Posted by ricardo marcenaro | Posted in Short Stories: Rex Ellingwood Beach - Flesh - Photo gallery - Links to more Short Stories | Posted on 10:57
Rex Ellingwood Beach
Should you chance, in crossing a certain mountain pass in southern Catalonia, to find yourself poised above a little valley against the opposite side of which lies a monastery, look to the heights above it. Should you piece out from among the rocks the jagged ruins of a castle, ask its name. Your guide will perhaps inform you that those blackened stones are called "The Teeth of the Moor," and if he knows the story he will doubtless tell it to you, crossing himself many times during the recital. In all probability, however, he will merely shrug his shoulders and say it is a place of bad repute, nothing more.
Even the monks of the monastery, who are considered well versed in local history, have forgotten the reason for the name, although they recall the legend that once upon a time the castle harbored a haughty Moslem lord. Few of them ever heard the story of Joseph the Anchorite, and how he sought flesh within its portals; those who have will not repeat it. Time was, however, when the tale was fresh, and it runs this wise:
Away back in the reign of Abderamus the Just, First Caliph of the West, Hafiz, a certain warlike Moor, amazed at the fertility of this region, established on the edge of the plateau a stronghold of surprising security. His house he perched upon the crest of the cliff overlooking the valley below. It was backed by verdant, sun-kissed slopes which quickly yielded tribute in such quantity as to render him rich and powerful. Hafiz lived and fought and died beneath the Crescent banner, leaving in his place a son, who likewise waged war to the northward on behalf of the Prophet and all True Believers, at the same time farming his rich Catalonian acres.
Generations came and went, and, although the descendants of Hafiz waxed strong, so also did the power of the hated Christians. Living as they did upon the very fringe of the Mussulman empire, the Moors beheld with consternation the slow encroachment of the Unbelievers--more noticeable here than farther to the southward. At intervals these enemies were driven back, but invariably they reappeared, until at length, upon the plain beneath the castle, monks came and built a monastery which they called San Sebastian. Beneath the very eyes of Abul Malek, fourth descendant of Hafiz, they raised their impious walls; although he chafed to wreak a bloody vengeance for this outrage, his hands were tied by force of circumstance. Wearied with interminable wars, the Moorish nation had sought respite; peace dozed upon the land. Men rested and took from the earth new strength with which to resume the never-ending struggle between the Crescent and the Cross, wherefore Abul Malek's rage availed him nothing. From his embrasured windows he beheld the cassocked enemies of his creed passing to and fro about their business; he heard his sacred hour of prayer desecrated by their Christian bells, and could do no more than revile them for dogs, the while he awaited the will of Allah. It was scant comfort for a man of his violent temper.
But the truce threatened never to be broken. Years passed and still peace continued to reign. Meanwhile the Moor fed upon his wrongs and, from incessant brooding over them, became possessed of a fury more fanatical, more poisonous even than had been engendered by his many battles.
Finally, when the wrong had bit too deep for him to endure, he summoned all his followers, and selecting from their number one hundred of the finest horsemen, he bade them make ready for a journey to Cordova; then in their presence he kissed the blue blade of his scimitar and vowed that the shackles which had hampered him and them would be struck off.
For many days there ensued the bustle and the confusion of a great preparation in the house of the Moor; men came and went, women sewed and cleaned and burnished; horses were groomed, their manes were combed and their hoofs were polished; and then one morning, ere the golden sun was an hour high, down the winding trail past the monastery of San Sebastian, came a brilliant cavalcade. Abul Malek led, seated upon an Arabian steed whiter than the clouds which lay piled above the westward mountains. His two sons, Hassam and Elzemah, followed astride horses as black as night--horses the distinguished pedigrees of which were cited in the books of Ibn Zaid. Back of them came one hundred swarthy warriors on other coal-black mounts, whose flashing sides flung back the morning rays. Their flowing linen robes were like the snow, and from their turbans gleamed gems of value. Each horseman bore at his girdle a purse, a kerchief, and a poinard; and in their purses lay two thousand dinars of gold. Slaves brought up the rear of the procession, riding asses laden with bales, and they led fifty blood-red bays caparisoned as for a tournament.
