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The Kidnapped President By Guy Boothby Characters: 24888

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Between ten and eleven o'clock on one never-to-be-forgotten evening, the La Belle Josephine sailed into the harbour of La Gloria, and dropped her anchor a short distance from the old coal hulk. Who that witnessed the arrival of that tiny craft imagined the important part she had played in the destiny of that small but exceedingly excitable Republic? For my part I know that as I stood on deck and watched Monsieur Maxime take her in between the heads, and scientifically bring her to her anchorage, I found myself experiencing a series of emotions, the like of which I have never before known. The President stood on my right, the Se?orita on my left, and as we watched the twinkling lights ashore, I fancy all three of us recalled the eventful morning when we had said good-bye to the town under such very different circumstances. Our arrival had evidently been signalled from the forts, for we had scarcely dropped our anchor before a hail from the bows announced the fact that the harbour-master's boat was approaching.

Most men, I suppose, have at some time of their lives a touch of the theatrical. For myself at that moment I was distinctly desirous of giving a dramatic turn to the situation. The plot of my drama is an exciting one. The President of the Republic is missing; the supposed villain is believed to have abducted him. Time goes by. A mysterious vessel enters the harbour at the dead of night, when, to the amazement of every one, the missing President is found to be on board, and the man who has saved him, and has brought him back to the nation he loves so well, turns out to be the very individual who is supposed to have wrought his ruin. What situation could have been more thrilling? I had already walked a short distance along the deck, but as soon as I recognized in the boat coming alongside the pompous little official who had boarded the yacht with so much ceremony on the occasion of my first appearance in the country, I changed my mind, and hastened back to the President!

"What does your Excellency desire?" I inquired. "Would you prefer the news of your return to reach the city at once, or would you rather that it should be announced in the morning?"

"It is immaterial to me," he replied. Then he added quickly, "No! No! On the contrary, it is most material. There is a considerable amount of business to be transacted first!"

I could guess what was passing in his mind.

"Yes, to-morrow morning would certainly be better," he continued reflectively.

"In that case," I replied, "it would be as well for you to retire with the Se?orita to the cabin. From what I know of our friends who are now coming aboard, the secret of your arrival would not be a secret many minutes after they got ashore."

"You are still in command, Se?or Trevelyan," the President returned, with one of his short laughs. "Permit me, Dolores, to escort you to the saloon. I trust that you will not keep us there longer than you can help."

"If you will permit me I shall join you there myself as soon as I have given instructions to Monsieur Maxime," I replied. "For several reasons I have no desire to be recognized in Equinata at present."

Having seen them depart to the miserable little hole aft, I went forward to Monsieur Maxime, and gave him his orders in a low voice. After that I rejoined my friends. From what we could hear of the conversation that followed, the port officials were in by no means good tempers, and poor Maxime was roundly taken to task for putting in an appearance at such an hour, for giving them the trouble of boarding his vessel, and, it would appear, for his remissness in having no cases of infectious disease on board. After about a quarter of an hour the officials departed as they had come, that is to say, grumbling. When the sound of their oars had died away we left the cabin.

"Now the question to be decided is how to get ashore without attracting attention," said Fernandez. "If they recognize me in the streets, the news will be all over the city by breakfast-time."

"Maxime must put us ashore further down the bay," I replied. "If we are discovered we shall then only run the risk of being taken for smugglers."

I had heard Fernandez boast of the completeness and efficiency of his coastguard service. This was certainly a good opportunity of putting it to the test.

Fernandez agreed to the arrangement, and, as soon as all was quiet ashore, we began our preparations for leaving the schooner. A boat was lowered, and four of Monsieur Maxime's ebony crew took their places in her. Then we bade the owner good-night, ordered him to call at the palace on the morrow for his reward, and in our turn descended to the boat.

It was an exquisite night, and so still that we could distinctly hear the ripple of the waves upon the beach, more than half-a-mile away. Carrying out the plan we had arranged we did not make for the shore near the city, but steered a course more to the south, in the direction of the little fishing village where we had captured the President. At last the boat's nose touched the shore, and the men leapt out and pulled her out of the water on to the beach. I landed, and gave my hand to the Se?orita, who sprang nimbly ashore; the President followed.

