The Case of the Accursed Cairene
by Ben Pastor
6 August 1909
Solomon Meisl-Horowitz, D. Med.
Hotel Prince of Wales
Franz Kafka, D. Jur.
Parizska Street No. 36
Dear Dr. Kafka,
Upon my departure for England, I recall you asking me to send you details should I ever encounter any paradoxical or odd incidents during my travels abroad. I am not sure whether the following fits the category, but, then again, you may find the exotic quality of the setting intriguing enough to include it in one of your stories.
I arrived at the resort town of Victoria-ad-Mare early in June,and though fully expecting to relax a little on the shore at this fashionable location, I found that Jupiter would not allow it. My first week in England was made exceedingly miserable by rain. I soon exhausted my store of conversation with the other guests in the hotel, and began to miss Prague, my practice and my well-appointed rooms not far from your own address.
Soon I began to feel the creeping signs of discomfort coming over me. Physicians are notoriously unable to take their own counsel, but, as this was a fairly recognizable case of the spleen, I knew it would never do to stay. I was ready to catch the first train for somewhere sunnier, when an acquaintance of mine from the Vienna days-back then a promising young scholar of the classics, now a renowned author of books on antiquities-came to the rescue with an invitation to his estate in Kent. The first eastbound train out of Victoria saw me on it, my hopes restored.
My destination, most appropriately called Canopus Hall, since it held within its walls a remarkable collection of Ancient Egyptian antiquities and seemed to hold for me the promise of sunnier days as it is a veritable piece of the of the Levant within the verdancy of England. Were it not for the fat, black- footed Suffolk sheep grazing on the grounds, or the occasional call from a rustic lad dropping his H’s, one could fancy oneself on the banks of that great father of rivers, the Nile itself.
The house (“not large but well-appointed,” in Sir Nigel Septvans’ words) has forty-odd rooms, several of which are replete with all manner of relics and mementos from the Land of the Pharaohs. These I was shown upon arriving. Sir Nigel took particular delight in introducing me to an array of impressive Ancient Egyptian mummiform coffins and linen-wrapped mummies in the Green Hall, and to a display of implements and jewels laid out in exquisite glass showcases in the Hunters’ Corridor. Surely you have noticed how oftentimes lonely men become attached to their surroundings and possessions. With true English wit, Sir Nigel jested that one of these days he would wake up as a packrat, or some other such acquisitive vermin. “Anything but a cockroach,” he added with a wink. “I loathe the creatures so.”
Well, on the evening of my arrival we were sitting after dinner in front of a cheery fire-the weather having turned suddenly cold and rainy, as if to spite me for trying to get away-when Sir Nigel took an aromatic draught from his pipe, and said, “Are you up for a puzzle that has no solution?”
You should know, dear Dr. Kafka, this is precisely the sort of introduction that ensures my keenest heed. Recognizing this, my host gravely continued, “Ten years ago, as newly appointed director of the British School in Cairo, I considered myself the happiest Englishman on Egyptian soil. My dear young wife was then still living and one of my best pupils and friends, Rodger Bolton, had just accepted the post of vice director. With my expertise in hieroglyphics and demotic script, and his knowledge of ancient techniques and materials, we formed a most suited team of researchers. Before us lay the enormous task of identifying and cataloguing a number of recently discovered mummies and burial trousseaus, many of them salvaged from the antiquarian market-that pestilential institution through which as much is lost as is found.”
“Tell me, is the puzzle an historical one?” I queried.
“No,” Sir Nigel replied. “It has to do with the disappearance of a human being.”
“No, not he. One disreputable Jusuf Ata-Giorgi-a man of a hundred languages but no country-who owned a curiosity shop in the Abdin quarter, not far from the mosque of al-Azhar. No tears were shed over him, I assure you, particularly not by myself or my associate, or any other lover of ancient things. That’s why I term it no more than a puzzle. But no one ever found his body, so . . .”
I will sum up the central part of the narrative in my own words, Dr. Kafka, to avoid the many vagaries and interruptions which my old friend is known to indulge in.
It seems that Septvans and his assistant had, at considerable cost, acquired from Ata-Giorgi an even half-dozen mummy cases. Three of these antique coffins were still secured by seals and royal signatures (“cartouches,” as Sir Nigel called them), signifying that the bodies of their aristocratic occupants remained untouched. The discovery, made by cattlemen in a region hitherto not known for yielding remarkable pieces, was potentially of the sort that makes an archaeologist’s reputation. You may believe how the two Englishmen reveled in the opportunity Fate presented them. They willingly paid the price Ata-Giorgi demanded. “Perhaps too willingly,” mused my host, “for we did so in his shop and in public. Our reticence to haggle must have been noticed by many, and seen as obliviousness to cost.”
