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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Kidnapped President By Guy Boothby Characters: 22294

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


So long as I may live I shall never forget the ball at which I was present that night. The scene was gay beyond description. All the Rank and Fashion of La Gloria, and one might almost say of Equinata, were assembled there. When the dancing had been in progress for some time, the President and the Se?orita Dolores put in an appearance and were received by the committee to the strains of the National Air. I must confess that Fernandez made a most imposing figure, with his broad ribbon of the Order of La Gloria, and his wealth of foreign decorations. As for his companion, it would be difficult for a mere male mortal to find words in which to describe the picture she presented. As soon as it was permissible I crossed the room to her and humbly asked her for a dance. She was graciously pleased to give me one, and presently we found ourselves circling round the room together to the music of a long swinging waltz, excellently played. Afterwards I escorted her from the ball-room into the balcony. It was a lovely night, and so still, that in the pauses of the music the sound of the waves upon the beach could be distinctly heard, though more than a mile away. I procured my companion's mantilla for her, with which she draped her head and neck, with characteristic grace. Never, I am inclined to believe, had she looked lovelier than she did at that moment, and when she leant upon the balustrading of the balcony, and looked across the city towards the mountains, behind which the moon was rising, I vowed that I had never beheld a fairer picture. Few men could have stood beside her then and not have felt the fascination of her presence.

"Se?or Trevelyan," she said meditatively, in a voice that was as low and musical as the deep notes of a guitar, "what a strange thing is life! You and I stand here together now. Out of the infinite you hold my attention for minutes that never can be recalled. Later we shall separate, and then you will go your way, and I shall go mine. In all probability we shall never meet again-yet through Eternity our destinies will be linked, like the strands of a rope, by the remembrance of a few minutes' conversation on a certain moonlight night in Equinata."

I must confess that this sudden seriousness on her part puzzled me considerably. A moment before she had been all gaiety, a few seconds later she was gravity personified. The change was so instantaneous that I found it difficult to follow her.

"I am afraid I must be very obtuse," I stammered, "but I cannot say that I have quite caught your meaning."

"I am not sure that I know it myself," she replied. "The beauty of the night has taken hold of me. The rising of the moon always has a curious effect upon me. I am afraid you will think me very absurd, but people say I have a strange way of looking at things. I was thinking of our life. Consider for a moment how much we are governed by Chance. We meet some one we like, some one whom we believe might prove a good friend if ever occasion should arise. He, or she, crosses our path, tarries perhaps for a moment with us, and then vanishes, never to be seen by us again."

"But we have the consolation of recollection left us," I replied, more impressed than ever by her curious mood. "Every day we put away impressions in memory's store-house-mental photographs, may I call them-which will conjure up the Past for us in fifty years' time if need be. Think of the impression I am receiving at this moment. It will never be effaced. The scent of the orange blossoms, the glorious moonlight, the music of the ball-room yonder, and you leaning upon the balustrading looking down upon the sleeping city. The picture will still be with me even though I have the misfortune to be many thousand miles from La Gloria. In fifty years' time I may be in an English village, in a Chinese seaport, or on the South African Karroo; then the shimmer of the moonlight on a leaf-a chance strain of music-even a piece of black lace, like that of your mantilla-will be sufficient to bring the whole scene before my mind's eye. In a flash I shall be transported to this balcony, and you will be standing beside me once more."

It seemed to me that she gave a little shiver as I said this.

"If your mental photographs are to be so vivid," she continued, "what a sorry figure I shall cut in them, if through all time I continue to talk as I have been doing to-night." Then changing her manner, she went on, "I fear you will soon grow tired of Equinata."

"That could never be," I replied. "I only wish it were in my power to stay longer."

"When do you think it will be necessary for you to leave?" she inquired, as if the question were one of the utmost importance.

"It is difficult to say," I answered. "I am afraid, however, it will not be many more days. I have received information concerning some rather important business that may possibly necessitate my leaving for Europe almost immediately."

"I am sorry to hear that," she said meditatively. "We had looked forward to enjoying the pleasure of your society for some time to come."

She spoke as if I were an old friend whom she feared to lose. Had a stranger been present, he or she would have found it difficult to believe that a fortnight before we had never set eyes on each other. There are many men in the world who, had they been in my place, would doubtless have been charmed, and perhaps more than charmed, by the interest she displayed in my doings. She was a vastly pretty woman, dangerously pretty in fact, but even her tender interest in my affairs was not sufficient to shake my equilibrium. Ten minutes or so later we returned to the ball-room, and I surrendered her to the partner who came to claim her. Having done so, I was walking towards the further end of the room, when the President accosted me. He was in a most affable mood, and was evidently disposed for a chat.

