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So these three rode on towards the camp of the most redoubted and redoubtable General Cabrera.
This chief of all the armies of Don Carlos was then at the height of his fame. His fear was on all the land. He was brave, cruel, perfectly unscrupulous, this "Killer of Aragon," this "Butcher of Tortosa." In a few months he had achieved a fame greater almost than that of Zumalacarregui, the prince of guerrilleros, himself.
At this time Cabrera was holding half a dozen of the Cristino generals at bay, including Minos himself, the chief of all. His tactics consisted in those immemorial rapid movements and unexpected appearances which have characterised Spanish guerilla warfare ever since the Carthagenians invaded the land, and the aboriginal Celtiberians took to the mountains of Morella and the wild passes of Aragon, just as Cabrera and El Serrador were doing at this date.
Meanwhile southward out of the pleasant hills of Montblanch, our three lads were riding, each with his own hopes and fears in his heart. Rollo of course was the keenest of the party; for not only was the work to his liking, but he was the natural as well as the actual leader. He alone knew the Abbot's purposes, or at least as much of them as Don Baltasar had thought it wise to reveal to his emissary – which after all was not a great deal.
But John Mortimer had failed to rouse himself to any enthusiasm even under the spur of Rollo's defiant optimism.
They would return to Montblanch in a week or two, the latter averred. By that time the passes would be cleared. John's wine would be safe. The Abbot's seven-year undertaking in his pocket was good for the face of it at any wine-shipper's in Barcelona. In a month he (Rollo) would be a colonel – perhaps a general, and he (John Mortimer) rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
"Or both of us may be dead, more likely!" suggested the latter, with gloomy succinctness.
"Dead – nonsense!" cried Rollo. "See here, man, you believe in God, or at any rate your father does. So, hang it, you must have at least a kind of second-hand interest Above. Now, is there not a time appointed for you to die? Here, look at this clock" (he took an ancient and very bulbous-faced watch out of his pocket). "This minute hand has to push that hour hand so many times round before the moment comes for your ghost to mount and ride. Till that time comes, let your heart sit care-free. You cannot hasten, or retard that event by one solitary tick – can you? No? Well then, keep the ball rolling meantime, and if it rolls to the camp of Cabrera, why, you will be just as safe there as in your bed at Chorley with the curtains drawn and your prayers said!"
"I have a notion I could hasten the event in my own case by some few ticks, with the assistance of this unaccustomed little plaything!" said John Mortimer, who had been listening to this harangue of Rollo's with manifest impatience. And as if to prove his words, he made a sweeping motion with his pistol in the air.Instantly Rollo showed great interest.
"Good heavens, man, do you know that weapon is fresh-primed, and the trigger at full cock? If you are anxious to get a ball through your head, I am not!"
John Mortimer laughed long and loud.
"What about the appointed ticks on the watch-dial now, Master Blair? Have you forgotten you can neither hasten nor retard the day of your death? When the minute hand approaches the inevitable moment, Fate's full stop – did you not call it, you must mount and ride to Hades! Till then, you know, you are perfectly safe."
Rollo looked disgusted.
"That is the worst of trying to argue with an Englishman," he said; "his head is like a cannon ball, impervious to all logic. He does not attend to your premisses, and he never has any of his own! Of course, if it were ordained by the powers Above that at this moment you should suddenly go mad and shoot us all, that would be our appointed time, and you would no more hasten it by your tomfoolery than if a star fell out of the firmament and knocked this round world to everlasting potsherds!"
"Umm!" said John Mortimer, still unconvinced, "very likely – but – if I saw my wine-barrels on the ship 'Good Intent' of Liverpool, and my thousand pounds upon deposit receipt in honest William Deacon's Bank in Chorley, it would be a hanged sight more comfort to me than all the appointed ticks on all the appointed watches in the world!"
And so saying, the Englishman rode on his way very sullenly, muttering and shaking his head at intervals, as if the journey and adventure they had entered upon, were not at all to his liking.
During this fatalistic controversy between Rollo and his friend, Etienne de Saint Pierre had dropped somewhat behind. He had been interested in the remark of the glum servitor who followed them that they must of necessity pass through the village of Sarria.
"Do you know that place well?" he said, speaking in Castilian, which, being of Spanish descent on his mother's side, he knew as accurately as his native language.
