"Ivor, what are you laughing at?"
Mr. Dacre drew his hand across his mouth with rather a suspicious gesture.
"My dear fellow, only a smile!"
The duchess looked from one to the other.
"What have you two been doing? What is the joke?"
With an air of preternatural solemnity the duke took two letters from the breast pocket of his coat.
"Mabel, you have already seen your letter. You have already seen the lock of your hair. Just look at this—and that."
He gave her the two very singular communications which had arrived in such a mysterious manner, and so quickly one after the other. She read them with wide-open eyes.
"Hereward! Wherever did these come from?"
The duke was standing with his legs apart, and his hands in his trousers pockets. "I would give—I would give another five hundred pounds to know. Shall I tell you, madam, what I have been doing? I have been presenting five hundred golden sovereigns to a perfect stranger, with a top hat, and a gardenia in his buttonhole."
"If you have perused those documents which you have in your hand, you will have some faint idea. Ivor, when it's your funeral, I'll smile. Mabel, Duchess of Datchet, it is beginning to dawn upon the vacuum which represents my brain that I've been the victim of one of the prettiest things in practical jokes that ever yet was planned. When that fellow brought you that card at Cane and Wilson's—which, I need scarcely tell you, never came from me—some one walked out of the front entrance who was so exactly like you that both Barnes and Moysey took her for you. Moysey showed her into the carriage, and Barnes drove her home. But when the carriage reached home it was empty. Your double had got out upon the road."
The duchess uttered a sound which was half gasp, half sigh.
"Barnes and Moysey, with beautiful and childlike innocence, when they found that they had brought the thing home empty, came straightway and told me that you had jumped out of the brougham while it had been driving full pelt through the streets. While I was digesting that piece of information there came the first epistle, with the lock of your hair. Before I had time to digest that there came the second epistle, with yours inside."
"It seems incredible!"
"It sounds incredible; but unfathomable is the folly of man, especially of a man who loves his wife." The duke crossed to Mr. Dacre. "I don't want, Ivor, to suggest anything in the way of bribery and corruption, but if you could keep this matter to yourself, and not mention it to your friends, our white-hatted and gardenia-buttonholed acquaintance is welcome to his five hundred pounds, and—Mabel, what on earth are you laughing at?"
The duchess appeared, all at once, to be seized with inextinguishable laughter.
"Hereward," she cried, "just think how that man must be laughing at you!"
And the Duke of Datchet thought of it.
The Minor Canon
It was Monday, and in the afternoon, as I was walking along the High Street of Marchbury, I was met by a distinguished-looking person whom I had observed at the services in the cathedral on the previous day. Now it chanced on that Sunday that I was singing the service. Properly speaking, it was not my turn; but, as my brother minor canons were either away from Marchbury or ill in bed, I was the only one left to perform the necessary duty. The distinguished-looking person was a tall, big man with a round fat face and small features. His eyes, his hair and mustache (his face was bare but for a small mustache) were quite black, and he had a very pleasant and genial expression. He wore a tall hat, set rather jauntily on his head, and he was dressed in black with a long frock coat buttoned across the chest and fitting him close to the body. As he came, with a half saunter, half swagger, along the street, I knew him again at once by his appearance; and, as he came nearer, I saw from his manner that he was intending to stop and speak to me, for he slightly raised his hat and in a soft, melodious voice with a colonial "twang" which was far from being disagreeable, and which, indeed, to my ear gave a certain additional interest to his remarks, he saluted me with "Good day, sir!"
"Good day," I answered, with just a little reserve in my tone.
"I hope, sir," he began, "you will excuse my stopping you in the street, but I wish to tell you how very much I enjoyed the music at your cathedral yesterday. I am an Australian, sir, and we have no such music in my country."
"I suppose not," I said.
"No, sir," he went on, "nothing nearly so fine. I am very fond of music, and as my business brought me in this direction, I thought I would stop at your city and take the opportunity of paying a visit to your grand cathedral. And I am delighted I came; so pleased, indeed, that I should like to leave some memorial of my visit behind me. I should like, sir, to do something for your choir."
"I am sure it is very kind of you," I replied.
"Yes, I should certainly be glad if you could suggest to me something I might do in this way. As regards money, I may say that I have plenty of it. I am the owner of a most valuable property. My business relations extend throughout the world, and if I am as fortunate in the projects of the future as I have been in the past, I shall probably one day achieve the proud position of being the richest man in the world."
I did not like to undertake myself the responsibility of advising or suggesting, so I simply said:
"I cannot venture to say, offhand, what would be the most acceptable way of showing your great kindness and generosity, but I should certainly recommend you to put yourself in communication with the dean."
"Thank you, sir," said my Australian friend, "I will do so. And now, sir," he continued, "let me say how much I admire your voice. It is, without exception, the very finest and clearest voice I have ever heard."
"Really," I answered, quite overcome with such unqualified praise, "really it is very good of you to say so."
"Ah, but I feel it, my dear sir. I have been round the world, from Sydney to Frisco, across the continent of America" (he called it Amerrker) "to New York City, then on to England, and to-morrow I shall leave your city to continue my travels. But in all my experience I have never heard so grand a voice as your own."
This and a great deal more he said in the same strain, which modesty forbids me to reproduce.
Now I am not without some knowledge of the world outside the close of Marchbury Cathedral, and I could not listen to such a "flattering tale" without having my suspicions aroused. Who and what is this man? thought I. I looked at him narrowly. At first the thought flashed across me that he might be a "swell mobsman." But no, his face was too good for that; besides, no man with that huge frame, that personality so marked and so easily recognizable, could be a swindler; he could not escape detection a single hour. I dismissed the ungenerous thought. Perhaps he is rich, as he says. We do hear of munificent donations by benevolent millionaires now and then. What if this Australian, attracted by the glories of the old cathedral, should now appear as a deus ex machina to reendow the choir, or to found a musical professoriate in connection with the choir, appointing me the first occupant of the professorial chair?
These thoughts flashed across my mind in the momentary pause of his fluent tongue.
"As for yourself, sir," he began again, "I have something to propose which I trust may not prove unwelcome. But the public street is hardly a suitable place to discuss my proposal. May I call upon you this evening at your house in the close? I know which it is, for I happened to see you go into it yesterday after the morning service."
"I shall be very pleased to see you," I replied. "We are going out to dinner this evening, but I shall be at home and disengaged till about seven."
"Thank you very much. Then I shall do myself the pleasure of calling upon you about six o'clock. Till then, farewell!" A graceful wave of the hand, and my unknown friend had disappeared round the corner of the street.
Now at last, I thought, something is going to happen in my uneventful life—something to break the monotony of existence. Of course, he must have inquired my name—he could get that from any of the cathedral vergers—and, as he said, he had observed whereabouts in the close I lived. What is he coming to see me for? I wondered. I spent the rest of the afternoon in making the wildest surmises. I was castle-building in Spain at a furious rate. At one time I imagined that this faithful son of the church—as he appeared to me—was going to build and endow a grand cathedral in Australia on condition that I should be appointed dean at a yearly stipend of, say, ten thousand pounds. Or perhaps, I said to myself, he will beg me to accept a sum of money—I never thought of it as less than a thousand pounds—as a slight recognition of and tribute to my remarkable vocal ability.
I took a long, lonely walk into the country to correct these ridiculous fancies and to steady my mind, and when I reached home and had refreshed myself with a quiet cup of afternoon tea, I felt I was morally and physically prepared for my interview with the opulent stranger.
Punctually as the cathedral clock struck six there was a ring at the visitor's bell. In a moment or two my unknown friend was shown into the drawing-room, which he entered with the easy air of a man of the world. I noticed he was carrying a small black bag.
"How do you do again, Mr. Dale?" he said as though we were old acquaintances; "you see I have come sharp to my time."
"Yes," I answered, "and I am pleased to see you; do sit down." He sank into my best armchair, and placed his bag on the floor beside him.
"Since we met in the afternoon," he said, "I have written a letter to your dean, expressing the great pleasure I felt in listening to your choir, and at the same time I inclosed a five-pound note, which I begged him to divide among the choir boys and men, from Alexander Poulter, Esq., of Poulter's Pills. You have of course heard of the world-renowned Poulter's Pills. I am Poulter!"
Poulter of Poulter's Pills! My heart sank within me! A five-pound note! My airy castles were tottering!
"I also sent him a couple of hundred of my pamphlets, which I said I trusted he would be so kind as to distribute in the close."
I was aghast!
"And now, with regard to the special object of my call, Mr. Dale. If you will allow me to say so, you are not making the most of that grand voice of yours; you are hidden under an ecclesiastical bushel here—lost to the world. You are wasting your vocal strength and sweetness on the desert air, so to speak. Why, if I may hazard a guess, I don't suppose you make five hundred a year here, at the outside?"
