Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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"You see," said Rollo Blair, "mine uncle, reverend man, is no favourite in his own district."

It was now drawing towards evening, and the rich orange glow characteristic of northern Iberia deepened behind the hills, while the bushes of the wayside grew indistinct and took on mysterious shapes on either side.

"My object in coming to Spain is simple," said the Englishman, of whom his companion had asked a question. "Before my father retires and confides to me his spinning mills at Chorley, he stipulates that I shall make by my own exertions a clear profit of a thousand pounds. I, on my part, have agreed neither to marry nor to return till I can do so with a thousand pounds thus acquired in my hand. I thought I could make it as easily in the wine business as in any other of which I had no knowledge. And so, here I am!" concluded the young man.

"Lord," cried Blair, "if my father had insisted on any such conditions with me, he would have made me a wandering Jew for life, and a perpetual bachelor to boot! A thousand pounds! Great Saint Andrew, I would as soon think of getting to heaven by my own merits!"

"Spoken like an excellent Calvinist!" cried the Englishman. "But how came you into this country, and can you in any way assist me in the buying of good vintages, out of which I may chance to make profit? Besides the firm's credit, I have a private capital of one hundred pounds, of which at present eight or nine are in a friend's hands!"

"Good Lord!" cried the Scot, "then I by my folly have put you by so much farther from your happiness. But of course you have a sweetheart waiting for you on your return?"

"I have yet to see the woman I would give a brass farthing to marry, or for whose mess of connubial pottage I would sell my good bachelor's birthright."

"Fegs," said Rollo Blair, gazing with admiration upon his shorter companion, and, as was his wont when excited, relapsing into dialect, "the shoe has aye pinched the ither foot wi' me, my lad. No to speak o' Peggy Ramsay, I think I hae been disappointed by as mony as a round dozen o' lasses since I shook off the dust o' the Lang Toon o' Kirkcaldy."

"Disappointed?" queried his companion, "how so, man? Did you not please the maids?"

"Oh, aye, it wasna that," returned the squire of Fife, taking his companion's arm confidentially; "the lasses, to do justice to their good taste, were maistly willing eneuch. There's something aboot a lang man like me that tak's them, the craiturs, and I hae a way o' my ain wi' them, though I never gat mair schooling than my father could thrash into me wi' a dog whip. But the fact is that aye afore the thing gaed far eneuch, I cam to words wi' some brither or faither o' the lass, and maybe put a knife into him, or as it were an ounce o' lead, I wadna wonder – to improve his logic."

"In other words you are quarrelsome?" said Mortimer shortly.

The Scot removed his hand from the Englishman's arm and drew himself to his full height.

"There" he said, "I beg to take issue with you, sir! Argumentative I may be, and it is my nature, but to the man who flings it in my teeth that I am of a quarrelsome disposition, I have but one answer.

Sir, receive my card!"

And with great gravity he pulled from his pocket an ancient card-case of damaged silver, bulged and dinted out of all shape, opened it, and burst into a loud laugh.

"I declare I have not one left! I spent them all on those Aragonese dogs down there, who thought, I daresay, that they were soup tickets on the frailuchos' kitchen up above. And anyway it is heaven's own truth, I am a quarrelsome, ungrateful dog! But forgive me, Mr. Mortimer, it is my nature, and at any rate it does not last long. I am not yet of those 'that age and sullens have,' as my father used to say. A desperate wise man my father, and well read! I would have learned more from him if I had not preferred Sergeant McPherson and the stables, to the study and my father's Malacca cane about my shoulders each time I made a false quantity."

"But you have not answered my question," said the Englishman. "I am here to buy wines. I am above all anxious to take over to England some thousand hectolitres of the famous Priorato of Montblanch, and any other vintages that will suit the English market."

"But how on a hundred pounds can you expect to do so much?" asked the Scot, with an unlooked-for exhibition of native caution.

"Oh, I have enough credit for anything that I may buy on account of the firm. The hundred is my own private venture, and it struck me that with your command of the language and my knowledge of business, we might be able to ship some Spanish wines to the Thames on very favourable terms. I should of course be glad to pay you the usual commission."

"Vintages and commissions and shipments are so much Greek to me," said Rollo Blair; "but if I can do anything to lessen the weight of obligement under which you have placed me, you can count on my services. I am scarce such a fool as my tongue and temper make me out sometimes! You are the only man alive I have tried to pick a quarrel with and failed."

"I think we shall do very well together yet," said Mortimer; "the usual commission is five per cent, on all transactions up to a hundred pounds – above that, seven and a half."

"Damn you and your commissions, sir," cried Blair, hotly. "Did I not tell you I would do my best, on the honour of a Scottish gentleman!"

