MERELY A LITTLE PRESENT.
"LAY 'em flat out on the table,” continued the American pleasantly. “Yes, that's right. Very pretty hands, Sultan! Keep ’em there. Satan will find mischief still—eh?”
Stone came to the table edge, his revolver staring at the Sultan, who was stupefied by this unexpected apparition. Miss Bretton sat stiffly in her chair, her face very white and her gray eyes blazing with anger.
“I hope you’re satisfied about your host, Miss Bretton?”
“Oh!” She flushed deeply. “I—I didn’t know there could be such men in the world!”
“No, he isn’t a man at all.” Stone inspected the staring brown face curiously. “He’s merely a snake—or a spider, if you like. This pretty boat seems to be a regular parlor, but this time he’s caught a wasp instead of a fly; a wasp, Genus Americanus. Feeling better, Sultan? Let’s have a chat.”
“Damn you!” Sultan Lumpur’s voice lashed out venomously. “How dare you—”
“I dare do all that may become a man!” chuckled Stone. “If I press this trigger, you’ll be sorry; so keep your voice down. There’s no one aboard to help you, anyway, since that boat pulled off. Give me half a chance and I’ll put a bullet in you, Sultan!”
Lumpur, for all the foaming rage that possessed him, seemed unaccountably lethargic. He peered at Stone from bloodshot eyes; his brown fingers clawed at the table-cloth convulsively; and when he spoke again, a moment later, his voice was thick and blurred.
“Oh! You’re the man Stone, eh, what? I say, don’t be a bally ass, old chap!”
Stone grinned. “Just at present I’m a bloomin’ raja, old top—and you mind your eye! No, I’ll not hurt you unless you make me; so rest easy. That’s right; if you feel sleepy, go right ahead; never mind us—”
“Oh, what’s the matter with him?” cried Miss Bretton sharply, her voice thin with swift alarm and anxiety.
For Sultan Lumpur had suddenly bowed his head as though a heavy weight were forcing him down; his cheek went to the table-cloth between his outstretched arms, and with closed eyes he lay motionless, save for the stertorous breathing that heaved his slight frame.
“H-m! He drank that glass of water meant for you, and it works mighty fast,” explained Stone dryly. “Still, he may be shamming. You sit still for a moment—”
He stepped around the table, shoved his revolver into Sultan Lumpur’s ribs, and with his left hand drew back the royal eyelid. There was no doubt whatever about it. His highness was drugged to sleep, and was quite beyond any immediate awakening.
“Safe in the arms of Murphy, as the Dutchman said,” observed Stone, stowing away his revolver with a sigh of relief. He leaned over the table, and from various parts of the frock-coated person removed an ivory-handled knife and a beautiful little gold-mounted revolver. This last he shoved across to Miss Bretton.
“Take this and stow it away—you may need it, and if not, it ’ll be a souvenir of the happy occasion. Here, take this glass of wine; you really do need that, Miss Bretton, and some food, too. The excitement’s all over, ’pon my word!”
She obeyed him, smiling faintly. The American again leaned over the Sultan and deftly removed two blazing diamonds from scarf and finger, correctly adjusting them upon his own person. Then, drawing up a chair, he dumped from the pocket some small plush cases.
“What on earth are those?” inquired the watching girl curiously.
“Souvenirs.” Stone grinned and opened the cases, to display a collection of jeweled orders and decorations. With a knife he began to dig methodically at the jewels, littering the table with yellow and red and green spots of flame.
“Fine stones, too, Miss Bretton! He should have kept them in the safe—”
“You’re—why, Mr. Stone, you’re not stealing them?”
“Eh—stealing them?” Stone glanced at her in surprise. “Not on your life! See here, do you actually imagine—could you imagine—that I’m a thief?”
“No,” she returned, hesitant, her deep-gray eyes searching his. “But—”
“No buts at all. Right!” broke in Stone cheerfully. “I’ll explain, Miss Bretton. There’s a poor, no-account American whom I know—a decent fellow in his way, but who’s had a string of hard luck lately. In fact, he’s down and out financially. Now, then, this Sultan Lumpur has done him a very scurvy trick indeed; has forced him to starve and fight and do a whole lot of things he doesn’t like, and finally decided, only a little while ago, to maroon this American chap and set a bunch of crazy Malays on him—in short, to murder him. Well, I have saved the American, and I’m going to turn over these jewels as a little present from Sultan Lumpur, to repay him in part and to set him on his feet again. Don't you think it’s right?”
