Sunday 16th August
August was the second reader at Story Shop 2015, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.
Her appearance was on Sun 16th August 2015 at 4 pm in the Spiegeltent. Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
August grew up in rural New England, and now studies Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. In the U.S. she received two national awards for excerpts from her historical novel 1485 and is currently working on a contemporary novel.
You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
The Short Story she read
Breakfast on the Veranda at Shepheard’s (1895)
a short story by August Thomas
Later, Mrs. Crumpton would tell every fashionable drawing room that she “saw that Pullar woman – actually saw the whole affair!” But I was in Shepheard’s, too, that morning, and I observed the truth of the matter. I have considered whether I ought to disclose it – I have the impression that Miss Pullar herself, with her peculiar modesty, might rather enjoy for Mrs. Crumpton to go on making a meal of the business, embroidering scandalous untruths with each retelling. But, as I am – I hope – a gentleman of honour, I consider it my duty to set down the facts as they took place. If in so doing I pay tribute to a remarkable lady—well, so much the better. I trust to your discretion that this tale will not find its way to the ears of scandal-mongers.
Any person of quality will tell you that breakfast on the veranda of Shepheard’s Hotel is quite the most picturesque sight in all of Cairo. It was February, and thick light poured through the wooden lattice. I had my paper and colour-box with me, to sketch the effects. The shadowed pattern of triangles and pentagons quite improved the plain cretonne gowns of the ladies, up unfashionably early to breakfast before the heat. Except for that of Mrs. Charlotte Crumpton. She had arrived only three days earlier from Paris, and was still beribboned for the Champs Élysées. Mrs. Crumpton held court amongst the ladyfolk, for she had brought with her a substance dearer here than gold: good Oxford marmalade.
“It’s no use, though,” said Mrs. Crumpton. She had a piping girlish voice, and the lungs of a sergeant. Perched on her sculpted fair hair was a pith helmet far too dainty to shield its wearer from the desert sun. “The bread here—so coarse! At Shepheard’s, even. Shocking.”
“Shepheard’s isn’t what it was,” agreed Lady Provender, over her lorgnette.
“Six bottles of Bovril,” sighed Mrs. Fotheringhay. “Ours ran out yesterday. How I will keep Gwendoline regular now, I’m sure I don’t know.”
“Take one,” said Mrs. Crumpton magnanimously. “I’m sure it won’t keep onboard the dahabiyeh.”
“Three weeks on the Nile! However will you manage?”
“One sacrifices for one’s art,” laughed Mrs. Crumpton. “How can I write The Savage Soul of Egypt, if I haven’t seen it?”
The other ladies shook their heads, murmuring isn’t-she-wonderfuls.
“How far up the Nile are you going, Mrs. Crumpton?” asked a quiet voice.
The ladies turned to a slightly stooped, inexpressibly shabby figure in worn brown muslin, eking out a coffee on the edge of the veranda.
“Why, Miss Pullar, I didn’t see you.” Mrs. Crumpton gave a wide and condescending smile. “We’re stopping at Amarna. There’s nothing really worth seeing past there.”
“Oh, but you must see Thebes.” Miss Pullar’s gaunt cheeks coloured; an almost desperate animation made her soft voice rich. “And the Temple of Horus at Edfu, just as the sun sets, and the sandstone turns as red as blood, and the hoopoes are crying like lost souls, and the breeze off the Nile seems to—to—” Her voice caught. The other ladies were staring; the veranda had gone quite still.
“Why, Miss Pullar,” said Mrs. Crumpton nastily, her pale eyebrows arched. “What a regular poet you are.”
The ladies turned their cretonne backs on Miss Pullar, and continued their conversation in murmurs. Little Gwendoline’s voice carried across the veranda. “She looks like a mummy, Mama — a dead, skinny old mummy!”
Miss Pullar gave no sign of having heard.
I attempted to resume my sketch, but the ladies had lost all their picturesqueness. I set my paper down. A gust of hot wind snatched it, and flung it at Miss Pullar’s table, quite upsetting the sugar-bowl.
I hurried over. “I do beg your pardon—”
“It’s quite all right,” smiled Miss Pullar. Her crinkled eyes were an extraordinary faience green; faded freckles peppered her sharp features. She examined my water-colour through pince-nez. “You’ve caught the wondrous brightness of the light.”
