Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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Alas! that he, Rollo Blair, whom these had followed loyally, questionless, as clansmen follow their chief through mirk midnight and the brazen glare of noon, should now come among these faithful hearts like a mute with the bowstring, to put an end to all this comradeship and true comity!

All knew in a moment that there was something in the air, for though Concha offered to prepare a cigarette with her own fingers, Rollo declined it and sat down among them heavy and sad. It was some time before he could bring himself to speak.

"You who are all my friends," he said, "my best and only friends – listen to me. I will hide nothing from you. I have come directly from the Queen. She and Mendiz?bal have offered me a high position, and one in which we might all have kept together in great content, if such had been your desire. Yet for the present I cannot accept it. I am not a free man. For it lies on my soul that the Abbot of Montblanch trusted us three when we had neither aim nor end in life. He gave us both of these. He fitted us out for our mission. For me he did much more. He made me an officer in the army of Don Carlos, though Heaven knows Don Carlos was no more to me than any other stupid fool – I crave your pardon, Etienne! I forgot your relationship."

"Say on," cried Etienne, gaily, flipping his cigarette ash with his little finger, "do not consider my feelings. All my cousins are stupid fools! I have always said so."

"Well, then," said Rollo, "to this man, who among other things gave us each other's friendship, and" (here he reached out his hand to take Concha's) "who gave me this – "

He was silent for some moments, still holding the girl's hand, while her eyes were doubtless lovely as moonlit waters, could any man have seen them. But no man did, for the fringed lashes remained resolutely, if somewhat tremulously, downcast.

"Well, then, I cannot leave this man to think me a mere common traitor. No, not if it loses me life and – all. I have failed in my mission. Not only so, but by the irony of fate I have fought against his friends and been saved by his enemies."

"We were saved by Concha Cabezos there, I tell you," said John Mortimer, who thought all this mere rant. "Let the old priest alone, Rollo. Marry the girl you want to marry, and take a good job when it is offered to you. You may not get a second chance of either. And that is a plain man's mind upon the matter, whether you want it or not!"

Sadly but determinedly Rollo shook his head.

"No, John," he said, "that I cannot do. I were bankrupt for life in my own esteem if I did not go straight to the Prior, frankly explain our failure, resign my commission into his hands, and offer him any other service in my power. I think I see my way to one even now!"

"My advice," said Etienne, suddenly striking in, "is to let my good uncle continue in his mistake a little longer, if indeed any mistake there be. You use a delicacy he would have been the last to use with you.

I do not believe the old fox would have cared a straw if all our throats had been cut, so that we had served his turn. Depend upon it, we three were the poorest kind of pawns in his game. If I am not greatly mistaken Cabrera and Elio were only his prancing knights, and Don Carlos, my dear cousin, the stupid old king who is of no use except to get himself checkmated."

"And who," said Rollo, smiling for the first time, "may the Queen be upon this little family chessboard?"

"There is indeed rather a superabundance of Queens, as we have seen," said Etienne, "but he who pushes about all the pieces is doubtless the petticoated old rogue himself. Baltasar Varela has been at the bottom of every plot these thirty years, and if anything goes wrong, he will be the first to skip over the mountains! Take a friend's advice, Rollo" – here the honest fellow grasped his friend's hand hard – "send your explanations and unused commissions to my respected relative by post. For me, I would not go within fifty miles of him for all the revenues of Montblanch twice told!"

"Well, El Sarria, what say you? They are all against me, you see!" said Rollo, mournfully, adding after a moment, "as indeed I knew they would be!"

As usual the ex-outlaw had little to say, and was deplorably shy as to saying it.

"Se?or," he said after a long pause, "you have doubtless your own point of honour. I had one once which very nearly cost myself and another a lifetime of misery. Let the se?or weigh the matter well and often before he runs a like risk!"

"That also is against me!" said Rollo, smiling; "Concha, you have heard all the others – what do you say?"

Concha rose and stood beside him. She put her arm gently on his shoulder so that her hand touched his cheek.

"I understand, if they do not!" she said. "I understand all. You are right. Go!"

So Rollo set forth, and with him there also journeyed to the north Etienne – first, because he was tired of Madrid, second, because he was returning to France, thirdly (and privately), because the village of Sarria and a certain green garden lattice were to be found on the route thither; John Mortimer, because if Rollo were bound to see the Prior, perhaps after all something might be done about the Priorato; El Sarria, because night and morning, noon and midnight, he prayed with his face towards that Convent of the Holy Innocents where Dol?res and her babe waited for him; La Giralda, because she might as well go northward as in any other direction; and Concha – but it is superfluous to say why Concha was going.

