The Poisoned Ice by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

We were four in the patio. And the patio was magnificent, with a terrace of marble running round its four sides, and in the middle a fountain splashing in a marble basin. I will not swear to the marble; for I was a boy of ten at the time, and that is a long while ago. But I describe as I recollect. It was a magnificent patio, at all events, and the house was a palace. And who the owner might be, Felipe perhaps knew. But he was not one to tell, and the rest of us neither knew nor cared.

The two women lay stretched on the terrace, with their heads close together and resting against the house wall. And I sat beside them gnawing a bone. The sun shone over the low eastern wall upon the fountain and upon Felipe perched upon the rim of the basin, with his lame leg stuck out straight and his mouth working as he fastened a nail in the end of his beggar’s crutch.

I cannot tell you the hour exactly, but it was early morning, and the date the twenty-fourth of February, 1671. I learnt this later. We in the patio did not bother ourselves about the date, for the world had come to an end, and we were the last four left in it. For three weeks we had been playing hide-and-seek with the death that had caught and swallowed everyone else; and for the moment it was quite enough for the women to sleep, for me to gnaw my bone in the shade, and for Felipe to fasten the loose nail in his crutch. Many windows opened on the patio. Through the nearest, by turning my head a little, I could see into a noble room lined with pictures and heaped with furniture and torn hangings. All of it was ours, or might be, for the trouble of stepping inside and taking possession. But the bone (I had killed a dog for it) was a juicy one, and I felt no inclination to stir. There was the risk, too, of infection–of the plague.

“Hullo!” cried Felipe, slipping on his shoe, with the heel of which he had been hammering. “You awake?”

I put Felipe last of us in order, for he was an old fool. Yet I must say that we owed our lives to him. Why he took so much trouble and spent so much ingenuity in saving them is not to be guessed: for the whole city of Panama comprehended no two lives more worthless than old Dona Teresa’s (as we called her) and mine: and as for the Carmelite, Sister Marta, who had joined our adventures two days before, she, poor soul, would have thanked him for putting a knife into her and ending her shame.

But Felipe, though a fool, had a fine sense of irony. And so for three weeks Dona Teresa and I–and for forty-eight hours Sister Marta too–had been lurking and doubling, squatting in cellars crawling on roofs, breaking cover at night to snatch our food, all under Felipe’s generalship. And he had carried us through. Perhaps he had a soft corner in his heart for old Teresa. He and she were just of an age, the two most careless-hearted outcasts in Panama; and knew each other’s peccadilloes to a hair. I went with Teresa. Heaven knows in what gutter she had first picked me up, but for professional ends I was her starving grandchild, and now reaped the advantages of that dishonouring fiction.

“How can a gentleman sleep for your thrice-accursed hammering?” was my answer to Felipe Fill-the-Bag.

“The city is very still this morning,” he observed, sniffing the air, which was laden still with the scent of burnt cedar-wood. “The English dogs will have turned their backs on us for good. I heard their bugles at daybreak; since then, nothing.”

“These are fair quarters, for a change.”

He grinned. “They seem to suit the lady, your grandmother. She has not groaned for three hours. I infer that her illustrious sciatica is no longer troubling her.”

Our chatter awoke the Carmelite. She opened her eyes, unclasped her hand, which had been locked round one of the old hag’s, and sat up blinking, with a smile which died away very pitiably.

“Good morning, Senorita,” said I.

She bent over Teresa, but suddenly drew back with a little “Ah!” and stared, holding her breath.

“What is the matter?”

She was on her knees, now; and putting out a hand, touched Teresa’s skinny neck with the tips of two fingers.

“What is the matter?” echoed Felipe, coming forward from the fountain.

“She is dead!” said I, dropping the hand which I had lifted.

“Jesu–” began the Carmelite, and stopped: and we stared at one another, all three.

With her eyes wide and fastened on mine, Sister Marta felt for the crucifix and rope of beads which usually hung from her waist. It was gone: but her hands fumbled for quite a minute before the loss came home to her brain. And then she removed her face from us and bent her forehead to the pavement. She made no sound, but I saw her feet writhing.

“Come, come,” said Felipe, and found no more to say.

