Martin Conisby's Vengeance by Jeffrey Farnol
Chapter XXIII. How I Found My Soul
The torment by fire, torture by water, rack and thumbscrews, pulley and wheel, the weights, the press, the glove and the boot,--these the devices men hath schemed out for the plaguing of his neighbour, the hellish engines he hath troubled to invent and build for the crushing, twisting, tearing and maiming of his fellow-man, yet of all these devilish machines nought is there so constant, so pitiless and hard of endurance as the agony of suspense; there is a spectre mopping and mowing at our shoulder by day and haunting the misery of our nights; here is a disease slowly but surely sapping hope and courage and life itself.
Howbeit it was thus I found it in the time that followed, for little by little I became the prey of a terror that grew, until the opening of the door would bring me to my feet in sweating panic, or the mere rattle of my fellow-prisoner's chains fill me with shivering despair. And because of these sick fears I felt great scorn of myself, and knowing I was in this place of horror by my own will and contrivance, to despair and scorn was added a bitter self-hatred. And now, remembering how Adam had vowed to rescue Sir Richard, I prayed for his coming, at one moment full of hope, the next in an agony of despair lest he should come too late. Thus I fell to my black mood, speaking no word or answering my companion but by curses; and thus would I sit for hours, sullen and morose, gnawing my knuckles and staring on vacancy. Or again, beholding my enemy so serene, so placid and unmoved (and his case no better than my own) I would fall to sudden bitter revilings of him, until, meeting the gentle patience of his look, I would fall silent for very shame.
At last, upon a night, tossing upon my wretched bed in dire torment of soul, I chanced to espy my enemy and him sleeping; whereat I fell to fierce anger.
"Ha, Brandon!" I cried. "Will ye sleep, man, will ye sleep and I in torment. Wake--wake and tell me, must we die soon? Wake, I say!" At this he raised himself to blink at me in the beam of the lanthorn. "Must we die soon, think ye?" I demanded fiercely.
"In God's time, Martin!" said he.
"Think ye they will--torture me first?" Now here, seeing his troubled look and how he groped for an answer, I cursed and bade him tell me, aye or no.
"Alas, I do fear it!" said he.
"We are beyond hope?" I demanded.
"Nay, there is always God," said he. "But we are beyond all human aid. This do I know by reason of this airy dungeon and the luxury of food and light. Fra Alexo doeth nought unreasonably; thus we have our lanthorn that we, haply waking from dreams of home and happiness, may behold our prison walls and know an added grief. Instead of the water-dungeon or the black terror of cell deep-hidden from the blessed day, he hath set us in this goodly place that we, beholding the sun, may yearn amain for the blessed freedom of God's green world--"
"Ha!" quoth I. "And for those he dooms to the torment he sendeth rich food and generous wine--aye, aye, I see it now--a man strong and full-blooded may endure more agony and longer. So they will torture me--as they did you--but when, ah, God--when?" And here I sank face down upon my bed and lay there shuddering. And presently I was aware of my companion kneeling beside me, his hand upon my shoulder, his gentle voice in my ear:
"Comfort ye, Martin, comfort ye, God shall give ye strength--"
"Nay, I am a coward!" I cried bitterly, "A shameful craven!"
"Yet you do not fear! You have endured! The fire hath no terrors for you!"
"Because I am old in suffering, and am done with fear, because, beyond smoke and flame, I shall find God at last."
"Think ye there is a God?"
"I know it, Martin!"
"Yet am I coward!" I groaned. "Though 'tis not death I fear, nor the torture so much, 'tis rather to be thus counting the hours--"
"I know," said he, sighing. "I know. 'Tis the waiting for what is to be, ah, the weary, weary waiting--'tis this doth shake the strongest; the hour of suffering may be now, or to-morrow, or a month hence."
"God send it be to-night!" said I fervently. "And to-night, and while I am yet the man I am, know this; I, that lived but for vengeance, dying, do renounce it once and for ever. I, that came hither seeking an enemy, find, in place of hated foe, a man ennobled by his sufferings and greater than myself. So, as long as life remains to us, let there be peace and good will betwixt us, Sir Richard. And as you once sued forgiveness of me, now do I sue your friendship--"
"Martin!" said he in choking voice, and then again, "Oh, Martin Conisby, thus hath God answered my prayer and thus doth the feud betwixt Conisby and Brandon end--"
"Yes!" said I. "Yes--so do I know at last that I have followed a vain thing and lost all the sweetness life had to offer."
