The Unspeakable Perk by Samuel Hopkins Adams
X. The Folly of Perk
Of the comprehensive superiority of the American Legation over the Gran Hotel Kast there could be no shadow of a doubt. From the moment of their arrival at noon of the day after the British Minister's warning, the refugees found themselves comfortable and content, Miss Brewster having quietly and tactfully taken over the management of internal affairs and reigning, at Sherwen's request, as generalissima. No disturbance had marked the transfer to their new abode. In fact, so wholly lacking was any evidence of hostility to the foreigners on the part of the crowds on the streets that the Brewsters rather felt themselves to be extorting hospitality on false pretenses. Sherwen, however, exhibited signal relief upon seeing them safely housed.
"Please stay that way, too," he requested.
"But it seems so unnecessary, and I want to market," protested Miss Polly.
"By no means! The market is the last place where any of us should be seen. It is in that section that Urgante has been doing his work."
"Who is he?"
"A wandering demagogue and cheap politician. Abuse of the 'Yankis' is his stock in trade. Somebody has been furnishing him money lately. That's the sole fuel to his fires of oratory."
"Bet the bills smelled of sauerkraut when they reached him," grunted Cluff, striding over to the window of the drawing-room, where the informal conference was being held.
"They may have had a Hochwaldian origin," admitted Sherwen. "But it would be difficult to prove."
"At least the Hochwald Legation wouldn't shed any tears over a demonstration against us," said Carroll.
"Well within the limits of diplomatic truth," smiled the American official.
"Pooh!" Mr. Brewster puffed the whole matter out of consideration. "I don't believe a word of it. Some of my acquaintances at the club, men in high governmental positions, assure me that there is no anti-American feeling here."
"Very likely they do. Frankness and plain-speaking being, as you doubtless know, the distinguishing mark of the Caracunan statesman."
The sarcasm was not lost upon Mr. Brewster, but it failed to shake his skepticism.
"There are some business matters that require that I should go to the office of the Ferro carril del Norte this afternoon," he said.
"I beg that you do nothing of the sort," cried Sherwen sharply.
The magnate hesitated. He glanced out of the window and along the street, close bounded by blank-walled houses, each with its eyes closed against the sun. A solitary figure strode rapidly across it.
"There's that bug-hunting fellow again," said Mr. Brewster. "He's an American, I guess,--God save the mark! Nobody seems to be interfering with him, and he's freaky enough looking to start a riot on Broadway."
Further comment was checked by the voice of the scientist at the door, asking to see Mr. Sherwen at once. Miss Polly immediately slipped out of the room to the patio, followed by Carroll and Cluff.
"My business, probably," remarked Mr. Brewster. "I'll just stay and see." And he stayed.
So far as the newcomer was concerned, however, he might as well not have been there; so he felt, with unwonted injury. The scientist, disregarding him wholly, shook hands with Sherwen.
"Have you heard from Wisner yet?"
"Yes. An hour ago."
"What was his message?"
"All right, any time to-day."
"Good! Better get them down to-night, then, so they can start to- morrow morning."
"Will Stark pass them?"
"Under restrictions. That's all been seen to."
At this point it appeared to Mr. Brewster that he had figured as a cipher quite long enough.
"Am I right in assuming that you are talking of my party's departure?" he inquired.
"Yes," said Sherwen. "The Dutch will let you through the blockade."
"Then my cablegram reached the proper parties at Washington," said the magnate, with an I-knew-it-would-be-that-way air.
"Thanks to Mr. Perkins."
"Of course, of course. That will be--er--suitably attended to later."
The Unspeakable Perk turned and regarded him fixedly; but, owing to the goggles, the expression was indeterminable.
"The fact is it would be more convenient for me to go day after to-morrow than to-morrow."
"Then you'd better rent a house," was the begoggled one's sharp and brief advice.
"Why so?" queried the great man, startled.
"Because if you don't get out to-morrow, you may not get out for months."
"As I understand the Dutch permit, it specifies after to-day."
"It isn't a question of the Dutch. Caracuna City goes under quarantine to-night, and Puerto del Norte to-morrow, as soon as proper official notification can be given."
