Friday, November 4, 2011

Behold the Hypocephalus!

“Behold the hypocephalus!” Poe cried, and Jed Coltrane, leaning against the wall near the rear door of the stateroom, resisted snorting out loud.  At least, he thought, the poor bastard wasn’t coughing up a lung.  He wondered how much time the Richmond doctors had given Poe to live—he didn’t think it could have been very long. 
It was a bally, in the end, a free show.  At least it was free from Jed’s point of view—the entire price of admission was two cents, and Captain Dan Jones took both of them.  But a free show now would mean better word of mouth for the paid show later.  Even a carnival without a secret mission put on ballies from time to time.
The hypocephalus, which to the dwarf sounded like the name of a particularly nasty strain of a soldier’s disease, was pinned against an upright display board.  It was a complicated circular diagram, full of little drawings of stick figures, thrones, animal-headed people, stars and squiggles, all inked onto an old-looking piece of yellow cloth that might have been linen.
It looked Egyptian.  Like the scarabs, though, it was bunkum, and Jed knew it.  Some Richmond clever-dick had painted it.  Poe always called it the hypnotic hypocephalus, but Hunley and his boys were geniuses, and Jed figured you could probably wear the thing over your face and it would let you breathe underwater or spit flame or deflect bullets.  Poe probably knew, but he’d never told Jed.  Still, bunkum aside, he did his best to look fascinated and attentive, to encourage the audience be fascinated and attentive, too.
Poe stood to one side of the hypocephalus in his full carnival-gypsy-snake oil-doctor costume, on a low platform that looked improvised out of a wooden pallet; for that matter, Jed reflected, he hadn’t seen his boss out of costume since they’d left Richmond.  He hadn’t even taken off the fake nose and beard, unless he’d done so out of the dwarf’s sight.  To the other side of the hypocephalus stood the Englishman Burton, jaw resolutely clenched and eyes burning.
“Behold,” Burton called out his stubborn counter-introduction, “Doctor Archibald’s famous ancient Egyptian pillow!”
The old carny in Jed almost laughed at the big explorer—he’d done such a good job increasing interest and therefore attendance, Jed doubted any shill could have done any better.  The stateroom of the Liahona looked like it might have been built to seat twenty for dinner.  Whatever table usually filled its floor was gone, though, and in thirty-odd folding wooden chairs, paying passengers sat and stared.  Burton’s associate, the diplomat Absalom Fearnley-Standish, was one of them.  He sat beside a pair of empty seats, looking lonely and forlorn as he protected them with a battered top hat that was missing part of its brim.  No sign of the woman Jed was waiting for, though.  That was a shame; it wouldn’t hurt to collect a little cash from the evening’s show, but really, of course, it was supposed to be a distraction.  Oh, well, maybe he’d have to be satisfied with just dealing with the Englishmen.
Poe smiled at Burton’s jab and continued.  Even in the weak electric light of the stateroom (pulsing blue from glass globes pegged in two rows to the room’s ceiling), he wore his smoked spectacles.  If pressed, he would claim that his eyes were weak, but of course the glasses were an important component of his disguise.
As was the show.
“My colleague would describe the great pyramids of Giza as mere tombs,” Poe said with a wise and condescending smile.  “The sorcerer-priests of Memphis and of Thebes have long had the practice, handed down to them by their forefathers, who learned the dark arts at the feet of Hermes Trismegistos, the great Ibis-headed Thoth himself, of sleeping with their heads upon cloths such as this.”  He locked his eyes upon a pair of spinsterly women in the front row and proceeded to talk to them intimately, as if giving a private lecture, switching his gaze exclusively back and forth between the two.  “You observe the great throne at the center, the rightways upper section and the inverted underworld, the stars and the symbols of the great expanse of earth.  The hypocephalus is nothing less than a map of the universe, as known to the ancients, and dreaming Egyptian sorcerers drew from it the power to control their dreams… and the minds of their fellows.”
The two ladies gasped a prim objection and a murmur crept through the audience.
“Bullshit!” roared Burton, his face turning purple.  “I mean, nonsense!  Nonsense of the highest order, and reeking of base deceit and fraud!  This man owes you all a refund!  There is no basis for any of this hogwash, these explanations are not scientific!  What kind of Doctor are you, man?”
The front stateroom door opened and the woman Jed was waiting for slipped in.  He let no expression cross his face, but felt a satisfying mixture of pride in the success of their distraction and anticipation of the crimes he was about to commit.  He discreetly patted the bulges in his jacket to reassure himself that he was appropriately armed.  The woman sat by the diplomat, as Poe had suggested she likely would, and Jed continued to wait.  He’d give her a minute to settle in before he exited, just in case. 
The pale Englishman looked disappointed at her arrival—or maybe he was disappointed that he was still holding an empty seat.
Poe bowed in mock deference.  “I’m sure we would all be eager to hear a proper scientific explanation of the hypocephalus, sir,” he said in a wheedling, groveling way that again almost made Jed laugh.
“There is none!” Burton barked loudly, his fists clenched and punching at the air.  “We don’t know what they’re for!” 
Poe affected a look of pitying disappointment.  “No?” he said.
“No,” Burton growled.  He punched his forehead and jaw forward, like a bull glaring at a matador.  “They’ve been found under the heads of a few mummies, priestly mummies, and there is no scientific explanation for them.”
Poe let his spectacles wander out over the breathless crowd in the stateroom.  “They lay under the heads of priestly mummies,” he restated the Englishman, “and science cannot explain what they were for!”  He smiled puckishly.

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