The Unspeakable Perk by Samuel Hopkins Adams
V. An Upholder of Traditions
One day passes much like another in Caracuna City. The sun rises blandly, grows hot and angry as it climbs the slippery polished vault of the heavens, and coasts down to its rest in a pleased and mild glow. From the squat cathedral tower the bells clang and jangle defiance to the Adversary, temporarily drowning out the street tumult in which the yells of the lottery venders, the braying of donkeys, the whoops of the cabmen, and the blaring of the little motor cars with big horns, combine to render Caracuna the noisiest capital in the world. Through the saddle-colored hordes on the moot ground of the narrow sidewalks moves an occasional Anglo-Saxon resident, browned and sallowed, on his way to the government concession that he manages; a less occasional Anglo-Saxoness, browned and marked with the seal that the tropics put upon every woman who braves their rigors for more than a brief period; and a sprinkling of tourists in groups, flying on cheek, brow, and nose the stark red of their newness to the climate.
Not of this sorority Miss Polly Brewster. Having blithe regard to her duty as an ornament of this dull world, she had tempered the sun to the foreign cuticle with successively diminishing layers of veils, to such good purpose that the celestial scorcher had but kissed her graduated brownness to a soft glow of color. Not alone in appreciation of her external advantages was Miss Brewster. Such as it was,--and it had its qualities, albeit somewhat unformulated,--Caracuna society gave her prompt welcome. There were teas and rides and tennis at the little club; there were agreeable, presentable men and hospitable women; and always there was Fitzhugh Carroll, suave, handsome, gentle, a polished man of the world among men, a courteous attendant to every woman, but always with a first thought for her. Was it sheer perversity of character, that elfin perversity so shrewdly divined by the hermit of the mountain, that put in her mind, in this far corner of the world, among these strange people, the thought:
"All men are alike, and Fitz, for all that he's so different and the best of them, is the most alike."
Which paradox, being too much for her in the heat of the day, she put aside in favor of the insinuating thought of her beetle man. Whatever else he might or might not be, he wasn't alike. She was by no means sure that she found this difference either admirable or amiable. But at least it was interesting.
Moreover, she was piqued. For four days had passed and the recluse had not returned her call. True, there had come to her hotel a wicker full of superb wild tree blooms, and, again, a tiny box, cunning in workmanship of scented wood, containing what at first glance she had taken to be a jewel, until she saw that it was a tiny butterfly with opalescent wings, mounted on a silver wire. But with them had come no word or token of identification. Perhaps they weren't from the queer and remote person at all. Very likely Mr. Raimonda had sent them; or Fitzhugh Carroll was adding secret attention to his open homage; or they might even be a further peace offering from the Hochwald secretary.
That occasionally too festive diplomat had, indeed, made amends both profound and, evidently, sincere. Soliciting the kind offices of both Sherwen and Raimonda, he had presented himself, under their escort, stiff and perspiring in his full official regalia, before Mr. Brewster; then before his daughter, whose solemnity, presently breaking down before his painfully rehearsed English, dissolved in fluent French, setting him at ease and making him her slave. Poor penitent Von Plaanden even apologized to Carroll, fortunately not having heard of the American's threat, and made a most favorable impression upon that precisian.
"Intoxicated, he may be a rough, Miss Polly," Carroll confided to the girl. "But sober, the man is a gentleman. He feels very badly about the whole affair. Offered to your father to report it all through official channels and attach his resignation."
"Not for worlds!" cried Miss Polly. "The poor man was half asleep. And Mr. Bee--Mr. Perkins did jog him rather sharply."
"Yes. Von Plaanden asked my advice as an American about his attitude toward Cluff and Perkins."
"I hope you told him to let the whole thing drop."
"Exactly what I did. I explained about Cluff; that he was a very good fellow, but of a different class, and probably wouldn't give the thing another thought."
"And Mr. Perkins?"
"Von Plaanden wanted to challenge him, if he could find him. I suggested that he leave me to deal with Mr. Perkins. After some discussion, he agreed."
"Oh! And what are you going to do with him?"
"Find him first, if I can."
"I can tell you where." Carroll stared at her, astonished. "But I don't think I will."
"He announced his intention of keeping out of my way. The man has no sense of shame."
"You probably scared the poor lamb out of his wits, fire-eater that you are."
Carroll would have liked to think so, but an innate sense of justice beneath his crust of prejudice forbade him to accept this judgment.