"You do not appear to be dancing very much, Se?or Trevelyan," he said, dropping into English, as was his wont when we were alone together. "Is it possible you feel inclined for a cigar?"

"I am more than inclined," I replied, "I am pining for one. I never was much of a dancing man. The hard sort of life I have been compelled to lead has not permitted me much opportunity for practising that graceful art."

The words had no sooner escaped my lips than I realized what a slip I had made. So far as he was aware, I was, to all intents and purposes, a rich young Englishman, and should be without a care in the world. It would therefore seem to him strange that I should not have had much chance of perfecting my knowledge of the terpsichorean art.

"I mean to say," I went on, as we made our way across the grand lobby to the smoking-room, "that after I left school, I was for some time abroad, and-well, the fact of the matter is, I never laid myself out very much for ladies' society."

"I think I understand," he replied gravely. "Like myself, you prefer to look for your amusements in other directions. Your passion for the sea I can quite appreciate, but I think, were I in your place, I should prefer a somewhat larger craft than your yacht. A mail-boat, for instance, such as the Pernambuco-or the Amantillado would come somewhat nearer the mark."

There was nothing remarkable in what he said, and his voice never for a second rose above its customary pitch. Nevertheless, I looked at him in overwhelming astonishment. It seemed to me his words were spoken with a deliberate intent, and were meant to have a definite value placed upon them. It was not the first time I had had the impression forced upon me, and it was not a pleasant one, I can assure you, that he had become aware of the real reason for my presence in Equinata. I hastened to abandon the subject of the sea, and directed the conversation into another channel. The result, however, was very much the same. We thereupon discussed the possibilities of a European war, which at that moment seemed not improbable.

"Power," he returned, à propos of a remark of mine, "is in my opinion precisely a question of temperament. Your London crowd is well trained and will stand what would drive a Neapolitan or a French mob to violence. Such speeches are delivered in your parks on Sundays as would prove in these latitudes as intoxicating as brandy. I have known a Revolution started by an ill-timed jest, a city wrecked, and a thousand lives lost in consequence. Talking of Revolutions, have you ever had the misfortune to be called upon to take part in one?"

Once more my suspicions were aroused.

"Good gracious, no!" I cried. "What makes you ask me such a question? Do I look like the sort of person who would be likely to have to do with such affairs?"

He glanced at me for a moment over the top of the cigar which he had taken from his mouth and was holding between his long slim fingers, as if to enjoy the beautiful aroma.

"I was merely venturing an inquiry," he continued, in the same quiet fashion as before. "If you have not, you should try the experiment. Believe me, there is a very fair amount of excitement to be got out of it, particularly if you have not the good fortune to be on the winning side. You have met Don Guzman de Silvestre, of course?"

"Don Guzman de who?" I asked, as if I had not quite caught the name.

"My predecessor," the President replied. "I thought that probably you might have come across him in your travels. He knocks about the Continent a good deal, and I am told he is well known at the various ports at which the mail-boats touch."

The situation was momentarily getting beyond me. I felt that I could not stand much more of it. He had referred to the Pernambuco, and had recommended me to try my hand at a Revolution; he had mentioned Don Guzman de Silvestre, and now he was speaking of the ports at which the South American mail-boats call, and implying that I was familiar with them. What did it all mean? Was it only a matter of chance, or was he aware of my identity, and only biding his time to rise and upset all my calculations? I think you will agree with me in saying that it was not a pleasant position for a man to be placed in!

"I remember," he went on, "on one occasion smoking a cigar with Don Guzman de Silvestre in this very balcony-he was sitting exactly where you are now. Though he thought I was not aware of it, I happened to know that he was at that time hatching a plot that he hoped would upset my calculations, turn me out of my palace, and make him President in my stead. He had been laying his plans for months, and was quite sure that they would succeed!"

"And the result?"

"The result was that it failed. If he had not managed to escape when he did, I am afraid his life would have paid the forfeit. In spite of the advice I gave you just now, interference in Revolutions in Equinata is not an amusement I should recommend to every one."

"I trust I may never be called upon to try it," I replied fervently.

"I hope you will not," he returned, without looking at me. "It's an unprofitable speculation unless you are certain of your cards. The stronge

st, of course, wins, and the loser generally goes to the wall."

