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"Beloved and most honoured," said the Duke, soothingly, "I did but suggest that it would be better to convert the girl – to make a good Christian of her – "
"Yes – yes," cried the Queen, stamping her foot, "but did you not add that in that case you would like to be her Father-Confessor?"
"Certainly I did not, most gracious one," answered her husband, soothingly, "you wholly mistook my meaning. All that I said was no more than that many might be anxious to obtain the office of Father-Confessor, being, as it were, eager to take the credit for the restoration of so notable a penitent."
But Rollo had small patience with the bickerings of royal lovers at such a time.
"I must crave your Majesty's strict and instant attention," he said, suddenly dropping all ceremony. "I will only detain you for a moment if, as I anticipate, I receive your consent to what I have the honour of proposing to you."
At once the easily jealous woman froze into a Queen and fronted the young man with a haughty stare.
"Your Majesty," he began, "I do not dwell upon our services of the past night. They are known to you. Had it not been for my friends it is probable that no one of your party would at this moment have been left alive. Now the day is passing and you are no safer than you were last night. It is necessary, therefore, that you put yourselves unreservedly under the escort and protection of myself and my friends. We must leave La Granja at once."
"Never!" cried Maria Cristina, fiercely. "Am I, the Queen-Regent of Spain, to be thus badgered and commandeered? I have never suffered it since I left my father's house in Naples. A boy and a foreigner shall not be the first. My royal guards will assuredly be here in an hour at the latest. The roads will be cleared, and as for you, you shall be safe in prison cells, where, for your insolences, you ought to be lying at this moment."
"Then," said Rollo, gravely, "I deeply regret that I am obliged to use the only means that are open to me to fulfil my orders, and to induce your Highness to place yourself in safety."
"And pray," cried Maria Cristina, indignantly, "from whom can you have orders to place a Queen of Spain in restraint?"
In a moment Rollo realised that it was impossible for him to reveal his position as an officer of the Carlist armies, but a fortunate remembrance of some words dropped by the Abbot of Montblanch instantly gave him his cue.
"I act," he said calmly, "under the immediate direction of the Holy Father himself, at whose feet, in the Vatican of Rome, you shall one day kneel to ask pardon of your sins."
This unexpected reply seemed to agitate the Queen-Regent, who, though forced to create herself a party out of the men of liberal opinions in her realm, was at heart, like all the Bourbons, a convinced and even bigoted religionist. But Mu?oz, who had hitherto been silent, stooped and whispered something in her ear.
"How am I to be convinced of that?" she cried, turning on him fiercely."I will not believe it even from you!"
"I regret," said Rollo, "that your Highness must be compelled to believe it. Pray do me the honour of following my argument. The Holy Father judges it necessary for the peace of this realm, and your own soul's profit, that you should be placed in a situation where you may be able to act more in accordance with what he knows to be your secret desires for the welfare of the Church of which he is God's vicegerent on earth."
Rollo was glad to reflect that, in uttering these words, he was only repeating the sonorous phrases of Don Baltazar Varela when the Abbot delivered him his commission in his own chamber at Montblanch. He added of his own accord a little prayer to the recording angel that he might be guilty of no blasphemy in thus acting at second hand as an emissary of Holy Church. After all, it was entirely the Abbot's affair, and Rollo was anxious that it should so be understood above.
But the lady chiefly concerned continued obdurate. She would not budge an inch. She professed an absolute certainty that her guard would appear in a few hours, and with them her Father-Confessor, who would inform her how to reply to any genuine and authentic message from his Holiness Gregory the Sixteenth. Further than that she could not be moved.
"In that case," said the young man, "I will not conceal it from your Highness that considerable discretion has been granted to me. Your company and that of your daughter we must have upon our journey. It is our intention to place you and her in a place of safety – "
"To steal us – to kidnap us, you mean!" cried the Queen, with the utmost indignation.
