THE STUDENT OF SALAMANCA.
"Y asi entre otras razones le dijo que no tuviese pena del suceso de Camila, porque sin duda la herida era ligera."—CERVANTES. El Curioso Impertinente.
The unexpected and opportune appearance of Mariano Torres, at the moment of Herrera's escape, requires a few words of explanation. When Rodil, on the morrow of the skirmish with Zumalacarregui in the Lower Amezcoa, evacuated that valley, he proceeded to distribute a portion of his army amongst various garrisons; and then, with the remainder, marched to Biscay in pursuit of Don Carlos, who, having as yet no place of security from his enemies, was wandering about attended by a handful of followers. Amongst the troops left in Navarre by the Christino general, was the cavalry regiment to which Herrera and Torres belonged, and this was ordered to the plains of the Ebro. The day after its arrival at the town of Viana, a battalion marched in from Pampeluna, and with it came Sergeant Velasquez, who, after his escape from the Carlists, had taken refuge in that fortress. Great was the consternation of Torres on learning the surprise of the escort and capture of his friend, and his grief was warmly sympathized in by the other officers of the regiment, with whom Herrera was a universal favourite. But Torres was not the man to content himself with idle regrets and unavailing lamentations, and he resolved to rescue Herrera, if it were possible, even at the hazard of his own life. He confided his project to the colonel of his regiment, who, with some difficulty, was induced to acquiesce in it, and to grant him leave of absence. This obtained, he disguised himself as a private soldier, and boldly plunged into the centre of Navarre in quest of Zumalacarregui and his army. He had little difficulty in finding them: he announced himself as a deserter from the Christinos, and, without attracting unusual notice or suspicion, was enrolled in a Navarrese battaline, which, a day or two afterwards, marched to the village where Herrera was kept prisoner. Although by the interference of Count Villabuena, and the dexterity of Paco and the gipsy, Mariano's daring self-devotion was rendered superfluous, it had its uses, inasmuch as his disappearance with Herrera prevented the slightest suspicion from falling upon those who had really contrived and effected the escape. The gipsy, after guiding the two friends to Salvatierra, and receiving an ample reward from Herrera, performed the secret service with which Zumalacarregui had charged him, returned to that general with a ready framed excuse for the slight delay in its execution, and pocketed the ten additional onzas promised him by Paco. The muleteer, still weak from his wound, was the last man to be suspected; and of the Count's participation in the affair, no one, excepting Major Villabuena, for a moment dreamed. Don Baltasar, remembering his cousin's anxiety concerning Herrera, certainly entertained a notion that he had in some way or other facilitated his escape; but of this he could obtain no proof, nor, had he been able to do so, would it have been for his own interest to expose the Count, whom he was desirous, on the contrary, to conciliate. It was a vague and undefined apprehension of some attempt at a rescue, that had led him, at so late an hour on the night of the escape, to prowl in the vicinity of Herrera's prison.
The autumn and winter of 1834 passed away without any material change in the position of the personages of our narrative. The war continued with constantly increasing spirit and ferocity, and each month was marked by new and important successes on the part of the Carlists. The plains of Vittoria, the banks of the Ebro, the mountains of central and northern Navarre, were alternately the scene of encounters, in which the skill of Zumalacarregui, and the zeal and intrepidity of his troops, proved an overmatch for the superior numbers of the Christinos. In vain did the government of the Queen Regent, persevering in spite of its many reverses, send its best troops and most experienced generals to that corner of the peninsula where civil strife raged: it was only that the troops might be decimated, and the generals forfeit their former reputation in repeated and disastrous defeats. Although the country and climate were such as to render temporary repose in winter quarters most desirable for the contending armies, the idea of such an indulgence was scarcely for a moment entertained, and the winter campaign proved as active as the summer one. The arrival of Mina to take the chief command of the Queen's forces, and the severity of the measures he adopted, rendered the character of the war more sanguinary and cruel than it had been since its commencement; and although, in numerous instances, the nearest relatives and dearest friends were fighting on contrary sides, it became impossible for them to obtain intelligence of each other's welfare. It was by no means surprising, therefore, that eight months elapsed, and the spring arrived, without Herrera hearing any thing of Count Villabuena or his daughter; and that the Count, on the other hand, remained ignorant of the proceedings of the young man whose life he had saved, and in whose fate he could not but feel interested, save through the occasional rumour of some dashing exploit, by which Herrera maintained and increased the high reputation he had early acquired in the ranks of the Christinos. His gallantry did not go unrewarded, and the opening of the spring campaign found him in command of a squadron, and on the high-road to further promotion.
