"WHAT ruins are those which are to be seen on the top of that ridge?" asked a genteel captain of the policeman of a village.
"The accursed ruins!" answered the first authority of the village with extreme terror. "Many years ago," he said, "there used to be a fine castle there, inhabited by a feudal lord who was more avaricious than anybody in the world before. There stands his statue amidst the rubbish, and terrible stories are told about it which frighten all the neighbours.
"In the archives of the town several curious documents are kept, and if your worship, Sir Captain, wishes to read them, I will lend them to you with great pleasure."
The soldier smiled disdainfully on hearing the policeman, and begged him to let him see those curious documents, because he had the idea of visiting the ruins and removing for ever the superstitious fear that they inspired.
That night he received a bundle of yellowed papers falling to pieces through age and dampness, and shut up in his room he read them from beginning to end.
The following morning when Captain Pero Gil—for such was his name—went out into the square, the hollows of a night of insomnia and fever were clearly seen in his face. What had happened to him?
Among the papers which formed the bundle, one above all had attracted his attention. It ran more or less as follows:
"It is said by neighbour Nuno Perez that in the castle, at the foot of the tower of Homage, there must be an immense treasure, but it is guarded by one hundred dwarfs with long beards who strike anybody who comes near.
"At twelve o’clock in the night a gap opens in the ground which gives access to enormous riches piled up in the cellar; but exactly at one o’clock the earth closes up until the following night. If, instead of one person, two or three go to the place, then the earth does not open and the treasure remains hidden.
"That is the news which, on the evidence of an eyewitness, has reached me, and which I certify.—Inigo Lopez, the constable."
The captain remained perplexed for a good while, and at last said to himself resolutely: "To-morrow night I will go to the tower of Homage at the foot of the castle."
Indeed, at twelve o’clock in the night he went out of the house where he lodged and went towards the ruins, first making sure that his sword came out of the sheath without difficulty, and that the pistols which he wore in his belt were well loaded.
At eleven o’clock, or a little later, he arrived at the castle. A splendid moon was shining, which gave the landscape a melancholy appearance. The captain hid himself behind some stones close to the big tower, and there waited, twisting his moustache, to see the marvel take place. The village clock struck twelve, and on the last stroke the earth opened and a crowd of dwarfs, with beards down to the ground, came out of the narrow gap. They were armed with thick sticks, and began to dance round the entrance of the vault, singing:
"Let us defend the treasure, Let us defend our gold Against every mortal Not knowing the signal."
The captain advanced quickly, and taking up his place at the side of the circle of little men, saluted the dwarfs with great courtesy.
"Good evening, friends,"
"Daring man!" said the tiny men. "Who are you? What have you come here for?"
And armed with their thick sticks they rushed towards the intruder. But the latter, without being frightened, unsheathed his sword, and said to them very calmly:
"Let us be serious, comrades, and leave off making bad-natured jokes, because I will cut down any one who comes too near me. Are you willing to let me have the treasures?"
"Never!" they exclaimed. "It is necessary for you to give us the signal. If you do not know it, we shall kill you."
"That is easier said than done," said Pero Gil, with great deliberation. "You must grow a little before you can put a man like me in pickle. If your height had grown as much as your beard, it might have been different."
"Let us kill him," shouted the dwarfs. "He does not know the signal!"
And they threw themselves upon the captain. But the latter drew out a pistol, and with one shot the most daring of them fell to the ground, which checked the rest.
"It seems that I came off best," said the captain, laughing. "What I have done to this fellow I will do to the remainder if you come near. Therefore let me pass without hindrance."
"We would let ourselves be killed before permitting you to get to the treasure, unless you gave us the signal."
"And what signal is that?"
"We cannot tell you."
"It seems to me that I shall not require it for grinding up your ribs."
"Away! Away!" said the little men; and armed with their sticks they rushed upon Pero Gil. The latter fired off his second pistol, bowling over another, but they threw themselves upon him, until his back looked like a snake turning round amidst the crowd of those who were attacking him. At last he saw that he was surrounded and defenceless, and therefore was obliged to jump over the wall at the risk of being dashed to pieces, and so left the place, ashamed of his defeat.
"My goodness! what can the signal be?" he asked himself while on his way to the village.
The following morning he returned to the ruins, armed with a lever, and recognised the place where on the previous night he had seen the opening. There was nothing there! However much he poked about he could not find the least sign which showed the entrance to the mysterious vault; and what was still stranger, he could not distinguish the slightest trace of the past fight.
Then he resolved to try if cunning could succeed where strength had failed.
The following night he hid himself in the ruins and watched the place where the marvellous event took place. The dwarfs came out with their accustomed dance and song:
"Let us defend the treasure,
Let us defend our gold
Against every mortal
Not knowing the signal."
The dance over, one of them said:
"The captain will not return, but if he does come back we will kill him."
"It would be better to allow him to enter the vault and there let him die of hunger."
"And if he seizes the bell?"
"Then we are lost."
"But he must first give the statue of the old master of the castle a thrust with his sword."
Pero Gil did not wait to hear any more, and at one bound approached the statue, which was situated in what used to be the armoury of the fortress, and struck it a stout blow with his blade.
The statue fell down flat as if struck by lightning, and at once the dwarfs surrounded the captain and forced him down a flight of steps.
Hardly had he entered than the gap closed up and the captain found himself alone in a cave which was lighted by a lamp hanging from the ceiling. On the floor there were great heaps of gold and precious stones, but this was not the thing that claimed the captain’s attention. He was looking for the bell which he had heard the dwarfs speak about.
For half an hour his search was fruitless. He turned over the yellow piles of money and the sacks of gems, but the desired object was not to be found.
Weary and perspiring he threw himself down on a pile of gold bars, and there rested before again returning to his task.
The mysterious bell had to be found.
Persuaded that it was not to be come across in a visible spot, he began to strike the walls, until at last one of them sounded hollow. With his sword he made a hole and from it drew out a leaden bell of a very rare shape, which in a good sale might be worth as much as four farthings.
"And now what must I do?" thought the captain. He carefully examined the object he had found, which bore the following inscription, "Do not ring me unless you know how." But the captain was not a man to hesitate, and rang the bell. Immediately the walls closed together, threatening to crush him by their enormous mass. Without being daunted he gave another ring, and then a thousand points of steel came forth from the walls as if they were going to pass through him. Then he gave a third ring, and immediately the vault returned to its original form.
At the fourth the dwarfs humbly presented themselves and said to him:
"What do you want of us? Command us as your slaves."
"In the first place, to dance the saraband in order to amuse me, as a compensation for the unpleasant time you have given me."
And the dwarfs danced like anything for a good while, until Pero Gil told them to stop.
"Now you will take the sacks of money and carry them to my house."
The dwarfs obeyed without making the slightest observation, loading up those precious things.
"Leave us the bell," they said, "since you take away the riches."
Pero Gil was going to leave it, when he suddenly had a presentiment and thought better of it.
"This talisman shall never leave me."
Then the dwarfs carried the riches to his house, singing on the way:
"Don’t let us guard the treasure now,
For it is being taken away
By this fortunate mortal
Who knows the signal."
So Captain Pero Gil became master of immense riches, which he distributed among his soldiers, naturally keeping for himself the largest part.
And whenever he thought of that famous adventure, he rightly used to say, "After all, the true talisman to get what we want is cunning and bravery."