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Non sibi sed omnibus
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DRENTON DENN stood watching the points of flame dragging along the Cuban coast. Under the cloak of the night rottenness and corruption lay hidden. The cat was still playing with the mouse, and concrete humanity had grown jaded with the spectacle. The whole thing had mattered little to Europe so long as wheat was down firm at 40s. again.
But it mattered a great deal to Drenton Denn, seeing that he was a war correspondent of mark. Copy lay yonder back beyond the sandhills, facing Port Indigo--copy palpitating with new horrors and sensations. Slowly the Spaniards were being starved into submission, chaos and worse reigned in Port Indigo, and Denn meant to sketch the crimson horrors of it on his note-book, despite the rigid regulations forbidding the landing of a single man from the American fleet there.
For strange stories had come like fugitives across the bay to the blockading fleet. The infamous Don Macdona had made his headquarters in Port Indigo. He was holding high court there with the scum of the island. Sooner or later this hybrid tyrant and bloodsucker would fall into the hands of Uncle Sam, and be shot out of hand. Being a fatalist and a sybarite, he was plucking the flowers that time allowed to him.
Carpe diem. This picturesque polyglot reeked in the nostrils of a continent. Of all the gaudy insects born of the refuse heap there were none more gaudy than Macdona. Who he was or whence he came nobody knew or cared. Certainly he throve from the Cuban miasma. He had established himself in the deserted palace of the Cagas at Port Indigo, and there he had gathered a choice selection of adventurers and, incidentally, adventuresses about him.
All these things and more had Drenton Denn gathered from a native who had swum out to the Maryland battleship and there died the next morning, incontinently babbling o' strange things. Yellow moths and Macdona! And why yellow moth? In some way a yellow moth seemed to be mixed up with the new scourge devastating Port Indigo.
Under cover of the darkness lay some of the finest material that ever made the future of journalistic enterprise. Obviously Denn's duty pointed thither. For authority and service regulations your born correspondent cares nothing. Denn was going to see those yellow moths, the heralds of a new and strange disease, for himself.
Hang the sharks! And it was but a bare half-mile to the sandhills. Denn slipped over the forechains and dropped noiselessly into the oily tide. In the crown of his helmet was his note book and revolver. With any luck he could get all he required and be back again before daylight with Admiral Saxon not a penny the wiser.
So this wiry little Vermonter, lithe and lean and spare like the wild cat that he was, struck out for the sandhills. The object of sharks was uppermost in his mind. "Tragic death of a well-known war correspondent." A good headline, that. By the time Denn was settled the 'scare heads' setting out his own premature demise, his toes scraped the sand.
Port Indigo at last! No European has set foot there for years. Here was a fresh mine of iniquity, and never a rival on the premises.
Denn pushed boldly on into the town. The place was darkness, and desolation. A handful of fireflies darted and glistened. From one or two houses a shaft of light fell like a spear across the road. In one of these lanes of light lay something that seemed to palpitate. It bore an odd repulsive resemblance to a human corpse. It seemed to be cased in something yellow, that trembled as trees do on a hazy summer afternoon.
With some little tendency to nausea, Denn touched the mass with his foot. At once the shimmering yellow rose like a cloud and fluttered round Denn's head. A soft rhythmic beat filled the stagnant air.
Denn fell back with a shuddering cry. He stood in a veritable cloud of yellow moths, small furred insects with greasy bodies and protruding eyes. In the light of his new knowledge there was something peculiarly horrible in the sight. Every word uttered by the babbling fugitive of the Maryland came back to Denn now with a scorching lightning force.
The new scourge of Port Indigo was preceded by the yellow moth. The same fearsome insect was at once the victim's prophet and his pall. The moths fell like a cloud upon the object at Denn's feet.
The next moment he saw the door of a house open and a woman's figure standing out black against the light. With her hands uplifted she screamed despairingly for aid.
