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Title: The Stolen Treasure
Author: Melville Davisson Post
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eBook No.: 1801161h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  December 2018
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The Stolen Treasure

by

Melville Davisson Post


I thought she was the loveliest human creature in the world. Certainly she was the smartest when she came into the club that night. And yet she had been out all the winter afternoon in a run with the Meadow Brook.

It was winter, and there was a mist of rain. Her top hat and her riding habit were wet, her boots were mud-splashed, and she was tired, but no fatigue could impair the fine vigor of her. I regarded her with wonder as I have always regarded her.

She did not see Sir Eric and me. We were in the library. The door was open. But we saw her. And as I have said, she moved me to wonder. But the sight of her, just then, seemed to infuriate Sir Eric.

Perhaps it was the culmination of disappointments to the man. It was a day of wrecked plans for him; a wrecked hope and a wrecked vengeance to boot, and the sight of her was like a prick on a sore nerve plexus. He had failed to raise the subscriptions for his second expedition, and he had failed to establish a criminal action against the man whom he charged with the loss of his great discovery on the first one. Our men of wealth, our courts, our women--at least this one--were all anathema to him.

He was in a bitter mood, and his words were not carefully chosen. "Surely the Salic law does not run in this accursed country," he said. "Does everyone take his directions from a woman in it? This girl appears, and the decision of a museum committee and the opinion of a barrister are suddenly determined, as though some divine sibyl had said the word."

He made a derisive gesture, putting out his hand with the fingers crooked. "I would wager a guinea that even Warren himself would run to her if she crooked her finger at him."

"You would win the guinea," I said.

He turned sharply toward me. "What!" He was surprised at the confirmation of his prophecy. "After the way she deserted him when this thing came out!--flitted off to Europe and left him to face the charge I brought. She's hard as nails, hard as the deck of a whale ship. I could almost feel for the man at the way she cast him off, I who have every reason to detest him. He could expect me to be against him. But not this girl who pretended to love him when his name was clear, who was to be his wife when he got back from our expedition. She cuts and runs--fine type that. Imagine a girl of my country--a girl of any country but this--abandoning the man she pretended to love at the first gun!" He swore under his breath. "Fine type of a woman!"

"The very finest type of a woman," I said.

He shot a strange, hard glance at me. Did I speak with him in irony, or was I also under this witch spell with the others? But it was a truth that he could not get at. In the trade I follow one governs one's face.

It was winter. Sir Eric Dorm and I were in the library of the club on Long Island. It is the most comfortable and one of the best-conducted clubs in the world. But it was empty on this afternoon except for the two of us and the girl who had just come.

I had been out of America for some time. I had returned to join Sir Eric in the matter with which he was engaged, and this girl had appeared also--appeared, as the man so bitterly put it in his denunciations, to influence, as he imagined, everything against him.

He was in a rabid mood about her, as one with a monomania might come to believe some evil intelligence moved covertly to thwart him at every point in his endeavors. He was so far gone in this bitter seizure that he could almost bring himself to sympathize with the man whom he had endeavored to get before the criminal courts. The man the girl had deserted, as he said it, when Dorm's formal charge had been made against him--"Cut and run when the cloud descended," is how he put it in his milder mood. And it was not a flurry of fear that moved her; that one could forgive. Little fears and a woman one could understand. A weak girl might fly to cover when the man her name was linked with got entangled with a felony--a moral one, at least if the charge stood, if not a legal one. But the girl had not abandoned Warren in a fear flurry. She had turned away with her head up. It was a cold-blooded desertion of the man in trouble.

This was Sir Eric Dorm's analysis, not mine. I am not writing here what I thought.

The whole affair from its inception was extraordinary. A strange adventure into an unknown region of the world, a strange discovery and a strange conclusion. It had no equal in any fiction that I knew, and the actors in it were like characters in a drama.

Take, for example, Sir Eric Dorm. He was not English by birth. I never knew the stock he was of. But he had adopted England, turned to her in the Great War out of one of the German colonies. And for that act got a paper title. He came out of the waste places of the world, remote waste places that the Germans had raised a flag in.

