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.”