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Title: The Purple Terror
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
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Language: English
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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Purple Terror
Author: Fred M White

*

The Strand Magazine, September 1898

*


I.


LIEUTENANT Will Scarlett's instructions were devoid of problems,
physical or otherwise. To convey a letter from Captain Driver of the
Yankee Doodle, in Porto Rico Bay, to Admiral Lake on the other side of
the isthmus, was an apparently simple matter.

"All you have to do," the captain remarked, "is to take three or four
men with you in case of accidents, cross the isthmus on foot, and simply
give this letter into the hands of Admiral Lake. By so doing we shall
save at least four days, and the aborigines are presumedly friendly."

The aborigines aforesaid were Cuban insurgents. Little or no strife had
taken place along the neck lying between Porto Rico and the north bay
where Lake's flagship lay, though the belt was known to be given over to
the disaffected Cubans.

"It is a matter of fifty miles through practically unexplored country,"
Scarlett replied; "and there's a good deal of the family quarrel in this
business, sir. If the Spaniards hate us, the Cubans are not exactly
enamoured of our flag."

Captain Driver roundly denounced the whole pack of them.

"Treacherous thieves to a man," he said. "I don't suppose your progress
will have any brass bands and floral arches to it. And they tell me the
forest is pretty thick. But you'll get there all the same. There is the
letter, and you can start as soon as you like."

"I may pick my own men, sir?"

"My dear fellow, take whom you please. Take the mastiff, if you like."

"I'd like the mastiff," Scarlett replied; "as he is practically my own,
I thought you would not object."

Will Scarlett began to glow as the prospect of adventure stimulated his
imagination. He was rather a good specimen of West Point naval dandyism.
He had brains at the back of his smartness, and his geological and
botanical knowledge were going to prove of considerable service to a
grateful country when said grateful country should have passed beyond
the rudimentary stages of colonization. And there was some disposition
to envy Scarlett on the part of others floating for the past month on
the liquid prison of the sapphire sea.

A warrant officer, Tarrer by name, plus two A.B.'s of thews and sinews,
to say nothing of the dog, completed the exploring party. By the time
that the sun kissed the tip of the feathery hills they had covered some
six miles of their journey. From the first Scarlett had been struck by
the absolute absence of the desolation and horror of civil strife.
Evidently the fiery cross had not been carried here; huts and houses
were intact; the villagers stood under sloping eaves, and regarded the
Americans with a certain sullen curiosity.

"We'd better stop for the night here," said Scarlett.

They had come at length to a village that boasted some pretensions. An
adobe chapel at one end of the straggling street was faced by a
wine-house at the other. A padre, with hands folded over a bulbous,
greasy gabardine, bowed gravely to Scarlett's salutation. The latter had
what Tarrer called "considerable Spanish."

"We seek quarters for the night," said Scarlett. "Of course, we are
prepared to pay for them."

The sleepy padre nodded towards the wine-house.

"You will find fair accommodation there," he said. "We are friends of
the Americanos."

Scarlett doubted the fact, and passed on with florid thanks. So far,
little signs of friendliness had been encountered on the march.
Coldness, suspicion, a suggestion of fear, but no friendliness to be
embarrassing.

The keeper of the wine-shop had his doubts. He feared his poor
accommodation for guests so distinguished. A score or more of
picturesque, cut-throat-looking rascals with cigarettes in their mouths
lounged sullenly in the bar. The display of a brace of gold dollars
enlarged mine host's opinion of his household capacity.

"I will do my best, senors," he said. "Come this way."

So it came to pass that an hour after twilight Tarrer and Scarlett were
seated in the open amongst the oleanders and the trailing gleam of the
fire-flies, discussing cigars of average merit and a native wine that
was not without virtues. The long bar of the wine-house was brilliantly
illuminated; from within came shouts of laughter mingled with the ting,
tang of the guitar and the rollicking clack of the castanets.

"They seem to be happy in there," Tarrer remarked. "It isn't all daggers
and ball in this distressful country."

A certain curiosity came over Scarlett.

"It is the duty of a good officer," he said, "to lose no opportunity of
acquiring useful information. Let us join the giddy throng, Tarrer."

