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The Kidnapped President By Guy Boothby Characters: 24020

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

La Gloria, the chief port and capital of the Republic of Equinata, is charmingly situated on the west side of an admirably shaped bay, and is land-locked, save for a distance of about half-a-mile. It boasts a population numbering upwards of thirty thousand, of which only some ten or twelve thousand are white, the remainder being half-castes, quadroons, mulattoes, and negroes unadulterated. The city possesses some fine buildings, notable among which is the Cathedral of San Pedro, a handsome edifice, though somewhat damaged by the earthquake of '83. The Houses of Parliament are also imposing structures, as befits a land where every man is a politician, and no boy knows what may be in store for him. There is also the President's palace, and, of course, an opera house, and equally of course a long stretch of barracks, where the soldiers would seem to spend their time smoking cigarettes and hatching plots against their superiors.

As we passed through the Heads and entered the harbour, it struck me I had never looked upon a fairer scene. The blue waters of the bay, the white houses peeping out from amid the wealth of foliage, and the mountains rising tier upon tier behind, made up as pretty a picture as the eye of man could desire to dwell upon. We had scarcely come to anchor before a boat put off to us, pulled by four stalwart niggers, and carrying a much-uniformed official, who sat beside the coxswain. He proved to be the health officer-a voluble little Spaniard, with a magnificent idea of his own importance. As soon as his boat was alongside he ran up the ladder to the gangway with the agility of a monkey, and made his way to the place where Captain Ferguson was waiting to receive him. During the years I had been in the South American trade, I had managed to pick up a considerable smattering of Spanish, enough at any rate to make myself understood by the Dons. I was not nearly so fluent with it, however, as was Ferguson, who, I soon discovered, could talk the lingo as well as any swell of Aragon. As soon as they had transacted their business, the latter brought the health officer along to the saloon whither I had descended, and where I was introduced to him as the owner of the yacht.

"You possess a most beautiful vessel, se?or," he said, bowing before me as if he would never be able to straighten his back again.

"And you a most beautiful harbour and city," I replied, resolved not to be outdone in the matter of compliments.

"Am I to believe that this can be your first visit to Equinata, se?or?" he asked as if in astonishment.

"Yes, my first," I replied in my best Trevelyan manner. "I can assure you, however, that I am charmed with it, most charmed."

"Ah, you must wait until you have been ashore," he continued, "then you will indeed be surprised. The Plaza, the Almeda, the Opera House, and the President's palace. Ah!" Here he paused and gave an airy wave of his hand as if to signify that, when I should come to view these wonders, I might indeed describe the city as being beautiful; until then, however, I could not pretend to any real notion of its glories.

"I shall be delighted to make its acquaintance," I returned, "and also to pay my respects to your most illustrious President, who, I hear, is beloved by all his people."

"Ah, the good President," said the little man, but without any great enthusiasm. "And his niece-the beautiful Se?orita Dolores. I raise my glass to the most beautiful woman in Equinata." Thereupon, with his eyes turned to the deck above, he drank solemnly to the health of the lady of whose existence I then heard for the first time.

A little more desultory conversation followed, in the course of which I managed to extract from him, in a roundabout way, a quantity of information of which I stood in need. Then the little man hoisted himself out of his chair, and with a regret born of a bottle and a half of excellent champagne, stated his intention of returning to the shore once more. Having fired another salvo of compliments at me, he carried this plan into effect, and we saw no more of him. Half-an-hour later the Harbour Master and the Chief Customs official arrived, drank more champagne, with which you may be sure I liberally plied them, smoked a number of cigars, praised their city, their country, and their excellent selves, but did nothing in the way of performing their business, and in their turn departed for the shore. Then I lunched, spent an hour in meditation in an easy-chair under the awning, and then, having ordered a boat, prepared to set off on a tour of inspection of the capital.

The landing-place at La Gloria is, or was, very similar to that of most other South American seaports. That is to say, at some distant date, harbour works on a very large scale had been commenced, but for some reason had never been completed. Possibly a Revolution may have been accountable for the stoppage of the work, or the President, or Minister of Public Works, may have decamped with the funds. At any rate all there was to show for the money voted was one substantially built wharf, the commencement of a pier, and a quantity of uncut stone, which still remained, moss-covered and weather-worn, just where the contractors had dumped it down.

I landed at the wharf, and immediately dispatched the boat back to the yacht. Trustworthy though the crew might be, I had no desire that they should hang about the sea front and talk to the inhabitants. Then, leaving the wharf, I made my way into the town.

