Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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"Tell the noble Don Jos? who you are, my pretty Chica," said P?pe, soothingly.

But the child stamped her sandalled foot. It was still white at the instep, and the sergeant could see by the blue veins that she had not gone long barefoot. The marks of a child either stolen for ransom or run away from home owing to some wild strain in the blood were too obvious to be mistaken. Her liberty of movement among the gipsies made the latter supposition the more probable.

"I am not pretty Chica, and I am not little," she cried angrily. "I would have you remember, P?pe, that I made this plan, which the folk of Egypt are to execute to-night. But since this is the great brigand Don Jos? of Ronda, who was executed at Salamanca, I will tell him all about it."

She looked round at the dark faces with which they were surrounded.

"There are new folk among these," she said, "men I do not know. Bid them go away. Else I will not speak of myself, and I have much to say to Don Jos?!"

P?pe of the Eleven Wounds looked about him, and shook his head. Gipsydom is a commonwealth when it comes to a venture like this, and save in the presence of some undoubted leader, all Egypt has an equal right to hear and to speak. P?pe's authority was not sufficient for this thing. But that of the Sergeant was.

He lifted his Montera cap and said, "I would converse a while with this maid on the affairs of Egypt. 'Tis doubtless no more than you know already, and then, having heard her story my advice is at your service. But she will not speak with so many ears about. It is a woman's whim, and such the wisest of us must sometimes humour."

The gipsies smiled at the gay wave of his hand with which Cardono uttered this truism and quickly betook themselves out of earshot in groups of ten and a dozen. Cards were produced, and in a few minutes half a score of games were in progress at different points of the quarry-like cauldron which formed the outlaws' rendezvous.

At once the humour of the child changed.

"They obeyed you," she said; "I like you for that. I mean to have many men obey me when I grow up. Then I will kill many – thousands and thousands. Now I can do nothing – only I have it in my head – here!"

The elf tapped her forehead immediately underneath the red sash which was tied about it. The Sergeant, though eager to hear her story and marvelling at such sentiments from the lips of a child, successfully concealed his curiosity, and said gently, "Tell me how you came to think of to-night – "

"Of what to-night?" asked the girl quickly and suspiciously.

"The deed which is to be done to-night," replied the Sergeant simply, as though he were acquainted with the whole.

She leaped forward and caught him by the arm.

"You will stay and go with us? You will lead us?" she hissed, her blue eyes aflame and with trembling accents, "then indeed will I be sure of my revenge. Then the Italian woman and her devil's brat shall not escape.

Then I shall be sure – sure!"

She repeated the last words with concentrated fury, apparently impossible to one of her age. The Sergeant smoked quietly and observed her. She seemed absolutely transfigured.

"Tell me that you will," she cried, low and fierce, so that her voice should not reach the men around; "these, when they get there, will think of nothing but plunder. As if rags and diamonds and gold were worth venturing one's life for. But I desire death – death – death, do you hear? To see the Italian woman and her paramour pleading for their lives, one wailing over against the other, on their knees. Oh, I know them and the brat they call the little Queen! To-night they shall lie dead under my hands – with this – with this!"

And the girl flashed a razor-keen blade out of her red waistband. She thrust the hilt forward into the Sergeant's hands as if in token of fealty.

"See," she said, touching the edge lovingly, "is it not sharp? Will it not kill surely and swiftly? For months I have sharpened it – ah, and to-night it will give me my desire!"

It was the Sergeant's belief that the girl was mad, nevertheless he watched her with his usual quiet scrutiny, the power of which she evidently felt. For she avoided his eyes and hastened on with her story before he had time to cross-question her.

"Why do I hate them? I see the question on your lips. Because the Italian woman hath taken away my father and slain my mother – slain her as truly and with far sharper agony than she herself shall know when I set this knife to her throat. I am the daughter of Mu?oz, and I swore revenge on the man and on the woman both when I closed my mother's eyes. My mother's heart was broken. Ah, you see, she was weak – not like me! It would take a hundred like the Neapolitan to break my heart; and as for the man, though he were thrice my father, he should beg his life in vain."

She snatched her knife jealously out of his hand, tried its edge on the back of her hand with a most unchildlike gesture, and forthwith concealed it in her silken faja. Then she laid her hand once more on the Sergeant's arm.

