Claimed!, by Francis Stevens

Chapter V.

The Sinking Inscription

Three days later Dr. Vanaman walked into the roomy library of the Robinson house, set something he carried on the reading table, and with smiling lips, but almost sternly serious glance looked across it to the gracefully languid young lady who occupied a corner of the broad window seat.

“Miss Robinson,” he said, “I believe that you and I have a very unusual problem here — and that it is time we at least attempt to begin solving it. Do you agree with me?”

At the blunt question the woman paled slightly; but three days had been ample for Vanaman to learn the tempered steel which underlay her apparent fragility. Where she showed faint signs of fear, many another woman would have been hysterically panic-stricken, and under that silk-soft mass of moonlight hair was a remarkably clear and well-ordered mind. She kept all her uncle’s personal accounts, ran his household smoothly as clockwork, and was the only one of his relatives who would on any terms consent to live with him.

Vanaman had heard that fact from the old man’s own snarling mouth; while from Leilah, not in complaint, but as explanation of certain conditions, he had learned a bit more: That her uncle had never approved of her either entertaining or going out much; that he liked her near him a great deal of the time; and that in consequence she had practically no friends of her own age.

She feared he, Dr. Vanaman, would find living in her uncle’s house a “trifle lonely and tedious at times.” Lonely and tedious! Ye gods, thought Vanaman. Here was a sprite of the moonlight harnessed to a task fit for trying a medieval saint’s grim patience.

Under the lash of old Robinson’s continual petty and tyrannical fault-finding, he had already found his own self-control strained to the uttermost; and added to that strain was the unique and somewhat appalling problem to which he had just now referred.

The woman rose and came across the room. They stood with the table between them, both eying with a curiously fascinated attention the thing he had laid down there.

It glowed, that thing — vivid, beautiful like an enormous, clouded emerald with spaces of translucent green into which the vision might sickeningly plunge to unbelievable depths. But the scarlet inscription could not be seen, for it was beneath as the box lay on the table.

After a moment Vanaman wrenched his eyes from it, looked up and smiled. There was courage and reassurance in his glance, and the woman’s sensitive face brightened.

“First,” said the young doctor, “let us both admit that we have been and are afraid! After that perhaps we can face our problem, analyze it, and discover that what we are afraid of is empty of real cause for terror as a dream. That last, in fact, is my present theory.”

“That the nightly horror which visits this house is a dream?” whispered the woman. “But how could three of us —”

“An induced dream,” he broke in. “A kind of a dream which might better be termed hallucination, perhaps, but a dream none the less, and only dangerous if the dreamers permit themselves to accept illusion as material fact. I’ll more fully explain what I mean later. Before we formulate any definite hypothesis, suppose we compare notes, Miss Robinson, and set out what real, unquestionable facts we have in due order.”

The woman seemed to hesitate, frowning at the glowing greenness whose incredible riddle Vanaman had asked her help in solving.

“I am willing,” she said at length. “But — would you consider me very silly and timorous if I asked you to put that box away in some other room while we talk of it?”

He smiled at her again, rather grimly this time.

“I don’t like it myself,” he admitted, “but I have given my solemn word of honor, not to let it out of my sight until your uncle returns. You knew that he had gone out?”

“Oh, yes. There is trouble over at the plant. The engine works at Kennington are very close to the river, and the high water that resulted from Thursday’s storm has flooded part of the main building. They have had the same trouble two or three times in past years, but always in the spring. A flood in July — is rather strange, don’t you think?”

“Not strange following a storm like yesterday’s,” asserted Vanaman, with considerable firmness.

“Very well. I shall try to think it is not strange, then. Anyway, I endeavored to dissuade Uncle Jesse from going there, but failed. He said that Dr. Bruce had pronounced him fit to be out of bed, that he was needed at the works, and that nobody and no thing” — she glanced meaningly at the box “-should keep him from superintending his own property as long as he had strength to do it.”

“Your uncle has a remarkably strong will,” conceded the doctor. “And now shall we table our cards?”

“I am ready.”

The woman sank into a chair, and Vanaman drew up one opposite. His matter-of-fact manner was deliberate and sustained, not only for the woman’s sake but his own. That horror to which she had referred as visiting this house each night had come perilously near to shaking, if not actually breaking his will to go on facing it.

Dread of the supernatural was a form of cowardice he had never expected to have to combat in himself. Meeting it, he was resolutely determined not to yield, and for that reason was bent on lifting consideration of the affair from the emotional region where dwells animal panic, to the intellectual, where fear is only recognized as a symptom, and its causes as but fit subjects for cold analyzation and a probing after immutable law behind.

“First,” began the doctor, “are you willing to describe exactly what condition you found in Mr. Robinson’s study that first night when you sent for me?”

“I’ll try. I would have told you then, only I was afraid.”

