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Title: The Joss: A Reversion
Author: Marsh, Richard
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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 THE JOSS: A REVERSION

 A Novel

 By
 _RICHARD MARSH_


 LONDON
 F. V. WHITE & CO.
 14, BEDFORD STREET, STRAND, W.C.
 1901



 CONTENTS.

 BOOK I.
 UNCLE BENJAMIN.
 (Mary Blyth Tells the Story.)

 I.--Firandolo’s
 II.--Locked Out
 III.--The Doll
 IV.--An Interview with Mr. Slaughter
 V.--The Missionary’s Letter
 VI.--Sole Residuary Legatee
 VII.--Entering into Possession
 VIII.--The Back-door Key

 BOOK II.
 84, CAMFORD STREET.
 (The Facts of the Case According to Emily Purvis.)

 IX.--Max Lander
 X.--Between 13 and 14, Rosemary Street
 XI.--One Way In
 XII.--The Shutting of a Door
 XIII.--A Vision of the Night
 XIV.--Susie
 XV.--An Ultimatum
 XVI.--The Noise which Came from the Passage

 BOOK III.
 THE GOD OF FORTUNE.
 (Mr. Frank Paine Tells the Story of his Association with the
 Testamentary Dispositions of Mr. Benjamin Batters.)

 XVII.--The Affair of the Freak
 XVIII.--Counsel’s Opinion
 XIX.--The Reticence of Captain Lander
 XX.--My Client: and Her Friend
 XXI.--The Agitation of Miss Purvis
 XXII.--Luke
 XXIII.--The Trio Return
 XXIV.--The God Out of the Machine

 BOOK IV.
 THE JOSS.
 (Captain Max Lander Sets Forth the Curious Adventure which Marked the
 Voyage of “The Flying Scud.”)

 XXV.--Luke’s Suggestion
 XXVI.--The Throne in the Centre
 XXVII.--The Offerings of the Faithful
 XXVIII.--The Joss Reverts
 XXIX.--The Father--and His Child
 XXX.--The Morning’s News
 XXXI.--The Termination of the Voyage of the “Flying Scud”
 XXXII.--The Little Discussion Between the Several Parties
 XXXIII.--In the Presence

 BOOK V.
 AUTHOR’S POSTSCRIPT.

 XXXIV.--How Matters Stand To-day



 THE JOSS: A REVERSION.



 BOOK I.
 UNCLE BENJAMIN.

 (MARY BLYTH TELLS THE STORY.)



 CHAPTER I.
 FIRANDOLO’S.

I had had an aggravating day. In everything luck had been against
me. I had got down late, and been fined for that. Then when I went
into the shop I found I had forgotten my cuffs, and Mr. Broadley, who
walks the fancy department, marked me sixpence for that. Just as I was
expecting my call for dinner an old lady came in who kept me fussing
about till my set came up--and only spent three and two-three after
all; so when I did go down alone there was nothing left; and what was
left was worse than cold. Though I was as hungry as I very well could
be I could scarcely swallow as much as a mouthful; lukewarm boiled
mutton cased in solidified fat is not what I care for. Directly after
I came up, feeling hungrier than ever, Miss Patten did me out of the
sale of a lot of sequin trimming on which there was a ninepenny spiff.
I was showing it to a customer, and before I had had half a chance she
came and took it clean out of my hands, and sold it right away. It
made me crosser than ever. To crown it all, I missed three sales. One
lady wanted a veil, and because we had not just the sort she wanted,
when she walked out of the shop Mr. Broadley seemed to think it was my
fault. He said he would mark me. When some people want a triangular
spot you cannot put them off with a round one. It is no use your
saying you can. And so I as good as told him.

Not twenty minutes afterwards a girl came in--a mere chit--who wanted
some passementerie, beaded. She had brought a pattern. Somehow
directly I saw it I thought there would be trouble. I hunted through
the stock and found the thing exactly, only there were blue beads
where there ought to have been green. As there were a dozen different
coloured beads it did not really matter, especially as ours were a
green blue, and hers were a blue green. But that chit would not see
it. She would not admit that it was a match. When I called Mr.
Broadley, and he pointed out to her that the two were so much alike
that, at a little distance, you could not tell one from the other, she
was quite short. She caught up her old pattern and took herself away.
Then Mr. Broadley gave it to me hot. He reminded me that that was two
sales I had missed, and that three, on one day, meant dismissal. I did
not suppose they would go so far as that, but I did expect that, if I
missed again, it would cost me half-a-crown, at least. So, of course,
there was I, as it were, on tenterhooks, resolved that rather than I
would let anyone else go without a purchase I would force some
elevenpence three-farthing thing on her; if I had to pay for it
myself. And there was Mr. Broadley hanging about just by my stand,
watching me so that I felt I should like to stick my scissors into
him.

But I was doomed to be done. Luck was clean against me. Just as we
were getting ready to close in came an old woman--one of your
red-faced sort, with her bonnet a little on one side of her head. She
wanted some torchon lace. Now, strictly speaking, lace is not in my
department, but as we are all supposed to serve through, and most of
the others were engaged--it is extraordinary how, some nights, people
will crowd into the shop just as we are getting ready to close--Mr.
Broadley planted her on me. She was a nice old party. She did not know
herself what she wanted, but seemed to think I ought to. So far as I
could make out, what she really did want was a four shilling lace at
fourpence--which we could not exactly supply. At last I called Mr.
Broadley to see if he could make her out. On which she actually turned
huffy, and declaring that I would not take the trouble to show her
anything at all, in spite of all that we could do or say, she marched
straight out. Then I had a wigging. Broadley let himself go, before
them all. I could have cried--and almost did.

I was three-quarters of an hour late before I got into the street.
Emily Purvis was tired of waiting, and Tom Cooper was in a red-hot
rage.

“My dear,” began Emily, directly she saw me, “I hope you haven’t
hurried. We’re only frozen to the bone.”

“That’s all right,” said Tom. “It’s just the sort of night to hang
about this confounded corner.”

It was disagreeable weather. There was a nasty east wind, which seemed
to cut right into one, and the pavements were wet and slimy. It all
seemed of a piece. I knew Tom’s overcoat was not too thick, nor
Emily’s jacket too warm either. When I saw Tom dancing about to keep
himself warm, all at once something seemed to go over me, and I had to
cry. Then there was a pretty fuss.

“Polly!” exclaimed Emily. “Whatever is the matter with you now?”

And there, in the open street, Tom put his arm about my waist. I told
them all about it. You should have heard how they went on at Broadley.
It did me good to listen, though I knew it would make no difference to
him. They had not had the best of luck either. It seemed that it had
been one of those days on which everything goes wrong with everyone.
Emily had not got one single spiff, and Tom had had a quarrel with
young Clarkson, who had called him Ginger to his face--and the colour
of his hair is a frightfully delicate point with Tom. Tom had
threatened to punch his head when they went upstairs. I begged and
prayed him not to, but there was a gloomy air about him which showed
that he would have to do something to relieve his feelings. I felt
that punching young Clarkson’s head might do him good--and Clarkson no
particular harm.

I do not think that either of us was particularly happy. The streets
were nearly deserted. It was bitterly cold. Every now and then a
splash of rain was driven into our faces.

“This is, for us, the age of romance,” declared Emily. “You mightn’t
think so, but it is. At our age, the world should be alive with
romance. We should be steeped in its atmosphere; drink it in with
every breath. It should colour both our sleeping and our waking hours.
And, instead of that, here we are shivering in this filthy horrid
street.”

That was the way she was fond of talking. She was a very clever girl,
was Emily, and could use big words more easily than I could little
ones. She would have it that romance was the only thing worth living
for, and that, as there is no romance in the world to-day, it is not
worth while one’s living. I could not quite make out her argument, but
that was what it came to so far as I could understand. I wished myself
that there was a little more fun about. I was tired of the drapery.

“Shivering!” said Tom. “I’m not only shivering; I’m hungry too. Boiled
mutton days I always am.”

“Hungry!” I cried. “I’m starving. I’ve had no dinner or tea, and I’m
ready to drop.”

“No! You don’t mean that?”

I did mean it, and so I told him. What with having had nothing to eat,
and being tired, and worried, and cold, it was all I could do to drag
one foot after another. I just felt as if I was going to be ill. I
could have kept on crying all the time.

“Have either of you got any money?” asked Tom. Neither Emily nor I had
a penny. “Then I’ll tell you what I’ll do; we’ll all three of us go
into Firandolo’s, and I’ll stand Sam.”

I knew he had only enough money to take him home on Sunday, because he
had told me so himself the day before. Cardew & Slaughter’s is not the
sort of place where they encourage you to spend Sunday in. He had been
in last Sunday; and to stop in two Sundays running was to get yourself
disliked; I have spent many a Sunday, loitering about the parks and
the streets, living on a couple of buns, rather than go in to what
they called dinner. And I knew that if we once set foot in Firandolo’s
we should spend all he had. Yet I was so faint and hungry that I did
not want much pressing. I could not find it in my heart to refuse.

Firandolo’s is something like a restaurant. Including vegetables, and
sweets, and cheese, I have counted sixty-seven dishes on the bill of
fare at one time, so that you have plenty of choice. For a shilling
you can get a perfectly splendid dinner. And for sixpence you can get
soup, and bread and cheese and butter; and they bring you the soup in
a silver basin which is full to the brim.

At night it is generally crowded, but it was perhaps because the
weather was so bad that there were only a few persons in the place
when we went in. Directly after we entered someone else came in. He
was a big man, and wore a reefer coat and a bowler hat. Seating
himself at a table immediately opposite ours, taking off his hat, he
wiped his forehead with an old bandanna handkerchief; though what
there was to make him warm on a night like that was more than I could
say. He had a fringe of iron-grey hair all round his head on a level
with his ears. It stood out stiffly, like a sort of crown. Above and
below it he was bald. He wore a bristly moustache, and his eyes were
almost hidden by the bushiest eyebrows I had ever seen. I could not
help noticing him, because I had a kind of fancy that he had been
following us for some time. Unless I was mistaken he had passed me
just as I had come out of Cardew & Slaughter’s; and ever since,
whenever I looked round, I saw him somewhere behind us, as if he were
keeping us in sight. I said nothing about it to the others, but I
wondered, all the same. I did not like his looks at all. He seemed to
me to be both sly and impudent; and though he pretended not to be
watching us, I do not believe he took his eyes off us for a single
moment.

I do not know what he had; he took a long time in choosing it,
whatever it was. We had soup. It was lovely. Hot and tasty; just the
very thing I wanted. It made me feel simply pounds better. But, after
we had finished, something dreadful happened. The bill came altogether
to one and three; we each of us had an extra bread. Tom felt in his
pocket for the money. First in one, then in another. Emily and I soon
saw that something was wrong, because he felt in every pocket he had.
And he looked so queer.

“This is a bit of all right!” he gasped, just as we were beginning to
wonder if he was all pockets. “Blessed if I have a single copper on
me. I remember now that I left it in my box, so that I shouldn’t spend
it.”

He looked at us, and we looked at him, and the waiter stood close by,
looking at us all. And behind him was the proprietor, also with an
observant eye. Emily and I were dumbfounded. Tom seemed as if he had
not another word to say. Just as the proprietor was beginning to come
closer, the stranger who had been following us got up and came to us
across the room, all the time keeping his eyes on me.

“Pardon me if I take a liberty, but might I ask if I’m speaking to
Miss Blyth?”

An odd voice he had; as if he were endeavouring to overcome its
natural huskiness by speaking in a whisper. Of course my name is
Blyth, and so I told him. But who he was I did not know from Adam. I
certainly had never set eyes on him before. He explained, in a
fashion; though his explanation came to nothing, after all.

“I knew a--a relative of yours. A pal, he was, of mine; great pals was
him and me. So I naturally take an interest in a relative of his.” He
turned to Tom. “If so be, sir, as you’ve left your purse at home,
which is a kind of accident which might happen to any gentleman at any
time, perhaps I might be allowed to pay your little bill.”

Tom had to allow him, though he liked it no more than I did. But we
none of us wanted to be sent to prison for obtaining soup on false
pretences, which I have been given to understand might have happened.
Though, for my part, I would almost as soon have done that as be
beholden to that big, bald-headed creature, who spoke as if he had
lost his voice, and was doing all he knew to find it. When he had paid
the one and three, and what were Tom’s feelings at seeing him do it
was more than I could think, because I know his pride, the stranger
came out with something else.

“And now, ladies, might I offer you a little something on my own. What
do you say to a dozen oysters each, and a bottle of champagne? I
believe they’re things ladies are fond of.”

He smiled--such a smile. It sounded tempting. I had never tasted
oysters and champagne; though, of course, I had read of them in books,
heaps of times. And it is my opinion that Emily would have said yes,
if I had given her a chance. But not me. I stood up directly.

“Thank you; but I never touch oysters and champagne--at this time of
night.”

“Might I--might I be allowed to offer a little something else. A Welsh
rarebit, shall we say?”

Now, as it happens, a Welsh rarebit is a thing that I am fond of,
especially when eaten with a glass of stout. I was still hungry, and
my mouth watered at the prospect of some real nice, hot toasted
cheese. It needed some resolution to decline. But I did. Hungry as I
was, I felt as if I had had more than enough of him already.

“I am obliged to you, but I want nothing else. I have had all that I
require.”

It was not true; but it seemed to me that it was a case in which truth
would not exactly meet the situation. The stranger came close to me,
actually whispering in my ear.

“May I hope, Miss Blyth, that you’ll remember me when--when you want a
friend?”

I was as stand-offish as I could be.

“I don’t see how I can remember you when I don’t even know your name.”

He spoke to me across the back of his hand.

“My name is Rudd--Isaac Rudd; known to my friends, of whom, the Lord
be praised, I’ve many, as Covey. It’s a--a term of endearment, so to
speak, Miss Blyth.”

That anyone could apply a term of endearment to such a man as he
seemed to be, was more than I believed to be possible.

“If you will let me take your address, Mr. Rudd, I will see that you
have your one and three.”

“My address? Ah! Now there you have me. I don’t happen to have an--an
address just now. In fact, I’m--I’m moving.”

We were going towards the door. I was beginning to fear that he
intended to accompany us home. Nor did I see how we could prevent him,
since he was at liberty to take such measures as he chose which would
ensure the return of the money he had paid for us. But, as we drew
near the entrance, he started back; and his demeanour changed in the
most extraordinary way.

“Good-night,” he stammered, retreating farther and farther from us.
“Don’t--don’t let me keep you, not--not for another moment.”

We went out. Directly we were in the open air Tom drew a long breath.

“Geewhillikins! A nice scrape I nearly got you in, and myself as well.
A pretty hole we should have been in if that fellow hadn’t turned up
in the very nick of time. He’s the sort I call a friend in need with a
vengeance.”

Emily struck in.

“Polly, why wouldn’t you let us sample his oysters and champagne?
Considering he’s a friend of yours, you seemed pretty short with him.”

“My dear, he’s not a friend of mine, nor ever could be; and as for his
oysters and champagne, they’d have choked me if I’d touched them.”

“They wouldn’t have choked me, I can tell you that. There is some
romance in oysters and champagne, and, as you know very well, romance
is what I live for. There’s precious little comes my way; it seems
hard it should be snatched from my lips just as I have a chance of
tasting it.”

“Hollo! Who on earth----”

It was from Tom the exclamation came. He stopped short, with his
sentence uncompleted. I turned to see what had caused him to speak--to
find myself face to face with the most singular-looking individual I
had ever seen.



 CHAPTER II.
 LOCKED OUT.

At first I could not make out if it was a man or woman or what it
was. But at last I decided that it was a man. I never saw such
clothes. Whether it was the darkness, or his costume, or what it was,
I cannot say, but he seemed to me to be surprisingly tall. And thin!
And old! Nothing less than a walking skeleton he seemed to me, the
cheekbones were starting through his skin which was shrivelled and
yellow with age. He wore what looked to me, in that light, like a
whole length piece of double width yellow canvas cloth. It was wrapped
round and round him, as, I am told, it is round mummies. A fold was
drawn up over his head, so as to make a kind of hood, and from under
this his face looked out.

Fancy coming on such a figure, on a dark night, all of a sudden, and
you can guess what my feelings were. I thought I should have dropped.
I had to catch tight hold of Tom’s arm.

“Tom,” I gasped, “what--whatever is it?”

“Come on,” he muttered. “Let’s get out of this. Looney, he looks to
me.”

Lunatic or not, he did not mean that we should get away from him quite
so easily. He took Emily by the shoulder--you should have heard the
scream she gave; if it had been louder it would have frightened the
neighbourhood. But the lunatic, or whatever the creature was, did not
seem to be in the least put out. He held her with both his hands, one
on either shoulder, and turned her round to him, and stared at her in
the most disgraceful way. He put his face so close to hers that I
thought he was going to bite her, or something awful. But no; all at
once he thrust her aside as if she was nothing at all.

“It is not she,” he murmured, half to himself, as it seemed, and half
to us.

And before I could guess what he was going to do, he laid his hands on
me. It was a wonder I did not faint right then and there. He gripped
my shoulders so tight that I felt as if he had me screwed in a vice,
and for days after my skin was black and blue. He thrust his face so
close to mine that I felt his breath upon my cheeks. There was an odd
smell about it which made me dizzy. He had little eyes, which were set
far back in his head. I had a notion they were short-sighted, he
seemed to have to peer so long and closely. At last his lips moved.

“It is she,” he said, in the same half-stifled voice in which he had
spoken before. He had a queer accent. There was no mistaking what he
said, but it was certain that his tongue was not an Englishman’s. “You
will see me again--yes! Soon! You will remember me?”

Remember him? I should never forget him, never! Not if I lived to be
as old as Methuselah. That hideous, hollow-cheeked, saffron-hued face
would haunt me in my dreams. I do have dreams, pretty bad ones
sometimes. I should see him in them many a time. My head whirled
round. The next thing I knew I was in Tom’s arms. He was holding me up
against Firandolo’s window. He spoke to me.

“It’s all right now; he’s gone.”

I sighed, and looked round. The wretch had vanished. What had become
of him I did not ask, or care to know. It was sufficient for me that
he had vanished. As I drew myself up I glanced round towards the
restaurant door. Mr. Isaac Rudd’s face was pressed against the glass.
Unless I was mistaken, when he perceived I saw him he drew back
quickly. I slipped my arm through Tom’s.

“Let’s get away from here; let’s hurry home as fast as we can.”

Off we went, we three. Emily began to talk. Tom and I were silent. It
was still as much as I could do to walk; I fancy Tom was thinking.

“It is a wonder I didn’t faint as well as you; if you hadn’t I should.
But when you went I felt that it would never do for two of us to go,
so I held myself tight in. Did you ever see anything like that awful
man? I don’t believe he was alive; at least, I shouldn’t if it wasn’t
for the way in which he pinched my shoulders. I shall be ashamed to
look at them when I’ve got my dress off, I know I shall. My skin’s so
delicate that the least mark shows. What was he dressed in? And who
could the creature be? I believe he was something supernatural; there
was nothing natural about him that I could see. Then his eye! He
looked a thousand years old if he looked a day.”

She ceased. She glanced behind her once or twice. She drew closer to
Tom. When she spoke again it was in a lower tone of voice.

“Mr. Cooper, do you mind my taking your arm? There’s--there’s someone
following us now.”

Tom looked round. As he did so, two men came past us, one by me, the
other one by Emily. The one who passed me was so close that his sleeve
brushed mine; as he went he turned and stared at me with might and
main. He was short, but very fat. He was shabbily dressed, and wore a
cloth cap slouched over his eyes. When he had gone a yard or two the
other man fell in at his side. They talked together as they slouched
along; we could not but see that, while both of them were short, one
was as thin as the other was stout.

“Are you sure they’ve been following us?” whispered Tom to Emily.

“Certain. They’ve been sticking close at our heels ever since we came
away from Firandolo’s.”

The fact was put beyond dispute before we had gone another fifty
yards. The two men drew up close in front of us, in such a way that it
would have been difficult for us to pass without pushing them aside.

“Which of you two ladies is Miss Blyth?” asked the stout man, in the
most impudent manner.

On a sudden I was becoming the object of undesired attention which I
did not at all understand, and liked, if possible, still less. The
fellow looked us up and down, as if we had been objects offered for
sale.

“What has it to do with you?” returned Tom. “Who are you, anyhow?”

The thin man answered; the stout man had spoken in a shrill squeaky
treble, he had the deepest possible bass.

“We’re the young lady’s friends; her two friends. Ain’t that gospel,
Sam?”

“It’s that, William; it’s gospel truth. Truer friends than us she’ll
never have, nor none what’s more ready to do her a good turn.”

“Not if she was to spend the rest of her days sailing round the world
looking for ’em, she’d never find ’em, that she wouldn’t. All we ask
is for her to treat us as her friends.” The thin man spat upon the
pavement. “Now then, out with it; which of you two ladies is Miss
Blyth?”

“I’m not,” cried Emily.

Which I thought was distinctly mean of her, because, of course, it was
as good as saying that I was. Once more the stout man looked me up and
down.

“You’re her, are you? So I thought. The other’s too pretty, by chalks.
You’re a chip of the old block, and there wasn’t no beauty thrown away
on him; plain he was, as ever I saw a man; and plainer.”

The fellow was ruder than ever. I am aware that Emily Purvis is a
beauty, and that I am not, but at the same time one does not expect to
be stopped and told so by two perfect strangers, at that hour of the
night.

“For goodness’ sake,” I said to Tom, “let’s get away from these
dreadful persons as fast as we possibly can.”

I made him come. The fat man called after us--in his squeaky treble.

“Dreadful, are we? Maybe you’ll change your mind before you’ve done.
Don’t you be so fast in judging of your true friends, it don’t become
a young woman. There’s more dreadful persons than us about, as perhaps
you’ll find.”

“It is to be hoped,” I observed to Tom, and paying no attention
whatever to Emily Purvis, who I knew was smiling on the other side of
him, “that we shall meet no more objectionable characters before we
get safely in.”

“They’re friends of yours, my dear.”

This was Emily.

“I don’t see how you make that out, seeing that I never saw them
before, and never want to again.”

“Some of us have more friends than we know, my love.” Her love! “We’ve
seen four of yours already; I shouldn’t be surprised if we saw another
still before we’re in.”

As it happened, in a manner of speaking, it turned out that she was
right; though, of course, to speak of the creature we encountered,
even sarcastically, as a friend of mine, would be absurd. We were
going along the Fenton Road. As we were passing a street, which
branched off upon our right, there popped out of it, for all the world
as if he had been waiting for us to come along, a man in a long black
coat, reaching nearly to his heels, and a felt hat, which was crammed
down so tight, that it almost covered his face as well as his head. I
thought at first he was a beggar, or some object of the tramp kind,
because he fell in at our side, and moved along with us, as some
persistent beggars will do. But one glance at what could be seen of
his features was sufficient to show that he was something more out of
the common than that. He had a round face; almond-shaped eyes which
looked out of narrow slits; a flat nose; a mouth which seemed to reach
from ear to ear. There was no mistaking that this was a case of
another ugly foreigner. The consciousness that he was near made me
shudder; as he trudged along beside us I went uncomfortable all over.

“Go away! Make him go away!” I said to Tom.

Tom stood still.

“Now then, off you go! We’ve nothing for you. The sooner you try it
off on somebody else, the less of your valuable time you’ll waste.”

Tom took him for a beggar. But he was wrong, and I was right; the man
was not a beggar.

“Which is little lady?”

I don’t pretend that was exactly what he said. Thank goodness, I am
English, and I know no language but my own, and that is quite enough
for me, so it would be impossible for me to reproduce precisely a
foreign person’s observations; but that is what he meant. Tom was
angry.

“Little lady? What little lady? There’s no lady here, big or little,
who has anything to do with you; so, now then, you just clear off.”

But the man did nothing of the kind. He hopped to Emily, and back
again to me, peering at us both out of his narrow eyes.

“Which of you is Missee Blyth?”

“Miss Blyth! Is the whole world, all at once, on the look-out for Miss
Blyth? What is the meaning of this little game? You, there, hook it!”

But instead of hooking it, to use Tom’s own language, and gentlemen
will use slang, the man grew more and more insistent. He must have
gone backwards and forwards between Emily and me half-a-dozen times.

“Quick! Tellee me! Which is Missee Blyth? Quick, quick! tellee me! I
have something to give to Missee Blyth.”

“I am Miss Blyth.”

I did not suppose, for an instant, that he really had anything to give
me. But the man seemed to be in such a state of agitation, that I felt
that perhaps the best way to put an end to what was becoming a painful
situation would be for me to declare myself without delay. However, to
my surprise, hardly were the words out of my lips, than the man came
rushing to me, thrusting something into my hand. From what I could
feel of it, it appeared to be something small and hard, wrapped in a
scrap of paper. But I had no chance of discovering anything further,
because, before I had a chance of even peeping, the two short men, the
fat and thin one, came rushing up, goodness only knows from where, and
I heard the thin one call out, in his deep bass voice, to the other:

“He’s given it her--I saw him! At her, Sam, before she has a chance of
pouching it.”

The stout man caught me by the wrist, gave it a twist, which hurt me
dreadfully, and, before I could say Jack Robinson, he had the little
packet out of my hand. It was like a conjuror’s trick, it all took
place so rapidly, and before I had the least notion of what was going
to happen. The foreign person, however, seemed to understand what had
occurred better than I did. Clearly he did not want courage. With a
sort of snarl he sprang at the stout man, and with both hands took him
by the throat, as, I have heard, bulldogs have a way of doing. The
stout man did not relish the attack at all.

“Pull him off me, William,” he squeaked.

The thin man endeavoured to do as he was told. And, in a moment, out
in the open street there, the most dreadful fight was going on. What
it was all about I had not the faintest idea, but they attacked each
other like wild beasts. The foreign person did not seem to be at all
dismayed by the odds of two to one. He assailed them with frightful
violence.

Plainly it would be as much as they could do to deal with him between
them. I certainly expected every second to see someone killed. Emily
went off her head with terror. She rushed, screaming up the street.
Tom dashed after her, whether to stop her or not I could not tell.
And, of course, I rushed after Tom. And the three men were left alone
to fight it out together.

Emily never drew breath till we were quite close to Cardew &
Slaughter’s. Then a church clock rang out. It struck the half-hour. It
might have struck her, she stopped so suddenly.

“Half-past eleven!” she cried. “My gracious! whatever shall we do?”

It was a rule of the firm that the assistants were to be in by
half-past ten. Between the half-hour and the quarter there was a fine
of sixpence, and between the quarter and the hour one of half-a-crown.
After eleven no one was admitted at all. The doors had been closed for
more than half-an-hour! We stood, panting for breath, staring at one
another. Emily began to cry.

“I daren’t stop out in the streets all night--I daren’t!”

“I know a trick worth two of that,” declared Tom. “There’s a way in
which is known to one or two of us; I’ve had to use it before, and I
daresay I can use it again.”

“It’s all very well for you,” cried Emily. “But we can’t climb
windows; and, if we could, there are no windows for us to climb.”

Tom hesitated. I could see he did not like to leave us in the lurch.
The gentlemen slept right up at the other end of the building; there
was no connection between his end and ours. I had heard of what Tom
hinted at before; but then things are always different with gentlemen.
As Emily said, for the ladies there was no way in but the door.
Somehow I felt that, after all we had gone through, I did not mean to
be trampled on.

“You go, Tom, and get in as best you can. Emily and I will get in too,
or I’ll know the reason why.”

Away went Tom; and off started Emily and I to try our luck. She was
not sanguine.

“They’ll never let us in, never!”

“We’ll see about that.”

I gritted my teeth, as I have a trick of doing when I am in earnest. I
was in earnest then. It is owing to the firm’s artfulness that there
are no bells or knockers on the doors leading to the assistants’
quarters. When they are open you can get in; when they are closed
there are no means provided to call attention to the fact that you
require admission. They had been unloading some packing-cases. I
picked up two heavy pieces of wood which had been left lying about;
with them I started to hammer at the door. How I did hammer! I kept it
up ever so long; but no one paid the slightest heed. I began to
despair. Emily was crying all the while. I felt like crying with her.
Instead, I gritted my teeth still more, and I hammered, and I
hammered. At last a window was opened overhead, and the housekeeper,
Mrs. Galloway, put her head out.

“Who’s that making this disgraceful noise at this hour of the night?”

“It’s Miss Purvis and Miss Blyth. Come down and let us in; we’ve been
nearly robbed and murdered.”

“I daresay! You don’t enter this house to-night; you know the rules.
And if you don’t take yourselves off this instant I’ll send for the
police.”

“Send for the police, that’s what we want you to do. The police will
soon see if you won’t let us in.”

Mrs. Galloway’s head disappeared; the window was banged. Emily cried
louder than ever.

“I told you she’d never let us in.”

“We’ll see if she won’t.”

Off I started again to hammer. Presently steps were heard coming along
the passage. Mrs. Galloway’s voice came from the other side of the
door.

“Stop that disgraceful noise! Go away! Do you hear me, go away!”

“If we do it will be to fetch the police. They’ll soon show you if you
can keep us out all night when we’ve been nearly robbed and murdered.”

The door was opened perhaps three inches; as I believed, upon the
chain. I knew Mrs. Galloway’s little tricks. But if it was upon the
chain what occurred was odd. Someone came hurrying up the steps behind
us. To my amazement it was the dreadful old man in the yellow canvas
cloth. I was too bewildered to even try to guess where he had come
from; I had never supposed that he, or anybody else, was near. He
pointed to the door.

“Open!” he said, in that queer, half-stifled voice in which he had
spoken to me before.

The door was opened wide, though how the housekeeper had had time to
remove the chain, if it was chained, was more than I could understand.
Emily and I marched into the passage--sneaked, I daresay, would have
been the better word. As I went the stranger slipped something into my
hand; a hard something, wrapped in a scrap of paper.



 CHAPTER III.
 THE DOLL.

I do not know what it was, but something prevented Mrs. Galloway
from giving us the sort of talking to I had expected. She is a woman
with as nasty a tongue as you would care to meet. I had never before
known her lose a chance of using it. And there was a chance! But,
instead, there she stood mumchance, and before she had even so much as
said a word, Emily and I were off upstairs. I was on the second floor,
and Emily was on the third. When I stopped to go into my room I called
out to her, “Good night!” but she ran on, and never answered. She was
in such a state of mind, what with the fright, and her crying, and the
cold biting us through and through while we waited on the doorstep,
that all she cared for was to get between the sheets.

In my room most of the girls were wide awake. It was not a large room,
so there were only nine of us, and that was including Miss Ashton. She
was the senior assistant, a regular frump, thirty if a day. She came
to bed a quarter of an hour after we did, and after she had come to
bed no one was supposed to talk. If any girl did talk Miss Ashton
reported her, and the girl was fined, and half the fine, whatever it
was, went into Miss Ashton’s pockets. So, of course--since, sometimes,
her pockets were bulging out with our money--no love was lost between
us.

When I went in, although I knew that most of the girls were awake,
because of Miss Ashton no one spoke a syllable, until Lucy Carr, who
had the next bed to mine, whispered as I stood by her:

“Whatever have you been up to?”

“I’ve been nearly robbed and murdered, that’s what I’ve been up to.”

“Miss Blyth, I shall report you for talking after midnight.”

This was Miss Ashton, cold, and hard, and short as usual. Trust her to
go to sleep while there was a chance to snatch at somebody else’s
penny!

“Very well, Miss Ashton, you can report me, and you can say, at the
same time, that it’s a wonder that I was alive to talk at all, for
what I’ve gone through this day, and this night, I alone can tell.”

I plumped down on my box, and I leaned my back against the wall, and I
had to cry. Then all the girls set off together. Lucy Carr sat up in
bed, and she put her arms about my neck; she was a nice girl, was Lucy
Carr, we hardly ever quarrelled.

“Never mind her, my love; you know what she’s like; she can’t help it,
it’s her nature. Don’t you cry, my dear.”

And then there were such remarks as “It’s a shame!” “Poor dear!” and
“How can people be so cruel?” from the others. But Miss Ashton was not
touched, not she; she simply said, in her cold, hard tones:

“Miss Carr, Miss Sheepshanks, Miss Flick, Miss James, I shall report
you for talking after midnight.”

“That’s right,” said Lucy, “and much good may our money do you. I wish
it would burn a hole in your pocket!”

Then the girls were still. Of course they did not want to lose all
their money, and there was no knowing what the fine might be for
talking at that time of night, and especially for keeping on. So I sat
on my box, and I wiped my eyes; I never do believe much in crying, and
somehow I felt too mad for a regular weep. I should like to have given
Miss Ashton a real good shaking--everything would go wrong!

Just as I was beginning to undress--I actually had unhooked my
bodice--I thought of what the object in the grey canvas cloth had
slipped into my hand. What had become of it? In my agitation I had
forgotten all about it. I was holding it when I came into the room--I
remembered that. What had become of it since? I felt on my knee; it
was not there. I had not put it in my pocket. It must have dropped on
the floor. Intending to start a search I put out my foot and touched
something with my toe. I reached out my hand; it was the scrap of
paper.

As I picked it up I knew quite well that there could be nothing in it
of the slightest consequence. People don’t give things worth having to
perfect strangers, especially such people as that creature in the
canvas cloth. Yet there had been a good deal of fuss. First the man in
the long black coat had given me a scrap of paper; then the thin man
had egged on the stout man to snatch it from me like a hungry lion;
then, to regain it in his possession the black-coated man had attacked
the two others like some mad wild beast; finally, to crown all, the
canvas cloth creature had put into my hand what seemed to be the
identical scrap of paper as I stood on the threshold of the door.
There must be something of interest connected with the thing; or why
had these persons, in spite of what Emily had said, all utter
strangers to me, behaved in such an extraordinary manner?

I was both tired and sleepy, but I was more worried than either. Part
of my worry had to do with that scrap of paper. What was in it? I was
sure I should never sleep until I knew. It was about half an inch
broad, and an inch and a half long. As I pressed it with my fingers, I
could feel that something was inside, something queer-shaped and hard.
The room was pretty dark. All the light there was came through the
sides of the badly fitting blind from the lamp on the opposite side of
the street. I could not get the paper open. It was fastened in some
way I did not understand. As I held it up against the shaft of light
which came through the side of the blind, to make out, if possible,
what the trick of the fastening was, a queer thing took place.

Something moved inside, and tore the paper open. It was only a little
thing, but it took me so completely by surprise that it affected me
almost as much as if the ceiling had fallen in. What could there have
been inside to move? I sat staring, in the darkness, with my mouth
wide open. Suddenly there came Miss Ashton’s voice from the other end
of the room.

“Miss Blyth, are you not going to get into bed at all to-night?”

At that moment I myself could not have told. I was holding in my hand
something which gleamed at me. What it was I could not even guess. I
only knew that two specks of light, which looked like eyes, were
shining at me through the darkness; and that the thing had moved.
There was Miss Ashton’s voice again.

“Do you hear me, Miss Blyth? Are you going to bed? or am I to summon
Mrs. Galloway?”

Without answering her a word I dropped what I was holding on to the
bed. I was convinced that it moved as I did so, as if to cling to my
fingers. It was silly, but I was never so frightened in my life. I saw
the two bright spots of light shining up at me from the counterpane as
if they were watching me. I hardly dared to breathe. I slipped off my
bodice, and the rest of my things, moving as little as I possibly
could, and stood in my night-gown shivering by the bed. Had I not been
afraid, I would have asked Lucy to let me get into bed with her. But I
knew Miss Ashton would hear, and would rout me out again, and then
there would be worse to follow. I should get Lucy into trouble as well
as myself. And there was trouble enough in store for all of us
already. Better face what there was to face alone, than drag anybody
else into the ditch into which I seemed to be continually tumbling.

It was too ridiculous to be afraid to get into bed because that thing
with the shining spots was lying on the counterpane. I was sensible
enough to be aware of that. Yet I was afraid. Was it alive? If I could
only have made sure that it was not, I should not have minded. But it
was too dark to see; and I could not touch it.

“Miss Blyth, are you going to get into bed?”

“Well, Miss Ashton, there’s something on my bed, and I don’t know what
it is.”

“Something on your bed? What do you mean? What nonsense are you
talking?”

“Have you any matches? If you’ll lend me some, I shall be able to see
what it is. I can’t get in until I know.”

“Is it a fresh trick you are playing me? I never heard anything so
ridiculous. Here are some matches. Be quick; and don’t be sillier than
you can help.”

I went and took the box of matches she held out to me. Returning, I
lit one and held it over the counterpane. Some of the girls lifted
their heads to watch me. Lucy Carr leaned right out of her bed towards
mine.

“Whatever is it?” she whispered.

My hand shook so, with the cold, and the state I was in, that it was
all I could do to keep it steady enough to prevent the match from
going out. I held it lower.

“I believe it’s a frog.”

“A frog!” cried Lucy. She drew herself back with a little shriek.

“It’s--it’s something horrid.”

Two or three of the girls sat up, drawing the bedclothes to their
chins.

“Miss Blyth, what is the cause of this confusion? Are we never to have
any sleep to-night?”

Miss Ashton, getting out of bed, came across the room to see what was
the matter. The match went out. The red-hot end dropped on to the
counterpane. I brushed it off with my fingers. As I did so I touched
the thing. My nerves were so strung up that I gave a scream. There
came an echo from the girls. Miss Ashton was at my side before I could
strike another match. She was in a fine rage.

“Give me the box!” She snatched it from me. “Have you been misbehaving
yourself? or are you mad? I’ll soon see what is the cause of all this
nonsense, and then I’ll be sorry for whoever is at the bottom of it.”

The first match she tried would not light. The second burst into vivid
flame. She stooped down.

“What is this thing upon your bed? It’s some painted toy. You impudent
girl!”

Picking it up, she threw it on to the floor into the corner of the
room. Her match went out. There was a sound like a little cry of pain.

“Whatever’s that?” asked Lucy.

“It’s nothing,” replied Miss Ashton. “It was only the thing striking
against the floor.”

“I believe it’s alive,” I said. “It shrieked.”

“I believe you have been drinking.”

“Miss Ashton!”

“I have heard of people who have been drinking seeing things--that
appears to be your condition now. Are you going to get into bed? You
will have something to shriek for when the morning comes.”

I got into bed, feeling so cowed, that I could not even resent, with a
proper show of dignity, her monstrous accusation. That anyone could
have been wicked enough to accuse me of such a thing! I was trembling
all over. I believed that the thing had shrieked, and was haunted by a
horrible doubt that it was alive. Never before was I in such a state
of mind and body. My brain was all in a whirl. I could do nothing but
lie there shivering; my joints and muscles seemed to be possessed by
an attack of twitching spasms, as if I had been suddenly smitten with
some hideous disease.

I heard Miss Ashton return to her own bed. Then a voice whispered in
my ear, so gently that it could have been audible to no one but me--

“Never mind, dear. She’s a beast!”

It was Lucy. I put out my hand. She was leaning over me.

“Kiss me,” I muttered.

She kissed me. It did me good. I held her, for a moment, to me. It
comforted me to feel her face against mine.

“Now go to sleep! and don’t you dream!”

It was easy enough to talk; it was harder to do. I did not often
dream. Not nearly so much as some of the other girls, who were always
telling us of the things they dreamed about. Rubbish it mostly was. I
always said they made up three parts of it, not believing that such
stuff could get into the heads of sensible people, even when they were
asleep. That night I dreamt while I was wide awake. I was overcome by
a sort of nightmare horror, which held me, with staring eyes and
racking head, motionless between the sheets, as if I had been glued to
them. It was as if the thing which Miss Ashton had thrown on the floor
was in an agony of pain, and as if it had communicated its sufferings
to me.

At last I suppose I must have gone to sleep. And then it was worse
than ever. What I endured in my sleep that night no one could
conceive. It was as if I were continually passing through endless
chambers of nameless horrors. With it all were mixed up the events of
the evening. I saw Isaac Rudd, and the creature in the canvas cloth,
and the two short men, and the person in the long black coat. They
kept popping in and out, always in full enjoyment of my tortures.
There were Emily and I, standing at the top of an enormous flight of
steps, in pitch-black darkness, in frightful weather, outside the door
of some dreadful place, and there were those dreadful creatures
jeering at us because no one would let us in. And Tom--I knew that
somewhere near Tom was crying. And the thing which was in the scrap of
paper was with me all the night. It was always on me somewhere; now on
my throat, biting through the skin; now on my breast, drawing the life
right out of me; now on my toes, hampering my feet, so that I could
scarcely lift them up and down; now inside my mouth, filling me with a
horrible choking sense of nausea.

But perhaps the strangest part of it all was that, when I awoke, there
actually was something on my forehead. I felt it against my chin.
Giving my head a sudden shake it slipped off on to the pillow at my
side. I sat up. It was broad day. I saw it as plain as could be. A
little painted thing, tricked out in ridiculously contrasting shades
of green, and pink, and yellow. As Miss Ashton had said, it might have
been a toy. I had seen things not unlike it in the shop, among the
Japanese and Chinese curiosities. Or it might have been a tiny
representation of some preposterous heathen god, with beads for eyes.



 CHAPTER IV.
 AN INTERVIEW WITH MR. SLAUGHTER.

That was a curious day. More things happened on it than on any day
of my life before. It was the beginning of everything and the end of
some things. From morning to night there was continual movement like
in the transformation scene in a pantomime. When, since one was born,
nothing has taken place, and nothing changed, it makes such a
difference.

I got up feeling dreadfully stale; an up-all-night sort of feeling.
Not that I ever have been up all night; but I know what the sensation
is like because of the descriptions I have read. Miss Ashton was
disagreeable, and the girls were snappish--even Lucy Carr was short;
and, I daresay, I was not too nice. But then there often is a little
show of temper in the morning; it is human nature. They had all begun
when I got down to breakfast, and, of course, I got black looks for
that. I caught sight of Emily Purvis as I sat down. She nodded; but it
struck me that she was not looking brilliant, any more than I was.

Breakfast stuck in my throat. The butter was bad as usual--cheap
margarine just rank enough to make pastry taste. The bread seemed as
if it had been cut for hours, it was so hard and dry. I did manage to
swallow a mouthful of tea; but the water was smoked, and I do not like
condensed milk which is just going off, so I could not do much even
with that. On the whole I did not feel any better for the meal when I
got into the shop. I am not sure that I did not feel worse; and I knew
I should be sinking before dinner came. Mr. Broadley began at me at
once. He set me re-packing a whole lot of stock, which he declared I
had not put tidily away; which was perfectly untrue, because, as a
matter of fact, it was Miss Nichols who had had it last, and it was
she who had put it back again. And, anyhow, some of those trimmings,
when they have been once shown, will not set neatly; they are like
hats, they cannot be made to go just so.

It was past eleven, and I had not had a single customer; it was
miserable weather, and perhaps that had something to do with it,
because scarcely a soul came into the shop. Mr. Broadley kept me at
putting the shelves in order, almost as if I had been stock-taking.
Not that I cared, for I hate doing nothing; especially as, if you so
much as speak to one of the other young ladies, he is fit to murder
you; that is the worst of your married shopwalkers, directly a girl
opens her mouth he jumps down it. Still, I did not like it all the
same; because I was getting tired, and hungry too; and, when you are
hungry, the only way to stave the feeling off is to be kept busy
serving; then you cannot stop to think what you would like to eat.

At last, just as a customer entered the shop, and was coming toward
me, up sailed Mr. Broadley.

“Miss Blyth, you’re wanted in the office.”

My heart dropped down with a thump. I had half expected it all along,
but now that it had come I went queer all over. I had to catch hold of
the counter to keep up straight. Miss Nichols, seeing how it was with
me, whispered as she went past:

“It’s all right, Pollie, don’t you worry, it’s nothing, Buck up, old
girl.”

It was nice of her to try to cheer me up; but there was a choking
something in my throat which prevented me from thanking her. Broadley
was at me again.

“Hurry up, Miss Blyth, don’t stand mooning there. Didn’t you hear me
tell you that you are wanted in the office?”

He was a bully, he was, to the finger-tips. I knew that he was smiling
at me all the time; enjoying my white face, and the tremble I was in.
When I got away from the counter I felt as if my knees were giving way
beneath me. Everyone stared as I went past--I could have cried. They
knew perfectly well that being summoned to the office during working
hours meant trouble.

Outside the office was Emily Purvis, I had been wondering if she would
be there, yet it was a shock to see her all the same. She was quite as
much upset as I was. I knew that her nearest friends were down in
Devonshire, and that she was not on the best of terms with them; so
that if there was going to be serious trouble, she would be just as
badly off as I was, without any friends at all. Her pretty face looked
all drawn and thin, as if she were ten years older than she really
was. It would only want a very little to start her tears. Her voice
shook so that I could hardly make out what she said.

“Pollie, what do you think they’ll do to us?”

“I don’t know. Where’s Tom? Did he get in all right? Has he--been sent
for?”

“How can I tell? I don’t know anything about Mr. Cooper. You know,
Pollie, it was not my fault that I was in late.”

“So far as I know it was neither of our faults. I wonder if Tom got in
all right”

“Bother Tom! It’s very hard on me. I wonder if they’ll fine us?”

Before I could answer Mr. Slaughter put his head out of the office.

“Come in there! Stop that chattering! Are you the two young women I
sent for?”

We went in, standing like two guilty things. Mr. Slaughter sat at his
desk.

“Which of you is Mary Blyth?”

“I am, sir.”

“Oh, you are, are you?”

He leant back in his chair, put his hands in his pockets, and looked
me up and down, as if he was valuing me. He was a little man, with
untidy hair and a scrubby black beard. I could not have been more
afraid of him if he had been a dozen times as big. He had a way of
speaking as if he would like to bite you; and as if he wished you to
clearly understand that, should he have to speak again, he would take
a piece clean out of you. Everybody about the place was more
frightened of him than of Mr. Cardew. It was he who had made it what
it was. In the beginning it had been nothing; now there were all those
shops. He was a thorough man of business, without a grain of feeling
in him. We all felt that he looked on us assistants as if we were so
many inferior cattle, not to be compared, for instance, to the horses
which drew his vans.

I could have sunk through the ground as he continued to stare at me.
It was more than I could do to meet his eyes; yet something seemed to
say that he did not think much of what he saw. His first words showed
that I was right.

“Well, Mary Blyth, it seems that you’re an altogether good-for-nothing
young woman. From what I find upon this paper it seems that there’s
everything to be said against you, nothing in your favour; no good for
business, no good for anything. And you look it. I can’t make out why
you’ve been kept about the place so long; it points to neglect
somewhere. It appears that you’re habitually irregular; three times
yesterday you missed making a sale, and you know what that means. We
don’t keep saleswomen who send customers away empty-handed; we send
them after the customers. You were impertinent to Mr. Broadley. And,
to crown all, you were out last night till something like the small
hours. On your return you made a riot till they let you in, and more
riot when you were in. Miss Ashton, who is far too gentle, does not
like to say that you had been drinking, but she says that you behaved
as though you had been. In short, you’re just the type of young woman
we don’t want in this establishment. You’ll go and draw whatever is
due to you, if anything is due; and you’ll take yourself and your
belongings off these premises inside of half an hour. That, Mary
Blyth, is all I have to say to you.”

For the moment, when he had finished, I was speechless. It was all so
cruel and unjust; and there was so much to be said in reply to every
word he uttered, that the very volume of my defence seemed to hold me
paralysed. I could only stammer out:

“It is the first time I have been reported to you, sir.”

“As I have already observed, there has evidently been neglect in that
respect. The delay amounts to a failure of duty. I will make inquiries
into its cause.”

“It was not my fault that I was late, sir.”

“No? Was the gentleman to blame?”

My face flamed up. I could have slapped him on the cheek. What did he
mean by his insinuations?

“You have no right to speak to me like that!”

“When young women in my employment misbehave themselves as you have
done I make plain speaking a rule. A man was with you, because one was
seen. You can apportion the blame between you.” I could not tell him
it was Tom; it might have been bad for him. “None of your airs with
me; off you go. Stay! This other young woman heard me talk to you; now
you shall hear me talk to her. Is your name Emily Purvis?”

“Yes, sir. It’s the first time--I never meant it--it wasn’t my fault.”

Emily broke into stammering speech; he cut her short.

“Don’t you trouble yourself to talk; I’ll do all the talking that’s
required. You were out after hours with Miss Blyth. I’m not going to
ask any questions, and I’ll listen to no explanations; young women who
scour the streets at midnight are not the sort I like. We are judged
by the company we keep. You were Mary Blyth’s companion last night;
you’ll be her companion again. With her, you’ll draw what is due to
you; with her, you’ll clear yourself off these premises inside half an
hour. Now, stop it!”

Emily began crying.

“Oh, Mr. Slaughter, I’ve done nothing! it isn’t fair! I’ve nowhere to
go to!”

“Oh, yes, you have, you’ve outside this office to go to. Now, no
nonsense!” He struck a hand-bell; a porter entered. “Take these young
women out of this; let them have what’s due to them; see they’re off
the premises inside half an hour.”

“Oh, Mr. Slaughter!” wailed Emily.

It made me so angry to see her demean herself before that unfeeling
thing of wood, that I caught her by the wrist.

“Come, Emily! don’t degrade yourself by appealing to that cruel,
unjust, hard-hearted man. Don’t you see that he thinks it fine sport
to trample upon helpless girls?”

“Come, none of that.”

The porter put his hand upon my shoulder. Before I knew it we were out
of the office and half a dozen yards away. I turned upon him in a
flame of passion.

“Take your hand from off my shoulder! If you dare to touch me again
you’ll be sorry!”

He was not a bad sort. He seemed scared at the sight of me.

“I don’t want to do anything to you. Only what’s the good of making a
fuss? You know he’s master here.”

“And, because he’s master here, I suppose, if he tells you to behave
like a miserable coward, you would?”

“What’s the use of talking? If he says you’ve got to go, you’ve got
to, and there’s an end of it. You take my advice, and don’t be silly.”

“Silly! Your advice! When I ask you for your advice, you give it, not
before.”

I stood and glared. I do not think he altogether liked the look of me;
I am sure that had he touched me I should have flown at him, and I
rather suspect he knew it. While he hesitated I heard someone speaking
in loud tones in the office from which we had just now been ejected.
It was a man’s voice.

“I want to see Miss Blyth.”

It was Mr. Slaughter who replied.

“I say you can’t see Miss Blyth, so you have my answer, sir.”

“But that is an answer which I am unable to accept. I must see Miss
Blyth, and at once, on a matter of grave importance.”

“Don’t talk to me, sir; my time is valuable. This is neither the hour
nor the place at which we are accustomed to allow a stranger to see
the young women in our employ. And as, in any case, this particular
young woman is no longer in our employ, I repeat that you cannot see
Miss Blyth.”

“Oh, yes, you can--for here is Miss Blyth.”

Darting past the porter, who seemed pretty slow-witted, I was back
again in the office. A stranger was confronting the indignant Mr.
Slaughter. I had just time to see that he was not old, and that he was
holding a top hat, when he turned to me.

“Are you Miss Mary Blyth?”

“I am, Mr. Slaughter knows I am.”

“My name is Paine, Frank Paine. I am a solicitor. If you are the Mary
Blyth I am in search of I have a communication to make to you of
considerable importance.”

“Then make it outside, sir.” This was Mr. Slaughter.

The porter appeared at the door.

“What’s the meaning of this, Sanders? Didn’t I tell you to see this
young woman off the premises?”

“I was just seeing her, sir, when she slipped off before I knew it.”

I flashed round at Sanders.

“You’ve assaulted me once, don’t you dare to assault me again; this
gentleman’s a solicitor. If you’re a solicitor, Mr. Paine, I want you
to help me. Because I was accidentally prevented from returning till a
few minutes after time last night, Mr. Slaughter wishes to send me
away at a moment’s notice, without a character.”

“Is that the case, Mr. Slaughter?”

“What business is it of yours? Upon my word! I tell you again to leave
my office.”

“You appear to wish to carry things off with a high hand.”

“A high hand! Mr. Slaughter thinks that he has only to lift his little
finger to have us all turned into the street.”

“If that is so, he is in error. Miss Blyth is my client As her
solicitor I would advise you to be sure that you are treating her with
justice.”

“Her solicitor!” Mr. Slaughter laughed. “I wish you joy of the job,
you won’t make a fortune out of her!” He waved his hands. “Any
communication you have to make, you make through the post. For the
last time I ask you to leave my office.”

“Come, Mr. Paine, we will go. He need not ask us again. As he says, we
can communicate with him through the post; and that will not
necessitate our being brought into his too close neighbourhood.”

