IX. The Black Warning
 

That weird three-part drama in the plaza which had so puzzled Miss Polly Brewster had developed in this wise:--

Coincidently with the departure of Preston Fairfax Fitzhugh Carroll from the hotel in his cab, the Unspeakable Perk emerged from a store near the far corner of the square, which exploited itself in the purest Castilian as offering the last word in the matter of gentlemen's apparel. "Articulos para Caballeros" was the representation held forth upon its signboard.

If it had articled Mr. Perkins, it must be confessed that it had done its job unevenly, not to say fantastically. His linen was fresh and new, quite conspicuously so, and, therefore, in sharp contrast to the frayed and patched, but scrupulously clean and neatly pressed khaki suit, which set forth rather bumpily his solid figure. A serviceable pith helmet barely overhung the protrusive goggles. His hands were encased in white cotton gloves, a size or two too large. Dismal buff spots on the palms impaired their otherwise virgin purity. As the wearer carried his hands stiffly splayed, the blemishes were obtrusive. Altogether, one might have said that, if he were going in for farce, he was appropriately made up for it.

At the corner above the beggar's niche he was turning toward a pharmacist's entrance, when the mirth of the departing crowd that had been enjoying the free oratory attracted his attention. He glanced across at the beggar, now rocking rhythmically on his stumps, hesitated a moment, then ran down the steps.

At the same moment Carroll's cab stopped on the other angle of the curb. The occupant put forth his head, saw the goggled freak descending to the legless freak, and sat back again.

"Hola, Pancho! Are you ill?" asked the newcomer.

The beggar only swung back and forth, muttering with frenzied rapidity. With one hand the Unspeakable Perk stopped him, as one might intercept the runaway pendulum of a clock, setting the other on his forehead. Then he bent and brought his goblin eyes to bear on the dark face. The features were distorted, the eyelids tremulous over suffused eyes, and the teeth set. Opening the man's loose shirt, Perkins thrust his hand within. It might have been supposed that he was feeling for the heart action, were it not that his hand slid past the breast and around under the arm. When he drew it out, he stood for a moment with chin dropped, in consideration.

Midday heat had all but cleared the plaza. As he looked about, the helper saw no aid, until his eye fell upon the waiting cab. He fairly bounded up the stairs, calling something to the coachman.

"No," grunted that toiler, with the characteristic discourtesy of the Caracunan lower class, and jerked his head backward toward his fare.

"I beg your pardon," said the Unspeakable Perk eagerly, in Spanish, turning to the dim recess of the victoria. "Might I--Oh, it's you!" He seized Carroll by the arm. "I want your cab."

"Indeed!" said Carroll. "Well, you're cool enough about it."

"And your help," added the other.

"What for?"

"Do you have to ask questions? The man may be dying--is dying, I think."

"All right," said Carroll promptly. "What's to be done?"

"Get him home. Help me carry him to the cab."

Between them, the two men lifted the heavy, mumbling cripple, carried him up the steps with a rush, and deposited him in the cab, while the driver was still angrily expostulating. The beggar was shivering now, and the cold sweat rolled down his face. His bearers placed themselves on each side of him. Perkins gave an order to the driver, who seemed to object, and a rapid-fire argument ensued.

"What's wrong?" asked Carroll.

"Says he won't go there. Says he was hired by you for shopping."

Carroll took one look at the agony-wrung face of the beggar, who was being held on the seat by his companion.

"Won't he?" said he grimly. "We'll see."

Rising, he threw a pair of long arms around those of the driver, pinning him, caught the reins, and turned the horses.

"Now ask him if he'll drive," he directed Perkins.

"Si, senor!" gasped the coachman, whose breath had been squeezed almost through his crackling ribs.

"See that you do," the Southerner bade him, in accents that needed no interpretation.

Presently Perkins looked up from his charge.

"Got a cigar?" he asked abruptly.

"No," replied the other, a little disgusted by this levity in the presence of imminent death.

Perkins bade the driver stop at the corner.

"Don't let him fall off the seat," he admonished Carroll, and jumped out.

In the course of a minute he reappeared, smoking a cheroot that appeared to be writhing and twisting in the effort to escape from its own noxious fumes.

"Have one," he said, extending a handful to his companion.

"I don't care for it," returned the other superciliously. While willing to aid in a good work, he did not in the least approve either of the Unspeakable Perk or of his offhand manners.

Before they had gone much farther, his resentment was heated to the point of offense.

"Is it necessary for you to puff every puff of that infernal smoke in my face?" he demanded ominously.

