Project Canterbury

Tales Illustrative of the Apostles' Creed

By John Mason Neale

London: Masters, 1885.


IX. Al Araish
"He ascended into Heaven."

DID you ever think what a view the poorest and meanest little bird that flies has of the country above which it has risen?

In the present case, we must be the little birds: for it is a vast landscape that we have to look down upon; and, unless we can see it marked, as it were, on a map, we shall scarcely understand the story.

As far as eye can see, even from where we are, there is one vast desert. All round the horizon the same unvaried line, just as if we were far out at sea, and our only limit were the boundless waters. But instead of their ever shifting and varying hues, from green to the darkest and most ink-like purple, now we have the half-yellow half-brown line of the African desert.

Look again: and you may see, mapped out before us,--on the one side, an innumerable host without order, without tents, without ranks: in the centre one vast pavilion, with a green flag rising above it; here and there, squadrons of camels and dromedaries; here and there, troops of horse,--the greater part the natives of Morocco and Algiers, and of every town and city of the north-west of the African continent.

But, more to the north,--nearer, that is, to the blue line which from our point of view marks out the Mediterranean and its junction, through the straits of Gibraltar, with the Atlantic, you may see that small camp marked out by the squares of tents, yet white, the army of the Portuguese that have landed under their king Sebastian, and are resolved, as in a new crusade, to bring that vast continent under the obedience of CHRIST. Almost in the centre of the host, and from a tent but very little distinguished from the rest, floats the great standard of Portugal: the Five Wounds of our LORD within, the eight castles without: the strength by which they took those fortifications, and the strong places which were taken, in those early wars between the Cross and Crescent.

And now let us see what is going on under that royal tent. A kind of table, (that is to say, certain deal planks on four posts) has been put together hastily: it is covered with maps and charts, with the lists of regiments, and memoranda of the villages round, where provisions may be procured. At the head of this table sits a young man, with a high but narrow forehead, grave beyond his years,--scarcely ever seen to smile,--and of whom Van Dyke might have said, as he said of our Charles I.,--"This man will never die a natural death." At the side of that same table, are the various civil and military chiefs whom Dom Sebastian has led forth to the conquest of Africa; all in full costume, for it is a council of the highest official dignity: some in their cloaks and collars of the richest fur, and the heaviest metal, most grievous for such a climate,--only the king was a great stickler for etiquette; some in their half armour which, heavy though it might be, was more endurable than fur and cloth, unless the rays of the sun struck directly upon it.

"Then, my lords and gentlemen," said Dom Sebastian," it seems to me that this is our united opinion; to send a fleet round, and to march our infantry directly across to Laraiche." (The king, and the army generally, with the boldness of conquerors, altered the original name of the place, Al Araish, into a word easier for their pronunciation.)

"Your Majesty, as ever, speaks with the most infallible wisdom," said the Archbishop of Braga, who sat at the king's left hand. "The Moors are given into our hand to be destroyed, and it matters little how we attack them: and if, as we hear, it is but four days' march from hence to Laraiche, we shall be in possession by the end of the fifth day of a resting place from all our troubles."

"If it please your Majesty," said the Duke of Aveiro, "I am but a plain-spoken man. I think it is well known, all through the army, that I shrink from no fatigue either of body or mind; but I would put it to the Lord Marshal how we are to support the heat of this country for four or five days' march, when, so far as I can hear, there are nothing but uncertain wells."

"Your Majesty," said the Archbishop, "will remember, that when Joshua--"

"Yes," interrupted the Duke of Aveiro, "but we are not now speaking of Joshua, but of Portuguese; and I ask the Lord Marshal, and not this holy man."

