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WITH a lean brown hand limp as a rag, Drenton Denn helped himself to quinine enough to blow the roof off the head of an ordinary man.
"A blight upon the man who lured me to Madagascar!" he said, with his teeth clenched "You get me here as a war correspondent when there is no war to speak of and no facilities for getting my 'copy' away in any case. And how that I am down with the fever you calmly tell me that you have orders to send me back to the seaboard!"
Captain Le Boeuf quivered uneasily. He it was who had lured Drenton Denn from Paris with specious promises of what might happen in the way of graphic things to describe at Tamatave.
"It is only a hundred miles," Le Boeuf said, tentatively.
"But what a hundred miles!" Drenton groaned, "Even if I get over this fever I shall be good for nothing for days to come. It is impossible for me to return the way we came. And how a handful of Kanaka boys are going to get me down to Tara I can't understand!"
"But, my dear Denn, you can't stay here."
"Of course I can't. I must do my best to get back to the coast, and that right through an unfriendly tribe. Is there any truth in the rumour that the Hamas are led by a woman who wears Paris gowns and imports her own champagne?"
Le Boeuf showed his teeth in a dazzling smile.
"There is something in it," he said. "Do you remember that magnificent Hama girl—Sabina, they called her—who performed those marvellous snake and bird tricks at the Moulin Rouge two years ago?"
Denn nodded. He recollected the girl perfectly well and the sensation she had created at the him. The handsome chieftainess had taken to Denn somewhat, and quite a Platonic friendship had sprung up between them. Denn flushed slightly as he called this to his mind. He had touched the heart of the dusky Hama, and he had deemed it best to retire gracefully from Paris before anything foolish transpired.
"You think she is close here?" Denn asked.
"I am certain of it," said Le Boeuf. "Sabina quitted Paris directly trouble was threatened here to return to her own people. I shouldn't wonder if she gave you assistance in getting to Tara."
The next day Denn set out on his perilous journey. His escort consisted of eight Kanaka boys—lusty fellows, black as coal, and quite devoted to the service of a man who paid them liberally. Their rate of progress was exasperatingly slow, for they had to make a track through the virgin forest, and such implements as they possessed were from traders' stores.
At the end of the fourth day even Denn begin to despair. They had certainly not progressed more than eight miles, the dried fish and rice were getting low, and the water-bags looked crinkled and flabby. There was danger, terrible danger, of death from starvation and thirst in that primitive forest. The Kanakas could only trust then own instincts and steer in a blundering rule o' thumb kind of way.
With a grim face Denn watched the last grains of rice shaken out for the evening meal.
"To-morrow," he muttered, "we shall starve. What a fool I was to believe that yarn about Sabina!"
But to-morrow brought better things. The interlaced gloom of the forest grew less dense, and the sun shone golden through the network of boughs in front. Then the little caravan emerged into an open plain. A small river rolled along the valley, and on the slope or clearing, opposite a cluster of bamboo and matting, huts were gathered.
"Hamas," the head Kanaka boy, muttered. "If they are friendly—".
But there was going to be no 'if' about it so far as Denn was concerned. He rolled out of his litter and waded across the shallow stream. The earth seemed to move under him like a ribbon, for the nausea of his illness was still strong upon him.
From the largest of the huts a girl emerged, and stood contemplating the stranger with eyes as dark as those of a deer. Then, as Denn literally staggered up to her, she gave vent to a queer, frightened cry.
"It is my lord Denn!" she exclaimed. "Go back. Quick! Better anything than that she should see you."
All this in the queerest French from a girl dressed in a long linen robe with a gold band round her waist, and nothing more. Her hair was piled high upon her head, and skewered with silver bodkins.
"I'm off my head!" Denn muttered. "I've fribbled my brain up with too much quinine. What, is it really you, Zara?"
The girl so addressed quivered behind a smile. The last time Denn had seen her was in the guise of Sabina's maid in Paris.
"Why did you come here?" the girl moaned. "You were good to me, and I would save you if I could. Go—go before it is too late. Our queen.."
"Meaning Sabina, of course?"
"Yes, yes. She has it in her head that you played her false. Don't you know that she came to love you? And when a Hama loves..."
Zara threw up her hands to express a passion or a jealousy outside the span of mere words. Her eyes were full of terror.
"Flattering, if slightly embarrassing." Denn muttered. "But it seems to be too late to fall back upon one's base."
It was. Half a score of Hamas had gathered around the strangely assorted pair. Their attitude was one of armed neutrality. Take them all in all, they were not inviting to a man on a peace footing. Attracted by their clamour, a woman emerged from the largest hut there. She was a magnificent looking creature, tall and sinuous, in the full flush of her powers, and strikingly handsome.
