About the Author
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Hometown:A farm in rural Maryland
Date of Birth:September 29, 1927
Place of Birth:Canton, Illinois
Education:M.A., Ph.D. in Egyptology, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1952
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The Last Camel Died at Noon
By Elizabeth Peters
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Elizabeth Peters
All rights reserved.
"I Told You This Was a Harebrained Scheme!"
Hands on hips, brows lowering, Emerson stood gazing fixedly at the recumbent ruminant. A sympathetic friend (if camels have such, which is doubtful) might have taken comfort in the fact that scarcely a ripple of agitated sand surrounded the place of its demise. Like the others in the caravan, of which it was the last, it had simply stopped, sunk to its knees, and passed on, peacefully and quietly. (Conditions, I might add, that are uncharacteristic of camels alive or moribund.)
Those conditions are also uncharacteristic of Emerson. To the readers who have encountered my distinguished husband, in the flesh or in the pages of my earlier works, it will come as no surprise to learn that he reacted to the camel's death as if the animal had committed suicide for the sole purpose of inconveniencing him. Eyes blazing like sapphires in his tanned and chiseled face, he plucked the hat from his head, flung it upon the sand, and kicked it a considerable distance before turning his furious glare toward me.
"Curse it, Amelia! I told you this was a harebrained scheme!"
"Yes, Emerson, you did," I replied. "In those precise words, if I am not mistaken. If you will cast your mind back to our first discussion of this enterprise, you may remember that I was in full agreement with you."
"Then what—" Emerson turned in a circle. Boundless and bare, as the poet puts it, the lone and level sands stretched far away. "Then what the devil are we doing here?" Emerson bellowed.
It was a reasonable question, and one that may also have occurred to the reader of this narrative. Professor Radcliffe Emerson, F.R.S., F.B.A., LL.D. (Edinburgh), D.C.L. (Oxford), Member of the American Philosophical Society, et cetera, preeminent Egyptologist of this or any other era, was frequently to be encountered in unusual, not to say peculiar, surroundings. Will I ever forget that magical moment when I entered a tomb in the desolate cliffs bordering the Nile and found him delirious with fever, in desperate need of attentions he was helpless to resist? The bond forged between us by my expert nursing was strengthened by the dangers we subsequently shared; and in due course, Reader, I married him. Since that momentous day we had excavated in every major site in Egypt and written extensively on our discoveries. Modesty prevents me from claiming too large a share of the scholarly reputation we had earned, but Emerson would have been the first to proclaim that we were a partnership, in archaeology as in marriage.
From the sandy wastes of the cemeteries of Memphis to the rocky cliffs of the Theban necropolis, we had wandered hand in hand (figuratively speaking), in terrain almost as inhospitable as the desert that presently surrounded us. Never before, however, had we been more than a few miles from the Nile and its life- giving water. It lay far behind us now, and there was not a pyramid or a broken wall to be seen, much less a tree or a sign of habitation. What indeed were we doing there? Without camels we were marooned on a sea of sand, and our situation was infinitely more desperate than that of shipwrecked sailors.
I seated myself upon the ground with my back against the camel. The sun was at the zenith; the only shade was cast by the body of the poor beast. Emerson paced back and forth, kicking up clouds of sand and swearing. His expertise in this latter exercise had earned him the admiring title of "Father of Curses" from our Egyptian workmen, and on this occasion he surpassed himself. I sympathized with his feelings, but duty compelled me to remonstrate.
"You forget yourself, Emerson," I remarked, indicating our companions.
They stood side by side, watching me with grave concern, and I must say they made a ludicrous pair. Many of the native Nilotic peoples are unusually tall, and Kemit, the only servant remaining to us, was over six feet in height. He wore a turban and a loose robe of woven blue-and-white cotton. His face, with its clean-cut features and deeply bronzed skin, bore a striking resemblance to that of his companion, but the second individual was less than four feet tall. He was also my son, Walter Peabody Emerson, known as "Ramses," who should not have been there.
Emerson cut off his expletive in mid-syllable, though the effort almost choked him. Still in need of a "went" for his boiling emotions, he focused them on me.
"Who selected these da—these cursed camels?"
"You know perfectly well who selected them," I replied. "I always select the animals for our expeditions, and doctor them too. The local people treat camels and donkeys so badly—"
"Don't give me one of your lectures on veterinary medicine and kindness to animals," Emerson bellowed. "I knew—I knew!—your delusions about your medical knowledge would lead us into disaster one day. You have been dosing these da——these confounded animals; what did you give them?"
