"Well," he said, "but for me, wouldn't you be still in that brass bottle?"
"That," replied the Jinnee, "is the very reason why I purpose to destroy thee!"
"Oh!" was all Horace could find to say at this most unlooked-for answer. His sheet anchor, in which he had trusted implicitly, had suddenly dragged—and he was drifting fast to destruction.
"Are there any other questions which thou wouldst ask?" inquired the Jinnee, with grim indulgence; "or wilt thou encounter thy doom without further procrastination?"
Horace was determined not to give in just yet; he had a very bad hand, but he might as well play the game out and trust to luck to gain a stray trick.
"I haven't nearly done yet," he said. "And, remember, you've promised to answer me—in the name of the Lord Mayor!"
"I will answer one other question, and no more," said the Jinnee, in an inflexible tone; and Ventimore realised that his fate would depend upon what he said next.
A GAME OF BLUFF
"Thy second question, O pertinacious one?" said the Jinnee, impatiently. He was standing with folded arms looking down on Horace, who was still seated on the narrow cornice, not daring to glance below again, lest he should lose his head altogether.
"I'm coming to it," said Ventimore; "I want to know why you should propose to dash me to pieces in this barbarous way as a return for letting you out of that bottle. Were you so comfortable in it as all that?"
"In the bottle I was at least suffered to rest, and none molested me. But in releasing me thou didst perfidiously conceal from me that Suleyman was dead and gone, and that there reigneth one in his stead mightier a thousand-fold, who afflicteth our race with labours and tortures exceeding all the punishments of Suleyman."
"What on earth have you got into your head now? You can't mean the Lord Mayor?"
"Whom else?" said the Jinnee, solemnly. "And though, for this once, by a device I have evaded his vengeance, yet do I know full well that either by virtue of the magic jewel upon his breast, or through that malignant monster with the myriad ears and eyes and tongues, which thou callest 'The Press,' I shall inevitably fall into his power before long."
For the life of him, in spite of his desperate plight, Horace could not help laughing. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Fakrash," he said, as soon as he could speak, "but—the Lord Mayor! It's really too absurd. Why, he wouldn't hurt a hair on a fly's head!"
"Seek not to deceive me further!" said Fakrash, furiously. "Didst thou not inform me with thy own mouth that the spirits of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire were subject to his will? Have I no eyes? Do I not behold from here the labours of my captive brethren? What are those on yonder bridges but enslaved Jinn, shrieking and groaning in clanking fetters, and snorting forth steam, as they drag their wheeled burdens behind them? Are there not others toiling, with panting efforts, through the sluggish waters; others again, imprisoned in lofty pillars, from which the smoke of their breath ascendeth even unto Heaven? Doth not the air throb and quiver with their restless struggles as they writhe below in darkness and torment? And thou hast the shamelessness to pretend that these things are done in the Lord Mayor's own realms without his knowledge! Verily thou must take me for a fool!"
"After all," reflected Ventimore, "if he chooses to consider that railway engines and steamers, and machinery generally, are inhabited by so many Jinn 'doing time,' it's not to my interest to undeceive him—indeed, it's quite the contrary!"
"I wasn't aware the Lord Mayor had so much power as all that," he said; "but very likely you're right. And if you're so anxious to keep in favour with him, it would be a great mistake to kill me. That would annoy him."
"Not so," said the Jinnee, "for I should declare that thou hadst spoken slightingly of him in my hearing, and that I had slain thee on that account."
"Your proper course," said Horace, "would be to hand me over to him, and let him deal with the case. Much more regular."
"That may be," said Fakrash; "but I have conceived so bitter a hatred to thee by reason of thy insolence and treachery, that I cannot forego the delight of slaying thee with my own hand."
"Can't you really?" said Horace, on the verge of despair. "And then, what will you do?"
"Then," replied the Jinnee, "I shall flee away to Arabia, where I shall be safe."
"Don't you be too sure of that!" said Horace. "You see all those wires stretched on poles down there? Those are the pathways of certain Jinn known as electric currents, and the Lord Mayor could send a message along them which would be at Baghdad before you had flown farther than Folkestone. And I may mention that Arabia is now more or less under British jurisdiction."
He was bluffing, of course, for he knew perfectly well that, even if any extradition treaty could be put in force, the arrest of a Jinnee would be no easy matter.
"Thou art of opinion, then, that I should be no safer in mine own country?" inquired Fakrash.
"I swear by the name of the Lord Mayor (to whom be all reverence!)" said Horace, "that there is no land you could fly to where you would be any safer than you are here."
