Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand

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Rollo attempted no disguise upon his adventure. He wore the same travel-stained suit, made to fit his slender figure by one of the most honest tailors in Madrid, in which he first appeared in this history. So with no more extent of preparation for his adventure than settling his sombrero a little more firmly upon his head and hitching his waist-belt a hole or two tighter, Rollo slipped over the edge of the iron balcony and began to descend by the great twisted vine-stem.

He did not find the task a difficult one. For he was light and agile, firmed by continuous exercise, and an adept at the climbing art. As he had been, indeed, ever since, on the east-windy braes of Fife, where swarming rookeries crown the great hog-back ridges, he had risen painfully through the clamour of anxious parents to possess himself of a hatful of speckled bluish-green eggs for the collection wherewith he was to win the tricksome and skittish heart of Mistress Peggy Ramsay, who (tell it not in the ducal house which her charms now adorn!) was herself no inexpert tree-climber in the days when Rollo Blair temporarily broke his boyish heart for her sake.

So in brief (and without a thought of Peggy) Rollo found himself upon the ground, his dress a little disordered and his hands somewhat scratched, but safe behind his screen of leaves. Remembering the advice of the Sergeant, Rollo waited for the appointed signal to fall upon his ear from above. He could see nothing indeed across the lawn but the branches of the pine trees waving low, and beneath them feathery syringa bushes, upland fern, and evergreens with leathery leaves.

What might be hidden there? In another moment he might rush upon the points of a hundred knives. Another minute, and, like the good Messire Fran?ois, cur? of Meudon, it might be his to set forth in quest of the Great Perhaps.

At the thought he shrugged his shoulders and repeated to himself those other last words of the same learned doctor of Montpellier, "Ring down the curtain – the farce is over!"

But at that same moment he thought of little Concha up aloft and the bitterness died out of his heart as quickly as it had come.

No, the play was not yet played out, and it had been no farce. There was yet other work for him – perhaps another life better than this cut-and-thrust existence, ever at the mercy of bullet and sword's point. He stood up straight and listened, hearing for the first five minutes nothing but the soft wind of the night among the leaves, and from the town the barking of the errant and homeless curs which, in the streets and gutters, yelped, scrambled, and tore at each other for scraps of offal and thrice-gnawed bone.

From above came the contented twitter of a swallow nestling under the leaves, yet with a curious carrying quality in it too, at once low and far-reaching. It was the Sergeant's signal for his attempt.

Rollo set his teeth hard, thought of Concha, bent his head low, and, like a swift-drifting shadow, sped silently across the smooth upland turf.

The thick leaves of the laurel parted before him, the sword-flower of Spain pricked him with its pointed leaves, and then closed like a spiked barrier behind him. A blackbird fled noisily to quieter haunts. The frogs ceased their croaking. Panting, Rollo lay still under the branches, crushing out the perfume of the scrubby, scented geranium, which in the watered wildernesses of La Granja takes root everywhere.

But among the leaves nothing moved hand or foot against him. Nor gipsy nor mountaineer stirred in the thicket. So that when Rollo, after resting a little, explored quietly and patiently the little plantation, going upon all fours, not a twig of pine crackling under his palms, no hostile knife sheathed itself between his ribs.

For, as was now clear, the gipsies had not concealed themselves among the bushes. They had all night before them in which to carry out their projects. Doubtless (thought the young man) they had gone to possess themselves of the town. After that the palace would lie at their mercy, a nut to be cracked at their will.

From the first Rollo was resolved to find the little pavilion of which La Giralda had spoken. It was in his mind that the girl might, if free and unharmed, as he hoped, make her way thither. He had indeed only the most vague and general idea of its locality. The old gipsy had told him that it was near to the northern margin of the gardens, and that by following the mountain stream which supplied the great waterfall he could not fail to come upon it.

But ere he had ventured forth from his hiding-place, he heard again the swallow's twitter, louder than before, and evidently meant for his ear. Could it be a natural echo or his own disordered fancy which caused a whistle exactly similar to reach him from the exact locality he meant to search?

Rollo moved to that extremity of the thicket from whence the more regular gardens were visible. He concealed himself behind a pomegranate tree, and, while he stood and listened, mellow and clear the call came again from the vicinity of the waterfall.