"Then plague has actually been found?"
"Determined by bacteriological test this morning."
"How do you know?"
"I was present at the finding."
"Who did it? Dr. Pruyn?"
The other nodded.
"Better make ready to move, Mr. Brewster," he advised. "You can't get out of port after quarantine is on. At least, you couldn't get into any other port, even if you sailed, because your sailing- master wouldn't have clearance papers."
The magnate smiled.
"I hardly think that any United States Consul, with a due regard for his future, would refuse papers to the yacht Polly," he observed.
"Don't be a fool!"
Thatcher Brewster all but jumped from his chair. That this adjuration should have come from the freakish spectacle-wearer seemed impossible. Yet Sherwen, the only other person in the room, was certainly not guilty.
"Did you address me, young man?"
"Do you know, sir, that since boyhood no person has dared or would dare to call me a fool?"
"Well, I don't want to set a fashion," said the other equably. "I'm only advising you not to be."
"Keep your advice until it's wanted."
"If it were a question of you alone, I would. But there are others to be considered. Now, listen, Mr. Brewster: Wisner and Stark wouldn't let you through that quarantine, after it's declared, if you were the Secretary himself. A point is being stretched in giving you this chance. If you'll agree to ship a doctor,--Stark will find you one,--stay out for six full days before touching anywhere, and, if plague develops, make at once for any detention station specified by the doctor, you can go. Those are Stark's conditions."
"Damnable nonsense!" declared Mr. Brewster, jumping to his feet, quite red in the face.
"Let me warn you, Mr. Brewster," put in Sherwen, with quiet force, "that you are taking a most unwise course. I am advised that Mr. Perkins is acting under instructions from our consulate."
"You say that Dr. Pruyn is here. I want to see him before--"
"How can you see him? Nobody knows where he is keeping himself. I haven't seen him yet myself. Now, Mr. Brewster, just sit down and talk this over reasonably with Mr. Perkins."
"Oh, no," said the third conferee positively; "I've no time for argument. At six o'clock I 'll be back here. Unless you decide by then, I'll telephone the consulate that the whole thing is off."
"Of all the impudent, conceited, self-important young whippersnappers!" fumed Mr. Brewster. But he found that he had no audience, as Sherwen had followed the scientist out of the room.
Before the afternoon was over, the American concessionnaire had come to realize that the situation was less assured than he had thought. Twice the British Minister had come, and there had been calls from the representatives of several other nationalities. Von Plaanden, in full uniform and girt with the short saber that is the special and privileged arm of the crack cavalry regiment to which he belonged at home, had dismounted to deliver personally a huge bouquet for Miss Brewster, from the garden of the Hochwald Legation, not even asking to see the girl, but merely leaving the flowers as a further expression of his almost daily apology, and riding on to an official review at the military park.
He had spoken vaguely to Sherwen of a restless condition of the local mind. Reports, it appeared, had been set afloat among the populace to the effect that an American sanitary officer had been bribed by the enemies of Caracuna to declare plague prevalent, in order to close the ports and strangle commerce. Urgante was going about the lower part of the city haranguing on street corners without interference from the police. In the arroyo of the slaughter-house, two American employees of the street-car company had been stoned and beaten. Much aguardiente was in process of consumption, it being a half-holiday in honor of some saint, and nobody knew what trouble might break out.
"Bolas are rolling around like balls on a billiard table," said young Raimonda, who had come after luncheon to call on Miss Brewster. "In this part of the city there will be nothing. You needn't be alarmed."
"I'm not afraid," said Miss Polly.
"I'm sure of it," declared the Caracunan, with admiration. "You are very wonderful, you American women."
"Oh, no. It's only that we love excitement," she laughed.
"Ah, that is all very well, for a bull-fight or 'la boxe.' But for one of our street emeutes--no; too much!"
They were seated on the roof of the half-story of the house, which had been made into a trellised porch overlooking the patio in the rear and the street in front, an architectural wonder in that city of dead walls flush with the sidewalk line all the way up. Leaning over the rail, the visitor pointed through the leaves of a small gallito tree to a broad-fronted building almost opposite.
