Mystery in the Museum

by Charles Hoy Fort

"Ain't nature strange!" remarks Skinny Bulfrog to me. "Are you interested in natural history?"

"I am!" says I. "I am most enthusiastic over natural history when it's cold and sliced on a lunch counter, and a little Dutch mustard handy."

"You was always without finer instincts," snaps Skinny. "Say, we got nothing else to do, let's go up to the Museum of Natural History."

"Sure," I agree. "That's where everybody goes when they ain't got nothing else to do."

There was a big crowd in the Museum, a slow going crowd, looking stolid at Indian relics and skeletons and spiders with pins in them, just passing away the afternoon, but me and Skinny notices three maiden ladies that come tearing along to look at specimens of coral, hopping out to give one swift look at Alaskan gods, then up the stairs, three steps at a time, to look at bats and buffaloes.

"Out of town visitors," says Skinny. "They got to tell the folks at home they been to the Museum, and only got twenty minutes to have Nature unfolded to them," and he's sent reeling ten feet over the slippery stone floor by a fat woman dragging a kid in each hand after her, giving one lightning glance at meteorites, popping one eye at the plaster octopus, popping the other eye at the giant crab, hurling herself away, the two kids dragging after her. She's from Poughkeepsie and only's got fifteen minutes or she'll never see Grant's Tomb and the Statue of Liberty. But the native New York person is mooching along bored and leisurely, though we do remark that the girls and wimmen take considerable more interest in the cases than the men do.

"Now that pleases me," says Skinny. "I like to see the female sex ain't all given to vanity and trifling, but can pursue serious subjects. See the girl in yellow, how intent she is examining those old skulls! And how the lady with the white feather is studying spears and arrows! I like to see that red headed girl so interested in ethnology," which last word he saw painted up on the wall before him.

The girl in yellow gives three little dabs at the lace at her throat; the lady with a white feather smooths her hair above her ears, and the red-headed girl jabs swift at the pin in her hat. Then me and Skinny is cynics! The female sex was only studying and examining and intent upon their own reflections in the giant cases, looking where there's zoology, but seeing nothing but whether their hats is straight.

We toils on with the listless crowd, noticing how little interest the wimmen has in bugs and fossils, when we see ahead of us, a hall that's crowded with wimmen.

"What do you suppose is interesting them ladies so?" asks Skinny.

"Ornithology," says I, because I'm now a cynic. "Ornithology because it's so close related to millinery." But that was a wrong guess, as we see, when we crowd our way among two hundred wimmen, most intent upon this department of natural history. Say, what a collection! There's turquoises as big as marbles, and pearls so plentiful they're scattered around in heaps, and especially big ones set up like necktie pins. There's opals and sapphires and there's carbuncles as big as any in a famous collection of a friend of mine, who is Boozy Billy Green, and has been collecting them for twenty years on his nose. There's garnets and topaz, big chunks of amber, jasper, jade, agates. At last we see wimmen looking into cases and almost forgetting their own reflections.

And hovering over all these valuables are two attendants, scowling at one gent as if to say, "Oh, wouldn't you like to be alone here for five minutes;" frowning at another gent, like they was saying, "We know what's in your mind, but we're watching you;" looking piercing at every man, woman and infant.

"He needn't look at me like that," says Skinny to me, most resentful at such injustice. "I ain't no criminal, and wouldn't steal so much as one little garnet--while such a crowd is looking. The other one needn't insult me with his suspicions, because I never stole anything yet--in broad daylight."

"Nor me," says I, "with a hundred people looking."

"Oh, my!" says a green dressed woman, "that pearl is just like the one Archie gave me," and, for everybody to see, she points to a pearl the size of a cent's worth of chewing gum stuck under a table. "The last time I bought sapphires I got two like that. Oh, what a beautiful opal! It's a fiery opal," as the label said plain under it. "The reason I know is that I used to have eleven of them."

Other wimmen is sniffing at pearls and saying they're tired of them and their emeralds was too much of a responsibility to add any more to their store, when the attendants holler:--

"Closing up! This way!" going around and drawing the shades, while the upper and lower shades both come down by pulling one cord. And all of the visitors are herded into the outer hall and pushed and waved toward the stairs.

"The idea of them common flunkies looking at me so!" exclaims most indignant Skinny. "You'd think we'd steal their old gold and diamonds, the way they looked at us!"

"It was a downright insult!" I agree with him. "I may be poor, but no man shall besmirch my fair name and--"

"Get under there with you!" whispers Skinny.

With my mind still dwelling upon how my integrity was insulted I see Skinny make a dive and slide away under one of the long benches for visitors to rest upon. Us two is the last ones leaving another hall by the stairs. With one skip and a roll, I'm down under another bench, and nobody but Skinny the wiser. Oh, my! What a cinch we had! Attendants went through the hall, drawing down the curtains and taking off their uniform coats so they could get to their homes as quick as possible, never thinking of looking under them benches at me and Skinny. And wasn't I chuckling with the cinch we had! All we'd have to do would be break open one case and take out a diamond; then we could cut the glass of the other cases at our leisure, fill up with nuggets and jewellery, and hide again and get out as soon as opening time in the morning. Oh, say, it looked too easy to be so easy!

