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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Kidnapped President By Guy Boothby Characters: 23917

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Four days later we reached England, and one of the most unpleasant voyages I have ever made was at an end. Having seen everything right on board, I left the ship. Captain Harveston had not said good-bye to me, and for this reason I did not consider it necessary that I should go out of my way to be civil to him. That the man intended doing me a mischief I felt certain, but what form his enmity would take I could only conjecture. The entry was in the log-book, and some action would be taken of it without a doubt.

From London I took the train to Salisbury, intending to walk out to my home at Falstead, one of the loveliest if not the loveliest of all the Wiltshire villages with which I am acquainted. It was delightful to think that in a few hours I should see Molly, my pretty sweetheart, again, and in her gentle company, and that of my dear old mother (my father had been dead many years), endeavour to forget for a fortnight the worries and troubles that had been my portion during the past two months. Molly, I must tell you, or Miss Mary Wharton, was a lady of much importance at Falstead. She was an orphan, and her father had been the Vicar of the hamlet for nearly fifty years. When her parents died she had received an offer of a home in London, but she could not find it in her heart to leave the place in which she had been born, so she remained on in the capacity of village schoolmistress and organist, loved by the children, consulted by the mothers, and respected by every one. My father had been the local medico, and I had known Molly all my life. We had played together as children, had received our first lessons together, had fallen in love later, and were engaged when I was twenty-three and she two years my junior.

It was nearly four o'clock when I reached Salisbury and started on my five miles' tramp to the village. My luggage I left to be brought on next day by the carrier, taking with me a small hand-bag containing sufficient for my immediate needs. I can remember the time when those five miles had seemed to me the longest walking in all the world; now, however, after so many weeks of sea, the green lanes, varied with open stretches of down, were beautiful beyond compare. Every turn of the road brought to light some spot of interest. I crossed the old stone bridge at the entrance to the village, and noted the place where I had caught my first trout, and further on, as I passed a certain stile, upon which hundreds of initials had been carved, recalled the fact that it was there I had fought Nathaniel Burse, the village bully, and, unlike the heroes of most romances, had received a sound drubbing for my pains.

About a quarter of a mile from my mother's cottage I overtook the worthy Vicar, who, as he informed me, had been to pay a visit to a farm on the Downs.

"Let me be the first to offer you a hearty welcome home," he said. "You seem to have been away for a shorter time than ever this voyage."

"It has certainly not seemed so to me," I answered, and with a considerable amount of truth. "I am the more glad to be back. How is the village?"

"By the village, I suppose you mean Miss Wharton, do you not?" said the old fellow with a chuckle. "She is wonderfully well, and I fancy is looking forward to your return. Your mother keeps well also, I saw her yesterday."

We walked on together until I could see ahead of us the little ivy-covered house in which I had been born. At the gate I bade the kindly old gentleman good-bye and entered, to be received on the threshold by Molly and my mother. For the next few minutes I had to submit, and I will leave you to imagine whether I did so willingly or not, to such a kissing and hugging as the average man seldom receives. Then I was escorted to the little drawing-room and given my favourite chair, while Molly made tea and my mother sat beside me and affectionately stroked my hand. Could you have seen Molly at that moment, you would have declared her to be the true picture of an English woman.

As you have probably observed by this time, I am not much of a hand at describing people, but I must endeavour to give you some idea of what my sweetheart was like. In the first place she was tall, possibly five feet nine inches. Her eyes were blue, and her hair a rich nut-brown. On the day of my arrival she was dressed in white, with a white belt round her shapely waist; while on the third finger of her left hand was the ring I had bought for her at Salisbury after our engagement was announced. Even now, though ten years have elapsed, I can feel the joy of that home-coming. I sat sipping my tea, and eating slice after slice of real Wiltshire bread-and-butter in a whirl of enchantment. Of course Molly remained to supper with us, and if afterwards we went for a stroll down the shadowy lanes as far as Bellam Woods, where you can stand on the hill and look down the valley to Salisbury, five miles away, who shall blame us?

The next three days were about as happy, so far as I am concerned, as a man could wish to spend. Fortunately it was holiday time with Molly, and in consequence she and I were inseparable from morning until night. We fished together, went for long walks together, and on the third day I borrowed the Vicar's pony-cart and drove her into Salisbury. Alas! however, that day was destined to end in very different fashion to what it had begun. Having returned the pony-cart to the vicarage, we strolled home together. My mother's maid-of-all-work had brought in the letters that had arrived by evening mail, and on the little table in the hall was one addressed to me. I turned it over, to discover upon the back of the envelope the monogram of the Company-my employers. With a heart full of forebodings I opened it. It was very brief, and read as follows-

"Dear Sir,

"I am desired by the Chairman to inform you that the Board will be glad if you will make it convenient to be present at their meeting on Friday next at three o'clock.

