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The Kidnapped President By Guy Boothby Characters: 19737

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


I suppose to every man, at some period in his life, there comes some adventure upon which, in after life, he is destined to look back with a feeling that is very near akin to astonishment. Somebody has said that adventures are to the adventurous. In my case I must confess that I do not see how the remark applies. I was certainly fourteen years at sea, but in all that time, beyond having once fallen overboard in Table Bay, and, of course, the great business of which it is the purpose of this book to tell you, I cannot remember any circumstance that I could dignify with the title of an adventure. The sailor's calling in these times of giant steamships is so vastly different from what it was in the old days of sailing ships and long voyages that, with the most ordinary luck, a man might work his way up the ratlines from apprentice to skipper with little less danger than would be met with in a London merchant's office. Though I was not aware of it, however, I was destined to have an adventure, stirring enough to satisfy the most daring, before my seafaring life came to an end.

How well I remember the day on which I was appointed fourth officer of the ocean liner Pernambuco, running from London to South America. I should here remark that I held a second officer's certificate, but I was, nevertheless, glad enough to take what I could get, in the hope of being able to work my way up to something better. It was not a bad rise, when all was said and done, to leave a ramshackle old tub of a tramp for the comparatively luxurious life of a mail boat; much jollier merely to run out to the Argentine and back, instead of dodging at a snail's pace from port to port all round the world. Then again there was the question of society. It was pleasanter in every respect to have pretty girls to flirt with on deck, and to sit beside one at meals, than to have no one to talk to save a captain who was in an intoxicated state five days out of seven, a grumpy old chief mate, and a Scotch engineer, who could recite anything Burns ever wrote, backwards or forwards, as you might choose to ask him for it. When I had been six months on board the Pernambuco, I was made third officer; at the end of the year I signed my name on the pay-sheet as second. Eventually I got my Master's Certificate, and became chief officer. Now everybody knows, or ought to know, that the duties of chief officer on board a big liner, and, for the matter of that, on any other boat, are as onerous as they are varied. In the first place, he is the chief executive officer of the ship, and is held responsible, not only for its appearance, but also for the proper working of the crew. It is a position that requires consummate tact. He must know when to see things and when not to see them, must be able to please the passengers, and yet protect the interests of his owners, must, and this is not the least important fact, be able to keep his men constantly employed, yet not earn for himself the reputation of being too hard a task-master. Finally, he has to see that all the credit for what he does is not appropriated by himself, but goes to increase the kudos of his commanding officer. If the latter is a gentleman, and can appreciate his officers' endeavours at their real value, matters will in all probability go smoothly; on the other hand, however, if the captain is a bully, then the chief officer is likely to wish himself elsewhere, or at least that he was the holder of some other rank. This was my case on my last and most memorable voyage in the service of a particular Company that every one knows, but which, for various reasons, shall be nameless.

I had never met Captain Harveston until he joined us in dock on the day previous to sailing, but I had heard some scarcely complimentary remarks about him from men who had sailed with him. I must confess, therefore, that I was prepared to dislike him. In appearance he was as unlike a sailor as a man could well be, was a great dandy in his dress, and evidently looked upon himself as an undoubted lady-killer. So far as I was concerned, he had hardly set foot on the vessel before he commenced finding fault. A ship in dock, before the passengers come aboard, and while the thousand and one preparations are being made for a voyage, is seldom an example of tidiness. Surely a skipper, who had been at sea for thirty years, must have realized this; for some reason, however, best known to himself, it pleased Captain Harveston to inaugurate our acquaintance by telling me that he liked a "spic and span ship," and that he judged his officers by what he saw of their work.

"You shall have nothing to complain of as soon as I get the workmen out, sir," I replied, a bit nettled at being called over the coals upon such a trumpery matter.

"I trust I shall not," he answered superciliously, and then strutted down the bridge to his own cabin, which was just abaft the chart-room.