The brightness of her eyes somewhat detracted from the passionate sensuousness of her full crimson lips. As she caught sight of Denn she started back, and a scream of joy escaped her. But the expression of her face seemed to prick Denn's spine like a red-hot needle. Behind the glad smile was the hungry look of vengeance deferred.
Then, as suddenly, Sabina's manner changed as she came forward. She took Denn's flabby palm in her own, and carried it to her lips.
"I knew you would come back to me," she murmured.
Sabina had become all smiles again. Nor had she forgotten much of the artificiality two years in Paris had given her. But the leopard cannot change its spots—Hama was still there.
"This is a meeting the most extraordinary," she said.
"Isn't it?" was Denn's banal reply. "I was with the French force towards Tamatave, and they sent me back. I was trying to get down to the coast this way. Will you try and get me down there?"
"Oh, Yes," said Sabina. "Oh, yes. Dead or alive, you shall be got to the coast. Yes, yes. To the coast alive or—dead."
Denn murmured his thanks. He did not care for this insistence in case of his premature demolition.
He suffered himself to be conducted inside the hut which Sabina made her own, and then, with what appetite he could, he despatched stewed goat and rice, washed down with native wine.
"I suppose my men are being looked after?" he asked.
"Your men had fled back to the woods," said Sabina. "It is my misfortune that I have a bad reputation in these parts. But they do not know that I have had advantage of what you call civilisation. And now, dear fly, how do you like the web of your spider?"
Again Denn felt the hot pain crawl along his spine.
"I know nothing of spiders," he said.
"Not yet, not yet, dear friend. But you will soon. To-night I show you something you do not deem of. The birds and snakes? Bah!"
DRENTON DENN sat with a huge native cigar in his mouth, and what content he could on his keen, angular features. He was by no means a handsome man, but at the present moment he found himself wishing that nature had been still more niggardly physically.
By his side sat the woman whose wayward heart he had won. It pleased Sabina to be alternately passionate and disdainful.
And though Denn had dined, and dined well, no feeling of content embalmed him. The fever had been burned and blistered by the quinine out of his system, and his brain was once more clear, alert, and vigorous.
Denn sat in a kind of gallery looking upon a courtyard in which a circular wooden building had been erected. The sides of the building were wooden bars, and the roof was made of some kind of white cloth, or, rather, coarse matting. And above the netting was a thatch of straw.
Inside the building half-a-dozen sullen-looking Kanaka prisoners had been placed.
That some kind of punishment awaited them they seemed to know perfectly well.
In most forms these men had little fear of death but they knew the character of their captors, and from certain uneasy glances at the straw thatch they seemed to have a hazy kind of idea what was going to take place.
"What are you going to do?" Denn asked.
"That in a minute you shall know," Sabina laughed. It was not the kind of laugh that added to the gaiety of nations. "You used to admire my performance in Paris; you said you could not imagine anything more calculated to make your blood run cold. But you were wrong—and you are going to see that with your own eyes."
Sabina clapped her hands, and a Hama warrior crossed to the thatched cage, bearing a long-handled mop in his hand. With this he worried away at the thatch of the cage. Then the warrior retreated to a little distance and sat down.
The effect of this apparently simple manoeuvre was appalling. The prisoners jumped to their feet with the most heart-rending cries. In their frenzy of some unseen horror they beat their heads and breasts against the bars. Terror seemed to have robbed them of all sense of pain. There were sounds of blows upon flesh, and the cracking of bones. One poor wretch with a fractured knee literally danced in utter ignorance of his bodily torture. They might have been turned to raving lunatics by some fatal poison.
A sudden nausea came over Denn. "I don't understand it," he said.
"No, but they do," Sabina said, with a strange, glittering smile.
"And so will you only too well—presently. Now, watch carefully."
There was no need to give any such warning. Drenton Denn knew only too well that he was witnessing a rehearsal of the unspeakable horrors which were presently to be thrust upon him.
Presently the Kanakas grew quieter. On some of them had fallen the sullen apathy of despair. Other lead-coloured faces showed the fighting spirit. But all, all, kept their intent gaze turned upwards.
"Do you see anything now?" Sabina asked Denn.
He was too hideously fascinated to reply. He saw that the coarse white matting had become alive with little red specks no larger than grains of wheat. They might have been ants suddenly disturbed and angry with the intruders upon their suburban solitude.
