III. The Better Part of Valor
 

Night fell with the iron clangor of bells, and day broke to the accompaniment of further insensate jangling, for Caracuna City has the noisiest cathedral in the world; and still the graceful gray yacht Polly lay in the harbor at Puerto del Norte, hemmed in by a thin film of smoke along the horizon where the Dutch warship promenaded.

In one of the side caverns off the main dining-room of the Hotel Kast, the yacht's owner, breakfasting with the yacht's tutelary goddess and the goddess's determined pursuer, discussed the blockade. Though Miss Polly Brewster kept up her end of the conversation, her thoughts were far upon a breeze-swept mountain- side. How, she wondered, had that dry and strange hermit of the wilds known the news before the city learned it? With her wonder came annoyance over her lost wager. The beetle man, she judged, would be coolly superior about it. So she delivered herself of sundry stinging criticisms regarding the conduct of the Caracunan Administration in having stupidly involved itself in a blockade. She even spoke of going to see the President and apprising him of her views.

"I'd like to tell him how to run this foolish little island," said she, puckering a quaintly severe brow.

"Now is the appointed time for you to plunge in and change the course of empire," her father suggested to her. "There's an official morning reception at ten o'clock. We're invited."

"Then I shan't go. I wouldn't give the old goose the satisfaction of going to his fiesta."

"Meaning the noble and patriotic President?" said Carroll. "Treason most foul! The cuartels are full of chained prisoners who have said less."

"Father can go with Mr. Sherwen. I shall do some important shopping," announced Miss Brewster. "And I don't want any one along."

Thus apprised of her intentions, Carroll wrapped himself in gloom, and retired to write a letter.

Miss Polly's shopping, being conducted mainly through the medium of the sign language, presently palled upon her sensibilities, and about twelve o'clock she decided upon a drive. Accordingly she stepped into one of the pretty little toy victorias with which the city swarms.

"Para donde?" inquired the driver.

His fare made an expansive gesture, signifying "Anywhere." Being an astute person in his own opinion, the Jehu studied the pretty foreigner's attire with an appraising eye, profoundly estimated that so much style and elegance could be designed for only one function of the day, whirled her swiftly along the two-mile drive of the Calvario Road, and landed her at the President's palace, half an hour after the reception was over. Supposing from the coachman's signs that she was expected to go in and view some public garden, she paid him, walked far enough to be stopped by the apologetic and appreciative guard, and returned to the highway, to find no carriage in sight. Never mind, she reflected; she needed the exercise. Accordingly, she set out to walk.

But the noonday sun of Caracuia has a bite to it. For a time, Miss Brewster followed the car tracks which were her sure guide from the palace to the Kast; briskly enough, at first. But, after three cars had passed her, she began to think longingly of the fourth. When it stopped at her signal, it was well filled. The most promising ingress appeared to be across the blockade of a robust and much-begilded young man, who was occupying the familiar position of an "end-seat hog," and displaying the full glories of the Hochwaldian dress uniform.

Herr von Plaanden was both sleepy and cross, for, having lingered after the reception to have a word and several drinks with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, he had come forth to find neither coach nor automobile in attendance. There had been nothing for it but the plebeian trolley. Accordingly, when he heard a foreign voice of feminine timbre and felt a light pressure against his knee, he only snorted. What he next felt against his knee was the impact of a half-shove, half-blow, brisk enough to slue him around. The intruder passed by to the vacant seat, while the now thoroughly awakened and annoyed Hochwaldian whirled, to find himself looking into a pair of expressionless brown goggles.

With a snort of fury, the diplomat struck backward. The glasses and the solemn face behind them dodged smartly. The next moment, Herr von Plaanden felt his neck encircled by a clasp none the less warm for being not precisely affectionate. He was pinned. Twisting, he worked one arm loose.

"Be careful!" warned the cool voice of Polly Brewster, addressing her defender. "He's trying to draw his sword."