I could say nothing.
"Well, now, I can put you into the way of making at least three or four times as much as that. Listen! I am Alexander Poulter, of Poulter's Pills. I have a proposal to make to you. The scheme is bound to succeed, but I want your help. Accept my proposal and your fortune's made. Did you ever hear Moody and Sankey?" he asked abruptly.
The man is an idiot, thought I; he is now fairly carried away with his particular mania. Will it last long? Shall I ring?
"Novelty, my dear sir," he went on, "is the rule of the day; and there must be novelty in advertising, as in everything else, to catch the public interest. So I intend to go on a tour, lecturing on the merits of Poulter's Pills in all the principal halls of all the principal towns all over the world. But I have been delayed in carrying out my idea till I could associate myself with a gentleman such as yourself. Will you join me? I should be the Moody of the tour; you would be its Sankey. I would speak my patter, and you would intersperse my orations with melodious ballads bearing upon the virtues of Poulter's Pills. The ballads are all ready!"
So saying, he opened that bag and drew forth from its recesses nothing more alarming than a thick roll of manuscript music.
"The verses are my own," he said, with a little touch of pride; "and as for the music, I thought it better to make use of popular melodies, so as to enable an audience to join in the chorus. See, here is one of the ballads: 'Darling, I am better now.' It describes the woes of a fond lover, or rather his physical ailments, until he went through a course of Poulter. Here's another: 'I'm ninety-five! I'm ninety-five!' You catch the drift of that, of course—a healthy old age, secured by taking Poulter's Pills. Ah! what's this? 'Little sister's last request.' I fancy the idea of that is to beg the family never to be without Poulter's Pills. Here again: 'Then you'll remember me!' I'm afraid that title is not original; never mind, the song is. And here is—but there are many more, and I won't detain you with them now." He saw, perhaps, I was getting impatient. Thank Heaven, however, he was no escaped lunatic. I was safe!
"Mr. Poulter," said I, "I took you this afternoon for a disinterested and philanthropic millionaire; you take me for—for—something different from what I am. We have both made mistakes. In a word, it is impossible for me to accept your offer!"
"Is that final?" asked Poulter.
"Certainly," said I.
Poulter gathered his manuscripts together and replaced them in the bag, and got up to leave the room.
"Good evening, Mr. Dale," he said mournfully, as I opened the door of the room. "Good evening"—he kept on talking till he was fairly out of the house—"mark my words, you'll be sorry—very sorry—one day that you did not fall in with my scheme. Offers like mine don't come every day, and you will one day regret having refused it."
With these words he left the house.
I had little appetite for my dinner that evening.
"RANDOLPH CRESCENT, N.W.
"MY DEAR PUGH—I hope you will like the pipe which I send with this. It is rather a curious example of a certain school of Indian carving. And is a present from
"Yours truly, Joseph Tress."
It was really very handsome of Tress—very handsome! The more especially as I was aware that to give presents was not exactly in Tress's line. The truth is that when I saw what manner of pipe it was I was amazed. It was contained in a sandalwood box, which was itself illustrated with some remarkable specimens of carving. I use the word "remarkable" advisedly, because, although the workmanship was undoubtedly, in its way, artistic, the result could not be described as beautiful. The carver had thought proper to ornament the box with some of the ugliest figures I remember to have seen. They appeared to me to be devils. Or perhaps they were intended to represent deities appertaining to some mythological system with which, thank goodness, I am unacquainted. The pipe itself was worthy of the case in which it was contained. It was of meerschaum, with an amber mouthpiece. It was rather too large for ordinary smoking. But then, of course, one doesn't smoke a pipe like that. There are pipes in my collection which I should as soon think of smoking as I should of eating. Ask a china maniac to let you have afternoon tea out of his Old Chelsea, and you will learn some home truths as to the durability of human friendships. The glory of the pipe, as Tress had suggested, lay in its carving. Not that I claim that it was beautiful, any more than I make such a claim for the carving on the box, but, as Tress said in his note, it was curious.
The stem and the bowl were quite plain, but on the edge of the bowl was perched some kind of lizard. I told myself it was an octopus when I first saw it, but I have since had reason to believe that it was some almost unique member of the lizard tribe. The creature was represented as climbing over the edge of the bowl down toward the stem, and its legs, or feelers, or tentacula, or whatever the things are called, were, if I may use a vulgarism, sprawling about "all over the place." For instance, two or three of them were twined about the bowl, two or three of them were twisted round the stem, and one, a particularly horrible one, was uplifted in the air, so that if you put the pipe in your mouth the thing was pointing straight at your nose.
Not the least agreeable feature about the creature was that it was hideously lifelike. It appeared to have been carved in amber, but some coloring matter must have been introduced, for inside the amber the creature was of a peculiarly ghastly green. The more I examined the pipe the more amazed I was at Tress's generosity. He and I are rival collectors. I am not going to say, in so many words, that his collection of pipes contains nothing but rubbish, because, as a matter of fact, he has two or three rather decent specimens. But to compare his collection to mine would be absurd. Tress is conscious of this, and he resents it. He resents it to such an extent that he has been known, at least on one occasion, to declare that one single pipe of his—I believe he alluded to the Brummagem relic preposterously attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh—was worth the whole of my collection put together. Although I have forgiven this, as I hope I always shall forgive remarks made when envious passions get the better of our nobler nature, even of a Joseph Tress, it is not to be supposed that I have forgotten it. He was, therefore, not at all the sort of person from whom I expected to receive a present. And such a present! I do not believe that he himself had a finer pipe in his collection. And to have given it to me! I had misjudged the man. I wondered where he had got it from. I had seen his pipes; I knew them off by heart—and some nice trumpery he has among them, too! but I had never seen that pipe before. The more I looked at it, the more my amazement grew. The beast perched upon the edge of the bowl was so lifelike. Its two bead-like eyes seemed to gleam at me with positively human intelligence. The pipe fascinated me to such an extent that I actually resolved to—smoke it!
I filled it with Perique. Ordinarily I use Birdseye, but on those very rare occasions on which I use a specimen I smoke Perique. I lit up with quite a small sensation of excitement. As I did so I kept my eyes perforce fixed upon the beast. The beast pointed its upraised tentacle directly at me. As I inhaled the pungent tobacco that tentacle impressed me with a feeling of actual uncanniness. It was broad daylight, and I was smoking in front of the window, yet to such an extent was I affected that it seemed to me that the tentacle was not only vibrating, which, owing to the peculiarity of its position, was quite within the range of probability, but actually moving, elongating—stretching forward, that is, farther toward me, and toward the tip of my nose. So impressed was I by this idea that I took the pipe out of my mouth and minutely examined the beast. Really, the delusion was excusable. So cunningly had the artist wrought that he succeeded in producing a creature which, such was its uncanniness, I could only hope had no original in nature.
Replacing the pipe between my lips I took several whiffs. Never had smoking had such an effect on me before. Either the pipe, or the creature on it, exercised some singular fascination. I seemed, without an instant's warning, to be passing into some land of dreams. I saw the beast, which was perched upon the bowl, writhe and twist. I saw it lift itself bodily from the meerschaum.
"Feeling better now?"
I looked up. Joseph Tress was speaking.
"What's the matter? Have I been ill?"
"You appear to have been in some kind of swoon."
Tress's tone was peculiar, even a little dry.
"Swoon! I never was guilty of such a thing in my life."
"Nor was I, until I smoked that pipe."
I sat up. The act of sitting up made me conscious of the fact that I had been lying down. Conscious, too, that I was feeling more than a little dazed. It seemed as though I was waking out of some strange, lethargic sleep—a kind of feeling which I have read of and heard about, but never before experienced.
"Where am I?"
"You're on the couch in your own room. You were on the floor; but I thought it would be better to pick you up and place you on the couch—though no one performed the same kind office to me when I was on the floor."
Again Tress's tone was distinctly dry.
"How came you here?"
"Ah, that's the question." He rubbed his chin—a habit of his which has annoyed me more than once before. "Do you think you're sufficiently recovered to enable you to understand a little simple explanation?" I stared at him, amazed. He went on stroking his chin. "The truth is that when I sent you the pipe I made a slight omission."
"I omitted to advise you not to smoke it."
"Because—well, I've reason to believe the thing is drugged."
"Poisoned!" I was wide awake enough then. I jumped off the couch with a celerity which proved it.
"It is this way. I became its owner in rather a singular manner." He paused, as if for me to make a remark; but I was silent. "It is not often that I smoke a specimen, but, for some reason, I did smoke this. I commenced to smoke it, that is. How long I continued to smoke it is more than I can say. It had on me the same peculiar effect which it appears to have had on you. When I recovered consciousness I was lying on the floor."
"On the floor?"
