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Chapter 22

DEAD KINGS

The Swiss are the only people who have taken the trouble to master the
art of hotel-keeping. Consequently, in the things that really
matter--beds, baths, and victuals--they control Egypt; and since every
land always throws back to its aboriginal life (which is why the United
States delight in telling aged stories), any ancient Egyptian would at
once understand and join in with the life that roars through the
nickel-plumbed tourist-barracks on the river, where all the world
frolics in the sunshine. At first sight, the show lends itself to cheap
moralising, till one recalls that one only sees busy folk when they are
idle, and rich folk when they have made their money. A citizen of the
United States--his first trip abroad--pointed out a middle-aged
Anglo-Saxon who was relaxing after the manner of several school-boys.

'There's a sample!' said the Son of Hustle scornfully. 'Tell me, _he_
ever did anything in his life?' Unluckily he had pitched upon one who,
when he is in collar, reckons thirteen and a half hours a fairish day's
work.

Among this assembly were men and women burned to an even blue-black
tint--civilised people with bleached hair and sparkling eyes. They
explained themselves as 'diggers'--just diggers--and opened me a new
world. Granted that all Egypt is one big undertaker's emporium, what
could be more fascinating than to get Government leave to rummage in a
corner of it, to form a little company and spend the cold weather trying
to pay dividends in the shape of amethyst necklaces, lapis-lazuli
scarabs, pots of pure gold, and priceless bits of statuary? Or, if one
is rich, what better fun than to grub-stake an expedition on the
supposed site of a dead city and see what turns up? There was a big-game
hunter who had used most of the Continent, quite carried away by this
sport.

'I'm going to take shares in a city next year, and watch the digging
myself,' he said. 'It beats elephants to pieces. In _this_ game you're
digging up dead things and making them alive. Aren't you going to have a
flutter?'

He showed me a seductive little prospectus. Myself, I would sooner not
lay hands on a dead man's kit or equipment, especially when he has gone
to his grave in the belief that the trinkets guarantee salvation. Of
course, there is the other argument, put forward by sceptics, that the
Egyptian was a blatant self-advertiser, and that nothing would please
him more than the thought that he was being looked at and admired after
all these years. Still, one might rob some shrinking soul who didn't see
it in that light.

At the end of spring the diggers flock back out of the Desert and
exchange chaff and flews in the gorgeous verandahs. For example, A's
company has made a find of priceless stuff, Heaven knows how old, and
is--not too meek about it. Company B, less fortunate, hints that if only
A knew to what extent their native diggers had been stealing and
disposing of the thefts, under their very archaeological noses, they
would not be so happy.

'Nonsense,' says Company A. 'Our diggers are above suspicion. Besides,
we watched 'em.'

'_Are_ they?' is the reply. 'Well, next time you are in Berlin, go to
the Museum and you'll see what the Germans have got hold of. It must
have come out of your ground. The Dynasty proves it.' So A's cup is
poisoned--till next year.

No collector or curator of a museum should have any moral scruples
whatever; and I have never met one who had; though I have been informed
by deeply-shocked informants of four nationalities that the Germans are
the most flagrant pirates of all.

The business of exploration is about as romantic as earth-work on Indian
railways. There are the same narrow-gauge trams and donkeys, the same
shining gangs in the borrow-pits and the same skirling dark-blue crowds
of women and children with the little earth-baskets. But the hoes are
not driven in, nor the clods jerked aside at random, and when the work
fringes along the base of some mighty wall, men use their hands
carefully. A white man--or he was white at breakfast-time--patrols
through the continually renewed dust-haze. Weeks may pass without a
single bead, but anything may turn up at any moment, and it is his to
answer the shout of discovery.

We had the good fortune to stay a while at the Headquarters of the
Metropolitan Museum (New York) in a valley riddled like a rabbit-warren
with tombs. Their stables, store-houses, and servants' quarters are old
tombs; their talk is of tombs, and their dream (the diggers' dream
always) is to discover a virgin tomb where the untouched dead lie with
their jewels upon them. Four miles away are the wide-winged, rampant
hotels. Here is nothing whatever but the rubbish of death that died
thousands of years ago, on whose grave no green thing has ever grown.
Villages, expert in two hundred generations of grave-robbing, cower
among the mounds of wastage, and whoop at the daily tourist. Paths made
by bare feet run from one half-tomb, half-mud-heap to the next, not much
more distinct than snail smears, but they have been used since....