He had appeared here as an explorer with a theory. The theory had a rumor at its back. The rumor had come to him in German East Africa, and the archaeologists that were always drifting into the colonies from the empire had considered it, as they considered everything.

There was a monument standing on a plateau of the Lybian Desert. The rumor was vague about the thing. There was a legend of it among certain wandering tribes, a vague legend. But it persisted; it was old; ancient natives had heard it, and younger men. It seemed to be renewed, as though by chance the thing were on occasion rediscovered by some individuals lost from their usual native route. Dorm had come here from London. He had tried to get a company in England to back an expedition. But he found the English people conservative. They trusted their own men only. They would not take a chance outside. The museums and the learned societies heard him, admitted that there might be a core of truth in the rumor; admitted that ancient civilization had probably an early situs in the region; admitted that monuments or fragments of old structures might even exist to this day in some unknown sector. But there the matter ended. They would neither indorse the man's plan nor advance it with financial aid. And so he came to America. We were young and adventurous. We had imagination and the will to risk. We had enthusiasms and the courage to go afield with them.

At any rate, one of our great institutions took him up, and one of our great financial factors raised the money. It was no great sum to the Americans who assembled it. Dorm wanted to go light. He rejected, himself, the idea of an elaborate expedition equipped to excavate a city. He wanted a scouting party, that could move swiftly and cover ground. If he found the thing, an elaborate expedition could go in later, and it could go equipped to meet the conditions that existed. There seemed sound sense in that. It appealed to the rich American sitting in his Long Island house with a million dollars in carved stone and wood over his head, alone and bored. He gave Dorm a quick decision. If the great museum would indorse the venture, he would finance it.

And here the girl came in.

She had an uncle on the committee. She went to him, and finally the institution gave assent; Dorm could go in its name, if the wealthy American on Long Island would provide the money.

And here, too, young Warren came into the thing.

He should go with Dorm. He needed a vacation, change from the banking house in which he slaved to eminence. What were great possessions, if one had no sound body to go with them! Economy in life was the last economy. It was this girl's decision. Perhaps it was the moving motive in the whole affair. To get Warren into the open, out of the sight and hearing of the money changers.

Dorm maintained that the region he wished to enter, contrary to the common opinion on it, was not unhealthy; that, in fact, it was an elevated plateau, dry, with a clean bracing air, a baked earth, the very bracing region for one enervated by a sedentary life.

It was not in the sand of the Sahara. That was another misconception. It was a hardbaked plateau, dry as a tile at the season he would select for the march inland. There was a rainy season, when this plateau had a sort of carpet of grasses on it. But in the month that he planned to enter, these grasses would be dried wisps of vegetation covering an earth hard like a clay road with the moisture out of it.

You see, Dorm had a base--or, better yet, roots everywhere embedded in the thing for his Odyssey.

This girl was behind events. She was behind the events that got his first expedition on the way. And she was behind the events that now so utterly and in such diverse forms thwarted his second expedition. From a beneficent, she had turned, as he expressed it, to a malignant influence.

Snow lay on the world. It was winter, as I have written. The door to the library was partly open; through it we had seen the girl enter, and looked after her as she disappeared at the end of the long hallway. Dorm went over now and closed the door, closed it firmly and latched it as though thereby to bar out the influence of this girl against him. Then he walked about, passed the great leather couch with the beautiful electric lamps at either end of it, passed the writing table, passed the long table covered with magazines behind the couch and the open book shelves set in against the wall.

There was a wood fire, and I stood on the hearth beside it. Dorm was silent. He padded about like a sort of beast in a den, and I watched him. He was a heavy, strange human creature, a massive face and thick, stooped shoulders. I regarded him from a larger knowledge of this affair than he possessed himself. I was not puzzled by its mysteries. But the man in some aspects of him was an intriguing puzzle. Why had he turned in the German colonies so quickly to the English side? Was it a sound common sense foreseeing an ultimate, inevitable end, the end of German dominion in the world, or had the English intelligence service marked him out as amenable to influence? Had he, in fact, come over for a price?

