The Pirate Woman (Chapter 8)

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Chapter 8

On the level sward before the village the three yachtsmen paced back and forth in an ecstasy of apprehension. Pascherette had left them, after playing them like fish with her own charms and a hinted promise of Dolores's favors as bait; and the moment they were alone Venner shook off the spell in a resurging determination to attend to the safety of his vessel in person.

"Follow me, Pearse; come Tomlin!" he said. "We are three mad fools to stand here while these pirates loot and wreck the Feu Follette!"

Tomlin shuddered as he started to follow. Pearse kept silence, but did not hesitate. But they had not stepped ten paces before they realized fully the completeness of their helplessness, for Venner, first to attempt the path down, was brought to a halt by a musket leveled at his breast, the musketeer showing only his head and shoulders above the cliff edge. And as Tomlin and Pearse came up, they, too, were abruptly halted in like manner; and a grinning Carib motioned each back with an unspoken command which was none the less inexorable.

They returned to their first positions, and resumed their nervous walk, condemning themselves as utter idiots for venturing unarmed into such a nest of vipers at the urge of curiosity, novelty, feminine attraction, greed--whatever their motives had been. And here Dolores came upon them, while all about them swarmed the disgruntled pirates from the sloop, and those of the mutineers whose abject fears warned them to take whatever punishment their queen chose to mete out rather than to escape only to be brought back to endure penalties immeasurably more terrible.

Yellow Rufe and Sancho were not minded to stay, however; they had vanished; and Dolores's keen eyes noted this the moment she surveyed the scene. She walked swiftly to the door of the council hall, turned to face the mob, and lifted an arm for attention. Then fell a hush full of anxiety or terror, according to the degree of culpability in the consciousness of her audience.

"Summon every creature in the village," she cried, "and let no man or woman dare to leave this place until ye hear my thoughts concerning this day's work!"

Men scattered eagerly through the huts, calling by name all who were not present in the crowd, and presently more of the community came out, their faces mostly reflecting the terror that was in their souls; for none might ever foretell the moods of their queen. Inscrutable as night, her eyes were like pools of violet shadow wherein lurked promise or threat of unimaginable things; every line of her face and form was a line of a riddle that could prove in the solution either magnificent generosity, fearless justice, or implacable vengeance: like the lightning, Dolores struck where she willed, and in what fashion she chose; it was useless to attempt avoidance.

Venner and his friends looked on curiously, a feeling akin to awe pervading them at the increasing evidence before their eyes of the power wielded by this splendid fury, they had yet to know. When all were present, except those whose activities on the schooner had already procured them a passport to another world, Dolores swept the crowd with a penetrating glance and called for Milo, who appeared from the rear of the council hall laden with chains and bilboes which he cast down at her feet. Then the angry impatience of the disappointed sloop's crew proved too intense, and Caliban bounded to the front, squealing shrilly: "The fiend may take you with your irons! Shall we, men who followed Red Jabez through a sea of blood, cower to a woman of such soft mettle? Dolores, queen or woman or wench, it is for you, not us, to explain. Lads--" he shrieked, flashing about and haranguing his companions--"back me in this. We will know why the sloop lacked powder; why to-day's work has brought no reward!"

The deformed little demon stepped back to the crowd, and paced to and fro with feverish gestures, scowling blackly at every turn that brought him face to face with Dolores. The packed mob milled and murmured, some afraid, many of Caliban's mind yet not daring to openly support him. Venner and his friends sensed the thrill of it, for their brief experience of the pirate queen left them in slight doubt as to the outcome of Caliban's speech. Dolores herself stood motionless for a full minute after the hunchback ceased his defiance, and under her lowered, heavily lashed eyelids the dark eyes seemed to slumber; only in her lips was any trace of the alertness that governed her brain, and those scarlet petals, which seemed to have been plucked from a love flower in the garden of passion, slowly, almost imperceptibly parted, until the dazzling teeth gleamed through in a smile that none might yet determine whether soft or terrible. And as the seconds heaped suspense upon suspense, the overbold Caliban was seized with a choking fear that he was to pay the price. Then Dolores spoke, slowly, quietly, almost soothingly; and those of her hardened ruffians who thought they knew her best hung on her words in shivery uncertainty.

