Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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CHAPTER XIII
DON TOMAS DIGS A GRAVE

No Cristino bullet that ever was moulded could have stopped the man more completely. He stood again on the floor of the paven hall, pale, shaking like an aspen leaf, his whole live soul upturned and aghast within him.

And above the youngling blared like a trumpet.

El Sarria was outside now. His knife was hidden in his breast. There was no need of it, at least for the present. He looked out of the gate upon the white and dusty highway. Like the hall, it was vague and empty, ankle-deep too in yet warm dust, that felt grateful to his feet after the sharp stones of the arroyo out of which he had climbed.

Under the barn a woman crouched by a fire near a little tent pitched in a corner, evidently taking care of the tan in the absence of her companions. Gipsies they were, as he could see, and strangers to the place. Perhaps she could tell him something. She called aloud to him, and he went and sat down beside her, nothing loth.

"You are a Gallegan, I see!" said the woman, while she continued to stir something savoury in a pot without appearing to pay Ramon much attention.

"A Gallician from Lugo – yes – but I have been long in these parts," answered El Sarria, mindful of his accent.

"And we of Granada – as you may both see and hear!" said the old gipsy, tossing her head with the scorn of the Romany for the outlander.

"What is going on up there?" he said, indicating the mill-house with his thumb. And as he spoke, for the first time the woman ceased stirring the pot and turned her eyes upon him.

"What is that to thee?" she inquired with a sudden fiery thrill in her speech.

As fierce and strong beat the passion in the heart of El Sarria, but nevertheless he commanded himself and answered, "Naught!"

"Thou liest!" she said; "think not to hide a heart secret from a hax, a witch woman. Either thou lovest to the death or thou hatest to the death. In either case, pay! Pay, and I will tell thee all thy desire, according to the crossing of my hand!"

El Sarria drew a gold double duro from his pouch and gave it into her withered clutch.

"Good," she said, "'tis a good crossing! I will tell you truth that you may take oath upon, whether kissing or slaying be in your thought. A woman is sick to the death or near by. A babe little desired is born. The Tia Elvira is with her. Whether the woman live or die, the Tia will decide according to the crossing of her hand. And the babe – well, when the mother is soon to be a bride, its life is not like to be long! A rough crossing for so short a sojourn, I wot. Good morning, brave man's son! And to you, sir, a safe journey till the knife strikes or the lips meet!"

The cryptic utterance of the witch woman sitting crooning over her pot affected El Sarria greatly. He did not doubt for a moment that Dol?res lay within the house of Luis Fernandez, and that he had heard the crying of his own first-born son.

He arose uncertainly, as if the solid earth were swaying beneath him.

Leaving her pot simmering on the wood-ashes, the gipsy woman came after Ramon to the corner of the garden. The broad-leaved fig-trees made a dense green gloom there. The pale grey undersides of the olive whipped like feathers in the light chill breeze of night.

"There – go in there!"

She pointed with her hand to a little pillared summer-house in the garden. It was overgrown with creepers, and Luis had placed a fountain in it, which, however, only played when the waters were high in the Cerde.

"Whether you hate the old or love the young, bide there," she whispered; "there is no need that Tia Elvira should have all the gold. Cross my hand again, and I am your servant for ever."

Ramon gave her a gold duro.

"I am not a rich man," he said, "but for your good-will you are welcome!"

"You run eager-hearted in the dust with bare and bleeding feet," she said. "You carry a knife naked in your bosom. Therefore you are rich enough for me. And I will spite Tia Elvira if I can. She would not give me so much as an ochavo of all her gettings. Why should I consider her?"

And she gripped Ramon by the arm with claws like eagles' talons and stood leaning against him, breathing into his ear.

"Ah, Gallego, you are strong to lean against. I love a man so," she said. "Once you had not stood so slack and careless if La Giralda had leaned her breast against your shoulder – ah me, all withered now is it and hard as the rim of a sieve. But you love this young widow, you also. She is El Sarria's widow, they tell me, he whom the Migueletes slew at the entering in of the Devil's Ca?on. A fine man that, Caramba! And so you too wish to marry her now he is dead. If I were a widow and young I would choose you, for you are of stature and thickness, yes – a proper man through and through. Scarce can I meet my old arms about your chest. Yet woman never knows woman, and she may chance to prefer Don Luis. But the babe is in their way – the babe that cried to-night. Luis does not wish it well. He longs for children of his own by this woman, and El Sarria's brat would spoil his inheritance. The Tia let the secret out in her cups!"

She stopped and unclasped her arms.

