The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn (19 page)

BOOK: The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn
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Anybody who has ever read the Bible knows what the Ark of the Covenant is. It is described at great length in the Bible, and it is talked about in a lot of the stories in the Old Testament. It was the most sacred object of the ancient Israelites. Only the priests of the tribe of Levi were allowed to touch it, and once, a man named Oza was struck dead by God for touching the Ark when he shouldn’t have—at least, this is what the Bible says. According to legend, the Ark of the Covenant contained Moses’s rod, Aaron’s rod, two vases of manna (the food that God sent down in a rain from heaven to feed the Israelites when they were starving in the desert), and the tablets of the Law—two big stone slabs with the Ten Commandments written on them. When King Solomon built his great temple in the city of Jerusalem, the Ark was kept in the innermost room of the temple, a room called the Holy of Holies. Later, in the year 70 A.D., the temple and the city of Jerusalem were destroyed by the Romans. Some people later claimed that the Romans brought the Ark back to Rome as part of their loot. But no one really knew what happened to it. That is, no one knew until Alpheus Winterborn made his discovery.

Mr. Winterborn’s diary went on to tell how he left his guide to keep watch over this treasure and went back to catch some sleep by the fire they had built near the mouth of the cave. But then a second earthquake hit, and the ceiling of the cave started to fall. Alpheus was able to save himself, but the guide was killed. Luckily, Alpheus had saved his compass, and this enabled him to hike to the monastery of Mar Saba, which stands perched on a tall cliff in the wilderness of Judea. All of Alpheus’s food and water were left behind in the cave, buried under tons of rock along with the poor guide. But Alpheus had saved one thing—the small gold statue. He had no doubt that it was one of the two angels that were supposed to be perched up on top of the Ark. It was true that the angel didn’t look much like the angels you see on Christmas cards. But then, as Alpheus Winterborn pointed out in his scholarly way, the Israelites were forbidden to make statues that looked like any living creature. They had just been obeying God’s commandment when they sculpted this ugly, dwarfish thing.

 

There was a big fight over the gold statue. First, there was the question of what it was. Archeologists from the University of Minnesota came down to look at it. Articles were written about it in the Minneapolis newspapers, in the
Chicago Tribune,
and even in the
New York Times
and the
Times
of London. Two representatives from the newly created nation of Israel showed up in Hoosac and claimed that if the object was really what Alpheus Winterborn said it was, it rightfully belonged to Israel and should be in a museum in Tel Aviv. More archeologists came and looked at the statue, read Alpheus Winterborn’s diary, and shook their heads and went away. They couldn’t make up their minds and say that the statue was, or was not, an angel from the Ark of the Covenant.

Meanwhile, another battle was going on. Who owned the statue? Hugo Philpotts claimed it was his—or that it certainly belonged to the Winterborn estate and not to a saloon-keeper’s son. The city of Hoosac claimed that since the statue had been found in city property, it belonged to the city. Anthony, of course, claimed that the statue was his. And so a court battle took place. The Mondays were afraid of lawyers, and they really didn’t have a family lawyer, but Miss Eells came up with one, her brother Emerson, who lived up in St. Cloud. He came down and argued the case for the Mondays in front of a judge in Hoosac. It was a long and messy trial, and what came out during it didn’t make Hugo Philpotts look very good. The whole business was dragged out into the open. Miss Eells told the judge how Hugo had tried to bully and threaten Anthony into giving him the treasure, how he had eavesdropped on the phone conversation between her and Anthony and had then decided to go get the treasure for himself, and finally, how he had made Anthony risk his life on an unsafe ladder. No mention was made of the stolen mirror. Miss Eells really didn’t have any proof that Hugo had been the culprit, and she didn’t want to weaken Anthony’s case by making wild accusations. As it was, the case against Hugo was pretty strong. Everybody in town hated him by now, and when he took the witness stand to answer Miss Eells’s accusations, people hissed and booed. In fact, there was such an uproar that the judge had to clear the courtroom.

The judge heard the case and read all the documents. He listened to the witnesses and the lawyers. He peered at the statue and turned it over in his hands. Finally he decided: The statue belonged to Anthony. The document wrapped up with the statue gave Anthony the sole right of possession, said the judge. It was true that the document was made in England and executed before an English Commissioner of Oaths (which is sort of like an American Notary Public), but the statement had been made by a United States citizen, and in any case it was a holograph statement—that is, it was in Alpheus Winterborn’s own handwriting. That meant that the document was valid whether the two English gentlemen had signed it or not.

So Anthony got the statue. It was his own now. But he was not particularly attached to it, even though he and his statue had become famous. He had appeared on a TV show with it, and an article had been written about him in the
Reader’s Digest.
It was entitled “Pie in the Sky: A Plucky Lad’s Struggle for a Millionaire’s Gold.” Anthony got a little money out of this, but not much. As people sometimes find out, much to their sorrow, you can’t eat fame. So Anthony decided to sell his statue and get rich. Under Emerson Eells’s guidance, a sale was arranged. It was really an auction, with lots of museums bidding for the ugly little hunk of gold. The museum that won was the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. They paid Anthony $125,000 for the statue.

Anthony was disappointed. He had hoped he would get a million. But as Miss Eells pointed out to him, $125,000 was a lot of money. Anthony decided that he would take it.

