VI. Forked Tongues
 

"Pooh!" said Thatcher Brewster.

Thatcher Brewster's "Pooh!" is generally recognized in the realm of high finance as carrying weight. It is not derisive or contemptuous; it is dismissive. The subject of it simply ceases to exist. In the present instance, it was so mild as scarcely to stir the smoke from his after-dinner cigar, yet it had all the intent, if not the effect, of finality. The reason why it hadn't the effect was that it was directed at Thatcher Brewster's daughter.

"Perhaps not quite so much 'Pooh!' as you think," was that damsel's reception of the pregnant monosyllable.

"A bug-hunter from nowhere! Don't I know that type?" said the magnate, who confounded all scientists with inventors, the capital-seeking inventor being the bane and torment of his life.

"He knew about the Dutch blockade."

"Or pretended he did. I'm afraid my Pollipet has let herself romanticize a little."

"Romanticize!" The girl laughed. "If you could see him, dad! Romance and my poor little beetle man don't live in the same world."

Out of the realm of memory, where the echoes come and go by no known law, sounded his voice in her ear: "'That which thy servant is, that he is for you.'" Dim doubt forthwith began to cloud the bright certainty of Miss Brewster's verdict.

"If he's gone to all the trouble that I told you of, it must be that he has some good reason for wanting to get us safely out," she argued to her father.

"Perhaps he feels that his peace of mind would be more assured if you were in some other country," he teased. "No, my dear, I'm not leaving a full-manned yacht in a foreign harbor and smuggling myself out of a friendly country on the say-so of an unknown adviser, whose chief ability seems to lie in the hundred-yard dash."

"I think that's unfair and ungrateful. If a man with a sword--"

"When I begin a row, I stay with it," said Mr. Brewster grimly. "Quitters and I don't pull well together."

"Then I'm to tell him 'No'?"

"Positively."

"Not so positively at all. I shall say, 'No, thank you,' in my very nicest way, and say that you're very grateful and appreciative and not at all the growly old bear of a dad that you pretend to be when one doesn't know and love you. And perhaps I'll invite him to dine here and go away on the yacht with us--"

"And graciously accept a couple of hundred thousand dollars bonus, and come into the company as first vice-president," chuckled her father. "And then he'll wake up and find he's been sitting on a cactus. See here," he added, with a sharpening of tone, "do you suppose he could get a cablegram for transmission to Washington over to the mainland for us by this mysterious route of his?"

"Very likely."

"You're really sure you want to go, Pollipet? This is your cruise, you know."

"Yes, I do."

Hitherto Miss Polly had been declaring to all and sundry, including the beetle man himself, that it was her firm intent and pleasure to stay on the island and observe the presumptively interesting events that promised. That she had reversed this decision, on the unsolicited counsel of an extremely queer stranger, was a phenomenon the peculiarity of which did not strike her at the time. All that she felt was a settled confidence in the beetle man's sound reason for his advice.

"Very good," said Mr. Brewster. "If I can get through a message to the State Department, they'll bring pressure to bear on the Dutch, and we can take the yacht through the blockade. It's only a question of finding a way to lay the matter before the Dutch authorities, anyway. I've been making inquiries here, and I find there's no intention of bottling up neutral pleasure craft. I dare say we could get out now. Only it's possible that the Hollanders might shoot first and ask questions afterward."

"It would have to be done quickly, dad. They may quarantine at any time."

"Dr. Pruyn ought to be here any day now. Let's leave that matter for him. There's a man I have confidence in."

"Mr. Perkins says that Dr. Pruyn will bottle up the port tighter than the Dutch."

"Let him, so long as we get out first. Now, Polly, you tell this man Perkins that I'll pay all expenses and give him a round hundred for himself if he'll bring me a receipt showing that my cablegram has been dispatched to Washington."

"I don't think I'd quite like to do that, dad. He isn't the sort of man one offers money to."

"Every one's the sort of man one offers money to--if it's enough," retorted her father. "And a hundred dollars will look pretty big to a scientific man. I know something about their salaries. You try him."

"So far as expenses go, I will. But I won't hurt his feelings by trying to pay him for something that he would do for friendship or not at all."

"Have it your own way. When is he coming in?"

"He isn't coming in."

"Then where are you going to see him?"

"Up on the mountain trail, when I ride tomorrow afternoon."

"With Carroll?"

"No; I'm going alone."

"I don't quite like to have you knocking about mountain roads by yourself, though Mr. Sherwen says you're safe anywhere here. Where's that little automatic revolver I gave you?"

"In my trunk. I'll carry that if it will make you feel any easier."

"Yes, do. But I can't see why you can't send word to Perkins that I want to see him here."

"I can. And I can guess just what his answer would be."

"Well, guess ahead."

"He'd tell you to go to the bad place, or its scientific equivalent." She laughed.

"Would he?" Mr. Brewster did not laugh. "And perhaps you'll be good enough to tell me why."

"Because you sent word that you were out when he called."

"Humph! I see people when I want to see them, not when they want to see me."