"Ah," she said, "you love not Don Luis. I felt it when I spoke of his having issue by that woman. I wot well the thing will never happen. Your knife or your pistol (of these you have two) will have conference with him before that. But, if you wish this child to live – though I see not why you should, save that its father was like you a proper man and the slayer of many – stand yonder in the shadow of the summer-house, and if any come out with the babe, smite! If it be a man, smite hard, but if it be Aunt Elvira, the hax, smite ten times harder. For she is the devil in petticoats and hath sworn away many a life, as she would do mine if she could. I, who have never wished her any harm all the days of my life! There, put your arm about me yet a moment – so. Now here is your gold back. I wish it not. The other is better. Tighter! Hold me yet closer a moment. Ay-ah, dearie, it is sweet to feel once more the grip of a strong man's arms about one – yes – though he love another – and she a little puling woman who cannot even deliver herself of her first-born son without a Sangrador. Go – go, they are coming to the door. I see the lights disappear from the chamber above. Remember to strike the Tia low – in the groin is best. She wears amulets and charms above, and you might miss your mark!"

So, much astonished, and with his gold pieces in his hand, Ramon found him in the little roughly finished lath-and-plaster temple. He sat on the dry basin of the fountain and parted the vine leaves with his hands. He was scarce a dozen yards from a door in the wall – a door recently broken, which by two stone steps gave direct access to the garden.

Behind him were the wall and the fig-tree where he had spoken with the gipsy. As he looked he fancied a figure still there, dark against the sky, doubtless the woman La Giralda waiting to see if his knife struck the Tia in the proper place.

Ramon listened, and through the darkness he could discern the keen, insistent, yet to his ear sweet crying of the babe, presently broken by a series of pats on the back into a staccato bleat, and finally stilling itself little by little into an uncertain silence.

Then the door into the garden was cautiously opened, and a man clumsily descended. He shut the door softly behind him and stood a while gazing up at the lighted room. Then shaking his fist at the illuminated panes, he moved towards the summer-house. El Sarria thought himself discovered, and with a filling of his lungs which swept his breast up in a grand curve, he drew his knife and stood erect in the darkest corner.

Stumbling and grumbling the man came to the aperture. He did not descend the step which led to the interior, but instead groped through one of the open windows for something behind the door.

"May holy San Isidro strike my brother with his lightnings!" he muttered. "He gives me all the ill jobs, and when I have done them but scant thanks for my pains!"

His hand went groping blindly this way and that, unwitting of what lurked in the further gloom.

"From Ramon Garcia's knife at the Devil's Gorge to this young one's undoing, all comes to poor Tomas. And now, when he might have left me the mill-house he must needs marry this widow Garcia and set to work forthwith to chouse me out of my inheritance! A foul pest on him and on his seed!"

This mutter of discontent he interspersed with yet more potent anathemas, as he groped here and there in the darkness for what he sought. By-and-by he extracted a spade, a mattock, and a skin-covered corn measure holding about the quarter of an arroba.

With these he went grumbling off towards the deep shade of the fig-tree where Ramon had talked with the gipsy woman. With great impartiality he cursed his brother Luis, El Sarria and his knife, the widow Dol?res and her child.

Ramon heard him laugh as he stumbled among the vine roots.

"It is a blessing that such puling brats need no iron collar when sentenced to the garotte. It will not be pleasant, I suppose – a nasty thing enough to do. But after all, this little trench under the fig-tree will be an excellent hold over my good brother Luis. Many a stout 'ounce' of gold shall he bleed because of the small squalling bundle that shall be hushed to sleep under this garden mould!"

Nothing was heard for the next ten minutes but the measured stroke of the mattock, and the deep breathing of the night workman. But a broad shadow had drifted silently out from the corner of the little temple summer-house, and stood only a yard or two from the hole Don Tomas was making in the ground under the fig-tree.

El Sarria knew his man by this time, though he had not seen him for many years. The grave-digger was Don Tomas, Luis Fernandez's ne'er-do-well brother, who had been compelled to flee the country the year of Angoul?me's French invasion, for giving information to the enemy. He it was whom he had seen at his old tricks by the Devil's Ca?on. Not but what Luis must all the same have set him on, for he alone knew of the secret way of retreat.

Presently with many puffs and pants Tomas finished the work to his satisfaction. Then he shook a handful of grass and leaves into the bottom of the excavation.

