XI. Presto Change
 

After the battle, Miss Brewster reviewed her troops, and took stock of casualties, in the patio. None of the allied forces had come off scatheless. Galpy, whose injuries had at first seemed the most severe, responded to a stiff dose of brandy. A cut across the scientist's head had been hastily bandaged in a towel, giving him, as he observed, the appearance of a dissipated Hindu. To Von Plaanden's indignant disgust, his military splendor was seriously impaired by a huge "hickey" over his left eye, the memento of a well-aimed rock. Cluff had broken a finger and sprained his wrist. Mr. Brewster was anxious to know if any one had seen two teeth of his on the pavement or whether he was to look for later digestive indications of their whereabouts. Both of the young cricketers had been battered and bruised, though it was nothing, they gleefully averred, to what they had meted out. And Carroll had a nasty- looking knife-thrust in his shoulder.

All of them were disheveled, dilapidated, and grimy to the last degree, except the Hochwaldian, who still sat his horse, which he had ridden into the patio. But Miss Polly said to herself, with a thrill of pride, that no woman need wish a more gallant and devoted band of defenders. Leaning over them from the inner railing of the balcony, she surveyed them with sparkling eyes.

"It was magnificent!" she cried. "Oh, I'm so proud of you all! I could hug you, every one!"

"Better come down from there, Polly," said her father anxiously. "Some of those ruffians might come back."

"Not to-day," said Sherwen grimly. "They've had enough."

"That is correct," confirmed Von Plaanden. "Nevertheless, there may be disorder later. Would it not be better that you go to the British Legation, Fraulein?"

"Not I!" she returned. "I stay by my colors. And now I'm going to disband my army."

Stretching out her hand to a vase near her, she drew out a rose of deepest red and held it above Von Plaanden.

"The color of my country," said Von Plaanden gravely. "May I take it for a sign that I am forgiven?"

"Fully, freely, and gladly," said the girl. "You have put a debt upon us all that I--that we can never repay."

"It is I who pay. You will not think of me too hardly, for my one breach?"

"I shall think of you as a hero," said the girl impetuously. "And I shall never forget. Catch, O knight."

The rose fell, and was caught. Von Plaanden bowed low over it. Then he straightened to the military salute, and so rode out of the door and out of the girl's life.

"Men are strange creatures," mused the philosopher of twenty. "You think they are perfectly horrid, and suddenly they show their other side to you, and you think they are perfectly splendid. I wish I knew a little more about real people."

She confessed to no more specific thought, but as she descended the stairs to bid farewell to the blushing and deprecatory Britons, she was eager to have it over with, and to come to speech with her beetle man, who had so strangely flamed into action. The Unspeakable Perk! As the name formed on her lips, she smiled tenderly. With sad lack of logic, she was ready to discard every suspicion of him that she had harbored, merely on the strength of his reckless outbreak of patriotism. She looked about the patio, but he was not there. Sherwen came out of a side door, his face puckered with anxiety.

"Where is Mr. Perkins?" she asked.

"In there." He nodded back over his shoulder. "Your father is with him. Perhaps you'd better go in."

With a chill at her heart, Polly entered the room, where Mr. Brewster bent a troubled face over a head swathed in reddened bandages.

Very crumpled and limp looked the Unspeakable Perk, bunched humpily upon the little sofa. His goggles had fallen off, and lay on the floor beside him, contriving somehow to look momentously solemn and important all by themselves. His face was turned half away, and, as Polly's gaze fell upon it, she felt again that queer catch at her heart.

"Wouldn't know it was the same chap, would you?" whispered Mr. Brewster.

The girl picked up the grotesque spectacles, cradling them for an instant in her hands before she put them aside and leaned over the quiet form.

"Came staggering in, and just collapsed down there," continued her father huskily. "Lord, I wouldn't lose that boy after this for a million dollars!"

"Why do you talk that way?" she demanded sharply. "What has happened? Did he faint?"

