Chapter XXII. How at Last I Found My Enemy, Richard Brandon

Whether this paroxysm had wrought me to a swoon I know not, but I wondered to feel a hand upon my head, stroking my hair with touch marvellous gentle, and therewith a voice:

"Comfort thee, comfort thee, poor youth! These be rages and despairs that many do suffer at the first; in a little shall come back thy courage and with it hope--that hope, alas, that never dieth--even here. 'Lo, I am with thee,' saith the Lord--so be comforted, young sir. Let other thoughts distract thy mind--let us converse if thou wilt. Tell me, I pray, how didst know my unhappy name?"

"Because," said I, starting from his touch, "I am son to the man you foully murdered by false accusation. I am Martin Conisby, Lord Wendover of Shere and last of my line!"

Now at this he drew away and away, staring on me great-eyed and I heard the breath gasp between his pallid lips.

"What--do you here, my lord?"

"Seek my just vengeance!"

"The vengeance of a Conisby!" he murmured.

"Six years ago I broke from the hell of slavery you sold me into and ever since have sought you with intent to end the feud once and for ever."

"The feud?" he muttered. "Aye, we have shed each other's blood for generations--when your grandfather fought and slew my father on the highway beyond Lamberhurst village I, a weeping boy, kissing the wound his rapier had made, vowed to end the Conisbys one day and came nigh doing it, God forgive me. So doth one sin beget others, and so here to-day, in the gloom of my dungeon, I yield myself to your vengeance, my lord, freely and humbly confessing the harms I did you and the base perfidy of my actions. So, an you will have my miserable life, take it and with my last breath I will beseech God pardon you my blood and bring you safe out of this place of torment and sorrow. God knoweth I have endured much of agony these latter years and yet have cherished my life in despite my sufferings hitherto, aye, cherished it so basely as to turn apostate that I might live yet a little longer--but now, my lord, freely--aye, joyfully will I give it, for your vengeance, praying God of His abounding mercy to pardon my most grievous offences but, being grown weak in courage and body by reason of frequent and grieveous torturings, this mayhap shall plead my excuse. Come then, Martin Conisby, your hand upon my throat, your fetter-chain about my neck--"

"Have done!" said I. "Have done!" And getting up, I crossed to the extremest corner of the dungeon and cast myself down there. But in a little he was beside me again, bearing the lanthorn and with straw from his bed for my pillow, whereupon I cursed and bade him begone, but he never stirred.

"Oh boy," said he, seeing me clench my fist, "I am inured to stripes and very fain to speech with thee, wherefore suffer me a little and answer me this question, I pray. You have sought me these many years, you have even followed me into this hell of suffering, and God at last hath given me to your vengeance--wherefore not take it?"

"Because he I sought was masterful, strong and arrogant!"

"Yet this my body, though sorely changed, is yet the slime; 'twill bleed if you prick it and I can die as well now as six years ago--?"

But seeing I made no manner of answer, he left me at last and I watched him limp disconsolate to his corner, there to bow himself on feeble knees and with hands crossed on his bosom and white head bowed, fall to a passion of silent prayer yet with many woful sighings and moanings, and so got him to his miserable bed.

As for me, I lay outstretched upon my face, my head pillowed on my arm, with no desire of sleep, or to move, content only to lie thus staring into the yellow flame of the lanthorn as a child might, for it verily seemed that all emotions and desires were clean gone out of me; thus lay I, my mind a-swoon, staring at this glimmering flame until it flickered and vanished, leaving me in outer darkness. But within me was a darkness blacker still, wherein my soul groped vainly.

So the long night wore itself to an end, for presently, lifting heavy head, I was aware of a faint glow waxing ever brighter, till suddenly, athwart the gloom of my prison, shot a beam of radiant glory, like a very messenger of God, telling of a fair, green world, of tree and herb and flower, of the sweet, glad wind of morning and all the infinite mercies of God; so that, beholding this heavenly vision, I came nigh weeping for pure joy and thankfulness.

Now this thrice-blessed sunlight poured in through a small grating high up in the massy wall and showed me the form of my companion, the shining silver of his hair, his arms wide-tossed in slumber. Moved by sudden impulse I arose and (despite the ache and stiffness of my limbs) came softly to look upon him as he lay thus, his cares forgot awhile in blessed sleep; and thus, beneath his rags, I saw divers and many grievous scars of wounds old and new, the marks of hot and searing iron, of biting steel and cruel lash, and in joints, swollen and inflamed, I read the oft-repeated torture of the rack. And yet in these features, gaunt and haggard by suffering, furrowed and lined by pain, was a serene patience and nobility wholly unfamiliar.