I shook the dust of the office off my feet. Mr. Paine seemed puzzled.
Outside was Emily, still crying. I introduced her.

“This is Emily Purvis, another victim of Mr. Slaughter’s injustice.
Emily, this is my solicitor, Mr. Paine.”

She stared, as well she might. For all I knew, it might have been a
jest of his, he might not have been a solicitor at all. The truth is I
was quite as anxious to carry things off with a high hand as Mr.
Slaughter could be; so I held my head as high as ever I could.

“Mr. Paine, we are going to draw our salaries. They are sure to get as
much out of us in fines as they can. Will you come and see that they
don’t cheat us more than can be helped?”

“Fines!” Mr. Paine looked grave. “I doubt if they have any right to
deduct fines without your express permission.”

So he told them. That book-keeper had a pleasant time--the wretch! He
made out that the princely sum of fifteen shillings was due to each of
us; and off this, he wanted to dock me nine and six, and Emily five.
Mr. Paine would not have it. He put things in such a way that the
book-keeper referred to Mr. Slaughter. Mr. Slaughter actually sent
back word to say that he was to give us our fifteen shillings and let
us go. Then Mr. Paine handed in his card, and said that if we did not
receive, within four and twenty hours, a quarter’s salary in lieu of
notice, proceedings would be immediately commenced for the recovery of
the same.

So, in a manner of speaking, Emily and I marched off with flying
colours.



 CHAPTER V.
 THE MISSIONARY’S LETTER.

The question was, what was to become of us? With no friends one
cannot live long on fifteen shillings. Even if we got fresh situations
in a fortnight it would only be with management that the money could
be made to last that time; and, if we did, then we should be more
fortunate than I expected to be.

Mr. Paine, however, postponed the solution of the difficulty by
suggesting that I should arrange nothing until I had had a talk with
him. I was willing; though what he had to do with it was more than I
could guess; unless, like they used to do in the fairy tales, he was
all of a sudden going to turn out to be my fairy godpapa. One thing I
insisted on, that Emily should come with me. So, after I had scribbled
a note to Tom--“Dear Tom, Emily and I have got the sack. Meet me after
closing time at the usual place. Yours, as ever, Pollie. P.S.--Hope
you’re all right”--which Sanders, who was a good sort, promised to see
he got--we all three got into a four-wheeled cab, with our boxes on
top, and away we rattled.

“Good bye, Slaughter!” I said. “And may we never want to see your face
again. And now, Mr. Paine, where are you taking us to?”

“To my offices in Mitre Court. What I have to say to you may take some
time, and require a little explanation, and there we shall have the
necessary privacy.”

It sounded mysterious and I began to wonder more and more what he had
to say. I daresay I should have put my wonder into words, only just at
that moment, who should I see, peeping at us round the corner of the
street which we were passing, but the man who paid our bill at
Firandolo’s, and who said his name was Isaac Rudd. The sight of him
gave me quite a shock.

“There’s Isaac Rudd!” I cried.

“Isaac--who?” asked Emily. She can be dull.

“Why, the man who paid the bill last night.”

Then she understood. Out went her head through the window.

“Where? I don’t see him.”

“No, and he’ll take care you won’t. Unless I’m mistaken, directly he
knew I saw him he took himself away; but he’s got his eye upon us all
the same.”

I looked at Emily, and she at me. Mr. Paine saw that something was up.

“Who was that you’re speaking of? Someone who has been annoying you?”

“No--nothing. Only there was something a little queer took place last
night.”

I sat silent, thinking of Isaac Rudd; as, I daresay, was Emily too.
Putting two and two together, it was odd that he should be just there
at that particular moment. Especially as, a little farther on, I saw,
standing in the shadow of a doorway, a man in a long black overcoat,
with his hat crushed over his eyes, who bore the most amazing
resemblance to the foreigner who had given me the something in a scrap
of paper.

Suddenly I jumped up from my seat. I was so startled that I could not
help but give a little scream. They both stared at me.

“What is wrong?” asked Mr. Paine.

“Why, look at that!”

There, sitting, as it were, bolt upright on my knee was the something
which had been in the scrap of paper. Mr. Paine eyed it.

“What is it?”

“That’s what I should like to know; also where it’s come from; it
wasn’t there a moment back, and that I’ll swear.”

“May I look at it?”

“Certainly; and throw it out of the window too, for all I care.”

Mr. Paine took it up. He turned it over and over.

“It looks like one of the images, representatives of well known
deities, which are used as household gods on some of the Pacific
coasts. People hang them over their beds, or over the thresholds of
their doors, or anywhere. Imitations are sold in some of the London
shops. Perhaps Messrs. Cardew & Slaughter keep them in stock.”

“That I am sure they don’t. And, if they do, that’s not out of their
stock. That was given to me last night by a foreigner in yellow canvas
cloth. It jumped out of the scrap of paper in which it was
wrapped----”

“Jumped?”

“If it didn’t jump I don’t know what it did do; I can tell you it took
me aback. Miss Ashton threw it on to the floor; yet, when I woke up
this morning, it was on my forehead, though how it got there I know no
more than the dead.”

“Are you in earnest, Pollie?”

“Dead earnest. It’s my belief I left it in the bedroom, though I might
have put it in my pocket, but how it came on to my knee is just what I
can’t say.”

Mr. Paine was dividing his attention between me and the thing.

“This is very interesting, Miss Blyth. Especially as I also have had a
curious experience or two lately. Can you describe the person who gave
it you?”

I described him, to the best of my ability.

“That is--odd.”

His tone seemed to suggest that something in my description had struck
him; though what it was he did not explain.

“You’d better throw that thing out of the window,” I said. “I’ve had
enough of it.”

“Thank you; but, if you have no use for it, if you do not mind, I
should like to retain it in my own possession. It’s a curiosity,
and--I’m interested in curiosities.”

He slipped it into his waistcoat pocket. I noticed that once or twice
he felt with his fingers, as if to make sure that it still was there.

Mr. Paine was very civil to us when we reached his office--a funny,
dark little place it was. He got out some cake, and biscuits, and a
decanter of wine, and Emily and I helped ourselves, for I was
starving. Sitting at a table in front of us, he took some papers out
of a drawer, and began to look at them. Now that I could notice him
more I could see that he was tall and well set up; quite the
gentleman; with one of those clear-cut faces, and keen grey eyes, with
not a hair upon it--I mean upon his face, of course, because I
particularly observed that his teeth and eyelashes were perfect.

“Before I go into the subject on which I have ventured to bring you
here, I am afraid I shall have to ask you one or two questions, Miss
Blyth.”

His manner was just what it ought to have been, respectful, and yet
not too distant.

“Any answers I can give you, Mr. Paine, you are welcome to.”

“What was your mother’s maiden name?”

“Mary Ann Batters. She died six years ago next month, when I was
fourteen. My father’s name was Augustus. He was a most superior
person, although unfortunate in business; and though he died five
years before my mother, I’ve heard her say, almost to her last hour,
that she had married above her--which I believe she did.”

“Had your mother any relations?”

“None.”

“Think again.”

“Well, in a manner of speaking, there was one; but about him least
said soonest mended; although he was her brother--that is, until she
cast him off.”

“What was his name?”

“Benjamin. Although I do not remember ever hearing her mention it,
and, indeed, she was opposed to speaking of him at all; I learned it
was so through finding some letters of his in one of her boxes after
she was dead, and those letters I have unto this day.”

“That is fortunate; because it is as the representative of Mr.
Benjamin Batters that I am here.”

“Indeed? You don’t mean to say so. This is a surprise.”

And not a pleasant one either. I had heard of Mr. Benjamin Batters,
though not for years and years, but never had I heard anything to his
credit. A regular all-round bad lot he must have been, up to all sorts
of tricks, and worse than tricks. I had reason to believe he had been
in prison more than once, perhaps more than twice. When you have a
relation like that, and have forgotten all about him, and are thankful
to have been able to do it, you do not like to have him come flying,
all of a sudden, in your face. I was not obliged to Mr. Paine for
mentioning his name. If that was all he had to talk about I was sorry
I had come.

“I may take it, then, that Mr. Benjamin Batters is an uncle of yours.”

“In a manner of speaking. Although, considering my mother, his sister,
cast him off, and that I myself never set eyes upon the man, it is
only by a figure of speech that you can call him so.”

“Mr. Benjamin Batters, Miss Blyth, is dead.”

“Then that alters the case. And I can only hope that he died better
than, I have been told, he lived.”

“I should mention that I myself never met Mr. Batters, nor do I,
really, know anything at all about him. My connection with him is
rather an odd one. A little more than a week ago I received this
package.” He held out a bundle of papers. “Its contents rather
surprised me. Among other things was this letter, which, with your
permission, I will read to you. ‘Great Ka Island. lat. 5° South;
long. 134° East’--that is the heading of the letter; the address at
which it purports to have been written. A curious one, you will
perceive it is. There actually is such an island. It lies some three
hundred miles off the western coast of New Guinea, in the Arafura Sea;
and that, practically, is all I have hitherto been able to learn about
it. I have made inquiries, in the likeliest places, for someone who
has ever been there, but I have not, as yet, been able to light on
such a person. Ships, it appears, trade among the islands thereabouts.
To the captain of one of those the letter may have been handed. He may
have transferred it to the captain of an English vessel engaged in the
Australian trade, who bore it with him to England, and then posted it
to me; for that it was posted in London there is the postmark on the
original package to witness. I am informed, however, that letters from
those out-of-the-way corners of the world do reach England by
circuitous routes, so that, in itself, there is nothing remarkable in
that.

“There is a discrepancy, I am bound to add, which, considering what
the letter purports to be, is a distinct misfortune--it is undated.
But I will read it, and then you yourself will see my point.


“‘Dear Sir’, it runs, ‘I write to inform you that this morning, at
10.45, there died here, of enteric fever in my presence, Benjamin
Batters. From what I have heard him say, I believe he was in his
sixty-first year, though, latterly, he looked more, and was, at one
time, of Little Endell Street, Westminster.’”


“That was where mother lived when she was a girl,” I interposed.

Mr. Paine read on:


“‘At his particular request I send you this intimation, together with
the documents which you will find enclosed. Set apart from the world
as here I am I cannot say when an opportunity will arise which will
enable me to despatch you this, nor by what route it will reach you;
but, by the mercy of an All-seeing Providence, I trust that it will
reach you in the end.

“‘Mr. Batters suffered greatly towards the close; but he bore his
sufferings with exemplary patience. He died, as he had lived, at peace
with all men.

                       “‘I am, Dear Sir, your obedient servant,
                                “‘Arthur Lennard, Missionary.

“‘P.S.--I may add that I have just buried poor Batters, with Christian
rites, as the shadows lengthened, in our little graveyard which is
within hearing of the sea.’”


Mr. Paine ceased; he looked at us, and we at him.

“That’s a funny letter,” I remarked.

“Funny!” cried Emily. “Pollie, how can you say so? Why, it’s a
romance.”

“Precisely,” said Mr. Paine. His voice was a little dry. “It is,
perhaps, because it is so like a romance that it seems--odd.”

I had a fancy that he had meant to use another word instead of “odd;”
I wondered what it was.

“According to that letter my Uncle Benjamin must have changed a good
deal before he died; I never heard of his being at peace with anyone.
Mother used to say that he would fight his left hand against his right
rather than not fight at all.”

“From what you have been telling us a marked alteration must have
taken place in his character. But then, when people are dying, they
are apt to change; to become quite different beings--especially in the
eyes of those who are looking on.” Again there was that dryness in the
speaker’s tone. I felt sure there was a twinkle in his eye. “You will
see, Miss Blyth, that this letter is, to all intents and purposes, a
certificate of your uncle’s death; you will understand, therefore, how
unfortunate it is that it should be undated. We are, thus, in this
position; that, although his death, and even his burial, are
certified, we do not know when either event took place; except that,
as it would appear from the context, he was buried on the same day on
which he died--which, in such a climate, is not unlikely. Our only
means of even remotely guessing at the period of his decease is by
drawing deductions from the date of his will.”

“His will! You don’t mean to say that my uncle Benjamin left a will?”

“He did; and here it is.”

“I expect that that’s all he did leave.”

“You are mistaken; he left a good deal more.”

“To whom did he leave it?”

“It is to give you that very information, Miss Blyth, that I ventured
to bring you here.”

I gasped. This was getting interesting. A cold shiver went down my
back. I had never heard of a will in our family before, there having
been no occasion for such a thing. And to think of Uncle Benjamin
having been the first to start one! As the proverb says, you never can
tell from a man’s beginning what his end will be--and you cannot.

Emily came a little closer, and she took my hand in hers, and she gave
it a squeeze, and she said:

“Never mind, Pollie! bear up!”

I did not know what she meant, but it was very nice of her, though I
had not the slightest intention of doing anything else. But, as my
mother used to say, human sympathy is at all times precious. So I gave
her squeeze for squeeze. And I wished that Tom was there.



 CHAPTER VI.
 SOLE RESIDUARY LEGATEE.

Mr. Paine unfolded a large sheet of blue paper.

“This is, it appears, the last will and testament of your late uncle,
Benjamin Batters. It is, as, when you have heard it, I think you will
yourself agree, a somewhat singular document. It came with the letter
from Mr. Lennard which I have just now read you. It is, so far as I
know, authentic; but it is my duty to inform you that the whole affair
is more than a little irregular. This document seems to be a
holograph--that is, I take it that it is in your uncle’s own writing.
Do you recognise his handwriting?”

He gave me the paper. I glanced at it. Emily peeped over my shoulder.

“Well, I shouldn’t exactly like to go so far as that, but I have some
letters of his, and, so far as I remember, the writing seems about the
same. But you can see them if you like; then you will be able to
compare it.”

“I should be very much obliged, Miss Blyth, if you would allow me to
do so. A very important point would be gained if we could prove the
writing. As matters stand at present I am in a position in which I am
able to prove absolutely nothing. Mr. Batters was a stranger to me; he
seems, also, to have been a stranger to you; I can find nobody who
knew him. All we have to go upon is this letter from the other end of
the world, from a person of whom no one knows anything, and which may
or may not be genuine. Should another claimant arise we should be
placed in a very awkward situation.”

“Is there going to be another claimant? And what is there to claim?”

“So far as I know there is going to be none; but in legal matters it
is necessary to be prepared for every emergency. As to what there is
to claim, I will tell you.”

I gave him back the blue paper. He began to read. Emily came closer. I
could feel that she was all of a flutter.


“‘This is the last will and testament of me, Benjamin Batters.

“‘On condition that she does as I hereby direct I give and bequeath to
my niece, Mary Blyth, the daughter of my sister, Mary Ann Batters, who
married Augustus Blyth, and who when I last heard tell of her was
assistant at Cardew & Slaughter’s, a life income of Four Hundred and
Eighty Eight Pounds Nineteen Shillings and Sixpence a year, interest
of my money invested in Consols.’”


Mr. Paine stopped.

“I may say that bonds producing that amount were enclosed in the
package. Here they are.”

“Four Hundred and Eighty Eight Pounds Nineteen Shillings and Sixpence
a year!” said Emily. “I congratulate you, Pollie!”

She kissed me, right in front of Mr. Paine. For my part, I felt a
queer something steal all over me. My heart began to beat. To think of
Uncle Benjamin, of all people in the world, leaving me such a fortune
as that! And at the very moment when all my expectations in this world
amounted to exactly fifteen shillings! There need be no more waiting
for Tom and me. We would be married before the year was out, or I
would know the reason why.

Mr. Paine went on.

“The will is by no means finished, ladies. The greater, and more
remarkable part of it is to follow. When you have heard what it is I
am not sure that Miss Blyth will consider herself entitled to
congratulations only.”

What could he mean? Had the old rascal changed his mind in the middle
of his own will?

“‘This money,’ Mr. Batters goes on to say, ‘was earned by hard labour,
the sweat of my brow, and sufferings untold, so don’t let her go and
frivol it away as if it was a case of lightly come and lightly go.’”

“If that’s true, Uncle Benjamin must have altered, because I’ve heard
my mother say, over and over again, that he never could be induced to
do an honest day’s work in all his life.”

“People sometimes do alter--as I have observed. ‘On condition, also,
that she does as I tell her,’ continues Mr. Batters, ‘I bequeath to
her the life tenancy of my house, 84, Camford Street, Westminster,
together with the use of the furniture it contains.’”

“What!” interrupted Emily, “a house and furniture too. Why, Pollie,
what else can you want?”

I wondered myself. But I was soon to know. Mr. Paine read on:


“‘I give and bequeath the above to my niece, Mary Blyth, on these
conditions. She is to live in the house at 84, Camford Street. She is
never to sleep out of it. She is never to be away from it after nine
o’clock at night or before nine o’clock in the morning. She is only to
have one companion, and she must be a woman. They are to have no
visitors, neither she nor her companion. She is to choose a companion,
and stick to her. If the companion dies, or leaves her, she is not to
have another. She is afterwards to live in the house alone. She is not
to let any woman, except her companion, enter the house. She is not to
allow any man, under any circumstances whatever, to come inside the
house, or to cross the doorstep. These are my wishes and orders. If
she disobeys any one of them, then may my curse light on her, and I
will see that it does, and the house, and the income, and everything,
is to be taken from her, and given to the Society for Befriending
Sailors.

                                    “‘Signed, Benjamin Batters.’”


“That, Miss Blyth, is what purports to be your uncle’s will.”

“But,” I gasped, “what is that at the end about stopping in the house,
and letting no one come in, and all the rest of it?”

“Those are the conditions on which you are to inherit. Before,
however, touching on them I should like to point out in what respect
the will seems to me to be most irregular. First of all, it is
undated. There could hardly be a more serious flaw. There is nothing
to show if it was made last week or fifty years ago. In the interim
all sorts of things may have happened to render it null and void. Then
a signature to a will requires two witnesses; this has none. Then the
wording is extremely loose. For instance, should you fail to fulfil
certain conditions, the property is to pass to the Society for
Befriending Sailors. So far as I can learn there is no such society.
Societies for befriending sailors there are in abundance, but there is
not one of that exact name, and it would become a moot point which one
of them the testator had in his mind’s eye.”

“All of which amounts to--what?”

“Well, it amounts to this. You can receive the money referred to, and
live in the house in question, at your own risk, until someone comes
forward with a better title. It will not need a very good title, I am
sorry to say, Miss Blyth, to be better than that which is conferred on
you by this document. I am not saying this by way of advice, but
simply as a statement of the case as it appears to me.”

“What I want to know is, what’s the meaning of those conditions? I
suppose, by the way, there is such a house.”

“There certainly is. Camford Street is an old, and not particularly
reputable street, one end of which leads into the Westminster Bridge
Road. No. 84 is in a terrace. From the exterior--which is as much as I
have seen of it--it looks as if it had not been occupied for a
considerable period of time. Indeed, according to the neighbours, no
one has lived in it for, some say ten, others fifteen, and others
twenty years.”

“That sounds nice,” cut in Emily. “If no one has lived in it for all
that time I shouldn’t be surprised if it wanted a little cleaning.”

“Not at all improbable, from what it looks like outside. The shutters
are up at the window--on that point, I may mention, a man who has a
small chandler’s shop on the opposite side of the road, tells rather a
singular story. He informed me that, to the best of his knowledge and
belief, the last occupant of the house was a man named Robertson. He
was an old man. Mr. Kennard, my informant, says that what became of
him he does not know. He did not move; there was no attempt to let the
place; he simply ceased to be seen about. Nor has a living soul been
seen in the house for years. But, he says, some months ago, he is not
sure how many, when he got up one morning to open his shop, on looking
across the road he saw that all the windows inside were screened by
shutters. He declares that not only were there no shutters there the
night before, but dirty old blinds which were dropping to pieces, but
that he never had seen shutters there before, and, indeed, he doubted
if there were such things at any other house in the terrace. If his
tale is true, it seems an odd one.”

“It sounds,” said Emily, “as if the house were haunted.”

“Without going so far as that, it does seem as if the shutters could
hardly have got there of their own accord, and that someone must have
been inside on that particular night, at any rate. No one, however,
was seen, either then or since. There the shutters are, as one can
perceive in spite of the accumulated grime which almost hides the
windows. No one seems to know who the house belongs to, or ever did
belong to; and I would observe that, since no title deeds were in the
package, or any hint that such things were in existence, we have only
Mr. Batters’ bare word that the property was his. I should hasten to
add that there is a small parcel addressed to Miss Blyth, whose
contents may throw light, not only on that matter, but on others
also.”

He handed me a parcel done up in brown paper. It was addressed, in
very bad writing, “To be given to my niece, Mary Blyth, and to be
opened by her only.” I cut the string, and removed the wrapper. In it
was a common white wood box. Emily leaned over my shoulder.

“Whatever is inside?” she asked.

The first thing I saw when I lifted the lid, gave me a start, and I
own it--there, staring me in the face, was the own brother of the
little painted thing which was in the packet which the foreigner had
slipped between my fingers.

“Why,” I cried, “if there isn’t another!”

“Another!” Mr. Paine gave a jump. “That’s very odd.” He was fishing
about in his waistcoat pocket. “I thought you gave me the one you
had.”

“So I did. You put it in the pocket in which you’re feeling.”

“I thought I did. But--have you noticed me taking it out?”

“You’ve not taken it out, of that I’m sure.”

“But--I must have done. It’s gone.”

His face was a study. I hardly knew whether to laugh or not.

“It strikes me,” he remarked, “that someone is playing a trick on us;
and, as I’m not over fond of tricks which I don’t understand, I’ll put
an end to this little joke once and for all.”

There was a fire burning in the grate. Laying the box down on a chair,
taking the little painted thing between his finger and thumb, off he
marched towards the fireplace. As he was going, all of a sudden he
gave a little jump, as I suppose, loosened his hold, and down the
thing dropped on to the floor. He stood staring at his hand, and at
the place where it had fallen, as if startled.

“Where’s it gone?” he asked.

“It must have rolled under the table.” This was Emily.

But it had not. We searched in every nook and cranny. It had vanished,
as completely as if it had never been.

“This is a pretty state of affairs. If it goes on much longer we shall
begin to take to seeing things. If the rest of the contents of the box
are of the same pattern, you might have kept it, Mr. Paine, for all I
care.”

But they were not. The next thing I took out was a key. It was a
little one, and the queerest shape I ever saw. It was fastened to a
steel chain; at one end of the chain was a padlock. Attached to the
handle of the key was a kind of flying label; on it this was written:


“To Mary Blyth. This is the key of 84, Camford Street. The lock is
high up on the left-hand side of the door. There is no keyhole. You
will see a green spot. Press the key against the spot and it will
enter the lock. Push home as far as it will go, then jerk upwards, and
the door will open. Don’t try to enter when anyone is looking.
Directly you get it, tear off this label and burn it. Then pass the
chain about your waist, underneath your dress, and snap the padlock.
If you lose the key, or let it go for a moment from your possession,
may the gods burn up the marrow in your bones. And they will.”


“That’s cheerful reading,” I observed, when I had read the label to an
end. I passed it to Mr. Paine.

“It is curious,” he admitted. “In which respect it’s of a piece with
all the rest.”

When Emily read it her eyes and mouth opened as wide as they very well
could do.

“I never!” she cried. “Isn’t it mysterious?”

“What shall I do?” I asked, when the chain and key had been returned
to me.

Mr. Paine considered.

“You had better do as instructed--burn the label; that is, after we
have taken a copy. There is nothing said against your doing that; and,
if you have a copy, it will prevent your memory playing you false. As
for the key itself--will it do you any harm to fasten it to your waist
in the manner directed?”

“Except that it’s a bit too mysterious for my taste. Some folks like
mysteries; I don’t.”

“My dear,” cut in Emily, “they’re the salt of life!”

“Then I don’t like salt. Perhaps it’s because I’m a plain person that
I like plain things. Here’s more mystery.”

The only thing left in the box was an envelope. When I took it out I
found that on it this was written:


“This envelope is for Mary Blyth, and is not to be opened by her
till she is inside 84, Camford Street.”


I showed it to Mr. Paine, who was copying the label.

“What shall I do with that?”

“As you are told. Open it when you are in the house, and afterwards,
if it is not expressly forbidden, you can, if you choose, communicate
the contents to me.”

While he copied the label I went with Emily into an inner room, which
turned out to be his bedroom; put the chain about my waist inside my
bodice, and closed the padlock; and it was only when I had done so
that I discovered that it had no key, so that how I was to open it,
and get the chain off again, goodness only knew. Emily kept talking
all the while.

“Pollie, isn’t it all just lovely? In spite of what you say, your
Uncle Benjamin must have been a really remarkable man. It’s like a
romance.”

“I wish my Uncle Benjamin hadn’t been such a remarkable man, then he
might have left me the money and the house without the romance. Bother
your romance, is what I say.”

“You’re a dear,” she affirmed, and she held up her hands--and very
pretty hands they were. “But you have no soul.”

“If that’s what you call soul,” I answered, “I’m glad I haven’t.”

When we got back to Mr. Paine, I began at him again.

“Now let me clearly understand about those conditions. Do you mean to
say that I’m to stop in the house all alone?”

“You may have a companion--who must be a woman.”

“I’ll be your companion! Do let me be your companion, Pollie!”

I looked at Emily, who stood in front of me with flushed cheeks and
eager eyes; as pretty a picture as you could wish to see.

“Done!” We shook hands upon it. “I only hope you won’t have too much
romance before you’ve been my companion long.”

“No fear of that! The more there is the more I’ll like it”

I was not so certain. She spoke as if she were sure of herself. But,
for my part, I felt that it remained to be seen. I went on:

“What was that about being in before nine?”

“You are never to sleep out of the house. You are always to be in it
before nine at night, and never to leave it before nine in the
morning.”

“That’s a nice condition, upon my word!” I turned to Emily. “What do
you think of that? It’s worse than Cardew & Slaughter’s.”

“It does seem rather provoking. But”--there was a twinkle in her
eye--“there may be ways of getting out of that?”

“What was that about no man being allowed in the house?”

“No man, under any circumstances, is to be allowed to cross the
doorstep; nor, indeed, is anyone, except the lady you have chosen to
be your companion.”

“But what about my Tom?”

“Your--Tom? Who is he?”

“Mr. Tom Cooper is the gentleman to whom I am engaged to be married.”

“I am afraid that, by the terms of the will, no exception is made even
in his favour.”

I did not answer. But I told myself that we would see about that. If,
as Emily hinted, there were ways of getting the better of one
condition, it should not be my fault if means were not found to get
the better of the other too.

Almost immediately afterwards we started for the house; all three of
us again in the four-wheeler which had been waiting for us the whole
of the time. I wondered who was going to pay the fare. It would make a
hole in my fifteen shillings.



 CHAPTER VII.
 ENTERING INTO POSSESSION.

It was Mr. Paine who settled with the cabman. It had not struck me
that we had been passing through an over-savoury neighbourhood; we
drew up in front of a perfectly disreputable-looking house. Not that
it was particularly small; there were three storeys; but it looked so
dirty. And if there is one thing I cannot stand it is dirt. I could
easily believe that no one had lived in it for twenty years; it was
pretty plain that the windows had not been cleaned for quite as long
as that.

“Well,” I declared as I got out of the cab, “of all the dirty-looking
places I ever saw! If no one is to be allowed to set foot inside
except Emily and me, who do you suppose is going to clean those
windows?”

“That, I am afraid, is a matter which you must arrange with Miss
Purvis; the will makes no exception in favour of window cleaners.”

“Then all I can say is that that’s a nice thing.” I turned to Emily.
“This is going to turn out a pretty sort of romance--charwomen is what
we shall have to commence by being.”

“I’m not afraid of a little work,” she laughed.

I looked at the door.

“That writing on the label said that we were not to go into the house
when anyone was looking. How are we going to manage that? Are you and
the cabman to turn your backs?”

“I don’t think that that is necessary; this shall be an exception.
After you’ve opened the door we’ll hand the luggage to you when you’re
inside.”

Mr. Paine and the cabman were not by any means the only two persons
who were looking. Our stoppage in front of No. 84 had created quite a
wave of interest. People were watching us at doors and through
windows, and a small crowd of children had gathered round us in a
circle on the pavement. As it was out of the question for us to wait
till all eyes were off us, I straightaway disobeyed at least one of
the directions which were on the label.

What looked like an ordinary opening for a latchkey was in its usual
place on the right hand side of the door, but when I slipped my key
into that it turned round and round without producing any visible
effect whatever. So I examined the other side. There, sure enough, so
high up as to be almost beyond my reach, was what looked like a small
dab of green paint. When I pushed the key against it it gave way. The
key went into the apparently solid wood-work right up to the handle. I
gave it an upward jerk; the door was open. However neglected the
windows were, that lock seemed to be in good condition.

The door had opened about an inch. We all stared at it as if something
wonderful had happened. I confess that I was a little startled,
because I had used so little force that it was a wonder to me how it
had come open. The children, giving a sort of cheer, came crowding
close round. Mr. Paine had to order them back. I pressed my hand
against the door. As it swung upon its hinges a bell sounded somewhere
in the house. It seemed to come from upstairs, with a shrill, metallic
clanging.

“There might be someone in already, who wanted to have warning of
anyone’s approach.”

This was Emily. She was staring into the passage as if she expected to
see something strange.

“Come,” said Mr. Paine. “Let me help you in with the luggage; then I
must leave you. People are taking a greater interest in the
proceedings than is altogether desirable. You may find them a nuisance
if you don’t look out.”

The crowd was being reinforced by children of an older growth.
Loiterers were stopping to stare. People were coming out of their
houses. As Mr. Paine said, their interest was becoming too
demonstrative. He helped the cabman to get our boxes into the passage.
Then he went. We shut the door after him in the faces of the crowd.
Emily and I were left alone.

It was an odd sensation which I felt during those first few moments in
which I realised that she and I were alone in my Uncle Benjamin’s old
house. I was conscious of a foolish desire to call the crowd to keep
us company. Emily Purvis was hardly the kind of girl I should myself
have chosen to be my sole companion in a tight place; and I had a kind
of feeling that before very long it might turn out that I was in a
tight place now.

It had all come on me so suddenly. More things had happened in a few
hours than in all my life before. Yesterday I had thought myself a
fixture at Cardew & Slaughter’s; with marriage with Tom in the far-off
distance; when the skies had fallen; or he had become a shopwalker and
I a buyer; or we had saved up enough to start a small shop of our own.
Now, Cardew & Slaughter’s had gone from me for ever. So far as money
went I was free to marry Tom next week. But there was this horrid
house--already I was calling it horrid--and my uncle’s absurd
conditions. If I was to observe them during the rest of my life I
might as well write myself a nun at once, and worse. Better Cardew &
Slaughter’s--or anything.

We could hear the sound of traffic and voices in the street. Within
the house all was still. There was no window over the door. In the
passage it was so dark that it was as much as we could do to make out
where we were. Emily put her hand upon my arm, as if she wished to
make sure that I was close.

“It’s no good our stopping here,” I said. “We’d better light a candle
and look about us. If the whole house is as light as this it must be a
cheerful place to live in.”

Acting on Mr. Paine’s suggestion, as we had come along in the cab we
had bought some candles and matches, and enough provisions to carry us
on to to-morrow. Routing out a box, I struck a match. I gave Emily a
candle and took one myself.

“Now to explore!”

We were brought to a standstill at the very start. In front of us was
a door which led into a room opening out of the passage, or ought to
have done. When I tried the handle I found that it was locked. I shook
it, I even thumped at the panels, I searched for a key; it was no
good. Against us the door was sealed.

“This is a comfortable beginning! If all the doors are locked it will
be really nice. Perhaps Uncle Benjamin intended that I should merely
have the run of the passage and the stairs.”

Such, however, fortunately or otherwise, was not the case. The room
behind the one which was closed was the kitchen; that was open, and a
delightful state it was in. Not only was it inches thick in dust, but
it was in a state of astonishing confusion. Pots and pans were
everywhere. The last person who had used that kitchen to cook a meal
in had apparently simply let the utensils drop from her hand when she
had done with them, and left them lying where they fell. There was a
saucepan here, a frying-pan there, a baking tin in the corner. Another
thing we soon became conscious of--that the place was alive with
cockroaches.

“What is it we are stepping on?” asked Emily.

“Why, it’s beetles.”

She picked up her skirts, she gave a scream, and back she scurried
into the passage. I am not fond of the creatures; I never met anyone
who was; but I am not afraid of them, and I was not going to let them
drive me out of my own kitchen.

“There’s one thing wanted, and that’s light and fresh air. Only let me
get those shutters down, and the window open, and then we’ll see. I
should say from the smell of the place that there has never been any
proper ventilation since the house was built.”

But it was easier said than done. Those shutters would not come down.
How to begin to get them down was more than I could understand. To my
astonishment, when I rapped them with my knuckles, they rang.

“I do believe,” I said, “they’re made of iron--they’re a metal of some
kind. They seem to have been built into the solid wall, as if they had
never intended them to be moved. No wonder the place smells like a
vault, and beetles, and other nice things, flourish, if they’re
fixtures.”

A scullery led out of the kitchen. It was in the same state. One
crunched blackbeetles at every step. There was a shutter before the
window, which had evidently never been meant to be taken down. Where,
apparently, there had been a door leading into a backyard or
something, was a sheet of solid metal. No one was going to get out
that way in a hurry; or in either.

“But what can be the meaning of it all?” I cried. “There must be an
object in all this display of plate armour, or whatever it is. The
place is fortified as if it were meant to stand a siege. I shall begin
to wonder if there isn’t a treasure hidden somewhere in the house; a
great store of gold and precious stones, and that Uncle Benjamin made
up his mind that at any rate thieves should not break through and
steal.”

“Oh, Pollie, do you think there is? Perhaps it’s in the next
room--perhaps that’s why the door is locked.”

“Perhaps so; and perhaps the key’s upstairs, waiting for us to come
and find it. Anyhow we’ll go and see.”

When I rejoined Emily it struck me that she was not looking quite so
happy as she might have done; as if the romance was not taking
altogether the shape she either expected or desired. I led the way
upstairs. There was a carpet on them; but by the illumination afforded
by a guttering candle, it only needed a glance to see that, if you
once took it up, you would probably never be able to put it down
again--it would fall to pieces. We had hardly gone up half-a-dozen
steps when there came a clitter-clatter from above. Emily, who was
behind, caught me by the skirt.

“Pollie! Stop! Whatever’s that? There’s someone there!”

“Rats, most likely. In a house like this there are sure to be all
sorts of agreeable things. Where there aren’t blackbeetles there are
rats; and where there’s either there’s probably both.”

Rats it was. Before we had mounted another tread two or three came
flying down, brushing against our skirts as they passed. You should
have heard Emily scream.

“Don’t be silly,” I said. “You talk about liking romance, and you make
all that fuss because of a rat or two.”

“It isn’t exactly that I’m afraid of them, but--they startled me so. I
daresay I shan’t mind them when I’ve got used to them, only--I’ve got
to get used to them first.”

She was likely to have every opportunity. Presently two or three more
came down. They seemed to be in a hurry. One, which was not looking
where it was going, struck itself against my foot, and squeaked. Emily
squealed too. When we reached the landing we could hear them
scampering in all directions.

On that floor there were three rooms and a cupboard. The cupboard was
empty. So was one of the rooms; that is, so far as furniture was
concerned. But it was plain where, at any rate, some of the rats were.
When I went into the room I stepped on a loose board. As it gave way
beneath my tread I never heard such an extraordinary noise as came
from under it. Apparently a legion of rats had their habitations
underneath that flooring. I half expected them to rush out and make
for us. I was out of the room quicker than I went in, and took care to
close the door behind me. Emily had turned as white as a sheet.

“I can’t stop in this place--I can’t.”

I was scornful.

“I thought you couldn’t. You’ll remember I told you that you wouldn’t
be my companion long. I knew that was the sort you were.”

“It isn’t fair of you to talk like that--it isn’t. I don’t mind
ordinary things--and I’ll not leave you, you know I won’t. But all
those rats! Did you hear them?”

“I heard them, and they’ll hear me before long. There’s going to be a
wholesale slaughter of rats, and blackbeetles. There’ll soon be a
clearance when they’ve sampled some of the stuff I know of. I’m not
going to be driven out of my own house by trifles.”

One of the other rooms was a bedroom, a sort of skeleton of one. There
was some carpet on the floor, or what had been carpet. There was an
iron bedstead, on which were the remains of what might have been a
mattress. But there were no signs of sheets or blankets; I wondered if
the rats had eaten them.

After what we had seen of the rest of the house, the third room, which
was in front, was a surprise. It was a parlour; not the remnants of
one, but an actual parlour. There was what seemed to be a pretty good
carpet on the floor. There was a round table, with a tapestry cover.
There were two easy chairs, four small ones, a couch. On the sideboard
were plates and dishes, cups and saucers. On the stove, which was a
small kitchener, was a kettle, two saucepans, and a frying pan, all of
them in decent order. Although the usual shutters screened the window,
the place was clean, comparatively speaking. And when I went to a
cupboard which was in one corner, I found that in it there were coals
and wood.

“It is not twenty years since this room was occupied, there’s that
much certain; nor, from the look of it, should I say it was twenty
hours. I should say there had been a fire in that stove this very day,
and there’s water in the kettle now.”

“What’s this?”

Emily was holding out something which she had picked up from the
floor. It was a woman’s bracelet, a gold bangle; though I had never
seen one like it before. It was made of plain, flat gold, very narrow,
twisted round and round; there was so much of it that, when it was in
its place, it must have wound round the wearer’s arm, like a sort of
serpent, from the wrist to the elbow. At one end of it was something,
the very sight of which gave me quite a qualm.



 CHAPTER VIII.
 THE BACK-DOOR KEY.

“Look!” I said. “Look!”

“Look at what? What’s the matter with you, Pollie? Why are you glaring
at me like that?”

“Don’t you see what’s at the end of it?”

She turned the bangle over.

“It isn’t pretty, but--it’s some sort of ornament, I suppose.”

“It’s that thing which was in the scrap of paper, or its double.”

“Pollie! Are you sure?”

“Certain. I’ll back myself to know that wherever it turns up.”

Taking the bracelet from her I eyed it closely. There was no mistaking
the likeness; to one end was attached the very double of that painted
little horror Emily criticised it as she leant over my shoulder.

“It looks as if it were meant for a man who mostly runs to head. And
what a head it is! Look at his beard, it reaches to what may be meant
for feet. And his hair, it stands out from his scalp like bristles.”

“Don’t forget his eyes, how they shine. They must be painted with
luminous paint, or whatever they call the stuff, which lights up in
the dark. The other night they gleamed so I thought the creature was
alive. And his teeth--talk about dentist’s advertisements! I believe
it’s meant for one of those heathen gods who are supposed to live on
babies, and that kind of thing. He looks the character to the life.
But fancy your picking it up from the floor! That’s not lain there
twenty years. There’s not a speck of rust upon it. It’s as bright as
if it had just come off somebody’s arm.”

“Pollie, do you think there’s anybody in the house besides we two?”

“My dear, I haven’t the faintest notion; you can use your senses as
well as I can, and are quite as capable of putting two and two
together. One fact’s obvious, it’s not long since somebody was in this
room. But we’ve the rest of the house to see; I can tell you more when
we’ve seen it. Come, let’s go upstairs.”

Putting the bracelet on the table, I left the room. Emily seemed
reluctant to follow. I fancy that if she had had her way she would
have postponed the remainder of our voyage to later on--a good deal
later on. And, on the whole, I hardly wondered, because, directly we
began to go upstairs, such a noise came from above, and, indeed, from
everywhere, that you would have thought the whole place was alive; and
so it was--with rats. I had heard of the extraordinary noises the
creatures could make, but I had never realised their capacity till
then. Emily stood trembling on the bottom step.

“I daren’t go up, I daren’t.”

“Very well, then; stop where you are. I dare, and will.”

Off I started; and, as I expected, directly I moved, she rushed after
me.

“Oh, Pollie, don’t leave me, don’t. I’d sooner do anything than have
you leave me.”

On that top floor there were again three rooms. And again, one of them
was empty. It was a sort of attic, at the back. So far as I could make
out it had no window at all; it was papered over if it had one. But
talk of rats! It was a larger room than the one below, and seemed to
be still more crowded. We could not only hear them, we could see them.
There they were, blinking at the candlelight out of the floor and
walls, and even ceiling. It was a cheerful prospect. I had heard of
rats, when they had got rid of everything else, eating human beings.
We two could do nothing against these multitudes; I felt sure that the
mere fright of being attacked would be enough to kill Emily. I said
nothing to her, but I thought of it all the same.

The door next to the attic was fastened. Whether it was locked or not
I could not make out. It felt as solid as if it never had been opened,
and had been never meant to open. When I struck it with my knuckles,
it returned no sound. That it was something else besides a mere wooden
door was obvious.

“Another treasure room!” I laughed.

But Emily did not seem pleased.

“I don’t like these locked-up rooms. What is there on the other side?”

“I thought you were so fond of mystery.”

“Not mystery like this.” She lowered her voice. “For all we know there
may be people inside, who, while we can’t get at them, can get at us
whenever they choose.”

I laughed again; though conscious there was sense in what she said.

“Let’s go and look at the other room and see if that’s locked up too.”

But the door of that yielded at a touch. It, also, had had occupants
less than twenty years ago--a good deal less. It was furnished as a
bedroom. There was a chest of drawers, a washstand, toilet-table,
chairs, and a bed. On the latter the bedding was in disorder; sheets,
blankets, pillows tumbled anyhow, as if somebody, getting out of it in
a hurry, had had no time to put it straight. There was a lamp upon the
toilet table, the blackened chimney of which showed it had been
smoking; even yet the smell of a smoky lamp was in the air. The
drawers were all wide open. One, which had been pulled right out, was
turned upside down upon the floor, as if the quickest way had been
chosen to clear it of its contents.

“It looks,” said Emily, standing in the doorway, looking round her
with doubtful eyes, and speaking as if she were saying something which
ought to have been left unspoken, “as if someone had just got out of
bed.”

Throwing the bedclothes back, I laid my hand against the sheets. It
might have been my imagination, but they seemed warm, as if, since
someone had been between them, they had not had time to cool. Not
wishing to make her more nervous than she was already, I hardly knew
how to answer her; more especially as I myself did not feel
particularly comfortable. If, as appearances suggested, somebody had
been inside that bed, say, within the last half-hour, who could it
have been? and what had become of him or her, or them? Crossing to the
dressing-table, I touched the lamp-glass. It was hot, positively hot.
I could have sworn that it had been burning within the last ten
minutes or quarter of an hour. That was proof positive that someone
had been there--lamps do not burn unless somebody lights them, and
they do not go out unless somebody puts them out. Who could it have
been? The discovery--and the mystery!--so took me aback that it was
all I could do to keep myself from screaming. But, as Emily was nearly
off her head already, and I did not want to send her off it quite, I
just managed to keep my feelings under. All the same, I did not like
the aspect of things at all.

To stop her from noticing too much, I tried my best to keep on
talking.

“This is our bedroom, I suppose. How do you like the look of it? Not
over cheerful, is it?”

“Cheerful?” I could see she shuddered. “Does any light ever get into
the room?”

Where the window ought to have been were the usual massive and
immovable shutters.

“The person who put up those shutters wasn’t fond of either light or
air. But you wait, I’ll have them down, I like plenty of both. You
heard Mr. Paine’s story about the shutters having made their
appearance in a night? If they did, then there was witchcraft used, or
I’m a Dutchman. It took weeks, if not months, to get them there. If
the walls have to be pulled to pieces I’ll have them moved. Give me a
week or two and you won’t know the place. I’ll turn it inside out and
upside down. Because Uncle Benjamin had his ideas of what a house
ought to be like, dark as pitch, and alive with rats, not to name
blackbeetles, it doesn’t follow that his ideas are mine, so I’ll show
him.”

“We can’t do all that, you and I alone together.”

“Catch me trying! Before we’re many hours older I’ll have an army of
workmen turned into the house.”

“What about the conditions? No one is to be allowed to enter except us
two, especially no man.”

“Bother the conditions! Do you think I mind them? Uncle Benjamin must
have been stark staring mad to think that I would. If I’m only to live
in such a place as this on such terms as those, then I’ll live out of
it--that’s all. By the way, where’s the envelope which was in that
box? I took it out of my dress pocket. ‘This envelope is for Mary
Blyth, and is not to be opened by her till she is inside 84, Camford
Street.’ Well, now Mary Blyth is inside 84, Camford Street--a nice,
sweet, clean, airy place she’s found it! So I suppose that now she may
open the envelope. Let’s hope that the contents are calculated to
liven you up, because I feel as if I wanted something a little
chirrupy.”

Inside was a sheet of blue writing paper. It was not over clean, being
creased, and thumb-marked, and blotted too. On it was a letter,
written by somebody who was not much used to a pen. I recognised Uncle
Benjamin’s hand in a moment, especially because I remembered how, in
his letters to mother, which I had in my box, the lines kept getting
more and more slanting, until the last was screwed away in a corner,
because there was no room for it anywhere else. And here was just the
same thing. He began straight enough, right across the page, but, long
before he had reached the bottom, he was in the same old mess.

“I need no ghost to tell me that this is from my venerated uncle. I
remember his beautiful neatness. Look at that, my dear, did you ever
see anything like those lines for straightness?”

I held up the page for Emily to see. She actually smiled, for the
first time since she had been inside that house.

“Now let’s see what the dear old creature says. Do hope it’s something
comforting. What’s this?” I began to read out aloud.

“‘Dear Niece,--Now that you are once inside the house, you will
never sleep out of it again.’ Shan’t I? We shall see. Nice prospect,
upon my word. ‘You may think you will, but you won’t. The spell is on
you. It will grow in power. Each night it will draw you back. At your
peril do not struggle against it. Or may God have mercy on your soul.’
This is--this is better and better. My dear, Uncle Benjamin must have
been very mad. ‘You are surrounded by enemies.’ Am I? I wasn’t till I
had your fortune. I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have been
better off without it. ‘Out of the house you are at their mercy. They
watch you night and day. When you are out, they are ever at your
heels. Sooner or later they will have you. Then again may God have
mercy on your soul. But in the house you are safe. I have seen to
that. Do not be afraid of anything you may see or hear. _There is That
within these walls which holds you in the hollow of Its hand_.’ That
last line, my dear, is in italics. It strikes me that not only was
Uncle Bennie mad, but that writing novels ought to have been his
trade. As you are so fond of saying, this is something like a romance;
and I wish it wasn’t. Emily, what’s the matter with you now?”

She had come to me with a sudden rush, gripping my arm with both her
hands--I doubt if she knew how hard. I could see that she was all of a
tremble.

“I--I thought I heard someone downstairs.”

“Not a doubt of it--rats.”

“It--it wasn’t rats. It sounded like footsteps in the room beneath.”

“When I’ve finished uncle’s letter we’ll investigate; but I think
you’ll find it was rats--they’ve got footsteps. Let me see, where was
I? Oh, yes--‘_Its hand_. Go out as little as you can.’ To be sure. I’m
not fond of going out--especially with such a house as this to stop
in. ‘Be always back before nine. It is then the hour of your greatest
peril begins. Should you ever be out after nine--which the gods
forbid--let no one see you enter. They will be watching for you in the
front. Go to Rosemary Street at the back. Between thirteen and
fourteen there is a passage. At the end there is a wall. Climb it.
There are two stanchions one above the other on the right. They will
help you. Drop into the yard. Go to the backdoor. You will see a spot
of light shining at you. Put the key in there. Turn three times to the
left. The door will open. Enter and close quickly lest your enemies be
upon you. If they enter with you may God have mercy on your soul. From
your affectionate uncle, Benjamin Batters. P.S.--You will find the
back door key on the parlour table.’ Shall I? That’s story number one
at any rate. I haven’t found any back door key on the parlour table,
and I never saw one there. Did you?”

“There--wasn’t one--I noticed--there was nothing on the table--when
you put that bangle down.”

I wished Emily would not speak in that stammering way, as if there was
a full stop between each word or two. But I knew it was not the
slightest use my saying so just then; that was how she felt.

“Of course. I did leave that bangle on the table, didn’t I? That’s one
thing which we’ve found in uncle’s dear old house which seems worth
having; and one thing’s something. Let’s go and have another look at
it.”

Down the stairs again we went; Emily sticking close to my side as if
she would rather have suffered anything than have let me get a yard
away from her. One of the pleasantest features of my new possession
seemed to be that every time we moved from one room to another about a
hundred thousand rats got flurried; it sounded like a hundred thousand
by the din they made. And Emily did not like them scurrying up and
down the stairs when she was on them; nor, so far as that went, did I
either.

When we reached the parlour, I made a dart at the table.

“Why, where’s that bangle? I put it down just there, I remember most
distinctly. Emily, it’s gone! Whatever’s this? I do believe--it’s that
back-door key!”

It was, at any rate, a key; and bore a family likeness to the one
which was attached to the chain which was about my waist. I stared,
scarcely able to credit the evidence of my own senses. Between our
going from that room and our returning to it a miracle had happened; a
transformation had taken place; a bangle--and such a bangle! had
become a key. Apparently the back-door key of Uncle Benjamin’s “P.S.!”



 BOOK II.
 84, CAMFORD STREET.

 (THE FACTS OF THE CASE ACCORDING TO EMILY PURVIS.)



 CHAPTER IX.
 MAX LANDER.

Talk about romance! I never could have believed that after wishing
for a thing your whole life long you could have had enough of it in so
short a space of time. In the morning Pollie Blyth heard, for the very
first time, that a fortune and a house had been left to her, and,
before the night of that same day was over, she wished that it had
not. And here had I been looking, ever since I was a teeny-weeny
little thing, for a touch of romance to give existence a real live
flavour, and then, when I got it, the best I could do was to wonder
how I had been so silly as ever to have wanted it.

Poor Pollie! That first night in Camford Street she would go out. She
said she must go and see her Tom. That he would be waiting, wondering
what had become of her, and that nothing should keep her from him.
Nothing did. I could not. And when I suggested that it might be as
well for her to be a little careful what she did that very first
night, she actually proposed that I should stop in that awful house by
myself, and wait in it alone till she returned.

I would not have done such a thing for worlds, and she knew it. As a
matter of fact I could not have said if I was more unwilling to leave
the place, or to stay in it, even with her. The extraordinary
conditions of her dreadful old uncle’s horrible will weighed on me
much more than they seemed to do on her. I felt sure that something
frightful would happen if they were not strictly observed. Nothing
could be clearer than his repeated injunction not to be out after
nine, and her appointment with Mr. Cooper was for half-past eight.

Cardew and Slaughter are supposed to close at eight, but she knew as
well as I did what that really meant. It was a wonder if one of the
assistants got out before nine. Mr. Cooper was in the heavy, and the
gentlemen in that department were always last. If he appeared till
after nine I should be surprised, and, if we were at the other end of
London at that hour, with the uncle’s will staring us in the face,
what would become of us? Being locked out of Cardew and Slaughter’s
was nothing to what that would mean.

But Pollie would not listen to a word. She is as obstinate as
obstinate when she likes, though she may not think it.

“My dear,” she said, “I must see Tom. Mustn’t I see Tom? If you were
in my place, and he was your Tom, wouldn’t you feel that you must see
him?”

There was something in that I acknowledged. It was frightful that you
should be cut off from intercourse with the man you loved simply
because your hours would not fit his. But then there was so much to be
said upon the other side.

“I’m sure he’ll be punctual to-night, he’ll be so anxious. And you
know sometimes he can get off a little earlier if he makes an effort.
You see if he isn’t there at half-past eight I’ll just speak to him,
then start off back at once. He’ll come with us, we shall be back here
before nine, and then he’ll leave us at the door.”

That was how it was to turn out, according to her. I had my doubts.
When you are with the man to whom you are engaged to be married half
an hour is nothing. It’s gone before you know it’s begun.

It was eight o’clock when we left the house. I thought we should never
have left it at all. We could not open the door. It had no regular
handle; no regular anything. While we were trying to get it open the
house was filled with the most extraordinary noises. If it was all
rats, as Pollie declared, then rats have got more ways of expressing
their feelings than I had imagined. It seemed to me as if the place
was haunted by mysterious voices which were warning us to be careful
of what we did.

“Of course if we’re prisoners it’s just as well that we should know it
now as later on. How do you open this door?”

Just as she spoke the door opened.

“How did you do that?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” She seemed surprised. “I was just pushing at the thing
when--it came open. There’s a trick about it I expect; we’ll find out
what it is to-morrow, there’s no time now. At present it’s enough that
it’s open; out you go!”