"That is my club. You have other friends there who would do anything for you, as I would, so gladly," he added wistfully. "Will you honor me by accepting this little whistle? It is my hunting-whistle. And if there should be anything--but I think there will not--you will blow it, and there will be plenty to answer. If not, you will keep it, please, to remember one who will not forget you."
Handsome and elegant and courtly he was, a true chevalier of adventurous pioneering stock, sprung from the old proud Spanish blood, but there stole behind the girl's vision, as she bade him farewell, the undesired phantasm of a very different face, weary and lined and lighted by steadfast gray eyes--eyes that looked truthful and belonged to a liar! Miss Polly Brewster resumed her final packing in a fume of rage at herself.
All hands among the visitors passed the afternoon dully. Mr. Brewster, who had finally yielded to persuasion and decided not to venture out, though still deriding the restriction as the merest nonsense, was in a mood of restless silence, which his irrepressible daughter described to Fitzhugh Carroll as "the superior sulks."
Carroll himself kept pretty much aloof. He had the air of a man who wrestles with a problem. Cluff fussed and fretted and privately cursed the country and all its concessions. Between calls and the telephone, Sherwen was kept constantly busy. But a few minutes before six, central, in the blandest Spanish, regretted to inform him that Puerto del Norte was cut off. When would service be resumed? Quien sabe? It was an order. Hasta manana. To-morrow, perhaps. Smoothing a furrow from his brow, the sight of which would have done nobody any good, he suggested that they all gather on the roof porch for a swizzle. The suggestion was hailed with enthusiasm.
Thus, when the Unspeakable Perk came hustling down the street some minutes earlier than the appointed time, he was hailed in Sherwen's voice, and bidden to come directly up. No time, on this occasion, for Miss Polly to escape. She decided in one breath to ignore the man entirely; in the next to bow coldly and walk out; in the next to--He was there before the latest wavering decision could be formulated.
"Better all get inside," he said a little breathlessly. "There may be trouble."
Cluff brightened perceptibly.
"What kind of trouble?"
"Urgante is leading a mob up this way. They're turning the corner now."
"I'm going to wait and see them," cried Miss Polly, with decision.
"Bend over, then, all of you," ordered Sherwen. "The vines will cover you if you keep down."
Around the corner, up the hill from where they were, streamed a rabble of boys, leaping and whooping, and after them a more compact crowd of men, shoeless, centering on a tall, broad, heavy- mustached fellow who bore on a short staff the Stars and Stripes.
"Where on earth did he get that?" cried Sherwen.
"Looted the Bazaar Americana," replied Perkins.
"That's Urgante," growled Cluff; "that devil with the flag."
"But he seems to be eulogizing it," cried the girl.
The orator had set down his bright burden, wedging it in the iron guard railing of a tree, and was now apostrophizing it with extravagant bows and honeyed accents in which there was an undertone of hiss. For confirmation, Miss Polly turned to the others. The first face her eyes fell on was that of the ball- player. Every muscle in it was drawn, and from the tightened lips streamed such whispered curses as the girl never before had heard. Next him stood the hermit, solid and still, but with a queer spreading pallor under his tan. In front of them Sherwen was crouched, scowlingly alert. The expression of Mr. Brewster and Carroll, neither of whom understood Spanish, betokened watchful puzzlement.
Enlightenment burst upon them the next minute. From the motley crowd below rose a snarl of laughter and savage jeering, the object of which was unmistakable.
"By G--d!" cried Mr. Brewster, straightening up and grasping the railing. "They're insulting the flag!"
"I've left my pistol!" muttered Carroll, white-lipped. "I've left my pistol!"
Polly Brewster's hand flew to her belt.
She drew out the automatic and held it toward the Southerner. But it was not Carroll's hand that met hers; it was the Unspeakable Perk's.
"No," said he, and he flung the weapon back of him into the patio.
"Oh! Oh!" cried the girl. "You unspeakable coward!"
Carroll jumped forward, but Sherwen was equally quick. He interposed his slight frame.
"Perkins is right," he said decisively. "No shooting. It would be worth the life of every one here. We've got to stand it. But somebody is going to sweat blood for this day's work!"
The instinct of discipline, characteristic of the professional athlete, brought Cluff to his support.
