Extracted from Adventure magazine, 30 Oct 1923, pp. 110-118. Accompanying illustration and mini map omitted
J. Allan Dunn
T WAS close to nightfall when the canoe crossed the last lagoon and entered a swift river, mangrove-banked with the current making curious sucking noises among the stilted roots—like chuckling mud monsters. The naked natives paddled hard, sweat beading on their dark skins while their eyes rolled strangely beneath their frizzly hair, fantastically bleached with lime to the semblance of yellow and orange dust mops.
Presently the mangroves gave way to the bush, tall trees festooned by lianas, wattled with jungle undergrowth. The lowering sun bloodied the drips from the paddle blades, painted crimson the ragged crests of the mountains, looming dark, savage, distant. The far-off throb of drums came down the whispering wind that went rustling mysteriously through the gloomy forest.
Benson lolled in the stern, languid, affecting nonchalance, as ever—posing—imagining himself the leader of a band of dusky slaves, not quite easy in the rôle but unable entirely to lose his theatrical tendencies, his love for playing a leading part on his immediate stage.
His eyes were haunted, like those of Harris in the bows, like those of all the men they were furtively going to join, men whose loud laughter was never extended to their glance, men who were anxious rather than gay, for all their swaggering masquerades.
Benson knew the hunt was up, implacable, persistent. In the calamitous hurry of discovery and departure he had not been able to bring much money, less than ten thousand dollars of all those gathered from his dupes, barely two per cent. of all his loot. Flight, with the knowledge of sure pursuit, had proved expensive and his funds were low. True, he had spent, had thrown away, most of that half a million dollars but there had been another coup pending. If he had only had a little more time
His white linen was limp and grimy from the heat and discomfort of the trip from Suva. A good deal of the bravado was out of Benson and the look of the sullen jungle in the sunset glare was not promising. Mosquitoes buzzed and bit viciously. Invisible sand-flies were worse.
Harris, the cheap crook, the absconding trader's agent who had told him of the Brotherhood, was hunched up in the bows, foul of mind and body, half-drunk, swigging at his flask of rum, singing snatches of ribald song.
Strange company for Benson after the glitter of cafés, the music, the white, smooth shoulders of women, the food, the dance, the wine, the life for which he had bartered his honor—his essential liberty. He cursed the woman who had given him away. His mood of make-believe vanished. The paddler facing him started at the sudden ferocity of the white man's face.
"Round the next bend, matey," sang out Harris. "Then we 'oof it. Git there just right. No use showin' up afore dark."
Fair she was, to outward seemin'
An' she swore that she'd be true.
'T'was my gold that caused 'er beamin'
For 'er nyme was Siren Sue.
"Sirens up to the Brother'ood, matey. Good pals. There's one called Kumi they s'y is a fair knockout. Good grub an' plenty of good booze. All your 'eart desires so long as you got the price. Suit you, matey?"
"Sounds good," forced Benson, affecting distasteful fellowship.
The bow-paddler suddenly jabbered in Fijian and Harris answered him in the dialect. The canoe swung inshore against the swirling current. The drums boomed out louder. The barbaric, compelling rhythm seemed to Benson to come simultaneously from everywhere—the bush, the sky, the ground and the dark welling water. The ominous, sinister measure dominated his feverish pulse. The boohing of conch-shells, like demon hooting, came down the river gorge. He was sure he saw a dark figure materialize for a moment against the bush and then vanish like so much vapor.
His vivid imagination pictured stark savages careering about monstrous idols while shaven-headed women shuffled in silent files, their pendulous breasts swinging time, peeled wands surmounted by grinning skulls in their right hands, flaring torches in their left. He wiped the perspiration from his forehead as the canoe bumped gently, nosing into the matted bush.
", what a hole!"
Harris leaned forward.
"Cheerio! Ere we are, matey, chuck out your luggage."
They were at the entrance of a dim and narrow bush-path, its floor trodden hard by myriads of horny soles, walled by the impenetrable jungle. It was here that Benson had seen the figure appear and vanish. The paddlers had been paid beforehand. Without a word they swiftly turned the canoe, the paddles staking circles of troubled water that caught the red of the overhead sky. With a swiftly increasing stroke they went racing downstream as if glad to leave the spot.
