The Joss: A Reversion/Chapter 15

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CHAPTER XV.

AN ULTIMATUM.

What had happened I could not think, nor where I was. It was pitch dark. I had been roused from sound sleep, as it seemed, by someone falling over me, who was making vigorous efforts at my expense to regain a footing. I remonstrated.

“Who is it? what are you doing?”

“Emily!” returned a voice, in accents of unmistakable surprise.

It was Pollie. She was lying right across me, and, with sundry ejaculations, was using my body as a sort of lever to assist her in regaining her perpendicular. She was plainly as much astonished to find that it was me as I was to find it was her.

“You’ve been lying on the floor. Why have you been doing that?”

“Because I happen to have been lying on the floor that is no reason why you should tumble over me.”

“That’s good. How was I to see you in the middle of this brilliant illumination? I called out to you; as you did not answer I was beginning to be half afraid that the black bogies had swallowed you up. Have you been there all night?”

“I don’t know.” I wondered myself. “I suppose so.”

Raising myself to a sitting posture I found that I was stiff all over. I had not been accustomed to quite so hard a mattress. “Have you any idea what time it is?”

“I wish I had. So far as light is concerned all hours seem the same in here, but I’ll have that altered before another night comes on. I feel as if I had slept my sleep right out, so I expect that anyhow it’s morning.”

Her feelings were not mine. My eyelids were heavy. I felt generally dull and stupid, unrefreshed. She gave a little exclamation.

“I touched something with my foot. I believe it’s the matches. I thought I put them in my pocket; if so, they’ve dropped out since; they’re not there. Well found! It is!” She struck one. “Hallo, where’s the candle?”

I remembered that the one she had left alight had burned right out. But there had been others, three or four pieces of varying length. Every trace of them had vanished.

“Rats,” I suggested

“That’s it; the little wretches have devoured them, wicks and tallow and all, When I got off the bed I heard them scurrying in all directions. Did we leave any ends downstairs?”

“I don’t think so. We brought up all there was to bring.”

“Then that’s real nice. For the present we shall have to live by matchlight.” As she spoke the one she held went out. “They don’t burn long; just long enough to scorch the tips of your fingers. Where’s the door?” She moved towards it by the glimmer of a flickering match. She tried the handle. “Why, it seems——” There was a pause. “It does seem——” The match went out, “Emily, it’s locked.”

“Locked!” I echoed the word.

“Yes, locked; I said locked, or—something. And it wasn’t anything last night”

“No! I don’t believe it was.”

“You don’t believe! Don’t you remember that because there wasn’t a key, and the hasp wouldn’t catch, you suggested piling up the furniture to keep it close? What do you mean, then, by saying that you don’t believe? you know it wasn’t.”

“Yes; I do know.”

“Well, it’s fastened now.” I could hear her, in the darkness, trying the handle again. “Sure enough, it’s locked; and, from the feel, it’s bolted too. Emily, we’re locked in.”

She was silent. I was silent, too, turning things over in my mind. It seemed, when she spoke again, as if she had been doing the same.

“But—who can have done it? It appears that I was right, that there was someone in those Bluebeard’s chambers—perhaps in both, for all we know. If someone could come and lock this door without waking us up, we ran a good risk of having our throats cut, or worse.” She lit another match. Apparently my continued silence struck her as peculiar. “Why don’t you say something—what’s the matter? Don’t you understand that we’re locked in; prisoners, my dear? Or are you too stupefied with terror to be able to utter a word?”

She held the match in front of her face. It gleamed on something white.

“What’s that upon your bodice?”

“My bodice?” She put up her hand. “Why——it’s a piece of paper——pinned to my bodice! Where on earth——!” Once more the match went out. “This truly is delightful. Never before did I realise how much we owe to candles. The thing is pinned as if it had been meant never to be unpinned. Where can it have come from? It can’t have fallen from the skies. It’s plain that there are ghosts about. It’s not easy to do a little job like this in the dark, my dear; but I’ve managed. I’ve also managed to jab my finger in half-a-dozen places with the pin. Emily, come here; light a match and hold it while I examine this mysterious paper. I can’t do everything; and you don’t seem disposed to do anything at all.”

In endeavouring to do as she requested, I stumbled against her in the darkness.

“That’s right; knock me over; you’ve made me run the pin into my other finger. There, my love, are the matches; what you’re grabbing at is my back hair.”

Taking a match from the box which she thrust into my hand, I tried to light it at the wrong end; turning it round, a spark leaped into my eye. I dropped it, to rub my eye.

“Clever, aren’t you? Just the helpful sort of person one likes to be able to count upon when one is in a bit of a hole. Try again; if at first you don’t succeed, perhaps you will next time.”

