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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Kidnapped President By Guy Boothby Characters: 24092

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

To say that I made my way from the house to the hut in which Fernandez was imprisoned with as much speed as I could command, would be to express my meaning very inadequately. As soon as I realized the fact that the trick I had played upon Silvestre was discovered, I threw prudence to the winds, and ran as I had not done for years across the plateau towards the building in question. The sailor was still on guard at the door, which was open, while the negro lay bound just where we had thrown him down.

"Stand by, they're after us!" I cried, regardless of who might hear.

With that I plunged headlong into the dark hut, shouting to Fernandez as I did so to prepare the padlock for the key. South American politics produce some curious incidents, but I am not sure that they could find another to equal that which I am now so inadequately attempting to describe.

Dropping on my knees beside the bed, I felt about for the chain and, running my hand along it, at length obtained possession of the padlock, inserted the key, and in a trice the President was free.

"By this time they must have released Silvestre," I whispered. "For heaven's sake let us get away from here!"

"Nobody could be more willing to do that than myself," the other answered, springing from the bed as he spoke, and coming in violent contact with myself, whom he could not see. "You are in command, so you had better lead the way."

Bidding him follow me, I hastened out of the hut, ordered the sailor to accompany us, and plunged into the jungle. As we did so a shout from the house proclaimed the fact that Silvestre was free once more and thirsting for vengeance. We had not stumbled forward many paces before other shouts followed, showing that he had called Manuel and his gang to his assistance.

A very small percentage of the readers of my story have, I trust, been called upon to run for their lives through a West Indian jungle in the dead of night. Those who have done so, however, will be able to understand the sufferings of the wretched trio who stumbled, reeled, scraped, and fought their way down from the plateau to the shore. The darkness was opaque, the obstacles so multifarious, that never for a moment did we seem to have a yard's clear going. Take a sack, a three-legged, and an obstacle race, throw in a game of blind-man's buff, in which you are the blind man, and you will have some faint idea of our difficulties.

Once, from the hill behind us, the sound of a shot reached us, though what its meaning was, I could not even conjecture. At last, wearied to the point of dropping, our faces streaming with perspiration, our flesh cut and bruised, we emerged from the forest and stood upon the seashore. Unfortunately, in our haste, we had not steered as true a course as we would have desired, and instead of coming out in the centre of the little bay where the schooner's boat had been ordered to await us, we found ourselves at the end of the small promontory which separated the bay from that in which the settlement was situated. This was unfortunate in more ways than one, but it could not be helped. The worst part of it was that we could not see the boat or the figures of the Se?orita or Matthews.

"Look! what is that?" cried the President at last, pointing along the beach to the left. "Is it a man?"

I have fairly good eyes, but I must confess that I could see nothing that in any way resembled a human figure in the direction he indicated. He, however, seemed positive that he was right; so, realizing that we could do no good by remaining where we were, we hurried along the beach without further loss of time. We had not proceeded more than fifty yards, however, when the crack of a rifle came from the scrub on our left. If it were aimed at me, the man who fired it was certainly a very fair marksman, for the bullet whistled by within a few inches of my head. It was plain that Silvestre, or at least one of his myrmidons, were not very far behind us. We were destined soon to be convinced as to their numbers and also as to their identity. For the sound of the shot had scarcely died away before three men emerged from the jungle, and Silvestre's voice called upon us to throw up our arms, and then added that unless we did so we should be shot down without mercy. I could well believe this, and I also knew the sort of mercy we should be likely to receive should we allow ourselves to fall into his hands. The fate he had arranged for Fernandez and his niece would be nothing to the cruelty he would practise upon us.

"Nombre de Dios!" cried the President, "why haven't I a weapon of some sort!"

He was destined to have one somewhat sooner than he imagined, for as he finished speaking another rifle-shot rang out, and instantly my revolver fell from my hand and I realized that I had been shot through the forearm. The President coolly stooped and picked up the weapon.

