The Master of Mysteries/The Luck of the Merringtons

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LATE one afternoon in February, a policeman, standing on the corner of Thompson and West Fourth Streets, gazing abstractedly across Washington Square, felt something brushing against his trousers. Looking down, he saw a little child of scarcely three years holding something up to him.

"See! See!" she was saying.

The officer opened his eyes in amazement. In one little fist the baby held a fire opal as large as a robin's egg; in the other was a shriveled black hand.

He grabbed them from the child and questioned her; but her prattle was meaningless. Taking her carefully in charge, he hurried to the station-house and reported the incident to the sergeant at the desk.

Next morning the city papers "played up" the account of the astonishing affair, with a picture of the child, the officer, and the two extraordinary objects with which the baby was found. That afternoon the mother of the little girl came to claim her daughter but was unable to explain the incident. She lived in a tenement on a level with the elevated railroad, on West Third Street, and had missed little Elsa at five o'clock. Inquiries in the neighborhood elicited the fact that Elsa had been seen about four o'clock in the afternoon in the basement tenement of a house across the street, a place used as a cheap laundry. The laundress had noticed the child playing at the wood-pile; but had been too busy to send her home. When she had finished hanging her clothes in the back yard and had returned to the wash-room, the child had gone. The baby had been found by the policeman at a quarter to five. Where she had been in the interim it seemed impossible to discover.

The case was turned over to the detective force, and was eventually taken up by Lieutenant McGraw. He worked at it a day without success, and then, recalling the many services done him by his friend, Astro the Seer, he determined to seek his help. McGraw's earlier experience with the palmist had been at the time of the Macdougal Street dynamite outrages and the Hunchakist murder, mysteries that Astro had solved privately. Assuming the credit of this, McGraw had been promoted and had paid his debt of gratitude to Astro in several ways. He had often secured information for the palmist that no one outside the police force would have been able to obtain. The mutual relation having proved profitable, McGraw did not hesitate to apply to his gifted friend in this case, which had become prominent in the papers.

Astro, free at the time, and rather bored with his ordinary routine of chiromancy and astrologic work, readily undertook the commission. He questioned McGraw on the details of the affair, and dismissed him with a promise to go about the matter immediately.

"It will probably be easy and interesting," he remarked to his assistant, Valeska, who had been present at the interview with McGraw. "It is these cases which are apparently so extraordinary that are most easily solved. Given any remarkable variation in the aspect of a crime, and you know immediately where to begin. This will be only play, I fancy. We'll go right down and look the ground over and see the lay of the land. Of course the important thing is to trace the child's route from the basement laundry, in the middle of the block, to the corner."

"Why, the obvious course would be along two sides of the rectangle,—along West Third Street and up Thompson Street to the Square, wouldn't it?" said Valeska.

"Undoubtedly. And yet, if little Elsa went that way, along the sidewalk, it seems impossible that some one wouldn't have noticed her and remarked the surprising playthings she was holding in her hands."

"She might have only just picked them up, near the corner."

"Very true. We must carefully go over all possible routes and then determine the probabilities. But let's go down and look at the exhibits in the case. I confess I'm curious as to that hand."

Astro's green limousine was entered, and he and his assistant drove immediately to the detective bureau on Allen Street. McGraw welcomed them, and taking them into an inner room, displayed the relics.

The opal was nearly an inch long, a perfect ellipse, shot with colored fires. As it was shifted in the light the play of color was mysterious and surprising. It seemed now suffused with blood; now it glowed with pale green; then a blinding ray of pure yellow shot forth. It seemed to hold impossible distances and atomic cosmic worlds within its shell. It winked like a living thing; it glared and blushed; it was at once baleful and beautiful.

The hand, however, seemed never to have had to do with life or motion. Dried like a mummy, strung with tendons like a turkey's claw, wrinkled, stiff, all color dulled into the hue of earth, it was a horrid thing. Valeska turned away from it in disgust; but Astro still peered at it, examining it, inch by inch, from the long coarse nails to the dissevered wrist.

"Well?" said McGraw.

"A negro's hand," Astro replied. "It has been buried. A man of at least forty. Cut from the arm during life. And yet—" He did not finish the sentence; instead, he said abruptly, "Take us to the laundry."