Whilst Herrera was thus gaining fame and honour, his rival, Major Villabuena, had no reason to complain of his services being overlooked. His courage was undoubted, his military skill by no means contemptible, and these qualities had procured him a colonel's commission and a staff appointment. But, in spite of these advantages, Don Baltasar was dissatisfied and unhappy. His object in joining the Carlists had not been promotion, still less a zeal for the cause, but the appropriation to himself of the fair hand and broad lands of Rita de Villabuena. His prospect of obtaining these, however, seemed each day to diminish. The favour with which the Count regarded him had lasted but during the first days of their acquaintance, and had since been materially impaired by the discovery of various unpleasing traits in Don Baltasar's character, and particularly by his endeavours to urge the death of Herrera in opposition to the wishes of his kinsman. Moreover, there could be little sympathy or durable friendship between men of such opposite qualities and dispositions. Count Villabuena had the feelings and instincts of a nobleman, in the real, not the conventional sense of the term: he was proud to a fault, stern, and unyielding, but frank, generous, and upright. Don Baltasar was treacherous, selfish, and unscrupulous. He felt himself cowed and humbled by the superiority of the Count, whom he began secretly to detest; and who, whilst still keeping on good, or at least courteous, terms with his cousin, became daily more averse to his alliance, and more decided to support Rita in her rejection of his suit.
As a natural consequence of Zumalacarregui's successes, they of the absolutist party in Spain who had openly declared for Don Carlos, and who, during the first year of the war, had been hunted from post to pillar, and frequently compelled to seek concealment in caves and forests from the pursuit of the foe, found themselves, in the spring of 1835, in possession of a considerable tract of country, including a few fortified places. El Lobo Cano, the Grey-haired Wolf, as his followers had styled Don Carlos, in allusion to his hair having become bleached on the mountain and in the bivouac, began to collect around him the semblance of a court; and various ladies, the wives and daughters of his partisans, who had been in temporary exile in France, recrossed the frontier and hazarded themselves in the immediate vicinity of the scene of war. Amongst others, Rita de Villabuena, who had been residing with some friends at the French town of Pau, implored, and with difficulty obtained, her father's permission to rejoin him. A house was prepared for her reception in the small town of Segura in Guipuzcoa, whence, in case of need, a speedy retreat might be made to the adjacent sierras of Mutiloa and Aralar, and here she arrived, under her father's escort, towards the commencement of the month of May.
One of the first who hastened to pay court to the young and beautiful heiress, was, as might be expected, Colonel Baltasar de Villabuena. But his reception was in the highest degree discouraging, and he was able to assure himself, that if any variation had taken place in Rita's sentiments, it was by no means in his favour. His only remaining hope, therefore, was in an appeal to the Count, whom he still believed to be, for the family reasons already adverted to, desirous of a union between Rita and himself. This appeal he resolved to take an early opportunity of making. A valuable estate, which Rita had inherited from her mother, lay within the tract of country already conquered by the Carlists; and although the revenue it yielded was greatly diminished by the disturbed state of Navarre, and the contributions levied for the carrying on of the war, it was still sufficiently important to excite the cupidity of Don Baltasar, and to render him doubly anxious to obtain, on any terms, the hand of his cousin.