"I am,

"Yours very truly,

J. Hopkinson, Secretary."

"What does it mean, Dick?" Molly asked. "Why do they want to see you? I think it is very unkind of them to spoil your holiday by taking you away when you only have such a short time at home."

"I am afraid it means trouble," I answered. "Captain Harveston and I did not get on very well together, and I expect he has been making complaints against me at head-quarters. He threatened to do so."

"Then he is a very unjust man," said my sweetheart, her eyes flashing. "And I should like to tell him so!"

That the letter worried me a good deal I am not going to deny. My bread-and-butter depended upon the Company's good opinion, and if I lost that I should certainly lose my position too. On the appointed day I bade my dear ones farewell, walked into Salisbury, and caught the train to London, reaching the Company's offices, which were in Leadenhall Street, about a quarter of an hour before the meeting was due to take place. A liveried porter showed me into the waiting-room, where I remained for something like twenty minutes, kicking my heels impatiently, and wondering what the end of the business would be. Then the door opened and the Secretary entered.

"The Board will see you now, Mr. Helmsworth," he said, and I accordingly followed him to the room in which the meetings of the Company took place. There I discovered a full Meeting. The Chairman was seated at the head of the table-a dignified, portly personage-while on either side of him were ranged the Directors, who I could see regarded me with some curiosity as I entered.

"Mr. Helmsworth," said the Chairman, after the Secretary had returned to his place, "we have requested your presence to-day in order to inform you that Captain Harveston has felt it his duty to make a serious complaint to us of your conduct during the voyage which has just ended. To be candid, he charges you with general neglect of duty, of insulting conduct towards himself, and, I regret to add, of untruthfulness. We thought it better that you should have an opportunity of hearing these charges, and giving you a chance of defending yourself, should you care to do so. It is needless for me to add how much the Board regrets that such a report should have been made against you. What have you to say?"

"All I can say, sir," I replied, advancing to the bottom of the table, and taking up my position there, "is that the report has not a word of truth in it. It is a malicious invention on the part of Captain Harveston, and, if he were here, I should tell him so."

"Come, come, Mr. Helmsworth, you must not talk like that," said the Chairman; "Captain Harveston has been a long time in our service, and we have never known him act unjustly to any one. Would it not be better to admit that there is some truth in what he says, and then to leave it to the clemency of the Board, to deal with as they may consider fair?"

"I am afraid, sir," I replied, "with all due respect to yourself and the Board, that I cannot submit to being declared neglectful of my duties, or allow myself to be called untruthful when I know the charge to be unjust. For some reason, I cannot say what, Captain Harveston took a dislike to me before the voyage commenced, and this report is the outcome of that dislike."

I then proceeded to explain what had happened; pointed out that while the dock workmen were engaged upon the ship, and she was of necessity in an untidy condition, Captain Harveston had complained of her lack of orderliness. I referred to the paint incident, and commented upon the fact that he had charged me with concealing what had happened from him. With regard to the ship being in an untidy state throughout the voyage, I stated that I was prepared to bring witnesses to prove that she was as perfect as it was possible for a ship to be. If a little of the gloss had worn off by the time we reached the Thames, I explained that it was due to the fact that we had experienced very rough weather in the Bay and also coming up Channel. The charge of untruthfulness I dismissed as being both petty and absurd. Towards the end of my remarks I had some difficulty in restraining my temper, for I could see that the Board was still inclined to side with the captain against me. Perhaps my manner was not submissive enough to please them. At any rate when they asked me to withdraw for a few minutes while they discussed the matter, I began to feel that my case was, so far as they were concerned, a hopeless one. After ten minutes' absence I was recalled.

"Mr. Helmsworth," the Chairman began in his dignified way, polishing his glasses with his pocket-handkerchief as he spoke, "we have most carefully gone into the matter, and have arrived at the conclusion that, taking into consideration the length of time you have been in the Company's service, and the fact that there have never been any complaints against you hitherto, we should be justified in permitting you an opportunity of retrieving any little error you may have committed. If, therefore, you will agree to apologize to Captain Harveston, and will promise to do your best in the future, I may say on behalf of the Board, that we are prepared to allow this most painful matter to drop."

This was more than I had bargained for. I had at least hoped that they would have given orders that I should be confronted with my accuser, and that I should be allowed to call witnesses in my own defence.

"With all due respect, gentlemen," I said, with perhaps more freedom than I should have used, "I cannot submit to such a thing. Captain Harveston has brought these charges against me for some reason best known to himself. It seems to me, if only in common fairness, that he should be called upon to prove them, and if he is unable to do so, to apologize to me for the wrong he has done me. I declare most emphatically that I am innocent, and, if you will allow me, I will pro

ve it. I am sure my brother officers will be able to convince you as to my ability, and to the state of the ship. The Dock Superintendent should also be able to do the same."