"Your Majesty," continued Rollo, "I am not disputing about words. Our actions of last night will best explain our intentions of this morning. But with respect to this gentleman" – he turned to Se?or Mu?oz as he spoke – "I have no directions either to permit or compel him to accompany us. Yet since we must act with the greatest speed and secrecy, it is clearly impossible to leave him behind. I am compelled, therefore, to put an alternative before you, which, having had an opportunity to remark the Se?or's courage, I am pained to declare. If your Majesty will consent to accompany us at once and without parley, Don Fernando may do so also. But if not, since we have not force sufficient to deal with additional prisoners on such a journey, it will be my unhappy duty to order the gentleman's instant execution."
A shriek from the Queen punctuated the close of this speech – one of the longest that Rollo had ever made. But the Queen, hardly yet believing in the reality of their threats, still held out. As for Mu?oz, he said no word until Rollo abruptly ordered him to kneel and prepare for death.
"In that case," said the ex-guardsman, "permit me to put on a decent coat. A man ought not to die in a dressing-gown. It is not soldierly!"
Rollo bade the valet bring his master what he wanted, and presently the Duke of Rianzares, in his best uniform coat, found himself in a position to die with credit and self-respect.
But so unexpected was the nerve and resolution of the Queen that it was only when the Duke had been bidden kneel down between the halves of a French window which opened out upon a balcony that Cristina, flinging dignity finally to the winds, fell upon his neck and cried to her captors, "Take me where you wish. Do with me what you will. Only preserve to me my beloved Fernando."
Rollo turned away with a sudden easing of his heart and no little admiration. He was glad that the strain was over, and besides, he would rather have led the forlornest of hopes than have played twice upon a woman's fears for her lover. But at his back he heard the Sergeant whisper across to El Sarria, who, entirely unmoved, was uncocking his piece with much deliberation, "'Tis a deal more than she would have done for her first well-beloved Fernando!"
In less than an hour the whole party was well on its way. The Queen-Regent was mounted on a white mule, which had been brought in from the hill pastures above El Mar. Behind came Piebald Pedro's donkey, with a basket-chair strapped upon its back for the little Princess, who was in high glee, holding Concha's hand and singing for gladness to be done with La Granja. The Sergeant and El Sarria walked one on either side of Se?or Mu?oz, who, by suggestion of Rollo, had assumed a coat less decorative than that in which he had proposed to make his exit from life.
In addition to the Queen's mule and the donkey, the Sergeant led a horse which was presently to be mounted by Mu?oz, so soon, that is, as the rest of the party should regain the steeds they had left behind at the deserted farmhouse on the hill. But till that time it was judged most safe that the Queen's consort should walk between Ramon Garcia and the Sergeant. Rollo, with a wandering eye towards Concha and the Queen, walked and talked with Etienne and John Mortimer, whom of late the joint compulsions of love and war had compelled him somewhat to neglect.
But these good fellows bore no malice, though certainly Etienne grew a little red when Rollo, with the frankness that distinguished his every word and action, launched into enthusiastic praise of the nobility, courage, fidelity, and every other virtue characteristic of La Se?orita Concha.
"In addition to which she is very pretty!" added Etienne, significantly.
Rollo stopped with the semi-indignant air of a horse pulled up short in full career. But in a moment he had recovered himself.
"Yes," he said doggedly, "she is very pretty!"
"Not that you are a man to care for beauty. You never were!" persisted Etienne, with a side look at Mortimer. "You have always said so yourself, you know!"
"No! I never did care!" Rollo agreed a little hastily. "But yonder is the farmhouse. I wonder if we shall find our horses as we left them."
Here Etienne laughed sardonically for no reason at all.
"I am in hopes that they will be fed and refreshed," continued Rollo, imperturbably; "we must let them have a feed of corn, too, before they start."
La Giralda, who had been leading the Queen's white mule, at that moment gave up her post to Concha, and fell back in order to whisper something to the Sergeant.