Tarrer expressed himself with enthusiasm in favour of any amusement that
might be going. A month's idleness on shipboard increases the appetite
for that kind of thing wonderfully. The long bar was comfortable, and
filled with Cubans who took absolutely no notice of the intruders. Their
eyes were turned towards a rude stage at the far end of the bar, whereon
a girl was gyrating in a dance with a celerity and grace that caused the
wreath of flowers around her shoulders to resemble a trembling zone of
purple flame.

"A wonderfully pretty girl and a wonderfully pretty dance," Scarlett
murmured, when the motions ceased and the girl leapt gracefully to the
ground. "Largesse, I expect. I thought so. Well, I'm good for a
quarter."

[Picture 02.jpg]

The girl came forward, extending a shell prettily. She curtsied before
Scarlett and fixed her dark, liquid eyes on his. As he smiled and
dropped his quarter-dollar into the shell a coquettish gleam came into
the velvety eyes. An ominous growl came from the lips of a bearded
ruffian close by.

"Othello's jealous," said Tarrer. "Look at his face."

"I am better employed," Scarlett laughed. "That was a graceful dance,
pretty one. I hope you are going to give us another one presently---"

Scarlett paused suddenly. His eyes had fallen on the purple band of
flowers the girl had twined round her shoulder. Scarlett was an
enthusiastic botanist; he knew most of the gems in Flora's crown, but he
had never looked upon such a vivid wealth of blossom before.

The flowers were orchids, and orchids of a kind unknown to collectors
anywhere. On this point Scarlett felt certain. And yet this part of the
world was by no means a difficult one to explore in comparison with New
Guinea and Sumatra, where the rarer varieties had their homes.

The blooms were immensely large, far larger than any flower of the kind
known to Europe or America, of a deep pure purple, with a blood-red
centre. As Scarlett gazed upon them he noticed a certain cruel
expression on the flower. Most orchids have a kind of face of their own;
the purple blooms had a positive expression of ferocity and cunning.
They exhumed, too, a queer, sickly fragrance. Scarlett had smelt
something like it before, after the Battle of Manila. The perfume was
the perfume of a corpse.

"And yet they are magnificent flowers," said Scarlett. "Won't you tell
me where you got them from, pretty one?"

The girl was evidently flattered by the attention bestowed upon her by
the smart young American. The bearded Othello alluded to edged up to her
side.

"The senor had best leave the girl alone," he said, insolently.

Scarlett's fist clenched as he measured the Cuban with his eyes. The
Admiral's letter crackled in his breast-pocket, and discretion got the
best of valour.

"You are paying yourself a poor compliment, my good fellow," he said,
"though I certainly admire your good taste. Those flowers interested
me."

The man appeared to be mollified. His features corrugated in a smile.

"The senor would like some of those blooms?" he asked. "It was I who
procured them for little Zara here. I can show you where they grow."

Every eye in the room was turned in Scarlett's direction. It seemed to
him that a kind of diabolical malice glistened on every dark face there,
save that of the girl, whose features paled under her healthy tan.

"If the senor is wise," she began, "he will not----"

"Listen to the tales of a silly girl," Othello put in, menacingly. He
grasped the girl by the arm, and she winced in positive pain. "Pshaw,
there is no harm where the flowers grow, if one is only careful. I will
take you there, and I will be your guide to Port Anna, where you are
going, for a gold dollar."

All Scarlett's scientific enthusiasm was aroused. It is not given to
every man to present a new orchid to the horticultural world. And this
one would dwarf the finest plant hitherto discovered.

"Done with you," he said; "we start at daybreak. I shall look to you to
be ready. Your name is Tito? Well, good-night, Tito."

As Scarlett and Tarrer withdrew the girl suddenly darted forward. A wild
word or two fluttered from her lips. Then there was a sound as of a
blow, followed by a little stifled cry of pain.

"No, no," Tarrer urged, as Scarlett half turned. "Better not. They are
ten to one, and they are no friends of ours. It never pays to interfere
in these family quarrels. I daresay, if you interfered, the girl would
be just as ready to knife you as her jealous lover."

