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The Kidnapped President By Guy Boothby Characters: 21790

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The island of San Diaz is some fifteen miles long by eight wide. From end to end it is densely wooded; in fact, a large proportion of its area is still primeval forest. The population numbers only a few hundreds, and the majority of the inhabitants are black. For the most part they are a retiring race. How they live, or what they live upon, would at first glance seem difficult to understand; but they appear to enjoy life in their harmless way, and, being cut off from certain doubtful blessings of our so-called Civilization, they generally manage to elude the clutches of old Boney for a longer space of time than do their brethren in better known and more popular climes.

As I observed at the close of the preceding chapter, I was on the bridge with Ferguson when we first sighted the island. After a close consultation of the chart that he held in his hand, he put his helm up, and hugged the shore for a distance of something like five miles. Then, finding himself at the entrance of a fair-sized bay, he turned in and prepared to seek an anchorage. The view from the deck at that moment was a very pleasing one. First the blue water of the bay, then a white beach, after which the ground began to ascend until it reached, in a somewhat precipitous slope, a plateau at an elevation of something like two hundred feet above sea-level. On this plateau, nestling among the trees, stood a long white house, with several smaller buildings clustered round it. As we watched, the report of a firearm reached us from the settlement, followed by another and yet another in quick succession. It was the signal I had arranged for with Silvestre, and it proclaimed the fact that he was aware of our arrival.

"I'm a bit distrustful about the soundings," said Ferguson, as we steamed slowly in. "This chart is no sort of good. However, I don't think we can do much harm here."

Then holding up his hand to the chief mate, who was in charge of the anchor on the fo'c'sle-head, he signalled to him to let go. The roar of the cable through the hawse-hole followed, and a few seconds later the yacht was at anchor. When the vessel was stationary I descended the ladder from the bridge to find the President and the Se?orita leaning on the port-bulwarks attentively studying the shore. Still Fernandez showed no sign of any sort of trepidation. Yet he must have realized how dangerous was his position. He had admitted that he had done Silvestre a great wrong, and he could scarcely fail to be aware that the latter, having him at his mercy, would be certain to retaliate. Yet here he was chattering as coolly with the Se?orita as if he were sitting on the terrace at his palace in La Gloria. The man was the possessor of an iron nerve which nothing could shake. Moreover, as he had informed me on another occasion, he was a fatalist.

"What is arranged will certainly happen," he had then remarked to me. "If I am to be assassinated in the street, it is quite certain I shall not be drowned at sea. If I am to die in my bed, it will not be on the battlefield. Why should I worry myself if the end is ordained for me?"

When he had seen everything secure, Ferguson left the bridge and joined us.

"Are you going ashore, Mr. Trevelyan," he inquired, "or will you wait on board until they send out to us?"

"I think it would be better to wait," I replied.

"If I am not mistaken, they are launching a boat now," Fernandez remarked.

What he said was correct. Several men had descended the steep path from the plateau already mentioned, and were even then running a boat across the sands towards the water. When she was afloat, they hung about her as if not certain what to do next. A few seconds later, however, a man, dressed in white, appeared from among the trees and joined them. He entered the boat, whereupon it began to move towards us. As she approached I noticed that she was pulled by four stalwart negroes, and that the man steering her was not Silvestre as I had expected, but a younger man, and a mulatto. As soon as the boat reached the ladder, he sprang nimbly on to the grating and ran up to us.

"Se?or Trevelyan!" he said, looking from one to the other of us as if to discover whom he should address.

"That is my name," I answered. "Have you a message for me?" Before he replied, he took me on one side.

"Don Guzman de Silvestre is not well," he said. "He bids me say, however, that you had better bring your prisoner up to the house without delay."

"He is not aware, of course, that a lady has accompanied us?" I remarked.

The other shook his head, and then turned his eyes in the direction of the spot where the Se?orita was standing.

"He will not be pleased," he said.

I felt that I would give something to know what preparations Silvestre had made for Fernandez' reception; but I did not put any questions to the messenger, feeling that in all probability his master had given orders to him to be silent.

"Can you carry four people in the boat?" I inquired, going to the side and looking down at the craft in question.

"Half-a-dozen, if you wish," he answered; "she will not sink with us."

I thereupon went back to the President.

"If you are quite ready, I think we will land at once," I said. "It will be dark very soon."