When we were out in the street, and she pulled it to, it shut behind
us with an ominous clang, like the iron gates used to do in the
barons’ castle which we read about in the days of old. We took the
tram in the Westminster Bridge Road, then walked the rest of the way.
It was half-past eight when we arrived. As I expected, of course Mr.
Cooper wasn’t there.

“Pollie, we ought not to stop. We ought to be in before nine this
first night, at any rate. We don’t know what will happen if we’re
not.”

“You can go back if you like, but I must and will see Tom.”

Nine o’clock came and still no Mr. Cooper. I was in such a state I was
ready to drop. It was nearly a quarter-past before he turned up. Then
they both began talking together at such a rate that it was impossible
to get a word in edgeways. When I did succeed in bringing Pollie to
some consciousness of the position we were in, and she asked Mr.
Cooper to start back with us at once, he would not go. He said that he
had had such a narrow escape the night before, and had had such
difficulty in getting in--so far as I could make out he had had to
climb up a pipe, or something, and had scraped a hole in both knees of
his trousers against the wall--that he had determined that it should
be some time before he ran such a risk again, and had therefore made
up his mind that he would be in extra early as a sort of set-off. It
was no good Pollie talking. For some cause or other he did not seem to
be in the best of tempers. And then, when she found that, after all
our waiting, he would not see us home, she got excited. They began
saying things to each other which they never meant. So they
quarrelled.

Finally Mr. Cooper marched off in a rage, declaring that now she had
come into a fortune she looked upon him as a servant, and that though
she had inherited £488 9s. 6d. a year, and a house, he would not be
treated like a lackey. She was in such a fury that she was almost
crying. She assured me that she would never speak to him again until
she was compelled, and that they would both be grey before that time
came. All I wanted to do was to keep outside the quarrel, because they
had behaved like a couple of stupids, and to find myself in safe
quarters for the night.

“I don’t know, my dear Pollie, if you’re aware that it’s past
half-past ten. Do you propose to return to Camford Street?”

“Past half-past ten!” She started. Her thoughts flew off to Mr.
Cooper. “Then he’ll be late again! Whatever will he do?”

“It’s not of what he’ll do I’m thinking, but of what we’re going to
do. After what your uncle said, do you propose to return to Camford
Street at this hour of the night?”

“We shall have to. There’s nowhere else to go. I wish I’d never come
to see him now; it hasn’t been a very pleasant interview, I’m sure.” I
cordially agreed with her--I wished she had not. But it was too late
to shut the stable-door after the steed was stolen. “Let’s hurry.
There’s one thing, I’ve got the back-door key in my pocket, if the
worst does come to the worst.”

What she meant I do not think she quite knew herself. She was in a
state of mind in which she was inclined to talk at random.

We had not gone fifty yards when a man, coming to us from across the
street, took off his hat to Pollie. I had noticed him when she was
having her argument with Mr. Cooper, and had felt sure that he was
watching us. There was something about the way in which he kept
walking up and down which I had not liked, and now that Mr. Cooper had
gone I was not at all surprised that he accosted us. He looked about
thirty; had a short light brown beard and whiskers, which were very
nicely trimmed; a pair of those very pale blue eyes which are almost
the colour of steel; and there was something about him which made one
think that he had spent most of his life in open air. He wore what
looked, in that light--he had stopped us almost immediately under a
gas-lamp--like a navy blue serge suit and a black bowler hat.

“Miss Blyth, I believe, the niece of my old friend Batters. My name is
Max Lander. Perhaps you have heard him speak of me.”

His manner could not have been more civil. Yet, under the
circumstances, it was not singular that Pollie shrank from being
addressed by a stranger. Putting her arm through mine, she looked him
in the face.

“I don’t know you.”

“Have you never heard your uncle speak of me--Max Lander?”

“I never knew my uncle.”

“You never knew your uncle?” He spoke, in echoing her words, almost as
if he doubted her. “Then where is your uncle now?”

“He is dead.”

“Dead?”

“If you knew my uncle, as you say you did, you must know that he is
dead. Come, Emily, let us go. I think this gentleman has made a
mistake.”

“Stop, Miss Blyth, I beg of you. Where did your uncle die?”

“I don’t know where exactly, it was somewhere in Australia.”

“In Australia!” I never saw surprise written more plainly on a
person’s face. “But when?”

“If, as you say, you knew him, then you ought to know better than I,
who never did.”

“When I last saw Mr. Batters he didn’t look as if he meant to die.”

He gave a short laugh, as if he were enjoying some curious little joke
of his own.

“Where did you see him last?”

“On the _Flying Scud_.”

“The _Flying Scud_? What’s that?”

“My ship. Or, rather, it was my ship. The devil knows whose it is
now.”

“Mr. Lander, if that really is your name, I don’t know anything about
my uncle, except that he is dead. Was he a sailor?”

“A sailor?” He seemed as if he could not make her out. I stood close
to him, so that I saw him well; it struck me that he looked at her
with suspicion in his eyes. “He was no sailor. At least, so far as I
know. But he was the most remarkable man who ever drew breath. In
saying that I’m saying little. You can’t know much of him if you don’t
know so much. Then, if he’s dead, where’s Luke?”

He spoke with sudden heat, as if a thought had all at once occurred to
him.

“Luke? What is Luke?--another ship?”

“Another ship? Great Cæsar!” Taking off his hat, he ran his fingers
through his short brown hair. “Miss Blyth, either you’re a chip of the
old block, in which case I’m sorry for you, and for myself too, or,
somewhere, there’s something very queer. Hollo! Who are you?”

While we had been talking a man had been sidling towards us along the
pavement. He had on a long black coat, and a hat crammed over his
eyes. As he passed behind Mr. Lander he stopped. Mr. Lander spun
round. On the instant he tore off as if for his life. Without a
moment’s hesitation Mr. Lander rushed full speed after him. Pollie and
I stood staring in the direction they had gone.

“Whatever is the matter now?” I asked. “What did the man do to Mr.
Lander?”

“Emily, that’s the man who slipped the paper into my hand last
night--you remember? There’s a cab across the road; let’s get into it
and get away from here as fast as we can.”

We crossed and hailed the cabman. As he drew up beside the kerb, and
we were about to enter, who should come tearing over the road to us
again but Mr. Lander. He was panting for breath.

“Miss Blyth, I do beg that you will let me speak to you. If not here,
then let me come with you and speak to you elsewhere.”

“I would rather you did not come with us, thank you, I would very much
rather that you did not.”

He stood with his hand on the apron of the hansom in such a way that
he prevented us from entering.

“Miss Blyth, you don’t look like your uncle--God forbid! You look
honest and true. If you have a woman’s heart in your bosom I entreat
you to hear me. Your uncle did me the greatest injury a man could have
done. I implore you to help me to undo that injury, so far as, by the
grace of God, it can be undone.”

He spoke in a strain of passion which I could see that Pollie did not
altogether relish. I didn’t either.

“I will give you my solicitor’s name and address, then you can call on
him, and tell him all you have to say.”

“Your solicitor! I don’t want to speak to your solicitor; he may be
another rogue like your uncle. I want to speak to you.”

Before Pollie could answer, another man came up. He touched his hat to
Mr. Lander.

“I beg your pardon, sir, but this is the young lady I told you about.
Miss Blyth will remember me, because I was so fortunate as to do her a
small service last night. May I hope, Miss Blyth, that you have not
forgotten me?”

The man spoke in a small, squeaky voice, which was in ridiculous
contrast to his enormous size. It was actually the creature who had
paid the bill for us the night before at Firandolo’s--one shilling and
threepence! My impulse was to take out my purse, give him this money,
and be rid of him for good and all. But, before I had a chance of
doing so, Mr. Lander turned upon him in quite a passion.

“What do you mean by thrusting in your oar? Get out of it, Ike Rudd!”

“I beg your pardon, sir, I’m sure, if I’m intruding, and the young
lady’s; but, seeing that I was able to do her a little service, I
thought that perhaps she might be willing----”

Mr. Lander cut him short with a positive roar.

“Don’t you hear me tell you to take yourself out of this, you
blundering ass!”

In his anger with Mr. Rudd he moved away from the cab. Without a
moment’s delay Pollie jumped into it, and dragged me after her.

“Drive off, and don’t stop for anyone!”

It was done so quickly that before Mr. Lander had an opportunity to
realise what was happening the driver gave his horse a cut of the
whip. The creature gave a bound which it was a wonder to me did not
upset the hansom, and when his master struck him again he galloped off
as if he were racing for the Derby.

After we had gone a little way--at full pelt!--the driver spoke to us
through the trap-door overhead.

“Where to, miss?”

“Is he following us?”

“Not he. He tried a step or two, but when he saw at what a lick we
were going he jerked it up. He went back and had a row with the other
chap instead, the one who came up and spoke to him I mean. They’re at
it now. Has he been bothering you, miss?”

“I don’t know anything at all about him. He’s a perfect stranger to
me. I think he must be mad. Drive us to the Westminster Bridge Road,
if you are sure that he’s not following.”

“I’ll see that that’s all right, you trust me.” He swung round a
corner. “He’s out of sight now, I should think for good; but if he
does come in sight again I’ll let you know. What part of the
Westminster Bridge Road?”

Pollie hesitated.

“I’ll tell you when we get there.”



 CHAPTER X.
 BETWEEN 13 AND 14, ROSEMARY STREET.

A church clock struck as we rolled along.

“That sounds like nine--a quarter-past eleven. What shall you do if we
can’t get in at all?”

“Not get into my own house? My dear, this is not a case of Cardew and
Slaughter’s. What is going to keep me out of my own house--if I choose
to enter it with the milk!--I should like to know.”

I did not know. I could not even guess. But all the same I had a sort
of feeling that someone could--and might. “My own house” came glibly
from her tongue. That morning there had been ten shillings between her
and the workhouse; already she had become quite the woman of
established means. I might have been the same had the case been mine.
You never know. It must be so nice to have something of your very own.

We were nearing the Westminster Bridge Road. Again the driver spoke to
us from above; he had hardly slackened pace the whole of the way.

“Coast clear, miss; not had a sight of the party since we lost him.
Where shall I put you down?”

“I’ll stop you in a minute; keep on to the left.” Pollie spoke to me.
“What did it say in the letter was the name of the street in which is
the entrance to the back door?”

“Rosemary Street.”

“Of course! I couldn’t remember its stupid name.”

“But I shouldn’t tell him to put us down just there. You don’t know
who may be waiting for us.”

I was leaning over the front of the cab, keeping a sharp look-out.
There were the crowded trams and omnibuses, and many people on the
pavements; but I noticed nothing in any way suspicious.

“Who should be waiting for us? Haven’t we shaken Mr. Lander off?
Didn’t the cabman say so?”

“Yes. But--you never know.”

“What do you mean? What are you driving at?”

“Nothing. Only it’s past nine. The letter said that it was the time
your greatest peril began.”

“What nonsense you do talk! Do you think I pay attention to such
stuff? Lucky I’m not nervous, or you’d give me the fidgets. The sooner
everybody understands that I intend to go in and out of my own house
at any time I please the less trouble there is likely to be. I’m not a
child, to be told at what time I’m to come home.”

I was silent. She spoke boldly enough; a trifle too boldly I thought.
There was an unnecessary amount of vigour in her tone, as if she
wished to impress the whole world with the fact that she was not in
the least concerned. But she acted on the hint all the same--she
stopped the cab before we reached our destination.

“It’s all right now, miss,” said the driver. It was rather a novel
sensation for us to be riding in cabs, and the fare we paid him did
make a hole in one’s purse. It was lucky there was that four hundred
and eighty-eight pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence to fall back
upon. “You’ve seen the last of that fine gentleman, for to-night at
any rate. Good-night, miss, and thank you.”

I was not so sure that it was all right. We might have seen the last
of “that fine gentleman,” as the cabman called Mr. Lander, though
there was nothing particularly “fine” about him that I could see; but
there might be other gentlemen, still less “fine,” who had yet to be
interviewed. When the hansom had driven off, as we walked along the
pavement, I felt more and more uncomfortable, though I would not have
hinted at anything of the kind to Pollie for worlds.

“Have we passed Camford Street?” she wondered. “I don’t know which
side of it is Rosemary Street.”

“I’m sure I don’t. You had better ask.”

We were standing at the corner of a narrow street, a pretty dark and
deserted one it seemed. Pollie turned to make enquiries of some
passer-by. A man came towards us.

“Can you tell me which is Rosemary Street?” she said.

“This way! this way!”

He took her by the arm and led her into a gloomy-looking street, as if
he were showing her the way. She must have been purblind, or
completely off her guard, to have been tricked by him so easily,
because directly he spoke I recognised him as the person in the long
black coat who had fled from Mr. Lander. I myself was taken by
surprise, or I would have called out and warned her. But I suppose
that I was bewildered by his sudden and wholly unexpected appearance,
because, instead of bidding her look out, I went after her into the
narrow lane, for really it seemed to be no more.

The moment we were round the corner two other figures appeared out of
the darkness as if by magic. But by now Pollie had taken the alarm.

“Let me go!” she cried to her conductor. “Take your hand away from my
arm!”

He showed no inclination to do anything of the kind.

“This way! this way!” he kept repeating, as if he were a parrot. He
spoke with a strong foreign accent--as if his stock of English was not
a large one.

But Pollie was not to be so easily persuaded. She stood stock still,
evincing every disposition to shake herself free from his grasp.

“Let me go! let me go!”

The taller of the two newcomers uttered some words in a language which
I had never heard before. Giving Pollie no time to guess what he was
about to do he produced a cloth and threw it over her head. The other
man sprang at her like a wild animal. Between them they began to bear
her to the ground. I was not going to stand quietly by and see that
kind of thing go on. I may not be big, and I do not pretend to be
brave, but I am not an absolute coward all the same.

The smaller of the newcomers had taken me by the arm. I did my best to
make him wish that he had not. I flew at him.

“You villain! Let me go, or I’ll scratch your eyes out!”

The little wretch--he was little; I do not believe he was any bigger
than I was, or perhaps I should not be alive to tell this
tale--actually tried to throw a cloth over my head. When I put up my
arms, and stopped his doing that, he began to dab it against my mouth,
as if to prevent my screaming. There was a nasty smell about that
cloth. It was damp. All of a sudden it struck me that he was trying to
take away my senses with chloroform, or some awful stuff of that kind.
And then didn’t I start shrieking; I should think they might have
heard me on the other side of the bridge.

In less than no time--or so it seemed to me--a policeman came round
the corner. Apparently he was the only one who had heard; but he was
quite enough.

“What’s the matter here?” How I could have kissed him for his dear
official voice. “What’s the meaning of all this?”

Those three cowards did not wait to explain. Really before the words
were out of his lips they were off down the lane like streaks of
lightning. All my man left behind him was the smell of his horrid
cloth. Beyond disarranging my hat and my hair, and that kind of thing,
I knew that he had not damaged me almost before, so to speak, I
examined myself to see.

“Has he hurt you?” asked the constable. “What was he trying to do?”

“He has not hurt me, thanks to you; but in another half second I’m
quite sure he would have done. He was trying to chloroform me, or
something frightful, I smelt it on his cloth.”

“Who’s this on the ground?”

It was Pollie. In my excitement I had quite forgotten to notice what
had become of her. She lay all of a heap. Down I plumped on my knees
beside her.

“Pollie!” I cried. “Has he killed you?”

“No fear,” said the policeman. “She’s only a bit queer. I shouldn’t be
surprised if they’ve played the same sort of trick on her they tried
to play on you.”

It was so. That policeman was a most intelligent man, and quite
good-looking, with a fair moustache which turned up a little at the
ends. They had endeavoured to stupefy her with some drug; the
policemen said he didn’t think it was chloroform, it didn’t smell like
it. I didn’t know--to my knowledge I have never smelt chloroform in my
life, nor do I ever want to. They had so far succeeded that she had
nearly lost her senses, but not entirely. When I lifted her head she
gave several convulsive twitches, so that it was all I could do to
retain my hold. Then she opened her eyes and she asked where she was.

“It’s all right,” I told her. “They’ve gone. I hope they haven’t hurt
you.”

She sat up, and she looked about her. She saw me, and she saw the
constable, which fact she at once made plain.

“Oh, you’re a policeman, are you? It’s as well that there are such
things as policemen after all.” Her meaning was not precisely clear,
but I hardly think it was altogether flattering to the force, which
was ungrateful on her part. “I don’t think they’ve hurt me. I believe
it was the keys they were after, though they’ve left them both behind.
Perhaps that was because they hadn’t time to properly search for
them.” She was feeling in her pocket “But they have taken Uncle
Benjamin’s letter--the one in which he told us how to get in at the
back door.”

There was a pause. I realised all that the abstraction might mean. If
it had told us how to enter, it would tell them too. It was lucky they
had had to go without the key.

“Do you know the men?” inquired the officer. “You had better charge
them.”

“Charge them?” She put her hand up to her head, as if she were dazed.
I rather fancied she was making as much of her feelings as she could.
Unless I was mistaken she was endeavouring to gain time to consider
the policeman’s words. Under the circumstances it might not be
altogether convenient to charge them, even though they had proved
themselves to be such utter scoundrels. “But I don’t know what men
they were.”

“That doesn’t matter; I daresay we know. You mustn’t allow an outrage
like this to pass unnoticed; they might have murdered you. I’ll take
the charge.”

“Thank you.” She stood up. He had produced his notebook. “I don’t
think I’ll trouble you. There are circumstances connected with the
matter which render it necessary that I should think it over.”

“What’s there to think about? It was an attempt to rob with violence,
that’s what it was; as clear a case as ever I knew. Come, give me your
name, miss, then I’ll have the particulars. What name?”

“I’m afraid you must excuse me. When I’ve thought the matter over you
shall hear from me again, but I cannot act without consideration.
Thank you all the same.”

She carried it off with an air which took the constable aback. He was
not best pleased. He eyed her for a second or two, then he closed his
notebook with a snap.

“Very good. Of course, if you won’t make a charge I can’t take it. All
I can say is, that if you find yourself in the same hole again, it’ll
about serve you right if no one comes to help you. It’s because people
won’t go into court that there’s so much of this sort of thing about.
What’s the good of having laws if you won’t let them protect you.”

Off he strode in a huff. I stared after him a little blankly.

“I don’t think, Pollie, that you need have been quite so short with
him. What he says is true; we might have been murdered if it hadn’t
been for him.”

“I wasn’t short with him; I didn’t mean to be. But I couldn’t charge
them--could I? Besides, I want to get in. I didn’t want to have him
hanging about, for I don’t know how long, watching us.”

“Someone else may be watching us.”

“No fear of that; they’ve had enough of it for to-night.”

“So you said before, and hardly had you said there was nothing to fear
when they had us at their mercy. It’s my belief that what your uncle
said in that letter--which now they’ve got--is true, and that we are
in peril, dreadful peril, and that though we mayn’t know it someone is
watching us all the time. For my part I should like that policeman to
have kept his eye upon us until we were safe indoors.”

“After what my uncle said about allowing no one to see us enter?”

“It’s a pity you are not equally particular about everything your
uncle said, my dear.”

Off we started down the lane, or street, or whatever it was. If I had
had my way, after all that had happened, I would not have attempted to
enter the house until at any rate next morning; I would rather have
wandered about the streets all night. But I could see that she was set
on at least trying to get in. I did not wish to quarrel, or to be
accused of a wish to desert her after promising to be her companion.
So I stuck to her side. Presently she spoke.

“Do you know, Emily, I believe I haven’t got the very clearest
recollection of the directions in uncle’s letter. Didn’t he say
something about a passage?”

“He said that there was one between 13 and 14 Rosemary Street. The
question is, is this Rosemary Street? We don’t know.”

“We’ll soon find out. Which are 13 and 14? It’s so dark it’s hard to
tell.”

It was dark; which fact lent an additional charm to the situation. On
one side were the backs of what seemed like mews; all they presented
to us was a high dead wall. On the other was a row of cottages. If
they were occupied all the inhabitants were in bed. There was not a
light to be seen at any of the windows. Pollie began to peer at the
numbers on the doors.

“This is 26.” She passed on. “And this is 25; so 13 and 14 must be
this way.” We went farther along the street. “Here is 14--and here’s
the passage.”

There was a passage, between two of the mean little houses. But so
narrow an one that, if we had not been on the look-out for it, we
should have passed it by unnoticed. Such was the darkness that we
could not see six feet down it, so that it was impossible to tell
where it led to, or what was at the end. I did not like the idea of
venturing into it at all. I would have given almost anything to have
flown down the street and sought the protection of that nice
policeman. My heart was going pitter patter; I could feel it knocking
against my corsets. I did not know if Pollie really was nervous,
though I do not believe that it was in feminine human nature to have
been anything else; but she behaved as though she wasn’t. I could not
have made believe so well. She apparently did not hesitate about what
was the best, and proper, and only thing to do. There was not even a
tremor in her voice.

“What did uncle say--at the end there is a wall?”

“I--I think he did.”

“Then now for the wall.”

She dashed into the passage. I was afraid to do anything else--and she
did not give me a chance to remonstrate--so I went after her. I am
thankful to say that nothing happened to us as we went, though I
seemed to see and hear all sorts of things. After we had gone what
appeared to be a mile Pollie suddenly stopped.

“Here is the wall. Now to climb it. Didn’t uncle say we should find
two stanchions? Was it on the right or on the left? Here they are, on
the right; at least, I suppose they’re stanchions. They feel like two
pieces of iron driven into the brickwork. Now for a climb. One good
thing--the wall isn’t high.”

Since I could only perceive her dim outline, and didn’t wish to have
her vanish altogether in the darkness, I had kept my hand on her. I
could feel, rather than see, her going through the motions of
climbing. I was conscious she had reached the top.

“Now, Emily, you come. It’s easy; give me your hand.”

I gave her my hand. In a second or two I was beside her, on the crest
of the wall.

“Now let’s go together, it’s nothing of a drop.”

As she said, it was nothing of a drop, and we went together. I suppose
the wall was not much, if at all, over five feet in height. We landed
on what felt like a pavement of bricks.

“It’s a pity it’s so dark. Here it’s worse than ever. I can’t see my
hand before my face, can you?”

I could not. I told her so.

“Well, we’ll have to feel, that’s all; and we’ll hope that we’re in
the right backyard. It would be something more than a joke if we
weren’t; they might take us for burglars. Come on; give me your hand
again; we’ll feel our way--tread carefully whatever you do. Hollo!
here is a door. And--Emily, there’s the spot of light! Do you see it
there upon the door? As uncle says, it shines at us. Whether it’s
luminous paint, or whether it’s something much more wonderful, truly,
it lightens our darkness. Doesn’t it, my dear? Where is that key?”

I could see, straight in front of us, a round spot of something which
gleamed. It was not bigger than a threepenny piece. It might have been
a monster glow-worm. Or, as Polly said, a dab of luminous paint. But
there was no time to ascertain what it was, because, almost as soon as
I saw it, I heard something too.

“Pollie, there’s someone coming along the passage.”

In the silence, there was what was obviously the sound of feet, feet
which were apparently moving as if they did not wish to be heard.



 CHAPTER XI.
 ONE WAY IN.

I heard her fumbling with her pocket.

“I can’t find the thing; I had it just now; I can’t have dropped it.”

“Oh, Pollie! Quick! they’re at the wall!”

There was a scraping noise from behind; a muffled whispering. It
sounded as if someone was endeavouring to negotiate the obstacle we
had just surmounted. Still Pollie was continuing her researches.

“Where can I have put the thing?”

“Can’t you find it? Oh, Pollie!”

Someone was on the wall; had dropped softly to the ground. The sound
of his alighting feet was distinctly audible. There was a pause, as if
for someone to follow. It was the pause which saved us. As I waited,
with my heart actually banging against my ribs, my legs giving way at
the knees, expecting every second that someone would come darting at
us through the darkness, just in time to save me from toppling in a
heap on to the ground Pollie found the key.

“I’ve got it! What did uncle say I was to do with it? Push it against
the spot of light--and then? I’ve got it into the keyhole; can’t you
remember what uncle said I was to do with it then? It turns round and
round.”

“Pollie!--they’re coming!”

They were. There was the sound of advancing footsteps. Approaching
forms loomed dimly through the darkness. That same instant Pollie
caught the trick of it; the door opened.

“Inside!” she gasped.

I was inside, moving faster than I had ever done in my life before.
And Pollie was after me. The door shut behind us, seemingly of its own
accord, with a kind of groan.

“That was a near thing!”

It could hardly have been nearer. Whoever was upon our heels had
almost effected a simultaneous entrance with ourselves.

“He made a grab at my skirt; I felt his hand!”

But the door had closed so quickly that whoever was there had had no
time to make an attempt to keep it open. It was pitch dark within,
darker almost than it had been without. Pollie pressed close to my
side. The fingers of one of her hands interlaced themselves with mine;
she gripped me tighter than she perhaps thought. Her lips were near my
ear; she spoke as if she were short of breath.

“There’s a good spring upon that door; it moved a bit too fast for
them; it shuts like a rat-trap. Listen!”

There was no need to bid me to do that; already my sense of hearing
was on the strain. Someone, apparently, was trying the door; to see if
it was really shut; or if it could not be induced to open again.

There were voices in whispered consultation.

“There’s more than one; I wondered if there was more than one.”

“There are three,” I said.

Presently someone struck the door lightly, with the palm of the hand,
or with the fist. Then, more forcibly, a rain of blows. Unless I was
mistaken, the assault came from more than one pair of hands; it was
like an attack made in the impotence of childish passion. The voices
were raised, as if they called to us. They were like none which either
of us had ever heard before; there was a curious squeakiness about
them, as if their natural tone was a falsetto. What they said was
gibberish to us; it was uttered in an unknown tongue. The voices
ceased. After an interval, during which, one suspected, their owners
had withdrawn a step or two to consider the situation, one was raised
alone. It had in it a threatening quality, as if it warned us of the
pains and penalties we were incurring. The fact that we were being
addressed in a language which was, to us, completely strange, seemed
at that moment to have about it something dreadful. Audibly, we paid
no heed. Only I felt Pollie’s grip growing tighter and tighter. I
wondered if she knew that she would crush my fingers if she did not
take care.

The single speaker ceased to hurl at us his imprecations. I felt sure
it was bad language he was using. All was still.

“What are they doing?”

So close were Pollie’s lips her whispered words tickled my ear. We had
not long to wait before the answer came--in the shape of a smashing
blow directed against the door.

“They’re trying to break it down; they’ll soon wake up the
neighbourhood if they make that noise. Let’s get farther into the
house. Why--whatever’s that?”

She had turned. In doing so she had pulled me half round with her. Her
words caused me to glance about in the darkness, searching for some
new terror. Nor was I long in learning what had caused her
exclamation. There, glaring at us through the inky blackness in
flaming letters, a foot in length, were the words “_TOO LATE!_”
Beneath them was some hideous creature’s head.

For a second or two, in the first shock of surprise, I imagined it to
be the head of some actual man, or, rather, monster. As it gleamed
there, with its wide open jaws, huge teeth and flashing eyes, it was
like the vivid realisation of some dreadful nightmare. It was as if
something of horror, which had haunted us in sleep, had suddenly taken
on itself some tangible shape and form. So irresistible was this
impression, so unexpected was the shock of discovering it, that I
believe, if Pollie had not caught hold of me with both her hands, and
held me up, I should have fallen to the floor. As it was I reeled and
staggered, so that I daresay it needed all her strength to keep me
perpendicular. It was her voice, addressing me in earnest, half angry,
expostulation which reassured me--at least in part.

“You goose! Don’t you see that it’s a picture drawn with phosphorus,
or luminous paint, or something, on the wall. It won’t bite you;
you’re not afraid of a picture, child.”

It was a picture; and, when you came to look into it, not a
particularly well-drawn one either. Though I could not understand how
we had missed seeing it so soon as we had entered--unless the
explanation was that it had only just been put there. And, if that was
the case, by whom? and how? A brief inspection was enough to show that
the thing was more like one of those masks which boys wear on Guy
Fawkes’ day than anything else. It was just as ridiculous, and just as
much like anything in heaven or earth.

“Let’s get out of this; let’s go into the house; why do you stop in
this horrid place? Where’s the door?”

“That’s the question--Where is it? Uncle Benjamin’s ideas of the
proper way of getting in and out of a house are a little too ingenious
for me; we seem to be in a sort of entry with nothing but walls all
round us. Haven’t you a match? Didn’t you take a box out with you? For
goodness sake don’t say you’ve lost it.”

I had not lost it, fortunately for us. I gave it to her. She struck a
light. As she did so, the face and the writing on the wall grew
dimmer. They were only visible when, standing before the flame, she
cast them into shadow.

“Well, this is a pretty state of things, upon my word! There doesn’t
seem to be a door!”

There did not. The flickering match served to show that we were in
what looked uncommonly like an ingenious trap. We were in what seemed
to be a sort of vault, or cell, which was just large enough to enable
us to turn about with a tolerable amount of freedom, and that was all.
Semblance of a door there was none, not even of that by which we had
entered. So far as could be judged by that imperfect light on all four
sides were dirty, discoloured, bare walls, in not one of which was
there a crack or crevice which suggested a means of going out or in.
As Pollie had said, it was indeed a pretty state of things. It seemed
that we were prisoners, and in a prison from which there was no way
out. Our situation reminded me of terrible stories which I had read
about the Spanish Inquisition; of the sufferings of men and women, and
even girls, who had spent weeks, and months, and years, in hidden
dungeons out of which they had never come alive again.

Just as I had begun to really realise the fact that there did not seem
to be a door, Pollie’s match went out. That same moment there came a
fresh crash from without. And, directly after, another sound, or,
rather, sounds. Something was taking place outside which, to us, shut
in there, sounded uncommonly like a scrimmage, or the beginning of
one, at any rate. Someone else, apparently, had climbed over the wall,
a weighty someone, for we heard him descend with a ponderous flop.
Without a doubt, the first comers had heard him too, with misgivings.
Something fell, with a clatter--perhaps the tool with which they had
been assailing the door. There was a scurrying of feet, as of persons
eager to seek safety in flight. An exclamation or two, it seemed to us
in English; then a thud, as if some soft and heavy body had come in
sudden contact with the ground. A momentary silence. Then what was
unmistakably an official voice, a beautiful and a blessed voice it
sounded to me just then.

“All right, my lads! A little tricky, aren’t you? I daresay you think
you did that very neat. You wait a bit. Next time it’ll be my turn,
then perhaps I’ll show you a dodge or two.”

“Pollie,” I exclaimed, “it’s that nice policeman!”

“Hush! What if it is?”

What if it is? Everything--to me. It meant the flight of mystery, and
an opportunity to breathe again. If I could have had my way I would
have rushed out into the back yard and hugged him. But Pollie was so
cold, and--when she liked and her precious Tom wasn’t concerned--so
self-contained. She froze me. I could hear his dear big feet stamping
across the yard. He thumped against the door--and I perhaps within an
inch of him and not allowed to say a word.

“Inside there! Is there anyone in there?” There was; there was me. I
longed to tell him so, only Pollie’s grasp closed so tightly on my
arm--I knew it would be black and blue in the morning--that I did not
dare. “Isn’t there a bell or a knocker? This seems to be a queer sort
of a house. There’s something fishy about the place, or I’m mistaken.”

I could have assured him that he was not mistaken, and would if it had
not been for Pollie. I could picture him in my mind’s eyes flashing
the rays of his bull’s-eye lantern in search of something by means of
which he could acquaint the inhabitants within of his presence there
without--in his innocence! As if we did not know that he was there.
For some minutes--it seemed hours to me--he prowled about, patiently
looking for what he could not find. Then, giving up the quest in
despair, he strode across the yard, climbed heavily over the wall,
stamped along the passage; we could hear his footsteps even in the
street beyond.

Then I ventured to use my tongue.

“Pollie, why wouldn’t you let me speak to him? Why wouldn’t you let me
tell him we were here?”

“And a nice fuss there’d have been. No, thanks, my dear. Before I call
in the assistance of the police I should like to turn the matter over
in my mind. It begins to strike me that where my Uncle Benjamin had
reasons for concealment, I may have reasons too, at any rate until I
know just what there is to conceal.”

“In the meanwhile, how are we to get out of here? We’re trapped.”

“It’s the ingenuity with which Uncle Ben, or somebody, has guarded the
approach to his, or, rather, my, premises which makes it clear to me
that there may be something about the place on which it may be as well
not to be in too great a hurry to turn the searchlight of a
policeman’s eye. As to getting out of this--we’ll see.”

She struck another match, and saw. Either we had been the victims of
an ocular delusion, or something curious had taken place since she had
struck the first, for where, just now, there was a blank wall, in
which was no sign of any opening, a door stood wide open. I could not
credit the evidence of my own eyes.

“I declare,” I cried, “it wasn’t there just now.”

“It was not visible, at any rate. I tell you what, my dear, we mayn’t
be the only occupants of this establishment, that’s about the truth of
it. It’s possible that there’s someone behind the scenes who’s pulling
the strings.”

I did not like the ideas which her words conjured up at all.

“But--who can it be?”

“That’s for us to discover.”

There was a grimness about her tone which suggested what was, to me, a
new side of Pollie’s character. My impulse was to get away from the
place as fast as ever I could and never return to it again. She spoke
as if she were not only resolved to remain, and defied anyone to turn
her out who could, but as if she had a positive appetite for any--to
put it mildly--disagreeable experiences which her remaining might
involve. The first horror she encountered then and there. If she did
not mind it--I only wish that I could say the same of myself!

“You left the candle in the hall; let’s go and fetch it.”

As soon as we set foot outside that entry there was a pandemonium of
sounds, as of a legion rushing, scrambling, squeaking. It was
rats--myriads. The whole house swarmed with them; they were
everywhere. They were about our feet; I felt them rushing over my
boots, whirling against my skirts. One rat is bad enough, in the
light, but in the dark--that multitude! I had to scream; to stumble
blindfold among those writhing creatures, and keep still, was
altogether too much for my capacity.

“Pollie!--light a match!--quick!--they’re all over me!--Pollie!”

She struck a match. I do not know that it was any better now that we
could see them. The light only seemed to make them more excited. In
fact, their squeaking increased so much that, thinking that it angered
them, I had half a mind to tell Pollie to put it out again. But she
never gave me a chance. Taking me by the arm she dragged me along the
passage so that we were at the front door before I knew it. When we
went out we had left a candle on the floor in the passage so that it
might be ready for us when we came back. Pollie stooped to pick it up.
But, instead of doing so at once, she remained in the same position
for a second or two, as if she were staring at something. Then she
broke into a laugh.

“Well, that beats anything. That was a new candle when we went out;
look at it now.”

I looked; the candle had vanished. In its place what seemed to be a
greasy piece of twine trailed over the side of the candlestick. The
candle itself had been consumed by the rats; they had presented us
with an object lesson, by way of showing us what they could do if they
had a chance. I shuddered. I had heard of their fondness for fat. I am
not thin. I thought of them picking the plumpness off my bones as I
lay sleeping.

“Let’s get out of this awful house. Do, Pollie, do! The rats will eat
us if we stay in it.”

“Let ’em try. They’ll find us tougher morsels than you think. If a rat
once has a taste of me he won’t want another, I promise you that, my
dear.”

It was a frightful thing to say. It made my blood run cold to hear
her. I felt absolutely convinced that if rats once started nibbling at
me they would never rest content till they had had all of me that they
could eat. I was sure that there was not enough that was tough about
me. In that hour of trial I almost wished that there had been.



 CHAPTER XII.
 THE SHUTTING OF A DOOR.

We went upstairs to get another candle. A pound had been left on the
parlour mantelpiece wrapped up in a stout brown paper. The rats had
climbed up on to the shelf, they alone knew how, torn the paper to
shreds, and made a meal off the contents. Pieces of candle were left,
but not one whole one. Other things had been on that mantelpiece--tea,
butter, bread, sugar, bacon, eggs, all the food we had. Practically
the whole of it was gone. More of the tea was left than anything;
possibly they had not found it altogether to their palates. But the
butter had been entirely consumed; of the bacon, only the rind
remained, and of the eggs the shells. I had heard, and I had read, a
good deal about the voracity of rats, but never had I seen an example
of it before. Pollie seemed to look on it as quite a joke. She only
hoped, she said, that the quality of the provisions was good, so that
they would not give them indigestion. But I could not see the fun at
all. If that was a sample of their appetite, who could doubt that they
would at any rate try to make a meal of us. I had been told of their
devouring people’s toes as if they were toothsome dainties. I did not
want them to stay their stomachs with mine if I could help it. With
such calmness as I could command I did my best to explain my views
upon the matter. But Pollie only laughed. She would not be sensible.
So I then and there made up my mind that, sleep or no sleep, I would
not take off my clothes that night. If I was to be devoured they
should eat their way through my garments before they could get at me.

Pollie lit one of the stumps of the candles. The rest she slipped into
her pocket. If we left them there again, she remarked, they would
probably vanish completely directly our backs were turned, and candles
were precious, which was true enough; but there were other things
which were precious as well as candles. I asked her what she was going
to do.

“Investigate, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to find out
what’s behind those two closed doors. If it’s something alive I’d like
to know. Also, in that case, I’d like to know just what it is. I’m not
partial to rats, but I’m still less partial to strangers, who may be
up to all kinds of tricks for all that I can tell, roaming about my
house while I’m wrapped in the arms of Morpheus, so if anyone’s going
to roam I should like to make their acquaintance before they’re
starting.”

There was something callous in her demeanour, a sort of bravado, which
made me momentarily more uncomfortable. This was quite a new Pollie to
me. She spoke as if we were enjoying ourselves, with an apparently
entire unconsciousness of the frightful situation we actually were in.
I was positively beginning to be afraid of her.

“Do let us go upstairs to the bedroom, Pollie, and lock ourselves in
till the morning comes.”

She glanced at her watch.

“It’s morning now; the midnight chimes have sounded long ago. Would
you like to have your throat cut in the silence of the night?”

“Pollie!”

“It wouldn’t be nice to wake up and find it slit from ear to ear,
would it? So don’t be a goose. There’s a door locked downstairs and
another up. Before I rest I’m going to do my best to find out why
those two rooms are not open to me, their rightful owner. If it’s
because they harbour cut-throats, it’s just as well that we should
know as soon as we conveniently can. So I’m off on a voyage of
discovery. You can go to bed if you like.”

Of course I went with her. It was a choice of two evils--frightful
evils--but, under the circumstances, nothing would have induced me to
go to bed by myself. I would far rather have had my throat cut with
her than be eaten by rats alone. She began to hunt about the room.

“I’m looking for some useful little trifle which might come in handy
in breaking down a solidly-constructed door or two. Here’s a poker,
heavy make--there’s some smashing capacity in that; a pair of tongs; a
fender--there’s a business end to a fender; furniture--I have heard of
chairs being used as battering-rams before to-day. My mother used to
tell of how once, when his landlady locked him out because he wouldn’t
pay the rent of his rooms, my Uncle Benjamin burst his way into the
house with the aid of a chair, snatched off a passing cart which was
laden with somebody else’s goods, so I can’t see how he could object
to my trying the same kind of thing in the house which was once his
own. But I won’t--not yet. To begin with I’ll give the poker a trial,
and you might take the tongs.”

I took the tongs, though the only thing against which I should be
likely to use them would be rats, even if I ventured to touch them.
Indeed, the mere idea of squelching a wriggling, writhing, squeaking
rat between a pair of tongs made an icy shiver go all down my spine.
Pollie whirled the poker round her head with a regular whoop. What had
come to her I could not imagine. Her eyes flamed; her cheeks were
flushed; she was transformed. I verily believe that if half-a-dozen
men had rushed in at the door that very second, she would have flown
at them with a shriek of triumph. I had always known that one of her
worst faults was a fondness for what she called “a bit of a
scrimmage,” and that in an argument very few people got the better of
her; but I had never dreamed that she would go so far as she was going
then. She seemed as if she were perfectly burning for someone to
attack her.

Down the staircase she went, brandishing the poker over her head. I
could not keep so close to her as I should have liked for fear of it.
She stamped so as she descended that near the bottom she put her foot
clean through one of the steps. No doubt the wood was rotten, but
still she need not have insisted on treading as heavily as she
possibly could. And as soon as she reached the passage, without giving
me an opportunity to say a word, she dashed at the door of the room,
which was locked, and hit it with all her might with the end of the
poker. I expected to see her go right through it, but, instead of
that, she gave a sort of groan, and down fell the poker with a clatter
to the floor.

“Pollie, what is the matter? What have you done?”

The expression of her countenance had changed all in an instant. A
startled look, a look almost of pain, had come upon her features. She
was rubbing her arms and feeling her shoulder-blades.

“More than I intended. If you had exerted all your strength to drive a
poker through what seemed a panel of ordinary wood, and discovered
that it was sheet iron instead, you’d find that you’d done more than
you intended--it sort of jars.”

She picked up the poker again, and tapped it, much more gingerly,
against the door. It gave forth a metallic ring.

“Iron, real iron! Not a shadow of a doubt of it. Pity I was not aware
of the fact before I dislocated both my arms. Inside there! Do you
hear me calling? If anyone is inside there, perhaps you’ll be so good
as to let me know. I’m Pollie! Pollie Blyth!”

Not a sound came from within, for which, personally, I was grateful.
She hammered and hammered, but not the slightest notice was taken of
the noise she made, except by the rats, who sounded to me as if they
had gone stark mad. What we should have done if anyone had replied to
her summons from within is more than I can tell. We certainly should
have been no better off than before. We never could have got at them.
Pollie tried all she could to get that door to open, without, so far
as we could judge, producing the least impression of any sort or kind.
She thought of forcing the lock, but when she endeavoured to insert
the end of the poker into the keyhole, it turned out that it was such
a tiny one that nothing very much thicker than a hatpin could be
induced to enter.

“There’s a mystery behind that door. Mark my words, Emily Purvis! It
may take the form of decaying corpses, with their brains dashed out,
and their throats all cut, and their bones all broken, in which case
they’ll haunt us while we slumber, pointing at us spectral fingers as
we lie on our unquiet beds----”

“Pollie!”

“What’s the matter, my dear? They’ll be quite as cheerful anyhow as
rats, and they won’t take bites at us. At least, it’s to be hoped they
won’t. Ugh! Fancy murdered spectres making their teeth meet in your
flesh!”

“Pollie, if you talk like that I shall be ill; I know I shall. It
isn’t fair of you. I wish you wouldn’t. Don’t!”

“Very well, my love, I won’t. I’ve only this remark to make--if the
mystery doesn’t take that form, it takes another, and probably a worse
one. And let me tell you this. My Uncle Benjamin was a curiosity while
he lived--my mother used to say that there never was such a devil’s
limb as he was, and she was his only sister, and disposed to look upon
his eccentricities--and they were eccentricities--with a lenient eye;
and it’s my belief that he was quite as big a curiosity when he died.
There were spots in his eventful life--uncommonly queer ones--which he
would not wish revealed to the public eye. Unless I’m wrong, some of
them are inside there; we’re almost standing in their presence now,
and I wish that we were quite.”

She rattled the poker against the panels as a kind of parting salute.
I had rather she had not. Every time she made a noise--and she kept on
making one--it set my nerves all tingling. What with the things she
said, and the way that she went on, and everything altogether, I was
getting into such a state that I was beginning to hardly know whether
I was standing on my head or heels. As for Pollie, she seemed in the
highest possible spirits. It was incomprehensible to me how she dared.
And the way she kept on talking!

“Before I’m very much older I will get the other side of you, or I’ll
know the reason why; the idea of not being allowed the free run of my
own premises is a trifle more than I can stand. If I have to blow you
down, I’ll get you open.”

Bang, bang, she went at it again.

“It sounds hollow, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s meant by way of a
suggestion, and is intended to let us understand that it’s only a
hollow mystery after all. Well, we shall see--and you shall see too,
if you have curiosity enough.”

I doubted if I had. I certainly had not just then. I wished, with all
my heart, that she would come away from the horrid door, which
presently she did, though not at all in the spirit I should have
preferred, nor with the intentions I desired.

“There’s a second Bluebeard’s chamber upstairs. I may have better luck
with that; perhaps it’s not guarded with sheet iron. Uncle Benjamin
must have spent a fortune at the ironmonger’s if it is, which fortune
should have been mine. We’ll go and see.”

I endeavoured to expostulate.

“Pollie, let’s leave it till to-morrow. What’s the use of making any
more fuss to-night. I’m dying for want of sleep.”

“Are you?” She looked at me with what struck me as being suspicious
eyes; though what there was to be suspicious about is more than I can
pretend to say. “But don’t you see, my dear, that if you were to have
that sleep for which you’re dying, before you wake from it you may be
dead. That second Bluebeard’s chamber is next our bedroom. Suppose
someone were to come out of it, while we were sunk in innocent repose,
and----” She drew her thumb across her throat with a gesture which
made me shudder. “That wouldn’t be nice, you know.”

“Pollie, if you keep on talking like that I’ll walk straight out of
the house, I don’t care what time of the night it is, and whether
you’ll come with me or whether you won’t.”

“I shouldn’t if I were you. It would seem so irregular for a young
lady to be taking her solitary walks abroad during the small hours,
don’t you know. Now up you go--up those stairs. We’ll continue this
conversation at the top. You vowed to be my companion to the death,
and my companion to the death you’re going to be.”

I had never done anything of the kind, as she was perfectly well
aware. But she did not give me a chance to contradict her. She bundled
me up the staircase as if I were a child, with such impetuosity that I
was breathless when we reached the landing. She was laughing. We might
have been enjoying a romp. As if that were the place or season for
anything of the sort!

“I trod upon a rat. Did you hear it squeal? I think it was its tail. I
believe the little beast turned and flew at me, it felt as if it did.
I hope I scrunched its silly little tail. What is one rat’s tail among
so many? Now for Bluebeard’s Chamber No. 2. This time we’ll beware of
iron.”

She made a preliminary sounding, luckily for her. Even a slight tap
with the poker produced the ring of metal.

“Iron again, so that’s all right. Now what shall we do? Shall we
confess ourselves baffled after all, and leave a formal attack until
the morning, or shall we try the effect of a little more poker
smashing? What ho, within! Is anyone inside there, living or dead? If
so, would you be so very obliging as to just step forth, and let us
see what kind of gentleman you are.”

There was no response, thank goodness. I took her by the arm.

“Pollie, do let’s leave it to the morning, and do let’s go to bed!”

“We’ll go to bed!”

We went; at least we went into the bedroom. I did not feel much
happier when we were there. To begin with, after the way in which she
had been talking, my first thought was to do as much as possible to
keep anyone out who might try to enter. But there was no key in the
lock, the handle was loose, the hasp a bad one, so that the door would
not even keep closed without our propping something up against it. I
wanted Pollie to help me pile up a sort of barricade, consisting of
chairs, the washhand stand, chest of drawers, and everything, as I had
read of people doing in books. She only laughed at me.

“What good will it do? Who do you suppose it will keep out? Spectres?
My dear, spectres will walk through stone walls. They pay no heed to
trivial obstacles. Creatures of flesh and blood? You may take my word
for it that if there are any of that sort alive and kicking in this
house to-night, and they mean to come in here, they’ll come in just
when and how they choose, and they’ll treat your ingenious barricade
as if it wasn’t there.”

“Do you really think that there’s anyone in the house beside
ourselves?”

She shrugged her shoulders.

“I tell you what I do think, that if I’d known as much before as I do
now, I’d have treated myself to a revolver, and you should have had
one too.”

“A revolver! Whatever should I have done with a revolver?”

“I can’t say what you’d have done. I know what I’d have tried to do. I
only wish that I had something loaded handy at this moment, there’s
more persuasive power in bullets than in your barricade, my dear. If
the worst does come to the worst, and we have to protect ourselves
against goodness alone knows what, if I could only have had my grip
upon a pistol I don’t fancy that all the scoring would have been upon
the other side.”

Whether she talked like that simply to make my hair stand up on end,
or whether she was really in earnest, was more than I was able to
determine. But as I looked at her I felt a curious something creep all
over me. There was an expression on her face, a smile on her lips, a
light in her eyes, which made me think of her Uncle Benjamin, to whose
peculiarities we owed our presence there, and wonder if not only his
blood, but something of his spirit too, was in her veins. I was
persuaded that she perceived something actually agreeable in a
situation in which I saw nothing but horror. And it was I who had
supposed myself to be romantic!

She began to bustle about the room.

“I thought you were dying for want of sleep. Aren’t you going to get
between the sheets? There is a bed, and there are sheets, though I
should hardly like to swear that they have been washed since someone
slept between them last. When are you going to begin to undress?”

“Undress? Do you imagine that I intend to remove so much as a stitch
of clothing while I remain beneath this roof?”

“Do you propose to sleep in your boots then?”

“If I am to sleep at all, and I am more than half disposed to hope
that sleep may not visit my eyelids till I am out of this dreadful
place, I propose to do so in what I stand up in. Pollie, have you ever
heard of people’s hair turning white in the course of a single night?
I shouldn’t be at all surprised if mine did. It feels as if it were
changing colour now.”

She stared as if she could not make me out. I wondered if she was
noting the transformation which was taking place in my hair; if it had
already become so obvious. Then she broke into peal after peal of
laughter. The tears started to my eyes. Just as I was about to really
cry there came a crash which shook the house.

It sounded as if someone had opened a door in the passage and shut it
with a bang.



 CHAPTER XIII.
 A VISION OF THE NIGHT.

In a second Pollie was across the room, through the door, and on the
landing. Before I could stop her she was tearing down the stairs,
crying,

“Now we’ll see who that is?”

I was in a dreadful position, not wanting to descend and be murdered
as a result of seeing “who that is,” nor daring to remain behind
alone. I did not even venture to call out and try to stay her, not
knowing who might hear my voice below. She had gone off with our only
piece of candle and left me in the dark. All I could do was to steal
after her as quickly as possible, keeping as close to her as I was
able. Pollie was at the bottom almost before I started; she had gone
down with a hop, skip, and a jump; I had to struggle with the darkness
and the rats. Leaning over what was left of the banisters I could see
the gleam of her candle in the passage. I expected to hear her shriek,
and sounds of a struggle. The candle flickered, as if she were moving
here and there in an endeavour to discover the cause of the commotion.
Presently her voice came up to me.

“Emily!”

“Yes?”

I spoke in a much lower tone than she had done.

“No one’s murdered, unless it’s you up there. In case you’re not, you
might come down.”

I went. She appeared disgusted, rather than otherwise, that she had
not been murdered. She was stamping up and down the passage, banging
at the closed door with her clenched fist, peering into the kitchen,
making as much disturbance as was in her power.

“The only thing alive, barring rats, seems to be blackbeetles. We must
have slaughtered thousands when we came in. The kitchen’s black with
them. Come and look.” I declined. “But they can hardly have opened
that door and shut it with a bang. There’s no evidence to show which
door it was, but I believe it was one which leads into Bluebeard’s
chamber.”

“Pollie! How can you tell?”

“I can’t tell, but I can believe. Can’t I believe, my dear? I shall,
anyhow. It is my belief”--she spoke with an emphasis which was meant
for me--“that the mystery it conceals peeped out, then, fearing
discovery, popped back again. It was its hurry to pop back which
caused the bang. I wonder, by the way, if it was anyone who made a
bolt into the street.”

She tried to open the front door, against my wish, and failed. We had
opened it from within easily enough before, when we had gone out to
interview her Tom; but now it appeared to be as hermetically sealed as
the door leading into what she called “Bluebeard’s Chamber.” It was no
use reasoning with her. So soon as she found that it would not open
she made up her mind that it should. For a quarter of an hour or
twenty minutes she tried everything she could to force it. In vain. By
the time we returned to the bedroom she was not in the best of
tempers. And I had resolved that nothing should induce me to stay any
longer alone with her beneath that roof than I could possibly help.

We had something like a quarrel. She said some very cruel things to
me, and, when I told her she was unkind, and that there were aspects
in which she reminded me of her Uncle Benjamin, she said crueller
things still. I announced my intention to spend the night--what was
left of it--upon a chair. She flung herself upon the bed and laughed.

Never shall I forget the remainder of that night, not if I live to be
as old as Methuselah. To begin with, that chair was horribly
uncomfortable, to speak of physical discomfort only. It was a small,
very slippery, wooden Windsor chair; every time I tried to get into an
easy position I began to slip off. I wondered more and more how I
could ever have been so Quixotic as to have volunteered to become
Pollie Blyth’s companion. For one thing I had never suspected that she
could have been so callous, so careless of the feelings of others, so
indifferent to what they suffered on her behalf. Although I was tired
out and out I could see that there would be no sleep for me, and no
rest either, while I continued where I was. So far as I could judge,
so soon as she threw herself upon the bed Pollie was asleep.

