Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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Rollo was therefore still advancing, his reins flung loosely upon his beast's neck and his whole attitude betokening a melancholy resignation, a couple of lengths before his companions, when a sudden clattering of hoofs startled him. He looked up, and there, on her white mare, well-lathered at girth and bridle, was little Concha Cabezos, sitting her panting beast with the grace of the true Andaluse.

Her hair was a little ruffled by the wind. Her cheeks and lips were adorably red. There was a new and brilliant light in her eye; and after one curiously comprehensive glance at the company, she turned about to look for her companion, La Giralda, who presently cantered up on a lumbering Estramenian gelding. La Giralda sat astride as before, her lower limbs, so far as these were apparent, being closely clad in leather, a loose skirt over them preserving in part the appearance of sex.

Rollo was dumb with sheer astonishment. He could only gaze at the flushed cheek, the tingling electric glances, the air completely unconscious and innocent of the girl before him.

"Concha!" he cried aloud. "Concha – what do you here? I thought – I imagined you were safe at the Convent of the Holy Innocents!"

And from behind Sergeant Cardono marked his cheek, alternately paling and reddening, his stammering tongue and altered demeanour, with the utmost satisfaction.

"Good – good," he muttered under his breath to El Sarria; "he will make a true general yet. The saints be praised for this weakness! If only he were fonder of his dinner all might yet be well!"

CHAPTER XXV
THE MISSION OF THE SE?ORITA CONCHA

"I too have a mission, I would have you know," said Concha, a dangerous coquetry showing through her grave demeanour, "a secret mission from the Mother Superior of the Convent of the Holy Innocents. Do not attempt to penetrate the secret. I assure you it will be quite useless. And pray do not suppose that only you can adventure forth on perilous quests!"

"I assure you," began Rollo, eagerly, "that I suppose no such thing. At the moment when you came up I was wishing with all my heart that the responsibility of the present undertaking had been laid on any other shoulders than mine!"

Yet in spite of his modesty, certain it is that from that moment Rollo rode no longer with his head hanging down like a willow blown by the wind. The reins lay no more lax and abandoned on his horse's neck. On the contrary, he sat erect and looked abroad with the air of a commander, and his hand rested oftener on the hilt of Killiecrankie, with the air of pride which Concha privately thought most becoming.

"And in what case left you my wife and babe?" suddenly demanded El Sarria, riding up, and inquiring somewhat imperiously of the new recruit concerning the matter which touched him most nearly.

"The Se?ora Dol?res is safe with the good sisters, and as in former times I was known to have been her companion, it was judged safest that I should not longer be seen in the neighbourhood.

Likewise I was charged with the tidings that Luis Fernandez with a company of Cristino Migueletes has been seen riding southward to cut you off from Madrid, whither it is supposed you are bound!"

Rollo turned quickly upon her with some anger in his eye.

"Why did you not tell me that at first?" he said.

Concha smiled a subtle smile and turned her eyes upon the ground.

"If you will remember, I had other matters to communicate to your Excellency," she said meekly – almost too meekly, Rollo thought. "This matter of Luis Fernandez slipped my memory, till it was my good fortune to be reminded of it by Don Ramon!"

And all the while the long lean Sergeant Cardono, his elbows glued to his sides, sat his horse as if spiked to the saddle, and chuckled with quiet glee at the scene.

"He will do yet," he muttered; "'twas ever thus that my father told me of the Gran' Lor' before Salamanca. Be he as stiff as a ramrod and as frigid as his own North Pole, the little one will thaw him – bend him – make a fool of him for his soul's good. She is not an Andaluse of the gipsy blood for nothing! He will make him a soldier yet, this young man, by the especial grace of San Vicente de Paul, only I do not think that either of them will deserve readmission to the Convent of the Holy Innocents!"

More than once Rollo endeavoured to extract from Concha to what place her self-assumed mission was taking her, and at what point she would leave them. It was in vain. The lady baffled all his endeavours with the most consummate ease.

"You have not communicated to me," she said, "the purport of your own adventures. How then can I tell at what place our ways divide?"

"I am forbidden to reveal to any save General Cabrera alone my secret instructions!" said Rollo, with such dignity as he could muster at short notice.

"And I," retorted Concha, "am as strictly forbidden to reveal mine to General Cabrera or even to that notable young officer, Colonel Don Rollo of the surname which resembles so much a borrico's serenade!"

That speech would have been undoubtedly rude save for the glance which accompanied it, given softly yet daringly from beneath a jetty fringe of eyelash.