He shrugged his shoulders, and remarked that he would go below and fetch his cloak. The Se?orita suggested that she should follow his example. Fearing that there was a possible chance of their outwitting me at the last moment, I declared that I could not hear of their taking so much trouble, and thereupon despatched one of the stewards in search of the articles in question. When they were brought on deck, we descended to the boat alongside and started for the shore.

As soon as we reached it, I sprang from the boat and helped the Se?orita to disembark. Then, guided by the half-caste, whose name I discovered was Manuel, we set to work to climb the steep ascent to the buildings I had seen from the yacht. If the descent at Horejos had been steep, this was ten times more so. The path, if path it could be called, was one long climb, and wound its way in and out through the thick undergrowth in a most disconcerting and leg-wearying fashion.

At last, when the whole party were out of breath, and the Se?orita quite exhausted, we tottered on to the plateau on which the houses were situated. The principal building, that in the centre, was a long low affair surrounded, so far as I could see, by a broad verandah; that to the left was plainly the servants' quarters, while the ramshackle huts, still further away, were probably the dwellings of the native hands. Crossing the open space, Manuel led us towards the largest building. The place was much fallen to decay, but it was still quite habitable. French windows opened from the rooms into the verandah, and towards one of these we were conducted. Opening it, and standing in the entrance, he signed to the President and the Se?orita to pass into the room. I followed them, and when he had entered, he carefully closed the windows after us. We found ourselves in a large room, having a polished floor, whitewashed walls, and a raftered roof, the latter without a ceiling. A large table stood in the centre of the room, there were half-a-dozen curious chairs scattered about, while in the corner beside the door was a wicker-couch, upon which a man was stretched out at full length. One glance was sufficient to tell me that he was Don Guzman de Silvestre, but so changed that, had I not expected to see him, I doubt if I should have recognized him. His face was pinched and haggard, his eyes shone with an unnatural brilliance, while his hands trembled as if with the palsy.

"Welcome, Trevelyan, I congratulate you," he cried, as I entered the room. "You have fulfilled your mission admirably." Then, turning to his old enemy, he continued: "And so, my dear Fernandez, we meet again, do we? It is long since we last saw each other. But, stay, who is the lady? What is she doing here?"

I gave him the necessary information, whereupon he raised himself upon his couch.

"I am more than honoured," he remarked. "I did not anticipate such a pleasure. I presume, Trevelyan, you could not catch one without the other? Was not that so?"

In reply, I admitted that it was, whereupon he bade Manuel move a chair forward for the Se?orita, then, turning to Fernandez, he began once more.

"Yes, it is certainly a long time since we had the pleasure of meeting," he said. "Let me see, I wonder if I can recall the day. It was the anniversary of the battle of Pladova, was it not? I had arranged to preside at a banquet that evening in celebration of the great event. You called upon me in the morning, professing great friendship. Prior to that you had undermined all my officials, and had arranged that, at the conclusion of the banquet, I was to be arrested, whereupon you were to proclaim yourself Dictator."

"I am glad to observe that, however poor your health may be, your memory is as good as ever," Fernandez replied. "You have described the situation exactly."

"Yes," Silvestre continued, "I have an excellent memory! Unfortunately for your scheme, however, I happened to hear of it in time. At the last moment a sudden indisposition kept me at the palace, and prevented my being present at the dinner. So anxious were you concerning the state of my health that you called at the palace later to inquire after my welfare, only to find that I had taken time by the forelock and had effected my escape. It was a pity, for I fancy you would have found it more profitable to have shot me, and so have put me out of harm's way at once."

"It certainly was rather a pity we could not do so," said the President, "but you can have your revenge now. What are your intentions regarding myself?"

"I must take time to think that matter over," Silvestre replied. "The account I have to settle with you is a long one, and I am not the man, as you know, to do things in a hurry."

I saw the Se?orita look at him with a light in her eyes like that of a beautiful trapped animal. She was trying to appear calm, but from the way in which she laced and interlaced her fingers, I could see the strain under which she was labouring.

"If there is likely to be anything disagreeable," said Fernandez, "I should be glad if you would get it over at once. Nothing is to be gained by delaying matters."

"As I said just now, I must have time to think it over," the other replied. "Upon one thing, however, you can make up your mind, you will never see Equinata again."

"At the present moment it certainly does not seem very probable that I shall," Fernandez answered, still with the same good-humour. "And now with regard to another matter! What are your intentions concerning this lady?"

