The Pirate Woman (Chapter 16)

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Chapter 16

Lucky it proved that Pascherette had been left behind when the schooner sailed after Yellow Rufe. Even Dolores, with all her consummate wisdom, had forgotten the existence of the old woman she had degraded to kitchen drudge; still more utterly had she forgotten the relationship existing between the old woman and the late victim of her terrible vengeance.

Sancho had called the old crone mother, whether with blood reasons or not none knew. And at bottom, much of Sancho's rebellion had come of anger at the treatment meted out to her. And it was Sancho's despairing cry, when Milo cast him out into the Grove, that brought the old woman from her concealment in the forest. The awful plight of the unlucky wretch had aroused in the woman's withered breast a demon of revenge that knew no limits; and the departing schooner, then barely visible to her, filled her brain with the knowledge that the strangers who came in that vessel had been the indirect cause of her Sancho's fate.

She knew they had been placed in the cells behind the council hall; she knew nothing of Dolores's last-minute decision that had taken them with her. She knew nothing as to who or how many were left in the camp; but she knew, she had terrible and ever-present proof in that moaning, groping, brainless thing that was Sancho, that her mistress had shown a leaning toward the strangers at the expense of her own people, and that she herself might expect no mercy if ever caught. And with the low animal cunning that served her for intellect she knew her penalty could be no greater if she struck one blow in revenge before taking to the woods in final flight.

Her plan was simple. Watching Sancho for a while, so that she might not lose him, she searched for dry wood among the drenched underbrush, piled it against the rear of the council hall, and set fire to it, fanning the faint flame and feeding it, guarding it with her scanty garments, until the red tongues shot up in a powerful, self-supporting conflagration.

Then she had darted back to the forest fringe, found Sancho, and turned his sightless, blank face toward the blaze so that he might feel the warmth and guess the cause. But she knew nothing of his cracked brain; she knew only of his physical agonies; the utter absence of interest in him when she would have shown him what she had done shook her to the foundations of her own reason; and her eldritch scream pealed up among the trees as she flung her arms aloft and cursed the place.

It was the scream that brought Pascherette out of the hut, where she sheltered from the storm, to see the council hall in flames. It was the scream that told the little octoroon where the fire had birth. And Pascherette, too, believed that the three strangers were still within the cells. She had plans of her own that required the safety of those men, at least for a while. And her active brain gave her the solution before the old woman had ceased to curse.

Like a small, sleek panther Pascherette ran toward the old woman; she saw Sancho, too, but instinctively knew that after Milo's treatment of him he could not be dangerous; ignoring the man, she drew her knife as she ran, and with a brief, panting, "That for thee, witch!" struck the old woman down at Sancho's stumbling feet.

Now she gave all her energies to subduing the fire; and, swiftly rallying every man or woman in the camp she drove them with blows and shrill invective to beating the blaze with sodden boughs and wet sand. She set men with poles to batter down the doors to the cells; but the doors had been built to oppose that kind of entry. Frantically she drove the fire-fighters to another place, while she heaped up fresh fire against the doors in the hope of burning down what could not be burst. And it was the last up-blazing shaft of fire as the doors fell that Dolores saw in the moment she brought the schooner to anchor. Pascherette was emerging, singed and blackened, with dark rage in her glittering eyes at having found the cells empty, when Dolores and her crew arrived on the scene with Venner and Tomlin and Pearse in their midst.

"What! Pascherette again?" cried Dolores, glaring at the girl with red suspicion in her face. "Is this thy work? Speak!"

Pascherette stared in surprise at the three strangers, and her painfully scorched lips strove to answer. Her throat was dry, and at first words refused to come. But in the pause, when fifty faces glowered at the girl, something stumbled across the open in the firelight, and Milo's sharp vision distinguished it. He went up to Pascherette, with deep concern in his devoted eyes, and laid a strong arm about her trembling shoulders. She relaxed toward him, and managed to whisper to him. He flung out his free hand toward the open space, and cried to Dolores: "There is the traitor, Sultana! This is the avenger."

Dolores looked; every eye was turned where Milo pointed; and the brutal laughter of some of the hardiest pirates mingled with the groans of the three yachtsmen, whose escape from a horrible death by fire could not reconcile them to the staggering vengeance that had overtaken the wretch who had attempted that death. Bathed in an infernal glow, grotesque as a creature of a diseased brain, the unhuman Sancho staggered across the glade and into the darkness of the forest, bearing in his handless arms a ghastly burden in which the hilt of Pascherette's dagger glittered and flashed as the firelight touched it.

"Back! Let him go!" cried Dolores; and a score of shouting ruffians returned from swift pursuit, leaving Sancho and his burden to pass into the oblivion of the great forest.

Milo examined the damage, and reported. The cells were useless now, except merely to confine captives. They did not fit in with Dolores's plans thus, and she sent Milo to a distance with John Pearse while she carried into effect a new fancy. Her crew had gone to their own places, to soothe the fatigues of their night's work in carousal; Pascherette stood near by, gazing at her mistress with mute appeal that she, too, be permitted to seek alleviation of her own sore burns.

"Wait, child," said Dolores, seeing the girl's trouble. "I'll cure thy hurts soon."

Then she separated Venner and Tomlin, taking each in turn to a vacant hut. And to each she whispered patience and faith; to each her voice imparted a renewed thrill. To Venner she said: "Thy anger with me was foolish, good Rupert. I did but smile at thy friends to make thy task easier. Now see; I leave thee unfettered, and thus." She drew his head down and lightly kissed his hair, laughing with a little tremor: "Think of what I asked of thee, Rupert. To-morrow I shall ask thy decision."

