Thursday, January 21, 2016

Charlie's War, part six

Continued from here

Shepheard Hotel, Cairo
April 13, 1923

I walk through the streets like a ghost. I'm not a person anymore. My heart has been taken from me.”
Samia al-Safwan, upon the death of her husband

For three days now, Charlie had sat at Jack's side in a suite at the Shepheard Hotel in Cairo, clutching desperately at his hand, wiping his brow, attempting to spoon-feed him broth laced with quinine, and weeping quietly when he fell into blessed sleep. For three days now, Jack had been enduring a cruel cycle of sudden coldness followed by rigor and convulsions, which were in turn followed by fever, vomiting, and sweating. These cycles would last for hours at a time and were getting worse, barely leaving him enough time in between to rest.

The quinine didn't seem to be helping at all; in fact, it seemed to be making him worse. His skin had taken on a yellowish tinge that was even present in the whites of his eyes and when he could urinate, it was nearly black. The physician who was attending to Jack assured Charlie that the quinine would cure malaria, she only needed to be patient and let the drug run its course.

The fever had taken Jack so quickly. Five days ago, they'd been slowly recovering from Lord Carnarvon's death and had said good-bye to Evy at the docks in Port Said. Then only two days later, Jack started complaining of a terrible headache, and just a few hours after the first cycle hit him. Carter quickly diagnosed malaria and found a British-educated native physician to care for his partner.

Work on the dig had stopped, of course. Just before Carnarvon had died, they'd begun disassembling the golden shrine that Carter surmised would contain the Boy King's sarcophagus. But with two of the leading men responsible for the dig sick or dead, Carter thought it best to take some time to regroup and come up with a new plan of attack. At first, Jack wanted to be kept abreast of whatever was happening, so Charlie read him the daily updates from Carter. But as the disease progressed, Jack lost interest in everything but just making it through the next cycle of convulsions and fever and vomiting.

On the morning of the thirteenth of April, Jack's physician drew Charlie aside after the first of his twice-daily visits. “He has blackwater fever, Mrs Taylor,” the man said in heavily-accented English. “I'm sorry to tell you this, but he will most likely die.”

Charlie was stunned. His words made no sense to her. “What? Blackwater fever? I don't understand. You said he had malaria.”

And he does, but sometimes – and we don't know why – the quinine makes malaria worse. It's jaundice, you see. The yellowing of the skin? It means his liver is failing. And his water? It's black, yes? The quinine does this sometimes. It's called blackwater fever.”

The bottom dropped out of her world suddenly and she found she couldn't draw a breath. “So the medicine you gave him to make him better is actually making him worse?” Anger sudden ran white-hot in her blood and she clenched her hands at her sides so she wouldn't take a swing at the little man. “Give him something else! Stop the quinine and give him something that will actually make him better!”

The physician removed his glasses and fumbled with a handkerchief to mop his brow. “I'm sorry, Mrs Taylor. Truly I am, but there is nothing we can do now except make him comfortable.”

She made a noise that fell somewhere between a strangled sob of grief and a roar of anger and coldcocked the physician, screaming “No!” over and over. She couldn't lose Jack; she hadn't had enough time with him. Four years were just not enough time. They hadn't yet started a family, they hadn't found Tut yet. There was so much that they needed to do!

Leaving the physician sprawled out in the parlour of their suite, bleeding and still mumbling apologies, Charlie ran to Jack's side, falling to her knees and touching him, her hands like butterflies as they flitted over him, wanting to touch all of him at the same time, needing to somehow draw the sickness out of his body like some Southern Pentecostals claimed they could. “Jack?” she whispered, tears beginning to flow freely now. “Jack, baby? Can you hear me?”

Jack's eyes, once so bright and alive, opened and he turned his head towards her, trying to give her a smile. He was gaunt now, and dark shadows had taken up residence in the hollows of his cheeks and beneath his eyes. “Hello, Bunny,” he whispered. “Might I have some water?”

Charlie helped him sit up a bit, alarmed at how hot he was, and gave him a few sips of water. Then she laid him back down and mopped his brow with cool water. “Charlie, stop,” Jack said, his voice a tiny bit stronger now, his hand rising to grip hers tightly. “Look at me, Charlotte.”

She did, meeting his eyes, unable to keep the tears from her own. Jack smiled at her and reached to brush away her tears with his free hand. “I heard what the old man said, Charlie. I know I'm dying and so do you.”

