VI. The Quest Begins
 

When O'Reilly had finished his second reading of the letter there were fresh blots upon the pitifully untidy pages. "I write nicely, only the ink is poor--" "There is little of anything here at Asensio's house--" "It is cold before the dawn--" ... Poor little Rosa! He had always thought of her as so proud, so high-spirited, so playful, but another Rosa had written this letter. Her appeal stirred every chord of tenderness, every impulse of chivalry in his impressionable Irish nature. She doubted him; she feared he would not come' to her. Well, he would set her doubts at rest. "O God! Come quickly, if you love me." He leaped to his feet; he dashed the tears from his eyes.

Mr. Slack looked up astonished at the apparition which burst in upon him. He was accustomed to O'Reilly's high head of steam and disapproved of it, but he had never seen the fellow so surcharged as now. He was positively jumpy; his voice was sharp; his hands were unsteady; his eyes were bright and blue and hard.

"I want my salary, quick," Johnnie began.

Mr. Slack resented emotion, he abominated haste; he had cultivated what he considered to be a thorough commercial deliberation.

"My dear man," he said, "I'd advise you--"

"I don't want advice; I want money," snapped the other. "I've quit, resigned, skipped, fled."

"Indeed? When does your resignation take effect?"

"Immediately, and if you don't move like lightning it will take effect upon your person."

"Mr. Carter would never--"

"Bother Mr. Carter! Now stiffen your spine long enough to write my check. If you don't--" O'Reilly compressed his lips and breathed ominously through his nostrils. He laid a heavy and persuasive hand upon the secretary's shoulder. "Hump yourself, old jellyfish!"

There was a queer, wild light in O'Reilly's eye and for once Mr. Slack took orders from an underling. He humped himself.

Johnnie's other preparations were conducted with equal vigor and promptitude; within two hours his belongings were packed. But for all his haste his mind was working clearly. Rosa's warning not to come to Matanzas was no doubt warranted, and his own unpleasant experiences with the customs men at Havana were still fresh enough to be vivid. The Spaniards were intensely suspicious of all Americans, especially incoming ones, as he had reason to know, and since he was nearly as well acquainted in the one place as in the other it seemed to be the part of wisdom to slip into the country through a side door. The seat of war was in the east. The rebels held that part of the island. Once there and in touch with them it would surely be no difficult task to evade the local authorities and join Colonel Lopez.

O'Reilly pondered these thoughts briefly, then seized his hat and hastened down-town to the office of the Cuban Junta.

At this time the newspapers of the United States were devoting much space to the insular uprising; the first stories of Spanish atrocities later, alas! destined to become all too familiar, were gaining public attention, and there were few readers who did not know something about the activities of that body of patriots who made their headquarters at 56 New Street. It was from this place that the revolution was largely financed, so the papers said. It was there that the filibustering expeditions supplying arms and ammunition originated. To 56 New Street O'Reilly went.

There was nothing martial about the atmosphere of the Junta's offices; there were no war maps on the walls, no stands of arms nor recruiting officers in evidence--not even a hint of intrigue or conspiracy. The place was rather meanly furnished, and it was disappointingly commonplace. A business-like young man inquired O'Reilly's errand.

Johnnie made known a part of it, and then asked to see some one in authority. In consequence, perhaps, of his Irish smile or of that persuasiveness which he could render almost irresistible when he willed, it was not long before he gained admittance to the presence of Mr. Enriquez, a distinguished, scholarly Cuban of middle age.

"You say you have important business with me?" the latter inquired, speaking with an accent of refinement.

O'Reilly plunged boldly into the heart of the matter which had brought him thither. When he had finished his tale Mr. Enriquez inquired:

"But how do you expect me to help you?"

"I want your advice more than your help, although you might tell me where I can find Colonel Lopez."

Enriquez eyed his caller keenly. "That information would be very well worth having," said he. "But, you understand, we know little about what is going on in Cuba--far less than the Spaniards themselves. I'm afraid I can't help you."

"You don't take me for a spy, do you?" Johnnie asked, with his friendly grin.

"Ah! You don't look like one, but we never know whom to trust. This young lady in whom you are interested, who is she?"

"Her name is Varona; Miss Rosa Varona."

"So?" Enriquez raised his brows. "Not by any chance the heiress to that famous Varona treasure?"