"The strange part of it is that he doesn't impress me as being afraid. But there is certainly something very wrong with the fellow. A man who will deliberately desert a woman in distress"-- Carroll's manner expanded into the roundly rhetorical--"whatever else he may be, cannot be a gentleman."
"There might have been mitigating circumstances."
"No circumstances could excuse such an action. And, after that, the fellow had the effrontery to send you a message."
"Me? What was it?" asked Miss Polly quickly.
"I don't know. I didn't let him finish. I forbade his even mentioning your name."
"Indeed!" cried the girl, in quick dudgeon. "Don't you think you are taking a great deal upon yourself, Fitz? What do you really know about Mr. Perkins, anyway, that you judge him so offhandedly?"
"Very little, but enough, I think. And I hardly think you know more."
"Then you're wrong. I do."
"You know this man?"
"Yes; I do."
"Does your father approve of--"
"Never mind my father! He has confidence enough in me to let me judge of my own friends."
"Friends?" Carroll's handsome face clouded and reddened. "If I had known that he was a friend of yours, Miss Polly, I never would have spoken as I did. I'm most sincerely sorry," he added, with grave courtesy.
The girl's color deepened under the brown.
"He isn't exactly a friend," she admitted. "I've just met and talked with him a few times. But your judgment seemed so unfair, on such a slight basis."
"I'm sorry I can't reverse my judgment," said the Southerner stiffly, "But I know of only one standard for those matters."
"That's just your trouble." Her eyes took on a cold gleam as she scanned the perfection and finish of the man before her. "Fitzhugh, do you wear ready-made clothing?"
"Of course not," he answered, in surprise at this turn.
"Your suits are all made to order?"
"Yes, Miss Polly."
"And your shirts?"
"Yes, and shoes, and various other things." He smiled.
"Why do you have them specially made?"
"Beeause they suit me better, and I can afford it."
"It's really because you want them individualized for you, isn't it?"
"Yes; I suppose so."
"Then why do you always get your mental clothes ready-made?"
"I don't think I understand, Miss Polly," he said gently.
"It seems to me that all your ideas and estimates and standards are of stock pattern," she explained relentlessly. "Inside, you're as just exactly so as a pair of wooden shoes. Can't you see that you can't judge all men on the same plane?"
"I see that you're angry with me, and I see that I'm being punished for what I said about--about Mr. Perkins. If I'd known that you took any interest in him, I'd have bitten my tongue in two before speaking as I did. As for the message, if you wish it, I'll go to him--"
"Oh, that doesn't matter," she interrupted.
"This much I can say, in honesty," continued the Southerner, with an effort: "I had a talk, almost an encounter, with him in the plaza, and I don't believe he is the coward I thought him."
His intent to be fair to the object of his scorn was so genuine that his critic felt a swift access of compunction.
"Oh, Fitz," she said sweetly, "you're not to blame. I should have told you. And you're honest and loyal and a gentleman. Only I wish sometimes that you weren't quite so awfully gentlemanly a gentleman."
The Southerner made a gesture of despair.
"If I could only understand you, Miss Polly!"
"Don't hope it. I've never yet understood myself. But there's a sympathy in me for the under dog, and this Mr. Perkins seems a sort of helpless creature. Yet in another way he doesn't seem helpless at all. Quite the reverse. Oh, dear! I'm tired of Perkins, Perkins, Perkins! Let's talk about something pleasanter-- like the plague."
"What's that about Perkins?" Galpy had entered the drawing-room where the conversation had been carried on, and now crossed over to them. "I'll tell you a good one on the little blighteh. D' you know what they call him at the Club Amicitia since his adventure on the street car, Miss Brewster?"
"'The Unspeakable Perk.' Rippin', ain't it? Like 'The Unspeakable Turk,' you know."
Despite herself, Polly's lips twitched; in some ways he was unspeakable.
"They've nicknamed him that because of his trying to help me, and then--leaving?" she asked.
"Oh, not entirely. There's other things. He's a nahsty, stand- offish way with him, you know. Don't-want-to-know-yeh trick. Wouldn't-speak-to-yeh-if-I-could-help-it twist to his face. 'The Unspeakable Perk.' Stands him right, I should say. There's other reasons, too."
"What are they?"
She saw a quick, warning frown on Carroll's sharply turned face. Galpy noted it, too, and was lost in confusion.
"Oh--ah--just gossip--nothing at all. I say, Miss Brewster, the railway--I'm in the Ferrocarril-del-Norte office, you know--has offered your party a special on an hour's notice, any time you want it."