"But a blow like that, Tarrer!"

"It's a pity, but I don't see how we can help it. Your business is the
quick dispatch of the Admiral's letter, not the squiring of dames."

Scarlett owned with a sigh that Tarrer was right.




II


It was quite a different Tito who presented himself at daybreak the
following morning. His insolent manner had disappeared. He was cheerful,
alert, and he had a manner full of the most winning politeness.

"You quite understand what we want," Scarlett said. "My desire is to
reach Port Anna as soon as possible. You know the way?"

"Every inch of it, senor. I have made the journey scores of times. And I
shall have the felicity of getting you there early on the third day from
now."

"Is it so far as that?"

"The distance is not great, senor. It is the passage through the woods.
There are parts where no white man has been before."

"And you will not forget the purple orchids?"

A queer gleam trembled like summer lightning in Tito's eyes. The next
instant it had gone. A time was to come when Scarlett was to recall that
look, but for the moment it was allowed to pass.

"The senor shall see the purple orchid," he said; "thousands of them.
They have a bad name amongst our people, but that is nonsense. They grow
in the high trees, and their blossoms cling to long, green tendrils.
These tendrils are poisonous to the flesh, and great care should be
taken in handling them. And the flowers are quite harmless, though we
call them the devil's poppies."

To all of this Scarlett listened eagerly. He was all-impatient to see
and handle the mysterious flower for himself. The whole excursion was
going to prove a wonderful piece of luck. At the same time he had to
curb his impatience. There would be no chance of seeing the purple
orchid to-day.

For hours they fought their way along through the dense tangle. A heat
seemed to lie over all the land like a curse--a blistering sweltering,
moist heat with no puff of wind to temper its breathlessness. By the
time that the sun was sliding down, most of the party had had enough of
it.

They passed out of the underwood at length, and, striking upwards,
approached a clump of huge forest trees on the brow of a ridge. All
kinds of parasites hung from the branches; there were ropes and bands of
green, and high up a fringe of purple glory that caused Scarlett's
pulses to leap a little faster.

"Surely that is the purple orchid?" he cried.

Tito shrugged his shoulders contemptuously.

"A mere straggler or two," he said, "and out of reach in any case. The
senor will have all he wants and more to-morrow."

"But it seems to me," said Scarlett, "that I could----"

Then he paused. The sun like a great glowing shield was shining full
behind the tree with its crown of purple, and showing up every green
rope and thread clinging to the branches with the clearness of liquid
crystal. Scarlett saw a network of green cords like a huge spider's web,
and in the centre of it was not a fly, but a human skeleton!

[Picture 03.jpg]

The arms and legs were stretched apart as if the victim had been
crucified. The wrists and ankles were bound in the cruel web. Fragments
of tattered clothing fluttered in the faint breath of the evening
breeze.

"Horrible," Scarlett cried, "absolutely horrible!"

"You may well say that," Tarrer exclaimed, with a shudder. "Like the fly
in the amber or the apple in the dumpling, the mystery is how he got
there."

"Perhaps Tito can explain the mystery," Scarlett suggested.

Tito appeared to be uneasy and disturbed. He looked furtively from one
to the other of his employers as a culprit might who feels he has been
found out. But his courage returned as he noted the absence of suspicion
in the faces turned upon him.

"I can explain," he exclaimed, with teeth that chattered from some
unknown terror or guilt. "It is not the first time that I have seen the
skeleton. Some plant-hunter doubtless who came here alone. He climbed
into the tree without a knife, and those green ropes got twisted round
his limbs, as a swimmer gets entangled in the weeds. The more he
struggled, the more the cords bound him. He would call in vain for
anyone to assist him here. And so he must have died."

The explanation was a plausible one, but by no means detracted from the
horror of the discovery. For some time the party pushed their way on in
the twilight, till the darkness descended suddenly like a curtain.

"We will camp here," Tito said; "it is high, dry ground, and we have
this belt of trees above us. There is no better place than this for
miles around. In the valley the miasma is dangerous."

