THE FALSE GODS
GEORGE HORACE LORIMER
Author of "Letters from a Self-made Merchant to His Son"
"Then ... the arms crushed him against the stone breast."]
D. Appleton and CompanyNew York1906
Copyright, 1906, by George Horace LorimerCopyright, 1906, by D. Appleton and CompanyEntered at Stationer's Hall, LondonPublished April, 1906
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Then ... the arms crushed him against the stone breast" _Frontispiece_
"'Aw, fergit it'" 4
"'She's the Real Thing'" 24
"Suddenly she felt him coming, and turned" 56
THE FALSE GODS
It was shortly after ten o'clock one morning when Ezra Simpkins, areporter from the _Boston Banner_, entered the Oriental Building,that dingy pile of brick and brownstone which covers a block on SixthAvenue, and began to hunt for the office of the Royal Society ofEgyptian Exploration and Research. After wandering through a labyrinthof halls, he finally found it on the second floor. A few steps fartheron, a stairway led down to one of the side entrances; for the buildingcould be entered from any of the four bounding streets.
Simpkins regarded knocking on doors and sending in cards as formalitieswhich served merely to tempt people of a retiring disposition to lie, sowhen he walked into the waiting-room and found it deserted, he passedthrough it quickly and opened the door beyond. But if he had expectedthis manoeuver to bring him within easy distance of the person whomhe was seeking, he was disappointed. He had simply walked into a smallouter office. A self-sufficient youth of twelve, who was stuffed intoa be-buttoned suit, was its sole occupant.
"Hello, bub!" said Simpkins to this Cerberus of the threshold. "Mrs.Athelstone in?" and he drew out his letter of introduction; for he hadinstantly decided to use it in place of a card, as being more likely togain him admittance.
"Aw, fergit it," the youth answered with fine American independence."I'll let youse know when your turn comes, an' youse can keep yourref'rences till you're asked for 'em," and he surveyed Simpkins withmarked disfavor.
The reporter made no answer and asked no questions. Until that moment hehad not known that he had a turn, but if he had, he did not propose tolose it by any foolish slip. So he settled down in his chair and beganto turn over his assignment in his mind.
That Simpkins had come over to New York was due to the conviction ofhis managing editor, Mr. Naylor, that a certain feature which had beenshaping up in his head would possess a peculiar interest if it could be"led" with a few remarks by Mrs. Athelstone. Though her husband, theRev. Alfred W.R. Athelstone, was a Church of England clergyman, whoseinterest in Egyptology had led him to accept the presidency of theAmerican branch of the Royal Society, she was a leader among theTheosophists. And now that the old head of the cult was dead, it wasrumored that Mrs. Athelstone had announced the reincarnation of MadameBlavatsky in her own person. This in itself was a good "story," but itwas not until a second rumor reached Naylor's ears that his newspapersoul was stirred to its yellowest depths. For there was in Boston anassociation known as the American Society for the Investigation ofAncient Beliefs, which was a rival of the Royal Society in its good workof laying bare with pick and spade the buried mysteries along the Nile.And this rivalry, which was strong between the societies and bitterbetween their presidents, became acute in the persons of theirsecretaries, both of whom were women. Madame Gianclis, who served theBoston Society, boasted Egyptian blood in her veins, a claim which Mrs.Athelstone, who acted as secretary for her husband's society, politelyconceded, with the qualification that some ancestor of her rival hadcontributed a dash of the Senegambian as well.
"'Aw, fergit it.'"]
This remark, duly reported to Madame Gianclis, had not put her in ahumor to concede Madame Blavatsky's soul, or any part of it, to Mrs.Athelstone. Promptly on hearing of her pretensions, so rumor had it,the Boston woman had announced the reincarnation of Theosophy's highpriestess in herself. And Boston believers were inclined to accept herview, as it was difficult for them to understand how any soul withliberty of action could deliberately choose a New York residence.
Now, all these things had filtered through to Naylor from those justwithout the temple gates, for whatever the quarrels of the two societiesand their enemies, they tried to keep them to themselves. They had hadexperience with publicity and had found that ridicule goes hand in handwith it in this iconoclastic age. But out of these rumors, unconfirmedthough they were, grew a vision in Naylor's brain--a vision of aglorified spread in the _Sunday Banner's_ magazine section. Undera two-page "head," builded cunningly of six sizes of type, he sawravishingly beautiful pictures of Madame Gianclis and Mrs. Athelstone,and hovering between them the materialized, but homeless, soul of MadameBlavatsky, trying to make choice of an abiding-place, the wholeenlivened and illuminated with much "snappy" reading matter.