"Exactly!--if there is such a thing." There ensued a pause while the Cuban drummed softly upon his desk with his finger-tips. "Her brother Esteban told me that he was working for your cause. I warned him to be careful, but--" O'Reilly's voice grew suddenly husky. "Here! Read this. I want you to believe me." Reverently he laid Rosa's letter before her countryman. "I'm not in the habit of showing my letters to strangers, but--I guess that'll convince you I'm not a spy."

He sat silently while the letter was being read; nor was he disappointed in the result. Mr. Enriquez raised dark, compassionate eyes to his, saying:

"This is a touching letter, sir. I thank you for allowing me to see it. No, I don't doubt you now. Poor Cuba! Her sons must be brave, her daughters patient."

"Well! You understand why I must go quickly, and why I can't chance delay by going either to Matanzas or to Havana. I want to land somewhere farther east, and I want you to help me to find Colonel Lopez."

Mr. Enriquez frowned thoughtfully. "What I just told you is literally true," he said at last. "We work in the dark up here, and we don't know the whereabouts of our troops. We are suspicious of strangers, too, as we have reason to be. But--I have a thought." He excused himself and left the room. When he returned he explained: "I don't have to tell you that we are watched all the time, and that for us to assist you openly would be liable to defeat your purpose. But I have just telephoned to a man I can trust, and I have told him your story. He has relatives in Cuba and he agrees to help you if he can. His name is Alvarado." Writing an address upon a card, he handed it to O'Reilly. "Go to him, tell him what you have told me, and do as he directs. Another thing, don't return here unless it is necessary; otherwise when you land in Cuba you may have cause to regret it." Mr. Enriquez extended his hand, and when O'Reilly tried to thank him he shook his head. "It is nothing. I wish you success, but--I fear you have tackled a big proposition."

Dr. Alvarado, a high type of the Cuban professional man, was expecting O'Reilly. He listened patiently to his caller's somewhat breathless recital.

"You do well to avoid the cities where you are known," he agreed. "It would be madness, under the circumstances, even to be seen in Matanzas: those enemies of--your friends--would have you deported. But just how to reach the Insurrectos--"

"If you'd merely give me a letter saying I'm a friend--"

The doctor promptly negatived this suggestion. "Surely you don't think it can be done as easily as that?" he inquired. "In the first place, wherever you land, you will be watched and probably searched. Such a letter, if discovered, would not only end your chances, but it would bring certain disaster upon those to whom it was written. I have no right to jeopardize the lives of those I hold dear. These are perilous times for all good Cubans, Mr. O'Reilly. Enriquez told me about that poor girl. She bears a famous name and--I want to help her." He removed his glasses and wiped them, absent-mindedly. "There are three Alvarados living," he resumed. "My two brothers, Tomas and Ignacio, reside in Cuba, and we all work for the cause of independence in our own ways. I am fortunately situated, but they are surrounded by dangers, and I must ask you to be extremely careful in communicating with them, for I am placing their lives in your hands and--I love them dearly."

"I shall do exactly as you say."

"Very well, then! Go to Neuvitas, where Tomas lives--there is a steamer leaving in three of four days, and you can arrange passage on her. He is a dentist. Meet him, somehow, and make yourself known by repeating this sentence: 'I come from Felipe. He told me how you whipped him to keep him from going to the Ten Years' War!' That will be enough; he will ask you who you are and what you want."

"I see. It's a sort of password."

"No. I've never had reason to communicate with him in this way." Noting the bewilderment in O'Reilly's face, Alvarado smiled. "You won't need to say anything more. No living soul, except Tomas and I, knows that he thrashed me, but it is true. I was young, I wanted to go to the war, but he took it out of me with a bamboo. Later we bound ourselves never to mention it. He will understand from the message that I trust you, and he will help you to reach the rebels, if such a thing is possible. But tell me, when you have found Miss Varona, what then?"

"Why, I'll bring her out."

"How? Do you think you can walk into any seaport and take ship? You will be tagged and numbered by the authorities. Once you disappear into the manigua, you will be a marked man."

"Well, then, I'll marry her right there. I'm an American citizen-- "

"Don't build too much on that fact, either," the doctor warned. "Spanish jails are strong, and your country has never compelled that respect for its nationals which other countries insist upon."

"Perhaps! But the first thing is to find Miss Varona and learn that she's safe. I don't much care what happens after that."

