Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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Suddenly the General on the opposite bank, who all the while had been darting about hither and thither like a gad-fly, held up his arm, and with astonishing pride of horsemanship (and faith in the soundness of his girths) rode his charger straight down the shelving sides of the ravine, the slaty fragments crumbling and slipping under the iron-shod hoofs.

With a cheer the red boinas of the Estella regiment followed, and then straight up the opposite slopes of shale they dashed towards Rollo and his poor defences.

"Hold your fire!" he cried, first in English, and then in Spanish. "Wait till you are sure of them. We are only half a dozen, and we must wing a man apiece!"

It chanced, however, just as the horseman (who, as the Sergeant had supposed, was Cabrera himself, almost out of his mind with disappointed fury) surmounted the ridge a little to the right of Rollo's position, but close to where the Sergeant lay behind his rock, that Concha threw herself off her charger (or rather one of General Espartero's), and with a joyous shout informed them that the Queen was safe and that twelve hundred Cristino regulars were following close behind her!

Thus these two, the disappointed murderer and the triumphant deliverer, met almost face to face. Cabrera heard Concha's glad proclamation. He saw the plumes of Espartero's troopers already topping the rise, strong well-knit men of the best farming stock in Old Castile mounted on Gallegan horses.

Quite breathless with her headlong course, Concha stood panting, her hand pressed on her breast. Her eyes were wandering every way in search of Rollo, and in her haste and happiness she had left her weapons behind in the camp of Espartero.

"At any rate I will make sure of you!" cried the Butcher of Tortosa, bitterly, and drawing a pistol he covered Concha at point-blank distance. But from behind his rock (as it were out of the ground) arose the tall gaunt form and leathern visage of Sergeant Cardono.

With a sweep of the arm he set Concha behind him, and as the General's pistol went off he received the shot in his own bosom.

The next moment the Castilian horsemen crashed full on the front of Cabrera's advance and hurled it down the side of the ravine, the General himself being borne away in the thickest of the surge.

Meantime another part of Espartero's command had bent round to the east and was by this time taking the Carlists on the flank. In thirty seconds the ridge of the barranco, which the six had defended so well, was deserted; even slow-going John Mortimer had been swept into the tide of pursuit.

But the Sergeant lay still, with the breast of his jacket opened, and his head on Concha's shoulder. She dropped warm tears over his face. Rollo, too, was there, and held the dying man's hand. He beckoned La Giralda to him and whispered a word in Romany. She nodded, and presently returned with the same great bulk of a man, brown as a Moor of Barbary, whom Rollo had encountered on the night of the plunder of San Ildefonso.

"Ezquerra," the Sergeant whispered, "I am spent.

There is a spike in the neck-band this time. All that is honestly come by, I want you to give to this young lady. You will find it by itself under the hearthstone in my house at Ronda. The rest you will take no objections to, I know, on the ground of morals. Keep it for yourself!"

Concha glanced once up at Rollo and then, receiving his nod of approval, bent down and kissed the Sergeant.

The Andalucian looked up with that wondrous flavour of gay humour which distinguishes those born in the joyous province. His saturnine visage brightened into the sweetest smile. Very feebly he raised his hand to his brow in a last salute in acknowledgment of Concha's favour. His head fell back on her breast.

"A thousand grateful thanks, Se?orita!" he said. And then noting the executioner he added, "Ah, Ezquerra, this is better than dying on the Plaza Mayor of Salamanca with the iron collar about one's neck!"

They were his last words. And so passed Jos? Maria of Ronda, whom to this day every Spanish peasant holds to have been the greatest man Spain has seen since the dead Cid rode forth on Babieca for the last time to outface the Moors.

CHAPTER XLVII
MENDIZ?BAL

Rollo and his companions rode into Madrid amid the clamour and rejoicing of thousands, as indeed he might have done behind Don Carlos had he been successful in his first intention. Madrid was healthy and hungry. The plague had been stayed by the belt of barren country which cinctures the capital village of Spain. And as for fear, do not the inhabitants say that what happens not in Madrid, happens not at all!

Rollo, so long accustomed to the high clear silences of the sierra or the scarcely less restful valleys where the birds sing all day in the spring, felt himself closed in and deafened by the clamour, blinded by the brilliant colours, and in ill-humour with all things – chiefly, it must be confessed, because Concha, attired by the Queen's own waiting-maid from Aranjuez, sat in a carriage with the aplomb of a duchess.

They were all in high favour. For Mu?oz (now more than ever the Power behind the Throne, and perhaps secretly proud of having played the man at the defence of the barranco of Moncayo) had quickly turned the tide of the Queen-Regent's displeasure. And at this period there was scarcely any honour that she would not have bestowed upon her preservers.

