NOT ACCORDING TO TEXT
CHARLES G. BOOTH
"THE PREACHER" sat down upon a round rock and moodily contemplated his fallen state and the limping ruins of a shanty set precariously upon the gravelly slope before him. The sun had gone to sleep beneath a gorgeous canopy, the colors of which were already sombering their tones. Unless “The Preacher” intended to spend the night in the open he would have to endure it in the shanty he was regarding with such marked disgust.
They were all the same, these deserted California shanties: lizard-haunted, vermininfested, and reminiscent of the indescribable filth of a generation of tramps. For notwithstanding his disheveled appearance “The Preacher” was a fastidious person.
His grievance against mankind was not unfounded. That morning the Los Angeles police had set him upon the high road and told him to go and to keep on going. His business at the moment was of a delicate nature and he had deemed it advisable to obey the instructions of the police.
He had been “operating” in the oil fields. For the benefit of his “clients” he invariably strove to produce the effect of reality. When the headquarters man had tapped him on the shoulder and greeted him with “Come on, Joe,” he had been “mucking” about in his oldest, most dilapidated clothing. Later he would have blossomed forth splendidly: evening dress or cutaway or business suit as the occasion demanded. They were commonplaces in his sinister life.
“What yer want?” he had barked out of the corner of his thin-lipped mouth.
“You got to get, Joe, while the getting’s good.”
“I mean now\”
He had not even been permitted to draw upon his resources, financial or otherwise, which were not inconsiderable. Nor did he attempt to turn back for that purpose. They would take care of themselves. If the extent of his scheming were discovered in the meantime, even an hour’s delay might cost him his liberty. And he was in no mind to lose that.
San Francisco offered sanctuary. But San Francisco was over six hundred miles to the north and “The Preacher” had only ten dollars in his pocket. So he had struck into the interior, slanting toward the mountains, believing, not unreasonably, that the smaller towns were rich in opportunities for one of his peculiar talents. He would acquire a stake; then he would head for San Francisco via Pullman or freight car, as circumstances had favored him.
UROM the foregoing it will be inferred that “The
Preacher” chaplained no congregation—unless that world which hides its brightest lights beneath a multitude of bushels may be so termed.
He was a pastmaster in the art of living by his wits. Step by step he had ascended the ladder of his disreputable craft. “Dip”, “second-story man,” “con man,” and every intervening rung he had trodden cautiously and forsaken triumphantly. Just prior to his apprehension that morning he had been selling very off-color stocks. It was a lucrative employment and it was more nearly respectable than anything he had ever done. Respectability! How he loved the word. Someday, when he had acquired a substantial competence he would enjoy the satisfactions it connoted.
He was compact of body, smooth of tongue, invested with a superficial air of culture which he had acquired painstakingly for the benefit of his “clients.” He knew when to talk and he knew when to listen. Quite intelligent women spoke of him as “that nice Mr. So-and-So.” His names were many. Keen-witted men said he was a good fellow.
Some ironist of the underworld, appreciating his evil talents, in a flash of inspiration had called him “The Preacher.” The sobriquet had stuck. His name was Joe Shaefer.
All this with his clothes on, though, and the smooth feel
of a clean shave. As he was now, with the gritty, gray dust of twenty-five miles of blistering road upon him. coating his tongue, his dry lips, and the stench of a thousand automobile exhaust pipes stinging his nostrils, he was like Samson shorn of his hair.
npHE bleat of an automobile horn roused Shaefer from his melancholy contemplation of his unhappy plight. A huge touring car, headlights glaring in the thickening dusk, was ascending the grade. At the top of the grade just beyond where he was sitting the road turned sharply to the right, then descended the grade again. For this reason, apparently, the horn had been sounded, since no car approached from the opposite direction.
The man drove alone. This fact impressed itself upon Shaefer’s plastic brain with a biting distinctness to which, at first, he attached no particular significance. In a moment or two the car would gain the top of the grade and pass him.
As it neared him Shaefer observed the costliness of its manufacture, the luxury of its appointments. Undoubtedly the man in the driver’s seat would be a person of means. Of considerable means.
This conclusion suspended itself in Shaefer’s brain. He could not decide whether it was of importance or not. It swung this way and that, like a weather vane in a vagrant wind.
The touring car was within a hundred feet of him, now. Its blue body and its metal fittings, polished to the brilliance of steel mirror, gleamed dully in the fading light. Shaefer’s bitter consciousness of the poverty of his condition deepened, generated an intense resentment that focused itself upon this resplendent monster and its comfortably enthroned pilot. He moved stiffly upon his hard seat and his hand touched the weapon in his hip pocket which he invariably carried with him.
