Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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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.

CHAPTER XXXVI
DEATH-CART

Thus came the little Isabel of Spain into sanctuary. That the respite could only be temporary, Rollo knew too well. The monks were stout and willing men, but such arms as they had belonged to almost primitive times, chiefly old blunderbusses of various patterns from the middle of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth, together with a halberd or two which had been used from time immemorial in the Hermitage kitchen for breaking bones to get out the marrow, chopping firewood, and such like humble and peaceful occupations.

Two of the remaining brothers of the Ermita were as other men, plain, simple and devout, ready to give up their lives, either by dying of disease at their post of duty, or by the steel of cruel and ignorant men, as the martyrs and confessors of whom they read in their breviaries had done in times past.

The cook-almoner on the other hand proved to be a shrewd little man, with much ready conversation, a great humorist at most times, yet not without a due regard for his own safety. Him the little Princess knew well, having often stolen off through the gardens and down the long "Mall" to taste his confectioned cakes, made in the Austrian manner after a receipt which dated from the time of the founder of blessed memory, Henry the Fourth of that name, and often partaken of by Catholic sovereigns when they drove out to the lofty grange and Hermitage of the Segovian monks of El Parral.

The fourth and principal friar proved upon acquaintance to be a man of another mould. He was a tall square-shouldered man, now a little bent with age, but with the fires of loyalty burning deep within eyes of the clearest and most translucent blue. His hair was now quickly frosting over with premature infirmity, for not only was his constitution feeble but he was just recovering from a dangerous attack of pneumonia. Altogether Brother Teodoro was a northern-looking rather than a Spanish man. It was not till afterwards that Rollo discovered that he belonged to the ancient race of the Basques, and that in his day he had fought as a bold soldier in the partidas, which rose in the rear of Napoleon's marshals when he sent his legions across the Pyrenees. Indeed, he had even followed El Gran' Lor to Toulouse when the battered remnants of that great army skulked back home again beaten by the iron discipline of England and the gad-fly persistence of the Spanish guerrilleros.

It was with Brother Teodoro then, as with a man already walking in the shadow of death, that Rollo in quick low-spoken sentences discussed the possibilities of the Hermitage as a place of defence. It was clear that no ordinary military precautions and preparations would serve them now. The four brethren were willing, if need were, to lay down their lives for the young Queen. But saving the pistols and the limited ammunition which Rollo had brought with him in his belt, and the bell-mouthed blunderbusses aforesaid, rusted and useless, there was not a single weapon of offence within the Hermitage of San Ildefonso of greater weight than the kitchen poker.

The Basque friar laid his hand on his brow and leaned against the wall for a minute or two in silent meditation.

"I have it," he said, suddenly turning upon Rollo, "it is our only chance, a ghastly one it is true, but we are in no case for fine distinctions. We will get out the death-cart and gather us an army!"

Rollo gazed at the monk Teodoro as if he had suddenly lost his wits.

"The death-cart! What is that?" he cried, "and how will that help us to gather an army?"

The Basque smiled, and Rollo noticed when he did so that his eyebrows twitched spasmodically. There was a broad scar slashed across one of them. This man had not been in the army of the Gran' Lor for nothing. For in addition to the sabre cut, he had great ideas under that blue-veined, broad, sick man's forehead of his.

"Yes," answered Teodoro, calmly, "our brother, whose duty it was to collect the bodies of the plague-stricken, died two days ago, and the oxen have not been in the town since. As for me, I too have been sick – a mere calentura, though for a time the brethren feared that the plague had laid its hand on me also; and as for those other two, they have enough to do to keep up their ministrations among the living. To give the last sacrament to the dying is, after all, more important than to cover up the dead. At such times one has to remember how that once on a time the Virgin's Son said, 'Let the dead bury their dead!'"

He was silent a little, as if composing a homily on this text.

"But all things work good to the chosen of God," he said. "To-night we will make of these very dead an army to defend our little Queen – the Lord's anointed. For in this matter I do not think as do the most of my brothers of the Church. I am no Carlist, God be my witness!"

Rollo was still in a maze of wonder and doubt when they arrived at the little stables attached to the long low building of the Hermitage and began to harness the oxen to the cart. He prided himself on his quickness of resource, but this was clean beyond him.

"One of us must abide here," continued the monk. "I am still sick unto death, so that I greatly fear I can give you no help. Bleeding and this calentura together have left me without power in my old arms. But lend me your pistols, of which you will have no need. I am an old soldier of the wars of the Independence, and have not forgotten mine ancient skill with the weapons of the flesh. Do not fear for the little Princess. Only make such speed as you can."

And with the utmost haste the Basque instructed Rollo as to his behaviour when he should reach the town, whilst at the same time he was helping him into the dress of a Brother of Pity and arranging the hood across his face.

"Hold your head well down," so ran the monk's rubric for the dread office, "repeat in a loud voice 'Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!' No more than that and no less. With the butt of your ox-staff strike the doors whereon you see painted the red cross, and those that remain will bring out whom the plague hath smitten."

The young man listened as in a dream. The oxen started at the friar's gentle chirrup. The ox-staff was placed in Rollo's hand, and lo, he was guiding the meek bent heads softly towards the town before he even realised that he was now to encounter a foe far more terrible than any he had ever faced in battle or at the rapier's point upon the field of honour.

The trees were as solidly dark as black velvet above him. The oxen padded softly over the well-trodden path. In the gloom he dropped his goad, and only became conscious when he tried to pick it up that the Basque had drawn over his hands a pair of huge gloves which reached down almost to his wrists. These had been carefully tarred outside, and doubtless furnished at least some protection against infection.

The great well-fed beasts, white oxen of the finest Castilian breed, a gift of the Queen-Regent to the brethren, were under perfect control; and though Rollo had only once or twice before handled the guiding staff, he had not the least difficulty in conducting the cart towards the town.

Indeed, so often had the animals taken the same road of late, that they seemed to know their destination by instinct, and gave the tall young monk in the hood no trouble whatever. The wheels, however, being of solid wood of a style ancient as the Roman occupation, creaked with truly Spanish crescendo to the agony point. For in all countries flowing with oil and wine no man affords so much as a farthing's worth of grease for his waggon-wheels. But upon this occasion the lack was no loss – nay, rather a gain. For even before Rollo's shout gained assurance and sonorousness, the creaking of the wheels of the cart far-heard scattered various groups of marauders about the streets of the town as if it had been the wings of the angel of death himself.

"Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!"



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