“Why—yes, perhaps it is,” she admitted slowly. “Who’s this American?”
“A fellow named Dick Stone. And I’m the Raja of Hell Island!” said Stone calmly. “Now please go on and eat something, Miss Bretton. We’re not out of the woods yet, and no matter whether or not you want to eat, it’s a physical necessity.”
At his words she flushed, eyed him a moment in indecision, and then obeyed.
Whistling between his teeth, Stone finished his task, tossed the silver and gold settings out of the stern window, and swept the little pile of jewels into his pocket. Then he rose and stretched himself, yawning.
“I beg your pardon—a raja sometimes forgets himself, Miss Bretton! Now, I’ve a bit of work for you to do in my absence, if you don’t mind.”
Her eyes leaped to him, suddenly startled.
“You—you are going away?”
“Just out on deck.” Stone nodded reassurance, took from the humidor another cheroot and lighted it. “You see, we have to make arrangements to get safely away from here, Miss Bretton, and we have just so much time in which to get away.”
The girl’s eyes went to the figure of Sultan Lumpur in mute remonstrance.
“Don’t worry about him. He’ll not wake up for an hour or two at least, and I have reasons for leaving him just where he is. In case anything unexpected happens, remember the neat little revolver I handed you. While I’m gone, now, I'd be greatly obliged if you’d get all the provisions out of these lockers you can find, and pile ’em up under that stern window. A dozen bottles of mineral water, too, and a couple of whisky against emergencies. Can you do this for me?”
“Of course!” she answered quietly. “I only wish I could do more, Mr. Stone. It’s terrible to realize all that’s happened, and to know that—that you have done so much beyond words to thank you for—”
Stone leaned across the table, and she put her hand in his. For a moment he gazed down at her slender, lightly tanned fingers, and the harshness died out of his features, and when he lifted his eyes to hers the steely depths of them were humid.
“God knows I want no thanks, Agnes Bretton! ” he said huskily. “Just to have known you—I never met a woman like you before in the world—”
He rose suddenly and strode from the cabin, went out into the passageway and shut the door behind him. For a space he stood there, striving to get himself in hand once more. He was seething with a riot of emotions—emotions that gripped and whirled him off his secure pedestal of poise. Agnes Bretton seemed to have twined among his very heart-strings, tugging at them with a great grief and sweetness and wonderful surge of feeling which was unnameable.
Two days previously he had never dreamed of such a thing as this—such love as this! It was love, he admitted savagely to himself. Although it might seem incredible, he felt that in these scant two days he had lived a century with this gray-eyed girl; she had entered into his life suddenly, completely, sweeping him away like a withered leaf in the blast. And Dick Stone was not a man easily swept away.
“And think what she’s just been through, with never a sign of break!”
He swore softly in sheer admiration. “A girl facing veritable hell, escaping it by an eyelash, and keeping just as cool as I am—”
He did not know that at this very moment Agnes Bretton was emptying the locker with tears streaming down her cheeks, with a desperate little prayer for strength on her lips.
Then, swiftly, Stone’s iron will swept all thought of her out of his mind, and grimly tensed himself to the work in hand. It was nearly done now, he reflected; the worst of the work lay behind, and if the Raja of Hell Island could play out the game sans faiblesse, Dick Stone would yet win clear. But there must be no false move, no trifling!
Before him Stone eyed the four cabin doors, two on either hand—the entire after-space of the proa aside from the Sultan’s private suite. Jerking out his revolver, the American stepped to the nearest door and shoved it open. The cabin was empty.
He passed on to the next. Under his grip the handle refused to give—the door was locked! A soft voice sounded in Malay, and Stone remembered the nautchgirl.
“Open!” he snapped.
The catch snicked back, and the door swung open. To his surprise, Stone saw two of the girls facing him—two slim brown things, fright in their eyes, gazing out at him as a trapped nilgai deer gazes upon the hunters.
“You understand English?” said Stone. “Then be quiet. Lock your door until the Sultan calls for you, and keep quiet! That’s all.”
He drew the door to, and heard the lock click.
