Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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With great and grave tenderness Rollo and the Sergeant carried that which lay on the grass within. In a moment more they had the door shut and bolted, when from the rear of the hall came the voice of El Sarria.

"For God's sake," he cried, "bring a light! For I have that here which is in human form, yet bites and scratches and howls like a wild beast! I cannot hold it long. It is nothing less than a devil incarnate!"

Most strange and incomprehensible of all that the light revealed, was the appearance of the giant El Sarria, who, his hands and face bleeding with scratches, and seated on the final steps of the cork-screw staircase, held in his arms clear of the ground the bent and contorted form of a young girl. So desperate were her struggles that it was all he could do to confine her feet by passing them under his arm, while with one great palm he grasped two flat and meagre wrists in a grip of steel. Yet in spite of his best efforts the wild thing still struggled, and indeed more than once came within a hair's-breadth of fastening her teeth in his cheek.

As he had said, there was more of the wild beast of the woods taken in a trap than of human creature in these frantic struggles and inarticulate cries. The girl foamed at the mouth. She threw herself backward into the shape of a bow till her head almost touched her feet, and again momentarily twisting herself like an eel half out of El Sarria's grasp, she endeavoured, with a force that seemed impossible to so frail a body, to reach the group by the door, where Mu?oz was still supporting the Queen Maria Cristina.

Presently Cardono desisted from his examination of the body of the waiting-woman. He shook his head murmuring – "Dead! Dead! of a certainty stone-dead!"

And the Sergeant was a good judge of life and death. He had seen much of both.

Then he came over to where El Sarria was still struggling awkwardly with the wild and maniacal thing, as if he could not bring his great strength to bear upon a creature so lithe and quick. At the first glance he started back and turned his gaze on the royal group.

For that which he now saw, distorted with the impotence of passion and madness, was no other than the little girl whom he had met in the camp of the gipsies on the side of Guadarrama – the daughter of Mu?oz, the plan-maker and head-centre of the whole attack.

The Sergeant stood a moment or two fingering his chin, as a man does who considers with himself whether it is worth while shaving. Then with his usual deliberation he undid a leathern strap from his waist and with great consideration but equal effectiveness he buckled the girl's hands firmly behind her back. Then with a sash of silk he proceeded to do the like office with her feet.

Just as he was tying the final knots, the girl made one supreme effort. She actually succeeded in twisting her body out of the arms of El Sarria, and flung herself headlong in the direction of Mu?oz and the Queen, spitting like a cat.

But the Sergeant's extemporised shackles did their work, and the poor tortured creature would have fallen on her face upon the cold flags of the stone floor but that El Sarria caught her in his arms, and lifting her gently up, proceeded to convey her to another apartment where she might more safely be taken care of.

In order to do this, however, he had to pass close by the Queen-Regent and her consort. It happened that the latter, who till that moment had been wholly occupied by his cares for the recovery of his mistress, had scarcely glanced either at the motionless heap staining the floor with blood or at the wild thing scrambling and biting savagely in the arms of El Sarria.

But the girl's struggles were now over for that time. Her fit of demoniacal fury had apparently completely exhausted her. Her head lay back pale and white, the livid lips drawn so as to show the teeth in a ghastly smile, and her whole body drooped, relaxed and flaccid, over her captor's arm.

The Queen-Regent was just able once more to stand upon her feet when El Sarria passed with his burden. The eyes of Mu?oz fell upon the girl's pale distorted features. He started back and almost dropped the Queen in his horror.

"Whence came this she-devil?" he cried, "What is she doing here? Let her be locked in a dungeon. Eugene will show you where. She will cut all our throats else!"

"Has this child not the honour to be daughter to his Excellency the Duke of Rianzares?" inquired the Sergeant, grimly.

"She is a maniac, I tell you! I put her in a madhouse and she escaped! She hath sworn my death!" cried Mu?oz, his supercilious calm for once quite broken up.

"And what is this that she hath done?" he cried, holding up his hands as his eyes fell on the body of the nurse Susana. In another moment, however, he had partially recovered himself.

"My beloved lady," he said, turning to his wife, "this is certainly no place for you. Let me conduct you to your own chamber!"

"Not without the added presence of one of my people, sir," said Rollo, sternly; "this had not happened but for your intention of secretly deserting us, and leaving us to hold the castle alone against the cruel enemy of whose approach we risked our lives to warn you!"

