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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe White Mice - Chapter 8
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The White Mice - Chapter 8 Post by :gabby Category :Long Stories Author :Richard Harding Davis Date :May 2012 Read :3368

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The White Mice - Chapter 8

Chapter VIII

The silence that greeted the announcement of Inez, was broken in a startling fashion. Before her mother could recover from her amazement one of the windows to the garden was thrown open, and a man burst through it and sprang toward Vega. He was disheveled, breathless; from a wound in his forehead a line of blood ran down his cheek. His appearance was so alarming that all of those who, the instant before, had been staring in astonishment at Inez now turned to the intruder. They recognized him as the personal servant of Vega. Without considering the presence of the others, the valet spoke as he crossed the room.

"The police are in your house," he panted. "They have searched it; taken the papers. They tried to stop me." He drew his hand across his face and showed it streaked with blood. "But I escaped by the harbor. The boat is at the wharf. You have not a moment!" His eyes wandered toward Pulido and Ramon, and he exclaimed delightedly, "You also!" he cried; "there is still time!"

General Pulido ran to the window.

"There is still time!" he echoed. "By the boat we can reach Quinta Tortola at the appointed hour. Colonel Ramon," he commanded, "remain with Senor Caldwell. You, Pino, come with me!"

But Vega strode furiously toward Roddy.

"No!" he shouted. "This man first! My honor first!"

At this crisis of his fortunes, Sam Caldwell, much to the surprise of Roddy, showed himself capable of abrupt action. He threw his arm around the waist of Vega, and ran him to the window.

"Damn your honor!" he shrieked. "You take your orders from _me_! Go to the meeting-place!"

Struggling, not only in the arms of Caldwell but in those of Pulido and the valet, Vega was borne to the terrace. As he was pushed from the window he stretched out his arm toward Roddy.

"When we meet again," he cried, "I kill you!"

Roddy looked after him with regret. More alarming to him than the prospect of a duel was the prospect of facing Senora Rojas. For the moment Vega and his personal danger had averted the wrath that Roddy knew was still to come, but with the departure of Vega he saw it could no longer be postponed. He turned humbly to Senora Rojas. The scene through which that lady had just passed had left her trembling; but the sight of Roddy confronting her seemed at once to restore her self-possession. Anxiously, but in a tone of deep respect, Roddy addressed her:

"I have the great honor," he said, "to inform----"

After one indignant glance Senora Rojas turned from him to her daughter. Her words sounded like the dripping of icicles.

"You will leave the room," she said. She again glanced at Roddy. "You will leave the house."

Not since when, as a child, he had been sent to stand in a corner had Roddy felt so guilty. And to his horror he found he was torn with a hysterical desire to laugh.

"But, Madame Rojas," he protested hastily, "it is impossible for me to leave until I make clear to you----"

In the fashion of the country, Senora Rojas clapped her hands.

"Surely," she exclaimed, "you will not subject me to a scene before the servants."

In answer to her summons the doors flew open, and the frightened servants, who had heard of the blood-stained messenger, pushed into the room. With the air of a great lady dismissing an honored guest Senora Rojas bowed to Roddy, and Roddy, accepting the inevitable, bowed deeply in return.

As he walked to the door he cast toward Inez an unhappy look of apology and appeal. But the smile with which she answered seemed to show that, to her, their discomfiture was in no way tragic. Roddy at once took heart and beamed with gratitude. In the look he gave her he endeavored to convey his assurance of the devotion of a lifetime.

"Good-by," said Inez pleasantly.

"Good-by," said Roddy.

* * * * *

On coming to Porto Cabello Sam Caldwell had made his headquarters at the home of the United States Consul, who owed his appointment to the influence of Mr. Forrester, and who, in behalf of that gentleman, was very justly suspected by Alvarez of "pernicious activity." On taking his leave of Senora Rojas, which he did as soon as Roddy had been shown the door, Caldwell hastened to the Consulate, and, as there might be domiciliary visits to the houses of all the Vegaistas, Colonel Ramon, seeking protection as a political refugee, accompanied him.

The police had precipitated the departure of Vega from the city by only a few hours. He had planned to leave it and to join his adherents in the mountains that same afternoon, and it was only to learn the result of the final appeal to Roddy that he had waited. As they hastened through the back streets to the Consulate, Ramon said:

"It was not worth waiting for. Young Forrester told nothing. And why? Because he knows nothing!"

"To me," growled Caldwell, "he makes a noise like a joker in the pack. I don't mind telling you he's got me listening. He wouldn't have thrown up his job and quarrelled with his father and Senora Rojas if he wasn't pretty sure he was in right. Vega tells me, three weeks ago Roddy went to Curacao to ask Madame Rojas to help him get her husband out of prison. Instead, she turned him down _hard_. But did that phase him? No! I believe he's still working--working at this moment on some plan of his own to get Rojas free. Every night he goes out in his launch with young De Peyster. Where do they go? They _say they go fishing. Well, maybe! We can't follow them, for they douse the lights and their motor is too fast for us. But, to me, it looks like a rescue, for the only way they could rescue Rojas would be from the harbor. If they have slipped him tools and he is cutting his way to the water, some dark night they'll carry him off in that damned launch. And then," he exclaimed angrily, "where would I be? That old Rip Van Winkle has only got to show his face, and it would be all over but the shouting. He'd lose us what we've staked on Vega, and he'd make us carry out some of the terms of our concession that would cost us a million more."

