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A Personal Problem

By H. Bedford-Jones


"ALL the island's up at the commissioner's to-night—he always gets a bale of ice up from Auckland on steamer day. You were surprised to find me here, eh?"

"So-so." The fat man wiped his face and poured another drink. "You're a damned ironic brute, Cranshaw! How was I to know that the John Smith, our Raratonga agent, was yourself? You have nerve. I always said you had nerve."

The long, lean man looked across the table, inspecting his guest curiously. He had looked forward to the coming of the firm's junior partner, but Hobson did not know it.

His thin lips crisped ironically as he squirted soda into his glass.

"Well, what are you going to do about it? Come, Hobson, let's not mince words. You had me driven out of Auckland; you took over my stock in the company; you married Agnes, and you've grown fat. I fancy you're punished enough—you needn't look at me like that, man! Avarua is good enough for me."

Hobson was indubitably nervous. He had shaven before coming ashore, but his fat jowl was dusky again. He perspired freely, and as he mopped his face he shot uneasy glances at the other man from deep-set black eyes. An overlarge diamond flashed on his fat hand, and another glittered in his tie.

"You're a sly dog, Cranshaw, a sly dog," he muttered, then his voice took on vigor. "What do you mean, anyway? You needn't think that because your bally bungalow is out here at the edge of town you can threaten me. I won't stand for it. I'll discharge you—I'll show you up before the commissioner—"

"Hold on, man! Great Heavens, don't you see that I'm in your power?" Cranshaw leaned over the table, his face anxious, pleading.

But behind the anxiety in his gray eyes there was a hard coldness, quickly veiled.

"I'm not threatening you, Hobson—it's the other way around. I'm satisfied, here in Avarua; I'm the company's agent, no one knows who I used to be, I've a good salary. Come, don't bear malice! The old life is forgotten, so let the dead bury their dead. Don't be hard on me, old man! I know you didn't treat me square, but you married Agnes—I was beaten, and that's an end to it. Now I'm contented and prospering here. You won't give me away, will you? You won't discharge me, send me down into hell a second time?"

Hobson took a cheroot from the table and lit it. His flash of apprehension had vanished altogether.

"No," he returned slowly, judicially. As he was inspecting the diamond on his finger he did not notice the hard gray eyes across the table. "No, Cranshaw, I didn't treat you right, I'll admit, but bygones are bygones. As you say, you're in my power. I never quite believed you stole that money myself."

A burst of terrible irony ripped through the mask of Cranshaw's lean face, but it was gone instantly. Hobson glanced up with complacent, cunning frankness.

"I misunderstood you, I guess," he went on heavily. "To tell the truth, I half expected you had got me here to—to—"

He paused, licking his lips. Cranshaw broke out into a loud, ringing laugh.

"Nonsense, man! Come, drink up and shake hands on it all—if you bear no malice we'll cry quits, eh? No, things have turned out for the best, far as I'm concerned. And so you'll not bear hard on me, old man? You'll just forget who I used to be?"

Hobson's little leering eyes cleared of their suspicion and something very like a sigh of relief shook his fat chest.

Their glasses clinked together.

"Here's how!"

The personal problem, it seemed, was closed finally and forever.

There followed an hour of labor over the table, since it was the junior partner's first "whirl around the circuit" of the islands; previously he had lived a cunning and contented existence in Auckland, far from savages and resident commissioners.

Cranshaw, however, had looked forward to his coming for some little time.

"You'd better stay ashore for the night," stated the resident agent, when the reports had been cleared up and balanced properly. "There's quite a surf running, and it'll be hard to get a whale boat, since all the natives are feasting. Steamer day's a great occasion here, you know."

"I'm not fond of insects," and as Hobson reached for the siphon his eyes flitted around uneasily. "I've heard stories about these islands."

"You look apoplectic, too," mused Cranshaw. For an instant that odd, bitterly cruel light shot through his gray eyes. "Nonsense, man! That's all talk. Of course, there are a few cockroaches and such, but there's nothing dangerous. Absolutely no scorpions, and the centipeds don't kill. That's all talk. See here, I've two cots laid up in my sleeping-room—finest mosquito curtains in the island. Better stop, and it'll save coming ashore in the morning."

Hobson glanced through the door that his host flung open, and the sight of the wide, clean sleeping-room with its two draped beds evidently decided him.

"All right," he nodded.

"Better finish this bottle," suggested Cranshaw easily. He himself drank little.