Denn crossed the road and in his best Spanish proffered his assistance. As the woman turned and entered a room somewhat handsomely furnished, Denn followed.
Standing in the centre of the room, apparently thrashing empty air with his arms, was a man of some forty years. His handsome features were knitted into a despairing terror.
"Is this some sudden madness?" Denn asked.
"Ah, no," the woman moaned. "The moth--cannot you see the yellow moth? One came this morning, and we knew the message. Not a door, not a window has been opened since morning, and yet here they are."
Once more Denn felt the old horror creeping over him. The room seemed to be filled with the little sulphur moths, the doomed man fought them down with his hands, a mass of smashed saffron formed a ring about his feet. And yet Denn could hardly see across the room for them.
"Can nothing be done?" Denn asked.
"Nothing. His sufferings will be over in a few minutes. Oh, my God!"
The Spaniard's courage seemed to suddenly fail him. The grotesque horror of it turned his soul to water. With a yell he dropped his hands by his sides and bolted for the street like a hare.
Denn quickly followed. He had not far to run, for the Spaniard had hardly propelled himself a dozen paces before he pitched headlong to the ground and lay there like a dog. As Denn turned the prostrate figure over he found the limbs already cold. The Spaniard was dead.
Almost instantly the yellow cloud had swarmed all over him. Denn turned to the woman, but she had already vanished. Beside herself with terror, she fled into the heart of the night, and Denn saw her no more.
A moment later a hand was laid on Denn's arm.
"You are American," a soft voice murmured in his ear. "Therefore you are a brave signor. I pray you to grant me your assistance."
A LANCET of light streaming from a distant window fell athwart the speaker's face. The features were strikingly beautiful, glowing with the flush of youth and health. The girl too, was handsomely attired, yet there was something in the face, lovely as it was, that repelled Denn while it attracted him.
"Are you in danger?" he asked.
"Ah, yes," came the reply, "what danger I cannot tell you."
"And yet I should gather that you are a resident of the place."
"That is the truth, Signor. Still I am quite alone here. All that were near and dear to me have gone down before the yellow death. And I am afraid, I am sorely afraid, of Macdona."
"I quite understand," Denn said grimly, "also I have heard of the gentleman. What would you have me do for you?"
"The signor is an officer from a warship yonder in search of adventure?"
"I am in search of adventure," Denn responded drily, "and I must confess that my widest expectations have been fully realised. But I am not an officer--I am nothing more than a war correspondent."
"Could you smuggle me on one of the ships?"
Denn temporised. He knew perfectly well he could do nothing of the kind.
The stranger's name, it appeared, was Donna Inez Castalo, and she had a plan to propose provided that Signor Denn was willing to assist her.
"It is not safe to stand here," she said. "The spies of Macdona are everywhere. You will come to my poor home, and I will make you known to my old gouvernante, Donna Bella. Is it not so?"
"I follow you," said Denn.
A short walk brought the pair to a gateway leading to what seemed a house of some pretensions.
The place appeared to be furnished to the last degree of extravagance. Under the flare of many lamps the room was wild and bizarre to a degree. From somewhere in the distance came the sound of mad revelry.
Denn turned suspiciously to his companion.
"What does this pantomime mean?" he asked.
Donna Inez laughed.
"It means," she said, "that you are a guest of Don Macdona. You will pardon my leaving you alone for a time."
The opposite door closed with a click, and Denn knew that he was a prisoner.
A few moments later four stalwart half-breeds, fully armed, came in. That they were capable of anything in the way of picturesque criminality Denn saw at a glance.
"Don Macdona wishes to see you. Follow us," said the leader of the party.
Denn followed his guides along a flagged corridor and in the direction of the chamber came sounds of wild revelry. Then a door was flung open, and a dazzling scene burst upon the gaze of the American prisoner.
The spectacle was a striking one.
Some two score of people of both sexes lounged about a table, at the head of which sat a little man with an enormous head and diabolically clever face. Such was Macdona.
