"I challenge even you, Peabody, to find a silver lining in this situation," Emerson remarked.
We were in the library at Amarna House, our home in Kent. As usual, Emerson's desk resembled an archaeological tell, piled high with books and papers and dusty with ashes from his pipe. The servants were strictly forbidden to touch his work, so the ashes were only disturbed when Emerson rooted around in one pile or another, looking for something. Leaning back in his chair, he stared morosely at the bust of Plato on the opposite bookshelf Plato stared morosely back. He had replaced the bust of Socrates, which had been shattered by a bullet a few years ago, and his expression was not nearly so pleasant.
The October morn was overcast and cool, a portent of the winter weather that would soon be upon us, and a reflection of the somber mood that affected most persons; and I was bound to confess that these were indeed times to try men's souls. When the war began in August of 1914, people were saying it would be over by Christmas. By the autumn of 1915, even the sturdiest optimists had resigned themselves to a long, bloody conflict. After appalling casualties, the opposing armies on the western front had settled into the stalemate of trench warfare, and the casualties continued to mount. The attempt to force the Straits of the Dardanelles and capture Constantinople had been a failure. A hundred thousand men were pinned down on the beaches of Gallipoli, unable to advance because of the enemy's control of the terrain, unable to withdraw because the War Office refused to admit it had made a catastrophic mistake. Serbia was about to fall to the enemy. The Russian armies were in disarray. Italy had entered the war on our side, but her armies were stalled on the Austrian frontier. Attack from the air and from under the sea had added a new and hideous dimension to warfare.
There was a bright spot, though, and I was quick to point it out. After a summer spent in England we were about to leave for Egypt and another season of the archaeological endeavors for which we have become famous. My distinguished husband would not have abandoned his excavations for anything less than Armageddon (and only if that final battle were being fought in his immediate vicinity). Though acutely conscious of the tragedy of world war, he was sometimes inclined to regard it as a personal inconvenience -- "a confounded nuisance ," to quote Emerson himself. It had certainly complicated our plans for that season. With overland travel to the Italian ports now cut off, there was only one way for us to reach Egypt, and German submarines prowled the English coast.
Not that Emerson was concerned for himself, he fears nothing in this world or the next. It was concern for the others who were accustomed to join us in our yearly excavations that made him hesitate: for me; for our son Ramses and his wife, Nefret; for Ramses's friend David and his wife Lia, Emerson's niece; for her parents, Emerson's brother Walter and my dear friend Evelyn; and for Sennia, the little girl we had taken into our hearts and home after she was abandoned by her English father.
"It only remains," I went on, "to decide how many of us will be going out this year. I had never supposed Lia would join us; the baby is only six months old and although he is a healthy little chap, one would not want to risk his falling ill. Medical services in Cairo have improved enormously since our early days there, but one cannot deny that they are not --"
"Damn it, Amelia, don't lecture!" Emerson exclaimed.
Emerson's temper has become the stuff of legend in Egypt; he is not called the Father of Curses for nothing. Sapphirine orbs blazing, heavy brows drawn together, he reached for his pipe.
Emerson seldom calls me Amelia. Peabody, my maiden name, is the one he employs as a term of approbation and affection. Pleased to have stirred him out of his melancholy mood, I waited until his stalwart form relaxed and his handsome face took on a sheepish smile.
Copyright Elizabeth Peters 2001. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Harper Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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