II. At the Kast
 

One dines at the Gran Hotel Kast after the fashion of a champignon sous cloche. The top of the cloche is of fluted glass, with a wide aperture between it and the sides, to admit the rain in the wet season and the flies in the dry. Three balconies run up from the dining-room well to this roof, and upon these, as near to the railings as they choose, the rather conglomerate patronage of the place sleeps, takes baths, dresses, gossips, makes love, quarrels, and exchanges prophecies as to next Sunday's bullfight, while the diners below strive to select from the bill of fare special morsels upon which they will stake their internal peace for the day. No cabaret can hold a candle to it for variety of interest. When the sudden torrential storms sweep down the mountains at meal times, the little human champignons, beneath their insufficient cloche, rush about wildly seeking spots where the drippage will not wash their food away. Commercial travelers of the tropics have a saying: "There are worse hotels in the world than the Kast--but why take the trouble?" And, year upon year, they return there for reasons connected with the other hostelries of Caracuna, which I forbear to specify.

To Miss Polly Brewster, the Kast was a place of romance. Five miles away, as the buzzard flies, she could have dined well, even elegantly, on the Brewster yacht. Would she have done it? Not for worlds! Miss Brewster was entranced by the courtly manners of her waiter, who had lost one ear and no small part of the countenance adjacent thereto, only too obviously through the agency of some edged instrument not wielded in the arts of peace. She was further delightedly intrigued by the abrupt appearance of a romantic-hued gentleman, who thrust out over the void from the second balcony an anguished face, one side of which was profusely lathered, and addressed to all the hierarchy of heaven above, and the peoples of the earth beneath, a passionate protest upon the subject of a cherished and vanished shaving brush; what time, below, the head waiter was hastily removing from sight, though not from memory, a soup tureen whose agitated surface bore a creamy froth not of a lacteal origin. One may not with impunity balance personal implements upon the too tremulous rails of the ancient Kast.

With an appreciative and glowing eye, Miss Brewster read from her mimeographed bill of fare such legends as "ropa con carne," "bacalao seco," "enchiladas," and meantime devoured chechenaca, which, had it been translated into its just and simple English of "hash," she would not have given to her cat.

Nor did her visual and prandial preoccupations inhibit her from a lively interest in the surrounding Babel of speech in mingled Spanish, Dutch, German, English, Italian, and French, all at the highest pitch, for a few rods away the cathedral bells were saluting Heaven with all the clangor and din of the other place, and only the strident of voice gained any heed in that contest. Even after the bells paused, the habit of effort kept the voices up. Miss Brewster, dining with her father a few hours after her return from the mountain, absolved her conscience from any intent of eavesdropping in overhearing the talk of the table to the right of her. The remark that first fixed her attention was in English, of the super-British patois.

"Can't tell wot the blighter might look like behind those bloomin' brown glasses."

"But he's not bothersome to any one," suggested a second speaker, in a slightly foreign accent. "He regards his own affairs."

"Right you are, bo!" approved a tall, deeply browned man of thirty, all sinewy angles, who, from the shoulders up, suggested nothing so much as a club with a gnarled knob on the end of it, a tough, reliable, hardwood club, capable of dealing a stiff blow in an honest cause. "If he deals in conversation, he must sell it. I don't notice him giving any of it away."

"He gave some to Kast the last time he dined here," observed a languid and rather elegant elderly man, who occupied the fourth side of the table. "Mine host didn't like it."

"I should suppose Senior Kast would be hardened," remarked the young Caracunan who had defended the absent.

"Our eyeglassed friend scored for once, though. They had just served him the usual table-d'hote salad--you know, two leaves of lettuce with a caterpillar on one. Kast happened to be passing. Our friend beckoned him over. 'A little less of the fauna and more of the flora, Senior Kast,' said he in that gritty, scientific voice of his. I really thought Kast was going to forget his Swiss blood, and chase a whole peso of custom right out of the place."

"If you ask me, I think the blighter is barmy," asserted the Briton.

