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The Unspeakable Perk (Chapter12)

2006-08-22 20:57

  XII. The Woman at the Quinta

  Thanks to his rival's map, Carroll had little difficulty in finding the trail to the mountain quinta. A brilliant new moon helped to make easy the ascent. What course he would pursue upon his arrival he had not clearly defined to himself. That would depend largely upon the attitude of the man he was seeking. The flame of battle, still hot from the afternoon's melee, burned high in the Southerner's soul, for he was not of those whose spirit rapidly cools. Bitter resentment on behalf of Miss Polly Brewster fanned that flame. On one point he was determined: neither he nor the so-called Perkins should leave the mountain until he had had from the latter's own lips a full explanation.

  Coming out into the open space, he got his first glimpse of the quinta. It was dark, except for one low light. From the farther side there came faintly to his ear a rhythmical sound, with brief intervals of quiet, as if some one hard at labor were stopping from time to time for breath. At that distance, Carroll could not interpret the sound, but some unidentified quality of it struck chill upon his fancy. Long experience in the woods had made him a good trailsman. He proceeded cautiously until he reached the edge of the clearing.

  The sound had stopped now, but he thought he could hear heavy breathing from beyond the house. As he moved toward that side, a small but malevolent-looking snake slithered out from beneath a bush near by. Involuntarily he leaped aside. As he landed, a round pebble slipped under his foot. He flung up his arm. It met the low branch of a tree, and saved him a fall. But the thrashing of the leaves made a startling noise in the moonlit stillness. The snake went on about its business.

  “Hola!” challenged a voice around the angle of the house.

  Carroll recognized the voice. He stepped out of the shadows and strode across the open space. At the corner of the house he met the muzzle of a revolver pointing straight at the pit of his stomach. Back of it were the steady and now goggleless eyes of Luther Pruyn.

  “I am unarmed,” said Carroll.

  “Ah, it's you!” said the other. He lowered his weapon, carefully whirled the cylinder to bring the hammer opposite an empty chamber, and dropped it in his pocket. “What do you want?”

  “An explanation.”

  “Quite so,” said the other coolly. “I'd forgotten that I invited you here. How long had you been watching me?”

  “I saw you only when you came out from behind the house.”

  “And you wish to know about——about my companion in this place?” continued the other in an odd tone.

  “Yes.”

  “Understand that I don't admit that you have the smallest right. But to clear up a situation which no longer exists, I'm ready to satisfy you. Come in.”

  He held open the door of the room where the lone light was burning. In the middle of the floor was spread a sheet, beneath which a form was outlined in grisly significance. Carroll's host lifted the cover.

  The woman was white-haired, frail, and wrinkled. One side of her face shone in the lamplight with a strange hue, like tarnished silver. In her throat was a small bluish wound; opposite it a gaping hole.

  “Shot!” exclaimed Carroll. “Who did it?”

  “Some high-minded Caracunan patriot, I suppose.”

  “Why?”

  “Well, I suspect that it was a mistake. From a distance and inside a window, she might easily have been taken for some one else.”

  Carroll's mind reverted to his companion's ready revolver.

  “Yourself, for instance?” he suggested.

  “Why, yes.”

  “Who was she?”

  There was left in the Southerner's manner no trace of the cross- examiner. Suspicion had departed from him at the first sight of that old and still face, leaving only sympathy and pity.

  “My patient.”

  “Have you been running a private hospital up here?”

  “Oh, no. I took her because there was no other place fit for her to go to. And I had to keep her presence secret, because there's a law against harboring lepers here. A pretty cruel brute of a law it is, too.”

  “Leprosy!” exclaimed Carroll, looking at that strange silvery face with a shudder. “Isn't it fearfully contagious?”

  “Not in any ordinary sense. I was trying a new serum on her, and had planned to smuggle her across to Curacao, when this ended it.”

  “Curacao? Then that pass for yourself and wife——By the way, that and your coat are over in the thicket, where I dropped them.”

