Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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The young man communicated this in his own way, and though every man among his assailants was to the full as brave as himself, the threat of the Englishman did not fail in its effect. The arrieros and Aragonese horse-clippers drew off and consulted, while the Scot who had caused all the disturbance, dropped his point to the floor, and contented himself with wrapping his cloak more tightly about his defensive arm. He had evidently been some time in the country, for he wore the dark capa and red boina of Navarra, and answered the deputation which now came forward with readiness and composure. Whoever gave in, it would certainly not be he. That, at least, was the impression given by his attitude.

"Certainly, most certainly," he said. "I will be glad to meet any one of you anywhere. I will stand to my words spoken in any language, or any field of honour, from the carpet of a prime minister to one of your infernal dusty campos, with any weapon, from pistol and sword to a tooth-pick – with any Spaniard, or Frenchman, or mongrel tyke that ever lifted wine pot."

"Is this a way to speak to gentlemen – I put it to you, caballeros?" cried one of the deputation, a huge rawboned Galician, angrily.

The Scot instantly detected the accent of the speaker and, dismissing him with the gesture one uses to a menial, called out, "Caballeros, indeed! What needs this son of the burden-bearing animal to speak of Caballeros? Is there any old Castilian here, of the right ancient stock? If so, let him arbitrate between us. I, for one, will abide by his decision. The sons of gentlemen and soldiers will not do wrong to a soldier and a stranger!"

Then from the darkest and most distant corner, where he had sat wrapped in his great striped mantle with the cape drawn close about his head, rose a man of a little past the middle years of life, his black beard showing only a few threads of grey, where the tell-tale wisdom tuft springs from the under lip.

"Young sir," he said courteously, "I am an Old Castilian from Valladolid. I will hear your cause of quarrel, and, if you so desire, advise my compatriots, if they in their turn will consent to put their case into my hands."

There was some demur at this among the rougher gipsies and muleteers, but every one was anxious for the evening meal, and the fragrant earthen pipkins and great iron central pot gave forth a good smell. Also a red-waistcoated man-servant ran hither and thither among them, whispering in the ear of each belligerent; and his communication, having presumably to do with the stranger's quality and condition, had a remarkable effect in casting oil upon the waters. Indeed, the Migueletes had withdrawn as soon as the Castilian came forward, and presently he of Galicia, having consulted with his fellows, answered that for his part he was quite prepared to submit the causes of strife to the noble cavalier from Valladolid, provided the stranger also would abide by the decision.

"I have said so," put in the Scot fiercely, "and my custom is not to make a promise at night for the purpose of breaking it in the morning!"

CHAPTER IV
A LITTLE COMB-CUTTING

By his accent of defiance, the Scot evidently considered that he had made a personal point here, but the Old Castilian gravely passed the insult over.

"Will the Se?or state his case?" he said, bowing to the young man.

"I came to this venta, the proprietor of which, and all his relations, may God confound for liars and thieves! When I entered I paid for one week's good straw and barley in coined silver of Mexico.

The unshorn villain stole the feed from under my horse's nose so soon as my back was turned, and then to-night, upon my complaining, set his rascal scullions on to vilify my country, or at least a country which, if not mine, is yet no concern of his or theirs. Whereupon I tendered to all the cleaner of them my cartel, offering to fight them with any weapon they might name, and in any place, for the honour of Scotland and the Presbyterian religion!"

Though he had never heard of either of these last, the grey-bearded umpire gravely wagged his head at the statement of the Scot, nodded in acknowledgment, and turned with equal gravity and distinction to the Gallegan as the representative of the opposite faction. He motioned him to proceed.

"This man," said the Galician, speaking in the harsh stuttering whisper affected by these Iberian hewers of wood and drawers of water, "this man for these ten days past hath given all in the Venta bad money and worse talk. To-day he would have cheated Due?o, and we, like true men, took up the cudgels for the good patron."

"Hear the bog-trotting cowards lie!" cried the Scot, fiercely. "Save for the barley, I paid no money, good or bad. All I had remains here in my belt. If I gave bad money, let him produce it. And, save in the matter of his beast's provend, who gives money at the entering in of a hotel?"

"Least of all a Scot," put in the Englishman, who had been following with some difficulty the wordy warfare.

"Then because he would not exchange good money for the bad, and because of his words, which carried stings, we challenged him to fight, and he fought. That, worthy Se?or, is the beginning of the matter, and the end."

"Sir," said the Scot to the Old Castilian, "there was no question of money. None brought my reckoning to me – "

"No," sighed the landlord, from beyond the bottle-encumbered counter where he had taken refuge, "because he threatened to let daylight into the vitals of the man who carried it to him."

