The Master of Mysteries/The Heir to Soothoid
THE HEIR TO SOOTHOID
THE mellow barytone of Astro's voice vibrated through the great studio with a note of profound mystery, as he read aloud from Anna Hempstead Branch's poem, The Pilgrim:
"Touch me not, mother, who art thou,
To lay a hand on me?
My soul was driven through sun and moon
Ere I was come to thee!"
Then he dropped the book and gazed at Valeska, his assistant, for a while thoughtfully. She was sitting on the floor, propped up by gorgeous cushions, playing with a huge piece of rock-crystal cut in the form of a tetrahedron. A shaft of light fell on her lap, piercing the obscurity of the apartment. The crystal caught and gathered the rays, then broke them, shattering the white light into streaks of brilliant color. At the other end of the room a spot of radiance appeared on the ceiling, splendid with the hues of a rainbow. She looked up to the Master as he ceased reading.
"There's the poet's immemorial challenge to the monist," he said, almost in a reverie. "It's a cry as old as the world, and, I think, idealistic as it is, mystic as it is, with as sure a foundation as that of modern determinism. But this is modern, too. It voices an idea that, though it has long been common to oriental thought, is new to the western civilizations. What relation, after all, is the son to the father? See how sublimely Miss Branch herself answers that passionate question:
"If thou came out of the moon and star
I plucked thee forth by my desire.
I can hold thee burning in my hand!
It was my hand that shaped the fire!"
Astro rose, and, as was his custom when absorbed in any subject, began to walk up and down the room. His keen dark eyes stared straight in front of him without looking at the priceless decorations of the studio. His hands were clasped behind his back across his red silken robe. His turban nodded as he spoke. Valeska watched him eagerly. These philosophic moods, alternating with the active eager phases of his mind, when he was pursuing the track of some almost insoluble mystery, fascinated her. It was at such times, she thought, that he betrayed his real self.
"There's the purely transcendental side," he said. "But the materialistic miracle is as marvelous, the fact that protoplasm is immortal, that characteristics, physical and mental, are handed down in the infinitesimal cell that persists from generation to generation in the id and the biophore. Tricks of speech and gesture, abnormal formations of the organs of the body, temper, emotion,—all transmitted in that tiny primordial atom! What has science done but induce us to believe the impossible?"
A bronze clock in the anteroom pealed out the hour of ten, preceded by the Westminster chime of four staves of music. Valeska rose, but hesitated, unwilling to interrupt the Seer's soliloquy. But he threw off his absorbed mood, came back to her, and smiled.
"Well," he said, "one must earn one's living. What's on for to-day?"
"You have an appointment with Colonel Mixter at ten."
"Very well. When he comes, show him in. I shall now give an imitation of an oriental adept of the Fifth Circle. Pass me the crystal ball, Valeska, and touch off that incense in the Japanese burner. Am I properly sedate and scornful? Bah! What rubbish it all is—and how it goes with the mob!" He took his favorite position on the couch, drew up his narghile, and assumed a picturesque attitude. Valeska left him and took her place in the reception-room. In ten minutes she ushered in Colonel Mixter, bowed, and left the two together, dropping the black velvet portières behind her. She did not, however, remain in the reception-room. Instead, she passed into a room connecting that with the studio, where in a combination of mirrors she could see all that happened and also hear the talk.
The new client was a military-looking man of some fifty years, with iron-gray hair and a curling white mustache. He had an active air, full of strength and character and showing his habit of command. Scrupulously dressed, immaculately clean, well groomed from head to heels, he was what might have been called both handsome and distinguished in appearance. His voice was crisp and hearty.
"May I smoke?" he asked. "Dashed if I can talk without smoking! I have to treat my confounded nerves like a confounded pack of dogs, confound it! Thanks."
In reply, Astro had drawn up his water-pipe and inhaled a long whiff of the aromatic Russian tobacco that smoldered in the bowl. The colonel produced a cigar, bit off the end, and lighted it.
"I suppose you've seen the advertisements of 'Soothoid,' that chewing-gum stuff, all over the town, haven't you?" he began.
Astro nodded gravely.
"Biggest fake on earth," said the colonel, "and the most remunerative. My old uncle invented it, you know. Conceived the brilliantly vile idea of doping ordinary chicle with a tincture of opium and making chewing-gum of it. 'It soothes the nerves,'—I should say it did!—'Children cry for it,' and all that sort of thing! It's monstrous, of course. It ought to be suppressed by law, and it's only a question of time when this pure-food agitation will knock it out of business. It's a crime against civilization; but all the same it has made four millions for that disreputable old uncle of mine, and now the whole works belong to me. Brings me in eighteen thousand a year. I'm afraid to stop it, and more afraid not to. But that's not the point."
