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The Unspeakable Perk (Chapter13)

2006-08-22 21:00

  XIII. Left Behind

  Dawn crested, poised, and broke in a surf of splendor upon the great mountain-line that overhangs Puerto del Norte. Where, at the corporation dock, there had lurked the shadow of a yacht, gray-black against blue-black, there now swung a fairy ship of purest silver, cradled upon a swaying mirror. Tiny insects, touched to life by the radiance, scuttled busily about her decks and swarmed out upon the dock. The seagoing yacht Polly had awakened early.

  Down the mule path that forms the shortest cut from the railway station straggled a group of minute creatures. To one watching from the mountain-side with powerful field-glasses——such as, for example, a convinced and ardent hater of the Caribbean Sea, curled up with his back against a cold and Voiceless rock——it might have appeared that the group was carrying an unusual quantity of hand luggage. Yet they were not porters; so much, even at a great distance, their apparel proclaimed. The pirates of porterdom do not get up to meet five-o'clock-in-the-morning specials in Caracuna.

  The little group gathered close at the pier, then separated, two going aboard, and the others disappearing into sundry streets and reappearing presently at the water-front with other figures. The human form cannot be distinctly seen, at a distance of three miles, to rub its eyes; neither can it be heard to curse; but there was that in the newer figures which suggested a sudden and reluctant surrender of sleeping privileges. Had our supposititious watcher possessed an intimate and contemptuous knowledge of Caracuna officialdom, he would have surmised that lavish sums of money had been employed to stir the port and customs officials to such untimely activity.

  But not money or any other agency is potent to stir Caracunan officialdom to undue speed. Hence the observer from the heights, supposing that he had a personal interest in the proceedings, might have assured himself of ample time to reach the coast before the formalities could be completed and the ship put forth to sea. Had he presently humped himself to his feet with a sluggish effort, abandoned his field-glasses in favor of a pair of large greenish-brown goggles, and set out on a trail straight down the mountains, staggering a bit at the start, a second supposititious observer of the first supposititious observer——if such cumulative hypothesis be permissible——might have divined that the first supposititious observer was the Unspeakable Perk, going about other people's business when he ought to have been in bed. And so, not to keep any reader in unendurable suspense, it was.

  While the Unspeakable Perk was making his way down the dim and narrow trail, another equally weary figure shambled out from the main road upon the flats and made for the landing. The apparel of Mr. Preston Fairfax Fitzhugh Carroll was in a condition that he would have deemed quite unfit for one of his station, had he been in a frame of mind to consider such matters at all. He was not. Affairs vastly more weighty and human occupied his mind. What he most wished was to find Miss Polly Brewster and unburden himself of them.

  At the entrance to the pier, he was detained by the American Consul. Cluff came running down the long structure in great strides.

  “Moses, Carroll! I'm glad to see you! Where've you been?”

  A week earlier, the scion of all the Virginias would have resented this familiarity from a professional athlete. But neither Mr. Carroll's mind nor his heart was a sealed inclosure. He had learned much in the last few days.

  “Up on the mountain,” he said. “For Heaven's sake, give me a drink, Cluff!”

  The other produced a flask.

  “You do look shot to pieces,” he commented. “Find Perk——Pruyn?”

  “Yes. I'll tell you later. Where's Miss Brewster?”

  “In her stateroom. Asleep, I guess. Said she wanted rest, and nobody was to disturb her till we sail.”

  “When do we start?”

  “Eight o'clock, they say. That means ten. Will Dr. Pruyn get here?”

  “He isn't going with us.”

  “Oh, no. I forgot his Dutch permit. Well, he'd better use it quick, or he'll go in a box when he does go. I wouldn't insure his life for a two-cent stamp in this country.”

  “You wouldn't if you'd seen what I saw last night,” said the Southerner, very low.

  Wisner, the busy, efficient little consul, who had been arranging with the officials for Carroll's embarkation, now returned, bringing with him a viking of a man whom he introduced as Dr. Stark, of the United States Public Health Service.

  “Either of you know anything about Dr. Pruyn?” he inquired anxiously.

  “He's on his way down the mountain now,” said Carroll.

  “Good! He's ordered away, I'm glad to say. Just got the message.”

  “Then perhaps he will go out with us,” said Cluff, with obvious relief. “I sure did hate to think of leaving that boy here, with the game laws for goggle-eyed Americans entirely suspended.”

  “No. He's ordered to Curacao to stay and watch. We've got to get him out to the Dutch ship somehow.”

  “Couldn't the yacht take him and transfer him outside?” asked Carroll.

  “Mr. Carroll,” said Dr. Stark earnestly, “before this yacht is many minutes out from the dock, you'll see a yellow flag go up from the end of the corporation pier. After that, if the yacht turns aside or comes back for a package that some one has left, or does anything but hold the straightest course on the compass for the blue and open sea——well, she'll be about the foolishest craft that ever ploughed salt water.”

  “I suppose so,” admitted Carroll. “Well, I have matters to look after on board.”

  Into Mr. Carroll's cabin it is nobody's business to follow him. A man has a right to some privacy of room and of mind, and if the Southerner's struggle with himself was severe, at least it was of brief duration. Within half an hour, he was knocking at Polly Brewster's door.

