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The Devil's Heirloom/Chapter II

IIEdit

In the past Cube Lacey had heard of Brick Knob— the unalluring name by which the home of his queer relative was known to newspaper men and the public. Built on a small rise of ground— the highest semblance of a hill within pistol shot of the lake for miles along the shore— it had now, because of high-rise construction, become completely hidden on three sides by a surrounding ring of tall apartment buildings. Only from the front was there access to the small estate, and here a seven-foot wall of brick, surmounted by broken bottles set in the mortar, barred the view of pedestrians.

      Cube located a gate in center of this forbidding wall and tried to open it. It was locked. He found a bell at one side, however, and pressed the button. While he waited, he noted the curious fact that this door seemed to be of solid, wrought bronze, as massive as cathedral doors of the Old World. It could have withstood an assault by anything less potent than nitroglycerine.

      Five minutes passed. Then a sharp click drew his attention. At the center of the door a panel had been slid aside; in the oblong aperture was framed the stern forbidding face of a man of middle age, lean, clean-shaven, and with grayish skin drawn tightly across protuberant cheek bones. Unmistakable print of a Slavic ancestry lay in both features and expression. Lacey knew instantly that this could not be his father’s brother.

      “What do you want?” The voice was cold, uncompromising. Lacey guessed irrelevantly that Brick Knob was no favorite resort for hoboes now. Briefly, he explained his errand and tendered business card. One lean claw reached upward to the aperture and seized the pasteboard. A noncommittal grunt was followed by the terse adjuration to wait. Lacey obeyed. As the panel had been left open he took the liberty of watching the figure of this guardian of the gate as he returned toward the house.

      Lacey saw a tall, thin man clad in black; a man who stooped slightly as he walked, yet whose figure suggested wiry strength and a resilience of sinew not yet corroded by age. The man probably would prove to be a house servant, though he seemed almost too serious and earnest for such a place. The yard across which he passed was drifted with half an inch of light snow, yet Lacey discerned that the newspapers had told the truth. It was paved entirely with brick. Not a shrub, tree, bench or pergola broke the bare, slanting expanse, which rose like the head of a mushroom to a low summit on which was placed the squat bungalow of brick— that type of architecture which conceals from any casual observer the actual immensity of any building.

      The black-clad man moved straight for a flight of stairs giving upward to a broad veranda. Nearing the house Lacey saw him act in a peculiar manner. Suddenly breaking into a run he hastened awkwardly for six or seven steps, and then launched himself in a gigantic stride which covered at least two yards of the brick paving, and which landed him at the foot of the steps. Carried forward by his own impetus he took the latter three at a time, opened a pair of doors, and disappeared, carefully slamming these behind him.

      Lacey whistled. Playful skittishness in a stern man of middle age is too unusual a trait not to excite wonder. Also, the rate of speed at which the servant had started to bear his message back to the house had not been suggestive in any manner of haste. The mad caper, and, indeed, the whole layout of house and grounds, were incomprehensible to Lacey, but he foresaw with distinctness that this wealthy relative of his was going to prove to be a curious character indeed.

      A matter of what seemed more immediate personal interest drove milder speculation from his mind for the moment, however. Happening to glance across the narrow, motor thoroughfare, he noticed a well-dressed Chinaman sauntering slowly down the sidewalk. Though he could not be certain from that distance, Lacey thought that this was the same man who had followed him from his office building, and on the motor bus. At any rate he was certain that never before had he noticed so many Chinese in Occidental dress upon the streets of Chicago. He followed the casual stroller with his eyes until the latter reached and became lost in a crowd at the corner. Then Lacey swung about in time to see the black-clad man returning. The man now seemed to have lost all his madcap spirit of frolic and hurry. He descended the steps slowly and stalked straight across the intervening space.

      “Just a moment, sir,” he said, a new hint of deference in his tone. Lacey heard the clank of a chain and the metallic ring of the ponderous lock. Then the massive door swung open three feet— to be closed, locked and chained immediately after Cube had entered. “Mr. Lacey will see you directly, sir.”

      The two crossed the yard together. Lacey watched for the space where the other’s original footprints were spaced by his leap. He noted another curious fact. Three sets of tracks led across the snow, of course. Only one of these showed prints spaced normally. Coming first to answer his ring, and then while returning with the card, the man had leaped across this space! Lacey could be certain because the scuffed spots the man had made in slipping as he landed, were at opposite sides. Twice? Why had the man leaped across the identical spot a second time? It could not be coincidence. Lacey stepped gingerly, falling half a pace behind his guide, who strode across without paying any attention. As Lacey’s shoes pressed upon this two-yard interval his hands clenched suddenly in astonishment. Though the sensation was almost imperceptible— something which could not have been noticed unless under close, direct observation— it seemed that the solid brick gave ever so slightly beneath his weight! He was allowed no time for investigation or surmise, though. His guide ushered him into a broad hallway, turning as before to lock the doors with meticulous care.

