Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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Again he kissed the long grey tresses passionately, ere he laid them in Rollo's hand.

"Your mother's hair, wet with your mother's blood!" he cried, "a pretty talisman to make a man merciful! 'Never harmed me,' did I hear you say? Answer me now! What harm had my poor mother done them? Answer me! Answer me, I say. You Scots know the law. They say you read the Bible. 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth!' So I have heard the clerics yelp. Is it not true? Well, for each hair you hold in your hand will I exact a life, queen or consort, maid or babe, what care I? Have you any more to say? No? Then give it back to me!"

With these final words he raised his voice to a shout, and threw himself on the bed in a passion of tears, with the tress of long grey hair pressed to his face.

And Rollo went out, having indeed no words wherewith to reply.

But though worsted at the General's tent, the young adventurer was by no means defeated. None knew better how to fall back that he might the further leap. He had failed utterly with Cabrera, and as he came out the camp was still humming with the scandal concerning Concha. The Englishman, having finished repairing the cape of his military cloak, had been awaiting events within the tent with the greatest interest. In fact, he had been undisguisedly listening.

As Rollo came out he congratulated him in a low tone.

"Every moment since you entered," he said, "I have been expecting to hear the guard summoned and orders given to have you shot forthwith. Ramon Cabrera does not wait a second time to assure himself of his prisoners, I can tell you. You have come off very well. Only take my advice and don't try it again!"

"I will not!" said Rollo, whose thoughts were elsewhere. "I am obliged to you, sir!"

"By the way," continued the other, with a pertinacity which offended Rollo in his present state of mind, "there is great news in the camp. That girl who came with you proved to be a spark among our tinder. These Spaniards can resist nothing in the shape of a petticoat, you know. And gad, sir, I don't know why in this case they should. For I will say that a handsomer girl I never set eyes upon, and demmy, sir, Colonel Frank Merry has seen some high steppers in his time, I can tell you!"

"If you refer to the Se?orita Concha Cabezos," said Rollo, haughtily, "she is betrothed in marriage to me, and such remarks are highly offensive!"

"No offence – no offence – deuced sorry, I'm sure," said Colonel Frank, whose name as well as his jolly proportions indicated the utmost good-humour. "But the fact is, I heard – mind, I only say I heard– that the young lady has gone off with a good-looking young Vitorian trooper of the Estella regiment, one Adrian Zumaya. He removed his horse from the lines on pretext of grooming it, and the pair have gone off together!"

"If you will favour me with the name of your informant," answered Rollo, "I shall have the pleasure of running him through the body!"

The Falstaffian Colonel Don Francisco Merry waved his hand and smiled blandly.

"In that case, I fear, you must decimate the entire command," he said; "the boys down there are all on the shout on account of Master Adrian's good fortune.

But I should advise that ingenious young gentleman to make the best of his time, for if he comes across his old comrades and their General, he will get singularly short shrift!"

"You are at liberty to contradict the story," said Rollo, serenely, passing, as his nature was, instantly from anger to indifference. "Listen – the Se?orita Concha may have left the camp. Your Vitorian friend may have left the camp. Only, these two did not go together – note that well. If any man affirm otherwise, let him come to me. I will convince him of his error!"

And having spoken these words, Master Rollo dismissed the matter from his mind and marched off towards his companions' camp-fire, revolving his new alternative plan for the saving of the royal party.

The bivouac of the little group of friends and allies was close beside the white house where were bestowed the Queen, her husband, and her little daughter. But sentinels paced vigilantly to and fro before it, and besides the soldiers in the courtyard, there was a Carlist post upon a rocky eminence equipped with a field-gun, which commanded the whole position. So that for the present at least there was no hope of doing anything to deliver the prisoners.

Rollo called his council together cautiously. They could talk without suspicion during supper, which in old friendly Spanish (and Scottish) fashion was served up in the pot in which it had been cooked. Thus they clustered round and discussed both plans and pottage as they dipped their spoons into the steaming olla.

One of the leader's most serious difficulties had been to decide whether or not he could afford to trust the Sergeant; a little thought, however, soon assured Rollo that he could not do without Jos? Maria, so that there remained no choice. The Sergeant had openly attached himself to their party. They could discuss nothing and undertake nothing without exciting his suspicion. Certainly he had been in Cabrera's command. He had joined them thence, but – Concha vouched for him, and La Giralda swore by him. He was a gipsy, and therefore his own interests were his only politics.

