III. "The O'Reilly"
 

Age and easy living had caused Don Mario de Castano, the sugar merchant, to take on weight. He had, in truth, become so fat that he waddled like a penguin when he walked; and when he rode, the springs of his French victoria gave up in despair. They glued themselves together, face to face, and Don Mario felt every rut and every rock in the road. Nor was the merchant any less heavy in mind than in body, for he was both very rich and very serious, and nothing is more ponderous than a rich, fat man who takes his riches and his fatness seriously. In disposition Don Mario was practical and unromantic; he boasted that he had never had an illusion, never an interest outside of his business. And yet, on the day this story opens, this prosaic personage, in spite of his bulging waistband and his taut neckband, in spite of his short breath and his prickly heat, was in a very whirl of pleasurable excitement. Don Mario, in fact, suffered the greatest of all illusions: he was in love, and he believed himself beloved. The object of his adoration was little Rosa Varona, the daughter of his one-time friend Esteban. At thought of her the planter glowed with ardor--at any rate he took it to be ardor, although it might have been the fever from that summer rash which so afflicted him-- and his heart fluttered in a way dangerous to one of his apoplectic tendencies. To be sure, he had met Rosa only twice since her return from her Yankee school, but twice had been enough; with prompt decision he had resolved to do her the honor of making her his wife.

Now, with a person of Don Mario's importance, to decide for himself is to decide for others, and inasmuch as he knew that Dona Isabel, Rosa's stepmother, was notoriously mercenary and had not done at all well since her husband's death, it did not occur to him to doubt that his suit would prosper. It was, in fact, to make terms with her that he rode forth in the heat of this particular afternoon.

Notwithstanding the rivulets of perspiration that were coursing down every fold of his flesh, and regardless of the fact that the body of his victoria was tipped at a drunken angle, as if struggling to escape the burdens of his great weight, Don Mario felt a jauntiness of body and of spirit almost like that of youth. He saw himself as a splendid prince riding toward the humble home of some obscure maiden whom he had graciously chosen to be his mate.

His arrival threw Dona Isabel into a flutter; the woman could scarcely contain her curiosity when she came to meet him, for he was not the sort of man to inconvenience himself by mere social visits. Their first formal greetings over, Don Mario surveyed the bare living-room and remarked, lugubriously:

"I see many changes here."

"No doubt," the widow agreed. "Times have been hard since poor Esteban's death."

"What a terrible calamity that was! I shudder when I think of it," said he. "I was his guest on the night previous, you remember? In fact, I witnessed his wager of the negro girl, Evangelina--the root of the whole tragedy. Well, well! Who would have believed that old slave, her father, would have run mad at losing her? A shocking affair, truly! and one I shall never get out of my mind."

"Shocking, yes. But what do you think of a rich man, like Esteban, who would leave his family destitute? Who would die without revealing the place where he had stored his treasure?"

Dona Isabel, it was plain, felt her wrongs keenly; she spoke with as much spirit as if her husband had permitted himself to be killed purely out of spite toward her.

De Castano shook his round bullet head, saying with some impatience: "You still believe in that treasure, eh? My dear senora, the only treasure Varona left was his adorable children-- and your admirable self." Immediately the speaker regretted his words, for he remembered, too late, that Dona Isabel was reputed to be a trifle unbalanced on this subject of the Varona treasure.

"I do not believe; I know!" the widow answered, with more than necessary vehemence. "What became of all Esteban's money if he did not bury it? He never gave any to me, for he was a miser. You know, as well as I, that he carried on a stupendous business in slaves and sugar, and it was common knowledge that he hid every peso for fear of his enemies. But where? Where? That is the question."

"You, if any one, should know, after all the years you have spent in hunting for it," the merchant observed. "Dios mio! Almost before Esteban was buried you began the search. People said you were going to tear this house down."

"Well, I never found a trace. I had holes dug in the gardens, too."

"You see? No, senora, it is possible to hide anything except money. No man can conceal that where another will not find it."

