V. A Cry from the Wilderness
 

New York seemed almost like a foreign city to Johnnie O'Reilly when he stepped out into it on the morning after his arrival. For one thing it was bleak and cold: the north wind, hailing direct from Baffin's Bay, had teeth, and it bit so cruelly that he was glad when he found shelter in the building which housed the offices of the Carter Importing Company. The tropics had thinned O'Reilly's blood, for the Cuban winds bear a kiss instead of a sting; therefore he paused in the lower hallway, jostled by the morning crowds, and tried to warm himself. The truth is O'Reilly was not only cold, but frightened.

He was far from weak-hearted. In fact, few O'Reillys were that, and Johnnie had an ingrained self-assurance which might have been mistaken for impudence, but for the winning smile that went with it. Yet all the way from Havana he had seen in his mind's eye old Sam Carter intrenched behind his flat-topped desk, and that picture had more than once caused him to forget the carefully rehearsed speech in which he intended to resign his position as an employee and his prospects as a son-in-law.

That desk of Mr. Carter's was always bare and orderly, cleared for action, like the deck of a battle-ship, and over it many engagements had been fought, for the man behind it never shirked a conflict. His was a vigorous and irascible temperament, compounded of old-fashioned, slow-burning black powder and nitroglycerine--a combination of incalculable destructive power. It was a perilously unstable mixture, tool, at times nothing less than a flame served to ignite it; on other occasions the office force pussy-footed past Carter's door on felt soles, and even then the slightest jar often caused the untoward thing to let go. In either event there was a deafening roar, much smoke, and a deal of damage. O'Reilly felt sure that whatever the condition of Mr. Carter's digestion or the serenity of his mind at the beginning of their interview, the news he had to impart would serve as an effective detonator, after which it would be every man for himself. It was not the effect of his report concerning the firm's unprofitable Cuban connections which O'Reilly feared would cause the decks to heave and the ship to rock--Samuel Carter could take calmly the most disturbing financial reverse--it was the blow to his pride at learning that anybody could prefer another girl to his daughter. Johnnie shook his shoulders and stamped his feet, but the chill in his bones refused to go.

He did gain courage, however, by thinking of Rosa Varona as he had last seen her, with arms outstretched, with eyes tear-filled, with yearning lips aquiver at his going. The picture warmed him magically, and it was with a restored determination to make a clean breast of the matter and face the worst that he took the elevator.

The office force of the Carter Importing Company looked up when the firm's Cuban representative entered the door, but its personnel having changed as the result of one of those periodical disruptions that occurred in the inner office, he was not recognized until he presented himself to Mr. Slack, Samuel Carter's private and intimidated secretary.

Mr. Slack smiled wanly, and extended a clammy, nerveless hand as cold and limber as a dead fish.

"You're expected," said he. "Mr. Carter is waiting to see you before leaving for California."

"Seeing me won't make his trip any pleasanter," O'Reilly said, somberly.

"We were afraid you wouldn't get out of Cuba; thought we might have to get the American consul at work."

"Really? I didn't know I was so important."

"Oh, you're the office pet, and well you know it." Mr. Slack's pleasantry was tinged with envy, for he had never been able to appreciate O'Reilly. "Conditions are bad, eh?"

"Yes. Anybody can leave," the other told him. "It's getting back that's difficult. The Spaniards don't like us, and I dare say they have good reason, with all this talk of intervention and the secret help we're lending the Insurrectos. They held me up in Havana; tried to prove I was a spy. They were positively peeved when they failed. Snippy people, those Spaniards."

"Well, I'll tell Mr. Carter you're here." The secretary glided unobtrusively toward the private office, disappeared, glided softly into view again, and waggled a boneless forefinger invitingly. O'Reilly went to meet his employer as a man marches to execution.

