"Where can I find him?"
"On board, senor." Then, scenting business, he continued: "If you wish it, I will escort you to him."
To this I willingly agreed, and then, when he had called his wife to take charge of the saloon, and a negro to accompany him, we made our way to the pier. A boat was soon discovered, and in her, rowed by the negro, we set off for the _La Belle Josephine_ of Martinique.
She proved to be a small fore-and-aft schooner of about fifty tons, nattily built, so far as I was able to judge in the darkness, and very well suited to my purpose.
"Maxime, Maxime Blonde," screeched the hotel keeper, "a senor to see you on business. Come forth!"
"What now?" cried a voice from the cabin aft. "Who is it calls Maxime at this time of night?"
The hotel keeper went aft and explained matters. Presently he returned and invited me to follow him to the cabin. Of all the dirty holes it has been my misfortune to enter this was certainly the worst. Straw, paper, and banana peel littered the floor. On the right-hand side of the cabin was a narrow bunk, upon which a small, shrivelled-up mulatto was seated. He explained that he was Monsieur Maxime, and that he was owner and captain of the vessel. Being unable to bear the closeness of the cabin I suggested that we should do our business on deck, and thither the little man followed me. In something under a quarter of an hour my arrangements were made with him, and it was settled that we should sail for San Diaz at daybreak.
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 Senorita 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 ash.o.r.e, 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 anch.o.r.ed, 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 ma.s.s 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 th.o.r.n.y 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-b.u.t.t 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 anch.o.r.ed 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 sh.o.r.e, with the two men who had volunteered to a.s.sist 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 ma.s.s 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 a.s.sured 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 s.p.a.ce that separated us from the hut. Having gained its shelter, we paused to prepare for the struggle.
[Ill.u.s.tration: "One had clutched him by the throat."]
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 Senorita 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 ident.i.ty.
"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.
"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 att.i.tude 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 Senorita 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, Senorita, 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 pa.s.ses 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 the 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: "Senorita, 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?"
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