I can guess now a little of what was passing through her unhappy mind. Women are women and understand one another. And Teresa, unclean and abandoned old hulk though she was, had stood by this girl when she came to us flying out of the wrack like a lost ship. “Dear, dear, dear”–I remembered scraps of her talk–“the good Lord is debonair, and knows all about these things. He isn’t like a man, as you might say”: and again, “Why bless you, He’s not going to condemn you for a matter that I could explain in five minutes. ‘If it comes to that,’ I should say–and I’ve often noticed that a real gentleman likes you all the better for speaking up–‘If it comes to that, Lord, why did You put such bloody-minded pirates into the world?’ Now to my thinking”–and I remember her rolling a leaf of tobacco as she said it–“it’s a great improvement to the mind to have been through the battle, whether you have won or lost; and that’s why, when on earth, He chose the likes of us for company.”

This philosophy was not the sort to convince a religious girl: but I believe it comforted her. Women are women, as I said; and when the ship goes down a rotten plank is better than none. So the Carmelite had dropped asleep last night with her hand locked round Teresa’s: and so it happened to Teresa this morning to be lamented, and sincerely lamented, by one of the devout. It was almost an edifying end; and the prospect of it, a few days ago, would have tickled her hugely.

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“But what did she die of?” I asked Felipe, when we had in delicacy withdrawn to the fountain, leaving the Carmelite alone with her grief.

He opened his mouth and pointed a finger at it.

“But only last evening I offered to share my bone with her: and she told me to keep it for myself.”

“Your Excellency does not reason so well as usual,” said Felipe, without a smile on his face. “The illustrious defunct had a great affection for her grandchild, which caused her to overlook the ambiguity of the relationship–and other things.”

“But do you mean to say–“

“She was a personage of great force of character, and of some virtues which escaped recognition, being unusual. I pray,” said he, lifting the rim of his rusty hat, “that her soul may find the last peace! I had the honour to follow her career almost from the beginning. I remember her even as a damsel of a very rare beauty: but even then as I say, her virtues were unusual, and less easily detected than her failings. I, for example, who supposed myself to know her thoroughly, missed reckoning upon her courage, or I had spent last night in seeking food. I am a fool and a pig.”

“And consequently, while we slept–“

“Excuse me, I have not slept.”

“You have been keeping watch?”

“Not for the buccaneers, my Lord. They left before daybreak. But the dogs of the city are starving, even as we: and like us they have taken to hunting in company. Now this is a handsome courtyard, but the gate does not happen to be too secure.”

I shivered. Felipe watched me with an amiable grin.

“But let us not,” he continued, “speak contemptuously of our inheritance. It is, after all, a very fair kingdom for three. Captain Morgan and his men are accomplished scoundrels, but careless: they have not that eye for trifles which is acquired in our noble profession, and they have no instinct at all for hiding-places. I assure you this city yet contains palaces to live in, linen and silver plate to keep us comfortable. Food is scarce, I grant, but we shall have wines of the very first quality. We shall live royally. But, alas! Heaven has exacted more than its tithe of my enjoyment. I had looked forward to seeing Teresa in a palace of her own. What a queen she would have made, to be sure!”

“Are we three the only souls in Panama?”

Felipe rubbed his chin. “I think there is one other. But he is a philosopher, and despises purple and linen. We who value them, within reason, could desire no better subject.” He arose and treated me to a regal bow. “Shall we inspect our legacy, my brother, and make arrangements for the coronation?”

“We might pick up something to eat on the way,” said I.

Felipe hobbled over to the terrace. “Poor old —-,” he muttered, touching the corpse with his staff, and dwelling on the vile word with pondering affection. “Senorita,” said he aloud, “much grief is not good on an empty stomach. If Juan here will lift her feet–“

We carried Dona Teresa into the large cool room, and laid her on a couch. Felipe tore down the silken hangings from one of the windows and spread them over her to her chin, which he tied up with the yellow kerchief which had been her only headgear for years. The Carmelite meanwhile detached two heavy silver sconces from a great candelabrum and set them by her feet. But we could find no tinder-box to light the candles–big enough for an altar.

“She will do handsomely until evening,” said Felipe, and added under his breath, “but we must contrive to fasten the gate of the patio.”

“I will watch by her,” said Sister Marta.

Felipe glanced at us and shook his head. I knew he was thinking of the dogs. “That would not do at all, Senorita. ‘For the living, the living,’ as they say. If we live, we will return this evening and attend to her; but while my poor head remains clear (and Heaven knows how long that will be) there is more important work to be done.”

