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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.