I wondered. Had the man any of the fine enthusiasm of an explorer? I looked closely at him from my place by the fire.

He had found the thing that he had set out to seek. One had to give him credit for that. And he had organized his expedition and conducted it with a certain skill. He had not wished to take young Warren with him. He did what he could to get rid of the man. But he could not get rid of him. This girl saw to that. Dorm had to take the man, or give the whole thing up. He was not a fool. And when the thing became inevitable, he made the best of it.

But it was clear that he wished to go alone. And from his point of view he was profoundly right. Perhaps from the general point of view of such a man he was right also.

If he went alone he had only himself to consider, and if he discovered anything of archaeological value he would have the honor of it. There would be no division of the spoil to make. There was ample illustration for the wisdom of such a course. Supercargoes were always critics of the skipper's conduct of his ship; especially if they were related in any way to persons having a financial interest in the voyage. And aids on an exploration always wrote about it, fouling the fine story the leader planned to write himself. One had not a free hand when one had a witness.

Caesar could write his commentaries as he liked in the quiet of his Roman house. He could draw his own figure as he liked.

He could build up the details of his great adventures and overcome them with a fine dramatic courage when he had the whole matter in his hand--when there was, to say it plainly out, no witness. Dorm saw that; not the literary advantage, perhaps, but the larger material advantage. He wished to go alone. He looked on Warren as a peril to him. And from his standpoint he was right.

I have written that Dorm found the thing he set out to discover. And this was true. He went into the Lybian Desert with Warren and a dozen natives; after the first long march south, they reached a terrain comparable to the region Dorm expected to come on. It was a high plateau, baked hard and covered with a variety of dried grasses. It was not sand covered nor poisonous, as is the general belief. The earth was fiat and hard, and there was a crisp, invigorating air like the region above Assouan in autumn.

Plainly, it was an unknown region, for the geographies put sand here and a miasmatic climate. They did not find a buried city nor any ruined structure of a civilization. Nevertheless, the persisting rumor was right.

They found a stone Sphinx standing out of the baked earth of this plateau. It was an Assyrian or Phoenician model of the ancient Egyptian Sphinx. They sighted it in the distance about sunset, and Dorm thought it was gold. Warren also was profoundly astonished. The creature gleamed yellow in the sun, covered with its wings.

Then the night descended suddenly, as it comes on in the desert. There is no twilight as we understand that word. It was a night of wonder for the two men, a night that would, as it seemed to them, never pass. They talked through the long night.

Suppose that great image were in fact gold. The thing was not beyond all hope. Immense gold monuments had existed in the world. There was the Athene of Phidias.

The thing was not gold, but there was a basis for their hope. The wings of the Sphinx as they approached it, appeared to be gilded. Upon examination, the great feathers of these wings were found to be hammered out of thin sheets of gold and fastened to the stone image with bronze pins cemented in. Dorm removed these gold plates. They made a considerable bulk, but they were hammered thin and were not heavy; a few natives could carry them overland to the coast.

Now here in this adventure appeared the first doubtful incident. How one explained it depended on the man one believed. Dorm said that Warren suddenly abandoned him in the night taking most of the natives with him and most of the equipment. The gold plates bound together for the native bearers also disappeared. But eight natives remained, and he set out to return to the coast with them.

Warren gave a somewhat different version of the incident. In plain words, he said that he quitted Dorm's camp that night out of fear. He was afraid to remain. He could give no evidential overt act, but he was convinced that his life was in danger. He had a feeling that Dorm did not intend for him to come out alive. It was in the way the man looked at him, Warren said. At any rate, he did leave Dorm's camp in the night, and the majority of the native bearers went with him. He frankly admitted this, but he denied all knowledge of the gold plates. He had taken nothing except bare necessities. What he had taken in no way reduced either the supplies or the equipment Dorm required for his return.

He said that it was not precisely the fear of death that moved him. It was the fear of the issue that approached between them. Presently, as he saw it, Dorm would make way with him, unless he acted first. He wished to forestall that issue, and the only way open was to cut and run for it. He could not kill Dorm as a preventive measure.

