"You have had the pleasure of my niece's company for some considerable time," said Fernandez, when I joined him some minutes later. "I hope you have had a pleasant and instructive conversation!"
There was a scarcely-concealed sneer in his voice that I did not fail to notice.
"The Senorita has been endeavouring to undermine my loyalty to Silvestre," I said, blurting out the truth without fear of the consequences. "She has promised me, on your behalf, all sorts of rewards if I will turn traitor and run the boat back to La Gloria."
"And I gather from your tone that she was not successful," he replied.
"You are a very pillar of rect.i.tude, my friend."
"What is more," I continued, ignoring his sneer, and making up my mind to let him have it from the shoulder while I was about it, "I hear from Captain Ferguson that you have been endeavouring to tamper with the crew. I should be sorry, senor, to be compelled to confine you to your cabin for the rest of the voyage, but if this sort of thing continues I fear there will be no other course left open to me."
"You surely would not have me neglect an opportunity when it presents itself?" he returned, still with the same curious smile upon his face.
"I have as much right to try to help myself out of this hole as you had to get me into it. However, as your men appear to be as immaculate and bribe-proof as their leaders, I will give you my a.s.surance that I will not tamper with their honour again. Will that satisfy you?"
"As long as you stick to it," I replied. "But I warn you that I shall keep a strict watch upon you, and if you play me false you know what you may expect."
From that moment I had no more trouble with either of them. The Senorita adopted a haughty air towards me. The President, on the other hand, made himself even more agreeable to me than he had been before.
One day later, and, as I expected, a little before sun-down, a small speck appeared upon the horizon. This gradually increased in size until it developed into a small densely-wooded island.
"That," said Ferguson, who was standing beside me on the bridge, "is San Diaz!"
"And, thank goodness, our destination!"
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 s.p.a.ce 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 sh.o.r.e 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 cl.u.s.tered 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 Senorita leaning on the port-bulwarks attentively studying the sh.o.r.e. 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 Senorita 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 a.s.sa.s.sinated 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 ash.o.r.e, 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.
"Senor 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 Senorita 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 Senorita 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 sh.o.r.e.
As soon as we reached it, I sprang from the boat and helped the Senorita 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 h.o.r.ejos 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 Senorita quite exhausted, we tottered on to the plateau on which the houses were situated. The princ.i.p.al 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 s.p.a.ce, 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 Senorita to pa.s.s 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 antic.i.p.ate 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 Senorita, 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."
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