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Clay reached the President's Palace during the supper-hour, and found Mr. Langham and his daughter at the President's table. Madame Alvarez pointed to a place for him beside Alice Langham, who held up her hand in welcome. "You were very foolish to rush off like that,'' she said.
"It wasn't there,'' said Clay, crowding into the place beside her.
"No, it was here in the carriage all the time. Captain Stuart found it for me.''
"Oh, he did, did he?'' said Clay; "that's why I couldn't find it. I am hungry,'' he laughed, "my ride gave me an appetite.'' He looked over and grinned at Stuart, but that gentleman was staring fixedly at the candles on the table before him, his eyes filled with concern. Clay observed that Madame Alvarez was covertly watching the young officer, and frowning her disapproval at his preoccupation. So he stretched his leg under the table and kicked viciously at Stuart's boots. Old General Rojas, the Vice-President, who sat next to Stuart, moved suddenly and then blinked violently at the ceiling with an expression of patient suffering, but the exclamation which had escaped him brought Stuart back to the present, and he talked with the woman next him in a perfunctory manner.
Miss Langham and her father were waiting for their carriage in the great hall of the Palace as Stuart came up to Clay, and putting his hand affectionately on his shoulder, began pointing to something farther back in the hall. To the night-birds of the streets and the noisy fiacre drivers outside, and to the crowd of guests who stood on the high marble steps waiting for their turn to depart, he might have been relating an amusing anecdote of the ball just over.
"I'm in great trouble, old man,'' was what he said. "I must see you alone to-night. I'd ask you to my rooms, but they watch me all the time, and I don't want them to suspect you are in this until they must. Go on in the carriage, but get out as you pass the Plaza Bolivar and wait for me by the statue there.''
Clay smiled, apparently in great amusement. "That's very good,'' he said.
He crossed over to where King stood surveying the powdered beauties of Olancho and their gowns of a past fashion, with an intensity of admiration which would have been suspicious to those who knew his tastes. "When we get into the carriage,'' said Clay, in a low voice, "we will both call to Stuart that we will see him to-morrow morning at breakfast.''
"All right,'' assented King. "What's up?''
Stuart helped Miss Langham into her carriage, and as it moved away King shouted to him in English to remember that he was breakfasting with him on the morrow, and Clay called out in Spanish, "Until to-morrow at breakfast, don't forget.'' And Stuart answered, steadily, "Good night until to-morrow at one.''
As their carriage jolted through the dark and narrow street, empty now of all noise or movement, one of Stuart's troopers dashed by it at a gallop, with a lighted lantern swinging at his side. He raised it as he passed each street crossing, and held it high above his head so that its light fell upon the walls of the houses at the four corners. The clatter of his horse's hoofs had not ceased before another trooper galloped toward them riding more slowly, and throwing the light of his lantern over the trunks of the trees that lined the pavements. As the carriage passed him, he brought his horse to its side with a jerk of the bridle, and swung his lantern in the faces of its occupants.
"Who lives?'' he challenged.
"Olancho,'' Clay replied.
"Free men,'' Clay answered again, and pointed at the star on his coat.
The soldier muttered an apology, and striking his heels into his horse's side, dashed noisily away, his lantern tossing from side to side, high in the air, as he drew rein to scan each tree and passed from one lamp-post to the next.
"What does that mean?'' said Mr. Langham; "did he take us for highwaymen?''
"It is the custom,'' said Clay. "We are out rather late, you see.''
"If I remember rightly, Clay,'' said King, "they gave a ball at Brussels on the eve of Waterloo.''
"I believe they did,'' said Clay, smiling. He spoke to the driver to stop the carriage, and stepped down into the street.
"I have to leave you here,'' he said; "drive on quickly, please; I can explain better in the morning.''
The Plaza Bolivar stood in what had once been the centre of the fashionable life of Olancho, but the town had moved farther up the hill, and it was now far in the suburbs, its walks neglected and its turf overrun with weeds. The houses about it had fallen into disuse, and the few that were still occupied at the time Clay entered it showed no sign of life. Clay picked his way over the grass-grown paths to the statue of Bolivar, the hero of the sister republic of Venezuela, which still stood on its pedestal in a tangle of underbrush and hanging vines. The iron railing that had once surrounded it was broken down, and the branches of the trees near were black with sleeping buzzards. Two great palms reared themselves in the moonlight at either side, and beat their leaves together in the night wind, whispering and murmuring together like two living conspirators.
"This ought to be safe enough,'' Clay murmured to himself. "It's just the place for plotting. I hope there are no snakes.'' He seated himself on the steps of the pedestal, and lighting a cigar, remained smoking and peering into the shadows about him, until a shadow blacker than the darkness rose at his feet, and a voice said, sternly, "Put out that light. I saw it half a mile away.''
Clay rose and crushed his cigar under his foot. "Now then, old man,'' he demanded briskly, "what's up? It's nearly daylight and we must hurry.''
Stuart seated himself heavily on the stone steps, like a man tired in mind and body, and unfolded a printed piece of paper. Its blank side was damp and sticky with paste.
"It is too dark for you to see this,'' he began, in a strained voice, "so I will translate it to you. It is an attack on Madame Alvarez and myself. They put them up during the ball, when they knew my men would be at the Palace. I have had them scouring the streets for the last two hours tearing them down, but they are all over the place, in the cafe's and clubs. They have done what they were meant to do.''
Clay took another cigar from his pocket and rolled it between his lips. "What does it say?'' he asked.
