Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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But a glance about the chamber eased his mind. The white boinas of the Basque provinces, mingled with the red of Navarra, told him that he had been captured by the Carlists.

"Well," said a little dark man with the curly hair, black and kinked like a negro's, "give an account of yourselves and of your proceedings in this village."

"We are soldiers in the service of His Excellency Don Carlos," said Rollo, fearlessly; "we are on our way to the camp of General Cabrera on a mission of importance."

Luis Fernandez looked across at his companion, who had seated himself carelessly in a large chair by the window.

"Did I not tell you he would say that?" he said. The other nodded. "On a mission to General Cabrera," repeated the chief of Rollo's captors; "well, then, doubtless you can prove your statement by papers and documents. Let me see your credentials."

"I must know, first, to whom I have the honour of speaking," said Rollo, firmly.

"You shall," said the man in the chair. "I am General Cabrera, in the service of His Absolute Majesty, Carlos, Fifth of Spain. I shall be glad to receive your credentials, sir."

Then it flashed upon Rollo that all his papers were in the hands of Concha Cabezos. He had given them to her that she might show them to the Lady Superior, and so insure a welcome for poor little Dol?res, whom they had left lying on the bed in the portress's lodge at the Convent of the Holy Innocents.

"I can indeed give you the message, and that instantly," said Rollo; "but I am unfortunately prevented from showing you my credentials till the morning. They are at present at the – in the hands of a friend – "

Here Rollo stammered and came to a full stop. Luis Fernandez laughed scornfully.

"Of course," he said: "what did I tell you, General? He has no credentials."

Cabrera struck his clenched fist on the table.

"Sir," he said, "you are a strange messenger. You pretend a mission to me, and when asked for your credentials you tell us that they are in the hands of a friend. Tell us your friend's name, and how you came to permit documents of value to me and to the cause for which you say that you are fighting, to fall into any hands but your own."

Rollo saw that to refer to the Convent of the Holy Innocents, or to mention Concha's name, would infallibly betray the hiding-place of Dol?res to her enemies, so he could only reiterate his former answer.

"I am unfortunately prevented by my honour from revealing the name of my friend, or why the documents were so entrusted. But if your excellency will only wait till the morning, I promise that you shall be abundantly satisfied."

"I am not accustomed to wait for the morning," said Cabrera. "There is no slackening of rein on the King's service. But I have certain information as to who you are, which may prove more pertinent to the occasion, and may, perhaps, prevent any delay whatsoever."

Cabrera leisurely rolled and lighted a cigarette, giving great attention to the closing of the paper in which it was enwrapped.

"I am informed," he said, when he had successfully achieved this, "that you are three members of the English Foreign Legion which has been fighting for the Cristino traitors.

What have you to say to that?"

"That it is a lie," shouted Etienne, thrusting himself forward. "I a Cristino! I would have you know that I am the Count of Saint Pierre, a cousin in the second degree of Don Carlos himself, and that I came to Spain to fight for the only true and constitutional King, Carlos the Fifth."

Cabrera turned his head and scrutinised the little Frenchman.

"Ah, then," he said dryly, "if that be so, perhaps you have taken better care of your papers than this tall gentleman, who has such trust in his friends."

"A Saint Pierre does not need papers to prove his identity," said Etienne, proudly.

"They are sometimes convenient, nevertheless, even to a Saint Pierre," said Cabrera, with irony: "they may prevent certain little mistakes which are more easily made than remedied."

There was a long pause at this point.

"What is your business here, Monsieur de Saint Pierre?" continued the Carlist General suavely, throwing away his cigarette end after inhaling the "breast" to the last puff with infinite satisfaction.

"I was sent on a mission, along with these two gentlemen, at the instance of my uncle, Don Baltasar Varela, the Abbot of Montblanch, and one of the most trusted councillors of Don Carlos!"

"Doubtless – doubtless," said Cabrera; "but have you the papers to prove it? Or any letter in your uncle's handwriting authorising you to commit the lawless acts you have committed on the person and property of this faithful servant of the King?"

"All the papers in connection with the mission were in the care of my friend Monsieur Rollo Blair, of Blair Castle," said Etienne. "He was appointed chief of the expedition by my uncle, Don Baltasar, and if he has parted temporarily with them, it is doubtless for good and sufficient reasons."

"Search them," commanded Cabrera, suddenly, in a sharp tone of anger, in which for the first time the latent cruelty of his nature came out.

Their captors, with no great delicacy of handling, began to overhaul the contents of the pockets of the four. They examined their boots, the lining of their coats, and ripped up the seams of their waist-coats.

