Martin Conisby's Vengeance by Jeffrey Farnol
Chapter V. Telleth How All My Travail Came to Nought
That night, the moon being at the full and I very wakeful, I lay harassed of a thousand fretting thoughts, and each and every of this woman Joanna; and turning on my sleepless couch I cursed that hour the which had set her in my company.
Yet, even so, I must needs bethink me of all the supple warmth of her as she lay in my arms, of the velvety touch of her cheek that had by chance brushed my hand. Hereupon I would strive to turn my thoughts upon the labours of to-morrow only to find myself recalling the sound of her voice, now deep and soft and infinite sweet, now harsh and shrill and hatefully shrewish; or her golden-brown eyes, thick-lashed and marvellous quick in their changes from sleepy languor to flaming malevolence.
Thus lay I, haunted of her memory and all the sudden, bewildering changes of her moods until at last I started up, and coming to the entrance of my cave, saw her standing without and the moon bright on her face.
"Art wakeful too, Martino?" asked she softly. "'Tis the moon belike, or the heat of the night." Here she came a slow pace nearer; and her eyes were sweet and languorous and on her vivid mouth a smile infinite alluring. Slowly she drew near, thralling me as it were with the wonder of her look that I had neither power nor will to move or speak. Confident of herself and assured in her beauty she reached out her hands to me, her long lashes swept down, veiling her eyes; but, even then, I had seen their flash of triumph, and in that moment, bursting the spell that bound me, I turned from her.
"Go--leave me!" said I, finding my voice at last. "Here is no place for you!" And I stood thereafter with head averted, dreading her sighs and tears; instead (and to my unutterable relief) she brake out into a storm of sea-oaths, beslavering me with vile abuse and bitter curses. Now, hearkening to this lewd tirade, I marvelled I should ever have feared and trembled because of the womanhood of creature so coarse and unsexed. Thus she continued alternately mocking at and reviling me until she must needs pause for lack of breath; then I turned to look at her and stood amazed to behold that passionate head bowed upon her hands.
"Aye, I weep," she sobbed. "I weep because I am woman, after all, but in my heart I hate you and with my soul I despise you, for you are but a mock man,--the blood in your veins skim milk! Ah, by God, there is more of vigorous life in my little finger than in all your great, heavy, clod-like carcase. Oh, shame!" Here she lifted her head to scowl on me and I, not enduring her look, glanced otherwhere. "Ha--rot me!" cried she, wagging scornful finger. "Rot me but you are afraid of me--afraid, yes!"
"True!" said I. "So will I win free of you so soon as I may--"
"Free of me?" cried she, and throwing herself on the sands, sat crouched there, her head upon her knees and sobbing miserably. "So you will abandon me then?" said she at last.
"Even though I--vow myself your slave?"
"I want no slave."
"Even though I beseech you on my knees?"
"'Twere vain, I sail hence alone."
"You were wiser to seek my love than my hate."
"But I was ever a fool."
"Aye, verily!" she cried passionately. "So do you yearn ever for your light-o'-love, for your vanished Joan--your Damaris that left you--"
"Now I pray you go!" said I.
"I wonder," sighed she, never stirring, "I wonder why I do not kill you? I hate you--despise you and yet--"
Slowly she got to her feet and moved away with dragging step but paused anon and spake again with head a-droop:
"Living or dead, you shall not leave the island except I go with you!" Then she went her way and something in her attitude methought infinitely desolate.
Left alone, I stood awhile in gloomy thought, but rousing presently, I betook me into my cave, and lying down, fell at last to uneasy slumber. But waking suddenly, I started up on elbow full of an indefinable fear, and glancing without the cave, I saw a strange thing, for sand and rock and bush-girt cliff had on an unfamiliar aspect, the which I was wholly unable to account for; rocks and trees and flowering vines shone throbbing upon my vision with a palpitant glow that came and went, the like of which I had never seen before.
Then, all at once, I was up and running along Skeleton Cove, filled with a dreadful apprehension, and coming out upon Deliverance Beach, stood quaking like one smitten with a palsy; for there, lapped about in writhing flame and crackling sparks, was all that remained of my boat, and crouched upon the sands, watching me by the light of this fire, was she who called herself Joanna.
And now, perceiving all the wanton cruelty of this thing, a cold and merciless rage took me and staring on this woman as she stared on me, I began to creep towards her.
"I warned you, fool, I warned you!" cried she, never moving. "'Tis a brave fire I've made and burns well. And now you shall kill me an you will--but your boat is lost to you for ever, and so is--your Damaris!"
Now at sound of this loved name I stopped and stood a great while staring at the fire, then suddenly I cast myself on my knees, and lifting up my eyes to the stars already paling to dawn, I prayed God to keep me from the sin of murder.
