The Unspeakable Perk by Samuel Hopkins Adams
VII. "That Which Thy Servant Is--"
A man that you'd call your friend. Such had been Fitzhugh Carroll's reference to the Unspeakable Perk. With that characterization in her mind. Miss Brewster let herself drift, after her suitor had left her, into a dreamy consideration of the hermit's attitude toward her. She was not prone lightly to employ the terms of friendship, yet this new and casual acquaintance had shown a readiness to serve--not as cavalier, but as friend--none too common in the experience of the much-courted and a little spoiled beauty. Being, indeed, a "lady nowise bitter to those who served her with good intent," she reflected, with a kindly light in her eyes, that it was all part and parcel of the beetle's man's amiable queerness.
Still musing upon this queerness, she strolled back to find her mount waiting at the corner of the plaza. In consideration of the heat she let her cream-colored mule choose his own pace, so they proceeded quite slowly up the hill road, both absorbed in meditation, which ceased only when the mule started an argument about a turn in the trail. He was a well-bred trotting mule, worth six hundred dollars in gold of any man's money, and he was self-appreciative in knowledge of the fact. He brought a singular firmness of purpose to the support of the negative of her proposition, which was that he should swing north from the broad into the narrow path. When the debate was over, St. John the Baptist--this, I hesitate to state, yet must, it being the truth, was the spirited animal's name--was considerably chastened, and Miss Brewster more than a trifle flushed. She left him tied to a ceiba branch at the exit from the dried creek bed, with strict instructions not to kick, lest a worse thing befall him. Miss Brewster's fighting blood was up, when, ten minutes late, because of the episode, she reached the summit of the rock.
"Oh, Mr. Beetle Man, are you there?" she called.
"Yes, Voice. You sound strange. What is it?"
"I've been hurrying, and if you tell me I'm late, I'll--I'll fall on your neck again and break it."
"Has anything happened?"
"Nothing in particular. I've been boxing the compass with a mule. It's tiresome."
"You're not, by any chance, speaking figuratively of your respected parent?"
"Certainly not!" she disclaimed indignantly. "This was a real mule. You're very impertinent."
"Well, you see, he was impertinent to me, saying he was out when he was in. What is his decision--yes or no?"
A sharp exclamation came from the nook below.
"Is that the entomological synonym for 'damn'?" she inquired.
"It's a lament for time wasted on a--Well, never mind that."
"But he wants you to carry a message by that secret route of yours. Will you do it for him?"
"That's not being a very kind or courteous beetle man."
"I owe Mr. Brewster no courtesy."
"And you pay only where you owe? Just, but hardly amiable. Well, you owe me nothing--but--will you do it for me?"
"Without even knowing what it is?"
"In return you shall have your heart's desire."
"Isn't the dearest wish of your soul to drive me out of Caracuna?"
"Hum! Well--er--yes. Yes; of course it is."
"Very well. If you can get dad's message on the wire to Washington, he thinks the Secretary of State, who is his friend, can reach the Dutch and have them open up the blockade for us."
"Time apparently meaning nothing to him."
"Would it take much time?"
"About four days to a wire."
She gazed at him in amazement.
"And you were willing to give up four days to carry my message through, 'unsight--unseen,' as we children used to say?"
"Willing enough, but not able to. I'd have got a messenger through with it, if necessary. But in four days, there'll be other obstacles besides the Dutch."
"I thought that had to wait for Dr. Pruyn."
"Pruyn's here. That's a secret, Miss Brewster."
"Do you know everything? Has he found plague?"
"Ah, I don't say that. But he will find it, for it's certainly here. I satisfied myself of that yesterday."
"From your beggar friend?"
"What made you think that, O most acute observer?"
"What else would you be talking to him of, with such interest?"
"You're correct. Bubonic always starts in the poor quarters. To know how people die, you have to know how they live. So I cultivated my beggar friend and listened to the gossip of quick funerals and unexplained disappearances. I'd have had some real arguments to present to Mr. Brewster if he had cared to listen."
"He'll listen to Dr. Pruyn. They're old friends."
"No! Are they?"
"Yes. Since college days. So perhaps the quarantine will be easier to get through than the blockade."
"Do you think so? I'm afraid you'll find that pull doesn't work with the service that Dr. Pruyn is in."
"And you think that there will be quarantine within four days?"
"Almost sure to be."
"Then, of course, I needn't trouble you with the message."
"Don't jump at conclusions. There might be another and quicker way."
"Wireless?" she asked quickly.
"No wireless on the island. No. This way you'll just have to trust me for."
