The Last Adventure by Melville Davisson Post
The talk had run on treasure.
I could not sleep and my friends had dropped in. I had the big South room on the second floor of the Hotel de Paris. It looks down on the Casino and the Mediterranean. Perhaps you know it.
Queer friends, you'd say. Every man-jack of them a gambler. But when one begins to sit about all night with his eyes open, the devil's a friend.
Barclay was standing before the fire. The others had drifted out. He's a big man pitted with the smallpox. He made a gesture, flinging out his hand toward the door.
"That bunch thinks there's a curse on treasure, Sir Henry. That's one of the oldest notions in the world . . . it's unlucky."
"But I know where there's a treasure that's not unlucky. At least it was not unlucky for poor Charlie Tavor. He did not get it, but there was no curse on it that reached to him. It helped poor Charlie finish in style. He died like a lord in a big country house, with a formal garden and a line of lackeys."
"Queer chap, Tavor. He was the best all round explorer in the world. I bar nobody. Charlie Tavor could take a nigger and cross the poisonous plateau south west of the Libyan desert. I've backed him. I know . . . but he had no business sense, anybody could fool him. He found the stock of bar silver on the west face of the Andes that made old Nute Hardman a quarter of a million dollars, clear, after the cursed beast had split it a half dozen ways with a crooked South American government."
Barclay's teeth set and he jerked up his clinched hand.
"It was a damned steal, Sir Henry. A piece of low down, dirty robbery; and it was like taking candy away from a child . . . . `Sign here, Mr. Tavor,' and Charlie would scrawl on his fist . . . . Some people think there's no hell, but what's God Almighty going to do with Old Nute?"
He flung out his hand again.
"Still the thing didn't dent Charlie. He never missed a step. `Don't bother, Barclay, old man,' he'd say, `I'll find something else,' and then he'd go off into this dream he had of coming back when he'd struck it, to the old home county in England and laying it over the bunch that had called him `no good.' He never talked much, but I gathered from odds and ends that he was the black sheep in a pretty smart flock.
"Then, I'd stake him to a cheap outfit - not much, I've said he could push through the Libyan desert with a nigger - and he'd drop out of the world. It wasn't charity. I got my money's worth. The clay pots he brought me from Yucatan would sell any day for more cash than I ever advanced him."
Barclay moved a little before the fire. I was listening in a big chair, my feet extended toward the hearth; a smoking jacket had replaced my dinner coat.
"It was five years ago, in London," Barclay went on, "that I fitted Charlie out for his last adventure. He wanted to land in the gulf of Pe-chi-li and go into the great desert of the Shamo in Central Mongolia. You'll find the Shamo all dotted out on the maps; but it's faked dope. No white man knows anything about the Shamo.
"It's a trick to lay off these great waste areas and call them elevated plateaus or sunken plateaus. You can't go by the atlas. Where's Kane's Open Polar Sea and Morris K. Jessup's Land? Still, Charlie thought the Shamo might be a low plain, and he thought he might find something in it. You see the great gold caravans used to cross it, three thousand years ago . . . and as Charlie kept saying, `What's time in the Shamo?'
"Well, I bought him a kit of stuff, and he took a P. and O. through the Suez. I got a long letter from Pekin two months later; and then Charlie Tavor dropped out of the world. I went back to America. No word ever came from Charlie. I thought he was dead. I suppose a white man's life is about the cheapest thing there is northwest of the Yellow River; and Charlie never had an escort. A coolie and an old service pistol would about foot up his defenses.
"And there's every ghastly disease in Mongolia . . . . Still some word always came from Tavor inside of a year; a tramp around the Horn would bring in a dirty note, written God knows where, and carried out to the ship by a naked native swimming with the thing in his teeth; or some little embassy would send it to me in a big official envelope stamped with enough red wax to make a saint's candle.
"But the luck failed this time. A year ran on, then two, then three and I passed Charlie up. He'd surely `gone west!'"
Barclay paused, thrust his hands into the pockets of his dinner jacket and looked down at me.
"One night in New York I got a call from the City Hospital. The telephone message came in about ten o'clock. I was in Albany; I found the message when I got back the following morning and I went ever to the hospital.
"The matron said that they had picked up a man on the North River docks in an epileptic fit and the only name they could find on him was my New York address. They thought he was going to die, he was cold and stiff for hours, and they had undertaken to reach me in order to identify him. But he did not die. He was up this morning and she would bring him in."
Barclay paused again.