"Just collapsed. When I tried to rouse him, he kicked me in the chest," replied the magnate, with somber seriousness.

"Oh, you goose of a dad!" There was a tremulous note in Polly's low laughter. "That's all right, then. Can't you see he's dead for sleep, poor beetle man?"

"Do you think so?" said Mr. Brewster, vastly relieved. "Hadn't I better go out for a doctor, and make sure?"

She shook her head.

"Let him rest. Hand me that pillow, please, dad."

With soft little pushes and wedges she worked it under the scientist's head. "What a dreadful botch of bandaging! He looks so pale! I wonder if I couldn't get those cloths off. Lend me your knife, dad."

Gently as she worked, the head on the pillow began to sway, and the lips to move.

"Oh, let me alone!" they muttered querulously.

The eyes opened. The Unspeakable Perk gazed up into the faces above him, but saw only one, a face whose tender concern softened it to a loveliness greater even than when he had last seen it. He tried to rise, but the hands that pressed him back were firm and quick.

"Lie still!" bade their owner.

A thin film of color mounted to his cheeks.

"I--I--beg your pardon," he stammered. "I--I--d-didn't know--"

"Don't be a goose!" she adjured him. "It's only me."

"Yes, that's the trouble." He closed his eyes again, and began to murmur.

"What does he say?" asked Mr. Brewster, lowering his head and almost falling over backward as his astonished ears were greeted by the slowly intoned rhythm:--

    "Scarab, tarantula, doodle-bug, flea."

"Delirious!" exclaimed the magnate. "Clean off his head! How does one find a doctor in this town?"

"No need, dad," his daughter reassured him. "It's just a--a sort of game."

"Game! Did you hear what he said?"

"Well, a kind of password. It's all right, Dad. It is, really."

Still undecided, Mr. Brewster stared at the injured man.

"I don't know--" he began, when the eyes opened again.

"Feeling better?" inquired Polly briskly.

"Yes. The charm works perfectly."

"Anything I can do, or get, for you, my boy?" inquired Mr. Brewster, stepping forward.

"What's in the ice-box?" asked the other anxiously.

"Oh!" cried the girl in distress. "He's starving! When did you eat last?"

"I can't exactly remember. It was about five this morning, I think. A banana, and, as I recall it, a small one."

"Dad!" cried the girl, but that prompt and efficient gentleman was already halfway to the cook, dragging Sherwen along as interpreter.

"He'll get whatever there is in the shortest known time," the girl assured her patient. "Trust dad. Now, you lie back and let me fix up a fresh bandage."

"You'd have made a great trained nurse," he murmured, as she adjusted the clean strips that Sherwen had sent in. "Don't pin my ear down. It's got to help hold my goggles on."

"The dear funny goggles!" Picking them up, she patted them with dainty fingers, before setting them aside. He watched her uneasily, much in the manner of a dog whose bone has been taken away.

"Do you mind giving them back?" he said.

"But you're not going to wear them here," she protested.

"I've got so used to them," he explained apologetically, "that I don't feel really dressed without them."

She handed them back and he adjusted them to the bandages. "For the present, rest is prescribed you know," said she.

"Oh, no!" he declared. "As soon as I've had something to eat, I'll go. There are a hundred things to be done. Where are my gloves?"

"What gloves? Oh, those white abominations? Why on earth do you wear them?" Her glance fell upon his right hand, which lay half- open beside him. "Oh--oh--oh!" she cried in a rising scale of distress. "What have you done to your hands?"

He reddened perceptibly.

"Nothing."

"Nothing, indeed! Tell me at once!"

"I've been rowing."

"Where to?"

"Oh, out to a ship."

"There aren't any ships, except the Dutch warship. Was it to her?"

"Yes."

"To carry our message--my message?"

He squirmed.

"I'm awfully sleepy," he protested. "It isn't fair to cross- examine a witness--"

"When was it?" his ruthless interrogator broke in.

"Night before last."

"How far?"

"How can I tell? Not far. A few miles."

