He did not renounce his bold desire, wishing to make this the first step in his conquest of high society. He thought it wise to prepare the way for the visit by telephoning Hamdis Bey. He would be able to tell from the man’s response whether the Pyramids story had reached him yet or whether the resourceful girl had continued to keep it from her family. He placed a call to him and received a polite response. So he told Hamdis Bey of his marriage and revealed his desire to introduce his wife to them. The bey greeted the suggestion warmly. Mahgub rushed to tell his wife proudly and joyfully, “I want to introduce you to my important relatives.”

On the afternoon of the tenth day of his life in the new apartment they made their preparations for this important visit. Ihsan wore a beautiful dress from her new wardrobe and it highlighted her charming figure. Her magic was completed by the contrast between her jet-black hair, her pure, ivory complexion, and her rosy lips. The young man also shone, now that his health and looks were returning. They took a taxi to Zamalek. Ihsan felt some anxiety and misgivings, but Mahgub smiled as calmly and confidently as if he were heading for his childhood home. They crossed the garden on their way to the parlor, still nourishing these feelings, when they were astonished to see the noble family lined up to receive them at the entrance: Ahmad Bey Hamdis, his wife, Tahiya, and Fadil. Mahgub was delighted by this positive reception. He had been confident it would be a success, if only because women tend to want to scrutinize and criticize other women. They all greeted each other and shook hands. The impact his wife made on the receiving committee was not lost on his bulging eyes. So he felt relieved and rapturous. They sat down and continued to exchange greetings and pleasantries as his anxious eyes glanced everywhere, studying their faces. Without meaning to, he found himself comparing his beautiful wife to Tahiya Hamdis. Tahiya was beautiful, and her beauty had a stamp of elegance and refinement about it, but there was no way that she would be rated as exceptional. His wife was more beautiful than Tahiya. Indeed, she was more beautiful than Umm Tahiya in her prime. Their eyes did not deny or contest this fact. He was ecstatic and told himself with malicious delight: I was vanquished in the tomb on the day of the trip, but today I have my revenge. Wanting them to learn about his wife, he said with his normal temerity, as he pointed toward his girl, “Ihsan is the daughter of Shihata Bey Turki, a major tobacconist. Don’t you know him, Your Excellency?”

Ihsan blushed and looked down to hide her discomfort. For his part, Ahmad Bey Hamdis wrinkled his eyebrows as he searched his memory. Then he said apologetically, “Unfortunately I can’t place him.” Turning toward Ihsan, he added, “It’s our great honor!”

Gesturing toward his wife once more, the young man laughed and said, “She’s a former classmate; I met her at the university.”

The bey and his wife smiled, and Ihsan smiled as well. She was appalled by Mahgub’s recklessness, not knowing how far he would go. Fadil was looking languidly at the bride, but Tahiya could not take her piercing eyes off her. She had grasped the true motives tempting the young man to make this visit. So she felt even more contempt for him and her glances at the bride were clearly scornful and mocking. Hamdis Bey’s wife began to discuss the university’s women students, saying, “The university is a place to prepare for a career; that’s why Tahiya has chosen a different path.” She asked the bride, “Weren’t you planning to look for a job when you enrolled at the university?”

Ihsan, who was annoyed by this conversation and concerned about the consequences of lying, felt, nonetheless, that she must reply. “Of course, Ma’am, but everything is a matter of fate and destiny, as they say.”

Tahiya wickedly asked her, “Don’t you regret this change of plans?”

They all smiled, and Mahgub laughed, as though her taunt pleased him. He said, “God forgive me. Ihsan was a brilliant student. She frequently amazed M. Lechot, the philosophy professor, with her intelligence. He long opposed her departure from the program.”

He looked at Tahiya to check her eyes for the impact of his words. He found that she was gazing at him contemptuously and ironically. He did not feel angry. In fact, he was secretly delighted. Then a Nubian servant entered with refreshments. They drank with relish and silence prevailed, as if this were an intermission.

Hamdis Bey’s wife picked up the conversation again, dredging up old memories as she recalled the small boy who now made an appearance as a worthy husband and the head of a new household. She spoke of time, of its remarkable rapidity. Then she asked the young man, “How are your parents?”

“Praise God,” Mahgub answered quickly. Then he immediately felt depressed. The lady asked him, “Didn’t they attend your wedding?”

“They were prevented by my father’s ill health.”

After offering a prayer for the man’s full recovery, the lady asked, “How is al-Qanatir?”

“As beautiful as when you lived there.”

“It’s amazing; we haven’t been back since we moved.”

Smiling, Ahmad Bey Hamdis asked, “Are you spending your honeymoon in Cairo?”

Mahgub was delighted by this question because it opened new areas for conversation. He answered, “My position as secretary to Qasim Bey Fahmi doesn’t allow me any free time at present.”

At this point—to explain why they were in Cairo in July, in case there was any doubt in his mind—Tahiya said, “My father usually takes his vacation in August. Then we’ll all travel to Europe.” Changing her tone, she asked him with special emphasis, “Haven’t you taken Miss Ihsan to see the university’s excavations?”

His heart felt troubled, and he ran his eyes round the faces of those present. Finding that everyone was smiling and that there was no indication in their expressions of any suspicions, he sighed with relief. Controlling his emotions, he replied, “No.” Then he added spitefully, “We’ll no doubt go there soon, once we buy a car.”

Just as spitefully, she said, “The nicest trips are those on foot.”

Hamdis Bey asked about Qasim Bey Fahmi, who—he said—had been his comrade when they studied overseas. He promised to commend Mahgub to him. This link, which was unforeseen, troubled him. What would happen if Hamdis Bey discovered the secret behind his marriage? He felt an icy hand clutch his heart. Since this visit was merely a chance to get acquainted, he did not wish to prolong it. So he rose and they asked leave of their hosts.

On the way back, Ihsan snorted, “I take refuge in God from you!”

He guffawed and said sarcastically, “Be daring. Lying is as much a form of speech as telling the truth; but it’s more beneficial.”

“What if we’re found out?”

He replied with exasperation, “What if, what if—always what if. This phrase ‘what if’ is a recipe for failure. When inserted into a sentence, it negates the sentence’s usefulness and frustrates the protagonist’s intent. Don’t say, ‘what if.’ ”

Ihsan laughed and replied, “Your distinguished relative’s wife is a nice lady.”

Stealing a crafty look at her, he asked naughtily, “What about Tahiya? What a fine girl she is!”

Ihsan remained silent, not knowing what to say. Finally she stammered, “Right.”

He was watching her mischievously and felt supremely delighted. He returned to the apartment like a triumphal victor. The rest of the evening he felt grand, until the telephone rang. When he placed the receiver to his ear, he frowned and his enthusiasm for life waned, as if cold water had been thrown on his flaming heart, which had been dancing merrily. The speaker was Salim al-Ikhshidi, who informed him that the bey would be visiting the apartment the following evening.

Cairo Modern