CASE OF THE POTSHERD OF ANUBIS
In examining the mass of material which I have collated respecting Moris Klaw, several outstanding facts strike me, as being worthy of some special notice.
For instance, an unusual number of the cases in which he was concerned centred about curios and relics of various kinds. His personal tastes (he was, I think, primarily, an antiquarian) may have led him to examine such cases in preference to others. Then again, no two of his acquaintances agree upon the point of Moris Klaw’s actual identity and personality. He was a master of disguise; and the grand secret of his life was one which he jealously guarded from all.
But was the Moris Klaw who kept the curio-shop in Wapping the real Moris Klaw? And to what extent did he believe in those psychical phenomena upon which professedly his methods were based? As particularly bearing upon this phase of the matter, I have selected, for narration here, the story of the potsherd.
Since the Boswell, in records of this kind, has often appeared, to my mind, to overshadow the Johnson, I have decided to present this episode in the words of Mr. J.E. Wilson Clifford, electrical engineer, of Copthall House, Copthall Avenue, E.C., to whom I am indebted for a full and careful account. I do not think I could improve upon his paper, and my own views might unduly intrude upon the story; therefore, with your permission, I will vacate the rostrum in favour of Mr. Clifford, for whom I solicit your attention.
MR. CLIFFORD’S STORY OF THE EGYPTIAN POTSHERD
During the autumn of 19__, I was sharing a pleasant set of rooms with Mark Lesty, who was shortly taking up an appointment at a London hospital, and it was, I think, about the middle of that month, that the extraordinary affair of Halesowen and his Egyptian potsherd came under our notice.
Our rooms (they were in a south-west suburb) overlooked a fine expanse of Common. Halesowen rented a flat commanding a similar prospect; and, at the time of which I write, he had but recently returned from a protracted visit to Egypt.
Halesowen was a tall, fair man, clean-shaven, very fresh coloured and wearing his hair cropped close to his head. He was well travelled, and no mean antiquary. He lived entirely by himself; and Lesty and I frequently spent the evening at his place, which was a veritable museum of curiosities. I distinctly recall the first time that he showed us his latest acquisitions.
Both the windows were wide open and the awning fluttered in the slight breeze. Dusk was just descending, and we sat looking out over the Common and puffing silently at our briars. We had been examining the relics that Halesowen had brought back from the land of the Pharaohs, the one, I remember, which had most impressed me, tyro that I was, being the mummy of a sacred cat from Bubastis.
“It wouldn’t have been worth bringing back only for the wrapping,” Halesowen assured me. “This, now, is really unique.”
The object referred to was a broken pot or vase, upon which he pointed out a number of hieroglyphics and a figure with the head of a jackal. “A potsherd inscribed with the figure of Anubis,” he explained. “Very valuable.”
“Why?” Lesty inquired, in his lazy way.
“Well,” Halesowen replied, “the characters of the inscription are of a kind entirely unfamiliar to me. I believe them to be a sort of secret writing, possibly peculiar to some brotherhood. I am risking expert opinion, although in every sense, I stole the thing!”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“Well, Professor Sheraton—you’ll see his name on a row of cases in the B.M.—excavated it. But it’s a moral certainty he didn’t intend to advise the authorities of his find. He was going to smuggle it out of Egypt into his private collection. I had marked the spot where he found it for inquiries of my own. This dishonest old fossil—”
“Oh! my own motives weren’t above suspicion! But any way the Professor anticipated me. Accordingly, I employed one Ali, a distinguished member of a family of thieves, to visit the learned gentleman’s tent! Cutting the story—there’s the pot!”
“Here! I say!” drawled Lesty. “You’ll come to a bad end, young fellow!”
“The position is a peculiar one,” replied Halesowen, smiling. “Neither of us had any legal claim to the sherd—whilst we were upon Egyptian territory. Therefore, even if the Professor learnt that I had the thing—and he may suspect—he couldn’t prosecute me!”
“Devilish high-handed!” commented Lesty.
“Yes. But remember we were well off the map—miles away from Cook’s route. The possession of this potsherd ought to make a man’s reputation—any man who knows a bit about the subject. Curiously enough, a third party had had his eye upon the place where this much-sought sherd was found. And in some mysterious fashion he tumbled to the fact that it had fallen into my hands. He made a sort of veiled offer of a hundred pounds for it. I refused, but ran across him again, a week or so later, in Cairo, and he raised his price to two hundred.”
