by O. Henry
The plans for the detention of the flying President Miraflores and his companion at the coast line seemed hardly likely to fail. Doctor Zavalla himself had gone to the port of Alazan to establish a guard at that point. At Solitas the Liberal patriot Varras could be depended upon to keep close watch. Goodwin held himself responsible for the district about Coralio.
The news of the president’s flight had been disclosed to no one in the coast towns save trusted members of the ambitious political party that was desirous of succeeding to power. The telegraph wire running from San Mateo to the coast had been cut far up on the mountain trail by an emissary of Zavalla’s. Long before this could be repaired and word received along it from the capital the fugitives would have reached the coast and the question of escape or capture been solved.
Goodwin had stationed armed sentinels at frequent intervals along the shore for a mile in each direction from Coralio. They were instructed to keep a vigilant lookout during the night to prevent Miraflores from attempting to embark stealthily by means of some boat or sloop found by chance at the water’s edge. A dozen patrols walked the streets of Coralio unsuspected, ready to intercept the truant official should he show himself there.
Goodwin was very well convinced that no precautions had been overlooked. He strolled about the streets that bore such high- sounding names and were but narrow, grass-covered lanes, lending his own aid to the vigil that had been intrusted to him by Bob Englehart.
The town had begun the tepid round of its nightly diversions. A few leisurely dandies, cald in white duck, with flowing neckties, and swinging slim bamboo canes, threaded the grassy by-ways toward the houses of their favored senoritas. Those who wooed the art of music dragged tirelessly at whining concertinas, or fingered lugubrious guitars at doors and windows. An occasional soldier from the ~cuartel~, with flapping straw hat, without coat or shoes, hurried by, balancing his long gun like a lance in one hand. From every density of the foliage the giant tree frogs sounded their loud and irritating clatter. Further out, the guttural cries of marauding baboons and the coughing of the alligators in the black estuaries fractured the vain silence of the wood.
By ten o’clock the streets were deserted. The oil lamps that had burned, a sickly yellow, at random corners, had been extinguished by some economical civic agent. Coralio lay sleeping calmly between toppling mountains and encroaching sea like a stolen babe in the arms of its abductors. Somewhere over in that tropical darkness–perhaps already threading the profundities of the alluvial lowlands–the high adventurer and his mate were moving toward land’s end. The game of Fox-in-the-Morning should be coming soon to its close.
Goodwin, at his deliberate gait, passed the long, low ~cuartel~ where Coralio’s contingent of Anchuria’s military force slumbered, with its bare toes pointed heavenward. There was a law that no civilian might come so near the headquarters of that citadel of war after nine o’clock, but Goodwin was always forgetting the minor statutes.
“~Quien vive,~” shrieked the sentinel, wrestling prodigiously with his lengthy musket.
“~Americano,~” growled Goodwin, without turning his head, and passed on, unhalted.
To the right he turned, and to the left up the street that ultimately reached the Plaza Nacional. When within the toss of a cigar stump from the intersecting Street of the Holy Sepulchre, he stopped suddenly in the pathway.
He saw the form of a tall man, clothed in black and carrying a large valise, hurry down the cross-street in the direction of the beach. And Goodwin’s second glance made him aware of a woman at the man’s elbow on the farther side, who seemed to urge forward, if not even to assist, her companion in their swift but silent progress. They were no Coralians, those two.
Goodwin followed at increased speed, but without any of the artful tactics that are so dear to the heart of the sleuth. The American was too broad to feel the instinct of the detective. He stood as an agent for the people of Anchuria, and but for political reasons he would have demanded then and there the money. It was the design of his party to secure the imperilled fund, to restore it to the treasury of the country, and to declare itself in power without bloodshed or resistance.
The couple halted at the door of the Hotel de los Extranjeros, and the man struck upon the wood with the impatience of one unused to his entry being stayed. Madama was long in response, but after a time her light showed, the door was opened, and the guests housed.
