Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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The Scot followed down a flight of steps, beneath blossoming oleander bushes, and found himself presently upon a narrow terrace-walk, divided from a neighbouring garden by a lattice of green-painted wood.

The silent maid-servant jerked her thumb a little contemptuously over her shoulder, elevated her chin, and turning on her heel disappeared again into her own domains.

Rollo stood a moment uncertain whether to advance or retreat. He was in a narrow path which skirted a garden in which fuchsias, geraniums, and dwarf palms grew abundantly. Roses also clambered among the lattice-work, peered through the chinks, and drooped invitingly over the top.

A little to the right the path bent somewhat, and round the corner Rollo could hear a hum of voices. It was in this direction also that the silent handmaid of Gaspar Perico's kitchen had jerked her thumb.

Rollo moved slowly along the path, and presently he came in sight of a pretty damsel on the farther side of the trellis paling, deeply engaged in a most interesting conversation. So far as he could see she was tall and dark, with the fully formed Spanish features, a little heavy perhaps to Rollo's taste, but charming now with the witchery of youth and conscious beauty.

Her hand had been drawn through one of the diamond-shaped apertures of the green trellis-work, which proved how small a hand it was. And, so far as the young Scot could judge from various contributory movements on the lady's part, it was at that moment being passionately kissed by some person unseen.

The low voice he had heard also proceeded from this fervent lover, and the whole performance made Rollo most unreasonably angry.

"What fools!" he muttered, turning on his heel, adding as an afterthought, "and especially at this time of day."

He was walking off in high dudgeon, prepared to give the silent maid a piece of his mind – indeed, a sample most unpleasing, when something in the tone of the lover's voice attracted him.

"Fairest Maria, never have I loved before," the voice was saying. "I have wandered the world heretofore, careless and heart-free, that I might have the more to offer to you, the pearl of girls, the all incomparable Maria of Sarria!"

The fair hand thrust through the lattices was violently agitated at this point. Its owner had caught sight of Rollo standing on the pathway, but the lover's grasp was too firm. As Rollo looked a head was thrust forward and downwards – as it were into the picture. And there, kneeling on the path, was Monsieur Etienne, lately Brother Hilario of Montblanch, fervidly kissing the hand of reluctant beauty.

As Rollo, unwilling to intrude, but secretly resolving to give Master Lovelace no peace for some time, was turning away, a sharp exclamation from the girl caused the kneeling lover to look up. She snatched her hand through the interstices of the palisades on the instant, fled upward through the rose and fuchsia bushes with a swift rustle of skirts, and disappeared into a neighbouring house.

Etienne de Saint Pierre rose in a leisurely manner, dusted the knees of his riding-breeches, twirled his moustache, and looked at Rollo, who stood on the path regarding him.

"Well, what in the devil's name brings you here?" he demanded.

The mirthful mood in which he had watched his comrade kneel was already past with Rollo.

"Come outside, and I will tell you," he said, and without making any further explanation or asking for any from Etienne, he strode back through the courtyard of the venta and out into the sunlit road.

A muleteer was passing, sitting sideways on his beast's back as on an easy-chair, and as he went by he offered the two young men to drink out of a leathern goatskin of wine with a courteous wave of the hand.

Rollo declined equally courteously.

Then turning to his friend, who still continued to scowl, he said abruptly, "Where is Mortimer?"

"Nay, that I know not – looking for another meal, I suppose," answered the little Frenchman, shrugging his shoulders, one higher than the other.

Rollo glanced at him from under his gloomy brows.

"Nay," he said, "this is serious. I need your help. Do not fail me to-night, and help me to find Mortimer. I had not the smallest intention of intruding upon you. Indeed, but for that maid at the inn, I should never have found you."

"Ah," commented Etienne, half to himself, "so I owe it to that minx, do I? Yes, it is a mistake – so close as that. But no matter; what can I do for you?"

"It is not for myself," Rollo answered, and forthwith in a low voice told his tale, the Frenchman assenting with a nod of the head as each point was made clear to him.

Unconsciously they had strolled out of the village in the direction of the Convent of the Holy Innocents, and they were almost under its walls when the little Frenchman, looking up suddenly, recognised with a start whither he was being led.

"Let us turn back," he said hastily; "I have forgotten an engagement!"

"What, another?" cried Rollo. "If we stay here three days you will have the whole village on your hands, and at least half a dozen knives in your back. But if you are afraid of the Se?orita Concha, I think I can promise you that she is not breaking her heart on your account!"

