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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Kidnapped President By Guy Boothby Characters: 21516

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


On seeing me Don Guzman sprang to his feet and held out his hand.

"My dear friend," he cried, "it is very good of you to come here. I called at your house this afternoon, to learn that you were in London, but that you were expected back this evening. Doubtless you are surprised at seeing me, but when I tell you everything, I fancy your wonderment will cease. Won't you sit down and let me offer you a cigar? A more delightful spot than your village I have never met with."

I accepted his cigar, and seated myself in the wicker chair he pushed forward for my accommodation. What he was doing in our quiet neighbourhood I could not for the life of me imagine. But when I remembered the questions he had put to me on board the Pernambuco, I began to feel my hopes rising. It would be a stroke of luck indeed if he were to offer me a good berth, just at the moment when I needed it so badly.

"And so our mutual acquaintance, Captain Harveston, played you a shabby trick after all?" he remarked after a short pause.

"He could not very well have done me a greater injury," I replied. "What is worse, I fear he has not only lost me my berth, but that he has prejudiced other owners against me. Did the ship strike you as being in a badly-kept condition when you were on board?"

"I never saw one better managed in my life," he answered. "At the same time I must confess that I am not sorry that Harveston has got you your discharge."

"As matters stand with me just now, that's not a particularly civil thing to say, is it?" I inquired with some asperity, for, if the truth must be confessed, I was not in a very good humour.

"My friend, I mean it in all kindness," he answered, "and presently I will tell you why. Do you remember that story I told you on board, about my acquaintance who had played the vagabond all over the world?"

"The man who was President of one of the Republics of South America?" I inquired.

"Exactly, the same man."

"I recollect the story perfectly," I replied. "But what makes you speak of that man?"

"Well, what I am going to say to you concerns that man. He has a very strong notion that if he could only get his rival out of the country in question, he might manage to win his way back to his old position."

"But will the other allow himself to be enticed out of the country? That seems to me to be the question. Besides, it's one of the rules of the game, is it not, that the President shall never cross the Border?"

"That is certainly so, but circumstances alter cases. In this affair, if the man cannot be induced to go out of his own free-will, others must make him do so."

"Rather a risky concern, I should fancy."

"Everything in this world possesses some element of risk," he replied, "whether it is a question of buying Mexican Rails or English Consols, backing a racehorse, or going a long railway journey. In this affair there is a little more than usual, perhaps; at the same time the reward is great."

"On the other hand, supposing you fail," I returned, "what then? You would probably find yourself, in a remarkably short space of time, standing against a wall, with your eyes bandaged, and half-a-dozen rifles preparing to pump lead into you. Have you taken that fact into your calculations?"

"I have not omitted to think of it," he replied gravely, as if it were a point worthy of consideration. "Still, that is not what I am concerned about just at present."

"But what have I to do with this?" I inquired, for, though it seems wonderful now that I should not have thought of it, I had not the very faintest notion of what he was driving at then.

"If you like, you can have a good deal to do with it," he answered, blowing a cloud of smoke into the air, and bestowing an approving glance at his exquisitely made boots. "I think when I had the pleasure of meeting you on board the Pernambuco, you told me that you were engaged to be married?"

"I certainly am engaged," I answered, "but when I shall be able to get married is another and a very different matter. I've lost my position, and with it has gone my hope of soon being made a skipper. I can't very well risk matrimony on the pay of a third officer of a grain boat, can I?"

"I should say that it would hardly be prudent," he answered. "May I ask what capital you would require to start married life upon?"

"I should be perfectly happy if I had three hundred a year," I replied. "I'm not a man with big notions, and I fancy that sum would meet our wants."

"Capitalized at three per cent., shall we say ten thousand pounds? You are certainly not of a grasping nature, Mr. Helmsworth!"

"It would be all the same if I were," I answered. "At the present moment I stand as much chance of getting ten thousand pounds as I do of getting a million."

"I am not quite so sure of that," he said, speaking very slowly. Then he looked at me out of half-closed eyes, and eventually added: "What if I were in a position to put in your way the sum you want?"

I stared at him in surprise. Then I grew distrustful. Experience has taught me that our fellow-man does not pay away ten thousand pounds unless he is very certain of getting a good return for his generosity.