"Then Mr. Perkins is likely to prove permanently invisible to you, if I'm any judge of character."

"Well, well," said Mr. Brewster impatiently, "manage it yourself. Only impress on him the necessity of getting the message on the wire. I'll write it out to-night and give it to you with the money to-morrow."

After luncheon on the following day, Polly, with the cablegram and money in her purse and her automatic safely disposed in her belt, walked in the plaza with Carroll. The legless beggar whined at them for alms. Handing him a quartillo, the Southerner would have passed on, but his companion stood eyeing the mendicant.

"Now, what can there be in that poor wreck to captivate the scientific intellect?" she marveled.

"If you mean Mr. Perkins--" began Carroll.

"I do."

"Then I think perhaps the reason for some of that gentleman's associations will hardly stand inquiry."

The girl turned her eyes on him and searched the handsome, serious face.

"Fitz, you're not the man to say that of another man without some good reason."

"I am not, Miss Polly."

"You think that Mr. Perkins is not the kind of man for me to have anything to do with?"

"I--I'm afraid he isn't."

"Don't you think that, having gone so far, you ought to tell me why?"

Carroll flushed.

"I would rather tell your father."

"Are you implying a scandal in connection with my timid, little dried-up scientist?"

"I'm only saying," said the other doggedly, "that there's something secret and underhanded about that place of his in the mountains. It's a matter of common gossip."

The girl laughed outright.

"The poor beetle man! Why, he's so afraid of a woman that he goes all to pieces if one speaks to him suddenly. Just to see his expression, I'd like to tell him that he's being scandalized by all Caracuna."

"You're going to see him again?"

"Certainly. This afternoon."

"I don't think you should, Miss Polly."

"Have you any actual facts against him? Anything but casual gossip?"

"No; not yet."

"When you have, I'll listen to you. But you couldn't make me believe it, anyway. Why, Fitz, look at him!"

"Take me with you," insisted the other, "and let me ask him a question or two that any honorable man could answer. They don't call him the Unspeakable Perk for nothing, Miss Polly."

"It's just because they don't understand his type. Nor do you, Fitz, and so you mistrust him."

"I understand that you've shown more interest in him than in any one you know," said the other miserably.

Her laugh rang as free and frank as a child's.

"Interest? That's true. But if you mean sentiment, Fitz, after once having looked into the depths of those absurd goggles, can you, could you think of sentiment and the beetle man in the same breath?"

"No, I couldn't," he confessed, relieved. "But, then, I never have been able to understand you, Miss Polly."

"Therein lies my fatal charm," she said saucily. "Now, to the beetle man, I'm a specimen. He understands as much as he wants to. Probably I shall never see him after to-day, anyway. He's going to get a message through for us that will deliver us from this land of bondage."

"He can't do it--too soon for me," declared Carroll. "And, Miss Polly, you don't think the worse of me for having said behind his back what I'm just waiting to say to his face?"

"Not a bit," said the girl warmly. "Only I know it's nonsense."

"I hope so," said Carroll, quite honestly. "I would hate to think anything low-down of a man you'd call your friend."

Carroll had learned more than he had told, but less than enough to give him what he considered proper evidence to lay before Polly's father. After some deliberation as to the point of honor involved, he decided to go to Raimonda, who, alone in Caracuna City, seemed to be on personal terms with the hermit. He found the young man in his office. With entire frankness, Carroll stated his errand and the reason for it. The Caracunan heard him with grave courtesy.

"And now, senior," concluded the American, "here's my question, and it's for you to determine whether, under the circumstances, you are justified in giving me an answer. Is there a woman living in Mr. Perkins's quinta on the mountains?"

"I cannot answer that question," said the other, after some deliberation.

"I'm sorry," said Carroll simply.

"I also. The more so in that my attitude may be misconstrued against Mr. Perkins. I am bound by confidence."

"So I infer," returned his visitor courteously. "Then I have only to ask your pardon--"

"One moment, if you please, senor. Perhaps this will serve to make easy your mind. On my word, there is nothing in Mr. Perkins's life on the mountain in any manner dishonorable or--or irregular."

In a flash, the simple solution crossed Carroll's mind. That a woman was there, and a woman not of the servant class, could hardly be doubted, in view of almost direct evidence from eyewitnesses. If there was nothing irregular about her presence, it was because she was Perkins's wife. In view of Raimonda's attitude, he did not feel free to put the direct query. Another question would serve his purpose.

"Is it advisable, and for the best interests of Miss Brewster, that she should associate with him under the circumstances?"

The Caracunan started and shot a glance at his interlocutor that said, as plainly as words, "How much do you know that you are not telling?" had the latter not been too intent upon his own theory to interpret it.

"Ah, that," said Raimonda, after a pause,--"that is another question. If it were my sister, or any one dear to me--but"--he shrugged--"views on that matter differ."

"I hardly think that yours and mine differ, senior. I thank you for bearing with me with so much patience."

He went out with his suspicions hardened into certainty.