In spite of this assurance, however, Etienne was not easy in his mind till they had turned about and were returning towards the village. But they had not left the white walls of the Convent behind, before they were hailed in English by a stentorian voice.

"Here, you fellows," it said, "here's a whole storehouse of onions as big as a factory – strings and strings of 'em. I wanted to go inside to make an offer for the lot, and the old witch at the gate slammed it in my face."

Looking round, they saw John Mortimer standing on one leg to eke out his stature, and squinting through a hole in the whitewashed wall. One hand was beckoning them frantically forward, while with the other he was trying to render his position on a sun-dried brick less precarious.

"I suppose we must go back," said Etienne, with a sigh; "imagine standing on a brick and getting so hot and excited – in the blazing sun, too – all for a few strings of onions. I declare I would not do it for the prettiest girl in Spain!"

But there could be no doubt whatever that the Englishman was in earnest. Indeed, he did not move from his position till they were close upon him, and then only because the much-enduring brick resolved itself into its component sand and sun-dried clay.

"Just look there!" he cried eagerly; "did you ever see the like of that – a hundred double strings hung from the ceiling to the floor right across! And the factory nearly a hundred and fifty yards long. There's a ship-load of onions there, a solid cargo, I tell you, and I want to trade. I believe I could make my thousand pounds quicker that way, and onions are as good as wine any day! Look in, look in!"

To satisfy his friend, Rollo applied his eye to the aperture, and saw that one of the Convent buildings was indeed filled with onions, as John Mortimer had said. It was a kind of cloister open at one side, and with rows of pillars. The wind rustling through the pendant strings filled the place with a pleasant noise, distinctly audible even outside the wall.

"A thousand pounds, Rollo," moaned John Mortimer, "and that old wretch at the wicket only laughed at me, and snapped the catch in my face. They don't understand business here. I wish I had them apprenticed to my father at Chorley for six months, only for six months. They'd know the difference!"

Rollo took his friend's arm and drew him away.

"This is not the time for it," he said soothingly, "wait. We are going to the Convent to-night. The Mother Superior has permitted the lady on whose account we are here to be removed there after dark, and we want your help."

"Can I speak to the old woman about the onions then?"

"Certainly, if there is an opportunity," said Rollo, smiling.

"Which I take leave to doubt," thought Etienne to himself, as he meditated on his own troubles in the matter of little Concha and the maiden of the green lattice.

"Very well, then," said Mortimer, "I'm your man; I don't mind doing a little cloak-and-dagger considered as trimmings – but business is business."

The three friends proceeded venta-wards, and just as they passed the octroi gate the same muleteer who had passed them outward bound, went in before them with the same leathern bottle in his hand. And as he entered he tossed his hand casually towards Gaspar Perico, who sat in the receipt of custom calmly reading an old newspaper.

"Now that's curious," said John Mortimer, "that fellow had a red and white cloth in his hand. And all the time when I was skirmishing about after those onions in the nuns' warehouse, they were waving red and white flags up on the hills over there —wig wag like that!"

And with his hand he illustrated the irregular and arbitrary behaviour of the flags upon the hills which overlooked the village of Sarria to the south.

And at the sound of his words Rollo started, and his countenance changed. It was then no mere delusion of the eye and brain that he had seen when he entered the precincts of the mill-house of Sarria, as La Giralda would fain have persuaded him. The thought started a doubt in his mind.

Who after all was that old woman? And what cause had El Sarria for trusting her? None at all, so far as Rollo knew, save that she hated the Tia Elvira. Then that flicker of red and white on the hillside to the south among the scattered boulders and juniper bushes, and the favour of the same colour in the muleteer's hand as he went through the gate!

Verily Rollo had some matter for reflection, as, with his comrades, one on either hand of him, he strolled slowly back to the venta.

"I wonder," said John Mortimer, as if to himself, "if that young woman who walks like a pussycat will have luncheon ready for us. I told her to roast the legs of the lamb I bought at the market this morning, and make an olla of the rest. But I don't believe she understands her own language – a very ignorant young woman indeed."

"I, on the other hand, think she knows too much," murmured Etienne to himself.

But Rollo, the red and white flutter of the mysterious signal flags before his eyes, seen between him and the white-hot sky of day, only sighed, and wished that the night would anticipate itself by a few hours.

And so, dinner being over, and even John Mortimer satisfied, the drowsy afternoon of Sarria wore on, the clack of the mill-wheel down at the mill, and the clink of the anvil where Jaime Casanovas, the smith, was shoeing a horse, being the only sounds without; while in the venta itself the whisk of the skirts of the silent handmaid, who with a perfectly grave face went about her work, alone broke the silence. But Monsieur Etienne's ears tingled red, for he was conscious that as often as she passed behind his chair, she smiled a subtle smile.