In turn to Tomlin she whispered: "The night has been arduous for thee. I was impatient with thee. Thy vow of devotion to me rang true, though I doubted it at the moment. To-morrow I will hear what thy heart speaks. To-night, see, I free thee. For thy own safety, though, do not venture beyond these doors save with me. My rascals are fierce creatures of jealousy and suspicion. Good night, friend." Him, too, she left tingling with her kiss, and whatever others in the camp did that night, two men found sleep elusive and vain.

Milo brought Pearse to her at her call, and together they went to the great stone before the chamber. Milo rolled back the rock, while his expression showed uneasiness. But he had learned his lesson when protesting against Pascherette's admission to the cave of mystery, and uttered no warning now.

Pascherette, in spite of her burns, bent a roguish face upon Pearse as that puzzled gentleman waited for some word or motion that should give him the reason for this unexpected favor.

Still Dolores said nothing. The rock rolled away, and Milo stood aside, she entered, touching Pearse on the arm as she passed him, and he followed meekly, Pascherette bringing up the rear with Milo after the giant replaced the great stone. Then Dolores turned back to Pearse, under the soft, red glow of the unseen lamps, and flashed a bewildering smile upon him.

"Wilt believe now that I love thee?" she whispered, and her lids drooped over swimming eyes. "Beyond that great door lies the chamber to enter which costs death. Art afraid?"

"Lead on," replied Pearse hoarsely. There was no trace of fear in his voice or in his eyes; but Dolores warmed gladly to the knowledge that here at last was a man whose thoughts were bent upon her and not on her chamber of treasures.

They stood before the massive sliding door of plate and jewels, and here the human side in John Pearse showed through for an instant. Under the great, yellow lantern the gold and silver plates, the glowing rubies, the glinting emeralds, made a picture of fabulous riches that even he could not ignore. But at the upward slide of the door his eyes left the richness of it without a flicker; he waited for the heavy velvet hangings to be drawn, and when Dolores's eyes sought his they surprised his deep, ardent gaze fastened full on herself and not upon what might next be revealed.

"Enter, man of my heart," she smiled, and stood aside to permit him to pass.

In the first steps over the threshold John Pearse saw little save a dim, cool hall, vast and full of vagrant shadows; then, when Milo had arranged the lights so that they gradually grew in power, flooding the chamber with mellow radiance, his soul seemed to burst from his throat in one choking, stupefied gasp.

"The Cave of Aladdin!" he choked, and stood open-mouthed while Dolores laughed softly at his shoulder.

"Nay," she reproved. "'Tis the Cave of Dolores. 'Tis mine, and"--she turned her face up toward his alluringly--"may be thine, if thou'rt a true man!"

With shrewd artistry she twisted away as he strove to clasp her, and there she left him standing, in the midst of untold treasures that every moment were increasingly revealed to him. Without another glance for him, or apparently another thought, she took Pascherette by the hand and led her down the chamber to the great chair. Here she busied herself with salves and lotions to assuage the scald of the girl's fresh burns, which were more painful than serious. And every moment she was thus charitably employed her gleaming eyes were fixed upon Pearse from under concealing lashes; every moment Milo's dusky face was bent upon her from the end of the chamber with an expression of absolute adoration and gratitude. For tiny Pascherette was custodian of the giant's green heart; and honest Milo never sought very deeply for motives. It was enough for him that Dolores, his Sultana, the being he worshiped as he worshiped his gods, was ministering with woman's infinite tenderness to her maid, a creature as humble as himself.

Pearse, too, even in his intoxication of senses, saw and warmed to this evidence of real womanliness in one he had small cause to think anything other than a bewilderingly alluring fury. He could not hide his thoughts, and Dolores saw them betrayed on his face; Pascherette surprised the look on her mistress's lovely face that told her the imperious beauty possessed a heart of living flesh and blood. And Pascherette shuddered nervously at the fear of what must happen should that heart ever feel humiliated.

"Keep still, child," Dolores laughed happily, mistaking the reason for the girl's shudder. "It is finished now. Thy hurts will pass in thy sleep. Go to thy big man there, and have him pet thee. I have no need of thee until I call. Go, take him away. I would be alone with my guest."

The girl ran to Milo, and together they went down to the gallery beyond the picture door. Then Dolores set out with her own fair hands wine and sweetmeats, the confections taken from the yacht, strange and new to her, but in her mind something desirable to such men as Pearse, else why had they brought such things? And again using her innate witchery, she set a chair for Pearse at a distance from her own, where she could look straight into his face or hide her own, as her fancy dictated.

"Hast seen the like before?" she smiled, looking at him over the brim of a chased gold flagon.

"Never, never, Dolores!" he said, and his eyes blazed into hers. He moved his chair close to her, and reached for her free hand.

"What! Hast thou no eyes for these things?" she exclaimed in simulated surprise, taking her hand away and indicating the wealth around the walls. "Man, thy eyes are idle; look at those gems, those paintings; hast ever seen the like of those 'Three Graces,' then, that they have no interest for thee?"

"Yes, I have seen the like, wonderful, wonderful being," he returned hoarsely. "You I have seen; you, you, I see nothing else but you, Dolores!"

She dazzled him with a seductive smile, full of fire-specked softnesses, and offered him her flagon.

"Drink, comrade. Drink here, and we shall talk of thee and me, and what concerns us both nearly. Art sure thy eyes are not blinded by the nearer beauty?"

"I am not blind! I never saw with clearer vision!" Pearse cried, taking the flagon with tremorless hand. "I care nothing for these tawdry gauds."

"Ah! Then thou'rt the man. Come, thy faithful soul deserves reward. Come, I will show thee treasures thou hast not dreamed of yet; and all shall be thine, with me--at a price."

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