Return to Ramble House Page

Return to Harry Stephen Keeler Page

 

 

THE TIGER SNAKE

 

CHAPTER I

 

QUEER BUSINESS

 

Clifford Carson, seated this sunny morning before the mail that covered his desk in the tiny office of his unique two-room suite on the 24th floor of an American skyscraper, found himself for some strange reason reflecting that it was a long, long call indeed from East India Dock Road, London, to this dignified niche high up in the 333 Building on Michigan Boulevard, Chicago.

Just why the mind of Clifford Carson, mining engineer and agent for the newly-created United States Government department bearing the ponderous name of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of Fraudulent Mining Stocks, should revert, this bright morning of all mornings, to the smoke-grey structures of East India Dock Road was not clear to him; but it may have been a peculiar prescience due to the fact that he was shortly to receive a visitor whose business, strange and unexplainable, was to bring back vivid pictures of swarthy, beturbaned Indian sailors swaggering up Amoy Place and Limehouse Crescent itself as their ships moored in the East India Docks of England’s great city across the seas.

The man whose odd errand was to bring back these vivid pictures of other days, and who even now was gingerly entering the tiny office, was an individual of about forty-five, American beyond doubt, with a crafty—in fact, shifty—look in his eyes. He was well dressed—even flashy in appearance—with his morning coat, his wide-brimmed western hat, and his checked vest with heavy gold watch chain looped across his expansive chest. A thick black cigar held between pudgy fingers emitted a wreath of curly grey smoke. A gold tooth shone as he essayed a smile. He gazed up at the reversed number on the transom above his head, then at Carson himself.

“I take it I’m talking to Mr. Carson—Mr. Cliff Carson? Am I right, young man, or have I stumbled into the wrong stall?”

Carson, arising from his swivel chair, drew out a capacious mahogany chair from the wall. He nodded politely. “Carson’s my name,” he said. And he added in explanation for the still blank glass panel in the office door: “And I haven’t been able to get the signwriter round yet to place my business on my door.”

“And Jennings is my name,” his visitor proffered, dropping down in the chair. Carson resumed his own. “Jake Jennings, from North Dakota.”

“Yes.” The recently appointed agent of the United States Government’s New Bureau of Investigation of Fraudulent Mining Stocks waited politely to see what his flashy visitor wished. The beefy man across from him puffed reflectively at his cigar a second or two, and then spoke.

“Now, let’s get things clear, my friend. This morning I was out to St. Giles Lane, a little English-lookin’ street on the outskirts of this city, with hedges here an’ there, and all that sort of thing. You know where it is, though. The reason I went ’way out there was to see an old gent—a Britisher—by the name of Desmond—Professor Angus Desmond. I had a proposition for him. But the old boy wasn’t in town; so I had to talk things over with his granddaughter, a good-looking young lady of about nineteen or twenty. Miss Marcia Desmond, she told me her name was. I put my proposition up to the young lady, but she told me she’d have to have you hear it and decide on it first. That’s how I got your name and room number here. The facts of the matter are that I gave the young lady a chance to make an easy—a very easy—piece of money. But she wouldn’t consider the proposition until I’d discussed it with you and you’d O.K.’d it. So here I am.” Mr. Jennings passed a hand over his forehead.

Carson smiled. “Miss Marcia Desmond happens to be my fiancée,” he said quietly. “That’s why she sent you to me. She’s all alone just at present.” His smile faded. “Now, just what is your proposition concerning—well—my fiancée, Mr. Jennings?”

The flashily attired individual nodded comprehendingly. “I see,” he said slowly. “I see. Well, my dear sir, here is the proposition in a nutshell. I am in Chicago on a sort of peculiar quest. It’s a quest on which I don’t want any notoriety. Notoriety, my dear sir, I detest. On my way to this city I have been pondering on how I could avoid obnoxious newspaper publicity, and I found what I consider to be the cheapest way out. I may mention, in passing, that the reason I am here in Chicago is that I am trying to secure a Zuri snake.”

