The Island of Intrigue/Chapter 16

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The Escape.

THE ray of moonlight vanished as quickly as it had appeared, but I had discerned enough in that revealing flash. Gilbert was there, outside my window! He was cutting a way through the solid beamed walls for me to escape!

I removed the heavy pitcher and bowl carefully from the stand, and placed them upon the center table. The stand itself was square and solidly built, and finding that it would bear my weight, I dragged it noiselessly, inch by inch, until it was directly beneath the open porthole. Then I climbed upon it and knelt, thrusting my hand through the aperture.

"Gilbert!" I breathed into the night. "Gilbert! Is it you? Have you come to save me?"

"Darling!" Two hands were laid tenderly on either side of my face, and I felt Gilbert's kisses on my lips. "I dared not call to you, for fear the others outside your door hear my voice, but I knew you must be listening for me, and would not be alarmed. The French girl said she would prepare you for my coming. Only be brave, Maida, dearest, and as still as a mouse, and I'll soon have you out of this! You are all right? They have not ill-used you?"

"No," I whispered. "But I have been almost crazy with anxiety! Lorna told me you had been locked in the lighthouse. She kept her word and freed you?"

"Yes. She's a trump! We haven't a moment to lose, now. It will take me half an hour at least, to saw an opening large enough for you to pass through, in this tough, seasoned wood. It must be four or five inches thick. Thank God they left it as it originally was, without shingles or clapboard! Go to your door quietly, dear, and listen, and cough if you hear the slightest noise from within the house."

He was standing on a garden bench, his head almost on a level with mine. He had left the saw sticking in the wood when he reached out his hands to me, but now he grasped it again. As I crept down from the stand I heard the low, rasping, gnawing sound re-commence, and a tiny shower of fine sawdust fell upon my head

I stole to the door and crouched there, listening feverishly, but there was no sound from its farther side, save Alaric's deep stertorous breathing, and the occasional creak of his chair as he moved restlessly.

Did the household indeed sleep, secure in the belief that I was drugged and helpless, and Gilbert safely under lock and key? Would their latent suspicions of Lorna's defection rise again to cause them renewed uneasiness, and send them prowling about my room, to assure themselves for the second time that all was well with their scheme?

I shuddered, in spite of myself, and a cold, numb feeling crept about my heart at the bare thought of discovery now, at the very moment of my release. It seemed that ages passed while I crouched there by the door, with the dull, monotonous grating sound of the saw filling my ears. To my tortured senses it grew louder until it was almost deafening. I was sure that it must soon arouse Alaric from his slumbers and that his cry of warning would resound through the house.

At last, after an almost interminable stretch of time, the rasping ceased abruptly with a little squeak, and I heard Gilbert whist!e softly above the swirling of the wind.

I crept again to the porthole.

"Ready, Maida? I've got this slab loose now, and I'm going to wrench it out. It may make a bit of noise, but it can't be helped, we must chance that. I think the space will be big enough for me to draw you through. Climb up on that stand again, now, and when I tell you, hold out your arms to me."

Trembling, scarcely daring to breathe, I crept up on the stand, and waited. All at once, there was a rending, splintering sound, and a wide section of the wall at the side of the porthole gave way. It slipped from Gilbert's hold and fell with a thud upon the grass, and I felt the sharp rush of wind in my face, and the sting of the first drops of rain.

"Now!" cried Gilbert, and obediently I thrust out my arms into the darkness. Two strong hands grasped me, and pulled me forward through the gaping hole. The stand beneath me swayed and rocked with the sudden shifting of my weight but righted itself, and as my knees rested upon the rough wooden edge of the aperture, I braced myself and sprang outward. Gilbert caught and steadied me, and in another moment I stood beside him on the lawn, with the wind and rain swirling all about me, and my face upturned to the velvety black sky. Free!

For an instant he held me tightly, hungrily in his arms, then gently releasing me, he seized my hand, and started off at a swift pace, drawing me with him.

"We must run for our lives, now!" he said. "Try your very hardest to keep up, dear!"

We rounded the corner of the silent house, and took the path leading to the cove where the boat house was. Blind instinct must have guided Gilbert's feet, for we could not see a yard ahead in the inky blackness which enveloped us on every hand. I felt the loose gravel crunch beneath my feet, and the sodden branches, as we swept them aside in passing, flung a misty spray full in our faces.

When a curve in the path hid us from possible view from the house, Gilbert produced a tiny electric lantern, and flashed it ahead. In the darting light the huge, swaying trees loomed appallingly all about us, and I shrank against him in swift terror, as he hurried me on.

