The Path of the King/Chapter 8

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The Path of the King by John Buchan
Chapter 8: The Hidden City

The two ports of the cabin were discs of scarlet, that pure translucent colour which comes from the reflection of sunset in leagues of still water. The ship lay at anchor under the high green scarp of an island, but on the side of the ports no land was visible--only a circle in which sea and sky melted into the quintessence of light. The air was very hot and very quiet. Inside a lamp had been lit, for in those latitudes night descends like a thunderclap. Its yellow glow joined with the red evening to cast orange shadows. On the wall opposite the ports was a small stand of arms, and beside it a picture of the Magdalen, one of two presented to the ship by Lord Huntingdon; the other had been given to the wife of the Governor of Gomera in the Canaries when she sent fruit and sugar to the voyagers. Underneath on a couch heaped with deerskins lay the Admiral.

The fantastic light revealed every line of the man as cruelly as spring sunshine. It showed a long lean face cast in a high mould of pride. The jaw and cheekbones were delicate and hard; the straight nose and the strong arch of the brows had the authority of one who all his days had been used to command. But age had descended on this pride, age and sickness. The peaked beard was snowy white, and the crisp hair had thinned from the forehead. The forehead itself was high and broad, crossed with an infinity of small furrows. The cheeks were sallow, with a patch of faint colour showing as if from a fever. The heavy eyelids were grey like a parrot's. It was the face of a man ailing both in mind and body. But in two features youth still lingered. The lips under their thatch of white moustache were full and red, and the eyes, of some colour between blue and grey, had for all their sadness a perpetual flicker of quick fire.

He shivered, for he was recovering from the fifth fever he had had since he left Plymouth. The ailment was influenza, and he called it a calenture. He was richly dressed, as was his custom even in outlandish places, and the furred robe which he drew closer round his shoulders hid a doublet of fine maroon velvet. For comfort he wore a loose collar and band instead of his usual cut ruff. He stretched out his hand to the table at his elbow where lay the Latin version of his Discovery of Guiana, of which he had been turning the pages, and beside it a glass of whisky, almost the last of the thirty-two gallon cask which Lord Boyle had given him in Cork on his way out. He replenished his glass with water from a silver carafe, and sipped it, for it checked his cold rigours. As he set it down he looked up to greet a man who had just entered.

The new-comer was not more than forty years old, like the Admiral, but he was lame of his left leg, and held himself with a stoop. His left arm, too hung limp and withered by his side. The skin of his face was gnarled like the bark of a tree, and seamed with a white scar which drooped over the corner of one eye and so narrowed it to half the size of the other. He was the captain of Raleigh's flagship, the Destiny, an old seafarer, who in twenty years had lived a century of adventure.

"I wish you good evening, Sir Walter," he said in his deep voice. "They tell me the fever is abating."

The Admiral smiled wanly, and in his smile there was still a trace of the golden charm which had once won all men's hearts.

"My fever will never abate this side the grave," he said. "Jasper, old friend, I would have you sit with me tonight. I am like King Saul, the sport of devils. Be you my David to exorcise them. I have evil news. Tom Keymis is dead."

The other nodded. Tom Keymis had been dead for ten days, since before they left Trinidad. He was aware of the obsession of the Admiral, which made the tragedy seem fresh news daily.

"Dead," said Raleigh. "I slew him by my harshness. I see him stumbling off to his cabin, an old bent man, though younger than me. But he failed me. He betrayed his trust... Trust, what does that matter? We are all dying. Old Tom has only gone on a little way before the rest. And many went before him."

The voice had become shrill and hard. He was speaking to himself.

"The best--the very best. My brave young Walter, and Cosmor and Piggot and John Talbot and Ned Coffyn... Ned was your kinsman, Jasper?"

"My cousin--the son of my mother's brother." The man spoke, like Raleigh, in a Devon accent, with the creamy slur in the voice and the sing-song fall of West England.