Now, Simpkins was the man to make a managing editor's dreams come true,so Naylor rubbed the lamp for him and told him what he craved. But thereporter's success in life had been won by an ability to combine muchextravagance of statement in the written with great conservatism inthe spoken word. Early in his experience he had learned that Naylor'soptimism, though purely professional, entailed unpleasant consequenceson the reporter who shared it and then betrayed some too generous trust;so he absolutely refused to admit that there was any basis for it now.
"You know she won't talk to reporters," he protested. "Those New Yorkboys have joshed that whole bunch so they're afraid to say their prayersout loud. Then she's English and dead swell, and that combination's hardto open, unless you have a number in the Four Hundred, and then it ain'trefined to try. I can make a pass at her, but it'll be a frost for me."
"Nonsense! You must make her talk, or manage to be around while some oneelse does," Naylor answered, waving aside obstacles with the noble scornof one whose business it is to set others to conquer them. "I want agood snappy interview, understand, and descriptions for some red-hotpictures, if you can't get photos. I'm going to save the spread in theSunday magazine for that story, and you don't want to slip up on theAthelstone end of it. That hall is just what the story needs for asetting. Get in and size it up."
"You remember what happened to that _Courier_ man who got in?"ventured Simpkins.
"I believe I did hear something about a _Courier_ man's beingsnaked out of a closet and kicked downstairs. Served him right._Very_ coarse work. Very coarse work _indeed_. There's a betterway and you'll find it." There was something unpleasantly significant inhis voice, as he terminated the interview by swinging around to his deskand picking up a handful of papers, which warned the reporter that hehad gone the limit.
Simpkins had heard of the hall, for it had been written up just afterDoctor At
As a result of this fraternal visit, Simpkins minor cut the classes ofProfessor Alexander Blackburn, the eminent archaeologist, for the nextweek, and went to his other lectures by back streets. For the kindlyprofessor had given him a letter, introducing him to Mrs. Athelstone asa worthy young student with a laudable thirst for that greater knowledgeof Egyptian archaeology, ethnology and epigraphy which was to be gainedby an inspection of her collection. And it was the possession of thisletter which influenced Simpkins major to take the smoking car and tosit up all night, conning an instructive volume on Ancient Egypt,thereby acquiring much curious information, and diverting two dollars ofhis expense money to the pocket in which he kept his individual cashbalance.
For five minutes the decorous silence of the anteroom was unbroken.Then the door of the inner office swung open and closed behind adejected-looking young man, and the boy, without so much as askingfor a card, preceded the secretly-elated Simpkins into the hall.
They had stepped from the present into the past. Simpkins found himselflooking between a double row of pillars, covered with hieroglyphics inred and black, to an altar of polished black basalt, guarded on eitherside by stone sphinxes. Behind it, straight from the lofty ceiling, fella veil of black velvet, embroidered with golden scarabaei, and fringedwith violet. The approach, a hundred paces or more, was guarded bytwoscore mummies in black cases, standing upright along the pillars.
"Watcher gawkin' at?" demanded the youth, grinning up at the staringSimpkins. "Lose dat farmer-boy face or it's back to de ole homesteadfor youse. Her royal nibs ain't lookin' for no good milker."
"Oh, I'm just rubbering to see where the goat's kept," the reporteranswered, trying to assume a properly metropolitan expression. "SupposeI'll have to take the third degree before I can get out of here."
The youth started noiselessly across the floor, and Simpkins saw thathe wore sandals. His own heavy walking boots rang loudly on the flaggedfloors and woke the echoes in the vaulted ceiling. He began to tread ontiptoe, as one moves in a death-chamber.
And that was what this great room was: a charnel-house filled withthe spoil of tombs and temples. The dim light fluttered down fromquaint, triangular windows, set with a checker-work of brick-red andsaffron-colored panes about a central design, a scarlet heart upon awhite star, and within that a black scarabaeus. The white background ofthe walls threw into relief the angular figures on the frieze, scenesfrom old Egyptian life: games, marriages, feasts and battles, paintedin the crude colors of early art. Between were paneled pictures of thegods, monstrous and deformed deities, half men, half beasts; and thedado, done in black, pictured the funeral rites of the Egyptians, withexplanatory passages from the ritual of the dead. Rudely-sculpturedbas-reliefs and intaglios, torn from ancient mastabas, were set overwindows and doors, and stone colossi of kings and gods leered andthreatened from dusky corners. Sarcophagi of black basalt, red porphyryand pink-veined alabaster, cunningly carved, were disposed as they hadbeen found in the pits of the dead, with the sepulchral vases and thehideous wooden idols beside them.
The descriptions of the place had prepared Simpkins for something outof the ordinary, but nothing like this; and he looked about him withwonder in his eyes and a vague awe at his heart, until he found himselfstanding in the corner of the hall to the right of the black altar inthe west. Two sarcophagi, one of basalt, the other of alabaster, wereplaced at right angles to the walls, partially inclosing a small space.Within this inclosure, bowed over a stone table, sat a woman, writing.At either end of the table a mummy case, one black, the other gilt,stood upright. The boy halted just outside this singular private office,and the woman rose and came toward them.
