A MAN OF MARK
AUTHOR OF "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA," "THE INDISCRETION OF THE DUCHESS," ETC.
"A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds,"
I. THE MOVEMENT AND THE MAN II. A FINANCIAL EXPEDIENT III. AN EXCESS OF AUTHORITY IV. OVERTURES FROM THE OPPOSITION V. I APPRECIATE THE SITUATION VI. MOURONS POUR LA PATRIE! VII. THE MINE IS LAID VIII. JOHNNY CARR IS WILLFUL IX. A SUPPER PARTY X. TWO SURPRISES XI. DIVIDING THE SPOILS XII. BETWEEN TWO FIRES XIII. I WORK UPON HUMAN NATURE XIV. FAREWELL TO AUREATALAND XV. A DIPLOMATIC ARRANGEMENT
THE MOVEMENT AND THE MAN.
In the year 1884 the Republic of Aureataland was certainly not in a flourishing condition. Although most happily situated (it lies on the coast of South America, rather to the north—I mustn't be more definite), and gifted with an extensive territory, nearly as big as Yorkshire, it had yet failed to make that material progress which had been hoped by its founders. It is true that the state was still in its infancy, being an offshoot from another and larger realm, and having obtained the boon of freedom and self-government only as recently as 1871, after a series of political convulsions of a violent character, which may be studied with advantage in the well-known history of "The Making of Aureataland," by a learned professor of the Jeremiah P. Jecks University in the United States of America. This profound historian is, beyond all question, accurate in attributing the chief share in the national movement to the energy and ability of the first President of Aureataland, his Excellency, President Marcus W. Whittingham, a native of Virginia. Having enjoyed a personal friendship (not, unhappily, extended to public affairs) with that talented man, as will subsequently appear, I have great pleasure in publicly indorsing the professor's eulogium. Not only did the President bring Aureataland into being, but he molded her whole constitution. "It was his genius" (as the professor observes with propriety) "which was fired with the idea of creating a truly modern state, instinct with the progressive spirit of the Anglo-Saxon race. It was his genius which cast aside the worn-out traditions of European dominion, and taught his fellow-citizens that they were, if not all by birth, yet one and all by adoption, the sons of freedom." Any mistakes in the execution of this fine conception must be set down to the fact that the President's great powers were rather the happy gift of nature than the result of culture. To this truth he was himself in no way blind, and he was accustomed to attribute his want of a liberal education to the social ruin brought upon his family by the American Civil War, and to the dislocation thereby produced in his studies. As the President was, when I had the honor of making his acquaintance in the year 1880, fifty years old if he was a day, this explanation hardly agrees with dates, unless it is to be supposed that the President was still pursuing his education when the war began, being then of the age of thirty-five, or thereabouts.
Starting under the auspices of such a gifted leader, and imbued with so noble a zeal for progress, Aureataland was, at the beginning of her history as a nation, the object of many fond and proud hopes. But in spite of the blaze of glory in which her sun had risen (to be seen duly reflected in the professor's work), her prosperity, as I have said, was not maintained. The country was well suited for agriculture and grazing, but the population—a very queer mixture of races—was indolent, and more given to keeping holidays and festivals than to honest labor. Most of them were unintelligent; those who were intelligent made their living out of those who weren't, a method of subsistence satisfactory to the individual, but adding little to the aggregate of national wealth. Only two classes made fortunes of any size, Government officials and bar-keepers, and even in their case the wealth was not great, looked at by an English or American standard. Production was slack, invention at a standstill, and taxation heavy. I suppose the President's talents were more adapted to founding a state in the shock and turmoil of war, than to the dull details of administration; and although he was nominally assisted by a cabinet of three ministers and an assembly comprising twenty-five members, it was on his shoulders that the real work of government fell. On him, therefore, the moral responsibility must also rest—a burden the President bore with a cheerfulness and equanimity almost amounting to unconsciousness.
I first set foot in Aureataland in March, 1880, when I was landed on the beach by a boat from the steamer, at the capital town of Whittingham. I was a young man, entering on my twenty-sixth year, and full of pride at finding myself at so early an age sent out to fill the responsible position of manager at our Aureataland branch. The directors of the bank were then pursuing what may without unfairness be called an adventurous policy, and, in response to the urgent entreaties and glowing exhortations of the President, they had decided on establishing a branch at Whittingham. I commanded a certain amount of interest on the board, inasmuch as the chairman owed my father a sum of money, too small to mention but too large to pay, and when, led by the youthful itch for novelty, I applied for the post I succeeded in obtaining my wish, at a salary of a hundred dollars a month. I am sorry to say that in the course of a later business dealing the balance of obligation shifted from the chairman to my father, an unhappy event which deprived me of my hold on the company and seriously influenced my conduct in later days. When I arrived in Aureataland the bank had been open some six months, under the guidance of Mr. Thomas Jones, a steady going old clerk, who was in future to act as chief (and indeed only) cashier under my orders.
I found Whittingham a pleasant little city of about five thousand inhabitants, picturesquely situated on a fine bay, at the spot where the river Marcus debouched into the ocean. The town was largely composed of Government buildings and hotels, but there was a street of shops of no mean order, and a handsome square, called the "Piazza 1871," embellished with an equestrian statue of the President. Round about this national monument were a large number of seats, and, hard by, a cafe and band stand. Here, I soon found, was the center of life in the afternoons and evenings. Going along a fine avenue of trees for half a mile or so, you came to the "Golden House," the President's official residence, an imposing villa of white stone with a gilt statue of Aureataland, a female figure sitting on a plowshare, and holding a sword in the right hand, and a cornucopia in the left. By her feet lay what was apparently a badly planed cannon ball; this, I learned, was a nugget, and from its presence and the name of the palace, I gathered that the president had once hoped to base the prosperity of his young republic on the solid foundation of mineral wealth. This hope had been long abandoned.
I have always hated hotels, so I lost no time in looking round for lodgings suitable to my means, and was fortunate enough to obtain a couple of rooms in the house occupied by a Catholic priest, Father Jacques Bonchretien. He was a very good fellow, and, though we did not become intimate, I could always rely on his courtesy and friendly services. Here I lived in great comfort at an expense of fifty dollars a month, and I soon found that my spare fifty made me a well-to-do man in Whittingham. Accordingly I had the entree of all the best houses, including the Golden House, and a very pleasant little society we had; occasional dances, frequent dinners, and plenty of lawn tennis and billiards prevented me feeling the tedium I had somewhat feared, and the young ladies of Whittingham did their best to solace my exile. As for business, I found the bank doing a small business, but a tolerably satisfactory one, and, if we made some bad debts, we got high interest on the good ones, so that, one way or another, I managed to send home pretty satisfactory reports, and time passed on quietly enough in spite of certain manifestations of discontent among the population. These disturbing phenomena were first brought prominently to my notice at the time when I became involved in the fortunes of the Aureataland national debt, and as all my story turns on this incident, it perhaps is a fit subject for a new chapter.
A FINANCIAL EXPEDIENT.
When our branch was established at Whittingham there had been an arrangement made between ourselves and the Government, by the terms of which we were to have the Government business, and to occupy, in fact, much that quasi-official position enjoyed by the Bank of England at home. As a quid pro quo, the bank was to lend to the Republic the sum of five hundred thousand dollars, at six per cent. The President was at the time floating a loan of one million dollars for the purpose of works at the harbor of Whittingham. This astute ruler had, it seemed, hit on the plan of instituting public works on a large scale as a corrective to popular discontent, hoping thereby not only to develop trade, but also to give employment to many persons who, if unoccupied, became centers of agitation. Such at least was the official account of his policy; whether it was the true one I saw reason to doubt later on. As regards this loan, my office was purely ministerial. The arrangements were duly made, the proper guarantees given, and in June, 1880, I had the pleasure of handing over to the President the five hundred thousand dollars. I learned from him on that occasion that, to his great gratification, the balance of the loan had been taken up.
"We shall make a start at once, sir," said the President, in his usual confident but quiet way. "In two years Whittingham harbor will walk over the world. Don't be afraid about your interest. Your directors never made a better investment."
I thanked his Excellency, accepted a cigar, and withdrew with a peaceful mind. I had no responsibility in the matter, and cared nothing whether the directors got their interest or not. I was, however, somewhat curious to know who had taken up the rest of the loan, a curiosity which was not destined to be satisfied for some time.
The works were begun and the interest was paid, but I cannot say that the harbor progressed rapidly; in fact, I doubt if more than one hundred thousand dollars ever found their way into the pockets of contractors or workmen over the job. The President had some holes dug and some walls built; having reached that point, about two years after the interview above recorded he suddenly drew off the few laborers still employed, and matters came to a dead stop.
