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"Welcome to you, your lordship," called the dwarf with rare merry delight as his guest arrived for early cocktails. He watched his oldest friend descend the gangway. Tall and angular, a man of wrinkled easy elegance with a craggy face and fierce grey eyebrows, the old Englishman favored his right leg as he approached. His cane tapped smartly with every step. Wounded in the Great War while serving with the East African Mounted Rifles, Adam Penfold had spent months as a prisoner of the Germans in Tanganyika and Northern Rhodesia before going home to his farm and hotel in the Kenya highlands. There he had struggled on until the lean days of the early '30s drove him to give up and move to Cairo.
The heat of the day was past. A gentle breeze rose from the Nile as Penfold joined Olivio on the poop deck of the Cataract Café Noticing the newspapers stuffed into his jacket pocket, Alavedo prepared himself for Penfold's favorite ritual, sharing with the dwarf his commentary on the news of the day. Old papers were often shuffled in his pocket with the latest edition, and the dwarf was obliged to endure repetition. But Olivio took pleasure in extending to this man the patience that he enjoyed denying to others. Mercifully, the news had grown more interesting, always the second gift of war.
"Good evening, ladies," said Penfold to Rosemary and Cardamom. He was not about to guess which twin was which. The two curtsied and continued to braid each other's hair with colored ribbons. When he thought the dwarf was not watching, Penfold slipped each of theeleven-year-olds a sweet. Then the Englishman raised his chin and pulled several copies of the Egyptian Gazette from his pocket. He studied them through his spectacles with watery pale blue eyes.
The dwarf glanced down. He saw the pointed upturned nose of a rat in the river. He watched the animal swim through the sweet rotting fruit and the oily film that washed along the edge of the embankment.
"GERMAN SUBMARINE SINKS BRITISH LINER," Penfold read aloud. "FIFTEEN HUNDRED TAKE TO BOATSTHREE HUNDRED AMERICANS ON BOARD LINER ATHENIA." Penfold looked up, aware of his little friend's habit of inattention. "You see? What did I tell you? It's just like '14. Wretched Hun hasn't learned a thing. We shall just have to thrash 'im all over again."
"No doubt, my lord, no doubt." The dwarf turned his head as best he could and watched Saffron descend the gangway to the boat as his friend continued. She seemed to be dressed for an evening of glamorous mischief. From a distance Saffron reminded him of his first child, Clove, who had died four years before in the boat fire that had destroyed the original Cataract Café.
"BRITISH EVACUATE THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND AT DUNKIRK. FRENCH PREMIER BROADCASTS FINAL APPEAL TO AMERICA. GERMANS TAKE PARIS. Just the place for 'em. RUSSIANS OCCUPY PART OF POLAND BUT REAFFIRM NEUTRALITY. Now, that's a neat one." Penfold paused, glancing at his companion over the top of his eyeglasses.
Was he not aware that Olivio was too attached to his own concerns to share his interest in such distant foolish events?
As if reading the dwarf's mind, Penfold squinted at several pages before continuing. He wondered what the world would be like after this next war. He thought of what had followed the last one. The loss of civility, the orgy of materialism, the lack of time for dalliance and purposeless conversation. He sighed and turned to the Markets page.
"Aha, there we are. Here's something for you, old boy. WAR BRINGS BOOM IN COTTON FUTURES."
The dwarf leaned forward.
"BUT EGYPT INTENDS TO STOP PROFITEERING," Penfold read. "Should hope so."
"Profiteering?" cried the dwarf, shocked. "Does the army not require uniforms? Are these brave men to burn by day and freeze by night? Profiteering, they call it? What is an honest man to do?" He was astounded again by the alarming innocence of his friend, long ago his own employer when the dwarf was a barman in Nanyuki at the old White Rhino Hotel.
"Here's something on the lighter side," said Penfold. "Fifteenth installment of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Niggers. Would you like me to read it to you? It's not too long today ..."
"Ah, I think not, just for the moment, my lord, if you don't mind."
"Here's Saffron now." Penfold spilled his gin as he folded the Egyptian Gazette. "My, my."
