Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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"Then looked I full in his face and all at once I knew him. It was Don Baltasar Varela – of a surety the last Abbot of Montblanch. There was no mistake. For many years I had known him as well as I knew my old dame. And through his tears he also knew that I knew him. So he said presently, 'Reveal not that I came hither, and I will give thee – this – together with my blessing!' And with one hand he gave me a golden ounce worth sixty pesetas and more in these bad times. And with the other, as I kneeled down (for I am a good Christian), he bestowed upon me his episcopal blessing with two fingers outstretched, being as you remember a bishop as well as an Abbot! Then after he had stood awhile and the sun was quite gone down, Baltasar Varela, Abbot of Montblanch – the last they say of eighty-four, went out into the darkness, weeping very bitterly."

With the after history of the Queens Maria Cristina and Isabel the Second, this historian is not concerned. Nor is it his to tell how, greatly wronged and greatly tempted, the daughter followed all too closely in the footsteps of her mother. Such things belong to history, and especially to Spanish history – which, because of its contradictions and pitiful humanities, is the most puzzling in the world. His business is other and simpler.

For a moment only he must lift the curtain, or rather a corner of it – like one who from the stage desires to see how the house is filling, or perchance to give the carpet a final tug for the characters to pair off upon and make their farewell bows.

In another southern province far enough from the village of Sarria, there is a white house with sentinels before it. They do not slouch as they walk nor lean bent-backed against a pillar when nobody is looking, as is the wont of Spanish sentries elsewhere. It is the house of the Governor of the once turbulent province of Valencia. The Governor is one General Blair, Duke of Castellon del Mar, and twice-hatted grandee of Spain, but he is still known from Murcia even to Tarragona as "Don Rollo." For he has cleared the southern countries of Carlists, put down the Red Republicans of Valencia and Cartagena with jovial good humour, breaking their heads affectionately with his stout oak staff when they rioted. They had grown accustomed to being shot in batches, and rather resented the change at first, as reflecting on their seriousness. However, they have since come to understand the firebrand General and to like him. Usually they favour him with a private message a day or two before they intend to make a revolution. Whereupon Rollo goes himself into the woods and cuts himself a new stick of satisfactory proportions.

In this manner he has survived an abdication, two dictatorships, and a restoration with undiminished credit, chiefly by holding his province easily and asking from Madrid neither reinforcements of soldiers nor of money.

His wife is not receiving to-day, but in English fashion there are a few friends who drop in for dinner, habitu?s of the house, beloved comrades of Don Rollo's with whom (for the Se?ora is the old Concha still) his wife flirts a little, chats a great deal, and gives the best advice in return for boundless admiration and delight in her beauty and wit.

"Dol?res," she says to a friend who has arrived and sits patiently folding her little hands on a sofa, "it was pretty of you to come in such a lovely gown – just to please those poor old bachelors.

Here, Etienne, hold the baby, and be sure not to drop him, sir. There – what did I tell you? You have made him cry! Monster! Well, he shall be sent away, sweetest pet, that he shall! He is a buffalo of the marisma, a tiger of the jungle, an ogre out of a story book – that he is, sweetest! There, La Giralda, take the darling away! Oh, and give him – but stay – I too will come, else the little villain may howl till midnight."

She continues to talk quickly as she goes toward the door.

"What a voice – just like his father's when he is in the place of arms and the men do not please him! There – sweetest" (she goes behind the curtain), "there – !"

And, contented, the young man stills that parade voice of his into gentle murmurings like those of a bee within the bell of a flower.

Presently a tall young man comes striding in, in a plain uniform with the starred shoulder-straps of the highest rank. Behind him is a broad-chested, deep-bearded veteran, his chest blazing with decorations.

The younger man, whose hair gives promise of early threads of grey, enters with swift impetuosity, dashing a chance servitor out of the way and opening the inner door as if a gust of wind had come rioting through the corridors.

"Where is Concha?" he cries as soon as he enters.

"Here!" replies a voice, a little muffled, it is true, from a neighbouring room; "no, stay where you are! I shall be back in a moment."

"Ah, Etienne – John, how are you? Have they given you any breakfast? Etienne, any more loves? There are four pretty girls in the Plaza Villarasa. I saw them on the balcony as I rode through with the Sagunto regiment the other day – "

"Trust him for that!" comes the voice from behind the curtain.

"My Lord Duke," says Etienne in a master-of-ceremonies' voice, "so long as I am permitted daily to gaze upon the beauty of your incomparable wife, how can this heart turn from that to the admiration of any meaner object?"

"What nonsense is he talking now?" asks Concha, returning demurely. "I know at least three girls of this city of Valencia who have the best reasons for expecting M. de Saint Pierre to make proposals for the honour of their hands. But what can you expect of such a wretch?"