Goodwin stoodin the quiet street, lighting another cigar. In two minutes, a faint gleam began to show between the slats of the jalousies in the upper story of the hotel. “They have engaged rooms,” said Goodwin to himself. “So, then, their arrangements for sailing have yet to be made.”
At the moment there came along one Esteban Delgado, a barber, an enemy to existing government, a jovial plotter against stagnation in any form. This barber was one of Coralio’s saddest dogs, often remaining out of doors as late as eleven, post meridian. He was a partisan Liberal; and he greeted Goodwin with flatulent importance as a brother in the cause. But he had something important to tell.
“What think you, Don Frank!” he cried, in the universal tone of the conspirator. “I have tonight shaved ~la barba~–what you call the ‘weeskers’ of the ~Presidente~ himself, of this countree! Consider! He sent for me to come. In the poor ~casita~ of an old woman he awaited me–in a verree leetle house in a dark place. ~Carramba!~ –el Senor Presidente to make himself thus secret and obscured! I shave a man and not see his face? This gold piece he gave me, and said it was to be all quite still. I think, Don Frank, there is what you call a chip over the bug.”
“Have you ever seen President Miraflores before?” asked Goodwin.
“But once,” answered Esteban. “He is tall; and he had weeskers, verree black and sufficient.”
“Was any one else present when you shaved him?”
“An old Indian woman, Senor, that belonged with the ~casa~, and one senorita–a ladee of so much beautee!–~ah, Dios!~”
“All right, Esteban,” said Goodwin. “It’s very lucky that you happened along with your tonsorial information. The new administration will be likely to remember you for this.”
Then in a few words he made the barber acquainted with the crisis into which the affairs of the nation had culminated, and instructed him to remain outside, keeping watch upon the two sides of the hotel that looked upon the street, and observing whether any one should attempt to leave the house by any door or window. Goodwin himself went to the door through which the guests had entered, opened it and stepped inside.
Madama had returned downstairs from her journey above to see after the comfort of her lodgers. Her candle stood upon the bar. She was about to take a thimbleful of rum as a solace for having her rest disturbed. She looked up without surprise or alarm as her third caller entered.
“Ah! it is the Senor Goodwin. Not often does he honor my poor house with his presence.”
“I must come oftener,” said Goodwin, with a Goodwin smile. “I hear that your cognac is the best between Belize to the north and Rio to the south. Set out the bottle, Madama, and let us have the proof in ~un vasito~ for each of us.”
“My ~aguardiente~,” said Madama, with pride, “is the best. It grows, in beautiful bottles, in the dark places among the banana-trees. ~Si, Senor~. Only at midnight can they be picked by sailor-men who bring them, before daylight comes, to your back door. Good ~aguardiente~ is a verree difficult fruit to handle, Senor Goodwin.”
Smuggling, in Coralio, was much nearer than competition to being the life of trade. One spoke of it slyly, yet with a certain conceit, when it had been well accomplished.
“You have guests in the house tonight,” said Goodwin, laying a silver dollar upon the counter.
“Why not?” said Madama, counting the change. “Two; but the smallest while finished to arrive. One senor, not quite old, and one senorita of sufficient hadsomeness. To their rooms they have ascended, not desiring the to-eat nor the to-drink. Two rooms–~Numero~9 and ~Numero~ 10.”
“I was expecting that gentleman and that lady,” said Goodwin. “I have important ~negocios~ that must be transacted. Will you allow me to see them?”
“Why not?” sighed Madama, placidly. “Why should not Senor Goodwin ascend and speak to his friends? ~Esta bueno~. Romm ~Numero~ 9 and romm ~Numero~ 10.”
Goodwin loosened in his coat pocket the American revolver that he carried, and ascended the steep, dark stairway.
In the hallway above, the saffron light from a hanging lamp allowed him to select the gaudy numbers on the doors. He turned the knob on Number 9, entered and closed the door behind him.