But Rollo was not of those who turn back. Good-byes are difficult things to say twice within the same half-hour. No, he had burnt his boats and would rather go forward into the camp of a thousand gipsies than climb up the vine-stem and face the Sergeant and Concha with his task undone. Shame of this kind has often more to do with acts of desperate courage than certain other qualities more besung by poets.

It was obvious, therefore, that the gipsies were still within the enclosure of the palace, so Rollo gave up the idea of keeping straight up the little artificial rivulet, whose falls gleamed wanly before him, each square and symmetrical as a flag hung out of the window on a still day.

To the left, however, there were thickets of red geranium, the Prince's Flower of Old Castilian lore, five or six feet high. Among these Rollo lost himself, passing through them like a shadow, his head drooped a little, and his knife ready to his hand.

When he was halfway along the edge of the royal demesne he saw across the open glade a strange sight, yet one not unwelcome to him.

The palace storehouses had been broken into. Lights moved to and fro from door to door, and above from window to window. A train of mules and donkeys stood waiting to be loaded. Thieves' mules they were, without a single bell or bit jingling anywhere about their accoutrements.

Then Rollo understood in a moment why no further attack had been made upon the palace. To the ordinary gipsy of the roads and hills – half smuggler, half brigand, the stores of Estramenian hams, the granaries full of fine wheat of the Castiles, of maize and rice ready to be loaded upon their beasts, were more than all possible revenges upon queens and grandees of Spain.

In losing the daughter of Mu?oz they had lost both inspiration and cohesion, and now the natural man craved only booty, and that as plentifully and as safely as possible. So there in the night torches were lighted, and barn and byre, storehouse and cellar were ransacked for those things which are most precious to men gaunt and lantern-jawed with the hunger of a plague-stricken land.

After this discovery the young Scot moved much more freely and fearlessly. For it explained what had been puzzling him, how it came about that so far no sustained or concerted attack had been made upon the palace.

And this same careless confidence of his, for a reason which will presently appear, had well-nigh wrecked his plans. All suddenly Rollo came upon the open door of a little low building, erected something after the model of a Greek temple. It was undoubtedly the pavilion which had been mentioned by La Giralda as the place where the goats had been milked.

Of this Rollo was further assured by the collection of shining silver utensils which were piled for removal before the door. A light burned dimly within. It was a dark lantern set on a shelf, among broken platters and useless crockery. The door was open and its light fell on half a dozen dusky figures gathered in a knot about some central object which the young man was not able to see.

Rollo recoiled into the reeds as if a serpent had bitten him. Then parting the tall tasselled canes carefully, he gazed out upon the curious scene. A window stood open in the rear of the building, and the draught blew the flame of the open lantern about, threatening every moment to extinguish it.

One of the gipsies, observing this, moved to the bracket-shelf to close the glass bull's-eye of the lantern.

A couple of others looked after him to see what he was about, and through the gap thus made Rollo saw, with only a shawl thrown over her white night-gear, the little Queen herself, held fast in a gipsy's bare and swarthy arms.

"I have told you before," he heard her say in her clear childish treble, "I know nothing – I will tell nothing. I have nothing to give you, and if I had a whole world I would not give a maravedi's worth to you. You are bad men, and I hate you!"

Rollo could not hear what the men said in reply, but presently as one dusky ruffian bent over the girl, a thin cord in his hand, high and bitter rose a child's cry of pain.

It went straight to Rollo's heart. He had heard nothing like it since Peggy Ramsay got a thorn in her foot the day he had wickedly persuaded her to strip and run barefoot over the meadows of Castle Blair. He compressed his lips, and moved his knife to see that the haft came rightly to his hand. Then as calmly as if practising at a mark he examined his pistols and with the utmost deliberation drew a bead upon the burly ruffian with the cord. The first pistol cracked, and the man dropped silently. Instantly there ensued a great commotion within. The most part of the gipsies rushed to the door, standing for a moment clear against the lighted interior.

Rollo, all on fire with the idea that the villains had been torturing a child, fired his second pistol into the thick of them, upon which arose a sudden sharp shriek and a furious rushing this way and that. The lamp was blown out or knocked over in the darkness, and Rollo, hesitating not a moment, snapped back the great Albacetan blade into its catch and rushed like a charging tiger at the door. Twice on his way was he run against and almost overturned by fugitives from the pavilion. On each occasion his opponents' fear of the mysterious fusillade, aided by a sharp application of the point of the Albacete, cleared Rollo's front. He stumbled over a body prone on the ground, caught his hand on the cold stone lintel, and in a moment was within.