"What place?" queried the Gallegan without raising his eyes. Etienne was not disturbed by the apparent ill-humour of the fellow. It was, as he knew, natural to these corner-men of Spain. But he wondered at the rascal's quite remarkable size and strength. The arm which showed below the velvet-banded cuff of the rusty brown coat was knotted and corded, like the roots of an oak where the water wears away the bank in the spring rains. His chest, where his embroidered shirt was open for a hand's-breadth down, showed a perfect network of scars, ridged white cuts, triangular purple stabs, as it were punched out and only half filled in, as well as cicatrices where wounds reluctant to heal had been treated by the hot iron of half the unskilful surgeons in Spain.
But after all these things are no novelty in Iberia, where the knife is still among the lower orders the only court of appeal, and Etienne made no remark upon them. He had indeed other affairs on his mind of a more engrossing nature.
"Mon Dieu," he communed with himself, "'tis a full calendar month since I kissed a pretty girl. I wonder what on earth it feels like?"
The path to Sarria was steep and long, but their guide, now permanently in the van, threaded his way betwixt stone and stone, now down the narrow gorge of an arroyo littered with d?bris and then up the next talus of slate chips like a man familiar from infancy with the way.
From a commanding hill-top he pointed away to the southward and showed them where the bayonet of a Cristino outpost glinted every half minute as the sentinel stalked to and fro upon his beat.
The Gallegan chuckled a little when the Englishman remarked upon their danger, and tapped his long rifle significantly.
"The danger of the Cristino soldier, you mean," he said, "why, masters mine, I could lead you to a place from which you might shoot yonder lad so secretly that his comrades would never know from what quarter arrived his death."
It was evening ere they drew near the village of Sarria, which lay, a drift of rusty red roofs and whitewashed walls beneath the tumbled Aragonese foot-hills. The river ran nearly dry in its channel and the mill had stopped. There was not enough water to drive the clacking undershot wheel of Luis Fernandez the comfortable, propertied miller of Sarria, who had been so cruelly wounded by the outlaw Ramon on the night when he claimed shelter from the Carlist monks of Montblanch. Ah, well, all that would soon be at an end, so at least they whispered in Sarria! If all tales were true, monks, monastery tithes, and rights of sanctuary, they would all go together. The wise politicians at Madrid, eager for their country's good (and certain advantages upon the stock exchange), were about to pass the besom of destruction over the religious houses, sweeping away in a common ruin grey friar and white friar and black friar. Nay, the salaried parish priests would find themselves sadly docked, and even stout Father Mateo himself was beginning to quake in his shoes and draw his girdle tighter by a hole at a time to prepare for the event.
So at least the bruit went forth, and though none save the Prior of Montblanch and his confidant knew anything for certain, the air was full of rumours; while between the Carlist war and the report of the great coming changes, the minds of men were growing grievously unsettled. Honest folk and peaceful citizens now went about armed. The men sat longer at the caf?s. They returned later home. They spoke more sharply to their wives when they asked of them why these things were so.
By the little village gate where Gaspar Perico, the chief representative of the town dues of Sarria, sat commonly at the receipt of custom, a group of men occupied a long bench, with their pints of wine and the sweet syrup of pomegranates before them, as is the custom of Aragon on summer evenings.
The venta of Sarria was kept by a nephew of Gaspar's, the octroi man, one recently come to the district. His name was Esteban, and like his uncle he had already got him the name of a "valiant," or of a man ready with his tongue and equally ready with his knife.
With the younger Perico's coming, the venta El Corral had promptly become the Caf? de Madrid, while the prices of all liquors rose to mark the change, even as in a like proportion their quality speedily diminished. Customers would doubtless have left at this juncture but for the fact that Esteban was his uncle's nephew, and that Perico the Elder sat at the receipt of custom.
So at this newly named Caf? de Madrid our travellers alighted, and the silent Gallegan, gathering the reins in his hands, disappeared into the stables, whose roofs rose over the low front of the venta like a cathedral behind its cloisters.
"Good evening to you, young cavaliers!" cried the gallant Gaspar, who commonly did the honours even in the presence of his nephew, the nominal host of the venta. The younger man had followed the Gallegan to the stables with a declared intent of seeing that the horses were properly provided for.
"You have come far to-day?" inquired Gaspar courteously.
"From the Abbey of – " (here Rollo kicked Etienne suddenly) "I mean we passed the Abbey of Montblanch, leaving behind us gladly such a nest of Carlist thieves! From the true nationalist city of Zaragoza we come," said the Count de Saint Pierre in a breath.
"You are all good men and true here, I observe," said Rollo, who had seen Cristino colours on the official coat of Gaspar Perico.
"Good men and good nationals!" cried Gaspar. "Indeed, I believe you! I should like to see any other show his face in Sarria. There never was one since Ramon Garcia became an outlaw, and he fled the village rather than face me, the champion of the province. Ah, he knew better than to encounter this noble and well-tried weapon!"