Isabel's face had grown hard and avaricious, even during this brief talk; her eyes were glowing; plainly she was as far as ever from giving up her long-cherished conviction.

"I don't ask anybody to believe the story," she said, resentfully. "All the same, it is true. There are pieces of Spanish gold and silver coins, in boxes bound with iron and fitted with hasps and staples; packages of gems; pearls from the Caribbean as large as plums. Oh? Sebastian told me all about it."

"Of course, of course! I shall not argue the matter."' Don Mario dismissed the subject with a wave of his plump hand. "Now, Dona Isabel--"

"As if it were not enough to lose that treasure," the widow continued, stormily, "the Government must free all our slaves. Tse! Tse! And now that there is no longer a profit in sugar, my plantations--"

"No profit in sugar? What are you saying?" queried the caller.

"Oh, you have a way of prospering! What touches your fingers turns to gold. But you are not at the mercy of an administrador."

"Precisely! I am my own manager. If your crops do not pay, then Pancho Cueto is cheating you. He is capable of it. Get rid of him. But I didn't come here to talk about Esteban's hidden treasure, nor his plantations, nor Pancho Cueto. I came here to talk about your step-daughter, Rosa."

"So?" Dona Isabel looked up quickly.

"She interests me. She is more beautiful than the stars." Don Mario rolled his eyes toward the high ceiling, which, like the sky, was tinted a vivid cerulean blue. "She personifies every virtue; she is--delectable." He pursed his wet lips, daintily picked a kiss from between them with his thumb and finger, and snapped it into the air.

Inasmuch as Isabel had always hated the girl venomously, she did not trust herself to comment upon her caller's enthusiasm.

"She is now eighteen," the fat suitor went on, ecstatically, "and so altogether charming--But why waste time in pretty speeches? I have decided to marry her."

De Castano plucked a heavily scented silk handkerchief from his pocket and wiped a beading of moisture from his brow and upper lip. He had a habit of perspiring when roused from his usual lethargy.

"Rosa has a will of her own," guardedly ventured the stepmother.

Don Mario broke out, testily: "Naturally; so have we all. Now let us speak plainly. You know me. I am a person of importance. I am rich enough to afford what I want, and I pay well. You understand? Well, then, you are Rosa's guardian and you can bend her to your desires."

"If that were only so!" exclaimed the woman. "She and Esteban-- what children! What tempers!--Just like their father's! They have never liked me; they disobey me at every opportunity; they exercise the most diabolical ingenuity in making my life miserable. They were to be their father's heirs, you know, and they blame me for his death, for our poverty, and for all the other misfortunes that have overtaken us. We live like cats and dogs."

Don Mario had been drumming his fat fingers impatiently upon the arm of his chair. Now he exclaimed:

"Your pardon, senora, but I am just now very little interested in your domestic relations; they do not thrill me--as my own prospective happiness does. What you say about Rosa only makes me more eager, for I loathe a sleepy woman. Now tell me, is she--Has she any-affairs of the heart?"

"N-no, unless perhaps a flirtation with that young American, Juan O'Reilly." Dona Isabel gave the name its Spanish pronunciation of "O'Rail-ye."

"Juan O'Reilly? O'Reilly? Oh yes! But what has he to offer a woman? He is little more than a clerk."

"That is what I tell her. Oh, it hasn't gone far as yet."

"Good!" Don Mario rose to leave, for the exertion of his ride had made him thirsty. "You may name your own reward for helping me and I will pay it the day Rosa marries me. Now kindly advise her of my intentions and tell her I shall come to see her soon."

It was quite true that Johnnie O'Reilly--or "The O'Reilly," as his friends called him--had little in the way of worldly advantage to offer any girl, and it was precisely because of this fact that he had accepted a position here in Cuba, where, from the very nature of things, promotion was likely to be more rapid than in the New York office of his firm. He had come to this out-of-the-way place prepared to live the lonely life of an exile, if an O'Reilly could be lonely anywhere, and for a brief time he had been glum enough.

