Story type: Literature
“You don’t know the woman who is causing the trouble. You haven’t seen her eyes. But–Madre de Dios!–my father is a changed man. Sometimes I think he is–what you call–mad!”
Our visitor spoke in a hurried, nervous tone, with a marked foreign accent which was not at all unpleasing. She was a young woman, unmistakably beautiful, of the dark Spanish type and apparently a South American.
“I am Senorita Inez de Mendoza of Lima, Peru,” she introduced herself, as she leaned forward in her chair in a high state of overwrought excitement. “We have been in this country only a short time–my father and I, with his partner in a mining venture, Mr. Lockwood. Since the hot weather came we have been staying at the Beach Inn at Atlantic Beach.”
She paused a moment and hesitated, as though in this strange land of the north she had no idea of which way to turn for help.
“Perhaps I should have gone to see a doctor about him,” she considered, doubtfully; then her emotions got the better of her and she went on passionately, “but, Mr. Kennedy it is not a case for a doctor. It is a case for a detective–for someone who is more than a detective.”
She spoke pleadingly now, in a soft musical voice that was far more pleasing to the ear than that of the usual Spanish-American. I had heard that the women of Lima were famed for their beauty and melodious voices. Senorita Mendoza surely upheld their reputation.
There was an appealing look in her soft brown eyes and her thin, delicate lips trembled as she hurried on with her strange story.
“I never saw my father in such a state before,” she murmured. “All he talks about is the ‘big fish’–whatever that may mean–and the curse of Mansiche. At times his eyes are staring wide open. Sometimes I think he has a violent fever. He is excited–and seems to be wasting away. He seems to see strange visions and hear voices. Yet I think he is worse when he is quiet in a dark room alone than when he is down in the lobby of the hotel in the midst of the crowd.”
A sudden flash of fire seemed to light up her dark eyes. “There is a woman at the hotel, too,” she went on, “a woman from Truxillo, Senora de Moche. Ever since she has been there my father has been growing worse and worse.”
“Who is this Senora de Moche?” asked Kennedy, studying the Senorita as if she were under a lens.
“A Peruvian of an old Indian family,” she replied. “She has come to New York with her son, Alfonso, who is studying at the University here. I knew him in Peru,” she added, as if by way of confession, “when he was a student at the University of Lima.”
There was something in both her tone and her manner that would lead one to believe that she bore no enmity toward the son–indeed quite the contrary–whatever might be her feelings toward the mother of de Moche.
Kennedy reached for our university catalogue and found the name, Alfonso de Moche, a post-graduate student in the School of Engineering, and therefore not in any of Kennedy’s own courses. I could see that Craig was growing more and more interested.
“And you think,” he queried, “that in some way this woman is connected with the strange change that has taken place in your father?”
“I don’t know,” she temporized, but the tone of her answer was sufficient to convey the impression that in her heart she did suspect something, she knew not what.
“It’s not a long run to Atlantic Beach,” considered Kennedy. “I have one or two things that I must finish up first, however.”
“Then you will come down tonight?” she asked, as Kennedy rose and took the little white silk gloved hand which she extended.
“Tonight surely,” answered Craig, holding the door for her to pass out.
“Well,” I said, when we were alone, “what is it–a romance or a crime?”
“Both, I think,” he replied abstractedly, taking up the experiment which the visit had interrupted.
“I think,” he remarked late in the afternoon, as he threw off his acid-stained smock, “that I will go over to the University library before it closes and refresh my mind on some of those old Peruvian antiquities and traditions. The big fish or peje grande, as I remember it, was the name given by the natives to one of the greatest buried treasures about the time of Pizarro’s conquest. If I remember correctly, Mansiche was the great cacique, or something of that sort–the ruler in northern Peru at that time. He is said to have left a curse on any native who ever divulged the whereabouts of the treasure and the curse was also to fall on any Spaniard who might discover it.”
For more than an hour Kennedy delved into the archeological lore in the library. Then he rejoined me at the laboratory and after a hasty bite of dinner we hurried down to the station.
That evening we stepped off the train at Atlantic Beach to make our way to the Beach Inn. The resort was just springing into night life, as the millions of incandescent lights flooded it with a radiance which we could see reflected in the sky long before our train arrived. There was something intoxicating about the combination of the bracing salt air and the gay throngs seeking pleasure.
Instead of taking the hotel ‘bus, Kennedy decided to stroll to the inn along the boardwalk. We were just about to turn into the miniature park which separated the inn from the walk when we noticed a wheel chair coming in our direction. In it were a young man and a woman of well-preserved middle age. They had evidently been enjoying the ocean breeze after dinner, and the sound of music had drawn them back to the hotel.
We entered the lobby of the inn just as the first number of the evening concert by the orchestra was finishing. Kennedy stood at the desk for a moment while Senorita Mendoza was being paged, and ran his eye over the brilliant scene. In a minute the boy returned and led us through the maze of wicker chairs to an alcove just off the hall which later in the evening would be turned into a ballroom.
On a wide settee, the Senorita was talking with animation to a tall, clean-cut young man in evening clothes, whose face bore the tan of a sun much stronger than that at Atlantic Beach. He was unmistakably of the type of American soldier of fortune. In a deep rocker before them sat a heavy-set man whose piercing black eyes beetled forth from under bushy eyebrows. He was rather distinguished looking, and his close-cropped hair and mustache set him off as a man of affairs and consequence in his own country.
As we approached, Senorita Mendoza rose quickly. I wondered how she was going to get over the awkward situation of introducing us, for surely she did not intend to let her father know that she was employing a detective. She did it most cleverly, with a significant look at Kennedy which he understood.
