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"Then we will proceed. Go, do your part. You may trust La Giralda. Go quickly. You have much to do."
And little Concha snapped to the shutter of the wicket in his face.
Much to do. Yes, it was true. What with Dol?res in the power of his false friend Luis and the evil hag Tia Elvira, his gentlemen to attend upon at their inn, and the grave-digger lying with a broken head in the garden, El Sarria might be said to have had some private business upon his hands. And this, too, in addition to his affairs of state – the Abbot's commission, his own outlawry, and the equal certainty of his being shot whether he fell into the hands of the Carlists or of the national soldiers.
Yet in spite of all these, never since the evil night of his first home-coming to Sarria had he been so happy as when he retraced his way in company with La Giralda in the direction of the mill-house.
And as he went, thinking no thought save of Dol?res and his love, suddenly the only man who would have dared to cross his path stood before him.
"Ah, sirrah," cried Rollo the Scot, "is this your service? To run the country with women – and not even to have the sense to choose a pretty one. What mean you by this negligence, dog of Galicia?"
"I attend to my own affairs," answered Ramon, with a sullen and boding quiet; "do me the favour to go about yours."
Hot-blood Rollo leaped upon him without a word, taking the older and stronger man at unawares with his young litheness. He saw Ramon's fingers moving to the knife in its sheath by his side. But ere they could reach it, his hand was on the giant's wrist and his pistol at his ear.
"A finger upon your Albacetan and you die!" cried Rollo. "I would have you Gallegans learn that the servant is not greater than his lord."
Now Ramon knew that not his life, but that of Rollo, hung on a hair. For he was conscious that La Giralda's knife was bare and that that determined lady was simply choosing her opportunity. If Rollo had been older most likely Ramon would have waited motionless for Giralda's thrust, and then turned the young man under his heel, precisely as he had done to the grave-digger earlier in the evening. But as they rode from the abbey he had admired the young fellow's gallant bearing and perhaps heard also of his flouting of his own Miguelete enemies at the inn of San Vicente. So for this time he had pity upon him.
"Stand back, Giralda," he commanded. Then to Rollo he said, "Forgive my seeming negligence, Se?or. It was only seeming. The honour of my wife and the life of my child are at stake. I am Ramon Garcia the outlaw, whom you saw fall upon the altar of the Abbey of Montblanch. This is my home. My wife is here and near to death in the house of mine enemy. Let these things be my excuse!"
Rollo dropped his pistol, like a good sportsman mechanically uncocking it as he did so. His generous impulses were as fierce and swift as his other passions.
"Tell me all," he said, "'fore God I will help you – ay, before any king or monk on earth.A brave man in such trouble has the first claim of all upon Rollo Blair!"
"And your companions?" said El Sarria.
"I give myself no trouble about them," cried Rollo. "Se?or Mortimer will visit the vineyards and wine cellars to-morrow and be happy. And as for gay Master Etienne, has he not the little Concha to search for? Besides, even if he had not, he would not be six hours in the place without starting a new love affair."
Then, as they turned backwards along the road, El Sarria told Rollo all his tale, and the young Scot found himself, for the first time, deep among the crude mother-stuff of life and passion.
"And I thought that I had lived!" he said, and looked long at the huge form of the outlaw by his side, to whom deadly peril was as meat and drink, whom any man might slay, and gain a reward for the deed.
"I see it!" cried Rollo, whose quick brain caught the conditions of the problem even as Ramon was speaking. "And if I help, my companions will help also. I answer for them!"
For this young man was in the habit, not only of undertaking remarkable adventures himself, but, out of mere generosity, of engaging his friends in them as well. Yet never for a moment did Rollo doubt that he was acting, not only for the best, but positively in a manner so reasonable as to be almost humdrum.
So upon this occasion, finding El Sarria in difficulties, he pledged himself to the hilt to assist that picturesque outlaw. Yet, doubtless, had he first come across a captain of Migueletes in trouble about Ramon's capture, he would have taken a hand in bringing about that event with a truly admirable and engaging impartiality. This was perhaps the quality which most of all endeared Rollo to his friends.
"Concha – Concha," Rollo was thinking deeply and quickly; "tell me what kind of girl is this Concha?"
"She is as other girls," said El Sarria, indifferently enough, who had not till that night troubled his head much about her, "a good enough girl – a little light-hearted, perhaps, but then – she is an Andaluse, and what can you expect? Also well-looking – "
"And has been told so as often as I was in my youth!" said the old woman La Giralda, breaking in. "Of Concha Cabezos this man knows nothing, even if he be El Sarria risen from the dead (as indeed I suspected from the first). And if, as he says, she is somewhat light of heart and heel, the little Concha has a wise head and a heart loyal to all except her would-be lovers. Being a Sevillana, and with more than a drop of Romany blood in her veins, she hath never gotten the knack of that. But you may trust her with your life, young stranger, aye, or (what is harder) with another woman's secret. Only, meantime, do not make love to her. That is a game at which the Se?orita Concha always wins!"