"Are you off to a dancing lesson, my child?" said the dwarf when Saffron, her figure promising as a ripe peach, bent to kiss her father. A new perfume, he noticed.
"No, Father, that's not what she's doing!" cried the twins as one. "She's going to a dance."
"Shouldn't you girls be doing your French?" snapped Saffron. "It's almost bedtime."
She smiled and kissed the older man's cheek. "Good evening, Lord Penfold. Yes, Papa, I'm going to a charity thing for one of Gwenn Rider's causes. See if I can help. She asked me to come along." She moved from side to side and the skirt of her lavender silk dress swirled with her. "Do you like my dress?"
"Too lovely, my dear." She was not dressed and perfumed for a ladies' charity tea. But Saffron was always careful, Olivio was certain, not to tell her father a direct lie. He himself tried to accord his children the same respect, whenever possible. No doubt the event would be crawling with hard-drinking young British officers, wild and randy from the front.
"Speaking of Gwenn, I believe young Wellington's about back from England," added Penfold. "Should be any day now. I saw some of his Hussars lifting a glass between chukkas at the Club." The dwarf watched Saffron for her reaction to this alarming news, but he had taught her too well.
"Oh, my," said Rosemary to Cardamom, raising her eyebrows and batting her eyes.
Dr. Hänger's dark, almost black eyes glared up at her across the top of his surgical mask as Gwenn reached towards the tray of instruments offered by the nurse. Deferring, she withdrew her hand and watched the Swiss orthopedist select a long scalpel, one of his personal instruments, periodically sent to Sölingen for resharpening. He made the final incision near the base of the child's spine. "Ach! German steel," he muttered to himself, nodding sharply.
Even shrouded in cap and gown and mask, August Hänger's presence was distinct. Long furry white sideburns and knobby cheekbones framed the peaked dark eyebrows that were set beneath the three deep lines that crossed his forehead. Rectangular gold spectacles pinched his prominent beak-like nose. A short angular man, even in the surgery he wore black wing-tipped shoes. The white collar of his shirt, tall and stiff as porcelain, emerged from his gown.
Gwenn resented his manner but respected his expertise. She followed with admiration as the Swiss specialist worked to straighten the young girl's back. He was equally adept with muscle, cartilage and bone, delicate as an angel with nerves and vessels, celebrated for his "good hands," sure and never hesitating. Once the human skin was opened, Hänger worked with an intensity of concentration that Gwenn had never seen. Not in a surgery, not in wartime, not in making love. He delighted in complicated cases.
Schooled in Heidelberg and Zürich, contemptuous of lesser educations, he took no interest in the training of younger physicians. Whenever possible, the senior doctor preferred to operate alone. Increasingly, however, he was accepting Gwenn Rider into his surgery at King Fuad Hospital to assist with difficult cases. At first, she knew, he did so only to honor the insistent recommendation of the physician's most important patient here in Cairo: the man who had lured Hänger to Egypt, her small friend, Olivio Alavedo. But the doctor was an old man, over seventy, and she sensed he was wary of his own fatigue. A man of merciless punctuality, he also appreciated her respect for his schedule.
Dr. Hänger held out his arms. The nurse pulled off his blood-slick gloves. He washed his hands, dried them, then flexed the fingers of both hands, rapidly curling and uncurling them, before snapping them like gunshots, a ceremony that concluded every operation. Gwenn knew the surgeon used to suffer from arthritis. In the desert air of Egypt, he had found relief from the stiffening damp of Switzerland. Vinegar mixed with warm water and lemon juice was his favored regimen.
The nurse opened the door. Two Egyptian orderlies removed the gurney and the girl.
"Join me, my child," Hänger said to Gwenn, not unkindly for one so severe. He removed his cap and replaced his gown with a perfectly pressed white cotton coat, so starched, she thought, that it could have stood on its own. Save for a narrow ruff of even white hair that met his sideburns, his head was bald. Together, they set off on his rounds.
"I am concerned," he said in the corridor, his hands locked behind his back as they walked, "concerned about your friend."
"Yes, Herr Alavedo. He is, ah, he is zo much himself."
"Of course," said Gwenn, already uncomfortable.