As Tito spoke he struck a match, and soon a torch flamed up. The little
party were on a small plateau, fringed by trees. The ground was dry and
hard, and, as Scarlett and his party saw to their astonishment, littered
with bones. There were skulls of animals and skulls of human beings, the
skeletons of birds, the frames of beasts both great and small. It was a
weird, shuddering sight.

"We can't possibly stay here," Scarlett exclaimed.

Tito shrugged his shoulders.

"There is nowhere else," he replied. "Down in the valley there are many
dangers. Further in the woods are the snakes and jaguars. Bones are
nothing. Peuf, they can be easily cleared away."

They had to be cleared away, and there was an end of the matter. For the
most part the skeletons were white and dry as air and sun could make
them. Over the dry, calcined mass the huge fringe of trees nodded
mournfully. With the rest, Scarlett was busy scattering the mocking
frames aside. A perfect human skeleton lay at his feet. On one finger
something glittered--a signet ring. As Scarlett took it in his hand he
started.

"I know this ring!" he exclaimed; "it belonged to Pierre Anton, perhaps
the most skilled and intrepid plant-hunter the Jardin des Plantes ever
employed. The poor fellow was by way of being a friend of mine. He met
the fate that he always anticipated."

"There must have been a rare holocaust here," said Tarrer.

[Picture 04.jpg]

"It beats me," Scarlett responded. By this time a large circle had been
shifted clear of human and other remains. By the light of the fire
loathsome insects could be seen scudding and straddling away. "It beats
me entirely. Tito, can you offer any explanation? If the bones were all
human I could get some grip of the problem. But when one comes to birds
and animals as well! Do you see that the skeletons lie in a perfect
circle, starting from the centre of the clump of trees above us? What
does it mean?"

Tito professed utter ignorance of the subject. Some years before a small
tribe of natives invaded the peninsula for religious rites. They came
from a long way off in canoes, and wild stories were told concerning
them. They burnt sacrifices, no doubt.

Scarlett turned his back contemptuously on this transparent tale. His
curiosity was aroused. There must be some explanation, for Pierre Anton
had been seen of men within the last ten years.

"There's something uncanny about this," he said, to Tarrer. "I mean to
get to the bottom of it, or know why."

"As for me," said Tarrer, with a cavernous yawn, "I have but one
ambition, and that is my supper, followed by my bed."




III.


Scarlett lay in the light of the fire looking about him. He felt
restless and uneasy, though he would have found it difficult to explain
the reason. For one thing, the air trembled to strange noises. There
seemed to be something moving, writhing in the forest trees above his
head. More than once it seemed to his distorted fancy that he could see
a squirming knot of green snakes in motion.

Outside the circle, in a grotto of bones, Tito lay sleeping. A few
moments before his dark, sleek head had been furtively raised, and his
eyes seemed to gleam in the flickering firelight with malignant cunning.
As he met Scarlett's glance he gave a deprecatory gesture and subsided.

"What the deuce does it all mean?" Scarlett muttered. "I feel certain
yonder rascal is up to some mischief. Jealous still because I paid his
girl a little attention. But he can't do us any real harm. Quiet,
there!"

The big mastiff growled and then whined uneasily. Even the dog seemed to
be conscious of some unseen danger. He lay down again, cowed by the
stern command, but he still whimpered in his dreams.

"I fancy I'll keep awake for a spell," Scarlett told himself.

For a time he did so. Presently he began to slide away into the land of
poppies. He was walking amongst a garden of bones which bore masses of
purple blossoms. Then Pierre Anton came on the scene, pale and resolute
as Scarlett had always known him; then the big mastiff seemed in some
way to be mixed up with the phantasm of the dream, barking as if in
pain, and Scarlett came to his senses.

He was breathing short, a beady perspiration stood on his forehead, his
heart hammered in quick thuds--all the horrors of nightmare were still
upon him. In a vague way as yet he heard the mastiff howl, a real howl
of real terror, and Scarlett knew that he was awake.

Then a strange thing happened. In the none too certain light of the
fire, Scarlett saw the mastiff snatched up by some invisible hand,
carried far on high towards the trees, and finally flung to the earth
with a crash. The big dog lay still as a log.