“That the story would cast suspicion on your mental balance? You were quite right. We devotees of science are too ready to bestow that sort of aspersion on the witness of unusual phenomena. But my education has broadened remarkably since then. You are entirely safe now, Miss Robinson. Tell me that you saw the tail of the world serpent, Midgard, just whisking out through the broken window, and I’ll meet your statement with tolerance and belief!”

He had exaggerated lightly, meaning to give the woman confidence; but the words were sooner out than he experienced a sickening wonder. Why had he cited that particular prodigy for his example of the hard-to-believe? In the old Norse mythology Midgard, the serpent that girdles the world, is none other than the sea — the green, hissing, marauding, and claimant sea.

Almost savagely he thrust thought of it from him and forced his attention back to the woman.

“What first frightened me,” she was saying, “was the inexplicable quality of it all. I couldn’t understand. I came running through the library here, and the study door was open. As I drew near to it I had a sudden queer conviction that I was running through dense, wet mist. I don’t mean that any mist was visible. The air seemed quite clear to look through. But it breathed and felt damply chilly, just as one notices it at sea when the steamer plunges into a fog-bank. Then I reached the doorway —”

She paused.

“Well?”

“My uncle was lying in a huddled heap, and — and there was something wide and flat and dark in the room. It overspread all the floor, except near the window where Uncle Jesse lay, and when I came in it went back. It slid away back toward the far wall with a kind of hissing, seething noise. You know what I mean?”

“Yes, I do,” said Vanaman, his face rather white.

“I ran to my uncle. He was huddled face down, crouched over something he had his arms clenched tight around, as if to protect it. He relaxed when I touched him. Then Frisby and some of the other servants came running in and they lifted Uncle Jesse to the couch. Hardly knowing what I was about, I picked up the — the box. Then — I had been frightened before, but the instant I had the box in my hands I was worse than frightened. I was sick — literally sick with fear. It wasn’t a matter of knowing or thinking, doctor. It was just fear, blind and unreasoning.”

“I know that, too,” he nodded grimly.

“Somehow I must have set the box on the table without dropping it, and next I knew I heard my own voice giving some directions to the servants. My voice sounded so quiet and calm that it almost shocked me. And in the general excitement no one, evidently, had noticed anything odd in my manner. That is all I have to tell. You know the rest.”

“May I ask one question?”

“As many as you like, certainly.”

“Three subsequent nights since that first time, I have been beside your uncle when what comes here invaded his bedroom. Twice you flashed in from your own room while the cry for help was still on his lips. What did you see then?”

“I saw” — her voice was a strained whisper — “water — green water that whirled upward — and rising out of it —”

“Never mind!” The exclamation was so sharp and harsh that Vanaman himself started, then leaned back in his chair, pale to the lips and with a shamed, miserable look in his bright brown eyes.

“I beg your pardon, Miss Robinson, You were merely answering my question. Will you please forgive that extremely rude interruption, and finish?”

But the woman shook her head.

“I was forcing myself to describe something of which the very thought is an unendurable terror. It is very evident that we have both seen the same thing. Suppose we leave describing it in words for another time.”

“What an utter coward you must think me!”

She leaned toward him, the delicate color in her cheeks deepening to warm rose.

“Dr. Vanaman, if you were a coward, the first night you spent in this house would have been the last! But you have had four nights and three days of Uncle Jesse, and — this other, and I doubt if you’ve slept eight hours in the whole time. You are worn out. No, I don’t consider you a coward. I think you are a very brave man!”

Her languid manner had fallen away like a veil, revealing for one instant the clear, bright soul that dwelt repressed behind it. Vanaman drew a deep breath, threw back his shoulders, and sat straight again.

“Thank you!” Though brief, the acknowledgement sounded uncommonly deeply meant. “After that, I believe I really am brave enough to try a little experiment that the coward in me has been putting off on one pretext or another. Do you mind?”

Deliberately he took the box in his hands, reversed it, and set it down again. The scarlet inscription lay across it as if written in characters of blood.

“Will you help me watch?” he asked quietly.

“You mean —”

“I have observed a rather curious trait in that inscription. It has a retiring disposition. One lays the box down top uppermost, turns around, and a minute later, perhaps, turns back to find that the inscription has again — retired. I don’t really believe that the box is alive and turns itself over. All material objects are subject to material law. That is axiomatic. Certain hallucinations of a more or less illusive character appear to follow the presence of this box; but the box itself is, by all evidence of the senses, a material object. Hence, material law must govern the behavior of its inscription. Will you help keep it under observation for a time?”

The woman nodded silently, and for several minutes the two kept their eyes firmly fixed on the scarlet characters. Nothing happened.

“I am convinced,” said Vanaman, without relaxing his vigilant observation, “that if your uncle cared to take us into his confidence, he could unravel the whole mystery, whatever it is. I believe that he learned the truth from the man who called on him that first night — the one from whom Lutz obtained the box — and who for reasons of his own left in haste, taking the window-pane with him.