It was shortly after this occurrence that I was honored with an invitation to dine at the Golden House. It was in the month of July, 1882. Needless to say, I accepted the invitation, not only because it was in the nature of a command, but also because the President gave uncommonly good dinners, and, although a bachelor (in Aureataland, at all events), had as well ordered a household as I have ever known. My gratification was greatly increased when, on my arrival, I found myself the only guest, and realized that the President considered my society in itself enough for an evening's entertainment. It did cross my mind that this might mean business, and I thought it none the worse for that.
We dined in the famous veranda, the scene of so many brilliant Whittingham functions. The dinner was beyond reproach, the wines perfection. The President was a charming companion. Though not, as I have hinted, a man of much education, he had had a wide experience of life, and had picked up a manner at once quiet and cordial, which set me completely at my ease. Moreover, he paid me the compliment, always so sweet to youth, of treating me as a man of the world. With condescending confidence he told me many tales of his earlier days; and as he had been everywhere and done everything where and which a man ought not to be and do, his conversation was naturally most interesting.
"I am not holding myself up as an example," he said, after one of his most unusual anecdotes. "I can only hope that my public services will be allowed to weigh in the balance against my private frailties."
He said this with some emotion.
"Even your Excellency," said I, "may be content to claim in that respect the same indulgence as Caesar and Henri Quatre."
"Quite so," said the President. "I suppose they were not exactly—eh?"
"I believe not," I answered, admiring the President's readiness, for he certainly had a very dim notion who either of them was.
Dinner was over and the table cleared before the President seemed inclined for serious conversation. Then he called for cigars, and pushing them toward me said:
"Take one, and fill your glass. Don't believe people who tell you not to drink and smoke at the same time. Wine is better without smoke, and smoke is better without wine, but the combination is better than either separately."
I obeyed his commands, and we sat smoking and sipping in silence for some moments. Then the President said, suddenly:
"Mr. Martin, this country is in a perilous condition."
"Good God, your Excellency!" said I, "do you refer to the earthquake?" (There had been a slight shock a few days before.)
"No, sir," he replied, "to the finances. The harbor works have proved far more expensive than I anticipated. I hold in my hand the engineer's certificate that nine hundred and three thousand dollars have been actually expended on them, and they are not finished—not by any means finished."
They certainly were not; they were hardly begun.
"Dear me," I ventured to say, "that seems a good deal of money, considering what there is to show for it."
"You cannot doubt the certificate, Mr. Martin," said the President.
I did doubt the certificate, and should have liked to ask what fee the engineer had received. But I hastily said it was, of course, beyond suspicion.
"Yes," said he steadily, "quite beyond suspicion. You see, Mr. Martin, in my position I am compelled to be liberal. The Government cannot set other employers the example of grinding men down by low wages. However, reasons apart, there is the fact. We cannot go on without more money; and I may tell you, in confidence, that the political situation makes it imperative we should go on. Not only is my personal honor pledged, but the Opposition, Mr. Martin, led by the colonel, is making itself obnoxious—yes, I may say very obnoxious."
"The colonel, sir," said I, with a freedom engendered of dining, "is a beast."
"Well," said the President, with a tolerant smile, "the colonel, unhappily for the country, is no true patriot. But he is powerful; he is rich; he is, under myself alone, in command of the army. And, moreover, I believe he stands well with the signorina. The situation, in fact, is desperate. I must have money, Mr. Martin. Will your directors make me a new loan?"
I knew very well the fate that would attend any such application. The directors were already decidedly uneasy about their first loan; shareholders had asked awkward questions, and the chairman had found no small difficulty in showing that the investment was likely to prove either safe or remunerative. Again, only a fortnight before, the Government had made a formal application to me on the same subject. I cabled the directors, and received a prompt reply in the single word "Tootsums," which in our code meant, "Must absolutely and finally decline to entertain any applications." I communicated the contents of the cable to Senor Don Antonio de la Casabianca, the Minister of Finance, who had, of course, communicated them in turn to the President.
I ventured to remind his Excellency of these facts. He heard me with silent attention.
"I fear," I concluded, "therefore, that it is impossible for me to be of any assistance to your Excellency."
He nodded, and gave a slight sigh. Then, with an air of closing the subject, he said:
"I suppose the directors are past reason. Help yourself to a brandy and soda."
"Allow me to mix one for you, sir," I answered.
While I was preparing our beverages he remained silent. When I had sat down again he said:
"You occupy a very responsible position here for so young a man, Mr. Martin—not beyond your merits, I am sure."
"They leave you a pretty free hand, don't they?"
I replied that as far as routine business went I did much as seemed good in my own eyes.
"Routine business? including investments, for instance?" he asked.
"Yes," said I; "investments in the ordinary course of business—discounting bills and putting money out on loan and mortgage over here. I place the money, and merely notify the people at home of what I have done."
"A most proper confidence to repose in you," the President was good enough say. "Confidence is the life of business; you must trust a man. It would be absurd to make you send home the bills, and deeds, and certificate, and what not. Of course they wouldn't do that."
Though this was a statement, somehow it also sounded like a question, so I answered:
"As a rule they do me the compliment of taking my word. The fact is, they are, as your Excellency says, obliged to trust somebody."
"Exactly as I thought. And you sometimes have large sums to place?"
At this point, notwithstanding my respect for the President, I began to smell a rat.
"Oh, no, sir," I replied, "usually very small. Our business is not so extensive as we could wish."
"Whatever," said the President, looking me straight in the face, "whatever may be usual, at this moment you have a large sum—a very respectable sum—of money in your safe at the bank, waiting for investment."
"How the devil do you know that?" I cried.
"Mr. Martin! It is no doubt my fault; I am too prone to ignore etiquette; but you forget yourself."
I hastened to apologize, although I was pretty certain the President was contemplating a queer transaction, if not flat burglary.
"Ten thousand pardons, your Excellency, for my most unbecoming tone, but may I ask how you became possessed of this information?"
"Jones told me," he said simply.
As it would not have been polite to express the surprise I felt at Jones' simplicity in choosing such a confidant, I held my peace.
"Yes," continued the President, "owing to the recent sales of your real property in this country (sales due, I fear, to a want of confidence in my administration), you have at this moment a sum of three hundred thousand dollars in the bank safe. Now (don't interrupt me, please), the experience of a busy life teaches me that commercial reputation and probity depend on results, not on methods. Your directors have a prejudice against me and my Government. That prejudice you, with your superior opportunities for judgment, cannot share. You will serve your employers best by doing for them what they haven't the sense and courage to do for themselves. I propose that you should assume the responsibility of lending me this money. The transaction will redound to the profit of the bank. It shall also," he added slowly, "redound to your profit."
I began to see my way. But there were difficulties.
"What am I to tell the directors?" I asked.
"You will make the usual return of investments and debts outstanding, mortgages, loans on approved security—but you know better than I do."
"False returns, your Excellency means?"
"They will no doubt be formally inaccurate," the President admitted.
"What if they ask for proofs?" said I.
"Sufficient unto the day," said the President.
"You have rather surprised me, sir," I said, "but I am most anxious to oblige you, and to forward the welfare of Aureataland. There are, however, two points which occur to me. First, how am I to be insured against not getting my interest? That I must have."
"Quite so," he interrupted. "And the second point I can anticipate. It is, what token of my gratitude for your timely assistance can I prevail on you to accept?"
"Your Excellency's knowledge of human nature is surprising."
"Kindly give me your attention, Mr. Martin, and I will try to satisfy both your very reasonable requirements. You have $300,000; those you will hand over to me, receiving in return Government six per cent. bonds for that amount, I will then hand back to you $65,000; 45,000 you will retain as security for your interest. In the event of any failure on the part of Aureataland to meet her obligations honorably, you will pay the interest on the whole 300,000 out of that sum. That secures you for more than two years against absolute failure of interest, which in reality you need not fear. Till the money is wanted you will have the use of it. The remaining 20,000 I shall beg of you to accept as your commission, or rather as a token of my esteem. Two hundred thousand absolutely—45,000 as long as Aureataland pays interest! You must admit I deal with you as one gentleman with another, Mr. Martin. In the result, your directors get their interest, I get my loan, you get your bonus. We are all benefited; no one is hurt! All this is affected at the cost of a harmless stratagem."
