B. W. Amherst
An amusing tale of a gentle prevaricator who knew the glitter of gold, yet worshipped the glitter of dreams
SOME men love women, some love beauty, some love power; the Plumleys loved adventure. The older members of the family that had settled at Spencer’s Island, a small settlement in a scallop of the Bay of Fundy, were scattered to the four comers of the earth and forgotten. Elias, the youngest son, alone remained. He was a ball, stoop-shouldered man with dreamy grey eyes in a weathered mask, eyes with the steady cast of those accustomed to peering at flowing horizons.
During the summer he made a precarious living by
building canvas-seated chairs overhead in the Plumley boathouse. In the winter he hibernated with his thoughts and revived lukewarm ambitions. He, alone of all his clan, had not the daring in his soul that makes the real sea rover. Three long voyages in his youth had driven him to journeying in dreams on shore.
The warm June sun was like wine to his blood as he swept the plank platform of the boathouse and watered a budded rose bush. Seaward, the rollers around Glooscap’s Island flung white spray in the sunshine. The air held a silver sparkle; the sea was inimitably blue; the beach was tawnvcolored in the sun.
Elias loved June because June brought visitors to Spencer’s Island, and visitors were his manna. There was nothing on earth he loved so much as guiding a group of tourists around the little cove beyond the wharf.
“See there, lady,” he would say, “that’s Cutthroat Cave. Smugglers used it eighty odd years ago, and a man’s life was nothin’ in them tines.”
He was a born showman. No tourist, however exacting, felt disappointed after having visited Elias. All his descriptions were aided perhaps by imagination, yet the travelling w7orld enjoys unrealities and few offered incredulity w'hen told about Glooscap, the Micmac god, or of the number of smugglers who had died violent deaths at Cutthroat Cave.
Elias went around the boathouse. An ell afforded him a sun-warmed comer, and there unusual flowers bloomed early. His dark red roses were the envy of all the shore, and no one knew he fed them with decaying small fish. Elias, in many ways, was a clever man.
He looked to his left along the shore and scowled. There was the one sore spot in his existence, Captain Joram Cracknell’s souvenir stand. It was a gaudily painted little building. Captain Joram sold handsome china, banners, gulls’ eggs and picture postcards, and fruit and soft drinks. It was at his place that most of the tourists halted.
Elias did not like Joram. He was an outsider, having only two years residence in the village, and he had only
been “captain” of a lumber scow. In addition, he wanted all the tourist trade and he had poked fun at Elias’ flowers.
“Old wimmen grow them where I come from,” he had said. “You never see a man tendin’ them.”
A CAR came down the long slope leading to the village and slowed, then passed Joram’s stand. It turned toward the wharf. Elias chuckled. He looked at the car license and hastily brushed his trousers. New7 York! They were coming early this year. The car rolled a slow circle and stopped. A man got out, a tired-looking man with deep wrinkles below his eyes. He helped a lady to the plank platform. Elias was glad he had swept it; she was such a dainty little woman.
“Good day,” said the man. “Do you mind if we stop here and look at the sea?” He was polite but listless.
“Certainly not,” said Elias heartily. “That’s why I built this platform.” He ducked into the boathouse and came out with a comfortable armchair. “Have a seat, lady,” he offered. “I’ll bring another for the gentleman.” He had re-covered the old chairs during the winter The woman smiled her thanks, while the man leaned his head back and inhaled deep breaths. His eyes half-closed in luxurious relaxation.
“What a splendid view,” said the lady admiringly. “And roses! What a sunny nook you have. Do you grow them yourself?”
“Yes, lady,” said Elias. “Flowers are my hobby since I give up the sea.”
The lady’s gaze went over Elias’ rough clothing, his bronzed, tattooed arms, and to his far-horizon eyes. “You were a sailor?” she said.
“Yes, lady,” said Elias, and a warm tingle went over him. He loved to be taken for a retired sea captain. Only the natives knew that he had been a ship’s carpenter, and they never told anyone. All Spencer’s Island, with the exception of Captain Joram, was proud of Elias and his flowers.
The man had closed his eyes completely, and Elias spoke in a low tone. He told the lady all about Cutthroat Cave and Glooscap’s Island, and of the tilings the Indian god liad done. She seemed so intereste 1 that Elias told her about the trip he had taken to India. It had been his only outstanding voyage, and he had visualized all he saw7 over and over again, year after year. He used word pictures, all detail that his keen memory treasured, and added touches of his own invention. Soft-footed natives, the jungle, palm trees, noonday heat, beggars, temple bells, fakirs.
