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 Silvestre'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 Hermanos 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 Senor Hermanos, 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 a.s.surance 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 Hermanos, 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 Hermanos 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 Senor Hermanos 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 Hermanos 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 pa.s.sed into the room.
If I live to be a hundred I shall not forget the scene that followed.
Hermanos 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 Hermanos'
a.s.sistants 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 Hermanos 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 Hermanos," 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 Hermanos hoa.r.s.ely. Then fixing his eyes on me, he continued, "So you've turned traitor, after all, senor? 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 Senor 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, Hermanos, 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 Hermanos 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 circ.u.mstances. 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 Hermanos 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, Hermanos, 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."
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