BLUEBEARD AND THE SPANISH WITCH
PIRATES have walked here in St. Thomas .of the Virgin Islands!These narrow streets, flanked with buildings centuries old, have known therolling, swaggering tread of buccaneers’ feet, have resounded with the riotousdin of drunken voices and the clashing bite of cutlass against pike in somefierce dispute over a painted woman or a keg of golden doubloons. In theseshadowed portals (once gaudily painted, now pleasantly dimmed by time), scarred‑facedfilibusters have lingered over potent concoctions of rum, their heads swathedwith crimson silk kerchiefs, golden hoops twinkling in their ears, their hairychests ablaze with chains of diamonds and opals and rubies.
Here it was that they congregated from the earliest days of piracy.in the West Indies until the last of the sea wolves’ breed was wiped out less than a hundred years ago. To this port, with its perfect, landlocked harbor, they brought their illicit wares for. barter and display. They traded in slaves and rum and in precious’ stuffs of the Orient; the looted treasures of Spanish galleons; the plundered contents of churches and convents and palaces.
Legends, traditions, tales of fact and fiction, all cluster thickly in this small tropical island that was once the haunt of the “Brethren of the Coast.” And of them all no story is more filled with the glamour of romance and tragedy than the history of the young pirate captain known as Bluebeard, and his sweetheart, who, in the almost forgotten annals of the year 1697 was called “The Spanish Witch.” .
Edouard de la Barbe Bleue was a Frenchman born, and it was rumored that he was of gentle birth. Certainly his appearance bespoke breeding, for he was tall and of a graceful, vigorous figure, with deep black, sardonic eyes, and a pointed beard of a luster like blue-black metal; which gave him his nickname.
His domain in St. Thomas was the top of Eastern Hill, where, a few years previous, a scared Danish governor had ordered the building of a stone watchtower as a precaution against the rumored coming of the English. The rumor having proved groundless, the great, castle-like tower was sold to the young French captain of the trim black schooner Mon Desir.
He described himself, with rare cynical humor, as “A trader in such articles as others have ceased to care for.” And although the meaning behind it must have been clear to the most stupid governmental clerk, yet it was solemnly inscribed thus upon the books at: the fort. And Edouard de la Barbe Bleue was accepted as a princely, though somewhat scandalous, resident of St. Thomas.
He was no saint–nor ever pretended to be one. His amours were brief and as varied as the winds that sped his black schooner. But to all women, even those of a captured bark or brigantine; he was exquisitely courteous. Never had he forced a woman to love him: against her will. But indeed, there was no need. Such was the golden aura that surrounded him that the wives of wealthy planters and the dames of government officials vied for his favors secretly but shamelessly; those who could write deluging him with amorous, passionate missives; and those who could not; sending him gifts of tobacco and embroidered waistcoats, knowing well that in exchange would come a necklet of rubies, or a carved emerald of Peruvian ancestry.
But although the young pirate aristocrat played at love and wooing, there was in him a strong, cynical distrust of feminine wiles and weaknesses. Too often had he seen hysterical tears dried as if by magic at the sight of a handful of pearls. He despised the trickery with which too trusting husbands were deceived.
“Women,” he would say scornfully to his cross-eyed mate, Dominique, “are what the devil made on a fine morning when he was in an amiable mood!”
Thus it was that on a golden morning in May, Edouard de la Barbe Bleue sailed out of the landlocked harbor of St. Thomas toward the supreme adventure of his life. Tall and straight he stood upon the quarter deck of the trim little schooner Mon Desir. Behind him, the, greenly-molded hills rose up against a cloud‑flecked sky. At the waterfront the thick red walls of the fort showed a gunning menace of cannon teeth. The red-tiled houses clustered round it under parasol fringes of coco palms and waving banana leaves. And high upon Eastern Hill, his tower, like a castle from .a gargantuan chess game, stood in superb isolation. The wind blew his sleek black hair from around his olive-.hued face.
“Oh, Mon Dieu,” he breathed aloud. “How good is the sea wind once more! To be rid of clutching white hands outstretched for jewels is like escaping from an ant hill! Perhaps somewhere in this world is a woman whose heart and soul are true. But very like I shall never find her!”
Down through the blue waters of the Caribbean sailed the swift little schooner, as deceptively gentle in appearance as a smiling lady of the Borgias with a poison ring upon her finger. Flying fishes skimmed out from under the prow like handfuls of silver flung by some prodigal buccaneer. And the little waves wore tightly-curled whitecaps like the curls on a courtier’s wig.
It was off the coast of South America that the lookout sighted a Spanish caravel beating up into the wind from Cartagena. Buxom and stately as a Doña in court costume, serenely conscious of her size Wand power she seemed as she came over the horizon. And indeed, the schooner Man Desir looked no larger than a small black puppy gamboling along to rub noses with a huge white horse.
But Edouard de la Barbe Bleue knew perfectly the weakness of those great Spanish vessels. The cannons were so high and so rigidly fixed that their muzzles could not be lowered to fire upon a smaller craft that once evaded their range. They were awkward and wallowing, furthermore, and the crews upon them were indifferent fighters. He marveled, as many have marveled since, that it should have been the Spaniards who so audaciously entered and claimed the New World for their own, performing unheard‑of feats of gallantry and daring in Mexico, Peru, and Chile.
