Blue Lotus,” said Thomas, gazing down the line of low feluccas and stately dahabiyas tied up along the riverbank. “It is just here.”
He charged off along the riverbank. Kit followed, falling into step beside him. “There is still one thing you haven’t told me-why Wilhelmina wanted us to get together.”
“I thought you knew.”
“Things got a little rushed. She didn’t exactly have time to fill me in on everything,” reflected Kit. “In fact, she didn’t tell me very much.”
“Then allow me to enlighten you.”
“The young lady was, as I say, most intent on recovering a certain artefact.” He peered at Kit with a hopeful expression. “Am I right in assuming you know the object in question?”
“I have a pretty good idea.”
“This artefact, she believed, was to be found in a particular tomb of which she had a certain knowledge. She wanted me to organise the excavation of said tomb-an experience, she suggested, that would prove invaluable to my ongoing work.” He glanced at Kit for confirmation. “She also said you would be my guide. Am I to take it you know the location of the tomb of which she spoke?”
“I’m pretty sure I could find it again.” Kit felt his stomach squirm, and a clammy feeling washed over him.
“And you will show me?”
Kit nodded. The thought of returning to the scene of his recent ordeal-and the decaying corpses of Cosimo and Sir Henry-filled him with dread, but he did not see that he had any choice in the matter just now. And then he saw it: the sheer beauty of Wilhelmina’s plan, and it brought him up short.
Dr. Young saw him stop and turned to ask, “Is anything the matter?”
“Call me a slow coach, but I just realised that Wilhelmina is some kind of genius.” Now that he saw it, her plan was as obvious as the nose on his face. How many times did he have to remind himself: this was not the same world he had left behind. Mina had sent him to an alternate Egypt where, in the year 1822, the tomb of Anen had not yet been discovered, much less excavated. The notion of snatching the map from the tomb before it could be found by anyone else was a shrewd bit of guile. The girl was canny, give her that. “I think we’re in for a real treat,” Kit said. “We can leave whenever you like.”
“Is it far, this tomb?”
“Not too far. With transportation, less than a day.”
“Splendid!” The physician rubbed his hands, his steel-rimmed glasses glinting in the pale evening light. “Ah, here, we are! The Blue Lotus.” Dr. Young stopped beside a low-slung, rather boxy-looking boat with a broad open deck and twin red sails, which were furled to the masts for the night. A gangplank extended from the bow, at the foot of which three sailors in pale blue kaftans squatted around a hookah pipe, which gurgled as the smoke bubbled up. A most acrid smoke drifted on the soft evening breeze.
“Salaam!” called Thomas. He greeted the captain and crew of his vessel by name, and then climbed the gangplank. “This way. Watch your step!”
A servant appeared bearing a tray with a jar and glasses.
“Welcome aboard, my friend,” said Thomas, pouring fresh lemonade into the glasses and passing one to his guest. “Please, make yourself at home. Mehmet, here, will show you to your quarters. I have only the one guest cabin. All the others are filled with the accoutrements of my work.”
Kit gulped down his lemonade and followed the servant to the companionway below deck, and to the guest quarters. “Please to refresh yourself, sir,” said Mehmet, ushering Kit inside. “I will sound the gong for dinner.”
The cabin was snug and contained two narrow beds at one end and a small water closet at the other. There was a round porthole window and, between the beds, a night table with two candles. The beds were laid with clean white sheets, and there was a lace curtain at the porthole. The floors and walls were teak with brass fittings-all in all, a trim and tidy little stateroom.
“Well, Kit, old son,” said Kit, gazing around with approval, “it looks like we’ve landed on our feet.” A basin of fresh water sat on a stand. Stepping to the porcelain bowl, he dipped his hands and washed his face, then wet the linen towel and, kicking off his shoes, stretched out on the bed with the damp cloth over his eyes.
“Thank you, Wilhelmina,” he sighed. At the invocation of her name, he mused, “What was it she called Dr. Young?” The phrase from her letter came back to him: The last man in the world to know everything .