Time is a dangerous thing to play with. That morning the concierge had
toiled for us among steamer-sailings to see if we could save three days.
That evening we sat with folk for whom Time had stood still since the
Ptolemies. I wondered, at first, how it concerned them or any man if
such and such a Pharaoh had used to his own glory the plinths and
columns of such another Pharaoh before or after Melchizedek. Their
whole background was too inconceivably remote for the mind to work on.
But the next morning we were taken to the painted tomb of a noble--a
Minister of Agriculture--who died four or five thousand years ago. He
said to me, in so many words: 'Observe I was very like your friend, the
late Mr. Samuel Pepys, of your Admiralty. I took an enormous interest in
life, which I most thoroughly enjoyed, on its human and on its spiritual
side. I do not think you will find many departments of State better
managed than mine, or a better-kept house, or a nicer set of young
people ... My daughters! The eldest, as you can see, takes after her
mother. The youngest, my favourite, is supposed to favour me. Now I will
show you all the things that I did, and delighted in, till it was time
for me to present my accounts elsewhere.' And he showed me, detail by
detail, in colour and in drawing, his cattle, his horses, his crops, his
tours in the district, his accountants presenting the revenue returns,
and he himself, busiest of the busy, in the good day.

But when we left that broad, gay ante-room and came to the narrower
passage where once his body had lain and where all his doom was
portrayed, I could not follow him so well. I did not see how he, so
experienced in life, could be cowed by friezes of brute-headed
apparitions or satisfied by files of repeated figures. He explained,
something to this effect:

'We live on the River--a line without breadth or thickness. Behind us
is the Desert, which nothing can affect; wither no man goes till he is
dead, (One does not use good agricultural ground for cemeteries.)
Practically, then, we only move in two dimensions--up stream or down.
Take away the Desert, which we don't consider any more than a healthy
man considers death, and you will see that we have no background
whatever. Our world is all one straight bar of brown or green earth,
and, for some months, mere sky-reflecting water that wipes out
everything You have only to look at the Colossi to realise how
enormously and extravagantly man and his works must scale in such a
country. Remember too, that our crops are sure, and our life is very,
very easy. Above all, we have no neighbours That is to say, we must give
out, for we cannot take in. Now, I put it to you, what is left for a
priest with imagination, except to develop ritual and multiply gods on
friezes? Unlimited leisure, limited space of two dimensions, divided by
the hypnotising line of the River, and bounded by visible, unalterable
death--must, _ipso facto_----'

'Even so,' I interrupted. 'I do not comprehend your Gods--your direct
worship of beasts, for instance?'

'You prefer the indirect? The worship of Humanity with a capital H? My
Gods, or what I saw in them, contented me.'

'What did you see in your Gods as affecting belief and conduct?'

'You know the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx?'

'No,' I murmured. 'What is it?'

'"All sensible men are of the same religion, but no sensible man ever
tells,"' he replied. With that I had to be content, for the passage
ended in solid rock.

There were other tombs in the valley, but the owners were dumb, except
one Pharaoh, who from the highest motives had broken with the creeds and
instincts of his country, and so had all but wrecked it. One of his
discoveries was an artist, who saw men not on one plane but modelled
full or three-quarter face, with limbs suited to their loads and
postures. His vividly realised stuff leaped to the eye out of the
acreage of low-relief in the old convention, and I applauded as a
properly brought-up tourist should.

'Mine was a fatal mistake,' Pharaoh Ahkenaton sighed in my ear,' I
mistook the conventions of life for the realities.'

'Ah, those soul-crippling conventions!' I cried.

'You mistake _me_,' he answered more stiffly. 'I was so sure of their
reality that I thought that they were really lies, whereas they were
only invented to cover the raw facts of life.'

'Ah, those raw facts of life!' I cried, still louder; for it is not
often that one has a chance of impressing a Pharaoh.' We must face them
with open eyes and an open mind! Did _you_?'

'I had no opportunity of avoiding them,' he replied. 'I broke every
convention in my land.'

'Oh, noble! And what happened?'

'What happens when you strip the cover off a hornet's nest? The raw
fact of life is that mankind is just a little lower than the angels, and
the conventions are based on that fact in order that men may become
angels. But if you begin, as I did, by the convention that men are
angels they will assuredly become bigger beasts than ever.'

'That,' I said firmly, 'is altogether out-of-date. You should have
brought a larger mentality, a more vital uplift, and--er--all that sort
of thing, to bear on--all that sort of thing, you know.'

'I did,' said Ahkenaton gloomily. 'It broke me!' And he, too, went dumb
among the ruins.