At the basement McGraw left them, Astro preferring to be alone with Valeska during his investigation. The two entered the cellar after McGraw had introduced them to the proprietor. She pointed out where the child had last been seen, and then went on with her work.

The front of the basement was used for one of the small wood and coal depots common in the poorer districts of New York. Partitioned off with rough boarding was a little chamber where the Italian who sold fuel lived. Behind this was the laundry where two girls, bare-armed, were washing. Two of them lifted a basket of wet linen and went out into the yard with it while Astro and Valeska watched.

In each of these rooms Astro spent considerable time, letting his eyes rove in every direction, searching every foot of the walls, ceiling, and floor. After each survey he gave a nod to Valeska and passed on. The laundry itself occupied more time. He watched the girls at work and their going and coming attentively. Then he went back to the wood-pile and knelt down on the rough floor, crawling here and there, watching, smelling, fingering everything in the vicinity. The track he pursued led back to the little room where the Italian slept. There he spent more time, searching carefully. When he rose and dusted his clothes, he handed Valeska a bent safety-pin.

"Keep that safe," he said. "I think that little Elsa has been playing under the Italian's cot bed."

Hardly had he spoken the words than the stairway was darkened, and a man bearing a loaded basket came down the steps. He put down his load and, seeing strangers, demanded roughly:

"What you doin' here, what?"

"Oh, looking about," said Astro coolly. "I've lost something, and I came here to find it."

The Italian stared. "What you a-lost, what?"

Astro kept his eyes on him. "I've lost a large opal," he said calmly.

The man began to tremble. "Opal! Wha's that?"

"I'll show you." Astro walked into the man's little room and lifted the mattress. Between it and the canvas cover of the cot appeared a small box. On its cover was printed, "Heintz & Co., El Paso, Texas."

"I no gotta eet, I no gotta eet! Sure! De littla babee she stole eet away." The man watched Astro's face apprehensively.

"Where did you get it, anyway," asked the Seer.

"My uncle in Italy, he give it to me," the man protested.

They talked for ten minutes; but the man persisted in this story. Giving up the attempt, Astro was about to return to the laundry, when his eyes fell on the basket the man had been carrying. He stopped and took off a few pieces of kindling, then, after a quick look at the Italian, took something from under the pieces of wood. It was a human skull.

"Perhaps you'll tell me where you got this?" Astro demanded sternly.

The Italian's face brightened. "Oh, a littla boy, he geeve eet to me for ten cent," he said simply.

Astro turned to Valeska with a baffled expression. "In heaven's name what kind of place are we in, where babies play with dead hands and human skulls, to say nothing of giant opals hid in cots?"

"Yes, yes, a littla boy, on Washington Square, sure!" the man repeated.

Astro placed the skull on a shelf and regarded it attentively. For some moments he said nothing; then, shrugging his shoulders, he passed into the laundry. Valeska followed him.

"The man is lying, of course," she said. "But what a barefaced falsehood! Would anything be more improbable?"

"He's lying, it's true," said Astro; "but it may not be all false, nevertheless. We'll have to wait till we finish our examination." And with that, he walked out into the back yard.

The place was half-filled with clothes, drying. The ground was completely bricked over and surrounded by a high fence. On the farther side of this and be
The Master of Mysteries (1912) - p.319.jpg

"What kind of place are we in, where babies play with dead hands and human skulls?"

yond the yards of the abutters appeared the rear of the houses on South Washington Square, or West Fourth Street, rising four stories high. On the right and left were other yards. Astro began at the right-hand side of the house and examined the fence foot by foot all round the three sides, till he had come back to the house again at the left-hand side. Then he looked up at the windows of the house opposite. A second examination of the fence opposite the laundry took more time. Meanwhile, Valeska followed him and did her best to interpret his movements.

"Well," he said, as he returned to the laundry door, "what have you discovered?"

She spoke eagerly. "Why, there's a hole broken in the fence on the north side, and it seems to me it's big enough for a baby to crawl through. Besides, as the clothes are hung now, it is well hidden, and little Elsa might easily have got through unnoticed."

