This is the story of a gallant officer who loved his profession, his regiment, his country, but above all, whiskey; of his miraculous conversion to total abstinence, and of the humble instrument that worked the miracle. At the time it was worked, a battalion of the Thirty-third Infantry had been left behind to guard the Zone, and was occupying impromptu barracks on the hill above Las Palmas. That was when Las Palmas was one of the four thousand stations along the forty miles of the Panama Railroad.
When the railroad was "reconstructed" the name of Las Palmas did not appear on the new time-table, and when this story appears Las Palmas will be eighty feet under water. So if any one wishes to dispute the miracle he will have to conduct his investigation in a diving-bell.
On this particular evening young Major Aintree, in command of the battalion, had gone up the line to Panama to dine at the Hotel Tivoli, and had dined well. To prevent his doing this a paternal government had ordered that at the Tivoli no alcoholic liquors may be sold; but only two hundred yards from the hotel, outside the zone of temperance, lies Panama and Angelina's, and during the dinner, between the Tivoli and Angelina's, the Jamaican waiter-boys ran relay races.
After the dinner, the Jamaican waiter-boys proving too slow, the dinner-party in a body adjourned to Angelina's, and when later, Major Aintree moved across the street to the night train to Las Palmas, he moved unsteadily.
Young Standish of the Canal Zone police, who, though but twenty-six, was a full corporal, was for that night on duty as "train guard," and was waiting at the rear steps of the last car. As Aintree approached the steps he saw indistinctly a boyish figure in khaki, and, mistaking it for one of his own men, he clasped the handrail for support, and halted frowning.
Observing the condition of the officer the policeman also frowned, but in deference to the uniform, slowly and with reluctance raised his hand to his sombrero. The reluctance was more apparent than the salute. It was less of a salute than an impertinence.
Partly out of regard for his rank, partly from temper, chiefly from whiskey, Aintree saw scarlet.
"When you s'lute your s'perior officer," he shouted, "you s'lute him quick. You unnerstan', you s'lute him quick! S'lute me again," he commanded, "and s'lute me damn quick."Standish remained motionless. As is the habit of policemen over all the world, his thumbs were stuck in his belt. He answered without offense, in tones matter-of-fact and calm.
"You are not my superior officer," he said.
It was the calmness that irritated Aintree. His eyes sought for the infantryman's cap and found a sombrero.
"You damned leatherneck," he began, "I'll report--""I'm not a marine, either," interrupted Standish. "I'm a policeman.
Move on," he ordered, "you're keeping these people waiting."Others of the dinner-party formed a flying wedge around Aintree and crowded him up the steps and into a seat and sat upon him.
Ten minutes later, when Standish made his rounds of the cars, Aintree saw him approaching. He had a vague recollection that he had been insulted, and by a policeman.
"You!" he called, and so loudly that all in the car turned, "I'm going to report you, going to report you for insolence. What's your name?"Looking neither at Aintree nor at the faces turned toward him, Standish replied as though Aintree had asked him what time it was.
"Standish," he said, "corporal, shield number 226, on train guard." He continued down the aisle.
"I'll remember you," Aintree shouted.
But in the hot, glaring dawn of the morning after, Aintree forgot.
It was Standish who remembered.
The men of the Zone police are hand-picked. They have been soldiers, marines, cowboys, sheriffs, "Black Hussars" of the Pennsylvania State constabulary, rough riders with Roosevelt, mounted police in Canada, irregular horse in South Africa; they form one of the best-organized, best-disciplined, most efficient, most picturesque semi-military bodies in the world. Standish joined them from the Philippine constabulary in which he had been a second lieutenant. There are several like him in the Zone police, and in England they would be called gentlemen rankers. On the Isthmus, because of his youth, his fellow policemen called Standish "Kid." And smart as each of them was, each of them admitted the Kid wore his uniform with a difference.
With him it always looked as though it had come freshly ironed from the Colon laundry; his leather leggings shone like meerschaum pipes; the brim of his sombrero rested impudently on the bridge of his nose.
"He's been an officer," they used to say in extenuation. "You can tell when he salutes. He shows the back of his hand." Secretly, they were proud of him. Standish came of a long chain of soldiers, and that the weakest link in the chain had proved to be himself was a sorrow no one else but himself could fathom. Since he was three years old he had been trained to be a soldier, as carefully, with the same singleness of purpose, as the crown prince is trained to be a king. And when, after three happy, glorious years at West Point, he was found not clever enough to pass the examinations and was dropped, he did not curse the gods and die, but began again to work his way up. He was determined he still would wear shoulder-straps.
He owed it to his ancestors. It was the tradition of his family, the one thing he wanted; it was his religion. He would get into the army even if by the side door, if only after many years of rough and patient service. He knew that some day, through his record, through the opportunity of a war, he would come into his inheritance. Meanwhile he officered his soul, disciplined his body, and daily tried to learn the lesson that he who hopes to control others must first control himself.