' I 'HE contact had the effect of some miraculous inoculation. Shaefer sat up suddenly, his brain fired by the determination that had flashed into it. The man was alone and would have money upon him! What better opportunity of replenishing his fortunes could he expect to find?
He stood up, his lips pressed thinly together, and signalled the approaching car with his left hand. It drew abreast of him, glided to a standstill. Shaefer ran swiftly to the running board, his right arm held tensely at his side.
“Want a lift?” the man called out in a deep, cheery
“Yea, I want a lift, all right!” sniggered Shaefer and he thrust his automatic into the man’s face. “Hand out what you got!” he snarled. “And be quick about it!”
For perhaps five seconds the two men stared at one another in utter silence. The features of the man in the
car were obscured by the gathering darkness. His heavy shell-rimmed glasses and his peaked motoring cap, pulled well over his eyes, still further concealed their precise outline.
Shaefer had got the impression that he was a man of some force of character; one accustomed to command and not to be trifled with. Such men unconsciously radiate the quality of their personalities in a dozen minute ways.
“Come on!” Shaefer went on in his ugly tones. “Let’s see what you got!”
The man’s mouth—firm and tight-lipped it seemed to Shaefer—opened slowly. “So you are a stick-up man, are you?” he said in hard, deep, faintly ironical tones. He leaned back in his seat. His hand went to his breast pocket. “Well,” he went on, “you seem to have got me to rights.”
Suddenly, so suddenly that Shaefer had not time to intercept the movement, the man simultaneously flung his head back and struck aside Shaefer’s weapon with the back of his hand. The gun exploded and the man caught Shaefer’s wrist in a grip of iron and shook the weapon from his grasp. It clattered into the car.
Recovering himself Shaefer struck at the other with his left in a withering access of fury and caught him on the point of the chin. It was a terrific blow for Shaefer had long since learned how to handle himself in a rough and tumble. The blow must have staggered the man for he let go his crushing grasp of Shaefer’s wrist.
Shaefer sprang onto the running-board and hurled himself at the man’s throat. The other was waiting for him for his blow had been less damaging than Shaefer had supposed. They blindly clawed at each other over the side of the touring car, half in it and half out of it. The inevitable happened. Shaefer’s weight dragged his antagonist over the side of the car and they toppled onto the pavement and rolled over and over. Chance brought Shaefer out on top, his wiry fingers still gripping the other’s sinewy throat.
In a frenzy of rage at the man’s desperate resistance Shaefer beat the back of his head against the pavement once, twice, three times. Then his rage fled and he loosed his grip of the man’s throat and stared at the face vaguely discernible beneath him. The man’s head rolled to one side in a sickly, suggestive fashion and became still.
A quivering horror surged up from the roots of Shaefer’s being, dispelled the remnants of his insane rage. He shook the body; it was limp. He knelt beside it, listened at its heart, felt at its wrist. He could distinguish no sound, no movement.
His horror sickened him, “I didn’t mean to kill him!” he mouthed in stricken accents. “I didn’t! I didn’t! I didn’t!”
BUT “The Preacher” and death were nodding acquaintances and the will to live was strong within him. He.got to his feet, his unshaven face shedding the terror that had come upon it, and peered along the road in both directions. There was no other car in sight.
Shaefer stared at the body, his brow furrowed with thought. He must dispose of it at once if he would preserve his safety. His eyes fell upon the shanty, the ragged outline of which was softened in the marching darkness, and his face brightened. It was just the place. The body might lie there undisturbed for days; weeks,
He caught it by the shoulders, dragged it across the pavement, and leaned it against the slope where he let it sag down limply. Turning to the touring car he steered it off the pavement onto a narrow strip of gravelly land that divided the slope from the pavement. Another car might come along at any moment. It was absurd to court disaster.
This accomplished, Shaefer seized the body again and dragged it up the dusty, gravelly slope, inch by inch, foot by foot. Perspiration pearled upon his brow, streaked his grimy face. Time and again he let the body sag back upon the slope while he recovered his breath. But at last, struggling furiously, he got it into the shanty and dropped
it with a dull dead thud onto the rotting floor. He straightened his aching back and mopped his glistening brow.
For a moment he stood still, indecision upon his countenance. Then he dropped onto his knees, struck a match, and held the flame close to the still face beneath him.
The man’s rough hev.n features were fairly discernible but those peculiar characteristics of a human countenance which make it individual and recognizable were obscured by the gray dust the gravelly slope had sifted upon them Curiously enough, the heavy rimmed glasses still retained their place
The match burned to Shaefer’s fingers. He twisted an old envelope which he found in his pocket into a taper and stuck in a crack in the floor and lit it. Then he went through the man’s pockets and found a bundle of papers and 'etters and a wallet containing a hundred dollars or so in bills of various denominations.