“Good-evening. I am delighted to see you,” she greeted. Then, turning to her father, she introduced Craig. “This is Professor Kennedy,” she explained, “whom I met at the reception of the Hispano-American Society. You remember I told you he was so much interested in our Peruvian ruins.”
Don Luis’s eyes seemed fairly to glitter with excitement. They were prominent eyes, staring, and I could not help studying them.
“Then, Senor Kennedy,” he exclaimed, “you know of our ruins of Chan-Chan, of Chima–those wonderful places–and have heard the legend of the peje grande ?” His eyes, by that time, were almost starting from their sockets, and I noticed that the pupils were dilated almost to the size of the iris. “We must sit down,” he went on, “and talk about Peru.”
The soldier of fortune also had risen as we approached. In her soft musical voice, the Senorita now interrupted her father.
“Professor Kennedy, let me introduce you to Mr. Lockwood, my father’s partner in a mining project which brings us to New York.”
As Kennedy and I shook hands with the young mining engineer, I felt that Lockwood was something more to her than a mere partner in her father’s mining venture.
We drew up chairs and joined the circle.
Kennedy said something about mining and the very word “mine” seemed to excite Senor Mendoza still further.
“Your American financiers have lost millions in mining in Peru,” he exclaimed excitedly, taking out a beautifully chased gold cigarette case, “but we are going to make more millions than they ever dreamed of, because we are simply going to mine for the products of centuries of labor already done, for the great treasure of Truxillo.”
He opened the cigarette case and handed it about. The cigarettes seemed to be his own special brand. We lighted up and puffed away for a moment. There was a peculiar taste about them, however, which I did not like. In fact, I think that the Latin-American cigarettes do not seem to appeal to an American very much, anyhow.
As we talked, I noticed that Kennedy evidently shared my own tastes, for he allowed his cigarette to go out, and after a puff or two I did the same. For the sake of my own comfort I drew out one of my own cigarettes as soon as I could do so politely.
“We are not the only ones who have sought the peje grande,” resumed Mendoza eagerly, “but we are the only ones who are seeking it in the right place, and,” he added, leaning over with a whisper, “I am the only one who has the concession, the monopoly, from the government to seek in what we know to be the right place. Others have found the little fish. We shall find the big fish.”
He had raised his voice from the whisper and I caught the Senorita looking anxiously at Kennedy, as much as to say, “You see? His mind is full of only one subject.”
Senor Mendoza’s eyes had wandered from us and he seemed all of a sudden to grow wild.
“We shall find it,” he cried, “no matter what obstacles man or devil put in our way. It is ours–for a simple piece of engineering–ours! The curse of Mansiche–pouf!”
He snapped his fingers almost defiantly as he said it in a high-pitched voice. There was an air of bravado about it and I could not help feeling that perhaps in his heart he was not so sure of himself as he would have others think. It was as though some diabolical force had taken possession of his brain and he fought it off.
Kennedy quickly followed the staring glance of Mendoza. Out on the broad veranda, by an open window a few yards from us, sat the woman of the wheel chair. The young man who accompanied her had his back toward us for the moment, but she was looking fixedly in our direction, paying no attention apparently to the music. She was a large woman, with dark hair, and contrasting full red lips. Her face, in marked contradiction to her Parisian costume and refined manners, had a slight copper swarthiness about it.
But it was her eyes that arrested and held one’s attention. Whether it was in the eyes themselves or in the way that she used them, there could be no mistake about the hypnotic power that their owner wielded. She saw us looking at her, but it made no difference. Not for an instant did she allow our gaze to distract her in the projection of their weird power straight at Don Luis himself.
Don Luis, on his part, seemed fascinated.
He rose, and, for a moment, I thought that he was going over to speak to her, as if drawn by that intangible attraction which Poe has so cleverly expressed in his “Imp of the Perverse.” Instead, in the midst of the number which the orchestra was playing, he turned and, as though by a superhuman effort, moved away among the guests out into the brighter lights and gayety of the lobby.
I glanced up in time to see the anxious look on the Senorita’s face change momentarily into a flash of hatred toward the woman in the window.
The young man turned just about that time, and there was no mistaking the ardent glance he directed toward the fair Peruvian. I fancied that her face softened a bit, too.
She resumed her normal composure as she said to Lockwood, “You will excuse me, I know. Father is tired of the music. I think I will take him for a turn down the boardwalk. If you can join us in our rooms in an hour or so, may we see you!” she asked, with another significant glance at Kennedy.
Craig had barely time to reply that we should be delighted before she was gone. Evidently she did not dare let her father get very far out of her sight.
We sat for a few moments smoking and chatting with Lockwood.
“What is the curse of Mansiche?” asked Kennedy at length.
“Oh, I don’t know,” returned Lockwood, impatiently flicking the ashes from his cigar, as though such stories had no interest for the practical mind of an engineer. “Some old superstition. I don’t know much about the story; but I do know that there is treasure in that great old Chimu mound near Truxillo, and that Don Luis has got us the government concession to bore into it, if we can only raise the capital to carry it out.”
Kennedy showed no disposition to leave the academic and become interested in the thing from the financial standpoint, and the conversation dragged.
“I beg pardon,” apologized Lockwood at length, “but I have some very important letters that I must get off before the mail closes. I’ll see you, I presume, when the Senorita and Don Luis come back?”
Kennedy nodded. In fact, I think he was rather glad of the opportunity to look things over unhampered.
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