The man opened his eyes, and smiled faintly as he looked at his watch.
“It’s noon,” he said. “We’ve been here over two hours.” “And we’ve had a perfectly lovely morning,” said the lady.
The man shook hands and left something in Elias’ palm. He did not look at it until they were gone. It was a bill. Five dollars. More than he could earn in two days making canvas chairs!
ELIAS had a boat, and he knew there was much conjecture when he rowed out to Glooscap’s Island next day. He had had a brilliant idea. His visitors had stopped at Joram’s, and had been enthusiastic about their morning with Elias.
“Humph!” Joram had snorted. “He’s a sort of joke around here.”
His words had been swiftly relayed back to Elias, and they had rankled. Grimly, he vowed war. Joram was mad because he had not entertained the tourists, but he’d be a lot madder before the summer w7as past.
There was a big flat stone on the Island, and Elias got it into his boat. At the boathouse, he placed it on a strong, four-legged foundation. It made a smooth seat, and he was ready for the next tourists w7ho came to the w7harf.
The next day two ladies and a gentleman from Maryland filed up the boathouse stairs to where a seaward window let in plenty of sunshine. There rested the big stone on its wooden legs.
“This,” said Elias, “is Glooscap’s chair, the very stone he used to sit on. If you make a real wish while you’re sittin’ on it, the wish’ll come true. I’m tellin’ you the gospel truth when I say I don’t know one person who’s been disappointed by it.”
One by one the trio mounted the throne and wished, and the man left a dollar on Elias’ table. Before the month ended thirty-seven people had made wishes on the stone and penned their names in a book Elias had installed. Looking them over each night, he tried to imagine what their wishes had been. One frail lady had sat with her eyes tightly closed, and he knew she believed her wish would come true. Well, who knew but what it would?
Captain Joram was mightily roused when he heard of Glooscap’s seat. Spencer’s Island was directing all tourists to the boathouse. No one sent customers to his souvenir shop, so Joram lost no opportunity of telling that the stone chair was a fake.
July brought a swarm of visitors and Elias was busy every day. Many who sat in the wishing chair left a substantial tip for the showman. Others wanted to know what else there was to see. When they were the right sort he told them about India, and his story of adventures there never lost strength. Then a lady in dun breeches gave him inspiration.
It had been a trying afternoon. The sun was very hot, and Elias forgot that stone draws heat. A very stout female in a filmy dress had mounted the wishing throne. Her wish was—to get down again.
“Ooh, ooh!” she gasped. “It’s hot!”
Elias, very perturbed, looked out of the window.
“It’ll be cooler afore night,” he prophesied hastily, and then he carefully drew the blind.
A faint giggle caused him to tum, and there stood a pert little lady in very mannish breeches.
“That was funny,” she said, and her voice was so merry that Elias laughed, too.
“Wait,” he said, “I’ll get a cushion for the stone.”
After she had made her wish the lady waited, and rather timidly Elias talked of India. His listener was eager.
“And what have you to show?” she asked. “I mean, from India.”
Her eagerness fired him to impulse. He could not bear to disappoint her.
“I’ve something at my house,” he said. “I’ll bring it here to show folks.”
“Ooh, what is it?” The little lady was very keen.
“It’s an idol,” said Elias, thinking fast.
“Yes,” nodded Elias, “and it’s got a wonderful history. I’ll have it here tomorrow.”
“I’ll be here,” said the little lady. "This is my first holiday in twenty years and I want to see everything.”
ELIAS hoped he could satisfy her. He had remembered that on his one memorable voyage he had purchased in Bombay a small, carved wooden deity, a weird, four-eyed god. He had only paid a small price for it, and when he had taken it from his sea chest it had seemed such a senseless object that he had hidden it in the attic.
He found it there, but not in the same condition. Something else stored away had leaked over the wooden face and stained it to a dark crimson, while the four eyes had taken on a strange lustre. The coloring inspired him to concoct a story worthy of such a subject, and in the morning he applied a tiny touch of luminous paint to the eyeballs of the idol and made it uncannily personal.
He built a triangular shelf into the comer away from the seaward window, and lined it with red velvet. Then he made a curtain of black cloth. A tug at a cord, and the curtain was withdrawn. There, on a dial of soapstone, squatted a crimson-faced god, his four eyes glimmering like evil things. Two small candles, burning on either side, shed just the right light.
