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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Kidnapped President By Guy Boothby Characters: 27037

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Of our voyage from the island of Asturia to San Diaz there is little to chronicle. La Belle Josephine, as far as her sailing capabilities were concerned, was all that her owner and captain had described her to be. On the other hand, her dirt and slovenliness were exactly what I had been led to expect it would be from my first inspection of the cabin. To sleep in it, or to eat my meals there, was out of the question. How the Se?orita would manage, when she came aboard-provided I was able to get her away from the island-I could not imagine.

Monsieur Maxime's navigation, I soon discovered, was of the most elementary description. However, perhaps by luck, and perhaps by a measure of good judgment, he managed to pick up the island about noon on the third day after leaving Asturia.

Fearing that Silvestre might have some one on the look-out, I bade Maxime keep the schooner out of sight of land until nightfall. Then we put in, and brought up in a small bay some five miles from the settlement. Immediately it was dark I went ashore, bidding the hands take the boat back, and when they got there to keep a sharp ear for my whistle.

Fortunately for what I had in hand, it was a dark night, so dark indeed that I could scarcely see the boat when I had walked a dozen paces from it. What the jungle would be like I could not imagine.

When the boat had disappeared I set off along the beach in the direction of the settlement. How I was going to reach the house without attracting the attention of its inmates, and what I was going to do when I got there, were two points about which I did not trouble myself very much at that time. My lucky star had so far been in the ascendant, that I was trusting to it to continue so. I knew very well that it was a desperate enterprise I was embarking upon, for should Silvestre discover me, my shrift was likely to be as short as that which Fernandez had so obligingly arranged for me in La Gloria. At last, when I reached the eastern side of the bay, that in which the yacht had anchored, I turned towards the jungle and prepared to enter it. I knew I was in for some hard work, but I did not imagine that it would prove so difficult as I found it to be. The dense mass of creeper that twined from tree to tree barred my progress at every step. I had to climb, to twist, to crawl, in places unable to see more than a few inches ahead, scratched by aloes and thorny bushes, buffeted by low branches, and more than once tripped up and thrown heavily to the ground by logs and other obstacles. How long it took me to reach the plateau I cannot say, but I could scarcely have been less than an hour upon the road. Yet the distance was certainly not more than a quarter of a mile. Somewhat to my astonishment the plateau was all darkness; not a light showed from the house, not a sound came from the huts. With a stealth that would have done credit to a Sioux or an Apache, I crept through the bushes towards the block-house in which Fernandez had been confined when I had left the island. A sudden fear had come over me that, during my absence, Silvestre might have done away with him. If no sentry stood at the door I should believe this to be the case. Closer and still closer I crept to it. At last I was only a few yards distant from it. I was about to move forward on my hands and knees in order to obtain a better view, when a guttural cough reached me, coming, so it seemed, from only a few yards away. So close was it, indeed, that I sprang back, fearing lest the man who uttered it would become aware of my presence. Then the grounding of a rifle-butt on the stones before the hut door reached me, and afforded me indisputable evidence that the general was still imprisoned there.

At first a wild notion came into my head that I might be able to overpower the negro sentry, and, having done so, to free Fernandez. A moment's reflection, however, told me that in all probability he would prove more than a match for me, while he might also have time to fire his rifle and so to give the alarm. More important still, even if I did have the good luck to overcome him, I should not be able to get into the hut, as Silvestre kept the key.

"No," I said to myself, "I must try again to-morrow night, and then I'll bring the two men with me."

Creeping back as carefully as I had come, I reached the beach once more as tired as if I had walked a dozen miles through heavy ground. Going to the water's edge, I gave a shrill whistle, and then sat myself down to await the boat's arrival. It was not long in coming, and in less than a quarter of an hour I was back on board the schooner. Calling up Monsieur Maxime, I bade him get sail on her and put to sea once more. He seemed a little surprised, I fancy, and was about to demur. A brief remonstrance on my part, however, sufficed to put him on good terms with me again.

The next day was spent out of sight of the island, but as soon as darkness fell we were back once more and anchored in the bay. By this time, as you may suppose, I had perfected my scheme as far as possible, and knew exactly what I was going to do.

To my delight the night proved as dark as its predecessor. When, after some difficulty, I reached the shore, with the two men who had volunteered to assist me, the wind was driving the sand upon the beach in clouds, and was howling most dismally among the trees of the jungle.