Harris swung up a grimy duck bag to his shoulder. Benson, reduced to one piece of baggage in this latest flight, hesitated to take up his grip.
"I'll swear I saw a man watching us just now before we landed," he said. "A native. Listen to those cursed drums, will you?"
"Sure. Give me the creeps when I first 'eard 'em. Lor', I couldn't sleep without 'em nowadays! Wait till you've 'ad a beach-station, matey. Course you see a man. A lookout. 'E's on 'is w'y to s'y we're comin'. You don't ketch 'Rumbo' Williams nappin', matey. 'Ow 'ud we be safe if 'e didn't set watch? Come on."
The bush hemmed them with barely elbow room. Buttressed banyans, breadfruit, towering tutui, scarlet geranium-trees, feathery-bamboo, wild-citron, inextricably meshed with vines, dense shrubbery at their feet, writhing creepers across the trail. There was no sound of birds, only the hum of innumerable insects, jeweled beetles, metallic butterflies that flickered in the twilight. The foliage seemed black under the fading after-glow of sulfur-colored clouds floating on a sea of jade-green that swiftly dimmed to olive, then to purple, suddenly set with glowing stars—like eyes.
Out of the bush came the oppressive odors of decaying fruit and too fragrant flowers—a decadent perfume suggesting death.
THE Brotherhood had various names bestowed upon it by the various types of men that sought its sanctuary. It was a Clearing House for Criminals, a Fourth Dimension for Fugitives. They entered its immunity—at a price, fixed by Rumbo Williams, bawdy prior of this mysterious monastery—and disappeared. Sometimes an emissary of the law, a kilted half-caste of the native police, arrived in desultory search, found nothing and departed bribe in hand.
Swindlers and rogues and fools in their degrees. Fraudulent bankers, corrupt agents, venal trustees, pearl poachers, ex-convicts—some of them desperate fugitives from dread Noumea—runaway ship's apprentices, pallid men, men tanned by wind and sun and sea, men white, yellow, brown and black, of all ranks; all runaways, coming from all parts of the world for asylum, for a chance to hide and be forwarded by Rumbo's underground system to still remoter places. These the Brethren.
The low-roofed house was hardly visible as they broke out of the trail and crossed a tract of breast-high ferns whose crushed fronds gave out a faint smell of almonds. Again a flitting form preceded them, materializing and vanishing like a fantom. No lights showed.
The sounds they had heard while they were in the fern ceased suddenly—the whine of a violin, the blare of an accordion, buffeting of feet on a dance floor and men's coarse voices grating in careless chorus. Only the distant drums persisted.
Harris tapped a signal. This was not his first visit, he boasted, and he knew the ropes. A slide opened finally and the sesame was passed. There was the chink of coin, a door set wide and Harris passed in. Benson found himself confronted by a man half a foot taller than himself, his long bearded face in the shadow, his eyes dark though Benson felt their keen appraisal.
"It's twenty quid a week, pay in advance," said a deep voice that was not without an echo of quality, of educated intonation.
"Twenty?" protested Benson. "Harris said"
"Harris is a horse of another color, my friend. I know a gent when I see one and I know brains. I don't know what your lay was, brother, and I don't care, but I'll warrant it paid well. You're not a piker, a picaroon, like most of our pals in here. And you pay accordingly—take it or leave it."
Benson gave him notes he had got in Sydney. The noise had started again. His host escorted him through the main room of the shanty where men sat elbowed at a long, low table, some playing cards, some drinking moodily, all turning hunted eyes towards the door. Tallow candles swung on wires suspended above the bar and guttered on the table. There were Chinese in the crowd, Malays, mixed breeds, white men drumming with nervous fingers to the music while their thoughts were far from the cards spread out in 'Canfield' before them. A few rough customers danced together. Two—more lucky—dragged about half-white girls who screamed with laughter as they repelled crude familiarities.
"All sorts and conditions of men," said Rumbo. "Good fellows but—careless—let us say careless. Knit in common interest, in common safety. A sort of socialism, effective despite apparent limitations of caste, because each depends upon the other. You can well understand that.
"It pays to be liberal. I should stand a round occasionally, if I were you. Get their goodwill. You can never tell when you may need it.