"Ah, I remember. Your mother was Cecily Coffyn, from Combas on the Moor at the back of Lustleigh. A pretty girl--I mind her long ago. I would I were on the Moor now, where it is always fresh and blowing... And your father--the big Frenchman who settled on one of Gawain Champernoun's manors. I loved his jolly laugh. But Cecily sobered him, for the Coffyns were always a grave and pious race. Gawain is dead these many years. Where is your father?

"He died in '82 with Sir Humfrey Gilbert."

Raleigh bowed his head. "He went to God with brother Humfrey! Happy fate! Happy company! But he left a brave son behind him, and I have lost mine. Have you a boy, Jasper?"

"But the one. My wife died ten years ago come Martinmas. The child is with his grandmother on the Moor."

"A promising child?"

"A good lad, so far as I have observed him, and that is not once a twelvemonth."

"You are a hungry old sea-dog. That was not the Coffyn fashion. Ned was for ever homesick out of sight of Devon. They worshipped their bleak acres and their fireside pieties. Ah, but I forget. You are de Laval on one side, and that is strong blood. There is not much in England to vie with it. You were great nobles when our Cecils were husbandmen."

He turned on a new tack. "You know that Whitney and Wollaston have deserted me. They would have had me turn pirate, and when I refused they sailed off and left me. This morning I saw the last of their topsails. Did I right?," he asked fiercely.

"In my judgment you did right."

"But why--why?" Raleigh demanded. "I have the commission of the King of France. What hindered me to use my remnant like hounds to cut off the stragglers of the Plate Fleet? That way lies much gold, and gold will buy pardon for all offences. What hindered me, I say?"

"Yourself, Sir Walter."

Raleigh let his head fall back on the couch and smiled bitterly.

"You say truly--myself. 'Tis not a question of morals, mark ye. A better man than I might turn pirate with a clear conscience. But for Walter Raleigh it would be black sin. He has walked too brazenly in all weathers to seek common ports in a storm... It becomes not the fortune in which he once lived to go journeys of picory... And there is another reason. I have suddenly grown desperate old. I think I can still endure, but I cannot institute. My action is by and over and my passion has come."

"You are a sick man," said the captain with pity in his voice.

"Sick! Why, yes. But the disease goes very deep. The virtue has gone out of me, old comrade. I no longer hate or love, and once I loved and hated extremely. I am become like a frail woman for tolerance. Spain has worsted me, but I bear her no ill will, though she has slain my son. Yet once I held all Spaniards the devil's spawn."

"You spoke kindly of them in your History," said the other, "when you praised their patient virtue."

"Did I? I have forgot. Nay, I remember. When I wrote that sentence I was thinking of Berreo. I loved him, though I took his city. He was a valiant and liberal gentleman, and of a great heart. I mind how I combated his melancholy, for he was most melancholic. But now I have grown like him. Perhaps Sir Edward Coke was right and I have a Spanish heat. I think a man cannot strive whole-heartedly with an enemy unless he have much in common with him, and as the strife goes on he gets liker... Ah, Jasper, once I had such ambitions that they made a fire all around me. Once I was like Kit Marlowe's Tamburlaine:

"'Threatening the world with high astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.'

But now the flame has died and the ashes are cold. And I would not revive them if I could. There is nothing under heaven that I desire."

The seaman's face was grave and kindly.

"I think you have flown too high, Sir Walter. You have aimed at the moon and forgotten the merits of our earthly hills."

"True, true!" Raleigh's mien was for a moment more lively. "That is a shrewd comment. After three-score years I know my own heart. I have been cursed with a devil of pride, Jasper... Man, I have never had a friend. Followers and allies and companions, if you please, but no friend. Others-- simple folk--would be set singing by a May morning, or a warm tavern fire, or a woman's face. I have known fellows to whom the earth was so full of little pleasures that after the worst clouts they rose like larks from a furrow. A wise philosophy--but I had none of it. I saw always the little pageant of man's life like a child's peep-show beside the dark wastes of eternity. Ah, I know well I struggled like the rest for gauds and honours, but they were only tools for my ambition. For themselves I never valued them. I aimed at a master-fabric, and since I have failed I have now no terrestrial cover."