"That's most kind of your road, Mr. Galpy. But why should we want it?"
"Things might be getting a bit ticklish any day now. I've just taken the message from the manager to your father."
The young Englishman took his leave, and Polly Brewster went to her room, to freshen up for luncheon, carrying with her the sobriquet she had just heard. Certainly, applied to its subject, it had a mucilaginous consistency. It stuck.
"'The Unspeakable Perk,'" she repeated, with a little chuckle. "If I had a month to train him in, eh, what a speakable Perk I'd make him! I'd make him into a Perk that would sit up and speak when I lifted my little finger." She considered this. "I'm not so sure," she concluded, more doubtfully. "How can one tell through those horrid glasses, particularly when one doesn't see him for days and days?"
Without moving, she might, however, have seen him forthwith, for at that precise and particular moment, the Unspeakable Perk was in plain sight of her window, on a bench in the corner of the plaza, engaged in light conversation with a legless and philosophical beggar whom he had just astonished by the presentation of a whole bolivar, of the value of twenty cents gold.
After she had finished luncheon and returned to her room, he was still there. Not until the mid-heat of the afternoon, however, did she observe, first with puzzlement, then with a start of recognition, the patiently rounded brown back of the forward- leaning figure in the corner. Greatly wroth was Miss Polly Brewster. For some hours--two, at least--the man to keep tryst and wager with whom she had tramped up miles of mountain road had been in town and hadn't called upon her! Truly was he an Unspeakable Perk!
Wasn't there possibly a mistake somewhere, though? A second peep at the far-away back interpreted into the curve a suggestion of resigned waiting. Maybe he had called, after all. Thought being usually with Miss Brewster the mother of the twins, Determination and Action, she slipped downstairs and inquired of the three guardians of the door, in such Spanish as she could muster, whether a Mr. Perkins, wearing large glasses--this in the universal sign manual--had been to see her that day.
"Si, Senorita"--he had.
Why, then, hadn't his name been brought to her?
Extended hands and up-shrugged shoulders that might mean either apology or incomprehension.
Straightway Miss Brewster pinned a hat upon her brown head at an altogether casual and heart-distracting angle and sallied down into the tesselated bowl of the park. Quite unconscious of her approach, until she was close upon him, her objective chatted fluently with the legless one, until she spoke quietly, almost in his ear. Then it was only by a clutch at the bench back that he saved himself from disaster on his return to earth.
"Wh--wh--what--wh--where--how did you come here?" he stuttered.
"Now, now, don't be alarmed," she admonished. "Shut your eyes, draw a deep breath, count three. And, as soon as you are ready I'll give you a talisman against social panic. Are you ready?"
"Very well. Whenever I come upon you suddenly, you mustn't try to jump up into a tree as you did just now--"
"Oh, yes. Or burrow under a rock, as you did the other day--"
"Wait until I've finished. You must turn your thoughts firmly upon your science, until you've recovered equilibrium and the power of human speech."
"But when you jump at me that way, I c-c-can't think of anything but you."
"That's where the charm comes in. As soon as you see me or hear me approaching, you must repeat, quite slowly, this scientific incantation." She beat time with a pink and rhythmic finger as she chanted:--
"Scarab, tarantula, doodle-bug, flea."
The beggar rapidly made the sign that protects one from the influence of the malign and supernatural. The scientist scowled.
"Repeat it!" she commanded.
"There is no such insect as a doodle-bug," he protested feebly.
"Isn't there? I thought I heard you mention it in your conversation with Mr. Carroll the other night."
"You put that into my head," he accused.
"Truly? Then life is indeed real and earnest. To have introduced something unscientific into that compendium of science--there's triumph enough for any ambition. Besides, see how beautifully it scans."
Again she beat time, and again the beggar crooked defensive fingers as she declaimed:--
"Scar-ab, tar-ant-u-la, doo-dle-bug, flea!"
Homeric, I call it. Perhaps you think you could improve on it."
"Would you mind substituting 'neuropter' in the third strophe?" he ventured. "It would be just as good as 'doodle-bug,' and more-- more accurate."
"What's a neuropter? You didn't make him up for the occasion?"
"Heaven forbid! The dragon-fly is a neuropter. The dragon-fly we're going to breed to a biplane, you know," he reminded her slyly.
"Indeed! Well, I shall stick to my doodle-bug. He's more euphonious. Now, repeat it."
"Let me off this time," he pleaded. "I'm all right--quite recovered. It's only at the start that it's so bad."
