Death in a Desert Land
“So, what do you make of it?” asked Davison as he took the two letters from me.
I did not answer immediately. Too many questions were crowding my head. I took a sip of iced soda water and gazed across the terrace of the hotel to the Tigris below. A lonely boatman was singing a queer, discordant song that brought back to me the ghosts of the past.
“And the handwriting is definitely that of Gertrude Bell?”
“It seems so,” said Davison, peering at the scrawl again. “Someone who knows about these kinds of things has compared the letters to others she wrote to her father and stepmother, and although it’s difficult to say for certain, there are particular elements of style—such as the distinctive way she formed her d’s, for example, with a curious backwards slope—that suggest they were indeed written by Miss Bell.”
“I’ve always understood that she died of an illness—pneumonia or something bronchial,” I said, remembering the obituaries I had read of the famous adventurer and Arabist when she died in July 1926. At that time I had been in the midst of my own troubles, drowning in a sea of grief after the death of my mother, valiantly trying to hold together a marriage that was falling apart at the
seams, battling a creative block that was driving me to the edge of reason.
“Yes, that was the story put out by the family,” said Davison. “But according to the doctor who examined her, Miss Bell died from barbiturate poisoning. A bottle of Dial tablets was found by her bedside at her house here in Baghdad. Of course, no one wanted to draw attention to the fact that her death, or so it was thought, was a suicide.”
“And tell me again how these letters came to light.”
“It had been thought that her family had taken possession of the bulk of Miss Bell’s archive, diaries, numerous photographs, documents relating to the archaeological museum she founded, letters, and so on. Indeed, as I’m sure you know, her stepmother published two volumes of Gertrude’s letters only last year. But then, just last month, these unsent two letters were discovered in a tin box that served as a place to store seeds. It was only when one of Gertrude’s former servants, Ali, a gardener whom the family continued to employ, started to look for a particular type of seed that he came across them. Of course, he couldn’t read the contents—he’s a local, and Miss Bell was always proud of the fact that she communicated with her servants in Arabic—but Ali knew that they had been written in his mistress’s hand. And he knew enough English to realize that the initials G.L.B. were those of Miss Bell. He did the right thing and took the letters to our man in Baghdad. Apparently, the drawing distressed him a great deal. He thought it represented some kind of curse.”
“I can imagine it would have that effect,” I said. Although I had missed the British Museum’s Treasures of Ur exhibition earlier in the year, I had seen a similar drawing of dozens of stick figures reproduced in the Illustrated London News. Reading about the discovery of the skeletons—which were thought to be victims of human sacrifice that dated to 2,500 years before the birth of Christ—had sent a chill through me. “Do you know if Miss Bell had any enemies?”
As Davison smiled, his intelligent gray eyes sparkled
mischievously. “Plenty, I would have thought. She was hardly the easiest of women to get along with. Headstrong—independent if one wants to be polite, bloody infuriating if one is speaking plainly. Sorry, I—”
“Davison, you know I always prefer plain speaking. Did you know her well?”
“We only met a few times, once out here in Baghdad, another time in Egypt, and then, of course, in London.”
“And is there anything I should know about her background? Her work for you at the Secret Intelligence Service or for any of the other covert government departments, for instance?”
Davison looked away from me, his gaze settling on a cluster of black rocks on the other side of the riverbank. “Now, is that a sacred ibis down there?” He started to raise himself out of the wicker chair to take a closer look. “I do believe it is. You know what, I’ve never seen one of those. Fascinating, of course, especially if you’re interested in Egyptian mythology. Venerated and mummified by the ancient Egyptians, you know; a representation of Thoth.”
I could feel my cheeks begin to color with frustration.
“But, on closer inspection,” he said as he squinted down at the river, “it could be a northern bald ibis, said to be one of the first birds that Noah released from his ark, that bird being a representation of fertility. Anyway, whatever it was, it’s gone now.”
