Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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"Thank you, Se?orita!" said Rollo, his heart instantly disturbed within him, for he was a merciful man by nature and consistently kind to his beast. Then he turned about, loosened the curb, and, looking over his horse, noticed that the tail strap also lathered the animal, whereupon he eased that. Then with a smiling countenance he turned for approval to the face at the wicket, but he was too late. His mentor had vanished.

He waited full ten minutes in the glaring sunshine, till indeed he well-nigh staggered as he felt the hot beams reflected full upon him from the whitewashed brick and painted door. There was not a handbreadth of shade anywhere, and the iron handles and girds of the barred windows were nearly red-hot.

Presently, however, through the breathless noonday he heard heavy footsteps approaching, accompanied by a most raucous and asthmatical breathing. The door of the porter's lodge was opened, and he caught again the heavy rustle of cloth clogging itself about unwontedly hasty ankles.

"The Mother Superior waits!" gasped the portress, opening the great door suddenly, and the young man found himself forthwith within the Convent of the Holy Innocents.

The Lady Superior proved to be a woman of about fifty-five or sixty years of age, in person stout and rubicund, a smile of good humour habitually repressed upon her lips, and a mouth slightly pulled down at the corners, contradicting the first impression of her jovial countenance.

"You are young, Colonel," she said, frowning upon Rollo's good looks with a certain affectation of gloom quite foreign to her nature, "very young to be the messenger of a King!"

"I can, indeed, hardly claim that honour," said Rollo, smiling and bowing, "but I have the honour to belong to the army of Carlos Quinto, and to be entrusted with a most serious mission on his behalf. My good friend Don Baltasar Varela, Prior of the Abbey of Montblanch, a name probably known to you – "

"He is my cousin germane – my good and honoured friend," said the Lady Superior.

Rollo bowed.

"He has given me a general introduction to all religious houses where the name of the true King is held in reverence. You will observe that the mandate bears the seal of the Propaganda of the Faith and is dated from Rome itself!"

The Lady Superior looked again at the great and pious names upon Rollo's commission, and marvelled yet more.

"So young," she said, "so boyish almost – yet so highly honoured! It is wonderful!"

Then she handed the parchment back to him.

"How can I assist you?" she said. "Command me. There is nothing consistent with the order and discipline of this house that I will not grant to you!"

Rollo bowed grandly.

"I thank you in the name of my master," he said; "the King will not forget fitly to reward his faithful servants. I ask what is indeed somewhat irregular, but is nevertheless necessary. There is a man of this place, who for the King's cause has become an outlaw, one Ramon Garcia – "

The Prioress rose from her seat indignantly.

"He is a murderer – in intent, if not in act," she said.

"He is no true man, but a villain – "

"Many men have been called so," said Rollo, gravely, "who for the King's sake have borne reproach gladly – of whom this Ramon, called El Sarria, is one. What he has done has been by order of our Don Carlos – "

"Indeed, that is true, my lady," interjected a very pretty and unconventual young person, rising suddenly from behind certain frames of embroidery where she had been at work unseen, "the gentleman refers to that same Ramon Garcia, whose letters recommendatory I had the honour of submitting to you this morning. To kill in the King's name is surely no sin, else were soldiering a sin, and your reverend worthiness knows that, shriven or unshriven, the soldiers of Carlos Quinto go straight to heaven. And none can deny that, while on earth, a handsome uniform covers a multitude of sins!"

"Hush, child, hush!" cried the Abbess, holding up her hands in horror; "your talk savours of the world. And indeed, that reminds me – how in the world came you here?"

"I was seated at the embroidery," said the girl, demurely; "you set me the task yourself to be ready for our Lady of the Pillar's festival on Tuesday next."

"Well, child, well – you can go now," said the Abbess, with a nod of dismission; "I would speak with this young man alone!"

The girl cast a look at Rollo which remained with him long. It seemed to say, "I would gladly talk more with you, for your person is somewhat to my mind, and I do not think that further converse with me would prove entirely disagreeable to you!"

This message was conveyed in a single glance, and Rollo, not the most impressionable of youths, read it every syllable without the slightest difficulty.

He held up his hand almost involuntarily.

"If this damosel is by any chance the Se?orita Concha Cabezos, as I have some reason to suppose, though I have never before seen the young lady, it might be advantageous if she remained. She was formerly, as I am informed, in the family of Don Ramon Garcia, and can assist my mission very materially."

Then Rollo opened out his plans in so far as they concerned Dol?res, showing the Prioress how important it was, for the success of the arduous mission on which they had been despatched, that El Sarria should leave no anxieties behind him, and beseeching her for the sake of the King's cause, to receive Dol?res within the convent as she had already received her child.

