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The Mahogany Garden

by Frank Stanton Jr.

CHAPTER I
A KNIFE IN THE DARK

HASKELL bent his head not an instant too soon, not a second too late. The steel blade of the henequen sword swept a whistling arc above him and the heavy hooked tip missed his neck an inch—perhaps two inches. His fingers itched to twitch the blue-barreled magazine revolver away from his hip and end this thing. Twice now within ten minutes some one had stooped down from the stone gallery around the patio and tried to snip his head from his shoulders, and though the soft swish of the blade spoke a malice and wickedness that sprang from some most murderous purpose, Haskell had not the remotest conjecture to offer as to why any one should wish to kill him, a stranger, in this strange land.

A month before he had left the mining camps and gone to Denver for his vacation, only to be handed a telegram from the senior member of the great engineering firm with which he had been under contract since he had left Yale, a firm that guided all the mining operations, devised all the irrigation and lumbering systems and surveyed and superintended all the railroad, tramway power-plant, dock and warehouse construction for a powerful Wall Street group with money to invest anywhere in the world that one dollar would make another. The telegram had been brief but specific:

Robert Haskell,
Hotel Oxford, Denver, Col.

Mclmery down with typhoid. Go via Mexico City, Vera Cruz, to Progresso, Yucatan, then inland to hacienda of Calderon y Ortegas family beyond Valladolid. Instructions going by Ward Line mail.

John R. Peters.

That was all. That was enough. He had caught the evening train for the land beyond the Rio Grande and, save for the days lost by missing the boat at Vera Cruz, he had traveled with the haste of a king's messenger. That was a standing rule among "Peters' Men." Up from the coast to Morida and on to Valladolid by train, slow train, the engine of which ate up cords of small wood from piles cut and assembled by Maya peons along the right of way; on from the sun-smitten cluster of stone, stucco and wattle-work houses of Valladolid he had traveled slowly and tediously by platform car.

This meant a little truck about the size of a hand-car, with a canopy over it, drawn by two galloping mules driven by a squat, brawny Maya in cotton shirt and pants, whose stubby, bare great toes turned in; whose skin was the color of an old penny; whose close-cropped wiry hair was crowned with a straw sombrero wound with green and yellow; in whose teeth was clenched a long cruel, plaited whip; at whose side hung one of the long, massive-bladed, bent-tipped henequen knives—a formidable figure who was strangely shy and gentle save to the mules—and for them he found more curses, threats and poetical phrasings of damnation and opprobrium than Haskell had ever heard before.

At the end of the last mile of the narrow rusted tram-rails the ultimate means of travel was mule-back. The last driver of the last tram had hinted that it was wise to travel by day only, but now after nightfall of the second day the white man and his Indian guide had ridden up to the gates of the Calderon y Ortegas hacienda, been admitted by a servant who had vanished without a word, and now Haskell was walking up and down the patio in the moonlight, waiting—waiting to see if some unknown assassin with the henequen knife would get him before the problematic host arrived, or vice versa.

He was not greatly alarmed, but it was not a good way to begin on a piece of Peters' work—to allow himself to be killed or wounded or to be compelled to kill in self-defense some one with whom he had no quarrel, so he kept his right hand only near the butt of his revolver. There was one advantage he had: though the duel had been going on ten minutes, at least the unknown second principal was not aware that Haskell knew of the danger.

The first thing Haskell had noticed was the fall of a bit of stucco as big as a pea. He had glanced up to the arches of the second-floor gallery in time to see a shadowy figure whisk back out of sight. A moment later, when he had crossed to the other side of the court and was directly under the gallery, he had heard the swiftly indrawn breath of some being above him and, experience having taught him that the drawing of breath precedes the deliberate blow with a knife, he had stooped, pretending to have dropped his gauntlet. Out of the tail of his eye he had seen the downward sweep of the blade. Drawing from his pocket a little round mirror from a transit, he held it in the palm of his left hand in such a way that it could not be seen from above, and though he appeared to be looking down and paying no attention to what went on over his head, he could see well enough to be in no danger so long as the unknown pursued the tactics of creeping around the galleries and striking when the marked man came within reach below.

At the time of the second blow all that Haskell had seen was an arm and head over the parapet and then the sudden swoop and the blow. It had been too quick for him to catch more than a glance in the little mirror, but from that head he had caught the gleam of two eyes that shone like the eyes of a cornered mountain cat.

Now, he walked into the middle of the patio and carefully surveyed the darkened galleries. Not a light was there in all the house. Without, the horses stamped in the dust where the Indian held them; from a distance came the crooning song of the servants in their outlying quarters; a native dog barked inquiringly in the same general direction, and overhead the moon rode the cloudless purple sky verily outpouring a torrent of radiance.