“A Zuri snake?” repeated Carson wonderingly. He was frankly puzzled. Also, he wondered just what connection with the securing of a so-called Zuri snake could a certain little brown-eyed lady in St. Giles Lane have, not to mention as well what a Zuri snake itself was. He scented a vague connection between the nature of this flashy stranger’s quest and old ex-professor Angus Desmond, the little brown-eyed lady’s grandfather—but he was still quite in the dark.

“Yes, a Zuri snake, my friend,” Mr. Jennings was saying, shifting his cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other. “This is Monday.” He looked at his watch, an ornate and bulky affair. “And 11 A.M.” He closed his watch. “There is at this moment—and has been since approximately some time yesterday afternoon—Sunday, in other words—a Zuri snake in Chicago, either wandering around loose or already captured by somebody. If it’s been captured, it may be alive in a box—and on the other hand it may already be in a bottle of alcohol. But I know absolutely that the snake is in Chicago. For reasons which I won’t bother you with, I am in the market for the body of that snake, dead or alive; and for that body I stand ready to pay the finder the full and complete sum of one thousand dollars, as well as a neat commission of two hundred and fifty dollars to the agent who handles the negotiations for me.”

“You mean, then, that you’re willing to pay out one thousand, two hundred and fifty dollars to regain the reptile, dead or alive?” repeated Carson. He glanced curiously at the fourth finger of the left hand of the man Jennings. A beautiful blue-white diamond, but square cut and very flat like the oldest of old-fashioned stones, and perhaps a half-carat in weight, scintillated on that finger. The ring which held the stone by four powerful prongs, one curving around each edge of the flat jewel, was of gold, and the band portion, which flared forth into a setting of most peculiar design, was flat and wide. The setting into which it flared consisted of two well-defined Buddhas, facing upward from the wearer’s finger, each grave and austere, one erect to an observer and one, of course, inverted. Both were joined at their waists, and it was that junction which held the stone itself. The ring in addition to being Chinese was indubitably of Chinese gold too, the softest and purest known, for not only had Chinese characters been carved in relief on the broad flat band portion, but that portion was bent and buckled as though the lightest bump it ever received had contributed to altering its rotundity. But, with its flashing stone, the ring seemed to bear silent testimony to its owner’s ability to pay out such a sum as one thousand two hundred and fifty dollars for such an odd object as a reptile.

“Dead or alive—yessir,” said Mr. Jennings emphatically. “All the way into Chicago I’ve been figuring how I can advertise for this snake without bringing down a lot of snooping reporters and publicity on myself. And finally I struck the idea—the very idea, young man. Why not look up some worthy old zoolologist—one of these old boys who’s been pottering around beetles and birds and worms for years inside a college, and then finally been shifted off on to the shelf with a pension that he can hardly support himself on? Why not, says I to myself, give one of these old boys a chance to earn an honest penny by being my agent? An old professor could advertise for such things the year round—and nary a reporter would come snooping round to find a story. But if Jake Jennings tried it—well—good night! Every newspaper in town would send out a man. But there’s a further reason why I need an old professor. This Zuri snake—the particular one I’m looking for—has had its poison glands removed. Now, I’m no zoolologist. I don’t know the poison glands from the tail. And so I need a man who can identify the reptile by the absence of the glands in its body.”

“I take it,” said Carson slowly, “that you located old Professor Angus Desmond through the university with which he used to be associated years ago?”