As it turned out, the Isle of Wight was scarcely astern before the trouble began. Young Herberts, our second officer, was the first to get a wigging, and Harrison, the fourth, quickly followed suit. I felt sure my time would not be long in coming, and I was not wrong. On the second day out, and during my watch below, I was talking to the purser in his cabin, when the fourth officer appeared to inform me that the captain wished to see me on the promenade deck. Thither I made my way, to find him seated there with a number of lady passengers round him.

"Surely he is not going to be nasty before these ladies," I said to myself as I approached him.

I discovered, however, that this was exactly what he was going to do.

"Mr. Helmsworth," he began, "I am told that you have refused the passengers the use of the bull-board."

"Indeed, sir, I have not," I replied. "I informed one of the gentlemen who spoke to me about it that I would have it brought up directly we were clear of the Channel. As a rule we never produce it until we're out of the Bay. I had Captain Pomeroy's instructions to that effect."

"I am captain of this vessel now," he returned. "Please see that the board is brought on deck at once. I must ask you for the future to do all that lies in your power to promote the pleasure of the passengers. It is a duty I have a right to expect of my officers."

"Very good, sir," I answered and walked away.

From that day forward I saw that my service under Captain Harveston was likely to be a short one, and, indeed, by the time we reached Buenos Ayres, I felt as if I could throw up my appointment altogether. He was never satisfied, never pleased, and did nothing but grumble and find fault from morning until night.

After the usual fortnight's stay at the capital of the Argentine, we commenced our homeward voyage. Our first port of call was Rio, where Harveston and the third officer came to loggerheads. By this time the whole ship's company had taken his measure, and I fancy he must have known it. Being of a petty disposition, he attributed this to me, and accordingly laid himself out to make my life aboard as disagreeable as it was possible for him to do. How bitterly I regretted the loss of my old skipper, who had been kindness and consideration itself, I must leave you to imagine.

And now I must turn from a narration of my own misfortunes during that miserable voyage to give you a description of a man, whose personality is destined to play such an important part in my narrative. He joined us at Rio, and was one of the last passengers to come aboard. He was a Spaniard, and, as could be seen at a glance, a well-bred one at that. He called himself Don Guzman de Silvestre. He was very tall; I should say some inches over six feet, with the darkest of dark eyes and hair, aquiline features, and a small pointed beard, that he had a habit of stroking when thinking. Taken altogether, a more romantic personality could scarcely be imagined, and as he came up the gangway, I told myself that he was the best figure of a man I had seen for some considerable time. When he asked me at what hour we should sail, I noticed that he spoke English perfectly, and in a musical voice that was very pleasant to listen to. Before we had been many days at sea, he and I had had several talks upon all sorts of subjects, considerably to Captain Harveston's annoyance, for the latter did not approve of his officers being on anything like friendly terms with the passengers. Having no desire to quarrel with my chief, I endeavoured, as far as possible, to keep out of his way, but for some reason this only had the effect of incensing him more against me.

We were a full ship on the homeward voyage, and, as we generally did a lot of painting between Barbadoes and Madeira, I found my time pretty well taken up. It was in connection with this painting that the climax came. We had left the West Indies behind us, and at the time were steering a straight course for Madeira. The men, when the incident I am about to describe happened, were at work on the port rails of the promenade deck. One of them, who had been outside the rail, climbed over, pot in hand, to obey an order I had given him. At the moment that he did so, the long Atlantic swell caused the vessel to give a big roll, and before he could save himself, he was flying across the deck towards a chair in which a lady was seated. They came into violent collision, with the result that the pot of white paint was deposited in her lap. I hastened to her assistance, and did all that was possible at the moment to remedy the mishap. Fortunately for the man, who was overcome by the magnitude of the catastrophe, she took the accident in excellent part.

"You must not blame the man," she said to me. "It was not his fault. I shall have to sue the ocean for damages."

Then with a laugh she went below to change her atti

re.

