The Mummy (Loudon)/Volume 2/Chapter 10

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CHAPTER X.

 

A few days after this, the prisoners were honoured by another visit from the alcaide.

"Thank God!" cried Edric involuntarily, as soon as he saw him; for, as he felt confident that the anger he had expressed against them, had been assumed, he hoped he was now come to save them.

"Alas!" returned the worthy magistrate, "I fear you have little reason to be thankful. All my endeavours to save you have only succeeded in obtaining a few hours respite, and tomorrow morning you are condemned to be burnt alive."

"Oh!" shrieked the doctor; whilst even Edric's courage could not prevent his turning deathly pale. "It is dreadful," said he, "to die thus so young in a foreign country, and by such fearful means."

"Oh! don't talk of it," sobbed the doctor.

"My poor dear, dear Edric! Save him, sir! in mercy, save him! Though I may be doomed to pay the penalty of my folly, it is very hard he should suffer."

"It is, indeed," returned the alcaide; "and my wish to save him, joined to the hatred I bear the present general, has made me a traitor to my country. I see you look astonished, but to explain what I mean, it will be necessary to give you a short sketch of the present state of this country, which I will endeavour to do in as few words as possible. You know, no doubt, that Spain was once a powerful empire, till the ill-judged policy of one of her monarchs, in removing the seat of government to Africa, occasioned her fall: for the tree of majesty becoming too widely extended, it was but natural that some of its branches should strike root for themselves, and detach themselves entirely from the parent stem.

"This was the case with Spain; and her first directors as a republic happening to be intelligent men, the infant state grew and flourished, exciting the admiration of its neighbours, and the envy of its mother country. Unfortunately, however, the wheel of fortune is always turning, and Spaniards, as I before said, not knowing where to stop, have gone on, getting worse and worse by degrees, till they have become the bigoted and intolerant wretches you have found them. In fact, the army now rules the state, and the people, finding the tyranny of the soldiers insupportable, have been for some time attempting to throw off the yoke. They were long unsuccessful, as they found the discipline of the soldiers far outweighed all their bravery and self-devotion. In their distress, however, they called in the aid of Roderick the Second, the young and warlike King of Ireland. This powerful monarch, who realizes in himself ail the romantic qualities of the ancient knights of chivalry, hastened instantly to their assistance, and they are now combating under his auspices with every prospect of success. His progress has been magical; success has followed where-ever he has gone, and his army now lies at a little distance, though he landed in the north of Spain. It is to him, therefore, that I have sent secretly, giving him (in the hope of saving you) instructions, by which, if he follows them, he cannot fail of surprising the camp."

The doctor and Edric, though they were fully aware that they were principally indebted to the hatred the alcaide bore the present general for the steps he had taken in their behalf, yet felt and expressed themselves properly grateful; and the alcaide quitted the prison, leaving the flatterer Hope behind to console them for his absence, mingled, however, with the natural anxiety, which they could not help feeling, lest the well-arranged plan laid for their escape should fail. Morning had just dawned, after a tedious and miserable night, and the doctor and Edric were yet shivering from the damp cold which often precedes the break of day, and which now seemed to have struck a chill to their inmost souls, when the door of the prison opened, and a file of soldiers appeared, ready to conduct them to the place of execution. The doctor's heart beat thick, so as almost to impede respiration, and a heavy film spread before his eyes; whilst the agitation of Edric, who had, however, now quite forgiven him, was scarcely inferior to his own. Fervently they embraced, and then submitting to be pinioned, they were forced to march to the spot appointed for their sacrifice, where an immense crowd awaited their approach.

The doctor's heart sunk within him as he looked down from the kind of terrace upon which the ceremony was to take place, upon the mass of human heads jammed together below, every face regarding him with a gaze of anxious expectation; and as he turned from these eager looks with a thrill of horror, his feelings were yet more forcibly harrowed up by the sight behind him. This was composed of two iron stakes fixed firmly in the ground, and provided with ponderous chains so as to prevent the remotest possibility of escape, whilst the enormous heaps of green wood piled round each, gave a frightful idea of the intensity of the lingering torments the unfortunate prisoners were condemned to suffer. The mind of Edric, in the mean time, was not much more composed than that of his friend. He also had looked round, and whilst nature shuddered at the thought of the horrid death awaiting them, the immensity and compactness of the crowd seemed to destroy all probability of a rescue, and the hope which had till then supported him, fled from his breast; whilst, as his eyes again met those of the poor doctor, mournful, indeed, was the glance that they exchanged.

