Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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Deprived of La Giralda, and judging that Rollo was in no mood to be spoken with, Concha Cabezos took refuge in the society of El Sarria. That stalwart man of few words, though in the days of her light-heartedness quite careless of her wiles, and, indeed, unconscious of them, was in his way strongly attached to her. He loved the girl for the sake of her devotion to Dol?res, as well as because of the secret preference which all grave and silent men have for the winsome and gay.

"This Butcher of Tortosa," she said in a low voice to Ramon Garcia, "will surely never do the thing he threatens. Not even a devil out of hell could slay in cold blood not the Queen-Regent only, but also the innocent little maid who never did any man a wrong."

El Sarria looked keenly about him for possible listeners. Concha and he sat at some distance above the camp, and El Sarria was idly employed in breaking off pieces of shaly rock and trying to hit a certain pinnacle of white quartz which made a prominent target a few yards beneath them.

"I think he will," said Ramon Garcia, slowly. "Cabrera is a sullen dog at all times, and the very devil in his cups. Besides, who am I to blame him – is there not the matter of his mother? Had it been Dol?res – well. For her sake I would have shot half a dozen royal families."

"The thing will break our Rollo's heart if it cannot be prevented," sighed Concha, "for he hath taken it in his head that the Queen and her husband trusted themselves to his word of honour."

Ramon Garcia shook his head sadly.

"Ah, 'tis his sacred thing, that honour of his – his image of the Virgin which he carries about with him," he said. "And, indeed, El Sarria has little cause to complain, for had it not been for that same honour of Don Rollo's, Dol?res Garcia might at this moment have been in the hands of Luis Fernandez!"

"Aye, or dead, more like," said Concha; "she would never have lived in the clutches of the evil-hearted! I know her better. But, Don Ramon, what can we, who owe him so much, do for our Don Rollo?"

"Why – what is there to do?" said Ramon, with a lift of his eyebrows. "Here in the camp of Cabrera we are watched, followed, suspected. Do you see that fellow yonder with the smartly set boina? He is a miller's son from near Vitoria in Alava. Well, he hath been set to watch that none of us leave the camp unattended. I will wager that if you and I were to wander out fifty yards farther, yonder lad would be after us in a trice!"

"Ah!" said Concha, in a brown study. "Yes – he is not at all a bad-looking boy, and thinks excessively well of himself – like some others I could mention. Now, El Sarria, can you tell me in which direction lies Vera, the headquarters of General Elio?"

"That can I!" said El Sarria, forgetting his caution. And he was about to turn him about and point it out with his hand, when Concha stopped him.

"The miller's son is craning his neck to look," she whispered: "do not point.

Turn about slowly, and the third stone you throw, let it be in the direction of Vera!"

El Sarria did as he was bid, and after the third he continued to project stones Vera-wards, explaining as he did so – "Up yonder reddish cleft the road goes, a hound's path, a mere goat's slide, but it is the directest road. There is open ground to the very foot of the ascent. Many is the time I have ridden thither, God forgive me, on another man's beast! Then cast him loose and left him to find his way home as best he could. There are good hiding-places on the Sierra de Moncayo, up among the red sandstone where the caves are deep and dry, and with mouths so narrow and secret that they may be held by one man against fifty."

Concha did not appear to be greatly interested in El Sarria's reminiscences. Even guileless Ramon could not but notice her wandering glances. Her eyes, surveying the landscape, lighted continually upon the handsome young Vitorian in the red boina, lifted again sharply, and sought the ground.

At this El Sarria sighed, and decided mentally that, with the exception of his Dol?res, no woman was to be trusted. If not at heart a rake, she was by nature a flirt. And so he was about to leave Concha to her own devices and seek Rollo, when Concha suddenly spoke.

"Don Ramon," she said, "shall we walk a few hundred yards up the mountain away from the camp and see if we are really being watched?"

El Sarria smiled grimly to himself and rose. The stratagem was really, he thought, too transparent, and his impression was strengthened when Concha presently added, "I will not ask you to remain if you would rather go back. Then we will see whom they are most suspicious of, you or I. A girl may often steal a horse when a man dares not look over the wall."

In the abstract this was incontestable, but El Sarria only smiled the more grimly. After all Dol?res was the only woman upon whose fidelity one would be justified in wagering the last whiff of a good cigarillo. And as if reminded of a duty El Sarria rolled a beauty as he dragged one huge foot after another slowly up the hill in the rear of Concha, who, her love-locks straying on the breeze, her basqui?a held coquettishly in one hand, and the prettiest toss of the head for the benefit of any whom it might concern, went leaping upwards like a young roe.

