“I can’t say that I see anything so very remarkable about it,” drawled Leilah Robinson. “But I presume that it really is wonderful as you say, Uncle Jesse.”
“Well, then! And I suppose you can’t see any queerness in the color of this here? Nor in the stuff it’s made of; that surely ain’t metal, nor glass, nor porcelain, nor any ordinary kind of stone? Nor in this here writing on the top, nor — Leilah, I wish to gracious you’d set down while I’m talking! You’ve saw all the things in this room a thousand times if once. Set, can’t you?”
The young woman had been wandering up and down her uncle’s study, inspecting the pictures, taking a book from a shelf and replacing it, or laying an appreciative finger on the crackled glazing of an old vase, a bit of real Satsuma. Now, her slate-gray eyes more bored than usual, she strayed languidly back to the table.
There was a box set on it — an oblong, bluish-green box, about a dozen inches long by half as many wide, highly polished, but severely simple of workmanship. Its sole decoration was a single short line of characters belonging to some foreign language, which had apparently been incised across the top with an engraver’s tool and the lines filled in with scarlet enamel.
The old man, whose finger-nail slowly followed these characters, as if by doing so he might trace their meaning, was as perfect in his way as their draughtsmanship. He was a perfect specimen, that is, of the hawk or predacious type in the genus homo. It was night, and the rays of a hanging lamp brought out his face in bold lights and shadows.
The curved beak of a nose, thin-bridged and cruel, thrust out between bristling white brows. Could his face have been turned inside out, the lips might have become visible. Normally they were not, having been compressed and sucked inward till the mouth was a straight line that opened as an oblong aperture. Steel blue eyes, unspectacled and keen as a hawk’s, dwelt with a curiously hungry avidity on the box and its inscription. His nails were horny, yellow claws. His thin shoulders leaned with a suggestion of hunched wing-shoulders.
Altogether, Mr. J. J. Robinson did well as a hawk, but as an old man he was not quite pretty.
His lack of pulchritude, however, was not bothering Leilah. Like the things in his study, she had “seen him a thousand times if once,” and to her he was only Uncle Jesse, her guardian since babyhood.
“It would be wonderful to use as a jewel-casket,” she observed in her silky, drawling voice.
The old hawk shook his head impatiently.
“Don’t I tell ye it can’t be opened? They’s no catch for hinges. Nothing but this little fine hairline crack around the middle of the sides to show it’s a box at all. If ‘twasn’t for this here red writing on the cover ye couldn’t even tell which is top and which is bottom. I tried to get it open this afternoon, and the cussed penknife slipped and made a scratch — H— m! That’s funny!”
“Why, I’d have took oath — Say, Leilah, cast your eye round the edge of this here. See any mars or scratches?”
He did not pass the box to her for inspection, nor did Leilah reach out to take it, She knew too well how he hated any one but himself to touch the treasures of his collecting fever, particularly while they were still newly in his possession. As he slowly turned the box around, however, held edgewise under the lamp, she looked it over as requested.
“There are no scratches,” she announced at length.
“Well, then! But I’d have swore the knife-blade made a scratch an inch long where she slipped. Are my eyes going back on me at last? Wait a jiffy,” he ordered.
He laid the box down and, rising, went into the large library, off which his study opened, for though by no means a general reader, Robinson had a splendid assortment of subjects germane to his collecting hobby. A moment later he was back with a reading-glass.
“Lutz phoned me that he was sending around the man who sold him this box,” he observed, again seating himself. “A sailor, Lutz said, and that he was promising to let me know its real history and what the writing means. He ain’t arrived yet, but —”
The old man broke off abruptly. He had been about to turn the box edgewise and search for that missing scratch under magnification of the lens; now he checked himself, scowled, and looked up at his niece with a gleam of steel-blue eyes.
“Why was you meddling with this while I was out of the room, Leilah?” he demanded angrily.
“I didn’t touch the box. Why should I?” She looked languid surprise.
“Well, them! But ye must have. I left it lying top uppermost. Now it’s lying bottom up. Then ye say ye didn’t tech it!”
“But I really did not,” drawled Leilah, the bored eyes brightening to dawning annoyance. Uncle Jesse’s fussiness had been increasing of late till at times even she, toward whom he had always shown tolerance not bestowed on the rest of the world, found it hard to get on with him.