With scowling glances at the monastery the band rode on across the valley, climbed to the pass, and disappeared. After many days they arrived at Cordova, then when they had rested and cleansed themselves, Abul Malek craved audience of the Caliph, Aboul-Abbas El Hakkam. Being of distinguished reputation, his wish was quickly granted; and on the following day in the presence of the Hadjeb, the viziers, the white and black eunuchs, the archers, and the cuirassiers of the guard, he made a gift to his sovereign of those hundred northern horsemen and their mounts, those fifty blooded bays and their housings, those bales of aloe-wood and camphor, those silken pieces and those two thousand dinars of yellow Catalonian gold. This done, he humbly craved a favor in return, and when bade to speak, he began by telling of the indignities rendered him by the monks of San Sebastian.
"Five generations my people have dwelt upon our lands, serving the true God and His Prophet," he declared, with quivering indignation; "but now those idolaters have come. They gibe and they mock at me beneath my very window. My prayers are broken by their yammerings; they defile my casement, and the stench of their presence assails my nostrils."
"What do you ask of me?" inquired the Caliph.
"I ask for leave to cleanse my doorstep."
The illustrious Moslem shook his head, whereat Abul Malek cried:
"Does not the Koran direct us to destroy the unbelieving and the impious? Must I then suffer these infidels to befoul my garden?"
"God is merciful; it is His will that for a time the Unbelievers shall appear to flourish," said the Caliph. "We are bound by solemn compact with the kings of Leon and Castile to observe an armistice. That armistice we shall observe, for our land is weary of wars, our men are tired, and their scars must heal. It is not for you or for me to say: 'This is good, or this is evil.' Allah's will be done!"
Abul Malek and his sons returned alone to their mountains, but when they reined in at the door of their castle the father spat venomously at the belfried roof of the monastery beneath and vowed that he would yet work his will upon it.
Now that the Law forbade him to make way with his enemies by force, he canvassed his brain for other means of effecting their downfall; but every day the monks went on with their peaceful tasks, unmindful of his hatred, and their impious religion spread about the countryside. Abul Malek's venom passed them by; they gazed upon him with gentle eyes in which there was no spleen, although in him they recognized a bitter foe.
As time wore on his hatred of their religion became centered upon the monks themselves, and he undertook by crafty means to annoy them. Men said these Christian priests were good; that their lives were spent in prayer, in meditation, and in works of charity among the poor; tales came to the Moor of their spiritual existence, of their fleshly renunciation; but at these he scoffed. He refused to credit them.
"Pah!" he would cry, tugging at his midnight beard; "how can these men be aught but liars, when they live and preach a falsehood? Their creed is impious, and they are hypocrites. They are not superior beings, they are flesh like you or me. They have our passions and our faults, but a thousand times multiplied, for they walk in darkness and dwell in hypocrisy. Beneath their cassocks is black infamy; their hearts are full of evil--aye, of lust and of every unclean thing. Being false to the true God, they are false to themselves and to the religion they profess; and I will prove it." Thus ran his reasoning.
In order to make good his boast Abul Malek began to study the monks carefully, one after another. He tried temptation. A certain gross-bellied fellow he plied with wine. He flattered and fawned upon the simple friar; he led him into his cellars, striving to poison the good man's body as well as his mind; but the visitor partook in moderation, and preached the gospel of Christ so earnestly that the Saracen fled from his presence, bathing himself in clean water to be rid of the pollution.
Next he laid a trap for the Abbot himself. He selected the fairest of his slaves, a well-rounded woman of great physical charm, and bribed her with a girdle of sequins. She sought out the Abbot and professed a hunger for his creed. Bound thus by secrecy to the pious man, she lured him by every means at her command. But the Abbot had room for no passion save the love of Christ, and her wiles were powerless against this armor.
Abul Malek was patient; he renewed his vow to hold the false religion up to ridicule and laughter, thinking, by encompassing the downfall of a single advocate, thus to prove his contention and checkmate its ever-widening influence. He became obsessed by this idea; he schemed and he contrived; he used to the utmost the powers of his Oriental mind. From his vantage-point above the cloister he heard the monks droning at their Latin; his somber glances followed them at their daily tasks. Like a spider he spun his web, and when one victim broke through it he craftily repaired its fabric, luring another into its meshes.