"I should be inclined to think that you were jesting with me," I replied, when I had recovered from the astonishment his remark had caused me.

"No, no; don't say that," he answered. "I assure you I am not jesting at all. I very rarely do so. I say definitely that it is in my power to put that sum of money in your way. That is, of course, provided you care to earn it."

"How am I to do that? That may make all the difference."

"Oh, you needn't look so scared," he returned; "the matter is a very simple one. All I require in exchange for the ten thousand pounds is your co-operation in a certain political act."

"Ah, I understand," I replied, as the truth dawned upon me. "The ex-President of the South American Republic, whom you call your friend, is in reality yourself, and you want me to help you get back your position. Is that not so?"

He nodded.

"Yes," he answered, "and I pay you the compliment of saying that I think you are just the man to bring that result about. I have not arrived at this decision haphazard. I watched you very closely on board the Pernambuco, and I have made inquiries about you since. It is a piece of my usual good fortune that you should happen to be disengaged at this particular time. Had you not been, I should have made you an offer, in the hope of having been able to induce you to leave the Company's service, and to join me. That would have been unfortunate, and it might very probably have given rise to suspicion, and suspicion is the one thing of all others I am naturally anxious to avoid. In England they do not appreciate the subtleties of South American politics, and in consequence they are apt to look at things in a wrong light. Would you have any objection to assisting me to regain my former position?"

"It all depends upon what you want me to do," I replied. "I have had no experience in such affairs, and am afraid I should make a poor conspirator."

"There is no need for you to be a conspirator at all," he said, with one of his quiet laughs, "that is to say, not in the sense you mean. All I am going to ask of you is the exercise of a little diplomacy, and some of that nautical skill which I am so well aware you possess."

"In other words, you want me to assist in the deportation of your rival from the country, whose chief he at present is."

"You've hit the mark exactly," he returned. "That is just what I want you to do, and it is for this that I am willing to pay the sum of ten thousand pounds, which will enable you to marry the girl of your heart. Now let me hear what you think."

"I scarcely know what answer to give you," I replied. "I have never dreamt that I should be asked such a question. It is all so unexpected."

"Is there not an English saying to the effect that it is the unexpected always happens?" he inquired. "I want to have your decision as quickly as possible, for the reason that, if you don't like the thought of taking on the work, I must find somebody else who does. I think I know your character as well as any man can do, and I am certain I can trust you."

I thanked him for the compliment he paid me, and then informed him that, before I could give him a definite answer, I must hear more of his scheme.

"I am afraid it would take rather too long to tell you just now," he replied, when he had consulted his watch. "Won't you dine with me? We could talk the matter over more thoroughly afterwards. I suppose the landlady can give us some sort of a meal?"

As it was the evening on which Molly had her choir practice, and I knew that I should not see her until ten o'clock, I accepted his invitation, on the condition that I should be allowed to go home first in order to acquaint my mother of my intention. He agreed to this, and I thereupon left him and went off on my errand. As I walked down the quiet little street, I thought of the curious proposal the Don had made to me. It seemed almost impossible that I, quiet Dick Helmsworth, should be asked to undertake the abduction of a South American President. So far, I knew next to nothing of Don Guzman's scheme; but I had a very fair idea of the risk I should be called upon to run. Ten thousand pounds was a very large sum; but would it be large enough to compensate me for what I should have to undergo, should my attempt prove unsuccessful, and I find myself in captivity? Then there was another question. What would Molly say when she heard of it? Would she approve, or should I refrain from telling her anything about it? This was a point I felt that demanded most earnest consideration. Entering the house, I informed my mother of the invitation I had received to dine with Don Guzman.

"It will do you good, my boy," she said instantly. "You want a little cheering up after the troubles you have had lately. Who is the gentleman?"

I informed her that I had met him on my last voyage, that he was a Spaniard, and also that he was presumably very wealthy.

"I have only known one Spaniard in my life," the old lady continued, "and I cannot say that I liked him. Your father did not consider him trustworthy. But there, your gentleman may be quite a different sort of person."