No sound came from the house behind us, and at length we reached the belt of undergrowth which fringed the beach. Spent and breathless, I stumbled, and would have fallen, but he caught me tenderly, and I leaned gaspingly against him. He half-led, half-carried me to where a great stone reared itself from the sands, and seated me there.

"Wait here, dearest. There is something I must do to insure our safety from pursuit. I shall only be away a moment from your side!" he cried in my ear, above the roaring of the wind and waves. Then he sprang away into the darkness. Before me loomed the square bulk of the boat house, and the wide, white sweep of the foam-crested breakers was cleaved by a straight black line which I knew to be the dock.

I waited, in a tense agony of apprehension, my hands clasped upon my heaving breast. Why had he left me? Why had he waited for anything? Would they not awaken, perhaps, and come to find my empty couch and that great gap in the wall? If they did, they would surely seek me out and carry me back to my prison and this time there would be no escape from it! They might descend upon me at any minute, and all would be lost! No warning could reach me of their coming, the roaring of the storm would deaden any sound of approaching footsteps. If they once regained possession of me, no mercy would be shown me now; that I knew instinctively. I trusted Gilbert to do what was best, yet my heart cried out to him to return quickly, quickly!

All at once, quite close to me, something moved! A gray shadow detached itself from the deeper gloom and came swiftly forward and a wild despairing cry rose upon my lips. I shrank back against the stone, powerless to move, when a quick, low-breathed sentence fell upon my ears.

"Hush, it is I! Nicolette!"

"Oh," I gasped sobbingly, in relief. "I did not know! I was afraid "

"Here!" she reached my side, and flung a warm, enveloping cloak about my drenched shoulders. "That will keep you warm. The storm, it is terrible!"

"Why did you come," I exclaimed. "You are running a frightful risk. If they found you here——"

"I came to bring you this," she thrust a warm shapeless bundle into my arms. "It is the pauvre petii chien, 'Laddie,' you call him."

"Is he dead?" I cried, feeling the limp, resistless weight against me. "Poor little fellow!"

"No," she answered quickly. "The shot crippled him but he will live. I have chloroformed him just now, only a little, to keep him quiet. I was afraid that he might bark, and betray you."

Even as she spoke, I became aware of a sweetish, heavy, pungent odor on the air, which I had been too excited and unnerved to notice before. I hugged the soft, helpless bundle closer.

"Dear Laddie!" I murmured. "Dear little fellow. How glad Gilbert will be!"

Then I looked up. The girl I had known as Lorna was standing quietly beside me, but I had caught the murmur of a sob, and there was something in the tense rigidity of her attitude, which conveyed to me a swift impression that she was fighting against a breakdown.

"Lorna—Nicolette!" I stammered. "You have done so much for us! Won't you give up your determination, and let us take you away!"

"No, petite amie. It is best that I stay with him. Even though I have disobeyed, ruined him, my place is by his side! If we also escape, they may never learn that I have betrayed them, but should I go with you, they will remember, and sooner or later they or their friends will seek me out, wherever I may be, and avenge themselves. I cannot ask immunity for them, that you will not try to have them captured! I must take my chances with the rest. If we are caught, I pray that you will not attempt to help me. You will keep secret the truth that I aided you to escape. Let me suffer with the others, if I must. I would rather undergo the sentence meted out to me by your courts, than that of Herman Goebel's associates.—Monsieur is returning for you! Good-bye, Maida. Will you try not to think so bitterly of me?"

"I owe my freedom to you, perhaps my life!" I returned. "I shall always remember that, Nicolette. Whatever happens, if there should be any way in which my father or I could help you, you will try to let me know?"

Gilbert approached us swiftly, from the direction of the dock.

"What is it? Who is that?" he cried hoarsely, and I saw that he shifted the pocket lantern to his left hand, while something glinted in his right. Then he recognized her, and gave a little exclamation of relief, and his hand slipped to his hip pocket, and came away empty. "Oh, it is you!" he said, adding quickly, "you will not come with us? We can protect you, and get you safely out of the country, I promise you! Come there's not a moment——"

Nicolette stepped back, with a little decisive shake of her head.

"You are kind to offer it, Monsieur, but it is impossible. Take good care of her, and—Goodbye!"

"Then run to the house as quickly as you can, for your own sake——" he broke off, with a startled upward glance, and cried out suddenly: "My God, they've discovered us!"