Such large pieces could only be moved by securing the appropriate machinery, so Sir Nigel trusted them overnight in the storage room of the shop. That same night-the merchant being accidentally or conveniently away from Cairo-the storage was visited by thieves. With complete disregard for history, the cases were pried open and plundered for jewels and other precious objects, while the ancient bodies were-in that detestable practice-hacked up in order to make mumia of their ground remains. This substance, rich in preservative ointments and asphalt, is reputed by the ignorant to have great medicinal value.
For days the two Englishmen were inconsolable. Sir Nigel feared his younger colleague would lose his reason over the incident. His response was so extreme that he raged with a fever for days, but thankfully Lady Septvans nursed him back to health. As for my friend, he at once suspected the merchant of encouraging the deed, thus gaining twice on the same transaction. Indeed, the moment Ata-Giorgi returned from his journey, Sir Nigel confronted him on the matter. The man denied any wrongdoing though unconvincingly in the Englishman’s judgment. “I grew so distracted,” Sir Nigel remarked with passion, “that for a moment I felt that nothing could keep me from striking him dead on the spot.”
The morning after the confrontation, the merchant vanished from Cairo. Eventually his clerks and errand boys grew weary of waiting for his return and sought other employment. The coincidental nature of the disappearance made the Englishmen all the more suspicious that he had tricked them. But when Ata-Giorgi’s wife came weeping to the British School, asking that Sir Nigel answer to her husband’s murder, my friend thought the scoundrel had gone too far. Having secured the support of the Cairene police, he left the still weak Bolton under his wife’s care and marched to the Abdin quarter.
Upon arriving at the shop he saw what had caused the fracas. Doubting that Ata-Giorgi would return, his wife had ordered the shop doors opened; on the flagstone floor, near the counter, red smears and vermilion traces had been found. They had at once been assumed to be bloodstains, and foul play had been loudly proclaimed.
After a cursory investigation, however, it became clear to Sir Nigel and his uniformed attendants that the wept-over gore consisted of nothing but sealing wax and cinnabar. Still, they did discover, much to the wife’s discomfiture, that cash and several of the costliest pieces were missing. “A telltale sign, in the absence of corpus delicti, that the scoundrel had made away not only with the goods rightly belonging to us, but with his family’s livelihood as well.” This is how Sir Nigel put it that evening, tapping his extinguished pipe on a sphinx-headed firedog.
“Cairo is a large city,” he continued, “but all told, a small town. People talk. Had Ata-Giorgi been done in, the authorities would sooner or later have heard of it and apprehended the culprit. No. None of this followed. Years after the incident, still neither hide nor hair of the false merchant has come to light. He’s likely enjoying his ill-gotten gains in Timbuktu or Zanzibar. May the mud of the Nile grow heavy on the dastardly thief!”
You will wonder, dear Dr. Kafka, whether this tale warrants further telling. It does, I believe, as you will soon find out. As we sipped a nightcap before retiring Sir Nigel swept his eyes across the dining hall which glinted in its dim corners with the crimson and lapis lazuli hues of ancient masks and idols.
He said, “I must admit that over time-my rationality and scientific training notwithstanding-I have come to accept the possibility that forces beyond our reckoning and control may indeed rule our destinies. The accursed Cairene (accursed indeed, if the displeasure of Pharaoh was also heaped upon him for the desecration he wreaked) simply evaporated into the dry, thin air of the Abdin quarter. Bolton and I salvaged what we could of the trove, and I personally accompanied the cargo to London, never to set foot in Egypt again. My assistant followed me in ten weeks’ time with pieces of my private acquisition-including the mummy of Princess Nebkhass-and that’s where the story ends.”
The wind-driven rain, no less than the lurid tale, kept me awake long after my host and I had parted for the night. Unable to sleep, I paced the room assigned to me, and only after paying one more visit to Sir Nigel’s hard-earned antiquities in the Green Room, did I succeed in growing drowsy enough to rest.
In the morning, a promise of sunshine made me hope well for the rest of my stay in England. After a chat with the gardener on the grounds, I greeted Sir Nigel at the breakfast table, and, over some excellent egg concoction, I informed him that I had solved the puzzle.
His astonishment only made me more desirous of showing my cleverness. “It all came to me,” I said, “after some spooked dreams about pharaohs and flooding Niles. I intend to explain the matter, but must ask first whether you’ll trust me to perform an experiment in the Green Room.”
Within minutes we were standing before a hefty yet elegant mummiform coffin, sealed by rich symbols representing eternal safety. To my host’s gasping disbelief, I leant over and applied a few well-placed blows of a garden pick to the seals.
It was fortunate for me, Dr. Kafka, that Sir Nigel was too frozen with outrage to cane me over the head. Having broken the seals, I proceeded to chip away, with amazing ease, the edge of the painted box. Having done so, I pushed the lid half aside, and exposed the shrunken and wizened mummy of the Princess Nebkhaas.
