The Green Curse by Arthur B Reeve

Story type: LiteratureThe American Medici disappeared into his main library, where Miss White was making a minute examination to determine what damage had been done in th …

Story type: Literature

The American Medici disappeared into his main library, where Miss White was making a minute examination to determine what damage had been done in the realm over which she presided.

“Apparently every book with a green binding has been mutilated in some way,” resumed Dr. Lith, “but that was only the beginning. Others have suffered, too, and some are even gone. It is impossible that any visitor could have done it. Only a few personal friends of Mr. Spencer are ever admitted here, and they are never alone. No, it is weird, mysterious.”

Just then Spencer returned with Miss White. She was an extremely attractive girl, slight of figure, but with an air about her that all the imported gowns in New York could not have conferred. They were engaged in animated conversation, so much in contrast with the bored air with which Spencer had listened to Dr. Lith that even I noticed that the connoisseur was completely obliterated in the man, whose love of beauty was by no means confined to the inanimate. I wondered if it was merely his interest in her story that impelled Spencer. The more I watched the girl the more I was convinced that she knew that she was interesting to the millionaire.

“For example,” Dr. Lith was saying, “the famous collection of emeralds which has disappeared has always been what you Americans call ‘hoodooed.’ They hare always brought ill luck, and, like many things of the sort to which superstition attaches, they have been ‘banked,’ so to speak, by their successive owners in museums.”

“Are they salable; that is, could any one dispose of the emeralds or the other curios with reasonable safety and at a good price?”

“Oh, yes, yes,” hastened Dr. Lith, “not as collections, but separately. The emeralds alone cost fifty thousand dollars. I believe Mr. Spencer bought them for Mrs. Spencer some years before she died. She did not care to wear them, however, and had them placed here.”

I thought I noticed a shade of annoyance cross the face of the magnate. “Never mind that,” he interrupted. “Let me introduce Miss White. I think you will find her story one of the most uncanny you have ever heard.”

He had placed a chair for her and, still addressing us but looking at her, went on: “It seems that the morning the vandalism was first discovered she and Dr. Lith at once began a thorough search of the building to ascertain the extent of the depredations. The search lasted all day, and well into the night. I believe it was midnight before you finished?”

“It was almost twelve,” began the girl, in a musical voice that was too Parisian to harmonize with her plain Anglo-Saxon name, “when Dr. Lith was down here in his office checking off the objects in the catalogue which were either injured or missing. I had been working in the library. The noise of something like a shade flapping in the wind attracted my attention. I listened. It seemed to come from the art-gallery, a large room up-stairs where some of the greatest masterpieces in this country are hung. I hurried up there.

“Just as I reached the door a strange feeling seemed to come over me that I was not alone in that room. I fumbled for the electric light switch, but in my nervousness could not find it. There was just enough light in the room to make out objects indistinctly. I thought I heard a low, moaning sound from an old Flemish copper ewer near me. I had heard that it was supposed to groan at night.”

She paused and shuddered at her recollection, and looked about as if grateful for the flood of electric light that now illuminated everything. Spencer reached over and touched her arm to encourage her to go on. She did not seem to resent the touch.

“Opposite me, in the middle of the open floor,” she resumed, her eyes dilated and her breath coming and going rapidly, “stood the mummy-case of Ka, an Egyptian priestess of Thebes, I think. The case was empty, but on the lid was painted a picture of the priestess! Such wonderful eyes! They seem to pierce right through your very soul. Often in the daytime I have stolen off to look at them. But at night–remember the hour of night, too–oh, it was awful, terrible. The lid of the mummy-case moved, yes, really moved, and seemed to float to one side. I could see it. And back of that carved and painted face with the piercing eyes was another face, a real face, real eyes, and they looked out at me with such hatred from the place that I knew was empty–“

She had risen and was facing us with wild terror written on her face as if in appeal for protection against something she was powerless to name. Spencer, who had not taken his hand off her arm, gently pressed her back into the easy chair and finished the story.

