“A Once-In-A-Lifetime Kind of Chance”
These are the Four that are never content,
that have never been filled since the Dews began–
Jacala’s mouth, and the glut of the Kite,
and the hands of the Ape, and the Eyes of Man.
-Rudyard Kipling, The King’s Ankus
A steerage passage to London was the most that their scanty resources could command. Perseus was reluctant to return to the capital and had argued against the idea, but Martin had quite rightly pointed out that it was the only likely place within their reach where they could put their new plans into motion. They could not afford to the passage to New York, and no one in the Parisian scientific community would dream of helping them after that expedition to the Congo.
And so it was that, two days after the death of Old Joe on the streets of Istanbul, Perseus Corbett was en route to his home country for the first time in nearly a decade.
To avoid thinking of the fact, he spent most of the passage pouring over Cooper’s notebook, and especially the opening words:
I have undertaken to write a faithful account of the events of the ill-fated journey that I undertook alongside the late Professor Applegate. The events described in these pages will differ considerably from the narrative which I and the others of our party presented to the world regarding the deaths of Professor Applegate, John Miller, and the comaradas, Simplicio and Gomez, but I hope the reason for our deception will become clear over the course of my narrative. It was agreed between ourselves (that is to say, between Professor Arnold Prosser and myself) that, in the light of the fantastic things we witnessed, that the truth simply would not be acceptable, all the more so in that we did not and do not understand just what it is we have discovered. I hope that my narrative shall make this clear.
As for why I have determined, with the concurrence of my friend, to write the true account these four years later, that is far simpler. I shall be going to the Front soon. If I do not return, as seems all too likely, then the truth risks being lost forever. Prosser is in poor health; he never quite recovered from the experience. As I feel that some whom we have deceived, particularly Mrs. Applegate and her children, have a right to know the truth, I am now committing these memories to paper while I am still able to. If they ever read this, I can only beg their forgiveness for the deception we have played upon them.
At the same time, I must beg them, if they ever do read these pages, to never allow them to become public. I hope, when they have read my account of what we found, they shall feel the same. The Treasure House of the Gods, the man called it. That was enough to tempt us to that damn valley, and it sure would be enough to tempt others.
What followed was a strange and rather rambling narrative, written in an often difficult hand. Cooper had been a big game hunter and British Army Officer who was commissioned by Professor Applegate, an eminent zoologist, to take him and some companions up a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon, called “Rio Noite,” or the River of Night on account of its black coloring.
The first part of the narrative was merely a summary of his own life and how he had become involved in the expedition on recommendation of a friend of his named John Miller, who would become one of the expedition’s casualties. Several more were taken up with an account of their journey to and up the Noite.
Then came the interesting part.
One evening, when it came time to make camp, they spotted a large black stone idol beside the river and, against Cooper’s advice, had decided to make camp there, as they had already been some time looking for a landing place. One of the comaradas, or native bearers, a man named Gomez, then said that he had seen this same idol before. His tale was that he had been part of a surveying expedition with a Brazilian army officer some years before, which had followed the Noite to a little beyond this point until fever and lack of supplies forced them to turn back. It was, he said, on their return journey that they found the idol, and what was far stranger, there was a man sitting beneath it. An ancient man, almost like a mummy. Thinking he might be lost and in need of help, they stopped and approached him. When they spoke to him, the man began to chant in fluent Portuguese:
“Forbidden. Forbidden. Forbidden. Three days to the rising sun is the place forbidden.”
However they addressed him, he never said anything else. He died that very hour, and they buried him beside the Amazon. But he, Gomez, said that when he had asked his father about it after returning, he said that the ‘place forbidden’ was a place in many of their legends; the Treasure House of the Gods.
Once the man had shared his story, Professors Applegate and Prosser had become immensely curious to know what this ‘place forbidden’ might be. Cooper himself was intrigued by the name ‘Treasure House of the Gods.’ After some more consultation, it was decided that part of the expedition should attempt the three-day journey into the jungle, just to see what, if anything, was out there. Cooper, Miller, Applegate, and Prosser, along with two comaradas (including Gomez) went off into the jungle, leaving the rest of the party behind.
After three days’ journey, they indeed found the place; a great valley or pit in the middle of the jungle, with walls so steep that it would be impossible for anything to climb out of it.
