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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.”