"Did you notice her footprints beyond, in the earth of the other back yard?"

"No." Valeska was apologetic.

"Well, they are there. Nothing else?"

"Why, no."

"Look again!"

Valeska went carefully along the fence and finally stopped at some vertical scars half-way up the north wall. "What do they mean?" she asked.

"That's the false half of our Italian friend's tale," said Astro. "Never mind them for the present. Now we'll call at the house opposite."

They left the basement and walked round the block, climbed over some excavations in the street, and rang the bell. A buxom, jolly young woman opened the door. Astro asked for rooms to let, preferably in the rear.

"We ain't got but one now," she replied. "That's on the third floor up, and it ain't vacant yet though. You can look at it. Was you married?"

Astro laughed and, ignoring the question, followed the woman up three flights of stairs, followed by his assistant. The landlady threw open a door, and the three entered. Astro gave a quick look around the apartment.

It was in confusion, cluttered with clothing and newspapers, old boots and cooking utensils.

"And he ain't paid me for t'ree weeks yet, neither!" she added. "I give him the bounce two days ago. He come home drunk in my house! I don't keep no lodgers like that!"

"What day was it he came home drunk?" Astro asked.

"Only Thursday. He nearly fell out the window, he was so soused. He had a black eye, too."

"What time was it?"

"Oh, about four o'clock. Look at them rags, now! What d'ye think of that! The pig dog!" She picked up a long dirty strip of cloth on the floor. "Bah!" she cried. "It smells like a graveyard, don't it?"

Astro took the rag and examined it carefully. It smelled strongly of creosote. He laid it on a table, and with a secret sign called Valeska's attention to it. Then he walked to the window, threw up the sash, and looked down.

"It would be a bad drop, wouldn't it?" he said.

The landlady laughed. "I only wish he had fell out!"

"Who lives on the floor below?"

"Oh, a Spaniard and his wife; but they ain't been here for two weeks now. They pay all the same."

"And on the second story?"

"Oh, I live there myself with my dog."

Suddenly Astro exclaimed aloud, "The deuce! I've dropped my hat. How stupid! I'll have to go down in the yard and get it."

"Never mind; I'll go down," said the woman.

Astro, however, insisted, and before she had a chance to offer again he was running down-stairs. A sign to Valeska told her to occupy the woman's attention for a while; and this Valeska did successfully. Finally she and the landlady walked down-stairs, the girl talking with animation, the woman giggling and laughing and showing a set of big good-natured dimples. They waited in the hall for Astro to return. He shook hands with the landlady cordially. "I'll let you know about the room, if I want it," he said. "But I like the landlady better than I do the room. What are they doing on West Fourth Street?" he continued. "Digging for a new drain?"

"Yes," she said. "All the time they are digging up, somewheres. It makes me tired, this New York! I wish they'd get it finished."

"When will your lodger come back to pack up his things?"

"Oh, I wish I knew my own self. He's a crook, I think, that man; he's got a bad eye. All the time he brings such funny things home. Bags and things, and sometimes watches."

As soon as Astro and Valeska were alone he smiled and said, "Well, it's as easy as I said it was going to be, isn't it? All we have to do now is to search the hospitals."

Valeska thought it over. Then she spoke slowly. "I suppose that rag was wrapped round the hand, wasn't it?"

Astro nodded.

"The man came home drunk—he sat down by the open window and dropped the hand?"

Astro nodded again.

"The baby crawled through the hole in the fence with the opal, I see that. She found the hand in the yard under the window, where it had been dropped. Then, somehow, she passed through the kitchen and came out on West Fourth Street, here, and walked to the corner, where she met the policeman. That's all plain enough. But where did this man get the hand, and where did the Italian get the opal?"

"Take the last question first. You recall the up-and-down marks on the fence?"

Valeska assented. "Oh! The Italian climbed over there?"

"He must have. He must have seen the box drop. He climbed the fence and grabbed the box and didn't notice the hand. Then the baby came along, before this man, who was evidently a pickpocket, awoke from his stupor. You see, he came home with the bag he had snatched—"

"Oh! That was that leather bag with the handle cut?"

