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Aylward Edward Dingle
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In the rock passage the hush was complete. For the space of ten long breaths Sancho stood quivering under the weird spell of the infernal red radiance from the hidden lights, while almost invisible ahead of him Dolores bent to listen to a last moment's communication from Pascherette. With Milo behind him, and the great unknown ahead, the pirate's usual fierce courage oozed out through his boots. Yet he was hypnotized by the vague glitter that shone at the end of the tunnel--the glitter, though he knew it not yet, of the great sliding door to the inner mystery.
Suddenly the mighty rock reverberated and shook to a Titanic volley of thunder, and Sancho shrieked with nervous terror. His shriek was echoed by a rippling laugh from Dolores, and she came back swiftly toward him, pushing Pascherette before her. She handed the little octoroon on to Milo, and said, with a kindly pat on the girl's head: "Open, Milo, and let thy sweetheart complete her good works. Now I shall have none but faithful friends about me. Pascherette, thou'rt more than forgiven: thou'rt my good friend. I shall reward thee fittingly when"--she smiled dazzlingly at Sancho--"I have rewarded Sancho."
The rock door rolled aside, and Pascherette passed out into the storm. Sancho's nerves gave way utterly now, and he rushed toward the opening, screaming: "Let me out! I want air! I want none of the great chamber! Let me pass!"
Milo again let fall the rock, pressed a huge hand on Sancho's breast, and pushed him back, saying: "Peace, fool! Go with thy mistress. Thine eye will never again witness the like. Go, I tell thee. Dost fear the Sultana's justice?"
"Come, Sancho. Thou'lt be a marked man among thy fellows when I have shown thee what they yearn to see."
Dolores again took his hand, bent her glorious eyes full upon him, and Sancho followed her like a sheep, straight to the great door under the jeweled yellow lantern, where he stood, stupefied with awe at the barbaric splendors revealed.
His lips went dry, and he licked them feverishly; his single eye blazed with avarice; the two fingers and mutilated thumb of his right hand worked convulsively, as if he would tear the gems and plate from the door. And Dolores watched him from under lowered lids, her rich red lips curled scornfully, one hand half raised to warn Milo to open the great door slowly.
"Well, Sancho, art better prepared for the greater treasures yet to be seen?" smiled Dolores. The pirate's blazing eye seemed to dart flames as the door slowly rose to Milo's touch.
"Sultana!" he gasped, and his speech would do no more for him.
"Enter, friend. This is thy great hour!"
The queen pushed him gently inside, following herself, and Milo let fall the door again, standing mute and motionless on the inside while his mistress led the pirate to the center of the great chamber and waited until his dazzled eye adjusted itself to the subtle lighting effects.
Pascherette's last whispered communication to Dolores had told her of Yellow Rufe's intentions; and while Sancho stood in amaze, she bent her ear to catch the expected sound of voices through the sounding-stone behind the tapestry. For there the little octoroon was to play a part for Sancho's especial benefit. The thunder had become all but incessant; with every crash the great chamber rumbled and echoed eerily; yet between the crashes, brief as the periods were, human voices could be heard.
"Art ready to see my treasures, Sancho?"
Dolores waved a gleaming arm around the place, indicating with one wide gesture the glories of the walls and roof. But the pirate's senses responded more readily to the tangible riches represented by gold and gems, tall flagons, and jewel-incrusted lamps, littered diamonds and rubies that strewed the big table.
"Hah!" cried Dolores, with a low, throaty laugh. "Ah! my friend, I know thy mind. Milo!"
Milo advanced with a deep obeisance.
"Milo, open the great chests for Sancho. Let him plunge his arms to the elbows in red gold. Then I shall show him that which lies nearest to his deserts."
The pirate watched with lips no longer dry, but dripping with the saliva of greed, while Milo flung open chest after chest, full to overflowing with minted gold of many nations; looted jewels of royal and noble houses, sacred vessels and glittering orders, weapons whose hilts and scabbards, if ever made for use, could only have been used to bewilder the eye and senses.
Again the thunder pealed; and in the tremendous hush succeeding, the voices outside penetrated the sounding-stone in more than a whisper. Sancho jerked up his head and fear once more shone in his single eye.
"Come, good Sancho," purred Dolores, running her soft hand down his bare forearm. "Art frightened by petty noises, then? Plunge thy hands deep, man! All thou canst grasp is thine for so long as thy eye can enjoy or thy hands fondle."
Now Sancho's sordid soul surrendered. His greed conquered fear, and he delved deep into a coffer, chattering the while with frenzy. And now when the thunder rolled, his ears heard it not. He drew forth his hands, and a glittering mass of wealth fell about his feet. He glared up at Dolores, laughing ghoulishly.
"That is well, Sancho," Dolores said, and took his hand. "Now I will show thee the rest; and I know thou'lt never tell of it. I trust thee. Come. Put thy ear to this tapestry, and tell me what thou canst hear."
Sancho laid his ear to the cloth, and his eye gleamed brightly. Milo stepped silently behind him.
"I hear Hanglip!" he gasped. "Is he, too, here?"
"He is outside the cliff. But whom else canst hear?"
"I hear Caliban--Spotted Dog--Stumpy--I hear a score as if they stood by my side! And Pascherette! By the fiend! She has played Rufe a trick! And me--" He sprang from the wall like a tiger, snatching at his weaponless belt with slavering fury, to be gathered at once into the remorseless hug of Milo. And he glared full into the mocking face of Dolores--soft and generous no more, but the embodiment of awful vengeance.
