Open main menu

The Devil's Heirloom/Chapter VI

VIEdit

Both Irene Jeffries and Cube Lacey were present at the inquest. Kohler Andrews and his wife— the latter a dull, large woman apparently honest enough, but knowing little or nothing save what her husband told her— also were summoned and questioned perfunctorily. It developed that the two had served Noah Lacey for eighteen years, that they regarded him as a generous employer, though one given to many cranky notions. Andrews testified that his master long had left the routine portions of his business in the hands of a business manager, Nathan Hardy by name. Andrews— whose name originally had been Politsky— believed that Hardy had bought out a one-third interest. The fact was corroborated later by Hardy himself.

      Noah Lacey never had cared much for the pursuit of money-making. After establishing on a firmer basis his inherited business, he devoted himself, except for eight or ten hours a week, to the artistic side of pottery and ceramics. He had studied abroad, and traveled in the Orient where he had picked up some of the beautiful specimens of fictile art which now decorated his home. He had made much pottery himself, possessing a complete and extensive laboratory in the basement of his house. According to Andrews, however, he had ordered the latter for many years to smash up almost every jar, vase, or completed specimen. “And some of them was worth lots of money, to!” concluded Andrews.

      “How do you know?” flashed Cube Lacey, who had been studying the man’s iron visage. It had seemed that a momentary flash of apprehension— quite as if Andrews had let slip something he had not intended to mention— had come and gone in the witness’s face. Inspector Harris and all the rest turned to regard Cube coldly.

      “I fail to see where that question is at all pertinent,” rebuked the coroner. “You will kindly not interrupt again, Mr. Lacey.”

      Cube nodded resignedly. The inquest proceeded, unearthing nothing incompatible with the theory of death by accident, until Cube himself was called. He told of his relationship to the dead man, of his visit on the previous day, and then presented to the coroner the note which Lacey evidently had written only a short time before his death. Cube had considered it his duty to bring forth this piece of evidence, but it received little attention. Noah Lacey was characterized as a man given to delusions. When Cube attempted to mention the fact that Chinese intruders twice had been seen inside the house despite all precautions against their entry, the fact was waved aside.

      “Before we place any particular value upon that,” replied the coroner, “we must remember that Mr. Lacey continually kept art objects— vases, rugs and other valuable specimens easily transported by thieves— to the value of more than one hundred thousand dollars in the house all the time. I scarcely wonder that he had all these elaborate precautions, or that he was troubled by Chinese thieves. Undoubtedly Chinese not only would appreciate these things most fully, but they would have a ready market, right at hand.”

      The verdict was predestined. Noah Lacey had died through an accident resulting from a fainting spell brought on by poor health. Of all those present outside of Irene Jeffries and Cube, Inspector Harris was the only one who lingered five minutes after the verdict had been given.

      He drew aside Irene and chatted with her a short time, ending by laughing and patting her upon the shoulder in fatherly fashion. Instantly, Cube conceived a dislike for the detective, whose eight years of seniority did not give him any great right to act thus toward a very pretty girl. Cube had considered it his duty to protect Irene, but— well, Harris was different!

      One curious fact in respect to the inquest recurred to Cube later. They had not asked Irene Jeffries a single question! Grimly he smiled at this evidence of inefficiency. In a conscientious manner he had endeavored to put forward all the facts in his possession because he did not feel like assuming the whole burden of responsibility. Now, the law had divorced itself definitely from the case, scoffing at the possibility of crime. If Cube and Sherrod Guest could prove that a murder had been committed, and catch the guilty parties, the affair would prove indeed to be the big, spectacular case for which they had hoped!

      Harris confirmed this in parting. He stopped a moment at the door. “I’ve just placed you, Lacey,” he observed, smiling condescendingly. “You’re the young chap who’s running that new detective agency with Sherrod Guest, eh? Well, take a tip from an old timer. Be content with the dough the old bird leaves you. Don’t waste time trying to make a mystery out of an open-and-shut case.” He nodded affably, and disappeared.

Cube Lacey was under no delusion regarding a possible share in the wealth left by Noah Lacey. He had been offered such a chance and had declined it. Without doubt Irene Jeffries would inherit; at any rate Cube refused to worry over the matter.

      Irene broached the matter of staying longer, as soon as they were alone. “You— won’t need me any more now, will you?” she asked, rather timidly.

      “Need you?” echoed Cube, mystified. “Oh no, I see what you mean. You won’t want to remain in this house over night, naturally. I’ll stay on. There are a few things I want to examine this evening— the workshop downstairs, and so on. If you have a place in the city to which you can go, I’ll expect you in the morning.”

      She glanced at him peculiarly. “That wasn’t exactly what I meant,” she countered. “I— well, since you’re here, there really isn’t any use my coming back, unless you—”

      A light dawned upon Cube. She imagined that he naturally would inherit the house and everything, and that her connection with Noah Lacey was ended! Of course he knew nothing of the circumstances under which she had become his ward, yet Noah Lacey undoubtedly had remembered her handsomely, as he had no other apparent beneficiaries. When his lawyers brought forward his will this would be settled. In the meantime he had no intention of assuming the slightest air of proprietorship.

      “Nothing doing, Ir— hm, Miss Jeffries!” he smiled. “Really, as you ought to know, I’m just in this as a matter of business speculation. I am out to make a name for myself, if possible, and bring to justice the men responsible for my uncle’s death. But you’re the boss, of course.”

