The Steam-Shovel Man/Chapter 9

 

CHAPTER IX
A PARENT'S ANXIOUS PILGRIMAGE


For the present Walter Goodwin may safely be left on board the sea-going tug Dauntless in charge of the faithful Jack Devlin and the admiring marines. Some attention should be paid to the parents and the sister whom he had left behind in Wolverton. Their affairs may seem very prosaic after the crowded experiences of the only son by land and sea, but nevertheless they deserve to be accounted for.

As the waiting days wore on, the house seemed to echo with loneliness. Walter had filled it with lusty clatter and activity, and the very disorder he had always left in his wake was an intimate part of the family life. There was a jubilee when his first letter arrived from the Isthmus, telling them of a safe voyage and of finding employment on the very day he landed. Because the thoughtful youth made no mention of the dynamite ship, the household became more cheerful and less anxious. Walter was the most wonderful boy in the world.

Several days after this they received two letters in the same mail, which caused alarm and bewilderment. One of them had been dictated to Naughton in the Ancon hospital, the other written and signed by the impulsive Jack Devlin. They told the news of Walter's accident and this was very disturbing in itself, but, alas, the well-meaning attempt of the steam-shovel man to send solid aid and comfort by means of a money-order inspired the most alarming conjectures.

Mr. Horatio Goodwin was a man of a practical turn of mind, and he sounded the first note of misgiving when he told his wife and daughter:

"I cannot understand it at all. Walter has been hurt, but he sends us no details whatever. In this letter, which he dictated from the hospital, he tells us a great deal of interesting news about the Panama Canal, but it sounds as if it had been written by a man thoroughly familiar with the work."

"Walter is very bright—" began Eleanor.

"He never shone at English composition," sighed her mother.

"And I am quite sure he is not a trained engineer," added Mr. Goodwin. "The letter is not like Walter at all, and as for this money-order for forty dollars enclosed in the brief note from Jack Devlin——"

Mrs. Goodwin no more than half heard this speech. She was wondering whether Walter was really having good care. How dreadfully forlorn it must be in a hospital two thousand miles from home! Supposing one of those horrid mosquitoes that carry yellow-fever should fly in and bite him?

"Bless his heart!" cried she. "And we have no idea of what has happened to him. And to think of his sending money to us when I am quite sure he must need it for himself! It is just like him."

"He was probably hurt while trying to save somebody's life," quoth dewy-eyed Eleanor. "This Mr. Devlin says that poor Walter was a bit mussed up. It sounds perfectly awful, doesn't it?"

Mr. Goodwin shook his head and appeared more than ever perplexed as he reread the two letters and laid them side by side on the sitting-room table, with the mysterious money-order between them.

"You two hero-worshippers do not seem to realize what an extraordinary affair this is," said he. "In his own letter Walter makes no mention of sending money. And in the same mail comes this large remittance on account of Walter's salary, and it is enclosed by one Devlin, who seems to have no official position on the Isthmus."

"He is the steam-shovel man who filled Walter with the notion of going to the Isthmus," said Mrs. Goodwin. "Walter thought he was a splendid fellow."

"But Walter knew nothing about him. And it is out of the question that a boy like him should be given forty dollars in advance by a government department only a few days after his arrival on the Isthmus."

"Walter must have made a wonderfully fine impression," argued the doting mother. "He was worrying about us, and he asked Mr. Devlin to look after his affairs and mail some money to us."

This sounded plausible, provided one took an exceedingly rosy view of Walter's earning capacity, and as Mrs. Goodwin and Eleanor regarded it, nothing was too extraordinary to happen on the Isthmus of Panama. But after Eleanor had gone to bed Mr. Goodwin eyed the baffling money-order and lost himself in meditative silence. At length his wife reminded him:

"You have been staring at that table long enough, Horatio. And you are worrying more and more. Of course, all I can think of is that Walter is ill and needs his mother. I hope his next letter will explain everything."

"He is the only boy we have, and I wish he was at home," said Mr. Goodwin in a low voice. His shoulders sagged more than usual and his face was white and tired. The absent son was tugging at his heart-strings. Unconsciously he let his glance dwell on the shabby old easy-chair in which Walter had been wont to fling himself after supper and study his high-school text-books.

"Why, Horatio, you look as if you thought something serious might have happened to him," exclaimed his wife. "I confess that I am very low in my mind, but mothers are silly creatures. Are you very anxious?"

