Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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Certainly it was a solemn and awful cry heard echoing through the streets in the chilly hours of the night. Here and there at the sound a lattice opened, and some bereaved one cried down to the monk to stop.

Then staggering down the staircase, lighted (it may be) by some haggard crone with a guttering candle, or only stumbling blindly in the dark with their load, the bearers would come. In a very few cases these were two men, more frequently a man and a woman, and most frequently of all two women.

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

"Brother, we cannot!" a shrill voice came from high above; "come up hither and help us, for God's sake and the Holy Virgin's! She is our mother, and we are two young maids, children without strength."

Rollo looked up and saw the child that called down to him. Another at her shoulder held a lighted candle with a trembling hand.

"She is so little and light, brother," she pleaded, "and went so regularly to confession. Brother Jeronimo gave her the sacrament but an hour before she parted from us. Come up and help us, for dear Mary's sake!"

It went to Rollo's heart to refuse, but he could not well leave his oxen. He was a stranger to them and they to him; and his work, though well begun, was yet to finish.

While he stood in doubt, his mind swaying this way and that, a figure darted across to him from the opposite side of the street, a boy dressed in a suit of the royal liveries, but with a cloak thrown about his shoulders and a sailor's red cap upon his head.

"Give me the stick," he said in a muffled voice; "go up and bring down the woman. If need be, I will help you."

Without pausing to consider the meaning of this curious circumstance, where all circumstances were curious, Rollo darted up the staircase, his military boots clattering on the stone steps, strangely out of harmony with his priestly vocation.

He found the little maiden with the candle waiting at the door for him. She appeared to be about eight years old, but struck him as very small-bodied for her age. Her sister had remained within. She was older – perhaps ten or twelve. She it was who had pleaded the cause of the dead.

"Indeed, good brother," she began, "we did our best. We tried to carry her, and moved her as far as the chair. Then, being weak, we could get no farther. But do you help, and it will be easy!"

Rollo, growing accustomed to death and its sad victims, lifted the shrouded burden over his shoulder without a shudder. He was in the mood to take things as they came. The two little girls sank on their knees on the floor, wailing for their lost mother, and imploring his blessing in alternate breaths.

"Our mother – our dear mother!" they cried, "pray for us and her, most holy father!"

"God in heaven bless you," Rollo said aloud in English, and strode down the stairs. A knot of straggling gipsies furtively expectant stood about the door. The cart was still in the middle of the street with its attendant boy, in the exact place where Rollo had left it.

"Here, lend me a hand," he cried in a voice of command, as he emerged into their midst with his white-wrapped burden.

But at the mere sight of the monk's habit and of the thing he carried on his shoulder, the gipsies dispersed, running in every direction as if the very plague-spectre were on their track.

The boy in the red cap, however, crossed the road towards him, and at the same moment the elder of the little girls sobbingly opened the lattice, holding the candle in her hand to take a last look at her mother.

The feeble rays fell directly on the boy's upturned face. At the sight Rollo stumbled and almost fell with his burden. The youth put out his hand to stay him. His fingers almost touched the dead.

"Hands off!" thundered Rollo, in fierce anger. "Concha Cabezos, how dare you come hither?"

The boy looked up at the man and answered simply and clearly —

"Rollo, I came because you dared!"

CHAPTER XXXVII
THE DEAD STAND SENTINEL

They walked on for a while in silence, Rollo too much thunderstruck and confounded to speak a word. His whole being was rent with the most opposite feelings. He was certainly angry with Concha. So much was clear to him. It was rash, it was unmaidenly to follow him at such a time and in such a guise. Yet, after all the girl had come. She was risking a terrible death for his sake. Well, what of that? It was right and natural that he should hold his life in his hands. All his life he had loved adventure as men their daily bread – not passionately, but as a necessity of existence.

But this – it was too great for him, too mighty, too surprising. For his sake! Because he dared! All the girls to whom he had made love – ay, even Peggy Ramsay herself, running barefoot in the braes of Falkland – instantly vanished. Life or death became no great matter – almost, as it seemed to him then, the same thing. For here was one who held all the world as well lost for him.

Meanwhile Concha walked silently alongside, the ox-staff still in her hands, but dimly understanding what was passing in his mind. Love to her was exceedingly simple. Her creed contained but two articles, or rather the same truth, brief, pregnant, uncontrovertible, stated in different ways: "If he live, I will live with him! If he die, I will die with him!"