If that was Isabel Guilbert seated by the table in that poorly furnished room, report had failed to do her charms justice. She rested her head upon one hand. Extreme fatigue was signified in every line of her figure; and upon her countenance a deep perplexity was written. Her eyes were gray-irised, and of that mold that seems to have belonged to the orbs of all the famous queens of hearts. Their whites were singularly clear and brilliant, concealed above the irises by heavy horizontal lids, and showing a snowy line between them. Such eyes denote great nobility, vigor, and, if you can conceive of it, a most generous selfishness. She looked up when the American entered, with an expression of surprised inquiry, but without alarm.
Goodwin took off his hat and seated himself, with his characteristic deliberate ease, upon a corner of the table. He held a lighted cigar between his fingers. He took this familiar course because he was sure that preliminaries would be wasted upon Miss Guilbert. He knew her history, and the small part that the conventions had played in it.
“Good evening,” he said. “Now, madame, let us come to business at once. You will observe that I mention no names, but I know who is in the next room, and what he carries in that valise. That is the point which brings me here. I have come to dictate terms of surrender.”
The lady neither moved nor replied, but steadily regarded the cigar in Goodwin’s hand.
“We,” continued the dictator, thoughtfully regarding the neat buckskin shoe on his gently swinging foot–“I speak for a considerable majority of the people–demand the return of the stolen funds belonging to them. Our terms go very little further than that. They are very simple. As an accredited spokesman, I promise that our interference will cease if they are accepted. Give up the money, and you and your companion will be permitted to proceed wherever you will. In fact, assistance will be given you in the matter of securing a passage by any outgoing vessel you may choose. It is on my personal responsibility that I add congratulations to the gentleman in Number 10 upon his taste in feminine charms.”
Returning his cigar to his mouth, Goodwin observed her, and saw that her eyes followed it and rested upon it with icy and significant concentration. Apparently she had not heard a word he had said. He understood, tossed the cigar out the window, and, with an amused laugh, slid from the table to his feet.
“That is better,” said the lady. “It makes it possible for me to listen to you. For a second lesson in good manners, you might now tell me by whom I am being insulted.”
“I am sorry,” said Goodwin, leaning one hand on the table, “that my time is too brief for devoting much of it to a course of etiquette. Come, now; I appeal to you good sense. You have shown yourself, in more than one instance, to be well aware of what is to your advantage. This is an occasion that demands the exercise of your undoubted intelligence. There is no mystery here. I am Frank Goodwin; and I have come for the money. I entered this room at a venture. Had I entered the other I would have had it before me now. Do you want it in words? The gentleman in Number 10 has betrayed a great trust. He has robbed his people of a large sum, and it is I who will prevent their losing it. I do not say who that gentleman is; but if I should be forced to see him and he should prove to be a certain high official of the republic, it will be my duty to arrest him. The house is guarded. I am offering you liberal terms. It is not absolutely necessary that I confer personally with the gentleman in the next room. Bring me the valise containing the money, and we will call the affair ended.”
The lady arose from her chair and stood for a moment, thinking deeply.
“Do you live here, Mr. Goodwin?” she asked, presently.
“What is your authority for this intrusion?”
“I am an instrument of the republic. I was advised by wire of the movements of the–gentleman in Number 10.”
“May I ask you two or three questions? I believe you to be a man more apt to be truthful than–timid. What sort of town is this– Coralio, I think they call it?”
“Not much of a town,” said Goodwin, smiling. “A banana town, as they run. Grass huts, ‘dobes, five or six two-story houses, accomodations limited, population half-breed Spanish and Indian, Caribs and blackamoors. No sidewalks to speak of, no amusements. Rather unmoral. That’a an offhand sketch, of course.”
“Are there any inducements, say in a social or in a business way, for people to reside here?”
“Oh, yes,” answered Goodwin, smiling broadly. “There are no afternoon teas, no hand-organs, no department stores–and there is no extradition treaty.”
