Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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"It is no use, Anselmo," said the Abbot, gravely toying with the clasp of one of the open books, in which a few lines of writing were still wet, "after all, we are but playing with the matter here. The cur? lies elsewhere. We may indeed keep our petty bounds intact, sheltering within a dozen of leagues not one known unfaithful to the true King, and the principles of the Catholic religion; but we do not hold even Aragon with any certainty. The cities whelm us in spite of ourselves. Zaragoza itself is riddled with sedition, rottenly Jacobin to the core!"

"An accursed den of thieves!" said the gloomy monk. "God will judge it in His time!"

"Doubtless – doubtless. I most fully agree!" said the Abbot, softly, "but meantime it is His will that we use such means as we have in our hands to work out the divine ends. It is well known to you that there is one man who is driving this estate of Spain to the verge of a devil's precipice."

With a look of dark shrewdness the priest dropped his head closer to his superior's ear.

"Mendiz?bal," he said, "Mendiz?bal, the Jew of Madrid, the lover of heretic England, the overgrown cat's-paw of the money-brokers, the gabbler of the monkeys' chatter called 'liberal principles,' the evil councillor of a foolish queen."

"Even so," sighed the Abbot. "To such God for a time grants power to scourge His very elect. Great is their power – for a time. They flourish like a green bay tree – for a time. But doth not the Wise Man say in the Scripture, 'Better is wisdom than many battalions, and a prudent man than a man of war'? You and I, father, must be the prudent men."

"But will not our brave Don Carlos soon rid us of these dead dogs of Madrid?" said the Confessor. "What of his great generals Cabrera and El Serrador? They have gained great victories. God has surely been with their arms!"

The Prior shrugged his shoulders with a slight but inconceivably contemptuous movement, which indicated that he was weary of the father's line of argument.

"Another than yourself, Anselmo, might mistake me for a scoffer when I say that in this matter we must be our own Don Carlos, our own generals – nay, our own Providence. To be plain, Carlos V. – that blessed and truly legitimate sovereign, is a donkey; Cabrera, a brave but cruel guerrillero who will get a shot through him one fine day, as all these gluttons for fighting do! – The rest of the generals are even as Don Carlos, and as for Providence – well, believe me, reverend father, in these later days, even Providence has left poor Spain to fend for herself?"

"God will defend His Church," said the Confessor solemnly.

"But how?" purred the Abbot. "Will Providence send down three legions of angels to sweep the Nationals from sea-board to sea-board, from Alicante even to Pontevedra?"

"I, for one, place neither bounds nor limits upon the Divine power!" said the dark monk, sententiously.

"Well, then, I do," answered the Prior; "those of common sense, and of requiring us who are on earth to use the means, the commoner and the more earthly the better."

The monk bowed, but did not again contradict his superior.

The latter went on —

"Now I have received from a sure hand in Madrid, one of us and devoted to our interests, an intimation that so soon as the present Cortes is dissolved, Mendiz?bal means to abolish all the convents in Spain, to seize their treasures and revenues, turn their occupants adrift, and with the proceeds to pay enough foreign mercenaries to drive Don Carlos beyond the Pyrenees and end the war!"

During this speech, which the Prior delivered calmly, tapping the lid of his golden snuff-box and glancing occasionally at the Father Confessor out of his unfathomable grey eyes, that gloomy son of the Church had gradually risen to his full height. At each slow-dropping phrase the expression of horror deepened on his countenance, and as the Abbot ended, he lifted his right arm and pronounced a curse upon Mendiz?bal, such as only the lips of an ex-inquisitor could have compassed, which might have excited the envy of Torquemada the austere, and even caused a smile of satisfaction to sit upon the grim lips of San Vicente Ferrer, scourge of the Jews.

The Prior heard him to the end of the anathema.

"And then?" he said, quietly.

The dark monk stared down at his chief, as he set placidly fingering his episcopal ring and smiling. Was it possible that in such an awful crisis he remained unmoved?

"The day of anathemas is over," he said; "the power of words to loose or to bind, so far as the world is concerned, is departed. But steel can still strike and lead kill. We must use means, Father Anselmo, we must use means."

"I will be the means —I, Anselmo, unworthy son of Holy Church – with this dagger I will strike the destroyer down! Body and soul I will send him quick to the pit! I alone will go! Hereby I devote myself! Afterwards let them rend and torture me as they will. I fear not; I shall not blench. I, Anselmo, who have seen so many – shall know how to comport myself!"

