"Senorita," I returned, "I fear I stand before you in an altogether despicable light, so far as my time in Equinata is concerned. The pitiful part of the whole business is that, had it to be gone over again, I should probably act as I have done. However, I have shot my bolt, and, though I managed to hit the bull's-eye, that is to say, I succeeded in capturing the President, I have failed to receive the prize. Let that be my punishment."
"But you mustn't talk of punishment," she cried. "You are mistaking my meaning. Do you think that I am here to reproach you? No, no, far from that! What I want to suggest is that you should permit us to show our grat.i.tude. Had it not been for you Equinata would never have seen General Fernandez again, and I should not be here with you now. How grateful the President is you can see for yourself. Why should you not stay in Equinata? It is destined to be a great country. There are always opportunities for the man who can seize them. You are that man.
Why not try? Would _my_ help count for nothing?"
As she said this she drew a little closer to me. The perfume of her hair was as intoxicating as the finest wine.
"Think! think!" she continued. "Fernandez cannot rule for ever. He might not last a year even. Then----"
She was so close to me that her lips almost touched my face.
"Don't you think we had better be walking aft?" I said. "Your _uncle_ is probably wondering where we are!"
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 Senorita on my left, and as we watched the twinkling lights ash.o.r.e, I fancy all three of us recalled the eventful morning when we had said good-bye to the town under such very different circ.u.mstances. 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 pa.s.sing 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 Senorita 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 ash.o.r.e."
"You are still in command, Senor 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 ash.o.r.e 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 ash.o.r.e 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 ash.o.r.e, 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 sh.o.r.e 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 sh.o.r.e, and the men leapt out and pulled her out of the water on to the beach. I landed, and gave my hand to the Senorita, who sprang nimbly ash.o.r.e; 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 Senorita to walk so far in the shoes she was then wearing; there was also the risk of the President and Senorita 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 ash.o.r.e, senors, 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, senor," he said, addressing the officer before him. "I fancy I can satisfy you as to our honesty."
The other threw a glance at the Senorita, 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 Senorita. Then to me he said, with a pomposity that was almost ludicrous--
"Senor, 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, Senor 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 Senor 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 pa.s.sionately, "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 a.s.sumed the office of President--much against his will--while Hermanos and his band of patriots boldly announced the return of Silvestre to power.
"Hermanos 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 pa.s.sed into a narrow pa.s.sage, 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 gla.s.s 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.
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