Mr. Leeds, a genuine Yankee, dressed completely in black, received his visitors with great deference. He spoke Spanish well, from having been for many years in South America, and offered no objection to their request, saying that they might examine everything, both before and after the exhibition, but begged that they remain quiet while it was in progress. Ben-Zayb smiled in pleasant anticipation of the vexation he had prepared for the American.
The room, hung entirely in black, was lighted by ancient lamps burning alcohol. A rail wrapped in black velvet divided it into two almost equal parts, one of which was filled with seats for the spectators and the other occupied by a platform covered with a checkered carpet. In the center of this platform was placed a table, over which was spread a piece of black cloth adorned with skulls and cabalistic signs. The mise en scène was therefore lugubrious and had its effect upon the merry visitors. The jokes died away, they spoke in whispers, and however much some tried to appear indifferent, their lips framed no smiles. All felt as if they had entered a house where there was a corpse, an illusion accentuated by an odor of wax and incense. Don Custodio and Padre Salvi consulted in whispers over the expediency of prohibiting such shows.
Ben-Zayb, in order to cheer the dispirited group and embarrass Mr. Leeds, said to him in a familiar tone: “Eh, Mister, since there are none but ourselves here and we aren’t Indians who can be fooled, won’t you let us see the trick? We know of course that it’s purely a question of optics, but as Padre Camorra won’t be convinced—”
Here he started to jump over the rail, instead of going through the proper opening, while Padre Camorra broke out into protests, fearing that Ben-Zayb might be right.
“And why not, sir?” rejoined the American. “But don’t break anything, will you?”
The journalist was already on the platform. “You will allow me, then?” he asked, and without waiting for the permission, fearing that it might not be granted, raised the cloth to look for the mirrors that he expected should be between the legs of the table. Ben-Zayb uttered an exclamation and stepped back, again placed both hands under the table and waved them about; he encountered only empty space. The table had three thin iron legs, sunk into the floor.
The journalist looked all about as though seeking something.
“Where are the mirrors?” asked Padre Camorra.
Ben-Zayb looked and looked, felt the table with his fingers, raised the cloth again, and rubbed his hand over his forehead from time to time, as if trying to remember something.
“Have you lost anything?” inquired Mr. Leeds.
“The mirrors, Mister, where are the mirrors?”
“I don’t know where yours are—mine are at the hotel. Do you want to look at yourself? You’re somewhat pale and excited.”
Many laughed, in spite of their weird impressions, on seeing the jesting coolness of the American, while Ben-Zayb retired, quite abashed, to his seat, muttering, “It can’t be. You’ll see that he doesn’t do it without mirrors. The table will have to be changed later.”
Mr. Leeds placed the cloth on the table again and turning toward his illustrious audience, asked them, “Are you satisfied? May we begin?”
“Hurry up! How cold-blooded he is!” said the widow.
“Then, ladies and gentlemen, take your seats and get your questions ready.”
Mr. Leeds disappeared through a doorway and in a few moments returned with a black box of worm-eaten wood, covered with inscriptions in the form of birds, beasts, and human heads.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began solemnly, “once having had occasion to visit the great pyramid of Khufu, a Pharaoh of the fourth dynasty, I chanced upon a sarcophagus of red granite in a forgotten chamber. My joy was great, for I thought that I had found a royal mummy, but what was my disappointment on opening the coffin, at the cost of infinite labor, to find nothing more than this box, which you may examine.”
He handed the box to those in the front row. Padre Camorra drew back in loathing, Padre Salvi looked at it closely as if he enjoyed sepulchral things, Padre Irene smiled a knowing smile, Don Custodio affected gravity and disdain, while Ben-Zayb hunted for his mirrors—there they must be, for it was a question of mirrors.
“It smells like a corpse,” observed one lady, fanning herself furiously. “Ugh!”
“It smells of forty centuries,” remarked some one with emphasis.
Ben-Zayb forgot about his mirrors to discover who had made this remark. It was a military official who had read the history of Napoleon.
Ben-Zayb felt jealous and to utter another epigram that might annoy Padre Camorra a little said, “It smells of the Church.”
“This box, ladies and gentlemen,” continued the American, “contained a handful of ashes and a piece of papyrus on which were written some words. Examine them yourselves, but I beg of you not to breathe heavily, because if any of the dust is lost my sphinx will appear in a mutilated condition.”