"Hush!" said the Abbot, for the first time seriously disturbed, and looking over his shoulder at the curtained door, "moderate your voice and command yourself, father. These things are not to be spoken of even in secret. The Jew of Madrid shall die, because he hath risen up against the Lord's anointed; but your hand shall not drive the steel!"

"And why, Baltasar Varela?" said the dark priest, "pray tell me why you claim the right to keep me from performing my vow?"

"Let that tell you why!" said the Prior with severity. And without rising, so circumscribed was his chamber, he reached down the small wall-mirror, which he used when he shaved, and handed it to the Father Confessor. "Think you, would a countenance like that have any chance of being allowed into the ante-rooms of the Prime Minister?"

"I would disguise myself," said the priest.

The Prior smiled. "Yes," he said, "and like a sereno in plain clothes, look three times the monk you are with your frock upon you! No, no, Anselmo; Holy Church has need of you, but she does not require that you should throw your life away uselessly."

He motioned the Confessor to a seat, and passed him his snuff-box open, from which the dark monk took a pinch mechanically, his lips still working, like the sea after a storm, in a low continuous mutter of Latin curses.

"I have found my instruments," said the Prior. "They are within the walls of the Abbey of Montblanch at this moment. And we have just two months in which to do our business."

The Father Confessor, obeying the beckoning eyebrow of his superior, inclined his ear closer, and the Prior whispered into it for some minutes. As he proceeded, doubt, hope, expectation, certainty, joy, flitted across the monk's face. He clasped his hands as the Abbot finished.

"God in His Heaven defend His poor children and punish the transgressor!"

"Amen," said the Abbot, a little dryly; "and we must do what we can to assist Him upon the earth."

CHAPTER X
A MAN AND HIS PRICE

These were memorable days for all the three youths, who so unexpectedly found themselves within the Convent of Montblanch. The Cristino soldiery, having fraternised with the Abbey cooks, and having been treated well from the Abbey cellars, departed about their business, leaving guards behind them to watch the exits and entrances of the hill-set monastery.

Then a peace majestic, and apparently eternal as the circle of the mountains, settled down upon Montblanch. Of all the men who dwelt there, monk and novice, lay-brother and serving-man, only two, the Abbot Baltasar and the gloomy Confessor, knew that the Abbey of the Virgin, after existing six hundred years, and increasing in riches and dignity all the while, had but eight weeks more in which to live its sweet and cloistered life.

For the rest the Abbot was the most unconcerned of all, and as to the Confessor, even a sentence of immediate execution could not have added to the consistent funereal gloom of his countenance.

But to the three young men, altogether relieved from any cares of mind, body, or estate, these days of peace revealed new worlds. The sweet-tongued bells which called dreamily to morning prayer awoke them in their cells. The soft yet fresh mountain air that came in through their open windows, the Psalms chanted in a strange tongue, the walks to the caves of the hermits, and the sanctuaries of the saints scattered up and down the mountain steeps, had gone far to convince John Mortimer that there had been religion in the world before the coming of his father's Primitive Methodism. Even hare-brained Rollo grew less argumentative, and it was remarked that on several occasions he left his long sword Killiecrankie behind him when he pilgrimed to the conventual chapel.

As for Brother Hilario, he became so saintly that his man-servant, Fran?ois (who regretted bitterly the Palais Royal and its joys), haunted him with offers to convey mission or missives to la petite Concha of Sarria with the utmost discretion, only to be repulsed with scorn.

To chant in the choir, to live laborious days, to count the linen of the brotherhood, to ride a white mule, and to sleep in a whitewashed cell, these were in future to be the simple daily pleasures of Brother Hilario, late Count of Saint Pierre. Never more would he sing a lusty serenade beneath a lady's window, never more throw his cloak about his mouth and follow a promising adventure at a carnival masquerade.

These grey monastery walls were to contain his life for ever. Its simple range of duties and frugal pleasures were to satisfy him till the day when, the inhabitant of one of its rocky cells, he should be found dead upon a stiff frosty morning, and the bones of this new Saint Hilario (and eke the stone on which he had sat), would be added to the others in the reliquary chamber of the Abbey.

There were, however, at least two objections to this. Firstly, Brother Hilario was not yet twenty-five years of age and a Frenchman, with the blood of youth running very hotly in his veins; and, secondly, unless the unexpected happened, the monastery in two months more would cease to exist upon the face of the earth.