"If I were but sealed up in my bottle once more," said the Jinnee, "would not even the Lord Mayor have respect unto the seal of Suleyman, and forbear to disturb me?"
"Why, of course he would!" cried Horace, hardly daring to believe his ears. "That's really a brilliant idea of yours, my dear Mr. Fakrash."
"And in the bottle I should not be compelled to work," continued the Jinnee. "For labour of all kinds hath ever been abhorrent unto me."
"I can quite understand that," said Horace, sympathetically. "Just imagine your having to drag an excursion train to the seaside on a Bank Holiday, or being condemned to print off a cheap comic paper, or even the War Cry, when you might be leading a snug and idle existence in your bottle. If I were you, I should go and get inside it at once. Suppose we go back to Vincent Square and find it?"
"I shall return to the bottle, since in that alone there is safety," said the Jinnee. "But I shall return alone."
"Alone!" cried Horace. "You're not going to leave me stuck up here all by myself?"
"By no means," said the Jinnee. "Have I not said that I am about to cast thee to perdition? Too long have I delayed in the accomplishment of this duty."
Once more Horace gave himself up for lost; which was doubly bitter, just when he had begun to consider that the danger was past. But even then, he was determined to fight to the last.
"One moment," he said. "Of course, if you've set your heart on pitching me over, you must. Only—I may be quite mistaken—but I don't quite see how you are going to manage the rest of your programme without me, that's all."
"O deficient in intelligence!" cried the Jinnee. "What assistance canst thou render me?"
"Well," said Horace, "of course, you can get into the bottle alone—that's simple enough. But the difficulty I see is this: Are you quite sure you can put the cap on yourself—from the inside, you know?" If he can, he thought, "I'm done for!"
"That," began the Jinnee, with his usual confidence "will be the easiest of—nay," he corrected himself, "there be things that not even the Jinn themselves can accomplish, and one of them is to seal a vessel while remaining in it. I am indebted to thee for reminding me thereof."
"Not at all," said Ventimore. "I shall be delighted to come and seal you up comfortably myself."
"Again thou speakest folly," exclaimed the Jinnee. "How canst thou seal me up after I have dashed thee into a thousand pieces?"
"That," said Horace, with all the urbanity he could command, "is precisely the difficulty I was trying to convey."
"There will be no difficulty, for as soon as I am in the bottle I shall summon certain inferior Efreets, and they will replace the seal."
"When you are once in the bottle," said Horace, at a venture, "you probably won't be in a position to summon anybody."
"Before I get into the bottle, then!" said the Jinnee, impatiently. "Thou dost but juggle with words!"
"But about those Efreets," persisted Horace. "You know what Efreets are! How can you be sure that, when they've got you in the bottle, they won't hand you over to the Lord Mayor? I shouldn't trust them myself—but, of course, you know best!"
"Whom shall I trust, then?" said Fakrash, frowning.
"I'm sure I don't know. It's rather a pity you're so determined to destroy me, because, as it happens, I'm just the one person living who could be depended on to seal you up and keep your secret. However, that's your affair. After all, why should I care what becomes of you? I shan't be there!"
"Even at this hour," said the Jinnee, undecidedly, "I might find it in my heart to spare thee, were I but sure that thou wouldst be faithful unto me!"
"I should have thought I was more to be trusted than one of your beastly Efreets!" said Horace, with well-assumed indifference. "But never mind, I don't know that I care, after all. I've nothing particular to live for now. You've ruined me pretty thoroughly, and you may as well finish your work. I've a good mind to jump over, and save you the trouble. Perhaps, when you see me bouncing down that dome, you'll be sorry!"
"Refrain from rashness!" said the Jinnee, hastily, without suspecting that Ventimore had no serious intention of carrying out his threat. "If thou wilt do as thou art bidden, I will not only pardon thee, but grant thee all that thou desirest."
"Take me back to Vincent Square first," said Horace. "This is not the place to discuss business."
"Thou sayest rightly," replied the Jinnee; "hold fast to my sleeve, and I will transport thee to thine abode."
"Not till you promise to play fair," said Horace, pausing on the brink of the ledge. "Remember, if you let me go now you drop the only friend you've got in the world!"
"May I be thy ransom!" replied Fakrash. "There shall not be harmed a hair of thy head!"
Even then Horace had his misgivings; but as there was no other way of getting off that cornice, he decided to take the risk. And, as it proved, he acted judiciously, for the Jinnee flew to Vincent Square with honourable precision, and dropped him neatly into the armchair in which he had little hoped ever to find himself again.
"I have brought thee hither," said Fakrash, "and yet I am persuaded that thou art even now devising treachery against me, and wilt betray me if thou canst."