He thought on the green lattices and the path so near and so cool. But with all his courage he could not go out under the observant eyes of Rollo and with that abandoned Abigail smiling her ironic smile. So, perforce, he had to sit uneasily with his elbows on the table and watch the dreary game of dominoes which his companions were playing with the chipped and greasy cubes belonging to the venta of Gaspar and Esteban Perico.

And outside, though they knew it not, the red and white pennon was still flying from the roof of the mill-house of Sarria, and on the hills to the south, through the white sun-glare, flickered at intervals an answering signal.

Meanwhile in a hushed chamber the outlaw sat with his wife's hand in his, and thought on nothing, save that for him the new day had come.

CHAPTER XX
THE BUTCHER OF TORTOSA

Upon the village of Sarria and upon its circling mountains night descended with Oriental swiftness. The white houses grew blurred and indistinct. Red roofs, green shutters, dark window squares, took on the same shade of indistinguishable purple.

But in the west the rich orange lingered long, the typical Spanish after-glow of day edging the black hills with dusky scarlet, and extending upwards to the zenith sombre and mysterious, like her own banner of gold and red strangely steeped in blood.

In the mill-house of Sarria they were not idle. Ramon Garcia and Rollo had constructed a carrying couch for Dol?res, where, on a light and pliant framework of the great bulrush ca?as that grew along the canal edges, her mattress might be laid.

It was arranged that, after Dol?res had been conveyed with Concha and La Giralda in attendance to the Convent of the Holy Innocents, the three young men and El Sarria should return in order to release and warn the brothers Fernandez of the consequences of treachery. Thereafter they were to ride out upon their mission.

Crisp and clear the night was. The air clean-tasting like spring water, yet stimulating as a draught of wine long-cooled in cellar darkness.

Very gently, and as it were in one piece like a swaddled infant, Dol?res was lifted by El Sarria in his arms and laid upon the hastily-arranged ambulance. The four bearers fell in. La Giralda locked the doors of the mill-house, and by a circuitous route, which avoided the village and its barking curs, they proceeded in the direction of the convent buildings.

As often as the foot of any of the bearers slipped upon a stone, Ramon grew sick with apprehension, and in a whisper over his shoulder he would inquire of Dol?res if all was well.

"All is well, beloved," the voice, weak and feeble, would reply. "You are here – you are not angry with me. Yes, all is well."

They moved slowly through the darkness, La Giralda, with many crooning encouragements, waiting upon Dol?res, now lifting up the corner of a cover-lid and now anxiously adjusting a pillow.

It was done at last, and with no more adventure than that once when they were resting the carrying couch under a wall, a muleteer passed, and cried, "Good-night to you, folk of peace!" To which El Sarria grunted a reply, and the man passed on, humming a gay Aragonese ditty, and puffing his cigarette, the red point of which glowed like a fire-fly long after both man and beast had been merged in the general darkness of the valley.

They were soon passing under the eastern side of the convent.

"Ah, I can smell them," murmured John Mortimer, exstatically, "a hundred tons, if not more. I wonder if I could not tackle the old lady to-night about them?"

He spoke meditatively, but no one of the party took the least notice. For Rollo was busy with the future conduct of the expedition. Etienne was thinking of the girl behind the green lattices, while the others did not understand a word of what he said.

John Mortimer sighed a deep and genuine sigh.

"Spain is very well," he muttered; "but give me Chorley for doing business in!"

At last they were at the little white cowl of the porter's lodge, out of which the black bars of the wicket grinned with a semblance of ghastly mirth.

Rollo knocked gently. The panel slid back noiselessly, and there was the face of Concha Cabezos dimly revealed. No longer mischievous or even piquant, but drawn and pale with anxiety.

"There are bad people here," she whispered, "who have persuaded the Lady Superior that you are impostors. She will not receive or keep Dol?res Garcia unless she is satisfied – "

"What?" came from the rear in a thunderous growl.

"Hush, I bid you!" commanded Rollo, sternly, "remember you have put this in my hands." And the outlaw fell back silenced for the moment – his heart, however, revolving death and burnings.

"Trust me with your papers – your credentials," said Concha, quickly. "These will convince her. I will bring them to you at the mill-house to-morrow morning!"

Rollo ran his knife round the stitching of his coat where he carried these sacredest possessions.