"If your Majesty," replied the Duke d'Albuquerque, "condescends to ask my opinion, I am bound, as a Portuguese knight, to say that this march of four or five days across the desert, cannot but be extremely perilous. For myself, I care nothing: a man can die but once; and I had sooner die fighting against the infidels than in my bed. But I am thinking of the army. If as they say, this Muley Moluc outnumbers us twelve to one--"

"What of that?" interrupted the Archbishop of Braga. "It is nothing with the LORD to help with many or with them that have no power. It is so written in the second book of Chronicles, the fourteenth chapter."

"I know it is somewhere so written," answered the Duke, "and I believe it from my very heart. But I also know it is written--perhaps I ought not to quote Holy Scripture in the presence of all these holy men,--'Thou shalt not tempt the LORD thy GOD.' If your Majesty shall decide to advance, my banner shall be as far forward as any in the field; and the meanest of my soldiers shall endure no hardship that 1 have not borne myself. But if my advice is asked, it is this: that, as the sailors are, so also the soldiers should be, carried round in our ships to Laraiche; and then, in GOD'S Name, let us have at the accursed Moor."

This advice seemed to make some impression on the council. King Sebastian looked round the board somewhat irresolutely, as was his wont: and just when he was about, as it seemed, to speak, a priest with a threadbare cassock, and a cap which had evidently seen a great many storms,--a priest not distinguished either by his height, (for he was not above the middle stature,) nor by his face, (which was exceedingly sunburnt,) nor by his language, (for he was from Algarve, and every now and then used a patois expression,) addressed the assembly of duke's, and counts and generals, and all the flower of Portuguese chivalry.

"My lord king," he said, "I know that I am least able to speak,--so far as this world is concerned,--of the movements of the army; and I know also how little worthy I am to say anything that may seem to contradict such a prelate as my lord of Braga. But if, as I understand, this be a free council, and I am summoned to it, then I cannot hold my peace, unless I am expressly told that my advice is out of season."

"That it is not," returned the king: "we all know, Father Thomas, your holiness--"

"My holiness!" interrupted the priest in no very courtly fashion. "I pretend to none: I was only about to speak of the present position of affairs. This I know: that GOD can and does work without means; but when means are to be had, He not the less expects us to use them. Now, ask the very Moors who serve in the army if they ever knew such heat as this even in the hottest of their summers? I myself have been used to the burning temperature of Algarve,--but never did I know anything which might compare with this. If I may freely speak my thoughts, let the troops be sent round with the vessels to Laraiche: if our first attempt is to be made on that place, let it be made while the soldiers are fresh; not when they have come worn out with five days' march, and so heavily laden, across the desert."

"Your Majesty sees," said the Duke of Aveiro, "that this holy man bears me out in all that I said. I do beseech you, if you will not give ear to me, at least listen to him."

"Before we decide," said King Sebastian, "we should wish that all our counsellors should give their opinion."

"Your Majesty's counsellors," said Father Thomas boldly, "in a case like this ought to be the whole army; the poor men who will suffer from the burning sand, and from the vertical sun, and from the weight of their burdens: not those who will feel as little as can be suffered in such a country and with such a sky."

"I beseech your Majesty," interrupted the Archbishop of Braga angrily, "to put an end to this insolence.. For my part, I am ready to go afoot with the rest of the army; and I see not why cowardly advice is to check all that chivalry of the Portuguese which has heretofore won us the two empires of India and America."

"My lord," replied the Duke of Aveiro, "you will remember our country proverb,--It is easy to go afoot when one leads one's mule. But as to these poor men who have no mule to lead--"

"Time presses, my lords both," said Sebastian, who looked as if he could not, and very probably could not indeed, make up his mind which had the better of the argument: "we will proceed to take your votes; and though we might make our will your direction, we will be guided by your judgment."

