From an Amber Block

by Tom Curry

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: A giant amber block at last gives up its living, ravenous prey.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“These should prove especially valuable and interesting without a doubt, Marable,” said the tall, slightly stooped man. He waved a long hand toward the masses of yellow brown which filled the floor of the spacious workrooms, towering almost to the skylights, high above their heads.

“Is that coal in the biggest one with the dark center?” asked an attractive young woman who stood beside the elder of the men.

“I am inclined to believe it will prove to be some sort of black liquid,” said Marable, a big man of thirty-five.

There were other people about the immense rooms, the laboratories of the famous Museum of Natural History. Light streamed in from the skylights and windows; fossils of all kinds, some immense in size, were distributed about. Skilled specialists were chipping away at matrices other artists were reconstructing, doing a thousand things necessary to the work.

A hum of low talking, accompanied by the irregular tapping of chisels on stone, came to their ears, though they took no heed of this, since they worked here day after day, and it was but the usual sound of the paleontologists’ laboratory.

Marable threw back his blond head. He glanced again toward the dark haired, blue eyed young woman, but when he caught her eye, he looked away and spoke to her father, Professor Young.

“I think that big one will turn out to be the largest single piece of amber ever mined,” he said. “There were many difficulties in getting it out, for the workmen seemed afraid of it, did not want to handle it for some silly reason or other.”

Professor Young, curator, was an expert in his line, but young Marable had charge of these particular fossil blocks, the amber being pure because it was mixed with lignite. The particular block which held the interest of the three was a huge yellow brown mass of irregular shape. Vaguely, through the outer shell of impure amber, could be seen the heart of ink. The chunk weighed many tons, and its crate had just been removed by some workmen and was being taken away, piece by piece.

The three gazed at the immense mass, which filled the greater part of one end of the laboratory and towered almost to the skylights. It was a small mountain, compared to the size of the room, and in this case the mountain had come to man.

“Miss Betty, I think we had better begin by drawing a rough sketch of the block,” said Marable.

Betty Young, daughter of the curator, nodded. She was working as assistant and secretary to Marable.

“Well--what do you think of them?”

The voice behind them caused them to turn, and they looked into the face of Andrew Leffler, the millionaire paleontologist, whose wealth and interest in the museum had made it possible for the institution to acquire the amber.

Leffler, a keen, quick moving little man, whose chin was decorated with a white Van Dyke beard, was very proud of the new acquisition.

“Everybody is talking about the big one,” he continued, putting his hand on Marable’s shoulder. “Orling is coming to see, and many others. As I told you, the workmen who handled it feared the big one. There were rumors about some unknown devil which lay hidden in the inklike substance, caught there like the proverbial fly in the amber. Well, let us hope there is something good in there, something that will make worth while all our effort.”

Leffler wandered away, to speak to others who inspected the amber blocks.

“Superstition is curious, isn’t it?” said Marable. “How can anyone think that a fossil creature, penned in such a cell for thousands and thousands of years, could do any harm?”

Professor Young shrugged. “It is just as you say. Superstition is not reasonable. These amber blocks were mined in the Manchurian lignite deposits by Chinese coolies under Japanese masters. They believe anything, the coolies. I remember working once with a crew of them that thought--”

The professor stopped suddenly, for his daughter had uttered a little cry of alarm. He felt her hand upon his arm, and turned toward her.

“What is it, dear?” he asked.

She was pointing toward the biggest amber block, and her eyes were wide open and showed she had seen something, or imagined that she had seen something, that frightened her.

Professor Young followed the direction of her finger. He saw that she was staring at the black heart of the amber block; but when he looked he could see nothing but the vague, irregular outline of the inky substance.

“What is it, dear?” asked Young again.

“I--I thought I saw it looking out, eyes that stared at us--”

The girl broke off, laughed shortly, and added, “I suppose it was Mr. Leffler’s talking. There’s nothing there now.”

“Probably the Manchurian devil shows itself only to you,” said her father jokingly. “Well, be careful, dear. If it takes a notion to jump out at you, call me and I’ll exorcise it for you.”

Betty blushed and laughed again. She looked at Marable, expecting to see a smile of derision on the young man’s face, but his expression was grave.

