There was only one really palatial mansion in Gartley, and that was the ancient Georgian house known as the Pyramids. Lucy’s step-father had given the place this eccentric name on taking up his abode there some ten years previously. Before that time the dwelling had been occupied by the Lord of the Manor and his family. But now the old squire was dead, and his impecunious children were scattered to the four quarters of the globe in search of money with which to rebuild their ruined fortunes. As the village was somewhat isolated and rather unhealthily situated in a marshy country, the huge, roomy old Grange had not been easy to let, and had proved quite impossible to sell. Under these disastrous circumstances, Professor Braddock — who described himself humorously as a scientific pauper — had obtained the tenancy at a ridiculously low rental, much to his satisfaction.
Many people would have paid money to avoid exile in these damp waste lands, which, as it were, fringed civilization, but their loneliness and desolation suited the Professor exactly. He required ample room for his Egyptian collection, with plenty of time to decipher hieroglyphics and study perished dynasties of the Nile Valley. The world of the present day did not interest Braddock in the least. He lived almost continuously on that portion of the mental plane which had to do with the far-distant past, and only concerned himself with physical existence, when it consisted of mummies and mystic beetles, sepulchral ornaments, pictured documents, hawk-headed deities and suchlike things of almost inconceivable antiquity. He rarely walked abroad and was invariably late for meals, save when he missed any particular one altogether, which happened frequently. Absent-minded in conversation, untidy in dress, unpractical in business, dreamy in manner, Professor Braddock lived solely for archaeology. That such a man should have taken to himself a wife was mystery.
Yet he had been married fifteen years before to a widow, who possessed a limited income and one small child. It was the opportunity of securing the use of a steady income which had decoyed Braddock into the matrimonial snare of Mrs. Kendal. To put it plainly, he had married the agreeable widow for her money, although he could scarcely be called a fortune-hunter. Like Eugene Aram, he desired cash to assist learning, and as that scholar had committed murder to secure what he wanted, so did the Professor marry to obtain his ends. These were to have someone to manage the house, and to be set free from the necessity of earning his bread, so that he might indulge in pursuits more pleasurable than money-making. Mrs. Kendal was a placid, phlegmatic lady, who liked rather than loved the Professor, and who desired him more as a companion than as a husband. With Braddock she did not arrange a romantic marriage so much as enter into a congenial partnership. She wanted a man in the house, and he desired freedom from pecuniary embarrassment. On these lines the prosaic bargain was struck, and Mrs. Kendal became the Professor’s wife with entirely successful results. She gave her husband a home, and her child a father, who became fond of Lucy, and who — considering he was merely an amateur parent — acted admirably.
But this sensible partnership lasted only for five years. Mrs. Braddock died of a chill on the liver and left her five hundred a year to the Professor for life, with remainder to Lucy, then a small girl of ten. It was at this critical moment that Braddock became a practical man for the first and last time in his dreamy life. He buried his wife with unfeigned regret — for he had been sincerely attached to her in his absent-minded way — and sent Lucy to a Hampstead boarding school. After an interview with his late wife’s lawyer to see that the income was safe, he sought for a house in the country, and quickly discovered Gartley Grange, which no one would take because of its isolation. Within three months from the burial of Mrs. Braddock, the widower had removed himself and his collection to Gartley, and had renamed his new abode the Pyramids. Here he dwelt quietly and enjoyably — from his dry-as-dust point of view — for ten years, and here Lucy Kendal had come when her education was completed. The arrival of a marriageable young lady made no difference in the Professor’s habits, and he hailed her thankfully as the successor to her mother in managing the small establishment. It is to be feared that Braddock was somewhat selfish in his views, but the fixed idea of archaeological research made him egotistical.
The mansion was three-story, flat-roofed, extremely ugly and unexpectedly comfortable. Built of mellow red brick with dingy white stone facings, it stood a few yards back from the roadway which ran from Gartley Fort through the village, and, at the precise point where the Pyramids was situated, curved abruptly through woodlands to terminate a mile away, at Jessum, the local station of the Thames Railway Line. An iron railing, embedded in moldering stone work, divided the narrow front garden from the road, and on either side of the door — which could be reached by five shallow steps — grew two small yew trees, smartly clipped and trimmed into cones of dull green. These yews possessed some magical significance, which Professor Braddock would occasionally explain to chance visitors interested in occult matters; for, amongst other things Egyptian, the archaeologist searched into the magic of the Sons of Khem, and insisted that there was more truth than superstition in their enchantments.