"Well, I'll ask you," proffered the elegant one kindly. "Why do you consider him 'barmy,' as you put it?"

"When I first saw him here and heard him speak to the waiter, I knew him for an American Johnny at once, and I went, directly I'd finished my soup, and sat down at his table. The friendly touch, y' know. 'I say,' I said to him, 'I don't know you, but I heard you speak, and I knew at once you were one of these Americans-- tell you at once by the beastly queer accent, you know. You are an American, ay--wot?' Wot d' you suppose the blighter said? He said, 'No, I'm an ichthyo'--somethin' or other--"

"Ichthyosaurus, perhaps," supplied the Caracunuan, smiling.

"That's it, whatever it may be. 'I'm an ichthyosaurus,' he says. 'It's a very old family, but most of the buttons are off. Were you ever bitten by one in the fossil state? Very exhilaratin', but poisonous,' he says. 'So don't let me keep you any longer from your dinner.' Of course, I saw then that he was a wrong un, so I cut him dead, and walked away."

"Served him right," declared the elderly American, with a solemn twinkle directed at the tall brown man, who, having opened his mouth, now thought better of it, and closed it again, with a grin.

"But he is very kind," said the native. "When my brother fell and broke his arm on the mountain, this gentleman found him, took care of him, and brought him in on muleback."

"Lives up there somewhere, doesn't he, Mr. Raimonda?" asked the big man.

"In the quinta of a deserted plantation," replied the Caracunan.

"Wot's he do?" asked the Englishman.

"Ah, that one does not know, unless Senor Sherwen can tell us."

"Not I," said the elderly man. "Some sort of scientific investigation, according to the guess of the men at the club."

"You never can tell down here," observed the Englishman darkly. "Might be a blind, you know. Calls himself Perkins. Dare say it isn't his name at all."

"Daughter," said Mr. Thatcher Brewster at this juncture, in a patient and plaintive voice, "for the fifth and last time, I implore you to pass me the butter, or that which purports to be butter, in the dish at your elbow."

"Oh, poor dad! Forgive me! But I was overhearing some news of an-- an acquaintance."

"Do you know any of the gentlemen upon whose conversation you are eavesdropping?"

In financial circles, Mr. Brewster was credited with the possession of a cold blue eye and a denatured voice of interrogation, but he seldom succeeded in keeping a twinkle out of the one and a chuckle out of the other when conversing with his daughter.

"Not yet," observed that damsel calmly.

"Meaning, I suppose I am to understand--"

"Precisely. Haven't you noticed them looking this way? Presently they'll be employing all their strategy to meet me. They'll employ it on you."

Mr. Brewster surveyed the group dubiously.

"In a country such as this, one can't be too--too cau--"

"Too particular, as you were saying," cut in his daughter cheerfully. "Men are scarce--except Fitzhugh, who is rather less scarce than I wish he were lately. You know," she added, with a covert glance at the adjoining table, "I wouldn't be surprised if you found yourself an extremely popular papa immediately after dinner. It might even go so far as cigars. Do you suppose that lovely young Caracunan is a bullfighter?"

"No; I believe he's a coffee exporter. Less romantic, but more respectable. Quite one of the gilded youth of Caracuna. His name is Raimonda. Fitzhugh knows him. By the way, where on earth is Fitzhugh?"

"Trying to fit a kind and gentlemanly expression over a swollen sense of injury, for a guess," replied the girl carelessly. "I left him in sweet and lone communion with nature three hours ago."

"Polly, I wish--"

"Oh, dad, dear, don't! You'll get your wish, I suppose, and Fitz, too. Only I don't want to be hurried. Here he is, now. Look at that smile! A sculptor couldn't have done any better. Now, as soon as he comes, I'm going to be quite nice and kind."

But Mr. Fairfax Preston Fitzhugh Carroll did not come direct to the Brewster table. Instead, he stopped to greet the elderly man in the near-by group, and presently drew up a chair. At first, their conversation was low-toned, but presently the young native added his more vivacious accents.