It was a picturesque place of the true Central American type. The Calle de San Pedro, which cuts the town proper in half, is a handsome thoroughfare, and contains numerous fine shops, warehouses, and merchants' offices. Indeed, the scene in the street on that particular afternoon was a most bright and animated one, and would not have discredited Rio or Buenos Ayres. Half-a-mile or so further on the street in question enters the Great Square, in which stand the Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, the Law Courts, and, more important than all, so far as I was concerned, the President's palace. The centre is laid out as a public garden, and possesses a band-stand and many fine statues of the heroes of Equinata in impossible garbs and more impossible attitudes. Seating myself on a bench in this garden, I took careful stock of my surroundings. Opposite me was the President's palace, with a sentry lounging on either side of the gates. While I watched the latter were opened, and a handsome carriage drove in and pulled up before the massive portico of the palace. After that the gates were closed once more.

I do not mind confessing that at this point in my adventure I was at a loss to know how to proceed. I might visit the palace and inscribe my name in the visitors' book, but, so far as I could see, that would not do very much to help me. I consulted the card I had brought with me, and on which was written the name and address of the man to whom, so Silvestre had informed me at our last meeting, I was to look for assistance. His name was Don José de Herma?os, and his address was No. 13 in the Calle de San Juan. Before leaving the yacht I had taken the precaution to make myself familiar with the quarter in which the street was situated, and had ascertained that it commenced at the Houses of Parliament and ran straight through the western portion of the city, towards the foot of the mountains. I accordingly made my way thither, and having discovered it, proceeded in search of the house in which the mysterious Don José resided, or had his place of business. Greatly to my surprise it proved to be a wine merchant's shop, and I accordingly entered the little square patio and looked about me. On the left was what was evidently the office, and in it an old man, engaged on some mysterious manipulation of an empty cask. I addressed him in my best Spanish, but he took no sort of notice of me. I called to him again with the same result. Then having satisfied myself that the old fellow was deaf, I touched him on the shoulder with my stick. This had the desired effect, for he jumped quickly round and stared at me in amazement.

A more comical countenance than he possessed I don't remember ever to have seen. He was a mulatto, and, if one might judge from his appearance, some sixty years of age. He asked me in Spanish who I desired to see, and I replied to the best of my ability that I was in search of a gentleman named Herma?os. From the signs the other made I gathered that the latter was not at home. I endeavoured to question him concerning him, but the old fellow was either naturally dense, or, for some reason best known to himself, pretended not to understand. In another moment I should have left the place in despair, but, just as I was making up my mind to do so, the sound of a footstep in the patio outside attracted my attention. I turned to find myself face to face with a tall, well-proportioned stranger, with a black beard and a pair of bristling moustaches. The old mulatto forsook his task and handed the other the card I had given him. He glanced at it, then looked up from it to me, after which he politely returned it to me, saying as he did so-

"You desire to see Don Herma?os, se?or?"

"That is what has brought me here," I answered.

"You come from our neighbours across the frontier, perhaps?" he continued, still eyeing me critically.

"On the contrary, I have come by sea," I replied. "I am an Englishman, as you have doubtless already observed, and my yacht is anchored in the harbour."

"In that case permit me to welcome you most heartily to Equinata," he returned, but without any great show of enthusiasm. "Perhaps you will accompany me to my private office, where I shall be pleased indeed to be of any service I can to you."

I followed him across the patio to a door on the further side. This he opened, and when I had passed into the room, he followed my example and closed it carefully after him.

"How am I to know that you are the gentleman whom I have been led to expect?" he began, when I had seated myself and he had offered me a cigar. "As wine of that particular vintage is very difficult to obtain, you must see yourself that I have to be most careful that I do not make the mistake of giving information concerning it to the wrong person."

I thereupon took my watch from my pocket, opened the case, and took a small piece of paper-which Silvestre had also given me at our last meeting-from it. This I handed to the man before me, who read what was written upon it very carefully, and then tore it up into tiny fragments.

"I am quite satisfied," he said, "and now to arrange the matter you desire." Then, dropping his voice almost to a whisper, he continued, "Of course I recognize the fact that you would not have been chosen for the work had you not been considered a person most likely to accomplish it. Nevertheless, I feel sure that you can have but a very small notion how dangerous it is likely to prove. The man in question mistrusts everybody, and should but a breath of suspicion attach itself to you, you would be in the cartel to-night, and most probably in your grave to-morrow morning. Though my opinions have not changed in a single particular, I am not at all certain that it is wise of me to mix myself up in it. However, I don't see exactly in what way I am to get out of it."

It struck me that the latter portion of his speech was spoken more to himself than to me.

"Before we go any further, it would perhaps be as well that I should convince myself that you are Don Herma?os," I said, for so far I had had no proof of his identity.