It was with quite a sense of shock I realised that this was the case.
It seemed so selfish. The feeling of solitude it conveyed was
frightful. I could hear her gentle breathing coming from the bed; I
myself hardly dared to breathe at all. Half an inch of candle was
guttering on the mantelpiece. By its light I could see that she lay on
her left side, looking towards the wall, and that she did not appear
to have moved since she had first lain down. I called to her:

“Pollie! Pollie! Pollie!” uttering each repetition of her name a
little louder.

My voice seemed to ring out with such uncanny clearness I did not
venture to really raise it. In consequence my modest tones did not
serve to rouse her from her childlike slumber. So sound was her sleep
that, all at once, the noise of her breathing ceased. It faded away.
She was still, strangely still. So still that in the overwrought
condition of my nerves I began to wonder if she was dead. I wished
that she would move, do anything, to show she was alive. I tried, once
more, to call upon her name. But, this time, my throat was parched; it
came as an inarticulate murmur from between my tremulous lips.

I would have given much to have got up and shaken her back to life,
and me. But it was as though I was glued to the seat, and that
although I was continually slipping off. My body was stiff, my limbs
cramped; it was only with an effort I could move them; of that effort
I was not capable. I was conscious that I was passing into a waking
nightmare. I closed my eyes because I was afraid to keep them open;
then opened them again because I was still more afraid to keep them
shut.

The house was full of noises. Pollie had not shut the door. It was
ajar perhaps an inch or two. I wanted to put a chair in front, to shut
it close. Apart, however, from my incapacity to move, I was oppressed
by an uncomfortable fancy that someone, something, was peering through
the interstice. This fancy became, by rapid degrees, a certainty. That
I was overlooked I was sure. By whom, by what, I did not dare to
think. How I knew I could not have told. I did know.

My eyes were fixed upon the door. For a moment, now and then, I moved
them, with a flicker, to the right or to the left. Only for a moment.
Back they went to the door. Once I saw it tremble. I started. It was
motionless again. Then I heard a pattering. The rats were audible
everywhere--under the floor at my feet, in the walls about me, above
the ceiling over my head. The house was full of their clamour. But the
pattering I heard was distinct from all the other sounds. It
approached the room from without, pausing over the threshold as if in
doubt. The door gave a little jerk, ever such a little one, but I saw
it. A rat came in.

So it was a rat after all.

It stopped, just inside the door, peering round, as if surprised at
the illumination which the candle gave. As if satisfied by what it saw
it came in a little further. Close behind it was a second. This was of
a more impatient breed; as soon as it appeared, with a little spring
it ranged itself beside the other. Immediately there came two more.
The four indulged themselves with a feast of observation, as though
they were smelling out the land. After a while their eyes seemed to
concentrate themselves on me, as if they could not make me out.
Perhaps they thought that I was dead, or sleeping. I did not move,
because I could not.

On a sudden the four gave a little forward scamper, as if they had
been hustled from behind. The door was opened another half-dozen
inches. More than a score came in. All at once I became conscious that
rats were peeping at me from all about the room; out of holes and
crannies of whose existence I had not been aware; above, below, on
every side. And I knew that an army waited on the landing, as if
waiting for a signal to make a rush. On whom? On me? Or on Pollie,
asleep upon the bed? I was paralysed. I wanted to shriek and warn
Pollie of what was coming; to let her know that in a second’s time the
room would be a pandemonium of rats, all of them in search of food. My
tongue was tied. I could not speak. I could only wait and watch.

The house was not yet still. Not all had gathered without the door,
many were observing me, with teeth sharp set, from hidden cavities.
There was continually the clamour of their scurrying to and fro. But
some instinct told me that their numbers increased upon the landing. I
could hear their squeals, as if they snapped at each other in the
press. Another score had harried the first score farther forward. They
were so close that where they stood they hid the floor. It seemed so
strange to see so many, all with their eyes on me. Yet what were they
to those who were without? Something told me that those who watched me
in the room had come further out of their holes! that in another
instant they would spring down; and that then the rush would come. I
think that my heart had nearly ceased to beat; that the blood had
turned to water in my veins. I was cold; a chill sweat was on my face.
The hand of death had come quite close.

I but waited for its actual touch; for whose approach the rushing of
the rats should be the signal; when--what was it fell upon my ear?
What sound, coming from below? Not rats? No, not rats. Mechanically I
drew breath; I verily believe it was the first time I had breathed for
I know not how long. The inflation of my lungs roused me. I listened
with keener ears. I knew that what I had heard the rats had also
heard; that it was because of it that the rush had not begun; that
they attended what was next to come with a sense of expectancy; of
doubt; of hesitation.

Moments passed; the sound was not repeated. Had it been a trick of our
imagination; mine and the rats’? All was still, even the scurrying of
their friends below. If I heard nothing, they did; they retreated.
There were fewer within the room; I had not noticed their going, but
they had gone. I felt that their unseen comrades, who were about me,
had drawn back again into their holes. What was it caused that noise?
There was a board that creaked. No rat’s foot had caused that. Again.
Was that a step upon the stairs?

Someone, something, was ascending from below? Who--what--could it be?
An inmate of the Bluebeard’s Chamber? What shape of horror would it
take? Why did Pollie sleep so soundly? In my awful helplessness
inwardly I raged. The rats heard; already they were flying for their
lives. Why did she not hear? Would nothing rouse her from her
slumbers? Danger, the danger she had herself foretold, was stealing on
us. She had boasted of her courage. Why did she not come out of sleep
to prove she was no braggart? What was it bound my limbs with chains,
and kept me from stretching out my arm to touch her where she lay?
What was the choking in my throat, so that when I tried to speak I
seemed to strangle?

Silence again. This seemed to be a jest that someone played: the
sound, then silence; still silence, long drawn out, then again the
sound. If something came, why did it not come quickly? I should not be
so fearful of a thing I saw as of a thing that I did not; I could not
be.

The steps had reached the staircase which led directly to our room.
There were fewer intervals of silence; though, yet, between each,
there was a pause, as if to listen. They were very soft; as if someone
walked velvet footed, being most unwilling to be heard. If I had
sprung to my feet, roused Pollie, rushed to the door, defying all
comers to come on, I wondered what would happen; and should have
dearly liked to see.

But I was a craven through and through.

The footsteps gained the landing: moved towards the door; stayed
without, while their owner listened. It might have been my fancy, but,
so acutely was I listening, that I could have declared that I heard a
hand placed gently against the panel. An interval. Pollie remained
quiet on the bed. She had not moved since first she had lain down.
What kind of sleep was this of hers? Did no warning come to her in
dreams to tell her that there was something strange without? It was
not fair that she should be so utterly at peace, while I had to bear
the burden all alone. She was stronger than I. Why did she not wake
up?

The door came a little forward; perhaps another half-dozen inches.
Again a pause; as if to ascertain if the movement had been observed.
Whoever was without was cautious. Then----

Then something appeared at the opening.

What I had expected to see I could not for the life of me have told.
Some shape of horror, some monster born of the terror I was in; a
diseased imagining of my mental, moral, physical paralysis; a
creature, neither human nor inhuman, but wholly horrible, which should
come stealing, resistless, in, to force me, in my agony, to welcome
death.

What it was I actually saw, at first, I could not tell. It was not
what I expected; that I knew. Something more commonplace; yet,
considering the hour and the place, almost as strange.

When the mist had cleared from before my vision, I perceived it was a
face. What kind of face even yet I could not see; the shock of the
unexpected added to my confusion. It was only after it had remained
quiescent for perhaps the better part of a minute that I realised it
was a woman’s.

A woman’s face!

But not like any woman’s face that I had seen before. As I gazed my
fear began to fade; a sense of wonder came instead. Was I asleep or
waking? I asked myself the question. Were these things happening to me
in a dream? Glancing at me through the partly open door was the kind
of face one reads and dreams about; not the kind one meets in daily
life. At least, in the daily life which I have led. I was vaguely
conscious that it was beautiful; beautiful in so strange a sort; but
most clearly present to my mind was the bewildering fact that it had a
more wonderful pair of eyes than any I had supposed a woman could have
had. It was not only that they were large, nor that they were lovely.
They had in them so odd a lustre. It was as though some living thing
were in them, which kept coming and going, breaking into light, fading
into darkness. They were wild eyes; such as no Englishwoman ever could
have had. This face was brown.

For at any rate some minutes it stayed motionless, watching me. Only
by degrees did it dawn upon me that possibly its owner was nearly as
much startled as I was; that whatever she had anticipated seeing she
had not expected to find me sitting on that chair. She kept her glance
fixed upon my features; only for a second did it wander towards Pollie
sleeping on the bed. I fancy she was endeavouring to determine what it
was that I was doing there; why I was on the chair instead of on the
bed; whether I was asleep or waking, or even dead. I was so huddled up
upon the chair, and remained so very still, that it was quite possible
for her, taken unawares, to suppose that I was dead.

“You sleep?”

She spoke to me; in English, which had a quaintly foreign sound; in a
bell-like whisper, it was so soft and yet so clear.

I did not answer; the knot in my tongue had not yet come untied. I
felt that she did not understand my silence, or the cause of it; and
wondered, hesitated too. Presently she ventured on an assertion,
uttered with a little cadence of doubt, as if it were a question.

“You do not sleep.” Apparently as if still in doubt as to the
correctness of the statement, she endeavoured to fortify herself with
reasons. “Your eyes are open; you do not sleep. We do not sleep when
our eyes are open. Speak to me. Are you afraid?”

Perhaps the suspicion increased in strength that, if I was not
stupefied with fear, there was at least something curious in my
condition. She opened the door nearly to the full, and she came into
the room. I saw that she seemed but a girl, tall above the common,
clad in a gown which, while it was loose and seemingly shapeless, and
made in a fashion which was altogether strange to me, yet draped
itself in graceful folds about her figure. It was made of some stuff
which looked to me like silk alpaca; in colour a most assertive, and
indeed trying, shade of electric blue. It positively warmed one’s eyes
to look at it. And it was covered with what looked more like sequins
than anything else I could think of; though, with every movement of
her body, they gleamed and glittered like no sequins I had ever seen
before. Her hair, of which there was an extraordinary quantity, as
black as jet, was most beautifully done. Even in my condition of
semi-stupor I wondered how she did it. It formed a perfect halo about
her face. And on the top was stuck what seemed to be the very double
of that queer little thing which Pollie said she found in the scrap of
paper which the man had given her. Only, to me, the creature in her
hair seemed alive. Its eyes gleamed; its body inclined this way then
that, as she stood in the open doorway.

She was covered with jewels; at least, I suppose they were jewels.
Though, regarded as ornaments, they were as queer as everything else
about her. Her fingers were loaded with rings; funny looking ones they
seemed. She stood, bending slightly forward, with her hands in front,
so that I could not help but notice them. Bracelets were twined about
her arms; of the oddest design. A jewelled snake was about her throat.
Another, not only a monster, but a monstrosity, was twisted, girdle
fashion, three or four times around her waist. It looked as if it were
alive.

When, having, apparently, sufficiently considered the situation, she
began to advance towards me, to my amazement and abject horror this
creature was set in motion too. It stretched out its evil-looking head
in my direction, with an ugly glitter in its eyes; it opened its jaws;
its fangs shot out. As they seemed to be extending themselves as far
as possible, in order to reach my face, thank God, the guttering
half-inch of candle went out upon the mantelpiece. With it my senses
seemed to go out too. As they were leaving me I was conscious of the
unpleasant odour of a smouldering wick.



 CHAPTER XIV.
 SUSIE.

I was lying on the floor. There was a light in the room. A woman was
bending over me; the woman with the snake about the waist. The memory
of it recurring with a sudden sense of shock, I started up.

“Where is it?”

She looked as if she did not understand.

“Where is what?”

“The snake.”

She smiled; why, I do not know.

“The snake? Oh, it is gone.”

Apparently it had. In its place was a plain broad band of what seemed
gold. I wondered if it was gold. If so, it was worth a great deal.
Still wondering, I sank back upon the floor. I saw that beside me was
a queer-shaped lamp, which also seemed to be of gold. It was fashioned
something like a covered butter-boat, with a handle, the flame coming
from the lip. I felt drowsy; the hair seemed to be heavy with perfume;
one which was new to me, having a pleasantly soothing effect upon
one’s nerves. Had it not been for the strangeness of my position I
believe that I should then and there have fallen asleep. Turning, I
stared at the stranger, who, kneeling on my left, regarded me in turn.
Silence; which she broke.

“Are many Englishwomen as beautiful as you?”

I was thinking, lazily, how beautiful she was. The appositeness of the
question took me aback; it startled some of the heaviness from my
eyelids. I did not know what to reply. My hesitation did not please
her. A sudden gleam came into her eyes; as if the wild creature which
inhabited them had all at once come to the front.

“Why do you not answer? I am used to being answered. Are many
Englishwomen as beautiful as you?”

“They are much more beautiful. I am not beautiful at all.”

“You are beautiful. You are a liar.”

The plain directness of her speech brought the blood into my cheeks.
She marked my change of colour, as if surprised.

“How do you do that?”

“Do what?”

My tone was meek as meek could be.

“You have gone red.” I went still redder. “How do you do it? Is it a
trick? It becomes you very well; it makes you still more beautiful. Is
it the blood shining through your skin? You are so white, the least
thing shows. To be white I would give all that I am, all that I have.”

She uttered the last words with a simple earnestness which, if she had
only known it, became her much more than my blush did me. I ventured
on an inquiry.

“Who are you?”

She knelt straight up. There came to her an air of dignity which lent
to her a weird and thrilling fascination.

“I am she who inhabits the inner sanctuary of the temple; to whom all
men and women bring their supplications, that I may lay them at the
feet of the Most High Joss.”

I had not the faintest notion what she meant; but her words and manner
impressed me none the less on that account. Which fact she observing
was good enough not to allow it to displease her. She went on, with
the same quaint, yet awe-inspiring simplicity.

“I am she who holds joy and sorrow in the hollow of my hand; ay, life
and death. When I lift it the prayers of the faithful may hope for
answer; when I do not lift it, their petitions are offered up in vain,
for the Great Joss is sleeping; and, when he sleeps, he attends to no
one’s prayers.”

She stopped. I should have liked her to have gone on; or, at least, to
have been a trifle more explicit. But, possibly, she was under the
impression that she had vouchsafed sufficient information, and, in
exchange, would like a little out of me. She put a point blank
question.

“Are you Miss Mary Blyth?”

I motioned with my hand towards the bed.

“That’s Pollie. She’s asleep.”

“Pollie? Who is Pollie? I ask, are you Miss Mary Blyth?”

“That is Mary Blyth upon the bed. I’m a friend of hers, so I call her
Pollie. She’s known to all her friends as Pollie.”

She considered, knitting her brows. I half expected her to again
roundly call me liar; but, instead, she asked a question, the meaning
of which I scarcely grasped.

“Is Susie a name by which one is known unto one’s friends?”

“Susie? Isn’t that the pet name for Susan?”

For some reason my answer seemed to afford her a singular amount of
pleasure. She broke into a soft ripple of laughter; for sheer music I
had never heard anything like it before. The sound was so infectious
that it actually nearly made me smile--even then! She put her hands
before her face, in the enjoyment of some joke which was altogether
beyond my comprehension; then, holding out her arms, extended them on
either side of her as wide as she possibly could.

“It is a pet name; Susie, a pet name! It is the pet name by which one
is known to one’s--friends!”

There was a slight pause before “friends”; as if she hesitated whether
or not to substitute another word. I should have liked to have
inquired what the jest was, but there was something in her bearing
which suggested that it was so personal to herself that I did not
dare. When she had got out of it what perhaps occurred to her as being
sufficient enjoyment, quitting the kneeling posture which she had
occupied till then, she rose to her feet and went to the bed.

By now I was wide awake, my perceptions were well on the alert. The
sense of terror which had so nearly brought me to a condition of
paralysis had grown considerably less. I do not pretend that fear had
altogether vanished, nor that with but a little provocation it would
not have returned with all its former force. But, for the moment,
certainly, curiosity was to the front. My chief anxiety was not to
allow one of my mysterious visitor’s movements, no matter how
insignificant, to escape my notice. I observed with what suppleness
she rose to her feet; how, in the noiseless way in which she passed to
the bed, there was something which reminded me of wild animals I had
seen at the Zoological Gardens. When she bent over the sleeping Pollie
there was something in her pose which recalled them again. For some
seconds she was still; I had a peculiar feeling, as I watched her from
behind, that with those extraordinary eyes of hers she was scorching
the sleeper’s countenance.

“She is not beautiful. No, she is not beautiful, like you. But there
is that in her face which reminds me of another I have seen. She is
clever, strong bodied, strong willed, she knows no fear. When she is
brought face to face with fear she laughs at it. She sleeps sound. It
is like her to sleep sound when no one else could sleep at all.”
Although I could not see the speaker’s face I knew she smiled. “It is
funny it should have been given to her. She will never do as she is
told; it is because she is told that she will never do it. Obedience
is not for her, it is for those with whom she lives to obey.” She
glanced round. “It is for you.”

There was a sting in the little air of malice with which it was said,
although the thing was true. It nettled me to think how soon she had
found me out. She returned to Pollie without deigning to notice how
her words had been received.

“Let her sleep on. So sound a sleep should know no sudden waking.”
Again there was malice in her tone. She passed her hand two or three
times in front of Pollie’s face. “Now she’ll have no evil dreams. It
is funny it should have been given to her; very funny. It should have
been given to you; you are different. But it is like that things
happen; the world is crooked.”

She had returned towards me.

“Have you a lover?”

Her trick of asking the most delicate questions in the abruptest and
baldest fashion I found more than a little disconcerting. Although I
tried to keep it back, again the blood flamed to my cheeks, all the
more because I half expected to have her repeat her enquiry as to how
I got it there. For some ridiculous reason I thought of Mr. Frank
Paine. It was too absurd. Of course I had only seen him once, and then
I had scarcely looked at him, although I could not help noticing that,
though he had not bad eyes, in other respects he was positively ugly,
and most stilted in his manners. I might never see the man again,
probably never should. I was sure I did not want to. And, anyhow, he
was absolutely nothing to me, nor, under any possible circumstances,
ever could be. It made me wild to think that I should think of him,
especially when I was asked such a question as that.

“No,” I stammered.

“No? That is strange. Since you are so beautiful.”

“I am not beautiful. Why do you say that I am beautiful?”

“Is it possible that you do not know that you are beautiful? You must
be very silly. I knew all about myself long before I was as old as
you. You have the kind of face which, when a man sees, he desires; you
also have the shape. You are not like her.” She jerked her shoulder
towards the bed. “You are a woman; and a fool.”

I did not like the way she spoke to me at all. She might be a walking
mystery--and she certainly was--but that was no reason why she should
be impertinent as well.

“Why do you say such things to me? Is a woman of necessity a fool?”

“If she is wise she is. It is a fool that a man desires; if she is a
fool she will rule him when he has her. The greater fool is governed
by the lesser.”

She had a most astonishing way of talking. Considering her age, and,
in years, I felt convinced that she was the merest slip of a girl, she
professed to have a knowledge of the world which was amazing. I did
not know what to say; not being used to carry on a conversation on the
lines which she seemed to favour. So she asked another question, with
another jerk of her shoulder towards the bed.

“Has she a lover?”

“She has.”

“No! That is stranger still! A real lover? What sort of a man is he?”

“He’s not a bad sort.”

“Not a bad sort? What is that? Is he rich?”

“Rich!” I smiled at the idea of Tom Cooper being rich. “He is very far
from being rich, unfortunately for him, and for Pollie too. He is an
assistant in a shop.”

“A shop? What kind of shop?”

“A draper’s.”

“A draper’s? Isn’t that where they sell things for women to wear? What
kind of a man is he who is in a shop in which they sell things for
women to cover their bodies? Is it his life which he lives there? But,
after all, that is the kind of lover one would have supposed she would
have had. It is he who must obey.” I felt that she was hard on Pollie,
and on Mr. Cooper. It seemed to be her way to be hard on everyone.
“But you--why have you no lover?”

I really did not know what to answer. It was such a difficult
question, to say nothing of its delicacy. Of course I had had lovers,
of a sort. One need not give a list, but there had been incidents. At
the same time it was not easy to enter into particulars, at a moment’s
notice, to a perfect stranger, under such conditions as obtained just
then.

“I hardly know what to say to you. I suppose I am not too old to have
one yet.”

It was a silly remark to make. But it was either that or silence. And
she did not seem to like me not to answer her.

“One should have a lover when one is still a little young.”

“What’s your idea of a little young? Are you inferring that I’m a
trifle old?”

“The day passes; a lover should come in the morning; when the sun is
just lighting the sky.”

There was an air of superiority about her which I did not altogether
relish. She might be somebody wonderful, and I was quite willing to
admit that she was; but one does not care to be snubbed. So far as I
could see she was snubbing me all the time. So I asked her a question
in my turn.

“You speak as if you had had a great deal of experience. May I ask if
you have a lover?”

“Can you not see it in my eyes?”

I could not. Hers were wonderful eyes, especially when the blaze came
into them as it did as she spoke. But one required remarkable powers
of observation to know that she had a lover merely by looking at her
eyes. I hesitated, however, to say as much; and luckily she went on
without rendering it necessary for me to say anything at all.

“Can you not see it in my face? my smile? the way I breathe? the joy
of life that’s in me? Is it that, although you’re white, you’re
stupid? I thought it was plain to all the world; to another woman most
of all. One morning I woke; I was what I was; he had not come. He came
before the sun set; I was what I am now; there were no shadows that
night for me; the sun has not set since.”

Her language was really a little above my head. Though I confess that
I liked the way in which she spoke. It set my heart all beating. And
her words rang like silver trumpets in my ears. And she looked so
lovely as she stood with her beautiful head thrown a little back, and
her hands held out in front as if her heart was in them. Yet, at the
same time, if she had expressed herself in a somewhat different
manner, I should have gathered more exactly what it was she meant. She
had stopped, as if she thought that it was time for me to speak. So I
blundered.

“Was the gentleman a--a countryman of yours?”

“A countryman of mine? What do you mean by a countryman of mine? How
do you know what my country is?”

I was sorry I had asked the question directly the words had passed my
lips, though I never dreamt that she would take it up in the way she
did. She flew at me in a way which gave me quite a start. The wild
animal which was in her eyes came to the front with a sudden rush, as
if it would spring right out at me.

“I’m sure no offence was intended, and I beg your pardon if any has
been given. Because, as you say, I have not the faintest notion what
your country is.”

“England is my country. I am English--all of me!--to there!”

As she put her hands behind her I suppose she meant that she was
English to the backbone. All I could say was that she did not look it,
and she did not sound it either. But not for worlds would I have
mentioned the fact at that moment. She came closer, eyeing me as if
she would have pierced me through and through.

“You think that he is black? You think it? You insult me, the daughter
of the gods, in whose hands are life and death! Shall I tear the heart
out of your body? Shall I kill you? Tell me!--yes or no!”

“No.”

It seemed an unnecessary answer to give, but I felt that I might as
well give expression to my sentiments since she was so insistent.
Though I thought it quite likely that she might at any moment
commence, as she called it, to tear the heart out of my body, while I
waited for the moment to arrive I could not but own that, even in her
rage, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. But it seemed
that she decided that, after all, it would be scarcely worth her while
to soil her fingers just for the sake of tearing me to pieces; so she
emptied the vials of her scorn on me instead.

“Bah! You are a fool--of the fools! That is all you are. You know
nothing, not even what you say. Why should I attend to the witless
when they babble? Listen to me--fool!”

She held her finger up close to my nose. I listened with might and
main. She spoke as if she intended to lay emphasis upon her every
word.

“He is English, my lover, of the English; of the flower of the nation.
He is not one who lives in shops which pretend to help ugly women to
hide their ugliness; he is not that kind. His home is the wide world.
He is tall, and brave, and strong; a ruler of men; handsome beyond any
of his fellows.” She made that last statement as if she dared me to
question it by so much as a movement of my eyelids. “Were you but to
see his picture you would faint for love of him.” I wondered. “With
all women it is so. But, beware! Hide yourself when he is coming; if
he but deigns to look on you I’ll tear you into pieces. I suffer no
woman to stand in his presence, save only I.”

Words and manner suggested not only that she was not by any means too
sure of the gentleman’s affection, but, also, that there was a lively
time in store for him. If she wished to be taken literally, and really
did mean that no woman was to be allowed to stand in his presence
except herself, then the sooner she returned to the particular parts
from which, in spite of all that she might say to the contrary, I felt
sure she came, then the pleasanter it would be for everyone concerned.
I should like to see the man in whose presence I was not to be allowed
to stand.

I said nothing when she stopped; I had nothing to say. Or, rather, if
I had been allowed a moment or two to think it over, and been given
time to get back a little of my breath again, I should have had such a
quantity to say that I should have been at a loss as to which end I
had better begin. Nor do I fancy that her temper would have been
improved wherever I had started.

While she was still glaring as if she would like to eat me, her
finger-nails within an inch or two of my face, and I was thinking, in
spite of my natural indignation, not to speak of other things, that
being in a rage positively suited her, for the second time that night,
there came from below what sounded like the opening of a door. On the
instant she stood up straight. She looked more than ever like one of
the beautiful wild creatures at the Zoo; poised so lightly on her
feet, with every sense on the alert, listening as if she did not
intend to allow the dropping of a pin to escape her. Suddenly she
stooped; waved her hands before my face; caught up the lamp from the
floor; vanished from the room.



 CHAPTER XV.
 AN ULTIMATUM.

What had happened I could not think, nor where I was. It was pitch
dark. I had been roused from sound sleep, as it seemed, by someone
falling over me, who was making vigorous efforts at my expense to
regain a footing. I remonstrated.

“Who is it? what are you doing?”

“Emily!” returned a voice, in accents of unmistakable surprise.

It was Pollie. She was lying right across me, and, with sundry
ejaculations, was using my body as a sort of lever to assist her in
regaining her perpendicular. She was plainly as much astonished to
find that it was me as I was to find it was her.

“You’ve been lying on the floor. Why have you been doing that?”

“Because I happen to have been lying on the floor that is no reason
why you should tumble over me.”

“That’s good. How was I to see you in the middle of this brilliant
illumination? I called out to you; as you did not answer I was
beginning to be half afraid that the black bogies had swallowed you
up. Have you been there all night?”

“I don’t know.” I wondered myself. “I suppose so.”

Raising myself to a sitting posture I found that I was stiff all over.
I had not been accustomed to quite so hard a mattress. “Have you any
idea what time it is?”

“I wish I had. So far as light is concerned all hours seem the same in
here, but I’ll have that altered before another night comes on. I feel
as if I had slept my sleep right out, so I expect that anyhow it’s
morning.”

Her feelings were not mine. My eyelids were heavy. I felt generally
dull and stupid, unrefreshed. She gave a little exclamation.

“I touched something with my foot. I believe it’s the matches. I
thought I put them in my pocket; if so, they’ve dropped out since;
they’re not there. Well found! It is!” She struck one. “Hallo, where’s
the candle?”

I remembered that the one she had left alight had burned right out.
But there had been others, three or four pieces of varying length.
Every trace of them had vanished.

“Rats,” I suggested.

“That’s it; the little wretches have devoured them, wicks and tallow
and all. When I got off the bed I heard them scurrying in all
directions. Did we leave any ends downstairs?”

“I don’t think so. We brought up all there was to bring.”

“Then that’s real nice. For the present we shall have to live by
matchlight.” As she spoke the one she held went out. “They don’t burn
long; just long enough to scorch the tips of your fingers. Where’s the
door?” She moved towards it by the glimmer of a flickering match. She
tried the handle. “Why, it seems----” There was a pause. “It does
seem----” The match went out, “Emily, it’s locked.”

“Locked!” I echoed the word.

“Yes, locked; I said locked, or--something. And it wasn’t anything
last night.”

“No; I don’t believe it was.”

“You don’t believe! Don’t you remember that because there wasn’t a
key, and the hasp wouldn’t catch, you suggested piling up the
furniture to keep it close? What do you mean, then, by saying that you
don’t believe? you know it wasn’t.”

“Yes; I do know.”

“Well, it’s fastened now.” I could hear her, in the darkness, trying
the handle again. “Sure enough, it’s locked; and, from the feel, it’s
bolted too. Emily, we’re locked in.”

She was silent. I was silent, too, turning things over in my mind. It
seemed, when she spoke again, as if she had been doing the same.

“But--who can have done it? It appears that I was right, that there
was someone in those Bluebeard’s chambers--perhaps in both, for all we
know. If someone could come and lock this door without waking us up,
we ran a good risk of having our throats cut, or worse.” She lit
another match. Apparently my continued silence struck her as peculiar.
“Why don’t you say something--what’s the matter? Don’t you understand
that we’re locked in; prisoners, my dear? Or are you too stupefied
with terror to be able to utter a word?”

She held the match in front of her face. It gleamed on something
white.

“What’s that upon your bodice?”

“My bodice?” She put up her hand. “Why----it’s a piece of
paper----pinned to my bodice! Where on earth----!” Once more the match
went out. “This truly is delightful. Never before did I realise how
much we owe to candles. The thing is pinned as if it had been meant
never to be unpinned. Where can it have come from? It can’t have
fallen from the skies. It’s plain that there are ghosts about. It’s
not easy to do a little job like this in the dark, my dear; but I’ve
managed. I’ve also managed to jab my finger in half-a-dozen places
with the pin. Emily, come here; light a match and hold it while I
examine this mysterious paper. I can’t do everything; and you don’t
seem disposed to do anything at all.”

In endeavouring to do as she requested, I stumbled against her in the
darkness.

“That’s right; knock me over; you’ve made me run the pin into my other
finger. There, my love, are the matches; what you’re grabbing at is my
back hair.”

Taking a match from the box which she thrust into my hand, I tried to
light it at the wrong end; turning it round, a spark leaped into my
eye. I dropped it, to rub my eye.

“Clever, aren’t you? Just the helpful sort of person one likes to be
able to count upon when one is in a bit of a hole. Try again; if at
first you don’t succeed, perhaps you will next time.”

I did. I held the flaming match as conveniently for her as possible;
but, at best, it was not much of a light. Every few moments it went
out; I had to light another. As I fumbled with them now and then, I
was not always so expeditious, perhaps, as I should have been. Pollie
grumbled all the while.

“Can’t you hold it steady? Who do you suppose can see if your hand
keeps shaking?” It was not my hand which shook, it was the flame which
flickered. “It’s queer paper; sort of cigarette paper, it seems to be;
I never saw any like it--at least, so far as I can judge by the light
of that match which you won’t hold steady. I wonder where it came
from, and who it’s from. Emily, someone’s been playing pranks on us
this night; I should like to know just what pranks they were. That’s
right, let the match go out; can’t you keep it alight a little
longer?”

“Thank you; it has burned my fingers as it is.”

I lit another.

“There is writing on it; I thought there was; I can see it now. Hold
that match of yours closer.”

In my anxiety to obey her, I gave it too sudden a jerk, the flame was
extinguished.

“There! I suppose you’ll say that you burned that to an end. If you go
on wasting them at this rate we shall be in a fix indeed. How do you
know that those aren’t all the matches we have got?”

“There are some more upon the mantelpiece--I saw them.”

“You saw the boxes; you didn’t see the matches; they may be empty. For
all you can tell rats may be as fond of matches as they are of
candles. Now, do be careful; don’t let that go out. Nearer; the way
you shiver and shake is trying, my love. I never knew there was so
much flicker in a match before. What’s it say? Someone’s been writing
with the point of a pin; you want a microscope to read it. Of course!
Let it go out just as I was beginning to see. You are a treasure! This
time do try to let us have a light on the subject as long as you can.”

She held the paper within an inch of the tip of her nose, and I held a
match as close as I dared. She began to decipher the writing.

“‘Put the key to the front and the key to the back under the door, and
you shall be released. Until you do you will be kept a prisoner. And
the fate of the doomed shall be yours. You child of disobedience!’
This is pretty; very pretty, on my word. There’s a style about the
get-up of the thing which suggests that the person who got it up
wasn’t taught writing in England; but if it wasn’t written by a woman,
I’m a Dutchman.”

“Then it was she.”

“She? What do you mean? That’s right! By all means let the light go
out at the moment it’s most wanted. Perhaps you’ll tell me what you
mean by ‘she’ in the dark.”

“Pollie, after you had gone to sleep I had a visitor.”

“A visitor! Emily! And you’re alive to tell the tale! And let me sleep
on! And never tried to wake me!”

“At the beginning I was too much afraid, and afterwards I couldn’t.”

“Who was the visitor?”

“Well, that’s more than I can tell you, except that it was a woman.”

“A woman--Emily--came in here after I had gone to sleep! Don’t you
see, or if you can’t see, can’t you feel that I’m on tenterhooks? Will
you go on, or must I take you by the shoulders and shake it out of
you?”

I told her what there was to tell, in the dark. She stood close up to
me. As she said, I could feel she was on tenterhooks. She gripped me
with her hands, as if she were unwilling to let there be so much as an
inch of space between us, for fear of losing a syllable of what I had
to say. As the interest increased her grasp tightened. Yet when I had
to stop and tell her that she was pinching me black and blue, she
resented my remonstrance as if it had been an unnecessary interruption
of my narration. She could not have been more unreasonable had she
tried. And to crown it all, so soon as I had finished she professed to
doubt me.

“You’re sure you’ve been telling me just exactly what took place. I
know your taste for the romantic.”

“I’ve been telling you nothing but the sober facts.”

“Sober, you call them? Staggering facts they seem to me. But why
didn’t you ask the creature who she was?”

“Don’t I tell you that I did? And she replied that she was a daughter
of the gods, and held life and death in her hand.”

“Is that so? She must have been a oner. Emily, I’ll never forgive you
as long as I live for letting me sleep on.”

“Don’t! I wish you wouldn’t pinch. If you’d been in my place, I don’t
believe you’d have done anything different--it’s all very well for you
to talk. Why didn’t you wake up on your own accord? Anyone else in
your place would have done--I should. The truth is, Pollie, you were
sleeping like a grampus.”

“Thank you, my pet. I don’t quite know how a grampus sleeps, and I
don’t believe you do either; but I’m obliged for the compliment all
the same. I suppose it’s meant for a compliment. Of course the thing’s
as plain as a pikestaff. Your daughter of the gods sneaked out of one
of Bluebeard’s chambers, where, no doubt, she is at this identical
moment. Shouldn’t I like to get at her! I will before I’m done. It
seems as if she--or somebody--is discontented with the way I’ve
behaved since I came into my fortune, though it’s early days to be
dissatisfied. And the idea apparently is to get hold of the keys, and
then to get rid of me; on the supposition that when I’m once outside I
shan’t be able, without the keys, to get in again. But I’m not quite
so simple as I look. When she went I expect you fell asleep, though
why you didn’t wake me up, and help chivy her downstairs, is more than
I can understand. I’d have daughter-of-the-gods her! Then she sneaked
back, searched for the keys. Fortunately, the intricacies of a
Christian woman’s costume were too many for her. So she jumped to the
conclusion that they were concealed in some mysterious hiding-place,
quite beyond her finding out, daughter of the gods though she is. She
pinned the piece of paper to my bodice, and she locked the door,
supposing that we’d the spirits of mice, and that we’d give her what
she’s no more right to than the man in the moon, just to unlock it
again. But you’re mistaken, you daughter of the gods! Emily, I can’t
see your face, and you can’t see mine. If you could you’d see
determination written on it, and you’d know she was. I don’t mean to
be kept shut up like a rat in a trap, not much, I don’t. Outside
there! Are you going to open this door, or am I to open it for you?”

Bang, bang she went with her fists against the panels. The noise she
made shook the room.

“One thing’s certain, this door’s not protected with sheet iron, or
any pretty stuff of that kind. If it’s not unlocked it won’t be long
before I’m through it, anyhow. Do you hear, you daughter of the gods?”

Smash, crash went the fists again.

I did not know what to say, still less what to do. It was useless
proffering advice. She never was amenable to that. I was sure she
would resent it hotly then. Yet what she proposed to gain by going on
was beyond my comprehension.

It was becoming pretty plain to me that whatever object her Uncle
Benjamin had in view when he made his will it was not his niece’s
benefit. It seemed as if he had died as he had lived, true to the
character which Pollie gave of him. I was beginning to think that he
had meant to use her as a catspaw, though why, or in what way, I
confess I did not understand. That the house was not a good house I
was sure; that it harboured some dreadful characters I felt convinced;
perhaps coiners, or forgers, or abandoned creatures of some kind.
Pollie might be meant to serve as a sort of cover. Her occupation of
the place might be intended to avert suspicion. People seeing her
going in and out, and being aware she lived there, would think there
was nothing strange about the house. It need not be generally known
that she had only access to a part of it. The prohibition against
allowing anybody but another girl to cross the threshold was evidently
meant as a precaution against allowing that fact to become discovered.
Oh yes! nothing could be plainer than that, so far from Pollie’s being
the lucky heritor of a handsome fortune, she was only the tool of her
wicked old uncle; and that, consciously or unconsciously, as such she
was to hide from the world some one or other of his nefarious schemes
which had to be kept hidden even after he was in his grave.

As such thoughts kept chasing each other through my brain I could keep
them to myself no longer.

“Pollie, do you know what I should do if I were you?”

“Break open the door with a chair, or the leg of the bedstead, my
dear?”

“I should leave the house this moment.”

“Would you indeed? And then?”

“I should go straight to Mr. Paine, and I should renounce the fortune
which your wicked old uncle has pretended to leave you, and refuse to
fall into the trap which he had laid.”

“Emily! Are you insane?”

“No, I’m not insane, and it’s because I’m not that I’m advising you. I
feel sure that your Uncle Benjamin never meant to do you any good when
he made that will of his.”

“So far I’m with you. But it’s just possible that the niece may prove
a match for the uncle; she means to try. This is my house, at present.
I’m mistress here, and I mean to play the mistress; not act as if I
were afraid to raise my voice above a whisper. So don’t you forget it,
or we shall quarrel; and, even if things are as bad as you seem to
think, I don’t see how you’ll be better off for that. Light a match,
and keep on lighting one till I tell you to stop.”

She ordered, me as if I were a servant: I obeyed because I could not
see my way to refuse. In the match-light she marched to the
mantelpiece.

“Here’s three boxes of matches for you; I’ll take care of the rest.
The matches are in them, luckily. Now the question is what is the
handiest little article by whose help I can get soonest on the other
side of that door. Ah! here’s the poker. It is not much use against
sheet iron, but I fancy it will work wonders with plain wood.”

Brandishing the poker above her head--exactly in the wild way she had
done the night before--she strode towards the door. As she did so
someone addressed her from without; in a deep rumbling bass, which was
more like a growl than a human voice.

“Beware, you fool, beware! Your life’s at stake, more than your life.
Obey, before it is too late.”

In my most natural surprise and agitation, the match, dropping from my
fingers, was extinguished as it reached the floor. The room was
plunged into darkness. Pollie behaved as if the fault were mine.

“You idiot! Did you do that on purpose?”

She caught me by the arm as if she meant to break it. In her
unreasoning rage I quite expected her to strike me with the poker. As
I waited for it to fall the voice came again.

“Be warned!--for the last time!--obey!”



 CHAPTER XVI.
 THE NOISE WHICH CAME FROM THE PASSAGE.

Smash, crash, smash! Pollie had thrust me aside. She was battering
at the door with her poker, issuing, as she did so, her instructions
to me.

“Light a match, you idiot! light a match!”

I did. She paused to enable her to learn, by the aid of its uncertain
flicker, what effect her blows had had upon the door.

“Give it to me. Light another! Do as I tell you, keep on lighting one.
I’ll do all that there is to do; all you have to do is to keep a light
upon the scene. Do you hear?--I thought that poker would be equal to a
wooden door.”

She had broken in one of the panels, leaving a hole almost large
enough for her to put her hand through.

“Give me another match; as many as you can; as fast as you can!”

I gave her them as quickly as I could get them lighted. She held half
a dozen between her fingers at at a time. Keeping her face close to
the break in the panel she endeavoured, by their light, to see what
was without.

“Now, Mr. Bogey-man, where are you? Step to the front, don’t be shy!
Let’s see what kind of an article you are. It’s only Pollie Blyth, you
pretty thing; you’re not afraid of Pollie Blyth? Perhaps you’re the
father of the daughter of the gods; if so, I’m sure I should like to
have a peep at you, you must be so good-looking. You see that I’m
obeying. When I reach you I’ll show you how to do some obeying on your
own. I’ll thank you properly for treating the mistress of the house as
if she were the dirt beneath your feet. Emily, my dear, there’s
nothing and no one to be seen; move faster with those matches do! I’m
afraid Mr. Bogey-man is a cur and a coward. He has a big voice, but
that’s all that’s big about him. Perhaps he suspects that this poker
is harder than his head; and, between you, I, and the door post, I
shouldn’t be surprised if he finds he’s right. Keep lively with those
matches. I don’t fancy there’ll be much trouble in dealing with this
curiosity in locks; but I should like to have some idea of what I’m
doing. Now then, stand clear! Here’s to you, Mr. Bogey-man.”

She brought down the poker with a force of which I had never supposed
her capable; this was a new Pollie, whose existence was becoming for
the first time known to me. I wondered what they would have thought of
her at Cardew and Slaughter’s! The rotten old lock started from its
fastenings; the door itself was shaken to its foundations.

“That’s one. There’s not much about this job to try your strength on.
I think we shall manage it in three. Here’s to our early meeting, Mr.
Bogey-man.”

She managed it in three. At the third blow the door was open. I had
not expected it so soon. Taken unawares, before I had time to shield
the light the draught had blown it out. Of course Pollie turned to
rend me.

“That’s you all over; such a sensible thing to do. Don’t let us have a
light when we want it most. How do you suppose that we are going to
see Mr. Bogey-man when we can’t see anything?”

As it happened, her reproach was premature. Just then we could see a
good deal; all that there was to see. As the door swung open the
landing was illumined by a faint white light, which was yet strong
enough to throw all objects into distinct relief. It seemed to ascend
from below. Pollie rushed to the banisters; to discover nothing.

“More tricks, I suppose. What a box of tricks somebody seems to have.
Reminds you of the Egyptian Hall, doesn’t it, my dear? Thank you,
whoever you are, for this magic lantern effect; and for allowing us to
see that there is nothing to be seen. It’s so good of you to show a
trifle of light upon the situation; isn’t it, my sweet?”

She paused; as if for an answer. None came. The light continued. She
turned to me, speaking at the top of her voice, with the obvious
intention of making her words audible to whomsoever the house might
contain.

“Tell me, Emily, what you would advise me to do. Shall I go straight
away to a police station; say that in two rooms in this house are
hidden a pack of thieves; return with an adequate police force, have
the rooms broken open and their inmates arrested? or shall I address
myself to the persons whom we know are in concealment; tell them that
I am Pollie Blyth, the rightful owner of this house; appeal to their
better natures; assuring them that if they will trust in me they shall
not have cause to complain of misplaced confidence; and that I will do
all that an honest woman may to shield them from the consequences of
any offences of which they have been guilty. Which of these two
courses would you advise me to take?”

I hesitated before replying. When I spoke it was in a voice which was
very many tones lower than hers. She objected to its gentleness.

“I would suggest----”

“Speak up. You’re not afraid of being overheard.”

I was, though I was not disposed to admit as much. Clearing my throat,
I tried to speak a little louder. Although the loudness of my voice
startled me, it did not come within miles of her stentorian
utterances.

“I think you had better go straight away to the police station; I feel
sure you had.”

“I believe you are right. But as that would probably mean that anyone
found hiding on my premises would be sent to prison for life; and I do
not wish to have even the worst characters hauled into jail without
giving them a chance to clear themselves, I will listen to the
dictates of mercy first of all. Do you understand?”

Going to the closed door which adjoined the bedroom we had just
quitted she beat a tattoo on it with the end of the poker.

“You may be sure that what I say I mean, so if you are wise you will
be warned in time. Come out, and make a clean breast of why you have
been trying to hide in such a ridiculous manner from the rightful
owner of these premises, and all may yet be well with you. I’m a
forgiving sort of person when I’m taken in the right way. But if you
won’t come out, I’ll have you dragged out by the head and heels, and
then all will be ill with you, very ill indeed. For I’m the hardest
nut you ever cracked if I’m taken in the wrong way. Do you hear, you
daughter of the gods, or whoever you are?”

The inquiry was emphasised by another tattoo with the end of the
poker. At its close she paused for a reply. None came. She was
evidently dissatisfied that her eloquence should have met with so bald
a result.

“Very well, Emily, you will bear me witness that I gave them due and
proper warning. It will be all nonsense for them to pretend that they
haven’t heard. They couldn’t help but hear. See how I’ve shouted. Oh
yes, they’ve all heard right enough! Now they must take the
consequences of their own stupidity. Their blood will be on their own
heads. They’ll have to suffer. Oh, won’t you just have to suffer!”

Another salute from the end of the poker. While she was still
hammering at the door, the mysterious light which had continued
hitherto to illumine the staircase, without any sort of notice died
away.

“Emily!--a match!--quick! I think I hear someone moving.”

I also had thought that I heard a movement; which was not rats. I
struck a light as rapidly as my blundering fingers would permit.

“Come to the banisters, hurry! If anyone is going to act upon my
excellent advice, and is coming up the stairs, let’s have a chance of
seeing who it is.”

In my anxiety not to baulk her impatience I hastened towards her
before the match had properly ignited; as a result, with a little
splutter, it went out.

“You idiot! Don’t you know that life and death may hang upon your
being able to keep a match alight?”

I knew it as well as she did. The knowledge did not lend to steady my
nerves; especially when it was emphasised in such a fashion. I made
several ineffectual efforts to induce a match to burn; with one accord
they refused to do anything. Uttering an angry ejaculation Pollie
struck one of her own.

“Emily, there is someone moving; but they’re not coming up, they’re
going down. Then if they won’t come to me I must go to them, that’s
all. Mr. Bogey-man, or Miss Daughter-of-the-gods, or whoever you are,
if you please, I want a word with you.”

Without giving me a hint of what she intended to do she rushed down
the stairs, half-a-dozen at a time. Of course the match she carried
was immediately extinguished. I could hear her, undeterred by its
extinction, plunging blindly down through the darkness. I succeeded in
getting one of my matches to burn. I leaned over the banisters to let
her have the benefit of any radiance it might afford. I could see
nothing of her. She was on the flight below.

“Pollie! Pollie!” I cried. “Do be careful what you’re doing.”

I could not tell if she heard me. The warning went unheeded if she
did. My match went out. Before I could strike another there arose,
through the darkness, from the passage below, the most dreadful tumult
I had ever heard. Shriek after shriek from Pollie; shrieks as of
mortal terror. A growling noise, as of some wild animal in sudden
rage. The din of a furious struggle. How long the uproar lasted I
cannot say. On a sudden there came a wilder, more piercing scream from
Pollie than any which had gone before; the growling grew more furious;
there was the sound of a closing door, and all was still.

The death-like silence which followed was of evil omen. The contrast
to the discord of a moment back was frightfully significant. I clung
to the banisters to help me stand. What had happened to Pollie? What,
shortly--at any second! might happen to me? I did not dare to try and
think. I felt the handrail slipping from my grasp. Merciful oblivion
swept over me. I was conscious of nothing more.



 BOOK III.
 THE GOD OF FORTUNE.

 (MR. FRANK PAINE TELLS THE STORY OF HIS ASSOCIATION WITH THE
 TESTAMENTARY DISPOSITIONS OF MR. BENJAMIN BATTERS.)



 CHAPTER XVII.
 THE AFFAIR OF THE FREAK.

I have not yet been able to determine if my connection with the
testamentary dispositions of Mr. Benjamin Batters was or was not, in
the first place, owing to what I call the Affair of the Freak in the
Commercial Road. On no other hypothesis can I understand why the
business should have been placed in my hands. While, at the same time,
I am willing to admit that the connection, if any, was of so shadowy
a nature that I am myself at a loss to perceive where it quite comes
in.

What exactly took place was this.

George Kingdon had got his first command. As we have been the friends
of a lifetime, and are almost of an age, he being twenty-seven and I
twenty-eight, the matter had almost as much interest for me as it had
for him. The vessel’s name was _The Flying Scud_. It was to leave the
West India south dock on Tuesday, April 3. He dined with me the night
before. We drank success to the voyage. The following day I went to
see him start. All went well; he had a capital send off; was in the
highest spirits; and the last I saw of him the ship was going down the
river on the tide.

It was, I suppose, about seven o’clock in the evening. It had been a
glorious day; promised to be as fine a night. The shadows were only
just beginning to lengthen. I had had a drink or two with Kingdon, and
felt that a walk would do me good. I strolled along Preston’s Road and
High Street, into the West India Road, and thence into the Commercial
Road. Before I had gone very far I came upon a number of people who
were thronging round one of the entrances into Limehouse Basin. They
were crowding round some central object which was apparently affording
them entertainment of a somewhat equivocal kind. I asked a bystander
what was the matter; a man with between his lips a clay pipe turned
bowl downwards.

“It’s one of Barnum’s Freaks. They’re giving him what for.”

“What’s he done?”

“Done?” The fellow shrugged his shoulders. “He ain’t done nothing so
far as I knows on; what should he ’ave done? They’re ’only ’aving a
bit o’ fun.”

It was fun of a peculiar sort; humorous from the Commercial Road point
of view only. I doubted if the “Freak” found it amusing. He was being
hustled this way and that; serving as a target for remarks which were,
to say the least, unflattering. All at once there came a dent in the
crowd. The “Freak” had either tumbled, or been pushed, over. Three or
four of his more assiduous admirers had gone down on the top of him.
The others roared. Four or five of those in the front rank were shoved
upon the rest. The joke expanded. Presently the “Freak” was at the
bottom of a writhing heap.

Perceiving that the jest was likely to become a serious one for the
point of it, I forced my way into the centre of the crowd.

“Stand back!” I cried. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! You
ought to pity the man instead of making sport of him. He is as God
made him; it is not his fault that he is not like you.”

Nor, I felt as I looked at the faces which surrounded me, was it,
after all, his serious misfortune either. Unless their looks belied
them, in a moral, mental, and physical sense, the majority of them
were “freaks,” if the word had any meaning. They gave way, however, to
let me pass; it seemed that their temper was thoughtless rather than
cruel. Soon I had extricated the wretched creature from his
ignominious, and even perilous, position. Hailing a passing
four-wheeler I put him into it. I slipped some money into the driver’s
hand, and, bidding him take his fare to Olympia, the man drove off.
The crowd booed a little, and then stared at me. Then, seeing that I
paid them no sort of heed, they were so good as to suffer me to pursue
my way unmolested and alone.

It was only after I had gone some little distance that I realised that
I knew nothing whatever about the creature I had put into the cab. I
had only the clay-piped gentleman’s word for the fact that he, she, or
it was a freak at all. The creature--I call it creature for lack of
more precise knowledge as to what he, she, or it, really was--was so
enveloped in an odd-shaped cloak of some dark brown material, that,
practically, so far as I had been able to see, nothing of it was
visible. For all that I could tell the creature beneath the cloak
might not have been human. There was certainly nothing to show--except
the way in which it was shrouded, and that might have been owing to
the action of the crowd--that it was what is commonly called a freak.
Its connection with the Barnum Show at Olympia might be as remote as
mine. If a mistake had been made I wondered what would happen when it
was discovered. Playing the Good Samaritan in the London streets is
not always a remunerative rôle for any one concerned. In my
blundering haste I had probably done at least as much harm as good. I
smiled, drily, at the reflection. Anyhow, I had given the cabman a
liberal fare. To me, then, as now, a cab fare is a cab fare.

I had turned into Cable Street and was nearing the Tower. By now the
night had fallen. In that part of the world, at that hour--I remember
that a minute or two before I had heard a clock strike nine, so that
either I had been longer on the road, or it had been later at the
start, than I imagined--there were not many people in the streets.
There seemed to be fewer the further I went. At any rate, ere long, I
should have them to myself. I was, therefore, the more surprised when,
as I was reaching Tower Hill, without any sort of warning, someone
touched me on the shoulder from behind. I turned to see who had
accosted me. It was rather dark just there, so that it was a moment or
two before I perceived who it was.

It was a woman, and that was about all which, at first, I could make
out. She, too, was enveloped in a cloak. It was of such ample
dimensions that not only did it conceal her figure, but, drawn over
her head, it almost completely concealed her features. Nearly all that
I could see was a pair of what seemed unusually bright eyes, gleaming
from under its folds. My impulse was to take her for a beggar, or
worse, for a woman of the streets.