Upon Ramon, nothing at all was found, except the fragment of a handbill issued by the Nationalist general offering a reward for his capture; at which more than one of the men wearing the white boinas began to look upon him with more favour, though they did not offer to ease the sharply-cutting ropes with which they had bound him.

Upon John Mortimer was found a pocket-book full of calculations, and a little pocket Testament with an inscription in English, which made John Mortimer blush.

"Tell them my mother gave me that, and made me promise to carry it. I don't want them to take it away!"

Rollo translated, and Cabrera, after turning over the pages, handed it back with a bow.

"A gage d'amour?" he said, smiling.

"Yes, from my mother!" said John Mortimer, blushing yet more.

The search through the pockets of Etienne produced nothing except a number of brief notes, daintily folded but indifferently written, and signed by various Lolas, Felesias, and Magdalenas. Most of these were brief, and to the point. "Meet me at the gate by the rose-tree at seven. My father has gone to the city!" or only "I am waiting for you! Come."

But in the outer pocket of Rollo Blair was found a far more compromising document. When the searcher drew it forth from his coat, the eyes of Luis Fernandez gleamed with triumph.

Cabrera took the paper and glanced it over carelessly, but as soon as his eye fell upon the signature the fashion of his countenance changed. He leaped to his feet.

"Nogueras!" he cried; "you are in correspondence with Nogueras, the villain who, in cold blood, shot my poor old mother, for no crime but that of having borne me. Have the fellow out instantly, and shoot him!"

Rollo stood a moment dumfounded, then he recovered himself and spoke.

"General Cabrera," he said, "this is a trick. I have had no correspondence with Nogueras. I had not even heard his name. This has been dropped into my pocket by some traitor. I hold a commission in the service of Don Carlos, and have had no communication with his enemies."

"But in this place you gave yourselves out as Nationalists, is it not so?" queried Cabrera.

"Certainly," answered Rollo; "we were on a secret mission, and we were given to understand that this was a hostile village."

Cabrera took up the letter again and read aloud —

"To the young Englishman of the Foreign Legion, pretending service with Don Carlos.

"You are ordered to obtain any information as to the movements of the brigand Cabrera and his men, by penetrating into their district, and, if possible, joining their organisation. You will report the same to me, and this pass will hold you safe with all servants and well-wishers of the government of the Queen-Regent.

"Nogueras."

The Carlist commander, whose voice had been rising as he read, shouted rather than uttered the name of the murderer of his mother. He did not again sit down, but strode up and down, his cavalry sword clanging and battering against the furniture of the little room as if expressing the angry perturbation of his mind.

"General," said Rollo, as calmly as if arguing a point in theology, "if I had been guilty of this treachery, would I have kept a paper like that loose in an outer pocket? Is it not evident that it has been placed there by some enemy – probably by that archtraitor there, the miller Fernandez?"

Luis Fernandez smiled benignly upon Rollo, but did not speak. He believed that the poison had done its work.

Cabrera took not the slightest notice of Rollo's words, but continued to pace the floor frowning and muttering.

More than one Carlist soldier glanced at his neighbour with a look which said, plain as a printed proclamation, "It is all over with the foreigners!"

At last Cabrera stopped his promenade. He folded his arms and stood looking up at Rollo.

"The morning – I think you said. Well, I will give your friend till the morning to be ready with the proofs of your innocence. But if not, so soon as the sun rises over the hills out there, you four shall all be shot for spies and traitors. Take them away!"

CHAPTER XXI
TO BE SHOT AT SUNRISE!

The Carlist soldiers conducted Rollo and his three friends to the granary of the mill-house, where in the mean time they were permitted to recline as best they might upon the various piles of grain heaped here and there in preparation for the work of the morrow.

The Carlists were mostly quite young, Basques and Navarrese, whose jokes and horseplay, even after a long day's marching, were boyish and natural.

Rollo and El Sarria were placed at one side of the granary, and at the other Etienne and John Mortimer lay at full length upon a heap of corn. Between paced a sentry with musket and bayonet.

The kindly lads had, with characteristic generosity, brought their prisoners a portion of their scanty rations – sausages and dried fish with onions and cheese, all washed down with copious draughts of red wine.

As before, owing to the position of Sarria among its mountains, the night fell keen and chill. The Carlists slept and snored, all save the double guards placed over the prisoners.

"Shall we try a rush? Is it any use?" whispered Rollo to El Sarria.