So with her eyes on the oxen and her goad laid gently on this side and that of the meek heads, Concha guided them along the silent streets. Nevertheless, she was keenly aware of Rollo also, and observed him closely. She did not understand what he was doing in the garb of a friar, collecting the dead of the plague on the streets of San Ildefonso. But it did not matter, it was sufficient that he was doing it, and that (thank God!) she had escaped from the beleaguered palace in time to help him. She even reminded him of his duty, without asking a single question as to why he did it – self-abnegation passing wonderful in a woman!

"You have forgotten to cry," she whispered, dropping back from the ox's head. "We have passed two alleys without a warning!"

And so once more there rang down the streets of the town of San Ildefonso that dolorous and terrible cry which was to be heard in the dread plague-years, not only in the Iberian peninsula but also in England and Rollo's own Scotland, "Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!"

It chanced that in the next street, the last of the little town, they made up their full complement. The heads of the oxen were directed once more towards the Hermitage. They turned this corner and that slowly and decorously till, with a quickening of pace and a forward inclination of the meek, moist nostrils, the pair struck into the woodland path towards their stable at the Hermitage.

Not one word either of love or of reproach had Rollo spoken since those into which he had been startled by the fear lest the girl should set her hand upon the dead of the plague. Nor did they speak even now. Rollo only put out his gloved hand to steady the cart here and there in the deeper ruts, motioning Concha to remain at the head of the oxen, where no breath of the dead might blow upon her.

Thus, no man saying them nay, they arrived at the Hermitage of San Ildefonso. It was quiet even as they had left it.

As they came round to the front of the building, the Basque at the door was before them. He met them on the steps, a lantern in his hand.

"Who is this?" he asked, with a significant gesture towards Concha.

"Carlos – a lad of our company, an Andalucian," said Rollo, in answer. "I met him by chance in the town, and he has helped me with the oxen."

The friar nodded and, letting down the rear flap of the cart, he surveyed the melancholy harvest.

"Twelve!" he said. "Not many, but enough. The dead will guard us well from the evil men! Ay, better than an army of twelve thousand living!"

And attiring himself in an apron of tarred stuff similar to the gloves, he fastened another of the same material upon Rollo.

"We will now proceed to set our sentries!" he said, grimly.

As Rollo put on the gauntlets and approached to help Brother Teodoro to draw out the corpses, Concha hovered near, half timid, and yet with a certain decision of manner. The timidity was lest she should be refused in that which it was upon her tongue to ask.

"Let me help the brother," she said at last; "I have nursed many – no plague will touch me!"

The monk stared at the lad in wonder as he proffered his request. But Rollo roughly and angrily ordered Concha back to the heads of the oxen, which, with true Spanish fortitude, stood chewing the cud till they should be set free and returned to their stalls.

"Is this boy by any chance your brother?" said the monk, as between them they settled the first sheeted dead in his niche by the side of the great door.

"Nay," said Rollo, "not my brother."

"Then of a surety he hath a great affection for you," continued the monk. "It is a thing unusual in one of his age!"

To this Rollo did not reply, and in silence the cart was led about the house till every door and practicable entrance was guarded by one of these solemn warders. Then, the dead-cart being pushed within its shed and the oxen restored to their stalls, the three went within and the doors were locked, the bolts drawn, and everything about the Hermitage made as secure as possible.

It was yet a good two hours from daylight, and if the gipsies were coming that night their appearance would not be long delayed. It was Rollo's opinion that they would attack with the first glimmer of light from the east. For the Ermita de San Ildefonso was not like La Granja, a place set amongst open parterres. It was closely guarded by tall trees, and in the absence of a moon the darkness was intense, a faint star-glimmer alone being reflected from the whitewashed walls of the Hermitage.

Within, the two stout brothers and the little humorously featured almoner had already seen to the safety of every window and door. Above stairs in a retired chamber the little Queen had been sequestered from any breath of the plague-stricken sentries keeping their last vigil without, and also that she might be safe from every random bullet if the place should be attacked.

Rollo followed the Basque upwards to the roof, and Concha, with her capa still about her shoulders, followed Rollo into the light of the hall, nervously dragging the folds as low as possible about her knees.

The little Queen had two candles before her, and under her fingers was a great book of maps, upon which dragons and tritons, whales and sea monsters, writhed across uncharted seas, while an equal wealth of unicorns and fire-breathing gryphons freely perambulated the unexplored continental spaces. As it chanced Isabel was not at all sleepy, and to quiet her the Basque had set out some of the illuminating materials belonging to the order on slabs of porcelain, and with these she was employed in making gay the tall pages with the national yellow and red, and (as her great namesake had done before her) planting the flag of Spain over considerably more than half the world.