His heart sank further at the welcome he received, for the importer gave him a veritable embrace; he patted him on the back and inquired three times as to his health. O'Reilly was anything but cold now; he was perspiring profusely, and he felt his collar growing limp. To shatter this old man's eager hopes would be like kicking a child in the face. Carter had never been so enthusiastic, so demonstrative; there was something almost theatrical in his greeting. It dismayed O'Reilly immensely to realize what a hold he must have upon his employer's affections. Although the latter had a reputation for self-control, he appeared to be in a perfect flutter now. He assumed a boisterousness which seemed strained and wholly out of keeping with the circumstances. His actions vaguely reminded the younger man of an ambling draft- horse trying to gallop; and when, for the fourth time, Mr. Carter inquired solicitously concerning his visitor's well-being, Johnnie's dismay turned to amazement. With a heavy playfulness Mr. Carter at length remarked:

"Well, my boy, you made a fizzle of it, didn't you?" The tone was almost complimentary.

"Yes, sir, I'm a bright and shining failure," O'Reilly acknowledged, hopefully.

"Now, don't 'yes, sir' me. We're friends, aren't we? Good! Understand, I don't blame you in the least--it's that idiotic revolution that spoiled our business. I can't understand those people. Lord! You did splendidly, under the circumstances."

"They have reason enough to revolt--oppression, tyranny, corruption." O'Reilly mumbled the familiar words in a numb paralysis at Mr. Carter's jovial familiarity.

"All Latin countries are corrupt," announced the importer--"always have been and always will be. They thrive under oppression. Politics is purely a business proposition with those people. However, I dare say this uprising won't last long."

O'Reilly welcomed this trend of the conversation; anything was better than fulsome praise, and the discussion would delay the coming crash. It seemed strange, however, that Samuel Carter should take time to discourse about generalities. Johnnie wondered why the old man didn't get down to cases.

"It's more than an uprising, sir," he said. "The rebels have overrun the eastern end of the island, and when I left Maceo and Gomez were sweeping west."

"Bah! It takes money to run a war."

"They have money," desperately argued O'Reilly. "Marti raised more than a million dollars, and every Cuban cigar-maker in the United States gives a part of his wages every week to the cause. The best blood of Cuba is in the fight. The rebels are poorly armed, but if our Government recognizes their belligerency they'll soon fix that. Spain is about busted; she can't stand the strain."

"I predict they'll quit fighting as soon as they get hungry. The Government is starving them out. However, they've wound up our affairs for the time being, and--" Mr. Carter carefully shifted the position of an ink-well, a calendar, and a paper-knife--"that brings us to a consideration of your and my affairs, doesn't it? Ahem! You remember our bargain? I was to give you a chance and you were to make good before you--er--planned any--er--matrimonial foolishness with my daughter."

"Yes, sir." O'Reilly felt that the moment had come for his carefully rehearsed speech, but, unhappily, he could not remember how the swan-song started. He racked his brain for the opening words.

Mr. Carter, too, was unaccountably silent. He opened his lips, then closed them. Both men, after an awkward pause, cleared their throats in unison and eyed each other expectantly. Another moment dragged past, then they chorused:

"I have an unpleasant--"

Each broke off at the echo of his own words.

"What's that?" inquired the importer.

"N-nothing. You were saying--"

"I was thinking how lucky it is that you and Elsa waited. Hm-m! Very fortunate." Again Mr. Carter rearranged his desk fittings. "She has deep feelings--got a conscience, too. Conscience is a fine thing in a woman--so few of 'em have it. We sometimes differ, Elsa and I, but when she sets her heart on a thing I see that she gets it, even if I think she oughtn't to have it. What's the use of having children if you can't spoil 'em, eh?" He looked up with a sort of resentful challenge, and when his listener appeared to agree with him he sighed with satisfaction. "Early marriages are silly--but she seems to think otherwise. Maybe she's right. Anyhow, she's licked me. I'm done. She wants to be married right away, before we go West. That's why I waited to see you at once. You're a sensible fellow, Johnnie--no foolishness about you. You won't object, will you? We men have to take our medicine."