“That’s strange,” I said. “Who was he?”
“Called himself Zeda—Dr. Louis Zeda. He quite lost his temper when I declined to sell, and I’ve not set eyes on him since.”
He relocked the fragment in his cabinet, and we lapsed into silence, to sit gazing meditatively across the Common, picturesque in the dim autumn twilight.
“By the way, Halesowen,” I said, “I see that the flat next door, same floor as this, is to let.”
“That’s so,” he replied. “Why don’t you men take it?”
“We’ll think about it,” yawned Lesty, stretching his long limbs. “Might look over it in the morning.”
The following day we viewed the vacant flat, but found, upon inquiry of the agent, that it had already been let. However, as our own rooms suited us very well, we were not greatly concerned. Just as we finished dinner the same evening, Halesowen came in, and, without preamble, plunged into a surprising tale of uncanny happenings at his place.
“Take it slow,” said Lesty. “You say it was after we came away?”
“About an hour after,” replied Halesowen. “I had brought out the potsherd, and had it in the wooden stand on the table before me. I was copying the hieroglyphics, which are unusual, and had my reading-lamp burning only, the rest of the room being consequently in shadow. I was sitting with my back to the windows, facing the door, so no one could possibly have entered the room unseen by me. It was as I bent down to scrutinise a badly defaced character that I felt a queer sensation stealing over me, as though some one were standing close behind my chair, watching me!”
“Very common,” explained Lesty; “merely nerves.”
“Yes, I know; but not what followed. The sensation became so pronounced, that I stood up. No one was in the room. I determined to take a stroll, concluding that the fresh air would clear these uncanny cobwebs out of my brain. Accordingly, I extinguished the lamp and went out. I was just putting my cap on, when something prompted me to return and lock up the potsherd.”
He fixed his eyes upon us with an expression of doubt.
“There was some one, or something, in the room!”
“What do you mean!” asked Lesty incredulously.
“I quite distinctly saw a hand and bare white arm pass away from the table—and vanish! It was dark in the room, remember; but I could see the arm well enough. I switched on the reading-lamp. Not a thing was to be seen. There was no one in the room and no one but myself in the flat, for I searched it thoroughly!”
Some moments of silence followed this remarkable story, and I sat watching Lesty, who, in turn was regarding Halesowen with the stolid, vacant stare which sometimes served to conceal the working of his keen brain.
“Pity you didn’t let us know sooner,” he said, rising slowly to his feet. “This is interesting.”
Halesowen’s nerves evidently had been shaken by the inexplicable incident. As the three of us strode across the corner of the Common, he informed us that the new tenant of the adjoining flat had moved in. “I have been away all day,” he said; “but the stuff was bundled in some time during the afternoon.”
We proceeded upstairs and into the cosy room which had been the scene of the remarkable occurrence related. As it was growing dark, Halesowen turned on the electric light, and, indicating a chair by the writing table, explained that it was there he had been seated at that time.
“Did you have the windows open?” asked Lesty.
“Yes,’’ was the reply. “I left the chairs and the awning out, too, as it was a fine night; in fact, you can see that they still remain practically as you left them.”
“When you returned, and saw, or thought you saw, the hand and arm—you would have to pass around to this side of the table in order to reach the lamp?”
Apparently Lesty was about to make some observation, when an interruption occurred, in the form of a ringing on the door bell, followed by a discreet fandango on the knocker.
“Who the deuce have we here?” muttered Halesowen. “I saw no one go in below.”
As our host passed through the lighted room and into the hall, my friend and I both leant forward in our chairs, the better to hear what should pass; nor were we kept long in suspense, for, as we heard the outer door opened, an odd, rumbling voice came, with a queer accent:
“Ah, my dear Mr. Halesowen, it is indeed an intrusion of me! But when I find how we are neighbours I cannot resist to make the call and renew a so pleasant acquaintance!”
“Dr. Zeda!” we heard Halesowen exclaim, with little cordiality.
“Ever your devoted servant!” replied the courteous foreigner.
I glanced at Lesty, and we rose together and stepped through the open window in time to see a truly remarkable personage enter.
This was a large-framed man, with snow-white hair cut close to his skull, French fashion. He had a high and very wrinkled brow and wore gold-rimmed pince-nez. Jet black and heavy eyebrows were his, and his waxed moustache, his neat imperial, were likewise of the hue of coal. His complexion was pallid; and in his well-cut frock-coat, with a loose black tie overhanging his vest, he made a striking picture, standing bowing profoundly in the doorway.
