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The Mummy’s Gift
A Cushing Horrors™ Christmastime Story
by Stephen D. Sullivan
Between the Two Great Wars – December 24
“I don’t think it’s fair, Dr. Cushing,” Lady Rania Pearson said, her dark eyes blazing in the firelight. “Not fair at all.”
“And you haven’t paid enough,” added Sayed Mokhtar, the chief dig supervisor. “You should pay more.”
Dr. Leigh Cushing loosened his collar. He’d buttoned it against the chill of night in the Egyptian desert, but sitting next to the bonfire, the buttoned collar had become a bit stifling—perhaps due to the hostile turn the conversation seemed to be taking.
“I understand that expenses have been high, but I’ve paid everything I owe under our agreement,” he said. “More than agreed, actually. I’m down to my last few pennies and barely had enough to pre-book my passage home to England. Because of my devotion to this expedition, I’m entirely missing the holidays with my family. And I’m having to ship my mummies by freight, well after my planned departure.”
Mokhtar folded his arms over his burly chest. “Your mummies,” he scoffed.
“And that’s another thing…” Lady Pearson continued. “You’re getting the queen—”
“Presumed queen,” Dr. Cushing corrected.
“You know she’s Queen Bastiti as well as we do,” put in Hassan Gamal, the Egyptian official who had come to oversee this phase of the dig. “Even if the tomb did not contain the usual cartouches, and even though the records of her dynasty have somehow been lost to history.”
Lady Pearson ignored the interruptions and bulled ahead. “—And the tomb builder, and a guard, while all the museum and I are getting is some guards and handmaidens.”
“Plus the majority of the artifacts discovered to date,” Dr. Cushing pointed out.
“You know very well that two of the three mummies you’re getting far outweigh the value of the rest of our discoveries,” Lady Pearson finished. She looked predatory, almost feline, looming out of the firelit darkness; she also looked very lovely. Her Egyptian heritage gave Rania an unsurpassed exotic beauty. She was far too young to be a widow. But one never got to choose the cards one was dealt by fate.
“You haven’t paid enough,” Mokhtar repeated. “You should pay more before we let you and the mummies leave.”
Dr. Cushing sighed and settled back on the log that served as his seat by the campfire.
“Lady Pearson…” he began, deciding to ignore the dig chief’s ongoing refrain. “Rania, if I may… I know this expedition has been somewhat… disappointing, and that I made my agreement with your late husband, Lord Pearson, long before the dig actually began.”
“Before Nigel died of fever,” she reminded him.
“Indeed,” Dr. Cushing agreed, “before the dear man was felled by the same mysterious ailment that plagued me during the middle part of our work here. I was lucky to recover; sadly, he did not. And I cannot express how much I appreciate you going through with the dig despite your terrible loss.
“Nevertheless, I have adhered to the terms negotiated by your husband and myself—terms you agreed to when deciding to begin the expedition. For the illumination of Mr. Gamal here, I feel that I should point out that it was my research, obtained over time and at considerable expense, that allowed us to find the tomb of the architect Sethotep, which, in turn, allowed us to discover the tomb of what we presume is Queen Bastiti and her retinue.”
“A tomb we might never have found, if the secret passage beneath the mountain hadn’t been discovered by my protégé, Mr. Norton.” Mrs. Pearson looked meaningfully at the American sitting alone nearby, staring into space.
It seemed to Dr. Cushing that the young man had spent most of his time on the expedition daydreaming. And perhaps that was all right, as it was a dream of Queen Bastiti which had allowed him to find the secret passage from Sethotep’s tomb to the Queen’s Chamber.
Dr. Cushing thought that an extraordinary piece of good fortune, though he wasn’t sure about the dream aspect. Even though he made his living collecting and displaying “supernatural” artifacts in his Chamber of Horrors, in most situations he remained skeptical of the paranormal.
Bramwell Norton looked up at the mention of his name. He gave a wan nod, mumbled, “Hey,” and went back to studying the middle distance between himself and the fire.