"She brought in Charlie Tavor! . . . And I nearly screamed when I saw the man. He was dressed in one of those cheap hand-me-downs that the Germans used to sell in the tropics for a pound, three and six, his eyes looked as dead as glass and he was as white as plaster. How the man managed to keep on his feet I don't know.
"I didn't stop for any explanation. I got Tavor into a taxi, and over to my apartment."
Barclay moved in his position before the fire.
"But on the way over a thing happened that some little god played in for a joke. There was a block just where Thirty-third crosses into Fifth Avenue, and our taxi pulled up by a limousine."
Barclay suddenly thrust out his big pock-marked face.
"The thing couldn't have happened by itself. Some burlesque angel put it over when the Old Man wasn't looking. Spread out bn the tapestry cushions of that limousine was Nute Hardman!
"There they were side by side. Not six feet apart; Old Nute in a sable-lined coat and Charlie in his hand-me-down, at a pound, three and six."
The muscles in Barclay's big jaw tightened.
"Maybe there is a joker that runs the world, and maybe the devil runs it. Anyhow it's a queer system. Here was Charlie Tavor, straight as a string, down and out. And here was Nute Hardman, so crooked that a fly couldn't light on him and stand level, with everything that money could buy.
"I cast it up while the taxi stood there beside the car. Nute was consul in a South American port that you couldn't spell and couldn't find on the map. He didn't have two dollars to rub together, until Charlie Tavor turned up. There he sat, out of the world, forgotten, growing moss and getting ready to rot; and God Almighty, or the devil, or whatever it is, steered Charlie Tavor in to him with the bar silver.
"He picked Charlie to the bone and cut for the States. And this damned crooked luck went right along with him. He was in a big apartment, now, up on Fifth Avenue and four-flushing toward every point of the compass. His last stunt was `patron of science.' He'd gotten into the Geographical Society, and he was laying lines for the Royal Society in London. He had a Harvard don working over in the Metropolitan library, building him a thesis!
"The thing made me ugly. I wanted to have a plain talk with the devil. He wasn't playing fair. Old Nute couldn't have been worth the whole run of us; I've legged some myself, and I had a right to be heard. The devil ought to make old Nute split up with Charlie. True, Charlie belonged in the other camp, but I didn't. And if I wanted a little favor I felt that the devil ought to come across with it . . . I put it up to him, or down to him, as you'd say, while I sat there in that taxi."
There was a grim energy in Barclay's face. He was no ordinary person.
"I got Tavor up to my apartment, and a goblet of brandy in him. I never saw anybody look like Tavor as he sat there propped up in the chair with a lot of cushions around him. It was winter and cold. He had no clothes to speak of, but he did not seem to notice either the cold outside or the heat in the apartment, as though, somehow, he couldn't tell the difference.
"And he was the strangest color that any human being ever was in the world. I've said that he looked like plaster, and he did look like it, but he looked like a plaster man with a thin coat of tan colored paint on him."
"It's hardly a wonder that no message reached me. The devil couldn't have got word out of the hell land he'd been in. Lost is no name for it. He'd been all over the Shamo, and the big Sahara's a park to it. He'd been North to the Kangai where they used to get the gold that the caravans carried across the Shamo, and he'd followed the old trails South to the great wall.
"It's all a Satan's country. I don't know why God Almighty wanted to make a hell hole like the Shamo!"
He paused, then he went on.
"But it wasn't in the Shamo that Tavor got track of the thing he was after. He said that the age he was trying to get back into was much more remote than he imagined. It must have been a good many thousands of years ago. He couldn't tell; long before anything like dependable history at any rate . . . . There must have been an immense age of great oriental splendor in the South of Asia and along the East African coast, dying out at about the time our knowledge of human history begins."
Barclay went on, unmoving before the fire.
"I don't know why we imagine that the legends of a little tribe in Syria running back to the fifth or sixth century begins the world . . . . Anyway, Tavor got the notion, as I have said, of an age in decay at about the time these legends start in; with a trade moving west.
"He nosed it all out! God knows how. Of course it was only a theory - only a notion in fact. He hadn't anything to go on that I could see. But after two years' drifting about in the Shamo, this is how he finally figured it:
"Northern Asia traded gold in the west; the mined product would be molded into bricks in lower Mongolia. It was then carried over land to the southwest coast of Arabia. There was some great center of world commerce low down on the Red Sea about eight hundred miles south of Port Said.
