Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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"Ma foi!" exclaimed Brother Hilario, "has the Englishman not yet had enough! I have heard of how these islanders drink, but this passes credit."

"Ay, it cowes Kirkcaldy!" cried Rollo. "He is indeed a maisterfu' drinker, this Englishman!"

"What?" queried the Frenchman, still mystified, and moving towards the decanters. "Does he want more wine? How much would satisfy him, think you?"

"I could take somewhere about sixty thousand gallons at present, and as much more in a week or two!" said Mortimer, pulling out his pocket-book.

The Frenchman looked at Rollo for enlightenment. Our insular measures of capacity were naturally strange to him.

"About twenty thousand arrobas at present might satisfy him, he says, but he would like more in a week or two!"

Monsieur Etienne de Saint Pierre fell back, lax with astonishment.

"Mon Dieu!" he cried, "I never believed it before, but I see now it is true. An Englishman bathes himself, and drinks the contents of his bath when he is finished. It is that he may be ready for the twenty thousand arrobas of Priorato! But you are pleased to jest, gentlemen, is it not so?"

The matter was explained.

"I can arrange that with my uncle," said Etienne, as soon as he fully understood John Mortimer's purpose; "I understand something about wines, for I grow some square leagues of vines on my lands in France. Moreover, I will see to it that your friend does not pay too high a price for the Priorato! And now for the relics! We have already wasted too much time."

He rang the bell and called in the abbot's confessor.

Father Anselmo was a gaunt, severe man, of more than the average height, with black hair streaked with grey, and fixed and stony eyes. With him there appeared a younger and more jovial monk, with small eyes that perpetually twinkled, and a smile that seemed to catch itself up as with a click each time that the stern gaze of Father Anselmo turned his way. This monk was evidently only a novice, or a lay brother on his probation, for he wore the lesser habit and carried in his hand a great bunch of keys, which he tinkled freely, as if in that silent place he took a certain pleasure in the sound.

Father Anselmo gazed with severe disapproval upon the rich appointments of the abbot's table, and austerely refused for himself and his companion any refreshment beyond a glass of cold water.

But on the other hand the eyes of the keybearer perused with evident longing every salver and decanter. Whereupon the wild Scot, being restrained by no scruples, religious or otherwise, passed him first of all a glass of wine behind his superior's back, which he drank at a gulp without a sound, his eyes all the while on the lean rounded shoulders of the father confessor.

A full bottle of wine followed and was instantly concealed beneath the novice's long robe. A plate of grapes, half a dozen pears, a loaf of wheaten bread, all were passed to him one by one, and as swiftly and silently disappeared, none being bold enough to guess whither.

"By the Lord, I'll try him with a whole melon," muttered Rollo; "I believe that, swollen as he is, he could stow away a keg of butter quite comfortably."

But before he could put this jovial son of Peter the keybearer to the test, Father Anselmo had gathered his robes ascetically about him, and signed to the abbot's guests to follow him to the reliquary chamber.

CHAPTER VIII
SANCTUARY

The severe confessor solemnly preceded them, a candle in his hand.

Rollo thought that Father Anselmo had the air of perpetually assisting at an excommunication, a burning of heretics, or other extreme disciplinary ceremony of Holy Church. His inferior, the bearer of the Petrine keys, dimpled behind him, rattling the wards vigorously to hide any tendency of the bottle of wine to make music of its own in his ample skirts.

The treasury of Montblanch had indeed been most grievously despoiled by the French, according to the immemorial custom of that most Christian nation upon its campaigns, and only the most used dishes were now of silver or silver gilt. All the rest were of homely pewter silvered over – which, as the confessor said, resembled most men's characters, in that they looked well enough from a distance, and on the whole served just as well. He surveyed the company of young men so meaningly as he said this, that the Scot was only restrained from challenging him on the spot, by the pressure of John Mortimer's arm upon one side, and an almost tearful expression of entreaty on Brother Hilario's face upon the other.

The Confessor selected two keys from the bunch and inserted them into a couple of locks in a small iron door at the foot of certain gloomy steps.

The Scot who was imaginative, thought that he could discern some faint stirrings of life about his feet. Accordingly he stamped once or twice, having an instinctive hatred of little creeping vermin, which (with wasps) were the only things he feared in heaven or earth.

But the faint stirring ceasing, he grew interested in watching Father Anselmo and the novice bearing simultaneously on the keys, which turned together quite suddenly. Then the Confessor touched a spring concealed behind some drapery and the door opened.

