Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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"I agree most heartily," said Etienne, rubbing his hands cheerfully, and practising feints in the air with his forefinger.

"But not I – not I!" cried Don Rafael, with sudden frenzy; "I do not agree – far from it, indeed. I would have you know that I am a married man. My wife is waiting for me at home at this moment. I must go. I must, indeed. Besides, I am under age, and it is murder in the first degree to shoot an unarmed man. I am not in love with any person. I make claims to no lady's affection. I am a married man, I tell you, gentlemen – I was never in love with anybody else. I told my wife so only this morning!"

"Not with Do?a Concha Cabezos of this village?" said Etienne, sternly. "I am advised that you have been in the habit of making that claim."

"Never, never," cried the gallant, wringing his hands. "Saints, angels, and martyrs – if this should come to my wife's ears! I swear to you I do not know any Concha – I never heard of her. I will have nothing to do with her! Gentlemen, you must excuse me. I have an engagement!"

And with this hurried adieu the little man in the Madrid suit fairly bolted out of the caf?, and ran down the street at full speed.

And in the dusk of the gable arches the Gallegan sat with his head sunk low in his hands.

"What a fool, Ramon Garcia! What a mortal fool you were – to have thought for a moment that your little Dol?res could have loved a thing like that!"

CHAPTER XII
THE CRYING OF A YOUNG CHILD

"And now, gentlemen," said Monsieur Etienne grandly, "where is the young gentleman who traduced in my hearing the fair fame of Do?a Concha Cabezos? Ma foi, I will transfer my cartel to him!"

Then, with great dignity, uprose the ancient valiant man of the octroi of Sarria, for he felt that some one must vindicate the municipality.

"Cavalier," he said, with a sweeping bow which did honour at once to himself and to the place in which they were assembled, "there may be those amongst us who have spoken too freely, and on their behalf and my own I convey to you an apology if we have unwittingly offended. In a venta – I beg my nephew's pardon – in a caf?, like the Caf? de Madrid, men's tongues wag fast without harm being intended to any man, much less to any honourable lady. So it was in this case, and in the name of the loyal town of Sarria, I express my regret. If these words be sufficient, here is my hand. The Caf? de Madrid, sir, begs your acceptance of a bottle of the best within its cellars. But if your lordship be still offended, there are twenty men here who are ready to meet you on the field of honour. For I would have you know, gentlemen, that we are also Caballeros. But it must be with the weapons in the use of which we have some skill – the cloak wrapped about the left arm, the Manchegan knife in the right hand. Or, if our Aragonese custom please not your honours, I make myself personally responsible for any words that may have been spoken; aye, and will be proud to stand out upon the hillside and exchange shots with you till you are fully satisfied – standing up, man to man, at one hundred yards.

This I do because the offence was given in my nephew's caf?, and because for forty years I have been called the Valiant Man of Sarria!"

The ancient Gaspar stood before them, alternately patting the stock of his blunderbuss and pulling the ragged ends of his long white moustachios, till Rollo, who could recognise true courage when he saw it, stepped up to him, and making a low bow held out a hand, which the other immediately grasped amid plaudits from the assembled company.

"You are a brave man, a valiant man, indeed, Se?or – " he was beginning.

"Gaspar Perico, at your service – of the wars of the Independence!" interrupted the old man, proudly.

"You have not forgotten the use of your weapons, Se?or Valiente!" said the young Scot. "Take off your hat, Etienne," he added in French, "and accept the old fellow's apology as graciously as you can. I am your second, and have arranged the matter for you already!"

With a little grumbling Etienne complied, and was graciously pleased to allow himself to be appeased. Rollo felt for him, for he himself knew well what it is to itch to fight somebody and yet have to put up one's sword with the point untried. But a new feeling had come into his soul. A steadying-rein was thrown over his shoulder – the best that can be set to diminish the ardours of a firebrand like this hot-headed Scot. This was responsibility. He was upon a mission of vast importance, and though he cared about the rights and wrongs of the affair not at all, and would just as soon have taken service with the red and yellow of the nationals as with the white boinas of Don Carlos, once committed to the adventure he resolved that no follies that he could prevent should damage a successful issue.