"Of course. He went to the window and sat down, unwrapped the dead hand, and dropped it, or placed it in his lap. Then he looked at the opal, and, beginning to drowse, dropped both into the yard. When I went down there I saw footprints, undoubtedly the Italian's, in the earth."

"But that leads nowhere, after all?" said Valeska. "How in the world should an immense opal and a hand be in the bag that was snatched?"

"That's what we have to find out," said Astro.

"And why should the Italian have a human skull in his basket?"

Astro laughed. "That's where the true half of his lie comes in. Undoubtedly a boy did sell it to him. It wasn't till I spoke to the woman about the excavations in the street here that I recalled that Washington Square was in old days the 'Potters Field.' Many graves have been found here, and no doubt the gamins of the neighborhood have watched every shovel and got the skulls there. The Italian fancied it,—thought perhaps he could sell it to some doctor,—and so brought it home. In fact, I think we have eliminated him from the affair altogether. Of course, he'd never dare say he stole the opal."

"And what about searching the hospitals?"

"For the original owner of the bag, of course. The thief came home with a bruised eye. That means he had a fight; but, as he brought off his booty, he must have punished his man pretty badly. Consequently he is now probably in a hospital. We have to look for a man from El Paso; for there is where he got the opal, or at least the box in which it was kept. Well, we'll leave that till to-morrow. I believe I have an engagement for five o'clock, haven't I?"

"Yes. A Miss Merrington."

"Who is she?"

"I haven't found out anything about her. You'll have to hurry."

They got into the limousine and drove rapidly to the studio, where Miss Merrington was waiting. While Valeska busied herself with the file of daily papers she had as yet had no chance to look over, Astro interviewed his visitor in the great studio.

Miss Merrington was a tall willowy brunette, with plenty of humor in her face, well dressed, and evidently fairly well-to-do. She had come, it seemed, on a peculiar errand. In brief, as she told it to Astro, it was this:

Major Merrington, her grandfather, had been a United States Army officer on a special errand in Mexico at the time of Maximilian's regime. He had had the good fortune to be of service to the emperor, who had been duly grateful. In return for his services, the emperor, at their last meeting shortly before the end of Maximilian's tragic career, had rather jocosely offered him his choice of two gifts. The first was a large box of the famous cigarettes of Chiapas, made by an old woman who had been famous for her tobacco for years and had recently died. This cutting off of the already limited supply had increased the value of the genuine cigarettes enormously. Mexicans held them in almost superstitious esteem. They were said to have all kinds of esoteric virtues and to bring extraordinary happiness. The first cigarette, when smoked, was as mild as Virginia's tobacco. The second was always as strong as a black cigar and produced a sort of half-trance, like opium.

The alternative gift was an old Aztec relic. Miss Merrington did not herself know its exact nature; but she did know that all sorts of good luck were attributed to its possession. It was this gift that the major had chosen. "The Luck of the Montezumas" it was called; but, as the "Luck of the Merringtons" its name seemed to be as inapt as it had been to the Aztec emperors. With it, whatever it was, and escorted by a trusted negro slave named Ptolemy, the major had journeyed half-way from Chihuahua to El Paso, when his party was attacked by brigands. Their last stand was made in an adobe ruin, where the major had been killed. What had become of the "Luck of the Merringtons" and what it really was, was what Miss Merrington had come, in a rather skeptical and playful humor, to ask of Astro the Seer.

She had got so far, when a muffled electric bell was faintly heard in the studio. Astro, who had listened attentively, excused himself to get a book of astrologic tables which he said it was necessary for him to consult before he could answer Miss Merrington's question. Around a corner of the book-shelf was a sort of alcove cupboard, hung with black curtains. He parted them, and a glass window was disclosed. Pressed against this was a newspaper showing the "Lost and Found" column. One was ringed about with a blue pencil. It read:

"LOST—A large opal, on Second Avenue, Thursday last, at two p. m. Finder will be paid a generous reward and no questions asked. Henry Merrington, Bellevue Hospital."

