CHAPTER XXIV

A Rat In A Trap

     I groped my way forward in the darkness till I came to a room used for storing purposes.  Well up near the beams was a port-hole.  Too high for me to reach, I presently found a large box which I upended cautiously until it lay beneath the port.  Standing on this I could look thro9ugh into the heavy foliage of the bushes projecting from the shore.
     Except for the lapping of the waves the night was very still.  The moon rode low in the sky.  A fan-shaped wedge of light silvered the inky river.
     I gave the signal agreed upon between me and my men, but no answering flash of white replied to the wave of my handkerchief.  Again I shook the piece of linen from the porthole, and at the intervals for fully five minutes.
     Did Alderson see me?  Or was there a reason why he could not answer?  It was impossible they could have been captured without some sound having reached me.  Nor was it more likely that they had deserted their post.
     The bushes stirred at last and the bow of a boat pushed through.  Smith stood up so that his face was just below mine.  His finger was on his lips.
     "Couldn't come any sooner, sir.  Captain Bothwell was leaning over the rail smoking a cigarette.  I wonder he didn't see your handkerchief," he whispered.
     I gave him orders concisely and the men backed the boat till the bushes hid them.  For me there was nothing left to do but wait.  How long it might be before Blythe would get back with a rescue party I could not tell.  The men in the boat would not dare to stir from their hiding-place until the moon went under s cloud.
     The tide must now be at the full, so that it would be running out strong before they got started.  This would carry them swiftly back to the bay.
     I found myself giving my friends two hours as a minimum before they could return to me.  At the worst they would be here within four, unless my messenger met with bad luck.
     But what about Bothwell?  Would he force my hand before Blythe arrived?  I thought it very likely.  There is something in the tropical air that calls to the passion of a man, and reduces his sense of law till restraint ebbs away.
     In Bothwell's case desire and interest went together.   He was a criminal on more than one count, but the charges against him would in a measure fall to the ground if he could drive Evie to marry him.
     Once she was his wife the kidnapping charge would not stick, and even his black record on the Argos could be made to appear the chivalry of a high-minded man saving the woman he loved from her enemies.
     Moreover, his claim to the treasure would then be a valid one.  The man was no fool.  What he did must be done quickly.  There lay before him one safe road.  Since that was the path he desired above all things to follow, it was sure he would set out on it without delay.
     He scruples had hitherto held him back, because it would be better she should come of her own accord to him.  but these could not hold him many hours longer.
     The masterful insistence of the man had old me that, but no more plainly than his mounting passion.
     I sat down on the box and waited.  In that dark, stuffy hold the heat was intense.  The odor of food decomposing in the moisture of the tropics did not add to my comfort.
     Sitting in cushioned chairs in club rooms with a surfeit of comfort within reach, men have argued in my presence that there is no such thing as luck.   Men win because of merit; they fail only if there is some lack in themselves.
     This is a pleasant gospel for those who have found success, but it does not happen to be true.  Take my own case here.  How could I foresee that a barefooted, half-naked black cook would come into the storeroom to get a pan of rice for next day's dinner?
     Or, as I lay crouched beside a box in the shadows beyond the dim circle illumined by his candle, how could I know whether it were best to announce myself or lie still?
     I submit that the part of wisdom was to let the fellow go in peace, and this I did.
     But as he turned the light for an instant swept across me.   He gave a shriek and flung away both the candle and the pan of rice, bolting for the door.  I called to him to stop.  For answer he slammed the door—and locked it.  Nor did my calls stay the slap of his retreating feet.  I was caught fast as a rat in a trap.
     I certainly had spilt the fat into the fire this time.   Inside of five minutes the passage outside was full of mean.  But during that time I had been an active Irishman.  In front of me and around me I had piled a barrier of boxes and barrels.
     "Who's in there?" Bothwell called.
     I fired through the door.  Some one groaned.   There was a sudden scurry of retreating footsteps, followed by whisperings at the end of the passage.  These became imperative, rose and fell abruptly, so that I judged there was a division of counsel.