"Here are the sleeping quarters. Communism again. But I insist upon cleanliness and only white men sleep in this room. You can take either of these end bunks. Quite pleasant with the window open above. Mosquito nettings, you see. Fresh matting."
He had talked specifically to Benson. Harris, as a former guest, needed no enlightenment. Rumbo Williams lowered his voice.
"I do not ask your confidence or your name," he said. "Though you will require the latter. Call it Smith. Glad to have you stay here as long as you like. If you have decided where you are going I will arrange the exit, if not, I might suggest. The Marquesas now? If it were not for the profits—I'm being frank with you—I'd go there myself. May yet. Golden women with golden hearts who worship a white man like a god and hide you in the hills. Loving and not over jealous. You can have a dozen of 'em if you want. Lotus Land. I can tell you are a woman's man, sir. All red-blooded men are. I'm one myself. My failing."
Benson wondered from what pinnacle of respectability this keeper of an illicit sanctuary had fallen when he became 'careless.' Closer inspection showed Williams to have good features coarsened by self-license, eyes that were a strange combination of being both bleary and keen, a prominent nose that advertised his title of Rumbo, a physique marred by corpulence—but powerful. With it all an assumption of fellow villainy that jarred on Benson who was not over sensitive.
"I can get you in without registry, Mr. Smith. The French authorities will never know you've landed. Once tucked away, you're safe forever. Unless things blow over. They do sometimes unless you happen to get in wrong with the Federal Government—we're both Americans. Uncle Samuel has an inconveniently long memory."
Benson dissembled easily enough. He was not going to give himself away to this trafficker in 'carelessness.'
"Quarters are fine," he said. "I'll talk things over with you later. Expect I'll stay here for a few weeks.
Rumbo's eyes glowed with cupidity. Benson knew that his was a slick villainy, that his veneer of friendliness would slide like a dirt road surface after rain if friction occurred. It would cost money to get away but it was worth it. The Marquesas and its golden women! That was an apt phrase. A man might do worse than live in Lotus Land and thumb his nose at the Federal hounds.
He had been a fool to cross swords with Uncle Sam, to plan with an alien enemy and conspire to prevent the shipment of ammunition to the Allies. True, he had not been an actual traitor to his own. He had double-crossed the very men who had paid him so liberally. It was lucky the Allies had taken over the South Seas. It would not do to fall into the hands of those with whom he had bargained.
There had been other matters too; trust funds, gold mines and oil wells, unfortunate investments for those who had sought his advice. All stirred up when the woman had betrayed him. Still—in the Marquesas a little money went a long way.
"Let's buy that round of drinks," he said.
There was a woman—a girl—posturing at one end of the big room, gracefully voluptuous, round of limb and firm of breast, chanting as she moved in a native hula to the plucking of a banjo. White wild-ginger flowers were wreathed in her hair and about her body above the swinging skirt of grass and bark-paper. Not all the men regarded her. One looked at her with eyes that showed hatred of her sex.
"It's Kumi," said Harris. "Ain't she a charmer? A bit of all right, she is. 'Ave 'er up for a drink when she gets through."
The whole room responded eagerly to Benson's 'shout.' Clouted natives acted as waiters to those who did not crowd to the bar. The pungent liquor warmed Benson's body, mounted to his brain, loosened his emotions. He shook off his moodiness. Here was an audience and he was first and last an actor, a player to the gallery, desirous of applause.
With the same air—with something of the same hypocrisy—with which he used to lay a twenty-dollar bill upon the collection plate at church in his home town in Massachusetts—where his wife and child now lived as best they could—he flourished his money, bought them liquor, told them stories and sat smiling at their loud guffaws.
They cheered him and sang him passing fame as a jolly good fellow. The room grew thick with smoke, the air carried fumes of strong brews. Kumi came to his side and stayed there while Harris glowered. Benson was master of the revel. He began to boast a little, to hint more than his reason warned him—against his glib tongue—was wise. He absorbed their admiration, swollen with conceit like a dry sponge soaking water.
His eyes brightened and he complacently stroked the mustache and trim beard he had grown since he had read the newspaper in the club at Sydney that warned him to move on. He slid an arm about the giggling Kumi and Harris, red-eyed, drunken, malevolent, struck fiercely at him.