FOR a moment or so Shaefer thoughtfully considered the figure before him. His sharp eyes took in the excellent quality of the light gray suit, gray cap and substantial boots, and observed the striking contrast between this attire and his own. When the man was found his clothing might suggest that he was a person of some importance. Shaefer fingered his unshaven chin reflectively. Suddenly the thought that had been hovering at the back of his mind flashed upon him, possessed him. He sprang to his feet, a sinister grin on his face, and ran down to the touring car.
In the tonneau of the car he found a suitcase and a club-bag. The latter, together with an electric torch which he discovered in the car’s equipment, he took back to the shanty. As he had expected, shaving materials and a small mirror were in the club-bag.
Working furiously by the light from the torch, he stripped the man on the floor of his clothing, stripped himself, got into the other’s garments and dressed the man in his own disheveled attire. They were of a similar build and the stolen clothing fitted him fairly comfortably.
He spread the shaving materials on the floor and stood the mirror against an empty whisky bottle he had found in the shanty. The problem of water bothered him until he found a bottle of toilet water in the clubbag and made shift with this, shaving himself stickily but effectively.
Presently, he studied the effect in the mirror. He was himself again: suave, confident, a man of affairs. Splendid! he told himself. Not only had he disguised the identity of the man he had killed but he had also satisfied his own vanity, no insignificant element in his character. Really it was his vanity that had prompted the exchange. In the lapel of the coat he wore was pinned a white rosebud. It was badly crushed but he did not remove it. Its fragrance stimulated him. His spirits soared. He was Samson again.
He glanced contemptuously at the forlorn figure on the floor. His thin lips curled in disgust. The transformation in the other was profounder than in himself. So much the better! If the man were left long enough the disintegrating finger of time would finish what he had begun. In a spirit of mockery he perched the shell-rimmed glasses upon his own nose and to complete the transformation kicked the whisky bottle near one outflung limp hand.
Shaefer pocketed the money and flung the shaving materials into the clubbag. He was about to thrust the papers and letters into a pocket, intending to destroy them later, when his glance fell upon one of the envelopes. An exclamation of astonishment and dismay broke from his lips.
The expression of suave confidence upon his cleanshaven face became one of utter terror.
The envelope which had produced this remarkable effect was addressed to Colonel Blessington. In the lower left hand corner of the envelope appeared the words: “Introducing Mr.
The envelope was open;
Shaefer took out the sheet within it. “Dear Blessington:” the note ran. “Sorry I can’t be with you. My old sciatica again. I didn’t want to disappoint you,
so Aldeen, like the good fellow he is, says he will go out alone. Give him a good time. I don’t think he knows any of your crowd. He’s chock full of Mesopotamia, but he’s modest and you’ll have to crowbar it out of him. Frederick Northrup,” the note was signed. It was written on the paper of the Adventurers’ Club.
Shaefer read the note again, his face gone suddenly haggard. His fingers trembled as he returned it to the envelope.
COLONEL BLESSINGTON and the Blessington Emeralds were synonymous terms in crookdom. Shaefer’s mouth had watered a hundred times at the mere mention of those marvelous gems and that indomitable figure, their possessör. The Blessington Emeralds! One spoke of them reverently, as of some sacred subject the mere utterance of which was a profanity. They were perfect; they were unequalled; they were worth at least a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to any crook in the land!
But it was not the name of Blessington that had brought the sweat of terror to Shaefer’s brow. Blessington was only Blessington, a stout, amusing figure institutionalized by his famous gems.
But Norman Aldeen! That intrepid, romantic, unassuming figure of the Mesopotamian sands and the Egyptian deserts, the most famous explorer and archaeologist of the day! That international figure, whose name during the year preceding his recent return to America had become a headline feature! Aldeen the Invincible, they had called him.
He had gone out to dig in the sands of Mesopotamia for *he institutions that had sent him, he had said in his blunt manner of speech, and all the Arabs in Eastern Asia should not stop him. For months his gallant company, under his brilliant leadership, had carried on punitive warfare with the nomadic tribes of that region. But he had completed the excavations he had been sent to make and those brilliant contributions of his upon old Mesopotamian civilizations had flung his name around the world in a night. Then he had brought his little company out of the desert, intact as it went in. The newspapers had played him up. He had become the idol of the hour.