Astro dropped the velvet curtains, reached on the shelf for an immense volume bound in heavy leather with silver clasps. He took it to the table near where his visitor sat and threw it open. The pages were parchment, written with beautiful medieval letters, with illuminated initials and many zodiacal diagrams. For some time he turned the leaves thoughtfully; then stopped to ask:

"Do you know the exact date of your grandfather's birth?"

Miss Merrington, unfortunately, did not. He asked, then, for her birthday, which she gave to the hour. Astro turned to another diagram, and taking a pencil, made a few computations.

"H'm. Under the sign Libra, with Mars and Saturn in the ascendant—a daughter of the Ninth House—the moon. Wait a moment. Let me see your palm."

She drew off her glove, and, not a little mystified, but still smiling as at a child's game, showed her hand. Astro gave it a glance, turned it over, doubled the knuckle of the third finger. Then he sat down, nodding his head.

"It's too absurd," he said. "One can't often strike a fact so definitely as this appears. If I'm not mistaken, the 'Luck of the Merringtons' is here in New York. It's—let's see," he looked at his diagram and figures again—"forty-seven, that's right. Violet, indigo, blue, green,—that's fourth,—yellow, orange, red,—that's seven. Green and red— Why, it must be an opal; that's the only stone that's both green and red. It's a fire opal, probably a Mexican gem, not the Austrian milky-blue stone. Curious, isn't it?"

"Yes," she drawled, "if it's true."

"Well, if you'll wait a moment, I may be able to find just where it is."

"Oh, I'll wait a long time to get back the family luck, bad or good," she said.

Astro shut his eyes and remained silent for a time. Then he shuddered, put his hand to his head, and said slowly, "I get the name Allen. Allen Street, that's it. And I see a man in a blue coat guarding it. He has brass buttons oh, yes, he's a policeman." He shuddered again, and appeared to come to himself. "What did I say?" he asked ingenuously.

Miss Merrington repeated his words.

"Oh, that must mean the detective bureau," said Astro.

"It's perfectly wonderful—at least, if it turns out so!" the woman exclaimed. "I can't wait to find out, though I don't see what I can do. I haven't lost any opal, and I can't pretend to. I only know the old story about the 'Luck of the Merringtons' as my father told it to me. You see, grandfather never told in his letter just what it was. No doubt he was afraid of being robbed of it. But there's one other question I'd like to ask you. I have an older brother who went to Mexico two months ago, and we have had only two letters from him. Can you tell me where he is now?"

"His name is Henry, isn't it?"

Miss Merrington stared. "Why—yes! How did you know?"

"It's my business to know such things," said Astro. "Your brother has had an accident but is not seriously hurt. You will hear from him in a very short time."

"An accident!" Miss Merrington's face paled. "That frightens me dreadfully! Do you know," she went on, "somehow, what happened to my grandfather is so suggestive! My brother went to Mexico on purpose to trace up the 'Luck of the Merringtons.' He had a foolish idea that he could find it. It has always been a family legend only, but we children took it seriously. Lucky or unlucky, we wanted it in our possession. Henry always said that if he ever had time and money for a vacation, he was going to Chihuahua to track down that heirloom, whatever it was. It was because I was so impatient to find out about it that I came to you. I thought you might give me some hint that would help him find it. I wasn't worried at his not writing, because I knew he might be away from the railroad; but I was impatient to have news. And I've heard such things of you, so I thought I'd come, for the fun of it. I never expected you could do anything so specific as this, though. Now I'm worried. Oh, I hope Henry's all right and safe! If he only comes back, I don't care if we don't get the 'Luck of the Merringtons,' though heaven knows we need it badly enough! Our luck couldn't possibly be worse than it is now, I think. I've been a companion for a rich woman for a year; but I can't stand it a day longer, and I'm going to be a stenographer."

"I predict a better fate for you than that," said Astro. "I think the family luck will return. You wait patiently for a few days and see if I'm not right."

Valeska came into the studio as soon as Miss Merrington had gone. "It seems to me you took a long chance," she said, as she sat down.

"My dear," said Astro, throwing himself on the red velvet couch and drawing up his narghile, "I took no chance at all. If this Henry Merrington who advertised is not her brother, the opal is, of course, not the 'Luck of the Merringtons'; but she will never know whether it is or not. If her brother has gone on a rough trip to Mexico, he'll scarcely escape without an accident of some kind, though it may be slight. Whatever he finds as a relic, he can't prove it is the true 'luck,'—can he?—and I'll have the benefit of the doubt. But we must look him up immediately and get his story. I confess I'm still at sea about that hand."