The museum is closed; it gets darker and darker, till it's so dark you can't see lions and tigers and snakes, but know they're there, and feel kind of scarey of them, even if their insides is excelsior. When everything is as dark as it will be, Skinny comes crawling over to me.

"Now's our time!" he whispers. "Tomorrow at this time we'll be nabobs and have to study French before we can order a dinner where we're stopping. Say, I'm sort of twisted in the dark! Which way is all that jewelry?"

It was so dark that I was pretty good twisted, too.

Says I, "It's down to your left, I think, but wouldn't swear to it. I'm going to have seven of them diamonds put up into a solitaire ring, like I was bookmakers!"

"I think it's to the left," says Skinny. "After to-morrow I'll have to wear sandals, because I'm going to have rubies on my toes, even. You stay here and don't make a sound--on your life, don't make a sound, and I'll go reconnoitering."

You hear what he said to me? Not make a sound! He says. He ain't gone five minutes crawling down along the floor when there's a crash. Say, I could feel my heart go crashing up against the top of my head, with it! Oh, yes, we'll wear jewelry, all right, but it'll be bracelets and of most common material. Oh, say, I shrivel up under my bench like I was one of them little insects in cocoons. For, away down the hall, Skinny sets up a screeching.

"Help!" he hollers. "Murder! Police! Help!" He comes racing down toward me, flings himself to the floor and slides twenty feet to his bench under which he lies groaning and cussing scandalous.

"Murder!" he moans. "I'm murdered!"

"Skinny!" I implore at him, "Keep quiet! What ails you? Did any lions or boa constrictors get you?"

"Oh, I'm ruined! I'm murdered!" Skinny groans in anguish. But then he keeps quiet enough, even though I hear faint sounds of writhing from him, for down the hall comes a big man with a club and a lantern.

"Any one here?" demands the watchman. "Whether you're here or not you just come out and show yourself. Holy Moses! Saints preserve me from harm! Oh! Oh!" He hollers and dances and beats around with club and lantern, falling down, getting up, staggering, and then hurling himself down the stairs.

I guess it's a hull hour I lay silent and motionless. Then, not hearing no more of the watchman, I whisper:--

"What's the matter Skinny? What is it ails you?"

"I don't know," says Skinny. "Gee, it was terrible! It's gone now, but while it lasted it was something horrible! Say, I wouldn't wish it to my worst enemy; but it's over now, and I guess we can make a break for a little jewelry."

Unfortunate Skinny no more than pokes his head out from under the bench when the most startling groans are renewed in him. He rolls in anguish so the watchman again thinks he hears something and again comes pounding up the stairs. He no more than sets foot in the hall when he utters the most terrific shouts and plunges back headlong.

"Skinny!" I whisper, though not till another hour goes by.

"Keep your head in!" Skinny whispers back at me. "There's death and murder and destruction in the air, but they don't seem to find me while I'm under the bench. We'll have to lie here till morning. Keep your head in!"

And, much alarmed and apprehensive, I keep my head in, but Skinny, getting to thinking of diamonds and rubies for his toes, crawls out on the floor several times during the night. Every time he does this he begins to groan and beg for mercy from some invisible enemy and retreat, where I can hear him moaning and writhing.

Whatever it is that's guarding the museum, it keeps us prisoners all night. In the morning, after the sounds of opening doors and sweeping and dusting, we see an attendant walking toward us, but not thinking to look under our benches. There's nothing more harmful than a case of stuffed field-mice near him, so far as I can see, and there's nothing visible to me that assails him, but all of a sudden he gives one yelp and starts like he'd climb up through the air. He gives a long screech and begins running wild in every direction. Another attendant hastens to him, but then the two of them are yelping and screeching for help and plunging into a group of visitors just coming up the stairs. Say, whether it's magic or the Evil One himself, them visitors starts tearing up and down the hall, like madmen. They run into the bench I'm under and overturn it, but seem so agonized they never notice me. They fall over Skinny's bench and the two of us, seeing them make for the stairs, joins them. The lot of us rolls down the steps, a mixed-up mass of attendants and visitors and burglars, and fly to the street, away from the Evil One.

"I ain't superstitious," says Skinny, half scared to death, "but don't never again mention this occurrence to me." And every time I did mention it he began anew his groaning and writhing.

There wasn't no chance for information from him, because just to remember the matter terrified him so, but I learned for myself by next day's paper. I was sitting in the Park with Skinny, looking over the news, when this is what I come across:--

"There were lively scenes in the Museum of Natural History yesterday--in fact, it may be necessary for a time to close the institution to visitors. It seems that a very interesting exhibit in hall No. 307, east wing, third floor, was placed insecurely and during the night toppled over."--

"It's what I bunked my head against!" exclaimed doleful Skinny, his face like a patent medicine advertisement.

Say, if we ever again get a hankering for jewelry we won't go practising where they have observation hives of honey bees insecurely fastened.

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