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They found the silver vessels and pans lying where they had been piled outside the door. Apparently no one had been near them. One of the gipsies, however, who had been wounded, still lay groaning without, cursing the cravens who had left him and fled at a couple of pistol shots. But the other, he who had first been dealt with by Rollo's bullet out of the cane-brake, gave no sign. He lay still, shot through the heart, the torture-cord still in his hand.
Without taking the least notice of the wounded man, Rollo coolly loaded the silver dishes upon his own shoulders, placing one or two of the largest copper pans upon the donkey in such a manner as to shelter the Princess from observation should any one turn a lantern upon them on their way to the Hermitage of San Ildefonso.
They kept wide of the palace itself, however, for though the fire had slackened, and the besieged only replied when one of their assailants incautiously showed himself, yet the place was evidently still completely beset, and the loaded trains of mules and donkeys departing from the storehouses had released many of the younger and more adventurous gipsies, who had brought no beast with them on which to carry off their plunder.
At about the same time, a red glow began to wax and wane uncertainly above the granaries most distant from Rollo and his charge. A ruddy volume of smoke slowly disengaged itself from the roofs. Windows winked red, glowed, and then spouted flame. It was evident that the gipsies had fired the plundered storehouses.
In their own interests the act was one of the worst policy. For their movements, which had hitherto been masked in darkness, now became clear as day, while the advantages of the besieged within the palace were greatly increased.
But (what principally concerns us) the matter happened ill enough for Rollo and the little Queen. They had to pass under the full glare of the fire, through groups of gipsies assembled about the great gate, chaffering and disputing. But there appeared to Rollo at least a chance of getting past unobserved, for all seemed to be thoroughly occupied with their own business. Rollo accordingly settled the little Queen deeper in the great pannier, and readjusted the hay over her. He then hung an additional pair of copper vessels across the crupper, chirruped to the beast, and went forward to face his fate with as good a heart as might be within his breast.
"Whither goest thou, brother?" cried a voice from behind him, just when Rollo was full between the portals of the great gate.
"Brother, I go into the town to complete my plunder," answered Rollo in Romany, "and to help my kinsfolk of the Gitano!"
"Strangely enough thou speakest, brother," was the reply; "thy tongue is not such as we wanderers of the Castiles speak one to the other!"
Rollo laughed heartily at this, his hand all the while gripping the pistol on his thigh.
"Indeed," said he, "it were great marvel an it were.For I am of Lorca, which is near to Granada; and what is more, I am known there as a very pretty fellow with my hands!"
"I doubt it not," said the Castilian gipsy, turning away; "and not to speak of the pistol, that is a pretty enough plaything of a tooth-pick which hangs at thy girdle, brother!"
As he turned carelessly away he pointed to the long knife the Sergeant had given Rollo, and which, owing to some mysterious marks upon its handle, proved on more than one occasion of service to him.
Presently, as he was urging his donkey to the left out of the silent town, he came upon a knot of gipsies who stood with heads all bent together as if in consultation. They were deep within the shadow of an archway a little raised above the level of the street, and Rollo could not see them before he was, as it were, under their noses. One of them, a great brawny hulk of a man, sun-blackened to the hue of an Arab of the Rif, struck his knuckles with a clang on the brazen vessel which sheltered the little Queen.
Rollo caught his breath, for it seemed certain that the child must cry out with fear.
But the little maid abode silent, her Spanish heart taking naturally to concealments and subterfuges – then, as in after years.
"Ha, brother," said this great hulk in deep tones, and in better Romany than the former had used, "thou art strangely modest in thy plundering. Hay and straw, brass kettles and tin skillets, my friend, are like that neatherd's cloak of thine, they cover a multitude of things better worth having. What hast thou there under thy pots and pans?"
The young man's often tried fate stood again on tiptoe. He knew well that he was within a pin-prick of getting his throat cut from ear to ear. But nevertheless the cool head and fiery heart which were the birthright of Rollo Blair once more brought him through. He instantly laid his hand upon his knife-handle and half drew it from its leathern sheath.
"I would have you know, sir," he cried in an incensed tone, "that I am Ruiz Elicroca of Lorca, own sister's son to Jos? Maria of Ronda, who gave me this knife, as you may see by the handle. I am not to be imposed upon by cut-purses and bullies – no, not though they were as big as a church, and as black-angry as the devil on a saint's day!"
The huge fellow fell back a step, with a sort of mockery of alarm, before Rollo's vehemence. For he had advanced into the middle of the highway, so as to bar the path by the mere bulk of his body. He appeared better satisfied, however, though by no means intimidated.
"Well," he growled, "you are a cockerel off a good dung-hill, if things be as you say. At all events you crow not unhandsomely. But whither go you in that direction? You are well laden as to your shoulders, my young friend. That plate looks as if it might be silver. I warrant it would melt down into a hundred good duros with the double pillar upon each of them. You need not want for more. But turn and go another way. The Hermitage is yet to be tapped, and I warrant that monk's roost hath good store of such-like – gold and silver both. That we claim as ours, remember!"
"And, sir, what do you expect one man to do?" cried Rollo. "Can I take and rob the armed and defended retreat of the friars? I warrant they have either buried their plate in a safe place or have kept a sufficient guard there to protect it – even as they have up yonder. Hark to them!"
The sound of a brisk interchange of shots came to their ears from the direction of the palace.
