This short story was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the December 1933 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
Marion Ainsworth had been disgraced, and discharged without notice by Vincent Candee, managing director of the St. George’s Hardware Company, Ltd., and alderman of St. George’s. Miss Ainsworth had been guilty of neither of willfully abusing her responsibility as book-keeper nor of innocently confusing her debits and credits even if she had been suspected of these offenses it is not likely that she would have been discharged, for accountants were at a premium in Bermuda surfing the summer of 1864, when yellow fever was decimating the inhabitants, and blockade-runner crews were bringing a thriving trade to the “Old Towne.” Marion Ainsworth’s offense had been far more serious; and the pity of it was that had she not guiltlessly confided in Mr. Candee, whose friendly regard she had previously enjoyed, she would have retained both her position and reputation.
“Seven more died of yellow jack today,” Candee had said, reaching for his topper at the closing hour of business. “But not one of them was a patient of this fine New Orleans doctor, Luke P. Blackburn, who has come here to administer a new treatment free of charge so that he may search out the cause of the disease and return with a cure which will purge his country of it.”
“But New Orleans has been taken by the Union forces. How can he go back there?”
“Yes, New Orleans has been taken; Dr. Blackburn’s home is destroyed, his practice lost, and his family scattered. If he finds a cure he’ll take it to Richmond; and if he does, you may be sure the Confederacy will win the War.” Candee laughed quite unexpectedly. “And then all my Confederate securities will be worth par again, my girl!”
Miss Ainsworth had gazed thoughtfully at her employer. “How do you think yellow jack spreads, Mr. Candee?”
“It’s my opinion that the disease is carried on the night air, and so I sleep with my windows closed. What’s your opinion?”
“I think it’s the heat, and so I go swimming whenever I can to get cool. I went in the sea yesterday.”
In this way had Miss Ainsworth precipitated her downfall; for, although she knew that it was not considered good form for young ladies to go swimming, she had not realized the gravity of her conduct.
“Why, I . . . I don’t understand!” Vincent Candee had ejaculated in amazement, removing his spectacles as though to facilitate his hearing.
“I say I went swimming. It was so hot that one of the boys who was seeing me home asked if might change into his bathing clothes at my house and go swimming at our beach. I told him he would have to ask my father, because I was going swimming too. But my father wasn’t home, so I thought it would be all right.”
“You thought it would be all right even though you have no bathhouse there so that you can get into the water without being seen?”
“Why, yes,” answered Marion, her voice rising. “I put on my bathing costume in my room and walked down to the beach.”
“Walked down to the beach! Exposing yourself on dry land in a bathing costume!”
“Why, yes,” replied Miss Ainsworth timidly.
Vincent Candee rose to support his rigid opinion. “No lady would ever do a thing like that. When a lady is over-heated she bathes in the privacy of her room. And I may say that a cool fresh-water bath is more effective than splashing about in the sticky sea. No wholesome, modest girl would do such a thing; look into your heart Miss Ainsworth and judge your intentions in swimming with this young man!”
“But I like the sea; it’s clean and clear and cool, and it keeps me well!”
“You’re through,” Candee was saying; “I shall pay you off directly!” He placed her wages on the corner of her desk, as though he feared it might contaminate him to place the coins in her hand. Then he lifted his topper and took leave.
However grave may have been Marrion’s offence, it must be acknowledged that she remained at the store until she had posted the last of the day’s transactions in the company’s ledger. The final entry was not made until after nine o’clock in the evening, and remaining at work until that hour placed her in the compromising and dangerous position of having to walk home alone after dark. She rose, stiff and forlorn, and extended a delicate hand toward the whale-oil lamp which was burning above the desk. Her hair shone in the brassy light like wheat ripening in the sun; her clear blue eyes were brimming; her carefree lips were pressed into hardness. The lamp flickered and died under her touch.
Taking advantage of the darkness, a mosquito alighted in the middle of the girl’s forehead, landing so dexterously that even her delicate skin did not warn her of its presence until the frail, marauding creature had poisoned her with infected saliva from a gland under its chin. Then she did crush it instinctively with the palm of her hand and proceed from the store for the last time.