“She screamed and fainted. Dr. Lith heard it and rushed up-stairs. There she lay on the floor. The lid of the sarcophagus had really been moved. He saw it. Not a thing else had been disturbed. He carried her down here and revived her, told her to rest for a day or two, but–“

“I cannot, I cannot,” she cried. “It is the fascination of the thing. It brings me back here. I dream of it. I thought I saw those eyes the other night. They haunt me. I fear them, and yet I would not avoid them, if it killed me to look. I must meet and defy the power. What is it? Is it a curse four thousand years old that has fallen on me?”

I had heard stories of mummies that rose from their sleep of centuries to tell the fate of some one when it was hanging in the balance, of mummies that groaned and gurgled and fought for breath, frantically beating with their swathed hands in the witching hours of the night. And I knew that the lure of these mummies was so strong for some people that they were drawn irresistibly to look upon and confer with them. Was this a case for the oculists, the spiritualists, the Egyptologists, or for a detective?

“I should like to examine the art gallery, in fact, go over the whole museum,” put in Kennedy in his most matter-of-fact tone.

Spencer, with a glance at his watch, excused himself, nodding to Dr. Lith to show us about, and with a good night to Miss White which was noticeable for its sympathy with her fears, said, “I shall be at the house for another half-hour at least, in case anything really important develops.”

A few minutes later Miss White left for the night, with apparent reluctance, and yet, I thought, with just a little shudder as she looked back up the staircase that led to the art-gallery.

Dr. Lith led us into a large vaulted marble hall and up a broad flight of steps, past beautiful carvings and frescoes that I should have liked to stop and admire.

The art-gallery was a long room in the interior and at the top of the building, windowless but lighted by a huge double skylight each half of which must have been some eight or ten feet across. The light falling through this skylight passed through plate glass of marvellous transparency. One looked up at the sky as if through the air itself.

Kennedy ignored the gallery’s profusion of priceless art for the time and went directly to the mummy-case of the priestess Ka.

“It has a weird history,” remarked Dr. Lith. “No less than seven deaths, as well as many accidents, have been attributed to the malign influence of that greenish yellow coffin. You know the ancient Egyptians used to chant as they buried their sacred dead: ‘Woe to him who injures the tomb. The dead shall point out the evildoer to the Devourer of the Underworld. Soul and body shall be destroyed.’”

It was indeed an awesome thing. It represented a woman in the robes of an Egyptian priestess, a woman of medium height, with an inscrutable face. The slanting Egyptian eyes did, as Miss White had said, almost literally stare through you. I am sure that any one possessing a nature at all affected by such things might after a few minutes gazing at them in self-hypnotism really convince himself that the eyes moved and were real. Even as I turned and looked the other way I felt that those penetrating eyes were still looking at me, never asleep, always keen and searching.

There was no awe about Kennedy. He carefully pushed aside the lid and peered inside. I almost expected to see some one in there. A moment later he pulled out his magnifying-glass and. carefully examined the interior. At last he was apparently satisfied with his search. He had narrowed his attention down to a few marks on the stone, partly in the thin layer of dust that had collected on the bottom.

“This was a very modern and material reincarnation,” he remarked, as he rose. “If I am not mistaken, the apparition wore shoes, shoes with nails in the heels, and nails that are not like those in American shoes. I shall have to compare the marks I have found with marks I have copied from shoe-nails in the wonderful collection of M. Bertillon. Offhand, I should say that the shoes were of French make.”

The library having been gone over next without anything attracting Kennedy’s attention particularly, he asked about the basement or cellar. Dr. Lith lighted the way, and we descended.

Down there were innumerable huge packing-cases which had just arrived from abroad, full of the latest consignment of art treasures which Spencer had purchased. Apparently Dr. Lith and Miss White had been so engrossed in discovering what damage had been done to the art treasures above that they had not had time to examine the new ones in the basement.