Rollo twirled his moustache, and thought. He was not so sure. At twenty-five, to put a woman on such a pedestal is rather a whet to the appetite of a spirited young man.
"And what do you intend to do with the grave-digging Fernandez?" asked Rollo.
"Why," said Ramon, simply, "to tell truth, I intended to cover him up in the grave he had made, all but his head, and let him get out as best he could!"
"Appropriate," agreed Rollo, "but crude, and in the circumstances not feasible. We must take this Fernandez indoors after we have arranged the garrison of the house. We will make his brother nurse him. Fraternal affection was never better employed, and it will keep them both out of mischief. And how soon, think you, could your wife be moved?" asked Rollo.
Ramon shrugged his shoulders helplessly, and turned to La Giralda.
"When I had my second," she said ("he that was hanged at Gibraltar by the English because the man he stabbed died in order to spite him), it was at the time of the vintage. And, lo! all unexpectedly I was overtaken even among the very clusters. So I went aside behind the watcher's ca?a huts… And after I had washed the boy I went back and finished my row. There are no such women in these days, El Sarria. This of thine – "
"Peace, Giralda," said Ramon, sternly; "Dol?res is as a dove, and weak from long trouble of heart. On your head, I ask of you, could we move her in twenty-four hours and yet risk nothing of the life?"
"Yes, as the Virgin sees me," asserted La Giralda, holding up her hands, "if so be I have the firming of the bands about her – of linen wide and strong they must be made – to be mine own afterwards. And then she must be carried between four stout men, as I will show you how."
"It shall be done," cried Rollo. "I will find the men, do you provide the linen, El Sarria. I will hie me to the convent early to-morrow morning and talk with this little Concha!"
"You will not be admitted," said La Giralda, somewhat scornfully; "the Mother Superior is most strict with all within the walls."
"But I shall ask for the Mother Superior," said the modest youth, "and, gad! if I get only six quiet minutes of the old lady, I warrant she will refuse me nothing – even to the half of her kingdom. Meantime, here we are! Is it not so?"
The huge black circle of the mill-wheel rose before them against the whitewash of the un-windowed wall. They could not see the mill-house itself from this point, and they halted before going further, in order to make their dispositions.
"What we are going to do is not strictly within the letter of the law," explained Rollo, cheerfully, "but it is the best I can think of, and containing as it does the elements of justice, may commend itself as a solution to all parties. If these Fernandez gentlemen kidnap other men's wives, devise the murder of their children, and strive to have the men themselves shot, they cannot very well complain of a little illegality. This is the house. Well, it must be ours for twenty-four hours – no more, no less. Then, if no accidents happen, we will return it to Se?or Luis Fernandez. All set? Adelante, then!"
And with Rollo in the van, El Sarria following a little behind and La Giralda bolting the doors and generally protecting the rear, the party of possession went upwards into the mill-house to argue the matter at length with Se?or Luis and his friend the Tia Elvira.
These worthy people, however, were not in the sick-chamber of Dol?res Garcia, which, on the whole, was just as well. At an earlier part of the night the Tia had administered to Dol?res a potion which caused her to sleep soundly for several hours. For the Tia was skilled in simples, as well as in a good many things of a nature far from simple. A faint clinking sound, as of counting money, guided Rollo to the spot.
The master of the house and his faithful "Tia" sat bending over a table in the upper hall, or general meeting-place of the family. The door which opened off the stairway up which the visitors came, gave a slight creak, but Luis Fernandez and his associate were so engrossed in their work that neither of them lifted their eyes.
A considerable number of trinkets of gold and silver, articles of attire, crucifixes, and ornaments were spread out upon the table. As soon as Ramon's eyes fell upon these, Rollo felt him grip his arm convulsively, but the young man resolutely kept the outlaw behind him. The time was not yet.
Tia Elvira was not for the moment on good terms with her companion.
"Listen, Luis Fernandez," she said, extending a pair of withered claws across the table like the talons of some unclean bird; "if you think that I am going to do your business and run hot chances of the iron necklace that has no beads, and then when all is done allow your father's son to cheat me out of my dues, you are much mistaken. If you do not deliver me all the ornaments her husband gave this woman Dol?res, according to your agreement, by the chief of the devils that inhabit the four hells I will go to the Corregidor to-morrow at day-break and lodge information against you and your brother for the crime of child murder!"