“Just so,” said Dr. Cushing. “A true stroke of luck. Unfortunately, that luck did not extend to finding King Sethmosis and his royal guard entombed with the queen. I realize that Lord Pearson and I expected to find the royal couple together—but perhaps the rumor that she murdered him and, thus, the two were buried separately is true. Or—Who knows?—perhaps his tomb is still somewhere on this mountain, between the tombs of Sethotep and Bastiti.
“However, our agreement clearly laid out that you and your late husband—and your Egyptian Museum backers—would take possession of the mummies of the King and his Vizier, while I would be compensated with the mummies of the Queen and their High Architect. Beyond that, the mummies of the royal retinues would be split between us, as would any artifacts.
“It is hardly my fault that Sethmosis and Bastiti were not discovered together, and I realize this puts you in an awkward position, which is why I have claimed only one minor guard and a smaller portion of the artifacts as my prizes, while leaving the numerous other mummies, and the vast majority of the items found, to you and the museum.”
“And the Museum and the government of Egypt appreciate your generosity,” Hassan Gamal said, making a hand gesture of thanks.
“But you should still pay more money,” grumbled Mokhtar.
“If I could, my dear Mr. Mokhtar, I certainly would,” Dr. Cushing said. “However, as I have mentioned, my funds are at an end, and with them, my portion of this expedition. When I depart, I leave the rest to you, dear Rania, and your associates.”
Lady Pearson had been listening intently to Dr. Cushing. Now she crossed her arms over her breast and leaned back on her seat, but the firelight still danced in her dark Egyptian eyes.
“A case well made, Leigh,” she admitted. “And all true and fair on paper, if not so much in reality.”
“My dear Lady,” Dr. Cushing said. “I have tried to make it as fair as I can, while still maintaining the rights to which we—first I and your husband and later you and I—agreed. I can understand, though, if you wished for more. I, too, wish that we had found the king and his retinue. Would you think our current state still unfair if I were to sign all proceeds from the king’s tomb—including what would have been my fifty percent—over to you and your backers as recompense?”
The suggestion brought a smile to Lady Pearson’s lips. That lifted Dr. Cushing’s heart; even beyond his relationship with her husband, she and he had been friends in the past. Cushing didn’t want this dispute to ruin their friendship.
“That might be… acceptable.”
“A fish on a hook is still worth more than a school waiting to be caught,” Mokhtar noted grouchily.
“Quite a good deal, though, if I take the one fish as recompense and then you haul in the rest,” Dr. Cushing replied.
“But we still only have the one fish,” observed Hassan Gamal.
Dr. Cushing smiled. “All archeology is a risk, my friend.”
“Let us sleep on it,” Lady Pearson suggested, rising and dusting herself off. Her deep blue skirts swirled, looking black in the firelight.
“Capital idea,” Dr. Cushing agreed.
“Bargaining for camels is best done in the light of day,” Mokhtar opined, rising and stretching.
“I think I’ll sit up a while,” Bramwell Norton said. “I’ve got some thinking to do.”
Hassan Gamal clapped the youngster on the back. “Let us know if you have any more dreams of treasure!”
The American nodded. “I will.” He stayed by the fire while the rest adjourned to their tents. The digging crew had already retired for the night, all save the handful of men keeping watch. The first shift of guards kept their faces pointed resolutely into the starlit darkness beyond the valley of Sethotep’s tomb and the companions’ small encampment.
“Goodnight, all,” Dr. Cushing called. “Oh, and since I’m sure it’s past midnight, and though I know that some of you do not share my faith, I will still venture to wish all of you a Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas, Dr. Cushing,” Bramwell, Hassan, and Sayed Mokhtar replied cordially.
“Merry Christmas, Leigh,” Rania Pearson said, flashing a smile that made Cushing wish he were several decades younger.
He smiled back and pulled tent flaps closed behind him.
Leigh Cushing couldn’t be sure what time it was when he awoke; nor was he sure what woke him, though it may have been the dancing shadows cast on the tent walls by the dying campfire.
