The Firebrandскачать книгу бесплатно
But all theorising of this kind was stopped at sight of the vehement anger of the girl, and of the evident power she had over these wild and savage men. She did not even hesitate to strike a fugitive with her clenched fist if he attempted to evade her. Nay, in her fury she drew a knife from Ezquerra's belt and struck at the throat of the Executioner of Salamanca.
So vehement was her anger and so potent her influence, that the girl actually succeeded in arresting more than half the fleeing gipsies. Some, however, evaded her, and she would stay her headlong course a moment to send a fierce curse after them.
"She is crazed!" thought Rollo; "her wrongs have driven her mad!"
But the sight of that glimmering array of plague-stricken sentinels waiting for them still and silent in the red dawn, was more than the fortitude of the rallied forces could stand. Upon approaching the Hermitage the gipsies again showed symptoms of renewed flight.
Whereupon the girl, shrilly screaming the vilest names at them and in especial designating Ezquerra as the craven-hearted spawn of an obscene canine ancestry, mounted the steps herself with the utmost boldness and confidence.
"I will teach you," she screamed; "I, a girl and alone, will show you what sacks of straw ye are frighted of. Do ye not know that the great prize is here, within this very house, behind these defenceless windows and cardboard doors? The Queen of Spain, whose ransom is worth twice ten thousand duros, even if your coward hearts dared not shed her black Bourbon blood. Behold!"
It was only by craning far out over the parapet (so far indeed that he might easily have been discovered from below had there been any to look) that Rollo was able to see what followed. But every eye was fixed on the girl. No one among all that company had even a glance to waste upon the skyline of the Ermita de San Ildefonso.
This was the thing Rollo saw as he looked.
The girl spurned the fallen face-cloth with her bare foot, and catching the body of the dead man in her arms, she dragged it out of its niche and cast it down the steps upon which it lay all abroad, half revealed and hideous in the morning light. This done, rushing back as swiftly and with the same volcanic energy to the occupant of the other niche, she hurled him by main force after his companion. Then, panting and wan, with her single tattered garment half rent from her flat ill-nourished body, she lifted one arm aloft in triumph and cried, "There, you dogs, that is what you were afraid of!"
But even as she stood thus revealed in the morning light, a low murmur of terror and astonishment ran round all who saw her. For in the struggle the girl had uncovered her shoulder and breast, and there, upon her young and girlish skin, appeared the dread irregular blotches which betrayed the worst and most deadly form of the disease.
"The Black Plague! The Black Plague!" shrieked the throng of besiegers, surging this way and that like a flock of sheep which strange dogs drive, as with wild and shrill cries they turned and fled headlong towards the mountains.
The girl, speechless with wrath, and perhaps also with the death-sickness far advanced within her, took a step forward as if to follow them.
But forgetful of where she stood, she missed her footing, fell headlong, and lay across the dead sentinel whom she had first dragged from his post.
The Basque priest looked over Rollo's shoulder and pointed downwards with a certain dread solemnity.
"What did I tell you?" he said. "The finger of God! The finger of God hath touched her! Let us go down. The sun will be above the horizon in twenty minutes."
"Had we not better wait?" urged Rollo. "They may return. Think of our responsibility, of our feeble defences, of – "
"Of Concha," he was about to say, but checked himself, and added quietly, "of the little Queen!"
The monk crossed himself with infinite calm.
"They will not return," he said; "it is our duty to lay these in the quiet earth ere the sun rises. There is no infection to be feared till an hour after sunrise."
"But the girl, the daughter of Mu?oz?" said Rollo, "did not she take the disease from the dead?"
"Nay," said the Basque. "I have often beheld the smitten of the plague like that. It works so upon very many. For a time they are as it were possessed with seven devils, and the strength of man is vain against them. They snap strong cords even as Samson did the Philistine withes. Then – puff! Comes a breath of morning air chill from the Sierra, and they are gone. They were – and they are not. The finger of God hath touched them. So it was with this girl."
"I will follow you!" said Rollo, awe-stricken in spite of himself. "Tell me what I am to do!"
The monk pressed his hand again to his brow a little wearily. "I fear," he said, "that it will fall to you to perform the greater part of the work. For Brother Domingo, our good almoner, he of the merry countenance, died of his fatigues early this morning, and the other two, my brethren, are once more in the town bringing God to the dying!"
Instinctively Rollo removed his hat from his head.
"But," added the monk, "they dug the graves in holy ground before they went!"
