Roy Glashan's Library
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ENGLAND'S colony in South America. British Guiana is a country that, since the time of Sir Walter Raleigh, has ever teemed with mystery and suggestions of romance. And it remains to-day very much what it was then, as regards possible discoveries, a region of fascinating potentialities. Though much has been accomplished of late years in the way of exploration, yet vast tracts of its forest land are still utterly unknown. There are mountains, too, which, being surrounded by belts of primeval forest so dense as to be practically impenetrable, have never yet been ascended, and about these, as well as about the untraversed forests, the Indians have many curious tales to tell, tales of strange, unknown peoples and ancient cities said to be still existing there. And these stories derive additional interest from the fact that travellers have stated that at night they have seen on these mountains lights for which they could not in any way account; and this statement has been made by European explorers and scientists, whose credibility cannot be impeached.
It was in the vicinity of one of these unexplored mountains—near that undefined borderland between British Guiana and Venezuela which have recently threatened to involve us in a dispute with the United States—that a party of travellers, some years ago, made a curious and unexpected discovery. The party consisted of three Englishmen and a few native Indians, the former being respectively, Dr Elderfield, a veteran explorer and antiquarian; Mr Allan Fendal, a botanist; and a friend of the latter, Arthur Meldon, a young man of good family, who had joined the expedition out of pure love of adventure.
The mountain near which they were encamped is called by the Indians 'Maleema,' and they found it to be surrounded by a belt or zone of forest of such dense growth as to baffle all their efforts to penetrate it beyond a comparatively short distance from the edge. But the place teemed with new and wonderful flowers, orchids, and other rare plants, the like of which they had never seen before, and this fact tended to console them for their failure to penetrate to the mountain itself, and for the dangers, fatigues, and privations they had undergone in their journey to the place. And these had been by no means of a light and trivial character. Food of all kinds was scarce, the sole inhabitants being a few tribes of Indians, and these only to be met with in certain districts. Extensive tracts of the country are wild solitudes, given over entirely to nature in its most savage form, and the strange animals, birds, reptiles and insects which flourish beneath the tropical sun. Here one may travel—as travellers have actually recorded—as many as thirty days together, without the sight of a human being, other than those in the traveller's own party; and, naturally, therefore, supplies of food must be included in the expedition, and, when they run short, a fresh stock is difficult to procure.
Fendal and Elderfield's party were in a difficulty as to food, so much so that it was threatening to bring their attempted exploration of this mountain to an abrupt conclusion. Of tinned provisions, flour, and some other necessaries—for themselves—they had a fairly good supply, and fresh meat could be had by hunting. The difficulty was that the "cassava"—upon which the Indians almost exclusively subsist—was running short; thus they would soon be without food for their native guides and carriers. Then a council was held, and it was decided to send their chief guide, Malao, and another Indian, on a visit to an Indian village, said to exist about two days' journey distant, and called Lennamouta, with a view to treating for supplies of the all-important cassava. To this Malao had strongly objected, declaring that the people at this village were reputed to be savage and unfriendly, jealous of all who ventured upon their territory, and fiercely vindictive. But, in the end, his scruples had been overruled, and he had been prevailed upon to start. It was during his absence that the discovery which I have referred to was made.
Elderfield and Fendal, wandering farther afield than usual around the fringe of the forest belt, came, greatly to their surprise, upon a sort of path or track running into the wood, and so clearly defined that it had obviously been much used, and that recently. They returned to the camp for their friend, and then all three set out to explore this most unexpected mystery. The track led them far into the depths of the sombre forest, with its giant trees and tangled undergrowth of gigantic creepers, until they came to an extensive clearing filled with the most extraordinary, most fantastic ruins and sculptures they had ever seen or thought of. Remains of temples, palaces and other edifices, all of solid stone, were to be seen on every side scattered about in wild confusion; but beyond, and occupying a large clearing by itself, was a ring formed of a collection of huge rocks, sculptured with remarkable skill into the likeness of all kinds of men, women, animals and birds. It was, in fact, as Elderfield aptly expressed it, "a sort of glorified Stonehenge"; and the strange mystery of its presence in that gloomy forest rooted the three travellers to the spot. They stood speechless, gazing at the spectacle with awe and wonder. At one end was what seemed to be an altar. It consisted of a large stone block of curious shape; originally, apparently, it had been in the form of a star, with grooves sunk into the stone that led to overhanging spouts, like the lips of a jug. Elderfield at once divined and pointed out their object.
