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- Tales of Chinatown - 40/57 -
"Not within the meaning of the law, Knox. It was a recrudescence of Chinese humour! Lord Ireton is officially in Africa (and he went actually after 'big game'). The counsel is not born who could secure a conviction. We are somewhat late, but shall therefore have less difficulty in finding a table at Prince's."
"Examine it closely," said the man in the unusual caped overcoat. "It will repay examination."
I held the little object in the palm of my hand, bending forward over the marble-topped table and looking down at it with deep curiosity. The babel of tongues so characteristic of Malay Jack's, and that mingled odour of stale spirits, greasy humanity, tobacco, cheap perfume, and opium, which distinguish the establishment faded from my ken. A sense of loneliness came to me.
Perhaps I should say that it became complete. I had grown conscious of its approach at the very moment that the cadaverous white-haired man had addressed me. There was a quality in his steadfast gaze and in his oddly pitched deep voice which from the first had wrapped me about--as though he were cloaking me in his queer personality and withdrawing me from the common plane.
Having stared for some moments at the object in my palm, I touched it gingerly; whereupon my acquaintance laughed--a short bass laugh.
"It looks fragile," he said. "But have no fear. It is nearly as hard as a diamond."
Thus encouraged, I took the thing up between finger and thumb, and held it before my eyes. For long enough I looked at it, and looking, my wonder grew. I thought that here was the most wonderful example of the lapidary's art which I had ever met with, east or west.
It was a tiny pink rose, no larger than the nail of my little finger. Stalk and leaves were there, and golden pollen lay in its delicate heart. Each fairy-petal blushed with June fire; the frail leaves were exquisitely green. Withal it was as hard and unbendable as a thing of steel.
"Allow me," said the masterful voice.
A powerful lens was passed by my acquaintance. I regarded the rose through the glass, and thereupon I knew, beyond doubt, that there was something phenomenal about the gem--if gem it were. I could plainly trace the veins and texture of every petal.
I suppose I looked somewhat startled. Although, baldly stated, the fact may not seem calculated to affright, in reality there was something so weird about this unnatural bloom that I dropped it on the table. As I did so I uttered an exclamation; for in spite of the stranger's assurances on the point, I had by no means overcome my idea of the thing's fragility.
"Don't be alarmed," he said, meeting my startled gaze. "It would need a steam-hammer to do any serious damage."
He replaced the jewel in his pocket, and when I returned the lens to him he acknowledged it with a grave inclination of the head. As I looked into his sunken eyes, in which I thought lay a sort of sardonic merriment, the fantastic idea flashed through my mind that I had fallen into the clutches of an expert hypnotist who was amusing himself at my expense, that the miniature rose was a mere hallucination produced by the same means as the notorious Indian rope trick.
Then, looking around me at the cosmopolitan groups surrounding the many tables, and catching snatches of conversations dealing with subjects so diverse as the quality of whisky in Singapore, the frail beauty of Chinese maidens, and the ways of "bloody greasers," common sense reasserted itself.
I looked into the gray face of my acquaintance.
"I cannot believe," I said slowly, "that human ingenuity could so closely duplicate the handiwork of nature. Surely the gem is unique?--possibly one of those magical talismans of which we read in Eastern stories?"
My companion smiled.
"It is not a gem," he replied, "and while in a sense it is a product of human ingenuity, it is also the handiwork of nature."
I was badly puzzled, and doubtless revealed the fact, for the stranger laughed in his short fashion, and:
"I am not trying to mystify you," he assured me. "But the truth is so hard to believe sometimes that in the present case I hesitate to divulge it. Did you ever meet Tcheriapin?"
This abrupt change of topic somewhat startled me, but nevertheless:
"I once heard him play," I replied. "Why do you ask the question?"
"For this reason: Tcheriapin possessed the only other example of this art which so far as I am aware ever left the laboratory of the inventor. He occasionally wore it in his buttonhole."
"It is then a manufactured product of some sort?"
"As I have said, in a sense it is; but"--he drew the tiny exquisite ornament from his pocket again and held it up before me--"it is a natural bloom."
"It is a natural bloom," replied my acquaintance, fixing his penetrating gaze upon me. "By a perfectly simple process invented by the cleverest chemist of his age it had been reduced to this gem-like state while retaining unimpaired every one of its natural beauties, every shade of its natural colour. You are incredulous?"
"On the contrary," I replied, "having examined it through a magnifying glass I had already assured myself that no human hand had fashioned it. You arouse my curiosity intensely. Such a process, with its endless possibilities, should be worth a fortune to the inventor."
The stranger nodded grimly and again concealed the rose in his pocket.
"You are right," he said; "and the secret died with the man who discovered it--in the great explosion at the Vortex Works in 1917. You recall it? The T.N.T. factory? It shook all London, and fragments were cast into three counties."
"I recall it perfectly well."
"You remember also the death of Dr. Kreener, the chief chemist? He died in an endeavour to save some of the workpeople."
"He was the inventor of the process, but it was never put upon the market. He was a singular man, sir; as was once said of him--'A Don Juan of science.' Dame Nature gave him her heart unwooed. He trifled with science as some men trifle with love, tossing aside with a smile discoveries which would have made another famous. This"--tapping his breast pocket--"was one of them."
"You astound me. Do I understand you to mean that Dr. Kreener had invented a process for reducing any form of plant life to this condition?"
"Almost any form," was the guarded reply. "And some forms of animal life."
"If you like"--the stranger leaned forward and grasped my arm--"I will tell you the story of Dr. Kreener's last experiment."
I was now intensely interested. I had not forgotten the heroic death of the man concerning whose work this chance acquaintance of mine seemed to know so much. And in the cadaverous face of the stranger as he sat there regarding me fixedly there was a promise and an allurement. I stood on the verge of strange things; so that, looking into the deep-set eyes, once again I felt the cloak being drawn about me, and I resigned myself willingly to the illusion.
From the moment when he began to speak again until that when I rose and followed him from Malay Jack's, as I shall presently relate, I became oblivious of my surroundings. I lived and moved through those last fevered hours in the lives of Dr. Kreener, Tcheriapin, the violinist, and that other tragic figure around whom the story centred. I append:
THE STRANGER'S STORY
I asked you (said the man in the caped coat) if you had ever seen Tcheriapin, and you replied that you had once heard him play. Having once heard him play you will not have forgotten him. At that time, although war still raged, all musical London was
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