Straight came the haughty caravel, not even deigning to dip her fluttering banners in salute to the small, innocent‑looking craft that drew near with such swiftness and persistence. But the swivel guns of Mon Desir spoke sharply, a belching salutation that crashed into the looming hull at the water line. The great Spanish vessel shivered and lurched, like an antlered stag nipped by the teeth of a fierce wolfhound.
All too late those in command of her tried to draw away and lower the carronadas for a broadside. On the great castled decks all was yelling confusion. Officers shouting out contradictory orders, scared seamen running to and fro; the capitan vainly cursing and trying to make himself heard above the din.
Below, in the great cabin of state, two women listened with bated breath to the muffled din of battle preparation. The older Doňa, with blanched cheeks and eyes that were ghastly .pools of black terror knelt before a carved crucifix and prayed hysterically. The other, a young, tall, dark‑haired maiden with deep, frowning eyes black as witchcraft, stood tense and motionless, her hands clasped tightly over the black velvet bodice of her panniered gown.
The kneeling Doña cried out wildly, “This is punishment from Heaven sent upon us for thy willful stubbornness!”
The maiden stared down at her, and something like a shadowy, scornful smile stirred upon her pale lips. “You worship a vengeful heaven then, Senora, my step‑mother! Because I rebel at a distasteful marriage, is it that which has brought these bucaneros upon us?”
From above came the belated roar of the carronada, and then the dreadful cries of men fighting and the clash of steel on steel.
The older woman’s face was pasty white. Her teeth were chattering.. “If you had obeyed me–if you had obeyed me‑-” she gasped over and over; “we had embarked
on the last galleon which arrived safely in: Cadiz!”
The girl flung up her head defiantly. “I prefer death to a life such as you condemned me to, with a man whose four wives have died miserably, one after the other! Nay; I have my stiletto and will use it if need be! I do not think they will trouble you, Señora, except for a ransom.”
The clamor above rose to a deafening tumult. Then it suddenly died down: There came a silence, prolonged, unbearable, during. which the kneeling Doña prayed feverishly, her rosary hanging from numbed fingers; and the dark‑haired maiden stood immobile, her breath scarcely stirring the black velvet of her bodice, her fingers tight about the hilt of a thin, Toledo poniard.
At last there came a knock on the barred door. The older woman screamed and fell upon her face. But the maiden swept past her, the color coming back into her face.
“Nay,” she cried to the recumbent woman, “do conquering bucaneros knock at the doors of helpless women?” The sea wolves have been repulsed! It will be the capitan who comes to tell us the news!”
She turned the key in the massive lock and flung the door open. But it was not the captain of the caravel José Maria who stood there, bowing deeply. It was a tall, vigorous young man in linen shirt and wide, flapping pantolones, somewhat slashed and bloodstained–a powerful young man with dark, sardonic eyes; and a trimmed beard so black it had almost a bluish tinge. A cutlass was thrust through the crimson sash about his waist. And his brown, sinewy, legs were encased to the knee in boots of red Spanish leather.
For an instant the maiden stood as one paralyzed, her senses unable to grasp the situation. ….”Bucaneros do not knock at doors . . . .”
“Who are you,” she said faintly, “and what news do you bring?”
Again he bowed, a movement as graceful as it was insolent. And he answered in Spanish which, while it had not the accent of Castile, was well-spoken and fluent. “I regret to inform Your Graces,” he said, with his eyes never leaving her face, “that the ownership of His Spanish Majesty’s caravel has but now changed hands. After a struggle so brief as to be unworthy of the name, the brave captain has surrendered; and we are now engaged in transferring the more valuable portion of the cargo–silver ingots from Peru, most fortunately, with a quantity of sapphires; pearls, and amber‑-to my own vessel. I came, Señorita, but to assure you that your person, and the person of the–lady lying on her face–will not be molested. You are at liberty to come above if Your Grace so desires. Or perhaps–could I venture to ask of you to serve me with wine from yonder flagon? There was just enough fighting to give me a dry throat.”
The Doña, prone on the carpeted floor of the richly‑furnished stateroom, managed .to get shakily to her knees. At once, the young pirate captain came forward, extended his hand with exquisite courtesy–though there was mockery in his dark, sardonic eyes–and led her, unprotesting, to a chair with carved leather back and brocaded, cushioned seat.
Then he turned to the maiden who watched him with head held high, her own eyes black and scornful. She had not moved. His mocking smile widened.
“Is the wine flagon empty then, Senorita?”
“I do not know,” she said clearly and sharply, “for I am not accustomed to serving bucanero cutthroats!”
The Doña in the chair gave a feeble gasp. Her sallow face went frantically white.
“For the love of God, Mercedes, art thou bereft of thy sense? Do as the caballero bids thee, and quickly!”
Edouard de la Barbe Bleue laughed outright. “Nay, Señora, she is right. It is I who should serve her–and so I will!” With quick, sure grace he poured out three goblets of wine from the silver flagon. “Señora!” He presented one goblet to the older woman, who accepted it with shaking hands. “Señorita!” He held another out to the maiden, bowing low.
She did not even glance at it. Her black, witch‑like eyes fastened themselves on his blood‑stained shirt. “I do not drink with butchers,” she said contemptuously.
And again the older woman gasped out her name. “Mercedes! Art thou determined to ruin us?”