Horace was about to assure him once more that no one could be more anxious than himself to see him safely back in his bottle, when he recollected that it was impolitic to appear too eager.
"After the way you've behaved," he said, "I'm not at all sure that I ought to help you. Still, I said I would, on certain conditions, and I'll keep my word."
"Conditions!" thundered the Jinnee. "Wilt thou bargain with me yet further?"
"My excellent friend," said Horace quietly, "you know perfectly well that you can't get yourself safely sealed up again in that bottle without my assistance. If you don't like my terms, and prefer to take your chance of finding an Efreet who is willing to brave the Lord Mayor, well, you've only to say so."
"I have loaded thee with all manner of riches and favours, and I will bestow no more upon thee," said the Jinnee, sullenly. "Nay, in token of my displeasure, I will deprive thee even of such gifts as thou hast retained." He pointed his grey forefinger at Ventimore, whose turban and jewelled robes instantly shrivelled into cobwebs and tinder, and fluttered to the carpet in filmy shreds, leaving him in nothing but his underclothing.
"That only shows what a nasty temper you're in," said Horace, blandly, "and doesn't annoy me in the least. If you'll excuse me, I'll go and put on some things I can feel more at home in; and perhaps by the time I return you'll have cooled down."
He slipped on some clothes hurriedly and re-entered the sitting-room. "Now, Mr. Fakrash," he said, "we'll have this out. You talk of having loaded me with benefits. You seem to consider I ought to be grateful to you. In Heaven's name, for what? I've been as forbearing as possible all this time, because I gave you credit for meaning well. Now, I'll speak plainly. I told you from the first, and I tell you now, that I want no riches nor honours from you. The one real good turn you did me was bringing me that client, and you spoilt that because you would insist on building the palace yourself, instead of leaving it to me! As for the rest—here am I, a ruined and discredited man, with a client who probably supposes I'm in league with the Devil; with the girl I love, and might have married, believing that I have left her to marry a Princess; and her father, unable ever to forgive me for having seen him as a one-eyed mule. In short, I'm in such a mess all round that I don't care two straws whether I live or die!"
"What is all this to me?" said the Jinnee.
"Only this—that unless you can see your way to putting things straight for me, I'm hanged if I take the trouble to seal you up in that bottle!"
"How am I to put things straight for thee?" cried Fakrash, peevishly.
"If you could make all those people entirely forget that affair in the Guildhall, you can make my friends forget the brass bottle and everything connected with it, can't you?"
"There would be no difficulty in that," Fakrash admitted.
"Well, do it—and I'll swear to seal you up in the bottle exactly as if you had never been out of it, and pitch you into the deepest part of the Thames, where no one will ever disturb you."
"First produce the bottle, then," said Fakrash, "for I cannot believe but that thou hast some lurking guile in thy heart."
"I'll ring for my landlady and have the bottle brought up," said Horace. "Perhaps that will satisfy you? Stay, you'd better not let her see you."
"I will render myself invisible," said the Jinnee, suiting the action to his words. "But beware lest thou play me false," his voice continued, "for I shall hear thee!"
"So you've come in, Mr. Ventimore?" said Mrs. Rapkin, as she entered. "And without the furrin gentleman? I was surprised, and so was Rapkin the same, to see you ridin' off this morning in the gorgious chariot and 'osses, and dressed up that lovely! 'Depend upon it,' I says to Rapkin, I says, 'depend upon it, Mr. Ventimore'll be sent for to Buckinham Pallis, if it ain't Windsor Castle!"
"Never mind that now," said Horace, impatiently; "I want that brass bottle I bought the other day. Bring it up at once, please."
"I thought you said the other day you never wanted to set eyes on it again, and I was to do as I pleased with it, sir?"
"Well, I've changed my mind, so let me have it, quick."
"I'm sure I'm very sorry, sir, but that you can't, because Rapkin, not wishful to have the place lumbered up with rubbish, disposed of it on'y last night to a gentleman as keeps a rag and bone emporium off the Bridge Road, and 'alf-a-crown was the most he'd give for it, sir."
"Give me his name," said Horace.
"Dilger, sir—Emanuel Dilger. When Rapkin comes in I'm sure he'd go round with pleasure, and see about it, if required."
"I'll go round myself," said Horace. "It's all right, Mrs. Rapkin, quite a natural mistake on your part, but—but I happen to want the bottle again. You needn't stay."
"O thou smooth-faced and double-tongued one!" said the Jinnee, after she had gone, as he reappeared to view. "Did I not foresee that thou wouldst deal crookedly? Restore unto me my bottle!"
"I'll go and get it at once," said Horace; "I shan't be five minutes." And he prepared to go.