"You will lead us, will you not, Jos? Maria?" she said pleadingly. "I can trust you. You have done many great deeds. My nurse was a woman of Ronda and told me of your exploits on the road from Madrid to Sevilla. You will lead us to-night. Only you must leave these three in the palace to me. If you will, you shall have also my share of the plunder. But what do I say, I know you are too noble to think only of that – as these wolves do!"

She cast a haughty glance around upon the gipsies at their card-play.

"I, that am of Old Castile and noble by four descents, have demeaned myself to mix with Gitanos," she said, "but it has only been that I might work out my revenge. I told P?pe there of my plan. I showed him the way. He was afraid. He told ten men, and they were afraid. Fifty, and they were afraid. Now there are a hundred and more, and were it not that they know that all lies open and unguarded, even I could not lead them thither. But they will follow you, because you are Jos? Maria of Ronda." The Sergeant took the girl's hand in his. She was shaking as with an ague fit, but her eyes, blue and mild as a summer sky, had that within them which was deadlier than the tricksome slippery demon that lurks in all black orbs, whether masculine or feminine.

"Chica," he said, "your wrongs are indeed bitter. I would give much to help you to set the balance right. Perhaps I may do so yet. But I cannot be the commander of these men. They are not of my folk or country. They have not even asked me to lead them. They are jealous of me! You see it as well as I!"

"Ah!" cried the girl, laying her hand again on his cuff, "that is because they do not wish you to share their plunder. But tell them that you care nothing for that and they will welcome you readily enough. The place is plague-stricken, I tell you. The palace lies open. Little crook-backed Chepe brought me word. He says he adores me. He is of the village of Frias, back there behind the hills. I do not love him, even though he has a bitter heart and can hate well. Therefore I suffer him."

The Sergeant rose to his feet and looked compassionately down at the vivid little figure before him. The hair, dense and black, the blue eyes, the red-knotted handkerchief, the white teeth that showed between the parted lips clean and sharp as those of a wild animal. Cardono had seen many things on his travels, but never anything like this. His soul was moved within him. In the deeps of his heart, the heart of a Spanish gipsy, there was an infinite sympathy for any one who takes up the blood feud, who, in the face of all difficulties, swears the vendetta. But the slim arms, the spare willowy body, the little white sandalled feet of the little girl – these overcame him with a pitifully amused sense of the disproportion of means to end.

"Have you no brother, Se?orita?" he said, using by instinct the title of respect which the little girl loved the most. She saw his point in a moment.

"A brother – yes, Don Jos?! But my brother is a cur, a dog that eats offal. Pah! I spit upon him. He hath taken favours from the woman. He hath handled her money. He would clean the shoes they twain leave at their chamber door. A brother – yes; the back of my hand to such brothers! But after to-night he shall have no offal to eat – no bones thrown under the table to pick. For in one slaying I will kill the Italian woman Cristina, the man Mu?oz who broke my mother's heart, and the foisted changeling brat whom they miscall the daughter of Fernando and the little Queen of Spain!"

She subsided on a stone, dropped her head into her hands, and took no further notice of the Sergeant, who stood awhile with his hand resting on her shoulder in deep meditation. There was, he thought, no more to be said or done. He knew all there was to know. The men had not asked him to join them, so he would venture no further questions as to the time and the manner of attack. They were still jealous of him with that easily aroused jealousy of south and north which in Spain divides even the clannish gipsy.

Nevertheless he went the round of the men. They were mostly busy with their games, and some of them even snatched the stakes in to them, lest he should demand a percentage of the winnings after the manner of Sevilla. The Sergeant smiled at the reputation which distance and many tongues had given him. Then, with a few words of good fellowship and the expression of a wish for success and abundant plunder, he bade them farewell. It was a great deed which they designed and one worthy of his best days. He was now old, he said, and must needs choose easier courses. He did not desire twice to feel the grip of the collar of iron. But young blood – oh, it would have its way and run its risks!

Here the Sergeant smiled and raised his Montera cap. The men as courteously bade him good-day, preserving, however, a certain respectful distance, and adding nothing to the information he had already obtained.

But Chica, seated on her stone, with her scarlet-bound head on her hand, neither looked up nor gave him any greeting as his feet went slowly down the rocky glen and crunched over the begrimed patches of last year's snow, now wide-pored and heavy with the heat of noonday.

CHAPTER XXIX
A LITTLE QUEEN AT HOME

Meanwhile, leaving the grave in the shaded corner of the farm garden, La Giralda went out with many strange things moving in her heart. More than once she had seen her own children laid in the dust, with far less of emotion than this nameless little girl clutching her wooden puppet and smiling, well-pleased, in the face of the Last Terror.