      “Thank you. That’s very flattering,” she told him gravely, hiding the merry light that had risen to her eyes. “In that case I shall stay on for a time, Mr. Lacey. My own room is safe enough, and I suppose you’ll want the Andrews pair to stay on.”

      “Yes. I’m not through with Kohler Andrews just yet!” he concluded. “But wouldn’t it be better if you got someone, even a personal maid, to stay with you?”

      “I’m quite capable of taking care of myself, thank you!” she flashed. “Now, about dinner, Mr. Lacey?”

      “Call me Cube!” he begged. “I’ll be very, very formal in addressing you, Miss Jeffries. Really, I won’t presume, but I’ve been Cube to everyone so long I scarcely know my last name, especially when it’s hitched to a Mister. If you’ll do that I’ll— I’ll promise to do my share with the biggest dinner Mrs. Andrews can cook!”

      She shook her head. “I couldn’t think of it!” she retorted. “How would it sound if I took a liberty you did not reciprocate— Cube?”

      “Shake, Irene!” he cried joyfully, thrilling to the sudden knowledge that this girl could be more to him than any of the pretty women he had known previously. She would be a constant gratification to his senses, but beyond that she also possessed the wit and sense of humor so necessary in a real friend and pal.

      After dinner, which was one of the most sumptuous meals that Cube had tasted for months, they searched the upstairs rooms for any sign of intruders, or other assurance that Lacey had met a violent end, but in vain. Irene was tired out, so she retired early. Cube tried to get in touch with Guest, but failed. Next morning after breakfast, Irene conducted him to the basement in the automatic elevator— a hidden device reached by springing back a wall panel of Circassian walnut— which gave the only known means of access to Noah’s laboratory from the upstairs.

      Cube found himself awed by the laboratory. High-ceiled, it formed one huge room corresponding to the entire floor plan of the house. Rows of concrete posts, extending the length of laboratory, supported the weight above. The room, in spite of its size, seemed crammed with apparatus, yet this was not what first caught Cube’s attention. The walls were more striking. Formed entirely of fictile material, they were a conglomerate, apparently, of thousands of experiments with brick, tile, and porcelain. Though cemented together cleverly— pieces the size of mosaics lying side by side with building tiles a yard square on their faces— the whole effect was of highly-colored, patchwork draperies hung all about. Here was every shade of the spectrum, every glaze and finish known to ceramics, flung together in an array like the disassorted fragments of a picture puzzle!

      “Mr. Lacey experimented for years and years, attempting to reproduce pottery and porcelain the equal of those from old China,” Irene explained. “See, here are his earlier bits, near the bottom of the wall. He built it all by hand, as you know. This wall does not support the house. Behind it is another, of ordinary stone and mortar. If you’ll notice, there is a line here,” she paused to indicate an irregular demarcation approximately four feet from the cork-carpeted floor, “which separates quite distinctly his first work from that which he did during the past ten or eleven years. You can see an abrupt difference. Below, the mosaics and tiles are finished and glazed poorly. Above, they possess delicate shading, luster, iridescence, almost like some of those vases and jugs upstairs. I don’t know whether you were told this, or not, but Mr. Lacey made all but five of those vases, and almost every other figure and bit of porcelain in the house! That yellow-brown vase out in the front hall he considered his finest bit. It is an exact reproduction of the Hsien-te nien chih vase by Ch’ai Yao now in the Chinese Government Museum at Peking.”

      Lacey gazed at her astounded. “Do you mean to say,” he demanded, “that my uncle could duplicate these art objects?”

      “Not only that he could duplicate them, hut he could originate vases, urns, and cremation receptacles which the greatest critics pronounced genuine relics of Sung or T’ang periods! Once I remember he was offered three thousand dollars for a tiny piece; offered it by Reynolds Nasmyth, the critic, too! Of course Mr. Lacey didn’t accept, but he chuckled over that for weeks afterward. He considered the offer ample recognition of his efforts. I don’t think he ever told Mr. Nasmyth, who still thinks he lacked only a few thousand dollars of consummating his happiness by actually owning an antique piece of superlative beauty. Mr. Lacey valued that particular piece simply because of the offer. He never would part with it, but he did send as a present to Mr. Nasmyth a water jug purporting to be of Ming porcelain. That jug made the poor man happier than a ten-year-old boy with a new electric engine!

      “Mr. Lacey often told me that if he wanted to hoax the public, he could make more money out of his pottery wheel downstairs than the whole brick business earned. He never did that, however. He was a lover of beauty. I think he planned to make public his processes and secrets. At least he seemed to be writing all of the time he did not spend down here in experimentation.”

      For a time Cube said not a word. In silence he traced the line of difference between Noah’s early work, and that which had formed the culmination of his life of artistic striving. The difference was remarkable.

      “What caused the change, Irene?” he asked. “Do you know?”

      She hesitated. “I have thought it over many times, but I cannot be sure,” she replied. “Perhaps it was the length of time which Mr. Lacey spent in the Orient. It was following that period that he put all these safety devices in and about the house. You see, I have been here only a little over two years. Mr. Lacey was not a man much given to confidences, of course. I only can guess.”

      “Sounds rational enough,” commented Cube. “I have to look it up. Do you think—?”

      His sentence was interrupted by a raucous, horrible squall— an inhuman voice which seemed to come from the ceiling directly overhead.

      “Cube! Cube!” it cried. “Help! They’re tearing me to pieces! Help! Help!”

      “My heavens!” cried Cube, yanking out his automatic and running toward the point from which the sound seemed to emanate. “It’s— that’s Sherrod! Where are you, old man? I’m coming!”