"Look, sir, look, there's the boat!" cried the sailor a few seconds later.

Sure enough there it was, but unfortunately a considerable distance ahead.

"There's nothing left but to run for it," I cried. "Come on!"

With that we took to our heels and scurried along the beach. Silvestre, as soon as he became aware of our intentions, sent a volley after us, doubtless meant as an inducement to heave-to. We paid no attention, however. Though we did not look round we knew that they were after us; but we had a fair start, and if only they did not manage to hit us, there was the bare possibility of our reaching the boat in time. Already I could see Matthews standing knee-deep in the water in order to keep the little craft afloat. He shouted to encourage us. Then there came another shout from our left, and three other figures ran down between ourselves and the boat we were striving so hard to reach. All three were armed, and in the man in the middle, when he called upon us to surrender, I recognized the blackguardly half-caste Manuel. For the moment it looked as if our case were hopeless.

It is at such moments that all the inventive faculties in one's possession hasten to one's aid. Had I been permitted half a day to think the question out, I should probably never have hit upon a plan half as promising as that which then flashed through my mind. The men in front were little more than a couple of dozen paces away; Silvestre and his party were perhaps a hundred yards behind, and were every moment coming closer. The thought had scarcely occurred to me before the crack of rifles sounded from behind. Fortunately none of us were hit.

"Down! down!" I cried to my companions. "Let them suppose that they have winged us!"

As I spoke we all threw ourselves with one accord upon our faces on the sand. As I expected, the men in front immediately jumped to the conclusion that we had been shot by their friends behind. They accordingly rushed forward to make sure of us. My ruse must have dawned upon Fernandez, for, to this day, I am certain that I heard a chuckle escape him. Almost at the same moment Manuel ran up to us, his two companions being only a few yards distant.

"Shoot them," I whispered; and as I spoke I saw Fernandez roll over on his side and raise his right arm. His revolver gave three vicious little cracks, and one by one each man stopped, performed a curious spin, and then fell forward on the sand.

I don't know that I am a particularly imaginative man. As a matter of fact my friends have on several occasions informed me that I am a somewhat prosaic individual. All I know is that at that moment, though why I should have done so, no one, least of all myself, will ever be able to tell (for I have never participated in a hunt in my life), I let out a wild "yoicks" and sprang to my feet.

"Make for the boat!" cried Fernandez.

Without a word I did as I was directed. The boat was now only a matter of some fifty yards ahead. How I covered this distance I shall never be able to understand. All I do know is that when I reached the spot where Matthews was standing, I came an ignominious cropper at the water's edge. The fact was I was done for, wholly and completely done for. It may seem an absurd statement to make, but I will leave it to the charity of my readers to remember that I had been through a great deal that night, and also that a shattered arm does not add to one's strength.

At that moment Fernandez rose to a moral height, far above that I had expected to find in him. Turning to Matthews, who, as I have said, was standing knee-deep in the water, keeping the boat afloat, he cried: "Hold the boat steady while we get Se?or Trevelyan in."

I was so far done for that he must have thought I was dead; nevertheless, and although Silvestre and his men were by this time little more than thirty yards behind us, he did not abandon me, but with the other man's assistance picked me up, then waded with me into the water and dropped me into the boat, where I lay like a log. I heard Fernandez order Matthews and the other man into the boat, and then wondered what was going to happen next. I saw the Se?orita half rise from her seat in the stern. She uttered a little cry. Then I heard a swish of water alongside, as if the boat were being turned round.

"Take care, Silvestre," cried Fernandez, "there's Equinata at the end of my barrel, and a good deal more beside."

What Silvestre said in reply I do not pretend to know. All I can say is that I heard the sharp crack of his revolver, followed by a laugh from Fernandez, and a wild shriek that might have been anything, but which told me nothing. A moment later, and just as I was feeling as if nothing in the world mattered to me, I was conscious of some one saying: "Pull up, my lads, we'll get away yet!" At the same instant a soft hand touched my cheek, and a low voice whispered: "May the saints be merciful to you!" Then I lost consciousness.