Braddock used all the vast rooms of the ground floor to house his collection of antiquities, which he had acquired through many laborious years. He dwelt entirely in this museum, as his bedroom adjoined his study, and he frequently devoured his hurried meals amongst the brilliantly tinted mummy cases. The embalmed dead populated his world, and only now and then, when Lucy insisted, did he ascend to the first floor, which was her particular abode. Here was the drawing-room, the dining-room and Lucy’s boudoir; here also were sundry bedrooms, furnished and unfurnished, in one of which Miss Kendal slept, while the others remained vacant for chance visitors, principally from the scientific world. The third story was devoted to the cook, her husband — who acted as gardener — and to the house parlor maid, a composite domestic, who worked from morning until night in keeping the great house clean. During the day these servants attended to their business in a comfortable basement, where the cook ruled supreme. At the back of the mansion stretched a fairly large kitchen garden, to which the cook’s husband devoted his attention. This was the entire domain belonging to the tenant, as, of course, the Professor did not rent the arable acres and comfortable farms which had belonged to the dispossessed family.
Everything in the house went smoothly, as Lucy was a methodical young person, who went by the clock and the almanac. Braddock little knew how much of his undeniable comfort he owed to her fostering care; for, prior to her return from school, he had been robbed right and left by unscrupulous domestics. When his step-daughter arrived he simply handed over the keys and the housekeeping money — a fixed sum — and gave her strict instructions not to bother him. Miss Kendal faithfully observed this injunction, as she enjoyed being undisputed mistress, and knew that, so long as her step-father had his meals, his bed, his bath and his clothes, he required nothing save the constant society of his beloved mummies, of which no one wished to deprive him. These he dusted and cleansed and rearranged himself. Not even Lucy dared to invade the museum, and the mere mention of spring cleaning drove the Professor into displaying frantic rage, in which he used bad language.
On returning from her walk with Archie, the girl had lured her step-father into assuming a rusty dress suit, which had done service for many years, and had coaxed him into a promise to be present at dinner. Mrs. Jasher, the lively widow of the district, was coming, and Braddock approved of a woman who looked up to him as the one wise man in the world. Even science is susceptible to judicious flattery, and Mrs. Jasher was never backward in putting her admiration into words. Female gossip declared that the widow wished to become the second Mrs. Braddock, but if this was really the case, she had but small chance of gaining her end. The Professor had once sacrificed his liberty to secure a competence, and, having acquired five hundred a year, was not inclined for a second matrimonial venture. Had the widow been a dollar heiress with a million at her back he would not have troubled to place a ring on her finger. And certainly Mrs. Jasher had little to gain from such a dreary marriage, beyond a collection of rubbish — as she said — and a dull country house situated in a district inhabited solely by peasants belonging to Saxon times.
Archie Hope left Lucy at the door of the Pyramids and repaired to his village lodgings, for the purpose of assuming evening dress. Lucy, being her own housekeeper, assisted the overworked parlor maid to lay and decorate the table before receiving the guests. Thus Mrs. Jasher found no one in the drawing-room to welcome her, and, taking the privilege of old friendship, descended to beard Braddock in his den. The Professor raised his eyes from a newly bought scarabeus to behold a stout little lady smiling on him from the doorway. He did not appear to be grateful for the interruption, but Mrs. Jasher was not at all dismayed, being a man-hunter by profession. Besides, she saw that Braddock was in the clouds as usual, and would have received the King himself in the same absent-minded manner.
“Pouf! what an abominal smell!” exclaimed the widow, holding a flimsy lace handkerchief to her nose. “Kind of camphor-sandal-wood charnel-house smell. I wonder you are not asphyxiated. Pouf! Ugh! Bur-r-r
The Professor stared at her with cold, fishy eyes. “Did you speak?”
“Oh, dear me, yes, and you don’t even ask me to take a chair. If I were a nasty stuffy mummy, now, you would be embracing me by, this time. Don’t you know that I have come to dinner, you silly man?” and she tapped him playfully with her closed fan.
“I have had dinner,” said Braddock, egotistic as usual.
“No, you have not.” Mrs. Jasher spoke positively, and pointed to a small tray of untouched food on the side table. “You have not even had luncheon. You must live on air, like a chameleon — or on love, perhaps,” she ended in a significantly tender tone.
But she might as well have spoken to the granite image of Horus in the corner. Braddock merely rubbed his chin and stared harder than ever at the glittering visitor.
