The aztec treasure house, p.36
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       The Aztec Treasure-House, p.36

           Thomas A. Janvier



  Heavily and wearily the days dragged on as we lay in that dismal prisonhewn from the mountain's heart; and as they slowly vanished there stoleupon us a new sorrow, that was deeper and more searching than thedoubting dread by which we were beset touching the cruel ending of ourlives.

  Rayburn's wound--a very savage cut in the thigh, made by the jagged edgeof a maccahuitl--from the first had been a dangerous one; and the dangerhad been aggravated by inflammation that had followed that long, hotjourney across the lake, and by the rough handling that his bearers hadgiven him, and by the excitement that had attended El Sabio's fieryoutburst beside the sacrificial stone. Even Fray Antonio's skill insurgery, without which he assuredly would have quickly died, only barelysufficed to keep him alive while the fever was upon him; and when atlast the fever left him, the little strength remaining to him grew lesswith every passing day. It was pathetic to see this man, who until thenhad been the very embodiment of rugged vigor, so worn with sufferingthat without Fray Antonio's tender assistance he scarce could move; andstill more pathetic was it to hear him moaning in his pain, and utteringheart-sick longings for sunlight and fresh air, for need of which, FrayAntonio affirmed, he was dying there quite as much as because of hiswound. Indeed, the chill chamber in the rock where he was lying was nofit place even for a well man at that time to dwell in; for the seasonof rains had come, and all the nights were cold and damp, while throughthe afternoons and in the night-time, during which portions of the daythe rain fell in torrents, the whole mountain was shaken by thetremendous peals of thunder which roared and crashed about its crest.

  It was after one of poor Rayburn's pitiable outbreaks of weak moaningthat Young led me away into the oratory, with the evident intention ofdelivering 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' letRayburn out o' this damp hole into some place where he can becomfortable, 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. Heain't th' kind t' be afraid of anything when he's feelin' all right. Butit's just infernal cruelty t' kill him this way--it wouldn't be fair toa dog. So I'm goin' t' try what I can do. It's nothin' much t' do, anyway--only runnin' a little ahead o' th' schedule, that's all."

  Oddly enough, something of a like purpose had been for some time pastslowly 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 forthe pleasure that could be had from killing me, my companions should begiven such freedom as was to be found in that rock-bound region beyondthe Barred Pass. Therefore, when Young thus brought up the matter openlybetween us, I told him of my own intention; and with some emphasis Iadvised him that inasmuch as I first had thought of it, to me belongedthe right to carry this project into execution; and especially was thisright mine, I urged, because but for me neither he nor any of the restof us--saving only, possibly, Fray Antonio--ever would have come intothat valley at all. Thereupon we fell to wrangling somewhat hotly; forYoung was a most pig-headed man when his mind was set upon anything, andhis notions of argument even at the best of times were of the loosestkind.

  How our talk might have ended I cannot tell, for each of us mostresolutely was determined to have his own way; but it actually did endbecause of an interruption by which we presently learned that a willfiner and stronger than either of ours had been acting, while we hadbeen only thinking, in a fashion that cut the ground completely fromunder us both. And all that followed within the next hour or two cameupon us with so startling a suddenness that it seemed less like realitythan like a terrible dream.

  The first intimation that we had that anything was upon us out of thecommon run of our drearily dull prison life was hearing a creaking noisethat we knew must be caused by the raising of the grating that shut usin; and as we hurried out from the oratory into the long passage-way wesaw a company of soldiers coming towards us, at the head of which was apriest. Fray Antonio and Pablo, startled as we had been by the soundcaused by the opening of the grating and the tramp of feet, also hadcome out into the passage; but while Pablo evidently was wondering, evenas we were wondering, what might be the purpose that these men had cometo execute, the look upon the monk's face was of expectation rather thanof 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 wassorrow in the look that went with his words, and sorrow also in the toneof his voice; and that this man truly was sorrowful because of themessage that he brought I doubt not, for he was the priest who had beenjailer to Fray Antonio, and whose mind had seemed so open to receive thedoctrine that Fray Antonio taught.

  But there was only joy in the bearing of the monk as his question thuswas answered; and there was a ringing gladness in his voice as hereplied--being most careful first to draw us away from the room in whichRayburn was lying--to our looks of wondering inquiry. "The PriestCaptain has granted my request," he said, and added quickly: "Do notsorrow for me, my friends. Dying for the Faith is the most gloriousending that life can have; and happier still is he to whom, with thisrare privilege, is given also that of dying that those whom he loves mayyet be saved alive. The Priest Captain has promised that when I havepaid this little debt of life you whom I love so greatly shall gofree--"

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

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

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

  The noise that at first had seemed to us like bees buzzing grew louderas we advanced, until, when we came out upon the open space before thetemple, it swelled into a mighty roar. And there the cause of it wasplain to us; for before us lay the great amphitheatre crowded with aseething multitude, and all the thousands gathered there were utteringsavage cries of delight at thought of the savage spectacle that now in afew moments would gladden their fierce hearts. In the midst of thistumult we were hurried into a sort of balcony, heavily built of stone,that hung upon the slope of the amphitheatre; just behind and abovewhich was a much larger balcony of richly wrought stone-work that wascovered by a canopy of colored stuffs, and that had in its midst a sortof throne. And at sight of us a great shout went up, that in a momentdied away into a hush of silence as the Priest Captain, with
a companyof priests about him, entered the balcony behind us and took his seatupon the throne.