When I recovered my senses I was lying off the top of the main hatch of the schooner. Fernandez was standing near me, but it was impossible to see his face.

Lying on my back I could not tell what was happening. I could, however, hear Monsieur Maxime arranging sundry nautical details with his crew, and with all his accustomed fluency. The little man had accepted the position from his own standpoint, which, as you may be sure, was theatrical to a degree. As I have since heard, he avers that, had it not been for his influence and exertions at that momentous time, the President of Equinata would never have returned to his country at all. For this reason he is looked upon as a hero in Martinique to this day.

"Heaven be praised you are not dead, se?or," said a very soft voice, and, on turning my head, I found the Se?orita seating herself beside me.

It was some few minutes after dawn, and in the dim light her face looked very wan and haggard. Allowing for the wear and tear of time and the exigencies of a most anxious and untoward experience, she was dressed very much the same as she had been when she left the ball-room at La Gloria on the night on which I had effected their capture. But the woman in her extraordinary beauty was still the same. She was certainly one female in a thousand, and he would have been a curious individual who could have shown himself insensible to her fascinations. Then Fernandez turned his head, saw her bending over me, and came over and also seated himself beside me.

"Dear friend," he began, in a voice that was full of kindliness, "I am not going to attempt to thank you for all that you have done for me. For the present it is sufficient for me to do what I can to mitigate your sufferings. I won't deny that there have been people who have doubted my medical ability; I am about to prove to you, however, that I am more capable than they suppose."

So saying, he removed the wrappings from my arm and commenced operations. The bullet, it seemed, had shattered the bone, and was fortunately now lying quite close to the surface. To extract it was the work of a few painful minutes,

after which the limb was set and bound up. That accomplished I was at liberty to rise from the hatch.

All this time our behaviour towards each other was as diffident as could well be imagined. For once the President had dropped his cynicism, while the Se?orita regarded me with eyes that overflowed with gratitude.

The island had long since disappeared below the horizon, and now the little schooner was cleaving her way through the water under the influence of a capital breeze. Escorted by the Se?orita I made my way aft.

Monsieur Maxime himself was at the wheel, presenting a curious figure as he hung upon the spokes. I found a shady spot for the Se?orita, and then walked across to where the President was standing before the taffrail.

"I want you to tell me everything," I said. "How did you manage to effect our escape? Remember, I know nothing of what occurred after you placed me in the boat."

"There's not very much to tell," he answered. "I might mention, however, that Silvestre and the half-caste will give no further trouble."

"You shot Silvestre, then?"

"I did," he replied, "and I don't know that I ever enjoyed doing anything so much. It was a close thing between us. Look here!"

He pointed to his left ear, on the lobe of which was a small scar.

"It couldn't have been much closer, could it?" he remarked. "My luck, however, stood by me as usual." Then in a lower and more kindly tone, he added: "My luck and the luck of Equinata!"

For a few moments we stood side by side thinking our thoughts in silence. I recalled the day when I had first seen the dead man in Rio, and also that never-to-be-forgotten afternoon on which he had made the proposal to me that was destined to cost him his life on the beach of an island in the Carribean Sea and to return me to Equinata a wounded and ruined man.

At last Fernandez turned to me and, placing his hand upon my shoulder, looked me full and fair in the face.

"Trevelyan-Helmsworth-Helmsworth-Trevelyan-whatever your name may be, you have put upon me a debt of gratitude I shall never be able to repay. I must confess, however, that I cannot quite understand what it was that so suddenly made you change sides. I offered you excellent terms on the beach on the night that I fell into your hands, and I repeated it on board the yacht. You were a pillar of rectitude then. When, therefore, the game had been played and your employer had won, why did you so suddenly come to my rescue? I think I know you well enough by this time to feel sure that your conversion was due to no mercenary motive."