He did not answer me, but crossed to a writing-table on the other side of the room, and, unlocking a drawer, took from it a book. Turning to a certain page, he showed me a series of portraits of the prominent politicians of Equinata. One was a likeness of himself, and underneath was printed his name in full-Don

José de Herma?os, Minister of Mines. I expressed myself as being quite satisfied.

"And now," I continued, "will you be good enough to tell me how you propose to introduce me to the Pres--"-here he held up his hand as if in expostulation-"to the individual whose acquaintance I am so anxious to make?"

"As you may suppose, I have been thinking of that," he replied, "and I have come to the conclusion that it would be better for me not to be personally concerned in it. As it is, I am not at all certain in my own mind that he looks upon me with a favourable eye. I have a friend, however, with whom he is on terms of the greatest friendship. Through this friend I will have you presented. It would be better in the meantime if you will call at the palace and inscribe your name in the visitors' book, according to custom. After that I will make it my business to see my friend, and to arrange the matter with him. From that moment, if you will permit me, I will retire from the business altogether."

"You do not care about taking the responsibility of my endeavours, I suppose?" I said.

"Exactly, se?or," he answered. "You have guessed correctly. To be quite frank with you, I am afraid of being shot. I have seen the gentleman we are discussing deal with his enemies on various occasions, and his behaviour impressed me with a desire to keep my head out of the lion's mouth."

"May I ask in what capacity you intend introducing me to your friend?" I went on. "Is it quite wise, do you think, to import a third party into the transaction?"

"There will be no third party," he answered. "There will only be my friend and yourself. As I understand the situation, you are a rich Englishman, travelling in our country. You have given me an order for some wine for your yacht, and as the leading wine merchant of the city, and having the reputation of our country at stake, I am anxious to do my best for you. I also desire, for the same reason, that you should enjoy your stay. What could be more natural than that I should introduce you to a friend who is also one of our most prominent citizens? You need not fear, se?or, that I shall be foolish enough to compromise either you or myself."

From what I had so far seen of him I could quite believe the latter portion of his remark. If all Silvestre's supporters were of the same calibre, it struck me that he would experience some little difficulty in regaining his lost position. Herma?os was certainly as rank a coward as I had met for many a long day.

"In that case, I will make my way to the palace now, and write my name in the visitors' book. But how, and when, shall I hear from you?"

"I will communicate with you to-night," he said. "I shall be sending you some wine and cigars on board, which I hope you will accept, and I will word the note that accompanies them, so that you will be able to read between the lines. It would be as well, I imagine, that we should not meet again."

From the way he said this I could see he was as anxious to get rid of me as he was to preserve his incognito. I accordingly thanked him for his assistance, and bade him farewell.

Recrossing the little patio, I passed into the street once more, and retraced my steps to the Great Square. Having reached it, I made my way through the garden to the President's palace. The sentries still slouched beside the gate as I had first seen them. So far as I could tell, their only object in life was to see how near sleep they could go without actually dozing off. Then I entered the palace grounds, and walked up the drive to the marble portico, where I entered my name in the book placed there for that purpose. I had already practised the new Trevelyan signature, and was by this time able to write it with something of a flourish. This momentous act accomplished, I left the palace and returned to the yacht, feeling that, although I had not so far made any very important headway in the conduct of my enterprise, I had at least set the machinery in motion.

Summoning Ferguson to the smoking-room, I gave him an account of all that had transpired, furnishing him at the same time with my opinion of Don José de Herma?os.

"It only bears out what I said to you the other night," he observed. "When a man dabbles in Revolutions he is apt to burn his fingers. It is very plain that this man Herma?os, to use a popular saying, has taken the length of the President's foot, and as a natural consequence he is most anxious to keep out of its way, lest he should be crushed by it. I don't know that I altogether blame him. He has calculated exactly how much he has to gain, which may not be very much, and he is also aware that if he fails, he has everything to lose."

He then proceeded to inform me that the yacht had been an object of considerable interest to many of the inhabitants of La Gloria that afternoon. It is doubtful whether such a handsome craft had ever been seen in those waters before.

"If only we can get things into proper trim ashore, they shall have an opportunity of admiring her even more than they do now, and for other reasons," I said. "We must have an At Home on board, and invite the polite society of the capital."

An hour or so before sundown, the same curious individual whom I had seen manipulating the cask in Herma?os' office, made his appearance alongside in a boat. He brought with him a case of wine and a small box wrapped in paper. I rewarded him, and dispatched him to the shore once more. Then returning to the smoking-room with the smaller parcel in my hand, I opened it to discover what I had expected I should find there, a box of cigars and a note carefully placed inside. It was not a very long epistle, and informed me that it gave the wine merchant the greatest pleasure to comply with my esteemed instructions, and to forward me a sample box of the cigars, concerning which his good friend, General Sagana, had spoken so highly. Should more be required, his agent would do himself the honour of waiting upon me on the following morning to learn my wishes. That was all!

