At Abdul Ali's Grave by E. F. Benson
Luxor, as most of those who have been there will allow, is a place
of notable charm, and boasts many attractions for the traveller,
chief among which he will reckon an excellent hotel containing a
billiard-room, a garden fit for the gods to sit in, any quantity of
visitors, at least a weekly dance on board a tourist steamer, quail
shooting, a climate as of Avilion, and a number of stupendously
ancient monuments for those archeologically inclined. But to certain
others, few indeed in number, but almost fanatically convinced of
their own orthodoxy, the charm of Luxor, like some sleeping beauty,
only wakes when these things cease, when the hotel has grown empty
and the billiard-marker "has gone for a long rest" to Cairo, when the
decimated quail and the decimating tourist have fled northwards, and
the Theban plain, Dana to a tropical sun, is a gridiron across which
no man would willingly make a journey by day, not even if Queen
Hatasoo herself should signify that she would give him audience on
the terraces of Deir-el-Bahari.
A suspicion however that the fanatic few were right, for in other
respects they were men of estimable opinions, induced me to examine
their convictions for myself, and thus it came about that two years
ago, certain days toward the beginning of June saw me still there, a
Much tobacco and the length of summer days had assisted us to the
analysis of the charm of which summer in the south is possessed, and
Weston--one of the earliest of the elect--and myself had discussed it
at some length, and though we reserved as the principal ingredient a
nameless something which baffled the chemist, and must be felt to be
understood, we were easily able to detect certain other drugs of
sight and sound, which we were agreed contributed to the whole. A few
of them are here sub joined.
The waking in the warm darkness just before dawn to find that the
desire for stopping in bed fails with the awakening.
The silent start across the Nile in the still air with our horses,
who, like us, stand and sniff at the incredible sweetness of the
coming morning without apparently finding it less wonderful in
The moment infinitesimal in duration but infinite in sensation,
just before the sun rises, when the grey shrouded river is struck
suddenly out of darkness, and becomes a sheet of green bronze.
The rose flush, rapid as a change of colour in some chemical
combination, which shoots across the sky from east to west, followed
immediately by the sunlight which catches the peaks of the western
hills, and flows down like some luminous liquid.
The stir and whisper which goes through the world: a breeze
springs up; a lark soars, and sings; the boatman shouts "Yallah,
Yallah"; the horses toss their heads.
The subsequent ride.
The subsequent breakfast on our return.
The subsequent absence of anything to do.
At sunset the ride into the desert thick with the scent of warm
barren sand, which smells like nothing else in the world, for it
smells of nothing at all.
The blaze of the tropical night.
Converse with the fellahin, who are the most charming and least
accountable people on the face of the earth except when tourists are
about, and when in consequence there is no thought but
Lastly, and with this we are concerned, the possibility of odd
The beginning of the things which make this tale occurred four
days ago, when Abdul Mi, the oldest man in the village, died
suddenly, full of days and riches. Both, some thought, had probably
been somewhat exaggerated, but his relations affirmed without
variation that he had as many years as he had English pounds, and
that each was a hundred. The apt roundness of these numbers was
incontestable, the thing was too neat not to be true, and before he
had been dead for twenty-four hours it was a matter of orthodoxy. But
with regard to his relations, that which turned their bereavement,
which must soon have occurred, into a source of blank dismay instead
of pious resignation, was that not one of these English pounds, not
even their less satisfactory equivalent in notes, which, out of the
tourist season, are looked upon at Luxor as a not very dependable
variety of Philosopher's stone, though certainly capable of producing
gold under favourable circumstances, could be found. Abdul Au with
his hundred years was dead, his century of sovereigns--they might as
well have been an annuity--were dead with him, and his son Mohamed,
who had previously enjoyed a sort of brevet rank in anticipation of
the event, was considered to be throwing far more dust in the air
than the genuine affection even of a chief mourner wholly
Abdul, it is to be feared, was not a man of stereotyped
respectability; though full of years and riches, he enjoyed no great
reputation for honour. He drank wine whenever he could get it, he ate
food during the days of Ramadan, scornful of the fact, when his
appetite desired it, he was supposed to have the evil eye, and in his
last moments he was attended by the notorious Achmet, who is well
known here to be practised in Black Magic, and has been suspected of
the much meaner crime of robbing the bodies of those lately dead. For
in Egypt, while to despoil the bodies of ancient kings and priests is
a privilege for which advanced and learned societies vie with each
other, to rob the corpses of your contemporaries is considered the
deed of a dog.