She found the donkey standing still and patient between his fagot bundles. The she-goats, on the other hand, had scattered a little this way or that as this blade of grass or that spray of encina had allured them. But a sharp cry or two called them together. For it was many hours since any of them had been milked, and the full teats standing out every way ached for the pressing fingers.

The Sergeant had, of course, long since completely disappeared up the hillside, so La Giralda, with one comprehensive look back at the desolate farmhouse, drove her little flock before her towards the town gates of San Ildefonso. Like a picture, the dustily red roofs lay beneath in the sunshine, spire and roof-garden, pigeon-house and terrace walk. Parts of the white palace of La Granja also were to be seen, but indistinctly, since it lay amid a pleasant distraction of greenery, and the woods waved and the falling waters glimmered about it like the landscape of a dream.

From the Colegiata came the tolling of a bell, slow and irregular. All else was silent. Presently, with her little flock before her, La Giralda found herself skirting the high-paled ironwork which confines the palace. She pursued her way towards the town, taking care, however, to look sharply about her so that she might miss nothing.

The palace grounds seemed utterly deserted. The fountains slept; "Fame" drove no longer her waters fifty yards into the air; the Frogs rested from their ungrateful labours open-mouthed and gasping for breath. Not even a gardener was to be seen scratching weeds on a path, or in the dimmest distance passing at random across one of the deep-shaded avenues. An unholy quiet seemed to have settled upon the place, the marvel of Castile, the most elevated of earthly palaces, broken only by the sombre tolling of the chapel bell, which would cease for five minutes without apparent reason, and then, equally without cause, begin all over again its lugubrious chime.

Down the zigzags towards the town went La Giralda, the goats taking advantage of the wider paths to stray further afield, and needing more frequently the touch of the wand, which the old woman had taken from the donkey's load in order to induce them to proceed.

As the gipsy passed along, a small shrill voice called upon her to stop, and from a side walk, concealed by roses and oleander bushes, late flowering because of the great elevation, a richly-dressed little girl came running. She ran at the top of her speed towards the gilt railings which towered high above her head. Her age appeared to be about that of the little girl whom La Giralda had buried among the pottery shards in that other meaner garden up on the mountain side.

"Stop," she cried imperiously, "I bid you stop! I am the Queen, and you must obey me. I have not seen any one for five days except stupid old Susana, who will be after me in a moment. Stop, I tell you! I want to see your goats milked. I love milk, and they will not give me enough, pretending that there is none within the palace. As if a Queen of Spain could not have all the milk she wanted! Ridiculous!"

By this time the little girl had mounted the parapet and was clinging with all her might to the iron railings, while a fat motherly person had waddled out of the underbrush in search of her, and with many exclamations of pretended anger and indignation was endeavouring to entice her away.

But the more the nurse scolded and pulled, the more firmly did the little maid cling to the golden bars. At last the elderly woman, quite out of breath, sat down on the stone ledge and addressed to her charge the argument which in such cases betokens unconditional surrender.

"My lady Isabel, what would your noble and royal mother say," she gasped, "thus to forget all the counsels and commands of those put in authority over you and run to the railings to chatter with a gipsy wife? Go away, goatherdess, or I will call the attendants and have you put in prison!"

La Giralda had stopped her flock, obedient to the wishes of the little maid, but now, with a low curtsey to both, she gathered them together with her peculiar whistling cry, and prepared to continue her way down into the village.

But this the little girl would in nowise permit. She let go the iron rail, and with both hands clenched fell upon her attendant with concentrated fury.

"Bad, wicked Susana," she cried, "I will have you whipped and sent about your business. Nay, I myself will beat you. I will kill you, do you hear? I have had nothing to eat and no one to play with for a week – not a gardener, not a dog, not even a soldier on guard to salute me or let me examine his sword-bayonet. And now when this dear, this sweet old Se?ora comes by with her lovely, lovely goats, you must perforce try to pull me off as if I were a village child that had played truant from the monks' school and must be birched for its fault!"

All the while she was speaking, the young Princess directed a shower of harmless blows at the skirts of her attendant, which Do?a Susana laughingly warded off, begging all the while for pity, and instancing the direct commands of the little girl's mother, apparently a very exalted personage indeed, as a reason for her interference.