But the O'Reillys, from time immemorial, had been born and bred to exile; it was their breath, their meat and drink, and this particular member of the clan thrived upon it quite as well as had the other Johnnies and Michaels and Andys who had journeyed to far shores. The O'Reillys were audacious men, a bit too heedless of their own good, perhaps; a bit too light-hearted readily to impress a grave world with their varied abilities, but sterling men, for all that, ambitious men, men with lime in their bones and possessed of a high and ready chivalry that made friends for them wherever their wandering feet strayed. Spain, France, and the two Americas had welcomed O'Reillys of one sort or another; even Cuba had the family name written large upon her scroll. So Johnnie, of New York and Matanzas, although at first he felt himself a stranger in a strange land, was not so considered by the Cubans.

A dancing eye speaks every language; a singing heart gathers its own audience. Before the young Irish-American had more than a bowing acquaintance with the commonest Spanish verbs he had a calling acquaintance with some of the most exclusive people of Matanzas. He puzzled them, to be sure, for they could not fathom the reason for his ever-bubbling gladness, but they strove to catch its secret, and, striving, they made friends with him. O'Reilly did not puzzle their daughters nearly so much: more than one aristocratic senorita felt sure that she quite understood the tall, blond stranger with the laughing eyes, or could understand him if he gave her half a chance, and so, as had been the case with other O'Reillys in other lands, Johnnie's exile became no exile at all. He had adjusted himself serenely to his surroundings when Rosa Varona returned from school, but with her coming, away went all his complacency. His contentment vanished; he experienced a total change in his opinions, his hopes, and his ambitions.

He discovered, for example, that Matanzas was by no means the out- of-the-way place he had considered it; on the contrary, after meeting Rosa once by accident, twice by design, and three times by mutual arrangement, it had dawned upon him that this was the chief city of Cuba, if not, perhaps, the hub around which the whole world revolved; certainly it was the most agreeable of all cities, since it contained everything that was necessary for man's happiness. Yet, despite the thrill of his awakening, O'Reilly was not at all pleased with himself, for, as it happened, there was another girl back home, and during his first year of loneliness he had written to her more freely and more frequently than any man on such a salary as his had a right to do.

O'Reilly laid no claims to literary gifts; nevertheless, it seemed to him, as he looked back upon it, that his pen must have been dipped in magic and in moonlight, for the girl had expressed an eager willingness to share his interesting economic problems, and in fact was waiting for him to give her the legal right. Inasmuch as her father was O'Reilly's "Company" it may be seen that Rosa Varona's home-coming seriously complicated matters, not only from a sentimental, but from a business standpoint.

It was in a thoughtful mood that he rode up La Cumbre, toward the Quinta de Esteban, late on the afternoon of Don Mario's visit. Instead of going directly to the house as the merchant had done, O'Reilly turned off from the road and, after tethering his horse in a cluster of guava bushes, proceeded on foot. He did not like Dona Isabel, nor did Dona Isabel like him. Moreover, he had a particular reason for avoiding her to-day.

Just inside the Varona premises he paused an instant to admire the outlook. The quinta commanded an excellent view of the Yumuri, on the one hand, and of the town and harbor on the other; no one ever climbed the hill from the city to gaze over into that hidden valley without feeling a pleasurable surprise at finding it still there. We are accustomed to think of perfect beauty as unsubstantial, evanescent; but the Yumuri never changed, and in that lay its supremest wonder.

Through what had once been well-tended grounds, O'Reilly made his way to a sort of sunken garden which, in spite of neglect, still remained the most charming nook upon the place; and there he sat down to wait for Rosa. The hollow was effectually screened from view by a growth of plantain, palm, orange, and tamarind trees; over the rocky walls ran a profusion of flowering plants and vines; in the center of the open space was an old well, its masonry curb all but crumbled away.

