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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Aztec Treasure-house - Chapter 34. A Martyrdom
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The Aztec Treasure-house - Chapter 34. A Martyrdom Post by :Bill999 Category :Long Stories Author :Thomas A. Janvier Date :May 2012 Read :3584

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The Aztec Treasure-house - Chapter 34. A Martyrdom


Heavily and wearily the days dragged on as we lay in that dismal prison hewn from the mountain's heart; and as they slowly vanished there stole upon us a new sorrow, that was deeper and more searching than the doubting dread by which we were beset touching the cruel ending of our lives.

Rayburn's wound--a very savage cut in the thigh, made by the jagged edge of a maccahuitl--from the first had been a dangerous one; and the danger had been aggravated by inflammation that had followed that long, hot journey across the lake, and by the rough handling that his bearers had given him, and by the excitement that had attended El Sabio's fiery outburst beside the sacrificial stone. Even Fray Antonio's skill in surgery, without which he assuredly would have quickly died, only barely sufficed to keep him alive while the fever was upon him; and when at last the fever left him, the little strength remaining to him grew less with every passing day. It was pathetic to see this man, who until then had been the very embodiment of rugged vigor, so worn with suffering that without Fray Antonio's tender assistance he scarce could move; and still more pathetic was it to hear him moaning in his pain, and uttering heart-sick longings for sunlight and fresh air, for need of which, Fray Antonio affirmed, he was dying there quite as much as because of his wound. Indeed, the chill chamber in the rock where he was lying was no fit place even for a well man at that time to dwell in; for the season of rains had come, and all the nights were cold and damp, while through the afternoons and in the night-time, during which portions of the day the rain fell in torrents, the whole mountain was shaken by the tremendous peals of thunder which roared and crashed about its crest.

It was after one of poor Rayburn's pitiable outbreaks of weak moaning that Young led me away into the oratory, with the evident intention of delivering himself of some matter that pressed heavily upon his mind.

"See here, Professor, I just _can't stand this any longer," he said, when we were alone. "I'm goin' t' send word t' th' Priest Captain t' ask him if finishin' me off in short order won't make him willin' t' let Rayburn out o' this damp hole into some place where he can be comfortable, an' where in th' mornin's he can get some sun an' air. Rayburn won't mind bein' squarely killed after he's healthy again. He ain't th' kind t' be afraid of anything when he's feelin' all right. But it's just infernal cruelty t' kill him this way--it wouldn't be fair to a dog. So I'm goin' t' try what I can do. It's nothin' much t' do, any way--only runnin' a little ahead o' th' schedule, that's all."

Oddly enough, something of a like purpose had been for some time past slowly forming in my own mind--though what I intended to do would have, I hoped, still better consequences; for my notion was to urge that for the pleasure that could be had from killing me, my companions should be given such freedom as was to be found in that rock-bound region beyond the Barred Pass. Therefore, when Young thus brought up the matter openly between us, I told him of my own intention; and with some emphasis I advised him that inasmuch as I first had thought of it, to me belonged the right to carry this project into execution; and especially was this right mine, I urged, because but for me neither he nor any of the rest of us--saving only, possibly, Fray Antonio--ever would have come into that valley at all. Thereupon we fell to wrangling somewhat hotly; for Young was a most pig-headed man when his mind was set upon anything, and his notions of argument even at the best of times were of the loosest kind.

How our talk might have ended I cannot tell, for each of us most resolutely was determined to have his own way; but it actually did end because of an interruption by which we presently learned that a will finer and stronger than either of ours had been acting, while we had been only thinking, in a fashion that cut the ground completely from under us both. And all that followed within the next hour or two came upon us with so startling a suddenness that it seemed less like reality than like a terrible dream.

The first intimation that we had that anything was upon us out of the common run of our drearily dull prison life was hearing a creaking noise that we knew must be caused by the raising of the grating that shut us in; and as we hurried out from the oratory into the long passage-way we saw a company of soldiers coming towards us, at the head of which was a priest. Fray Antonio and Pablo, startled as we had been by the sound caused by the opening of the grating and the tramp of feet, also had come out into the passage; but while Pablo evidently was wondering, even as we were wondering, what might be the purpose that these men had come to execute, the look upon the monk's face was of expectation rather than of surprise. And without waiting for the others to speak, he asked, eagerly: "Is it to be?"

"It is to be," the priest answered; and it seemed to me that there was sorrow in the look that went with his words, and sorrow also in the tone of his voice; and that this man truly was sorrowful because of the message that he brought I doubt not, for he was the priest who had been jailer to Fray Antonio, and whose mind had seemed so open to receive the doctrine that Fray Antonio taught.

