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Etienne shrugged his shoulders and philosophically quoted a Gascon proverb to the effect that who buys the flock must take the black sheep also.
El Sarria simply recollected that his gun and pistols were in good order, and waited for orders.
The conference therefore resolved itself into a trio of consultants – Rollo because he was the leader, Sergeant Cardono because he knew the country, and Concha – because she was Concha!
They were within an hour or two's rapid march of La Granja over a pass in the Guadarrama. The sergeant volunteered to lead them down into the gardens in that time. He knew a path often travelled by smugglers on their way to Segovia.
"It is clear that if we are to carry away the Queen-Regent and her daughter, we must forestall the gipsies," said Rollo.
Concha clasped her hands pitifully.
"Ah, the poor young Queen!" she cried. "Praise to the saints that I was not born a princess! It goes to my heart to make her a prisoner!"
The Sergeant uttered a guttural grunt which intimated that in his opinion the influence of the petticoat on the career of a soldier might be over-done. Otherwise he maintained his gravity, speaking only when he was directly appealed to and giving his judgment with due submission to his superiors.
Finally it was judged that they should make a night march over the mountains, find some suitable place to lie up in during the day, and in the morning send in La Giralda and the Sergeant to San Ildefonso in the guise of fagot sellers to find out if the gipsy boy of Baza had spoken the truth.
San Ildefonso and La Granja are two of the most strangely situated places in Spain. A high and generally snow-clad Sierra divides them from Madrid and the south. The palace is one of the most high-lying upon earth, having originally been one of the mountain granges of the monks of Segovia to which a king of Spain took a fancy, and, what is more remarkable, for which he was willing to pay good money.
Upon the site a palace has been erected, a miniature Versailles, infinitely more charming than the original, with walks, fountains, waterfalls all fed by the cold snow water of the Guadarrama, and fanned by the pure airs of the mountains. This Grange has been for centuries a favourite resort of the Court of Spain, and specially during these last years of the Regent Cristina, who, when tired with the precision and etiquette of the Court of Madrid, retired hither that she might do as she pleased for at least two or three months of the year.
Generally the great park-gates stood hospitably open, and the little town of San Ildefonso, with its lodgings and hostels, was at this season crowded with courtiers and hangers-on of the court. Guards circulated here and there, or clattered after the Queen-Regent as she drove out on the magnificent King's highway which stretched upwards over the Guadarrama towards Madrid, or whirled down towards Segovia and the plains of Old Castile.Bugles were never long silent in plaza or barrack yard. Drums beat, fifes shrilled, and there was a continuous trampling of horses as this ambassador or that was escorted to the presence of Queen Cristina, widow of Fernando VII., mother of Isabel the Second, and Regent of Spain.
A word of historical introduction is here necessary, and it shall be but a word. For nearly a quarter of a century Fernando, since he had been restored to a forfeited throne by British bayonets, had acted on the ancient Bourbon principle of learning nothing and forgetting nothing. His tyrannies became ever more tyrannical, his exactions more shameless, his indolent arrogance more oppressive. Twice he had to invoke the aid of foreign troops, and once indeed a French army marched from one end of Spain to the other.
But with the coming of his third wife, young Maria Cristina of Naples, all this was changed. Under her influence Fernando promptly became meek and uxorious. Then he revoked the ordinance of a former King which ordained that no woman should reign in Spain. He recalled his revocation, and again promulgated it according as his hope of offspring waxed or waned.
Finally a daughter was born to the ill-mated pair, and Don Carlos, the King's brother and former heir-apparent, left the country. Immediately upon the King's death civil war divided the state. The stricter legitimists who stood for Don Carlos included the church generally and the religious orders. To these were joined the northern parts of Navarra and the Basque countries whose privileges had been threatened, together with large districts of the ever-turbulent provinces of Aragon and Catalunia.
Round the Queen-Regent and her little daughter collected all the liberal opinion of the peninsula, most of the foreign sympathy, the influence of the great towns and sea-ports, of the capital and the government officials, the regular army and police with their officers – indeed all the organised and stated machinery of government.
But up to the time of our history these advantages had been to some extent neutralised by the ill-success of the governmental generalship and by the brilliant successes of two great Carlist leaders – Tomas Zumalacarregui and Ramon Cabrera.
