BY CHIA EVERS
My dear Mr. Bradley…
Arthur Bradley twirled the waxed tips of his mustache into golden points as he studied the letter spread out on the ancient map that had drawn him here. Lacy still wouldn’t call him by his given name, but ‘my dear’ was progress, he thought. “My dear,” he murmured to himself. Yes, that would do.
He took up pen and paper. My dear Miss Sedgewick, he wrote, and blotted the ink when a knock at the door startled him.
“Yes?” he snapped. “Come in.”
The door opened to reveal a dark, timid face. It looked rather like the innkeeper, only smaller. “I beg your pardon, sir,” it said. “You have a visitor.”
It must be the airship captain. “Good. Show the gentleman up.”
“It isn’t a gentleman, sir.”
“No?” Captain Jorgensson must have sent one of his roughest crewmen, for the innkeeper’s – son, was it – to refuse him the title of gentleman.
“It’s a lady, sir.”
“No lady,” came a familiar voice. “A woman only, and one I’ll wager you weren’t expecting.”
“Mother.” Somehow, it did not surprise him. He had left her in London, and yet here she was, iron-bound corset, Suffragette sympathies and all.
She beamed at him.
The boy began to sidle away, but she reached out to catch his collar between strong fingers. “Fuad,” she said. “Wasn’t that your name?” He nodded, wide-eyed. “Fuad, I want you to run and tell my friends where to find me. They’re waiting on the Zephyr. Do you know where she’s docked?”
He nodded again, and ducked away from her with an ease that Arthur envied. He’d never slipped her grasp so easily.
“I’ve been waiting for the Zephyr,” he said.
“I know. Captain Jorgensson told me when I boarded her in Alexandria. I said you wouldn’t mind the delay.”
“But Mother,” he said, hating the adolescent whine in his voice, “how did you get here?”
“I told you, darling. On the Zephyr. Before that, there was a terrible little boat across the Mediterranean, and before that, it was the Express from Paris to Istanbul.”
“But what were you doing in Paris?” he asked stupidly. He was quite sure he’d left her in London.
“Shopping, darling. It is Christmas, after all.” She reached out to pat his cheek. “Are you quite well? You seem flushed.”
“I’m fine,” he said. He wasn’t. “Won’t you come in?”
“I will, thank you.” She swept past him and glanced around the room. “They have excellent housekeepers here. Your room is never so tidy at home.” She spotted the decanter on the sideboard and poured them each two fingers of Scotch. Inwardly, he quailed, but he took the drink without complaint. He couldn’t imagine what Miss Sedgewick would make of his mother’s masculine tippling.
“You brought friends,” he said. “Are you staying with them?”
“No, no. We’re coming with you.”
“Of course. I couldn’t bear to be away from you at Christmas, and dear Lacy agreed.”
“Dear Lacy?” He must have misheard.
He hadn’t. Miss Sedgewick’s soprano trill echoed down the hall. “Mr. Bradley!” she called. “I am so glad to see you.”
The Zephyr took to the sky the next day. Arthur sat brooding in the stern while Lacy and his mother exclaimed over the green ribbon of the Nile slipping away beneath them. They were dressed almost identically, in miles of white mosquito netting and brass-rimmed flight goggles.
“The ship has windows, Mother,” he had snarled, when she came down to breakfast with the ridiculous things perched on her head.
“Of course it does, darling,” she had said, smoothing his hair. “But they’re so au courant. Quite the thing in Paris, you know.”
When Lacy arrived a few minutes later, her goggles wrapped around the hat tucked beneath her arm, he had said it would be a shame if she hid her beautiful eyes behind smoked glass. He was pleased she left the goggles to adorn her hat, rather than plopping them across the bridge of her nose.
“I beg your pardon, sir.” It was Jenkins, his mother’s butler. The man had puffed up behind Miss Sedgewick the night before, beet-red in the heat, with a clanking valise clutched in his pudgy hands. Fuad had trailed after him, dragging his mother’s trunk. Miss Sedgewick’s luggage, all except the small carpetbag that held this morning’s dress and goggles, had been left aboard. Arthur thought that showed her good sense.
“I wanted you to know, sir, that I did try to talk them out of it. And then I tried to send a letter. Mrs. Bradley wouldn’t hear of it.”