At times he shared his vigil with his daughter Zahra, a girl of twelve, fast growing into womanhood; and since she had inherited his wit and temperament, he taught her to share his hatred of the black-robed men.
This Moorish maiden possessed the beauty of her mother, who had died in childbirth; and in honor of that celebrated favorite of Abderamus III. she had been christened "Flower of the World." Nor was the title too immoderate, as all men who saw her vowed. Already the hot sun of Catalonia had ripened her charms, and neighboring lords were beginning to make extravagant overtures of marriage. But seeing in her a possible weapon more powerful than any he had yet launched against the monks of San Sebastian, the father refused to consider even the best of them. He continued to keep her at his side, pouring his hatred into her ears until she, too, was ablaze with it.
Zahra was in her fourteenth year when Abul Malek beheld, one day, a new figure among those in the courtyard of the monastery below. Even from his eminence the Saracen could see that this late-comer was a giant man, for the fellow towered head and shoulders above his brethren. Inquiry taught him that the monk's name was Joseph. Nor was their meeting long delayed, for a sickness fell among the people of the valley, and Abul Malek, being skilled in medicine, went out to minister among the poor, according to his religion. At the sick-bed of a shepherd the two men came face to face.
Joseph was not young, nor was he old, but rather he had arrived at the perfect flower of his manhood, and his placid soul shone out through features of unusual strength and sweetness. In him the crafty Moor beheld a difference which for a time was puzzling. But eventually he analyzed it. The other monks had once been worldly men--they showed it in their faces; the countenance of Fray Joseph, on the contrary, was that of a boy, and it was without track of temptation or trace of evil. He had lived a sheltered life from his earliest youth, so it transpired, and Abul Malek rejoiced in the discovery, it being his belief that all men are flesh and that within them smolder flames which some day must have mastery. If this monk had never let his youth run free, if he had never met temptation and conquered it, those pent-up forces which inhabit all of us must be gathering power, year by year, and once the joint of this armor had been found, once it could be pierced, he would become earthly like other men, and his false religion would drop away, leaving him naked under the irksome garb of priesthood.
Accordingly, the Moor tested Fray Joseph, as he had tested the Abbot and the others, but to no avail, and he was in despair, until one day the secret of his failure was unexpectedly revealed.
Being busied with his accounts, he had repaired to the shade of a pomegranate grove near the cliff, the better to escape the heat; while so engaged up the path from the monastery came the good brother. Just abreast of Abul Malek's point of vantage Joseph paused to listen. A songbird was trilling wondrously and the monk's face, raised toward the pomegranate trees, became transfigured. He changed as if by magic; his lips parted in a tender smile, his figure grew tense with listening; not until the last note had died away did he move. Then a great breath stirred his lungs, and with shining eyes and rapt countenance he went on into the fields.
Abul Malek rose, his white teeth gleaming through his beard.
"Allah be praised!" he exclaimed. "It is music!" And rolling up his papers, he went into the house.
Early on the following morning another cavalcade filed down past the monastery of San Sebastian; but this procession was in great contrast to the one that had gone by five years before. Instead of gaily caparisoned warriors, it was composed mainly of women and slaves, with a mere handful of guards to lead the way. There were bondmaidens and seamstresses, an ancient nurse and a tutor of languages; while astride of a palfrey at her father's side rode the youthful lady of the castle. Her veil was wet upon her cheeks, her eyes were filled with shadows; yet she rode proudly, like a princess.
Once more the train moved past the sun-baked walls of the monastery, across the plain to the mountain road that led to the land of bounty and of culture. Late that afternoon Brother Joseph learned from the lips of a herdsman that the beauteous Zahra, flower of all the Moorish race, had gone to Cordova to study music.
Abul Malek once more rode home alone to his castle; but this time as he dismounted at his door he smiled at the monastery below.