But there was only joy in the bearing of the monk as his question thus was answered; and there was a ringing gladness in his voice as he replied--being most careful first to draw us away from the room in which Rayburn was lying--to our looks of wondering inquiry. "The Priest Captain has granted my request," he said, and added quickly: "Do not sorrow for me, my friends. Dying for the Faith is the most glorious ending that life can have; and happier still is he to whom, with this rare privilege, is given also that of dying that those whom he loves may yet be saved alive. The Priest Captain has promised that when I have paid this little debt of life you whom I love so greatly shall go free--"

"Don't you believe him! He's a blasted liar from the word go!" Young struck in, clean forgetting, in the passionate sorrow that was rising in his breast, that what Fray Antonio so plainly had in mind to do he himself had been most strongly bent upon doing but a moment before. But Young spoke in English, and without heeding him Fray Antonio went on: "You two, and the boy, surely will live; and perhaps life may be given also to our friend. He is in God's hands. And then, until----"

But further speech was not permitted to him. Two soldiers stepped forward and grasped his arms, yet first suffering him for a moment to clasp hands with us, and so led him towards the open grating; and behind him Young and I and Pablo were conducted in a like fashion by the guards. As we passed the room in which Rayburn lay we heard him moaning faintly; and so weak was he that it seemed to me a very likely thing for us to find him dead there upon our return--if, indeed, we ever returned at all.

As we passed out into the inner court of the temple, where the sum shone joyously--for the day still was young, and the rain-clouds had but begun to gather about the mountain peaks--we heard a murmur in the air like the distant sound of bees buzzing; and as we entered the rear portal of the temple this sound grew louder, yet still was soft and blurred. In the temple, Fray Antonio was separated from us, being led towards the inner entrance of that subterranean passage which opened into the pit of the amphitheatre; and as we went onward to the great portal in the temple's front we cast towards him sorrowful looks, in which all the bitter pain that was in our hearts was concentrated, but had in answer from him, as he walked with elate bearing between his guards, only looks of most joyful hope in which was also a very tender love.

The noise that at first had seemed to us like bees buzzing grew louder as we advanced, until, when we came out upon the open space before the temple, it swelled into a mighty roar. And there the cause of it was plain to us; for before us lay the great amphitheatre crowded with a seething multitude, and all the thousands gathered there were uttering savage cries of delight at thought of the savage spectacle that now in a few moments would gladden their fierce hearts. In the midst of this tumult we were hurried into a sort of balcony, heavily built of stone, that hung upon the slope of the amphitheatre; just behind and above which was a much larger balcony of richly wrought stone-work that was covered by a canopy of colored stuffs, and that had in its midst a sort of throne. And at sight of us a great shout went up, that in a moment died away into a hush of silence as the Priest Captain, with a company of priests about him, entered the balcony behind us and took his seat upon the throne.

But in another instant the shouting burst forth again as Fray Antonio came out from the passage that opened beneath us, and in a moment was lifted bodily by his guards and placed upon the Stone of Sacrifice in plain view of all. I wondered as I saw that only soldiers accompanied him, and that there was no sign of the coming of the priests by whom the sacrifice would be made. But my wonder ceased, and the burning pain that then consumed me was a little lessened, as there came forth from the underground passage, guarded by four soldiers, a very tall, strong Indian, whose muscles stood out in great knots upon his lithe body and legs and arms, and immediately following him six others no less powerful--for then I knew that Fray Antonio was not to die the cruel and bloody death of a sacrificial victim, but was to have, in accordance with the Aztec custom, such chance of life as was to be found in fighting these seven men in turn and receiving his freedom when he had slain them all. Yet as I looked at the slim figure of the monk, and then at these burly giants ready to be pitted against him, I knew that but one result could issue from that unequal combat; and a sudden dizziness came upon me, and for a moment all around me was dark. Nor was this momentary darkness wholly imaginary; for just then--with a low growl of distant thunder--a fragment broke away from the great mass of black cloud that hung upon the crest of the cliff above us and drifted sluggishly across the face of the sun.

When my dizziness had passed, and I could again see clearly, the warrior was standing upon the Stone of Sacrifice--naked save for his breech-clout, and armed with a round shield and a maccahuitl of hardened gold. The monk still wore his flowing habit, whence the hood had fallen back, so that his head was bare; in one hand he held his crucifix, and with the other he was motioning away the sword and shield that a soldier held out to him: at sight of which refusal on his part to be armed there was a shrill outcry among the multitude that the fight would not be fair; and to this sharp noise of strident voices there was added a solemn undertone that came in a low roll of thunder from the overhanging cloud.

As though to still the clamor, the monk waved his hand; and when at this sign the outcries ceased, he asked--yet addressing not the Priest Captain but the whole mass of people gathered there--if certain words which he desired to utter would be heard. And in answer to him there went up a shout of assent, in which was drowned completely (save that we, being close beneath him, heard it) the Priest Captain's order that the fight should begin. And it struck me that the Priest Captain showed his appreciation of the critical situation with which he then was dealing, and his dread of the forces which an ill-timed word in opposition to the will of the multitude might let loose against him, by refraining from repeating his order when silence came again, and all the thousands gathered there leaned forward eagerly to hearken to what Fray Antonio would say.