Meanwhile the Queen-Regent had been casting her eyes wildly and uncomprehendingly around. Now she looked at the motionless form of the girl in the arms of El Sarria, now at the dead woman upon the floor, but all without the least token that she understood how the tragedy had come to pass.

But suddenly she threw her arms into the air and uttered a wild scream.

"Where is my Isabel – where is my daughter? She was in the arms of the nurse Susana who lies there before us. They have killed her also. This devil-born has killed her! Where shall I find her? – My darling – the protected of the Virgin, the future Queen of all the Spains?"

But it was a question no one could answer. None had seen the little Isabel, since the moment when she had passed forth through the portal of the palace into the night, clasped in the faithful arms of her nurse.

She had not cried. She had not returned. Apparently not a soul had thought of her, save only the woman whose life had been laid down for her sake, as a little common thing is set on a shelf and forgotten.

So, for this reason, the question of Maria Cristina remained unanswered. For, even as a star shoots athwart the midnight sky of winter, so the little Queen of Spain had passed and been lost in the darkness and terror without the beleaguered castle of La Granja.

CHAPTER XXXIII
CONCHA WAITS FOR THE MORNING

The dead woman was carried into the mortuary attached to the smaller chapel of the Colegiata, and placed in one of the rude coffins which had been deposited there in readiness upon the first news of the plague. This being done, the mind of Rollo turned resolutely to the problem before him.

Every hour the situation seemed to grow more difficult. As far as Rollo was concerned, he owned himself frankly a mercenary, fighting in a cause for which he, as a free-born Scot, could have no great sympathy. But mercenary as he was, in his reckless, gallant, devil-take-the-hindmost philosophy of life there lurked at least no trace of treachery, nor any back-going from a pledged and plighted word. He had undertaken to capture the young Queen and her mother and to bring them within the lines of Don Carlos, and till utterly baffled by death or misadventure, this was what he was going to continue to attempt.

If therefore the little Princess were not in the castle, she must immediately be sought for outside it. The palace of La Granja was, as he well knew, surrounded by eager and bloody-minded foes, bent on the destruction of all within its walls. It was conceivable that Isabel might already be slain, though in the absence of the daughter of Mu?oz, he doubted whether the gipsies would go such lengths. To be held to ransom was a much more probable fate. At any rate it was clearly the duty of some one of the party to make an attempt for her recovery.

At the first blush Sergeant Cardono appeared to be the person designated by experience and qualifications for the task. But, on the other hand, how could Rollo entrust to the most famous of ex-brigands, a gipsy of the gipsies, of the blackest blood of Egypt, the search for so great a prize as the little Queen of Spain? The difficult virtue of self-denial in such a case could hardly be expected from a man like Jos? Maria of Ronda. Consider – a ransom, a Queen put up to auction! For both sides, Nationals and Carlists alike, would certainly be eager to treat for her possession. In short, Rollo concluded that he had no right to put such a temptation in the way of a man with the record of Sergeant Cardono.

His thoughts turned next to El Sarria. Concerning Ramon Garcia's loyalty there was no question – still less as to his courage. But – he was hardly the man to despatch alone on a mission which involved so many delicate issues. Once outside the palace there would in all probability be no chance of return, and Rollo was persuaded that the best chance of recovering the child lay in discovering her in some of the hiding-places which would doubtless be familiar to her about the grounds. To find the little maid, to induce her to trust herself completely to a stranger, and to guide her to a place of safety, these would be tasks difficult enough for any combination of scout and diplomat. Now El Sarria, upon meeting with opposition, was accustomed to storm through it with the rush of a tiger's charge. No, in spite of his assured fidelity and courage, it would be impossible to send El Sarria.

The others – well, they were good fellows, both of them, John Mortimer and Etienne. But it was obvious to his mind that the quest was not for them.

Rollo must go himself. That was all there was for it. After which remained the question as to who should command in the palace during his absence. Here the Sergeant was obviously the man, both from his natural talents for leadership, as well as from the confidence placed in him by General Cabrera. No such temptation would be presented to him within the walls as might confront him outside, in a position of authority among his blood-kin, and with a Queen of Spain in his power.

Whilst he was settling these questions in his mind, Rollo had been standing at one of the windows, where the two royal servants, young men of Castile, had been set to watch, with La Giralda between to perform the same office upon them. To these he did not think it necessary to say more than that they were to receive and obey the orders of Sergeant Cardono as his own. The old gipsy would of a certainty do so in any case.