On my way back to the inn I pondered over my mother's words. She had all an old Englishwoman's innate distrust of foreigners; but her innocent little remark had set my imagination working. What if Don Guzman should be hoodwinking me, and that there was more behind his offer than I imagined? I then and there made up my mind not to take a step forward u

ntil I should be thoroughly convinced as to his bona fides.

On reaching the inn, I was informed by Mrs. Newman that the Don, or the foreign gentleman, as she styled him, was awaiting me in the coffee-room. Thither I repaired, to discover the table laid and my host standing at the window looking out upon the garden. He received me with much politeness, and we presently sat down to our meal together. During its progress nothing was said regarding the scheme we had discussed an hour before. The Don did the honours of the table with the greatest courtesy, and in numerous little ways showed me that whatever else he might be, he was certainly a keen judge of Human Character. As I have already remarked, he had travelled in well-nigh every country, and if his own accounts were to be believed, he had met with some strange people, and some still stranger adventures.

Our meal at an end, he proposed that we should go for a stroll, and to this I assented. We accordingly left the inn, and walked down the main street past the ancient village church, until we came to the stone bridge that spans the river. It was a glorious evening; the sunset had been a brilliant one, and the last faint tints still lingered in the sky. Under the bridge the river stole noiselessly on its way to the sea; the swallows darted up and down its glassy surface as if they were resolved to make the most of the waning daylight; while, soft and low, from across the meadow came the music of the church organ, where Molly was instructing her boys in the music for the coming Sunday. It was an evening I shall remember as long as I can recollect anything, if only because of the strange events which might almost be said to have dated from it.

"I hope you have been favourably considering my scheme," said Don Guzman, when we had seated ourselves on the stone balustrading of the bridge, and I was idly dropping stones into the stream below.

"Yes, I've certainly given the matter my consideration," I replied, "but I want to hear something more of your plans, and to know exactly what will be required of me, before I shall be able to give you a definite decision. Remember, beyond the mere fact that you want to get this man out of the country, I know nothing whatsoever of the business."

"I promised you an explanation, and you shall have it," he said. "Of course, before I begin, I can rely upon your treating the matter as strictly confidential, can I not? You can see for yourself the position I should be placed in were you not to do so."

"Most assuredly," I replied. "I pledge you my word that whatever you may say to me regarding this matter shall go no further."

"In that case I will begin. First and foremost, let me inform you that the country in question is the Republic of Equinata. As doubtless you are aware, it is a most prosperous and fruitful one; indeed, I know of no other that I like so well. I lived some of the most pleasant years of my life there, and should in all probability be residing there now if it were not for the treachery of the man whom I thought to be my friend, who became my adviser, and eventually ended in ousting me from my position and assuming the reins of Government himself. The name of that man is Manuel Fernandez; he is about fifty years of age, of iron physique, and I will do him the credit of saying, of indomitable courage. His subjects do not love him, but they fear him, which is much more to the point. Whether I was loved or not I am unable to state, but the fact remains that a large number of the population are most anxious that I should return to them to take up my former position. This I am very anxious to do, but I do not see how I am to accomplish it unless the present President is out of the way. Doubtless I could enter the country by stealth, and sow the seeds of another Revolution, which might, or might not, be successful. But there would always be the danger of Fernandez discovering my whereabouts and putting me out of the way. Now, my idea is this, if we could only manage to get him out of the country, I could return, rally my friends about me, prove his flight, and proclaim myself Dictator. That done, even should he return in the end, I should be prepared for him."

"But how do you propose to get him out of the country?"

"That's exactly what I want you to manage," he answered. "With the plan I have in my mind, and a little care, it should not be a difficult matter. This is my scheme. Lying at a certain port on the Florida coast is a large steam-yacht, of upwards of a thousand tons. She is the property of an old friend and sympathizer of mine in the United States. He has offered to lend her to me for the purpose in hand. Now, if you are willing to assist me, you might go out to the West Indies, join her at Barbadoes, and board her in the capacity of a rich Englishman. You steam away to Equinata, and go ashore, in order to study the customs of her people. Most naturally you would call upon the President to pay your respects. You are invited to call again, in the end you strike up a friendship, then one evening he dines with you on board, or perhaps you meet him somewhere, and then-well, I will leave the rest to your imagination."

Here he looked at me meaningly, and I gathered what his thoughts were.

"And what is to happen to him then?"