In silence Rollo permitted himself to be covered with an armour of freshly tarred cloth, which was considered in Spain at that time to be a complete protection against plague infection. The monk Teodoro was proceeding to array himself in like manner, when Concha appeared beside them and held out her hands for the gauntlets.
"The little Princess is asleep," she said eagerly; "I am strong. I have as good a right to serve God as either of you – and as great is my need!"
The Basque gazed at her curiously. Her hair was still wholly covered by the sailor's red cap. To the eye she appeared a mere boy in her page's dress, but there was at all times something irresistibly attractive about Concha's face. Now her lips quivered sensitively, but her eyes were steady. She continued to hold out her hands.
"I demand that you permit me to serve God!" she cried to Brother Teodoro.
The monk shrugged his shoulders with a pitying gesture and looked from one to the other.
"I am an old dragoon," he said, "and under the guidons of El Gran' Lor' I have seen the like. It is none of my business, of course, but all the same it is a pity. I should be happier to leave you watching the slumbers of the Princess!"
"Ah!" cried Concha, earnestly, "if you are indeed an old soldier, and a good one under guidon or holy cross – for this time let me be one also!"
"You are young – I pray you, think!" urged the Basque. "There is great danger! Look at that maid yonder, and what she hath brought on herself."
"Ah," said Concha, softly – so softly indeed as to be almost inaudible, "but the difference is that she did this thing for hate – while – I – I – "
She did not finish her sentence, but raising her eyes, wet with seldom-coming tears, to those of the stern-faced brother, she said instead, "Give me the dress and let us be gone. The sun is rising!"
"If you are indeed determined, you shall have that of Brother Domingo," said Teodoro; "he was of little more than your height, and died, not of the plague, but simply from doing his duty."
"Then let me die in no other way!" said Concha, putting it on as happily as another maiden might dress for a ball.
These three went out to their terrible task, and as they were harnessing the bullock cart once more and spreading a clean cloth over it, Rollo, moved in his heart of hearts, came near. Never did two such lovers as they meet more strangely arrayed. Yet he laid his black gauntlet across her arm and whispered a word which Brother Teodoro did not hear, being, as he took good care to be, much busied about the straps and harnessings.
"I do not think that Love will let us die – yet!" he said.
"That is a prayer. Amen!" said Concha, in a whisper, lifting her eyes to his.
It was a strange betrothing, and little said. But when at last he put the ox-goad in her hands, Concha knew that the night had indeed passed away and that the morning was come.
A HANDFUL OF ROSES
Patiently and softly went the oxen about the little pottage garden of the friars, till, where the soil was sandiest and the ground most open, under a south-looking wall on which the roses were still clustering (for they grow roses late at La Granja), lo! a trench was dug. It was not so deep as a rich man's grave in other countries, but in Spain as elsewhere a little earth covers a multitude of sorrows.
The long shallow trench had been the last work of the two remaining monks ere they departed to their duty in the stricken village. Savage men, heathen of heart and cruel of hand, might await them there. Black plague would certainly lurk in every doorway. Yet these two brothers, simple in the greatness of their faith – not of the wise of the land, not of the apparent salt of the earth, but only plain devout men, ignorant of all beyond their breviaries and their duty to their fellows – had gone forth as quietly and unostentatiously as a labouring man shoulders his mattock and trudges to his daily toil.
Of the three that remained, Brother Teodoro did his best; but in spite of his endeavours the bulk of the work fell to Rollo and Concha. Yet under the page's dress and the rude outer slough of tarred canvas the girl's heart sang. There was nothing terrible in death when he and she together lifted the spent stuff of mortality and laid it in its last resting-place. Without a shudder she replaced a fallen face-cloth. With Rollo opposite to her she took the feet of the dead that had guarded them so well in the red morning light, and when all were laid a-row in the rest which lasts till the Judgment Day, and before the first spadeful of earth had fallen, Concha, with a sudden impulse, took a kerchief from her neck, and plucked a double handful of the roses that clustered along the wall. They were white roses, small, but of a sweet perfume, having grown in that high mountain air. Then without a word, and while the monk was still busy with his prayers for the dead, she sprang down to where at the corner opposite to Brother Domingo the daughter of Mu?oz had been laid, the pinched fierceness of her countenance relaxed into a strange far-away smile.
Concha spread the kerchief tenderly over the face of the girl, dropping tears the while. And she crossed the little hands which pain and madness had driven to deeds of darkness and blood, upon the breast in which the angry young heart had beaten so hotly, and scattered the white roses over all.