It is an awful thing to die! and though there are occasions when death may be braved, or at least met with unabated courage; yet when it comes on thus slowly and deliberately, seen from afar off, and yet impossible to be avoided, the firmest mind will find it difficult to bear its approach unmoved. That of Edric, however, notwithstanding it had been weakened by his long confinement, and by the delusive flattery of hope, did not shrink from the trial: and calmly he even saw the crowd divide, to make way for the executioner, who slowly advanced, preceded by a band of martial music, playing a mournful air, the drums being covered with black crape, and followed by a long train of soldiers, in mourning cloaks, with their arms reversed. Nothing could be more appalling than this lugubrious procession the executioner, musicians, and soldiers, being all shrouded in their gloomy cloaks, (the very hoods of which were drawn over their heads) had the air of demons coming to bear away the miserable victims to everlasting perdition; and the mind of the unhappy doctor not being able to endure such accumulated horrors, he sunk upon his knees, uttering shrieks of anguish, whilst the cold sweat ran in large drops from his forehead, and every nerve quivered with agony.

The procession had now nearly reached the prisoners, and even Edric's firmness gave way, as he saw the executioner spring upon the terrace, and advance towards him. A convulsive throb of anguish seemed to rend his heart, and his lips and cheeks turned of a livid paleness. But how was he surprised, and what a sudden revulsion of feeling did he not experience, when the supposed executioner, after having unbound his arms, put a sword into his hands, and whispering, — "Now is the time, defend yourself! — our soldiers are in green," left him completely free. Completely overcome, Edric stood for a moment lost in amazement, unable to credit the evidence of his senses, and gazing after his deliverer, who, the moment he had also unbound the doctor, threw off his disguise, and shouting "Roderick for ever!" disclosed to the multitude below the dreaded form of the Irish hero himself. Shouts of "Roderick for ever!" now rent the skies; the soldiers who had followed their monarch, and several others who had lurked concealed amongst the crowd, threw off their disguises at the same moment, and formed round the leader; whilst the main body of his troops, left behind in the care of experienced generals, tutored for the purpose, charged the affrighted Spaniards in the rear.

The confusion and dismay that now prevailed were quite beyond description. The terrified Spaniards, who, naturally superstitious, had long fancied the wonderful acts of heroic valour attributed to Roderick could only be performed by magic, were now firmly convinced that his sudden appearance amongst them was an act of especial favour from his Infernal Majesty himself! and finding themselves attacked on all sides, imagined their enemies multiplied by the powers of darkness, and fled without striking a blow. Roderick and his soldiers returned laughing, after they had pursued them a little way, to ransack and burn their camp; which when they had done, they retired to their former station; having previously promised the alcaide to spare the town, and not to push the consequences of their victory farther.

The doctor and Edric, who had been too much agitated to take any very active part in the combat, had been conveyed by the guards of Roderick to their master's camp, to await there the return of the monarch, in whose hands destiny had now placed them. Neither of our travellers had noticed the person of the Irish king in the bustling; moment of their deliverance; but the almost magical celerity with which he had contrived to disperse their enemies; the evident terror with which his very name seemed to inspire the Spaniards; and the wondrous feats the guards around them seemed to delight in attributing to him, made them now almost tremble at the thought of being presented to so tremendous a personage; whom they amused themselves in picturing as a stern, fearful tyrant, breathing nothing but war and desolation.

Roderick the Second, surnamed the Great, was then in the flower of his age. He had not long ascended his throne; and his father, who had been a prudent prince, having left behind him a well-established government, able statesmen, and a considerable sum in the treasury, Roderick had little to employ his mind at home. Brave, ardent, and enterprising, burning for conquest, and spurning the quiet of domestic peace, the overtures of the Spaniards had met his most ardent wishes; and he had embraced their cause with an eagerness and impetuosity that had hitherto carried every thing before it. The greatest part of Spain lay at his feet. Even Madrid was his! but it was to attack Seville, that queen of cities, that he was now in Andalusia. This city was still in the power of his enemies, and Roderick, having made Cadiz his head-quarters, was about removing thither, when the message of the Alcaide, had induced to undertake the romantic enterprize he had just so successfully accomplished. Romance was, indeed, a leading feature in Roderick's character: it had been the policy of his father, the late King, to foment secretly the discontents nourished amongst the English; but the spirit of Roderick revolted at conduct he considered so mean and base. The Spanish war, on the contrary, exactly suited his disposition: to aid an oppressed people — to throw off the yoke of their oppressors, seemed noble and generous; and he engaged in the enterprize with all the energy of his bold and daring temper. His soldiers adored him, and his people warmly seconded his efforts; for, as the seat of war was far removed from them, and as the treasury of the late King defrayed the expenses, they felt none of the inconveniences of war, and gloried in the triumphs of their Sovereign. Thus, Roderick's praise was the theme of every tongue: even the Spaniards worshipped him almost as a god, and their active imaginations magnified his exploits, till both friends and foes alike regarded him as a being who had only to will to conquer! and whose prowess it was perfect madness even to struggle to resist.