"They were to drain off the blood of the victims sacrificed upon this altar," he explained, "that it might be caught in vessels placed under these spouts."
"Do you suppose the victims were human beings?" asked Meldon, with a shudder.
"I should say yes, almost beyond a doubt," replied the antiquary.
In the course of investigations carried on during the next day or two, the travellers discovered a vault beneath the altar, containing stone coffins and many strange articles of ancient workmanship. There were several vessels and ornaments of gold, and fixed on a stone slab, similar to that outside, but smaller, was a small image or idol, about twelve inches high, of solid gold, with a pedestal of the same metal. The image was of skilful workmanship, but not more so than much that has before been met with in ancient graves, supposed to be those of the Incas, or, perhaps, of some still more ancient race that flourished on the South American continent untold ages ago. But this Gold Idol had one peculiarity of a most extraordinary character—it had golden hair hanging from its bead. This hair seemed to be of fine threads of pure gold, and was very soft and glossy. Dr. Elderfield pronounced it to be unique. "Never have I seen or heard of anything like it," he declared.
DR. L——, the well-known London specialist, was seated in his consulting room in his house in Harley street, to all appearance occupied in looking through some papers before him, but in reality listening for the advent of an expected visitor. From time to time he consulted his watch, rose and paced the room impatiently; then he would sit down again and endeavor to interest himself in some of the various written sheets that strewed his table. Once he talked to himself:
"I wish he would come," thus ran his words. "This affair is getting serious. And, when he does, let us hope he may be the right man, and may be able to throw some light upon it. I confess I do not see my way how to act, or what more I can do."
Then there came a knock at the front floor, followed by a ring at the "visitor's" bell, and half a minute later the expected visitor was ushered in.
It was Arthur Meldon. But he was a very different person from the light-hearted, high-spirited young fellow, whose bold, adventurous spirit had carried him four years before through arduous explorations under tropical suns, through perils and escapes by land and sea; whose dauntless courage had faced death a dozen times when threatened by savage beasts, and still more savage men. Now he looked broken-down and almost decrepit. His tall figure was bowed, and in his eye there was a lacklustre, weary, hopeless expression that was almost piteous to see. Above all, the pallor of his face was unnatural, ghastly. It was as though he wore a mask of dough, through which his eyes but feebly glimmered. Dr. L—— almost started at the sight of him; even in the long experience of the celebrated physician he had never seen a face like this.
"You are Mr Arthur Meldon?" he began. And, when the visitor bowed acquiescence, added, "Pray be seated, sir. I—ah—I rather expected to see—"
"I understand," the other answered wearily, when the doctor hesitated. "You expected to see a very different person—a younger-looking man. Yet, sir, I am only thirty-three; and I know I look sixty!"
The physician started slightly again, then crossing the room, he went up to his visitor and peered searchingly into his face. Returning to his seat, he said curtly:
"I see—the same symptoms."
"I expect so; I am not surprised to hear you say so." Meldon answered. "However, I have not come about myself, as you are aware, but about this advertisement, which I believe, emanates from you." And he took up a slip from his pocket, and read it slowly through. It ran thus:—
"To South American explorers and travellers. Wanted to find the rightful owner of a curious old Gold Idol, believed to have been discovered in British Guiana by a party of travellers about four years ago. Owner can have it on giving correct description and adducing proper evidence in support of claim. Address etc."
"That is my advertisement," said the doctor. "Do you claim the Gold Idol? Does it belong to you?"
"I don't know whether it is the one I know of, or whether or not I can call myself the rightful owner," was the reply. "But I am one of a party who found an idol of gold in British Guiana four years ago—and I wish with all my heart I had never seen it. If it is the one I mean, it has curious golden hair."
The doctor nodded.
"Ah! Well, the other two—my friends—are both dead, so I suppose it belongs to me now. I was to have had a third share of whatever we might obtain for it, and we expected the British Museum would give a large sum for it. But now—the very idea of taking money for it turns me sick."
Dr. L—— raised his eyebrows.
"It is very curious," he said slowly, "but that's the very feeling the man expresses who now has the image. I put that advertisement in, in the hope that someone would claim it and relieve him of its custody."
This time it was Meldon who nodded his head.
"I thought as much," he observed quietly.