"On the floor. In about as uncomfortable a position as you can easily conceive. I was lying face downward, with my legs bent under me. I was never so surprised in my life as I was when I found myself where I was. At first I supposed that I had had a stroke. But by degrees it dawned upon me that I didn't feel as though I had had a stroke." Tress, by the way, has been an army surgeon. "I was conscious of distinct nausea. Looking about, I saw the pipe. With me it had fallen on to the floor. I took it for granted, considering the delicacy of the carving, that the fall had broken it. But when I picked it up I found it quite uninjured. While I was examining it a thought flashed to my brain. Might it not be answerable for what had happened to me? Suppose, for instance, it was drugged? I had heard of such things. Besides, in my case were present all the symptoms of drug poisoning, though what drug had been used I couldn't in the least conceive. I resolved that I would give the pipe another trial."
"On yourself? or on another party, meaning me?"
"On myself, my dear Pugh—on myself! At that point of my investigations I had not begun to think of you. I lit up and had another smoke."
"With what result?"
"Well, that depends on the standpoint from which you regard the thing. From one point of view the result was wholly satisfactory—I proved that the thing was drugged, and more."
"Did you have another fall?"
"I did. And something else besides."
"On that account, I presume, you resolved to pass the treasure on to me?"
"Partly on that account, and partly on another."
"On my word, I appreciate your generosity. You might have labeled the thing as poison."
"Exactly. But then you must remember how often you have told me that you never smoke your specimens."
"That was no reason why you shouldn't have given me a hint that the thing was more dangerous than dynamite."
"That did occur to me afterwards. Therefore I called to supply the slight omission."
"Slight omission, you call it! I wonder what you would have called it if you had found me dead."
"If I had known that you intended smoking it I should not have been at all surprised if I had."
"Really, Tress, I appreciate your kindness more and more! And where is this example of your splendid benevolence? Have you pocketed it, regretting your lapse into the unaccustomed paths of generosity? Or is it smashed to atoms?"
"Neither the one nor the other. You will find the pipe upon the table. I neither desire its restoration nor is it in any way injured. It is merely an expression of personal opinion when I say that I don't believe that it could be injured. Of course, having discovered its deleterious properties, you will not want to smoke it again. You will therefore be able to enjoy the consciousness of being the possessor of what I honestly believe to be the most remarkable pipe in existence. Good day, Pugh."
He was gone before I could say a word. I immediately concluded, from the precipitancy of his flight, that the pipe was injured. But when I subjected it to close examination I could discover no signs of damage. While I was still eying it with jealous scrutiny the door reopened, and Tress came in again.
"By the way, Pugh, there is one thing I might mention, especially as I know it won't make any difference to you."
"That depends on what it is. If you have changed your mind, and want the pipe back again, I tell you frankly that it won't. In my opinion, a thing once given is given for good."
"Quite so; I don't want it back again. You may make your mind easy on that point. I merely wanted to tell you why I gave it you."
"You have told me that already."
"Only partly, my dear Pugh—only partly. You don't suppose I should have given you such a pipe as that merely because it happened to be drugged? Scarcely! I gave it you because I discovered from indisputable evidence, and to my cost, that it was haunted."
"Yes, haunted. Good day."
He was gone again. I ran out of the room, and shouted after him down the stairs. He was already at the bottom of the flight.
"Tress! Come back! What do you mean by talking such nonsense?"
"Of course it's only nonsense. We know that that sort of thing always is nonsense. But if you should have reason to suppose that there is something in it besides nonsense, you may think it worth your while to make inquiries of me. But I won't have that pipe back again in my possession on any terms—mind that!"
The bang of the front door told me that he had gone out into the street. I let him go. I laughed to myself as I reentered the room. Haunted! That was not a bad idea of his. I saw the whole position at a glance. The truth of the matter was that he did regret his generosity, and he was ready to go any lengths if he could only succeed in cajoling me into restoring his gift. He was aware that I have views upon certain matters which are not wholly in accordance with those which are popularly supposed to be the views of the day, and particularly that on the question of what are commonly called supernatural visitations I have a standpoint of my own. Therefore, it was not a bad move on his part to try to make me believe that about the pipe on which he knew I had set my heart there was something which could not be accounted for by ordinary laws. Yet, as his own sense would have told him it would do, if he had only allowed himself to reflect for a moment, the move failed. Because I am not yet so far gone as to suppose that a pipe, a thing of meerschaum and of amber, in the sense in which I understand the word, could be haunted—a pipe, a mere pipe.
"Hollo! I thought the creature's legs were twined right round the bowl!"
I was holding the pipe in my hand, regarding it with the affectionate eyes with which a connoisseur does regard a curio, when I was induced to make this exclamation. I was certainly under the impression that, when I first took the pipe out of the box, two, if not three of the feelers had been twined about the bowl—twined tightly, so that you could not see daylight between them and it. Now they were almost entirely detached, only the tips touching the meerschaum, and those particular feelers were gathered up as though the creature were in the act of taking a spring. Of course I was under a misapprehension: the feelers couldn't have been twined; a moment before I should have been ready to bet a thousand to one that they were. Still, one does make mistakes, and very egregious mistakes, at times. At the same time, I confess that when I saw that dreadful-looking animal poised on the extreme edge of the bowl, for all the world as though it were just going to spring at me, I was a little startled. I remembered that when I was smoking the pipe I did think I saw the uplifted tentacle moving, as though it were reaching out to me. And I had a clear recollection that just as I had been sinking into that strange state of unconsciousness, I had been under the impression that the creature was writhing and twisting, as though it had suddenly become instinct with life. Under the circumstances, these reflections were not pleasant. I wished Tress had not talked that nonsense about the thing being haunted. It was surely sufficient to know that it was drugged and poisonous, without anything else.
I replaced it in the sandalwood box. I locked the box in a cabinet. Quite apart from the question as to whether that pipe was or was not haunted, I know it haunted me. It was with me in a figurative—which was worse than actual—sense all the day. Still worse, it was with me all the night. It was with me in my dreams. Such dreams! Possibly I had not yet wholly recovered from the effects of that insidious drug, but, whether or no, it was very wrong of Tress to set my thoughts into such a channel. He knows that I am of a highly imaginative temperament, and that it is easier to get morbid thoughts into my mind than to get them out again. Before that night was through I wished very heartily that I had never seen the pipe! I woke from one nightmare to fall into another. One dreadful dream was with me all the time—of a hideous, green reptile which advanced toward me out of some awful darkness, slowly, inch by inch, until it clutched me round the neck, and, gluing its lips to mine, sucked the life's blood out of my veins as it embraced me with a slimy kiss. Such dreams are not restful. I woke anything but refreshed when the morning came. And when I got up and dressed I felt that, on the whole, it would perhaps have been better if I never had gone to bed. My nerves were unstrung, and I had that generally tremulous feeling which is, I believe, an inseparable companion of the more advanced stages of dipsomania. I ate no breakfast. I am no breakfast eater as a rule, but that morning I ate absolutely nothing.
"If this sort of thing is to continue, I will let Tress have his pipe again. He may have the laugh of me, but anything is better than this."
It was with almost funereal forebodings that I went to the cabinet in which I had placed the sandalwood box. But when I opened it my feelings of gloom partially vanished. Of what phantasies had I been guilty! It must have been an entire delusion on my part to have supposed that those tentacula had ever been twined about the bowl. The creature was in exactly the same position in which I had left it the day before—as, of course, I knew it would be—poised, as if about to spring. I was telling myself how foolish I had been to allow myself to dwell for a moment on Tress's words, when Martin Brasher was shown in.
Brasher is an old friend of mine. We have a common ground—ghosts. Only we approach them from different points of view. He takes the scientific—psychological—inquiry side. He is always anxious to hear of a ghost, so that he may have an opportunity of "showing it up."
"I've something in your line here," I observed, as he came in.
"In my line? How so? I'm not pipe mad."
"No; but you're ghost mad. And this is a haunted pipe."
"A haunted pipe! I think you're rather more mad about ghosts, my dear Pugh, than I am."
Then I told him all about it. He was deeply interested, especially when I told him that the pipe was drugged. But when I repeated Tress's words about its being haunted, and mentioned my own delusion about the creature moving, he took a more serious view of the case than I had expected he would do.
"I propose that we act on Tress's suggestion, and go and make inquiries of him."
"But you don't really think that there is anything in it?"
"On these subjects I never allow myself to think at all. There are Tress's words, and there is your story. It is agreed on all hands that the pipe has peculiar properties. It seems to me that there is a sufficient case here to merit inquiry."
He persuaded me. I went with him. The pipe, in the sandalwood box, went too. Tress received us with a grin—a grin which was accentuated when I placed the sandalwood box on the table.