"And back. And it took you all night," she accused.

"What if it did?" he cried peevishly. "A man's got to have some relief from work, hasn't he? It was livelier than sitting all night with one's eye glued to a microscope barrel!"

"Oh, beetle man, beetle man! I don't know about you at all. What kind of a strange queer creature are you? Have you wings, Mr. Beetle Man?"

Suddenly she bent over and laid her soft lips upon the scarified palm. The Unspeakable Perk sat up, with a half-cry.

"Now the other one," said the girl. Her face was a mantle of rose- color, but her eyes shone.

"I won't! You shan't!"

"The other one!" she commanded imperiously.

"Please, Miss Brewster--"

A noise at the door saved him. There stood Thatcher Brewster, magnate, multi-millionaire, and master of men, a huge tray in his hands.

"Beefsteak, fried potatoes, alligator pear, fresh bread, real butter, coffee, and cake," he proclaimed jovially. "Not to mention a cocktail, which I compounded with my own skilled hands. Are you ready, my boy? Go!"

The Unspeakable Perk leaped from his couch.

"Food!" he cried. "Real American food! The perfume of it is a square meal."

"You're much gladder to see it than you were me," pouted Miss Polly.

"I'm not half as afraid of it," he admitted. "Mr. Brewster, your health."

"Here's to you, my boy. Now I'll leave you with your nurse, and make my final arrangements. We're off by special in the morning."

"That's fine!" said the scientist.

But Miss Polly Brewster caught the turn of his head in her direction, and saw that his fork had slackened in his hand. Something tightened around her heart.

As he went, her father considered her for a moment, and wondered. Never before had he seen such a look in her eyes as that which she had turned on the queer, vivid stranger so busily engaged at the tray. Polly, and this obscure scientist! After the kind of men whom the girl had known, enslaved, and eluded! Absurd! Yet if it were to be--Mr. Brewster reviewed the events of the afternoon-- well, it might be worse.

"By the Lord Harry, he's a man, anyway!" decided Thatcher Brewster.

Meanwhile, the subject of his musings began to feel like a man once more, instead of like a lath. Having wrought havoc among the edibles, he rose with a sigh.

"If I could have one hour's sleep," he said mournfully, "I'd be fit as a cricket."

"You shall," said the girl. "Mr. Sherwen says he won't let you out of the house until it's dark. And that's fully an hour."

"I ought to be on my way back now."

"Back where? To your mountains?"

"Yes."

"You'd be recognized and attacked before you could get out of the city. I won't let you."

"That wouldn't do, for a fact. Perhaps it would be safer to wait. I've made enough trouble for one day by my blunder-headed thoughtlessness."

"Is that what you call rescuing the flag?"

"Oh, rescuing!" he said slightingly. "What difference does it make what vermin like that mob do? Just for a whim, to endanger all of you."

She stared at him in amaze and suspicion. But he was quite honest.

"My whim," she reminded him.

"Yes; I suppose it was," he admitted thoughtfully. "When I saw you crying, I lost my head, and acted like a child."

"Then it was all my fault?"

"Oh, I don't say that. Certainly not. I'm master of my own actions. If I hadn't wanted--"

"But it was my fault this much, anyway, that you wouldn't have done it except for me."

"Yes; it was your fault to that extent," he said honestly. "I hope you don't mind my saying so."

"Oh, beetle man, beetle man!" She leaned forward, her eyes deep- lit pools of mirth and mockery and some more occult feeling that he could not interpret. "Would it scare you quite out of your poor, queer wits if I were to hug you? Don't call for help. I'm not really going to do it."

"I know you're not," said he dolefully. "But about that row, I want to set myself right. I'm no fool. I know it took a certain amount of nerve to go down there. And I was even proud of it, in a way. And when Von Plaanden turned and gave me the salute before he went away, I liked it quite a good deal."

"Did he do that? I love him for it!" cried the girl.

"But my point is this, that what I did wasn't sound common sense. Now if Carroll had done it, it would have been all right."

