The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 2

Dust of Purgatory

LESS than an hour later, Robert Drayton, amateur burglar and so shortly previous a desperate and hunted man, sat down at table in the respectable Philadelphia residence he had fortunately chosen for his first invasion. His wounded temple was adorned with several neatly adjusted strips of plaster, and if his head ached, at least his heart was lighter than it had been in many a day. This last, as it were, in spite of himself. He felt that he should really be cringing under the table — anywhere out of sight. But with Terence Trenmore sitting opposite, his countenance fairly radiating satisfaction and good cheer, Drayton could not for the life of him either cringe or slink.

The breakfast, moreover, proved Martin to be what his master had boasted — an uncommonly good cook. Before the charms of sweet Virginia ham, fresh eggs, hot muffins, and super-excellent coffee, Drayton’s misery and humiliation strangely faded into the background of consciousness.

Trenmore was an older man than he, by ten years of time and thrice their equivalent in rough experience. The two had first met in Chicago during the strenuous period of a strike. Drayton, unwise enough to play peaceful bystander at a full-grown riot, had found himself involved in an embattled medley of muscular slaughter-house men and equally muscular and better-armed police. He had stood an excellent chance of being killed by one party or arrested by the other, and none at all of extricating himself, when Trenmore, overlooking the fight from the steps of a near-by building, and seeing a young, slender, well-dressed man in a struggle in which he obviously had no place, came to his aid and fought a way out for the two of them.

Later they had joined forces on a long vacation in the Canadian woods. Drayton was then a rising young lawyer of considerable independent means, high-strung, nervous, and with a certain disposition toward melancholy. In the Irishman, with his tireless strength and humorous optimism, he found an ideal companion for that outdoor life, while Trenmore, well read, but self-educated, formed a well-nigh extravagant admiration for the young lawyer’s intellect and character. And Terence Trenmore, his faith once given, resembled a large, loyal mastiff; he was thenceforth ready to give at need all that was his, goods, gains, or the strength of his great brain and body.

Following those months in Canada, however, Drayton returned to Cincinnati, his home. The two had kept up for some time a desultory correspondence, but Trenmore’s fortune, acquired in the Yukon, permitted him to live the roving life which suited his restless temperament. His address changed so frequently that Drayton found it difficult to keep track of him, and as the latter became more and more desperately absorbed in certain ruinous complications of his own affairs, he had allowed his correspondence with Trenmore to lapse to nothing.

Their appetites pleasantly quelled at last, and cigars lighted, the two men adjourned to the library and settled themselves to talk things out.

“You’ve been in Ireland, you say-” began Drayton, but the other interrupted with raised hand.

“Let that wait. Do you not guess that I’m fair burning up with curiosity? There, there, when you look like that you make me want to cry, you do! Tell me the name of the scoundrel that’s been driving you and I’ll-I’ll obliterate him. But don’t act like the world was all black and you at your own wake. Sure, there’s no trouble in life that’s worth it! Now, what’s wrong?”

Drayton smiled in spite of himself. The big man’s good humor was too infectious for resistance. His face, however, soon fell again into the tragic lines drawn there by recent events.

“It can be told quickly,” he began. “You know we had a very fair legal practice, Simon Warren and I. Up there in the woods I’m afraid I talked a lot about myself, so I don’t need to tell you of the early struggles of a couple of cub lawyers. It was Warren, though, who made us what we were. Poor Warren! He had married just before the crash, and his young wife died three days after Simon was sentenced to a ten-year term in the penitentiary.”

“So? And what did your partner do to deserve all that?”

“That is the story. We had built up a good clientele among the Cincinnati real-estate men and contractors. Simon specialized on contracts, and I on the real-estate end. We had a pretty fair reputation for success, too.

“Then Warren found out a thing about Interstate General Merchandise which would have put at least five men behind the bars. Unluckily for us they were big men. Too big for us small fry to tackle, though we didn’t quite realize that. They tried to settle it amicably by buying us over. We were just the pair they were looking for, they said. And both Warren and I could have cleared over twenty-five thousand a year at the work they offered.

“Well, we’d have liked the money, of course — who wouldn’t? — but not enough to take it as blackmail. Simon stuck to his guns and laid the affair before the district attorney. Before we could clinch the matter, Interstate Merchandise came down on us like a triphammer on a soft-boiled egg.