Hugo Philpotts never made good on his threat to sell Mr. Monday’s store out from under him. He had brought the bank a lot of bad publicity by his cruel and sneaky behavior, and finally he was forced to resign from his position there and move to another town. The new first vice-president of the First National Bank of Hoosac renewed Mr. Monday’s lease. In fact, he did better than that. As a public gesture of good will, he gave Mr. Monday a ninety-nine-year lease on the building that housed Monday’s Cigar Store. That was just as good as owning the building as far as Mr. Monday was concerned.

With $125,000 in the bank, a thriving business, a healthy husband, and a famous son, Mrs. Monday was happy at last—happier than she had ever been before. Anthony went on working at the library because he liked it, and he became better friends than ever with Miss Eells. He even bought her a special gift for trying to help him find the treasure, but mostly for just being such a wonderful friend. It was a foolproof, completely automatic tea-making machine from Marshall Field in Chicago. The machine had a hammered copper urn with an eagle on the top, and it could make enough tea to serve a hundred people.

 

One day during the following summer, Miss Eells asked Anthony’s folks if it would be all right if she took Anthony on a trip. It would be a fairly long trip, about three hundred miles. She wanted to go down to Chicago so that Anthony could see the statue in its glass case, all mounted and labeled, in the museum. Mrs. Monday had gotten over some of her dislike for Miss Eells—she had liked the way Miss Eells had stuck up for Anthony during the trial—and so she consented.

It was a lovely trip. They drove down along the river to Dubuque and then took a road that angled off toward Chicago. The upper Mississippi Valley is very pretty in the summer. The tall limestone bluffs are covered with green leaves, except here and there where a yellowish crag thrusts up above the trees like a castle. The bluffs wind on and on into blue distances ahead, and people who have seen the Rhine Valley say that the upper Mississippi looks a lot like it.

When they got to Chicago, Miss Eells and Anthony stayed at a hotel in the Loop. They went to the movies and toured the Field Museum, rode on the el, and went to a concert in Grant Park. One day they took the Illinois Central electric train down to the University of Chicago and walked over to the Oriental Institute. Inside, the first thing they saw was the enormous winged and human-headed stone lion from the palace of King Sargon. It fills one whole wall of the high room that is the main exhibition hall of the museum. In the middle of the room stood a glass case on a tall wooden stand. Inside the case was an object that Anthony was familiar with. When he and Miss Eells drew close to the case, they saw the card inside. It said:

 

GOLD STATUETTE OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN

Possibly Sumerian

 

Anthony’s face fell when he read this inscription. “Hey, Miss Eells! What do they mean, unknown origin? Don’t they really believe that it was one of the angels from the Ark of the Covenant?”

Miss Eells shrugged. “If by ‘they’ you mean the professors who run this museum, I don’t have the foggiest notion of
what
they think. From what this card says, I would gather that they don’t think there’s enough evidence for them to say that it really is what Alpheus Winterborn claimed it was.” They were both silent for a moment. “Of course, they may have a point,” she added. “Old Alpheus may have made the whole story up.”

Anthony felt very confused. “If they think it’s a fake, why did they buy it?”

“Well, the statue is very old, and it really is one of a kind—that alone ought to make it valuable. Of course, someday the professors may change that card when they think they have some new evidence. One thing’s for sure—they didn’t buy the thing for its looks.”

Anthony snorted. “Yeah, it looks like something I woulda made in the second grade. How come they made it look like that?”

“I dunno. I’m not an archeologist. However, I did do a little reading lately, and I read something that kind of interested me. The Jewish historian Josephus says that the angels on the ark didn’t look like any creature above, or on, or under the earth, but that they looked like some of the creatures that were standing around the throne of God when Moses went up on Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments. You can make what you like of that.”

Anthony couldn’t make much of what Miss Eells had told him. He walked around the case a few times and then said that he’d like to see some of the other stuff in the museum. As they were peering at some Assyrian reliefs, Miss Eells said rather suddenly, “Do your mom and dad still argue about money at night?”

“Yeah. Sometimes they do. Now my mom worries about our
losing
money.”

Miss Eells shook her head. “Oh, no!”

Anthony grinned. “Yeah, but I don’t worry on account of I don’t listen to them any more. Whenever I hear them starting in to argue, I get up and close the door of my room. Then I can’t hear them at all, and I go right to sleep.”

Miss Eells laughed when she heard this.

Anthony studied another Assyrian relief for a moment, then he turned and asked earnestly, “Miss Eells, would you consider me to be a fool?”

Miss Eells’s mouth dropped open. “Why, Tony, of course not. Why on earth do you ask?”

Anthony frowned. “Well,” he said thoughtfully, “you know that old saying—’A fool and his money are soon parted’...”

Miss Eells laughed again. She laughed so loudly that a guard came up and told her to please be more quiet. Miss Eells said she was sorry. Then she looked at her watch and told Anthony that they had better go if they were going to catch the afternoon performance of the Chicago Symphony.

They walked out into the sunlight and started up the street toward the train.

 

 

 

John Bellairs
is the critically acclaimed, best-selling author of many Gothic novels, including
The Curse of the Blue Figurine; The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt; The Lamp from the Warlock’s Tomb; The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull
; and the novels starring Lewis Barnavelt, Rose Rita Pottinger, and Mrs. Zimmermann:
The House With a Clock in Its Walls; The Figure in the Shadows; The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring;
and
The Ghost in the Mirror.

John Bellairs died in 1991.

BOOK: The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn
11.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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