“I tell you frankly, Miss Robinson, that your uncle is the most unusual person I have ever met. He seems not in the least afraid as we are. Though the statement sounds preposterous, I should say that in some fierce, strange, incomprehensible way of his own he is actually enjoying his possession of this box. Assuming that it has valuable contents, one could understand that. But he claims neither to know nor care what it contains.

“When I suggested that he have it forced or broken open, he was very angry, called me a — well, he was angry. He occasionally refers to some person or persons who would rob him of the box if might be. But he never mentions them by name. Merely as ‘he’ or ‘they.’ And he seems to take that fierce, gloating pleasure I spoke of in merely keeping the box from them.”

The woman sighed.

“My uncle is an old man, Dr. Vanaman,” she said gently. “With some people I think that lifelong peculiarities are inclined to become almost mania in old age. Uncle Jesse has always been very determined about acquiring or achieving anything he sets his mind on. About ten years ago he took up his collecting hobby. He began with antique coins, but as time passed he would buy anything — pictures, porcelain, ivories, tapestries — anything at all odd or beautiful and particularly anything that other collectors cared about.

“Once, when I was a child of twelve, he took me to Paris with him. We went in great haste, and I didn’t know why till he came into the hotel where we were stopping and showed me a little terra-cotta figurine. It was one that had been dug up from the ruins in Assyria, and it seems was quite famous. Hearing that it was to be offered for sale, several wealthy American collectors had cabled their Paris agents to bid for it; but Uncle Jesse was the only one who went after it in person.

“We came straight home, and afterward uncle seemed greatly annoyed because only one man tried in turn to buy the figurine from him. It was not that he wished to make money by selling it again; but he appears to take that strange, fierce joy you spoke of in merely possessing something that other people want. I am afraid his chief pleasure in collecting is just that.

“And — now — now he has a box, and values —”

“Values it because some other person wants it. I see.”

“Dr. Vanaman,” her voice again lowered tensely, “is it some person he is holding the box from — or some things?”

“Perhaps actually from neither. As I said in the beginning, I have a theory about this affair; a theory based on other alleged phenomena of illusion in which, to be frank, I have never previously had any belief whatever. But a man who won’t change his views on any terms is merely stupid. We have two alternatives. We can accept the peculiar phenomena we have both witnessed as demonstrations of the rankly, outrageously supernatural. I prefer not to do that. It would mean — Well, I prefer not to do it. The other alternative diverges from material law as defined by science, but not so acutely. You know the meaning of the word psychometry?”

She shook her head.

“It is a word coined by spiritualists to express a power claimed by some mediums. A given object is placed in the hands of the medium, and from contact with that object he or she is enabled to describe events, persons, and scenes germane to the object’s past history. For a hypothetical case, let us suppose that the medium is given the terra-cotta figurine your uncle bought in Paris. Blindfolded, without knowing what the object is, the medium is expected to visualize scenes in ancient Assyria which originally surrounded the figurine.

“In other words, every material object of fixed form is assumed to retain an impression of all its previous surroundings; a psychic, not a physical impression, but one which enables a so-called ‘sensitive’ to read of its history like a book.”

“You mean that in the history of this box —” She paused, hesitating.

“That in its history,” he supplemented, “is some terrific event connected with the box and that at certain periods, regulated God knows how, people who are near the box or in contact with it suffer an illusion which represents the event. And the theory has one advantage. There is a bare chance that we can prove it.”

“But how?”

“I have two ways in mind. One is to get in touch ourselves with the stranger whom Mr. Lutz sent around here.”

Assenting, the woman left Vanaman to watch alone over his queer charge while she sought the phone in her uncle’s study. A few minutes later she returned.

“Mr. Lutz is out of town,” she announced disappointedly. “He left the shop in care of an assistant, and has gone away for some weeks. I talked with the assistant, but he didn’t seem to know exactly when Mr. Lutz would return, nor even where he could be reached by letter. That he is taking a vacation ‘somewhere at the shore’ was all I could find out.”

“Humph! Lutz must have wanted to disattach himself pretty fully from business if he left no mailing address. Well, that road is indefinitely blocked, then. There remains the second way, which I should have preferred not to use. Since this box is really your uncle’s property, and I have no right to take it out of the house, I shall write to New York and ask a certain person to come on to Tremont.”

Forgetfully, they both had allowed their eyes to stray from the box to one another’s faces. Yet Vanaman was entirely sure that neither he nor the woman had touched it, and even admitting that it had some miraculous power to lift and reverse itself, such an evolution could not possibly have been performed without attracting their attention.

The box, nevertheless, now presented only its polished, unornamented surface to their bewildered vision. Following its usual uncanny preference, the scarlet inscription had again retired, and on gingerly investigating Vanaman found it on the bottom.

“That’s enough!” ejaculated the doctor, rising suddenly. “There is your uncle’s car coming up the drive. I’m going to turn his precious box over to him and tell him that he can either allow me a couple of hours to get out of this house and relax, or accept my resignation!”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30