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CHAPTER XXXII.

THE LITTLE DISCUSSION BETWEEN THE SEVERAL PARTIES.

That night we held a consultation. We four. It was getting dead low tide with us. If we didn’t light upon those treasures of the temple, we should have to find a ship instead. And that before long. If we had to go aboard of her as cabin boys.

It seemed to me that something might be got out of Mr. Paine. In the way of information. Things pointed that way. The more I thought, the more they seemed to point. I told the others. We decided to wait upon him in a body. And man the pumps for all we were worth. If he proved dry, if nothing could be got out of him, then we should have to admit that the tide was low. And that we were stranded. But we had hopes.

The morning after we were in Mitre Court, where his rooms were, betimes. The idea was that he shouldn’t escape us, that we should see him as soon as he was visible, and so play the part of the early bird that catches the worm. But when we found that the door into the street was open, I, knowing the lay of the land, without any parley, led the way upstairs. And it was well for him we did. For we came upon as lively a little scene as ever we’d encountered.

There was a larger company assembled than we had expected. Quite what was happening we couldn’t at once make out. The first thing I saw was a girl tied down upon a table, and—of all people in the world—that cursing gentleman leaning over her with a knife in his hand. Having torn her clothes open at the throat, he looked as if he was going to write his name on her nice white skin with the point of his blade. He got no farther than the start. I introduced myself. And landed him one. He didn’t seem to know whether he was glad or sorry to meet me. I loosed the girl. When I looked round I saw the room was in a mess, and on the floor, trussed like a fowl, was Mr. Paine. But what made me almost jump out of skin for joy, was the sight of our dear friend Luke tied up beside him.

I released that excellent first officer. Then things were said. When he understood that we were spoiling to cut him up into little pieces, and that it seemed likely that he had fallen from the frying-pan into the fire, he explained. What we wanted to know was the present address at which Mr. Batters could be found. It seemed, according to him, that he was aching to know it too.

“Bless my beautiful eyes!” He spat upon the floor. “Do you think if I knew where the hearty was that I’d be here? He used me shameful, he did that.”

“It seems incredible that he should have used you badly, Mr. Luke.”

“It does. After all I’d done for him. But he did. After we——

He coughed. I finished his sentence.

“Had taken such a ceremonious leave of us all on board The Flying Scud. Yes? Go on.”

“We got picked up by a liner as was making Suez.”

“As you anticipated you would be. I see. You’re a far-sighted person, Mr. Luke.”

“They landed us at Suez. We stopped there two or three days getting packing-cases to—to——

“To pack the treasures of the temple in. They must have been rather conspicuous objects to carry about with you anyhow. Go on.”

“Then hang me if one evening I didn’t wake up and find that I’d been senseless for close on two days. The devil had hocussed me.”

“Hocussed you? Impossible!”

“He had. Then he’d slipped away, him and his blessed daughter, while I was more dead than alive, leaving me with as good as nothing in my pockets. What I had to go through no one knows. If I ever do set eyes on him again, I’ll——

The peroration was a study of adjectives.

“Then it appears that you are just as eager to have another interview with Mr. Benjamin Batters as we are. I am sorry your venture was not attended with better fortune. It deserved success. Pray what were you to have had out of it?”

“I was to have had half the blooming lot. And the girl——

“And the girl! Indeed? And the girl! Mr. Luke, I should dearly like——

Mr. Paine interposed.

“Excuse me, Captain Lander, but if it is of Mr. Benjamin Batters you are speaking, if it is to him so many mysterious references have been made as the Great Joss, then I may state that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, that gentleman is dead.”

“Dead?—to the best of your knowledge and belief?—what do you mean?”

As I stared at him, a remark was made by the young lady who so narrowly escaped being made the subject of an experiment in carving. Although evidently very far from being as much herself as she might have been, she had pulled herself together a little, and was holding both hands up to her throat.

“You’re forgetting that Pollie’s lying perhaps worse than dead in Camford Street.”

Mr. Paine gave a jump.

“I had forgotten it!—upon my honour!”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Miss Blyth—to whom Miss Purvis refers as Pollie—is the niece of the Mr. Batters of whom we have been speaking. She’s his heiress, in fact.”

“His heiress?”

“Yes; his sole residuary legatee. Among other things he left her a house in Camford Street—No 84—on somewhat mysterious conditions. For instance, she was to allow no man to enter it.”

“No man?”

“No; only she and one feminine friend were ever to be allowed to put their feet inside the door.”

“Oh?”

I began to smell a rat. Mr. Paine waved his hand towards the young lady the cursing gentleman had been about to practise on.

“This is Miss Purvis, the feminine friend whom Miss Blyth chose to be her sole companion. Other conditions were attached to the bequest equally mysterious. Indeed, it would really seem as if there was something in that house in Camford Street the existence of which the late Mr. Batters was particularly anxious should be concealed from the world. Miss Blyth only entered on the occupation of her property yesterday. Yet Miss Purvis came at an early hour this morning to tell me that something extraordinary had happened in the middle of the night. Something, she doesn’t quite know what, but fancies it was some wild animal, made a savage attack upon Miss Blyth without the slightest provocation. And when Miss Purvis recovered from the shock which the occurrence gave her, she found that she herself had been thrown into the street.”

“Mr. Paine!” I laid my hand upon the lawyer’s shoulder. “Do you know what’s inside that house?”

“I haven’t the faintest notion. How should I have?”

“It’s the late Mr. Batters!”

“The late Mr. Batters?”

“The thing the existence of which Mr. Batters was most anxious to keep concealed, was Mr. Batters himself—for reasons. So he’s put about a cock and bull story making out he’s dead, and then hidden himself in this house of which you’re talking.”

“Captain Lander!”

“Mind, it’s only my guess, as yet. But I don’t think you’ll find that I’m sailing very wide of the wind. The more I turn things over, after listening to what you’ve said, the more likely it seems to me that the Great Joss, whom we’ve all been on tiptoe to get a peep at, has hidden himself in that house which he pretends to have left to his niece, and is waiting there for us to find him. And I’m off to do it!”

“Someone’s had the start of you.”

The interruption came from Rudd. The absence of the cursing gentleman, and his two friends, explained his meaning.

“They’ve gone hot-foot after him,” I cried. “What’s good enough for them is good enough for me!”

We journeyed in three cabs. Speed was a consideration. So we chartered hansoms. I went in front with Luke. He didn’t seem over and above anxious for my society. But I didn’t feel as if I could be comfortable without him. So we went together. Though I am bound to admit that I’m inclined to think that I enjoyed that ride more than he did. Rudd, Holley, and his chum came next. Mr. Paine and the young lady last. I liked his manner towards that young lady. In a lawyer, whom one naturally looks upon as the most hard-hearted of human creatures, it was beautiful. He could not have treated her more tenderly if she had been a queen. And, though she was still in a very sad condition, I have a sort of idea that, when they were once inside that cab, speed with them wasn’t much of a consideration.

And though those hansoms did rattle us along in style, we found that someone had got to that house in Camford Street in front of us.