"Ah," said he aloud, as soon as he had listened to her, "that is well thought on. La Giralda and I have a little business of our own to attend to which may occupy us a few minutes. With your leave, Colonel, we will go on ahead and arrange matters for the Queen's reception. From what La Giralda tells me, it may be as well to avoid entering the house."
So when the Queen-Regent, with Concha in attendance and the little Isabel riding demurely alongside on her diminutive donkey, delighting in the unexpected excursion, arrived at the farm, they found that a large barn and granary, cool, airy, and with a roof of stone arched like the vaults of a fortress, had been prepared for them. The horses of the party had been fed and watered. Cloaks had been unstrapped and laid on piles of straw for the ladies to rest upon – that is, for her Majesty the Queen Maria Cristina – Concha being one of the comity, and little Isabel dancing everywhere after her as her inseparable tyrant and slave. For with the easy and fortunate memory of childhood, Isabel had ceased even to mention the nurse who had been with her ever since her birth, or at most remembered her only when she happened to be tired or hurt or sleepy. Indeed, she learned in a wondrously short space to run to Concha with all her troubles. So constant was the companionship of these two that it was with the utmost difficulty, and after several failures, that Rollo managed to exchange even a word with his sweetheart.
"You have been very brave," he whispered. "I should have failed but for you!"
Concha blushed hot with swift pleasure, but on this occasion her usual readiness of speech seemed to have deserted her, and she stood silent like a tongue-tied maid, greedy for the first time in her life of her own praise.
Before either could speak again, the Sergeant was back to report that La Giralda and he had dinner ready for the party.
"You must not expect much," he said; "there is little available for the pot which may with safety be cooked."
But indeed in such weather there was need for nothing better than the arroz con pollo– the chicken with rice, together with the abundant gazpacho, for the first of which he had found the materials in the store-chamber and barn-yard of the deserted farmhouse.
"Also there is an abundance of vegetables in the garden – when you get them separated from the weeds, that is," he explained; "the clear air of these heights has enabled them to keep their flavour to perfection."
He did not add that he had also seen in that same garden a mound of newly-dug earth, under which lay, beside her little daughter, a mother as loving and more faithful than that Queen-Mother for whose sake they were risking their lives.
The Sergeant's hurriedly prepared lunch was a prodigious success.
The great folk partook as heartily as any, and (perhaps owing to their extreme youth) the pollos tasted much more tender than could have been expected, considering the fact that the Sergeant had found them industriously pecking and scratching in the dust of the farmyard upon his arrival, and that, while he dug the grave, he had sent La Giralda to drive them into a wood-shed, where presently they were captured en masse.
Rollo ate but little, for he was intensely excited. He had succeeded beyond expectation so far, and now he was beginning to see his way past all entanglements to the successful accomplishment of his mission. His plan was to proceed by unfrequented paths, such as were, however, perfectly familiar to his adjutant Sergeant Cardono, along the northern slopes of the Guadarrama till he should be able to look out across the fertile plain of the Duero towards the mural front of the Sierra de Moncayo.
Thence by forced marches across the valley, undertaken at night, he might hope in two stages at most to put his charges under the care of General Elio, the immediate representative of Don Carlos, who had established his headquarters there. Small wonder that Rollo grew excited. The worst seemed over – the myriad adventures, the perilous passes, the thousand enemies. Now the plains lay before him, and – Concha loved him.
If only this weight of responsibility were once off his mind – ah, then!
Poor Rollo! And indeed poor humankind in general! How often the wind falls to a breeze, heat-tempering, grateful, which comes in fits and starts, not severe enough to chill, yet long enough to cool the body weary of the summer heats, with a sense of grateful relief.
And it is precisely in the teeth of such a gentle-breathing, cheek-fanning earth-wind that the thunderstorm comes riding up overhead, its flanks black and ragged with rain and fierce spurts of hail, and in the midst of all the white desolating lightnings zigzagging to the ground.