A former visitor, Marshal Souchy, had obtained the same privilege by tying the late Abbot up by the thumbs till he gave the order for the treasury to be opened. In the despatches which he forwarded to his imperial master this fact appeared in the following form: "After half an hour's persuasion the Abbot of Montblanch decided to give up his treasures to your officers, and to celebrate a solemn service in thanksgiving for the arrival in Aragon of the delivering armies of his Majesty the Emperor."

The paucity of treasures of silver and gold in the treasury of Montblanch was, however, more than made up for by the extraordinary number of relics of saints which the monastery possessed. It was at this point that the novice, who appeared to act as a kind of showman in ordinary to the vaults, took up his tale.

"Brother Atanasio, do your duty!" the Confessor had said with a solemn voice, precisely as if he had been ordering the first turn of the great wheel of the garotte.

And in words that fairly tumbled over each other with haste the custodian began his enumeration.

"Here we have a bud from the rod of Aaron – also the body of Aaron himself; the clasp of the robe of Elijah, the prophet, which Elisha did not observe when he picked up the mantle – also the aforesaid Elijah and Elisha; the stone on which the angel sat in the holy sepulchre; the stone on which holy St. Peter stumbled when he let John outrun him; the words he said on that occasion, which are not included in Holy Writ, but were embroidered on a handkerchief by his mother-in-law, probably out of spite; the stone on which the Sainted Virgin was sitting when the angel saluted her, the stone on which she sat down to watch the crucifixion; the stone from Mount Sinai upon which St. Joseph prayed going down to Egypt; a stone from the house of St. Nicholas, and another from his sepulchre – "

Athanasius the rosy had only proceeded so far with his enumeration when a groan came as it were from the ground, and the Scot leaped violently aside.

"Good God!" he cried, "there is some one suffering down here – through that door, I think! Open it, you black-a-vised sweep of darkness! I am a true-blue Presbyterian, I tell you, and I will have no Torquemada business where Rollo Blair is."

But the dark monk only shook his head, and for the first time smiled.

"The exclamatory stranger is misled by a curious echo, which has given this place its name. It is called 'The Gate of the Groans,' and our wise predecessors chose the place for the entrance of their treasure-chamber, as giving ignorant men the idea that the properties of the Abbey were protected by demons! I had not, however, hoped that the ingenious little arrangement would deceive one so wise and experienced as the caballero with the long sword. Our novice, Brother Hilario, will inform his friend that what I have said is well known in the monastery to be the case!"

"I have heard it so stated," said Etienne, with some reluctance, and speaking not at all as his monastic name would import.

The groans came again and again, apparently from the earth, and Rollo, not yet fully convinced, stamped here and there with his foot and battered the walls with the basket of his sword, till he added a dint or two to the tasselled hilt of "Killiecrankie." All in vain, however, for the walls were solid, and the floor beneath his feet rang dull and true.

"Firm as the Rock of Peter," said the Confessor grimly, "on which Holy Church is built. Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram – !"

"I know that verse," cried the Scot, getting quickly in front of him; "but I can show you in a quarter of an hour that the Romanist argument from these words proceeds upon a misconception – if you will do me the honour to follow me – !"

"Follow me!" said the sepulchral monk curtly, and pointing upwards as the sound of a bell was wafted down to them faintly. "That is the hour of midnight. Let us attend the call!"

So for that time Rollo's argument against the Romanist doctrine of the Rock of Peter was shut within him. It was not long, however, before he had other matters to think of.

They followed their guide through a maze of dark passages, till, with a sudden "Attention!" he halted them before a door, from the other side of which came a sound of voices.

The door opened and all the world seemed suddenly filled with clear singing and glorious light.

Without the least preparation or preface Father Anselmo ushered the three young men into the great chapel of the order of the Virgin of Montblanch.

To Rollo it seemed almost an indecency to be thus transported from stuffy cases of doubtful relics and the chill darkness of earth-smelling passages, to this place where unseen suppliant voices assailed the Deity with a perpetual song.

The three youths blinked at the sudden light as they stepped within, and each of them glanced at their dress, apprehending with the instinct common to those who find themselves unexpectedly in crowded places, that it must be disordered. They followed their guide mechanically to the Holy Water laver. Etienne made the necessary signs and a low reverence towards the altar. Rollo's devotion to the Presbyterian form of worship did not prevent his imitating his companion with the easy adaptability of youth to place and circumstance, but quite unexpectedly they ran upon a rock in the matter of John Mortimer.