“What struck the eye the most, however, was that at the exact center…”
But here the manuscript broke off in mid-sentence.
It was intensely frustrating to have so tantalizing and yet so incomplete a narrative. If it were not for that introduction, there would be little to interest him.
Yet, throughout there was something; a sense that it was not only fear of not being believed that compelled the two men to hold their tongues. Whatever they had found there, it had astonished them, frightened them even, though wonder as much as horror was likewise stamped on every page.
Perseus bitterly wished that he had the whole thing, particularly the account of what they actually found in the valley that had been so fantastic or so terrible as to make it impossible to render a true account to the world. But even these faint hints were enough to awaken the very feelings that Cooper had hoped to avoid. Perseus was now dead set on finding the valley for himself and discovering what it contained.
Other than his burning curiosity and frustration over the incomplete narrative, and his anxiety at the thought of returning home, it was a perfectly comfortable voyage. When he wasn’t studying the book, Perseus and Martin walked about on deck, exchanging greetings with the other passengers and forming plans.
They had already decided that it would require professional support to fund and equip an expedition to the valley. The two of them could not practically travel into the depths of the Amazon and carry out whatever was to be found there, even if they had money for passage and equipment. The account in Cooper’s book was unfortunately spare, but Perseus thought there was enough to convince someone of the location’s being of archeological or zoological significance, if they could be convinced of the book’s veracity.
Martin was more skeptical. He thought the book as likely to put off any potential backers as otherwise, and in any case two vagabonds such as themselves showing up with a wild tale of lost worlds in the Amazon was not likely to get much of a hearing.
“Of course,” he said as they walked about the deck one afternoon. “We may have better success if we had a contact; someone well-known in society and of good reputation.”
“Naturally,” said Corbett. “But what good is that? We don’t. At least, not in English society. Perhaps if we work our way across to America…”
“Pardon me, but I believe we do,” said Martin.
“Do you? Then it must be one of your governor’s cronies; remember, I haven’t been in the country since the end of the war.”
“Yes, but before that, as I recall…”
Perseus saw what he was getting at and felt his stomach clench. He looked around, saw a thin, spectacled man reading a newspaper nearby and pulled Martin away.
“If you mean Lady Elizabeth Darrow,” he said sharply, lowering his voice. “That is out of the question.”
“And why if I may ask?”
“In the first place, it is odds on against her remembering me at all. In the second, I do not intend to show up after all this time to beg her for money. And in the third…well, those two will do.”
Martin’s well-trained eyebrows rose a little, but he only said, “As you wish,” and let the subject drop.
They discussed other plans for a time, but they all shipwrecked on the same problem; that they needed money, and this journey was taking most of what they had.
“If I may,” said Martin at last. “Perhaps the simplest solution would be best. This valley is not going anywhere. If we were to once more ply a trade for a time, save our wages, we may be able to arrange something within a few months.”
Perseus hated this solution. It was, he knew, very sensible, but it meant delay, and the recent allusion to Elizabeth had made him all the more impatient. He could almost see her now, ensconced at Sangral with her husband, whom he pictured as a fat, old man rolling in money and who didn’t care tuppence for her. The thought of it was like burning venom in his veins, though it was not nearly so painful as another possibility, which Perseus never allowed himself to imagine; that of her married to a good man who loved her dearly, and whom she cared for more than she had ever cared for him…
But though he didn’t like the plan, he accepted it, at least for the present. They went to dinner and Martin retired to their cabin, while Perseus, restless and irritable after their conversation of the afternoon, paced the deck for several hours more, fingering the silver medal about his throat.
Though she was constantly in his thoughts, it had been some time since Elizabeth’s name had been mentioned between them, and Perseus was surprised by the vehemence of the emotions that had been aroused by it. It made him feel old; old and tired. The years behind him seemed to blend together into a haze of wasted time and opportunity. If only he had done this, or that, or not done the other, then he might have been rich long ago and things might have been different. If only…
“Of all the words of tongue and pen,” he quoted aloud to himself. “The saddest are these; it might have been.”
He leaned over the rail, watching the dark Atlantic pass by beneath him. Whatever happened, he promised himself, he would not miss this one. There would be no more delay. If he had to lie or cheat or steal, he would do whatever it took.