"He has stopped my regime," said Hänger, ignoring her. "No more does he rest and eat as I direct. No more does he abstain. No more does he exercise and stretch. If he continues so, his body like a clamp will tighten. Though he has the will of a giant and the sexual mission of a youth, for a dwarf he is old, more than old, ancient, fifty-five. Ze little men cannot live so long. All the distortions of his body, from his twisted feet to his bent neck, the lordosis, everything, should have killed him long ago. Now, he understands pain." The doctor paused, as if expecting Gwenn to speak.
"Will you help him, Frau Doktor Rider? Will you tell your dwarf to obey me?"
"I cannot tell Mr. Alavedo what to do," she said as they stopped at the first patient's bed. "Who can? But I will speak to him, of course."
Visiting briefly, they passed from patient to patient.
At the end of one corridor, Gwenn paused to spend time with an elderly amputee. Hänger tapped one foot impatiently, then drew her aside.
"You must learn not to be so sentimental." Exasperation crept into the doctor's normally steady voice. "Remember: we are all of us dying. Zience, not zympathy, is a doctor's business." He paused near the desk of the floor nurse.
"Matron," he said to the apprehensive woman, "your ward again is filthy. Everywhere I see it. Dust. Disorder. Have this floor scrubbed at once." He turned to Gwenn. "These natives are useless. Useless."
The two surgeons reached the foot of the bed of an English soldier. His pelvis and hips were in heavy plaster. His left leg was raised in traction.
"Morning, sir, ma'am," said the young man with determined cheerfulness. "Thanks for patching me up."
"Not at all," said Hänger, almost smiling, glancing at the uniform that hung on a hook by the door. "My pleasure. How did this happen to you? There is no fighting yet."
"Our scout car rolled over in a steep wadi, then bumped all the way down to the bottom. Lucky it wasn't worse."
"Sounds like reconnaissance duty," said Hänger. For once he was unhurried. He examined the surgical plaster, reminded by the pelvic wound of another operation, sixteen years before.
The Nazi leader Hermann Göring, shot in the groin by the Landespolizei during the Hitler Putsch in Munich in 1923, had been rushed across the border in secrecy to a clinic in Austria. August Hänger, himself half German, though long resident in Switzerland, had been vacationing with an old colleague in Innsbruck. He was proud to help save the celebrated aviator of the Great War, the ace who had shot down twenty-two French and British and American aircraft, the commander of Baron von Richthofen's own squadron. It had been a delicate operation: one testicle lost, one saved. Now a field marshall and the commander of the Luftwaffe, the distinguished Nazi pilot had remained appreciative, and occasionally in touch. Apparently he was interested in the ancient art of Egypt.
"You must be in armor?" the doctor added.
"Yes, sir," said the lad with pride. "Seventh Hussars, part of Seventh Armored now. All part of the new Eighth Army. They've just had us out testing the new Dingos."
"Daimlers, no?" said Hänger, taking his time while Gwenn adjusted the cable of the traction and tried not to listen.
"Right you are, sir, armored scout cars, and straight off the boat."
"How are they?"
"Bit top-heavy, and thirsty on the petrol, but nippy enough and pretty tough," said the soldier, eager to talk. "And hot as a baker's oven in the sun. I'd rather be on horseback."
Ready to move on, hating the idea of young men in uniform, Gwenn hesitated as the two men spoke. She was surprised by the doctor's interest. Liking the boy, she thought of Wellington, fearing what would happen to him once the war came to Egypt.
"Where were you when it happened?" continued Hänger.
"Up near Bir Bayly ..."
"Really?" said the surgeon. "Really? That far west?"
"Yes, sir, we've been scouting and mapping the desert near Cyrenaica, right up to the Libyan border, trying to sort out all the soft sandy parts from the hard rocky bits that will support trucks and armor. Almost got it done. Sometimes we even see the Italians watching us, just across the wire. The chaps say one day we'll be going on an Eyetie hunt, instead of chasing those little desert gazelles."
"Splendid, young man," said Hänger. "Splendid. An 'Eyetie Hunt!' Doctor Rider and I will examine you again tomorrow."
"That's it, then, Doctor," sighed Gwenn, eager to get home, anxious to sit with Denby while he had his dinner.
