Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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The outlaw's voice mounted into a solemn and awful tone of accusation, like a man in hell calling the roll of his own past happinesses.

"Now, Luis Fernandez," thundered Ramon, after a period of silence, "what have you to say to all this? Have you any reasons to advance why you should not die by my hand?"

"Ramon, Ramon, do not kill me in my sins," cried the wretched man. "By the memory of our boyhood together let me at least receive absolution and go clean!"

"Even as you would have made me go unshriven by the mouth of the Devil's Ca?on – even as this very night you sent forth to the holy ministry of the worm, and the consolations of the clod the young child, unblessed and unbenisoned, without touch of priestly hand or sprinkling drop of holy water! Even so, Luis, friend of my youth, according to the measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again. The barley bushel is good measure also for the rye!"

Rollo, standing by the door and looking over the heads of accuser and accused, saw through a window the first green streaks of a doubtful dawn drawn livid and chill athwart a black sky. He went across to El Sarria and whispered in his ear. Fernandez lifted up his head and eyed the Scot with a kind of dull curiosity as if he wondered what his part in the affair might be. And the keen and restless eyes of the Tia watched him also, from where she lay pillowed on her stolen bundle like a bound and helpless Fury.

In quick whispers Rollo urged a plan of action upon El Sarria, by which he hoped to obtain a reprieve and perhaps his life for the wretched man. But he did not advert to this, only to the necessity of haste, and to the perilous state of Dol?res. This was indeed his great argument. Whatever happened she must be cared for. The matter of the traitors could be arranged later. While Ramon sat considering, the active eyes of the young Scot discovered a small iron-faced door open at one corner of the chamber. He went across and pulled aside the curtain which half concealed the entrance.

"A regular strong room, by Jove!" he cried; "here is everything comfortable for our friends while we settle our other affairs. We shall need our good Se?or Don Luis, from time to time during the morning, but I doubt not he will oblige us."

Rollo sounded all over the strong room of the mill-house for any signs of another possible exit, but all was solid masonry. Besides which, the chests of valuables and papers, the casks of fine liquors and smuggled cigars proved that this was intended for a secret wall chamber in which to conceal the valuables of the house in case of alarm. Such hiding-places are not uncommon in the old houses of Spain, as Rollo knew, though this was the first he had seen.

"Give yourself the pain of entering, Se?or," he said to Fernandez, and without waiting for any overt permission from Ramon, he caught up the old hag Tia Elvira in his arms and carried her, bundle and all, into the room.

"Here I am compelled to leave you for the time being in the dark, Don Luis," he said courteously.

"But I think you will agree that your state is not the less gracious for that. I shall return immediately and present certain propositions for your consideration."

"You are an Englishman," cried Fernandez, "you will not stand by and see a man murdered in cold blood."

"The blood is none so cold that I can see," said Rollo, shrugging his shoulders. "I will do the best I can for you, Se?or; only do not try any tricks with us. The least sign of further treachery will be fatal, and we have many friends about us."

CHAPTER XVI
DON LUIS IS WILLING

So saying, Rollo went out and locked the door behind him, leaving La Giralda with a loaded pistol seated beside it to prevent any egress, in case Fernandez had some way of opening the bolts from the inside known only to himself.

When Rollo returned from arranging these matters he found El Sarria's place vacant. But the young man following the direction of La Giralda's nod went out, and in a chamber about which hung a peculiar atmosphere of drugs, he found the outlaw on his knees by a woman's bedside.

Rollo stole forward on tiptoe, and in the pale glimmer of dawn he saw for the first time the features of Dol?res, the wife of Ramon the outlaw.

He could discern eye-lashes that lay very broad and dark upon colourless cheeks, a white-wrapped form under snowy coverlets, straight as the dead arrayed for burial, but nevertheless evidently alive, and sleeping peacefully with gently heaving breast.

The giant's head was sunk on the coverlet and his lips touched the damp fingers of the hand which lay without the sheet.

With true reverence Rollo touched Ramon on the shoulder and pointed to the window. The pale unearthly green of the sky spaces between the dark purple bars of cloud was fast changing to orange tinged with a smoky scarlet. The sun would not long delay, and there was a little matter out in the garden which must be arranged.

As Rollo anticipated, Tomas the scapegrace did not look handsome as he lay on the upturned soil. The blood had hardened upon the bruise on his crown where his own spade in El Sarria's hands had beaten him down, much as a gardener might level a rank stinging nettle.

"Carry him within," he ordered; "we will attend to his case better indoors!"

