"From Havana to Key West, and thence to Jamaica, Barbadoes, and so to Equinata!"
"And your plans after leaving here?"
"I have scarcely formed any plans yet," I answered, and then I added with a fair amount of truth, "You see, Senorita, it all depends upon circ.u.mstances. I may go on to Rio, thence to Buenos Ayres, and perhaps round the Horn to the Pacific Islands, or I may return to England at once."
"While we remain on here leading our humdrum life," said the President, toying with his champagne gla.s.s as he spoke, "and ending the year almost as we began it, seeing few strangers and interested only in our own little mediocre affairs."
"I fear your Excellency must speak ironically," I said. "What grander or more interesting occupation can there be in the world, than the work of building up a new country, a country which may ultimately take its place among the greatest of the earth? While I am fluttering like a b.u.t.terfly from place to place, you are guiding, helping, and benefiting your fellow-man, and through him the entire human race."
"You are an idealist, I perceive, Senor Trevelyan," the President returned, with one of his peculiar smiles. "Unfortunately for your theory, my fellow-man does not always wish to be benefited, as your words would lead one to suppose. To my thinking he is very like that n.o.ble animal, the horse, who, while being capable of great things, must first learn the principles of subjection. What say you, General Sagana?"
"I agree with your Excellency," replied the General with some little embarra.s.sment, though why he should have felt it I could not at the time understand.
I turned to the Senorita Dolores.
"You are deeply interested in politics, of course, Senorita?" I said, as innocently as I knew how.
"No, I do not mind admitting that I take no sort of interest in politics," she answered. "I find it better for many reasons not to do so. So long as I am not publicly insulted in the streets, and the mob do not attempt to shoot my uncle, or to come to the palace and break our windows, I am content to let whichever party pleases hold the reins of power. But there, I feel sure, Senor Trevelyan, you did not come to Equinata to talk politics. We must discover a way of amusing you, and of making your time pa.s.s pleasantly while you are with us, without that!"
As she said this, she glanced down the table at the two daughters of General Sagana, who returned her smile with a look that said as plainly as any words could speak, that if they were given the opportunity, they would take care that my time was spent as pleasantly as possible.
All things taken into consideration, my little _dejeuner_ was a decided success, and the affability of the President, when the ladies had withdrawn, helped to confirm me in this opinion. Nothing could have exceeded his geniality. He narrated several amusing incidents connected with his past life, and once even unbent so far as to comment on a certain act connected with the reign of his predecessor.
"Silvestre was a clever man; a very clever man," he said; "but, as events proved, entirely wanting in a proper appreciation of his position. Had he used his opportunities as he might have done, he would, in all probability, be occupying the position he held then and which I hold to-day."
"And may I ask what has become of him?" I inquired, not without some curiosity as to what his answer would be.
The President, however, shook his head.
"No one seems to have any idea where he is," he said. "After the last crisis he disappeared from Equinata, but where he went I cannot tell you. Very probably he is dead. Men of his calibre do not, as a rule, make old bones."
His manner was so open, his speech so frank, that my suspicions that he was aware of my errand in his capital were fast dying away.
Later on we left the saloon and joined the ladies on deck. A cool wind was blowing, and it was very pleasant under the awnings. After half-an-hour's conversation, followed by an inspection of the yacht, the President declared his intention of returning to the sh.o.r.e. The boats were accordingly ordered alongside, whereupon, having thanked me for my hospitality, the President and the Senorita, attended by their _aide-de-camp_, the latter a great lady-killer, took their departure.
General Sagana and his party followed suit a little later, and then I was free to discuss the success of our entertainment with Ferguson.
"If all goes on as it is doing now," I said, lighting a fresh cigar, and handing my case to him, "it should not prove a very difficult matter to inveigle him on board to dinner some night, when we might settle the affair once and for all."
"Unfortunately, the chances are a hundred to one that, if he came, he would bring an _aide_ with him, as he did to-day. What should we do then?"
"Take the _aide_ to the island with us," I replied promptly. "One more prisoner would make little or no difference to Silvestre."
Next morning I was the recipient of an invitation from the President to dine at the palace on the Thursday following. Needless to say, I hastened to accept, and in due course presented myself at his Excellency's magnificent abode. I was met in the hall by the _aide-de-camp_ who had breakfasted with us on board the yacht, and by him was conducted to the great drawing-room where the President and his niece were receiving their guests. Some thirty or forty people were present, among the number being General Sagana and Madame, and their two fair daughters, who welcomed me like old friends. The President took the General's wife in to dinner, while, for some reason best known to them, I was permitted the honour of escorting the Senorita.
"So you have not grown tired of Equinata yet, Senor Trevelyan?" said my fair companion, as we made our way in our turn along the stately hall in the direction of the dining-room.
"On the contrary, I grow more charmed with it every day," I replied.
"Who could help liking it, when its citizens are so hospitable to strangers?"
"Before you praise us, remember that you set us a charming example,"
she continued. "It will be long before I forget the pleasant morning we spent on board your yacht. I can a.s.sure you that my uncle also looks back on it with the greatest pleasure."
"I trust it may not be the last time he will visit her," I answered, with more truth than is usually attachable to an idle compliment.
The room in which we dined was a magnificent apartment, furnished with a grandeur that gave it an almost regal dignity. The President's _chef_ was evidently a treasure, for the dinner could scarcely have been excelled. During its progress the President addressed himself on several occasions to me, and invited me to accompany him on a visit to some celebrated copper mines in the neighbourhood, also to a review of the troops which was to take place in the Great Square in a week's time. As may be supposed, I was quick to accept both invitations.