Kennedy’s first move was to make a thorough search of all the little grated windows and a door which led out into a sort of little areaway for the removal of ashes and refuse. The door showed no evidence of having been tampered with, nor did any of the windows at first sight. A low exclamation from Kennedy brought us to his side. He had opened one of the windows and thrust his hand out against the grating, which had fallen on the outside pavement with a clang. The bars had been completely and laboriously sawed through, and the whole thing had been wedged back into place so that nothing would be detected at a cursory glance. He was regarding the lock on the window. Apparently it was all right; actually it had been sprung so that it was useless.

“Most persons,” he remarked, “don’t know enough about jimmies. Against them an ordinary door-lock or window-catch is no protection. With a jimmy eighteen inches long even an anaemic burglar can exert a pressure sufficient to lift two tons. Not one window in a thousand can stand that strain. The only use of locks is to keep out sneak-thieves and compel the modern scientific educated burglar to make a noise. But making a noise isn’t enough here, at night. This place with all its fabulous treasures must be guarded constantly, now, every hour, as if the front door were wide open.”

The bars replaced and the window apparently locked as before, Craig devoted his efforts to examining the packing cases in the basement. As yet apparently nothing down there had been disturbed. But while rummaging about, from an angle formed behind one of the cases he drew forth a cane, to all appearances an ordinary Malacca walking-stick. He balanced it in his hand a moment, then shook his head.

“Too heavy for a Malacca,” he ruminated. Then an idea seemed to occur to him. He gave the handle a twist. Sure enough, it came off, and as it did so a bright little light flashed up.

“Well, what do you think of that?” he exclaimed. “For a scientific dark-lantern that is the neatest thing I have ever seen. An electric light cane, with a little incandescent lamp and a battery hidden in it. This grows interesting. We must at last have found the cache of a real gentleman burglar such as Bertillon says exists only in books. I wonder if he has anything else hidden back here.”

He reached down and pulled out a peculiar little instrument–a single blue steel cylinder. He fitted a hard rubber cap snugly into the palm of his hand, and with the first and middle fingers encircled the cylinder over a steel ring near the other end.

A loud report followed, and a vase, just unpacked, at the opposite end of the basement was shattered as if by an explosion.

“Phew!” exclaimed Kennedy. “I didn’t mean to do that. I knew the thing was loaded, but I had no idea the hair-spring ring at the end was so delicate as to shoot it off at a touch. It’s one of those aristocratic little Apache pistols that one can carry in his vest pocket and hide in his hand. Say, but that stung! And back here is a little box of cartridges, too.”

We looked at each other in amazement at the chance find. Apparently the vandal had planned a series of visits.

“Now, let me see,” resumed Kennedy. “I suppose our very human but none the less mysterious intruder expected to use these again. Well, let him try. I’ll put them back here for the present. I want to watch in the art-gallery to-night.”

I could not help wondering whether, after all, it might not be an inside job and the fixing of the window merely a blind. Or was the vandal fascinated by the subtle influence of mysticism that so often seems to emanate from objects that have come down from the remote ages of the world? I could not help asking myself whether the story that Miss White had told was absolutely true. Had there been anything more than superstition in the girl’s evident fright? She had seen something, I felt sure, for it was certain she was very much disturbed. But what was it she had really seen? So far all that Kennedy had found had proved that the reincarnation of the priestess Ka had been very material. Perhaps the “reincarnation” had got in in the daytime and had spent the hours until night in the mummy-case. It might well have been chosen as the safest and least suspicious hiding-place.

Kennedy evidently had some ideas and plans, for no sooner had he completed arrangements with Dr. Lith so that we could get into the museum that night to watch, than he excused himself. Scarcely around the corner on the next business street he hurried into a telephone booth.

“I called up First Deputy O’Connor,” he explained as he left the booth a quarter of an hour later. “You know it is the duty of two of O’Connor’s men to visit all the pawn-shops of the city at least once a week, looking over recent pledges and comparing them with descriptions of stolen articles. I gave him a list from that catalogue of Dr. Lith’s and I think that if any of the emeralds, for instance, have been pawned his men will be on the alert and will find it out.”