"It goes over the old ground first. It says Alvarez has given the richest birthright of his country to aliens--that means the mines and Langham--and has put an alien in command of the army-- that is meant for me. I've no more to do with the army than you have--I only wish I had! And then it says that the boundary aggressions of Ecuador and Venezuela have not been resented in consequence. It asks what can be expected of a President who is as blind to the dishonor of his country as he is to the dishonor of his own home?''
Clay muttered under his breath, "Well, go on. Is it explicit? More explicit than that?''
"Yes,'' said Stuart, grimly. "I can't repeat it. It is quite clear what they mean.''
"Have you got any of them?'' Clay asked. Can you fix it on some one that you can fight?''
"Mendoza did it, of course,'' Stuart answered, "but we cannot prove it. And if we could, we are not strong enough to take him.
He has the city full of his men now, and the troops are pouring in every hour.''
"Well, Alvarez can stop that, can't he?''
"They are coming in for the annual review. He can't show the people that he is afraid of his own army.''
"What are you going to do?''
"What am I going to do?'' Stuart repeated, dully. "That is what I want you to tell me. There is nothing I can do now. I've brought trouble and insult on people who have been kinder to me than my own blood have been. Who took me in when I was naked and clothed me, when I hadn't a friend or a sixpence to my name. You remember--I came here from that row in Colombia with my wound, and I was down with the fever when they found me, and Alvarez gave me the appointment. And this is how I reward them. If I stay I do more harm. If I go away I leave them surrounded by enemies, and not enemies who fight fair, but damned thieves and scoundrels, who stab at women and who fight in the dark. I wouldn't have had it happen, old man, for my right arm! They--they have been so kind to me, and I have been so happy here--and now!'' The boy bowed his face in his hands and sat breathing brokenly while Clay turned his unlit cigar between his teeth and peered at him curiously through the darkness. "Now I have made them both unhappy, and they hate me, and I hate myself, and I have brought nothing but trouble to every one. First I made my own people miserable, and now I make my best friends miserable, and I had better be dead. I wish I were dead. I wish I had never been born.''
Clay laid his hand on the other's bowed shoulder and shook him gently. "Don't talk like that,'' he said; "it does no good. Why do you hate yourself?''
"What?'' asked Stuart, wearily, without looking up. "What did you say?''
"You said you had made them hate you, and you added that you hated yourself. Well, I can see why they naturally would be angry for the time, at least. But why do you hate yourself? Have you reason to?''
"I don't understand,'' said Stuart.
"Well, I can't make it any plainer,'' Clay replied. "It isn't a question I will ask. But you say you want my advice. Well, my advice to my friend and to a man who is not my friend, differ. And in this case it depends on whether what that thing--'' Clay kicked the paper which had fallen on the ground--"what that thing says is true.''
The younger man looked at the paper below him and then back at Clay, and sprang to his feet.
"Why, damn you,'' he cried, "what do you mean?''
He stood above Clay with both arms rigid at his side and his head bent forward. The dawn had just broken, and the two men saw each other in the ghastly gray light of the morning. "If any man,'' cried Stuart thickly, "dares to say that that blackguardly lie is true I'll kill him. You or any one else. Is that what you mean, damn you? If it is, say so, and I'll break every bone of your body.''
"Well, that's much better,'' growled Clay, sullenly. "The way you went on wishing you were dead and hating yourself made me almost lose faith in mankind. Now you go make that speech to the President, and then find the man who put up those placards, and if you can't find the right man, take any man you meet and make him eat it, paste and all, and beat him to death if he doesn't. Why, this is no time to whimper--because the world is full of liars. Go out and fight them and show them you are not afraid. Confound you, you had me so scared there that I almost thrashed you myself. Forgive me, won't you?'' he begged earnestly. He rose and held out his hand and the other took it, doubtfully. "It was your own fault, you young idiot,'' protested Clay. "You told your story the wrong way. Now go home and get some sleep and I'll be back in a few hours to help you. Look!'' he said. He pointed through the trees to the sun that shot up like a red hot disk of heat above the cool green of the mountains. "See,'' said Clay, "God has given us another day. Seven battles were fought in seven days once in my country. Let's be thankful, old man, that we're NOT dead, but alive to fight our own and other people's battles.''
The younger man sighed and pressed Clay's hand again before he dropped it.
"You are very good to me,'' he said. "I'm not just quite myself this morning. I'm a bit nervous, I think. You'll surely come, won't you?''
"By noon,'' Clay promised. "And if it does come,'' he added, "don't forget my fifteen hundred men at the mines.''
"Good! I won't,'' Stuart replied. "I'll call on you if I need them.'' He raised his fingers mechanically to his helmet in salute, and catching up his sword turned and strode away erect and soldierly through the debris and weeds of the deserted plaza.
Clay remained motionless on the steps of the pedestal and followed the younger man with his eyes. He drew a long breath and began a leisurely search through his pockets for his match- box, gazing about him as he did so, as though looking for some one to whom he could speak his feelings. He lifted his eyes to the stern, smooth-shaven face of the bronze statue above him that seemed to be watching Stuart's departing figure.
"General Bolivar,'' Clay said, as he lit his cigar, "observe that young man. He is a soldier and a gallant gentleman. You, sir, were a great soldier--the greatest this God-forsaken country will ever know--and you were, sir, an ardent lover. I ask you to salute that young man as I do, and to wish him well.'' Clay lifted his high hat to the back of the young officer as it was hidden in the hanging vines, and once again, with grave respect to the grim features of the great general above him, and then smiling at his own conceit, he ran lightly down the steps and disappeared among the trees of the plaza.
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