The night had fallen black, but the cabin windows were marvellously patined by stars. Raleigh's voice had sunk to the hoarse whisper of a man still fevered. He let his head recline again on the skins and closed his eyelids. Instantly it became the face of an old and very weary man.

The sailor Jasper Lauval--for so he now spelled his name on the rare occasions when he wrote it-- thought he was about to sleep and was rising to withdraw, when Raleigh's eyes opened.

"Stay with me," he commanded. "Your silence cheers me. If you leave me I have thoughts that might set me following Tom Keymis. Kit Marlowe again! I cannot get rid of his accursed jingles. How do they go?

"'Hell hath no limite, nor is circumscribed
In one self-place, for where we are is hell
And where hell is there must we ever be.'"

Lauval stretched out a cool hand and laid it on the Admiral's hot forehead. He had a curiously steadfast gaze for all his drooping left eye. Raleigh caught sight of the withered arm.

"Tell me of your life, Jasper. How came you by such a mauling? Let the tale of it be like David's harping and scatter my demons."

The seaman sat himself in a chair. "That was my purpose, Sir Walter. For the tale is in some manner a commentary on your late words."

"Nay, I want no moral. Let me do the moralising. The tale's the thing. See, fill a glass of this Irish cordial. Twill keep off the chill from the night air. When and where did you get so woefully battered?"

"'Twas six years back when I was with Bovill."

Raleigh whistled. "You were with Robert Bovill' What in Heaven's name did one of Coffyn blood with Robert? If ever man had a devil, 'twas he. I mind his sullen black face and his beard in two prongs. I have heard he is dead--on a Panama gibbet?"

"He is dead; but not as he lived. I was present when he died. He went to God a good Christian, praying and praising. Next day I was to follow him, but I broke prison in the night with the help of an Indian, and went down the coast in a stolen patache to a place where thick forests lined the sea. There I lay hid till my wounds healed, and by and by I was picked up by a Bristol ship that had put in to water."

"But your wounds--how got you them?"

"At the hands of the priests. They would have made a martyr of me, and used their engines to bend my mind. Being obstinate by nature I mocked them till they wearied of the play. But they left their marks on this arm and leg. The scar I had got some months before in a clean battle."

"Tell me all. What did Robert Bovill seek? And where?"

"We sought the Mountain of God," said the seaman reverently.

"I never heard o't. My own Manoa, maybe, where gold is quarried like stone."

"Nay, not Manoa. The road to it is from the shore of the Mexican gulf. There was much gold."

"You found it?"

"I found it and handled it. Enough, could we have brought it off, to freight a dozen ships. Likewise jewels beyond the imagining of kings."

Raleigh had raised himself on his elbow, his face sharp and eager.

I cannot doubt you, for you could not lie were it to win salvation. But, heavens! man, what a tale! Why did I not know of this before I broke my fortune on Tom Keymis' mine?"

"I alone know of it, the others being dead."

"Who first told you of it?"

"Captain Bovill had the rumour from a dying Frenchman who was landed in his last hours at Falmouth. The man mentioned no names, but the tale set the captain inquiring and he picked up the clue in Bristol. But 'twas in north Ireland that he had the whole truth and a chart of the road."

"These charts!" sighed Raleigh. "I think the fairies have the making of them, for they bewitch sober men. A scrap of discoloured paper and a rag of canvas; some quaint lines drawn often in a man's blood, and a cross in a corner marking 'much gold.' We mortals are eternally babes, and our heads are turned by toys."

"This chart was no toy, and he who owned it bought it with his life. Nay, Sir Walter, I am of your mind. Most charts are playthings from the devil. But this was in manner of speaking sent from God. Only we did not read it right. We were blind men that thought only of treasure."

"It is the common story," said Raleigh. "Go on, Jasper."

"We landed in the Gulf, at the point marked. It was at the mouth of a wide river so split up by sand bars that no ship could enter. But by portage and hard rowing we got our boats beyond the shoals and found deep water. We had learned beforehand that there were no Spanish posts within fifty miles, for the land was barren and empty even of Indians. So for ten days we rowed and poled through a flat plain, sweating mightily, till we came in sight of mountains. At that we looked for more comfort, for the road on our chart now led away from the river up a side valley. There we hoped for fruits, since it was their season, and for deer; and 'twas time, for our blood was thick with rotten victuals."