But, at the same moment, as though the sound of his voice had caused the movement, Stone heard the creak of hinges behind. He whirled, catlike. In the cabin door directly opposite that of the two girls, standing staring at him like a fat and surprised elephant, was Captain Benbow of the Penang!
Instantly, Stone’s revolver bored into Benbow’s fat pauch, and Stone’s eyes shone into those of the Englishman like gray agates.
“You fat fool! This boat’s in my hands. D’ you want to die in a hurry?”
“Oh, come, Stone!” exclaimed the astounded Benbow, who had seemingly just weakened from sleep, and was but half-dressed. “Let by-gones be by-gones, eh, what? You did for poor Mickelson—well, that was his own fault, I take it.” Benbow licked his fat lips, and fear sat in his roving eyes. “Come, Stone, chuck it! No hard feelings—”
“Oh, shut up!” snarled the American harshly. “I’ll do you like I did Mickelson if you don’t keep your fat head where it belongs. But I don’t want any more fighting. By the Lord Harry, I’ve had my bellyful this trip! This craft belongs to me, savvy? Have you any objections to proffer?”
“Here, you can’t come that over me—” Stone’s finger moved on the trigger, and the bluster of Benbow died abruptly into nothing. “No, of course not, Stone! You—you’re able to handle her, of course. Deuced good chap—no hard feelings, eh, what?”
Stone’s eyes spat forth contempt.
“You’re a damned dirty scoundrel, Benbow, and I ought to put a bullet into you. But that’s more than I can stomach. Get into your cabin and stay there. Mind, stay there! If you come poking out, you’ll stop lead. I’m running this hooker—get!”
Benbow vanished hastily and slammed the door. Having no means of fastening it, Stone trusted that the skipper’s amazement and fear would hold him prisoner, and passed on to the fourth door. That cabin proved to be empty.
Turning, Stone sought the companionway.
“Expecting to take Miss Bretton aboard, Sultan Lumpur stowed his girls in that cabin—and they’ll stay there safe enough,” he reflected. “Well, it looks as if all was secure below, granted Benbow lies perdu for a while. The next question is about the boats. Which of the two Penang boats did those fellows take when they went across the lagoon to the river mouth? If my boat’s here, the one that slipped off and brought Sultan Lumpur, then luck is with me for once.”
Unhesitant now, sure that all was clear, he advanced up the ladder and sprang to the deck above.
It seemed that he had been below decks for hours unnumbered; yet now he realized that it had been only a matter of minutes since his last look above—not an hour in all. The boat had vanished in the mainland marshes at the mouth of the river. Along the ancient island wharves the pilgrim castaways were chanting their noonday prayer, their singsong voices lifting the sura vibrantly over the water and the old ruins.
The two men who had been left aboard the proa were seamen from the Penang. Brazenly neglectful of prayers, they were sitting on the bulwarks amidships, eagerly watching two fishing lines which they had put over into the water. Stone grinned at sight of them.
“Di sini, lu!” His voice bit out like a whiplash. “Here, you! Marilah! Come!”
They jumped as though a veritable whip had flecked across their brown backs. Leaping up, they stood in amaze at sight of the American, whose revolver covered them.
“Tuan Stone, you bet. Get over to the mast—jump, you dogs! Lakas! Throw your knives on the deck—that’s very good. One of you put your arms around the mast—no, clear around—that’s it! Now, you other boy, tie his wrists.”
With the wrists of one Malay securely bound together, Stone made the second seaman embrace the mast likewise, sitting on the deck, and lashed the brown wrists in turn. Then he pocketed his revolver,- chuckling grimly.
“When that boat comes back, boys, tell ’em that the Raja of Hell Island captured you. Savvy? I’m going to take Sultan Lumpur away on a little trip, so don’t worry about him. This is what you get for forgetting your noonday prayers—eh?”
He crossed the deck to the gangway ladder, where a boat swung by its painter. Leaning over, Stone saw to his delight that it was the same boat he had prepared on the Penang—the same in which he had come ashore. Lashed to the thwarts was the mast with the sail wrapped around it, two oars atop of all.
“Good!” exclaimed Stone exultantly. “The game’s won!”
The painter in his hand, he towed the boat aft to the high, carved stern of the proa. There, because of the gilded carving that jutted out, he was unable to see the stern window below, but sent his voice ringing down in a cheerful hail.
