Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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"I am sorry enough for my sins, God knows, if so be I must die," said Rollo, making a virtue of necessity; "but I have done no treacheries. And as for heresy – I have none too much religion of any sort. If you can help me to more and better, I shall be grateful, without being too particular as to creed. But my father lived and died a good Presbyterian, and so, Heaven helping me, shall I!"

The gloomy monk rose at these words, made the gesture of washing the hands, and then, turning about, kissed the wood of the black crucifix.

"Lay the young man on the rack," he said; "when he is ready to recant and be reconciled, you know where to find me!"

The two executioners of Anselmo's will were clad in black robes from head to foot, even their hands being hidden. A tall pointed mask with eye-holes alone revealed anything human underneath, as, panting with the exertion, the men raised Rollo to the level of the huge table with the double rollers beneath. Then he felt his hands and feet one by one deftly loosened and refastened. The frame was slipped from underneath him, and Rollo found himself stretched on the rack.

Then calmly seating themselves on a raised shelf close to his head, his two executioners removed their tall black hoods, apparently in order that they might wipe their beaded brows. But that they had a further purpose was immediately apparent.

With infinite surprise Rollo recognised Luis Fernandez and his brother Tomas. Luis smiled evilly as his ancient enemy rolled his head in his direction.

"Yes," he said, "I told you my turn would come. I only wish that we had also the pleasure of the company of your friend the outlaw, Ramon Garcia. But after all, that great maundering oaf would never have spoilt my plans but for your cursed interference. Twice, thrice, I had him trapped as surely as a sheep in a slaughter-pen with the butcher's knife at his throat. And then you must needs come in my way. Well, every dog has his day, and now this day I shall square all reckonings."

Fernandez waited for Rollo to reply, but though his Scots instinct was to give back defiance for defiance, he held his peace. After a pause the ex-miller of Sarria rolled a cigarette and continued serenely between the puffs.

"Now listen," he said, "this is my revenge. I have had to pay blood for it, but now it is mine. For this I sold myself to the monks, truckled to them, fetched and carried for them. To poor mad Anselmo, with his antiquated inquisition and holy office, I became a bond-slave. I knew you would come back hither, and now I can do with you as I will. How much the Prior knows or suspects of this pleasant subterranean retreat I am unable to determine. At any rate you cannot expect that he will be very much delighted with your performances. But, mark you, it is I, and not he, who will rack your body till you weep and howl for mercy. I have studied these dainty instruments. I alone put them in order – I, Luis Fernandez, whose home you broke up, whose house you burnt down to the bare blackened walls, whom you made desolate of the love of woman – "

"Nay," cried Rollo, hot on a sudden as El Sarria himself – "the love of Dol?res Garcia never was yours – no, nor ever would have been in a thousand years!"

"It would – I tell you!" responded Fernandez, as fiercely.

"I know these soft, still, easy-tempered women. They cannot do without a shoulder to lean upon. In time she would have loved me – aye, and better than ever she did that hulking man-mountain of a Garcia! Do you hear that?"

Rollo heard but did not reply.

"So this is my sweet revenge," Fernandez continued. "The good Father-Confessor prates of heretics and times for repentance. But he is mad – mad – mad as Don Quixote, do you understand? I, Luis Fernandez, am not mad. But if you have any reason for desiring to live – live you shall —on my terms. All I ask is that you answer me one question, or rather two – as the price of your life."

Only Rollo's eyes looked an interrogation. For the rest he held his peace and waited.

"Tell me where you have hidden Dol?res Garcia – and at what hour, and in what place Ramon, her husband, lays him down to sleep! If you declare truthfully these two things, I promise to leave you with three days' water and provisions, and to provide for your liberation at the end of that time. If not, I bid you prepare to die, as the men died who have lain where you lie now!"

Rollo's answer came like the return of a ball at tennis.

"Se?or Don Luis," he said, "if I had ten Paradises from which to choose my eternal pleasures, I would not tell you! If I had as many hells from which to select for you the tortures of the damned, I would not speak a word which might aid such a villain in his villany! Let it suffice for you to know that Dol?res Garcia is now where you will never reach her, and as for her husband – why, you cowardly dog, asleep or awake, sick or well, you dare not venture within a mile of him! Nay, I doubt greatly if you dare even face him dead!"

Fernandez rose and motioned his brother to the handle which turned the great wooden wheel at Rollo's feet. Then the young man lay very still, listening to the dismal groaning of the ungreased bearings and wondering almost idly what was about to happen to him.

"God in Heaven, he is here! I tell you I heard him cry! Do you think I do not know his voice? I will tear up the floor with my fingers, if you do not make haste!"