Such was the monarch our travellers now anxiously awaited, till suspense became almost agony. At last the joyful sounds of "He comes! he comes! Long live the mighty Roderick!" burst upon their ears, and the travellers bent forwards, eagerly expecting, yet dreading to see, a countenance stern and fearful as that of Cheops in his tomb: but how were they astonished to behold, in the redoubtable Roderick, only a tall handsome young man, riding carelessly upon a beautiful Barbary charger, and laughing and talking gaily with his officers as he came along.

"What!" cried the doctor indignantly, "would you attempt to make me believe that slight blooming boy a conqueror? the thing is impossible! It is quite ridiculous to mention it. Those laughing eyes, smooth down-like cheeks, and white teeth, may be well adapted to win a lady's heart, but I am sure they never can belong to a hero!"

The King, in the mean time, was equally struck with the doctor; and seeing something peculiarly honest and simple in his fat, round, oily face, he felt a lively interest for him, and an excessive curiosity to know what could possibly have brought a man, apparently so harmless and inoffensive, into so perilous a situation. The fine person of Edric, disfigured as it was by the troubles he had undergone, also attracted his attention; and as he rode up to his guests to question them as to their adventures, (the noble barb that carried him, pacing proudly along, as though conscious of the illustrious burthen he bore,) even the doctor was compelled to admit, the face and figure of his rider bespoke firmness, intellect, and dignity.

"What crime had you committed amongst the Spaniards?" asked he, as he approached, addressing himself to the doctor in a full, mellow, yet commanding tone. "It must have been of the blackest die, if we are to judge by the enormity of the punishment."

"I am innocent!" cried the doctor, "an' it may please your Majesty! I am quite innocent."

"It will please me very much to find you so," said Roderick, smiling; "but assertion is nothing — what proof have you?"

"My friend here will bear witness in my behalf," said the doctor solemnly, not feeling at all pleased with what he thought the King's unseasonable disposition for merriment; whilst as he stood looking very cross, his red face and bald head streaming with perspiration from anger and vexation, his clothes having been torn to rags, and his hat and wig lost in his late troubles, he struck Roderick as presenting so very whimsical and ridiculous a figure, that after looking at him a few minutes, the Merry Monarch burst out into a violent and almost convulsive fit of laughter.

"Well!" said the doctor, still more gravely, "I am glad your Majesty seems so well amused; but for my part, I don't see any thing at all agreeable or entertaining in being about to be burned alive."

The doctor's solemn look and lengthened face, as he made this naive remonstrance, only increased Roderick's peals of laughter. "I beg your pardon. Sir," said he, addressing Edric, as soon as he was able to speak; "I really beg your pardon; but your friend here is so exceedingly amusing, that I am really under infinite obligations to him, and know not how I shall ever be able to repay him."

"It is we who are under obligations to your Majesty, for which we can never be sufficiently grateful," said Edric gravely; for he also was not very well pleased at seeing his friend so openly ridiculed; as, though he did sometimes take the liberty of smiling at the learned doctor's innocent follies himself, he did not like to see him made the laughing stock of another. Roderick, however, saw and instantly understood the ill-humour of Edric; and as he applauded its motive, he endeavoured to divert it by every means in his power, and soon completely succeeded. Few people, indeed, knew so well how to make themselves agreeable as Roderick; and though Edric, at first, felt indignant that the King should treat him so much like a child, as to suppose his displeasure could be easily joked away, yet this feeling insensibly wore off, and he soon thought Roderick the most fascinating of human beings. Indeed, that heart must have been hard that could have withstood unmoved the fascinations of Roderick when he wished to please. His bright laughing eyes that looked the very colour of gladness, and his arch smile, might have subdued the melancholy of a stoic; whilst his character had something bewitching in its very failings. He had been all his life the spoiled child of fortune, and though his rashness and impetuosity, his pettishness and his caressing manners, his bravery, haughtiness, and obstinacy; his fondness for any thing that promised a frolic, and his chivalrous devotion to noble and grand enterprizes, formed a singular melange, he was, perhaps, more beloved than he would have been if his character had been more perfect; and it was this very inconsistency that made him so completely the idol of his soldiers.