Already with spade and mattock Rollo was filling up the grave, stamping down the soil with his foot as he proceeded. Then after having laid away the tools in the little temple, he followed El Sarria upstairs. Tomas was lying very limp and still on the table from which the trinkets had been gathered into the box, and El Sarria, who gave himself no concern about his handiwork, was bending over the box of jewellery, rapidly throwing out all articles which he did not recognise as belonging to his wife or himself.

Rollo reminded him of his gun which he had left in the dry river-bed, and El Sarria set off to fetch it lest it should be recognised.

Then Rollo, who was now thoroughly enjoying himself "in the belly of an adventure" as he expressed it, called out, "Lay down that pistol, mother, we shall not need it for a while, and do you give me a hand with this rascal's sore head. What think you of it?"

"The stroke was dealt with a strong arm," said La Giralda, critically. "I saw it done – also heard it. It sounded like the driving in of a gate-post. But yet, most unfortunately, I do not think the man will die – unless – unless" – she fingered the keen little knife she carried lovingly – "unless indeed matters are a little assisted."

"Stop, mother; we cannot afford to have any Barranco de los Martires business this time! We are not in Granada within the gipsy barrio, remember, nor yet within hearing of the bells of Sevilla. Do as I bid you, and help me to bathe and bind up the scoundrel's pate."

The old woman did so with an air of protest, finally, however, consenting to make a plaster of certain herbs which she found in the household cabinet of simples, and having boiled them, applied the result like a turban to Don Tomas's unconscious crown.

All the while she murmured bitterly at intervals, "It is a pity! A pity! I do not believe he will die – unless, in spite of the Englishman, La Giralda has the nursing of him!"

Presently Ramon returned with his gun, which he would have set himself down to clean with the utmost nonchalance, if Rollo had not summoned him away to more important business.

"It is the accursed night-dew!" he said in explanation; "much depends on never putting off the drying and oiling of one's weapons."

"Now," said Rollo, "if you are ready, I in my turn should like to have my little interview with Don Luis!"

"You?" cried the outlaw, astonished.

Rollo nodded.

"Why not?" he said cheerfully; "we shall need his assistance very often to-day! Open the door, La Giralda."

The door clicked open, and there sat Luis Fernandez blinking upon a smuggled keg of French spirits, and in the corner the Tia's little black eyes twinkled like restless stars from her uneasy pillow.

Ramon carried in the limp body of Tomas, at sight of which Luis Fernandez flung up his hands with a shrill cry.

"You have killed him, then – as you will kill me!" he moaned, and ran towards the door of the strong room.

"Not so," said Rollo, stopping him with composure; "your brother is, as I think, as comfortable as the circumstances will permit, and more likely to recover than he deserves. Be good enough to tell La Giralda where to find a lamp or candle-box, so that in taking care of him you may not be hindered by darkness."

As he spoke Rollo had been arranging a couch of boxes and pillows, on which without the slightest regard to his enemy's comfort El Sarria flung his burden down.

But Rollo did his best for the unconscious man, and then when La Giralda had returned with a lamp, he turned sharply upon Don Luis.

"Sir," he said, "you know the causes of quarrel between yourself and Don Ramon Garcia, for whom I am acting. You know also what chances you have, if I do not use the influence I possess to counsel other and milder methods. Are you then willing to be guided entirely by me or do you prefer to be dealt with by my principal upon his own account, and without regard to my advice?"

Luis Fernandez clasped Rollo's hand.

"By the Virgin and all the saints," he cried, "I will do to the line and letter all that you desire of me in every particular. I know well that I have no other hope."

"Good," said Rollo; "then you will to-day show yourself about the Casa as usual. You will give any necessary orders to your foreman when he comes at the accustomed hour. This you will do in your own chamber and in my presence, urging a slight calentura as a reason for not venturing out. You will speak to La Giralda as to your servant, and in fine – you will comport yourself as if nothing had occurred, and as if no such man as Ramon Garcia were within a thousand leagues of the mill-house of Sarria! Do you agree?"

"I agree to anything, to everything!" said Fernandez, eagerly.

"But remember," continued Rollo, "in order to compass this I am stretching a good many points. I saw your eye brighten just now when I spoke of giving orders. Now, remember, if there is the slightest attempt at foul play, we may indeed lose our game, and with it our lives, but first of all and quite suddenly, one man shall die, and that man is – Luis Fernandez."

He added this asseveration —

"And this, I, Rollo Blair, of Blair Castle in the Shire of Fife, swear by Almighty God and the honour of a Scottish gentleman."