I was full of admiration. The scheme was very neat, and, as far as the President and myself were concerned, he had been no more than just in pointing out its advantages. As for the directors, they would probably get their interest; anyhow, they would get it for two years. There was risk, of course; a demand for evidence of my alleged investments, or a sudden order to realize a heavy sum at short notice, would bring the house about my ears. But I did not anticipate this contretemps, and at the worst I had my twenty thousand dollars and could make myself scarce therewith. These calculations were quite correct at the moment, but I upset them afterward by spending the dollars and by contracting a tie which made flight from Aureataland a distasteful alternative.
"Well, Mr. Martin," said the President, "do you agree?"
I still hesitated. Was it a moral scruple? Probably not, unless, indeed, prudence and morality are the same thing.
The President rose and put his hand on my shoulder.
"Better say yes. I might take it, you know, and cause you to disappear—believe me, with reluctance, Mr. Martin. It is true I shouldn't like this course. It would perhaps make my position here untenable. But not having the money would certainly make it untenable."
I saw the force of this argument, and gulping down my brandy and soda, I said:
"I can refuse your Excellency nothing."
"Then take your hat and come along to the bank," said he.
This was sharp work.
"Your Excellency does not mean to take the money now—to-night?" I exclaimed.
"Not to take, Mr. Martin—to receive it from you. We have made our bargain. What is the objection to carrying it out promptly?"
"But I must have the bonds. They must be prepared, sir."
"They are here," he said, taking a bundle from the drawer of a writing-table. "Three hundred thousand dollars, six per cent. stock, signed by myself, and countersigned by Don Antonio. Take your hat and come along."
I did as I was bid.
AN EXCESS OF AUTHORITY.
It was a beautiful moonlight night, and Whittingham was looking her best as we made our way along the avenue leading to the Piazza 1871. The President walked briskly, silent but serene; I followed, the trouble in my mind reflected in a somewhat hang-dog air, and I was not much comforted when the President broke the stillness of the night by saying:
"You have set your foot on the first rung of the ladder that leads to fame and wealth, Mr. Martin."
I was rather afraid I had set it on the first rung of the ladder that leads to the gallows. But there the foot was; what the ladder turned out to be was in the hands of the gods; so I threw off care, and as we entered the Piazza I pointed to the statue and said:
"Behold my inspiring example, your Excellency."
"By Jove, yes!" he replied; "I make the most of my opportunities."
I knew he regarded me as one of his opportunities, and was making the most of me. This is not a pleasant point of view to regard one's self from, so I changed the subject, and said:
"Shall we call for Don Antonio?"
"Well, as he's Minister of Finance, I thought perhaps his presence would make the matter more regular."
"If the presence of the President," said that official, "can't make a matter regular, I don't know what can. Let him sleep on. Isn't his signature on the bonds enough?"
What could I do? I made one more weak objection:
"What shall we tell Jones?"
"What shall we tell Jones?" he echoed. "Really, Mr. Martin, you must use your discretion as to what you tell your employees. You can hardly expect me to tell Jones anything, beyond that it's a fine morning."
We had now reached the bank, which stood in Liberty Street, a turning out of the Piazza. I took out my key, unlocked the door, and we entered together. We passed into my inner sanctum, where the safe stood.
"What's it in?" asked the President.
"United States bonds, and bills on New York and London," I replied.
"Good," said he. "Let me look."
I undid the safe, and took out the securities. He examined them carefully, placing each after due scrutiny in a small handbag, in which he had brought down the bonds I was to receive. I stood by, holding a shaded candle. At this moment a voice cried from the door:
"If you move you're dead men!"
I started and looked up. The President looked up without starting. There was dear old Jones, descended from his upper chamber, where he and Mrs. Jones resided. He was clad only in his night-shirt, and was leveling a formidable gun full at the august head of his Excellency.
"Ah, Mr. Jones," said the latter "it's a fine morning."
"Good Heavens, the President!" cried Jones; "and Mr. Martin! Why, what on earth, gentlemen—"
The President gently waved one hand toward me, as if to say, "Mr. Martin will explain," and went on placing his securities in the bag.
In face of this crisis my hesitation left me.
"I have received a cable from Europe, Jones," said I, "instructing me to advance a sum of money to his Excellency; I am engaged in carrying out these instructions."
"Cable?" said Jones. "Where is it?"
"In my pocket," said I, feeling for it. "No! Why I must have left it at the Golden House."
The President came to my assistance.
"I saw it on the table just before we started. Though I presume Mr. Jones has no right—"
"None at all," I said briskly.
"Yet, as a matter of concession, Mr. Martin will no doubt show it to him to-morrow?"
"Strictly as a matter of concession perhaps I will, though I am bound to say that I am surprised at your manner, Mr. Jones."
Jones looked sadly puzzled.
"It's all irregular, sir," said he.
"Hardly more so than your costume!" said the President pleasantly.
Jones was a modest man, and being thus made aware of the havoc the draught was playing with his airy covering, he hastily closed the door, and said to me appealingly:
"It's all right, sir, I suppose?"
"Perfectly right," said I.
"But highly confidential," added the President. "And you will put me under a personal obligation, Mr. Jones, and at the same time fulfill your duty to your employers, if you preserve silence till the transaction is officially announced. A man who serves me does not regret it."
Here he was making the most of another opportunity—Jones this time.
"Enough of this," I said. "I will go over the matter in the morning, and meanwhile hadn't you better go back to—"
"Mrs. Jones," interjected his Excellency. "And mind, silence, Mr. Jones!"
He walked up to Jones as he said this, and looked hard at him.
"Silent men prosper best, and live longest, Mr. Jones."
Jones looked into his steely eyes, and suddenly fell all of a tremble.
The President was satisfied. He abruptly pushed him out of the room, and we heard his shambling steps going up the staircase.
His Excellency turned to me, and said with apparent annoyance:
"You leave a great deal to me, Mr. Martin."
He had certainly done more than tell Jones it was a fine morning. But I was too much troubled to thank him; I was thinking of the cable. The President divined my thoughts, and said:
"You must prepare that cable."
"Yes," I replied; "that would reassure him. But I haven't had much practice in that sort of thing, and I don't quite know—"
The President scribbled a few words on a bit of paper, and said:
"Take that to the post office and they'll give you the proper form; you can fill it up."
Certainly some things go easily if the head of the state is your fellow-criminal.
"And now, Mr. Martin, it grows late. I have my securities; you have your bonds. We have won over Jones. All goes well. Aureataland is saved. You have made your fortune, for there lie your sixty-five thousand dollars. And, in fine, I am much obliged to you. I will not trouble you to attend me on my return. Good-night, Mr. Martin."
He went out, and I threw myself down in my office chair, and sat gazing at the bonds he had left me. I wondered whether he had merely made a tool of me; whether I could trust him; whether I had done well to sacrifice my honesty, relying on his promises. And yet there lay my reward; and, as purely moral considerations did not trouble me, I soon arose, put the Government bonds and the sixty-five thousand dollars in securities in the safe, locked up everything, and went home to my lodgings. As I went in it was broad daylight, for the clock had gone five, and I met Father Jacques sallying forth. He had already breakfasted, and was on his way to administer early consolation to the flower-women in the Piazza. He stopped me with a grieved look, and said:
"Ah, my friend, these are untimely hours."
I saw I was laboring under an unjust suspicion—a most revolting thing.
"I have only just come from the bank," I said. "I had to dine at the Golden House and afterward returned to finish up a bit of work."
"Ah! that is well," he cried. "It is, then, the industrious and not the idle apprentice I meet?" referring to a series of famous prints with which my room was decorated, a gift from my father on my departure.
I nodded and passed on, saying to myself: "Deuced industrious, indeed. Not many men have done such a night's work as I have."
And that was how my fortunes became bound up with those of the Aureataland national debt.
OVERTURES FROM THE OPPOSITION.
After the incidents above recorded, things went on quietly enough for some months. I had a serious talk with Jones, reproaching him gravely for his outrageous demeanor. He capitulated abjectly on being shown the cable, which was procured in the manner kindly indicated by the President. The latter had perhaps been in too great a hurry with his heavy guns, for his hint of violence had rather stirred than allayed Jones' apprehensions. If there were nothing to conceal, why should his Excellency not stick at murder to hide it? However, I explained to him the considerations of high policy, dictating inviolable secrecy, and justifying a somewhat arbitrary way of dealing with a trusted official; and the marked graciousness with which Jones was received when he met the President at the ministry of finance on current business went far to obliterate his unpleasant recollections. I further bound him to my fortunes by obtaining for him a rise of salary from the directors, "in consequence of the favorable report of his conduct received from Mr. Martin."