"It's quite out of the question," stammered the unhappy O'Reilly.

"Come, come! It's tough on you, I know, but--" The fuse had begun to sputter. Johnnie had a horrified vision of himself being dragged unwillingly to the altar. "Elsa is going to have what she wants, if I have to break something. If you'll be sensible I'll stand behind you like a father and teach you the business. I'm getting old, and Ethelbert could never learn it. Otherwise--" The old man's jaw set; his eyes began to gleam angrily.

"Who is--Ethelbert?" faintly inquired O'Reilly.

"Why, dammit! He's the fellow I've been telling you about. He's not so bad as he sounds; he's really a nice boy--"

"Elsa is in love with another man? Is that what you mean?"

"Good Lord, yes! Don't you understand English? I didn't think you'd take it so hard--I was going to make a place for you here in the office, but of course if--Say! What the deuce ails you?"

Samuel Carter stared with amazement, for the injured victim of his daughter's fickleness had leaped to his feet and was shaking his hand vigorously, meanwhile uttering unintelligible sounds that seemed to signify relief, pleasure, delight--anything except what the old man expected.

"Are you crazy, or am I?" he queried.

"Yes, sir; delirious. It's this way, sir; I've changed my mind, too."

"Oh--! You have?"

"I've met the dearest, sweetest"--O'Reilly choked, then began again--"the dearest, loveliest--"

"Never mind the bird-calls--don't coo! I get enough of that at home. Don't tell me she's dearer and sweeter than Elsa. Another girl! Well, I'll be damned! Young man, you're a fool."

"Yes, sir."

Slightly mollified by this ready acknowledgment, Mr. Carter grunted with relief. "Humph! It turned out better than I thought. Why, I--I was positively terrified when you walked in. And to think you didn't need any sympathy!"

"I do need that job, though. It will enable me to get married."

"Nonsense! Better wait. I don't believe in early engagements."

"Oh yes, you do."

"Well, that depends. But, say--you're a pretty nervy youth to turn down my daughter and then hold me up for a job, all in the same breath. Here! Don't dance on my rug. I ought to be offended, and I am, but--Get out while I telephone Elsa, so she can dance, too."

O'Reilly spent that evening in writing a long letter to Rosa Varona. During the next few days his high spirits proved a trial and an affront to Mr. Slack, who, now that his employer had departed for the West, had assumed a subdued and gloomy dignity to match the somber responsibilities of his position.

Other letters went forward by succeeding posts, and there was no doubt now, that O'Reilly's pen was tipped with magic! He tingled when he reread what he had written. He bade Rosa prepare for his return and their immediate marriage. The fun and the excitement of planning their future caused him to fill page after page with thrilling details of the flat-hunting, home-fitting excursions they would take upon their return to New York. He wrote her ecstatic descriptions of a suite of Grand Rapids furniture he had priced; he wasted a thousand emotional words over a set of china he had picked out, and the results of a preliminary trip into the apartment-house district required a convulsive three-part letter to relate. It is remarkable with what poetic fervor, what strength of feeling, a lover can describe a five-room flat; with what glories he can furnish it out of a modest salary and still leave enough for a life of luxury.

But O'Reilly's letters did not always touch upon practical things; there was a wide streak of romance in him, and much of what he wrote was the sort of thing which romantic lovers always write-- tender, foolish, worshipful thoughts which half abashed him when he read them over. But that Rosa would thrill to them he had no doubt, nor had he any fear that she would hesitate to leave her native land for him. O'Reilly's love was unlimited; his trust in the girl was absolute. He knew, moreover, that she loved and trusted him. This, to be sure, was a miracle--a unique phenomenon which never ceased to amaze him. He did not dream that every man had felt the same vague wonder.

And so the time passed rapidly. But, strange to say, there came no answer to those letters. O'Reilly chafed: he cursed the revolution which had made communication so uncertain; at length he cabled, but still the days dragged on with no result. Gradually his impatience gave way to apprehension. Unreasonable conjectures besieged his mind and destroyed his peace.