"Well, for myself, my sole object is simply to prevent its doing further mischief—creating greater misery. If I get it back I shall just take it out to sea and drop it overboard."
For nearly a minute Dr. L—— regarded him in silence. Then he spoke again gravely.
"There is some strange mystery in all this," he said, "which I confess myself utterly unable to unravel. But I have seen enough to know that, by some means, mischief—a malady that baffles me—is being spread. Somehow, everyone brought in contact with that gold image falls a victim to a mysterious illness that I cannot diagnose. The man who has had it in his possession for the past four years is lying ill at the hospital at which I am the consulting physician; not only that, there are other cases, and they seem to be on the increase."
The speaker uttered these lost words with hesitation, as though making the admission with reluctance. Then he went on:—
"You must know that at this hospital—a large institution at the East End, near the docks—we have frequently very strange and puzzling cases. We get patients from all parts of the world; foreigners from the east, from the west, from every known clime. And at times they bring their own particular diseases with them. I have met with many obscure and mystifying maladies unknown to English physicians. Sometimes—generally—I have succeeded in discovering the proper treatment; but this is the most embarrassing of them all, and what makes it so serious is that it is spreading. It seems almost as though a new form of plague had been introduced to us. Can you throw any light upon it? If the idol, or whatever it is, were of any other material, I should conclude that it carries with it the contagious germs of some disease unknown to modern science. But that theory is not tenable here, for how can a metal such as gold convey contagion? The complaint does not seem fatal; no one has yet died of it, so far as I am aware; it is a wasting sickness that wrecks the constitution of the strongest and sets up what seems to be a lingering process of decay."
"I know," he murmured, "look at me."
"You, too, are a victim to the same thing then? I thought so the moment I set my eyes on you."
"Yes. But it has gone on longer in me than in the others you have seen I fancy."
"The symptoms point to blood poisoning of a new description. Possibly it affects some constitutions differently from others. I wonder how it will affect me? For I know that I have also contracted it." And when Meldon uttered an exclamation of surprise, the Doctor added, "Yes, it is so, my friend, we are both in the same boat, I fear."
"In my belief that golden image carries a curse with it," Meldon answered with emphasis. "Let me do as I suggest, drop it into the sea. Then the curse may cease to work—at least it will not enfold fresh victims."
Dr L—— looked sceptical.
"That sounds like mere illogical superstition, my dear sir," he said with a superior air. "We scientific men don't believe in that kind of thing, you know. We believe that there is a natural cause for everything—if we can but find it."
"Let me tell you what occurred to us," was Meldon's answer. "Then you will see that I have reason for my belief, even if it is, as you say, superstitious."
MELDON told the physician the history of the finding of the idol as already given here, and then went on:—
"So far our expedition had been in every way successful, but, from the time we brought that accursed image into our camp, we never knew a day free from trouble, or danger, or accident or—death. The next day Malao the guide came back with serious news. The people he had gone to see were furious at our 'invasion of their country' as they phrased it, and threatened all sorts of things. They would come and drive us away in a few days, they said, and even if we went away before they came, they would send the Kaleema after us."
"Kaleema!" exclaimed Dr L—. "Why that's the word Collins—the one who brought the image to this country raves about. What does it mean."
"Kaleema means 'secret poisoner'. When an Indian—or a tribe—declares a deadly feud against an enemy, he engages the services of a 'Kaleema.'
This man—so the Indians state—follows up the intended victim secretly, ruthlessly, relentlessly. Sooner or later in some disguise, he is sure to come up with him and take him in an unguarded moment. They have various methods of carrying out their purpose; have all sorts of subtle poisons; indeed they, are the most expert people going in compounding, and the most skilful in administering their deadly preparations to their victims. Their poisons are of various kinds; they do not, as a rule, kill at once, but inflict some lasting, lingering injury. Sometimes a leg or an arm will gradually decay and drop off; sometimes the victim loses his eyesight; sometimes he lingers on and wastes slowly, as in my case; sometimes the malady is intermittent. It takes the form of a deadly sickness, which yet does not kill; goes away of itself, only to return, with regularity once a year, so that the wretched victim has it always hanging over him, and is yet deluded in the intervals—at first with the hope that he is cured. This was the case with me—at first, and it is so still to some extent. Twice a year I fall into a fearful illness, and get better again; but each time it leaves worse traces behind."
"Ah," said the Doctor, "that was the case with Collins and the others."