So to the company about the steaming olla-pot on the hillside, as the twilight deepened, Rollo related the story of his interview with Cabrera. There was no hope in that quarter. So much was certain. If the Queen-Regent and her little daughter could not be delivered before the morning, they would assuredly be murdered.

"You have a plan, I can see that," said the Sergeant, shrewdly, polishing upon a piece of wash-leather the silver spoon which he habitually carried.

"You will aid me in carrying it out if I have?" Thus with equal swiftness came Rollo's cross-question.

A curious smile slowly overspread the gipsy's leathern visage.

"I think," he said slowly, "that all of us here have most to gain by keeping the two queens alive. But I confess I would not be sorry to make the General a present of my gentleman of the dressing-gown!"

Then Rollo, reassured by the Sergeant's words, went on to develop his plans.

"We must obtain sufficient horses to mount the royal party, and one of us must guide the Queen and the others on their way to General Elio's camp. For the horses we will look to you, Sergeant."

"I have done as much under the eyes of an army in broad daylight, let alone at night and on a mountain-side," replied the man of Ronda, calmly, lighting another of his eternal cigarettes.

"Then," continued the young leader, "next we must secure some means of communicating with the prisoners within the house. La Giralda will afford us that. The sentries must first be drawn off, then secured, and with one of us to accompany and guide the party, we must start off the great folk for the camp of General Elio at Vera, where, at least, their persons will be safe, and they will be treated honourably as prisoners of war."

"And who is to accompany them?" inquired the Sergeant, his face like a mask. For he hated the thought that Mu?oz should escape a half-dozen Carlist bullets. Jos? Maria the brigand, El Sarria the outlaw – even Cabrera the butcher of Tortosa were in the scheme of things, but this Mu?oz – pah!

"This is what I propose," said Rollo. "Let no more than three horses be brought. So many can easily be hidden in the side gullies of the barranco. That will allow one for the Queen, one for Mu?oz, and whichever of us is chosen to accompany them can carry the little Princess before him as a guarantee for the good behaviour of the other two."

"But which may that be?" persisted the Sergeant, with his usual determination to have his question answered.

Rollo made a little sign with his hand as if he would say, "All in good time, my friend!"

"Those of us who stay behind," he went on, "will take up such a position that we may stay the pursuit till the fugitives are out of reach. One thing is in our favour. You have heard the silly cackle of the camp about the escape of Concha. If I know her, she is on her way to warn Elio of the disgrace to the cause intended by Cabrera. In that case, we may, if we can hold out so long, hope to be rescued by an expeditionary party. Moreover, Elio will come himself, knowing full well that nothing but his presence as representative of Don Carlos will have power to move Cabrera from his purpose – that, or the menace of a superior force."

"And who is to go with the Queen?" asked the Sergeant, for the third time.

Rollo waited a moment, his glance slowly travelling round the group about the little camp-fire.

"Let us see first who cannot go – that is the logical method," he answered, weighing his words with unaccustomed gravity. "For myself obviously I cannot. The post of danger is here, and I alone am responsible. Don Juan there and the Count are also barred. Etienne does not know the way, nor Mortimer the language. La Giralda is an old woman and weak. Sergeant Cardono and El Sarria – you two alone remain. What say you? It lies between you."

"Go or stay – it is the same to me," said the Sergeant. "Only let me know."

"I say the same!" echoed El Sarria.

"Then we will settle it this way," said the young man. "Sergeant, whom have you in the world depending solely on you for love or daily bread?"

A gleam, like lightning seaming a black cloud irregularly, for a moment transfigured the face of the ex-brigand of Ronda.

"Thank God," he said, "there is now no one!"

"Then," said Rollo, with a mightily relieved brow, "it is yours to go, El Sarria! For not one alone, but two, await you – two who depend upon you for very life."

Ramon Garcia did not reply, but an expression, grim and sardonic, overspread the features of the Sergeant.

"For other reasons also it is perhaps as well," he said; "for had I been chosen, an accident might have happened to a grandee of Spain!"

CHAPTER XLVI
THE SERGENT'S LAST SALUTE

It was almost time for starting. The two sentries lay on their faces, trussed and helpless, with gags in their mouths. El Sarria and Rollo had dropped down upon them as if from the clouds a few minutes after the officer had made his two-hourly visitation. The Sergeant was ready with the horses in the hollow, keeping them quiet with cunning gipsy caresses and making soft whistling chalan noises in their ears.