CHAPTER XVII
A GRAVE IRREGULARITY

The day wore in the mill-house of Sarria precisely as many thousands of days had done before. The foreman came for the keys from his master's bedroom at six of the clock. He wondered at the unwonted sight of his patron up and fully dressed at that hour, and still more at the tall young foreigner who sat with his book so studiously silent at the table opposite his master. The old gipsy woman Elvira, too, was gone and another in her place. But after all it was none of his business, and the mill must go on. For the dam had filled up and there was much corn to grind. Old withered Elisa, the goatherd "patrona," led her tinkling flock past the door a score of yards and then returned with her pail as was her wont. She saw Se?or Fernandez at his window, and he made a strange appealing motion with his hands to her, then glanced over his shoulder.

Perhaps (so she thought) the poor man had taken to drinking at night as that wicked brother of his used to do down at the venta. But the true nature of the Se?or's complaint did not dawn upon her till later.

From nine till half-past eleven none outside of the mill-house saw Se?or Luis. The stranger also was absent upon his occasions, and the doctor, coming early to see his patient, found only the gipsy woman, who did not appear to have understood the directions he had given her the day before. The Se?or himself was out of the way, but the doctor, glad to find his patient so quiescent and apparently in such good condition, soon took his leave, and in the mill-house La Giralda ruled alone.

With Rollo now for a time the tale runs more briskly. He set off for the venta, where he found Etienne and John Mortimer sitting at meat. Etienne was breaking his fast sparely upon a cup of chocolate and a glass of water, while John Mortimer had by hook or crook evolved something resembling a frying-pan, in which he had achieved the cooking of some bacon and eggs together with a couple of mutton chops. He was browning some bread before the fire to serve for English toast as Rollo entered, looking as fresh as if he had been newly roused from a twelve hour's sleep.

"Good morning, friends of mine," he cried; "you are in excellent case, I see. John, I have made arrangements for you to go and visit some vineyards to-day. Old Gaspar will guide you with his gun over his valiant shoulder. You can pick up points about wine-buying, without doubt. As to you, Etienne, mon vieux, I have found your Concha, and I am going to see her myself in half an hour. Shall I give her your love?"

"What!" cried Saint Pierre; "you jest. It cannot be my cruel, cruel little Conchita, she who fled from me and would not take the smallest notice of all my letters and messages? Where is she?"

"She is at the nunnery of the Sisters of Mercy outside the village. Poor Etienne! I am indeed sorry for you. With your religious views, it will be impossible for you to make love to a nun!"

"Would I not?" cried Etienne, eagerly; "mon Dieu, only procure me a chance, and I will let you see! But a nunnery is a hard nut to crack. How do you propose to manage it?"

"I intend to make friends with the Lady Superior," said Rollo, confidently.

"You have a letter of introduction to her, doubtless?" said Etienne.

"I do not at present even know her name; but all in good time!" said the youth, coolly.

"For stark assurance commend me to a Scot," cried Etienne, with enthusiasm. "You take to adventure as if it were chess. We poor French take the most ordinary affairs as if they were dram-drinking, and so are old and ennuy?s at thirty."

"And the English?" asked Rollo.

"Oh," laughed Etienne, "the English take to adventure as our friend there takes to his breakfast, and that perhaps is the best way of all."

He pointed with a smile to where, at the table's end, John Mortimer of Chorley, having made all preparations with the utmost seriousness for his repast, was on the point of turning on the operating mill. The cook of the venta, who had been much interested in John's culinary operations, had come up to see how he would deal with the result when completed.

John had brewed himself some tea from a small parcel he carried in his saddle-bags. This, made in a coffee-pot, was arranged at a certain distance from his dexter elbow. The bacon and eggs were on a platter exactly in front, flanked on the left by the smoking mutton chops, while the toast was stuck erect in an empty cruet-stand. In fact a Chorley breakfast-table was reproduced as exactly as circumstances would admit.

Then John Mortimer bent his head a moment over his plate, murmured something in memory of his father, the Primitive Methodist, in lieu of a blessing, said "Hem" in a loud gruff tone, hitched his chair forward a little, squared his shoulders, and fell to.

"That is why we French have no colonies!" said Etienne, admiringly. "In this little Spanish village he has found all the materials of an English breakfast."

"And that is why I shall never make any money," said Rollo, and proceeded to break his fast on a couple of eggs dropped into white wine, before setting out for the convent.

"Etienne," said Rollo, suddenly checking his glass in mid-air as an idea occurred to him, "lend me that ring of your sainted uncle's, the one with the picture of Don Carlos."