"Yes, I expected as much. You see the idea of these fiendish poisoners is not to kill, but to torture—and for long years. To kill at once is too slight a punishment to satisfy their notions of revenge. They aim at rendering the sufferer's life a misery to him for as many years as possible. Even in hunting, when they use poisoned darts and arrows they employ a preparation that only suspends animation and does not actually destroy life. They shoot at an animal, and if they hit it, it falls down stupefied—not dead. I have seen it many times. They can do the same they say, with human beings."
"Horrible! I can scarcely credit it!"
"Ah, but it is so, and in administering these various forms of poison to human enemies, the Kaleema goes to work with the same end in view. He does not give it in food or drink, which might be difficult in the case of one on his guard; he merely pricks the skin with a poisoned needle—probably when the victim is asleep. The prick is so slight that it is scarcely felt, or the doomed man, fancies an ant has stung him, and only turns over and goes to sleep again, if he is waked up.
"Well, such is the horror and fear that these men inspire, that the mere threat of them will always terrorise your ordinary Indian, to whatever tribe he may belong. So, when the Indians at Lennamouta threatened to send the Kaleema after us, our natives were seized with ungovernable panic. It had already been arranged that we should break up into two parties for the return journey, Dr. Elderfield wishing to travel hack to the coast through Venezuela, and Mr Fendal to make the journey through Guiana, the route by which we had come. I went with the latter, and I was the only one who returned alive. Elderfield died on the way down—of fever, it was said; and my poor friend Fendal expired in my arms, of fever also, it was thought, but poisoned, as I feel convinced; though how or when, or by whom, I never could find out."
"But why? What had you done?"
"Oh! it seems that the tribe we had offended still carried on some idolatrous worship at the place at which we found the Golden Idol. Twice a year they met there and held a grand festival, accompanied with human sacrifices. They went to the place just after we had left, and soon found we had removed the idol, and they then pursued us. We had confided the accursed thing to Elderfield, or I think we should have given it up. When a party of the tribe came up to us, after a few shots, which did no one any harm, had been exchanged, they asked for a parley, and begged us to give up their 'sacred god.' We assured them we had not got it. They even offered us gold dust—and plenty of it—for it. They seemed to be rich, those people. Eventually they went away, pretending to be friendly, but, in reality, as I feel convinced, instructing their Kaleema to keep on our trail. He, no doubt, was one of the 'natives' we afterwards fell in with, as we thought, by accident, and joined our party ostensibly as a carrier, but really to carry out his treacherous errand and steal back the 'sacred god' if he could get hold of it."
The doctor drew a long, deep breath. "I see. A nice pickle to he in, truly. And you never heard what became of the precious image?"
"No, only that Elderfield just lived to fall in with a party who had set out from the coast to meet him. I heard that through an Indian; but who they were or what became of the idol, I never knew. I have but just returned to England, and have not yet been able to interview any of Elderfield's friends or relatives. But when I saw your advertisement I guessed that it referred to the same Gold Idol, and a conviction forced itself upon me that it was still creating mischief, else why should its present holder be so anxious to find the 'rightful' one? It must be worth £1,000 for its weight of gold alone."
"But, after all that you have said," observed the doctor, "we seem no nearer daylight."
"I fear it is so," answered Meldon. "But what account does this man Collins give of his possession of the image?"
"Merely that it was confided to his care by a man on board a vessel in which both were sailors. The man was taken ill and died suddenly. He had been up-country—Venezuela, I believe—and had returned, bringing this image and some other curiosities with him. He said they were not his own, but that he had undertaken to deliver them to an address in England that Collins would find amongst some papers in his chest. Collins hunted through it, but could find no directions, so he had to keep the articles. But he declares that it has worried him ever since that he could not deliver them to the rightful owner, and the foolish fellow has got it into his head that this strange illness is a sort of punishment in consequence. And he thinks he will never get well till he has discharged his trust."
"It is all very strange. Is he poor?"
"He must be an honest fellow."
"He is. He showed the image to me soon after he left the hospital the first time. He had already talked to me about it, and I felt great interest in the affair. I pointed out that, being so poor, he would be quite justified, in all the circumstances, in selling it. But he would not listen to it. I even offered to find him a purchaser, and borrowed it to show to two or three I thought likely buyers. Strange to say, they are all now patients on my hands, with symptoms similar to his. Would you like to see Collins and question him yourself?"