“To bury the dead–“

“It is one of the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy, Senorita, and it won Raphael to the house of Tobit. But in this instance Raphael shuts himself up and we must go to him. While Teresa lived, all was well: but now, with two lives depending on my wits, and my wits not to be depended on for an hour, it does not suit with my conscience to lose time in finding you another protector.”

“But they–they have gone?”

“The Lutheran dogs have gone, and have taken the city’s victuals with them.”

“I do not want to live, my friend.”

“Granted: but I do not think that Juanito, here, is quite of your mind.”

She considered for a moment. “I will go with you,” she said: and we quitted the patio together.

The gate opened upon a narrow alley, encumbered now with charred beams and heaps of refuse from a burnt house across the way. The fury of the pirates had been extravagant, but careless (as Felipe had said). In their lust of robbing, firing, murdering, they had followed no system; and so it happened that a few houses, even wealthy ones, stood intact, like islands, in the general ruin. For the most part, to be sure, there were houses which hid their comfort behind mean walls. But once or twice we were fairly staggered by the blind rage which had passed over a mansion crowded with valuables and wrecked a dozen poor habitations all around it. The mischief was that from such houses Felipe, our forager, brought reports of wealth to make the mouth water, but nothing to stay the stomach. The meat in the larders was putrid; the bread hard as a stone. We were thankful at last for a few oranges, on which we snatched a breakfast in an angle of ruined wall on the north side of the Cathedral, pricking up our ears at the baying of the dogs as they hunted their food somewhere in the northern suburbs.

I confess that the empty houses gave me the creeps, staring down at me with their open windows while I sucked my orange. In the rooms behind those windows lay dead bodies, no doubt: some mutilated, some swollen with the plague (for during a fortnight now the plague had been busy); all lying quiet up there, with the sun staring in on them. Each window had a meaning in its eye, and was trying to convey it. “If you could only look through me,” one said. “The house is empty–come upstairs and see.” For me that was an uncomfortable meal. Felipe, too, had lost some of his spirits. The fact is, we had been forced to step aside to pass more than one body stretched at length or huddled in the roadway, and–well, I have told you about the dogs.

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Between the Cathedral and the quays scarcely a house remained: for the whole of this side of the city had been built of wood. But beyond this smoking waste we came to the great stone warehouses by the waterside, and the barracks where the Genoese traders lodged their slaves. The shells of these buildings stood, but every one had been gutted and the roofs of all but two or three had collapsed. We picked our way circumspectly now, for here had been the buccaneers’ headquarters. But the quays were as desolate as the city. Empty, too, were the long stables where the horses and mules had used to be kept for conveying the royal plate from ocean to ocean. Two or three poor beasts lay in their stalls–slaughtered as unfit for service; the rest, no doubt, were carrying Morgan’s loot on the road to Chagres.

Here, beside the stables, Felipe took a sudden turn to the right and struck down a lane which seemed to wind back towards the city between long lines of warehouses. I believe that, had we gone forward another hundred yards, to the quay’s edge, we should have seen or heard enough to send us along that lane at the double. As it was, we heard nothing, and saw only the blue bay, the islands shining green under the thin line of smoke blown on the land breeze–no living creature between us and them but a few sea-birds. After we had struck into the lane I turned for another look, and am sure that this was all.

Felipe led the way down the lane for a couple of gunshots; the Carmelite following like a ghost in her white robes, and I close at her heels. He halted before a low door on the left; a door of the most ordinary appearance. It opened by a common latch upon a cobbled passage running between two warehouses, and so narrow that the walls almost met high over our heads. At the end of this passage–which was perhaps forty feet long–we came to a second door, with a grille, and, hanging beside it, an iron bell-handle, at which Felipe tugged.

The sound of the bell gave me a start, for it seemed to come from just beneath my feet. Felipe grinned.

“Brother Bartolome works like a mole. But good wine needs no bush, my Juanito, as you shall presently own. He takes his own time, though,” Felipe grumbled, after a minute. “It cannot be that–“

He was about to tug again when somebody pushed back the little shutter behind the grille, and a pair of eyes (we could see nothing of the face) gazed out upon us.

“There is no longer need for caution, reverend father,” said Felipe, addressing the grille. “The Lutheran dogs have left the city, and we have come to taste your cordial and consult with you on a matter of business.”