“Nice night,” said a voice behind him.
Perseus, shaken out of his reverie, turned around. The thin, spectacled man was standing behind him, leaning against the wall and gazing up at the clear sky.
“Yes, very,” said Perseus, glancing up. His instincts were telling him that there was something not quite right here. He looked closer at the man; thin, young, with a pronounced Adam’s apple and slicked, straw-colored hair. American, to judge by his voice.
“Had you been in Istanbul long?” the man asked.
“Not very,” said Perseus.
“You don’t mind my talking to you, do you?” the man asked. “It’s a bit of a habit of mine, talking to strangers on ship.”
“No, not at all; glad for the company,” said Perseus.
“You see, I couldn’t help overhearing a little of your conversation this afternoon. You are an archeologist, I think you said?”
“Something of that sort.”
“Fascinating subject. Is that what brought you to Istanbul?”
“No, that was a matter of fetching a package for a friend.”
“Ah. Well, you see, I represent the Museum of Natural History in New York, and what I heard you mention intrigued me. You say you have found the record of an expedition that discovered an unknown region of the Amazon?”
“My goodness; you overheard quite a lot.”
The man laughed a little.
“I’m afraid so. I was so interested I couldn’t help it. But I heard you say you were looking for backers, now I can vouch for it that if the book is verified, my organization would be more than happy to arrange for an expedition.”
Perseus’s eyes lit up. It was tempting; almost, it seemed, too tempting. Yet something was off…
“That is extremely generous,” he said.
“I can understand your surprise,” said the other. “But see, it isn’t a matter of charity. See, I’m looking for a opportunity to get ahead in my profession; get away from just running errands for the stuffed shirts who run the show. As soon as I heard what you had, I knew that this was my chance: a once-a-lifetime kind of chance!”
“I feel much the same way,” Perseus answered.
“You have the book, of course?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, patting his jacket pocket.
“If I might take a look at it tonight, I could verify it and I could wire from London tomorrow,” said the man.
Yes, definitely too tempting.
“What is your name, sir?”
“Dang it if I didn’t forget to even mention it!” the man laughed. “It’s Byron.”
“And what brought you to Istanbul?”
“Work. As I say, I work with the Natural History Museum.”
“Is there a great deal of natural history in Constantinople?”
Byron’s Adam’s apple twitched a little.
“Well, see, it was like this; we were arranging with the Istanbul University to have an exhibit on Turkish wildlife, and I was trying to convince them to lend us some excellent specimens they have. That fell through, I’m afraid.”
“And so you are going to London?”
“Yes, I have family there.”
“And, excuse me, but if our conversation this afternoon was so fascinating to you, why did you wait until now to mention all of this? Seems an odd approach to a once-in-a-lifetime kind of chance.”
There was a pause.
“My offer is perfectly genuine,” said Byron. “But if you don’t like that, I can make another one. How much do you want for that book?”
Perseus’s eyebrows rose.
“That is a bit of a shift in tone,” he said. “But I suppose I could consider letting it go for…ten-thousand pounds?”
“Done,” said Byron. “I’ll wire for the money as soon as we reach London.”
“Pardon me, it is not done,” said Perseus. “I said I could consider the possibility. Now that it has been confirmed as a possibility, I might reconsider at fifty thousand.”
“That could be arranged,” said Byron.
Perseus smiled and shook his head. The American was not very good at this game.
“Exactly how high are you willing to go, Mr. Byron?” he asked.
The American scowled. One hand had been resting in his coat pocket the whole conversation, and now it emerged, holding a revolver.
“Not a penny,” he said. “Hand it over.”
The hand holding the gun was steady. Evidently, though Byron was not a very good negotiator, he knew his way around firearms and as Perseus knew that the man couldn’t bluff, he evidently was serious.
Perseus, who had been leaning against the rail this whole time, now shifted his weight and sat atop it. He folded his arms and once more shook his head.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “And I don’t think you’re going to shoot me either.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“In the first place, if you had intended to, you might have done so while we were talking and spared yourself a good deal of self-inflicted humiliation. In the second, you have already given away just how important this book is to you, which means you cannot afford to have it go tumbling into the bosom of the wine-dark sea along with my corpse. As that almost certainly will happen if you shoot me now, I’m reasonably sure you will not try it.”
