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The Devil's Heirloom/Chapter VIII

VIIIEdit

By nature something of a fatalist himself, Sherrod Guest did not struggle longer against either the smothering cloth or the ropes which trussed his arms and legs. Upon loss of the automatic he realized resistance to be useless. Trusting himself to the tender mercies of Sam Lee Moy— particularly, when engaged upon a deliberate quest of the men who had wrecked his office— had been the ultimate in folly. Regrets were of no avail now, however. He felt himself borne on swiftly along a corridor which seemed ever to descend and turn to the left. Judging that he had been below street level at the moment he had been overpowered, Guest’s imagination ran away within him. Though actual descent was only in the neighborhood of fifteen feet, he would have sworn that he was being taken to the very bowels of the limestone stratum underlying Chicago.

      The padding of slippered feet on earthen floor came to an abrupt end. Guest was then thrown down like a sack of potatoes. Strong hands fastened upon his feet, dragged him forward until he felt himself suspended over vacancy— with only shoulders and heels touching upon solid ground. His feet were fastened to stakes in a fashion which allowed him freedom of movement only through six or eight inches. Then the rope binding his ankles was removed. His wrists were retied, being fastened down rigidly across his waist. Then the smothering cloth was removed.

      Guest found himself blinking in the smoky radiance of seven large lamps with floating wicks. The oil being consumed possessed a strange, sickly sweet aroma; it furnished a yellowish-green glare of light most unpleasant to Occidental eyes. The chamber itself was perhaps twenty feet by twelve in size, with ceiling reinforced by rough beams, supported by thin wooden shafts of rickety, insecure appearance.

      Squatting on mats in a semi-circle before him sat seven Chinese, all of them smoking long-stemmed pipes and betraying not by the flicker of a muscle the fact that they were aware of his presence.

      Four more Chinese, heavy-set, unintelligent-appearing specimens of the coolie class, completed arrangements in regard to Guest. One placed a black lacquered box, of approximately a bushel capacity, on the prisoner’s middle, lashing it into place by a rope attached to two handles on the sides. Another drew down a curious spout or pipe of wood, until its ends swung one foot above the box. A third Chinaman pulled on a heavy gauntlet of leather which reached up above his elbow. Then, kneeling, he plunged his arm down into the black void beneath Guest, who had been straining his muscles to keep from slumping into this hole.

      The Chinaman came up with a wriggling serpent the length of his arm clutched in the gauntlet. The snake, grasped firmly just behind the head, writhed earnestly in an attempt to escape, but in vain. The Chinaman, maintaining the same grim silence, held it up before Guest, who realized with a shudder, that it was a copperhead, the deadliest snake of North America. Then the coolie tossed back the serpent into its hole in the ground. Sherrod Guest, though his joints were beginning to ache, found new incentive to keep himself from slipping head first into that pit.

      He smiled grimly. “Well,” he remarked, his voice echoing strangely in the inclosed chamber, “the party seems to be ready to proceed. May I inquire why I am the recipient of such elaborate attention?”

      Not a word came from any of the Chinamen. They continued smoking imperturbably. The four coolies, their tasks completed, turned and left the chamber by the single entrance. At that moment Guest, squirming in discomfort from his strained position, observed something which brought a gasp of dismay to his lips. The wooden spout which had been pulled into position above the box on his waist, led upward to a large container, raised to the ceiling by means of wooden stilts. From the mouth of the spout now a whitish, powdery trickle began. It fell directly into the box, a tiny stream of sand scarcely as thick as a shoe lace, and seemingly innocent of all ability for harm. Quietly, implacably it continued, however, while the seven Chinese sat and smoked. If they saw Guest or the sinister trickle of sand at all they gave no sign.

      Cold perspiration broke out on the captive’s forehead. There was no need to tell him the diabolical plan. Already his body sagged merely from its own weight. Continually, as he remembered that hideous wriggling death beneath him in the pit, his muscles tensed and strained. Even without the sand it would be only the space of an hour or two at most before he would be able no longer to hold himself stiffly in this position. The weight of sand, though scarcely a matter of ounces yet, would increase steadily, surely until it crushed him down. In spite of natural bravery and fortitude a cry of horror was wrung from his lips.

      As if this had been the signal awaited, one of these seven smokers arose and waddled to his side, gazing down at Guest in impassive silence. The latter decided not to give the watchers the comfort of hearing him voice his terror; but at length he knew that the Oriental would stand there immobile for hours if necessary. Guest shuddered. “Oh, what is it you want? Why have you brought me here?” he cried.

      “You and your honored companion, Mr. Kuban Lacey, have received the accumulated wisdom of Cho Keng Lu and Chingte Chien T’ao Lu. This is our property and for it we have searched twelve years. Only because of greed of a white man who was treacherous to his master did we come upon any trace of it. Already it has cost the life of the guilty man, he who robbed our tong. His purpose was known. You and his kinsman, Lacey, were given charge of the treasure. Because we know that you are not sufficiently skilled to betray any of the secrets, without the manuals by which to proceed, we offer to you, to Kuban Lacey, and to the woman known as Irene Jeffries freedom and life in exchange for complete restitution of that which we seek. Otherwise—” He motioned significantly at the trickling sand.