"You understand," he said, "that a gift is a gift. On no terms will I consent to receive that pipe back in my possession."
I was rather nettled by his tone.
"You need be under no alarm. I have no intention of suggesting anything of the kind."
"Our business here," began Brasher—I must own that his manner is a little ponderous—"is of a scientific, I may say also, and at the same time, of a judicial nature. Our object is the Pursuit of Truth and the Advancement of Inquiry."
"Have you been trying another smoke?" inquired Tress, nodding his head toward me.
Before I had time to answer, Brasher went droning on:
"Our friend here tells me that you say this pipe is haunted."
"I say it is haunted because it is haunted."
I looked at Tress. I half suspected that he was poking fun at us. But he appeared to be serious enough.
"In these matters," remarked Brasher, as though he were giving utterance to a new and important truth, "there is a scientific and nonscientific method of inquiry. The scientific method is to begin at the beginning. May I ask how this pipe came into your possession?"
Tress paused before he answered.
"You may ask." He paused again. "Oh, you certainly may ask. But it doesn't follow that I shall tell you."
"Surely your object, like ours, can be but the Spreading About of the Truth?"
"I don't see it at all. It is possible to imagine a case in which the spreading about of the truth might make me look a little awkward."
"Indeed!" Brasher pursed up his lips. "Your words would almost lead one to suppose that there was something about your method of acquiring the pipe which you have good and weighty reasons for concealing."
"I don't know why I should conceal the thing from you. I don't suppose either of you is any better than I am. I don't mind telling you how I got the pipe. I stole it."
Brasher seemed both amazed and shocked. But I, who had previous experience of Tress's methods of adding to his collection, was not at all surprised. Some of the pipes which he calls his, if only the whole truth about them were publicly known, would send him to jail.
"That's nothing!" he continued. "All collectors steal! The eighth commandment was not intended to apply to them. Why, Pugh there has 'conveyed' three fourths of the pipes which he flatters himself are his."
I was so dumfoundered by the charge that it took my breath away. I sat in astounded silence. Tress went raving on:
"I was so shy of this particular pipe when I had obtained it, that I put it away for quite three months. When I took it out to have a look at it something about the thing so tickled me that I resolved to smoke it. Owing to peculiar circumstances attending the manner in which the thing came into my possession, and on which I need not dwell—you don't like to dwell on those sort of things, do you, Pugh?—I knew really nothing about the pipe. As was the case with Pugh, one peculiarity I learned from actual experience. It was also from actual experience that I learned that the thing was—well, I said haunted, but you may use any other word you like."
"Tell us, as briefly as possible, what it was you really did discover."
"Take the pipe out of the box!" Brasher took the pipe out of the box and held it in his hand. "You see that creature on it. Well, when I first had it it was underneath the pipe."
"How do you mean that it was underneath the pipe?"
"It was bunched together underneath the stem, just at the end of the mouthpiece, in the same way in which a fly might be suspended from the ceiling. When I began to smoke the pipe I saw the creature move."
"But I thought that unconsciousness immediately followed."
"It did follow, but not before I saw that the thing was moving. It was because I thought that I had been, in a way, a victim of delirium that I tried the second smoke. Suspecting that the thing was drugged I swallowed what I believed would prove a powerful antidote. It enabled me to resist the influence of the narcotic much longer than before, and while I still retained my senses I saw the creature crawl along under the stem and over the bowl. It was that sight, I believe, as much as anything else, which sent me silly. When I came to I then and there decided to present the pipe to Pugh. There is one more thing I would remark. When the pipe left me the creature's legs were twined about the bowl. Now they are withdrawn. Possibly you, Pugh, are able to cap my story with a little one which is all your own."
"I certainly did imagine that I saw the creature move. But I supposed that while I was under the influence of the drug imagination had played me a trick."
"Not a bit of it! Depend upon it, the beast is bewitched. Even to my eye it looks as though it were, and to a trained eye like yours, Pugh! You've been looking for the devil a long time, and you've got him at last."
"I—I wish you wouldn't make those remarks, Tress. They jar on me."
"I confess," interpolated Brasher—I noticed that he had put the pipe down on the table as though he were tired of holding it—"that, to my thinking, such remarks are not appropriate. At the same time what you have told us is, I am bound to allow, a little curious. But of course what I require is ocular demonstration. I haven't seen the movement myself."
"No, but you very soon will do if you care to have a pull at the pipe on your own account. Do, Brasher, to oblige me! There's a dear!"
"It appears, then, that the movement is only observable when the pipe is smoked. We have at least arrived at step No. 1."
"Here's a match, Brasher! Light up, and we shall have arrived at step No. 2."
Tress lit a match and held it out to Brasher. Brasher retreated from its neighborhood.
"Thank you, Mr. Tress, I am no smoker, as you are aware. And I have no desire to acquire the art of smoking by means of a poisoned pipe."
Tress laughed. He blew out the match and threw it into the grate.
"Then I tell you what I'll do—I'll have up Bob."
"Bob"—whose real name was Robert Haines, though I should think he must have forgotten the fact, so seldom was he addressed by it—was Tress's servant. He had been an old soldier, and had accompanied his master when he left the service. He was as depraved a character as Tress himself. I am not sure even that he was not worse than his master. I shall never forget how he once behaved toward myself. He actually had the assurance to accuse me of attempting to steal the Wardour Street relic which Tress fondly deludes himself was once the property of Sir Walter Raleigh. The truth is that I had slipped it with my handkerchief into my pocket in a fit of absence of mind. A man who could accuse me of such a thing would be guilty of anything. I was therefore quite at one with Brasher when he asked what Bob could possibly be wanted for. Tress explained.
"I'll get him to smoke the pipe," he said.
Brasher and I exchanged glances, but we refrained from speech.
"It won't do him any harm," said Tress.
"What—not a poisoned pipe?" asked Brasher.
"It's not poisoned—it's only drugged."
"Nothing hurts Bob. He is like an ostrich. He has digestive organs which are peculiarly his own. It will only serve him as it served me—and Pugh—it will knock him over. It is all done in the Pursuit of Truth and for the Advancement of Inquiry."
I could see that Brasher did not altogether like the tone in which Tress repeated his words. As for me, it was not to be supposed that I should put myself out in a matter which in no way concerned me. If Tress chose to poison the man, it was his affair, not mine. He went to the door and shouted:
"Bob! Come here, you scoundrel!"
That is the way in which he speaks to him. No really decent servant would stand it. I shouldn't care to address Nalder, my servant, in such a way. He would give me notice on the spot. Bob came in. He is a great hulking fellow who is always on the grin. Tress had a decanter of brandy in his hand. He filled a tumbler with the neat spirit.
"Bob, what would you say to a glassful of brandy—the real thing—my boy?"
"Thank you, sir."
"And what would you say to a pull at a pipe when the brandy is drunk!"
"A pipe?" The fellow is sharp enough when he likes. I saw him look at the pipe upon the table, and then at us, and then a gleam of intelligence came into his eyes. "I'd do it for a dollar, sir."
"A dollar, you thief?"
"I meant ten shillings, sir."
"Ten shillings, you brazen vagabond?"
"I should have said a pound."
"A pound! Was ever the like of that! Do I understand you to ask a pound for taking a pull at your master's pipe?"
"I'm thinking that I'll have to make it two."
"The deuce you are! Here, Pugh, lend me a pound."
"I'm afraid I've left my purse behind."
"Then lend me ten shillings—Ananias!"
"I doubt if I have more than five."
"Then give me the five. And, Brasher, lend me the other fifteen."
Brasher lent him the fifteen. I doubt if we shall either of us ever see our money again. He handed the pound to Bob.
"Here's the brandy—drink it up!" Bob drank it without a word, draining the glass of every drop. "And here's the pipe."
"Is it poisoned, sir?"
"Poisoned, you villain! What do you mean?"
"It isn't the first time I've seen your tricks, sir—is it now? And you're not the one to give a pound for nothing at all. If it kills me you'll send my body to my mother—she'd like to know that I was dead."
"Send your body to your grandmother! You idiot, sit down and smoke!"
Bob sat down. Tress had filled the pipe, and handed it, with a lighted match, to Bob. The fellow declined the match. He handled the pipe very gingerly, turning it over and over, eying it with all his eyes.
"Thank you, sir—I'll light up myself if it's the same to you. I carry matches of my own. It's a beautiful pipe, entirely. I never see the like of it for ugliness. And what's the slimy-looking varmint that looks as though it would like to have my life? Is it living, or is it dead?"
"Come, we don't want to sit here all day, my man!"
"Well, sir, the look of this here pipe has quite upset my stomach. I'd like another drop of liquor, if it's the same to you."
"Another drop! Why, you've had a tumblerful already! Here's another tumblerful to put on top of that. You won't want the pipe to kill you—you'll be killed before you get to it."