Four years crept by, during which the Saracen lord brooded over the valley and the monk Joseph went his simple way, rendering service where he could, preaching, by the example of his daily life and his unselfish devotion, a sermon more powerful than his lips could utter. Through it all the Moor watched him carefully, safeguarding him as a provident farmer fattens a sheep for the slaughter. Once a year the father rode southward to Cordova, bringing news with his return that delighted the countryside, news that penetrated even the walls of San Sebastian and filled the good men therein with gladness. It seemed that the maiden Zahra was becoming a great musician. She pursued her studies in the famous school of Ali-Zeriab, and not even Moussali himself, that most gifted of Arabian singers, could bring more tender notes from the lute than could this fair daughter of Catalonia. Her skill transcended that of Al Farabi, for the harp, the tabor, and the mandolin were wedded to her dancing fingers; and, most marvelous of all, her soul was so filled with poetry that her verses were sung from Valencia to Cadiz. It was said that she could move men to laughter, to tears, to deeds of heroism--that she could even lull them to sleep by the potency of her magic. She had once played before the Caliph under amazing circumstances.
The Prince of True Believers, so ran the story, had quarreled with his favorite wife, and in consequence had fallen into a state of melancholy so deep as to threaten his health and to alarm his ministers. Do what they would, he still declined, until in despair the Hadjeb sent for Zahra, daughter of Abul Malek. She came, surrounded by her servants, and sang before El Hakkam. So cunningly did she contrive her verses, so tender were her airs, so potent were her fluttering fingers, that those within hearing were moved to tears, and the unhappy lover himself became so softened that he sped to the arms of his offended beauty and a reconciliation occurred. In token of his gratitude he had despatched a present of forty thousand drachmas of gold to the singer, and her renown went broadcast like a flame.
When Abul Malek heard of this he praised his God, and, gathering his horsemen, he set out to bring his daughter home, for the time was ripe.
One evening in early spring, that magic season when nature is most charming, Fray Joseph, returning to his cell, heard from behind a screen of verdure alongside his path a woman singing. But was this singing? he asked himself. Could mortal lips give birth to melody like this? It was the sighing of summer winds through rustling leaves, the music of crystal brooks on stony courses, the full-throated worship of birds. Joseph listened, enthralled, like a famished pilgrim in the desert. His simple soul, attuned to harmonies of the woodland, leaped in answer; his fancy, starved by years of churchly rigor, quickened like a prisoner at the light of day. Not until the singer had ceased did he resume his way, and through his dreams that night ran the song of birds, the play of zephyrs, the laughter of bubbling springs.
A few evenings later he heard the voice again, and paused with lips apart, with heart consumed by eagerness. It was some slave girl busied among the vines of Abul Malek, he decided, for she translated all the fragmentary airs that float through summer evenings--the songs of sweethearts, the tender airs of motherhood, the croon of distant waterfalls, the voice of sleepy locusts--and yet she wove them into an air that carried words. It was most wonderful.
Joseph felt a strong desire to mingle his voice with the singer's, but he knew his throat to be harsh and stiff from chanting Latin phrases. He knew not whither the tune would lead, and yet, when she sang, he followed, realizing gladly that she voiced the familiar music of his soul. He was moved to seek her out and to talk with her, until he remembered with a start that she was a woman and he a priest.
Each night he shaped his course so as to bring him past the spot where the mysterious singer labored, and in time he began to feel the stirring of a very earthly curiosity, the which he manfully fought down. Through the long, heated hours of the day he hummed her airs and repeated her verses, longing for the twilight hour which would bring the angel voice from out the vineyard. Eventually the girl began to sing of love, and Joseph echoed the songs in solitude, his voice as rasping and untrue as that of a frog.
Then, one evening, he heard that which froze him in his tracks. The singer accompanied herself upon some instrument the like of which he had never imagined. The music filled the air with heavenly harmony, and it set him to vibrating like a tautened string; it rippled forth, softer than the breeze, more haunting than the perfume of the frangipani. Joseph stood like a man in a trance, forgetful of all things save these honeyed sounds, half minded to believe himself favored by the music of the seraphim.
Never had he dreamed of such an intoxication. And then, as if to intensify his wild exultation, the maiden sang a yearning strain of passion and desire.
The priest began to tremble. His heart-beats quickened, his senses became unbridled; something new and mighty awoke within him, and he was filled with fever. His huge thews tightened, his muscles swelled as if for battle, yet miracle of miracles, he was melting like a child in tears! With his breath tugging at his throat, he turned off the path and parted the verdure, going as soundlessly as an animal; and all the while his head was whirling, his eyes took note of nothing. He was drawn as by a thousand invisible strings, which wound him toward the hidden singer.