Edouard de la Barbe Bleue noted with the appreciation of a connoisseur of beauty the flooding crimson in the maiden’s cheeks, the richness of her red lips, the soft black strands of her thick, curling hair. But when he spoke, his voice was as haughty as hers.
“Señorita, are you familiar with the plays of an Inglés called Shakespeare?”
The girl did not answer. But the older woman replied nervously, propitiatingly:
“But yes, Señor! My stepdaughter is educated far beyond her years and her sex. Her worthy father, my late husband, would have it so,” she added with a mingling of malice and apology. “Indeed, Señor, methinks less learning would have made her gentler and more amenable to those things designed solely for her own good!”
“Ah–no doubt,” he agreed gravely. “Indeed, I was about to mention one of the plays of the talented Inglés, which dealt with that very problem. A very beautiful maiden who needed taming–“
The Doña in the chair gasped weakly. The girl only turned her head, ever so little, and stared haughtily at the young pirate’s coldly smiling face.
“Enough!” she cried fiercely. “You may be the conqueror of this caravel, but you are not my master! I yield to no man save the one of my own choosing! I have the means of freeing myself for all time from the tyranny of men!”
He seemed not to understand her and merely shrugged his shoulders. But in the same instant he was beside her. His strong brown hands wrenched hers apart, and she screamed sharply in pain and fury. He laughed as he shook loose from her clenched hand the jewel-handled stiletto. She lunged for it–his red‑booted foot covered it.
She flew at him like a slim black pantheress, whose weapons are claws and teeth and the wildness of desperation. And he caught her, held her–not easily, for all his superior strength‑‑and gave a panting laugh of triumph as he pinioned her arms behind her. His face was close to hers. And he smiled down into the flaming hatred of her great, black eyes.
“It has not been my custom,” he said a bit breathlessly, “to force fair ladies against their wills to come with me. But in this case, Senorita, I must make an exception. I am interested in knowing what your lips are like when they are smiling. I think your eyes would be even more beautiful in gentleness than as now, in anger. And I think that if you loved a man, he would be most divinely blessed!”
Still she answered nothing. Her breath came in whistling gasps in her throat, and the black velvet bodice of her gown rose and fell tumultuously. But the older Doña stumbled out of the richly‑carved chair and fell on her knees, her thin hands twisted tight in supplication.
“Nay, Señor,” she cried hysterically, “do not take her in such a shameful manner‑‑I will give Your Grace a rich reward instead! I am in honor bound to deliver her safely to a waiting bridegroom’s arms. Ah, Señor, you are of gentle birth–that I know! Your Grace would not rob an innocent maiden of her future happiness?”
Edouard de.la. Barbe Bleue stared down at the distorted, sallow face and then at the crimsoned, panting lips so close to his. His voice was coldly sardonic.
“The. Senorita’s fiery denunciation of ’the tyranny of men’ did not include her future bridegroom then?”
“Nay, Señor‑‑she loves him! Do not break her heart thus.”
The girl suddenly ceased to struggle. The fury in her eyes changed abruptly to contempt. “Do not lie for me, Señora, my stepmother,” she said levelly, “Thou knowest well I hate him. Thou knowest, too, that I was being carried against my will to Spain like a kitten in a covered basket!”
The young pirate captain released her. In his eyes was a dawning admiration, and, what was rarest for him when he looked at a woman, respect.
“Señorita,” he said with less mockery in his voice, “you have courage. It is a quality I highly esteem. Tell me, if I gave you my word that you should be treated in all honor, and that never would I importune you for favors you did not wish to give freely, would you come with me rather than pursue this journey to Spain, there to be bullied into a marriage that is so distasteful?”
The kneeling Doña gave a faltering moan. “Mercedes!” But the girl shook back her disheveled hair. Her eyes met fairly those of the tall young pirate. And for a tense moment they stood silent, regarding each other.
When she answered him, her voice was low and clear. And for all her courage, there was a helplessness in it that moved him strangely, though his face gave no sign.
“Señor,” she said, “it seems that I must choose between two evils. But at least I am allowed a choice and not driven like a beribboned sheep to market! Sabe Dios, I have no reason to trust your word. . And .yet, for all your nefarious business, I think there is truth in you.”
He bowed deeply. ‑And though his tone was light, ‘there was the ring of sincerity in it. “Señorita, it is one of my few‑virtues!”
Thus it was that when Edouard deBarbe Bleue returned to the port of St. Thomas; there was a ferment of excitement in the small community even beyond that which his comings usually occasioned. For he brought with him a velvet‑gowned, slender maiden, with black, defiant eyes. A lacy mantilla cascaded down over the tortoise‑shell comb in her piled, curling hair, accentuating the delicately‑molded cheeks and the soft whiteness of her throat. The mysterious maiden remained a mystery. It was only known that she had been installed in the great stone tower on Eastern Hill—the tower with its round rooms whose gaunt, cold walls were hung with priceless tapestries from the Orient, and whose floors were carpeted softly with the richest rugs that ever Persian looms wove, or that buccaneer ship captured.
Now and then a slim feminine form could be seen walking about the turreted top, or leaning upon the stone balustrade staring out to sea. But who she was or where she came from–that, no one knew. Edouard de la Barbe Bleue chose his servants well, and there was no bribing them to learn the identity of the lovely captive. In the heart of more than one worthy matron, and more than one fragile‑moraled lady of joy, was a fierce, hot hatred of the beautiful unknown intruder.
