Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand

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But no one was watching them. No clump of juniper held a spy, and the Sergeant was at liberty to develop his plans. He turned quickly upon the old gipsy woman.

"La Giralda," he said, "there is small use in discovering the disposition of the courtiers in San Ildefonso – ay, or even the defences of the palace, if we know nothing of the Romany who are to march to-night upon the place."

La Giralda, who had been drawing a little milk from the udders of each she-goat, to ease them for their travel, suddenly sprang erect.

"I do not interfere in the councils of the Gitano," she cried; "I am old, but not old enough to desire death!"

But more grim and lack-lustre than ever, the face of Sergeant Cardono was turned upon her, and more starrily twinkled the sloe-like eyes (diamonds set in Cordovan leather) as he replied: – "The councils of the Rom are as an open book to me. If they are life, they are life because I will it; if death, then I will the death!"

The old gipsy stared incredulously.

"Long have I lived," she said, staring hard at the sergeant, "much have I seen, both of gipsy and Gorgio; but never have I seen or heard of the man who could both make that boast, and make it good!"

She appeared to consider a moment.

"Save one," she added, "and he is dead!"

"How did he die?" said the Sergeant, his tanned visage like a mask, but never removing his eyes from her face.

"By the garrote" she answered, in a hushed whisper. "I saw him die."


"In the great plaza of Salamanca," she said, her eyes fixed in a stare of regretful remembrance. "It was filled from side to side, and the balconies were peopled as for a bull-fight. Ah, he was a man!"

"His name?"

"Jos? Maria, the Gitano, the prince of brigands!" murmured La Giralda.

"Ah," said the Sergeant, coolly, "I have heard of him."


Not a word more was uttered between the two. La Giralda, for no reason that she would acknowledge even to herself, had conceived an infinite respect for Sergeant Cardono, and was ready to obey him implicitly – a fact which shows that our sweet Concha was over-hasty in supposing that one woman in any circumstances can ever answer for another when there is a man in the case.

But on this occasion La Giralda's submission was productive of no more than a command to go down into the town of San Ildefonso, the white houses of which could clearly be seen a mile or two below, while the sergeant betook himself to certain haunts of the gipsy and the brigand known to him in the fastnesses of the Guadarrama.

Like a dog La Giralda complied. She sharpened a stick with a knife which she took from a little concealed sheath in her leathern leggings, and with it she proceeded to quicken the donkey's extremely deliberate pace.

Then with the characteristic cry of the goatherd, she gathered her flock together and drove them before her down the deeply-rutted road which led from the farmhouse.

She had not proceeded far, however, when she suddenly turned back, with a quick warning cry to her cavalcade. The donkey instantly stood still, patient amid its fagots as an image in a church. The goats scattered like water poured on flat ground, and began to crop stray blades of grass, invisible to any eyes but their own, amid wastes of cracked earth and deserts of grey water-worn pebbles.

As she looked back, Sergeant Cardono was disappearing up among the tumbled foot-hills and dry beds of winter torrents, which render the lower spurs of the Guadarrama such a puzzle to the stranger, and such a paradise for the smuggler and guerrillero. In another moment he had disappeared. With a long quiet sigh La Giralda stole back to the farmhouse. In spite of her race, and heathenish lack of creed, the spark of humanity was far from dead in her bosom. The thought of the open eyes of the little girl, which gazed even in death with fixed rapture upon her wooden treasure, remained with her.

"The woman is as old as I – she can bide her time!" she muttered to herself. "But the child – these arms are not yet so shrunken that they cannot dig up a little earth to lay the babe thereunder."

And at the chamber door La Giralda paused. Like her people, she was neither a good nor yet a bad Catholic. Consciously or unconsciously she held a more ancient faith, though she worshipped at no shrine, told no beads, and uttered no prayers.

"They have not been long dead," she said to herself, as she entered; "the window is open and the air is sweet. Yet the plague, which snatches away the young and strong, may look askance at old Giralda's hold on life, which at the best is no stronger than the strength of a basting-thread!"

Having said these words she advanced to the low trundle-bed, and, softly crooning in an unknown tongue over the poor dead babe, she lovingly closed its eyes, and taking a sheet from a wall-press that stood partially open, she began to enwrap the little girl in its crisp white folds. The Spaniards are like the Scottish folk in this, that they have universally stores of the best and finest linen.

La Giralda was about to lay the wooden puppet aside as a thing of little worth, but something in the clutch of the small dead hands touched and troubled her. She altered her intention.