I looked backward, fearfully. Through the rain, a blur of light showed over the trees in the direction of the house and hard upon Gilbert's voice, came the sound of distant shouts.

Nicolette gave a little, sharply despairing cry, and disappeared into the darkness, and Gilbert grasped me and pulled me swiftly toward the dock. He had not noticed, in his excitement, the bundle which I carried, and although Laddie was a heavy burden, I was too terrified and breathless to gasp out to Gilbert to take him, so I tucked him under my arm and ran as if indeed for my life.

The shouting came nearer, lights flashed behind us, and as we rushed out upon the dock, a volley of revolver shots rang out. I reeled against Gilbert and he steadied me, and said quickly:

"It's all right. Here we are, dear. Get in!"

I looked down and saw beside the landing place the little racing motorboat, which was pitching perilously about in the choppy sea. Gilbert dropped me swiftly into its narrow cockpit, cast loose, and leaping in after me, started the engine. It crackled and whirred, jerking like a balky horse and with a suffocating clutch of supreme horror at my throat, I heard the sharp patter of running feet close, close to us on the rainswept resounding planks of the dock. Then, just when I gave up all hope, we shot out suddenly over the heaving bosom of the black waters, at the moment when their revolvers spoke again, and there came about us the spatter of bullets, like hail.

I fancied, even above the roaring exhaust of the engine and the hiss of the spray, that I heard Gilbert utter a queer exclamation, like a groan, and he seized and dragged me down until I crouched low in my seat, to avoid their deadly fire. We seemed to be gliding swiftly through a raging cataract, as the huge waves, cleaved by the torpedo-shaped bow fell swirling away on either side, and the rush of wind sucked the breath from my lips. I could not speak, but sat huddled there, clutching Laddie's limp body, my dishevelled, unbound hair clinging to my neck and shoulders, the stinging, salt spray dashing over my drenched, shuddering frame.

My eyelids seemed glued to my face, but when I could raise them I saw ahead of us beyond the tiny arc of misty light from the little boxed lamp before Gilbert's knees, only the limitless blackness of sea and sky alike, with the long feathery ridges of foam-crested rollers sweeping toward us as if to engulf our frail craft.

From the distance behind came the faint popping of more shots, but we were safely beyond range and flying onward with every second that passed, further and further from that dreaded island, and the peril which lurked there.

All at once there was a deafening, thunderous roar which seemed to split my ears, and a lurid flash of crimson lighted the sea and sky.

"What is it?" I screamed into Gilbert's ear, above the turmoil about us.

"Explosion. I set a time-fuse, and blew up their launch and boathouse, where they had another craft locked away," he shouted back. "We're safe from pursuit now!"

He seemed to make a supreme effort to raise his voice that I might hear, but I was so overwrought that the significance of it escaped me for the moment. I straightened from my cramped position as well as I could, and glanced fearfully over my shoulder. A great pillar of flame was shooting skyward from the cove, which glared blindingly in my face and outlined the whole island in a sinister, blood-red haze.

A tremendous, pitying terror gripped me as I gazed upon it. Wicked, ruthless as they were, could they have perished in that cataclysm—Monsieur Pelissier and Alaric and that archfiend Herman Goebel? And Nicolette—what of her? I bowed my head. If indeed they had all been hurled to their doom, I hoped God would have mercy on their sullied souls.

The bundle stirred in my arms, and I hugged it tenderly. Gilbert stared at the movement, and I turned eagerly to him.

"It's Laddie!" I cried. "Nicolette found him and brought him to me. They hurt him, but we have him safe!"

Gilbert's lips moved, but I had to bend near so that my dank, salty hair brushed against his face, to catch the words.

"Thank God for that! I thought they had killed the poor little beggar. That brute called Alaric told me so, when he brought me some food this morning. Good old Laddie! Hold him tight, Maida."

Then at last the faintness of his tone brought to me a sharp realization that something was wrong.

"What is the matter?" I screamed out to him. "Oh, Gilbert, you are ill! What is it?"

"It's nothing," he smiled wanly, and took a firmer grip upon the tiny steering wheel. "Don't ask me, dear! Wait till we're well out of this."

A spasm of pain shot across his face as he spoke, and I shrilled in rising horror.

"Gilbert, you shall tell me! Have they hurt you?"

"One of their stray shots!" he gasped. "It caught me here. I didn't want you to know until we were safely ashore. Don't be frightened——"

He had motioned to his side nearest me, and I felt beneath his coat. My hand came away wet, and dripping red.