“What do you want?”

“Take this, it is for helping him just now.”

Before I could prevent her she had slipped something into my hand. It
felt as if it were something hard, wrapped in a piece of paper.

“For helping whom?”

“The Great God.”

She dropped her voice to a whisper. I had not the vaguest inkling of
her meaning.

“What do you mean?--What is this you have given me?”

“It is the God of Fortune; it will bring you good luck. Tell me your
name.”

“My name? What has my name to do with you? Whatever is this? I cannot
take it from you; thank you all the same.”

I held out to her the little packet she had pressed into my palm. She
ignored it; repeating her inquiry.

“Tell me your name, quick!”

There was a curious insistence in her manner which tickled what I,
with sufficient egotism, call my sense of humour. She spoke as if she
had but to command for me to obey; I obeyed. I furnished her not only
with my name, but, also, with my address. There was no harm done. I am
a solicitor; figure on the law list; advertisement, of some sort, is
to me something very much like bread and cheese. Without thanking me,
or dropping a hint to explain her curiosity, so soon as I had supplied
her with the information she demanded, turning, she flew off down the
street like some wild thing. I doubt if I could have kept pace with
her had I tried. I did not try. I let her go.

“This is a night of adventures,” I said to myself. “What is the
present which the lady’s given me; the money which I paid the
cabman?--Hallo!--That’s queer!”

I was beginning to tear open the piece of paper, and with that intent
had already twisted off a corner, when, hey presto! it opened of its
own accord, just as if a living thing had been inside, and, with a
rapid movement, rent it from top to bottom. I was holding what seemed
to be a curiosity in the way of tiny dolls. The toy, if it was a toy,
was not so long as my forefinger. It seemed to have been cut out of a
piece of wood, and fantastically painted to illustrate some very
peculiar original. It had neither feet nor legs, nor hands or arms.
Its head, which was set between hunched-up shoulders, was chiefly
remarkable for a pair of sparkling eyes, which I concluded to be
beads. I turned it over and over without discovering anything which
pointed to a hidden spring. It looked as if it had never moved, and
never would. There was nothing whatever to show by what means the
paper had come open.

“It’s odd, and ingenious. I suppose there is a spring of some sort;
wood, even when it represents the God of Fortune--I think the lady
mentioned the God of Fortune--does not move of its own volition. I’ll
discover it when I get home.”

I slipped the toy into my waistcoat pocket, meaning to subject it to a
searching examination later on. However, when I reached my chambers I
found letters which demanded immediate attention. They occupied some
time. It was only when I was thinking of a nightcap preparatory to
turning into bed, and was feeling for a penknife with which to cut a
cigar, that I remembered the doll. I tossed it on to the mantelshelf.
There it remained.

As I have said, that was the night of April 3. Since nearly a month
elapsed before the arrival of Mr. Batters’ will, and nothing in any
way suggestive occurred in the interval, it would seem as if the
connection between the will and the events of that evening was of the
slightest. Yet I felt that if it had not been for the Affair of the
Freak in the Commercial Road, or if I had afterwards refused to give
the woman my name and address, I should have heard nothing of Mr.
Batters’ will. I do not pretend to be able to explain the feeling, but
there it was.

I should, perhaps, in fairness add, that a queer little incident which
coincided with the arrival of the will, seemed to point, whimsically
enough, in the same direction.

The document came on a Thursday morning. When I entered the room which
I used as an office, I found that four communications were awaiting
me. The postman had brought them all. The boy I call--to shed dignity
on him and on myself--a clerk, had set them out upon the table. Three
letters in ordinary envelopes. The fourth was an awkward, bulky,
coarse brown paper parcel. On it was the doll which the woman had
given me on the night of April 3, in the lonely street near Tower
Hill.

I had forgotten its existence. I took it for granted that its presence
on that spot was owing to Crumper’s sense of humour. I called to him.

“Crumper!” His head appeared at the door. “What do you mean by putting
this here?” He stared, as if he did not catch my meaning. There are
moments when Crumper finds it convenient to be dull. “You understand
me well enough; what do you mean by putting this doll upon my parcel?”

He still looked as if he did not understand. But Crumper had a
capacity of being able to handle his face as if it were an indiarubber
mask, on which he is able to produce any expression at will.

“Doll, sir? I don’t know anything about a doll, sir.” He came into the
room, pointing with his thumb. “Do you mean that, sir? It wasn’t there
when I left the room just now; to that I’ll take my affidavit.”

It is no use arguing with Crumper. The depth of his innocence is not
to be easily plumbed. I sent him back to his den; knocked the doll
with a fillip of my finger backwards on to the table; opened the brown
paper parcel.

Of its contents I was not able, at first, to make head or tail. After
prolonged examination, however, I arranged them thus:

 (_a_) The Missionary’s Letter.
 (_b_) The Holograph Will.
 (_c_) The Bonds.
 (_d_) The Enclosure.

Summed up, the contents of the packet amounted to this.

A certain Benjamin Batters was reported to have died on an island on
the other side of the world of which I had never heard; why I was
advised of the fact, there was nothing to show. His will was entrusted
to my keeping--how my name had travelled through space so as to reach
the cognisance of the Mr. Arthur Lennard who had reported the death of
the said Benjamin Batters there was not the faintest hint.
Bonds--“Goschens”--to the value of £20,000 accompanied the will;
since they were payable to bearer this alone suggested profound
confidence in an apparently perfect stranger. Finally, there was a
smaller parcel which was sealed and endorsed “To be given to my niece,
Mary Blyth, and to be opened by her only.”

The will--which was almost as rudimentary a document of the kind as I
ever lighted on--bequeathed to the said Mary Blyth the income which
was derived from the consols. As to the person in whose name the
capital was to be vested not a word was said, nor did I perceive
anything which would prevent her from dealing with it exactly as she
chose. She was also, under curious and stringent conditions, to become
the life tenant of a house in Camford Street of which, however, no
title-deeds were enclosed, nor was their existence hinted at.

Had it not been for the presence of the bonds I should have set the
whole thing down right away as a hoax. The heading on “Arthur
Lennard’s” letter was “Great Ka Island: Lat. 5° South; Long. 134°
East.” There might be such a place; the description seemed precise
enough, and I had no atlas which would enable me to determine. But, at
any rate, the packet in which it came had not been posted there. The
postmark was Deptford; the date yesterday’s. When I held the paper on
which the letter had been written up to the light I found that the
watermark was “Spiers and Pond. Freshwater Mill Note. London,” which,
under the circumstances, seemed odd.

It was, perhaps, nothing that the will was obviously the production of
an unlettered person. Such persons do make their own wills, and,
probably, will continue to do so to the crack of doom. But it was
something that it was both unwitnessed and undated. And when to this
was added the fact that the letter which told of Mr. Batters’ decease
was undated too, the conjunction struck one a trifle forcibly.

Then the conditions under which Mary Blyth was to inherit were so
puerile, not to say outrageous. She was never to be out of the
precious house in Camford Street after nine at night. She was to
receive no visitors; have only a woman as a companion, and if that
woman left her, was to occupy the premises alone. After I had read it
for the fourth time I threw the paper on to the table.

“Monstrous! monstrous! It consigns the unfortunate woman to an
unnatural existence; she cannot marry; is cut off from her fellows;
sentenced to lifelong imprisonment. Who would care to become even a
millionaire on such conditions? Even if the thing is what it pretends
to be, I doubt if it would be upheld by any court in England. I’m
inclined to think that someone has been having a little joke at my
expense.”

But there were the bonds. My experience of such articles is
regrettedly small; but, such as it was, it went to show that they were
genuine. Bonds for £20,000 are not a joke. They are among the most
solemn facts of life. If, then, they were real, the presumption was
that the will was not less so. In which case my duty was to have it
proved, and to see that its terms were carried out. Anyhow, there were
the bonds on which to draw for payment of my fees. Emphatically, my
practice was not of sufficient extent to permit me to treat so fat a
client with indifferent scorn.

Cogitating such matters, I had been indulging in what is a habit of
mine; pacing, with my hands in my pockets, up and down the room.
Returning to the table, I prepared to subject the supposititious will
to a still mote minute examination. It was not till I stretched out my
hand that I noticed that, in the centre of the sheet of blue foolscap
on which it was inscribed, was--the God of Fortune, the doll in
miniature which, once already, I had ejected from a similar position.
How it had returned to it was a problem which, just then, was beyond
my finding out. I had filliped it right to the extreme edge of the
table. No one had been in the room; Crumper had not so much as put up
the tip of his nose inside the door. I had not touched the thing. Yet
there it was, ostentatiously perched on Mr. Batters’ will. I stared at
the doll; I had an odd notion that the doll stared at me; a ridiculous
feeling, indeed, that the preposterous puppet was alive. I scratched
my head.

“I fancy this morning I must be a bit off colour. A penny doll alive,
indeed! I shall begin seeing things if I don’t look out.”

I slipped the doll into my waistcoat pocket; noting, as I did so, that
it was ugly enough to startle the most morbid-minded juvenile admirers
of its kind. I glanced at the three letters which the morning post had
brought me, neither of which proved to be of any account. Slipped the
missionary’s letter, Mr. Batters’ will, and one of the bonds into an
envelope. Locked the enclosure to be given to Mary Blyth and the rest
of the bonds in a drawer; and, with the envelope in my hand, went to
call on Gregory Pryor.

Pryor is a barrister of some years’ standing; a “rising junior”;
hard-working, hard-headed, a sound lawyer, and a man of the world.
What is more, a friend of my father’s who has transferred his
friendship to me. More than once when I have found myself in a
professional quandary I have laid the matter before him; on each
occasion he has given me just that help and advice I needed. I felt
assured that I should lose nothing by asking for his opinion on the
curious case of Mr. Batters’ will.

When, however, I reached his chamber the clerk told me he was out,
engaged in court. I left word that I would return later in the day.
Having nothing on hand of pressing importance, I felt that I could
hardly employ the interval better than by finding out all that I could
with reference to the house in Camford Street which Mr. Batters
claimed as his own. If the claim proved to be well founded, then the
document which purported to be his will was probably no hoax.



 CHAPTER XVIII.
 COUNSEL’S OPINION.

I should not myself have cared to live in Camford Street, though it
had many residents. It was in the heart, if not exactly of a slum,
then certainly of an unsavoury district. Its surroundings,
residentially speaking, were about as undesirable as they could have
been. Camford Street itself was long, dreary, out-at-elbows, old
enough to look as if it would be improved by being rebuilt. Painters,
whitewashes, people of that kind, had not been down that way for
years; that was obvious from the fronts of the houses. Buildings
stretched from end to end in one continuous depressing row.
Half-a-dozen houses, then a shop; half-a-dozen more, and a blacking
manufactory; three more, and a public-house; another six and a
“wardrobe dealer’s,” doubtful third and fourth hand garments dimly
visible through dirty panes of glass, and so on, for a good half mile.

Eighty-four looked, what it undoubtedly was, an abode of mystery, as
grimy an edifice as the street contained. I know nothing of the value
of property thereabouts; whatever it might have been it was not the
kind of house I should care to have bequeathed to me. Especially if I
had to reside in it. I would rather pass it on to someone who was more
deserving. Shutters were up at all the windows. There was not a trace
of a blind or curtain. At the front door there was neither bell nor
knocker. It seemed deserted. I rapped at the panels with the handle of
my stick; once, and then again. An urchin addressed me from the kerb.

“There ain’t no one living in that ’ouse, guv’nor.”

I thanked him for the information; it never occurred to me to shed a
shadow of doubt on it. I felt sure that he was right. I crossed to a
general shop on the other side of the way.

“Excuse me,” I said to the individual whom I took for the
proprietor--“Kennard” was the name over the shop front--“Can you tell
me who lives at No. 84?”

“No one.”

Mr. Kennard--I was convinced it was he--was a short, paunchy man, with
a bald head and a club foot. He pursed his lips and screwed up his
eyes in a fashion which struck me as rather comical.

“Who is the landlord?”

“No one knows.”

“No one?” I smiled. “I presume you mean that you don’t know. Someone
must; the local authorities, for instance.”

“The local authorities don’t. I’m a vestryman myself, so you can take
that from me. There’s been no rates and taxes paid on that house for
twenty years or more; because no one knows to whom to go for them.”

He thrust his hands under his white apron, protruding his stomach in a
manner which was a little aggressive.

“The last person who lived at Eighty-four was an old gentleman, named
Robertson. He was a customer of mine, and owed me three pound seven
and four when he was missing. It’s on my books to this hour.”

“Missing? Did he run away?”

“Not he; he wasn’t that sort. Besides, there was no reason. He was a
pensioner; he told me so himself. I don’t know what he got his pension
for, but it must have been a pretty comfortable one, because he paid
me regular for over seven years; and I understood at that time, from
what he said, that the house was his own. If it wasn’t I can’t say to
whom he paid rent. The last time I saw him was a Friday night. He came
in here and bought a pound of bacon--out of the back; twelve
eggs--breakfast; five pounds of cheese--I never knew anyone who was
fonder of cheese, he liked it good; a pound of best butter--there was
no margarine nor Australian either in those days; and a pound of
candles. I’ve never seen or heard anything of him since; and, as I
say, that’s more than twenty years ago.”

“But what became of him?”

“That’s more than I can tell you. Perhaps you can tell me. You see, it
was this way.”

Mr. Kennard was communicative. Business was slack just then.
Apparently I had hit upon a favourite theme.

“Mr. Robertson was one of your quiet kind. Kept himself to himself;
lived all alone; seemed to know no one; no one ever came to see him.
He never even had any letters; because, afterwards, the postman told
me so with his own lips; he said he’d never known of his having a
letter all the time he was in this district. Sometimes nothing would
be been of him for three weeks together. Whether he went away or
simply shut himself up indoors I never could make out. He was the
least talkative old chap I ever came across. When you asked him a
question which he didn’t want to answer, which was pretty well always,
he pretended he was silly and couldn’t understand. But he was no more
silly than I was; eccentric, that was all. Anyhow, when the weeks
slipped by, and he wasn’t seen about, no one thought it odd, his
habits being generally known. When quarter day came round I sent my
little girl, Louisa--she’s married now, and got a family--across with
my bill. She came back saying that she could make no one hear; and,
through my window, I could see she couldn’t. ‘That’s all right,’ I
said, ‘There’s no fear for Mr. Robertson’--I’d such a respect for the
man--‘he’s sure to pay.’ But, if sure, he’s been precious slow; for,
as I say, that three seven four is on my books to this hour.”

“If, as you say, the old gentleman lived alone, he may have been lying
dead in the house all the time.”

“That’s what I’ve felt. And, what’s more, I’ve felt that his skeleton
may be lying there now.”

“You suggest some agreeable reflections. Do you mean to say that,
during all these years, no one has been in the house to see?”

“No one.” He paused; presently adding, in a tone which he intended
should be pregnant with meaning, “At least, until shortly before this
last Christmas. And I’ve no certainty about that. A man can only draw
his own conclusions.”

“What do you mean?”

“You see those shutters? Well, for over twenty years there weren’t any
shutters hiding those windows. One morning I looked across the street,
and there they were.”

“Someone had put them up in the night?”

“That was my impression. But Mrs. Varley, who lives next door to this,
says that she noticed them coming for about a week. Each morning there
was another window shuttered. She never mentioned a word of it to me;
so that I can only tell you that when I saw them first they were all
up.”

“Who was responsible for their appearance?”

“That’s what I should like to know. Directly I clapped eyes on them I
went straight across the road, and knocked at the door; thinking that
if old Robertson had come back--though he’d be pretty ancient if he
had--I might get my money after all; and that if he hadn’t there’d be
no harm done. But no more attention was paid to me than if I hadn’t
been there. I daresay that if I’ve knocked once since I’ve knocked
twenty times; but, though I’ve always felt as if there was someone
inside listening, I’ve never seen a soul about the place, and no one
has ever answered. I tell you what; there’s something queer about that
house. More than once it’s been on the tip of my tongue to warn a
policeman to keep an eye on it. It’s my opinion that London will hear
about it yet.”

Mr. Kennard was oracular. When, however, on quitting his establishment
I glanced at No. 84, I myself was conscious of a queer feeling that
there was an unusual atmosphere about the house, as if something
strange was brooding over it. I told myself that I was still a little
bilious, and imagined things.

While I had been in conversation with Mr. Kennard I had observed a
curious face peering at us through the window of his shop. Now I
noticed a man, who struck me as being the owner of the face, loitering
a few doors up the street. As I came out, turning, so that his back
was towards me, he began to slowly stroll away. Urged by I know not
what odd impulse, I moved quickly after him. Immediately, he crossed
the street. I crossed at his heels. As if seized with sudden fear,
breaking into a run, he tore off down the street at the top of his
speed. I was reminded of the behaviour of the woman who had thrust the
God of Fortune into my hand.

All the way back to my chambers I was haunted by a disagreeable sense
of being followed. I frequently turned in an endeavour to detect my
shadower; each time no one suspicious seemed to be in sight. Yet, so
persistent was the feeling that, on entering, after lingering for a
second or two in the hall, I darted back again into the court; to
cannon against the man who had been loitering in Camford Street. Had I
not gripped him by the shoulders he would have been bowled over like a
ninepin.

There was no mistaking the individual. I had marked his peculiar
figure; the nondescript fashion of his dress--a long black coat, made,
apparently, of alpaca, reaching to his heels; a soft black felt hat so
much too large for his head that it almost covered his eyes. He was a
foreigner, undersized, unnaturally thin.

“Well, my man, what can I do for you?” He did not reply. His
countenance assumed an expression of vacuous imbecility. I shook him
gently, to spur his wits. “Do you hear, what can I do for you? Since
you have taken the trouble to follow me all this way, I suppose there
is important business which you wish to transact with me.”

The fellow said nothing. Whether he understood I could not say. He
evidently wished me to believe that he did not, shaking his head, as
if he had no tongue. I took him for a Chinaman, though he was darker
than I imagine Chinamen are wont to be. His two little bead-like eyes
burned out of two small round holes, in circumference scarcely larger
than a sixpence. Eyebrows or eyelashes he had none. His skin was
scarred by smallpox.

Since, apparently, nothing could be done with him, I let him go. So
soon as my hand was off him he darted into the Strand like some eager
wild thing. After momentary hesitation I went to see what had become
of him. Already the traffic had swallowed him up. He was out of sight.

Gregory Pryor was in when I called the second time. I laid the God of
Fortune down before him on the table.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a joss.”

“A joss?” The promptness of his reply took me aback. “I thought a joss
was an idol.”

“So it is; what you might call an idol. A symbol some would style it.
They’re of all sorts, shapes and sizes; that is one of the waistcoat
pocket kind. I was once in a case for a Chinaman with an
unpronounceable name. He spoke English better than you and I, knew the
ropes at least as well, yet he had one of these things in each of
about twenty-seven pockets. He was a member of one of the thirteen
thousand Taoist sects. He told me that they’d a joss for everything; a
joss for the hearth, another for the roof, another for the chimney;
three for the beard, whiskers and moustache. In every twig of every
tree they saw a joss of some sort. Where did you get yours from?”

I informed him; then spoke of the contents of the parcel which the
morning’s post had brought.

“I can give you one assurance--this bond’s all right. At a shade under
the market price, I can do with any number. As for your missionary’s
letter, let’s see if Great Ka Island is on the map.”

He got down a gazetteer and an atlas.

“The gazetteer’s an old one. There’s no mention of it here, so it
seems that it was either not known when this was published, or it was
too obscure a spot to be worth recording. The atlas is newer. Ah! here
we have it. Arafura Sea--New Guinea--Dutch New Guinea. There’s a group
of Ka Islands--Great Ka, Little Ka, and others. Great Ka’s largish,
nearly one hundred miles long, but narrow; apparently not ten miles at
the broadest part, and tapering to a point. Sort of reef, I fancy. A
good deal out of the way, and not in any steamer route I ever heard
of. A convenient address for a man who wishes to avoid inquiries.”

Leaning back in his chair, pressing the tips of his fingers together,
Pryor regarded the ceiling.

“Letter’s fishy, and, being undated, no use as evidence. Will’s fishy,
too. But there are the bonds So long as a lawyer sees his way to his
fee, what else matters? I take it that there was a Benjamin Batters,
and that there is a Mary Blyth. I also fancy that there’s more in the
matter than meets the eye. It has come to you in an irregular fashion,
and therefore, in the nature of things, it is sniffy. My advice to you
is, move warily. Discover Mary Blyth; hand over the estate to her,
accepting no responsibility; present your bill, get your money; and,
unless you see good reason to the contrary, wipe your hands of her
thenceforward. If you do that you won’t do very far wrong. Now,
good-bye; I’ve got all this stuff to wade through before I dine.”

I left him to the study of his briefs. His advice I turned over in my
mind, finally resolving that I would move even more warily than he
suggested. Before introducing myself to Mary Blyth, I would spend a
day in endeavouring to discover something about the late Benjamin
Batters, and, particularly, I would try to learn how it was that,
after his death, his affairs had chanced to fall into my hands.

I work, live, eat and sleep in my chambers. As it happens I am the
only person on the premises who does so. There used to be others. But
now, with the exception of my set, what were living rooms are used as
offices, and I am the only actual resident the house contains. After
dark--sometimes before--the workers flit away. I have the entire
building to myself until they return with the morning.

My rooms are four: bedroom; an apartment in which I am supposed to
take my meals; one which I use as an office; and the den, opening
immediately on to the staircase, in which Crumper has his being. That
night I was roused suddenly from sleep. At first I could not make out
what had woke me. Then I heard what was unmistakably the clatter of
something falling.

“There’s someone in the office.”

Slipping out of bed, picking up a hockey stick, making as little noise
as possible, I stole officewards. Intuitively I guessed who was there,
and proposed to interview my uninvited visitor.

My hasty conclusions proved, however, to be a little out.



 CHAPTER XIX.
 THE RETICENCE OF CAPTAIN LANDER.

The office door was ajar. I remembered that I had left it so when I
came to bed. Through the opening a dim light was visible. I peeped in.

I had expected to find that my guest would take the shape of the
individual who had dogged my footsteps home from Camford Street. I
hardly know on what I based my expectation, but there it was. A single
glance, however, was sufficient to show that “guest” should read
“guests,” for they were three. One was the pock-marked gentleman in
question; a second was seemingly his brother--they were as alike as
two peas; the third was as remarkable a person as I had ever yet
beheld. He was of uncommon height and uncommon thinness. I never saw a
smaller head set on human shoulders. My impression was that it was a
monstrously attenuated monkey, which had thrown a yellow dust sheet
about it anyhow. And it was only when I perceived the deftness with
which the contents of my drawers were being emptied out upon the table
that it occurred to me that, man or monkey, it was advisable I should
interfere.

Just as I had decided that it was about time for me to have a finger
in the pie, my beady-eyed acquaintance of the afternoon lighted on the
God of Fortune, which I had tossed upon the table on my return from
Pryor’s. Snatching it up with a curious cry, he handed it to his
monkey-headed friend. That long-drawn-out gentleman, after a rapid
glance at it, held it up with both hands high above his head. At once
his two associates threw themselves down flat on their faces,
grovelling before the penny doll as if it had been an object too
sacred for ordinary eyes to look upon. The man of length without
breadth began to say something in a high pitched monotone, which was
in a language quite unknown to me, but which sounded as if it were a
prayer or invocation. He spoke rapidly, as if he were repeating a form
of words which he knew by heart.

I was getting interested. It seemed that I was surreptitiously
assisting at some sort of religious service in which the doll played a
conspicuous part. As I was momentarily expecting something to happen,
something in the Arabian Nights way, as it were, that stupid hockey
stick, slipping somehow from my grasp, fell with a bang upon the
floor. That concluded the service on the spot. It must needs strike
against the door in falling, driving it further open, so that I stood
revealed to the trio in plain sight.

My impression is that they took me for something of horror; a
demoniacal visitation, for all I know. My costume was weird enough to
astonish even the Occidental mind. Anyhow, no sooner did they get a
glimpse at me than they stood not on the order of their going, but
went at once. Out went the light, and, also, out went they, through
the window by which they had entered, and that with a show of agility
which did them credit. I caught up that wretched stick, rushed after
them in the darkness, and had the satisfaction of giving someone a
pretty smart crack upon the head as he dropped from the sill on to the
pavement below. I am not sure, but I fancy it was the lengthy one.

Striking a light I looked to see what damage had been done. So far as
I could discover the only thing which was missing was the God of
Fortune, to which they were entirely welcome. Apparently they prized
it more than I did. I had a kind of notion, born of I know not what,
that they had been after the Batters’ papers. If so, they were
disappointed, for I had taken them with me into my bedroom, and at
that moment they were reposing on a chair by my bedside.

The greater part of the following day I spent in searching for someone
who knew something about Benjamin Batters, or Great Ka Island, or
Arthur Lennard, missionary--without result. I learned what I was
already aware of, that there were numerous missionary societies, both
in England and America; and acquired the additional information that
to try to find out something about a particular missionary without
knowing by which society he had been accredited, resembled the
well-known leading case of the search for the needle in the haystack.
At the great shipping office at which I made inquiries no one knew
anyone who had ever been to Great Ka Island, or ever wanted to go. And
as for Benjamin Batters, the general impression seemed to be that if I
wanted to know anything about him I had better put an advertisement in
the agony column, and see what came of that.

Altogether, I felt that the day had been pretty well wasted. But as it
would probably have been wasted anyhow, I had the consolation of
knowing that there had not been so much harm done after all. To the
credit side of the account was the fact that I had picked up three or
four odds and ends of curious information which had never come my way
before. And, as luck would have it, shortly after my return I actually
had a client. Or something like one, at any rate.

Crumper was making ready for departure, when he appeared at the door
with a face on which was an unmistakable grievance.

“Gentleman wishes to see you, sir. Told him that the office was just
closing.”

“Did you? Then don’t be so liberal with information of the kind. Show
the gentleman in.”

Crumper showed him in. When I saw him I was not sure that, in the
colloquial sense, he was a gentleman. And yet I did not know.

He was a tall, well set-up man of between thirty and forty, distinctly
good-looking, with fair hair and beard, and a pair of the bluest eyes
I ever saw. He wore a blue serge suit, a turn down collar, and a
scarlet tie. I know something of the sea and of sailors, having
several of the latter among my closest friends. If he was not a sailor
I was no judge of the breed. He brought a whiff of sea air into the
room.

I motioned him to a chair, on which he placed himself as if he was not
altogether at his ease. He glanced at a piece of paper which he had in
his hand.

“You are Mr. Frank Paine?” I inclined my head. “A lawyer?”

I nodded again. He pulled at his beard; observing me with his keen
blue eyes, as if he was thinking that for a lawyer I was rather young.

“I want a lawyer, or rather I want advice which I suppose only a
lawyer can give me. I was speaking about it to George Gardiner, and he
mentioned your name.”

“I am obliged to George; he is my very good friend. To whom have I the
pleasure of speaking?”

“I’m Max Lander.”

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, as I should any friend of Mr.
Gardiner’s. You, like him, are connected with the sea.”

“How did you find that out? Do I look as if I were?”

“Perhaps only to the instructed eye.” I wondered who, with ordinary
perception, could associate him with anything else. “I am so fortunate
as to have many friends among sailors, therefore I am always on the
look-out for one.”

“That so?”

He kept trifling with his beard, apparently desirous that the burden
of the conversation should rest with me.

“You know Mr. Gardiner well?”

“Not over well.”

“He was my schoolfellow, with another man who is now also a
sailor--another George; George Kingdon.”

“What name?”

“Kingdon. He has lately received his first command; of a ship named
_The Flying Scud_.”

Mr. Lander ceased to play with his beard. His hands dropped on to his
knees. He sat forward on his chair, staring at me as if I were some
strange animal.

“Good Lord!”

He seemed agitated. I had no notion why. Something I had said had
apparently disturbed him.

“You know Mr. Kingdon?”

“Kingdon? Kingdon? Is that his name? Then devil take him! No, I don’t
mean that. Perhaps it’s not his fault after all; it’s the fortune of
war. Still--devil take him all the same.”

“What has Mr. Kingdon done to you, Mr. Lander?”

“Done!--done!” Apparently his feelings were too strong for words.
Rising from his seat he began to stride about the room. Then, resting
both hands upon the table, he glared at me. “What has Mr. Kingdon done
to me? Did you hear my name?”

“I understood you to say it was Lander.”

“That’s it, Lander; Max Lander. Now don’t you know who I am?”

“It may be my stupidity, but I have not the least idea.”

“Do you mean to say that you don’t know George Kingdon’s taken my ship
from me?”

“Taken her from you? I don’t understand. I understood that _The Flying
Scud_ was the property of Messrs.----”

“Staple, Wainright and Friscoe; that’s so. That’s the name and title
of the firm; they’re the owners. But I was in command of her the last
three voyages; and when I brought her home I was hoping it was for the
last time.”

“It seems that your hope was justified.”

“Are you laughing at me, Mr. Paine? Because, if you are, take my tip
and don’t. I don’t mind being laughed at in a general way; but this is
a subject on which I bar so much as a smile. I’m too sore, sir, too
sore. Do you know the circumstances under which I got chucked from
_The Flying Scud_?”

“I do not. May I ask if that is the matter on which you are seeking my
advice?”

“Well,” he began, pulling at his beard again, hesitating, as if
fearing to say too much. “What I want to know is, are your sympathies
with the owner, with Kingdon, or with me?”

“Since I know nothing of what you are referring to, what answer do you
expect me to give? So far as I am concerned, you are talking in
riddles.”

“Look here, Mr. Paine, I’ll make a clean breast of the whole thing.
Gardiner told me you were a decent sort, so I’ll take his word for it.
You see before you the best done man in London--in England--in the
world, for all I know. Done all round! I knew I was taking a certain
risk, but I didn’t know it was a risk in that particular direction,
and that’s where I was had. I saw my way to a real big thing. I went
for it, shoved on all steam; brought the ship home, pretty well empty
as she was; then got diddled. So, when I laid the ship alongside, and
the owners found that there was scarcely enough on board to pay
expenses, they didn’t like it. I got my marching ticket, and Mr.
George Kingdon was in command instead. If it hadn’t been that I’d got
a little money of my own, I should have been on my beam ends before
now.”

“Do I gather that you complain of the way in which the owners of _The
Flying Scud_ have treated you?”

“Not a bit of it; nothing of the kind. The only person I complain of
is--we’ll say a party. If I got that, we’ll say, party, alone in a
nice quiet little spot for about ten minutes, after; that time I
wouldn’t complain of him. The complaint would be on the other foot.”

“Then do you wish me to assist you in a scheme of assault and
battery?”

“I don’t want that either. The fact is, it’s a queer story. You
wouldn’t believe me if I told it; no one has done yet, so I’m not
going to try my luck again with you. What I want to know is this.
Suppose I ship, we’ll say, a man, and that, we’ll say, man, undertakes
to hand over certain--well, articles, to pay for passage, and deposits
certain other articles by way of earnest money. Before the ship
reaches port that, we’ll say, man, vanishes into air, the articles
which were to have been handed over, vanish with him, and the deposit
likewise. What offence has that, we’ll say, man, been guilty of
against the English law?”

“Your point is a knotty one. Where was the deposit?”

“In a locker in my cabin.”

“Secured by lock and key?”

“Secured by lock and key. And the key was in my pocket.”

“How was it taken out?”

“That’s what I want to know.”

“You are sure it was taken out?”

“Dead sure.”

“If you have evidence which will show that the person to whom you
refer made free with the contents of your locker, then I should say
that it was a case of felony. But there may be other points which
would have to be considered. I should have to be placed in possession
of all the facts of the case before I could pronounce an opinion. The
matter may not be so simple as you think.”

“Simple! I think it simple! Good Lord!” He held up his hands, as if
amazed at the suggestion. “There’s another thing I want to know.
Suppose on the strength of that, we’ll say, man’s promises, I make
promises on my own account to certain members of the crew. Being done
by that, we’ll say, man, I was obliged to do them. What is my
position, Mr. Paine, toward those members of the crew?”

“That is a question to which I cannot reply off-hand. It would depend
on so many circumstances. I am afraid you will have to tell me the
whole of your story before I can be of use to you.”

“Ah! That so? I was afraid it would be. I said to myself that you
can’t expect a man, lawyer or no lawyer, to see what’s inside a box
unless you open the lid. But I can’t tell you the story; I can’t. I’m
too sore, sir, too sore. Smarting almost more than I can bear. I’ve
been done out of a fortune, out of my good name, and out of something
I value more than both. That’s a fact. I’ll look round a bit more, and
try to get one of them back, in my own way. Then, if I can’t, perhaps
I’ll come to you again. Sorry to have troubled you, Mr. Paine. What’s
your fee?”

“For what? I’ve been of no use to you. For a pleasant conversation
with my friend’s friend? I charge no fee for that, Mr. Lander.”

“You’re a lawyer. A lawyer’s time is money. I’ve always understood
that a lawyer’s fee is six and eightpence. You’ve found me pretty
trying. So I’ll make it a pound if you don’t mind.”

He laid a sovereign on the table. Without another word he left the
room. I did not try to stop him. To my thinking the whole interview
had verged perilously near to the ridiculous. I took the coin and
locked it in a drawer, proposing, with Gardiner’s assistance, to hunt
up Mr. Lander again. His money should be restored to him, if not in
one form, then in another.

I would dine the man, and make him tell his funny tale.



 CHAPTER XX.
 MY CLIENT--AND HER FRIEND.

The next day I was engaged. On that following I went up to Fenchurch
Street, to the offices of Messrs. Staple, Wainwright and Friscoe. I
had ascertained that Gardiner was out of town, and actuated by motives
of curiosity thought I would learn where Mr. Lander might be found. As
I was going up the steps an old gentleman came down. I knew him pretty
well. His name was Curtis. He had been, and, indeed, for all I knew,
was still an agent of Lloyd’s. For two or three years we had not met.
After we had exchanged greetings, I put to him my question.

“Do you know a man named Lander, Max Lander?”

“Late of _The Flying Scud_?”

An odd expression came on his face, as it were the suggestion of a
grin.

“That’s the man.”

“Yes, I know something of Max Lander, Captain Max, as he likes to be
called. Though there’s not much of the captain about him just at
present.”

The grin came more to the front.

“He called on me about a matter of which I could make neither head nor
tail. I should like to have another talk with him. Can you tell me
where he’s to be found?”

Mr. Curtis shook his head.

“Just now he’s resting. It’s been a little too hot for him of late. I
fancy he’s lying by till it gets a little cooler.”

“What’s wrong with the man?”

“Nothing exactly wrong, only he’s had a little experience. Sorry I
can’t stay, this cab’s waiting for me.” He stepped into the hansom
which was drawn up by the kerb. “If you want to know what’s wrong with
Lander, you mention to him the name of Batters--Benjamin Batters.”

The cab drove off. Before I had recovered from my astonishment it was
beyond recall.

Batters? Benjamin Batters? My Benjamin Batters? There could hardly be
two persons possessed of that alliterative name. If I had only guessed
that there was any sort of connection between him and Benjamin
Batters, Mr. Lander would not have departed till we had arrived at a
better understanding. Why had the idiot not dropped a hint? Why had
Curtis driven off at that rate at the wrong moment?

I asked at the office for the address of Captain Max Lander. I was
snubbed. The name was evidently not a popular one in that
establishment. The clerk, having submitted my inquiry to someone
elsewhere, informed me curtly that nothing was known of such a person
there, and appeared to think that I had been guilty of an impertinence
in supposing that anything was. When I followed with a request for
information about a Mr. Benjamin Batters, I believe that clerk thought
I was having a game with him. Somewhere in the question must have been
a sting, with which I was unacquainted; for, with a scowl, he turned
his back on me, not deigning to reply.

As I did not want to have an argument with Messrs. Staple, Wainwright
and Friscoe’s staff, I went away. I pursued my inquiries elsewhere,
both for Captain Max Lander and for Mr. Benjamin Batters. But without
success. The scent had run to ground. By the evening I concluded that
I had had about enough of the job. Instead of trying to find out
things about Benjamin Batters, I would seek out Mary Blyth. She should
have the good news. I was not sure that I had not already kept them
from her longer than I was justified in doing. She should learn that
she was the proud possessor of a tumble-down, disreputable house in
Camford Street; though, so far as I could see, she had not a shadow of
a title to it which would hold good in law; but perhaps she was not a
person who would allow herself to be hampered by a trifle of that
description; also of a comfortable income derived from
consols--conditions being attached to both bequests which were
calculated to drive her mad. Having imparted that good news, I would
wash my hands of the Batters’ family for good and all. There was
something about it which was, as Gregory Pryor put it, “sniffy.”

With that design I started betimes the next morning. I had no
difficulty in finding the establishment of Messrs. Cardew and
Slaughter, where Mr. Batters stated in his will that he had last heard
of his niece as an assistant. It was an “emporium,” where they sold
many things you wanted, and more which you did not, from gloves to
fire-irons. After being kept waiting an unconscionable length of time,
asked many uncalled-for questions, and enduring what I felt to be
intentional indignities, I was ushered into the office of Mr.
Slaughter.

That gentleman was disposed to mete out to me even more high-handed
treatment than Messrs. Staple, Wainwright and Friscoe. Under the
circumstances, however, that was more than I was inclined to submit
to. He seemed to regard it as sheer insolence that a stranger should
venture to speak to him--the great Slaughter!--of such a mere nothing
as one of his assistants. As if I had wanted to! We had quite a
passage of arms. In the midst who should come running in but the girl
herself--Mary Blyth.

She had just been dismissed. I had come in the nick of time to prevent
her being thrown--literally thrown--into the street. That was a
partial explanation of Mr. Slaughter’s haughtiness. Pretty badly she
seemed to have been used. And very hot she was with a sense of injury.
She had a companion in misfortune; a prettier girl I had never seen.
The pair had been sent packing at a moment’s notice. If I had been a
minute or two later I should have missed them; they would have gone.
In which case the most striking chapter in my life’s history might
have had to be written in a very different fashion.

When it came to paying the two girls the wretched pittance which was
due to them as wages, an attempt was made to keep back the larger
portion of it under the guise of “fines,” that rascally system by
means of which so many drapers impose upon the helpless men and women
they employ. A few sharp words from me were sufficient to show that
this was an occasion on which that method of roguery could hardly be
safely practised. I judged that the sum paid them--fifteen
shillings--represented their entire fortune. With that capital they
were going out to face the world.

In the cab I had an opportunity of forming some idea of what my client
was like.

Mary Blyth was big, rawboned, and, I may add, hungry looking. She gave
me the impression that she had had a hard life, one in which she had
had not seldom to go without enough to eat. In age I set her down as
twenty-six or seven. She was not handsome; on the other hand she was
not repellent. Her features were homely, but they were not unpleasing,
and there was about them more than a suggestion of honesty and
shrewdness. Her experience of the rougher side of life had probably
given her a readiness of wit, and a coolness of head, which would
cause her to find herself but little at a loss in any position in
which a changeable fate would place her. That was how she struck me. I
liked her clear eyes, her pleasant mouth, her determined nose and
chin. Intellectuality might not be her strongest point; obviously, in
a scholastic sense, her educational advantages had been but small. Her
tongue betrayed her. But, unless I greatly erred, she was a woman of
character for all that. Strong, enduring, clear-sighted, within her
limits; sure and by no means slow. A little prone to impatience,
perhaps; it is a common failing. I am impatient myself at times.
Still, on the whole, on her own lines, a good type of an Englishwoman.

My client’s appearance pleased me better than I feared would have been
the case. I was not so eager to wash my hands of the Batters’
connection as I had been.

But it was my client’s friend who appealed most strongly to my
imagination. She took my faculties by storm. I am not easily
disconcerted. Yet, in her presence, I felt ridiculously ill at ease.
She was only a girl. I kept telling myself that she was only a girl.
I believe that it was because she was only a girl that I was conscious
of such curious sensations. She sat opposite me in the cab. Every time
her knee brushed against mine, I felt as if I was turning pink and
green and yellow. It was not only uncomfortable, it was undignified.

She was just the kind of girl I like to look at; yet, for some reason,
I hardly dared allow my eyes to stray in her direction. I could look
at Miss Blyth; stare at her, indeed, till further notice, in the most
callous, cold-blooded way. But my glances studiously avoided her
friend. Her name was Emily Purvis--the friend’s name, I mean. I had a
general impression that she had big eyes, light brown hair, and a
smile which lit up her face like sunshine. I am aware that this sounds
slightly drivelling; if it were another man I should say that his
language reminded me of a penny novelette. But my mood at the moment
was pronouncedly imbecile; I was only capable of drivel. The girl had
come upon me with such a shock of surprise. I had never expected to
light on anything of that kind when pursuing the niece of Benjamin
Batters.

Miss Purvis was small. I like small women. I am aware that this is an
age of muscularity, and that athletics do cause women to run to size.
But, for my part, I like them little. Bone, muscle, stamina, these
things are excellent. From a physical point of view, no doubt, the
Amazon, when she is fit, in good condition, is all that she should be.
I admire such a one, even when her height is five feet eleven. But I
do not like her; I never could. As to having a woman of that
description for a wife--the saints forbid!

Miss Purvis was little. Not a dwarf, nor insignificant in any sense,
but small enough. I am six foot one, and I judged that the top of her
head would just come above my shoulder. Daintily fashioned, curves not
angles. Exactly the kind of girl ninety-nine men out of a hundred
would feel inclined to take into their arms at sight. The hundredth
man would be a sexless idiot; and, also, most probably, stone blind.
It was astonishing how afraid I felt of her.

It was an odd drive to my chambers. My client talked, Miss Purvis
talked, I only dropped a boobyish remark at intervals. The idea that
such a girl as that should only have fifteen shillings between her and
starvation, and that to keep herself alive she should have to seek
another situation in such a den of roguery, servitude, humiliation, as
that from which she had just escaped, was to me most horrible. I was
irritated, illogically enough, because Benjamin Batters had not left
her a portion of the income which was derived from those bonds of his.
I was conscious of the fact that he had had no cognisance of her
existence. But, at the moment, that was not the point.

Two incidents marked our progress.

The first was when Miss Blyth, putting her head out of the cab window,
recognised, with every appearance of surprise, a man standing on the
pavement whom she called Isaac Rudd. I observed that he saw us, and
the keenness with which his gaze was fastened on us. There was a
seafaring air about the fellow which recalled Max Lander to my mind.
Although I said nothing of it to the ladies, I had a shrewd suspicion
that he was following us in another cab, which he had hailed as soon
as we had passed. Two or three times when I looked out I noticed that
a second four-wheeler seemed to be keeping us in sight. In view of my
recent experiences, had I been alone I should have lost no time in
putting the question to the proof. Not only, however, just then, were
my wits a good deal wanting, but I felt a not unnatural disinclination
to cause my companions uneasiness. Especially as I more than suspected
that Miss Blyth might have enough of that a little later on.

The second incident was a trifle startling.

Shortly after catching sight of the man she called Isaac Rudd, she
gave a sudden exclamation. She was staring at something with wide-open
eyes. I looked to see what it was.

There, on her knee, was my God of Fortune.

Her surprise at its appearance was unmistakably genuine. How it had
come there she was unable to explain. It might have been
“materialised,” as the Theosophists have it, out of the intangible
air. But it seemed that it was not the first time she had encountered
it.

It had been slipped into her hand the night before by a fantastically
attired individual who was evidently my length without breadth
visitor, whom I had interrupted in his pseudo service, and who had
dropped out of my office window with my God of Fortune in his hand.
Although I made no reference to that occurrence, I was none the less
struck by the fashion in which he had chosen to introduce himself to
the niece of Mr. Benjamin Batters. The singularity of the thing went
further. When the doll was slipped into the lady’s hand it was cased
in a piece of paper, as it was when it was slipped into mine, from,
which, again exactly as had happened with me, it forced itself
apparently of its own volition.

I made no comment, but, with Miss Blyth’s permission, I put the doll
into my waistcoat pocket; concluding that it might prove worthy of
more minute examination than I had yet bestowed on it--even to the
breaking of it open to discover “the works.”

This is a sober chronicle. I trust I am a sober chronicler. I wish to
set down nothing which suggests the marvellous. I have an inherent
dislike to wonders, being without faith. When men speak of the
inexplicable I think of trickery, and of some quality which is not
perception. Therefore I desire it to be understood that the following
lines are written without prejudice; and that of what happened there
may be a perfectly simple explanation which escaped my notice.

I trust that there is.

I had read the missionary’s letter, and the will, and had handed to
Miss Blyth the sealed enclosure. When she opened it she found that
within the packet was a little wooden box. On lifting the lid of this
box, the first thing she saw--which we all saw--was my God of Fortune,
or its double. It was just inside the box, staring at her, as it lay
face upwards. Feeling in my waistcoat pocket for the duplicate, I
found that it had gone. It had, apparently, passed into that wooden
box, which had, until that moment, remained inviolate within that
sealed enclosure. How, I do not pretend to say.

It was but a little thing, yet it affected me more than a greater
might have done. A succession of “trifles light as air” may unsettle
the best balanced mind. One begins, by degrees, to have a feeling that
something is taking place, or is about to take place, of a character
to which one is unaccustomed. And under such circumstances the
unaccustomed, particularly when one is unable to even dimly apprehend
the form which it may take, one instinctively resents.

I decided that, at any rate, that should be the last appearance of the
God of Fortune. Taking it from Miss Blyth, who yielded it readily
enough, I walked with it to the fire, intending to make an end of it
by burning. As I went something pricked my fingers so suddenly, and so
sharply, that in my surprise and, I might add, pain, the doll dropped
from my hand. When we came to look for it it was not to be found. We
searched under tables and chairs in all possible and impossible
places, with a degree of eagerness which approached the ludicrous,
without success. The God of Fortune had disappeared.

I am reluctant to confess how much I was disconcerted by so trivial an
occurrence.

I must have been morbidly disposed; still liverish. That is the only
explanation which I can offer why I should all at once have felt so
strongly that everything connected with Mr. Benjamin Batters’
testamentary dispositions wore a malign aspect. I was even
haunted--the word is used advisedly--by a wholly unreasonable
conviction that Miss Blyth was being dragged into a position of
imminent peril.

This foolishness of mine was rendered more ridiculous by the fact that
Miss Blyth’s own mood was all the other way. And in this respect Miss
Purvis was at one with her. Somewhat to my surprise they seemed to see
nothing in the situation but what was pleasant.

Miss Blyth’s attitude was one of frank delight. She had never known
Mr. Batters’ personally; all she knew of him was to the disadvantage
of his character. She was enraptured by the prospect of a fortune and
a house. It seemed she had a lover. In her mind, fortune, house, and
lover were associated in a delightful jumble. She did not appear to
realise that the acceptance of the fortune, if the attached conditions
were to stand, meant the practical ostracising of the lover. Nor, at
the instant, did I feel called upon to go out of the way to make the
whole position plain to her understanding. It would have meant the
spoiling of the happiest hour she had known.

Miss Purvis enjoyed what she regarded as her friend’s good luck to the
full as much as if it had been her own. It was delightful to see her.
I had plucked up courage enough to observe her so long as she did not
know that I was doing so. The moment she became conscious of my
scrutiny, my eyes, metaphorically, sank into my boots; actually they
wandered round the room, as if the apartment had been strange to me.
When she proposed to become Miss Blyth’s companion in that horrible
house in Camford Street my heart thumped against my ribs in such a
manner that I became positively ashamed.

Was I a lawyer, the mere mechanical exponent of an accidental
situation, or was I the intimate of a lifetime? I had to ask myself
the question. What right had I to throw obstacles in the way, to
prevent her doing her friend a service? What right had I to even hint
that she might be running a risk in doing her that service? My fears
might be--were--purely imaginary. So far they certainly had no
foundation in fact. They resembled nothing so much as the nervous
fancies of some timorous old woman. It might be ruinous to my
professional reputation to breathe a syllable which would point to
their existence. People do not want shivery-shakery fools for lawyers.
These two young women knew as much--and as little--about the house as
I did. If they chose to live in it, let them. It was their affair, not
mine. They plainly regarded the prospective tenancy as an excellent
jest. I tried to persuade myself that I had no doubt whatever that
that was just what they would find it.

So they entered into the occupation of No. 84 Camford Street. I went
with them and saw them enter. It was a curious process, that of entry;
an unreasonably, unnaturally curious process. It should be necessary
to enter no honest house like that. The first step suggested,
possibly, that something unsavoury was concealed within, which it was
necessary, at all and any cost, to keep hidden from the light of day.

When they were in, and the door was closed, and they had gone from
sight, an icy finger seemed to be pressed against my spine. I shivered
as with cold. An almost irresistible longing possessed me to batter at
the door and compel them to come out. But I had not sufficient courage
to write myself down an ass.

Instead, I rode home in the cab which had brought us to the house to
which I had taken so cordial a disrelish, oppressed by a sense of
horrible foreboding which weighed upon my brain nearly to the point of
stupefaction.

“Before I go to bed to-night,” I told myself, “I’ll take a dozen of
somebody or other’s antibilious pills. I had no idea I was so
liverish.”



 CHAPTER XXI.
 THE AGITATION OF MISS PURVIS.

That bachelor’s balm, a night at a music hall, was of no avail in
diverting my mind from the house in Camford Street. In the body I
might be present at a vocal rendering of the latest things in comic
songs; in the spirit I was the other side of the water. Before the
night was over I was there physically, too.

As the ten o’clock “turn” was coming on, and the brilliancy of the
entertainment was supposed to have reached high-water mark, I walked
down the stairs of the Cerulean and out into the street. I strolled
down the Haymarket without any clear idea of where I meant to go.

“You’re an ass,” I told myself. “An ass, sir! If you’d stopped to see
Pollie Floyd she’d have driven the cobwebs out of your head. You pay
five shillings for a seat, and when, at last, there is going to be
something worth looking at, and listening to, you get out of it, and
throw away your money. At this time of night, where do you think
you’re going?”

I knew all the time, although even to myself I did not choose to
confess it--Camford Street. I made for it as straight as I could. It
was past half-past ten when I got there. The street was nearly all in
darkness. The public-houses were open; but, as they were not of the
resplendent order, they were of but little use as illuminants. Mr.
Kennard’s establishment was shut. Lights were visible in but few of
the houses. No. 84, in the prevailing shadows, looked black as pitch.
If the two girls had been obedient to the injunctions laid down in Mr.
Batters’ will--and that first night, at any rate, they would have
hardly ventured to contravene them--they were long since within doors.
Doing what? Asleep? Were both of them asleep? I wondered, if she was
awake, what occupied her thoughts? Was she thinking of--the person in
the street?

Too ridiculous! Absurd! It is amazing of what crass stupidity even the
wisest men are capable. Why should a girl who was a perfect stranger,
be thinking, whether awake or sleeping, at that hour of the night, of
an individual who had been brought into accidental business
association, on one occasion only, with a friend of hers? I kept on
putting such-like brain-splitting questions to myself. Without avail.
I simply shirked them. I only hoped. That was all.

I had some nonsensical notion of hammering at the front door to see
what would happen. But as I was unable to perceive what could result,
except possible scandal--suppose they were in bed! they might think I
was burglars, or Mr. Batters’ ghost--I held my hand. I was not too far
gone to be incapable of realising that frightening a woman into fits
was not the best way of winning her trust and confidence. That she was
of a nervous temperament I thought probable. I like a woman to be
reasonably timorous.

What might have been expected happened. My persistency in strolling
about, and behaving as if I were a suspicious character, at last
succeeded in arousing the attention of the police. An overcoated
constable strode up to me. I stopped him, feeling that it might be
better for me to open the ball.

“Officer, do you know anything about the house opposite--No. 84?”

He eyed me; apparently arriving at a conclusion that I bore no
conspicuous signs of belonging to the criminal classes.

“We call it the haunted house.”

“Haunted? Why haunted?”

It was a horrible idea that she should be sleeping alone, or as good
as alone, in a house which bore the reputation of being haunted. Not
that I placed any credence in such rubbish myself, but when she was
concerned it was a different matter.

“I can’t say why; but it’s known as such, in the force, and, I
believe, among the people in the neighbourhood.”

“Ah! Well, officer, two friends of mine--ladies--young ladies--have
taken up their residence at No. 84, and as they’re all alone I shall
be obliged if you’ll keep an eye upon the house. If you see any ghosts
about the place you run ’em in.”

I gave that policeman half-a-crown. I do not know what he thought of
me. I was completely conscious that if I continued to placate members
of the constabulary force with two-and-sixpence each I should not find
the Batters’ connection a lucrative one. It was all owing to the state
of mind I was in. To have remained in her immediate neighbourhood I
would have showered half-crowns.