Now it was that Edouard de la Barbe Bleue began to receive letters of reproach and passion. The epistles came, carried by black slaves who trudged up the steepness of Eastern Hill, The young pirate captain read them hastily and flung them all into a leather chest which stood with larger ones in a low‑vaulted room beneath the tower. “Say that there is no answer now, nor ever will be,” was his response each time.
It was nearing the end of the month of July. Down in the fort at sunset the devout had assembled to make prayerful petition for safety during the season of the dreaded hurricanes. The Spanish maiden, Mercedes, leaning upon one of the stone turrets of the tower, watched the scene from afar, with dreaming eyes. Her thoughts were not of the town, nor the beauty of the harbor–they were of Edouard de la Barbe Bleue, whose willing captive she was. She had expected no more than a gaoler at the best, and she had found a friend. For the first time in her lonely and loveless life she knew the joy of companionship. The young pirate captain had treated her with unfailing courtesy. He had brought from Puerto Rico an old Spanish woman to be at once duenna and personal servant to her: He had surrounded her with a luxury of rare and beautiful things; gorgeous
furnishings for her room just beneath the turrets, priceless manuscripts and books translated from many languages into Spanish; the foods prepared for her were a delectable
mingling of the native dishes, and others from the more distant islands of Trinidad arid Martinique And never by word or deed or sign had he asked her to love him.
In the western sky the sun was sinking. It stained the cloudy robes of the sky with
crimson and gold that faded into palest purple and mauve. The waters of the harbor‑ took the colors tenderly, mingled them with the jade and lapis‑lazuli, melted them into a soft, opalescent blur. The serving woman from Puerto Rico came softly up the curving stairs, a brass‑bound lantern in her hand.. It marred the dusky purple of the twilight like a cheap jewel on the breast of a lovely woman.
Mercedes made a little gesture of dismissal. “No, no, Lisa, I like better the darkness.”
Then, as the woman still lingered; the maiden laughed a little. “You need not fear for me, Lisa! I am not afraid of spirits.” The servant shrugged her shoulders expressively. “You should beware of evil spirits, Niña!” Mercedes turned and looked at her curiously. “What mean you?”
“Only that gifts have been arriving for Your Grace.”
“Gifts? From whom?” There was bewilderment in the girl’s voice.
Again the serving woman shrugged and spread out her hands. “Quen sabe, Niña! No name was sent with them. A basket of live crabs, a bottle of wine, some pastries–all very nice, no? But, Nina,” she came nearer, her voice dropped to a whisper, “the crabs were red with the poisonous juice of manchineel! The wine had a sweetly‑musty smell that would have deceived Your Grace–but did not deceive me! And the pastries–one of which I fed to a dog–were poisoned! The dog died very soon in agony.”
The girl gave a little shudder. But her voice was contemptuous. “So, there are hands. that strike in the dark, here as elsewhere! But whom could I have offended? I know no one, have talked with no one, excepting–” the gathering dusk hid the swift crimsoning of her face, “excepting Don Eduardo. And it is unthinkable that he–“
A voice came from below. A rich, light-toned voice that made the girl’s heart beat faster and her breathing swift and unsteady. “Señorita, would Your Grace permit that I ascend?”
“Certainly, if you wish.” It was with difficulty that she made her answer coolly casual.
The serving woman stood aside submissively as the tall, vigorous figure of Edouard de la Barbe Bleue came swiftly up the curving stairway. She descended then, the lantern in her hand. The two were left with the soft, sensuous fragrance of jasmine and frangipani in bloom, stars like melted pearls, and the rising of an amber‑colored moon.
For a moment they stood in silence. He could see her only as a slender, lovely silhouette against the misshapen, golden disk of the moon. But she saw his face clearly. The intense blackness of his eyes and hair, the, gravity of his lips .that were usually so sardonically smiling. And then, as he moved ever so little, her heart seemed to stop in its tempestuous beating:
“Doña Mercedes–” never had she heard his voice tremble before, “I am about to send Your Grace away!” .
She could not control the gasp that escaped her lips.”A‑away, Señor? But—but–” He thought to reassure her.
“To safety, Señorita!”She fought to steady the shaking of her voice.
“Your Grace, is then‑displeased with me?”
“Displeased? Ali, Mercedes!” He was beside her, and his hands were groping blindly for hers. They were cold and as uncertain as those of a child. “Mercedes, forgive .me. I do not forget my vow–I do not ask for thy love. I must only tell thee that danger threatens! And that thou art dear to me as no woman has ever been before or will ever be again. I .love thee, Mercedes, with a passion and devotion that I did not know my heart possessed! I love thee and hold thee in such honor that I can treat thee only as a caballero would treat his affianced bride. Sometime, if thou wilt have it so, I will ask thy hand in marriage. My life shall be thine to command, to do with as thou wilt. But now–I must send thee away, for I dare not leave thee here, unguarded, in my absence!”
She did not seek to release her hands. A strange; shimmering ecstasy enveloped her being like a rainbow‑colored mist.
“Why–must you go away?” Her voice was only a faint whisper.
He released her hands suddenly and strode to the turreted wall of the tower. The rising moon silvered the tallness, the straightness of him, as he stood staring out across the quivering silver path on the waters of the harbor below. He turned to her. His voice was almost savage in its intensity.
