"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 Senorita 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 Senorita to join us," said Silvestre, as he spread his serviette over his knees. "Senor 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 appet.i.te 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 sh.o.r.e, 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 Senorita. 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 ash.o.r.e 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,"
"It would not be wise," he answered. "Fernandez, as I told you last night, is down with fever, and the Senorita 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 s.p.a.ce 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 princ.i.p.al exports being a peculiar species of hard wood, and a small quant.i.ty 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."
"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 ash.o.r.e 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 ash.o.r.e. 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 spa.r.s.e white population.
From a negro boy I inquired my way to the princ.i.p.al 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 anch.o.r.ed about a couple of cables from the pier, senor," 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."
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