Open main menu
 

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.