“Mercedes‑thou knowest I am a buconero!” In the moonlight, he saw her smile. “I have reason to know that, Don Eduardo.”
“Never before have I felt shame for the manner of life I chose. But now–now when I would come to the maiden of my choice with honorable intent to wed, I must seek another calling. I would not make thee wife to a man who might at any time dangle ignobly from the yardarm of a vengeful sloop of war! I must .make one last journey to the place where certain treasure is buried. And certain things have come to my knowledge that make me afraid for thee here in my absence!” Her hands came up, clasped against her breast. The moonlight was like a silver mantle touching softly the whiteness of her throat and’ the pleading darkness of her eyes.
“But still I do not understand. In one breath you speak of loving me, and in the next of sending me away! Must I tell you again that I am not afraid, and must I tell you that–” her voice came very low and unsteady, “that I do not wish to leave you?”
“Mercedes! . Vida mia!” He made one swift, passionate stride toward her. Blindly his arms went around her, and he felt the breathless yielding of her body against his. “Mercedes‑thy lips‑-” She gave them to him with a little tremulous sigh of surrender. And heart to heart they stood, clasped in love’s oblivion, while the moon silver seemed to whirl about them in glittering, dream‑like eddies of light; and the night to them was filled with swaying stars that shook down dust of diamonds and fairy crystals. A long, long, moment of ecstasy–and then she drew away from him a little. Moon sparks were in her eyes; and in her flushed cheeks a crimson .that not even the silver pallor of the night could dissipate.
“Eduardo–listen to ‘me now, for never will I speak thus again.” He heard in her voice the same elemental fierceness and passion with which she had assailed him on the captured caravel. “I give myself to thee freely, to be thy wife. I ask naught of thee except faithfulness! Go where thou wilt, do what thou wilt, for good or ill, I will share thy fate. But deceive me or love another woman, and my hatred will be more consuming than fire, blacker than death itself! Eduardo‑‑querido mio–” her voice rose to a passionate cry, “I love thee–I love only thee! Swear to me that thou wilt be true–“
His lips, crushing down upon hers, stopped the breath in her throat. “Life of mine, I will love thee always‑always.”
Thus it was that, against his own forebodings, Edouard de la Barbe Bleue left the port of St. Thomas secretly and at night in his trim little schooner Mon Desir.
Mercedes, with her new‑found happiness, laughed to scorn his fears concerning her safety. “I know about the crabs poisoned with manchineel,” she had said gaily, “the wine with the musty‑sweet smell, and the pastries that will kill a dog–or a human being. But knowing all this, I am forewarned. Thine enemies have struck at me only because I am dear to thee. Go in secret so that no one knows thou art away, and I’ll be safe as a dove in its nest until thy return!”
An impulse came to him to tell her truthfully the reason for the offerings of death. That the enemies were women who had briefly enjoyed his favors. But the memory came back to him of her fierce, passionate eyes that moment, when, even then in the ecstasy of love’s first kiss, she could fling at him a defiant ultimatum, demanding his eternal faithfulness. And so he kept silent. But he left the cross‑eyed mate, Dominique, to guard her‑to see that no more mysterious gifts came to the tower. And most strict of all was his injunction:
“I shall be at the near‑by island of Culebra. In case of need, send for me there by the swiftest boat at thy disposal.”
And now the days dragged. Mercedes climbed wearily the spiral stairs that led to the turreted tower and spent long hours, leaning upon the stone balustrade, straining her eyes toward the south to catch a glimpse of a white sail upon the cobalt‑colored water. She did not know that in the red‑roofed town below Eastern Hill, hate‑filled feminine eyes watched the slender darkness of her figure silhouetted against the sky. But the mate, Dominique, knew, and smoked thoughtfully in the shadow of the great, stone tower.
There came a day in August when the dreaded season of hurricanes made the air hot and oppressive, The sun beat down brazenly upon the tower top, and not even the red‑and blue awning stretched above could rob the air of its furnace‑like heat. In vain Mercedes tried to read one of the rare tomes that Edouard had given her. In vain she sipped the cooling drinks her servant brought her. The windless pressure of the day was a torment.
It was the serving woman, Lisa, who unwittingly set fire to the smoldering powder train of catastrophe. It was she who suggested that her mistress should amuse herself by, delving into the contents of the chests in the low‑vaulted room beneath the tower.
“Since the master hag left his keys in Your Grace’s care, it can only be right and proper ‘that his affianced bride should see what treasures he has in store for herl”
Mercedes hesitated. He had said no word to her concerning them. But yes‑he had told her this as he fondly‑kissed her farewell:”All that I have is thine. Make use of it as thou wilt, vida mia!”
“Come,” she said, “let us see what the chests contain. I am distracted with this heat. It will be cooler in the underground chamber.” And so the two women, mistress and servant, descended the narrow, curving stairs that led deep into the vaulted, subterranean treasure room. One by one, the great iron‑bound chests were unlocked. One by one they disclosed to the astonished eyes of Mercedes their glittering contents. Golden candelabra, and jewel‑crusted ewers; tapestries of silk, and mantles sewn with pearls; piles of precious stuffs from Oriental looms; scimitars with ruby‑set scabbards; headdresses of plumes and sapphires and diamonds.