These men perfectly understood the conditions of warfare among their native mountains, and had inflicted defeat upon defeat on every Cristino general sent against them.
But a cloud had of late overspread the fair prospects of the party. Their great general, Tomas Zumalacarregui, had been killed by a cannon ball at the siege of Bilbao, and Cabrera, though unsurpassed as a guerrilla leader, had not the swift Napoleonic judgment and breadth of view of his predecessor. Add to this that a new premier, Mendiz?bal, and a new general, Espartero, were directing operations from Madrid. The former, already half English, had begun to carry out his great scheme of filling the pockets of the civil and military authorities by conveying to the government all the property belonging to the religious orders throughout Spain, who, like our friend the Abbot of Montblanch, had resolutely and universally espoused the cause of Don Carlos.
It was an early rumour of this intention which had so stirred the resentment of Don Baltasar Varela, and caused him to look about for some instrument of vengeance to prevent the accomplishment of the designs of "that burro of the English Stock Exchange," as his enemies freely named Mendiz?bal.
But Cristina of Naples was a typical woman of the Latin races, and, however strongly she might be determined to establish her daughter on the throne of Spain, she was also a good Catholic, and any oppression of Holy Church was abhorrent to her nature.
Upon this probability, which amounted to certainty in his mind, the Abbot of Montblanch resolved to proceed.
Moreover, it was an open secret that a few months after the death of her husband Fernando, Cristina had married Mu?oz, one of the handsomest officers of her bodyguard. For this and other Bourbon delinquencies, conceived in the good old Neapolitan manner, the Spaniards generally had the greatest respect – not even being scandalized when the Queen created her new partner Duke of Rianzares, or when, in her r?le of honorary colonel of dragoons, she appeared in a uniform of blue and white, because these were the colours of the "Immaculate Conception."
But enough has been said to indicate the nature of the adventure which our hero had before him, when after a toilsome march the party halted in the grey of the dawn in a tiny dell among the wild mountains of Guadarrama.
The air was still bleak and cold, though luckily there was no wind. Concha, the child of the south, shivered a little as Rollo aided her to dismount, and this must be the young man's excuse for taking his blue military cloak from its coil across his saddle-bow, and wrapping it carefully and tenderly about her.
Concha raised her eyes once to his as he fastened its chain-catch beneath her chin, and Rollo, though the starlight dimmed the brilliance of the glance, felt more than repaid. In the background Etienne smiled bitterly. The damsel of the green lattice being now left far behind at Sarria, he would have had no scruples about returning to his allegiance to Concha. But the chill indifference with which his advances were received, joined to something softer and more appealing in her eyes when she looked at Rollo, warned the much-experienced youth that he had better for the future confine his gallantries to the most common and ordinary offices of courtesy.
Yet it was certainly a restraint upon the young Frenchman, who, almost from the day he had been rid of his Jesuit tutor, had made it a maxim to make love to the prettiest girl of any company in which he happened to find himself.
When, therefore, he found himself reduced to a choice between an inaccessible Concha and La Giralda, riding astride in her leathern leg-gear and sack-like smock, the youth bethought himself of his religious duties which he had latterly somewhat neglected; and, being debarred from earthly love by Concha's insensibility and La Giralda's ineligibility, it did not cost him a great effort to become for the nonce the same Brother Hilario who had left the monastery of Montblanch.
So, much to the astonishment of John Mortimer, who moved a little farther from him, as being a kind of second cousin of the scarlet woman of the Seven Hills, Etienne pulled out his rosary and, falling on his knees, betook him to his prayers with vigour and a single mind.
Sergeant Cardono had long ago abandoned all distinctive marks of his Carlist partisanship and military rank. Moreover, he had acquired, in some unexplained way, a leathern Montera cap, a short many-buttoned jacket, a flapped waistcoat of red plush, and leathern small-clothes of the same sort as those worn by La Giralda. Yet withal there remained something very remarkable about him. His great height, his angular build, the grim humour of his mouth, the beady blackness of eyes which twinkled with a fleck of fire in each, as a star might be reflected in a deep well on a moonless night – these all gave him a certain distinction in a country of brick-dusty men of solemn exterior and rare speech.