Ramon exclaimed with contempt.

"Forrester!" he cried. "He is only a boy!"

"Any boy," snapped Caldwell impatiently "who is clever enough to get himself engaged to the richest girl in Venezuela, under the guns of her mother and Pino Vega, is old enough to vote. I take my hat off to him."

The Venezuelan turned his head and looked meaningly at Caldwell; his eyes were hard and cruel.

"I regret," he said, "but he must be stopped."

"No, you don't!" growled Caldwell; "that's not the answer. We won't stop _him_. We'll let _him go! It's the other man we'll stop--Rojas!"

"Yes, yes!" returned Ramon eagerly. "That is the only way left. Rojas must die!"

"Die!" laughed Caldwell comfortably. "Not a bit like it! I'm rather planning to improve his health." He stopped and glanced up and down the narrow street. It was empty. He laid his hand impressively on the arm of the Venezuelan.

"To-day," he whispered, "some one will send a letter--an anonymous letter--to San Carlos, telling the Commandante why General Rojas would be more comfortable in another cell."

* * * * *

From Miramar, Roddy returned directly to his house. On the way he found the city in a ferment; all shops had closed, the plazas and cafes were crowded, and the Alameda was lined with soldiers. Wherever a few men gathered together the police ordered them to separate; and in the driveways, troopers of Alvarez, alert and watchful, each with his carbine on his hip, rode slowly at a walk, glancing from left to right. At his house, Roddy found gathered there all of the White Mice: Peter, McKildrick, Vicenti and Pedro. They had assembled, he supposed, to learn the result of his visit to Miramar, but they were concerned with news more important. Vicenti had called them together to tell them that, at any moment, the Rojas faction might rise and attempt to seize the city and San Carlos. The escape of Vega, and the fact, which was now made public, that he had proclaimed himself in revolt, had given the Rojas faction the opportunity for which it had been waiting. The city was denuded of Government troops. For hours they had been pouring out of it in pursuit of Vega and his little band of revolutionists; and until reenforcements should arrive from Caracas, which might not be in twenty-four hours, the city was defenseless. The moment for the Rojas party had come.

But Vicenti feared that the assault on San Carlos would result, not only in the death of many of those who attacked it, but also would be the signal on the inside for the instant assassination of Rojas. It therefore was imperative, before the attack was made, to get Rojas out of prison. He dared not inform even the leaders of the Rojas party of the proposed rescue. It must be attempted only by those who could be absolutely trusted, those already in the secret. And it was for that purpose he had called the White Mice together. When Roddy arrived they had, subject to his approval, arranged their plan. From what Vicenti had learned, the assault on the fortress would be made at midnight. It was accordingly agreed that at nine o'clock, when it would be quite dark, they would blow open the wall. Roddy, McKildrick and Peter would dine together at Roddy's house, and at eight, in the launch, would leave his wharf. Pedro, whose presence would assure General Rojas of the good intentions of the others, was directed to so arrange his departure from Miramar as to arrive by the shore route at the wharf in time to accompany them. And Vicenti, who had set his watch with McKildrick's, was at once to inform General Rojas of what was expected to happen, and at nine o'clock, when the wall fell, to rush with him through the breach.

In the _patio the men, standing and in silence, drank to the success of their undertaking, and then, after each had shaken hands with the others, separated. By Roddy's orders Pedro was to inform Inez of their plan and to tell her that, if the Rojas party, in its attack upon the city, was successful, her father might that night sleep at Miramar. If, after his release, the issue were still in doubt, the launch would carry him to Curacao.

Vicenti left for San Carlos. In case it should be necessary to make the dash to Willemstad, Peter remained at the house to collect for the voyage provisions, medicine, stimulants, casks of water, and McKildrick and Roddy departed in the launch to lay the mine which was to destroy the barrier. On their way they stopped at the light-house, where McKildrick collected what he wanted for that purpose. It was now four o'clock in the afternoon, and by five they had entered the tunnel and reached the wall. McKildrick dug a hole in the cement a few feet above the base, and in this shoved a stick of dynamite of sixty per cent. nitro, and attached a number six cap and a fuse a foot long. This would burn for one minute and allow whoever lighted it that length of time to get under cover. In case of a miss-fire, he had brought with him extra sticks, fuses and caps. These, with drills and a sledge-hammer, they hid in a corner of the wall.

In the damp darkness of the tunnel it was difficult to believe that outside the sun was still shining.

"If it were only night!" said Roddy. "I hate to leave it. I'd only have to touch a match to that, and he'd be free."

"Free of the cell," assented McKildrick, "but we could never get him away. The noise will bring the whole garrison. It will be like heaving a brick into a hornets' nest. We must wait for darkness. This is no matinee performance."

