"I cannot," she answered in a heart-broken voice; "and yet, oh Heaven!
I cannot let you kill him."
"You must decide one way or the other," he said remorselessly, "and you'd also better be quick about it. My patience is well nigh exhausted."
There was another interval of silence.
"Will you let me see Senor Fernandez for a moment before I give you my answer?" she pleaded.
"Not for an instant," he replied. "You must have known what answer I should give you when you put the question. I know Senor Fernandez too well to allow you two to meet. I see it is half-past ten! Now I will give you five minutes in which to make up your mind, and if you don't tell me what I want to know then, I will carry out my threat and Fernandez will finish his career at daybreak."
She uttered a piteous little cry, followed by an appeal for mercy.
"Don't talk to me of mercy," he answered. "What mercy did he show me?
What mercy would he have for me if our positions were reversed? He would have shot me like a dog. Bear the fact in mind, Senorita, that if he comes to an untimely end you will be responsible for it!"
There was another pause.
"Time is flying. You have only four minutes left!"
It was impossible that I could listen to this sort of talk unmoved. He had the unfortunate woman at his mercy, and I knew him well enough by this time to feel convinced that as soon as he had extracted his information from her he would throw his promises to the wind, and carry out the infamous project of which Manuel had spoken to Palmyre.
He knew well that even if he killed Fernandez and allowed her to go free she would begin to intrigue against him. His insinuation that she should return from Europe to him in Equinata was only a subterfuge to prevent her becoming suspicious as to his real intentions.
"Three minutes gone!"
The Senorita said nothing in reply, but although I could not see her I could very well imagine the agony she was suffering. The memory of the night we had spent together in the balcony of the Opera House at La Gloria came back to me. Then I took my revolver from my pocket, and gave the magazine a turn to see that it was in working order.
Once more Silvestre spoke.
"Time is up," he said. "I will call Palmyre and give the necessary orders about Fernandez."
"No, no," she cried in the expostulation of despair. "Take my life--kill me! But for the Blessed Virgin's sake, let him go free."
"Will you give me the information?" was Silvestre's reply.
The Senorita uttered a little cry as if she were suffering physical pain.
"And send them to their deaths? No, no, I should be less than human if I were to do that."
"Fernandez will be less than human if you do not," was the other's brutal response. "Permit me, and I will call Palmyre."
As he said this, I turned to the man behind me and signalled that I was about to enter the room. Then, revolver in hand, I strode in.
"That will do, Silvestre," I cried, covering him with the revolver as I approached him.
"Good heavens! you here?" he shouted, as if he found it difficult to believe the evidence of his own eyes. The Senorita was leaning against the table with a look of bewildered astonishment upon her face.
"As you see, I have returned," I answered. "But I have not time to discuss that matter with you now. I give you fair warning that if you speak again I shall shoot. Sit down in that chair and put your hands behind you!"
With an oath Silvestre complied with my request.
Turning to Matthews, I signed to him to carry out the work we had previously arranged. In less time than it takes to tell, Don Guzman de Silvestre was securely fastened in his chair, a gag had been placed in his mouth, and it was then out of his power to do any mischief. From the expression upon his face I could gather some notion of what his feelings were. It was very evident that if I should have the misfortune to fall into his hands again I should be likely to receive but little mercy from him. As soon as he was secure, and I had abstracted the key of the block-house from his pocket, I turned to the lady.
[Ill.u.s.tration: "'I give you fair warning that if you speak again I shall shoot.'"]
"Come, Senorita," I whispered, "you had better prepare for departure.
If we are to release the President and to get away before daylight there is not much time to be lost."
"I am quite ready to leave," she replied.
"Then be good enough to accompany this man, and be very careful to keep in the shadow of the house," I returned. "Above all, see that you do not make a sound. I want to have a few words alone with Silvestre."
Matthews led the way from the room and, with one last look at the man in the chair, the Senorita followed him.