"Emerson! Are you accusing me of poisoning the camels?" I struggled to overcome the indignation his outrageous accusation had provoked. "I believe you have taken leave of your senses."
"Well, and if I have, there is some excuse for me," Emerson said in a more moderate tone. He edged closer to me. "Our situation is desperate enough to disturb any man, even one as even-tempered as I. Er—I beg your pardon, my dear Peabody. Don't cry."
Emerson calls me Amelia only when he is annoyed with me. Peabody is my maiden name, and it was thus that Emerson, in one of his feeble attempts at sarcasm, addressed me during the early days of our acquaintance. Hallowed by fond memories, it has now become a private pet name, so to speak, indicative of affection and respect.
I lowered the handkerchief I had raised to my eyes and smiled at him. "A few grains of sand in my eye, Emerson, that is all. You will never find me succumbing to helpless tears when firmness is required. As you are well aware."
"Hmph," said Emerson.
"All the same, Mama," said Ramses, "Papa has raised a point worthy of consideration. It is surely stretching coincidence to the point of impossibility to assume that all the camels should die, suddenly and with no symptoms of disease, within forty-eight hours of one another."
"I assure you, Ramses, that consideration had already occurred to me. Run and fetch Papa's hat, if you please. No, Emerson, I know your dislike of hats, but I insist that you put it on. We are in bad enough case without having you laid low by sunstroke."
Emerson made no reply. His eyes were fixed on the small figure of his son, trotting obediently after the sun helmet, and his expression was so poignant that my eyes dimmed. It was not fear for himself that weakened my husband, nor even concern for me. We had faced death together not once but many times; he knew he could count on me to meet that grim adversary with a smile and a stiff upper lip. No; it was the probable fate of Ramses that brought the moisture to his keen blue eyes. So moved was I that I vowed not to remind Emerson that it was his fault that his son and heir had been condemned to a slow, lingering, painful death from dehydration.
"Well, we have been in worse situations," I said. "At least we three have; and I presume, Kemit, that you are no stranger to peril. Have you any suggestions, my friend?"
Responding to my gesture, Kemit approached and squatted down next to me. Ramses immediately squatted as well. He had conceived a great admiration for this taciturn, handsome man; and the sight of them, like a stork and its chick, brought a smile to my lips.
Emerson was not amused. Fanning himself with his hat, he remarked sarcastically, "If Kemit has a suggestion that can get us out of this dilemma, I will take off my hat to him. We—"
"You cannot take off your hat until you put it on, Emerson," I interrupted.
Emerson slapped the offending article onto his unruly black head with such force that his eyelashes fluttered wildly. "As I was saying, we are more than six days from the Nile, as the camel trots; considerably longer on foot. If the so-called map we have followed is to be trusted, there is a water hole or oasis ahead. It is a journey of approximately two days by camel, of which we have none. We have water for perhaps two days, with strict rationing."
It was an accurate and depressing summary. What Emerson did not say, because the rest of us knew it, was that our desperate condition was due to the defection of our servants. They had departed, in a body, the night before, taking with them all the waterskins except the partially filled containers we had had with us in our tent and the canteen I always carry attached to my belt. They might have done worse; they might have murdered us. I cannot, however, attribute their forbearance to kindness of heart. Emerson's strength and ferocity are legendary; many of the simple natives believe he is armed with supernatural powers. (And I myself have a certain reputation as the Sitt Hakim, dispenser of mysterious medicines.) Rather than challenge us, they had stolen away in the dead of night. Kemit claimed he had been struck unconscious when he attempted to prevent them, and indeed he had a sizable lump on his head to prove it. Why he had not joined the mutineers I could not explain; it might have been loyalty—though he owed us no more than did the others, who had worked for us as long—or it might have been that he had not been invited to join them.
There was a great deal about Kemit that wanted explaining. Expressionless as the nesting bird he somewhat resembled at that moment, his knees being on approximately the level of his ears, he was not at all a comic figure. Indeed, his chiseled features had a dignity that reminded me of certain Fourth Dynasty sculptures, most particularly the magnificent portrait of King Chephren, builder of the Second Pyramid. I had once remarked to Emerson on the resemblance; he had replied that it was not surprising, since the ancient Egyptians were of mixed racial stock and some of the Nubian tribes were probably their remote descendants. (I should add that this theory of Emerson's—which he regarded not as theory but as fact—was not accepted by the great majority of his colleagues.)