As ill luck would have it, just after she had disappeared, the skipper emerged from the companion, and saw the splashes of paint.

"What's the meaning of this, sir?" he asked, turning on me angrily.

"One of the men met with an accident, sir," I replied. "The roll of the ship caused him to upset the paint-pot."

"You should not put that class of fellow to do such work," he returned, oblivious to the fact that he was committing the unpardonable sin of admonishing an officer before the men. "You seem to have no discrimination at all, Mr. Helmsworth."

With that he walked away, leaving me to chew my cud of humiliation in silence. After luncheon I received an order to go to the captain's cabin. I could see that I was in for more trouble, but could not guess what. One thing was very evident; he was in a towering rage.

"How is it, Mr. Helmsworth," he began, when I had entered the cabin and had closed the door, "that you deliberately kept things from me this morning that it was your duty to tell me?"

"I am not aware that I have kept anything back from you, sir," I replied, as civilly as I knew how, for I had no desire to lose my temper. "If it is with regard to the tiller of the port quarter boat--"

"It has nothing whatever to do with the port quarter boat," he answered savagely. "I want to know how it was that you did not tell me about that lady's dress being spoilt this morning. You should have reported the matter to me. Had it not been for my steward, I should have known nothing whatsoever about it."

"I did not think it worth while to trouble you with it, sir," I replied. "It was a pure accident, and Miss Burgess forgave the man, and admitted that he was not to blame."

"Accident or no accident," he retorted, "you should have informed me of the circumstance. I consider you sadly wanting in your duty, Mr. Helmsworth. Of late, your manner has been most disrespectful to me, and I tell you to your face, sir, that your ship is a disgrace to any chief officer."

"I am sorry you should say that," I answered, endeavouring to keep my temper; "I have always had the reputation of turning my ship out well. If you will point out anything that is wrong, I will at once have it rectified."

"Don't bandy words with me, sir," he stormed. "I am not used to it from my officers. I repeat that your ship is a disgrace to any chief officer, and I shall take care that the matter is duly reported to the Board as soon as we reach London."

"Perhaps you will be good enough to tell me what you consider wrong, sir?"

"Everything," he answered. "I thought yesterday I pointed out to you a hole in the after awning."

"You did, sir, and it has been repaired. I put the sail-maker on to it at once."

He rose from his chair with a look of triumph on his face.

"Kindly step aft with me," he said, "and let us examine it for ourselves."

Feeling confident that what I had said was correct, I gladly accompanied him, but to my horror, when we reached the place in question, there was the rent gaping at us without a stitch in it.

"I regret exceedingly that you should consider it necessary to cover your negligence by telling me what is not true," he said in a voice so loud that some of the second-class passengers could hear it.

This was more than I could swallow.

"I'll not be called a liar by you, Captain Harveston, or by any man living," I retorted, feeling that I would have given something to have been able to have knocked him down. "If you will send for the sail-maker, he will inform you that I gave him orders to do it this morning. It is no fault of mine that he has neglected his duty."

"It is the fault of no one else, sir," returned the captain. "If you kept the men up to their work, this would not have been left undone. I shall be careful to enter this occurrence in the log-book."

So saying he stalked majestically away, and I went in search of the sail-maker. The man, it appeared, had intended doing the work, but had been called away to something else, and had forgotten it. After that, I returned to my own cabin, and sat down to think the matter over. There could be no sort of doubt that I was in an exceedingly unenviable position. I could quite see that if Harveston reported me, the Board would be likely to believe his version of the story, and even if they did not consider me quite as negligent as he was endeavouring to make me, they would probably argue that I was not all I might be, on the basis that there can be no smoke without fire. Whatever else might be said, a reputation for slovenliness and untruthfulness would be scarcely likely to help me in my career. From that day forward matters went from bad to worse. It seemed impossible for me to do right, however hard I might try. What was more annoying, I began to feel that, not content with disliking me himself, the captain was endeavouring to set the passengers against me also.