The light from above was diminishing; outside sounded the roar of home-going traffic.

“Well, we must go home,” said Professor Young. “There’s a hard and interesting day ahead of us to-morrow, and I want to read Orling’s new work on matrices before we begin chipping at the amber.”

Young turned on his heel and strode toward the locker at the end of the room where he kept his coat and hat. Betty, about to follow him, was aware of a hand on her arm, and she turned to find Marable staring at her.

“I saw them, too,” he whispered. “Could it have been just imagination? Was it some refraction of the light?”

The girl paled. “I--I don’t know,” she replied, in a low voice. “I thought I saw two terrible eyes glaring at me from the inky heart. But when father laughed at me, I was ashamed of myself and thought it was just my fancy.”

“The center is liquid, I’m sure,” said Marable. “We will find that out soon enough, when we get started.”

“Anyway, you must be careful, and so must father,” declared the girl.

She looked at the block again, as it towered there above them, as though she expected it to open and the monster of the coolies’ imagination leap out.

“Come along, Betty,” called her father.

She realized then that Marable was holding her hand. She pulled away and went to join her father.

It was slow work, chipping away the matrix. Only a bit at a time could be cut into, for they came upon many insects imbedded in the amber. These small creatures proved intensely interesting to the paleontologists, for some were new to science and had to be carefully preserved for study later on.

Marable and her father labored all day. Betty, aiding them, was obviously nervous. She kept begging her father to take care, and finally, when he stopped work and asked her what ailed her, she could not tell him.

“Be careful,” she said, again and again.

Her father realized that she was afraid of the amber block, and he poked fun at her ceaselessly. Marable said nothing.

“It’s getting much softer, now the outside shell is pierced,” said Young, late in the day.

“Yes,” said Marable, pausing in his work of chipping away a portion of matrix. “Soon we will strike the heart, and then we will find out whether we are right about it being liquid. We must make some preparations for catching it, if it proves to be so.”

The light was fading. Outside, it was cold, but the laboratories were well heated by steam. Close by where they worked was a radiator, so that they had been kept warm all day.

Most of the workers in the room were making ready to leave. Young and Marable, loath to leave such interesting material, put down their chisels last of all. Throughout the day various scientific visitors had interrupted them to inspect the immense amber block, and hear the history of it.

All day, Betty Young had stared fascinatedly at the inky center.

“I think it must have been imagination,” she whispered to Marable, when Young had gone to don his coat and hat. “I saw nothing to-day.”

“Nor did I,” confessed Marable. “But I thought I heard dull scrapings inside the block. My brain tells me I’m an imaginative fool, that nothing could be alive inside there, but just the same, I keep thinking about those eyes we thought we saw. It shows how far the imagination will take one.”

“It’s getting dark, Betty,” said her father. “Better not stay here in the shadows or the devil will get you. I wonder if it will be Chinese or up-to-date American!”

The girl laughed, said good night to Marable, and followed her father from the laboratory. As they crossed the threshold a stout, red-faced man in a gray uniform, a watchman’s clock hanging at his side, raised his hat and smiled at the young woman and her father.

“Hello, Rooney,” cried Betty.

“How d’ye do, Miss Young! Stayin’ late this evenin’?”

“No, we’re leaving now, Rooney. Good night.”

“G’ night, Miss Young. Sleep happy.”

“Thanks, Rooney.”

The old night watchman was a jolly fellow, and everybody liked him. He was very fond of Betty, and the young woman always passed a pleasant word with him.

Rooney entered the room where the amber blocks were. The girl walked with her father down the long corridor. She heard Marable’s step behind them.

“Wait for me a moment, father,” she said.

She went back, smiling at Marable as she passed him, and entered the door, but remained in the portal and called to Rooney, who was down the laboratory.

He came hurrying to her side at her nervous hail.

“What is it, ma’am?” asked Rooney.

“You’ll be careful, won’t you, Rooney?” she asked in a low voice.

“Oh, yes, ma’am. I’m always careful. Nobody can get in to harm anything while Rooney’s about.”

“I don’t mean that. I want you to be careful yourself, when you’re in this room to-night.”