"I should, very much."
"Can you come now? I am going there myself, and you can accompany me if you like."
This was agreed to, and the two started for the hospital together.
DURING the last few years, the squalor of the East End of London has been relieved by the throwing open of several small public gardens or recreation grounds, veritable oases in the dismal desert of sordid streets by which they are surrounded. Very pleasant to the wayfarer in these parts in summer-time is the unexpected sight of one of these open spaces, with its well-kept lawns and brilliant flower beds, its green trees with their waving branches and cool shady seats beneath. Truly, the money laid out upon these places could hardly have been better spent, and those public-spirited persons who have been the means of bringing it all about deserve more thanks than they are ever likely to receive. To numbers of the poor in these regions the sight of the flowers and the cool green must be as refreshing as water to the thirsty, and can scarcely fail to exercise a humanising influence; and certainly hundreds now flock into these gardens and sit out their evenings there, watching their children in the playgrounds or listening to the bands, who, a short while ago, would have spent the same time in public-houses simply because no other place was open to them.
In one of these gardens one afternoon, a young girl was seated, talking to a good-looking young fellow of about five-and-twenty years of age. The girl was Lizzie Collins, niece of the John Collins of whom Dr. L—— had spoken to Mr Meldon, and her companion was James Watson, her sweetheart. The girl's face was sweet and pleasing in expression, and indeed she was known to be one of the prettiest and most attractive maidens in the neighborhood. But to-day there were tears in her eyes, though her pale cheeks and compressed lips showed she was striving to conceal feelings of distress the tears betrayed. Watson was a carpenter by trade, and was both steady and hard-working; he had courted Lizzie since their childhood, and, till two or three years before had been encouraged by her father; but recently the latter had forbidden him the house, and the only way the two now had of seeing one another was, to meet thus occasionally by stealth in the public garden not far from Lizzie's home.
"I tell you I can't stand it no longer, Liz," said Watson. "I'm going away."
"But why go away, Jim? That will only make things worse, make us both—certainly make me—more unhappy than ever," objected Lizzie.
"Because I can't stand by and see things go on. I shall do something desperate if I stay; punch Tom Benton's head, or something."
"Oh dear!" the girl sighed. "And it used to be so different. I can't make it out at all. Seems like bad luck all round somehow—for such a long time."
"Yes, ever since your Uncle John came home from abroad, three years ago now."
"Hush! Don't put it on poor uncle. You know it is not his doing; and he is ill now—so ill—and lying all alone there at the hospital."
"I don't want to say anything against him; I only say it all began when he came back." said Watson doggedly.
"Yes, so it did. That's true. It seems strange; almost as if he had brought us bad luck, as you say. An' I know poor uncle thinks so hisself, and worries about it. An' he puts it all down to some horrid gold image he brought back with him. He says it's brought him and all of us bad luck. So many things have gone wrong. The place afire once, and we all nearly burnt to death in our beds. Then father's fallin' down and breakin' his leg and having to go to the hospital, and being out of work for so long, and our having to take in that lodger, Tom Benton, and—"
"And he gammoning your father till he wanted you to marry him," Watson growled savagely. "And all because the fellow seems to have a little money and flashes it about like. Though where he gets it from is more than I can make out. He does precious little work, I know that. And then, too"—and here he lowered his voice—"I'm sure I've seen him, more than once, comin' sneakin' out of Job Pitten's. Now everybody knows about Job. Ask any policeman about him, an' he'll tell you. He's a fence, that's what he is; a receiver of stolen goods—only they ain't catched him nappin' yet."
"I don't know," the girl wearily replied, I don't know what he is, an' I don't care. I've told you I don't like him, an' I'll never marry him. But leave the old people to come to you I can't neither—not yet."
"Then I shall go." Watson answered, gloomily. "I can't stand it no longer."
Presently they parted, and the girl went sadly hack to her home, where she shut herself in her little bedroom and burst into a passionate fit of weeping. In this she was surprised by her mother, who wonderingly inquired what it was all about.
"Jim's goin' away," sobbed Lizzie, heartbrokenly, "an' I s'pose I'll never see him any more. He'll forget all about me, and like somebody else—you see if he doesn't. And it's all through father and that horrid Tom Benton, the brute! I hate him! that I do; and I'll never marry him. So there." And she flung herself down on the bed and hid her face in the pillow.