"Tavor said that when he began to think about the thing the caravan route was pretty clear to him. Arabia seemed to have been connected, in that remote age, with Persia at the Strait of Ormus, so there was a direct overland route . . . . That put another notion into Tavor's head; these treasure caravans must have crossed the immense Sandy Desert of El-Khali. And this notion developed another; if one were seeking the wreck of any one of these treasure caravans he would be more likely to find it in the El-Khali than in the Shamo."
Barclay moved away from the fire, got a chair and sat down. He was across the hearth from me. He looked about the room and at the curtained windows that shut out the blue night.
"You can't sleep," he went on, "so I might just as well tell you this. A good deal of it is what the lawyers called dicta . . . obiter dicta; when the judge gets to putting in stuff on the side . . . but it's a long time 'til daylight."
He had taken a small chair and he sat straight in it after the manner of a big man.
"You see the treasure carried south across the Shamo would be `gold wheat' (dust, we'd call it), packed in green skins . . . you couldn't find that. But the caravans crossing the El-Khali would carry this gold in bricks for the great west trade. Now a gold brick is indestructible; you can't think of anything that would last forever like a gold brick. 'Nothing would disturb it, water and sun are alike without effect on it . . . .
"That was Tavor's notion, and he went right after it. Most of us would have slacked out after two years in the hell hole of 'Central Mongolia. But not Charlie Tavor. He got down to Arabia somehow; God knows, I never asked him, - and he went right on into the Great Sandy Desert of Roba El Khali. The oldest caravan route known runs straight across the desert from Muscat to Mecca. It's a thousand miles across - but you can strike the line of it nearly four hundred miles west in a hundred miles travel by going due South from the coast between fifty and fifty-five degrees.
"You'll find this old caravan route drawn on the map, a dead straight line across the thirty-third parallel. But the man that put it on there never traveled over it. He doesn't know whether it is a sunken plateau, or an elevated plateau, or what the devil it is that this old route runs across. And he doesn't know what the earth's like in the great basin of the El-Khali; maybe it's sand and maybe it's something else."
Barclay stopped and looked queerly at me.
"The Doctor Cooks have put a lot of stuff over on us. The fact is, there's six million square miles of the earth's surface that nobody knows anything about."
He got a package of American cigarettes out of his pocket, selected one and lighted it with a fragment of the box thrust into the fire.
"That's where Tavor was the last year. When the ambulance picked him up, he'd crawled around the Horn in a Siamese tramp."
"Great people, the English; no fag-out to them. Look how Scott went on in the Antarctic with his feet frozen . . . It's in the blood; it was in Tavor.
"I sat there that winter night in my room in New York while he told me all about it.
"It was morning when he finished - the milk wagons were on the street, - and then, he added, quite simply, as though it were a matter of no importance
"'But I can't go back, Barclays old man; my tramping's over. That was no fit I had on the dock.'
"He looked at me with his dead eyes in his tan-colored plaster face. You've heard of the hemp-chewers and the betel-chewers; well, all that's baby-food to a thing they've got in the Shamo. It's a shredded root, bitter like cactus, and when you chew it, you don't get tired and you don't get hot . . . you go on and you don't know what the temperature is. Then some day, all at once, you go down, cold all over like a dead man . . . that time you don't die, but the next time . . . "
Barclay snapped his fingers without adding the word.'
"And you can calculate when the second one will strike you. It's a hundred and eighty-one days to the hour."
Then he added:
"That was the first one on the dock. Tavor had six months to live."
The big man broke the cigarette in his fingers and threw the pieces into the fire. Then he turned abruptly toward me.
"And I know where he wanted to live for those six months. The old dream was still with him. He wanted that country house in his native county in England, with the formal garden and the lackeys. The finish didn't bother him, but he wanted to round out his life with the dream that he had carried about with him.
"I put him to bed and went down into Broadway, and walked about all night. Tavor couldn't go back and he had to have a bunch of money.
"It was no good. I couldn't see it. I went back Tavor was up and I sat him down to a cross examination that would have delighted the soul of a Philadelphia lawyer."
"It was all at once that I saw it - like you'd snap your fingers. It was an accident of Charlie's talk . . . one of those obiter dicta, that I mentioned a while ago. But I stopped Charlie and went over to the Metropolitan Library; there I got me an expert - an astronomer chap, as it happened, reading calculus in French for fun - I gave him a twenty and I looked him in the eye.
"Now, Professor,' I said, `this dope's got to be straight stuff, I'm risking money on it; every word you write has got to be the truth, and every line and figure that you put on your map has got to be correct with a capital K.'"
"'Surely,' he said, `I shall follow Huxley for the text and I shall check the chart calculations for error.'