So, having settled the quarrel, and partaken of the excellent smuggled vermuth de Torino, in which, by his uncle's order, Esteban the host and his guests washed away all traces of ill-feeling, the three sat down to enjoy the puchero, which all this while had been quietly simmering in the kitchen of the inn. At their request the repast was shared by Gaspar Perico, while the nephew, in obedience to a sign from his uncle, waited at table. It was not difficult to perceive that Se?or Gaspar was the true patron of the Caf? de Madrid in the village of Sarria.

So soon as he knew that the cause for which he had stabbed his wife's cousin had been one that in no wise concerned little Dol?res the disguised Ramon Garcia went out to seek his wife, a great pity and a great remorse tearing like hungry Murcian vultures at his heart. He was not worthy even to speak to that pure creature. His hasty jealousy had ruined their lives. He it was who had squandered his chances, lost his patrimony, broken up their little home behind the whispering reeds of the Cerde. Yes, he had done all that, but —he loved her. So he went forth to seek her, and the night closed about him, grey and solemn with a touch of chill in the air. It was not hot and stifling like that other when he had come home to meet his doom and crept up through a kind of blood-red haze to strike that one blow by the latticed reja of his house.

Ramon did not hide and skulk now. He walked down the street with his long locks shorn, his beard clean shaven, his Gallegan dress and plumed hat, secure that none of his fellow townsmen would recognise him. And, at least in the semi-darkness, he was entirely safe.

There he could see the little white shed on the roof where Dol?res used to feed her pigeons, and he smiled as he remembered how before he married he had been wont to keep various breeds, such as Valencia tumblers, pouters, and fast-flying carriers upon which he used to wager a few reals with his friends.

But that was in his bachelor days. He smiled again as he thought that when Dol?res came it was a different story. Never was such a little house-wife. She was all for the pot. She would have him part with his fine sorts, save and except one or two tumblers that she used to feed from her balcony. She loved to see them from her window circling, wheeling, and as it were, play-acting in the air. For the rest, the commonest kinds that laid the most eggs, brought up the largest broods, and took on the plumpest breasts when fed with ground maize and Indian corn, green from the patch which he grew on purpose for her behind the willows – these were his wife's especial delight.

Ramon opened the little wicket to which she had so often run to meet him, under the three great fig trees. The gate creaked on unaccustomed hinges. The white square of a placard on the post caught his eye. It was too dark to see clearly, or else El Sarria would have seen that it was a bill of sale of the house and effects of a certain Ramon Garcia, outlaw. As he stepped within his foot slipped among the rotten figs which lay almost ankle-deep on the path he had once kept so clean. A buzz of angry wasps arose. They were drunken, however, with the fermenting fruit, and blundered this way and that like men tipsy with new wine.

The path before him was tangled across and across with bindweed and runners of untended vine. The neglected artichokes had shot, and their glary seed-balls rose as high as his chin like gigantic thistles.

The house that had been so full of light and loving welcome lay all dark before him, blank and unlovely as a funeral vault.

Yet for all these signs of desolation Ramon only reproached himself the more.

"The little Dol?res," he thought, "she has felt herself forsaken. Like a wounded doe she shrinks from sight. Doubtless she comes and goes by the back of the house. The sweet little Dol?res – " And he smiled. It did not occur to him that she would ever be turned out of the house that was his and hers. She would go on living there and waiting for him. And now how surprised she would be. But he would tell her all, and she would forgive him. And it is typical of the man and of his nation that he never for a moment dreamed that his being "El Sarria," a penniless outlaw with a price on his head, would make one whit of difference to Dol?res.

After all what was it to be outlawed? If he did this service for the Abbot and Don Carlos – a hard one, surely – he would be received into the army of Navarra, and he might at once become an officer. Or he might escape across the seas and make a home for Dol?res in a new country. Meantime he would see her once more, for that night at least hold her safe in his arms.

But by this time he had gone round the gable by the little narrow path over which the reeds continually rustled. He passed the window with the broken reja, and he smiled when he thought of the ignominious flight of Don Rafael down the village street. With a quickened step and his heart thudding in his ears he went about the little reed-built hut in which he had kept Concha's firewood, and stood at the back-door.

It was closed and impervious. No ray of light penetrated. "Perhaps Concha has gone out, and the little one, being afraid, is sitting alone in the dark, or has drawn the clothes over her head in bed."

