IT lay in a long, narrow glass case, upon a cushion of crimson velvet, ornamented with tassels and filigree work that once had been golden but had now turned a dingy, yellowish black. The gold of the hilt was tarnished, and even the precious stones with which it was set had lost their lustre. As to the blade itself—long, slender, tapering—that, too which had doubtless been once bright and polished, was now ingrained with rust. It had been broken off short not far from the hilt, leaving six inches or so now attached, with a jagged end where the fracture had taken place.
The hilt was curiously fashioned. Chased bands of gold and dark crimson plush wound round it alternately, like coiled serpents, and this idea was further carried out by the serpent's head which finished it off. This had for eyes two greenish-yellow emeralds, which looked up at you with that fixed, deadly, baleful glare of the eyes of the rattlesnake itself. My friend, to whom this ancient curio belonged, smiled as he noted my interested gaze. Though now an Englishman through and through, Philip Lorenzo Aguila—to give him his full name—was, upon one side, of Spanish descent, as his name, indeed in some way suggests, and this old sword was one of the relics brought from Grenada years ago, when his family had first settled in England.
"It's funny, Sefton," now said Philip, "how quickly and surely you have scented out that piece of antiquity! I somehow guessed that you would, and I was waiting quietly to see. You are a regular sleuth-hound in whatever savours of the weird or bizarre!" And as I looked up quickly he went on, in answer to the question he read in my eyes. "Yes, you are right! There is a story attached to it—and a very queer old yarn, too. Just the sort of thing your antiquarian soul will delight in! I will fish it out for you presently, from the library, and it will help to amuse you while I am absent this afternoon upon the visit I have to pay to our country lawyer in the village."
Thus it came about that I found myself that afternoon in the private room which had been set apart for me, poring over a parchment manuscript which showed every sign of age, and was written in old Spanish. Or, rather, I had put the original aside, and was poring over an English translation of it, which—fortunately for me—some savant had made for the benefit of others less erudite who might come after him.
Outside the window the dull December day was drawing near to evening. I could see across the park in which the house stood vistas of leafless trees, and beneath them could catch glimpses now and again of the deer which wandered across the snow-covered ground. In my room a bright fire blazed and crackled and hissed as the flames played around the wood logs. In front of it lay the broken sword itself, which I had brought from the museum. I had been giving it a scrub up to see if I could bring out more clearly the mystic characters which had been engraved upon the hilt and blade; and after doing my best in that direction I had laid it down inside the fender to get it thoroughly dry again. Then I became immersed in the strange story there unfolded; and this is what I read:—
"I, Don Ferdinand de Miebla, knowing that I am to die to-morrow for having killed my best friend in an unfair duel do hereby declare my innocence of the foul and hateful crime imputed to me; and I solemnly swear by the Holy Mother, whose picture stands in front of me as I write, that the following narrative is a true and faithful statement of what took place.
"It is well known among our friends that the young noble, Don Alvarez (whose death is placed to my account) and myself have at all times been as brothers. From the time when we first knew each other—when he was a stripling and I already a grown man—an affection grew up between us such as seldom exists between two men. It is true that there came a time when there was for a while some coolness between us when we were both smitten with the charms of the fair Lady Lucia. But I say that that was but a passing cloud, and one which left no bitterness behind, and Alvarez, could he now rise up and speak, would declare to you all that I tell the truth.
"Ask yourselves—ye who deem me guilty of the atrocious crime—who benefits by it? The Lady Lucia, as is well known, was heiress to great wealth. Had she lived but a few weeks more she would have become possessed of enormous riches. Had she wedded, her husband would have been one of the richest men in all the land. That man might have been Alvarez or myself. I stood aside for his sake; but now he is dead, and the Lady Lucia is dead. She hath died of a broken heart, of grief at the death of her affianced husband, and horror at the thought that I slew him! And who now owns her wealth? Has it not passed into the possession of her guardian, Don Antonio de Magrada? He is, to-day, almost the richest man in Spain; and to-morrow I must die for the tragedy which has been the means of thus enriching him. Yet men believe that I alone am guilty, and that he had no hand in bringing about the catastrophe which hath enriched him. But I declare before Heaven that he had some hand in it; and I do charge to him, before all men, that he brought it about by some devilish witchcraft.
"He did invite us both, Alvarez and myself, to his house that night for the last time before the wedding that was to take place between my friend and Don Antonio's ward. We had a wondrous good repast, with the rarest wines from his cellars, and afterwards there was music performed by a band of hired musicians. Then the Lady Lucia and her attendants retired, and left the three of us alone. And as we sat together in amicable converse Don Antonio began to talk of fencing and swordsmanship, and presently nothing would please him but he must try to bout with the buttoned practice-swords, first with Alvarez and then with me. He showed himself indifferent good, and we both beat him easily. Then he opened a case and drew forth a Toledo sword or raspar, of marvellous workmanship. Its four sides were damascened with wondrous skill, and the hilt was set with jewels of great value.
