The Joss: A Reversion/Chapter 5
THE MISSIONARY'S LETTER.
The question was, what was to become of us? With no friends one cannot live long on fifteen shillings. Even if we got fresh situations in a fortnight it would only be with management that the money could be made to last that time; and, if we did, then we should be more fortunate than I expected to be.
Mr. Paine, however, postponed the solution of the difficulty by suggesting that I should arrange nothing until I had had a talk with him. I was willing; though what he had to do with it was more than I could guess; unless, like they used to do in the fairy tales, he was all of a sudden going to turn out to be my fairy godpapa. One thing I insisted on, that Emily should come with me. So, after I had scribbled a note to Tom—“Dear Tom, Emily and I have got the sack. Meet me after closing time at the usual place. Yours, as ever, Pollie. P.S.—Hope you’re all right”—which Sanders, who was a good sort, promised to see he got—we all three got into a four-wheeled cab, with our boxes on top, and away we rattled.
“Good bye, Slaughter!” I said. “And may we never want to see your face again. And now, Mr. Paine, where are you taking us to?”
“To my offices in Mitre Court. What I have to say to you may take some time, and require a little explanation, and there we shall have the necessary privacy.”
It sounded mysterious and I began to wonder more and more what he had to say. I daresay I should have put my wonder into words, only just at that moment, who should I see, peeping at us round the corner of the street which we were passing, but the man who paid our bill at Firandolo’s, and who said his name was Isaac Rudd. The sight of him gave me quite a shock.
“There’s Isaac Rudd!” I cried.
“Isaac—who?” asked Emily. She can be dull.
“Why, the man who paid the bill last night.”
Then she understood. Out went her head through the window.
“Where? I don’t see him.”
“No, and he’ll take care you won’t. Unless I’m mistaken, directly he knew I saw him he took himself away; but he’s got his eye upon us all the same.” I looked at Emily, and she at me. Mr. Paine saw that something was up.
“Who was that you’re speaking of? Someone who has been annoying you?”
“No—nothing. Only there was something a little queer took place last night.”
I sat silent, thinking of Isaac Rudd; as, I daresay, was Emily too. Putting two and two together, it was odd that he should be just there at that particular moment. Especially as, a little farther on, I saw, standing in the shadow of a doorway, a man in a long black overcoat, with his hat crushed over his eyes, who bore the most amazing resemblance to the foreigner who had given me the something in a scrap of paper.
Suddenly I jumped up from my seat. I was so startled that I could not help but give a little scream. They both stared at me.
“What is wrong?” asked Mr. Paine.
“Why, look at that!”
There, sitting, as it were, bolt upright on my knee was the something which had been in the scrap of paper. Mr. Paine eyed it.
“What is it?”
“That’s what I should like to know; also where it’s come from; it wasn’t there a moment back, and that I’ll swear.”
“May I look at it?”
“Certainly; and throw it out of the window too, for all I care.”
Mr. Paine took it up. He turned it over and over.
“It looks like one of the images, representatives of well known deities, which are used as household gods on some of the Pacific coasts. People hang them over their beds, or over the thresholds of their doors, or anywhere. Imitations are sold in some of the London shops. Perhaps Messrs. Cardew & Slaughter keep them in stock.”
“That I am sure they don’t. And, if they do, that’s not out of their stock. That was given to me last night by a foreigner in yellow canvas cloth. It jumped out of the scrap of paper in which it was wrapped——”
“If it didn’t jump I don’t know what it did do; I can tell you it took me aback. Miss Ashton threw it on to the floor; yet, when I woke up this morning, it was on my forehead, though how it got there I know no more than the dead.”
“Are you in earnest, Pollie?”
“Dead earnest. It’s my belief I left it in the bedroom, though I might have put it in my pocket, but how it came on to my knee is just what I can’t say.”
Mr. Paine was dividing his attention between me and the thing.
“This is very interesting, Miss Blyth. Especially as I also have had a curious experience or two lately. Can you describe the person who gave it you?”
I described him, to the best of my ability.
His tone seemed to suggest that something in my description had struck him; though what it was he did not explain.
“You’d better throw that thing out of the window,” I said. “I’ve had enough of it.”
“Thank you; but, if you have no use for it, if you do not mind, I should like to retain it in my own possession. It’s a curiosity, and—I’m interested in curiosities.”
He slipped it into his waistcoat pocket. I noticed that once or twice he felt with his fingers, as if to make sure that it still was there.
Mr. Paine was very civil to us when we reached his office—a funny, dark little place it was. He got out some cake, and biscuits, and a decanter of wine, and Emily and I helped ourselves, for I was starving. Sitting at a table in front of us, he took some papers out of a drawer, and began to look at them. Now that I could notice him more I could see that he was tall and well set up; quite the gentleman; with one of those clear-cut faces, and keen grey eyes, with not a hair upon it—I mean upon his face, of course, because I particularly observed that his teeth and eye-lashes were perfect.
“Before I go into the subject on which I have ventured to bring you here, I am afraid I shall have to ask you one or two questions, Miss Blyth.”
His manner was just what it ought to have been, respectful, and yet not too distant.
“Any answers I can give you, Mr. Paine, you are welcome to.”
“What was your mother’s maiden name?”
“Mary Ann Batters. She died six years ago next month, when I was fourteen. My father’s name was Augustus. He was a most superior person, although unfortunate in business; and though he died five years before my mother, I’ve heard her say, almost to her last hour, that she had married above her—which I believe she did.”
“Had your mother any relations?”