But as soon as the girl's eyes fell on Concha, she sprang up and let paint-brush and china-slab fall together to the ground.

"Oh, I know you," she cried (here Rollo trembled); "you are the new page-boy from Aranjuez! He was to arrive to-day. What is your name?"

"Carlos," said the new page-boy from Aranjuez, from whose cheek also the rose had momentarily fled.

"And why do you wear that curious red cap?" cried the little Queen. "I know Do?a Susana would be very angry if she saw you. Pages must show their own hair and wear it in curls too. Have you pretty hair?"

"It is the cap of liberty the boy wears, Princess!" said the Basque friar, breaking in quickly, and with some irony. "Do you not know that since Se?or Mendizabel came to Madrid from England we are all to have as much liberty as we want?"

"Well," replied the Princess, tartly, "all I know is that I wish I had more of it. Do?a Susana will not let me do a single thing I want to do. But when I grow up I mean to do just what I like."

Which truly royal and Bourbon sentiment had a better fate than most prophecies, for Isabel the Second afterwards lived to fulfil it to the uttermost, both in the spirit and in the letter.

But the girl had not yet finished her inspection of Concha.

"Do you know," she went on, "I think you are the very prettiest boy I have ever seen. You may come and kiss me. When I am grown up, I will make you an officer of my bodyguard!"

Leaving little Isabel Segunda to make friends according to her heart with the page-boy from Aranjuez (to whom she immediately proceeded to swear an unalterable fidelity), Rollo and Brother Teodoro retired, to await with what patience they might the long-delayed approach of the gipsies.

"Twice during your absence did I believe them on their way," said the friar. "On the first occasion I heard in the wood wild cries, mixed with oaths, cursings, and revilings, unfit for any Christian ears. God help this land that holdeth such heathens within it! But something must have affrighted the factious, for little by little the noises died away. I saw the red gleam in the sky wax and wane. And once there was a scream, strange and terrible, like that of a demon unchained. But, lo! when you came again with the oxen and the dead, all grew still. It was passing strange!"

"Not, as I think, more strange than that!" said Rollo, looking out over the parapet and pointing to the grim line of sentries which guarded the Hermitage of San Ildefonso. The ruddy light of approaching day scarce tinged the tree-tops, but the highest fleecy clouds had caught the glow long before the horizon was touched. Yet the darkness down among the trees was less absolute than before. There was also a weird, far-away crying, and then the cheerful clatter of hoofs upon a road nearer at hand. A slight stirring among the higher foliage advertised the coming of a breeze. Involuntarily the two men shivered, as with a soughing murmur a blast of icy wind swept down from the peaks of Pe?alara, and the Basque gripped his companion by the arm. Priest as he was, the superstitions of his ancient race were not dead in his heart, nor had he forgotten his early military association with camps and sentinels.

"Grand rounds!" he cried; "it is the Angel of Death visiting his outposts!"

But Rollo had other and more practical thoughts. He was aware that after the fatigues of the night and the proximity of so many victims of the plague, a chill would most likely be fatal. So he carefully drew a silken handkerchief from his pocket and fastened it calmly about his throat, advising the monk to cover his head with his hood.

Then suddenly another sound caught his ear. It was the identical signal he had heard from Sergeant Cardono, the same that had been repeated in the garden of the royal palace as he stood among the reeds of the cane brake. Beginning with the low morning twitter of the swallow, it increased in volume till it carried far over the woodlands, wild and shrill as he remembered the winter cry of the whaups sweeping down from the Fife Lomonds to follow the ebb tide as it sullenly recedes from Eden Mouth towards Tents Muir.

"They are here," he whispered hoarsely to his companion. "It is the gipsies' battle signal!"

The Basque spread abroad his hands, raising them first to heaven and anon pointing in the direction of the approaching foe.

"The scourge of God!" he cried, "let the scourge of God descend upon those that do wickedly! The prayer of a dying man availeth! Let the doom fall!"

He was silent a moment, and then added with an air of majestic prophecy – "Oaths and cursings are in their mouths, but, like the dead in the camp of Sennacherib, they shall be dead and dumb."

Again he spread his hands abroad, as if he pronounced a benediction upon the sentries posted below.

"Blessed souls," he cried, "for whom we of this Holy House have died that you might live, cause that your poor vile bodies may fight for us this night! Let the dead meet the living and the living be over-thrown! Hear, Almighty Lord of both quick and dead – hear and answer!"