Breathless, almost suffocated by so much magnificence, Mercedes moved from one massive chest to another. The serving woman, Lisa, gave little whining cries, like an animal confronted with more food than it can possibly eat. And at last she seized upon a small coffer, one of plainest leather, and thrust it into her mistress’ hands.
“Open this; Niña,” shebegged, her black eyes .shining feverishly. “In this will certainly bejewels more rare than any we have yet seenl”�j|�
Was it instinct that almost caused Mercedes to put it from her, unopened? For a moment, she held it in her hands, frowning down upon it. Then yielding suddenly to curiosity, she selected from the clanking bunch the key that fitted it and thrust it into the lock.
The cover came open with a smell of leather and of perfume.
“Nay,”. she said with a laugh, “here are no jewels; naught but letters that are not of my concern.”
Disappointed, the serving woman held high the brass‑bound lanthorn. “Search well, Nina!” she urged. “Underneath them may be some gems.”
In the flecking light a sentence, heavily written in thick black ink, suddenly caught Mercedes’ glance. “You, Edouard, who promised me all your love.”
She gave a little gasp. A mistake, yes, surely. But her fingers were trembling as she pulled another missive into the light. “This black‑eyed Spanish wanton is but the plaything of a day, even as I have been, 0 faithless one.“
The serving woman, who had no knowledge of the art of reading, drew back appalled from the sudden, ferocious gesture with which her mistress shredded the letter to pieces.
“What‑what is it, Nina?” she begged tremulously.
Never had Lisa heard the Spanish maiden speak with such choked savagery. Never had she heard her mistress laugh with such strange, black laughter, a sound that had in it despair, humiliation, and utter recklessness.
“Hold the lanthorn steady! There is much here that I would read.”
And with face that was ghastly white, with eyes that were like two poison cups of obsidian, she read the letters through, one by one. When she had finished, she stood still. Around her slender, immobile figure, the scattered wealth of looted ships flashed molten rays of light, like secret, sardonic smiles of vengeful enjoyment. When she spoke at last, her voice had a faraway, strangled sound. Her eyes burned like witch fires in the jungle. .
“Lisa, there are debts which must be paid! And I will pay them, every one‑-por Dios, I shall pay them to the last final accounting! In secret were these wrongs done, but I will pull each shame out into the open light of day!”
Consternation filled the soul of the cross‑eyed mate, Dominique, for the Spanish maiden left in his care put upon him commands that stunned and dismayed him. He longed for the return of his captain as a shipwrecked mariner upon a desert island longs for the appearance of a white sail upon the horizon. And yet what was he to do? His master’s words had been brief and emphatic:
“Obey her as you would obey me. Her wish is mine. If you displease her, I’ll make thee into crow meat at the end of a yardarm!” So Dominique went down into the redroofed port town of St.Thomas, and to the more distant tobacco and sugar plantations, carrying letters addressed to certain ladies. Some of the epistles were imperfectly addressed, but he knew to whom they were to be delivered. Who should know better than he?
He delivered the missives most unhappily, his swarthy face red and perspiring, his mismated eyes continually evading the hard, suspicious stares of the women into whose hands he gave the letters.
“But why has this new light o’ love of the handsome captain Edouard invited me to a fete at the tower?”
Dominique could only shrug. “Perhaps she is lonely, Madame‑how do I know? I but carry the message. Am I to say you will come, or no?”
Aye, they would come, all of them! What woman on the island of St. Thomas would have missed the opportunity to see at close range the mysterious Spanish Doña who had captured Edouard’s fickle heart?
And so upon an afternoon in mid‑August, when the coco palms hung listless and unrustling in the heat‑shimmering air, and the water of the harbor was like a glassy floor of blue marble, a strange and motley group of ladies were borne on mule back, by litter, or in sumptuous carriages, up the steeply‑winding road that led to the castle of Edouard de la Barbe Bleue. Some of them were tavern women, with bold, black eyes and painted cheeks. Some were slender, sophisticated ladies of France and Denmark, whose spreading brocades and laces were better suited to the courts of Europe than a remote port of the West Indies. And others were the wives of prosperous sugar‑plantation owners‑eminently respectable dames, in whose otherwise placid lives the dashing young pirate captain had been a burning torch of brief romance.
In one of the round stone chambers, hung with priceless tapestries, and carpeted with silken rugs from oriental looms, Dona Mercedes received her strangely‑assorted guests with the still, immobile hauteur of a royal Princess; in her dark eyes a smoldering redness such as lies in the maw of a volcano that is soon to erupt. The women stared at her and looked askance at each other. They drew apart uncomfortably, as far as the tapestry‑covered walls would allow them, and waved their fans and tried to ignore each other’s presence.While the Spanish maiden, in black velvet, a gorgeous crimson‑and‑gold shawl about her shoulders, and her black curling hair piled high underneath a towering comb, sat quiet, regarding them, her mind making little stabbing pictures that were like knife thrusts. Her voice, when she spoke, was smooth with the smoothness of a river before it reaches the brink of the chasm.
“Gracious Seorñas, some little correspondence between yourselves and the gallant capitan Don Eduardo, has come to my attention. It seems to me unfitting that he has made such small return for all of Your Graces’ favors to him. And since he left me here with instructions to do as I pleased with all that was his, it pleases me to share his treasures with you all–as I have shared that lesser thing–his love!”
