The Statue of Osiris

Submitted into Contest #151 in response to: Write about a character who keeps ending up in the same place.... view prompt

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Adventure Historical Fiction Suspense

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

London, 1892

If he hurried, getting into the museum would be easy. Reginald Coleridge made brisk pace through the streets of London, inky, midnight darkness spilling heavily over the buildings and seeping into recesses and alleyways. Outposts of warm orange light glowed from windows and streetlamps, staving off the twilight and enlightening styx-black puddles. He was used to this trip by now, had been making it regularly for the past few months. The regularity furnished Coleridge with some degree of confidence - for every undetected trip he gained an extra morsel of nerve - yet the compulsion to make the trips remained the same, if not markedly stronger each time.

He was only a few minutes late. He pressed on, angled into the drizzle, hands stuffed into his overcoat pockets and bowler hat tipped forward, through mostly vacant cobbled streets. Ornate, white stucco-clad Georgian buildings loomed on either side, aloof, perhaps judgemental. Occasional shadowy pedestrian figures or black carriages glistening with raindrops passed by, prompting flashes of nervousness as Coleridge did the utmost to project an air of casual inconspicuousness. He strode forward with as much purpose as he could muster, until the tall streets yielded and gave way to the grandiose British Museum, at once resplendent and imposing in its Greek-revival stonework.

Coleridge swallowed and took a deep breath. Threatening as the building seemed, he had found a chink in its stone armour, and in the complacency of its guards. He knew of an entrance, and of a gap in the security shift pattern. Bolstered by his experience of many previous successful infiltrations of the museum, he stole across the road and fell instinctively into his task. With adrenaline and bated breath, stealth and purpose, he found his way, once again, into the building.

His footsteps echoed in the dark, cavernous interior, shrouded as it was in perfect, delicate stillness. They punctuated the silence like footprints in smooth, wet, undisturbed sand. Coleridge found his way to the staircase, carefully fumbling his way up to the first floor. He traipsed along empty corridors. Past glass cabinets and along hard tiled floors which rang a resounding ‘clack’ with each step. Soon he felt the familiar doorknob, and pushed his way inside, wincing, muscles rigid at the creak before slipping in and closing the door with a conclusive, dull thud. He exhaled shakily and wedged the door from the inside.

After a few moments, he took off his coat and satchel, from which he retrieved matches, some small candles and a lantern. With a scrape he brought a match to light, dispersing a tiny glow across the chamber; the orange haze spread more generously once the lantern was lit. The room was not particularly large. It housed Egyptian artefacts, acquired from various British exploits in Egypt – confiscated from the French much earlier in the century, or taken during the recent archaeological surge which Coleridge had in fact been a part of. The ceiling was high, and the warm light danced across beautiful ancient Egyptian frescoes and wall paintings, dispersing through glass cabinets and bathing the contents, illuminating enrapturing turquoise shabti figures, canopic jars, and unflinching statues. A theatre of surreal animal-human deity faces stared back at Coleridge as he slicked back his hair and ran a finger through his moustache, preparing for the task at hand.

It took no time at this stage to find what he was looking for, he had returned here enough times; the life-sized, basalt statue of Osiris in the middle of the far wall, stood on a podium. It still terrified him. Its glaring stone eyes stared him down, set within a cold, judging, seemingly angry face, crowned with a monumental headdress and complete with a jutting false beard. He collected the candles, and a whip from his satchel. He removed his jacket and shirt, fingers shaking slightly over the buttons, unceremoniously dumping them next to the rest of his items. He walked over to the statue. Laid out the candles in a semi-circle around it, lighting each one. He stepped within the candle circle. Then dropped to his knees. Whip in his right hand.

With a piercing, resounding crack, Coleridge flicked the whip across his own back before the statue. He grunted mutely, repressing the urge to eject a scream. He felt the familiar split, the warm, small trickle of blood. Regardless of how many times he returned to this spot and repeated the ritual, it still felt the same. He always whipped six times in all, one for each shot. The statue stared back, seeing his guilt, yet still unforgiving.

His mind drifted back to Egypt, a year prior in 1891.

The robbery had gone horribly wrong. Coleridge and fellow officer Samuel Howard clumsily ran from the tomb, clutching canvas bags stuffed with artefacts, feet uncertain in the sand, breath ragged from panic and exertion. After what felt like an age running across the dunes, they collapsed upon reaching the pre-ordained spot, frantically dumped the bags in the pits they had dug and covered them with sand, before hotfooting back to the main expedition camp and into their tents, ready to pretend nothing had happened. It was not long after dawn broke that news of some commotion at the tomb began to make its way through the encampment. Coleridge had tried in vain to sleep. All he saw were the eyes of the statue.