"And isn't it better to die a natural death?"
Bob emptied the second tumbler of brandy as though it were water. I believe he would empty a hogshead without turning a hair! Then he gave another look at the pipe. Then, taking a match from his waistcoat pocket, he drew a long breath, as though he were resigning himself to fate. Striking the match on the seat of his trousers, while, shaded by his hand, the flame was gathering strength, he looked at each of us in turn. When he looked at Tress I distinctly saw him wink his eye. What my feelings would have been if a servant of mine had winked his eye at me I am unable to imagine! The match was applied to the tobacco, a puff of smoke came through his lips—the pipe was alight!
During this process of lighting the pipe we had sat—I do not wish to use exaggerated language, but we had sat and watched that alcoholic scamp's proceedings as though we were witnessing an action which would leave its mark upon the age. When we saw the pipe was lighted we gave a simultaneous start. Brasher put his hands under his coat tails and gave a kind of hop. I raised myself a good six inches from my chair, and Tress rubbed his palms together with a chuckle. Bob alone was calm.
"Now," cried Tress, "you'll see the devil moving."
Bob took the pipe from between his lips.
"See what?" he said.
"Bob, you rascal, put that pipe back into your mouth, and smoke it for your life!"
Bob was eying the pipe askance.
"I dare say, but what I want to know is whether this here varmint's dead or whether he isn't. I don't want to have him flying at my nose—and he looks vicious enough for anything."
"Give me back that pound, you thief, and get out of my house, and bundle."
"I ain't going to give you back no pound."
"Then smoke that pipe!"
"I am smoking it, ain't I?"
With the utmost deliberation Bob returned the pipe to his mouth. He emitted another whiff or two of smoke.
"Now—now!" cried Tress, all excitement, and wagging his hand in the air.
We gathered round. As we did so Bob again withdrew the pipe.
"What is the meaning of all this here? I ain't going to have you playing none of your larks on me. I know there's something up, but I ain't going to throw my life away for twenty shillings—not quite I ain't."
Tress, whose temper is not at any time one of the best, was seized with quite a spasm of rage.
"As I live, my lad, if you try to cheat me by taking that pipe from between your lips until I tell you, you leave this room that instant, never again to be a servant of mine."
I presume the fellow knew from long experience when his master meant what he said, and when he didn't. Without an attempt at remonstrance he replaced the pipe. He continued stolidly to puff away. Tress caught me by the arm.
"What did I tell you? There—there! That tentacle is moving."
The uplifted tentacle was moving. It was doing what I had seen it do, as I supposed, in my distorted imagination—it was reaching forward. Undoubtedly Bob saw what it was doing; but, whether in obedience to his master's commands, or whether because the drug was already beginning to take effect, he made no movement to withdraw the pipe. He watched the slowly advancing tentacle, coming closer and closer toward his nose, with an expression of such intense horror on his countenance that it became quite shocking. Farther and farther the creature reached forward, until on a sudden, with a sort of jerk, the movement assumed a downward direction, and the tentacle was slowly lowered until the tip rested on the stem of the pipe. For a moment the creature remained motionless. I was quieting my nerves with the reflection that this thing was but some trick of the carver's art, and that what we had seen we had seen in a sort of nightmare, when the whole hideous reptile was seized with what seemed to be a fit of convulsive shuddering. It seemed to be in agony. It trembled so violently that I expected to see it loosen its hold of the stem and fall to the ground. I was sufficiently master of myself to steal a glance at Bob. We had had an inkling of what might happen. He was wholly unprepared. As he saw that dreadful, human-looking creature, coming to life, as it seemed, within an inch or two of his nose, his eyes dilated to twice their usual size. I hoped, for his sake, that unconsciousness would supervene, through the action of the drug, before through sheer fright his senses left him. Perhaps mechanically he puffed steadily on.
The creature's shuddering became more violent. It appeared to swell before our eyes. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the shuddering ceased. There was another instant of quiescence. Then the creature began to crawl along the stem of the pipe! It moved with marvelous caution, the merest fraction of an inch at a time. But still it moved! Our eyes were riveted on it with a fascination which was absolutely nauseous. I am unpleasantly affected even as I think of it now. My dreams of the night before had been nothing to this.
Slowly, slowly, it went, nearer and nearer to the smoker's nose. Its mode of progression was in the highest degree unsightly. It glided, never, so far as I could see, removing its tentacles from the stem of the pipe. It slipped its hindmost feelers onward until they came up to those which were in advance. Then, in their turn, it advanced those which were in front. It seemed, too, to move with the utmost labor, shuddering as though it were in pain.
We were all, for our parts, speechless. I was momentarily hoping that the drug would take effect on Bob. Either his constitution enabled him to offer a strong resistance to narcotics, or else the large quantity of neat spirit which he had drunk acted—as Tress had malevolently intended that it should—as an antidote. It seemed to me that he would never succumb. On went the creature—on, and on, in its infinitesimal progression. I was spellbound. I would have given the world to scream, to have been able to utter a sound. I could do nothing else but watch.
The creature had reached the end of the stem. It had gained the amber mouthpiece. It was within an inch of the smoker's nose. Still on it went. It seemed to move with greater freedom on the amber. It increased its rate of progress. It was actually touching the foremost feature on the smoker's countenance. I expected to see it grip the wretched Bob, when it began to oscillate from side to side. Its oscillations increased in violence. It fell to the floor. That same instant the narcotic prevailed. Bob slipped sideways from the chair, the pipe still held tightly between his rigid jaws.
We were silent. There lay Bob. Close beside him lay the creature. A few more inches to the left, and he would have fallen on and squashed it flat. It had fallen on its back. Its feelers were extended upward. They were writhing and twisting and turning in the air.
Tress was the first to speak.
"I think a little brandy won't be amiss." Emptying the remainder of the brandy into a glass, he swallowed it at a draught. "Now for a closer examination of our friend." Taking a pair of tongs from the grate he nipped the creature between them. He deposited it upon the table. "I rather fancy that this is a case for dissection."
He took a penknife from his waistcoat pocket. Opening the large blade, he thrust its point into the object on the table. Little or no resistance seemed to be offered to the passage of the blade, but as it was inserted the tentacula simultaneously began to writhe and twist. Tress withdrew the knife.
"I thought so!" He held the blade out for our inspection. The point was covered with some viscid-looking matter. "That's blood! The thing's alive!"
"Alive! That's the secret of the whole performance!"
"But me no buts, my Pugh! The mystery's exploded! One more ghost is lost to the world! The person from whom I obtained that pipe was an Indian juggler—up to many tricks of the trade. He, or some one for him, got hold of this sweet thing in reptiles—and a sweeter thing would, I imagine, be hard to find—and covered it with some preparation of, possibly, gum arabic. He allowed this to harden. Then he stuck the thing—still living, for those sort of gentry are hard to kill—to the pipe. The consequence was that when anyone lit up, the warmth was communicated to the adhesive agent—again some preparation of gum, no doubt—it moistened it, and the creature, with infinite difficulty, was able to move. But I am open to lay odds with any gentleman of sporting tastes that this time the creature's traveling days are done. It has given me rather a larger taste of the horrors than is good for my digestion."
With the aid of the tongs he removed the creature from the table. He placed it on the hearth. Before Brasher or I had a notion of what it was he intended to do he covered it with a heavy marble paper weight. Then he stood upon the weight, and between the marble and the hearth he ground the creature flat.
While the execution was still proceeding, Bob sat up upon the floor.
"Hollo!" he asked, "what's happened?"
"We've emptied the bottle, Bob," said Tress. "But there's another where that came from. Perhaps you could drink another tumblerful, my boy?"
Bob drank it!
"Those gentry are hard to kill." Here is fact, not fantasy. Lizard yarns no less sensational than this Mystery Story can be found between the covers of solemn, zoological textbooks.
Reptiles, indeed, are far from finicky in the matters of air, space, and especially warmth. Frogs and other such sluggish-blooded creatures have lived after being frozen fast in ice. Their blood is little warmer than air or water, enjoying no extra casing of fur or feathers.
Air and food seem held in light esteem by lizards. Their blood need not be highly oxygenated; it nourishes just as well when impure. In temperate climes lizards lie torpid and buried all winter; some species of the tropic deserts sleep peacefully all summer. Their anatomy includes no means for the continuous introduction and expulsion of air; reptilian lungs are little more than closed sacs, without cell structure.
If any further zoological fact were needed to verify the denouement of "The Pipe," it might be the general statement that lizards are abnormal brutes anyhow. Consider the chameleons of unsettled hue. And what is one to think of an animal which, when captured by the tail, is able to make its escape by willfully shuffling off that appendage?—EDITOR.
Pugh came into my room holding something wrapped in a piece of brown paper.