"'This is for thee, Don Ferdinand,' saith he. 'It is a present from your unworthy servant. I brought it here this night to present to the best swordsman; and that you have shown yourself to be. It is, therefore, yours.'
"Now this sounded vastly strange in my ears. I could not understand why he should wish to present so costly a sword to anyone, much less to me, for I never did him any particular service; and, as all men know he has no great reputation for generosity. Apart from that, though I could not but admire the workmanship, yet in some way the sword was not to my taste. There was a serpent's head on the hilt, with emerald eyes which seemed to stare at me with an evil, malicious glitter, which I liked not the look of. So I would have declined the gift, but he would have no denial.
"'Nay, nay, take it, Don,' said he. 'Try the blade! You will find it bends like the spring of a clock. It is made from the costliest Toledo steel. No man—above all, no swordsman such as thou art —should refuse such a gift. Try it! Don Alvarez has the button-sword in his hand. Try this against it, and you will know its quality at once by the feel of steel against steel.'"
"Now that, of course, is true. Every good swordsman can quickly and surely tell, by the mere feel, as it were, when his sword clashes against another, which is the best-tempered blade. So to please Don Antonio, because he was our host, I took the sword from him, and Alvarez stood up against me with the button-sword. For a minute or two we played together as practised swordsmen often do, and then a strange feeling began to come over me. As the heat of my hand warmed the hilt of the sword I was holding I felt a most curious tingling, which grew and grew, and ran up my arm and round my shoulders and over my body, and soon mounted to my head; and then an awful feeling came upon me, and I felt as if I were possessed of a devil. At first, in horror, I tried to throw the accursed weapon from me, but found I could not loose my hold on it. My head grew hot, my brain was inflamed as in delirium. I could no longer see Alvarez. In his place there stood a monstrous shape, some evil being, which seemed to be trying to kill me. I seemed to hear voices which cried in my ear, 'Kill him! Kill him, or he will kill you.' Who it was I was fighting with I knew not; I no longer remembered. I only heard those voices crying to me that I should be killed if I did not kill. Then suddenly I heard a terrible shriek. Some one screamed, 'O God above, have mercy!' I knew the voice for that of the Lady Lucia, and at the sound a shock went through me, and the sword dropped from my hand. Then I seemed partially to awake as from a horrible nightmare. I reeled, sick and faint and dizzy, and as I caught sight of a seat, and was staggering towards it, rough hands seized me, passed cords around me, and bound me, while I heard the words 'Murderer! Murderer! Assassin!' breathed around me by many people. Above all, to my utter amazement, I heard it cried in horror and execration by the Lady Lucia herself!
"Then my brain cleared somewhat more, and my proper eyesight and my senses came back to me, and I looked, and there before me lay my friend Alvarez upon the floor, dead—killed, they screamed out at me, by my hand. The Lady Lucia was kneeling beside him; one moment sobbing out her grief, and the next hurling at me cruel words of hatred and detestation, and calling down curses on my head. Many others were there. They had come in, I afterwards learnt, alarmed at the sound of the furious combat they had heard raging, and, attracted by Don Antonio's shouts for someone to come and help him to separate the two fighters. And they had seen me—so they all declared—with mad hatred and wickedness in my eyes, attacking, with a raspar, a man armed only with a button-sword!
"And then they dragged me off, loaded me with chains, and cast me into this dungeon; and to-morrow I must die! That, however, troubles me not. Now that my friend is dead—killed by my hand, that much at least is true—I have no wish to live longer. But all the same, I vow and declare, in these my last hours, that I am no murderer. I declare my solemn conviction that the sword which Don Antonio put into my hand had been obtained by him through some foul bargain with the Evil One, expressly in order to bring about what has happened, and thus cause the Lady Lucia's wealth to go to him instead of to the one she had chosen for her husband."
THUS ended the translation of the strange manuscript—or, to be exact, that part of it which related to the experience of the hapless Don Ferdinand. The original manuscript itself was much longer, and went on, so far as I could gather, to narrate other weird stories connected with the history of the wondrous sword; but I confess I was not able easily to decipher the old-world Spanish in which it was written. It was also getting too dark to read.
