Martin Conisby's Vengeance by Jeffrey Farnol
Chapter II. My Troubles Begin
Whiles I yet stood, knife in hand, staring at her and mute for wonder, she pulled off the close-fitting seaman's bonnet she wore and scowling up at me shook down the abundant tresses of her hair.
"Beast!" said she. "Oh, beast--you hurt me!"
"Who are you?" I questioned.
"One that doth hate you!" Here she took a silver comb from her pocket and fell to smoothing her hair; and as she sat thus cross-legged upon the grass, I saw that the snowy linen at throat and bosom was spotted with great gouts of blood.
"Are ye wounded?" quoth I, pointing to these ugly stains.
"Bah! 'Tis none of mine, fool! 'Tis the blood of Cestiforo!"
"Who is he?"
"The captain of yon ship."
"How cometh his blood on you?"
"'Twas when I killed him."
"Aye--he wearied me. So do all my lovers, soon or late."
Now as I looked on this woman, the strange, sullen beauty of her (despite her masculine apparel) as she sat thus combing her long hair and foul with a dead man's blood, I bethought me of the wild tales I had heard of female daemons, succubi and the like, so that I felt my flesh chill and therewith a great disgust and loathing of her, insomuch that, not abiding the sight of her, I turned away and thus beheld a thing the which filled me with sudden, great dismay: for there, her sails spread to the fitful wind, I saw the ship standing out to sea, bearing with her all my hopes of escape from this hated island. Thus stood I, watching deliverance fade on my sight, until the ship was no more than a speck upon the moon-bright waters and all other thoughts 'whelmed and lost in raging despair. And now I was roused by a question sudden and imperious:
"Who are you?"
"'Tis no matter."
"How came you here?"
"'Tis no matter for that, either."
"Are you alone?"
"Then wherefore trouble to shave your beard?"
"'Tis a whim."
"Are you alone?"
"And I would you were again."
"So do I."
"You are Englishman--yes?"
"My mother was English--a poor thing that spent her days weeping and died of her tears when I was small--ah, very small, on this island."
"Here?" quoth I, staring.
"Twenty and one years agone!" said she, combing away at her glossy hair. "My mother was English like you, but my father was a noble gentleman of Spain and Governor of Santa Catalina, Don Esteban da Silva y Montreale, and killed by Tressady--Black Tressady--"
"What, Roger Tressady--o' the Hook?"
"True, Senor Englishman," said she softly and glancing up at me through her hair; "he hath a hook very sharp and bright, in place of his left hand. You know him? He is your friend--yes?"
"I know him for a cursed pirate and murderer!"
"Moi aussi, mon ami!" said she, fixing me with her great eyes. "I am pirate, yes--and have used dagger and pistol ere to-day and shall again."
"And wear a woman's shape!"
"Ha--yes, yes!" cried she, gnashing her teeth. "And there's my curse--I am woman and therefore do hate all women. But my soul is a man's so do I use all men to my purpose, snare them by my woman's arts and make of 'em my slaves. See you; there is none of all my lovers but doth obey me, and so do I rule, with ships and men at my command and fearing no man--"
"And yet," said I, interrupting, "you came fleeing hither to save your life from yonder rabblement."
"Tush--these were mostly drunken rogues that knew me not, 'listed but late from a prize we took and burned. I shall watch them die yet! Soon shall come Belvedere in the Happy Despatch to my relief, or Rodriquez of the Vengeance or Rory or Sol--one or other or all shall come a-seeking me, soon or late. Meantime, I bide here and 'tis well you stayed me from killing you, for though I love not Englishmen, I love solitude less, so are you safe from me so long as we be solitary. Ah--you smile because you are fool and know me not yet! Ah, ah--mayhap you shall grow wiser anon. But now," said she, rising and putting away her comb, "bring me where I may eat, for I am famished with hunger."
"Also you are very foul of blood!" said I.
"Yes," says she soft-voiced, and glancing from me to her stained finery and back again. "Yes. And is this so great a matter?"
"To-night you murdered a man!"
"I killed him--yes. Cestiforo--he was drunk. And was this so great a matter?"
"And you--a woman!" said I, marvelling.
"Aye, to my sorrow!" said she, gnashing white teeth, "Yet am I strong as a man and bolder than most."
"God preserve me from such!" quoth I fervently.
"You--you?" cried she. "What thing are you that seeming man must blench at a little blood? Are you yourself so innocent, you that know Tressady o' the Hook?"
"Howbeit I am no murderer, woman."
"Ah--bah!" cried she, with flick of scornful fingers. "Enough of words, Master Innocent. Bring me where I may eat and bed me till morning."
Thereupon (and mighty unwilling) I brought her into the cave and lighting two candles of my own contriving, I set before her such viands as I had, together with bread I had newly baked, and with no word of thanks this strange, fierce creature fell to eating with a voracity methought very disgusting.
Now the more I saw of her the more grew my disgust and the end of it was I determined to put the whole length of the island betwixt us and that at once. To this end I began collecting such articles as I should want, as my light hatchet, sword, pistols, etc. I was buckling on my belt when her voice arrested me, albeit she spoke me very sweetly and soft:
"You go now to your woman--your light of love--yes?"