The Abbot cultivated the society of all the three youths. But as the Englishman spoke little French and no Spanish, as the manner of his nation is, their intercourse was, of course, restricted. Nevertheless, the affair of the Priorato wine went forward apace, and the bargain was struck with the almoner of the convent at a rate which satisfied all parties. John Mortimer paid ?90 down in hard cash as earnest of the price, being the balance of the private venture with which he meant to purchase the right to return to Chorley and its paternal spindles.

But the preference of the Abbot for the headstrong Scot of Fife was too manifest to be ignored, and many were the speculations among the brethren as to what might be the purpose of Don Baltasar in thus spending so much of his time with a stripling heretic.

That he had such purpose none doubted, nor that the results would in due time be seen to the honour of the Holy House of Montblanch. For though the brethren used the dearest privilege of all brotherhoods – that of grumbling freely at the Superior – none questioned either Don Baltasar's capacity or his single-mindedness where the Order was concerned.

The Abbot sounded the depths of the young man. He met his Scottish caution with a frank confession of his purpose.

"I am putting my life and the lives of all these good and holy men in your hands, Don Rollo," he said. "Any day there may be a Nationalist army here. Their outposts are watching us even now. A fugitive was pursued to the very altar of sanctuary the other night! What! You saw him? Ah, of course, it was the night when our pleasant acquaintanceship began. Frankly, then, we are all Carlists here, Don Rollo. We stand for the King, who alone will stand for us."

"Your secret, or any secret, is safe with me," said Rollo grandly, turning his quick frank eyes upon the Prior. "Not death – no, nor torture – could drag a word from me against my will."

The Abbot perused him with his eyes thoughtfully for a moment.

"No, I do not think they would," he said slowly, and without his usual smile.

"Further, I would desire to enlist you as a recruit," he went on, after a pause. "There are many English fighting in our ranks, but few of your brave northern nation. Don Rollo, we need such men as you are. We can give them a career. Indeed, I have at present a mission in hand such as might make the fortune of any brave man. It is worth a general's commission if rightly carried through. Not many young men have such a chance at twenty-two. Ah, rogue, rogue – I heard of your doings the other night down at the inn of San Vicente, and of how with your sole sword you held at bay a score of Migueletes and Aragonese gipsies – smart fellows with their knives all of them!"

"It was nothing," said Rollo modestly; "the cowards did not mean fighting. It was never in their eyes."

"Pardon me," said the Prior, "I know these fellows a great deal better than you, and it was a very great deal indeed. Your life hung upon the turning of a hair!"

"Well, for that time the hair turned my way, at any rate," said Rollo, who honestly thought nothing of the affair, and did not wish the Abbot, if he had indeed serious business on hand, to measure him by a little public-house fracas.

"Ah," said he gently, "you follow your star! It is good policy for those who would go far. Also I think that your star will lead you shortly into some very good society."

The Abbot paused a little ere he made the plunge. Perhaps even his steadfast pulse felt the gravity of the occasion.

Then he began to speak – lightly, rapidly, almost nervously, with the sharp staccato utterance with which Don Baltasar concealed his intensest emotion.

"The commission is a great one," said the Abbot. "This great Order, and all the servants of God in Spain, depend for their lives on you. If you succeed, Don Carlos will assuredly sit on the throne of his fathers; if you fail, there is an end. But it is necessary that you should carry with you your two friends. I, on my part, will give you a guide who knows every pass and bridle-path, every cave and shelter-stone, betwixt here and Madrid."

"Then I am to go to Madrid?"

"Not, as I hope, to Madrid, but to La Granja, where your work will await you. It is, as you may know, a palace on the slopes of the Guadarrama mountains, much frequented by the court of the Queen-Regent at Madrid."

"There is to be no bloodshed among the prisoners?" said Rollo. "Fighting is very well, but I am not going to be heart or part in any shootings of unarmed men!"

"My friend," said the Abbot, with affectionate confidentiality, laying his arm on the young man's sleeve, "I give you my word of honour. All you have to do is to bring two amiable and Catholic ladies here – the Lady Cristina and her little maid. They are eager to be reconciled to mother Church, but are prevented by evil councillors. They will come gladly enough, I doubt not, so soon as they are informed of their destination."

"Well," said Rollo, "on these conditions I will undertake the task; but as to those who are there in the palace with her? How are they to fare?"

"Your instructions," said the Abbot, "are these. You will go first to the camp of General Cabrera, to whom I will give you a letter. He will furnish you with such escort as may be thought desirable. You will also receive from him detailed orders as to what you must do when you arrive at La Granja. And I will see to it that you go from this place with a colonel's commission in the service of Carlos V. of Spain. Does that satisfy you?"

