While still in this vacant frame of mind Smith chanced one day, when the bank was closed, to drift into the British Museum, more to escape the vile weather that prevailed without than for any other reason. Wandering hither and thither at hazard, he found himself in the great gallery devoted to Egyptian stone objects and sculpture. The place bewildered him somewhat, for he knew nothing of Egyptology; indeed, there remained upon his mind only a sense of wonderment not unmixed with awe. It must have been a great people, he thought to himself, that executed these works, and with the thought came a desire to know more about them. Yet he was going away when suddenly his eye fell on the sculptured head of a woman which hung upon the wall.
Smith looked at it once, twice, thrice, and at the third look he fell in love. Needless to say, he was not aware that such was his condition. He knew only that a change had come over him, and never, never could he forget the face which that carven mask portrayed. Perhaps it was not really beautiful save for its wondrous and mystic smile; perhaps the lips were too thick and the nostrils too broad. Yet to him that face was Beauty itself, beauty which drew him as with a cart-rope, and awoke within him all kinds of wonderful imaginings, some of them so strange and tender that almost they partook of the nature of memories. He stared at the image, and the image smiled back sweetly at him, as doubtless it, or rather its original–for this was but a plaster cast–had smiled at nothingness in some tomb or hiding-hole for over thirty centuries, and as the woman whose likeness it was had once smiled upon the world.
A short, stout gentleman bustled up and, in tones of authority, addressed some workmen who were arranging a base for a neighbouring statue. It occurred to Smith that he must be someone who knew about these objects. Overcoming his natural diffidence with an effort, he raised his hat and asked the gentleman if he could tell him who was the original of the mask.
The official–who, in fact, was a very great man in the Museum–glanced at Smith shrewdly, and, seeing that his interest was genuine, answered–
“I don’t know. Nobody knows. She has been given several names, but none of them have authority. Perhaps one day the rest of the statue may be found, and then we shall learn–that is, if it is inscribed. Most likely, however, it has been burnt for lime long ago.”
“Then you can’t tell me anything about her?” said Smith.
“Well, only a little. To begin with, that’s a cast. The original is in the Cairo Museum. Mariette found it, I believe at Karnac, and gave it a name after his fashion. Probably she was a queen–of the eighteenth dynasty, by the work. But you can see her rank for yourself from the broken _uraeus_.” (Smith did not stop him to explain that he had not the faintest idea what a _uraeus_ might be, seeing that he was utterly unfamiliar with the snake-headed crest of Egyptian royalty.) “You should go to Egypt and study the head for yourself. It is one of the most beautiful things that ever was found. Well, I must be off. Good day.”
And he bustled down the long gallery.
Smith found his way upstairs and looked at mummies and other things. Somehow it hurt him to reflect that the owner of yonder sweet, alluring face must have become a mummy long, long before the Christian era. Mummies did not strike him as attractive.
He returned to the statuary and stared at his plaster cast till one of the workmen remarked to his fellow that if he were the gent he’d go and look at “a live’un” for a change.
Then Smith retired abashed.
On his way home he called at his bookseller’s and ordered “all the best works on Egyptology”. When, a day or two later, they arrived in a packing-case, together with a bill for thirty-eight pounds, he was somewhat dismayed. Still, he tackled those books like a man, and, being clever and industrious, within three months had a fair working knowledge of the subject, and had even picked up a smattering of hieroglyphics.
In January–that was, at the end of those three months–Smith astonished his Board of Directors by applying for ten weeks’ leave, he who had hitherto been content with a fortnight in the year. When questioned he explained that he had been suffering from bronchitis, and was advised to take a change in Egypt.
“A very good idea,” said the manager; “but I’m afraid you’ll find it expensive. They fleece one in Egypt.”
“I know,” answered Smith; “but I’ve saved a little and have only myself to spend it upon.”
So Smith went to Egypt and saw the original of the beauteous head and a thousand other fascinating things. Indeed, he did more. Attaching himself to some excavators who were glad of his intelligent assistance, he actually dug for a month in the neighbourhood of ancient Thebes, but without finding anything in particular.
It was not till two years later that he made his great discovery, that which is known as Smith’s Tomb. Here it may be explained that the state of his health had become such as to necessitate an annual visit to Egypt, or so his superiors understood.