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The Unspeakable Perk (Chapter8)

2006-08-22 20:55

  VIII. Los Yankis

  Luncheon on the day following the kiskadee bird's narrow squeak for his life was a dreary affair for Mr. Fitzhugh Carroll. Business had called Mr. Brewster away. This deprivation the Southerner would have borne with equanimity. But Miss Brewster had also absented herself, which was rather too much for the devoted, but apprehensive, lover. Thus, ample time was given him to consider how ill his suit was prospering. The longer he stayed, the less he saw of Miss Polly. That she was kinder and more gentle, less given to teasing him than of yore, was poor compensation. He was shrewd enough to draw no good augury from that. Something had altered her, and he was divided between suspicion of the last week's mail, the arrival of which had been about contemporaneous with her change of spirit, and some local cause. Was a letter from Smith, the millionaire, or Bobby, the friend of her childhood, responsible? Or was the cause nearer at hand?

  For one preposterous moment he thought of the Unspeakable Perk. A quick visualization of that gnomish, froggish face was enough to dispel the suspicion. At least the petted and rather fastidious Miss Brewster's fancy would be captured only by a gentleman, not by any such homunculus as the mountain dweller. Her interest, perhaps; the man possessed the bizarre attraction of the freakish. But anything else was absurd. And the knight was inclined to attaint his lady for a certain cruelty in the matter; she was being something less than fair to the Unspeakable Perk.

  The searchlight of his surmise ranged farther. Raimonda! The young Caracunan was handsome, distinguished, manly, with a romantic charm that the American did not underestimate. He, at least, was a gentleman, and the assiduity of his attentions to the Northern beauty had become the joke of the clubs——except when Raimonda was present. By the same token, half of the gilded youth of the capital, and most of the young diplomats, were the sworn slaves of the girl. It was a confused field, indeed. Well, thank Heaven, she would soon be out of it! Word had come down from her that she was busy packing her things. Carroll wandered about the hotel, waiting for the news that would explain this preparation.

  It came, at mid-afternoon, in the person of Miss Polly herself. Why packing trunks, with the aid of an experienced maid, should, even in a hot climate, produce heavy circles under the eyes, a droop at the mouth corners, and a complete submersion of vivacity, is a problem which Carroil then and there gave up. He had too much tact to question or comment.

  “Oh, I'm so tired!” she said, giving him her hand. “Have you much packing to do, Fitzhugh?”

  “No one has given me any notice to get ready, Miss Polly.”

  “How very neglectful of me! We may leave at any time.”

  “Yes; you may. But my ship doesn't seem to be coming in very fast.”

  The double entente was unintentional, but the girl winced.

  “Aren't you coming with us on the yacht?”

  “Am I?” His handsome face lighted hopefully.

  “Of course. Dad expects you to. What kind of people should we be to leave any friend behind, with matters as they are?”

  “Ah, yes.” The hope passed out of his face. “Dictates of humanity, and that sort of thing. I think, if you and Mr. Brewster——”

  “Please don't be silly, Fitz,” she pleaded. “You know it would make me most unhappy to leave you.”

  Rarely did the scion of Southern blood and breeding lose the self- control and reserve on which he prided himself, but he had been harassed by events to an unwonted strain of temper.

  “Is it making you unhappy to leave any one else here?” he blurted out.

  The challenge stirred the girl's spirit.

  “No, indeed! I wouldn't care if I never saw any of them again. I'm tired of it all. I want to go home,” she said, like a pathetic child.

  “Oh, Miss Polly,” he began, taking a step toward her, “if you'd only let me——”

  She put up one little sunburned hand.

  “Please, Fitz! I——I don't feel up to it to-day.”

  Humbly he subsided.

  “I'd no right to ask you the question,” he apologized. “It was kind of you to answer me at all.”

  “You're really a dear, Fitz,” she said, smiling a little wanly. “Sometimes I wish——”

  She did not finish her sentence, but wandered over to the window, and gazed out across the square. On the far side something quite out of the ordinary seemed to be going on.

  “The legless beggar seems to have collected quite an audience,” she remarked idly.

  Her suitor joined her on the parlor balcony.

  “Possibly he's starting a revolution. Any one can do it down here.”

  Vehement adjuration, in a high, strident voice, came floating across to them.

  “Listen!” cried the girl. “He's speaking. English, isn't he?”

  “It seems to be a mixture of English, French, and Spanish. Quite a polyglot the friend of your friend Perkins appears to be.”

  She turned steady eyes upon him.

  “Mr. Perkins is not my friend.”


  “I never want to see him, or to hear his name again.”

  “Ah, then you've found out about him?”