Had one of those dark shadows been a person?
The figure of a woman? Dr. Cushing wondered; then he pushed aside the thought as mere fantasy.
Still… It wouldn’t hurt to check.
He couldn’t imagine that Rania would be creeping about the camp in the pre-dawn hours, but…
Peering out into the desert night, he saw nothing, only the dying fire and the silhouettes of the guards watching for incoming trespassers.
But wait… Was that someone by the tomb? A woman?
“Rania?” Dr. Cushing whispered. But no; her tent flaps were securely fastened.
Someone else, then. An intruder!
Not wanting to cause unnecessary alarm, he quickly pulled on his pants, fetched his revolver and torch, and stepped outside.
The desert wind raised goosebumps on his skin, and the air smelled of the dust of millennia with just a trace of charcoal from the campfire.
Where’s Bramwell? Has he gone to bed at last?
He wasn’t by the fire, and Dr. Cushing couldn’t see the American’s tent from where he was standing. Nor did he want to take the time to check. Far more important to discover if he’d imagined this fleeting figure, or if it was a true threat to the dig.
Quickly but cautiously, he stole from the valley floor upslope to the tomb entrance in the mountainside.
Strange blue light flickered from beyond the doorway; certainly enough to see by, but not firelight, nor like the light from an electric torch.
At least I won’t have to switch my torch on, he thought.
He paused at the threshold and called again softly, just in case:
Something crept, spider-like, up his right shoulder.
Dr. Cushing jumped—and nearly screamed.
But it was only Bramwell’s hand.
“So, you saw her too,” the American whispered.
“Rania?” Dr. Cushing asked.
The young man shook his head. “No! The Queen!” he insisted. The flickering light from inside the tomb danced across his watery blue eyes, making him look more than slightly mad. “She walked through the camp and then came up here.”
“I find that highly unlikely.”
Bramwell grinned. “Unlikely, but true. I would have been here earlier, but I didn’t want to arrive in my shorts. Let’s go! I’m sure she’s trying to tell us something.”
“Like she did in your dream?”
Dr. Cushing motioned for Bramwell to proceed him into the tomb. If the boy really had gone mad, Leigh felt it safer to stand behind him.
“I can see her!” Bramwell hissed. “She’s waiting for us!”
The twists in the narrow passageway made it impossible for Dr. Cushing to see what the American saw. A chill ran up the Englishman’s spine, but he said nothing; no sense trying to contradict the mentally unbalanced!
As they neared the final corner of the passage, the character of the flickering light changed. Now it definitely seemed like torchlight—the light of Ancient Egypt.
“She’s touching the north wall!” Bramwell, still blocking the view, said excitedly. “There’s something she wants us to see… To find!”
“Are you sure it’s not Lady Pearson?” Dr. Cushing asked.
Suddenly, the light went out, plunging the tomb into total darkness.
“She’s gone!” moaned Bramwell.
“What are you boys doing mucking about in the dark?” asked a female voice.
Cushing switched on his torch. “Lady Pearson!” he blurted, relieved.
She had a pale blue robe wrapped around her slender figure with a similar nightgown worn beneath. Goosebumps prickled her dusky arms, and her lovely hair was tousled as though she’d just awoken. She looked puzzled.
Bramwell, still groaning, stumbled into the main chamber of the tomb.
“Well, of course, it’s me,” Lady Pearson said. “Who else could it be?”
“Queen Bastiti… She’s gone!” Bramwell wailed.
“What?!” Lady Pearson replied. “You mean the mummy’s disappeared?!”
“No, the Queen! The real Queen! She led us here! There’s something she wants us to find!”
“I’m afraid that Mr. Norton has been having another one of his ‘dreams,’” Dr. Cushing explained.
“I wasn’t dreaming!” Bramwell protested, stamping his foot. “She was right… here!”
“Did you see her?” Lady Pearson asked, gazing into Dr. Cushing’s eyes.
He hesitated. “I… I’m not sure. But I saw… something. As we entered, the whole tomb was filled with flickering light.”