Nevertheless Rollo insisted that since he was solely responsible, he alone should adventure the anger of the Prior, though indeed any or all of the others would readily have accompanied him to Montblanch.

But the young Scot felt acutely how perversely, and like a cross-grained jade, Fate had treated him. He knew also that appearances were against him and in what fashion his actions might have been misrepresented to the Prior. Being singularly little given to suspicion, Rollo was not greatly affected by Etienne's estimate of his uncle. Besides, there was the information concerning the approaching suppression of the convents to be communicated, in such a form that it might be of use to the Abbot and brethren of Montblanch, and yet do no injury to those through whom he had come into possession of the secret.

In due time, therefore, after leaving Madrid the party arrived at the village of Sarria. For, being possessed of all manner of governmental passes and recommendations, they travelled rapidly and luxuriously considering the difficult and troublous times. At Sarria, Rollo, looking out eagerly northward to where above the horizon the peaks of Montblanch pushed themselves up blue and soft like a row of ragged and battered ninepins, paused only to assure himself of the well-doing of Dol?res Garcia and her son under the roof of the good Sisters in the Convent of the Holy Innocents. There were also a few arrangements to be made – and his will. Which last did not take long time. It contained only one clause: "I leave all of which I die possessed to my betrothed wife Concha Cabezos of Seville. – Rollo Blair."

The arrangements were these – Concha remained to assist Don Ramon, who had once more assumed the position of a property-holder and man of authority among his townsfolk, to open out and prepare his house for the reception of Dol?res. That little wife and mother, in spite of her new joy, continued delicate in health, though (needless to say) the nuns had given her the very best possible nursing. But those who saw the meeting of husband and wife knew that now she would have a better chance of recovery than all the bitter tisanes and laborious simples of the Sisters' store-cupboard had afforded her.

Etienne and John Mortimer decided to await events at the hostelry of Gaspar Perico. The former took the first opportunity of converting the silent serving-maid as far as possible to his interests by a judicious gift of some half a dozen gold pieces. Immediately thereafter, having thus protected his rear, he sought the green lattice. It had been taken down and a seven-foot wall had been built. Indeed a mason, who was at that moment engaged in laying the coping, informed him that the family had left for South America. Whereupon Etienne went back in haste and found the barefooted Abigail.

"Why did you not tell me that they were gone – before – ?" he demanded angrily.

"Before what?" asked the Abigail, putting the corner of her apron to her mouth and biting it with the utmost simplicity.

"Before I gave you that money?"

"Because – why, because your Excellency never asked me!"

"And pray, Se?orita," growled Etienne, waxing grimly satirical, "what did you suppose that I gave you the money for?"

The maid-servant let go the apron, put one finger to her mouth instead, and, looking down with infinite modesty, sketched with her bare toe upon the ground.

"Well?" queried Etienne, impatiently, and with a sharp rising inflection.

"Because," fluttered the little maid-of-all-work, "because I —I thought you liked me!"

Etienne turned away in a dumb rage, and the small sharp-featured Abigail got behind the back-kitchen door to dance three steps and a double shuffle all to herself.

When he had recovered his powers of speech Etienne called her the several kinds of fiend which can be defined by the French language, but this broke no bones.

"Well, dear Se?orita," she remarked very sagely, when tasked by Concha with duplicity (after the manner of Satan reproving sin), "he never asked me, and besides, then he would not have given me the six Napoleons!"

Which last proposition of the Abigail of Sarria would not have gained in credibility had it been supported by a Papal Bull.

CHAPTER XLIX
LIKE FIRE THROUGH SUMMER GRASS

On the whole Rollo could not complain of his reception at the Abbey of Montblanch. His heart had indeed been at war within him as he took his way up the long zigzags of the hill road. There was the very thorn branch which had brushed off his hat as he set forth so gladsomely with his new commission in his pocket, his comrades riding staunchly by his side, and the Abbot's good horse between his knees.

Well, he had done his best. Things, after their manner, had turned out cross-grained – that was all. He had, thank Heaven, enough of Mendiz?bal's generous draft left in his pocket to repay the Abbot for what he had spent upon their outfit. After returning the commission, it only remained as delicately as possible to impart the disastrous news of the coming dissolution of monasteries and the date of the assumption of all conventual property by the State.

Then he would depart. Sarria and Concha were not so far off. He began to take heart even before he reached the great gate of the Abbey.

