Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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"Nay, not if it be to do harm to my lady and the sweet little maid who this very day brought a pail of milk to poor old Rebeca the portress, whose husband hath forsaken her for a pork-shop trull. I would rather die!"

Rollo was about to speak, but the Sergeant whispered that the old lady was now in such good case to admit them, that she might be frighted by his foreign accent.

In a few moments the woman could be heard stiffly and grumblingly descending the stairs, the door was opened, and Rebeca appeared with the key in her hand.

"How many are there of your party?" she asked, her poor hand shaking so that she could scarcely fit the key in the lock, and her voice sunk to a quavering whisper.

"There are five men of us and two women," said the Sergeant, quickly. "Now we are all within, pray give me the key and show us the road to the Queen's apartments."

"Two women!" grumbled the poor old creature, whose mind appeared to be somewhat unhinged; "that will never suit her Royal Highness the Regent, especially if they are young and well-looking. She loves not such, any more than I love the hussy of the pork-shop. Though, indeed, my man hath not the roving eye in his head as her Se?or Mu?oz hath. Ah, the saints have mercy on all poor deserted women! But what am I saying? If the Lady Cristina heard me speak ill of him, she would set my poor old neck in the garrote. Then – crack – all would be over!"

The party now advanced towards the palace, which in the gloom of a starless night was still entirely hidden from their sight, save as a darker mass set square against the black vault of heaven.

By this time Concha and La Giralda had taken the trembling portress by the arms, and were bringing her along in the van, whispering comfort in her ears all the way. The sergeant and Rollo came next, with Mortimer and Etienne behind, a naked blade in the hand of each, for Rollo had whispered the word to draw swords. This, however, El Sarria interpreted to mean his faithful Manchegan knife, to which he trusted more than to any sword of Toledo that ever was forged.

At any other time they could not have advanced a score of yards without being brought to a stand-still by the challenge of a sentry, the whistle of a rifle bullet, or the simultaneous turning out of the guard. But now no such danger was to be apprehended. All was still as a graveyard before cock-crow.

It is hard, in better and wiser days, when things are beginning to be traced to their causes, to give any idea of the effect of the first appearance of Black Cholera among a population at once so simple and so superstitious as that of rural Spain. The inhabitants of the great towns, the Cristino armies in the field, the country-folk of all opinions were universally persuaded that the dread disease was caused by the monks in revenge for the despites offered to them; especially by the hated Jesuits, who were supposed to have thrown black cats alive into rivers and wells in order to produce disease by means of witchcraft and diabolical agency.

So universal was this belief that so soon as the plague broke out in any city or town the neighbouring monasteries were immediately plundered, and the priors and brethren either put to death or compelled to flee for their lives.

Some such panic as this had stampeded the troops stationed in and about the little town of San Ildefonso, when the first cases of cholera proved fatal little more than a week before.

A part of these had rushed away to plunder the rich monastery of El Parral a few miles off, lying in the hollow beneath Segovia. Others, breaking up into parties of from a dozen to a hundred, had betaken themselves over the mountains in the direction of Madrid.

So the Queen-Regent and the handsome Se?or Mu?oz remained perforce at La Granja, for the two-fold reason that the palace of Madrid was reported to be in the hands of a rebellious mob, and that the disbanding troops had removed with them every sort and kind of conveyance, robbed the stables of the horses, and plundered the military armoury of every useful weapon.

They had not, however, meddled with the treasures of the palace, nor offered any indignity to the Queen-Regent, or to any of the inmates of La Granja. But as the Sergeant well knew, not thus would these be treated by the roving bands of gipsies, who in a few hours would be storming about the defenceless walls. No resource of oriental torture, no refinement of barbarity would be omitted to compel the Queen and her consort to give up the treasures without which it was well known that they never travelled. Obviously, therefore, there was no time to be lost.

They went swiftly round the angle of the palace, their feet making no sound on the clean delicious sward of those lawns which make the place such a marvel in the midst of tawny, dusty, burnt-up Spain. In a brief space the party arrived unnoted and unchecked under the wall of the northern part.

Lights still burnt in two or three windows on the second floor, though all was dark on the face which the palace turned towards the south and the town of San Ildefonso.

"These are the windows of the rooms occupied by my lady the Queen-Regent," whispered the portress, Rebeca, pointing upwards; "but promise me to commit no murder or do any hurt to the little maid."