"Speakin' o' Benton," said Mrs Collins, "I wanted to ask yer if ye's seen him. He ain't been home all night."
But Lizzie only stamped with one foot on the floor to signify that she cared nothing what had become of Tom Benton. Just then there was a knock at the street door. Mrs Collins went to open it, and was greatly surprised to see a strange gentleman. He introduced himself as Arthur Meldon.
"I've just come from the hospital where Mr John Collins is lying ill," he said, "and Dr. L—— is coming here directly. I want to have a few words with you. And is your daughter in? I should like to speak to her, too."
"She's in, sir, but I don't know whether she can see you," said the mother, dubiously, remembering her daughter's red eyes and untidy hair—the combined effects of weeping and throwing herself down impulsively on the bed. "She's bin a bit upset to-day."
"Never mind about her being upset," returned Meldon, good-humoredly, "ask her to come in at once. Say I've good news for her."
The old lady opened her eyes and trotted off at once, but soon returned, leading in Lizzie, looking very red and very shy, but withal very pretty.
Before anything could be said, however, the father came in. The introduction made, Mr Meldon went on to say:—
"I have just had a long talk with your brother, Mr John Collins. He is greatly troubled in his mind about his niece, of whom he is very fond, and he has an idea that somehow his coming here to you has brought you all misfortune—bad luck. Of, course I do not see how that can be; but one thing I do know, he, poor fellow, has suffered greatly through taking charge of some articles that I had a hand in removing from where they ought to have remained, and I owe him some amends. I have, therefore, offered him two hundred pounds for those same articles, and here is his written authority to hand them to me. Now, it is his wish to give half this sum to his niece on her marriage, provided you consent to her marrying one named James Watson; and I will myself add another hundred pounds, to set the young couple up in housekeeping. Do you consent, Mr Collins?"
"Certainly, sir, if that's the case," promptly replied the one addressed.
And then there was joy in the Collins family, and much kissing between mother and daughter, and much shaking of hands all round.
"And now," said Meldon presently, "can you give me that Gold Idol? Your brother said you had it in your charge."
"Yes, sir; come this way; it is in an old safe I've got in the other room."
They all went into the next room, and Collins, taking a key from his pocket, opened the "safe," which was a strong but old and rusty iron box. But, when he opened it, it was empty! Idol and everything else had vanished!
"Robbed!" yelled Collins, starting back. "Great Heavens! And now, of course—" He glanced despairingly at Meldon, But the latter, instead of looking disappointed, seemed, on the contrary, relieved.
"Oh, let the pestilent image go!" he cried. "I didn't want it. I was only going to throw it away. I wish joy of it to the thief; if it brings him the same bad luck it has brought everyone else that has had to do with it. I do not envy him. It shall make no difference to what I promised. I shall pay the money all the same."
Then three faces that were beginning to look very glum burst into smiles again.
"It's strange that this good luck," said Lizzie, thoughtfully, "should come to us just when that gold figure had disappeared. But who can have taken it?" Then a sudden thought came to her.
"Mother!" she exclaimed excitedly, "didn't you say Tom Benton hadn't been home all night? I see it! He's the thief!" And she glanced at her father, who, on his side, looked a bit foolish, and turned his eyes from her reproachful gaze.
But Benton had disappeared; nor did they ever set eyes en him again.
Then Dr L—— came up in his carriage to call for Meldon, and the two, after a few words of explanation, drove away to Harley street together.
WHEN Meldon and his companion reached the latter's house, a fresh surprise awaited them—a seafaring man, who had been waiting for an hour or more to see the doctor.
"I be come about that there Gold Idol as you advertised about," he explained, in a bluff, straightforward manner. "It don't belong to me, but I can tell ye who it do belong to, and that's two gentlemen named Fendal and Meldon; that's the names of the parties I was told to deliver it to."
"Then why didn't you do it?" asked the physician mildly. He could see that the man appeared honest enough, though somewhat rough. "This is Mr Meldon."
"Oh—beg pardin', sir. I didn't know ye. Why didn't I deliver it? 'Cos I was copped by the Indians; carried off, sir. An' there I've been kep' a pris'ner all this time. Only got to the old country t'other day. They thought I 'ad the idol hidden somewhere; but I hadn't. Oh no! I was too fly for that! I'd passed it on to a mate when the doctor, Dr Elderfield, died—a mate I could trust. An' he got clear away with it. An' I got away—in the other direction," he added, ruefully.