Nevertheless all Rollo Blair's pride of ancestry rose insurgent within him. Who was this Andalucian waiting-maid that she should speak lightly of the descendant of that Blair of Blair Castle who had stood for Bruce and freedom on the field of Bannockburn? It was unbearable – and yet, well, there was something uncommon about this girl. And after all, was it not the mark of a gentleman to pay no heed to the babbling of women's tongues? If they did not say one thing, they would another. Besides, he cared nothing what this girl might say. A parrot prattling in a cage would affect him as much.

So they rode on together over the great tawny brick-dusty wastes of Old Castile, silent mostly, but the silence occasionally broken by speech, friendly enough on either side. Behind them pounded La Giralda, gaunt as the sergeant himself, leather-legginged, booted and spurred, watching them keenly out of her ancient, unfathomable gipsy eyes.

And ever as they rode the Guadarrama mountains rose higher and whiter out of the vast and hideous plain, the only interruption to the circling horizon of brown and parched corn lands. But at this season scrub-oak and juniper were the only shrubs to be seen, and had there been a Cristino outpost anywhere within miles, the party must have been discerned riding steadily towards the northern slopes of the mountains. But neither man nor beast took notice of them, and a certain large uncanny silence brooded over the plain.

At one point, indeed, they passed near enough to distinguish in the far north the snow-flecked buttresses of the Sierra de Moncayo. But these, they knew, were the haunts of their Carlist allies. The towns and villages of the plain, however, were invariably held by Nationals, and it had often gone hard with them, had not Sergeant Cardono detached himself from the cavalcade, and, venturing alone into the midst of the enemy, by methods of his own produced the materials for many an excellent meal. At last, one day the Sergeant came back to the party with an added gloom on his long, lean, leathern-textured face. He had brought with him an Estramaduran ham, a loaf of wheaten bread, and a double string of sausages. But upon his descending into the temporary camp which sheltered the party in the bottom of a barranco, or deep crack in the parched plateau overgrown with scented thyme and dwarf oak, it became obvious that he had news of the most serious import to communicate.

He called Rollo aside, and told him how he had made his way into a village, as was his custom, and found all quiet – the shops open, but none to attend to them, the customs superintendent in his den by the gate, seated on his easy chair, but dead – the presbytery empty of the priest, the river bank dotted with its array of worn scrubbing boards, but not a washerwoman to be seen. Only a lame lad, furtively plundering, had leaped backward upon his crutch with a swift drawing of his knife and a wolfish gleam of teeth. He had first of all warned the Sergeant to keep off at his peril, but had afterwards changed his tone and confessed to him that the plague was abroad in the valley of the Duero, and that he was the only being left alive in the village save the vulture and the prowling dog.

"The plague!" Sergeant Cardono had gasped, like every Spaniard stricken sick at the very sound of the word.

"Yes, and I own everything in the village," asserted the imp. "If you want anything here you must pay me for it!"

The Sergeant found it even as the cripple had said. There was not a single living inhabitant in the village. Here and there a shut door and a sickening smell betrayed the fact that some unfortunates had been left to die untended. Etienne and John Mortimer were for different reasons unwilling to taste of the ham and bread he had brought back, thinking that these might convey the contagion, but La Giralda and the Sergeant laughed their fears to scorn, and together retired to prepare the evening meal.

As the others made their preparations for the night, watering their beasts and grooming them with the utmost care, the little crook-backed imp from the village appeared on the brink of the barranco, his sallow, weazened face peeping suspiciously out of the underbrush, and his crutch performing the most curious evolutions in the air.

There was something unspeakably eerie in the aspect of the solitary survivor of so many living people, left behind to prey like a ghoul on the abandoned possessions of the fear-stricken living and the untestamented property of the dead.

Concha shrank instinctively from his approach, and the boy, perceiving his power over her, came scuttling like a weasel through the brushwood, till little more than a couple of paces interposed between him and the girl. Frozen stiff with loathing and terror, it was not for some time that Concha could cry out and look round hastily for Rollo, who (doubtless in his capacity of leader of the expedition) was not slow in hastening to her assistance.

"That boy – there!" she gasped, "he frightens me – oh hateful! make him go away!" And she clutched the young man's arm with such a quick nervous grasp, that a crimson flush rose quickly to Rollo's cheek.

"No," muttered Etienne to himself as he watched the performance critically, "she was never in love with you, sir! She never did as much for you as that. But on the whole, with a temper like Mistress Concha's, I think you are well out of it, Monsieur Etienne!" Which wise dictum might or might not be based on the fox's opinion as to sour grapes.