"Very well," she agreed. "But you're not to forget it. And next time we meet you're to be sure and say it over until you're sane."
"Sane!" he said resentfully. "I'm as sane as any one you know. It's the job of keeping sane in this madhouse of the tropics that's almost driven me crazy."
"Lovely!" she approved. "Well, now that you've recovered, I'll tell you what I came out to say. I'm sorry that I missed you."
"Missed me?" he repeated. "Oh, you have missed me, then? That's nice. You see, I've been so busy for the last three or four days--"
"No; I haven't missed you a bit," she declared indignantly. "The conceit of the man!"
"But you said you w-w-were sorry you'd--"
"Don't be wholly a beetle! I meant I was sorry not to see you when you came to call on me this morning."
"I didn't come to call on you this morning."
"No? The boy at the door said he'd seen you, or something answering to your description."
"So he did. I came to see your father. He was out."
"From eleven on."
"Father? No, I don't think so."
"His secretary came down and told me so, or sent word each time."
She smiled pityingly at him.
"Of course. That's what a secretary is for."
"To tell lies?"
"White lies. You see, dad is a very busy man, and an important man, and many people come to see him whom he hasn't time to see. So, unless he knew your business, he would naturally be 'out' to you."
The corners of the young man's rather sensitive mouth flattened out perceptibly.
"Ah, I see. My mistake. Living in countries where, however queer the people may be, they at least observe ordinary human courtesies, one forgets--if one ever knew."
"What did you want of dad?"
"Oh, to borrow four dollars of him, of course," he replied dryly.
"You needn't be angry at me. You see, dad's time is valuable."
"Indeed? To whom?"
"Why, to himself, of course."
"Oh, well, my time--However, that doesn't matter. I haven't wholly wasted it." He glanced toward the beggar, who was profoundly regarding the cathedral clock.
"If you like, I'll get you an interview with dad," she offered magnanimously.
"Me? No, I thank you," he said crisply. "I'm not patient of unnecessary red tape."
Miss Brewster looked at him in surprise. It was borne in upon her, as she looked, that this man was not accustomed to being lightly regarded by other men, however busy or important; that his own concerns in life were quite as weighty to him, and in his esteem, perhaps, to others, as were the interests of any magnate; and that, man to man, there would be no shyness or indecision or purposelessness anywhere in his make-up.
"If it was important," she began hesitantly, "my father would be--"
"It was of no importance to me," he cut in. "To others--Perhaps I could see some one else of your party."
"Well, here I am." She smiled. "Why won't I do?"
Behind the obscuring disks she could feel his glance read her. The grimness at the mouth's corners relaxed.
"I really don't know why you shouldn't."
"Dad says I'd have made a man of affairs," she remarked.
"Why, it's just this. You should be planning to leave this country."
Miss Brewster bewailed her harsh lot with drooping lip.
"Every one wants to drive me away!"
"That railroad man, Mr. Galpy, was offering us special inducements to leave, in the form of special trains any time we liked. It isn't hospitable."
"A jail is hospitable. But one doesn't stay in it when one can get out."
"If Caracuna were the jail and I the 'one,' one might. I quite love it here."
He made a sharp gesture of annoyance.
"Don't be childish," he said.
"Childish? You come down like Freedom from the mountain heights, and unfurl your warnings to the air, and complain of lost time and all that sort of thing, and what does it all amount to?" she demanded, with spirit. "That we should sail away, when you know perfectly well that the Dutch won't let us sail away! Childish, indeed! Don't you be beetlish!"
"There's a way out, without much risk, but some discomfort. You could strike south-east to the Bird Reefs, take a small boat, and get over to the mainland. As soon as the blockade is off, the yacht can take your luggage around. The trip would be rough for you, but not dangerous. Not as dangerous as staying here may be."
"Do you really think it so serious?"
"Will you come with us and show us the way?" she inquired, gazing with exaggerated appeal into his goggles.
"What shall you do?"
"Pins through scarabs," she laughed, "while beneath you Caracuna riots and revolutes and massacres foreigners. Nero with his fiddle was nothing to you."
"Miss Brewster, I'm afraid you are suffering from a misplaced sense of humor. Will you believe me when I tell you that I have certain sources of information in local matters both serviceable and reliable?"
"You seem to have bet on a certainty in the Dutch blockade matter."
"Well, it's equally certain that there is bubonic plague here."
"A bola. You told me so yourself."
"Perhaps there was nothing to be gained then by letting you know, as you were bottled up, with no way out. Now, through the good offices of a foreign official, who, of course, couldn't afford to appear, this opportunity to reach the mainland is open to you."