When Rosa at last appeared, O'Reilly felt called upon to tell her, somewhat dizzily, that she was beyond doubt the sweetest flower on all the Quinta de Esteban, and since this somewhat hackneyed remark was the boldest speech he had ever made to her, she blushed prettily, flashing him a dimpled smile of mingled pleasure and surprise.

"Oh, but I assure you I'm in no sweet temper," said she. "Just now I'm tremendously angry."

"Why?"

"It's that stepmother--Isabel."

"So! You've been quarreling again, eh? Well, she's the easiest woman in all Matanzas to quarrel with--perhaps the only one who doesn't see something good in me. I'm afraid to talk to her for fear she'd convince me I'm wholly abominable."

Rosa laughed, showing her fine, regular teeth--O'Reilly thought he had never seen teeth so even and white. "Yes, she is a difficult person. If she dreamed that I see you as often as I do--Well--" Rosa lifted her eloquent hands and eyes heavenward. "I suppose that's why I enjoy doing it--I so dearly love to spite her."

"I see!" O'Reilly puckered his brows and nodded. "But why, in that case, haven't you seen me oftener? We might just as well have made the good lady's life totally unbearable."

"Silly! She knows nothing about it." With a flirtatious sigh Rosa added: "That's what robs the affair of its chief pleasure. Since it does not bother her in the least, I think I will not allow you to come any more."

After judicious consideration, O'Reilly pretended to agree.

"There's no fun in wreaking a horrible revenge, when your enemy isn't wise to it," he acknowledged. "Since it's your idea to irritate your stepmother, perhaps it would annoy her more if I made love directly to her."

Rosa tittered, and then inquired, naively, "Can you make love, senor?"

"Can I? It's the one ability an O'Reilly inherits. Listen to this now." Reaching forth, he took Rosa's fingers in his. "Wait!" he cried as she resisted. "Pretend that you're Mrs. Varona, your own stepmother, and that this is her dimpled hand I'm holding."

"Oh-h!" The girl allowed his grasp to remain. "But Isabel's hand isn't dimpled: it's thin and bony. I've felt it on my ears often enough."

"Don't interrupt," he told her. "Isabel, my little darling--"

"'Little'! La! La! She's as tall and ugly as a chimney."

"Hush! I've held my tongue as long as I can, but now it's running away of its own accord, and I must tell you how mad I am about you. The first time I saw you--it was at the ball in the Spanish Club--" Again Rosa drew away sharply, at which O'Reilly laid his other hand over the one in his palm, saying, quickly: "You and your stepdaughter, Rosa. Do you remember that first waltz of ours? Sure, I thought I was in heaven, with you in my arms and your eyes shining into mine, and I told you so."

"So you make the same pretty speeches to all women, eh?" the girl reproached him.

"Isabel, sweetheart, I lose my breath when I think of you; my lips pucker up for kisses--"

"'Isabel'!" exclaimed a voice, and the lovers started guiltily apart. They turned to find Esteban, Rosa's twin brother, staring at them oddly. "Isabel?" he repeated. "What's this?"

"You interrupted our theatricals. I was rehearsing an impassioned proposal to your beloved stepmother," O'Reilly explained, with a pretense of annoyance.

"Yes, Senor O'Reilly believes he can infuriate Isabel by laying siege to her. He's a--foolish person--" Rosa's cheeks were faintly flushed and her color deepened at the amusement in Esteban's eyes. "He makes love wretchedly."

"What little I overheard wasn't bad," Esteban declared; then he took O'Reilly's hand.

Esteban was a handsome boy, straight, slim, and manly, and his resemblance to Rosa was startling. With a look engaging in its frank directness, he said: "Rosa told me about your meetings here and I came to apologize for our stepmother's discourtesy. I'm sorry we can't invite you into our house, but--you understand? Rosa and I are not like her; we are quite liberal in our views; we are almost Americans, as you see. I dare say that's what makes Isabel hate Americans so bitterly."

"Wouldn't it please her to know that I'm becoming Cubanized as fast as ever I can?" ventured the caller.

