Placed at intervals are apparatus for use in case of fire, coils of hose and standpipes that shine with the warm glow of burnished copper, and I ask my companion of the watch: “What is there that could burn here? Are not these good people all of stone?” And he answers: “Not here indeed; but consider how the things that are above would blaze.” Ah! yes. The “things that are above”—which are indeed the object of my visit to-night. I had no thought of fire catching hold in an assembly of mummies; of the old withered flesh, the dead, dry hair, the venerable carcasses of kings and queens, soaked as they are in natron and oils, crackling like so many boxes of matches. It is chiefly on account of this danger indeed that the seals are put upon the doors at nightfall, and that it needs a special favour to be allowed to penetrate into this place at night with a lantern.
In the daytime this “Museum of Egyptian Antiquities” is as vulgar a thing as you can conceive, filled though it is with priceless treasures. It is the most pompous, the most outrageous of those buildings, of no style at all, by which each year the New Cairo is enriched; open to all who care to gaze at close quarters, in a light that is almost brutal, upon these august dead, who fondly thought that they had hidden themselves for ever.
But at night! . . . Ah! at night when all the doors are closed, it is the palace of nightmare and of fear. At night, so say the Arab guardians, who would not enter it at the price of gold—no, not even after offering up a prayer—at night, horrible “forms” escape, not only from the embalmed bodies that sleep in the glass cases above, but also from the great statues, from the papyri, and the thousand and one things that, at the bottom of the tombs, have long been impregnated with human essence. And these “forms” are like unto dead bodies, and sometimes to strange beasts, even to beasts that crawl. And, after having wandered about the halls, they end by assembling for their nocturnal conferences on the roofs.
We next ascend a staircase of monumental proportions, empty in the whole extent, where we are delivered for a little while from the obsession of those rigid figures, from the stares and smiles of the good people in white stone and black granite who throng the galleries and vestibules on the ground floor. None of them, to be sure, will follow us; but all the same they guard in force and perplex with their shadows the only way by which we can retreat, if the formidable hosts above have in store for us too sinister a welcome.
He to whose courtesy I owe the relaxation of the orders of the night is the illustrious savant to whose care has been entrusted the direction of the excavations in Egyptian soil; he is also the comptroller of this vast museum, and it is he himself who has kindly consented to act as my guide to-night through its mazy labyrinth.
Across the silent halls above we now proceed straight towards those of whom I have demanded this nocturnal audience.