“That wasn’t your torch?” she asked.
“No. I only switched on my torch when the lights went out.”
“That’s when she disappeared!” Bramwell said. “But she was here! She came to show us something!”
“Show us what?” Lady Pearson asked. Dr. Cushing couldn’t tell whether she was actually interested or merely humoring the young American.
Bramwell looked to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His eyes were wild, and he was sweating profusely. “I don’t know!”
“What made you come here, Rania?” Dr. Cushing asked quietly
“I thought I heard someone call my name,” she replied. “When I looked outside, I saw you stumbling up the hill, and Bramwell loping along after you. ‘What’s all this?’ I wondered. So, I threw something on and followed as quickly as I could.”
Dr. Cushing grinned at her. “Not what I’d call an exploring outfit.”
“It was the best I could do on short notice.”
“It was something about this wall…” Bramwell muttered, paying no attention to the other two. He pressed his palms against the ancient carved and painted plaster.
Dr. Cushing looked quizzically at Lady Pearson. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt to look,” he said. She nodded.
The three of them began running their fingers over the surface of the wall and rapping it with their knuckles.
“The trigger for the secret passage to Bastiti’s tomb was the left eye of the statue of Seth, carved into the east wall,” Lady Pearson mused.
“Bast was a guardian of secrets in Egyptian mythology, was she not?” Dr. Cushing asked.
“Yes,” Bramwell and Rania both replied.
“Women’s secrets, largely,” Lady Pearson added.
“There is a bas-relief of Bast on this wall,” Dr. Cushing noted as he examined it, “which we all assumed represented the connection between Sethotep with Queen Bastiti. But I notice now that this Bast is carrying some kind of box.” He tapped his knuckle against the representation. “A box which, to my ear, sounds quite hollow.”
“That’s it!” blurted Bramwell. “That’s where she was standing!”
He roughly shoved Dr. Cushing aside and, before anyone could stop him, smashed his fist into the painted relief of the box. The plaster chipped and fell away. He smashed it again… and again.
“Bramwell, stop!” Lady Pearson shouted. “You’re hurting yourself!”
But the American didn’t seem to care. He kept punching until the plaster fell away, revealing a hollow space behind, and inside that space…
Dr. Cushing and Lady Pearson gasped.
“A gold box!” Leigh said.
Before either of them could stop Bramwell, he reached into the rough-edged cavity, further damaging his bloody hands, and pulled out the box.
As he did, the room shook with a deep rumbling sound, and a huge stone slab descended, closing off the entrance to the chamber.
“We’re trapped!” Lady Pearson cried.
Bramwell didn’t seem to care. He clutched the box to his sweaty chest, leaned his back against the wall, and then slid down into a sitting position, chuckling contentedly all the while. His torn and bloodied hands didn’t seem to bother him in the least.
“The secret exit to Bastiti’s Chamber is either jammed or blocked as well,” Dr. Cushing informed the rest. He pressed on the eye of the statue that had previously triggered the opening to the passage beneath the mountain, but nothing happened.
“Well… Bugger!” Lady Pearson exclaimed. “This is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Leigh!”
“Me?” Dr. Cushing countered. “I was merely trying to protect our interests against tomb robbers. You were the one complaining that we hadn’t found enough treasure, Rania.” He waved his flashlight beam across the box Bramwell was clutching. “Well… There’s some more gold, for all the good it’s likely to do us.”
“Bugger!” she repeated. “What do we do next?”
Dr. Cushing sighed and scratched his chin. “In terms of escaping this trap? I don’t know.”
“You don’t think we’ll end up… like the others,” she asked.
“Like that unfortunate guide and the porter? It seems likely, at this point. Sethotep clearly was fond of his traps. If we’re unlucky, in another thousand years, we’ll be part of this archeological find ourselves.”
“Allah, forfend!” Lady Pearson prayed. “Surely our comrades will dig us out.”
“Almost certainly. Though if our air runs out before they arrive, that will be cold comfort to us!”