Now here, seeing me lie thus deject and forlorn, he stooped and set his ragged arm about me.
"Grieve not, Martin," said he in strange, glad voice, "grieve not, for in losing so much you have surely found a greater thing. Here, in this dread place, you have found your soul."
And presently, sheltered in the frail arm of the man had been my bitter enemy, I took comfort and fell to sweet and dreamless slumber.
Another day had dragged its weary length: Sir Richard lay asleep, I think, and I, gloomy and sullen, lay watching the light fade beyond the grating in the wall when; catching my breath, I started and peered up, misdoubting my eyes, for suddenly, 'twixt the bars of this grating, furtive and silent crept a hand that opening, let fall something white and shapeless that struck the stone floor with a sharp, metallic sound, and vanished stealthily as it had come. For a while I stared up at this rusty grating, half-fearing I was going mad at last, yet when I thought to look below, there on the floor lay the shapeless something where it had fallen. With every nerve a-thrill I rose and creeping thither, took it up and saw it was Adam's chart, the which had been taken from me, with all else I possessed; this wrapped about a key and a small, sharp knife; on the back of which, traced in a scrawling hand, I read these words, viz:
"A key to your fetters. A knife to your release. Once free of your dungeon take every passage Bearing to the left; so shall you reach the postern. There one shall wait, wearing a white scarf. Follow him and God speed you. You will be visited at sunset."
To be lifted thus from blackest despair to hope's very pinnacle wrought on me so that I was like one entranced, staring down at knife and paper and key where they had fallen from my nerveless hold; then, catching up the knife, I stood ecstatic to thumb over point and edge and felt myself a man once more, calm and resolute, to defy every inquisitor in Spanish America, and this merely by reason of the touch of this good steel, since here was a means whereby (as a last resource) I might set myself safe beyond their devilish torments once and for all. And now my soul went out in passionate gratitude to Don Federigo since this (as I judged) must be of his contrivance.
But the shadows deepening warned me that the sun had set wherefore I slipped off my shoes as softly as possible not to disturb Sir Richard's slumbers, and made me ready to kill or be killed.
And presently I heard the creak of bolts and, creeping in my stockinged feet, posted myself behind the door as it opened to admit the silent, shrouded form of a familiar bearing a lanthorn. Now, seeing he came alone, I set the knife in my girdle and, crouched in the shadow of the door, watched my time; for a moment he stood, seeming to watch Sir Richard who, roused by the light, stirred and, waking, blinked fearfully at this silent shape.
"Ah, what now?" he questioned. "Is it me ye seek?" For answer the familiar set down the lanthorn and beckoned with his finger. Then, as Sir Richard struggled painfully to his feet, I sprang and grappled this hateful, muffled form ere he could cry out, had him fast by the throat, and dragging him backwards across my knee, I choked him thus, his hoarse whistling gasps muffled in his enveloping hood. And then Sir Richard was beside me.
"Will ye slay him, Martin?" cried he.
"Aye!" I nodded and tightened my grip.
"Nay, rather spare him because he is an enemy; thus shall your soul go lighter henceforth, Martin."
So in the end I loosed my hold, whereupon the familiar sank to the floor and lay, twitching feebly. Hereupon I rent off hood and robe and found him a poor, mean creature that wept and moaned, wherefore I incontinent gagged him with stuff from his own habit and thereafter locked him securely into my fetters. And now, trembling with haste, I donned his habit and, catching up the lanthorn, turned on Sir Richard:
"Come!" said I.
"Nay!" said he, wringing his fettered hands. "Nay--alas, I should but hamper you--"
"Come!" said I, my every nerve a-tingle to be gone. "Come--I will aid you--hurry, man--hurry!"
"Nay, 'twere vain, Martin, I can scarce walk--'twere selfish in me to let you run such needless risks. Go, Martin, go--God bless you and bring you safe out of this evil place."