He rolled his cigar from one corner of his mouth to another, flicked a fleck of dust from his spotless trousers, and looked calmly at Astro. The Seer smiled, despite himself, waved his hand dispassionately for the other to proceed, and waited.
"The thing is this," the colonel went on. "I'm an expert on ordnance, and I've traveled all over the world for the government. Never at home from one year's end to another. I came back to find myself immensely rich, last October, and at the same time up against a mystery that it's practically impossible to solve. So I come to you. Understand?"
"Scarcely, as yet," said the Master. "Kindly go on."
"Why, see here. I have a son—or thought I had. Query: Is he my son at all? And if not, who is to inherit the 'Soothoid' millions? That's the question I have to decide right away. I have angina pectoris. I'm likely to die any fine day. I don't want a chap that's no relative of mine to get away with all that money, do I?"
"My dear Colonel," said Astro, "you'll have to give me more information than that, before I decide such a weighty question for you. What do you mean by saying you don't know whether he's your son or not. You mean you suspect—"
The colonel roared. "Oh, lord, no, not that!" he exclaimed. "This is no question of matrimonial infelicity, you know. I'm the father of a child, all right; only, the question is, what child?" He put it very gravely.
"Tell me the whole story." Astro's brows bent on his client.
"Well, then, see here. When the child was born, my wife was in a hospital on Long Island. I wanted her to have the very best of care, especially as I had to be away so much. Well, the night her child was born, the hospital took fire. It spread so quickly that they couldn't get the patients out fast enough. The doctors working over my wife didn't dare leave her, and they worked against time. Just after they finished with her and another case of the same kind, the wing caught, and there was barely time to hustle every one downstairs and outside. Do you see the situation? They had to work quick. Those surgeons showed all sorts of nerve, I can tell you. But in the confusion the two babies were somehow mixed up by the nurse. One was a boy, and one was a girl, born within three minutes of each other. But which was my child, the boy or the girl? That's how it stands. You see, at the time nothing was said to me about any uncertainty. My wife died from the shock; so did the other woman. The boy was given to me as my baby. I never suspected that there was any doubt about it, and have brought him up and educated him as my son."
"But when did you first suspect that he wasn't?" Astro asked.
"Only a month ago. The former nurse told the whole thing. Said it was on her conscience, and had been for years; so much so that she had kept track of both children. The little girl was put in an orphan asylum, as no one came to claim her; then she was adopted by a family in Newark; and now she's a salesgirl at Bloom's candy store. Working behind a counter at six a week, by Jove! and may be my daughter, and the heir to 'Soothoid'! What do you think of that? Wouldn't you worry?" He shoved his hands into his pockets and regarded the Master of Mysteries.
"The nurse isn't sure which is which?"
"No. It has been tormenting her conscience for twenty years, and she had to make a clean breast of it. All she knows is that she 'mixed those babies up'; like Little Buttercup in Pinafore. So I've come to you. Doctors say it positively can't be proved, either way. I thought you might do it by the palms or crystals or something. I've seen 'em do some great stunts in India, and I believe there is something in this occult business. They tell me you have a pretty good record for that sort of thing here in New York."
The Seer waved his hand modestly. "Does the boy resemble you in any way?" he asked.
"Why, he does and he doesn't. You know the way things like that go. I've been told I look like everybody under the sun. I suppose I'm a type. Well, he is, too. Sometimes I think he's like me, and then I doubt it. There's one funny thing, though. We both of us sleep with our thumbs curled up inside our fists. Then he has a second toe longer than his great toe, and so have I. They tell me that's rare. My father had it too, though. He has blue eyes, and so have I. Red hair, though, and there's no trace of that in my family or my wife's, that I know of."
"And the girl—have you seen her?" Astro inquired.
"Of course. Went right down there immediately, and found her behind the counter—selling 'Soothoid,' by Jove! Big pompadour, rats in her hair, brass bangles, and all. What do you expect for six a week, though? If she's my daughter, she'll soon learn how to act the part, don't you worry!"
Astro laughed again. "She hasn't been spoken to about it, I hope?"