"I'll trust you for anything you say you can do."
"But I don't say I can. I say only that I'll try."
"That's enough for me. Ready! Now, brace yourself. I'm coming down."
"Wh--why--wait! Can't you send it down?"
"No. Besides, you know you want to see me. No use pretending, after last time. Remember your verse now, and I'll come slowly."
Solemnly he began:--
"Scarab, tarantula, neurop--" "'Doodle-bug,'" she prompted severely. "--doodle-bug, flea,"--
he concluded obediently.
"Scarab, tarantula, doodle-bug, flea. Scarab, tarantula, doodle--"
"Oof! I--I--didn't think you'd be here so soon!"
He scrambled to his feet, hardly less palpitating than on the occasion of their first encounter.
"Hopeless!" she mourned. "Incurable! Wanted: a miracle of St. Vitus. Do stop nibbling your hat, and sit down."
"I don't think it's as bad as it was," he murmured, obeying. "One gets accustomed to you."
"One gets accustomed to anything in time, even the eccentricities of one's friends."
"Do you think I'm eccentric?"
"Do I think--Have you ever known any one who didn't think you eccentric?"
Upon this he pondered solemnly.
"It's so long since I've stopped to consider what people think of me. One hasn't time, you know."
"Then one is unhuman. I have time."
"Of course. But you haven't anything else to do."
As this was quite true, she naturally felt annoyed.
"Knowing as you do all the secrets of my inner life," she observed sarcastically, "of course you are in a position to judge."
Her own words recalled Carroll's charge, and though, with the subject of them before her, it seemed ridiculously impossible, yet the spirit of mischief, ever hovering about her like an attendant sprite, descended and took possession of her speech. She assumed a severely judicial expression.
"Mr. Beetle Man, will you lay your hand upon your microscope, or whatever else scientists make oath upon, and answer fully and truly the question about to be put to you?"
"As I hope for a blessed release from this abode of lunacy, I will."
"Mr. Beetle Man, have you got an awful secret in your life?"
So sharply did he start that the heavy goggles slipped a fraction of an inch along his nose, the first time she had ever seen them in any degree misplaced. She was herself sensibly discountenanced by his perturbation.
"Why do you ask that?" he demanded.
"Natural interest in a friend," she answered lightly, but with growing wonder. "I think you'd be altogether irresistible if you were a pirate or a smuggler or a revolutionary. The romantic spirit could lurk so securely behind those gloomy soul-screens that you wear. What do you keep back of them, O dark and shrouded beetle man?"
"My eyes," he grunted.
"Basilisk eyes, I'm sure. And what behind the eyes?"
"You certainly keep them securely. No intruders allowed. But you haven't answered my question. Have you ever murdered any one in cold blood? Or are you a married man trifling with the affections of poor little me?"
"You shall know all," he began, in the leisurely tone of one who commences a long narrative. "My parents were honest, but poor. At the age of three years and four months, a maternal uncle, who, having been a proofreader of Abyssinian dialect stories for a ladies' magazine, was considered a literary prophet, foretold that I--"
"Help! Wait! Stop!--
"'Oh, skip your dear uncle!' the bellman exclaimed, And impatiently tinkled his bell."
Her companion promptly capped her verse:--
"'I skip forty years,' said the baker in tears,"--
"You can't," she objected. "If you skipped half that, I don't believe it would leave you much."
"When one is giving one's life history by request," he began, with dignity, "interruptions--"
"It isn't by request," she protested. "I don't want your life history. I won't have it! You shan't treat an unprotected and helpless stranger so. Besides, I'm much more interested to know how you came to be familiar with Lewis Carroll."
"Just because I've wasted my career on frivolous trifles like science, you needn't think I've wholly neglected the true inwardness of life, as exemplified in 'The Hunting of the Snark,'" he said gravely.
"Do you know"--she leaned forward, searching his face--"I believe you came out of that book yourself. Are you a Boojum? Will you, unless I 'charm you with smiles and soap,'
"'Softly and silently vanish away, And never be heard of again'?"
"You're mixed. You'd be the one to do that if I were a real Boojum. And you'll be doing it soon enough, anyway," he concluded ruefully.
"So I shall, but don't be too sure that I'll 'never be heard of again.'"
He glanced up at the sun, which was edging behind a dark cloud, over the gap.
"Is your raging thirst for personal information sufficiently slaked?" he asked. "We've still fifteen or twenty minutes left."
"Is that all? And I haven't yet given you the message!" She drew it from the bag and handed it to him.
"Sealed," he observed.