"We couldn't have chosen a better night," I said to my companions, as we hurried along. "With the elements in our favour, however, we shall have to be very careful how we act."

We made our way down the beach as I had done on the previous night, and climbed the hill as before. Neither of the men had had any previous experience of jungle-work, but they were to have some now which would be sufficient to last them all their lives. More than once they followed my example and went sprawling in the darkness, while once the taller of the pair managed to get his foot entangled in a mass of creeper, and it required all my efforts, and those of his companion, to release him.

"Lord bless us, sir," the other whispered in my ear, "I hope there are no snakes about. This seems just the sort of place to find them."

"You needn't be afraid," I replied. "I have been assured that there is not a snake on the island."

"I'm glad of that," I heard him mutter. "I don't cotton to snakes nohow."

At last we reached the plateau, whereupon I bade both men remain where they were while I went to reconnoitre. Then, dropping on to my hands and knees, I crept forward until I was on the edge of the jungle. It was the same place from which I had watched the sentry on the previous night. Either he or one of his comrades was there now, for I could just see his dark figure standing at the corner of the hut. Across the plateau streamed a bright light from the sitting-room of the house, while the faint tinkling of some native instrument reached my ears from the group of huts beyond. Having taken my observations, I crept back again to my companions.

As may be supposed, I had already instructed them in their duties. In consequence, each had brought with him a hank of thin rope, while I had placed two or three carefully made canvas gags in my pocket in case their services should be required. The idea I had in my mind was that we should creep up to the hut from behind. The two men would then take the right-hand side and make their way round the building with as little noise as possible, while I was to imitate them on the left. When I reached the sentry I was to saunter slowly up to him as if it were the most natural thing in the world for me to be there. Before he could recover from his astonishment at seeing me, they were to spring upon him and make him secure-I obtaining possession of his rifle before he could fire it.

"Come along," I whispered, "and don't make a sound as you love your lives."

Scarcely daring to breathe, I led them from the jungle and across the open space that separated us from the hut. Having gained its shelter, we paused to prepare for the struggle.

Since I had left England I had been in some tight places, but I had never felt so nervous as I did at that moment. There was so much to be thought of, so much to be provided for, and yet so much to be left to chance. What if the sentry did not prove as surprised as I hoped he would be? Suppose the men did not come up in time and gave him an opportunity of discharging his rifle, what would our fate be then? But it did not improve matters thinking of what might happen. I had to carry out my portion of the scheme and leave the rest to Fate. So, having seen the men ready with their ropes in their hands, I calmly strolled round the side of the hut towards the spot where the sentry was standing. It seemed to me that on the outcome of those few steps I was staking all that was worth having in the world-Molly's happiness, my mother's, Fernandez' and the Se?orita Dolores' lives, and in all probability my own. Then I turned the corner and the giant figure of the negro was before me. He looked up and saw me, uttered an exclamation of surprise, and then took a step forward as if to make sure of my identity.

"Have you a light for my cigar, friend?" I inquired, as coolly as I could force myself to speak.

As I said it the two figures of my companions appeared round the further corner. Before the man could reply they had thrown themselves upon him; one had clutched him by the throat, while the other pinioned his hands behind him. Springing forward, I seized the rifle he had dropped. The man made a desperate struggle for his liberty, but we were too much for him, and almost before he could realize what had happened, we had got him on the other side of the hut, where we could make him secure and do with him as we might think best. In almost less time than it takes to tell, my two companions had lashed him so securely that it was impossible for him to move hand or foot or, what was more important still, to cry out.

"One had clutched him by the throat."

"So far so good," I said, rising from my knees, where I had been kneeling beside the prostrate man. "He will give us no more trouble. Now you, Williams, take his rifle and stand sentry in front of that door, while Matthews and I go across to the house and see what we can do with Silvestre. We've got to find that key somehow."

Williams took the rifle and proceeded to the front of the hut, where he stood in very much the same attitude as the negro had adopted. Then Matthews and I, in our turn, made our way quietly back to the jungle, and through it towards the spot where it approached nearest the house. The light was still streaming from Silvestre's window, and once, as we waited, I heard the sound of his laugh. It was evident from this that he was not alone.

