Caper in the Caribbean
“Cabbages and Kings” is a book that’s about as close as the short story writer O. Henry came to producing a full-length novel. There are a series of episodes, but they hang together around a central theme. It was first published in 1904 and was very popular.
The scene is the city of Coralio, on the Caribbean coast of a Central American country called The Republic of Anchuria. There’s a resemblance to Honduras, a country which O. Henry visited as William Sidney Porter, when he was temporarily avoiding indictment for bank embezzlement in Texas.
A central character is Frank Goodwin, an entrepreneur member of the “Outs,” a party that is trying to replace the “Ins.” He gets a message from the nation’s capital, coded in slang, that the president of the republic has decamped with his mistress and a valise containing money from the nation’s treasury. Goodwin is warned to keep an eye out for him and confiscate the money.
Also as part of the plot is the fact that the president of the Republic Insurance Co. in New York has embezzled a large sum from the company and has left with his daughter for Anchuria, which has no extradition treaty with the United States. The company sends a detective aboard the company yacht to try to bring him back.
Goodwin learns that a man and woman have checked into Coralio’s main hotel. He confronts them. saying to the man: “You are the president of the republic, and the money in that valise belongs to the republic.” The man sighs, steps into the next room, and blows his brains out. Goodwin soon learns that the man is from the insurance company, realizes that the money in the valise is not from the national treasury, and throws the valise out the window into a neighboring orange grove, so it won’t be seized by the authorities.
Meanwhile the detective has arrived on the spot by yacht, and sees a man and woman enter a house on the beach. He says to the man: “Are you the president of the Republic?” The man admits it, in a rather Hispanic accent, whereupon the detective arrests them and takes them triumphantly back to New York. When the insurance company directors declare that he’s President Miraflores of the Republic of Anchuria, they give him back his money, apologize for the inconvenience and fire the detective for incompetence.
The suicide victim, meanwhile, is so disfigured that Goodwin is able to claim it’s Miraflores and buries him with a headstone proclaiming that name. He also, incidentally, marries the daughter.
In the book the two incidents are widely separated. The incidents that intervene contain some typical O. Henry verve. There is a derelict beachcomber who has seen Goodwin throw the valise out the hotel window. But when Goodwin buys him a drink, the beachcomber can’t continue his plot, saying: “A gentleman doesn’t blackmail a man he drinks with.”
But later he succeeds in blackmailing Goodwin, who not only gives him money, but also a shave, a new set of clothes and passage on a freighter taking a cargo of fruit to New York, plus a farewell glass of rum. The man eyes the glass hungrily, but turns away, muttering: “A gentleman doesn’t drink with the man he blackmails.”
The scene shifts to Alabama, where a young man named John DeG. Atwood, son of a prominent judge, is turned down by his girlfriend. O. Henry continues typically: “Among other accidents that year was a Democratic president. Judge Atwood was a warhorse of Democracy. Johnny persuaded him to set the wheels moving for some foreign appointment.” As a result, Johnny is named U.S. consul in Coralio. One of the first things he does is establish himself in a hammock in the consulate office. Two former consuls come to acquaint him with his duties.
“It’s all right,” said Johnny from the hammock. “If anything turns up that has to be done I’ll let you fellows do it. You can’t expect a Democrat to work during his first term of holding office.”
Whereupon one of the others says admiringly: “This man was born to hold office. He penetrates to the root of the art. The true genius of government in every word of his speech.”
The story includes a coup engineered by the Vesuvius Fruit Co., which wants to eliminate a special tax on bananas. The author approaches the Latino inhabitants with a generally sympathetic condescension, but spends most of the time describing the few white inhabitants. Johnny Atwood gets his girlfriend back, but only after a series of madcap adventures that take up several chapters.
The book’s title comes from the Lewis Carroll poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” in “Through the Looking Glass.”
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.