Yet I tore myself away, and went straight home to bed. Hardly to
sleep, for such slumber as visited my eyes was troubled by strange
imaginings. It would be incorrect to say that all night I dreamed of
her, for most of my dreams took the shape of nightmare visitations;
but I do not hesitate to affirm that they were caused by her. I had
not been troubled by such things for years. If she was not the cause
of them, what was?

I awoke at some most unseemly hour. Since sleep was evidently at an
end I concluded that it might be as well to have done with what had
been, for the first time for many nights, a bed of discomfort. So I
arose and dressed. It was a fine morning. I could see that the sun was
shining, even from my window. I concluded that I would put into
execution a resolution which I had often formed, and as often broken,
of going for a walk before breakfast. One is constantly being
told--for the most part by people who know nothing about it--how
beautiful London is in the early morning sun.

So soon as I was in Fleet Street I saw something which I had certainly
not expected to see, at least, not there, just then--Miss Purvis.
Fleet Street was deserted; she was the only living thing to be seen;
the sight of her nearly took me off my feet. She had been in my
thoughts. Her sudden, instant presence was like the miraculous
materialisation of some telepathic vision. I felt as if I had heard
her calling me, and had come.

She was distant some fifty yards, and was coming towards me. I was at
once struck by the air of wildness which was about her. It moved me
strangely. She was not attired for the street, having on neither hat
nor bonnet, jacket or gloves. Her hair was in disorder. She looked as
if she had been in some singular affray. My heart jumped so within my
breast that I had, perforce, to stand as if I had been rooted to the
ground. Conscience-stricken, I railed at myself for not having, last
night, broken down the door, instead of lounging idly in the street.
All the while, I knew that there was something wrong. I owned it now,
though I had been reluctant to admit it then.

I think she saw me as soon as I saw her. At sight of me she broke into
a little tremulous run, swaying from side to side, as if she was so
weak that her feet were not entirely under her own control. It was
pitiful to watch. Tearing myself from where I seemed to be rooted, I
ran to her. I had reached her in less than half-a-dozen seconds. When
I was close, stretching out her hands, she cried, in a faint little
voice:--

“It’s you! it’s you! Oh, Mr. Paine!”

She did not throw herself into my arms, she had not so much strength;
she sank into them, and was still. I saw that she had fainted.

I bore her to my rooms. It was the least that I could do. No one was
in sight. And though, no doubt, some straggler might have soon
appeared, I could not tell what kind of person it might prove to be.
I could hardly keep her out there in the street awaiting the advent of
some quite possibly undesirable stranger, even had I been willing,
which I was not. Lifting her in my arms, I carried her to my chambers.

Not once did she move. She was limp as some lay figure. I laid her on
the couch. So far as I could judge, at first she did not breathe.
Then, all at once, she sighed; a tremblement seemed to go all over
her. I expected her to open her eyes, and see me there. I felt as if I
had been guilty of I knew not what, and feared to meet her accusatory
glances. But instead she lay quite still, though I could see that her
bosom rose and fell, moved by gentle respirations. My blood boiled as
I wondered what could have made her cheek so white.

On a sudden her eyes unclosed. For some seconds she looked neither to
the right nor left. She seemed to be considering the ceiling. Then,
with a start, she turned and saw me.

“Where am I?” she exclaimed.

“You are safe in my chambers. You know who I am, do you not?”

“You are Mr. Paine. Oh, Mr. Paine!”

She began to cry. Turning from me, she buried her face in the cushion.

“Miss Purvis! What is wrong? What is the matter? Tell me what has
happened.”

She continued to cry, her sobs shaking her whole frame. I was
beginning to be conscious that the situation was a more delicate one
than had at first appeared. After all, the girl was but a stranger to
me. I had not the slightest right to attempt to offer her consolation.
I remembered to have read somewhere that you ought to know a man
intimately for fifteen years before presuming to poke his fire. If
that were the case the imagination failed to picture how long a man
ought to be acquainted with a girl before venturing to try, with the
aid of a pocket handkerchief, to dry her tears.

She kept on crying. It was a severe trial to one’s more or less misty
sense of what etiquette demanded. Ought I to remain to be a witness of
her tears? She might not like it. She might, very reasonably, resent
being practically compelled to exhibit her grief in the presence of a
stranger. On the other hand, to leave her alone to, as it were, cry it
out, might be regarded, from certain points of view, as the acme of
brutality. What I should have liked to have done would have been to
take her in my arms, and comfort her as if she had been a child. In
the midst of my bewilderment it irritated me to think of the asinine
notions which would enter my head. Did I, I inquired of myself, wish
to make an enemy, a righteous enemy, of the girl for life?

I tried the effect of another inquiry.

“Miss Purvis, I--I wish you would tell me what has happened.”

“Pollie!”

That was all she said; and that utterance was so blurred by a choking
gasp as to render it uncertain if that was what she had said.

“Pollie? Who is Pollie?”

Quite possibly my tone was one of dubiety. Either that or the question
itself affected her in a fashion which surprised me. She stopped as
suddenly as if the fountain of her tears had been worked by some
automatic attachment. Raising herself slightly from the couch, she
looked at me, her eyes swollen with weeping.

“Pollie? You ask me who is Pollie? And you’re her lawyer!”

“Her lawyer?--Pollie’s----? You’re not referring to Miss----? Of
course, how stupid of me! I had forgotten that Miss Blyth’s Christian
name was Mary. I suppose that by her friends she is known as Pollie. I
hope that nothing has happened to Miss Blyth.”

“Do you think that I should be here if nothing had happened to
Pollie?”

The question was put with an amount of vigour which, in one so
fragile, was almost surprising. I was delighted to see in her such a
renewal of vigour. It made me feel more at my ease.

“I am only too fortunate, Miss Purvis, whatever the object of your
visit. If you will permit me I will get you a cup of tea; that’s what
you’re wanting. I live so much alone I’m accustomed to do all sorts of
things for myself. Here’s a gas stove; in five minutes the water will
be boiling; you shall have your tea. It will do you an immensity of
good.”

I had always understood that girls liked tea. But, as I moved about
the room, preparing to set the kettle on the stove, she stared at me
with an apparent want of comprehension.

“Do you suppose that I’ve come through the streets like this just to
get a cup of tea?”

“Never mind for the moment why you’ve come, Miss Purvis; the great
thing is that you have come. Tea first: explanation afterwards. If you
take my advice you’ll let that be the order of procedure. Nothing like
a good brew to promote clarity of exposition.”

I lit the stove.

“Mr. Paine! Mr. Paine!”

She jumped off the couch in quite a passion of excitement.

“Now, Miss Purvis, I do beg you will control yourself. I give you my
word that in less than five minutes the water will be boiling.”

She stamped her foot; rage certainly became her.

“You keep talking about your tea, when Pollie’s killed!”

“Killed--Miss Purvis! You don’t mean that Miss Blyth is--killed?”

“She is!--or something awful--and worse!”

“But”--I placed the kettle on the stove to free my hand--“let me
understand you plainly. Do you wish to be taken literally when you say
that Miss Blyth is--killed?”

“If she isn’t she will be soon.”

“I’m afraid I must ask you to be a little plainer. Where is Miss
Blyth?”

“She’s in one of Bluebeard’s Chambers?”

I began to wonder if her mind was wandering.

“I’m afraid that I still don’t----”

“That’s the name she gave them. In that dreadful house in Camford
Street there are two rooms locked up, and Pollie’s in one.”

“I see.” I did not, though, at the same time, I fancied that I began
to perceive a dim glimmer of light. “But if, as you say, the rooms
were locked, how did she get in, and what happened to her when she was
in?”

In reply Miss Purvis poured out a series of disjointed statements
which I experienced some difficulty in following, and more in
reconciling. As I listened, in spite of her manifold attractions, I
could not but feel that if she should figure in the witness box, in a
case in which I was concerned, I would rather that she gave evidence
for the other side.

“That house was full of wickedness!”

“Indeed. In what sense?”

“There’s a woman in it!”

“A woman? There is a woman? Then that’s all right.”

“All right?”

“I was afraid there wouldn’t be another woman.”

“Afraid! Women are ever so much worse than men. And she’s--awful. She
says she’s the daughter of the gods.”

“A little wanting, perhaps.”

I touched my head. Apparently Miss Purvis did not catch the allusion.

“Wanting! She’s wanting in everything she ought to have. She’s--she’s
not to be described. I thought she was rats.”

“You thought she was rats?”

“The house is full of them--in swarms! They’d have eaten me--picked
the flesh off my bones!--if I’d given them the chance.”

I was becoming more and more persuaded that agitation had been too
much for her. I had never encountered a case of a person being eaten
alive by rats, except the leading one of Bishop Hatto in his rat tower
on the Rhine, and that was scarcely quotable.

“Now, Miss Purvis, the kettle is just on the boil. I do beg you’ll
have a cup of tea before we go any further.”

“With Pollie lying dead?”

“But is she lying dead?”

“I believe she’s eaten!”

“Eaten?--by rats?”

There was a dryness in my tone which was, perhaps, rather more
significant than I had intended.

“Are you laughing at me?--Are you--laughing at me?”

She repeated her inquiry for the second time with a great sob in her
voice, which made me realise what a brute I was.

“I am very far from laughing. I am only anxious that you should not
make yourself ill.”

“You’re not! you’re not!” She stamped her foot again. I gazed at her
with admiration. She was the first beautiful woman I remembered to
have seen whose personal appearance was positively improved by getting
into a temper.

“You’re laughing at me all the time; you haven’t a spark of human
feeling in you!” This was an outrageous charge. At that moment I would
have given a great part of what I possessed to have been able to take
her in my arms. “What I’ve endured this night no tongue can tell, no
pen describe. I’ve gone through enough to make my hair turn white.
Hasn’t it turned white?”

“It certainly hasn’t. It’s lovely hair.”

“Lovely?----” She stopped, to look at me; seeing something in my
countenance--she alone knew what it was--which made her put her hands
up to her face, and burst again into tears. “Oh, Mr. Paine!”

My name, as it came from her lips, was a wail which cut me to the
heart. Her agitation was making me agitated too. I had only one
resource.

“Now, Miss Purvis, this kettle is really boiling.”

“If you say another word about that kettle I’ll knock it over!”

The small virago was facing me, the tears running down her cheeks, her
small fists clenched, as if, on that point at least, she was capable
of being as good as her word.

“Knock it over by all means, Miss Purvis, if it pleases you. I--I only
want to give you pleasure.”

“Mr. Paine!”

Up went her hands again.

“Don’t do that. I--I can’t bear to see you cry.”

“Then why are you so unkind?”

“I don’t know; it’s my stupidity, I suppose; it’s far from my
intention to be unkind.”

“I know! I know! I’m a nothing and a nobody; an impertinent creature
who has come to bother you with a tale which you don’t believe, and
which wouldn’t interest you if you did; and so you just make fun of
me.”

“Don’t say that; not that. Don’t say that to me you are a nothing and
a nobody.”

“I am! I am!”

“You are not.”

“Then, why do you treat me as you do?”

“Treat you! How do I treat you? There is nothing I wouldn’t do for
you--nothing!”

“Mr. Paine!”

“Miss Purvis!”

I do not know how it happened. I protest, in cold blood, and in black
and white, that I have no idea. But, on a sudden, I found that I had
my arms about her. A moment before I had no intention of doing
anything of the kind--that I swear. And I can only suppose that it was
because, in her agitation, she really did not know what was happening,
that she allowed her head to rest against my breast.

It was while it was there that a voice said, proceeding from the
neighbourhood of the door:--

“This is a bit of all right; but where do I come in?”



 CHAPTER XXII.
 LUKE.

I have only to point out that, despite the interruption, Miss Purvis
continued in the same position, without making the slightest effort to
disengage herself, to make it clear that she, to at least a certain
extent, was unconscious of her surroundings. For my part I held her
somewhat closer, so that I might act as a more efficient protection
against I knew not what.

Glancing in the direction from which the voice had come I perceived
that a distinctly disreputable individual had intruded himself,
uninvited, into the room. He was a tall, shambling fellow, with a
chronic stoop, extending even to the neighbourhood of his knees. His
attire consisted of a variety of odds and ends, all of them
emphatically the worse for wear. A dirty cloth cap, apparently a size
too small, was stuck at the back of his head. His black, greasy hair
formed a ragged, uneven fringe upon his forehead, reaching in one
place nearly to the top of his long, pointed nose. His mouth was too
wide for his face, which was narrow. As he stood there with it open,
in what I presume he intended for a friendly grin, the fact was
revealed that seemingly every alternate tooth in his head was missing.
Even in that moment of agitation I could not help mentally noting that
I had never seen such a collection of fangs in one man’s head before.

“What do you mean, sir, coming in without knocking?”

“What do I mean? That’s what I’m here to tell you. And as for
knocking, I did knock, with my knuckles; but you was too much engaged
to notice my modest knock; so, seeing the door was open, I just come
in.”

“Then you’ll just go out again; and sharp’s the word.”

While the fellow was speaking, Miss Purvis, awaking, for the first
time, to a sense of her delicate position, drew herself away from me.
Turning, she stared at the intruder.

“Sharp’s the word, is it? That’s how it may be. Anyhow, it don’t apply
to me, because I’m here on business.”

“Then come in business hours. I don’t receive clients at this time of
day. Don’t you see that I’m engaged?”

“Engaged, are you? That’s as it should be. I congratulate you.
Likewise the young lady, for having won so outspoken a young
gentleman; and one that’s well spoken of, from all I hear.”

Whether the fellow was intentionally impertinent I could not tell. It
was uncommonly awkward for both of us. Miss Purvis went scarlet. I
felt like knocking him down.

“Now, then, out you go!”

“Softly! softly! You listen to me before the band begins to play. I
don’t allow no one to lay hands on me without laying of ’em back
again.”

The fellow extended, to ward me off, a pair of enormously long arms.
Observing them, I realised that if he would only hold himself upright
his height would be gigantic. I am no bantam; yet as I considered his
evident suppleness, and sinewy build, I thought it possible that in
him I had met my match. Anyhow, I did not wish to indulge in a
rough-and-tumble before Miss Purvis.

“Who are you? And what do you want?”

“What I want first of all is to know who you are. Are you Mr. Frank
Paine?”

“I am.”

“I’m told that you’re making inquiries about a party named Batters;
now I’m making inquiries about a party named Batters, too; and if you
was to tell me what you know, I might tell you what I know.”

“You are quite right, I have been inquiring for a person of the name
of Batters. And if you will come again, say, between ten and eleven, I
shall be glad to hear what you have to say. By that time I shall be
disengaged.”

“You’ll be disengaged, will you? That’s hard on the young lady.
Engaged to her at seven, and disengaged between ten and eleven, all of
the same day.”

“Look here, my man!”

“I’m looking, Mr. Paine, I’m looking; and I do hope I’m looking milder
nor what you are. May I make so bold as to ask if this young lady’s
name is Blyth?”

“It is not.”

“I thought it couldn’t be. It wouldn’t hardly seem natural for a
beautiful young lady like she is to be grafted from a stock like that.
Lovely is what I call her, downright lovely.”

“Oh, Mr. Paine!”

Miss Purvis held out her hand. I took it.

“If you suppose because I have borne with you so far I will bear with
you much further, you’re mistaken. If you take my advice, you’ll be
careful.”

“That’s right, sir; that’s quite right. Careful’s the lay for me.”

“If you have anything to say, be quick about it.”

“Well, I do happen to have something which I wish to say, and that’s a
fact; but as for quickness I’m afraid that I’m not naturally so quick
as perhaps you might desire.” He stopped, to regard me with his bold,
yet shifty eyes, as if he were endeavouring to ascertain what sort of
person I might be. When he spoke again it was to put a question for
which I was unprepared. “Where’s Batters?”

“Mr. Batters--if you are referring to the late Mr. Benjamin
Batters--is dead.”

“Dead? Oh! Late, is he? Ah! He was the sort to die early, was Batters.
Where might he happen to have died?”

“On Great Ka Island.”

“Great Ka Island? Ah! And where might that be?”

“On the other side of the world.”

“That’s some way off, isn’t it? Most unfortunate. I take it most
uncivil of Batters to go and die in a place like that. Especially when
I should like to have a look at his grave. You don’t happen to know
where it is.”

“I do not, except that I have been given to understand that he was
buried where he died.”

“That so? He would be. In the local cemetery, with the flowers growing
all around. In a nice deep grave with a stone on top to keep him from
getting out of it, and some words cut on it, like ‘He lies in peace.’
There’s no doubt about his lying, anyhow, I’ll take my oath to that.”
He emitted a sound which might have been meant for a chuckle. It
startled Miss Purvis. “You don’t happen to know when he died?”

“I do not know the precise date, but it was at any rate some three or
four months ago.”

“That’s odd, very. Because, as it happens, I was with him some three
or four months ago, and I never saw nothing about him that looked like
dying. So far from dying, he was lively, uncommon; fleas wasn’t in it
with the liveliness of Batters. And to think that he should have died
with me looking at him all the time, and yet knowing nothing at all
about it. It shows you that there is such things as miracles.”

“Do I understand you to say that three months ago you were in the
company of Mr. Batters?”

“I was. And likewise four months ago. And I hope to be in his company
again before long, dead or alive. It won’t be my fault if I’m not; you
may go the lot on that.”

There was something about the fellow which struck me as peculiar; it
was not alone his impudence, which belonged to another sort of
singularity. There seemed to be a covert meaning in his manner and his
words. I turned to Miss Purvis.

“If you don’t mind I think I will hear what this person has to say; it
may be of importance to your friend. If you will allow me to leave you
here, I think I may arrive quicker at his meaning if I am alone with
him.”

She signified her consent. I led the way into the office. Without
showing in any way that he objected, the stranger followed.

“Now my man, let us understand each other as clearly as we can, and
keep to the point as closely as you are able. What’s your name?”

“Luke.”

“Luke what?”

“Luke nothing. I’m known to those who knew me best as St. Luke, after
the apostle, being of saintlike character, but in general Luke’s name
enough for me. They was modest where I come from.”

“What are you?”

“A sailor man, late of the good ship _Flying Scud_.”

“_The Flying Scud_?” I stared at him askance, not certain that I had
caught the name correctly. That particular ship seemed in the air.
“Then do you know Captain Lander?”

As I asked the question his manner changed. It became suspicious.
Thrusting his thumbs into his waistcoat armholes he eyed me warily, as
if he had all at once been put upon his guard.

“Now how much do you know about it?”

“What do you mean? How much do I know about what?”

“What’s Captain Lander told you about me?”

“About you? To me Captain Lander has never so much as mentioned your
name.”

A sudden wild thought came into my head. “Are you--are you Benjamin
Batters?”

The fellow’s mouth opened so wide I could see right down his throat.

“Me Benjamin Batters! Good Lord! What made you ask me such a thing as
that?”

“Are you? Are you?” As I watched I doubted more and more. “I believe
you are.”

“I’m not. Good Lord! You ask Captain Lander if I am. You said yourself
just now that he was dead and buried.”

“And you hinted that he was not, but that he was still alive.”

Putting his hand up to his brow he brushed the fringe of hair
partially aside, glancing furtively about the room.

“That’s as may be; that’s another matter altogether. But I don’t like
your asking me if I was Batters. No man would. Have you ever seen
him?”

“Never; unless I see him now.”

“Meaning me? I never came across such a man. What do you mean by
keeping on asking if I’m Batters? What are you driving at? I won’t
have it, whatever it is. Why Batters----” He stopped: then second
thoughts appearing best, changed from heat to cold. “Batters was not
my sort at all.”

The man’s manner puzzled me.

“What was there about Benjamin Batters which makes you resent any
comparison with him?”

He hesitated, putting up his fingers to scratch his head, visibly
perturbed.

“Excuse me, but I came here to put a question or two, not to answer
any. If you’d told me at the first that Captain Lander was a friend of
yours, I should have taken myself off straightway, like as I’m going
to now.”

I stepped between him and the door.

“No you don’t. You stopped at the beginning to please yourself; now
you’ll remain a little longer to please me. Before you leave this room
you’ll give me satisfactory answers to one or two questions.”

“Who says I will?”

“I do. If you decline I send for a policeman. Then I think you’ll find
yourself in Queer Street.”

His disturbance obviously increased.

“Now, Mr. Paine, I’ve done nothing to you to make you behave nasty to
me. If I made a mistake in coming here to make a few inquiries I
apologise, and no man can do more than that, so there’s no harm done
to either side.”

“Was Batters your shipmate?”

“My shipmate?”

“Was he an officer or member of the crew on board _The Flying Scud_?”

“My gracious, no!”

“He was on _The Flying Scud_?”

“He might have been.”

“As passenger?”

“_The Flying Scud’s_ a cargo boat; she don’t carry no passengers.”

“If he was neither officer, sailor, nor passenger, in what capacity
was he there?”

“You ask Captain Lander, he was in command, not me. I’ve had enough of
this bullyragging. You let me go before there’s trouble.”

“Gently, my man, gently! Now, come, be frank with me. What is the
mystery about Benjamin Batters? I see there is one.”

“That’s more than I can tell you, straight it is. I wish it wasn’t. If
you was to ask me I should say he was all mystery, Batters was.”

“I suppose he was a man?”

“A man?” The inquiry, suggested by the fashion in which he persisted
in shuffling with my questions, had an odd effect upon my visitor. He
glanced from side to side, and up and down, as if desirous, at any
cost, to avoid meeting my eye. “It depends on what you call a man.”

“You know very well what I call a man. Was he a man in the sense that
you and I are men?”

He shuddered.

“The Lord forbid that I should be in any way like him; the Lord
forbid!”

“I observed him narrowly, at a loss to make him out. That there was
something very curious about Benjamin Batters I was becoming more and
more persuaded. I had as little doubt that my visitor had at least
some knowledge of what it was. Equally obvious, however, was the fact
that he had reasons of his own for concealing what he knew. How I
could compel him to make a confidant of me against his will I failed
to see. I tried another tack.

“You say that you were in Batters’ company three months ago.”

“I might have been.”

“How long ago is it since you last saw him?”

“I couldn’t exactly say.”

“Where did you last see him?”

“Where?” He looked round and round the room, as if seeking for
information. Then the fashion of his countenance changed, an ugly look
came on it. “I’m not going to tell you when I saw him last, nor where.
It’s no business of yours. You mind your own business, and leave mine
alone. And as for your policeman, I don’t care for no policeman. Why
should I? I’m an honest man. So you get out of my way and let me pass;
and that’s all about it.”

“Have you seen Benjamin Batters within the month?”

“Never you mind!”

“Your words are a sufficient answer. I believe that you have been
conspiring with Benjamin Batters with fraudulent intent. If you do not
furnish me with abundant proof that my suspicions are unfounded I
shall summon a constable, and give you into custody upon that charge.”

It was a piece of pure bluff upon my part, which failed.

“That’s the time of the day, is it? I’ve been conspiring with him,
have I? What have I been conspiring about?”

“I have no doubt that that is a point on which Captain Lander will be
able to show more than sufficient light.”

My words had at last struck home. What lent them especial weight I
could not even guess. But that they had moved him more than anything
which had gone before his behaviour showed.

“He will, will he? So that’s the game you’re after. You’re a lawyer,
and I’m a poor, silly sailor man, so you think you can play just what
tricks with me you please. But there’s something else Captain Lander
can tell you if you ask him, and that’s that I can be disagreeable
when I’m crossed, and if you don’t move away from that door inside a
brace of shakes I’m going to be disagreeable now.”

“Don’t threaten me, my man.”

“Threaten?”

His tone suggested that he scorned being thought capable of
threatening only, and his action proved it.

He came at me with a suddenness for which I was unprepared. Putting
his arms about me while I was still unready he lifted me off my feet.
As he was still holding me aloft, crooking my leg inside his, I bore
on him with all my might, and brought him with a crash to the floor.
Although he lay underneath, his arms still retained their grip.

While I hesitated whether to attack the man in earnest or to
remonstrate with him instead--for Miss Purvis might at any moment look
in, and then a nice opinion she would have of me--someone standing
behind slipped what seemed to be a cord over my head, and drew it so
tight about my throat that in an instant I was all but choked. When,
gasping for breath, I put up my hand to free myself, it was drawn
still tighter. So tight indeed that not only did it cut like a knife,
but I felt as if my tongue was being torn out of my mouth, and I lost
all consciousness.



 CHAPTER XXIII.
 THE TRIO RETURN.

How long I remained unconscious I could not say. When I did come to,
during some seconds I was unable to realise my position. It was like
waking out of an uncomfortably heavy sleep. Consciousness returned by
degrees, and painfully; as it were, by a series of waves, which were
like so many shocks. I was oppressed by nausea, my eyes were dim, my
brain seemed reeling, as if it were making disconcerting efforts to
retain its equilibrium. It was some time before I understood that I
was still in my own room; yet, longer before I had some faint
comprehension of the situation I was in, and of what was taking place
about me.

It was probably some minutes before I completely understood that I was
trussed like a fowl, and that the exquisite pain which I was enduring
was because of the tightness and ingenuity of my bonds. I was on the
floor with my back against the wall. Cords which were about my wrists
were attached to my ankles, passed up my back, then round my throat,
so that each movement I made I bade fair to choke myself. It was a
diabolical contrivance. The cords were thin ones--red-hot wires they
seemed to me to be, they cut my wrists like knives, and burned them as
with fire. My legs were drawn under my body in an unnatural and
uncomfortable position. They were torn by cramp, yet whenever I made
the slightest attempt to ease them I dragged at the cord which was
about my throat. One thing seemed plain, if the worst came to the
worst I should experience no difficulty in committing suicide.
Apparently I had only to let my head forward to be strangled.

By way of making the condition of affairs entirely satisfactory
something sharp had been forced into my mouth, which not only acted as
a gag, effectually preventing my uttering a sound, but which made it
difficult for me to breathe. That it was cutting me was made plain by
the blood which I was compelled to swallow.

As I have said, it was not at first that I had a clear perception of
the personal plight that I was in. When it dawned on me at last I had
a morbid satisfaction in learning that I was not alone in it. Someone
so close on the left as to be almost touching me was in a similar
plight. It was St. Luke. I had mistily imagined that that seafaring
associate of the more and more mysterious Benjamin Batters had been in
some way responsible for my misadventure. Not a bit of it. I had
wronged the honest man. So far as I could perceive, his plight was an
exact reproduction of my own. The same attention had been paid to his
physical comfort; only apparently the gag had been so placed in his
mouth as to leave him more freedom to gasp, and to grunt, and to
groan.

Who, then, was responsible for this pretty performance? What man, or
men, had I so wronged as to be deserving this return? The problem was
a nice one. I looked for the solution.

I found it, and, in doing so, found also something else, which filled
me with such a tumult of passion that I actually momentarily forgot
the egregious position I was in.

Miss Purvis had been served as I had been.

She had either, wondering at my delay, or startled by the noise,
peeped into the office, and so disturbed the ruffians at their work;
or the miscreants, penetrating into the inner room, had found her
there and dragged her out. However it had been, there she was, trussed
and gagged against the wall upon my right. They had shown no respect
for a woman, but had handled her precisely as they had done St. Luke
and me. My brain felt as if it would have burst as I thought of the
indignity with which they must have used her, and of the agony, mental
and bodily, she must have endured, and be enduring still. Her
face--her pretty face!--was white as the sheet of paper on which I
write. Her eyes--her lovely eyes!--were closed. I hoped that she had
fainted, and so was oblivious of suffering and shame. Yet, as I
watched her utter stillness, I half feared she might be dead.

The gentlemen who were responsible for this pleasant piece of work
were three. They were there before me in plain sight. It was with an
odd sense that it was just what I had expected that I recognised the
trio who had already paid me a visit in the silent watches of the
night. There was the imposing, elderly, bald-headed gentleman, who
represented length without breadth; there, also, were his two
attendant satellites. How to account for their assiduous interest in
my unpretending office was beyond my power. Nor did I understand why
it should have been necessary to use quite such drastic measures
against the lady, St. Luke, and myself. Still less--I admit it
frankly--when I observed their conspicuous lack of avoirdupois, did I
gather how they had managed to make of us so easy a prey. Under
ordinary conditions I should have been quite willing to take the three
on single-handed. The truth probably was that St. Luke and I had
unwittingly played into their dexterous hands. Had we not been engaged
in matching ourselves against each other we should have been more than
a match for them. But when they came in, and found the sailor man upon
the floor prisoning me close within his arms, all they had to do was
to slip one cord round my throat, and another round his. We were at
their mercy. No man can show much fight when he is being strangled;
especially when the job is in the hands of a skilled practitioner.
Never mind what the theory is, that is the teaching of experience.

What they wanted, with so much anxiety, in my office, I was unable to
guess. They had already purloined the God of Fortune.

Stay! It had been returned to me again. I had dropped it on the floor;
been unable to find it. Could it be that they were after it a second
time. I wondered. What peculiar significance, what attribute, could
that small plaything have?

Beyond doubt they were treating my belongings with scant regard for
the feelings of their owner? If they failed to find what they were
seeking it would not be for want of a thorough quest. Pretty well
everything the apartment contained they subjected to a minute
examination. They allowed nothing to escape them. It was delightful to
watch them. If I had been suffering a little less physical
inconvenience I should have enjoyed myself immensely. They might be
Orientals; but if they were not professional burglars in their own
country then they ought to have been. They were artists any way.

To note one point--there was such order in their methods. They began
at one corner of the room, and they worked right round it, emptying
boxes, turning out drawers, pulling the books out of their covers, and
the stuffing out of the chairs, and the furniture to pieces generally,
in search of secret hiding-places. Then they began tapping at the
walls, tearing off scraps of paper here and there, to see what was
behind. It beat me to imagine what it was that they were after, though
it was flattering to think what a first-rate hand at concealment they
must be taking me to be. Apparently they were under the impression
that a solicitor had plenty of waste time which he occupied by
secreting odds and ends in solid walls. The rapidity with which they
did all they did do was simply astonishing, particularly when one had
to admit with what thoroughness it was done. But when they came to
dragging the carpet up, and tearing boards from the floor, I began to
wonder if they were going through the house piecemeal.

The litter was beyond description. My practice might not have been a
large one, but my papers were many. When a large number of documents
are thrown down anywhere, anyhow, they are apt to look untidy. Even in
that moment of martyrdom I groaned in spirit as I thought of the
labour which their rearrangement would involve.

One mental note I did take; that, despite the eagerness with which
they turned out papers from every possible receptacle, they seemed to
attach to them but scant importance. That they were after something
connected with Mr. Benjamin Batters I had no doubt. Yet they unearthed
the Batters’ papers among the rest--even the Batters’ bonds!--and
tossed them on one side as if they contained nothing which was of
interest to them. If they were able to read English I could not tell,
but every now and then the tall, thin party glanced at a paper as if
it was not altogether Double Dutch to him.

At last, short of pulling the room itself down about their ears, they
had, apparently to their own entire dissatisfaction, exhausted its
resources. There was a pause in the operations. There ensued a
conclave. The elderly gentleman spoke, while, for the most part, the
others listened. What was being said I had no notion. They were
sparing of gesture, so no meaning was conveyed through the eye to the
brain. I am no linguist. My knowledge of Eastern tongues is nil. I did
not know what language they were speaking; had I known I should have
been no wiser. One fact, however, was unmistakable; their words were
accompanied by glances in my direction, which I did not altogether
relish. If ever I saw cruelty written on a human countenance it was on
the faces of those three gentlemen. Theirs was the love of it for its
own sake. Their faces were rather inhuman masks, expressionless,
impassive, unfeeling. It was not difficult to conceive with what
ingenuity they could contrive tortures with which to rack the nerves
of some promising subject. It was easy to believe that they would put
them into practice with the same composure with which they would
observe the sensations of the object of their curious experiments.

I had already had some experience of their skill in more than one
direction, and I did not desire a practical demonstration of it in yet
another.

And for the present I was to be spared the exhibition. It seemed that
they all at once bethought themselves that there were other apartments
of mine which still remained unsearched. Whereupon off they went to
search them. To us they paid no need. Plainly they were sufficiently
acquainted with the good qualities of their handiwork to be aware that
from us they need fear nothing. That we might be able to free
ourselves without assistance was a million to one chance which it was
unnecessary to consider. Until some one came to loose us we were
bound. Of that they were absolutely sure. So they left us there to
keep each other company, and to console each other if we could, while
they went to overhaul the rest of my establishment. It was a pleasant
thought for me to dwell upon.

Miss Purvis’ eyes were open, but that was about the only sign of life
she showed. They wandered once or twice towards me; wandered was just
the word which expressed the look which was in them. Her face was
white and drawn. There was that about it which made me doubt if even
yet she was conscious of what was being done; I wondered if the pain
which she was suffering had taken effect upon her brain. It would not
have been surprising if it had. It was only by dint of a violent and
continued exercise of will that I myself was able to retain, as it
were, a hold upon my senses. There was, first of all, the torture of
the cramped position. Then there was the way in which the cords cut
into the flesh--what particular kind of cords had been used I could
not make out, but I suspected fiddle-strings. Then there was the fact
that the slightest movement made with a view of obtaining relief
threatened not only strangulation but decapitation too.

I wondered what the time was. A laundress, one Mrs. Parsons, was
supposed to arrive at eight. It must be nearly that. I had been up for
hours; I was convinced that it was hours. It must be after eight. If
the woman had any regard for punctuality, at any moment she might
appear. If she did not arrive within five minutes she should be
dismissed. How could she expect to keep my rooms in proper order if
her habits were irregular? I had long wondered how it was my chambers
did not do me so much credit as they might have done; I had an eye for
such things although she might not think it. Now I understood. If Mrs.
Parsons would only have the sense, the honesty, the decency, to keep
to her engagements and come at once, while those scoundrels were
engaged elsewhere, in a moment I should be free. Then I would show
them.

A clock struck seven. It must be wrong. There was a second, third,
fourth, all striking seven. An hour yet before the woman was even due!
And whoever heard of a laundress who was punctual? Before she came
what might not happen? For another hour, at least, we were at the
mercy of these ingenious adventurers.

They reappeared. What havoc they had wrought in the rooms in which I
lived, and moved, and had my being, I could only guess. Either, from
their point of view, they had not done mischief enough, or the result
of what they had done had not been satisfactory. Plainly, they were
discontented. Their manner showed it. The tall gentleman spoke to his
two associates in a tone which suggested disapprobation of their
conduct. They seemed, with all possible humility, to be endeavouring
to show that the fault was not entirely theirs. This he appeared
unwilling to concede. Finally, flopping down on to their knees,
touching the floor with their foreheads, they grovelled at his feet.
So far from being appeased by this show of penitence, putting out his
right foot, he gave each of them a hearty kick. The effect this had on
them was comical. They sprang upright like a pair of automata,
endeavouring to carry themselves as if they had been the recipient of
the highest honours.

The tall gentleman moved towards Miss Purvis. They meekly hung on his
heels. He addressed to them remarks to which they scarcely ventured to
reply. He eyed the lady. Then glanced towards me. I wondered what was
the connection which he supposed existed between us. Something
menacing was in his air. He hovered above the helpless girl as a hawk
might above a pigeon. Stretching out his cruel-looking hand he thrust
it almost in her face. I expected to see her subjected to some fresh
indignity, and felt that, if she were, then rage might give me
strength to break the bonds which shackled me.

If such had been his intention, it was either deferred, or he changed
his mind. He gave a gesture in my direction. Immediately one of his
familiars, advancing, tilted me back with no more compunction than if
I had been an empty beer cask. Thrusting his filthy fingers into my
mouth he dragged out the gag with so much roughness that it tore my
tongue and palate as it passed. Returning me to the position which
suited him best, out of simple wantonness, with the hand which held
the gag he struck me a vigorous blow upon the cheek; so vigorous that,
as it jerked my head on one side it seemed to cause the thong which
was about my throat to nearly sever my head from my shoulders. Even as
he struck me I recognised in my assailant the individual who had
dogged my steps from Camford Street, and whom afterwards I had treated
to a shaking. This was his idea of crying quits. While the blood still
seemed to be whirling before my eyes I said to myself that, if all
went well, to his quittance I would add another score. The last blow
should not be his.

The removal of the gag did not at once restore to me the faculty of
speech. My mouth was bleeding, I was nearly choked by blood. My tongue
was torn, and sore, and swollen. It felt ridiculously large for the
place it was supposed to occupy. Evidently the attenuated gentleman
understood that there were reasons why I should not be expected to
join in conversation until I had been afforded an opportunity to get
the better of my feelings. He stood regarding me, his parchment-like
visage perfectly expressionless, as if he were awaiting the period
when I might be reasonably required to give voice to my emotions.

When, as I take it, he supposed such a time to have arrived, he
addressed me, to my surprise, in English, which was not bad of its
kind.

“Where is the Great Joss?”

I had no notion what he meant. Had I understood him perfectly I should
have been unable to give him the information he required. So soon as I
attempted to speak I found that my tongue refused, literally, to do
its office. I could only produce those mumbling sounds which proceed,
sometimes, from the mouths of those who are dumb.

In his judgment, however, it seemed that I ought already to have
advanced to perfect clarity of utterance. He repeated his inquiry.

“Where is the Great Joss? I am in haste. Tell me quick.”

“Untie my hands and throat.”

That was my reply. The words, as they came from my lips, assumed a
guise in which they could hardly have been recognisable for what they
were meant to be, so inarticulately were they spoken. Whether he
understood them I could not say, he ignored their meaning if he did.
One of his satellites--the one who had struck me--hazarded an
observation, with a deep inclination of his head, but his superior
paid no heed to him whatever. He persisted in his previous inquiry.

“Tell me, where is the Great Joss?”

With an effort I mumbled an answer.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

Evidently the reply did not fall in with his view at all; he
disbelieved it utterly.

“Tell me where is the Great Joss, or the woman shall die.”

His meaning was unmistakable. He stretched out his finger towards Miss
Purvis with a gesture. That he was capable of murder I had not the
slightest doubt. That he would make nothing of having an innocent,
unoffending girl tortured to death before my eyes I believed. Fleet
Street might be within a hop, skip, and a jump; but, for the present,
this spot in its immediate neighbourhood was delivered over to the
methods of the East. If I could not afford this monster, who had
sprung from some unknown oriental haunt of merciless fiends, the
satisfaction he demanded, I might expect the worst to happen before
help could come. With him I felt assured that in such matters one
could rely upon the word being followed by the blow.

I made an effort to appease him.

“I don’t know where your Joss is. It dropped upon the floor.”

My reference, of course, was to the toy which Miss Blyth had given me,
and which, when I had let it fall, I was unable to find. Still my
answer did not seem to be the one he wanted. He scrutinised me in
silence for some seconds before he gave me to understand as much.

“You play with me?”

There was that in his tone which was anything but playful. I made all
possible haste to deny the soft impeachment.

“I don’t. Is it the God of Fortune you are after?”

“The God of Fortune? What do you know about the God of Fortune?”

“It was given to me. I let it drop. When I came to look for it I
couldn’t find it anywhere.”

There was something about my reply which he did not like. I was sure
of it by the way in which he spoke, in that unknown tongue, to his
associates. Instantly they approached Miss Purvis, standing one on
either side of her. Their attitude was ominous.

“Do you wish that she shall die?”

I did not. I could scarcely have more strenuously desired that she
should live. As I told him with such clearness of language as I could
muster. Considering all things I was eloquent.

“What it is you want from me I don’t know; consciously I have nothing
which is yours. But you had better understand this, if you are able to
understand anything at all, that only for a minute or two at most are
we in your power. If you want to be let off lightly you will loose
that lady at once; if you harm so much as a hair of her head the law
of England will make you pay for it dearly.”

In reply the fellow was arrogance itself.

“What do we care for your law? What has your law to do with us? Are we
dogs that you should use us as you choose? You have stolen, and have
hidden, the Great Joss. Return him to us; or as you have shamed us so
we will shame you.”

“Not only have I not stolen the Great Joss, but I don’t even know what
the Great Joss is. The only Joss I’ve seen was one about the size of
my finger, which, as I’ve told you already, I dropped on the floor,
and couldn’t find.”

“You laugh at us.”

“I do not laugh. I am speaking the simple, absolute truth.”

“You lie. The gods have told us that the secret of the hiding-place of
the Great Joss is here. Show it to us quickly, or the woman shall
die.”

“It is your gods who lie, not I.”

The fellow said something to his colleagues. At once, whipping Miss
Purvis from off the floor, just for all the world as if she were a
trussed fowl, they placed her on the table.

“Be careful what you do!” I shouted.

“It is for you to be careful. We come from far across the sea to look
for the Great Joss, which you and yours have stolen, and you make a
mock of us. We are not children that we may be mocked. Give us what is
ours, or we will take what is yours, though we desire it not, and the
woman shall die.”

“I tell you, man, that if anyone has robbed you it isn’t I. I have not
the faintest notion who you are, or what you’re after; and as for your
Great Joss, I’ve not the least idea what a Great Joss is. What I say
is a simple statement of fact; and what reason you suppose yourself to
have for doubting me is beyond my comprehension.”

“That is your answer?”

“Don’t speak as if you suspected me of a deliberate intention to
deceive. What other answer can I give? If, as is possible, you are
suffering from a genuine grievance, I shall be glad to be of any
assistance I can. But you must first give me clearly to understand
what it is you’re after. At present I am completely in the dark.”

“The woman must die.”

The fellow was impervious to reason. He repeated the words with a
passionless calm which added to their significance. Again I screamed
at him:

“You had better be careful!”

He ignored me utterly. Turning to his collaborators he issued an order
which was promptly obeyed. Loosing Miss Purvis’ bonds they stretched
her out upon the table, and tied her on it with a dexterous rapidity
which denoted considerable practice in similar operations. I observed
the proceedings with sensations which are not to be described. I had
hoped that at the last extremity rage would supply me with strength
with which to burst the cords which prevented me from going to her
assistance. I had hoped in vain. The only result of my frenzied
struggles was to increase the tension, and to make my helplessness, if
possible, still clearer.

“Help! help!” I yelled. “Help!”

I was aware that I was the only person who lived in the house, and
that the hour was yet too early for the occupants of offices to have
arrived. But I was actuated by a forlorn hope that my voice might
reach someone who was in a position to render aid. None came. What I
had endured, and was enduring, had robbed my voice of more than half
its power. And though I shouted with what, at the moment, was the full
force of my lungs, I was only too conscious that my utterance was too
inarticulate, too feeble, to allow my words to travel far.

As for that attenuated fiend, who, it was clear, was not by any means
so long as he was wicked, he regarded my maniacal contortions with a
degree of imperturbability which seemed to me to be the climax of
inhumanity. Although it was certain that he both saw and heard me,
since it was impossible that it could be otherwise, not by so much as
the movement of a muscle did he betray the fact. He suffered me to
writhe and scream to my heart’s content. He simply took no notice;
that was all. When the process of tying down Miss Purvis had been
completed, being informed of the fact by one of his assistants, he
turned to examine, with a critical eye, how the work had been done.
Moving round the table, he tried each ligature with his finger as he
passed. Since he found no fault, apparently the way in which the woman
had been laid out for slaughter met with his complete approval.

He condescended once more to bestow his attention upon me.

“For the last time--where is the Great Joss?”

“I can’t tell you--how can I tell you if I don’t know what the Great
Joss is? For God’s sake, man, tell me what it is you’re really after
before you go too far. If you want my help, give me a chance to offer
it. Explain to me what the Great Joss is. It is possible, since you
appear to be so positive, that I do know something of its whereabouts.
Tell me, clearly, what it is, and all I know is at your service. Put
my words to the test, and you will find that they are true ones.”

To me it seemed impossible that even such an addle-headed idiot as the
individual in front of me could fail to see that I was speaking the
truth. But he did, he failed entirely. He had convictions of his own,
of which he was not to be disabused.

“You lie again, making a mock of the gods. To the gods the woman shall
be offered as a sacrifice.”

He spoke with a passionless calm which denoted a set purpose from
which there was no turning him.

I raved, I screamed myself hoarse. He paid no heed. I could do no
more. I could either keep my eyes open and watch what went on, or
close them, and my imagination would present me with pictures more
lurid still. The situation was not rendered more agreeable by the fact
that, although they had not given her back the power of speech, as
they had done me, by the removal of the gag, I was conscious that she
was perfectly cognisant of all that was being said, and especially of
the frenzied appeals which I made on her behalf--in vain.

During the minutes which followed I was as one distraught. Now I
watched, with wide open staring eyes; now I shut them, in a sudden
paroxysm of doubt as to what horror I might be compelled to be an
unwilling witness; then, being haunted by frightful imaginings of what
might be transpiring without my knowledge--for she could make no
sound--I opened them again to see.

The three scoundrels set about their hideous business with a matter of
fact air which suggested that, in their opinion, they were doing
nothing out of the common. And perhaps, in that genial portion of the
world from which they came, such butcheries were the everyday events
of their lives.

The tall man issued some curt instructions. The two shorter ones set
about gathering the papers which were scattered about the room, and
piling them in a heap beneath the table. On these they placed more or
less inflammable fragments of my solider belongings. It seemed to be
their intention to have a bonfire on lines of their own. Unless they
were acquainted with a trick or two in that direction, as well as in
others, how they proposed to keep it alight, after ignition, one was
at a loss to understand.

About the procedure of the principal villain there was no such room
for doubt. There was a frankness in his proceedings which caused me
now to shriek at him in half imbecile, because wholly impotent, rage;
and now to shut my eyes in terror of what he might be doing next.

By way of a commencement he took from some receptacle in his clothing
what turned out to be a curiously shaped lamp. This he placed on the
table at Miss Purvis’ feet. Having lit it by the commonplace means of
a match from a box of mine which was on the mantelpiece, he threw on
it, at short intervals, what was probably some variation of what
firework vendors describe as “coloured fire.” The result was that
surrounding objects assumed unusual hues, and the room was filled with
a vapour, which was not only obscuring, but malodorous. From his bosom
he produced an evil-looking knife. Laying a defiling hand upon his
victim’s throat, partly by sheer force, partly by the aid of his
knife, he tore her garments open nearly to the waist. Bending over
her, he seemed to be marking out some sort of design with the point of
his blade on the bare skin, in the region of the heart. Drawing
himself upright he suffered his voluminous sleeves to fall back, and
bared his arms, as a surgeon might do prior to commencing an
operation.

Then he leaned over her again; his knife held out.



 CHAPTER XXIV.
 THE GOD OUT OF THE MACHINE.

How it all happened I have but a misty notion.

My eyelids were twitching; my eyes were neither shut nor open. I could
not look, nor hide from myself the knowledge of what was being done. I
saw the silent woman, the whiteness of her flesh, the gleam of steel,
the tall figure stooping over her. There were the attendant demons,
one on either side. All was still. My voice had perished, I could no
longer utter a sound. And all that was done by the man with the knife
was done in silence.

So acute was the stillness I listened for the entry of the steel into
the flesh--as if that were audible!

Then, on a sudden, all was pandemonium. Of the exact sequence in which
events occurred, I have, as I have said, but a shadowy impression.

Something struck the fellow with the knife full in the face. What it
was at the moment I could not tell. I learnt afterwards that it was a
soft, peaked sailor’s cap, thrown by a strong wrist, with unerring
aim. The impact was not a slight one. Taken unawares the tall man
staggered; he had been hit clean between the eyes. He put his hand up
to his face, as if bewildered. Before he had it down again he had been
seized by the shoulders, flung to the ground, and the knife wrenched
from him.

His assailant was Captain Lander.

“Lander!” I gasped.

The captain glanced in my direction, then at the woman stretched upon
the table, then at the gentleman upon the floor. Him he appeared to
recognise.

“So it’s you, is it? What devil’s work have you been up to now? This
is not Tongkin! Look out there--stop ’em, my lads!”

The attendant demons, perceiving that a change had come o’er the
spirit of the scene, were making for the window, judging, doubtless,
discretion to be the better part of valour. I then learned that
Captain Lander was not alone. He had three companions. These made
short work of stopping the flight of the ingenuous colleagues. One of
the captain’s companions, a man of somewhat remarkable build, gripping
the pair by the nape of the neck by either hand, banged their heads
together. It was a spectacle which I found agreeable to behold.

The long gentleman was rising from the ground. The captain assisted
him by dragging him up by the shoulder. They observed each other with
looks which were not looks of love. The captain jeered.

“So we’ve met again, have we? It seems as if you and I were bound to
meet. We must be fond of one another.”

The other replied with the retort discourteous.

“You dog! You thief! You accursed!”

He seemed to be nearly beside himself with rage, which under the
circumstances, perhaps, was not surprising.

The words apparently conveyed a taunt which drove the man to madness.
Forgetful of the disparity which existed between them and how little
he was the captain’s match, he flung himself at him with the
unreflecting frenzy of some wild cat. Lander laughed. Putting his arms
about the frantic man, with a grin he compressed them tighter and
tighter till I half expected to see him squeeze the life right out.
When he relaxed his hold the other had had enough. Tottering back
against the wall, he leaned against it, breathless. I had supposed his
face to be a mask, incapable of expression, but perceived my error
when I noted the glances with which he regarded his late antagonist.

Careless of how the other might be observing him, Lander, with a few
quick touches of the tall gentleman’s own knife, released the girl who
had already, in very truth, tasted of the bitterness of death. Seeing
the gag, he withdrew it with a tenderness which was almost feminine.
His own coat he threw over her shoulders. A tremor passed all over
her; she raised herself a little; then, with a sigh, sank back upon
the table.

As if satisfied that with her all would now be well, Lander turned to
me. In a moment my bonds were severed.

“Why, Mr. Paine, how come you in this galley?”

“That is more than I can tell. Is the lady badly hurt?”

“Not she. She’ll be all right in a minute. I came just in time.” He
uttered an exclamation on perceiving the sailor man, Luke, bound, at
my side. “Why, it’s the Apostle! Lads, here’s our friend, Luke! The
trusty soul! Tied hand and foot, just like a common cur--and gagged as
well! Mr. Luke, this is an unexpected pleasure! We’ll have the gag out
at any rate, if only for the sake of hearing your dear old tongue
start wagging. I hope that didn’t hurt you; you must excuse a little
roughness, for old acquaintance, but I think we’ll leave you tied.”

Mr. Luke seemed to experience as much difficulty in recovering the
faculty of speech as I had done. Stammering words came from his
bleeding lips.

“Then--in that case--you’d better--kill me.”

“No: we won’t kill you, not just yet; though I would have killed you
out of hand, if I could have got within reach of you--you know when.
On second thoughts I fancy we’ll untie you. Pray tell us, Mr. Luke,
where’s the Great Joss now?”

Mr. Luke was stretching his limbs, gingerly, apparently finding the
process anything but an agreeable one.

“That’s--what I--want to know,” he mumbled.

“No? Is that so? you done too? Poor Luke! how sad to think your
confidence should have been misplaced. It’s a treacherous world.” The
captain turned to me. “Mr. Paine, I believe you are the only person
who can give us precise information as to the present whereabouts of
the Great Joss.”

“I?”

I stared at him amazed.

“Yes, you. I’ll tell you why I think so.”



 BOOK IV.
 THE JOSS.

 (CAPTAIN MAX LANDER SETS FORTH THE CURIOUS ADVENTURE WHICH MARKED THE
 VOYAGE OF THE “FLYING SCUD.”)



 CHAPTER XXV.
 LUKE’S SUGGESTION.

I’ve no faith in your old wives’ tales. Not I. But the luck was
against us. Everything went wrong from the first. And there’s no
getting away from the fact that we sailed on a Friday.

The weather in the Bay was filthy. Our engines went wrong in the Red
Sea. We lay up at Aden for a week. There was a bill as long as my arm
to pay. Then when we got out into the open the weather began again.
Never had such a run! It was touch and go for our lives. One night,
half-way between Ceylon and Sumatra, I thought it was the end. We had
more than another touch off the Philippines. By the time we reached
Yokohama we were a wreck--nothing less.

The ship ought to have been overhauled before we started. But the
owners wouldn’t see it. They insisted that a patch here, and a coat of
paint there, would meet the case. But it didn’t. Not by a deal. As we
soon found. At Aden, after all, the engines had only been tinkered.
They went wrong again before we had been three days out. The weather
we had would have tried the best work that ever came out of an
engineer’s shop. Those nailed together pieces of rusty scrap iron
worried the lives right out of us. If we had gone to the bottom they
would have been to blame.