"Oh, she hates Cubans, too!" laughed the brother. "She's Spanish, you know. Well, it's fortunate you didn't see her to-day. Br-r! What a temper! We had our theatricals, too. I asked her for money, as usual, and, as usual, she refused. It was like a scene from a play. She'll walk in her sleep to-night, if ever."

Rosa nodded soberly, and O'Reilly, suppressing some light reply that had sprung to his lips, inquired, curiously, "What do you mean by that?"

Brother and sister joined in explaining that Dona Isabel was given to peculiar actions, especially after periods of excitement or anger, and that one of her eccentricities had taken the form of somnambulistic wanderings. "Oh, she's crazy enough," Esteban concluded. "I believe it's her evil conscience."

Rosa explained further: "She used to steal about at night, hoping to surprise papa or Sebastian going or coming from the treasure. They were both killed, as you know, and the secret of the hiding- place was lost. Now Isabel declares that they come to her in her sleep and that she has to help them hunt for it, whether she wishes or not. It is retribution." The speaker drew up her shoulders and shivered, but Esteban smiled.

"Bah!" he exclaimed. "I'll believe in ghosts when I see one." Then, with a shake of his head: "Isabel has never given up the hope of finding that treasure. She would like to see Rosa married, and me fighting with the Insurrectos, so that she might have a free hand in her search."

O'Reilly scanned the speaker silently for a moment; then he said, with a gravity unusual in him, "I wonder if you know that you're suspected of--working for the Insurrecto cause."

"Indeed? I didn't know."

"Well, it's a fact." O'Reilly heard Rosa gasp faintly. "Is it true?" he asked.

"I am a Cuban." Esteban's smile was a trifle grim.

"Cuban? Your people were Spanish."

"True. But no Spaniard ever raised a Spanish child in Cuba. We are Cubans, Rosa and I."

At this statement the sister cried: "Hush! It is dangerous to speak in that way, with this new war growing every day."

"But O'Reilly is our good friend," Esteban protested.

"Of course I am," the American agreed, "and for that reason I spoke. I hope you're not too deeply involved with the rebels."

"There, Esteban! Do you hear?" Turning to O'Reilly, Rosa said, imploringly: "Please reason with him. He's young and headstrong and he won't listen to me."

Esteban frowned. "Young, eh? Well, sometimes the young are called upon to do work that older men wouldn't care to undertake."

"What work?" O'Reilly's eyes were still upon him. "You can tell me."

"I think I can," the other agreed. "Well, then, I know everybody in Matanzas; I go everywhere, and the Spanish officers talk plainly before me. Somebody must be the eyes and the ears for Colonel Lopez."

"Colonel Lopez!" exclaimed O'Reilly.

Esteban nodded.

Rosa's face, as she looked. at the two men, was white and worried. For a time the three of them sat silent; then the American said, slowly, "You'll be shot if you're caught."

Rosa whispered: "Yes! Think of it!"

"Some one must run chances," Esteban averred. "We're fighting tyranny; all Cuba is ablaze. I must do my part."

"But sooner or later you'll be discovered--then what?" persisted O'Reilly.

Esteban shrugged. "Who knows? There'll be time enough when--"

"What of Rosa?"

At this question the brother stirred uneasily and dropped his eyes. O'Reilly laid a hand upon his arm. "You have no right to jeopardize her safety. Without you, to whom could she turn?" The girl flashed her admirer a grateful glance.

"Senor, you for one would see that she--"

"But--I'm going away." O'Reilly felt rather than saw Rosa start, for his face was averted. Purposely he kept his gaze upon Esteban, for he didn't wish to see the slow pallor that rose in the girl's cheeks, the look of pain that crept into her eyes. "I came here to tell you both good-by. I may be gone for some time. I--I don't know when I can get back."

"I'm sorry," Esteban told him, with genuine regret. "We have grown very fond of you. You will leave many friends here in Matanzas, I'm sure. But you will come back before long, eh?"

