It rose upon the rock like a growth of nature; secure, commanding, imperturbable; mantled with ivy and crowned with towers; a castle of the olden time, called Stronghold.
Below it, the houses of the town clung to the hillside, creeping up close to the castle wall and clustering in its shadow as if to claim protection. In truth, for many a day it had been their warden against freebooter and foreign foe, gathering the habitations of the humble as a hen gathers her chickens beneath her wings to defend them from the wandering hawk.
But those times of disorder and danger were long past. The roaming tribes had settled down in their conquered regions. The children of the desert had learned to irrigate their dusty fields. The robber chiefs had sobered into merchants and money-lenders. The old town by the river had a season of peace, labouring and making merry and sleeping and bringing forth children and burying its dead in tranquillity, protected by forts far away and guarded by ships on distant waters.
Yet Stronghold still throned upon the rock, proudly dominant; and the houses full of manifold life were huddled at its foot; and the voices of men and women and little children, talking or laughing or singing or sobbing or cursing or praying, went up around it like smoke.
Now the late lord of the castle, in the last age of romance, had carried off a beautiful peasant girl with dove's eyes, whom he married on her death-bed where she gave birth to their son. The blood of his father and of his mother met in the boy's body, and in his soul their spirits were mingled, so that he was by times haughty and gentle, and by turns fierce and tender, and he grew up a dreamer with sudden impulses to strong action. To him, at his father's death, fell the lordship of the castle; and he was both proud and thoughtful; and he considered the splendour of his ancient dwelling and the duties of his high station.
The doors of Stronghold, at this time, were always open, not only for the going out of the many retainers and servants on their errands of business and mercy and pleasure in the town, but also for the citizens and the poor folk who came seeking employment, or demanding justice, or asking relief for their necessities. The lord of the castle had ordered that none should be denied, and that a special welcome should be given to those who came with words of enlightenment and counsel, to interpret the splendour of Stronghold and help its master to learn the duties of his high station.
So there came many men with various words. Some told him of the days when Stronghold was the defence of the land and the foreign foe was broken against it. Some walked with him in the long hall of portraits and narrated the brave deeds of his ancestors. Some explained to him the history of the heirlooms, and showed him how each vessel of silver and great carved chair and richly faded tapestry had a meaning which made it precious.
Other men talked to him of the future and of the things that he ought to do. They set forth new schemes of industry by which the castle should be changed into a central power-house or a silk-mill. They unfolded new plans of bounty by which the hungry should be clad, and the naked fed, and the sick given an education. They told him that if he would do these things, in the course of a hundred years or so all would be well.
But the trouble was that their counsels were contradictory, and their promises were distant, and the lord of the castle was impatient and bewildered in mind. For meantime the manifold voices of the town went up around him like smoke, and he knew that underneath it some fires of trouble and sorrow must be burning.
Then came two barefaced and masterful men who told him bluntly that the first duty of his high station was to abandon it.
"What shall I do then?" he asked.
"Work for your living," they shouted.
"What do you do for your living?" he inquired.
"We tell other men what to do," replied they.
"And do you think," said he, "that your job is any harder than mine, or that you work more than I do?" So he gave order that they should have a good supper and be escorted from the castle, for he had no time to waste upon mummers.
But the confusion in his mind continued, because the spirits of his father and his mother were working within him, and the impulse to sudden action gathered force beneath his dreams. So he was glad when the next visitor came bearing the marks of evident sincerity and a great purpose.
His beard was untrimmed, his garb was rude, his feet were bare, like an ancient prophet. His voice was fiercely quiet, and his eyes burned while he talked, as if he saw to the root of all things. He called himself John the Nothingarian.
The lord of the castle related some of the plans which his counsellors had made for his greater usefulness.
"They are puerile," said the Nothingarian, "futile, because they do not go to the root."
Then the young lord spoke of the legends of his forefathers and the history of Stronghold.
"They are dusty tales," said the Nothingarian, "false, because they do not go to the root."
"How shall we get to the root?" asked the young lord, trembling with a new eagerness.
"There is only one way," answered the prophet. "Come with me."
As they went through the outer passageway the old man pressed hard with his hands against one of the stones in the wall, and a little door slid open.
"The secret stair," said he, "by which your fathers brought in their stolen women. Your Stronghold is honeycombed with lies."
The young lord's face was red as fire. "I never knew of it," he murmured.
In the vaulted crypt beneath the castle the old man found a lantern and a pickaxe. He went to an alcove walled with plaster and picked at it with the axe. The plaster fell away. On the floor of the alcove lay two crumpled bodies of men long dead; the clothes were rotting upon the bones and a dagger stuck fast in each back.
"They were stabbed as they sat at meat," said the old man, "for the gain of their gold. Your Stronghold is cemented with blood."
The young lord's face grew dark as night. "I never knew of it," he muttered.
"Come," said the other, "I see we must go a little deeper before you know where you stand."
So he led the way through the long vaults, where the cobwebs trailed like rags and the dripping pendules of lime hung from the arches like dirty icicles, until he came to the foundation of the great tower. There he set down the lantern and began to dig, fiercely and silently, close to the corner-stone, throwing out the rubble with his bare hands. At last the pick broke through into a hollow niche. At the bottom of it was the skeleton of a child about five years old, and the cords that bound her little hands and feet lay in white dust upon the sunken bones.
"You see!" said the old man, wiping his torn hands on his robe. "The corner-stones were laid for safety on the body of a murdered innocent. Your Stronghold is founded on cruelty. This is the root."
The young lord's face went white as death. "Horrible!" he cried. "But what to do?"
"Do away with it!" said the Nothingarian. "That is the only thing. Come!"
He went out into the night and the young lord followed him, the sudden impulse to strong action leaping in his heart and pounding in his temples and ringing in his ears, like a madness.
They passed around behind the great tower, where it stood close to the last pinnacle of the rock and rose above it, bolted to the high crest of stone by an iron bar.
"Here is the clutch of your Stronghold," said the old man urgently. "Break that and all goes down. Dare you strike to the root?"
"I dare," he cried, "for I must. A thing built on cruelty, cemented with blood, and worm-eaten with lies is hateful to me as to God."
He lifted the pick and struck. Once! and the castle trembled to its base and the servants ran out at the doors. Twice! and the tower swayed and a cry of fear arose. Thrice! and the huge walls of Stronghold rocked and crashed and thundered down upon the sleeping town, burying it in wild ruin!
Dead silence for an instant--and then, through the cloud of dust that hung above the flattened houses, came a lamentable tumult. Voices of men and women and little children, shrieking in fear, groaning with pain, whimpering for pity, moaning in mortal anguish, rose like smoke from the pit beneath the wreck of Stronghold.
The young lord listened, dizzy and sick with horror. Then he looked at the Nothingarian whose eyes glittered wildly. He swung up the pickaxe again.
"Curse you," he cried, "why didn't you tell me of this?" And he split his head down to the beard.