He reached into his coat pocket.
“Don’t move!” Byron barked.
Perseus ignored him and produced his cigarette case. He drew one out and offered one to Byron, who shook his head irritably. Perseus lit his cigarette with a perfectly steady hand and tossed the match over the side before returning the case to his pocket.
“Are you willing to get shot just to keep that book out of my hands?” Byron demanded.
“Not at all, but as I say, you are not going to shoot me as long as there is a chance you will lose the book in the process,” said Perseus. “Now, if you have any sense at all – which I am willing to assume for the sake of argument – you will see that we are at an impasse. If you shoot me, I take the book to the bottom of the Atlantic. If you attempt to approach and take the book from me, you risk being thrown into the briny deep along with me. Or even just by yourself.”
Byron swallowed. Perseus could almost see him trying to figure out a way around the dilemma.
“So, it seems to me,” Perseus went on. “That at present your only options are to clear off and try again some other time, or to simply wait there with that gun in your hands until someone comes along and sees what a bloody great fool you look.”
Byron’s face twitched and his Adam’s apple jerked with anger. But Perseus’s sketch of the situation was far too clear to admit of any argument, and besides which he was, as Perseus guessed, an amateur at this game. He was clever and had the stomach to kill, but he lacked experience. He looked up and down the deck, then returned the gun to this pocket.
“Wise move,” said Perseus.
“This isn’t over,” Byron growled.
“It never occurred to me that it was.”
Byron slouched off into the night. Perseus let him get a fair distance away before setting off in the opposite direction.
His first move was to report the matter to the crew. He suspected Byron would be clever enough to get off the ship before he was caught, but it would at least keep the fellow busy for a while.
He made his report, truthfully as far as it went, that the man calling himself Mr. Byron had approached him regarding certain private papers he had and first attempted to buy them, then demanded them at gunpoint. Just what made them so important, he could not say, but evidently the man was a crook and a gangster.
“I must say, sir, you handle the matter very coolly,” said Third Officer Otterborn, a cherubic little man with an enormous black handlebar mustache. He looked like less like a naval officer than like an opera singer, but he acted decisively upon hearing Perseus’s storing, and ordered a thorough search of the ship at once. “Sitting there and bluffing him like that; that took some nerve.”
“Yes, I got that from the Royal Navy during the war,” said Perseus. “Suspect I’m not the only one present.”
Otterborn smiled and nodded; two veterans of the same war and the same service acknowledging each other.
“What ship did you serve on?” he asked
“The Dauntless. Destroyer”
“I was on the Intrepid myself,” said Otterborn. “Cruiser. Now, Mr. Corbett, I hope you will not think any less of the Cunard Steamship Company due to this regrettable incident.”
“Not at all! One can’t watch one’s passengers all the time; wouldn’t want you to. Hardly the worst thing that could happen at sea, what?”
“I am delighted by your attitude, Mr. Corbett. But is there anything at all we can do to, ah, compensate for the incident?”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Perseus. “Good night, sir.”
He made his way back to the cabin, confident that Byron would be kept safe one way or another, at least for the rest of the voyage.
But in the meantime, this changed things. In the first place, it dispelled any idea of the book being some kind of gigantic hoax or delusion on the part of the old man. It also removed any doubts he may have had whether its secrets included any kind of treasure. Someone evidently thought it both real and valuable enough to kill for.
And that same someone knew he had it.
That once-in-a-lifetime chance of his was looking chancier by the minute. That meant that, even apart from his own fears, time was no longer something they could count on.
The rest of the voyage passed quietly, as expected. Byron was not discovered, making them suspect he had somehow found a way off the ship. This at least, as Perseus said, would give them some breathing space once they arrived.
London. Perseus had not been back to his home city for ten years, had not lived there for almost fourteen, and had carefully avoided any news from England all that time. The old city was much as it had been; there were more motorcars and buses these days, and the smog was perhaps a trifle thicker, but it was still the same vast sea of people churning over the remains of age piled upon age, like ants swarming on a cathedral floor.