“Oh, yes, they framed us. They got Simon with faked papers on a deal he wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pair of tongs. Of course we went down together. The disgrace killed his wife. Three weeks ago Simon died in prison of tuberculosis. That or a broken heart —

“And I— well, you see me here. I got off without a jail term. But I’d been disbarred for illegal practice, and what money I had was all gone in the fight. After that — I don’t know if it was for revenge or that they were still afraid of me, but Terry, those Interstate devils hounded me out of one job after another — broke me — drove me clean out of life as I knew it.

“Yesterday I landed here in Philadelphia without a cent in my pockets, hungry and with no hope or faith left in anything. Last night I said, ‘So be it! They have killed Simon, and they will not let me live as an honest man. But, by God, I’ll live!’ And that’s the way criminals are created. I’ve learned it.”

Drayton ended with a catch in his voice. His clear, honest eyes were bright with the memory of that desperate resolve, so utterly alien to his nature, and his long, sensitive fingers opened and closed spasmodically.

Then Trenmore did a strangely heartless thing. Having stared at his friend for a moment, he threw back his head and laughed — laughed in a great Olympian peal of merriment that rang through the silent house.

Drayton sprang to his feet. “By heavens, Terry, I wish I could see the joke! But I’m damned if there’s anything funny about what I’ve been through!”

As abruptly as he had begun, his host stopped laughing and forced his face into solemnity. But his blue eyes still twinkled dangerously.

“Sit down — sit down, man, and forgive me for a fool of an Irishman! Should you kill me right here for laughing, I’d not be blaming you and my heart aching this minute the way I can’t wait to get at the crooks that have ruined you, and as soon as may be we’ll go back to your home, you and I, and see what there is to be done.

“But, sure you’re the most original criminal that ever tried to rob a man! You get in, you locate the box — did you call it a box, Bobby? — all in good form. And, by the way, were you thinking of carrying the safe away in your pocket? Or had you a stick of dynamite handy? Well, some obliging professional comes along and works the combination for you and leaves the door open. You awaken from pleasant dreams to find all that was inside, or most of it, lying right at your feet. And what is it you do? You flee as if from the devil himself, and if I hadn’t stopped you you’d be straying about the streets this minute as near starvation as you were before!”

Drayton forced a smile for his friend’s good-natured raillery. He could not be angry at ridicule so obviously meant to dissipate self-condemnation in laughter. “I could hardly begin on you, Terry,” he said. “And speaking of that, I’ve already enjoyed more hospitality than I have any right to. I’m cured of crime, Terry; but if you have any idea that I am going to load myself down on you —”

Springing up with his usual impetuosity, the big Irishman fairly hurled Drayton back into his chair.

“Sit down! Sit down there where you belong! Is it load yourself you’re talking of? It’s to be loaded with me you are! Do you know that my very life’s been threatened?”

“Please don’t joke any more, Terry,” protested the other wearily.

“I’ve not gone into details, but all the fun has been crushed out of me in the last year or so.”

“Take shame to yourself, then! But this is no joke. You’ll well believe me it’s not when you’ve heard it all. Stay here now a minute, for I’ve a thing to show you.”

In no little wonder, Drayton obeyed while Trenmore left the room and ascended the stairs to his bedchamber. A few minutes later he returned, and, drawing his chair close to Drayton, dropped into it and disclosed the thing he had brought. It seemed to be a glass vial. About six inches in length, it tapered to a point at one end, while the other was capped with silver, daintily carved to the shape of three dogs’ heads. These heads, with savage, snarling jaws, all emerged from one collar, set with five small but brilliant rubies. The vial was filled to the top with some substance of the color of gray emery.

“A pretty little thing,” commented Drayton.

“Aye, ’tis a pretty little thing,” the other assented, staring down at the odd trifle with frowning brows. “Now what would you be thinking it might be?”

“I could hardly say. It looks like a bottle for smelling salts. What is that stuff inside?”

“Ah, now you’re asking! And what do you think of the handsome silver cap to it?”

“Really, Terry,” replied Drayton with a touch of impatience, “I am no judge of that sort of work. It is intended, I suppose, to represent the three-headed dog, Cerberus — the one that guarded the gates of Pluto’s realm in the old mythology. The carving is beautiful.”