Her uncle’s hawk-brows drew closer together and with a kind of half-articulate snarl he reversed the box, so that the scarlet inscription was again uppermost.
“All right! All right!” he snapped. “But next time just you keep your hands off, Leilah. Understand?”
Making no reply to the insinuation, she turned languidly away.
“I think I’ll say good night, uncle.”
“Good night,” he retorted shortly.
Leilah left him sitting there, the reading glass gripped in one horny claw, glowering at the green box like some fierce old priest indignant over a holy relic that has been defiled by the touch of a hand not his own.
When John Vanaman, M. D. was roused shortly after twelve that night by a jingling phone at his bedside, he woke alertly, sat up willingly, and unhooked the receiver without a sign of that reluctance which work-weary physicians are prone to feel for inconveniently late night-callers.
Dr. Vanaman, in fact, was not in the least work-weary. His bedside phone was a nice, shiny, new instrument, as unworn by use as the rug and other furnishings of his little consulting room and parlor below stairs, or the gleamy brass of his nameplate outside. He was as interested and inwardly excited over this midnight call as a young girl receiving her first proposal of marriage. Yet he managed to keep the quiver out of his voice and answer with steady, nay almost stern dignity.
Three minutes later, however, his pajamaed figure hurled itself out of bed with regard for haste, rather than dignity, and as he literally plunged into his clothing the faint smile on his lips might have been deemed heartless by one who had “listened in” along the line and learned the nature of the call.
But a doctor — particularly a young doctor — is only human. That his very first patient after opening his office in Trentmont should be the richest man in town was a piece of luck welcome as unexpected. The true explanation of his being called in this hurried manner to attend old Jesse J. Robinson, owner of the great Robinson Brothers Engine Works, at Kennington-on-the-Delaware, and a millionaire thrice over, did not occur to Dr. Vanaman. The romance of somewhat impetuous youth informed him that from this night on the entire Robinson menage were his patients on the recommendation of — oh, some unknown friend, perhaps, who knew how he had worked under Vincent, the great specialist at the Belmont Hospital, and what Vincent had said of him.
As he gave his rebelliously upstanding crop of reddish-brown hair some half-dozen swift subduing brush-licks, it was a pleasant, frank, inherently hopeful face that returned his gaze from the mirror. Intelligent, too, with very bright brown eyes and a mouth and chin that promised clean-cut, determinate action in circumstances of crisis. Energy, with plenty more in reserve, was expressed in every motion of his active young body.
As he had plunged into his clothes, so Dr. Vanaman hurled himself down-stairs and into the outer night. He had no car and he gave a thought of regret to this as he hurried along. The Robinson place, however, faced a boulevard only two blocks from his own more humble street. They might well believe that he had walked over rather than waste time getting out his car, and anyway only the butler would know whether he had motored or come on foot.
He reached the boulevard, and turned into the broad avenue leading to the house. Not wishing to arrive altogether breathless, he slackened pace.
The Robinson mansion stood well back, with a clear lawn sweep from front to boulevard. Several windows were lighted up, and Vanaman observed with surprise that one of the large windows on the ground floor was broken. Almost the entire plate-glass pane had been smashed out.
Had there been an accident? A bomb-throwing, perhaps? Over the phone a woman’s voice had merely informed him that Mr. Robinson needed the immediate care of a physician, and the woman had hung up before he could ask any questions.
Almost running again, Vanaman invaded the stately portico, where the front and vestibule doors both stood wide open, as if prepared for his arrival. Before he could lay finger on the bell a young woman came hurrying into the reception hall beyond. Seeing him standing there, she seemed to take his identity for granted and beckoned imperatively.
“Come in here, doctor,” she called across the hall, and straightway vanished again through some portieres at the side.
He started to remove his hat, discovered that he had left it at home, and followed the young woman. It was she, he knew, who had telephoned. The peculiar, drawling sweetness of her voice was unmistakable.
A minute later he stood in Robinson’s private study, where he found the old man, clad in an elaborate Chinese embroidered dressing gown, stretched out on a lounge. As he entered, Vanaman noted that it was a window of this room which had been broken. The young woman who had met him — Miss Robinson, the old man’s niece and mistress of his household she proved to be — dismissed the several agitated servants who were hovering about and gave Vanaman a clear field with his patient.
Though as yet he had hardly taken time to glance at her, subconsciously Vanaman admired the young woman’s unflustered, almost languid and yet efficient manner. Experience with hospital nurses had taught him which kind of a woman could be relied on in an emergency and which could not.