“Dear me!” he said innocently. “I must have forgotten to eat. Lamplight!” he looked round vaguely. “Of course, I remember lighting the lamps. Time has gone by very rapidly. I am really hungry.” He paused to make sure, then repeated his remark in a more positive manner. “Yes, I am very hungry, Mrs. Jasher.” He looked at her as though she had just entered. “Of course, Mrs. Jasher. Do you wish to see me about anything particular?”
The widow frowned at his inattention, and then laughed. It was impossible to be angry with this dreamer.
“I have come to dinner, Professor. Do try and wake up; you are half asleep and half starved, too, I expect.”
“I certainly feel unaccountably hungry,” admitted Braddock cautiously.
“Unaccountably, when you have eaten nothing since breakfast. You weird man, I believe you are a mummy yourself.”
But the Professor had again returned to examine the scarabeus, this time with a powerful magnifying glass.
“It certainly belongs to the twentieth dynasty,” he murmured, wrinkling his brows.
Mrs. Jasher stamped and flirted her fan pettishly. The creature’s soul, she decided, was certainly not in his body, and until it came back he would continue to ignore her. With the annoyance of a woman who is not getting her own way, she leaned back in Braddock’s one comfortable chair — which she had unerringly selected — and examined him intently. Perhaps the gossips were correct, and she was trying to imagine what kind of a husband he would make. But whatever might be her thoughts, she eyed Braddock as earnestly as Braddock eyed the scarabeus.
Outwardly the Professor did not appear like the savant he was reported to be. He was small of stature, plump of body, rosy as a little Cupid, and extraordinarily youthful, considering his fifty-odd years of scientific wear and tear. With a smooth, clean-shaven face, plentiful white hair like spun silk, and neat feet and hands, he did not look his age. The dreamy look in his small blue eyes was rather belied by the hardness of his thin-lipped mouth, and by the pugnacious push of his jaw. The eyes and the dome-like forehead hinted that brain without much originality; but the lower part of this contradictory countenance might have belonged to a prize-fighter. Nevertheless, Braddock’s plumpness did away to a considerable extent with his aggressive look. It was certainly latent, but only came to the surface when he fought with a brother savant over some tomb-dweller from Thebes. In the soft lamplight he looked like a fighting cherub, and it was a pity — in the interests of art — that the hairless pink and white face did not surmount a pair of wings rather than a rusty and ill-fitting dress suit.
“He’s nane sa dafty as he looks,” thought Mrs. Jasher, who was Scotch, although she claimed to be cosmopolitan. “With his mummies he is all right, but outside those he might be difficult to manage. And these things,” she glanced round the shadowy room, crowded with the dead and their earthly belongings. “I don’t think I would care to marry the British Museum. Too much like hard work, and I am not so young as I was.”
The near mirror — a polished silver one, which had belonged, ages ago, to some coquette of Memphis — denied this uncomplimentary thought, for Mrs. Jasher did not look a day over thirty, although her birth certificate set her down as forty-five. In the lamplight she might have passed for even younger, so carefully had she preserved what remained to her of youth. She assuredly was somewhat stout, and never had been so tall as she desired to be. But the lines of her plump figure were still discernible in the cunningly cut gown, and she carried her little self with such mighty dignity that people overlooked the mortifying height of a trifle over five feet. Her features were small and neat, but her large blue eyes were so noticeable and melting that those on whom she turned them ignored the lack of boldness in chin and nose. Her hair was brown and arranged in the latest fashion, while her complexion was so fresh and pink that, if she did paint — as jealous women averred — she must have been quite an artist with the hare’s foot and the rouge pot and the necessary powder puff.
Mrs. Jasher’s clothes repaid the thought she expended upon them, and she was artistic in this as in other things. Dressed in a crocus-yellow gown, with short sleeves to reveal her beautiful arms, and cut low to display her splendid bust, she looked perfectly dressed. A woman would have declared the wide-netted black lace with which the dress was draped to be cheap, and would have hinted that the widow wore too many jewels in her hair, on her corsage, round her arms, and ridiculously gaudy rings on her fingers. This might have been true, for Mrs. Jasher sparkled like the Milky Way at every movement; but the gleam of gold and the flash of gems seemed to suit her opulent beauty. Her slightest movement wafted around her a strange Chinese perfume, which she obtained — so she said — from a friend of her late husband’s who was in the British Embassy at Pekin. No one possessed this especial perfume but Mrs. Jasher, and anyone who had previously met her, meeting her in the darkness, could have guessed at her identity. With a smile to show her white teeth, with her golden-hued dress and glittering jewels, the pretty widow glowed in that glimmering room like a tropical bird.
