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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 8. The Third Degree
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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 8. The Third Degree Post by :netmarketer Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :1085

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The Strolling Saint - Book 4. The World - Chapter 8. The Third Degree

BOOK IV. THE WORLD
CHAPTER VIII. THE THIRD DEGREE

I was haled from my dungeon by my gaoler accompanied by two figures that looked immensely tall in their black monkish gowns, their heads and faces covered by vizored cowls in which two holes were cut for their eyes. Seen by the ruddy glare of the torch which the gaoler carried to that subterranean place of darkness, those black, silent figures, their very hands tucked away into the wide-mouthed sleeves of their habits, looked spectral and lurid--horrific messengers of death.

By chill, dark passages of stone, through which our steps reverberated, they brought me to a pillared, vaulted underground chamber, lighted by torches in iron brackets on the walls.

On a dais stood an oaken writing-table bearing two massive wax tapers and a Crucifix. At this table sat a portly, swarthy-visaged man in the black robes of the order of St. Dominic. Immediately below and flanking him on either hand sat two mute cowled figures to do the office of amanuenses.

Away on the right, where the shadows were but faintly penetrated by the rays of the torches, stood an engine of wood somewhat of the size and appearance of the framework of a couch, but with stout straps of leather to pinion the patient, and enormous wooden screws upon which the frame could be made to lengthen or contract. From the ceiling grey ropes dangled from pulleys, like the tentacles of some dread monster of cruelty.

One glance into that gloomy part of the chamber was enough for me.

Repressing a shudder, I faced the inquisitor, and thereafter kept my eyes upon him to avoid the sight of those other horrors. And he was horror enough for any man in my circumstances to envisage.

He was very fat, with a shaven, swarthy face and the dewlap of an ox. In that round fleshliness his eyes were sunken like two black buttons, malicious through their very want of expression. His mouth was loose-lipped and gluttonous and cruel.

When he spoke, the deep rumbling quality of his voice was increased by the echoes of that vaulted place.

"What is your name?" he said.

"I am Agostino d'Anguissola, Lord of Mondolfo and..."

"Pass over your titles," he boomed. "The Holy Office takes no account of worldly rank. What is your age?"


"I am in my twenty-first year."

"Benedicamus Dominum," he commented, though I could not grasp the appositeness of the comment. "You stand accused, Agostino d'Anguissola, of sacrilege and of defiling holy things. What have you to say? Do you confess your guilt?"

"I am so far from confessing it," I answered, "that I have yet to learn what is the nature of the sacrilege with which I am charged. I am conscious of no such sin. Far from it, indeed..."

"You shall be informed," he interrupted, imposing silence upon me by a wave of his fat hand; and heaving his vast bulk sideways--"Read him the indictment," he bade one of the amanuenses.

From the depths of a vizored cowl came a thin, shrill voice:

"The Holy Office has knowledge that Agostino d'Anguissola did for a space of some six months, during the winter of the year of Our Blessed Lord 1544, and the spring of the year of Our Blessed Lord 1545, pursue a fraudulent and sacrilegious traffic, adulterating, for moneys which he extorted from the poor and the faithful, things which are holy, and adapting them to his own base purposes. It is charged against him that in a hermitage on Monte Orsaro he did claim for an image of St. Sebastian that it was miraculous, that it had power to heal suffering and that miraculously it bled from its wounds each year during Passion Week, whence it resulted that pilgrimages were made to this false shrine and great store of alms was collected by the said Agostino d'Anguissola, which moneys he appropriated to his own purposes. It is further known that ultimately he fled the place, fearing discovery, and that after his flight the image was discovered broken and the cunning engine by which this diabolical sacrilege was perpetrated was revealed."

Throughout the reading, the fleshy eyes of the inquisitor had been steadily, inscrutably regarding me. He passed a hand over his pendulous chin, as the thin voice faded into silence.

"You have heard," said he.

