“Perhaps queen all right inside,” he went on, receiving no answer to his remark.
“Perhaps,” replied Smith, briefly. “Dig, man, dig! Don’t waste time in talking.”
So they dug on furiously till at length Smith saw something which caused him to groan aloud. There was a hole in the masonry–the tomb had been broken into. Mahomet saw it too, and examined the top of the aperture with his skilled eye.
“Very old thief,” he said. “Look, he try build up wall again, but run away before he have time finish.” And he pointed to certain flat stones which had been roughly and hurriedly replaced.
“Dig–dig!” said Smith.
Ten minutes more and the aperture was cleared. It was only just big enough to admit the body of a man.
By now the sun was setting. Swiftly, swiftly it seemed to tumble down the sky. One minute it was above the rough crests of the western hills behind them; the next, a great ball of glowing fire, it rested on their topmost ridge. Then it was gone. For an instant a kind of green spark shone where it had been. This too went out, and the sudden Egyptian night was upon them.
The fellaheen muttered among themselves, and one or two of them wandered off on some pretext. The rest threw down their tools and looked at Smith. “Men say they no like stop here. They afraid of ghost! Too many _afreet_ live in these tomb. That what they say. Come back finish to-morrow morning when it light. Very foolish people, these common fellaheen,” remarked Mahomet, in a superior tone.
“Quite so,” replied Smith, who knew well that nothing that he could offer would tempt his men to go on with the opening of a tomb after sunset. “Let them go away. You and I will stop and watch the place till morning.”
“Sorry, sah,” said Mahomet, “but I not feel quite well inside; think I got fever. I go to camp and lie down and pray under plenty blanket.”
“All right, go,” said Smith; “but if there is anyone who is not a coward, let him bring me my big coat, something to eat and drink, and the lantern that hangs in my tent. I will meet him there in the valley.”
Mahomet, though rather doubtfully, promised that this should be done, and, after begging Smith to accompany them, lest the spirit of whoever slept in the tomb should work him a mischief during the night, they departed quickly enough.
Smith lit his pipe, sat down on the sand, and waited. Half an hour later he heard a sound of singing, and through the darkness, which was dense, saw lights coming up the valley.
“My brave men,” he thought to himself, and scrambled up the slope to meet them.
He was right. These were his men, no less than twenty of them, for with a fewer number they did not dare to face the ghosts which they believed haunted the valley after nightfall. Presently the light from the lantern which one of them carried (not Mahomet, whose sickness had increased too suddenly to enable him to come) fell upon the tall form of Smith, who, dressed in his white working clothes, was leaning against a rock. Down went the lantern, and with a howl of terror the brave company turned and fled.
“Sons of cowards!” roared Smith after them, in his most vigorous Arabic. “It is I, your master, not an _afreet_.”
They heard, and by degrees crept back again. Then he perceived that in order to account for their number each of them carried some article. Thus one had the bread, another the lantern, another a tin of sardines, another the sardine-opener, another a box of matches, another a bottle of beer, and so on. As even thus there were not enough things to go round, two of them bore his big coat between them, the first holding it by the sleeves and the second by the tail as though it were a stretcher.
“Put them down,” said Smith, and they obeyed. “Now,” he added, “run for your lives; I thought I heard two _afreets_ talking up there just now of what they would do to any followers of the Prophet who mocked their gods, if perchance they should meet them in their holy place at night.”
This kindly counsel was accepted with much eagerness. In another minute Smith was alone with the stars and the dying desert wind.
Collecting his goods, or as many of them as he wanted, he thrust them into the pockets of the great-coat and returned to the mouth of the tomb. Here he made his simple meal by the light of the lantern, and afterwards tried to go to sleep. But sleep he could not. Something always woke him. First it was a jackal howling amongst the rocks; next a sand-fly bit him in the ankle so sharply that he thought he must have been stung by a scorpion. Then, notwithstanding his warm coat, the cold got hold of him, for the clothes beneath were wet through with perspiration, and it occurred to him that unless he did something he would probably contract an internal chill or perhaps fever. He rose and walked about.