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Chapter 49 - A Committee of Experts

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« on: January 04, 2023, 08:34:09 pm »

PROFESSOR Eisner was the first of the experts to arrive. I knew his name, of course, but he himself proved something of a surprise. He had iron-gray hair cut close to a very fine skull, and wore a small monocle. He was otherwise clean-shaven, presenting in his walk, his build, his manner, an Englishman’s conception of the typical Prussian cavalry officer.

He was shown into the big Syrian room on the ground floor, where suitable refreshments had been prepared by Betts, and proved on acquaintance to be a charming as well as a clever man.

Then came the Frenchman, Dr. Brieux, a very different type. He wore a caped overcoat and a large black soft hat. I saw him approaching from the window, as a matter of fact, and predicted to myself that he would stop at the door and ring the bell. I was right. Here was the traditional scholar—stooping, with high, bald brow, scanty white hair and beard, and large, horn-rimmed glasses.

He greeted Professor Eisner very coldly. I didn’t know it at the time, but they held directly opposite views regarding the date when the Khuld Palace in Old Baghdad was deserted in favour of the Palace of the Golden Gate. A heated controversy had raged in the learned journals between these two distinguished Orientalists. I fear I had overlooked this.

I know and love the Near East and its peoples; their arts and crafts, and the details of their domestic life. But this hair-splitting on a matter of dates is something quite outside my province.

The learned Englishmen were late: they arrived together; and I was glad of their arrival. Professor Eisner was sipping a glass of the chief’s magnificent old sherry and nibbling some sort of savoury provided by Betts; Dr. Brieux, hands behind him, was staring out of the window, his back ostentatiously turned to his German confrère.

When Mr. Hall-Ramsden of the British Museum and Sir Wallace Syms of the Royal Society had chatted for a time with the distinguished visitors, I led the way upstairs to the Museum Room.

As I have mentioned, I had prepared everything early the night before. My notes, a map of our route, a diary covering the period we had spent in the Place of the Great Magician, and one or two minor objects discovered in the tomb of the prophet, were ready upon the table.

At all costs (such were the chief’s instructions) I had to avoid giving away any of the dramatic points—he had made a list of them—which he proposed to spring upon the Royal Society.

This was not in the remotest degree my kind of job. I hated it from the word Go! The dream or vision which had disturbed my sleep during the night continued to haunt me. I was uncertain of myself—uncertain that the whole episode was not some damnable aftermath to that drug which had taken toll of several hours of my life in Cairo. At the best of times I should have been ill at ease, but on this occasion I was doubly so. However, I attacked the business.

Removing the mask, the plates, and the sword from the cabinet in which they rested, I placed them upon the big table.

Professor Eisner claimed the gold plates with a motion resembling that of a hawk swooping upon its prey. Dr. Brieux took up the mask between delicate, nervous fingers, and peered at it closely through the powerful lenses of his spectacles. Hall-Ramsden and Sir Wallace Syms bent over the Sword of God.

I glanced at my notes, and, realizing that nobody was listening to me, intoned the situation, condition, external appearance, and so forth, of the half-buried ruin which had been the tomb of the Mokanna. Finally: “Here are the photographs to which I have referred, gentlemen,” I said, opening a portfolio containing more than three hundred photographs taken by Ramin. “If any questions occur to you, I shall be glad in Sir Lionel’s absence to answer them to the best of my ability.”

I had gone through this painful duty quite automatically. Now, I had time to observe the four specialists. And looking at them where they sat around the big table, I sensed at once a queer atmosphere.

Mr. Hall-Ramsden glanced at me furtively, but catching my eye resumed a muttered colloquy with Sir Wallace Syms. Professor Eisner and Dr. Brieux seemed to have discovered common ground. The doctor, holding up the mask, was talking with tremendous rapidity, and the professor, alternately tapping the plates and pointing to the sword seemed to be agreeing, judging from his short ejaculations of “Ja, ja!

“Can I assist you in any way, gentlemen?” I asked somewhat irritably.

As chief officer of the expedition which had discovered the relics, I felt that I was receiving scant courtesy. But, as I spoke, four pairs of eyes were turned upon me.

There came a moment of silence, as I looked from face to face; and then it was the German professor who spoke: “Mr. Greville,” he said, “I understand that you were present when Sir Lionel Barton opened the tomb of El Mokanna?”

“Certainly I was present, Professor.”

“This was what I understood.” He nodded slowly. “Were you actually present at the time that these relics were unearthed?”

