Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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But the she-goat, having no very strong monarchial sentiments, or perhaps being inclined to Carlist opinions, as soon as she felt the grip of unaccustomed fingers promptly kicked over in the dust the Queen of all the Spains.

The little girl had not time to gather herself up or even to emit the howl of disappointment and anger which hovered upon her lips, before her attendant rushed at her with pitiful cries:

"Oh, the wicked goat! The devil-possessed emblem of Satan! Let it be slain! Did not your poor Susana warn you to have nothing to do with such evil things – thus to overturn in the dust the best, the sweetest, the noblest of Princesses!"

But the best and sweetest of Princesses, having violent objections to being gathered up into the capacious embrace of her nurse, especially before company, vigorously objected in much the same manner as the goat had done, and at last compelled Do?a Susana to deposit her once more on the paved floor of the miniature kitchen. Having arrived in which place, her anger completely vanished, for a tankardful of rich warm goat's milk was handed to her by La Giralda, and in this flowing bowl she soon forgot her woes.

"You must come down to the palace and be paid," said the little girl; "we are most of us very hungry there, and those who are not hungry are thirsty. The waggons from Madrid have been stopped on the way, and all the guards have gone to bring them back!"

At this Do?a Susana looked quickly across to the old goatherdess and signalled that the little Princess was not to be informed of anything she might happen to know.

"You have not been in the town, I trust!" said Do?a Susana.

Now La Giralda could conscientiously have declared that she had never been within the gates of San Ildefonso in her life, but thinking that in the circumstances the statement might appear a suspicious one, she modified it to a solemn declaration that she had come directly down from her farm on the mountain-side, as, indeed, they themselves had seen.

Satisfied of her veracity, Do?a Susana took her very independent and difficult charge by the hand and led the way towards the palace of La Granja, glimpses of which could be obtained through the foliage which was still everywhere verdant and abundant with the first freshness of spring – so high did the castle lie on the hill-slopes, and so enlivening were the waste waters downthrown from the rocky crests of Pe?alara, whose snows glimmered through the trees, as it seemed, but a bowshot above their heads.

The goats, each expecting their turn of milking, followed at her heels as obediently as well-trained dogs. Most of them were of the usual dark-red colour, a trifle soiled with the grey dust on which they had been lying. A few were white, and these were the favourites of the little Queen, who, though compelled to go on ahead, looked constantly back over her shoulder and endeavoured to imitate the shrill whistling call by which La Giralda kept her flock in place.

When they arrived at the palace front the doors stood wide open.

At Do?a Susana's call an ancient major-domo appeared, his well-developed waistcoat mating ill with the pair of shrunk and spindle shanks which appeared beneath. The sentry boxes, striped red and gold with the colours of Spain, were empty. At the guard-houses there were no lounging sergeants or smart privates eager to rise and salute as the little Queen passed by.

There was already indeed about the palace an air of desolation. The great gates in front towards the town had been closed, as if to shut off infection, and the Court itself, dwindled to a few faithful old retainers of Fernando VII., surrounded his widow and her new husband with a devotion which was yet far more than their due.

It was not long before La Giralda had milked the remainder of the flock and sent the creaming white pitchers into the palace. Little Isabel danced with delight as one she-goat after another escaped with infinite tail-waggling and bleatings of pleasure. And in the dearth of other amusement she desired and even commanded the old woman to remain and pasture her herd within the precincts of the palace. But La Giralda had much yet to do. She must find out the state and dispositions of the town of San Ildefonso, and then rejoin her companions in the little corrie or cauldron-like cirque in which she and the sergeant had left Rollo and the other members of the expedition.

So after the small and imperious royal maid had been carried screaming and battling upstairs by Do?a Susana and the globular major-domo, La Giralda, richly rewarded in golden coin of the realm, and with all the requisite information as to the palace, betook herself back to the gate by which she had left the ass. This she loaded again, and driving it before her she retraced her steps past the corner of the palace, and so to the porter's lodge by the great gate.

Here she was presently ushered out by a mumbling old woman who informed her that her husband and son had both gone to Madrid with the troops, but would undoubtedly return in an hour or two, a statement which with her superior information the old gipsy took leave to doubt.

