VII. The Man Who Would Know Life
 

Later that day O'Reilly set out to reconnoiter the city of Neuvitas. He was followed, of course--he had expected as much, and the circumstances amused rather than alarmed him. But when he returned to his hotel and found that his room had been visited during his absence he felt a hint of uneasiness. Evidently, as Doctor Alvarado had forecast, the authorities were interested in him; and he had further evidence of the fact when he learned that the room next him was occupied by the very man who had shadowed him on the street. Inasmuch as the intervening wall was no more than a thin partition, through which his very breathing could be heard, while his every movement could doubtless be spied upon, O'Reilly saw the need of caution, and he began to cast about for a place to hide that Colt's revolver, the presence of which was assuming the proportions of a menace. Now that his belongings had been examined three times that day, the next step would probably be another search of his person. Unless in the mean time he could definitely establish his innocence of purpose, which was unlikely, it behooved him to rid himself of the weapon without delay. This, however, was a problem. He could not bring himself to throw the thing away, and his bare bedroom offered no place of concealment. Late that evening he called Mr. Carbajal and asked him if it were possible to take a bath.

Mr. Carbajal assured him that it was. El Gran Hotel Europea was first class in every respect; no expense had been spared in its equipment. Senor O'Rail-ye had indeed done well in patronizing it, for it boasted the best cuarto de bano in the whole city--a room, moreover, which was devoted exclusively to the purposes of bathing. And it was a large room--large enough to accommodate a dozen guests at once. To be sure, it would require, say, half an hour to make it ready, for it was stored with hay for the horses which drew the 'bus to and from the depot, but if the senor would have patience it could soon be restored to its original purpose. Mr. Carbajal himself would see that there was a river of hot water.

O'Reilly thanked him. An hour later he paraded, bare-foot, down the hall, wrapped in a blanket. He had purposely left his clothes behind him, and the door of his room unlocked, but under his naked left arm he carried the revolver.

He was a long time in his bath. When he returned to his chamber he found his garments very nearly as he had left them. He smiled as he crept into bed and tucked the netting under his thin mattress. They could search him now, whenever they pleased, for the revolver and its box of precious cartridges reposed on a duty beam over the bathroom, where no one would ever think of looking.

During breakfast, and afterward throughout an aimless morning stroll, O'Reilly felt watchful eyes upon him. When he returned to his hotel he found Mr. Carbajal in the cafe concocting refrescos for some military officers, who scanned the American with bold, hostile glances. O'Reilly complained to the proprietor of a toothache.

At once Mr. Carbajal was sympathetic; he was also admonitory, blaming the affliction upon that bath of the previous evening. Excessive bathing, he declared, was injurious, particularly in the winter season; it opened one's pores, and it dried one's skin and rendered one liable to the attacks of every disease. Heat? Perspiration? Was it wise to resort to unnatural and artificial means in order to rid oneself of a trifling annoyance? If perspiration were injurious, nature would not have provided it. In fact, it was nature's method of keeping the body clean, and if people were unreasonably fastidious about such things a little cologne would render them even more agreeable to the senses than any number of baths. That was the purpose of cologne. This habit of bathing at fixed intervals of a week or two, regardless of conditions, might be, and probably was, responsible for all of O'Reilly's rheumatism. Mr. Carbajal, for one, knew better than to overdo the thing. He had never suffered an ache or a pain in his life and his teeth were perfectly sound, as he demonstrated by beating vigorously upon them with his mixing-spoon.

O'Reilly was impressed by this argument, he acknowledged, but unfortunately it did not remedy the pain which was killing him. During the hottest part of the day, when he knew the town would be asleep, he reappeared in the cafe, his cheek in his hand. He declared that something had to be done, at once, and inquired the name and address of the best local dentist.

Mr. Carbajal named several, among them Dr. Tomas Alvarado, whereupon his guest hurried away, followed at a respectful distance by the secret agent.

Finding Doctor Alvarado's office was closed, as he had anticipated, O'Reilly proceeded to the doctor's residence. There was some delay when he rang the bell, but eventually the dentist himself appeared. O'Reilly recognized him from his resemblance to his brother. He addressed him in English.

"I come from Felipe," he began. "He well remembers the day you whipped him to keep him from going to the Ten Years' War."

The languor of Doctor Alvarado's siesta vanished. He started, his eyes widened.

"Who are you?" he muttered.

"My name is O'Reilly. I am an American, a friend, so don't be alarmed. The man you see approaching is following me, but he thinks I have come to you with a toothache."

"What do you want?"

"I want your help in joining the Insurrectos."

By this time the detective had come within earshot. Making an effort at self-possession, the dentist said: "Very well. I will meet you at my office in a half-hour and see what can be done." Then he bowed.

O'Reilly raised his hat and turned away.