"Be quiet, woman," muttered Rollo, more roughly than was his wont; "we are come to save both of them from worse than death. Sergeant Cardono, bring the ladder!"

The Sergeant disappeared, and it was not many seconds before he was back again adjusting its hooks to the side of an iron balcony in front of one of the lighted rooms. Almost before he had finished Rollo would have mounted, impetuously as was his custom, but the Sergeant held him back by the arm.

"I crave your forgiveness," he whispered, "but if you will pardon me saying so, I have much more experience in such matters than you. Permit me in this single case to precede you! We know not what or whom we may meet with above!"

Nevertheless, though the Sergeant mounted first, Rollo followed so closely that his hands upon the rounds of the ladder were more than once in danger of being trodden upon by the Sergeant's half-boots.

Presently they stood together on the iron balcony and peered within. A tall dark man leaned against an elaborately carved mantelpiece indolently stroking his glossy black whiskers. A lady arrayed in a dressing-gown of pink silk reaching to her feet was seated on a chair, and submitting restlessly enough to the hands of her maid, who was arranging her hair for the night, in the intervals of a violent but somewhat one-sided quarrel which was proceeding between the pair.

Every few moments the lady would start from her seat and with her eyes flashing fire she would advance towards the indolent dandy by the mantelpiece as if with purpose of personal assault. At such seasons the stout old Abigail instantly remitted her attentions and stood perfectly well trained and motionless, with the brush and comb in her hand, till it pleased her lady to sit down again.

All the while the gentleman said no word, but watched the development of the scene with the utmost composure, passing his beautiful white fingers through his whiskers and moustache after the fashion of a comb. The lady's anger waxed higher and higher, and with it her voice also rose in an equal ratio. What the end would have been it is difficult to prophesy, for the Sergeant, realising that time was passing quickly, produced an instrument with a broad flat blade bent at an acute angle to the handle, and inserting it sharply into the crack of the French window, opened it with a click which must have been distinctly audible within, even in the height of the lady's argument.

CHAPTER XXXI
THE QUEEN'S ANTE-CHAMBER

Out of the darkness Rollo and the Sergeant stepped quickly into the room. Whereupon, small wonder that the lady should scream and fall back into her chair, the waiting-maid drop upon the floor as if she had been struck by a Carlist bullet, or the gentleman with the long and glossy whiskers suspend his caresses and gaze upon the pair with dropped jaw and open mouth!

At his entrance Rollo had taken off his hat with a low bow. The Sergeant saluted and stood at attention. There was a moment's silence in the room, but before Rollo had time to speak the Queen-Regent recovered her self-possession. The daughter of the Bourbons stood erect. Her long hair streamed in dark glossy waves over her shoulders. Her bosom heaved visibly under the thin pink wrapper. Anger struggled with fear in her eyes. Verily Maria Cristina of Naples had plenty of courage.

"Who are you," she cried, "that dare thus to break in upon the privacy of the Regent Queen of Spain? Duke, call the guard!"

But her husband only shrugged his shoulders and continued to gaze upon the pair of intruders with a calm exterior.

"Your Majesty," said Rollo, courteously, naturally resuming the leadership when anything requiring contact with gentlefolk came in the way, "I am here to inform you that you are in great danger – greater than I can for the moment make clear to you. The palace is, as I understand, absolutely without defence – the town is in the same position. It is within our knowledge that a band of two hundred gipsies are on the march to attack you this night in order to plunder the ch?teau, and put to death every soul within its walls. We have come, therefore, together with our companions outside, to offer our best services in your Majesty's defence!"

"But," cried the Queen-Regent, "all this may very well be, but you have not yet told me who you are and what you are doing here!"

"For myself," answered Rollo, "I am a Scottish gentleman, trained from my youth to the profession of arms. Those who wait without are for the present comrades and companions, whom, with your Majesty's permission, I shall bid to enter. For to be plain, every moment is of the utmost importance, that we may lose no time in putting the ch?teau into such a state of defence as is possible, since the attack of the gipsies may be expected at any moment!"

Rollo stepped to the window to summon his company, but found them already assembled on the balcony. It was no time for formal introductions, yet, as each entered, Rollo, like a true herald, delivered himself of a brief statement of the position of the individual in the company. But when La Giralda entered, the stout waiting-maid rose with a shriek from the floor where she had been sitting.

"Oh, my lady," she cried, "do not trust these wicked people. They have come to murder us all. That woman is the very old goatherdess with whom the Princess Isabel was so bewitched this morning! I knew some evil would come of such ongoings!"