“Miss Bretton! All well?”
“Yes!” The answer floated up. “Where are you?”
“On deck above. Try and catch this line, will you?”
Leaning far over, he swung the loose end of the painter in below him. At the third attempt it was caught and held.
“All right. I have it!”
“Hang on to it until I get down, then,” responded the American.
He swiftly regained the companionway and slipped below. The doors of the passage were closed, and Stone did not think it worth while to intimidate Benbow further. He hastened on to the end door, flung it open—and at sight of Miss Bretton at the stern window, quite forgot to lock the door after him.
“Bully for you!” Smiling, Stone took the painter from her and hooked the knotted end in the gilded carving. “Now, let’s get our freight in. You’re willing to take a little boat ride, I hope? Back to civilization?”
“Willing!” She laughed, a trifle hysterically. “Oh, can we?”
“Upon the honor of a raja, ma’am! In ten minutes this breeze will be sending us over the bar, and in twenty minutes we’ll be spanking south on the briny deep! Here goes.”
He lifted the limp figure of Sultan Lumpur by the collar, shoved the body royal through the window, and dropped it pitilessly into the bow of the boat below.
“Taking him as a hostage for a while,” he explained briefly. “Now, if you’ll get down into the boat yourself, I’ll pass you the provisions.”
“Thank you,” she said simply, taking his hand.
Very carefully Stone helped her through the window and lowered her into the wide stern-sheets of the boat. Then he handed down the bottled water and provisions, directing her how to stow them in the boat locker and between the thwarts, and last of all sent down the Sultan’s humidor of fine cheroots.
“Just a minute, now!”
Darting into the royal bedroom, Stone seized whatever pillows and quilts came to hand, and sent them down to make a comfortable nest for the girl behind the after-thwart. Then, bidding her unlash the mast and oars, Stone turned about for his final move.
Crossing to the door, he uncovered the knocked-out quartermaster and dragged the bound and gagged man to the stern window, bidding him stand upright and look down at the boat underneath.
“Now, then,” he said, turning the Malay toward himself again, “you see that I am going away, and that Sultan Lumpur is in my power?”
The quartermaster nodded.
“Good. You’ll be released in an hour, when the other quartermaster comes back with that boat. You tell him, and tell Tuan Benbow likewise, that if you attempt to pursue us, I’ll shoot Sultan Lumpur at first sight of you—savvy? Good. Stay here until sunset, then go on south with the proa and put in at Kuala Trengore; you ought to reach it early in the morning. You’ll find Sultan Lumpur there waiting for you, safe and unhurt—I give you my word as to that. But if you try to follow, he’ll be the first to die. All set?”
The Malay nodded. Stone knew that in their implicit loyalty these men would not risk the threat carried into effect, and that they would not allow Benbow to overrule them. The proa would remain where she was until evening.
“Here, sit down and be out of my way—”
Stone was just pushing the bound Malay into the nearest chair, to clear his own way through the window, when he saw the man’s eyes dart suddenly to the door of the passage behind him. Almost subconsciously, he sensed danger—and dropped to the floor like a plummet, gripping at his revolver.
As he dropped, the deafening burst of a revolver-shot filled the cabin. Twisting about on the floor, Stone saw the portly figure of Benbow in the doorway, weapon in hand. The wily skipper had slipped unobserved to the door, and his deliberate attempt at murder had been thwarted only by the startled glance of the bound quartermaster.
Even as these thoughts flitted through Stone’s brain, his finger pressed the trigger of his own revolver. Benbow, who had been peering forward for a second shot, dropped his weapon and clapped both hands to his chest; then, the life stricken mutely out of him, his knees loosened and he sank to the deck.
“Inefficient—inefficient to the last!” muttered Stone, rising and frowning at the skipper’s body in sudden cold anger. “You couldn’t even shoot me down from behind—Lord knows I tried to keep from this—”
He whirled, slipped lithely through the window, jerked loose the painter, and dropped down into the boat. Miss Bretton caught and steadied him, staring at him from a pallid face.
“What—what was that shooting? No trouble, surely?”
“No, no trouble.” Stone laughed grimly and stepped across the thwarts to the mast. “It was merely an accident.”
And, under his breath he added, “An accident of inefficiency!”