"After that you steam away to a certain small island the name of which I will give you, land him, and place him with some people who will take charge of him until such a time as shall be agreed upon. It should not be a difficult matter, should it?"

"No, as you put it, it is simplicity itself," I replied; "but what about the officers and men of the yacht? How will you prevent them from talking? And, what is more, will they assist in the scheme?"

"They will be most carefully chosen for the work," the other replied. "You need have no fear that they will give trouble. Now what do you say?"

"I do not know what answer to make. Supposing I am caught? What would happen then?"

"You will stand a very good chance of being shot offhand," he answered; "but that, of course, is your own risk. It will depend entirely upon how you go to work."

"It would be running a terrible risk," I answered. "I have the girl I am going to marry to think of."

"If you succeed, you will be able to marry her on your return to England," he replied. "Surely that counts for something."

"It counts for everything," I replied. "That's the temptation; if it were not for that, I'd have nothing to do with it. I must have time, however, to consider the matter."

"By all means," he answered, "but don't be any longer than you can help. As I said a few minutes ago, if you don't care about undertaking it, I must find some one else. Time presses."

"In case I do take it on, when will it be necessary for me to start?" I asked.

"The sooner the better," he replied. "If you can see your way to doing so, I should like you to leave by next week's mail boat for Barbadoes, where the yacht will meet you."

"Will it satisfy you if I give you my answer to-morrow morning?" I asked.

"Yes, to-morrow morning will suit me admirably," he answered. "And if you decide in the affirmative, my cheque for five thousand pounds shall be handed you at once, and the remainder on the day you deliver the President to the representative whom I shall appoint. Do you consider that proposition a fair one?"

"Very fair indeed," I replied. "I could not wish for anything more so."

Then we strolled back along the road until we reached the lych-gate of the churchyard. Here I bade him good-night, and he continued his walk. On my part, I made my way into the church, and seated myself in one of the pews until the practice should be finished. From where I sat I could catch a glimpse of my darling's pretty figure at the organ in the chancel, the light from the two candles on either side illumining her face. When the practice was at an end, she dismissed her boys and came down to join me. Then, bidding the old verger a good-night, we made our way home together. She inquired how I had enjoyed my dinner, and what my friend had had to say to me. This put me in rather a dilemma, for, of course, having given my word, I could say nothing to her regarding the subject of our conversation. I explained, however, that he had come down to consult me on some important business connected with Central America, and that he had proposed that I should go over and transact it for him.

"He, at least, must have great faith in your ability then, Dick," said my sweetheart. "I am prepared to like him, even though he does monopolize your society. I know you will transact the business beautifully, and then perhaps it may lead to something really good for you." She paused for a moment, and then added a little nervously, "When will you have to start?"

"Next week, if I go at all," I replied; "but I have not yet decided whether or not I shall accept his offer."

"You must act as your own judgment dictates," she continued. "I know that whatever you decide to do will be right."

All things considered, I was not quite so certain of this myself, and for a moment I was tempted to declare I would have nothing whatsoever to do with it. But the money and the knowledge that it would mean a wife and happiness for me, if I succeeded, was a temptation I could not resist.

As may be imagined, I did not sleep very much that night, but tumbled and tossed upon my bed, turning the momentous question over and over in my mind in maddening reiteration. There was one side of it that was unpleasantly suggestive. I had to remember that, if I were caught, no power on earth could save me. My own Government would certainly not interfere in such a matter, while Don Guzman would, far from taking any responsibility, in all probability, repudiate entirely any connection with me and the affair. Then, from this, back I came again in the circle of argument to the one absorbing question of the money. Five thousand down, and five thousand when I handed over the President. It would be a fortune to me. If I had it, I need never go to sea again, and Molly would be my--

"Yes, by Jove," I said to myself as I sprang from my bed, "I'll do it! Come what may, I'll do it, and chance the risk."

Having arrived at this resolve, I had my tub, ate my breakfast, and after I had smoked a meditative pipe in the garden, and had given the matter a bit more consideration, set off for the inn where Don Guzman was staying. He had only just risen, and was about to begin his breakfast when I entered the room.

"Well," he said, as we shook hands, "what news have you for me?"

"I have come to accept your proposal," I said.

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