Having now been all over the world and having lived in tropical places, where the colors were stark and the people alive, Perseus was struck by how drab and pale the English were. They went about in browns and greys and muted colors, muttering familiar platitudes to one another in reluctant voices, as though the great ambition of each Englishman was to pass unnoticed in the world.
Men, he reflected, had their wild and tamed breeds. He had lived among wild men; men conscious of their own power and exulting in its use. Here were domesticated men; men who, to the extent they knew their own strength were terrified of it. They were like a Mastiff who starts at the advances of a small cat, not because he fears the cat, but because he fears his own enormous strength and what it may do to the cat.
There was something to be said for either side. At least in London the odds of being murdered in your sleep was rather lower than in, say, Senegal. But then, it was always depressing to see a magnificent animal reduced to pulling carts.
The first move in London, as they had settled, would be to find a way into the kind of scientific circles that could arrange for an expedition to the Amazon. Perseus left this in Martin’s hands. There was another, equally important matter that he alone could see to. For their financial situation was nearly desperate. Money would be necessary to approach those with money; they could hardly show up in the stained, battered clothing they had worn in Istanbul. And if, as seemed likely, their efforts took time, they would have to be able to live. Martin’s idea of simply working a trade for a time was no longer practical; they needed to get under way as soon as possible if they were to stay ahead of Byron and his people.
This left Perseus with a painful choice to make, for he had only one possession of any value, and he had never parted with it before.
But this is the one, he told himself. The one that will make me. It is not forever.
So it was that, not without a great effort of will, he entered an upscale pawn shop, slipped the Charles I medal from his neck, and asked for a price.
“Hm,” said the pawnbroker, squinting at it through his glass. “Difficult to say…”
“Perhaps I should save us both some time,” said Perseus, whose patience was already a little strained. “I know for a fact that it is real silver and that the object is of considerable antiquity. If you suggest a price under three hundred pounds, I will take it elsewhere.”
The pawnbroker took the glass from his eye and glared at him.
“Is that a fact?”
“It is. I could take it to the British Museum and they would give me ten times that amount. The only reason I’ve brought it here is that I should like to be able to redeem it at some point.”
“But look here,” said the pawnbroker. “I run a business; the question is not how special this is to you, but how valuable it is to me…”
“And you cannot tell me that rich collectors don’t stop by here like clockwork,” said Perseus. “You could name your own price for this with any such man who has the least amount of brains. Look here,” he pointed to the back of the medallion. “You see that? Do you know what it is? Seal of Charles the First of unhappy memory. This was given by him to a certain lord who provided service to him during the civil war. Any collector with even an iota of historical knowledge would recognize that. Why, it’s as if I’m handing you a thousand-pound check!”
Perseus didn’t like the words coming out of his own mouth. How often had he looked over that medal, tracing the ancient markings and thinking of all they meant; of cavaliers and knights, of horses and guns and swords raised in loyal and religious fervor. Thinking also of the hand that had given it to him. Now he was speaking of it as a mere bit of coin; a thing to be sold and made a profit off of. He hated it, but it was necessary for the moment.
The pawnbroker hemmed and hawed a while longer, evidently trying to find a way to dispute the indisputable, but in the end he gave in and paid out three-hundred and fifty pounds.
“Look here, though,” said Perseus after pocketing the money. “I want to make a deal with you. I am soon to leave England, but I mean to redeem that object. How much, honestly, do you intend to sell it for?”
“As you say,” said the pawnbroker. “It is a unique and very valuable object. I wouldn’t part from it for under nine hundred pounds.”
“Well,” said Perseus. “If you will be so good as to promise to hold it for one year, then I will pledge to pay two thousand for it within that time.”
The pawnbroker’s heavy brows lifted.
“You’re rather sure of yourself,” he said.
“I am,” said Perseus. “But think of that; it’s like money in the bank. Either you’re assured of two-thousand pounds within the next year or you’re assured of at least nine hundred afterwards. Rather a good deal that.”
The pawnbroker ran a long finger down his chin. Perseus could tell that he was searching for a catch.
“Very well,” he said. “I shall put this in the safe until this day next year. Until then, I shall eagerly await your return.”
He bowed and Perseus, his conscience somewhat mollified by the arrangement, left the shop.
This is the only way; the last chance, he told himself. It will be worth it.