"Ah, but," he went on cheerfully, "'twas all for the best, gentlemen, all for the best. But for that, I should a bin dead, or near dyin', by now; just as everybody else is as touched that cursed image. Ay, ay, gentlemen, I kin tell yer a thing or two about that there idol as'll make ye open yer eyes. An', what's more," 'he added in a low tone, stepping up to Meldon, "I kin cure ye—I knows the secret."
"What do you mean, man?" Meldon burst out. "For Heaven's sake, don't fool with me! Do you say you can cure me—others, too! You know—you are sure—?"
The stranger winked, and nodded his head so continuously that he looked like a toy Chinese mandarin.
"All right, gents, make yerselves easy. I undertake to do mor'n the Doctor here can do. I'll cure ye all—as many as yer likes. Them as poisons kin cure—and—they've told me the secret. In fact, they cured me first, so I ought to know!"
Presently he told his story, which disclosed at its end the secret of the idol's malevolent, and apparently supernatural power for evil. Certainly it was an extraordinary tale. Put into plain English, for clearness sake, it was to the following effect:—
"My name's Ben Thomas. I went up from Caracas by the orders of the captain of the ship, with a party of Indians, and a mate, Sam Stevens, to meet the poor old Doctor. But he died just when we got to him. He gave the image and the other articles into my charge, with a paper telling me what to do with them. 'Take care of them, Ben,' he says, 'the Indians are after them, and they're not far away.' So I put the things into a rough sack, filled it up with straw, so that it looked like a straw bed, and gave it to an Indian I could trust, and started him and Sam off together. Then, when the enemy swooped down on us, I took up the Doctor's iron box and ran off into the bush with it. That drew the whole yelling pack after me, and let all the rest escape. They only wanted the image, and thought I'd got it, for they had traitors in our camp, and knew where the Doctor usually kept it. And I knew all about that too—the traitors—and so outwitted them. Well, they marched me off with the box, thinking themselves so jolly safe about it. They didn't even trouble to break the box open for two days—while I was laughing in my sleeve all the time. Then we came to where they had left their chief, named Tracoma, and they presented me to him, box and all. He solemnly ordered the box to be broken open very carefully, and then they found they had been done; and they knew the others had got clear away, and that it was now useless to try to catch them up, for by that time they had got to the boats we had left and were well away down the river. Then there was a shindy, I can tell you; I came in for more kicks than ha'pence. But, after the first storm was over, and they had decided not to eat me or roast me alive just then, they settled to carry me back with them—to have a grander affair at home, I suppose. But, by the time we arrived there, I had managed to make myself so useful to the chief Tracoma, that he got quite friendly. Then, one day, I saved his life. He was set upon by two tiger cats, and I chipped in and beat them both off. I had no gun—they'd taken that away, of course—only a hunting knife they'd let me have. The beasts had got him down, and there was no one else near, so I had to do the best I could. I got badly scratched and bitten myself, but Tracoma was very grateful, and, after that, there was no more talk of eating or burning me alive. But they kept me a sort of prisoner; wanted to make me a kind of chief, too. But, in the end, I gave them the slip and got clear away. I had a terrible time though, alone in the wilderness, till I fell in with some friendly Indians journeying down to the coast, and they brought me with them to Georgetown. Then I got a ship. I managed to bring some gold dust away with me—they've plenty there, those people—and—here I am gentlemen."
"But what about the other matter?" Meldon asked anxiously.
"I'm coming to that, sir; only I thought I'd explain all the rest first.
"It was on the way to the Indian settlement of Lennamouta—we had nearly arrived there—and after the adventure with the tiger cats, that I first began to find out that there was something serious the matter with me; and one day I got so bad, I fell down in a sort of swoon. When 1 came to myself, Tracoma was squatting down beside me, and he smiled in a queer sort of way. I had been about in the Indian country years before, and learnt to jabber their language a bit, and I told him I thought I had the fever. But he shook his head, and gave an ugly laugh, and said he knew what it was that ailed me. I had been playing, he said, with the golden image, the 'sacred god,' and the vengeance of the god had fallen on me. 'But,' he said, 'I can cure you. My white brother shall find Tracoma is not ungrateful. But we must wait until we get home, then I shall tell my Kaleema to cure you. and he will do it. The Kaleema is a sort of State prisoner that every chief keeps at hand."