Thus it seemed God had hearkened to my oft-repeated prayers, had given up to me mine enemy bound; here at last, beneath my hand, lay the contriver of my father's ruin and death and of my own evil fortunes. But it seemed the sufferings that had thus whitened his hair, bowed his once stalwart frame and chastened his fierce pride had left behind them something greater and more enduring, before which my madness of hate and passionate desire of vengeance shrank abashed. Now as I stood thus, lost in frowning contemplation of my enemy, he groaned of a sudden and starting to his elbow, stared up at me haggard-eyed.

"Ah, my lord!" said he, meeting my threatening look. "Is the hour of vengeance at hand--seek ye my life indeed? Why, then, I am ready!"

But, nothing speaking, I got me back to my gloomy corner and crouched there, my knees up-drawn, my head bowed upon my arms; and now, my two hands gripping upon the empty air, I prayed again these words so often wrung from me by past agonies: "Oh, God of Justice, give me now vengeance--vengeance upon mine enemy. His life, Oh, God, his life!" But even as I spake these words within myself I knew the vengeance I had dreamed of and cherished so dearly was but a dream indeed, a fire that had burned utterly away, leaving nought but the dust and ashes of all that might have been. And realising somewhat of the bitter mockery of my situation, bethinking me of all I had so wantonly cast away for this dream, and remembering the vain labour and all the wasted years, I fell to raging despair, insomuch that I groaned aloud and casting myself down, smote upon the stone floor of my prison with shackled fists. And thus I presently felt a touch and glanced up to behold my enemy bending above me.

"My lord--" said he.

"Devil!" I cried, smiting the frail hand from me. "I am no more than the poor outcast wretch you ha' made of me!" Thus, with curses and revilings, I bade him plague me no more and presently, wearied mind and body by my long vigil, I fell a-nodding, until, wakened by the opening of the door, I looked up to behold one of the black-robed familiars, who, having set down meat and drink, vanished again, silent and speechless.

Roused by the delectable savours of this meat, which was hot and well-seasoned, I felt myself ravenous and ate with keen appetite, and taking up the drink, found it to be wine, very rich and comforting. So I ate and drank my fill, never heeding my companion, and thereafter, stretching myself as comfortably as I might, I sank into a deep slumber. But my sleep was troubled by all manner of dreams wherein was a nameless fear that haunted me, a thing dim-seen and silent, save for the stealthy rustling of a trailing robe. And even as I strove to flee it grew upon me until I knew this was Death in the shape of Fra Alexo. And now, as I strove vainly to escape those white, cruel fingers, Joanna was betwixt us; I heard her shrill, savage cry, saw the glitter of her steel and, reeling back, Fra Alexo stood clutching his throat in his two hands, staring horribly ere he fell. But looking upon him as he lay I saw this was not Fra Alexo, for gazing on the pale, dead face, I recognised the beloved features of my lady Joan. But, sudden and swift, Joanna stooped to clasp that stilly form, to lay her ruddy mouth to these pallid lips; and lo, she that was dead stirred, and rose up quick and vivid with life and reached out yearning arms to me, seeing nothing of Joanna where she lay, a pale, dead thing.

I started up, crying aloud, and blinked to the glare of a lanthorn; as I crouched thus, shielding my eyes from this dazzling beam, from the darkness beyond came a voice, very soft and tenderly sweet, the which set me shivering none the less.

"Most miserable man, forswear now the error of thy beliefs, or prepare thy unworthy flesh to chastisement. In this dead hour of night when all do sleep, save the God thou blasphemest and Holy Church, thou shall be brought to the question--"

"Hold, damned Churchman!" cried a voice, and turning I beheld my enemy, Sir Richard Brandon, his gaunt and fettered arms upraised, his eyes fierce and steadfast. "Heed not this bloody-minded man! And you, Fra Alexo and these cowled fiends that do your evil work, I take you to witness, one and all, that I, Richard Brandon, Knight banneret of Kent, do now, henceforth and for ever, renounce and abjure the oath you wrung from my coward flesh by your devilish tortures. Come, do to my body what ye will, but my soul--aye, my soul belongs to God--not to the Church of Rome! May God reckon up against you the innocent blood you have shed and in every groan and tear and cry you have wrung from tortured flesh may you find a curse in this world and hereafter!"

The loud, fierce voice ceased; instead I heard a long and gentle sigh, a murmured command, and Sir Richard was seized by dim forms and borne away, his irons clashing. Then I sprang, whirling up my fetter-chains to smite, was tripped heavily, felt my limbs close-pinioned and was dragged forth of the dungeon. And now, thus helpless at the mercy of these hideous, hooded forms that knew no mercy, my soul shrank for stark horror of what was to be, and my body shook and trembled in abject terror.