The humbug, described with such seriousness and conviction, was gradually having its effect, so much so that when the box was passed around, no one dared to breathe. Padre Camorra, who had so often depicted from the pulpit of Tiani the torments and sufferings of hell, while he laughed in his sleeves at the terrified looks of the sinners, held his nose, and Padre Salvi—the same Padre Salvi who had on All Souls’ Day prepared a phantasmagoria of the souls in purgatory with flames and transparencies illuminated with alcohol lamps and covered with tinsel, on the high altar of the church in a suburb, in order to get alms and orders for masses—the lean and taciturn Padre Salvi held his breath and gazed suspiciously at that handful of ashes.
“Memento, homo, quia pulvis es!” muttered Padre Irene with a smile.
“Pish!” sneered Ben-Zayb—the same thought had occurred to him, and the Canon had taken the words out of his mouth.
“Not knowing what to do,” resumed Mr. Leeds, closing the box carefully, “I examined the papyrus and discovered two words whose meaning was unknown to me. I deciphered them, and tried to pronounce them aloud. Scarcely had I uttered the first word when I felt the box slipping from my hands, as if pressed down by an enormous weight, and it glided along the floor, whence I vainly endeavored to remove it. But my surprise was converted into terror when it opened and I found within a human head that stared at me fixedly. Paralyzed with fright and uncertain what to do in the presence of such a phenomenon, I remained for a time stupefied, trembling like a person poisoned with mercury, but after a while recovered myself and, thinking that it was a vain illusion, tried to divert my attention by reading the second word. Hardly had I pronounced it when the box closed, the head disappeared, and in its place I again found the handful of ashes. Without suspecting it I had discovered the two most potent words in nature, the words of creation and destruction, of life and of death!”
He paused for a few moments to note the effect of his story, then with grave and measured steps approached the table and placed the mysterious box upon it.
“The cloth, Mister!” exclaimed the incorrigible Ben-Zayb.
“Why not?” rejoined Mr. Leeds, very complaisantly.
Lifting the box with his right hand, he caught up the cloth with his left, completely exposing the table sustained by its three legs. Again he placed the box upon the center and with great gravity turned to his audience.
“Here’s what I want to see,” said Ben-Zayb to his neighbor. “You notice how he makes some excuse.”
Great attention was depicted on all countenances and silence reigned. The noise and roar of the street could be distinctly heard, but all were so affected that a snatch of dialogue which reached them produced no effect.
“Why can’t we go in?” asked a woman’s voice.
“Abá, there’s a lot of friars and clerks in there,” answered a man. “The sphinx is for them only.”
“The friars are inquisitive too,” said the woman’s voice, drawing away. “They don’t want us to know how they’re being fooled. Why, is the head a friar’s querida?”
In the midst of a profound silence the American announced in a tone of emotion: “Ladies and gentlemen, with a word I am now going to reanimate the handful of ashes, and you will talk with a being that knows the past, the present, and much of the future!”
Here the prestidigitator uttered a soft cry, first mournful, then lively, a medley of sharp sounds like imprecations and hoarse notes like threats, which made Ben-Zayb’s hair stand on end.
“Deremof!” cried the American.
The curtains on the wall rustled, the lamps burned low, the table creaked. A feeble groan responded from the interior of the box. Pale and uneasy, all stared at one another, while one terrified señora caught hold of Padre Salvi.
The box then opened of its own accord and presented to the eyes of the audience a head of cadaverous aspect, surrounded by long and abundant black hair. It slowly opened its eyes and looked around the whole audience. Those eyes had a vivid radiance, accentuated by their cavernous sockets, and, as if deep were calling unto deep, fixed themselves upon the profound, sunken eyes of the trembling Padre Salvi, who was staring unnaturally, as though he saw a ghost.
“Sphinx,” commanded Mr. Leeds, “tell the audience who you are.”
A deep silence prevailed, while a chill wind blew through the room and made the blue flames of the sepulchral lamps flicker. The most skeptical shivered.