"Welcome back to Equinata, your Excellency," I said, with a bow.

For once his composure deserted him. He did not answer me, but turning his back upon us, walked for a short distance along the beach. When he rejoined us he was himself again. In the meantime I had ordered the men to take the boat back to the schooner, and had promised them that a liberal reward should be sent them in the morning. After that we took council together as to how we should reach the city. It would be impossible for the Se?orita to walk so far in the shoes she was then wearing; there was also the risk of the President and Se?orita being recognized to be considered. We were still discussing this momentous question when a noise behind us attracted our attention. We immediately turned to find three men hastening towards us. They wore the uniform of the Equinata Coastguard Service, and the individual in the centre was plainly an officer.

"Confound them," I muttered to myself, "they're smarter than I imagined. If I'm not mistaken, this will upset our plans, and the President's arrival will be known after all."

This was not the case, however. Their appearance was destined to prove a blessing in disguise.

"What brings you ashore, se?ors, at such an hour?" the officer inquired, addressing me. "And what boat was it that landed you?"

I was about to invent some story, but the President, with his customary quickness, had grasped the situation, and was prepared to make capital out of it.

"A word with you in private, se?or," he said, addressing the officer before him. "I fancy I can satisfy you as to our honesty."

The other threw a glance at the Se?orita, bowed, and acquiesced. They walked a few paces together, and though I could hear the President's voice, I could not catch anything of what he said. Their conversation lasted something like five minutes, after which they rejoined us.

"Our friend here," said Fernandez, "quite understands the situation, and has kindly offered to arrange matters for us."

The officer bowed with ceremonious respect to the Se?orita. Then to me he said, with a pomposity that was almost ludicrous-

"Se?or, Equinata thanks you for the service you have rendered her."

Then, having invited us to follow him, and bidding his men continue their patrol, he led us across the beach by a rough footpath to the high road above.

"If your Excellency will do me the honour to wait here," he said, "I will hasten to the house of my friend, Se?or Rodriguez Cardaja, and obtain from him the loan of a carriage in which to convey you to the palace."

"We will await your return," answered the President. "I may, of course, rely upon your impressing the necessity of silence upon Se?or Cardaja?"

"He will be as silent as the grave, Excellency," the other returned, and added somewhat inconsequently, "we are old friends!"

Then, begging us to excuse him, he hastened on his errand.

"I trust he will not be long obtaining the carriage," said Fernandez, offering me a cigar, and lighting one himself. "As I said a short time ago, I have a large amount of business to get through before daylight. Dolores, my dear, I fancy you will not be sorry to exchange that dress for another."

"If you knew how I hate it," she replied passionately, "and yet-" she stopped suddenly, and I fancied that she shivered. "Oh, how glad I am to be back!"

A long silence fell upon us, which was eventually broken by the sound of carriage-wheels. A few moments later a lumbering vehicle made its appearance round the side of the hill. To our surprise it was driven by the lieutenant himself. He explained that he had not brought his friend's coachman, having regard to the desire for secrecy expressed by the President. He would himself drive us into the Capital, and return the carriage to his friend afterwards. Then we took our places in it and set off. During the journey the officer informed us of all that had transpired in the country during our absence. General Sagana, it appeared, had assumed the office of President-much against his will-while Herma?os and his band of patriots boldly announced the return of Silvestre to power.

"Herma?os and I must discuss the matter together," said the President quietly, and I fancied I could see the smile upon his face as he said it.