So far all had gone well, and Rollo, standing with his knife in suggestive proximity to the tied-up sentries, silently congratulated himself. The dawn was doubtless coming up behind the hills to the east, but the darkness was still absolute as ever about the camp, save indeed for the lambent brilliancies of the stars.

They were now waiting only for the royal party, and the time seemed long to impatient Rollo. Were all his plans, so carefully laid, to be made naught because, forsooth, a queen in danger of her life must still keep up the punctilios of a court and cherish the pettishnesses and caprices of a spoilt child? Was his reputation to go down to posterity as that of a man who, being trusted with the lives of a woman and a child, had brought them straight to the shambles?

At last – there! They were coming. But why, for God's sake, could not they make less noise?

With a motion of his hand which directed El Sarria to keep an eye upon the gagged sentries, Rollo went forward to receive the Queen and conduct her to her horse. Mu?oz, however, came out first, carrying in his arms the little Princess, who, so soon as she heard Rollo's voice, whispered her desire to be transferred to him. But Rollo had already offered the Queen his arm, and whispering her to tread carefully, led the way to the little hollow where Sergeant Cardono kept the three bridles in his hand, cursing meanwhile the slow movements of crowned heads and ennobled estanco-keepers in Romany of the deepest and blackest.

He had cause to curse another peculiarity of monarchs and spoilt children before many minutes had gone by. Till now the success of the plot had been complete. There remained indeed only to mount and ride. El Sarria brought up the rear, assuring himself for the hundredth time that his weapons were in good order and ready to his hand. No great general, Ramon Garcia was a matchless legionary.

But the Queen-Regent would by no means submit to be assisted to her seat (it was a man's saddle) by Rollo. She called to her husband in a voice clearly audible all about.

"Fernando – my love! Come to me – I want you!"

As Rollo said afterwards – no queen born under the lilies of Bourbon ever ran a nearer chance of having the rude hand of a commoner set over her august mouth than did Maria Cristina of Naples on this occasion.

Nor was the appeal without effect.

Se?or Mu?oz instantly put the little Princess down upon the ground and hastened to his wife. What happened after that is not very clear, even when the subject has been repeatedly and exhaustively threshed out by the persons most immediately concerned.

Perhaps the little Princess, deposited thus suddenly upon the ground, caught instinctively at one of the long tails of the horses which (in common with those of almost all Spanish horses) almost swept the ground. Perhaps the animals themselves grew suddenly panic-stricken. At all events one of the three lashed out suddenly. The Sergeant bent sideways to snatch Isabel from among their hoofs. In so doing he dropped a rein, and in another moment one of the steeds went clattering up the dry arroyo, scattering the gravel every way with a wild flourishing of heels, and making, as the Sergeant growled, "enough noise to arouse twenty camps."

For a hundred heart-beats all the party held their breath. Then Rollo whispered to Se?or Mu?oz to mount and take the little Princess before him.

"As for you, you must run for it, Ramon!" he said to El Sarria. "The fat is in the fire now, and all we can do is to hold them back as long as we can. Make straight for the gorge towards Vera. You know the way. May God help you to reach it before they can turn our flank!"

Then it was that the Sergeant received a definite shock of surprise. That queens would be foolish, arbitrary, even absolutely idiotic, was no marvel to him. That they should choose their favourites from estanco-keepers and guardsmen, and elevate them at a day's notice to grandeeships, dukedoms of Spain, and privileges even higher, did not in the least astonish him. But that the person so elevated should after all, in his less corporeal attributes, prove to be a man, was a first-rate surprise to Jos? Maria.

Mu?oz was now to furnish the Sergeant with an absolutely new sensation.

"Se?or," he said, quietly addressing El Sarria, "be good enough to mount and conduct the Queen to a place of safety. I intend to remain here with these gentlemen!"

Then he went up to Maria Cristina and spoke a few sentences to her in a tone so low that only the last words were audible.

"If not, by the Immaculate Virgin, I swear that you shall never see my face again!"

"Fernando! Fernando! Fernando! You are cruel!" was the answer uttered through choking sobs.

But El Sarria was by this time in the saddle. The little Princess was set in her place in front of him.

"Off with you!" whispered Rollo.

And in this manner the cavalcade began its momentous march.

The Sergeant stood gazing at Mu?oz, who rubbed the backs of his hands alternately as if there had been a chill in the night air. Mu?oz on his part turned to Rollo.

"Let me have the use of that gentleman's piece," he said; "I do not like this silence. I think we shall have a hot time of it within the next five minutes."