"What Mr. Sherwen says, goes," he said, almost choking on the words. "We've got to stand it."
In the breast of Miss Polly Brewster was no response to this spirit. She was lawless with the lawlessness of unconquered youth and beauty.
"Oh!" she breathed "If I had my pistol back, I'd shoot that beast myself!"
The scientist turned his goggles hesitantly upon her.
"Miss Brewster," he began, "please don't think--"
"Don't speak to me!" she cried.
Another clamor of derision sounded from the street as Urgante resumed the standard of his mockery and led his rabble forward. Behind the dull-colored mass appeared a spot of splendor. It was Von Plaanden, gorgeous in his full regalia, who had turned the corner, returning from the public reception. Well back of the mob, he pulled his horse up, and sat watching. The coincidence was unfortunate. It seemed to justify Sherwen's bitter words:--
"Come to visa his work. There's the Hochwaldian for you!"
Forward danced and reeled the "Yanki" baiters below, until they were under the balcony where the little group of Americans sheltered and raged silently. There the orator again spewed forth his contempt upon the alien banner, and again the ranks behind him shrieked their approval of the affront. Miss Polly Brewster, American of Americans, whose great-grandfathers had fought with Herkimer and Steuben,--themselves the sons of women who had stood by the loopholes of log houses and caught up the rifles of their fallen pioneer husbands, wherewith to return the fire of the besieging Mohawks,--ran forward to the railing, snatching her skirt from the detaining grasp of her father. In the corner stood a huge bowl of roses. Gathering both hands full, she leaned forward and flung them, so that they fell in a shower of loveliness upon the insulted flag of her nation.
For an instant silence fell upon the "great unwashed" below. Out of it swelled a muttering as the leader made a low, mocking obeisance to the girl, following it with a word that brought a jubilant yelp from his adherents. Stooping, he ladled up in his cupped hand a quantity of gutter filth. Where the flowers had but a moment before fluttered in the folds, he splotched it, smearing star, bar, and blue with its blackness. At the sight, the girl burst into helpless tears, and so stood weeping, openly, bitterly, and unashamed.
No brain is so well ordered, no emotion so thoroughly controlled, but that under sudden pressure--click!--the mechanism slips a cog and runs amuck. Just that thing happened inside the Unspeakable Perk's smooth-running, scientific brain upon incitement of his flag's desecration and his lady's grief. To her it seemed that he shot past her horizontally like a human dart. The next second he was over the railing, had swung from a branch of the neighboring tree to the trunk, and leaped to the ground, all in one movement of superhuman agility. To the mob his exploit was apparently without immediate significance. Perhaps they didn't notice the descent; or perhaps those few who saw were so astonished at the apparition of a chunky tree-man with protuberant eyes scrambling down upon them in the manner of an ape, that they failed to appreciate what it might portend of trouble.
The hermit landed solidly on his feet a few yards from Urgante, the flag bearer. With a berserker yell, he rushed. Taken by surprise, the assailed one still had time to lift the heavy staff. As quickly, the American lowered his head and dove. It may not have been magnificent; it certainly was not war by the rules; but it was eminently effective. To say that the leader went down would be absurdly inadequate. He simply crumpled. Over and over he rolled on the cobbles, while the smirched flag flew clear of his grasp, and fell on the farther sidewalk.
"Wow!" yelled Cluff, leaping into the air. "Football! That cost him a couple of ribs. Hey, Rube!"
And he rushed for the stairs, followed by Carroll, Sherwen, and, only one jump behind, Mr. Thatcher Brewster, cursing in a manner that did credit to his patriotism, but would have added no luster to his record as an elder of the Pioneer Presbyterian Church, of Utica, New York.
Meantime, the Unspeakable Perk, having rolled free of the fallen enemy, staggered to his feet and caught up the flag. Stunned surprise on the part of the crowd gave him an instant's time. He edged along the curb, hoping to gain the legation door by a rush. But the foe threw out a wing, cutting him off. Several eager followers had lifted Urgante, whose groans and curses suggested a sound basis for Cluff's diagnosis. Himself quite hors de combat, he spat at the Unspeakable Perk, and cried upon his henchmen to kill the "Yanki." It seemed not improbable to the latter that they would do it. Perkins set his back to the wall, twirled the flag folds tight around the pole, reversed and clubbed the staff, and prepared to make any attempt at killing as uncomfortable and unprofitable as possible. The rabble, by no means favorably impressed by these businesslike proceedings, stood back, growling.