A sense of fear born of the knowledge of impotence came over Scarlett;
what in the name of evil did it all mean? The smart scientist had no
faith in the occult, and yet what did it all mean?

Nobody stirred. Scarlett's companions were soaked and soddened with
fatigue; the rolling thunder of artillery would have scarce disturbed
them. With teeth set and limbs that trembled, Scarlett crawled over to
the dog.

The great, black-muzzled creature was quite dead. The full chest was
stained and soaked in blood; the throat had been cut apparently with
some jagged, saw-like instrument, away to the bone. And, strangest thing
of all, scattered all about the body was a score or more of the great
purple orchid flowers broken off close to the head. A hot, pricking
sensation travelled slowly up Scarlett's spine and seemed to pass out at
the tip of his skull. He felt his hair rising.

He was frightened. As a matter of honest fact, he had never been so
horribly scared in his life before. The whole thing was so mysterious,
so cruel, so bloodthirsty.

Still, there must be some rational explanation. In some way the matter
had to do with the purple orchid. The flower had an evil reputation. Was
it not known to these Cubans as the devil's poppy?

Scarlett recollected vividly now Zara's white, scared face when Tito had
volunteered to show the way to the resplendent bloom; he remembered the
cry of the girl and the blow that followed. He could see it all now. The
girl had meant to warn him against some nameless horror to which Tito
was leading the small party. This was the jealous Cuban's revenge.

A wild desire to pay this debt to the uttermost fraction filled
Scarlett, and shook him with a trembling passion. He crept along in the
drenching dew to where Tito lay, and touched his forehead with the chill
blue rim of a revolver barrel. Tito stirred slightly.

"You dog!" Scarlett cried. "I am going to shoot you."

Tito did not move again. His breathing was soft and regular. Beyond a
doubt the man was sleeping peacefully. After all he might be innocent;
and yet, on the other hand, he might be so sure of his quarry that he
could afford to slumber without anxiety as to his vengeance.

In favour of the latter theory was the fact that the Cuban lay beyond
the limit of what had previously been the circle of dry bones. It was
just possible that there was no danger outside that pale. In that case
it would be easy to arouse the rest, and so save them from the horrible
death which had befallen the mastiff. No doubt these were a form of upas
tree, but that would not account for the ghastly spectacle in mid-air.

"I'll let this chap sleep for the present," Scarlett muttered.

He crawled back, not without misgivings, into the ring of death. He
meant to wake the others and then wait for further developments. By now
his senses were more alert and vigorous than they had ever been before.
A preternatural clearness of brain and vision possessed him. As he
advanced he saw suddenly falling a green bunch of cord that straightened
into a long, emerald line. It was triangular in shape, fine at the apex,
and furnished with hooked spines. The rope appeared to dangle from the
tree overhead; the broad, sucker-like termination was evidently soaking
up moisture.

A natural phenomenon evidently, Scarlett thought. This was some plant
new to him, a parasite living amongst the tree-tops and drawing life and
vigour by means of these green, rope-like antennae designed by Nature to
soak and absorb the heavy dews of night.

For a moment the logic of this theory was soothing to Scarlett's
distracted nerves, but only for a moment, for then he saw at regular
intervals along the green rope the big purple blossoms of the devil's
poppy.

He stood gasping there, utterly taken aback for the moment. There must
be some infernal juggling behind all this business. He saw the rope
slacken and quiver, he saw it swing forward like a pendulum, and the
next minute it had passed across the shoulders of a sleeping seaman.

Then the green root became as the arm of an octopus. The line shook from
end to end like the web of an angry spider when invaded by a wasp. It
seemed to grip the sailor and tighten, and then, before Scarlett's,
afrighted eyes, the sleeping man was raised gently from the ground.

[Picture 05.jpg]

Scarlett jumped forward with a desire to scream hysterically. Now that a
comrade was in danger he was no longer afraid. He whipped a jack-knife
from his pocket and slashed at the cruel cord. He half expected to meet
with the stoutness of a steel strand, but to his surprise the feeler
snapped like a carrot, bumping the sailor heavily on the ground.

He sat up, rubbing his eyes vigorously.

"That you, sir?" he asked. "What is the matter?"