But suddenly the music ended in a peal of rippling laughter and there came the rustle of silken garments. Fray Joseph found himself in a little open glade, so recently vacated that a faint perfume still lingered to aggravate his nostrils. Beyond stretched the vineyard of the Moor, a tangle of purpling vines into the baffling mazes of which the singer had evidently fled.
So she had known of his presence all along, the monk reflected, dizzily. It followed, therefore, that she must have waited every evening for his coming, and that her songs had been sung for him. An ecstasy swept over him. Regaining the path, he went downward to the monastery, his brain afire, his body tingling.
Joseph was far too simple for self-analysis, and he was too enchanted by those liquid strains to know what all this soul confusion foretold; he merely realized that he had made the most amazing of discoveries, that the music of the spheres had been translated for his privileged ears, that a door had opened allowing him to glimpse a glory hidden from other mortals. It was not the existence of the singer, but of the music, that excited him to adoration. He longed to possess it, to take it with him, and to cherish it like a thing of substance, to worship it in his solitude.
The song had been of love; but, after all, love was the burden of his religion. Love filled the universe, it kept the worlds a-swinging, it was the thing that dominated all nature and made sweet even the rigid life of an anchorite. It was doubtless love which awoke this fierce yet tender yearning in him now, this ecstasy that threatened to smother him. Love was a holy and an impersonal thing, nevertheless it blazed and melted in his every vein, and it made him very human.
Through all that night Fray Joseph lay upon his couch, rapt, thankful, wondering. But in the morning he had changed. His thoughts became unruly, and he recalled again that tantalizing perfume, the shy tones of that mischief laughter. He began to long intensely to behold the author of this music-magic, to behold her just once, for imagination graced her with a thousand witching forms. He wished ardently, also, to speak with her about this miracle, this hidden thing called melody, for the which he had starved his life, unknowingly.
As the afternoon aged he began to fear that he had frightened her, and therefore when he came to tread his homeward path it was with a strange commingling of eagerness and of dread. But while still at a distance, he heard her singing as usual, and, nearing the spot, he stopped to drink in her message. Again the maiden sang of love; again the monk felt his spirit leaping as she fed his starving soul even more adroitly than she fingered the vibrant strings. At last her wild, romantic verses became more unrestrained; the music quickened until, regardless of all things, Fray Joseph burst the thicket asunder and stood before her, huge, exalted, palpitant.
"I, too, have sung those songs," he panted, hoarsely. "That melody has lived in me since time began; but I am mute. And you? Who are you? What miracle bestowed this gift--?"
He paused, for with the ending of the song his frenzy was dying and his eyes were clearing. There, casting back his curious gaze, was a bewitching Moorish maid whose physical perfection seemed to cause the very place to glow. The slanting sunbeams shimmered upon her silken garments; from her careless hand drooped an instrument of gold and of tortoise-shell, an instrument strange to the eyes of the monk. Her feet were cased in tiny slippers of soft Moroccan leather; her limbs, rounded and supple and smooth as ivory, were outlined beneath wide flowing trousers which were gathered at the ankles. A tunic of finest fabric was flung back, displaying a figure of delicate proportions, half recumbent now upon the sward.
The loveliness of Moorish women has been heralded to the world; it is not strange that this maid, renowned even among her own people, should have struck the rustic priest to dumbness. He stood transfixed; and yet he wondered not, for it was seemly that such heavenly music should have sprung from the rarest of mortals. He saw that her hair, blacker than the night, rippled in a glorious cascade below her waist, and that her teeth embellished with the whiteness of alabaster the vermilion lips which smiled at him.
That same intoxicating scent, sweeter than the musk of Hadramaut, enveloped her; her fingers were jeweled with nails which flashed in rivalry with their burden of precious stones as she toyed with the whispering strings.
For a time she regarded the monk silently.
"I am Zahra," she said at length, and Joseph thrilled at the tones of her voice. "To me, all things are music."
"Zahra! 'Flower of the World,'" he repeated, wonderingly. After an instant he continued, harshly, "Then you are the daughter of the Moor?"
"Yes. Abul Malek. You have heard of me?"