It must be conceded that Dorm's story was the most convincing. He led the expedition, and he had the authority of that leadership. He laughed at Warren's motive. There had been no quarrel, no clash, not even a word or gesture between the two men. Warren had suddenly taken the native bearers and deserted in the night. Dorm shrugged his shoulders. The treasure of the gold plate also was gone. The inference was irresistible. Why so many native bearers if Warren carried nothing out with him?

The circumstantial evidence was convincing. And Warren's suspicions, as he related them, seemed hardly adequate. Decidedly, Dorm had the best of it. There was a further thing. Dorm said the food supplies left him were mostly tinned stuff that he and Warren had put aside as doubtful. He was afraid to eat it, and he warned the natives. But hunger overcame his warning. They did eat it toward the end of the march, and their disobedience cost them their lives. They died on the last day's march, and Dorm came in alone, very nearly a starved madman, as he described it.

Young Warren stood badly before the world when Dorm came in with his story. He made a rather sorry figure. It was then that this girl, as Dorm put it, deserted Warren, flitted out to Europe with her head up. Most persons regarded him askance.

Dorm had hung about New York for two months, writing his story of the expedition; making his report to the museum, and endeavoring to get young Warren before the criminal courts. I had been out of America for these two months, and now on my return I had this interview with Sir Eric Dorm. He found decisions suddenly made up. Things delayed, discussed, put off, were now decided--decided against him! And always, as the man's seizure compelled him to believe, it was this girl who influenced events against him. He saw her sinister shadow in the background behind every adverse decision.

She was in the foreground visible to the eye at the interview we were fresh from--the interview with the attorney. She stood beside his table when he gave Dorm his final pronouncement on the criminal feature of young Warren's act.

There was no criminal feature!

No ownership could be established in the missing plates, and the circumstantial evidence was too vague for an indictment; besides the act was not within the jurisdiction of our courts.

The thing was clear and ended. Young Warren could not be haled before a criminal court here on the suspicion of a theft in Central Africa.

The great legal authority had brought his hand down heavily on the table, and the girl had smiled, looking at Dorm through narrowed eyelids, as at one vanquished and considered for a triumph.

It was more than Dorm could endure in silence. "And so the thief goes free?" he said.

But the barbed taunt got no entry through her armor. She repeated the sentence as though it were the pronouncement of an oracle. "And so the thief goes free." Before the committee at the museum we met the same finality. The matter would not be reconsidered. The commission to Sir Eric Dorm was withdrawn. Going in, we had passed the girl on the stone stairway coming out. Dorm swore. Was there no end, then, to the influence of a hostile woman?

And here on Long Island, when we came today to get a final answer from the rich American who had financed the first expedition, Dorm received the same denial. This Croesus was no longer interested in the affair. He shrugged his shoulders, and in plain words he put us out among the hounds and horses of the meet before his door.

He followed, as it happened, but not to soften our dismissal. He came to laugh with this ubiquitous, inevitable girl, sitting her big hunter like some daughter of the gods.

Dorm went forward with his head down and every muscle tense. But I paused to smile and wave a welcome to her. I could not forbear it. She has no equal in the world, as I think.

And now Sir Eric Dorm and I were come to the conclusion of this whole affair, here in the library of this club, alone, on a winter evening. He walked about heavily, like some imprisoned beast. And I stood, as I have written, on the hearth beside the wood fire.

The fire drew my attention, a little flame springing up from a smoldering log, and I put a query as though the sight of it had aroused my interest. "You had a fire at each night's camp on your African march?"

He answered as though the reply were reflex, as though my idle inquiry did not reach to the deep matter he considered. "Yes," he said, "a little fire."

"You carried fuel with you?"

"No."

"What fuel was to be had on the hardbaked plateau?"

He made a gesture as to dismiss a triviality that disturbed him. "It was hot. We required no fire except to boil a kettle, a few handfuls of the dried desert grasses did that."