Trenmore nodded. “It is that. And now I’ll tell you how I came by it. You know it’s an ignorant, rude man I am; but hid away somewhere inside me there’s a great love for little, pretty, delicate things. And though I’ve no real education like you, Bobby, I’ve picked up one thing here and another there, and when I happen on some trifle with a bit of a history it just puts the comether on me, and have it I must, whether or no.

“Behind that small steel door you saw in the wall of my room I’ve some amazing pretty toys that I’d not like to part with. I’ll show you them later, if you care, and tell you the tales that go with them. Did you read in the paper last month how Thaddeus B. Crane was after dying and all his great collection to go at auction?”

“I didn’t notice.”

“You wouldn’t. You’d something worse to think of. But I did; so I remembered this which I had heard the fame of, and to that auction I went three days running until they came to the thing I wanted. ‘,’ it’s called, just as you named it like the clever lad you are. It’s old, and they say ’twas made in Florence centuries ago. But I’ll read you the bit of description Crane had for it.”

He produced a sheet of time-yellowed paper. “’,’” he read. “‘Said to have been carved by Benvenuto Cellini for his patron, the Duke of Florence. Its contents have never been examined. The legend runs, however, that the gray dust within it was gathered from the rocks at the gates of Purgatory by the poet Dante, and that it was to contain this dust that the duke required the vial. More probably, from a modern viewpoint, the contents are some sort of poison, which a Florentine duke may well have carried in self-protection or for the destruction of his enemies. The vial itself is of rock crystal and the cap — closed with cement — a peculiarly beautiful specimen of sixteenth century work. It is probably a genuine Cellini. It passed into the hands-’ But I’ll not be reading the rest. It tells the names of those who have owned it, and the astonishing number of them that died violently or disappeared from the face of God’s earth, and no more trace left of them than a puff of smoke from your cigar!”

Drayton’s lips twisted to an involuntary smile.

“A very extraordinary history,” he commented. “Dante, Benvenuto Cellini, and Dust from the Rocks of Purgatory! May I ask what you paid?”

“Only five hundred. There’d word got about that Crane was no good judge and that there were more copies than originals in his collections. The regular collectors bought shy, and I misdoubt Crane’s widow realized the half of what he’d spent on the lot. There was little bidding for this. The tale’s too extravagant, and most would not believe it a true Cellini. However, no sooner had I got it and walked out of the salesrooms than a gray-haired old party came running after me and caught me by the sleeve.

“‘And is it you that bought the Cerberus?’ he demands. ‘It’s myself that did,’ I conceded him. ‘And will you sell it again to me?’ ‘I will not,’ says I. ‘Not for twice what you paid for it?’ inquires he with a cunning look in his eye that I did not like. ‘No, I’ll not,’ says I. ‘Nor for two or four times what I paid for it. I’m a gentleman collector. I am not a dealer. I bought this for myself and I will keep it. Good day to you, sir,’ says I, and with that I walked on.

“But do you believe he would accept my polite rebuff? Not he. He runs along by the side of me, taking three steps to my one. ‘If you’ll not sell it me you’ll be sorry,’ he keeps on saying. ‘It should be mine. I went to buy it, but my chauffeur ran over a man on Broadway. Confound the fool! The police took my chauffeur and delayed me till I came too late for the bidding. I’d have had it if it cost me five thousand, and that’s what I’ll give now, if you’ll sell.’

“By then I’d taken a real dislike to the man with his persistence and his sharp eyes. In plain words I told him if he’d not desist from following me about I’d be calling an ambulance, for he’d be needing one shortly. ‘You can join in the hospital the poor devil your car murdered,’ says I. And at that he takes a squint up at me sideways, like I was an elephant he’d just discovered himself to be walking with and him thinking all along I was just a small pigling, and he turns white and stops dead in his tracks. The poor midget! I’d not have laid my little finger on him for fear of crushing him entirely. But for all that he gets courage to shake his fist and call after me, ‘You’ll be sorry for this. You don’t know what you’ve bought and I do! I’ll have it yet!’

“Well, I thought no more of the silly madman that day. But on the next I received a letter that came to me at the hotel where Viola and me were then stopping. It said that if I’d not sell for ten thousand I’d sell for worse than nothing, and to put an ad in the paper if I’d changed my mind.