  “Please go 'way, whoever it is,” answered a pathetically weary voice.

  “Miss Polly, it's Fitzhugh. I have a note for you.”

  “Leave it in the saloon.”

  “It's important that you see it right away.”

  “From whom is it?” queried the spent voice.

  “From Dr. Pruyn.”

  “I——I don't want to see it.”

  “You must!” insisted her suitor.

  “Did he say I must?”

  “No. I say you must. Forgive me, Miss Polly, but I'm going to wait here till you say you'll read it.”

  “Push it under the door,” said the girl resignedly.

  He obeyed. Polly took the envelope, summoned up all her spirit, and opened it. It contained one penciled line and the signature:——

  Good-bye. All my heart goes with you forever. L. P.

  Something fluttered from the envelope to her feet. She stooped and picked it up. It was the tiniest and most delicate of orchids, purple, with a glow of gold at its heart. To her inflamed pride, it seemed the final insult that he should send such a message and such a reminder, without a word of explanation or plea for pardon. Pardon she never would have granted, but at least he might have had the grace of shame.

  “Have you read it?” asked the patient voice from without.

  “Yes. There is no answer.”

  “Dr. Pruyn said there wouldn't be.”

  “Then why are you waiting?”

  “To see you.”

  “Oh, Fitz, I'm too worn out, and I've a splitting headache. Won't it wait?”

  “No.” The voice was gently inflexible.

  “More messages?”

  “No; something I must tell you. Will you come out?”

  “I suppose so.”

  Her tone was utterly listless and limp. Utterly listless and limp, she looked, too, as she opened the door and stood waiting.

  “Miss Polly, it's about the woman at Perkins's——at Dr. Pruyn's house.”

  Her eyes dilated with anger.

  “I won't hear! How dare you come to me——”

  “You must! Don't make it harder for me than it is.”

  She looked up, startled, and noted the haggard lines in his face.

  “I'll hear it if you think I should, Fitz.”

  “She is dead.”

  “Dead? His——his wife?”

  “She wasn't his wife. She was a helpless leper, whom he was trying to cure with some new serum. He had to do it secretly because there is a law forbidding any one to harbor a leper.”

  “Oh, Fitz!” she cried. “And she died of it?”

  “No. They killed her. Last night.”

  “They? Who?”

  “Government agents, probably. They were after Pruyn.”

  “How horrible! And——and Mrs. Pruyn. Where was she?”

  “There isn't any Mrs. Pruyn. There never was.”

  “But the Dutch permit! It was for Dr. Pruyn and his wife.”

  “Sherwen misread the form. So did I. It read for Dr. Pruyn and a woman. He hoped to take her to Curacao and complete his experiment.”

  “That's what he meant when he spoke of being lawless, and I've been thinking the basest things of him for it!” The girl, dazed by a flash of complete enlightenment, caught at Carroll's arm with beseeching hands. “Where is he, Fitz?”

  “On his way down the mountain. Perhaps down here by now.”

  “He's coming to the ship?” she asked.

  “No; he doesn't expect to see you again. He was coming down to make sure that we got off safely.”

  “Fitz, dear Fitz, I must see him!”

  “Miss Polly,” he said miserably, “I'll do anything I can.”

  “Oh, poor Fitz!” she cried pityingly, her eyes filling with tears. “I wish for your sake it wasn't so. And you have been so splendid about it!”

  “I've tried to make amends, and play fair. It hasn't been easy. Shall I go back and look for him? It's a small town, and I can find him.”

  “Yes. I'll write a note. No; I won't. Never mind. I'll manage it. Fitz, go and rest. You're worn out,” she said gently.

  Back into her stateroom went Miss Polly. From that time forth no man saw her nor woman, either, except perhaps her maid, and maids are dark and discreet persons on occasion. If this particular one kept her own counsel when she saw a trim but tremulous figure drop lightly over the starboard rail of the Polly far forward, pick up a small traveling-bag from the pier, step behind the opportune screen of a load of coffee on a flat car, and reappear to view only as a momentary swish of skirt far away at the shore end; if this same maid told Mr. Thatcher Brewster, half an hour later, that Miss Polly was asleep in her stateroom, and begged that she be disturbed on no account, as she was utterly worn out, who shall blame her for her silence on the one occasion or her speech on the other? She was but obeying, albeit with tearful misgivings, duly constituted authority.

  Eight o'clock struck on the bell of the little Protestant mission church on the tiny plaza; struck and was welcomed by the echoes, and passed along to eventual silence. Within two minutes after, there was a special stir and movement on the pier, a corresponding stir and movement on board the trim craft, a swishing of great ropes, and a tooting of whistles. White foam churned astern of her. A comic-supplement-looking pelican on a buoy off to port flapped her a fantastic farewell. The blockade-defying yacht Polly was off for blue waters and the freedom of the seas.

  On the shore, feeling woefully helpless and alone, she who had been the jewel and joy of the Polly bit her lips and closed her eyes, in a tremulous struggle against the dismal fear:——

  “Suppose he doesn't love me, after all!”

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