"That means, of course, that General Sagana is the agent," I said to myself. "Well, let him come as soon as he pleases. He will find me quite ready to receive him."

Next morning I was enjoying the cool breeze under the bridge awning, when the second mate came up to inform me that a shore boat was approaching the accommodation ladder. Rising from my chair I glanced over the side to discover that what he had said was correct. A large boat pulled by six men was approaching the yacht. In the stern, seated beside the coxswain, was one of the most curious little specimens of a soldier one would be likely to find in a day's march. His height could not have exceeded five feet, but what he lacked in stature he made up in self-importance. He was attired in full uniform, even to the extent of spurs and a sword. A helmet with plumes was perched upon his head, while upwards of a dozen crosses decorated his breast. His face was small and puckered into a thousand wrinkles; his eyebrows were large, bushy, and snow-white; while a fierce moustache of the same colour curled up in corkscrew twists until it nearly touched his eyes. As soon as the boat was alongside, he ascended the ladder to the deck.

"Have I the honour of addressing the most illustrious Se?or Travillion?" he inquired, after a wrestle with the name, from which he imagined he had emerged victorious. Upon my answering in the affirmative, he made me a sweeping bow that was so irresistibly comic that I had some difficulty in restraining a smile. Then he continued-"Se?or, I have the honour to salute you, and to offer you a hearty welcome to our beautiful country. Permit me to introduce myself to you. I am General Sagana, of the army of the Republic of Equinata."

He said this with as much pride as if his name would rank in history with those of Napoleon and Wellington.

"I am deeply honoured by your visit," I replied. "Allow me to conduct you to a cool spot under the awning."

An hour later, when he left the yacht, we were on the best of terms. Moreover, I had arranged that that selfsame afternoon I should pay a visit of respect to Madame Sagana and her daughters, who, as I gathered from his words, existed only until they should have the extreme felicity of making my acquaintance.

"You must be prepared to stay with us for a long time," he cried, with a cordiality born of the best part of two bottles of Perrier-Jouet. "Ah! believe me, we shall not let you go so easily. We are hospitable, we of Equinata. Farewell, then, se?or, until we meet this afternoon."

Then he bowed once more in his best style, descended to his boat, seated himself in the stern, and bade his men row him ashore with all speed, as there was business of importance toward.

That afternoon, bearing in mind the importance of the occasion, I once more made a most careful toilet, and having done so, returned to the city. Hiring a vehicle of the cab description, I bade the driver convey me to the residence of the most illustrious General Sagana. In a whirl of dust, and accompanied by a swarm of beggar boys, we set off, and in something less than a quarter of an hour found ourselves drawn up before an elegant residence in what might have been described as the suburbs of the town. After I had paid and dismissed my charioteer, I rang the curious old bell I found hanging on the wall before me, and when it was answered, followed the servant into a charming patio, in which a fountain played, and from thence into a large and lofty room, where, to my dismay, a considerable number of people were assembled. It was fortunate for me that I am not easily abashed. Had this been the case, I should most probably have furnished the fashionable world of Equinata with a poor idea of the behaviour of an Englishman of wealth and position. At the moment of my entrance, the little General was paying considerable attention to a matronly lady who was so tightly squeezed into her chair that it seemed she would never be able to move from it again. Observing me, however, he left her, and hastened forward to greet me, after which he led me across the room to present me to his wife and daughters. The former was a small, though more wizened, edition of her husband; the latter, however, were handsome girls of the true Spanish type. Half-a-dozen other presentations followed, after which I was at liberty to make myself as agreeable as circumstances permitted and my knowledge of the Spanish language would allow. Had only the General's daughters been present, this would not have been such a very difficult matter, for the very few minutes I spent in their company were sufficient to show me that they were both past mistresses of the art of flirting. We were progressing famously, when the door opened, and the ancient man-servant who had admitted me, and who was older and even more wizened than his master or mistress, said something in a low voice to the General, who immediately hurried out of the room. A whisper ran through the company, but what its purport was I could not discover. All doubt, however, was presently set at rest when the General returned, escorting with great pomp a tall, handsome man, the possessor of a fine head and a singularly clever face. He saluted my hostess and her daughters with considerable ceremony, bowed gravely to the remainder of the company, and then looked at me, as if wondering who I could be.

"Permit me, your Excellency," said the General with one of his flourishes, "to have the honour of presenting to you Se?or Travillion from England, who, like so many others, has heard of the glories of Equinata, and has now come to our country in order that he may see them for himself."

Long before he had finished his harangue, I had realized that the man standing before me was none other than the famous President Fernandez-Silvestre's mortal enemy, and the man I was being paid to abduct.

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