On the return trip to the city they sat in silence, the mind of each occupied by his own thoughts. How serious these thoughts were neither cared to confess in words, but as they passed under the guns of the fortress they glanced at each other and smiled.

"You mustn't think, Mac," said Roddy gratefully, "I don't appreciate what you're doing. You stand to lose a lot!"

"I can always get another job," returned McKildrick.

"You can't if one of these fellows puts a bullet in you," said Roddy. "You know you are making a big sacrifice, and I thank you for it."

McKildrick looked at him in some embarrassment.

"You stand to lose more than any of us," he said. "I'm told you are to be congratulated." His eyes were so full of sympathy and good feeling that Roddy held out his hand.

"You're the first one to do it," he said happily; "and it's good to hear. Mac!" he exclaimed, in awe-struck tones, "I'm the happiest, luckiest, and the least deserving beggar in all the world!"

McKildrick smiled dryly.

"I seem to have heard something like that before," he said.

"Never!" cried Roddy stoutly. "Other poor devils may have thought so, but I _know_. It never happened to any one but me!"

McKildrick turned his eyes seaward and frowned,

"I even used the same lines myself once," he said; "but I found I'd got hold of some other fellow's part. So if anything _should come my way to-night it wouldn't make such a lot of difference."

Roddy took one hand from the wheel and, leaning forward, touched McKildrick on the knee.

"I'm sorry," he said; "I didn't know."

McKildrick nodded, and as though glad of an interruption, held up his hand.

"Listen!" he cried. "Stop the engine!"

Roddy let the launch slip forward on her own headway. In the silence that followed they heard from the city the confused murmur of a mob and the sharp bark of pistols. They looked at each other significantly.

"The surface indications seem to show," said McKildrick, "that things are loosening up. I guess it's going to be one of those nights!"

As they rounded the point and the whole of the harbor front came into view, they saw that the doors of the bonded warehouses had been broken open, and that the boxes and bales they contained had been tumbled out upon the wharf and piled into barricades. From behind these, and from the windows of the custom-house, men not in uniform, and evidently of the Rojas faction, were firing upon the tiny gun-boat in the harbor, and from it their rifle-fire was being answered by an automatic gun. With full speed ahead, Roddy ran the gauntlet of this cross-fire, and in safety tied up to his own wharf.

"Go inside," he commanded, "and find out what has happened. And tell Peter we'll take his cargo on board now. Until we're ready to start I'll stay by the launch and see no one tries to borrow her."

Peter and McKildrick returned at once, and with gasoline, tins of biscuit and meat, and a cask of drinking water, stocked the boat for her possible run to Curacao. The Rojas party, so Peter informed them, had taken the barracks in the suburbs and, preliminary to an attack on the fortress, had seized the custom-house which faced it; but the artillery barracks, which were inside the city, were still in the hands of the government troops. Until they were taken, with the guns in them, the Rojas faction were without artillery, and against the fortress could do nothing. It was already dusk, and, in half an hour, would be night. It was for this the Rojas crowd were waiting. As yet, of Vega and his followers no news had reached the city. But the government troops were pursuing him closely, and it was probable that an engagement had already taken place.

"By this time," said Roddy, "Vicenti has told Rojas, and in an hour Pedro will arrive, and then we start. Go get something to eat, and send my dinner out here. I've some tinkering to do on the engine."

Before separating, McKildrick suggested that Peter and Roddy should set their watches by his, which was already set to agree with Vicenti's.

"For, should anything happen to me," he explained, "you boys must blow up the wall, and you must know just when you are to do it. Roddy knows _how to do it, and," he added to Peter, "I'll explain it to you while we're at dinner."

They left Roddy on his knees, busily plying his oil-can, and crossed the garden. In the _patio they found the table ready for dinner, and two lamps casting a cheerful light upon the white cloth and flashing from the bottle of red Rioja.

As they seated themselves, one of the stray bullets that were singing above the housetops dislodged a tile, and the pieces of red clay fell clattering into the court-yard. Peter reached for the claret and, with ostentatious slowness, filled McKildrick's glass.

"Dynasties may come," he said, "and dynasties may go; but I find one always dines."

"Why not?" replied McKildrick. "Napoleon said an army is a collection of stomachs. Why should you and I pretend to be better soldiers than Napoleon's?"

As a signal to the kitchen he clapped his hands; but the servant who answered came not from the kitchen, but from the street. His yellow skin was pale with fright. He gasped and pointed into the shadow at a soldier who followed him. The man wore the uniform of a hospital steward and on his arm the badge of the Red Cross. He stepped forward and, glancing with concern from Peter to McKildrick, saluted mechanically.

"Doctor Vicenti!" he exclaimed; "he wishes to see you. He is outside on a stretcher. We are taking him to the hospital, but he made us bring him here first." The man shook his head sharply. "He is dying!" he said.

In this sudden threat of disaster to their plan the thought of both the conspirators was first for Rojas.

"My God!" cried Peter, and stared helplessly at the older man.

"Dying?" protested McKildrick. "I saw him an hour ago; he was----"

"He was caring for the wounded in the streets. He was shot," answered the man gravely, laying his finger on his heart, "here!"