The last word was like the swooping of a hawk into their midst. They stirred, with reddening cheeks and dilated eyes–into each mind a frightened doubt creeping. The Spanish maiden, with her smoldering black eyes and her lips that were tense red lines of hate, leaned forward a little.”Yes, you shall have as much as you desire! All that you can carry away with you!”
She clapped her hands sharply. And into the stone chamber came two black slaves bearing between them a huge chest of carved leather with iron bands and hasps. She made an imperious sign–they flung open the lid. The watching women gave a gasping cry. On top lay a veil that had once belonged to a Sultana–a gauzy thing embroidered with pearls and diamonds and rubies, and hung with emeralds, each the size of an acorn. And from underneath the shimmering, transparent mantle flashed other garments, stiff with golden embroidery, unutterably precious with solid patterns of opals and sapphires and pearls.
For one breathless instant the crowding women stood gaping and incredulous. Then Mercedes’ savage voice flayed them into action.
“Well, why do you wait? They are yours–take them!”
Then they forgot her. They fell upon the opened treasure chest in a pushing, choking pile. They tore at the lovely, fragile veil with frenzied fingers. It came apart in a dozen clutching hands; and the jewels shredded away from the gauzy silk. The stone chamber with its tapestried walls became a madhouse in which screaming women fought each other for a length of ruby‑crusted brocade or a handful of pearls ripped from an Empress’ mantle. They scratched, they bit, they struck each other with wild, flaying fists. And from the doorway Mercedes watched the debasing spectacle with black burning eyes, as one would watch the fighting of wildcats over shreds of meat.
It was over at last! The erstwhile arrogant, impressively‑garbed ladies staggered‑ forth from the great stone tower with bleeding faces, swollen lips, bedraggled garments, and disheveled hair. Each one clutched against her torn bodice some fragment of that orgy of priceless treasure. And from the turret of the castle Mercedes watched them go. The fire in her eyes had burned out. Her face was worn and white. She turned slowly to confront Lisa’s frightened eyes.
“Niña, it is finished,” the serving woman whispered fearfully.
The Spanish maiden shook her head. “Al contrario,” she said in a lifeless voice, “it has only begun! What will they tell their husbands in explanation? I thought this vengeance would heal my stricken soul. But revenge is empty and meaningless. . He will never, never forgive me! If he returns hither–he will surely be killed!”
The trial of “one Mercedes de la Varga, of gentle birth, and a native of Carthagena” for witchcraft was a sensation that eclipsed even the menace of hurricane season. The scandalous details of the strange gathering in the tower on Eastern Hill were veiled in mystery and badly garbled. For there was no lady who dared testify truthfully as to the reason for her being there. It was much easier to sob hysterically of spells cast upon her, to exhibit swollen hands and scratched face, and tell of a terrible madness that came upon her after looking into the Spanish maiden’s eyes.
Through the long, oppressively‑hot hours, Mercedes sat like a black‑garmented statue, her lace mantilla hiding the pallor of her face. She looked neither to the right nor the left, nor at the women who accused her of black magic. And even when the stern‑faced Governor pronounced sentence upon her, still she did not tremble or cry out.
“Mercedes de la Varga, after the clear showing of unholy practices of unlawful witchcraft, it is our judgment that within three days you shall be burned at the stake for the expiation of your crime and for the salvation of your soul!”
Only one woman wept–the faithful, dark-faced Lisa. The others were glad, triumphantly glad, that Mercedes was to die.
But on the outskirts of the clamoring, pressing throng of townspeople, and black slaves, and curious seamen, Dominique, the crosseyed mate, scowled fiercely and fingered the cutlass in his red sash.
“Que diable!” he muttered, “The girl is a little hell cat, but she has courage. The capitan may tie her up in a sack and throw her overboard‑but he must know of this, none the less! I am going to Culebra!”
On the third day the sun was hidden. Great banks of heavy, dark clouds were driven like muddled sheep across the low‑vaulted sky by a wind that whipped from north to south, from east to west. The waters of the harbor had a harried, troubled look. And the captains of sloops and schooners cast anxious eyes at the ever‑veering wind and took counsel with each other as to whether it were best to run for the open sea, or to chance the dubious protection of the harbor in case of a hurricane.
The Governor looked at the blackness of the sky and gave an order. “Let the Spanish witch be borne to her fate at once or the fagots will be rained upon and justice delayed. Let her be burned within the hour.”
The bells in the church clanged out brazenly. And from the thick walls of the stone fort the beating of a drum announced a matter of urgent importance, so that all within hearing should gather there. On the distant sugar plantations the summons was heard, and overseers blew upon conch shells to call the slaves to a holiday. It was not often that a witch was burned in St. Thomas.
Mercedes, in the darkness of her cell, sat staring and still as the priest entreated her to repent. Her face was a pallid oval in the gloom as she whispered,
“Why do you speak to me of approaching death? I am dead already. I died upon the day I learned that love and faithfulness do not exist in the heart of man!”
Now in the great square outside the fort soldiers were stacking armloads of fagots about a grim, upright stanchion of mahogany fixed into a raised scaffold. Creaking wagons drawn by oxen were hauling dried canes along the dusty road. And small black urchins ran excitedly to and fro, flinging handfuls of dried leaves and rubbish on the mounting pile.
From the red‑roofed houses, garlanded with jasmine and crimson bougainvillea, came the gentry of the small town, dressed in holiday garb, despite the lowering clouds and the ever-increasing vigor of the wind. Sailors from foreign ships joined the colorful press that thronged the square.