"Yes, as soon as I can. That is, if--" He did not finish the sentence.

"Good. You're one of us. In the mean time I'll remember what you say, and at least I'll be careful." By no means wanting in tact, Esteban rose briskly and, after shaking hands with O'Reilly, left the two lovers to say farewell as best suited them.

But for once O'Reilly's ready tongue was silent. The laughter was gone from his blue eyes when he turned to the girl at his side.

"You say you are going away?" Rosa inquired, breathlessly. "But why?"

"I'm going partly because of this war, and partly because of-- something else. I tried to tell you yesterday, but I couldn't. When the revolution started everybody thought it was merely a local uprising, and I wrote my company to that effect; but, bless you, it has spread like fire, and now the whole eastern end of the island is ablaze."

"Esteban says it will be more terrible than the Ten Years' War."

"God forbid! And yet all the old fighters are back again. Nobody believed that Maximo Gomez had returned, but it's true. And the Maceos are here, too, from Costa Rica. Antonio has already gained control of most of Santiago Province, and he's sweeping westward. Of course the Spaniards minimize the reports of his success, and we, here, don't understand what's really going on. Anyhow, business has stopped, and my employers have ordered me home to find out what's happened to their profits. They seem to hold me personally responsible for this insurrection."

"I see. And when you have told them the truth you will come back. Is that it?"

"I--Perhaps."

"You said there was something else--"

O'Reilly's hesitation became an embarrassed silence. He tried to laugh it off.

"There is, otherwise I'd stay right here and tell my penurious friends to whistle for their profits. It seems I'm cursed with a fatal beauty. You may have noticed it? No? Well, perhaps it's a magnificent business ability that I have. Anyhow, the president of my company has a notion that I'd make him a good son-in-law."

"I--Oh!" cried Rosa.

And at her tone O'Reilly hurried on:

"These rich men have the most absurd ideas. I suppose I'll have to--"

"Then you are in love, senor?"

The young man nodded vigorously. "Indeed I am--with the sweetest girl in Cuba. That's the whole trouble. That's why I'm hurrying home to resign before I'm fired." Not daring to look too long or too deeply into Rosa Varona's eyes until she had taken in the whole truth, he waited, staring at his feet. "I'm sort of glad it has come to a show-down and I can speak out. I'm hoping she'll miss me." After a moment he ventured, "Will she--er--will you, Rosa?"

"I? Miss you?" Rosa lifted her brows in pretended amazement. Then she tipped her head daintily to one side, as if weighing his question earnestly. "You are amusing, of course, but--I won't have much time to think about you, for I am so soon to be married."

"Married? What?" O'Reilly started violently, and the girl exclaimed, with well-feigned concern:

"Oh, senor! You have wounded yourself again on that thorn-bush. This place is growing up to brambles."

"It wasn't my finger! Something pierced me through the heart. Married? Nonsense!"

"Indeed! Do you think I'm so ugly nobody would have me?"

"Good Lord! You--" O'Reilly swallowed hard. "I won't tell you the truth when you know it so well."

"The richest man in Matanzas asked for my hand this very afternoon."

"Who? Mario de Castano?"

"Yes."

O'Reilly laughed with relief, and though Rosa tried to look offended, she was forced to smile. "He's fat, I know," she admitted, "and he makes funny noises when he breathes; but he is richer than Croesus, and I adore rich men."

"I hate 'em!" announced O'Reilly. Then for a second time he took Rosa's dimpled hand, saying, earnestly: "I'm sure you know now why I make love so badly, dear. It's my Irish conscience. And you'll wait until I come back, won't you?"

"Will you be gone--very long?" she asked.

O'Reilly looked deeply now into the dark eyes turned to his, and found that at last there was no coquetry in them anywhere--nothing but a lonesome, hungry yearning--and with a glad, incoherent exclamation he held out his arms. Rosa Varona crept into them; then with a sigh she upturned her lips to his.

"I'll wait forever," she said.