"For today," said Hänger, walking slowly down the hall with his hands behind his back, occasionally nodding to passing orderlies and nurses. "For today. But when this war comes to Africa, these surgeries will be going all night, stopping only to wash them out. You'll see. Men will be lying along both walls of these corridors, waiting for us."
"Good evening, Marko." Gwenn smiled at the Maltese head waiter as she hurried into a private dining room at the Gezira Sporting Club. Hating to be late, she had changed for dinner at the hospital, hurriedly cleaning away the smell of blood and antiseptic before slipping into her evening dress. She'd done her hair and lipstick in the car, thinking of her sons and gossiping with Omar as he hurtled along Shari Qasr al-Ayni and across the bridge to the large island in the Nile.
She was thrilled that Wellington had come home from England that morning, although now he was that much closer to the fighting that was coming. Her son was proud and handsome in his new uniform, and she had tried to make him feel that she was delighted, too.
Giscard met her at the door. Elegant and assured, the Frenchman welcomed her with a quick smile.
"We were just sitting down, trésor," he said, no reproach in his voice as he brushed her cheek with a kiss. "How charming you look. Let me present you to our guests."
"Of course," said Gwenn, knowing how important these evenings were to Giscard, and that later they'd be going on to a charity party of hers. "Sorry I'm late, but some operations never seem to end."
"I'm certain you did your best." Giscard smiled again and led Gwenn by the arm, introducing her with care.
Gwenn barely heard the names. She was still dispelling the endless concentration of the operating room. She tried to do her duty while she and Giscard toured the room arm in arm. Catching her breath, she finished a glass of champagne and went to her seat at the far end of the long table.
"Ravi, Madame," said Mustafa Bey Hafiz, the Inspector General of the Service des Antiquités, as he held her chair. At first Gwenn thought that the heavy man was bowing to her in deference. Then she recalled that he was permanently stooped. The arched weight gathered on his back was nearly as substantial as his belly. Taking his seat, leaning close to her until she smelled his sweet cologne, the Egyptian immediately pressed her with conversation. She was careful not to reveal her antipathy.
Sometimes, at moments like this, she felt that perhaps Anton was right after all, that all this tedious socializing meant nothing. A drink or a breakfast by a camp fire, or even sharing a silence outdoors, was worth more than all the elegance and talk of Cairo. She recalled, before they were married, lying on a blanket with Anton between two cedars near their fly camp, watching the big tuskers trek across from Mount Kenya to the Aberdares. Yellow wild flowers and tiny forest mushrooms grew right before their noses, seeming tall as lampposts. From time to time they heard small trees snap like twigs as the elephant eased slowly through the forest all around them. From nearby came the deep relaxed rumbling of an elephant's digestion. A cow entered the clearing before them with slow swinging steps, shepherding her stumbling calf with gentle stroking movements of her trunk.
Gwenn was troubled by what she had said to Anton when she blamed him for Wellington's signing up. She ignored the chatter of the guests as her mind wandered. At the far end of the table, the French ambassador rose and began a toast, something about the long friendship between France and Egypt, beginning with the invasion of Napoleon.
Gwenn knew that the same rough combative streak that she had denounced in Anton had saved her own life more than once. She thought of the moment twenty years ago that she tried always to forget: hearing her screams one night in the passageway on the boat to Kenya, Anton had burst into her cabin as a huge Irishman was raping her. Never having seen her before, Anton, eighteen, had seized the big man around his head, twisting violently until the rapist withdrew screaming from her body. Anton had defended himself with his gypsy knife. She still remembered the horror of the Irishman's pale sweating body, matted with moist red hair and belted with fat and muscle, hammering her down against the steel deck.
Later, she had lain curled against the wall of her bunk. Shaking, withdrawn and alone, she'd thought with astonishment of how the boy had saved her. He had risked everything for her without hesitation. A short time later, he had returned to her cabin with a bucket and soap and a towel, urging her to bolt the door after him. The next day, awkward and shy, he had avoided her when she saw him carrying a stack of filthy trays in the steerage dining cabin. She dreaded having to relive the horror, so she missed the first opportunity to thank him properly. When finally she spoke to him, she had begun to cry. "I'm Anton Rider," he'd said, twisting a dish towel in his hands. Unable to speak, bursting with shame, she'd turned away and left him. Several days later, the Irishman and his brother had attacked Anton and dragged him into the donkey boiler room and burned him against a steampipe. Only much later did Anton tell her how he'd received that scar.