"Thou shalt not leave this house," cried Fakrash, "for I perceive plainly that this is but a device of thine to escape and betray me to the Press Devil!"
"If you can't see," said Horace, angrily, "that I'm quite as anxious to see you safely back in that confounded bottle as ever you can be to get there, you must be pretty dense! Can't you understand? The bottle's sold, and I can't buy it back without going out. Don't be so infernally unreasonable!"
"Go, then," said the Jinnee, "and I will await thy return here. But know this: that if thou delayest long or returnest without my bottle, I shall know that thou art a traitor, and will visit thee and those who are dear to thee with the most unpleasant punishments!"
"I'll be back in half an hour, at most," said Horace, feeling that this would allow him ample margin, and thankful that it did not occur to Fakrash to go in person.
He put on his hat, and hurried off in the gathering dusk. He had some little trouble in finding Mr. Dilger's establishment, which was a dirty, dusty little place in a back street, with a few deplorable old chairs, rickety washstands, and rusty fenders outside, and the interior almost completely blocked by piles of dingy mattresses, empty clock-cases, tarnished and cracked mirrors, broken lamps, damaged picture-frames, and everything else which one would imagine could have no possible value for any human being. But in all this collection of worthless curios the brass bottle was nowhere to be seen.
Ventimore went in and found a youth of about thirteen straining his eyes in the fading light over one of those halfpenny humorous journals which, thanks to an improved system of education, at least eighty per cent. of our juvenile population are now enabled to appreciate.
"I want to see Mr. Dilger," he began.
"You can't," said the youth. "'Cause he ain't in. He's attending of an auction."
"When will he be in, do you know?"
"Might be back to his tea—but I wasn't to expect him not before supper."
"You don't happen to have any old metal bottles—copper or—or brass would do—for sale?"
"You don't git at me like that! Bottles is made o' glorss."
"Well, a jar, then—a big brass pot—anything of that kind?"
"Don't keep 'em," said the boy, and buried himself once more in his copy of "Spicy Sniggers."
"I'll just look round," said Horace, and began to poke about with a sinking heart, and a horrid dread that he might have come to the wrong shop, for the big pot-bellied vessel certainly did not seem to be there. At last, to his unspeakable joy, he discovered it under a piece of tattered drugget. "Why, this is the sort of thing I meant," he said, feeling in his pocket and discovering that he had exactly a sovereign. "How much do you want for it?"
"I dunno," said the boy.
"I don't mind three shillings," said Horace, who did not wish to appear too keen at first.
"I'll tell the guv'nor when he comes in," was the reply, "and you can look in later."
"I want it at once," insisted Horace. "Come, I'll give you three-and-six for it."
"It's more than it's wurf," replied the candid youth.
"Perhaps," said Horace, "but I'm rather pressed for time. If you'll change this sovereign, I'll take the bottle away with me."
"You seem uncommon anxious to get 'old on it, mister!" said the boy, with sudden suspicion.
"Nonsense!" said Horace. "I live close by, and I thought I might as well take it, that's all."
"Oh, if that's all, you can wait till the guv'nor's in."
"I—I mayn't be passing this way again for some time," said Horace.
"Bound to be, if you live close by," and the provoking youth returned to his "Sniggers."
"Do you call this attending to your master's business?" said Horace. "Listen to me, you young rascal. I'll give you five shillings for it. You're not going to be fool enough to refuse an offer like that?"
"I ain't goin' to be fool enough to refuse it—nor yet I ain't goin' to be fool enough to take it, 'cause I'm only 'ere to see as nobody don't come in and sneak fings. I ain't got no authority to sell anyfink, and I don't know the proice o' nuffink, so there you 'ave it."
"Take the five shillings," said Horace, "and if it's too little I'll come round and settle with your master later."
"I thought you said you wasn't likely to be porsin' again? No, mister, you don't kid me that way!"
Horace had a mad impulse to snatch up the precious bottle then and there and make off with it, and might have yielded to the temptation, with disastrous consequences, had not an elderly man entered the shop at that moment. He was bent, and wore rather more fluff and flue upon his person than most well-dressed people would consider necessary, but he came in with a certain air of authority, nevertheless.
"Mr. Dilger, sir," piped the youth, "'ere's a gent took a fancy to this 'ere brass pot o' yours. Says he must 'ave it. Five shillings he'd got to, but I told him he'd 'ave to wait till you come in."
"Quite right, my lad!" said Mr. Dilger, cocking a watery but sharp old eye at Horace. "Five shillings! Ah, sir, you can't know much about these hold brass antiquities to make an orfer like that."
"I know as much as most people," said Horace. "But let us say six shillings."