“Thank you, Jenkins. I’m sure you did try.” Poor Jenkins. After more than forty years in Martha Bradley’s service, he must have known it was no use trying to dissuade her from whatever course had taken her fancy.
Just now, that course seemed to be tea. Captain Jorgensson, having seen his Zephyr safely away from the dock, was already seated. “Won’t you join us?” his mother asked.
“Isn’t that our silver tea service?” he asked.
“Of course it is,” she said. “You didn’t think I’d bring porcelain out to the jungle? I wouldn’t like it to get broken.”
The Zephyr set down a week out of Cairo, when the mountains rose too high to allow her safe passage. “This is the place, sir.”
Arthur lifted his head from his sodden pillow. He had been alternately wracked with chills and drenched with sweat, and had begun to envy his mother and Miss Sedgewick the yards of veiling fabric that kept the mosquitoes and biting flies off their skin.
“Thank you, Captain Jorgensson,” he croaked. The captain helped Arthur sit up, then steadied him when the world seemed to spin around him. Miss Sedgewick appeared at his elbow.
“Do lean on me, Mr. Bradley,” she said. “I’m quite strong.”
“I know you are,” he said, but he dragged himself to his feet. He wasn’t yet so demoralized he would accept her aid.
They must have been a strange sight, wending their way up the mountainside – him staggering, Jenkins panting, and the two women gliding along. His mother insisted the native bearers stay behind.
“It’s Christmas, darling,” she had said. He watched, dumbfounded, as she and Lacy distributed handsful of brightly wrapped trinkets to the crew.
“Are those Christmas crackers, Mother?”
“Of course they are, darling. It would hardly be Christmas without them.”
He had pulled his own cracker with ill-concealed bad humor. It had yielded up a paper crown, which Miss Sedgewick had draped across his brow. It clung there now, its color running in the ceaseless Monsoon rain. He longed to tear it off, but she smiled whenever she looked at him, so he let it be.
Jenkins sidled up beside him. “What are we looking for up here, sir?”
“The gold of an ancient civilization, Jenkins. I found a map in a shop in London, and I thought – well, I thought if I could find it, then when I asked Miss Sedgewick to marry me…”
“There!” his mother called.
He squinted through the rain. At the top of the trail, nearly concealed in the trees, a cave mouth gaped, right where the map had said it would be.
He hurried forward, but his mother and Miss Sedgewick had already cranked up their lanterns and stepped inside. The interior glittered under the harsh illumination.
“There’s your gold, sir,” Jenkins said.
There it was, indeed. The very walls were covered in the stuff. In the center of the room, an emerald-eyed idol glared from a gilded plinth.
“Oh!” Miss Sedgewick exclaimed. “It’s lovely.”
“I meant to bring it home to you,” he said.
Even in the glare of the lanterns, he could see the flush that crept into her cheeks. Did he dare think her eyes shone? He took a step toward her, but his mother’s voice cut through his romantic reverie.
“I hardly think that’s a good idea,” she said.
“What now, Mother?” he asked.
“It’s Christmas, Arthur. And whatever sort of heathen god that is, it is a god. I will not have you disturbing a god on Christmas Day. We can take its picture, though.” She turned to Jenkins. “Go and fetch your valise,” she said. “Just wait until you see the new camera I bought, Arthur. You’ll be amazed how small and light it is.”
Arthur looked to Miss Sedgewick, but she had already turned back to the golden idol. “It think it belongs here,” she said.
“Fine.” He nearly flung himself out of the cave and back into the rain, but he wouldn’t throw a tantrum like a child. Not in front of Miss Sedgewick. Instead, he helped Jenkins set up the camera, which was as small and light as his mother had promised.
As they left the cave, he couldn’t help but say, “I still think we should have taken it.”
Without a word, his mother stooped to pick up a rock and hurl it toward the golden statue. As it toppled from the plinth, its fall triggered a hidden mechanism that brought the ceiling down with a roar.
“Best to leave it where we found it, darling,” she said.
Miss Sedgewick reached out to brush stone dust off his lapel. “I do love you, Arthur,” she said. “But you really must learn to listen to your mother.”
Chia Evers is a writer, a lawyer, a dancer, a knitter, and a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop. She lives in Southern California with her husband, but can most often be found on Twitter, where she posts under the clever pseudonym ChiaLynn.