No, Jack. I'll find someone else. I'll find someone who knows what they're doing. I sent a cable to your family. They'll find someone. You just need to rest and work on getting better.” Jack was right, of course. Even if the Taylors found the leading malaria physician in the world, unless they could get him here in the next hour, it would be too late. Jack was dying and Charlie's entire world was slowly sliding into the abyss.

Charlie, listen to me,” Jack said urgently. “I love you. I love you so much and I'm so glad for our years together. You are an amazing woman, Bunny. Never, ever forget that. You can do anything you want. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.”

I love you, too, Jack,” she said, gripping his hand and crying freely. “I'll always love you. But please, Jack; please don't leave me. I need you.” She collapsed against his chest, sobbing hard, hugging him tightly against her.

She was still holding him when he died a few hours later. He opened his eyes one last time, looked up at her and whispered, “I love you, Bunny,” and then she felt his heart flutter and then stop. The breath left his body and he went still and limp in her arms. She screamed, a high-pitched keening wail, over and over. People rushed into the suite – bellboys, the manager, other guests. One woman, a middle-aged society matron, rushed to Charlie's side, carefully trying to take Jack from her arms and draw her away, ineffectually trying to offer comfort. The look in Charlie's eyes scared them all away, though; fearing bodily harm from the tiny widow, they huddled in the parlor of the suite and waited for someone braver to come.

Finally, Carter entered the suite and was able to remove Charlie from Jack's bedside so the physician and his attendants could take care of the body. Carter encouraged Charlie to take some sleeping pills and led her to his own suite where she could rest in quiet seclusion. While she rested, he took it upon himself to notify the Taylors and the McNamaras of Jack's death and to make arrangements for his funeral.

The press, who had begun printing stories about the Pharaoh's curse after Carnarvon's death, took the bit in their teeth now upon learning of Jack's death. “Curse of the Mummy's Tomb!” screamed the headlines, claiming that the entire dig in the Valley of the Kings had fallen afoul of some ancient black magic. From some unnamed source, there were claims of hieroglyphics on the outside of the tomb, which read, “Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King.” Another paper alleged a different set of hieroglyphics that supposedly read, “Cursed be those who disturb the rest of a Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose.” Pointing to Carnarvon's sudden illness and the exotic nature of Jack's death as evidence, many other papers foretold of more deaths, including Carter's.

The claims of a cursed dig were, of course, ridiculous. But that didn't stop even people like Arthur Conan Doyle from suggesting in the press that Carnarvon and Taylor's deaths were caused by elementals created by Tutankhamun's priests to guard the royal tomb. Carter kept Charlie carefully shielded from the rumors, not wanting to add to the girl's already considerable pain, and soon enough, the papers moved on to stories about the Duke of York's wedding.

Charlie's eldest brother, Junior, was the only member of her family who was able to make it to Jack's funeral. Howard and Marjorie both had their own health problems, which kept them from making the long, expensive journey; Gwen and Al had a brand new baby boy to care for, and Junior's wife, Georgia, stayed in Colorado Springs with their two children. Jack's father and younger brother, Jacob, were in attendance, as well; his mother had died when Jack was just 14 years old.

Jack was interred in the Bab al-Nasr Cemetery, not far from the Al-Hakim Mosque in central Cairo. The service was blessedly short and when it was over, Charlie and Junior went back to Charlie's suite at the Shepheard and got absolutely rolling drunk and stayed that way until Junior left to return to Colorado Springs four days later.

On the morning of April 29th, Charlie received news that would further spiral her world out of control. She learned that she was pregnant.

Shepheard Hotel, Cairo
May 14th, 1923

I'm sorry, Mrs. Taylor, but your credit has run out. You will have to leave the suite,” said the pasty-faced front desk clerk, his rheumy eyes shifting nervously behind thick glasses. The glorified paper-pusher refused to meet Charlie's eyes; he knew he was evicting a recent widow who had no family or friends in Cairo and he did feel rather awful about it, but rules were rules, after all, and if he bent them for one guest, he'd have to bend them for all guests and then chaos would rule. And let's not mention the fact that the widow Taylor was absolutely blotto at eleven o'clock in the morning. The Shepheard Hotel was a respectable establishment, not a gin joint where every floozy and dewdropper in Cairo could shack up.