In something under half-an-hour we reached the palace. We descended from the vehicle at a side door, thanked the lieutenant for the services he had rendered us, and then watched him drive off on his return journey. So far matters had prospered excellently; but I am prepared to admit that I did not quite see what was going to happen next. Fernandez, however, seemed to have made up his mind. Taking a bunch of keys from his pocket, as calmly as if he were only returning after a short stroll, he approached the door and opened it. A small gas-jet illumined the vestibule. We entered and softly closed the door after us. From the vestibule we passed into a narrow passage, which in its turn communicated with the great hall and the State apartments. Surely never had the ruler of a country returned to his palace in a more unostentatious fashion. We made our way through the great glass doors into the magnificent entrance hall, between the lines of statuary, and finally entered the President's private study. So far our presence in the house had not been discovered. General Sagana, his wife and daughters, their aides-de-camp and secretaries, to say nothing of the household, were all in bed and doubtless asleep.

"I wonder if the Gas Company, which, by the way, my dear Trevelyan, is capitalized almost exclusively by Englishmen, realizes what an important part it is playing in the history of Equinata," Fernandez remarked, as he applied a match to one of the jets. "Now, if you have no objection, we will proceed to business. It would be a pity to disturb the family of Sagana; they will know everything in due course. Dolores, you may remember that there is an excellent sofa in your boudoir. Permit me to conduct you thither!"

Before replying she looked at me, and there was something in her glance that I was at a loss to understand. She was tired, draggled, and altogether different to her real self, and, strange to say, there was also a curious hunted look in her eyes for which I could not account. She seemed to be appealing to me, and yet I was not conscious of any reason why she should do so. However, she rose and went away with the President, leaving me alone in the room.

It was a fine apartment, hung with the portraits of many past Presidents. I looked from one to the other, as if in the hope of gathering information from them. But they only regarded me with stony indifference, as if the fate of Equinata was a thing in which they no longer took any interest.

It would be difficult to express in words my feelings at that moment. As a matter of fact, I knew that I was between two fires. I had gone out of my way to save Fernandez; at the same time, unless I allowed him to reward me, which I was determined not to do, I had lost all I possessed (for I was resolved not to keep the first five thousand pounds of Si

lvestre's money) in the world. I must begin life over again, in which case my marriage with Molly was as far off as ever. I was aware of Fernandez' friendship, so far as I was concerned, yet I knew him well enough to feel sure that he would repay old scores against Herma?os and his other enemies. That being so, could I stand by and let them be punished, when, but for me, they would have escaped scot-free. It was not a cheerful outlook for any of us.

A few minutes later Fernandez returned.

"Now to business," he said. "Do me the favour of seating yourself at that writing-table."

I did so, wondering, and he placed a sheet of notepaper before me.

"I want you to write to Se?or Herma?os, asking him to come to the palace with all haste. Tell him that the rightful President has returned, and at the same time request him to bring his friends with him to welcome him!"

"One moment," I said. "Before I do that I must know your intentions. I am going to speak plainly, General Fernandez! You must remember that I have already had experience of the manner in which Presidents of Equinata deal with their rivals."

He was not in the least put out by my candour. On the contrary, he laughed good-humouredly.

"You need not be afraid," he said. "I am not going to harm them. As a matter of fact I intend making them very good friends-not for to-day, but for all time. What assurance can I give you?"

I could not see that there was any. What was more, I could not see how my refusal to write the letter could save Herma?os, if Fernandez were determined to be revenged on him. I accordingly took up my pen and did as he requested. When I had finished, he read the letter carefully, possibly to make sure that I had not said anything in it that might serve as a warning to the conspirators. Would his ruse succeed? Would Herma?os fall into such a very simple trap? The mere fact that Silvestre had not written it himself would surely make him suspicious. Fernandez, however, evidently thought otherwise. When I had addressed the envelope he placed the letter inside, and then, begging me to excuse him once more, left the room. When he returned a quarter of an hour later, he informed me that he had dispatched the letter by a trustworthy messenger.

"You should have seen the worthy Antoine's face when I woke him," he said. "He thought he was looking at a ghost. In an hour or so our friends should be here."

To while away the time of waiting we made a raid upon the palace larder, carried the spoil we obtained there to the smaller dining-room, where presently the curious spectacle might have been observed of a lady in a sadly-dilapidated ball-dress, the President of the Republic of Equinata, and your humble servant, demolishing cold chicken with considerable gusto.