“Exactly,” declared Mr. Jennings, flicking off the ash from his cigar. “I called up the University of Chicago, and got the information I needed. Seems the old gentleman is a pretty old man now—been on a pension for a good many years, but considerable of a zoologist in his day. Living out in St. Giles Lane, Chicago, they told me. So out I went. St. Giles Lane is sure out in the weeds, I’ll say. And all I found was his grand-daughter, Miss Marcia. The old gentleman, she tells me, is in Havana, Cuba, on some business concerning the family. Well, to cut the story short, the little lady, after listening to my proposition, told me to come to you and outline it to you, and whatever you said would be quite O.K. with her. Understand, I’m ready to pay two hundred and fifty dollars if Miss Desmond in her grandfather’s absence will be my agent—that is, if she’ll allow me to insert my advertisement under the name of Professor Angus Desmond and knock out the newspaper reporters. It’s understood, of course, that she gets the fee only if she succeeds in getting me back my property. It’s only a slight gamble, because she has two hundred and fifty dollars to win—nothing to lose.” Mr. Jennings smiled insinuatingly. “And beg pardon, my young friend, but furniture is high these days. Seems to me I heard you say something about you and the little lady intending to splice up. Perhaps grandfather will donate the use of his name as a wedding present, and that ought to be as good as two hundred and fifty gold dollars to yourself and his charming granddaughter. How about it, eh?”

Carson frowned. He did not like Mr. Jennings for some indefinable reason, in spite of the latter’s elephantine efforts to be friendly; and what he did not particularly like was Mr. Jennings’ facetious attitude concerning Carson’s marriage to the charming young girl who lived with her grandfather in St. Giles Lane.

“What is a Zuri snake?” he asked, abruptly changing the subject. “What does it look like? Also, how do you know this particular snake is in Chicago? And may I ask also just why you are willing to pay this sum for its recovery?”

“A Zuri snake,” said Mr. Jennings affably, “is a bright yellow serpent of medium size. From twelve to eighteen inches they run, in fact. In thickness, not over an inch or an inch and a half. Not a big snake at all, you see. It’s got hundreds of thin, jet black rings around its body. Makes it look like a tiger in a way. In fact, in the circus game it’s called the Indian tiger snake. It’s poisonous—only this particular one isn’t, for the reason I told you a while back. As to how I know it’s in Chicago—well—” Mr. Jennings wrinkled up his brow in deep thought. A pained look came over his face. “It—er—ah—escaped from my wife while she was passing through. She prizes it highly. Sentimental reasons—other reasons as well. Awfully lucky thing that snake, too—wouldn’t part with it for any money, don’t you know?”

“Then you own the snake absolutely?” said Carson, scrutinizing Mr. Jennings’ poker-like countenance.

“I’ll say I own it,” said that gentleman savagely. “Own it, by Jehosephat, from—from its tail to its head.” He paused. “Well, my young friend, how about it? Miss Marcia Desmond has sent me over here to you, her fiancé. Being all alone, I presume she don’t want to make any business decisions by herself. Just like a woman, of course. A charming little woman, if I do say so myself.”

“You’ll turn the one thousand dollars over into our hands immediately, if this particular snake is returned, so that we can make our offer good?”

Mr. Jennings scratched his ear reflectively. “Of course I will. When Jake Jennings says he’ll do a thing, he’ll do it.” He scratched his ear again. “A condition of the payment to the finder is, however, that I be allowed to examine the snake before the money is paid over, so’s I can be ab-so-lutely certain it’s the right one.”

“Fair enough, I guess,” said Carson. “But you state furthermore that you don’t care whether it’s dead or alive. Do I get you right on that?”

“The deader the better,” said Mr. Jennings in a burst of candour. He strove quickly to correct his rather mysterious assertion. “The wife is grieving herself sick over that snake, and I’d just as soon see it in a bottle of alcohol as have to go through this hunt all over again.”

“When would you be willing to pay over the two hundred and fifty dollars fee?” asked Carson pointedly and politely.

“As soon as you ’phone me and tell me you’ve got the blamed reptile. I’ll settle up complete. There’s no doubt we’ll get it if we hop lively, for it escaped nearly in the heart of the city.”

Carson sat back in his chair. Tapping lightly on his desk with his fingertips he reflected. This proposed proceeding, including the motive behind it, as outlined by Mr. Jake Jennings of North Dakota, held in it something that was not quite according to Hoyle. Yet, in spite of the existence of this hidden factor which Mr. Jennings was keeping to himself, Carson found himself unable, try as he might, to scent anything about the transaction that was illegal.