"I have heard a tangle of falsehood," answered I. "Never was truth more untruly told than this."

The beady eyes vanished behind narrowing creases of fat; and yet I knew that they were still regarding me. Presently they appeared again.

"Do you deny that the image contained this hideous engine of fraud?"

"I do not," I answered.

"Set it down," he eagerly bade one of the amanuenses. "He confesses thus much." And then to me--"Do you deny that you occupied that hermitage during the season named?"

"I do not."

"Set it down," he said again. "What, then, remains?" he asked me.

"It remains that I knew nothing of the fraud. The trickster was a pretended monk who dwelt there before me and at whose death I was present. I took his place thereafter, implicitly believing in the miraculous image, refusing, when its fraud was ultimately suggested to me, to credit that any man could have dared so vile and sacrilegious a thing. In the end, when it was broken and its fraud discovered, I quitted that ghastly shrine of Satan's in horror and disgust."

There was no emotion on the huge, yellow face. "That is the obvious defence," he said slowly. "But it does not explain the appropriation of the moneys."

"I appropriated none," I cried angrily. That is the foulest lie of all."

"Do you deny that alms were made?"

"Certainly they were made; though to what extent I am unaware. A vessel of baked earth stood at the door to receive the offerings of the faithful. It had been my predecessor's practice to distribute a part of these alms among the poor; a part, it was said, he kept to build a bridge over the Bagnanza torrent, which was greatly needed."

"Well, well?" quoth he. "And when you left you took with you the moneys that had been collected?"

"I did not," I answered. "I gave the matter no thought. When I left I took nothing with me--not so much as the habit I had worn in that hermitage."

There was a pause. Then he spoke slowly. "Such is not the evidence before the Holy Office."

"What evidence?" I cried, breaking in upon his speech. "Where is my accuser? Set me face to face with him."

Slowly he shook his huge head with its absurd fringe of greasy locks about the tonsured scalp--that symbol of the Crown of Thorns.

"You must surely know that such is not the way of the Holy Office. In its wisdom this tribunal holds that to produce delators would be to subject them perhaps to molestation, and thus dry up the springs of knowledge and information which it now enjoys. So that your request is idle as idle as is the attempt at defence that you have made, the falsehoods with which you have sought to clog the wheels of justice."

"Falsehood, sir monk?" quoth I, so fiercely that one of my attendants set a restraining hand upon my arm.

The beady eyes vanished and reappeared, and they considered me impassively.

"Your sin, Agostino d'Anguissola," said he in his booming, level voice, "is the most hideous that the wickedness of man could conceive or diabolical greed put into execution. It is the sin that more than any other closes the door to mercy. It is the offence of Simon Mage, and it is to be expiated only through the gates of death. You shall return hence to your cell, and when the door closes upon you, it closes upon you for all time in life, nor shall you ever see your fellow-man again. There hunger and thirst shall be your executioners, slowly to deprive you of a life of which you have not known how to make better use. Without light or food or drink shall you remain there until you die. This is the punishment for such sacrilege as yours."

I could not believe it. I stood before him what time he mouthed out those horrible and emotionless words. He paused a moment, and again came that broad gesture of his that stroked mouth and chin. Then he resumed:

"So much for your body. There remains your soul. In its infinite mercy, the Holy Office desires that your expiation be fulfilled in this life, and that you may be rescued from the fires of everlasting Hell. Therefore it urges you to cleanse yourself by a full and contrite avowal ere you go hence. Confess, then, my son, and save your soul."

"Confess?" I echoed. "Confess to a falsehood? I have told you the truth of this matter. I tell you that in all the world there is none less prone to sacrilege than I that I am by nature and rearing devout and faithful. These are lies which have been uttered to my hurt. In dooming me you doom an innocent man. Be it so. I do not know that I have found the world so delectable a place as to quit it with any great regret. My blood be upon your own heads and upon this iniquitous and monstrous tribunal. But spare yourselves at least the greater offence of asking my confession of a falsehood."