  “Yes.” She flushed. “Yes——at least——Yes,” she concluded.

  “He admitted it to you?”

  “No, he lied about it.”

  “I think I shall go up and make a call on Mr. Perkins,” said Carroll, with formidable quiet.

  “Oh, it doesn't matter,” she answered wearily. “He'd only run away and hide.” As she said it, her inner self convicted her tongue of lying.

  “Very likely. Yet, see here, Miss Polly,——I want to be fair to that fellow. It doesn't follow that because he's a coward he's a cad.”

  “He isn't a coward!” she flashed.

  “You just said yourself that he'd run and hide.”

  “Well, he wouldn't, and he is a cad.”

  “As you like. In any case, I shall make it a point to see him before I leave. If he can explain, well and good. If not——” He did not conclude.

  “Our orator seems to have finished,” observed the girl. “I shall go back upstairs and write some good-bye notes to the kind people here.”

  “Just for curiosity, I think I'll drive across and look at the legless Demosthenes,” said her companion. “I was going to do a little shopping, anyway. So I'll report later, if he's revoluting or anything exciting.”

  From her own balcony, when she reached it, Polly had a less obstructed view of the beggar's appropriated corner, and she looked out a few minutes after she reached the room to see whether he had resumed his oratory. Apparently he had not, for the crowd had melted away. The legless one was rocking himself monotonously upon his stumps. His head was sunk forward, and from his extraordinary mouthings the spectator judged that he must be talking to himself with resumed vehemence. From what next passed before her astonished vision, Miss Brewster would have suspected herself of a hallucination of delirium had she not been sure of normal health.

  One of the well-horsed, elegant little public victorias with which the city is so well supplied stopped at the curb, and the handsome head of Preston Fairfax Fitzhugh Carroll was thrust forth. At almost the same moment the Unspeakable Perk appeared upon the steps. He was wearing a pair of enormous, misfit white gloves. He went down to the beggar, reached forth a hand, and, to the far- away spectator's wonder-struck interpretation, seemed to thrust something, presumably a document, into the breast of the mendicant's shirt. Having performed this strange rite, he leaped up the steps, hesitated, rushed over to Carroll's equipage, and laid violent hands upon the occupant, with obvious intent to draw him forth. For a moment they seemed to struggle upon the sidewalk; then both rushed upon the unfortunate beggar and proceeded to kidnap him and thrust him bodily into the cab.

  The driver turned in his seat at this point, his cue in the mad farce having been given, and opened speech with many gestures, whereupon Carroll arose and embraced him warmly. And with this grouping, the vehicle, bearing its lunatic load, sped around the corner and disappeared, while the sole interested witness retired to obscurity, with her reeling head between her hands.

  One final touch of phantasy was given to the whole affair when, two hours later, she met Carroll, soiled and grimy, coming across the plaza, smoking——he, the addict to thirty-cent Havanas!——an awful native cheroot, whose incense spread desolation about him. Further and more extraordinary, when she essayed to obtain a solution of the mystery from him, he repelled her with emphatic gestures and a few half-strangled words with whose unintelligibility the cheroot fumes may have had some connection, and hurried into the hotel, where he remained in seclusion the rest of the day.

  What in the name of all the wonders could it mean? On Mr. Brewster's return, she laid the matter before him at the dinner table.

  “Touch of the sun, perhaps,” he hazarded. “Nothing else I know of would explain it.”

  “Do two Americans, a half-breed beggar, and a local coachman get sunstruck at one and the same time?” she inquired disdainfully.

  “Doesn't seem likely. By your account, though, the crippled beggar seems to have been the little Charlie Ross of melodrama.”

  “Then why didn't he shout for help? I listened, but didn't hear a sound from him.”

  “Movie-picture rehearsal,” grunted Mr. Brewster. “I can't quite see the heir of all the Virginias in the part. Isn't he coming down to dinner this evening?”

  “His dinner was sent up to his room. Isn't it extraordinary?”

  “Ask Sherwen about it. He's coming around this evening for coffee in our rooms.”

  But the American representative had something else on his mind besides casual kidnapings.

  “I've just come from a talk with the British Minister,” he remarked, setting down his cup. “He's officially in charge of American interests, you know.”

  “Thought you were,” said Mr. Brewster.

  “Officially, I have no existence. The United States of America is wiped off the map, so far as the sovereign Republic of Caracuna is concerned. Some of its politicians wouldn't be over-grieved if the local Americans underwent the same process. The British Minister would, I'm sure, sleep easier if you were all a thousand miles away from here.”

  “Tell Sir Willet that he's very ungallant,” pouted Miss Polly. “When I sat next to him at dinner last week he offered to establish woman suffrage here and elect me next president if I'd stay.”