It was Concha who spoke or rather shouted these words along the rabbit-warren of passages which ran this way and that under the Abbey of Montblanch.

But it had been through Ezquerra and La Giralda that the dread rumour of danger to Rollo had first come to Sarria. The gipsies have strange ways of knowledge – mole-runs and rat-holes beneath, birds of the air to carry the matter above. Some servitor in the Monastery, with a drop of black blood in him, had heard a word let fall by Don Tomas Fernandez in his cups. The brothers, so he boasted, would not now have long to wait. The cherry had dropped into their mouths of its own accord – thus Don Tomas, half-seas-over, averred – or at least his confessorship would shake the bough and the fruit would come down with a run. This silly Tomas also knew who was to have Rollo's horse when all was over – a tostado not met with every day.

It was enough – more than enough. From Sarria to Espluga in Francoli Concha raged through the villages like fire through summer grass. The Abbey – the Friars, the accumulated treasure of centuries, the power of pit and gallows, of servitude and Holy Office – all these were to end on the twentieth of the month. Meantime a man was being tortured, done to death by ghouls – a friend of El Sarria, a friend of Jos? Maria – nay, the saviour of two Queens and the beloved of generals and Prime Ministers! Would they help to save him? Ah, would they not!

Other rumours came up, thick and rank as toadstools on dead wood. There was such-an-one of the village of Esplena, such-an-other of Campillo in the nether Francoli – they refused the Friars this, that, and the other! Well, did not they enter the Monastery walls, never to be heard of more?

Given the ignorant prejudices of villagers, the hopes of plunder awakened by a lawless time and an uncertain government, Concha a prophetess volleying threats and promises – and what wonder is it that in an hour or two a band of a thousand men was pouring through the gates of the great Abbey, clambering over the tiles, and with fierce outcries diving down to the deepest cellars! But from gateway to gateway not a brother was found. All had been warned in time. All had departed – whither no man knew.

El Sarria, by his reputation for desperate courage, for a while kept the mob from deeds of violence and spoliation. But still Rollo was not found.

Concha, pale of face and with deep circles under her eyes, ran this way and that, her fingers bleeding and bruised. In her despair she flung herself upon one obstacle after another, calling for this door and that to be forced. And strong men followed and did her will without halt or question.

But of all others it was the cool practical John Mortimer who hit upon the trail. He remembered how, on their first visit to Montblanch, Rollo himself, at a certain place near the door of the strong-room in which the relics were kept, had declared that he heard a sound like a groan. And there in that very place Concha was driven wild by hearing, she knew not whence, the voice of her lover. It seemed to her that he called her by name.

Men ran for crowbars and forehammers. The floor was forced up by mere strength of arm. The dislodging of a heavy stone gave access to an underground passage, and men swarmed down one after the other, El Sarria leading the way, a bar of iron like a weaver's beam in his hand.

The searchers found themselves in a strange place. The vaulting which they had broken through so rudely, enabled them to scramble downward amongst great beams and wheels to a raised platform covered with moth-eaten black. The groaning which Concha had heard was stilled, but as El Sarria held up his hand for silence they could hear something scuffling away along the dark passages like rats behind a wainscot.

Without regarding for the moment something vague and indefinite which lay stretched out on a strange mechanism of wood, El Sarria darted like a sleuth-hound on the trail up one of the passages into which he had seen a fugitive disappear. It was no long chase. The pursued doubled to the right under a low archway. The dim passage opened suddenly upon a kind of gallery, one side of which was supported on pillars and looked out upon the great gulf of air and space on the verge of which the Monastery was built.

The quarry came into view as they reached the sunlight, dazzled and blinking – a smallish lithe man, running and dodging with terror in his eyes. But he was no match for his pursuer, and before he had gained the end of the gallery, the giant's hand closed upon the neck of his enemy.

Then Luis Fernandez, knowing his hour, screamed like a rabbit taken in a snare.

And through the manifold corridors of the Abbey, and up from underground, rang the dread cry "Torture!" "They have been torturing him to death in their accursed dungeons! Kill! Kill! Death to the Friars wherever found!"

For the blind mouths of down-trodden villages, long dumb, had at last found a universal tongue.

Ramon Garcia looked once only into the face which glared up at him. In that glance Luis Fernandez read his fate. Without a word of anger or any sound save his own footsteps, El Sarria walked to the nearest open arcade of the gallery and threw his enemy over with one hand, with the contemptuous gesture of a man who flings carrion to the dogs.

Luis Fernandez fell six hundred feet clear and scarce knew that he had been hurt.