Mohamed, who soon exchanged the throwing of dust in the air for
the more natural mode of expressing chagrin, which is to gnaw the
nails, told us in confidence that he suspected Achmet of having
ascertained the secret of where his father's money was, but it
appeared that Achmet had as blank a face as anybody when his patient,
who was striving to make some communication to him, went out into the
great silence, and the suspicion that he knew where the money was
gave way, in the minds, of those who were competent to form an
estimate of his character, to a but dubious regret that he had just
failed to learn that very important fact.
So Abdul died and was buried, and we all went to the funeral
feast, at which we ate more roast meat than one naturally cares about
at five in the afternoon on a June day, in consequence of which
Weston and I, not requiring dinner, stopped at home after our return
from the ride into the desert, and talked to Mohamed, Abdul's son,
and Hussein, Abdul's youngest grandson, a boy of about twenty, who is
also our valet, cook and housemaid, and they together woefully
narrated of the money that had been and was not, and told us
scandalous tales about Achmet concerning his weakness for cemeteries.
They drank coffee and smoked, for though Hussein was our servant, we
had been that day the guests of his father, and shortly after they
had gone, up came Machmout.
Machmout, who says he thinks he is twelve, but does not know for
certain, is kitchen-maid, groom and gardener, and has to an
extraordinary degree some occult power resembling clairvoyance.
Weston, who is a member of the Society for Psychical Research, and
the tragedy of whose life has been the detection of the fraudulent
medium Mrs. Blunt, says that it is all thought-reading, and has made
notes of many of Machmout's performances, which may subsequently turn
out to be of interest. Thought-reading, however, does not seem to me
to fully explain the experience which followed Abdul's funeral, and
with Machmout I have to put it down to White Magic, which should be a
very inclusive term, or to Pure Coincidence, which is even more
inclusive, and will cover all the inexplicable phenomena of the
world, taken singly. Machmout's method of unloosing the forces of
White Magic is simple, being the ink-mirror known by name to many,
and it is as follows.
A little black ink is poured into the palm of Machmout's hand, or,
as ink has been at a premium lately owing to the last post-boat from
Cairo which contained stationery for us having stuck on a sand-bank,
a small piece of black American cloth about an inch in diameter is
found to be a perfect substitute. Upon this he gazes. After five or
ten minutes his shrewd monkey-like expression is struck from his
face, his eyes, wide open, remain fixed on the cloth, a complete
rigidity sets in over his muscles, and he tells us of the curious
things he sees. In whatever position he is, in that position he
remains without the deflection of a hair's breadth until the ink is
washed off or the cloth removed. Then he looks up and says
"Khahás," which means, "It is finished."
We only engaged Machmout's services as second general domestic a
fortnight ago, but the first evening he was with us he came upstairs
when he had finished his work, and said, "I will show you White
Magic; give me ink," and proceeded to describe the front hall of our
house in London, saying that there were two horses at the door, and
that a man and woman soon came out, gave the horses each a piece of
bread and mounted. The thing was so probable that by the next mail I
wrote asking my mother to write down exactly what she was doing and
where at half-past five (English time) on the evening of June 12. At
the corresponding time in Egypt Machmout was describing speaking to
us of a "sitt" (lady) having tea in a room which he described with
some minuteness, and I am waiting anxiously for her letter. The
explanation which Weston gives us of all these phenomena is that a
certain picture of people I know is present in my mind, though I may
not be aware of it,--present to my subliminal self, I think, he
says,--and that I give an unspoken suggestion to the hypnotised
Machmout. My explanation is that there isn't any explanation, for no
suggestion on my part would make my brother go out and ride at the
moment when Machmout says he is so doing (if indeed we find that
Machmout's visions are chronologically correct). Consequently I
prefer the open mind and am prepared to believe anything. Weston,
however, does not speak quite so calmly or scientifically about
Machmout's last performance, and since it took place he has almost
entirely ceased to urge me to become a member of the Society for
Psychical Research, in order that I may no longer be hidebound by
Machmout will not exercise these powers if his own folk are
present, for he says that when he is in this state, if a man who knew
Black Magic was in the room, or knew that he was practising White
Magic, he could get the spirit who presides over the Black Magic to
kill the spirit of White Magic, for the Black Magic is the more
potent, and the two are foes. And as the spirit of White Magic is on
occasions a powerful friend--he had before now befriended Machmout in
a manner which I consider incredible--Machmout is very desirous that
he should abide long with him. But Englishmen it appears do not know
the Black Magic, so with us he is safe. The spirit of Black Magic, to
speak to whom it is death, Machmout saw once "between heaven and
earth, and night and day," so he phrases it, on the Karnak road. He
may be known, he told us, by the fact that he is of paler skin than
his people, that he has two long teeth, one in each corner of his
mouth, and that his eyes, which are white all over, are as big as the
eyes of a horse.