The girl colored painfully.
"Dad didn't intend--You mustn't think--" With a flash of generous wrath she tore the envelope open and held out the inclosure. "But I shouldn't have thought you so concerned with formalities," she commented curiously.
"It isn't that. But in some respects, possibly important, it would be better if--" He stopped, looking at her doubtfully.
"Read it," she nodded.
He ran through the brief document.
"Yes; it's just as well that I should know. I'll leave a copy."
Something in his accent made her scrutinize him.
"You're going into danger!" she cried.
"Danger? No; I think not. Difficulty, perhaps. But I think it can be put through."
"If it were dangerous, you'd do it just the same," she said, almost accusingly.
"It would be worth some danger now to get you away from greater danger later. See here, Miss Brewster"--he rose and stood over her--"there must be no mistake or misunderstanding about this."
"Don't gloom at me with those awful glasses," she said fretfully. "I feel as if I were being stared at by a hidden person."
He disregarded the protest.
"If I get this message through, can you guarantee that your father will take out the yacht as soon as the Dutch send word to him?"
"Oh, yes. He will do that. How are you going to deliver the message?"
Again her words might as well not have been spoken.
"You'd better have your luggage ready for a quick start."
"Will it be soon?"
"It may be."
"How shall we know?"
"I will get word to you."
He shook his head.
"No; I fear not. This is good-bye."
"You're very casual about it," she said, aggrieved. "At least, it would be polite to pretend."
"What am I to pretend?"
"To be sorry. Aren't you sorry? Just a little bit?"
"Yes; I'm sorry. Just a little bit--at least."
"I'm most awfully sorry myself," she said frankly. "I shall miss you."
"As a curiosity?" he asked, smiling.
"As a friend. You have been a friend to us--to me," she amended sweetly. "Each time I see you, I have more the feeling that you've been more of a friend than I know."
"'That which thy servant is,'" he quoted lightly. But beneath the lightness she divined a pain that she could not wholly fathom. Quite aware of her power, Miss Polly Brewster was now, for one of the few times in her life, stricken with contrition for her use of it.
"And I--I haven't been very nice," she faltered. "I'm afraid" sometimes I've been quite horrid."
"You? You've been 'the glory and the dream.' I shall be needing memories for a while. And when the glory has gone, at least the dream will remain--tethered."
"But I'm not going to be a dream alone," she said, with wistful lightness. "It's far too much like being a ghost. I'm going to be a friend, if you'll let me. And I'm going to write to you, if you will tell me where. You won't find it so very easy to make a mere memory of me. And when you come home--When are you coming home?"
He shook his head.
"Then you must find out, and let me know. And you must come and visit us at our summer place, where there's a mountain-side that we can sit on, and you can pretend that our lake is the Caribbean and hate it to your heart's content--"
"I don't believe I can ever quite hate the Caribbean again."
"From this view you mustn't, anyway. I shouldn't like that. As for our lake, nobody could really help loving it. So you must be sure and come, won't you?"
"Dreams!" he murmured.
"Isn't there room in the scientific life for dreams?"
"Yes. But not for their fulfillment."
"But there will be beetles and dragon-flies on our mountain," she went on, conscious of talking against time, of striving to put off the moment of departure. "You'll find plenty of work there. Do you know, Mr. Beetle Man, you haven't told me a thing, really, about your work, or a thing, really, about yourself. Is that the way to treat a friend?"
"When I undertook to spread before you the true and veracious history of my life," he began, striving to make his tone light, "you would none of it."
"Are you determined to put me off? Do you think that I wouldn't find the things that are real to you interesting?"
"They're quite technical," he said shyly.
"But they are the big things to you, aren't they? They make life for you?"
"Oh, yes; that, of course." It was as if he were surprised at the need of such a question. "I suppose I find the same excitement and adventure in research that other men find in politics, or war, or making money."
"Adventure?" she said, puzzled. "I shouldn't have supposed research an adventurous career, exactly."
"No; not from the outside." His hidden gaze shifted to sweep the far distances. His voice dropped and softened, and, when he spoke again, she felt vaguely and strangely that he was hardly thinking of her or her question, except as a part of the great wonder-world surrounding and enfolding their companioned remoteness.
"This is my credo," he said, and quoted, half under his breath:--
"'We have come in search of truth, Trying with uncertain key Door by door of mystery. We are reaching, through His laws, To the garment hem of Cause. As, with fingers of the blind, We are groping here to find What the hieroglyphics mean Of the Unseen in the seen; What the Thought which underlies Nature's masking and disguise; What it is that hides beneath Blight and bloom and birth and death.'"