“Why, miss, what is there to be wary of? Nothin’ but some funny lookin’ stones, far as I can see.”

The young woman was embarrassed by her own impalpable fears, and she took leave of Rooney and rejoined her father, determined to overcome them and dismiss them from her mind.

All the way home and during their evening meal and afterwards, Professor Young poked fun at Betty. She took it good-naturedly, and laughed to see her father in such fine humor. Professor Young was a widower, and Betty was housekeeper in their flat; though a maid did the cooking for them and cleaned the rooms, the young woman planned the meals and saw to it that everything was homelike for them.

After a pleasant evening together, reading, and discussing the new additions to the collection, they went to bed.

Betty Young slept fitfully. She was harassed by dreams, dreams of huge eyes that came closer and closer to her, that at last seemed to engulf her.

She awakened finally from a nap, and started up in her bed. The sun was up, but the clock on the bureau said it was only seven o’clock, too early to arise for the day’s work. But then the sound of the telephone bell ringing in the hall caused her to get up and don her slippers and dressing gown and hurry out into the living room.

Before she reached the phone, however, she heard her father’s voice answering.

“Hello ... Yes, speaking. Good morning, Smythe.”

Smythe was the janitor of the museum. Betty, standing behind her father, wondered what he could want that he should phone so early in the morning. Her father’s next words sent a thrill of fright through her heart.

“My God! I--I can’t believe it!” cried Young. “Is he dead?”

There was a pause; Betty caught the sound of the excited Smythe’s tones through the receiver.

“Who--who is it?” she whispered, clasping her parent’s arm.

“I’ll be right down, yes.”

Young hung up, turned to his daughter. His face was sad, heavily lined with shadows of sorrow.

“Dear, there’s been a tragedy at the museum during the night. Poor Rooney has been murdered--at least so they believe--and Smythe, who found him, wants me to come down and see if anything has been stolen. I must go at once. The body is in our laboratory.”

“Rooney? Ah, poor fellow.”

The girl wept a little, but braced herself to assist her father.

“I’m going with you,” she said.

“No, no. You’d better remain here: you can come along later,” said Young. “I don’t like to have you see such sights, dear. It wouldn’t be good for you.”

“I’ll be all right. I promise you I will.”

She insisted and he was forced to let her accompany him to the museum. They hailed a cab and were soon at the door. The elevator took them to the top floor, and swiftly they passed along the corridors and came to the portal which led into the rooms where the amber blocks were.

Smythe greeted them, a worried look on his seamed face. “I’ve sent for an ambulance, Professor,” he said.

Young nodded, brushed past him, and entered the laboratory. In the morning light the amber blocks had taken on a reddish tinge. Now, they seemed to oppress the young woman, who had bravely remained at her father’s side as he walked quickly to the base of the biggest block.

A vague shape lay in the shadows between the wall and the largest amber mass. Professor Young bent over the body of Rooney, and felt the pulse.

“He’s been dead some time,” he said.

She nodded, stricken to the heart by this terrible end of her old friend Rooney.

“There’s nothing we can do for him, now,” went on her father soberly. “It looks as though he had been set upon and stabbed time after time by his assailant or assailants, whoever they were.”

“How--how pale he is,” said Betty. “Poor Rooney was so jolly and red-faced, but his skin is like chalk.”

“And he’s shrunken, too. It seems there’s no blood left in his veins,” said her father.

Marable, who had been called also, came in then and aided in the examination. He said good morning to Betty and her father, and then went to bend over Rooney’s body.

“See the look of abject terror on his face,” Betty heard Marable say to her father as the two examined the corpse. “He must have been very much afraid of whoever killed him.”

“They beat him up frightfully,” said Young. “There must have been several of the assassins; it would take more than one man to do such damage.”

“Yes. His ribs are crushed in--see, this gash, Professor, would be enough to cause death without any of the other wounds.”

Betty Young could not take her eyes from the ghastly sight. She steeled herself to bear it, and prayed for strength that she should not faint and cause her father trouble. She could see the two men examining a large blistered area under the corpse’s armpit, in the center of which was a sharp vertical slit which had without doubt punctured the artery near the surface of the axilla. Perhaps it had pierced even to the heart.