No one could have been more cordially moved to see a long-lost brother than Don Baltasar Varela, the Abbot of Montblanch, to welcome his dear, his well-beloved Don Rollo.

And his noble nephew Saint Pierre – how fared he? Then that stolid solemn Englishman – did he know that his Priorato had long been shipped from Barcelona, an arrangement having been made with the Cristino custom-house?

"But the price? He has not paid it. I warrant that Mortimer knows nothing of the matter," said Rollo, excited for his friend's credit and good name.

The Abbot smiled as he answered.

"Our agent in France," he said blandly, "has received and cashed a draft from some one of the same name in England – ah, there are none like the English for business the world over! But here is a letter which has long been waiting for that young gentleman here."

"I will deliver it to him immediately, and with great pleasure," quoth Rollo.

The Abbot did not pursue the subject, but rising, said courteously, "You will excuse me for the present. You know the library. You will find my Father-Confessor there, whom I think you have met. There are also works on travel and lives of the saints in various languages, exceedingly improving to the mind. And above all you must dine with me to-night."

Thus the Abbot, with a kindness which Rollo felt deeply, put off hearing the full story of his adventures till the evening. Dinner was served in the Prior's own chamber as before, but on this occasion much more simply – indeed rather as two gentlemen might have dined at a good inn where their arrival had been expected and prepared for.

Rollo's simple heart was opened by the hospitality shown him. The beaming and paternal graciousness of Don Baltasar, the difference between what he had expected and what he found, wrung his soul with remorse for the message he had to deliver.

At last he was permitted to tell his tale, which he did from the beginning, slurring only such matters as concerned his relations with Concha. And at the end of each portion of his story the Abbot raised a finger and said smilingly to his Father-Confessor, who stood gloomily silent in the arch of the doorway, "A marvel – a wonder! You hear, Father Anselmo?"

And without stirring a muscle of his immovable countenance the ex-inquisitor answered, "I have heard, my Lord Abbot."

Then Rollo told of the plague and the strange things that had happened at La Granja, their setting out thence with the Queen-Regent and the little Princess, their safe arrival upon the spurs of Moncayo, almost indeed at the camp of General Elio. Then, with his head for the first time hanging down, he narrated the meeting with Cabrera, and that General's determination to murder the Queen-Regent and her little daughter.

"Abominations such as that no man could endure," said Rollo more than once as he proceeded to tell the tale of their delivery, of how he had despatched mother and daughter to the camp of General Elio, of their subsequent capture by Espartero, and how he, Rollo Blair, had hastened all the way from Madrid to lay the whole matter before the Prior.

"'Tis a marvellous tale, indeed, that our young friend tells – have you missed nothing?" inquired the Abbot of the Father-Confessor.

"Nothing!" said the Confessor, glaring down upon Rollo as a vulture might upon a weakly lamb on the meadows of Estramadura, "not one single word hath escaped me!"

Then Rollo delivered to the Abbot (who handed them forthwith to his reverend conscience-keeper) all his commissions and letters of recommendation. With a drooping head and a tear in his eye, he gave them up. For though he had enlisted in the Carlist cause purely as a mercenary, he had yet meant to carry out his undertakings to the letter.

When at last Rollo looked up, he found the grey eyes of the Abbot regarding him with a quiet persistence of scrutiny which perturbed him slightly.

"Have you anything more to tell me?" inquired the ecclesiastic, laying his hand affectionately on Rollo's shoulder, "you have done all that was possible for you. No man could have done more. May a continual peace abide in your heart, my son!"

"My Father," said Rollo, laying a strong constraint upon himself, "I have indeed a thing to tell that is hard and painful. The monasteries throughout all Spain are to be suppressed on the twentieth day of this month by order of the Madrid Government."

As the words passed his lips, the bland expression on Don Baltasar's face changed into one of fierce hatred and excitement. There was forced from his lips that sharp hiss of indrawn breath which a man instinctively makes as he winces under the surgeon's knife.

Then almost instantly he recovered himself.

"Well," he said, "we cannot save the Abbey, we cannot save the Holy Church from this desecration. I have cried 'Pater mi, si possibile est, transeat a me calix iste!' But now I say 'Verumtamen non sicut ego volo, sed sicut tu!'"

Then with a curious change of countenance (the difference between a priest's expression at the altar and in the sacristy when things have gone crossly) he turned to Rollo.

"Nevertheless," he said, "I do not deny that to you we owe all thanks and gratitude. Perhaps some day you shall be repaid!"

When Rollo looked round the saturnine priest had disappeared. His host and he were alone. The Abbot poured out the coffee.