Suddenly he caught a movement in the shadows back under the arches and could scarcely refrain from putting a steel-jacketed bullet into the spot. And then forth into the moonlight there stepped a slender girl!

Haskell's heart beat faster at the sight than it had a few minutes before when he had escaped the first blow, and he dropped his hand hurriedly from the pistol-butt. The thought came—what if he had yielded to impulse and fired at the movement in the shadows?

The girl appeared in the moonlight under the arch at the head of the broad stone stairway leading down into the patio. At the top step she paused and looked down. She was taller and slighter than the sturdy Maya women Haskell had seen. There was a loose curl in her heavy hair, and from the point where she had it caught up at the crown of her head and fastened it with the familiar thorn and red flower it fell over her shoulders far below her hips. Her neck and shoulders were bare. On her little feet were the soft Maya sandals, and her dress was the simple white native tunic falling in straight Grecian lines from shoulder to ankle and broidered with a deep hem of the brilliantly colored Maya patterns.

When she turned on the stair so that the moonlight fell full on her face Haskell felt a queer little thrill in his throat—it was the type that is the boast of Leon—shadowed, slumbrous, languorous eyes, features of the delicacy of the high-caste Singalese, cream and olive coloring, with a little rich red mouth.

With simple grace she came slowly down the stair, and with his spurs jingling on the red tiling of the court Haskell crossed to meet her. He was absurdly conscious of the layers of dust that lay not only on his clothing but even in the thick yellow brown curls of his head as he swept off his hat and bowed, wondering what language she would use.

"Buenas tardes, señor," she said, solving the question by addressing him in a quaint Spanish with a curious little purl in it. Haskell was glad that he was not compelled to use the Maya, which he had begun to acquire from the time he encountered the first Yucateco on the steamer from Vera Cruz. He was sorry to note in her manner, however, not only an absence of the cordiality with which the Spanish-American greets a guest, but a little constraint, a certain chill dignity such as even a chance visiting stranger would not be accorded ordinarily. He returned her salutation:

"Good evening, señorita. I am Mr. Haskell, an engineer sent from the United States to this hacienda, where letters of instruction await me. My preliminary instructions came by telegram; I have no letters, nor do I know for whom to inquire, save some member of the family Calderon y Ortegas."

"I am Ortegas y Escalendon, señor," she said with an added touch of hauteur. Knowing the custom of a husband's following his own name with that of his wife, this told him that she was a niece, on the maternal side, of the family Calderon y Ortegas. In the recesses of the house somewhere there was a low murmur of hushed voices. The girl saw that Haskell heard them, and a little flush crept into her cheeks while a quick change came over her as she looked at him standing embarrassed and uncertain before her.

"My uncle and his sons are absent from the plantation, senor, but I bid you welcome; pray believe our house is yours."

She accompanied this many-centuries'-old conventional formula with a fleeting smile which seemed to say that though she had been sent to greet him and show him that he was unwelcome she meant to receive him regardless of all considerations. Haskell felt a warm impulse of gratitude toward her, for at the words there was a note of impatience and displeasure in the hushed voices, and then silence.

Twice she clapped her little palms together, and the servant who had admitted him reappeared, took the horses and guide in charge after laying off Haskell's bags, and a sullen old Maya woman, who had been lurking under the arches, led him away to a chamber that opened on the gallery directly at the spot where the unknown knife-wielder must have stood at the time of the delivery of the second blow. Haskell swept the shadowed spots with cautious eyes but, once within the chamber, seeing the spotlessly white pallet, the little gilt shrine, the great earthen bathing-vessel brimming with water, he breathed a sigh of relief, for he was weary from his long journey and here before him were the means to the ends of physical comfort and cleanliness at least. He stepped to the door to close it and place the heavy bar across it when the old servant had backed out. He saw that the girl was still standing on the stair.

"At the senor's pleasure will he attend in the dining-hall?" she said in her low, sweet voice that carried clearly across the broad patio.

On his acknowledgment she turned and walked slowly away toward the gate, where the shadows swallowed her. The grace with which she moved, the exquisite lines of her arms and throat caused Haskell to exclaim to himself, but nevertheless, when he had bathed and replaced his riding-clothes with white military ducks, he drew across his chest the civilian holster designed to carry the heavy pistol under the left arm and examined the weapon carefully before he put it in its resting-place.

There was a knock at the door. Cautiously he opened it, to find, a porter with a much-stamped and counter-stamped envelope addressed to him in care of Sr. Don Felipe Ramon Batista Calderon y Ortegas. He ripped it open. The firm's draft for five thousand and his letter of instructions, dictated by Peters himself:

Dear Haskell: You are permanently to supplant McIrnery in this work and are expected to carry it through to success. I am sending my nephew, John Peters, Jr., who has just finished in Berlin, to join you and I expect you to break him in. If he does not show the proper fitness, give me time enough to get another man to you and ship him back without compunction. I am sending him to the hot country to get him out of the way of one of Trainsby's girls as much as anything.