Then while the Basque Teodoro did his office over his dead brother, Concha kneeled at the foot of the trench, a little crucifix in her hand. Her lips moved as she held the rude image of the Crucified over that fierce little head and sorely tortured body. He who had cast out so many devils, would surely pardon and understand. So at least she thought. Rollo watched her, and though brought up to be a good Presbyterian by his father, he knew that this little foolish Concha must yet teach him how to pray.
"God may hear her before the other, who knows!" he murmured. "One is a man praying for men – she, a maiden praying for a maid!"
Then Rollo made the girl, whom the scene had somewhat overwrought, go off to a secluded part of the garden and wash in the clean cool water of a fountain, while he remained to shovel in the soil and pack it well down upon the bodies of the dead who had served his purpose so faithfully. Last of all he unyoked and fed the oxen, leaving them solemnly munching their fodder, blinking their meek eyes and ruminating upon the eternal sameness of things in their serene bovine world. He came out, stripped himself to the skin, and washed in one of the deserted kitchens from which Brother Domingo, sometime almoner and cook to the Ermita of San Ildefonso, had for ever departed.
This being completed to his satisfaction, he went out to find Concha, who, her face radiant with the water of the Guadarrama (and other things which the young morning had brought her), met him as he came to her through the wood.
She held up her face to be kissed as simply and naturally as a child. Death was all about them, but of a truth these two lived. Yea, and though they should die ere nightfall, still throughout the eternities they might comfort themselves, in whatsoever glades of whatsoever afterworlds they might wander, that on earth they had lived, and not in vain.
For if it be true that God is Love, equally true is it that love is life. And this is the secret of all things new and old, of Adam and Eva his wife, of Alpha and Omega, of the mystic OM, of the joined serpent, of the Somewhat which links us to the Someone.
It was now Rollo's chiefest desire to get back to the palace and find out what had happened there during his absence. He had heard the rattle of musketry fire again and again during the night, and he feared, as much from the ensuing silence as from the escape of the daughter of Mu?oz, that some disaster must have occurred there. He would have started at once to reconnoitre, but Brother Teodoro, hearing of his intention, volunteered to find out whether the gipsies had wholly evacuated the neighbourhood.
There was a private path from the grounds of the Hermitage which led into those of the palace. By this the Basque hastened off, and it was no long time before he returned, carrying the news that not only was the town clear and the gardens of the palace free from marauders, but that Rollo's people were still in full possession of La Granja. He had even been able to speak with one of the royal servants for an instant, a man with whom he had some acquaintance. But this conference, the Basque added, had been hastily interrupted by a certain old woman of a fierce aspect, who had ordered the young man off. Nevertheless he had gained enough information to assure him that there would now be no danger in the whole party returning openly to the Palace of La Granja.
Accordingly Rollo set out, with Concha still wrapt in the cloak which covered her page's dress. Rollo would gladly have carried the little Princess, but Isabel had taken so overwhelming a fancy to Concha that she could not be induced to quit her side for a moment. Indeed, she declared her intention of leaving her mother and Do?a Susana and returning to Aranjuez with Concha so soon as her message should be delivered.
Rollo whispered that the pretended page should not discourage this sudden devotion, since in the journey that still lay before them the willingness of the little Princess to accompany them might make all the difference between success and failure.
The Sergeant received them at the garden door, which he had so carefully watched all night. There was a kindlier look than usual upon his leathern and saturnine features.
"I judge, Se?or," he said, as he saluted Rollo, "that you have more to tell me than I have to tell you."
"In any case, let me hear your story first," said Rollo; "mine can keep!"
"In brief, then, having your authority," began the Sergeant, "I permitted his Excellency the Duke of Rianzares to have an interview with his daughter, at which, for safety's sake, I was present, and gained a great deal of information that may be exceedingly useful to us in the future. But in one thing I confess that I was not sufficiently careful. The girl, being left to herself for a moment, escaped – by what means I know not. Nor" (this with a quaint glance at Concha) "was she the only lady who left the palace that night without asking my leave!"
But without answering, the cloaked page passed him rapidly, and with the Princess still clinging to her hand, she passed upstairs. The Sergeant looked after her and her young charge.
"You are sure of this lady's discretion?" he said.
"I have proved it to the death," answered the young man briefly and a little haughtily.