"Do as I do, you obstinate ass!" hissed Rollo in his ear. "Take some of the water on one finger and make the sign of the cross – that is, if you want to sleep in an unpricked skin this night!"

"Be hanged if I do," muttered John Mortimer, between his teeth. "I am not much given to religion myself, but my father is a Primitive Methodist, and built them a church in Chorley. And I never could look the old man in the face again if I dotted myself all over with their heathen holy water!"

"It's little of the Abbot's Priorato you'll ever ship then, my good friend," muttered Rollo; "but please yourself!"

The Englishman had rooted his heels to the pavement and squared his hands by his sides as one who would in nowise be dislodged from his resolve.

"I do not care if I never put a drop of wine into cask," he said, doggedly. "I won't go back to Chorley after having denied my father's brand of religion, even if my own vintage is of the poorest."

"There's more ways of killing a cat than choking her with cream!" growled Rollo; "take this, then, you stiff-necked English deevil!"

And bowing towards the altar, and again towards the Father Confessor, who had been regarding them with a sinister curiosity, with the utmost gravity Rollo made certain gestures with his hands, and dipping his fingers again in the laver, he made the sign of the cross on his friend's forehead and breast, before the Englishman had time to protest.

"In fulfilment of a vow!" he exclaimed in a whisper to Father Anselmo. "My companion has promised to St. Vicente Ferrer of Valencia that he will not make the sign of the cross upon his person till he can do it at the Basilica of holy St. Peter at Rome. He hath a mortal sin still upon his conscience."

"Then let him come to me," said the Confessor. "I will deal with him in a more summary fashion!"

It was the season of pilgrimage, and many were the penitents who availed themselves of the monks' three days statutory hospitality. These were seated about the dark church on chairs and stools supplied them by the sacristans, and on two of the latter John Mortimer and Rollo presently found themselves, while Brother Hilario went off to the gallery reserved for novices of his standing. Now and then a woman would steal forward and add a tall candle to the many thousands which burned upon the altar, or a man kneel at the screen of golden bars beyond which were the officiating priests and their silently-moving acolytes.

The church lay behind in deep shadow, only the higher lights shining here on a man's head, and there on a woman's golden ornament. The Abbot sat to the right in his episcopal robes, with his mitre on a cushion beside him. A priest stood by this chair with the crozier in his hand.

The brethren of the Order could be seen in their robes occupying the stalls allotted to them. There was another organ and choir far down the church, high to the right of the pillar by which the young men sat. The presence of this second choir was betrayed by a dim illumination proceeding from behind the fretted balustrade of the loft.

With the quick sympathy of his nature, Rollo, forgetting his sometime devotion to his native Presbytery, which indeed was chiefly of the controversial sort, permitted himself to be carried away by the magnificent swing of the music, the resonance of the twin organs, now pouring their thunder forth so as to shake at once the hearers' diaphragms and the fretted roof of blue and gold above them, now sweet and lonesome as a bird warbling down in Elie meadows in the noon silences. Anon Rollo shut his eyes and the Chapel of the Virgin of Montblanch incontinently vanished. He was among the great Congregation of all the Faithful, he alone without a wedding garment. The place where he stood seemed filled with surges of aureate light, but the night lay banked up without, eager and waiting to envelop him, doomed to be for ever a faithless wandering son of the great Father. Snatches of his early devotions came ramblingly back to him, prayers his mother had taught him, Psalms his old nurse had insisted on his learning, or mayhap crooned about his cradle. Such were the first words which came to him —

 
"That man hath perfect blessedness,
Who walketh not astray,
In counsel of ungodly men,
Nor stands in sinners' way."
 

The impressions, hitherto vivid, blurred themselves at this point. Rollo Blair was kneeling at his mother's knee. He thought of his first sweetheart who had nearly made him a minister, and, perchance, a better man. The night that was waiting imminent outside, silently overleapt the barriers of golden light. Rollo Blair's head fell forward against a pillar – and, while the music thundered and wailed alternate, and the great service swept on its gorgeous way, the wild unhaltered Scot, soothed by a lullaby of sound, slept the sleep of the young, the tired, and the heart-free.

How long he slumbered he could not tell, but he was awakened by a violent thrust in the ribs from the elbow of John Mortimer.

"Great jimminy! what's that? Look, man, look!"