From the iron‑barred gateway of the fort, surrounded. by watchful soldiers with loaded muskets, came forth at last a slender, velvet-clad figure‑-the Spanish maiden with hands tied behind her back; a forlorn, tragic figure, in spite of the firmness of her step, and the unyielding defiance in her sunken black eyes.
There were women with swollen, scratched faces, who spat upon her as she passed; there were men, both black and white, who called out ribald jests and tried to snatch the lace, mantilla from her dark, curling hair. Stones were flung at her, and here and there a clenched fist smote her despite the guardianship of the soldiers. Only Lisa sobbed out her mistress’ name and tried to touch her garments.
Mercedes seemed neither to hear the tumult of execration, nor to feel the glancing blows of stone and fist. Her dark, shadowed eyes lifted ever so briefly to the stone tower high upon Eastern Hill. Her pale lips moved, as if she murmured a word of farewell. Then, with the same still dignity with which she had endured her trial and imprisonment, she mounted the steps of the scaffold and was placed unresisting against the roughhewn stake.
The commandante spoke a word. Torches flared in the rising wind, and scattering sparks streamed in a fiery trail over the heads of the gaping crowd. Deep, deep, the blazing tongues of flame went down into the piled circle of dried canes and fagots. A cloud of thick, black smoke rolled up in a choking spiral. And through it a blood‑red twisting serpent of fire leaped upward.
A roar of gratified vengeance came from the closely‑pressed throng. “Death to the pirate’s woman! Death to the witch! Try thy spells, Spanish wanton. Keep thyself from being burned!”
In that moment a livid knife thrust of lightning cleft the low‑hanging clouds. A deafening smash of thunder followed it. And in the same instant, like a mightier echo, came the crashing of a cannon ball against the walls of the fort.
Amazed, completely caught off guard, the swelling roar of the crowd changed abruptly to wild cries of terror: “The pirates! The pirates are upon us! Run for your lives! They are upon us!”
For now, in the wind‑whipped waters of the harbor, its white sails straining against the ominous leaden sky, a trim black schooner was bearing down upon them like an avenging demon. From the swivel gun upon its bow, another leaden spittle came crashing into the semi‑circle of the town’s water‑front street. The people fled shrieking, the Spanish witch forgotten.
And as if the very heavens were in league against the forces of man‑meted justice, came the first violent downpour of the rain. It broke above the red‑roofed town in a veritable cloudburst. It smote the rising flames about the stake with hard wet fists that blotted out all but the choking black smoke.
Mercedes, pinioned fast against the stanchion, hung there gasping for breath, unable to think or to comprehend. The world about her was a swirling chaos of smoke and slashing rain, struck through with far‑off cries that had in them no meaning or reality. Only sometime in that wild eternity of warring violence, she knew dimly that a tall, powerful figure came charging through the thick murk about her, scattering, to the right and left the sodden piles of fagots that hemmed her in. She knew that a knife slit cleanly through the thongs that bound, her hands. And a voice–one that had come to be the dearest of all the world‑cried out her name:
“Mercedes! My beloved! My own!”
She tried to lift her face to his-‑to say ”Forgive!” But her choked lungs forsook her. And without a sound, she crumpled into his strong; outstretched arms.
When next she came back to consciousness, the world was a pitching, tossing shell. Gradually she realized herself to be in the small but luxurious cabin of Mon Desir. Pillows had been propped about her, and her body, .seared. in a half dozen places, had been swathed in bandages and soothing ointments. Lisa, the dark‑faced serving woman, prayed ceaselessly, clinging to the creaking, pitching bed.
But Mercedes could know no fear. For beside her knelt Edouard de la Barbe Bleue, his hands clasping hers, and in his black eyes that could be so cynically hard was the wet glint of tears.
She turned her head weakly. “Eduardo–I have brought ruin upon thee–how canst thou forgive?”
His fingers came down very gently upon her lips. “Let us not speak of forgiveness, querida mia! If we ride this hurricane, a new life awaits us both. And if we go down to destruction‑at least we go together, knowing that love is forgiveness, and that between us is naught save love!
Now starkly beautiful upon the Eastern Hill of St. Thomas stands the stone tower with its bronze plaque, “‘Le Tour de la Barbe Bleue.” The white clouds come up behind it, and sometimes the rising moon makes of it a black silhouette against the star‑pricked sky.
Long ago it was emptied of‑ the ill‑gotten treasures of Edouard, the young pirate captain; long ago it was gutted of all save the traditions which still cling to its sturdy walls.
Some say that Edouard de la Barbe Bleue was lost in that furious hurricane that smote the islands of the West Indies. But an old-time chronicle of Cuba relates how, in that same year, there came into the port of Santiago, a tired, storm‑battered little craft, with shredded sails and broken spars–almost a derelict, yet able with one small sail to limp in to safety.
And upon it were a young man of most striking appearance, and. a maiden of such dark, yet glowing beauty, that even the ravages of the storm could not dispel it. The two were married in one of the churches there, and the priest who blessed their union was the astonished recipient of a chest filled to the brim with golden doubloons!
Thereafter naught is known concerning them. Certainly they never came again to St. Thomas. But the memory of them still persists–the memory of the gallant, reckless young pirate, and the “Spanish witch” who won his heart with the mysterious magic of love. h