Without more ado I tucked my shoes into my bosom, caught up the lanthorn and hasted away.
But as I went I must needs remember the pitiful eagerness of Sir Richard's look and the despairing gesture of those helpless, fettered hands.
Hereupon I cursed fiercely to myself and, turning about, came running back and, finding him upon his knees, hove him to his feet and, or ever he guessed my purpose, swung him across my shoulder and so away again, finding him no great burden (God knows) for all his fetters that clanked now and then despite his efforts. Presently espying a passage to my left, thither hurried I and so in a little to another; indeed it seemed the place was a very maze and with many evil-looking doors that shut in God only knew what of misery and horror. So I hasted on, while my breath laboured and the sweat ran from me; and with every clank of Sir Richard's fetters my heart leapt with dread lest any hear, though indeed these gloomy passageways seemed quite deserted. And ever as we went, nought was to see save these evil doors and gloomy walls, yet I struggled on until my strength began to fail and I reeled for very weariness, until at last I stopped and set Sir Richard on his feet since I could carry him no further, and leaned panting against the wall, my strength all gone and my heart full of despair, since it seemed I had missed my way.
Suddenly, as I leaned thus, I heard the tinkle of a lute and a voice singing, and though these sounds were dull and muffled, I judged them at no great distance; therefore I began to creep forward, the knife ready in one hand, the lanthorn in the other, and thus presently turning a sharp angle, I beheld a flight of steps surmounted by a door. Creeping up to this door, I hearkened and found the singing much nearer; trying the door, I found it yield readily and opening it an inch or so beheld a small chamber lighted by a hanging lamp and upon a table a pair of silver-mounted pistols; coming to the table I took them up and found them primed and loaded. I now beckoned Sir Richard who crept up the stairs with infinite caution lest his fetter-chains should rattle.
The chamber wherein we stood seemed the apartment of some officer, for across a small bed lay a cloak and plumed hat together with a silver-hilted rapier, which last I motioned Sir Richard to take. Beyond the bed was another door, and coming thither I heard a sound of voices and laughter, so that I judged here was a guard-room. As I stood listening, I saw Sir Richard standing calm and serene, the gleaming sword grasped in practised hand and such a look of resolution on his lined face as heartened me mightily. And now again came the tinkle of the lute and, giving a sign to Sir Richard, I softly raised the latch and, plucking open the door, stepped into the room behind, the pistols levelled in my hands.
Before me were five men--four at cards and a fifth fingering a lute, who turned to gape, one and all, at my sudden appearance.
"Hold!" said I in Spanish, through the muffing folds of my hood. "Let a man move and I shoot!" At this they sat still enough, save the man with the lute, a small, fat fellow who grovelled on his knees; to him I beckoned. "Bind me these fellows!" I commanded.
"No ropes here!" he stammered.
"With their belts, fool; their arms behind them--so!" Which done, I commanded him to free Sir Richard of his gyves; whereupon the little fellow obeyed me very expeditiously with one of the many keys that hung against the wall. Then I gave my pistols to Sir Richard and seizing on the little, fat man, bound him also. Hereupon I gagged them all five as well as I might and having further secured their legs with their scarves and neckerchiefs, I dragged them one by one into the inner chamber (the doors of which I locked) and left them there mightily secure. Then, catching up a good, stout sword and a cloak to cover Sir Richard's rags, I opened another door and, having traversed a sort of anteroom, presently stepped out into the free air.
It was a dark night; indeed I never saw Nombre de Dios any other than in the dark, yet the stars made a glory of the heavens and I walked awhile, my eyes upraised in a very ecstasy, clean forgetting my companion until he spoke.
"Whither now, Martin?"
"I am directed to a postern, and one bearing a white scarf."
"The postern?" quoth Sir Richard. "I know it well, as doth many another unhappy soul; 'tis the gate whereby suspects are conveyed secretly to the question!"
We kept to the smaller streets and lanes, the which, being ill-lighted, we passed without observation; thus at last, following the loom of a high wall, very grim and forbidding, we came in sight of a small gateway beneath a gloomy arch, where stood two shadowy figures as if on the lookout, whereupon I stopped to reconnoitre them, loosening my sword in the scabbard. But now one of these figures approached and, halting to peer at us, spoke in strange, muffled tones.