The Sergeant shrugged his shoulders as if he would have said with the Basque friar, "It is none of my business." But instead he took up his report to his superior and continued, "We buried the body of the poor woman Do?a Susana within the precincts of the Colegiata– "
"And an hour ago I buried the body of her slayer," said Rollo, calmly.
For an instant the Sergeant looked astonished, as indeed well he might, but he restrained whatever curiosity he felt, and only said:
"You will let me hear what happened in your own time, and also how you discovered and regained the little Princess?"
"And speaking of the Princess, if she asks questions," continued Cardono, "had she not better be told that Do?a Susana has gone to visit her relations – which, as she was the last of her family, is, I believe, strictly true!"
"But the Queen-Regent and the Duke – Se?or Mu?oz, I mean?" queried Rollo. "What of them?" For the young man had even yet no high opinion of that nobleman or of his vocation in life.
"Oh, as to the Duke," answered the Sergeant, "I do not think that we shall have much trouble with him. The Queen is our Badajoz. She is so set on returning to Madrid that she will not move a step towards Aragon, and we have not enough force to carry her thither against her will with any possibility of secrecy."
"We might take the little Princess alone," mused Rollo; "she would go with Concha anywhere. Of that I am certain."
The Sergeant shook his head.
"The Queen-Regent, and she alone, is the fountain of authority. If you kidnap and sequester her within the Carlist lines, you will certainly paralyse the government of Madrid. Especially you may prevent the sweeping away of the monasteries – which, I take it, is at the bottom of all this pother, though for the life of me I cannot see what concern the matter is of yours. But to carry off the Princess would profit you nothing. Isabel Segunda is but a child, and will not come of age for many years. Your friend the Abbot would gain nothing by her captivity. But the Queen-Regent were a prize indeed!"
After he had spoken thus freely, Rollo continued to muse, and the Sergeant to watch him. The latter had a great opinion of this young man's practical ability.
"If he had had but the fortune to be born poor – and in Andalucia, he might have been one day as great as I!" was the opinion of this modest Sergeant. And indeed he spoke but the words of truth and soberness. For it was the opinion of nine out of ten of his countrymen that he, Jos? Maria of Ronda, was the greatest man of all time.
"Well," said Rollo at last, "let us go up and talk a little to my friends and El Sarria. I think I see a way of inducing her Royal Highness to accompany us. But it will require some firmness, and even a certain amount of severity."
The Sergeant nodded with grim appreciation.
"It is a pity with women," he said philosophically, "but sometimes, I know, it is the only way."
"The severity I speak of," continued Rollo, not regarding his words, "will mostly fall to the lot of the Se?or Mu?oz. But we may chance to work on the lady's feelings through him."
The Sergeant gave Rollo a quick glance, in which was discernible a certain alertness of joy. The Sergeant also did not love his grandeeship, the Duke of Rianzares.
So these two went abreast up the great staircase, and found the Princess Isabel already playing joyously with Etienne, John Mortimer joining clumsily in as best he could. Concha had vanished, and La Giralda was nowhere to be seen.
"The rogue is in no haste to visit her mother after her night adventure!" said the Sergeant in a low tone, as Rollo and he stood watching the scene from the doorway.
"Nor I," admitted Rollo with a smile, "yet see the lady we must!"
"And shall!" said the Sergeant.
Yet in spite of the unpleasant interview which lay before him, Rollo could not help smiling at the game that was going forward in the upper hall.
"Sur le pont d' Avignon,
Tout le monde y passe,"
"Tout le monde y passe!" chorused the little Princess, holding out her hands.
John Mortimer made a confused noise in his throat and presently was compelled to join the circle and dance slowly round, his countenance meantime suggestive of the mental reserve that such undignified proceedings could only be excused as being remotely connected with the safe shipment of a hundred hogsheads of Priorato.
"The children walk like this,
And the ladies walk like that —"
There was no help for it. Etienne and the Princess first mimicked the careless trip of the children, and then, with chin in the air and lift of imaginary furbelow, the haughty tread of the good dames of Avignon as they took their way homeward over that ancient bridge.
But suddenly arrested with both hands in the air and his mouth open, John Mortimer looked on in confusion and a kind of mental stupor. He was glad that no one of his nation was present to see him making a fool of himself. The next moment Isabel had seized his hand, and he found himself again whirling lumpishly round to the ancient refrain: —
"Sur le pont d' Avignon,
Tout le monde y passe!"
The little Queen's merry laugh rang out at his awkwardness, and then seeing Rollo she ran impetuously to him.скачать книгу бесплатно