Peaceful as matters seemed, I was not altogether at ease. To begin with the new loan did not apparently at all improve the financial position of Aureataland. Desolation still reigned on the scene of the harbor works; there was the usual difficulty in paying salaries and meeting current expenditure. The President did not invite my confidence as to the disposal of his funds; indeed before long I was alarmed to see a growing coldness in his manner, which I considered at once ungrateful and menacing; and when the half-year came round he firmly refused to disburse more than half the amount of interest due on the second loan, thus forcing me to make an inroad on my reserve of forty-five thousand dollars. He gave me many good reasons for this course of conduct, dwelling chiefly on the necessary unproductiveness of public works in their early stages, and confidently promising full payment with arrears next time. Nevertheless, I began to see that I must face the possibility of a continual drain on resources that I had fondly hoped would be available for my own purposes for a considerable time at least. Thus one thing and another contributed to open a breach between his Excellency and myself, and, although I never ceased to feel his charm as a private companion, my distrust of him as a ruler, and, I may add, as a fellow-conspirator, steadily deepened.
Other influences were at this time—for we have now reached the beginning of 1883—at work in the same direction. Rich in the possession of my "bonus," I had plunged even more freely than before into the gayeties of Whittingham, and where I was welcome before, I was now a doubly honored guest. I had also taken to play on a somewhat high scale, and it was my reputation as a daring gambler that procured me the honor of an acquaintance with the signorina, the lady to whom the President had referred during his interview with me; and my acquaintance with the signorina was very rich in results.
This lady was, after the President, perhaps the best-known person in Aureataland—best known, that is, by name and face and fame—for her antecedents and circumstances were wrapped in impenetrable mystery. When I arrived in the country the Signorina Christina Nugent had been settled there about a year. She had appeared originally as a member of an operatic company, which had paid a visit to our National Theater from the United States. The company passed on its not very brilliant way, but the signorina remained behind. It was said she had taken a fancy to Whittingham, and, being independent of her profession, had determined to make a sojourn there. At any rate, there she was; whether she took a fancy to Whittingham, or whether someone in Whittingham took a fancy to her, remained in doubt. She established herself in a pretty villa closely adjoining the Golden House; it stood opposite the presidential grounds, commanding a view of that stately inclosure; and here she dwelt, under the care of a lady whom she called "Aunt," known to the rest of the world as Mrs. Carrington. The title "Signorina" was purely professional; for all I know the name "Nugent" was equally a creature of choice; but, anyhow, the lady herself never professed to be anything but English, and openly stated that she retained her title simply because it was more musical than that of "Miss." The old lady and the young one lived together in great apparent amity, and certainly in the utmost material comfort; for they probably got through more money than anyone in the town, and there always seemed to be plenty more where that came from. Where it did come from was, I need hardly say, a subject of keen curiosity in social circles; and when I state that the signorina was now about twenty-three years of age, and of remarkably prepossessing appearance, it will be allowed that we in Whittingham were no worse than other people if we entertained some uncharitable suspicions. The signorina, however, did not make the work of detection at all easy. She became almost at once a leading figure in society; her salon was the meeting-place of all parties and most sets; she received many gracious attentions from the Golden House, but none on which slander could definitely settle. She was also frequently the hostess of members of the Opposition, and of no one more often than their leader, Colonel George McGregor, a gentleman of Scotch extraction, but not pronouncedly national characteristics, who had attained a high position in the land of his adoption; for not only did he lead the Opposition in politics, but he was also second in command of the army. He entered the Chamber as one of the President's nominees (for the latter had reserved to himself power to nominate five members), but at the time of which I write the colonel had deserted his former chief, and, secure in his popularity with the forces, defied the man by whose help he had risen. Naturally, the President disliked him, a feeling I cordially shared. But his Excellency's disapproval did not prevent the signorina receiving McGregor with great cordiality, though here again with no more empressement than his position seemed to demand.
I have as much curiosity as my neighbors, and I was proportionately gratified when the doors of "Mon Repos," as the signorina called her residence, were opened to me. My curiosity, I must confess, was not unmixed with other feelings; for I was a young man at heart, though events had thrown sobering responsibilities upon me, and the sight of the signorina in her daily drives was enough to inspire a thrill even in the soul of a bank manager. She was certainly very beautiful—a tall, fair girl, with straight features and laughing eyes. I shall not attempt more description, because all such descriptions sound commonplace, and the signorina was, even by the admission of her enemies, at least very far from commonplace. It must suffice to say that, like Father O'Flynn, she "had such a way with her" that all of us men in Aureataland, old and young, rich and poor, were at her feet, or ready to be there on the least encouragement. She was, to my thinking, the very genius of health, beauty, and gayety; and she put the crowning touch to her charms by very openly and frankly soliciting and valuing the admiration she received. For, after all, it's only exceptional men who are attracted by difficile beauty; to most of us a gracious reception of our timid advances is the most subtle temptation of the devil.
It may be supposed, then, that I thought my money very well invested when it procured me an invitation to "Mon Repos," where the lady of the house was in the habit of allowing a genteel amount of gambling among her male friends. She never played herself, but stood and looked on with much interest. On occasion she would tempt fortune by the hand of a chosen deputy, and nothing could be prettier or more artistic than her behavior. She was just eager enough for a girl unused to the excitement and fond of triumph, just indifferent enough to show that her play was merely a pastime, and the gain of the money or its loss a matter of no moment. Ah! signorina, you were a great artist.
At "Mon Repos" I soon became an habitual, and, I was fain to think, a welcome, guest. Mrs. Carrington, who entertained a deep distrust of the manners and excesses of Aureataland, was good enough to consider me eminently respectable, while the signorina was graciousness itself. I was even admitted to the select circle at the dinner party which, as a rule, preceded her Wednesday evening reception, and I was a constant figure round the little roulette board, which, of all forms of gaming, was our hostess' favorite delectation. The colonel was, not to my pleasure, an equally invariable guest, and the President himself would often honor the party with his presence, an honor we found rather expensive, for his luck at all games of skill or chance was extraordinary.
"I have always trusted Fortune," he would say, "and to me she is not fickle."
"Who would be fickle if your Excellency were pleased to trust her?" the signorina would respond, with a glance of almost fond admiration.
This sort of thing did not please McGregor. He made no concealment of the fact that he claimed the foremost place among the signorina's admirers, utterly declining to make way even for the President. The latter took his boorishness very quietly; and I could not avoid the conclusion that the President held, or thought he held, the trumps. I was, naturally, intensely jealous of both these great men, and, although I had no cause to complain of my treatment, I could not stifle some resentment at the idea that I was, after all, an outsider and not allowed a part in the real drama that was going on. My happiness was further damped by the fact that luck ran steadily against me, and I saw my bonus dwindling very rapidly. I suppose I may as well be frank, and confess that my bonus, to speak strictly, vanished within six months after I first set foot in "Mon Repos," and I found it necessary to make that temporary use of the "interest fund," which the President had indicated as open to me under the terms of our bargain. However, my uneasiness on this score was lightened when the next installment of interest was punctually paid, and, with youthful confidence, I made little doubt that luck would turn before long.
Thus time passed on, and the beginning of 1884 found us all leading an apparently merry and untroubled life. In public affairs the temper was very different. The scarcity of money was intense, and serious murmuring had arises when the President "squandered" his ready money in buying interest, leaving his civil servants and soldiers unpaid. This was the topic of much discussion in the press at the time, when I went up one March evening to the signorina's. I had been detained at the bank, and found the play in full swing when I came in. The signorina was taking no part in it, but sat by herself on a low lounge by the veranda window. I went up to her and made my bow.
"You spare us but little of your time, Mr. Martin," she said.
"Ah, but you have all my thoughts," I replied, for she was looking charming.
"I don't care so much about your thoughts," she said. Then, after a pause, she went on, "It's very hot here, come into the conservatory."
It almost looked as though she had been waiting for me, and I followed in high delight into the long, narrow glass house running parallel to the salon. High green plants hid us from the view of those inside, and we only heard distinctly his Excellency's voice, saying with much geniality to the colonel, "Well, you must be lucky in love, colonel," from which I concluded that the colonel was not in the vein at cards.
The signorina smiled slightly as she heard; then she plucked a white rose, turned round, and stood facing me, slightly flushed as though with some inner excitement.
"I am afraid those two gentlemen do not love one another," she said.
"Hardly," I assented.
"And you, do you love them—or either of them?"
"I love only one person in Aureataland," I replied, as ardently as I dared.
The signorina bit her rose, glancing up at me with unfeigned amusement and pleasure. I think I have mentioned that she didn't object to honest admiration.