"You are dying, Gilbert! They have killed you!" I cried.

"No, it's only a mere scratch, I think. You mustn't be alarmed. I'm just a little faint, dear, that's all."

He swayed as he spoke, and for an instant his eyes closed, but he forced them resolutely open, and by the glow of the tiny, hooded light I saw that his face was drawn and ghastly.

"You will bleed to death!" Terror and grief lent strength to my own failing voice. "Let me bind it up and try to staunch the flow!"

"You can't do anything now, Maida. We must reach the mainland first. I've got to watch the engine. It isn't acting right——"

But I scarcely heard. I lifted Laddie from my lap and laid him gently on the bottom of the boat, bracing him with my feet. Then I turned up my skirts and tearing a wide strip from my petticoat flounce, I rolled it into a wad and pressed it against his side, under the coat and held it firmly there. So we crouched for several minutes, which seemed like hours. His last words about the motor not working properly, filtered slowly through my consciousness, and I noticed for the first time that the engine was snorting and throbbing unevenly, like some panting animal spent with the chase, and we were moving forward in perceptible jerks, with pauses and then jarring spurts of speed.

"Oh, God!" I prayed aloud into the storm. "Let us reach the shore in safety! Make him live until we can get help, a doctor! Don't let him die now!"

The wind caught my despairing cry and flung it hack derisively into my teeth, and as if in malicious mockery of my invocation, the engine slowed, with a queer rattling pounding sound somewhere inside. Our speed slackened and we were thrown violently apart, as the light shell of a craft pitched and tossed crazily about in the turbulent water.

I tried to steady myself, and clutched the side of the boat with one hand, while with the other I pressed Gilbert's side. He lurched sickeningly, and once his head fell upon my shoulder, but he straightened with a determined effort, and tried to smile.

"Dearest in my coat pocket—a flask. Can you reach it? I must——keep up——"

His hand was still gripping the steering wheel and I found the flask, unscrewed the top and held it to his lips. He drank and I watched him anxiously. I could see almost immediately that a little color came into his face and he braced himself more firmly.

I replaced the flask, and strained my eyes ahead, trying to pierce the darkness. Surely if Gilbert knew the direction, and had held to it, we must be near the mainland.

But suppose in the inky blackness, and under the stress of his poignant suffering, he had miscalculated, and swerved from the right course ever so slightly? We might be rushing straight out to sea, in the path of the worst of the storm, or be dashed to atoms on some treacherous rock! I raised my eyes to the sky. It seemed to have lightened a little, and was broken by grayish scudding clouds. It occured to me, too, that the tempest had diminished in fury; the wind was not so violent, but perhaps that was only because of our lessened speed. If the clouds would only part for a brief moment and the moon send down a tiny ray to guide us, to show us where we were!

I looked back. A red glow still arose from the island, but faint and very far away. We were miles from it, I thought. Surely, if we had been going in the right direction, we would have reached the mainland before this! Then I remembered that distances were always deceptive on the sea. Perhaps a few minutes more would bring us to the shore and safety.

Gilbert still held the wheel, but his head had fallen forward on his breast. The momentary invigoration of the draught of spirits had passed, and his weakness was rapidly overcoming him. I reached again for the flask, but he roused himself slightly and shook his head.

"Must have—head clear!" he muttered. "I'll try to keep up, dear! If——engine breaks down——must fix it. We're nearly there!"

I prayed that it might be true, but the long minutes passed and no line of shore loomed up in the gloom ahead. As far as I could see the white-capped waves loomed before us and the engine puffed and throbbed slower and slower, and finally stopped with a hissing sound.

Gilbert released the wheel and bent forward weakly, fumbling with some wrenches and tools in a little case. We were drifting helplessly, quivering and twisting like a dead leaf on the water, and I could feel that we were slowly turning. The rain had ceased and only an occasional dash of spray was flung up in our faces. The wind, too, had diminished in velocity, as I thought, but the sea was as rough as ever. Gilbert was swaying, and I threw my arm about his shoulders to try to steady him.

"Light!" he muttered hoarsely. "Turn the light, dear!"

I moved it until it flashed on the engine, and he worked desperately, but his failing senses were unequal to the task. His groping hands slipped repeatedly, and at length relaxed, and he pitched blindly forward. I caught him back just in time to save him from striking his forehead on the wheel, and dragged him over against me, with his head resting heavily upon my shoulder.