"Seek ye the white scarf?" questioned the voice in Spanish.
"We do!" said I. At this the man opened the long cloak he wore and flourished to view a white scarf.
"Aye, but there were two of you," said I. "What is come of your fellow?"
"He but goeth before, Senor." And true enough, when I looked, the other dim form had vanished, the which I liked so little that, drawing my sword, I clapped it to the fellow's breast.
"Look now," quoth I, "play us false and you die!"
"The Senor may rest assured!" says he, never flinching.
"Why, then, lead on!" I commanded.
Now as we followed this unknown, I had an uncanny feeling that we were being dogged by something or some one that flitted in the darkness, now behind us, now before us, now upon our flank, wherefore I walked soft-treading and with my ears on the stretch. And presently our guide brought us amid the denser gloom of trees whose leaves rustled faintly above us and grass whispered under foot; and thus (straining my ears, as I say) I thought to catch the sound of stealthy movement that was neither leaf nor grass, insomuch that, shifting the sword to my left hand, I drew forth and cocked one of the pistols. At last we came out from among the trees and before us was the gleam of water and I saw we were upon the bank of a stream. Here our guide paused as if unsure; but suddenly was the gleam of a lanthorn and I heard Don Federigo's welcome voice:
"Is that Hualipa?"
Our guide moved forward and, pausing in the glare of the lanthorn, let fall his cloak and I, beholding that pallid, impressive face, the dull eyes, small mouth, and high thin nose, knew him for Fra Alexo, Chief Inquisitor of Nombre de Dios. Then, lifting one hand to point slim finger at Don Federigo, he spoke in his soft, sweet voice:
"Don Federigo, long hath Holy Church suspected thee--and Holy Church hath many eyes--and hands. So is thy messenger dead and so I favoured the escape of these declared heretics that through them thou mightest be taken in thy shameful treachery. Even now come armed servants of the Church to take again these doomed heretics and with them--thee also. Now kill me an you will, but thine apostasy is uncovered; the Holy Inquisition hath thee safe at last. Thy good name, thy pride of birth and place shall not shelter thee from the avenging fire--oh, most treacherous one--"
Suddenly he choked, clapped his two hands to his throat, staring horribly; and betwixt his fingers I saw a small, tufted thing deep-buried in his throat. Then all at once there burst from his writhen lips an awful, gasping scream, dreadful to hear, and then he was down, writhing and gasping awhile, with Don Federigo and Sir Richard bending above him.
But I, well knowing what this was and remembering the unseen thing that had tracked us, turned to the shadow of a bush hard by and thus beheld a shaggy head that peered amid the leaves, a hairy face with wild, fierce eyes and teeth that gleamed.
So the man John stared down at his handiwork, flourished his deadly blowpipe and was gone.
"He is dead!" said Don Federigo. "'Tis an Indian poison I have met with ere this--very sudden and deadly. Fra Alexo stands at the tribunal of his God!" and baring his head, Don Federigo glanced down at the dark, contorted shape and thence to the gloomy trees beyond, and beckoning, brought me to a boat moored under the bank hard by.
"Senor Martino," said he, "'tis time you were gone, for if Don Alexo hath turned out the guard--"
"Nay, sir," quoth I, "they must be some while a-coming," and I told him briefly how we had secured the watch.
"And Fra Alexo is dead!" said he.
Here I would fain have told him something of my gratitude for the dire risks and perils he had run on my behalf, but he caught my hands and silenced me.
"My friend Martino," said he in his careful English, "you adventured your life for me many times; if therefore I save yours, it is but just. And your vengeance--is it achieved?"
"Indeed, sir," quoth Sir Richard, "achieved to the very uttermost, for he hath carried that enemy out from the shadow of death, hath perilled his own chances of life that I might know the joys of freedom--I that was his bitter enemy."
"So may all enmity pass one day, I pray God," sighed Don Federigo. "And now, as for thee, Martino my friend, vengeance such as thine is thing so rare as maketh me to honour thy friendship and loath to lose thee, since we shall meet no more in this life. Thus I do grieve a little, for I am an old man, something solitary and weary, and my son, alas, is dead. This sword was my father's and should have been his; take you it, I pray, and wear it in memory of me." And speaking, he loosed off his sword and thrust it upon me.