"Oh, lord, no! What do you take me for? I wouldn't have her building air castles for the world. I only bought a pound of cheap chocolates and talked to her a little. I've no doubt the poor girl thought I was trying to mash her. She was a nice little thing, though, for all her rats. I liked her, by Jove! I'd like to do something for her in any case, daughter or not. Her name is Miss Maverick."
"Does she resemble you or your wife?"
"Why, the funny part of it is that she does, in a faraway sort of fashion. I noticed that she was lefthanded, too, like me. Blue eyes; but her hair was hennaed, so I couldn't tell about that. Cute little thing, she is. Confound it! I did like her immensely, at first sight."
"Well," said the Seer, after reflecting a while, "I must confess that you have set a difficult problem for me. But I think that it can be determined through astral means. No doubt you have consulted some medium already?"
"Oh, they're all a lot of fakers! They told me that the boy was mine and that the girl was, too, both."
"I agree with you. The ordinary mediums are an ignorant and unscrupulous lot. I have occult methods unknown except in the Himalayas. But it will be difficult, I am afraid. But may I ask you what is the matter with your eyes, Colonel?"
The colonel stared. "My eyes? Nothing except a slight astigmatism. I have some glasses; but I seldom wear them. Why?"
"They seem peculiar to me. You know that the eye has been called the 'window of the soul'. The phrase is trite; but it contains a germ of truth. I can tell a great deal from the eye, as much as from the palm or the voice. If you don't mind, I'd like to examine yours with the ophthalmoscope. My methods are my own; but I don't hesitate to make use of the instruments known to modern science. After all, the ophthalmoscope merely enables one to see through the cornea into the retina and the optic plexus."
With that he called in Valeska, who darkened the great studio. Then she turned on a single electric lamp which had a blue-glass bulb. The thread of incandescent wire showed purple. Then, attaching his instrument to the wires, he went up to the colonel and peered through the little slit in the holder. He gazed for some moments in silence, then switched on the lights again.
"Now," he added, "I have to make a request that may seem absurd. You may have heard of divination by moles. It is an almost unknown art; but, while not absolute, there is much to be learned from the relative disposition of such marks on the human body. Casanova, you may recall, if you have read his memoirs, practised the art, and had a theory regarding the symmetrical distribution of moles. For instance, if one has a mole on the right cheek, there is a probability that there will be another to correspond with it on the left hip. We are tracing, you understand, mere physical heredity. That is all you require, I believe. The relation of souls is far beyond our ken."
"That's true," said the colonel. "People often seem to bear no spiritual relationship to their parents."
"Where the soul comes from will probably always remain unsettled by modern science," Astro agreed. "It is one of the world questions that even Haeckel gave up. Our oriental philosophers have their explanation; but for that one has to know the whole lore of the Vedantic sacred books. But there are laws that govern the transmission of physical characteristics. Now, therefore, if you will kindly step into this room and remove your clothes, I shall chart your birthmarks and compare them with your horoscope."
Ten minutes later the Seer joined Valeska in the studio. In his hand was a little diagram, an outline of the human form shown in four positions, from the front and back, the right and left sides. Little crosses were marked where the moles on the colonel's body appeared. He handed it to his assistant with a wink, and she left immediately. The colonel came in soon after, as faultlessly dressed as ever, and, after a few more questions from Astro, was permitted to take his leave.
"Now," said Astro, when he was again alone with Valeska, "you have a delicate piece of detective work to do. Do you think you can get a position in Bloom's confectionery store and scrape up an acquaintance with Miss Maverick?"
"I shall be delighted to try," was her reply. "I suppose I'll earn six dollars a week at it, won't I?"
"Colonel Mixter is worth millions. I expect it will pay you pretty well."
"Besides being lots of fun!" Valeska's eyes shone. "But, really, it seems to me that there's a much simpler way of settling the question. Why not marry young Mixter to Miss Maverick? Then, whoever is the true heir, he or she'll have the use of the money."
"That is exactly what I propose to do. It's the only solution possible. Heredity can't be proved by any method known to modern science, of course; but we'll have to make three persons believe that it can. I believe I can convince them all. At any rate, it's as pretty a task as the other, and you ought to be able to manage it, if any one can."
"Oh, you can't make a person fall in love so easily as that!" said Valeska, turning away.
"I think you could make any one fall in love," he answered, gazing at her.
For a while there was silence between them. Then with apparent effort, he took up the subject they had left.