“Ladies,” said Elias to his first audience, which included the lady in breeches, “this is an Aryan god from a temple in Bombay. It’s got a heathen name, meanin’ four-eyes, which I can’t pronounce. If you’ve got time I’ll tell you how I happened to get the idol.”
The urging was a chorus, and Elias glowed inwardly.
“We was in Bombay on a trip,” he said casually, “and I was lookin’ for adventure. There were five other vessels of our kind there at the same time, takin’ cargo, and I got acquainted with a chap from each, all—ah—third mates, like myself. We went one afternoon to visit the Aryan temple. It was a big place covered with carvin’, and an old, withered chap took us in. There was mattin’ on the floor and the place was dark, and the incense pots made queer smells. We strayed apart and I got a hankerin’ for a souvenir when I saw this four-eyed god. I hid it under my jacket quick as lightnin’, and went outside. The old priest never saw me at all.”
His audience was breathless, and Elias made his voice as thrilling as possible.
“I never dreamt,” he went on, “that this god was so valuable. Them Aryans would die for it. I took it to the ship and hid it in the ship carpenter’s chest, and never told anybody. Next day there’s a stranger on board. He just stood around and, bein’ unoccupied, I struck up a talk with
him. We got to be good friends. He’d lived most of his life in India, and we talked and talked till I felt I knew him better’n I did my own brothers.” Elias paused again, to make his next words more effective.
“Ladies,” he went on huskily, “that man was a detective, and he was lookin’ for that idol, and at the same time there was a detective in each of them other vessels, searchin’ them. The police was lookin’ everywhere on shore, and there’d been an awful howl from the natives. I heard afterward that the Government offered a big reward for findin’ the thief.”
The crowd filed downstairs talking excitedly, but the little lady did not seem satisfied.
“Captain,” she said wistfully, “I thought you’d have had a harder time than that getting away.”
Her tones gave Elias a sense of failure. They spurred him sharply.
“Lady,” he said softly, “there was more to tell, but I was afraid it would take too much time. You see there’s another
“Oh.” There seemed actual pain in her eyes.
“Listen,” said Elias earnestly. “You come this way later on and I’ll tell you everything.”
THE four-eyed god was an attraction that exceeded all of Elias’ expectations. Spencer’s Island felt itself honored, and Captain Joram was snubbed to silence. Double his old income for chair-building had been pressed into Elias’ broad palm or left on his table. He gathered dulse and kept a clean box filled with it. “Help yourselves,” he would say. “It’s great for worms in children.”
No one took any without leaving silvery compensation, and Elias knew he need not fear the winter. Lean years seemed a thing of the past. Each day he tried to give his audience greater thrills, to tell his stories better, and bit by bit he perfected his tale of his acquisition of the idol. Then the lady in dun breeches returned.
Elias gave her a warm welcome and almost ignored other listeners.
“. . . and then, just as we’re ready to sail, the chap looks me in the eye. ‘Don’t you know why I’m on board? he asks. I said, ‘No.’ Tm a detective,’ he says, ‘and I’m searchin’ for the idol that was stolen from the temple. It’s a powerful god and worth more’n anybody knows.’ ”
Elias made one of his pauses.
"Ladies”—his voice was very impressive—"his words struck me dumb. I just stared at him. You, he went on, ‘was with the party that took it, and I didn t let^him say more. ‘Listen,’ I says, frantic-like, T took it. You! he says, and there was horror in his voice. ‘You—you took it?’ He saw I was tellin’ the truth, and his face begin workin’. He shook his head, and I got so scared I didn’t know what to expect. But he kept on lookin as if he were tryin’ to read my mind. Then he shoved out his hand, eager-like. I took it because I didn’t know what else to do. We gripped, and he watched me. ‘Brother?’ he says, very slow.”
Elias made his voice lower and softer.
“I’ll never know what made me do it.” he continued, “but I just said, like he had, ‘Brother.’ The man almost jumped out of his boots. He looked glad, and he talked . fast. ‘Listen,’ he says. ‘I’ll report that I heard about a native havin’ the idol and I’ll lead a chase up-country. Only, don’t let anybody know you've got that idol, not for years and years. I’d lose my job, and the natives would find you, no matter where you went—and kill you.”
There was a soundless moment, then Elias cleared his throat.
“It was two years after before I found how I got clear,” he explained. “Then a man told me that all the high-class whites oiA there had a brotherhood. There was no dues or meetin’s, just a grip and password. And at that time the password was ‘Brother’.”
The boathoflse loft seemed a confessional and after the rest had gone the little lady turned to Elias.