But presently one or two of the tiny red specks dropped down a foot or two, and seemed to be suspended in the amber air. And by this same token Denn knew that he was watching the antics and gyrations of a large family of red spiders.
Presently there were some hundreds of them held up by shining needles of web from the floor. Then suddenly the air outside seemed to be alive with a cloud of purple humming-birds. From the way they feathered around the bars of the cage, they were evidently bent upon a raid upon the bloated scarlet spiders. A couple of Kanakas, armed with a long net, sufficed to scare the birds away.
By this time there were hundreds of spiders suspended from the thatch. They looked like scarlet peas or beans upon a thread. And the unhappy Kanakas watched them with starting eyes.
"In heaven's name," Denn cried, "what does it mean?"
Again Sabina smiled. Her eyes were like points of electric flame. Her face was as that of an avenging fury.
"All in good time," she whispered, "all in good time."
Presently the spiders began to drop like crimson hail. Like so many marionettes the wretched Kanakas danced round the cage. They tore at their arms and their shoulders; they shook themselves like wet dogs. Anything, anything seemed better than to come in contact with the bloated spiders.
Presently one prisoner gave a louder yell than the rest, and collapsed upon the floor.
He lay there for a moment or two gazing at the back of one hand and moaning piteously. Then the stolid fatalism of his race came uppermost, and he squatted against the side of the cage seemingly indifferent to his fate.
Within five minutes every Kanaka but one was on the floor. The last one was more agile than the rest, for he wriggled and twisted out of the way of the falling spiders in a marvellous manner.
But no man could be expected to dodge a rainstorm, and over he fell and was lost.
And then a painful silence followed.
For some little time this continued. Then the Kanaka who had been the first to fall rose to his feet. There was a queer jerky grin upon his face, his feet began to move in dance, and he broke out into mirth as extravagant and hideous as had been his previous fear. In less than five minutes every man there was carrying on in the same insane fashion.
Drenton Denn felt as if he had been suddenly plunged into a cold bath. The sudden transition had got even upon his strong nerves.
"Let me get out of this!" he cried. "I can stand a good deal, but I shall go mad if I stay here."
"You are coming to my hut," said Sabina. "We will talk of the old times, eh; the time when you cared for me. Then in two hours' time we will come and see the last scene yonder."
"Do you mean to say," Drenton asked, "that those infernal little spiders can produce terror and madness like that? In the name of all that is evil, what do you call the diabolical insects?"
No reply came from Sabina until the hut was reached. Once inside, the sound of that horrid mirth ceased.
"You appear to be curious," said Sabina.
"I have reason to be," Denn responded, "because I fancy that you intend to give me a personal experience."
The woman nodded three times quickly.
Under her white gown she trembled with a passion that rendered her almost speechless. When at length she spoke, she did so like one who has run fast and far.
"I hate you!" she gasped. "Oh, if you only knew! I fancied that you loved me and I was mistaken. You laughed at me."
"I haven't the slightest recollection of the fact."
"Ah, but in your sleeve, I mean. You cannot understand a hatred like mine. And I had to leave Paris with my passion eating my heart. When I think of you in the night I bite my flesh. See."
She drew back a flowing robe and displayed a brown arm seared and scarred as if from a bad burn. Her eyes flickered and danced.
"And now Fate has given you to me. The gods have answered my prayers, and sent you to me. I am going to kill you."
"Then do so, and let there be an end to it."
Sabina smiled. On the whole, Denn preferred her passion.
"Ah, no," she cried, "that would be too slow, too clumsy. A child might do that. Remain here till I return."
And Sabina swept from the room. Denn made no effort to move, for he knew perfectly well that he was closely watched. For and hour or more he sat there racking his brains for some method of escape. At the end of that time Sabina returned.
"Follow me," she said curtly.
Denn obeyed without a word. Sabina conducted him back to the gallery where he had watched the ghastly drama. So far as he could see now, the cage was empty.
Not quite. On the earth lay a knot of twisting figures, slowly rolling over and over each other like so many worms. Their eyes were dilated; there was no mistaking the agony they were enduring, but not a single sound came from their parched lips.
The dumb agony of it was absolutely revolting. The poor wretches were now suffering to such an extent that they were utterly incapable of making a sound. It was the archetype of human agony.
A physical sickness smote Denn. He noted every detail down to the blue tinge on the skin of the unfortunates, and the great yellow tumours that had formed on the spot where the fatal bite had bee given.
With sudden anger, Denn turned upon his companion. He would have deemed it no sin to take this beautiful tigress by the throat and squeeze the life out of her.