"Who has not? Aye, you were rightly called 'Flower of the World.' But--this music! It brought me here against my will; it pulls at me like straining horses. Why is that? What wizardry do you possess? What strange chemistry?"
She laughed lightly. "I possess no magic art. We are akin, you and I. That is all. You, of all men, are attuned to me."
"No," he said, heavily. "You are an Infidel, I am a Christian. There is no bond between us."
"So?" she mocked. "And yet, when I sing, you can hear the nightingales of Aden; I can take you with me to the fields of battle, or to the innermost halls of the Alhambra. I have watched you many times, Brother Joseph, and I have never failed to play upon your soul as I play upon my own. Are we not, then, attuned?"
"Your veil!" he cried, accusingly. "I have never beheld a Moorish woman's face until now."
Her lids drooped, as if to hide the fire behind them, and she replied, without heeding his words: "Sit here, beside me. I will play for you."
"Yes, yes!" he cried, eagerly. "Play! Play on for me! But--I will stand."
Accordingly she resumed her instrument; and o'er its strings her rosy fingers twinkled, while with witchery of voice and beauty she enthralled him. Again she sang of love, reclinging there like an houri fit to grace the paradise of her Prophet; and the giant monk became a puppet in her hands. Now, although she sang of love, it was a different love from that which Joseph knew and worshiped; and as she toyed with him his hot blood warred with his priestly devotion until he was racked with the tortures of the pit. But she would not let him go. She lured him with her eyes, her lips, her luscious beauty, until he heard no song whatever, until he no longer saw visions of spiritual beatitude, but flesh, ripe flesh, aquiver and awake to him.
A cry burst from him. Turning, he tore himself away and went crashing blindly through the thicket like a bull pursued. On, on he fled, down to the monastery and into the coolness of his cell, where, upon the smooth, worn flags, he knelt and struggled with this evil thing which accursed his soul.
For many days Joseph avoided the spot which had witnessed his temptation; but of nights, when he lay spent and weary with his battle, through the grating of his window came the song of the Saracen maid and the whisper of her golden lute. He knew she was calling to him, therefore he beat his breast and scourged himself to cure his longing. But night after night she sang from the heights above, and the burden of her song was ever the same, of one who waited and of one who came.
Bit by bit she wore down the man's resistance, then drew him up through the groves of citron and pomegrante, into the grape fields; time and again he fled. Closer and closer she lured him, until one day he touched her flesh--woman's flesh--and forgot all else. But now it was her turn to flee.
She poised like a sunbeam just beyond his reach, her bosom heaving, her lips as ripe and full as the grapes above, her eyes afire with invitation. In answer to his cry she made a glowing promise, subtle, yet warm and soft, as of the flesh.
"To-night, when the moon hangs over yonder pass, I shall play on the balcony outside my window. Beneath is a door, unbarred. Come, for I shall be alone in all the castle, and there you will find music made flesh, and flesh made music." Then she was gone.
The soul of the priest had been in torment heretofore, but chaos engulfed it during the hours that followed. He was like a man bereft of reason; he burned with fever, yet his whole frame shook as from a wintry wind. He prayed, or tried to, but his eyes beheld no vision save a waiting Moorish maid with hair like night, his stammering tongue gave forth no Latin, but repeated o'er and o'er her parting promise:
"There you will find music made flesh and flesh made music."
He realized that the foul fiend had him by the throat, and undertook to cast him off; but all the time he knew that when the moon came, bringing with it the cadence of a song, he would go, even though his going led to perdition. And go he did, groveling in his misery. His sandals spurned the rocky path when he heard the voice of Zahra sighing through the branches; then, when he had reached the castle wall, he saw her bending toward him from the balcony above.
"I come to you," she whispered; and an instant later her form showed white against the blackness of the low stone door in front of him. There, in the gloom, for one brief instant, her yielding body met his, her hands reached upward and drew his face down to her own; then out from his hungry arms she glided, and with rippling laughter fled into the blackness.
"Zahra!" he cried.
"Come!" she whispered, and when he hesitated, "Do you fear to follow?"
"Zahra!" he repeated; but his voice was strange, and he tore at the cloth that bound his throat, stumbling after her, guided only by her voice.
Always she was just beyond his reach; always she eluded him; yet never did he lose the perfume of her presence nor the rustle of her silken garments. Over and over he cried her name, until at last he realized from the echo of his calling that he had come into a room of great dimensions and that the girl was gone.