As he turned his head to me, Davison assumed a pose of the utmost seriousness. He managed to freeze his features into a mask of implacability before the skin on his cheeks started to turn pink, his eyes sparkled once more, and he burst into a loud fit of laughter.
“I’m sorry, Agatha,” he said, taking up a starched linen napkin to wipe the beads of sweat from above his upper lip. “It was too good an opportunity to miss to tease you. I know it’s not really a laughing matter, but you should have seen your face! You looked like you wanted to slap me—or at the very least walk out of the hotel and take the first Orient Express back to London.”
“You can laugh as much you like,” I said, fighting the urge to smile, “but there was a time, not too far in the past, when you didn’t trust me enough to provide me with all the information I needed to help you. Remember?”
“But Tenerife was different,” he said, lowering his voice to a near whisper. “You know the reason why I was so reluctant to share certain details of my life with you.”
“That may be so,” I said. Although it would have been easy to do so, I decided not to embarrass Davison, and instead turned the conversation back to the current case. “Now that you’ve had a jolly laugh at my expense, why don’t you tell me what you know?”
“Very well,” he said as he crossed his legs. “Yes, you’re right. Miss Bell did work in secret intelligence during the war.”
“In what capacity?”
“She was stationed in Cairo, where it was her mission to provide us with evidence about the links between the Germans and the Turkish Empire, particularly in eastern and northern Arabia. Because she had done all this traveling, trekking across the desert, gossiping with sheikhs over strong coffee, she had an unparalleled insight into certain alliances which would otherwise have remained obscure. She wrote reports for the Arab Bulletin, which I’m sure you know provided the British government with a stream of very helpful secret information.”
I thought back to my own time in Cairo, where I had lived with my mother for three months during the winter of 1907. What a stupid girl I had been. At seventeen years old I had only been interested in romance—endless flirtations with dashing men in the three or four regiments stationed out there—and my appearance.
“Miss Bell sounds like she was an exceptional woman,” I said, feeling distinctly unworthy in comparison. “Am I right in remembering that she took a degree from Oxford?” My education could be described as patchy at best—for great swathes of my childhood I
did not even go to school—and, the more I heard from Davison, the more I was beginning to feel envious of Miss Bell’s extraordinary achievements.
“Yes, the first woman to take a first—and a brilliant one at that—in Modern History. And in two years instead of the usual three. She always seemed the most intelligent person in the room. That had its benefits, particularly for the department, but of course she was not the most subtle of individuals. I remember once, at some grand dinner, sitting opposite her and hearing her describe one of the diplomat’s wives, in a dismissive voice, as a “nice little woman.” That was always her insult of choice for women she deemed her inferior, which was the majority.”
In that instant I felt a certain relief that Miss Bell was no longer with us—I doubted she would have liked me—and then, almost immediately, I felt ashamed for thinking ill of the dead.
“But why do you think she believed someone at Ur wanted to kill her? Did she know anyone there?”
Davison took out two photographs from the inside pocket of his jacket and passed them over to me. “This is Leonard Woolley, of whom you’ve no doubt heard, the man in charge of the dig down at Ur.” I studied the image of a man dressed in shorts and a jacket, a man with a puckish face, who was sitting cross-legged on the ground, peering intently at a clay slab in his hands. “Woolley and Miss Bell knew each other during the war when he was head of intelligence at Port Said and she was stationed in Cairo. From all accounts, they seemed to get on well. The only thing we’ve managed to dig up is a possible suggestion that the two did not see eye to eye in regards to the dividing up of the treasures at Ur.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, in Miss Bell’s role as head of antiquities in Iraq, it was her duty to decide which objects she should set aside for her museum here in Baghdad, and which ones she allowed the team at Ur to
transport back to Britain and America. Apparently, Woolley was upset that Miss Bell insisted on keeping for the museum an ancient plaque showing a milking scene. I’ve been told that Woolley valued it at around ten thousand pounds. She also managed to secure a gold scarab which experts believe is worth one hundred thousand pounds.”