Where am I to go, Mr. Amos? I've just lost my husband!” Charlie was perilously close to reaching across the desk, hauling clerk out by his shirt collar and pummeling his toadying little face. Only the tiniest shred of remaining decorum and the fact that she would be disgracing Jack's memory kept her from acting on her impulses.

I'm afraid that is no longer our concern, Mrs. Taylor,” replied the clerk, trying very hard to keep his voice from cracking in fear. “Now, please, remove yourself from the lobby or I shall be forced to phone the authorities and have you removed.”

Charlie's bloodshot eyes narrowed and she said in a flat voice, “You can be certain that I will not be staying here again, and I shall keep my friends and relations from staying here as well.” Then she summoned up all the dignity she could muster and wobbled out of the lobby on extremely unsteady legs to hail a cab. There were no cabs immediately in front of the hotel, and rather than further disgracing the sacrosanct Shepheard by loitering in front of its august entrance, she began walking north towards the Cairo Museum.

The merciless Egyptian sun beat down on Charlie's bare head, making her dizzy and sending streams of sweat pouring down her face. There was no shade, of course, on Ibrahim Pasha Street, or anywhere else in Cairo for that matter. Charlie suddenly felt a sharp, painful longing for the mountains of Colorado – the icy-cold waters of Michigan Creek, the scent of pine resin in the forests that lined the slopes of Mosquito Peak, the feeling of tall grass brushing against her legs as she ran through the meadows around her home. She stumbled as her eyes filled with tears, her hand reaching out automatically to stop her fall, only to shove against another passerby, who caught her and hauled her to her feet.

Charlotte!” Her rescuer was Howard Carter, who stared at her in wide-eyed shock. “Bloody hell,” he said, keeping his hand firmly around her upper arm. “What's happened to you? You look a mess. Here, let's go inside and sit down.” He steered her into one of the city's many tea houses, saw her seated at a table, and then went to fetch some drinks of the non-alcoholic variety.

When Carter returned to the table, Charlie was crying freely, tears rolling down her cheeks and leaving round watermarks on her skirt. Carter ineffectually patted Charlie's shoulder and handed her a tiny glass of tea before taking his own seat across from her. “I'm sorry, Howard,” she mumbled, trying to wipe her eyes and juggle the glass of tea at the same time.

Think nothing of it, my dear,” he said with typical English aplomb. “How have you been?” he asked delicately, though he could guess by her appearance and the stench of alcohol that rolled off her.

Charlie laughed bitterly. “I've been thrown out of the hotel, Howard. I've lost my husband and I have no money to find somewhere else to stay and certainly no money for a ship back to America.” She finally set the tea down on the table and wiped at her eyes. “When can I come back to the dig? I'm ready to begin work again. I need to, Howard.”

Carter shifted in his seat, cleared his throat nervously and looked anywhere but at Charlie's face. “About that, Charlotte. There's...well, there's just no position for you now. I hired Jack with the understanding that you were his assistant and not actually a member of the expedition.” He paused and stole a glance at her face, meeting her eyes for the barest moment. What he saw there made him crumple and look away immediately. “I'm sorry, Charlotte. Perhaps the Museum or the Society has need of a secretary or a clerk?”

Charlie stared at him in utter disbelief. “A clerk?” she said. “A secretary for some stuffed shirt? Are you joking?” Her voice was rising with shrill anger and she curled her fists up tightly in her lap. “I can read ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek better than ninety percent of the men out there in the field with you, Howard. I've got experience that no one but you and Jack have. I'm uniquely qualified for certain aspects of the dig. Who took all of your photographs, Howard? Who found the fucking Annex?”

Now, see here, Mrs. Taylor!” Carter shouted back, incensed at Charlie's vulgarity. “There's no call for that sort of language.” When they both calmed a bit, he lowered his voice and leaned forward. “You've been drunk for a month now, Charlie. Is this what Jack would want for you? For you to spend your days in a drunken stupor? To embarrass yourself in public like this?” He paused for a second and sighed heavily. “I'm not entirely heartless.” Reaching into the breast pocket of his jacket, he removed an envelope and pushed it across the table to her. “I was just coming to give you this at the Shepheard. It should be enough to buy you passage to Port Said. Send word to your family in Colorado. I'm sure they'll wire you enough to book a ship home.” He looked at her for a moment longer, his heart breaking just a little bit more, and then stood. “Good luck to you, Mrs. Taylor.” Then he turned and exited the tea house, leaving Charlie staring at the envelope on the table in front of her.

