PublicBookshelf Book Club
Aylward Edward Dingle
Weekly tips on great novels to read.
"How bears the flare?" Dolores demanded, steadying the helm.
"Three points on lee-bow!" came from aloft.
"Sing out when we point for it!" Dolores gave the wheel a few spokes, and at her command the main-sheet was rendered until the schooner fell off from the wind, and Stumpy hailed: "Steady! She heads fair for it!"
"Does it still burn?"
"Aye, blazing bright! And low down, too, for the seas hide it every moment!"
"Keep thy eyes skinned, and seek for the sloop, too."
The schooner came to a more even keel as she squared away from the gale, and the splendid speed of the craft sent a thrill through Dolores, as through the less impressionable pirate of the gang. Fast as Rufe's sloop was, this dainty plaything of wealth and leisure sped over the snarling seas at a gait that promised to overhaul the smaller vessel two fathoms to one.
Even Rupert Venner and his friends, shivering with the wet and sudden change from the cabin to the deck though they were, found much to soothe them in the glorious sweep and swing of the Feu Follette; much to admire and envy in the perfect poise and sang froid of the magnificent creature at the wheel.
Dolores stood on feet as steady as the great, deep eyes that were fixed on the compass-card before her. Her heavy, lustrous hair streamed about her from under the golden circlet; in each lightning flash she stood out, a thing of wild, awful beauty; the rain glistened on her bare shoulders and arms, rendering her golden skin a gleaming, fairylike armor. And the blustering wind caught her wet tunic and wrapped it about her closely and tightly, revealing every grace and glory of her perfect body.
"Saints! Was there ever such a creature?" said Tomlin hoarsely.
Pearse's face was set and grim; he made no rejoinder. Venner, too, kept silent; but his eyes held venom as he glared at the speaker. Dolores suddenly raised her eyes from the binnacle, looked toward them as they crouched shivering in the lee of the deck-house-companion, and she, warm and glowing in a flimsy, wet garment, laughed mockingly, and called to them.
"I am forgetting what is due to my guests. Do ye feel cold? Will ye go below?"
And they, shivering and uneasy as they were, were content to shiver if only they might not lose sight of her. Their reply was unintelligible; neither would look at the others; yet their mumbled response was understood, and the girl laughed again, loud, ringing, and full of allure.
"Such courage comes only of true sea stock, my friends! I shall not forget this fortitude when I have done with the schooner."
"Flare close aboard!" roared Stumpy; then: "Seize my soul if I see the boat, though, mistress. Satan! Now the flare's gone out!"
"Whereaway?" cried Dolores shrilly. Big Milo was out there in the blackness.
"Right under the bows!" bellowed the lookout. "Luff, or bear away; ye'll run him down!"
And from the raging seas off the lee-bow came the deep, calm voice of Milo, unperturbed as if on dry land, though no boat was to be seen in the murk. "Hold the course, Sultana, I am here!"
And on the heels of the words came a flash from the skies, blazing full upon the dripping figure of the giant as he reached a great arm up, gripped the lee-rail, and swung himself on board with the unconscious ease of a perfect athlete.
"Thy boat, Milo?" inquired Dolores.
"Sailed under, Sultana. I have held the flare aloft in my hand while swimming until a moment ago, when the powder burned out."
"The sloop is close by. Thou art sailing fair at his stern if thy course was not changed to avoid me. His topmast is gone; he sails slowly."
Then without more ado the splendid human animal clutched a backstay and swarmed aloft with the agility of an ape, showing not a whit of strain after his battle with the roaring seas. He reached Stumpy, sent that numbed mariner down, and searched the waters with his keen vision, waiting for another lightning flash. And when it came, fainter now as the thunderstorm receded, his resonant voice boomed down: "Broad abeam the sloop lies! She runs before the wind!"
"Slack away the main-sheet!" cried Dolores, heaving the helm up. "Hail every minute, Milo!"
"Shall I send him a shot immediately, lady?" roared Hanglip, at the schooner's foremost gun.
"Hold with thy shots, villain! Does Rufe deserve no sport? Stand by with the grappling-hooks. I'll run him down!"