"Caring for the wounded!" cried McKildrick. "Why in hell wasn't he----"

"Be quiet!" warned Peter.

McKildrick checked himself and, followed by Peter, ran to the street. In the light from the open door he saw an army stretcher, and on it a figure of a man covered with a blanket. An officer and the soldiers who had borne the stretcher stood in the shadow. With an exclamation of remorse and sympathy, McKildrick advanced quickly and leaned forward. But the man on the stretcher was not Vicenti. To make sure, McKildrick bent lower, and in an instant the stranger threw out his arms and, clasping him around the neck, dragged him down. At the same moment the stretcher bearers fell upon him from the rear, and, wrenching back his arms, held them together until the officer clasped his wrists with handcuffs. From Peter he heard a muffled roar and, twisting his head, saw him rolling on the sidewalk. On top of him were a half-dozen soldiers; when they lifted him to his feet his wrists also were in manacles.

McKildrick's outbursts were silenced by the officer.

"You need not tell me you are Americans," he said, "and if you go quietly no harm will come. We wish only to keep you out of mischief."

"Go?" demanded Peter. "Go where?"

"To the _cartel_," said the officer, smiling. "You will be safer there."

He stepped into the light and waved his sword, and from across the street came running many more soldiers. A squad of these the officer detailed to surround his prisoners. To the others he said: "Search the house. Find the third one, Senor Forrester. Do not harm him, but," he added meaningly, "bring him with you!"

At the word, Peter swung his arms free from the man who held them. With a yell of warning, which he hoped would reach Roddy, and pulling impotently at his handcuffs, he dashed into the house, the soldiers racing at his heels.

Roddy had finished his inspection of his engine, but was still guarding the launch, waiting with impatience for some one to bring him his dinner. He was relieved to note that from the direction of Miramar there was no sound of fighting. In the lower part of the city he could hear a brisk fusillade, but, except from the custom-house, the firing had more the sound of street fighting than of an organized attack. From this, he judged the assault on the artillery barracks had not yet begun. He flashed his electric torch on his watch, and it showed half past seven. There was still a half-hour to wait. He rose and, for the hundredth time, spun the wheel of his engine, examined his revolver, and yawned nervously. It was now quite dark. Through the trees and shrubs in the garden he could see the lights on the dinner-table and the spectacle made him the more hungry. To remind the others that he was starving, he gave a long whistle. It was at once cautiously answered, to his surprise, not from the house but from a spot a hundred feet from him, on the shore of the harbor. He decided, as it was in the direction one would take in walking from Miramar, that Pedro had arrived, and he sighed with relief. He was about to repeat his signal of distress when, from the _patio_, there arose a sudden tumult. In an instant, with a crash of broken glass and china, the lights were extinguished, and he heard the voice of Peter shrieking his name. He sprang from the launch and started toward the garden. At that moment a heavy body crashed upon the gravel walk, and there was the rush of many feet.

"Roddy!" shrieked the voice of Peter, "they're taking us to jail. They're coming after _you_. Run! Run like hell!"

In the darkness Roddy could see nothing. He heard what sounded like an army of men trampling and beating the bushes. His first thought was that he must attempt a rescue. He jerked out his gun and raced down the wharf. Under his flying feet the boards rattled and Peter heard him coming.

"Go back!" he shrieked furiously. "You can't help us! You've got work to do! Do it!"

The profanity with which these orders were issued convinced Roddy that Peter was very much in earnest and in no personal danger.

The next moment he was left no time for further hesitation. His flying footsteps had been heard by the soldiers as well as by Peter, and from the garden they rushed shouting to the beach. Against such odds Roddy saw that to rescue Peter was impossible, while at the same time, even alone, he still might hope to rescue Rojas.

He cast loose the painter of the launch, and with all his strength shoved it clear. He had apparently acted not a moment too soon, for a figure clad in white leaped upon the wharf and raced toward him. Roddy sprang to the wheel and the launch moved slowly in a circle. At the first sound of the revolving screw there came from the white figure a cry of dismay. It was strangely weak, strangely familiar, strangely feminine.

"Roddy!" cried the voice. "It is I, Inez!"

With a shout of amazement, joy, and consternation, Roddy swung the boat back toward the shore, and by the breadth of an oar-blade cleared the wharf. There was a cry of relief, of delight, a flutter of skirts, and Inez sprang into it. In an agony of fear for her safety, Roddy pushed her to the bottom of the launch.

"Get down!" he commanded. "They can see your dress. They'll fire on you."

From the shore an excited voice cried in Spanish "Do I shoot, sergeant?"

"No!" answered another. "Remember your orders!"

"But he escapes!" returned the first voice, and on the word there was a flash, a report, and a bullet whined above them. Another and others followed, but the busy chug-chug of the engine continued undismayed and, as the noise of its progress died away, the firing ceased. Roddy left the wheel, and, stooping, took Inez in his arms. Behind them the city was a blaze of light, and the sky above it was painted crimson. From the fortress, rockets, hissing and roaring, signalled to the barracks; from the gun-boat, the quick-firing guns were stabbing the darkness with swift, vindictive flashes. In different parts of the city incendiary fires had started and were burning sullenly, sending up into the still night air great, twisting columns of sparks. The rattle of musketry was incessant.