For an instant he was in despair, until her voice reached him from above:
"I do but test you, Christian priest. I am waiting."
"'Flower of the World,'" he stammered, hoarsely. "Whence lead the stairs?"
"And do you love me, then?" she queried, in a tone that set him all ablaze.
"Zahra," he repeated, "I shall perish for want of you."
"How do you measure this devotion?" she insisted, softly. "Will it cool with the dawn, or are you mine in truth forever and all time?"
"I have no thought save that of you. Come, Light of my Soul, or I shall die."
"Do you then adore me above all things, earthly and heavenly, that you forsake your vows? Answer, that my arms may enfold you."
He groaned like a man upon a rack, and the agony of that cry was proof conclusive of his abject surrender.
Then, through the dead, black silence of the place there came a startling sound. It was a peal of laughter, loud, evil, triumphant; and, as if it had been a signal, other mocking voices took it up, until the great vault rang to a fiendish din.
"Ho! Hassam! Elzemah! Close the doors!" cried the voice of Abul Malek. "Bring the lights."
There followed a ponderous clanging and the rattle of chains, the while Fray Joseph stood reeling in his tracks. Then suddenly from every side burst forth the radiance of many lamps. Torches sprang into flame, braziers of resin wood began to smoke, flambeaux were lit, and, half blinded by the glare, the Christian monk stood revealed in the hall of Abul Malek.
He cast his eyes about, but on every side he beheld grinning men of swarthy countenance, and at sight of his terror the hellish merriment broke forth anew, until the whole place thundered with it. Facing him, upon an ornamental balcony, stood the Moor, and beside him, with elbows on the balustrade and face alight with sinister enjoyment, stood his daughter.
Stunned by his betrayal, Joseph imploringly pronounced her name, at which a fresh guffaw resounded. Then above the clamor she inquired, with biting malice:
"Dost thou any longer doubt, oh, Christian, that I adore thee?" At this her father and her brothers rocked back and forth, as if suffocated by the humor of this jest.
The lone man turned, in mind to flee, but every entrance to the hall was closed, and at each portal stood a grinning Saracen. He bowed his shaven head, and his shame fell slowly upon him.
"You have me trapped," he said. "What shall my punishment be?"
"This," answered the Moorish lord; "to acknowledge once again, before us all, the falseness of your faith."
"That I have never done; that I can never do," said Joseph.
"Nay! But a moment ago you confessed that you adored my daughter above all things, earthly or heavenly. You forswore your vows for her. Repeat it, then."
"I have sinned before God; but I still acknowledge Him and crave His mercy," said the wretched priest.
"Hark you, Joseph. You are the best of monks. Have you ever done evil before this night?"
"My life has been clean, but the flesh is weak. It was the witchcraft of Satan in that woman's music. I prayed for strength, but I was powerless. My soul shall pay the penalty."
"What sort of God is this who snares His holiest disciple, with the lusts of the flesh?" mocked Abul Malek. "Did not your prayers mount up so high? Or is His power insufficient to forestall the devil? Bah! There is but one true God, and Mohammed is His Prophet. These many years have I labored to rend your veil of holiness asunder and to expose your faith to ridicule and laughter. This have I done to-night."
"Stop!" cried the tortured monk. "Bring forth a lance."
"Nay! Nay! You shall hear me through," gloated Abul Malek; and again Joseph bowed his tonsured head, murmuring:
"It is my punishment."
Ringed about thus by his enemies, the priest stood meekly, while the sweat came out upon his face; as the Saracen mocked and jeered at him he made no answer, except to move his lips in whispered grayer. Had it not been for this sign they might have thought him changed to stone, so motionless and so patient did he stand. How long the baiting lasted no one knew; it may have been an hour, then Joseph's passive silence roused the anger of the overlord, who became demoniac in his rage. His followers joined in harrying the victim, until the place became a babel. Finally Elzemah stepped forward, torch in hand, and spat upon the giant black-robed figure.
The monk's face whitened, it grew ghastly; but he made no movement. Then in a body the infidels rushed forth to follow the example of Abul Malek's son. They swarmed about the Christian, jeering, cursing, spitting, snatching at his garments, until their master cried:
"Enough! The knave has water in his veins. His blood has soured. Deserted by his God, his frame has withered and his vigor fled."