Our meal was barely finished before the door opened and a little grey-haired man entered the room. He was Antoine, the old major-domo of the household, who had served more Presidents than any other official in Equinata.

"Well, Antoine, what is it?" the President inquired.

"They are coming, your Excellency," said the little man.

"And they do not suspect?"

"No, Excellency," the other replied. "I told Se?or Herma?os that if he desired to be the first to welcome President Silvestre, he must make haste."

"Excellent! Immediately they arrive, meet them yourself, and conduct them to the small audience chamber. I will receive them there!"

Half-an-hour or so later, and just as we had finished our second bottle of champagne, Antoine again made his appearance to inform us that Herma?os and his companions had arrived and were awaiting an interview in the room above mentioned. I saw Fernandez' mouth twitch and then set firm; there was also an ominous twinkle in his eyes as he said-

"Come with me, my friend, and we will interview them."

"You will remember the promise you have given me?" I said, laying my hand upon his arm.

"You will find that I shall keep it," he replied curtly.

I followed him from the room along the hall to a door on the right, at which Antoine was waiting.

"Have my instructions concerning the guard been obeyed?" he asked in a low voice before he turned the handle.

"They have, Excellency," Antoine replied.

Then we passed into the room.

If I live to be a hundred I shall not forget the scene that followed. Herma?os was standing on the opposite side of the room, and grouped about him were three men whom, to the best of my knowledge, I had never seen before. It is possible they might have been Herma?os' assistants on that memorable night when we had secured the President, but as they then wore masks I cannot speak on that point with any degree of certainty.

The light in the room was not particularly good, and for a moment I thought that Herma?os did not realize who it was that entered the room. Had he done so he would scarcely have taken those two or three quick steps forward. When he grasped the situation his surprise was overwhelming.

"Fernandez?" I heard him mutter, as if he were thunderstruck.

His companions also seemed taken aback.

"Ah, my dear Herma?os," said the President genially, "and so we meet again. Gentlemen, I am delighted to find you here to welcome me."

"We've been tricked," cried Herma?os hoarsely. Then fixing his eyes on me, he continued, "So you've turned traitor, after all, se?or? I congratulate you on the facility with which you change sides."

"Pardon me," interposed the President, "but I cannot permit you to insult my friend. I owe more to Se?or Trevelyan than I can say, and when you have heard the story I have to tell, I fancy you, and Equinata with you, will regard his behaviour in the light that I do. But before we say anything about that, let us endeavour to come to an understanding of our relative positions."

He paused for a moment to allow his audience to appreciate his words.

Then he went on-

"I cannot forget that you, Herma?os, are one of the gentlemen to whom I owe my abduction. The complicity of your companions I have yet to discover. Now for such an offence what is the punishment to be? My only desire is to be just."

I felt really sorry for Herma?os at that moment. He was familiar with the form that Fernandez' justice usually took.

"Come, come, my friend, why do you not answer me?" said the President banteringly. "You know how Silvestre would have acted under similar circumstances. What am I to do? Shall I call in the guard, have you arrested, and shot at sunrise, or shall I let you go free? You know my reputation, I think, and surely even a President should live up to that?"

"We are in your power and cannot help ourselves," the unfortunate Herma?os replied.

"I am very much afraid you cannot," the President returned. "You should have thought of that, however, before you took to kidnapping the head of your country. You were never a man, Herma?os, who could make up his mind!"

Once more the President paused, and looked from one to the other of the wretched men before him.

"Don't play with us," cried one of the others. "If you have made up your mind to shoot us, do so, but don't keep us in suspense."

"Forgive me, it was remiss of me," Fernandez replied with dangerous politeness. "Antoine."

The door was opened immediately, and the major-domo appeared.

"Call up the Guards," said the President.

Antoine disappeared, to return a few moments later with the officer of the Guard and his men.