"Why didn't he let his sister know, if he was injured?"

"Probably didn't want to frighten her. Perhaps he was drunk. Now he's lost the 'luck,' he hopes to get it back before she finds out he is here, so as not to disappoint her. But come. I confess I can't wait. We can't get in after eight o'clock."

The two set out, therefore, without waiting for dinner, and after Astro had sent up a card marked "opal", a nurse brought word that her patient could be seen. He had been robbed and sandbagged, as Astro had surmised. He had lain unconscious for several hours; but was now recuperating, and would need only another day in which to be quite well.

He was frankly curious as to his guests, and could hardly greet them before he had sent away the nurse and demanded their errand. In a few words Astro told him exactly what had happened to the famous opal, without confessing how it had been traced. In as mysterious a manner, he let Merrington know that as a Seer he was aware of the esoteric and magic properties of the stone and its tradition.

Merrington listened with immense interest, delighted to learn that the opal had been found, and that he could probably claim it without a reward. He then took up the story of his quest where his sister had left it.

"I founded my whole hope of finding the thing on what I had heard of Ptolemy, the negro. I knew he was brave and clever and faithful. I always put this murder with the story of the Sancy diamond, which I suppose you know. Baron Sancy, you remember, when told that the messenger who was carrying the celebrated gem had been killed, said, 'Never mind, the Sancy diamond is not lost!' He sent men to disinter the body of the messenger, and found the stone in the stomach of the corpse of his faithful retainer. That's something the way I reasoned it out. It was a wild-goose chase; but I succeeded marvelously. I discovered the place where the attack on my grandfather had been made; I found the very adobe ruin where he had made the last stand. Some of the old people there remembered the story, how my grandfather had been shot first, and how Ptolemy, defending the wooden door, had his hand chopped off with an ax before the brigands could enter. But no one had heard of any precious stone or other valuable thing that would account for the legend, though everybody in Chihuahua knew the story of the 'cigarettes of Chiapas'.

"Well, it took a month to locate the grave; but, after disinterring several coffins, I found one larger than usual, decayed almost to paper. And when I opened it—which was easy, it was so rotten—there, in the skull, between the upper and lower jaw-bone, was a fire opal as big as the end of my thumb! It was the 'Luck of the Merringtons,' I was sure, if for no other reason because, from that time till it was snatched out of my hand on Second Avenue, things went gorgeously with me. One of my mosos put me on to an abandoned claim, an old gold-mine that had been lost for years. In a month I sold out my interests for thirty thousand dollars. Every one in the place became my friend. I found an old schoolmate who insisted on my going into partnership with him, and—on the train coming north, I met the nicest girl in the world!"

He sank back in his cot with a smile. "Now my luck's come back," he added, "I'm going to present the opal to my sister Helen and see what it'll do for her."

"But one thing I don't understand," said Astro. "Did you get nothing but this opal from the grave?"

Merrington did not notice the incongruity of the remark, apparently. "Oh, I forgot!" he exclaimed. "That was a funny thing, too! You know Ptolemy's hand had been buried with him. Something had mummified it, somehow, while the rest of the body was pretty far gone,—nothing, really, but bones and a few tendons. Well, I thought I'd take the dried hand as a relic of poor old Ptolemy. It was ghastly; but I didn't know but that would bring luck, too. But no doubt that was what queered me, after all. I wonder what became of it?"

"You'll find that at the detective bureau, too," said Astro. "If I were you, I'd give it decent and honorable burial."

"I will!" said Merrington. "And by to-morrow afternoon I'm going to appear and surprise my sister. I hope she hasn't worried about me."

"But I always thought opals were unlucky," said Valeska, as she left the hospital with the Master of Mysteries.

"My dear," he replied; "nothing is unlucky, but thinking makes it so; and nothing is lucky but—" He looked at her a bit sadly, adding: "Well, I'm afraid you'd hardly understand."