It was on a bright May morning, three days subsequently to Rita's arrival at Segura, that a small train of horsemen was seen winding along the declivitous paths that lead across the sierra of Elgua, a part of the northern boundary of the province of Alava. The snows with which, during the long winter, the upper portion of these mountains had been covered, had disappeared in the warm rays of the spring sun, and disclosed peaks of grey rock, and patches of table-land strewn with flints, producing little besides a few Alpine plants, which, in defiance of the scanty nourishment they found, and of the keen air that blew over those elevated summits, boldly expanded their blossoms in the pleasant sunshine. Lower down, and on that part of the southern side of the mountain over which the cavalcade now proceeded, masses of forest-trees sprang out of the more plentiful soil, and overshadowed the rocky path that rang under the horses' feet; the dusky foliage of the fir-tree, the brighter green of the oak, and the broad angular leaves of the sycamore, mingling in rich variety. Now the path lay through some dried-up water-course, half filled with loose stones, whose elevated sides, over the edges of which the tendrils of innumerable creeping plants dangled and swung, bounded the view on either hand; whilst overhead the interwoven branches afforded, through their thick leafage, but scanty glimpses of the bright blue sky. Presently, emerging from the ravine, the road, if such it might be called, ran along the shelf of a precipice, below which successive ranges of luxuriant foliage, varied here and there by a projecting crag, or enlivened by the dash and sparkle of a waterfall, continued to the level below. From the foot of the mountains, an extensive plain stretched out to a distance of several leagues, its smiling and fertile fields thickly sprinkled with villages and farm-houses. To the left front rose the old Moorish castle of Guevara; and at a greater distance, more to the westward, and near the centre of the plain, were seen the imperfect fortifications and lofty church-towers of the city of Vittoria.
The foremost of the horsemen, who, on the day referred to, were thus scrambling, to the great discomfort of their steeds, down the steep and rugged sides of the sierra, avoiding, for reasons of safety, the high-road from Salinas to Vittoria, which lay at a league or two on their right, was a man of middle age and tawny complexion, mounted on a lean and uncomely, but surefooted horse, whose long tail, which, if allowed to flow at will, would have swept the ground, was doubled up into a sort of club, about a foot long, and tightly bound with worsted ribands of bright and varied colours. The thick and abundant mane had been carefully plaited, with the exception of the foremost tuft, left hanging down between the ears, and from beneath which the wild eyes of the animal glanced shyly at the different objects he passed, pretty much as did those of the rider from under his bushy and projecting eye-brows. The horseman was dressed in a loose jacket of black sheep-skin, the wool rubbed off in many places, fastened down the front by copper clasps and chains that had once boasted a gilding, and bound at edges with coarse crimson velvet, which, from time and dirt, had become as dark as the principal material of the garment. Between the loose short trousers and the clumsy half-boots, replacing the sandals that were the customary wear of the person described, several inches of lean and sinewy leg were visible. A coloured handkerchief, tied round the head, and from beneath which a quantity of shaggy black hair escaped, rusty iron spurs, with huge jingling rowels, and a well-stuffed leathern wallet slung across his body, completed the equipment of the horseman, in whom the reader will perhaps already have recognised Jaime, the gipsy esquilador, now acting as guide to the persons who followed. These consisted of Count Villabuena and his cousin, Don Baltasar, both well mounted on powerful chargers, and cloaked from chin to heel; for they had been early in the saddle, and, although now in the month of May, the morning air upon the mountains was keen and searching. They were followed, at a short distance, by an escort of forty Carlist cavalry, strange, wild-looking figures, whose scanty equipment, and the little uniformity of their clothing, might have excited the derision of better provided troops; but whose muscular forms and hardy aspect, as well as the serviceable state of their carbines and lances, gave promise of their proving efficient defenders and formidable foes.
Not having been bred to the profession of arms, Count Villabuena was, in a strictly military point of view, of little use to his party; but his intimate acquaintance with Navarre and the Basque provinces, with the customs, feelings, and prejudices of their inhabitants, rendered him invaluable in all administrative arrangements and combinations, and in these he cheerfully and actively exerted himself. It was on a mission of this nature that he was now proceeding, having left Onate early that morning, to attend a meeting of influential Alavese Carlists, which was to take place at the village of Gamboa, on the north side of the plain of Vittoria. Although the country he had to pass through was not then occupied, and only occasionally visited, by the Christinos, an escort was necessary; and, besides this escort, Colonel Villabuena had volunteered to accompany his cousin. His object in so doing was to obtain an opportunity for an uninterrupted conversation with the Count, on the subject of his pretensions to the hand of Rita.