He made a movement with his hands towards the Se

?orita as he spoke.

"She shall, of course, be treated with all due consideration and respect," Silvestre returned. "Let that content you!"

He turned to Manuel, who was standing at the window, and bade him call the guards into the room. The latter accordingly made his way into the verandah, and shouted something in a dialect with which I was not familiar. In response to his summons, four gigantic negroes, armed with rifles (they had evidently been waiting somewhere in the immediate vicinity) stalked into the room. Without waiting for instructions, they took their places on either side of Fernandez. My first fear was that they were going to dispatch the ex-President there and then. Silvestre must have realized what was passing in my mind, for he laughed and said:

"You need have no fear, my friend. I am not going to do him any violence. Let him be conveyed to the hut," he continued to Manuel, "and be sure that the door is locked when you come away. Place a sentry over him, and bring me the key. Allow me to wish you good-evening, Don Fernandez, and may pleasant dreams attend your slumbers."

The Se?orita had risen, and had taken a step towards Silvestre. She tried to speak, but failed in the attempt. At last she sank back in her chair with an ashen face, and then Fernandez was led away.

"Trevelyan, my dear fellow, may I ask you to be so good as to go to that door and clap your hands twice," said Silvestre, when the other had disappeared.

I did so, and after a few moments had elapsed an elderly negress, whose curly hair was almost snow-white, put in an appearance. In all my experience of the African race I had never seen so hideous a creature.

"Palmyre," Silvestre began, "take this lady to a room and prepare it for her." Then to the Se?orita he continued: "If there is anything I can do to promote your comfort, pray command me. I deeply regret that my health is not sufficiently good to permit of my attending to matters myself. Doubtless you will be gracious enough to take the will for the deed."

She did not answer, but followed Palmyre from the room. When they had disappeared Silvestre turned to me.

"You have managed the affair most excellently, friend Helmsworth," he said. "I congratulate you heartily. Now tell me exactly what happened. Remember I have no knowledge of your doings since we bade each other good-bye in London."

I thereupon set to work and gave him a description of my adventures.

"You certainly had a narrow escape of it in the cartel," he remarked when I had finished. "Had Herma?os not rescued you so opportunely, Fernandez would have shot you without remorse. I wish, however, that you had not been compelled to bring the Se?orita with you. But perhaps it was for the best. If you had left her behind, she would have made mischief. You must have had a queer voyage with those two. I wonder what your sweetheart in England would have said, could she have looked in upon you?"

"We will leave her out of the question, if you don't mind," I said quietly.

There was a time when I had liked and even admired the man, but two or three things I had heard during my stay in Equinata, and the fiendish pleasure he had just taken in gibing at his fallen enemy, had produced in me a feeling that was very near akin to loathing.

"Don Guzman," I began, more seriously than I had yet spoken, "I trust you will bear in mind the promise you gave me in England!"

"And what promise was that?" he asked suspiciously.

"You gave me your most positive assurance that no violence of any sort should be used towards the man who is now in your power!"

"And I am not aware that I have said that any violence would be used," he answered angrily. "What makes you think that I want to harm him? Didn't I tell you that my only desire is to keep him out of harm's way until I have once more grasped the reins of government in Equinata? Your part of the business is finished, and to-morrow I will pay you the reward I promised you. Hand me up that quinine, there's a good fellow. I've suffered agonies from this cursed fever for the last three days. It's just my luck to be struck down just at the moment when it is necessary for me to be most active!"

I helped him to a dose of the medicine.

"Where will you live during the time you are here?" he asked at last. "Ashore or on board the yacht?"

"I should prefer the yacht if--"

"If you thought you could depend on my not knocking those miserable beggars on the head in the meantime, I suppose? Come, come," he continued with a laugh, "if you go on like this, I shall begin to think that the ex-President's niece has proved herself more dangerous than I at first imagined."

Then, doubtless seeing from my face that he was venturing on dangerous ground, he made haste to appease me.

"Don't take offence at a harmless jest, my dear fellow," he said. "You know very well I don't mean it."

Then, vowing that he was too ill to talk any more just then, he bade me good-bye, promising to see me on the morrow, if I would come up. Before I went, however, I had a proposition to make to him. I did not like to leave the Se?orita in his hands, so I begged that he would allow her to return to the yacht, giving as an excuse the plea that she would enjoy greater comfort there.