When I had seen her turn the corner of the verandah, I approached Silvestre, who glared at me as though he hoped the fire in his eyes might consume me.
"Don Guzman," I began, speaking in a low voice, "before I take leave of you, I want to let you know why I have played this trick upon you.
You will remember that at Falstead you gave me your a.s.surance that if I helped you to secure Fernandez you would do him no harm. And yet you have given orders that, as soon as you had left the island for Equinata, the Senorita and her uncle were to be poisoned. I distinctly heard you tell the former that the latter would die at daybreak. I am afraid you will find yourself mistaken in your prophecy. By daybreak Fernandez should be well on his way back to Equinata. There is one other matter before I go. Here is the last money you gave me." So saying, I threw upon the table the roll of notes he had handed to me before I left the island for Asturia.
A hideous scowl was the only response I received.
Then, when I had placed my revolver in my pocket, I made my way down the verandah in the direction of Fernandez' prison. To my delight I discovered that no change had taken place there. The giant negro still lay where we had placed him, while my own man stood sentry before the door.
Bidding the Senorita and Matthews remain concealed, I crept quietly forward. The plateau was as silent as the grave, while the only light to be seen was that which streamed from the window of the room we had just left.
I had pa.s.sed through some momentous moments in the past six months, but I do not think that, in the whole course of this extraordinary affair, I experienced anything like the sensation that took possession of me as I made my way towards the door of the hut. I had begun by taking service under Silvestre; I had carried out his instructions to the best of my ability; I had found him a traitor, and now, here I was, throwing him over and rendering a.s.sistance to the other side.
What was the end of it all to be? Should I escape with Fernandez, or would Silvestre catch us before we could reach the boat?
Signing to the sailor to stand aside, I placed the key in the lock. As I opened the door a voice, which I instantly recognized, said as calmly as though its owner were addressing me in the President's study at La Gloria:
"So it's you, Trevelyan, is it? I had an idea you'd come round to my way of thinking. I heard your scuffle with the sentry. I suppose you managed to overpower him?"
I answered him in a whisper that his conjecture was correct.
"You must get up at once," I continued hurriedly. "There is no time to spare. The Senorita is waiting for you in the jungle, and I have a schooner in the bay."
"But I can't get up," he replied. "Our worthy friend, Silvestre, has taken good care of that."
"The deuce, he has!" said I. "What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that I am chained to the leg of the bed," Fernandez returned.
"Before you can release me you must have the key of the padlock."
In a flash I realized what a fool I had been. It had never struck me, when searching Silvestre's pockets, to find out whether he had any other key in his possession. Now we were in a pretty fix. It seemed as if I had defeated Silvestre only to give him a very fair opportunity of turning the tables upon me. At any other time I should have sworn at the contrariness of my luck; now, however, I had too much upon my mind to have time to seek relief in that direction. It was a problem that any man might have been excused for feeling diffident about. The Senorita was concealed in the scrub; the lives of Matthews and his companions depended upon my prompt and successful treatment of the difficulty, and the only possible way I could see of accomplishing that was to return to the room in which I had left Silvestre, and, once there, to overhaul him in the hopes of discovering the all-important key. This time, however, the risk would be increased a thousandfold. It was only too probable that the old negress Palmyre, or the half-caste Manuel, would have entered to find their master in the lamentable condition I had left him; in which case, for all the good I could do, I might just as well take my revolver, shoot myself and Fernandez, and so bring the whole desperate affair to a conclusion.
"You are quite sure, I suppose," I remarked, "that Silvestre has the key upon his person?"
"Quite," he answered. "He has been kind enough to dangle it before my eyes every time he has visited me. Only this afternoon he wittily described it as the isthmus connecting the continents of Equinata and Death!"
That was Fernandez all over. Even when my heart was beating like a wheat-flail in my breast with terror, and when every moment I expected to see Silvestre make his appearance in the doorway, he must have his joke.
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