     Presently Bothwell raised his voice and spoke again.
     "We've got you, whoever you are.  My friend, you'll have a sick time of it if you don't surrender without any more trouble.  Do you hear me?"
     He waited for an answer, and got none.  I had him guessing, for it was impossible to know how many of us might be there.  Moreover, there was a chance of working upon the superstition of the natives among the crew.   The cook had very likely reported that he had seen a ghost.
     except a shot out of the darkness to sound had come from me since.  So long as I kept silent the terror of the mystery would remain.  Was I man or devil?  What was it spitting death at them from the black room?
     "We're going to batter that door down," went on Bothwell, "and then we're going to make you wish you'd never been born."
     The voices fell again to a whispered murmur.  Soon there would be a rush and the door would be torn from its hinges.  I made up my mind to get Bothwell if I could before the end.
     Above the mutterings came clearly a frightened soprano.
     "What is it, Boris?  What are you going to do?"
     Evelyn had come out of her room to try to save me.
     "Just getting ready to massacre your friend," her cousin answered promptly.
     "Mr. Sedgwick?"
     Terror shook in the voice that died in her throat.
     Bothwell bayed deep laughter.
     "O-ho!  My friend from Erin once more—for the last time.  Come out and meet your welcome, Sedgwick."
     "Suppose you come and take me," I suggested.
     "By God, I will!  Back with you into that room, girl."
     A door slammed and a key turned.
     Still the rush did not come.  I waited, nerves strung to the highest pitch.  One could have counted sixty in the dead silence.
     I knew that some devilish plan had come to the man and they he was working out the details of it in his mind.
     "Say the word, Cap," Fleming called to him impatiently.
     "Not just yet, my worthy George.  We'll give the meddler an hour to say his prayers.  But I'm all for action.  Since it isn't to be a funeral just yet, what do you say to a marriage?"
     "I don't take you."
     "Hm!  Hold this passage for a few minutes, George.   You'll see what you'll se."
     A key turned in a lock.  when I heard his voice again the man had stepped inside the cabin used by Evelyn.  It lay just back of the storeroom and the portholes of the two room were not six feet apart.  Every word that was said came clearly to me.
     "So you thought you'd trick me, my dear—thought you'd play a smooth trick on your trusting cousin.  Fie, Evie!"
     "What are you going to do to Mr. Sedgwick?" she demanded.
     "There's been some smooth work somewhere.  I grant you that.  How the devil did he get aboard here?  He didn't come alone.  If he did, what has become of the boat?  Speak up, m'amie."
     "Do you think I'd tell you even if I knew?" she asked scornfully.
     He laughed softly, with diabolical enjoyment.
     "I think you would—and will.  I have ways to force open closed mouths, beloved."
     "You would—torture me?"
     "If it were necessary," he admitted coolly.
     She answered in a blaze of defiance.
     "Get out your iron cubes for my fingers, you black-hearted villain!"
     "Not for your soft fingers, ma cherie.  I kiss them one by one as a lover should.  Shall we say for your friend's fingers?   If you won't talk, perhaps he will."
     "Are you all tiger, Boris?  Isn't there somewhere in your heart a spark of manhood?" she sobbed, her spirit melted at my danger.
     "Rhetorical questions, Evie.  Shall we come to business?  How did your soon-to-be-deceased lover come on board?  Who brought him?  What were his plans?"
     "If I tell you, will you spare him?" she begged.
     "I'll promise this," he assured her maliciously.   "If you don't tell I'll not spare him."
     She told all she knew except my plan of rescue.  As soon as she mentioned the boat in which I had come the fellow hurried up on deck to intercept it.
     I could hear a boat scraping against the side of the schooner as it was being lowered.  Fleming and two others got in and paddled back and forth among the bushes.  They could nothing.
     My friends had managed to slip away unseen and were headed for the Argos.  You may believe that I wished them a safe and speedy voyage.