I regret to be unable to inform you in detail of your new work. McIrnery had it in hand direct from the men of the syndicate who investigated it and he is in no condition to transmit his information. However, I trust you to get along without it. Two or three months ago the syndicate acquired from Sr. Don Juan Rafelo Calderon y Ortegas the rights to all the hardwood on lands of the extreme southern part of the family estate on a royalty basis, and you are to estimate the extent of it, select the means of getting it to tide-water, prepare the specifications for the needed plant, order the same through us and install the needed equipment. When it is in operation it will be time to consider placing the work in 1 charge of a superintendent.

Now, my dear Haskell, I have given you no child's task in this mahogany garden, as Embrie calls it, and I have been opposed sufficiently in my selecting so young a man as you, despite the efficiency you displayed in Telluride and the Copper River Valley, to be more than anxious that you should allow nothing to interfere with your making a sweeping success, both for my own sake and yours. Remember that every problem you face is yours, not mine. I wish you unbounded good fortune. Yours cordially,

John J. Peters.

"And the first dash out of the box some one tries to behead me, and a pretty girl treats me as if the murder would have been justifiable!" said Haskell, puzzling over the strangeness of his reception where nothing that had gone before had conveyed any hint of unpleasantness.

CHAPTER II
DON FELIPE RETURNS

WHEN he stepped forth to the gallery he stopped a moment, scrutinized every shadow, listened for every sound and then strode along toward the stair, keeping well away from the doorways that opened on the arched passageway. The sight of a servant bearing a covered dish into a lighted doorway guided him and he followed into a spacious chamber to the right of the head of the stair.

In the center stood a great table of dark wood roughly polished and evidently hacienda made. Around it were many chairs, also of hand workmanship. The walls were bare, and on the tiled floor were some simple bright-colored mats. In heavy silver candelabra burned a number of candles, lighting the table and the earthen bowls of fruit, fresh cheese and cold fowl grouped about one end, with some bottles of liquors and an olla, on the porous sides of which showed the exuding water, the evaporation of which rendered cold the water within. The servant stood aside, steeped in the awkwardness of unaccustomed service, and the door at the farther end of the apartment opened and four women entered, one a massive woman of fifty in an unstayed black silk gown, heavy old gold bracelets and chain, and with bare feet and broad sandals; two younger women, unmistakably her daughters though of a distinctly mestizo or part Indian type, clad in the simple Maya tunics with a ribbon or bit of jewelry to give a touch of finery; and lastly the girl who had received him.

With concealed interest and amusement Haskell noted that in greeting him the mother executed something resembling the courtesy of the Empire, the first daughter used the Maya straight-backed, cross-legged bow and the other faltered between the two. Plainly he read the story of the situation in its minor points. Knowing the habitual seclusion of their women by the rural gentlemen of Spanish-American lands, he saw that this appearance was prompted largely by curiosity which could be indulged in the absence of the lords and masters of the casa. He had no doubt that before him stood Senora Calderon y Ortegas and her two daughters, and he marveled at the difference between them and the niece. By reason of the hour he felt sure they had eaten the last meal of the day and appeared again to see what he was like under pretense of keeping him company at his meal.

Haskell noted that the niece did not raise her eyes, though her cheeks were flushed as if with anger and she took her place at the table as if in sufferance only. This nettled him and relieved his own embarrassment. With what savoir faire his age, experience 736 Adventure and understanding of Latin peoples permitted he took the situation in hand and led the talk to matters of the outside world, the things of which secluded women dream hungry dreams. His reward was speedy, and the stages of the change that came over them were interesting to watch. From a stiff dignity that had a strong undercurrent of dislike and enmity, they passed to a slight interest, then a frank curiosity, then questions and naive comment ending in open good-humor.

Through it all the niece sat silent and for the most part with averted eyes. Plainly she had been rebuked for her welcome to Haskell and was very resentful. Physically fortified by his excellent meal and a glass of satisfactory claret, Haskell talked on until he made the fatal mistake of a reference to his mission. A swift cloud crossed the elder woman's dark brow, the girls dropped their eyes and fell silent, and there was a little impatient movement on the part of the niece that told him he had blundered. In a moment, they rose and, bidding him an almost curt goodnight, left the room.

TAKING one of the candles, the servant lighted Haskell to his door and was backing out with his "Buenas noches, buenas noches, señor," when Haskell called him back.

"See here, muchacho, do you know what this is?"

"Twenty pesetas, señor," answered the man, looking at the coins.

"Well, I want you to take this and to underst...

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