The Kidnapped President Part 18

"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 Senorita. 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."

CHAPTER XII

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 gla.s.s 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 ash.o.r.e 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.

b.u.t.ter 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, n.o.body 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 Senorita 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 G.o.d'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 a.s.sistance 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?"

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