"Who can tell?" the Brewsters heard him say, and marked the fatalistic gesture of the upturned hands. "They disappear. One does not ask questions too much."

"Not here," confirmed the big man. "Always room for a few more in the undersea jails, eh?"

"Always. But I think it was not that with Basurdo. I think it was underground, not undersea." He brushed his neck with his finger tips.

"Is it dangerous for foreigners?" asked Carroll quickly.

"For every one," answered Sherwen; adding significantly: "But the Caracunan Government does not approve of loose fostering of rumors."

Carroll rose and came over to the Brewsters.

"May I bring Mr. Graydon Sherwen over and present him?" he asked. "I can vouch for him, having known his family at home, and--"

"Oh, bring them all, Fitzhugh," commanded the girl.

The exponent of Southern aristocracy looked uncomfortable.

"As to the others," he said, "Mr. Raimonda is a native--"

"With the manners of a prince. I've quite fallen in love with him already," she said wickedly.

"Of course, if you wish it. But the other American is an ex- professional baseball player, named Cluff."

"What? 'Clipper' Cluff? I knew I'd seen him before!" cried Miss Polly. "He got his start in the New York State League. Why, we're quite old friends, by sight."

"As for Galpy, he's an underbred little cockney bounder."

"With the most naive line of conversation I've ever listened to. I want all of them."

"Let me bring Sherwen first," pleaded the suitor, and was presently introducing that gentleman. "Mr. Sherwen is in charge here of the American Legation," he explained.

"How does one salute a real live minister?" queried Miss Brewster.

"Don't mistake me for anything so important," said Sherwen. "We're not keeping a minister in stock at present. My job is being a superior kind of janitor until diplomatic relations are resumed."

"Goodness! It sounds like war," said Miss Brewster hopefully. "Is there anything as exciting as that going on?"

"Oh, no. Just a temporary cessation of civilities between the two nations. If it weren't indiscreet--"

"Oh, do be indiscreet!" implored the girl, with clasped hands. "I admire indiscretion in others, and cultivate it in myself."

Mr. Carroll looked pained, as the other laughed and said:--

"Well, it would certainly be most undiplomatic for me to hint that the great and friendly nation of Hochwald, which wields more influence and has a larger market here than any other European power, has become a little jealous of the growing American trade. But the fact remains that the Hochwald minister and his secretary, Von Plaanden, who is a very able citizen when sober,--and is, of course, almost always sober,--have not exerted themselves painfully to compose the little misunderstanding between President Fortuno and us. The Dutch diplomats, who are not as diplomatic in speech as I am, would tell you, if there were any of them left here to tell anything, that Von Plaanden's intrigues brought on the present break with them. So there you have a brief, but reliable 'History of Our Times in the Island Republic of Caracuna.'"

"Highly informative and improving to the untutored mind," Miss Brewster complimented him. "I like seeing the wires of empire pulled. More, please."

"Perhaps you won't like the next so well," observed Carroll grimly. "There is bubonic plague here."

"Oh--ah!" protested Sherwen gently. "The suspicion of plague. Quite a different matter."

"Which usually turns out to be the same, doesn't it?" inquired Mr. Brewster.

"Perhaps. People disappear, and one is not encouraged to ask about them. But then people disappear for many causes in Caracuna. Politics here are somewhat--well--Philadelphian in method. But-- there is smoke rising from behind Capo Blanco."

"What is there?" inquired the girl.

"The lazaretto. Still, it might be yellow fever, or only smallpox. The Government is not generous with information. To have plague discovered now would be very disturbing to the worthy plans of the Hochwald Legation. For trade purposes, they would very much dislike to have the port closed for a considerable time by quarantine. The Dutch difficulty they can arrange when they will. But quarantine would bring in the United States, and that is quite another matter. Well, we'll see, when Dr. Pruyn gets here."

"Who is he?" asked Carroll.

"Special-duty man of the United States Public Health Service. The best man on tropical diseases and quarantine that the service has ever had."

"That isn't Luther Pruyn, is it?" inquired Mr. Brewster.