She slowly gathered the money and stowed it away in her handbag. Then she stood and made her unsteady way outside, headed now for the train station. She felt numb, as if her head was stuffed with cotton batting and her limbs weighed down with stones. No job, no place to live, no husband, and a tiny new life growing steadily in her belly. “Oh, Jack,” she whispered. “How am I going to survive?”

Port Said, Egypt
Late May 1923

It started with cramps, worse than she'd ever experienced during her monthly flow. At first, she thought perhaps she was merely hungry, so she bought a kebab from a street vendor in front of the train station's entrance, but the cramping merely got worse and brought with it nausea and dizziness. Then she saw the blood and knew immediately what was happening. She was losing the baby and there was nothing she – or anyone else – could do to stop it.

She locked herself in the ladies' room and curled up into a ball on the cold, hard tiled floor and cried until she felt empty inside. That last remaining piece of Jack, the last bit of proof that such an amazing man had once existed, was slipping through her fingers. She flattened her hands over her belly and whispered an apology over and over, though she wasn't certain to whom she was apologizing – her baby, her late husband, or herself.

The cramps, the nausea, even the bleeding passed before the end of the day, leaving her feeling hollow and wretched. She picked herself up off the washroom floor, cleaned herself up as best as she could manage using the sinks and towels, and returned to her quiet little corner away from the ticketing offices and the arrival and departure gates.

She'd been living in the Port Said train station for nearly two weeks now, debating with herself every day whether or not to send word to her father in Colorado that she needed money to come home. Carter's advice to depend upon another man for her well-being still rankled and she stubbornly stuck to her guns. If she went home to Colorado, it would be under her own power, not her father's or any other man's.

She needed money and she needed it quickly. Aside from selling herself into white slavery or worse, prostituting herself on the streets, what could she do to earn enough for a ticket aboard an ocean liner? Her eyes fell to her luggage and the small wooden chest that contained a few artifacts she and Jack had kept for themselves. There were a few pieces of jewelry, a small statue, and part of an engraved tablet with a portrait of a Pharaoh who was having his heart weighed against Maat's feather. Perhaps if she sold them, she could earn enough for passage to America.

The next morning, ignoring the lingering hollowness and subtle ache in her belly, she left the train station, wooden chest in tow and headed into the native quarter of Port Said. She hadn't ever been in this section of the city and after having to ask directions more than once, she was thankful that Jack had taken the time to teach her how to speak Arabic.

She arrived at a small souvenir shop and presented two of the pieces of jewelry – a ring and a pectoral necklace – to the proprietor. He refused to believe that they were real and threw her out of the shop. The same thing happened in the next two shops and the one after that, the owner refused to allow her entrance. Apparently word was getting around that a crazy white woman was trying to sell fake relics.

She switched tactics after that, leaving the native quarter and venturing into where the Europeans lived and worked. She sold the pectoral in the first place she entered, the statute in the third, and a ring in the fourth. Now she had enough money to rent a tiny room with an actual bed and felt confident that by the end of the month, she would have earned enough to go home.

She struck out the next day. No one was buying now that they had the genuine article to copy over and over and pass off as a true relic. So she headed back into the native quarter, hoping to somehow convince the proprietors that she was selling the real thing. She headed to the very first shop she'd tried two days ago, determined not to leave until the owner had her removed by the police or she had convinced him that she wasn't trying to hoodwink him.

When she entered the shop, she saw immediately that the owner wasn't present. Instead, there was a huge Egyptian man dressed in a snow-white galabeya and a crimson fez. He smiled at her, displaying startlingly white teeth and welcomed her in Arabic. “As-Salāmu alayki,” he intoned in a voice as big as he.

Charlie smiled back – really, how could you not? - and said in the most formal way she knew - “Wa alayka s-salāmu wa rahmatu l-lāhi wa barakātuh.” Then she moved closer to the tiny counter behind which the big man sat and brought out the tablet piece. “Do you speak English, sir?”

The man nodded and the smile grew. “Yes, aanesa,” he replied, using the formal word for an unmarried woman. Her heart constricted in her chest when she remembered that she was a widow now. “I speak very good English. I am Ishaq al-Busiri. How may I help you?”

I'd like to sell this, Ishaq. I assure you that it is the real thing. My husband and I found in the Valley of the Kings two winters ago,” she said quickly, before he could voice any doubts.