All unconsciously Rollo reached a protecting hand across to the little white fingers which gripped his arm so tightly.

"Go away, boy," he commanded; "do you not see that you terrify the Se?orita?"

"I see – that is why I stay!" cried the amiable youth gleefully, flourishing his crutch about his head as if on the point of launching it at the party.

Rollo laid his hand on the hilt of Killiecrankie with a threatening gesture.

"If you come an inch nearer, I will give you plague!" cried the boy, showing his teeth wickedly, "and your wench also. You will grow black – yes, and swell! Then you will die, both of you. And there will be no one to bury you, like those in the houses back there. Then all you possess shall be mine, ha, ha!"

And he laughed and danced till a fit of coughing came upon him so that he actually crowed in a kind of fiendish exaltation. But Rollo Blair was not a man to be jested with, either by devil or devil's imp. He drew a pistol from his belt, looked carefully to the priming, and with the greatest coolness in the world pointed it at the misshapen brat.

"Now listen," he said, "you are old enough to know the meaning of words; I give you one minute to betake yourself to your own place and leave us alone! There is no contagion in a pistol bullet, my fine lad, but it is quite as deadly as any plague. So be off before a charge of powder catches you up!"

The sound of the angry voices had attracted La Giralda, who, looking up hastily from her task of building the fire beneath the gipsy tripod at which she and the Sergeant were cooking, advanced hastily with a long wand in her hand.

The imp wheeled about as on a pivot, and positively appeared to shrink into his clothing at the sight of her. He stood motionless, however, while La Giralda advanced threateningly towards him with the wand in her hand as if for the purpose of castigation. As she approached he emitted a cry of purely animal terror, and hastily whipping his crutch under his arm, betook himself, in a series of long hops, to a spot twenty yards higher up the bank. But La Giralda stopped him by a word or two spoken in an unknown tongue, harsh-sounding as Catalan, but curt and brief as a military order.

The boy stood still and answered in the same speech, at first gruffly and unwillingly, with downcast looks and his bare great toe scrabbling in the dust of the hillside.

The dialogue lasted for some time, till at last with a scornful gesture La Giralda released him, pointing to the upper edge of the barranco as the place by which he was to disappear: the which he was now as eager to do, as he had formerly been insolently determined to remain.

During this interview Rollo had stood absent-mindedly with his hand pressed on Concha's, as he listened to the strange speech of La Giralda. Even his acquaintance with the language of the gipsies of Granada had only enabled him to understand a word here and there. The girl's colour slowly returned, but the fear of the plague still ran like ice in her veins. She who feared nothing else on earth, was shaken as with a palsy by the terror of the Black Death, so paralysing was the fear that the very name of cholera laid upon insanitary Spain.

"Well?" said Rollo, turning to La Giralda, who stood considering with her eyes upon the ground, after her interview with the crook-backed dwarf.

"You must give me time to think," she said; "this boy is one of our people – a Gitano of Baza. He is not of this place, and he tells me strange things. He swears that the Queen and the court are plague-stayed at La Granja by fear of the cholera. They dare not return to Madrid. They cannot supply themselves with victuals where they are. The very guards forsake them. And the Gitanos of the hills – but I have no right to tell that to the foreigner – the Gorgio. For am not I also a Gitana?"

The village where Rollo's command first stumbled upon this dreadful fact was called Frias, in the district of La Perla, and lies upon the eastern spurs of the Guadarrama. It was, therefore, likely enough then that the boy spoke truth, and that within a few miles of them the Court of Spain was enduring privations in its aerial palace of La Granja.

But even when interrogated by El Sarria the old woman remained obstinately silent as to the news concerning her kinsfolk which she had heard from the crippled dwarf.

"It has nothing to do with you," she repeated; "it is a matter of the Gitanos!"

But there came up from the bottom of the ravine, the lantern-jawed Sergeant, long, silent, lean, parched as a Manchegan cow whose pasture has been burnt up by a summer sun. With one beckoning finger he summoned La Giralda apart, and she obeyed him as readily as the boy had obeyed her. They communed a long time together, the old gipsy speaking, the coffee-coloured Sergeant listening with his head a little to the side.

At the end of the colloquy Sergeant Cardono went directly up to Rollo and saluted.

"Is it permitted for me to speak a word to your Excellency concerning the objects of the expedition?" he said, with his usual deference.