The gogglesome one's grip slid a little lower. The car had now stopped, and the conductor came forward, brandishing what was apparently the wand of authority, designed to be symbolic rather than utile, since at no point was it thicker than a man's finger. From a safe distance on the running-board, he flourished this, whooping the while in a shrill and dissuasive manner. Somewhere down the street was heard a responsive yell, and a small, jerky, olive-green policia pranced into view.

Thereupon a strange thing happened. The rescuing knight relaxed his grip, leaped the back of his seat, dropped off the car, and darted like a hunted hare across a compound, around a wall, and so into the unknown, deserting his lady fair, if not precisely in the hour of greatest need, at least in a situation fraught with untoward possibilities. Indeed, it seemed as if these possibilities might promptly become actualities, for the diplomat turned his stimulated wrath upon the girl, and was addressing her in tones too emphatic to be mistaken when a large angular form interposed itself, landing with a flying leap on the seat between them.

"Move!" the newly arrived one briefly bade Herr von Plaanden.

Herr von Plaanden, feeling the pressure of a shoulder formed upon the generous lines of a gorilla's, and noting the approach of the policia on the other side, was fain to obey.

"Don't you be scared, miss," said Cluff, turning to the girl. "It's all over."

"I'm not frightened," she said, with a catch in her voice.

"Of course you ain't," he agreed reassuringly. "You just sit quiet--"

"But I--I--I'm mad, clean through."

"You gotta right. You gotta perfect right. Now, if this was New York, I'd spread that gold-laced guy's face--"

"I'm not angry at him. Not particularly, I mean."

"No?" queried her friend in need. "What got your goat, then?"

Miss Brewster shot a quick and scornful glance over her shoulder.

"Oh, him" interpreted the athlete. "Well, he made his get-away like a man with some reason for being elsewhere."

"Reason enough. He was afraid."

"Maybe. Being afraid's a queer thing," remarked her escort academically. "Now, me, I'm afraid of a fuzzy caterpillar. But I ain't exactly timid about other things."

"You certainly aren't. And I don't know how to thank you."

"Aw, that's awright, miss. What else could I do? Our departed friend, Professor Goggle-Eye, when he made his jump, landed right in my shirt front. 'Take my place,' he says; 'I've got an engagement.' Well, I was just moving forward, anyway, so it was no trouble at all, I assure you," asserted the doughty Cluff, achieving a truly elegant conclusion.

"Most fortunate for me," said the girl sweetly. "Mr. Perkins scuttled away like one of his own little wretched beetles. When I see him again--"

"Again? Oh, well, if he's a friend of yours, accourse he'd awtuv stood by--"

"He isn't!" she declared, with unnecessary vehemence.

"Don't you be too hard on him, miss," argued her escort. "Seems to me he did a pretty good job for you, and stuck to it until he found some one else to take it up."

"Then why didn't he stand by you?"

"Oh, I don't carry any 'Help-wanted' signs on me. You know, miss, you can't size up a man in this country like he was at home. Now, me, I'd have natcherly hammered that Von Plaanden gink all to heh --heh--hash. But did I do it? I did not. You see, I got a little mining concession out here in the mountains, and if I was to get into any diplomatic mix-up and bring in the police, it'd be bad for my business, besides maybe getting me a couple of tons of bracelets around my pretty little ankles. Like as not your friend, Professor Lamps, has got an equally good reason for keeping the peace."

"Do you mean that this man will make trouble for you over this?"

"Not as things stand. So long as nothing was done--no arrests or anything like that--he'll be glad to forget it, when he sobers up. I'll forget it, too, and maybe, miss, it wouldn't be any harm to anybody if you did a turn at forgetting, yourself."

But neither by the venturesome Miss Polly nor by her athlete servitor was the episode to be so readily dismissed. Late that afternoon, when the Brewster party were sitting about iced fruit drinks amid the dingy and soiled elegance of the Kast's one private parlor, Mr. Sherwen's card arrived, followed shortly by Mr. Sherwen's immaculate self, creaseless except for one furrow of the brow.

"How you are going to get out of here I really don't know," he said.

"Why should we hurry?" inquired Miss Brewster. "I don't find Caracuna so uninteresting."