She let out a long, slow breath, clearly determined not to panic. Dr. Cushing admired her fortitude.
“Well, if we’re stuck here,” she said. “We might at least see what cheese sprung the mousetrap.”
“You take a look,” Dr. Cushing suggested. “I’ll see if I can find a way to undo what our impetuous friend—and that fiend Sethotep—have done.”
He began checking the statue, the nooks, and the walls of the chamber for some counter-mechanism.
Lady Pearson managed to gently pry the golden box from Bramwell’s battered hands—the lad looked almost catatonic now—and began to examine its contents.
Her dark eyes went wide.
“Leigh!” she gasped. “It’s full of treasure! Golden jewelry!”
“For a man or a woman?” Dr. Cushing asked, still searching for a way out.
“A man, mostly. Though there’s one necklace that’s inscribed “To the Queen’s Favorite,” if I read the hieroglyphics correctly.”
“Sethotep’s treasure, then,” he replied. “Buried long before he was caught and entombed. What tortures he endured to protect that treasure—and his queen!” All indications were that the Grand Architect had been mummified and buried alive.
“I don’t know what this is, though,” Lady Pearson continued. “Some kind of staff maybe? It’s not a heka, but it’s very large.”
She held out a golden object about as long as a man’s arm from elbow to wrist. It looked like a bunch of golden papyri bound together.
Dr. Cushing’s heart pounded with excitement. “I know what that is! I’ve read of it in my research: The Ever-Burning Torch of Sekhmet! Once lit, it is purported to be nearly impossible to extinguish. And it may be just the solution to our problem!”
“How?” Lady Pearson asked. “By burning up all our air and giving us a swift death?”
“Heh heh. Swift death…!” Bramwell muttered.
“No, no,” Dr. Cushing replied. “Look here… I’ve found the trigger mechanism behind the wall. Do you see it?” He shone his torch into the hole where the box had been.
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Part of the trigger is made of metal, bronze presumably. I believe if we heat that metal, the trap will re-set and the counterweights will pull the stone slab back into the ceiling.”
“So, you think we can heat that metal with the torch?”
“Yes. The length of the torch’s shaft is right. Almost as though it were made for the job. I can’t reach it with my arm alone.”
“Perhaps Sethotep was worried about being trapped in his own tomb.”
“Perhaps he was, though he couldn’t have known they’d wrap him tightly in bandages before burying him alive.”
“But will the torch work?” she asked. “And how will we even light it? Unless you brought some matches, because I certainly didn’t. Did you?”
Dr. Cushing shook his head.
The American merely laughed and passed out.
Lady Pearson quickly searched him. “No luck!”
“We can still light it,” Dr. Cushing said. “If you, Rania, will be so kind as to lend me a piece of the thinnest fabric from your nightgown, I can use the wiring from my electric torch to kindle it.”
“If Sekhmet’s torch will burn.”
Dr. Cushing took off the artifact’s cap and ran his finger over the top. It felt oily and smelled of ancient incense, myrrh perhaps. “I believe it will—even after three thousand years!”
“And if it won’t?”
“Then I will have ruined my flashlight in the attempt, and we will live in complete darkness until someone rescues us, or—more likely—our air runs out.”
She took a deep breath and nodded. “It’s worth a try.”
It took several long moments, but eventually Dr. Cushing got the fluffy bit of hem to smolder red.
The merest touch of that ember caused the Torch of Sekhmet to burst into brilliant white light. It was the brightest, hottest light Dr. Cushing had ever seen, as though the sun itself had been brought inside the tomb.
“Well, that was quite an adventure,” Lady Pearson remarked after they’d escaped the tomb and returned to camp. Until they roused the others and fetched the camp doctor for Bramwell—who seemed quite out of his mind as well as having mangled hands—none of the rest had even noticed the trio were missing.
As the rest searched the area, just in case, Dr. Cushing and Lady Pearson sat by the campfire’s still-warm embers. She held the golden box and its hard-won treasures on her lap.