“I am Imuthis,” declared the head in a funereal, but strangely menacing, voice. “I was born in the time of Amasis and died under the Persian domination, when Cambyses was returning from his disastrous expedition into the interior of Libya. I had come to complete my education after extensive travels through Greece, Assyria, and Persia, and had returned to my native laud to dwell in it until Thoth should call me before his terrible tribunal. But to my undoing, on passing through Babylonia, I discovered an awful secret—the secret of the false Smerdis who usurped the throne, the bold Magian Gaumata who governed as an impostor. Fearing that I would betray him to Cambyses, he determined upon my ruin through the instrumentality of the Egyptian priests, who at that time ruled my native country. They were the owners of two-thirds of the land, the monopolizers of learning, they held the people down in ignorance and tyranny, they brutalized them, thus making them fit to pass without resistance from one domination to another. The invaders availed themselves of them, and knowing their usefulness, protected and enriched them. The rulers not only depended on their will, but some were reduced to mere instruments of theirs. The Egyptian priests hastened to execute Gaumata’s orders, with greater zeal from their fear of me, because they were afraid that I would reveal their impostures to the people. To accomplish their purpose, they made use of a young priest of Abydos, who passed for a saint.”
A painful silence followed these words. That head was talking of priestly intrigues and impostures, and although referring to another age and other creeds, all the friars present were annoyed, possibly because they could see in the general trend of the speech some analogy to the existing situation. Padre Salvi was in the grip of convulsive shivering; he worked his lips and with bulging eyes followed the gaze of the head as though fascinated. Beads of sweat began to break out on his emaciated face, but no one noticed this, so deeply absorbed and affected were they.
“What was the plot concocted by the priests of your country against you?” asked Mr. Leeds.
The head uttered a sorrowful groan, which seemed to come from the bottom of the heart, and the spectators saw its eyes, those fiery eyes, clouded and filled with tears. Many shuddered and felt their hair rise. No, that was not an illusion, it was not a trick: the head was the victim and what it told was its own story.
“Ay!” it moaned, shaking with affliction, “I loved a maiden, the daughter of a priest, pure as light, like the freshly opened lotus! The young priest of Abydos also desired her and planned a rebellion, using my name and some papyri that he had secured from my beloved. The rebellion broke out at the time when Cambyses was returning in rage over the disasters of his unfortunate campaign. I was accused of being a rebel, was made a prisoner, and having effected my escape was killed in the chase on Lake Moeris. From out of eternity I saw the imposture triumph. I saw the priest of Abydos night and day persecuting the maiden, who had taken refuge in a temple of Isis on the island of Philae. I saw him persecute and harass her, even in the subterranean chambers, I saw him drive her mad with terror and suffering, like a huge bat pursuing a white dove. Ah, priest, priest of Abydos, I have returned to life to expose your infamy, and after so many years of silence, I name thee murderer, hypocrite, liar!”
A dry, hollow laugh accompanied these words, while a choked voice responded, “No! Mercy!”
It was Padre Salvi, who had been overcome with terror and with arms extended was slipping in collapse to the floor.
“What’s the matter with your Reverence? Are you ill?” asked Padre Irene.
“The heat of the room—”
“This odor of corpses we’re breathing here—”
“Murderer, slanderer, hypocrite!” repeated the head. “I accuse you—murderer, murderer, murderer!”
Again the dry laugh, sepulchral and menacing, resounded, as though that head were so absorbed in contemplation of its wrongs that it did not see the tumult that prevailed in the room.
“Mercy! She still lives!” groaned Padre Salvi, and then lost consciousness. He was as pallid as a corpse. Some of the ladies thought it their duty to faint also, and proceeded to do so.
“He is out of his head! Padre Salvi!”
“I told him not to eat that bird’s-nest soup,” said Padre Irene. “It has made him sick.”
“But he didn’t eat anything,” rejoined Don Custodio shivering. “As the head has been staring at him fixedly, it has mesmerized him.”
So disorder prevailed, the room seemed to be a hospital or a battlefield. Padre Salvi looked like a corpse, and the ladies, seeing that no one was paying them any attention, made the best of it by recovering.
Meanwhile, the head had been reduced to ashes, and Mr. Leeds, having replaced the cloth on the table, bowed his audience out.
“This show must be prohibited,” said Don Custodio on leaving. “It’s wicked and highly immoral.”
“And above all, because it doesn’t use mirrors,” added Ben-Zayb, who before going out of the room tried to assure himself finally, so he leaped over the rail, went up to the table, and raised the cloth: nothing, absolutely nothing! On the following day he wrote an article in which he spoke of occult sciences, spiritualism, and the like.
An order came immediately from the ecclesiastical governor prohibiting the show, but Mr. Leeds had already disappeared, carrying his secret with him to Hongkong.