"Come out to the steamer to-morrow," said Hobson, a half hour later, as they rose. "I'd like to show you—show you Agnes's picture—an' the baby's."

"Thanks," returned Cranshaw.

But his long, lean face seemed to quiver a trifle, and as he ushered his guest into the sleeping-room his gray eyes were baleful. That speech had been sheer venom, for Hobson was not drunk; he had merely forgotten for the moment his intense fear of Cranshaw.

Once ensconced with their mosquito curtains, the two men exchanged a few words before dropping off to sleep, then the darkness was broken only by the rasping snore of Hobson.

Curiously enough, Cranshaw's breathing seemed hardly audible.

For Avarua, the night was a cool one. The bungalow was at the edge of town, and the roar of the surf thundered dully from the outer reefs in unbroken cadences.

Suddenly, and without the slightest warning, a horrible scream echoed out from the veranda—shrilled up and off, and seemed to die softly in the distance.

"My God!" Hobson's voice rang out. "What's that?"

"Mor kiri-kiri," returned Cranshaw sleepily.

"What's that?"

"A flying fox—for heaven's sake shut up and go to sleep!"

Cranshaw did not sleep himself, however, for he lay motionless with his hand on an electric torch, and chuckled slightly as he listened to the irregular, panting breathing of the other man.

Slowly through the surf-mutter there pierced other sounds—slight, thin, bird-like sounds, as though innumerable watches were ticking in the room. Hobson's breathing sounded rather flurried, and Cranshaw's thin lips parted in a grim smile as he stared up into the darkness.

Peculiar though the ticking sounds were, they were presently overborne by a still more peculiar sound—one which no human brain could define, without experience.

It was a ghostly tapping, tapping, tapping that seemed to come from the floor; a clicking, irregular, metallic tapping. It ceased with uncanny suddenness.

"I say, are you awake?"

Hobson's voice sounded stifled, hoarse.

"Cranshaw! Wake up!"

"Eh? What's the matter?"

Cranshaw spoke very sleepily, and smiled to himself.

"There's something on my curtains!"

"Shake it off and go to sleep."

A soft flurry of mosquito curtains, a subdued crash, and then a scuttling and tapping that once more ended abruptly. A gasp from Hobson.

"I say, the bally thing's back!" he cried. "For God's sake help me out, Cranshaw!"

"It's only a hermit crab wandered in, you fool. Wait—now take a look and give him a good fling off."

Cranshaw's arm protruded from his curtains, and he snapped the electric torch. He had no need where to look, for he had been expecting this visit from the junior partner for some time.

Hobson gripped his curtains in desperate haste and again shook off the thing that was climbing. He looked out, saw the hideous, bristly object clatter away on its spider-legs, and fell back with a subdued groan.

"Damn this place!"

Again silence and darkness fell upon the room, and again the noises of the night slowly seeped through the surf-thunder.

Outside the veranda the crabs were scuttling and clicking and rustling, scavenging with resistless vigor and great enthusiasm. A thin, far burst of song came from the government accommodation house, where the bulk of the steamer's passengers were gathered in jovial celebration.

Then through all the muffled night there again began to pierce that insistent watch-like ticking. Not as of one watch, but as of a thousand it was, steady and irregular and very thin. Occasionally a quite distinct crunch would echo through, as though some one had stepped on a beetle; only there was no one to step.

Once or twice there came a soft "flop" on the floor; whatever had fallen must have fallen from the ceiling.

The sounds were not exactly pleasant, especially to a fevered imagination. They might mean anything from ghosts to dragons.

And over all, slurring the staccato harmony of the ticking, was an almost inaudible soft scurrying—like innumerable feathers or hairy legs running about.

It was a weird symphony, a symphony of lesser noises, of louder silences, a symphony whose eldritch orchestration produced hideousness.

There was no discord. Over the crescendo and diminuendo of the ticking swept that soft horror of nearly inaudible sound, shot through by the louder crunches; there were other sounds also that could not be defined by human ears, but all blended into a terrible harmony, the more terrible because produced by darkness and rife with suggestion.

"I say, old man," Hobson's voice rose in a thick discord that ruined the symphonic whispers utterly, "what's all this bally rustling, eh?"

Cranshaw waited a little, smiling into the blackness, inscrutable! "I say, Cranshaw! Let's have a drink, old man!"

"You 'wake again?" Cranshaw's voice bubbled out sleepily. "What's the matter?"

"I want a drink, that's all," came the half-shamed answer.

"No more whisky in the house—we finished up the last of it to-night. Go to sleep and quit your infernal nonsense."