We heard a bolt slid, and the door opened upon a pale emaciated face and two eyes which clearly found the very moderate daylight too much for them. Brother Bartolome blinked without ceasing, while he shielded with one hand the thin flame of an earthenware lamp.

“Are you come all on one business?” he asked, his gaze passing from one to another, and resting at length on the Carmelite.

“When the forest takes fire, all beasts are cousins,” said Felipe sententiously. Without another question the friar turned and led the way, down a flight of stairs which plunged (for all I could tell) into the bowels of earth. His lamp flickered on bare walls upon which the spiders scurried. I counted twenty steps, and still all below us was dark as a pit; ten more, and I was pulled up with that peculiar and highly disagreeable jar which everyone remembers who has put forward a foot expecting a step, and found himself suddenly on the level. The passage ran straight ahead into darkness: but the friar pushed open a low door in the left-hand wall, and, stepping aside, ushered us into a room, or paved cell, lit by a small lamp depending by a chain from the vaulted roof.

Shelves lined the cell from floor to roof; chests, benches, and work-tables occupied two-thirds of the floor-space: and all were crowded with books, bottles, retorts, phials, and the apparatus of a laboratory. “Crowded,” however, is not the word; for at a second glance I recognised the beautiful order that reigned. The deal work-benches had been scoured white as paper; every glass, every metal pan and basin sparkled and shone in the double light of the lamp and of a faint beam of day conducted down from the upper world by a kind of funnel and through a grated window facing the door.

In this queer double light Brother Bartolome faced us, after extinguishing the small lamp in his hand.

“You say the pirates have left?”

Felipe nodded. “At daybreak. We in this room are all who remain in Panama.”

“The citizens will be returning, doubtless, in a day or two. I have no food for you, if that is what you seek. I finished my last crust yesterday.”

“That is a pity. But we must forage. Meanwhile, reverend father, a touch of your cordial–“

Brother Bartolome reached down a bottle from a shelf. It was heavily sealed and decorated with a large green label bearing a scarlet cross. Bottles similarly sealed and labelled lined this shelf and a dozen others. He broke the seal, drew the cork, and fetched three glasses, each of which he held carefully up to the lamplight. Satisfied of their cleanliness, he held the first out to the Carmelite. She shook her head.

“It is against the vow.”

He grunted and poured out a glassful apiece for Felipe and me. The first sip brought tears into my eyes: and then suddenly I was filled with sunshine–golden sunshine–and could feel it running from limb to limb through every vein in my small body.

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Felipe chuckled. “See the lad looking down at his stomach! Button your jacket, Juanito; the noonday’s shining through! Another sip, to the reverend father’s health! His brothers run away–the Abbot himself runs: but Brother Bartolome stays. For he labours for the good of man, and that gives a clear conscience. Behold how just, after all, are the dispositions of Heaven: how blind are the wicked! For three weeks those bloody-minded dogs have been grinning and running about the city: and here under their feet, as in a mine, have lain the two most precious jewels of all–a clear conscience and a liquor which, upon my faith, holy father, cannot be believed in under a second glass.”

Brother Bartolome was refilling the glass, when the Carmelite touched his arm.

“You have been here–all the while?”

“Has it been so long? I have been at work, you see.”

“For the good of man,” interrupted Felipe. “Time slips away when one works for the good of man.”

“And all the while you were distilling this?”

“This–and other things.”

“Other things to drink?”

“My daughter, had they caught me, they might have tortured me. I might have held my tongue: but, again, I might not. Under torture one never knows what will happen. But the secret of the liquor had to die with me–that is in the vow. So to be on the safe side I made–other things.”

“Father, give me to drink of those other things.”

She spoke scarcely above her breath: but her fingers were gripping his arm. He looked straight into her eyes.

“My poor child!” was all he said, very low and slow.

“I can touch no other sacrament,” she pleaded. “Father, have mercy and give me that one!” She watched his eyes eagerly as they flinched from hers in pity and dwelt for a moment on a tall chest behind her shoulder, against the wall to the right of the door. She glanced round, stepped to the chest, and laid a hand on the lid. “Is it here?” she asked.

But he was beside her on the instant; and stooping, locked down the lid, and drew out the key abruptly.

