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Cabrera smiled contemptuously. A friend of Nogueras might know Ramon Cabrera of Tortosa better. But Rollo had no such thought. He had in his fingers Etienne's last slip of Alcoy paper, in which the cigarette of Spain, unfailing comforter, is wrapped. To fill it he had crumbled his last leaf of tobacco. Now it was rolled accurately and with lingering particularity, because it was to be the last. It lay in his palm featly made, a cigarette worthy to be smoked by Don Carlos himself.
Almost unconsciously Rollo put it to his lips. It was a cold morning, and it is small wonder that his hand shook a little. He was just twenty-three, and his main regret was that he had not kissed little Concha Cabezos – with her will, or against it – all would have been one now. Meantime he looked about him for a light. The general noticed his hesitation, rose from the table, and with a low bow offered his own, as one gentleman to another. Rollo thanked him. The two men approached as if to embrace. Each drew a puff of his cigarette, till the points glowed red. Rollo, retreating a little, swept a proud acknowledgment of thanks with his sombrero. Cabrera bowed with his hand on his heart. The young Scot clicked his heels together as if on parade, and strode out with head erect and squared shoulders in the rear of his companions.
"By God's bread, a man!" said Cabrera, as he resumed his writing, "'tis a thousand pities I must shoot him!"
They stood all four of them in the garden of the mill-house, underneath the fig trees in whose shade El Sarria had once hidden himself to watch the midnight operations of Don Tomas.
The sun was just rising. His beams red, low, and level shot across the mill-wheel, turning the water of the unused overshot into a myriad pearls and diamonds as it splashed through a side culvert into the gorge beneath, in which the gloom of night lingered.
The four men still stood in order. Mortimer and Etienne in the middle, with slim Rollo and the giant Ramon towering on either flank.
"Load with ball – at six paces – make ready!"
The officer's commands rang out with a certain haste, for he could already hear the clattering of the horses of the general's cavalcade, and he knew that if upon his arrival he had not carried out his orders, he might expect a severe reprimand.
But it was not the general's suite that rode so furiously. The sound came from a contrary direction. Two horses were being ridden at speed, and at sight of the four men set in order against the wall the foremost rider sank both spurs into her white mare and dashed forward with a wild cry.
The officer already had his sword raised in the air, the falling of which was to be the signal for the volley of death. But it did not fall. Something in the aspect of the girl-rider as she swept up parallel with the low garden wall, her hair floating disordered about her shoulders – her eyes black and shining like stars – the sheaf of papers she waved in her hand, all compelled the Carlist to suspend that last irrevocable order.
It was Concha Cabezos who arrived when the eleventh hour was long past, and leaped from her reeking horse opposite the place of execution.With her, wild-haired as a M?nad, rode La Giralda, cross-saddled like a man.
"General Cabrera! Where is General Cabrera?" cried Concha. "I must see him instantly. These are no traitors. They are true men, and in the service of Don Carlos. Here are their papers!"
"Where is Ramon Cabrera? Tell me quickly!" cried La Giralda. "I have news for him. I was with his mother when she died. They whipped me at the cross of Tortosa to tell what I knew – stripping me to the waist they whipped me, being old and the mother of many. Cabrera will avenge me. Let me but see Ramon Cabrera whom of old I suckled at my breasts!"
The officer hesitated. In such circumstances one might easily do wrong. He might shoot these men, and after all find that they were innocent. He preferred to wait. The living are more easily deprived of life than the dead restored to it. Such was his thought.
In any case he had not long to wait.
Round the angle of the mill-house swept the general and his staff, brilliant in scarlet and white, heightened by the glitter of abundant gold-lace. For the ex-butcher of Tortosa was a kind of military dandy, and loved to surround himself with the foppery of the matador and the brigand. At heart, indeed, he was still the guerrillero of Morella, riding home through the streets of that little rebel city after a successful foray.
As his eyes fell on the row of men dark against the dusty adobe of the garden wall, and on the two pale women, a dark frown overspread his face.
"What is the meaning of this?" he cried. "Why have you not obeyed your instructions? Why are these men not yet dead?"
The officer trembled, and began an explanation, pointing to Concha and La Giralda, both of whom stood for a moment motionless. Then flinging herself over the low wall of the garden as if her years had more nearly approached seventeen than seventy, La Giralda caught the great man by the stirrup.
"Little Ramon, Ramon Cabrera," she cried, "have you forgotten your old nurse, La Giralda of Sevilla, your mother's gossip, your own playmate?"
The general turned full upon her, with the quick indignant threat of one who considers himself duped, in his countenance. It had gone ill with La Giralda if she had not been able to prove her case. But she held something in her hand, the sight of which brought the butcher of Tortosa down from his saddle as quickly as if a Cristino bullet had pierced him to the heart.
La Giralda was holding out to him an old string of beads, simply carved out of some brown oriental nut, but so worn away by use that the stringing had almost cut through the hard and polished shell.
"My mother's rosary!" he cried, and sinking on his knees, he devoutly received and kissed it. He abode thus a moment looking up to the sky – he, the man who had waded in blood during six years of bitter warfare. He kissed the worn beads one by one and wept. They were his mother's way to heaven. And he did not know a better. In which perchance he was right.