I did. I held the flaming match as conveniently for her as possible; but, at best, it was not much of a light. Every few moments it went out; I had to light another. As I fumbled with them now and then, I was not always so expeditious, perhaps, as I should have been. Pollie grumbled all the while.

“Can’t you hold it steady? Who do you suppose can see if your hand keeps shaking?” It was not my hand which shook, it was the flame which flickered. “It’s queer paper; sort of cigarette paper, it seems to be; I never saw any like it—at least, so far as I can judge by the light of that match which you won’t hold steady. I wonder where it came from, and who it’s from. Emily, someone’s been playing pranks on us this night; I should like to know just what pranks they were. That’s right, let the match go out; can’t you keep it alight a little longer?”

“Thank you; it has burned my fingers as it is.”

I lit another.

“There is writing on it; I thought there was; I can see it now. Hold that match of yours closer.”

In my anxiety to obey her, I gave it too sudden a jerk, the flame was extinguished.

“There! I suppose you’ll say that you burned that to an end. If you go on wasting them at this rate we shall be in a fix indeed. How do you know that those aren’t all the matches we have got?”

“There are some more upon the mantelpiece—I saw them.”

“You saw the boxes; you didn’t see the matches; they may be empty. For all you can tell rats may be as fond of matches as they are of candles. Now, do be careful; don’t let that go out. Nearer; the way you shiver and shake is trying, my love. I never knew there was so much flicker in a match before. What’s it say? Someone’s been writing with the point of a pin; you want a microscope to read it. Of course! Let it go out just as I was beginning to see. You are a treasure! This time do try to let us have a light on the subject as long as you can.”

She held the paper within an inch of the tip of her nose, and I held a match as close as I dared. She began to decipher the writing.

“‘Put the key to the front and the key to the back under the door, and you shall be released. Until you do you will be kept a prisoner. And the fate of the doomed shall be yours. You child of disobedience!’ This is pretty; very pretty, on my word. There’s a style about the get-up of the thing which suggests that the person who got it up wasn’t taught writing in England; but if it wasn’t written by a woman, I’m a Dutchman.”

“Then it was she.”

“She? What do you mean? That’s right! By all means let the light go out at the moment it’s most wanted. Perhaps you’ll tell me what you mean by ‘she’ in the dark.”

“Pollie, after you had gone to sleep I had a visitor.”

“A visitor! Emily! And you’re alive to tell the tale! And let me sleep on! And never tried to wake me!”

“At the beginning I was too much afraid, and afterwards I couldn’t.”

“Who was the visitor?”

“Well, that’s more than I can tell you, except that it was a woman.”

“A woman—Emily—came in here after I had gone to sleep! Don’t you see, or if you can’t see, can’t you feel that I’m on tenterhooks? Will you go on, or must I take you by the shoulders and shake it out of you?”

I told her what there was to tell, in the dark. She stood close up to me. As she said, I could feel she was on tenterhooks. She gripped me with her hands, as if she were unwilling to let there be so much as an inch of space between us, for fear of losing a syllable of what I had to say. As the interest increased her grasp tightened. Yet when I had to stop and tell her that she was pinching me black and blue, she resented my remonstrance as if it had been an unnecessary interruption of my narration. She could not have been more unreasonable had she tried. And to crown it all, so soon as I had finished she professed to doubt me.

“You’re sure you’ve been telling me just exactly what took place. I know your taste for the romantic.”

“I’ve been telling you nothing but the sober facts.”

“Sober, you call them? Staggering facts they seem to me. But why didn’t you ask the creature who she was?”

“Don’t I tell you that I did? And she replied that she was a daughter of the gods, and held life and death in her hand.”

“Is that so? She must have been a oner. Emily, I’ll never forgive you as long as I live for letting me sleep on.”

“Don’t! I wish you wouldn’t pinch. If you’d been in my place, I don’t believe you’d have done anything different—it’s all very well for you to talk. Why didn’t you wake up on your own accord? Anyone else in your place would have done—I should. The truth is, Pollie, you were sleeping like a grampus.”

