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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, now 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 bearers. 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 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.