Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter II

The Moth Girl

“MR. KENNEDY, we should go early to bed, for I think we’ll be leaving the morn just so soon as we can barrow or buy means of travel.”

Rising, Boots cast away his brown leaf-cigarette with an impatient gesture.

It was now nine in the evening, and for half an hour, following another picked-up meal eaten by the three men alone together, they had sat in silence.

During that afternoon and evening Biornson’s embarrassment had taken refuge in a distinct coldness and reserve. Their questions he put aside, or calmly left unanswered, but there was a worried line between his brows and he had developed a speculative, tight-tipped and narrow-eyed way of watching his guests which made it clear to him they were a Problem with a capital P.

Boots, who possessed more worldly knowledge than his years or careless manner would indicate, began to look speculative himself. Men with secrets to keep sometimes dispose of their Problems in an unpleasantly summary manner, and certainly this ravine was secret.

To believe that such a vivid jewel in the barren Collados del Demonio had been kept from knowledge of the world by accident was folly. In the common course of events, the plantation would have been famed if only for its isolation.

By what means and for what reason had Biornson prevented the spreading of its repute? From the first they had sensed something wrong in the ravine. As time passed, and their host’s peculiar manner became more and more emphatic, they began to believe that nothing was right.

At Boots’ half-irritated suggestion, Biornson rose with suspicious alacrity, and Kennedy could do less than follow suit, though he scowled in the darkness. For hours he had been waiting with the patience of a cat at a rat-hole for their host to let slip some careless word or phrase that would give him the key to a possibly profitable mystery. But he and young Boots were an ill-matched couple, and he was more annoyed than surprised that his watch should be put an end to by the latter’s impatience.

Having for the second time escorted them to their gallery beds, Biornson handed the small triple candelabra he had brought to Boots and bade them a brief good night. Then he closed the heavy door behind them and a second later there came certain unmistakable sounds from outside, followed by the unhurried footsteps of their departing host.

With an oath Kennedy sprang for the door and wrenched vainly at the handle. As his ears had already informed him, it was locked and not only that but bolted.

With the sudden frenzy of the trapped, he kicked it, beat at it with his hands; then, with the same furious and futile energy, sprang across the room and attacked the solid wooden shutters which, though he had not at first observed them, were closed when they entered.

Still holding the candelabra, Boots stood near the middle of the room and watched his companion from under drawn, troubled brows. After a moment he set down the candles, took one stride forward, and grasping Kennedy by the shoulder forced him away and into a wicker armchair.

“That’s no way to behave,” he said reprovingly. “D’ye want to be frightening Mrs. Biornson with your bangings and your yells like a he banshee? Your throat’s not cut yet, nor like to be.”

“You young fool!” snarled the other. “Shall we sit here quiet till they do it? Use that big body of yours to some purpose and help me break out before that cursed brigand comes back!”

“He’ll not come back.”

“How do you know?”

“’Tis not reasonable he should. For why would he entertain us all day, herd us off alone with himself for watchman, keep his wife and bit child from our company lest they drop some word to betray them, and he plotting to murder us the night? All the hours we lay sleeping here — why, a bit of a knife-thrust would have just as well settled the business then. Better, for he’s put us on guard now with this foolishness of locked doors and barred shutters.”

“Murderers are not logical.” Kennedy’s first flurry of rage and fear was past, and a cold hatred for the man who had imprisoned them was replacing it. “You were fool enough to let him know we have money in our belts. You may wait if you choose to be pig-stuck and robbed, but my motto is — strike first and strike hard. Help me out of here and I’ll show you how to deal with this Biornson’s sort.”

“Will you so? Now hear me, Mr. Kennedy, and just remember that, though you’re older nor me and of perhaps more refined education, yet in the last showing and betwixt the two of us ’tis myself has the upper hand. You’ll make no more disturbance, but you’ll lay down, or sit there in your chair, till such time as I see fit to act. Then you’ll do as I say and no otherwise. Dye understand all that?”

Kennedy glowered blackly up at him, making no reply, but Boots seemed content to take his obedience for granted. Turning away, he made a brief, careless inspection of door and shutters, then flung himself on the bed and lay quiet.