"This would be the only trail of your route then--the dot of these fires?"

"Yes," he said, "they would remain until the winter rains come."

Then he faced suddenly toward me, as though he were come up from his consuming introspection with a very determined purpose.

"My friend," he said, "you must have a conception of truth from evidential incidents, or you would not be representing Sir Henry Marquis in the affair. Do you think these gold plates were stolen?"

"I do," I said.

His face cleared. His voice took a firmer note. "You believe that?"

"I know it," I said.

"Then," he cried quite impulsively, "why do you not help me to fasten this act on the guilty man? Are you, too, under the spell of this girl?"

I stooped over and warmed my hands above the flame. My hands were not cold, but the gesture led to a question that I wished to appear irrelevant. I put it now in an idle voice. "If a little fire at a camp on your march was meant to boil a kettle, Sir Eric, what would a great fire, at a camp on your march, mean?"

"A great fire!" He echoed the words as though they were a sort of explosive epithet.

I did not look up from my stooped posture. But out of the tail of my eye I could see the changed attitude of the man, as though a great water beast had flung up from the depths to confront an enemy.

I went on, passing in a casual voice to his comment on the girl. "It was not altogether the mere influence of this girl that decided the museum committee. You see, the gold plates were brought in." I spoke evenly, with no break, as though to give him no space for comment. "You asked me if I thought they had been stolen. I said I knew it. That is how I knew."

I stood up. I did not look at the man. I wished my attention to appear diverted.

A motor arriving at the door; voices in the hall; two persons going into dinner, helped my purpose.

When I did look at Dorm, he was standing behind the big leather couch, his hand on the table, leaning forward. "And so the thief finally brought them in?" he said. His voice was low and careful, like one who feels about covertly in the dark.

"Well," I said, "not precisely that, Sir Eric." I spoke in a large, cheerful manner. "The thief did not bring them in. You see, another expedition went over your route. This expedition brought them in. That would explain the committee's present attitude toward you, and that of Midas here on Long Island. And yet the girl's in it, Sir Eric."

But he had himself in hand. I give him that due. "Where on Warren's trail out did they find the plates hidden?" he said.

"It was not on Warren's trail out," I answered. "It was on your trail out."

I did not look at him. I continued in an even voice: "I asked you a question a moment ago, and you did not answer it: 'If a little fire was meant to boil a kettle, what would a great fire mean?' You did not answer that, Sir Eric. But the one who took this second expedition over your route did answer it. A great fire had been built at your last camp on your way to the coast, after Warren left you. Why this great fire--grasses gathered up over a large area, with labor, for it? There was a purpose in that."

I went on: "I could not guess that purpose, Sir Eric. But the one who led this expedition guessed it. The great fire was to cover the fact that the baked earth at this point on your trail had been disturbed--dug up--to bury something of bulk, to bury the gold plates. There had to be a great fire with ashes over six feet of space."

He kept his posture and his steady voice and he struck clean to the vital query: "Who led this expedition?"

There is a second door to the library in this club. It looks through a bit of hall to the long dining room. For reply I crossed now and opened this door part way, and through the narrow slit of space we could see the girl and Warren at dinner, at a table toward the drawing-room. Changed to an evening dress, the girl was as lovely as a dream; and the boy beyond her a strong, bronze figure, restored to health.

I closed the door and faced Dorm. "It was this American girl," I said. "She did not desert Warren in his need. She went to prove him guiltless. She took that second expedition over your trail. She guessed the meaning of that fire at your last camp; she brought in the plates."

But there was now a light of victory in Dorm's face. "Who would believe her?" he said, "with her interest in Warren. She persuaded him to give the plates up." He repeated with a sneer. "Who would believe her?"

I looked him squarely in the face. "I would believe her," I said.

"And why would you believe her?" The sneer and the light of victory remained.

But they died out at my answer.

"Because I was with her," I informed him with deliberate finality. "Besides"--and I made a trifling gesture--"natives who die from ptomaine poison, Sir Eric, are not found with bullet holes in the skull!"

THE END

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