Benson was not a coward and he was a physically fit as the other. Harris fought foul with foot and knee, with fingers that clawed for his opponent's eyes and Benson fought him off half-blinded, a pain in his groin like a hot blade.
When his vision cleared Harris was struggling futilely in the grip of Rumbo who propelled him towards the door. A two-quid guest against a twenty-quid one! There was no question of the issue.
The men had formed a ring about them, musicians, waiters and barman, their eyes eager for a fight, already showing disappointment as Rumbo took charge.
"Out you go!" cried Rumbo. "I don't stand for that sort of thing, my bucko! Got drunk on his liquor and then turned on him for nothing. I'm running this shanty, women and all."
Harris, bloodied where Benson's fist had split his mouth, his whole face crimson with rage and mortification, struggled hard in the clutch of Rumbo, holding him aloft, calling for the offender's dunnage, prepared to cast him into outer darkness and insecurity. Benson interfered. His brain cleared at the crisis. He could not afford to be enemies with any of his fellow refugees, let alone Harris, who knew more than the rest.
"Hold on," he said. "That was my fault. I didn't know she was his girl. If my drinks started the fuss let another round end it."
Rumbo regarded Benson with eyes that held a glint of approval, of recognition of the other's sapience.
"If that's the way you feel about it," he said, "I'll call it off as a favor to you. But I don't stand for having my rules broken."
He shook Harris a little before he put him down, as a bull-terrier might shake a rat. Harris stood glowering.
"My fault, Harris," repeated Benson. "I didn't mean to butt in. We'll have another drink round and forget it."
It was plain that Harris' ungracious growl of acceptance was more expedient than spontaneous but he shook hands with his assailant though he did not look him in the eyes. He turned to the girl who had stood by with her big eyes glowing, her breasts heaving in the feminine excitement and satisfaction of being the core of a quarrel.
She made a scornful moue at him.
"What name you so rough a fella?" she demanded as she eluded his uncertain grasp. "I no like that kind."
Benson, carrying his liquor better than most of them, knew he had not properly placated Harris and he made it a point to send the latter to his bunk in a condition which he hoped would produce forgetfulness of the details of the quarrel, though he did not doubt that Kumi would remind Harris of it if the agent again approached her for favors. Now she showed herself attracted by Benson but self-preservation was prime with him over his inclinations. Pretty and voluptuous as she was, he did not intend to enter an intrigue that might lead to dangerous reprisal from Harris.
All that could wait until he met the golden women of the Marquesas. In Lotus Land.
Benson didn't sleep much but lay in a reverie in which he saw himself a petty potentate, petted and pampered by black-eyed, black-haired beauties, secure from pursuit. A man might do worse.
There were none of those cursed drums in the Marquesas! They were pacific islands in the true sense; lands of wild, romantic beauty, of waving palms, of streams and waterfalls, of flowers and universal verdure, life, the love of life and the life of love.
He knew something of Rumbo Williams' methods of speeding his departing guests, gleaned from Harris. An outrigger canoe to Nuka Hiva, a cabin aboard a discreet trader, a vanishing in the night. Costly—in Benson's case—but efficient.
Of the victims of his various peculations Benson, then, as ever, thought not at all. He had a faculty of dismissing them as inferiors unable to cope with his smartness, victims of their own credulity, to be forgotten as the birds limed and netted by a fowler. Man, woman, child, widow, orphan, friend, he eliminated them.
One thing remained with him against his efforts. The look in his wife's eyes when she realised that he was not merely rogue but traitor. In vain he called her to himself a canting hypocrite. He had hidden things from her because he had wanted to maintain her respect, if not her love, and the loss of it rankled. Far more than the fact that she sat in ashes amid the ruin of her respectability and that of their child.
Benson was a very thorough-going blackguard.
When he woke up it was well after dawn. The drums had ceased. A radiant shaft of sunshine came through the window above his bunk. He watched the little motes dancing in the shining beam. The golden beam.
It might be well to stay with Rumbo long enough for ingratiation—at twenty quid a week—then—emerald islands, sapphire seas, crags of gray-jade, silver streams and golden women—golden life—the old world laughed at.
THERE are at least two types of detectives, even those in government employ. The solver of mysteries, attracted to the profession by a flair for the unraveling of riddles. The man-hunter, the bloodhound of the law.