“Well, Mr. Jennings, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. As you learned on your trip out to St. Giles Lane this morning, old Mr. Desmond—Professor Angus Desmond—is in Havana, Cuba, on an errand, and chances of his being back within even a week are very slim. I’ll be frank and say that I think you’re keeping part of this snake business to yourself, but that is obviously not my affair. And I don’t intend to be inquisitive, considering that this is all strictly business. If we—that is, Marcia Desmond and myself, say—insert your advertisement in the papers over the name of her grandfather, who I have no hesitation whatever in saying would concur in the chance to earn some money, we and not he would have to serve as your agents and see the transaction through. That is to say, I myself might have to interview any callers who claimed they had such a snake as you describe. This means that you’d have to take chances on my knowing a Zuri snake when I saw it, let alone knowing whether it had its poison glands in it or not. And I’m not a zoologist like the grandfather of the young lady about whom we’ve been speaking.”

“That’s perfectly all right,” said Mr. Jennings with promptitude and affability. “I’m certain you couldn’t make a mistake on it. It looks exactly like what they call it—a tiger snake. If there’s more than one in Chicago to-day, I’ll buy you a new hat in the bargain. We can’t fail. And I’ll make the final identification before we pay out the reward.”

There was the briefest of pauses, and then Mr. Jennings added a further significant suggestion:

“But we don’t want to fail, my boy. We don’t want to fail! Now I understand there’s a nightly broadcast goes out every night after dinner over one of the big Chicago stations—a broadcast called ‘Ham and Abner read the Ads.’; that you can get a classified ad. thrown on the air in that way. How about it? Is that so? And if it is, about what’s the cost?”

“Yes,” admitted Carson. “Every night over station WXOY, owned by one of our big newspapers, these two negro comedians read each of ten classified ads. appearing in that particular paper, and run a light line of patter after each one. The cost is twenty-five dollars flat, in addition to the lineage cost of the ad. itself. Sometimes Ham and Abner are funny—again they get unusually forced and strained on account of the high pressure impromptu way in which they have to work. But there appear to be hundreds of thousands of fans who listen in faithfully to Ham and Abner. Indeed, WXOY uses two wave lengths on it, one for television and one for audition, and people who have the expensive instruments can even watch the comedians as well as listen in. I rather think—yes—it would pay you to get in on that broadcast. It’s like a fish-net which reaches people who may not read the papers at all.”

“I’ll do exactly that,” said Mr. Jennings promptly, obviously pleased at this additional leverage by which he could comb humanity with a fine-toothed comb. “And you—will you say O.K. on this thing?”

“Probably—but not yet,” replied Carson. “Give me till the early part of this afternoon to see Miss Desmond and find out if she will sanction the use of her grandfather’s name. After all, old Professor Desmond is her grandfather and not mine, you know. If she says yes, I’ll handle the affair on behalf of the Desmond family. Leave me the address where you’re staying, and I’ll ring you this afternoon in plenty of time to get your copy in the evening papers for you and the ad. in to-night’s broadcast. You can then give me word for word over the ’phone what you want inserted—and we’ll endeavour to complete the ad. so that you can avoid the publicity which you dislike so much. Is this satisfactory?”

Mr. Jennings rose, demonstrating experience which told him when an interview was over. He took up his broad western hat. His shifty face smiled agreeably. “Quite satisfactory, young man. I’ll wait for your ring. Call the National Hotel on Van-Buren Street. Ask for Mr. Jake Jennings. And let’s not forget that we need speed on this thing. Every moment is valuable in a case like this. If Mr. Snake ever gets across the city into the outskirts where there’s plenty of scrub and country, it’s good night so far’s recovering him goes. He—or she—whatever it is—will be right in his element.”

Carson rose. “Yes, that’s true. Well, I’ll see Miss Desmond, and ring you up and let you know our decision.”

Mr. Jennings bowed himself out of the small office. Carson sank back in his swivel chair. He sat thinking perplexedly for several minutes. The clock on the wall suddenly striking brought him to his senses. He raised the receiver of his desk ’phone. He dialled it quickly for Central 1991. He waited until a clicking followed, then a girl’s voice:

“Mr. Gordon’s office,” she informed him,

“Is Mr. Gordon in yet?” he inquired.