"These be young fools who run their heads against stone walls," said the huge gipsy; "we are wiser men. They seek gold, and are in danger of getting lead. Like you, we will be content with silver. Altar furniture is by no means to be despised. It fits the melting-pot as egg-meat fits egg-shell! But whither do you fare?"
"I am passing in this direction solely that I may reach a place known to my uncle and myself, where the pair of us have a rendezvous," answered Rollo; "mine uncle Don Jos? hath no wish to meddle in other men's matters, as indeed he told some of you yesterday morning. But as for me, seeing that I was young of my years and desired to make my mark, he permitted me to come. But I would rather give up all my booty, though honestly taken with the strong hand, than keep Jos? Maria waiting!"
The Moorish gipsy now laughed in his turn.
"Nay, that I doubt not," he said, "but here we are all good fellows, right Roms, true to each other, and would rob no honest comrade of that for which he hath risked his life. Pass on, brother, and give to Jos? Maria of Ronda the respects of Ezquerra, the executioner, who on the Plaza Mayor of Salamanca removed the spike from the iron cravat that so deftly marked him for life!"
With a burst of gratitude quick and sincere, Rollo seized the huge hand and wrung it heartily.
"You saved Jos? Maria's life," he cried, "then mine is at your service!"
"Pass on, boy," smiled Ezquerra, grimly; "it is not the first time, since I became usher to the Nether World, that I have been able to do a friend and brave comrade a good turn. Only warn him that now they have a new operator at Salamanca in whose veins circulates no drop of the right black blood of Egypt. He must not try the collar twice!"
Rollo passed on with his donkey, and he was into the second street before he dared to lift the covering of hay which hid the child. He expected to find her in a swoon with fright or half dead with fear and anxiety. Isabel the Second was neither.
"Take off that platter of metal," she whispered; "what funny talk you speak. It sounded like cats spitting. You must teach it to me afterwards when Do?a Susana is out of the way. For she is very strict with me and will only let me learn French and Castilian, saying that all other languages are only barbarian and useless, which indeed may well be!"
"Hush," said Rollo; "we are not yet in safety. Here is the way to the Hermitage!"
"But will you teach me the cat language?"
"Yes, yes, that I will and gladly," quoth Rollo to the little Queen, anxious to buy her silence on any terms, "as soon, that is, as there is time!"
After passing the gate and the group collected there, Rollo had turned rapidly to the right, and soon the ancient walls of the Ermita of San Ildefonso rose before him, gleaming dimly through the dense greenery of the trees. If any of the fathers, who made their home at that sacred place, still remained, the outside of the building gave no sign of their presence.
But it was not a time for Rollo to stand on any ceremony. With a rough tug at the rein he compelled the donkey to follow a narrow winding path which, entering at an angle, made its way finally to the main door of the Hermitage. The young man thundered at the knocker, but, receiving no answer, he selected a flattish stone of a size suitable for passing between the iron grille of the window-bars, and threw it up at them with all his force. The jingling of glass followed, upon which presently a white face was seen behind the bars, and a mild voice inquired his business.
"The brethren are either asleep or gone about the affairs of their order in the town," the monk said; "there is no general hospitality here in time of plague!"
"I have not come to claim any," said Rollo; "I am here to warn you that San Ildefonso is in the hands of wicked and cruel men – gipsies of the mountains! Call your Superior and admit me at once!"
"Alas," answered the man, "our Prior is dead! I am only almoner here, and there are but three of us left. All the others are dead among the sick folk of the town. They laboured till they died. I have laboured also to provide them food when they could crawl back for it – setting it in the guest-chamber and going out again upon their arrival – God knows, not from any fear of the infection, but because if I chanced to be taken our work would be at an end. For none of the others can so much as cook an omelette or dish up a spoonful of gazpacho fit for any son of man to eat."
"Well," said Rollo, "at any rate let me in. I carry no infection and the time is short. I will help you to hold your Hermitage against the malefactors!"
"But how," answered the monk, shrewdly, "can I be certain that you are not of the gang, and that if I open the door a hundred of you will not rush in and slay me and us all out of hand?"
Rollo put his hand into the pannier of his ass and raised the Princess upon his arm.
"Turn a light upon this little lady," he said, "and see whether she will not convince you of my good intent!"
It was a moment or two before the man returned with a lantern, and directed the stream of light downwards.
"The young Queen!" he cried aghast; "what is she doing here at this hour of the night?"
"Let me in, and I will tell you," cried the lady herself, "quick – do you hear? I will complain to Father Ignacio, my mother's confessor, if you do not, and you will be deprived of your office. You will be put on bread and water, and very like have your head cut off as well!"
In a minute more they heard the noise of the pulling of bolts and bars, and were presently admitted into the little whitewashed hall of the Ermita de San Ildefonso. There they found themselves face to face with four monks in white habits, their faces pale and grave in the candle-light. They gave Rollo no sign of welcome, but each of them bowed his head low to the little Queen and then glanced inquiringly at her protector.
"Let the burro enter also," commanded Rollo. "Thrice I have been stopped on the way, and if our enemies find the ass without they will be the readier to believe that I have hidden my treasure with you!"
Then in the little whitewashed refectory, before the simple table on which the fathers, now sadly reduced in numbers, took their repasts, Rollo told his story. And, sinking on her knees devoutly before the great crucifix that hung over the mantelpiece, the little Queen repeated her childish prayers as placidly as if she had been at her nurse's knees in the royal palace at Madrid, with the sentries posted duly, and the tramp of the guard continually passing without.