"Very likely," returned the other, dryly; "but I have always found the benefit of a clear and early understanding between partners."

They had been gradually ascending the narrow path which wound through clumps of rosemary, broom, thyme, and bay-tree laurel to a sheltered little plain, much of it occupied by enclosed gardens and the vast white buildings of the monastery itself.

The moon, almost full but with a shaving off its right-hand side which kept it a full hour late, shone behind the two adventurers as they stood still a moment to take in the scene.

Pallid limestone pinnacles rose high into serene depths of indigo, in which the stars twinkled according to their size and pre-eminence, nearer and farther, gradually retiring into infinite space. In the clefts high up were black tufts of trees, that seemed from below like so many gooseberry bushes. A kind of three days' stubble of beard covered the plain itself right up to the monastery wall, while here and there was heard the continuous tinkle of many goat bells as the leaders alternately strayed and cropped the herbage between the boulders.

Stretching from side to side was the white abbey, not so much imposing for architectural beauty, but because of its vast size, its Titanic retaining walls and multitude of windows, now mere splashed oblongs of darkness irregularly scattered along the white walls. Only at one end the chapel was lit up, and from its windows of palest gold, and Madonna blue, and ruby red, came the sweet voices of children beginning to sing the evening hymn as it stands in the Breviary for the use of the faithful in the arch-diocese of Tarragona —

 
"Rosasque miscens liliis.
Aram vetustam contegit."
 

CHAPTER VI
BROTHER HILARIO

At the great entrance gate they paused, uncertain which way to turn, for from the windows of the chapel a bright light shone forth upon the grey waste without, whitening alike the dark green creepers of the juniper and the pale yellow spears of the restless broom. But a chance encounter decided the matter for them.

"Well, ah, my good sometime enemy," cried a shrill eager voice, "have you forgotten Etienne de Saint Pierre, and how we are to fight below the windmill at Montmartre the first time you come to Paris?"

"Lord, it is the hare-brained Frenchman!" cried Rollo, yet with some glow of pleasure in his face. The very talk of fighting stirred him.

"Then there are a pair of you!" said John Mortimer, quietly, like a man dropping his fly into a pool on a clear evening.

"Eh, what's that?" angrily cried the Scot, but was diverted from further inquiry by the sight of a figure that darted forward out of the darkness of the wall.

A smallish slender man, dressed in a costume which would have recalled the Barber of Seville, had it not been for the ecclesiastical robe that surmounted and as it were extinguished its silken gorgeousness. A great cross of gold set with jewels swung at the young man's breast and was upheld by links as large as those which sustain a lord mayor's badge of office.

"Ah, I have renounced the world, my dear adversary," cried the new-comer enthusiastically, "as you will also. I am no longer Etienne de Saint Pierre, but Brother Hilario, an unworthy novice of the Convent of the Virgin of Montblanch!"

"But, sir," cried Rollo Blair, "you cannot take up the religious life without some small settlement with me. You are trysted to meet me with the smallsword at the Buttes of Montmartre – you to fight for the honour of Se?orita Concha of Sarria and I to make a hole in your skin for the sweet sake of little Peggy Ramsay, who broke my heart or ever I left the bonny woods o' Alyth to wander on this foreign shore!"

"Your claim I allow, my dear Sir Blair," cried the Frenchman, "but the eternal concerns of the soul come first, and I have been wicked – wicked – so very wicked – or at least as wicked as my health (which is indifferent) would allow. But the holy Prior – the abbot – mine uncle, hath shown me the error of my ways!"

John Mortimer turned directly round till he faced the speaker.

"Odds bobs," he cried, "then after all there is a pair of them. He is this fellow's uncle too!"

The Frenchman gazed at him amazed for a moment. Then he clapped his hand fiercely on the place where his sword-hilt should have been, crying, "I would have you know, Monsieur, that the word of a Saint Pierre is sacred. I carry in my veins the blood of kings!"

And he grappled fiercely for the missing sword-hilt, but his fingers encountering only the great jewelled cross of gold filigree work, he raised it to his lips with a sudden revulsion of feeling.

 
"Torrentes iniquitatis conturbaverunt me.
Dol?res inferni circumdederunt me."
 

He spoke these words solemnly, shaking his head as he did so.

"What! still harping on little Dol?res?" cried Blair; "I thought little Concha was your last – before Holy Church, I mean."

The little Frenchman was beneath the lamps and he looked up at the long lean Scot with a peculiarly sweet smile.

"Ah, you scoff," he said, "but you will learn – yes, you will learn. My uncle, the Prior, will teach you. He will show you the Way, as he has done for me!"

