The Pirate Woman (Chapter 25)

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Chapter 25

Venner's order to heave the treasure-chests overboard was not given without a pang of regret. It was scarcely obeyed without threats; for the sailing master had been bitten by the treasure fever before his owner and guest came on board. Had they not appeared when they did, the schooner had gone without them, and Peters had already seen a golden vista ahead of him. He hesitated now, and Venner left the wheel vacant to urge him.

"Over with it, I say! At once! Here, Pearse, lend a hand here, man, before that witch's great eyes mesmerize us again. See, she smiles yet, and comes nearer."

Reluctantly the seamen raised one iron-bound chest to the rail and poised it there. From the water astern rang Dolores's throaty laugh, even and full breathing, as if she had not swam a fraction of the half-mile she had covered.

"Foolish Rupert!" she cried, never relaxing her stroke. "Why waste the fruits of thy pains? Hast looked inside then? Nay, take me on board, and let us look together. Thou wilt not see Dolores drown, I swear. Then look once more into my eyes, my Rupert!"

She laughed again mockingly, alluringly, and Pearse turned away with a shudder, not daring to cast a glance in the direction of Venner.

"Throw the stuff over, I say!" cried Venner hoarsely, and gave the chest a push that sent it into the rippling sea with a thunderous splash. And again that mocking laugh rang out astern; it was nearer, and Dolores's beautiful face was turned up to them with triumph in every feature. She had seen the struggle going on in her two intended victims; if she could but gain to within whispering distance of either of them, surely she would never let them escape her.

"Come, take me on board, my Rupert. I have a secret to tell thee, but thee alone!" she cried, and spurted swiftly, gaining abreast of the main-chains.

But the eyes of Venner and Pearse were fixed in astonishment upon the tall cliff they had left; their eyes stared amazedly, and they stood like statues, hearing none of her seductive words.

"What do ye see?" she demanded, frowning up at them.

A score of sharp splashes in the water around the schooner startled her. She suspected they were hurling missiles at her, and one struck her arm. She turned swiftly and her face darkened with fury. Then more small objects fell about her, and one struck her arm. She turned swiftly on her side to seek the source, and in her ears boomed the tremendous crash of Stumpy's explosion, rolling far over the sea, reverberating from the shores and making the air quiver like a solid thing.

A great mass of rock hurtled overhead, missed the schooner by scant feet, and Venner shouted in horror: "Throw her a line, Pearse! Here, quickly, before she is crushed by such a rock as that one!"

The sea was shattered into foam for fathoms around, and every face on the Feu Follette stared over the rail in helpless astonishment. But on the face of Dolores glowed a smile of triumph. She feared nothing of earth or heaven; among the flying rocks she swam on toward the schooner, smiling up at them, waiting for the rope that meant victory to her.

And in the brief space before the rope hurtled out, down from the heavens plunged a high-flung piece of granite fair upon Dolores. She seemed to sense its shadow, and in the moment it struck her she half sank, breaking its force. But it followed her down. The mass struck between her gleaming shoulders, and she flung up her arms in despair, turning over and over with the impact, then floating unconscious close by the side of the white schooner that had been her goal.

"God! Get her aboard!" gasped Pearse. "She's done for. Yet we cannot leave her there for the sharks, like a beast!"

Venner and Peters were already trying with boat-hooks to catch Dolores's tunic. Pearse threw a line over the girl and drew her nearer and the hooks took hold. They drew her up the side with a care that amounted to reverence, for in her unconsciousness she was more beautiful than ever, her fine features molded in dead white, traced with fine blue veins; the grace of her form was that of a lovely sculpture now, lacking vitality, but possessing every line of perfection. The blow that had overtaken her had failed in its terrible threat to crush her.

"Lay her in the companionway on the lounge," said Venner. He ran to the saloon and brought up wine. He bathed her temples and wrists with the liquor, and forced some between her blue lips. And Pearse chafed her hands and patted them, gazing down at her in silent awe.

"Venner," he whispered, when her eyes refused to open, "we must let this settle the score against her. It's a terrible end for such a creature."

"For my part, Pearse, I would give all I have just to see those great violet eyes laugh at me again; to hear that mocking laugh from her maddening lips. God, will she never awake?"

Astern of the schooner the sun was slowly descending to the western sea-rim, and as the course was resumed after picking up Dolores, the Point and the cliff gradually drew out across the path of the sun, until the outlines of the rock and trees stood out black and sharp. On the cliff-top a heavy pall of greasy smoke hung low about the shattered pirates' camp; from fissures high up the frowning side spirals of smoke testified to the wide-spread destruction that followed the blast.

They looked at the terrific devastation, and again at its nearer victim. And as they gazed down at her, Dolores's lips trembled in a faint smile, her great eyes opened wide, looking directly and fearlessly back at them.

"I thank ye, my friends; I knew you would take me," she whispered, and the two men turned away with a shudder. As she had lived, Dolores was now meeting her inevitable end, bold and indomitable.

"Where are you hurt?" inquired Venner lamely. "Let me do something to ease you."

"Ease?" she laughed as of old, but her teeth clenched upon her lower lip immediately, with the pain it caused. "I shall ask ye to ease me presently, good friends. Grim Death has me by the throat already. But carry me outside. I am stifling in here. Let me see the ocean and the sky at least in my passage. And I have something to tell ye also."