As Denn entered, he rose with a gesture of politeness.
"Welcome to our poor house and board," he said. "Donna Inez has prepared us for your coming. Are we right in assuming that you are the correspondent Drenton Denn? If so, you have been pleased to describe certain little inventions of mine, and as a return for your kindness I have saved up one of the neatest for yourself. In the meantime make yourself at home."
Denn poured himself out a glass of wine with a steady hand.
He was fully conscious of the strength of his nerves and the trustworthiness of his revolver. There was just a chance for him yet.
A moment or two later laughing and chattering broke out again, and a wild Spanish dance was in progress.
Denn sat at the table watching the graceful gyrations. Doubtless it had been exploited in his honour. The prisoner had one eye upon the whirling kaleidoscope, the other on the exits from the room.
"Escape is out of the question," whispered a voice in his ear.
A flaming Spanish beauty had dropped into a vacant seat on Denn's right hand. Her face was hard as marble, yet there was something of a friendly light in those liquid eves.
"I gather that you would help me if you could," said Denn.
"If only you could get as far as the door without being noticed! A plan may yet occur to you. If it does, make for the door, and I shall be there. Let us dance. Macdona is regarding us suspiciously."
Denn promptly flung himself into the mad humour of the thing. He was as a man dancing on the lips of a volcano, a veritable dance of death. Then above the revelry came the clang of midnight.
Denn paused involuntarily and glanced at Macdona. Had the latter forgotten his promise or did he desire to prolong the agony? At any rate he made no sign, and the dance continued.
Madder, wilder, noisier it grew. Denn was actually carried away by the spirit of the dance. He forgot everything else for the moment, until a pair of arms cast about his neck from behind, brought him, panting, to a standstill, and held him there like a vice.
Denn fought like a dozen wild cats, but his unseen antagonist had him at a terrible disadvantage. Then a softer, whiter arm stole across his lips, and a handkerchief drenched with some sweet pungent liquid was pressed over his mouth and nostrils. Denn held his breath grimly; he kept his lips sealed until his brain reeled and his heart seemed to be bursting his ribs asunder. Flesh and blood could stand it no longer, and Denn gasped and gurgled for air. Then he fell, like a tired child, into a sweet and placid slumber.
When Denn returned to consciousness he found himself trussed up with fine Manila ropes, like a fowl ready for the spit. He was still sick and hazy with the aftermath of the chloroform, but all the same he had no cause to grumble at the paucity of interest in the surroundings. On a stand in the centre of the room stood a glass case in the shape of a huge coffin. The crystal sides were heavily clamped with brass, and the whole thing was attached to the floor. There was a smile on Macdona's face as he indicated the singular machine.
"I dare say you are wondering what that thing is," he said. "I am going to tell you. It is a steaming apparatus. We are going to place you in there, and clap the lid on so that by means of certain mechanism you will gradually steam. The top of the concern is perforated so as to admit of a certain amount of air, thus preventing anything like a sudden despatch of the victim. In that trap you will have just room to stand upright, and from below the glass you will be able to judge what effect your performance will have on your audience. Pretty material for your journal, eh? Unfortunately, your graphic pen will not be in a position to describe it."
At the sign of Macdona two of the gang raised Denn aloft, and deposited him in the coffin, then the heavy lid was screwed down. Almost instantly a warm air seemed to fill the confined space. Denn's brain thickened for a moment, then as suddenly clarified again.
"FOR the next half hour," said Macdona, "the experiment is likely to be somewhat monotonous. Meanwhile, we can enjoy ourselves."
The whole party gathered round the table, and Denn appeared to have been forgotten.
With one or two elastic motions he freed himself of his cords. Then he pressed with all his force against the sides of the coffin. Any attempt to escape that way was out of the question, for the prisoners had absolutely no leverage, and the sheets of glass were thick.
Through the grating overhead he could imagine queer figures carved on the roof. It seemed to him that something was floating like a sunbeam there. It was a little butterfly surely.