"And at the end of the week there is to be a grand ball at the Opera House," the Senorita continued, when her uncle had finished speaking.
"It is in aid of the convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and is one of our recognized gaieties of the year. I wonder if we shall be able to persuade you to be present?"
"I shall be more than delighted," I replied. "That is, of course, provided I am not compelled to leave Equinata in the meantime."
"You must not leave us too soon," she said, and then paused and examined her plate attentively. I was about to answer her, when her attention was attracted by her neighbour on her right, and I was accordingly left to my own thoughts.
I looked down the long table, glittering with gla.s.s and plate, and as I did so, I endeavoured to apprize the value of my extraordinary position. Who at that board could have guessed the errand in Equinata of the man whom, doubtless, so many of them envied for his wealth and for his magnificent floating home? I could not help wondering what my own feelings would have been had I known only three months or so before, when I was standing watch as a mail-boat officer, that in a few short weeks I should be the honoured guest of the President of the Republic of Equinata, and the presumptive owner of a yacht valued at upwards of a hundred thousand pounds.
I looked across the room and examined the pictures hanging upon the walls. That exactly opposite me riveted my attention. I felt that I could not be mistaken as to the likeness. It was the portrait of Don Guzman de Silvestre, and the artist had managed to depict him to the life. How it called me back to other days! As I looked at it, I seemed to be sitting in the old inn garden at Falstead, listening to his instructions for the campaign, and wondering how long Molly would be at the choir practice.
"You have suddenly become very silent, Senor Trevelyan," said the Senorita, rousing me from my reverie.
"I was thinking that I shall often look back with pleasure upon this evening," I replied.
The look she gave me would probably have encouraged many men to embark on a course of the maddest flirtation. I, however, was adamant.
"In reality," she said, "I suppose you are like all the other visitors we have, and, as soon as you are away from Equinata, you will forget us altogether."
"I a.s.sure you I shall never forget your beautiful city as long as I live," I answered, and with more truth than she imagined.
She threw a quick glance at me and then, looking down the dinner-table, gave the signal to the ladies to rise. I must confess here that the Senorita interested me very strangely. At first I had thought her merely a very beautiful woman, well fitted by nature to perform the difficult task asked of her; it was not long, however, before I came to have a somewhat better understanding of her real abilities. In what light I regard her now, you will be able to realize for yourself when you have read my story.
As had been arranged, three days after the dinner I have just described, I accompanied the President and a considerable party to the famous copper mines in the mountain range that began behind the city and extended well-nigh to the further limit of the Republic. We were only absent three days, yet in that short s.p.a.ce of time I was permitted an opportunity of studying the real character and personality of Equinata's ruler more closely than I had yet done. At first I must confess I had been prepared to dislike him, but little by little, so gradually indeed that I scarcely noticed the change, I found that he was managing to overcome my prejudices. Under the influence of these new impressions I also began to see my own part of the business in a new light. From what Silvestre had said to me, I had up to that time regarded him as a traitor to his friends, and as a tyrant and enemy to his country. I now discovered that he was neither the one nor the other. He ruled according to his lights, and if he held his people in an iron grip, it was for the good and sufficient reason that he knew their character, and the sort of government they required. My own position, when I came to overhaul it properly, I discovered to be by no means edifying. I accepted his hospitality and his kindnesses, yet I was only waiting my chance to prove myself a traitor of the worst kind. I was posing as his friend, yet at the same time was preparing to prove myself his worst enemy. Such thoughts as these kept me company by day and night, and made me regard myself with a contempt such as I had never dreamed of before. And yet I knew that, at any hazard, I must go through with it. Had I not taken Silvestre's money and pledged myself to serve him? Therefore I could not draw back.
On our return to the city from the mountains, I was present at the review of the troops in the Great Square, and witnessed the redoubtable army of Equinata, headed by General Sagana, as you may suppose in the fullest of full uniforms, march by and salute its chief. That ceremony over, I returned to the yacht to while away the hours as best I could until it should be time to dress for the great ball that was to take place at the Opera House that evening.
Having rigged myself out for the occasion, I was rowed ash.o.r.e, and, as I had plenty of time to spare, I determined to walk to the Great Square in preference to taking a cab. To do this it was necessary for me to pa.s.s a certain fashionable _cafe_, whose little tables decorated the broad pavement outside. At one of these tables two men were seated, playing dominoes as they sipped their coffee. One of them looked up at me as I pa.s.sed. As my eyes fell on his face I gave a start, for I recognized him instantly as a well-known Rio merchant, who had made several voyages with me in the old _Pernambuco_, and with whom I had been on the most friendly terms. He stared at me as if he thought he ought to know my face, but, I suppose on account of the absence of my moustache, could not quite remember where he had seen it last.
I hurried on, with my heart in my mouth, as the saying has it, but I had not gone very far ere I heard some one bustling after me. A few seconds later a hand was laid upon my arm, and I turned to find the individual I had seen seated at the table standing before me.
"Ten t'ousand pardons, senor," he began in English, "but am I mistaken if I say your name is 'Elmsworth?"
I had to make up my mind.
"I'm afraid you're making some little mistake," I replied, and then added what was worse than a lie, that is to say, a half-truth, "I know no one of the name of 'Elmsworth."
"Den I must beg of you ten t'ousand more bardons," he continued. "I t'ought you vas one of mine old vriends dot I vas at sea mit. Forgive me dat I interrupt you in your valk."
I willingly forgave him and pa.s.sed on.
The question that kept me company for the rest of the evening was--Had my a.s.surance satisfied him? If not, what would he be likely to do?
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