"Is it possible you mean me?" she said, making me a little courtesy. "I only think so because most of the Whittingham ladies would not satisfy your fastidious taste."
"No lady in the world could satisfy me except one," I answered, thinking she took it a little too lightly.
"Ah! so you say," she said. "And yet I don't suppose you would do anything for me, Mr. Martin?"
"It would be my greatest happiness," I cried.
She said nothing, but stood there, biting the rose.
"Give it to me," I said; "it shall be my badge of service."
"You will serve me, then?" said she.
"For what reward?"
"Why, the rose!"
"I should like the owner too," I ventured to remark.
"The rose is prettier than the owner," she said; "and, at any rate, one thing at a time, Mr. Martin! Do you pay your servants all their wages in advance?"
My practice was so much the contrary that I really couldn't deny the force of her reasoning. She held out the rose. I seized it and pressed it close to my lips, thereby squashing it considerably.
"Dear me," said the signorina, "I wonder if I had given you the other thing whether you would have treated it so roughly."
"I'll show you in a moment," said I.
"Thank you, no, not just now," she said, showing no alarm, for she knew she was safe with me. Then she said abruptly:
"Are you a Constitutionalist or a Liberal, Mr. Martin?"
I must explain that, in the usual race for the former title, the President's party had been first at the post, and the colonel's gang (as I privately termed it) had to put up with the alternative designation. Neither name bore any relation to facts.
"Are we going to talk politics?" said I reproachfully.
"Yes, a little; you see we got to an impasse on the other topic. Tell me."
"Which are you, signorina?" I asked.
I really wanted to know; so did a great many people.
She thought for a moment, and then said:
"I have a great regard for the President. He has been most kind to me. He has shown me real affection."
"The devil he has!" I muttered.
"I beg your pardon?" said she.
"I only said, 'Of course he has.' The President has the usual complement of eyes."
The signorina smiled again, but went on as if I hadn't spoken.
"On the other hand, I cannot disguise from myself that some of his measures are not wise."
I said I had never been able to disguise it from myself.
"The colonel, of course, is of the same opinion," she continued. "About the debt, for instance. I believe your bank is interested in it?"
This was no secret, so I said:
"Oh, yes, to a considerable extent."
"And you?" she asked softly.
"Oh, I am not a capitalist! no money of mine has gone into the debt."
"No money of yours, no. But aren't you interested in it?" she persisted.
This was rather odd. Could she know anything?
She drew nearer to me, and, laying a hand lightly on my arm, said reproachfully:
"Do you love people, and yet not trust them, Mr. Martin?"
This was exactly my state of feeling toward the signorina, but I could not say so. I was wondering how far I should be wise to trust her, and that depended largely on how far his Excellency had seen fit to trust her with my secrets. I finally said:
"Without disclosing other people's secrets, signorina, I may admit that if anything went wrong with the debt my employers' opinion of my discretion would be severely shaken."
"Of your discretion," she said, laughing. "Thank you, Mr. Martin. And you would wish that not to happen?"
"I would take a good deal of pains to prevent its happening."
"Not less willingly if your interest and mine coincided?"
I was about to make a passionate reply when we heard the President's voice saying:
"And where is our hostess? I should like to thank her before I go."
"Hush," whispered the signorina. "We must go back. You will be true to me, Mr. Martin?"
"Call me Jack," said I idiotically.
"Then you will be true, O Jack?" she said, stifling a laugh.
"Till death," said I, hoping it would not be necessary.
She gave me her hand, which I kissed with fervor, and we returned to the salon, to find all the players risen from the table and standing about in groups, waiting to make their bows till the President had gone through that ceremony. I was curious to hear if anything passed between him and the signorina, but I was pounced upon by Donna Antonia, the daughter of the minister of finance, who happened to be present, notwithstanding the late hour, as a guest of the signorina's for the night. She was a handsome young lady, a Spanish brunette of the approved pattern, but with manners formed at a New York boarding school, where she had undergone a training that had tempered, without destroying, her native gentility. She had distinguished me very favorably, and I was vain enough to suppose she honored me by some jealousy of my penchant for the signorina.
"I hope you have enjoyed yourself in the conservatory," she said maliciously.
"We were talking business, Donna Antonia," I replied.
"Ah! business! I hear of nothing but business. There is papa gone down to the country and burying himself alive to work out some great scheme of business."
I pricked up my ears.
"Ah! what scheme is that?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't know! Something about that horrid debt. But I was told not to say anything about it!"
The debt was becoming a bore. The whole air was full of it. I hastily paid Donna Antonia a few incoherent compliments, and took my leave. As I was putting on my coat Colonel McGregor joined me and, with more friendliness than he usually showed me, accompanied me down the avenue toward the Piazza. After some indifferent remarks he began:
"Martin, you and I have separate interests in some matters, but I think we have the same in others."
I knew at once what he meant; it was that debt over again!
I remained silent, and he continued:
"About the debt, for instance. You are interested in the debt?"
"Somewhat," said I. "A banker generally is interested in a debt."
"I thought so," said the colonel. "A time may come when we can act together. Meanwhile, keep your eye on the debt. Good-night!"
We parted at the door of his chambers in the Piazza, and I went on to my lodgings.
As I got into bed, rather puzzled and very uneasy, I damned the debt. Then, remembering that the debt was, as it seemed, for some reason a common interest to the signorina and myself, I apologized to it, and fell asleep.
I APPRECIATE THE SITUATION.
The flight of time brought no alleviation to the troubles of Aureataland. If an individual hard up is a pathetic sight, a nation hard up is an alarming spectacle; and Aureataland was very hard up. I suppose somebody had some money. But the Government had none; in consequence the Government employees had none, the officials had none, the President had none, and finally, I had none. The bank had a little—of other people's, of course—but I was quite prepared for a "run" on us any day, and had cabled to the directors to implore a remittance in cash, for our notes were at a discount humiliating to contemplate. Political strife ran high. I dropped into the House of Assembly one afternoon toward the end of May, and, looking down from the gallery, saw the colonel in the full tide of wrathful declamation. He was demanding of miserable Don Antonio when the army was to be paid. The latter sat cowering under his scorn, and would, I verily believe, have bolted out of the House had he not been nailed to his seat by the cold eye of the President, who was looking on from his box. The minister on rising had nothing to urge but vague promises of speedy payment; but he utterly lacked the confident effrontery of his chief, and nobody was deceived by his weak protestations. I left the House in a considerable uproar, and strolled on to the house of a friend of mine, one Mme. Devarges, the widow of a French gentleman who had found his way to Whittingham from New Calendonia. Politeness demanded the assumption that he had found his way to New Caledonia owing to political troubles, but the usual cloud hung over the precise date and circumstances of his patriotic sacrifice. Madame sometimes considered it necessary to bore herself and others with denunciations of the various tyrants or would-be tyrants of France; but, apart from this pious offering on the shrine of her husband's reputation, she was a bright and pleasant little woman. I found assembled round her tea-table a merry party, including Donna Antonia, unmindful of her father's agonies, and one Johnny Carr, who deserves mention as being the only honest man in Aureataland. I speak, of course, of the place as I found it. He was a young Englishman, what they call a "cadet," of a good family, shipped off with a couple of thousand pounds to make his fortune. Land was cheap among us, and Johnny had bought an estate and settled down as a landowner. Recently he had blossomed forth as a keen Constitutionalist and a devoted admirer of the President's, and held a seat in the assembly in that interest. Johnny was not a clever man nor a wise one, but he was merry, and, as I have thought it necessary to mention, honest.
"Hallo, Johnny! Why not at the House?" said I to him. "You'll want every vote to-night. Be off and help the ministry, and take Donna Antonia with you. They're eating up the Minister of Finance."
"All right! I'm going as soon as I've had another muffin," said Johnny. "But what's the row about?"
"Well, they want their money," I replied; "and Don Antonio won't give it them. Hence bad feeling."
"Tell you what it is," said Johnny; "he hasn't got a—"
Here Donna Antonia struck in, rather suddenly, I thought.
"Do stop the gentleman talking politics, Mme. Devarges. They'll spoil our tea-party."
"Your word is law," I said; "but I should like to know what Don Antonio hasn't got."
"Now do be quiet," she rejoined; "isn't it quite enough that he has got—a charming daughter?"
"And a most valuable one," I replied, with a bow, for I saw that for some reason or other Donna Antonia did not mean to let me pump Johnny Carr, and I wanted to pump him.
"Don't say another word, Mr. Carr," she said, with a laugh. "You know you don't know anything, do you?"
