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   Chapter 12 No.12

The Kidnapped President By Guy Boothby Characters: 22044

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Of one thing you may be sure; that was the fact that I was more than anxious to hear what Ferguson had to tell me. That the man was very much upset I could see, while the hint he had given me in the boat, concerning certain tidings he had to tell me, frightened me beyond measure. Immediately on reaching the yacht I took him to the saloon and poured him out a stiff glass of grog. He drank it off, and when he had done so, seemed the better for it.

"Now come along to the chart-room," I said, "and let me hear what you have to say. We shall be alone there, and I gathered from your manner that what you have to tell me will not bear the presence of eavesdroppers."

"Come along then," he replied. "Let us go up there at once, I shall not rest happy until I have shared this with you."

We accordingly left the saloon and ascended to the bridge. Once in the chart-room, and when we had shut the door carefully behind us, I seated myself on the chart locker, while Ferguson took possession of the couch.

"Now then, go ahead," I said. "What have you discovered?"

"It's the most fiendish plot I ever heard of," he replied. "I would not have believed a man could have thought of anything so vile. If I had not chanced to stray where I did no one would have been the wiser. And then--" He stopped abruptly, as if the thought were too much for him.

"But you have not told me yet what it is you have heard," I continued, with some sort of impatience.

He rose and went to the door, opened it, looked outside, and then returned once more to his place on the couch.

"This afternoon, as you know," he began, leaning forward on his seat, as if he were desirous that no one but myself should hear, "I went ashore to see Silvestre. He was anxious, he said, to consult me concerning the business of taking you to Cuba, and also about the landing of himself and the others on the Equinata coast. I had a long talk with him, during which he was all graciousness and condescension. Butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth. He praised all the services we had rendered him. You can have no idea how pleasant he was. When he became President, I was to have command, if I wished it, of an Equinata man-o'-war, etc., and above all others I was to be his trusted naval adviser. No post could be too big for me."

"It sounds very nice, but he also endeavoured to advise me to return with him," I said.

"And what reply did you give him?" Ferguson inquired.

"I gave him to understand that I would not go back to Equinata for all the money in the world," I said. "I had had quite enough of the place to last me a lifetime."

"That was my reply exactly," Ferguson replied. "The next time they see me there of my own free will, they may treat me as they please."

"Well, never mind that, continue your story," I returned. "What is it you have discovered?"

"Well, after I left Silvestre, I had the misfortune-or the good fortune-as you may consider it, to miss my way. How I came to do so I am unable to say. It is sufficient that I did. You know how thick the jungle is up there! Well! instead of taking the track that brings one down to where we embark, I branched off to the left, and found myself stranded in as thick a bit of scrub as ever I have seen in my life. It was hot enough to roast the scalp on your head, and I was just beginning to think of turning back, when I heard a voice come from thick bushes on my right. 'Hulloa, what on earth is he doing there?' I said to myself, for I recognized it as belonging to Manuel, the half-caste. The words I heard him utter made me more than a bit suspicious."

"What was it he said?" I inquired.

"'You can do it easily, nobody will ever find out,'" Ferguson replied. "'But I can't, I can't,' a woman's voice answered. It was old Palmyre, the negress, who spoke. 'You'd better do it, or he'll cut your throat as he would a pig's,' Manuel continued. 'Why do you argue about the matter? You know very well that you are out here gathering the herbs yourself.' 'But their spirits will haunt me,' cried the old woman. That made me all attention, you may be sure. The half-caste uttered an oath in reply. The spirit that would haunt him would have to be a fairly potent one. 'What does it matter,' he went on; 'you will be well paid for it.' For a few seconds nothing more was said, but as I listened I heard something that sounded very like a sob. Whatever he was trying to persuade the old negress to do, it was very plain that she did not relish the job. Presently she whispered, 'When must it be done?' 'As soon as Silvestre leaves in the yacht,' the other replied. 'What difficulty is there in it? All you have to do is to stew the herbs and to slip them into their food. You'll be a rich woman for the rest of your life.' After that they moved further away from me, and I came down to the boat."

"Good heavens!" I cried, the awful truth coming to me in a flash. "Silvestre intends to poison them."

"There is not much doubt about that," said Ferguson. "When you are out of the way and he has left for Equinata, the Se?orita and President will never trouble him or any one else again. And as far as I can see nothing can save them!"

"It's too horrible! It's devilish," I cried, springing to my feet. "He took his oath to me that not a hair of their heads should be harmed."

