Authors: Agatha Christie
TO PROFESSOR S.R.K. GLANVILLE
It was you who originally suggested to me the idea of a detective story set in Ancient Egypt, and but for your active help and encouragement this book would never have been written.
I want to say here how much I have enjoyed all the interesting literature you have lent me and to thank you once more for the patience with which you have answered my questions and for the time and trouble you have expended. The pleasure and interest which the writing of the book has brought to me you already know.
Your affectionate and grateful friend,
The action of this book takes place on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes in Egypt about 2000 BC. Both place and time are incidental to the story. Any other place at any other time would have served as well: but it so happened that the inspiration of both characters and plot was derived from two or three Egyptian letters of the XI Dynasty, found about 20 years ago by the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a rock tomb opposite Luxor, and translated by Professor (then Mr) Battiscombe Gunn in the Museum’s Bulletin.
It may be of interest to the reader to note that an endowment for ka-service–an everyday feature of ancient Egyptian civilization–was very similar in principle to a mediæval chantry bequest. Property was bequeathed to the ka-priest in return for which he was expected to maintain the tomb of the testator, and to provide offerings at the tomb on certain feast days throughout the year for the repose of the deceased’s soul.
The terms ‘Brother’, ‘Sister’ in Egyptian texts, regularly
mean ‘Lover’ and are frequently interchangeable with ‘Husband’, ‘Wife’. They are so used on occasion in this book.
The Agricultural calendar of Ancient Egypt, consisting of three seasons of four months of thirty days, formed the background of peasant life, and with the addition of five intercalary days at the end of the year was used as the official calendar of 365 days to the year. This ‘Year’ originally began with the arrival in Egypt of the flood-water of the Nile in the third week of July by our reckoning; but the absence of a Leap Year caused it to lag through the centuries, so that, at the time of our story, the official New Year’s Day fell about six months earlier than the opening of the agricultural year, i.e. in January instead of July. To save the reader from continually having to make allowance for this six months, however, the dates here used as Chapter headings are stated in terms of the agricultural year of the time, i.e. Inundation–late July to late November; Winter–late November to late March; and Summer–late March to late July.
Renisenb stood looking over the Nile.
In the distance she could hear faintly the upraised voices of her brothers, Yahmose and Sobek, disputing as to whether or no the dykes in a certain place needed strengthening or not. Sobek’s voice was high and confident as always. He had the habit of asserting his views with easy certainty. Yahmose’s voice was low and grumbling in tone, it expressed doubt and anxiety. Yahmose was always in a state of anxiety over something or other. He was the eldest son, and during his father’s absence on the Northern Estates the management of the farmlands was more or less in his hands. Yahmose was slow, prudent and prone to look for difficulties where none existed. He was a heavily built, slow moving man with none of Sobek’s gaiety and confidence.
From her early childhood Renisenb could remember hearing these elder brothers of hers arguing in just those selfsame accents. It gave her suddenly a feeling of security…She was at home again. Yes, she had come home…
Yet as she looked once more across the pale, shining river, her rebellion and pain mounted again. Khay, her young husband, was dead…Khay with his laughing face and his strong shoulders. Khay was with Osiris in the Kingdom of the dead–and she, Renisenb, his dearly loved wife, was left desolate. Eight years they had had together–she had come to him as little more than a child–and now she had returned widowed, with Khay’s child, Teti, to her father’s house.
It seemed to her at this moment as though she had never been away…
She welcomed that thought…
She would forget those eight years–so full of unthinking happiness, so torn and destroyed by loss and pain.
Yes, forget them, put them out of her mind. Become once more Renisenb, Imhotep the ka-priest’s daughter, the unthinking, unfeeling girl. This love of a husband and brother had been a cruel thing, deceiving her by its sweetness. She remembered the strong bronze shoulders, the laughing mouth–now Khay was embalmed, swathed in bandages, protected with
amulets in his journey through the other world. No more Khay in this world to sail on the Nile and catch fish and laugh up into the sun whilst she, stretched out in the boat with the little Teti on her lap, laughed back at him…
‘I will not think of it. It is over! Here I am at home. Everything is the same as it was. I, too, shall be the same presently. It will all be as before. Teti has forgotten already. She plays with the other children and laughs.’
Renisenb turned abruptly and made her way back towards the house, passing on the way some loaded donkeys being driven towards the river bank. She passed by the cornbins and the outhouses and through the gateway into the courtyard. It was very pleasant in the courtyard. There was the artificial lake, surrounded by flowering oleanders and jasmines and shaded by sycamore fig trees. Teti and the other children were playing there now, their voices rising shrill and clear. They were running in and out of the little pavilion that stood at one side of the lake. Renisenb noticed that Teti was playing with a wooden lion whose mouth opened and shut by pulling a string, a toy which she herself had loved as a child. She thought again, gratefully, ‘I have come home…’ Nothing was changed here, all was as it had been. Here life was safe, constant, unchanging, Teti was now the child and she one of the many mothers
enclosed by the home walls–but the framework, the essence of things, was unchanged.