With his arm about her and her face pressed to his, Inez watched the spectacle unseeingly. For the moment it possessed no significance. And for Roddy, as he held her close, it seemed that she must feel his heart beating with happiness. He had never dared to hope that such a time would come, when they would be alone together, when it would be his right to protect and guard her, when, again and again, he might try to tell her how he loved her. Like one coming from a dream, Inez stirred and drew away.

"Where are we going?" she whispered.

"We're going to the tunnel to save your father," answered Roddy.

The girl gave a little sigh of content and again sank back into the shelter of his arm.

They passed the fortress, giving it a wide berth, and turned in toward the shore. The city now lay far to the right, and the clamor of the conflict came to them but faintly.

"Tell me," said Roddy, "why did you come to the wharf?" He seemed to be speaking of something that had happened far back in the past, of a matter which he remembered as having once been of vivid importance, but which now was of consequence only in that it concerned her.

Reluctantly Inez broke the silence that had enveloped them.

"They came to the house and arrested Pedro," she said. To her also the subject seemed to be of but little interest. She spoke as though it were only with an effort she could recall the details. "I knew you needed him to convince father you were friends. So, as he could not come, I came. Did I do right?"

"Whatever you do is right," answered Roddy. "We might as well start life with that proposition as a fixed fact."

"And do you want me with you now?" whispered the girl.

"Do I want you with me!" Roddy exclaimed, in mock exasperation. "Don't provoke me!" he cried. "I am trying," he protested, "to do my duty, while what I would like to do is to point this boat the other way, and elope with you to Curacao. So, if you love your father, don't make yourself any more distractingly attractive than you are at this moment. If you don't help me to be strong I will run away with you."

Inez laughed, softly and happily, and, leaning toward him, kissed him.

"That's not helping me!" protested Roddy.

"It is for the last time," said Inez, "until my father is free."

"That may not be for months!" cried Roddy.

"It is for the last time," repeated Inez.

Roddy concealed the launch in the cove below El Morro and, taking from the locker a flask of brandy and an extra torch, led the way up the hill. When they drew near to the fortress, fearing a possible ambush, he left Inez and proceeded alone to reconnoitre. But El Morro was undisturbed, and as he and McKildrick had left it. He returned for Inez, and at the mouth of the tunnel halted and pointed to a place well suited for concealment.

"You will wait there," he commanded.

"No," returned the girl quietly, "I will go with you. You forget I am your sponsor, and," she added gently, "I am more than that. After this, where you go, I go."

As she spoke there came from the wharf of the custom-house, lying a mile below them, a flash of flame. It was followed by others, and instantly, like an echo, the guns of the fort replied.

"Shrapnel!" cried Roddy. "They've captured the artillery barracks, and we haven't a moment to lose!"

He threw himself on the levers that moved the slabs of stone and forced them apart. Giving Inez his hand, he ran with her down the steps of the tunnel.

"But why," cried Inez, "is there more need for haste now than before?"

Roddy could not tell her the assault of the Rojas party on the fortress might lead to a reprisal in the assassination of her father.

"The sound of the cannon," he answered evasively, "will drown out what we do."

Roddy was now more familiar with the various windings of the tunnel, and they advanced quickly. Following the circles of light cast by their torches, they moved so rapidly that when they reached the wall both were panting. Roddy held his watch in front of the light and cried out with impatience.

"Ten minutes!" he exclaimed, "and every minute--" He checked himself and turned to the wall. The dynamite, with the cap and fuse attached, was as McKildrick had placed it. For a tamp he scooped up from the surface of the tunnel a handful of clay, and this he packed tightly over the cap, leaving the fuse free. He led Inez back to a safe distance from the wall, and there, with eyes fastened on Roddy's watch, they waited. The seconds dragged interminably. Neither spoke, and the silence of the tunnel weighed upon them like the silence of a grave. But even buried as they were many feet beneath the ramparts, they could hear above them the reverberations of the cannon.

"They are firing in half-minute intervals," whispered Roddy. "I will try to set off the dynamite when they fire, so that in the casements, at least, no one will hear me. When the explosion comes," he directed, "wait until I call you, and if I shout to you to run, for God's sake," he entreated, "don't delay an instant, but make for the mouth of the tunnel."

Inez answered him in a tone of deep reproach. "You are speaking," she said, "to a daughter of General Rojas." Her voice trembled, but, as Roddy knew, it trembled from excitement. "You must not think of _me_," commanded the girl. "I am here to help, not to be a burden. And," she added gently, her love speaking to him in her voice, "we leave this place together, or not at all."

Her presence had already shaken Roddy, and now her words made the necessity of leaving her seem a sacrifice too great to be required of him. Almost brusquely, he started from her.

"I must go," he whispered. "Wish me good luck for your father."

"May God preserve you both!" answered the girl.