“Thank you, my pet. I don’t quite know how a grampus sleeps, and I don’t believe you do either; but I’m obliged for the compliment all the same. I suppose it’s meant for a compliment. Of course the thing’s as plain as a pikestaff. Your daughter of the gads sneaked out of one of Bluebeard’s chambers, where, no doubt, she is at this identical moment. Shouldn’t I like to get at her! I will before I’m done. It seems as if she—or somebody—is discontented with the way I’ve behaved since I came into my fortune, though it’s early days to be dissatisfied. And the idea apparently is to get hold of the keys, and then to get rid of me; on the supposition that when I’m once outside I shan’t be able, without the keys, to get in again. But I’m not quite so simple as I look. When she went I expect you fell asleep, though why you didn’t wake me up, and help chivy her downstairs, is more than I can understand. I’d have daughter-of-the-gods her! Then she sneaked back, searched for the keys; fortunately, the intricacies of a Christian woman’s costume were too many for her. So she jumped to the Conclusion that they were concealed in some mysterious hiding-place, quite beyond her finding out, daughter of the gods though she is. She pinned the piece of paper to my bodice, and she locked the door, supposing that we’d the spirits of mice, and that we’d give her what she’s no more right to than the man in the moon, just to unlock it again. But you’re mistaken, you daughter of the gods! Emily, I can’t see your face, and you can’t see mine. If you could you’d see determination written on it, and you’d know she was. I don’t mean to be kept shut up like a rat in a trap, not much, I don’t. Outside there! Are you going to open this door, or am I to open it for you?”

Bang, bang she went with her fists against the panels. The noise she made shook the room.

“One thing’s certain, this door’s not protected with sheet iron, or any pretty stuff of that kind. If it’s not unlocked it won’t be long before I’m through it, anyhow. Do you hear, you daughter of the gods?”

Smash, crash went the fists again.

I did not know what to say, still less what to do. It was useless proffering advice. She never was amenable to that. I was sure she would resent it hotly then. Yet what she proposed to gain by going on was beyond my comprehension.

It was becoming pretty plain to me that whatever object her Uncle Benjamin had in view when he made his will it was not his niece’s benefit. It seemed as if he had died as he had lived, true to the character which Pollie gave of him. I was beginning to think that he had meant to use her as a catspaw, though why, or in what way, I confess I did not understand. That the house was not a good house I was sure; that it harboured some dreadful characters I felt convinced; perhaps coiners, or forgers, or abandoned creatures of some kind. Pollie might be meant to serve as a sort of cover. Her occupation of the place might be intended to avert suspicion. People seeing her going in and out, and being aware she lived there, would think there was nothing strange about the house. It need not be generally known that she had only access to a part of it. The prohibition against allowing anybody but another girl to cross the threshold was evidently meant as a precaution against allowing that fact to become discovered. Oh yes! nothing could be plainer than that, so far from Pollie’s being the lucky heritor of a handsome fortune, she was only the tool of her wicked old uncle; and that, consciously or unconsciously, as such she was to hide from the world some one or other of his nefarious schemes which had to be kept hidden even after he was in his grave.

As such thoughts kept chasing each other through my brain. I could keep them to myself no longer.

“Pollie, do you know what I should do if I were you?”

“Break open the door with a chair, or the leg of the bedstead, my dear?”

“I should leave the house this moment.”

“Would you indeed? And then?”

“I should go straight to Mr. Paine, and I should renounce the fortune which your wicked old uncle has pretended to leave you, and refuse to fall into the trap which he had laid.”

“Emily! Are you insane?”

“No, I’m not insane, and it’s because I’m not that I’m advising you. I feel sure that your Uncle Benjamin never meant to do you any good when he made that will of his.”

“So far I’m with you. But it’s just possible that the niece may prove a match for the uncle; she means to try. This is my house, at present. I’m mistress here, and I mean to play the mistress; not act as if I were afraid to raise my voice above a whisper. So don’t you forget it, or we shall quarrel; and, even if things are as bad as you seem to think, I don’t see how you’ll be better off for that. Light a match, and keep on lighting one till I tell you to stop.”

She ordered, me as if I were a servant: I obeyed because I could not see my way to refuse. In the match-light she marched to the mantelpiece.

“Here’s three boxes of matches for you; I’ll take care of the rest. The matches are in them, luckily. Now the question is what is the handiest little article by whose help I can get soonest on the other side of that door. Ah! here’s the poker. It is not much use against sheet iron, but I fancy it will work wonders with plain wood.”

Brandishing the poker above her head—exactly in the wild way she had done the night before—she strode towards the door. As she did so someone addressed her from without; in a deep rumbling bass, which was more like a growl than a human voice.

“Beware, you fool, beware! Your life’s at stake, more than your life. Obey, before it is too late.”

In my most natural surprise and agitation, the match, dropping from my fingers, was extinguished as it reached the floor. The room was plunged into darkness. Pollie behaved as if the fault were mine.

“You idiot! Did you do that on purpose?”

She caught me by the arm as if she meant to break it. In her unreasoning rage I quite expected her to strike me with the poker. As I waited for it to fall the voice came again.

“Be warned!—for the last time!—obey!”