To Rupert Winfield, the assembled party appeared to be the usual ragbag of the ignorant, the racist and the feckless. He was very soon to realize that there was far more to some of his guests than first met the eye...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.

 

The Nile, Cairo, early morning. 15th July 1928.

The little white paddle steamer lay snugly attached to the quayside. From the top deck, under the large canvas awning, Rupert Winfield gazed lazily over the railings. On the quayside below him, the tourist machine had long since started
its frenetic, daily activity.

A little over half an hour before, a small band of tourists had exchanged the quiet, colonial luxury of Shepheard's Hotel for the rowdy noise of Cairo, as a small fleet of cars had carried them through the teeming streets and upriver towards the waiting steamer.Their arrival at the quayside proved difficult as the cars were blocked by a mingling crush of humanity, all desperate to sell their wares. Despite the best efforts of several burly policemen and the company representative, himself an Egyptian, it took some time before the cars were able to deposit their passengers near the steamer.

High above this sea of activity, from the safety of Khufu's top deck, Winfield watched the new arrivals. They appeared ant-like, as they struggled through the throng, until they finally managed to clamber up the gangway and disappear beneath him into the welcoming cool ofthe steamer's main foyer. On the quay, their place had been taken by a team of porters, who struggled with the mountain of luggage. The hawkers had no interest in selling their antiquities, most of which were of dubious origin, to these humble porters and so they moved off en masse. Accompanied at a discreet distance by the policemen, who seemed to be waiting for their share of any prospective sales, they had reassembled downriver, next to the only other steamer moored alongside the jetty that day.

Here we go again, thought Winfield, as he flicked the used match expertly down into the water between the steamer and the quay, and it looks as if there aren't many under sixty years old!

The cloud of cigarette smoke he exhaled hid his smile. They might be a bit past it, these Explorers eager to discover the glories of Ancient Egypt, as it said in the promotional brochure, but they had healthy wallets and the tips were usually well worth the effort of his being charming. He had become well practised in the subtle art of interested indifference. Strong white teeth, a broad smile and disarming dimples were a combination that usually won over even the most disengaged tourist without too much effort on his part. Even now, during the heat of summer - the wrong time to be travelling in Egypt - his charm offensive would still be reasonably well rewarded, even if his new flock had taken advantage of the reduced rates offered by the company for their out-of-season holiday. As it was, he would earn far more in a year out here in Egypt than he could ever have hoped to earn back in England teaching in a stuffy university. As an eager, newly graduated archaeologist with a passion for all things Ancient Egyptian, he had given that a go - and had soon regretted the predictable boredom of it all. On balance, he much preferred what he now did for a living.

Only trouble with this line of work is the bloody heat, he mused to himself, from the shade underneath the upper deck awning, particularly at this time of the year.

On the banks of the Nile, just up river from Cairo, it was barely 10 a.m. and already the heat was becoming unpleasant. In the three years he'd been shepherding his flocks up and down the Nile, Rupert Winfield had still not been able to get used to the sapping heat. It wasn't so bad once the steamer got moving on the river, but, without the benefit of the soothing river breeze that the motion of the ship usually created, visiting the temples and other sites of interest could become quite unpleasant. And then there was the matter of the Valley of the Kings. Carter's recent discovery of the tomb of the Boy King,Tutankhamun, had added a new excursion to the Nile Exploration Tour offered by the company. There was actually nothing to see at Carter's excavation, save for a large hole in the ground, the occasional archaeologist, scurrying Egyptians in their flowing galabeas, armed guards everywhere and piles and piles of sand and rubble. And yet, some people wanted to make the visit, enchanted by the romantic mystery of the Boy King and hopeful of catching a glimpse of…of what? There was nothing to see. Unless he managed to get his flock in and out by eleven in the morning at the latest, they would be prisoners of the extreme heat there - temperatures in excess of 120 degrees Fahrenheit on a bad day. Given the physical condition of some of his charges, getting them into the Valley at all was something of a miracle in itself.

As the noise from the quayside below him filled his ears, he was suddenly reminded of the time in the Valley when several of Carter's men were actually in the process of removing something from the tomb. On that single occasion, he had felt like abandoning his charges to the heat and pushing forward for a closer look, but the armed guards had quickly put that thought out of mind. He never discovered what the object was. Despite that, he knew that his real interest lay in the dry, preserving sand of Egypt, where these marvellous things had been discovered. He thought enviously of Carter. Then he thought of himself - what was he doing acting as a cultural shepherd to a flock of over-pampered, wealthy tourists, who were generally not that interested in what he had to share with them? Where, he thought, was the archaeology in it all - where was the fuel for his own all-consuming passion?

