For Prey and Spoils - Frederick Ober

How a Roof was Burned Over Our Heads

The maiden cried out, once only, in a horrified voice, then she gazed at the nun's face as if stupefied. We crept in, we three, and stood stupidly at the cot's foot, neither knowing what to do nor for what purpose we were there, save that our hearts were full of sympathy for the girl, whom we were at loss how to pacify.

She knelt at the side of the departed one, and hid her face in her hands. We knew then that she had recovered from her first shock and might soon be amenable to reason. For, sooth, sacred as was such a scene and imperative as was her duty to the departed, we knew that it was now the living, not the dead, who demanded our endeavors. The strife of battle was now so great that it penetrated into this inner chamber, and as it grew louder and louder Jaques became exceedingly uneasy. "I must go," he whispered, "to see how the battle cometh on." And, troth, he was only too glad to get away from this chamber of death, for he could not endure the sight of that still, calm face, which, though it was transfigured to look like an angel's, yet wore an expression of reproach.

God's creature, so fair, so pure, and yet to fall victim of so foul a deed! What wonder that the dead woman's face reflected somewhat of the reproach in her last words! I heard old Jaques mutter, as he passed out and down the corridor: "The man of blood shall die! The man of blood shall die!" So it seemed that the words went home—at least to one of us.

Eli drew me outside the door and whispered: "Hump, do you know our situation's kinder critical? It is, faith. It won't do to be caught here like rats in a hole, for the pirates are raging outside like fiends. We must either go out and join 'em or barricade this building and hold it till we can have word with the Admiral, for they are all drunk with blood and rum and wine; we can't make no head ag'inst 'em. Now, it seems a wicked thing to do to tear that girl away from her only friend and at such a time; but it must be done, or in less 'n half an hour she and you and I will be dead, too." And he brought his wooden leg down with a bang on the floor.

"True, Eli, I know it; but what can I do?"

"Do? Why, turn to and rouse her. Tell her, what's true, that the good nun is past all recovery, and if she values her life, and has any hope of ever seeing her father and sister (for it's plain as day-light to you and me who she is, of course—she's the Don's youngest daughter), the only thing she can do is to up and come along with us."

And this I did, while my comrade watched at the door. I went in and touched the girl on the shoulder. She moved not, though I spake and told her of the peril we were in, and that to save her life she must fly with us. I spake in English, though not knowing if she might understand me.

After a space she looked up, but with eyes that seemed not to see me, and slowly replied that she cared not, for she knew there was no hope, and adjured me to save myself, giving no further thought to her.

I responded that there might be hope—that she should not despair, for we were her friends, and would do our best to save her.

She looked at me with her hopeless eyes, and asked wearily: "For what? You will save me for what? Who can escape those fiends?"

Then, as if the thought of the pirates drove her to desperation, she sprang to her feet, and, drawing a small poniard from her dress, she exclaimed: "This will save me from them!" and was about to plunge it into her breast when I sprang forward and grasped her wrist.

"Hold, senorita, hold!" I cried. "Think of your sister, your father. I have news of them.

I have seen them; they have sent me for you!"

She made an effort to wrench loose her wrist, her eyes flashing scorn, as though she misbelieved me and I lied. In sooth, she told me so: "Thou liest!" she cried. "What would my father have to do with foul pirates? He is a noble hidalgo of Spain, and—and—he would rather see me dead than beholden to a base bucanier!"

"All, senorita," I cried, almost in despair, "if you will drop that stiletto, promising me not to recover it, so that my hands may be free, I will prove it to you eftsoon. And if I do not, I swear it, I will allow you to do what you will."

She said not a word, but loosed her fingers and allowed the blade to drop to the floor. I placed a foot upon it, not knowing but that she might repent herself and recover it, then with trembling fingers I fumbled in my doublet for the ring that I had hung upon the chain around my neck. I brought it forth, loosened it from the chain and placed it in her palm.

Her eyes dilated, losing in an instant their hard, strained look, then became suffused with tears.

"Sister! papa!" she murmured. "This is truly a token from them! Tell me, friend, how didst come by it?"

I told her, as briefly as possible; for now the roar of guns and shrieks of the victims gave terrible warning. Then she placed a hand in mine, and said she would do as I wished; but that she could not leave here alone, uncared for, uusepultered, the body of her teacher and friend. She was weeping now, for the unnatural calm that had possessed her had given away to weakness, and she trembled so that I called in my comrade to help me support her.

"No, no, I am brave, I am strong," she cried. "I know our peril; we must fly; but I cannot, oh, I cannot, leave Sister Cecelia here, all, all alone If you will carry her into the chapel, there I can prepare her for burial, for there is a tomb—her resting-place she used to call it—in which we can lay her, safe from the touch of vandal hands.

"Will you? Will you? Once there we can bar the great doors, and the sacristy adjoining is stored as for a siege, so that we may perchance hold out until the wretches have departed."

"Yes, yes," replied Eli. "But lose no time. Lead the way, and we will bear the dear lady to her last bourne. Ah, sorrow is it that one so good and fair should have come to this!

A shudder shook the girl's slender frame as we took up our burden, but she had nerved herself for the supreme trial and did not fail. She went ahead of us until we came to the great door of the chapel, which was of massive build, thick and studded with nails. This we swung open and entered the dim interior, where the air was heavy with incense, and only the light from some candles illumined the room. The walls of the chapel were of stone and very thick, the windows merely slitted loopholes in the walls, while the roof was of thatch—a circumstance that came near being our undoing later on.