"God grant us all as merciful a death!" cried Concha; "little did he deserve it!"

They untied Rollo from the trestle work of the rack which the miller of Sarria had used to gratify his revenge. At first he could not stand on his feet. His hands trembled like aspen leaves, and he had perforce to sit down and lean his head against Concha's shoulder.

"Nay, do not weep, little one," he said, "I am not hurt. You came in time! But" (here he smiled) "another turn of that wheel and I would have told them all!"

Meanwhile the hammers were clanging multitudinous. At the sight of Rollo's pale drawn face the populace went wild. Their mad clamour rose to heaven. All that night the great Abbey of Montblanch, with its garniture of stall and chapel, carven reredos and painted picture, went blazing up to the skies.

At such times men knew no half measures, drew no fine distinctions. For, especially in Spain, revolutions are never yet effected with a spray of rose-water. The great Order of our Lady of Montblanch which had endured a thousand years, perished in one day because of the vengeance of Luis Fernandez and the madness of the priest Anselmo.

Meanwhile, in the sacristy of a little chapel by the gate, safe from the spoilers' hand, but lit irregularly by the bursting flames, and to which the wild cries of the iconoclasts penetrated, Concha sat nursing Rollo.

From time to time he would doze off, awaking with a start to find his hand clasped in that of his betrothed. Her ear was very near his lips, and when he wandered a little she soothed him with the tender croonings of a mother over a sick child, moaning and cooing over him with inarticulate love, her hands a hundred times lifted to caress him, but ever fluttering aside lest they should awake the beloved from his repose.

"Who is it?" he said once, more clearly than usual, yet with remains of fear in his eyes very pitiful to see.

"It is I – Concha!"

Ah, how soft, how tender at such times a woman's voice can be! The wind in the barley, the dove calling her mate, the distant murmur of a sheltered sea – these are not one-half so sweet. The angels' voices about the throne – they are not so human. Children's voices at play – they have known no sorrow, no sin. They are not so divine.

"It is I – Concha!"

"Ah, beloved, do not leave me – they may come again!"

"They cannot. They are dead!"

Keen as the clash of rapiers, triumphant as trumpets sounding the charge, rang the voice that was erstwhile so soft, so tender.

"All the same, do not leave me! I need you, Concha!"

Who would have believed that this swift and resolute Rollo, this firebrand adventurer of ours, would have been brought so low – or so high. But his words were better than all sweet singing in the ears of Concha Cabezos. She clasped his hand tightly and smiled. She would have spoken but could not.

"Ah – I knew you would not leave me!" he murmured, turning a little towards her. "It was foolish to ask!"

Then he was silent for a moment, and as she settled his head more easily on an extemporised pillow, he glanced towards the closed shutters of the little sacristy.

"When will the morning come?" he asked wearily.

For answer Concha threw open the outer door and the new-risen sun shone full upon his pale face.

"The morning is here!" she said, with all the glory of it in her eyes.

CHAPTER L
AVE CONCHA IMPERATRIX!

Thus ended the princely Abbey and its inmates. And so it stands unto this day, a desolation of charred beams, desecrated altars, fire-scarred walls roofless and weed o'ergrown, to witness if I lie. Time hath scarcely yet set its least finger-mark upon it. Under the white-hot southern sun and in that dry upland air, Montblanch may remain with scarce a change for many a hundred years. Ezquerra's hammer strokes are plain on the stones. The crowbar holes wherewith El Sarria drove out the flagstones over the torture chamber – once called the Place of the Holy Office – these any man may see who chooses to journey thither on mule-back, jolting tartana, or by the plain-song office of heel-and-toe.

As to the brethren, they had had, thanks to Rollo Blair, due and sufficient warning. They mounted their white mules and rode over the mountains into France, by a secret way long settled upon and laid with friendly relays of food and equipage.

Only the Father-Confessor, the gloomy and fanatic Anselmo, was found dead in his bed, whether from the excitement of reviving his ancient functions of Inquisitor-in-Chief, or from poison self-administered was never rightly known or indeed inquired into. Men had other things to think of in those days.

His body was hastily huddled into a grave in the cloister, where, equally with those of mitred priors and nobles of twenty descents, you may see the wild roses clambering about it in the spring.

On the day which followed the great spoliation, a man limped painfully and slowly along the ravine beneath the still smouldering turrets and gables of Montblanch. From the despoiled Abbey a thin blue reek disengaged itself lazily into the air far above him. The man was following a path which passed along the side of the deep cleft. His method of advance was at once skulking and arrogant.