"Well, Master Etienne," says Rollo, "you will now have a chance to forget Mistress Concha and make some fair Castilian happy. For I must send you immediately with these despatches to Madrid. You will stay a week and return with the answers. That will give such a lady-killer ample time to bring matters to a head with the most hard-hearted of the se?oritas of the capital."

"Ah," sighs Etienne, kissing a hand to Concha, as he prepares to take his leave, "your husband wrongs me. He who hath so much, misjudges me who have so little! Truly, I shall be soon able to say, turning about the old catch:

 
"'My soul is in Valencia,
My body is in Madrid!'"
 

"Well, John, this is great seeing," said Rollo, when Etienne had departed to busy himself about horses and an escort; "what in the world has brought you hither? Surely your father cannot want you to make another thousand pounds in order that you may have the right to attend his twirling spindles from 8.30 every morning to 5.30 every night?"

"Oh, I am a partner now," Mortimer answered, "even though the old boy insisted upon pocketing every penny of the profit on the Abbot's Priorato. Strict man of business, my father! He said it would teach me in the future to be spry about getting my goods shipped. And when I explained, he only said that what had been possible for him there in England, sitting at ease in his arm-chair, ought to have been possible for me on the spot and with money in my pocket!"

"And what did you do?" asked Rollo, smiling.

"Well, at any rate, I struck him for a commission on my having secured the order, and the Convent onions were good for the rest. So now I am a partner in the firm with a good quarter interest."

"And what are you doing here? More onions?" laughed his friend.

John blushed and looked down at the carpet. They had a carpet at the Governor's house – though in her heart Concha always wants to have it up when any one comes in lest they should tread upon it.

"No," he said slowly, "the fact is I think you spoiled me a bit for staying at home, mill hours – and that sort of thing. So now I am to be foreign agent and buyer. I've been taking lessons in the language, and if you can put any business in my way, I shall be glad."

Rollo took him to the window by the arm.

"Do you see those fellows?" he demanded.

As he spoke he pointed to a detail of the wiry little Valencian soldiers in their white undress blouses and bragas.

"Now, John," he went on, "I can't get stuff here that won't tear the first time they do the goose-step or even sneeze extra hard. The contractors are thieves every man Jack. What can you do for me? I have twenty thousand of these fellows and lots more coming on, down in the huertas and rice fields!"

"Heavens!" cried John Mortimer, "this is an order indeed. Wait! I will let you know my best possible in a moment!"

And he pulled out a notebook crammed with figures.

"I can give you very good terms indeed," he said after a moment.

Concha jumped to her feet and clapped her hands.

"Oh," she cried joyously, "and I know Se?or de Mendia, the head of the Customs. And oh, Rollo, you and he can arrange about getting it through, and all my dress materials as well. It will be quite an addition to our income, if Don Juan sells you the stuff cheap!"

For an instant Rollo looked a little indignant and then went up to his wife and kissed her.

"My dear," he said, "you can never understand! We don't do these things in our country!"

At which John grinned incredulously.

"I have done business in Glasgow," he said suggestively.

"At any rate," said Rollo, nettled, "I don't do them."

Here Concha pouted adorably, and with her slippered toe kicked a footstool which certainly was not doing her any harm.

"I am sure we are very poor!" she cried. "I wish that wretch Ezquerra, whom they have made a General of, had given us much more than he did. I think you should write to him, Rollo!"

"Better keep friends with Ezquerra," laughed the Governor; "you and I are rich enough, Concha, and baby shall have an ivory ring to cut his teeth upon. You shall have one new dress a year, and there are always enough vegetables in the garden with which to toss you up a salad. Oh, we shall live, spoilt one, we shall live!"

And he kissed her, not heeding the others.

"But why must we keep in with Ezquerra?" said Concha, still unsatisfied; "he was an executioner once."

"Well," said Rollo, "the fellow has been at his old trade again, it seems. He may be Dictator any day now. They say he has ended the war in the north – murdered fourteen of his own brother Generals and bought fourteen of the other side. Bravo, Ezquerra, I always knew he would do something in the fine old style one of these days! But fourteen at a time is epic, even for Spain!"

"And so the war is ended – well, that is always one good thing anyway!" said Concha, careless of the means; "come, Dol?res, let us go and look at the babes! These people ache to talk politics. They don't want us. It is easy to see that!"

So taking the arm of Dol?res Garcia (who had glanced once at her husband when he came in and never looked at him again), little Concha walked to the door sedately as became a matron and the wife of a grandee. Then in her old flashing manner she turned about swiftly and from her finger-tips blew the company a dainty collective kiss.

The curtain closed, leaving the three men all staring after her.

But in another moment it was put aside and Concha's pretty head peeped out.

"Rollo," she said, softly, "you can come up when you like – when you have quite finished your politics – just to look at baby. He has not seen you since morning."

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