The man shivered, as if the recollection had still terrors for him.

"If ever the Almighty permitted hell on earth 'twas that valley. There was no stream in it and no verdure. Oathsome fleshy shrubs, the colour of mouldy copper, dotted the slopes, and a wilderness of rocks through which we could scarce find a road. There was no living thing in it but carrion birds. And serpents. They dwelt in every cranny of stone, and the noise of them was like bees humming. We lost two stout fellows from their poison. The sky was brass above us and our tongues were dry sticks, and by the foul vapours of the place our scanty food was corrupted. Never have men been nearer death. I think we would have retreated but for our captain; who had a honest heart. He would point out to us the track in the chart running through that accursed valley, and at the end the place lettered 'Mountain of God.' I mind how his hand shook as he pointed, for he was as sick as any. He was very gentle too, though for usual a choleric man."

"Choleric, verily," said Raleigh. "It must have been no common sufferings that tamed Robert Bovill. How long were you in the valley?"

The better part of three days. 'Twas like sword-cut in a great mountain plain, and on the third day we came to a wall of rock which was the head of it. This we scaled, how I do not know, by cracks and fissures, the stronger dragging up the weaker by means of the tow-rope which by the mercy of God we carried with us. There we lost Francis Derrick, who fell a great way and crushed his skull on a boulder. You knew the man?"

"He sailed with me in '95. So that was the end of Francis?"

"We were now eleven, and two of them dying. Above the rocks on the plain we looked for ease, but found none. 'Twas like the bottom of a dry sea, all sand and great clefts, and in every hollow monstrous crabs that scattered the sand like spindrift as they fled from us. Some of the beasts we slew, and the blood of them was green as ooze, and their stench like a charnel house. Likewise there were everywhere fat vultures that dropped so close they fanned us with their wings. And in some parts there were cracks in the ground through which rose the fumes of sulphur that set a man's head reeling."

Raleigh shivered. "Madre de Dios, you portray the very floor of hell."

"Beyond doubt the floor of hell. There was but one thing that could get us across that devil's land, for our bones were molten with fear. At the end rose further hills, and we could see with our eyes they were green... Captain Bovill was like one transfigured. 'See,' he cried, 'the Mountain of God! Paradise is before you, and the way to Paradise, as is well known, lies through the devil's country. A little longer, brave hearts, and we shall be in port.' And so fierce was the spirit of that man that it lifted our weary shanks and fevered bodies through another two days of torment. I have no clear memory of those hours. Assuredly we were all mad and spoke with strange voices. My eyes were so gummed together that I had often to tear the lids apart to see. But hourly that green hill came nearer, and towards dusk of the second day it hung above us. Also we found sweet water, and a multitude of creeping vines bearing a wholesome berry. Then as we lay down to sleep, the priest came to us."

Raleigh exclaimed. "What did a priest in those outlands? A Spaniard?"

"Ay. But not such as you and I have ever known elsewhere. Papegot or no, he was a priest of the Most High. He was white and dry as a bone, and his eyes burned glassily. Captain Bovill, who liked not the dark brothers, would have made him prisoner, for he thought him a forerunner of a Spanish force, but he held up a ghostly hand and all of us were struck with a palsy of silence. For the man was on the very edge of death.

"'Moriturus te saluto,' he says, and then he fell to babbling in Spanish, which we understood the better. Food, such as we had, he would not touch, nor the sweet well-water. 'I will drink no cup,' he said, 'till I drink the new wine with Christ in His Father's Kingdom. For I have seen what mortal eyes have not seen, and I have spoken with God's ministers, and am anointed into a new priesthood.'

"I mind how he sat on the grass, his voice drifting faint and small like a babe's crying. He told us nothing of what he was or whence he came, for his soul was possessed of a revelation. 'These be the hills of God,' he cried. 'In a little you will come to a city of the old kings where gold is as plentiful as sand of the sea. There they sit frozen in metal waiting the judgment. Yet they are already judged, and, I take it, justified, for the dead men sit as warders of a greater treasurehouse.