At that moment the escaped charger came cantering back, neighing and alarming all the picketed horses for miles, which snorted back an answer. Sentries meditating in quiet corners became upon a sudden exceedingly awake. One of the two whom Rollo and El Sarria had left triced up at the door of the royal prison at last got the extemporised gag out of his mouth, and found his breath in a lusty shout of warning.

The ex-guardsman was right. Within less than five minutes the entire camp was awake. The escape of the prisoners had been discovered. The recovered sentry pointed out the direction of the barranco as that in which the fugitives had taken their departure.

Whereupon there ensued a hurried rush thither. Indeed, scarcely had the dark forms of the two horses with their riders ceased to break the skyline upon one verge of the ravine, before Cabrera's men were clambering and shouting along the other. Luckily the precipice was sheer immediately opposite, and the pursuers had to try a furlong or two farther down, at a place where a landslide had enabled them on the previous evening to lead their horses to and from the few stagnant pools which now represented those full-fed torrents the spring rains send down from the Sierra de Moncayo.

"Let them have it!" whispered Rollo, as the first straggling groups stood up dark between them and the stars.

Accordingly, out of the darkness of the barranco, a volley flamed irregularly enough, the rattle of musketry running down the whole front of the line. Six pieces in all spoke out their message to Cabrera's men to halt. For La Giralda, having taken possession of Concha's armament, drew a bead upon her man with probably as much success as any of the others. It was still too dark for accurate shooting, and the worst shot was not much inferior to the best.

But these six bullets sent across the valley from unseen foes, spattering the stones about their feet, checked that first fierce rush of angry men. Some enemy was in force on their front – so much was evident. It would be well to discover of what sort.

"We are holding them," said Rollo, triumphantly, "that is all we can hope for. Pass down the word to fire only when they advance. Time is what El Sarria and his party need. And so far as I can see, unless Concha hurries, a dead Carlist or so more or less will not make much difference to us!"

But Rollo soon found that the men who were opposed to him knew all there was to know about guerrilla warfare. They pushed forward steadily from rock to rock, and as they came on in overwhelming numbers the dauntless six were compelled to retire upwards till they gained the rugged brink of the barranco, from which the uplands swell away in broad unclothed downs in the direction of the gorge of Vera.

Here they took up their several posts in a position of great natural strength, if only they had had a sufficiency of men to defend it.

Already the morning was growing manifestly lighter. The red peaks of Moncayo above their heads began to emerge out of the grey uncoloured night. They could see each other now, and Rollo looked down his line with some pride.

There they were, each behind his shelter, loading and firing according to his liking and the bowels that were in him. The Sergeant was sternly winging each shot with intent to slay, Mu?oz firing as if he had been practising at a target for sport and feeling bored for the want of a cigarette, Etienne with swift and contagious gaiety of mood, while John Mortimer did his work with a plain and businesslike devotion to the matter in hand that argued well for his father's spinning mills at Chorley if ever he should return thither – a chance which at present seemed somewhat remote.

La Giralda, like the Sergeant, fired to kill her man, and as for Rollo himself, he did not fire at all unless he could plant a bullet where it would induce a Carlist to alter his mind about advancing further.

The end, however, was clearly only a matter of time. The light came faster up out of the east. Rollo stood on his feet, and heedless of the bullets that buzzed like bees about him looked eagerly towards the gorge of Vera. He could see nothing of Ramon Garcia or of the Queen, and his heart gave a bound of thankful joy.

But there were ups and downs on the rolling moorland country that stretched away to the right. El Sarria and his companions might only be temporarily hidden in the trough of one of these waves.

"We can hold on a while yet, lads!" he cried, and dropped down behind his rock, shaking his rifle into its nook beside his ear to be ready for the next spot of red or white crawling towards them through the dusty arroyo.

But at that moment there came from far away the sound of cheering. A mounted man dashed at full gallop up to the edge of the ravine opposite to them.

"Do not fire," said the Sergeant; "that is Cabrera – he is a brave man!"

But John Mortimer, not caring or not understanding the language, fired promptly, and his rifle bullet threw up a cloud of dust between the horse's feet. The animal reared and almost threw his rider. But in a moment he was erect as ever in the saddle, and Rollo could see him shouting furious commands to his men – apparently ordering them to bear round to the left so as to take the defending party on their least protected side.

For the next few minutes, as Mu?oz had foretold, it was hot work enough, and Rollo had no time to look behind him, or he might have seen a sight that would have astonished him – a single horsewoman, riding swiftly towards the barranco, followed at the distance of half a mile by a cloud of mounted men.



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