On the gratings around the stern, abaft the wheel, they laid her on soft cushions. She drank greedily of the wine and water they offered her; she quivered with eagerness to unburden her mind before her thirst was quenched forever. She motioned them, to bend over her, and began to speak in, husky whispers.

"That chest, thou cast it overboard. Dost know what was in it?"

Both shook their heads. None had seen inside the chests after they came from the great chamber.

"I'll tell ye, then, for the peace of your souls and the tranquillity of your voyage. Lest thy men be seized with a desire for treasure that shall work ye mischief, have them open the other two chests. Quickly, for I am faint."

Venner went to the chests himself and flung back the lids, which were bolted on the outside and not locked. He stared for a moment, unbelievingly, then nodded to Pearse. Pearse stared, too, in amazement, and one after the other the sailors were called to see. They saw two great strong-boxes filled to the brim with iron chains, broken cutlases, rusty bilboes, and rock; a fool's treasure in truth.

"'Twas a trick to set my rascals at odds," Dolores told them when they returned to her. "To thee, Pearse, I showed my treasure, and I fear that blast has buried it beneath a mountain. Milo was to take it out. I cannot believe it can have been taken away ere that powder blew it to fragments. It was still in the powder store."

"Yes, I know," said Pearse quietly. "It was that which precipitated the fight between us three that killed poor Tomlin."

"Well, if thou still art hungry for treasure, my friends, there is my store buried where thou knowest, and I shrewdly fear but few of my people are left. But I am slipping. Stand aside, that I may close my eyes on the place I called home."

Dolores ceased speaking and lay, scarcely stirred by her faint respiration, gazing over the schooner's stern at the sinking sun. The golden disk was turning to red and across its darkened face the cliff and Point stood out in sharp silhouette, which grew larger as the great glowing sun was distorted and enlarged by the refraction near the horizon. The breeze had changed, and now blew with gentle strength out of the west, a fair wind for their homeward course, and the strands of Dolores's glorious hair blew about her face like tendrils about an orchid of unearthly beauty.

Presently she stirred again, and now she summoned all her remaining vitality to raise herself on an elbow. Pearse and Venner leaned closer, sensing the end in the tremendous brilliancy of her wide, dry eyes.

She spoke softly, yet with a thrilling note of yearning that choked her hearers with harsh sobs.

"Father, I come," she whispered. "If I have failed in obeying thy commands, I ask forgiveness, for I am but a woman. A woman with instincts and yearnings, born of the mother I never knew. Thy very treasures that were to appease me put the yearning more strongly in my brain. Thy teachings showed me a world of beasts and savagery; thy treasures gave me dreams of a world peopled by such as I would be. My mother's blood forced me to seek this other, better world; thy blood forced me to seek it wrongfully."

She paused, and gathered her fleeting breath.

Then, sitting suddenly upright, she flung both arms out to the setting sun now lipping the sea, and cried: "Gods I know not. Yet must there be such, else had I never known the devotion of a Milo! Wherever ye be, brave Milo, living or dead, commend me to thy own gods and forgive me for my ingratitude." She seized Venner and Pearse by the arms as she fell back, and whispered: "In pity, friends, set my feet toward the west, and launch my poor body down the sun path as it sinks into the blue Caribbean that was my only home."

She relaxed with a little shivering sigh, the glorious eyes closed with a tired tremor, and the spirit of Dolores the beautiful, the wicked, the tempestuous, winged its way down the mysterious paths of the dark unknown.

"Come," said Venner, suddenly shaking off his abstraction, "time is all too short if we are to render her this last small service."

"How shall we do it?" asked Pearse doubtfully.

"We shall send her down her chosen path in a boat. Peters will load the dingey with ballast, while you and I will lay Dolores out as well as we may. Bring me that grating, Pearse. We will speed her in the dress she loved. Her soul would sicken at a suffocating winding sheet. Hurry, for the sun is half gone!"

Swiftly they worked, these men who had cause to remember the departed siren without great love, and they placed her, secured to a grating, across the thwarts of the dingey, to which the grating was in turn secured. Then, all prepared, Peters sprang into the boat, bored a score of auger-holes in the bottom, and as the great red sun set fierce and blazing behind the black profile of the cliff, the filling boat was set adrift, straight down the path of the luminary, bound ever westward, until the sea gods claimed it and its passenger for their own.

"Farewell, place of ill-luck!" cried Pearce, as the schooner bore away before the rising evening breeze. "May I never set my eyes on such evil shores again."

"Then you will not come back to seek the treasure?" asked Venner, with a shadowy flicker of a smile.

"Not for a thousand times the treasure that lies there!" cried Pearse vehemently. "And I have seen it! The horror of this will haunt me until my dying day. I only hope God will look kindly upon that poor woman, that's all."

"I hope so, too," rejoined Venner thoughtfully. "With a white woman's opportunities, what a woman she could have been."

But the gods are inscrutable. Only the warm mantle of the setting sun gave a hint that Dolores might be even now entering into a place of eternal rest, where her sins of ignorance and untutored instincts would not count too heavily against her. The sea is very benign to its elect; a calm sea in the setting sun received Dolores in arms of infinite benignity.

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