For in distracted hither-and-thither Spain of the early Carlist wars, it seemed nothing extraordinary to any one that Rollo should have saved their Majesties' lives with a Carlist commission in his pocket, or that Sergeant Cardono of the command of General Cabrera should have been shot dead by his superior officer while fighting vehemently for the opposite party. For these are incidents common to most civil wars and specially common in Spain, that land of adventurous spirits with little to do and plenty of time in which to do it. Indeed a feather or a favour, the colour of a riband or the shape of a cap, often made young men Carlist or Cristino, National or Red Republican, as the case might be.

On the third day after their arrival the privilege of a royal interview was granted to the young Scot. Rollo smiled as he thought of the first he had been favoured with, and of that other when he had started off a cavalcade consisting of two Queens and an outlaw under sentence of death with the loud "Arr?!" of a muleteer.

But Rollo had learned to be calm-eyed before royalties. He was a Scottish gentleman, and had grown accustomed to Queens during these latter days. Court lords and the ruck of Madrid politicians stared at him in the corridors, but, affrayed by something in his eye, meekly or reluctantly according to their mood took the wall from him as he strode on, careless, hard-bitten, a little insolent, perhaps, in bearing. At last he stood in the great hall of audience, his plain well-worn coat and knee-breeches the secret scorn of every courtier. But a glance at Killiecrankie, once more a-swing by his side, was sufficient to sober too impertinent male interest, while the reputation of his exploits and the keen soldierlike face which he turned so pensively towards the window, awakened the liveliest interest in many a pair of dark eyes.

Somewhat after this fashion ran the prattle.

"Look! there goes the man who delivered the Regent and the young Queen! They say that both Jos? Maria, whom every one thought dead, and El Sarria the outlaw were of his band. More than that, it is certain that one very near to the Queen-Regent's person was content to take service with him as a common soldier. How great and famous then must he be! And, above all, how certain of preferment! It were indeed well to cultivate his acquaintance. For what shall be done to the man whom two Queens and a Consort unite in delighting to honour? His threadbare coat? A mere eccentricity of genius, my love. His huge battered sword a-dangle at his side? It is said that he has slain over twenty men with that same blade! Decidedly not a man to be despised; speaks all languages, even the crabbed Gitano-Castilian like a native of Valladolid. He will marry a Spanish wife and become one of nosotros, as did O'Donnel, Duke of Tetuan, Sarsfield, Blake, and a score of others – all once poor and neglected, now thrice-hatted and set among the finest clay of the court potter."

Thus in the ante-chambers of Queens spake the wily, the wise, the far-seeing. And from such Rollo had many offers of service. But with a delicate politeness at which none could take offence he declined all these, making (as his father had advised him) his words at once "firm and mannerly."

Thank you, but he was content to wait. He had been sent for by the Queen-Regent. Till then – but at that moment, after a preliminary peep from behind a curtain, the Princess herself ran skipping across the hall, and, catching Rollo by the hand, bewildered him with a chatter of joyous questionings.

Where was Concha? Would her brother never come back? Why had he not been at Aranjuez? She sent him a kiss. (The which Rollo promised without fail to deliver, and what is more, meant to keep his word.)

Yes (he answered with amusement), perhaps one day the Princess would see Concha's brother again. It was certainly very dull in Madrid. Royal palaces were as little to his liking as to that of the Princess.

Then the little lady had her turn. Did he remember when he had hidden her underneath the great brass pot among the hay? Did he know that once a straw had tickled her beneath the chin so funnily that she came near to bursting out laughing? Rollo did not know, but the very thought turned him cold even among that throng of courtiers, all casting sidelong glances and trying to get near enough to listen politely to the conversation without appearing to do so. He seemed to be once more threading his way through the scattered groups of gipsies, the dark brows of Egypt bending suspiciously upon him and the royal storehouses flaring up like torches.

"Ah, there he comes – just like him!" cried the little girl, stamping her foot after the pattern of her mother; "now you and I will have no more good talk. But I shall wait for you at the gate when you come out. There – now bend down. I want to give you another kiss for that pretty boy, the brother of that Concha of yours!"

As she ran off Rollo found a friendly hand on his arm, and lo! there at his elbow was Don Fernando Mu?oz, Duke of Rianzares, come in person to convey him into the presence. His manner was characterised by the utmost cordiality, together with a certain humanity altogether new, which made Rollo think that a few more barrancos to defend would do this favoured grandeeship a great deal of good.