“He told me,” went on the lady, speaking as if to herself, and with a slight frown, “that there were towns on this coast of beauty and importance; that there was a pleasing social order–especially an American colony of cultured residents.”
“There is an American colony,” said Goodwin, gazing at her in some wonder. “Some of the members are all right. Some are fugitives from justice from the States. I recall two exiled bank presidents, one army paymaster under a cloud, a couple of manslayers, and a widow– arsenic, I believe, was the suspicion in her case. I myself complete the colony, but, as yet, I have not distinguished myself by any particular crime.”
“Do not lose hope,” said the lady, dryly; “I see nothing in your actions tonight to guarantee you further obscurity. Some mistake has been made; I do not know just where. But ~him~ you shall not disturb tonight. The journey has fatigued him so that he has fallen asleep, I think, in his clothes. You talk of stolen money! I do not understand you. Some mistake has been made. I will convince you. Remain where you are and I will bring you the valise that you seem to covet so, and show it to you.”
She moved toward the closed door that connected the two rooms, but stopped, and half turned and bestowed upon Goodwin a grave, searching look that ended in a quizzical smile.
“You force my door,” she said, “and you follow your ruffianly behavior with the basest accusations; and yet”–she hesitated, as if to reconsider what she was about to say–“and yet–it is a puzzling thing–I am sure there has been some mistake.”
She took a step toward the door, but Goodwin stayed her by a light touch upon her arm. I have said before that women turned to look at him in the streets. He was the viking sort of man, big, good- looking, and with an air of kindly truculence. She was dark and proud, glowing or pale as her mood moved her. I do not know if Eve were light or dark, but if such a woman had stood in the garden I know that the apple would have been eaten. This woman was to be Goodwin’s fate, and he did not know it; but he must have felt the first throes of destiny, for, as he faced her, the knowledge of what report named her turned bitter in her throat.
“If there has been any mistake,” he said, hotly, “it was yours. I do not blame the man who has lost his country, his honor, and is about to lose the poor consolation of his stolen riches as much as I blame you, for, by Heaven! I can very well see how he was brought to it. I can understand, and pity him. It is such women as you that strew this degraded coast with wretched exiles, that make men forget their trusts, that drag–”
The lady interrupted him with a weary gesture.
“There is no need to continue your insults,” she said, coldly. “I do not understand what you are saying, nor do I know what mad blunder you are making; but if the inspection of the contents of a gentleman’s portmanteau will rid me of you, let us delay it no longer.”
She passed quickly and noiselessly into the other room, and returned with the heavy leather valise, which she handed to the American with an air of patient contempt.
Goodwin set the valise quickly upon the table and began to unfasten the straps. The Lady stood by, with an expression of infinite scorn and weariness upon her face.
The valise opened wide to a powerful, sidelong wrench. Goodwin dragged out two or three articles of clothing, exposing the bulk of its contents–package after package of tightly packed United States bank and treasury notes of large denomination. Reckoning from the high figures written upon the paper bands that bound them, the total must have come closely upon the hundred thousand mark.
Goodwin glanced swiftly at the woman, and saw, with surprise and a thrill of pleasure that he wondered at, that she had experienced an unmistakeable shock. Her eyes grew wide, she gasped, and leaned heavily against the table. She had been ignorant, then, he inferred, that her companion had looted the government treasury. But why, he angrily asked himself, should he be so well pleased to think this wandering and unscrupulous singer not so black as report had painted her?
A noise in the other room startled them both. The door swung open, and a tall, elderly, dark complexioned man, recently shaven, hurried into the room.
All the pictures of President Miraflores represent him as the possessor of a luxuriant supply of dark and carefully tended whiskers; but the story of the barber, Esteban, had prepared Goodwin for the change.
The man stumbled in from the dark room, his eyes blinking at the lamplight, and heavy from sleep.