Doctor Alvarado's dentist's chair faced a full-length window, one of several which, after the Cuban fashion, opened directly upon the sidewalk, rendering both the waiting-room and the office almost as public as the street itself. Every one of these windows was wide open when Johnnie arrived; but it seemed that the dentist knew what he was about, for when his patient had taken his seat and he had begun an examination of the troublesome tooth, he said, under his breath:

"I, too, am watched. Talk to me in English. When I press, thus, upon your gum, you will know that some one is passing. Now then, what is the meaning of your amazing message from Felipe?"

While Doctor Alvarado pretended to treat a perfectly sound molar, Johnnie managed, despite frequent interruptions, to make known the reason and circumstances of his presence.

"But there are no rebels around here," Alvarado told him. "You could escape to the country, perhaps, but what then? Where would you go? How would they know who you are?"

"That's what I want to find out."

The Cuban pondered. "You'll have to go to Puerto Principe," he said, at length. "Our men are operating in that neighborhood, and my brother Ignacio will know how to reach them. I'll give you a message to him, similar to the one you brought me from Felipe." Then he smiled. "I've just thought of the very thing. Years ago I lent him a book which I particularly prized, and one of his children damaged it. I was furious. I declared I would never lend him another, and I never have. Now then, I'll give you that very volume; hand it to him and say that I asked you to return it to him. I'd like to see his face when he receives it."

O'Reilly thanked him, promising to use every precaution in delivering the message. The very care necessary in communicating between brother and brother made him realize more clearly than hitherto that he was among enemies.

The next morning he paid Carbajal's score and took the train to the interior. In his bag was Tomas Alvarado's precious volume, and in the same coach with him rode the Secret Service man.

In its general features Puerto Principe differed little from the other Cuban cities O'Reilly knew. It was compactly built, it was very old and it looked its centuries. Its streets were particularly narrow and crooked, having been purposely laid out in labyrinthian mazes, so the story goes, in order to fool the pirates. In some ways it was quaint and unusual. For instance, here and there were queer tinajones, vast venerable earthen jars for holding rain-water, each inscribed with the date when it left the potter's wheel; then, too, there was a remarkable number of churches--massive structures, grayed by time--and in the northern distance, blue against the sky, O'Reilly had a glimpse of the Cubitas range, where he knew the insurrectos were in camp. That was his goal: it seemed almost within his grasp. He was tempted to abandon caution and make a dash for it, until he discovered that the city was well guarded. One needed a pass to enter or to leave Puerto Principe, and, moreover, the city had no suburbs, no scattered residences outside its boundaries: when one came to the end of a street one found oneself in an open field faced by a barbed-wire barrier, and on every road leading from the town stood a fortina, a little fort of brick or logs, in which were stationed Spanish soldiers. The streets were alive with uniformed men, patrols were everywhere, and martial law prevailed. For the first time O'Reilly began to perceive the strength of that mailed hand which held the island so tightly. Judging from the preparations here, one must conclude that Spain had no intention of relinquishing her last New World possession.

After a stroll through the city, during which he carefully used his eyes, Johnnie asked himself how the ill-drilled, ill-equipped, loosely organized Insurrectos could hope to overthrow so solid a power as this, backed as it seemed to be by unlimited means and unlimited armies of trained troops. It looked like a hopeless undertaking. No seaport, no city, scarcely a hamlet, in fact, so far as O'Reilly knew, was held by the rebels; they lurked in the woods or rode the savannas in ragged bands, here to-day, there to- morrow. To aid or comfort them was treason. They appeared out of the jungles at unexpected moments; they faded like the mists of the dawn. Theirs was an apparitional warfare, and even their biggest victories were signals for retreat. How could they think to win?

It seemed impossible that such resistance as they offered could wear down and conquer the resources of Spain, yet the very numbers and alertness of the Spanish troops argued a somewhat formidable opposition. Did it not also argue an all-pervading restlessness which might some day escape control? O'Reilly, of course, had no part in this quarrel: but it struck him as a wicked waste to destroy, to ravage, and to slay when settlement was so easy. The motive behind this prodigal extravagance of blood and gold was nothing but foolish resistance of a principle. A little yielding, a little diminution of harshness, a little compassion on the part of the mother country, and these men who were killing one another would embrace and proclaim their blood brotherhood.

Pondering such thoughts as these, O'Reilly returned to his hotel. As he sat in the cafe, sipping an orangeade, he heard some one speaking in atrocious Spanish, and looked up to see that another American had entered. The stranger was a tall, funereal young man, with pallid cheeks and hollow, burning eyes: he was asking for ice-water, but what he said resembled anything except the language of the country.

"Hey, George!" he cried. "Try gimme a vasso of agwa con yellow." He pronounced the words with elaborate pains. "Make it a long one."

A waiter eyed him tolerantly, but with no faintest sign of understanding.

"Agwa con yellow--agwa with ice. Ice! Ice!" the man repeated loudly. Still failing of a response, he shouted, "Don't you know what 'ice' is?" He wrapped his long, lean arms about himself and shivered. "Cold! Icie! Freezum! Br-r-r! Savvy?"