"I know," Meldon said. "Go on."
"Tracoma's Kaleema was an old Indian named Samana, and when we arrived at the settlement he took me in hand. I managed to make good friends with him, and induced him not only to give me the secret of the antidote, but to tell me all about the gold image, and how it poisoned people without their knowing it. The poison is in the hair."
Meldon and the Doctor both uttered exclamations of surprise.
"How on earth can that be?" asked Dr L—.
"In this way, sir. Old Samana explained it very clearly to me. The hair seems to be fine spun gold, but it isn't."
"What is it, then?" the physician queried.
"That no one knows, sir. But you know what spun glass is like? It can be spun so fine as to seem like soft fine silk or hair, but it is glass all the same; and is brittle and will break easily, as thin glass always does. Well, the hair of the image seems to be something like that; but what it is made of, or how it was made, no one knows. It was found in the tomb among the ruins in the forest, by the Indians, about a hundred years ago. So far as I understand Samana's description, each hair has many cutting edges. It is shaped, if you could see it under a microscope, I suppose, like a lot of sharp knives placed back to back, with the blades sticking all round in a circle. The spaces between the blades are filled with the poison, and when you play with the hair, or turn it about, the little sharp edges cut into the skin, or very minute particles break off and get into the cracks of the skin, and in time work their way into it, and so poison the blood. That's how I understand it, sir."
Meldon looked at Dr L—.
"What do you think of it?" he said. "I hardly know; I wish we had the thing here to examine. I wonder what's become of it?"
"In the melting-pot by this time—hair and all, I expect. We shall never see it again; but the thieves will be cruelly punished all the same. I don't envy their case. The main thing now is, can this man's story about his having the antidote and knowing how to employ it be relied upon?"
On this point they questioned Thomas closely, but he adhered confidently to his statements, and was presently sent away with promises or liberal rewards if he could make them good.
When he had gone, Meldon turned, burning with intense excitement, to the physician.
"You don't know what this means to me!" he exclaimed. "I am engaged to be married to a young lady I am passionately fond of, who is shortly returning to England with her father from the Cape. I felt that in my state I ought not to marry; perhaps even she would not have me, if she were to see me now; or her father would withdraw his consent. Besides, how could I marry her?—I—a dying man! I had made up my mind to break it off—somehow—and go abroad and never again return to England. In fact, I was making my preparations when I saw your advertisement."
"Ah!" said Dr L——, thoughtfully. "How much turns at times upon a trifling matter! This more hopeful state of things for us all has been brought about through a mere advertisement!"
Ben Thomas's promises turned out to be no vain boasting, and at the end of a few months Dr L—— had the satisfaction of pronouncing the opinion that all the victims to the Idol's subtle power for evil were restored to health. Meldon called upon him one day to express his gratitude.
"I really feel so strongly in this matter," he said, impetuously, "I wish to do something to show my grateful appreciation. The Collins folk are all right and comfortable now—I've seen to that; Watson and Lizzie Collins are married, and I am going to be married. Now what can I do?"
"Give me a liberal donation to my hospital," was the Doctor's prompt reply.
"Why, yes, of course! It has all come about through that, and through the kindly interest you take in your poor patients there. It has been a revelation to me! Somehow, I never before thought much about these institutions. It never occurred to me that I should ever have any personal interest in them."
"Yet you have plenty of money, and could very well have afforded to subscribe to our hospital fund."
"Well—you see—I never thought about it myself—and no one happened to ask me."
"No." said Dr. L—— with a sigh, "that's just where it is. It is that feeling that makes so many people indifferent, who could give us support if they would, and who really ought to, if you look at it in the proper light. They think hospitals are only of service to the very poor; there never was a greater mistake! Any of us, high or low, may find ourselves in a hospital to-morrow. You leave me now in good health and spirits, but, ten minutes hence, you may be run over in the street and be carried unconscious to the nearest hospital."
"That's quite true."
"Or you may be smashed up in a train—"
"Or blown up by an anarchist's bomb, or a gas cylinder, or sizzled on a broken electric cable or—"
"Thank you! You can stop there, I think! There can't be anything worse than that to imagine in your cheerful way."
"I'm not so sure," returned the man of science, with a dry smile. "You might even—"
"Go out to British Guiana again, and dig up another Gold Idol!"
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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