Great was his relief, therefore, when one day a worn, stained envelope addressed in Rosa's hand was laid upon his desk. The American stamp, the Key West postmark, looked strange, but--Her first letter! O'Reilly wondered if his first letter to her could possibly have moved her as this moved him. He kissed the envelope where her lips had caressed it in the sealing. Then with eager fingers he broke it open.

It was a generous epistle, long and closely written, but as he read his keen delight turned to dismay, and when he had turned the last thin page his brain was in wildest turmoil. He thought he must be dreaming. He turned sick, aching eyes upon his surroundings to prove this thing a nightmare, but the prosaic clink of a typewriter and the drone of a voice dictating quotations on Brazilian coffee were conclusive evidence to the contrary. Those pages between his thumb and finger were real. Yes, and that was Rosa's writing. Could it be that he had misunderstood anything? He turned to the beginning and attempted to read, but his hands shook so that he was obliged to lay the letter flat upon his desk.

Rosa's Spanish training had been severely tried. The stiff, quaint formality of her opening paragraphs only served to emphasize her final frightened cry for help.

MY DEARLY BELOVED,--It is with diffidence and hesitation that I take my pen in hand, for I fear you may consider me unduly forward in writing to you without solicitation. Believe me, I appreciate the reserve which a young lady of refinement should practise even in her correspondence with the gentleman who has honored her with his promise of marriage, but my circumstances are such as to banish consideration of the social niceties.

Alas! What events have followed your departure from Matanzas! What misfortunes have overtaken Esteban and me. That happiness could be so swiftly succeeded by misery, that want could follow plenty, that peril could tread so closely upon the heels of safety! Where to begin, how to tell you, I scarcely know; my hand shakes, my eyes are blinded--nor dare I trust myself to believe that this letter will ever reach you, for we are refugees, Esteban and I-- fugitives, outcasts, living in the manigua with Asensio and Evangelina, former slaves of our father. Such poverty, such indescribable circumstances! But they were our only friends and they took us in when we were homeless, so we love them.

I see you stare at these words. I hear you say, "That Rosa has gone mad, like her wicked stepmother!" Indeed, sometimes I think I have. But, no. I write facts. It is a relief to put them down, even though you never read them. Good Asensio will take this letter on his horse to the Insurrecto camp, many miles away, and there give it to Colonel Lopez, our only friend, who promises that in some mysterious way it will escape the eyes of our enemies and reach your country. Yes, we have enemies! We, who have harmed no one. Wait until I tell you.

But if this letter reaches you--and I send it with a prayer--what then? I dare not think too long of that, for the hearts of men are not like the hearts of women. What will you say when you learn that the Rosa Varona whom you favored with your admiration is not the Rosa of to-day? I hear you murmur, "The girl forgets herself!" But, oh, the standards of yesterday are gone and my reserve is gone, too! I am a hunted creature.

O'Reilly felt a great pain in his breast at the thought that Rosa had for an instant doubted him. But she did not really doubt; those misgivings were but momentary; the abandon of her appeal showed that in her heart of hearts she knew his love to be unshakable.

She had compelled herself to start with the death of Dona Isabel and to give him a succinct account of all that had followed. O'Reilly read the story, fascinated. Here, amid these surroundings, with the rattle of typewriters and the tinkle of telephone-bells in his ears, it all seemed wholly improbable, fancifully unreal--like the workings of some turgid melodrama.

That is how we came to live with Asensio and his wife [the letter went on]. Imagine it! A bohio, hidden away far up the Yumuri, and so insignificant as to escape attention. We are no longer people of consequence or authority; our safety depends upon our inconspicuousness. We hide as do the timid animals, though nature has not given us their skill in avoiding danger. I do not like the wilderness; it frightens me. At night I hear things rustling through the thatch above my head; in the morning my feet touch a bare earthen floor. We live on fruits and vegetables from Evangelina's garden, with now and then a fowl or a bite of meat when Asensio is fortunate. Esteban does not seem to mind, but I cannot accommodate myself to these barbarous surroundings. Sometimes I bite my tongue to keep from complaining, for that, I know, would grieve him.

