Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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The villagers got apprehensively behind each other, and none answered, each waiting for the other, till with mighty bass thunder the voice rang out again:

"Have you no answer?" he cried, "no promise? Must I set a dozen of you with your backs against the wall, as I did at Espluga in Francoli, to stimulate those dull country wits of yours?"

Then a young man gaily dressed was thrust to the front. Very unwilling he was to show himself, and at his appearance, with his knees knocking together, a merry laugh rang out from behind Cabrera.

That chieftain turned quickly with wrath in his eye. For it was a sound of a woman's mirth that was heard, and all such were strictly forbidden within his lines.

But at the sight of little Concha, her dark eyes full of light, her hands clapping together in innocent delight, her white teeth disclosed in gay and dainty laughter, a certain maja note of daring unconvention in her costume, she was so exactly all that would have sent him into raptures twenty years before when he was an apprentice in Tortosa, that the grim man only smiled and turned again to the unwilling spokesman of the municipality of Sarria.

A voice from the press before the burning house announced the delegate's quality.

"Don Raphael de Flores, son of our alcalde."

"Speak on, Don Raphael," cried Cabrera; "I will not shoot you unless it should be necessary."

Thus encouraged the trembling youth began.

"Your Excellency," he quavered, "we of Sarria have nothing to do with the family of Fernandez. We would not give any one of them a handful of maize or a plate of lentil broth if he were starving. We are loyal men and women – well-wishers to the cause of the only true and absolute King Carlos Quinto."

"I am credibly informed that it is otherwise," said Cabrera, "and that you are a den of red-hot nationals. I therefore impose a fine of two thousand duros on the municipality, and as you are the alcalde's son, we will keep you in durance till they be paid."

Don Raphael fell on his knees. His pale face was reddened by the flames from the mill-house, the fate of which must have afforded a striking object-lesson to a costive magistracy in trouble about a forced loan.

"We are undone," he cried; "I am a married man, your Excellency, and have not a maravedi to call my own. You had better shoot me out of hand, and be done with it. Indeed, we cannot possibly pay."

"Go and find your father," cried Cabrera; "he pocketed half of the price of Don Ramon Garcia's house. I cannot see my namesake suffer. Tell him that two thousand duros is the price up till noon. After that it will have risen to four thousand, and by three of the afternoon, if the money be not paid into the treasury of the only absolute and Catholic sovereign (in the present instance my breeches pocket), I shall be reluctantly compelled to shoot one dozen of the leading citizens of the township of Sarria.

Let a strong guard accompany this young man till he returns from carrying his message."

In this way did Cabrera replenish the treasury of his master Don Carlos, and with such pleasant argument did he induce reluctant alcaldes to discover the whereabouts of their strong boxes.

For a remarkably shrewd man was General Ramon Cabrera, the butcher of Tortosa.

CHAPTER XXIV
HOW TO BECOME A SOLDIER

The change in the aspect of affairs would have made a greater difference to most companies of adventurers than it did to that of which Master Rollo Blair of Blair Castle in the shire of Fife was the leader. In the morning they had all risen with the expectation of being shot with the sun-rising. At ten of the clock they were speeding southward on good horses, holding acknowledged rank and position in the army of the only Catholic and religious sovereign.

But they were a philosophic quartette. Rollo drew in the morning air and blew it back again through his nostrils without thinking much of how nearly he had come to kissing the brown earth of Luis Fernandez's garden with a dozen bullets through his heart. Mortimer meditated somewhat sulkily upon his lost onions, rustling pleasantly back there in the cool patio of the nunnery. Etienne sorrowed for his latest love idyll ruthlessly cut short, and as to El Sarria, he thought of nothing save that Dol?res had come back to him and that he had yet to reckon with the Fernandez family. The next time he would attend to the whole matter himself, and there would be no mistakes.

It was not without sadness that Rollo looked his last on the white walls of the convent of the Holy Innocents. He was glad indeed to have placed Dol?res in safety – glad that she and her child were together, and that the good sisters were responsible for them. Between them the four had made up a purse to be sent by Concha to the Mother Superior, to be applied for the behoof of her guests till the better days should come, and Ramon Garcia be able to claim his wife and first-born son.

But Concha had refused point-blank.

"The babe came through the wicket. The mother arrived by night, a fugitive asking pity, like the Virgin fleeing down to Egypt in the pictures," said Concha. "The convent needs no alms, nor does the Lady Superior sell her help. Keep the money, lads. If I am not a fool you will need it more than the sisterhood of the Holy Innocents before you come to your journey's end."