"There," he said, "remember – do not let them out of your sight a moment. I am putting far more than my own life into your hands."

"I will cherish them as the most precious thing in the world. And now, I will go and show them to the Lady Superior."

"Not till you have taken in my Dol?res as you promised," came the voice of El Sarria, "or by Heaven I will burn your convent to the ground. She shall not be left here in the damp dews of the night."

"No, no," whispered Concha, "she shall be laid in the lodge of the portress, and La Giralda shall watch her till her own chamber is prepared, and I have eased the mind of the Lady Superior."

The great bars were drawn. The bolts gave back with many creakings, and through the black gap of the main gate they carried Dol?res into the warm flower-scented darkness of the portress's lodge.

She was laid on a bed, and the moment after Concha turned earnestly upon the four men.

"Now go," she said, "this instant! I also have risked more than you know. Go back!"

"Can I not stay with her to-night?" pleaded El Sarria, keeping the limp hand wet with chill perspiration close in his.

"Go – go, I say!" said Concha. "Go, or it may be too late. See yonder."

And on a hill away to the west a red light burned for a long moment and then vanished.

The three young men went out, but El Sarria lingered, kneeling by his wife's bedside. Rollo went back and touched him on the shoulder.

"You must come with us – for her sake!" he said. And he pointed with his finger. And obediently at his word the giant arose and went out. Rollo followed quickly, but as he went a little palm fell on his arm and a low voice whispered in his ear —

"You trust me, do you not?"

Rollo lifted Concha's hand from his sleeve and kissed it.

"With my life – and more!" he said.

"What more?" queried Concha.

"With my friends' lives!" he answered.

And as he went out with no other word Concha breathed a sigh very softly and turned towards Dol?res. She felt somehow as if the tables were being turned upon her.

Outside there was a kind of waiting hush in the air, an electric tension of expectation, or so at least it seemed to Rollo.

As they marched along the road towards the mill-house, they saw a ruddy glow towards the south.

"Something is on fire there!" said John Mortimer. "I mind when Graidly's mills were burnt in Bowton, we saw a glimmer in the sky just like yon! And we were at Chorley, mind you, miles and miles away!"

"They are more like camp-fires behind the hills," commented Etienne, from his larger experience. "I think we had better clear out of Sarria to-night."

"That," said Rollo, firmly, "is impossible so far as I am concerned. I must wait at the mill-house for the papers. But do you three go on, and I will rejoin you to-morrow."

"I will stay," said El Sarria, as soon as Rollo's words had been interpreted to him.

"And I," cried Etienne. "Shall it be said that a Saint Pierre ever forsook a friend?"

"And I," said John Mortimer, "to look after the onions!"

The mill-house was silent and dark as they had left it. They could hear the drip-drip of the water from the motionless wheel. An owl called at intervals down in the valley. Rollo, to whom La Giralda had given the key, stooped to fit it into the keyhole. The door was opened and the four stepped swiftly within. Then Rollo locked the door again inside.

They heard nothing through all the silent, empty house but the sound of their own breathing. Yet here, also, there was the same sense of strain lying vague and uneasy upon them.

"Let us go on and see that all is right," said Rollo, and led the way into the large room where they had found Luis Fernandez. He walked up to the window, a dim oblong of blackness, only less Egyptian than the chamber itself. He stooped to strike his flint and steel together into his tinder-box, and even as the small glittering point winked, Rollo felt his throat grasped back and front by different pairs of hands, while others clung to his knees and brought him to the ground.

"Treachery! Out with you, lads – into the open!" he cried to his companions, as well as he could for the throttling fingers.

But behind him there arose the sound of a mighty combat. Furniture was overset, or broke with a sharp crashing noise as it was trampled underfoot.

"Show a light, there," cried a quick voice, in a tone of command.

A lantern was brought from an inner room, and there, on the floor, in the grasp of their captors, were Ramon Garcia, still heaving with his mighty exertions, and Rollo the Scot, who lay very quiet so soon as he had assured himself that present resistance would do no good.

"Bring in the others," commanded the voice again, "and let us see what the dogs look like."

Mortimer and Etienne, having been captured in the hall, while trying to unlock the outer door, were roughly haled into the room. Rollo was permitted to rise, but the giant was kept on his back while they Fastened him up securely with ropes and halters.

Then Luis Fernandez came in, an evil smile on his dark handsome face, and behind him a little thick-set active man in some military dress of light material. The uniform was unfamiliar to Rollo, who, for a moment, was in doubt whether he was in the hands of the Cristinos or in those of the partisans of Don Carlos.



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