"Never since I came here has it been so charming," said the legation representative, with a smiling bow. "But, much as your party adds to the landscape, I'm not at all sure that this city is the most healthful spot for you at present."

"You mean the plague?" asked Mr. Brewster.

"Not quite so loud, please. 'Healthful,' as I used it, was, in part, a figure of speech. Something is brewing hereabout."

"Not a revolution?" cried Miss Polly, with eyes alight. "Oh, do brew a revolution for me! I should so adore to see one!"

"Possibly you may, though I hardly think it. Some readjustment of foreign relations, at most. The Dutch blockade is, perhaps, only a beginning. However, it's sufficient to keep you bottled up, though if we could get word to them, I dare say they would let a yacht go out."

"Senator Richland, of the Committee on Foreign Relations, is an old friend of my family," said Carroll, in his measured tones. "A cable--"

"Would probably never get through. This Government wouldn't allow it. There are other possibilities. Perhaps, Mr. Brewster," he continued, with a side glance at the girl, "we might talk it over at length this evening."

"Quite useless, Mr. Sherwen," smiled the magnate. "Polly would have it all out of me before I was an hour older. She may as well get it direct."

"Very well, then. It's this quarantine business. If Dr. Pruyn comes here and declares bubonic plague--"

"But how will he get in?" asked Carroll.

"So far as the blockade goes, the Dutch will help him all they can. But this Government will keep him out, if possible."

"He is not persona grata?" asked Brewster.

"Not with any of the countries that play politics with pestilence. But if he's sent here, he'll get in some way. In fact, Stark, the public-health surgeon at Puerto del Norte, let fall a hint that makes me think he's on his way now. Probably in some cockleshell of a small boat manned by Indian smugglers."

"It sounds almost too adventurous for the scholarly Pruyn whom I recall," observed Mr. Brewster.

"The man who went through the cholera anarchy on the lazar island off Camacho, with one case of medical supplies and two boxes of cartridges, may have been scholarly; he certainly didn't exhibit any distaste for adventure. Well, I wish he'd arrive and get something settled. Only I'd like to have you out of the way first."

"Oh, don't send me away, Mr. Sherwen," pleaded Miss Polly, with mischief in her eyes. "I'd make the cunningest little office assistant to busy old Dr. Pruyn. And he's a friend of dad's, and we surely ought to wait for him."

"If only I could send you! The fact is, Americans won't be very popular if matters turn out as I expect."

"Shall we be confined to our rooms and kept incomunicado, while Dr. Pruyn chases the terrified germ through the streets of Caracuna?" queried the irrepressible Polly.

"You'll probably have to move to the legation, where you will be very welcome, but none too comfortable. The place has been practically closed and sealed for two months."

"I'm sure we should bother you dreadfully," said the girl.

"It would bother me more dreadfully if you got into any trouble. Just this morning there was some kind of an affair on a street car in which some Americans were involved."

Miss Polly's countenance was a design--a very dainty and ornamental design--in insouciance as her father said:--

"Americans? Any one we have met?"

"No news has come to me. I understand one of the diplomatic corps, returning from the President's matinee, spoke to an American woman, and an American man interfered."

"When did this happen?" asked Carroll.

"About noon. Inquiries are going on quietly."

The young man directed a troubled and accusing look from his fine eyes upon Miss Brewster.

"You see, Miss Polly," he said, "no lady should go about unprotected down here."

"Ordinarily it's as safe as any city," said Sherwen. "Just now I can't be so certain."

"I hate being watched over like a child!" pouted Miss Brewster. "And I love sight-seeing alone. The flowers along the Calvario Road were so lovely."

"That's the road to the palace," remarked Carroll, looking at her closely.

"And the butterflies are so marvelous," she continued cheerfully. "Who lives in that salmon-pink pagoda just this side of the curve?"

Trouble sat dark and heavy upon the handsome features of Mr. Preston Fairfax Fitzhugh Carroll, but he was too experienced to put a direct query to his inamorata. What suspicion he had, he cherished until after dinner, when he took it to the club and made it the foundation of certain inquiries.