"Couldn't be done, sir; couldn't indeed. Why, I give a pound for it myself at Christie's, as sure as I'm standin' 'ere in the presence o' my Maker, and you a sinner!" he declared impressively, if rather ambiguously.
"Your memory is not quite accurate," said Horace. "You bought it last night from a man of the name of Rapkin, who lets lodgings in Vincent Square, and you paid exactly half a crown for it."
"If you say so I dare say it's correct, sir," said Mr. Dilger, without exhibiting the least confusion. "And if I did buy it off Mr. Rapkin, he's a respectable party, and ain't likely to have come by it dishonest."
"I never said he did. What will you take for the thing?"
"Well, just look at the work in it. They don't turn out the like o' that nowadays. Dutch, that is; what they used for to put their milk and such-like in."
"Damn it!" said Horace, completely losing his temper. "I know what it was used for. Will you tell me what you want for it?"
"I couldn't let a curiosity like that go a penny under thirty shillings," said Mr. Dilger, affectionately. "It would be robbin' myself."
"I'll give you a sovereign for it—there," said Horace. "You know best what profit that represents. That's my last word."
"My last word to that, sir, is good hevenin'," said the worthy man.
"Good evening, then," said Horace, and walked out of the shop; rather to bring Mr. Dilger to terms than because he really meant to abandon the bottle, for he dared not go back without it, and he had nothing about him just then on which he could raise the extra ten shillings, supposing the dealer refused to trust him for the balance—and the time was growing dangerously short.
Fortunately the well-worn ruse succeeded, for Mr. Dilger ran out after him and laid an unwashed claw upon his coat-sleeve. "Don't go, mister," he said; "I like to do business if I can; though, 'pon my word and honour, a sovereign for a work o' art like that! Well, just for luck and bein' my birthday, we'll call it a deal."
Horace handed over the coin, which left him with a few pence. "There ought to be a lid or stopper of some sort," he said suddenly. "What have you done with that?"
"No, sir, there you're mistook, you are, indeed. I do assure you you never see a pot of this partickler pattern with a lid to it. Never!"
"Oh, don't you, though?" said Horace. "I know better. Never mind," he said, as he recollected that the seal was in Fakrash's possession. "I'll take it as it is. Don't trouble to wrap it up. I'm in rather a hurry."
It was almost dark when he got back to his rooms, where he found the Jinnee shaking with mingled rage and apprehension.
"No welcome to thee!" he cried. "Dilatory dog that thou art! Hadst thou delayed another minute, I would have called down some calamity upon thee."
"Well, you need not trouble yourself to do that now," returned Ventimore. "Here's your bottle, and you can creep into it as soon as you please."
"But the seal!" shrieked the Jinnee. "What hast thou done with the seal which was upon the bottle?"
"Why, you've got it yourself, of course," said Horace, "in one of your pockets."
"O thou of base antecedents!" howled Fakrash, shaking out his flowing draperies. "How should I have the seal? This is but a fresh device of thine to undo me!"
"Don't talk rubbish!" retorted Horace. "You made the Professor give it up to you yesterday. You must have lost it somewhere or other. Never mind! I'll get a large cork or bung, which will do just as well. And I've lots of sealing-wax."
"I will have no seal but the seal of Suleyman!" declared the Jinnee. "For with no other will there be security. Verily I believe that that accursed sage, thy friend, hath contrived by some cunning to get the seal once more into his hands. I will go at once to his abode and compel him to restore it."
"I wouldn't," said Horace, feeling extremely uneasy, for it was evidently a much simpler thing to let a Jinnee out of a bottle than to get him in again. "He's quite incapable of taking it. And if you go out now you'll only make a fuss and attract the attention of the Press, which I thought you rather wanted to avoid."
"I shall attire myself in the garments of a mortal—even those I assumed on a former occasion," said Fakrash, and as he spoke his outer robes modernised into a frock-coat. "Thus shall I escape attention."
"Wait one moment," said Horace. "What is that bulge in your breast-pocket?"
"Of a truth," said the Jinnee, looking relieved but not a little foolish as he extracted the object, "it is indeed the seal."
"You're in such a hurry to think the worst of everybody, you see!" said Horace. "Now, do try to carry away with you into your seclusion a better opinion of human nature."
"Perdition to all the people of this age!" cried Fakrash, re-assuming his green robe and turban, "for I now put no faith in human beings and would afflict them all, were not the Lord Mayor (on whom be peace!) mightier than I. Therefore, while it is yet time, take thou the stopper, and swear that, after I am in this bottle, thou wilt seal it as before and cast it into deep waters, where no eye will look upon it more!"