"You will take some of our famous liqueur," he said, calmly and graciously as ever. "The receipt has been in the possession of the Abbey for well-nigh a thousand years."

It seemed a pity that so many things which had lasted a thousand years should come to an end on the twentieth day of the month. Meantime, however, he imitated the nonchalance of the Abbot. The liqueur was not to be despised.

Rollo held out his glass scarcely knowing what he did. The Abbot poured into it a generous portion of the precious fluid. It was of the keen cold green known to painters as viridian – the colour of turnip leaves with the dew on them.

Don Baltasar drew a glass towards him across the table.

"I am no winebibber," he said, "my vows do not allow of it. But I will give you a toast, which, if you permit me, I will drink with you in the pure wine of the flint."

Rollo rose to his feet, and stood looking at the Prior out of his steadfast blue eyes. They touched their glasses ceremoniously, the elder, however, avoiding the gaze of the younger.

"May you be rewarded, not according to your successes, but according to your deserts!" said Don Baltasar.

They drank, and Rollo, astonished by the strange bitter-sweet taste of the liqueur, could only stammer, "I thank you, Prior. Indeed, you are over kind to me. I only wish I had had – better news – better news to bring you!"

And then, somehow, it appeared to the young man that a kind of waving blackness in wreaths and coils like thick smoke began to invade the room, bellying upwards from the floor and descending from the roof. He seemed to be sinking back into the arms of the Father-Confessor Anselmo, who grimaced at him through the empty eye-sockets and toothless jaws of a skull. There were at least fifty abbots in the room, and a certain hue of dusky red in the shadows of the window curtains first made him shudder to the soul and then affected him with terror unutterable. Finally chaos whirled down darkling and multitudinous, and Rollo knew no more.

When the young man came to himself he was in altogether another place. He lay flat on his back, with something hard under his head. His face seemed cold and wet. The place, as his eyes wandered upward, was full of shifting shadows and uncertain revealings of cobwebby roof-spaces filled with machinery, huge wheels and pulleys, ropes and rings and hooks, on all of which the blown light of candles flickered fitfully.

To one side he could dimly perceive the outlines of what seemed like a great washerwoman's mangle. He remembered in Falkland town turning old Betty Drouthy's for hours and hours, every moment expecting that Peggy Ramsay would come in, basket on arm, the sweetest of Lady Bountifuls, to visit that venerable humbug, who had all her life lived on too much charity and who died at last of too much whiskey. Strange, was it not, that he should think of those far-off days now?

His head, too, was singing and thumping even as poor Betty's must have done many a morning after Rollo had paid her for the privilege of turning the mangle, and Peggy Ramsay secretly bestowed half-a-crown out of her scanty pocket-money upon her, because – well, because she was a widow and everybody spoke ill of her.

After a while Rollo began to see his surroundings more clearly. Some one was sitting at a great table covered with black cloth. A huge crucifix swung over his head – upon it a figure of the Safety of the World, startlingly realistic.

"Who has brought me here?" he said aloud, uncertain whether or not he still dreamed. His voice sounded in his own ears harsh and mechanical.

Then Rollo tried to lift a hand in order to wipe his brow. He could move neither the right nor the left. Both appeared to be fastened firmly to some band or ring let into a framework of wood.

Then he heard a voice from the figure seated under the black crucifix.

"Bring forward the traitor! He shall learn the great mystery!"

Rollo felt himself slowly lifted on to his feet, or rather the entire wooden oblong to which his limbs were lashed was erected by unseen forces. He could discern the breathing of men very close to his ear.

"Listen," said the voice from the tribunal. "You, Rollo Blair, have not only betrayed the sacred cause of the blessed King Carlos, but, what is ten thousand times worse, you have been a traitor to Holy Church, in her battle against much wickedness in high places."

"Who charges me with these things?" cried Rollo, giving up a vain struggle for freedom.

"Out of your own mouth are you condemned," came the answer. "I who speak have heard your confession."

Then Rollo knew that Anselmo, the dark confessor, was his accuser and judge. His executioners he had yet to make acquaintance with. The voice from the tribunal went on, level and menacing.

"The Abbot of Montblanch may forgive a traitor and he will. He may make and unmake pacts with a heretic if it please him. As for me, my conscience shall be clean as were those of blessed San Fernando, of Gimenez, of holy Torquemada, and of the most religious San Vicente Ferrar. Die you shall, as every traitor ought. But since I would not send an immortal soul quick to hell, I offer you this opportunity to be reconciled to Holy Church. I bid you disavow and utterly abhor all your treacheries and heretic opinions!"



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