"You may make your mind easy on that score," I replied. "It was not a question of money."

"Then will you tell me why you did it? Silvestre, when his chance came, would doubtless have proved himself an excellent patron, of course providing it didn't suit his book to put you out of the way!"

"That's exactly it," I replied. "You have put the matter in a nutshell."

"I am afraid I am dense enough not to be able to grasp your meaning," he returned.

"You suggest that it might possibly have suited his book to have put me out of the way. Well, that is why I threw in my lot with you. It would make rather a long story, but I will endeavour to tell it to you as briefly as I can. When I agreed with Silvestre in England to effect your--"

I paused for a moment with a little embarrassment. Fernandez' eyes twinkled.

"Shall we say deportation?" he inquired.

"To effect your deportation! I did so upon his giving me his word of honour that no harm should happen to you. I had no objection to his keeping you a prisoner as long as he pleased--"

"Which he certainly did. Proceed!"

"I have already confessed to you that had I known you first I would not have undertaken the work; but I was out of employment--"

"The mail steamer Pernambuco-stormy interview with the Board of Directors in London-meeting with Silvestre in the garden of the Inn at Falstead-five thousand pounds down-and five thousand when I should be handed over to him--"

He laughed good-humouredly as he noticed my almost overwhelming surprise.

"My dear fellow, to rule a country like Equinata one must possess a faculty for obtaining information. Allow me to frankly admit that I was conversant with Mr. Trevelyan's history and of his acquaintance with ex-President Silvestre, when he made his appearance in his beautiful yacht in the harbour of La Gloria. But in telling you this I am interrupting your narrative. Pray proceed! You remarked, I think, that you were out of employment."

"I was; and the money offered me by Silvestre was too tempting to be refused. I came, I saw you, and as you know, I conquered. I handed you over to Silvestre, as I had contracted to do, and once more secured from him his promise that, with the exception of imprisonment, no harm should befall you. It was then agreed that I should leave the island at once in the yacht for Cuba, en route for England. The money promised me for the work I had done was handed to me, and I left Silvestre."

"But you could not have reached Cuba in the time?"

"I did not attempt to do so. A certain conversation I had with Captain Ferguson changed all my plans."

"And the purport of that conversation?"

"It appears that Ferguson had by chance overheard the half-caste, Manuel, discussing with the negress, Palmyre, certain instructions they had received from Silvestre. Immediately the yacht returned from conveying me from Cuba it would appear that Silvestre was to set sail for Equinata, and as soon as he was out of the way you and the Se?orita were to be poisoned by Palmyre."

"Good heavens! The cowardly scoundrel!"

For the first time since I had known Fernandez I saw a look of fear pass over his face. It was not until later that I learnt that assassination by poisoning was the one thing in the world he dreaded.

"Well," he went on when he had regained his composure, "what happened after that?"

"I arranged with Ferguson that, instead of taking me on to Cuba, he should drop me at Asturia. I was fortunate enough to secure this schooner, and hurried back in her-in the hope of effecting your release. The rest you know!"

He nodded.

"Yes," he said, "the rest I know!"

He turned away from me almost abruptly, and stood for some moments looking down at the bubbling water under the counter. When he addressed me again it was in quite his old manner.

"We live in an extraordinary world," he remarked. "You plot to separate me from my country and end by restoring me to it. Silvestre agrees to make your fortune and finished by placing you in a worse position than you were before. Even the Se?orita yonder has found things turn out contrary to her expectations. On the night of the now famous ball at La Gloria, she was by no means satisfied, so I was given to understand, with her ball dress; yet that strange taskmaster, Force of Circumstances, has decreed that she should wear it, without intermission, longer than any festive costume ever purchased?"

"And what of yourself?"