The last is brave, persistent, patient. The other need not have the first of these qualities.
Jim Griffin of the Federal Service was the bloodhound of the law. He had brains, bravery, pertinacity, a faculty for recognition, for penetration of disguise, an excellent memory and an absolute conviction that he was serving the ends of justice, the good of the community, doing his duty as a citizen when he took the trail.
From that moment he was a sworn foe to the fugitive, implacable, not to be shaken off. Taken off the official leash, given full liberty, Griffin had never failed to get his man. Some of them dead, but all of them accounted for.
During the World War the criminal who fled was of less importance than the still active agent of the enemy. Griffin was recalled from pursuit of Benson just as the trail began to grow warm. He returned from Sydney on the same steamer that had landed him and the years went by with the case of Benson docketed—filed, but not forgotten. It was a cold scent when Griffin took it up again while part of the world, at least, settled slowly, very slowly, down towards normal.
Griffin was human. Professionally, a man like Benson was to him as a fox to a hound. That part of it was automatic. Personally, he held a warm man's hatred towards the human vermin who deliberately won the confidence of the ill-advised or the unadvised and robbed them by methods that left the victims helpless. This man had made beggars out of some women so that he could enjoy the loot with others. He robbed the fatherless and the widow without compunction and swaggered in many rôles. At his home he was a virtuous citizen, in New York he smiled to be pointed out as a roué
. On top of it all he had played traitor. His part in the war had been one of chicanery. A carpetbagger
was a gentleman beside him and Griffin took up the chase with a grim satisfaction that matched his determination.
But there were two sides to Griffin, just as there are two sides to velvet. Stern and implacable, though without rancor, wherever business was concerned, Griffin had a soft as well as a seamy side to his nature. He was born with an eye for color and an ear for music. The arts did not claim him yet he was at heart a poet. He was such a good judge of poetry that he abandoned his own attempts but he never traveled without one or more pocket-editions. To him the sea was beautiful and for him others more gifted expressed his feelings to his supreme content. He did not read his verse in public but went on deck primed with it and returned to it in his own cabin with renewed delight.
None suspected him of such a trend. None ever guessed his profession, for that matter. He had no wife, no home beyond bed and sitting-room in Washington where a discreet landlady enjoyed him as her only lodger and where he repaid her good offices by making her garden a glorious, perfumed riot—peonies predominating. He was a stocky, middle-sized, middle-aged man, inconspicuous yet affable. He was the sort of man to whom many people confided their troubles—principally domestic—and to whom he gave excellent advice, out of his knowledge of human nature.
He was generally thought to be something in insurance or else a traveling auditor but, on the Miowera, going out to Sydney, he let it be understood that he was a botanical chemist, being assured that he would find Benson somewhere in the South Seas. Benson had not had money enough in hand to seek indefinite sojourn in some country where the extradition courtesies are not exchanged and, knowing his man's tendencies, knowing that he had formerly headed for Sydney, through San Francisco, two thresholds of the Southern Pacific, Griffin felt sure that he would find him somewhere between Capricorn and Cancer. His own rôle of botanist would give him excuse for rambling.
Griffin believed in finding his man first and securing local official warrant afterwards. Experience had taught him that this was the best way. Local justice might be blinded by a bank-note bandage, peculiarly opaque. Local gossip ran fast and far ahead where the law was invoked. A policeman off his beat in the South Seas is notoriously looking for a criminal and his company is equally suspicious.
Griffin went to Sydney only to tranship to Suva. He had learned that his man had gone to the Fijian capital on his previous trailing, when recalled. It was his habit to keep in touch with the fugitives with whom he was officially concerned. Many a man, heartsick and homesick, venturing at last back to God's country of Home, had been met on the borders by this medium sort of a man whose gray eyes were remorseless and whose methods of taking in charge were tremendously if unostentatiously efficient.
There was some luck in his meeting Harris, not an unusual amount, since Suva, like Port Said, Honolulu, Singapore and Shanghai, is a cross-roads and since Harris invariably made it his intermittent headquarters. He picked Harris with certainty as a rascal, finding him in one of the waterfront places he wandered into. And he managed to hint to Harris that he was in some trouble with his firm—that he had sold them out over a valuable discovery and, therefore, was inclined to lay low. Inside of forty-eight hours he had turned Harris inside out like an old glove, had heard of the Brotherhood and the lamented demise of Rumbo Williams.