Rollo opened his eyes, bleared with insufficient sleep, and for a long moment all things danced weirdly before them, as gnats dance in the light of the moon. He saw dimly without understanding the swinging altar lamps in a blur of purple haze, the richly-robed priests, the myriad candles, the dark forms of the worshippers. But now, instead of all eyes being turned towards the brilliance of the golden altar, it was towards the door at the dark end of the chapel that they looked.

He could distinguish a tumult of hoarse voices without, multitudinous angry cries of men, the clatter of feet, the sharp clash of arms. A shot or two went off quite near at hand.

"Seize him – take the murderer! Hold him!"

The shoutings came clear now to Rollo's brain, and rising to his feet he half drew his sword, as though he himself had been the hunted man. But with a smile he let the blade slide back, which it did as easily as a stone slips into water. For though Killiecrankie's hilt might be battered, without ribbon or bow-knot, Rollo saw to it that Robin Fleeming's blade played him no tricks. His life had depended too often upon it for that, and might again.

Within the chapel of the monastery the service went on almost unheeded, save by a few of the elders, faithful women whom piety and deafness kept to their reverence. The men crowded unanimously towards the door outside which the turmoil waxed wilder and wilder.

Then, shedding to either side a surge of men, as the bow of a swift ship casts a twin wave to right and left, a man with only scraps of rags clinging to him rushed up the aisle of the nave. His hair was red-wet and matted about his brow. There was a gash on one shoulder. His right arm hung useless by his side. He was barefooted, but still in his left hand he held a long knife, of which the steel was dimmed with blood.

"El Sarria! El Sarria!" cried the voices behind him. "There are a hundred duros on his head! Take him! Take him!"

And in a moment more the whole church was filled with the clangour of armed men. Bright uniforms filled the doorways. Sword bayonets glinted from behind pillars, as eager pursuers rushed this way and that after their prey, overturning the chairs and frightening the kneeling women.

Straight along the aisle, turning neither to right nor left, rushed the hunted man. On the steps which lead up to the gilded railing he threw down his knife, which with a clang rebounded on the marble floor of the church.

A priest came forward as if to bar the little wicket door. But with a bound El Sarria was within, and in another he had cast himself down on the uppermost steps of the high altar itself and laid his hands upon the cloth which bore Su Majestad, the high mystery of the Incarnation of God.

At this uprose the Abbot, and stepping from his throne with a calm dignity he reached the little golden gate through which the hunted man had come one moment before the pursuers. These were the regular Government troops, commanded by a Cristino officer, who with a naked sword in his hand pointed them on.

Blind with anger and the loss of many comrades, they would have rushed after the fugitive and slain him even on the holy place where he lay.

But the Abbot of the Order of the Virgin of Montblanch stood in the breach. They must first pass over his body. He held aloft a cross of gold with a gesture of stern defiance. The crozier-bearer had moved automatically to his place behind him.

"Thus far, and no farther!" cried the Abbot; "bring not the strife of man into the presence of the Prince of Peace. This man hath laid his hands upon the horns of the altar, and by Our Lady and the Host of God, he shall be safe!"

CHAPTER IX
THE SHADOW OF THE DESTROYER

The Abbot of Montblanch, Don Baltasar Varela, was supposed to be occupied in prayer and meditation. But in common with many of his abbatical brethren, he employed his leisure with quite other matters. Many have been the jests levelled at the higher clergy of the Church of Rome, rich, cloistered, and celibate, in their relations to the other sex.

But all such jests, good against even certain holy popes of Rome and their nephews, fell harmless against the triple brass of the reputation of Don Baltasar, present head of the great Monastery of Montblanch.

Things might be whispered against the practice of divers of the brethren of the Order. But out of the sphere of his immediate jurisdiction, Don Baltasar concerned himself not with other men's matters.

"To his own God he standeth or falleth," quoth Don Baltasar, and washed his hands of the responsibility.

But there were one or two offences which Don Baltasar did not treat in this manner, and of these anon.

Meantime the Abbot talked with his confessor, and in the security of his chamber was another man to the genial host, the liberal and well-read churchman, the courteous man of the world who had listened so approvingly to the wild talk of Rollo the Scot, and so condescendingly clinked glasses with Brother Hilario, the rich young recruit who had come from his native province to support the cause of el Rey Absoluto, Don Carlos V. of Spain.

The chamber itself was different. It contained one chair, plain and rude as that of any anchorite, in which the Abbot sat, a stool for the father confessor, a pallet bed, a rough shelf with half a dozen worn volumes above it, two great books with locked clasps of metal – these composed the entire furniture of the chamber of one of the most powerful princes of Holy Church in the world.



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