“What does this mean?” he demanded in excellent English, with a keen and perturbed look at the American–“robbery?”
“Very near it,” answered Goodwin. “But I rather think I’m in time to prevent it. I represent the people to whom this money belongs, and I have come to convey it back to them.” He thrust his hand into a pocket of his loose, linen coat.
The other man’s hand went quickly behind him.
“Don’t draw,” called Goodwin, sharply; “I’ve got you covered from my pocket.”
The lady stepped forward, and laid one hand upon the shoulder of her hesitating companion. She pointed to the table. “Tell me the truth –the truth,” she said, in a low voice. “Whose money is that?”
The man did not answer. He gave a deep, long-drawn sigh, leaned and kissed her on the forehead, stepped back into the other room and closed the door.
Goodwin foresaw his purpose, and jumped for the door, but the report of the pistol echoed as his hand touched the knob. A heavy fall followed, and some one swept him aside and struggled into the room of the fallen man.
A desolation, thought Goodwin, greater than that derived from the loss of cavalier and gold must have been in the heart of the enchantress to have wrung from her, in that moment, the cry of one turning to the all-forgiving, all-comforting earthly consoler–to have made her call out from that bloody and dishonored room–“Oh, mother, mother, mother!”
But there was an alarm outside. The barber, Esteban, at the sound of the shot, had raised his voice; and the shot itself had aroused half the town. A pattering of feet came up the street, and official orders rang out on the still air. Goodwin had a duty to perform. Circumstances had made him the custodian of his adopted country’s treasure. Swiftly cramming the money into the valise, he closed it, leaned far out of the window and dropped it into a thick orange-tree in the little inclosure below.
They will tell you in Coralio, as they delight in telling the stranger, of the conclusion of that tragic flight. They will tell you how the upholders of the law came apace when the alarm was sounded–the ~Comandante~ in red slippers and a jacket like a head waiter’s and girded sword, the soldiers with their interminable guns, followed by outnumbering officers struggling into their gold and lace epaulettes; the bare-footed policemen (the only capables in the lot), and ruffled citizens of every hue and description.
They say that the countenance of the dead man was marred sadly by the effects of the shot; but he was identified as the fallen president by both Goodwin and the barber Esteban. On the next morning messages began to come over the mended telegraph wire; and the story of the flight from the capital was given out to the public. In San Mateo the revolutionary party had seized the sceptre of government, without opposition, and the ~vivas~ of the mercurial populace quickly effaced the interest belonging to the unfortunate Miraflores.
They will relate to you how the new government sifted the towns and raked the roads to find the valise containing Anchuria’s surplus capital, which the president was known to have carried with him, but all in vain. In Coralio Senor Goodwin himself led the searching party which combed that town as carefully as a woman combs her hair; but the money was not found.
So they buried the dead man, without honors, back of the town near the little bridge that spans the mangrove swamp; and for a ~real~ a boy will show you his grave. They say that the old woman in whose hut the barber shaved the president placed the wooden slab at his head, and burned the inscription upon it with a hot iron.
You will hear also that Senor Goodwin, like a tower of strength, shielded Dona Isabel Guilbert through those subsequent distressful days; and that his scruples as to her past career (if he had any) vanished; and her adventuresome waywardness (if she had any) left her, and they were wedded and were happy.
The American built a home on a little foothill near the town. It is a conglomerate structure of native woods that, exported, would be worth a fortune, and of brick, palm, glass, bamboo and adobe. There is a paradise of nature about it; and something of the same sort within. The natives speak of its interior with hands uplifted in admiration. There are floors polished like mirrors and covered with hand-woven Indian rugs of silk fibre, tall ornaments and pictures, musical instruments and papered walls–“figure-it-to-yourself!” they exclaim.
But they cannot tell you in Coralio (as you shall learn) what became of the money that Frank Goodwin dropped into the orange-tree. But that shall come later; for the palms are fluttering in the breeze, bidding us to sport and gaiety.