"You devil!" he screamed. "How you can stand there and see such awful suffering—"
His arm shot out, but Sabina had darted forward from his side. Denn was unarmed, and Sabina had a knife in her hand. With her beautiful sinuous strength and courage, she was no mean antagonist.
Denn took no thought that he was un-armed. If he could get that knife there might be a chance for him yet. He had not the least doubt that he was destined to endure the fate of those poor wretches, the agony of whose sufferings was, in sooth, enough to unnerve a bold man. He gripped Sabina by the wrist, and fought like a madman for the knife. Under ordinary circumstances Denn might have succeeded. But the fever had rendered him weak and low, and the issue was never in doubt.
"Coward, to touch a woman!" Sabina panted.
"When I see the woman," Denn said between his teeth, "I'll make amends."
He pressed Sabina's knuckles together—an old trick he had learnt in Tahiti—and the knife fell to the ground. The creature screamed, as Denn shot down like a swallow and grasped the blade. Then he darted as a hare to cover, a yell of triumph on his lip.
In the language of his own land, he was a little too previous. A gigantic Hama carrier rose out of the grass and sent the shaft end of his spear whizzing after the fugitive. It caught Denn full upon the temple, and brought him like a log to the ground.
In a confused kind of way he seemed to dream that he was being gagged and bound, there were voices booming in his ears as the diver hears them, he felt himself carried along over uneven ground, and then he floated away into a midnight land. For a long time he lay thus—lay as a child in a deep and placid sleep.
WHEN Denn came to himself again he was lying flat on his back, looking up to a thatched roof, the underpart of which was covered with a coarse white matting. He was in a kind of cage, the bars being of stout bamboo. A cold perspiration broke our on Denn as he realised he was in the cage where the Kanakas had suffered their infernal torture. It wanted an hour or more to sunset, for the long forest shadows were falling. Denn was no longer bound; he was free to move about as he chose. A little table had been placed in the centre of the cage, and on it stood a lamp filled with palm oil.
"Sort of footlights," Denn muttered; "and I am the star actor, positively for this night only. Good heavens! Fancy jesting over it! And presently those infernal little red specks will be on me, and I shall die a death the horror of which is unknown to millions."
Denn glanced up to the roof. As yet the bloated crimson specks were not to be seen. In and out of the roof there darted a purple zigzag cloud of humming-birds. They passed through the bars like shadows; they clung to the thatch, twittering like swallows.
"If I could only have those little fellows for company," Denn muttered again, "I should not fear the red speck. Evidently these tiny little creatures prey upon the spiders. Strange that so awful a scourge should be conquered by so small a bird! And if they are not molested—"
But they were, and without delay. A sinewy brown Kanaka arm was thrust between the bars, and a net followed. Within a minute the last little purple shadow had vanished from the cage, and then on all sides from without coarse canvas blinds were let down, and Denn was alone, secure from public eye with the unknown horrors to face. The main fact of the solitude struck him like a blow.
There are limits to the strongest nature, and Denn had reached his. Not that he lost hope; he had been in too many tight places for that. But for the moment his manhood gave way; he covered his face with his hands, and he cried like a child.
But they were not senile tears. They were wrung from Denn by the knowledge of his utter helplessness. Then his mood changed. He set his teeth hard, resolved, if he had to die, to die hard.
The sense of utter solitude was in itself depressing. Doubtless the canvas blinds had been drawn to keep the birds out, and in all probability Sabina cared nothing to watch the torture of her victim in an early stage. She could witness it by lamplight later on.
There was a good hour to sunset, and a good two hours more before that demoniacal woman would feel inclined to rise to the occasion, and already, with the drawn blinds and the lamp, the atmosphere was growing oppressive. Denn was bathed from head to foot.
He would have given anything to have stripped himself of his clothing. But, so long as there was a chance for life, he had not the slightest intention of running any risk that way. Nor dared he extinguish the lamp.
"I couldn't do it," Denn told himself.
"An hour in the dark with those red little terrors all about me and I should be hopelessly insane. I'll stick to my clothes and I'll stick to my light till it is too late. But where are the horrors?"
The crimson specks were not far off. There was a sound as if somebody was attacking the thatch, and presently a tiny pink speck came straddling and tumbling over the coarse matting. A vigorous shake sent it down to the ground, where it lay close to Denn's feet.
He examined it closely and critically. It was like a split pea, red and hairy, with two tiny beady eyes and several legs like black tread. A tiny, innocent-looking insect enough, but capable, as Denn knew, of dealing out perhaps the most terrible of all deaths. Denn felt his hair rising up the back of his scalp.
"Good heavens," he cried, "it's the Specky Spider!* I dared not believe it till this moment, but I have felt it all along."