I thought I understood to what wall he referred.

A few moments' silence followed his last speech. The President was the first to break it by referring to what he hoped would be the future of his country. It was evident that he firmly believed in it and its capabilities. Then, rising from his chair, he bade me "good-night" with an abruptness that was almost disconcerting.

When he had gone, and I had finished my cigar, I returned to the ball-room in time to meet the Presidential party as they were leaving.

"Good-night, Se?or Trevelyan," said the se?orita. "The Little Sisters are indebted to you for your most generous contribution. In their name I thank you."

"And I am equally indebted to them for the pleasure I have been permitted to enjoy this evening," I replied.

She bowed to me, and passed on, on her uncle's arm, towards the entrance. When they had departed I obtained my hat and cloak, and in my turn left the building. During the last ten minutes my spirits had been dropping down and down until they reached zero. Never since I had consented to Don Guzman's plan had my business in Equinata seemed so hazardous or indeed so despicable to me. I felt that I would have given anything never to have set eyes on my tempter, or to have listened to his invidious proposal. However, I am not going to moralize. I've my story to tell, and tell it I must, and in as few words as possible.

When I left the Opera House, the moon was sailing in a cloudless sky, and, in consequence, the streets were almost as light as day. It was a little after midnight, and I had not ordered the boat to meet me at the wharf until one o'clock. I had therefore plenty of time at my disposal. As I passed out of the Great Square and entered the Calle de San Pedro, the cathedral clock chimed the quarter past the hour. I strolled leisurely along, so that it was half-past by the time I reached the wharf. Then I lighted another cigar, and, seating myself on a stone block, prepared to await the arrival of the boat. I had perhaps been seated there ten minutes, when, suddenly, and before I could do anything to protect myself, a bag or cloth, I could not tell which, was thrown over my head, and my arms were pinioned from behind. Then a voice said in Spanish, "Lift him up, and bring him along. There's not a moment to lose." Thereupon a man took hold of my shoulders and another my legs, and I felt myself being carried along, though in what direction I could not of course tell. A few seconds later, however, I was dumped down on the wooden floor of what was evidently a cart. The crack of a whip followed, and we were off at a brisk pace somewhere-but where? The bag by this time was coming near to stifling me. It had been pulled so tight round my head that it was only with the greatest difficulty I could breathe. Eventually, I suppose, I must have lost consciousness, for I have no recollection of anything that happened until I opened my eyes to find myself lying on the floor of a small, bare room, through the grated windows of which the moonlight was streaming in. Thank goodness, the bag was gone, but my head ached consumedly, and I felt about as sick and wretched as a man could well be.

"I felt about as sick and wretched as a man could well be."

After a while I sat up, and endeavoured to puzzle out my position. Where was I? Who was it had made me prisoner? Was it a simple act of brigandage, having plunder for its motive, or had the President discovered the plot against him and ordered my arrest? Not one of the questions could I answer. In the hope of being able to solve the problem of my whereabouts, however, I got on to my feet and endeavoured to look out of the window, only to discover that it was out of my reach, and that I was too weak to draw myself up to it. I therefore seated myself on the floor once more, for the room or cell, whichever I cared to call it, was destitute of furniture, and resigned myself to my miserable thoughts.

To use a stage expression, it was a pretty market I had brought my pigs to! I had felt so confident that my errand was not known, and that I should succeed in getting safely out of the country, that I had neglected the most simple precautions, and in consequence here I was a prisoner, with the pleasing possibility ahead of me of either having my throat cut by a common murderer before the night was past, or, what was more probable, of being propped against a wall and shot by President Fernandez' soldiers at daybreak. The mere knowledge that I was still alive, and that my watch, chain, and money had not been taken from me, pointed to the fact that I was a prisoner of the State, and not of a private individual. All things considered, it would be difficult to say which would prove the worse fate.

Putting aside for the moment the question as to whose captive I was, I examined my watch, and discovered that it was just half-past one. Only an hour had elapsed since the episode on the wharf-to me, however, it seemed an Eternity. After a while, feeling stronger, I got on to my feet again, and began to pace the room. I also tried the door, only to find it locked. They had got me fast enough. So much was certain. The next time, I told myself, I crossed the threshold, it would in all probability be to be haled to a place of execution. For upwards of an hour I paced the room, calling myself a fool and idiot, and every other name I could think of, for having allowed myself to be drawn into such an affair. I recalled that quiet evening at Falstead, when the idea of the adventure had appeared so attractive to me, and, as I did so, it seemed to me I could hear Molly's gentle voice saying: "Act as you think best, dear! I know that it will be all right then." I had certainly acted on my own judgment, and here I was in consequence!