Other men had poured poetry into Polly Brewster's ears, and she had thought them vapid or priggish or affected, according as they had chosen this or that medium. This man was different. For all his outer grotesquery, the noble simplicity of the verse matched some veiled and hitherto but half-expressed quality within him, and dignified him. Miss Brewster suffered the strange but not wholly unpleasant sensation of feeling herself dwindle.
"It's very beautiful," she said, with an effort. "Is it Matthew Arnold?"
"Nearer home. You an American, and don't know your Whittier? That passage from his 'Agassiz' comes pretty near to being what life means to me. Have I answered your requirements?"
"Fully and finely."
She rose from the rock upon which she had been seated, and stretched out both hands to him. He took and held them without awkwardness or embarrassment. By that alone she could have known that he was suffering with a pain that submerged consciousness of self.
"Whether I see you again or not, I'll never forget you," she said softly. "You have been good to me, Mr. Perkins."
"I like the other name better," he said.
"Of course. Mr. Beetle Man." She laughed a little tremulously. Abruptly she stamped a determined foot. "I'm not going away without having seen my friend for once. Take off your glasses, Mr. Beetle Man."
"Too much radiance is bad for the microscopical eye."
"The sun is under a cloud."
"But you're here, and you'd glow in the dark."
"No; I'm not to be put off with pretty speeches. Take them off. Please!"
Releasing her hand, he lifted off the heavy and disfiguring apparatus, and stood before her, quietly submissive to her wish. She took a quick step backward, stumbled, and thrust out a hand against the face of the giant rock for support.
"Oh!" she cried, and again, "Oh, I didn't think you'd look like that!"
"What is it? Is there anything very wrong with me?" he asked seriously, blinking a little in the soft light.
"No, no. It isn't that. I--I hardly know--I expected something different. Forgive me for being so--so stupid."
In truth, Miss Polly Brewster had sustained a shock. She had become accustomed to regard her beetle man rather more in the light of a beetle than a man. In fact, the human side of him had impressed her only as a certain dim appeal to sympathy; the masculine side had simply not existed. Now it was as if he had unmasked. The visage, so grotesque and gnomish behind its mechanical apparatus, had given place to a wholly different and formidably strange face. The change all centered in the eyes. They were wide-set eyes of the clearest, steadiest, and darkest gray she had ever met; and they looked out at her from sharply angled brows with a singular clarity and calmness of regard. In their light the man's face became instinct with character in every line. Strength was there, self-control, dignity, a glint of humor in the little wrinkles at the corner of the mouth, and, withal a sort of quiet and sturdy beauty.
She had half-turned her face from him. Now, as her gaze returned and was fixed by his, she felt a wave of blood expand her heart, rush upward into her cheeks, and press into her eyes tears of swift regret. But now she was sorry, not for him, but for herself, because he had become remote and difficult to her.
"Have I startled you?" he asked curiously. "I'll put them back on again."
"No, no; don't do that!" She rallied herself to the point of laughing a little. "I'm a goose. You see, I've pictured you as quite different. Have you ever seen yourself in the glass with those dreadful disguises on?"
"Why, no; I don't suppose I have," he replied, after reflection. "After all, they're meant for use, not for ornament."
By this time she had mastered her confusion and was able to examine his face. Under his eyes were circles of dull gray, defined by deep lines,
"Why, you're worn out!" she cried pitifully. "Haven't you been sleeping?"
"You must take something for it." The mothering instinct sprang to the rescue. "How much rest did you get last night?"
"Let me see. Last night I did very well. Fully four hours."
"And that is more than you average?"
"Well, yes; lately. You see, I've been pretty busy."
"Yet you've given up your time to my wretched, unimportant little stupid affairs! And what return have I made?"
"You've made the sun shine," he said, "in a rather shaded existence."
"Promise me that you'll sleep to-night; that you won't work a stroke."
"No; I can't promise that."
"You'll break down. You'll go to pieces. What have you got to do more important than keeping in condition?"
"As to that, I'll last through. And there's some business that won't wait."
Divination came upon her.
"If it weren't that, it would be something else."
Her hand went out to him, and was withdrawn.
"Please put on your glasses," she said shyly.
Smiling, he did her bidding.
"There! Now you are my beetle man again. No, not quite, though. You'll never be quite the same beetle man again."
"I shall always be," he contradicted gently.
"Anyway, it's better. You're easier to say things to. Are you really the man who ran away from the street car?" she asked doubtfully.
"I really am."