The little eyes had vanished. The face grew very evil, stirred at last into animosity by my denunciation of that court. Then the inscrutable mask slipped once more over that odious countenance.

He took up a little mallet, and struck a gong that stood beside him.

I heard a creaking of hinges, and saw an opening in the wall to my right, where I had perceived no door. Two men came forth--brawny, muscular, bearded men in coarse, black hose and leathern waistcoats cut deep at the neck and leaving their great arms entirely naked. The foremost carried a thong of leather in his hands.

"The hoist," said the inquisitor shortly.

The men advanced towards me and came to replace the familiars between whom I had been standing. Each seized an arm, and they held me so. I made no resistance.

"Will you confess?" the inquisitor demanded. "There is still time to save yourself from torture."

But already the torture had commenced, for the very threat of it is known as the first degree. I was in despair. Death I could suffer. But under torments I feared that my strength might fail. I felt my flesh creeping and tightening upon my body, which had grown very cold with the awful chill of fear; my hair seemed to bristle and stiffen until I thought that I could feel each separate thread of it.

"I swear to you that I have spoken the truth," I cried desperately. "I swear it by the sacred image of Our Redeemer standing there before you."

"Shall we believe the oath of an unbeliever attainted of sacrilege?" he grumbled, and he almost seemed to sneer.

"Believe or not," I answered. "But believe this--that one day you shall stand face to face with a Judge Whom there is no deceiving, to answer for the abomination that you make of justice in His Holy Name. Let loose against me your worst cruelties, then; they shall be as caresses to the torments that will be loosed against you when your turn for Judgment comes."

"To the hoist with him," he commanded, stretching an arm towards the grey tentacle-like ropes. "We must soften his heart and break the diabolical pride that makes him persevere in blasphemy."

They led me aside into that place of torments, and one of them drew down the ropes from the pulley overhead, until the ends fell on a level with my wrists. And this was torture of the second degree--to see its imminence.

"Will you confess?" boomed the inquisitor's voice. I made him no answer.

"Strip and attach him," he commanded.

The executioners laid hold of me, and in the twinkling of an eye I stood naked to the waist. I caught my lips in my teeth as the ropes were being adjusted to my wrists, and as thus I suffered torture of the third degree.

"Will you confess?" came again the question.

And scarcely had it been put--for the last time, as I well knew--than the door was flung open, and a young man in black sprang into the chamber, and ran to thrust a parchment before the inquisitor.

The inquisitor made a sign to the executioners to await his pleasure.

I stood with throbbing pulses, and waited, instinctively warned that this concerned me. The inquisitor took the parchment, considered its seals and then the writing upon it.

That done he set it down and turned to face us.

"Release him," he bade the executioners, whereat I felt as I would faint in the intensity of this reaction.

When they had done his bidding, the Dominican beckoned me forward. I went, still marvelling.

"See," he said, "how inscrutable are the Divine ways, and how truth must in the end prevail. Your innocence is established, after all, since the Holy Father himself has seen cause to intervene to save you. You are at liberty. You are free to depart and to go wheresoever you will. This bull concerns you." And he held it out to me.

My mind moved through these happenings as a man moves through a dense fog, faltering and hesitating at every step. I took the parchment and considered it. Satisfied as to its nature, however mystified as to how the Pope had come to intervene, I folded the document and thrust it into my belt.

Then the familiars of the Holy Office assisted me to resume my garments; and all was done now in utter silence, and for my own part in the same mental and dream-like confusion.

At length the inquisitor waved a huge hand doorwards. "Ite!" he said, and added, whilst his raised hand seemed to perform a benedictory gesture--"Pax Domini sit tecum."

"Et cum spiritu tuo," I replied mechanically, as, turning, I stumbled out of that dread place in the wake of the messenger who had brought the bull, and who went ahead to guide me.

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