Simpkins had never read Virgil, but he knew the goddess by her walk. Shewas young--not over thirty--and tall and stately. Her gown was black,some soft stuff which clung about her, and a bunch of violets at herwaist made the whole corner faintly sweet. Her features were regular,but of a type strange to Simpkins, the nose slightly aquiline, the lipsfull and red--vividly so by contrast to the clear white of the skin--andthe forehead low and straight. Black hair waved back from it, and wascaught up by the coils of a golden asp, from whose lifted head tworubies gleamed. Doubtless a woman would have pronounced her gown absurdand her way of wearing her hair an intolerable affectation. But it waseffective with the less discriminating animal--instantly so withSimpkins.
And then she raised her eyes and looked at him. To the first glance theywere dusky eyes, deep and fathomless, changing swiftly to the blue-blackof the northern skies on a clear winter night, and flashing out sharppoints of light, like star-rays. He knew that in that glance he had beenweighed, gauged and classed, and, though he was used to questioningGovernors and Senators quite unabashed and unafraid, he found himselfstanding awkward and ill-at-ease in the presence of this woman.
Had she addressed him in Greek or Egyptian, he would have accepted it asa matter of course. But when she did speak it was in the soft, cleartones of a well-bred Englishwoman, and what she said was commonplaceenough.
"I suppose you've called to see about the place?" she asked.
"Ye-es," stammered Simpkins, but with wit enough to know that he hadcome at an opportune moment. If there were a place, decidedly he hadcalled to see about it.
"Who sent you?" she continued, and he understood that he was not therein answer to a want advertisement.
"Professor Blackburn." And he presented his letter and went on, witha return of his glibness: "You see, I've been working my way throughHarvard--preparing for the ministry--Congregationalist. Found I'd haveto stop and go to work regularly for a while before I could finish. SoI've come over here, where I can attend the night classes at Columbia atthe same time. And as I'm interested in Egyptology, and had heard a gooddeal about your collection, I got that letter to you. Thought you mightknow some one in the building who wanted a man, as work in a place likethis would be right in my line. Of course, if you're looking for anyone, I'd like to apply for the place." And he paused expectantly.
"I see. You want to be a Dissenting minister, and you're working foryour education. Very creditable of you, I'm sure. And you're a strangerin New York, you say?"
"Utter," returned Simpkins.
Mrs. Athelstone proceeded to question him at some length about hisqualifications. When he had satisfied her that he was competent toattend to the easy, clerical work of the office and to care for themore valuable articles in the hall, things which she did not care toleave to the regular cleaners, she concluded:
"I'm disposed to give you a trial, Mr. Simpkins, but I want you tounderstand that under no circumstances are you to talk about me oryour work outside the office. I've been so hunted and harried byreporters----" And her voice broke. "What I want above all else isa clerk that I can trust."
The assurance which Simpkins gave in reply came harder than all the lieshe had told that morning, and, some way, none of them had slipped outso smoothly as usual. He was a fairly truthful and tender-hearted manoutside his work, but in it he had accustomed himself to regard men andwomen in a purely impersonal way, and their troubles and scandals simplyas material. To his mind, nothing was worth while unless it had a newsvalue; and nothing was sacred that had. But he was uneasily consciousnow that he was doing a deliberately brutal thing, and for the firsttime he felt that regard for a subject's feelings which is so fatal tosuccess in certain branch
He stopped for a moment in the ante-chamber on the way out; for thebright light blinded him, and there were red dots before his eyes. Hefelt a little subdued, not at all like the self-confident man who hadpassed through the oaken door ten minutes before. But nothing could longrepress the exuberant Simpkins, and as he started down the stairway tothe street he was exclaiming to himself:
"Did you butt in, Simp., old boy, or were you pushed?"
At nine o'clock the next morning Simpkins presented himself at theSociety's office, and a few minutes later he found himself in thefascinating presence of Mrs. Athelstone. He soon grasped the details ofhis simple duties, and then, like a lean, awkward mastiff, padded alongat her heels while she moved about the hall and pointed out the thingswhich would be under his care.
"If I were equal to it, I should look after these myself," sheexplained. "Careless hands would soon ruin this case." And she touchedthe gilt mummy beside her writing-table affectionately. "She was aqueen, Nefruari, daughter of the King of Ethiopia. They called her 'thegood and glorious woman.'"
"And this--this black boy?" questioned Simpkins respectfully. "Looks asif he might have lived during the eighteenth dynasty." He had not beenporing over volumes on Ancient Egypt for two nights without knowing athing or two about black mummies.