Machmout squatted himself comfortably in the corner, and I gave
him the piece of black American cloth. As some minutes must elapse
before he gets into the hypnotic state in which the visions begin, I
strolled out on to the balcony for coolness. It was the hottest night
we had yet had, and though the sun had set three hours, the
thermometer still registered close on 100º.
Above, the sky seemed veiled with grey, where it should have been
dark velvety blue, and a fitful puffing wind from the south
threatened three days of the sandy intolerable khamseen. A little way
up the street to the left was a small café in front of which
were glowing and waning little glowworm specks of light from the
water pipes of Arabs sitting out there in the dark. From inside came
the click of brass castanets in the hands of some dancing-girl,
sounding sharp and precise against the wailing bagpipe music of the
strings and pipes which accompany these movements which Arabs love
and Europeans think so unpleasing. Eastwards the sky was paler and
luminous, for the moon was imminently rising, and even as I looked
the red rim of the enormous disc cut the line of the desert, and on
the instant, with a curious aptness, one of the Arabs outside the
café broke out into that wonderful chant--"I cannot sleep for
longing for thee, O full moon. Far is thy throne over Mecca, slip
down, O beloved, to me."
Immediately afterwards I heard the piping monotone of Machmout's
voice begin, and in a moment or two I went inside.
We have found that the experiments gave the quickest result by
contact, a fact which confirmed Weston in his explanation of them by
thought transference of some elaborate kind, which I confess I cannot
understand. He was writing at a table in the window when I came in,
but looked up.
"Take his hand," he said; "at present he is quite incoherent."
"Do you explain that?" I asked.
"It is closely analogous, so Myers thinks, to talking in sleep. He
has been saying something about a tomb. Do make a suggestion, and see
if he gives it right. He is remarkably sensitive, and he responds
quicker to you than to me. Probably Abdul's funeral suggested the
A sudden thought struck me.
"Hush!" I said, "I want to listen."
Machmout's head was thrown a little back, and he held the hand in
which was the piece of cloth rather above his face. As usual he was
talking very slowly, and in a high staccato voice, absolutely unlike
his usual tones.
"On one side of the grave," he pipes, "is a tamarisk tree, and the
green beetles make fantasia about it. On the other side is a mud
wall. There are many other graves about, but they are all asleep.
This is the grave, because it is awake, and it moist and not
"I thought so," said Weston. "It is Abdul's grave he is talking
"There is a red moon sitting on the desert," continued Machmout,
"and it is now. There is the puffing of khamseen, and much dust
coming. The moon is red with dust, and because it is low."
"Still sensitive to external conditions," said Weston. "That is
rather curious. Pinch him, will you?"
I pinched Machmout; he did not pay the slightest attention.
"In the last house of the street, and in the doorway stands a man.
Ah! ah!" cried the boy, suddenly, "it is the Black Magic he knows.
Don't let him come. He is going out of the house," he shrieked, "he
is coming--no, he is going the other way towards the moon and the
grave. He has the Black Magic with him, which can raise the dead, and
he has a murdering knife, and a spade. I cannot see his face, for the
Black Magic is between it and my eyes."
Weston had got up, and, like me, was hanging on Machmout's
"We will go there," he said. "Here is an opportunity of testing
it. Listen a moment."
"He is walking, walking, walking," piped Machmout, "still walking
to the moon and the grave. The moon sits no longer on the desert, but
has sprung up a little way."
I pointed out of the window.
"That at any rate is true," I said.
Weston took the cloth out of Machmout's hand, and the piping
ceased. In a moment he stretched himself, and rubbed his eyes.
"Khalás," he said.
"Yes, it is Khalás."
"Did I tell you of the sitt in England?" he asked.
"Yes, oh, yes," I answered; "thank you, little Machmout. The White
Magic was very good to-night. Get you to bed."
Machmout trotted obediently out of the room, and Weston closed the
door after him.
"We must be quick," he said. "It is worth while going and giving
the thing a chance, though I wish he had seen something less
gruesome. The odd thing is that he was not at the funeral, and yet he
describes the grave accurately. What do you make of it?"
