Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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"Not without carrying an armful of these to where they will be of use," he said, pointing to the guns. And the Duke of Rianzares, without any further demur, did his will. Rollo in turn took as many as he could carry, and the Sergeant brought up the rear carrying a wooden box of cartridges, which had evidently been packed ready for transportation.

They returned to the large lighted room, where Mortimer, Etienne, and El Sarria had been left on guard. Concha and the waiting-maid seconded their efforts by bringing store of pistols and ammunition.

On their way they passed through a hall, which by day seemed to be lighted only from the roof. Rollo bade them deposit the arms there, and bring the other candles and lamps to that place.

"Every moment that a light is to be seen at an outside window adds to our danger," he said, and Concha ran at his bidding.

Before she had time to return, however, the Queen-Regent came in with her usual dignity, the three serving-men following her. Rollo saw at once that nothing was to be expected of Eugenio, whose ancient and tottering limbs could hardly support the weight of his body. But there was more hope of the two others. They proved to be stout young fellows from the neighbourhood, and professed the utmost eagerness for a bout with the gipsies. From their youth they had been accustomed to the use of firearms – it is to be feared without due licence – in the royal hunting preserves of Pe?alara and the Guadarrama.

But this made no difference to Rollo, who instantly set about equipping them with the necessary arms, and inquiring minutely about the fastenings of the lower doors and windows. These it appeared were strong. The doors themselves were covered without with sheet-iron, while all the windows were protected not only by shutters but by solid stanchions of iron sunk in the wall.

On the whole Rollo was satisfied, and next questioned the servants concerning the state of the town and whether any assistance was to be hoped for from that quarter. In this, however, he was disappointed. It appeared that the whole municipality of San Ildefonso was so utterly plague-stricken that scarce an able-bodied man remained, or so much as a halfling boy capable of shouldering a musket. Only the women stood still in the breach, true nursing mothers, not like her of Ramah, refusing to be comforted, but continuing rather to tend the sick and dying till they themselves also died – aye, even shrouding the dead and laying out the corpses. A faithful brother or two of the Hermitage abode to carry the last Sacraments of the Church through the deserted and grass-grown streets, though there were few or none now to fall on their knees at the passage of Su Majestad, or to uncover the head at the melancholy tolling of the funeral bell.

With characteristic swiftness of decision Rollo made up his mind that the best plan for the defence of the palace would be to place his scanty forces along the various jutting balconies of the second floor, carefully darkening all the rooms in their rear, so that, till the moment of the attack itself, the assailants would have no idea that they were expected.

It was his idea that the small doors on the garden side of the house, which led right and left to the servants' quarters, would be attacked first. He was the more assured of this because the Sergeant had recognised, in the bivouac of the gipsies, a man who had formerly been one of the royal grooms both at La Granja and at Aranjuez. He would be sure to be familiar, therefore, with that part of the interior of the palace. Besides, being situated upon the side most completely removed from the town, the assailants would have the less fear of interruption.

While Rollo was thus cogitating, Concha came softly to his side, appearing out of the gloom with a suddenness that startled the young man.

"I have pulled up the ladder by which we ascended and laid it across the balcony," she said. "Was that right?"

"You – alone?" cried Rollo in astonishment.

She nodded brightly.

"Certainly," she answered; "women are not all so great weaklings as you think them – nor yet such fools!"

"Indeed, you have more sense than I," Rollo responded, gloomily; "I ought to have remembered that before. But, as you know, I have had many things to think of."

"I am glad," she said, more quietly and submissively than ever in her life, "that even in so small a matter I am permitted to think a little for you!"

Whereupon, though the connection of idea is not obvious, Rollo remembered the moment when he had faced the black muzzles of Cabrera's muskets in the chill of the morning, and the bitter regret which had then arisen to his mind. Out there in the dark of the palace-garden, death fronted him as really though not perhaps so immediately. He resolved quickly that he should not have the same regret again, if the worst came to the worst. There was no one in the alcove where Concha had found him. The Queen-Regent had disappeared to her suite of rooms, and thither after a time Se?or Mu?oz had followed her. The rest were at that moment being placed in their various posts by the Sergeant according to Rollo's directions.

So he stooped quickly and kissed Concha upon the mouth.