"Certainly!" answered Rollo; "for me, my mission is a secret one, but I have no instructions against listening."

The Sergeant bowed his head.

"Whatever be our mission you will find me do my duty," he said; "and since this cursed plague may interfere with all your plans, it is well that you should know what has befallen and what is designed. You will pardon me for saying that it takes no great prophet to discover that our purposes have to do with the movements of the court."

Rollo glanced at him keenly.

"Did General Cabrera reveal anything to you before your departure?" he asked.

"Nay," said Sergeant Cardono; "but when I am required to guide a party secretly to San Ildefonso, where the court of the Queen-Regent is sojourning, it does not require great penetration to see the general nature of the service upon which I am engaged!"

Rollo recovered himself.

"You have not yet told me what you have discovered," he said, expectantly.

"No," replied the Sergeant with great composure – "that can wait."

For little Concha was approaching; and though he had limitless expectations of the good influence of that young lady upon the military career of his officer, he did not judge it prudent to communicate intelligence of moment in her presence. Wherein for once he was wrong, since that pretty head of the Andalucian beauty, for all its clustering curls, was full of the wisest and most far-seeing counsel – indeed, more to be trusted in a pinch than the juntas of half-a-dozen provinces.

But the Sergeant considered that when a girl was pretty and aware of it, she had fulfilled her destiny – save as it might be in the making of military geniuses. Therefore he remained silent as the grave so long as Concha stayed. Observing this, the girl asked a simple question and then moved off a little scornfully, only remarking to herself: "As if I could not make him tell me whenever I get him by himself!"

She referred (it is needless to state) not to Sergeant Cardono, but to his commanding officer, Se?or Don Rollo Blair of Blair Castle in the self-sufficient shire of Fife.

CHAPTER XXVI
DEEP ROMANY

The news which Sergeant Cardono had to communicate was indeed fitted to shake the strongest nerves. If true, it took away from Rollo at once all hope of the success of his mission. He saw himself returning disgraced and impotent to the camp of Cabrera, either to be shot out of hand, or worse still, to be sent over the frontier as something too useless and feeble to be further employed.

Briefly, the boy's news as repeated by La Giralda to the Sergeant, informed Rollo that though the court was presently at La Granja and many courtiers in the village of San Ildefonso, the royal guards through fear and hunger had mutinied and marched back to Madrid, and that the gipsies were gathering among the mountains in order to make a night attack upon the stranded and forsaken court of Spain.

In the sergeant's opinion not a moment was to be lost. The object of the hill Gitanos was pure plunder, but they would think nothing of bloodshed, and would doubtless give the whole palace and town over to rapine and pillage. Themselves desperate with hunger and isolation, they had resolved to strike a blow which would ring from one end of Spain to the other.

It was their intention (so the imp said) to kill the Queen-Regent and her daughter, to slaughter the ministers and courtiers in attendance, to plunder the palace from top to bottom and to give all within the neighbouring town of San Ildefonso to the sword.

The programme, as thus baldly announced, was indeed one to strike all men with horror, even those who had been hardened by years of fratricidal warfare in which quarter was neither given nor expected.

Besides the plunder of the palace and its occupants, the leaders of the gipsies expected that they would obtain great rewards from Don Carlos for thus removing the only obstacles to his undisputed possession of the throne of Spain.

The heart of Rollo beat violently. His Scottish birth and training gave him a natural reverence for the sanctity of sickness and death, and the idea of these men plotting ghoulishly to utilise "the onlaying of the hand of Providence" (as his father would have phrased it) for the purposes of plunder and rapine, unspeakably revolted him.

Immediately he called a council of war, at which, in spite of the frowns of Sergeant Cardono, little Concha Cabezos had her place.

La Giralda was summoned also, but excused herself saying, "It is better that I should not know what you intend to do. I am, after all, a black-blooded Gitana, and might be tempted to reveal your secrets if I knew them. It is better therefore that I should not. Let me keep my own place as a servitor in your company, to cut the brushwood for your fire and to bring the water from the spring. In those things you will find me faithful. Trust the gipsy no further!"

Rollo, remembering her loyalty in the matter of Dol?res at the village of El Sarria, was about to make an objection, but a significant gesture from the Sergeant restrained him in time.

Whereupon Rollo addressed himself to the others, setting clearly before them the gravity of the situation.

John Mortimer shook his head gravely. He could not approve.

"How often has my father told me that the first loss is the least! This all comes of trying to make up my disappointment about the Abbot's Priorato!"



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