[* The Specky Spider is no figment of imagination. It really exists! F.M.W.]
He knew the spider by repute in Brazil and South Australia. He knew that its bite dried up the vessels of the blood, and produced and agony that could only faintly be imagined. And Denn also knew that when men got bitten by this insect they generally blew their brains out without further delay. For the bite is fatal, and the suffering—well, Denn had seen the suffering for himself.
Denn touched the spider with the toe of his boot. The insect squatted like a toad and attacked the leather. An instant later all that remained of it was a pink round blob upon the floor.
Denn glanced upwards again with a shudder that shook him to the very soul. In the instant that his attention had been directed to the floor, half a score of those terrors might have dropped upon him. The white cloth of the patch was thickly speckled with red by this time. The tiny insects ran about angrily. And soon, instead of a while cloth dotted with red, it was a red curtain with tiny white blotches upon it.
From previous experience—as a spectator, Denn knew exactly what was going to happen. Ere long there would be no room for the invading multitudes, and the weakest would go to the wall—i.e. they would drop to the floor like rain. And once they did so!
Denn forced himself not to think of it. The nervous effort was in itself sufficient to take all the strength out of his legs. And cause him to drop upon his knees. And all the time his anxious gaze was upward, upward! He meant to fight to the bitter end.
Then the spiders began to drop, holding on with their elastic needles until hundreds of them depended just over Denn's head. His senses reeled, and the world seemed to spin round like a top. Once he was down, he knew that it would be all over with him.
He crouched against the bars of the cage, so as to offer as little space as possible to the crimson army. One of the red dots fell upon his hair, and dropped upon his chest.
With a yell, Denn dashed it away. Despite his iron nerve, he was fast becoming desperate. He was losing his head. Half a dozen spiders were crawling up his coat.
Denn cried aloud. It seemed to him that somebody was creeping along without on the further side from the village. Then there was a ripping, tearing sound, and a long strip of the canvas blind was torn away. Denn saw the light of the setting sun.
He saw something more than that, a sight welcome as cool, sweet water in a weary desert. He saw a darting, hurtling flash of blue lightning, as scores upon scores of the purple humming- birds came flashing into the cage, their wings whirring.
They cleared the air as if by magic. A red spider had actually dropped upon Denn's cheek; and, before he could realise the sticky slime of the thread-like legs, a blue streak had plucked it away. In ten seconds there was not a spider to be seen.
Denn dropped forward on his face, a huddled heap of ragged humanity—pulseless, limp, and inert as a rope of sand. But he did not faint. He rose in time to note the pale face of Zara, Sabina's hand-maiden, looking at him through the bars, a knife in her hand. In the other she had what was still more precious—a revolver and package of cartridges, taken from a French soldier who had fallen by the way. At the same moment the tropical night fell like a cloud.
"Quick," Zara whispered. "She comes in a few moments. If you go straight forward down the valley, you will find your Kanakas awaiting you. They have lingered on the chance of your escape."
Denn needed no second bidding. The knife in his hand and the revolver at his belt gave him new strength. With desperate energy he sawed through three of the bamboo poles and crawled along the ground.
As he did so, a huge Hama confronted him.
There was a flash of a revolver barrel, a long squib of flame, and the big Hama pitched with a groan on to his face. Instantly the settlement was in an uproar. Denn could see Sabina framed with light standing in the doorway of her hut. She made a splendid mark. Denn's finger pressed the trigger.
But he did not fire; something restrained him. A moment later, and the opportunity was lost.
"I ought to have done it in the interests of humanity," Denn muttered as he darted like a flash down the valley. "It was my plain duty not to let that woman live. And yet..."
Denn raced away, but there was no reason to do so. The use of firearms had been too much for the Hamas, who had no taste for magic of that kind. And surely enough, as Zara had promised, he found his Kanakas awaiting him at the foot of the valley. They would have utterly failed to recognise him but for Zara, who had followed.
"No go back there," she exclaimed; "too dangerous. You get me down to Malcha, where I have friends, and that plenty reward for me." "But we don't know the way," said Denn.
Zara knew the route, however, and that did just as well, Denn feeling that he would be just as well off at Malcha as anywhere else. And before morning a comfortable distance was placed between Sabina and her late prisoner. It was not till the next day that Denn understood the queen looks of his dusky companions.
He glanced at his features in a transparent forest pool. His ragged moustache was its normal colour, but his hair was streaked like the coat of a badger. That one hour's agony had done it.
"After all," said Denn, "it was a cheap price to pay for what has been my most terrible experience."