A brief examination informed him that despite the ghastly lividness of his hawk-like old face, Robinson was alive, though how long he might remain so was another matter. Uneven respiration and a heavy, frantically jumping pulse told their story.
“Is it — a stroke?” asked the young woman’s voice behind him.
“I don’t know,” said Vanaman frankly. “Can’t tell yet. Hot-water bottles for his feet, please, and an ice pack for his head. Have you any alcohol in the house? I’m going to give him a hypodermic.”
He was directing the young woman in exactly the short, crisp sentences he would have used with a nurse, and she obeyed with equal intelligence and dedication. Soon the best treatment possible for the case was being administered, and Miss Robinson herself cleansed the old man’s arm with absorbent cotton dipped in alcohol while Vanaman got his hypodermic ready. He had declined to let the patient be moved till his jumping heart should quiet a little.
“Has he had many attacks like this?” queried Vanaman, as he withdrew the hypodermic needle and pulled down a richly embroidered sleeve over the scrawny arm.
“Not any,” said Miss Robinson.
“No? I should have said — H— m! What happened here to-night?”
In his absorption in the patient Vanaman forgotten that broken window. Now he remembered it, and also observed for the first time that one side of the room, that near the window, was in considerable disarray. A chair had been overset, the rug lay in folds as if plowed up by struggling feet, and scattered over it were many bits of shattered porcelain, remnants of a five hundred dollar Satsuma vase, though Vanaman could not know that.
“We had a thief here — I think,” said Miss Robinson. “At about eleven o’clock I left my uncle seated beside that table. I took a book to my room with me and sat up reading. Frisby, our butler, says that at half past eleven the doorbell rang, and when he went to the door there was a man there.
“He was a rough and common-looking fellow, almost a tramp. He gave Frisby a card and said to tell my uncle he wished to see him about the green box.
“Frisby left him standing outside and carried the card to my uncle. The card is there on the table now. You can see that it is from Jacob Lutz, the curio dealer on Forest Street. I remember that my uncle said something of expecting a man whom Mr. Lutz was sending around. Frisby says that my uncle seemed to hesitate, and grumbled some complaint because the man had, come so late in the evening. Then he told Frisby to let him in.
“My uncle is accustomed to dealing with rough men — in spite of his age he still does a good deal of active superintending at the engine works. I don’t think he was ever afraid of anything or anyone in his life, and Frisby was not surprised when he was sent away with instructions not to hang about listening. He left the stranger and my uncle alone together here in the study.
“It must have been about half an hour later when I heard Uncle Jesse shouting, and then a great smash and crash which I suppose was the window breaking. Of course I ran down-stairs at once. When I came in here —” She paused, seemed to hesitate oddly for a moment, then finished abruptly with: “There was no one here but my uncle, and he was lying senseless on the floor.”
“And his visitor?”
“The man had tried to steal that — that green box on the table, I think. Uncle Jesse had it clasped tight in his arms when I came in. His shouts and the noise they made in struggling over it must have frightened the thief so that he smashed out the window pane and escaped. I— can’t tell you any more than that.”
Vanaman stared at her with an intentness almost rude. He was thinking of two things at once, as a man sometimes does. One thought was of amazement that he could for nearly an hour have worked with and been ably assisted by the most exquisitely beautiful woman he had ever seen, and yet scarcely have been aware of the fact until now.
She was dressed in a gown of dull-blue, with innumerable illusive, filmy folds; her hands and arms were perfectly shaped, but slender and delicate to fragility; her face had a flowerlike loveliness, and her hair was literally wonderful. Though brows and long, thick lashes were dark, her hair was almost snow-white. There was a great quantity of it, soft and fluffy and silvery as moonbeams, and it completed the delicate, exquisite fragility of her whole appearance.
Vanaman’s other thought was that the exquisitely beautiful one had been on the point of telling him something and then changed her mind about it. The intelligence of a good doctor is necessarily not unlike that of a good detective. Both are born to follow obscure clues, seek out hidden meanings, and find absorbing interest in the intricate riddles provoked by the lives of their fellow-beings.
The same instinct which, used for diagnosis had won Vincent’s high praise at the hospital, told Vanaman now that for all her languid manner, rather weary, slate gray eyes, and the perfect self-possession which enabled her to tell the brief story she had related without wasting a word, Miss Robinson was suffering from an excessively high nervous tension.
