The Golden Dahabeah

Introduction

Margaret Benson (1865-1916) was one of six children of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, but one of only two daughters. Alongside her brothers, Arthur, Edward and Robert, she contributed to the literary, religious and public life of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Maggie, as she was known to the family, is chiefly remembered for being the first woman Egyptologist to run an excavation, an adventure she recounted in The Temple of Mut in Asher (1899). In addition, she explored the fields of economics (Capital, Labor Trade and the Outlook, 1891) and religious thought (The Venture of Rational Faith, 1908). Unlike her more famous siblings, Maggie produced little fictional literature, and the following tale, from The Court of the King (1912), represents her sole contribution to the ghost story genre. Though less horrific than most, it is a proper tale of wonder which brims with the beauty of a vanished Egypt by one who walked in its sands.


The Golden Dahabeah
by
Margaret Benson

I

Mahmoud was crouched on the hot sand, in the shade of a great granite figure of an old Egyptian king. On the temple wall at his right hand was incised the figure of a large hawk, which had a certain life-like stare and stride. Below lay the thick green lake; a little pied kingfisher fluttered and poised over it. Mahmoud’s donkey had strayed a little from his owner, and was pulling at some few blades of thin, straggling weed. The Father of the Box, who had ridden him out to Karnak, had some foolish prejudice against tying up donkeys’ heads. Mahmoud explained that it prevented the donkey from having a headache; but Englishmen always want things done in their own way.

Yet as Mahmoud sat dreaming, his eyes fixed on the water, he was thinking of none of these things. Rather he was dreaming of little Fatma, Fatma whom he had run and played with as a little girl—but now she was old enough to be married. He had seen Fatma as they came out; she was carrying a waterpot on her head, and the slender fingers were tipped with henna; her hair was plaited over her brow, and the large blue-studded rings in her ears swayed as she ran. She held her veil firmly in her small, white teeth, and only gave him one look, half shy, half merry, as she passed.

Mahmoud’s father and mother said he must be married this year. He wished to marry no one but little Fatma; but ah! the marriage-gift.

He stared at the smooth, thick water, and droned a little song—“Oh, great holy gardener, let me into the garden.”

The sun was just going down, and as Mahmoud turned idly, half lost in his dreaming, the rays struck the wall where was the image of the hawk, and the boy stood breathless, for the hawk was all of gold, and as he looked the fierce head turned a little.

Through his maze came the voice of the Father of the Box, crying to him to get the donkey.

A moment he started and turned, but when he looked again there was nothing but the stone hawk carved on the wall; and again came the call, as the Englishman and the “box” came round the corner.

Mahmoud gasped and panted: “The chicken is all gold.”

Oh, the Golden Horus,” said the Father of the Box, giving the precious camera into Mahmoud’s hand. “Hurry up and fetch the donkey, it is getting dark and damp.”

But he did not ask how a donkey-boy should know the Golden Horus.

II

The donkey-boys were sitting outside the garden gate of the hotel. Mahmoud was against the wall, and taking little part in the flow of conversation.

Achmet Effendi will make a big feast to-morrow,” said one. “He has killed two sheep for his feast.”

Achmet Effendi is a very rich man,” said Maouad. “Twenty years ago he sent his servant Gameel Gameel to dig up stones to burn and lay on his field, there where the English ‘sidi matre’ (cemetery) is. But Gameel Gameel found a big pot of golden coins and he brought them all back to Achmet Effendi. For ten years they kept them hidden, then Achmet Effendi sold them for much money and became a rich man. That is why he loves Gameel Gameel better than his son.”

Gameel Gameel was a great fool,” said Hassan flippantly. “Why should he not become a rich man himself?”

Kuku was speaking aside to Gorgius.

I tell my lady that I am going to be married to Fatma. I say to her: ‘I see Fatma in the market; I like her very much and she likes me very much. My mother has arranged it for me. If you give me an English handkerchief,’ I say to my lady, ‘you shall come to my wedding.’”