There are few older, and there are no truer proverbs than that---Those whom GOD wills to destroy, He first infatuates. Here was the whole strength of Portugal, a little kingdom that had been for years and years exerting itself to the utmost stretch of its powers, landed in a hostile land; in August, in the hottest August ever known; in Africa, and in the greatest and most barren desert of all Africa. There was no general who had ever seen an actual battle; the king himself in a former expedition had proved that he had not one quality of a leader except physical courage: and here the debate was whether the army was to rush on certain ruin, or by an arrangement of only common prudence, to enter on its real sphere of action with ordinary vigour and courage. And yet, when the question was put, there were but the Dukes of Aveiro and d'Albuquerque, Father Thomas, and two or three others, who were for the sea passage; while some five-and-twenty or thirty hands were held up for the expedition by land.

II.

And now if we would again take to ourselves the wings of that little bird, and soar high up into the air, what a different scene, indeed, would the vast plain of Alcacer Quibir present. As we look southward, the blue Atlantic speckled by the sails of the Portuguese fleet, to our right: between us and that, a vast poisonous lagoon, "Miry places and marishes, which cannot be healed, but are given to salt:" to the left, here and there among the sand hills, a black spot,--now a ruin where the beautiful, but most deadly, horned serpent suns himself, and where the lizard, a living mass of gold and green and diamonds, peeps out of the crevices,--once a church of the time of S. Augustine or S. Fulgentius. But to the front, as far as eye can reach, the huge crescent of the Moorish forces, stretching a mile and a half from tip to tip, and containing, they say, a hundred and fifty thousand men: each of whom believes in his heart of hearts that to fall in the coming battle is to pass the great and terrible bridge, the bridge with its sharp edge like a razor that unites time to eternity, in safety,--and to have entrance into the sixth heaven, whence all but they who die for the faith are excluded. That litter, which is borne along from line to line, contains the dying Emperor, Muley Moluc: he has offered the wisest physicians in his broad realms untold treasures if they will but assure him of life for three hours: and as he is carried backwards and forwards, he commands weakness and pain, while with a cheerful voice he speaks to his soldiers of assured victory, of measureless booty, of everlasting renown. Almost immediately below us, and arranged in three bodies, is the Portuguese army. The royal standard with its Quinas and Castles floats over the left wing, for there Dom Sebastian commands in person: the right wing is led by the Duke of Aveiro: and the central division--further back--consists of the reserve, on this occasion, by a strange misarrangement, the very refuse of the troops. Still, as all along, it has been the same story; infatuation, blind infatuation on the part of all the leaders. Only yesterday they took the resolution to advance from their impregnable position by the side of the great lagoon: and now without one single advantage of ground, under the copper sky, and on the heated plain, the eighteen thousand Christians are drawn up against that innumerable host of infidels, their three thousand horse, against the forty thousand Arab cavalry.

The Archbishop of Braga has said Mass in the presence of the Court. There knelt the Portuguese nobility, nobility I call it, for the days of chivalry were gone: corrupt, pleasure-seeking, effeminate,--as unlike those stern old crusaders whose cross-legged monuments may be seen in our country churches, as the silks and brocade of Alemtejo or Algarve, are to the chain or plate of the times of Coeur de Lion or S. Louis. Father Thomas had also said his Mass, but in a poor, mean, remote tent: where a few of the lowest soldiers, whom he knew well, and had cared for during that burning march, had been collected together. I wonder which of the two congregations sent the greater number at the close of that fearful day to the Marriage Supper of the LAMB.

Two hours later, and the good Father with the other ecclesiastics was standing outside a tent, pitched on a little eminence close to the reserved body. Here they could see, although they could not comprehend, the whole battle. They had marked the onset of the Portuguese which seemed to sweep everything before it; the victory of the right wing, its pursuit of the infidels, the whole crescent shattering and reeling, the day all but Sebastian's. But now, on every side, the Moors seem to regain courage: here and there detached parties of the Portuguese were manifestly flying in confusion, or cut to pieces where they stood. The signal of recall had long been made for the Duke of Aveiro, but he appeared not. The great standard of Portugal still floated in the heart of the battle, but it had been swept at least a quarter of a mile back from the spot which it had once gained: everything showed, even to the inexperienced eye of the priests, that the day was going hard with the Christians.