“And the contents of the sugar-pot.”
She laughed. “Once it dries, it dusts right off. Sugar makes a good speckled effect. Perfect, if you are ever painting a sandstorm.”
I realized I had committed a solecism in conversing so long without an introduction, and rectified the matter.
“A pleasure, Major.”
“Forgive my forwardness, Miss Pullar,” I said, “But was Professor Pullar any relation of yours?”
“Then you were with him on his great Egyptian expedition?”
“Oh, yes. I painted all the illustrations for Wanderings in the Land of Osiris.”
I was so astounded I could muster little more than a Bless-my-soul. That this withered creature should have painted those bright mirages, over which I pored so often in the nursery—the Sphinx at dawn, the loyal dragoman Ali! Those very pictures that impelled my boyhood self to seek my fortune in the Orient—or India, at least. On the strength of her illustrations, I had turned the muddy fields of Cheshire into Arabia Deserta, and transformed the defunct cockroaches in my prep school pillowcase to the scarabs of Rameses. I looked from her brittle hands to her weathered face, and felt I gazed upon no less than a sorceress.
“You have read it?” asked this Witch of Endor, blotting wet blue sugar from her finger-tips
“A hundred times,” I assured her.
I could see that she was gratified, and a trifle flustered. I wondered how long it had been since anyone had paid her a compliment.
“You take no breakfast?” I inquired.
I saw her hunger, before she looked down.
“You must share mine,” I said quickly. “I insist.”
She drew back. “I am waiting, you see—waiting for a friend.”
I saw she must be allowed her little pretence. “Miss Pullar, I owe your father my life’s work. You must at least accept a rack of toast. While you wait.”
She smiled. “Too kind.”
“Alas, no Oxford marmalade.”
“Father was a Cambridge man,” she said. “Besides, honey and qishta is much nicer.”
“Clotted cream. Twenty times better than one finds in Devonshire.”
I beckoned the waiter, and she gave instructions in Arabic.
“Is it long since you were in Egypt, Miss Pullar?”
“Some forty years. I have been a governess. In Aberdeen.”
“Not so much sun up there.”
“No.” She said it softly, as not to wake a sleeping grief.
The waiter set down the tray. I saw his lip curl at the sight of Miss Pullar’s threadbare shawl; I fear she saw it, too.
“What brings you to Egypt now?” I asked her.
But no answer came. A hush fell over the whole veranda. On the threshold stood a white-bearded Bedouin, brown as teak, of terrifying mien, with robes that billowed in the breeze. He stood, calm and unhurried as an eagle, searching the room with eyes that gleamed like wet lampblack.
Miss Pullar had gone quite pale.
“Horrible!” Mrs. Crumpton’s voice carried. “Such a brutal face!”
The waiter stormed over and began to expostulate, ordering the man to leave. The old Bedouin took no notice, but stared directly at us.
Miss Pullar rose. “Ali.”
The Bedouin said, “Clorinda.”
Despite the tawdry implications of Mrs. Crumpton, I am certain there was nothing of –that kind between them. Miss Pullar and the Bedouin gazed on each other like old comrades.
“Out!” cried the furious waiter to the unheeding Bedouin. “Vattene! Allez! Defol!”
Miss Pullar turned to me, and there was pink in her cheeks. “You must excuse me, Major. I am most obliged for the toast.”
She stepped toward the Bedouin. The cretonne ladies recoiled in fear, as if she had been Lazarus, risen from the tomb.
“What are you doing, Miss Pullar?” gasped Mrs. Crumpton.
“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil,” said Miss Pullar. “Surely you have read your Tennyson?” She took the Bedouin’s arm, and descended from the veranda.
Miss Pullar has never been seen again in Cairo. But I have heard that once or twice a year, the old Bedouin can be glimpsed, buying a pot of qishta at the bazaar.
If you go to Piccadilly now, you will find Mrs. Crumpton’s latest, The Savage Soul of Egypt, for sale at Hatchard’s. She advises the discerning traveller to avoid Shepheard’s, for it ‘attracts quite the wrong sort.’
(c) August Thomas, 2015
Story Shop 2015
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