"There," he muttered with a cackle of laughter, "there is your cradle-bed cosily made, young Don Ramon! Would that your father were lying cheek by jowl with you! Would not I cover you both up snugly. Holy Coat of Treves, but I am in a lather! This it is to labour for others' good! I wonder how soon that hell-hog Tia Elvira will be ready to do her part. The Sangrador must have gone home hours ago. She is to bring the youngling out and then go back to tell her story to the mother how sweetly it passed away – ah, ah – how heavenly was its smile. So it will be – so it will! Tomas Fernandez knows the trick. He has quieted many a leveret the same way!"

The garden door opened again, this time very slightly, a mere slit of light lying across the tangled green and yellowish grey of the garden. It just missed El Sarria and kindled to dusky purple a blossom of oleander that touched his cheek as he stooped. The whites of his eyes gleamed a moment, but the digger saw him not. His gaze was fixed on his brother in the doorway.

"The signal," he muttered, "I am to go and wait outside for the Tia. Of course, as usual, my good and respectable brother will not put a finger to the job himself. Well, toma! he shall pay the more sweetly when all is done – oh yes, Luis shall pay for all!"

He was standing leaning upon his mattock at the head of the little grave which he had destined for the child of Dol?res Garcia. He had been whistling a gay Andalucian lilt of tune he had learned on his long travels. A devil of a fellow this Tomas in his day, and whistled marvellously between his teeth – so low that (they said) he could make love to a Se?orita in church by means of it, and yet her own mother at her elbow never hear.

"Well, better get it over!" he said, dropping his mattock and starting out towards the door. "Here comes the Tia!"

But at that moment the heavens fell. Upon the head of the midnight workman descended the flat of his own spade. El Sarria had intended the edge, but Tomas's good angel turned the weapon at the last moment or else he had been cloven to the shoulder-blade. For it was a father's arm that wielded the weapon. Down fell the digger of infant graves, right athwart the excavation he himself had made. His mouth was filled with the dirt he had thrown out, and the arm that threw it swung like a pendulum to and fro in the hole.

CHAPTER XIV
THE HOLY INNOCENTS

With small compunction El Sarria turned Don Tomas over with his foot and coolly appropriated the cloak he had discarded, as also his headgear, which was banded with gay colours, and of the shape affected by the dandies of Seville.

Then swinging the cloak about him, and setting the hat upon his head jauntily, he strode to the garden door.

Above he could hear the angry voice of a woman, with intervals of silence as if for a low-toned inaudible reply. Then came a wail of despair and grief – that nearly sent him up the stairs at a tiger's rush, which would have scattered his enemies before him like chaff. For it was the voice of his Dol?res he heard for the second time. But of late El Sarria had learned some of the wisdom of caution. He knew not the force Luis might have within the house, and he might only lose his own life without benefiting either Dol?res or his son.

Then there was a slow foot on the stairs, coming down. The light went out above, and he heard a heavy breathing behind the closed door by which he stood.

"Tomas – Tomas!" said a voice, "here is the brat. It is asleep; do it quietly, so that the mother may not be alarmed. I cannot stir without her hearing me and asking the reason."

And in the arms of Ramon Garcia was placed the breathing body of his first-born son. The door was shut before he could move, so astonished he was by the curious softness of that light burden, and Tia Elvira's unamuleted groin escaped safe for that time – which, indeed, afterwards turned out to be just as well.

So at the door of his enemy El Sarria stood dumb and stricken, the babe in his arms. For the fact that this child was the son of his little Dol?res, annihilated for the moment even revenge in his soul.

But a hand was laid on his shoulder.

"Haste thee, haste," hissed the witch-wife, La Giralda, Elvira's friend and rival, "hast thou smitten strongly? She lies behind the door. I cannot hear her breath, so all must be well. I saw thee stoop to the blow. Well done, well done! And the brain-pan of the ill-disposed and factious Se?or Tomas is comfortably cracked, too. He had but sevenpence in his pockets, together with a bad peseta with a hole in it. Such fellows have no true moral worth. But come away, come away! Presently Don Luis will miss the Tia and give the alarm. Give me the babe!"

But this Ramon would not do, holding jealously to his own.

"What can you, a man, do with a babe?" she persisted. "Can you stop its mouth from crying? Is there milk in your breasts to feed its little blind mouth? Give it to me, I say!"

"Nay," said El Sarria, shaking her off, "not to you. Did not this murderous woman come from your waggons? Is not her place under your canvas?"

"It shall be so no more, if your stroke prove true," said the gipsy. "I shall be the queen and bring up this youngling to be the boldest horse-thief betwixt this filthy Aragon and the Gipsy-barrio of Granada, where La Giralda's cave dives deepest into the rock."