"I make that the White Magic has shown Machmout that somebody with
Black Magic is going to Abdul's grave, perhaps to rob it," I answered
"What are we to do when we get there?" asked Weston.
"See the Black Magic at work. Personally I am in a blue funk. So
"There is no such thing as Black Magic," said Weston. "Ah, I have
it. Give me that orange."
Weston rapidly skinned it, and cut from the rind two circles as
big as a five shilling piece, and two long, white fangs of skin. The
first he fixed in his eyes, the two latter in the corners of his
"The Spirit of Black Magic?" I asked.
He took up a long black burnous and wrapped it round him. Even in
the bright lamp light, the spirit of Black Magic was a sufficiently
"I don't believe in Black Magic," he said, "but others do. If it
is necessary to put a stop to--to anything that is going on, we will
hoist the man on his own petard. Come along. Whom do you suspect it
is--I mean, of course, who was the person you were thinking of when
your thoughts were transferred to Machmout."
"What Machmout said," I answered, "suggested Achmet to me."
Weston indulged in a laugh of scientific incredulity, and we set
The moon, as the boy had told us, was just clear of the horizon,
and as it rose higher, its colour at first red and sombre, like the
blaze of some distant conflagration, paled to a tawny yellow. The hot
wind from the south, blowing no longer fitfully but with a steadily
increasing violence, was thick with sand, and of an incredibly
scorching heat, and the tops of the palm trees in the garden of the
deserted hotel on the right were lashing themselves to and fro with a
harsh rattle of dry leaves. The cemetery lay on the outskirts of the
village, and, as long as our way lay between the mud walls of the
huddling street, the wind came to us only as the heat from behind
closed furnace doors. Every now and then with a whisper and whistle
rising into a great buffeting flap, a sudden whirlwind of dust would
scour some twenty yards along the road, and then break like a
shore-quenched wave against one or other of the mud walls or throw
itself heavily against a house and fall in a shower of sand. But once
free of obstructions we were opposed to the full heat and blast of
the wind which blew full in our teeth. It was the first summer
khamseen of the year, and for the moment I wished I had gone north
with the tourist and the quail and the billiard marker, for khamseen
fetches the marrow out of the bones, and turns the body to blotting
We passed no one in the street, and the only sound we heard,
except the wind, was the howling of moonstruck dogs.
The cemetery is surrounded by a tall mud-built wall, and
sheltering for a few moments under this we discussed our movements.
The row of tamarisks close to which the tomb lay went down the centre
of the graveyard, and by skirting the wall outside and climbing
softly over where they approached it, the fury of the wind might help
us to get near the grave without being seen, if anyone happened to be
there. We had just decided on this, and were moving on to put the
scheme into execution, when the wind dropped for a moment, and in the
silence we could hear the chump of the spade being driven into the
earth, and what gave me a sudden thrill of intimate horror, the cry
of the carrion-feeding hawk from the dusky sky just overhead.
Two minutes later we were creeping up in the shade of the
tamarisks, to where Abdul had been buried. The great green beetles
which live on the trees were flying about blindly, and once or twice
one dashed into my face with a whirr of mail-clad wings. When we were
within some twenty yards of the grave we stopped for a moment, and,
looking cautiously out from our shelter of tamarisks, saw the figure
of a man already waist deep in the earth, digging out the newly
turned grave. Weston, who was standing behind me, had adjusted the
characteristics of the spirit of Black Magic so as to be ready for
emergencies, and turning round suddenly, and finding myself unawares
face to face with that realistic impersonation, though my nerves are
not precariously strong, I could have found it within me to shriek
aloud. But that unsympathetic man of iron only shook with suppressed
laughter, and, holding the eyes in his hand, motioned me forward
again without speaking to where the trees grew thicker. There we
stood not a dozen yards away from the grave.
We waited, I suppose, for some ten minutes, while the man, whom we
saw to be Achmet, toiled on at his impious task. He was entirely
naked, and his brown skin glistened with the dews of exertion in the
moonlight. At times he chattered in a cold uncanny manner to himself,
and once or twice he stopped for breath. Then he began scraping the
earth away with his hands, and soon afterwards searched in his
clothes, which were lying near, for a piece of rope, with which he
stepped into the grave, and in a moment reappeared again with both
ends in his hands. Then, standing astride the grave, he pulled
strongly, and one end of the coffin appeared above the ground. He
chipped a piece of the lid away to make sure that he had the right
end, and then, setting it upright, wrenched off the top with his
knife, and there faced us, leaning against the coffin lid, the small
shrivelled figure of the dead Abdul, swathed like a baby in
I was just about to motion the spirit of Black Magic to make his
appearance, when Machmout's words came into my head: "He had with him
the Black Magic which can raise the dead," and sudden overwhelming
curiosity, which froze disgust and horror into chill unfeeling
things, came over me.