"But as to the insults to his country?" asked the old Castilian, "you ought to have borne in mind that for that cause will a man fight quicker than for his sweetheart."

"So it is, Se?or, we deny it not," answered the Gallegan; "yet this fellow, after abusing the English and their land till there were no more ill words in the language, turned upon us because we chanced to agree with him, outs with his pocket-book and deals round what he calls 'cartels of defiance' as if he dealt a hand at ombre. Then, after some give and take of ill words, as your honour knows the custom is, he pulls his blade upon us, and makes play as you saw. We are poor fellows, and know no more than how to defend ourselves. And if we fight, our custom is to do it with a couple of Albacete knives before half the town, and be done with it. But this stranger was all for duels, and seconds, and codes of honour, after the mode of Paris."

"And a very excellent thing too, sir," said the Old Castilian, smiling at the Scot, "but in their due place, and their place is hardly in the kitchen of the venta of San Vicencio. Listen to me. My finding is this. You will all shake hands, after an apology given and received in the matter of the stranger's country, and since he has paid no reckoning these ten days according to his own statement, the which I believe, he shall defray his count so soon as it shall be presented to him by the host. Are you agreed?"

"Agreed!" said the Gallegan, holding out his hand to the Scot, "and I regret, on behalf of myself and my companions, that we ever said aught to the discredit of England, the very distinguished country of which the Se?or stranger is a native."

The Scot shrugged his shoulders in the French manner, but nevertheless held out his hand with some show of heartiness.

"I am no citizen of England, thank God," he said, "I own no such pock-pudding land, but it will be a heavy day when Rollo Blair of Castle Blair, in the good shire of Fife, sits still with his hands in his pockets and hears a garlic-eating Frenchman abuse the English, with whom his forbears fought so many good fights."

"I thank you on behalf of my country for your championship, such as it is," said the stout Englishman, smiling; "things that cut and thrust or go off with a bang, are not in my way. But if my knuckles are any good against the bridge of a man's nose, they shall henceforth be at your country's service. For the rest, bills of lading and exchanges at thirty days are more in my line."

"Ah," said the young Scot, twirling an almost invisible moustache, "commerce I know little of. I was bred to the profession of arms. My good father taught me the sword and the pistol, according to the practice of the best modern schools. Sergeant McPherson, his orderly, gave me instruction in the sabre and bayonet. I was intended for a commission in the 77th, my father's old regiment, when a pecuniary loss, the result of an unfortunate speculation, broke my poor father's heart and sent me out to seek my fortune with no more than Robin Fleeming's sword and my right arm."

"Poor capital to start on," said the Englishman, in his bluff manner, as he examined the article in question; "now you do not happen to write a good round hand, do you?"

The Scot started and laid his hand on his sword hilt.

"Sir," he cried, "your avocations do not permit you to understand how great an insult you offer to a gentleman!"

"Oh," said the other, "I don't know at all that you would have suited. Our manager down at Barcelona is a very particular man; but then I would have said a good word for you, and being the owner's son – "

"Say no more of the matter, I beg of you," said the Scot, haughtily. "I have not yet been reduced to the necessity of choosing a mercantile career."

"And that is a most fortunate thing for you," quoth the Englishman, with the utmost gravity.

"Eh?" said the Scot, somewhat surprised, and, being occupied with his own thoughts and with keeping an eye on the door, not exactly taking the Englishman's meaning, "Oh, you were speaking of a mercantile career. Yes, I am indeed fortunate in that my lines have been cast in pleasanter places than before a ream of foolscap on a desk."

"It pays well, though," said the other placidly.

"For me, I care nothing for money," said Rollo Blair. "Eh! what is this?"

He wheeled round quickly in response to a tap upon his arm, and the Englishman, looking at him keenly (though apparently intently regarding the opposite wall), saw him turn visibly paler.

The landlord was at Master Rollo Blair's elbow with the reckoning written out upon a long sheet of paper. A couple of serving men, who were probably privy to the extravagant total, stood sniggering and whispering in a neighbouring archway. The Gallegan and his companions sat crossing their legs and gossiping watchfully, darting inquisitive glances under their brows at their late adversary, to see how he would bear himself. Only that noble gentleman, the Old Castilian, sipped his chocolate unmoved, and, with the perfection of good manners, stared at the fire.

From red to white, and from white back again to a kind of greenish paleness, went and came the hues of the young man's complexion. The son of the house of Blair of Blair was manifestly unhappy. He put his hand in one pocket. He clapped another. His purse was not in either.