The outlaw silently shook his head. He had long ago considered the position, and knew that it was impossible. The windows were mere slits. There was only one trap-door in the floor, and that was closed. Moreover, there were fifty Carlists asleep in the loft, and the floor below was the bed-chamber of as many more.

Cast back upon his own thoughts, Rollo reviewed many things – his short life, the reckless ups-and-downs in which he had spent it – but all without remorse or regret.

"I might have been a lawyer, and lived to a hundred!" he said to himself. "It is better as it is. If I have done little good, perhaps I have not had time to do a great deal of harm."

Then very contentedly he curled himself up to sleep as best he might, only dreamily wondering if little Concha would be sorry when she heard.

Ramon Garcia sat with his eyes fixed on the sentry who had ceased his to-and-fro tramp up the centre, and now leaned gloomily against the wall, his hands crossed about the cross-bar of his sword-bayonet.

Across the granary John Mortimer reclined with his head in his hands, making vows never to enter Spain or trust himself under the leadership of a mad Scot, if this once he should get clear off.

"It isn't the being shot," he moaned; "it's not being able to tell them that I'm not a fool, but a respectable merchant able to pay my way and with a balance at William Deacon's Bank. But it serves me right!" Then a little inconsequently he added, "By gum, if I get out of this I'll have a Spanish clerk in the works and learn the language!"

Which was John Mortimer's way of making a vow to the gods.

Etienne, having his hands comparatively free, and finding himself sleepless, looked enviously at Rollo's untroubled repose, and began to twist cigarettes for himself and the sentry who guarded his side of the granary.

Without, the owls circled and cried. A dog barked in the village above, provoking a far-reaching chorus of his kind. Then blows fell, and he fled yelping out of earshot.

Rollo was not wholly comfortable on his couch of grain. The bonds about his feet galled him, having been more tightly drawn than those of his companions in virtue of his chiefship. Nevertheless he got a good deal of sleep, and each time that he awoke it seemed to him that El Sarria was staring harder at the sentry and that the man had moved a little nearer.

At last, turning his head a little to one side, he heard distinctly the low murmur of voices.

"Do you remember Pancorbo?" said Ramon Garcia.

Rollo could not hear the answer, but he caught the outlaw's next question.

"And have you forgotten El Sarria, who, having a certain Miguelete under the point of his knife, let him go for his sweetheart's sake, because she was waiting for him down in the valley?"

The sentry's reply was again inaudible, but Rollo was fully awake now. Ramon Garcia had not abandoned hope, and why should he? When there was anything to be done, none could be so alert as Rollo Blair.

"I am El Sarria the outlaw," Ramon went on, "and these are my companions. We are no traitors, but good Carlists to a man. Our papers are – "

Here the words were spoken so low that Rollo could not hear more, but the next moment he was nudged by Ramon on the leg.

"Write a note to Concha Cabezos, telling her to bring the papers here at once if she would save our lives. You are sure she is faithful?"

"I am sure!" said Rollo, who really had no reason for his confidence except the expression in her eyes.

He had no paper, but catching the sentry's eye, he nodded across to where Etienne was still diligently rolling cigarettes.

"Alcoy?" he whispered.

The sentry shouldered his piece and took a turn or two across the floor, keeping his eye vigilantly on his fellow guard, who, having seated himself in the window-sill, had dozed off to sleep, the cigarette still drooping from the corner of his mouth. Yes, he was certainly asleep.

He held out his hand to Etienne, who readily gave him the last he had rolled. The sentry thanked him with a quick martial salute, and after a turn or two more, deftly dropped the crumbled tobacco upon the floor and let the leaf drop on Rollo's knees with a stump of pencil rolled up in it.

Then the young man, turning his back upon the dozing guard in the stone window-sill, wrote with some difficulty the following note, lying on his breast and using the uneven floor of the granary for a desk.

"Little Concha" (it ran), "we are General Cabrera's prisoners. Bring the papers as soon as you receive this. Otherwise we are to be shot at day-break. – Rollo Blair."

There was still a little space left upon the leaf of Alcoy paper, and with a half shamefaced glance at El Sarria, he added, "And in any case do not wholly forget R. B."

He passed the note to the outlaw, who folded it to the size of a postage stamp and apparently gave directions where and to whom it was to be delivered.

"In half an hour we shall be relieved and I will go," said the Carlist ex-Miguelete, and resumed his steady tramp. Presently he awoke his comrade so that he might not be found asleep at the change of guard.

There was nothing more to be done till day-break. They had played their last card, and now they must wait to see what cards were out against them, and who should win the final trick at the hour of sunrise.