"'And there's another thing, professor. You've got to go dumb on this job, for which I double the twenty.' He looked puzzled, but when he finally understood me, he said `Surely' again, and I went back to my apartment.
"'Charlie,' I said, `how much money would it take for this English country life business?'
"His eyes lighted up a little.
"Well, Barclay, old man,' he replied, `I've estimated it pretty carefully a number of times. I could take Eldon's place for six months with the right to purchase for two thousand dollars paid down; and I could manage the servants and the living expenses for another four thousand. I fear I should not be able to get on with a less sum than six thousand dollars.'
"Then he added - he was a child to the last - 'perhaps Mr. Hardman will now be able to advance it; he promised me "a further per cent" those were his words, when the matter was (finally concluded.'
"Then ten thousand would do?'
"My word,' he said, `I should go it like a lord on ten thousand. Do you think Mr. Hardman would consider that sum?'
"I'm going to try him,' I said, `I've got some influence in a quarter that he depends on.'
"And I went out. I went down to my bank and got twenty U. S. bonds of a thousand each. At five o'clock, the professor had his dope ready - the text and the chart, neatly folded in a big manilla envelope with a rubber band around it. And that evening I went up to see old Nute."
Barclay got another cigarette. There was a queer cynicism in his big pitted face.
"The church bunch," he said, "have got a strange conception of the devil; they think he's always ready to lie down on his friends. That's a fool notion. The devil couldn't do business if he didn't come across when you needed him.
"And there's another thing; the old-timers, when they went after their god for a favor, always began by reciting what they'd done for him . . . . That was sound dope! I tried it myself on the way up to old Nute's apartment on Fifth Avenue.
"I went over a lot of things. And whenever I made a point, I rapped it on the pavement with the ferule of my walking stick; as one would say, `you owe me for that!'
"You see I was worked up about Tavor. When a man's carried a dream over all the hell he'd pushed through he ought to have it in the end."
Barclay paused and flicked the ashes from his cigarette.
"You know the swell apartments on Fifth Avenue; no name, only a number; every floor a residence, only the elevators connecting them. I found old Nute in the seventh; and I was bucked the moment I got in.
"The door from the drawing room to the library was open. The Harvard don was going out, the one Nute had employed to get up his thesis for the Royal Society of London - I mentioned him a while ago. And I heard his final remark, flung back at the door. `What you require, Sir, is the example case of some new exploration - one that you have yourself conducted.'
"That bucked me; the devil was on the job!"
Barclay stopped again. He sat for a moment watching the smoke from the cigarette climb in a blue mist slowly into the beautiful fresco of the ceiling.
"I told old Nute precisely what I've told you. How I'd backed Tavor for his last adventure, and where he'd been; all over Central Mongolia and finally across the Great Sandy Desert of El-Khali. And I told him what Charlie was after; the theory he started with and his final conclusion when he made his last push along the old caravan route west from Muscat.
"I went into the details, and the big notion that Tavor had slowly pieced together; how the gold was mined in the ranges south of Siberia, carried in green skins to lower Mongolia, melted there and taken for trade Southwest across the El-Khali to an immense Babylon of Commerce of which the present Mecca is perhaps a decadent residuum.
"I put it all in; the accessibility of this desert from the coast on three sides, how the old caravan route parallels the thirty-third meridian and how Charlie struck it four hundred miles out into the desert in a hundred miles travel due south in longitude between 50 and 55 degrees; all the details of Tavor's hunt for the wreck of one of these treasure caravans.
"Old Nute looked at me with his little hard eyes slipping about.
"'And he didn't find it?' he said.
"I didn't answer that. I went ahead and told him how I found Tavor and the shape he was in, and then I added, `I'm not an explorer, and Charlie can't go back.'
"Old Nute's thick neck shot out at that.
"'Then he did find it?' he said.
"'Now look here, Nute,' I said, `you're not trading with Tavor on this deal. You're trading with me and I'm just as slick as you are. You'll get no chance to slip under on this. You forget all I've told you just as though it had nothing to do with what I'm going to tell you, and I'll come to the point.'
"`Forget it?' he said.
"'Yes,' I said, `forget it. I'm not going to put you on to what Charlie knows, with any strings to it, or with any pointers that you can run down without us. I've told you all about Tavor's big hunt through the Shamo and the El-Khali for a purpose of my own and not for the purpose of enabling you to locate the thing that Charlie Tavor knows about.'
"Hardman's voice went down into a low note. `What does he know?' he said.