All the while Rollo was sitting below quite unconscious of this treachery. His head was sunk on his hand. Deep melancholy brooded in his heart. He rocked to and fro as if in pain. Looking down from the mountain-side Ramon Garcia pitied him.

"Ah, poor innocent young man," he thought, "doubtless he believes that the heart of this girl is all his own. But all men are fools – a butterfly is always a butterfly and an Andaluse an Andaluse to the day of her death!"

Then turning his thoughts backward, he remembered the many who had taken their turn with mandolin and guitar at the rejas of Concha's window when he and Dol?res lived outside the village of Sarria; and he (ah, thrice fool!) had taken it into his thick head to be jealous.

Well, after all this was none of his business, he thanked the saints. He was not responsible for the vagaries of pretty young women. He wondered vaguely whether he ought to tell Rollo. But after turning the matter this way and that, he decided against it, remembering the dire consequences of jealousy in his own case, and concluding with the sage reflection that there were plenty of mosquitoes in the world already without beating the bushes for more.

But with the corner of an eye more accustomed to the sun glinting on rifle barrels than to the flashing eyes of beauty, El Sarria could make out that the Vitorian in the red boina was following them, his gun over his shoulder, trying, not with conspicuous success to assume the sauntering air of a man who, having nothing better to do, goes for a stroll in the summer evening.

"'Tis the first time that ever I saw a soldier off duty take his musket for a walk!" growled El Sarria, "and why on the Sierra de Moncayo does the fellow stop to trick himself out as for a festa?"

Concha looked over her shoulder, presumably at El Sarria, though why the maiden's glances were so sprightly and her lips so provokingly pouted is a question hard enough to be propounded for the doctorial thesis at Salamanca. For Ramon Garcia was stolid as an ox of his native Aragon, and arch glances and pretty gestures were as much wasted on him as if he chewed the cud. Still he was not even in these matters so dull and unobservant as he looked, that is, when he had any reason for observing.

"Here comes that young ass of Alava," he murmured. "Well, he is at least getting his money's worth. By the saints favourable to my native parish, the holy Narcissus and Justus, but the burro is tightening his girths!"

And El Sarria laughed out suddenly and sardonically. For he could see the lad pulling his leathern belt a few holes tighter, in order that he might present his most symmetrical figure to the eyes of this dazzling Andalucian witch who had dropped so suddenly into the Carlist camp from the place whence all witches come.

CHAPTER XLIII
THE RED BOINAS OF NAVARRE

Concha and El Sarria sat down on an outcrop of red sandstone rock, and gazed back at the prospect. There below them lay the camp and the house in which was imprisoned the reigning branch of the royal family of Spain. A couple of sentries paced to and fro in front. A picket had established itself for the night in the back courtyard. Beyond that again stood the tent in which the General was at present engaged in drinking himself from his usual sullen ferocity into unconsciousness.

A little nearer, and not far from their own camp-fire, at which the Sergeant was busily preparing the evening meal, sat Rollo, sunk in misery, revolving a thousand plans and ready for any desperate venture so soon as night should fall. Concha gave a quick little sigh whenever her eye fell on him. Perhaps her conscience pricked her – perhaps not! With the heart of such a woman doth neither stranger nor friend intermeddle with any profit.

The sauntering Vitorian halted within speaking distance of the pair.

"A fine evening," he said affably. "Can you give me a light for my cigarette?"

It was on the tip of El Sarria's tongue to inquire whether there were not plenty of lights for his cigarette back at the camp-fires where he had rolled it. But that most excellent habit, which Don Ramon had used from boyhood, of never interfering in the business of another, kept him silent.

"Why should I," he thought, "burn my fingers with stirring this young foreigner's olla? Time was when I made a pretty mess enough of my own!"

So without speech he blew the end off his cigarillo and handed it courteously to the Carlist soldier.

But Concha had no qualms about breaking the silence. The presence of a duenna was nowise necessary to the opening of her lips, which last had also sometimes been silenced without the intervention of a chaperon.

"A fine evening, indeed," she said, smiling down at the youth. "I presume that you are a foot soldier from the musket you carry. It must be a fine one from the care you take of it! But as for me, I like cavaliers best."

"The piece is as veritable a cross-eyed old shrew as ever threw a bullet ten yards wide of the mark," cried the Alavan, tossing his musket down upon the short elastic covering of hill-plants on which he stood, and taking his cigarette luxuriously from his lips. "Nor am I an infantry-man, as you suppose. Doubtless the Se?orita did not observe my spurs as I came. Of the best Potosi silver they are made. I am a horseman of the Estella regiment. Our good Carlos the Fifth (whom God bring to his own!) is not yet rich enough to provide us with much in the way of a uniform, but a pair of spurs and a boina are within reach of every man's purse. Or if he has not the money to buy them, they are to be had at the first tailor's we may chance to pass!"