"Well, you wouldn't smoke, yourself."

"If it weren't for this poor devil of a sick man--" began Carroll, when a second thought about the smoke diverted his line of thought. "Is it contagious?" he asked.

"It's so regarded," observed the other dryly.

"I'll take one of those, thank you."

Perkins handed him one of the rejected spirals. In silence, except for the outrageous rattling of the wheels on the cobbles, they drove through mean streets that grew ever meaner, until they drew up at the blind front of a building abutting on an arroyo of the foothills. Here they stopped, and Carroll threw his jehu a five- bolivar piece, which the driver caught, driving away at once, without the demand for more which usually follows overpayment in Caracuna. Convenient to hand lay a small rock. Perkins used it for a knocker, hammering on the guarded wooden door with such vehemence as to still the clamor that arose from within.

Through the opening, as the barrier was removed by a leather- skinned old crone, Carroll gazed into a passageway, beyond which stretched a foul mule yard, bordered by what the visitor at first supposed to be stalls, until he saw bedding and utensils in them. The two men lifted the cripple in, amid the outcries and lamentations of the aged woman, who had looked at his face and then covered her own. At once they were surrounded by a swarm of women and children, who pressed upon them, hampering their movements, until a shrill voice cried:--

"La muerte negra!"

The swarm fell into silence, scattered, vanished, leaving only the moaning woman to help. At her direction they settled the patient on a straw pallet in a side room.

"That's all you can do," said the Unspeakable Perk to his companion. "And thank you."

"I'll stay."

The goggles gloomed upon him in the dim room.

"I thought probably you would," commented Perkins, and busied himself over the cripple with a knife and some cloths. He had stuffed his ludicrous white gloves into his pocket, and was tearing strips from his handkerchief with skillful fingers.

"Oughtn't he to have a doctor?" asked Carroll. "Shall I go for one?"

"His mother has sent. No use, though."

"He can't be saved?"

"Not a chance on earth. I should say he was in the last stages."

"What is it?" said Carroll hesitantly.

"La muerte negra. The black death."

"Plague?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure? Are you an expert?"

"One doesn't have to be to recognize a case like that. The lump in the armpit is as big as a pigeon's egg."

"Why have you interested yourself in the man to such an extent?" asked Carroll curiously.

"He's a friend of mine. Why did you?"

"Oh, that's quite different. One can't disregard a call for help such as yours."

"A certain kind of 'one' can't," returned the Unspeakable Perk, with his half-smile. "You don't mind my saying, Mr. Carroll, you're a brave man."

"And I'd have said that you weren't," replied the other bluntly. "I give it up. But I know this: I'm going to be pretty wretchedly frightened until I know that I haven't got it. I'm frightened now."

"Then you're a braver man than I thought. But the danger may be less than you think. Stick to that cigar--here are two more--and wait for me outside. Here's the doctor."

Profound and solemn under a silk hat, the local physician entered, bowing to Carroll as they passed in the hallway. Almost immediately Perkins emerged. On his face was a sardonic grin.

"Malaria," he observed. "The learned professor assures me that it's a typical malaria."

"Then it isn't the plague," said Carroll, relieved.

His relief was of brief duration.

"Of course it's plague. But if Professor Silk Hat, in there, officially declared it such, he'd have bracelets on his arms in twelve hours. The present Government of Caracuia doesn't believe in bubonic plague. I fancy our unfortunate friend in there will presently disappear, either just before or just after death. It doesn't greatly matter."

"What is to be done now?" asked Carroll.

"See that brush fire up there?" The hermit pointed to the hillside. "If we steep ourselves in that smoke until we choke, I think it will discourage any fleas that may have harbored on us. The flea is the only agent of communication."

Soot-begrimed, strangling, and with streaming eyes, they emerged, five minutes later, from the cloud of smoke. From his pocket the Unspeakable Perk dragged forth his white gloves. The action attracted his companion's attention.

"Good Lord!" he cried. "What has happened to your hands?"

"They're blistered."

"Stripped, rather. They look as if you'd fallen into a fire, or rowed a fifty-mile race. That message of Mr. Brewster's--See here, Perkins, you didn't row that over to the mainland? No, you couldn't. That's absurd. It's too far."

"No; I didn't row it to the mainland."

"But you've been rowing. I'd swear to those hands. Where? The blockading Dutch warship?"

The other nodded.

"Last night. Yah-h-h!" he yawned. "It makes me sleepy to think of it."