"I looked him squarely in the little reptilian eyes. `He knows where there is a treasure in gold equal in our money to three hundred thousand dollars!'
"Old Nute's little eyes focused into his nose an instant. Then he took a chance at me.
"'What's the country like?'
"I went on as though I didn't see the drift.
"'Tavor says this area of the earth's surface is a great plain practically level, sloping gradually on one side and rising gradually on the other.'
"'Sand?' said Nute.
"'No,' I replied, 'Tavor says that contrary to the common notion, this plain is not covered with sand, it's a kind of chalk deposit.'
"'Hard to get to?'
"Old Nute shot the query in with a little quick duck of his head.
"I went straight on with the answer.
"'Tavor says it's about a five or six days' journey from a sea coast town.'
"'No, Tavor says you can get within two miles of the place without any difficulty whatever - he says anybody can do it. The only difficulties are on the last two miles. But up to the last two miles, it's a holiday journey for a middle-aged woman.'
"Old Nute grunted. He put his fat hands together over his waistcoat and twiddled his thumbs.
"`Well,'; he said, 'what's in your mind about it?'
"We were now up to the trade and I Stated the terms.
"'It's like this,' I said, 'Tavor's down and out. He's got only six months to live. Fifth Avenue piled full of gold won't do him any good if he's got to wait for it. What he wants is a little money quick!'
"Old Nute's eyes squinted.
"'How much money?' he said.
"'Well,' I said, 'Tavor will turn his map over to you for ten thousand dollars . . . Death's crowding him.'.
"Old Nute's fat fingers began to drum on his waistcoat.
"How do I know the gold's there and the map's straight?'
"'Did you ever know Tavor to lie?' I said.
"'No,' he said, 'Tavor's not a liar; but I am a business man, Mr. Barclay, and in business we do not go on verbal assurances, no matter how unquestioned.'
"'That's right,' I replied, `I'm a business man, too; that's why I came instead of sending Tavor . . . . you found out he wasn't a business man in the first deal.'
"Then I took my `shooting irons' out of my pocket and laid them on the table.
"There,' I said, `are twenty, one-thousand United States bonds, not registered,' and I put my hand on one of the big Manila envelopes.; `and here,' I said, `is an accurate description of the place where this treasure lies and a map of the route to it,' and I put my hand on the other.
"'Now,' I went on, `I believe every word of this thing. Charles Tavor is the best all-round explorer in the world. I've known him a lifetime and what he says goes with me. We'll put up this bunch of stuff with a stakeholder for the term of a year, and if the gold isn't there and if the map showing the route to it isn't correct and if every word I've said about it isn't precisely the truth, you take down my bonds and keep them.'
"Old Nute got up and walked about the room. I knew what he was thinking. `Here's another one of them - there's all kinds.'
"But it hooked him. We wrote out the terms and put the stuff up with old Commodore Harris - the straightest sport in America. Nute had the right to copy the map, and the text and a year to verify it. And I took the ten thousand back to Charlie Tavor."
Barclay got up and went over to the window. He drew back the heavy tapestry curtains. It wars morning; the blue dawn was beginning to illumine Monaco and the polished arc of the sea. He stood looking down into it, holding the curtain in his hand.
"I give the devil his due for that, Sir Henry," he said. "Charlie Tavor got his dream at the end; he died like a gentleman in his English country house with the formal garden and the lackeys."
"And the other man got the treasure?" I said. Barclay replied without moving.
"No, he didn't get it."
"Then you lost your bonds?"
"No, I didn't lose them; Commodore Harris handed them back to me on the last day of the year."
I sat up in my big lounge chair.
"Didn't Hardman make a fight for them; if he didn't find the treasure - didn't he squeal?"
Barclay turned about, drawing the curtain close behind him.
"And be laughed out of the high-brow bunch that he was trying to get into? . . . I said old Nute was a crook, but I didn't say he was a fool."
I turned around in the chair.
"I don't understand this thing, Barclay. If the treasure was there, and you gave Hardman a correct map of the route to it, and it lay on a practically level plain, and he could get within two miles of it without difficulty in four or five days' travel from a sea coast town, why couldn't he get it? Was it all the truth?"
"It was every word precisely the truth," he said.
"Then why couldn't he get it?"
Barclay looked down at me; his big pitted face was illumined with a cynical smile.
"Well, Sir Henry," he said, "'the trouble is with those last two miles. They're water . . . straight down. The level plain is the bed of the Atlantic ocean and that gold is in the hold of the Titanic."