     Bothwell came down the forecastle ladder swearing.  He went straight to Evelyn.  Before he opened the door he was all suavity once more.
     "They've got away this time.  Just as well perhaps.  We'll be able to concentrate our attention on the wedding festivities.   Can you be ready in half an hour, dear heart?"
     "Ready for what?"  The words choked in her throat.
     "To make your lover a happy man.  This is our wedding night, my dear."
     "Never!  I'd rather lie at the bottom of the bay.   I wouldn't marry you to save my life."
     "H-m!  You exaggerate, as is the manner of your charming sex.  Now I'll wager that you'd marry me to save—why, to save even that meddling Irishman who is listening to our talk."
     She strangled a little cry of despair.
     "Why do you hate him so?  Is it because he is so much better and braver than you?"
     "I don't hate him.  He annoys me.  So I step on him, just as I do on this spider."
     "Don't Boris.  I'll give you all my share of the treasure.  I'll forgive you everything you've done.  I'll see that you're not prosecuted.  Be merciful for once."
     "Don't get hysterical, Evie.  Sedgwick understands he has got to pay.  He took a fighting chance and he has lost.  It's all in the game."  The villain must have looked at his watch, and then yawned.   "Past  10:30.  Excuse me for a half hour while I settle your friend's hash.  Afterward I'll be back with the priest."
     "No—no!  I won't have it.  Boris, if you ever loved me—Oh, God in heaven, help me now!"
     I think that in her wild despair she had flung herself on her knees in front of him.  her voice shook, broke almost into a scream.
     "Are these—dramatics—for ourself or for him?"  Bothwell asked with a sneer.
     "Don't kill him!  Don't!  I'll do whatever you say."
     "Will you marry me—at once—tonight?"
     I spoke up from the porthole where I was listening.
     "no, she won't, you scoundrel!  As for me, I'd advise you to catch your hare before you cook it."
     "I'm on my way to catch it now, dear Sedgwick, just as soon as I break away from the lady," he called back insolently.
     "I'll—marry you."  The words came from a parched throat.
     "Tonight," he demanded.
     "Not tonight," she begged.  "When we get back to Panama."
     "No.  I'm not going to give you a chance to welch.   Now—here—on this schooner."
     "Not tonight.  I'm so—weary and—unstrung.  I'll do whatever you say, but—give me time to—to—Oh, I'm afraid!"
     "Bothwell, you cur, come in here and you and I will see this out to finish!" I cried in helpless fry.
     "Presently, my dear Sedgwick.  I'll be there soon enough, and that's a promise.  But ladies first.  You wouldn't have me delay my wedding, would you?"
     I flung myself against the door repeatedly and tried to beat it down, but my rage was useless.  The lock and the hinges held.  Back I went to my porthole.
     "Evelyn, are you there?"
     "Yes," came the answer in a choked voice.
     "Don't do it.  What are you thinking of?  I'd rather die a hundred deaths than have you marry him."
     "I must, Jack.  If you should be killed—and I could have prevented it— Oh, don't you see I must?"
     The words were wrung from her in a cry, as if she had been a tortured child.
     "Of course she must.  But why make a tragedy of it?  By Heaven, you wound my vanity between the pair of you.  Am I not straight—as good a man as my neighbor—still young?  Come, let us make an end of the heavy-villain-and-hero business.  You, my dear Sedgwick, shall stand up and give the bride away.  That is to say, you shall stand at your porthole.   You'll find rice in a sack to scatter if you will.  We want you to enjoy yourself.  Don't we, Evie?"  Bothwell jeered blithely.
     "You devil from hell!"
     Pooh!  Be reasonable, man.  We can't both marry the maid, and by your leave I think the best man wins.  Abrupt I may be, but every Katherine is the better for her Petrochio."  He turned to her, dropping his irony for tones of curt command.  "I'll be back in twenty minutes with the arson.   Be ready then."
     With that he turned on his heel and left, locking the door behind him.