The Prioress considered a while, and after many dubious shakings of the head, finally agreed.

"It is indeed gravely irregular," she said, "but in these untoward circumstances the King's service overrides all. I will receive Dol?res Garcia."

"And if it be your will I will arrange the details with the Se?orita Concha," said Rollo, promptly. "I need not, in that case, further detain the noble and reverend Prioress!"

The Lady Superior bent a quick sharp look upon the pair, but Rollo was grave and high of demeanour as became the envoy of a King, while Concha sat at her embroidery as demure as a mouse. She had gone back to her frame and was engaged in elaborating the wings of a cherub of exceedingly celestial aspect, in whom all the parts below the shoulder-blades had been suppressed by order of the Lady Superior of the Convent of the Holy Innocents.

"You will do your best, Concha," she said gravely, admonishing that maiden with her forefinger, "to further the objects of this young man. And, above all, be sure to show him the deference due to his rank and mission!"

"Yes, my Lady Superior!" said little Concha Cabezos, "I will treat him as if he were the King's own high majesty in person!"

"A very proper spirit!" said the Prioress, nodding and going out; "cultivate it, my young friend!"

"I will!" said little Concha, and dropped a curtsey behind her back, which, alas! was not without a certain wicked suggestion of contempt for kings and dignitaries and their emissaries.

CHAPTER XVIII
A FLUTTER OF RED AND WHITE

"At your ambassadorial service!" said the Se?orita Concha, bowing still lower and holding out her skirts at either side with a prettyish exaggeration of deference; "what commands has your Scottish Excellency for poor little Concha?"

"Ahem!" said Rollo, more than a little puzzled, "they were not so much commands as – as – I thought you might be able to help me."

"Now we are getting at it," said Concha Cabezos, nodding with a wise air.

("I must be on my guard with this girl," thought Rollo, "I can almost bring myself to believe that – yet it seems impossible – that – the girl is chaffing me – me!")

"I wished to see you," he went on.

The girl curtsied again, bringing her hands together in a little appeal almost childish. It looked natural, yet Rollo was not sure. But at any rate the sensation was a new one. He began to think of what he had heard in the venta. But no, the girl looked so sweet and demure, such babyish smiles flickered and dimpled about the mouth – all scented of fresh youth like a June hayfield. No, she – she must have been traduced. Not that it mattered in the least to him. He was cased in triple steel. His heart was adamant. Or at least as much of it as he had not left in the possession of Peggy Ramsay, and, when he came to think of it, of several others.

"You were wishful to see me, sir?" murmured little Concha, "a great gentleman wanting to see me – wonderful – impossible."

"Neither one nor yet the other," said Rollo, a trifle sharply, looking at the girl with a glance intended to suppress any lurking tendency to levity; "if I desired to see you, it was not on my own account, but upon the King's service." He raised his voice at the last words.

"That explains it," said the girl, with her eyes cast down. She raised the lids sharply once and then dropped them again. Penitence and a certain fear could not have been better expressed. Rollo was more satisfied.

("After all," he thought, "the little thing does not mean any harm. It is only her simplicity!")

And he twirled his moustachios self-confidently.

"It is not often," he said to himself, "that she has the opportunity of talking to a man like me – here in this village! I suppose it is natural." It was – to Concha.

But the girl's expression altered so soon as she heard the service that was required of her, and she followed with rapt attention the tale of the garrisoning of the mill-house of Sarria, and the dire need of her former mistress and friend, Dol?res Garcia.

Little Concha's coquetry, her trick of experimenting upon all and sundry who came near her, her moods and whimsies, transient as the flaws that ruffle and ripple, breathe upon and again set sparkling the surface of a mountain tarn – all these dropped from the Andalucian maiden at the thought of another's need. A moment before, this young foreign soldier, with the handsome face and the excellent opinion of himself, had been but fair game to Concha; a prey marked down, not from any fell intent, but for the due humbling of pride. For Concha was interested in bringing young men to a sense of their position, and mostly, it may be confessed, it did them a vast deal of good.

But in that moment she became, instead, the eager listener, the ready self-sacrificing comrade, the friend as faithful and reliable as any brother. It was enough for her that El Sarria was there in danger of his life, that Do?a Dol?res must be delivered and brought into the safe shelter of the sisterhood, and – this with a glistening of little savage teeth, small and white as mother-of-pearl – that Luis Fernandez should be humbled.