We were late at Yokohama. A lot. The agents didn’t like it, nor the
consignees either. There were words. After all I’d gone through I
wasn’t in a mood to take a jacketing for what wasn’t any fault of
mine. So I let them see. The result was that there were all round
ructions. I admit that, under severe provocation, I did go farther
than I intended. And I did not mean to knock old Lawrence down. But it
was only by the mercy of God I had brought the ship into port at all.
And it was hard lines to meet nothing but black looks, and words,
because I hadn’t performed the impossible.

Lawrence resented my knocking him down. David Lawrence was our agent;
a close-fisted, cantankerous Scotchman. I own I ought to have kept my
hands off him. But when he started bullyragging me on my own deck,
before the crew, as if I was something lower than a cabin boy, when I
had had about enough of it, which wasn’t long, I let fly, and over he
went.

I was sorry directly afterwards. And when he gave me to understand
that not a ha’porth of stuff should come aboard that boat while I was
in command, I swallowed the bile and started to apologise. Not much
good came of that. As soon as my nose was inside his office he began
rubbing me the wrong way. The end of it was that I nearly knocked him
down again. And should have quite if his clerks hadn’t kept me off
him. After that I knew the game was up. I knew that nothing worth
having would come my way at Yokohama. I got drunk for the first time
in my life. The ship was eating her head off for port dues. I slipped
her moorings and ran out to sea.

What I was to do I had not the faintest notion. I was perfectly well
aware that I might as well sink her where she was as to take her back
as good as empty. If I didn’t lose my certificate it would be no
further use to me, because that would be the last command that I
should ever have. I took her to Hong Kong on the off chance of picking
something up. But, as I had half expected, news of _The Flying Scud_
had travelled ahead. There was nothing but the cold shoulder waiting
for me all along the line. I did get a few odds and ends, but nothing
worth speaking of, and I cleared out of Hong Kong for the same reason
I had cleared out of Yokohama.

Yet, though I should scarcely have thought it possible, there was
worse to follow.

The men, like their captain, were in a bad temper. Which was not to be
wondered at. They were pretty near to mutiny. If they got all the way
I should be landed indeed. Not that I minded. I was beyond that. I
slept with one loaded revolver under my head, and another in my hand.
Possibly a bit of a scrimmage would have had the same effect on me as
a little blood-letting. I should have been the better for it
afterwards.

I confess I did not know where I was going. I crawled along the
Chinese coast with some dim idea of gaining time. Given time I might
be able to form some sort of reasonable plan. One thing was sure, I
had no intention of going home to be ruined. If that was to be the way
of it, I could be ruined just as well where I was. Better perhaps. I
sneaked through the Hainan Strait. A day or two after we ran out of
water.

Just where we were I am not prepared to say. That’s the truth. No
lies! The coast was strange to me. I know the China Seas perhaps as
well as a good many men, but I had never been in the Gulf of Tongkin
before. I will say this, we were not a thousand miles from Lienchow.

We were still hugging the coast when they told me the stores were out.
I ordered them to take her in as close as she could be got. A little
delay more or less didn’t matter a snap of the fingers to me. I had
got as far that. Considering we weren’t over-coaled it was pretty far.
It was a lovely evening, a Friday as it happened--I must have been
born on a Friday! In about a couple of hours the sun would be setting,
so, if we were quick, there would be time to get something aboard
before the night was on us. And quick would have to be the word,
because, in the forecastle they had reached pretty nearly their last
biscuit.

I am not excusing myself. I own I could not have managed worse if I
had tried. I knew all along the stores were running short. I had
refused to refit at Hong Kong out of pure cussedness. What I said was
that if the lubbers wouldn’t ship their cargo, I wouldn’t buy their
stores. And I didn’t. I meant to take in fresh supplies when we had a
chance. We had not had a chance as yet. But now that we had come down
to nothing it was clear that we must get something, if it was only
enough to take us along for a day or two.

Fortunately the sea was calm, the anchorage good. We were able to run
close in. Directly a boat was lowered the men started off as if they
were rowing for grub-stakes. Which they were.

So far as I could see the country thereabouts was uninhabited. If that
was the case, it was a poor look out for us. But as it was a shelving
shore, with trees crowning the crest as far as the eye could reach, it
was possible that both houses and people might be close at hand though
hidden from sight. Which, if I wished to avoid further trouble, was a
state of things devoutly to be desired.

I saw the boat reach land, men get out of it, climb the slope,
disappear from view. And then, for more than three mortal hours, I saw
no more of them. It was pretty tedious waiting. Every man-jack on
board kept a keen look-out. Discipline was not so good as it might
have been--for reasons. There was no conspicuous attempt, as the
minutes crept slowly by, to conceal the apparently general impression
that it was a case of bunk; that those sailor men had thought it
better to throw in their lot with the natives of those parts, rather
than to continue the voyage with me. At the bottom of my boots I felt
that if such was the fact it was not for me to say that they were
fools.

However, it proved not to be the fact. Sometime after darkness had
fallen, just as I was concluding that it would perhaps be as well to
send a second boat in search of the first, and take command of it
myself, boat No. 1 returned. It was greeted with language which might
be described as hearty. They had had some luck, brought something in
the victual line. Without any reference to my authority a raid was
made on what they had brought I said nothing, not caring what they
did. If they wanted to keep themselves alive, what did it matter to
me?

The boat had been in command of a man named Luke. At Yokohama I had
had a few words with the first mate, and sent him packing. At Hong
Kong there was a difference of opinion with the second, he went after
the first. As the third fancied himself ill, and thought he’d try the
hospital ashore for a change, it looked as if we were going to be
under officered. There was a handy man aboard who called himself Luke.
Just Luke. I didn’t know much about him, what I did know I didn’t
altogether like. But, as I say, he was a handy man. One of those chaps
who can drive an engine or trim a sail. He knew something about
navigation. Said he had a mate’s certificate, but I never saw it, and
never had any reason to believe anything he said. Anyhow, being in a
bit of a hole I took his word for it, and first mate he was appointed.

Some little time after he’d come aboard I was sitting in my cabin,
feeling, as usual, like murder or suicide, when there was a tapping at
the door. It was Luke.

“Beggin’ pardon, captin, but can I have a word with you?”

“Have two.”

He had three--and more. He stood, looking at me in the furtive,
sneaking way he always had, twiddling his cap with his fingers like a
forecastle hand.

“Excuse me, captain, but I don’t fancy as how you’ve been overmuch in
luck this trip.”

“My dear Mr. Luke, whatever can have caused you to imagine a thing
like that?”

“Well--it’s pretty obvious, ain’t it?”

He grinned. I could have broken his head.

“Is it for the purpose of imparting that information that I am
indebted to the pleasure of your presence here?”

“Well no; it ain’t.” He scraped his jaw with his hand, as if to feel
if it wanted shaving, which it did. “The fact is, I shouldn’t be
surprised if you chanced upon a bit of luck still, if you liked.”

“If I liked! You’re a man of humour.”

“It’s this way.” He hesitated, as if doubtful as to the advisability
of telling me which way it was. “It all depends upon whether you’d
care to run a trifle of risk.”

“After what I’ve gone through it’d have to be a pretty big trifle of
risk which would prevent me snatching a chestnut out of the fire.”

“That’s what I thought.”

He cleared his throat.

“Get on, man, get on!”

“It’s this way.”

“You’ve said it’s this way, but you haven’t said which way.”

“There’s a--we’ll say party, as wants a passage to England, bad.”

“Where is this party?”

“Over there.”

He nodded his head in the direction of the shore.

“Who is this party?”

“That’s where it is; he’s a Joss.”

“A Joss? What do you mean? What are you grinning at? Don’t try to play
any of your damfool jokes with me, I’m not taking any.”

“It’s no joke, captain; it’s dead earnest. The party is a Joss, and
that’s where it is.”

“What do you mean by a Joss?”

“It seems that a Joss is a sort of a kind of a god of the country, as
it were.”

Luke’s grin became more cavernous.

“Are you suggesting that we should raid a temple; is that what you’re
after?”

“Well, no, not quite that. This party, although a Joss, is an
Englishman.”

“An Englishman!”

“Yes, an Englishman; and having had enough of being a Joss he wants to
get back to his native land, ‘England, home and beauty,’ and that kind
of thing, and he’s willing to pay high for getting there.”

“Where’s the risk?”

“Well, it seems that the people in these parts think a good deal of
him, and they don’t care to have their gods and such-like cut their
lucky whenever they think they will. Besides, he wouldn’t want to come
empty-handed.”

“How do you mean?”

Luke glanced round, as if searching for unseen listeners. His voice
sank.

“I didn’t manage to get more than half-a-dozen words, as it might be,
with the party in question----”

“How did you manage to get those?”

The dear man’s face assumed a crafty look.

“Well, it was a kind of accident, as it were; but that is neither here
nor there. From what I’m told there’s a slap-up temple on the other
side of the hill, what’s crammed with the offerings of the faithful.
This here party’s been a good time in the neighbourhood, and through
their thinking a lot of him, as I’ve said, they’ve brought him heaps
and heaps of presents. It’s them he wants to take away with him.”

“If they’re his who’s to say him no?”

“Well, there’s a lot of other coves about the temple, and they won’t
allow they are his. Anyhow, they’d raise hell-and-Tommy if they knew
he thought of taking them to England.”

“I see. As I supposed at first, it’s a big steal you’re after.”

“It’s hardly fair to call it that, captain. The things are his. It’s
only those other blokes’ cussed greediness.”

“It is that way sometimes. One man says things are his which other
people claim; then, poor beggar, he gets locked up because they are so
grasping. What is he disposed to pay for taking him and his
belongings?”

“Just whatever you choose to ask.”

In Luke’s eyes, as they met mine, there was a peculiar meaning.

“Then he’ll find his passage an expensive one.”

“I don’t think you’ll find there’ll be any trouble about that. You get
him and his safe to England, and I shouldn’t be surprised but what
you’d find, captain, that you’d made a good voyage after all. The only
thing is, there’s no time to be lost. He’s in a hurry. He’s not so
young as he was, and he’s about as sick of this neighbourhood as he
can be.”

“He can come aboard at once if he likes.”

“Well, that would be sharp work, wouldn’t it? But I don’t know that it
can be done quite so quick as that. You see, there’s a good deal of
stuff, and it’s got to be got away, and without any fuss. But I tell
you what, captain, he would like to have a word with you, if so be as
you wouldn’t mind.”

“Where is he? Did you bring him with you in the boat?”

“No, I didn’t do that. He ain’t a party as can go where, when, and how
he likes. There’s eyes upon him all the time, and there’s other
things. But I do know where he’s to be found, and I did go so far as
to say that if so be you was willin’ I’d bring you straight back to
him right away, and then you might talk things over; I did make so
bold as to go as far as that.”

“Do you wish me to understand that he’s waiting for me now?”

“Well, that’s about the size of it.”

“I’ll come.”

I went.



 CHAPTER XXVI.
 THE THRONE IN THE CENTRE.

Never shall I forget that row in the moonlight. It was one of those
clear, soft, mysterious nights, which one sometimes gets in those
latitudes, when the air seems alive with unseen things. One’s half shy
of talking for fear of being overheard. I’m no hand at description,
but those who have been in those parts know the sort of night I mean.
I was not in a romantic mood, God knows. Nor, so far as I could see,
was there much of romance about the expedition. But I had been
brooding, brooding, brooding, till things had got into my blood. As I
sat there in the boat I felt as if I were moving through a world of
dream.

We had brought a funny crowd. At the back of my mind, and I felt sure
at the back of Luke’s, was the feeling that if the thing had to be
done at all then the quicker it was done the better. It was a case of
taking time by the forelock. _The Flying Scud_ had a ragged crew. The
Lord alone could tell what was the nationality of most of them. Out of
the bunch we had picked the best. There was the chief engineer, Isaac
Rudd. He had shipped with me before. I knew him, and that he wouldn’t
stick at a trifle. A man who had had to wrestle with such engines as
ours wasn’t likely to. In a manner of speaking he was as deep in the
ditch as I was; because if things had gone wrong his share of the
blame was certainly equal to mine. If there was a chance of levelling
up then we were both about as eager to snatch at it. Then there was
Holley, Sam Holley, whom I had made second mate. Though he was a fat
man, with a squeaky voice, I was hoping there were not too many soft
streaks in him. There was his chum, Bill Cox, the very antipodes of
himself. A shrivelled-up little fellow, with a voice like a big
bassoon. Those two always went together.

Lord knows who the rest were. Though I had a kind of an inkling that
Luke had done his best to see there were no shirkers, I had not
breathed a syllable about the game we were after. But Luke might have
dropped a hint. There was that about the fellows which to me smelt
like business. And I felt sure that each man had about him somewhere
something which would come in handy to fight with.

Still, I knew nothing about that. The impression I had wished to
convey was that we were enjoying a little moonlight excursion, and
that if anything was about, it was peace and mercy.

We reached shore. I spoke to them as Luke and I were getting out.

“You chaps will stay here. Mr. Holley, you’ll be in command and see
that there’s no roving. Mr. Rudd, you will come with us to the top of
the hill. Mr. Luke and I are going to see a friend on a little matter
of business. If you hear a double catcall, or the sound of firearms,
or anything that makes you think that we’re not altogether enjoying
ourselves, you pass the word at once. Then you chaps will come on for
all you’re worth. Leave one man in charge of the boat; that’s all.”

We then went up the slope. At the top we left Rudd, with a final tip
from me to keep his eyes skinned, and his ears open. Luke and I
plunged right away into what seemed to me to be a trackless forest.
How he could find his way in it, considering he had only been there
once in his life before, and then in broad daylight, was beyond my
understanding. But there were one or two things about St. Luke which I
couldn’t make out, either then or afterwards. Anyhow he forged his way
ahead as if he had been used to the place from his cradle up. Never
seemed puzzled for a moment.

Presently we reached an open space. The moon shone down so that it was
as light as day. Only there was a fringe of outer darkness all around.
Luke made a queer noise with his lips. I suppose it was some sort of
bird he was imitating. He repeated it three times; with an interval
between each. Then something came out of the darkness which took me
all aback.

It was a woman.

When she first appeared she had something white over her, head and
all. Coming close up to us, drawing the covering aside with a
dexterous switch, she stood bareheaded. I stared in amazement. I had
not known there were such women in the world. I stammered to Luke--

“Who’s this?”

To my astonishment she answered--in English a thousand times better
than mine. It was a treat to listen to her.

“It is I.”

Off came my cap in a twinkling.

“I beg your pardon. I had no idea I was to meet a lady.”

“A lady? Am I a lady? Yes?” She laughed. She alone knew what at. Such
laughter! “I am Susan.”

Susan! She was as much a Susan as I was a Jupiter. I said then, and I
say now, and I shall keep on saying, she was the loveliest creature I
had ever seen even in--I won’t say dreams, because I don’t dream--but
in pictures. She was straight as a mast. Carried herself as if she
were queen of the earth; which she was. Yet with a dainty grace which
for bewitching charm was beyond anything I had ever imagined. And her
eyes! They were like twin moons in a summer sky. As I looked at her
every nerve in my body tingled.

She added, since she saw me speechless:

“I am the daughter of the gods.”

That was better. She was that. The daughter of the gods--as she put it
herself. I could have dropped at her feet and worshipped. But she went
on:

“You are from the ship? You are the captain?”

“I am Max Lander.”

“Max Lander?” She repeated my name in a sort of a kind of a way which
made everything seem to swim before my eyes. “It is a good name. We
shall be friends.”

“Friends!”

She held out her hands to me. As I took them into mine, Lord! how I
shivered. I fancy she felt me shaking by the way she smiled. It made
me worse, her smile did. She kept cool through it all.

“Shall we not be friends?”

“My dear lady, I--I hope we shall.”

Talk about being at a loss for words! I could have poured out
thousands. Only just then my dictionary had all its pages torn out,
and I didn’t know where to lay my hand upon one of them.

“It is my father you have come to see.”

“Your father?”

I had forgotten what had brought me. Everything but the fact that she
was standing there, in the moonlight, within reach of me, had passed
from my mind. Her words brought me back to earth with a bang. Her
father? Was it possible that I had come to see her father? She, the
daughter of the gods; what manner of man must be her sire? I stuttered
and I stammered.

“I--I didn’t understand I’d come to see your father.”

“He is the Great Joss.”

“The Great Joss?”

What on earth did she mean? What was a Joss, anyhow, great or little?
I had heard of joss-sticks, though I only had a hazy notion what they
were. But a real live Joss, who could be the father of such a
daughter, was a new kind of creature altogether. She offered no
explanation.

“He waits for you. I am here to bring you to him. Come.”

She fluttered off among the trees.

“Luke,” I whispered as we followed, “this is not at all the sort of
thing I was prepared for.”

“She’s a fine piece, ain’t she?”

A “fine piece!” To apply his coarse Whitechapel slang to such a being!
It was unendurable. I could have knocked him down. Only I thought
that, just then, I had better not. I preserved silence instead.

It was like a page out of a fairy tale; we followed the enchanted
princess through the wood of wonders. The gleaming of her snow-white
robes was all we had to guide us. Shafts of light shot down upon her
through the trees. When they struck her she shone like silver. She
moved swiftly through the forest; out of the darkness into the light,
then into the dark again. No sound marked her passing. She sped on
noiseless feet. While Luke struggled clumsily after her.

She took us perhaps a quarter of a mile. Even as we went I wondered if
Isaac Rudd upon the hill-top would hear us should we find ourselves in
want of aid. How help would reach us if he did. One would need to be
highly endowed with the instinct of locality to follow us by the way
which we had come. A rendezvous hidden in a primeval forest, as this
one seemed to be, might not be found easy of access by any sailor man.

She stopped; waiting till we came close up to her.

“It is here. Be careful; there is a step.”

It was only when she opened a door, and I perceived the shimmer of a
dim light beyond, that I realised that we were standing in the shadow
of some kind of building. The darkness had seemed to be growing more
opaque. Here was the explanation. If it had not been for her we should
have knocked our heads against the wall. Nothing betrayed its
neighbourhood; not a light, not a sound. If it had been placed there,
cheek by jowl with the towering trees, with the intent of concealing
its existence as much as possible from the eyes of men, the design had
been well conceived and carried out. At night no one would suspect its
presence. How it would be by day I could not tell. I doubted if it
would be much more obvious then. It was no hut. As I glanced above me
it seemed to be of huge proportions. Its blackness soared up and up
like some grim nightmare. What could it be?

Our guide entered. I followed; Luke brought up the rear. It was some
seconds before I began to even faintly understand what kind of place
it was which we were in. Then I commenced to realise that it must be
some kind of heathen temple. Its vastness amazed me. Whether it was or
was not exaggerated by the prevailing semi-darkness I could not
positively determine. To me it seemed to be monstrous. Height,
breadth, length, all were lost in shadows. Wherever I looked I could
not see the end. Only a haunting impression of illimitable distance.

The door by which we had entered was evidently a private one. There
was only space for one at a time to pass. To such an edifice there
must have been another entrance, to permit of the passage of large
crowds. Though I could not guess in which direction it might be.
Columns rose on every hand. I had a notion that they were of varied
colours; covered with painted carvings. But whether they were of wood,
stone, or metal I could not say. Their number added an extra touch of
bewilderment. One gazed through serried lines and lines of columns
which seemed to bridge the gathering shadows with the outer darkness
which was beyond.

Until our guide moved more towards the centre of the building, with us
at her heels, I did not understand where the light which illumined the
place came from. It proceeded from what I suppose was the altar. The
high altar. A queer one it was. And imposing to boot. Anyhow, seen in
that half light, with us coming on it unprepared, and not expecting
anything of the kind, it was imposing, and something more. I don’t
mind owning that I had a queer feeling about my back. Just as if
someone had squeezed an unexpected drop of water out of a sponge, and
it was going trickling down my spine.

There was some fascinating representations of what one could only
trust were not common objects of the seashore. These were of all
sizes. Some several times as large as life, and, one fervently hoped,
a hundred times less natural. They stood for originals which, so far
as my knowledge of physiology goes, are to be found neither in the
sea, or under it; on the earth, or over it; or anywhere adjacent. The
powers be thanked! They were monsters; just that, and would have been
excellent items in a raving madman’s ideal freak museum. Anywhere else
they were out of place. There was one sweet creature which
particularly struck my fancy. It was some fourteen or fifteen feet
high, and was about all mouth. Its mouth was pretty wide open. It
would have made nothing of swallowing a Jonah. And was fitted with a
set of teeth which were just the thing to scrunch his bones.

These pretty dears were arranged in a semicircle, each on a stand of
its own. The small ones were outside. They grew bigger as they went
on, until, by the time you reached the biggest in the middle, if you
were a drinking man you were ready to turn teetotaler at sight. The
hues they were decked in were enough to make you envy the colour
blind. Coming on this livening collection without the slightest
notice, in that great black mystery of a place, with just light enough
to let them hit you in the eye, and hidden in the darkness you knew
not what besides, was a bit trying to the nerves. At least it was to
mine. And I’m not generally accounted a nervous subject.

The strangest thing of all was in the centre. I stared at it, and
stared; yet I couldn’t make out what it was.

It was on a throne; if it wasn’t gold it looked like it. It was large
enough for half-a-dozen men. Standing high. Right in the middle,
flanked by the biggest pair of monsters, the seat was on a level with
the tops of their heads. It was approached by a flight of steps, each
step apparently of different coloured stone. Coloured lamps were hung
above and about it. One noticed how, in the draughty air, they were
swinging to and fro. From these proceeded all the light that was in
the place, except that here and there upon the steps were queer-shaped
vessels, seemingly of copper, in which something burned, flashing up
now and then in changing hues, like Bengal lights. From them, I
judged, proceeded the sickly smell which made the whole place like a
pest-house. And the smoke was horrid.

In the very centre of the throne was something, though what I could
not make out. It seemed immobile; yet there was that about it which
suggested life. The face and head were as hideous as any of the
horrors round about, and yet--could the thing be human? Long
parti-coloured hair--scarlet, yellow, green, all sorts of unnatural
colours--descending from the scalp nearly obscured the visage. There
seemed to be only one eye and no nose. If there were ears they were
hidden. Was it some obscene creature or the mockery of a man? There
were no signs of legs. The thing was scarcely more than three feet
high. Being clad in a sort of close-fitting tunic, which was ablaze
with what seemed diamonds, legs, if there had been any, could scarcely
have been hidden. There was certainly nothing in the way of breeches.
Arms, on the other hand, there were and to spare. A pair dangled at
the sides which were longer than the entire creature. Huge hands were
at the ends.

While I gazed at this nightmare creation of some delirious showman’s
fancy, wondering if such a creature by any possibility could ever have
had actual existence, that most beautiful woman in the world who had
brought us there turned to me and said, as simply and as naturally as
if she were remarking that she’d take another lump of sugar in her
tea:--

“This is the Great Joss--my father.”

And Luke, clearing his throat, with an air half apologetic and half
familiar, observed, in a sort of husky groan, which I daresay he meant
for a whisper,

“Hallo, Ben, my cockalorum bird, how goes it along with you, old son?”



 CHAPTER XXVII.
 THE OFFERINGS OF THE FAITHFUL.

No notice was taken of Luke’s inquiry. Instead, the whole place was
filled all at once with a variety of discordant sounds. They seemed to
proceed from the monsters which were ranged about the central figure.
At the same time their arms began to move, their heads to waggle,
their mouths to open and shut, their eyes to roll. Possibly, to the
untaught savage, such an exhibition might have appeared impressive. It
reminded me too much of the penny-in-the-slot figures whose limbs are
set in motion by the insertion of a coin. The slight awe which I had
felt for the figures vanished for good and all.

“That’s enough of it,” I observed “I like them better when they’re
still. Would whoever’s pulling the strings mind taking a rest?”

I had a sort of a kind of an idea that by someone or other my remark
was not relished so much as it deserved. A suspicion that in some
quarter there was a feeling of resentment that what had been intended
to confound me should have ended in a fizzle. The noises stopped; the
figures ceased to move; it was as if the coin-in-the-slot had given us
our pennyworth. Instead, something which, from my point of view, was
very much more objectionable began to happen.

From the immediate neighbourhood of the figure on the throne snakes’
heads began to peep. There was no mistake that they were all
alive--oh! The evil-looking brutes began to slither over the sides. I
never could abide snakes, either in a figurative or a literal sense.
The mere sight of one puts my dander up. Whipping up a couple of
revolvers out of my coat pockets, I headed the muzzles straight for
them.

“Someone had better call those pretty darlings off before I shoot the
eyes clean out of their heads!”

To my surprise the warning was immediately answered.

“You’d better not shoot at them, my lad, or you’ll be sorry.”

The words came from the creature on the throne.

“So you are alive, are you? You’d better call them off, or I’ll shoot
first, and be sorry after.”

“They’re not touching you, you fool!”

“No, and I’m not going to wait until they are.”

The things were coming unpleasantly close--their approach setting
every nerve in my body on edge. In another second or two I would have
fired. Luke caught me by the arm.

“Gently, captain, gently. The snakes won’t hurt you; our friend won’t
let them. It’s only his way. Captain, let me introduce you to my old
friend, Mr. Benjamin Batters. My friend and me haven’t seen each other
for years, have we, Ben?”

“Can’t say I ever wanted to see you.”

“Just so, just so; still friends do meet again. Ben, this is Captain
Lander.”

“He doesn’t seem to know his proper place.”

“When I glance in your direction, Mr. Batters, I’m inclined to make
the same remark of you.”

“Damn the man!”

The creature proved himself to be very much alive by seizing one of
the serpents in his huge hands and whirling it above his head as if it
had been a club.

Luke played the part of peacemaker.

“Now, gentlemen! Come, Ben, no offence was meant, I’m sure. Tell the
captain what you want. He’s in rather a hurry, Captain Lander is.”

“Then let him go to the devil, and take his hurry with him.”

“By all means. I wish you good evening, Mr. Batters.”

I swung round on my heels. The creature screamed after me.

“Stop, you fool, stop! I’m the Joss--the Great Joss; the greatest god
this country’s ever known. In my presence all men fall upon their
knees and worship me.”

“Let ’em. Tastes differ. I like my gods to be built on other lines.”

I expected to be attacked by a shower of execration. But the creature
changed his mood.

“And I’m sick of being a god--sick of it--dead sick! Curse your
josses, is what I say--damn ’em!” There followed a flood of
adjectives. “I want to get out of the place, to turn my back upon the
whole infernal land, to never set eyes on it again. I’m an Englishman,
that’s what I am--an Englishman, British born and British bred. I want
to get back to my native land. Captain Lander, or whatever your cursed
name is, will you take me back to England?”

“When?”

“Now--at once--to-night!”

“I do not carry passengers. I doubt if I have proper accommodation.
What will you give me for taking you?”

“I’ll show you what I’ll give you.”

The creature scrambled off his throne by means of his arms and hands,
like some huge baboon. As I had suspected, he appeared to have no
legs. Reaching the ground he moved at what, under the circumstances,
was an extraordinary pace. Wheels had been attached to the stumps of
his legs. Using his hands as a monkey does its forearms, he advanced
upon these wheels as if they had been castors. As we followed him Luke
whispered in my ear:--

“You mustn’t mind what he says; he’s a bit off his chump, poor chap.”

“From what I can see there seems to be a bit off him elsewhere besides
the chump.”

“Oh, he’s lived a queer life. Been cut to pieces, stewed in oil, and I
don’t know what. He’s a tough ’un. It’s a miracle he’s alive. I
thought he was dead years ago. When I first knew him he was a finer
man than me.”

Mr. Batters had brought us to an apartment which seemed to be used as
a repository for the treasures of the temple. The room was not a large
one, but it was as full as it could hold. Curios were on every hand.
Trading in Eastern seas I had seen something of things of the kind; I
knew that those I saw there had value. There were images, ornaments,
vessels of all sorts, and shapes, and sizes, apparently of solid gold.
He lifted the lid of a lacquered case.

“You see that? That’s dust--gold dust. There are more than twenty
cases full of it, worth at least a thousand pounds apiece. You see
those?” He was holding up another box for my inspection. “Those are
diamonds, rubies, pearls, sapphires, opals, and turquoises.”

“Real?”

“Real!” he screamed. “They’re priceless! unique! They’re offerings
which the faithful have made to me, the Great Joss. They come from men
and women who are the greatest and the richest in the land. Do you
think they would dare to offer me imitations? If they were guilty of
such sacrilege I would destroy them root and branch. And they know
it!” The creature snarled like some great cat. “I know something of
stones, and I tell you you won’t find finer gems in any jeweller’s
shop in London--nor any as fine.” He waved his arms. “You won’t match
the things you see here in all Europe--not in kings’ palaces nor in
national museums. I know, and I tell you. If all the things you see in
this place were put up in a London auction room for sale to-morrow,
they’d fetch more than a million pounds--down on the nail! I swear
they would! If you’ll take me with you to England to-night--me and my
daughter here; this is my daughter, Susan. She’s her father’s only
child.” The irony of it! My stars! A shudder went all over me as I
thought of her being connected by ties of blood with such an object.
“If you’ll give the pair of us ship-room, and all these
things--they’re all my property, every pin’s worth, all offerings to
the Great Joss--you and your crew shall have half of everything you
see. That shall be in payment of our passage.”

Half!

My mouth watered. His appraisement of the value of the things I saw
about me went to all intents and purposes unheeded. Divide his figures
by twenty. Say their worth was £50,000. Half of that, even after I,
and Luke, and Rudd, and the rest of them had had their pickings--and
out of a venture of this sort pickings there would have to be--the
remnant would still leave a handsome profit for the owners. I knew the
kind of men with whom I had to deal. Only give them a sufficient
profit, I need not fear being placed in their black books. However it
might have come. And then there was half that collection of gems--I
would have that too. And half the gold dust. Ye whales and little
fishes! this might yet turn out the most profitable voyage I’d ever
made.

Yet I easily perceived that there might be breakers ahead.

“You say that all these things are yours?”

“Every one--every speck of gold dust. All! all! I am the only Great
Joss; they have been given to me.”

“Then, in that case, there will be no difficulty in removing them.”

The response came brusquely enough, and to the point.

“That’s where you’re a fool. Do you suppose I’d share the plunder if
there weren’t? If it was known that I was going to make myself scarce,
let alone hooking off with this lot of goods, there’d be hell to pay.
I haven’t stayed here all this time because I wanted; I had to. They
made of me the thing you see; cut me to pieces; boiled, burned, and
baked me; skinned me alive. Then they dipped me in a paint-pot and
made of me a god. The next thing they’ll make of me’ll be a corpse; I
can’t stand being pulled about with red-hot pincers like I used to.
There’s a hundred adjectived priests about this adjectived show. They
all want to have a finger in my pie. When I had a word with Luke here,
and arranged with him to have a word with you, I sent the whole damned
pack off miracle working at a place half-a-dozen miles away from here.
We’ll have to be cleared off before they’re back or there’ll be
fighting; they can fight! And the man who falls into their hands alive
before they’ve done with him will curse his mother for ever having
borne him.”

“How do you propose to go--walk?”

“Walk!” He laughed--a laugh which wasn’t nice to hear. “I haven’t
walked for twenty years--since they burned my legs off so that I
shouldn’t. When the Great Joss goes abroad he travels in his
palanquin--there it is. And as he passes the people throw themselves
on to the ground and hide their faces in the dust, lest, at the sight
of his godlike form, they should fall dead. You’ll have to fetch your
chaps, and be quick about it! They’ll have to carry me, and I’ll stuff
the palanquin as full as it will hold with the things which are best
worth taking. I know ’em!”

I reflected for a moment. Then turned to Luke.

“Do you think you can find your way to Rudd?”

The girl interposed.

“Let me go; I shall be surer--and quicker.”

“You can’t go alone; they won’t take their orders from you.” An idea
occurred to me. “I’ll come with you, and we’ll take as many things
with us as we can carry. Luke, you stay behind and help Mr. Batters
put the things together in convenient parcels. I doubt if there’ll be
enough of us to take everything. Pick out the best. As time’s
precious, what we can’t take we shall have to leave behind.”

I crammed my pockets with the smaller odds and ends, none the less
valuable, perhaps, because they were small. I packed a lot of other
things into a sort of sheet which I slung over my shoulder. The girl
stowed as much as she could carry into the skirt of her queer
fashioned gown. She held it up as children do their pinafores. Out we
went into the night.

As we hurried along my breath came faster even than the pace warranted
at the thought of being alone in the darkness with her.

We went some way before a word was spoken. Then I asked a question.

“Do you want to go to England?”

“Want!” She gave a sigh, as of longing. “I have wanted ever since I
was born.”

“Then you shall go whoever has to stay behind.”

“Stay behind--how do you mean?” She seemed to read in my words a
hidden significance. “My father must go. If he stays I stay also.”

“Is he really your father?”

“Of course he is my father. My mother was one of the women of the
country. They burned her when I was born.”

“Burned her?”

“As a thank offering for having borne unto the Great Joss a child.”

She spoke in the most matter-of-fact tone. I wondered what sort of
place this was I had got into, whether the people hereabouts were men
or demons. She went on quietly.

“My father is the Great Joss. It was a great thing to the people that
a woman should have borne to him a child.”

“A child who was a goddess.”

I was ashamed of myself directly the words were uttered. It seemed to
be taking an unfair advantage to say things to her like that. But she
didn’t seem to mind.

“A goddess? That is what men worship.”

“Just so. That is what men worship.”

She laughed to herself softly, so that only I, who was close at her
side, could hear. There was that in the sound which set my blood on
fire.

“If I am a goddess, whom you worship, then you must be god, and I must
worship you. Shall it be?”

I did not answer. Whether she was playing with me I could not tell. I
knew all the while that it was just as likely. But there was something
in the question, and in the way in which she asked it, which put all
my senses in confusion. It was a wonder I didn’t come a dozen times to
the ground. My wits were wandering. We exchanged not another syllable.
I had lost my tongue.

As we neared Rudd he challenged us.

“Who comes there?”

“It’s all right, Rudd; it’s I.” He was plainly surprised at the sight
of my companion. But, being a discreet soul, asked no questions.
Perhaps he had already concluded--being quite capable of drawing
deductions on his own account--that queer things were in the air.
“Stay where you are. I shall be back in a minute and shall want you.
I’m going to fetch the men out of the boat. There’s a job of work on
hand.”

We ran down the slope. Found the boat where I had left it. Deposited
in it the things which we had brought away with us; no one offering a
comment. As I unloaded I gave hurried instructions. In certainly not
much more that the minute of which I had spoken to Rudd we were
starting back to him. One man we left in the boat; five we took with
us. Of their quality in a scrimmage I knew nothing; but, as I had
suspected, each had brought with him something with which to make his
mark in case of ructions. If one might judge from their demeanour the
suggestion that there might be friction ahead seemed to give them
satisfaction rather than otherwise. Especially when I added a hint
that there was plunder to be got by those who cared to get it. They
put no inconvenient inquiries. Whose property it might chance to be
was their captain’s affair not theirs. For once in a way they
recognised the force of the fact that it was theirs only to obey.

All they wanted was a share of the spoil.



 CHAPTER XXVIII.
 THE JOSS REVERTS.

We passed through the forest in single file; the girl first, I next;
the men hard upon each other’s heels. We found Luke apparently alone.
I thought that the Joss had returned for some purpose to the temple.

“What’s he gone for?” I asked.

Luke made a movement with his forefinger, suggesting caution. He spoke
in a hoarse whisper.

“He’s not gone; he’s there--in the palanquin.” His voice sank lower.
“I rather fancy that he don’t want to be looked at more than he can
help. Poor chap! he feels that, to look at, he ain’t the man as once
he was.”

Luke grinned. Sympathy did not go very deep with him.

The palanquin was drawn out upon the floor. The girl stooped over it.

“Father!” A voice proceeded from within--a surly voice:--

“I’m here all right; don’t let’s have any nonsense. Tell ’em to be
careful how they carry me; I don’t want to be jolted to bits by a lot
of awkward fools. They’re to hurry for all that; those devils may be
back at any minute. We’ve arranged the things as best we can; Luke
will tell them what’s to be taken first.”

Luke volunteered to be one of the palanquin bearers, suggesting that
Isaac Rudd should be the other. Isaac glanced doubtfully towards me.

“It’s all right, Mr. Rudd. There’s a friend of mine in there, an
invalid, who is not able to walk very well over uneven ground. If you
will assist Mr. Luke, I’ll be obliged. You’ll find that you’ll be able
to carry him very easily between you.”

Isaac expressed his willingness to lend a hand, though I could see
that he still had his doubts as to what was in the palanquin. To be
frank, I was doubtful too. I wondered what it contained besides
Benjamin Batters.

Luke and his friend, considering the short time they had had at their
disposal, had put the goods into convenient form for transit. Some had
been packed in wooden cases, some in bundles, some in sacks. Each man
took as much as he could carry--inquiring of himself, I make no doubt,
what it was that he was bearing. I took my share. The girl took hers.
Luke and Rudd shouldered the palanquin; the second in front, the first
behind--Luke taking up his position in the rear, so that he might the
more easily, if necessary, hold communication with its occupant.

The procession started. The girl was its guide, now in advance, how at
the palanquin side holding converse with her father. I gathered from
what I heard that he was not in the sweetest temper. Luke and Rudd
were not practised beards. The way was difficult. The light trying.
Now and then one or the other would stumble. The palanquin was jolted.
From its interior issued a curse which, if not loud, was deep and
strong.

We reached the open on the crest of the slope without interruption. I
was beginning to conclude that, consciously or unconsciously, Batters
had exaggerated the danger which would attend his attempt at flight.
We had borne him away if not in triumph, at least with impunity;
looted the temple of its best belongings; no one had endeavoured to
say us nay. It might be almost worth our while to return for what we
had left behind. Actual peril there appeared to be none. No one seemed
cognisant of what was going on, or seemed to care. If the temple
itself had been portable, we might have carried it away entire; the
result apparently would have been the same.

Thinking such thoughts I watched Luke and Rudd go swinging down the
slope in the moonlight. I almost suspected them of intentional
awkwardness; they treated that palanquin to such a continuous shaking.
Its occupant must have been gripping the sides with his huge hands, or
surely he would have been dislodged and shot on to the ground. With a
stream of adjectives he enlivened the proceedings.

“Small blame to him,” said I to myself. “If jolting’s good for the
liver, as I’ve heard, he’ll have had a good dose of the medicine
before he’s through. If swearing ’ll make it easier, for the Lord’s
sake let him swear.”

And he swore. And right in the middle of about as full flavoured a
string of observations as I had ever heard there arose a wild cry from
the forest behind us. In a second the Joss’ head appeared between the
curtains.

“Quick! quick! It’s the devils--the devils!”

It needed no urging from me--or from him either--to induce everyone
concerned to quicken his pace. On a sudden the forest where, a moment
back, had reigned the silence of the grave, was now alive with shouts
and noises. People were shrieking. What sounded like drums were being
banged. Guns were being fired. The Great Joss’ absence was discovered.
Possibly the absence of a good deal of valuable property had been
discovered too. The alarm was being given. The priests--those pious
souls who had burned the girl’s mother alive as a reward for having
borne the Great Joss a child!--were warning the country far and wide
of what had happened. In a few minutes the whole countryside would be
upon us.

I don’t fancy the fighting instinct was very hot in any of us just
then. There was something ominous about that din. We were few. The
proceedings on which we were engaged might appear odd regarded from a
certain point of view. Fortunately, we were near the boat.

As luck would have it, when he was within a dozen paces of the water’s
edge, Luke, tripping over a bush, or something, dropped on to his
knee. The palanquin, torn from Isaac’s shoulders, descended to the
ground with a crash. What were Mr. Batters’ feelings I am unable to
say. I expected to see him shot through the roof, like a
jack-in-the-box. But he wasn’t. So far as I could tell in the haste
and confusion he was silent. Which was ominous. The girl sank down
beside the fallen palanquin with the evident intention of offering
words of comfort to her revered, though maltreated, parent.

Before she had a chance of saying a word Luke had righted himself.
Rudd had regained possession of the end which he had lost. Mr. Batters
inside might be dead. That was a matter of comparative indifference.
No inquiries were made. Somehow the palanquin was being borne towards
the boat. Of exactly what took place during the next few minutes I
have only vague impressions. I know that the palanquin was got into
the boat somehow, with the Great Joss, or what was left of him, still
inside. The men, disposing of their burdens anywhere or anyhow, began
to get out their oars. I dropped my loot somewhere aft. The boat was
got afloat. The girl--who had all at once got as frightened of the sea
as a two-year-old child--I lifted in my arms, carried through three
feet of water, and put aboard. I followed.

A wild-looking figure came tearing after us down the slope. There were
others, but he was in front, and I noticed him particularly. He was a
tall, thin old party, dressed in yellow, with a bald head, and a face
that looked like a corpse’s in the moonlight. It was yellow, like his
dress. As wicked a physiognomy as ever I set eyes upon. He was in a
towering rage. When he got down to the shore we were in deep water,
perhaps twenty yards away. He seemed so anxious to get at us I
expected to see him start swimming after us. Not a bit of it. I rather
imagine that the people just thereabouts were not fond of water in any
form. He refused to allow the sea to damp so much as the tips of his
toes. He screamed at us instead--to my surprise, in English--not bad
English either.

“The Joss! The Great Joss! Give us back our Joss!”

“Wouldn’t you like it?” I returned.

I wasn’t over civil, not liking his looks. I wondered if he had had a
hand in burning the girl’s mother. He looked that sort of man.

He raised his hands above his head and cursed us. He looked a quaint
figure, standing there in the moon’s white rays. And ugly too.
Dangerous if he had a chance. His voice was not a loud one, but he had
a trick of getting it to travel.

“You dog! you thief! you accursed! you have stolen from us the Great
Joss! But do not think that you can keep him. Wherever you may take
him, though it be across the black water, to the land beyond the sun,
we will follow. He shall be ours again. As for you, the flesh shall
fall from off you; the foul waters shall rot your bones; you shall
stink! Mocker of the gods!”

There was a good deal more of it. He continued his observations till
we were out of hearing. Repeating that he would follow us pretty well
everywhere before he would allow that Great Joss to be a bad debt.
Though he was a barbarian and loose in his geography, it struck me
that he meant what he said. If he could have laid his hands on me, and
have had me in a position where I couldn’t have laid mine on him, I
should have had a nice little experience before he’d done. That was
the kind of mood he was in.

Long before he had said all that he had to say he was joined by quite
a crowd. When he had about cursed himself out, he started on a funny
little entertainment of another kind. He made a fire close down by the
sea. His friends formed about it in a circle. He stood in the centre.
As the flames rose and fell he dropped things on them, stuff which
smoked and burned in different colours. The sort of rubbish which boys
in England buy in ha’porths and penn’orths, and make themselves a
nuisance with. Possibly, out there it costs more, so is thought a lot
of. As he put his rubbish on his fire, his friends moved round first
one way and then the other, behaving themselves generally like
fantastic idiots. And he threw himself into attitudes which would have
been a photographer’s joy. I had an impression that he was calling
down the wrath of the gods upon our heads, and doing it in style.

Our return to the ship created a good deal of excitement. One might
lay long odds that every man on board had been watching, for all that
he was worth, whatever there was to watch, without being able to make
head or tail of what he had seen. So that our arrival just gave the
final touch to the general curiosity.

The things, whose departure those gentlemen on shore were weeping for,
were got on board. The Great Joss wanted to be hoisted up in his
palanquin. When I pointed out that there were obstacles in the way, he
came out of it with a rush and shinned up the ship’s side like a
monkey. His appearance on deck made things lively. The men took him
for the devil, and shrank from him as such. Not wanting any more fuss
than might be helped, I led the way down the companion as fast as I
could. He came after me. Goodness alone knows how. It seemed to me he
was as handy on no legs as some people upon two. His daughter
followed.

I had been turning matters over in my mind coming along. There had
never been such a thing as a passenger known on _The Flying Scud_. At
that moment there was a vacant two-berth cabin suited to people who
might not be over and above particular. The Great Joss and his friend
Luke should have it. The Great Joss’ daughter should have Luke’s
quarters.

When Luke appeared he professed himself agreeable. Indeed, too
agreeable. There was an eagerness about the way in which he snatched
at my suggestion which made me thoughtful even in that first moment.
It was against nature that a man should be half beside himself with
delight at the prospect of being berthed with such a monster. As I
eyed Luke, noting the satisfaction which he was unable to conceal, I
wondered what was at the back of it.

However, so things were settled. Mr. Batters and the first mate were
placed together. Miss Batters had the first mate’s quarters.

When I got on deck again land was out of sight: I was disposed for
solitude and a quiet think. But I wasn’t to have them. I soon became
conscious that Isaac Rudd was taking peeps at me. He kept coming up
out of the engine room, an oily rag in his hand, and a sort of air
about him as if he wondered when I proposed to speak to him. At last I
took the hint.

“Well, Mr. Rudd, what is it?”

He came up, wiping his paws with his oily rag. His manner was
sententious.

“I thought, sir, that you might have something which you wished to say
to me.”

“About what?”

“This little game.”

“What little game?”

“The one we’ve just been playing. You see we’ve all been taking a hand
in it, and there’s a kind of feeling aboard this ship that there might
be something a little delicate about it, which might bring us into
trouble before we’ve done. And no man likes to take a risk--for
nothing.”

“I see. That’s it. You know me, and you know that I’m as good as my
word. You may tell the men from me that if the venture is brought
safely into port, and turns out what I expect, it will be twenty-five
pounds in the pockets of every man on board this ship, and a hundred
for each officer.”

“And what for the first engineer?” With that confounded oil rag of his
he wiped his scrubby chin. “I’m thinking that, under the
circumstances, I shouldn’t like to guarantee that the engines ’ll last
out for a hundred pounds. They’re just a lot of bits of iron tied
together with scraps of string. To keep them going will mean sleepless
nights.”

I laughed.

“Are they so bad as that? I’m sorry to hear it, Mr. Rudd. Rudd, you’re
a blackguard. You want to rob your captain--and the owners.”

“Damn the owners!”

“That’s against Scripture. An owner’s always blessed.”

“He’ll never be upon the other side if he sends a ship to sea with
such engines as we have.”

“They are a trial, aren’t they, Rudd?”

“They’re that.”

“So I think we may say that, under the circumstances, if the engines
do last out, it will mean five hundred pounds in the pocket of the
chief engineer.”

“Five hundred pounds? I’m not denying it’s an agreeable sum. I’d like
to handle it. And it’ll be no fault of mine if the machine blows up
before it’s just convenient. There’s just one other question I’d like
to put to you. Is it the devil that we’ve took aboard?”

“It’s not. But it’s something that’s seen the devil face to face, and
tasted of hell fire.”

Turning on my heel I left Isaac to make of my words what he could. A
variety of matters demanded my immediate consideration. I had pledged
my word that every man on board that ship should, in case of a certain
eventuality, receive a definite sum of money. The promise was perhaps
a rash one. But there was reason behind it. It would have to be kept.
Then there were the owners to be considered--and myself.

Where were the funds to come from with which to do these things? What
would they amount to, leaving fancy figures out. I should have to have
a clear understanding with the Great Joss. The sooner the better,
while I still, as it were, had a pull on him. Isaac Rudd had lost no
time. Neither would I.

I went down the companion ladder to have that understanding.



 CHAPTER XXIX.
 THE FATHER--AND HIS CHILD.

The cabin door was fastened. I rapped. Luke inquired from within--

“Who’s there?”

“I! Open the door.” So far as I could judge no attempt was made to do
as I requested. There were whispers instead. The voices were audible
though the words were not. I rapped again. “Do you hear? open this
door!”

Luke replied.

“Beggin’ your pardon, captain, but Mr. Batters isn’t feeling very
well. He hopes that you’ll excuse him.”

A louder rapping.

“Open this door.”

There were sounds which suggested that something was being done in a
hurry; an exchange of what were apparently expostulatory murmurs. Then
the Great Joss spoke.

“This is my cabin, Captain Lander----”

I cut him short.

“Your cabin!” I brought my fist against the door with a bang. “If you
don’t open at once, I’ll have the ship put about, take you back from
where you came, and dump you on shore. I’m in command here, and all
the cabins in this ship are mine. Now, which is it to be--open?--or
back?”

Luke began to mutter excuses.

“If you’ll just wait five minutes, captain----”

I felt convinced that they were doing something they didn’t wish me to
see, and which was highly desirable that I should see. I didn’t wait
for Luke to finish. I just planted my shoulder against the door, and
heaved. It leaped open. I had counted on the fastenings being rickety.
There was Luke and the Great Joss with their hands full of papers and
things which they had evidently just been attempting to conceal. The
girl stood looking on. I took off my cap to her.

“Miss Batters, I wish to speak to your father in private. Might I ask
you to leave us.” She went without a word. I turned to Luke. “Mr.
Luke, go up on deck, and wait there till I come.”

There was an ugly look on his face.

“If you don’t mind, captain, I should just like----”

“Do as I tell you, sir or you cease to be an officer on board this
ship.” He saw that I meant business; moved towards the door. “You
needn’t trouble to take those things with you.”

“Put them down, you fool,” growled Mr. Batters.

Luke put them down, and departed, not looking exactly pretty. When he
had gone, pushing the door to I stood with my back against it. The
Great Joss and I exchanged glances. He spoke first.

“You’ve a queer way of doing things.”

“I have. Of which fact your presence here is an illustration.”

“I’ve not shipped as one of your crew. I’m a passenger.”

“At present. Whether you continue to be so depends on one or two
things. One is that you behave. You come from a place where there are
some queer customs.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“What I say.” He winced in a fashion I did not understand, causing me
to surmise that the customs in question might be even queerer than I
supposed. “The first time, Mr. Batters, you show disrespect for any
orders I may give, or wishes I may express, the ship goes round--you
go back. I fancy your friends will be glad to receive you back among
them.”

He glared at me with his one eye in a manner I did not altogether
relish. There was an uncanniness about his looks, his ways, his every
movement. As he confronted me, squatted on the floor, he was the most
repulsive-looking object I had ever seen. It was hard to believe that
such a creature could be human. And English! The sight of him filled
me with a sense of nausea. I hastened to go on.

“There is another point on which your continuance as a passenger
depends. What do you propose to pay for your passage?”

“I’ve told you--halves.”

“That is too indefinite. I want something more definite. Moreover, it
is the rule for passage money to be paid in advance.”

“If you prefer that way of doing business you shall have a hundred
pounds apiece for us, and I’ll give you the money now.”

“Is that all? Then the ship goes round.”

“You shall have more if you’ll only wait.”

“How long?”

“Till I’ve had time to look about me. You can’t expect me to have
everything cut and dried before I’ve been on board ten minutes. You
see these things?” I did. They were everywhere. I wondered where Luke
and he proposed to sleep. “They’re worth a million pounds.”

“Nonsense!”

“It’s not nonsense, you----fool.”

The opprobrious epithet was seasoned with a profusion of adjectives.

“Mr. Batters, that is not the way in which to address the commander of
a ship. As I see that you and I are not likely to understand each
other I will give instructions to put the ship about at once, and take
you back. It’s plain I made a mistake in having anything to do with
you.”

I made as if to go.

“Stop, you idiot!”

“Mr. Batters? What did you observe?”

“I apologise! I apologise! What you say is right. I have been used to
rummy ways. I can’t slough ’em at sight. Even a snake takes time to
change its skin. But when you talk about the value I set on the things
I’ve got here being nonsense, it’s you who’re mistaken, not me. Look
at that!”

He held up a hideous-looking image. I took it from him, to find it
heavier than I had expected.

“That’s gold--solid. Weighs every bit of twenty pounds, sixteen ounces
to the pound. It’s got diamonds for eyes, twenty-five or thirty carats
apiece; pearls for teeth, and its forehead is studded with opals. The
stones in the rings, bracelets, and bangles are all real. I tell you
what you’re holding in your hands is not worth far short of fifty
thousand pounds.”

“It may be so. I’m no judge of such things. But what proof have I of
the correctness of your statements?”

“That’s it; what proof have you? You’ve only my word. You may cut my
heart out if I’m wrong. And what I say is this. When we get to London
we’ll have them all sold, or else valued--whichever you please. You
shall either have half the things--toss for first choice, then choose
turn and turn about; or half of whatever they fetch.”

“You’ll give me a written undertaking to that effect?”

“I will.”

“And I can take an inventory of everything you have?”

“If you like.”

“And remove them to my cabin for safer custody?”

“If you think that they will be safer there. You can stow ’em in the
hold for all I mind. All I want is for them to be safe, and have my
fair half. Only I don’t see what harm they’ll do in here, except that
you’ve bursted off the lock, which is a thing as can be replaced. I’m
not likely to leave the ship, and I’ll watch it that they don’t go
without me.”