"Why didn't they blow you out of the water?" "Oh, I was semiofficially expected. Message from our consul. They transferred the message by wireless. I'm telling you all this, Mr. Carroll, because I think you'll get your release within forty-eight hours, and I want you to see that some of your party keeps constantly in touch with Mr. Sherwen. It's mighty important that your party should get out before plague is officially declared."

"Are you going to report this case?"

"All that I know about it."

"But, of course, you can't report officially, not being a physician," mused the other. "Still, when Dr. Pruyn comes, it will be evidence for him, won't it?"

"Undoubtedly. I should consider any delay after twenty-four hours risky for your party."

"What shall you do? Stay?"

"Oh, I've my place in the mountains. That's remote enough to be safe. Thank Heaven, there's a cloud over the sun! Let's sit down by this tree for a minute."

Unthinkingly, as he stretched himself out, the Unspeakable Perk pushed his goggles back and presently slipped them off. Thus, when Carroll, who had been gazing at the mist-capped peak of the mountain in front, turned and met his companion's eyes, he underwent something of the same shock that Polly Brewster had experienced, though the nature of his sensation was profoundly different. But his impression of the suddenly revealed face was the same. Ribbed-in though his mind was with tradition, and distorted with falsely focused ideals and prejudices, Preston Fairfax Fitzhugh Carroll possessed a sound underlying judgment of his fellow man, and was at bottom a frank and honorable gentleman. In his belief, the suddenly revealed face of the man beside him came near to being its own guaranty of honor and good faith.

"By Heavens, I don't believe it!" he blurted out, his gaze direct upon the Unspeakable Perk.

"What don't you believe?"

"That rotten club gossip."

"About me?"

"Yes," said Carroll, reddening.

The hermit pushed his glasses down, settled into place the white gloves, with their soothing contents of emollient greases, and got to his feet.

"We'd best be moving. I've got much to do," he said.

"Not yet," retorted Carroll. "Perkins, is there a woman up there on the mountains with you?"

"That is purely my own business."

"You told Miss Brewster there wasn't. If you tell me--"

"I never told her any such thing. She misunderstood."

"Who is the woman?"

"If you want it even more frankly, that is none of your concern."

"You have been letting Miss Brewster--"

"Are you engaged to marry Miss Brewster?"

"No."

"Then you have no authority to question me. But," he added wearily, "if it will ease your mind, and because of what you've done to-day, I 'll tell you this--that I do not expect ever to see Miss Brewster again."

"That isn't enough," insisted Carroll, his face darkening. "Her name has already been connected with yours, and I intend to follow this through. I am going to find out who the woman is at your place."

"How do you propose to do it?"

"By coming to see."

"You'll be welcome," said the other grimly. "By the way, here's a map." He made a quick sketch on the back of an envelope. "I'll be there at work most of to-morrow. Au revoir." He rose and started down the hill. "Better keep to yourself this evening," he warned. "Take a dilute carbolic bath. You'll be all right, I think."

Slowly and thoughtfully the Southerner made his way back to the hotel. After dining in his own room, he found time heavy on his hands; so, dispatching a note of excuse to Miss Brewster on the plea of personal business, he slipped out into the city. Wandering idly toward the hills, he presently found himself in a familiar street, and, impelled by human curiosity, proceeded to turn up the hill and stop opposite the blank door.

Here he was puzzled. To go in and inquire, even if he cared to and could make himself understood, would perhaps involve further risk of infection. While he was considering, the door slowly opened, and the leather-skinned crone appeared. Her eyes were swollen. In her hand she carried a travesty of a wreath, done in whitish metal, which she had interwoven with her own black mantilla, the best substitute for crape at hand. This she undertook to hang on the door. As Carroll crossed to address her, a powerful, sullen- faced man, with a scarred forehead and the insignia of some official status, apparently civic, on his coat, emerged from a doorway and addressed her harshly. She raised her reddened eyes to him and seemed to be pleading for permission to set up the little tribute to her dead. There was the exchange of a few more words. Then, with an angry exclamation, the official snatched the wreath from her. Carroll's hand fell on his shoulder. The man swung and saw a stranger of barely half his bulk, who addressed him in what seemed to be politely remonstrant tones. He shook himself loose and threw the wreath in the crone's face. Then he went down like a log under the impact of a swinging blow behind the ear. With a roar he leaped up and rushed. The foreigner met him with right and left, and this time he lay still.

Hanging the tragically unsightly wreath on the door, through which the terrified mourner had vanished, Carroll returned to the Gran Hotel Kast, his perturbed and confused thoughts and emotions notably relieved by that one comforting moment of action.