"Let me see – let me see," she murmured, thoughtfully. "Wait, I will come with you." She took a glance at the young cavalier, armed cap-?-pie, and thought doubtless of the horse chafing and shaking its accoutrements in the shade of the porter's lodge. "No, I will not come with you. I will follow immediately, and do you, sir, return as swiftly as possible to the mill-house of Sarria."

And without the slightest attempt at coquetry Concha showed Rollo to the door, and that arrogant youth, slightly bewildered and uncertain of the march of events, found himself presently riding away from the white gate of the monastery with Etienne's ring upon his finger, and a belief crystallising in his heart that of all the maligned and misrepresented beings on the earth, the most maligned and the most innocent was little Concha Cabezos.

And instinctively his fingers itched to clasp his sword-hilt, and prove this thesis upon Pedro Morales or any venta rascal who might in future disparage her good name.

Indeed, it was only by checking of his horse in time that he kept himself in the right line for the mill-house. His instinct was to ride to the venta straightway and have it out with all the blind mouths of the village in parliament assembled.

But luckily Rollo remembered the giant Ramon Garcia, reckless and simple of heart, Dol?res his wife and her instant needs, and the imprisoned Fernandez family in the strong-room of the mill-house. It was clear even to his warped judgment that these constituted a first charge upon his endeavours, and that the good name of Mistress Concha, despite the dimples on her chin, must be considered so far a side issue.

The mill-house remained as he had left it when he rode away. The sunshine fell broad and strong on its whitewashed walls and green shutters, most of them closed hermetically along the front as was the custom of Sarria, till the power of the sun was on the wane. A workman or two busy down among the vents, and feeding the mouths of the grinding stones, looked up curiously at this unwonted visitor. But these had been too frequent of late, and their master's behaviour too strange for them to suspect anything amiss.

It was now the hottest time of the forenoon, and the heat made Rollo long for some of Don Luis's red wine, which he would drain in the Catalonian manner by holding the vessel well out and pouring a narrow stream in a graceful arch into his mouth. But for this he must wait. A captive quail on the balcony said check-check, and rattled on the bars of his cage to indicate that his water was finished, and that if somebody did not attend to him speedily he would die.

As Rollo went down the little slope, past the corner of the garden where Ramon had spoken first with La Giralda, it seemed to him that over the broiling roofs of the mill-house he caught the glimmer of something cool and white. He halted his horse and stood momentarily up in his stirrups, whereupon the glimmer upon the roof seemed to change suddenly to red and then as swiftly vanished.

Certainly there was something wrong. Rollo hurried on, giving the three knocks which had been agreed upon at the closed outer door of the house. It was opened by La Giralda.

"Who is signalling from the roof?" he asked hurriedly.

The old gipsy stared at him, and then glanced apprehensively at his face. It had grown white with sudden anxiety.

"A touch of sun – you are not accustomed – you are not of the country to ride about at this time of day. No one has been signalling. Don Ramon is with his wife, waiting for you; and, as I think, not finding the time long. I will bring you a drink of wine and water with a tisane in it, very judicious in cases of sun-touch!"

The latter was much in the line of the young man's desires, yet being still unsatisfied, he could not help saying, "But, La Giralda, I saw the thing plainly, a signal, first of white and then of red, waved from the roof, as it seemed, over the mill-wheel."

La Giralda shook her head.

"Eyes," she said, "only eyes and the touch of the sun. But tell me, what of Concha, and how you sped with the Lady Superior?"

But Rollo was not to be appeased till he had summoned El Sarria, and with him examined the strong-room where the prisoners were kept; as before, Don Luis sat listlessly by the table, his brow upon his hand. He did not look up or speak when they entered. But his brother moaned on about his wounded head, and complained that La Tia had drunk all the water. This being replenished, Don Tomas wandered off into muttered confidences concerning his early travels, how he had made love to the Alcalde's daughter of Granada, how he had fought with a contrabandista at Ronda fair – with other things too intimate to be here set down, ever returning, however, to his plea that the Tia Elvira had defrauded him of his fair share of the water-jug.

"Nay, not so," said the Tia, soothingly; "every drop of the water you have drunk, Don Tomas. But it is your head, your poor head. I turned the poultice, and with the water he speaks of moistened the leaves afresh. And how, worthy Se?ors, is the dear lady? I trust, well. Ah! had she been left in my care, all had gone right with her!"

"In your care! In your care, hell-hag!" cried El Sarria, fiercely, taking a step threateningly towards her, "aye, the kind of safety my child would have experienced had that gentleman, your brother there, been allowed to finish his grave-digging business. Let me not hear another word out of your mouth, lest I do the world a service by cutting short a long life so ill-spent!"