A ball with which one of the children was playing rolled to her feet and she picked it up and threw it back, laughing.
Renisenb went on to the porch with its gaily coloured columns, and then through into the house, passing through the big central chamber, with its coloured frieze of lotus and poppies and so on to the back of the house and the women’s quarters.
Upraised voices struck on her ear and she paused again, savouring with pleasure the old familiar echoes. Satipy and Kait–arguing as always! Those well-remembered tones of Satipy’s voice, high, domineering and bullying! Satipy was her brother Yahmose’s wife, a tall, energetic, loud-tongued woman, handsome in a hard, commanding kind of way. She was eternally laying down the law, hectoring the servants, finding fault with everything, getting impossible things done by sheer force of vituperation and personality. Everyone dreaded her tongue and ran to obey her orders. Yahmose himself had the greatest admiration for his resolute, spirited wife, though he allowed himself to be bullied by her in a way that had often infuriated Renisenb.
At intervals, in the pauses in Satipy’s high-pitched sentences, the quiet, obstinate voice of Kait was heard.
Kait was a broad, plain-faced woman, the wife of the handsome gay Sobek. She was devoted to her children and seldom thought or spoke about anything else. She sustained her side of the daily arguments with her sister-in-law by the simple expedient of repeating whatever statement she had originally made with quiet, immovable obstinacy. She displayed neither heat nor passion, and never considered for a moment any side of a question but her own. Sobek was extremely attached to his wife and talked freely to her of all his affairs, secure in the knowledge that she would appear to listen, make comforting sounds of assent or dissent, and would remember nothing inconvenient, since her mind was sure to have been dwelling on some problem connected with the children all the time.
‘It’s an outrage, that’s what I say,’ shouted Satipy. ‘If Yahmose had the spirit of a mouse he would not stand it for a moment! Who is in charge here when Imhotep is absent? Yahmose! And as Yahmose’s wife it is
who should have the first choice of the woven mats and cushions. That hippopotamus of a black slave should be–’
Kait’s heavy, deep voice cut in:
‘No, no, my little one, do not eat your doll’s hair. See, here is something better–a sweet–oh, how
‘As for you, Kait, you have no courtesy, you don’t even
listen to what I say–you do not reply–your manners are atrocious.’
‘The blue cushion has always been mine…Oh look at little Ankh–she is trying to walk…’
‘You are as stupid as your children, Kait, and that is saying a good deal! But you shall not get out of it like this. I will have my rights, I tell you.’
Renisenb started as a quiet footfall sounded behind her. She turned with a start and with the old, familiar feeling of dislike at seeing the woman Henet standing behind her.
Henet’s thin face was twisted into its usual half-cringing smile.
‘Things haven’t changed much, you’ll be thinking, Renisenb,’ she said. ‘How we all bear Satipy’s tongue, I don’t know! Of course, Kait can answer back. Some of us aren’t so fortunate! I know
place, I hope–and my gratitude to your father for giving me a home and food and clothing. Ah, he’s a good man, your father. And I’ve always tried to do what I can. I’m always working–giving a hand here and a hand there–and I don’t expect thanks or gratitude. If your dear mother had lived it would have been different.
appreciated me. Like sisters we were! A beautiful woman she was. Well, I’ve done my duty and kept my promise to her. “Look after the children, Henet,” she said when she was dying. And I’ve been faithful to
my word. Slaved for you all, I have, and never wanted thanks. Neither asked for them nor got them! “It’s only old Henet,” people say, “she doesn’t count.” Nobody thinks anything of me. Why should they? I just try and be helpful, that’s all.’
She slipped like an eel under Renisenb’s arm and entered the inner room.
‘About these cushions, you’ll excuse me, Satipy, but I happened to hear Sobek say–’
Renisenb moved away. Her old dislike of Henet surged up. Funny how they all disliked Henet! It was her whining voice, her continual self-pity and the occasional malicious pleasure she took in fanning the flames of a discussion.
‘Oh well,’ thought Renisenb, ‘why not?’ It was, she supposed, Henet’s way of amusing herself. Life must be dreary for her–and it was true that she worked like a drudge and that no one was ever grateful. You couldn’t be grateful to Henet–she drew attention to her own merits so persistently that it chilled any generous response you might have felt.
Henet, thought Renisenb, was one of those people whose fate it is to be devoted to others and to have no one devoted to them. She was unattractive to look at, and stupid as well. Yet she always knew what was going on. Her noiseless way of walking, her sharp ears, and
her quick peering eyes made it a certainty that nothing could long be a secret from her. Sometimes she hugged her knowledge to herself–at other times she would go around from one person to another, whispering, and standing back delightedly to observe the results of her tale-telling.