Sir Nigel showed evident disappointment that plaster seemed to comprise the bulk of the coffin. I had heard from his very lips the night before how unscrupulous antiquarians often place original homeless remains in false cases, in order to exact a higher price.
His anger against Ata-Giorgi was visibly rekindled. Red-faced and glaring, my host cried out, “That I should have been taken in by such a cheap counterfeiter!”
“Fear not for your reputation, Sir Nigel,” I reassured him. “This is not a cheap counterfeiter’s handiwork. Nor do I doubt that the other denizens of this room were indeed once noble rulers and queens who walked the sands of Egypt. “But,” and here I brought out of my pocket a surgical steel, “this one was not.”
It took no more than ten minutes to expose enough of the mummy to prove that we had been deceived as to its gender. Sir Nigel’s anger grew apace, including me this time.
“Really, Meisl!” he thundered. “You go too far! You have ruined a rare antiquity to prove that carelessly or by mistake a male corpse was placed where a female body belonged?”
I stood my ground. “No. I have exposed a most diabolically conceived and concealed murder, committed during your last days in Cairo!”
Sir Nigel stepped back, as one struck unawares. “You don’t know what you’re saying, man!”
For the better part of an hour I spoke to my host, first assisting him in recovering from the shock on his system, then explaining how I had arrived at my seemingly mad conclusions.
“I first suspected the truth, Sir Nigel, when you mentioned that your assistant had remained in Cairo for a period of ten weeks before following you with this and other objects you had acquired from Ata-Giorgi. My suspicions increased in light of his disproportionate response to the merchant’s deception. Did it not strike you as unusual that so long a time should be needed to ship cargo already cleared with the authorities?”
My host hung his head. “Perhaps, but,” he added gloomily, “I had more wretched worries at the time, and thought nothing of it.”
Here I had to exert all of my professional tact. “And I believe,” I said, “I know what those worries might have been. The loss of your young wife-not to death, but to another man.”
Septvans’ face underwent a metamorphosis-shame and sorrow and surprise by turns finding expression. “How did you ever . . .?”
I lay my hand on his shoulder as I answered. “Ah, well. There are no portraits or mementos of the lady anywhere in this house, Sir Nigel. Though I have known of inconsolable widowers who dispose of all that may remind them of their loss, I also noticed that you keep photographs of your much loved dead parents. And your refusal to return to Egypt speaks to more than just the loss of rare objects. I do believe the nurse enchanted the patient, and that your colleague betrayed profession and friendship by seducing your wife away from you-and committing murder to boot.”
Sir Nigel recovered his nerves enough to shout, “The deuce, you say! You don’t mean to tell me that she was killed by the fiend, after he took her from me! I shall myself return to Cairo and strangle him.”
“That may not be necessary,” I replied. “And no, Sir, I trust your former spouse thrives still. It’s the accursed Cairene who found death at your false partner’s hand. Furious as he was at the loss of pieces that would ensure his fame, he likely lured Ata-Giorgi to some out-of-the-way place-or perhaps his very shop-and killed him. Disposing of a body would not be easy for a foreigner, but Bolton had a deep understanding of ancient Egyptian burial techniques as well as the methodical patience so often possessed by madmen of his kind. The smears of sealing-wax and cinnabar on the shop floor were actually evidence of his grisly work. Grisly, indeed, for seventy days-as you know far better than I-is the time necessary to mummify a body according to ancient practices. Once cured and wrapped, Ata-Giorgi’s corpse could be shipped out of Egypt in a brilliantly faked mummiform case fashioned out of plaster. I am quite convinced that, should we further examine the body, you’d find me to be correct as to the identity of the corpse. Sir Nigel, justice rather than vengeance requires that you contact the authorities in Cairo, and ensure that this crime-even though committed against a dastardly thief-is prosecuted.”
You will ask now, Dr. Kafka, how the story ends. Well, despite my proving the body to indeed be the merchant’s, and Sir Nigel’s impatience to expose the crime, such course of action could not be followed through to success. Bolton’s latest archaeological find afforded him such scientific renown that the Egyptian Pasha himself had just appointed him curator of the Amarna Museum. No accusation brought against him from abroad, even in these times of anti-British sentiment, could dislodge Bolton from his post. He serves there still, and-a penal colony being no likelihood anytime soon-it is only to be hoped (I know how you delight in paradoxes) that the responsibilities of his position at the museum in Egypt serve as a constant reminder of his evil deed, a psychological mummification of sorts for a man whose ruthless and unhealthy ambition unraveled any thread of morality he may have possessed.
The case of the accursed Cairene having been solved, I took myself back to Victoria-ad-Mare to pursue pastimes more fitting a vacationing Praguese than unearthing buried tales of treachery, murder and thieving deeds.
“It all goes to prove, dear Dr Kafka, that the Fantastic abides in the Real. Didn’t I hear you say something of the sort when we last met over a cup of coffee at Widtmans’s, overlooking our beloved Josefsplatz?
With best regards, I remain