"There is no woman but yourself," said I, frowning.
"Liar! Then what of this?" and she pointed slender finger; then I saw that tattered garment lying where I had dropped it and this woman spurning it with her foot. So I stooped forthwith, and snatching it from her desecrating touch, folded it across my arm, whereat she fell to sudden laughter very ill to bear.
"Ah--ah!" said she, softer than before and most hatefully a-smiling, "'tis for her sake your chin goeth bare and smooth--yes? She is over-nice in the matter of--"
"I tell you she is gone!" said I in fury.
"Gone--gone, is she? And you alone here, longing but for her return, through weeks and months and years waiting for her to come back to you; is not this the truth of it, yes?" Now I, knowing this for very truth, could but scowl, finding no word to say, whiles this creature nodded and flashed white teeth in her hateful smile. "You loved this woman," said she, "do love her; dead or living, rotting bones or another's delight, you do love her yet, poor, miserable fool!"
All unheeding, I folded the garment with reverent hands while she taunted me thus, until, seeing me nothing moved, she fell to rank vileness, bespattering that pure memory with tongue so shamelessly foul that I (losing all patience) turned on her at last; but in this moment she was on her feet and snatching my sword made therewith a furious pass at me, the which I contrived to parry and, catching the blade in this beloved garment, I wrenched the weapon from her. Then, pinning her in fierce grip and despite her furious struggles and writhing, I belaboured her soundly with the flat of the blade, she meanwhile swearing and cursing at me in Spanish and English as vilely as ever I had done in all my days, until her voice broke and she choked upon a great sob. Thereupon I flung her across my bed and taking such things as I needed, strode out of the cave and so left her.
But scarce was I without the cave than she came following after me; and truly never was greater change, for in place of snarling daemon here was tender maid all tearful sighs, gentle-eyed and with clasped hands reached out to me in supplication and (despite her male attire) all woman.
Perceiving the which, I turned my back upon her and hasted away all the faster.
So here was I, that had grieved in my solitude and yearned amain for human fellowship, heartily wishing myself alone again and full of a new apprehension, viz: That my island being so small I might chance to find the avoidance of this evil creature a matter of some difficulty, even though I abandoned my caves and furniture to her use and sought me another habitation.
Now as I went I fell to uneasy speculation regarding this woman, her fierce, wild beauty, her shameless tongue, her proud and passionate temper, her reckless furies; and bethinking me of all the manifest evil of her, I felt again that chill of the flesh, that indefinable disgust, insomuch that (the moon being bright and full) I must glance back, more than once, half-dreading to see her creeping on my heels.
Having traversed Deliverance Sands I came into that cleft or defile, 'twixt bush-girt, steepy cliffs, called Skeleton Cove, where I had builded me a forge with bellows of goatskin. Here, too, I had set up an anvil (the which had come ashore in a wreck, together with divers other tools) and a bench for my carpentry. The roof of this smithy backed upon a cavern wherein I stored my tools, timber and various odds and ends.
This place, then, I determined should be my habitation henceforth, there being a little rill of sweet water adjacent and the cave itself dry and roomy and so shut in by precipitous cliffs that any who might come to my disturbance must come only in the one direction.
And now, as I judged, there being yet some hours to sunrise, I made myself as comfortable as might be and having laid by sword and belt and set my pistols within easy reach, I laid down and composed myself to slumber. But this I could by no means compass, being fretted of distressful thought and made vain and bitter repining for this ship that had come and sailed, leaving me a captive still, prisoned on this hateful island with this wild creature that methought more daemon than woman. And seeing myself thus mocked of Fortune (in my blind folly) I fell to reviling the God that made me. Howbeit sleep overtook me at last, but an evil slumber haunted by visions of this woman, her beauty fouled and bloody, who sought out my destruction where I lay powerless to resist her will. Low she bent above me, her dusky hair a cloud that choked me, and through this cloud the glitter of her eyes, red lips that curled back from snapping teeth, fingers clawed to rend and tear; then as I gazed, in horror, these eyes grew soft and languorous, these vivid lips trembled to wistful smile, these cruel hands clasped, soft-clinging, and drew me near and ever nearer towards that smiling, tender mouth, until I waked in a panic to behold the dawn and against the sun's growing splendour the woman standing and holding my pistols levelled at me as I lay.
Now I do think there is no hale man, howsoever desperate and careless of life, but who, faced with sudden, violent death, will not of instinct blench and find himself mighty unready to take the leap into that dark unknown whose dread doth fright us one and all; howbeit thus was it with me, for now as I stared from the pistol muzzle to the merciless eyes behind them, I, that had hitherto esteemed death no hardship, lay there in dumb and sweating panic, and, knowing myself afraid, scorned and hated myself therefor.
"Ah--ah!" said she softly but with flash of white teeth. "Will ye cower then, you beater of women? Down to your knees--down and sue pardon of me!" But now, stung by her words and the quaking of my coward flesh, I found voice.