"Tress, I have brought you something on which you may exercise your ingenuity." He began, with exasperating deliberation, to untie the string which bound his parcel; he is one of those persons who would not cut a knot to save their lives. The process occupied him the better part of a quarter of an hour. Then he held out the contents of the paper.
"What do you think of that?" he asked. I thought nothing of it, and I told him so. "I was prepared for that confession. I have noticed, Tress, that you generally do think nothing of an article which really deserves the attention of a truly thoughtful mind. Possibly, as you think so little of it, you will be able to solve the puzzle."
I took what he held out to me. It was an oblong box, perhaps seven inches long by three inches broad.
"Where's the puzzle?" I asked.
"If you will examine the lid of the box, you will see."
I turned it over and over; it was difficult to see which was the lid. Then I perceived that on one side were printed these words:
"PUZZLE: TO OPEN THE BOX"
The words were so faintly printed that it was not surprising that I had not noticed them at first. Pugh explained.
"I observed that box on a tray outside a second-hand furniture shop. It struck my eye. I took it up. I examined it. I inquired of the proprietor of the shop in what the puzzle lay. He replied that that was more than he could tell me. He himself had made several attempts to open the box, and all of them had failed. I purchased it. I took it home. I have tried, and I have failed. I am aware, Tress, of how you pride yourself upon your ingenuity. I cannot doubt that, if you try, you will not fail."
While Pugh was prosing, I was examining the box. It was at least well made. It weighed certainly under two ounces. I struck it with my knuckles; it sounded hollow. There was no hinge; nothing of any kind to show that it ever had been opened, or, for the matter of that, that it ever could be opened. The more I examined the thing, the more it whetted my curiosity. That it could be opened, and in some ingenious manner, I made no doubt—but how?
The box was not a new one. At a rough guess I should say that it had been a box for a good half century; there were certain signs of age about it which could not escape a practiced eye. Had it remained unopened all that time? When opened, what would be found inside? It sounded hollow; probably nothing at all—who could tell?
It was formed of small pieces of inlaid wood. Several woods had been used; some of them were strange to me. They were of different colors; it was pretty obvious that they must all of them have been hard woods. The pieces were of various shapes—hexagonal, octagonal, triangular, square, oblong, and even circular. The process of inlaying them had been beautifully done. So nicely had the parts been joined that the lines of meeting were difficult to discover with the naked eye; they had been joined solid, so to speak. It was an excellent example of marquetry. I had been over-hasty in my deprecation; I owed as much to Pugh.
"This box of yours is better worth looking at than I first supposed. Is it to be sold?"
"No, it is not to be sold. Nor"—he "fixed" me with his spectacles—"is it to be given away. I have brought it to you for the simple purpose of ascertaining if you have ingenuity enough to open it."
"I will engage to open it in two seconds—with a hammer."
"I dare say. I will open it with a hammer. The thing is to open it without."
"Let me see." I began, with the aid of a microscope, to examine the box more closely. "I will give you one piece of information, Pugh. Unless I am mistaken, the secret lies in one of these little pieces of inlaid wood. You push it, or you press it, or something, and the whole affair flies open."
"Such was my own first conviction. I am not so sure of it now. I have pressed every separate piece of wood; I have tried to move each piece in every direction. No result has followed. My theory was a hidden spring."
"But there must be a hidden spring of some sort, unless you are to open it by a mere exercise of force. I suppose the box is empty."
"I thought it was at first, but now I am not so sure of that either. It all depends on the position in which you hold it. Hold it in this position—like this—close to your ear. Have you a small hammer?" I took a small hammer. "Tap it softly, with the hammer. Don't you notice a sort of reverberation within?"
Pugh was right, there certainly was something within; something which seemed to echo back my tapping, almost as if it were a living thing. I mentioned this to Pugh.
"But you don't think that there is something alive inside the box? There can't be. The box must be air-tight, probably as much air-tight as an exhausted receiver."
"How do we know that? How can we tell that no minute interstices have been left for the express purpose of ventilation?" I continued tapping with the hammer. I noticed one peculiarity, that it was only when I held the box in a particular position, and tapped at a certain spot, there came the answering taps from within. "I tell you what it is, Pugh, what I hear is the reverberation of some machinery."
"Do you think so?"
"I'm sure of it."
"Give the box to me." Pugh put the box to his ear. He tapped. "It sounds to me like the echoing tick, tick of some great beetle; like the sort of noise which a deathwatch makes, you know."
Trust Pugh to find a remarkable explanation for a simple fact; if the explanation leans toward the supernatural, so much the more satisfactory to Pugh. I knew better.
"The sound which you hear is merely the throbbing or the trembling of the mechanism with which it is intended that the box should be opened. The mechanism is placed just where you are tapping it with the hammer. Every tap causes it to jar."
"It sounds to me like the ticking of a deathwatch. However, on such subjects, Tress, I know what you are."
"My dear Pugh, give it an extra hard tap, and you will see."
He gave it an extra hard tap. The moment he had done so, he started.
"I've done it now."
"What have you done?"
"Broken something, I fancy." He listened intently, with his ear to the box. "No—it seems all right. And yet I could have sworn I had damaged something; I heard it smash."
"Give me the box." He gave it me. In my turn, I listened. I shook the box. Pugh must have been mistaken. Nothing rattled; there was not a sound; the box was as empty as before. I gave a smart tap with the hammer, as Pugh had done. Then there certainly was a curious sound. To my ear, it sounded like the smashing of glass. "I wonder if there is anything fragile inside your precious puzzle, Pugh, and, if so, if we are shivering it by degrees?"
"What is that noise?"
I lay in bed in that curious condition which is between sleep and waking. When, at last, I knew that I was awake, I asked myself what it was that had woke me. Suddenly I became conscious that something was making itself audible in the silence of the night. For some seconds I lay and listened. Then I sat up in bed.
"What is that noise?"
It was like the tick, tick of some large and unusually clear-toned clock. It might have been a clock, had it not been that the sound was varied, every half dozen ticks or so, by a sort of stifled screech, such as might have been uttered by some small creature in an extremity of anguish. I got out of bed; it was ridiculous to think of sleep during the continuation of that uncanny shrieking. I struck a light. The sound seemed to come from the neighborhood of my dressing-table. I went to the dressing-table, the lighted match in my hand, and, as I did so, my eyes fell on Pugh's mysterious box. That same instant there issued, from the bowels of the box, a more uncomfortable screech than any I had previously heard. It took me so completely by surprise that I let the match fall from my hand to the floor. The room was in darkness. I stood, I will not say trembling, listening—considering their volume—to the eeriest shrieks I ever heard. All at once they ceased. Then came the tick, tick, tick again. I struck another match and lit the gas.
Pugh had left his puzzle box behind him. We had done all we could, together, to solve the puzzle. He had left it behind to see what I could do with it alone. So much had it engrossed my attention that I had even brought it into my bedroom, in order that I might, before retiring to rest, make a final attempt at the solution of the mystery. Now what possessed the thing?
As I stood, and looked, and listened, one thing began to be clear to me, that some sort of machinery had been set in motion inside the box. How it had been set in motion was another matter. But the box had been subjected to so much handling, to such pressing and such hammering, that it was not strange if, after all, Pugh or I had unconsciously hit upon the spring which set the whole thing going. Possibly the mechanism had got so rusty that it had refused to act at once. It had hung fire, and only after some hours had something or other set the imprisoned motive power free.
But what about the screeching? Could there be some living creature concealed within the box? Was I listening to the cries of some small animal in agony? Momentary reflection suggested that the explanation of the one thing was the explanation of the other. Rust!—there was the mystery. The same rust which had prevented the mechanism from acting at once was causing the screeching now. The uncanny sounds were caused by nothing more nor less than the want of a drop or two of oil. Such an explanation would not have satisfied Pugh, it satisfied me.
Picking up the box, I placed it to my ear.
"I wonder how long this little performance is going to continue. And what is going to happen when it is good enough to cease? I hope"—an uncomfortable thought occurred to me—"I hope Pugh hasn't picked up some pleasant little novelty in the way of an infernal machine. It would be a first-rate joke if he and I had been endeavoring to solve the puzzle of how to set it going."
I don't mind owning that as this reflection crossed my mind I replaced Pugh's puzzle on the dressing-table. The idea did not commend itself to me at all. The box evidently contained some curious mechanism. It might be more curious than comfortable. Possibly some agreeable little device in clockwork. The tick, tick, tick suggested clockwork which had been planned to go a certain time, and then—then, for all I knew, ignite an explosive, and—blow up. It would be a charming solution to the puzzle if it were to explode while I stood there, in my nightshirt, looking on. It is true that the box weighed very little. Probably, as I have said, the whole affair would not have turned the scale at a couple of ounces. But then its very lightness might have been part of the ingenious inventor's little game. There are explosives with which one can work a very satisfactory amount of damage with considerably less than a couple of ounces.