"He wished you to take his words literally, you see," Ferguson returned. "He said nothing about giving each of them a dose of poison. Look at the matter from his point of view. As long as they live they are his enemies and he is not safe. He owes Fernandez a deadly grudge and he means to pay it."

"But what is to be done? We cannot let them be murdered in cold blood. Human nature couldn't stand that. And yet if he knows that we are aware of his plot, he will take means to prevent our interfering and kill them out of hand. For God's sake, Ferguson, advise me!"

"I don't see exactly what we can do," he replied sorrowfully. "Silvestre has got us in a cleft stick and we can't help ourselves."

"But surely you are not going to stand by and allow him to carry out his fiendish plot?" I returned hotly. "I can't believe that of you!"

"But you don't know what Silvestre is," said Ferguson, not daring to meet my eyes. "It would be madness to thwart him."

"If I don't know what he is," I retorted, "I at least know what I am. I brought these unfortunate people here. He shall not harm them, if it costs me all I have on earth, even life itself. And what is more, if you're a man you'll help me."

"But what can I do?" he answered helplessly. "I have always been considered a fairly plucky fellow. I must confess, however, that this business is too much for me. I've a wife and family to think of, you know!"

"Your wife would despise you above all living men if she knew that you were a party to the murder of that woman," I answered.

He scratched his chin and looked at me in a perplexed way. It was evident to me that I must not expect very much assistance from him.

"To my mind a man ought to think of his wife and children before anything else," he said at last, in a tone of apology. "If anything happens to me what is to become of them? I'm beginning to think I was a fool to have told you anything about it!"

"Not a bit of it," I answered. "There, at least, you did an honest action. Don't spoil it by drawing back."

This only elicited his old query.

"But what can we do?"

"We must get them out of the island before Silvestre can do them a mischief," I replied.

"And pray how is that to be done?"

"A way must be found," I answered. "Surely it should not be so very difficult. Remember, Ferguson, I did you a good turn once. Repay it now by helping me to save them. If they die, their deaths will be at our doors. For my part, if that happens I shall never know a moment's peace again, or be able to look an honest man or woman in the face. I worked for Silvestre because I had given him my promise to do so, and had taken his money; he has repaid it by breaking his oath to me. By jove! whether I am bound to him or not, I will prevent him from carrying out this terrible crime."

I could see that, and also realized, that whatever Ferguson's desire might be to help me, he was not willing to run any great risks himself.

"I must have time to think it over," he said. "In the meantime keep your own counsel. If a hint of this gets about we are done for."

I did not reply, but left him and went below to my cabin, where I threw myself down on my bunk and set to work to try and think the question out. What a fool I had been to mix myself up in the matter at all. One moment's thought should have told me that Silvestre was not the sort of man to have any mercy upon his enemy. A dozen plans for effecting the escape of the President and Se?orita formed themselves in my mind, only to be thrown aside at once as useless. Then the gong sounded for dinner and I made my way to the saloon. I had just set foot inside the companion, when a voice I knew so well, and had now learned to hate, greeted me.

"Good-evening, my friend," said Silvestre cheerily. "I have come aboard to be your guest this evening. As my fever has left me, I thought a little sea air and congenial society would do me no harm. Shall we go in to dinner?"

For a moment I was so surprised at seeing him that I could not answer. I followed him, however, to the saloon, where I found that three places had been laid. A few minutes later Ferguson made his appearance and we sat down to our meal. As we did so I shot a glance at the other's face. It was plain from the expression upon it that Silvestre's presence had alarmed him considerably.

"We should really have invited the Se?orita to join us," said Silvestre, as he spread his serviette over his knees. "Se?or Fernandez, I regret to say, is suffering from a slight attack of fever to-day. I have prescribed for him, however, and trust he will be himself shortly."

As he said this I glanced sharply at him. Was he commencing his awful crime already? The mere thought of it was sufficient to take my appetite away. Had I been able to follow my own inclinations, I should have laid down my knife and fork and have risen from the table without touching another morsel. Prudence, however, bade me remain where I was. I shot a glance at Ferguson, to find him wiping his face with his handkerchief. Silvestre was also watching him.

"The evening is very hot," said the captain, by way of excuse, "very hot indeed."

"I agree with you," Silvestre returned dryly. "If I am not mistaken, we shall have a thunderstorm later."

During the remainder of the repast Silvestre continued to converse in very much his usual fashion. He did not refer again, however, to the prisoners. At ten o'clock he left for the shore, but before he did so, he bade me be ready to start for Cuba on the following afternoon. I tried to invent an excuse for remaining longer, but one would not come to my hand.