Rollo had expected to be ushered into the presence of her Majesty in person, but instead, a plain English-looking man stood alone in a little room, the window of which commanded a vast and desolate prospect. There was a tall chair with a golden crown over it at the top of a table covered with red cloth, while several others, all uncushioned and severely plain, were ranged regularly about it.

The English-looking man came forward bluffly, and put out his hand to Rollo. He looked more like a healthy fox-hunting squire, just intelligent enough to sit in Parliament and make speeches against reform and the corn laws, than the political confidant of a Queen of Spain.

Then in a moment it flashed through Rollo's mind that this hearty Anglo-Iberian could be none other than Mendiz?bal himself, the Prime Minister of Spain, the scourge of monks and monasteries, the promised regenerator of the finances of Spain. Another thought crossed his mind also. He had actually not so very long ago practically accepted a commission to kill this man if he should chance to cross his path.

Yet the remembrance did not dim the brightness of the young man's smile as he took the other's hand.

"Ten to one he will talk to me about the weather," said Rollo to himself, "to me who ought at this moment to be inserting a twelve-inch Manchegan knife between his ribs."

And it fell out even as he had anticipated.

"You have been favoured with fine weather for your many adventures," said the Prime Minister of the Queen-Regent; "it is almost like an English June, clear, but with a touch of cold in the mornings and after sunset."

Rollo modestly supplied the appropriate conversational counter.

"Your name strikes me as in some way familiar," said Mendiz?bal; "was not your father Alistair Blair of Blair Castle, a client of mine when I was a banker in London and operating on the Stock Exchange?"

"He was, sir," quoth candid Rollo, "not greatly to his advantage – or mine!"

The Premier coloured a little but did not alter his friendly tone.

"Well, perhaps not," he said; "I myself lost every penny I possessed in the world at the same time. Our Spanish stocks were not so favourable an investment as they have become since we obtained recognition and a guarantee from England. But when I have been turned out of my present occupation, I wish you would permit me to look into your affairs. Your father's old vouchers should be worth something now. You have not, I hope, had to sell the old place of your ancestors?"

"No," said Rollo, carelessly; "an ancient retainer of the family lives in the castle with his wife. There is a dovecote in the yard, so they eat the pigeons which eat the farmers' crops, who in turn forget to pay their rents. Thus the ball rolls. And indeed the years have been so bad of late that I have not asked them!"

"You prefer a life of adventure abroad?" asked the Premier, who had not ceased to look at Rollo with the most earnest attention.

Rollo shrugged his shoulders slightly at the question.

"I do not know," he said simply, "I have not tried. The most ordinary affairs turn out adventurous with me. But then, I would rather undergo any conceivable hardship than live on in one place like a beetle pinned to a card, able only to waggle my feet, till a merciful death put a limit to my sufferings."

Further conversation was cut short by the entrance of the Queen-Regent. Her husband conducted her to the door or rather porti?re curtain of the council-room, and immediately withdrew – a slight waving of the tapestry, however, affording some reasons for suspecting that his Excellency the Duke of Rianzares had not removed himself the entire distance required by etiquette from the councils of his Sovereign.

Maria Cristina extended first to Mendiz?bal and then to Rollo a plump hand to kiss.

"I have to thank you," she said to the latter, not ungraciously, "for the many and great services you have rendered to me, my daughter – and – to other friends also. The result has certainly been most fortunate, though the manner of service at times left something to be desired!"

Then as Rollo kept his head modestly lowered, the Queen-Regent relented a little, thinking him covered with confusion at her severity, which indeed was far from being his real state of mind.

"But after all you are a brave man, of excellent parts, and personable to a degree – "

"Which in this age and country goes for no little!" said Mendiz?bal, bowing to the Queen as if he intended a compliment. "You have heard how our soldiers chant as they go into battle:

 
"'Old Carlos is a crusty churl,
But Isabel's a sweet young girl!'"
 

The Queen bowed, with however a little frown upon her face. She was never quite sure whether her Prime Minister was laughing at her or not. Then she returned to the subject of Rollo.

"You have some employment of a sort suited to the taste of this adventurous young man?" she went on. "I understand and sympathise with his desire not to return to the wars in the North."

"There is the little matter of the suppression of the monasteries," returned Mendiz?bal, "to take effect (as your Majesty doubtless remembers) on the twentieth of the month. It is already the sixth. There may be some slight trouble where the orders are strong. I propose that we send this distinguished young Scottish soldier (whose noble father I had the honour of knowing somewhat intimately) to Valencia or the Baleares with vice-regal powers. We have great need of such men at such a time."