Halesowen rapidly muttered the usual formalities; in fact, I remember mentally contrasting our friend’s unceremonious manners with the courtly deportment of Dr. Zeda.
The latter explained that he had taken the adjacent flat, only learning, that evening, whom he had for a neighbour, and, despite the lateness of the hour, he said, he could not resist the desire to see Halesowen, of whose company in Egypt he retained such pleasant memories. Allowing for his effusiveness, there was nothing one could take exception to in his behaviour, and I rather wondered at the brusque responses of our usually polite host.
When, after a brief chat, the foreign gentleman rose to take his leave, he extended an invitation to all of us to lunch with him on the following day. “My place is in somewhat disorder,” he said, smiling, “but you are Bohemian, like myself, and will not care!”
Though I half expected that Halesowen would decline, he did not do so; I, therefore, also accepted, as did Lesty. Whereupon, Zeda departed.
Halesowen, returning to the chair which he had vacated to usher out his visitor, lighted a cigarette, regarded it for a moment, meditatively, and then frankly expressed his doubts.
“He’s been watching me!” he said; “and when he saw the next flat vacant he jumped at the chance.”
“My dear chap,” I retorted, “he must be very keen on securing your potsherd if he is prepared to take and furnish a flat next door to you simply with a view to keeping an eye on it!”
“You have no idea how anxious he is,” he assured me. “If you had seen his face, in Cairo, when I flatly declined to sell, you would be better able to understand.”
“Why not sell, then?”
“I’m dashed if I do!” said Halesowen stubbornly.
On the following day we lunched with Dr. Zeda, and were surprised at the orderly state of his establishment. Everything, from floor to ceiling, was in its proper place.
“It hasn’t taken you long to get things straight,” commented Lesty.
“Ah, no,” replied the other. “These big firms they do it all in a day if you insist—and I insist, see?”
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, for he proved an excellent host, and I think even Lesty grew less suspicious of him. During the weeks that followed, the doctor came several times to our rooms, and we frequently met at Halesowen’s. The latter, who boldly had submitted photographs and drawings of the sherd to the British Museum, experienced no repetition of the mysterious phenomenon already described. Then, about seven o’clock one morning, when the mists hung low over the Common in promise of a hot day, a boy came for Lesty and myself with news of a fresh development. He was a lad who did odd jobs for Halesowen, and he brought word of an attempted burglary, together with a request that we should go over without delay.
Our curiosity keenly aroused, we were soon with our friend, and found him seated in the familiar room, before a large cabinet, with double glass doors, which, as was clearly evident, had been hastily ransacked. Other cases in which he kept various curios were also opened, and the place was in general disorder.
“What’s gone?” asked Lesty, quickly.
“Nothing!” was the answer. “The potsherd is in the safe, and the safe is in my bedroom—or perhaps something might have gone!”
“You lock it up at night, then? I thought you kept it in the cabinet.”
“Only during the day. It goes in the safe, with one or two other trifles, at night; but everybody doesn’t know that!”
We looked at one another, silently; but the name that was on all our lips remained unspoken—for we were startled by a loud knock and ringing at the door. Carter opening it, into the room ran Dr. Zeda!
“Oh, my dear friends!” he cried, in his hoarse, rumbling voice, “there has been to my flat a midnight robber! He has turned completely upside-down all my collections!”
Lesty coughed loudly; but, as I turned my head to look at him, his face was quite expressionless. Halesowen seemed stricken dumb by surprise; whilst, for my own part, as I watched the foreigner staring about the disordered room, and noted the growing look of bewilderment creeping over his pallid countenance, I was compelled to admit to myself that here was either a consummate actor or a man of whom we hastily had formed a most unwarrantable opinion.
“But my friend—my good Halesowen,” he exclaimed, with widely opened eyes and extended palms—“what is it that I see? You are as disordered as myself!”
Halesowen nodded. “The burglar gave me a call, too!” he said, grimly.
“My dear sir!” gasped Zeda, seizing the speaker’s arm—“tell me quickly—you have lost nothing?”
Halesowen glanced at him rather hard. “No,” he answered.
“Ah, what a relief! I feared,” rumbled the doctor. “But perhaps you wonder for what it is they came?”
