The Effigy of Death.
Sir Charles Denby slowly put the cigar to his lips and took a long draw on it, held his breath for a few moments while he stared with covetous eyes at the statuette that stood on his study desk. He exhaled through his nose, the blue smoke enveloping the figure, fogging it briefly. As the smoke from the tip of his cigar curled and spiraled upward in the half-light of his study, a log cracked and spat in the fireplace. A spark flew against the brass fire mesh then fell to the hearth. The ember glowed bright then died. Leaning forward, stooping slightly, he picked up the figurine to examine it more closely. After several minutes he placed the statuette back firmly on his desk and standing erect, turned and faced the young man sitting in an armchair by the fire. He was half turned towards the fire, one half of his face illuminated from the glow of the flames.
"How much did you say you were asking for it?" he asked in a soft voice. Denby's voice was hoarse, his breath straining against his vocal chords with emotion so that his words almost choked before they reached his mouth.
The young man took a sip from his brandy glass then rested it in his lap. Holding the short stem in one hand, he trailed a finger from the other slowly around the rim. Denby caught sight of a gold ring that glinted as the young man's finger circled the glass. The ring flashed with each tick from a clock that stood on the mantelpiece. Denby watched and waited.
Taking his gaze away from the glass he looked at Denby. "Fifty-thousand American Dollars," the young man drawled, his finger motionless.
Sir Charles heart leapt. That was much less than he had anticipated. Turning back to the statuette he gawked at the Inca god of destruction, his mouth salivating. It was the most magnificent example of South-American craftsmanship he had ever seen, precise in every detail. The entire figure had been intricately carved. He had to have it! Looking closely, he took in the large fanged jaw that jutted from the head and the fierce, penetrating eyes that appeared to leap out of their sockets. The skull on top of the effigy's head, a human skull, was ringed with brightly coloured feathers. With a trembling hand he once again lifted it up. The piece would be the crowning-jewel in his collection. In an attempt not to appear to eager he turned back to the young man and half smiling said, "That's a great deal of money. Tell me, why is your client so keen to sell it?"
The young man's countenance altered slightly. "A woman," he blurted, "my client is a woman. This figure," he said with sudden disgust, "belonged to her husband, my step-father. He met with an untimely death recently." The young man's gaze fell back to his glass, and his finger resumed its circular trail.
Denby's own expression fell. Putting the figure down, he crossed the room and sat in the chair opposite the young man. Instantly he felt the heat from the fire on his legs. Regarding the young man's face carefully he said, "My instincts tell me you have quite a tale to tell sir. Please, continue, I wish to know more before I make my final decision." Silently Denby had hoped that the young man had not noticed his earlier rapture. Denby's mind and heart were already decided but he felt there were more about the figure that he could use to his advantage, a tale or two he could tell other collectors. Stories, he knew, especially if they could be authenticated, would undoubtedly increase the value of the piece. Easing himself back into his chair, the leather creaking under his ample weight, he folded his hands in his lap and waited, puffing on his cigar.
The young man shifted awkwardly in his chair he looked into Denby's eyes. His nose caught of whiff of his whisky and acting on impulse, gulped down the contents of his glass.
Denby shifted forward and reached for the decanter. "Another?" he asked smoothly as he extracted the crystal stopper.
The young man gave a nervous smile. "Sure, why not."
Denby smiled and flashed a glance at the young man's face as he refilled his brandy bulb, a generous measure that reached two-thirds up the glass. Denby's curiosity deepened. As he was filling his glass, he noticed the young man's hand was trembling. Watching his closely, he saw the young man lift the glass to his lips and take small, rapid sips before returning his glass to the small table at the side of his chair.
"The statue has a history," the young man began, " one that would make the blood of even the most courageous and forthright man run cold through his veins."
Denby snorted a laugh. "You can't be serious."
"Sir, do not scoff. I am deadly serious. You see, when this statue was discovered it was said, by the natives, to be cursed and would bring death and destruction to who-ever held it in their possession."
Denby shook his head with derision. Often he had heard of such maledictions being attached to ancient artifacts but none, as far as he was aware, had ever been proven beyond reasonable doubt. His own mind was one that was founded on logic, based on sound knowledge. Savage, primitive superstition carried no weight with him. Never-the- less, he was fascinated by such tales of folklore and so urged his companion to continue.