“Just got in,” she replied, evidently recognizing the voice in which twice that morning the same query had come over the wire to her. “I’ll put him on the line.”

Carson waited. Then a pleasant masculine voice—a booming voice—a voice which suggested the corporation attorney, answered:

“Ramsey Gordon speaking.”

“Mr. Gordon, this is Clifford Carson, the recently appointed investigator for this section of the new Government bureau for the examination of supposed fraudulent mining stocks. My superiors at Washington tell me that you are to be my legal adviser on matters pertaining to the Chicago end of the bureau.”

“Exactly,” said Mr. Gordon cordially.

“Then I’d like to come over and make your acquaintance,” said Carson. “And incidentally, Mr. Gordon, I’ve been trying to get you since late yesterday afternoon, in fact, because I want also to have your legal advice about a rather unusual and unfortunate situation here in Chicago involving a convict—or at least a one-time convict in the Joliet Penitentiary—and a girl who is very close to me. However, for your opinion on this peculiar situation I expect to be billed.”

“Then come right over after lunch, Mr. Carson,” said Ramsey Gordon. “And when you need any casual legal advice on personal matters, don’t hesitate to ask for it. As counsel for several of its miscellaneous departments, the Government is paying me a rather fair yearly stipend, you know. So we don’t have to confine our relationship altogether to mining stocks, you see.”

Carson smiled at the friendly man-to-man-like invitation. Then, making an appointment for one o’clock, he hung up.

With this vital legal meeting taken care of, he fell once more to thinking of the visit of Mr. Jennings of North Dakota and of that latter gentleman’s strange—and it was to be admitted—lucrative proposition. Neither he nor Marcia had much money, considering the unfortunate fact that when this new department in American matters internal had been created by a special and last-minute act of Congress, following out the findings of its committee on mines and raining, it had quixotically provided that its head would be a one-dollar-a-year man until precisely one year from the date of the act, at which time the salary would automatically become six thousand dollars per year with a rising scale. So safely entrenched as he was by his civil service ratings, and by seniority—considering that he was the first man in the bureau—it was but a simple question of hanging on, of expending his own meagre savings as wisely as possible over that one year; and then cashing in on a salary that more than made up for the lone dollar the first year had provided—a salary that meant luxury, even opulence for him and Marcia.

From all of which pleasant considerations Carson’s mind travelled back again, quite naturally, to Mr. Jennings’ offer, dealing as it did, too, with that valuable commodity—money. And realising as he did that generous but straitened old grandfather Desmond, when he returned, would never consent to accept one penny of this two hundred and fifty dollars that might be earned by his granddaughter and the man whom she was going to marry, Carson felt compelled to wonder whether the sum in question wouldn’t materially add to the little apartment they expected to furnish—and to live in—during these slim days when his salary was to stand at only one dollar per year, while they waited for a real pay envelope which Congress had decreed would thereafter be five hundred dollars on the first day of every month. And as his lips unconsciously framed themselves around the word “Zuri,” the object of Mr. Jennings’ quest, he rose suddenly and made his way through a door which led to an adjoining room.

Here, however, the room marked the general nature of the investigations carried on in it as clearly as the tinier outside office failed utterly to give any clue to the kind of business which the two-room suite harboured. Large and square, it was fully four times the size of the outer office. Great mineralogical maps, printed on canvas and rolling up and down upon shade-like rollers from boxlike receptacles containing as many as a half-dozen together, were ranged about the walls at the proper height for convenient scrutiny. Each roller box carried a row of electric bulbs which could be snapped on and off by a turn-screw on the end, and would focus their radiance directly upon any map unrolled. One entire wall was covered with a giant map of the United States, bearing not only thousands of coloured pins, but dozens of tints and combinations of tints, each of which evidently denoted the nature of mineral deposits of some sort.