      The offer was almost as intelligible to Sherrod Guest as if it had been couched in Sanskrit. He realized that this was indeed an assemblage of the T’ao tong, and that the quiet yellow men before him were not of the type that wastes either words or actions. Even the spokesman, who used academic English with not even a trace of sing-song accent, impressed Guest as being in deadly earnest. The weight of sand, now becoming appreciable against his chest and stomach, backed up the threat with unmistakable vigor. Guest was certain that if he could not appease these men he had only a matter of minutes to live, yet the most desperate striving of imagination could not encompass the nature of treasure supposed to have been given into his keeping. Noah Lacey might have passed something to Cube, but if so the latter had not mentioned the fact.

      Controlling his voice as best he could, Guest professed entire ignorance of what was desired from him. He possessed no treasure of any kind. He was no coward, however, and did not pretend bravado or bluster. In this subterranean chamber, cut off by his own folly from any chance of communication or help, he simply could disappear— after whatever tortures these silent, serious men deemed necessary. Nevertheless he pleaded to be told more concerning the mysterious treasure, explaining in brief sentences that he had sought out members of the T’ao tong for the reason of investigating the wrecking of his own offices. Had these Celestials expected to find the treasure there? The last words came from him with difficulty. Muscles of back, legs and chest ached fiercely now, and each breath was torture in itself.

      The tong man who had delivered the ultimatum, however, folded his arms and stared down at the victim in impassive silence.

      Apparently he considered further words a waste of time. he would wait, wait, until the desired confession burst from the prisoner’s lips, or paralyzed muscles gave way beneath the mounting weight of sand.

      In vain Sherrod argued and pleaded for a chance to ask his partner concerning the treasure, and denied utterly any knowledge of it. The Chinaman remained unmoved and silent, and the sand trickled down. Not a sound came from any of the other six. At last Guest understood. He was doomed. From that moment he lapsed into dogged silence. Labored breathing came in gusts between set teeth. He hung on valiantly, blindly, but without a vestige of hope. Fifteen minutes passed. Twenty. The end came suddenly. Overwrought nature surrendered. Guest fainted.

      Through dim beginnings of regained consciousness he was aware mainly of a sensation of surprise that he still lived. Sand was in his eyes, nostrils and all over his body. The contents of the box had overturned upon him when he fell. What had become of the snake?

      He simply had underestimated his foes. They had carried out their threat to the dénouement they had expected, but had saved him from death— for further torture. The serpent evidently had been removed from below.

      He was in a different position now, held to the wall of the chamber by a shackle attached to one ankle, and another which fitted closely about his neck in the form of a brass collar. A chain, attached to the latter, looped loosely upward to disappear through an interstice in the wall.

      The Chinamen had disappeared. The only other living thing in the chamber beside himself was a wise, nonchalant-appearing parrot who perched himself across on the end of the sand spout, which now was shut off. “Well, Polly,” began Sherrod ruefully, “what are they doing to you?

      The bird turned and eyed him sidewise. “Murder! Tear him to pieces; Awk!” remarked the parrot with grave indifference, biting off his lurid words with impassive gusto.

      In spite of his predicament Guest chuckled. The mirth was short-lived, however. Of a sudden he felt himself jerked upward to his toes. The slack in the chain attached to his collar had been taken up! He was stretched to extreme height along the wall, with chin uptilted by the collar of brass.

      Five seconds, ten seconds, he stood thus, wondering what would come next. Then behind him in the wall sounded a dull click, as of a pawl slipping one notch over ratchet wheel. The chain attached to the brass collar tightened the length of a single link!

      How long he stood there he never knew. It seemed a nightmare of hours, but probably only minutes passed before the same Chinaman who had presided over the previous torture, appeared. The latter bowed gravely to the prisoner.

      “It is a maxim of law in your country,” he began suavely, halting before Guest, “that a man cannot be executed or punished twice for the same offense. There is no such custom in my country. There a man may die a hundred deaths—” he paused significantly, gesturing at the shackles.

      “But I swear to you that I know nothing of what you want!” cried Guest, his voice cracking under the strain of the collar on his throat. At that moment a second click and tightening of the chain informed him that the diabolical device would continue to strain at his frame until ligaments were torn from joints, or his neck broken.

      “That is our misfortune, and the misfortune of several of your people,” countered the Oriental gravely. “Right now through the corridors near here your friend Mr. Lacey is searching for you. He has several policemen with him, but they will be unsuccessful in their search. The chambers are sound-proof, so you may call to him as you will.” He bowed again and departed.

      Until the chain had tightened two more links Sherrod Guest shut his lips against the cry of useless warning and appeal for help he craved to utter, but then it was torn from his lips. He could have guessed— if time for cold examination of the statement had been given to him— that Cube Lacey was not in this section of the city. Time had not been given for tracing the movements of Sherrod Guest, but the latter was too disturbed for careful thinking. He cried out warnings and appeals for help at the top of his lungs. The parrot, still perched upon the sand spout, squawked out his agonized cries in ghastly imitation.