"With all the pleasure in the world!" said Horace; "only you must keep your part of the bargain first. You will kindly obliterate all recollection of yourself and the brass bottle from the minds of every human being who has had anything to do with you or it."
"Not so," objected the Jinnee, "for thus wouldst thou forget thy compact."
"Oh, very well, leave me out, then," said Horace. "Not that anything could make me forget you!"
Fakrash swept his right hand round in a half circle. "It is accomplished," he said. "All recollection of myself and yonder bottle is now erased from the memories of every one but thyself."
"But how about my client?" said Horace. "I can't afford to lose him, you know."
"He shall return unto thee," said the Jinnee, trembling with impatience. "Now perform thy share."
Horace had triumphed. It had been a long and desperate duel with this singular being, who was at once so crafty and so childlike, so credulous and so suspicious, so benevolent and so malign. Again and again he had despaired of victory, but he had won at last. In another minute or so this formidable Jinnee would be safely bottled once more, and powerless to intermeddle and plague him for the future.
And yet, in the very moment of triumph, quixotic as such scruples may seem to some, Ventimore's conscience smote him. He could not help a certain pity for the old creature, who was shaking there convulsively prepared to re-enter his bottle-prison rather than incur a wholly imaginary doom. Fakrash had aged visibly within the last hour; now he looked even older than his three thousand and odd years. True, he had led Horace a fearful life of late, but at first, at least, his intentions had been good. His gratitude, if mistaken in its form, was the sign of a generous disposition. Not every Jinnee, surely, would have endeavoured to press untold millions and honours and dignities of all kinds upon him, in return for a service which most mortals would have considered amply repaid by a brace of birds and an invitation to an evening party.
And how was Horace treating him? He was taking what, in his heart, he felt to be a rather mean advantage of the Jinnee's ignorance of modern life to cajole him into returning to his captivity. Why not suffer him to live out the brief remainder of his years (for he could hardly last more than another century or two at most) in freedom? Fakrash had learnt his lesson: he was not likely to interfere again in human affairs; he might find his way back to the Palace of the Mountain of the Clouds and end his days there, in peaceful enjoyment of the society of such of the Jinn as might still survive unbottled.
So, obeying—against his own interests—some kindlier impulse, Horace made an effort to deter the Jinnee, who was already hovering in air above the neck of the bottle in a swirl of revolving draperies, like some blundering old bee vainly endeavouring to hit the opening into his hive.
"Mr. Fakrash," he cried, "before you go any farther, listen to me. There's no real necessity, after all, for you to go back to your bottle. If you'll only wait a little——"
But the Jinnee, who had now swelled to gigantic proportions, and whose form and features were only dimly recognisable through the wreaths of black vapour in which he was involved, answered him from his pillar of smoke in a terrible voice. "Wouldst thou still persuade me to linger?" he cried. "Hold thy peace and be ready to fulfil thine undertaking."
"But, look here," persisted Horace. "I should feel such a brute if I sealed you up without telling you——" The whirling and roaring column, in shape like an inverted cone, was being fast sucked down into the vessel, till only a semi-materialised but highly infuriated head was left above the neck of the bottle.
"Must I tarry," it cried, "till the Lord Mayor arrive with his Memlooks, and the hour of safety is expired? By my head, if thou delayest another instant, I will put no more faith in thee! And I will come forth once more, and afflict thee and thy friends—ay, and all the dwellers in this accursed city—with the most painful and unheard-of calamities."
And, with these words, the head sank into the bottle with a loud clap resembling thunder.
Horace hesitated no longer. The Jinnee himself had absolved him from all further scruples; to imperil Sylvia and her parents—not to mention all London—out of consideration for one obstinate and obnoxious old demon, would clearly be carrying sentiment much too far.
Accordingly, he made a rush for the jar and slipped the metal cover over the mouth of the neck, which was so hot that it blistered his fingers, and, seizing the poker, he hammered down the secret catch until the lid fitted as closely as Suleyman himself could have required.
Then he stuffed the bottle into a kit-bag, adding a few coals to give it extra weight, and toiled off with it to the nearest steamboat pier, where he spent his remaining pence in purchasing a ticket to the Temple.