It was strange. The girl's inevitable instinct on such matters seemed to have deserted her. In a somewhat wide experience Concha could always tell to a second when an attempt of this kind was due. Most women can, and if they are kissed it is because they want to be. (In which, sayeth the Wise Man, is great wisdom!) A fire-alarm rings in their brain with absolute certainty, giving them time to evite the conflagration by a healthy douche of cold water. But Rollo the Firebrand again proved himself the Masterly Incalculable. Or else – but who could suspect Concha?

It is, again sayeth the Wise Man, the same with kicking a dog. The brute sees the kick coming before a muscle is in motion. He watches the eye of his opponent and is forearmed. He vanisheth into space. But when Rollo interviewed an animal in this fashion, he kicked first and thought afterwards. Hence no sign of his intention appeared in his eye, and the dog's yelp arrived almost as a surprise to himself.

So, with greatly altered circumstance, was it in the present instance. Rollo kissed first and made up his mind to it some time after. Consequently Concha was taken absolutely by surprise. She uttered a little cry and stepped back indignantly into the lighted room where the spare muskets were piled.

But again Rollo was before her. If he had attempted to make love, she would have scathed him with the soundest indignation, based on considerations of time, place, and personality.

But the young Scot gave her no opportunity. In a moment he had again become her superior officer.

"Take your piece," he said, with an air of assured command, "together with sufficient ammunition, and post yourself at the little staircase window over the great door looking towards the town. If you see any one approaching, do not hesitate to fire. Good-bye. God bless you! I will see you again on my rounds!"

And Rollo passed on his way.

Then with a curious constraint upon her tongue, and on her spirit a new and delightful feeling that she could do no other than as she was bidden, Concha found herself, with loaded musket and pistol, obediently taking her place in the general defence of the palace.

CHAPTER XXXII
LIKE A FALLING STAR

Rollo judged aright. It was indeed no time for love-making, and, to do the young man justice, he did not connect any idea so concrete with the impulsive kiss he had given to Concha.

She it was who had saved his life at Sarria. She was perilling her own in order to accompany and assist his expedition. She had drawn up the ladder he had foolishly forgotten. Yet, in spite of the fact that he was a young man and by no means averse from love, Rollo was so clean-minded and so little given to think himself desirable in the eyes of women, that it never struck him that the presence of La Giralda and Concha might be interpreted upon other and more personal principles than he had modestly represented to himself.

True, Rollo was vain as a peacock – but not of his love-conquests. Punctilious as any Spaniard upon the smallest point of honour, in a quarrel he was as ready as a Parisian ma?tre d'armes to pull out sword or pistol. Nevertheless when a man boasted in his presence of the favours of a woman, he thought him a fool and a braggart – and was in general nowise backward in telling him so.

Thus it happened that, though Concha had received no honester or better intentioned kiss in her life, the giver of it went about his military duties with a sense of having said his prayers, or generally, having performed some action raising himself in his own estimation.

"God bless her," he said to himself, "I will be a better man for her sweet sake. And, by heavens, if I had had such a sister, I might have been a better fellow long ere this! God bless her, I say!"

But what wonder is it that little Concha, in her passionate Spanish fashion understanding but one way of love, and being little interested in brothers, felt the tears come to her eyes as Rollo's step waxed fainter in the distance, and said over and over to herself with smiling pleasure, "He loves me – he loves me! Oh, if only my mother had lived, I might have been worthier of him. Then I would not have played with men's hearts for amusement to myself, as alas, I have too often done. God forgive me, there was no harm, indeed. But – but – I am not worthy of him – I know I am not!"

So Rollo's hasty kiss on the dark balcony was provocative of a healthy self-reproach on both sides – which at least was so much to the good.

Concha peered out into the darkness towards the south where a few stars were blinking sleepily through the ground-mist. She could dimly discern the outline of the town lying piled beneath her, without a light, without a sound, without a sign of life. From beyond the hills came a weird booming as of a distant cannonade. But Concha, the careless maiden who had grown into a woman in an hour, did not think of these things. For to the Spanish girl, whose heart is touched to the core, there is but one subject worthy of thought. Wars, battles, sieges, the distresses of queens, the danger of royal princesses – all are as nothing, because her lips have been kissed.

"All the same," she muttered to herself, "he ought not have done it – and when I have a little recovered I will tell him so!"