I laid down the manuscript , and, going over to the fireplace, picked up the hilt; then, seating myself in a luxurious armchair before the fire, began examining it as well as the firelight allowed. The hilt had become so hot from lying in the fender that at first I could scarcely hold it. I rubbed once more at the tarnished metal, and tried again to decipher the mystic characters engraved upon it. This was a task in which I had had some experience, for I am by way of being a bit of an antiquarian, and the solution of little mysteries of the sort had long been one of my hobbies. Now, however, my thoughts wandered off to the strange tale I had been reading; and I suppose that the warmth of the fire in front of which I had been sitting must have had a soporific effect, for, without intending it, I somehow dropped off to sleep. And then I dreamt, and strange fancies came to me as I dreamt.
I THOUGHT I was in a large chamber, which was in darkness save for the dim gleam of a very feeble lamp and the ruddy glow of a furnace at one end. Upon benches around were glass and earthenware vessels of curious forms and various sizes. From beams and rafters above hung dried, shrivelled forms which I made out to be the dead, mummified bodies of many creatures. There were owls and bats, snakes and lizards, monkeys, toads, and cats, and many more as to which I could only guess at what they had been when alive. There were bundles of dried herbs, too, and instruments of queer shapes which I had never seen the like of before. Looking at these and other things that were unusual, and, in a sense, what we should call uncanny, it was borne in upon me that I was in the workshop or laboratory of some alchemist of old. And a little later, when someone entered who was evidently the owner of the place, this idea received full confirmation. He was a tall, thin, old man, with long grey beard and shrivelled face, whose steps were tottery; yet, when I saw his eyes, I was almost startled at the fire and vigour which seemed to flash from them. How or why he took no notice of me was a matter that did not puzzle me just then. He evidently did not see me, was unaware that I was there (where I was standing I did not exactly know) watching him.
As is often the case in dreams, it seemed quite natural that I should be there, seeing everything yet being myself unseen. The alchemist—as I felt sure he was—went to the furnace and worked a bellows, which blew the flames and produced a heat that was almost blinding, so white was it. Into this he plunged a crucible which he held by means of a pair of long tongs. It was withdrawn and replaced several times, till at last the worker seemed satisfied, for he carried the crucible over to a bench and poured the contents into a stone mortar. To it he added other things which he brought from various places, and there arose from his mixture such clouds of rose-tinted vapours that for a while I entirely lost sight of both mortar and worker. When I saw him again he was holding in one hand a sword—a long, slender shining rapier, with a gold hilt set with jewels—and it flashed upon me that this was the sword which I had seen and had been reading about a little while before. I knew that much instinctively, though it did not occur to me that it was in any way remarkable. Then I saw him unscrew the serpent's head at the top of the hilt and there I could distinguish that the handle part, which the hand grasps, was hollow. Now into the mortar he plunged a long, spoon-shaped tool, and proceeded to ladle out the mixture within and push it down into the hole in the hilt. The compound had a powdery appearance, and from time to time he stamped it down, and so continued until the hollow was quite filled. Then he replaced the serpent's head, and laid the sword down in a beautifully ornamented case, which had been lying open on the bench ready to receive it.
Scarcely had he done this when the door opened and another person entered. The newcomer was a man of imposing presence, so far as his figure and dress were concerned. His dress was that of an old-time Spanish Grandee, and his mien had, at every turn, all the haughty, swaggering insolence which one might expect from such a personage. He strode across the floor with an air of lofty contempt for the place and the man in it. As to the latter, he bowed obsequiously, and handed over the open case with sword lying in it. What was said I could not hear, but the newcomer seemed to clap his hands, and at once two lackeys appeared, bearing heavy bags. Their masters took these from them and flung them superciliously upon the bench beside the worker. As they fell upon it one burst open, and from it there came forth a number of gold coins, which ran about on the bench and rolled off on to the floor. Then the whole scene became dim and indistinct, and finally faded into nothingness.
What followed took the form of a confused phantasmagoria—a shifting panorama of weird, fantastic happenings, which I saw only "as in a glass darkly," but which I knew to be a succession of scenes in the after-history of the word. They were scenes of passion, jealousy, greed, revenge, and of murders and killings. That much I knew; but the details were jumbled, as it were, together, and grew more and more disordered. Finally, I seemed to be back in my own room, with several people round me calling out to me; but all was still so confused that I knew not who they were. Then, all suddenly, there appeared from somewhere a horrified shape that seemed to me like a fiend incarnate from the lower regions.
This wild-looking, terrible creature rushed to attack me, as it seemed to me, with murderous ferocity; and I struck out blindly, in self-defence, with the broken sword, the hilt of which I had all this time been holding in my hand. There was a struggle, during which it was wrenched away from me by main force, and I reeled backwards, helpless and bewildered, against the wall of the room.
A mist seemed to pass from before my eyes, and at the same moment I was conscious of great weakness, such as often follows upon a state of undue strain of over-excitement. I heard voices raised in amazement, anger, warning, remonstrance; and as the mist cleared away further I saw that several of the servants of the house were assembled in the room, including old Dunn, the butler, who was bending over someone lying on the floor. At my feet, where it had rolled, lay the hilt of the sword, with the piece of jagged blade attached. Standing close to me, keeping a watchful eye upon my movements, as if fearing I should break away, were two footmen.