“Of course, I did nothing. But from that day I’ve had no peace at all. Twice my baggage has been gone over, and last week two thugs tried to hold me up in Jersey City. The poor devils are in the hospital this minute; but they could not or would not tell the name of the man who employed them.

“There have been two more letters which I’ll show you presently, and the last was addressed here, showing how the fellow has watched and spied on my movements. In it he declares that my very life shall not stand in the way, but he must have the Cerberus. I’m a man of peace, and it’s fair getting on my nerves.

“Last night they must have tried again, and it’s a wonder I was not murdered in my bed! You’ve come in the nick of time to save me from nervous prostration, Bobby, lad, for it’s little they can do against the two of us, your brains and my brawn!”

Now it was Drayton’s turn to laugh. The picture of Terence Trenmore suffering from nervous collapse, or caring two straws for all the crooks and madmen in America, was too much for his friend. He laughed and laughed, while the Irishman stared at him in a grieved surprise which only added fuel to his hysterical mirth.

“And why,” demanded Trenmore indignantly, “why wouldn’t I be thinking of you when I want a lad at my side? Jimmy, my host here, is a fine man, but not the one to consult on such a Mysterious matter, life meaning to him just business, with his club for diversion, heaven help him! And were he not a distant cousin of my own mother on the O’Shaughnessy side, Jimmy and me would have never become acquainted. And wasn’t I meaning to go clear to Cincinnati next week, just to be asking your advice? And does that list of folk who have had ill luck from the Cerberus — does that mean nothing at all? I tell you, I need your help and counsel, Bobby, and it’s glad I am that you are here to give it.”

Drayton suddenly perceived that the Irishman had been entirely serious throughout. The tale was not, as he had believed, a mere excuse seized on with intent to delude him, Drayton, into feeling that he might be of value as an ally. Hidden away in one secret corner of his friend’s giant heart there dwelt a small, imaginative and quite credulous child. “Dust from the Rocks of Purgatory!” It was that which had fascinated Trenmore, and it was that more than any dread of midnight assassins which had driven him to appeal to his lawyer friend. What he wished was moral, not physical, backing.

“But, Terry,” said Drayton, sobered and really touched by this unexpected demand upon him, “if the thing bothers you so much why not sell and be rid of it?”

Trenmore’s mouth set in a straight, obstinate line. “No, I’ll not,” he declared. “They cannot bully a Trenmore, and Viola says the same. But if I could I’d lay hands on the old villain that’s after it the way he’d trouble us no more, so I would!”

“Have you tried the police?”

“To be sure.”

“How about the auction rooms where you bought it? If this persecutor of yours is a collector, they might know him there by description.”

“That I tried myself before I troubled the police. One young fellow remembered the old villain, and remembered him asking my name. They keep a register at the salesrooms. But as for the villain’s own name, no one there seemed to know it.”

“Well, then-” Drayton cast about in his mind somewhat vaguely. Then an idea struck him. “By the way, Terry, have you opened the vial and had the contents analyzed?”

Trenmore’s blue eyes flashed wide. “I have not!” he exclaimed with considerable energy. “For why would I be intruding on such a matter? Surely, in the place where that Dust came from, they’d not be liking me to meddle with it!”

Drayton firmly suppressed a smile. The price of friendship is tolerance, and he was too grateful and too fond of his Irishman to express ridicule. “I really believe,” he said gravely, “that, admitting the Purgatory part of the legend to be true, the Dust is too far separated from its origin, and too many centuries have elapsed since it was placed in this vial for any real danger to attach to it. And who knows? There may be diamonds, or some other jewels, hidden in that close-packed dust. If there is a question of the vial’s authenticity as a Cellini it can’t be the vial itself that your mysterious collector is ready to pay ten thousand for. Why not open it, anyway, and find out exactly where you are?”

The Irishman scratched his head with a curious expression of indecision. Physical dread was a sensation of which he was happily ignorant; but he possessed a strong disinclination to meddle with any affair that touched on the super-natural. He had bought the vial for the sake of its reputed creator, Cellini. Then his attention had become focused on the “Dust” and the uncanny description accompanying it, and while obstinacy forbade him to let the thing go by force, still it was to him a very uneasy possession. Had no one arisen to dispute its ownership, Trenmore would probably have rid himself of the Cerberus before this.