Then the young man passed on to the balconies occupied severally by Etienne and Mortimer. These two volunteers he took occasion to commend for their constancy in holding fast their positions during the attack on the other side of the house. He also briefly communicated to them all that had taken place there, the attempt of the royal family to slip off in the darkness, the death of the old nurse, the capture of the daughter of Mu?oz, and the fatal loss of the young Queen.

He further told them that he considered it his duty to venture out to seek for the missing girl. It came within the terms of his commission, he said, that he should leave no stone unturned to recover the Princess. Neither Etienne nor Mortimer offered any objection.

"The saints and the Holy Virgin bring you safely back," said Etienne, who was still in his pious mood; "I will not cease to pray for you."

"Good-bye, and good-luck, old fellow!" quoth John Mortimer. "But I say, if I should want more ammunition, where am I to get it?"

Such were the characteristic farewells of Rollo's two comrades in arms.

Equally simple was it to satisfy El Sarria, from whom our Firebrand parted on the great southward balcony which the outlaw guarded alone.

"Be of an easy mind. I will be responsible for all I can see from this balcony!" said the giant, calmly, "may your adventure be prosperous! I would I could both remain here and come with you!"

All that Rollo had now to do was to inform the Sergeant of his plans and to say good-bye to Concha. These tasks, however, promised something more of difficulty.

The Sergeant was immovable at his post behind the thick twisted vine-stems of the little balcony, over the twin doors, by one of which the royal party had attempted to escape into the garden. While Rollo was explaining his intentions, Cardono bit his lip and remained silent.

"Do you then not approve?" asked Rollo, gravely, when he had finished.

"Who is to command here in your absence?" answered the Sergeant in the young Scot's own national manner.

"The command will naturally devolve on yourself," said Rollo, promptly; "you will have the entire responsibility within the palace!"

"Which includes complete discretion, of course?"

"Certainly!" answered Rollo.

"Then," said the Sergeant, firmly, "my first act will be to lay Se?or Don Fernando Mu?oz by the heels!"

"As to that, you can do as you like," said Rollo, "but remember that you may find yourself with another mad woman on your hands in the person of the Queen-Regent!"

"I know how to deal with her!" replied the Sergeant; "go your way, Colonel – depend upon it, the palace will be defended and justice done!"

Rollo nodded, and was turning on his heel without speaking, for the thought of his interview with Concha was beginning to lie heavy on his mind, when a whisper from the Sergeant called him back.

"When you are ready to go, return hither," he said; "I have the safest way out of the palace to show you without so much as the opening of a door or the unbarring of a window."

Rollo nodded again. He marvelled how it was that the Sergeant had appeared so opportunely at his elbow when he had called upon him for help. Now he was in the way of finding out.

The darkness was of the sort which might have been felt as Rollo stumbled along the passages to the opposite side of the palace where Concha, a loaded musket leaning against the wall on either side, was watching keenly the square of grey grass and green trees in front of her. Dark as the night was without, the girl had drawn the curtains behind her, so that she was entirely isolated upon the balcony on which she kneeled. In this, as usual, she had obeyed Rollo's commands to the letter, and made sure that no faintest gleam of light should escape by the window at which she kept her watch.

But spite of the intervening room and the thick curtains the girl had heard his footsteps, light and quick, heard them across the entire breadth of the palace, from the moment when he had quitted Sergeant Cardono, to that when, drawing aside the hangings with his hand, he stood behind her.

Nevertheless, Concha did not move immediately, and Rollo, standing thus close to her, was, for the first time in his life, conscious of the atmosphere, delicate yet vivid, of youth, beauty, and charm, with which a loving and gracious woman surrounds herself as with a garment.

But these were stern times. He had come to her balcony for a purpose and – there was no time to be lost.

"Concha," he began without ceremony – for after the kiss, regulated and conscientious as it had been and clearly justifiable to his sense of honour and duty, somehow the prefacing "Se?orita" had come to be omitted between them. "Concha, the little Queen is lost! She may be wandering out there to meet her death among brigands and murderers! It is my duty to go and seek her. Listen!"

And then when at last she turned from the window and slowly faced him, Rollo told her all that had taken place below.

"I knew you were in danger when the shots went off," she said; "yet since you had not called for me, nor given me leave to quit my post – "

She did not finish her sentence. It was a kind of reproach that he had called for the Sergeant and not for her in his hour of need. She knew on whom she would have called.