"The evidence is pretty equally balanced between the two," he said. "The son curls in his thumb in his sleep; but many do that. The same with the long second toe. Both have blue eyes; so that's no test. The girl affects him mentally, or spiritually; but that's merely sentimental evidence. Her sinistrality, of course, amounts to nothing, nor does the faint resemblance he remarked to himself. We have to have some positive physical abnormality in order to appear to prove heredity. Mere probability doesn't count."
"How about finger prints?" Valeska asked.
"We know little of that. We have no records of hereditary transmission in that direction. It's too bad."
"What was the ophthalmoscope test for? And why all that patter of moles and birthmarks?"
"A mere shot in the air! Do you know what I brought down, though? The colonel has an optic disk—that's where the optic nerve comes into the retina—of a most peculiar shape, like an angel's wings. I just stumbled on it, in the hope of finding something peculiar that wouldn't appear to any observer. Also, he has a curious red birthmark of almost the same shape on his left shoulder. I saw it when I was pretending to diagram the moles. Now what we have to do is to examine both youngsters in some way. You'll have to patch up a friendship with the girl, Miss Maverick, while I investigate the boy. His father will help in that. I'll fix it: Have a doctor's sign painted on the door of my laboratory, and with the father's directions, medically inspect the lad for life insurance. That's easy. If we find one of the stigmata, the proof will be strong enough. Should we find two, it may be called positive certainty."
A week afterward found Valeska behind the counter at Bloom's, dressed in white, with a pompadour as big as any of those in the shop, selling candy and soda-water. Her bare arms were heavy with bracelets, her language was slangy and facetious. Her companion at the counter was Miss Maverick, known to the other employees as Bessie. It did not take Valeska long to create a friendship.
Bessie was a demure little miss, who did not by any means tell all she knew to a chance acquaintance. But Valeska asked no questions. Her conversation was a monologue, apparently artless, but cleverly contrived to throw the most suspicious off her guard. She asked Bessie's advice on this and that; she fished for Bessie's compliments; she gave Bessie hardly a chance for a word. A week went by without a move in the desired direction. Then Valeska came to the shop with a tale of misfortune, of a lost purse and other pathetic details. Bessie offered to share her own room with her. From that moment all was easy. Valeska gradually talked less; Bessie gradually talked more. The two soon became real friends.
Valeska's first report to Astro was sensational. "What do you think?" she announced, "Bessie knows all about the 'Soothoid' affair, and the colonel, and even the colonel's son! One of those mediums gave the whole thing away to her, and tried to get her to stand in with him to claim the heirship of the estate. But she's the squarest little brick in the world, Bessie is! She's a dear; she's pure gold! She has looked up the colonel's business herself, and is all ready to fall in love with the colonel's son, just for himself alone. It's going to be easier than I thought."
"But how about the birthmarks?" Astro inquired.
"Oh, you've no idea how hard it was to find that out, till she had a little touch of rheumatism. Then I offered to rub liniment on her back, and—well, she has a birthmark, something the shape of what you said, an angel's wings."
"What?" Astro cried.
"It's true. And how about Willie Mixter?"
"Well, he has a birthmark, too," said Astro.
Valeska burst into a laugh. "Thereby proving that the earth is round, or something like that, doesn't it? Well, what to do now, I don't see."
"You forget the ophthalmoscope."
"Have you looked at Willie's eyes?"
"Yes, and his optic disk is the ordinary, irregular circle."
"Oh, I'm so glad! Then there's a chance for Bessie's making good for the 'Soothoid' millions."
"If you can get her up here for me to examine her eyes."
"But what if, after all, I can make the match without?"
"Oh, I spoke to the colonel about that. He'd be delighted. He really has taken a fancy to Bessie."
"Then Willie must see her."
"I agree. And I've been thinking that in any case Willie should be told. If he loses his money, he'll have to know, anyway. And I see no reason why he shouldn't know now. He's really a fine chap, a gentleman in every sense of the word. If I know anything of psychology, the thing will appeal to him as immensely romantic."
It was with the keenest interest, therefore, that Valeska, three days later, saw Willie Mixter enter Bloom's, cast his eyes about the shop, and walk toward the counter behind which Bessie Maverick stood. She saw Bessie blush; but the conversation was too low to be overheard. When the time came for the girls to leave the shop, instead of Bessie's accompanying Valeska to their room, she excused herself and went off alone. Valeska followed at a discreet distance. In five minutes she saw Willie Mixter overtake Bessie, and the two walked off like old friends.
The next day he came in again. Valeska asked no questions. Bessie had grown reserved. But she did not go this night, either, to the little dairy place where the two girls usually took their dinner. So it went on for another week, Bessie seeing the rich young fellow two or three times.