"Had you anything to do with that?" she inquired suspiciously.
"Oh, the official is a friend of mine," he answered carelessly.
"And you really believe that there is an epidemic of plague here? Don't you think that I'd make a good Red Cross nurse?"
His voice was grave and rather stern.
"You've never seen bubonic plague," he said, "or you wouldn't joke about it."
"I'm sorry. But it wasn't wholly a joke. If we were really cooped up with an epidemic, I'd volunteer. What else would there be to do?"
"Nothing of the sort," he cried vehemently. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"Anyway, isn't the wonderful Luther Pruyn on his way to exorcise the demon, or something of the sort?"
"What about Luther Pruyn? Who says he's coming here?"
"It's the gossip of the diplomatic set and the clubs. He's the favorite mystery of the day."
"Well, if he does come, it won't improve matters any, for the first case he verifies he'll clap on a quarantine that a mouse couldn't creep through. I know something of the Pruyn method."
"And don't wholly approve it, I judge."
"It may be efficacious, but it's extremely inconvenient at times."
Again the cathedral clock boomed.
"See how I've kept you from your own affairs!" cried Miss Polly contritely. "What are you going to do now? Go back to your mountains?"
"Yes. As soon as you tell me that your father will go out by the reefs."
"Do you expect him to make up his mind, on five minutes' notice, to abandon his yacht?"
"I thought great magnates were supposed to be men of instant and unalterable decisions. I don't know the type."
"Anyway, dad has gone out. I saw him drive away. Wouldn't to- morrow do?"
"Why, yes; I suppose so."
"I'll tell you. The Voice will report at the rock to-morrow, at four."
"What a very uncompromising 'no'!"
"I can't be there at four. Make it five."
"What a very arbitrary beetle man! Well, as I've wasted so much of your time to-day, I'll accept your orders for to-morrow."
"And please impress your father with the extreme advisability of your getting off this island."
"Yes, sir," she said meekly. "You'll be most awfully glad to get rid of us, won't you?"
"Very greatly relieved."
"And a little bit sorry?"
The begoggled face turned toward her. There was a perceptible tensity in the line of the jaw. But the beetle man made no answer.
"Now, if I could see behind those glasses," said Miss Polly Brewster to her wicked little self, "I'd probably bite myself rather than say it again. Just the same--And a little bit sorry?" she persisted aloud.
"Does that matter?" said the man quietly.
Miss Polly Brewster forthwith bit herself on her pink and wayward tongue.
"Don't think I'm not grateful," she employed that chastened member to say. "I am, most deeply. So will father be, even if he decides not to leave. I'm afraid that's what he will decide."
"Tell him that yourself."
"I will, if it becomes necessary."
"Let me be present at the interview. Most people are afraid of dad. Perhaps you'd be, too."
"I could always run away," he remarked, unsmiling. "You know how well I do it."
"I must do it now myself, and get arrayed for the daily tea sacrifice. Au revoir."
"Hasta manana," he said absently.
She had turned to go, but at the word she came slowly back a pace or two, smiling.
"What a strange beetle man you are!" she said softly. "I have no other friends like you. You are a friend, aren't you, in your queer way?" She did not wait for an answer, but went on: "You don't come to see me when I ask you. You don't send me any word. You make me feel that, compared to your concerns with beetles and flies, I'm quite hopelessly unimportant. And yet here I find you giving up your own pursuits and wasting your time to plan and watch and think for us."
"For you," he corrected.
"For me," she accepted sweetly. "What an ungrateful little pig you must think me! But truly inside I appreciate it and thank you, and I think--I feel that perhaps it amounts to a lot more than I know."
He made a gesture of negation.
"No great thing," he said. "But it's the best I can do, anyway. Do you remember what the mediaeval mummer said, when he came bearing his poor homage?"
"No. Tell it to me."
"It runs like this: 'Lady, who art nowise bitter to those who serve you with a good intent, that which thy servant is, that he is for you.'"
"Polly Brewster," said the girl to herself, as she walked, slowly and musingly, back to her room, "the busy haunts of men are more suited to your style than the free-and-untrammeled spaces of nature, and well you know it. But you'll go to-morrow and you'll keep on going until you find out what is behind those brown-green goblin spectacles. If only he didn't look so like a gnome!"
The clause conditional, introduced by the word "if," does not always imply a conclusion, even in the mind of the propounder. Miss Brewster would have been hard put to it to round out her subjunctive.