"Perchance 'tis in your honour's equipage," suggested the landlord wickedly; "shall I call your body-servant to bring it?"

It was a face of bitter chagrin that Rollo Blair of Blair lifted to the Englishman who had meantime never ceased from his study of a fly upon the wall. He beckoned him a little apart with a look of inimitable chagrin.

"Sir," he said, "will you buy from me a silver-hilted sword. It was my grandfather's, and he fought well with it at Killiecrankie. It is the sole article of value I possess – "

Here a kind of a sob came into his voice. "God knows, I would rather sell my right hand!" he said brusquely.

"How came you to run up such a bill, having no effects?" said the Englishman, looking at him coolly, and taking no notice of the young man's offer of his weapon, which he continued to hold by the scabbard.

"I can hardly tell," said the Scot, hanging his head, "but only two nights ago there was a young French lord here who out-faced me first at the cards and then at the drinking of wine. So I was compelled to order in more and better to be upsides with him!"

"There is no meaner ambition, especially on an empty purse," said the Englishman, not moving from the angle of wall upon which he leaned.

"Curse me that ever I troubled myself to appeal to a cold-livered Englishman!" cried the young man, "I will go to the Castilian over yonder. He looks as if he might have the bowels of a man. At least he will not palm off a gentleman in distress with moral precepts culled from last week's sermon!"

The Englishman leaped forward and clapped the hot-headed Scot on the shoulder. With the other hand he drew a well-filled wallet, with a mercantile calendar slipped into the band, from his pocket.

"There," he said, heartily, "let me be your banker. 'Tis worth a score of reckonings to hear a Scotsman speak disrespectfully of sermons. My name is John Mortimer – "

"Of the Mortimers of Plas Gwynedd in Caernarvonshire? Why, my grandmother was of that – " Rollo Blair was beginning a genealogical disquisition with great eagerness when the Englishman stopped him.

"No," he said, "at least not that I know of. My father made mouse-traps before he took to cotton-spinning, and I never so much as heard whether I had any grandfather. I am plain John Mortimer of Chorley at your service. I think you are an honest lad, sorely led astray by whimsies in the brain, but you are honest, and in a far land. You are welcome to my purse and, credit to any reasonable amount which will put you in the way of repaying your obligation, as I am sure you desire to do."

"I shall not sleep sound at night till I do," returned the youth, firmly. "But first I desire to inform you that I have had an ill opinion of your nation – an opinion to which, in spite of your great personal kindness and the obligation under which you place me, I am bound to adhere."

The Englishman nodded carelessly.

"There speaks an honest man, but also a foolish one!" said Mortimer, shaking his head; "you should try the foreign wine trade for a year or two. It is wonderfully curbing to a man's vocabulary!"

The Scot stood a moment at gaze, manifestly debating with himself.

"And you will not accept of my sword?" he said. "I assure you it is worth enough to discharge my small liabilities twice over."

"Swords are not legal tender in the wine business," said the other, smiling, "nor yet when I go home with a knowledge of languages to help sell my father's grey cloth! You are as welcome as my brother to the loan," he added, "and I promise you I will accept repayment as gladly from you as from him."

"You make the matter easier indeed," said Rollo Blair, recovering his spirits with a bound. "Here, landlord, can you change this gold ounce, or is the matter too great a one for your petty venta?"

The young men had been standing a little back, in the shadow of one of the arches, in which were empty mangers and the rings of head-stalls, so that the patron could not observe the passing of the Englishman's purse from hand to hand.

"Your servant, Se?or!" said the innkeeper, no Spaniard, but a French Jew of Roussillon, "what can I have the honour of ordering for your excellencies' supper?"

"Order yourself out of my sight!" cried the Scot imperiously. "We are going up to the monastery to dine with my uncle the Abbot!"

The patron of the venta fell back a couple of steps, and the two serving men ceased to grin and instead bowed most obsequiously.

"He is a nephew of the Abbot, perhaps (who knows) his son! There will be fine doings out of this night's work, if he tells Don Baltasar all, as he doubtless will."

This was the whispered comment of one servitor in the ear of his master. Said the other —

"Speak him fair, patron, for the love of God! For if the monks are adverse, we are sped. Our pipe is as good as out. And perchance a yet worse thing may happen!"

And he leaned over till his lips almost touched mine host's ear.

"My God!" gasped the latter, "what a country! Would that I were safe back again in mine own house with green blinds in Roussillon!"

