The swing band in the corner fought for attention over the din of chatter in the hall. Women in furs quaffed champagne as their menfolk told dreary jokes and ignored the exhibits. Gabriel scowled at them – no appreciation for history at all. He’d assembled the finest pieces ancient Egypt could offer, and they were more interested in society gossip.
Marie St John sashayed up to him, all shining eyes and pearl strings. Marie’s mother was one of Gabriel’s greatest supporters, although she might not invest as much if she found out about his tiny crush on her daughter.
“Gabriel, darling. Splendid show you’ve put on.” She kissed both of his cheeks, leaving scarlet imprints like plague posies beside his mouth.
“I’m glad you approve, Miss St John. Your mother had a lot to do with this. So sorry she couldn’t be here tonight,” replied Gabriel.
“She’ll come along and see it in a few weeks when she’s back from Paris, I expect.”
Gabriel nodded. Mrs St John’s other daughter lived in France, and felt obliged to help out now the war was over. Pity she wasn’t in Paris in 1940 – the Germans wouldn’t have stood a chance.
“So has anything in particular caught your eye?” asked Gabriel.
“The jewellery is fascinating.” Marie looked across the room at a large glass case. Women clustered around it, cooing over the ornate collars and gold bands.
“Very different from what you wear.” Gabriel nodded to the Lalique brooch on her dress.
“I daresay Mother would wear it!”
Gabriel laughed. Mrs St John was no shrinking violet, and it was easy to picture the mountain of a woman draped in white linen, and dripping with Egypt’s finest. Marie smiled and looked away, her eyes roving the crowd. Feeling his chance slip away, Gabriel laid a hand on Marie’s arm.
“Have you seen this piece?” asked Gabriel. He steered Marie through the crowd towards a glass case set on a plinth in the middle of the room. A wooden box lay inside the case. Scenes of Egyptian life were painted on three sides, with hieroglyphics adorning the lid. One side was blank, except for a pair of painted eyes.
“What is it?” asked Marie. She wrinkled her nose.
“I thought mummies came in things like that,” said Marie. She pointed across the room to a brightly painted sarcophagus. A young man lounged against the case containing the sarcophagus, a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail glass in the other. Gabriel frowned.
“Later ones did from around 1550 BC. Before that, coffins were rectangular. The mummy lay inside on its side, facing the east, and the eyes were painted on so it could ‘see’ out,” said Gabriel. He pointed to the eyes. Marie shuddered.
“Why do you say that? It’s no different from burying a body in the hope it’ll be resurrected on Judgement Day.”
“Is there a body in there?” Marie stared at the box, her rosebud mouth turning down at the corners.
“I daresay there is. I don’t believe in opening them up.”
“So you brought me over here for a dead body in a box?”
“I thought you might be interested. It’s not every day you come this close to an ancient civilisation.”
“Indeed. If you’ll excuse me.” Marie tossed her head and stalked away, heading for the throng of young men around the statue of a bare-breasted goddess.
Gabriel sighed. He thought Marie had the same fascination for history as her mother. Still, he’d been wrong about women before. Two ex-wives proved that.
“I despair of humanity sometimes. I’m so sorry you had to witness that,” said Gabriel, laying one hand on the glass case.
He looked down at the coffin. The eyes on the box blinked.