How they first heard of Atlantis
Rain is responsible for a great deal more than the mere growth of vegetables—it is a controller, if a somewhat capricious controller, of man's destiny. It was mainly, if not entirely, owing to rain that the French lost the Battle of Agincourt; whilst, if I mistake not, Confucius alone knows how many victories have been snatched from the Chinese by the same factor.
It was most certainly rain that drove Leon Hamar to take refuge in a second-hand bookshop; for so deep-rooted was his aversion to any literature saving a financial gazette or the stock and shares column of a daily, that nothing would have induced him to get within touching distance of a book save the risk of a severe wetting. Now, to his unutterable disgust, he found himself surrounded by the things he loathed. Books ancient—very ancient, judging by their bindings—and modern—histories, biographies, novels and magazines—anything from ten dollars to five cents, and all arrayed with most laudable tact according to their bulk and condition. But Hamar was neither to be tempted nor mollified. He frowned at one and all alike, and the colossal edition of Miss Somebody or Other's poems—that by reason of its magnificent cover of crimson and gold occupied a most prominent position—met with the same vindictive reception as the tattered and torn volumes of Whittier stowed away in an obscure corner.
Backing still further into the entrance of the store for a better protection from the rain, which, now falling heavier and heavier, was blown in by the wind, Hamar collided with a stand of books, with the result that one of them fell with a loud bang on the pavement.
A man, evidently the owner of the store, and unmistakably a Jew, instantly appeared. Picking up the book, and wiping it with a dirty handkerchief, he thrust it at Hamar.
"See!" he said, "you have damaged this property of mine. You must either buy it or give me adequate compensation."
"What!" Hamar cried, "compensation for such rubbish as that? Why all your books together are not worth five dollars. Indeed I've seen twice as many sold at a sale for half that amount. You can't Jew me!"
The two men eyed each other quizzically.
"Perhaps," the owner of the store observed slowly, "perhaps some of your ancestors were once Yiddish. In which case there ought to be a bond of sympathy between us. You may have that book for a nickel. What, no! Your cheeks are hollow, your fingers thin. A nickel is too much for you. I will take your chain in exchange."
"And leave me the watch!" Hamar retorted, with a grim smile. "You are a philanthropist—not a storekeeper."
"I should leave you nothing!" the Jew laughed.
"There's no watch there! See!" and he pointed to the concave surface of the watch-pocket. "I noticed its absence at once. It's been keeping you alive for some days past. I'll give you four dollars on the chain—and you may have the book!"
"The book's no good to me!" Hamar grunted. "The money is. Here! hand me over the four dollars and you can have the chain. It's eighteen carat gold and worth at least ten dollars."
"Then why not take it to some one who will give you ten dollars!" sneered the Jew. "Because you know better. You're no greenhorn. That chain is fifteen carat at the most, and there's not a man in this city who would give you more than four dollars for it."
"Very well, then!" Hamar said sulkily. "I agree. No! the money first."
The Jew dived deep down into his trouser pocket, and, after foraging about for some seconds, produced a handful of greasy coins, out of which he carefully selected the sum named.
Hamar, who had been watching him greedily, grabbed the coins, bit them with his teeth, and rang them on the counter. With an air of relief he then slipped his watch-chain into the outstretched palm before him, remarked upon the fact that the rain had suddenly ceased, and prepared to take his departure.
"Here's the book!" the Jew ejaculated, whilst his face became suffused with a smirk. "Don't go without it. Now! there's no knowing but what we may not have further dealings with one another. I'm a money-lender—I've a place down-stairs—I take all sorts of things—all sorts of things. On the strict Q.T. mind. Sabez!"
In another moment Hamar found himself standing on the wet pavement, nursing the four dollars in his waistcoat pocket with one hand, and mechanically clutching the despised volume with the other. Had he ever acted upon impulse, he would most certainly have hurled the book into the gutter; but on second thoughts he came to the conclusion that it would be better to dispose of it less obstrusively.
It was now evening, and having tasted nothing since mid-day, he realized, for at least the hundredth time that week, that he was hungry. The touch of the dollars, however, only made him smile. He could eat his full for twenty-five cents and yet live well for another four days. And, besides, he still had a tie-pin and a fur coat. He might get a dollar on the one and two, if not two and a half, on the other; which would carry him through till the end of the week when something else might turn up—something which would not involve too hard work and would just keep him clear of jail. He turned sharply down Montgomery Street, crossed Kearney Street, and slipped noiselessly through the side doorway of a restaurant, in a suspicious-looking alley, not a hundred yards distant from the gorgeously illuminated Palace Hotel. Here, within five minutes, he was served with as good a meal as one could get in San Francisco for the money—and if the table linen was not as clean as it might have been, the food was not a whit the less excellent for that. At least so Hamar thought; and it was not until there was nothing left to eat that he left off eating. When he thought no one was looking in his direction, he popped the despised book under his chair and rose to go. Before he had gone ten yards, however, one of the waiters came running after him.