"Good Lord, no!" said Johnny.
Meanwhile Mme. Devarges was giving me a cup of tea. As she handed it to me, she said in a low voice:
"If I were his friend I should take care Johnny didn't know anything, Mr. Martin."
"If I were his friend I should take care he told me what he knew, Mme. Devarges," I replied.
"Perhaps that's what the colonel thinks," she said. "Johnny has just been telling us how very attentive he has become. And the signorina too, I hear."
"You don't mean that?" I exclaimed. "But, after all, pure kindness, no doubt!"
"You have received many attentions from those quarters," she said. "No doubt you are a good judge of the motives."
"Don't, now don't be disagreeable," said I. "I came here for peace."
"Poor young man! have you lost all your money? Is it possible that you, like Don Antonio, haven't got a—"
"What is going to happen?" I asked, for Mme. Devarges often had information.
"I don't know," she said. "But if I owned national bonds, I should sell."
"Pardon me, madame; you would offer to sell."
"Ah! I see my advice comes too late."
I did not see any need to enlighten her farther. So I passed on to Donna Antonia, who had sat somewhat sulkily since her outburst. I sat down by her and said:
"Surely I haven't offended you?"
"You know you wouldn't care if you had," she said, with a reproachful but not unkind glance. "Now, if it were the signorina—"
I never object to bowing down in the temple of Rimmon, so I said:
"Hang the signorina!"
"If I thought you meant that," said Donna Antonia, "I might be able to help you."
"Do I want help?" I asked.
"Yes," said she.
"Then suppose I do mean it?"
Donna Antonia refused to be frivolous. With a look of genuine distress she said:
"You will not let your real friends save you, Mr. Martin. You know you want help. Why don't you consider the state of your affairs?"
"In that, at least, my friends in Whittingham are very ready to help me," I answered, with some annoyance.
"If you take it in that way," she replied sadly, "I can do nothing."
I was rather touched. Clearly she wished to be of some use to me, and for a moment I thought I might do better to tear myself free from my chains, and turn to the refuge opened to me. But I could not do this; and, thinking it would be rather mean to take advantage of her interest in me only to use it for my own purposes, I yielded to conscience and said:
"Donna Antonia, I will be straightforward with you. You can only help me if I accept your guidance? I can't do that. I am too deep in."
"Yes, you are deep in, and eager to be deeper," she said. "Well, so be it. If that is so I cannot help you."
"Thank you for your kind attempt," said I. "I shall very likely be sorry some day that I repulse it. I shall always be glad to remember that you made it."
She looked at me a moment, and said:
"We have ruined you among us."
"Mind, body, and estate?"
She made no reply, and I saw my return to flippancy wounded her. So I rose and took my leave. Johnny Carr went with me.
"Things look queer, eh, old man?" said he. "But the President will pull through in spite of the colonel and his signorina."
"Johnny," said I, "you hurt my feelings; but, still, I will give you a piece of advice."
"Drive on," said Johnny.
"Marry Donna Antonia," said I. "She's a good girl and a clever girl, and won't let you get drunk or robbed."
"By Jove, that's not a bad idea!" said he. "Why don't you do it yourself?"
"Because I'm like you, Johnny—an ass," I replied, and left him wondering why, if he was an ass and I was an ass, one ass should marry Donna Antonia, and not both or neither.
As I went along I bought the Gazette, the government organ, and read therein:
"At a Cabinet Council this afternoon, presided over by his Excellency, we understand that the arrangements connected with the national debt formed the subject of discussion. The resolutions arrived at are at present strictly confidential, but we have the best authority for stating that the measures to be adopted will have the effect of materially alleviating the present tension, and will afford unmixed satisfaction to the immense majority of the citizens of Aureataland. The President will once again be hailed as the saviour of his country."
"I wonder if the immense majority will include me," said I. "I think I will go and see his Excellency."
Accordingly, the next morning I took my way to the Golden House, where I learned that the President was at the Ministry of Finance. Arriving there, I sent in my card, writing thereon a humble request for a private interview. I was ushered into Don Antonio's room, where I found the minister himself, the President, and Johnny Carr. As I entered and the servant, on a sign from his Excellency, placed a chair for me, the latter said rather stiffly:
"As I presume this is a business visit, Mr. Martin, it is more regular that I should receive you in the presence of one of my constitutional advisers. Mr. Carr is acting as my secretary, and you can speak freely before him."
I was annoyed at failing in my attempt to see the President alone, but not wishing to show it, I merely bowed and said:
"I venture to intrude on your Excellency, in consequence of a letter from my directors. They inform me that, to use their words, 'disquieting rumors' are afloat on the exchanges in regard to the Aureataland loan, and they direct me to submit to your Excellency the expediency of giving some public notification relative to the payment of the interest falling due next month. It appears from their communication that it is apprehended that some difficulty may occur in the matter."
"Would not this application, if necessary at all, have been, more properly made to the Ministry of Finance in the first instance?" said the President. "These details hardly fall within my province."
"I can only follow my instructions, your Excellency," I replied.
"Have you any objection, Mr. Martin," said the President, "to allowing myself and my advisers to see this letter?"
"I am empowered to submit it only to your Excellency's own eye."
"Oh, only to my eye," said he, with an amused expression. "That was why the interview was to be private?"
"Exactly, sir," I replied. "I intend no disrespect to the Minister of Finance or to your secretary, sir, but I am bound by my orders."
"You are an exemplary servant, Mr. Martin. But I don't think I need trouble you about it further. Is it a cable?"
He smiled so wickedly at this question that I saw he had penetrated my little fiction. However, I only said:
"A letter, sir."
"Well, gentlemen," said he to the others, "I think we may reassure Mr. Martin. Tell your directors this, Mr. Martin: The Government does not see any need of a public notification, and none will be made. I think we agree, gentlemen, that to acknowledge the necessity of any such action would be highly derogatory. But assure them that the President has stated to you, Mr. Martin, personally, with the concurrence of his advisers, that he anticipates no difficulties in your being in a position to remit the full amount of interest to them on the proper day."
"I may assure them, sir, that the interest will be punctually paid?"
"Surely I expressed myself in a manner you could understand," said he, with the slightest emphasis on the "you." "Aureataland will meet her obligations. You will receive all your due, Mr. Martin. That is so, gentlemen?"
Don Antonio acquiesced at once. Johnny Carr, I noticed, said nothing, and fidgeted rather uneasily in his chair. I knew what the President meant. He meant, "If we don't pay, pay it out of your reserve fund." Alas, the reserve fund was considerably diminished; I had enough, and just enough, left to pay the next installment if I paid none of my own debts. I felt very vicious as I saw his Excellency taking keen pleasure in the consciousness of my difficulties (for he had a shrewd notion of how the land lay), but of course I could say nothing. So I rose and bowed myself out, feeling I had gained nothing, except a very clear conviction that I should not see the color of the President's money on the next interest day. True, I could just pay myself. But what would happen next time? And if he wouldn't pay, and I couldn't pay, the game would be up. As to the original loan, it is true I had no responsibility; but then, if no interest were paid, the fact that I had applied the second loan, my loan, in a different manner from what I was authorized to do, and had represented myself to have done, would be inevitably discovered. And my acceptance of the bonus, my dealings with the reserve fund, my furnishing inaccurate returns of investments, all this would, I knew, look rather queer to people who didn't know the circumstances.
When I went back to the bank, revolving these things in my mind, I found Jones employed in arranging the correspondence. It was part of his duty to see to the preservation and filing of all letters arriving from Europe, and, strange to say, he delighted in the task. It was part of my duty to see he did his; so I sat down and began to turn over the pile of letters and messages which he had put on my desk; they dated back two years; this surprised me, and I said:
"Rather behindhand, aren't you. Jones?"
"Yes, sir, rather. Fact is, I've done 'em before, but as you've never initialed 'em, I thought I ought to bring 'em to your notice."
"Quite right—very neglectful of me. I suppose they're all right?"
"Yes, sir, all right."
"Then I won't trouble to go through them."
"They're all there, sir, except, of course, the cable about the second loan, sir."
"Except what?" I said.
"The cable about the second loan," he repeated.
I was glad to be reminded of this, for of course I wished to remove that document before the bundle finally took its place among the archives. Indeed, I thought I had done so. But why had Jones removed it? Surely Jones was not as skeptical as that?
"Ah, and where have you put that?"
"Why, sir, his Excellency took that."
"What?" I cried.