"Whence gat you this?" cried Cabrera, rising sharply as a thought struck him; "my mother never would have parted with these in her life – you plundered it from her body after her death! Quick, out with your story, or you die!"
"Nay, little foster-son," said La Giralda, "I was indeed with your mother at the last – when she was shot by Nogueras, and five minutes before she died she gave her rosary into my hands to convey to you. 'Take this to my son,' she said, 'and bid him never forget his mother, nor to say his prayers night and morn. Bid him swear it on these sacred beads!' So I have brought them to you. She kissed them before she died. At the risk of my life have I brought it."
"And these," said Cabrera – "do you know these dogs, La Giralda?"
He pointed to the four men who still stood by the wall, the firing party at attention before them, and the eyes of all on the next wave of the general's hand which would mean life or death.
La Giralda drew a quick breath. Would the hold she had over him be sufficient for what she was about to ask? He was a fierce man and a cruel, this Ramon Cabrera, who loved naught in the world except his mother, and had gained his present ascendency in the councils of Don Carlos by the unbending and consistent ferocity of his conduct.
"These are no traitors, General," she said; "they are true men, and deep in the councils of the cause."
She bent and whispered in his ear words which others could not hear. The face of the Carlist general darkened from a dull pink to purple, and then his colour ebbed away to a ghastly ashen white as he listened.
Twice he sprang up from the stone bench where he had seated himself, ground his heel into the gravel brought from the river-bed beneath, and muttered a characteristic imprecation, "Ten for one of their women I have slain already – by San Vicente after this it shall be a hundred!"
For La Giralda was telling him the tale of his mother's shooting by Nogueras.
Then all suddenly he reseated himself, and beckoned to Concha.
"Come hither," he said; "let me see these fellows' papers, and tell me how they came into your hands!"
Concha was ready.
"The Se?or, the tall stranger, had a mission to the Lady Superior of the Convent," she began. "From Don Baltasar Varela it was, Prior of the great Carlist Monastery of Montblanch. He trusted his papers into her hands as a guarantee of his loyalty and good faith, and here they are!"
Concha flashed them from her bosom and laid them in the general's hands. Usually Cabrera was blind to female charms, but upon this occasion his eye rested with pleasure on the quick and subtle grace of the Andaluse.
"Then you are a nun?" he queried, looking sharply at her figure and dress.
"Ah, no," replied Concha, thinking with some hopefulness that she was to have at least a hearing, "I am not even a lay sister. The good Lady Superior had need of a housekeeper – one who should be free of the convent and yet able to transact business without the walls. It is a serious thing (as your honour knows) to provision even a hundred men who can live rough and eat sparely – how much harder to please a convent-school filled from end to end with the best blood in Spain! And good blood needs good feeding – "
"As I well knew when I was a butcher in Tortosa!" quoth Cabrera, smiling. "There were a couple of ducal families within the range of my custom, and they consumed more beef and mutton than a whole barrio of poor pottage-eaters!"
To make Cabrera smile was more than half the battle.
"You are sure they had nothing to do with the slayers of my mother?" He was fierce again in a moment, and pulled the left flange of his moustache into his mouth with a quick nervous movement of the fingers.
"I will undertake that no one of them hath ever been further South than this village of Sarria," said Concha, somewhat hastily, and without sufficient authority.
Cabrera looked at the papers. There was a Carlist commission in the name of Don Rollo Blair duly made out, a letter from General Elio, chief of the staff, commending all the four by name and description to all good servants of Don Carlos, as trustworthy persons engaged on a dangerous and secret mission. Most of all, however, he seemed to be impressed with the ring belonging to Etienne, with its revolving gem and concealed portrait of Carlos the Fifth.
He placed it on his finger and gazing intently, asked to whom it belonged. As soon as he understood, he summoned the little Frenchman to his presence. Etienne came at the word, calm as usual, and twirling his moustache in the manner of Rollo.
"This is your ring?" he demanded of the prisoner. Concha tried to catch Etienne's eye to signal to him that he must give Cabrera that upon which his fancy had lighted. But her former lover stubbornly avoided her eye.
"That is my ring," he answered dryly, after a cursory inspection of the article in question as it lay in the palm of the guerillero's hand.
"It is very precious to you?" asked the butcher of Tortosa, suggestively.
"It was given to me by my cousin, the king," answered Etienne, briefly.
"Then I presume you do not care to part with it?" said Cabrera, turning it about on his finger, and holding it this way and that to the light.
"No," said Etienne, coolly. "You see, my cousin might not give me another!"
But the butcher of Tortosa could be as simple and direct in his methods as even Rollo himself.
"Will you give it to me?" he said, still admiring it as it flashed upon his finger.
Etienne looked at the general calmly from head to foot, Concha all the time frowning upon him to warn him of his danger. But the young man was preening himself like a little bantam-cock of vanity, glad to be reckless under the fire of such eyes. He would not have missed the chance for worlds, so he replied serenely, "Do you still intend to shoot us?"
"What has that to do with the matter?" growled Cabrera, who was losing his temper.
"Because if you do," said Etienne, who had been waiting his opportunity, "you are welcome to the jewel —after I am dead. But if I am to live, I shall require it for myself!"