While I was hesitating—I own it!—whether I had not better immerse Pugh's puzzle in a can of water, or throw it out of the window, or call down Bob with a request to at once remove it to his apartment, both the tick, tick, tick, and the screeching ceased, and all within the box was still. If it was going to explode, it was now or never. Instinctively I moved in the direction of the door.
I waited with a certain sense of anxiety. I waited in vain. Nothing happened, not even a renewal of the sound.
"I wish Pugh had kept his precious puzzle at home. This sort of thing tries one's nerves."
When I thought that I perceived that nothing seemed likely to happen, I returned to the neighborhood of the table. I looked at the box askance. I took it up gingerly. Something might go off at any moment for all I knew. It would be too much of a joke if Pugh's precious puzzle exploded in my hand. I shook it doubtfully; nothing rattled. I held it to my ear. There was not a sound. What had taken place? Had the clockwork run down, and was the machine arranged with such a diabolical ingenuity that a certain, interval was required, after the clockwork had run down, before an explosion could occur? Or had rust caused the mechanism to again hang fire?
"After making all that commotion the thing might at least come open." I banged the box viciously against the corner of the table. I felt that I would almost rather that an explosion should take place than that nothing should occur. One does not care to be disturbed from one's sound slumber in the small hours of the morning for a trifle.
"I've half a mind to get a hammer, and try, as they say in the cookery books, another way."
Unfortunately I had promised Pugh to abstain from using force. I might have shivered the box open with my hammer, and then explained that it had fallen, or got trod upon, or sat upon, or something, and so got shattered, only I was afraid that Pugh would not believe me. The man is himself such an untruthful man that he is in a chronic state of suspicion about the truthfulness of others.
"Well, if you're not going to blow up, or open, or something, I'll say good night."
I gave the box a final rap with my knuckles and a final shake, replaced it on the table, put out the gas, and returned to bed.
I was just sinking again into slumber, when that box began again. It was true that Pugh had purchased the puzzle, but it was evident that the whole enjoyment of the purchase was destined to be mine. It was useless to think of sleep while that performance was going on. I sat up in bed once more.
"It strikes me that the puzzle consists in finding out how it is possible to go to sleep with Pugh's purchase in your bedroom. This is far better than the old-fashioned prescription of cats on the tiles."
It struck me the noise was distinctly louder than before; this applied both to the tick, tick, tick, and the screeching.
"Possibly," I told myself, as I relighted the gas, "the explosion is to come off this time."
I turned to look at the box. There could be no doubt about it; the noise was louder. And, if I could trust my eyes, the box was moving—giving a series of little jumps. This might have been an optical delusion, but it seemed to me that at each tick the box gave a little bound. During the screeches—which sounded more like the cries of an animal in an agony of pain even than before—if it did not tilt itself first on one end, and then on another, I shall never be willing to trust the evidence of my own eyes again. And surely the box had increased in size; I could have sworn not only that it had increased, but that it was increasing, even as I stood there looking on. It had grown, and still was growing, both broader, and longer, and deeper. Pugh, of course, would have attributed it to supernatural agency; there never was a man with such a nose for a ghost. I could picture him occupying my position, shivering in his nightshirt, as he beheld that miracle taking place before his eyes. The solution which at once suggested itself to me—and which would never have suggested itself to Pugh!—was that the box was fashioned, as it were, in layers, and that the ingenious mechanism it contained was forcing the sides at once both upward and outward. I took it in my hand. I could feel something striking against the bottom of the box, like the tap, tap, tapping of a tiny hammer.
"This is a pretty puzzle of Pugh's. He would say that that is the tapping of a deathwatch. For my part I have not much faith in deathwatches, et hoc genus omne, but it certainly is a curious tapping; I wonder what is going to happen next?"
Apparently nothing, except a continuation of those mysterious sounds. That the box had increased in size I had, and have, no doubt whatever. I should say that it had increased a good inch in every direction, at least half an inch while I had been looking on. But while I stood looking its growth was suddenly and perceptibly stayed; it ceased to move. Only the noise continued.
"I wonder how long it will be before anything worth happening does happen! I suppose something is going to happen; there can't be all this to-do for nothing. If it is anything in the infernal machine line, and there is going to be an explosion, I might as well be here to see it. I think I'll have a pipe."
I put on my dressing-gown. I lit my pipe. I sat and stared at the box. I dare say I sat there for quite twenty minutes when, as before, without any sort of warning, the sound was stilled. Its sudden cessation rather startled me.
"Has the mechanism again hung fire? Or, this time, is the explosion coming off?" It did not come off; nothing came off. "Isn't the box even going to open?"
It did not open. There was simply silence all at once, and that was all. I sat there in expectation for some moments longer. But I sat for nothing. I rose. I took the box in my hand. I shook it.
"This puzzle is a puzzle." I held the box first to one ear, then to the other. I gave it several sharp raps with my knuckles. There was not an answering sound, not even the sort of reverberation which Pugh and I had noticed at first. It seemed hollower than ever. It was as though the soul of the box was dead. "I suppose if I put you down, and extinguish the gas and return to bed, in about half an hour or so, just as I am dropping off to sleep, the performance will be recommenced. Perhaps the third time will be lucky."
But I was mistaken—there was no third time. When I returned to bed that time I returned to sleep, and I was allowed to sleep; there was no continuation of the performance, at least so far as I know. For no sooner was I once more between the sheets than I was seized with an irresistible drowsiness, a drowsiness which so mastered me that I—I imagine it must have been instantly—sank into slumber which lasted till long after day had dawned. Whether or not any more mysterious sounds issued from the bowels of Pugh's puzzle is more than I can tell. If they did, they did not succeed in rousing me.
And yet, when at last I did awake, I had a sort of consciousness that my waking had been caused by something strange. What it was I could not surmise. My own impression was that I had been awakened by the touch of a person's hand. But that impression must have been a mistaken one, because, as I could easily see by looking round the room, there was no one in the room to touch me.
It was broad daylight. I looked at my watch; it was nearly eleven o'clock. I am a pretty late sleeper as a rule, but I do not usually sleep as late as that. That scoundrel Bob would let me sleep all day without thinking it necessary to call me. I was just about to spring out of bed with the intention of ringing the bell so that I might give Bob a piece of my mind for allowing me to sleep so late, when my glance fell on the dressing-table on which, the night before, I had placed Pugh's puzzle. It had gone!
Its absence so took me by surprise that I ran to the table. It had gone. But it had not gone far; it had gone to pieces! There were the pieces lying where the box had been. The puzzle had solved itself. The box was open, open with a vengeance, one might say. Like that unfortunate Humpty Dumpty, who, so the chroniclers tell us, sat on a wall, surely "all the king's horses and all the king's men" never could put Pugh's puzzle together again!
The marquetry had resolved itself into its component parts. How those parts had ever been joined was a mystery. They had been laid upon no foundation, as is the case with ordinary inlaid work. The several pieces of wood were not only of different shapes and sizes, but they were as thin as the thinnest veneer; yet the box had been formed by simply joining them together. The man who made that box must have been possessed of ingenuity worthy of a better cause.
I perceived how the puzzle had been worked. The box had contained an arrangement of springs, which, on being released, had expanded themselves in different directions until their mere expansion had rent the box to pieces. There were the springs, lying amid the ruin they had caused.
There was something else amid that ruin besides those springs; there was a small piece of writing paper. I took it up. On the reverse side of it was written in a minute, crabbed hand: "A Present For You." What was a present for me? I looked, and, not for the first time since I had caught sight of Pugh's precious puzzle, could scarcely believe my eyes.
There, poised between two upright wires, the bent ends of which held it aloft in the air, was either a piece of glass or—a crystal. The scrap of writing paper had exactly covered it. I understood what it was, when Pugh and I had tapped with the hammer, had caused the answering taps to proceed from within. Our taps caused the wires to oscillate, and in these oscillations the crystal, which they held suspended, had touched the side of the box.
I looked again at the piece of paper. "A Present For You." Was this the present—this crystal? I regarded it intently.
"It can't be a diamond."
The idea was ridiculous, absurd. No man in his senses would place a diamond inside a twopenny-halfpenny puzzle box. The thing was as big as a walnut! And yet—I am a pretty good judge of precious stones—if it was not an uncut diamond it was the best imitation I had seen. I took it up. I examined it closely. The more closely I examined it, the more my wonder grew.
"It is a diamond!"
And yet the idea was too preposterous for credence. Who would present a diamond as big as a walnut with a trumpery puzzle? Besides, all the diamonds which the world contains of that size are almost as well known as the Koh-i-noor.