"There is not the least necessity," he replied. "She will be very well taken care of here. Just for the present I prefer to have the lady under my own eye. Sailors are impressionable beings, and there is no telling what ideas she might put into their heads. Remember me to Ferguson and the others, and be sure to be up here by eleven in the morning. Good-night!"

I thereupon left him and returned by the path to the beach below. The niggers who had brought us ashore had departed, so taking my boat-call from my pocket I blew a shrill blast upon it. They must have heard me on the yacht, for a boat was immediately lowered and sent off to fetch me. Arriving on board I went in search of Ferguson, to whom I stated that I did not at all like the look of things ashore. I communicated to him my fear that Silvestre, in spite of the assurance he had given me to the contrary, contemplated doing some mischief to Fernandez.

"I should not be at all surprised if he did," my companion replied. "The two men have a lot to settle between them, and Silvestre is not the sort of man to forget or to forgive an injury."

"But he gave me his word of honour, when I undertook the task of getting the President out of the country, that he only meant to keep him locked up until all chance of his upsetting matters in Equinata was past and done with."

"They say that promises, like pie-crust," Ferguson returned, "are made to be broken. I wonder what Silvestre's promises are like? Heigho! I shall be thankful when I have done with the whole concern."

"And when do you think that will be?"

"When I have landed Don Guzman on the mainland," he replied. "Then I have to take this vessel back to a certain northern port, and to hand her over to a man who is to meet her there. After that, old England, and, if Allah wills, a life of an entirely different description."

Next morning I returned to the house on the hill, to find Silvestre's health much improved, and his prisoners, as he found early occasion to inform me, still alive.

"The lady," he said, "treated me to a pretty specimen of her temper last night. She wouldn't leave her room, and declined to eat her food. Realizing that it was not the least use arguing with her, I left her to her own devices. Her condition, I understand, has somewhat improved this morning."

Presently he produced from his pocket a bundle of bank-notes, which he handed to me.

"Here is the payment I promised you for your work in Bank of England notes," he said. "Just run your eye over them, will you, and see that the amount is right?"

A few moments' investigation convinced me that the notes in question amounted to the value of five thousand pounds. As I dropped the bundle into the inside pocket of my coat, I reflected that it would be a big sum to carry about with me continually. As I had no safer place, however, I had to put up with it.

"And now there's a question I want to put to you," I said. "My work is at an end, so when will it be possible for me to leave for England?"

"You can go when you like," he answered. "You will find that I am prepared to stick to my side of the contract as faithfully as you have done to yours. Shall we say the day after to-morrow? If that will suit you, the yacht can take you across to Cuba, drop you on the coast after dark, and you can then find your way to Santiago, or elsewhere, as you please."

"The day after to-morrow will suit me admirably," I replied. "As you may suppose, I am all anxiety to get home. And when do you propose sailing for Equinata?"

"When the yacht returns," he answered. "I desire to get to business as soon as possible."

"And do you still think that you will be successful in your enterprise?"

"Why not?" he asked. "I have run the risk before, and I am going to do so again. I've got some powerful friends at my back, and with one or two of my worst enemies, Fernandez and his niece, for instance, out of the way, I am fairly confident I shall be able to manage it. I suppose it would be no use asking you to come with me? I could make it worth your while to do so."

"I would not go with you for all the money in the world," I answered. "I have had enough of Equinata to last me a lifetime. I never want to see the place again."

"Our tastes differ, I see; for I am as anxious to settle there for the remainder of my existence as you are to remain away from it."

That afternoon I went for a somewhat lengthy stroll through the island. I was ill at ease, and I wanted to make up my mind, if possible, as to how I should act with regard to Fernandez and the Se?orita. Common humanity forbade that I should callously leave the island and abandon them to the fate I felt sure awaited them. Yet how could I remain, and what good could I do if I did so? I knew that in his heart Ferguson was well disposed towards me, but even if he were would he dare to interfere? And again, if he did would the others take sides with us or with Silvestre? By the time I reached the beach once more I had come to no sort of decision. For the time being I gave the matter up as a bad job. I was in the act of stepping into the boat that was to take me on board, when a shout from the wood behind attracted my attention. It emanated from Ferguson. When he reached the boat I noticed that he was deathly pale, and that there was a look in his eyes I had never seen there before.

"What is the matter?" I asked. "You look as if you had seen a ghost!"

"Hush! I'll tell you when we get on board," he replied. "It would be impossible to do so now."

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