Rollo fell asleep again. And so soundly this time, that he only woke to consciousness when a soldier in a white boina pulled roughly at his elbow, and ordered him to get up.

All about the granary the Carlists were stamping feet, pulling on boots, and flapping arms.

"It's a cold morning to be shot in," said the man, with rough kindliness; "but I will get you some hot chocolate in a moment. That will warm your blood for you, and in any case you will have a quick passage. I will pick you a firing party of the best shots in the three provinces. The general will be here in a quarter of an hour, and the sun will rise in another quarter. One is just as punctual as the other. A cigarette? – thank you. Well, you are a cool hand! I'm off to see about the chocolate!"

And Rollo Blair, with a slight singing in his ears, and a chill emptiness about the pit of his stomach, stood on his feet critically rolling a cigarette in a leaf of Etienne's Alcoy paper.

John Mortimer said nothing, but looked after the man who had gone for the chocolate.

"I wish it had been coffee," he said; "chocolate is always bad for my digestion!"

Then he smiled a little grimly. His sufferings from indigestion produced by indulgence in this particular chocolate would in all probability not be prolonged, seeing that the glow of the sun-rising was already reddening the sky to the east.

Etienne was secretly fingering his beads. And El Sarria thought with satisfaction of the safety of Dol?res; he had given up hope of Concha a full hour ago. The ex-Miguelete had doubtless again played the traitor. He took a cigarette from Rollo without speaking and followed him across the uneven floor between the heaps of trodden grain.

They were led down the stairway one by one, and as they passed through the ground floor, with its thick woolly coating of grey flour dust, a trumpet blew without, and they heard the trampling of horses in the courtyard.

"Quick!" said a voice at Rollo's elbow, "here is your chocolate. Nothing like it for strengthening the knee-joints at a time like this. I've seen men die on wine and on rum and on brandy; but for me, give me a cup of chocolate as good as that, when my time comes!"

Rollo drank the thick sweet strength-giving stuff to the accompaniment of clattering hoofs and jingling accoutrements.

"Come!" said a voice again, "give me the cup. Do not keep the general waiting. He is in no good temper this morning, and we are to march immediately."

The young man stepped out of the mill-door into the crisp chill of the dawn. All the east was a glory of blood-red cloud, and for the second time Rollo and his companions stood face to face with General Cabrera.

It was within a quarter of an hour of the sun-rising.

CHAPTER XXII
HIS MOTHER'S ROSARY

It was, as the soldier had said most truly, a cold morning to be shot in. But the Carlists, accustomed to Cabrera's summary methods, appeared to think but little of the matter, and jested as the firing parties were selected and drawn out. Ragged and desolate they looked as they stood on a slight slope between the foreigners and the red dawn, biting their cartridges and fingering the pulls of their rifles with hands numbed with cold. At elbow and knee their rags of uniforms flapped like bunches of ribbons at a fair.

"In the garden!" whispered Luis Fernandez to Cabrera.

"To the garden!" commanded the general, lighting a new cigarette and puffing vigorously, "and at this point I may as well bid you good-bye. I wish our acquaintance had been pleasanter. But the fortune of war, gentlemen! My mother had not so long time to say her prayers at the hands of your friend Nogueras – and she was a woman and old, gentlemen. I doubt not you know as well how to die as she?"

And they did. Not one of them uttered a word. John Mortimer, seeing there was now no chance of making his thousand pounds, set an example of unbending dignity. He comported himself, indeed, exactly as he would have done on his marriage day. That is, he knew that the eyes of many were upon him, and he resolved not to shame the performance. So he went through his part with the exact English mixture of awkward shyness and sulky self-respect which would have carried him creditably to the altar in any English church.

Etienne faced his death like the son of an ancient race, and a good Catholic. He could not have a confessor, but he said his prayers, committed his soul to God and the Virgin, and faced the black muzzles not greatly abashed.

As for El Sarria, death was his m?tier, his familiar friend. He had lived with him for years, as a man with a wife, rising up and lying down, eating and breathing in his company. "The fortune of war," as Cabrera said. El Sarria was ready. Dol?res and her babe were safe. He asked no more.

And not less readily fell into line Rollo Blair. A little apart he stood as they made ready to march out of the presence of the Carlist general. John Mortimer was already on his way, carefully and conscientiously ordering his going, that he might not in these last things disgrace his nation and his upbringing. Etienne and Ramon were following him. Still the young Scot lingered. Cabrera, nervously fingering his accoutrement and signing papers at a folding table, found time to eye him with curiosity.

"Did he mean to make a last plea for mercy?" he thought.



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