Alvarado nodded and smiled. "Good! What would this world be without sentiment? It loves a lover. I like your spirit and I hope soon to have the pleasure of again seeing you and meeting your-- wife."

O'Reilly flushed and stammered, whereupon the good Cuban patted him on the shoulder. "Come and see me when you get back, and bring me news of Tomas. Now, adios, compadre."

"Adios, senor! I am deeply grateful!"

O'Reilly had no difficulty in securing passage direct to Neuvitas on the English steamer Dunham Castle, and a few days later he saw the Atlantic Highlands dissolve into the mists of a winter afternoon as the ship headed outward into a nasty running sea.

It proved to be a wretched trip. Off Hatteras the Dunham Castle labored heavily for twelve hours, and bad weather followed her clear into the old Bahama Channel. Not until she had thrust her nose into the narrow entrance of Neuvitas harbor did she wholly cease her seasick plunging, but then the weather changed with bewildering suddenness.

Cuba, when it came fairly into sight, lay bathed in golden sunshine, all warmth and welcome, like a bride upon an azure couch. The moist breath from her fragrant shores swept over the steamer's decks and Johnnie O'Reilly sniffed it joyfully.

He had brought little luggage with him, only an extra suit of khaki, a few toilet articles, and a Colt's revolver, the companion of his earlier Cuban days. He was holding the weapon in his hand, debating how and where to conceal it, when the first officer paused in the state-room door and, spying it, exclaimed:

"Hello! Smuggling arms to the Insurrectos, eh?"

O'Reilly laughed. "It's an old friend. I don't know just what to do with it."

"I'll tell you," the mate volunteered. "Lead your old friend out here to the rail, shake hands with him, and drop him overboard before he gets you into trouble."

"Really?"

"I mean it. They won't let you land with that hardware. Take my tip."

But Johnnie hesitated. Though his intentions were far from warlike, he could not bring himself, in view of his secret plans, to part with his only weapon. He examined his extra pair of khaki trousers, and discovering a considerable surplus of cloth at each inside seam, he took needle and thread and managed to sew the gun in so that it hung close against the inside of his right leg when he donned the garment. It felt queer and uncomfortable, but it did not appear to be noticeable so long as he stood upright. With some pride in his stratagem, he laid off his winter suit and changed into lighter clothing.

Neuvitas was scorching under a midday sun when he came on deck. Its low, square houses were glaring white; here and there a splotch of vivid Cuban blue stood out; the rickety, worm-eaten piling of its water-front resembled rows of rotten, snaggly teeth smiling out of a chalky face mottled with unhealthy, artificial spots of color. Gusts of wind from the shore brought feverish odors, as if the city were sick and exhaled a tainted breath. But beyond, the hills were clean and green, the fields were rich and ripe. That was the Cuba which O'Reilly knew.

A Spanish transport, close by, was languidly discharging uniformed troops; lighters of military supplies were being unloaded; the sound of a bugle floated from the shore. Moored to the docks or anchored in the harbor were several shallow-draught "tin-clad" coast-patrol craft from the staffs of which streamed the red and yellow bars of Spain.

Although there were but a few passengers on the Dunham Castle, they were subjected to a long delay during which suspicious customs men searched their baggage and questioned them. Finally, however, O'Reilly found himself free to go ashore. He had passed the ordeal handily, and now he was eager to reach some lodging- place where he could remove that revolver which knocked against his leg so awkwardly at every step. Once on the dock, he gave his bag to a negro and led the way toward the street. At the last moment, however, just as he was about to plant his feet upon solid earth, he was halted by two men who rose from a bench where they had been idling. They carried the tasseled canes of the Secret Service, and O'Reilly felt his heart jump.

With a murmured apology one of them relieved the negro of the valise while the other began to search O'Reilly's person for concealed weapons. He began at Johnnie's shoulders and patted one pocket after another, "fanning" him in the fashion approved of policemen. Now, too late, the American regretted his refusal to heed the mate's warning. It seemed certain that he was in for trouble, but he drew his heels together and stood with the revolver pressed between his legs, praying that those exploratory palms would not encounter it. When the officer had slapped every pocket, ending at the hips, he nodded; his companion snapped shut the valise, and handed it back to the porter.

O'Reilly paused a moment or two later to wipe the abundant perspiration from his face; even yet his pulse was pounding erratically. He hoped the future held no more surprises of this sort, for he feared that his nerve might fail him.