A hand flew up above the crowd. The Unspeakable Perk ducked sharply and just in time, as a knife struck the wall above him and clattered to the pavement. Instantly he caught it up, but the blade had snapped off short. As he stooped, one bold spirit rushed in. Perkins met him with a straight lance-thrust of the staff, which sent him reeling and shrieking with pain back to his fellows. But now another knife, and another, struck and fell from the wall at his back; badly aimed both, but presumably the forerunners of missiles, some of which would show better marksmanship. The assailed man cast a swift, desperate look about him; the crowd closed in a little. Obviously he must keep "eyes front."
"To your left! To your left!" The voice came to him clear and sweet above the swelling growl of the rabble. "The doorway! Get into the doorway, Mr. Beetle Man."
A few paces away, how far Perkins could only guess, was the entrance to the house. He surmised that, like many of the better- class houses, it had a small set-in door, at right angles to the main entrance, that would serve as a shallow shelter. Without raising his eyes, he nodded comprehension, and began to edge along the wall, swinging his stout weapon. As he went, he wondered what was keeping the others. At that moment the others were frantically wrestling with the all-too-adequate bars with which Sherwen had reinforced the wide door.
Perkins, feeling with a cautious heel, found himself opposite the entry indicated by the voice. Turning, he darted into the narrow embrasure. Here he was comparatively safe from the missiles that were now coming from all directions. On the other hand, he now lacked room to swing his formidable club. The peons, with a shout, closed in to arm's length. Alone on her balcony, the girl turned her head away and cried aloud, hopelessly, for help. She wanted to close her ears against the bestial shouts of a mob trampling to death a defenseless man, but her arms were of lead. She listened and shivered.
Instead of the sound that she dreaded there came the ringing of hoofs on stones, followed by yells of alarm. She opened her eyes to see Von Plaanden, bent forward in his saddle at the exact angle proper to the charge, urging his great horse down upon the mass of people as ruthlessly as if they had been so many insects. Through the circle he broke, swinging his mount around beside the shallow doorway before which three Caracunans already lay sprawled, attesting the vigor of the defender's final resistance. Back of the horseman lay half a dozen other figures. The Hochwaldian jerked out his sword and stood, a splendid spectacle. Very possibly he was not wholly unmindful of his own pictorial quality or of the lovely American witness thereto.
His intervention gave a few seconds' respite, one of those checks that save battles and make history. Now, in the further making of this particular history, sounded a lusty whoop from the opposite direction; such a battle slogan as only the Anglo-Saxon gives. It emanated from Galpy the bounder, bounding now, indeed, at full speed up the slope, followed by two of his fellow railroad men, flannel-clad and still perspiring from their afternoon's cricket. Against bare legs a cricket bat is a highly dissuasive argument. The Britons swung low and hard for the ancient right of the breed to break into a row wherever white men are in the minority against other races. The downhill wing of the mob being much the weakest, opened up for them with little resistance, leaving them a free path to the cavalryman, to whose side Perkins, with staff ready brandished, had advanced from his shelter.
"Wot's the merry game?" inquired the cockney cheerfully.
Before them the crowd swayed and parted, and there appeared, lifted by many arms, a figure with a dead-white face streaked with blood, running from a great gash in the scalp.
"He went down in front of my horse," explained the Hochwald secretary coolly.
At the sight, there rose from the crowd a wailing cry, quite different from its former voice. Galpy's teeth set and his cricket bat went up in the air.
"There'll be killing for this," he said. "I know these blightehs. That yell means blood. We must make a bolt for it. Is this all there is of us?"