"You're sure there're no poisonous things around?"

Cranshaw did not answer. The other repeated the question, his voice beginning insensibly to climb with the last words.

This time Cranshaw replied, but took no immediate heed of the question itself.

"Say, Hobson, I've just been thinking about something. You remember that mess I got into down at Aukland I heard the other day that it was you who stole that money yourself. That's true, isn't it?"

The other held silence for a moment, until the ghastly symphony protruded into his brain.

"I—I wanted Agnes," came the hoarse words.

Cranshaw smiled to himself.

"Thank God you got her, Hobson—since she wanted money, it seems. By the way, you were quite right in thinking that I got you here to-night in order to pay you out."

"Eh? What's that?"

Hobson's voice leaped from the darkness, vivid with a horrible fear, pulsating and lingering under the roof weirdly.

Cranshaw spoke after a moment; his words were cold and sharp and quite impersonal.

"Hobson, you were a fool to imagine that I would ever forget or forgive. You had me snared for your own crime; you broke me; you got the girl I wanted; you became the junior partner in my place. I became John Smith, came to Raratonga, settled here and waited. I knew you would come sooner or later."

He paused, smiling inscrutably at the darkness.

Hobson was breathing stertorously, and there was another and queerer sound—like a fat man licking his lips in fear. The darkness intensified everything.

"I was in two minds, Hobson. I had a notion to take you out to the reefs for a swim. You don't know it, but there are interesting things out there in the warm water—bubbly eels, spiny leper-fishes with every spine deadly poison, sting-rays, devil-fish, plenty, plenty snake and shark. But I decided against that, for I knew you had imagination. So I brought you here instead."

Cranshaw still smiled into the blackness above him, lying motionless as he talked. He had no need to switch on the light to guess at the shaking mosquito curtains of the other bed, the pasty-faced man who clutched at them, the horrible fascination with which Hobson followed his every word.

"Now, my dear fellow," he went on, his voice acridly smooth, "I want you to take a little look around. Then—"

"For God's sake, Cranshaw!" burst forth the frenzied tones of the other man, shrill and smitten with hysteria. "I'll give up everything—I'll sign a confession and give you Agnes—I'll make it all right if you—"

"Shut your mouth—and look!" snapped Cranshaw, and the words fairly crackled through the room as he shoved his arm and swept the place with light.

The light was blinding, merciless, leaving every inch of the room clean-cut and distinct, disclosing the whole fearful secret of the hidden orchestration.

About the floor and walls and ceiling were poised cockroaches—South Sea cockroaches, as large as mice or larger, with great waving feather-feelers. They flitted hither and thither by the hundred—moving masses of hideousness, making as they went that ticking which furnished forth the body of the night's symphony.

And here and there, flashing away from the light more quickly than the light could follow, or flopping from ceiling to floor as the light swept up, were things that looked like sausages. Only when they moved, when the fearsome hidden red legs flashed out in all their horror, could one recognize centipeds.

Yet these were not the most horrible nor the swiftest.

For heedless of the light, the occasional crunches swept up above the body of the symphony as the electric ray disclosed the hordes of cockroaches. to their enemies. Great brown shapes darted here and there, back and forth, by the dozen; huge brown hairy things as large as a plate—hunting spiders—leaping on their pray, crunching once, and leaping forward anew.

The room was a wriggling horror in that moment, and when Cranshaw clicked off the light that triumphant "crunch—crunch—crunch!" was rising in a finale that drowned out the rest of the symphony—and shattered suddenly at his voice.

"Better not step out on the floor, Hobson—I saw a couple of those spiders on your curtains. I'll take my chances, but you'll stay here. If they get under your curtains you're gone, remember—any one of those things means certain death. As I say, I'll take my chances, because I'm going to leave you here."

He calmly threw aside his curtains, reached out for his slippers, dumped the wriggling things out of them, and rose. Seizing a spray at hand, he sent a shower of boracic acid over the floor and calmly went to the door.

There he paused, with a cold laugh, to listen to the frenzied cries and promises and curses and prayers of the man who dared not leave his cot—and with that Cranshaw slammed the door,

"Damned coward!" he muttered, opening the tantalus on the veranda and pouring himself a drink. "He'll be fool enough to believe me, and be afraid to try rushing from the room—the damned coward! And precisely at two o'clock apoplexy or heart-failure will take him off, and Agnes collects the insurance. Well, I'm satisfied to call quits."

And the soda shot hissing into the glass.