For many seconds she stood regarding him contemptuously, until he subsided helplessly in Milo's grasp; then, motioning the giant to follow, she passed along and stopped before a life-size painting of "The Sleeping Venus" in a massive, gilded frame. With one hand raised high at the side, she turned a pulley-catch, and the great picture slowly fell forward from the top until it rested slopingly on the floor, forming an inclined entrance to a gloomy passage, dimly touched by a dark-red glow.
This was the secret outlet to the great chamber by which Milo had access to the altar in the grove at such times as his aid was needed to support Dolores in some exhibition of black magic. She stepped swiftly along the passage, giving no further heed to the panic-stricken pirate until Milo had carried and dragged him to where she awaited him. This was still another dark excavation, running deeper yet into the bowels of the cliff; and the devilish red glare was here intensified until surrounding objects were vividly revealed.
"Now hear the doom of a traitor!" cried Dolores, with haughty mien. "What! Not a traitor?" she mocked at the pirate's frantic howl of denial. "Then Dolores has erred, perhaps. There is a test, good Sancho. Let me see if I am wrong!"
She signed to Milo, and the giant swung Sancho around until he faced the deepest recess of the cave. There, swathed in mummy clothes, preserved by the chemical miracle of the stratum of red earth that formed the core of the rock, the body of Red Jabez stood erect against the wall, bathed in the red glow, diamonds glittering where the dead eyes had been. And on the rock ledge at his feet stood a tall flagon of gold, in which Dolores had brewed an awful potion for this event. Beside this ledge stood a low brazier full of glowing charcoal; on a tabouret near by lay several terrible implements the use of which needed no explanation.
"Look upon the face of the Red Chief, and drink this draft--'tis his blood!" she cried, seizing the flagon and thrusting it into Sancho's hands. "Then, if thy heart held no treachery toward me, thy life and limbs are safe. But have a care! A lie in thy heart will surely undo thee. Drink!"
A splitting thunder-crash filled the place with uproar; a gust of the tempest from the outer entrance sent the wind swirling in. It was as if the breath of the storm snatched Sancho's senses back from the terror-land they had fled to; he ceased his howling, glared defiantly up at the dead chief, and cried in desperation: "Give me the drink! I fear neither gods nor devils; why should I fear you, dead man?"
"Wait!" Dolores laid a hand on his arm, and stayed the flagon at his lips. "Wait, till I tell thee more. Then, if thou art guiltless, and go from here with the treasure I gave thee, thou'lt know thy friends and thy foes.
"Didst think Yellow Rufe was free? Thou fool! Thy wits are powerless before a woman's. Did my pretty Pascherette tell him he might go free, taking my sloop, escaping my vengeance, as thou didst think to? Didst hear those voices? Then I tell thee, Sancho, that ten-score count, that Rufe doubtless made in fear and trembling, but sufficed to raise his hopes. For ere he had gained the sloop and started her anchor, Pascherette had done her work. The stranger's schooner is full of my men, waiting for Rufe to come for his booty. Let him take alarm, then how far may he win? Thou'lt never know, false Sancho, for I have no doubt of thy treachery. Now drink, if thou darest!"
"Then, by the fiend, I dare!" shouted the pirate. Something in the tang of the gale sweeping in from the unseen entrance reassured him of the existence of the outer world; persuaded him that by taking a desperate chance he might yet throw dust in the eyes of this terrible woman and go hence with the secret of the great chamber. "I dare, Dolores! Blood, d' ye say? What fitter drink for a pirate?"
He lifted the flagon, took a deep draft in great gulps, so that his determination might carry him; then his eye sparkled, he took the flagon from his lips, and grinned at Milo. "By the great Red Chief!" he cried. "This is justice indeed! I drink to ye, Sultana, and to Milo, ye big jester!" and finished the drink with a greedy swallow.
Then the flagon clattered to the ground, Sancho's face went livid, and his mouth opened wide and loosely, as his body and limbs were seized with subtle pains. His brain, too, felt an awful numbness creeping upon it; for the draft had done its work. The rarest of wine from her store, Dolores had mingled with it a devilish powder that first sapped the strength, then attacked the brain, and eventually snapped the cord of intelligence, leaving the victim a driveling imbecile. But that point had not yet been reached. It would come perhaps in one hour, two, three, perhaps six--but inevitably it must come. For the present the pirate was simply in the grip of the unknown, yet having full power to realize, but not resist, the tangible terrors at hand.
"Milo, hasten the rest. I shall await thee at the gate. Put forth this traitor by the Grove outlet, and see to it that he takes with him neither power to see beauty, to utter treason, or to ever feel again the scalding touch of coveted gold. Make speed, I command thee, for I hear my stout trusty ones clamoring for the chase!"
Dolores disappeared through the secret outlet, sprang down behind the altar, and ran through the Grove. Beside the cliff were huddled Hanglip and Stumpy, Caliban, and Spotted Dog, drenched with the teeming rain, restless with impatience, peering ever to seaward in the lightning flashes that continually illumined the scene.
Among them Dolores appeared, suddenly, mysteriously, as coming from the skies, and after a choke of amazement Stumpy flung a hand seaward, and shouted above the turmoil of wind and rain: "Queen o' Night, thou'lt need thy magic now! See, there flies the villain!"
Dolores looked, and smiled disdainfully. The torrential rain beat upon her bare head and shoulders, causing her to glisten and shine like a golden goddess; but she heeded it not at all; her eyes sought out what Stumpy had indicated. And there, in the next lightning-flash, flying seaward, was the sloop. Rufe had taken alarm, and had foregone his plan of looting the schooner.
"Let him go; he'll fly not far," she said calmly. "Come with me to the great rock, my bold fellows; daylight shall show thee Rufe where I would have him--paying the price, as Sancho has paid!"
She glided around the rock, followed by her silent faithfuls, while from the Grove rang a shriek of mortal agony that sent fierce hearts aquiver with terror.