"It may be so," retorted the Scot, darkly; "I only wish I could have a chance at him. I think I could prove him all in the wrong about transubstantiation – that is, if I could keep my temper sufficiently long.

"But," he added, "if it be a fair question to put to a novice and a holy man, how about the divine right of kings that you talked so much of only a week ago, and especially what of Don Carlos, for whom you came to fight?"

"Ah, my good cousin Carlos, my dear cousin," cried Etienne Saint Pierre, waving his hands in the air vehemently, "his cause is as dear and sacred to this heart as ever. But now I will use in his behalf the sword of the Spirit instead of the carnal weapon I had meant to draw, in the cause of the Lord's anointed. I will pray for the success of his arms night and morning."

At this moment the colloquy at the abbey gate was broken up by a somewhat stout man, also in the garb of a novice, a long friar's robe being girt uncomfortably tight about his waist. In his hand he held a lantern.

"Monsieur – Brother Hilario, I mean – a thousand devils run away with me that ever I should speak such a shake-stick name to my master – the Holy Prior wishes to speak with you, and desires to know whether you would prefer a capon of Zaragoza or two Bordeaux pigeons in your olla to-night?"

"Come, that is more promising," cried the Scot; "we will gladly accept of your invitation to dine with you and your uncle, and give him all the chance he wants to convert me to the religious life. We accept with pleasure – pleased, I am sure, to meet either the Saragossan capon or the two Bordeaux pigeons!"

"Invitation!" cried the astonished Brother Hilario. "Did I invite you? If so, I fear I took a liberty. I do not remember the circumstance."

"Do you doubt my word!" cried the Scot, with instant frowning truculence. "I say the invitation was implied if not expressed, and by the eyes of Peggy Ramsay, if you do not get us a couple of covers at your uncle's table to-night, I will go straight to the Holy Prior and tell him all that I know of little Concha of Sarria, and your plot to carry her off – a deal more, I opine, than you included in your last confession, most high-minded friar!"

"That was before my renunciation of the flesh," cried Saint Pierre, manifestly agitated.

The Scot felt his elbow touched.

"I was under her balcony with a letter last Friday, no further gone, sir," whispered the novice in the cord-begirt robe; "blessed angels help me to get this nonsense out of his head, or it will be the death of us, and we will never night-hawk it on the Palais Royal again!"

"And on what pious principles do you explain the love-letter you sent last Friday!" said Rollo, aloud. "What if I were to put it into the hands of your good uncle the Prior? If that were to happen, I warrant you would never ride on one of the white abbey mules in the garb of the brothers of Montblanch!"

The stout novice rubbed his hands behind his master's back, and grinned from ear to ear. But the effect upon Saint Pierre was not quite what Rollo intended.

Instead of being astonished and quailing at his acuteness, the young Frenchman suddenly fired up in the most carnal and unmonkish fashion.

"You have been making love to my little Concha yourself, you dirty Scots rogue! I will have your life, monsieur! Guard yourself!"

"'Your Concha' – do you say, Master Friar?" cried Blair; "and pray who gave you a right to have Conchas on your hands with the possessive adjective before them? Is that permit included in your monkish articles of association? Is adoration of pretty little Conchas set down in black and red in your breviaries? Answer me that, sir!"

"No matter, monsieur," retorted the Frenchman; "I was a man before I was a monk. Indeed, in the latter capacity I am not full-fledged yet. And I hold you answerable if in anything you have offended against the lady you have named, or used arts to wile her heart from me!"

"I give you my word I never set eyes on the wench – but from what I hear – "

"Stop there," cried the second novice; "be good enough to settle that question later. For me, I must go back promptly with the answer about the capon of Zaragoza and the two Bordeaux pigeons!"

The Scot looked at the Frenchman. The Frenchman looked at the Scot.

"As a compliment to the fair lady the Se?orita Concha, say to my uncle the capon, Fran?ois!" said the lover.

"And as a compliment to yourself, my dear Brother Hilario, say to his lordship also the two Bordeaux pigeons!"

"And the pigeons, Fran?ois!" quoth the latest addition to the brotherhood of Montblanch, with perfect seriousness.

CHAPTER VII
THE ABBOT'S DINNER

Rollo Blair kept his gasconnading promise. He dined with "his uncle," the abbot, that most wise, learned, and Christian prelate, Don Baltasar Varela.

The abbot of Montblanch was glad to see Milord of Castle Blair in the land of the Scots. It was not a Christian country, he had been informed.

"Then your venerability has been misinformed," cried Rollo, who thirsted for argument with the high ecclesiastic upon transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and all the other "ations" of his creed. But the Abbot parried him neatly at the very first assault, by an inquiry as to what he thought of transverberacion.