"Noble sir," said I, "dear and good friend, it doth not need this to mind me of all your high courage and steadfast friendship--and I have nought to offer in return--"
"I shall ever remember your strange method of vengeance!" said he. And when we had embraced each other, I got me into the boat and aided Sir Richard in beside me.
"Look now," warned Don Federigo as I loosed the mooring rope, "pull across the river and be wary, for in a little the whole town will be roused upon you. Get clear of the river as speedily as you may. And so, farewell, my friend, and God go with you!"
For answer I waved my hand, then, betaking me to the oars, I pulled out--into the stream farther and farther, until the stately form of Don Federigo was merged and lost in the gloom.
Sure enough, scarcely had we come into the shadows of the opposite bank than the silence gave place to a distant clamour, lost all at once in a ringing of bells, a rolling of drums and a prodigious blowing of horns and trumpets; the which set me a-sweating in despite the cool night wind, as, chin on shoulder, I paddled slowly along, unsure of my going and very fearful lest I run aground. In the midst of which anxieties I heard Sir Richard's voice, calm and gentle and very comforting:
"With a will, Martin--pull! I know the river hereabouts; pull, Martin, and trust to me!" Hereupon I bent to the oars and with no fear of being heard above the din ashore, since every moment bells and drums and trumpets waxed louder. Thus presently we came opposite the town, a place of shadows where lights hovered; and seeing with what nicety Sir Richard steered, keeping ever within the denser shadow of the tree-clad bank, I rowed amain until we were past the raving town, and its twinkling lights were blotted out by a sudden bend of the river.
Suddenly I saw Sir Richard stand up, peering, heard his voice quick and commanding:
"Ship your oars!" Then came a chorus of hoarse shouts, a shock, and we were rocking, gunwale and gunwale, with a boat where dim figures moved, crying shrill curses. I remember letting drive at one fellow with an oar and thereafter laying about me until the stout timber shivered in my grasp. I remember the dull gleam of Sir Richard's darting blade and then the two boats had drifted apart. Tossing aside my shattered oar, I found me another and rowed until, gasping, I must needs pause awhile and so heard Sir Richard speaking:
"Easy, Martin, easy! There lieth the blessed ocean at last; but--see!"
Resting on my oars and glancing whither he pointed, I saw a light suspended high in air and knew this for the riding-lanthorn of a ship whose shadowy bulk grew upon me as I gazed, hull and towering masts outlined against the glimmer of stars and the vague light of a young moon. Hereupon I bowed my head, despairing, for this ship lay anchored in midstream, so that no boat might hope to pass unchallenged; thus I began to debate within me whether or no to row ashore and abandon our boat, when Sir Richard questioned me:
"Can you sing ever a Spanish boat song, Martin?"
"No," said I, miserably. "No--"
"Why, then, I must, though mine is a very indifferent voice and rusty from lack o' use; meantime do you get up the mast; the wind serves." Which said, Sir Richard forthwith began to sing a Spanish song very harsh and loud, whiles I sweated amain in panic fear; none the less I contrived to step mast and hoist sail and, crouched on the midship thwart, watched the great galleon as we bore down upon her.
And presently came a voice hailing us in Spanish with demand as to who and what we were, whereat Sir Richard broke off his song to shout that we were fishermen, the which simple answer seemed to reassure our questioner, for we heard no more and soon the great ship was merely a vague shadow that, fading on our vision, merged into the night and was gone.
And thus in a while, having crossed the troubled waters of the bar, I felt the salt wind sweet and fresh on my brow like a caress, felt the free lift and roll of the seas; and now, beholding this illimitable expanse of sky and ocean, needs must I remember the strait prison and dire horrors whence God had so lately delivered me, and my soul swelled within me too full of gratitude for any words.
"Oh, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endureth for ever!"
Turning, I espied Sir Richard upon his knees, one hand grasping the tiller sailorly, the other upraised to the glimmering firmament; hereupon I knelt also, joining him in this prayer of thanksgiving. And thus we began our journey.