I could not disguise my astonishment. “Really? As much as that?”
“Yes, and she won it on the toss of a rupee.”
“I can imagine Woolley would be annoyed. But surely nobody is suggesting that’s the reason why he might want her dead?”
“We both know that murder has been done for an awful lot less.”
“Indeed we do,” I said, taking a moment to pause to look at the river, with its traffic of gufas and other vessels. “So, what do you have in mind? You told me something of your plan before we left London, but I’m assuming there is something more specific you want me to do.”
“Yes, there is,” said Davison, all traces of his former joviality now erased from his face. “We need to know for certain whether there is any truth in Miss Bell’s suspicion that she was going to be murdered. For that, I’m asking you to travel down to Ur. I’ve already discerned that you would be welcome there. There is a Mrs. Woolley, you see, and she normally dislikes other women on site. She is the queen of the camp and likes to be treated as such. She cannot endure the prospect of competition from other members of the female sex, but I am told that for you she would make an exception. The reason why you are most suitable for this assignment—the reason why your name was mentioned to me by the head of the division, Hartford—was because of Mrs. Woolley’s enthusiasm for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Something of a literary snob by all accounts, but her passion for that book is—”
“I see,” I said, feeling uncomfortable with the prospect of
further praise of my work. “Can you tell me any more about Mrs. Woolley?”
Davison did not say anything for a few seconds. As he began to form his thoughts I noticed a pair of horizontal lines crease his forehead, making him look a good deal older.
“Perhaps it’s better if you forge your own opinion of her,” he said, draining the last of his brandy. He raised his hand to call over the waiter. “But know this: Miss Bell told various acquaintances that she believed Mrs. Woolley to be a dangerous woman.”
“And is this Mrs. Woolley, in this photograph here?” I asked, gesturing towards an image of a woman who, although middle-aged, still possessed a certain striking beauty. The photograph showed her sitting on the desert floor, examining a shard of an old pot.
“Yes, that’s her all right,” said Davison. “From what I’ve heard of her, Katharine Woolley is a Jekyll-and-Hyde character, charming one moment, cold and cruel the next. There is also some mystery surrounding the death of her first husband, Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Keeling, whom she married at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in March 1919. Six months later, Keeling, who was only thirty-nine, shot himself at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.”
“And did Keeling work in intelligence, too?”
“As a matter of fact he did—during the war, in Cairo. But at the time of his death he was director-general of the survey of Egypt and president of the Cotton Research Board.”
“A good cover for espionage if ever I heard one. Do you know if he had any dealings with Miss Bell? Had they a history I should know about?”
“Not as far as we know. But the very nature of these things means that a great deal of what occurred during the war remains a secret.”
“But doesn’t it seem odd to you that Keeling and Miss Bell, both of whom worked in Cairo in intelligence during the war, went on to
die as supposed suicides?” I asked. “What if someone wanted them dead and made the murders look like suicides?”
“It’s a possibility, of course. But we’ve never thought about connecting the two cases because—”
“Because the suggestion is that your own government, or an agency acting on its behalf, may have something to do with their deaths?”
“I wouldn’t put it quite in those terms,” Davison said dismissively.
“I’d rather know the whole truth, if you have access to it,” I said.
“Yes, of course, but I promise on this occasion there is nothing else I can tell you. I’ll put out some feelers, see what I can come up with, but at the moment there really is nothing to link their deaths.”
“That’s not quite true,” I said, taking up the photographs of the archaeologist and his wife. “There is something that links them together: the Woolleys.” I tried to picture a sequence of possible events, the scenes flashing through my mind like a series of imagined tableaux. “Why would a man kill himself six months after getting married? That doesn’t seem right to me, as he would surely still be in the first flush of romance. Of course, he may have realized that he had made a terrible mistake, or he could have faced the prospect of ruin. Perhaps he had saddled himself with debt or embroiled himself in an impending scandal in his personal life. Those need to be ruled out. With suicide, there are so many factors one needs to take into account, but there’s something about that case that strikes me as odd. And then, seven years later, Miss Gertrude Bell, at the peak of her achievements, takes her own life by an overdose of barbiturates. That too doesn’t ring true. These letters written by her to her father just before her death—there is something very queer about them. Why weren’t they sent? How did they end up in that seed tin? Why have they just turned up now?”