As he walked away Roddy turned and shifted his light for what he knew might be his last look at her. He saw her, standing erect as a lance, her eyes flashing. Her lips were moving and upon her breast her fingers traced the sign of the cross.

(Illustration: Her fingers traced the sign of the cross.)

Roddy waited until his watch showed a minute to nine o'clock. To meet the report of the next gun, he delayed a half-minute longer, and then lit the fuse, and, running back, flattened himself against the side of the tunnel. There was at last a dull, rumbling roar and a great crash of falling rock. Roddy raced to the sound and saw in the wall a gaping, black hole. Through it, from the other side, lights showed dimly. In the tunnel he was choked with a cloud of powdered cement. He leaped through this and, stumbling over a mass of broken stone, found himself in the cell. Except for the breach in the wall the explosion had in no way disturbed it. The furniture was in place, a book lay untouched upon the table; in the draft from the tunnel the candles flickered drunkenly. But of the man for whom he sought, for whom he was risking his life, there was no sign. With a cry of amazement and alarm Roddy ran to the iron door of the cell. It was locked and bolted. Now that the wall no longer deadened the sound his ears were assailed by all the fierce clamor of the battle. Rolling toward him down the stone corridor came the splitting roar of the siege guns, the rattle of rifle fire, the shouts of men. Against these sounds, he recognized that the noise of the explosion had carried no farther than the limits of the cell, or had been confused with the tumult overhead. He knew, therefore, that from that source he need not fear discovery. But in the light of the greater fact that his attempt at rescue had failed, his own immediate safety became of little consequence. He turned and peered more closely into each corner of the cell. The clouds of cement thrown up by the dynamite had settled; and, hidden by the table, Roddy now saw, huddled on the stone floor, with his back against the wall, the figure of a man. With a cry of relief and concern, Roddy ran toward him and flashed his torch. It was Vicenti. The face of the young doctor was bloodless, his eyes wild and staring. He raised them imploringly.

"Go!" he whispered. His voice was weak and racked with pain. "Some one has betrayed us. They know everything!"

Roddy exclaimed furiously, and, for an instant, his mind was torn with doubts.

"And you!" he demanded. "Why are you here?"

Vicenti, reading the suspicion in his eyes, raised his hands; the pantomime was sufficiently eloquent. In deep circles around his wrists were new, raw wounds.

"They tried to make me tell," he whispered. "They think you're coming in the launch. You, with the others. When I wouldn't answer, they put me here. It was their jest. You were to find me instead of the other. They are waiting now on the ramparts above us, waiting for you to come in the launch. They know nothing of the tunnel."

Roddy's eyes were fixed in horror on the bleeding wrists.

"They tortured you!" he cried.

"I fainted. When I came to," whispered the doctor, "I found myself locked in here. For God's sake," he pleaded, "save yourself!"

"And Rojas?" demanded Roddy.

"That is impossible!" returned Vicenti, answering Roddy's thought. "He is in another cell, far removed, the last one, in this corridor."

"In _this corridor!" demanded Roddy.

Vicenti feebly reached out his hand and seized Roddy's arm.

"It is impossible!" he pleaded. "You can't get out of this cell."

"I will get out of it the same way I got in," answered Roddy. "Can you walk?"

With his eyes, Vicenti measured the distance to the breach in the wall.

"Help me!" he begged.

Roddy lifted him to his feet and, with his arm around him, supported him into the tunnel. From his flask he gave him brandy, and Vicenti nodded gratefully.

"Further on," directed Roddy, "you will find Senorita Rojas. Tell her she must go at once. Don't let her know that I am going after her father."

"It is madness!" cried Vicenti. "The turnkey is in the corridor, and at any moment they may come to assassinate Rojas."

"Then I've no time to waste," exclaimed Roddy. "Get the Senorita and yourself out of the tunnel, and get out _quick_!"

"But you?" pleaded Vicenti. "You can do nothing."

"If I must," answered Roddy, "I can blow the whole damn fort to pieces!"

He ran to the spot where McKildrick had placed the extra explosives. With these and the hand-drill, the sledge, and carrying his hat filled with clay, he again climbed through the breach into the cell. The fierceness of the attack upon the fort had redoubled, and to repulse it the entire strength of the garrison had been summoned to the ramparts, leaving, so far as Roddy could see through the bars, the corridor unguarded. The door of the cell hung on three trunnions, and around the lowest hinge the weight of the iron door had loosened the lead and cement in which, many years before, it had been imbedded. With his drill, Roddy increased the opening to one large enough to receive the fingers of his hand and into it welded a stick of dynamite. To this he affixed a cap and fuse, and clapping on his tamp of clay, lit the fuse, and ran into the tunnel. He had cut the fuse to half-length, and he had not long to wait. With a roar that shook the cell and echoed down the corridor, that portion of the wall on which the bars hung was torn apart, and the cell door, like a giant gridiron, fell sprawling across the corridor. Roddy could not restrain a lonely cheer. So long as the battle drowned out the noise of the explosions and called from that part of the prison all those who might oppose him, the rescue of Rojas again seemed feasible. With another charge of dynamite the last cell in the corridor could be blown open, and Rojas would be free. But Roddy was no longer allowed, undisturbed, to blast his way to success. Almost before the iron door had struck the floor of the corridor there leaped into the opening the burly figure of the turnkey. In one hand he held a revolver, in the other a lantern. Lifting the lantern above his head, he stood balancing himself upon the fallen grating. Hanging to his belt, Roddy saw a bunch of keys. The sight of the keys went to his head like swift poison. For them he suddenly felt himself capable of murder. The dust hung in a cloud between the two men, and before the turnkey could prepare for the attack Roddy had flung himself on him and, twisting the bones of his wrist, had taken the revolver. With one hand on the throat of the turnkey he shoved the revolver up under his chin until the circle of steel sank into the flesh.