But Isabel of Spain was not to be appeased, and presently she had recourse to tears in the midst of her fury.

"You hate me – I know you do – that is what it means," she cried, "you would not have me happy even for a moment. But one day I shall be Queen, and do as I like! Yes, and drink as much warm goat's milk as I want, in spite of all the stupid, wicked, cruel Susanas in the world. And I shall throw you into a dungeon with nothing but mice and rats and serpents and centipedes – yes, and snails that leave a white slimy trail over you when they crawl! Ugh! And I will have your hands tied, so that you shall not be able to brush them off when they tickle your neck. Yes, I will, Susana! I swear it, and I am growing big – so big! And soon I shall be old enough to have you put in prison with the mice and snails, bad Susana! Oh, wicked Susana!"

Now, whether these childish threats actually had some effect, or whether the old lady was so soft-hearted as her comfortable appearance denoted, certain it is that she took a key from her pocket and passed it through the tall gilt railings to La Giralda.

"Go down a hundred yards or so," she said, "and there you will find a gate. Open it with that key and bring over your animals to the little pavilion among the trees by the fountain."

Upon hearing this the Princess instantly changed her tune. She had got her own way, and now it was "Beautiful Do?a Susana! Precious and loveliest companion, when I am Queen you shall have the greatest and handsomest grandee in the kingdom to be your husband, and walk in diamonds and rubies at our court balls! Yes, you shall. I promise it by my royal oath. And now I will run to the house kitchen for basins to catch the goats' milk in, and my little churn to churn the butter in – and – and – "

But before she had catalogued half the things that she meant to find and bring she departed at the top of her speed, making the air ring with her shouts of delight.

Slowly, and with the meekest dignity, La Giralda did as she was bidden. She found the little gate, which, indeed, proved so narrow that she could not get her donkey to pass through with his great side-burdens of fagots. But as these were not at all heavy, La Giralda herself detached them, and, laying them carefully within the railings, she unhaltered the patient beast and, tying him only with a cord about his neck, left him a generous freedom of browsing upon the royal grass-plots and undergrowth.

The goats, however, perhaps alarmed by the trim daintiness of the place and the unwonted spectacle of unlimited leaves and forage, kept close together. One or two of them, indeed, smelt doubtfully at luxuriant tufts, but as they had only previously seen grass in single blades, and amid Saharas of gravel and sand, the experiment of eating an entire mouthful at a time appeared too hazardous and desperate. They were of a cautious turn of mind, in addition to which their udders had become so distended that little white beads were forcing themselves from the teats, and they expressed their desire for relief by plaintive whimperings and by laying their rough heads caressingly against La Giralda's short and primitive skirt and leather-cased legs.

In a few moments after they had reached the pavilion the Princess came shouting back. She was certainly a most jovial little person, Spanish at all points, with great dark eyes and cheeks apple-red with good health and the sharp airs of the Guadarrama. Do?a Susana had walked a little in front of La Giralda and her flock, to show the superiority of her position, and also, it may be, to display the amplitude of her several chins, by holding them in the air in a manner as becoming as it was dignified.

"Milk them! Milk them quickly! Let me see!" the Princess shouted, clanging the pails joyously together. The walls of the pavilion in which La Giralda found herself were decorated with every kind of household utensil, but not such as had ever been used practically. Everything was of silver or silver-gilt. There was indeed a complete batterie de cuisine– saucepans, patty-pans, graters, a mincing machine with the proper screws and handles, shining rows of lids, and a complete graduated series of cooking spoons stuck in a bandolier. Salad dishes of sparkling crystal bound with silver ornamented the sideboard, while various earthen pots and pans of humbler make stood on a curiously designed stove under whose polished top no fire had ever burned. At least so it appeared to La Giralda, who, much impressed by the magnificence of the installation, would promptly have driven her goats out again.

But this the little Isabel would by no means permit.

"Here – here!" she commanded, "this is mine – my very own. My mother has a dairy – I have a kitchen. Milk the goats here, I command you, nowhere but here!"

And thrusting the bucket into the old woman's hand, she watched carefully and eagerly as La Giralda pressed the milk downwards in hissing streams. The she-goat operated upon expressed her gratitude by turning to lick the hand which relieved her.

At this the little girl danced with delight.

"It looks so easy – I could do it myself! I am sure of it. I tell you, Susana, I will do it. Stand still, cabra! Do you not know that I am Isabel the Second, Queen of all the Spains!"



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