The assurance which Simpkins gave in reply came harder than all the lies he had told that morning, and, some way, none of them had slipped out so smoothly as usual. He was a fairly truthful and tender-hearted man outside his work, but in it he had accustomed himself to regard men and women in a purely impersonal way, and their troubles and scandals simply as material. To his mind, nothing was worth while unless it had a news value; and nothing was sacred that had. But he was uneasily conscious now that he was doing a deliberately brutal thing, and for the first time he felt that regard for a subject’s feelings which is so fatal to success in certain branches of the new journalism. But he repressed the troublesome instinct, and when Mrs. Athelstone dismissed him a few minutes later, it was with the understanding that he should report the next morning, ready for work.
He stopped for a moment in the ante-chamber on the way out; for the bright light blinded him, and there were red dots before his eyes. He felt a little subdued, not at all like the self-confident man who had passed through the oaken door ten minutes before. But nothing could long repress the exuberant Simpkins, and as he started down the stairway to the street he was exclaiming to himself:
“Did you butt in, Simp., old boy, or were you pushed?”
At nine o’clock the next morning Simpkins presented himself at the Society’s office, and a few minutes later he found himself in the fascinating presence of Mrs. Athelstone. He soon grasped the details of his simple duties, and then, like a lean, awkward mastiff, padded along at her heels while she moved about the hall and pointed out the things which would be under his care.
“If I were equal to it, I should look after these myself,” she explained. “Careless hands would soon ruin this case.” And she touched the gilt mummy beside her writing-table affectionately. “She was a queen, Nefruari, daughter of the King of Ethiopia. They called her ’the good and glorious woman.’”
“And this—this black boy?” questioned Simpkins respectfully. “Looks as if he might have lived during the eighteenth dynasty.” He had not been poring over volumes on Ancient Egypt for two nights without knowing a thing or two about black mummies.
“Quite right, Simpkins,” Mrs. Athelstone replied, evidently pleased by his interest and knowledge. “He was Amosis, a king of the eighteenth dynasty, and Nefruari’s husband. A big, powerful man!”
“What a bully cigarette brand he’d make!” thought Simpkins, and aloud he added:
“They must have been a fine-looking pair.”
“Indeed, yes,” was the earnest answer, and so they moved about the hall, she explaining, he listening and questioning, until at last they stood before the black altar in the west and the veil of velvet. Simpkins saw that there was an inscription carved in the basalt, and, drawing nearer, slowly spelled out: