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We entered the Prince Edward Albert a few minutes later, one of the new and beautiful family hotels uptown.
Before making any inquiries, Craig gave a hasty look about the lobby. Suddenly I felt him take my arm and draw me over to a little alcove on one side. I followed the direction of his eyes. There I could see young Alfonso de Moche talking to a woman much older than himself.
"That must be his mother," whispered Craig. "You can see the resemblance. Let's sit here awhile behind these palms and watch."
They seemed to be engaged in an earnest conversation about something. Even as they talked, though we could not guess what it was about, it was evident that Alfonso was dearer than life to the woman and that the young man was a model son. Though I felt that I must admire them each for it, still, I reflected, that was no reason why we should not suspect them--perhaps rather a reason for suspecting.
Senora de Moche was a woman of well-preserved middle age, a large woman, with dark hair and contrasting full, red lips. Her face, in marked contradiction to her Parisian costume and refined manners, had a slight copper swarthiness about it which spoke eloquently of her ancestry.
But it was her eyes that arrested and held one's attention most. Whether it was in the eyes themselves or in the way that she used them, there could be no mistake about the almost hypnotic power that their owner possessed. I could not help wondering whether she might not have exercised it on Don Luis, perhaps was using it in some way to influence Whitney. Was that the reason why the Senorita so evidently feared her?
Fortunately, from our vantage point, we could see without being in any danger of being seen.
"There's Whitney," I heard Craig mutter under his breath.
I looked up and saw the promoter enter from his car. At almost the same instant the roving eyes of the Senora seemed to catch sight of him. He came over and spoke to the de Moches, standing with them several minutes. I fancied that not for an instant did she allow the gaze of any one else to distract her in the projection of whatever weird ocular power nature had endowed her with. If it were a battle of eyes, I recollected the strange look that I had noted about those of both Whitney and Lockwood. That, however, was different from the impression one got of the Senora's. I felt that she would have to be pretty clever to match the subtlety of Whitney.
Whatever it was they were talking about, one could see that Whitney and Senora de Moche were on very familiar terms. At the same time, young de Moche appeared to be ill at ease. Perhaps he did not approve of the intimacy with Whitney. At any rate, he seemed visibly relieved when the promoter excused himself and walked over to the desk to get his mail and then out into the cafe.
"I'd like to get a better view of her," remarked Kennedy, rising. "Let us take a turn or two along the corridor and pass them."
We sauntered forth from our alcove and strolled down among the various knots of people chatting and laughing. As we passed the woman and her son, I was conscious again of that strange feeling, which psychologists tell us, however, has no real foundation, of being stared at from behind.
At the lower end of the lobby Kennedy turned suddenly and we started to retrace our steps. Alfonso's back was toward us now. Again we passed them, just in time to catch the words, in a low tone, from the young man, "Yes, I have seen him at the University. Every one there knows that he is--"
The rest of the sentence was lost. But it was not difficult to reconstruct. It referred undoubtedly to the activities of Kennedy in unravelling mysteries.
"It's quite evident," I suggested, "that they know that we are interested in them now."
"Yes," he agreed. "There wasn't any use of watching them further from under cover. I wanted them to see me, just to find out what they would do."
Kennedy was right. Indeed, even before we turned again, we found that the Senora and Alfonso had risen and were making their way slowly to the elevators, still talking earnestly. The lifts were around an angle, and before we could place ourselves so that we could observe them again they were gone.
"I wish there was some way of adding Alfonso's shoe-prints to my collection," observed Craig. "The marks that I found in the dust of the sarcophagus in the Museum were those of a man's shoes. However, I suppose I must wait to get them."
He walked over to the desk and made inquiries about the de Moches and Whitney. Each had a suite on the eighth floor, though on opposite sides and at opposite ends of the hall.
"There's no use wasting time trying to conceal our identity now," remarked Kennedy finally, drawing a card from his case. "Besides, we came here to see them, anyhow." He handed the card to the clerk. "Senora de Moche, please," he said.
The clerk took the card and telephoned up to the de Moche suite. I must say that it was somewhat to my surprise that the Senora telephoned down to say that she would receive us in her own sitting room.
"That's very kind," commented Craig, as I followed him into the elevator. "It saves planning some roundabout way of meeting her and comes directly to the point."
The elevator whisked us up directly to the eighth floor and we stepped out into the heavily carpeted hallway, passing down to Room 810, which was the number of her suite. Further on, in 825, was Whitney's.
Alfonso was not there. Evidently he had not ridden up with his mother, after all, but had gone out through another entrance on the ground floor. The Senora was alone.
"I hope that you will pardon me for intruding," began Craig, with as plausible an explanation as he could muster, "but I have become interested in an opportunity to invest in a Peruvian venture, and I have heard that you are a Peruvian. Your son, Alfonso, I have already met, once. I thought that perhaps you might be able to give me some advice." She looked at us keenly, but said nothing. I fancied that she detected the subterfuge. Yet she had not tried, and did not try now to avoid us. Either she had no connection with the case we were investigating or she was an adept actress.
On closer view, her eyes were really even more remarkable than I had imagined at a distance. They were those of a woman endowed with an abundance of health and energy, eyes that were full of what the old character readers used to call "amativeness," denoting a nature capable of intense passion, whether of love or hate. Yet I confess that I could not find anything especially abnormal about them, as I had about the eyes of Lockwood and Whitney.
It was some time before she replied, and I gave a hasty glance about the apartment. Of course, it had been rented furnished, but she had rearranged it, adding some touches of her own which gave it quite a Peruvian appearance, due perhaps more to the pictures and the ornaments which she had introduced rather than anything else.
"I suppose," she replied, at length, slowly, and looking at us as if she would bore right through into our minds, "I suppose you mean the schemes of Mr. Lockwood--and Mr. Whitney."
Kennedy was not to be taken by surprise. "I have heard of their schemes, too," he replied noncommittally. "Peru seems to be a veritable storehouse of tales of buried treasure."
"Let me tell you about it," she hastened, nodding at the very words "buried treasure." "I suppose you know that the old Chimu tribes in the north were the wealthiest at the time of the coming of the Spaniards?"
Craig nodded, and a moment later she resumed, as if trying to marshal her thoughts in a logical order. "They had a custom then of burying with their dead all their movable property. Graves were not dug separately. Therefore, you see, sometimes a common grave, or huaca, as it is called, would be given to many. That huaca would become a cache of treasure in time. It was sacred to the dead, and hence it was wicked to touch it."
The Senora's face betrayed the fact that, whatever modern civilization had done for her, it had not yet quite succeeded in eliminating the old ideas.
"Back in the early part of the seventeenth century," she continued, leaning forward in her chair eagerly as she talked, "a Spaniard opened a Chimu huaca and found gold that is said to have been worth more than a million dollars. An Indian told him about it. Who the Indian was does not matter. But the Spaniard was an ancestor of Don Luis de Mendoza, who was found murdered to-day."
She stopped short, seeming to enjoy the surprised look on our faces at finding that she was willing to discuss the matter so intimately.
"After the Indian had shown the Spaniard the treasure in the mound," she pursued, "the Indian told the Spaniard that he had given him only the little fish, the peje chica, but that some day he would give him the big fish, the peje grande. I see that you already know at least a part of the story, anyhow." "Yes," admitted Kennedy, "I do know something of it. But I should rather get it more accurately from your lips than from the hearsay of any one else."
She smiled quietly to herself. "I don't believe," she added, "that you know that the peje grande was not ordinary treasure. It was the temple gold. Why, some of the temples were literally plated over heavily with pure gold. That gold, as well as what had been buried in the huacas, was sacred. Mansiche, the supreme ruler, laid a curse on it, on any Indian who would tell of it, on any Spaniard who might learn of it. A curse lies on the finding--yes, even on the searching for the sacred Gold of the Gods. It is one of the most awful curses that have ever been uttered, that curse of Mansiche."
Even as she spoke of it she lowered her voice. I felt that no matter how much education she had, there lurked back in her brain some of the primitive impulses, as well as beliefs. Either the curse of Mansiche on the treasure was as real to her as if its mere touch were poisonous, or else she was going out of her way to create that impression with us.
"Somehow," she continued, in a low tone, "that Spaniard, the ancestor of Don Luis Mendoza, obtained some idea of the secret. He died," she said solemnly, flashing a glance at Craig from her wonderful eyes to stamp the idea indelibly. "He was stabbed by one of the members of the tribe. On the dagger, so I have heard, was marked the secret of the treasure."
I felt that in a bygone age she might have made a great priestess of the heathen gods. Now, was she more than a clever actress?
She paused, then added, "That is my tribe--my family."
Again she paused. "For centuries the big fish was a secret, is still a secret--or, at least, was until some one got it from my brother down in Peru. The tradition and the dagger had been intrusted to him. I don't know how it happened. Somehow he seemed to grow crazy--until he talked. The dagger was stolen from him. How it happened, how it came into Professor Norton's hands, I do not know.
"But, at any rate," she continued, in the same solemn tone, "the curse has followed it. After my brother had told the secret of the dagger and lost it, his mind left him. He threw himself one day into Lake Titicaca."