His inquiry was made in a way kindly enough, but it jagged me horribly. I looked from face to face, meeting with nothing but unfathomable glances.

“Your question is a strange one,” I replied slowly. “Ali Mahmoud, the headman in charge of our party, was actually first among us to see anything of the relics: he saw a corner of one of those gold plates. I was the first to see an entire plate (I think it was ninth in the series, as a matter of fact). Sir Lionel, and Ramin, his nephew, as well as the late Dr. Van Berg, were present when the treasure was brought to light.”

Professor Eisner had a habit of closing his left eye; betokening concentration, no doubt; and, now, his right eye—a cold blue eye—focused upon me through the little monocle, registered something between incredulity, amusement and pity.

Sir Wallace I knew for an avowed enemy of the chief. Regarding Hall-Ramsden’s attitude, I knew nothing. Of Professor Eisner Sir Lionel had always spoken favourably, but I was aware that he regarded Dr. Brieux as a mere impostor.

But now, under the gaze of that magnified blue eye, I realized that the authenticity of these treasures, which had nearly led to a Holy War in the East, was being questioned by the four men seated about the table!

Instantly I pictured the scene if Sir Lionel had been present! Hall-Ramsden might have put up a show, and the German looked like a man of his hands: but as for the other two, I was confident that they would have been thrown bodily downstairs. . . .

“Gentlemen,” I said, “you seem to share some common opinion about the relics of El Mokanna. I should be glad to know your views.”

A further exchange of glances followed. I realized that in some way my words had created embarrassment. Finally, having cleared his throat, it was Hall-Ramsden who answered me.

“Mr. Greville,” he said, “I have heard you well spoken of, and, personally, I should not think of doubting your integrity. Sir Lionel Barton—” he cleared his throat again—“as an Orientalist of international reputation, is naturally above suspicion.”

Dr. Brieux blew his nose.

“Since it has been arranged for Sir Lionel to address the Royal Society next Thursday on the subject”—he extended his hand towards the objects on the table—“of these relics, I recognize, of course—we all recognize—that there must be some strange mistake, or else . . .”

He hesitated, glancing about as if to seek help from one of his confreres.

“That Barton,” Sir Wallace Syms continued—“whose sense of humour sometimes betrays him—has seen fit to play a joke upon us!”

By this time I was thoroughly angry.

“What the devil do you mean, Sir Wallace?” I asked.

My anger had one immediate effect. Professor Eisner stood up and approached me, putting his arm about my shoulders.

“My young friend,” he said, “something has gone wrong. It will all be explained, no doubt. But be calm.”

His manner quietened me. I recognized its sincerity. And, giving me a kind of final reassuring hug:

“I shall not be surprised to hear,” he went on, “that you have not examined these relics recently. Eh?”

“Not,” I admitted, “since they were put in the case.”

“Since you placed them in the case, eh? Now, you have already a considerable reputation, Mr. Greville. I have talked with you, and you know your subject. Before we say any more, please to look at this sword.”

He stepped to the table, took up the Sword of God, returned, and handed it to me. My anger was still simmering as I took the thing up and glanced at it. Having done so:

“Well,” I replied, “I have looked. What do you expect me to say?”

“To say nothing—yet.” Again that reassuring arm was around my shoulders. “But to look, to examine carefully——”

“It’s simply absurd!” came the voice of Dr. Brieux.

“If you please!” snapped the Professor sharply—“if you please! What you have to say, Doctor can wait for a moment.”

Amid a silence which vibrated with hostility, I examined the blade in my hand. And I suppose, as I did so, my expression changed.

“Ah! you see, eh?” said the German.

And while I stared with horrified eyes at the blade, the inlay, the hilt, he had darted to the table, almost immediately to return with one of the gold plates. Relieving me of the sword, he placed the inscribed tablet in my hands.

“It is beautifully done!” He almost whispered the words, very close to my ear; “and rubbed down very fine. But look . . .”

He held a glass before my eye—one of those which I had provided for this very purpose.

I looked—and I knew!

Tossing the plate down, I faced the three men around the table. Professor Eisner remained beside me.

“Gentlemen,” I said—“my apologies. I can only ask you to remain silent until this mystery has been cleared up. I will try, to the best of my ability, to explain.”

The sword, the plates, and the mask, which I had exhibited to these four experts, were, beyond any shadow of doubt, the duplicates made by Solomon Ishak. . . . .

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