"Then I'm most surely sure that you had good reason." She began to laugh softly. "As for the stories about you, I'd believe them less than ever, now."
"Are there stories about me?"
"Gossip of the club. They call you 'The Unspeakable Perk'!"
"Not a bad nickname," he admitted. "I expect I have been rather unspeakable, from their point of view."
A desire to have the faith that was in her supported by this man's own word overrode her shyness.
"Mr. Beetle Man," she said, "have you got a sister?"
"I? No. Why?"
"If you had a sister, is there anything--Oh, darn your sister!" broke forth the irrepressible Polly. "I'll be your sister for this. Is there anything about you and your life here that you'd be afraid to tell me?"
"I knew there wasn't," she said contentedly. She hesitated a moment, then put a hand on his arm. "Does this have to be good- bye, Mr. Beetle Man?" she said wistfully.
"I'm afraid so."
"No!" She stamped imperiously. "I want to see you again, and I'm going to see you again. Won't you come down to the port and bring me another bunch of your mountain orchids when we sail--just for good-bye?"
Through the dull medium of the glasses she could feel his eyes questioning hers. And she knew that once more before she sailed away, she must look into those eyes, in all their clarity and all their strength--and then try to forget them. The swift color ran up into her cheeks.
"I--I suppose so," he said. "Yes."
"Au revoir, then!" she cried, with a thrill of gladness, and fled up the rock.
The Unspeakable Perk strode down his path, broke into a trot, and held to it until he reached his house. But Miss Polly, departing in her own direction, stopped dead after ten minutes' going. It had struck her forcefully that she had forgotten the matter of the expense of the message. How could she reach him? She remembered the cliff above the rock, and the signal. If a signal was valid in one direction, it ought to work equally well in the other. She had her automatic with her. Retracing her steps, she ascended the cliff, a rugged climb. Across the deep-fringed chasm she could plainly see the porch of the quinta with the little clearing at the side, dim in the clouded light. Drawing the revolver, she fired three shots.
"He'll come," she thought contentedly.
The sun broke from behind the obscuring cloud and sent a shaft of light straight down upon the clearing. It illumined with pitiless distinctness the shimmering silk of a woman's dress, hanging on a line and waving in the first draft of the evening breeze. For a moment Polly stood transfixed. What did it mean? Was it perhaps a servant's dress. No; he had told her that there was no woman servant.
As she sought the solution, a woman's figure emerged from the porch of the quinta, crossed the compound, and dropped upon a bench. Even at that distance, the watcher could tell from the woman's bearing and apparel that she was not of the servant class. She seemed to be gazing out over the mountains; there was something dreary and forlorn in her attitude. What, then, did she do in the beetle man's house?
Below the rock the shrubbery weaved and thrashed, and the person who could best answer that question burst into view at a full lope.
"What is it?" he panted. "Was it you who fired?"
She stared at him mutely. The revolver hung in her hand. In a moment he was beside her.
"Has anything happened?" he began again, then turned his head to follow the direction of her regard. He saw the figure in the compound.
"Good God in heaven!" he groaned.
He caught the revolver from her hand and fired three slow shots. The woman turned. Snatching off his hat, he signalled violently with it. The woman rose and, as it seemed to Polly Brewster, moved in humble submissiveness back to the shelter.
White consternation was stamped on the Unspeakable Perk's face as he handed the revolver to its owner.
"Do you need me?" he asked quickly. "If not, I must go back at once."
"I do not need you," said the girl, in level tones. "You lied to me."
His expression changed. She read in it the desperation of guilt.
"I can explain," he said hurriedly, "but not now. There isn't time. Wait here. I'll be back. I'll be back the instant I can get away."
As he spoke, he was halfway down the rock, headed for the lower trail. The bushes closed behind him.
Painfully Polly Brewster made her way down the treacherous footing of the cliff path to her place on the rock. From her bag she drew one of her cards, wrote slowly and carefully a few words, found a dry stick, set it between two rocks, and pinned her message to it. Then she ran, as helpless humans run from the scourge of their own hearts.
Half an hour later the hermit, sweat-covered and breathless, returned to the rock. For a moment he gazed about, bewildered by the silence. The white card caught his eye. He read its angular scrawl.
"I wish never to see you again. Never! Never! Never!"
A sulphur-yellow inquisitor, of a more insinuating manner than the former participant in their conversation, who had been examining the message on his own account, flew to the top of the cliff.
"Qu'est-ce qu'elle dit? Qu'est-ce qu'elle dit?" he demanded.
For the first time in his adult life the beetle man threw a stone at a bird.