“I can guess!”
“You need no longer to guess; I will tell you. It is for your fragment of the sacred vase, and to me they come for mine!”
We were even more astonished by this assertion than we had been by the doctor’s first. “Your fragment!” said Halesowen, slowly, with his eyes fixed on Zeda—“to what fragment do you refer?”
“To that which, together with your potsherd, makes up the complete vase! But you doubt?” he suggested, shrugging his shoulders. “Wait but for a moment and I will prove!”
He moved from the room; his gait had a mincing awkwardness, quite indescribable; and we heard his retreating, heavy footsteps as he passed downstairs. Then we stood and gaped at one another. “His confounded ingenuity,” rapped Halesowen, “has completely tied my hands.”
Being interrupted, at this moment, by the re-entrance of the gentleman in question, further discussion of the subject was precluded. Zeda carried a small iron box, which he placed carefully upon the table and unlocked. A second box of polished ebony was revealed within, and this being unlocked in turn, was proved to contain, reposing in a nest of blue velvet, a fragment of antique pottery. Taking the fragment in his hand, the doctor begged that the potsherd be produced.
Halesowen, after a momentary hesitation, retired from the room, to return almost immediately with the broken vase in its wooden frame. Dr. Zeda, placing the portion which he held in his hand against that in the frame, but not so closely as to bring the parts in contact, turned to us with a triumphant smile. “They correspond, gentlemen, to a smallest fraction!” he declared; which, indeed, was perfectly true.
“And now,” continued Zeda, evidently gratified by the surprise which we could not conceal, “I will relate to you a story. I do not ask that you shall credit it; I only say that I have given up my life to such studies, and that I am willing, as matters have so arrived, that you shall join me to prove false or true what I think of the potsherd of Anubis.”
“Good!” said Lesty, and settled himself to listen, an example that was followed by Halesowen and myself. Zeda paused for a moment, evidently to collect his ideas, a pause upon which my stolid friend placed a dubious interpretation, for he cleared his throat, significantly.
“The date is no matter,” said Dr. Zeda, “but there was at Gizeh, to the north of the Sphinx, a temple dedicated to Isis; but wherein the worship was different. We only know of this shrine by the monuments, but they prove it to have been—eh, Mr. Halesowen?”
“Here, then, the gods of the dead were adored—but the worship of Anubis took precedence, and was conducted at a shrine apart. Here, socked within three-and-thirty doors, having each its separate janitor who held the key, reposed a sacred symbol—a symbol, my friends, upon which was based the occult knowledge of the initiated; a symbol more precious than the lives of a hundred-hundred warriors—for so it is written!”
“I have never met with the inscription!” said Halesowen drily.
Dr. Zeda smiled.
“You never are likely to meet it!” he responded. “Your Belzoni and Lepsius, your Birch, Renouf, Brugsch and Petrie, is a mere unseeing vandal, blinded to the great truth—to the ultimate secret that Egypt holds for him who has eyes to see and a brain to realise!”
The mysterious foreign gentleman looked about him with a sort of challenge in his glance; then he quietly resumed his story.
“At the change of the moon in the sacred month, Methori, a maiden selected from a noble house for her beauty and purity, and for a whole year dedicated to the service of the gods, held in her hands the sacred thing—held it aloft that the initiated might worship, until the first white beam lit up the receptacle, when all bowed down their heads and chanted the ‘Hym of the souls who are passing.’ Then was it locked again within the three-and-thirty doors, there to remain for another year. None saw the symbol itself but the high priest, who looked upon it when he was so ordained—for any other that gazed upon it died! It was contained in a holy vase!”
He paused impressively. We had all fallen under the peculiar fascination of the speakers personality; we felt as though he spoke of matters wherein he had had personal concern. I could almost believe him to have witnessed the strange rites that he told of with such conviction.
“In a year so long ago,” he softly resumed, his voice now a kind of jagged whisper, “that to speak of its date were to convey nothing to you, the highborn virgin on whom the exalted office was conferred, closed upon her unhappy soul the gates of paradise for ages unnumbered; called down upon her head the curse of the high priest and the anger of the most high gods; was rejected of Set himself!
“She let fall from her hands the sacred vase, and the holy symbol was lost to the children of earth for evermore! Lost was the key to the book of wisdom; closed was that book to man for all time!”
“Go on!” said Halesowen, harshly, for Zeda had paused again.