This was a British-led archaeological expedition, now centred around the recent excavation of a hitherto undiscovered tomb dating from the New Kingdom, in the Valley of the Kings. And people were saying it had just been robbed. Not fully, mind, but a proportion of smaller items had gone missing. Nevertheless, it was not a total disaster for the excavation leaders. There were still ample treasures to make the trip worthwhile, of import to Egyptian history. Such is what Coleridge had expected; the robbery had been his idea initially, and he had planned it on such grounds; in the grand scheme of things, a few missing treasures would not be terribly missed. Why then, shouldn’t he and his friend Howard - who was soon won round to the raid – take advantage? It would mean far more to them than to the expedition as a whole.

The two were fairly high-ranking officials on site, and a week earlier had seen the opening of the tomb for the first time in over three-thousand years. As the leading archaeologists filed in and took stock of the contents, it was immediately clear that this was no ordinary find. It was enough to fill a whole floor in the British Museum, and a starscape of gold and shimmering colours dazzled in the lamplit antechambers. Nobody had ever seen anything like it; such was the magnitude of the discovery that Coleridge’s ostensible principles of conservation – of archaeology as a means to elucidate history - folded upon sight of the treasure. All he saw now was a life of wealth set out before him, if only he was ready to take the chance.

He deliberated for a little while, but eventually resolved to do a small raid. It should be simple enough, he had thought. In and out, don’t take too much, bury the loot until the most opportune time to send it back to England. He was high-ranking and sufficiently well-known on site not to raise too many eyebrows, and if he did it quickly enough, the treasure could be out of the tomb before it had been properly catalogued. Then resale at various auction houses shouldn’t raise too much suspicion. He confided in Howard, the only person who he felt was at once trustworthy and duplicitous enough for such a venture. Within just a few days the plan was in place.

The guards had been easy, far more so than they had expected. Coleridge had found them milling around site, let loose his silver tongue and promised them a cut of the takings if they agreed not to be at the tomb entrance during their particular shift. Wasn’t it terribly unfair, he had said, that only the top echelon of the expedition would receive any returns from the tomb’s discovery? This oratory was more than enough. All that was left was to source some equipment; some lanterns, bags and a revolver; just in case anybody needed to be threatened, he thought.

On the agreed night, at the agreed spot, Coleridge found Howard, dust scarf around his face, clothes tugged by the prevailing wind. The two were quiet as they trudged across the dunes, the full-moon hanging stark and white against the twilit sky flecked with stars. Light winds scattered thin gusts of sand across the peaks and troughs. The night was cool and dark blue. It seemed as though even the gods and sleeping pharaohs were unaware of the presence of the two men, yet all the same, Coleridge’s heart was in his mouth as he rounded upon the tomb. The guards, though, true to their word, were absent, and the prospect of success – somewhat closer now - imbued the two with a steely resolve. Coleridge made his way to the makeshift door, set up by the workers, guarding the tomb. Opened with a key. Then crouched in after a brief, wide-eyed glance over the shoulders.

Leaving the door for Howard, Coleridge immediately set to taking out and lighting a lantern, and lowering his own dust scarf. With trembling hands, he held the light aloft and advanced down the entrance corridor and into the tomb. Sand and rock soon gave way to radiant white walls, decorated lavishly with paintings of deities and scenes from life, saturated with rich colour, as fresh as the day the tomb was sealed. Two dimensional gods and monarchs presided over the frescoes, arms outstretched, other figures depicted smaller in varying stages of subjugation. Hushed and crouched, the two crept onward, until the corridor opened up into a main chamber, upheld in the centre by two rows of square columns twinkling with gold leaf and luxurious with hieroglyphs. Branching off from various walls of the main chamber were a series of antechambers. Hand on his revolver, not breathing, Coleridge peered into each room. Only when he was certain nobody else was here did he deflate the tension with an exhale, quickly reach for his bag and tersely say to Howard that they only had ten minutes.

The tomb had only recently been discovered and so most of the treasure was still in place. Some had been moved, some boxed, yet most was still here. As Howard quickly made way for the burial chamber, accessed through the wall opposite the entrance corridor, Coleridge turned around. There, against the wall of the main chamber, next to the corridor passage, was the statue. He was immediately arrested, as it seemed to stare back with glowering eyes. It was Osiris, god of life, and the grim stone expression seemed to be angry, at the defilement of the tomb. Momentarily transfixed, Coleridge shook his head and dismissed his fragile state of mind. His eyes began roving for the pickings of greatest value. All the while he felt the statues eyes boring into him.