The mosquito whose life had ended in a splash of blood on Marion Ainsworth’s forehead was not a low form of life governed merely by instinct, but a highly evolved and intelligent creature. A female of the species of stegomyia, her legs and thorax were banded with silver and black; her dark antennae, while not as bushy as those of the male, were feathery and graceful. An unprejudiced observer could not have denied that she was beautiful.
The stegomyia had emerged from a mason jar which had become partly filled with rain-water in a foul gutter on Front Street, in the fever-ridden city of Wilmington, North Carolina. She had sailed unsteadily into the air with the confidence and ardour of youth, to explore the world in which she had found herself.
With her subsequent foraging there had come a mad desire to alight upon a vertebrate and prick him with her beak; and, as a chance would have it, her very first victim was a man who had lain prostrated with yellow fever for two days. He had been an easy, defenseless victim, without strength enough to raise his hand against her. She had struck him in broad daylight, remaining boldly upon his arm, drawing his blood until so filled with it that she could hardly move. Then, frightened by a fitful toss of the suffering shadow of a man beneath her, she had vaulted into the air, set her wings in motion, and cleared the window-sill with great effort.
Then she had rested for a long time on the rough burlap of a cotton bale before taking to the air again.
She had continued to strike both day and night for three days, and then a new urge had taken the place of her marauding instincts, causing her to seek out a pool of stagnant rain water upon which to alight that she might lay her eggs upon the surface.
After a week had elapsed, the virus in her system had matured, and there-after thirty-five of every hundred of her victims contracted yellow fever. Most of these subsequently died. But she transmitted the disease only at night, for after having laid her eggs she had lost all desire to strike during the day.
In the court of her destructive wanderings she had come upon a blockade-runner and, shrinking from the sun, had hidden herself in the steamer’s hold. The vessel had conveyed her to St. George’s, and when the hatches had been opened she had emerged on a rising current of hot air which had carried her ashore. Her quest for shelter had brought her to the St. George’s Hardware Company, Ltd.; she had entered and rested inverted upon the ceiling until the fall of night, when it had been time to feed again.
She had struck Marion Ainsworth right between the eyes.
As Marion made her way unattended toward the secluded house where she and her widowed father made their home, her heart was so tortured that it seemed barely to have strength enough to force again into her system the blood that was returning to her veins. Her head drooped, her arms hung loosely at her side, and she walked heavily upon her heels, for as she neared home, she was seized with a new horror. She realised that she must tell her father not only that she had been dismissed from her position, but why. For the first time in her life she feared that he would fail to offer a refuge in his understanding, and that his unprejudiced sense of fitness, matured by the loss of his parish when first he had been ordained a minister, would be outraged.
She burst into the house and called to him at once: “I’ve been dismissed from the hardware store!” And then she dropped into a cedar rocking chair and wept.
Ainsworth, a tall, spare man, with eyes as blue as hers, hurried into the room. “Why?” he asked quickly, “Why?”
Marion told him why.
Ainsworth poured two fingers of brandy, each into a separate glass, and, diluting one with water, begged Marion to take it. Then he drained his glass and set it aside. “It’s my fault, Marion,” he said. “It takes a mother to raise a child; a man can’t do it for the life of him. I brought you up to be free of presence of any kind; your mother would have fitted you better for the world.”
“Am I immodest and unwholesome?”
“Modesty is not a characteristic, not a virtue. Any one could see that you are wholesome.”
Ainsworth carried Marion to her room and laid her gently on the bed, throwing a light coverlet over her. Then he slipped into the hall and closed her door. He took a pipe from his pocket, packed it carefully, lighted it, and retired to the step outside the door to his home, where he sat smoking thoughtfully, gazing at the sea.
At daw on the following day Ainsworth went to Marion’s room to wake her. “Come help me in the garden,” he called, “I’ve a crop of cabbages to clear!”
They worked together in the brown pulpy earth all morning, and in the afternoon they tossed the crop into a cart and stored it under the Ainsworth buttery. Then, dark with rich earth and glistening with sweat, Ainsworth returned to Marion and said, “Let’s go in the sea!”
They went to a tiny coral beach below the house and waded into the water as clear as the air they breathed. The skies of Marion’s bathing costume floated about her; she laughed and pushed them beneath the surface. Kicking with her stockinged feet, she began a slow, impeded progress from the shore, her fair following through the water like a flame. At length she turned over on her back and closed her eyes, while the cool caress of the sea stored her with new life. Soon she went to the house to dress for supper.