“You do not grasp?” asked the doctor. “Well, then, know that the sentence was ‘Until the parts of this vase be made whole again.’ Five fragments there were: a large one, which is your potsherd, and four smaller. The four smaller, after twenty years of untiring search, I have recovered and joined together. What if we now make whole that which was broken? May I not, by the exercise of such poor shreds of the lost wisdom as I have gathered up, summon before me that wandering spirit ere it return again to plead for rest at the judgment seat of Amenti?”
When I say that the man’s words proved electrical, I do not exaggerate the effect which this astounding proposition had upon us. Halesowen was fairly startled out of his chair, and stood with his eyes fixed on the other in a fascinated gaze.
Zeda, entirely returning to his customary urbanity, shrugged and smiled. “You believe my story?”
Lesty was the first to recover himself, and his reply was characteristic. “Can’t say I do,” he drawled frankly. “I don’t say that you may not, though,” he added.
“Then do you not owe it to assist in proving my words? A little séance? You are sceptical, quite? Very well; I try to show you. If I fail, then it is unfortunate, but—I bow to an inevitable!”
We looked at each other, interrogatively, and then Halesowen answered: “All right. It’s a queer yarn, but we leave the matter entirely in your hands.”
The doctor bowed. “Shall we say to-night to begin?” he said tentatively.
“By all means.”
The doctor expressed himself delighted, and, carefully relocking the fragment of the vase in its double case, he was about to depart, when a point occurred to me.
“Might I ask whom you suspect of the attempted burglary?” I said.
He turned, in the door, and fixed a strange glance upon me. “There are others,” he replied, “who seek as I seek, and who do not scruple to gain their ends how they may. Of them we shall beware, my friends, for we know they design upon us!”
With that and a low bow he retired.
Little of interest occurred during the day, until about four in the afternoon, when Halesowen aroused us out of a lazy dose to show a letter just received from the British Museum.
It was in reply to one asking why he had received no acknowledgment of the photographs and drawings submitted; and it informed him that no such photographs and drawings had come to hand!
We usually took tea in the afternoon, and Halesowen joined us on this occasion, whilst, at about five o’clock, Dr. Zeda also looked in. He remained until it began to grow dusk, when we all went over to Halesowen’s to arrange the first “sitting”—for so the doctor referred to the projected séance. Retiring, for a few minutes, to his own establishment, Zeda returned with the iron box and explained what he proposed to do.
“Around this small table we sit, as at séance,” he said; “but no medium—only the potsherd. With these flexible bands I will attach, temporarily, the parts, and stand the vase in Mr. Halesowen’s frame, here by the window—so. Beside it we will place the lamp, shaded thus—so that a dim light is upon it. We can just see from where we sit in the dark. We will now wait until it is more dusk.”
Accordingly, we went out on to the balcony and smoked for an hour, Zeda polluting the clean air with the fumes of the long, black cigars he affected. They had an appearance as of dried twigs and an odor so wholly original as to defy simile. Between eight and nine he expressed himself satisfied with the light—or, rather, lack of it—and we all gathered around the table in the gloom, spreading our hands as he directed. For close upon an hour we sat in tense silence, the room seeming to be very hot. A slight breeze off the Common had wafted the fumes of Zeda’s cigar in through the open windows, which he had afterwards closed, and the reek filled the air as with something palpable—and nauseous. I was growing very weary of the business, and Lesty, despite the doctor’s warning against disturbing the silence, had begun to cough and fidget irritably, when the rumbling foreign voice came, so unexpectedly as to startle us all: “It is useless to-night; something is not propitious. Turn up the lights.”
From the celerity with which Halesown complied, I divined that he, too, had been growing impatient.
“There is some not suitable condition,” said Zeda, relocking his portion of the vase in its case. “To-morrow we shall make some changes in the order.”
He seemed not at all disappointed, being apparently as confident as ever in the ultimate success of the séances. One of the windows, he suggested, should be left open on the following evening during our sitting; and this we were only too glad to agree upon, since it would possibly serve to clear the atmosphere, somewhat, or the odour emanating from the doctor’s cigars. Several other points he also mentioned as being conceivably responsible for our initial failure—such as our positions around the table, and relative distance of the potsherd. “We shall see, to-morrow,” were his last words as he left us.