Eli and I bore our precious burden with great care into the chapel, and deposited it upon the marble slab of a great tomb, which was built into a niche near the high altar. This tomb opened at the side by the pressing of a secret spring, the working of which the maiden understood, and lost no time in availing herself of the knowledge. By pressing the spring the apparently solid marble could be slid to one side in a groove, and this done there was revealed within a satin-covered couch, as if prepared for a bride. It was, in sooth, the last resting-place of the holy woman, which she had prepared against the contingency of her death; but she never could have imagined that her death would have come about as it had.

Alas! Though we all must die, no one but feels sorrow when the inevitable end comes to a friend. Weeping afresh, the maiden smoothed the lady's hair back from the fair white brow, raining kisses upon her cheeks, and then (well aware that time was precious) signaled us to lay her within the tomb. I groaned aloud, as well as in spirit, to think that I should have such a task imposed upon me; and even old Eli, hardened man that he was, showed by his softened visage that he felt the sorrow of it all.

Such a sepulture should have been accompanied by prayer and holy offices; but these were not available, so in chastened haste we placed the departed within the tomb, and then, after the maiden had bestowed a loving touch here and there, slid the marble back into its place. "Dust unto dust." We had no sooner left our charge than the demands of the moment caused us to transform ourselves into men of action. Eli hastened back and closed the great door, locking and barring it against the ravening horde, which we could hear pouring through the corridors outside in search of us. There was a clatter of feet, mailed hands smote the door, then the butts of arquebuses battered against it.

Confused shouts and oaths rose above the din of distant battle, and we were called upon to surrender. We paid no attention to the calls, but awaited in silence what might develop, knowing that our position was forlorn, if not indeed most desperate. The maiden clasped me by the hand, and pointed to the door of the sacristy, which opened into the chapel behind the high altar, and there I found, as she had said was there, great store of arms and provisions. There was enough of provisions in the way of food to carry us, I should think, through a siege of months, peradventure it should last so long; but I knew my former companions would not endure the delay, and if they could not force us out soon would e'en depart. The passage leading up to the door outside was narrow and crooked, affording no scope for the use of a battering ram, so, after vainly endeavoring to force an entrance, the men withdrew, and for a space we breathed more freely; though I could but think that the end had not yet come.

"Oh, they'll come back in less 'n no time," said Eli, in response to a question by our companion. "They ain't goin' to give us up so easy; consarn their picters! What I don't like about the sitooation is the quietness of it. S' long's they wus making an all-fired noise outside, why, we knowed jest where they was and what they was at; but now, blamed if I don't b'lieve they're sneaking up with cannon to bombard us, or some sick notion. One thing's true: they can't git in at the winders, 'cause they ain't any, hardly, onless we call them loopholes winders. The only thing I'm s'picious of is that ere thatch roof, made of palm leaves 'n poles, dry as tinder. It'll ketch fire like tow and turpentine. If it does, then we've got to git out uv here quicker 'n greased lightnin', I calkerlate. I wonder if there ain't no dungeons or something of that sort we could hide in till the wust of it's over; that is, providin' Morgan an' the other devils press us a little too close?"

I repeated his question to the senorita, and she shook her head. "No," she replied. Then she immediately added, as though she had suddenly remembered something she had forgotten: "But, yes, there are dungeons, only not made for living people. They are dead men's dungeons, the catacombs of the holy men. Under the chapel is a vast subterraneo, but half filled with skeletons. Oh, I would not wish to go there, my friends."

"Well, ma'am, we won't go there unless we're driven to it," rejoined Eli. "But, jest as a sort of precaution, s'posen you show us the entrance, if you know whereabouts it is."

The maiden looked at me appealingly, then said, pointing to a marble slab set into the floor of the chapel near unto the tombs: "It is there." Then she turned aside her face and shuddered. But Eli, notwithstanding her qualms, stumped over to the slab, and, finding a ring of iron deep set in it, pried it up from its resting-place without more ado. He had hardly gotten it moved to one side before our attention was attracted to the roof, where a curl of smoke proclaimed that truly the pirates had done as he had feared they would do and set it on fire.

"Jest's I thought," he muttered, squinting one eye up at the roof. "In less 'n ten minutes that air thatch will be blazing like all possessed, and when it falls we've got to stand from under. Give me a lift here, Hump, so 't I can get down into this ere pit and see 'f it'll do as a place of last resort. For us, I mean; for it's that a'ready, if it's a dungeon tomb."

I took hold with him and removed the slab clear from the hole, so that he could have free passage, and down he dropped, after assuring himself that the distance to a landing was not great. Seeing that he was going to explore the place, the senorita fetched a candle from the sacristy, which she lighted and gave him, thus showing that she was as quick-witted as she was sweet and fair to look upon. The flicker of the light was soon lost in the darkness, and while the girl and I waited at the opening the flames above us spread as if they were devouring tinder and tow, as Eli had most truly said they would. Not more than five minutes elapsed before Eli's reappearance, yet by that time the blaze above was terrific. Blazing bundles of palm leaves dropped to the floor at frequent intervals; the upper part of the chapel was hidden in smoke, through which fell flaming brands, like meteors out of the darkness of night.