El Gran Hotel Europea, Neuvitas's leading hostelry, belied its name. It was far from large, and certainly it was anything but European, except, perhaps, in its proprietor's extravagant and un- American desire to please, at any cost. The building was old and dirty, the open cafe, fronting upon the sidewalk of the main street, was full of flies, and dust from the unclean roadway lay thick upon its stone-topped tables; moreover, a recognizable odor of decay issued from the patio--or perhaps from the kitchen behind it. After O'Reilly's first meal he was sure it came from the latter place; even suspected that the odor flattered actual conditions. But it was the best hotel the place afforded, and Senor Carbajal was the most attentive of hosts.

He was a globular, unctuous little man, this Carbajal; he reminded O'Reilly of a drop of oil. He evinced an unusual interest in the affairs of his American guest, and soon developed a habit of popping into the latter's room at unexpected moments, ostensibly to see that all was as it should be. Now there was very little in the room to need attention--only a bed with a cheese-cloth mosquito-net, a wash-stand, and a towering, smelly clothes-press of Spanish architecture, which looked as if it might have a dark and sinister history. When, for the third time, he appeared without knocking, O'Reilly suspected something.

"You have everything, eh?" Mr. Carbajal teetered upon the balls of his feet while his small black eyes roved inquisitively.

"Everything in abundance."

"There is water, eh?" The proprietor peered dutifully into the pitcher, incidentally taking stock of O'Reilly's toilet articles.

"A veritable ocean of it."

"One never knows. These servants are so lazy. But--your other baggage, your trunk?"

"I have no trunk."

"So? I took you to be a great traveler."

"I am."

"Selling goods, eh?"

"No."

"Indeed? Then you are a pleasure traveler? You see the sights, is that it? Well, Cuba is beautiful."

"Most beautiful, judging from what I have seen."

Mr. Carbajal wagged a pudgy forefinger at his guest. "Tut! Tut! You know Cuba. You speak the language better than a native. You can't fool me, sly one!" He wrinkled his face and winked both eyes. It was an invitation to further confidence, and he was disappointed when it passed unnoticed. "Well, you Americans are a brave people," he continued, with an obvious effort to keep the conversation going. "You like to be where the fighting is."

"Not I. I'm a timid man."

"Ho! Ha! Ha!" the proprietor cackled. Then he became pensive. "There is nothing here at Neuvitas to interest a tourist--except the war."

"I'm not a tourist."

"Indeed? Now that is interesting." Mr. Carbajal seated himself on the edge of the bed, where he could look into O'Reilly's traveling-bag. "Not a tourist, not a traveling-man. Now what could possibly bring you to Cuba?"

O'Reilly eyed his inquisitor gravely; a subtle melancholy darkened his agreeable countenance. "I travel for my health," said he.

"You--Health--!" Carbajal's frame began to heave; his bulging abdomen oscillated as if shaken by some hidden hand. "Good! Ha! There's another joke for you."

"I'm a sick man," O'Reilly insisted, hollowly.

"From what malady do you suffer?" inquired the hotel-keeper.

"Rheumatism."

"Rheumatism? That is no more than a pain in the joints, a stiffness--"

"There! I knew it!" O'Reilly exclaimed in triumph. Rising, he seized his host's moist hands and shook them violently. "You give me courage! You make a new man of me. These doctors enjoy a fellow's agony; they'd like to bury him. They'd never recommend this climate. No! 'Pain in the joints,' you say, 'stiffness.' That proves the abominable affliction is practically unknown here. I thank you, sir."

"You don't look sick," mumbled Carbajal. "Not like the other American."

"What other American?"

"A peculiar fellow. He went on to Puerto Principe. What a cough! And he was as thin as a wire. He bled at the mouth, too, all the time, when he was not reviling my hotel. You'll see him if you go there, provided he hasn't come apart with his coughing. I believe he writes for newspapers. Well, it is my pleasure to serve you. Command me at any hour." Mr. Carbajal rose reluctantly and went wheezing down-stairs to his grimy tables and the flies.

O'Reilly was not in the least deceived; it was plain to him that the hotel man was in close touch with the Spanish authorities, and he began to feel the need of some better excuse, some valid business reason, for being here, such as would allay suspicion once for all. But he could think of nothing better than his rheumatism, and to that he determined to cling.