The town of San Ildefonso lay beneath the chate?u, and to her right as La Giralda issued from the gates. The houses were of an aspect at once grave and cheerful. They had been built mostly, not for permanent residence, but in order to accommodate the hordes of courtiers and their suites who, in the summer months, followed the royal personages over the mountains from Madrid.

As most of these had fled at the first invasion of the cholera, the windows, at this period of the year generally bright with flowers and shaded with emerald barred jalousies, were closely shut up, and upon several of the closed doors appeared the fatal black and white notices of the municipality, which indicated that there either was or had been a case of the plague within the infected walls.

La Giralda went down the streets uttering the long wailing cry which indicated that she had firewood to sell. But though she could have disposed of the milk from the goats over and over again, there appeared but little demand for her other commodity, even though she called, "Le?a-a-a-a! Ah, le?a-a-a-a!" from one end of San Ildefonso to the other.

A city watchman, with a pipe in his mouth, looked drowsily and frowsily out of the town-hall or ayuntamiento. He was retreating again to his settle when it suddenly struck him that this intruder had paid no duty upon her milk and firewood. True, he was not the functionary appointed by law to receive the tax; but since he was on the spot, and for lack of other constituted the representative of civic state, he felt he must undertake the duty.

So, laying aside his pipe and seizing his halberd and cocked hat, he sallied grumblingly forth to intercept the bold contravener of municipal laws. But the active limbs of the old gipsy, the lightened udders of the she-goats, and the ass with his meek nose pointed homeward, took the party out of the village gate before the man in authority could over-take La Giralda.

Soon, therefore, the roofs of San Ildefonso and the white palace again lay beneath her as the gipsy reascended by her track of the morning. So long had she occupied in her various adventures that the evening shadows were already lengthening when she returned to the corrie where the party had spent in restful indolence the burden and heat of the day. The Sergeant had not yet arrived, and La Giralda delayed her story till he should give her leave to speak. For not even to the gipsies of the Guadarrama was Jos? Maria a greater personage than Sergeant Cardono to La Giralda of Sevilla.

In the mean time she busied herself, with Concha's help, in preparing the evening meal, as quick upon her legs as if she had done nothing but lounge in the shade all day. It was almost sundown when the Sergeant came in, dropping unannounced over the precipice as if from the clouds.

"We must be in La Granja in two hours if we are to save a soul within its walls," he said, "but – we have an hour for dinner first! Therefore let us dine. God knows when we shall taste food again!"

And with this dictum John Mortimer heartily agreed.

CHAPTER XXX
PALACE BURGLARS

The startling announcement of the Sergeant at once set the whole party in motion. Their suspicions of the morning were cast to the winds, as the Sergeant and La Giralda in turn related their adventures. Concha, having formerly vouched so strongly for the old gipsy woman, now nodded triumphantly across to Rollo, who on his part listened intently. As Sergeant Cardono proceeded the young man leaned further and further forward, breathing deeply and regularly. The expression on his face was that of fierce and keen resolution.

The Sergeant told all the tale as it had happened, reserving only the identification of himself with the famous Jos? Maria of Ronda, which the gipsies had made on the strength of the red mark about his neck, now once more concealed under his military stock. Cardono, however, made no secret that he was of the blood of Egypt, and set down to this fact all that he had been able to accomplish. In swift well-chosen words he told of the fierce little girl with the dark hair and blue eyes, who declared herself to be the daughter of Mu?oz, sometime paramour and now reputed husband of the Queen-Regent – making it clear that she had indeed planned the wholesale slaughter, not only of those in the palace, but also of the inhabitants of the town of San Ildefonso.

Then in her turn La Giralda told of her visit to the pavilion, of the little Queen, passionate, joyous, kindly natured, absolutely Spanish, till the hearts of her hearers melted to the tale.

"Our orders are to capture her and her mother the Regent," said Rollo, thoughtfully. "It would therefore serve our purpose but ill if we permitted these two to be sacrificed to the bloodthirsty fury of a mob of plunderers!"

"Then the sooner we find ourselves within the gates, the more chance we shall have of saving them both!" said the Sergeant. "Serve out the puchero, La Giralda!"

Concha had taken no part in the discussion. But she had listened with all her ears, and now in the pause that followed she declared her unalterable intention of making one of the party.

"I also am of Andalucia," she said with calm determination, "there are two others of my country here who will answer for me. You cannot leave me alone, and La Giralda will be needed as guide when once you reach the palace precincts. I shall not be in the way, I promise you, and if it comes to gun and pistol, there I think you will not find me wanting!"