We had a leisurely dinner at a near-by hotel, during most of which time Kennedy gazed vacantly at his food. Only once did he mention the case, and that was almost as if he were thinking aloud.

“Nowadays,” he remarked, “criminals are exceptionally well informed. They used to steal only money and jewels; to-day it is famous pictures and antiques also. They know something about the value of antique bronze and marble. In fact, the spread of a taste for art has taught the enterprising burglar that such things are worth money, and he, in turn, has educated up the receivers of stolen goods to pay a reasonable percentage of the value of his artistic plunder. The success of the European art thief is enlightening the American thief. That’s why I think we’ll find some of this stuff in the hands of the professional fences.”

It was still early in the evening when we returned to the museum and let ourselves in with the key that Dr. Lith had loaned Kennedy. He had been anxious to join us in the watch, but Craig had diplomatically declined, a circumstance that puzzled me and set me thinking that perhaps he suspected the curator himself.

We posted ourselves in an angle where we could not possibly be seen even if the full force of the electrolier were switched on. Hour after hour we waited. But nothing happened. There were strange and weird noises in plenty, not calculated to reassure one, but Craig was always ready with an explanation.

It was in the forenoon of the day after our long and unfruitful vigil in the art-gallery that Dr. Lith himself appeared at our apartment in a great state of perturbation.

“Miss White has disappeared,” he gasped, in answer to Craig’s hurried question. “When I opened the museum, she was not there as she is usually. Instead, I found this note.”

He laid the following hastily written message on the table:

Do not try to follow me. It is the green curse that has pursued me from Paris. I cannot escape it, but I may prevent it from affecting others.

LUCILLE WHITE.

That was all. We looked at each other at a loss to understand the enigmatic wording–“the green curse.”

“I rather expected something of the sort,” observed Kennedy. “By the way, the shoenails were French, as I surmised. They show the marks of French heels. It was Miss White herself who hid in the mummy-case.”

“Impossible,” exclaimed Dr. Lith incredulously. As for myself, I had learned that it was of no use being incredulous with Kennedy.

A moment later the door opened, and one of O’Connor’s men came in bursting with news. Some of the emeralds had been discovered in a Third Avenue pawn-shop. O’Connor, mindful of the historic fate of the Mexican Madonna and the stolen statue of the Egyptian goddess Neith, had instituted a thorough search with the result that at least part of the pilfered jewels had been located. There was only one clue to the thief, but it looked promising. The pawnbroker described him as “a crazy Frenchman of an artist,” tall, with a pointed black beard. In pawning the jewels he had given the name of Edouard Delaverde, and the city detectives were making a canvass of the better known studios in hope of tracing him.

Kennedy, Dr. Lith and myself walked around to the boarding-house where Miss White lived. There was nothing about it, from the landlady to the gossip, to distinguish it from scores of other places of the better sort. We had no trouble in finding out that Miss White had not returned home at all the night before. The landlady seemed to look on her as a woman of mystery, and confided to us that it was an open secret that she was not an American at all, but a French girl whose name, she believed, was really Lucille Leblanc–which, after all, was White. Kennedy made no comment, but I wavered between the conclusions that she had been the victim of foul play and that she might be the criminal herself, or at least a member of a band of criminals.

No trace of her could be found through the usual agencies for locating missing persons. It was the middle of the afternoon, however, when word came to us that one of the city detectives had apparently located the studio of Delaverde. It was coupled with the interesting information that the day before a woman roughly answering the description of Miss White had been seen there. Delaverde himself was gone.

The building to which the detective took us was down-town in a residence section which had remained as a sort of little eddy to one side of the current of business that had swept everything before it up-town. It was an old building and large, and was entirely given over to studios of artists.

Into one of the cheapest of the suites we were directed. It was almost bare of furniture and in a peculiarly shiftless state of disorder. A half-finished picture stood in the centre of the room, and several completed ones were leaning against the wall. They were of the wildest character imaginable. Even the conceptions of the futurists looked tame in comparison.