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“Thank you so much.” she said in a tremulous voice. “I feel you told everything just for me.”
“I did,” said Elias, and he meant it.
The days flew by and visitors flocked to the boathouse. Elias became an expert. He could judge the credulity of his audience, and he liked the New Yorkers best. They were freer with their tips, and always appeared to believe him. Now and then he enjoyed himself by banning cameras from the loft.
"No, lady,” he would say, shaking his head. “I’m runnin’ risk enough just showin’ the idol.”
He was totally unprepared, however, for anyone like Joseph J. Heigel.
TLJEIGEL arrived in an immaculate limousine, with a liveried chauffeur at the wheel. His tag was “newly rich.”
“I hear you have something on show here.” he said to Elias. “I’m J. J. Heigel. of the Top-Notch Oils. Have a cigar.” He offered an expensive brand.
Elias stowed one in his pocket.
"Come aloft," he said shortly, and led the way.
Mr. Heigel did not sit in Glooscap’s chair. He grinned knowingly and winked at Elias.
“Forget it,” he said. “I want to see the image you’ve got.”
Elias did not let his temper best him. He liad been sizing his man, and he introduced the four-eyed one with all the mystery he could evolve. He made his story as impressive as possible.
Mr. Heigel dropped his cigar.
“Red-hot mamma!” he blurted. “You sure took some chances.” Again and again he gurgled with wonderment, and Elias fairly excelled himself.
“I don’t often give all these details,” he said, "but I can see you’re a business man and understand things better. I’m uneasy yet about that idol, and I got it forty odd years ago. A god like it wouldn’t be forgotten. and I know I’m runnin’ risks.’’
Heigel lit another cigar and smoked furiously. He scrutinized the four-eyed deity from all angles, even ventured to touch it.
“Look here.” he said suddenly. “I’d like to buy this—ergod.”
Elias was startled.
“Buy it!” he echoed. He was amazed.'
No one had ever hinted at such a thing before. “Why, no, mister, I couldn’t sell it. You heard me say how valuable it is.”
“Sure thing,” said Mr. Heigel, “but listen. Everything has a price, and you’re runnin’ risks showin’ it. I won’t waste time makin’ offers. I’ll give you five thousand dollars for it, and take it now. That’s enough to keep you the rest of your days.”
Five thousand dollars! Elias felt queer. There seemed to be funny little singing noises in his head. No more making canvas chairs !
A car horn honked. He looked out the window and saw a sedan arriving. He spelled out the license. Montana! He had never had one from that State. And the passengers were all women, his best audience.
“What do you say?” Mr. Heigel was impatient. “I talk with cash. Think it over quick. Five thousand is a lot of money.”
"pLIAS knew it was, but it was hard to ^ think. He looked into the comer, and the crimson-faced idol blinked its four eyes at him. He had touched them up with more paint. Five thousand dollars! Yet, how much mightn’t the god be worth? It was centuries old. He started slightly. Vaguely, he knew that some of his story had been fabricated, but, on the spur of the moment, he couldn’t say how much. India. He couldn’t remember who in that country he had bought it from. Perhaps it was from a thief, who really had stolen it from the temple !
Mr. Heigel .looked at his watch.
“I can’t wait much longer,” he said. "How about it?”
Elias glanced out of the window again. The women were pointing at Glooscap’s Island. He’d still have that to show, and the wishing seat, but— It was such a treat to pull the curtain back, so easy to keep your voice just right . . .
He heard the women exclaiming as they saw his flowers. One voice held the tremolo of those easily thrilled.
“I won’t sell at any price.’’ Elias didn’t mean to make it so defiant, and he stood in a kind of a daze as Mr. Heigel stamped down the stairs without a response. Five thousand dollars ! He heard the limousine roar back to the main road again.
“...but I just said, like he had. ‘Brother.’ ” Elias put all his fervor into his accent, and he wanned with pride. The Montana party listened with bated breath. They simply imbibed his story.
He watched them go slowly to their car, speaking low among themselves. Five thousand dollars. That was money! And vet it now seemed a sacrilege even to think of selling his beloved idol.
“Crackity,” he muttered. “I’d have made
a fool of myself if these people hadn’t come."
One of the ladies pointed at Joram’s gaudy building.
"What kind of souvenirs has he?" she asked.
Elias smiled tolerantly. His relief over escaping a tragedy made him feel sympathetic for Joram. The poor old scow captain had never enjoyed such thrills as he.
“Not very good,” he answered, “but it’ll please the old chap if you’ll give him a call.”