"You and I have never hidden anything from each other, my dear," he slowly answered. "Neither of these letters is from Walter himself. They make me feel as if we had not really heard from him. If some one had a motive for wishing us to believe that we need have no anxiety about Walter, this money might have been sent for a purpose, to keep us quiet."

"A bad motive? These letters were meant to deceive us?" quavered Mrs. Goodwin, and then she rallied to say with the most emphatic decision, "I don't care if it costs a dollar a word, Horatio, I want you to send a cable message to the hospital as soon as the office opens to-morrow morning. I would gladly sell every stick of furniture in the house to be sure of getting a reply from Walter within the next twenty-four hours, and so would you."

"That is precisely what I had decided to do," he exclaimed with an approving smile. "I indorse your ultimatum, my dear. We shall hear from Walter to-morrow, and then we'll be laughing at each other for borrowing so much trouble."

It therefore happened that before noon of the following day there was delivered to the surgeon of the accident ward a message, which read thus:


Goodwin hospital Ancon.
Cable me is all well.

Father.


The surgeon sighed as if here was a hard nut to crack. This was only the day after Walter Goodwin had vanished from the hospital, to the consternation of his friends, Devlin and Alfaro. They had hurried into Panama in search of him and no word had come back to the surgeon.

"I have no idea where Goodwin is," he said to a friend of the hospital staff. "He failed to turn up here last night, and I guess his friends couldn't find him. They were afraid he was in trouble."

"What will you do with the cablegram?"

"I think I had better hold it for two or three days before I try to answer it myself. Devlin or that impetuous young diplomat from Colombia may drift in and tell me some news. And Goodwin himself may reappear. I hate to cable the agitated parent that his son's whereabouts are unknown. It would be like looking for a needle in a hay-stack for me to try to find him in Panama."

The surgeon tucked the message in his pocket and went to join his white-clad fellows in the operating-room. He was a very busy young man, and there was no time in his crowded day to investigate the disappearance of Walter Goodwin. And inasmuch as the Dauntless and the marines had been sent to sea with very little publicity, several days passed before the story of the pursuit of the Juan Lopez reached the hospital.

Meanwhile that anxious parent, Mr. Horatio Goodwin, had found it difficult to give proper attention to his book-keeping duties in the office of the coal-dealer in Wolverton. He started nervously when any one entered the place and his eye was alert for the cap and buttons of a telegraph-messenger boy. At the end of the first day of waiting, he trudged homeward in a state of mind distraught and downcast. His wife was grievously disappointed that no word had come from Walter, but Eleanor maintained her blithe spirits. She had suddenly decided to become a sculptor and labored until bedtime over a sticky lump of modelling clay.

"This is a bust of Walter," she announced. "It looks as if his face had been stepped on, but the firmly moulded chin is quite well done, don't you think? It is comforting to look at that sculptured chin. It shows that Walter can overcome all obstacles. It helps to keep me from worrying about him."

Even this masterpiece failed to console the parents, who waited in vain through another long day. Every little while Mr. Goodwin darted from the coal-dealer's place to the telegraph office. At supper he told his wife:

"There has been no interruption in the cable service, and our message must have reached Ancon within two or three hours after I sent it."

"Walter may have left the hospital by this time," said she, "but they ought to know his address."

"Yes. The department in which he is employed should be able to locate him at once. The whereabouts of every American must be on record."

Walter's silence tortured them. Like other fathers and mothers since the beginning, they imagined all sorts of mischances which might have befallen him, just as when he had lingered after dark at the skating-pond his mother was sure he had broken through the ice. Such crosses as these the right kind of parents must bear. It is part of the price they pay. On the Isthmus of Panama Walter Goodwin might consider himself a man, but in his own home, in the hearts of his own people, he was still a boy to be watched over, to be feared for, to inspire a thousand tender anxieties of which he would never be aware.

"It will be very hard to wait for a letter from him," murmured Mrs. Goodwin. "I have tried to be brave, but——"

"You have been brave and fine," and her husband kissed her. "Perhaps I should not have let him go. I find it difficult to apply myself to my day's work. I can write to the canal authorities asking them to make a search, but we could not expect a reply before three weeks."

At breakfast next morning Eleanor, whose faith in the ability of her masterful brother to conquer in any circumstances was still unshaken, declared with the air of one who had solved a problem:

"If I were the parent of an only son who was lost, strayed, or stolen, do you know what I'd do? I should take that money-order that has made all the trouble and use it to pay my way to the Isthmus of Panama as soon as I could."