"Ah! My case is perhaps stranger still. I began by looking upon you as my enemy and end by finding you my staunchest friend. I imagined that I had you in my power, and a few hours later found myself in yours. Silvestre bought your services for ten thousand pounds-I get them for nothing."

If ever there was a strange voyage it was that one. The schooner herself was a very fair sea boat; that, however, was about all that could be said in her favour. It was her cabin accommodation that proved most trying. After the first attempt the Se?orita declared emphatically that nothing could induce her to sleep in it again. Monsieur Maxime might say what he pleased, she declared, but her mind was made up. It was offered to the President, but he declined. As for myself, I had already tried it on the voyage from Asturia, and had no desire to repeat the experiment.

The living on board was but little better. Monsieur Maxime was wont to declare that the cook, Adolphe, was a past master of the culinary art. In this statement, I fear, he somewhat exaggerated; indeed, had I not laid in a stock of provisions before setting out, I dare not think how we should have fared.

On one occasion the Se?orita had the temerity to explore his galley. She emerged with a white face and a settled determination to partake no more of his ragouts, bouillons, etc.

"Really," she observed to me, "one scarcely knows where to go on board this wretched vessel. The cabin is too terrible, and as for that kitchen--"

She made an expressive gesture with her hands as if to express her horror of the place in question.

The same evening I was destined to have a somewhat curious interview with the Se?orita. We had partaken of our evening meal, such as it was, and had gone forward into the bows to enjoy the cooler air there. It was a perfect night, and surely no mortal man could have desired a fairer companion than I had then. We settled ourselves down comfortably, and, having obtained her permission, I lit a cigar. I do not know why I should have done so, but I could not help feeling that I was booked for a sentimental scene. Some men would doubtless have welcomed it. For myself, however, I must confess, that I dreaded it. The Se?orita was dangerous always, and never more so than when inclined to be sentimental.

"Se?or Trevelyan," she began, when we had been seated some minutes, and had talked of the beauty of the evening, the freshness of the breeze and a hundred different subjects, "you of course know that there was a time when I was your avowed enemy?"

"I am afraid I must say that I do know it," I answered, "and I should add that you were justified. No one could wonder at your distaste for me."

"Oh, I don't mean that," she cried, with a little protesting movement of her hands. "For see how nobly you have behaved since. No, do not interrupt me. I want to say what is in my mind, for I know that I owe you an apology. It was all my fault. I hoped to have won you to our side." She paused for a moment. "Unfortunately, I did not know that you were already in love!"

"Then the information the President gave her was not altogether complete," I said to myself. And on thinking it over since I have often been struck by the omission of this one, and probably the most important factor in the whole affair. For the fact cannot be denied that had it not been for my love for Molly, and the consequent desire to make money, I should, in all probability, not have embarked upon the matter at all.

"Se?orita," I returned, "I fear I stand before you in an altogether despicable light, so far as my time in Equinata is concerned. The pitiful part of the whole business is that, had it to be gone over again, I should probably act as I have done. However, I have shot my bolt, and, though I managed to hit the bull's-eye, that is to say, I succeeded in capturing the President, I have failed to receive the prize. Let that be my punishment."

"But you mustn't talk of punishment," she cried. "You are mistaking my meaning. Do you think that I am here to reproach you? No, no, far from that! What I want to suggest is that you should permit us to show our gratitude. Had it not been for you Equinata would never have seen General Fernandez again, and I should not be here with you now. How grateful the President is you can see for yourself. Why should you not stay in Equinata? It is destined to be a great country. There are always opportunities for the man who can seize them. You are that man. Why not try? Would my help count for nothing?"

As she said this she drew a little closer to me. The perfume of her hair was as intoxicating as the finest wine.

"Think! think!" she continued. "Fernandez cannot rule for ever. He might not last a year even. Then--"

She was so close to me that her lips almost touched my face.

"Don't you think we had better be walking aft?" I said. "Your uncle is probably wondering where we are!"

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