The tribune had assured the Roman govenor of ancient Petra that the message - and whoever Gershom might be - was no threat to Rome. By the twentieth century, the British government viewed the matter somewhat more seriously.


 


 

 

   43 

 
Petra

Shortly before dawn : Wednesday 7th October, 1931


Atop the High Place of Sacrifice two shadowy shapes stood in the pre-dawn gloom. They were waiting for the drab sandstone bulk of rock that spread out before them to be transformed into a curtain of fiery, blood-red orange, as the sun's rays licked hungrily down the rugged outlines of the cliffs.

'That could be the eagle stone,' said Rupert, in a voice a little more than a whisper, 'over there … behind us.'

Stephen had retrieved the colour photo from its hiding place in his walking stick. Flattening it out he replied thoughtfully, 'quite possibly, my dear chap … not much longer now and we should know for sure. I must say that I can't really make out anything over there,' he pointed away across the valley, which separated them from the sheer wall of cliffs rising up on the other side, 'there doesn't seem to be anything that looks even remotely the same as Harrison's photograph.'

'Well, we know from what he said that he did take it from up here and that it was at dawn,' said Rupert, thrusting his hands further into his pockets, against the cold of the pre-dawn.

'Why are you whispering?' asked Stephen, a little bemused, whilst speaking in his normal voice.

'Am I?' asked Rupert, surprised, 'I had no idea that I was. It's probably this place, it's supposed to be a place of mysterious sacredness and I suppose that some of the mystery has rubbed off onto me.'

Rupert's sensitive character was very much in tune with the beliefs surrounding this mountain. It was only four months before that they had last been on this mountain top and had discovered the mortal remains of Professor Unsworth. Rupert remembered the peacefulness of the scene and how the location seemed to be a natural place to meet one's death. Later, Stephen had described the conversation he had had with Sarah Unsworth, which left no doubt that husband and wife had been complicit in the act that had sent the professor on his last journey. Rupert had had problems processing this fact for some time, but eventually he had come to terms with it and he could now see it for what it was: the ultimate act of love. That day, on the sombre journey following the professor's body down the mountain, Rupert and Stephen had caught up with the Reverend Fairweather, who turned his mumbled prayers into a conversation of great depth and understanding. The reverend explained the significance of the High Place of Sacrifice and confirmed the belief, which the professor had held, that this site was possibly connected to Moses and the associated biblical ramifications. For him this was his chosen place to die; perhaps to connect with that moment in distant history. During the rest of that tour, Rupert noticed the change in the Reverend Fairweather. He no longer represented a faded symbol of religion, stuck in his ways and the rites of his faith. Suddenly he emerged as a force of intellectual thought and opinion; managing to present the contents of the Bible in a free-thinking, refreshing and modern way, which, Rupert was sure, would not necessarily be in line with the dictates of the reverend's bishop. Without a doubt, The Holy Land and Petra Tour with its promised Journey of Exploration through Two Thousand Years of Civilization had certainly enlightened the Reverend Fairweather. Sitting on top of the High Place of Sacrifice Rupert now also felt connected to this mountain and to the people who, over the past two thousand years, had climbed to its summit, as he and Stephen had today. But Stephen was the pragmatist and Rupert knew his friend would feel differently about the experience.

'Do you feel anything?' Rupert asked.

'Only the perishing cold!' came the reply, 'we didn't exactly bring the correct winter gear with us, did we? Not out here to the Middle East where it's never cold…'

Rupert smiled, as the response had been as expected. He and Stephen were completely different in so many ways and yet as a whole they complimented one another perfectly by each filling the void in the other's life. Together they were a solid unit and as such they had already faced various awkward situations and would, undoubtedly, face many more. Were they on the cusp of another adventure he wondered?

The two friends continued to watch and wait, during which time it grew steadily lighter as the sun, hidden behind the mountains at their backs, started to rise in its stately, unhurried progression. Stephen kept holding out the photograph in the direction of the cliffs, studying both it and the breath-taking vista in front of them.

'There is something I've been thinking about,' said Rupert, suddenly, 'I was going to mention it when we were sitting on the triclinium steps, but got side-tracked by Aaron interrupting us.'

'And what might this profundity be, then?' replied Stephen, taking his gaze off the photograph and turning, smiling, to face Rupert.