Shaefer recalled all this in one shuddering gasp of terror. He, Joe Shaefer, had killed Norman Aldeen! His panic shook him. He thrust the letters, the papers, and the electric torch into his pockets, jammed Aldeen’s hat upon his head, and flashed a last reassuring glance about the shanty. Then he dashed down the slope, flung the club-bag into the tonneau of the touring car, and tumbled in after it.
Shaefer drove furiously into the cool scented night, his terror-fevered brain dominated by an insupportable desire to fling between himself and that inert figure in the shanty as many hundreds of miles as the great car could cover before dawn.
The night breeze whistled in his ears; telephone poles whirled by; neat orange groves, geometrically patterned, flashed past in rustling, scented processions. Huge blacknesses to the east and the west were the mountains.
Presently, Shaefer’s hot brain cooled and he lessened the car’s speed. A life-long habit of self-control reasserted itself and he began to consider the implications of his position.
He had killed Norman Aldeen, he reflected, but it did not necessarily follow that his arrest would ensue. Very carefully he went over each detail of the scene. No, he had left behind him no indication of his own identity. They would find Aldeen, there would be a tremendous sensation, and that would be the end of it. He would drive the car several hundred miles to the north, abandon it before dawn, and entrain for San Francisco. Once there he would be safe enough.
His stolen garments disturbed him somewhat. Had he known it was Aldeen he had killed he would not have made the exchange. It did not matter, though. Aldeen’s suit was a common enough shade of gray. However, he would get rid of it in the morning.
HAVING settled these matters to his satisfaction, his self-confidence surged back and his thoughts turned again to the Blessington Emeralds. Towards the foothills lay Blessington’o ranch. An expression of cupidity crept into his countenance, but immediately changed to one of deep regret when he remembered that the famous gems, in view of the situation he was in, were farther away from him than they had ever been.
Suddenly, he recalled the phrasing of the letter of introduction in his pocket. His light-colored eyes dilated at the daring thought that flashed into his brain. “I don’t think he knows any of your crowd,” Northrup’s note ran.
Evidently, Aldeen did not know Blessington or his friends personally. If he, Shaefer, were to impersonate the dead Aldeen could he deceive Blessington long enough to get his hands on the famous emeralds? He shook his head impatiently. The idea was absurd. What did he know about Mesopotamia other than the fragmentary details he had read in the newspapers? He bent over the wheel and thrust the thought from his mind.
Shaefer had driven some ten miles or so when he perceived in the distance the twinkling lights of a small village. It occurred to him suddenly that beyond an orange or two which he had stolen, he had had nothing to eat since early morning. Thus awakened, his hunger gnawed insistently and he determined to risk purchasing the food he would need so sorely by dawn.
Several moments later he ran along a paved street and drew up before a cement building which housed a restaurant and a hotel.
He was about to get out of the touring car when a blue-suited, stout man trotted across the sidewalk from the hotel, hand outstretched, a genial smile upon his ruddy countenance.
“Is this Mr. Aldeen?” he called out in a throaty voice. “That’s Northrup’s blue Hazzard car or I’ll, yes sir, I’ll eat my boots! But what have you done with Northrup?”
The stout man seized Shaefer’s nerveless hand and wrung it enthusiastically. “I’m Blessington, sir, Colonel Blessington. And this, as you may know,” the Colonel waved a massive hand in an inclusive gesture, “is the town of Blessington.
“Don’t tell me that I’ve made a mistake, Mr. Aldeen,” he cried jovially in Shaefer’s stricken face. “I’m sure I haven’t! These glasses of yours and that rose, you know! The newspapers have given them a classic significance! Classic, Mr. Aldeen! But what have you done with Northrup? Don’t tell me it’s his sciatica! Terrible, the way he suffers! Got it in South America, you know! Now, sir, do tell me what you have done with Northrup?” Shaefer’s heart felt as cold and as dead as the hand which the Colonel had
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seized in the grip of welcome. Only so transparent a person as this could have failed to detect the panic he felt sure was written in his face. Denial of the identity thrust upon him rose to his lips, but he shut it off with a traplike closing of his teeth.
He had come in Northrup’s car, he wore Aldeen’s glasses and Aldeen’s rose, and he had come to Blessington. It would have been strange if the Colonel had not pounced upon him. In his heart he cursed the absurd whim that had induced him to wear the rose and the glasses, for he remembered, now, that both were always striking features of the invariably wretched newspaper photographs of Aldeen.
He forced a grin to his dry lips, “Why, of course, I’m Aldeen, Colonel,” he exclaimed, injecting into his voice that genial tone he could assume so easily. “And it is Northrup’s sciatica.” He extracted his cold hand from the other’s moist grasp and replaced it with Northrup’s letter of introduction. “This will explain the situation, I think.”