* * * * *
Next day the following paragraph appeared in one of the evening papers, which probably had more space than usual at its disposal:
"SINGULAR OCCURRENCE ON A PENNY STEAMER
"A gentleman on board one of the Thames steamboats (so we are informed by an eye-witness) met with a somewhat ludicrous mishap yesterday evening. It appears that he had with him a small portmanteau, or large hand-bag, which he was supporting on the rail of the stern bulwark. Just as the vessel was opposite the Savoy Hotel he incautiously raised his hand to the brim of his hat, thereby releasing hold of the bag, which overbalanced itself and fell into the deepest part of the river, where it instantly sank. The owner (whose carelessness occasioned considerable amusement to passengers in his immediate vicinity) appeared no little disconcerted by the oversight, and was not unnaturally reticent as to the amount of his loss, though he was understood to state that the bag contained nothing of any great value. However this may be, he has probably learnt a lesson which will render him more careful in future."
On a certain evening in May Horace Ventimore dined in a private room at the Savoy, as one of the guests of Mr. Samuel Wackerbath. In fact, he might almost be said to be the guest of the evening, as the dinner was given by way of celebrating the completion of the host's new country house at Lipsfield, of which Horace was the architect, and also to congratulate him on his approaching marriage (which was fixed to take place early in the following month) with Miss Sylvia Futvoye.
"Quite a small and friendly party!" said Mr. Wackerbath, looking round on his numerous sons and daughters, as he greeted Horace in the reception-room. "Only ourselves, you see, Miss Futvoye, a young lady with whom you are fairly well acquainted, and her people, and an old schoolfellow of mine and his wife, who are not yet arrived. He's a man of considerable eminence," he added, with a roll of reflected importance in his voice; "quite worth your cultivating. Sir Lawrence Pountney, his name is. I don't know if you remember him, but he discharged the onerous duties of Lord Mayor of London the year before last, and acquitted himself very creditably—in fact, he got a baronetcy for it."
As the year before last was the year in which Horace had paid his involuntary visit to the Guildhall, he was able to reply with truth that he did remember Sir Lawrence.
He was not altogether comfortable when the ex-Lord-Mayor was announced, for it would have been more than awkward if Sir Lawrence had chanced to remember him. Fortunately, he gave no sign that he did so, though his manner was graciousness itself. "Delighted, my dear Mr. Ventimore," he said pressing Horace's hand almost as warmly as he had done that October day of the dais, "most delighted to make your acquaintance! I am always glad to meet a rising young man, and I hear that the house you have designed for my old friend here is a perfect palace—a marvel, sir!"
"I knew he was my man," declared Mr. Wackerbath, as Horace modestly disclaimed Sir Lawrence's compliment. "You remember, Pountney, my dear fellow, that day when we were crossing Westminster Bridge together, and I was telling you I thought of building? 'Go to one of the leading men—an R.A. and all that sort of thing,' you said, 'then you'll be sure of getting your money's worth.' But I said, 'No, I like to choose for myself; to—ah—exercise my own judgment in these matters. And there's a young fellow I have in my eye who'll beat 'em all, if he's given the chance. I'm off to see him now.' And off I went to Great Cloister Street (for he hadn't those palatial offices of his in Victoria Street at that time) without losing another instant, and dropped in on him with my little commission. Didn't I, Ventimore?"
"You did indeed," said Horace, wondering how far these reminiscences would go.
"And," continued Mr. Wackerbath, patting Horace on the shoulder, "from that day to this I've never had a moment's reason to regret it. We've worked in perfect sympathy. His ideas coincided with mine. I think he found that I met him, so to speak, on all fours."
Ventimore assented, though it struck him that a happier expression might, and would, have been employed if his client had remembered one particular interview in which he had not figured to advantage.
They went in to dinner, in a room sumptuously decorated with panels of grey-green brocade and softly shaded lamps, and screens of gilded leather; through the centre of the table rose a tall palm, its boughs hung with small electric globes like magic fruits.
"This palm," said the Professor, who was in high good humour, "really gives quite an Oriental look to the table. Personally, I think we might reproduce the Arabian style of decoration and arrangement generally in our homes with great advantage. I often wonder it never occurred to my future son-in-law there to turn his talents in that direction and design an Oriental interior for himself. Nothing more comfortable and luxurious—for a bachelor's purposes."
"I'm sure," said his wife, "Horace managed to make himself quite comfortable enough as it was. He has the most delightful rooms in Vincent Square." Ventimore heard her remark to Sir Lawrence: "I shall never forget the first time we dined there, just after my daughter and he were engaged. I was quite astonished: everything was so perfect—quite simple, you know, but so ingeniously arranged, and his landlady such an excellent cook, too! Still, of course, in many ways, it will be nicer for him to have a home of his own."
"With such a beautiful and charming companion to share it with," said Sir Lawrence, in his most florid manner, "the—ah—poorest home would prove a Paradise indeed! And I suppose now, my dear young lady," he added, raising his voice to address Sylvia, "you are busy making your future abode as exquisite as taste and research can render it, ransacking all the furniture shops in London for treasures, and going about to auctions—or do you—ah—delegate that department to Mr. Ventimore?"