Time passed. The candles burned down toward their sockets and the closed room grew swelteringly hot, but still neither man spoke to the other.

Once or twice Kennedy rose and paced up and down the floor, or drank from a clay water-jar on the table. But the giant figure on the bed did not stir. The iron muscles of a hibernating bear were never less restless than the Irishman’s when he had no occasion for their use.

Yet at last he yawned, stretched, and sat up. “We’ll go now;” he coolly announced. “Now blow out the candles!”

He caught at the edge of the shutter as the hinges gave way. Pushing it a little further outward he worked the bolts loose and eased it carefully down on the balcony outside.

Sullenly the other followed, as the dominant Irishman stepped out on the balcony. Around them the inner walls of the hacienda rose dark and silent. Not a light showed anywhere.

“A poor jailer who trusts to doors and shutters alone,” thought Boots. “It speaks well for his lack of practice that he’s set not even the dog to watch us — or we’ll hope he’s not set the dog!”

With his boots slung about his neck, he cautiously climbed the railing; a moment later he was hanging by his fingers to the edge of the balcony floor, whence he dropped, to land with scarcely any sound, for all his weight, on the hard clay that paved the patio.

Again Kennedy followed, but not caring to risk a broken leg he improvised a rope from the bedding, slid down it, and at that made more noise than the Irishman.

No one, however, seemed to have been aroused, and in three minutes they stood together safe outside the hacienda. Once clear of their room, there had been nothing to hinder escape, for the wooden gates were merely shut to, and neither locked, barred nor guarded.

About them night lay so black, so oppressively breathless, that it gave almost the impression of a solid, surrounding substance. They were in a region where rain, when it does fall, comes always between two suns. This night the world was roofed with thick cloud, like a lid shut down on the air, compressing it to the earth, making it heavy and unsatisfying to the lungs.

“We’re in for a storm,” whispered Boots. “I’d not reckoned on a night like this.”

“Reckoned on it for what?” Kennedy’s tone was keenly unpleasant. “To go after another sand-bath? If you are too cowardly to settle with Biornson, let me go back alone. I’ll engage to find him, and by the time I’m through he’ll be glad enough to let us have supplies or anything else — if he’s still alive.”

“Time enough for all that tomorrow. Body o’ me, little man, have you no curiosity? I brought you out here to find the secret Biornson’s so set on concealing, and all you can think of is retaliation and general blood-letting! This ravine isn’t all the plantation. ’Tis a grand big hacienda. He’s not crops enough in the ravine to support it, and I’ve a notion that the upper end leads to the place or the thing he wants hidden.

“We’ll find out what it is, and then go leave the poor man in peace, since he’s so afeared of us. But see it I will, if only to make clear to him his mistake in locking us up so uncourteously.”

The other swore, as he realized that Boots’ curiosity was a thing cherished purely for its own sake. Boots steered him away from the hacienda, down to the stream, and along the narrow path that followed it.

Kennedy was cursing again, for he had stumbled against the spike-tipped leaves of an agave with direful results, and then blundered into the water before he knew they had reached it, but Boots was cheerful.

An occasional flare of distant lightning gave them twilight glimpses of the way, but otherwise they stumbled through breathless blackness, their only guide the feel of the trodden trail to their feet and the soft rush and gurgle of water beside it. The path grew steeper and more difficult, as it left the stream to flow between rapidly heightening banks.

Came another flare of lightning, brighter and nearer. Boots halted so abruptly that Kennedy trod on his heels.

A forest Of giant ferns had leaped into existence on their right, and immediately before them, almost upon them, it appeared, was an enormous, grayish figure, huge, flat-faced, that leered and grinned.

Like the flick of a camera shutter the light had come and gone. They were blind again, but flee leader flang out his hands and touched the thing he had glimpsed.

“Stone!” Boots’ voice was distinctly relieved. “It’s just a big image by the path.” Boots struck a match and held it high,

Six feet above his head the gray face leered downward. Its grin seemed alive in the wavering light — alive and menacing, but Boots grinned back more good-naturedly. “You poor heathen idol! You gave me a start, you did. Aztec, do you think, Mr. Kennedy?”