"I think that we eleven--and two of us near death--were already half out of the body, for weariness and longing shift the mind from its moorings. I can hear yet Captain Bovill asking very gently of this greater treasure-house, and I can hear the priest, like one in a trance, speaking high and strange. 'It is the Mountain of God, he said, 'which lies a little way further. There may be seen the heavenly angels ascending and descending.'"

Raleigh shook his head. "Madness, Jasper--the madness begot of too much toil... I know it... And yet I do not know. 'Tis not for me to set limits to the marvels that are hid in that western land. What next, man?"

"In the small hours of the morning the priest died. Likewise our two sick. We dug graves for them, and the Captain bade me say prayers over them. The nine of us left were shaking with a great awe. We felt lifted up in bodily strength, as if for a holy labour. Captain Bovill's stout countenance wore an air of humility. 'We be dedicate,' he said, 'to some high fortune. Let us go humbly and praise God.' The first steps we took that morning we walked like men going into church. Up a green valley we journeyed, where every fruit grew and choirs of birds sang--up a crystal river to a cup in the hills. And I think there was no one of us but had his mind more on the angels whom the priest had told of than on the golden kings."

Raleigh had raised himself from the couch, and sat with both elbows on the table, staring hard at the speaker. "You found them? The gold kings?"

"We found them. Before noon we came into a city of tombs. Grass grew in the streets and courts, and the bronze doors hung broken on their hinges. But no wild things had laired there. The place was clean and swept and silent. In each dwelling the roof was of beaten gold, and the square pillars were covered with gold plates, and where the dead sat was a wilderness of jewels... I tell you, all the riches that Spain has drawn from all her Indies since the first conquistador set foot in them would not vie with the preciousness of a single one among those dead kings' houses."

"And the kings ?" Raleigh interjected.

"They sat stiff in gold on their thrones, their bodies fashioned in the likeness of men. But they had no faces only golden plates set with gems'"

"What fortune! What fortune! And what did you then?

"We went mad." The seaman's voice was slow and melancholy. "We, who an hour before had been filled with high contemplations, went mad like common bravos at the sight of plunder. No man thought of the greater treasure which these gold things warded. We laughed and cried like children, and tore at the plated dead... I mind how I wrenched off one jewelled face with the haft of my dagger, and a thin trickle of bones fell inside... And yet, as we ravened and plundered we would fall into fits of shivering, for the thing was not of this world. Often a man would stop and fall to weeping. But the lust of gold consumed us, and presently we only sorrowed because we had no sumpter mules to aid its transit, and had a terror of the infernal plain and valley we had travelled...

"Captain Bovill made camp in a mead outside the city, and one of us shot a deer, so that we supped full. He unfolded his purpose, which was that we should pack about our persons such jewels as were the smallest and most precious, and some gold likewise as an earnest, and by striking northward through the mountains seek to reach at a higher point in its course the river by which we had entered from the sea. I mistrusted the plan, for the chart had shown but the one way, but the terror of the road we had come was strong on me and I made no protest. So we packed our treasure, so that each man staggered under it, and before noon left the place of the kings."

"And then? Was the road desperate?" Raleigh's pale eyes had the ardour of a boy's.

"Desperate beyond all telling. An escalade of sheer mountains and a battling through vales choked with unbelievable thorns. Yet there was water and food, and the hardships were not beyond mortal endurance. 'Twas not a haunted hell like the way up. Wherefore I knew it would lead us to disaster, for 'twas not ordained as the path in the chart had been."

Raleigh laughed. "Faith, you show your mother's race. All Coffyns have in their souls the sour milk of Jean Calvin."

"Judge if I speak not the truth. Bit by bit we had to cast our burdens till only the jewels remained. And on the seventh day, when we were in sight of the river, we met a Spanish party, a convoy from their northern mines. We marched loosely and blindly, and they came on us unawares. We had all but reached the river's brink, so had the stream for a defence on one side, but before we knew they had taken us on flank and rear."

"Many?"