In his heart and though he made several objections, Rollo was glad enough to give way. For with all the unknown dangers of the night before them, and the certainty of bloodshed when the gipsies should attack, he relished still less the thought of leaving Concha alone in that pit on the chill side of Guadarrama.

"I promise you, Colonel, the maid will be worth her billet," said the Sergeant, "or else she is no true Andaluse. To such an one in old days I have often trusted – "

Thus far Cardono had proceeded when suddenly he broke off his reminiscence, and with a paternal gesture patted Concha's arm as she was bending over to transfer a second helping of the puchero to his dish.

The party was now in excellent marching order, well-provisioned, well-fed, rested, and provided with the best and most recent information. Even John Mortimer's slow English blood developed some latent Puritanic fire, and he said, "Hang me if I do not fight for the little girl who was willing to pay for the whole of the goat-milk!"

To fight for a Queen, who at the early age of five was prepared to give a wholesale order like that, appeared to John Mortimer a worthy and laudable deed of arms. He was free indeed to assist in taking her captive, if by so doing he could further the shipping of the Priorato he himself had paid for. But to make over to a set of thieves and murderers a girl who had about her the makings of a good customer and a woman of business habits, stirred every chivalric feeling within him.

The night was so dark that it was resolved that the party should leave their horses behind them in the stables of the deserted farm. They could then proceed on foot more softly and with more safety to themselves. To this La Giralda, knowing that they must return that way, readily assented. For the thought of the dead woman she had left in the first-floor room haunted her, and even in the darkness of the night she could see the stark outlines of the sheet she had spread over the body.

So it came to pass that once more horseshoe iron clattered, and there was a flashing of lights and a noise of voices about the lonely and stricken farmhouse. But only La Giralda gave a thought to the little grave in the shady corner of the garden, and only she promised herself to revisit it when the stern work of the night should be over and the dawn of a calmer morning should have arisen.

Now, as soon as Sergeant Cardono returned, he placed himself as completely as formerly under the orders of Rollo. He was no more Jos? Maria the famous gipsy, but Sergeant Cardono of the army of H.M. Carlos Quinto, and Se?or Rollo was his colonel. Like a good scout he was ready to advise, but to the full as ready to hold his tongue and obey.

And Rollo, though new to his position, was not above benefiting continually by his wisdom, and as a matter of fact it was the Sergeant who, in conjunction with La Giralda, led the little expedition down the perilous goat-track by which the old gipsy had followed her flock in the morning. As usual Concha kept her place beside Rollo, with Mortimer and Etienne a little behind, while El Sarria, taciturn but alert as usual, brought up the rear.

It can hardly be said that they carried with them any extraordinary elements of success. Indeed, in one respect they were at a manifest disadvantage. For in an expedition of this kind there ought to be one leader of dignity, character, and military genius far beyond the others. But among this little band which stole so quietly along the mountain-paths of the Guadarrama, beneath the frowning snow-clad brow of Pe?alara, there was not one who upon occasion could not have led a similar forlorn hope. Each member of the party possessed a character definite and easily to be distinguished from all the others. It was an army of officers without any privates.

Still, since our Firebrand, Rollo the Scot, held the nominal leadership, and his quick imperious character made that chieftainship a reality, there was at least a chance that they might bring to a successful conclusion the complex and difficult task which was before them.

They now drew near to the palace, which, as one descends the mountains, is approached first. The town of San Ildefonso lay further to the right, an indistinguishable mass of heaped roofs and turrets without a light or the vestige of a street apparent in the gloom. It seemed to Rollo a strange thing to think of this stricken town lying there with its dead and dying, its empty tawdry lodgings from which the rich and gay of the Court had fled so hastily, leaving all save their most precious belongings behind, the municipal notices on the door, white crosses chalked on a black ground, while nearer and always nearer approached the fell gipsy rabble intent on plunder and rapine.

Even more strange, however, seemed the case of the royal palace of La Granja. Erected at infinite cost after the pattern of Versailles and Marly, the smallness of its scale and the magnificence of its natural surroundings caused it infinitely to surpass either of its models in general effect. It had, however, never been intended for defence, nor had the least preparation been made in case of attack. It was doubtless presumed that whenever the Court sojourned there, the royal personages would arrive with such a guard and retinue as, in that lonely place, would make danger a thing to be laughed at.