'They are all present and corrected, Mr Rupert, Sir. I have checked most scrupulously through our list and they are all being here - all except one, who is being absent - a lady, Mrs Printon,' said the man, indicating his passenger manifest with a flourish. Rupert smiled. Mohammed was the company representative and the steamer's manager. He was always very eager to please and was generally far too enthusiastic, which often pushed him to
verboseness.

'I have now straight away sent a message to be telegraphed to Head Office with the news that we are all being presenting and corrected - except for the esteemed Mrs Printon - and that we will shortly be casting ourselves off and into the river - insha'Allah.'

Rupert smiled at the flow of information, so genuinely meant, but so torturously expressed: everything in excessive, unnecessary detail and always 'At the will of God'. His own Arabic was embryonic - a word here and a sentence there - but he marvelled at the command of English which people like Mohammed possessed. Rupert had never had an ear for languages. He remembered his father lecturing him on the need for greater effort when he had started school at Blatchington College; he had scored quite badly in his first English examination. That had alarmed his parents.

'So there you are having it all. Most satisfactory and Bristol fashion,'
continued Mohammed, as he adjusted his fez to a more rakish angle, 'we are being most truly prepared.'

'Indeed, Mohammed,' replied Rupert. 'Well done. So here we go again, eh? Off into the wild blue yonder!'

Mohammed stared at him, somewhat blankly, his confusion suspended on his face.

'Up the river, I mean,' added Rupert. 'It is a saying we have. It means to set off again.'

'Ah yes, indubitably, up the river,' answered the Egyptian, his face breaking into his broad smile. 'I must now make sure that our guests are all having their correct cabins and are happily comforting themselves.'

Rupert watched the receding figure stride off towards the companionway and then quickly disappear down it into the cool depths of the little ship.

Nice chap, he thought, a decent type.

As he flicked the stub of his cigarette into the water he felt the dull thud of the gangway swinging home against the iron side of the steamer. From above his head came the throaty wheeze of the whistle - three long blasts. Far below his feet, he felt the release of power, which had been confined in the steamer's boilers - horsepower that would soon churn the Nile into white, bubbling froth as Khufu's paddle wheel clawed its way up the Nile, pushing the little vessel against the current, on its way towards Luxor.

A sudden burst of activity down on the quayside caught his attention. Now that the threat of the burly policemen had passed, a gaggle of waving, shouting urchins had suddenly appeared, as if by magic. Despite the smiles, these street children conveyed the more serious message of the poverty that was the reality for the mass of the Egyptian population. Rupert had seen these twin faces of Egypt almost as soon as he had arrived in Cairo to take up his post with the company. He had seen the doorman at Head Office chase away another group of urchins, who had descended on his motor vehicle the moment it had stopped outside the company's imposing offices. He had been genuinely taken aback by the experience and, when his new superior had offered him the chance, he had passed an appropriate comment about his feelings. From behind the comfort of his large, mahogany desk, his superior had simply dismissed the incident.

'That's life out here, old chap', he had said indifferently. 'You'll get used to it quick enough. It's a bit like one of those old gods they had - the one with two faces - have and have not. You'll know the one I mean better than I, being the expert,' he'd explained and then laughed. 'Don't take it to heart - it's the way out here. You just need to accept it, that's all.'

Rupert had winced inwardly at the man's indifference and ignorance, but made no comment.

It was a Roman god called Janus, you ignoramus…, he had thought,…not an Egyptian one.

Back on the quayside below him, far away from Head Office in Cairo, this same contradiction was once again being played out - the haves, in the comfort of the steel-hulled Nile pleasure steamer and the have nots, on the shore in their grubby galabeas.

Rupert became aware of a conversation from immediately below him, which rose in opposition to the noises of their departure. Some of the newly embarked tourists had gathered on the lower promenade deck - no doubt in response to Mohammed's exhortations to 'View the magnificent River Nile as we depart upon our watery voyages' - and had become the targets of the smiling group of urchins, all with outstretched arms and grimy hands. A few coins glinted in the morning sunlight and there was muffled laughter from the lower deck in response to the scrambling and fighting on the quay that resulted from the display of largesse. A steadily widening gap had begun to open up between the shimmering side of the tall steamer and the compacted earth of the quay. Deckhands were scurrying across the deck, letting go mooring cables. On the bridge - perched in a wheelhouse set just back from the bows - the engine room telegraph rang steadily, confirming the orders from the reis, or captain - 'slow ahead…medium ahead.' The paddle wheel had started its endless rotation and the grey-blue of the Nile erupted into a mêlée of bubbles. With practised ease, the last rope was cast ashore, three more wheezing blasts escaped from the steamer's whistle, a large cloud of puffy, black smoke suddenly belched from the single funnel and Khufu pointed her beak-like bow into the river and moved slowly forward.

'Here we go again.' said Rupert Winfield quietly to himself, as he straightened up and turned to descend the companionway.


 

 Copyright © 2012 Stuart Fifield
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.