"No, you shall not be parted!" she said, "and if there be a resurrection as the priests prate of – why, you shall e'en wake with the doll in your arms!"

So the pair, in death not divided, were wrapt up together, and the gipsy woman prepared to carry her light burden afield. But before doing so she went to the bed. It was an ancient woman who lay thereon, clutching the bed-clothes, and drawn together with the last agony. La Giralda gazed at her a moment.

"You I cannot carry – it is impossible," she muttered; "you must take your chance – even as I, if so be that the plague comes to me from this innocent!"

Nevertheless, she cast another coverlet over the dead woman's face, and went down the broad stairs of red brick, carrying her burden like a precious thing. La Giralda might be no good Catholic, no fervent Protestant, but I doubt not the First Martyr of the faith, the Preacher of the Mount, would have admitted her to be a very fair Christian. On the whole I cannot think her chances in the life to come inferior to those of the astute Don Baltasar Varela, Prior of the Abbey of Montblanch, or those of many a shining light of orthodoxy in a world given to wickedness.

Down in the shady angle of the little orchard the old gipsy found a little garden of flowers, geranium and white jasmine, perhaps planted to cast into the rude coffin of a neighbour, Yerba Luisa, or lemon verbena for the decoctions of a simple pharmacop?ia, on the outskirts of these a yet smaller plot had been set aside. It was edged with white stones from the hillside, and many coloured bits of broken crockery decorated it. A rose-bush in the midst had been broken down by some hasty human foot, or perhaps by a bullock or other large trespassing animal. There were nigh a score of rose-buds upon it – all now parched and dead, and the whole had taken on the colour of the soil.

La Giralda stood a moment before laying her burden down. She had the strong heart of her ancient people. The weakness of tears had not visited her eyes for years – indeed, not since she was a girl, and had cried at parting from her first sweetheart, whom she never saw again. So she looked apparently unmoved at the pitiful little square of cracked earth, edged with its fragments of brown and blue pottery, and at the broken rose-bush lying as if also plague-stricken across it, dusty, desolate, and utterly forlorn. Yet, as we have said, was her heart by no means impervious to feeling. She had wonderful impulses, this parched mahogany-visaged Giralda.

"It is the little one's own garden – I will lay her here!" she said to herself.

So without another word she departed in search of mattock and spade. She found them easily and shortly, for the hireling servants of the house had fled in haste, taking nothing with them. In a quarter of an hour the hole was dug. The rose-tree, being in the way, was dragged out and thrown to one side. La Giralda, who began to think of her donkey and goats, hastily deposited the babe within, and upon the white linen the red earth fell first like thin rain, and afterwards, when the sheet was covered, in lumps and mattock-clods. For La Giralda desired to be gone, suddenly becoming mindful of the precepts of the Sergeant.

"No priest has blessed the grave," she said; "I can say no prayers over her! Who is La Giralda that she should mutter the simplest prayer? But when the Master of Life awakes the little one, and when He sees the look she will cast on her poor puppet of wood, He will take her to His bosom even as La Giralda, the mother of many, would have taken her! God, the Good One, cannot be more cruel than a woman of the heathen!"

And so with the broken pottery for a monument, and the clasp of infant hands about the wooden doll for a prayer to God, the dead babe was left alone, unblessed and unconfessed – but safe.

Meanwhile we must go over the hill with Sergeant Cardono. Whatever his thoughts may have been as he trudged up the barren glens, seamed and torn with the winter rains, no sign of them appeared upon his sunburnt weather-beaten face. Steadily and swiftly, yet without haste, he held his way, his eyes fixed on the ground, as though perfectly sure of his road, like a man on a well-beaten track which he has trod a thousand times.

For more than an hour he went on, up and ever up, till his feet crisped upon the first snows of Pe?alara, and the hill ramparts closed in. But when he had reached the narrows of a certain gorge, he looked keenly to either side, marking the entrance. A pile of stones roughly heaped one upon the other fixed his attention. He went up to them and attentively perused their structure and arrangement, though they appeared to have been thrown together at random. Then he nodded sagely twice and passed on his way.

The glen continued to narrow overhead. The sunshine was entirely shut out. The jaws of the precipice closed in upon the wayfarer as if to crush him, but Sergeant Cardono advanced with the steady stride of a mountaineer, and the aplomb of one who is entirely sure of his reception.

The mountain silence grew stiller all about. None had passed that way (so it seemed) since the beginning of time. None would repass till time should be no more.