In this miserable state I was dragged along, until once again I heard the murmur of that sweet, soft voice, whereupon my captors halted, a door was unlocked, and I was cast into a place of outer darkness there to lie bruised and half-stunned yet agonised with fear, insomuch that for very shame I summoned up all my resolution, and mastering my fear, I clenched chattering teeth and sweating palms, determined to meet what was to be with what courage and fortitude I might. Slowly the shivering horror passed and in its place was a strange calm as I waited for them to bear me to the torture.

Suddenly my heart leapt to a shrill scream and thereafter I heard an awful voice, loud and hoarse and tremulous, and between each gasping cry, dreadful periods of silence:

"Oh, God ... Oh, God of pity, aid me ... make me to endure ... Lord God, strengthen my coward soul ... help me to be worthy ... faithful at last ... faithful to the end...."

As for me, well knowing the wherefore of these outcries, the meaning of these ghastly silences, a frenzy of horror seized me so that I shouted and raved, rolling to and fro in my bonds. Yet even so I could hear them at their devils work, until the hoarse screams sank to a piteous wailing, a dreadful inarticulate babble, until, wrought to a frenzy, I struggled to my feet (despite my bonds) and (like the madman I was) leapt towards whence these awful sounds came, and falling, knew no more.

From this blessed oblivion I was roused by a kindly warmth and opening my eyes, saw that I lay face down in a beam of sunshine that poured in through the small grille high in the wall like a blessing; being very weary and full of pain, and feeling this kindly ray mighty comforting, I lay where I was and no desire to move, minded to sleep again. But little by little I became conscious of a dull, low murmur of sound very distressful to hear and that set me vaguely a-wondering. Therefore, after some while, I troubled to lift my head and wondered no more.

A twisted heap of blood-stained rags, the pallid oval of a face, the dull gleam of a chain, this much I saw at a glance, but when I came beside Sir Richard's prostrate form and beheld the evils they had wrought on him, a cry of horror and passionate anger broke from me, whereupon he checked his groaning and opening swimming eyes, smiled wanly up at me.

"Glory--and thanks to God--I--endured!" he whispered. Now at this I sank on my knees beside him, and when I would have spoken, could not for a while; at last:

"Is there aught I may do?" I questioned.

"Water!" he murmured feebly. So I reached the water and setting my arm 'neath his neck (and despite my fetters) lifted him as gently as I might and held the jar to his cracked lips. When he had drank what he would I made a rough pillow for his head and rent strips from my shirt for bandages, and finding my pitcher full-charged with wine, mixed some with water and betook me to bathing his divers hurts (though greatly hampered by the chain of my fetters) and found him very patient to endure my awkward handling, in the midst of which, meeting my eye, he smiled faintly:

"Martin Conisby," he whispered. "Am I not--your--enemy?"

"Howbeit you endured!" quoth I.

"Thanks be to God!" said he humbly. "And is it for this. You will cherish thus--and comfort one--hath wronged you and yours--so bitterly?"

But at this I grew surly and having made an end of my rough surgery, I went and cast myself upon my bed of straw and, lying there, watching the sunbeam creep upon the wall, I fell to pondering this problem, viz: How came I thus striving to soothe the woes of this man I had hunted all these years to his destruction; why must I pity his hurts and compassionate his weakness--why?

And as I sat, my fists clenched, scowling at the sun-ray, it verily seemed as he had read these my thoughts.

"Martin Conisby," said he, his voice grown stronger. "Oh, Martin, think it not shame to pity thine enemy; to cherish them that despitefully use you; this is Godlike. I was a proud man and merciless but I have learned much by sufferings, and for the wrongs I did you--bitterly have I repented. So would I humbly sue forgiveness of you since I am to die so soon--"

"To die?"

"Aye, Martin, at the next auto-da-fe--by the fire--"

"The fire!" said I, clenching my fists.

"They have left me my life that I may burn--"

"When?" I demanded 'twixt shut teeth. "When?"

"To-day--to-morrow--the day after--what matter? But when the flames have done their work, I would fain go to God bearing with me your forgiveness. But if this be too much to hope--why, then, Martin, I will beseech God to pluck you forth of this place of horror and to give you back to England, to happiness, to honour and all that I reft from you--"

"Nay, this were thing impossible!" I cried.

"There is nought impossible to God, Martin!" Here fell silence awhile and then, "Oh, England--England!" cried he. "D'ye mind how the road winds 'twixt the hedgerows a-down hill into Lamberhurst, Martin; d'ye mind the wonder of it all--the green meadows, the dim woods full of bird song and fragrance--you shall see it all again one day, but as for me--ah, to breathe just once again the sweet smell of English earth! But God's will be done!"

For a while I sat picturing to my fancy the visions his words had conjured up; lifting my head at last, I started up to see him so pale and still and bending above him, saw him sleeping, placid as any child, yet with the marks of tears upon his shrunken cheek.