"The sloop is dead ahead!" hailed Milo, though none on deck could detect anything of her in the blackness. Dolores listened intently; then twirled the wheel, and cried: "I hear her! Ready the grapnels?"
"Then watch--and heave!" she commanded; and with the suddenness of light the schooner swept around in a swift arc, the black shape of the flying sloop stood out against the angry sea crests, and the two vessels came together with a crash of timbers and a rattling of gear.
A distant rumbling of thunder succeeded a faint flash, and wind and rain came down with increased fury as if to balance the defection of the electric element. The darkness of Erebus fell upon the surging vessels, and men groped at the rails in a blind effort to make out a footing for boarding the sloop.
"Follow me; I want Yellow Rufe alive!" cried Dolores, leaving the wheel and springing to the bulwarks. Instinctively Peters stepped to the wheel, and as he passed his employer he leaned to whisper in his ear: "Let them once leave these decks, sir, and we'll up hellum and away!"
Venner's eyes glittered at the prospect; but he could not see the faces of his friends; he could only hear Pearse's low tones beside him, and the mumbled words indicated no great agreement in the scheme. Uncertain, his mind confused between desire to escape and desire to see more of Dolores and her hidden cave of wonders, Rupert Venner hesitated in his decision; and in the next moment it was out of his power to decide. For Rufe, in desperation now, met the boarders at the rail, backed by his half-dozen crazed adherents, and murderous steel glittered dully against the inky sky.
"Beat down his cringing curs, but leave me Rufe!" cried Dolores, opposing her own dagger to the sweep of the pirate's cutlas. And as the schooner's crew roared at Hanglip's heels, storming over to the pitching sloop's decks to pursue mercilessly the panic-stricken runaways, the girl pitted agility and splendid knife-craft against the terror-driven strength and wolfish fury of the trapped traitor.
"Hah! Thy black heart fails thee!" taunted Dolores, leaping down from the rail to the schooner's streaming deck and thus avoiding a whistling stroke of Rufe's cutlas. The pirate fell forward with the impetus of his blow, and stumbled in a heap at the girl's nimble feet. "Up, man!" she cried, leaping back to permit him to rise. "What, art afraid of a woman? Here, then, I prick thee! Now wilt fight?" She darted her dagger swiftly downward, and the partially healed cross on Rufe's cheek blazed red again.
"Woman or devil, I'll see thy heart for that!" swore the pirate, and rose with a bound and hurled himself at the girl. She stepped aside agilely and laughed mockingly at him, while as he again stumbled with the swing of his avoided blow she darted close, and her knife ripped his sword-arm from wrist to elbow.
Mouthing crazily with fury, Rufe leaped backward until his shoulders struck the rigging, and, seizing his cutlas in his left hand, he poised it by the blade for a deadly javelin cast.
Now upon the scene flared a great blaze, and Stumpy's scowling face appeared at the back of it. He, with readier wit than his fellows, had sought out a tar-pot and lamp; and at the moment his mistress stood defenseless before the impeding steel, the club-footed pirate poured lamp-oil into the tar, and cast the flaring wick on top of all.
A circle of light spread from wheel to foremast, with Yellow Rufe at the main rigging in the center of it. The light dazzled him for a second, and his throw was stayed. The three yachtsmen, huddled in their chains aft, stared in helpless amazement at the tableau; for such it became, when the fight stopped for a breath and every man's passion-filled face was lighted by the red glare.
"Shoot him down!" shouted Pearse in horror.
And Venner and Tomlin strove for words without success. Venner was dumb and sick in face of Dolores's peril. Yellow Rufe uttered a grim, Satanic growl of laughter, and drew back his arm for the cast. His plight was utterly desperate; he knew death waited for him with clutching talons, and with his last breath he would reap toll that should make his name a thing to recall with dread afterward.
"This for thy witch's heart!" he howled, and his arm quivered. Then out of the shadows aloft, above the smoky flare, came down the tremendous shape of Milo, forgotten in his post at the masthead, but never taking his eyes from his Sultana.
Like a gorilla he slipped down the backstay with one hand; with the other hand he reached downward with a swift, sure clutch, and as Rufe's wrist flexed to cast his javelin Milo's hand gripped him by the neck from behind and swung him bodily off his feet, while the wide-flung cutlas flashed through the air and plunged with a hiss over the side.