And as he spoke he tapped the brown stock of his blunderbuss, and took a wholly superfluous squint down the stock to be certain that the sights were properly adjusted, or perhaps to show the excellent terms he was on with his weapon.
At this very moment, Esteban the bully, Esteban the unconquered valiant, came running from the stables of the venta, holding his hands to his face, and behind him, towering up suddenly and filling the entire doorway, appeared the huge figure of the Gallegan. What had occurred between them no man could say. But the Gallegan with great coolness proceeded to cast out upon the rubbish heap before the door, armful after armful of chopped and partly rotten straw which exhaled a thin steam into the cool air of evening. He followed this up by emptying a huge leather-covered sieve full of bad barley several times upon the same vaporous mound. Then with the greatest composure and with a complete understanding of the premises, the Gallegan walked across to a smaller stable, where the landlord's own cattle were kept. He kicked the door open with two applications of his foot, and presently was lost to sight within.
"Shoot him – shoot him, uncle!" cried the half-tearful bully; "he hath smitten me upon the nose to the outpouring of my blood! Shall a Perico abide this? Shoot – for the honour of our name!"
But the valiant man of the receipt of customs was also a cautious one.
"Not so, dear Esteban," he said; "this man is the servant of three noble cavaliers of a foreign nation. If he has done wrong, their purses will make reparation. They are all rich, these foreigners! For all the spilt fodder they will also doubtless pay. Is it not so, caballeros?"
But Rollo, the readily furious, gripped his sword and said, "Not one groat or stiver, not a single maravedi, will I pay till I have spoken with our man-servant and know the cause of this disorder from himself."
And he laid his hand so determinedly on the hilt of Killiecrankie, whose basket had been endued with a new silk lining of red and tassels of the same colour, that the valiant men of Sarria thought better of any designs of attack they might have entertained, and preferred to await the event.
The Gallegan by this time had emerged from the smaller private stable with a good bushel measure of straw and barley, which he carried on his head towards the larger premises where his masters' three steeds and his own round-barrelled Aragonese pony had been settled for the night.
He waved his hand to the three at the venta door.
"There is now no fault! It is of good quality this time!" he cried.
And no one said a word more concerning the matter. Nor did Se?or Esteban Perico again advert to the stout buffet his nose had received at the beginning of the affair. On the contrary, he was laboriously polite to the Gallegan, and put an extra piece of fresh-cut garlic in his soup when it came to supper-time. For after this fashion was the younger Perico made.
And while the three waited, they talked to all and sundry. For Etienne had questions to ask which bore no small relation to the present preoccupation of his mind.
Concha – oh yes, little Concha Cabezos from Andalucia, certainly they knew her. All the village knew her.
"A pretty girl and dances remarkably well," said Esteban Perico complacently, "but holds her head too high for one in her position."
"I do not call that a fault," said Etienne, moving along the wooden settle in front of the venta door to make room for the huge Gallegan, who at that moment strolled up. He did this quite naturally, for in Spain no distinctions of master or servant hold either upon church pavements or on venta benches.
"No, it is certainly no fault of Concha's that she keeps herself aloof," said a young fellow in a rustic galliard's dress – light stockings, knee breeches of black cloth, a short shell jacket, and a broad sash of red about his waist. He twirled his moustachios with the air of one who could tell sad tales of little Concha if only he had the mind.
"And why, sir?" cried Etienne, bristling in a moment like a turkeycock; "pray, has the young lady vouchsafed you any token of her regard?"
"Nay, not to me," said the local Don Juan, cautiously; "but if you are anxious upon the question, I advise you to apply to Don Rafael de Flores, our alcalde's son."
"What," cried the Frenchman, "is he her lover?"
"Her lover of many months," answered Don Juan, "truly you say right. And the strange thing is that he got himself stabbed for it too, by that great oaf Ramon Garcia, whom they now call 'El Sarria.' Ha! ha! and he was as innocent as yourself all the time."
"I will presently interview the Don Rafael de Flores," muttered Etienne. "This is some slander. 'Tis not possible Concha has been deceiving me – and she so young, so innocent. Oh, it would be bitter indeed if it were so!"
He meditated a moment, flicking his polished boot with a riding-whip.
"And all the more bitter, that up to this moment I thought it was I who was deceiving her."
But the young Don Juan of the Sarrian caf? liked to hold the floor, and with three distinguished cavaliers for listeners, it was something to find a subject of common interest. Besides, who knew whether he might not hear a tale or two to the disadvantage of little Concha Cabezos, who had flouted him so sadly at last carnival and made a score of girls laugh at him upon the open Rambla.