It did, but for all that the Abbot gave Rollo no hint as to what was to be the fate of those who might be taken at La Granja in the company of the little queen and her mother, the Regent Maria Cristina.

There was no difficulty at all about Etienne Saint Pierre, but John Mortimer was all for devoting his energies to the task of getting his casks of Priorato down to Barcelona for shipment. It was only after he had seen the Nationalist guards stave in cask after cask of his beloved wine, on which he was depending to lay the foundation of his fortune, drinking as much as they could, and letting the rest run to waste on the hillside, that the sullen English anger arose, and burned hotly in the bosom of John Mortimer.

"Then I will help to clear them out of the country, if they will not let me ship the property I have bought and paid good earnest money upon! I can shoot a pistol as well as any one – if the man is only near enough!"

So presently, these three, and another behind them, were riding out of the gates of Montblanch, a colonel's commission in the army of Don Carlos in Rollo's breast-pocket, a monopoly promise of all the Priorato wine for six years in that of John Mortimer, and in Brother Hilario's a dispensation absolving him for the length of his military service from all conventual and other vows.

It is difficult to say which of the three was the happiest.

"That bit of paper is worth more than a thousand pounds any day at Barcelona!" said John Mortimer triumphantly, slapping the pocket which contained the Abbot's undertaking about the Priorato. "It is as good as done if only I can get those sixty hogsheads down to the sea, as an earnest of what is to come!"

Ah, if only, indeed!

Rollo smiled quietly as he put his hand into his pocket, and touched the colonel's commission that nestled there.

"I must keep a tight rein on my command," he said. "I hear these Carlist fellows are the devil and all!"

But as for Brother Hilario, it is grievous to state that he stood up in his stirrups and hallooed with pure joy when he lost sight of the monastery towers, that he threw his pocket breviary into a ditch, and concealed carefully the jewelled crucifix in the breast of his blue velvet coat – with the intent, as he openly averred, of pawning it so soon as they got to Madrid.

He turned round upon the huge attendant – a simple Gallegan peasant by his dress – who followed them by order of the Abbot.

"By the way, sirrah," he cried, "we pass through the village of Sarria, do we not?"

The Gallegan lifted a pair of eyes that burned slumberously, like red coals in a smith's furnace, and with a strange smile replied, "Yes, caballero, we do pass through Sarria."

As for the Prior, he stood at the gate where he had given the lads his benediction, and watched them out of sight. Father Anselmo was at his elbow, but half a pace behind.

"There they go," said the Prior. "God help them if the Nationalists overhaul them. They carry enough to hang them all a dozen times over. But praise to St. Vincent and all the saints, nothing to compromise us, nor yet the Abbey of Our Lady of Montblanch!"

CHAPTER XI
CARTEL OF DEFIANCE

It was indeed Ramon Garcia, who on a stout shaggy pony, a portmanteau slung before and behind him, followed his masters with the half-sullen, wholly downcast look of the true Gallegan servitor. He was well attired in the Galician manner, appearing indeed like one of those Highlanders returning from successful service in the Castillas or in Catalunia, all in rusty brown double-cloth, the pa?o pardo of his class, his wide-brimmed hat plumed, and his alpargatas of esparto grass exchanged for holiday shoes of brown Cordovan leather.

But in his eyes, whenever he raised them, there burned, morose and unquenchable, the anger of the outcast El Sarria against the world. He lifted them indeed but seldom, and no one of the cavaliers who rode so gallantly before him recognised in the decently clad, demure, well-shaven man-servant supplied to them by the Abbot, the wild El Sarria, whom with torn mantle and bleeding shoulder, they had seen fling himself upon the altar of the Abbey of Montblanch.

So when little Etienne de Saint Pierre, that Parisian exquisite and true Legitimist, finding himself emancipated alike from vows conventual and monkish attire, and having his head, for the time being, full of the small deceiver Concha, the companion of Dol?res Garcia, inquired for the village of Sarria and whether they would chance to pass that way, he never for a moment thought that their honest dullish Jaime from far away Lugo, took any more interest in the matter than might serve him to speculate upon what sort of anisete they might chance to find at the village venta.

By favour of the Abbot the three voyagers into the unknown had most gallant steeds under them, and were in all things well appointed, with English and French passports in their own several names and styles as gentlemen travelling for pleasure, to see strange lands, and especially this ancient, restless, war-distracted country of Spain.

Their servant, Jaime de Lugo, was appropriately horsed on a little round-barrelled Asturian pony, able to carry any weight, which padded on its way with a quiet persistence that never left its master far behind the most gallant galloper of the cavalcade.



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