The young Frenchman indolently drew it from his hand, laid it on the polished marble top of the table, and with his forefinger flipped it across to Rollo.

"Who is the girl?" he said simply.

But Rollo with equal simplicity ignored his question, and did not even pause to thank him for the loan. It was a way these young men had with one another. Like the early Christians, they had all things in common. It was their single point of resemblance to the primitive Church.

"What shall I say to your Concha – that is, if I chance to see her?" said Rollo, as he brushed his clothes and saw to the neatness of his neck ribbon.

Etienne held down his head.

"Indeed," he said a little reluctantly, "I am not so anxious that you should say anything at all about me. The little minx did not treat me so very well when I came this way on my last visit to my uncle. And to tell the truth, there is an exceedingly pretty girl living only three doors from the venta. I have already spoken to her, and she has smiled at me thrice over the fence."

"Take my advice, and stick to the little Andaluse," said Rollo, laughing. "They do not understand that kind of thing here, dear Etienne. Remember Master Rafael, who got a knife somewhere between his shoulder-blades in this same village."

"I shall bear in mind what you say, my good Rollo," said Etienne; "meantime I shall dress myself afresh and walk in the gardens. They are, as it seems to me, contiguous. Perhaps it may chance that I shall see —her!"

"That leaves me a freer hand with Concha, then," murmured Rollo to himself, as he stuck his hat on the back of his head, and strode out into the stable yard smiling to himself.

He had his horse brought out and saddled. Then he mounted and rode down the village street towards the convent of the pious Sisters of Mercy. The plan he meant to adopt had entered his mind, as it were, with the eggs and white wine. He had not given the matter a thought before. He smiled to himself as he rode, for he wondered how he would succeed with this good Mother Superior, and what manner of girl he would find that wicked, tricksome Concha to be, whose name was in all men's mouths with a certain approving flavour, as of a pleasant naughtiness to be alternately scolded and cajoled. One thing this Master Rollo was as sure of as that he was a Scot. And that was – he never could, would, or should fall in love with such a girl.

So Rollo rode with a clatter of spurs and accoutrement up to the gate of the convent. Dismounting, he advanced briskly to the gate and knocked loudly upon it with his riding-whip.

In a few moments a sour-faced portress opened the little square wicket and looked through at him. The diamond-shaped lattice bars, which cut her features into minute lozenges, did not improve her good looks.

"I must see the Mother Superior immediately on important business!" quoth the brisk youth, slapping his waistcoat and settling the hilt of his sword in a businesslike manner, as if he had all his life been in the habit of making early morning calls upon Mothers Superior.

The portress laughed.

"A likely story," she said, "that I am to trail across the yard and leave my business here, to fetch the Lady Superior from her devotions to see a young man at the outer gate."

"If you do not admit me," Rollo went on, unabashed, "not only the Lady Superior will suffer, but the cause which all good Christians have at heart."

He suddenly thrust his bare hand close to the wicket and showed the ring which Etienne had given him.

"Do you know this?" he said.

At his first threatening motion the woman had mechanically withdrawn, but now curiosity brought her again closer to the grating, on perceiving that Rollo made no attempt to intrude his hand within.

"These are the royal arms of Spain, are they not?" she said, and dropped an involuntary curtsy.

Then Rollo played his trump card. The ring was made with a certain secret spring beneath the stone, which when touched sprang up like the lid of a box, and a beautiful little miniature was revealed, encircled with hair of a dark brown colour.

"Do you know who that is?" he said.

"His absolute Majesty Carlos Quinto!" said the portress with a deep reverence.

"Well, then," Rollo went on, "take this ring, and with it the hair of the anointed and Christian King. It is a great trust, but I give it into your hands. Carry it reverently as a token to the Lady Superior that a messenger from the King waits to speak a word with her!"

The head of the portress disappeared from the young man's sight with the profundity and compass of the reverence with which she received the image of the sovereign of all true Catholic hearts. She went off immediately, and by standing on tiptoe in the white dust, Rollo could see her heavy black skirts playing bo-peep with a pair of very thick ankles.

As the young man stood drumming his fingers upon the window-sill, with his nail he detached flake after flake of plaster, and filliped each as it fell into the courtyard. He had only occupied himself with this amusement for five minutes, when suddenly the most piquant face in the world appeared at the wicket.

"Better that you should look to your horse," a pair of red lips said in the soft Southland speech of Andalucia, "he is chafing himself to pieces on a too tight curb!"



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