"Shoot, wanton!" said I. "Shoot, lest I beat you again for the vile, shameless thing you are." At this she flinched and her fierce eyes wavered; then she laughed loud and shrill:
"Will ye die then? Yes? Will ye die?"
"Aye," I nodded, "So I may be quit of you."
"Hath dying then no fears for you--no?"
"'Tis overpast!" quoth I.
"Liar!" said she. "Wipe the craven sweat from you! You beat me, and for this you should die, but though you fear death you shall live to fear me more--aye, you shall live awhile--take your life!"
So saying, she tossed the pistols down beside me and laughed.
"When I wish to kill and be done with you, my steel shall take you in your sleep, or you shall die by poison; there be many roots and berries hereabout, Indian poisons I wot of. So your life is mine to take whensoever I will."
"How if I kill you first?"
"Ah, bah!" said she, snapping her fingers. "Try an you will--but I know men and you are not the killing sort. I've faced death too oft to fear it, or the likes of you. There lie your pistols, fool; take 'em and shoot me if you will!"
Thereupon I stooped and catching up the pistols tossed them behind me.
"And now," said I, rising, "leave me--begone lest I thrash you again for the evil child you are."
"Child?" says she, staring as one vastly amazed, "child--and to me, fool, to me? All along the Main my name is known and feared."
"So now will I whip you," quoth I, "had others done as much ere this, you had been a little less evil, perchance." And I reached down a coil of small cord where it hung with divers other odds and ends. For a moment she watched me, scowling and fierce-eyed, then as I approached her with the cords in my hands, she turned on her heel with a swirl of her embroidered coat-skirts and strode away, mighty proud and disdainful.
When she was clean gone I gathered me brush and driftwood, and striking flint and steel soon had a fire going and set about cooking certain strips of dried goat's flesh for my breakfast. Whiles this was a-doing I was startled by a sudden clatter upon the cliff above and down comes a great boulder, narrowly missing me but scattering my breakfast and the embers of my fire broadcast. I was yet surveying the ruin (dolefully enough, for I was mighty hungry) when hearing a shrill laugh I glanced up to find her peering down at me from above. Meeting my frowning look she laughed again, and snapping her fingers at me, vanished 'mid the bushes.
Spoiled thus of my breakfast I was necessitated to stay my hunger with such viands as I had by me. Now as I sat eating thus and in very ill humour, my wandering gaze lighted by chance on the shattered remains of a boat that lay high and dry where the last great storm had cast it. At one time I had hoped that I might make this a means to escape from the island and had laboured to repair and make it seaworthy but, finding this beyond my skill, had abandoned the attempt; for indeed (as I say) it was wofully bilged and broken. Moreover, at the back of my mind had always lurked a vague hope that some day, soon or late, she that was ever in my dreams, she that had been my love, my Damaris, might yet in her sweet mercy come a-seeking me. Wherefore, as I have before told, it had become my daily custom, morn and eve, to climb that high land that I called the Hill of Blessed Hope, that I might watch for my lady's coming.
But to-day, since Fate had set me in company with this evil creature, instead of my noble lady, I came to a sudden and fixed resolution, viz: That I would waste not another hour in vain dreams and idle expectations but would use all my wit and every endeavour to get quit of the island so soon as might be. Filled with this determination I rose and, coming to the boat, began to examine it.
And I saw this: it was very stout-built but its planks wofully shrunk with the sun, and though much stove forward, more especially to larboard, yet its main timbers looked sound enough. Then, too, it lay none so far from high-water mark and despite its size and bulk I thought that by digging a channel I might bring water sufficient to float it, could I but make good the breakage and caulk the gaping seams.
The longer I looked the more hopeful I grew and the end of it was I hasted to bring such tools as I needed and forthwith set to work. All the morning, and despite the sun, I laboured upon this wrecked boat, stripping off her cracked and splintered timbers and mightily pleased to find her framework so much less damaged than I had dared hope, insomuch that I presently fell a-whistling; but coming on three ribs badly sprung I became immediately dejected. Howbeit I had all the wood I could wish as planks, bulkheads and the like, all driven ashore from wrecked vessels, with bolts and nuts a-plenty; thus as I worked I presently fell a-whistling again.
Suddenly, I was aware of the woman watching me, and glancing at her as she leaned cross-legged against an adjacent boulder, she seemed no woman but a pert and handsome lad rather. Her thick hair, very dark and glossy, fell in curls to her shoulders like a modish wig, her coat was of fine blue velvet adorned with silver lace, her cravat and ruffles looked new-washed like her silk stockings, and on her slender feet were a pair of dainty, buckled shoes; all this I noticed as she lolled, watching me with her sombre gaze.
"What would you with the wreck, fool?" she demanded, whereupon I immediately betook me to my whistling.
"You do grow merry!" said she, frowning, whiles I whistled the louder. And when she would have spoken further, I fell to hammering lustily, drowning her voice thereby.
"Will you not speak with me then--no?" she questioned, when at last I paused. But I heeding her no whit, she began swearing at me and I to hammering again.
"Curst fool!" cried she at last, "I spit on you!" The which she did and so swaggered away and I whistling merrier than ever.