Her voice broke dramatically in her passionate outpouring of the tragedies that had followed the hidden treasure and the Inca dagger.
"Now, here in New York, comes this awful death of Senor Mendoza," she cried. "I don't know, no one knows, whether he had obtained the secret of the gold or not. At any rate, he must have thought he had it. He has been killed suddenly, in his own home. That is my answer to your inquiry about the treasure-hunting company you mentioned, whatever it may be. I need say no more of the curse of Mansiche. Is the Gold of the Gods worth it?"
There could be no denying that it was real to her, whatever we might think of the story. I recollected the roughly printed warnings that had been sent to Norton, Leslie, Kennedy, and myself. Had they, then, some significance? I had not been able to convince myself that they were the work of a crank, alone. There must be some one to whom the execution of vengeance of the gods was an imperative duty. Unsuperstitious as I was, I saw here a real danger. If some one, either to preserve the secret for himself or else called by divine mandate to revenge, should take a notion to carry out the threats in the four notes, what might not happen?
"I cannot tell you much more of fact than you probably already know," she remarked, watching our faces intently and noting the effect of every word. "You know, I suppose, that the treasure has always been believed to be in a large mound, a tumulus I think you call it, visible from our town of Truxillo. Many people have tried to open it, but the mass of sand pours down on them and they have been discouraged."
"No one has ever stumbled on the secret?" queried Kennedy.
She shook her head. "There have been those who have sought, there are even those who are seeking, the point just where to bore into the mounds. If they could find it, they plan to construct a well- timbered tunnel to keep back the sand and to drive it at the right point to obtain this fabulous wealth."
She vouchsafed the last information with a sort of quiet assurance that conveyed the idea, without her saying it directly, that any such venture was somehow doomed to failure, that desecrators were merely toying with fate.
All through her story one could see that she felt deeply the downfall and betrayal of her brother, followed by the tragedy to him after the age-old secret had slipped from his grasp. Was there still to be vengeance for his downfall? Surely, I thought to myself, Don Luis de Mendoza could not have been in possession of the secret, unless he had arrived at it, with Lockwood, in some other way than by deciphering the almost illegible marks of the dagger. I thought of Whitney. Had he perhaps had something to do with the nasty business?
I happened to glance at a huge pile of works on mining engineering on the table, the property of Alfonso. She saw me looking at them, and her eyes assumed a far-away, dreamy impression as she murmured something.
"You must know that we real Peruvians have been so educated that we never explore ruins for hidden treasure, not even if we have the knowledge of engineering to do so. It is a sort of sacrilege to us to do that. The gold was not our gold, you see. Some of it belongs to the spirits of the departed. But the big treasure belonged to the gods themselves. It was the gold which lay in sheets over the temple walls, sacred. No, we would not touch it."
I wondered cynically what would happen if some one at that moment had appeared with the authenticated secret. She continued to gaze at the books. "There are plenty of rare chances for a young mining engineer in Peru without that."
Apparently she was thinking of her son and his studies at the University as they affected his future career.
One could follow her thoughts, even, as they flitted from the treasure, to the books, to her son, and, finally, to the pretty girl for whom both he and Lockwood were struggling.
"We are a peculiar race," she ruminated. "We seldom intermarry with other races. We are as proud as Senor Mendoza was of his Castilian descent, as proud of our unmixed lineage as any descendant of a 'belted earl.'"
Senora de Moche made the remarks with a quiet dignity which left no doubt in my mind that the race feeling cut deeply.
She had risen now, and in place of the awesome fear of the curse and tragedy of the treasure her face was burning and her eyes flashed.
"Old Don Luis thought I was good enough to amuse his idle hours," she cried. "But when he saw that Alfonso was in love with his daughter, that she might return that love, then I found out bitterly that he placed us in another class, another caste."
Kennedy had been following her closely, and I could see now that the cross-currents of superstition, avarice, and race hatred in the case presented a tangle that challenged him.
There was nothing more that we could extract from her just then. She had remained standing, as a gentle reminder that the interview had already been long.
Kennedy took the hint. "I wish to thank you for the trouble you have gone to," he bowed, after we, too, had risen. "You have told me quite enough to make me think seriously before I join in any such undertaking."
She smiled enigmatically. Whether it was that she had enjoyed penetrating our rather clumsy excuse for seeing her, or that she felt that the horror of the curse had impressed us, she seemed well content.
We bowed ourselves out, and, after waiting a few moments about the hotel without seeing Whitney anywhere, Craig called a car.
"They were right," was his only comment. "A most baffling woman, indeed."
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