"For those bold words, Caliban, my father had stripped thy poisonous skin from thy putrid flesh. Yesterday thy queen might not have proved more merciful. Yet do I know how thy disappointment chafes thy brave soul, and because of that thy rash speech goes unpunished." The hush intensified, for the leniency of Dolores was little less to be feared than her fury. A smile of ineffable radiance broke over her beautiful face, and she extended her right hand and said, still in the same slow, even voice: "Come, Caliban. Thou art worthy of my mercy. Kneel, that I may know thy heart is right."

Now the suspense reached its climax. Somewhere behind those softly spoken words surely lurked some awful, cunningly cloaked threat. Caliban went white, ghastly; his brave tongue stuck to his palate, and the thin lips slavered with growing panic.

"Come, Caliban!"

The girl's command was uttered no louder, her expression was unchanged; in her glorious eyes gleamed no trace of anything other than benign forgiveness; she remained motionless as before, with her rounded arm and shapely hand extended in a manner that revealed their every perfection.

"Come, Caliban!"

Again the words fell from her smiling lips, and now the quivering hunchback obeyed, drawn irresistibly by her magnetism, sick with dread of the stroke he in common with all his mates expected to fall.

"Kneel! See, I give thee my hand to kiss," Dolores said, and smiled upon the cowering wretch with a tender brilliance that sent a tremendous flutter through the hearts of the three yachtsmen.

Caliban knelt and took the proffered hand, then at her word he stood before her, scarcely certain yet that his head was solidly established on his shoulders. She motioned him to stand on one side of her, then, aglow with warm color, she addressed the puzzled throng: "My bold sea tigers, the ship that escaped thy sloop is but one ship. The seas are full of such. Yet, until to-day, how many have ye been forced to let go because of thy poor equipment in craft? Thy sloop, how small, how old--yet what rich prey escaped thy guns since the Red Chief's swift brig laid her bones here? None! Yet ye complain because I prevented thee destroying the beautiful schooner the gods have this day sent to us!"

Now the purport of her speech struck home; the seemingly soft-brained weakness that had forbidden the rape and pillage of the schooner stood in part explained. And as the light filtered through thick skulls and shone upon all but atrophied brains, a deep muttering swelled into the embryo of a throaty cheer that needed but one look of encouragement from Dolores to spring into noisy life. As for Venner, his expression was reflected in Tomlin, and both in Pearse; and awakening or resurrected, fear was the keynote of all.

"The vampire means to suck us dry after all!" whispered Venner hoarsely. His friends could only squeeze his arm in mute sympathy. They harbored no doubts at all.

Dolores went on: "With such a vessel as this"--pointing to the schooner--"that Indiaman to-day had never shown heels. And more, how think ye my store is replenished? Dost think I tap the rock for wine? Does Milo crush the granite and bring forth meat for thy hungry bellies? Are my treasures kept at high tide by snatching the colors from the sunset? Fools!" she cried, and for a moment passion conquered her calm. "In that schooner are wines that will make thy hot blood living flame; meats that will put teeth into the throats of the toothless; treasures fit for thy queen's treasury. And more to thy hand, my brave jackals, those pretty pieces of ordnance, which the sun even now paints with liquid gold, will outrange the guns of a king's ship." Pausing, she bent upon the murmuring crew a look of blazing majesty; then concluded with a vibrant demand: "Now dost know why thy queen withheld thy senseless hands from witless destruction?"

Her question was scarcely heard before the answer came. From a hundred rusty throats pealed a huzzah that rolled out over the sea and sent the sea-birds squawking with fright to more peaceful surroundings.

"Dolores! Dolores! That's a queen for the tribe of Jolly Roger!" howled Hanglip, and tumult rang again.

The girl raised her hand, and silence fell once more.

"Hear my judgment upon such of ye as are not of thy mind," she cried, and now the smile had gone; her eyes flashed and the words fell red-hot from her scornful lips.

"I demand no tales from thy mouths. Hiding among these woods Yellow Rufe and Sancho, he of the one eye and the mutilated hand, think to ward off my vengeance. By meridian to-morrow I command those traitors to be brought to me. Fail in this, and ye shall see that Dolores can be terrible, too."

The crowd took this as a dismissal, and broke into parties to scour the woods. Only slaves and women remained, and Pascherette ran to her mistress's side and whispered, with a sidelong look of coquettish allurement at Venner and his friends.

"Something about to happen!" Venner whispered, hoping that it might prove something in recompense for his day of stress. Dolores cast a look of cool indifference toward them and told Milo: "Put these strangers in separate chambers, Milo. Iron them securely and look to it well. Thou art answerable for them."

No more. She took Pascherette and departed.

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