There seemed reason in what he said. It sounded fair; above-board
enough. Though every pulse shrunk from his near neighbourhood, crying
out that there was that about him which was good neither for man nor
beast, I could not but admit to myself that this was so.

I was still holding in my hand the obscene image which, according to
him, was worth fifty thousand pounds. I had been watching Mr. Batters.
Glancing from him to it I saw that, perched upon its head, was a
little doll-like looking figure, as long, perhaps, as my middle
finger. It was not there a second before. I wondered whence it came,
how it retained its place.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“That?” There was a curious something in Mr. Batters’ tone which set
my nerves all jangling. “Where I’ve been they call that the God of
Fortune. It’s my very own god. It watches over me. When you see it I’m
never far away.”

I reached out my disengaged hand to take hold of it for examination.
But I seemed to have grown dizzy all of a sudden, and clumsy. It must
have been because I was clumsy that, instead of grasping it, I knocked
it off its perch. It fell to the floor. I stooped to pick it up.

“I don’t think you’ll find it. I expect it’s gone.”

It did seem to have gone. Or perhaps my sudden dizziness prevented my
seeing so small an object in the imperfect light. I certainly did feel
strangely giddy. So overpowered was I by most unusual sensations that,
yielding the £50,000 horror into Mr. Batters’ outstretched hand,
almost before I knew I found myself on the other side of the cabin
door.

I staggered up on deck. The night air did me good. I drew great
breaths. The giddiness passed. I begin to ask myself what could have
caused it. Had Mr. Batters been practising a little hocus-pocus?
Playing up to the part of the Great Joss? If I had been sure, I would
have put the ship about right there and then. Back he should have
gone, to play the part out to the end.

Luke hailed me.

“Beggin’ pardon, captain, but may I go below? Mine’s the next watch. I
should like a wink of sleep.”

“You may. A word with you before you go. You got me into this
business. I’m hot sure I thank you. What do you know about this man
Batters?”

He looked up at the stars, as if for an answer to my question.

“Him and me was boys together.”

“And since?”

“We’ve come across each other once or twice. But it’s half a lifetime
since we met.”

“You seem to have recognised each other pretty quickly when you did
meet.”

“He knew me. I didn’t know him. And never should have done--never. I
can’t hardly believe now it’s the Ben Batters I used to know. Only
he’s proved it.”

“How came he to be what he is?”

“That’s more than I can say. He hasn’t told me no more than he’s told
you. He always was a hot ’un, Ben was. Bound to get into a mess before
he’d done. Always a-fightin’. But I never thought he’d have come to
this. Fine figure of a man he used to be. They must have took the skin
right off him--used him something cruel.”

I shuddered at the thought. Better to have died a dozen deaths.

“Do you think he’s to be trusted?”

“Well--as for trustin’--that depends. Seems to me no one’s to be
trusted more than you can help.”

I felt, as he went, that he had summed up his own philosophy. He
trusted no one. It was the part of wisdom for no one to trust him. I
wished that, in my haste, I hadn’t berthed the two together. The first
excuse which offered Luke should be shifted. I did not like the notion
of such a pair hobnobbing. The stake was too big.

Someone touched me on the arm. It was the girl.

“Miss Batters! You ought to be in your berth. It’s late.”

Her answer surprised me.

“I’m afraid.”

She stood so close that I could hear a little fluttering noise in her
throat, as if she found it hard to breathe. I wondered if she was
affected by the motion. She did not look as if she were. She was
straight as a dart. And beautiful.

“Afraid? Of what?”

“Of the water. There is trouble on the sea. Evil spirits live on it.”

“You needn’t be afraid of evil spirits while you’re with me. Who’s put
such notions into your head? English girls aren’t afraid of the sea.
And you are English.”

“Is it alive?”

“Is what alive?”

“The ship?”

“The ship!”

“What makes it go? It rushes through the water; it trembles, I feel it
trembling beneath my feet; it makes a noise.”

“Those are the engines.”

“The engines? Are they alive?”

“Alive? Yes, while Mr. Rudd and his friends keep feeding them they’re
alive. Come and have a look at them.”

“No. I dare not. I’m afraid.”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of. This is a steamer. The engines drive
it along. Don’t you know what a steamer is? Haven’t you ever heard of
one?”

She shook her head. I didn’t know what to make of her. Her ignorance
was something beyond my experience. Presently she was off on a fresh
tack.

“Is England far?”

“Pretty well. If we’ve luck we shall get there in about a month.”

“A month?--four weeks?” I nodded. “I cannot live--four weeks--upon the
sea!”

She gave what seemed to me to be a gasp of horror.

“Oh, yes, you can. You’ll get to love it before you’ve done.”

“Love it! Love the sea! No one ever loves the sea.”

“Don’t they? That’s where you’re wrong. I do, for one.”

“My lord!”

All in a second down she flopped upon the deck. I was never so
flummoxed in my life. I couldn’t think what was wrong.

“Miss Batters! What is wrong?”

She turned her lovely face up to me--still on her knees.

“Are you the lord of the sea?”

“The lord of the sea! For goodness sake get up. The watch ’ll think
you’re mad. Or that I’m threatening to murder you.” I had to lift her
before she’d move. Then she seemed reluctant to stand upright in my
august presence. I tried my best to disabuse her mind of some of her
wild notions. “I’m a plain sailor man, I am. I’ve sailed the sea, boy
and man, the best part of my life; east and west, north and south. And
though I don’t mind owning I like a spell of dry land for a change, it
would be strange if I hadn’t grown to love it. I’m ready to grumble at
it with any man. I’m no more lord of the sea than you are. I’m just
captain of this ship. That’s all.”

“You are the captain of this ship.”

“That’s it, Miss Batters.”

“Why do you call me that?”

“Call you what?”

“Miss Batters. I am not Miss Batters. I am Susan.”

I had been looking away. When she said that I looked at her. I wished
I hadn’t. There was something on her face--in her eyes--which set me
all of a flutter. Something had come to me since I had entered those
waters. I didn’t use to be easily upset. I couldn’t make it out at
all. I couldn’t meet her glance, but looked down, smoothing the deck
with the toe of my shoe, not recognising the sound of my own voice
when I heard it.

“I don’t know that I quite care for the name of Susan. I think I
prefer--Susie.”

“Susie? What is that?”

“That--that’s the name your friends will call you.”

“My friends?” She gave another little gasp. “Susie?” To hear her say
it! “But I have no friends.”

“You will have; heaps.”

“But I have none now. Not one.”

“Well----”

I cleared my throat. I had never been so stuck for a word before.
Could have kicked myself for being such a fool. She took my
clownishness as implying a reproach. I could tell it from her tone.

“No. I have no friend. Not one.”

I made another effort. I wasn’t lacking as a rule. I couldn’t
understand what ailed me then.

“Well, it’s early days for me to speak of friendship, since I’ve only
known you for an hour or two; but if I might make so bold, Miss
Batters----”

“Miss Batters!” She stamped her foot, her little bare foot. “I am not
Miss Batters. I am Susie.” Her tone had changed with a vengeance. Her
manner too. She was every inch a queen. A few feet more. “Can I not be
Susie to you?”

I turned away. I only wanted to get hold of myself. She put my head in
such a whirl. But before I had a chance of finding out whereabouts I
was her voice rang out like a boatswain’s whistle.

“I hate sailor men.” I turned again to stare. “And I hate the sea!”

Before I could slip a word in edgeways she had swung herself round and
vanished down the companion ladder. I took off my cap to wipe my
forehead. Though the night was cool my brow was damp with sweat.

“This is going to be a lively voyage, on my word!”

I had never said a truer thing since the day that I was born.



 CHAPTER XXX.
 THE MORNING’S NEWS.

It was a lively voyage! Oh, yes! For those who like that kind of
liveliness.

Everything went wrong, just in the old sweet way. Rudd had to sleep
with his engines. As sure as he turned his back on them for five
consecutive minutes something happened. I began to wonder if we
shouldn’t have got on faster if we had had sweeps aboard. You don’t
often see hands starting to row a steamer along. But anything was
better than standing still; or being blown back--which was worse. It
was no use rigging a sail against the winds we had, or we might have
tried that. But the wind was against us, like everything else.

The weather seemed to have cleared on purpose to give us a chance of
getting the Great Joss aboard. It broke again directly afterwards.
More than once, and more than twice, I wished it hadn’t. Then perhaps
we shouldn’t have been favoured with the company of Mr. Batters. In
shipping him we’d shipped a Tartar. I became inclined to the belief
that we owed half of our bad luck to him. The crew was dead sure that
at his door could be laid the lot of it. They swore he was the devil
himself, or his brother.

I wasn’t sure they were far out. Either what he had gone through had
affected his brain, or he was possessed by the spirit of mischief, or
there was something uncanny about him. I never knew anything like the
tricks he was up to. Weather had no effect on him. As for decent
hours, he scorned them. It’s my belief that what sleep he had was in
the day. I know he was awake pretty well all night.

Once I was dragged out of my berth in the middle of the night because
he was frightening the watch out of their senses. When I got on deck I
found a heavy sea. Everything sopping. The seas breaking over the
scuppers. Pitch darkness. And Mr. Batters up in the tops. The crew
were of opinion that he was holding communion with his friends in
hell. I shouldn’t have been surprised. He looked as if he was at
something of the kind.

How he kept his place was a wonder. Although he had no legs he seemed
to have a knack of gluing himself to whatever he pleased. Up there he
had an illumination all on his own. It must have been visible for
miles across the sea. He had smeared himself and everything about him
with something shiny, phosphorus or something. He always was playing
tricks with stuffs of the kind. It made him look as if he was covered
with flames. He was waving his arms and going through an acrobatic
performance. Snakes were twining themselves about the illuminated
rigging. The old villain had smuggled a heap of them in his palanquin.
He lived with them as if they were members of his family. They seemed
to regard him as akin. Talk about snake charming! I believe that at a
word from him they would have flown at anyone just as certainly as a
dog would have done.

No wonder the watch didn’t altogether relish his proceedings. I sang
out:

“Come down out of that, Mr. Batters, before there’s trouble.”

I did put a bullet into one of his precious snakes. It was this way.

I had a revolver in my hand. The boat gave a lurch. The trigger must
have caught my coat sleeve. It snapped. There was a flash. A report.
One of his snakes straightened itself out against the blackness like a
streaming ribbon. You could see it gleam for a moment. Then it
vanished. I suppose it dropped into the sea. A good thing too. The
idea was that it had been hit by that unintentional shot. I can only
say that if that was the case it was the victim of something very like
a miracle.

Old Batters understood what had happened long before I did. He came
down that rigging like ten mad monkeys. And he went for me like
twenty. If the watch hadn’t been there he’d have sent me after that
snake. It took the lot of us to get the best of him. If the men had
had their way they’d have dropped him overboard.

I wished I had let them before I finished.

A more artful old dodger never breathed. I drew up the agreement of
the spoils; but it was days before I could get him to set his hand to
it. At first he pretended he couldn’t write. As it happened I had seen
him write. It seemed to me he was always writing. When at last I had
induced him to sign, in the presence of Luke, Rudd, and Holley, he
eluded me on the subject of the inventory. I could not get one. His
stock of excuses was inexhaustible. And they were all so plausible. It
is true that I made notes of a good many things without his knowledge.
But a formal inventory I never had. As to my suggestion that at least
the more valuable things should be removed to my cabin for safe
custody, when I renewed it he expressed his willingness on conditions
that he went with them, and his snakes. I declined. On those terms I
preferred that he should remain custodian.

Then there was his intimacy with Luke. That continued, in spite of my
attempts to stop it. Though they grew slacker when I began to suspect
that after all Mr. Luke might not be on such good terms with his
boyhood’s friend as he perhaps desired.

I got my first hint in this direction when, one afternoon, someone was
heard bellowing in Mr. Batters’ cabin like a bull. I made for it. I
found Mr. Luke upon the floor; his friend upon his chest; his friend’s
hands about his throat. He was not bellowing just then. Mr. Batters
had squeezed the grip right out of him. He was purple. In about
another minute he would have known what death by strangulation meant.
We got his dear friend off him. The dear friend said unkind things
about Mr. Luke.

By the time we had brought the first mate round he was about as limp a
man as you might wish to see. He made one remark, which was
unprintable. He turned round in his bunk, where we had laid him, and
for all I know he went to sleep.

Since, before that, I had taken care to see that he was berthed apart
from Mr. Batters, there was nothing to disturb his slumber.

After that I did not feel it necessary to keep quite so sharp an eye
on the attentions which he paid our passenger. They did not seem to be
so friendly as they had been before.

As if I hadn’t enough to plague me, there was the girl. When I begin
to write of her my language becomes mixed. As were my feelings at the
time. And there were moments when she got me into such a state that I
didn’t know if I was standing on my head or heels.

She was her father’s own child, though it seemed like sacrilege to
connect the two. Insubordination wasn’t in it along with her. She
twisted me round her finger. Except when I stiffened my back, and felt
like stowing her in the long-boat, and cutting it adrift, with a bag
of biscuit and a can of water. And then five minutes afterwards I’d
feel like suicide for ever having thought of such a thing.

She wore me to a shadow.

The sea agreed with her far better than I had expected, or she either,
especially considering the weather we had. She was all over the boat.
All questions, like a child. There was nothing you could tell her
enough about. It was extraordinary how the taste for imparting
information grew on one. If you didn’t explain everything that could
be explained, and a good deal that couldn’t, it wasn’t for want of
trying. She had got together a mixed up lot of facts before she had
been upon that vessel long. Because when you begin to look into things
you find that there are a good many you think you know all about till
a sharp-witted young woman starts you on to telling her all you do
know. Then, before you’ve time to wriggle, you are stuck. There are
men who sooner than get that will say anything.

It is bad enough to feel you are making a fool of yourself when the
subject is why steamers don’t sink when they’re floating, or why
engines shove them along, or that kind of thing. But when the
question’s what love is, and you feel but can’t tell, it’s worse.

“Why do you say you love me?”

I had mentioned to her casually that I did, being driven clean off my
balance before I knew it, though I meant every word I had said. And
about two hundred thousand more. In spite of my having had more
trouble with her old villain of a father that very afternoon. And
being full of hope that when it came to hanging him I should be there
to see.

“Because I do.”

“But what is love?”

“Love? Why, love!”

It was evening. The wind had been falling away all day. Now it was
dead calm, the first we had had since shipping Batters. We were
something over twelve hundred miles from Aden. There’s the exact spot
marked on my chart. But I should never forget it if it wasn’t. That
mark means adjectives. I had had it all out with Batters about our
route. The short cut was what he wanted. It was what I wanted too. But
what I did not want was to pay the Canal dues. In fact I couldn’t.
There was not enough money belonging to the ship on board. I hadn’t
told Batters as much as that, but I had made it clear to him that he’d
have to pay. So the arrangement stood that we were to come home by
Suez; and he was to hand me over the coin to take us through. We
should have to coal at Aden. How we had managed so far was beyond my
understanding. Rudd was a marvel. He would make a skip of coal go as
far as some men would a ton. Stores we had taken in here a little, and
there a little, living from hand to mouth. But we had bought no coal.
I had said to Rudd:

“Shall we run into Colombo and have some put into our bunkers there?”

He pondered--it was his way to ponder--then shook his head.

“I’m thinking we’ll last to Aden. I’m thinking it. And I don’t seem to
fancy a stop at Colombo with Mr. Batters aboard.”

I looked to see from his face if his words had any hidden meaning.
There seemed to be something behind everything he said, till you grew
tired of trying to find out what it was. He was always dropping hints,
was Rudd. There appeared to be nothing unusual about his
wooden-looking countenance. So I concluded to give his words their
dictionary meaning.

“If you think we can last to Aden, we will. It will save time. And
coal’s cheaper there.”

So it was settled. And now we were heading straight for Aden. The
weather had cleared. I had told that girl I loved her. Every vein in
my body was on fire because of it. Luke was on the bridge. I felt that
in spite of the darkness, and it was pretty dark--as well I
remember!--his eye was on us as much as on the ship’s course. We had
been walking up and down for exercise. She was leaning over the
taffrail apparently preparing to enter on a kind of philosophical
discussion about what love was.

“Is it good to love?”

“That depends.”

My tone was grim.

“Do I love you?”

“I should like to hear you say so.”

“I love you.”

I thought that was what she said. But she was leaning so far over,
seeming to be watching the smudge of soapsuds we were leaving behind
us, that I couldn’t quite catch her words. Though I was all of a
quiver to.

“What do you say?”

“I say I love you.”

“Susie! Do you mean it?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what love is. How should I? I’m only a
savage. You said so the other day. I want telling things.”

“You don’t want telling what love is.”

“Do you mean that you don’t want to tell me? You never will tell me
what I really want to know. I’ll ask one of the men. I’ll ask Luke. He
tells me things.”

“Susie! Luke’s too fond of interfering in matters which are no
business of his. He’ll get himself into trouble before he’s done.”

“Why?”

“Don’t you dare to ask Luke what love is!”

“Dare! I dare do anything. I’ll go and ask him now.”

She’d have been off if I hadn’t caught her arm.

“Susie! Don’t! For my sake!”

“Then tell me!--tell me yourself!”

Stamp went her foot. It was one of her favourite tricks. Directly she
lost patience down it went.

“I’ll tell you, if you’ll give me time.” I tried to find the words,
but couldn’t. I held out my arms instead. “It’s this.”

“What?”

“Don’t you understand?”

“What am I to understand?”

“Don’t you understand that I want you to be my wife?”

“Your wife! Your wife!” She spoke in a crescendo scale, as if I had
insulted her. “You said you were my friend!”

“Don’t you understand that I want to be something more than your
friend?”

“You want to beat me! to use me like a dog! to have me burned!”

“Susie!”

“My father said in England there were no wives.”

“No wives in England? He--he was making fun of you.”

“He was not making fun of me. He has told me all my life. When I asked
him why they burned my mother, he said because she was his wife. He is
an Englishman. In England they have no wives.”

I had a glimpse of the confusion which was in her mind. But at that
moment I was incapable of straightening out the evil.

“Your--your father’s was a peculiar case. There are wives in England.”

“Is that true?”

She thrust her face close to mine. She was terrifically in earnest.

“It is perfectly true. They abound.”

“Then I will not go to England.”

“But--Susie!--you’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick. In--in
England a wife’s the man’s superior.”

“It’s a lie. See how you stammer. You cannot lie like my father with
an even tongue. A wife is her husband’s slave. At his bidding she
fetches and she carries. He beats her as he beats his dog. When she
grows old he takes another. And she dies.”

“My--my dear Susie, I assure you that that description doesn’t apply
to England. There, unless she’s a wife, a woman isn’t happy.”

“Then in England women are more unhappy than in the country from which
I come. I will not go there. I will not go to any place where there
are wives.”

She strode past me as I stared at her, thunderstruck. I continued
thunderstruck when she had gone.

She had a deal to learn.

That night I slept badly. In the morning I was roused by someone
hammering at the door.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me, sir; Holley. The cutter’s gone.”

“What!”

“The cutter’s gone. And the watch is hocussed.”

I was standing at the door in my nightshirt.

“What the devil do you mean? Where’s Mr. Luke?”

“He had the morning watch. He’s gone too. It’s his chaps as is
hocussed. Leastways, they’re lying on the deck like logs. And Mr.
Batters, he’s gone. And his things. His cabin’s stripped clean. And
his daughter, she’s gone.”

“Holley!”

I was thrusting myself into a pair of trousers. All of a sudden the
ship stopped dead, with an unpleasant shock.

“What’s that? She can’t have struck!”

I rushed up. Rudd met me.

“I have to report to you, sir, that the engine’s ceased to work.”

“Very well. Patch it up and start it again as soon as you can. It’s
not the first time it’s stopped.”

“But I’m thinking it’ll be the last. Someone’s been playing tricks
with the machine. I’m fearing it’s Mr. Luke.”



 CHAPTER XXXI.
 THE TERMINATION OF THE VOYAGE OF “THE FLYING SCUD.”

We had been completely done. So completely that it was some time
before I was able to realise that I had been diddled quite to that
extent. Not a detail had been overlooked. Mr. Batters and Mr. Luke had
gone conscientiously to work. They had been thorough. They had left us
the ship. That was about all. They would probably have taken that if
they had had any use for it. It seemed they hadn’t. If I could only
have laid hands on that latest thing in freaks, there would have been
one Joss less. I would willingly have made a Joss of Luke if I had
only had a chance. To have boiled, burned, and skinned him would have
been a pleasure. He should not only have been legless, he should have
been armless too. As for that girl, who didn’t want to go to a place
where there were any wives, she should have become acquainted with a
climate where there was something less agreeable.

That was how I felt towards her at first. But after a while I came to
the conclusion that she had been under the domination of her father.
Hadn’t dared to call her soul her own. So anger turned to pity. I
would just simply take her to a place where there were wives. I’d let
her know what it felt like to be one. That would be punishment enough
for her.

As for Luke and Batters! What wouldn’t I have given for a quiet half
hour with the pair, with boiling oil, branding irons, and everything
just handy.

Mr. Luke must have stowed pretty well all our eatable stores inside
that cutter. As first mate, under peculiar circumstances, I had let
him do, in some respects, a good deal as he pleased. He had had the
run of the stores. He had not gone far from collaring the lot. It
seemed that certain of the hands had noticed him fiddling a good deal
with the cutter of late. Especially when he had been in charge of
either of the night watches. But, of course, they had said nothing to
me till it was too late, which was a pity.

Mr. Batters had taken with him all the treasures of the temple. Those
offerings of the faithful, half of which were to have been mine. No
wonder he had not been of opinion that they would have been safer in
my cabin. And he pledged his word that he would make it his especial
business to see that not one of them left the ship until he did. That
elegant monster which he valued at £50,000 had gone. Even the
palanquin. Oh, it was pretty!

Mr. Luke had made everything snug by generously treating the members
of the morning watch to a little drink directly they came on duty.
That drink was no doubt one of Mr. Batters’ concoctions. They
remembered no more so soon as they swallowed it. So for four hours Mr.
Luke had the deck to himself. No watch was kept. The wheel was lashed.
The cutter was filled with the treasures of the temple, then lowered.
Goodness and Mr. Luke alone know how. And it must be remembered that
Mr. Batters was an ingenious man.

It was reported from the engine room that the order was received to
“Go slow.” Probably while _The Flying Scud_ went slow the cutter was
cast loose, with Mr. Batters and the girl inside it. Shortly
afterwards the order was changed to “Full steam ahead.” The inference
seems to be that immediately after giving that order the ingenious Mr.
Luke went overboard to join the cutter. And _The Flying Scud_ went
full steam ahead, with no one on the look-out. Under the
circumstances, it was, perhaps, just as well that the engines did
break down.

It’s an elegant story for the commander of a ship to have to write.
Especially one with a clean certificate, and of sober habits. There we
were, without engines, without coal, without stores, without enough
cargo to act as ballast, about half-way between Aden and Colombo. We
were a mad ship’s company. For my own part I felt like cutting any
man’s throat, including my own. All that day we hung about, doing
nothing, except cursing.

Towards night, the engines proving hopeless, we rigged a sail. There
was just about enough wind to laugh at us. So we let it laugh us
along. There was no Canal for us. The man who was to have paid our
shot had gone--the shot with him. So we headed for the Cape. The long
way round was the only way for us. Engineless, the prospect was
inviting.

There is no need to speak in detail of the remainder of that voyage,
no need at all. In one sense it was over--quite. In another it was
only just beginning. I won’t say how long it took us to reach home or
what we suffered before we got there. And will only hint that by the
time we sighted English waters, I felt as if I was a twin brother of
Methuselah’s. We hadn’t walked the entire distance, but we might
almost just as well have done.

It was evening when I landed. There was a mist in the river. A
drizzling rain was falling. Appropriate weather with which to bid us
welcome home. The lights of London gleamed dimly through the fog and
wet. So soon as I had set foot on land I saw, coming at me through the
uncertain light, the individual who, as he stood with his friends upon
that moonlit shore, had cursed us for bearing the Great Joss to the
ship across the motionless waters of the Gulf of Tongking.

Since that night we had ourselves anathematised someone else for
serving us as we had served him.

I had only seen him once, and then from some little distance in the
moonshine, but there was no possibility of mistaken identity. This was
the man. He was dressed in the same fantastic garb, and came at me
like a ghost out of shadowland. He took me by the shoulders, and he
cried--as he had done upon that moon-kissed shore:--

“The Great Joss! The Great Joss! Give us back the Great Joss!”

Exactly what took place I cannot say. I was so taken aback by the
unexpectedness of the encounter--having never dreamed that I should
set eyes upon the man again--that, for some moments, sheer surprise
robbed me of my faculties. Before I was myself again, the man had
gone. Others had thrust him from me. Although I rushed here and there
among the people who stood about I could not find him. He had
vanished.

I had swallowed a good many bitter pills since last I left that
wharf--the bitterest was still to come. I had to pay my visit to the
owners. On the night of my arrival it was too late to see them. The
pleasure was postponed to the morning. It was a pleasure!

I came out from their presence a disgraced man. Which was no more than
I had expected, though it was no easier to bear on that account. The
blame was wholly mine. So they would have it. For some of the language
which they used to me I found it hard to keep my hands from off them.
My tale of the Great Joss, and of all that I had hoped to gain for
them by that adventure, they received with something more than
incredulity. If the thing had resulted as I had hoped, that they would
have pocketed their share of the spoils, and betrayed no scruples, I
knew them too well to doubt. But because, as I held, through no fault
of mine, the affair had miscarried, there was no epithet too
opprobrious for them to bestow on me. By their showing I had been
guilty of all sorts of crimes of which I had never heard. I had
betrayed their trust; smirched their good name--as if in the eyes of
those who knew them it could be smirched; been guilty of piracy; acted
like a common thief; offended against the law of nations; brought
shame on England’s mercantile marine.

Oh, it was grand to hear them talking! They might have been saints
from whose brows I had plucked the halos. They were good enough to
explain that it was only because they disbelieved my entire story, and
placed no credence in any part of it whatever, that they refrained
from handing me over to the properly constituted authorities, to be by
them passed on to the Chinese Government, to be dealt with as my
offences merited. They took me for a jay. And were so kind as to add
that they looked upon the tale as a clumsy, dishonest, and
disingenuous attempt to draw a red herring across their track--the
phrase was theirs!--and so prevented them from taking proper and
adequate notice of the scandalous neglect of duty, and of their
interests, of which, to my lasting shame, I had been guilty.

It was a rare wigging that I had. And, to the best of their ability,
they included in it everyone who had been with me on board _The Flying
Scud_. There were four of us, at least, who swore that we’d be even
for it with someone somehow. Isaac Rudd, Sam Holley, his chum, Bill
Cox, and I; we were the four.

And all we had to go upon, to help us towards getting even, was a
scrap of paper. Half a sheet of common note.

It was the only thing Mr. Batters had left behind him. I had found it
in a corner of his cabin, crumpled up into a sort of ball, as though
he had thrown it there and forgotten all about it. On it this was
written:

“To my niece, Miss Mary Blyth, care of Messrs. Martin and Branxon,
Drapers, Shoreditch.”

We would look the lady up. Where the niece was the uncle might not be
far away. At least she might have some knowledge of his whereabouts.
If she had we would have it too, or know the reason why. I still had
the written undertaking, which he had signed, by which he was to
divide with me equally, as a consideration for services rendered, the
treasures of the temple. I had handed this to the owners as proof of
the truth of my statements. They had thrown it back to me with a
sneer. And something worse than a sneer.

That act amounted to a renunciation of all interest in any property
which the document conveyed, or so it seemed to me. Good! They might
smart for their scepticism yet. Let us find the niece; then the uncle.
If Miss Blyth could only give us a hint as to where he might be found,
though it was on the other side of the world, we’d find him. He had
valued his belongings at a million. We might be snatched out of the
gutter yet.

The search began badly. They knew nothing of a Miss Blyth at Messrs.
Martin and Branxon’s, or so I was informed by an official individual
in the counting-house. That was a facer. It looked as if Mr. Batters,
at his tricks again, had purposely placed in our way what seemed like
a clue to his lair for the sake of having still another game with us.
But a night or two afterwards I tackled a young fellow as he was
coming out of the shop after closing hours, and put my question to
him. He turned it over in his mind before he answered.

“There’s no Miss Blyth here now, but there was. I believe her name was
Mary. I could soon find out. She’s left some time; directly after I
came. I can’t think where she went. I’ve heard the name, but I can’t
remember. I might inquire if you like, and let you know to-morrow
night.”

I agreed. He did inquire. The next night he let me know. Miss Blyth
had gone to a big shop, which he named, at Clapham. The next day,
being engaged, I let Rudd go over to Clapham to see what he could do.

He made a mess of things. The lady was pointed out to him by one of
her fellow assistants. Before he could get within hail of her, she
slipped round a corner and was out of sight. Came across her again in
a restaurant where she couldn’t pay her bill. Paid it for her. Then,
as he was about to follow her, with a view of pursuing his inquiries,
he saw, standing on the pavement in front of the place, the individual
who had cursed us on that moonlit shore.

The sight of him struck Rudd all of a heap. By the time he recovered
his presence of mind, the lady had vanished, and the gentleman too.

The juxtaposition of Miss Blyth and that cursing gentleman seemed to
suggest that we were on the track of the retiring Mr. Batters. What is
more, that the scent was getting hot.

The evening after I called at that Clapham establishment, just as the
premises were being closed, and asked to see Miss Blyth. Some
jackanapes informed me that the young woman had been dismissed that
very day. He didn’t know what her address was, but had heard that she
had gone off with a party who called himself Frank Paine, and who said
he was a lawyer.

At that it was my turn to be struck all of a heap. A short time
previously I had called upon Mr. Frank Paine, intending to ask his
opinion as to the validity of the document which had Mr. Batters’ name
attached. But, somehow, the conversation got into other channels. I
came away without it. Not by so much as a word had he hinted that he
knew anything about Mr. Batters or his niece.

As I walked along, pondering these things, Rudd, at my side, suddenly
exclaimed:

“Captain, there she is! that’s Miss Blyth! the young lady for whom I
paid the bill!”

He was pointing towards two young women who were advancing in our
direction, on the opposite side of the road. Having got it clear to
which of the pair he referred, I sailed across to meet them. She was
Miss Blyth. She admitted as much. But that was all the satisfaction I
received. She staggered me with the information that her uncle, Mr.
Benjamin Batters, was dead. As I was trying to understand how he had
come to his death, and when, and where, she took umbrage at my
curiosity, or manner, or something. She and her friend jumped into a
hansom cab, which dashed off at the rate of about twenty miles,
leaving Rudd and I on the kerbstone, staring after it like moonstruck
gabies.



 CHAPTER XXXII.
 THE LITTLE DISCUSSION BETWEEN THE SEVERAL PARTIES.

That night we held a consultation. We four. It was getting dead low
tide with us. If we didn’t light upon those treasures of the temple,
we should have to find a ship instead. And that before long. If we had
to go aboard of her as cabin boys.

It seemed to me that something might be got out of Mr. Paine. In the
way of information. Things pointed that way. The more I thought, the
more they seemed to point. I told the others. We decided to wait upon
him in a body. And man the pumps for all we were worth. If he proved
dry, if nothing could be got out of him, then we should have to admit
that the tide was low. And that we were stranded. But we had hopes.

The morning after we were in Mitre Court, where his rooms were,
betimes. The idea was that he shouldn’t escape us, that we should see
him as soon as he was visible, and so play the part of the early bird
that catches the worm. But when we found that the door into the street
was open, I, knowing the lay of the land, without any parley, led the
way upstairs. And it was well for him we did. For we came upon as
lively a little scene as ever we’d encountered.

There was a larger company assembled than we had expected. Quite what
was happening we couldn’t at once make out. The first thing I saw was
a girl tied down upon a table, and--of all people in the world--that
cursing gentleman leaning over her with a knife in his hand. Having
torn her clothes open at the throat, he looked as if he was going to
write his name on her nice white skin with the point of his blade. He
got no farther than the start. I introduced myself. And landed him
one. He didn’t seem to know whether he was glad or sorry to meet me. I
loosed the girl. When I looked round I saw the room was in a mess, and
on the floor, trussed like a fowl, was Mr. Paine. But what made me
almost jump out of skin for joy, was the sight of our dear friend Luke
tied up beside him.

I released that excellent first officer. Then things were said. When
he understood that we were spoiling to cut him up into little pieces,
and that it seemed likely that he had fallen from the frying-pan into
the fire, he explained. What we wanted to know was the present address
at which Mr. Batters could be found. It seemed, according to him, that
he was aching to know it too.

“Bless my beautiful eyes!” He spat upon the floor. “Do you think if I
knew where the hearty was that I’d be here? He used me shameful, he
did that.”

“It seems incredible that he should have used you badly, Mr. Luke.”

“It does. After all I’d done for him. But he did. After we----”

He coughed. I finished his sentence.

“Had taken such a ceremonious leave of us all on board _The Flying
Scud_. Yes? Go on.”

“We got picked up by a liner as was making Suez.”

“As you anticipated you would be. I see. You’re a far-sighted person,
Mr. Luke.”

“They landed us at Suez. We stopped there two or three days getting
packing-cases to--to----”

“To pack the treasures of the temple in. They must have been rather
conspicuous objects to carry about with you anyhow. Go on.”

“Then hang me if one evening I didn’t wake up and find that I’d been
senseless for close on two days. The devil had hocussed me.”

“Hocussed you? Impossible!”

“He had. Then he’d slipped away, him and his blessed daughter, while I
was more dead than alive, leaving me with as good as nothing in my
pockets. What I had to go through no one knows. If I ever do set eyes
on him again, I’ll----”

The peroration was a study of adjectives.

“Then it appears that you are just as eager to have another interview
with Mr. Benjamin Batters as we are. I am sorry your venture was not
attended with better fortune. It deserved success. Pray what were you
to have had out of it?”

“I was to have had half the blooming lot. And the girl----”

“And the girl! Indeed? And the girl! Mr. Luke, I should dearly
like----”

Mr. Paine interposed.

“Excuse me, Captain Lander, but if it is of Mr. Benjamin Batters you
are speaking, if it is to him so many mysterious references have been
made as the Great Joss, then I may state that, to the best of my
knowledge and belief, that gentleman is dead.”

“Dead?--to the best of your knowledge and belief?--what do you mean?”

As I stared at him, a remark was made by the young lady who so
narrowly escaped being made the subject of an experiment in carving.
Although evidently very far from being as much herself as she might
have been, she had pulled herself together a little, and was holding
both hands up to her throat.

“You’re forgetting that Pollie’s lying perhaps worse than dead in
Camford Street.”

Mr. Paine gave a jump.

“I had forgotten it!--upon my honour!”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Miss Blyth--to whom Miss Purvis refers as Pollie--is the niece of the
Mr. Batters of whom we have been speaking. She’s his heiress, in
fact.”

“His heiress?”

“Yes; his sole residuary legatee. Among other things he left her a
house in Camford Street--No. 84--on somewhat mysterious conditions.
For instance, she was to allow no man to enter it.”

“No man?”

“No; only she and one feminine friend were ever to be allowed to put
their feet inside the door.”

“Oh?”

I began to smell a rat. Mr. Paine waved his hand towards the young
lady the cursing gentleman had been about to practise on.

“This is Miss Purvis, the feminine friend whom Miss Blyth chose to be
her sole companion. Other conditions were attached to the bequest
equally mysterious. Indeed, it would really seem as if there was
something in that house in Camford Street the existence of which the
late Mr. Batters was particularly anxious should be concealed from the
world. Miss Blyth only entered on the occupation of her property
yesterday. Yet Miss Purvis came at an early hour this morning to tell
me that something extraordinary had happened in the middle of the
night. Something, she doesn’t quite know what, but fancies it was some
wild animal, made a savage attack upon Miss Blyth without the
slightest provocation. And when Miss Purvis recovered from the shock
which the occurrence gave her, she found that she herself had been
thrown into the street.”

“Mr. Paine!” I laid my hand upon the lawyer’s shoulder. “Do you know
what’s inside that house?”

“I haven’t the faintest notion. How should I have?”

“It’s the late Mr. Batters!”

“The late Mr. Batters?”

“The thing the existence of which Mr. Batters was most anxious to keep
concealed, was Mr. Batters himself--for reasons. So he’s put about a
cock and bull story making out he’s dead, and then hidden himself in
this house of which you’re talking.”

“Captain Lander!”

“Mind, it’s only my guess, as yet. But I don’t think you’ll find that
I’m sailing very wide of the wind. The more I turn things over, after
listening to what you’ve said, the more likely it seems to me that the
Great Joss, whom we’ve all been on tiptoe to get a peep at, has hidden
himself in that house which he pretends to have left to his niece, and
is waiting there for us to find him. And I’m off to do it!”

“Someone’s had the start of you.”

The interruption came from Rudd. The absence of the cursing gentleman,
and his two friends, explained his meaning.

“They’ve gone hot-foot after him,” I cried. “What’s good enough for
them is good enough for me!”

We journeyed in three cabs. Speed was a consideration. So we chartered
hansoms. I went in front with Luke. He didn’t seem over and above
anxious for my society. But I didn’t feel as if I could be comfortable
without him. So we went together. Though I am bound to admit that I’m
inclined to think that I enjoyed that ride more than he did. Rudd,
Holley, and his chum came next. Mr. Paine and the young lady last. I
liked his manner towards that young lady. In a lawyer, whom one
naturally looks upon as the most hard-hearted of human creatures, it
was beautiful. He could not have treated her more tenderly if she had
been a queen. And, though she was still in a very sad condition, I
have a sort of idea that, when they were once inside that cab, speed
with them wasn’t much of a consideration.

And though those hansoms did rattle us along in style, we found that
someone had got to that house in Camford Street in front of us.



 CHAPTER XXXIII.
 IN THE PRESENCE.

The cursing gentleman and his two friends were awaiting us upon the
pavement. I said a word of a kind to the long ’un.

“Look here, my bald-headed friend, I don’t quite know who you are, or
what you want, but I’ve seen enough of your little ways to know
they’re funny; so if you take my advice you’ll make yourself scarce
before there’s trouble.”

He held out his hands. Looking, on the dirty pavement of that shabby
street, like a fish out of water.

“The Great Joss! The Great Joss! He is in there--give him back to
us--then we go.”

I reflected. After all there was some reason in the creature. He was
almost as much interested in Mr. Batters as I was. Considering how Mr.
Batters had treated me I didn’t see why he shouldn’t learn what an
object of interest he really was. It might occasion him agreeable
surprise. The fellow was in such dead earnest. It beat me how he and
his friends had got where they were. Reminding me of the flocks of
migratory birds which one meets far out at sea. Goodness only knows by
what instinct they pursue the objects of their search. I turned to Mr.
Paine.

“This gentleman was high priest, or something of the kind, in the
temple in which Mr. Batters was Number One God.”

“Number One God?”

“That’s about the size of it. He was a god when I first made his
acquaintance. This gentleman’s own particular. Since he and his
friends have come a good many thousand miles to get another peep at
him, I don’t think there’ll be much harm in letting him have one if
it’s to be got. So, so far as I’m concerned, right reverend sir, you
can stop and see the fun.”

Mr. Paine stared. He didn’t understand. The look with which he
regarded the foreign gentleman wasn’t friendly. The experience he had
had of his peculiar methods was a trifle recent. Perhaps it rankled.

I turned my attention to the house in front of which the lot of us
were standing, cabs and all.

“The question is, since no one seems inclined to open the door, how we
are going to get in to enable us to pay our little morning call.”

Rudd practically suggested one way by hurling himself against the door
as if he had been a battering ram. He might as well have tried his
luck against a stone wall. As much impression would have been made.
When I ran my stick over it, it sounded to me like a sheet of metal.

Luke proffered his opinion.

“You’ll want a long chisel for this job. Or a pair. Nothing else ’ll
do it. That door’s been put there to keep people out. Not to let ’em
in. It’ll be like breaking into a strong room.”

Luke proved right. All our efforts were unavailing. That door had been
built to keep folks out.

“If this is going to be a case for chisels,” said Rudd, “we’d better
start on it at once, before those police come interfering.”

We were already centres of attraction to a rapidly increasing crowd.
Our goings-on provided entertainment of a kind they didn’t care to
miss. Long before we had put that job through the police did come.
What is more, we were glad to see them.

Rudd fetched a pair of crowbars from an ironmonger’s shop close by.
With his assistance, and acting under his instructions, we started to
shift that door. We never got beyond the starting. We might as well
have tried to shift the monument. He rigged up contrivances; tried
dodges. There was the door just as tight as ever. And just as we were
thinking of breaking the heads of some of the members of that
interested crowd, up the police did come.

Mr. Paine explained to them what we were after. Then he and the young
lady and Rudd went off with one of them to the station, while another
stayed behind. In course of time they returned, together with an
inspector, three more policemen, and two specimens of the British
working man, who were wheeling something on a barrow. The interest of
the crowd increased. The new arrivals were received with cheers.

Those workmen, in conjunction with Isaac Rudd, fitted up a machine
upon the pavement. It was some kind of a drill I believe. Presently
not one but half a dozen holes had been cut right through that door.
Into these were inserted crowbars of a different construction to those
we had been using. We all lent a hand. And the door was open.

The crowd pressed forward.

“Keep back!” cried the inspector.

And the police kept them back.

The inspector entered, with the young lady, Mr. Paine, Rudd and I. The
rest were kept out, including the cursing gentleman and his two
friends, which seemed hard on them after all they must have gone
through. But it was little that they lost. At the beginning anyhow.

For as soon as we set foot inside the passage we found that there was
another door defying us. It seemed to lead into a room upon our left.
Rudd called one of the workmen in to consult with him. They sounded
the door, they sounded the wall, and concluded that the shortest way
into the room was through the wall. So soon the house was being
knocked to pieces before our eyes. There was sheet iron on the other
side that wall. But they were through it in what seemed no time. And
there was a great hole, large enough to admit of the passage of a man.

And on the other side of this hole stood Susie.

She stared at us, and we stared at her, neither understanding who the
other was. But when I did understand I felt as if my legs were giving
way. And something inside me set up a clamour which was deafening. And
when she saw it was me she called out:

“Max!”

She was through that wall like a flash of lightning. I had her in my
arms almost before I knew it.

“Susie!” I said. “My sweet!”

I could tell by the way of her that she knew more about wives than she
did when I saw her last. And that she had grown reconciled to the idea
of being one. And perhaps a bit more than reconciled. The fates be
thanked.

Miss Blyth was in the room with her. Alive and sound, and, indeed,
unhurt. They had been frightened out of their wits when they heard us,
and at the noise we made, thinking they were going to be murdered, at
the least.

“Where’s your father?” I asked.

“When he brought her in,” she answered--meaning Miss Blyth--“he went
out, shutting the door behind him, taking the key. He left us
prisoners. We’ve been prisoners ever since. We’ve heard and seen
nothing of him. Where he is I don’t know. Unless he’s above.”

He was above. In a room at the top of the house. With another door to
it. So that we had to get through the wall again.

He had had a sort of throne rigged up. Intending, maybe, to have an
imitation of the one which he had occupied when I had first come upon
him in the temple. If that was so the imitation was a precious poor
one. But he was on it. Dead. And cold. He had been gone some hours.

Whether he had committed suicide, or whether the end had come to him
in the ordinary course of nature, there was nothing to show.

A colony of snakes was in the room. Those favourites of his. One
shared the throne with the Great Joss. It was on the seat, in front of
him, where his legs ought to have been. My idea was that the thing had
killed him. But it seemed that that was not the case. The creatures
were declared not to be venomous. And there was no mark of a
snake-bite about him anyhow.

While we stood looking at the throne, and what was on it, there was a
movement behind. The cursing gentleman and his two friends came in. At
sight of the Great Joss they threw themselves on their faces, and bit
the floor. I never saw men so scared. Or so surprised. I had a sort of
notion that they had supposed him to be immortal, and that he couldn’t
die. When the body came to be examined, and it was discovered what a
torso it really was, and to what prolonged and hideous tortures the
man must have been subjected, one began to understand that they might
have had reasons of their own for thinking so. It might very well have
been incomprehensible to them why, if he could die, he hadn’t died.

At the foot of the throne was the little doll-like thing which I had
seen perched on the head of the fifty thousand pound monstrosity. He
had called it the God of Fortune. Saying that where it was he was not
far away.

The case seemed to present an illustration of the truth of his words.
The doll was broken to atoms. The Great Joss and the God of Fortune
seemed to have come to an end together.



 BOOK V.
 AUTHOR’S POSTSCRIPT.



 CHAPTER XXXIV.
 HOW MATTERS STAND TO-DAY.

I should have preferred that the close of Captain Max Lander’s
statement should have been the conclusion of this strange history. But
for the satisfaction of any reader who may desire to know what became
of A, B, C, or D, these following lines are added.

What have been described by Captain Lander as “the treasures of the
temple” were found in the house in Camford Street. So far as could be
ascertained, intact. The question of ownership involved a nice legal
problem. The native attendants of the temple vanished almost as soon
as they appeared. No one knew where they went to. Nothing has been
seen or heard of them since. It seemed, therefore, that they put
forward no claims. There remained the girl, Susan, presumably the dead
man’s daughter, though there was no legal proof of the fact; Mary
Blyth, who had claims under her uncle’s will; Captain Lander, who held
the document entitling him to a half share; and the owners and crew of
_The Flying Scud_. All these had claims which required consideration.
In the end, by great good fortune, an amicable settlement was arrived
at, which gave satisfaction to all parties concerned.

As might have been expected, the value set on the property by Mr.
Batters proved to be an exaggeration. It was worth nothing like a
million. Still, it fetched a considerable amount when realised, and
after the owners and crew of _The Flying Scud_ had been
appeased--excepting Mr. Luke, who was markedly dissatisfied because he
only received an ordinary seaman’s share--an appreciable sum remained
as surplus. To this was added the cash which had been bequeathed to
Miss Blyth by the will whose validity was, at best, extremely
doubtful; the whole being divided, in equal portions, between the
niece and the daughter. As Miss Batters immediately afterwards became
Mrs. Max Lander, the commander of _The Flying Scud_ had no cause to be
discontented with this arrangement.

No. 84, Camford Street is still without an owner. It appears, from the
story told by the girl, Susan, that on reaching England, her father
hurried her from place to place, seldom stopping for more than two or
three days under one roof. They seem to have made their most lengthy
stay in a barge in one of the lower reaches of the river. No doubt the
notion of concealment was present to his mind from the first. Though
how he lighted on the house in Camford Street is still a mystery. Nor
has anything transpired to show by whose orders it was fortified in
such ingenious and elaborate fashion; nor by whom the work was
executed. Nothing has been found which goes to show that he had any
right to call the house his property. Its actual ownership still goes
begging.

The document purporting to be a will was possibly drawn up by his own
hand. The letter signed “Arthur Lennard, Missionary,” pretending to
announce his death on that far-off Australasian island, was probably
concocted, at his instigation, by one of the miscellaneous
acquaintances whom he picked up during his wanderings among the
riverside vagabonds. From such an one he might have acquired Mr.
Paine’s name, together with some side-lights on that gentleman’s
character. Miss Batters made it abundantly clear that her father was
the “freak” to whom Mr. Paine was of service by rescuing him from the
too curious crowd in the Commercial Road.

His exact object in making his will has never been shown. No doubt the
man’s brain was in disorder. He was actuated, perhaps, by three
considerations. The desire for concealment; the consciousness that he
and his daughter would fare very badly if shut up in a house alone
together; the wish to avail himself of his niece’s services. To have
gone to her with a straightforward tale would have been in accord
neither with his character or policy. He had lived too long in what,
for civility’s sake, may be called a diplomatic atmosphere, to be able
to breathe in any other. Also, he knew nothing of his niece. Suspected
that she knew nothing good of him. Was moved, possibly, by a very
natural unwillingness to make himself, or his story, known to her
until he had learned what kind of person she was.

So he invented his own death, making her his heiress, for the sole
purpose of getting her inside the house. It is impossible to say what
might have happened had she proved amenable to his wishes; and events
moved along the road which he had laid down for them. The presumption
is that, sooner or later--probably sooner--he would have made himself
known to her, and endeavoured to purchase her fidelity, and services,
on terms of his own.

As it is, the uncle is the constant theme of the niece’s conversation.
Miss Blyth is now Mrs. Cooper. The Coopers are residents of one of the
smaller south coast watering places, where they are regarded as
leading lights among local social circles. Mr. Cooper is a
vice-president of the boat-club, yacht-club, swimming-club,
cricket-club, football club, and so on; his wife is the mother of an
increasing family, and a lady with a tale. Its subject is Uncle
Benjamin. That gentleman lived a life of strange and varied adventure.
His history loses none of its marvels at his niece’s lips. Either
because they are a trifle tired of the theme, or are merely jealous,
some of the more frequent hearers have been heard to doubt if there
ever was an Uncle Benjamin. If these doubts are serious they do the
lady less than justice.

Mr. and Mrs. Lander are also happy. One would be reluctant to doubt
it. Yet, at the same time, one cannot refuse to admit that there are
occasions when the outward and visible signs of their happiness take a
somewhat boisterous shape. He has a temper; she has a temper. There
are moments when it would appear as if there was hardly room for the
two tempers in a single house. Since they seldom remain in one place
for more than three months, they can scarcely be said to live
anywhere. In selecting their next abiding-place, they seem to act on
the principle of letting it be as far from the present as possible.
Mr. Lander has not pursued his profession since the last eventful
voyage which he has herein set forth. Possibly by way of killing time
he is apt to be a trifle too convivial. Nothing makes Mrs. Lander more
indignant than an even hinted doubt of her positive assertion, made in
and out of season, that every drop of blood in her veins is English.
As her complexion is a little dusky, her aggressive attitude upon this
point makes her rather a difficult person to get on with.

Mr. Frank Paine, oddly enough, has married Miss Purvis. And, what is
perhaps still more odd, theirs is the happiest match of the three.
About their complete and absolute content with their condition there
can be no possible doubt whatever. He worships her; she worships him.
If there is any finer recipe for matrimonial happiness than that, it
has not come in the present writer’s way. His practice as a solicitor
has grown large. Mrs. Paine is of opinion that he is rightly regarded
with even fulsome reverence by the entire bench and bar. Since he
would not dream of contesting any opinion which happened to be his
wife’s, the position of affairs could not possibly be improved.

Mr. Benjamin Batters lies in Kensal Green Cemetery. In a deep grave,
and in a full-sized coffin. Surrounded by dignitaries and
respectabilities. In his coffin were placed the broken pieces of the
curiosity which he called the God of Fortune. So they are still
together. A handsome monument has been raised above him. There is no
hint, in the inscription, that below are but the mangled fragments of
what was once a human body; or any reference to the fact that he ever
posed as a joss; or a god; or was ever believed, even by savages, to
have put on immortality before his time. It simply says:

 “BENEATH THIS STONE
 REPOSES
 BENJAMIN BATTERS,
 WHO,
 AFTER A LIFE OF VARIED ADVENTURE
 IN DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE WORLD,
 SLEEPS WELL.

We will hope that it is so.

 [THE END.]



 TRANSCRIBER’S NOTES.

Alterations to the text:

Change several instances of _aint_ to _ain’t_, and _dont_ to _don’t_.

[Chapter II]

Change “to be as old as _Methusaleh_” to _Methuselah_.

[Chapter IV]

“broke into stammering _speeh_” to _speech_.

[Chapter V]

“Great _Ke_ Island” to _Ka_.

[Chapter VI]

“_tennacy_ of my house” to _tenancy_.

[Chapter VII]

“They seemed be in a hurry.” add _to_ after _seemed_.

[Chapter XI]

“to _nogotiate_ the obstacle” to _negotiate_.

[Chapter XII]

“of chairs, the _washhandstand_” to _washhand stand_.

[Chapter XIII]

“wooden _windsor_ chair” to _Windsor_.

[Chapter XV]

“sound sleep, as it _semed_” to _seemed_.

[Chapter XVII]

“was it, after after all, his serious” delete one _after_.

“Since nearly a month _elasped_” to _elapsed_.

[Chapter XX]

“_Dantily_ fashioned, curves” to _Daintily_.

[Chapter XXI]

“It was _past-half past_ ten” to _past half-past_.

[Chapter XXII]

“_Epecially_ when I should like” to _Especially_.

“What’s _Captian_ Lander” to _Captain_.

Also, minor punctuation corrections.

Note: minor spelling and hypenization inconsistencies have been left
as is.

[End of Text]



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