Light applause and the clinking of glasses interrupted Gwenn's thoughts.
"And how is your Monsieur de Neuville's dig progressing, Dr. Rider?" asked Mustafa Bey eagerly. The Inspector General turned towards her in his chair, bending over her like a heavy bird eating seeds. "Have they found a new chamber?"
"I'm not sure," Gwenn replied. Giscard, like most archeologists, hated to discuss such details until the work was complete. And this was a man with whom to be careful. Not only was his position one of influence, as the functionary responsible for the oversight of all permits and foreign concessions, but he was rumored to have self-serving, even corrupt interests in the same field. No doubt he was already fully informed by the resident government inspector at the dig.
She glanced down the table and saw Giscard smiling at the lady on his left. How distinguished he looked, Gwenn thought. Very much her own type of man: slender, with full grey hair and a lined intelligent face, and a man who did not have to be preoccupied with making money. She admired Giscard's scholarship, and his knowledge of the world. "I haven't had time to visit the ruins," she said. "Things are so busy at the hospital."
"I believe the land adjacent to this dig belongs to a curious friend of yours, this Olivio Fonseca Alavedo. Am I not correct?" The inspector's face seemed to shine, as if about to pour with sweat.
"I believe so," said Gwenn, observing an expression of distaste. Was her little friend the cause, or was the food? "The bisque is not to your taste, Inspector?"
"Doctor Hänger denies me shellfish, you know," said the Egyptian, toying with his spoon. "These Swiss are so careful."
"Of course," Gwenn said, wishing she were at home with Denby and Wellington. "He'll be back here with his regiment before you know it," Anton had said reassuringly the day Wellie had left for England. "It's your fault," she had replied, not altogether fairly, knowing Anton was still the same man she'd chosen. "And he'll end up useless, just like you." Two days later, Anton had left on safari to Somaliland. Catching her thoughts, regretting her words, Gwenn heard her neighbor talk at her again.
"But about our host's work. Egypt is fortunate to have independent scholars like Monsieur de Neuville here to assist us so generously. The Louvre will take one or two interesting pieces, with our compliments, and the rest will always belong to Cairo." The Bey smiled. "But today, alas, everyone's attention seems to be turning from civilization to war." He wagged one short overly manicured finger. "And if this war ever visits us here in Egypt, you will be busier still, Dr. Rider."
"Easy, Bingham," said Wellington, looking out over the crowded dance floor of the Casino Loutfallah, searching the crowd for a particular girl. He had returned that morning from training camp in England, and was proud of his new rig, long tight trousers in Cherrypicker red and trim tunic jacket scalloped at the back. "It's Leap Year, and in your condition any of these NAAFI girls could make you hers forever."
"Right you are. Chap has to be careful." Bingham's bright eyes darted around the room. A slender gangly young man, he was already bald. He took the drink offered him by Michael Gates.
"They say the dollies always look their best when you come back from the blue," Bingham continued, not taking his eyes from the floor. "Sort of like those lake mirages we always hope are real." He spilled his drink as two dancers jostled him at the edge of the floor. "Look at them. WAAFS, WRNS, ATS, nurses, all the girls of all the services, all of them out here trying to look after us and bring one of us home alive to mum and dad. More big game from Africa."
Downing their gins, the three Hussars circled the edge of the dance floor until they stood near the band and ordered fresh drinks from a passing bar boy. Behind the band, a broad banner proclaimed the evening: LEAP YEAR BALL OF THE WOMEN'S HEALTH IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIATION. A leader of the struggle against tuberculosis in Egypt, the Association was a cause close to the heart of Wellington's mother. But the young soldiers were not here because of their interest in suppressing communicable lung diseases in the villages. On the opposite wall, another banner urged the dancers: LEND TO DEFEND- BUY BRITISH DEFENCE BONDS- THROUGH BARCLAYS BANK (DOMINION COLONIAL AND OVERSEAS).