The Englishman and the Scot were now walking amicably arm in arm to and fro in front of the inn. The Scot had quite recovered his military demeanour, and again twirled his moustache with an air. The silver-hilted sword shone no brighter on the morn of Killiecrankie. The unused spurs tinkled melodiously.

The landlord stood with his hands deferentially folded. The young men took not the faintest notice of him, but continued to pace slowly to and fro.

Mine host of the venta of Montblanch cleared his throat. The Scot cast a single scornful glance at him, which he caught as a dog catches a bone.

"My most noble lords," he said, "I trust that the unfortunate occurrence of this evening will not prevent this house from having your honours' custom in the future, and that you too will say no word of all this to the most reverend Abbot Don Baltasar!"

"Make yourself easy on that score," said the Scot; "as soon as we are round the corner we will forget that such a refuge for fleabitten knaves anywhere exists out of Pandemonium!"

Lower still bowed the obsequious patron, for this was his idea of the way a gentleman should speak to an innkeeper. Abuse showed his quality.

"Shall I order a carriage to convey your honours up to the Abbey?" said the landlord, preparing to take his leave. "I know a patron, who has a coach-and-six!"

"We will walk on our feet," replied the Scot, no whit abashed, "ah – in pursuance of a vow made at Salamanca!"

The landlord withdrew, making an obeisance that was almost an oriental salaam.

"But is the Abbot really your uncle?" inquired the Englishman, as they set out.

"As much as you are," said the Scot, "but all the same we shall dine with him, or my name is not Rollo Blair of Blair Castle in the shire of Fife!"

"The Lord send it," said the Englishman devoutly; "perhaps in that case he will part with his Priorato wine a farthing the gallon cheaper!"

CHAPTER V
THE ABBEY OF MONTBLANCH

The great monastery of Montblanch was of regal, nay almost of imperial dignity. Though no emperor (as at Yuste) had here laid aside the world and assumed the cowl, yet mighty Kings of Aragon and Navarra lay buried within its walls, and its long line of mitred abbots included many in whose veins ran the royal blood of all the Spains.

Almost completely encircled by wild sierras, it was yet situated upon a plain, as it were let into the very heart of the mountains. A clear trout stream, which furnished many a Friday's breakfast to the monks, ran through a rich vale. Of no place within fifty leagues, could it be so truly said, that all about it and above it there was heard a sound of many waters.

Of the various potencies and pre-eminences of Montblanch, civil and ecclesiastical, there was no end. A hundred villages owned its lordship. The men were serfs, the women handmaids. Soul and body they were bound to their masters of the monastery of Montblanch. Without permission they dared neither to wed nor to bury, neither to increase nor to multiply, to lay the bride on the bride-bed nor the corpse upon the bier.

Nor, to thrill the listener's blood, were darker tales awanting, whispered with a quiver of the flesh, as men crouched closer about the glowing charcoal pan, and women glanced fearfully out between the green lattice strips at the twinkling lights of the Abbey, set high above them under the silent stars.

It was said, not openly indeed, but rather with an awestruck lowering of the voice and fearful glances to right and left, that when the inquisition was done away with in the Spain of the cities and provinces, the chiefs of the Holy Office had found a last place of refuge beneath the grey rocks of Montblanch, and that whoso offended against the monks of the mountain, or refused to them flock or herd, son or daughter, sooner or later entered the doors of the monastery never to be visible again in the light of day.

So at least ran the tale, and as the two young men made their way upward from San Vicencio, by the mountain path beside which the stream brattled and sulked alternate, Rollo Blair told these things to the Englishman as one who half believed them.

"It is not possible," answered the latter scornfully; "this is no century in which such things can be done. Has civilisation not reached as far as Aragon? Who talks of the rack and the inquisition at this time of day?"

The young Scot halted a sturdy peasant who came whistling down the path, a bundle of tough reed stems over his shoulder.

"Did you ever hear of the black room of the monastery of Montblanch?" he said, pinching the man's blue overall between finger and thumb.

The sunburnt Aragonese crossed himself and was silent.

"Speak, have you heard?"

The other nodded, and made with his digits that "fig of Spain" which averts the evil eye; but under his loose blouse half furtively as if ashamed of his precaution.

"I have heard!" he said, and was silent.

"Do you wish to enter it?" said Rollo.

"God forbid!" quoth the man with conviction.

"And why?" pursued the Scot, wishful to make his point.

"Because of those who go in thither, no one ever comes out."

The man, having thus spoken, hastened to betake himself out of sight, his feet, shod with sandals of esparto grass, pad-padding from side to side of the narrow mountain path.



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