And with that she blew them each a dainty kiss, distinguishing no one above the other, dropped a curtsey to the general, whose eyes followed her with more than usual interest, leaped on her white mare and rode off, attended by La Giralda riding astride like a man, in the same fashion in which she had arrived.

So little Concha was gone from his sight, and duty loomed up suddenly gaunt and void of interest before Rollo. To risk his life was nothing. When he got nearer to the goal, his blood would rise, that he knew. To capture a queen and a regent at one coup, to upset a government, to bring a desolating war to an end – these were all in the day's work. But why, in the name of all that was sanest and most practical, did his heart feel like lead within him and his new dignity turn to Dead Sea ashes in his mouth?

It was not long before Cabrera dropped back, that he might talk over ways and means with the young colonel. It was clear that the guerrilla chieftain did not believe greatly in the project.

"I do not understand all this," he said; "it is not my way. What have we to do with taking women and children prisoners? Let us have no truck, barter, or exchange with the government at Madrid except at the point of the bayonet. That is my way of it, and if my advice had been taken before, my master would at this moment have been in the royal palace of his ancestors. But these secret embassies in the hands of foreigners – what good can come of them?"

Rollo explained such things as the Abbot of Montblanch had made clear to him – namely, that the Regent and her daughter were by no means averse to Holy Church, nor yet eager to keep the true King out of his own. But, they were in the power of unscrupulous men – Mendiz?bal, Linares, and others, who for their own ends published edicts and compelled the ladies to sign them. If they were captured and sequestered for their own good, the ministry would break down and Don Carlos would reign undisturbed.

Rollo thought the exposition a marvel of clearness and point. It was somewhat disappointing, therefore, when he had finished to hear from Cabrera the unmoved declaration: "A Cristino is a Cristino whether in the palace of Madrid or on the mountains of Morella. And the quickest way is the best way with such an one, wherever met with!"

"But you do not mean to say that you would shoot the girl-Queen or the mother-Regent if they fell into your hands?" cried Rollo, aghast at the horror.

The deep underlying anger leaped up fiery red into the eyes of the guerrilla chief.

"Aye, that would I," he cried, "as quickly as they slew my own old mother in the barrack yard of Tortosa!"

And thinking of that tragedy and the guilt of Nogueras, Rollo felt there was something to be said for the indomitable, implacable little butcher-general of Don Carlos.

Cabrera was silent for a while after making this speech, and then abruptly demanded of Rollo how many men he would require for his undertaking.

"I am bidden to place my entire command at your service," he said with obvious reluctance, glancing out of his little oblique eyes at the young colonel.

Rollo considered a while before answering.

"It is my opinion that the fewer men concerned in such a venture the greater the chances of success," he said at last; "furnish me with one petty officer intimately acquainted with the country between Zaragoza and San Ildefonso, and I will ask no more."

Cabrera drew a long breath and looked at the young man with infinitely more approval than he had before manifested.

"You are right," he said, "three times right! If you fail, there are fewer to go to the gallows. In prison fewer ill-sewn wine-skins to leak information. If you succeed, there are also fewer to divide the credit and the reward. For my own part, I do not think you will succeed, but I will provide you with the best man in my command for your purpose and in addition heartily wish you well out of your adventure!"

Cabrera was indeed immensely relieved to find the desires of our hero so moderate. He had been directed to supply him with whatever force he required, and he expected to be deprived of a regiment at least, at a most critical time in the affairs of the Absolute King.

"Young man," he said, "you will certainly be shot or hanged before you are a month older. Nevertheless in the mean time I would desire to have the honour of shaking you by the hand. If you were not to die so soon, undoubtedly you would go far! It is a pity. And the Cristinos are bad shots. They will not do the job half as creditably as my fellows would have done it for you this morning!"

The man who was chosen by Cabrera to accompany them on their mission was of a most remarkable appearance. Tall, almost as tall as El Sarria, he was yet distinguished from his fellows by a notable gauntness and angularity of figure.

"A step-ladder with the bottom bars missing!" was Rollo's mental description of him, as he stood before them in a uniform jacket much too tight for him, through which his ribs showed not unlike the spars of a ladder.

But in other respects Sergeant Cardono was a remarkable man. The iron gravity of his countenance, seamed on the right-hand side by a deep scar, took no new expression when he found himself detailed by his general for this new and dangerous mission.