"Unfortunately the Dock Superintendent has confirmed the captain's opinion," said the Chairman.

To my chagrin, I remembered then that the Dock Superintendent and I had had a quarrel some years before, and also that he was a great friend of the captain's. It was not likely, therefore, that he would side with me.

"If the Dock Superintendent says that, I suppose I must submit," I answered. "Nevertheless, I contend that neither he nor Captain Harveston is speaking the truth."

"Dear me, dear me," said one of the Directors, "this is really not the sort of behaviour to which we are accustomed. Why not take the Chairman's advice, Mr. Helmsworth, and apologize to your captain? I am quite sure that he would bear no malice to you, and the matter could then be amicably settled."

This had the same effect upon me as the waving of a red flag is said to have upon an angry bull.

"I shall certainly not apologize," I answered. "Captain Harveston is in the wrong, and I refuse to have anything more to do with him."

"In that case, I am afraid the consequences will be serious," said the Chairman. "We should be loath to lose your services, Mr. Helmsworth, particularly after your long service, but unless you apologize to Captain Harveston, we have no other course open to us."

"I shall not do that," I returned, "and in case of my dismissal I assure you I shall immediately take what proceedings the law allows me, in order to prove that I have been slandered most grossly."

The Board stared at me in amazement. Was it possible, they were doubtless asking themselves, that a miserable chief officer dared to beard them in this fashion?

"What proceedings you take against Captain Harveston are no concern of ours, after you have quitted our employment," said the Chairman, "but if you will be well advised, you will think twice before you invoke the assistance of the law."

"I am to understand, therefore," I said, "that I am dismissed."

"No, no," the Chairman replied; "we will not go as far as that, we will call it a resignation."

"Allow me then to wish you good-day, gentlemen," I said, and bowing I walked out of the room. "You will, doubtless, hear from me later."

"A pretty market I have brought my pigs to," I said to myself, as I walked down Leadenhall Street, after leaving the offices of the Company. "Poor little Molly, this will be a sad blow to her. It looks as if my marriage is now further off than ever."

How little I guessed then that the interview I had just had, had brought it closer than if the trouble with Harveston had never occurred. Acting on the resolve I had made while waiting for the Board's decision, I made my way in the direction of High Holborn. The old lawyer who had conducted what little legal business my father had required, and who had arranged my mother's affairs after his death, had an office in one of the curious old Inns of Court in that neighbourhood. I determined to lay the case before him and to act according to the advice he gave me. On reaching the office I had the satisfaction of finding him at home. The clerk, who received me, was as old as his employer, and I believe had served him for upwards of forty years. His memory for faces must have been a good one, for he recognized me at once, although several years had elapsed since I had last called upon him.

"Mr. Winzor is in his office, Mr. Helmsworth," he said, "and, if you will be good enough to wait for a moment, I will place your name before him." He disappeared, and presently returned and requested me to follow him.

The old lawyer received me most cordially and invited me to take a seat. He asked after my mother's health, then took a pinch of snuff, looked at me fixedly, and then took another. After this he inquired in what way he could serve me. I thereupon placed the case before him.

"This is a matter," he said, after a pause of about a minute, "that will require very careful consideration. It is plain that the captain in question is a vindictive man. His reason for being so bitter against you is difficult to understand, but we have the best of evidence before us that it does exist. It's one thing, however, to be unjustly treated, and quite another to go to law about it. In a somewhat lengthy career, it has always been my endeavour to impress one thing upon my clients-Don't go to law if you can possibly avoid it. Doubtless were you to take the case into court we could produce sufficient evidence from your brother officers and the petty officers of the ship to prove that you did your duty, and also that you were a conscientious officer. But, even supposing you won the day, how would you stand?"

"I should have reinstated my character," I replied somewhat sharply, for the old man's manner grated upon me.

"And apart from the question of character, how much better off would you be?" he asked. "The fact of your calling the officers of the ship would put the Company to a considerable amount of inconvenience and expense, which they would naturally resent. It would also have the effect of putting them in an antagonistic attitude towards yourself, which, at present, they do not appear anxious to take up. The case would attract some attention, the various shipping companies would read it, and, should you apply to them for a position, I fear you would find them averse to taking an officer who, you must forgive my plain speaking, was ready to invoke the aid of the law to settle his disputes with his captain and his employers. Do you see my contention?"

"Yes, I see it," I replied; "but, surely, you don't mean to say that I am to have this injustice done me and say nothing about it?"