During the run across the Atlantic I had, as I have said, several long talks with Don Guzman de Silvestre. The man interested me immensely. What his profession was I could not ascertain, but from numberless little remarks he let fall, I gathered that he was the possessor of considerable wealth. Certainly he had seen a variety of strange life. Were it not that he narrated his adventures with an air of truth that left no room for doubt, it would have been impossible to have believed him. He had seen fighting in Mexico, in Nicaragua, in Brazil, and with Balmaceda in Chili.

"I suppose in South America there will be Revolutions until the end of Time," I remarked one evening, as we sat talking together in my cabin.

"I should say it is more than likely," he answered, taking his cigar from his mouth and holding it between his long, slim fingers. "If you take specimens of all the most excitable races in the world and graft them on stock even more excitable than themselves, what can you expect? In such countries Might must always be Right, and the weakest will go to the wall."

"I shouldn't care much about being President in that description of place," I returned. "It's a case of being in power and popular to-day, unpopular and assassinated to-morrow."

"There is certainly a large amount of risk in this," the Don replied meditatively. "And yet men are always to be found desirous of taking up the reins of government."

I could not help wondering whether he had ever felt the ambition he spoke of.

"I remember meeting a man in Paris some years ago," he continued after a few moments' silence, "who was what one might call a world's vagabond. He had been a soldier in French Africa, a shearer in Australia, a miner at the Cape, a stockbroker in New York, and several other things. When I met him, he was, as I have said, in Paris, and practically starving. He could speak half the languages of the world well enough to be thought a native, was absolutely fearless; indeed, taken altogether he was about as devil-may-care a sort of fellow as I had ever met in my life. Three years later he was Dictator of one of the South American Republics we have been speaking of."

"And where is he now?"

"At the end of six months another man came upon the scene, won the favour of the Standing Army, and began to make trouble for those in power, with the result that my friend had to vacate his office, also the country, at remarkably short notice. Some day he will go back and endeavour to unseat the individual who supplanted him. The latter gained his place by treachery, but if he is not careful he will lose it by something else."

"Your friend is a man who does not forget an injury then?" I remarked, with a well-defined suspicion that he was speaking of himself.

"I rather fancy he is," he replied. "At any rate, I am quite certain he is not one who forgives."

Then he changed the conversation by inquiring how long I had been at sea, and what countries I had visited. With some of them he professed to be acquainted.

"It is rather impertinent of me to say so," he said, looking round to see that there was no one near the door, "but I am afraid you and your captain are not on the best of terms."

"I am sorry to say that we are not," I answered, and stopped there, for I had no desire to discuss the matter with him.

"You hold a Master's Certificate, do you not?" he inquired.

I answered in the affirmative, and once more he was silent.

"I suppose you would have no objection to shipping as captain," he went on after a long pause, "if the opportunity ever presented itself?"

"Most certainly I should not," I replied, with a laugh. "I fear, however, it will be some time before I shall have such an opportunity."

"In this line, perhaps," he said, "but I suppose, if you had an offer from another firm, you would accept it?"

"I should feel very much inclined to do so," I said, wondering at the same time what he was driving at.

"Are you married?"

"No," I replied, "but I hope to be as soon as I can afford it. So far as I can see, however, that event, like the captainship, is a long way off. The good old days when skippers made money are past, and now-a-days, what with entertaining and one thing and another, it's as much as a man can do to make both ends meet. Sometimes I'm afraid they don't meet at all. I wish some kind friend would come along and offer me a comfortable shore billet on anything like pay-it would do him good to see me jump at it."

"That may come yet," he replied, and then he rose and bade me good-night.

A few evenings later, and as we were approaching the English Channel, he again spoke to me on the subject. His persistent recurrence to it gave me a feeling that there was something behind it all. But what that something was I had no sort of idea. I was destined to find out, however, even sooner than I imagined.

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