But I perceive that I am wandering from the plot of my narrative, as I am inclined to do when questions of scholarly interest arise. Let me turn back the pages of my journal and explain in proper sequence of time how we came to find ourselves in such an extraordinary predicament. I do not do this in the meretricious hope of prolonging your anxiety as to our survival, dear Reader, for if you have the intelligence I expect my Readers to possess, you will know I could not be writing this account if I were in the same state as the camels.
I must turn back not a few but many pages, and take you to a quiet country house in Kent, when the turning of the leaves from green to golden bronze betokened the approach of autumn. After a busy summer spent teaching, lecturing, and readying the publication of our previous season's excavations, we were about to begin preparations for our annual winter's work in Egypt. Emerson was seated behind his desk; I walked briskly to and fro, hands behind my back. The bust of Socrates, oddly speckled with black—for it was at this bust that Emerson was wont to hurl his pen when inspiration flagged or something happened to irritate him—watched us benevolently.
The subject of discussion, or so I fondly believed, was the future intellectual development of our son.
"I fully sympathize with your reservations concerning the public-school system, Emerson," I assured him. "But the boy must have some formal training, somewhere, sometime. He is growing up quite a little savage."
"You do yourself an injustice, my dear," Emerson murmured, glancing at the newspaper he was holding.
"He has improved," I admitted. "He doesn't talk quite as much as he used to, and he has not been in danger of life or limb for several weeks. But he has no notion how to get on with children his own age."
Emerson looked up, his brow furrowed. "Now, Peabody, that is not the case. Last winter, with Ahmed's children—"
"I speak of English children, Emerson. Naturally."
"There is nothing natural about English children. Good Gad, Amelia, our public schools have a caste system more pernicious than that of India, and those at the bottom of the ladder are abused more viciously than any Untouchable. As for 'getting on' with members of the opposite sex—you do not mean, I hope, to exclude female children from Ramses's social connections? Well, I assure you that that is precisely what your precious public schools aim to achieve." Warming to his theme, Emerson leapt up, scattering papers in all directions, and began to pace back and forth on a path at right angles to mine. "Curse it, I sometimes wonder how the upper classes in this country ever manage to reproduce! By the time a lad leaves university he is so intimidated by girls of his own class it is almost impossible for him to speak to them in intelligible sentences! If he did, he would not receive an intelligible answer, for the education of women, if it can be dignified by that term—Oof. I beg your pardon, my dear. Are you hurt?"
"Not at all." I accepted the hand he offered to assist me to rise. "But if you insist on pacing while you lecture, at least walk with me instead of at right angles to my path. A collision was inevitable."
A sunny smile replaced his scowl and he pulled me into a fond embrace. "Only that sort of collision, I hope. Come now, Peabody, you know we agree on the inadequacies of the educational system. You don't want to break the lad's spirit?"
"I only want to bend it a little," I murmured. But it is hard to resist Emerson when he smiles and ... Never mind what he was doing; but when I say Emerson's eyes are sapphire-blue, his hair is black and thick, and his frame is as trim and muscular as that of a Greek athlete—not even referring to the cleft or dimple in his chin or the enthusiasm he brings to the exercise of his conjugal rights ... Well, I need not be more specific, but I am sure any right-thinking female will understand why the subject of Ramses's education ceased to interest me.
After Emerson had resumed his seat and picked up the newspaper, I returned to the subject, but in a considerably softened mood. "My dear Emerson, your powers of persuasion—that is to say, your arguments—are most convincing. Ramses could go to school in Cairo. There is a new Academy for Young Gentlemen of which I have had good reports; and since we will be excavating at Sakkara ..."
The newspaper behind which Emerson had retired rattled loudly. I stopped speaking, seized by a hideous premonition—though, as events were to prove, not nearly hideous enough. "Emerson," I said gently, "you have applied for the firman, haven't you? You surely would not repeat the error you made a few years ago when you neglected to apply in time, and instead of receiving permission to work at Dahshoor we ended up at the most boring, unproductive site in all of Lower Egypt? Emerson! Put down that newspaper and answer me! Have you obtained permission from the Department of Antiquities to excavate at Sakkara this season?"
Emerson lowered the newspaper, and flinched at finding my face only inches from his. "Kitchener," he said, "has taken Berber."
It is inconceivable to me that future generations will fail to realize the vital importance of the study of history, or that Britons will be ignorant of one of the most remarkable chapters in the development of their empire. Yet stranger things have happened; and in the event of such a catastrophe (for I would call it nothing less), I beg leave of my Readers to remind them of facts that should be as familiar to them as they are to me.
Excerpted from The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters. Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Peters. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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