"I am afraid I do not see what else to advise you to do," he replied. "I think you have been badly treated, but, upon my word, though if I were in your place I should doubtless feel as you do, I should drop the matter, and, to quote a familiar Stock Exchange expression, 'cut the losses.'"

This was not at all what I had expected, and boiling over as I was, the advice he gave me was most unpalatable. He must have seen this, for he tapped me gently on the arm.

"Master Richard," he said, as if he were talking to a school-boy, "I am an old man and you are a young one. Youth is proverbially hot-headed, while Age is apt to stand off, and looks at things from afar. I pledge you my word that, in giving you this advice, I am acting as I deem best for your welfare. There is an old saying to the effect that 'there are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it,' and I fancy the same remark can be made to apply to the vessels sailing upon that sea. Now will you leave the matter in my hands?"

"Most willingly," I replied, "provided I am not going to continue to be suspected of being a malingerer and a liar."

"Sir Alexander Godfrey, the Chairman of the Company," he went on, "is a personal friend of my own, and if you will allow me, I will make a point of calling upon him to-morrow in order to have a chat with him upon the subject. I cannot promise, but I think I shall be able to induce him to persuade his brother Directors to either look over the matter, or at any rate to make sure that you leave the Company's service without any stain upon your character."

"But to do that I must be proved innocent."

The old man smiled a crafty smile.

"When you are as old as I am," he said, "you will have discovered that there are ways and ways of doing things. Leave it to me to arrange and I fancy you will be satisfied with the result."

"Let it be so, then," I replied.

"I am not a vain man," he said, "but I will say that I do not think you could do better. Now tell me how the pretty Miss Molly is."

"She is very well indeed," I replied, "but I fancy this news will be a disappointment to her."

"Not a bit of it," he answered. "It's just at such times as these that the real woman comes out. Egad! you youngsters think you understand women, but, bless my heart, you don't! And now you just trot back to Wiltshire, and give my kindest remembrances to your mother, and, well, if you like, you can give a kiss to Miss Molly for me. Tell her not to bother herself; that I will see you out of this affair all right. I am very glad, my lad, that you came to me. When you are in trouble I hope you will always do so. Your father and I were old friends, and-well, I am not going to say anything further, but I'll tell you this; if I had met your mother before your father did--"

He stopped suddenly and tapped his snuff-box upon the table, then he rose from his chair, shook me by the hand, and told me he would write me immediately he had anything of importance to tell me.

I took this as a signal for dismissal, and thanking him for his advice, left him. Twenty minutes later I caught the three o'clock express at Waterloo, and in something under two hours was back in Wiltshire once more.

Molly met me half-way out of Salisbury, and her loving sympathy cheered me more than anything else could have done.

"Don't be miserable about it," she said, when I had told her everything; "there are plenty of ships in the world, and lots of owners who will value your services more than this Company seems to have done. Remember, I believe in you with my whole heart, dear, and if it is decreed that we are not to be married for some time to come, then we must wait with all patience until that happy day shall dawn. When you've had a little more holiday, you can begin to look about you for something else."

Could any man have wished for a braver sweetheart? Alas! however, matters were not destined at first to turn out as happily as she had prophesied. I applied to firm after firm, but my efforts in every case were entirely unsuccessful. At last I began to think that if my luck did not mend very soon, I should have to pocket my pride and ship as second or third officer, hoping by perseverance and hard work to get back to my old position later on. This eventually I decided to do, but even then I was not successful. The only line which could offer me anything was in the Russian grain trade, and the best berth they had vacant was that of third officer. As may be supposed, this was a bit of a come-down for my pride, and before accepting it, for I had run up to London to interview the firm in question, I returned to Falstead to talk it over with my sweetheart. On my reaching home my mother greeted me with an air of importance.

"A gentleman has been to see you this afternoon," she said, "a tall, handsome man. He did not leave his name, but he said you would probably remember him, as he had met you on board the Pernambuco. He is staying at the George, and is most anxious to see you."

"I met a good many people on board the Pernambuco," I said a little bitterly. "A lot of them were tall and handsome. I wonder who he can be?"

She shook her head.

"You say that he is staying at the George," I continued. "Very well, when I have had my tea, I will go down and find out who he is."

In due course I reached the little inn at the end of the village street. The proprietress, old Mrs. Newman, had known me since I was so high, and upon my entering her carefully-sanded parlour, she bustled out of her little room at the back to greet me. I inquired whether she had a strange gentleman staying in the house, and she answered in the affirmative.

"He is smoking a cigar in the bower at the end of the garden," she answered. "If you want to see him you will find him there."

I knew the place in question, and, passing through the house, made my way down the garden towards the little summer-house in question. Seated in it, looking just the same as when I had last seen him, was the Spaniard, Don Guzman de Silvestre.

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