Suddenly through the utter quiet there rang out, repeated and reduplicated, the loud report of a rifle. The hills gave back the challenge. A moment before the dingy bedrabbled snow at Cardono's feet had been puffed upwards in a white jet, yet he neither stopped for this nor took the least notice. Loyal or disloyal, true or false, he was a brave man this Sergeant Cardono. I dare say that any one close to him might have discerned his beady eyes glitter and glance quickly from side to side, but his countenance was turned steadfastly as ever upon the snow at his feet.

Again came the same startling challenge out of the vague emptiness of space, the bullet apparently bursting like a bomb among the snow. And again Cardono took as much notice as if some half-dozen of village loungers had been playing ball among the trees.

Only when a third time the whisk of the bullet in the snow a yard or two to the right preceded the sound of the shot, Cardono shook his head and muttered, "Too long range! The fools ought to be better taught than that!" Then he continued his tramp steadily, neither looking to the right nor to the left. The constancy of his demeanour had its effect upon the unseen enemy. The Sergeant was not further molested; and though it was obvious that he advanced each step in about as great danger of death as a man who is marched manacled to the garrote, he might simply have been going to his evening billet in some quiet Castilian village, for all the difference it made in his appearance.

Up to this point Cardono had walked directly up the torrent bed, the rounded and water-worn stones rattling and slipping under his iron-shod half-boots, but at a certain point where was another rough cairn of stones, he suddenly diverged to the right, and mounted straight up the fell over the scented thyme and dwarf juniper of the mountain slopes.

Whatever of uncertainty as to his fate the Sergeant felt was rigidly concealed, and even when a dozen men dropped suddenly upon him from various rocky hiding-places, he only shook them off with a quick gesture of contempt, and said something in a loud voice which brought them all to a halt as if turned to stone by an enchanter's spell.

The men paused and looked at each other. They were all well armed, and every man had an open knife in his hand. They had been momentarily checked by the words of the Sergeant, but now they came on again as threateningly as before. Their dark long hair was encircled by red handkerchiefs knotted about their brows, and in general they possessed teeth extraordinarily white gleaming from the duskiest of skins. The beady sloe-black eyes of the Sergeant were repeated in almost every face, as well as that indefinable something which in all lands marks the gipsy race.

The Sergeant spoke again in a language apparently more intelligible than the deep Romany password with which he had first checked their deadly intentions.

"You have need of better marksmen," he said; "even the Migueletes could not do worse than that!"

"Who are you?" demanded a tall grey-headed gipsy, who like the Sergeant had remained apparently unarmed; "what is your right to be here?"

The Sergeant had by this time seated himself on a detached boulder and was rolling a cigarette. He did not trouble to look up as he answered carelessly, "To the Gitano my name is Jos? Maria of Ronda!"

The effect of his words was instantaneous. The men who had been ready to kill him a moment before almost fell at his feet, though here and there some remained apparently unconvinced.

Prominent among these was the elderly man who had put the question to the Sergeant. Without taking his eyes from those of the Carlist soldier he exclaimed, "Our great Jos? Maria you cannot be. For with these eyes I saw him garrotted in the Plaza Mayor of Salamanca!"

The Sergeant undid his stock and pointed to a blood-red band about his neck, indented deeply into the skin, and more apparent at the back and sides than in front.

"Garrotted in good faith I was in the Plaza of Salamanca, as this gentleman says," he remarked with great coolness. "But not to death. The executioner was as good a Gitano as myself, and removed the spike which strikes inward from the back. So you see I am still Jos? Maria of Ronda in the flesh, and able to strike a blow for myself!"

The gipsies set up a wild yell. The name of the most celebrated and most lawless of their race stirred them to their souls.

"Come with us," they cried; "we are here for the greatest plunder ever taken or dreamed of among the Romany – "

"Hush, I command you," cried the elder man. "Jos? Maria of Ronda this man may be, but we are Gitanos of the North, and need not a man from Andalucia to lead us, even if he carry a scarlet cravat about his neck for a credential!"

The Sergeant nodded approval of this sentiment and addressed the old gipsy in deep Romany, to which he listened with respect, and answered in a milder tone, shaking his head meanwhile.

"I have indeed heard such sayings from my mother," he said, "and I gather your meaning; but we Gitanos of the North have mingled too much with the outlander and the foreigner to have preserved the ancient purity of speech. But in craft and deed I wot well we are to the full as good Roms as ever."