"Why for him and not for you?"

"Because those are his principles. They're not mine."

"I wish you weren't quite so contemptuous of poor Fitz. It seems hardly fair."

"Contemptuous of him? I'd give half my life to be in his place after to-morrow."

"Why?" There was a flutter in her throat as she put the question.

"Because he's going with you, isn't he?"

"So are you, if you will."

"I can't."

"Father won't go without you, I believe. Won't you come, if I ask you?"

"No."

"Work, I suppose," said the girl; "the work that you love better than anything in the world."

"You're wrong there." His voice was not quite steady now. "But it's work that has to have my first consideration now. And there is one special responsibility that I can't evade, for the present, anyway."

"And afterward?" She dared not look at him as she spoke.

"Ah, afterward. There's too much 'perhaps' in the afterward down here. We science grubbers on the outposts enlist for the term of the war," he said, smiling wanly.

"How can I--can we go and leave you here?" she demanded obstinately.

"Oh, give me a square meal once in a while, and a night's rest here and there, and I'll do well enough."

"Oh, dear! I forgot your sleep. Here I've been chattering like a magpie. Take off your coat and lie down on that sofa at once."

"Where shall I find you when I wake up?"

"Right where you leave me when you fall asleep."

"Oh, no! You mustn't wear yourself out watching over me."

"Hush! You're under orders. Give me the coat." She hung it on the back of a chair. "Not another word now. And I'll call you when time is up."

He closed his eyes, and the girl sat studying his face in the dim light, graving it deep on her inner vision, seeking to formulate some conception of the strange being so still and placid before her. How had she ever thought him ridiculous and uncouth? How had she ever dared to insult him by distrust? What did it matter what other men, estimating him by their own sordid standards, said of him? As if her thought had established a connection with his, he opened his eyes and sat up.

"I knew there was something I wanted to ask you," he said. "What did your 'Never, never, never' mean?"

"A foolish misunderstanding that I'm ashamed of."

"Was it that--that woman-gossip business?"

"Yes. I was stupid. Will you forgive me?"

"What is there to forgive? Some time, perhaps, you'll understand the whole thing."

"Please don't let's say anything more about it. I do understand."

This was not quite true. All that Polly Brewster knew was that, with those clear gray eyes meeting hers, she would have believed his honor clean and high against the world. The presence of the woman, even that dress fluttering in the wind, was susceptible of a hundred simple explanations.

"Ah, that's all right, then." There was relief in his tone. "Of course, in a place like this there is a lot of gossip and criticism. And when one runs counter to the general law--" "Counter to the law?"

"Yes. As a rule, I'm not 'beyond the pale of law,'" he said, smiling. "But down here one isn't bound by the same conventions as at home."

The girl's hand went to her throat in a piteous gesture.

"I--I--don't understand. I don't want to understand."

"There's got to be a certain broad-mindedness in these matters," he blundered on, with what seemed to her outraged senses an abominable jauntiness. "But the risk was small for me, and, of course, for her, anything was better than the other life. At that, I don't see how the truth reached you. What is it, Miss Polly?"

Rage, grief, and shame choked the girl's utterance.

Without a word, she ran from the room, leaving her companion a prey to troubled wonder.

In the patio, she turned sharply to avoid a group gathered around Galpy, who, with a patch over one eye, was trying to impart some news between gasps.

"Got it from the bulletin board of La Liberdad," he cried. "Killed; body gone; devil to pay all over the place."

"What's that?" demanded the Unspeakable Perk, running out, coatless and goggleless.

"There's been another riot, and Dr. Luther Pruyn is killed," explained Sherwen.

"Who says so?"

"Bulletin board--La Liberdad--just saw it," panted Galpy.

"Nonsense! It's a bola"

"The whole city is ringing with it. They say it was a plot to get him out of the way to stop quarantine. The Foreign Office is buzzing with inquiries, and Puerto del Norte is burning up the wires."

"Puerto del Norte! How did they hear?"