“A perfect monument of mendacity!” muttered Lesty, as we heard the retiring footsteps of our foreign friend on the gravel below; “and I think his accent is assumed. I don’t know why we even seem to credit such an incredible fable.”
“I don’t know, either,” said Halesowen, reflectively. “But he certainly possesses the missing part of the vase, and if he does not believe the story, himself, what earthly object can he hope to serve by these séances?”
“Give it up!” replied Lesty, promptly; and that, I think, rather aptly expressed the mental attitude of all three.
We saw nothing of Zeda throughout the following day, but he duly put in an appearance in the evening, and placed us around the table again, but in different order. One of the French windows was left open, and the potsherd, with the lamp beside it, placed somewhat to the left.
After persevering for about forty minutes, we were rewarded by a rather conventional phenomenon. The table rocked and gave forth cracking sounds. There was no other manifestation, and at about half-past ten, the doctor again terminated the séance.
“Excellent!” said Zeda enthusiastically, “excellent! We were en rapport, and within the circle there was power. To-morrow we shall triumph, my friends but there is again an alteration that occurs to me. You, Mr. Clifford, shall sit next to Mr. Lesty on the left. Mr. Halesowen shall be upon his right, and I, facing Mr. Lesty, between. Also, there is too much light from the lamps in the road. It is good, I think, to have open the windows, but this Japanese screen will keep out that too much light and shelter the vase. To-morrow we will observe these things.”
This, then, concluded our second sitting, and brings me to the final episode of that affair which, strange enough in its several developments, was stranger still in its dénouement.
Zeda, on the following day, entertained us to luncheon in town, followed by an afternoon concert, for which he had procured seats, being interested, or professing to be, in a certain fiddler who figured largely in the programme. We had arranged that Halesowen and the doctor should dine with us in the evening, before we went to the former’s flat for the séance, and we accordingly returned direct to our rooms and chatted over the doings of the day until dinner was served. Zeda surpassed himself in brilliant conversation. He must, I remember thinking, have led a strange and eventful life.
At about nine o’clock, we walked over, in the dark, to our friend’s flat, where we had to grope for and light an oil-lamp which he had, Zeda declaring that something in the atmosphere was propitious and that the electric light would tend to disturb these favorable conditions. He seemed to be strung to high tensions, perhaps with expectance, but was not so preoccupied as to forget his black cigars, one of which he lighted as he was about to go out for the iron box. He borrowed my matches for the purpose and forgot to return them.
It was, perhaps, a quarter to ten before Zeda had matters arranged to his satisfaction, and so dark, by reason of the tall Japanes screen which stood before the open windows, that I could see neither Zeda, on my left, nor Lesty, who sat on my right. Halesowen was a dim silhouette against the patch of light cast by the oil reading-lamp beside the vase, which stood the whole length of the room away. I was conscious of a suppressed excitement, which I am sure was shared by my companions.
I heard a distant clock striking the half-hour, and then the three-quarters; but still nothing had occurred. A motor-car drove around from the road and stopped somewhere at the outer end of the drive. I wondered, idly, if it were that of the surgeon who lived at Number 10. After that, everything was very quiet, and I was expecting to hear the hour strike, and straining my ears to hear the sound of the first chime, when the rocking and cracking of the table began. This was much more violent than hitherto, and Zeda’s gruff tones came softly: “Whatever shall happen, do not remove your hands from the table!”
He ceased speaking, and the rocking motions, together with the rapping and cracking that had sounded from all about us, also ceased, with disconcerting suddenness. A silence fell, so short in duration as to be scarcely appreciable; for it was almost instantly broken by an unexpected sound.
It was a woman’s voice, very low and clear, and it seemed to mutter something in a weird, rising cadence, with a high note at the end of every third bar or so, and this over and over again—an eerie thing, vaguely like a Gregorian chant.
“Triumph!” whispered Zeda. “The Hymn of the souls who are passing.”
His speech seemed to disturb the singer, but only for a moment. The Hymn was continued.
This singular performance was proving too much for my nerves; at each recurrence of the quiet, clear note on the fourth beat of the third bar, a cold shudder ran down my spine. Then, as the very monotony of the thing was beginning to grow appalling, I suddenly became aware of a slim, white figure standing beside the vase!