I was still thinking of Falstead when a sharp cry reached me from the yard outside, followed by a prolonged scuffling noise. Then there was a heavy fall, another, and yet another. After that all was silence once more.

"What on earth is the matter?" I asked myself. "It sounded like a struggle of some sort. Can they by any chance have captured Ferguson, and have brought him here to be my fellow-prisoner?"

A few moments later some one approached my door. A key was placed in the lock and turned, then the door opened, and a man, carrying a lantern, entered quickly, closing the door behind him. The upper half of his face was hidden by a black mask. My astonishment may be imagined when, after he had removed it, I discovered that he was none other than Don José de Herma?os.

"Hush!" he began, holding up his hand as a sign to me not to speak. "I want you to listen to what I have to say, and not to interrupt me until I have finished. In the first place, let me inform you that the President has discovered everything! While you were talking to him to-night at the ball, he knew why you were in Equinata, and, what is more, had already laid his plans to effect your arrest. The reason why he did it so secretly, and why you were not taken to the regular cartel, is because he does not want, for reasons of his own, to attract public attention just at present. I was warned in time, but was unable to communicate with you. Now, by a stratagem, we have overpowered your gaolers, and you are free!"

"But where am I?" I asked, in the same low voice.

"In the old cartel on the outskirts of the town," Herma?os replied. "Now I want you to pay attention to what I am about to say to you. There is still time to retrieve matters, if we go the proper way to work about it. The President, when he left the ball to-night-and now you will be able to understand his reasons for leaving so early-drove out to consult with General Mopaxus, who is lying ill at his house six miles distant on the road to Sarbassa. The road in question is hilly, and it will take him at least an hour to get there. We will say that he remains with the General an hour. In that case, he should not reach the Capital until four o'clock at the earliest. Word must be sent to the captain of the yacht to shift his moorings and to have a boat ashore at the little bay of Horejos at three o'clock. Horejos is three miles outside the city, and Fernandez will have to pass through the village on his way home. We must catch him at any hazard."

"How many men have you with you?"

"Seven," he replied.

"Can they be relied upon?"

"To the death! They know that their own safety depends upon getting Fernandez out of the way. Four of them he has suspected for some time past. They would prefer to shoot him, and so make sure of him, but as there are definite orders against that, they feel that the next best thing they can do is to get him out of the country. And between ourselves, that is exactly my own case."

"And what about the Guards here?"

"They are safe for the present," he answered. "But no time must be lost, for it is more than likely that at daybreak others will come to take their places."

"And how am I to communicate with Ferguson?"

He fumbled in his pocket for a moment.

"Here is a sheet of paper, an envelope, and a pencil. He knows your writing, of course. When you have written it, one of my men shall take it aboard. If he has to get steam up, there is not any too much time for him to do so. Every moment is of the utmost importance."

I forthwith pencilled a hasty note to the captain, bidding him get up steam, weigh anchor, and have a boat ashore in Horejos Bay at three o'clock, and stand by to leave Equinata at latest by four o'clock. This note I handed to Herma?os, and when I had done so, followed him from the cell.

Once outside, I found myself in a large yard, illuminated by the bright moonlight. I looked about me for the bodies of my captors, but was informed by my companion that they had been securely bound and placed in an adjoining cell. On hearing our steps, six figures appeared from the shadow of the wall. They did not speak, but at a sign from Herma?os, one went on ahead and opened the gates, whereupon two of them passed out. After an interval of some thirty seconds, two more disappeared in the same mysterious fashion, the remaining pair making themselves scarce when the same duration of time had elapsed.

"Now it is our turn," Herma?os whispered. "With the exception of the man who has gone to the yacht, each company will proceed to the rendezvous by different routes through the city. Fernandez has spies everywhere, and we must be careful that our behaviour does not attract their attention. To that end I have brought this poncho and hat for you."

I had noticed a bundle upon the ground, and had wondered what it might be. My own hat had disappeared, goodness only knows where. So placing the sombrero on my head, I pulled the poncho over my shoulders, and then we, in our turn, left the cartel.

As Herma?os had said, the lock-up was on the outskirts of the city, and the locality through which he led me was quite unknown to me.

What was the end of our adventure to be?

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