"You did well – better than well – to stand by your post," said Rollo; "but now I must make over my authority to another. The Sergeant is to command here in my absence."

"Do you then make my allegiance over to the Sergeant?" asked Concha, in a quiet tone.

"God forbid!" cried Rollo, impetuously.

And little Concha, looking abroad over the darkling hills, thought within her heart that her morning was surely coming. It might be some time on the way, but all the same it was coming.

But yet when he told her of the desperate quest on which he was bound, that which had been glad became filled with foreboding, and the false dawn died out again utterly. The hills were both distant and dark.

But as Rollo continued to speak bravely, confidently, and took her hand to ask her bid him God-speed, Concha smiled once more to herself in the darkness. And so, at the last, it came about that she even held up her lips to be kissed. For now (so strangely natural grows this quaint custom after one or two experiments) it seemed as if no other method of saying good-bye were possible between them. And to Rollo the necessity appeared even stronger.

But was this the reason of Concha's smile in the darkness? Or was it because she thought? – "He is indeed the prince of youths, and can lay his orders on whom he will, binding and loosing like Peter with the Keys. But there is that in the heart of a woman which even he cannot bind, for all his good opinion of himself!"

Yet stranger than all, she thought none the worse of Master Rollo for his confidence and heady self-conceit. And what is more, she let him go from her without a murmur, though she knew that her heart of hearts was his. And that above all carrying off of queens and honours military, more than many towns captured and battles won, she wished to hear from Rollo Blair's lips that his heart also was her own – her very own. Many men had told her that same thing in these very words, and she had only laughed back at them with a flash of brilliant teeth, a pair of the blackest Andalusian eyes shining meantime with contemptuous mirth.

But now, it seemed that if she did not hear Rollo say this thing, she would die – which shows the difference there may be between words which we desire to hear spoken and those that others wish to speak to us.

Yet in spite of all, or because of it, she let him go without a word or a murmur, because of the hope of morning that was in her heart.

CHAPTER XXXIV
OUR ROLLO TO THE RESCUE

And this was the manner of his going. He sought the Sergeant upon his balcony, outside which climbed and writhed a great old vine-stem as thick as a man's leg. He was for taking Killiecrankie by his side, against the Sergeant's advice.

"Killiecrankie and I," he urged, with the buckle in his hand, "have been in many frays together, and I have never known him fail me yet."

"A sword like a weaver's beam is monstrously unhandy dangling between the legs!" replied the Sergeant, "and that you will find before you are at the foot of yonder vine-stock. Take a pair of pistols and a good Albacete leech. That is my advice. I think I heard El Sarria say that you had some skill of knife-play in the Andalusian manner."

"So, so," returned Rollo, modestly. "I should not like to face you – your left hand to my right. But with most other men I might make bold to hold my own."

"Good!" said the Sergeant; "now listen. Let yourself down, hand-grip by hand-grip, clipping the vine-stem as best you may with your knees to make the less noise. You will be wholly hidden by the outer leaves. Move slowly, and remember I am here to keep watch and ward. Then stand a while in the shadow to recover your breath, and when you hear me whistle thrice like a swallow's twitter underneath the eaves, duck down as low as you can and make straight for the thickest of the underbrush over there. I have watched it for an hour and have seen nothing move. Yet that signifies less than nothing. There may be a score, aye, or a hundred gipsies underneath the branches, and the frogs croaking undisturbed upon the twigs above all the while. Yet it is your only chance. If you find anything there in shape of man, strike and cry aloud, both with all your might, and in a moment I will be with you, even as I was before."

Rollo grasped the Sergeant's hand and thanked him silently as brave men thank one another at such times.

"Nay," said the Sergeant, "let us wait till we return for that. It is touch and go at the best. But I will stay here till you are safely among the bushes. And then – I shall have some certain words to speak to Se?or Don Fernando Mu?oz, Duke of Rianzares and grandee of Spain, Consort in ordinary to her Majesty the Queen-Regent!"

Even as he spoke, Rollo, whose ears were acute, turned quickly and dashed into the ante-chamber. He thought he had heard a footstep behind them as they talked. And at the name of Mu?oz a suspicion crossed him that some further treachery was meditated. But the little upper hall was vague and empty, the scanty furniture scarce sufficient to stumble against. If any one had been there, he had melted like a ghost, for neither Rollo's swift decision nor the Sergeant's omniscient cunning could discover any trace of an intruder.



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