"For the love of God, get up at once and help me to arouse the others,"
Scarlett said, hoarsely. "We have come across the devil's workshop. All
the horrors of the inferno are invented here."

The bluejacket struggled to his feet. As he did so, the clothing from
his waist downwards slipped about his feet, clean cut through by the
teeth of the green parasite. All around the body of the sailor blood
oozed from a zone of teeth-marks.

Two-o'clock-in-the-morning courage is a virtue vouchsafed to few. The
tar, who would have faced an ironclad cheerfully, fairly shivered with
fright and dismay.

"What does it mean, sir?" he cried. "I've been----"

"Wake the others," Scarlett screamed; "wake the others."

Two or three more green tangles of rope came tumbling to the ground,
straightening and quivering instantly. The purple blossoms stood out
like a frill upon them. Like a madman, Scarlett shouted, kicking his
companions without mercy.

They were all awake at last, grumbling and moaning for their lost
slumbers. All this time Tito had never stirred.

"I don't understand it at all," said Tarrer.

"Come from under those trees," said Scarlett, "and I will endeavour to
explain. Not that you will believe me for a moment. No man can be
expected to believe the awful nightmare I am going to tell you."

Scarlett proceeded to explain. As he expected, his story was followed
with marked incredulity, save by the wounded sailor, who had strong
evidence to stimulate his otherwise defective imagination.

"I can't believe it," Tarrer said, at length. They were whispering
together beyond earshot of Tito, whom they had no desire to arouse for
obvious reasons. "This is some diabolical juggling of yonder rascally
Cuban. It seems impossible that those slender green cords could----"

Scarlett pointed to the centre of the circle.

"Call the dog," he said grimly, "and see if he will come."

"I admit the point as far as the poor old mastiff is concerned. But at
the same time I don't--however, I'll see for myself."

By this time a dozen or more of the slender cords were hanging pendent
from the trees. They moved from spot to spot as if jerked up by some
unseen hand and deposited a foot or two farther. With the great purple
bloom fringing the stem, the effect was not unlovely save to Scarlett,
who could see only the dark side of it. As Tarrer spoke he advanced in
the direction of the trees.

"What are you going to do?" Scarlett asked.

"Exactly what I told you. I am going to investigate this business for
myself."

Without wasting further words Scarlett sprang forward. It was no time
for the niceties of an effete civilization. Force was the only logical
argument to be used in a case like this, and Scarlett was the more
powerful man of the two.

Tarrer saw and appreciated the situation.

"No, no," he cried; "none of that. Anyway, you're too late."

He darted forward and threaded his way between the slender emerald
columns. As they moved slowly and with a certain stately deliberation
there was no great danger to an alert and vigorous individual. As
Scarlett entered the avenue he could hear the soak and suck as the dew
was absorbed.

"For Heaven's sake, come out of it," he cried.

The warning came too late. A whip-like trail of green touched Tarrer
from behind, and in a lightning flash he was in the toils. The tendency
to draw up anything and everything gave the cords a terrible power.
Tarrer evidently felt it, for his breath came in great gasps.

"Cut me free," he said, hoarsely; "cut me free. I am being carried off
my feet."

He seemed to be doomed for a moment, for all the cords there were
apparently converging in his direction. This, as a matter of fact, was a
solution of the whole sickening, horrible sensation. Pulled here and
there, thrust in one direction and another, Tarrer contrived to keep his
feet.

Heedless of possible danger to himself Scarlett darted forward, calling
to his companions to come to the rescue. In less time than it takes to
tell, four knives were at work ripping and slashing in all directions.

[Picture 01.jpg]

"Not all of you," Scarlett whispered. So tense was the situation that no
voice was raised above a murmur. "You two keep your eyes open for fresh
cords, and cut them as they fall, instantly. Now then."

The horrible green spines were round Tarrer's body like snakes. His face
was white, his breath came painfully, for the pressure was terrible. It
seemed to Scarlett to be one horrible dissolving view of green, slimy
cords and great weltering, purple blossoms. The whole of the circle was
strewn with them. They were wet and slimy underfoot.