'What I don't understand is why your uncle always seems to get us involved in things which are always so important to the national good. I mean, it's not as if we're anything to do with Military Intelligence or spying or anything like that, is it? That diamond business in Egypt was one thing, but even so, everyone seemed to be in the right place at the right time, almost as if by accident. Perhaps that was a different thing … but this Scroll of Gershom business doesn't seem to be anything like that. If this scroll is that important, then why not send the properly trained people out after it? Why get us involved?' Rupert looked at his friend in the silence, as his voice echoed and faded amongst the ancient boulders.

Stephen seemed to be thinking, the smile still on his face. 'It's because that's the way things used to be done. It was a sort of … Gentleman's game, organized and played…' he paused, a wistful expression flickering momentarily across his face, '…by people like my uncle. On the one hand, they realize only too well that the world has changed way beyond what it was like when that was the way things were done; on the other hand they still sometimes do things in the tried and tested way, because they know they worked previously.'

'But isn't that being just a bit out of touch with reality?' asked Rupert. 'If this scroll is so important, then surely there should be more thought given to recovering it … before it falls into the wrong hands. That is, if it even exists in the first place.'

'You're probably quite right. It does smack of the idea of sending a gunboat to subdue the natives, I suppose,' Stephen chuckled, 'But, then again, I suppose it's one way of dealing with what could be a politically sensitive issue without drawing too much attention to what's going on … just in case the whole thing is a wild goose chase. Probably there is the need to be carefully cautious about the way these things are dealt with. I'm not sure though … being only a humble medical doctor and not a politician'

The two men stood in companionable silence waiting for the rising sun, each lost in similar, yet differing thoughts.

'You'll have to ask my uncle yourself, not that I think he'll pass on any more of his reasons for any of this than we already know…' said Stephen eventually, returning his gaze once again to the photograph.

'I say,' whispered Rupert, 'I need a pee. Have I got time?'

'You tell me, my dear chap,' replied Stephen, lowering the photograph and turning to his friend, 'you know your own bladder far more intimately than I.'

'I mean do I have time before the sun comes up?' answered Rupert, shuffling from foot to foot, 'I'd hate to have been up here freezing thus far, only to miss the big event.'

'If you're quick, you should be fine,' answered Stephen, chuckling, 'I'd say we have a few minutes in hand before all is revealed. But I thought you were in awe of the mystery of this sacred place. And yet you're quite happy to pee on it?' he muttered, amused by the seeming contradiction in Rupert's value judgement.

'It's either that or a wet patch and huge amount of embarrassment for me when we get back to camp. All things considered, I really don't think there is any option regarding the obvious choice to make,' replied Rupert, still visibly uncomfortable.

'Spoken with true rationality and clear logic,' answered Stephen, 'off you trot then, "but linger not, afore the disc riseth and be upon us", as Shakespeare might have said.' He returned to his study of the photograph as Rupert strode purposely away to the left side of the flat-topped mountain, where there were a couple of convenient outcrops of rock.

            'Did you trip?' asked Stephen casually, as Rupert re-joined him a few minutes later, 'it sounded as if you'd dislodged a couple of stones. Sound carries well in this quiet, clean air.' He was still looking at the photograph. At the very top of the cliffs the first, wafer-thin line of bright light, still only the faintest pink, had suddenly appeared.

'No,' replied Rupert, 'there are no stones over there. It's all very flat, even behind the outcrops.'

'Are you sure?' asked Stephen, looking up from the photograph for a second, 'I thought I heard something, over there, where you were … engaged.'

'But I went over there,' said Rupert, pointing further to their left, 'not where you're pointing. You've got the wrong outcrop.'

'Oh…'said Stephen, turning to survey the whole of the scene on the mountain top, which lay spread before them, 'How curious. I was sure it came from over there. Perhaps it was an animal.'

'Must have been … probably the local wildlife waking up and starting to look for breakfast. Just like that lot back at camp …'

The thin pink line at the top of the cliffs had started to widen and march down the cliff face, growing deeper and deeper in colour as it did so.

'We're off…at last,' said Stephen, the unexplained sound of falling stones forgotten.

As they watched in silence, the curtain of light continued to slowly descend across the cliff face, changing colour all the while as it did so: first dark pink, then light red, then blood red and finally red-orange. It had reached a third of the way down, when the combination of the colour of the stone, with the millions of facets of
mineral crystals it contained and the reflected colour of the climbing sun suddenly seemed to make the cliffs burst into flame, the iridescent glow resembling the embers of a well-established fire.

'My God, 'gasped Stephen, 'look at that…'

 

 

Copyright © 2013 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.