"Needless to say I am anxious to get on to Equinata with all dispatch," said Silvestre. "I cannot do so until I have carried out my promise to you."

"Why not go first and let the yacht come back for me?" I suggested. "I am in no particular hurry."

"I could not dream of such a thing," he answered politely. "It would be better for you to go at once. Indeed, I have this evening given the necessary instructions to Ferguson."

After that there was nothing more to be said.

As he went down the accommodation ladder an idea occurred to me. His boat was not more than a dozen lengths from the yacht's side before I had made my way up the ladder to the bridge and had entered the chart-room. Above the chart-locker was a shelf on which were kept the books of reference needful for the navigation of the yacht. In a fever of impatience I ran my eye along them until I came upon the volume I wanted. To consult the index and discover a certain island was a question of a few moments. I read what the book had to say regarding it, but I was not greatly relieved by so doing. Communication with the island was evidently only a matter of chance. I thereupon took the chart of that particular part of the Carribean Sea and studied it attentively. The nearest island to San Diaz was that of Asturia, distant something like a day and a half's steam. It was comforting to learn that numerous trading boats touched there. Let me go at once, as Silvestre had proposed, and, instead of proceeding to Cuba, induce Ferguson to put into this island. If luck favoured me, I could charter a vessel there and return to San Diaz to rescue the President and the Se?orita. Having once thought of this plan, I was eager to put it into execution. I determined, however, to say nothing to Ferguson until the morrow, and only then when we were well out at sea. Friendly though the little man was to me, I had seen enough of him to feel sure that it would need but little pressure from Silvestre to undermine that friendship.

Next morning I left the yacht and went ashore to bid Silvestre farewell. I could very well have dispensed with this ceremony, but I was afraid of arousing his suspicions. I found him seated in the verandah of his house when I arrived, a cigar in his mouth, and a book in his hand. He greeted me pleasantly enough. As I looked at him I could not help recalling the evening when I had seen him seated in the little summerhouse of the inn at Falstead. How many things had happened since that memorable afternoon!

He rose to receive me and held out his hand.

"I wonder whether we shall ever see each other again, Helmsworth?" he said, when I had seated myself. "You have done me a great service, and in the name of the people of Equinata I thank you for it. You will return to Falstead at once, I suppose," he went on, after a short pause, "marry the girl of your heart, and settle down to shire life. I wonder what my fate will be?"

I thought that if Fernandez managed to escape, I could hazard a very good guess. Before leaving him I touched upon the old subject, in order to see what his reply would be.

"I presume you will not permit me to say farewell to your prisoners," I said.

"It would not be wise," he answered. "Fernandez, as I told you last night, is down with fever, and the Se?orita is not in the best of tempers just now. However, I will convey all sorts of kind messages to them from you when next I see them."

I rose from my chair.

"Don Guzman," I began, trying to speak calmly, "you are not playing me false, are you? If any harm should befall Fernandez and his niece, remember you will have all Civilization against you."

At this he fairly lost his temper.

"Madre de Dios, man," he cried, "do you want to make me angry with you? Why do you harp so continually on this string? I have told you, and reiterated the fact, that I do not intend to harm them. If I did, don't you think I should have done so ere this? What's more, Mr. Helmsworth, let me just give you a word of advice. When you return to England, be sure you keep a silent tongue in your head. I can be a good friend, and a particularly bitter enemy. I've a long arm, and when I strike I strike deep. But there, my dear fellow, don't let us quarrel at the time we're about to say farewell to each other. We must part friends. Is it time for you to go? Then good-bye, and may good fortune go with you."

When I left him I made my way towards the path leading to the beach. As I crossed the open space in front of the house, I turned my eyes in the direction of the hut where Fernandez was confined. One of the gigantic negroes that I had seen on the day of our arrival at the island was standing on guard, rifle in hand, before it. Silvestre, I knew, was watching me from the verandah, so there was no chance of being able to communicate with the prisoner. I accordingly continued my walk down to the beach. Two hours later the yacht was steaming out of harbour, and so far as Silvestre knew, I was on my way to England via Cuba.

As I have already observed, it is a day and a half's steam from San Diaz to the nearest island-Asturia. The latter is, if anything, slightly bigger than its neighbour. It is certainly more prosperous. Lying in the track of ships it has a number of visitors, and trade is consequently fairly brisk-the principal exports being a peculiar species of hard wood, and a small quantity of sugar, for which product the soil is well adapted.