"Yes, sir. Didn't I mention it? Why, the day after you and the President were here that night, his Excellency came down in the afternoon, when you'd gone out to the Piazza, and said he wanted it. He said, sir, that you'd said it was to go to the Ministry of Finance. He was very affable, sir, and told me that it was necessary the original should be submitted to the minister for his inspection; and as he was passing by (he'd come in to cash a check on his private account) he'd take it up himself. Hasn't he given it back to you, sir? He said he would."
I had just strength enough to gasp out:
"Slipped his memory, no doubt. All right, Jones."
"May I go now, sir?" said Jones. "Mrs. Jones wanted me to go with her to—"
"Yes, go," said I, and as he went out I added a destination different, no doubt, from what the good lady had proposed. For I saw it all now. That old villain (pardon my warmth) had stolen my forged cable, and, if need arose, meant to produce it as his own justification. I had been done, done brown—and Jones' idiocy had made the task easy. I had no evidence but my word that the President knew the message was fabricated. Up till now I had thought that if I stood convicted I should have the honor of his Excellency's support in the dock. But now! why now, I might prove myself a thief, but I couldn't prove him one. I had convinced Jones, not for my good, but for his. I had forged papers, not for my good, but for his. True, I had spent the money myself, but—
"Damn it all!" I cried in the bitterness of my spirit, "he won about three-quarters of that."
And his Excellency's words came back to my memory, "I make the most of my opportunities."
MOURONS POUR LA PATRIE!
The next week was a busy one for me. I spent it in scraping together every bit of cash I could lay my hands on. If I could get together enough to pay the interest on the three hundred thousand dollars supposed to be invested in approved securities,—really disposed of in a manner only known to his Excellency,—I should have six months to look about me. Now, remaining out of my "bonus" was nil, out of my "reserve fund" ten thousand dollars. This was enough. But alas! how happened it that this sum was in my hands? Because I had borrowed five thousand from the bank! If they wouldn't let their own manager overdraw, whom would they? So I overdrew. But if this money wasn't back before the monthly balancing, Jones would know! And I dared not rely on being able to stop his mouth again. When I said Johnny Carr was the only honest man in Aureataland I forgot Jones. To my grief and annoyance Jones also was honest, and Jones would consider it his duty to let the directors know of my overdraft. If once they knew, I was lost, for an overdraft effected privately from the safe by the manager is, I do not deny it, decidedly irregular. Unless I could add five thousand dollars to my ten thousand before the end of the month I should have to bolt!
This melancholy conclusion was reenforced and rendered demonstrable by a letter which arrived, to crown my woes, from my respected father, informing me that he had unhappily become indebted to our chairman in the sum of two thousand pounds, the result of a deal between them, that he had seen the chairman, that the chairman was urgent for payment, that he used most violent language against our family in general, ending by declaring his intention of stopping my salary to pay the parental debt. "If he doesn't like it he may go, and small loss." This was a most unjustifiable proceeding, but I was hardly in a position to take up a high moral attitude toward the chairman, and in the result I saw myself confronted with the certainty of beggary and the probability of jail. But for this untoward reverse of fortune I might have taken courage and made a clean breast of my misdoings, relying on the chairman's obligations to my father to pull me through. But now, where was I? I was, as Donna Antonia put it, very deep in indeed. So overwhelmed was I by my position, and so occupied with my frantic efforts to improve it, that I did not even find time to go and see the signorina, much as I needed comfort; and, as the days went on, I fell into such despair that I went nowhere, but sat dismally in my own rooms, looking at my portmanteau, and wondering how soon I must pack and fly, if not for life, at least for liberty.
At last the crash came. I was sitting in my office one morning, engaged in the difficult task of trying to make ten into fifteen, when I heard the clatter of hoofs.
A moment later the door was opened, and Jones ushered in Colonel McGregor. I nodded to the colonel, who came in with his usual leisurely step, sat himself down, and took off his gloves. I roused myself to say:
"What can I do for you, colonel?"
He waited till the door closed behind Jones, and then said:
"I've got to the bottom of it at last, Martin."
This was true of myself also, but the colonel meant it in a different sense.
"Bottom of what?" I asked, rather testily.
"That old scamp's villainy," said he, jerking his thumb toward the Piazza and the statue of the Liberator. "He's very 'cute, but he's made a mistake at last."
"Do come to the point, colonel. What's it all about?"
"Would you be surprised to hear," said the colonel, adopting a famous mode of speech, "that the interest on the debt would not be paid on the 31st?"
"No, I shouldn't," said I resignedly.
"Would you be surprised to hear that no more interest would ever be paid?"
"The devil!" I cried, leaping up. "What do you mean, man?"
"The President," said he calmly, "will, on the 31st instant, repudiate the national debt!"
I had nothing left to say. I fell back in my chair and gazed at the colonel, who was now employed in lighting a cigarette. At the same moment a sound of rapid wheels struck on my ears. Then I heard the sweet, clear voice I knew so well saying:
"I'll just disturb him for a moment, Mr. Jones. I want him to tear himself from work for a day, and come for a ride."
She opened my door, and came swiftly in. On seeing the colonel she took in the position, and said to that gentleman:
"Have you told him?"
"I have just done so, signorina," he replied.
I had not energy enough to greet her; so she also sat down uninvited, and took off her gloves—not lazily, like the colonel, but with an air as though she would, if a man, take off her coat, to meet the crisis more energetically.
At last I said, with conviction:
"He's a wonderful man! How did you find it out, colonel?"
"Had Johnny Carr to dine and made him drunk," said that worthy.
"You don't mean he trusted Johnny?"
"Odd, isn't it?" said the colonel. "With his experience, too. He might have known Johnny was an ass. I suppose there was no one else."
"He knew," said the signorina, "anyone else in the place would betray him; he knew Johnny wouldn't if he could help it. He underrated your powers, colonel."
"Well," said I, "I can't help it, can I? My directors will lose. The bondholders will lose. But how does it hurt me?"
The colonel and the signorina both smiled gently.
"You do it very well, Martin," said the former, "but it will save time if I state that both Signorina Nugent and myself are possessed of the details regarding the—" (The colonel paused, and stroked his mustache.)
"The second loan," said the signorina.
I was less surprised at this, recollecting certain conversations.
"Ah! and how did you find that out?" I asked.
"She told me," said the colonel, indicating his fair neighbor.
"And may I ask how you found it out, signorina?"
"The President told me," said that lady.
"Did you make him drunk?"
"No, not drunk," was her reply, in a very demure voice, and with downcast eyes.
We could guess how it had been done, but neither of us cared to pursue the subject. After a pause, I said:
"Well, as you both know all about it, it's no good keeping up pretenses. It's very kind of you to come and warn me."
"You dear, good Mr. Martin," said the signorina, "our motives are not purely those of friendship."
"Why, how does it matter to you?"
"Simply this," said she: "the bank and its excellent manager own most of the debt. The colonel and I own the rest. If it is repudiated, the bank loses; yes, but the manager, and the colonel, and the Signorina Nugent are lost!"
"I didn't know this," I said, rather bewildered.
"Yes," said the colonel, "when the first loan was raised I lent him one hundred thousand dollars. We were thick then, and I did it in return for my rank and my seat in the Chamber. Since then I've bought up some more shares."
"You got them cheap, I suppose?" said I.
"Yes," he replied, "I averaged them at about seventy-five cents the five-dollar share."
"And what do you hold now, nominally?"
"Three hundred thousand dollars," said he shortly.
"I understand your interest in the matter. But you, signorina?"
The signorina appeared a little embarrassed. But at last she broke out:
"I don't care if I do tell you. When I agreed to stay here, he [we knew whom she meant] gave me one hundred thousand dollars. And I had fifty thousand, or thereabouts, of my own that I had—"
"Saved out of your salary as a prima donna," put in the colonel.
"What does it matter?" said she, flushing; "I had it. Well, then, what did he do? He persuaded me to put it all—the whole one hundred and fifty thousand—into his horrid debt. Oh! wasn't it mean, Mr. Martin?"
The President had certainly combined business and pleasure in this matter.
"Disgraceful!" I remarked.
"And if that goes, I am penniless—penniless. And there's poor aunt. What will she do?"
"Never mind your aunt," said the colonel, rather rudely. "Well," he went on, "you see we're in the same boat with you, Martin."
"Yes; and we shall soon be in the same deep water," said I.
"Not at all!" said the colonel.
"Not at all!" echoed the signorina.
"Why, what on earth are you going to do?"
"Financial probity is the backbone of a country," said the colonel. "Are we to stand by and see Aureataland enter on the shameful path of repudiation?"
"Never!" cried the signorina, leaping up with sparkling eyes. "Never!"