"Now, Matthews," I said, "what we have to do is to get across to that verandah without any one seeing us. If we are caught, remember our lives will pay the penalty."

"I hope we shan't be caught then, sir," the man replied.

The night was as still as the grave; the music had ceased at the huts, and not a sound came from the house towards which we were making our way. At last we reached the verandah and ascended the two steps that led up to it. Silvestre's sitting-room was now only a few yards distant. Would it be possible for us to reach it without giving him warning of our approach? Fortunately for us, the floor of the verandah was of earth, beaten hard, and for this reason, unless we were more than usually careless, the odds were in our favour. Keeping as close to the wall of the house as possible, we approached the window, which was open. As we did so, Silvestre spoke again.

"Well, I have given you plenty of time to think it over," he remarked. "What have you to say?"

"Only that I refuse," the Se?orita replied, for she was his companion. "You could not expect me to do anything else."

"Think well what you are doing," the other continued, and as he said it I advanced a couple of steps. "You know that when I say a thing I mean it. I tell you plainly Fernandez' life is not worth an hour's purchase. He chose to come between me and my ambition, and I have tossed him aside as I should have done a straw. When he is out of the way Equinata will listen to me, and when she has observed how I deal with such as oppose me, I don't think she will make any more mistakes. I know that you are dangerous, but I fancy I can manage you. Give me the information I require, and I'll spare you and perhaps do more. Why should you bother yourself about Fernandez?"

"Do you think I have no heart?"

"I suppose you have about as much as any other woman," was the sneering reply. "Come, Se?orita, you must admit that my patience has held out pretty well. But you mustn't overstrain it. Give me the information I require and I, on my side, will pledge myself to send you to Europe, and also to allow Fernandez to remain here in safety, provided he passes his word never to return to Equinata or to molest me further. I cannot make you a fairer offer than that, and I am afraid I am foolish to do so much."

"And if I refuse to accept your terms?"

"Then I shoot Fernandez at daybreak, and when the yacht returns sail away, leaving you here in Palmyre's charge. I am afraid you would find the life a trifle lonely after La Gloria."

Knowing as I did what his real intentions were, I was able to form a very fair estimate of th

e man's villainy. What the information could be that he was so anxious to obtain from her I could not imagine. I had not much time, however, to think about it, for as the thought flashed through my brain I heard some one rise from a chair and cross the room, then Silvestre's voice continued, in a more persuasive tone than he had used before: "Se?orita, you and I together could govern that country as it has never been ruled before. I know who are my friends there, and I am also acquainted with my enemies. The first I shall take care to render even more loyal than they were before, the others I shall deal with in such a fashion that they will give no more trouble. Come, make up your mind. Go home to Europe for a year until I have everything in order and then come out and join me. Who knows what happiness may be in store for us? What have you to say to my proposal?"

"I cannot," she answered in a heart-broken voice; "and yet, oh Heaven! I cannot let you kill him."

"You must decide one way or the other," he said remorselessly, "and you'd also better be quick about it. My patience is well nigh exhausted."

There was another interval of silence.

"Will you let me see Se?or Fernandez for a moment before I give you my answer?" she pleaded.

"Not for an instant," he replied. "You must have known what answer I should give you when you put the question. I know Se?or Fernandez too well to allow you two to meet. I see it is half-past ten! Now I will give you five minutes in which to make up your mind, and if you don't tell me what I want to know then, I will carry out my threat and Fernandez will finish his career at daybreak."

She uttered a piteous little cry, followed by an appeal for mercy.

"Don't talk to me of mercy," he answered. "What mercy did he show me? What mercy would he have for me if our positions were reversed? He would have shot me like a dog. Bear the fact in mind, Se?orita, that if he comes to an untimely end you will be responsible for it!"

There was another pause.

"Time is flying. You have only four minutes left!"

It was impossible that I could listen to this sort of talk unmoved. He had the unfortunate woman at his mercy, and I knew him well enough by this time to feel convinced that as soon as he had extracted his information from her he would throw his promises to the wind, and carry out the infamous project of which Manuel had spoken to Palmyre. He knew well that even if he killed Fernandez and allowed her to go free she would begin to intrigue against him. His insinuation that she should return from Europe to him in Equinata was only a subterfuge to prevent her becoming suspicious as to his real intentions.

"Three minutes gone!"