And what he did say was the most moving and the most exalted deliverance that ever came forth from mortal man. To that great multitude he preached there shortly, but with an eloquence that I doubt not was born directly of heavenly inspiration, a sermon so searching, so full of God's great love and tenderness, and so full also of the majesty of His law and of the long-suffering of His mercy and loving-kindness, that every word of it falling from his lips seemed to burn into the depths of all those heathen hearts. My own heart was thrilled and shaken as it never had been stirred before, and the boy Pablo wept as he listened; and even Young, to whom the spoken words had no meaning, grew pale, and sweat gathered upon his forehead as his soul was moved within him by the infinitely beseeching tenderness of Fray Antonio's voice: for most wonderfully did his voice rise and fall in its cadenced sweetness and entreaty, and there was a strangely vibrant quality in his tones that matched the tenor of his words, and so held all that vast multitude spellbound.

As he spoke on, a hush fell upon them who listened; and then through the throng a tremor seemed to run, but less a sound of actual speech than a subtle manifestation that in a moment a great outburst of assent would come, and I felt within me that the work which Fray Antonio had dared death to accomplish already was triumphantly concluded; and so waited, breathless, to hear this heathen host proclaim its glad allegiance to the Christian God.

But the Priest Captain also perceived how imminent was the danger that menaced the ancient faith, and dared to take the one chance left for saving it, and that a desperate one, by breaking in upon Fray Antonio's discourse with a ringing order that the fight should be no longer delayed; whereat a deep growl of dissent ran through the crowd, that was echoed in a still deeper roar of thunder in the dark sky. In truth, the gathering of the storm in the heavens above seemed to be wholly in keeping with the storm that with an equal celerity was gathering on the earth below. There was a heavy languor, a dense stillness in the air, and the cloud above us had drifted out from the face of the cliff so far that it now hung over all the city like a vast black canopy. From this sombre mass, that buried all beneath it in gloomy shadows, flashes of lightning shot forth that each moment increased in fiery intensity, and the rolling roar of thunder each moment grew louder and sharper in its dark depths. Even as the Priest Captain spoke there came a yet more vivid flash, and almost with it a crashing peal.

At the word of command, so vehemently given, the warrior faced about upon Fray Antonio, and held high aloft his sword; but the monk, firmly standing there, while in his eyes shone so glorious a light that it seemed as though the wrath of outraged Heaven blazed forth from them, opposed to this earthly weapon only his out-stretched crucifix, and thus confronted the death that menaced him with so splendid a bravery that for an instant his huge antagonist was held still by a wonder that was born half of admiration and half of awe; and in the breathless hush of that supreme moment Fray Antonio cried out, in tones so clear and so ringing that his words were heard by all the thousands gathered there:

"I call for help upon the living and the only God!"

And even as these words still sounded in our ears there shot forth from the cloud above us a swift red flash of blinding light, and with this came a crash of thunder so mighty that the cliffs above strained and quivered, and great fragments of rock came hurtling down from them, and a shivering trembling surged through the whole mountain, so that we felt it swaying beneath our feet.

And as we gazed in awe, through the gloom that from all parts of the heavens was gathering towards the height whereon we were, we saw before us God's wrath made manifest; for the warrior, still holding raised the metal sword that had tempted death to him, trembled, reeled a little, swayed gently forward, and then, with, a sudden jerk, swayed backward again, and so fell lifeless--his bare right arm, and all the length of his naked body to his very heel marked by a livid streak of bloody purple that showed where the thunder-bolt had passed. For a moment the monk also seemed stunned; and then, kneeling beside that lightning-blasted corpse, and holding his hands out-stretched towards heaven, whence his deliverance had come, he cried in a clear strong voice, of which the solemn tones rang vibrant through that awful silence: "The Christian God liveth and reigneth! Believe on Him whose love and whose mercy are not less tender than is terrible His transcendent power!"

There was no mistaking the thrill of movement that ran through the multitude as these words were spoken. I drew a long breath of thankfulness, for I felt that Fray Antonio was saved, and that in another instant my ears would be nigh burst by the thunderous roar of all those thousands--won to him by his own most moving eloquence, and by sight of the miracle whereby his deliverance had been wrought--that he should be set free.

And in this instant--in the very moment that this sigh escaped me, while yet the pause lasted before that great shout came--the Priest Captain sprang from, his seat above us into the balcony where we prisoners stood guarded, on downward into the arena below, and thence upon the Stone of Sacrifice--all with a demoniac agility most horrible to look upon in one of his withered age--and there, with a fierce thrust of a spear that he had caught from a soldier's hand in passing, he pierced Fray Antonio between the shoulders straight through the heart; and the monk, still grasping in his hands his crucifix, fell face downward upon the Stone of Sacrifice, and lay there dead!

Then Itzacoatl, standing with one foot upon the monk's dead body, and grasping still the spear that he had planted in that noble heart, cried out, triumphantly, "Behold the victory and the vengeance of our Aztec gods!"

And the multitude, swayed backward from the very threshold of the Christian faith, shouted together in one mighty voice, "Victory and vengeance for our gods!"

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