The Tia took the hint and said nothing. But her eyes, cast up to the roof, and her hands spread abroad palm outwards, expressed her conviction that ever thus do the truly good and charitable suffer for their good deeds, their best acts being mistaken and misinterpreted, and their very lives brought into danger by the benevolence of their intentions.

Had Rollo but followed the direction of her gaze he might have had his doubts of La Giralda's theory of sunstroke to explain the signalling from the roof. For there, clearly to be seen out of the half-open trap-door, was a little scarlet strip of cloth stirred by the wind, and doubtless conspicuous from all the neighbouring hills about the village of Sarria.

But Rollo, eager to get to his task of arranging the transport for the evening, so that Dol?res might be taken in safety and comfort to the Convent of the Holy Innocents, was already turning to be gone, while Ramon Garcia, afraid to trust himself long in the same apartment with the traitor, stood outside fingering the key.

"Bring wine and water!" cried Rollo to La Giralda, "and, Don Luis, in an hour I will trouble you to take a little tour of the premises with me, just to show your men that all is right."

Luis Fernandez bowed slightly but said nothing, while the invalid from his couch whined feebly that all the water was for him. The others might have the wine or at least some of it, but he must have all the water.

So Rollo Blair and his companion withdrew into the cool guest-chamber of the mill-house without having seen the little waving strip of red upon the roof. As soon as they were gone, however, Don Luis leaped up, and with a long fishing-pole he flaunted a strip of white beside the red, waving it this way and that for a long time, till in the close atmosphere of the strong-room the sweat rained from him in great drops.

Then he leaped down at last, muttering, "If the General is within twenty miles, as I think he is, that ought to bring him to Sarria. The angels grant that he arrive in time" (here he paused a moment, and then added with a bitter smile), "or the devils either. I am not particular, so be that he come!"

CHAPTER XIX
SIGNALS OF STORM

A long strip of Moorish-looking wall and certain towers that glittered white in the sun, advertised to Rollo that he approached the venta of Sarria. Without, that building might have passed for the palace of a grandee; within – but we know already what it was like within.

Rollo was impatient to find his companions. He had just discovered that he had most scurvily neglected them, and now he was all eagerness to make amends. But the house-place of the Caf? de Madrid was tenanted only by the Valiant and a clean silently-moving maid, who solved the problem of perpetual motion by finding something to do simultaneously in the kitchen, out in the shady patio among the copper water-vessels, and up in the sleeping chambers above.

Rollo's questioning produced nothing but a sleepy grunt from Don Gaspar Perico.

"Gone – no! They had better not," he muttered, "better not – without paying their score – bread and ham and eggs, to say nothing of the noise and disturbance they had occasioned. The tallest was a spitfire, a dare-devil – ah, your excellency, I did not know – "

Here Don Gaspar the Valiant, who had been muttering in his beard more than half asleep, awoke suddenly to the fact that the dare-devil aforesaid stood before him, fingering his sword-hilt and twisting his moustache.

But he was a stout old soldier, this Gaspar Perico, and had a moustache of his own which he could finger with anybody.

"I crave your pardon, Se?or," he said, rising and saluting, "I think I must have been asleep. Until this moment I was not aware of your honourable presence."

"My companions – where are they?" said Rollo, hastily. He had much on his mind, and wished to despatch business. Patience he had none. If a girl refused him he sprang into the first ship and betook himself to other skies and kinder maidens. If a battle went wrong, he would fight on to the death, or at least till he was beaten into unconsciousness. But of the cautious generalship which draws off in safety and lives to fight another day, Rollo had not a trace.

"Your companions – nay, I know nothing of them," said the veteran: "true it is he of the stoutness desired to buy my wine, and when I gave him a sample, fine as iced Manzanilla, strong as the straw-wine of Jerez, he spat it forth upon the ground and vowed that as to price he preferred the ordinary robbers of the highway!"

Rollo laughed a little at this description of John Mortimer's method of doing business, but he was eager to find his comrades, so he hastily excused himself, apologised for his companion's rudeness, setting it down to the Se?or Mortimer's ignorance of the language, and turned to go out.

But as he passed into the arcaded patio of the inn, the silent maid-servant passed him with a flash of white cotton gown. Her grass shoes made no noise on the pavement. As she passed, Rollo glanced at her quickly and carelessly, as it was his nature to look at every woman. She was beckoning to him to follow her. There could be no doubt of that. She turned abruptly through a low doorway upon the top of which Rollo nearly knocked out his brains.



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