The butterfly came lower and lower, until it passed into the uplifting blast of hot air rising from the coffin. Then the tiny gauzy wings shrivelled up, and the insect came through the grating and fluttered quivering down at Denn's feet. He took it gently in his hand.
With a mighty effort he restrained the wild scream that rose to his lips. He did not fear the advent of the scourge of Port Indigo for himself--he had not breathed his vitiated atmosphere long enough. But that for some member of the company death was at hand he felt certain. For on the palm of his quaking hand lay a yellow moth!
He was terribly, awfully frightened. Beyond the sides of his crystal prison house he could see that something had happened to check the flow of gaiety.
The picturesque group with one accord had stopped conversation. They seemed to be watching something. High up in the roof was a tiny, tangled yellow skein, alternately rising and falling, and gradually becoming more vivid.
"The yellow moth," Macdona muttered, "whence came they?"
Nobody replied, because nobody knew.
Still, they were face to face with the yellow messengers at last. A score of white faces were turned upwards. The Saffron skin had broken like the bursting of a rocket, and the roof was alive with ten thousand pairs of humming sulphur wings.
Two of the insects fell on Macdona's arm. With a shuddering scream he jumped to his feet and shook them off.
"Dear heaven!" he yelled, "not that. Anything but that."
Macdona plunged forward, then fell headlong on the floor. He seemed to be literally smothered with the deadly insects.
With a superhuman effort Macdona, thrashing wildly, freed himself from his tormentors for a moment. In that short space of time his features had undergone a strange transformation. His face was black in vivid contrast to the pallid blue of his lips.
Then, with one final yell like a chorus of despair from the bottomless pit, Macdona fell forward on his face and moved no more. A convulsive shudder ran through the assembly. The fascinating horror of the situation rendered it deaf and blind to anything short of cataclysm.
It was Denn's time, and seizing his revolver, he fired two shots.
The glass crashed in a million fragments, and strange as it may seem, the incident passed unnoticed. Denn saw that his fair friend had made her way to the door. Like the rest of them, she was awfully, horribly frightened, but some scattered grains of wit yet remained. Denn crept over in her direction.
"See, I have opened the door," she whispered. "Go."
"And you?" Denn demanded.
The woman smiled bitterly, and pointed upwards.
"I must stay," she said. "If I am marked for a victim, I must die. If not, I am safe here as anywhere else. Outside you may find a guard or so who will bar your exit; if so, shoot them down. Look."
Denn did look. As the woman spoke the room appeared to be absolutely filled with a dense yellow smoke. There were millions upon millions of the descending moths. It seemed that the whole of that infamous company were destined to be exterminated. Denn could hear an inferno of yells and cries, but nothing could be seen but the saffron cloud.
Flesh and blood could stand it no longer. He groped his way blindly to the door, and darted like a hare along the corridor.
A few seconds later Denn was alone in the deserted street. He could see the lights of the Maryland down in the harbour. Then he noticed two little sulphur spots upon his coat.
They were two of the yellow moths. Denn promptly emptied a match-box, and placed the tiny insects therein, then placed them in his hat.
All the same, he sped down the deserted street, filled with a desire to change Port Indigo for the gleaming deck of the Maryland. Not till he was up to his neck in the sea did he feel quite himself again. But fortune was kind, and a little later Denn crept into his cabin.
It was late in the afternoon before he bethought himself of the matchbox containing the yellow months. Sooner or later he would want to produce those gruesome little curiosities. Denn took them from his despatch-box, where he had placed them for safety, and slid back the lid.
The box was absolutely empty! There was just a queer odour and a suspicion of saffron powder, but that was all. Had these moths been real, or were they a temporary miasma bred by the presence of the yellow death? Denn did not feel called upon to decide.
"At any rate," he muttered, "when I come to tell this yarn I shall get one distinction out of it. I shall be known as the boss liar of the universe."