The Se?orita said nothing in reply, but although I could not see her I could very well imagine the agony she was suffering. The memory of the night we had spent together in the balcony of the Opera House at La Gloria came back to me. Then I took my revolver from my pocket, and gave the magazine a turn to see that it was in working order.

Once more Silvestre spoke.

"Time is up," he said. "I will call Palmyre and give the necessary orders about Fernandez."

"No, no," she cried in the expostulation of despair. "Take my life-kill me! But for the Blessed Virgin's sake, let him go free."

"Will you give me the information?" was Silvestre's reply.

The Se?orita uttered a little cry as if she were suffering physical pain.

"And send them to their deaths? No, no, I should be less than human if I were to do that."

"Fernandez will be less than human if you do not," was the other's brutal response. "Permit me, and I will call Palmyre."

As he said this, I turned to the man behind me and signalled that I was about to enter the room. Then, revolver in hand, I strode in.

"That will do, Silvestre," I cried, covering him with the revolver as I approached him.

"Good heavens! you here?" he shouted, as if he found it difficult to believe the evidence of his own eyes. The Se?orita was leaning against the table with a look of bewildered astonishment upon her face.

"As you see, I have returned," I answered. "But I have not time to discuss that matter with you now. I give you fair warning that if you speak again I shall shoot. Sit down in that chair and put your hands behind you!"

"'I give you fair warning that if you speak again I shall shoot.'"

With an oath Silvestre complied with my request.

Turning to Matthews, I signed to him to carry out the work we had previously arranged. In less time than it takes to tell, Don Guzman de Silvestre was securely fastened in his chair, a gag had been placed in his mouth, and it was then out of his power to do any mischief. From the expression upon his face I could gather some notion of what his feelings were. It was very evident that if I should have the misfortune to fall into his hands again I should be likely to receive but little mercy from him. As soon as he was secure, and I had abstracted the key of the block-house from his pocket, I turned to the lady.

"Come, Se?orita," I whispered, "you had better prepare for departure. If we are to release the President and to get away before daylight there is not much time to be lost."

"I am quite ready to leave," she replied.

"Then be good enough to accompany this man, and be very careful to keep in the shadow of the house," I returned. "Above all, see that you do not make a sound. I want to have a few words alone with Silvestre."

Matthews led the way from the room and, with one last look at the man in the chair, the Se?orita followed him.

When I had seen her turn the corner of the verandah, I approached Silvestre, who glared at me as though he hoped the fire in his eyes might consume me.

"Don Guzman," I began, speaking in a low voice, "before I take leave of you, I want to let you know why I have played this trick upon you. You will remember that at Falstead you gave me your assurance that if I helped you to secure Fernandez you would do him no harm. And yet you have given orders that, as soon as you had left the island for Equinata, the Se?orita and her uncle were to be poisoned. I distinctly heard you tell the former that the latter would die at daybreak. I am afraid you will find yourself mistaken in your prophecy. By daybreak Fernandez should be well on his way back to Equinata. There is one other matter before I go. Here is the last money you gave me." So saying, I threw upon the table the roll of notes he had handed to me before I left the island for Asturia.

A hideous scowl was the only response I received.

Then, when I had placed my revolver in my pocket, I made my way down the verandah in the direction of Fernandez' prison. To my delight I discovered that no change had taken place there. The giant negro still lay where we had placed him, while my own man stood sentry before the door.

Bidding the Se?orita and Matthews remain concealed, I crept quietly forward. The plateau was as silent as the grave, while the only light to be seen was that which streamed from the window of the room we had just left.

I had passed through some momentous moments in the past six months, but I do not think that, in the whole course of this extraordinary affair, I experienced anything like the sensation that took possession of me as I made my way towards the door of the hut. I had begun by taking service under Silvestre; I had carried out his instructions to the best of my ability; I had found him a traitor, and now, here I was, throwing him over and rendering assistance to the other side. What was the end of it all to be? Should I escape with Fernandez, or would Silvestre catch us before we could reach the boat?

Signing to the sailor to stand aside, I placed the key in the lock. As I opened the door a voice, which I instantly recognized, said as calmly as though its owner were addressing me in the President's study at La Gloria:

"So it's you, Trevelyan, is it? I had an idea you'd come round to my way of thinking. I heard your scuffle with the sentry. I suppose you managed to overpower him?"