"What do you think now," inquired the Archbishop of Braga, of an officer of the reserve who stood near him, "what do you think now of the day?"

"As badly as I can," replied the captain: he had served in the wars of Dom Manoel: "If the Duke does not return before many minutes are over, all is up with us. Look, my lord, look!"

And, as he spake, the great standard was driven still further backward, and trembled and wavered like a tree in the storm.

Yes: another half hour, and the Christian army had ceased to exist. Half of its numbers were prisoners; the other half lost in the lagoon, or stretched on the field of battle. The ecclesiastics, with some of the principal officers were under safe guard: the rumour ran that Sebastian himself was dead, and even then the field was being searched for his body. The Portuguese army was annihilated: the Portuguese people had fallen from its rank among the nations of the earth, never again to rise: never did the Crescent win so fearful a victory over the Cross as on the field of Alcacer Quibir; never did such countless Christian prisoners, and such camel loads of Christian spoil, return to Morocco.

III.

There was wailing and lamentation over Portugal from Cape Lagos to Bragan├ža. The king had fallen or was in captivity: not one noble house but had some member to mourn among the captives or the dead: not a vessel arrived in the southern harbours without some fresh tale of woe and disaster: many and many a family was ruining itself to raise the ransom demanded for the brother or the son: the poor old Cardinal-king who succeeded his nephew, but at present took the title of Regent, in the vain hope of that nephew's return, was bowed down to the ground by misery and responsibility. He was very aged; he was a Bishop; besides himself, there was no native heir to the Portuguese throne; and if he died without children, the sceptre would pass to the hated Spanish monarch. In every church collections were made for the captives: every religious order exerted itself up to its power and beyond its power: the great houses of Al-cobaca and Thomar and Batalha melted down their plate, pawned their chalices, changed their silver and gold crosses for crucifixes of brass: and the Trinitarians, whose order was founded for the redemption of Christian captives, spread themselves over the whole kingdom, and went into its island dependencies, praying for alms, and telling doleful tales of the fate of those who were in slavery in Tetuan or Morocco. At the end of September, the first treasure ship--after all due precautions had been taken--sailed for Barbary: it bore the ransoms of most of the nobility, of all the ecclesiastics, and of many of the sons of the richer families, who, it had been ascertained, had survived the battle.

While this ship is on her southward voyage, let us look into one of the dungeons in which the prisoners were confined. It is a chamber in the common prison, principally below the ground, but with a low oven-like dome, rising above it. In the very summit of the dome, is one small circular window, the only aperture; and stretched uneasily on the mud floor in every posture of misery and fatigue, lie the twenty or thirty prisoners there confined, just returned from the work of that forenoon. Hardship and disease had already made fearful havoc among their numbers. Many a ransom now collecting in Portugal is collecting in vain: the iron, which they wore round either leg, the iron had indeed entered into their soul.

One of their number alone stands upright: it is Father Thomas. For two brief hours in the day the sun stands so high up in the heavens that his light visits even the sad recesses of that dungeon: they are the two hours of the noonday rest: at other times all is one grey dull twilight. That is the opportunity of the good priest: with ink, made of soot and water, and with nothing better than a wooden pen, he employs that season in writing the work which will be an everlasting heritage to the Church, "The Labours of JESUS." Night by night, he delivers from memory to his little congregation what he has composed for them in the day. And now, while they take such rest as they can, and while one of their number, a boy of some thirteen or fourteen, whose father fell in the battle, and who has himself been at the very door of death from the fever, is enjoying a little uneasy sleep, Father Thomas is meditating and writing on the fifth labour of our LORD, the Tears which He shed in His Infancy. I think the sentence which he was writing was this:

"All tears find, in this LORD, a singular sympathy: those of sorrow remind Him of the days of His own sorrows; those of love awaken His own love; those of longing call to His remembrance His promises; every tear, let it be of what kind it may, so it be but holy, extends its arms to Him and embraces Him."