The chant stopped, and I could hear nothing but the nervous breathing of my companions. Seated as they were, I doubted whether Halesowen or Lesty could see this apparition, but I was facing directly toward her—for it was a woman. I could see every line of her figure—the curves of her throat and arms and shoulders, the dull, metallic gleaming of her clustering hair. As she extended her hand toward the light, I distinctly saw the large, green stone set in a ring on her index finger. She must be very beautiful, I thought, and I was peering through the gloom in a vain endeavour to see her more clearly, when there came a disconcerting crash—and utter darkness! The table whereat we were seated was overturned, and I found myself capsized from my chair!
“Hold him!” yelled the voice of Lesty. “Hold him, Halesowen—Clifford!”
A door banged loudly.
“Confound it! I’m on the floor!”—from Halesowen.
I shouted for some one to turn up the light, at the same time scrambling through the gloom with that intent. After severely damaging my shins against the intervening furniture, I found the switch. It would not work!
“It’s cut off!” I cried. “Strike a match, somebody.”
“Haven’t got any!” said Lesty.
“Zeda has mine!” responded Halesowen. “Open the door.”
“Locked!” was Lesty’s next report.
“Break it down!” shouted Halesowen, hurling aside the Japanese screen. “The potsherd is gone!”
Lesty applied his shoulder to the oak—once—twice—thrice. Then all together we attacked it, and it flew open with a splintering crash.
“Round to his flat!” panted Halesowen, running downstairs.
Out on to the drive we sprinted, into the next entrance and up to the first landing. Knocking and ringing proved ineffectual, and the door was too strong to be burst open. We stood in dismayed silence, staring at one another.
“Off your balcony, on to his and through the French window!” said Lesty, suddenly; so back we all ran again.
I had never before realised how easy it was to get from one balcony to another, until I saw Lesty swing himself across. Halesowen and I followed in a trice and we all blundered into the dark room through the open window and made for the electric switch beside the mantelpiece. We turned on the light. The room was unfurnished!
“Good Lord!” breathed Halesowen, hurrying into the next.
That, too, was quite bare, as were all the rest! The outer door was locked.
“While we were fooling at that concert, he had every scrap of stuff removed!” I said. “He probably had the lot on hire from a big furnishing firm—curios and all. I remember noticing that his curiosities were of a very ordinary character, considering his extensive travels and the nature of his studies.”
“No doubt whatever,” agreed Lesty. “His burglary proved a failure (and, I think, must have been interrupted), though I am compelled to admire the neat manner in which he handled the very delicate situation that resulted. His more recent and elaborate device has turned out all that could be desired—from Zeda’s point of view!”
“But how has he got away?” said Halesowen, in bewilderment.
“Motor waiting at the corner,” replied Lesty, promptly. “Heard it come up. When the reading-lamp was capsized, and whoever had crept from his balcony to yours and in behind the screen had returned the same way—with the vase!—Zeda overturned the table and pushed you two men backwards in your chairs. Then, before I could reach him, he bolted out and locked the door after him. For, having lulled my suspicions by two practically uneventful séances, he cunningly placed himself nearest to the door and me farthest away. He probably removed the key when he went out for the box and placed it outside in the lock when he returned. His accomplice had run straight through Zeda’s flat and out to the waiting car, and there he joined her. They may be thirty miles away by now!”
Being unable to open the door, we perforce returned to Halesowen’s balcony by the same way that we had come, our friend bewailing his lost potsherd and exclaiming: “The cunning, cunning scamp!”
“I knew he had some deep game in hand,” said Lesty; “but I hadn’t bargained for this move. Of course, I had noticed the dodge of borrowing all our matches, but I didn’t grasp its importance until too late. It never occurred to me that he’d disconnected the electric light (which he probably did some time in the night, by the way). I was a fool not to realise it, too, when he insisted on our only using the oil-lamp. Then, again, I was slow not to go straight through the window and into Zeda’s flat that way. It is just possible I might have caught the lady songster if I had done that in the first place. The possibility, however, had not been overlooked, since she took the precaution to lock the door after her.”
“A clever rogue!” I declared. “But wasn’t the first attempt—for I suppose we must classify the mysterious arm under that head— more than a trifle indiscreet?”
“No doubt,” agreed Lesty. “But we didn’t know, then, that Zeda was in London, and the flat was still unfurnished. Also, they may have thought Halesowen was in bed; or the woman (whom he has so cleverly kept out of sight) may have exceeded her instructions in attempting to touch the potsherd while any one remained in the room.”
“But,” said Halesowen, slowly, “we don’t know that there was any woman!”