Then I saw that the one lying on the floor was Philip Aguila. I caught sight of some blood upon a handkerchief, and a great horror took possession of me. The remembrance of the scene described by Don Ferdinand de Miebla in the manuscript I had read rushed into my mind. There he described how he had awakened from what had seemed a wild nightmare to find that in a frenzy he had killed his best friend. Was it possible that that terrible story had repeated itself here? Had I been seized with a homicidal fit, and, without knowing it, attacked Philip Aguila with the broken sword?
To be brief, that is what had actually happened; though, to my unspeakable relief, I quickly learnt that the results were less tragical. For as I called his name in agonised tones, Philip himself rose and came towards me.
"Don't worry, old chap," he said, cheerily. "I am all right! It's only a slight cut!"
He was holding a handkerchief to the side of his head; and I feared that the wound must be a nasty one, for I could see that it had bled a good deal.
"B—but—what did I do?" I asked, still bewildered. "I was asleep!"
Before replying, Aguila sent the servants out of the room.
"How do you feel now?" he then asked, turning to me.
"I'm all right—er—except that I am a bit flustered, and have an unpleasant feeling that I have somehow made a fool of myself in my sleep. You look at me as though you thought I had had a fit!"
"Something like that," returned Aguila, composedly,
"Good Heavens!" I cried. "I don't understand! Tell me exactly what happened."
"Well, it was this way. I came in here and found you raving and gesticulating, with Dunn and some other servants standing round, staring at you in dismay. You held in your hand that confounded old sword-hilt, and were flourishing it about as though you were defending yourself against an imaginary foe. As I came towards you to inquire what was amiss, you made a sudden rush at me, and gave me such a bang on the head with the hilt that I went down like a ninepin. I think I must have been a bit stunned, for I didn't see exactly what followed. The others, however, wrenched the blessed thing out of your hand, it seems, and by the time I came to my senses I saw that you had come to yours, and were quiet enough. So that's all; except that a corner of one of those stones in the hilt has cut the side of my head."
Well, by way of answer I told him all that had occurred—how I had scrubbed the relic, and put it to dry in the fender, while I read the manuscript; and how I had afterwards fallen asleep with it in my hand and "dreamed dreams."
"Upon my word," I exclaimed, at the end of the recital, "it almost makes me believe that medieval old buffer—the luckless Don Ferdinand de something-or-other—was not far out when he declared that the sword had some diabolical spell in it! How else can one account for the effect the thing had on me?"
Aguila was silent awhile. Then he said, thoughtfully: "It is strange! I have handled the thing myself many times—so have others—and always without anything unusual happening. You say you laid it in the fender to dry. Did it get warm, think you?"
"Yes; almost too hot to hold. Ha! I think I see your meaning. You think—"
"Why," he answered, slowly, "see here! Without exactly attributing anything to witchcraft, it seems just possible that something might be concealed in the handle which had, in course of time, lost—not its virtue, but very much the opposite—its malignant qualities. But the warming up you gave it might have revived it—"
The recollection of the old alchemist of my dream, and how I had seen him unscrew the end-piece and put something into the hollow, came into my mind like a flash.
"I believe you've hit it, Phil!" I exclaimed. "I believe this serpent's head comes off! Let's find out what's inside!"
We set to work at once to unscrew it, but it was not until Aguila had fetched some tools that we succeeded.
Then we could see that the part which the hand grasps was hollow, and that it was filled with a dark green powder which had been converted, in the course of years, into a mass that was almost solid.
We picked it all out, and then discovered that the parts underneath the spiral plush band were not of gold—as was the rest of the handle—but strips fitted in between, composed of some strange and, to us, unknown metal, as to which I can only say that it was surprisingly thin.
"There you have it!" cried Aguila, triumphantly. "There's the secret! This stuff we've picked out must have been some vile compound which excites and fevers the blood, and which is so powerful as to turn some men, for the time being, into raging maniacs ! The plush band was cunningly placed there to hide the strips of specially thin metal, and the heat of the hand, passing through them, was formerly sufficient to excite the horrid property of the stuff packed inside. But nowadays it has so far lost its strength as to require a roasting before the fire such as you gave it to revive its dire powers and bring them into action!"
AND with that conjecture we had to remain content; for our further investigation suggested no other plausible theory. It cannot be said to be altogether satisfactory, for there is obviously much that remains veiled in doubt and mystery; but it is the only explanation I have to offer of what I have here set down concerning that relic of ancient days, the Broken Sword.