A huge bookcase held over a hundred books on mining, mineralogy, metallurgy, and the kindred sciences. Charts of statistics of various sorts which opened out like great swinging scrap-books were ranged at different open spaces on the walls. A great square table, lighted by an indirect ceiling light, held the centre of the room. Some distance from it was a small mahogany bookcase holding in it a complete set of encyclopædias.

To this case Carson repaired at once, and from it withdrew the leather volume which carried the letters X to Z. He turned over its pages to the regions of ZU’s—and very soon he found what he was searching for, brief and not particularly illuminating. It ran:

ZURI:—A member of the Colubridæ; inhabiting India. The Zuri is also called the Tiger snake because of its marked resemblance, due to protective mimicry, to the Indian mammal, the tiger. It is one of the very commonest serpents of that portion of the globe, and occurs in all lengths from seven to eighteen inches, seldom exceeding an inch and a half in diameter. The Zuri is poisonous, although not fatally so, and, divested of its poison sacs, is one of the serpents much used by American snake charmers to give colour to their exhibitions. Its appearance is as striking as that of the equally well-known but differently coloured Puff adder. Coral serpent, and Bushmaster, being a bright yellow, almost golden orange, in colour, with very black but narrow rings circling its body from the tip of its tail to its head, most of which black rings are perfectly formed, with occasional broken ones here and there in defective specimens. The lower-caste East Indians have a superstition somewhat similar to the American four-leaf clover belief: namely, that to find a Zuri snake with but one broken ring among those girdling its body brings good fortune. For this reason Indian boys frequently spend hours hunting the Zuri in the belief that they will secure luck by finding the proper specimen.

This was all the encyclopædia, gave. Carson closed up the volume and returned the book to the case.

“One of the commonest, if not the most common, serpents in India,” he said slowly to himself, “and as such worth, in these modern days of efficient trans-oceanic shipping when they can shoot over a crate containing a thousand if necessary, not more than twenty-five dollars at the very most. And the gentleman from North Dakota offers one thousand dollars for one—dead or alive! And his name is Jennings. Jake Jennings! Somewhere in Mr. Jennings’ pile of wood a gentleman of pronounced Ethiopian extraction is hiding—and yet—well, what is it after all to me, to Marcia, or even to Grandfather Desmond? Two hundred and fifty dollars is just exactly two hundred and fifty times the annual salary of this job—or half the monthly salary next year.” He shook his head. “I can’t see but that Marcia and I might just as well have Mr. Jennings’ superfluous two hun-dred and fifty dollars as somebody else. We need it—that’s certain!”

After which presumably sound financial decision, he went back to the outer office, jammed his hat on his head and started out to lunch, so that he could go promptly to Ramsey Gordon’s at one o’clock and secure an opinion upon a very unusual, if not strange, legal situation devolving about a man who once carried, embroidered on the jacket which he daily wore, the scarlet digits 9317—and thence out to Marcia’s to discuss with her the elaborate plans of Mr. Jake Jennings from North Dakota for the spending of one thousand two hundred and fifty dollars.

And at that very moment, as it happened, the actual object of his thoughts, Mr. Jennings himself, stood in the cool dim interior of a little importing shop in Chicago’s Chinatown, in the windows of which baskets of lichee nuts and cans of preserved ginger with bright labels, not to mention strings of dried oysters and starfish pickled in jars of brine, vied in interest to white passers-by with curious idols of jade and handworked tapestries of scarlet cloth carrying dragons worked out in multitudinous gold and silver threads, as well as ivory backscratchers and quaint bronze incense burners. He was, moreover, withdrawing from his finger the curious gold ring which thus far had been adorning it, while the proprietor, a sad-faced old Chinaman of extremely dignified bearing, with black skullcap from beneath which his tired old eyes, sunken with age, gazed forth through silver-rimmed spectacles with a far-away expression, inspected him impassively with hands inserted in the sleeves of his rich blouse of black silk. The very sing-song intonations of his voice, as he addressed Mr. Jennings, together with his air of great venerableness, marked him as one whose spirit would always be that of the old China—the China of oxcarts and ancestors, of ancient ways and elaborate courtesies—as one who would ever hold to contempt the hectic modern world of bobbed-haired Chinese flappers and oblique-eyed sheiks dancing to the jazz music at Wun Sang’s tea-garden in 22nd Street.