"If it is a diamond, it is worth—it is worth—Heaven only knows what it isn't worth if it's a diamond."
I regarded it through a strong pocket lens. As I did so I could not restrain an exclamation.
"The world to a China orange, it is a diamond!"
The words had scarcely escaped my lips than there came a tapping at the door.
"Come in!" I cried, supposing it was Bob. It was not Bob, it was Pugh. Instinctively I put the lens and the crystal behind my back. At sight of me in my nightshirt Pugh began to shake his head.
"What hours, Tress, what hours! Why, my dear Tress, I've breakfasted, read the papers and my letters, came all the way from my house here, and you're not up!"
"Don't I look as though I were up?"
"Ah, Tress! Tress!" He approached the dressing-table. His eye fell upon the ruins. "What's this?"
"That's the solution to the puzzle."
"Have you—have you solved it fairly, Tress?"
"It has solved itself. Our handling, and tapping, and hammering must have freed the springs which the box contained, and during the night, while I slept, they have caused it to come open."
"While you slept? Dear me! How strange! And—what are these?"
He had discovered the two upright wires on which the crystal had been poised.
"I suppose they're part of the puzzle."
"And was there anything in the box? What's this?" He picked up the scrap of paper; I had left it on the table. He read what was written on it: "'A Present For You.' What's it mean? Tress, was this in the box?"
"What's it mean about a present? Was there anything in the box besides?"
"Pugh, if you will leave the room I shall be able to dress; I am not in the habit of receiving quite such early calls, or I should have been prepared to receive you. If you will wait in the next room, I will be with you as soon as I'm dressed. There is a little subject in connection with the box which I wish to discuss with you."
"A subject in connection with the box? What is the subject?"
"I will tell you, Pugh, when I have performed my toilet."
"Why can't you tell me now?"
"Do you propose, then, that I should stand here shivering in my shirt while you are prosing at your ease? Thank you; I am obliged, but I decline. May I ask you once more, Pugh, to wait for me in the adjoining apartment?"
He moved toward the door. When he had taken a couple of steps, he halted.
"I—I hope, Tress, that you're—you're going to play no tricks on me?"
"Tricks on you! Is it likely that I am going to play tricks upon my oldest friend?"
When he had gone—he vanished, it seemed to me, with a somewhat doubtful visage—I took the crystal to the window. I drew the blind. I let the sunshine fall on it. I examined it again, closely and minutely, with the aid of my pocket lens. It was a diamond; there could not be a doubt of it. If, with my knowledge of stones, I was deceived, then I was deceived as never man had been deceived before. My heart beat faster as I recognized the fact that I was holding in my hand what was, in all probability, a fortune for a man of moderate desires. Of course, Pugh knew nothing of what I had discovered, and there was no reason why he should know. Not the least! The only difficulty was that if I kept my own counsel, and sold the stone and utilized the proceeds of the sale, I should have to invent a story which would account for my sudden accession to fortune. Pugh knows almost as much of my affairs as I do myself. That is the worst of these old friends!
When I joined Pugh I found him dancing up and down the floor like a bear upon hot plates. He scarcely allowed me to put my nose inside the door before attacking me.
"Tress, give me what was in the box."
"My dear Pugh, how do you know that there was something in the box to give you?"
"I know there was!"
"Indeed! If you know that there was something in the box, perhaps you will tell me what that something was."
He eyed me doubtfully. Then, advancing, he laid upon my arm a hand which positively trembled.
"Tress, you—you wouldn't play tricks on an old friend."
"You are right, Pugh, I wouldn't, though I believe there have been occasions on which you have had doubts upon the subject. By the way, Pugh, I believe that I am the oldest friend you have."
"I—I don't know about that. There's—there's Brasher."
"Brasher! Who's Brasher? You wouldn't compare my friendship to the friendship of such a man as Brasher? Think of the tastes we have in common, you and I. We're both collectors."
"Ye-es, we're both collectors."
"I make my interests yours, and you make your interests mine. Isn't that so, Pugh?"
"Tress, what—what was in the box?"
"I will be frank with you, Pugh. If there had been something in the box, would you have been willing to go halves with me in my discovery?"
"Go halves! In your discovery, Tress! Give me what is mine!"
"With pleasure, Pugh, if you will tell me what is yours."
"If—if you don't give me what was in the box I'll—I'll send for the police."
"Do! Then I shall be able to hand to them what was in the box in order that it may be restored to its proper owner."
"Its proper owner! I'm its proper owner!"
"Excuse me, but I don't understand how that can be; at least, until the police have made inquiries. I should say that the proper owner was the person from whom you purchased the box, or, more probably, the person from whom he purchased it, and by whom, doubtless, it was sold in ignorance, or by mistake. Thus, Pugh, if you will only send for the police, we shall earn the gratitude of a person of whom we never heard in our lives—I for discovering the contents of the box, and you for returning them."
As I said this, Pugh's face was a study. He gasped for breath. He actually took out his handkerchief to wipe his brow.
"Tress, I—I don't think you need to use a tone like that to me. It isn't friendly. What—what was in the box?"
"Let us understand each other, Pugh. If you don't hand over what was in the box to the police, I go halves."
Pugh began to dance about the floor.
"What a fool I was to trust you with the box! I knew I couldn't trust you." I said nothing. I turned and rang the bell. "What's that for?"
"That, my dear Pugh, is for breakfast, and, if you desire it, for the police. You know, although you have breakfasted, I haven't. Perhaps while I am breaking my fast, you would like to summon the representatives of law and order." Bob came in. I ordered breakfast. Then I turned to Pugh. "Is there anything you would like?"
"No, I—I've breakfasted."
"It wasn't of breakfast I was thinking. It was of—something else. Bob is at your service, if, for instance, you wish to send him on an errand."
"No, I want nothing. Bob can go." Bob went. Directly he was gone, Pugh turned to me. "You shall have half. What was in the box?"
"I shall have half?"
"I don't think it is necessary that the terms of our little understanding should be expressly embodied in black and white. I fancy that, under the circumstance, I can trust you, Pugh. I believe that I am capable of seeing that, in this matter, you don't do me. That was in the box."
I held out the crystal between my finger and thumb.
"What is it?"
"That is what I desire to learn."
"Let me look at it."
"You are welcome to look at it where it is. Look at it as long as you like, and as closely."
Pugh leaned over my hand. His eyes began to gleam. He is himself not a bad judge of precious stones, is Pugh.
"It's—it's—Tress!—is it a diamond?"
"That question I have already asked myself."
"Let me look at it! It will be safe with me! It's mine!"
I immediately put the thing behind my back.
"Pardon me, it belongs neither to you nor to me. It belongs, in all probability, to the person who sold that puzzle to the man from whom you bought it—perhaps some weeping widow, Pugh, or hopeless orphan—think of it. Let us have no further misunderstanding upon that point, my dear old friend. Still, because you are my dear old friend, I am willing to trust you with this discovery of mine, on condition that you don't attempt to remove it from my sight, and that you return it to me the moment I require you."
"You're—you're very hard on me." I made a movement toward my waistcoat pocket. "I'll return it to you!"
I handed him the crystal, and with it I handed him my pocket lens.
"With the aid of that glass I imagine that you will be able to subject it to a more acute examination, Pugh."
He began to examine it through the lens. Directly he did so, he gave an exclamation. In a few moments he looked up at me. His eyes were glistening behind his spectacles. I could see he trembled.
"Tress, it's—it's a diamond, a Brazil diamond. It's worth a fortune!"
"I'm glad you think so."
"Glad I think so! Don't you think that it's a diamond?"
"It appears to be a diamond. Under ordinary conditions I should say, without hesitation, that it was a diamond. But when I consider the circumstances of its discovery, I am driven to doubts. How much did you give for that puzzle, Pugh?"
"Ninepence; the fellow wanted a shilling, but I gave him ninepence. He seemed content."
"Ninepence! Does it seem reasonable that we should find a diamond, which, if it is a diamond, is the finest stone I ever saw and handled, in a ninepenny puzzle? It is not as though it had got into the thing by accident, it had evidently been placed there to be found, and, apparently, by anyone who chanced to solve the puzzle; witness the writing on the scrap of paper."
Pugh reexamined the crystal.
"It is a diamond! I'll stake my life that it's a diamond!"
"Still, though it be a diamond, I smell a rat!"
"What do you mean?"
"I strongly suspect that the person who placed that diamond inside that puzzle intended to have a joke at the expense of the person who discovered it. What was to be the nature of the joke is more than I can say at present, but I should like to have a bet with you that the man who compounded that puzzle was an ingenious practical joker. I may be wrong, Pugh; we shall see. But, until I have proved the contrary, I don't believe that the maddest man that ever lived would throw away a diamond worth, apparently, shall we say a thousand pounds?"