When at last I rose to my feet, Joanna was gone.
The sun was high-risen when I came again, slow and heavy-footed, to behold what the fire had left of my boat; a heap of ashes, a few fragments of charred timber. And this the sorry end of all my fond hopes, my vain schemes, my sweat and labour.
And as I gazed, in place of my raging fury of last night was a hopeless despondency and a great bitterness against that perverse fate that seemed to mock my every endeavour.
As I stood thus deject and bitterly cast down, I heard the step of this woman Joanna and presently she cometh beside me.
"You will be hating me for this, hating me--yes?" she questioned; then, finding me all regardless of her, she plucked me by the sleeve. "Ah--and will you not speak to me?" cried she. Turning from her, I began to pace aimlessly along beside the lagoon but she, overtaking, halted suddenly in my path. "Your boat would have leaked and swamped with you, Martino!" said she, but heeding her no whit I turned and plodded back again, and she ever beside me. "I tell you the cursed thing would ha' gone to pieces at the first gust of wind!" she cried. But I paced on with neither word nor look until, finding me thus blind and deaf to her, she cursed me bitterly and so left me alone and I, following a haphazard course, presently found myself in a grove of palmetto trees and sat me down in this pleasant shade where I might behold the sea, that boundless, that impassable barrier. But in a while, espying the woman coming thitherwards, I rose and tramped on again with no thought but to save myself from her companionship.
All the morning then I rambled aimlessly to and fro, keeping ever amid the woods and thickets, staying my hunger with such fruit as I fell in with, as grapes and plantains; or sitting listlessly, my hands idle before me, I stared out across these empty, sun-smitten waters, until, dazzled by their glare, I would rise and wander on again, my mind ever and always troubled of a great perplexity, namely: How might I (having regard to the devilish nature of this woman Joanna) keep myself from slaying her in some fit of madness, thereby staining my soul with her murder.
So came I at last to my habitation in Skeleton Cove and chancing to espy my great powderhorn where it hung, I reached it down and going without the cave, scattered its contents broadcast, this being all the powder I had brought hither.
It being now late noon and very hot, I cast myself down in the shade of a rock, and lying there, I presently came to the following resolution, viz: To shun the woman Joanna's company henceforth as well as I might; moreover (and let her haunt me how she would) to heed her neither by word or look, bearing all her scorns and revilings patiently, making no answer, and enduring all her tyranny to the uttermost. All of which fine conceits were but the most arrant folly and quickly brought to nothing, as you shall hear. For even now as I sat with these high-flown notions buzzing in my head, I started to her sudden call:
Glancing up, I beheld her poised upon the rocks above me and a noose of small cord in her hand. As I watched, she began to whirl this around her head, fast and faster, then, uttering a shrill, strange cry, she let fly the noose the which, leaping through the air, took me suddenly about the throat and she, pulling on it, had me half-strangled all in a moment. Then as, choking, I loosed this devilish noose from me (and or ever I could rise) she came running and casting herself down before me, clasped my feet and laid her head upon them.
"Martino!" she cried, "Oh man, beat me an you will, trample on me, kill me; only heed me--heed me a little!"
Now seeing her thus miserably abject and humbled, I grew abashed also and fain would have loosed me from her clasp but she held me only the faster; and thus, my hand coming upon her head, she caught that hand and kissed it passionately, wetting it with her tears.
"Oh, Martino," said she, wofully a-sobbing, "I do know at last wherefore--I may not kill you. 'Tis because I love you. I was fool not to guess it ere this, but--I have never loved man ere now. Aye, I love you--I, Joanna, that never loved before, do love you, Martino--"
"What of your many lovers?"
"I loved no one of them all. 'Tis you ha' learned me--"
"Nay, this is no love--"
"Aye, but it is--in very truth. Think you I do not know it? I cannot sleep, I cannot eat--except you love me I must die, yes. Ah, Martino, be merciful!" she pleaded. "For thee I will be all woman henceforth, soft and tender and very gentle--thine always! Oh, be merciful--"
"No," I cried, "not this! Be rather your other self, curse me, revile me, fetch the sword and fight with me--"
"Fight thee--ah, no, no! The time for this is passed away. And if I did grieve thee 'twas but that I might cherish and comfort thee--for thou art mine and I thine henceforth--to death and beyond! Look, Martino! See how I do love thee!"
And now her arms were about me, soft and strong, and beholding all the pleading beauty of her, the tender allure of her eyes, the quiver of her scarlet mouth and all her compelling loveliness, I stooped to her embrace; but even so, chancing to lift my gaze seaward, I broke the clasp of these twining arms and rose suddenly to my feet. For there, her rag of sail spread to the light-breathing air, was a boat standing in for the island.