Thirty yards or so beneath him he saw a congregation of vultures, the national and authorised scavengers of Spain. So thickly did these unholy fowls cluster that the man, being evidently curious, was compelled to throw several stones among them, before he could induce them to move that he might catch a glimpse of their quarry.

Then having made his observation, he said, "Ah, brother Luis, you that were so clever and despised poor Tomas, giving him ever the rough word and the bitter jest, hath not that same poor Tomas somewhat the best of it now? He at least shall not be meat for vultures yet awhile. No, he will drink many good draughts yet – that is, when he hath sold the freehold of the mill and disposed of any outlying properties that are left. Luis liked red wine, I liked white – and aguardiente. Ha, ha, Luis will never again taste the flavour of the Val-de-pe?as he was so fond of, and so the more will be left for Tomas!"

He stood and meditated awhile. Then he struck his pockets lugubriously. "I wish I had a cup of good aguardiente now," he muttered. Anon his face brightened, as he looked at the dark object among the vulture folk.

"Caramba! I have it. It will help me over a difficulty. Brother Luis's pockets were always well lined. The birds have no need of golden ounces nor do they carry off silver duros. Besides, there is the key of the strong box hidden in the ravine! Ah, I remember that he carried it about his neck. These can do no good now to Luis, or indeed, for the matter of that, to any vulture alive. It were only kind and fraternal to take such things for a keepsake. I ever loved Luis. He was my favourite brother!"

So saying, Don Tomas descended slowly and painfully to the body – for indeed he had been roughly used by the mob before they brought him to El Sarria, that the outlaw might do with him as with his brother. For they wanted to see the sight.

The vultures slowly and reluctantly withdrew on heavily flapping pinions.

"Ah," meditated Tomas, as he went placidly about his gruesome business, "what a fine thing it is to be known for a man quiet and harmless. For Ramon Garcia said to me with a wave of his hand, 'There is the door! Get through it hastily and let me see your face no more!' Then to the robber crew he said, 'Without his brother, se?ors, this fellow is as a serpent without the fangs, harmless as a blade of grass among the stones which the goats nibble as they wag their beards.'"

So after a pause this most respectable man finished his task and went his way, jingling full pockets and pleasing himself with meditations upon the abiding usefulness of a good character and of being in all things blameless, humble, and a man of peace.

There dwells an old peasant now at Montblanch who will act as your guide for a real, and points you out the place before the great altar where Ramon Garcia, sometime called El Sarria, cast himself down. Then he shows you where the Abbot stood when he stopped the pursuit of the outlaw to his own ultimate undoing.

"Yes, Excellency," he says, in a voice like green frogs croaking in the spring, "true it is as the sermon preached last Easter Day. For these dim old eyes saw it – also the chamber of the relics I will show you, and the cloisters with the grave of the Father-Confessor Anselmo.

"And truly the devil's own work I have to keep that same reverend and undefiled, for Anselmo was a man much hated. Yet as I think unjustly, being mad and at the last not rightly responsible for his acts. But only a stout stick will convince these young demons of the village that thrice-blessed ground is not a draught-house wherein to play their evil cantrips! I declare to the Virgin I have worn out an entire plantation of saplings chasing them forth of the holy place."

Last of all (but this will cost another real and is worth the money) the peasant-guide shows you the Place of the Holy Office. That black stain against the wall is where they burnt the last rack in Spain. One or two great wooden wheels with scarce a spoke remaining, loom up, imagined rather than seen, in the dusky shadows above.

"This way along a passage (take care of your honourable head!) and I will show you the window from which Luis Fernandez was cast forth like the evil spawn he was."

"And was anything ever heard thereafter of the Prior or the Brethren?" you ask, looking around on all the wasted splendour.

The old man shakes his head, but there is something in his eye which, if you are wise, causes you to slip him a piece of silver.

"Nothing more," he says, "nothing!"

Then looking about him cautiously, he adds, "But upon a certain evening near the time of sundown there came one all clad in poor garments of leather, worn and frayed. He wore a broad hat and the names of many holy places were cut on his staff – altogether such a wandering pilgrim the man was, as you may see at any fair in Spain. And very humbly the penitent asked permission of me to view the ruins. So knowing him for a pilgrim and thinking that perchance he desired to say a prayer in peace before the great altar (and also because I had no expectations of a gift), I let him go his way unattended, and so forgat about him. But when I came up out of my vegetable garden a little after sunset to close the great gate, such being the order of the Governor of the Province who pays me a yearly stipend (four duros it is, and very little, but I depend upon the generous charity of those who like your Excellency come hither!) – well, as I say, coming out of my pottage garden I remembered of this pilgrim. I went in search of him, and lo! he stood weeping in the place where the Abbot's great chair had been.



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