"Always prefer these AT bints myself," said Bingham eagerly, handing his drink to Wellington. "Bashing away at those old teleprinters at GHQ all day gives 'em useful fingers. Haw, haw!" He squared his thin shoulders and sauntered over to a pair of uniformed ladies. One appeared to be either crying or laughing hysterically. Wellington poured Bingham's drink into his own glass and set down the empty on the edge of the bandstand.
Just then Wellington saw his mother dancing on the far side of the crowded floor. She'd cried that morning when he came home. Looking more fresh and young than she had been recently, Gwenn Rider was doing a two-step with her French friend. She seemed to be enjoying herself. A bit annoyed, Wellie was glad his father was on safari.
The tune changed to a jitterbug, and the dancers changed with the music. Gwenn and others of her generation left the floor. The women collected their pocket books and searched for free tables. The men looked for drinks and lit cigars. Bingham led the hysterical lady onto the floor. She matched him enthusiastically as he jitterbugged in his tight scarlet trousers. The crown of his head glistened.
Wellington saw Saffron. She was even more lovely than he remembered when he'd thought about her in England, no longer the gawky little creature he had known when she was young. "Leave me alone," he used to say when she followed him around too much. He had even avoided her at dancing school.
The girl stood between two columns across the room, engrossed with her companion. A tall lieutenant wearing the chequered insignia of the Scots Guards, the officer appeared to be a few years older than Wellington. The sandy-haired man threw back his head and laughed. Wellington felt sick as Saffron smiled and laughed gaily with him. Covering her laugh, she raised the fingertips of her right hand to her mouth and touched her upper lip with the tip of her tongue. She seemed to be steaming.
Wellington stared, hardly breathing as they danced, the Englishman a trifle stiff, Saffron as if the music were written for her. The skirt of her lavender dress swished about her legs with every step. Each movement seemed to emphasize her chest.
Aware of Wellington's gaze, Saffron was careful how she danced with her companion. She knew Wellington would be divine in uniform, and he was. Sometimes she thought he would never look at her except as an annoying playmate. A little jealousy might be helpful, she thought, but if she appeared too involved with her escort, Wellington might look elsewhere. For years she had admired him, the handsome carefree older boy who always seemed to lead his friends and hers. She remembered one awkward moment when they were young. Unable to afford the lunch treat that all their friends were sharing on the Tea Island in the Zoological Gardens, Wellington had said he had already eaten. They had exchanged an understanding glance, sharing the truth of it. Realizing how hungry he must be, she'd thought of paying for his, but knew he'd rather starve. Except for that red hair, he was so like his father.
The tune changed to a crab-walk. Wellington saw Bingham's girl clap her hands ecstatically and lead him in a series of sharp sideways rushes across the floor as she taught her long-legged Hussar the latest step.
Saffron's lieutenant smiled engagingly and looked at the other dancers and threw up his hands. The two left the dance floor holding hands. Saffron stood to one side as her escort joined the throng struggling to get drinks from the bar. She stood alone for a moment, looking at the ceiling, but thinking of her father. Would he ever accept a suitor like Wellington, very likable but without fortune or position?
Wellington walked across the floor directly to her as the music changed again. A fox trot, Mountain Greenery.
"Will you dance with me, Saffron?"
"Wellie! You're back!" she cried, as if startled, pleasure in her eyes. They kissed on the cheek.
"Shall we dance?" He seemed desperate to steal her before the Guards officer returned.
She hesitated, glancing towards the bar as Wellington took her hand.
"I love you in your new uniform," Saffron said, liking the pressure of his hand on her back. She felt herself catching the excitement of the evening, the extra intensity the war had brought to every party, everyone keen to make the most of each moment. For many of her friends, the present had become more important than the future. She was lucky, she thought, to be with someone she knew so well.
"I love you in that dress," Wellington said, his cheek nearly touching hers.
She allowed him to hold her closely.
Wellington closed his eyes and smelled her light perfume. Her thick hair swung against his cheek. Her heavy breasts touched his chest.
The lieutenant stood staring at them with a drink in either hand as the band played I'm Getting Sentimental Over You.