"Believe me," said he, addressing Edric, "that it is impossible for me to describe the pleasure I feel in having had it in my power to be of service to you; and though I should have been happy to relieve any of my fellow-creatures in distress, yet I must own I am glad you are Englishmen. It was the policy of my late father to act as the enemy of England; but I have always been her friend. I am sure that Nature intended the Enghsh and Irish for brethren; and I am too sincere a votary of the goddess to wish, even in the slightest degree, to counteract her designs."

"Your sentiments perfectly coincide with mine," said Edric; "and as it has been my fate to live in habits of intimacy for several years with a very worthy countryman of yours. Father Murphy, confessor of the Duke of Cornwall, who was the most intimate friend of my father—"

"Father Murphy!" interrupted Roderick.

"Yes," returned Edric, surprised at the wonder expressed by the King. "Is it possible you can know him?"

"The name appeared familiar to me, that was all," replied Roderick, evidently finding it difficult to repress a strong inclination to laugh. Edric looked at him with still increasing astonishment, not being able to discover any thing in the slightest degree ridiculous in what he had said; and Roderick's disposition to mirth seemed to increase in exact proportion to Edric's gravity. At length, perceiving he remained silent, Roderick with infinite difficulty contrived to say, —

"Go on, my dear Mr. Montagu, I entreat you to go on; never mind me; it is a strange thought that has just entered my head."

"Mr. Montagu!" exclaimed Edric. "I was not aware that your Majesty was acquainted with my name; I do not recollect having mentioned it."

"Perhaps, however, the doctor did," returned the King; "or the alcaide might have told me, or my servants may have seen it marked upon your trunks or your linen, or—"

"Your Majesty need not give yourself so much trouble to explain a circumstance in itself perfectly immaterial," replied Edric. "I have no wish to conceal my name; I was only astonished to find your Majesty so well acquainted with it."

"Well, well," cried Roderick, somewhat impatiently, "the circumstance is, as you say, quite immaterial, so pray go on with what you were saying of Father Murphy."

"I was simply observing that the excellence of his disposition bad given me a favourable opinion of your Majesty's countrymen."

"Which I hope the thoughtlessness of their King will not induce you to change. I trust you have too much good sense, Mr. Montagu, to feel offended with what you may call the frivolity of my manner. My heart, I hope, is good, though I own even I cannot say much in favour of my head. I am a laughing philosopher however, a sort of Democritus the second; and finding it more agreeable to laugh than cry, I generally try to extract amusement from every thing that happens to fall in my way. We shall soon know each other better, and so now, as doubtless you may wish for repose after the fatigues you have undergone, you will perhaps like to retire to the tent prepared for you."

The doctor and Edric willingly assented and repaired to their new abode, completely puzzled by what seemed to them the extraordinary and inconsistent character of the King.

Under this gay, laughing exterior, however, Roderic hid a sound penetrating mind, and a firm determined spirit; whilst, though no one enjoyed more to ridicule occasionally the foibles of his subjects, no one knew better how to check them, and bring them back instantly to their proper stations, if they ventured a hair's breadth beyond the limits he prescribed to them. He had thus the art to make himself feared as well as loved, and to rule his subjects despotically, though he never spoke to them without a smile.

Such as I have described him, it may be easily imagined Roderick was not long in winning the affections of his new friends, and he, in his turn, was equally delighted with them. The noble, generous, and inquiring spirit of Edric exactly accorded with his own; and the follies of the learned doctor afforded him never-ceasing amusement, whilst Edric, delighted to meet with a companion who could understand and sympathize with his feelings, felt happier than he had been for years; and the learned doctor, proud of being admitted to the intimacy of such a man as Roderick, declared all his troubles were repaid, and that he now considered himself as the most fortunate of mortals.