Thus it happened that at eleven o'clock that evening, he paused before a bench in the plaza, bowered in the bloom of creepers which flowed down from a balcony of the Kast, and occupied by the comfortably sprawled-out form of Mr. Thomas Cluff, who was making a burnt offering to Morpheus.

"Good-evening!" said Mr. Carroll pleasantly.

"Evenin'! How's things?" returned the other.

"Right as can be, thanks to you. On behalf of the Brewster family, I want to express our appreciation of your assistance to Miss Brewster this morning."

"Oh, that was nothing," returned the other.

"But it might have been a great deal. Mr. Brewster will wish to thank you in person--"

"Aw, forget it!" besought Mr. Thomas Cluff. "That little lady is all right. I'd just as soon eat an ambassador, let alone a gilt- framed secretary, to help her out."

"Miss Brewster," said the other, somewhat more stiffly, "is a wholly admirable young lady, but she is not always well advised in going out unescorted. By the way, you can doubtless confirm the rumor as to the identity of her insulter."

"His name is Von Plaanden. But I don't think he meant to insult any one."

"You will permit me to be the best judge of that."

"Go as far as you like," asserted the big fellow cheerfully. "That fellow Perkins can tell you more about the start of the thing than I can."

"From what I hear, he has no cause to be proud of his part in the matter," said the Southerner, frowning.

"He's sure a prompt little runner," asserted Cluff. "But I've run away in my time, and glad of the chance."

"You will excuse me from sympathizing with your standards."

"Sure, you're excused," returned the athlete, so placidly that Carroll, somewhat at a loss, altered his speech to a more gracious tone.

"At any rate, you stood your ground when you were needed, which is more than Mr. Perkins did. I should like to have a talk with him."

"That's easy. He was rambling around here not a quarter of an hour ago with young Raimonda. That's them sitting on the bench over by the fountain."

"Will you take me over and present me? I think it is due Mr. Perkins that some one should give him a frank opinion of his actions."

"I'd like to hear that," observed Cluff, who was not without humanistic curiosity. "Come along."

Heaving up his six-feet-one from the seat, he led the way to the two conversing men. Raimonda looked around and greeted the newcomers pleasantly. Cluff waved an explanatory hand between his charge and the bench.

"Make you acquainted with Mr. Perkins," he said, neglecting to mention the name of the first party of the introduction.

Perkins, goggling upward to meet a coldly hostile glance, rose, nodded in some wonder, and said: "How do you do?" Raimonda sent Cluff a glance of interrogation, to which that experimentalist in human antagonisms responded with a borrowed Spanish gesture of pleasurable uncertainty.

"I will not say that I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Perkins," began Carroll weightily, and paused.

If he expected a query, he was doomed to a disappointment. Such of the Perkins features as were not concealed by his extraordinary glasses expressed an immovable calm.

"Doubtless you know to what I refer."

Still those blank brown glasses regarded him in silence.

"Do you or do you not?" demanded Carroll, struggling to keep his temper in the face of this exasperating irresponsiveness.

"Haven't the least idea," replied Perkins equably.

"You were on the tram this morning when Miss Brewster was insulted, weren't you?"

"Yes."

"And ran away?"

"I did."

"What did you run away for?"

"I ran away," the other sweetly informed him, "on important business of my own."

Cluff snickered. The suspicion impinged upon Carroll's mind that this wasn't going to be as simple as he had expected.

"Let that go for the moment. Do you know Miss Brewster's insulter?"

"No."

"Are you telling me the truth?" asked the Southerner sternly.

The begoggled one's chin jerked up. To the trained eye of Cluff, swift to interpret physical indications, it seemed that Perkins's weight had almost imperceptibly shifted its center of gravity.

"Our Southern friend is going to run into something if he doesn't look out," he reflected.

But there was no hint of trouble in Perkins's voice as he replied:--

"I know who he is. I don't know him."

"Was it Von Plaanden?"

"Why do you want to know?"

"Because," returned the other, with convincing coolness, "if it was, I intend to slap his face publicly as soon as I can find him."

"You must do nothing of the sort."

Now, indeed, there was a change in the other's bearing. The words came sharp and crisp.

"I shall do exactly as I said. Perhaps you will explain why you think otherwise."

"Because you must have some sense somewhere about you. Do you realize where you are?"

"I hardly think you can teach me geography, or anything else, Mr. Perkins."

"Well, good God," said the other sharply, "somebody's got to teach you! What do you suppose would be the result of your slapping Von Plaanden's face?"

"Whatever it may be, I am ready. I will fight him with any weapons, and gladly."

"Oh, yes; gladly! Fun for you, all right. But suppose you think of others a little."

"Afraid of being involved yourself?" smiled Carroll. "I'm sure you could run away successfully from any kind of trouble."

"Others might not be so able to escape."

"Of course I'm wholly wrong, and my training and traditions are absurdly old-fashioned, but I've been brought up to believe that the American who will run from a fight, or who will not stand up at home or abroad for American rights, American womanhood, and the American flag, isn't a man."

"Oh, keep it for the Fourth of July," returned Perkins wearily. "You can't get me into a fight."

"Fight?" Carroll laughed shortly. "If you had the traditions of a gentleman, you would not require any more provocation."

"If I had the traditions of a deranged doodle bug, I'd go around hunting trouble in a country that is full of it for foreigners-- even those who behave themselves like sane human beings."

"Meaning, perhaps, that I'm not a sane human being?" inquired the Southerner.

"Do you think you act like it? To satisfy your own petty vanity of courage, you'd involve all of us in difficulties of which you know nothing. We're living over a powder magazine here, and you want to light matches to show what a hero you are. Traditions! Don't you talk to me about traditions! If you can serve your country or a woman better by running away than by fighting, the sensible thing to do is to run away. The best thing you can do is to keep quiet and let Von Plaanden drop. Otherwise, you'll have Miss Brewster the center of--"

"Keep your tongue from that lady's name!" warned Carroll.

"You're giving a good many orders," said the other slowly. "But I'll do almost anything just now to keep you peaceable, and to convince you that you must let Von Plaanden strictly alone."

"Just as surely as I meet him," said the Southerner ominously, "on my word of honor--" "Wait a moment," broke in the other sharply. "Don't commit yourself until you've heard me. Just around the corner from here is a cuartel. It isn't a nice clean jail like ours at home. Fleas are the pleasantest companions in the place. When a man--particularly an obnoxious foreigner--lands there, they are rather more than likely to forget little incidentals like food and water. And if he should happen to be of a nation without diplomatic representation here, as is the case with the United States at present, he might well lie there incomunicado until his hearing, which might be in two days or might not be for a month. Is that correct, Mr. Raimonda?"

"Essentially," confirmed the Caracunan.

"When you are through trying to frighten me--" began Carroll contemptuously.

"Frighten you? I'm not so foolish as to waste time that way. I'm trying to warn you."

"Are you quite done?"

"I am not. On my honor--" He broke off as Carroll smiled. "Smile if you like, but believe what I'm telling you. Unless you agree to keep your hands and tongue off Von Plaanden I'll lay an information which will land you in the cuartel within an hour."

The smile froze on the Southerner's lips.

"Could he do that?" he asked Raimonda.

"I'm afraid he could. And, really, Mr. Carroll, he's correct in principle. In the present state of political feeling, an assault by an American upon the representative of Hochwald might seriously endanger all of your party."

"That's right," Cluff supported him. "I'm with you in wanting to break that gold-frilled geezer's face up into small sections, but it just won't do."

With an effort, Carroll recovered his self-control.

"Mr. Raimonda," he said courteously, "I give you my word that there will be no trouble between Herr Von Plaanden and myself, of my seeking, until Mr. and Miss Brewster are safely out of the country."

"That's enough," said Cluff heartily. "The rest of us can take care of ourselves."

"Meantime," said Raimonda, "I think the whole matter can be arranged. Von Plaanden shall apologize to Miss Brewster to-morrow. It is not his first outbreak, and always he regrets. My uncle, who is of the Foreign Office, will see to it."

"Then that's settled," remarked Perkins cheerfully.

Carroll turned upon him savagely:--

"To your entire satisfaction, no doubt, now that you've shown yourself an informer as well as--"

"Easy with the rough stuff, Mr. Carroll," advised Cluff, his good- natured face clouding. "We're all a little het up. Let's have a drink, and cool down."

"With you, with pleasure. I shall hope to meet you later, Mr. Perkins," he added significantly.

"Well, I hope not," retorted the other. "My voice is still for peace. Meantime, please assure Miss Brewster for me--"

"I warned you to keep that lady's name from your lips."

"You did. But I don't know by what authority. You're not her father, I suppose. Are you her brother, by any chance?"

As he spoke, Perkins experienced that curious feeling that some invisible person was trying to catch his eye. Now, as he turned directly upon Carroll, his glance, passing over his shoulder, followed a broad ray of light spreading from a second-story leaf- framed balcony of the hotel. There was a stir amid the greenery. The face of the Voice appeared, framed in flowers. Its features lighted up with mirth, and the lips formed the unmistakable monosyllable: "Boo!"

The identification was complete--"Boo to a goose."

"Preston Fairfax Fitzhugh Carroll!" Unwittingly he spoke the name aloud, and, unfortunately, laughed.

To a less sensitive temperament, even, than Carroll's, the provocation would have been extreme. Perkins was recalled to a more serious view of the situation by the choking accents of that gentleman.

"Take off your glasses!"

"What for?"

"Because I'm going to thrash you within an inch of your life!"

"Gentlemen, gentlemen!" cried the young Caracunan. "This is no place for such an affair."

Apparently Perkins held the same belief. Stepping aside, he abruptly sat down on the end of the bench, facing the fountain and not four feet from it. His head drooped a little forward; his hands dropped between his knees; one foot--but Cluff, the athlete, was the only one to note this--edged backward and turned to secure a firm hold on the pavement. Carroll stepped over in front of him and stood nonplused. He half drew his hand back, then let it fall.

"I can't hit a man sitting down," he muttered distressfully.

Perkins's set face relaxed.

"Running true to tradition," he observed, pleasantly enough. "I didn't think you would. See here, Mr. Carroll, I'm sorry that I laughed at your name. In fact, I didn't really laugh at your name at all. It was at something quite different which came into my mind at that moment."

"Your apology is accepted so far," returned the other stiffly. "But that doesn't settle the other account between us, when we meet again. Or do you choose to threaten me with jail for that, also?"

"No. It's easier to keep out of your way."

"Good Lord!" cried the Southerner in disgust. "Are you afraid of everything?"

"Why, no!" Perkins rose, smiling at him with perfect equanimity. "As a matter of fact, if you're interested to know, I wasn't particularly afraid of Von Plaanden, and, if I may say so without offense, I'm not particularly afraid of you."

Carroll studied him intently.

"By Jove, I believe you aren't! I give it up!" he cried desperately. "You're crazy, I reckon--or else I am." And he took himself off without the formality of a farewell to the others.

Raimonda, with a courteous bow to his companions, followed him.

Wearily the goggled one sank back in his seat. Cluff moved across, planting himself exactly where Carroll had stood.

"Perkins!"

"Eh?" responded the sitter absently.

"What would you do if I should bat you one in the eye?"

"Eh, what?"

"What would you do to me?"

"You, too?" cried the bewildered Perkins. "Why on earth--"

"You'd dive into my knees, wouldn't you, and tip me over backward?"

"Oh, that!" A slow grin overspread the space beneath the glasses. "That was the idea."

"I know the trick. It's a good one--except for the guy that gets it."

"It wouldn't have hurt him. He'd have landed in the fountain."

"So he would. What then?"

"Oh, I'd have held him there till he got cooled off, and then made a run for it. A wet man can't catch a dry man."

"Say, son, you're a dry one, all right."

"Eh?"

"Wake up! I'm saying you're all right."

"Much obliged."

"You certainly took enough off him to rile a sheep. Why didn't you do it?"

"Do what?"

"Tip him in."

Perkins glanced upward at the balcony where the vines had closed upon a face that smiled.

"Oh," he said mildly, "he's a friend of a friend of mine."