"Hi, sir, stop, sir!" the fellow cried. "You've left something behind!" And in spite of Hamar's denials the officious menial persisted the book was his. In the end Hamar was obliged to submit. He took the book, and rewarded the waiter with curses.
Hamar next tried to dispose of it down the area of a Chinese laundry; but a policeman saw him, and he only escaped being taken up on suspicion, by parting with a dollar. This was the climax. He did not dare make any further attempt to dispose of the book, but, with bitter hatred in his heart, tucked it savagely under his arm, and made direct for his room in 115th Street.
To his annoyance—for under the circumstances he preferred to be alone—he found two men sitting in front of his empty hearth. They were Matt Kelson and Ed Curtis; both of whom had been his colleagues at Meidler, Meidler & Co., in Sacramento Street, and like himself had been thrown out of work when the firm had "smashed." Since that affair Hamar had studiously avoided them. It was true he had once been as friendly with them as he deemed it politic to be friendly with any one; but now—they were out of employment, and in danger of starvation. That made all the difference. He did not believe in poverty encouraging poverty, any more than he believed in charity among beggars. He had nothing to share with them, not even a thought; and resolving to get rid of his quondam friends as soon as possible, he confined his welcome to a frown.
"Hulloa! what's the matter?" Kelson exclaimed. "When a man frowns like that, it usually means he is crossed in love."
"Or has an empty stomach, which amounts to the same thing," Curtis interposed. "Come—let the sun loose, Leon! We've good news for you!—haven't we, Matt?"
"What is it, then?" Hamar grunted. "Have you both got cancer?"
"No! We've come to borrow from you!"
"Then you've come to the wrong shop! I'm about done, and unless something turns up mighty quick I shall clear out."
"I don't count on being a ghost nor yet an angel," Hamar said; "when we've done here, I reckon we've done altogether!"
"I shouldn't have thought suicide was in your line," Curtis remarked. "More Matt's. I should have credited you with something more original."
"Original!" Hamar snarled. "I defy any man to be original when he hasn't a cent, and his stomach contains nothing but air. Give me money, give me food—then, perhaps, I'll be original."
"You don't mean to say you're cleared out of grub!" Kelson and Curtis cried in chorus. "We've come to you as our last hope. We've neither of us tasted anything since yesterday."
"Then you'll taste nothing again to-day—at least as far as I'm concerned," Hamar jeered. "I tell you I'm broke—haven't as much as a crumb in the room; and I've pawned everything, save the clothes you see me in!"
"And yet you can buy books—unless—unless you stole it!" Curtis said, eyeing with suspicion the volume Hamar had thrown on the table.
"Buy it! Not much!" Hamar cried quickly. "It's one I've had all my life. Belonged to my grandfather. I took it with me to-night to see what I could raise on it."
"And no one would have it? I should guess not," Kelson said, drawing it towards him. "Why it's got a new label inside—S. Leipman! I know him. He's slick even for a Jew. This looks as if it belonged to your grandfather, Leon. If I'm not real mistaken you bought the book to-night. There's something in it you thought you could make capital of. Trust you for that. Now I wonder what it was!"
"You're welcome to see!" Hamar sneered. "Perhaps you'd like some water!"
"Water! Why water?"
"Well, instead of tea or whisky to help digest the book. Besides, it's the only thing I have to offer you."
"Look here, Leon," Curtis interrupted; "what's the good of behaving like this? We are all in the same boat—starving—desperate. So let us lay our heads together and see if we can't think of something—some way out of it."
"A Burglary Company Limited, for instance!" Hamar sneered. "No! I'm not having any. I've neither tools nor experience. The San Francisco police handle one roughly, so I'm told, and hard labour isn't to my liking."
"There are other things besides burglary!" Curtis said in tones of annoyance. "We might work a fake."
"If I work anything of that sort," Hamar said hastily, "I work alone. Think of something else."
"I tell you Matt and I are pretty well desperate," Curtis cried, "and if we don't think of something soon, we shan't be able to think at all. We've tried our level best to get work—we've answered every likely and unlikely advertisement in the papers—and all to no purpose. So if Providence won't help us we must help ourselves. Robbery, burglary, fakes, anything short of murder—it's all the same to us now—we're tired of starving—dead sick of it. We would do anything, sell our very souls for a meal. My God! I never imagined how terrible it is to feel so hungry. You appear to be interested, Matt. What is it?"