"’E got too bloody fresh with a woman from the 'ills," said Harris. "Now 'is 'ead 's 'angin' up in a club'ouse somewheres, dried. I 'elped bury what they left of 'im. Caught 'im spoonin' with the woman, they did. Probably sneaked up on 'im through the bush and got 'im with a 'ead 'ook. That's a loop of cane on the end of a stick with a spike they jab through the top of your spine when they jerk back. 'E was a nasty mess when we found 'im. The ants 'ad got at 'im. Reckon they cooked the woman. She was gone."
Over the fiery rum, with Griffin absorbing his tots until Harris declared with enthusiasm that he must possess a hollow leg, Harris reminisced of Rumbo. Griffin recognised it as a likely lead and elbowed him along the mental trail until Benson appeared like a picture thrown on a screen, clearly focussed by Harris' ancient grudge.
"I'd 'ave copped that girl if it 'adn't been for 'im, the blighter! It's too bad the Brotherhood's busted up, matey. No one else 'ad Rumbo's pull. But I can put you up to a 'ideout."
Griffin deftly led him back to Benson and the next day he took opportune ship for Tahiti, thence from Papeete to Hiva-Oa in the Marquesas in a trading schooner. The trail was warm again.
For seven hundred and fifty miles of sailing Griffin gave his poesy full rein, watching the birds and the fish, the argosies of trade clouds, the purple seas by day and the phosphorescent breakers at night, a milky path of trembling radiance. The winds, the stars, intrigued him and he read in his pocket-edition of Keats' magic casements, waiting to see the islands rise out of the sea, lonely, unvisited, without cable or wireless, ideal losing-places, but sure of his man.
The land smiled. Mount Temetiu, swathed in sulfur mists, waited the strengthening of the sun. The high crags were already tipped with amber, below them dense foliage ran, crisp as lettuce, down to the fronded palms on the bluffs where cascades fell waving into the sea. Blow-holes spouted at the foot of the cliffs and the spray surged like smoke.
Here was Hiva-Oa, the Bloody Isle, peaceful now and supremely beautiful. Griffin and his dunnage were landed on the beach at Atuona where the deep ravine back of the tiny settlement lay in violet shadow shot with gleams of green, like an opal. He registered at Government House in his assumed character and three days later started on his wanderings in the interior escorted by a native body-servant, bearer and interpreter, a trinity of usefulness with skin of bronze loin-clad in a scarlet-and-yellow pareu, the speed of Mercury, the body of Apollo and the guileless nature of a laughing faun. Regarding Griffin as a foolish white man who paid well to be shown plants which, to Talofu, were common as dandelions to a New England chore-boy.
A beau and a dandy was Talofu, boasting of his conquests, a bearer of gossip and a gatherer of news.
TALOFU led the way along the heights, bordering cliffs that looked into fairy ravines. Everywhere flowers were blooming, on the trees or hung like butterflies on the orchid sprays. Palms and breadfruit, bananas, guavas, candle-trees. Bright colored birds. Fragrance. High up, fantastic crags where the verdure ended, cloud-wreathed fastnesses to which they worked a toilsome but fascinating way, trailing at the last through a dense forest that led to a barren ridge, a spine of volcanic-rock finned above two valleys, leading to a sheer precipice split by a deep fissure down which thundered a waterfall.
Griffin's face was set. Talofu's was as grave but tinged with uneasiness.
"You go along back of that vaitapu (Forbidden Water)" he said. "I think better you not go. Maybe that man is dead. Me, I stop along this place."
Griffin saw that the gay Marquesan's skin was gray, that the man was quivering like a dog that scents a mysterious danger.
"No good along that place, I tell you," he persisted but would give no reason for his evident fear that Griffin set down to some ancient superstition. He admitted that the white man he had babbled about lived there—and not alone. Further, in speech or on trail, Griffin could not cajole or bribe him.
The intuition, born largely of rule of thumb, bolstered by a hundred hard-earned lessons of experience, told Griffin that his man was there.