"Don't cry out!" whispered Roddy. "Do as I tell you, or I'll blow your head off. Take me to the cell of General Rojas!"

Brave as the man had been the moment before, the kiss of the cold muzzle turned his purpose to ice. The desire to live was all-compelling. Choking, gasping, his eyes rolling appealingly, he nodded assent. With the revolver at his back he ran down the corridor, and, as he ran, without further direction, fumbled frantically at his keys. At the end of the corridor he separated one from the others, and with a trembling hand unlocked and pushed open a cell door.

The cell was steeped in darkness. Roddy threw the turnkey sprawling into it, and with his free hand closed his fingers over the key in the lock.

"General Rojas!" he called. "Come out! You are free!"

A shadowy figure suddenly confronted him; out of the darkness a voice, fearless and unshaken, answered.

"What do you wish with me?" demanded the voice steadily. "Is this assassination? Are you my executioner?"

"Good God, no!" cried Roddy. "Fifty-four, four! I'm the man that gave you the warning. The tunnel!" he cried. "The tunnel is open." He shoved the butt of the revolver toward the shadow. "Take this!" he commanded; "if I've lied to you, shoot me. But come!"

General Rojas stepped from the cell, and with a cry of relief Roddy swung to the iron door upon the turnkey and locked it. The act seemed to reassure the older man, and as the glare of the lanterns in the corridor fell upon Roddy's face the eyes of the General lit with hope and excitement. With a cry of remorse he held out the revolver.

"I was waiting to die," he said. "Can you forgive me?"

"Can you run?" was Roddy's answer.

With the joyful laugh of a boy, the General turned and, refusing Roddy's arm, ran with him down the corridor. When he saw the fallen grating he gave a cry of pleasure, and at the sight of the breach in the wall he exclaimed in delight.

"It is good!" he cried. "It is well done."

Roddy had picked up the turnkey's lantern and had given it to General Rojas. Lowering it before him, the old soldier nimbly scaled the mass of fallen masonry, and with an excited, breathless sigh plunged into the tunnel.

As he did so, in his eyes there flashed a circle of light; in his ears there sounded a cry, in its joy savage, exultant, ringing high above the tumult of the battle. The light that had blinded him fell clattering to the stones; in the darkness he felt himself held helpless, in strong, young arms.

"Father!" sobbed the voice of a girl. "Father!"

Like a coach on the side-lines, like a slave-driver plying his whip, Roddy, with words of scorn, of entreaty, of encouragement, lashed them on toward the mouth of the tunnel and, through the laurel, to the launch. Acting as rear-guard, with a gun in his hand he ran back to see they were not pursued, or to forestall an ambush skirmished in advance. Sometimes he gave an arm to Vicenti, sometimes to the General; at all times he turned upon them an incessant torrent of abuse and appeal.

"Only a minute longer," he begged, "only a few yards further. Don't let them catch us in the last inning! Don't let them take it from you in the stretch! Only a few strokes more, boys," he cried frantically, "and I'll let you break training. Now then, all of you! Run! Run!"

Not until they were safely seated in the launch, and her head was pointed to the open sea, did he relax his vigilance, or share in their rejoicing.

But when the boat sped forward and the shore sank into darkness he heaved a happy, grateful sigh.

"If you've left anything in that flask, Vicenti," he said, "I would like to drink to the family of Rojas."

The duel between the city and the fort had ceased. On the man-of-war and on the ramparts of the fortress the guns were silent. From the city came a confusion of shouts and cheers. In his excitement, Roddy stood upright.

"It sounds as though you had won, sir!" he cried.

"Or that they have exhausted their ammunition!" answered the General. The answer was not long in coming.

From the deck of the gun-boat there sprang into the darkness the pointing finger of a search-light. It swept the wharves, showing them black with people; it moved between the custom-house and the fort, and disclosed the waters of the harbor alive with boats, loaded to the gunwale with armed men. Along the ramparts of the fort the shaft of light crept slowly, feeling its way, until it reached the flag-staff. There it remained, stationary, pointing. From the halyards there drooped a long, white cloth.

With a cheer, Roddy spun the wheel, and swung the bow of the launch toward Miramar.

"You needn't go to Curacao to-night, General!" he cried. "This city votes solid for Rojas!"

