The Chapter of Transfixing the Heart

Contemplative SF

Elaine Ecdysiast reached up to readjust, yet again, the neck of the gooseneck lamp illuminating the script of the Ptolemaic potsherd she was currently attempting to transcribe. The paint in which the ancient letters had been scrawled had been flaking away for millennia, leaving the decipherability of the script greatly in doubt.

Suddenly she felt a chill, clammy touch upon her shoulder, sliding lower towards the declivity exposed by the open neck of her pale mauve silk charmeuse blouse. With a shudder and an expert twitch, she shrugged off the unwanted hand of Doctor Dysprosius Vice.

Ignoring her rebuff, Vice leaned further over her shoulder, assaulting her senses with the mingled odors of garlic and grave-dust that seemed constantly to hang over the aged but lecherous archaeologist. "Hmm, my dear, I do believe we have an error here. I suspect that letter to be upsilon. Yes, indeed..." He rummaged through the box of shards remaining to be transcribed and plucked out a piece that fit the fracture of the one Elaine had been working on. "Yes, indeed, 'Kleopatra of the ample buttocks.' Charming," he said with a leer in the direction of Elaine's own posterior, by no means meagerly proportioned.

Just as she was preparing to repel another lecherous assault, a resounding crash came from outside the workroom, followed by an explosion of curses in a baritone voice. Elaine leapt to her feet with relief. "Why, I believe it is Doctor Ashlarkopf, returned from his expedition at last!"

She hastened down the hallway towards the loading dock, with the elderly scholar following at a slower pace, relishing the callipygian view ahead of him. There, indeed, was Doctor Barnham S. Ashlarkopf, surrounded by large crates and a small army of workmen at whom his verbal abuse was being directed. "Clumsy, hamhanded clodhoppers! That vase is four thousand years older than you are, and if there is so much as a chip out of it, I'll be carving the cost out of your hide for the next four thousand, inch by bleeding inch!"

The renowned archaeologist bestrode the hallway in buff jodhpurs, riding boots, a white linen shirt and a pith helmet, despite the fact that it was January in Chicago, with a snowstorm raging outside the doors. He brandished a riding crop as if he actually intended to use it upon the hides of the men hauling in a seemingly endless series of crates, the spoils of his recently-concluded expedition to Egypt to stock the museum of the University's newly-founded Oriental Institute.

Upon seeing Elaine, he tucked the crop under his arm and greeted her with an effusive, "Ah, the divine Miss Ecdysiast!" And in a lower voice with noticeably less enthusiasm, "And Doctor V, of course."

"Oh, my!" Elaine exclaimed, staring at the mountains of oriental booty. "Your reports said you had a successful season in the field—but this is so much more than I ever expected!"

Ashlarkopf burst into a hearty laugh, exposing an unbroken rank of teeth that gleamed white in contrast to a ruddy face that reminded Elaine of the dried lama-meat chukri she had once chewed in vain on her expedition to the Andes. "Well, I knew how much the success of our new Egyptian Hall depends on the success of this expedition!" Then, as Doctor Vice drew closer, casting a look of general disapproval upon the collected crates, boxes and barrels, Ashlarkopf turned to one particularly massive crate. "Here, now," he declared proudly, "here, this will be the showpiece of our new exhibit hall! This old fellow will stop them in their tracks!"

And as Vice's mien continued to express silent skepticism, for the elder archaeologist had never bothered to conceal his opinion that his bombastic colleague was no more than a jumped-up grave-robber, Ashlarkopf called out loudly for a crowbar. "Why, I'll show you here and now! You'll see—this is a mummy like you don't find these days, an untouched grave, everything in the condition it was they day they laid down the slab over it!"

Raising his voice to be heard over the shriek of nails and the crack of splintering boards, he went on, "I think the old fellow must have been a high priest of Anubis, because we found him under the altar of the god at Thebes."

"Isn't that...unusual?" Elaine wondered, knowing that in ancient Egypt the dead were set apart from the living in a necropolis.

"Sure is!" Ashlarkopf agreed heartily, finding no problem in it. "Like I said, this fellow must be someone important!" By this time, mountains of excelsior on the floor had risen to knee-high, and he stood back at last, inviting his colleagues to view the wonder within the excavated crate.

It was an anthropoid coffin showing the face and hands of the deceased in the usual style, the lower part covered with inscriptions. Bending lower, Elaine could make out: As for any who shall open this coffin...

She took a step back, reaching with one hand for the small gold cross she wore on a chain around her neck. "Why, it's a curse!"

At this, Doctor Vice stepped forward with an expression of interest to take his own closer look at the text. "It is indeed!" he exclaimed. "And quite a curse!"

Ashlarkopf snorted loudly, as he did all things. "Pah! Primitive superstition—curses. Balderdash!"

"You aren't afraid?" Elaine wondered. "Even after the way Lord Carnarvon died?"