Marion did not go into the fields with her father on the following day; having become accustomed to office work, a day’s physical labour had left her stiff and tired. She did not leave her bed until noon and she spent the hottest hours of the day with a book. This inactivity might have been expected to rest her, but she awoke the following morning more weary than before. Moreover, she was slightly nauseated, her back ached, and her eyes resented the light of day.
“Daddy!” she called, sitting on the edge of her bed. When he came in she said, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me!”
“Why, what seems to be wrong, child?”
“I . . . I feel sick and my head aches horribly.”
“Stay where you are and I’ll fetch a cup of tea.”
But the tea she drank did not stay down.
Apprehensively, Ainsworth tested her pulse. Its beat was strong and only a little fast, but her wrist was hot as fire.
The coolness of her father’s hand betrayed to Marion her high fever. Her lips were tender and dry. Every muscle in her body ached. “Daddy,” she said, “I think we better have Dr. Blackburn.”
Ainsworth slipped his hand down Marion’s wrist and intertwined his fingers with hers. “Don’t you think it would be wiser to have Charlie Butterfield look after you? He would move heaven and earth to—to make you comfortable.”
“But Dr. Blackburn is a specialist and they say he has a new method of treatment.”
“You have more confidence in Dr. Blackburn?”
“Then he’s the man for you.”
Had not Marion been convulsed by another fit of vomiting, Ainsworth would have sought Dr. Blackburn himself; but the acuteness of her symptoms so disturbed him that he determined not to leave her bedside. Hearing the cook clattering breakfast dishes in the kitchen, he called to her to hitch his horse to the trap at once and summon Dr. Blackburn with the least possible delay.
The cook was so frightened that Ainsworth doubted whether she was capable of executing her mission; but the old woman returned early in the afternoon, mumbling and exhausted, with Dr. Blackburn following in his brougham.
During the slow passage of these hours of waiting, Marion’s condition had become most alarming. The expression upon her features was now quite foreign; her lips, nostrils, eyes, and even her cheeks and turned to flaming crimson; she could not lie quietly upon her bed; and there were moments when Ainsworth feared that she was no longer aware of his presence beside her.
Diagnosis was gratuitous; a single glance sufficed to acquaint Dr. Blackburn with the nature of the case. He turned to Ainsworth. “I have been very fortunate in treating yellow fever,” he said directly; Marion’s delirium made it unnecessary for him to withdraw to discuss the patient’s condition with her father. “I have developed a method of my own for coping with it. While your esteemed Doctors Smith and Butterfield administer mandrake, I substitute what I call ‘podophylline,’ an extract which I brew for my own requirements from an American species of May-apple. The treatment, if I may say so, is far more satisfactory.” He opened his pill-case and prepare the medicine in a glass. “Have you an ice-box?” he asked suddenly.
“No, doctor, I have not; but imported Canadian ice can be had from Goslings’.”
“Splendid. I shall leave an order with them when I return to town. Ice will relieve the patient’s tendency to vomit. Beyond that and the administration of this powerful drug there is not much that can be done for her. The disease will have to run its course, though you may be able to alleviate the patient’s suffering with careful nursing.”
“I shall not leave her for an instant. When will you return?”
“Tomorrow, forenoon. I shall bring my man, Swan, to carry off the patient’s soiled linen as a precaution against spreading the disease.”
“You intend to disinfect linen, doctor?”
“I intend to burn it, sir.”
Dr. Blackburn took his leave, and his brougham rolled over the hill. The house was very quiet. Ainsworth kept watching throughout the night, ceaselessly administering to Marion’s ever need, changing her linen repeatedly, and holding her burning head while her stomach strove to discharge its very emptiness. There was no rest for either of them for Marion was interminably tossing with the energy of madness, while Ainsworth was striving to ease and quiet her.
Dawn brought no change, and when Dr. Blackburn returned late in the afternoon her condition was substantially the same.
“Continue the treatment I prescribed,” said the doctor, who seemed far more interested in collecting the patient’s soiled linen than in her progress. “Tomorrow, or the day after, this restiveness will suddenly cease, and the young lady’s discomfort will be less acute. At that time, take care! And send for me at once!”
Then Blackburn drove away with the bundle of linen on the seat beside Swan, leaving Ainsworth and his daughter alone for another night.