"And where, think you, would you find yourself in such a case?" quoth Luis Fernandez, a cold-eyed, dark-haired man of forty years of age. He sat leaning well over the table, the more precious of the objects gathered between his arms. "You were the nurse in attendance, my Tia – to that the Sangrador would bear witness. He left you in charge of the infant, my dear aunt. And though times are hard and men in office unbelieving, I still think that I, Luis Fernandez, could command enough testimony in this town to bring the guilt (if guilt there be) home to a certain Elvira the Gipsy, whose record, at any rate, is none of the best!"
He laughed a little chuckling laugh as the hag exploded into a swarm of crabbed gipsy oaths.
"But enough of this, Tia," he said; "be reasonable, and you will find me generous. Only I must be the judge of what is mine own, that is all, my bitter-sweet Ronda pippin."
"Curses upon you and all that you may bring forth, on your burying, on your children and your children's children!" cried the woman.
"Come – come – that will do, Tia," cried Luis, striking the table with his hand. "I value not your curses this single fig of Spain." (Here he made towards her the gesture with finger and thumb which averts the evil eye.) "But if I hear any more of this I will put you to the door without so much as a single silver spoon. Whereupon you will be welcome to do your worst."
"I do not see why you want both the woman and the goods," whined the Tia, altering her tone. "Did you not say that you desired to keep nothing which would remind her of her old life? And have not I, by my decoctions and distillations, kept this silly Dol?res in a dream like that of a child all these weeks since we got rid of that imp of Satan, Concha Cabezos of Seville?"
"You have – you have indeed done well, my Tia," said the man soothingly, "and you will find me by no means ungrateful. But come, let us get this matter settled, and then I must go and look for my drunken good-for-nothing of a brother, who has doubtless stolen the key of the wine-cellar, and is at his old tricks again."
"Well, at any rate, I insist upon that string of silver beads," said the old woman, greedily. "I have been thinking of it all these days, and do not forget that it was I who wormed out of the widow the hiding-place where that cunning little Concha had placed Ramon Garcia's strong box."
"There – take it, then," said the man impatiently, and a heavy string of beads was slid across the table with a clanking noise. "I had not thought you so good a Christian, Tia!"
"Oh, it is not that," chuckled the hag, clutching the necklace fiercely, as a starving dog might fall on a bone, and concealing it instantly beneath her skirts. "But each link hath the stamp upon it – the mint stamp of Seville – and will pass current for a good duro wherever one may chance to be. With such a necklace one can never be in want."
"Well," said Luis, "the devil fly away with you and it, Tia! I keep all the ornaments of gold – let that be understood. My wife might, upon an occasion, take a yearning for them, and if I had them not to give her, it might be to the danger of my house and succession. So this gold cross – "
("My mother's!" breathed Ramon hotly in Rollo's ear.)
"This knife with the hilt top set with brilliants – "
("My father's – he had it from the great Lor' Wellington for a message he brought to him at Vitoria.")
"These trifles – a pair of ear-rings, a ring of pearls, a comb for the hair in gold – all these I reserve for myself."
As he spoke, he tossed them, one after the other, into a heavy iron-bound box which, with chains and padlocks displayed, stood open upon the floor.
As each article tinkled among the others, the Tia gave a little wince of bodily pain, and her skinny talons scratched the wood of the table with a sound distinctly audible at the door behind which the intruders stood.
Then a quick loud cackle of laughter came from Fernandez. He had found something among the parchments.
"'Hereby I plight thee my troth,'" he read from a paper in his hand, "'for ever and for ever, as a true heart and a true lover, signed, Ramon.' This she has kept in a case in her bosom, I suppose, with the picture of the oaf," he added, "and is as like him as it is like St. Nicholas, the patron saint of all thieves. And, holy Michael in the seventh heavens! here is their marriage certificate all complete – a very treasure-house of connubial happiness. But these need not go into the strong box. I, Luis Fernandez, have made an end of them. The woman is mine, and so will I also make an end of these relics of folly."
He took the papers to tear them across, but the stout parchment resisted a moment. His brow darkened, and he clutched them more securely to rend them with an effort.
But a slight noise in the apartment and a cry from the Tia caused him to look up.
A knife was at his throat, and a figure stood before him, one huge hand pinning him to his seat.
"Ramon," he cried, his voice, which had been full of chuckling laughter, rising suddenly to a thin shriek. "God in heaven, Ramon Garcia!"
And with a trembling hand he tried to cross himself.
"Give!" said Ramon, in a hollow voice, and mechanically the miller placed the papers in his hands.
"'Fore God, Ramon, I thought you were dead!" gasped the man.
"No, friend, not dead," came the answer, "but Ramon Garcia come back in the flesh to settle certain accounts with his well-beloved comrade and brother of many years, Luis Fernandez, of the mill-house of Sarria."