"Take these gentlemen to the cartel," said the President, "and stand guard over them until daylight. I will send you word within an hour as to what you are to do with them. In the meantime I hold you responsible for their safety."

I was altogether unprepared for this move. Was Fernandez about to break his promise to me? It certainly looked very much like it. I was on the point of expostulating, when the door opened and the Se?orita entered hurriedly. She glanced from one to the other of us with a frightened expression upon her face. Then she turned to Fernandez.

"What is the meaning of this?" she asked, holding out her hands to him as if in supplication.

"Forgive me, my dear, but I think it would be better if you leave us," the President replied. "I shall be very happy to give you full particulars later."

"No, no," she cried. "Se?or Herma?os, you helped to bring this trouble upon us, and-ah! I see it all. Why are you here at this hour, and what is the meaning of the Guard?" Then turning to the President she continued, "Oh, sir, are we never to be free from this sort of thing? Is it impossible for us all to be friends?"

"It certainly seems difficult," Fernandez replied. "Thanks to Se?or Herma?os and his friends, I have passed through an extremely dangerous and unpleasant crisis. Had matters gone as they intended they should do, by this time I should have been in my grave. Fortune favoured me, however, and now I have returned to my own. Who can blame me if I repay those who would have worked my ruin?"

Turning to the captain of the Guard, he bade him remove his prisoners. On hearing this the Se?orita completely broke down. She fell on her knees at the President's feet and implored him to forgive. Whether it was a mere matter of acting and had all been previously arranged, as I am sometimes tempted to believe, or whether it was genuine, I am not in a position to say. Whatever else it may have been, however, it was at least effective. Then I saw my opportunity and took advantage of it.

"Your Excellency must forgive me if I interfere," I said. "There seems one point, however, that has escaped your attention. If Se?or Herma?os and his companions are to be held guilty for your abduction, it is only fit and proper that I, who was the leading spirit in it, should take my place with them. If they are to be shot then I must share their fate."

My decision seemed to stagger them. He looked from me to them and then back again. Then he laughed outright, but I could not help thinking that his merriment lacked sincerity.

"You are certainly an extraordinary man, my dear Trevelyan. You abduct me and then save my life. You rejoice at being friends with me again and then ask me to shoot you. It seems to me, Herma?os, that you are fortunate in your advocates. The Se?orita, to whom I can deny nothing, pleads for you; Se?or Trevelyan, to whom I owe my life, refuses to let you die unless he dies too. I should be more than human to resist!" Then, waving his hand to the captain of the Guard, who had been watching us with a puzzled expression upon his face, he continued, "Well, well, since it must be, let it be so! You can leave us."

The captain retired with his men, and a somewhat awkward silence fell upon us. There was still a look of pleading upon the Se?orita's face. The President, however, seemed thoughtful. It was evident that he had no desire to forego his vengeance. He paced the room for a few minutes, while we watched him with anxious faces. Heaven alone knows what Herma?os and his friends were thinking of, but I know very well what I thought, and I can assure you, my dear reader, I was far from happy. At last he stopped, and, after a momentary pause, faced Herma?os.

"Herma?os," he said, "you threw in your lot with my enemies, and you could not blame me if I made you answer for so doing. I certainly intended to do so; but I suppose we are none of us infallible, and with such pleading in your favour, I have nothing left me but to surrender. From this moment you are free. I give you your lives, gentlemen! Is it possible, since Silvestre is dead, for you to give me your allegiance? Now, shall we shake hands, endeavour to forget the past, and live only to promote the happiness of the country, for which we have risked so much?"

One by one they advanced and solemnly shook Fernandez by the hand. Then, at a signal from the President, Antoine left the room, to appear a moment later with a tray of glasses and two bottles of champagne.

"Gentlemen," cried Fernandez, holding his glass aloft, "I give you the toast, 'Peace and prosperity to the fair State of Equinata.'"

When they had departed, Fernandez turned to me with a queer smile upon his face.

"I don't think they will trouble us again," he said.

I did not reply! What I was thinking was that I would have given something to have heard their conversation as they crossed the Square!

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