PHARAOH: A Frightful Incident

In celebration of the hardback publication of my novel Pharaoh in the UK, here's an excerpt from chapter 7. Part of the novel is set during the 1884-5 British expedition to rescue General Gordon from Khartoum, a story that becomes integral to the present-day action and the quest of Jack Howard and his team. Here we see my 19th century protagonist, Major Edward Mayne, sitting in the expedition camp beside the cataracts of the Nile and talking to his orderly Corporal Jones. Little do they know the significance of the creature shown in the print 'A Frightful Incident', and the incredible archaeological discovery that awaits them just across the river ....

To read another chapter excerpt, as my present-day protagonists Jack and Costas dive at this very spot some 130 years later, click here.

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Mayne raised his telescope and trained it on the pool, uncertain whether he had seen a dark shape beneath the muddy surface where the whip had struck. Two shots rang out from below, the bullets hissing into the water to no obvious effect. No one had yet with certainty seen a crocodile in this pool, but the soldiers believed one was lurking there, making washing and drawing water a hazardous enterprise. Mayne was not entirely convinced, but it was another reason why he had decided to forego any attempt to cleanse himself before setting out for Wolseley’s camp at Korti.

Jones came up beside him and peered down. ‘I’m sure I saw it,’ he said in a hushed voice. ‘It’s the monster the Sudanese river men talk about.’

            ‘You can’t be sure,’ Mayne said. ‘It could have been a whirlpool, or one of those giant river carp.’

Jones shut his eyes, reciting. ‘When he raiseth himself up, the might are afraid. Round about his teeth is terror. In his neck abideth strength, and terror danceth before him. His neesings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Upon earth there is not his like, that is made without fear. The leviathan, sir, from the Book of Job.’

            Mayne lifted his eyebrows. ‘You remembered that well. You’ve missed your vocation. You should have been a preacher.’

            ‘The leviathan’s not some ancient mythic creature, sir, it’s a crocodile. That word neesings, in King James’ time it meant snortings, well almost. I recited it to our Egyptian interpreter, and he said that’s what crocodiles do, they have a habit of inflating themselves and discharging heated vapour through their nostrils in a snorting kind of way, and in the sunlight it sparkles.’

            ‘It seems you’ve become a natural historian, too. You ought to take care. Natural history and preaching rarely mix, I find. Your congregation will want the fire-spitting dragon of the deep, Satan at the Hellmouth.’

            ‘It’s that picture Mr Tanner showed me, sir. I just can’t get it out of my head.’

            Mayne turned back to the river, amused. One of the officers, Lieutenant Tanner, the engineer in charge of the boatbuilding detachment, had brought along a small library of Greek and Latin literature dealing with the Nile, and one evening the more literary among the officers had amused themselves looking up references to crocodiles in Pliny and Plutarch and Herodotus. Several of them, including Mayne, had left the expedition camp on the way south through Egypt to visit Akhenaten’s capital at el-Amarna, and had been shown a towering image of the crocodile god Sobek carved into a rock face. Since then it had been imperative among the more sporting officers to bag one, as yet to no avail. Mayne had invited Jones to join them that evening because of his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible, virtually the only literature he had been exposed to as a boy, and he had quoted those lines from memory. As the port wine flowed and he grew bolder he told them a story he had heard of how a giant Nile crocodile thrashing its tail to pick up speed had leapt on land and chased a woman up a tree, dragging her down and into the water, never to be seen again. Tanner had gone one better and pulled out a print cut from The Life and Explorations of David Livingstone, hot off the press when he had left London; entitled ‘A Frightful Incident’, it showed a voluptuous naked woman swooning on her back on a rocky islet in the Nile, a crocodile the size of a dinosaur poised as if to ravage her. Jones had sat speechless, staring at the image with his mouth open, and then had rushed with it down to his mates around the fires a safe distance from the river, all of them in equal measure terrified of crocodiles and starved of female company in the six weeks since they had been allowed to visit the dens of Cairo on the voyage south.

Excerpt from Pharaoh by David Gibbins

Copyright © 2013 David Gibbins

First published in Great Britain in 2013 by HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP