The Unspeakable Perk by Samuel Hopkins Adams
IV. Two on a Mountain-Side
Orchids do not, by preference, grow upon a cactus plant. Little though she recked of botany, Miss Brewster was aware of this fundamental truth. Neither do they, without extraneous impulsion, go hurtling through the air along deserted mountain-sides, to find a resting-place far below; another natural-history fact which the young lady appreciated without being obliged to consult the literature of the subject. Therefore, when, from the top of the appointed rock, she observed a carefully composed bunch of mauve Cattleyas describe a parabola and finally join two previous clusters upon the spines of a prickly-pear patch, she divined some energizing force back of the phenomenon. That energizing force she surmised was temper.
"Fie!" said she severely. "Beetle gentlemen should control their little feelings. Naughty, naughty!"
From below rose a fervid and startled exclamation.
"Naughtier, naughtier!" deprecated the visitor. "Are these the cold and measured terms of science?"
"You haven't lived up to your bet," complained the censured one.
"Indeed I have! I always play fair, and pay fair. Here I am, as per contract."
"Nearly half an hour late."
"Not at all. Four-thirty was the time."
"And now it is three minutes to five."
"Making twenty-seven minutes that I've been sitting here waiting for a welcome."
"Waiting? Oh, Miss Brewster--"
"I'm not Miss Brewster. I'm a voice in the wilderness."
"Then, Voice, you haven't been there more than one minute. A voice isn't a voice until it makes a noise like a voice. Q.E.D."
"There is something in that argument," she admitted. "But why didn't you come up and look for me?"
"Does one look for a sound?"
"Please don't be so logical. It tires my poor little brain. You might at least have called."
"That would have been like holding you up for payment of the bet, wouldn't it? I was waiting for you to speak."
"Not good form in Caracuna. The senor should always speak first."
"You began the other time," he pointed out.
"So I did, but that was under a misapprehension. I hadn't learned the customs of the country then. By the way, is it a local custom for hermits of science to climb breakneck precipices for golden- hearted orchids to send to casual acquaintances?"
"Is that what you are?" he queried in a slightly depressed tone.
"What on earth else could I be?" she returned, amused.
"Of course. But we all like to pretend that our fairy tales are permanent, don't we?"
"I can readily picture you chasing beetles, but I can't see you chasing fairies at all," she asserted positively.
"Nor can I. If you chase them, they vanish. Every one knows that."
"Anyway, your orchids were fit for a fairy queen. I haven't thanked you for them yet."
"Indeed you have. Much more than they deserve. By coming here to- day."
"Oh, that was a point of honor. Are you going to let those lovely purple ones wither on that prickly plant down there? Think how much better they'd look pinned on me--if there were any one here to see and appreciate."
If this were a hint, it failed of its aim, for, as the hermit scuttled out from his shelter, looking not unlike some bulky protrusive-eyed insect, secured the orchids, and returned, he never once glanced up. Safe again in his rock-bound retreat, he spoke:--
"'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.'"
"So you do know something of fairies and fairy lore!" she cried.
"Oh, it wasn't much more than a hundred years ago that I read my Grimm. In the story, only one call was necessary."
"Well, I can't spare any more of my silken tresses. I brought a string this time. Where's the other hair line?"
"I've used it to tether a fairy thought so that it can't fly away from me. Draw up slowly."
"Thank you so much, and I'm so glad that you are feeling better."
"Yes. Better than the day before yesterday."
"Day before yesterday?"
"Bless the poor man! Much anxious waiting hath bemused his wits. He thinks he's an echo."
"But I was all right the day before yesterday."
"You weren't. You were a prey to the most thrilling terrors. You were a moving picture of tender masculinity in distress. You let bashfulness like a worm i' th' bud prey upon your damask cheek. Have you a damask cheek? Stand out! I wish to consider you impartially. You needn't look at me, you know."
"I'm not going to," he assured her, stepping forth obediently.
"Basilisk that I am!" she laughed. "How brown you are! How long did you say you'd been here? A year?"
"Fourteen weary Voiceless months. Not on this island, you know, but around the tropics."
"Yet you look vigorous and alert; not like the men I've seen come back from the hot countries, all languid and worn out. And you do look clean."
"Why shouldn't I be clean?"
"Of course you should. But people get slack, don't they, when they live off all alone by themselves? Still, I suppose you spruced up a little for me?"
"Nothing of the sort," he denied, with heat.
"No? Oh, my poor little vanity! He wouldn't dress up for us, Vanity, though we did dress up for him, and we're looking awfully nice--for a voice, that is. Do you always keep so soft and pink and smooth, Mr. Beetle Man?"
"I own a razor, if that's what you mean. You're making fun of me. Well, I don't mind." He lifted his voice and chanted:--
"Although beyond the pale of law, He always kept a polished jaw; For he was one of those who saw A saving hope In shaving soap."
"Oh, lovely! What a noble finish. What is it?"
"Extract from 'Biographical Blurbings.'"
"Yes. By Me."
"And are you beyond the pale of law?"
"Poetical license," he explained airily. "Hold on, though." He fell silent a moment, and out of that silence came a short laugh. "I suppose I am beyond the pale of law, now that I come to think of it. But you needn't be alarmed, I'm not a really dangerous criminal."
Later she was to recall that confession with sore misgivings. Now she only inquired lightly:
"Is that why you ran away from the tram car yesterday?" "Ran away? I didn't run away," he said, with dignity. "It just happened that there came into my mind an important engagement that I'd forgotten. My memory isn't what it should be. So I just turned over the matter in hand to an acquaintance of mine."
"The matter in hand being me."
"Why, yes; and the acquaintance being Mr. Cluff. I saw him throw four men out of a hotel once for insulting a girl, so I knew that he was much better at that sort of thing than I. May I go back now and sit down?" "Of course. I don't know whether I ought to thank you about yesterday or be very angry. It was such an extraordinary performance on your part--"
"Nothing extraordinary about it." His voice came up out of the shadow, full of judicial confidence. "Merely sound common sense."
"To leave a woman who has been insulted--"
"In more competent hands than one's own."
"Oh, I give it up!" she cried. "I don't understand you at all. Fitzhugh is right; you haven't a tradition to your name."
"Tradition," he repeated thoughtfully. "Why, I don't know. They're pretty rigid things, traditions. Rusty in the joints and all that sort of thing. Life isn't a process of machinery, exactly. One has to meet it with something more supple and adjustable than traditions."
"Is that your philosophy? Suppose a man struck you. Wouldn't you hit him back?"
"Perhaps. It would depend."
"Or insulted your country? Don't you believe that men should be ready to die, if necessary, in such a cause?"
"Some men. Soldiers, for instance. They're paid to."
"Good Heavens! Is it all a question of pay in your mind? Wouldn't you, unless you were paid for it?"
"How can I tell until the occasion arises?"
"Are you afraid?"
"I suppose I might be."
"Hasn't the man any blood in his veins?" cried his inquisitor, exasperated. "Haven't you ever been angry clear through?"
"Oh, of course; and sorry for it afterward. One is likely to lose one's temper any time. It might easily happen to me and drive me to make a fool of myself, like--like--" His voice trailed off into a silence of embarrassment.
"Like Fitzhugh Carroll. Why not say it? Well, I much prefer him and his hot-headedness to you and your careful wisdom."
"Of course," he acquiesced patiently. "Any girl would. It's the romantic temperament."
"And yours is the scientific, I suppose. That doesn't take into account little things like patriotism and heroism, does it? Tell me, have you actually ever admired--really got a thrill out of-- any deed of heroism?"
"Oh, yes," he replied tranquilly. "I've done my bit of hero worship in my time. In fact, I've never quite recovered from it."
"No! Really? Do go on. You're growing more human every minute."
"Do you happen to know anything about the Havana campaign?"
"Not much. It never seemed to me anything to brag of. Dad says the Spanish-American War grew a crop of newspaper-made heroes, manufactured by reporters who really took more risks and showed more nerve than the men they glorified."
"Spanish-American War? That isn't what I'm talking about. I'm speaking of Walter Reed and his fellow scientists, who went down there and fought the mosquitoes."
The girl's lip curled.
"So that's your idea of heroism! Scrubby peckers into the lives of helpless bugs!"
"Have you the faintest idea what you are talking about?"
His voice had abruptly hardened. There was an edge to it; such an edge as she had faintly heard on the previous night, when Carroll had pressed him too hard. She was startled.
"Perhaps I haven't," she admitted.
"Then it's time you learned. Three American doctors went down into that pesthole of a Cuban city to offer their lives for a theory. Not for a tangible fact like the flag, or for glory and fame as in battle, but for a theory that might or might not be true. There wasn't a day or a night that their lives weren't at stake. Carroll let himself be bitten by infected mosquitoes on a final test, and grazed death by a hair's breadth. Lazear was bitten at his work, and died in the agony of yellow-fever convulsions, a martyr and a hero if ever there was one. Because of them, Havana is safe and livable now. We were able to build the Panama Canal because of their work, their--what did you call it?--scrubby peeking into the lives of--"
"Don't!" cried the girl. "I--I'm ashamed. I didn't know."
"How should you?" he said, in a changed tone. "We Americans set up monuments to our destroyers, not to our preservers, of life. Nobody knows about Walter Reed and James Carroll and Jesse Lazear --not even the American Government, which they officially served-- except a few doctors and dried-up entomologists like myself. Forgive me. I didn't mean to deliver a lecture."
There was a long pause, which she broke with an effort.
"Mr. Beetle Man?"
"I--I'm beginning to think you rather more man than beetle at times."
"Well, you see, you touched me on a point of fanaticism," he apologized.
"Do you mind standing up again for examination? No," she decided, as he stepped out and stood with his eyes lowered obstinately. "You don't seem changed to outward view. You still remind me," with a ripple of irrepressible laughter, "of a near-sighted frog. It's those ridiculous glasses. Why do you wear them?"
"To keep the sun out of my eyes."
"And the moon at night, I suppose. They're not for purposes of disguise?"
"Disguise! What makes you say that?" he asked quickly.
"Don't bark. They'd be most effective. And they certainly give your face a truly weird expression, in addition to its other detriments."
"If you don't like my face, consider my figure," he suggested optimistically. "What's the matter with that?"
"Stumpy," she pronounced. "You're all in a chunk. It does look like a practical sort of a chunk, though."
"Don't you like it?" he asked anxiously.
"Oh, well enough of its kind." She lifted her voice and chanted:--
"He was stubby and square, But she didn't much care.
"There's a verse in return for yours. Mine's adapted, though. Examination's over. Wait. Don't sit down. Now, tell me your opinion of me."
"I'm not musical at all."
"Oh, I'm considering you as a voice."
"I'm tired of being just a voice. Look up here. Do," she pleaded. "Turn upon me those lucent goggles."
When orbs like thine the soul disclose, Tee-deedle-deedle-dee.
Don't be afraid. One brief fleeting glance ere we part."
"No," he returned positively. "Once is enough."
"On behalf of my poor traduced features, I thank you humbly. Did they prove as bad as you feared?"
"Worse. I've hardly forgotten yet what you look like. Your kind of face is bad for business."
"What is business?"
"Haven't I told you? I'm a scientist."
"Well, I'm a specimen. No beetle that crawls or creeps or hobbles, or does whatever beetles are supposed to do, shows any greater variation from type--I heard a man say that in a lecture once-- than I do. Can't I interest you in my case, O learned one? The proper study of mankind is--"
"Woman. Yes, I know all about that. But I'm a groundling."
"Mr. Beetle Man," she said, in a tremulous voice, "the rock is moving."
"I don't feel it. Though it might be a touch of earthquake. We have 'em often."
"Not your rock. The tarantula rock, I mean."
"Nonsense! A hundred tarantulas couldn't stir it."
"Well, it seems to be moving, and that's just as bad. I'm tired and I'm lonely. Oh, please, Professor Scarab, have I got to fall on your neck again to introduce a little human companionship into this conversation?"
"Caesar! No! My shoulder's still lame. What do you want, anyway?"
"I want to know about you and your work. All about you."
"Humph! Well, at present I'm making some microscopical studies of insects. That's the reason for these glasses. The light is so harsh in these latitudes that it affects the vision a trifle, and every trifle counts in microscopy."
"Does the microscope add charm to the beetle?"
"Some day I'll show you, if you like. Just now it's the flea, the national bird of Caracuna."
"The wicked flea?"
"Nobody knows how wicked until he has studied him on his native heath."
"Doesn't the flea have something to do with plague? They say there's plague in the city now. You knew all about the Dutch. Do you know anything about the plague?"
"You've been listening to bolas."
"What's a bola?"
"A bola is information that somebody who is totally ignorant of the facts whispers confidentially in your ear with the assurance that he knows it to be authentic--in other words, a lie."
"Then there isn't any plague down under those quaint, old, red- tiled roofs?"
"Who ever knows what's going on under those quaint, old, red-tiled roofs? No foreigner, certainly."
"Even I can feel the mystery, little as I've seen of the place," said the girl.
"Oh, that's the Indian of it. The tiled roofs are Spanish; the speech is Spanish; but just beneath roof and speech, the life and thought are profoundly and unfathomably Indian."
"Not with all the Caracunans, surely. Take Mr. Raimonda, for instance."
"Ah, that's different. Twenty families of the city, perhaps, are pure-bloods. There are no finer, cleaner fellows anywhere than the well-bred Caracunans. They are men of the world, European educated, good sportsmen, straight, honorable gentlemen. Unfortunately not they, but a gang of mongrel grafters control the politics of the country."
"For a hermit of science, you seem to know a good deal of what goes on. By the way, Mr. Raimonda called on me--on us last evening."
"So he mentioned. Rather serious, that, you know."
"Far from it. He was very amusing."
"Doubtless," commented the other dryly. "But it isn't fair to play the game with one who doesn't know the rules. Besides, what will Mr. Preston Fairfax--"
"For a professedly shy person, you certainly take a rather intimate tone."
"Oh, I'm shy only under the baleful influence of the feminine eye. Besides, you set the note of intimacy when you analyzed my personal appearance. And finally, I have a warm regard for young Raimonda."
"So have I," she returned maliciously. "Aren't you jealous?"
"Please be a little bit jealous. It would be so flattering."
"Jealousy is another tradition in which I don't believe."
"Then I can't flirt with you at all?" she sighed. "After taking all this long hot walk to see you!"
Plop! The sound punctured the silence sharply, though not loudly. Some large fruit pod bursting on a distant tree might have made such a report.
"What was that?" asked the girl curiously.
"That? Oh, that was a revolver shot," he remarked.
"Aren't you casual! Do revolver shots mean nothing to you?"
"That one shakes my soul's foundations." His tone by no means indicated an inner cataclysm. "It may mean that I must excuse myself and leave. Just a moment, please."
Passing across the line of her vision, he disappeared to the left. When she next heard his voice, it was almost directly above her.
"No," it said. "There's no hurry. The flag's not up."
"The flag in my compound."
"Can you see your home from here?"
"Yes; there's a ledge on the cliff that gives a direct view."
"I want to come up and see it."
"You can't. It's much too hard a climb. Besides, there are rock devilkins on the way."
"And when you hear a shot, you go up there for messages?"
"Yes; it's my telephone system."
"Who's at the other end?"
"The peon who pretends to look after the quinta for me."
"A man! No man can keep a house fit to live in," she said scornfully.
"I know it; but he's all I've got in the servant line."
"How far is the house from here?"
"A mile, by air. Seven by trail from town."
"Isn't it lonely?"
Suddenly she felt very sorry for him. There was such a quiet, conclusive acceptance of cheerlessness in the monosyllable.
"How soon must you go back?"
"Oh, not for an hour, at least."
"If it's a call, it must be an important one, so far from civilization."
"Not necessarily. Don't you ever have calls that are not important?"
No answer came.
"Miss Brewster!" he called. "Oh, Voice! You haven't gone?"
Still no response.
"That isn't fair," he complained, making his way swiftly down, and satisfying himself by a peep about the angle commanding her point of the rock that she had, indeed, vanished. Sadly he descended to his own nook--and jumped back with a half-suppressed yell.
"You needn't jump out of your skin on my account," said Miss Polly Brewster, with a gracious smile. "I'm not a devilkin."
"You are! That is--I mean--I--I--beg your pardon. I--I--"
"The poor man's having another bashful fit," she observed, with malicious glee. "Did the bold, bad, forward American minx scare it almost out of its poor shy wits?"
"You--you startled me."
"No!" she exclaimed, in wide-eyed mock surprise. "Who would have supposed it? You didn't expect me down here, did you?"
Thereupon she got a return shock.
"Yes, I did," he said; "sooner or later."
"Don't fib. Don't pretend that you knew I was here."
"W-w-well, no. Not just now. B-b-but I knew you'd come if--if--if I pretended I didn't want you to long enough."
"Young and budding scientist," said she severely, "you're a gay deceiver. Is it because you have known me in some former existence that you are able thus accurately to read my character?"
"Well, I knew you wouldn't stay up there much longer."
"I'm angry at you; very angry at you. That is, I would be if it weren't that you really didn't mean it when you said that you really didn't want to see my face again."
"Did any one ever see your face once without wanting to see it again?"
"Ah, bravo!" She clapped her hands gayly. "Marvelous improvement under my tutelage! Where, oh, where is your timidity now?"
"I--I--I forgot," he stammered, "As long as I don't think, I'm all right. Now, you--you--you've gone and spoiled me."
"Oh, the pity of it! Let's find some mild, impersonal topic, then, that won't embarrass you. What do you do under the shadow of this rock, in a parched land?"
"Work. Besides, it isn't a parched land. Look on this side."
Half a dozen steps brought her around the farther angle, where, hidden in a growth of shrubbery, lay a little pool of fairy loveliness,
"That's my outdoor laboratory."
"A dreamery, I'd call it. May I sit down? Are there devilkins here? There's an elfkin, anyway," she added, as a silvered dragon- fly hovered above her head inquisitively before darting away on his own concerns.
"One of my friends and specimens. I'm studying his methods of aviation with a view to making some practical use of what I learn, eventually."
"Really? Are you an inventor, too? I'm crazy about aviation."
"Ah, then you'll be interested in this," he said, now quite at his ease. "You know that the mosquito is the curse of the tropics."
"Of other places, as well."
"But in the tropics it means yellow fever, Chagres fever, and other epidemic illness. Now, the mosquito, as you doubtless realize, is a monoplane."
"A monoplane?" repeated the girl, in some puzzlement. "How a monoplane?"
"I thought you claimed some knowledge of aviation. Its wings are all on one plane. The great natural enemy of the mosquito is the dragon-fly, one of which just paid you a visit. Now, modern warfare has taught us that the most effective assailant of the monoplane is a biplane. You know that."
"Y-y-yes," said the girl doubtfully.
"Therefore, if we can breed a biplane dragonfly in sufficient numbers, we might solve the mosquito problem at small expense."
"I don't know much about science," she began, "but I should hardly have supposed--"
"It's curious how nature varies the type of aviation," he continued dreamily. "Now, the pigeon is, of course, a Zeppelin; whereas the sea urchin is obviously a balloon; and the thistledown an undirigible--"
"You're making fun of me!" she accused, with sharp enlightenment.
"What else have you done to me ever since we met?" he inquired mildly.
"Now I am angry! I shall go home at once."
A second far-away plop! set a period to her decision.
"So shall I," said he briskly.
"Does that signal mean hurry up?" she asked curiously.
"Well, it means that I'm wanted. You go first. When will you come again?"
"Not at all."
"Do you mean that?"
"Of course. I'm angry. Didn't I tell you that? I don't permit people to make fun of me. Besides, you must come and see me next. You owe me two calls. Will you?"
"Then you must surely come and conquer this cowardice. Will you come to-morrow?"
"No; I don't think so."
Miss Brewster opened wide her eyes upon him. She was little accustomed to have her invitations, which she issued rather in the manner of royal commands, thus casually received. Had the offender been any other of her acquaintance, she would have dropped the matter and the man then and there. But this was a different species. Graceful and tactful he might not be, but he was honest.
"Why?" she said.
"I've got something more important to do."
"You're reverting to type sadly. What is it that's so important?"
"You can work any time."
"No. Unfortunately I have to eat and sleep sometimes."
The implication she accepted quite seriously.
"Are you really as busy as all that? I'm quite conscience-stricken over the time I've wasted for you."
"Not wasted at all. You've cheered me up."
"That's something. But you won't come to the city to be cheered up?"
"Yes, I will. When I get time."
"Perhaps you won't find me at home."
"Then I'll wait."
"Good-bye, then," she laughed, "until your leisure day arrives."
She climbed the rock, stepping as strongly and surely as a lithe animal. At the top, the spirit of roguery, ever on her lips and eyes, struck in and possessed her soul.
"O disciple of science!" she called.
"Can you see me?"
"Not from here."
"Good! I'm a Voice again. So don't be timid. Will you answer a question?"
"I've answered a hundred already. One more won't hurt."
"Have you ever been in love?"
"Don't I speak plainly enough? Have--you--ever--been--in--love?"
"With a woman?"
"Why, yes," she railed. "With a woman, of course. I don't mean with your musty science."
"Well, you needn't be violent. Have you ever been in love with anything?"
"Oh, perhaps!" she taunted. "There are no perhapses in that. With what?"
"With what every man in the world is in love with once in his life," he replied thoughtfully.
She made a little still step forward and peeped down at him. He stood leaning against the face of the rock, gazing out over the hot blue Caribbean, his hat pushed back and his absurd goggles firm and high on his nose. His words and voice were in preposterous contrast to his appearance.
"Riddle me your riddle," she commanded. "What is every man in love with once in his life?"
"Ah! And your ideal--where do you keep it safe from the common gaze?"
"I tether it to my heart--with a single hair," said the man below.
"Oh," commented Miss Brewster, in a changed tone. And, again, "Oh," just a little blankly. "I wish I hadn't asked that," she confessed silently to herself, after a moment.
Still, the spirit of reckless experimentalism pressed her onward.
"That's a peril to the scientific mind, you know," she warned. "Suppose your ideal should come true?"
"It won't," said he comfortably.
Miss Brewster's regrets sensibly mitigated.
"In that case, of course, your career is safe from accident," she remarked.
He moved out into the open.
"Mr. Beetle Man," she called,
He looked up and saw her with her chin cupped in her hand, regarding him thoughtfully.
"I'm not just a casual acquaintance," she said suddenly. "That is, if you don't want me to be."
"That's good," was his hearty comment. "I'm glad you like me better than you did at first."
"Oh, I'm not so sure that I like you, exactly. But I'm coming to have a sort of respectful curiosity about you. What lies under that beetle shell of yours, I wonder?" she mused, in a half breath.
Whether or not he heard the final question she could not tell. He smiled, waved his hand, and disappeared. Below, she watched the motion of the bush-tops where the shrubbery was parted by the progress of his sturdy body down the long slope.