At the moment of his asking, it was. One half a second later, it wasn't, as the last of the legation's stubborn bars yielded, the door burst open, and the four Americans tumbled out at the charge, Cluff yelling insanely, Carroll in deadly quiet, Sherwen alertly scanning the adversaries for identifiable faces, and Elder Brewster still imperiling his soul by the fervor of his language. Each was armed with such casual weapons as he had been able to catch up. Carroll, a leap in advance of the rest, encountered an Indian drover, half-dodged a swinging blow from his whip, and sent him down with a broken shoulder from a chop with a baseball club that he had found in the hallway. A bull-like charge had carried Cluff deep among the Caracunans, where he encountered a huge peon. whom he seized and flung bodily over the iron guard of a samon tree, where the man hung, yelling dismally. Two other peons, who had seized the athlete around the knees, were all but brained by a stoneware gin bottle in the hands of Sherwen. Meanwhile, Mr. Brewster was performing prodigies with a niblick which he had extracted, at full run, from a bag opportunely resting against the hat-rack. Almost before they knew it, the rescue party had broken the intercepting wing of the mob, and had joined the others.
Cluff threw a gorilla-like arm across the Unspeakable Perk's shoulder,
"Hurt, boy?" he cried anxiously.
"No, I'm all right. Who's left with Miss Brewster?"
"Nobody. We must get back."
Sherwen's cool voice cut in:--
"Close together, now. Keep well up. Herr von Plaanden, will you cover us at the end?"
"It is the post of honor," said the Hochwaldian.
"You've earned it. But for you, they'd have got our colors."
The foreigner bowed, and swung his horse toward a Caracunan who had pressed forward a little too near. But, for the moment the fight had oozed out of the mob.
Without mishap the group got across the street, Perkins still clinging to the flag.
Suddenly, from the rear rank, came a shower of stones, followed by the final rush. Galpy and Perkins went down. Von Plaanden tottered in his saddle, but quickly recovered. Instantly Perkins was up again, the blood streaming from the side of his head. He was conscious of brown hands clutching at the cricketer, to drag him away. He himself seized the cockney's legs and braced for that absurd and deadly tug of war. Then Von Plaanden's saber descended, and he was able to haul Galpy back into safety.
The situation was desperate now. Mr. Brewster was pinned against the wall and disarmed, but still fighting with fist and foot. Half a dozen peons were struggling with Cluff across the bodies of as many more whom he had knocked down. Sherwen, almost under the cavalryman's mount, was protecting his rear with the fallen Galpy's cricket bat, and the two other cricketers were fighting back to back on the other side. Carroll was clubbing his way toward Mr. Brewster, but his weapon was now in his left hand. Matters looked dark indeed, when there shrilled fiercely from above them the whirring peal of a silver whistle.
Polly Brewster had remembered Raimonda. It seemed a futile signal, for as she ran to the railing and gazed across at the Club Amicitia, she saw all its windows and doors tight closed, as befits an aristocratic club that has no concern with the affairs of the rabble. But there is no way of closing a patio from the top, and sounds can enter readily that way, when all other apertures are shut. Long and loud Miss Polly blew the signal on the silver hunting-whistle.
In the club patio, Raimonda was chafing and wondering, and a score of his friends were drinking and waiting. That signal released their activities and terminated the battle of the American Legation most ingloriously for the forces of Urgante. For the gilded youth of Caracuna bears a heavy cane of fashion, and carries a ready revolver, also, although not so admittedly as a matter of fashion. Furthermore, he has a profound contempt for the peon class; a contempt extending to life and limb. Therefore, when some two dozen young patricians sallied abruptly forth with their canes, and the mob caught sight, here and there, of a glint of nickel against the black, it gave back promptly. Some desultory stones rattled against the walls. There were answering reports a few, and sundry yells of pain. The army of Urgante broke and fled down the side streets, leaving behind its broken and its wounded. Most of the bullet casualties were below the knee. The Caracunan aristocrat always fires low--the first time.
Shortly thereafter, Miss Polly Brewster appeared upon the balcony of the American Legation, and performed an illegal act. Upon a day not designated as a Caracunan national holiday, she raised the flag of an alien nation and fixed it, and the gilded youth of Caracuna in the street below cheered, not the flag, which would have been unpatriotic, but the flag-raiser, which was but gallant, until they were hoarse and parched of throat.