Anxiety caused by her uncle’s condition? Perhaps. Or it might be — What had Miss Robinson seen happen in this room of which she had started to tell him, decided not to tell him, and the memory of which caused the pupils of those gray eyes to expand so darkly when she thought of it?
“You have sent for the police, I suppose?”
She shook her head.
“My uncle wouldn’t like us to do that, unless he directed it.” Seeing his involuntary look of surprise, she added with a faint smile: “My uncle is an old man, and you know old people are allowed their peculiarities. He may even be displeased because I called you in, Dr. — I beg your pardon, but I really don’t know your name.”
“I am Dr. Vanaman,” he said slowly, “but how did you —”
“I asked central to give me some doctor in this neighborhood, but I only received your phone number, not your name. Our regular physician, Dr. Bruce, was called out of town for an operation early in the evening.”
Vanaman was young, but by no means a fool. Inwardly he laughed at himself for the wild dream that had pictured him chosen as elect by a millionaire patient. Bruce stood at the head of his profession, at least in Tremont. He was substituting for Bruce. He turned back to the patient.
“Heart’s better,” he approved, finger on pulse. “He can be carried up-stairs soon and put to bed.”
“This box —” The young woman had moved over to the table, and indicated by a gesture — not touching it — an oblong, polished, bluish-green object which lay there. “This box,” she said again. “Do you notice anything — peculiar about it?”
Rather wonderingly, Vanaman came to her side and inspected the object at close range. It was about a dozen inches long by six wide and some five in thickness. It had neither hasp nor visible hinges, and a thin hairline around the exact center of the sides was the only sign by which it could be known as a box and not an oblong block of either colored porcelain or some semiprecious stone like the green onyx quarried at La Redrara, in Mexico. The top was a highly polished surface without ornament of any kind.
Not onyx, though, thought Vanaman. Instead of the regularly banded variation of hue peculiar to that stone, this had a curious, unevenly clouded effect; and if one looked long at any part of it the bluegreen color of that part seemed to deepen, grow greener, and at the same time more transparent, so that presently one’s vision penetrated far — far and deep. But, great God, how deep! Down — down — through miles of transparent green.
At a touch on his arm, Vanaman started violently. He blinked his: eyes like a man dazzled, then laughed with a note of apology.
“The stone this is made of does affect one’s vision peculiarly, doesn’t it?”
Miss Robinson was frowning slightly.
“Perhaps. I haven’t noticed. That was not what I meant. I— would you mind turning the box over, doctor?”
More puzzled than ever, Vanaman nevertheless complied. Then he realized that the plain, polished surface which had affected his eyes so strangely must be the bottom of the box, and that it had been lying with the top, or cover, underneath. Across the surface now brought to light was a brief inscription done in blood-red enamel.
“What do those characters mean?” demanded Miss Robinson, and now the strained tension in her voice was unmistakable.
It struck Vanaman that this first nightcall of his had brought him into touch with some situation which he did not understand, and which had some possibly very queer angles.
“I don’t know what they mean,” he said gently, almost soothingly. “I have seen an inscription in hieratic Egyptian which somewhat resembled this. But I am no palaeographist, Miss Robinson. If you wish the inscription translated, I’d suggest that you take the box to some expert in these things.”
The young woman seemed actually to shudder.
“I don’t wish to take it anywhere!” she said hastily. “I don’t wish even to touch it. Not ever again!”
Before Vanaman had time to reply or question further, a sudden sound from the lounge made them both turn. Old Robinson was sitting up. From under knotted, hawklike brows his eyes stared fiercely and he was stretching toward them two yellow claws that opened and closed with grasping motion.
“Give it!” he croaked hoarsely. “Give it — quick.”
The doctor, who had not expected his patient to rouse for some hours at least, was considerably startled. Miss Robinson, however, displayed a comprehension of her uncle’s meaning so instant as to be almost uncanny. Snatching up the box which she had just expressed her disinclination to touch, she ran and fairly thrust it into his hands. They closed on it greedily. Then he sank back, clasping the thing tight to his breast.
“I got it!” he croaked. “What I want I get, and — what I get I keep! They can’t take it away from-old Jesse Robinson! Nobody — can take it! You — hear me?” His voice rose to a kind of discordant shriek, hoarse and dreadful with effort. “Nobody can take it! Nobody! Not even — him!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13