Also there was something indescribably daring about the man, his air and carriage. There was the swagger as of a famous matador about the way he carried himself. He gave a cock to his plain countryman's cap which betokened one of a race at once quicker and more gay – more passionate and more dangerous than the grave and dignified inhabitants of Old Castile through whose country they were presently journeying.
As Cardono and La Giralda departed out of the camp, the Sergeant driving before him a donkey which he had picked up the night before wandering by the wayside, El Sarria looked after them with a sardonic smile which slowly melted from his face, leaving only the giant's usual placid good nature apparent on the surface. The mere knowledge that Dol?res was alive and true to him seemed to have changed the hunted and desperate outlaw almost beyond recognition.
"Why do you smile, El Sarria?" said Concha, who stood near by, as the outlaw slowly rolled and lighted a cigarrillo. "You do not love this Sergeant. You do not think he is a man to be trusted?"
El Sarria shrugged his shoulders, and slowly exhaled the first long breathing of smoke through his nostrils.
"Nay," he said deliberately, "I have been both judged and misjudged myself, and it would ill become me in like manner to judge others. But if that man is not of your country and my trade, Ramon Garcia has lived in vain. That is all."
Concha nodded a little uncertainly.
"Yes," she said slowly, "yes – of my country. I believe you. He has the Andalucian manner of wearing his clothes. If he were a girl he would know how to tie a ribbon irregularly and how to place a bow-knot a little to the side in the right place – things which only Andalucians know. But what in the world do you mean by 'of your profession'?"
El Sarria smoked a while in silence, inhaling the blue cigarette smoke luxuriously, and causing it to issue from his nostrils white and moisture-laden with his breath. Then he spoke.
"I mean of my late profession," he explained, smiling on Concha; "it will not do for a man on the high-road to a commission to commit himself to the statement that he has practised as a bandit, or stopped a coach on the highway in the name of King Carlos Quinto that he might examine more at his ease the governmental mail bags. But our Sergeant – well, I am man-sworn and without honour if he hath not many a time taken blackmail without any such excuse!"
Concha seemed to be considering deeply. Her pretty mouth was pursed up like a ripe strawberry, and her brows were knitted so fiercely that a deep line divided the delicately arched eyebrows.
"And to this I can add somewhat," she began presently; "they say (I know not with what truth) that I have some left-handed gipsy blood in me – and if that man be not a Gitano – why, then I have never seen one. Besides, he speaks with La Giralda in a tongue which neither I nor Don Rollo understand."
"But I thought," said El Sarria, astonished for the first time, "that both you and Don Rollo understood the crabbed gipsy tongue! Have I not heard you speak it together?"
"As it is commonly spoken – yes," she replied, "we have talked many a time for sport. But this which is spoken by the Sergeant and La Giralda is deep Romany, the like of which not half a dozen in Spain understand. It is the old-world speech of the Rom, before it became contaminated by the jargon of fairs and the slang of the travelling horse-clipper."
"Then," said El Sarria, slowly, "it comes to this – 'tis you and not I who mistrust these two?"
"No, that I do not," cried Concha, emphatically; "I have tried La Giralda for many years and at all times found her faithful, so that her bread be well buttered and a draught of good wine placed alongside it. But the Sergeant is a strong man and a secret man – "
"Well worth the watching, then?" said El Sarria, looking her full in the face.
"Carlist or no, he works for his own hand," she said simply.
"Shall ye mention the matter to Don Rollo?" asked El Sarria.
"Nay – what good?" said Concha, quickly; "Don Rollo is brave as a bull of Jaen, but as rash. You and I will keep our eyes open and say nothing. Perhaps – perhaps we may have doubted the man somewhat over-hastily. But as for me, I will answer for La Giralda."
"For me," said El Sarria, sententiously, "I will answer for no woman – save only Dol?res Garcia!"
Concha looked up quickly.
"I also am a woman," she said, smiling.
"And quite well able to answer for yourself, Se?orita!" returned El Sarria, grimly.
For the answers of Ramon Garcia were not at all after the pattern set by Rollo the Scot.