"Why, look here, you fellows!" Kelson said slowly. "This book is all about a place called Atlantis that is said to have existed in the Atlantic Ocean between America and Ireland, and to have been deluged by an earthquake owing to the wickedness of its inhabitants. They practised sorcery."
"Practised foolery," Hamar said. "It's tosh—all tosh! Wickedness is only a matter of climate—and there's no such thing as sorcery."
"So I thought," Kelson replied; "but I'm not so sure now. The author of this book writes darned sensibly, and is apparently at no loss for corroborative testimony. He was a professor too. See! Thomas Henry Maitland, at one time Professor of English at the University of Basle in Switzerland. There's an asterisk against his name and a footnote in very old-fashioned handwriting—the 's's' are all 'f's,' and half the letters capitals. Listen—
"'Thomas Maitland, despite the remonstrances of his friends, visited Spain. By order of the Holy Inquisition he was arrested, May 5, 1693, on a charge of practising sorcery, and burned alive at the Auto da Fé, in the Grand Market Square, Madrid; having in the interim been subjected to such tortures as only the subtle brains of the hellish inquisitors could devise. On receipt of a message from him, delivered in his supernatural body, we attended his execution, and can readily testify that he suffered no pain, although the torments endured by those around him were pitiable to behold.
"(Signed) George Richard Pool, Physician; and Robert James Fox, Merchant.
"Citizens of Boston, Massachusetts; August 1, 1693.'"
"Rot!" Hamar said savagely; "don't waste time reading such bunkum."
"It may be bunkum, but if it takes away his mind from his stomach let him go on," Curtis interposed. "It's very obvious you haven't arrived at our pitch of starvation yet, Leon, or you would welcome anything that would make you forget it even for a moment. Let's hear some more, Matt! Go on, tell us something. How to make coyottes out of paraffin paint, or convert a Sunday pair of pants into a glistening harem skirt! Anything that won't remind us of food."
Thus encouraged Kelson slowly turned over the pages of the book. "I see it was printed and published for—I presume that means by—A. Bettesworth and J. Batley in Pater-noster-Row, London, England, in 1690. Basle, London, Boston, Madrid! The author seems to have had wandering on the brain. By the bye, Leon, with your features you could easily work off a fake as 'the Wandering Jew.' There's money in it—people will swallow anything in that line now."
"I don't see how it would profit you anyhow," Hamar snarled. "Leave my features alone and go on with your reading."
Kelson chuckled—here was one way at least in which he could occasionally get even with Hamar. Hamar's features were Yiddish, and the Yids were none too popular in California.
"Oh, all right!" he said; "if the subject is so painful I'll try and avoid it in future; but it's odd how some things—for instance, murder and noses—will out. Let me see, what have we here? 'Discovery of ancient books, manuscripts, etc., relating to Atlantis.' Apparently, Thomas Maitland, when shipwrecked on an island, called Inisturk, off Mayo, in Ireland, found a wooden chest of rare workmanship—he had seen, he says, similar ones in Egypt and Yucatan—containing some very ancient books—curiously bound, and some vellum manuscripts, which, after an infinite amount of labour, he managed to translate. The books, he says, were standard histories, biographies, and scientific works on occultism—all published in Banchicheisi, the capital of Atlantis—and the manuscripts, he affirms, had been transcribed by one Coulmenes, who believed himself to be the only survivor of a tremendous submarine earthquake that had destroyed the whole of Atlantis. The manuscripts included a diary of the events leading up to the catastrophe—even to the meals! How about this?—'Sunrise on the day of Thottirnanoge in the month of Finn-ra. Breakfasted on cornsop, fish (Semona, corresponding to salmon), fruit, and much sweet milk.'"
"For God's sake, don't!" Curtis groaned. "Skip over that part. The very mention of grub makes the gnawing pain in my stomach ten times worse."
"You're different to me then!" Hamar grinned; "I love to think of it. My word, what wouldn't I give to be in Sadler's now. Roast beef—done to a turn, eh! As only Sadler knows how! Potatoes nice and brown and crisp! Horseradish! Greens! Boiled celery! Pudding under the meat! Beer!—What, going?"
Curtis had risen from the table with his fingers crammed in his ears. "There's a fat splice of the devil in you to-night, Leon!" he panted. "I've had enough of it. I'm off. Come on, Matt. If you want us, you know where to find us—only if we don't get something to eat soon—you'll find us dead."