The huge lock of the dungeon creaked and groaned: the door opened heavily: and, accompanied by three or four Moorish officials, a Trinitarian friar--the red cross on his breast, whence our own English name of Crutched Friars,--entered. The prisoners started to their feet: they knew what was the holy man's errand: and hope, however unlikely, however impossible, whispered to each, that he might be one among the number to be set free. In the short moment between the friar's entrance and his first words, how many a home vision passed before the eyes of the heart-sick captives! One thought of his quaint, rough cottage on the wind-swept promontory of S. Vincent: one of his father's farm, the old familiar vineyards and olives, the old familiar barn and oxen, in beautiful Minho: one with not less fond affection of the lonely tower on one of the wild heights of Tras-os-Montes, where his wife and his little Dolores must be watching for him in vain.

"GOD'S blessing on you, good Father, and on you, my children," said the Trinitarian. "I hope, if it be His will, to come on a happier errand, ere very long; but at present, it grieves me to say, my business is with but one of you. Good Father, I have here, from your house of Santa Cruz at Coimbra, forty moidores for your ransom; I have already negotiated the matter with the authorities, and you are free."

"I am beholden to them and to you," answered Father Thomas: "but it shall never be said that, while one of my companions was in misery here, I would return to freedom in Portugal. Good brother, we have not so learned CHRIST. If I refuse the ransom for myself, I may doubtless name one in my place."

"Assuredly you may," said the friar; "but bethink you well what you are doing. You have seen these miseries with your own eyes; your eloquence is known everywhere; and by returning you will be able more effectually to advantage your fellow-captives, than by remaining with them in bondage here."

"I will send my prayers," replied Father Thomas, "to the court of Heaven, and they will be more effectual than if I pleaded to the court of Lisbon. Ignacio! Ignacio Martinz!"

The poor boy half roused himself up, and said something indistinctly and brokenly about being too late.

"He thinks," said Father Thomas, "that he has to go out to his work; but I have better news for him.--Ignacio, would you like to see your mother and your dear little Ignez again?"

The boy sat upright, and looked around him as if bewildered.

"You have good reason to thank GOD," said Father Thomas. "Your ransom has been sent, and--"

"But, good Father," interrupted the Trinitarian.

"Let me tell my own story," said Father Thomas with a smile. "Your ransom has been sent, Ignacio, and we are going to lose you; but I am sure you will not forget us when you are in Portugal."

It was well that a violent burst of tears came to the poor child's relief. He threw himself into the good Father's arms; protested over and over and over again that he would never, never forget him or any of his companions; that he would do everything he could--"and who knows, though I am so young, but that I may be able to do something, to persuade others to send ransoms?" And so, with the congratulations of those who were unselfish enough to rejoice in his happiness, notwithstanding their own disappointment, the poor child departed.

Again and again that Trinitarian friar returned to Barbary; again and again he had the satisfaction of restoring husbands and fathers and brothers to their homes; again and again the Augustinian house of Santa Cruz contributed the ransom of Father Thomas; but, as perseveringly as they remembered him, he persisted in redeeming some unhappy prisoner by his lengthened captivity. At length by the special intervention of Francisco de Cotta, then ambassador to the Emperor of Morocco, he was, against his will, set at liberty. While in the prison, he had finished his work of the Labours of JESUS. Twenty-five in His earthly life, twenty-five in His Passion. His preface is dated from his dungeon, on New Year's Day, 1582; and on the title-page, he says that he was in the fiftieth year of his exile from the heavenly country. When set at liberty early in the same year, he went to Sagena, which was then the principal depot for the Portuguese slaves. Among them he laboured till the end of Lent, when he was seized with a malignant fever. And on Low Sunday, April 17th, 1582, with the Name of JESUS on his lips, he entered into the joy of his LORD.


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