“Ong Jin feel mos’ exalted,” he was chanting in extremely idiomatic English which, however, was fairly well enunciated with the exception of the “r’s,” the ever-present stumbling block of his race. “Mos’ exalted,” he was repeating, “to behol’ an’ convelse once mo’ with the mos’ honolable C. Buckman. And fo’ why does Honolable C. Buckman deign to visit Ong Jin’s humble ’stablishment today?”

“Whoowie!—what a memory you’ve got, old boy,” Jennings said admiringly. “Three years—or is it four?—since we last did business?” He thrust forth the ring he had just removed from his finger. “Well, Ong, it’s the same old thing. Here’s my Ling-Cha ring—and I want mazuma, gelt, coin, rocks, or what have you!”

With a resigned gesture the old man reached forth and took the ring. Withdrawing from his blouse pocket a jeweller’s magnifying eyepiece that would have been worthy of the most efficient American pawnbroking establishment, he raised his silver spectacles to his forehead, and stuck the eyepiece somehow into the depression in his head which housed his left eye. Thus optically prepared, as it were, he unlatched in the wall behind him, by a twist of one long-nailed talon, a small solid door or wicket, about ten inches square, indisputably of heavy sheet iron, painted jet black, and set in a powerful iron frame that was part of the wall itself. He swung it inward on its hinges, and clear around to the wall itself, letting instantly into the dim store a bright shaft of clear north daylight that projected itself down from a blue September sky. In this shaft of pure achromatic light he held the ring, surveying it most carefully through the eyepiece, turning it this way and that, and seemingly studying more the handcarved hieroglyphics around the flat band, the peculiar stout prongs which held the stone, and the Buddhas themselves, than the old-fashioned square flat diamond, although he did not neglect to give this, too, a more than cursory inspection. Turning at length in silence, he closed the tiny iron window behind him, locking it with a twist of his fingers, and the sudden destruction of the square beam of light rendered the little shop once more dim and secluded from the great world outside. Facing his customer again, he dropped his eyepiece back into the pocket of his blouse and pulled his silver spectacles back down upon his face.

“How much, Honol’ble C. Buckman? Remembel—I make loan on Ling-Cha ling only undel the law of Eng Chew Yat Fo.” He nodded sagely to the ring as though the “law,” whatever it was, pertained to this bauble only.

“Two hundred and fifty, Ong, same as four years ago,” said Mr. Jennings. “As for your old law of Eng Chew Yat Fo—I’ll play with you on that basis. I always have in other cities anyway. You see, Ong, I’m raising all the money I can get in the world, from every possible source, for an important deal—a really big deal, Ong, which, if it goes over—and things, I tell you, is far more in my favour for it going over than not going over—I can redeem under Eng Chew Yat Fo. Fact is, Ong, I’ve come to a Chinese pawnbroker because I can get double what I can get from a white man on that there trinket, and—” Mr. Jennings was not averse, it seemed, to projecting a bit of blarney.—“and in coming to you, I know I’m coming to a square-dealer!”

The old Chinese gave a scornfully dignified smile. “You’ sobliquet of old Ong as one who hand cards in a lectangula’ manna’ is somew’at pelplexing to Ong’s mind, but he wan’ you to rememba loan is unda law of Eng Chew Yat Fo. That is all.”

“And I say, Ong, it’s O.K. for me. Your law of Eng Chew Yat Fo—the Volstead Law—the Jones Five-and-Ten Law, and the Law of Averages to boot!”

“Velly well.” The old man peered toward a queer chart on the wall, a Chinese calendar perhaps, for its white surface contained scores of columns of black hieroglyphics, interspersed between which were moons in all degrees of fullness and fractions thereof, as well as facing in different directions, with man-in-the-moon visages that were distinctly Mongolian in cast. “So be it. It is now the thi’d moon of Woo—you call him Septembel. That make him the sixth change of moon flom now.”