Kennedy at once began rummaging and exploring. In a corner of a cupboard near the door he disclosed a row of dark-colored bottles. One was filled halfway with an emerald-green liquid.

He held it up to the light and read the label, “Absinthe.”

“Ah,” he exclaimed with evident interest, looking first at the bottle and then at the wild, formless pictures. “Our crazy Frenchman was an absintheur. I thought the pictures were rather the product of a disordered mind than of genius.”

He replaced the bottle, adding: “It is only recently that our own government placed a ban on the importation of that stuff as a result of the decision of the Department of Agriculture that it was dangerous to health and conflicted with the pure food law. In France they call it the ‘scourge,’ the ‘plague,’ the ‘enemy,’ the ‘queen of poisons.’ Compared with other alcoholic beverages it has the greatest toxicity of all. There are laws against the stuff in France, Switzerland, and Belgium. It isn’t the alcohol alone, although there is from fifty to eighty per cent. in it, that makes it so deadly. It is the absinthe, the oil of wormwood, whose bitterness has passed into a proverb. The active principle absinthin is a narcotic poison. The stuff creates a habit most insidious and difficult to break, a longing more exacting than hunger. It is almost as fatal as cocaine in its blasting effects on mind and body.

“Wormwood,” he pursued, still rummaging about, “has a special affinity for the brain-cells and the nervous system in general. It produces a special affliction of the mind, which might be called absinthism. Loss of will follows its use, brutishness, softening of the brain. It gives rise to the wildest hallucinations. Perhaps that was why our absintheur chose first to destroy or steal all things green, as if there were some merit in the colour, when he might have made away with so many more valuable things. Absintheurs have been known to perform some of the most intricate manoeuvres, requiring great skill and the use of delicate tools. They are given to disappearing, and have no memory of their actions afterward.”

On an ink-spattered desk lay some books, including Lombroso’s “Degenerate Man” and “Criminal Woman.” Kennedy glanced at them, then at a crumpled manuscript that was stuck into a pigeonhole. It was written in a trembling, cramped, foreign hand, evidently part of a book, or an article.

“Oh, the wickedness of wealth!” it began. “While millions of the poor toilers slave and starve and shiver, the slave-drivers of to- day, like the slave-drivers of ancient Egypt, spend the money wrung from the blood of the people in useless and worthless toys of art while the people have no bread, in old books while the people have no homes, in jewels while the people have no clothes. Thousands are spent on dead artists, but a dollar is grudged to a living genius. Down with such art! I dedicate my life to righting the wrongs of the proletariat. Vive l’anarchism!”

The thing was becoming more serious. But by far the most serious discovery in the now deserted studio was a number of large glass tubes in a corner, some broken, others not yet used and standing in rows as if waiting to be filled. A bottle labelled “Sulphuric Acid” stood at one end of a shelf, while at the other was a huge jar full of black grains, next a bottle of chlorate of potash. Kennedy took a few of the black grains and placed them on a metal ash-tray. He lighted a match. There was a puff and a little cloud of smoke.

“Ah,” he exclaimed, “black gunpowder. Our absintheur was a bomb- maker, an expert perhaps. Let me see. I imagine he was making an explosive bomb, ingeniously contrived of five glass tubes. The centre one, I venture, contained sulphuric acid and chlorate of potash separated by a close-packed wad of cotton wool. Then the two tubes on each side probably contained the powder, and perhaps the outside tubes were filled with spirits of turpentine. When it is placed in position, it is so arranged that the acid in the center tube is uppermost and will thus gradually soak through the cotton wool and cause great heat and an explosion by contact with the potash. That would ignite the powder in the next tubes, and that would scatter the blazing turpentine, causing a terrific explosion and a widespread fire. With an imperative idea of vengeance, such as that manuscript discloses, either for his own wrongs as an artist or for the fancied wrongs of the people, what may this absintheur not be planning now? He has disappeared, but perhaps he may be more dangerous if found than if lost.”

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