"And very becoming they are!" said Concha, glancing wickedly at the youth, who sat staring at her and letting his cigarette go out. "'Tis small wonder you are a conquering corps! I have often heard tell of the Red Boinas of Navarre!"

"I think I will betake me down to the camp – I smell supper!" broke in El Sarria, curtly. He began to think that Mistress Concha had no further use for him, and, being assured on this point, he set about finding other business for himself. For, with all his simplicity, Ramon Garcia was an exceedingly practical man.

"The air is sweet up here; I prefer it to supper," said Concha. "I will follow you down in a moment. Perhaps this gentleman desires to keep you company to the camp and canteen."

But it soon appeared that the Vitorian was also impressed by the marvellous sweetness of the mountain air, and equally desirous of observing the changeful lights and lengthening shadows which the sun of evening cast, sapphire and indigo, Venetian red and violet-grey, among the peaks of the Sierra de Moncayo. When two young people are thus simultaneously stricken with an admiration for scenery, their conversation is seldom worth repeating. But the Se?orita Concha is so unusual a young lady that in this case an exception must be made.

Awhile she gazed pensively up at the highest summits of the mountain, now crimson against a saffron sky, for at eventide Spain flaunts her national colours in the very heavens. Then she heaved a deep sigh.

"You are doubtless a fine horseman?" she cried, clasping her hands – "oh, I adore all horses! I love to see a man ride as a man should!"

The young man coloured. This was, in truth, the most open joint in his armour. Above all things he prided himself upon his horsemanship. Concha had judged as much from his care of his spurs. And then to be mistaken for an infantry tramper!

"Ah," he said, "if the Se?orita could only see my mare La Perla! I got her three months ago from the stable of a black-blooded National whose house we burnt near Zaragoza. She has carried me ever since without a day's lameness. There is not the like of her in the regiment. Our mounts are for the most part mere garrons of Catalu?a or Aragonese ponies with legs like the pillars of a cellar, surmounted by barrels as round as the wine-tuns themselves."

At this Concha looked still more pensive. Presently she heaved another sigh and tapped her slender shoe with a chance spray of heath.

"Oh, I wish – " she began, and then stopped hastily as if ashamed.

"If it be anything that I can do for you," cried the young man, enthusiastically, "you shall not have to wish it long!"

As he spoke he forsook the stone on which he had been sitting for another nearer to the pretty cross-tied shoes of Andalucian pattern that showed beneath the skirts of Concha's basqui?a.

"Ah, how I love horses!" murmured Concha; "doubtless, too, yours is of my country – of the beautiful sunny Andalucia which I may never see again!"

"The mare is indeed believed by all who have knowledge to have Andalucian blood in her veins," answered the Alavan.

Concha rose to her feet impulsively.

"Then," she said, "I must see her. Also I am devoured with eagerness to see you ride."

She permitted her eyes to take in the trim figure of the Vitorian, who had also risen to his feet.

"Do go and bring her," she murmured; "I will take care of your musket. You need not be a moment, and – I will wait for you!"

A little spark kindles a great fire in a Spanish heart, and the young man, counting the cost, rapidly decided that the risk was worth running. The horses of the Estella regiment were picketed in a little hollow a few hundred yards behind the main camp. It was his duty to watch these two strangers, of whom one had already gone back to the camp, while as to the other – well, Adrian Zumaya of the province of Alava felt at that moment that he could cheerfully devote the rest of his life to watching that other.

In a moment more he had laid down his musket at Concha's feet, and set off as fast as he could in the direction of the horses, keeping well out of sight in the trough of a long roller of foot-hill until he was close to the cavalry lines, and could smell the honest stable-smell which in the open air mingled curiously with those of aromatic thyme and resinous juniper.

In five minutes he was back, riding his best and sitting like a Centaur.

Concha's eyes glistened with pleasure, and she ran impulsively forward to pat the cream-coloured mare, a clean-built, well-gathered, workmanlike steed.

Now the young man was very proud of the interest this pretty Andalucian girl was showing in his equipment and belongings to the exclusion of those of his comrades. Perhaps he might have been less pleased had he known that the young lady's interest extended even to the gun he had left behind him, the charge of which she had already managed to extract with deft and competent fingers.