"It would take a good deal more than forty dollars," replied Mrs. Goodwin, "and your father could not leave his business."

"Very well, but father can find another position, and he can never find another son like Walter." Eleanor's eyes sparkled with determination. "We may be poor just now, but you have said a hundred times that you are rich in your two children. It seems to me that you have lost half your fortune. At least, you don't know where he is."

Mr. Horatio Goodwin made no argument. His gaze was rather absent as he sat looking at his impulsive daughter. She had echoed what was in his own mind, but he could not make it seem practicable. Mrs. Goodwin revealed what was closest to her own heart by exclaiming unsteadily:

"I was awake most of the night trying to plan this very thing, Horatio. Oh, I want you to go to Panama and bring Walter straight home with you. Why, Eleanor and I would take in washing if necessary. Is it impossible?"

"Nothing is impossible if you try hard enough," gravely affirmed Eleanor. "There is Joan of Arc, for instance. She is my favorite character in history. Just think what she went through——"

"The comparison is a little far-fetched," said Mr. Goodwin, as he looked at the clock and went into the hall to put on his overcoat. He was usually at his desk on the stroke of the clock, but now he lingered. All his days he had walked in the beaten path of habit, a methodical man unaccustomed to veering off at sudden tangents. Now he had been violently lifted from the rut and his mind was in rebellion. He had been afraid of poverty, but this anxiety was overshadowed. Mrs. Goodwin followed him into the hall. Her troubled face was so eloquent that he said:

"It is not really impossible, my dear. I could raise the money for the trip, either on my note, or by placing a small mortgage on the house."

"You need not worry about leaving us," she replied. "There is a little left in the savings-bank, and we can get along nicely."

"Oh, you blessed daddy," cried Eleanor, her arms around his neck. "When can you start? I will help mother find your summer clothes in the attic, and pack the little black trunk. You are going to the tropics, you know."

"There is no hurry, my young fly-away. Matters are not in shape to go at a moment's notice."

He was not as deliberate as his words indicated. On the way to the coal office he bought a New York newspaper and turned to the shipping advertisements. A steamer was scheduled to sail direct to Colon that very afternoon at five o'clock, and there would be no more departures for several days. Mr. Goodwin wore a hopeless air. It seemed utterly out of the question for him to take this steamer, although a train connection from Wolverton would enable him to reach the wharf by four o'clock. Unreconciled to the delay, he entered the coal office and listlessly took the ledgers and journals from the safe.

His employer, an elderly Irishman with a rough tongue and a reputation more or less ungodly, halted while passing the desk and inquired:

"What's been on your mind for the last couple o' days, Mr. Goodwin? You've been hoppin' in and out of here like a distracted flea. Anything wrong with th' strappin' lad that went sailin' off to make his forthune? Has he been forgettin' to write to ye? 'Tis the way of 'em. I raised five meself."

This solicitude was unexpected, and Mr. Goodwin stammered in surprised tones:

"Why, thank you. Yes, I am greatly concerned about Walter."

"Tell me about it," demanded the other. "Has he got himself into a scrape, or can't ye get anny word from him at all?"

The father explained matters, and the shrewd, leathery countenance of his employer expressed lively interest as he commented:

"Thim Spaniards is a queer lot. I mistrust 'em on gineral principles. One of me own boys fought agin 'em in the war, tho' he was fightin' typhoid-fever germs at Tampa durin' the whole of his enlistment. Annyhow, ye ought to go down there right away an' look after your boy. 'Tis the proper thing to do. Ye have no lads to spare."

"I hope to be able to arrange to go, but—but I expected to consult with you—" began Mr. Goodwin.

"You need not worry about your job, if that's what you're drivin' at," exclaimed the old man. "’Tis not much of a job, but it will be here when you come back. As ye know, keepin' my books is no great undertakin' an' I pay what it's worth. It would go agin me principles to pay more. Have you enough ready money to finance th' journey? I hope ye will have two fares to pay comin' back."

"Well, I haven't the funds just at present, but I may be able, in a few days, to secure——"

"Quit beatin' about the bush, Mr. Goodwin, and talk to me like a man. Are you afraid I'll bite ye? There ain't a citizen of Wolverton that stands better than you. Why will ye go messin' around and wastin' time tryin' to raise money? Will three hundred be enough? Ye'll find a way to pay me when you get on Easy Street again, and I will not burst into tears if you don't."