Tarrer had fallen forward half unconscious. He was supported now by but
two cords above his head. The cruel pressure had been relieved. With one
savage sweep of his knife Scarlett cut the last of the lines, and Tarrer
fell like a log unconscious to the ground. A feeling of nausea, a yellow
dizziness, came over Scarlett as he staggered beyond the dread circle.
He saw Tarrer carried to a place of safety, and then the world seemed to
wither and leave him in the dark.

"I feel a bit groggy and weak," said Tarrer an hour or so later: "but
beyond that this idiot of a Richard is himself again. So far as I am
concerned, I should like to get even with our friend Tito for this."

"Something with boiling oil in it," Scarlett suggested, grimly. "The
callous scoundrel has slept soundly through the whole of this business.
I suppose he felt absolutely certain that he had finished with us."

"Upon my word, we ought to shoot the beggar!" Tarrer exclaimed.

"I have a little plan of my own," said Scarlett, "which I am going to
put in force later on. Meanwhile we had better get on with breakfast.
When Tito wakes a pleasant little surprise will await him."

Tito roused from his slumbers in due course and looked around him. His
glance was curious, disappointed, then full of a white and yellow fear.
A thousand conflicting emotions streamed across his dark face. Scarlett
read them at a glance as he called the Cuban over to him.

"I am not going into any unnecessary details with you," he said. "It has
come to my knowledge that you are playing traitor to us. Therefore we
prefer to complete our journey alone. We can easily find the way now."

"The senor may do as he pleases," he replied. "Give me my dollar and let
me go."

Scarlett replied grimly that he had no intention of doing anything of
the kind. He did not propose to place the lives of himself and his
comrades in the power of a rascally Cuban who had played false.

"We are going to leave you here till we return," he said. "You will have
plenty of food, you will be perfectly safe under the shelter of these
trees, and there is no chance of anybody disturbing you. We are going to
tie you up to one of these trees for the next four-and-twenty hours."

All the insolence died out of Tito's face. His knees bowed, a cold dew
came out over the ghastly green of his features. From the shaking of his
limbs he might have fared disastrously with ague.

"The trees," he stammered, "the trees, senor! There is danger from
snakes, and--and from many things. There are other places----"

"If this place was safe last night it is safe to-day," Scarlett said,
grimly. "I have quite made up my mind."

Tito fought no longer. He fell forward on his knees, he howled for
mercy, till Scarlett fairly kicked him up again.

[Picture 06.jpg]

"Make a clean breast of it," he said, "or take the consequences. You
know perfectly well that we have found you out, scoundrel."

Tito's story came in gasps. He wanted to get rid of the Americans. He
was jealous. Besides, under the Americanos would Cuba be any better off?
By no means and assuredly not. Therefore it was the duty of every good
Cuban to destroy the Americanos where possible.

"A nice lot to fight for," Scarlett muttered. "Get to the point."

Hastened to the point by a liberal application of stout shoe-leather,
Tito made plenary confession. The senor himself had suggested death by
medium of the devil's poppies. More than one predatory plant-hunter had
been lured to his destruction in the same way. The skeleton hung on the
tree was a Dutchman who had walked into the clutch of the purple terror
innocently. And Pierre Anton had done the same. The suckers of the
devil's poppy only came down at night to gather moisture; in the day
they were coiled up like a spring. And anything that they touched they
killed. Tito had watched more than one bird or small beast crushed and
mauled by these cruel spines with their fringe of purple blossoms.

"How do you get the blooms?" Scarlett asked.

"That is easy," Tito replied. "In the daytime I moisten the ground under
the trees. Then the suckers unfold, drawn by the water. Once the suckers
unfold one cuts several of them off with long knives. There is danger,
of course, but not if one is careful."

"I'll not trouble the devil's poppy any further at present," said
Scarlett, "but I shall trouble you to accompany me to my destination as
a prisoner."

Tito's eyes dilated.

"They will not shoot me?" he asked, hoarsely.

"I don't know," Scarlett replied. "They may hang you instead. At any
rate, I shall be bitterly disappointed if they don't end you one way or
the other. Whichever operation it is, I can look forward to it with
perfect equanimity."


THE END



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