By this time it was clear to the Sergeant that the old man was jealous of his leadership; and as he himself was by no means desirous of taking part in a midnight raid against a plague-stricken town, he proceeded to make it clear that, being on his way to his own country of Andalucia and had been led aside by the gipsy cryptograms he had observed by the wayside and the casual greeting of the crook-backed imp of the village.

Upon this the old man sat down beside Sergeant Cardono, or, as his new friends knew him to be, Jos? Maria the brigand. He did not talk about the intended attack as the Sergeant hoped he would. Being impressed by the greatness of his guest, he entered into a minute catalogue of the captures he had made, the men he had slain as recorded on the butt of his gun or the haft of his knife, and the cargoes he had successfully "run" across the mountains or beached on the desolate sands of Catalunia.

"I am no inlander," he said, "I am of the sea-coast of Tarragona. I have never been south of Tortosa in my life; but there does not live a man who has conducted more good cigars and brandy to their destination than old P?pe of the Eleven Wounds!"

The sergeant with grave courtesy reached him a well-rolled cigarette.

"I have heard of your fame, brother," he said; "even at Ronda and on the Madrid-Seville road your deeds are not unknown. But what of this venture to-night? Have you enough men, think you, to overpower the town watchmen and the palace-guards?"

The old gipsy tossed his bony hands into the air with a gesture of incomparable contempt.

"The palace guards are fled back to Madrid," he cried, "and as to the town watch they are either drunk or in their dotage!"

Meantime the main body of the gipsies waited patiently in the background, and every few minutes their numbers were augmented by the arrival of others over the various passes of the mountains. These took their places without salutation, like men expected, and fell promptly to listening to the conversation of the two great men, who sat smoking their cigarettes each on his own stone in the wide wild corrie among the rocks of the Guadarrama which had been chosen as an appropriate rendezvous.

Singularly enough, after the sergeant had shown the scarlet mark of the strangling ring about his neck, no one of all that company doubted for a moment that he was indeed the thrice-famous Jos? Maria of Ronda. None asked a question as to his whence or whither. He was Jos? Maria, and therefore entitled not only to be taken at once into the secrets of Egypt, but also, and it pleased him, to keep his own.

And very desperate and bloody some of 'his own' were. In the present instance, plunder and bloodshed were to proceed hand in hand. No quarter was to be given to old or young. The plague-stricken sick man and the watcher by the bed, the woman feeding her fire of sticks under her puchero, the child asleep on its pillow, the Queen in the palace, the Princess in her nursery – all were to die, quickly and suddenly. These men had sworn it. The dead were no tale-tellers. That was the way of Egypt – the ancient way of safety. Were they not few and feeble in the midst of innumerable hordes of the Busne? Had they not been driven like cattle, abused like dogs, sent guiltless to the scaffold, shot in batches by both warring parties? Now in this one place at least, they would do a deed of vengeance at which the ears of the world would tingle.

The Sergeant sat and smoked and listened. He was no stranger to such talk. It was the way of his double profession of Andalucian bandit and Carlist guerrilero, to devise and execute deeds of terror and death. But nothing so cold-blooded as this had Jos? Maria ever imagined. He had indeed appropriated the governmental mails till the post-bags almost seemed his own property, and the guards handed them down without question as to a recognised official. He had, in his great days, captured towns and held them for either party according to the good the matter was likely to do himself. But there was something revolting in this whole business which puzzled him.

"Whose idea was all this?" he asked at last. "I would give much to see the Gitano who could devise such a stroke."

The grim smile on the countenance of old P?pe of the Eleven Wounds grew yet more grim.

"No gipsy planned it and no man!" he said sententiously. "Come hither, Chica!"

And out from among the listening throng came a girl of thirteen or fourteen, dressed neatly and simply in a grey linen blouse belted at the waist with a leather belt. A gay plaid, striped of orange and crimson, hung neatly folded over her shoulder, and she rested her small sunburnt hand on the silver hilt of a pistol. Black elf-locks escaped from beneath a red silk kerchief knotted saucily after the fashion of her companions. But her eyes, instead of being beady and black with that far-away contemplative look which characterises the children of Egypt, were bright and sunny and blue as the Mediterranean itself in the front of spring.

"Come hither, Chica – be not afraid," repeated old P?pe of the Eleven Wounds, "this is a great man – the greatest of all our race. You have heard of him – as who, indeed, has not!"

Chica nodded with a quick elfish grin of intense pleasure and appreciation. "I was listening," she said, "I heard all. And I saw – would that I could see it again. Oh, if only the like would happen to me!"

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