"Hush, Susana," said her mistress with severity; "when you are asked for any information, be ready to give it. Till then hold your peace."

Which having said she turned haughtily back again to the strangers, without vouchsafing a glance at her husband or the trembling handmaiden.

"I can well believe," she said, "that you have come here to do us a service in our present temporary difficulty, and for that, if I find you of approved fidelity, you shall not fail to be rewarded. Meantime, I accept your service, and I place you and the whole of your men under the immediate command of his Excellency the Duke of Rianzares!"

She turned to the tall exquisite who still continued to comb his whiskers by the chimney-piece. Up till now he had not spoken a word.

Rollo scarcely knew what to reply to this, and as for the Sergeant, he had the hardest work to keep from bursting into a loud laugh.

But they were presently delivered from their difficulty by the newly nominated commander-in-chief himself.

"This scene is painful to me," said Se?or Mu?oz, placidly, "it irritates my nerves. I have a headache. I think I shall retire and leave these gentlemen to make such arrangements as may be necessary till the return of our guards, which will doubtless take place within an hour or so. If you need me you can call for me!"

Having made this general declaration he turned to Rollo and addressed himself particularly to him.

"My rooms, I would have you know, are in the north wing," he continued; "I beg that there shall be no firing or other brutal noise on that side. Anything of the kind would be most annoying. So pray see to it."

Then he advanced to where his wife stood, her eyes full of anger at this desertion.

"My angel," he said, calmly, "I advise you sincerely to do the same. Retire to your chamber. Take a little tisane for the cooling of the blood, and leave all other matters to these new friends of ours. I am sure they appear very honest gentlemen. But as you have many little valuables lying about, do not forget to lock your door, as I shall mine. Adieu, my angel!"

And so from an inconceivable height of dandyism his Excellency the Duke of Rianzares would have stooped to bestow a good night salutation on his wife's cheek, had not that lady, swiftly recovering from her stupor, suddenly awarded him a resounding box on the ear, which so far discomposed the calm of his demeanour that he took from his pocket a handkerchief edged with lace, unfolded it, and with the most ineffable gesture in the world wiped the place the lady's hand had touched. Then, with the same abiding calm, he restored the cambric to his pocket, bowed low to the Queen, and lounged majestically towards the door.

Maria Cristina watched him at first with a haughty and unmoved countenance. Her hands clenched themselves close to her side, as if she wished the blow had been bestowed with the shut rather than with the open digits.

But as her husband (for so he really was, though the relationship was not acknowledged till many years after, and at the feet of the Holy Father himself in the Vatican) approached the door, opened it, and was on the point of departing without once turning round, Cristina suddenly broke into a half hysterical cry, ran after him, threw her arms tenderly about his neck, and burst out weeping on his broad bosom.

The gentleman, without betraying the least emotion, patted her tolerantly on the shoulder, and murmured some words in her ear, at the same time looking over her head at the men of the company with a sort of half-comic apology.

"Oh! Fernando, forgive me," she cried, "life of my life – the devil must have possessed me! I will cut off the wicked hand that did the deed. Give me a knife, good people – to strike the best and handsomest – oh, it was wicked – cruel, diabolical!"

Whatever may have been the moral qualities of the royal blow, Rollo felt that in their present circumstances time enough had been given to its consideration, so he interposed.

"Your Majesty, the gipsies may be upon us at any moment. It would be as well if you would summon all the servants of the palace together and arm them with such weapons as may be available!"

Maria Cristina lifted her head from the shoulder of her Ferdinand, as if she did not at first comprehend Rollo's speech, and was resolved to resent an intrusion at such a moment. Whereupon the Scot repeated his words to such good purpose that the Queen-Regent threw up her hands and cried, "Alas! this happens most unfortunately. We have only old Eugenio and a couple of lads in the whole palace since the departure of the guards!"

"Never mind," said Rollo; "let us make the best of the matter. We will muster them; perhaps they will be able to load and fire a musket apiece! If I mistake not, the fighting will be at very short range!"

It was upon this occasion that Se?or Fernando Mu?oz showed his first spark of interest.

"I will go and awake them," he said; "I know where the servants are wont to sleep."

But on this occasion his fond wife would not permit him to stir.

"The wicked murderers may have already penetrated to that part of the castle," she palpitated, her arms still about his neck, "and you must not risk your precious life. Let Susana go and fetch them. She is old, and has doubtless made her peace with religion."