He had always loved the delightful terrors with which Dol?res was wont to cling to him, or flee to throw herself on his bosom from some imaginary peril – a centipede that scuttled out of the shutter-crack or a he-goat that had stamped his foot at her down on the rocks by the river. And like a healing balm the thought came to him. For all that talk in the venta – of Concha this and Concha that, of lovers and aspirants, no single word had been uttered of his Dol?res.

"What a fool, Ramon! What an inconceivable fool!" he murmured to himself. "You doubted her, but the common village voice, so insolently free-spoken, never did so for a moment!"

He knocked and called, his old love name for her, "Lola – dear Lola – open! It is I – Ramon!"

He called softly, for after all he was the outlaw, and the Migueletes might be waiting for him in case he should return to his first home.

But, call he loud or call he soft, there was no answer from the little house where he had been so happy with Dol?res. He struck a light with his tinder-box and lit the dark lantern he carried.

There was another bill on the back-door, and now with the lantern in his hand he read it from top to bottom. It was dated some months previously and was under the authority of the alcalde of Sarria and by order of General Nogueras, the Cristino officer commanding the district.

"This house, belonging to the well-known rebel, outlaw and murderer, Ramon Garcia, called El Sarria, is to be sold for the benefit of the government of the Queen-Regent with all its contents – " And here followed a list, among which his heart stood still to recognise the great chair he had bought at Lerida for Dol?res to rest in when she was delicate, the bed they twain had slept in, the very work-table at which she had sewn the household linen, and sat gossiping with Concha over their embroidery.

But there was no doubt about the matter. Dol?res was gone, and the eye of El Sarria fell upon a notice rudely printed with a pen and inserted in a corner of the little square trap-door by which it was possible to survey a visitor without opening the door.

"Any who have letters, packages, or other communications for persons lately residing in this house, are honourably requested to give themselves the trouble of carrying them to the Mill of Sarria, where they will receive the sincere thanks and gratitude of the undersigned

"Luis Fernandez."

Ramon saw it all. He knew now why his friend had arranged for his death at the mouth of the secret hiding-place. He understood why there was no talk about Dol?res at the inn. She was under the protection of the most powerful man in the village, save the alcalde alone. Not that Ramon doubted little Dol?res. He would not make that mistake a second time.

But they would work upon her, he knew well how, tell her that he was dead, that Luis Fernandez has been his only friend. He recollected, with a hot feeling of shame and anger, certain speeches of his own in which he had spoken to her of the traitor as his "twin brother," the "friend of his heart," and how even on one occasion he had commended Dol?res to the good offices of Luis when he was to be for some weeks absent from Sarria upon business.

He turned the lamp once more on the little announcement so rudely traced upon the blue paper. A spider had spun its web across it. Many flies had left their wings there. So, though undated, Ramon judged that it was by no means recent.

"Ah, yes, Don Luis," he thought grimly, "here is one who has a message to leave at the mill-house of Sarria."

But before setting out Ramon Garcia went into the little fagot-house, and sitting down upon a pile of kindling-wood which he himself had cut, he drew the charges of his pistols and reloaded them with quite extraordinary care.

Then he blew out his lantern and stepped forth into the night.

At the venta the three adventurers supped by themselves. Their Gallegan retainer did not put in an appearance, to the sorrow of Mons. Etienne who wished to employ him in finding out the abiding-place of the faithless but indubitably charming Do?a Concha.

However, the Gallegan did not return all night. He had, in fact, gone to deliver a message at the house of his sometime friend Don Luis Fernandez.

When he arrived at the bottom of the valley through which the waters of the Cerde had almost ceased to flow, being so drained for irrigation and bled for village fountains that there remained hardly enough of them to be blued by the washerwomen at their clothes, or for the drink of the brown goats pattering down to the stray pools, their hard little hoofs clicking like castanets on the hot and slippery stones of the river-bed. Meanwhile El Sarria thought several things.

First, that Luis Fernandez had recovered from his wound and was so sure of his own security that he could afford to take over his friend's wife and all her responsibilities. Ramon gritted his teeth, as he stole like a shadow down the dry river-bed. He had learned many a lesson during these months, and the kite's shadow flitted not more silently over the un-peopled moor than did El Sarria the outlaw down to the old mill-house. He knew the place, too, stone by stone, pool by pool, for in old days Luis and he had often played there from dawn to dark.