From the wharves to the farthest limits of the town the cheers of victory swept in a tidal wave of sound. With one accord the people, leaping, shouting, dancing, and cheering, raced into the Alameda.

"To Miramar," they shrieked, "to Miramar! _Viva Rojas!_"

To those in the launch the cheers of triumph carried clearly. The intoxication of the multitude was contagious.

"What do you wish?" demanded Roddy breathlessly--"to show yourself to the people, or----"

"No!" cried the General, "to my home, to my home!"

When San Carlos surrendered, those in charge of the _cartel_, making a virtue of what they knew would soon be a necessity, threw open the cells of the political prisoners, and Peter, McKildrick, and Pedro found themselves in the street, once more free men. There they learned that Vega and his band had been routed, and that Vega, driven back to the harbor, had taken refuge on a sailing boat, and was on his way to Curacao.

From Caracas the news was of more momentous interest. The rising of the Rojas party in Porto Cabello had led the same faction at the capital to proclaim itself in revolt. They found themselves unopposed. By regiments the government troops had deserted to the standard of Rojas, and Alvarez, in open flight, had reached his yacht, at La Guayra, and was steaming toward Trinidad. Already a deputation had started for Porto Cabello to conduct Rojas to the capital. But as to whether in freeing Rojas Roddy had succeeded or failed, or whether Rojas had been assassinated, or had been set at liberty by his victorious followers, they could learn nothing.

Only at the home of Senora Rojas could they hear the truth. Accordingly, with the rest of the city, they ran to Miramar. The house was ablaze with lights, and the Alameda in front of it, the gardens, even the long portico were packed with a mad mob of people. Climbing to the railings and to the steps of the house itself, men prominent in the life of the city called for "_Vivas_" for the new President, for Senora Rojas, for the Rojas revolution. Below them, those who had been wounded in the fight just over were lifted high on the shoulders of the mob, and in it, struggling for a foothold, were many women, their cheeks wet with tears, their cries of rejoicing more frantic even than those of the men.

For a mad quarter of an hour the crowd increased in numbers, the shouting in vehemence; and then, suddenly, there fell a shocked and uneasy silence. Men whispered together fearfully. In the eyes of all were looks of doubt and dismay. From man to man swept the awful rumor that at San Carlos, Rojas had not been found.

It was whispered that, from the fortress, messengers had brought the evil tidings. The worst had come to pass. At the last moment the defenders of San Carlos had cheated them of their victory. Rojas had been assassinated, and his body thrown to the harbor sharks.

From the mob rose a great, moaning cry, to be instantly drowned in yells of rage and execration. A leader of the Rojas party leaped to the steps of the portico. "Their lives for his!" he shrieked. "Death to his murderers! To the fortress!"

Calling for vengeance, those in the garden surged toward the gates; but an uncertain yell from the mob in the street halted them. They turned and saw upon the balcony above the portico the figure of Senora Rojas. With one arm raised, she commanded silence; with the other, she pointed to the long window through which she had just appeared. Advancing toward the edge of the balcony, the mob saw two young girls leading between them, erect and soldierly, a little, gray-haired man.

Amazed, almost in terror, as though it looked on one returning from the grave, for an instant there was silence. And then men shrieked and sobbed, and the night was rent with their exultant yell of welcome.

With their backs pressed against the railings of the garden, Peter and McKildrick looked up at the figures on the balcony with eyes that saw but dimly.

"So Roddy got away with it," said Peter. "Pino Vega, please write! _Viva the White Mice!"

With a voice that shook suspiciously, McKildrick protested.

"Let's get out of this," he said, "or I shall start singing the doxology."

An hour later, alone on the flat roof of Miramar, leaning on the parapet, were two young people. Above them were the blue-black sky and white stars of the tropics; from below rose the happy cheers of the mob and the jubilant strains of a triumphant march.

"To-morrow," said Roddy, "I am going to ask your father a favor. I am going to ask him for the use for two hours of the cell he last occupied."

"And why?" protested Inez.

"I want it for a friend," said Roddy. "Pedro tells me my friend is the man who sent word to San Carlos to have the White Mice locked up and your father moved into another cell. I want the new Commandante to lock my friend in that cell, and to tell him he is to remain there the rest of his natural life. Two hours later, the White Mice will visit him, and will smile on him through the bars. Then I'll unlock the door, and give him his 'passage-money home and a month's wages.' His name is Caldwell."

"I had no idea you were so vindictive," said Inez.

"It is rather," said Roddy, "a sense of humor. It makes the punishment fit the crime."

He turned, and drawing closer, looked at her wistfully, appealingly.

"Your father," he whispered, "is free."

The girl drew a long breath of happiness.

"Yes," she sighed.

"I repeat," whispered Roddy, "your father is free."

"I don't understand," answered the girl softly.

"Have you forgotten!" cried Roddy, "You forbade me to tell you that I loved you until he was free."

Inez looked up at him, and the light of the stars fell in her eyes.

"What will you tell me?" she whispered.

"I will tell you," said Roddy, "the name of a girl who is going to be kissed in one second."


(THE END)
Richard Harding Davis's fiction book: White Mice

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