  But in another instant the shouting burst forth again as Fray Antoniocame out from the passage that opened beneath us, and in a moment waslifted bodily by his guards and placed upon the Stone of Sacrifice inplain view of all. I wondered as I saw that only soldiers accompaniedhim, and that there was no sign of the coming of the priests by whom thesacrifice would be made. But my wonder ceased, and the burning pain thatthen consumed me was a little lessened, as there came forth from theunderground passage, guarded by four soldiers, a very tall, strongIndian, whose muscles stood out in great knots upon his lithe body andlegs and arms, and immediately following him six others no lesspowerful--for then I knew that Fray Antonio was not to die the cruel andbloody death of a sacrificial victim, but was to have, in accordancewith the Aztec custom, such chance of life as was to be found infighting these seven men in turn and receiving his freedom when he hadslain them all. Yet as I looked at the slim figure of the monk, and thenat these burly giants ready to be pitted against him, I knew that butone result could issue from that unequal combat; and a sudden dizzinesscame upon me, and for a moment all around me was dark. Nor was thismomentary darkness wholly imaginary; for just then--with a low growl ofdistant thunder--a fragment broke away from the great mass of blackcloud that hung upon the crest of the cliff above us and driftedsluggishly across the face of the sun.

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


  As though to still the clamor, the monk waved his hand; and when at thissign the outcries ceased, he asked--yet addressing not the PriestCaptain but the whole mass of people gathered there--if certain wordswhich he desired to utter would be heard. And in answer to him therewent up a shout of assent, in which was drowned completely (save thatwe, being close beneath him, heard it) the Priest Captain's order thatthe fight should begin. And it struck me that the Priest Captain showedhis appreciation of the critical situation with which he then wasdealing, and his dread of the forces which an ill-timed word inopposition to the will of the multitude might let loose against him, byrefraining from repeating his order when silence came again, and all thethousands gathered there leaned forward eagerly to hearken to what FrayAntonio would say.

  And what he did say was the most moving and the most exalted deliverancethat ever came forth from mortal man. To that great multitude hepreached there shortly, but with an eloquence that I doubt not was borndirectly of heavenly inspiration, a sermon so searching, so full ofGod's great love and tenderness, and so full also of the majesty of Hislaw and of the long-suffering of His mercy and loving-kindness, thatevery word of it falling from his lips seemed to burn into the depths ofall those heathen hearts. My own heart was thrilled and shaken as itnever 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, andsweat gathered upon his forehead as his soul was moved within him by theinfinitely beseeching tenderness of Fray Antonio's voice: for mostwonderfully did his voice rise and fall in its cadenced sweetness andentreaty, and there was a strangely vibrant quality in his tones thatmatched the tenor of his words, and so held all that vast multitudespellbound.

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

  But the Priest Captain also perceived how imminent was the danger thatmenaced the ancient faith, and dared to take the one chance left forsaving it, and that a desperate one, by breaking in upon Fray Antonio'sdiscourse with a ringing order that the fight should be no longerdelayed; whereat a deep growl of dissent ran through the crowd, that wasechoed in a still deeper roar of thunder in the dark sky. In truth, thegathering of the storm in the heavens above seemed to be wholly inkeeping with the storm that with an equal celerity was gathering on theearth 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 farthat it now hung over all the city like a vast black canopy. From thissombre mass, that buried all beneath it in gloomy shadows, flashes oflightning shot forth that each moment increased in fiery intensity, andthe rolling roar of thunder each moment grew louder and sharper in itsdark depths. Even as the Priest Captain spoke there came a yet morevivid flash, and almost with it a crashing peal.

  At the word of command, so vehemently given, the warrior faced aboutupon Fray Antonio, and held high aloft his sword; but the monk, firmlystanding there, while in his eyes shone so glorious a light that itseemed as though the wrath of outraged Heaven blazed forth from them,opposed to this earthly weapon only his out-stretched crucifix, and thusconfronted the death that menaced him with so splendid a bravery thatfor an instant his huge antagonist was held still by a wonder that wasborn half of admiration and half of awe; and in the breathless hush ofthat supreme moment Fray Antonio cried out, in tones so clear and soringing 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 fromthe cloud above us a swift red flash of blinding light, and with thiscame a crash of thunder so mighty that the cliffs above strained andquivered, and great fragments of rock came hurtling down from them, anda shivering trembling surged through the whole mountain, so that we feltit swaying beneath our feet.

  And as we gazed in awe, through the gloom that from all parts of theheavens was gathering towards the height whereon we were, we saw beforeus God's wrath made manifest; for the warrior, still holding raised themetal sword that had tempted death to him, trembled, reeled a little,swayed gently forward, and then, with, a sudden jerk, swayed backwardagain, and so fell lifeless--his bare right arm, and all the length ofhis naked body to his very heel marked by a livid streak of bloodypurple that showed where the thunder-bolt had passed. For a moment themonk also seemed stunned; and then, kneeling beside thatlightning-blasted corpse, and holding his hands out-stretched towardsheaven, whence his deliverance had come, he cried in a clear strongvoice, of which the solemn tones rang vibrant through that awfulsilence: "The Christian God liveth and reigneth! Believe on Him whoselove and whose mercy are not less tender than is terrible Histranscendent power!"

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

  And in this instant--in the very moment that this sigh escaped me, whileyet the pause lasted before that great shout came--the Priest Captainsprang from, his seat above us into the balcony where we prisoners stoodguarded, on downward into the arena below, and thence upon the Stone ofSacrifice--all with a demoniac agility most horrible to look upon in oneof his withered age--and there, with a fierce thrust of a spear that hehad caught from a soldier's hand in passing, he pierced Fray Antoniobetween the shoulders s
traight through the heart; and the monk, stillgrasping in his hands his crucifix, fell face downward upon the Stone ofSacrifice, and lay there dead!

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

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

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