"A scientific man," he declared, "has no truck with such superstitious tripe. A rational, scientific man relies on the evidence of his senses, on hard empirical fact!" He rapped sharply with his knuckles on the crate to emphasize his remark. "Hard facts!"

Vice, ignoring his tirade, continued to examine the writing on the coffin. Then, rummaging deeper into the excelsior, he pulled out a canopic jar and gave a long, albeit weak, whistle. "Now, this!"

Despite herself, Elaine was curious. "What is it?"

He turned the jar so she could see the inscription, which was the glyph of a heart, pierced through by some kind of skewer.

"Why, I've never seen such a thing before! Didn't the Egyptians always leave the heart inside the body?"

"So they did indeed! I'll wager you haven't seen such a thing, my dear, I'll wager you haven't. And I believe, if this means what I believe it does, you should be glad of it." Straightening to face Ashlarkopf, "I'm sure, Doctor, you won't mind if I study this inscription for a day or so." And before the nonplussed explorer could reply, he had whisked the jar into his coat and shuffled away with surprising speed.

"Well, I'll be damned!" Ashlarkopf exclaimed. Then, "My pardon, Miss Ecdysiast. But the old buzzard has brass! A lot of brass, just walking off with that jar!" He began then to berate his workmen, "Get this mess cleared up off the floor! Get this crate shifted to the workroom! This isn't a public exhibition hall, by God!"

Elaine ignored his profanity, wishing only that she had been able to steal a longer look at the text of the curse written on the coffin, to finish deciphering it. She knew better than to ask Ashlarkopf, whose grasp of hieroglyphics was universally acknowledged to be weak.

The workmen, bending to their tasks, did not seem to be reassured by Ashlarkopf's bombastic dismissal of the curse. Indeed, those who were repacking the coffin crate were visibly nervous, as if they were expecting a bony hand to reach out for them at any moment. They, too, were undoubtedly aware of the fate of Lord Carnarvon, struck dead by the curse laid on the recently-excavated tomb of King Tut.

***

It being January in Chicago, the sun was not yet above the horizon when Elaine entered Haskell Hall three days later. This early in the morning, she was not expecting to encounter anyone, and she was startled to be accosted just inside the entrance by Doctor Vice.

"A shocking business!" he declared. "A shocking business, my dear."

Elaine shook her head. "I'm afraid I don't know—"

Vice thrust a folded copy of the Tribune's early edition at her, with the headline: NOTED ARCHAEOLOGIST SLAIN. A subheading asked: Did Mummy's Curse Strike Down Egyptologist?

Elaine was almost speechless with shock and disbelief. "They mean...Doctor Ashlarkopf? Dead?"

Vice nodded gravely. "It seems that he was found last night. A very shocking business indeed."

"I can hardly believe it!"

"Well, you know, my dear, I fear it was not wise of him to dismiss such a curse as we saw on that coffin. Even a "scientific man" should not ignore the power of the desire for immortality. It meant everything to the Egyptians, even more than life itself, and there was nothing they would not do to attain it. Nothing! Imagine! Eternal life! Beyond the grave! What would you not do to live forever!"

There was something about Vice's avid expression as he spoke of immortality that made Elaine recoil and reach for the cross she always wore. While she prided herself on being a "scientific woman" and a modern one, with bobbed hair and skirts cut to her knees, she was still in some part the girl from Saint Scholastica's. "I had always thought that was the message of the Church. 'He who believeth,' you know."

Vice took a step backwards, saying hastily, "Yes, just so. Much the same principle, indeed." He kept glancing out the windows, where dawn was breaking. "But I can not stay, I have arrangements to make, important arrangements. I fear we must expect the police here. And reporters. They will want to see the coffin, the mummy. We must not let this place become a circus. The artifacts here are valuable."

"Yes, of course, I understand," said Elaine as Vice backed rapidly away and out of sight. She repeated it to herself again, Doctor Ashlarkopf was dead. Murdered, if the report in the newspaper was to be credited. A horrible tragedy, a man so young and vigorous, with such a career ahead of him.

Yet if there were going to be police and, worse, reporters swarming around, she had best take the opportunity now that she had come here for so early this morning. Unlocking Ashlarkopf's workroom and letting herself inside, she approached the coffin, now freed from its crate and resting on a pair of trestles. There was a strong aroma of myrrh and grave-dust, along with a fainter scent that seemed to be garlic. It was not long before she was able to make out the complete text of the curse on the lid: As for any who shall open the coffin of this accursed one, let the light of Ra be his enemy for all eternity.

On a nearby workbench, she saw the canopic jars standing in a row—five, instead of the usual four, including the one with the strange inscription of a transfixed heart, that Doctor Vice had appropriated. The seal was no longer intact, showing that the jar had been opened. With some trepidation, Elaine lifted the lid, but the jar was empty except for a wooden skewer about eight inches long, darkly stained, as if with blood.

Elaine stared at it for some time before she took a stake of strong cypress wood and began to whittle one end to a point.