"Wait," I whispered to Weston, "he will use the Black Magic."
Again the wind dropped for a moment, and again, in the silence
that came with it, I heard the chiding of the hawk overhead, this
time nearer, and thought I heard more birds than one.
Achmet meantime had taken the covering from off the face, and had
undone the swathing band, which at the moment after death is bound
round the chin to close the jaw, and in Arab burial is always left
there, and from where we stood I could see that the jaw dropped when
the bandage was untied, as if, though the wind blew towards us with a
ghastly scent of mortality on it, the muscles were not even now set,
though the man had been dead sixty hours. But still a rank and
burning curiosity to see what this unclean ghoul would do next
stifled all other feelings in my mind. He seemed not to notice, or,
at any rate, to disregard that mouth gaping awry, and moved about
nimbly in the moonlight.
He took from a pocket of his clothes, which were lying near, two
small black objects, which now are safely embedded in the mud at the
bottom of the Nile, and rubbed them briskly together.
By degrees they grew luminous with a sickly yellow pallor of
light, and from his hands went up a wavy, phosphorescent flame. One
of these cubes he placed in the open mouth of the corpse, the other
in his own, and, taking the dead man closely in his arms as though he
would indeed dance with death, he breathed long breaths from his
mouth into that dead cavern which was pressed to his. Suddenly he
started back with a quick-drawn breath of wonder and perhaps of
horror, and stood for a space as if irresolute, for the cube which
the dead man held instead of lying loosely in the jaw was pressed
tight between clenched teeth. After a moment of irresolution he
stepped back quickly to his clothes again, and took up from near them
the knife with which he had stripped off the coffin lid, and holding
this in one hand behind his back, with the other he took out the cube
from the dead man's mouth, though with a visible exhibition of force,
"Abdul," he said, "I am your friend, and I swear I will give your
money to Mohamed, if you will tell me where it is."
Certain I am that the lips of the dead moved, and the eyelids
fluttered for a moment like the wings of a wounded bird, but at that
sight the horror so grew on me that I was physically incapable of
stifling the cry that rose to my lips, and Achmet turned round. Next
moment the complete Spirit of Black Magic glided out of the shade of
the trees, and stood before him. The wretched man stood for a moment
without stirring, then, turning with shaking knees to flee, he
stepped back and fell into the grave he had just opened.
Weston turned on me angrily, dropping the eyes and the teeth of
"You spoiled it all," he cried. "It would perhaps have been the
most interesting..." and his eye lighted on the dead Abdul, who
peered open-eyed from the coffin, then swayed, tottered, and fell
forward, face downwards on the ground close to him. For one moment he
lay there, and then the body rolled slowly on to its back without
visible cause of movement, and lay staring into the sky. The face was
covered with dust, but with the dust was mingled fresh blood. A nail
had caught the cloth that wound him, underneath which, as usual, were
the clothes in which he had died, for the Arabs do not wash their
dead, and it had torn a great rent through them all, leaving the
right shoulder bare.
Weston strove to speak once, but failed. Then:
"I will go and inform the police," he said, "if you will stop
here, and see that Achmet does not get out."
But this I altogether refused to do, and, after covering the body
with the coffin to protect it from the hawks, we secured Achmet's
arms with the rope he had already used that night, and took him off
Next morning Mohamed came to see us.
"I thought Achmet knew where the money was," he said
"Where was it?"
"In a little purse tied round the shoulder. The dog had already
begun stripping it. See"--and he brought it out of his pocket--"it
is all there in those English notes, five pounds each, and there are
twenty of them."
Our conclusion was slightly different, for even Weston will allow
that Achmet hoped to learn from dead lips the secret of the treasure,
and then to kill the man anew and bury him. But that is pure
The only other point of interest lies in the two black cubes which
we picked up, and found to be graven with curious characters. These I
put one evening into Machmout's hand, when he was exhibiting to us
his curious powers of "thought transference." The effect was that he
screamed aloud, crying out that the Black Magic had come, and though
I did not feel certain about that, I thought they would be safer in
mid-Nile. Weston grumbled a little, and said that he had wanted to
take them to the British Museum, but that I feel sure was an