“Well, in a manner of speaking, there was one; but about him least said soonest mended; although he was her brother—that is, until she cast him off.”
“What was his name?”
“Benjamin. Although I do not remember ever hearing her mention it, and, indeed, she was opposed to speaking of him at all; I learned it was so through finding some letters of his in one of her boxes after she was dead, and those letters I have unto this day.”
“That is fortunate; because it is as the representative of Mr. Benjamin Batters that I am here.”
“Indeed? You don’t mean to say so. This is a surprise.”
And not a pleasant one either. I had heard of Mr. Benjamin Batters, though not for years and years, but never had I heard anything to his credit. A regular all-round bad lot he must have been, up to all sorts of tricks, and worse than tricks. I had reason to believe he had been in prison more than once, perhaps more than twice. When you have a relation like that, and have forgotten all about him, and are thankful to have been able to do it, you do not like to have him come flying, all of a sudden, in your face. I was not obliged to Mr. Paine for mentioning his name. If that was all he had to talk about I was sorry I had come.
“I may take it, then, that Mr. Benjamin Batters is an uncle of yours.”
“In a manner of speaking. Although, considering my mother, his sister, cast him off, and that I myself never set eyes upon the man, it is only by a figure of speech that you can call him so.”
“Mr. Benjamin Batters, Miss Blyth, is dead.”
“Then that alters the case. And I can only hope that he died better than, I have been told, he lived.”
“I should mention that I myself never met Mr. Batters, nor do I, really, know anything at all about him. My connection with him is rather an odd one. A little more than a week ago I received this package.” He held out a bundle of papers. “Its contents rather surprised me. Among other things was this letter, which, with your permission! I will read to you, ‘Great Ke Island, lat. 5° South; long. 134° East—that is the heading of the letter; the address at which it purports to have been written. A curious one, you will perceive it is. There actually is such an island. It lies some three hundred miles off the western coast of New Guinea, in the Arafura Sea; and that, practically, is all I have hitherto been able to learn about it I have made inquiries, in the likeliest places, for someone who has ever been there, but I have not, as yet, been able to light on such a person. Ships, it appears, trade among the islands thereabouts. To the captain of one of those the letter may have been handed. He may have transferred it to the captain of an English vessel engaged in the Australian trade, who bore it with him to England, and then posted it to me; for that it was posted in London there is the postmark on the original package to witness. I am informed, however, that letters from those out-of-the-way corners of the world do reach England by circuitous routes, so that, in itself, there is nothing remarkable in that.
“There is a discrepancy, I am bound to add; which, considering what the letter purports to be, is a distinct misfortune—it is undated. But I will read it, and then you yourself will see my point.
“That was where mother lived when she was a girl,” I interposed.
Mr. Paine read on:
“‘At his particular request I send you this intimation, together with the documents which you will find enclosed. Set apart from the world as here I am I cannot say when an opportunity will arise which will enable me to despatch you this, nor by what route it will reach you; but, by the mercy of an All-seeing Providence, I trust that it will reach you in the end.
“‘Mr. Batters suffered greatly towards the close; but he bore his sufferings with exemplary patience. He died, as he had lived, at peace with all men.
“I am, Dear Sir, your obedient servant,
“‘Arthur Lennard, Missionary.
“‘P.S.—I may add that I have just buried poor Batters, with Christian rites, as the shadows lengthened, in our little graveyard which is within hearing of the sea.’”
Mr. Paine ceased; he looked at us, and we at him.
“That’s a funny letter,” I remarked.
“Funny!” cried Emily. “Pollie, how can you say so? Why, it’s a romance.”
“Precisely,” said Mr. Paine. His voice was a little dry. “It is, perhaps, because it is so like a romance that it seems—odd.”
I had a fancy that he had meant to use another word instead of “odd;” I wondered what it was.
“According to that letter my Uncle Benjamin must have changed a good deal before he died; I never heard of his being at peace with anyone. Mother used to say that he would fight his left hand against his right rather than not fight at all.”
“From what you have been telling us a marked alteration must have taken place in his character. But then, when people are dying, they are apt to change; to become quite different beings—especially in the eyes of those who are looking on.” Again there was that dryness in the speaker’s tone. I felt sure there was a twinkle in his eye. “You will see, Miss Blyth, that this letter is, to all intents and purposes, a certificate of your uncle’s death; you will understand, therefore, how unfortunate it is that it should be undated. We are, thus, in this position; that, although his death, and even his burial, are certified, we do not know when either event took place; except that, as it would appear from the context, he was buried on the same day on which he died—which, in such a climate, is not unlikely. Our only means of even remotely guessing at the period of his decease is by drawing deductions from the date of his will.”
“His will! You don’t mean to say that my uncle Benjamin left a will?”
“He did; and here it is.”
“I expect that that’s all he did leave.”
“You are mistaken; he left a good deal more.”
“To whom did he leave it?”
“It is to give you that very information, Miss Blyth, that I ventured to bring you here.”
I gasped. This was getting interesting. A cold shiver went down my back. I had never heard of a will in our family before, there having been no occasion for such a thing. And to think of Uncle Benjamin having been the first to start one! As the proverb says, you never can tell from a man’s beginning what his end will be—and you cannot.
Emily came a little closer, and she took my hand in hers, and she gave it a squeeze, and she said:
“Never mind, Pollie! bear up!”
I did not know what she meant, but it was very nice of her, though I had not the slightest intention of doing anything else. But, as my mother used to say, human sympathy is at all times precious. So I gave her squeeze for squeeze. And I wished that Tom was there.