But no such series of circumstances as this had ever been thought of; the plague which had fallen so heavily and as it seemed mysteriously and instantaneously upon the town; the precincts of the palace about to be invaded by a foe more fell than Frank or Moor; the guards disappeared like snow in the sun, and the only protection of the lives of the Queen-Regent and her daughter, a band of Carlists sent to capture their persons at all hazards.

Verily the whole situation was remarkably complex.

The briefest look around convinced Rollo that it would be impossible for so small a party to hold the long range of iron palisades which surrounded the palace. These were complete, indeed, but their extent was far too great to afford any hope of keeping out the gipsies without finding themselves taken in the rear. They must hold La Granja itself, that was clear. There remained, therefore, only the problem of finding entrance.

Between the porter's lodge and the great gates near the Colegiata they discovered a ladder left somewhat carelessly against a wall where whitewashing had been going on during the day, some ardent royal tradesman having ventured back, preferring the chance of the plague to the abandonment of his contract.

This they at once appropriated, and Rollo and the Sergeant, being the two most agile of the company, prepared to mount.

If the time had been less critical, and a disinterested observer had been available, it would at this moment have been interesting to observe the demeanour of Concha. Feeling that in a manner she was present on sufferance, she could not of course make any objection to the plan of escalade, nor could she offer to accompany Rollo and the Sergeant, but with clasped hands and tightly compressed lips she stood beneath, repeating under her breath quick-succeeding prayers for the safety of one (or both) of the adventurers.

So patent and eager was her anxiety even in the gloom of the night that La Giralda, to whom her agitation was manifest, laid her hand on the girl's arm and whispered in her ear that she must be brave, a true Andaluse, and not compromise the expedition by any spoken word.

Concha turned indignantly upon her, shaking off her restraining hand as she did so.

"Do you think I am a fool?" she whispered. "I will do nothing to spoil their chances. But oh, Giralda, at any moment he might be shot!"

"Trust Jos? Maria. He hath taken risks far greater than this," said La Giralda in a low voice, wilfully mistaking her meaning. But Concha, quite unconsoled, did nothing but clasp her hands and quicken her supplications to the Virgin.

The ladder was reared against the gilded iron railing and Rollo mounted, immediately dropping lightly down on the further side. The Sergeant followed, and presently both were on the ground. At a word from Rollo, El Sarria pushed the ladder over and the two received it and laid it along the parapet in a place where it would remain completely hidden till wanted.

The two moved off together in the direction of the porter's lodge, at the door of which the Sergeant knocked lightly, and then, obtaining no answer, with more vehemence. A window was lifted and a frightened voice asked who came there at that time of night.

The Sergeant answered with some sharpness that they wished for the key of the great gate.

Upon this the same old woman who had ushered out La Giralda appeared trembling at the lattice, and was but little relieved when the Sergeant, putting on his most serious air, informed her that her life was in the utmost danger, and that she must instantly come downstairs, open the gate, and accompany them to the palace.

"I knew it," quavered the old woman, "I knew it since ever my husband went away with the soldiers and left me here alone. I shall be murdered among you, but my blood will be on his hands. Indeed, sirs, he hath never treated me well, but spent his wages at the wine tavern, giving me but a beggarly pittance. Nay, how do I know but he had an intent in thus deserting me? He hath, and I can prove it, cast eyes of desire on Maria of the pork-shop, only because she is younger and more comely than I, who had grown old and wrinkled bearing him children and cooking him ollas! Aye, and small thanks have I got for either. As indeed I have told him hundreds of times. Such a man! A pretty fellow to be head porter at a Queen's gate! I declare I will inform her Royal Majesty this very night, if I am to go to the palace, that will I!"

"Come down immediately and let us in, my good woman," said the Sergeant, soothingly. For it appeared as if this torrent of accusation against the absent might continue to flow for an indefinite period.

"But how am I to know that you are not the very rogues and thieves of whom you tell?" persisted the old lady with some show of reason.

"Well," said the Sergeant forbearingly, "as to that you must trust us, mother. It is the best you can do. But fear nothing, we will treat you gently as a cat her kitten, and you will come up to the palace with us to show us in what part of it dwell the Queen and her daughter."



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