SHAEFER had got himself under control by this. He studied the Colonel closely and a little contemptuously. He knew the type well enough: Fat and easy-going, wordy and undiscerning; a fund of jokes at his disposal, mostly of the prohibition order, and a private stock which he would display proudly and share generously; probably reducing the number of his daily cigars and lamenting his waistline and his mounting blood-pressure. But a good fellow and a genial companion for all that—if one did not see too much of him.
And this man was the possessor of the famous Blessington Emeralds! Shaefer’s eyes glittered at the thought.
Suddenly, this predicament which he had cursed so bitterly but a moment before, assumed a golden tint. The Colonel was convinced that he was Aldeen. If he preserved this conviction he might get his hands on the famous emeralds! His heart leaped.
Colonel Blessington pocketed the note. “Too bad!” he rumbled. ‘ Fine fellow, Northrup. However, we all come to these things. If it’s not one it’s another. Aren’t I right, Aldeen?”
The Colonel did not wait for Shaefer’s reply to this philosophic observation but rumbled on like a well-oiled machine. “I came down on the off-chance of meeting you. Thought something might have gone wrong. These infernal cars, you know! Give me a good horse any day! We’ll go back in your car. Mine is across the road.” He wàved towards a roadster at the opposite curb. “One of the men can bring it.”
Shaefer opened the door and the Colonel climbed into the car. Half a mile or so beyond the village Blessington directed him into a side road which led up to the eastern foothills.
The Colonel emitted a continuous stream of conversation the substance of which was mainly the Blessington orange groves, the Blessington home, the town of Blessington, and Colonel Blessington himself. The latter subject he treated exhaustively.
“I tell you, Mr. Aldeen, when I came here first, the place was as bare as one of your Syrian deserts. Sagebrush and sand and cactus! When I think of what has been done!”
The Colonel’s wordiness had been a source of much satisfaction to Shaefer. At this point he thought it advisable to interject a complimentary remark.
“I suppose you have had much to do with it, Colonel?”
The other cleared his throat. His manner suggested that he had been waiting some such query. “Well,” he said, “there are people who say if it hadn’t been for Colonel Blessington—”
Shaefer closed his ears and returned to anticipatory contemplation of the Colonel’s emeralds and to the plan he was evolving to get them into his possession.
It was in this fashion that “The Preacher” came to the elaborate Blessington mansion in the lower foothills.
AT THE Colonel’s direction Shaefer drove the big car into the roomy garage. He would much rather have left it in front of the house for he intended to make good use of it before the night was over, but he could not very well insist on doing this in face of Blessington’s expressed determination that it should be cleaned and polished by his own chauffeur before it went out again. He glanced at the lock of the garage door. It was a good one but he anticipated no difficulty in picking it with a piece of stout wire which he always carried upon his key ring.
“Now,” said the Colonel when they had installed the car. “We’ll have a bite to eat. I’m sure you are starving.” Shaefer found the cold supper which was set before them quite the best he had ever eaten. Blessington’s bottled goods were beyond description.
“Nothing like this in Mesopotamia,” gurgled the Colonel appreciatively.
He still talked incessantly of nothing in particular, but Shaefer detected in his conversation a tendency toward Mesopotamia and archaeology which he had tried to discourage several times, and he realized that the Colonel would presently expect him to recount some of Aldeen’s experiences. Luckily, Blessington was a bachelor and the friends Shaefer was to meet were not to arrive until the next afternoon.
He must make one or two vague references to Mesopotamia and archaeology, imply the innate modesty Northrup had attributed to Aldeen, and promise to go into the subject fully the next day. This would hold the Colonel’s faith in his integrity.
Presently, they went into the library smoking the Colonel’s fifty-cent cigars. It was here that Shaefer hoped and rather expected to find the emeralds. His lightcolored eyes flashed around the long book-lined room, but he saw no safe. This did not dismay him for he had thought it unlikely that the safe which contained them would not be concealed.
They settled themselves in overstuffed chairs before a fire of eucalyptus logs. A dreamy warmth permeated the room. Shaefer thought that everything was going as well as could be expected— if not better.
At the Colonel’s elbow were cocktail materials. He pushed them toward Shaefer. The latter declined regretfully, ne did not explain that he wished to keep his head clear.
COLONEL BLESSINGTON puffed on his cigar. “Glad to be home?” he J remarked tentatively.
The inescapable moment had come. Shaefer pulled himself together and smiled knowingly. “Rather.” He blew j a smoke ring lazily toward the ceiling. "Pretty hot out there, one way or another, eh?” Colonel Blessington seemed in a listening mood.
“It was exciting at times,” admitted Shaefer. His calm demeanor gave no indication of the tumult within him. He had no idea that one could know so little as he about Mesopotamia.