"About a year ago my . . ." he hesitated, his gaze traveling nervously around the room that was lit only by the fire in the hearth, ". . .my step-father bought this statuette from a dealer in Buenos Aires. Before concluding the purchase, he, like you, wanted to know a little of its background." The young man took more nervous sips from his glass. "The dealer was only too happy to oblige and told of the curse and the misfortune that befell its owner. Also, like you, he passed of the stories as be of little or no consequence. But I tell you Sir Charles this thing has the very devil inside it."
Denby tried to suppress a smile. "Come my deal fellow. There is nothing that happens on the face of this earth that cannot be easily explained." He lifted his glass to his lips and took a large draught and an equally long draw on his cigar. Continuing. He said, "I've no doubt that there are people who strongly believe that pieces they own, especially of native origin, have, shall we say, supernatural connotations. But I for one believe that if ill does befall them, then it is pure coincidence and nothing more."
The young man met Denby's gaze. "Sir, I think you are wrong. I can assure you that my step-father held the same solid convictions, but I can tell you now sir, that his ignorance and defiance of such things were the very root of his death."
Denby's expression grew cold as he scrutinized the face of his companion. "Very well. You have my undivided attention. Tell me your story sir, and leave out not a single detail."
The young man strengthened his resolve with more brandy and straightening his back clasped his hands firmly together in his lap. "My father sat in the anti-room of this dealers establishment, much as we are doing now when he purchased the effigy. He had on his face the same wondrous look that you yourself had when you first set eyes on it." He caught Denby's sullen expression and half smiled. "You think I didn't notice." He continued. "The dealer, whose name I'll omit as an un-necessary detail, if you will permit me, told my step-father how its previous owner had met with an horrific and violent death within a week of purchasing the statue. This man, a nobleman in those parts, was out riding, hunting in the forests around his home when he became separated from his party. People were unconcerned because he was familiar with the grounds, having been raised there all his life and his horse was known to be a strong one. However . . ." The young man paused.
While he did so, Denby turned his head slightly and caught a glimpse of the figure on his desk out of the corner of his eye. Instantly he felt the hairs prickle on the back of his neck as he looked at the eyes of the effigy. Turning back to the young man urged him to continue. "Well, what happened?"
"The man, it was assumed, continued to ride alone, thinking he would be able to rejoin his party. No one knows just exactly what occurred but his body, when recovered was in an unfamiliar part of the forest. The trees were strangely twisted and gnarled, but it was the manner of his death that bought alarm to those who found him. You see, his body was found impaled on a broken branch, the limb haven been driven through his chest by the force of his horse rushing into the trunk. Both rider and horse were dead. The horse's neck was broken, snapped like a twig. The entire atmosphere of the area where he was found was most disquieting. Nothing could be heard except for the wind through the branches of the trees. No sound of birds even." The young man paused and swallowed hard. "It was the countenance of the man's face which bought the greatest consternation. It looked for all the world as though he had been pursued by the legions of hell itself."
Denby sat rigid. The room appeared to close in around them both as the young man finished his sentence. It seemed like an invisible shroud were enveloping them both, cloaking them from the outside world so that nothing else seemed to exist.
The young man shuddered. "As I have said, no one knows what it was he saw, but clearly it was something that made him lose his senses entirely." He drained his glass and held it out to be refilled.
Denby leant forward as he removed the stopper to refill the bulb held out to him. As he did so, he noticed with some trepidation that his own hand was trembling, the crystal decanter clinking against the glass. Denby tried to laugh off the episode but he was unconvincing. Studying the young man's face, he waited for him to continue, asking, "What about your step-father, what happened to him? You said that he had met with an untimely death."
The young man nodded. "This is true. Upon possession of the statue, almost immediately matters began to go wrong. Investments he had made, usually with sound judgment, began to falter and lose money. Property that was sound when it had been purchased was found to be defective. A textile factory that he had bought, within days it had burned to the ground with a massive loss of life. He was distraught. It was as though his entire fortune were evaporating from before his eyes. I tell you now Sir Charles," he said, throwing a contemptuous glance at the effigy, "this thing is possessed and was the root cause of it all."
Denby leaned forward, his jaw set firm. How did he die?" he asked directly.