Liar-boy!” said Gorgius scornfully; but Mahmoud feared and sighed in himself.

A small figure passed, and the light from the gas lamp showed a withered old man with a white beard and smiling face. He wore a red tarbûsh turbaned about with white, and trailed a green Mecca robe.

Mohammed Mohassib will have a big feast,” said one. “He has killed a camel and made soup with it. The Father of the Beard said to Mohammed, ‘You will feed three hundred men to-morrow.’ Mohammed said, ‘I hope more than that.’”

Mohammed Mohassib slept in the temple of Mut,” said Maouad; “that was fifty years ago, when he was a boy. When the sun rose Mohammed saw the golden hawk. He ran to catch it, but it flew away into the sky. One feather fell from it, and Mohammed Mohassib picked it up. Then he was a lucky man and became rich, and went to Mecca, and to-morrow he will feed more than three hundred men.”

Mahmoud’s ear was caught for the second time. “If a man sees the golden bird will he be a lucky man?” he asked.

Oh, it is Mahmoud who will be the lucky man,” said Hassan, with a laugh. “To-morrow when Abu el Haggag has done with his boat we shall set it to float on the Lake of Karnak, and Mahmoud shall see it all golden at night and shall swim out to it. But Mahmoud, he never speaks, so when the sun strikes it the boat of Abu el Haggag will be for Mahmoud.”

A short silence followed this profane speech, for Abu el Haggag is the great Saint of Luxor, and next day they held the procession of his sacred boat.

But Hassan rattled on. “I make no feast to-morrow. Everybody else makes a feast. Nasr says every time he sees his lady he says, ‘I have bought some sheep and some rice, and my wife has mixed them together like so; my wife has made balls of them, and she will put them in the oven to bake them. And I will bring you some.’ Every time he says that. I would not eat Nasr’s balls. I will go to Rameses Bar and spend money and drink whisky.”

His audacity succeeded in making itself heard, which was chiefly what he wanted. And he went on: “Mahmoud gets little money from the Father of the Box. I say to the Father of the Box when he rides my donkey, ‘Give me more money, this is too little.’ He says, ‘Then I will beat you.’ But I say to the Mother of the Nose, ‘I am a very poor boy; I am only ten years old. My father send away my mother. Who shall give my mother money?’ Then she says, ‘Oh, poor boy! here is some money.’ I like these ladies. They are very foolish.”

Did you say to the Mother of the Nose ‘My mother is married again to a rich man,’ oh liar?” asked Mahmoud.

But at this moment the garden gate opened and a babel of voices arose:—“Take my donkey; take my donkey; de best donkey in Luxor.” “Here is Whisky and Soda; no donkey like so.” “Never you believe nobody. Liar boy. Here is Rameses. Every day he win a race….”

III

Abu el Haggag’s boat had come and passed, poor starveling representative of the longest pedigree in the world. Here passed of old the Sacred Bark of the gods, carrying the precious images and emblems, the king burning incense before it, the oxen lotus-garlanded for the sacrifice.

And later this sacred bark lent its outward form to the Ark of the Most High God, bearing the simple symbols of justice and mercy, in the long desert wanderings and in the Holy Land.

And now the poor, sordid boat on its little truck passed round; charcoal burned instead of incense. With the feeble tradition the Arabs tell that it was the boat in which Abu the Saint went to see his friends. This is all that is left in their minds of that most ancient idea—this and the golden vision of the boat at midnight on Karnak Lake.

The droning noises of Arab music had died down as Mahmoud ran through Luxor; a few beggars cleared the remnants of the feast of Mohammed Mohassib; while the old man stood smiling in his doorway over the memory of his lordly hospitality. He nodded kindly to Mahmoud running by.

After he passed the house Mahmoud paused; he did not dare to go on this way—highway though it was—for he feared above all the afreet-haunted bridge that he would have to pass. So he turned, and running down a narrow way crossed the empty market-place and came out on the field road.