Inspiration came to the waiter; a smile irradiated his countenance, and with a murmured apology for his stupidity he hurried away.

O'Reilly stepped over to the stranger's table and introduced himself. "The hotel-keeper in Neuvitas told me I'd find you here," he said. "Your name is--"

"Branch; Leslie Branch. So Carbajal said you'd find me here, eh? Oh, the greasy little liar. He didn't believe it. He thought his cooking would have killed me, long ago, and it nearly did." This time Mr. Branch's bony frame underwent a genuine shudder and his face was convulsed with loathing. "Did you try his butter? 'Made in Denmark' during the early Victorian period. I hate antiques-- can't eat anything oily. Carbajal's in the Secret Service. Nice fat little spy."

"So I suspected."

Mr. Branch's beverage appeared at this moment. With a flourish the waiter placed a small glass and a bottle of dark liquid before him. Branch stared at it, then rolled a fiercely smoldering eye upward.

"What's that?" he inquired.

O'Reilly read the label. "It's bitters," said he.

"Bitters! And I asked for 'yellow'--a glass of agwa with yellow." Branch's voice shook. "I'm dying of a fever, and this ivory-billed toucan brings me a quart of poison. Bullets!" It was impossible to describe the suggestion of profanity with which the speaker colored this innocuous expletive. "Weak as I am, I shall gnaw his windpipe." He bared his teeth suggestively and raised two talon- like hands.

The waiter was puzzled, but not alarmed. He embraced himself as his customer had done, and shuddered; then pointing at the bitters, he nodded encouragingly.

O'Reilly forestalled an outburst by translating his countryman's wants. "Un vaso de agua con hielo," said he, and the attendant was all apologies.

"So, you speak the lingo?" marveled Mr. Branch. "Well, I can't get the hang of it. Don't like it. Don't like anything Spanish. Hell of a country, isn't it? where the ice is 'yellow' and the butter is 'meant to kill you,' and does."

O'Reilly laughed. "You've been studying a guide-book, 'with complete glossary of Spanish phrases.' By the way, Carbajal said you are a writer."

Mr. Branch nodded listlessly. "I'm supposed to report this insurrection, but the Spaniards won't let me. They edit my stuff to suit themselves. I'm getting tired of the farce."

"Going home?"

"Don't dare." The speaker tapped his concave chest. "Bum lungs. I came down here to shuffle off, and I'm waiting for it to happen. What brings you to Cuba?"

"I'm here for my health, too." The real invalid stared. "I have rheumatism."

"Going to sweat it out, eh? Well, there's nothing to do but sweat"--Branch was racked by a coughing spasm that shook his reedy frame--"sweat and cough. Bullets! No mistake about that hospital bark, is there?" When he had regained his breath he said: "See here! I'm going to take a chance with you, for I like your looks. My newspaper work is a bluff: I don't send enough stuff to keep me alive. I come here to cure my lungs, and--I want you to help me do it."

O'Reilly stared at the man in surprise. "How can I help you?" he asked.

"By taking me with you."

"With me? Where?"

"To the Insurrectos, of course."

The men eyed each other fixedly. "What makes you think--" O'Reilly began.

"Oh, don't say it! I've got a hunch! I don't know what your game is--probably dynamite: there's a story that the rebels have sent for some American experts to teach them how to use the stuff, and God knows they need instruction! Anyhow, I can't swallow that rheumatism talk. I thought you might give me a lift. Take me along, will you?"

"And how would that benefit your cough?" Johnnie inquired, curiously.

Mr. Branch hesitated. "Well, I'll tell you," he said, after a moment. "I'm afraid to die this way, by inches, and hours. I'm scared to death." It seemed impossible that the sick man's cheeks could further blanch, but they became fairly livid, while a beading of moisture appeared upon his upper lip. "God! You've no idea how it gets on a fellow's nerves to see himself slipping-- slipping. I'd like to end it suddenly, like that!" He voiced the last sentence abruptly and snapped his fingers. "I've tried to bump off, but--no courage! Funny, isn't it? Well, the doctors told me another New York winter would put me in a rosewood show-case. I've tried Colorado and it's no good. See? So I decided to join the Cubans and--let a bullet do the trick. I never did like the Spaniards--their cooking is too greasy. Then, too, I'd like to have a thrill before I cash in--taste 'the salt of life,' as somebody expressed it. That's war. It's the biggest game in the world. What do you think of the idea?"

"Not much," O'Reilly said, honestly.

"Difference in temperament. I suppose it is a sick fancy, but I've got it. Unfortunately, now that I'm here, these Romeos won't let me get out of town. If you're what I think you are, give me a hand. I'm a rotten coward, but I'll fight if the Cubans will take me."

"Where are the Cubans?"

"Oh, they're out yonder in the hills. I know all about 'em. Come over to my quarters, and I'll show you a map, if you're interested."

"I am," said O'Reilly, and, rising, he followed his new acquaintance.