With a single salute he fell out and instantly attached himself to Rollo, whom he relieved of his knapsack and waterbottle on the spot. Sergeant Cardono paid no attention whatever to the other three, whom he evidently regarded as very subordinate members of the expedition.

As soon as they arrived at the village where they were to part from the command of Cabrera, Sergeant Cardono promptly disappeared. He was not seen for several hours, during which Rollo and El Sarria wandered here and there endeavouring in that poor place to pick up some sustenance which would serve them in lieu of a dinner. They had but poor success. A round of black bread, a fowl of amazing age, vitality, and muscular development, with a few snails, were all that they could obtain by their best persuasions, aided by the money with which Rollo was plentifully supplied. John Mortimer looked disconsolately on. He had added a little ham on his own account, which last he had brought in his saddle-bags from the venta of Sarria. But everything pointed to a sparse meal, and even the philosophic Etienne shrugged his shoulders and departed to prospect at a certain house half a mile up the road where, as they had ridden rapidly by, a couple of pretty girls had looked out curiously at the tossing Carlist boinas.

Rollo and El Sarria were carrying their scanty provend to a house where a decent-looking woman had agreed to cook it for them, when their gloomy reveries were interrupted by a sudden apparition which burst upon them as they stood on the crest of a deep hollow.

The limestone hills had been rent asunder at the place, and from the bare faces of the rocks the neighbouring farmers and villagers had quarried and carried away such of the overhanging blocks as could easily be trimmed to suit their purposes.

Part of what remained had been shaped into a hornito, or stone oven, under which a fire had been kindled, and a strange figure moved about, stirring the glowing charcoal with a long bar of iron. On a smaller hearth nearer at hand a second fire blazed, and the smell of fragrant cookery rose to the expectant and envious nostrils of the four.

It was Sergeant Cardono, who moved about whistling softly, now attending to the steaming olla, now watching the rising bread in the hornito.

Perceiving Rollo, he saluted gravely and remarked, "Dinner will be served in half an hour." The others, as before, he simply ignored. But in deference to his new commander he stopped whistling and moved about with his lean shoulders squared as if on parade.

When the bread and the skinny chicken were placed in his hands, he glanced at them with somewhat of superciliousness.

"The bread will serve for crumbs," he said, and immediately began to grate the baton-like loaf with a farrier's hoof-rasp which he used in his culinary operations. "But this," he added, as he turned over the bird, "is well stricken in years, and had better be given to the recruits. They have young teeth and have had practice upon dead artillery mules!"

So saying, he went casually to the edge of the little quarry, whistled a peculiar note and tossed the bird downward to some person unseen, who appeared from nowhere in particular for the purpose of receiving it.

When the dinner was ready Sergeant Cardono announced it to Rollo as if he had been serving a prince. And what was the young man's astonishment to find a table, covered with a decent white cloth, under the shelter of a limestone rock, spread for three, and complete even to table napkins, which the sergeant had tied into various curious shapes.

As they filed down the slope the sergeant stood at attention, but when El Sarria passed he quickly beckoned him aside with a private gesture.

"You and I will eat after the foreigners," he explained.

El Sarria drew himself up somewhat proudly, but Sergeant Cardono whispered in his ear two or three words which appeared to astonish him so much that he did as he was bid, and stood aside while John Mortimer and Etienne de Saint Pierre seated themselves.

But Rollo, who had no great love for eating, and considered one man just as much entitled to respect as another, would not sit down till El Sarria was accommodated also.

"May it please your Excellency, Don Ramon and I have much to say to each other," quoth the Sergeant, with great respect, "besides your honour is aware – the garlic – the onions – we of this country love them?"

"But so do I," cried Rollo, "and I will not have distinctions made on this expedition. We are all to risk our lives equally and we shall all fare equally, and if we are caught our dose of lead or halter-hemp will be just the same."

Here El Sarria interrupted.

"With respect," he said, "it is true that this gentleman hath some private matters to communicate to me which have nothing to do with the object of our mission. I crave your permission that for to-day I may dine apart with him!"

After this there was no more to be said. El Sarria helped the sergeant to serve the meal, which was at once the proof of his foraging ability and his consummate genius as a cook. For though the day was Friday, the soup was very far from maigre. The stew contained both lamb and fresh pork cut into generous cubes with a sufficiency of savoury fat included. A sausage had been sliced small for seasoning and the whole had been so smothered in garbanzos, haricot beans, rice, mixed with strips of toothsome salt fish, that John Mortimer bent and said a well-deserved blessing over the viands.