She looked enchanting. But business is business; and I said again:
"What are you going to do?"
"We are going, with your help, Martin, to prevent this national disgrace. We are going—" he lowered his voice, uselessly, for the signorina struck in, in a high, merry tone, waving her gloves over head and dancing a little pas seul on the floor before me, with these remarkable words:
"Hurrah for the Revolution! Hip! hip! hurrah!"
She looked like a Goddess of Freedom in her high spirits and a Paris bonnet. I lost my mental balance. Leaping up, I grasped her round the waist, and we twirled madly about the office, the signorina breaking forth into the "Marseillaise."
"For God's sake, be quiet!" said McGregor, in a hoarse whisper, making a clutch at me as I sped past him. "If they hear you! Stop, I tell you, Christina!"
The signorina stopped.
"Do you mean me, Colonel McGregor?" she asked.
"Yes," he said, "and that fool Martin, too."
"Even in times of revolution, colonel," said I, "nothing is lost by politeness. But in substance you are right. Let us be sober."
We sat down again, panting, the signorina between her gasps still faintly humming the psalm of liberty.
"Kindly unfold your plan, colonel," I resumed. "I am aware that out here you think little of revolutions, but to a newcomer they appear to be matters requiring some management. You see we are only three."
"I have the army with me," said he grandly.
"In the outer office?" asked I, indulging in a sneer at the dimensions of the Aureataland forces.
"Look here, Martin," he said, scowling, "if you're coming in with us, keep your jokes to yourself."
"Don't quarrel, gentlemen," said the signorina. "It's waste of time. Tell him the plan, colonel, while I'm getting cool."
I saw the wisdom of this advice, so I said:
"Your pardon, colonel. But won't this repudiation be popular with the army? If he lets the debt slide, he can pay them."
"Exactly," said he. "Hence we must get at them before that aspect of the case strikes them. They are literally starving, and for ten dollars a man they would make Satan himself President. Have you got any money, Martin?"
"Yes," said I, "a little."
"Ten thousand," I replied; "I was keeping it for the interest."
"Ah! you won't want it now."
"Indeed I shall—for the second loan, you know."
"Look here, Martin; give me that ten thousand for the troops. Stand in with us, and the day I become President I'll give you back your three hundred thousand. Just look where you stand now. I don't want to be rude, but isn't it a case of—"
"Some emergency," said I thoughtfully. "Yes, it is. But where do you suppose you're going to get three hundred thousand dollars, to say nothing of your own shares?"
He drew his chair closer to mine, and, leaning forward, said:
"He's never spent the money. He's got it somewhere; much the greater part, at least."
"Did Carr tell you that?"
"He didn't know for certain; but he told me enough to make it almost certain. Besides," he added, glancing at the signorina, "we have other reasons for suspecting it. Give me the ten thousand. You shall have your loan back, and, if you like, you shall be Minister of Finance. We practically know the money's there; don't we, signorina?"
She nodded assent.
"If we fail?" said I.
He drew a neat little revolver from his pocket, placed it for a moment against his ear, and repocketed it.
"Most lucidly explained, colonel," said I. "Will you give me half an hour to think it over?"
"Yes," he said. "You'll excuse me if I stay in the outer office. Of course I trust you, Martin, but in this sort of thing—"
"All right, I see," said I. "And you, signorina?"
"I'll wait too," she said.
They both rose and went out, and I heard them in conversation with Jones. I sat still, thinking hard. But scarcely a moment had passed, when I heard the door behind me open. It was the signorina. She came in, stood behind my chair, and, leaning over, put her arms round my neck.
I looked up, and saw her face full of mischief.
"What about the rose, Jack?" she asked.
I remembered. Bewildered with delight, and believing I had won her, I said:
"Your soldier till death, signorina."
"Bother death!" said she saucily. "Nobody's going to die. We shall win, and then—"
"And then," said I eagerly, "you'll marry me, sweet?"
She quietly stooped down and kissed my lips. Then, stroking my hair, she said:
"You're a nice boy, but you're not a good boy, Jack."
"Christina, you won't marry him?"
"McGregor," said I.
"Jack," said she, whispering now, "I hate him!"
"So do I," I answered promptly. "And if it's to win you, I'll upset a dozen Presidents."
"Then you'll do it for me? I like to think you'll do it for me, and not for the money."
As the signorina was undoubtedly "doing it" for her money, this was a shade unreasonable.
"I don't mind the money coming in—" I began.
"Mercenary wretch!" she cried. "I didn't kiss you, did I?"
"No," I replied. "You said you would in a minute, when I consented."
"Very neat, Jack," she said. But she went and opened the door and called to McGregor, "Mr. Martin sees no objection to the arrangement, and he will come to dinner to-night, as you suggest, and talk over the details. We're all going to make our fortunes, Mr. Jones," she went on, without waiting for any acceptance of her implied invitation, "and when we've made ours, we'll think about you and Mrs. Jones."
I heard Jones making some noise, incoherently suggestive of gratification, for he was as bad as any of us about the signorina, and then I was left to my reflections. These were less somber than the reader would, perhaps, anticipate. True, I was putting my head into a noose; and if the President's hands ever found their way to the end of the rope, I fancied he would pull it pretty tight. But, again, I was immensely in love, and equally in debt; and the scheme seemed to open the best chance of satisfying my love, and the only chance of filling my pocket. To a young man life without love isn't worth much; to a man of any age, in my opinion, life without money isn't worth much; it becomes worth still less when he is held to account for money he ought to have. So I cheerfully entered upon my biggest gamble, holding the stake of life well risked. My pleasure in the affair was only marred by the enforced partnership of McGregor. There was no help for this, but I knew he wasn't much fonder of me than I of him, and I found myself gently meditating on the friction likely to arise between the new President and his minister of finance, in case our plans succeeded. Still the signorina hated him, and by all signs she loved me. So I lay back in my chair, and recalled my charmer's presence by whistling the hymn of liberty until it was time to go to lunch, an observance not to be omitted even by conspirators.
THE MINE IS LAID.
The morning meeting had been devoted to principles and to the awakening of enthusiasm; in the evening the conspirators condescended upon details, and we held a prolonged and anxious conference at the signorina's. Mrs. Carrington was commanded to have a headache after dinner, and retired with it to bed; and from ten till one we sat and conspired. The result of our deliberations was a very pretty plan, of which the main outlines were as follows:
This was Tuesday. On Friday night the colonel, with twenty determined ruffians (or resolute patriots) previously bound to him, body and soul, by a donation of no less than fifty dollars a man, was to surprise the Golden House, seize the person of the President and all cash and securities on the premises; no killing, if it could be avoided, but on the other hand no shilly-shally. McGregor wanted to put the President out of the way at once, as a precautionary measure, but I strongly opposed this proposal, and, finding the signorina was absolutely inflexible on the same side, he yielded. I had a strong desire to be present at this midnight surprise, but another duty called for my presence. There was a gala supper at the barracks that evening, to commemorate some incident or other in the national history, and I was to be present and to reply to the toast of "The Commerce of Aureataland." My task was, at all hazards, to keep this party going till the colonel's job was done, when he would appear at the soldiers' quarters, bribe in hand, and demand their allegiance. Our knowledge of the character of the troops made us regard the result as a certainty, if once the President was a prisoner and the dollars before their eyes. The colonel and the troops were to surround the officers' messroom, and offer them life and largesse, or death and destruction. Here again we anticipated their choice with composure. The army was then to be paraded in the Piazza, the town overawed or converted, and, behold, the Revolution was accomplished! The success of this design entirely depended on its existence remaining a dead secret from the one man we feared, and on that one man being found alone and unguarded at twelve o'clock on Friday night. If he discovered the plot, we were lost. If he took it into his head to attend the supper, our difficulties would be greatly increased. At this point we turned to the signorina, and I said briefly:
"This appears to be where you come in, signorina. Permit me to invite you to dine with his Excellency on Friday evening, at eight precisely."
"You mean," she said slowly, "that I am to keep him at home, and, but for myself, alone, on Friday?"
"Yes," said I. "Is there any difficulty?"
"I do not think there is great difficulty," she said, "but I don't like it; it looks so treacherous."
Of course it did. I didn't like her doing it myself, but how else was the President to be secured?
"Rather late to think of that, isn't it?" asked McGregor, with a sneer. "A revolution won't run on high moral wheels."
"Think how he jockeyed you about the money," said I, assuming the part of the tempter.
"By the way," said McGregor, "it's understood the signorina enters into possession of the President's country villa, isn't it?"