“Bloodless,” exclaimed Marable, noticing the same thing as her father had spoken of. “It is as if the blood had been pumped out of his body!”

“Yes, I think it has drained out.”

“There is not much of a pool here where he lies, though,” said Marable, in a low voice. “See, there are only splotches about, from various cuts he received.”

“Maybe he was dragged here from another room,” said Young. “When the others come, we will soon know if anything is missing. It seems that men desperate enough to commit such a murder would not leave without trying to get what they came after. Unless, of course, the killing of Rooney frightened them away before they could get their booty.”

Smythe approached the group, with a physician in tow. The latter confirmed the facts which Marable and Young had found: that Rooney had been killed by the deep gash near the heart and that most of the blood was drained from the body.

“They seem like the slashes from an extremely sharp and large razor,” said the medical man.

Others were coming in to look at Rooney, and the museum was buzzing with activity as various curators, alarmed about the safety of their valuable collections, feverishly examined their charges.

“He punched his clock in here at two A.M.,” said Smythe. “I seen that. It’s the last time he’ll ever do his duty, poor feller.”

“Curious odor,” said the doctor, sniffing. “It smells like musk, but is fetid. I suppose it’s some chemical you use.”

“I noticed that, too,” said Professor Young. “I don’t recognize it, myself.”

Marable, who had been looking at the floor between the great block of amber and the body, uttered an exclamation which caused the two men to look up.

“There are wavy lines leading around back of the block,” said Marable, in answer to their questions.

The young man disappeared behind the block, and then he called to them excitedly to join him. Betty Young pressed closer, and finally slipped past the corpse and stood by her father.

Before her, she saw a large pool of black liquid. It had been hidden by the corner of the block, so that they had not noticed it, so busy were they looking at Rooney.

And there was a great cavity in the heart of the amber block. Pieces of the yellow brown mass lay about, as though they had fallen off and allowed the inky substance to escape.

“It’s hardened or dried out in the air,” said Young.

“It looks like black lacquer,” said Betty.

The musky smell was stronger here. The great amber block seemed to stifle them with its size.

“Our chipping and hammering and the heat of the radiator causing it to expand must have forced out the sepia, or whatever it is,” said Young. There was a disappointed note in his voice “I had hoped that inside the liquid we would discover a fossil of value,” he went on.

Marable looked at Betty Young. They stared at one another for some seconds, and both knew that the same thought had occurred to the other. The frightful eyes--had they then been but figments of the imagination?

Marable began looking around carefully, here and there. Betty realized what he was doing, and she was frightened. She went to his side. “Oh, be careful,” she whispered.

“The giant block has been moved a little,” he replied, looking into her pretty face. “Have you noticed that?”

Now that she was told to look, she could see the extremely heavy amber block was no longer in the position it had been in. Marks on the floor showed where it had been dragged or shifted from its original resting place.

Betty Young gasped. What force could be so powerful that it could even budge so many tons? A derrick had been used, and rollers placed under the block when men had moved it.

Reason tried to assert itself. “It--it must have exploded. That would cause it to shift,” she said faintly.

Marable shrugged. His examination was interrupted by the arrival of the museum’s chemist, sent for by Young. The chemist took a sample of the black liquid for analysis. Reports were coming in from all over the museum, different departments declaring, one after another, that nothing had been disturbed or stolen from their sections.

Betty Young went again to Marable’s side. She followed the direction of his eyes, and saw long, clawlike marks on the floor, radiating from the sepia.

“Doctor Marable,” she said, “please don’t--don’t look any longer. Leave this terrible place for the day, anyway, until we see what happens in the next twenty-four hours.”

He smiled and shook his head. “I must make a search,” he replied. “My brain calls me a fool, but just the same, I’m worried.”

“Do you really think... ?”

He nodded, divining her thought. The girl shivered. She felt terror mounting to her heart, and the matter-of-fact attitudes of the others in the great laboratory did not allay her fears.

Rooney’s body was removed. The place was cleaned up by workmen, and Marable’s search--if that was what his constant roving about the laboratory could be called--ceased for a time. The chemist’s report came in. The black liquid was some sort of animal secretion, melonotic probably.

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