"I do go about to old furniture shops, Sir Lawrence," she said, "but not auctions. I'm afraid I should only get just the thing I didn't want if I tried to bid.... And," she added, in a lower voice, turning to Horace, "I don't believe you would be a bit more successful, Horace!"
"What makes you say that, Sylvia?" he asked, with a start.
"Why, do you mean to say you've forgotten how you went to that auction for papa, and came away without having managed to get a single thing?" she said. "What a short memory you must have!"
There was only tender mockery in her eyes; absolutely no recollection of the sinister purchase he had made at that sale, or how nearly it had separated them for ever. So he hastened to admit that perhaps he had not been particularly successful at the auction in question.
Sir Lawrence next addressed him across the table. "I was just telling Mrs. Futvoye," he said, "how much I regretted that I had not the privilege of your acquaintance during my year of office. A Lord Mayor, as you doubtless know, has exceptional facilities for exercising hospitality, and it would have afforded me real pleasure if your first visit to the Guildhall could have been paid under my—hm—ha—auspices."
"You are very kind," said Horace, very much on his guard; "I could not wish to pay it under better."
"I flatter myself," said the ex-Lord Mayor, "that, while in office, I did my humble best to maintain the traditions of the City, and I was fortunate enough to have the honour of receiving more than the average number of celebrities as guests. But I had one great disappointment, I must tell you. It had always been a dream of mine that it might fall to my lot to present some distinguished fellow-countryman with the freedom of the City. By some curious chance, when the opportunity seemed about to occur, the thing was put off and I missed it—missed it by the nearest hair-breadth!"
"Ah, well, Sir Lawrence," said Ventimore, "one can't have everything!"
"For my part," put in Lady Pountney, who had only caught a word or two of her husband's remarks, "what I miss most is having the sentinels present arms whenever I went out for a drive. They did it so nicely and respectfully. I confess I enjoyed that. My husband never cared much for it. Indeed, he wouldn't even use the State coach unless he was absolutely obliged. He was as obstinate as a mule about it!"
"I see, Lady Pountney," the Professor put in, "that you share the common prejudice against mules. It's quite a mistaken one. The mule has never been properly appreciated in this country. He is really the gentlest and most docile of creatures!"
"I can't say I like them myself," said Lady Pountney; "such a mongrel sort of animal—neither one thing nor the other!"
"And they're hideous too, Anthony," added his wife. "And not at all clever!"
"There you're mistaken, my dear," said the Professor; "they are capable of almost human intelligence. I have had considerable personal experience of what a mule can do," he informed Lady Pountney, who seemed still incredulous. "More than most people indeed, and I can assure you, my dear Lady Pountney, that they readily adapt themselves to almost any environment, and will endure the greatest hardships without exhibiting any signs of distress. I see by your expression, Ventimore, that you don't agree with me, eh?"
Horace had to set his teeth hard for a moment, lest he should disgrace himself by a peal of untimely mirth—but by a strong effort of will he managed to command his muscles.
"Well, sir," he said, "I've only chanced to come into close contact with one mule in my life, and, frankly, I've no desire to repeat the experience."
"You happened to come upon an unfavourable specimen, that's all," said the Professor. "There are exceptions to every rule."
"This animal," Horace said, "was certainly exceptional enough in every way."
"Do tell us all about it," pleaded one of the Miss Wackerbaths, and all the ladies joined in the entreaty until Horace found himself under the necessity of improvising a story, which, it must be confessed, fell exceedingly flat.
This final ordeal past, he grew silent and thoughtful, as he sat there by Sylvia's side, looking out through the glazed gallery outside upon the spring foliage along the Embankment, the opaline river, and the shot towers and buildings on the opposite bank glowing warm brown against an evening sky of silvery blue.
Not for the first time did it seem strange, incredible almost, to him that all these people should be so utterly without any recollection of events which surely might have been expected to leave some trace upon the least retentive memory—and yet it only proved once more how thoroughly and honourably the old Jinnee, now slumbering placidly in his bottle deep down in unfathomable mud, opposite the very spot where they were dining, had fulfilled his last undertaking.
Fakrash, the brass bottle, and all the fantastic and embarrassing performances were indeed as totally forgotten as though they had never been.
* * * * *
And it is but too probable that even this modest and veracious account of them will prove to have been included in the general act of oblivion—though the author will trust as long as possible that Fakrash-el-Aamash may have neglected to provide for this particular case, and that the history of the Brass Bottle may thus be permitted to linger awhile in the memories of some at least of its readers.