"A matter of three score, fresh and well armed, against nine weary men mortally short of powder. That marked the end of our madness and we became again sober Christians. Most notable was Captain Bovill. 'We have seen what we have seen,' he told us, as we cast up our defences under Spanish bullets, 'and none shall wrest the secret from us. If God wills that we perish, 'twill perish too. The odds are something heavier than I like, and if the worst befall I trust every man to fling into the river what jewels he carries sooner than let them become spoil of war. For if they see such preciousness they will be fired to inquiry and may haply stumble on our city. Such of us as live will some day return there...' I have said we had little powder, but for half a day we withstood the assault, and time and again when the enemy leapt inside our lines we beat him back. At the end, when hope was gone, you would hear little splashes in the waters as this man or that put his treasures into eternal hiding. A Spanish sword was like to have cleft my skull, but before I lost my senses I noted Captain Bovill tearing the chart in shreds and using them to hold down the last charges for his matchlock. He was crying, too, in English that some day we would return the road we had come."

"And you returned?"

The seaman shook his head. Not with earthly feet. Two of us they slew outright, and two more died on the way coastwards. For long I was between death and life, and knew little till I woke in the Almirante's cell at Panama... The rest you have heard. Captain Bovill died praising God, and with him three stout lads out of Somerset. I escaped and tell you the tale."

Raleigh meditation. With a sudden motion he rose to his feet and stared through the port, which was now tremulous with the foreglow of the tropic dawn. He put his head out and sniffed the sweet cold air. Then he turned to his companion.

"You know the road back to the city?"

The other nodded. "I alone of men."

"What hinders, Jasper?" Raleigh's face was sharp and eager, and his eyes had the hunger of an old hound on a trail. "They are all deserting me and look but to save their throats. Most are scum and have no stomach for great enterprises. I can send Herbert home with three shiploads of faint hearts, while you and I take the Destiny and steer for fortune. Ned King will come--ay, and Pommerol. What hinders, old friend?"

The seaman shook his head. "Not for me, Sir Walter."

"Why, man, will you let that great marvel lie hid till the hills crumble and bury it?"

"I will return--but not yet. When I have seen my son a man, I go back, but I go alone."

"To the city of the gold kings?"

"Nay, to the Mount of the Angels, of which the priest told."

There was silence for a minute. The light dawn wind sent a surge of little waves against the ship's side, so that it seemed as if the now flaming sky was making its song of morning. Raleigh blew out the flickering lamp, and the cabin was filled with a clear green dusk like palest emerald. The air from the sea flapped the pages of the book upon the table. He flung off his furred gown, and stretched his long arms to the ceiling.

"I think the fever has left me... You said your tale was a commentary on my confessions. Wherefore, O Ulysses?"

"We had the chance of immortal joys, but we forsook them for lesser things. For that we were thoroughly punished and failed even in our baseness. You, too, Sir Walter, have glanced aside after gauds."

"For certain I have," and Raleigh laughed.

"Yet not for long. You have cherished most resolutely an elect purpose and in that you cannot fail."

"I know not. I know not. I have had great dreams and I have striven to walk in the light of them. But most men call them will o' the wisps, Jasper. What have they brought me? I am an old sick man, penniless and disgraced. His slobbering Majesty will give me a harsh welcome. For me the Mount of the Angels is like to be a scaflold."

"Even so. A man does not return from those heights. When I find my celestial hill I will lay my bones there. But what matters the fate of these twisted limbs or even of your comely head: All's one in the end, Sir Walter. We shall not die. You have lit a fire among Englishmen which will kindle a hundred thousand hearths in a cleaner world."

Raleigh smiled, sadly yet with a kind of wistful pride.

"God send it! And you?"

"I have a son of my body. That which I have sowed he may reap. He or his son, or his son's son."

The morning had grown bright in the little room. Of the two the Admiral now looked the younger. The fresh light showed the other like a wrinkled piece of driftwood. He rose stiffly and moved towards the door.

"You have proved my David in good truth," said Raleigh. "This night has gone far to heal me in soul and body. Faith, I have a mind to breakfast... What a miracle is our ancient England! French sire or no, Jasper, you have that slow English patience that is like the patience of God."