I answered him in a whisper that his conjecture was correct.

"You must get up at once," I continued hurriedly. "There is no time to spare. The Se?orita is waiting for you in the jungle, and I have a schooner in the bay."

"But I can't get up," he replied. "Our worthy friend, Silvestre, has taken good care of that."

"The deuce, he has!" said I. "What do you mean by that?"

"I mean that I am chained to the leg of the bed," Fernandez returned. "Before you can release me you must have the key of the padlock."

In a flash I realized what a fool I had been. It had never struck me, when searching Silvestre's pockets, to find out whether he had any other key in his possession. Now we were in a pretty fix. It seemed as if I had defeated Silvestre only to give him a very fair opportunity of turning the tables upon me. At any other time I should have sworn at the contrariness of my luck; now, however, I had too much upon my mind to have time to seek relief in that direction. It was a problem that any man might have been excused for feeling diffident about. The Se?orita was concealed in the scrub; the lives of Matthews and his companions depended upon my prompt and successful treatment of the difficulty, and the only possible way I could see of accomplishing that was to return to the room in which I had left Silvestre, and, once there, to overhaul him in the hopes of discovering the all-important key. This time, however, the risk would be increased a thousandfold. It was only too probable that the old negress Palmyre, or the half-caste Manuel, would have entered to find their master in the lamentable condition I had left him; in which case, for all the good I could do, I might just as well take my revolver, shoot myself and Fernandez, and so bring the whole desperate affair to a conclusion.

"You are quite sure, I suppose," I remarked, "that Silvestre has the key upon his person?"

"Quite," he answered. "He has been kind enough to dangle it before my eyes every time he has visited me. Only this afternoon he wittily described it as the isthmus connecting the continents of Equinata and Death!"

That was Fernandez all over. Even when my heart was beating like a wheat-flail in my breast with terror, and when every moment I expected to see Silvestre make his appearance in the doorway, he must have his joke.

"Well," I said at last, "I suppose there is nothing for it but for me to return to the house and to endeavour to obtain possession of the key. Heaven alone knows whether I shall be successful. In the meantime the Se?orita had better make her way down to the shore. You will of course keep very quiet until I return."

"You may depend upon my doing that," he replied. "You will find me here when you return."

Without another word I left the hut and crept round it to the spot where the Se?orita and the faithful Matthews were anxiously waiting for me. So dark was it in the jungle that I could see nothing of them, and it was not until I called to them that I could discover their whereabouts. Then, drawing the lady a little on one side, I hastened to explain the situation to her.

"You will find the key hanging round his neck," she said in a fierce whisper. "If you only knew what a miserable part it has played in my life of late, you would easily understand how familiar I am with its hiding-place."

I did not reply, but, turning to Matthews, bade him escort the Se?orita down the hillside to the shore, where they were to await our coming. When they departed I began my journey to the house. The light still shone from Silvestre's window, though the remainder of the building was in complete darkness. Revolver in hand I crept carefully along until I reached the steps leading to the verandah. These I ascended, and eventually reached the room in question. Every creak of the boards brought my heart into my mouth; and yet, if Silvestre had been discovered and released by Manuel or Palmyre, why had he not come in search of us? That he was no coward I knew too well.

When I reached the open window I was able to obtain a glimpse of the room. It may be imagined with what delight I assured myself that Silvestre was still there and, what was more, lying just as I had left him. Softly I crept in and approached him. I could fancy the satisfaction he had felt when he had witnessed my departure before without the key of the padlock which fastened Fernandez' fetters to the bed. From the way he glared at me, when he became aware of my presence, it was evident that he realized that I had come to rectify my mistake. As quickly as I could do it, and without wasting any words upon him, I unfastened the collar of his shirt to discover, suspended on a string round his neck, that tiny talisman that, at that moment, was worth more to me than anything else in the world. To take possession of it was the work of a second, and then I once more tiptoed towards the verandah. I had barely reached it, however, when I heard the door, communicating with the central passage of the house open, and looking back I saw Palmyre enter the room.

As I arrived at the end of the verandah I heard a shrill scream, and as I heard it realized the fact that, unless I could succeed in releasing Fernandez within the next few minutes, all was lost, and that I should, in all human probability, never see old England again!

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