Ishaq looked over the tablet and after seeking her permission, reached out and picked it up, studying it closely, turning it this way and that before carefully putting it back down on the counter. He nodded and then looked up at Charlie's face, studying her now with the same intensity. She forced herself to boldly meet his eyes and soon his pleasant face broke into a huge grin. “I think I know your face, aanesa!” He leaned across the counter, his nose now less than six inches away from hers. “Yes,” he announced after further scrutiny. “You were with the English Carter! I have seen your picture in the newspapers. You helped find Tutankhamun.”

Charlie blinked and nodded awkwardly. “Yes, we – my husband and I, I mean – were there with Carter.” She laid her hand on the tablet and lowered her eyes to it. “Will you buy this from me, Ishaq?” she asked, unable to keep the desperation out of her voice.

I am sorry about the death of your husband,” he said softly and to Charlie's horror, she felt tears forming. “Is this why you must sell your finds?” She nodded and he sighed heavily. “I must speak to my cousin, aanesa. He must approve the buying of artifacts. Come back tomorrow. I will know then.” Charlie nodded once more, gathered up the tablet and fled the shop. She went immediately back to her tiny room and cursed Howard Carter bitterly.

The next morning she presented herself at the shop again, only to find it occupied by not only the big man she'd met yesterday, but his cousin – whom she recognized as the man who'd thrown her out days before – and a very pretty, older woman dressed in a black abeya and hijab as well. Ishaq grinned at Charlie and welcomed her once more. She greeted him in return and smiled softly at the woman, who was introduced as Ishaq's wife, Farah.

We will buy the tablet, aanesa. And you will listen to a business proposal,” Ishaq said, making the statement sound far more like a request than a demand. Charlie nodded and Farah brought her a glass of tea and a small plate of bread with feta and some olives. The scent of the food reminded Charlie that she had not eaten anything since yesterday morning and it was all she could do not to wolf the small meal down in three bites.

You know where more finds like this are in the southern deserts?” Ishaq asked. Charlie nodded, her mouth full of bread and cheese. “You could take people there, for money, perhaps? And perhaps help them to find their own relics?”

Charlie swallowed and sipped her tea before answering. “You mean like a guide?” Ishaq nodded and Charlie grinned, thinking she was catching on to what he was proposing. “Yes, I could do that. But I would need a partner,” she realized suddenly. This was a male-dominated society, after all, and she was an unmarried foreign woman. She would need a man to act as the front for this little enterprise and that, too, rankled, nearly as much as Carter's insistence that she depend upon her father's largesse.

Ishaq would be your partner,” Farah said, drawing Charlie out of her thoughts. “He is well-known and respected with the Europeans and the government as well. He will do well for you, aanesa.” The way she said the last statement and the look that accompanied it made Charlie smile. There was a certain amount of threat mixed in with the words of praise. Charlie found herself taking an instant liking to Farah.

What my beautiful wife says is true,” Ishaq said with a tiny smile. “I will be a good partner and we would split our earnings fairly.” He paused for a moment, looking at Farah and then Charlie in turn. “I would take more because I have four daughters and a wife to support.” He looked like he was going to say more but thought better of it. Farah cleared her throat and Ishaq sighed softly. “Two of my daughters are grown and married so I will take less because of it,” he amended.

Charlie frowned softly in thought. She didn't really want to leave Egypt. She loved it here; being here made her feel closer to Jack and she was reluctant to leave. Maybe she would stay only long enough to earn enough to go home for a visit and then come back again. Finally, she nodded. “Yes, I think I would like to do this with you, Ishaq. But please, no more aanesa. You must call me Charlie if we're going to be partners.”

Farah smiled and gave Charlie's arm a delicate pat and told her that she would be staying with them until she could afford her own house. That night, after eating a huge meal and spending time getting to know Anippe and Merit – the al-Busiri's unmarried daughters – as well as Sumayyah and Pili, the eldest of Ishaq's daughters, and their husbands and Sumayyah's little boy, Saad, Charlie laid down on a soft bed in a warm home and felt hopeful for the first time in months. “I will survive, Jack. I will thrive here,” she whispered into the darkness just before she fell asleep.

Charlie's story will be continued in A Journey Of A Lifetime, the first book in the Ruins of the Past, Legacy of the Future series, coming in 2016.

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