"No, I will not!" said the man, grasping the babe so tightly that it whimpered, and stretched its little body tense as a bowstring over his arm. "I will take him to the hills and suckle him with goat's milk! He shall be no horse-thief, but a fighter of men!"

"Ah, then you are an outlaw – a lad of the hills? I thought so," chuckled the woman. "Come away quickly, then, brave manslayer; I know a better way than either. The sisters, the good women of the convent, will take him at a word from me. I know the night watch – a countrywoman of mine, little Concha. She will receive him through the wicket and guard him well – being well paid, that is, as doubtless your honour can pay!"

"What, little Concha Cabezos?" said Ramon with instant suspicion. "Was she not a traitress to her mistress? Was it not through her treachery that her mistress came hither?"

"Little Concha – a traitress," laughed the old woman. "Nay – nay! you know her not, evidently. She may, indeed, be almost everything else that a woman can be, as her enemies say. No cloistered Santa Teresa is our little Concha, but, for all that, she is of a stock true to her salt, and only proves fickle to her wooers. Come quickly and speak with her. She is clever, the little Concha, and her advice is good."

They passed rapidly along the road, deep in white dust, but slaked now with the dew, and cool underfoot. The babe lifted up his voice and wept.

"Here, give him me. I cannot run away with him if I would," said the gipsy. "You may keep your hand on my arm, if only you will but give him me!"

And the gipsy woman lifted the little puckered features to her cheek, and crooned and clucked till the child gradually soothed itself to sleep face-down on her shoulder.

"How came Concha at the house of the nuns?" said Ramon.

"That you must ask herself," answered the woman; "some quarrel it was. Luis Fernandez never loved her. He wished her out of the house from the first. But here we are!"

First came a great whitewashed forehead of blind wall, then in the midst a small circular tower where at one side was a door, heavily guarded with great iron plates and bolts, and on the other a deep square aperture in which was an iron turnstile – the House of the Blessed Innocents at last.

The gipsy woman went directly up to the wicket, and whispered through the turnstile. There was a dim light within, which presently brightened as if a lamp had been turned up.

The woman stepped back to El Sarria's side.

"The little Concha is on duty," she whispered. "Go thou up and speak with her! Nay, take the child if thou art so jealous of him. I would not have stolen the boy. Had the nationals not killed El Sarria at the Devil's Gorge, I had said that thou wert the man himself!"

Ramon took the babe awkwardly.

"At any event thou art a brave fighter," she murmured, "and cracked that evil-doing Tomas's skull for him to a marvel. Thou shalt have all the help La Giralda can give thee!"

Ramon, with the babe in his arms, put his head within, and spoke to Concha. A little cry, swiftly checked, came forth from the whitewashed portress' lodge of the House of the Innocents. Then after five minutes Ramon kissed the little puckered face of his son, and each of the dimpled fat red hands he held so tightly clenched, and laid him on the revolving iron plate of the conventual turnstile. Without a creek the axle turned, and in a moment more the child was in the arms of Holy Church, pleasantly represented for the nonce by the very secular charms of little Concha Cabezos.

Then a word or two were spoken. Concha told the outlaw how, by a letter purporting to come from himself, forged by Don Luis or his brother, Dol?res had been advised to put herself under the protection of his beloved friend Don Luis Fernandez "until the happier days." Concha also told how the miller had found an excuse to send her from the house in disgrace, and how for her needlework and skill in fine broidery she had been received at the Convent of the Holy Innocents, how Manuela from the priest's house and this gipsy wise-woman "Tia Elvira" had watched over Dol?res ever since, not allowing her to hold any communication with the outside world, and especially with her former waiting-maid.

"Then came the news of your death," she continued, "and after that the guard upon Dol?res was redoubled, and till to-night I have heard nothing. But the babe shall be safe and unknown here among the sisters. Yet for the future's sake give me some token that you may claim him by. All such things are entered in a book as being brought with a child."

El Sarria passed within the turnstile a golden wristlet his mother had given him at his first communion, when he was the best and most dutiful boy in all Sarria, and held by the priest to be a pattern communicant.

"Can you not stay yet other twenty-four hours in Sarria?" asked Concha. "If so, we must try to bring your Dol?res where she will be as safe as the child."

"I would stay a year to preserve from harm a hair of her head – I who have wronged her!"

"Ah," sighed Concha through the wicket, as if she knew all about unworthy suspicion on the part of lovers, "men are like that. They are ready to suspect the most loving and the most innocent, but we women forgive them!"

Then pouting her pretty red lips the little Concha spoke low in the ear of El Sarria a while. After five minutes of this whispered colloquy, she added aloud —



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