“Of course. Tlaloc, God of the Hills and the Rain. Unless I’m mistaken. Yes, there is the cross of the Tlalocs carved at the foot. Where are you going now?”

“On, to be sure. We’re coming to the pass I surmised was here that leads from the ravine into the hills beyond. It’s the beyond I’ve a wish to investigate.”

The path was indeed very narrow, and the sound of water came up as a low and distant murmur. On that side was blackness and the sense of space. On the other, an occasional brushing against face or hand told of the great ferns that stretched thin frond-fingers across the way.

Then abruptly the path ended, or seemed to end. Their feet sank in moss or soft turf, and Boots collided with an unexpected tree trunk. Both men halted and for a moment stood hesitant.

The silence was uncanny. Not a whisper among the ferns, not the call of a night-bird. Even the usual insect-hum was stifled and repressed to a key so low that it seemed only part of the stillness. The cloud-lid was heavy above earth. The dense air pressed on the ear drums, as on first descent into a deep mine or well.

Then, as they stared ahead through blackness, the attention of both men was suddenly attracted by a faint, purplish glowing. It was quite near the ground and a short distance ahead of them. There was grass there, straight, slender stems of it, growing in delicate silhouette against that low, mysterious light.

Advancing, Boots peered in puzzled question. As he neared it the light flashed brighter with a more decided tinge of purple, and out of the grass a wonder soared up to float away on iridescent wings.

It was a huge, mothlike insect, fully ten inches from wing-tip to wing-tip, and the glowing came from its luminous body, in color pale amethyst, coldly afire within. The broad wings, transparent as a globular walls of a bubble, refracted the creature’s own radiance in a network of shimmering color.

Boots gasped sheer delight, but Kennedy’s comment was as usual eminently practical.

“Sa-a-y! That beauty would bring a fortune from any museum. Do you suppose there are any more about?”

The moth had settled in the long grass, where a dim glowing again marked its presence. Cautiously the two men moved in that direction.

They seemed to have come upon a sort of high meadow, though what might be its extent or general contour was impossible to say. As they went, another and yet another of the moths glowed, shimmered and rose, flushed up by their swishing progress through the grass.

“Like a dream of live soap bubbles,” murmured Boots. “Wouldn’t it be a shame now to catch one of those beauties and smother out the flaming life of him?”

“For a young man of your size you have the least practical sense — hel-lo!”

There was cause for the astonished ejaculation.

He had glanced to one side and there, standing between two slender trees with a hand on each, appeared a figure so exquisitely, startlingly appropriate that it was no wonder if for a moment both men questioned its reality.

The form was that of a young girl of fifteen or sixteen years — if she reckoned her age by mortal standards, which Boots for his part seriously doubted. But elf or human maiden, she was very beautiful. Her skin was white as that of Astrid, the wife of Biornson, and she watched them with wonderful, dark eyes, not in fear, but with a startled curiosity that matched their own.

All about the black mist of her hair the luminous moths were hovering. One, with slowly waving pinions, clung to her bare arm.

Recovering instantly from his first amazement, Kennedy surmised that the insects were tethered by fine threads, as women of the tropics fasten fireflies in their hair. To Boots, however, she seemed no less than the carnified spirit of the creatures, who held them to her by bond of their mutual natures.

Indeed, the garment in which she was draped had about its soft green folds a suggestion of the downy feathering of a moth’s body, and the necklace about her slim throat seemed itself alive with soft fires. Its jewels, smooth and oval in shape, glimmered and glowed with the gentle motion of her breathing.

Under his roughness, big, homely, redheaded Boots concealed all the romance, all the capacity for worship of his Celtic forebears. He stood at gaze, almost afraid to breathe lest the vision float up against the heavy background of night and go drifting away across the grass.

But Kennedy had other thoughts in his head. To him the girl was a girl, the wonder-moths no more than convenient lanterns by which he saw something greatly to be desired.

“What opals!” he cried softly. “Look at them, man! Why, that Indian girl has a fortune round her neck. By Jupiter, here’s where we square accounts with Biornson! There are opal-mines in these hills, and for some reason he doesn’t want his holdings known. You went right for once, boy! We’ve stumbled straight upon his precious secret!”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00