“Eh?” queried Lesty.
“Did you see her?”
“I did. She was lovely, very lovely—for a woman!”
Lesty stared curiously. “You surprise me,” he commented, drily.
“Zeda was a strange man,” pursued the other, “and there were certainly things occurred as we sat round that table that need a lot of explaining.”
“Very ordinary three-and-six-a-head phenomena!” was the reply. “Merely a blind.”
“Then what was the reason of his burning desire to secure my potsherd, if not to complete the vase?”
“Do you mean to tell me,” asked Lesty, “that you are going to credit that story about the priestess—now, after he has shown his hand? Do you wish to suggest that he was aided by a spirit?”
“Then why was he so keen to get the thing?” persisted Halesowen.
Lesty looked at him, looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and began to load his pipe. Having done so, he sat smoking and staring at the brilliant moon.
“Well?” inquired our host.
“Give it up!” admitted Lesty.
(CONCLUSION OF MR. CLIFFORD’S ACCOUNT)
One of my visits to the Wapping curio-shop of Moris Klaw was made in company with Mr. Halesowen, who, with the others mentioned in the foregoing narrative, I subsequently had met.
Somewhere amid the misty gloom of this place, where loot of a hundred ages, of every spot from pole to pole, veils its identity in the darkness, sits a large grey parrot. Faint perfumes and scuffling sounds tell of hidden animal life near to the visitor; but the parrot proclaims itself stridently—
“Moris Klaw! Moris Klaw! The devil’s come for you!”
That signal brings Moris Klaw from his hiding-place. He shuffles into the shop, a figure appropriate to its surroundings. Imagine a tall, stooping man, enveloped in a very faded blue dressing-gown.
His skin is but a half-shade lighter than that of a Chinaman; his hair, his shaggy brows, his scanty beard, defy one to name their colour. He wears pince-nez.
When upon this particular occasion I introduced my companion, and Moris Klaw acknowledged the introduction in his rumbling voice, I saw Halesowen stare.
Klaw produced a scent-spray from somewhere and sprayed verbena upon his high, yellow brow.
“It is very stuffy—in this shop!” he explained. “Isis! Isis! Bring for my visitors some iced drinks!”
He invoked a goddess, and a goddess appeared: a brilliantly beautiful brunette, with delightfully curved scarlet lips and flashing eyes, whose fire the gloom could not dim.
“Good God!” cried Halesowen—and fell back.
“My daughter, Isis,” rumbled Moris Klaw. “This is Mr. Halesowen, from whom we rescue the Egyptian potsherd!”
Halesowen leant forward across the counter.
“You recognize my daughter?” continued Moris Klaw; “but not Dr. Zeda, eh? Or only his poor old voice? You gave us great trouble, Mr. Halesowen. Once, you came in just as Isis, who has climbed on to your balcony, is about to take the potsherd— —”
“There was no one in the room!”
“I was in the room!” interrupted the girl coolly. “I was draped in black from head to foot, and I slipped behind the window hangings, unseen, whilst you fumbled with your lamp!”
“It was indiscreet,” continued Moris Klaw—“and made it harder for me; because, afterwards, you lock up the treasure and my search is unavailing. Also, I am interrupted. Pah! I am clumsy! I waste time! But, remember, I offered to buy it!”
“Suppose,” said Halesowen, slowly, “I give you both in charge?”
“You cannot,” was the placid reply; “for you cannot say how you came into possession of the sherd! Professor Sheraton was in a similar forked stick—and that is where I come in!”
“What! you were acting for him?”
“Certainly! I happen to be in Egypt at the time, and he is a friend of mine. Your thief, Ali, left a small piece of the pot behind, and I am entrusted to make it complete!”
“You have succeeded!” said Halesowen, grimly, all the time furtively watching the beautiful Isis.
“Yes,” rumbled Moris Klaw. “I am the instrument of poetic justice. Isis, those cool beverages. Let us drink to poetic justice!”
He sprayed his ample brow with verbena.
In conclusion: you may ask if the value of the potsherd justified the elaborate and costly mode of its recovery.
I reply: upon what does the present fame of Professor Sheraton rest? His New Key to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Upon what is that work founded? Upon the hieroglyphics of the Potsherd of Anubis—which (no questions being asked of so distinguished a savant) was recently acquired from the Professor by the nation at a cost of £15,000!