“Is it here?” she repeated.

“My child, that is an ice-chest. In the liquor, for perfection, the water used has first to be frozen. That chest contains ice, and nothing else.”

“Nothing else?” she persisted.

But here Felipe broke in. “The Senorita is off her hinges, father. Much fasting has made her light-headed. And that brings me to my business. You know my head, too, is not strong: good enough for a furlong or two, but not for the mile course. Now if you will shelter these two innocents whilst I forage we shall make a famous household. You have rooms here in plenty; the best-hidden in Panama. But none of us can live without food, and with these two to look after I am hampered. There are the dogs, too. But Felipe knows a trick or two more than the dogs, and if he do not fill your larder by sunset, may his left leg be withered like his right!”

Brother Bartolome considered. “Here are the keys,” said he. “Choose your lodgings and take the boy along with you, for I think the sister here wishes to talk with me alone.”

Felipe took the keys and handed me the small lamp, which I held aloft as he limped after me along the dark corridor, tapping its flagged pavement with the nail of his crutch. We passed an iron-studded door which led, he told me, to the crypt of the chapel; and soon after mounted a flight of steps and found ourselves before the great folding doors of the ante-chapel itself, and looked in. Here was daylight again: actual sunlight, falling through six windows high up in the southern wall and resting in bright patches on the stall canopies within. We looked on these bright patches through the interspaces of a great carved screen: but when I would have pressed into the chapel for a better view, Felipe took me by the collar.

“Business first,” said he, and pointed up the staircase, which mounted steeply again after its break by the chapel doors. Up we went, and were saluted again by the smell of burnt cedar-wood wafted through lancet windows, barred but unglazed, in the outer wall. The inner wall was blank, of course, being the northern side-wall of the chapel: but we passed one doorway in it with which I was to make better acquaintance. And, about twenty steps higher, we reached a long level corridor and the cells where the brothers slept.

Felipe opened them one by one and asked me to take my choice. All were empty and bare, and seemed to me pretty much alike.

“We have slept in worse, but that is not the point. Be pleased to remember, Juanito, that we are kings now: and as kings we are bound to find the reverend fathers’ notions of bedding inadequate. Suppose you collect us half-a-dozen of these mattresses apiece, while I go on and explore.”

I chose three cells for Sister Marta, Felipe, and myself, and set about dragging beds and furniture from the others to make us really comfortable. I dare say I spent twenty minutes over this, and, when all was done, perched myself on a stool before the little window of my own bed-room, for a look across the city. It was a very little window indeed, and all I saw was a green patch beyond the northern suburbs, where the rich merchants’ gardens lay spread like offerings before a broken-down shrine. Those trees no doubt hid trampled lawns and ruined verandahs: but at such a distance no scar could be seen. The suburbs looked just as they had always looked in early spring.

I was staring out of window, so, and just beginning to wonder why Felipe did not return as he had promised, when there came ringing up the staircase two sharp cries, followed by a long, shrill, blood-freezing scream.

My first thought (I cannot tell you why) was that Felipe must have tumbled downstairs: and without any second thought I had jumped off my chair and was flying down to his help, three stairs at a bound, when another scream and a roar of laughter fetched me up short. The laugh was not Felipe’s; nor could I believe it Brother Bartolome’s. In fact it was the laugh of no one man, but of several. The truth leapt on me with a knife, as you might say. The buccaneers had returned.

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I told you, a while back, of a small doorway in the inner wall of the staircase. It was just opposite this door that I found myself cowering, trying to close my ears against the abhorrent screams which filled the stairway and the empty corridor above with their echoes. To crawl out of sight–had you lived through those three weeks in Panama you would understand why this was the only thought in my head, and why my knees shook so that I actually crawled on them to the little door, and finding that it opened easily, crept inside and shut it before looking about me.

But even in the act of shutting it I grew aware that the screams and laughter were louder than ever. And a glance around told me that I was not in a room at all, but in the chapel, or rather in a gallery overlooking it, and faced with an open balustrade.

As I crouched there on my knees, they could not see me, nor could I see them; but their laughter and their infernal jabber–for these buccaneers were the sweepings of half-a-dozen nations–came to my ears as distinct as though I stood among them. And under the grip of terror I crawled to the front of the gallery and peered down between its twisted balusters.

I told you, to start with, that Felipe was a crazy old fool: and I dare say you have gathered by this time what shape his craziness took. He had a mania for imagining himself a great man. For days together he might be as sane as you or I; and then, all of a sudden–a chance word would set him off–he had mounted his horse and put on all the airs of the King of Spain, or his Holiness the Pope, or any grandissimo you pleased, from the Governor of Panama upwards. I had known that morning, when he began to prate about our being kings, that the crust of his common-sense was wearing thin. I suppose that after leaving me he must have come across the coffers in which the Abbot kept his robes of state, and that the sight of them started his folly with a twist; for he lay below me on the marble floor of the chapel, arrayed like a prince of the Church. The mitre had rolled from his head; but the folds of a magnificent purple cope, embroidered with golden lilies and lined with white silk, flowed from his twisted shoulders over the black and white chequers of the pavement. And he must have dressed himself with care, too: for beneath the torn hem of the alb his feet and ankles stirred feebly, and caught my eye: and they were clad in silken stockings. He was screaming no longer. Only a moan came at intervals as he lay there, with closed eyes, in the centre of that ring of devils: and on the outer edge of the ring, guarded, stood Brother Bartolome and the Carmelite. Had we forgotten or been too careless to close the door after us when Brother Bartolome let us in? I tried to remember, but could not be sure.

The most of the buccaneers–there were eight of them–spoke no Spanish: but there was one, a cross-eyed fellow, who acted as interpreter. And he knelt and held up a bundle of keys which Felipe wore slung from a girdle round his waist.

“Once more, Master Abbot–will you show us your treasures, or will you not?”

Felipe moaned.

“I tell you,” Brother Bartolome spoke up, very short and distinct, “there are no treasures. And if there were, that poor wretch could not show them. He is no Abbot, but a beggar who has lived on charity these twenty years to my knowledge.”

“That tongue of yours, friar, needs looking to. I promise you to cut it out and examine it when I have done with your reverend father here. As for the wench at your side–“

“You may do as your cruelty prompts you, Brother Bartolome interrupted. But that man is no Abbot.”

“He may be Saint Peter himself, and these the keys of Heaven and Hell. But I and my camarados are going to find out what they open, as sure as my name is Evan Evans.” And he knotted a cord round Felipe’s forehead and began to twist. The Carmelite put her hands over her eyes and would have fallen: but one of her guards held her up, while another slipped both arms round her neck from behind and held her eyelids wide open with finger and thumb. I believe–I hope–that Felipe was past feeling by this time, as he certainly was past speech. He did not scream again, and it was only for a little while that he moaned. But even when the poor fool’s head dropped on his shoulder, and the life went out of him, they did not finish with the corpse until, in their blasphemous sport, they had hoisted it over the altar and strapped it there with its arms outstretched and legs dangling.

“Now I think it is your turn,” said the scoundrel Evans, turning to Brother Bartolome with a grin.

“I regret that we cannot give you long, for we returned from Tavoga this morning to find Captain Morgan already on the road. It will save time if you tell us at once what these keys open.”

“Certainly I will tell you,” said the friar, and stretched out a hand for the bunch. “This key for instance, is useless: it opens the door of the wicket by which you entered. This opens the chest which, as a rule, contains the holy vessels; but it too, is useless, since the chest is empty of all but the silver chalices and a couple of patens. Will you send one of your men to prove that I speak truth? This, again, is the key of my own cell–“

“Where your reverence entertains the pretty nuns who come for absolution.”

“After that,” said Brother Bartolome, pointing a finger towards the altar and the poor shape dangling, “you might disdain small brutalities.”

The scoundrel leaned his back against a carved bench-end and nodded his head slowly. “Master friar, you shall have a hard death.”

“Possibly. This, as I was saying, is the key of my cell, where I decoct the liquor for which this house is famous. Of our present stock the bulk lies in the cellars, to which this”–and he held up yet another key–“will admit you. Yes, that is it,” as one of the pirates produced a bottle and held it under his nose.

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“Eh? Let me see it.” The brute Evans snatched the bottle. “Is this the stuff?” he demanded, holding it up to the sunlight which streamed down red on his hand from the robe of a martyr in one of the painted windows above. He pulled out his heavy knife, and with the back of it knocked off the bottle-neck.

“I will trouble you to swear to the taste,” said he.