A few minutes had elapsed, bags had filled, and both were now in the burial chamber when they heard a voice. Perhaps Arabic? Then, in a thick local accent, an inquisitive, tentative ‘hello?’. The two froze and stared at one another. In the shaking voice and the approaching lamplight, it was possible to imagine the nervous stance and the slow walk of the approaching figure as he came down the corridor, each careful footstep a knell ringing around the tomb. Coleridge and Howard ducked for cover as the figure entered the main chamber. The figure was stood in the central section when Coleridge gulped, popped out from cover, and pointed his revolver square at the new arrival. He was clearly a worker, barely twenty, who must have seen them enter the tomb, or perhaps grown suspicious at the lack of guards or at the orange glow of light emanating from the entrance. His eyes immediately grew to the size of saucers and his hands flew up. Coleridge was trembling; this was not supposed to happen.

Then there was a change in the worker. His eyes narrowed, and his mouth opened slightly in realisation of what was happening. The expression hardened and brows furrowed. Thief! He cried. Coleridge felt a wave of hot panic coursing through his being. Then a sharp intake of breath. Recognition. ‘Mr Coleridge! Mr Howard!’ Then all of a sudden, the worker frantically turned on his heels and bolted back towards the corridor. His gait was angular and his arms flailed as he ran back towards the entrance, and with him ran all of Coleridge’s worst fears. Of detection, of dismissal, of disrepute, of punishment and of poverty. And the fear – and soon rage - came in full force, with each haggard step the worker took.

The shots, though alien in hindsight, flew instinctively with calculated, murderous accuracy from Coleridge’s revolver. The scene, which seemed to have been playing in slow motion, fell back hard into reality as the workers body careened off balance and crumpled across an object, red splotches spreading across his pure white robe. Coleridge shakily stood up and moved towards the corpse. With dread, he saw that it had spread over the feet of the statue. Then a blur, as he dropped to his knees, hands to his head, as the whole tomb seemed to shake around him and the statue’s face seemed to curl into a venomous, soul-eating picture of malice. Howard’s incomprehensible shouting and manoeuvring and a ringing in the ear were all Coleridge could make out as the chamber drifted into soft-focus, all except Osiris’ piercing, penetrative basalt eyes which pervaded everything, surrounding and engulfing and omniscient, reaching into every fibre of his being, judging and hating. There and then he firmly believed he was cursed, that the statue had seen him and his murderousness, and that the old gods were present, and frothing with fury, ready to smite him. His body felt puny and infinitesimal as he moaned and writhed on the floor.

A sharp kick from Howard stopped the chamber from spinning. He thrust Coleridge his bag, and warned him that they needed to go, now. Carried by nothing but survival instinct, Coleridge followed Howard out of the tomb, stumbling and panting. The run across the desert was hellish. Osiris was following them, Coleridge cried. His face was in the night sky, his stone form kept shooting out from the sand in front of them, he was behind them as they ran from the tomb. They reached the pits they had dug, and in the brief respite Howard was saying something to Coleridge, but his voice was echoing. It was something about trauma and stress, about Coleridge merely hallucinating, then something practical about the fact that people likely didn’t hear the shots, but that they would certainly find the body soon enough. Yet Coleridge still could not see anything other than the statue, even after they had found their way back into camp and into the safety of their tents.

Coleridge had eased marginally over the coming days and weeks. The missing treasure and the murder had been attributed to some local gang of bandits, likely escaped by now. Howard had ensured the bags were discreetly and securely delivered to England. The two left Egypt within a few months. Slowly, the rest of the findings from the tomb were catalogued by the excavation expedition and sent to various places, with most ending up in the British Museum.

But that night never really left him. When Coleridge heard that the statue had found its way to England and the museum, he felt a supernatural compulsion to visit and supplicate. Although the initial stupor had subsided and he could function from day to day, the visions and nightmares, when they came, were as vivid as that night in the tomb. Any time during his waking hours, Osiris could invade his mind, that god of life before whom he had taken life. He was left white, sweating and shaken, sometimes in public, as the god came to admonish his sins. Something primal pulled him to the statue once it arrived in England, and he felt the need to profess his guilt before it in the hopes that the visions would subside. The first time he crept into the museum and performed the first ritual, the guilt seemed to ease and ebb with the blood drawn from the whip, and Osiris did leave him alone for some time. But the god returned. And so too did Coleridge return, to perform the ritual again. And so it continued, as the urges became more frequent and the ritual seemed to offer fewer days of respite each time.

He was now comfortably off with money from the treasure haul (sales were managed by Howard), although he spent little of it, fearing it would worsen his mental state. He was soon to be married, and to take up a new post at the foreign office. But every day the urges to return to the statue grew stronger.  

June 22, 2022 23:52

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2 comments

Michelle Konde
04:27 Jun 26, 2022

both detailed and fast-paced. Nice work!

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Alasdair Perry
08:09 Jun 26, 2022

Glad you enjoyed, thank you!

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