Benson had chosen well. There was a tapu of some sort on the place. A gorge masked by the waterfall, barricaded by native credulity and reticence. Yet, swore Talofu, a place of wonders, once beloved of the gods.
Griffin left Talofu begging him not to venture, retreating into the forest before he was well out on the ridge.
There was a cave back of the fall, pierced by an arch that led to a narrow glen. Beautiful it was, but somber, visited briefly by the sun each day. The air was dank, the foliage wet with mists that hung about the crests of the high walls, waiting for evening to descend. There was a silence about the place that affected Griffin unpleasantly, keen on the scent as he was.
Here, he fancied, some tremendous battle might have been fought in the old days or the spot was one of heathen rites, the home of passed sorcerers, a secret place where cannibalism made its last stand.
There was a faint trail through the tangle and he followed its slippery windings. Ahead he heard a low pounding sound. He passed crumbling platforms of dry-laid stone, sites of perished buildings, houses or temples. The hollow noise became plainer and suddenly he paused on the edge of a clearing and gazed, unseen, at an old hag, shrunken to sexlessness, her skin like shagbark, white hair over her eyes, mumbling as she struck feebly but steadily at a strip of bark-cloth on a hollow log.
Deaf, toothless and half-blind, she did not look up as Griffin detoured about her, dodging from bush to tree. She seemed the eery witch of the place, humanity shriveled out of her.
The trail took up on the other side of the clearing where straggly taro grew in a swamp. Clutching at wet boughs that made a tunnel of the path, Griffin bored through it. His automatic was loose in a side-pocket. Benson was not the type to be taken back on a silken leash. His was the courage of bravado coupled to the desperation of a cornered rat. So Griffin estimated it.
He came out into a banana grove, the banners flaccid, yellowish rather than green, with sickly white shoots. Innumerable insects buzzed and stung.
In the middle of the plantation—if it was that—a tumbling, rotten thatch was supported on uneven poles, the miserable hut occupying half of a tottering platform, the rest open, a hammock slung between posts. Litter was all about. The mouldy air was charged with offensive smells of ordure and garbage.
There was scant light and, at first, Griffin, peering through a cloud of mosquitoes, did not recognise the squatting bundle for a man. Then he distinguished the figure, cross-legged, clad in filthy pants, once white perhaps, and the remnant of a singlet. The man moved and his naked flesh gleamed strangely white. His feet were bare. His face was bloated as if with stings of insects, puffed and swollen out of recognition, tufted as it was with an unkempt beard and mustaches that looked mangy.
But it was Benson. Griffin knew, as he gazed in a maze of swift repulsion, that it was Benson. Benson the debonnair, the boulevardier of Broadway!
His gun came out of his pocket as he advanced, his jaw set, his gray eyes metallic. The man stood up, swaying, his arms hanging loosely, like stuffed appendages.
Something opened in his face, a hideous caricature of a mouth, as his face caricatured a badly-stuffed lion's head with its protuberant forehead and eyes that flickered in deep sockets. A harsh sound—it might have been a laugh, issued from the gap between mustache and beard.
"I want you, Benson," said Griffin. "No foolishness. Put up your hands."
Benson cackled. He spoke hoarsely, slobberingly.
"Come at last, have you? Never mind my hands. You see"
The old crone came hurrying through the flaccid bananas carrying a wooden bowl. She halted, looking stupidly at Griffin.
"What do you want me for? Griffin, isn't it? Come to take me back, Griffin? Not this time."
He cackled again as Griffin, his gun ready for some move, a curious nausea possessing him as he scrutinized his man, moved closer.
"Money's all gone, Grif. I didn't have much. Last of it bribed the old dame to feed me till I die—or she does. You wouldn't think she was a golden woman once, would you? There were others—but they've gone. And you can't take me back, Griffin."
"Why not?" Griffin heard himself speak as a stranger. Horror was crawling on him.
The animal face crimsoned suddenly as Benson extended his arms. They were shapeless and scaly. They ended in hands that were fingerless save for one thumb, not scarred but smooth as a snake's skin and silver white.
"I can't feed myself, Griffin. There's no one else in the world but this hag who'd stuff my mouth. Do you know of any port that lets in a leper?"
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Last edited on 30 December 2020, at 22:19
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