At this Rollo gasped, and found immediate occasion to change the subject to the famous wine of the Abbey, el Priorato, while the little Frenchman beamed appreciation of his uncle's ecclesiastical learning, and that wise prelate twirled his thumbs about each other and discoursed at large, his shrewd unfathomable grey eyes now fixed on one and now on another of the company, as though he were fathoming them severally with some infallible mental gauge, by which he could calculate their measure of capacity to a hair.

Costly wines were on the table. Silver and cut glass of Venice sparkled on spotless cloth. Silent-sandalled lay brethren of the Order waited on the Prior and his guests. Course after course was brought in, discussed, and removed. The Abbot, Don Baltasar Varela, himself ate little. He watched his guests' appetites, however, with manifest interest, and directed the servitors with almost imperceptible movements of his hand. He appeared to favour each one of the three equally.

Yet an observer as detached as Don Baltasar himself would have detected that the chief part of his attention was given to the young man, Rollo Blair, and that the Prior, with a gently subtle smile, kept murmuring to himself at each quick retort and flash of repartee.

"'Fiery as a Scot' indeed! A true proverb! This fellow is the man we want, if so we can pay his price. The others – "

And Don Baltasar shrugged his shoulders slightly and contemptuously, as he glanced from the broad stolid features of John Mortimer of Chorley to the bright volatile countenance of his nephew Etienne, Count of Saint Pierre – though, as we know, in so doing he did much injustice to two men very brave after their kind, albeit their kind was not that for which the Prior of Montblanch happened to be presently on the outlook.

Rollo never emptied his glass (and he did so frequently) but one of Abbot Baltasar's eyelids quivered, and the glass was immediately filled again.

Thus supplied with inspiration the stream of the youth's conversation flowed steadily. His tones rose till they dominated the table. His vocabulary expanded, and as he had learned his Castilian in strange places, his occasional freedom of expression bore somewhat heavily upon the lay brothers, who, fearful of the watchful grey eye of their superior, dared not so much as to smile behind their hands.

As Rollo's tongue loosened and his heart enlarged, the Prior with a twitch of his thumb indicated that the doors were to be closed, and turned again to give yet graver and more courteous attention to the conversation of his guest.

Master Blair's muse was the historical – and, alas! the autobiographical.

"Through his sword-arm I sent Killiecrankie, which is a better blade than any ever forged at Toledo – as I, Rollo Blair, stand ready to affirm and make good upon any man every day of the week!"

"I agree," said John Mortimer, "'tis better than my only razor, which is an infernally bad piece of metal, and not fit to scrape a hog with!"

"And I agree," sighed Etienne, "because the remainder of my life I have resolved to devote to contemplation upon holy things. Vade retro me, Satana!"

The Scot turned upon him like a flash.

"You have renounced the world" – he queried – "did I hear you say?"

The Frenchman nodded. "And its vanities!" he agreed with a twirl of his chain.

"Since Friday night, I presume?" Again began the fateful questioning, at which Mortimer kicked Rollo severely under the table. The poor novice and martyr to monarchial principles flushed visibly. He was afraid of what the mad Scot might say next. But at that very moment of danger Rollo curbed his tongue. He would not let the name of little Concha pass his lips. Still the novice in his uncle's presence was game too excellent to let slip easily.

"Contemplation!" he laughed aloud, "you will, you say, pass your days in contemplation. The relics of the saints will serve you from this day forth, most gentle penitent. Why, man, you should go straight to Cologne. They have the bones of eleven thousand virgins there, I am told. These might chance to serve you some while!"

"Speaking of relics," said the abbot, rising, to prevent further awkwardness of discourse, "there is a midnight celebration which it is my duty to attend, but do not let that disturb you from finishing your wine. Son Hilario, I absolve you from attendance, that you may keep these friends of yours in company. When you are weary, touch this bell, and Father Anselmo, my confessor, will show you the treasures and reliquaries of the Abbey – the former, alas! now scanty, since the visit of your compatriots, Messire Etienne, who came in the year eight, with their unhallowed melting-pots. But there are as many relics as ever, praise be to the saints – mostly stones. There is never any lack of stones at Montblanch, though sometimes we poor anchorites of the Virgin may chance to lack bread."

As he spoke he looked about at the well-laden table, the bursting figs, the bunches of purple grapes, the shining silver and snowy linen.

"Benedicite, good gentlemen!" he said, and went out with bowed head and a rustle of flowing robe.

"But the wine – the wine! You have forgotten the wine!" cried John Mortimer, suddenly remembering his purpose in coming to Montblanch.



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