There is a valley of rocks and stones in every shade of red and brown,
called the Valley of the Kings, where a little oil-engine coughs behind
its hand all day long, grinding electricity to light the faces of dead
Pharaohs a hundred feet underground. All down the valley, during the
tourist season, stand char-a-bancs and donkeys and sand-carts, with here
and there exhausted couples who have dropped out of the processions and
glisten and fan themselves in some scrap of shade. Along the sides of
the valley are the tombs of the kings neatly numbered, as it might be
mining adits with concrete steps leading up to them, and iron grilles
that lock of nights, and doorkeepers of the Department of Antiquities
demanding the proper tickets. One enters, and from deeps below deeps
hears the voices of dragomans booming through the names and titles of
the illustrious and thrice-puissant dead. Rock-cut steps go down into
hot, still darkness, passages-twist and are led over blind pits which,
men say, the wise builders childishly hoped would be taken for the real
tombs by thieves to come. Up and down these alley-ways clatter all the
races of Europe with a solid backing of the United States. Their
footsteps are suddenly blunted on the floor of a hall paved with
immemorial dust that will never dance in any wind. They peer up at the
blazoned ceilings, stoop down to the minutely decorated walls, crane and
follow the sombre splendours of a cornice, draw in their breaths and
climb up again to the fierce sunshine to re-dive into the next adit on
their programme. What they think proper to say, they say aloud--and some
of it is very interesting. What they feel you can guess from a certain
haste in their movements--something between the shrinking modesty of a
man under fire and the Hadn't-we-better-be-getting-on attitude of
visitors to a mine. After all, it is not natural for man to go
underground except for business or for the last time. He is conscious of
the weight of mother-earth overhead, and when to her expectant bulk is
added the whole beaked, horned, winged, and crowned hierarchy of a lost
faith flaming at every turn of his eye, he naturally wishes to move
away. Even the sight of a very great king indeed, sarcophagused under
electric light in a hall full of most fortifying pictures, does not hold
him too long.

Some men assert that the crypt of St. Peter's, with only nineteen
centuries bearing down on the groining, and the tombs of early popes and
kings all about, is more impressive than the Valley of the Kings
because it explains how and out of what an existing creed grew. But the
Valley of the Kings explains nothing except that most terrible line in
_Macbeth_:

To the last syllable of recorded time.

Earth opens her dry lips and says it.

In one of the tombs there is a little chamber whose ceiling, probably
because of a fault in the rock, could not be smoothed off like the
others. So the decorator, very cunningly, covered it with a closely
designed cloth-pattern--just such a chintz-like piece of stuff as, in
real life, one would use to underhang a rough roof with. He did it
perfectly, down there in the dark, and went his way. Thousands of years
later, there was born a man of my acquaintance who, for good and
sufficient reason, had an almost insane horror of anything in the nature
of a ceiling-cloth. He used to make excuses for not going into the dry
goods shops at Christmas, when hastily enlarged annexes are hidden, roof
and sides, with embroideries. Perhaps a snake or a lizard had dropped on
his mother from the roof before he was born; perhaps it was the memory
of some hideous fever-bout in a tent. At any rate, that man's idea of
The Torment was a hot, crowded underground room, underhung with
patterned cloths. Once in his life at a city in the far north, where he
had to make a speech, he met that perfect combination. They led him up
and down narrow, crowded, steam-heated passages, till they planted him
at last in a room without visible windows (by which he knew
he was, underground), and directly beneath a warm-patterned
ceiling-cloth--rather like a tent-lining. And there he had to say his
say, while panic terror sat in his throat. The second time was in the
Valley of the Kings, where very similar passages, crowded with people,
led him into a room cut of rock, fathoms underground, with what looked
like a sagging chintz cloth not three feet above his head. The man I'd
like to catch,' he said when he came outside again, 'is that
decorator-man. D'you suppose he meant to produce that effect?'

Every man has his private terrors, other than those of his own
conscience. From what I saw in the Valley of the Kings, the Egyptians
seem to have known this some time ago. They certainly have impressed it
on most unexpected people. I heard two voices down a passage talking
together as follows:

_She_. I guess we weren't ever meant to see these old tombs from inside,
anyway.

_He_. How so?

_She_. For one thing, they believe so hard in being dead. Of course,
their outlook on spiritual things wasn't as broad as ours.

_He_. Well, there's no danger of _our_ being led away by it. Did you buy
that alleged scarab off the dragoman this morning?

Rudyard Kipling

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