"It happened thus," he said, "you have heard of El Sarria the outlaw, on whose head both parties have set a price?"
"He was of our village," cried half a dozen at once. It was their one title to respect, indisputable in any company. They began all conversations when they went from home with Ramon Garcia's name, and the statement of the fact that they had known his father.
"And a fine old man he was; very gracious and formal and of much dignity."
"It happened thus," the youthful dandy went on. "El Sarria came home late one night, and when he arrived at his own gable-end, lo, there by the reja, where the inside stairway mounts, was a youth 'plucking the turkey' with his sweetheart through a broken bar, and that apparently with great success. And the fool Ramon, his head being filled with his Dol?res, never bethought himself for a moment that there might be another pretty girl in the house besides his wife, and so without waiting either 'Buenos!' or 'Hola!' —click went Ramon's knife into the lover's back! Such a pair of fools as they were!"
"And did this – this Rafael de Flores die?" asked Etienne, divided between a hope that he had, and a fear that if so he might be balked of his revenge.
"Die? No – he was about again before many weeks. But this foolish Ramon took straightway to the hills, because he thought that his wife was false and that he had killed her cousin and lover."
And even as Don Juan was speaking these words a young man of a slender form and particularly lithe carriage, dressed in the height of Madrid fashion, walked into the caf? with a smiling flourish of his hat to the company.
"A glass of vermuth, Esteban," he said, "and if any of these gentlemen will join me I shall feel honoured. Be good enough to tell them who I am, Gaspar, my friend."
"Se?or cavalier," said the valiant man of Sarria, planting the butt of his blunderbuss firmly on the ground that he might lean upon it, and as it were more officially make the important introduction, "this is no other than the only son of our rich and distinguished alcalde, Se?or Don Rafael de Flores, concerning whom you have already heard some speech."
And Gaspar, who knew his place, stood back for the impressive civilities which followed. The jaws of the villagers dropped as they saw the three foreigners with one accord raise their hats from their heads and make each a reverence after his kind. Rollo, the tragical Scot, swept back his sombrero-brim in a grand curve as if it bore a drooping plume. John Mortimer jerked his beaver vertically off and clapped it down again as if he had a spite at the crown, while M. Etienne turned out his toes and in his elbows, as he bowed sharply at the waist with a severe and haughty expression, without, however, taking his hat from his head.
"I must do the honours, I see," said Rollo, laughing, "since we have no local trumpeter to do them for us. (Where in the world is that sullen dog, our most faithful Galician?) This to the left is Monsieur de Saint Pierre, count of that name. Then next Mr. John Mortimer of Chorley in England, and as for me I am Rollo Blair of Blair Castle in the county of Fife, at your service."
At this point the aforesaid M. de Saint Pierre stepped forward. He had drawn out his card-case and selected a pasteboard with the care and deliberation with which a connoisseur may choose a cigar.
"I have the honour to present Se?or Don Rafael with my cartel of defiance," he said simply.
The young man thus addressed stood a long moment dumb and fixed in the middle of the floor, gazing at the engraved lines on the card, which he had mechanically accepted, without comprehending their meaning.
"A cartel!" he stammered at last; "impossible. I can have no cause of quarrel with this gentleman from France. I do not even know him!"
But Etienne had all the science of the affair of honour at his finger-ends.
"I have nothing to say, sir," he replied, frigidly; "I refer you to my second!"
And he turned to his nearest companion, who happened to be John Mortimer. The Englishman, however, had but imperfectly understood.
"Well," he said in his best Spanish, "I am prepared to treat for any quantity, provided the quality be to my satisfaction. But mind, the terms are, 'delivered on the quay at Barcelona.' No more Priorato pigs in pokes for John Mortimer of Chorley."
He relapsed into English with the last clause, and sticking his thumbs into the pockets of his waistcoat, he waited Don Rafael's reply to his ultimatum.
"Holy Virgin, are they all mad?" that young gentleman was crying in a passion of despair when Rollo stepped forward and bowed courteously.
"The matter is briefly this, as I understand it," he said. "My friend, M. Etienne de Saint Pierre, has been in terms of considerable amity with a certain young lady – whose name I need not repeat in a public place. He has been given to understand that you claim a similar high position in her favour. If this be so, Se?or, my principal wishes to end the difficulty by a duel to the death, so that the young lady may not be put to the painful necessity of making a choice between two such gallant men. I make it quite clear, do I not? Two of you love one lady. The lady cannot accept both. You fight. There remains but one. The lady is in no difficulty! Do you both agree?"
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