At one time or another everyone in the household had begged Imhotep to get rid of Henet, but Imhotep would never hear of such a thing. He was perhaps the only person who was fond of her; and she repaid his patronage with a fulsome devotion that the rest of the family found quite nauseating.
Renisenb stood uncertainly for a moment, listening to the accelerated clamour of her sisters-in-law, fanned by the flame of Henet’s interference, then she went slowly towards the small room where her grandmother, Esa, sat by herself, attended by two little black slave girls. She was busy now inspecting certain linen garments that they were displaying to her and scolding them in a characteristic, friendly fashion.
Yes, it was all the same. Renisenb stood, unnoticed, listening. Old Esa had shrunk a little, that was all. But her voice was the same and the things that she was saying were the same, word for word, almost, as Renisenb could remember them before she herself had left home eight years ago…
Renisenb slipped out again. Neither the old woman nor the two little black slave girls had noticed her. For a moment or two Renisenb paused by the open kitchen door. A smell of roasting ducks, a lot of talking and laughing and scolding all going on at once; a mound of vegetables waiting to be prepared.
Renisenb stood quite still, her eyes half closed. From where she stood she could hear everything going on at once. The rich, varied noises of the kitchen, the high, shrill note of old Esa’s voice, the strident tones of Satipy and, very faintly, the deeper, persistent contralto of Kait. A babel of women’s voices–chattering, laughing, complaining, scolding, exclaiming…
And suddenly Renisenb felt stifled, encircled by this persistent and clamorous femininity. Women–noisy, vociferous women! A houseful of women–never quiet, never peaceful–always talking, exclaiming,
And Khay–Khay silent and watchful in his boat, his whole mind bent on the fish he was going to spear…
None of this clack of tongues, this busy, incessant
Renisenb went swiftly out of the house again into hot clear stillness. She saw Sobek coming back from the fields and saw in the distance Yahmose going up towards the Tomb.
She turned away and took the path up to the limestone cliffs where the Tomb was. It was the Tomb of the great Noble Meriptah and her father was the mortuary priest responsible for its upkeep. All the estate and land was part of the endowment of the Tomb.
When her father was away the duties of the ka-priest fell upon her brother Yahmose. When Renisenb, walking slowly up the steep path, arrived, Yahmose was in consultation with Hori, her father’s man of business and affairs, in a little rock chamber next door to the offering chamber of the Tomb.
Hori had a sheet of papyrus spread out on his knees and Yahmose and he were bending over it.
Both Yahmose and Hori smiled at Renisenb when she arrived and she sat down near them in a patch of shade. She had always been very fond of her brother Yahmose. He was gentle and affectionate to her and had a mild and kindly disposition. Hori, too, had always been gravely kind to the small Renisenb and had sometimes mended her toys for her. He had been a grave, silent young man when she went away, with sensitive, clever fingers. Renisenb thought that though he looked older he had changed hardly at all. The grave smile he gave her was just the same as she remembered.
Yahmose and Hori were murmuring together:
‘Seventy-three bushels of barley with Ipi the younger…’
‘The total then is two hundred and thirty of spelt and one hundred and twenty of barley.’
‘Yes, but there is the price of the timber, and the crop was paid for in oil at Perhaa…’
Their talk went on. Renisenb sat drowsily content with the men’s murmuring voices as a background. Presently Yahmose got up and went away, handing back the roll of papyrus to Hori.
Renisenb sat on in a companionable silence.
Presently she touched a roll of papyrus and asked: ‘Is that from my father?’
‘What does he say?’ she asked curiously.
She unrolled it and stared at those marks that were meaningless to her untutored eyes.
Smiling a little, Hori leaned over her shoulder and traced with his finger as he read. The letter was couched in the ornate style of the professional letter writer of Heracleopolis.
‘The Servant of the Estate, the Ka servant Imhotep says:
‘May your condition be like that of one who lives a million times. May the God Herishaf, Lord of Heracleopolis and all the Gods that are aid you. May the God Ptah gladden your heart as one who
lives long. The son speaks to his mother, the Ka servant to his mother Esa. How are you in your life, safety and health? To the whole household, how are you? To my son Yahmose, how are you in your life, safety and health? Make the most of my land. Strive to the uttermost, dig the ground with your noses in the work. See, if you are industrious I will praise God for you–’
‘Poor Yahmose! He works hard enough, I am sure.’
Her father’s exhortations had brought him vividly before her eyes–his pompous, slightly fussy manner, his continual exhortations and instructions.
Hori went on:
‘Take great care of my son Ipy. I hear he is discontented. Also see that Satipy treats Henet well. Mind this. Do not fail to write about the flax and the oil. Guard the produce of my grain–guard everything of mine, for I shall hold you responsible. If my land floods, woe to you and Sobek.’