"I thank thee again, Milo," said Dolores, slipping her dagger into the sheath and looking on at Rufe's struggles with the unconcern of one far apart from the actual conflict. "I wished to take him alive; yet had almost been forced to cut too deeply. Bring the villain to me. And, Caliban, get more flares, lanterns, lights, and make us a theater of justice here."
She stepped aft, saw Peters at the wheel, and smiled as she realized how her boarding of the sloop might have resulted.
"Hah, but it would have availed thee nothing!" she smiled at Venner. "I read thy heart as I read the stars, friend. Watch how completely Yellow Rufe pays his debt to me. He has fled me through forest and mountain; through a sea of howling storm; yet he pays. And thus all men pay who think to flout Dolores. Keep thy eyes wide, friends, and watch."
Yellow Rufe was brought before her, and his swarthy face was pallid in the red light. There was something of the splendid beast about this fellow, too; a quality that showed even when he faced certain death and no merciful one. He had run, and when overtaken he had fought; and now he must pay.
"Hanglip, to the wheel here!" Dolores commanded. "Six of you bring back the sloop. The rest attend me! Bring the schooner to her course, northwest, Hanglip; and, Spotted Dog, rig me a whip at the foregaff-end. Yellow Rufe, pray or curse while ye may. Thy course is run. There is nothing left to say. Ten minutes remain to thee."
The doomed pirate stood in silence while the preparations were being made; but when Spotted Dog brought down the end of the rope he had rove through the block at the end of the gaff, and stood grinning anticipatively before Dolores, Rufe's tongue came loose, and he burst into a torrent of futile, raving blasphemy.
"Take the rope end forward, and pass it around the bows, so that the rope passes beneath the keel," Dolores ordered, and every eager villain in the band knew now what fate awaited Rufe. The schooner, not being square-rigged, was badly fitted for the operation of keel-hauling; but Dolores's inventive brain had devised a refinement of even that refinement of torture. She waited for the rope end, and when Spotted Dog brought it aft, on the weather side, passing clear from the gaff to leeward, under the keel and up to windward, she stood aside so that the yachtsmen could witness all.
"Tie his hands, Milo!" she said. It was carried out, in spite of Rufe's fierce fight against it. "Now place the noose about his throat tightly." That, too, was done, and now the rope led from Rufe's neck, over the weather rail, under the schooner, and up to the gaff. Three men stood by the hauling part of the rope, and at a gesture from the girl six others joined them. On every face was a little doubt, for none saw exactly what was coming, least of all Rufe.
"Now release him!" said Dolores quietly, and Rufe was left standing alone, his hands tied, but his feet unfettered. He glared around as if he saw a slim chance yet for life; the hope died the next moment, for Dolores signed to the men at the rope, they began hauling, and the terror leaped into Rufe's eyes afresh.
For a moment Venner and his friends saw what they imagined to be a piece of grim jesting; but they, as well as Rufe, speedily saw there was no jest in this. For as the rope tightened, and other roaring ruffians ran joyously to take a pull at it, Rufe was drawn irresistibly toward the weather rail with a choking drag on his throat. He seized the rail, and strained with his every sinew to fight that deadly peril; the rope only tightened more; it was either go or strangle for him; fight as he might, he was forced to climb on the rail, to aid in his own funeral.
The yachtsmen turned dizzy with the awfulness of the man's end; but they could not take their fascinated eyes from the scene. They saw Rufe topple over the rail with a choking curse, and saw the rope pull him under the vessel; they saw the rope quiver to the pirates' lusty pull as the victim was battered against the keel. And they saw the terrible figure leap from the sea to leeward and fly to the gaff-end as the men ran away with the rope to a roaring chorus. But they saw no more. Their eyes refused to look at a repetition of that horror. And Dolores, watching them keenly, came to them, after giving final orders regarding Yellow Rufe's body, took their chains in her hand, and said: "When again the thought comes to leave me, gentlemen, think well upon what I have showed thee. Now come below. I owe thee some refreshment after a night of storm. 'Twill be approaching dawn ere the schooner can beat back to my haven. Come. I will serve thee with supper."