"Telephone, of course. I hear Wisner is coming up," said Sherwen.

"I've got to get a wire to the port at once," cried the scientist. "At once!"

"You! What for?"

"To stop off Wisner. To tell him it isn't so."

"You're excited, my boy," said Mr. Brewster kindly. "Better lie down again."

"It's true, right enough," said the Englishman. "Sir Willet's cochero saw the mob get him."

"When? Where?" asked Fitzhugh Carroll.

"Haven't got any details, but the Government admits it."

"I don't care if the President and his whole cabinet swear to it," vociferated the Unspeakable Perk. "It's a fake. How can I get Puerto del Norte, Mr. Sherwen?"

"You can't get it at all for any such purpose. How do you know it's a fake?"

"How do I know? Oh, dammit! I'M Luther Pruyn!"

He snatched off his glasses and faced them.

The little group stood petrified. Mr. Brewster was first to recover.

"Crazy, poor chap!" he said. "Luther Pruyn was my classmate."

"That's my father, Luther L."

"Proofs," said Sherwen sharply.

"In my coat pocket. In the room. Can I have your wire, Mr. Sherwen?"

"It's cut."

"Come to the railway wire," offered Galpy. "My eye! Wot a game!"

The two men ran out, the scientist leaving behind coat and goggles.

"It was our little mix-up that started the rumor," said Carroll thoughtfully. "Somebody recognized Perk--Dr. Pruyn."

"When his glasses fell off," said Cluff. "They're some disguise."

"He's Luther Pruyn, sure enough!" said Mr. Sherwen, emerging from the room. "Here's the proof." He held out an official-looking document. "An order from the Dutch Naval Office, made out in his name."

"What does it say?" asked Carroll.

"I'm not much of a hand at Dutch, but it seems to direct the blockading warship to receive Dr. Luther Pruyn and wife and convey them to Curacao."

"And wife!" exclaimed Cluff loudly. He whistled as a vent to his amazement. "That explains all the talk about a woman--a lady in his quinta on the mountains?"

"Apparently," said Carroll. "May I see that document, Mr. Sherwen?"

The American representative handed him the paper. As he was studying it, Galpy reentered, still scant of breath from excitement and haste. "He's gone back to the mountains," he announced. "Sent word for you to get to the port before dawn, if you have to walk. See Mr. Wisner there. He'll arrange everything."

"Will Mr. Perk--Dr. Pruyn be there?" asked Mr. Brewster.

"He didn't say."

"But he's gone without his coat!"

"And goggles," said Cluff.

"And his pass," added Sherwen.

"Trust him to come back for them when he gets ready. He's a rum josser for doing things his own way. Now, about the train." And Galpy outlined the plan of departure to the men, who, except Carroll, had gathered about him. The Southerner, unnoticed, had slipped into the room where the scientist's coat lay. Coming out by the lower door, he was intercepted by Miss Polly Brewster. He interpreted the misery in her face, and turned sick at heart with the pain of what it told him.

"You heard?" he asked.

She nodded. "Is it true? Did you see the permit yourself?"

"Yes. Here it is."

"I don't want to see it. It doesn't matter," she said, with utter weariness in her voice. "When do we leave? I want to go home. Send father to me, please, Fitz."

Mr. Brewster came to her, bearing the news that the sailing was set for the morrow.

"I'm glad to know that Dr. and Mrs. Pruyn are provided for," she remarked, so casually that the troubled father drew a breath of relief, concluding that he must have misinterpreted the girl's interest in the man behind the goggles.

On his way to the patio, he passed through the room where the scientist had lain. He came out looking perturbed.

"Has any one been in that room just now?" he asked Sherwen.

"Not that I've seen."

"The coat and the other things are not there."

Inquiry and search alike proved unavailing. Not until an hour later did they discover that Carroll had also disappeared. Sherwen found a note from him on the office desk:--

Please look after my luggage. Will join the others at the yacht to-morrow.

P. F. F. C.