"The same. Do you know him?"

"Yes."

"More than I do, except by reputation."

"He was in my class at college, but I haven't seen him since. I'd be glad to see him again. A queer, dry fellow, but character and grit to his backbone." "I'd supposed he was younger," said Sherwen. "Anyway, he's comparatively new to the service. His rise is the more remarkable. At present, he's not only our quarantine representative, with full powers, but unofficially he acts, while on his roving commission, for the British, the Dutch, the French, and half the South American republics. I suppose he's really the most important figure in the Caracuna crisis--and he hasn't even got here yet. Perhaps our Hochwaldian friends have captured him on the quiet. It would pay 'em, for if there is plague here, he'll certainly trail it down."

"Oh, I'm tired of plague," announced Miss Polly. "Bring the others here and let's all go over to the plaza, where it's cool."

To their open and obvious delight, exhibited jauntily by the Englishman, with awkward and admiring respectfulness by the ball- player, and with graceful ease by the handsome Caracunan, the rest were invited to join the party.

"Don't let them scare you about plague, Miss Brewster," said Cluff, as they found their chairs. "Foreigners don't get it much."

"Oh, I'm not afraid! But, anyway, we shouldn't have time to catch even a cold. We leave to-morrow."

The men exchanged glances.

"How?" inquired Sherwen and Raimonda in a breath.

"In the yacht, from Puerto del Norte."

"Not if it were a British battleship," said Galpy. "Port's closed."

"What? Quarantine already?" said Carroll.

"Quarantine be blowed! It's the Dutch."

"I thought you knew," said Sherwen. "All the town is ringing with the news. It just came in to-night. Holland has declared a blockade until Caracuna apologizes for the interference with its cable."

"And nothing can pass?" asked Mr. Brewster.

"Nothing but an aeroplane or a submarine."

There was a silence. Miss Polly Brewster broke it with a curious question:--

"What day is day after to-morrow?"

Several voices had answered her, but she paid little heed, for there had slipped over her shoulder a brown thin hand holding a cunningly woven closed basket of reedwork. A soft voice murmured something in Spanish.

"What does he say?" asked the girl "For me?"

"He thinks it must be for you," translated Raimonda, "from the description."

"What description?"

"He was told to go to the hotel and deliver it to the most beautiful lady. There could hardly be any mistaking such specific instructions even by an ignorant mountain peon," he added, smiling.

The girl opened the curious receptacle, and breathed a little gasp of delight. Bedded in fern, lay a mass of long sprays aquiver with bells of the purest, most lucent white, each with a great glow of gold at its heart.

"Ah," observed the young Caracunan, "I see that you are persona grata with our worthy President, Miss Brewster."

"President Fortuno?" asked the girl, surprised. "No; not that I'm aware of. Why do you say that?"

"That is his special orchid--almost the official flower. They call it 'the President's orchid.'"

"Has he a monopoly of growing them?" asked Miss Brewster.

"No one can grow them. They die when transplanted from their native cliffs. But it's only the President's rangers who are daring enough to get them."

"Are they so inaccessible?"

"Yes. They grow nowhere but on the cliff faces, usually in the wildest part of the mountains. Few people except the hunters and mountaineers know where, and it's only the most adventurous of them who go after the flowers."

"Do you suppose this boy got these?" Miss Brewster indicated the shy and dusky messenger.

Raimonda spoke to the boy for a moment.

"No; he didn't collect them. Nor is he one of the President's men. I don't quite understand it."

"Who did gather them?"

"All that he will say is, 'the master.'"

"Oh!" said Miss Brewster, and retired into a thoughtful silence.

"They're very beautiful, aren't they?" continued the Caracunan. "And they carry a pretty sentiment."

"Tell me," commanded the girl, emerging from her reverie.

"The mountaineers say that their fragrance casts a spell which carries the thought back to the giver."

"Is that the language of science?" she queried absently, with a thought far away.

"But no, senorita, assuredly not," said the young Caracufian. "It is the language--permit that I say it better in French--c'est le langage d'amour."