That next Sunday, as the two girls sat in their little room on East Nineteenth Street, Bessie began to cry. Valeska's arm was about her neck immediately, and, through her sobs, Bessie came out with the whole story.
"He wants to marry me!" she confessed. "And I love him so much that I won't! I know it's all on account of this miserable money, and he only wants to be fair with me, and divide. I simply can't accept him on that account! He'd think, anyway, I was after him on account of his money, even if I didn't think he was after me only because of his conscience. It's hopeless, my dear, hopeless! I hope I'll die and end it that way! I wish I might never see a package of 'Soothoid' again as long as I live!"
"Oh, of course you'll marry him!" Valeska said. "I'm sure he's in love with you."
"He is not! He talks all the time about our dividing the money; so I'm sure he only wants to arrange it like one of those royal family complications I've read about. I've got to tell some one!" she went on. "I'm breaking my heart with it. I have no mother and no father," here she broke off to stare wildly at Valeska, "unless the colonel is my father; and so I tell you! Oh, dear! it can never be settled! That's the horrible part of it. If that horrid old nurse had only been more careful of us!" and she laughed through her tears hysterically. "What shall I do, Valeska, what shall I do?"
"Do you really want my advice?" Valeska asked. Bessie snuggled closer to her friend.
"I have a friend," Valeska said slowly, "a man whom I know you can trust. He is the wisest person in the world, it seems to me. He has been my friend a long time. He saved me from what was worse than death."
"Are you in love with him?" Bessie interrupted.
Valeska ignored the remark. "He is a palmist and an astrologer, and I used to work for him. He has solved some of the most astonishing mysteries in this city. He is continually doing good. You can be sure of him."
"What must I do?" Bessie demanded.
"He knows all about you," said Valeska. "The colonel has told him everything, and Astro, my friend, has agreed to help solve the problem. I know I can trust you, when I tell you this. I want you to see him and ask his advice."
"I will!" Bessie rose with determination. "I'll just leave it all to him. He can't make it any worse than to tell me that I'm not the colonel's daughter, and then that will settle it. Let's go and call on him now."
Astro looked up in surprise when he saw the two girls enter the studio. A secret glance from Valeska told him the truth. He nodded, and welcomed the visitor.
"I've told her everything," said Valeska. "She can be trusted. You will take my word for it, I know. And she's ready for the ophthalmoscope test."
"Is it really a proof?" Bessie asked timidly.
"My dear girl," said Astro, "if your optic disk shows itself to be the ordinary circle, nothing whatever will be proved, and the chances are equal as between you and Willie. If, on the contrary it appears like your father's—I mean the colonel's—it will be ten thousand to one that you are descended from him; that you are, in fact, his daughter. Now, Valeska, put down the lights and light the blue bulb."
The room became dim and full of shadows. The incandescent wire of the electric lamp showed a rich purple. Astro took up the instrument, placed it in front of Miss Maverick's eyes and stared through the aperture.
"Come here, Valeska!"
He handed her the ophthalmoscope, adjusted it, and bade her look. Valeska gazed into the retina of Bessie's eye. At first she could distinguish nothing. Slowly she perceived the warm pink back of the eye, and in the center a ruddy spot. It was the optic disk—shaped like an angel's wings! She dropped the instrument and clasped Bessie in her arms.
"Bessie Mixter!" she exclaimed.
"No!" Bessie jumped up, staring. For a moment she stood silent, then she grasped Astro's hand.
"Oh, you won't tell him, will you?" she pleaded. "Promise me you won't ever, ever let him know! I don't want the money! I want Willie to have it, as he's always had it! Don't let him ever, ever know!"
"But it's yours!" Valeska exclaimed.
"I don't care. Don't you understand, Valeska?"
"Yes!" Bessie cast down her eyes.
"Then you'll marry him, now you know that the money's rightfully yours?"
Bessie drew herself up. "Of course!" she said. "Wouldn't you?"
"It's too much for me," said Astro.
"That," said Valeska, "is because you are only a man."
"I know I'm supposed not to know anything about love," he said gloomily.
"Nothing at all!" Valeska's tone was decisive."And I'll have a father after all!" cried Bessie. "That's the best part of it! I've wanted a father all
"Now Valeska, put down the lights and light the blue bulb."
Astro watched her keenly. "It would be rather pleasant to have a daughter like that," he muttered to himself, and walked into the laboratory with a thoughtful scowl.