"Yes," echoed his daughter. "He is great only in bulk. Had he been a Man I might have loved him; but the evil has fled out of him, leaving nothing but his cassock. Off with his robe, Elzemah. Let us see if aught remains."
With swift movement her brother tore at the monk's habit, baring his great bosom. At this insult to his cloth a frightful change swept over the victim. He upheaved his massive shoulders, his gleaming head rose high, and in the glaring light they saw that his face had lost all sweetness and humility; it was now the visage of a madman. All fleshly passion stored through thirty years of cloister life blazed forth, consuming reason and intelligence; with a sweep of his mighty arms he cleared a space about him, hurling his enemies aside as if they were made of straw. He raised his voice above the din, cursing God and men and Moors. As they closed in upon him he snatched from the hands of a lusty slave a massive wrought-iron brazier, and whirling it high above his head, he sent its glowing coals flying into the farthest corners of the room. Then with this weapon he laid about him right and left, while men fell like grain before the reaper.
"At him!" shouted Abul Malek, from his balcony. "Pull down the weapons from the walls! The fool is mad!"
Zahra clutched at her father's sleeve and pointed to a distant corner, where a tongue of flame was licking the dry woodwork and hangings. Her eyes were flashing and her lips were parted; she bent forward, following the priest with eagerness.
"Allah be praised!" she breathed. "He is a Man!"
Elzemah strove to sheathe his poinard in the monk's bare breast, but the brazier crushed him down. Across the wide floor raged the contest, but the mighty priest was irresistible. Hassam, seeing that the priest was fighting toward the balcony, flung himself upon the stairs, crying to his father and his sister to be gone. By now the castle echoed with a frightful din through which arose a sinister crackling. The light increased moment by moment, and there came the acrid smell of smoke.
Men left the maniac to give battle to the other fury. Some fled to the doors and fought with their clumsy fastenings, but as they flung them back a draught sucked through, changing the place into a raging furnace.
With his back against the stairs, Hassam hewed at the monk with his scimitar; he had done as well had he essayed to fell an oak with a single blow. Up over him rushed the giant, to the balcony above, where Abul Malek and his daughter stood at bay in the trap of their own manufacture. There, in the glare of the mounting flames, Fray Joseph sank his mighty fingers through the Moor's black beard.
The place by now was suffocating, and the roar of the conflagration had drowned all other sounds. Men wrapped their robes about their heads and hurled themselves blindly at the doors, fighting with one another, with the licking flames, with the dead that clogged the slippery flags. But the maid remained. She tore at the tattered cassock of the priest, crying into his ear:
"Come, Joseph! We may yet escape."
He let the writhing Abul Malek slip from out his grasp and peered at her through the smother.
"Thou knowest me not?" she queried. "I am Zahra." Her arms entwined his neck for a second time that night, but with a furious cry he raised his hands and smote her down at his feet, then he fled back to the stairs and plunged down into the billows that raged ahead of the fresh night wind.
The bells of San Sebastian were clanging the alarm, the good monks were toiling up the path toward the inferno which lit the heavens, when, black against the glare, they saw a giant figure approaching. It came reeling toward them, vast, mighty, misshapen. Not until it was in their very midst did they recognize their brother, Joseph. He was bent and broken, he was singed of body and of raiment, he gibbered foolishly; he passed them by and went staggering to his cell. Long ere they reached the castle it was but a seething mountain of flame; and in the morning naught remained of Abul Malek's house but heated ruins.
Strange tales were rife concerning the end of the Moor and of his immediate kin, but the monks could make little out of them, for they were garbled and too ridiculous for belief. No Mussulman who survived the fire could speak coherently of what had happened in the great hall, nor could Fray Joseph tell his story, for he lay stricken with a malady which did not leave him for many weeks. Even when he recovered he did not talk; for although his mind was clear on most matters, nay, although he was as simple and as devout as ever, a kind Providence had blotted out all memory of Zahra, of his sin, and of the temptation that had beset his flesh.
So it is that even to this day "The Teeth of the Moor" remains a term of mystery to most of the monks of San Sebastian.
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