  Sherwen hardly paid this the tribute of a smile.

  “That was before he found out certain things. The Hochwald Legation”——he lowered his voice——“is undoubtedly stirring up anti- American sentiment.”

  “But why?” inquired Mr. Brewster. “There's enough trade for them and for us?”

  “For one thing, they don't like your concessions, Mr. Brewster. Then they have heard that Dr. Pruyn is on his way, and they want to make all the trouble they can for him, and make it impossible for him to get actual information of the presence of plague. I happen to know that their consul is officially declaring fake all the plague rumors.”

  “That suits me,” declared the magnate. “We don't want to have to run Dutch and quarantine blockade both.”

  “Meantime, there are two or three cheap but dangerous demagogues who have been making anti-'Yanki,' as they call us, speeches in the slums. Sir Willet doesn't like the looks of it. If there were any way in which you could get through, and to sea, it would be well to take it at once. Am I correct in supposing that you've taken steps to clear the yacht, Mr. Brewster?”

  “Yes. That is, I've sent a message. Or, at least, so my daughter, to whose management I left it, believes.”

  “Don't tell me how,” said Sherwen quickly. “There is reason to believe that it has been dispatched.”

  “You've heard something?”

  “I have a message from our consul at Puerto del Norte, Mr. Wisner.”

  “For me?” asked the concessionaire.

  “Why, no,” was the hesitant reply. “It isn't quite clear, but it seems to be for Miss Brewster.”

  “Why not?” inquired that young lady coolly. “What is it?”

  “The best I could make of it over the phone——Wisner had to be guarded——was that people planning to take Dutch leave would better pay their parting calls by to-morrow at the latest.”

  “That would mean day after to-morrow, wouldn't it?” mused the girl.

  “If it means anything at all,” substituted her father testily.

  “Meantime, how do you like the Gran Hotel Kast, Miss Brewster?” asked Sherwen.

  “It's awful beyond words! I've done nothing but wish for a brigade of Biddies, with good stout mops, and a government permit to clean up. I'd give it a bath!”

  “Yes, it's pretty bad. I'm glad you don't like it.”

  “Glad? Is every one ag'in' poor me?”

  “Because——well, the American Legation is a very lonely place. Now, the presence of an American lady——”

  “Are you offering a proposal of marriage, Mr. Sherwen?” twinkled the girl. “If so——Dad, please leave the room.”

  “Knock twenty years off my battle-scarred life and you wouldn't be safe a minute,” he retorted. “But, no. This is a measure of safety. Sir Willet thinks that your party ought to be ready to move into the American Legation on instant notice, if you can't get away to sea to-morrow.”

  “What's the use, if the legation has no official existence?” asked Mr. Brewster.

  “In a sense it has. It would probably be respected by a mob. And, at the worst, it adjoins the British Legation, which would be quite safe. If it weren't that Sir Willet's boy has typhoid, you'd be formally invited to go there.”

  “It's very good of you,” said Miss Polly warmly. “But surely it would be an awful nuisance to you.”

  “On the contrary, you'd brace up my far-too-casual old housekeeper and get the machinery running. She constantly takes advantage of my bachelor ignorance. If you say you'll come, I'll almost pray for the outbreak.”

  “Certainly we'll come, at any time you notify us,” said Mr. Brewster. “And we're very grateful. Shall you have room for Mr. Carroll, too?”

  “By all means. And I've notified Mr. Cluff. You won't mind his being there? He's a rough diamond, but a thoroughly decent fellow.”

  “Useful, too, in case of trouble, I should judge,” said the magnate. “Then I'll wait for further word from you.”

  “Yes. I've got my men out on watch.”

  “Wouldn't it be——er——advisable for us to arm ourselves?”

  “By no means! There's just one course to follow; keep the peace at any price, and give the Hochwaldians not the slightest peg on which to hang a charge that Americans have been responsible for any trouble that might arise. May I ask you,” he added significantly, “to make this clear to Mr. Carroll?”

  “Leave that to me,” said Miss Brewster, with superb confidence.

  “Content, indeed! You'll find our locality very pleasant, Miss Brewster. Three of the other legations are on the same block, not including the Hochwaldian, which is a quarter of a mile down the hill. On our corner is a house where several of the English railroad men live, and across is the Club Amicitia, made up largely of the jeunesse doree, who are mostly pro-American. So you'll be quite surrounded by friends, not to say adherents.”

  “Call on me to housekeep for you at any time,” cried Polly gayly. “I'll begin to roll up my sleeves as soon as I get dressed to- morrow.”

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