He said aloud, "Princess Isabel, I am your friend! Trust me! I have come to deliver you from these wicked people!"

But there was no answer, nor did he discover the little Queen's hiding-place till an uncontrollable sobbing guided him to the spot.

The child was crouching underneath the polished stove with which in happier days she had so often played. Rollo took the little maid in his arms.

"Do not be afraid," he whispered, "I, Rollo Blair, am your friend; I will either take you to your friends or lay down my life for you. Trust me! – Do what I tell you and all will be well!"

"Your voice sounds kind, though I cannot see your face," she whispered; "yes, I will go with you!"

He lifted her up on his left arm, while in his right hand he held the knife ready to be plunged to the hilt into any breast that withstood him.

One swift rush and they were without among the reeds.

"I will take you to your mother – I promise it," he said, "but first you must come through the town with me to the Hermitage of the good friars. The palace is surrounded with wicked men to-night. We cannot go back there, but to-morrow I will surely take you to your mother!"

"I do not want to go to my mother," whispered the little Queen, "only take me to my dear, dearest Do?a Susana!"

And then it was that Rollo first realised that he had undertaken something beyond his power.


But, indeed, the problem before Rollo was one difficult enough to cause him to postpone indefinitely all less immediate and pressing evils. As they lay hid among the reeds, and while Rollo endeavoured more completely to gain the good-will of the little Queen, they heard the bell of the Hermitage of San Ildefonso strike the hour sonorously.

Rollo could hardly believe his ears as the number lengthened itself out till he had counted twelve. He had supposed that it must be three or four in the morning at the least. But the night had worn slowly. Many things which take long to tell had happened in brief space, and, what to Rollo appeared worst of all, it would be yet some five hours till daylight.

As they crouched among the canes, the effect of his sudden discomfiture of the captors of the child Isabel became apparent. The whole palace was ringed with a sudden leaping fire of musketry. The angry fusillade was promptly answered from the balconies, and Rollo had the satisfaction of knowing, from the shouts and yells of pain and fury beneath, that not only were his folk on the alert, but that he had reason to be satisfied with the excellence of their marksmanship.

More than one rambling party of gipsies passed their hiding-place. But these for the most part searched in a perfunctory manner, their heads over their shoulders to listen to the progress of their comrades who were attacking the palace, and perhaps also no little afraid lest death should again leap out upon them from the darkness of the cane-brake. Rollo, immediately upon his return to the thicket, had recovered and recharged his pistols by touch, and presently, having made all ready, he caught up the little girl in his arms, urging her to be silent whatever happened, and to trust everything to him.

Isabel, who was of an affectionate and easy disposition, though ever quick to anger, put her arm readily about the young man's neck. He had a winsome and gracious manner with all children, which perhaps was the same quality that won him his way with women.

Rollo had an idea which had come to him with the chime of the Hermitage bell as it tolled the hour of midnight. There, if anywhere, he would find good men, interested in the welfare of the Princess, and with hearts large enough to remain calmly at the post of duty even in a deserted and plague-ruined town. For one of the chief glories of the Roman Church is this, that her clergy do not desert their people in the hour of any danger, however terrible. Nothing else, indeed, is thought of. As a military man would say, "It is the tradition of the service!"

Now if Rollo had been in his own Scottish land during the visitation of this first cholera, he would have had good grounds for hoping that he would find the ministers of his faith in the thick of the fight with death, undismayed, never weary. There were many, very many such – many, but very far from all. The difference was that here in ignorant Spain Rollo knew without deduction that of a certainty the monks and parish priests of the ancient creed would be faithful.

It might indeed in some cases be otherwise with some selfish and pampered Jesuits or the benefice-seeking rabble of clerics who hang about the purlieus of a court. A father-confessor or two might flee over-seas, an abbot go on timely pilgrimage to Rome, but here in San Ildefonso, Rollo knew that he would either find the priests and holy brothers of the Church manfully doing their noble work, or dead and in their sainted graves – in any case, again in military phrase, "all present or all accounted for!"

To the Hermitage of San Ildefonso, therefore, recently enlarged and erected into a monastery, Rollo directed his steps. It was no easy task at such a time. There was the great railing to negotiate, and a passage to force through a town by this time alive with enemies. In spite of the darkness the gipsies at any point might stop his way, and he was burdened with a child whom he must protect at all hazards.