Rollo gasped and bowed his head. The crimson rose to his cheek. To be a Governor with almost regal powers and soldiers at his beck, to hold a turbulent province quiet under his hand! How he wished there were no such thing as "honour" anywhere, keeping him by mere iteration and irritancy to the resolution his conscience had extorted from him.

Mendiz?bal thought the young man only doubtful of his capacity, and patted him on the shoulder with fatherly tolerance and encouragement.

"You will do very well," he said kindly, "we will give you a free hand, full powers, and as many soldiers as you want. Besides, the Carlists have been some while in these regions, and we have not been able to get our own men. Now you can look them up!"

Then Rollo, suddenly finding words, spoke his mind fully and freely.

"I cannot go," he said; "at least, not till I have fulfilled a sacred duty which lies heavily upon me. I took up a charge. I have not fulfilled it. I cannot serve the Queen-Regent till I have laid down that which I undertook, and to the person who charged me with the mission!"

The Queen stared at the bold young man, but the Prime Minister understood better.

"It is his point of honour," he explained to Maria Cristina; "those of his nation cannot help it. It is in the blood and in the gloomy creed which they profess – a sour and inconvenient religion in which there is no confession."

"No confession!" cried the Queen, casting up her hands in horror, "no absolution! How then can they go on living from day to day?"

"Much like other people," said the Premier, smiling; "they repent, and then – repent of their repentances!"

"And is this young man not a Christian?" cried the Queen. "Is he also of this dark and gloomy superstition – what was it that you called the heresy?"

"I am indeed a Presbyterian," said Rollo, smiling; "at least, my father was, and I also when any one contradicts me. For the rest I am, I fear, but an indifferent Christian!"

"Ah," murmured the Queen with a reflective sigh, "then even heretics may have their uses. In that case it will be easier for you to oppress – I mean to argue with and convince the holy friars of the righteous intentions of the government with regard to them!"

"Well," said Mendiz?bal, quickly, desirous of diverting the conversation from a dangerous subject, "off with you, sirrah! Go satisfy that Calvinistic conscience of yours! But first kiss her Majesty's royal hand. Let no one spoil your beauty, and return betimes to the post which we will keep open for you!"

Rollo did as he was bidden. He kissed the hand of the Queen, who was graciously pleased to give his fingers a slight pressure as hers rested a moment in his. For the handsome face and high bearing of Rollo Blair had been working their usual way with Maria Cristina.

The Prime Minister, noting a slight movement of the porti?re curtains, bustled Rollo off lest he should lose his favour with the Power Behind the Throne. But, pausing a moment at the door, he whispered in his ear – "Have you any objection to telling me the name of the person from whom you had this commission? I promise you upon my sacred honour that you shall have no cause to repent your frankness. Neither you nor he shall suffer on account of my knowledge – no, not if it were Don Carlos himself."

"His name is Don Baltasar Varela, Prior of the Abbey of Montblanch!" said Rollo, after a moment's hesitation.

"I understand," said Mendiz?bal, with an inscrutable expression. "Nevertheless, I will keep my word."

CHAPTER XLVIII
A POINT OF HONOUR

There remained Concha to be dealt with. Ah, yes, and also his companions El Sarria, Mortimer, and Etienne. Only – they did not count. What man does count when the one woman is in the question? Friends of a lifetime are skipped like the historical introduction of an exciting romance, through whose pages battle, murder, and sudden death play gaily at leap-frog and devil-take-the-hindmost.

Yes, Rollo owned it, Concha mattered. There was no blinking the fact. It would be bitter almost as death for him to tell her that he must once more leave her to take his life in his hand, upon a mere point of honour. She might not understand. Like his friends she might denounce his purpose as arrant quixotry and folly. Well, that would certainly make it harder – but even then he would carry it through.

He found them seated in the lodgings which Rollo had secured for Concha and La Giralda in a house that looked upon the Puerta del Sol. Opposite, but upon the same staircase and landing, lodged El Sarria, who, if it would have given any pleasure to Rollo, would have slept all night outside his sweetheart's door.

Etienne, Mortimer, and Rollo himself had rooms on the other side of the great square. But upon Rollo's return all were now assembled in Concha's sitting-room, as had grown to be their easy custom. Concha needed no chaperon, and if the straiter convenances required one, was there not La Giralda with her myriad wrinkles busied about the pots in the little adjacent kitchen or seated with her knitting in the window-seat like a favoured guest? For it was in this simple fashion that these six people had come to dwell together. And as he entered, the heart of the young man smote him sore.



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