  “Thank you. But it doesn't say 'wife.' It says simply 'a woman.'”

  “And you were encumbering yourself with an unknown leper, at a time like this, just as an act of human kindness?” There was something almost reverential in Carroll's voice.

  “Scientific interest, in part. Besides, she wasn't wholly unknown. She's a sort of cousin of Raimonda's.”

  Carroll's mind flew back to his fatally misinterpreted conversation with the young Caracunan.

  “What did he mean by letting me think that you shouldn't associate with Miss Polly?”

  “Oh, he had the usual erroneous dread of leprosy contagion, I suppose.”

  “May I ask you another question, Mr. Per——I beg your pardon, Dr. Pruyn?” said the visitor, almost timidly.

  “Perkins will do.” The other smiled wanly. “Ask me anything you want to.”

  “Why did you run away that day on the tram-car?”

  “To avoid trouble, of course.”

  “You? Why, you go about searching for dangerous and difficult jobs. That won't do!”

  “Not at all. It's only when I can't get away from them. But I couldn't risk arrest then. Some one would surely have recognized me as Luther Pruyn. You see, I've been here before.”

  “Then I don't see why they didn't identify you, anyway.”

  “Three years ago I was much heavier, and wore a full beard. Then these glasses, besides being invaluable for protection, are a pretty thorough disguise.”

  “So they are. But the game is up now.”

  “Yes.” The scientist drew the sheet back over the dead woman. “I suppose the sharp-shooters who did the job will report me safely out of the way. It's only a question of when the burial party will come for me.”

  “Then, why are we waiting?” cried Carroll.

  “I couldn't leave her lying here,” replied the other simply.

  The sound of rhythmical labor came back to Carroll's memory.

  “You were digging her grave?”

  The other nodded. Carroll, stiffly, for his knifed arm was painful, got out of his coat.

  “Where's an extra spade?” he asked.

  When their labor was over, and the leper laid beneath the leveled soil, Carroll cut two branches from a near-by tree, trimmed them, bound them in the form of a cross, and fixed the symbol firmly in the earth at the dead woman's head.

  “That was well thought of,” said the scientist. “I'm afraid that wouldn't have occurred to me.”

  “You can get word to Senor Raimonda?” asked Carroll.

  His host nodded. A long silence followed. Carroll broke it:——

  “Then there is no further secrecy about this?”

  “About what?”

  “Her identity.” He pointed to the grave.

  “No; I suppose not. Why?”

  “Because Miss Brewster has a right to know.”

  “Do you propose to tell her?”

  “Yes.”

  “Very well,” agreed the scientist, after a pause for consideration. “But not until after the yacht is at sea.”

  Carroll did not reply directly to this.

  “What shall you do?”

  “Get out, if I can. I'm ordered to Curacao. Wisner left word for me.”

  “Come down the mountain with me.”

  “Impossible. There are matters here to be attended to.”

  “Then when will you come down?”

  “Before you sail. I must be sure that you get off.”

  “You'll come to the yacht, then?”

  “No.”

  “I think you should. There are reasons why——why——Miss Brewster——”

  “It isn't a question that I can argue,” the other cut him off. “I can't do it.” There was so much pain in his voice that Carroll forbore to press him. “But I'll ask you to take a note.”

  Carroll nodded, and his host, disappearing within the quinta, returned almost at once with an envelope on which the address was written in pencil. The Southerner took it and rose from the porch, where he had flung himself to rest.

  “Perkins,” he said, with some effort, “I've thought and said some hard things about you.”

  “Naturally enough,” murmured the other.

  “Do you want me to apologize?”

  The scientist stared. “Do you want me to thank you for to-night's work?” he countered.

  “No.”

  “Well——”

  “All right.”

  The two men, different in every quality except that of essential manhood, smiled at each other with a profound mutual understanding. There was a silent handshake, and Carroll set off down the mountain toward the sunrise glow.

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