"It was one evening, after dinner. He went for a sojourn, which was his custom. He often walked alone, he said it helped him to clear his head and put his thoughts in order. These were difficult times for him and my mother was, with due cause, deeply concerned for him. It was as though he felt directly responsible for the deaths of all those people in his employ and it weighed heavy on his conscience. It while he was walking that the accident befell him. The path he walked was one that he had walked a thousand times before, so everyone is at a loss to explain how he managed to fall into the disused well that was close to the pathway." He paused and ran his tongue around his lips, wetting them with the tip. "We heard his screams and came running but it was too late. Although the well was not deep, eight, nine feet perhaps it was the metal spike that killed him. It had passed straight through his throat. But his face, it was unworldly. His own expression was like he had received the biggest fright of his life and it had been forever etched on his features. I tell you now Sir Charles it was the most gruesome thing I have ever seen. I shall never forget it, not for as long as I shall live."
The young man fell into silence. His man's face showed, with increasing alarm to Denby, that this effigy did indeed carry un-worldly powers that he wanted to rid himself and his family of the object that he believed to be the foundation of his family's woes.
Sir Charles, for all his stern beliefs found his resolve shaken. Denby glanced at the statuette. Had it moved? He shook his head with contempt. Impossible! He thought madly to himself. This young man's nonsense had unsettled him. Wood and metal cannot move by themselves. They are inanimate, objects totally incapable of movement alone. Sir Charles was struck by a curious thought, and so he posed the question. "If this thing is cursed, like you say it is, the sensible thing to do would be to destroy it completely so that no other person could be harmed by such a fearsome object. Would not agree?"
The young man tried to suppress a nervous grin. "Yes, you're right. That was my first thought. But then I began to rethink. I heard of your name and knew you to be an avid collector and I thought," he said, his grin spreading, "it might be a good opportunity to rid my family of this abomination and make a few bucks on the side."
Denby looked through narrowed eyes at the young man and studied his countenance carefully then he erupted into loud and raucous laughter. The young man might be serious and sincere in the tales he had related but at the end of the day he was like any other man, out to make money from what ever opportunity presented it self and this was no exception. This last statement convinced Denby what he had believed all along, that these stories and others like them, were nothing more than supernatural poppycock, an outlandish hoax; childish hocus-pocus. Denby was convinced that these tales were designed to titillate the senses and to drive higher the prices of less unfashionable objects.
Relaxing and smiling Denby kept his own council. Were the stories true or a mere fabrication? What did he care that the young man that sat before him wanted to sell the piece rather than destroy it? When all was said and done, he had to have this piece. He reminded himself of the young man's own convictions, that all who possessed such artifacts had great misfortune befall them. He let his thoughts dwell on that one point. If the tales were titillating stories and nothing more then they would make interesting after-dinner discussions. But then, the man could be telling the truth and what befell those two men were indeed the effigies doing. The stories may have been grossly exaggerated, giving the effigy more credit that it truly deserved. Silently he scolded himself. Don't be a damned fool Denby! What occurred is sheer coincidence, nothing else.
Looking directly at the young man Denby said solidly, "My good man, I fully accept that you are indeed sincere in what you have related to me and I accept fully the consequences, but I have to tell you now, I believe none of it. I shall purchase your statuette and do so without reservation. Meet me here tomorrow morning and we shall both go to my bank and make the necessary arrangements."
The shoulders of the young man seemed to lift, as though an immense weight had been removed from them. "Very well, as you wish."
"This arrangement could not have come at a more opportune time," Sir Charles said, admiring his new acquisition."
The young man's face was quizzical. "Really and why should that be?"
Sir Charles was beaming. "Well, I'm off to New York in a few days. I'm to attend and exhibition there, one on South American Antiquities. This will be a wonderful opportunity to show off this latest addition to my collection. It'll be the talk of the entire show, don't you yourself think?"
The young man smiled ruefully. "I guess so. I'm sure it will bring too much interest," he replied courteously.
Denby rose to his feet and the young man rose with him.
"Tell me sir when do you propose to go to America?" the young man asked.
"April the eleventh my ship sails, to be precise."
The young man's face lit up with the recognition of the date. It was a date on the calendar that everyone was talking about right now, such was its interest. "Is that so?" He said guardedly.
"Yes indeed, from Southampton. I have secured a first class cabin on the latest addition to the White Star Line."
"You are indeed fortunate sir, to be sailing on board the Titanic. I have heard it said to be a magnificent vessel."
"That is true sir. The Titanic, the pride of the fleet, is said to be unsinkable." Sir Charles smiled knowledgably. "But before I leave I hope to be able to convince you that this curse nonsense is nothing more than that, absolute nonsense."
He offered his hand and the young man shook it. The deal was set.