I felt a shudder sweep over his body, and with a last effort he gasped:

"Head her up, Maida dear! Head up in the wind. I'm done for! The dawn will soon come. Try——try——"

His voice died away into silence and he sagged like a dead thing against me. I had scarcely understood him, and with no knowledge or experience to guide me, I reached my free hand out and grasped the wheel. I turned it a trifle timorously, first one way and then the other, until I could feel the wind blowing straight in my face, and held the wheel steadily there. The sickening sidewise careening of the boat was lessened in that position, but we pitched horribly and I had to exert all my strength to keep Gilbert's body from being tossed into the sea.

Was he dead? I asked myself, fearfully. I could feel no pulse in his limp wrist and his heart seemed stilled forever. Had he given his life for me? Dear heaven! If he only moved or manifestly breathed that I might know! I was utterly alone and helpless on that vast stretch of ocean, in the all-enveloping night! I could only obey him and steady the wheel, holding him close meanwhile, and pray.

Would the dawn ever come? When it did, would it find us within the sight of a sheltering shore, the reach of friendly, helping hands, or would we have gone down to fathomless depths beneath a huge, onrushing wave? At any moment the frail boat might capsize and Gilbert be swept from my clasp! It was a miracle that we had not foundered long before this in the clutch of those mountainous foam-tipped billows!

My arm grew numb about Gilbert's inert form, and the hand upon the wheel seemed wooden, insensate. My whole body ached dully with the continuous strain of the lurching and tossing about, as if I had been beaten with clubs and to add to my almost overwhelming fears, a deadly drowsiness and lethargy stole over me and I could fed myself sinking; sinking into the uttermost depths of dreamless slumber.

I strove with all my might to fight it off, to force my dazed brain into alert activity once more, but the effort was vain. I clung to the wheel desperately, when my hand would have relaxed. I dragged my eyelids open again and again, as in spite of me they drooped wearily, but slowly and gradually I succumbed. I remember dimly the final struggle, the last attempt to gather my spent energy, to summon my drugged will to do my bidding. Then the strain seemed to cease, the violent pitching became slowly a gentle, restful swaying, like the rocking of a cradle and I drifted off into peaceful, unresisting unconsciousness.

How long the merciful state of coma lasted I could never have told. I only know that some Hand, more steadfast than mine, guided the wheel and held back our puny craft from destruction; some Power, higher than the warring elements, stayed their wrath and shielded us in our helplessness through that terrible night.

I roused with a feeble start, dimly conscious of subdued shouting as if from a far distance. Racking pains were darting through my body, like knife-thrusts, and a huge weight sagged against me, crushing me down. I tried to move but my numbed muscles would not respond to my will.

The shouting came again, nearer at hand, and I opened my eyes upon a blinding glare of sun in deep-blue, foamy water, a blue sky flecked with snowy clouds, and a horizon line which rose and fell and melted away in a glistening haze.

"Motorboat, ahoy!" The cry rang in my ears, and I turned my head stiffly. A long boat, manned by four sailors, was almost upon us, and there, not fifty yards away, loomed what seemed at first to my dazed vision to be a colossal ship.

Then a vague realization came to me that it was a revenue cutter, and I wondered idly how it came to be there. The air was so clear that I could plainly discern the forms of men rushing about the deck, and one, standing motionless at the rail, caught my eye and electrified me into sudden life. There was something strangely, miraculously familiar about that square heavy, thick-set figure!

Just as the long boat grazed our side I sprang to my feet, in uncontrollable excitement. My frenzy might have tumbled both Gilbert and myself into the sea, but the sailors steadied me, and we were drawn into their boat. Laddie whimpered; and with my eyes still fixed upon the deck of the cutter I gasped!

"Please——the little dog! Don't leave him!"

One of the men picked him up and laid him tenderly at my feet. Gilbert they placed beside me and my arms went mechanically about his insensible form again.

As I watched, with every nerve in my body tense, the man upon the cutter's deck raised a megaphone to his lips and shouted something. The words were indistinguishable, but that voice——

I turned tremulously to the nearest bluejacket, as we sped through the sparkling water.

"Who is that man?" I asked, my voice scarcely more than a quivering whisper. "That man with the megaphone?"

"Mr. Waring, Miss? the sailor replied, with a rising note of eagerness in his voice, and I became aware, even in that supreme moment, that they were all four regarding me with curious, breathless interest. "That's Mr. Larry Waring!"

"I'm his daughter!" I cried. "I'm Maida Waring!"