The mill-house of Sarria was in particularly sharp contrast to the abode he had left. Luis had always been a rich man, especially since his uncle died; he, Ramon, never more than well-to-do. But here were magazines and granaries, barns and drying-lofts. Besides, in the pleasant angle where the windows looked down on the river, there was a dwelling-house with green window-shutters and white curtains, the like of which for whiteness and greenness were not to be seen even within the magnificent courtyard of Se?or de Flores, the rich alcalde of Sarria.

This was illuminated as Ramon came near, and, from the darkness of the river gully, he looked up at its lighted windows from behind one of the great boulders, which are the teeth of the Cerde when the floods come down from the mountains. How they rolled and growled and groaned and crunched upon each other! Ramon, in all the turmoil of his thoughts, remembered one night when to see Dol?res and to stand all dripping beneath her window, he had dared even that peril of great waters.

But all was now clear and bright and still. The stars shone above and in nearly every window of the mill-house there burned a larger, a mellower star. It might have been a festa night, save that the windows were curtained and the lights shone through a white drapery of lace, subdued and tender.

He crept nearer to the house. He heard a noise of voices within. An equipage drove up rapidly to the front. What could bring a carriage to the house of Luis Fernandez?

A wild idea sprang into Ramon's brain. He had been so long in solitude that he drew conclusions rapidly. So he followed the train of thought upon which he had fallen, even as the flame runs along a train of gunpowder laid on the floor.

They had been long persuading her – all these months he had been on the mountain, and now they had married her to his false friend, to Luis Fernandez. It was the eve of the wedding-feast, and the guests were arriving. His knife had deceived him a second time. He had not struck true. Where was his old skill? There – surely his eyesight did not deceive him – was Luis Fernandez walking to and fro within his own house, arm in arm with a friend. They had lied to Dol?res and told her he was dead, even as the Migueletes would certainly do to claim the reward. There upon the balcony was a stranger dressed in black; he and Luis came to an open window, leaned out, and talked confidentially together. The stranger was peeling an orange, and he flung the peel almost upon the head of El Sarria.

Ramon, fingering his pistol butt, wondered if he should shoot now or wait. The two men went in again, and solved the difficulty for that time. Moreover, the outlaw did not yet know for certain that his wife was within the mill-house.

He would reconnoitre and find out. So he hid his gun carefully in a dry place under a stone, and stole up to the house through the garden, finding his way by instinct, for all the lighted windows were now on the other side.

Yet El Sarria never halted, never stumbled, was never at a loss. Now he stepped over the little stream which ran in an artificial channel to reinforce the undershot wheel from above, when the Cerde was low. Another pace forward and he turned sharply to the left, parted a tangle of oleanders, and looked out upon the broad space in front of the house.

It was a doctor's carriage all the way from La Bisbal that stood there. It was not a wedding then; some one was ill, very ill, or the Sangrador would not have come from so far, nor at such an expense to Don Luis, who in all things was a careful man. Moreover, to Ramon's simple Spanish mind the Sangrador and the undertaker arrived in one coach. Could he have struck some one else instead of Don Luis that night at the chasm? Surely no!

And then a great keen pain ran through his soul. He heard Dol?res call his name! High, keen, clear – as it were out of an eternity of pain, it came to him. "Ramon, Ramon – help me, Ramon!"

He stood a moment clutching at his breast. The cry was not repeated. But all the same, there could be no mistake. It was her voice or that of an angel from heaven. She had summoned him, and alive or dead he would find her. He drew his knife and with a spring was in the road. Along the wall he sped towards the door of the dwelling-place: it stood open and the wide hall stretched before him empty, vague, and dark.

Ramon listened, his upper lip lifted and his white teeth showing a little. He held his knife, yet clean and razor-sharp in his hand. There was a babel of confused sounds above; he could distinguish the tones of Luis Fernandez. But the voice of his Dol?res he did not hear again. No matter, he had heard it once and he would go – yes, into the midst of his foes. Escape or capture, Carlist or Cristino did not matter now. She was innocent; she loved him; she had called his name. Neither God nor devil should stop him now. He was already on the staircase. He went noiselessly, for he was bare of foot, having stripped in the river-bed, and left his brown cordovans beside his gun. But before his bare sole touched the hollow of the second step, the one sound in the universe which could have stopped him reached his ear – and that foot was never set down.

El Sarria heard the first cry of a new-born child.



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