The light was dying down and the sky was cloudy; there was little mist, but the scent of beanfields hung heavy on the air; the corn-blades rustled as his dress swept them, running. The barking of the village dogs died down behind him into silence, so that he started and nearly fell when a little cue-owl mewed suddenly from a carob-tree.

Down into the cutting, and as he mounted again his heart leaped into his mouth, for a dark figure rose up above the corn. Then he remembered that it was only the great lion-headed statue that sat lonely in the fields, and he took courage again.

When he came to the road he paused, debating. Which of the two ways to the Lake? By the one he would have to pass the spot where that fierce golden bird had turned to look at him yesterday. By the other way he must go up the dark sphinx avenue, a very haunt of afreets. To go on either way was dreadful; to stay here not less so; to go back, he was persuaded now, would be to lose Fatma.

He turned to the left and entered the sphinx avenue. A half-grown moon struggling with the clouds now and again threw straggling and sharp shadows of the palm leaves across his path, but more dreadful was the dry rustling of the leaves on high when a cloud passed; before him loomed the great arch. On each side the sphinxes—crouched like strange creatures with narrow, beak-like noses—seemed in the darkness ready to spring. And that great black nodding palm-tree, surely that was an afreet too, and might catch him. But up the path bordered with horror he still ran.

Now he must turn to the right, before the arch is reached; and but a short way farther pass those four images of great old kings mutilated, but not the less uncanny and fearful in this dim light. They seemed to look down on the little figure still running; but he had passed in safety, and there lay the lake, black and still like the pool of ink in which men saw strange visions.

Mahmoud said his prayer and praise and lay down to sleep by the lake….

IV

The first time Mahmoud woke the moon had won the battle, and was shining on the temple, turning all to unreal, ethereal building, faintly roseate, a temple seen in a dream. Mahmoud looked towards the lake and all was still; the moon made a white sheet of water.

The second time Mahmoud woke the moon was down, but from the lake came a light—soft, lambent, golden. He looked towards it, and oh the glory, the wonder! a golden boat was riding on the water.

Mahmoud had often seen under the hot sun, in some ripple of desert sand, a sudden sheet of water. In the middle it was clear water, bright, reflecting the edge of cultivated land. At the margin it was uncertain; no eye could tell where it melted into the shaking haze of heat. So here, the middle of the boat was clear and distinct, and on the deck was standing one single figure; but at the stern and prow, though he saw figures he saw them dimly, the outlines of them melted into the gold reflection of the water.

The central figure on the deck he marked from head to foot. He says he has seen the face outlined on some temple wall, but he can never find it. He says, too, it was not unlike the father of Gorgius the Copt donkey-boy. But the father of Gorgius, he added, was only a fellah-man; this was a great man, greater than the Khedive of Egypt, as great as a King of England.

But of one thing he is certain: not only had the figure a strange erection on his head, but he wore a lion’s tail behind. Mahmoud’s eyes were so riveted to the figure that he could not tell how the boat moved. He said something about a sail and something about oars; but this he knew, that though it moved on with its golden reflection over the lake, it stirred no water in front and no widening ripple ran out behind.

It was drawing to the shore, and suddenly, as if it had come within focus, the prow was clear to him, with a man leaping down to the land, a coil of golden rope upon his arm.

What passed next was but the work of an instant. Without rising to his feet Mahmoud shot down like a snake among the stones, and as the man coiled the rope round a rock he seized it.

As the lightning flash strikes across the sky, so the man with this golden light upon him leaped back; and into the waters of the lake, into the golden reflection, sank the boat, without sound or ripple.

Mahmoud was standing alone by the black pool in the light of the stars under the lonely night. But by the light of the stars he saw in his scarred and bleeding hand the strands of the golden rope.

Now Mahmoud trails the Mecca robe through the streets of Luxor, but they say that Fatma wears the golden rope.


Introduction: copyright 2020 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

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