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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.