"I don't usually in this country," he explained, "but really this is what my good old father would call a manifest providence. That fellow of ours will prove a treasure."

"It seems so," said Rollo, a little grimly, "that is, if he can scout and fight as well as he can cater and cook."

For himself the young Scot cared little what he ate, and would have dined quite cheerfully on dry bread and water, if any one would have listened to his stories of the wonders of his past life or the yet more wonderful achievements of his future. He would have sat and spun yarns concerning the notches on Killiecrankie at a dyke-back, though he had not tasted food for twenty-four hours, with the utmost composure and relish. But his companions were of another kidney, being all valiant trencher-men – John Mortimer desiring chiefly quantity in his eating, while Etienne, no mean cook himself, desiderated rather variety and delicacy in the dishes which were set before him.

At all events the dinner was a great success, though the Sergeant, who evinced the greatest partiality for Rollo, often reproached him with eating little, or inquired anxiously if the sauce of a certain dish were not to his taste. Rollo, in the height of his argument, would hastily affirm that it was delicious, and be off again in chase of some deed of arms or daring, leaving the Sergeant's chef-d'?uvre untasted on his plate.

At this the Sergeant shook his head in private to El Sarria.

"It will stand in his way, I fear me," he said sententiously; "was there ever a notable general yet who had not a fine belly to wag before him upon horseback? 'Tis as necessary as the cock's feathers in his hat. Now there is your cut-and-thrust officer who is good for nothing but to be first in charges and to lead forlorn hopes – this colonel of yours is just the figure for him. I have seen many a dozen of them get the lead between their ribs and never regretted it before. But it is a devil's pity that this young cockerel is not fonder of his dinner. How regardeth he the women?"

This last question was asked anxiously, yet with some hope. But this also El Sarria promptly scattered to the winds.

"I do not think that he regards them at all! He has scarcely looked at one of them ever since I first knew him."

Sergeant Cardono groaned, seemingly greatly perturbed in spirit.

"I feared as much," he said, shaking his head; "he hath not the right wandering eye. Now, that young Frenchman is a devil untamed! And the Englishman – well, though he is deeper, he also hath it in him. But the colonel is all for fighting and his duty. It is easy to see that he will rise but little higher. When was there ever a great soldier without a weakness for a pretty woman and a good dinner? Why, the thing is against nature. Now, my father fought in the War of the Independence, and the tales that he told of El Gran' Lor' – he was a soldier if you like, worthy of the white plumes! A cook all to himself closer at his elbow than an aide-de-camp – and as to the women – ah – !"

Sergeant Cardono nodded as one who could tell tales and he would. Yet the Sergeant Cardono found some reason to change his mind as to Rollo's qualifications for field-officership before the end of their first day apart from Cabrera.

It was indeed with a feeling of intense relief that the little company of five men separated from the white and red boinas of the butcher-general's cavalcade. Well-affected to them as Cabrera might be for the time being, his favour was so brief and uncertain, his affection so tiger-like, that even Sergeant Cardono sighed a sigh of satisfaction when they turned their horses' heads towards the far-away Guadarrama beyond which lay the goal of their adventuring.

Presently the tongues of the little cavalcade were unloosed. El Sarria and Sergeant Cardono having found subjects of common interest, communed together apart like old friends. John Mortimer and Etienne, who generally had little to say to each other, conversed freely upon wine-growing and the possibility of introducing cotton-spinning into the South of France. For Etienne was not destitute of a certain Gascon eye to the main chance.

Rollo alone rode gloomily apart. He was turning over the terms of his commission in his mind, and the more he thought, the less was he satisfied. It was not alone the desperateness of the venture that daunted Rollo, but the difficulty of providing for the Queen-Regent and little princess when captured. There were a couple of hundred miles to ride back to those northern fastnesses where they would be safe; for the most part without cover and through country swarming with Nationals and Cristino partisans.

Riding thus in deep meditation, Rollo, whose gaze was usually so alert, did not observe away to the right a couple of horses ridden at speed and rapidly overtaking their more tired beasts.

El Sarria, however, did not fail to note them, but, fearing a belated message of recall from General Cabrera, he did not communicate his discovery to his companions, contenting himself with keeping his eye upon the approaching riders.



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