“Just another adventure within the grander adventure,” Dr. Cushing noted with a grin.
“Thank you, Leigh, for getting us out of there. Our people must be even more careful when we explore the tombs from now on. Though until finding that box, I’d thought we’d uncovered all the secrets there were to know from this dig.”
“You’re welcome, Rania. I suspect that both Sethotep and Queen Bastiti and their tombs hold many more secrets to come. And I hope, among those secrets will be the location of Sethmosis’ final resting place.”
“It is to be hoped. But for now, I will be more than happy to have you take both of those accursed mummies back with you to England.”
“A change of heart, Rania?”
“A change of perspective, Leigh. An evening imprisoned with the Pharaoh’s architect was more than enough time with Sethmosis for me. And we still don’t know exactly what it was that lured you and Bramwell into the tomb.”
“A trick of the light, perhaps,” Dr. Cushing suggested.
“Or the spirits of a wicked queen and her dead architect not yet done with playing tricks on the living. Personally, I don’t care to find out. Take those two—and whatever secrets and curses they may share—back home with you, if you still dare.”
“Of course!” Dr. Cushing replied. “I don’t much believe in black magic. If I did, I wouldn’t spend most of my life tracking down and collecting supposedly cursed artifacts. Nor would I let my beloved daughters tend such things while I’m gone. And, speaking of artifacts…
“I know that I suggested that, when I leave, I would sign the remainder of my treasure rights over to you and the government. I still intend to do so. But, would you mind if I took the Torch of Sekhmet with me as well—as a memento of our little adventure together?”
Rania Pearson took the torch from the golden box on her lap. She sighed, and then handed the torch to Dr. Cushing.
“I suppose it’s the least you deserve, after saving our lives,” she said. “Consider it a Christmas gift.”
He took it gratefully. “Rania, I’m touched!”
“Don’t be,” she replied. “It might not be from me. If you believe Bramwell’s ravings, it might be a present from Queen Bastiti!”
Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays to All!
ABOUT THE STORY
This one was a real bugger, as Lady Pearson might say. A vaccination reaction left me with fever, chills, sweats, and aches for a day and a half, cutting an annoying chunk out of my already tight Christmastime schedule.
Suddenly I went from having half a week to do this story, to writing it on December 23rd at the same time our kids were arriving for Christmas (and to watch the Monday Night Green Bay Packers game).
The trick was, though I’d had the idea of doing an Egyptian Christmas story for Dr. Cushing for a while, I didn’t really have a story for it. What I did have a story for was a Christmas in the Congo with Paul Longmire (our werewolf—before he turned werewolf). That I had a good amount of notes for.
But I just did a Longmire story last Christmas, “The Werewolf vs. Krampus,” and I didn’t want the Dr. Cushing series to start feeling like the Paul Longmire & Friends show.
So, I fretted away any spare time I had to do the story trying to figure my way out of that “box.”
Luckily, eventually, after a sleepless night, ideas started to come to me. I created some characters, including a charming widow, two possibly antagonistic Egyptians, and an American on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and it was off to the races!
The story started with the images of the firelight confrontation about the dig, the ghostly queen wandering through the camp, and our heroes being trapped inside the tomb—if only for a little while.
We all know if I plan a short story too much, I end up with a novella, and this year I definitely didn’t have time for that!
So, I hope you enjoyed the story.
Like “A Shadow Over Christmastime” and “The Werewolf vs. Krampus,” this story takes place in the December just before the events in Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors.
Good thing our characters have a lot of the rest of their lives still with Christmas stories untold.
Though maybe next year I’ll actually do that tale of Paul and the Congo Creature.
Or maybe something else will come up.
Stick with me and find out!
(And don’t forget to support me at www.CushingHorrors.com if you’ve a mind and means to!)
Merry Christmas 2019!
December 24, 2019
Read my other FREE Cushing Horrors Christmastime stories:
“A Shadow Over Christmastime” & Notes (2016), “Christmas Imps” (2017), “Krampus vs. the Werewolf” (2018)