Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris
Near the city of Toledo, the capital of Spain when that country was a kingdom of the Goths, was a great palace of the olden time, or, as some say, a vast cave, which had been deepened and widened and made into many rooms. Still others say that it was a mighty tower, built by Hercules. Whatever it was,—palace, tower, or cavern,—a spell lay upon it from far past days, which none had dared to break. There was an ancient prophecy that Spain would in time be invaded by barbarians from Africa, and to prevent this a wise king, who knew the arts of magic, had placed a secret talisman in one of the rooms. While this remained undisturbed the country was safe from invasion. If once the secret of the talisman should be divulged, swift ruin would descend upon the kingdom of the Goths. It must be guarded strongly and well, for in it lay the destinies of Spain.
A huge iron gate closed the entrance to the enchanted palace, and upon this each king of the Goths, on coming to the throne, placed a strong lock, so that in time huge padlocks covered much of its front and its secrecy seemed amply assured. When Roderic, the last king of the Goths, came to the throne, twenty-seven of such locks hung upon the gate. As for the keys, some writers tell us that they remained in the locks, others say that they had been hidden and lost; but it is certain that no one had dared to open a single one of the locks; prudence and fear guarded the secret better than gates and locks.
At length the time came when the cherished secret was to be divulged. Don Roderic, who had seized the throne by violence, and bore in his heart the fatal bane of curiosity, determined to learn what had lain for centuries behind those locks. The whole affair, he declared, was the jest of an ancient king, which did very well when superstition ruled the world, but which was far behind the age in which he lived. Two things moved the epoch-breaking king,—curiosity, that vice which has led thousands to ruin, and avarice, which has brought destruction upon thousands more. "It is a treasure-house, not a talisman," he told himself. "Gold, silver, and jewels lie hidden in its mouldy depths. My treasury is empty, and I should be a fool to let a cluster of rusty locks keep me from filling it from this ancient store."
When it became known what Roderic proposed a shudder of horror ran through the land. Nobles and bishops hastened to the audience chamber and sought to hinder the fateful purpose of the rash monarch. Their hearts were filled with dread of the perils that would follow any meddling with the magic spell, and they earnestly implored him not to bring the foretold disaster upon the land.
"The kings who reigned before you have religiously obeyed the injunction," they said. "Each of them has fixed his lock to the gate. It will be wise and prudent in you to follow their example. If it is gold and jewels you look for, tell us how much you think the cavern holds, even all your fancy hopes to find, and so much we will give you. Even if it beggars us, we will collect and bring you this sum without fail. We pray and implore you, then, do not break a custom which our old kings have all held sacred. They knew well what they did when they commanded that none after them should seek to disclose the fatal secret of the hidden chamber."
Earnest as was their appeal, it was wasted upon Roderic. Their offer of gold did not reach his deepest motive; curiosity with him was stronger than greed, and he laughed in his beard at the fears and tremblings of his lords.
"It shall not be said that Don Roderic, the king of the Goths, fears the devil or his agents," he loudly declared, and orders were given that the locks should be forced.
One by one the rusty safeguards yielded to key or sledge, and the gates shrieked disapproval when at length they reluctantly turned on their stiff hinges, that had not moved for centuries. Into the cavern strode the king, followed by his fearful but curious train. The rooms, as tradition had said, were many, and from room to room he hurried with rapid feet. He sought in vain. No gold appeared, no jewels glittered on his sight. The rooms were drear and empty, their hollow floors mocking his footsteps with long-silent echoes. One treasure only he found, the jewelled table of Solomon, a famous ancient work of art which had long remained hidden from human sight. Of this wonderful relic we shall say no more here, for it has a history of its own, to be told in a future tale.
On and on went the disappointed king, with nothing to satisfy his avarice or his curiosity. At length he entered the chamber of the spell, the magic room which had so long been locked from human vision, and looked with eyes of wonder on the secret which had been so carefully preserved.
What he saw was simple but threatening. On the wall of the room was a rude painting, which represented a group of strangely dressed horsemen, some wearing turbans, some bareheaded, with locks of coarse black hair hanging over their foreheads. The skins of animals covered their limbs; they carried scimitars and lances and bore fluttering pennons; their horses were small, but of purest breed.
Turning in doubt and dread from this enigmatical drawing, the daring intruder saw in the centre of the apartment a pedestal bearing a marble urn, in which lay a scroll of parchment. From this one of his scribes read the following words:
Whenever this asylum is violated and the spell contained in this urn broken, the people shown in the picture shall invade the land and overturn the throne of its kings. The rule of the Goths shall end and the whole country fall into the hands of heathen strangers."
King Roderic looked again with eyes of alarm on the pictured forms. Well he knew their meaning. The turban-wearers were Arabians, their horses the famous steeds of the desert; the bare-headed barbarians were Berbers or Moors. Already they threatened the land from Africa's shores; he had broken the spell which held them back; the time for the fulfilment of the prophecy was at hand.
Filled with sudden terror, the rash invader hurried from the chamber of the talisman, his courtiers flying with wild haste to the open air. The brazen gates were closed with a clang which rang dismally through the empty rooms, and the lock of the king was fixed upon them. But it was too late. The voice of destiny had spoken and the fate of the kingdom been revealed, and all the people looked upon Don Roderic as a doomed man.
We have given this legend in its mildest form. Some Arab writers surround it with magical incidents until it becomes a tale worthy of the "Arabian Nights' Entertainments." They speak of two ancient men with snowy beards who kept the keys of the gate and opened the locks only at Roderic's stern command. When the locks were removed no one could stir the gates until the hand of the king touched them, when they sprang open of themselves. Inside stood a huge bronze giant with a club of steel, with which he dealt resounding blows on the floor to right and left. He desisted at the king's command, and the train entered unharmed. In the magic chamber they found a golden casket containing a linen cloth between tablets of brass. On this were painted figures of Arabs in armor. As they gazed these began to move, sounds of war were heard, and the vision of a battle between Arab and Christian warriors passed before the affrighted eyes of the intruders. The Christian army was defeated, and Roderic saw the image of himself in flight, and finally of his horse without a rider. As he rushed in terror from the fatal room the bronze giant was no longer to be seen and the ancient guardians of the gate lay dead upon their posts. In the end the tower was burned by magic fire, and its very ashes were scattered by the wings of an innumerable flight of birds.