“C’rrect,” agreed Mr. Jennings. “Or I guess so. Early November some time. I’ll watch the moon though, if I have to keep my head out of the window every night.”

The old Chinese made a world-weary gesture that was that of the pawnbroker the world over—a half shrug of his bent shoulders, his arms raised stiffly from his body halfway, palms down. Turning silently, he drew aside a black curtain which hung a number of feet to one side of the square iron window, a curtain which was on rings and carried embroidered on its surface in bright coloured silks a number of fishes and birds sporting gaily with one another, and this simple action revealed a powerful teakwood door whose equally powerful frame, made of four huge eight-by-eight inch beams of the dark, heavy, unwarpable Eastern wood, was cemented tightly in the wall. Withdrawing from somewhere inside his crinkled neck a long intricate key, amazingly replete with notches of every size and degree, he inserted it in the keyhole of the teakwood door, and swung it open, revealing now a stout closet or cabinet lined with the same wood, on a rack in which was a velvet tray containing various rings of various queer types, some jade bracelets, and a few highly ornate ornaments of gold, looking much as though they might be stomachers belonging to Chinese dowagers. Drawing open a little wooden cash drawer, set within a frame inside this impregnable depository, he counted off in a droning sing-song voice of monosyllabic gutturals twenty-five worn ten-dollar bills in good American money. With the money still hanging from one lean long-nailed talon, he took from a pigeonhole a small oblong of thin shaved wood, about two inches wide by four inches long, an oblong around whose edge a bright scarlet band had been painted, and with a tiny brush sticking in a pot of ink on the worn counter itself, he drew a single complicated hieroglyphic upon the miniature board to the left of its centre. Even as its dry surface sucked up the ink, the intricate character drying almost immediately, he added to the right of the centre a quarter moon, with a small cryptic Chinese sign under it, and then, waiting the barest moment for this, too, to dry, broke the thin board squarely in two in its middle over the edge of the counter so that hieroglyphic remained on one half and moon on the other. Placing the serrated edges of the two jagged pieces of wood together a second, as though to make sure that they matched or fitted, which they did, he handed the former half to Mr. Jennings, and dropped the half with the moon on it into a wooden cigar box within the walled cabinet. This done, he closed the teakwood cubicle and locked it carefully. Money still in hand, he took up an ancient decrepit abacus board with its glistening taut parallel wires carrying their rows of round wooden discs, smooth and shining from decades of handling, and as he spoke the discs clicked and flew from one side of the frame to the other as though they were in truth living things.

“The int’lest by fus’ change of moon is one sixtly-nin’ part,” he instructed. “And the int’lest by secon’ change of moon—w’ich is fi’st moon of Ko, is one folty-two palt. And by secon’ moon of Ko is one thlutty-tlee palt. An’ by—”

“Yes, I know,” Mr. Jennings said impatiently. “And if I redeem by the sixth change of the moon it’ll be fifty bucks and seventeen cents interest, cash of the realm. So let’s go on with the rites, Ong.”

“Velly well.” Ong Jin put down his clicking abacus board. And again he commenced speaking, the money still held back from his customer, his words uttered mechanically as though part of a legal or ethical formality through which both men must pass.

“I now loan to you, Honol’ble Buckman, the sum you so fully desiah. It is mos’ I can loan. I do so with unn’astanding that if you’ deal of gleat magnitude does not come to fluition, even as the Li-Tew tlee of China sometimes fail to bea’ its annual blossom, and the six’ moon flom now pass, then will the gol’ ling of Seven-an’-Sev’nty Sons be the plopelty of Ong Jin and his childlen unto the thousand’ genelation. You accep’?”

“Your understanding is all to the rosy, Ong,” was Mr. Jennings’ now cheerful reply. “Even if ’tis buried in three tons of flowery language. The same old cer’mony! I’ve heard it all before in many a burg. I accept the terms. And now give me the two hundred and fifty. For my deal is already under way!”

 

Return to Ramble House Page

Return to Harry Stephen Keeler Page