But this young man loved to be driven into a corner. Danger excited him, as drinking might another man. Indeed, so quick were his parts, so ready his invention, that before he had left the reed-bed he had turned over and rejected half a dozen plans of escape. Yet another suggested itself, to which for the moment he could see no objection.

He spoke to the little Isabel, who now nestled closely and confidently to him.

"Did they not tell me," he said, "that there was somewhere about the palace a dairy of cows?"

"Yes – it is true," answered the little Queen; "at least, there is a place where they are brought in to be milked. It belongs to my mother. She loves them all, and often used to take me there to enjoy the sight and to drink the milk warm with the froth upon it because it is good for the breathing!"

"Can you show me the way, little Princess Isabel?" said Rollo.

"Yes, that can I, indeed," she made answer; "but you must not take away my mother's milk-pails, nor let the wicked gipsies know of them. Old Piebald Pedro drives the cows in and out every day, riding upon his donkey. They live at my mother's farm in the valley that is called in French 'Sans Souci!' Is it not a pretty name?"

"His donkey?" said Rollo, quickly, catching at the idea; "where does he keep it?"

"In a little shed not far from the dairy," she answered, "the stable is covered all over with yellow canes, and it stands near a pool where the green frogs croak!"

It had been Rollo's intention to drive some of the royal cows out before him as a booty, passing himself off as one of the gipsy gang. But upon this information he decided that Pedro the cowherd's ass would suit his purpose much better, if he should be fortunate enough to find it. He was sure that among so many gipsies and ill-conditioned folk who had joined the tribes of Egypt for the sake of adventure and booty, there must be many who were personally unknown to each other. And though he could not speak deep Romany like La Giralda and the Sergeant, Rollo was yet more expert at the "crabbed Gitano" than nine out of ten of the northern gipsies, who, indeed, for the most part use a mere thieves' slang, or as it is called, Tramper's Dutch.

The little girl directed him as well as she could, nevertheless it was some time before he could find the place he was in quest of. For Isabel had never been out at night before, and naturally the forms of all things appeared strangely altered to an imaginative child. Indeed, it may be admitted that Rollo stumbled upon the place more by good luck than because he was guided thither by the advice of Isabel. For the utmost the child could tell him was only that Piebald Pedro's hut was near the dairy, and that the dairy was near Pedro's hut.

The donkey itself, however, perhaps excited by the proximity of so many of its kind (though no one of the thieves' beasts had made the least actual noise), presently gave vent to a series of brays which guided them easily to the spot.

Rollo set the Princess on the ground, bidding her watch by the door and tell him if any one came in sight. But the little girl, not yet recovered from her fright, clung to his coat and pled so piteously to be allowed to stay with him, that he could not insist. First of all he groped all around the light cane-wattled walls of Pedro's hut for any garment which might serve to disguise him. For though Rollo's garments were by no means gay, they were at least of somewhat more fashionable cut than was usual among the gipsies and their congeners.

After a little Rollo found the old cowherd's milking-blouse stuffed in an empty corn-chest among scraps of harness, bits of rope, nails, broken gardening-tools, and other collections made by the Piebald One in the honest exercise of his vocation. He pulled the crumpled old garment out and donned it without scruple. His own sombrero, much the worse for wear and weather, served well enough, with the brim turned down, to give the young man the appearance of a peasant turned brigand for the nonce.

His next business was to conceal the little girl in order that they might have a chance of passing the gipsy picket at the gates, and of escaping chance questionings by the way.

Rollo therefore continued to search in the darkness till he had collected two large bundles, one of chopped straw, and the other of hay, which he stuffed into the panniers, in the larger of which he meant to find room also for the Princess. Once settled, a sheet was thrown over her shoulders, and the hay lightly scattered over all. Then she was ordered to lie down and to keep especially still if she should hear any one speak to her companion. And so naturally did the little girl take to secrecy and adventure that after having assured herself of Rollo's kindness, not a murmur passed her lips.

On the contrary, she promised all careful obedience, and it was no great while before they set out, making so bold as to pass once more by her own private kitchen. For Rollo had resolved to take possession of some of the silver utensils, that he might have somewhat wherewith to satisfy plunderers if they should chance to be stopped, and the ass's burdens in danger of being too closely examined.

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