“I taste it only when our customers complain. They have not complained now for two-and-twenty years.”

“Nevertheless you will taste it.”

“You compel me?”

“Certainly I compel you. I am not going to be poisoned if I can help it. Drink, I tell you!”

Brother Bartolome shrugged his shoulders. “It is against the vow … but, under compulsion … and truly I make it even better than I used,” he wound up, smacking his thin lips as he handed back the bottle.

The buccaneer took it, watching his face closely. “Here’s death to the Pope!” said he, and tasted it, then took a gulp. “The devil, but it is hot!” he exclaimed, the tears springing into his eyes.

“Certainly, if you drink it in that fashion. But why not try it with ice?”


“You will find a chestful in my cell. Here is the key; which, by the way, has no business with this bunch. Felipe, yonder, who was always light-fingered, must have stolen it from my work-bench.”

“Hand it over. One must go to the priests to learn good living. Here, Jacques le Bec!” He rattled off an order to a long-nosed fellow at his elbow, who saluted and left the chapel, taking the key.

“We shall need a cup to mix it in,” said Brother Bartolome quietly.

One of the pirates thrust the silver chalices into his hands: for the bottle had been passed from one man to another, and they were thirsty for more. Brother Bartolome took it, and looked at the Carmelite. For the moment nobody spoke: and a queer feeling came over me in my hiding. This quiet group of persons in the quiet chapel–it seemed to me impossible they could mean harm to one another, that in a minute or two the devil would be loose among them. There was no menace in the posture of any one of them, and in Brother Bartolome’s there was certainly no hint of fear. His back was towards me, but the Carmelite stood facing my gallery, and I looked straight into her eyes as they rested on the cups, and in them I read anxiety indeed, but not fear. It was something quite different from fear.

The noise of Jacques le Bec’s footstep in the ante-chapel broke this odd spell of silence. The man Evans uncrossed his legs and took a pace to meet him. “Here, hand me a couple of bottles. How much will the cups hold?”

“A bottle and a half, or thereabouts: that is, if you allow for the ice.”

Jacques carried the bottles in a satchel, and a block of ice in a wrapper under his left arm. He handed over the satchel, set down the ice on the pavement and began to unwrap it. At a word from Evans he fell to breaking it up with the pommel of his sword.

“We must give it a minute or two to melt,” Evans added. And again a silence fell, in which I could hear the lumps of ice tinkling as they knocked against the silver rims of the chalices.

“The ice is melted. Is it your pleasure that I first taste this also?” Brother Bartolome spoke very gravely and deliberately.

“I believe,” sneered Evans, “that on these occasions the religious are the first to partake.”

The friar lifted one of the chalices and drank. He held it to his lips with a hand that did not shake at all; and, having tasted, passed it on to Evans without a word or a glance. His eyes were on the Carmelite, who had taken half a step forward with palms held sidewise to receive the chalice he still held in his right hand. He guided it to her lips, and his left hand blessed her while she drank. Almost before she had done, the Frenchman, Jacques le Bec, snatched it.

The Carmelite stood, swaying. Brother Bartolome watched the cups as they went full circle.

Jacques le Bec, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, spoke a word or two rapidly in French.

Brother Bartolome turned to Evans. “Yes, I go with you. For you, my child!”–He felt for his crucifix and held it over the Carmelite, who had dropped on her knees before him. At the same time, with his left hand, he pointed towards the altar. “For these, the mockery of the Crucified One which themselves have prepared!”

I saw Evans pull out his knife and leap. I saw him like a man shot, drop his arm and spin right-about as two screams rang out from the gallery over his head. It must have been I who screamed: and to me, now, that is the inexplicable part of it. I cannot remember uttering the screams: yet I can see Evans as he turned at the sound of them.

Yet it was I who screamed, and who ran for the door and, still screaming, dashed out upon the staircase. Up the stairs I ran: along the corridor: and up a second staircase.

The sunshine broke around me. I was on the leads of the roof, and Panama lay spread at my feet like a trodden garden. I listened: no footsteps were following. Far away from the westward came the notes of a bugle–faint, yet clear. In the northern suburbs the dogs were baying. I listened again. I crept to the parapet of the roof and saw the stained eastern window of the chapel a few yards below me, saw its painted saints and martyrs, outlined in lead, dull against the noonday glow. And from within came no sound at all.

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