The Colonel tried another tack.
! “That’s a good article in the current Eastern Geographic,” he observed.
Shaefer looked up. “What was that?” he inquired casually.
Blessington seemed surprised. “Why,” he exclaimed, “that article on yourself1.” “Oh, of course!” Shaefer reddened. “Yes, no doubt, no doubt!” He got himself in hand again. If only he could induce the old fool to talk of emeralds instead of Mesopotamia!
“Pretty sound man, Tate,” the Colonel went on.
“Tate?” responded Shaefer cautiously. The other looked at him in astonishment. “You must know Tate! Henry Tate!”
Shaefer smiled disarmingly. “Oh, Henry Tate! Certainly! Yes, sound, as you say. Sound as a dollar!”
“He writes well, too.”
“Yes; he’s very clear,” ventured Shaefer.
“He says you are a hard man to interview.”
The Colonel’s cigar, en route to his lips, poised in midair. “My dear Aldeen!” he remonstrated, “of course he does! In his article in the Eastern Geographic!” Shaefer bit deeply into his cigar. “To tell the truth, Colonel,” he said,
: forcing a grin to his twitching lips, “I haven’t read it. I read so much—about myself.” His sauve countenance expressed a modest embarrassment.
Blessington flung his head back and 1 roared with laughter. “Northrup was right when he said we’d have to crowbar it out of you! Well, I’m going to let you off until to-morrow. Grimshaw and Morrison are tremendously interested in 1 you. I give you fair warning, sir, they’ll not let you off.”
Shaefer concealed his vast relief and smiled good-naturedly. “I’ll do my best,” he promised. So that was over! Now, if only he could get the Colonel onto the subject of emeralds!
“Your modesty reminds me of a story I once heard about a man,” the Colonel puffed. “He was in the jewelry trade—”
SHAEFER seized upon this golden opportunity. “Pardon me, Colonel,” he interrupted swiftly, “your allusion to jewelry reminds me that you bear some reputation as a collector of precious stones. I seem to remember hearing of the Blessington diamonds, or pearls.” The Colonel blew a huge cloud of I smoke at the ceiling. “Emeralds, Aldeen.
: The Blessington Emeralds!”
Shaefer nodded. “Yes, emeralds—
I now I come to think of it.” His eyes rested ever so lightly on the other.
Pride of possession crept into the Colonel’s ruddy countenance. “Yes,” he admitted with praiseworthy modesty. “My collection is esteemed rather highly. You are interested in stones?”
Shaefer nodded with the proper degree of enthusiasm. “Yes, indeed! I saw quite a few of them in the east.”
“Did you! Whose were they?”
Shaefer bit his lip. He had not counted on Blessington’s connoisseur’s enthusiasm. “Oh, er, I met a buyer for one of the London houses in Cairo. I’ve forgotten his name. He had a lot with him.” The other nodded and Shaefer thought he had got out of the difficulty rather neatly.
“My great grandfather began collecting emeralds a hundred years ago,” the Colonel explained. “His descendants have added to the original number. I may tell you, sir, the collection is worth at least three hundred thousand dollars.” Shaefer expressed his astonishment and concealed his delight. This was better ! than he had expected!
“You may as well see them now,” the other went on, easing himself out of his j chair and walking toward the library. Shaefer followed him, his manner casual. Actually, he was trembling with
excitement. His eyes were bright, contracted a little, and riveted upon the slow’ moving Blessington. He picked up a magazine which lay on the library table.
The next minute or two would reveal the success or failure of his scheming. Would Blessington permit him to observe the mechanism of his burglar devices? Could he get close enough to Blessington to read off the combination of the safe as he turned the dial? It was unlikely.
Failing this, he would crack his host over the head with the butt of his automatic, tie him up, and make off with the stones.
The Colonel crossed the hall and stopped before one of a number of panels depicting landscapes, painted on the wainscoting. Shaefer, leaning against a jamb of the library door, and turning the pages of the magazine, watched him intently.
Blessington pressed the two left-hand corners of the panel which slid back and revealed a square space set in the wall; within the space was an electric switch which he pulled down.
When he turned round again Shaefer was glancing idly at his magazinè.
THE Colonel re-entered the library and stopped in front of a section of the bookcases devoted to thick volumes of philosophy which, doubtless, he had never read. He removed, Herbert Spencer’s “Principles of Psychology,” which stood at one end of a shelf, inserted a chubby forefinger into a boring in the heavy oak end of the shelf, and pulled mightily. Some nine square feet of
philosophy swung outward on hinges. Behind it stood a heavy safe which was bolted to the floor.