The Professor raised his dreamy eyes and laid the beetle on one side, when his brain fully grasped that this charming vision was waiting to be entertained. She was better to look upon even than the beloved scarabeus, and he advanced to shake hands as though she had just entered the room. Mrs. Jasher — knowing his ways — rose to extend her hand, and the two small, stout figures looked absurdly like a pair of chubby Dresden ornaments which had stepped from the mantelshelf.
“Dear lady, I am glad to see you. You have — you have”— the Professor reflected, and then came back with a rush to the present century —“you have come to dinner, if I mistake not.”
“Lucy asked me a week ago,” she replied tartly, for no woman likes to be neglected for a mere beetle, however ancient.
“Then you will certainly get a good dinner,” said Braddock, waving his plump white hands. “Lucy is an excellent housekeeper. I have no fault to find with her — no fault at all. But she is obstinate — oh, very obstinate, as her mother was. Do you know, dear lady, that in a papyrus scroll which I lately acquired I found the recipe for a genuine Egyptian dish, which Amenemha — the last Pharaoh of the eleventh dynasty, you know — might have eaten, and probably did eat. I desired Lucy to serve it to-night, but she refused, much to my annoyance. The ingredients, which had to do with roasted gazelle, were oil and coriander seed and — if my memory serves me — asafoetida.”
“Ugh!” Mrs. Jasher’s handkerchief went again to her mouth. “Say no more, Professor; your dish sounds horrid. I don’t wish to eat it, and be turned into a mummy before my time.”
“You would make a really beautiful mummy,” said Braddock, paying what he conceived was a compliment; “and, should you die, I shall certainly attend to your embalming, if you prefer that to cremation.”
“You dreadful man!” cried the widow, turning pale and shrinking. “Why, I really believe that you would like to see me packed away in one of those disgusting coffins.”
“Disgusting!” cried the outraged Professor, striking one of the brilliantly tinted cases. “Can you call so beautiful a specimen of sepulchral art disgusting? Look at the colors, at the regularity of the hieroglyphics — why, the history of the dead is set out in this magnificent series of pictures.” He adjusted his pince-nez and began to read, “The Osirian, Scemiophis that is a female name, Mrs. Jasher — who —”
“I don’t want to have my history written on my coffin,” interrupted the widow hysterically, for this funereal talk frightened her. “It would take much more space than a mummy case upon which to write it. My life has been volcanic, I can tell you. By the way,” she added hurriedly, seeing that Braddock was on the eve of resuming the reading, “tell me about your Inca mummy. Has it arrived?”
The Professor immediately followed the false trail. “Not yet,” he said briskly, rubbing his smooth hands, “but in three days I expect The Diver will be at Pierside, and Sidney will bring the mummy on here. I shall unpack it at once and learn exactly how the ancient Peruvians embalmed their dead. Doubtless they learned the art from —”
“The Egyptians,” ventured Mrs. Jasher rashly.
Braddock glared. “Nothing of the sort, dear lady,” he snorted angrily. “Absurd, ridiculous! I am inclined to believe that Egypt was merely a colony of that vast island of Atlantis mentioned by Plato. There — if my theory is correct — civilization begun, and the kings of Atlantis — doubtless the gods of historical tribes — governed the whole world, including that portion which we now term South America.”
“Do you mean to say that there were Yankees in those days?” inquired Mrs. Jasher frivolously.
The Professor tucked his hands under his shabby coattails and strode up and down the room warming his rage, which was provoked by such ignorance.
“Good heavens, madam, where have you lived?” he exclaimed explosively —“are you a fool, or merely an ignorant woman? I am talking of prehistoric times, thousands of years ago, when you were probably a stray atom embedded in the slime.”
“Oh, you horrid creature!” cried Mrs. Jasher indignantly, and was about to give Braddock her opinion, if only to show him that she could hold her own, when the door opened.
“How are you, Mrs. Jasher?” said Lucy, advancing.
“Here am I and here is Archie. Dinner is ready. And you —”
“I am very hungry,” said Mrs. Jasher. “I have been called an atom of the slime,” then she laughed and took possession of young Hope.
Lucy wrinkled her brow; she did not approve of the widow’s man-annexing instinct.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55