Davison was looking at me with a mix of admiration and bafflement. “I’m at a loss to know what to say,” he said. “I’m afraid I don’t have any answers.”
“The ‘suicide’ of Colonel Keeling, Katharine Woolley’s first husband, in 1919,” I continued. “The ‘suicide’ of Miss Bell in 1926, whom we know had dealings with Leonard Woolley and who described Katharine as dangerous. Then the recent discovery of these letters—letters written by Gertrude Bell in which she directs us to Ur to look for her killer. Could the murderer be either Leonard or Katharine Woolley?”
“But what could be their motive?”
“Something that is hidden out of sight, at least for the moment,” I said. “It could be connected with their intelligence work. We know that Colonel Keeling, Miss Bell, and Leonard Woolley all served in secret operations during the war. Perhaps that’s something you can look into.”
Davison nodded and scribbled in his notebook. Although we were sitting in the shade of the terrace, the breeze had dropped and the heat was becoming unbearable. I shifted in my seat and took another sip of my soda water, which was now lukewarm. “Of course, there is another possibility.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, pausing for a moment. “The Woolleys, the husband and the wife, could have been responsible for both murders.”
“What do you mean? As if they had some kind of pact?”
“Perhaps,” I said. “People have done stranger things for love—or some warped version of it.” I thought back to the case in Tenerife and the mess Davison had got himself into over his feelings for a young man, whose partly mummified body had been found in a cave. And I thought of my former husband, Archie, and the scandal surrounding my disappearance for ten days at the end of 1926.
“Yes, indeed, but best not to dwell on that,” said Davison as he
noticed the cloud of melancholy that had started to steal over me. “So, what do you think? If I stay here in Baghdad, are you happy to travel down to Ur? See what you can dig up? As I said, I’m certain you’re the perfect person for this.”
As Davison continued to talk—about what an extraordinary job I had done in Tenerife, how I had brilliantly applied my skills as a novelist to the business of solving crimes—I thought of my old life as a conventional wife and mother. Archie’s affair with Miss Neele, followed by the nasty rash of newspaper headlines that followed my disappearance, the ridiculous rumors that Archie was somehow responsible, the allegations that I had staged the whole thing as some cheap publicity stunt, had taken their inevitable toll. And then there was the interview I had been persuaded to give to the Daily Mail earlier in the year which was designed, in that dreadful phrase, to “put the record straight.” Little did anyone know how much I had drawn on my skills as a novelist during that meeting.
I often wondered, when I woke in the middle of the night and was unable to get back to sleep, whether I could have saved my marriage. If I had been more attentive to Archie . . . if I had been a better wife . . . if I had never taken up writing and had simply devoted myself to him and his concerns, and laughed at the inane jokes of his golfing friends and never had a complicated thought in my head. Would that have made any difference? Of course, it was all too late now. The divorce had gone through. We were no longer man and wife. But if I was no longer a wife, who was I? A mother, of course: yes, always. An author? After that awful period of writer’s block following my mother’s death, I had produced a couple of books of which I was not proud. But I hoped I was back on track now. After all, I had no option: writing was the way I earned my living. But what else?
“Agatha . . . are you all right?” It was Davison. “Did you hear what I was saying?”
“Sorry, it’s this heat,” I said, feeling a little dizzy. “I’m not sure Baghdad entirely agrees with me.”
“Yes, you do look a little pale. I say, why don’t I walk you back to your room?”
“That would be very kind, thank you,” I said as Davison took my arm. “I really do think it’s best if I lie down.”
But I had no intention of taking a rest.