It was not until we had been several hours at sea that I broached the subject that was uppermost in my mind to Ferguson. For reasons already stated I was by no means certain how he would receive it. Would his friendship for myself be sufficiently strong to stand the test? However, the matter had to be decided, one way or the other, and what was more there was no time to be lost. I accordingly took advantage of the opportunity that presented itself, and came to business. He heard me out in silence, but there was an expression upon his face that told me he was not particularly in love with my proposal. Indeed, between ourselves, I don't see how he could have been.

"Look here, Mr. Helmsworth Trevelyan, or Trevelyan Helmsworth-whatever you please to call yourself-as I understand it you are asking me to do a thing I have never done before. In other words you are asking me to go back upon the man whose money I am taking."

"Oh! come, now--"

"Just one moment before you reply. Let me put it in my own way, and you can work it out as you like afterwards. I can't see for myself that there is any other construction to be placed upon your proposal. You'll admit, I suppose, that Silvestre is my employer? I am here to run this boat according to his orders, and my instructions are to take you to Cuba and to land you there. You want me to disregard them, and to drop you at Asturia."

"But surely--"

"Hold hard until I have finished. You know that I'm not a particular squeamish fellow. I've done a good many things that a number of people wouldn't even look at; but-and mark you this 'but' is fairly important, if I've got to choose between you and Silvestre-friendship steps in and Silvestre goes to the wall. At the same time I don't mind confessing that it's far from a nice position you have placed me in. The world won't be big enough for me to hide in when it comes to getting away from Silvestre. And when you come to think I've a wife and family at home all depending upon me, I'll leave you to figure out how much you value Fernandez' life at."

This was a way of looking at the question that I had not foreseen.

"But I cannot go away and leave the man there to be murdered," I began. "Flesh and blood wouldn't allow that."

"Very well, then let us say no more about it. It's settled that I run into Asturia and that you go ashore there."

"And after that?"

"I shall go on to Cuba!"

"Give me all the time you can," I said. "I've a big bit of work before me when I get back to the island."

"And I wish you joy of it."

Darkness had fallen when we reached the island. I was anxious, however, to lose no time, and determined to land at once. Immediately on dropping anchor, therefore, I asked Ferguson to put me ashore. This he willingly consented to do, and in due course I found myself with my baggage on the beach. When I had seen the boat depart, I made my way into the town. It was a queer little place, built on the side of a hill, and with, so far as I could see, a very sparse white population.

From a negro boy I inquired my way to the principal hotel, if there should happen to be more than one. He grinned expansively and offered to conduct me to it. It proved to be only a short distance away and faced the sea-front. I rewarded the boy, entered it, and made my way into the bar. The landlord was a Spaniard, and about as villainous a specimen of his race as I'd ever seen. I told him I had just arrived, and that I was anxious to charter a schooner at once, and inquired whether he could help me in the matter, promising to reward him liberally should he do so.

As it happened, he declared that he knew of exactly the sort of vessel I wanted. I inquired the owner's name and asked the landlord where she could be seen.

"She's anchored about a couple of cables from the pier, se?or," he replied, "and she is the property of my good friend, Maxime Blonde. Maxime was lamenting to me only this evening that, having no cargo, he must return to Martinique empty."

"Where can I find him?"

"On board, se?or." Then, scenting business, he continued: "If you wish it, I will escort you to him."

To this I willingly agreed, and then, when he had called his wife to take charge of the saloon, and a negro to accompany him, we made our way to the pier. A boat was soon discovered, and in her, rowed by the negro, we set off for the La Belle Josephine of Martinique.

She proved to be a small fore-and-aft schooner of about fifty tons, nattily built, so far as I was able to judge in the darkness, and very well suited to my purpose.

"Maxime, Maxime Blonde," screeched the hotel keeper, "a se?or to see you on business. Come forth!"

"What now?" cried a voice from the cabin aft. "Who is it calls Maxime at this time of night?"

The hotel keeper went aft and explained matters. Presently he returned and invited me to follow him to the cabin. Of all the dirty holes it has been my misfortune to enter this was certainly the worst. Straw, paper, and banana peel littered the floor. On the right-hand side of the cabin was a narrow bunk, upon which a small, shrivelled-up mulatto was seated. He explained that he was Monsieur Maxime, and that he was owner and captain of the vessel. Being unable to bear the closeness of the cabin I suggested that we should do our business on deck, and thither the little man followed me. In something under a quarter of an hour my arrangements were made with him, and it was settled that we should sail for San Diaz at daybreak.

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