"Nay, it is not fitting," objected Susana with spirit. "I am a woman, and not so old as my lady says. I cannot go gadding about into the chambers of all and sundry. Besides, there has been purpose of marriage openly declared between me and the Se?or Eugenio for upwards of thirty years. What then would be said if I – "

"Nay, then," cried Maria Cristina, "stay where you are, Susana. For me, I am none so nice. I will go myself. Do not follow me, Fernando!" And with that she ran to the door, and her feet were heard flitting up the stairway which led to the servants' wing of the palace. Mu?oz made as if to accompany her, but remembering his wife's prohibition, he did not proceed farther than the door, where, with a curious smile upon his face, he stood listening to the voice of the Queen-Regent upraised in alternate appeal and rebuke.

During the interval, while the Sergeant and El Sarria were looking to their stores and munitions, Rollo approached the waiting-maid, Susana, and inquired of her the way to the armoury, where he expected to find store of arms and powder.

"If this young maid will go also, I will conduct you thither, young man!" said Susana, primly.

And holding Concha firmly by the hand, she took up a candle and led the way.

But to Rollo's surprise they found the armoury wholly sacked. All the valuable guns had been removed by the deserting guards. The gun racks were torn down. The floor of beaten earth was strewed with flints of ancient pieces of last century's manufacture. The barrels of bell-mouthed blunderbusses leaned against the wall, the stocks, knocked off in mere wantonness, were piled in corners; and in all the chests and wall-presses there was not an ounce of powder to be found.

While Rollo was searching, Se?or Mu?oz appeared at the door, languid and careless as ever. He watched the young Scot opening chests and rummaging in lockers for a while without speaking. Then he spoke slowly and deliberately.

"It strikes me that when I was an officer of the bodyguard, in the service of the late Fernando the Seventh, my right royal namesake (and in some sort predecessor), there was another room used for the private stores and pieces of the officers. If I mistake not it was entered by that door to the right, but the key appears to be wanting!"

He added the last clause, as he watched the frantic efforts of Rollo, who had immediately thrown himself upon the panels, while the Se?or was in the act of rolling out his long-drawn Castilian elegances of utterance.

"Hither, Cardono," cried Rollo, "open me this door! Quick, Sergeant!"

"Have a care," said the Duke; "there is powder inside!"

But Rollo, now keen on the scent of weapons of defence, would not admit a moment's delay, and the Sergeant, inserting his curiously crooked blade, opened that door as easily as he had done the French window.

Mu?oz stepped forward with some small show of eagerness and glanced within.

"Yes," he said, "the officers' arms are there, and a liberal allowance of powder."

"They are mostly sporting rifles," said Rollo, looking them over, "but there is certainly plenty of powder and ball."

"And what kills ibex and bouquetin on the sierras," drawled Mu?oz, "will surely do as much for a mountain gipsy if, as you said just now, the range is likely to be a short one!"

Rollo began somewhat to change his opinion about the husband of the Queen. At first he had seemed both dandy and coward, a combination which Rollo held in the utmost contempt. But when Rollo had once seen him handle a gun, he began to have more respect for his recent Excellency the Duke of Rianzares.

"Can you tell us, from your military experience," Rollo asked, "which is the most easily vulnerable part of this palace."

"It is easily vulnerable in every part," answered Mu?oz, carelessly snapping the lock of a rifle again and again.

"Nay, but be good enough to listen, sir," cried Rollo, with some heat. "There are women and children here. You do not know the gipsies. You do not know by whom they are led. You do not know the oaths of death and torture they have sworn – "

"By whom are they led?" said Mu?oz, still playing carelessly with the rifle. "I thought such fellows were mere savages from the hills, and might be slaughtered like sheep."

"Perhaps – at any rate they are led by your own daughter!" said Rollo, briefly, growing nettled at the parvenu grandee's seeming indifference.

"My daughter!" cried Mu?oz, losing in a moment his bright complexion, and becoming of a slaty pallor, "my daughter, that mad imp of hell – who thrice has tried to assassinate me!"

And as he spoke, he let the gun fall upon the floor at his feet. Then he rallied a little.

"Who has told you this lie?" he exclaimed, with a kind of indignation.

"A man who does not make mistakes – or tell lies – Sergeant Cardono!" said Rollo. "He has both seen and spoken to her! She has sworn to attack the palace to-night."

"Then I am as good as dead already. I must go directly to my wife!" answered Mu?oz.

But Rollo stepped before him.



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