The whole country is in chaos. There is no work--nothing but suspicion, hatred, and violence. Oh, what desolation this war has wrought! Esteban has already become a guerrillero. He has stolen a cow, and so we have milk for our coffee; but there is only a handful of coffee left, and little hope of more. Marauding bands of Spaniards are everywhere, and the country people tell atrocious tales about them. How will it end? How long before they will discover us and the worst will happen?

Soon after our arrival Esteban went to the camp of Colonel Lopez to arrange for us to join his army, but returned heart-broken. It was impossible, it seems, on my account. Conditions with the patriots are worse than with us here, and the colonel acknowledged frankly that he could not be burdened with a woman in his command. So Esteban has given up for the present his dream of fighting, and devotes himself to protecting me. You see there is no sanctuary, no help but his right arm. The towns are in Spanish hands, the manigua is infested with lawless men, and there is no place in which to hide me. So I feel myself a burden. Esteban has plans to arm a band of his own. I am numb with dread of what it may lead to, for his hatred is centered upon Cueto, that false servant whose wickedness reduced us to this extremity. Esteban is so young and reckless. If only you were here to counsel him.

If only you were here--Oh, my dearest Juan! If only you were here- -to take me in your arms and banish this ever constant terror at my heart. If only you were here to tell me that you love me still in spite of my misfortune. See! The tears are falling as I write. My eyes are dim, my fingers trace uncertain letters on the sheet, and I can only steady them when I remember that you promised to return. You will return, will you not? I could not write like this if I were sure that you would read these lines. My nightly prayer- -But I will not tell you of my prayers, for fate may guide this letter to you, after all, and the hearts of men do change. In those dark hours when my doubts arise I try to tell myself that you will surely come and search me out.

Sometimes I play a game with Evangelina--our only game. We gather wild flowers. We assort the few belongings that I managed to bring with me and I array myself for you. And then I smile and laugh for a little while, and she tells me I am beautiful enough to please you. But the flowers fade, and I know that beauty, too, will fade in such surroundings. What then? I ask myself.

When you return to Cuba--see, my faith is strong again--avoid Matanzas, for your own sake and mine. Don Mario wanted to marry me to save me this exile. But I refused; I told him I was pledged to you, and he was furious. He is powerful; he would balk you, and there is always room for one more in San Severino. Pancho Cueto, too, living in luxury upon the fruits of his crime, would certainly consider you a menace to his security. You see how cunning my love for you has made me?

If I could come to you, I would, but I am marked. So if you still desire me you must search me out. You will? I pin my faith to that as to the Cross. To doubt would be to perish. If we should have to find another hiding-place, and that is always likely, you can learn of our whereabouts from Colonel Lopez.

Alas! If you had asked me to go with you that day! I would have followed you, for my heart beat then as it beats to-day, for you alone.

The candle is burning low and it will soon be daylight, and then this letter must begin its long, uncertain journey. I must creep into my bed now, to pray and then to dream. It is cold, before the dawn, and the thatch above me rustles. I am very poor and sad and lonely, O'Reilly, but my cheeks are full and red; my lips could learn to smile again, and you would not be ashamed of me.

Asensio is rising. He goes to find his horse and I must close. God grant this reaches you, some time, somehow. I trust the many blots upon the paper will not give you a wrong impression of my writing, for I am neat, and I write nicely; only now the ink is poor and there is very little of it. There is little of anything, here at Asensio's house, except tears. Of those I fear there are too many to please you, my Juan, for men do not like tears. Therefore I try to smile as I sign myself,

Your loving and your faithful

ROSA.

O God! Come quickly, if you love me.