      This hallway appeared to be more of a lounge or den from the luxurious manner in which it was furnished. Sumptuous furniture was placed negligently about, and thick rugs the names of which Lacey could not even guess— realizing only that they were costly importations from the Orient— made footsteps soundless. On a taboret, below open crowded book shelves lining one side of the wall, in a double row, squatted a small bronze Buddha, his mask-like features illumined faintly by a Tiffany-shaded lamp which stood nearby.

      On a stand of its own, in a small alcove opposite, reposed a single magnificent vase over two feet in height. In shape it appeared to be designed to hold long-stemmed lilies, though no flowers were in it at that time. Because indirect lights in the walls shed their glow upon it, Lacey saw that it was mottled brown in color, but holding in its glazed surface a curious pearly iridescence reminiscent of the finest work from the Sung period of Chinese art.

      In his early days on the paper, Cube had been forced to cram on the subject of pottery and porcelain for the purpose of reporting various exhibits, so he realized that if this vase were genuine— and none of the other furnishings of the hall were of cheap or gaudy nature— it must be of greater value even than the long-napped rugs. One eight-panelled jar of somewhat similar surface, only somewhat larger than a tobacco humidor, Lacey had seen on sale for five thousand dollars. He stepped a pace nearer to indulge pardonable curiosity. . . .

      “A remarkable piece of work, don’t you think?” asked a quiet voice at his elbow, a woman’s voice!

      “Yes— eh, I mean, I beg your pardon, miss! I didn’t hear you. Certainly a piece of art. Chinese, isn’t it?”

      Lacey had whirled, for an instant off his guard, but quickly regained composure. He saw that he would need it in this strange house, for not only had this girl appeared in the moment he had spent glancing at the vase, but the servant had vanished! He had heard no doors open or close.

      His glance rested upon a slim figure, a woman lacking only a hand’s breadth of his own five feet eleven inches of height. A woman in her early twenties, he decided, and one who knew well how to dress to accentuate a most alluring patrician grace. Her face fascinated him, not because of great beauty, hut because all of the features were intended for place in a visage of superlative feminine charm— save only her eyes. These he could not distinguish, as over them lay a distinctly ugly pair of tortoise-shell spectacles, colored spectacles! These lent an odd twist of studiousness to her expression— a quality which a soft curve of chin and lips seemed to laugh at, and which impressed Lacey with a sudden, curious desire to analyze.

      She was speaking. Vaguely he realized that she had disclaimed technical knowledge of the vase. Then her next sentence came home to him sharply. “You must pardon uncle if he seems a little grouchy. He has been rather seriously ill the past two or three days. I didn’t think him able to see visitors, but he says he called you on the phone and wants very much to see you. You are his nephew, are you not?”

      “Yes, Kuban Lacey,” he affirmed. Uncle! She had called Noah that. Did it mean that she was his own cousin? He asked.

      She shook her head. Lips below those enormous glasses curved upward slightly. “No, not my real uncle,” she replied, and he felt rather uncomfortably that the hidden eyes were taking his measure with exactness. “My name is Irene Jeffries. I’m his ward, and he insists upon me calling him Uncle Noah while I’m here. His suite is straight back, at the right as you enter. Go ahead. I’ll open the door. Unless it seems necessary, don’t stay with him long, please. He seems weak.”

      He obeyed, draping his overcoat over his arm. She did not accompany him, but stood still, looking after him in an attitude of expectancy. He wondered, with a surge of sardonic humor, if she thought he had come to fawn upon his wealthy relative, perhaps to win a substantial place in the manufacturer’s will. But no. This was not that sort of a girl. If only she would grant him a glance at her eyes she might do her worst with Noah Lacey and his millions. Cube had no expectation of being remembered in anyone’s will, and had no intention of toadying to secure such recognition.

      To his surprise he saw a door opening before him. He glanced back, to see the girl nod at him to enter. The second he did so the tall panel— a door without knob or hinges that he could discern— fell silently and swiftly back into place. An exclamation rose to his lips. No one in sight in the great chamber beyond. No one, seemingly, had opened or closed the door.

      “Mr. Lacey?” he questioned, suddenly experiencing a queer chill along his spine. His voice rang emptily in the silence. The chamber, evidently one of a three-room suite, was empty, though the high-posted bed at one side showed evidences of recent occupancy. Framed tapestries on the walls, shelves of priceless porcelain, and a collection of jades on a long table accentuated the Oriental atmosphere, which had been apparent in the entrance corridor. Archaic Sung and T’ang figurines were grouped with three draped, terra-cotta, female figures, the last the only Occidental note in all the chamber. Lacey was not certain, but guessed them to be Tanagras, brought into juxtaposition with the Chinese art objects, perhaps for purposes of comparison.

      Lacey, in doubt whether or not to proceed further, was urged onward by premonition that all was not well with the invalid— if Noah now deserved that appellation. Tapestry portières at the doorway to one of the adjoining chambers had been slid aside. Half in trepidation Lacey advanced; finding himself rising to tiptoe, even though rugs would have muffled his footsteps. In the doorway he stopped, momentarily petrified by the sight which met his eyes. At the opposite side of the adjoining room sat Noah Lacey, arms hanging limply over the sides of a deep leather chair, head fallen backward, and sightless eyes— staring wide open from chalky mask of countenance— fastened upon a point on the ceiling at one side.