"La Perla she is called," he cried with enthusiasm, "and sure none other ever better deserved the name! I wish we of the camp possessed a side-saddle that the Se?orita might try her paces. She has the easiest motion in the world. It is like riding in a great lady's coach with springs or being carried in a Sedan-chair. But she is of a delicate mouth. Ah, yes – if the Se?orita mounted, it would be necessary to remember that she must not bear hard upon the reins. Then would La Perla of a certainty take the bit between her teeth and run like the devil when Father Mateo is after him with a holy water syringe!"

Concha smiled as the young fellow dismounted, flinging himself off with the lithe grace of youth and constant practice.

"You forget," she said, "I also am of the Province of Flowers. Do not be afraid. La Perla and I will not fall out. A side-saddle – any saddle! What needs Concha Cabezos with side-saddle when she hath ridden unbroken Andalucian jennets wild over the meadows of Mairena, with no better bridle than their manes of silk and no other saddle than their glossy hides, brown as toasted bread!"

As she made this boast Concha patted La Perla's pretty head, who, recognising a lover of her kind, muzzled an affectionate nose under the girl's arm.

"Oh, how I wish I could try you," she cried, "were it but for a moment – darling among steeds, Pearl of Andalucia!"

"La Perla is very gentle," suggested the young cavalier of Alava, as he thought most subtly. "With me at the mare's head the Se?orita might safely enough ride. But for fear of interruption let us first proceed a little way out of sight of the camp."

They descended behind the long ridge till the camp was entirely hidden, and as they did so the heart of the young Vitorian beat fast. They think plentifully well of themselves, these young men of Alava and Navarre. And this one felt that he would not disgrace the name of his parent city.

"Only for a moment, Se?orita, permit me – there! The Se?orita goes up like a bird! Now wait till I take her head, and beware of jerking the rein hastily on account of the delicacy of the little lady's mouth. So, La Perla, – gently and daintily! Consider, jewel of mares, what a precious burden is now on thy back!"

"A moment, only a moment!" cried Concha, her hands apparently busy about her hair, "this rebozo is no headgear to ride in. What shall I do? A handkerchief is not large enough. Ah, Cavallero, add to your kindness by lending me your boina! I thank you a thousand times! There! Is that so greatly amiss?"

And she set the red boina daintily upon her hair, pulling the brim sideways to shade her eyes from the level evening sun, and smiled down at the young man who stood at her side.

"Perfect! Beautiful!" cried the young Vitorian, clasping his hands. "The sight would set on fire the heart of Don Carlos himself. Ah, take care! Bear easily on that rein. Stop, La Perla! Stop! I beseech you!"

And he started running with all his might. Alas, in vain! For the wicked Concha, the moment that he had stepped back to take in the effect of the red boina, dropped a heel (into which she had privately inserted half an inch of pin, taken from her own headgear), upon the flank of La Perla. The mare sprang forward, with nostrils distended and a fierce jerk of the head. Concha pulled hard as if in terror, and presently was flying over the plain towards the cleft on the shoulder of Moncayo beyond which lay the camp of General Elio.

The young Carlist stood a moment aghast. Then slowly he realised the situation. Whereupon, crying aloud the national oath, he ground his heel into the grass, snatched at his gun, kneeled upon one knee, took careful aim, and clicked down the trigger. No report followed, however, and a slight inspection satisfied him that he had been tricked, duped, made a fool of by a slip of a girl, a girl with eyes – yes, and eye-lashes. He leaped in the air and shouted aloud great words in Basque which have no direct equivalents in any polite European language, but which were well enough understood in the stone age.

However, he wasted no time foolishly. Well he knew that for such mistakes there was in Cabrera's code neither forgiveness nor, indeed, any penalty save one. Adrian Zumaya of the province of Alava was young. He desired much to live, if only that he might meet that girl again at whose retreating figure he had a moment before pointed an empty gun barrel. Ah, he would be even with her yet! So, wasting no time on leave-taking, he bent low behind the ridge, and keeping well in the shelter of boulder and underbrush, made a bee-line for the cliffs of Moncayo, where presently, in one of the caves of which El Sarria had spoken, he counted his cartridges and reloaded his rifle, with little regret, except when he wished that the incident had happened after, instead of before supper.

However, he had in reserve a hand's-breadth of sausage in his pocket, together with a fragment of most ancient and rock-like cheese. These, since no better might be, he made the best of, and as the sun sank and the camp below him grew but a blur in the gloom, he washed them down with the water which percolated through the roof of the cave and fell in great drops, as regularly as a pendulum swings, upon the floor below. These he caught in his palms and drank with much satisfaction. And in the intervals he execrated the Se?orita Concha Cabezos, late of Andalucia, with polysyllabic vehemence.



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