But at that moment, poised upon the topmost spike of the great gate in front of her, she saw the silhouette of a man. He was climbing upwards, with his hand on the cross-bar of the railing, and cautiously insinuating a leg over the barrier, feeling meanwhile gingerly for a foothold on the palace side.

"He is come to do evil to – to Rollo!" she said to herself, with a slight hesitation even in thought when she came for the first time upon the Christian name.

But there was no hesitation in the swift assurance with which she set the rifle-stock to her shoulder, and no mistake as the keen and practised eye glanced along the barrel.

She fired, and with a groan of pain the man fell back outside the enclosure.

The sound of Concha's shot was the first tidings to the besieged that the gipsies had really arrived. Rollo, stealing lightfoot from post to post, pistol in hand, the Sergeant erect behind the vine-trellis on the balcony between the rearward doors, Etienne and John Mortimer a little farther along on the same side of the ch?teau, all redoubled their vigilance at the sound. But for the space of an hour or more nothing farther was seen or heard north, south, east, or west of the beleaguered palace of La Granja.

The gipsies had not had the least idea that their intention was known. They expected no obstacles till the discharge of Concha's piece put them on their guard, and set them to concerting other and more subtle modes of attack. It was too dark for those in the ch?teau to see whether the wounded man lay where he had fallen or whether he had been removed by his comrades.

Rollo hastened back to Concha and inquired in a low voice what it was she had fired at. Whereupon she told him the story of the man climbing the railings and how she had stayed his course so suddenly. Rollo made no remark, save that she had done entirely right. Then he inquired if she had recharged her piece, and hearing that she wanted nothing and was ready for all emergencies, he departed upon his rounds without the least leave-taking or approach to love-making. In her heart Concha respected him for this, but at the same time she could not help feeling that a Spaniard would have been somewhat warmer in his acknowledgments. Nevertheless she comforted herself with the thought that he had trusted her with one of the most important posts in the whole defence, and she prayed fervently to the Virgin that she might be able to do her duty there.

She thought also that, when the morning came, perhaps he would have more time. For her, she could wait – here she smiled a little. Yes, she acknowledged it. She who had caught so many, was now taken in her own net. She would go to the world's end for this young Scot. Nor in her heart of hearts was she ashamed of it. Above and beyond all courtesies and sugared phrases she loved his free-handed, careless, curt-spoken, hectoring way. After his one kiss, he had treated her exactly like any other of his company. He did not make love well, but – she liked him none the worse for that. In such matters (sayeth the Wise Man) excellence is apt to come with experience.

And he would learn. Yes, decidedly he might yet do credit to his teacher. To-morrow morning would arrive, and for the present, well – she would keep her finger upon the trigger and a pair of remarkably clear-sighted eyes upon the grey space of greensward crossed by black trellises of railing immediately before her. That in the mean time was her duty to her love and (she acknowledged it), her master.

Apart from these details of his feeling for Concha, however (which gave him little concern), Rollo was far from satisfied with the condition of affairs. He would rather (so he confided to the Sergeant) have defended a sheepfold or a simple cottage than this many-chambered, many-passaged, mongrel ch?teau. His force was scattered out of sight, though for the most part not out of hearing of each other. It was indeed true that, owing to his excellent dispositions, and the fortunate situation of the balconies, he was able to command every part of the castle enclosure, and especially the doors by which it was most likely that the chief attempt would be made.

So occupied had Rollo been with his affairs, both private and of a military character, that he had actually wholly forgotten the presence of the Queen-Regent, her daughter and husband, within the palace of La Granja. And this though he had come all that way across two of the wildest provinces of Spain for the sole purpose of securing their persons and transporting mother and daughter to the camp of Don Carlos. Nevertheless so instant was the danger which now overhung every one, that their intended captor had ceased to think of anything but how to preserve these royal lives and to keep them from the hands of the ruthless gipsies of the hills.

But circumstances quickly recalled the young man to his primary purpose, and taught him that he must not trust too much to those whose interests were opposed to his own.

Rollo, as we have said, had reserved no station for himself, but constantly circulated round all the posts of his little army, ready at any time to add himself to the effective forces of the garrison at any threatened point. It was while he was thus passing from balcony to balcony on the second or defending storey that his quick ear caught the sound of a door opening and shutting on the floor beneath.