Mr. Goodwin fumbled for his handkerchief. He had all the symptoms of a cold in the head. His employer regarded him with an enjoyable grin and resumed:

"You don't know what to make of me separatin' meself from a dollar unless it's took from me by violence. My dear man, I'm a philanthropist in disguise, tho' I didn't know it meself until now. When does a ship sail to the place ye want to go to?"

"This afternoon. I can catch it if I go to New York at eleven o'clock," answered the dazed book-keeper.

He was grasped by the back of the neck, his hat jammed on his head, his overcoat flung at him, and as the strong arm of the coal merchant propelled him to the front door a husky voice roared in his ear:

"Trot home an' say good-by to the wife an' stop at the bank as ye dash for the train. The cash will be there. Now shoo, an' God bless ye! I have five of me own, and I would go to a hotter place than the Isthmus of Panama for anny one of them."

Mr. Horatio Goodwin ran home so fast that he lost his breath and could only paw the air and make funny noises while his dismayed wife hovered over him and was undecided whether to bathe his head in cold water or summon the family doctor. He had begun to make a feeble remark or two when that serene damsel Eleanor laboriously descended the stairs, the little black trunk bumping behind her. She showed both insight and presence of mind by exclaiming:

"He is not having a fit, mother, dear. He is in a great hurry to go to Panama, and he isn't used to running up the hill. I had an impunct that he would come home this morning, and I've been getting things ready for him."

"Is the child dreaming?" cried Mrs. Goodwin. "Horatio, what is the matter with you?"

"Eleven o'clock train—steamer this afternoon—everything arranged—straight from heaven—last man in the world to expect it from—can't understand it—" panted Mr. Goodwin, who had dropped into a chair and sat with his legs sticking out straight in front of him.

His audience waited to hear no more, but began to whisk things into the little black trunk.

"It is just like being in a drama," observed Eleanor, her cheeks as red as two roses. "I may try to write a play, for I begin to have doubts about my genius as a sculptor. Where are father's clean socks, mother? In the mending basket?"

"Do find his last summer's straw hat," commanded Mrs. Goodwin. "I am afraid Walter used it as a target and shot the crown out. Horatio, do you suppose a batch of my doughnuts would keep if I put them in a tin cake-box? Walter simply dotes on them."

"Put them in my straw hat? Nonsense!" returned Mr. Goodwin, to whom this dialogue had sounded rather confused. "Please telephone for a cab, Eleanor. I wish to have plenty of time at the station, and we can sit down there and talk things over. I was never caught in a whirlwind before and my wits seem to be considerably scattered."

Granted peace of mind, the sea voyage to the Isthmus would have been a rare vacation for Mr. Horatio Goodwin. As it was, he felt ready to risk his neck in a flying-machine to reach the journey's end as soon as possible. He found the passengers most cordial and sympathetic and every one on board took an interest in his quest.

As soon as the steamer dropped anchor in Colon harbor the captain began to make inquiries. One of the doctors from the American quarantine station, who came on board to inspect the ship's company, happened to be a friend of Naughton, the dynamite man. He had met that bland gentleman a few days before and obtained from him an unfinished story which was not calculated to reassure Mr. Goodwin.

"Indeed I have heard of young Goodwin," said the doctor. "You see, I am a base-ball crank, and I knew that he was expected to pitch for Cristobal. His first job was unloading dynamite for Naughton——"

"Unloading dynamite!" murmured the father of Walter. "Was he—was he blown up?"

"Not a bit of it. He made good. The next I heard of him he was dug out of a landslide in Culebra Cut."

"And did he survive that?" Mr. Goodwin's knees were trembling, and he sat down in a deck-chair.

"Oh, yes. It didn't damage him much, barring a badly wrenched arm which spoiled his pitching. He was in Ancon hospital——"

"Then the letters were all right. I am so relieved," and Mr. Goodwin's face beamed. "Now I can find him and——"

The quarantine doctor looked perplexed and hesitated before he replied:

"I hope so. The last time I saw Naughton he told me a most remarkable yarn. Young Goodwin had been carried to sea in a filibustering steamer by a notorious Panamanian named Quesada, who had it in for him. A government tug and a company of marines were sent in chase."

"And what then?" Mr. Goodwin had completely wilted.

"I haven't heard the end of it. The tug ought to be back by this time unless she had to run all the way to San Salvador. I'm quite sure the boy is all right. He is hard to down. I shall be glad to put you in touch with the right people as soon as you get ashore."

"This all sounds like the worst kind of a nightmare," wearily muttered Mr. Goodwin. "If I can find him I shall take him home by the first steamer."