Blessington dropped onto his knees, squinted at the dial, and turned it indecisively several times.
Shaefer peered over his shoulder, but to his intense disappointment he could make nothing of the figures on the dial, the safe being completely in the shadow. His fingers closed upon the automatic in his pocket. Luckily, the library door was shut and the servants were in bed. His mouth tightened; his compact body tensed for that one swift stunning blow that would deliver a fortune to him.
The Colonel turned around with a rueful grin. “My eyes are not as good as they were, Aldeen. You might hold the lamp.”
The pitch of desperation to which Shaefer had just whipped himself momentarily obscured his appreciation of the significance of this request. Then it flashed upon him. The old fool, in his trust in the integrity of his guest, was actually playing into his hands! Concealing his delight, Shaefer held a readinglamp over the Colonel’s shoulder. The numbers upon the dial sprang into his range of vision!
“To the right twenty-three, left seventeen, right ninety-eight, left one hundred.” Guided by the Colonel’s pudgy fingers the combination sang itself into Shaefer’s receptive brain.
His blood tingled in his veins. At last he was to see, to touch, and later, to possess, the famous Blessington Emeralds, those gems of which a hundred fabulous yarns had penetrated along the dark and devious paths of crookdom.
THE Colonel set two covered shallow trays upon the table. “You must tell me, Aldeen, if in all your travels you have ever seen a finer collection than this.” His tone .suggested considerable doubt of such a possibility.
Slowly and ceremoniously, as if he were uncovering some ancient relic, Blessington drew the wooden slides along their grooves, laid them aside, and parted the white satin covers beneath. “There!” he exclaimed to the awed Shaefer.
Arranged in the form of crescents upon two couches of gleaming satin lay the Blessington Emeralds like green fires on lakes of ice. They were indescribably beautiful. The light of life lay in their hearts, winked audaciously at the astounded Shaefer. At the apex of each crescent lay a great gorgeous stone, a king at the head of a realm of princes.
Shaefer stared at them like a man who has come upon a buried treasure, the magnificence of which trebles his expectations—as indeed he had.
“Superb!” he whispered at last. “Superb!” He touched the two great emeraids with trembling fingers, lifted them, set them in the palm of his hand, caressed them reverently as if they were twin philosopher’s stones.
“There are fifty-four of them,” he heard the Colonel say complacently, as from a great distance. “Great grandfather Elias P. Blessington collected fifteen of them, grandfather Jonas F., twelve; my father, Daniel D., sixteen; and I, the rest.”
Shaefer nodded absently. It was their value, not their chronological history that enthralled him! They should bring him at least two hundred and fifty thousand if he sold them right. What a haul! His heart pounded at thought of it.
“Well, sir, what do you think of them? demanded Blessington in challenging
Shaefer descended to reality. “They are wonderful!” he exclaimed enthusiastically.
The Colonel chuckled triumphantly and returned the emeralds to the safe. “I thought you’d say so,” he puffed when he had closed the safe and returned its philosophic barricade. “I intend to continue collecting them as long as I live,” he continued when he had thrown “on” the switch in the hall.
Shaefer glanced casually at his watch. It was nearly midnight. A fever of impatience to do what he had to do and to get away fell upon him. He pretended to conceal a yawn behind the back of his hand. The Colonel saw it as Shaefer had intended he should, and examining his own watch, suggested that they retire.
When he had come into his room and locked the door quietly behind him Shaefer unstrapped Aldeen’s suitcase, the contents of which he had not yet seen. Within it he found a dark blue suit which he determined to put over the gray one and thus add to the confusion of his
Having deftly removed all tailors’ identification tags from both suits, he pulled the blue on over the gray. The fit was uncomfortable but bearable. A pair of heavy golfing stockings which he discovered in the club-bag he drew on over his boots.
This accomplished, Shaefer sat down at a writing-desk and in a disguised handwriting wrote: “Dear Colonel: Awfully
sorry to leave you at this early hour but a forgotten engagement compels me to do so. I shall probably be back before dinner to-night. As I have a key which fits the lock of the garage it is not necessary for me to rouse you or the chauffeur. I shall explain more fully this evening. Norman Aldeen.”
Schaefer grinned sardonically as he re-read the note. He had no hope of it fooling the Colonel for very long, but it might delay his pursuit for several hours. He laid the note upon the table and looked at his watch. It was one o’clock. He would wait half an hour.
AT PRECISELY one - twenty - nine Shaefer stood up, pocketed his automatic, and picked up his flashlight, decisiveness of action characterizing every movement. He gave a last sharp glance around the room, found everything to his satisfaction, snapped out the light and stepped into the corridor, closing the door behind him.