CHAPTER XXXVIII
CONCHA SAYS AMEN

Looking down from their station on the roof, Rollo and the friar could see what appeared to be the main force of the gipsies drawing near through the alleys of the wood. They approached in no order or military formation, which indeed it was never their nature to adopt. But they came with a sufficiency of confused noise, signalling and crying one to another through the aisles of the forest.

"They are telling each other to spread out on the wings and encircle the house on the north," whispered Rollo in a low voice to the Basque friar by his side.

The monk laughed a low chuckling laugh.

"They will find the holy Hermitage equally well guarded on that side!" he said. And as they stood silent the rose of dawn began slowly to unfold itself over the tree-tops with that awful windless stillness which characterises the day-breaks of the south. The glades of the wood were filled with a glimmering filmy light, in which it was easy to imagine the spirits of the dead hovering over their earthly tenements.

The gipsies came on as usual, freely and easily, land pirates on their own ground, none able to make them afraid. They had been checked, it is true, at the palace. The royal guard (so they imagined) seemed to have returned unexpectedly thither, contrary to their information, but on the other hand they had successfully plundered all the storehouses, cellars, and despachos of the great square.

Some of them still carried botas of wine (the true "leather bottel") in their hands or swung across their shoulders, and ever and anon took a swig to keep their courage up as they came near. Some sang and shouted, for were they not going to rout the lazy monks, always rich in money and plate, out of their lurking places? Was it not they who had first tried to make Christians of the Romany, and by so doing had shown the government how to entrap them into their armies, subjecting the free blood of Egypt to their cursed drafts and conscriptions?

"To the knives' point with them, then!" they shouted. "They who prate so much of paradise, let them go thither, and that with speed!" This would be a rare jest to tell for forty years by many a swinging kettle, and while footing it in company over many a lonely and dispeopled heath.

Thus with laughter and shouting they came on, and to Rollo, peering eagerly over the battlements, the white-wrapped corpses along the walls seemed to turn slowly blood-red before his eyes – the flaunting crimson of the sky above contrasting with the green of the woods, and tinging even the white shrouds with its ominous hue. But still the gipsies came on.

First of all strode the man who had called himself the Executioner of Salamanca, Ezquerra, he who had saved the life of Jos? Maria upon the scaffold. He came forward boldly enough, intending to thunder with his knife-handle upon the great door. But at the foot of the steps he stopped.

Looking to either hand, he saw, almost erect within their niches, a strange pair of figures, apparently wrapped in bloody raiment from head to foot. He staggered back nerveless and shaken.

"What are these faceless things?" he cried; "surely the evil spirits are here!" And in deadly fear he put his hand before his eyes lest his vision should be blasted by a portent.

And from the other side of the Hermitage came an answering cry of fear.

"Be brave, Ezquerra!" called out one behind him; "'tis nothing – only some monk's trick!"

Ezquerra over his shoulder cast a fierce glance at the speaker.

"Brother," he cried, "you who are so full of courage that you can supply others, go up these steps and find out the trick for yourself!"

Nevertheless through very pride of place as their temporary leader, Ezquerra set his feet once more to the steps and mounted. The shrouded figures grew less red as he approached.

"After all it is some trick!" he shouted angrily. "We will make the fools pay for this! Did they think to practise the black art upon those whose fathers have used all magic, black and white, for ten thousand years?"

So saying he set his hand to the face-cloth of the nearest figure and plucked it away. Then was revealed to his affrighted and revolted gaze the features swollen and bloated of one who had died of the Black Plague.

At the same moment, and before his followers could set their hands to their mouths or retreat a step, round both corners of the building there came a double swarm of gipsies, running at random through the tangle of the wood and streaming frantically along the paths.

The Executioner of Salamanca also turned and ran down the steps.

"Touch the thing who will!" he cried; "I have done with it!"

And the entire attacking party with their knives and sledge-hammers would in like manner have fled, but for a strange and unlooked-for event which happened at that moment.

As Rollo peered over the low parapet, he saw a slight form rush suddenly across the front of the fleeing gipsies, shouting at and striking the fugitives. And even at that distance he was sure that it must be the daughter of Mu?oz, whom he had left captive in La Granja. She had been safely enough locked in the castle – how then had she escaped? He remembered the Sergeant's last threat that he would have some conversation with Se?or Mu?oz. He wondered if the girl's escape had anything to do with that. That it was not impossible to escape from the palace, the presence of Concha Cabezos upstairs informed him.



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