"Ah," thought Rollo to himself, suspiciously, "the Queen and her people are safe in their chambers on this floor. No person connected with the defence ought to be down there. This is either treachery or the enemy have gained admission by some secret passage!"

With Rollo Blair to think was to act. So in another moment he had slipped off his shoes, and treading noiselessly on his stocking soles and with a naked sword in his hand he made his way swiftly and carefully down towards the place whence he had heard the noise.

Descending by the grand escalier he found himself in one of the narrow corridors which communicated by private staircases with the left wing of the palace. Rollo stood still in the deepest shadow. He was sure that he could hear persons moving near him, and once he thought that he could distinguish the sound of a muttered word.

The Egyptian darkness about him grew more and more instinct with noises. There was a scuffling rustle, as of birds in a chimney, all over the basement of the house. A door creaked as if a slight wind had blown it. Then a latch clicked, and the wind, unaided, does not click latches. Rollo withdrew himself deeper into a niche at the foot of the narrow winding-stair which girdled a tower in the thickness of the wall.

The young man had almost resolved to summon his whole force from above, so convinced was he that the enemy had gained a footing within the tower and were creeping up to take them in the rear, when a sound altered his intention. There is nothing more unmistakable to the ear than the rebellious whimper of an angry child compelled to do something against its will.

Rollo instantly comprehended the whole chain of circumstances. The treachery touched him more nearly than he had imagined possible. Those for whom he and his party were imperilling their lives were in fact to leave them to perish as best they might in the empty shell of the palace. The royal birds were on the point of flying.

A door opened, and through it (though dimly) Rollo could see the great waterfall glimmering and above the stars, chill over the snowy shoulder of Pe?alara. He could not make out who had opened the door, but there was enough light to discern that a lady wrapped in a mantilla went out first. Then followed another, stouter and of shorter stature, apparently carrying a burden. Then the whole doorway was obscured by the tall figure of a man.

"Mu?oz himself, by Heaven!" thought Rollo.

And with a leap he was after him, in his headlong course dashing to the ground some other unseen person who confronted him in the hall.

In a moment more he had caught the tall man by the collar and swung him impetuously round back within the doorway.

"Move one sole inch and your blood be on your own head!" he muttered. And the captive feeling Rollo's steel cold at his throat, remained prudently silent. Not so the lady without. She uttered a cry which rang about the silent ch?teau.

"Mu?oz! My husband! Fernando, where art thou? Oh, they have slain him, and I only am to blame!"

She turned about and rushed back to the door, which she was about to enter, when a cry far more sudden and terrible rang out behind her.

"They have killed the Princess! Some one hath slain my darling!"

At the word Rollo abandoned the man whom he was holding down, and with shouts of "Cardono!" "El Sarria!" "To me! They are upon us!" he flung himself outside.

There was little to be discerned clearly when he emerged into the cool damp darkness, only a dim heap of writhing bodies as in some combat of hounds or of the denizens of the midnight forest. But Rollo once and again saw a flash of steel and a hand uplifted to strike. Without waiting to think he gripped that which was topmost and therefore nearest to him, and finding it unexpectedly light, he swung the thing clear by the garment he had clutched. As he did so he felt a pain in his right shoulder, which at the time appeared no more than the bite of a squirrel or the sting of a bee. With one heave he threw the object, human or not he could not for the moment determine, behind him into the blackness of the hall.

"Take hold there, somebody!" he cried, for by this time he could hear the clattering of the feet of his followers on the stairs and flagged passages.

Outside under the stars something or some one larger and heavier lay on the ground and moaned. As Rollo bent over it there came a rush of men from all sides, and the young man had scarcely time to straighten himself up and draw his pistol before he found himself attacked by half a dozen men.

His pistol cracked and an assailant tumbled on his face, while the flash in the pan revealed that he had already an ally. The Sergeant was beside him, by what means did not then appear. For he had certainly not come through the door, and at this Rollo drew a long breath and applied himself to his sword-play with renewed vigour. The assailants, he soon found, were mostly armed with long knives, which, however, had little chance against the long and expert blades of the Sergeant and Rollo.

After proving on several occasions the deadly quality of these last, they broke and ran this way and that, while from the windows above (where the two royal servants were posted, with La Giralda on guard between them), a scattering fire broke out, which tumbled more than one of the fugitives upon the grass.



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