A sense of exultation possessed him. His plan was proceeding with machinelike precision. If there had been an ounce of superstition in him he might have thought its progress too perfect, too triumphantly successful.
The entire first floor of the house was in utter darkness. Having located the secret panel and thrown the switch he passed into the library and pushed the door to behind him. The shadows within the room fled before the sweeping circle of light thrown by his torch. He flung open the French windows to facilitate his escape should some unforeseen emergency develop.
This accomplished, he swung aside the barricade of philosophy, dropped onto his knees before the safe, and directed the circle of light upon the combination dial. Iiis long sensitive fingers trembled as he swung the dial back and forth in the numbered sequence that should open the magic door of fortune. Completing the combination he seized the handle. It held! He tugged at it madly, the sweat of desperation upon his forehead. It still held! A withering imprecation broke from his dry lips.
But he pulled himself together again, remembering, as he did so, that he might have twirled the dial too rapidly for the drop of the tumblers. He swung it back and forth again whispering the talismanic numbers, a warm moisture upon his tingling body.
Again his fingers grasped the handle, but a moment elapsed before he could compel them to obey the urge of his will and attempt to turn it. The bolt shot back with a metallic click that sped a wave of ecstacy through him.
He flung open the door, whipped out the jewel trays, thrust his quivering fingers among those shimmering green fires. Their touch, cooler than ice to his hot hands, thrilled him with an unprecedented happiness. He scooped them up, cupped his hands, and drank in their flaming beauty. Here lay the key to that life of comfort, security and respectability which he had craved since reaching his years of understanding. Respectability! The word sang in his ears! Not that he cared a rap for the morality of the term. It was only a profound admiration for that quality of solidity which the term also connoted, that his worthless and dangerous contact with life had so deeply instilled within him.
He let the flaming mass cascade between his parted hands into one of the satin-lined trays beneath. It fell, a shimmering yellow and gold and green waterfall, a minute Milky Way in the room’s tiny heaven.
The exigencies of the present recalled him. He stowed the emeralds away in the pockets of his inner suit, returned the trays to the safe, locked the door and swung the bookcase section back into its place. This accomplished, he extinguished his torch and was about to make for the open window when he remembered, with a shiver of apprehension, that he had not yet re-thrown the switch in the hall. He turned toward the library door.
AT THAT moment there came a sharp click and the room was flooded suddenly with light. Within the open door stood Colonel Blessington, a flushed and very indignant-looking colonel indeed, and a compactly-built man with a rugged, haggard face, vaguely familiar to Shaefer, whom he regarded with a peculiar expression of mild amusement.
For perhaps ten seconds this impressive tableau endured in unbroken silence. During this minute span in the spin of the suns an eternity of thought whirled in Joe Shaefer’s reeling brain. He saw Aldeen, dead, in the shanty; he saw himself taken by this compact, haggardlooking man—a cop, no doubt, for he had seen his face somewhere in his troubled past; he saw himself dying the ignominous death the law had decreed to him. And he saw the solitary chance that remained to him.
The window was open, he had a gun in his pocket; Blessington was dressed and probably had the keys of the garage upon the key ring which he knew Blessington carried. The squandering of life that stood between him and his liberty troubled him not in the least. One hangs as easily for one dead man as for three. It was his only chance and he took it.
He dropped the electric torch, and clutched the automatic in his coat pocket, directed it upon the haggard-faced man, and fired. But he was just one second too late—so thin is the hair that suspends life above death—and the bullet went wide. The haggard-faced man had fired from his coat pocket, too. Shaefer felt the thud of a mighty fist upon the middle of his body. A sharp dreadful agony seized upon him, then a sickening nausea. His legs crumpled like dried reeds, a cold mist swept down upon him, chilled him to the bone. Through it he saw vaguely the haggard-faced man leaping toward him, a wisp of gray smoke coiling up from his right-hand coat pocket.
Then the floor rose up to meet him and he lay on his back, twitching a little. The mists thickened around him, obscured his vision, but he could still distinguish the haggard-faced man who was bending over him now, deep concern upon his bloodless face. Who was this man? Some phantom from his receding past, no doubt.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” said the man in deep, gentle tones. “I didn’t mean to kill him!”
The man’s deep voice, and those familiar words which Shaefer himself had uttered so recently, touched the strings of his aching memory. Suddenly he knew and the irony of it twitched his thin lips into a blasphemous curse.
But apparently the haggard-faced man thought “The Preacher” was asking a
question, for he nodded his head as if he were answering one.
“Yes,” he said in his deep voice, “I am the man you didn’t quite kill. I am Norman Aldeen, the explorer.”