“Well,” he said at length, “if you think opening it is the wise way to be doing, then let us do it and get it over. But myself, I dread it’s a foolish trifling with powers we know little of!”

“Nonsense!” laughed Drayton. “That Dante Purgatory stuff has got your goat, Terry. Not,” he added hastily, “that I am ridiculing the story, but you will admit that it is slightly — just slightly — improbable. Here!” He snatched a newspaper from a near-by table and spread it on the floor between them. “Give me that vial and I’ll see if it is possible to get the cap open without injury. We mustn’t risk any vandalism. It is a beautiful piece of work, Cellini or no Cellini.”

Feeling in his pocket, he drew out a serviceable penknife, opened the large blade, and took the crystal vial from Trenmore’s still reluctant hand. As the description had stated, the hinged cover, besides being fastened with a tiny hasp that formed the buckle of the jeweled collar, was cemented down. The cement showed as a thin, reddish line between silver and crystal. The lower sections of hinge and hasp were riveted to the crystal.

Drayton ran the point of his blade cautiously around the red line. “Hard as steel,” he commented. “After all, perhaps we can’t open it.”

A flash of relief lighted Trenmore’s heavy, anxious face. He stretched a quick hand to reclaim the vial, but Drayton drew back. Opening a thin small blade, he tried the cement from another angle.

“Aha!” said he triumphantly. “That does it. This stuff is old. I can’t cut it, but you see it’s easy to separate the cement from the crystal by running the blade underneath. And now — careful does it. There! Let’s see how the hasp works.”

He fumbled with it for a moment. There came a little snap, and the cover flew up as if propelled by a spring. At the same time a tiny cloud of fine, grayish particles arose from the open vial. They gleamed like diamond dust in the sunlight.

With a quick gasp, Trenmore sat back in his chair. Though the room was cool, his face was shining with perspiration; but Drayton paid him no heed. The ex-lawyer’s curiosity was by this time fully aroused, and it was unclouded by any wraith of the superstition which claimed for the gray powder so unnatural an origin.

Without hesitation, he stooped and carefully emptied the vial upon the paper at his feet. The Dust was so finely pulverized that he had to proceed with the utmost care to prevent the stuff from rising into the air. At last the vial was empty. A dark heap, resembling gray flour or powdered emery, had been its sole contents.

“I was wrong,” remarked Drayton, sitting up with the Cerberus in his hand. “There was nothing there but the Dust.”

Now it was strange that after all his nervous dread and horror of the Dust, Trenmore should have done what he did. Perhaps, having seen Drayton handle it without harm, he had lost this fear; or it might have been the natural heedlessness of his impulsive nature. Whatever the explanation, as Drayton ceased speaking his friend leaned over and deliberately thrust two fingers into the powder, stirring it about and feeling its soft fineness.

And then occurred the first of that series of extraordinary incidents which were to involve both Trenmore and Robert Drayton in adventures so weird, so seemingly inexplicable, that for a time even Drayton came to share his friend’s belief in the super-natural quality of that which had been guarded by Cellini’s Cerberus.

There sat the two friends in Burford’s pleasant sunlit library. Outside the frequent clang or rattle of passing traffic spoke of the “downtown” district which had crept up about Jimmy Burford and some other stubborn old residents of Walnut Street. There they sat, and the city was all about them — commonplace, busy, impatient, and skeptical of the miraculous as Drayton himself. Somewhere at the back of the house Martin was whistling cheerily about his work.

Leaning back in his chair, Drayton’s eyes were fixed on his friend, a huge figure in his loose gray morning suit — a very monument of material flesh, bone, and muscle. The sunlight fell full on him as he bent above the Dust, bringing out every kindly line of his heavy, dark face. Drayton saw him stir the Dust with his fingers. And Drayton saw a small cloud of the stuff rise toward Trenmore’s face, like a puff of thin, gray smoke.

Then Drayton cried out loudly. He pushed back his chair so sharply as to overset it, and sprang away from the newspaper and its burden.

Above the floor still hovered the thin gray cloud, growing thinner every moment as the particles settled again through the draftless air. But where was Trenmore?

There had been a quivering and a wavering of his great form, as if Drayton saw him through a haze of heat. And with that, as easily and completely as a wraith of smoke from his own cigar, the giant Irishman had vanished!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00