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قراءة كتاب The Four Corners of the World

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‏اللغة: English
The Four Corners of the World

The Four Corners of the World

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 7

his footstep sickened me. I was in this mood when the clock began to boom louder and louder in the billiard-room. Chalmers and Linfield were talking. I did not listen to them. My heart beat louder and louder within my breast, keeping pace with the clock. I knew that in a moment or two the sound would cease, and the doors of my private kingdom would be open for me to pass through. I sat back in my chair waiting while the devilish inspiration had birth and grew strong. Here was the great chance to use the power I had--the only chance which had ever come to me. Brayton was writing letters in his room. The room was in a wing of the house. The sound of a shot would not be heard. There would be an end of his success; there would be for me such a triumphant use of my great privilege as I had never dreamed of. The clock suddenly ceased. I slipped from the room and went upstairs. I was quite leisurely. I had time. I was back in my chair again before seven minutes had passed.

"Archie Cranfield."






GREEN PAINT





GREEN PAINT


I

I came up by the lift from the lower town, Harry Vandeleur strolled from his more respectable lodging in the upper quarter, and we met unexpectedly in Government Square. It was ten o'clock in the morning, and the Square, a floor of white within a ragged border of trees, glared blindingly under the tropical sun. On each side of the President's door a diminutive soldier rattled a rifle from time to time.

"What? Has he sent for you too?" said Harry, pointing to the President's house.

"Juan Ballester. Yes," said I, and Harry Vandeleur stopped with a sudden suspicion on his face.

"What does he want with us?" he asked.

"We volunteered in the war," said I. "We were both useful to him."

Harry Vandeleur shook his head.

"He is at the top of his power. He has won his three-weeks war. The Army has made him President for the second time. He has so skilfully organised his elections that he has a Parliament, not merely without an Opposition, but without a single man of any note in it except Santiago Calavera. It is not from such that humble people like us can expect gratitude."

Juan Ballester was, in fact, a very remarkable person. Very few people who had dealings with him ever forgot him. There was the affair of the Opera House, for instance, and a hundred instances. Who he really was I should think no one knew. He used to say that he was born in Mexico City, and when he wished to get the better of anyone with a sentimental turn, he would speak of his old mother in a broken voice. But since he never wrote to his old mother, nor she to him, I doubt very much whether she existed. The only certain fact known about him was that some thirteen years before, when he was crossing on foot a high pass of the Cordilleras without a dollar in his pocket, he met a stranger--but no! I have heard him attribute so many different nationalities to that stranger that I wouldn't kiss the Bible even on that story. Probably he was a Mexican and of a good stock. Certainly no Indian blood made a flaw in him. For though his hair was black and a pencil-line of black moustache decorated his lip, his skin was fair like any Englishman's. He was thirty-eight years old, five feet eleven in height, strongly but not thickly built, and he had a pleasant, good-humoured face which attracted and deceived by its look of frankness. For the rest of him the story must speak.

He received us in a great room on the first floor overlooking the Square; and at once he advanced and laid a hand impressively upon my shoulder. He looked into my face silently. Then he said:

"Carlyon, I want you."

I did not believe him for a moment. But from time to time Juan Ballester did magnanimous things; not from magnanimity, of which quality he was entirely devoid, but from a passion for the bran geste. He would see himself a shining figure before men's eyes, the perfect cavalier; and the illusion would dazzle him into generosity. Accordingly, my hopes rose. I was living on credit in a very inferior hotel. "I had thought my work was done," he continued. "I had hoped to retire, like Cincinnatus, to my plough," and he gazed sentimentally out of the window across the city to the wooded hills of Santa Paula. "But since my country calls me, I must have someone about me whom I can trust." He broke off to ask: "I suppose your police are no longer searching for you?"

"They never were, your Excellency," I protested hotly.

"Well, perhaps not," he said indulgently. "No doubt the natural attractions of Maldivia brought you here. You did me some service in the war. I am not ungrateful. I appoint you my private secretary."

"Your Excellency!" I cried.

He shook hands with me and added carelessly:

"There is no salary attached to the post, but there are opportunities."

And there were. That is why I now live in a neat little villa at Sorrento.

Ballester turned to Harry Vandeleur and took him by the arm. He looked from one to the other of us.

"Ever since the day when I walked over a high pass of the Cordilleras with nothing but the clothes I stood up in, and an unknown Englishman gave me the railway fare to this city, I have made what return I could to your nation. You, too, have served me, Señor Vandeleur. I pay some small portion of my debt. Money! I have none to give you"; and he uttered the words without a blush, although the half a million pounds sterling received as war indemnity had already been paid into his private account.

"Nor would you take it if I had," Juan resumed. "But I will give you something of equal value."

He led Vandeleur to the window, and waving his hand impressively over the city, he said:

"I will give you the monopoly of green paint in the city of Santa Paula."

I stifled a laugh. Harry Vandeleur got red in the face. For, after all, no man likes to look a greater fool than he naturally is. He had, moreover, a special reason for disappointment.

"I don't suppose that there are twenty bucketsful used in Santa Paula in the year," he exclaimed bitterly.

"Wait, my friend," said Ballester; "there will be."

And a week afterwards the following proclamation appeared upon the walls of the public buildings:

"Owing to the numerous complaints which have been received of the discomfort produced by the glare of a tropical sun, the Government of the day, ever solicitous to further the wishes of its citizens, now orders that every house in Santa Paula, with the exception of the Government buildings, be painted in green paint within two months of the issue of this proclamation, and any resident who fails to obey this enactment shall be liable to a fine of fifty dollars for every day after the two months have elapsed until the order is carried out."

Juan Ballester was, no doubt, a very great man, but I cannot deny that he strained the loyalty of his friends by this proclamation. Grumblings were loud. No one could discover who had complained of the glare of the streets--for the simple reason that no one had complained at all. However, the order was carried out. Daily the streets of Santa Paula grew greener and greener, until the town had quite a restful look, and sank into its background and became a piece with its surroundings.

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