Ainsworth was sipping a cup of tea on the following morning—he had taken no other nourishment since Marion’s collapse—when there appeared the first indication of a change in her condition. He set his cup, cold and half empty, on the floor beside his chair, and reached for Marion’s hand. Her pulse was slow and feeble, her wrist cool, and her arm saffron in contrast to his own.
Suddenly, as though awakening from a restless night, Marion opened her eyes and gazed for a moment at her father.
“Am I immodest and unwholesome?” she whispered.
“Marion, my dear!” The worst stuck in Ainsworth’s throat.
Marion turned her head toward the closed push-out blind where the faint streaks of day made a pattern of light. Without effort she vomited black dregs. Then with a feeble gasp, she died.
Ainsworth went directly from his daughter’s grave to the pharmacy of James B. Heyl, in Hamilton.
“Jim,” he said, taking the proprietor aside, “I’ve got something for you to analyse.” He took from a pocket in the tail of his coat a bit of folded paper; this he unwrapped until there appeared a few particles of dust in the last fold. “Can you manage?” he asked.
“Can you wait?” replied Heyl, smiling.
“I can wait.”
The chemist retired to his laboratory, presently to return, his bearing full of confidence. “It’s extract of mandrake,” he said, “a purgative. Both Smith and Butterfield are using this in the treatment of yellow fever.”
“Is tha so?” Ainsworth answered quietly. “I scraped it from a dry tumbler in which Blackburn had mixed a dose of this invention of his he calls ‘podophylline’.”
“You don’t say! You don’t say!”
Ainsworth drove his trap at top speed to Dr. Blackburn’s quarters, intending to call him an imposter to his face, and settle his account with him man to man.
But Blackburn, after a month’s stay on the islands, was safely on his way to Halifax, and only Swan remained.
“What about the infected linen, Swan; has it been destroyed?” asked Ainsworth.
“Not yet, sir. It’s not here, you know; it’s in a house t’ other side of the hill.”
“Who has charge of it?”
“I have charge of it, I ‘xpect, sir.”
“Why haven’t you burned it?”
“I’ve been ver’ busy, sir; the doctor left yesterday you know.”
Ainsworth watched the fellow’s shift eyes. “Get into this trap,” he said. “We’re going to burn that linen now!”
Swan obeyed with ill-concealed reluctance. But the house was locked and Swan had neglected to bring the key.
“It’s just as well,” the fellow said. “Ver’ dangerous, messin’ about with all that! Leave it to me, sir; I’ll burn it.”
“See that you do,” replied Ainsworth, satisfied to let the man have his way, for he had determined in an instant to return after nightfall, force an entrance, and to search the place for an indication of the purpose behind Blackburn’s mysterious visit to the islands.
After midnight, when the sound of revelry had ceased to drift over the hill from St. George’s and the cocks had begun to crow, Ainsworth returned to the house and forced open a window. A host of cockroaches scattered before the light of his candle with a murmur like the rustle of dead leaves.
Instead of gathered bundles of linen Ainsworth found trunks carefully packed with diseased sheets, pillow-slips, towels, and clothing. He discovers that some of this baggage was already marked for shipment to Clifton House, Niagara Falls, with tags which bore the name of Vincent Candee’s hardware company.
A few moments of perplexity, and then stunning in its suddenness, the truth dawned on Ainsworth. Obsessed with thoughts of vengeance, the southern physician had come to Bermuda expressly to collect infected linen for shipment to the United States, hoping thus to disseminate yellow fever among the enemies of the Confederacy.
Ainsworth, appalled by the enormity of Blackburn’s plot, brought the matter to the attention of United States Consul Allen, who saw to it that the Corporation of St. George’s was promptly informed. When that body, hastily assembled, prepared to give the subject of their consideration, Candee signaled a warning to a confederate of Swan’s whom he had posted in the street outside.
Swan’s confederate rushed to the tiny house where the trunks of infected linen were awaiting shipment. But the members of the Corporation reached the place in time to confirm Ainsworth’s evidence with their own eyes.
Blackburn was safely outside the sphere of Bermudian justice. Swan was imprisoned. The infected linen was removed to Nonsuch Island to be buried in sulphuric acid. But the fate of Vincent Candee was left in the hands of god.