This conversation had taken place, and its result had been most unsatisfactory to Don Baltasar. The Count plainly told him that it was not his intention to force the inclinations of his daughter; and that, as she was averse to the proposed alliance, he himself had abandoned the idea of its taking place. A long and stormy discussion ensued, and Baltasar accused the Count of having deceived him, and induced him to join a cause, the ultimate triumph of which was impossible, by holding out hopes that he never intended to realize. The Count replied by reminding Don Baltasar, that when he had urged him to serve his rightful monarch, and not under the banner of a usurper, the only arguments he had used were those of loyalty and duty; and that the proposed marriage was a private arrangement entirely contingent upon his daughter's acquiescence. Sharp retorts and angry words followed, until the conversation was brought to a close by the Count's checking his horse, and allowing the escort, which had previously been at some distance behind, to come up with them. The cousins then rode on, still side by side, but silent, and as far apart as the narrow path would allow, the Count haughty and indignant, Don Baltasar sullen and dogged.
Whilst this occurred in the mountains, the persons whom Count Villabuena came to meet were assembling at the place of rendezvous in the village of Gamboa. From various country lanes and roads, substantial-looking men, wrapped in heavy brown cloaks, and riding punchy mountain horses, were seen to emerge, for the most part singly, and at the careless, deliberate pace least calculated to excite suspicion of their going to other than their ordinary avocations. Some of these were alcaldes and regidores from the neighbouring villages, others landed proprietors in the vicinity. Now and then a lean, anxious priest, perched upon a high saddle, his feet encased in clumsy wooden stirrups, his head covered with an enormous hat, of which the brim, curled up at the sides over the crown, projected half a yard before and behind him, came ambling into the village, distributing his benedicites amongst the peasant women and children, who stood at the doors of the houses bowing reverently to the padre cura. One man, dressed in the coarsest and commonest garb of a labourer, came up upon an ill-looking mule, and received a loud and joyful welcome from the persons already assembled. He was a wealthy proprietor, whose estates lay within the Christino lines, and had been compelled to adopt this disguise to avoid notice. The arrival of another person, to all appearance a charcoal-burner, with grimy face and hands, riding a ragged pony, across which a couple of sacks, black from the charcoal they had contained, were thrown by way of saddle, was hailed with similar demonstrations of joy. He was a rich merchant and national guardsman from Vittoria, secretly well affected to Don Carlos.
The place where the Carlists first assembled was not in a house, but on a paved platform, extending along one side of the large church, by which it was masked from the view of persons approaching from the direction of Vittoria. A sort of cloister, with stone benches beneath it, ran along the wall of the church, and in front of the platform was a broad greensward, used as a playground by the village children. Whilst the Carlists grouped themselves in the cloisters, talking eagerly together, and waiting the coming of Count Villabuena, their horses and ponies stood saddled and bridled upon the green, held by peasant boys, and in readiness for their owners to mount and ride away at a moment's notice, or on the first signal of alarm. Of the mountain path by which the Count was expected to arrive, only about a mile was visible from the platform, after which it disappeared over the brow of a low wood-crowned eminence that rose to the north, partially intercepting the view of the sierra. On this eminence a peasant was stationed to watch for the Count; whilst on the other side of the village, at a short distance upon the road to Vittoria, another vedette was posted, to give notice of the appearance of any of the foraging or reconnoitring parties which the Christinos not unfrequently sent out in this direction.
It was considerably past noon, and the members of the Junta, for such did the assembly style itself, were beginning to wax impatient for the arrival of the Count, without whom the business for which they had met could not be proceeded with, when the watcher upon the hill gave the concerted signal by waving his cap in the air, uttering at the same time one of those far-sounding cries, peculiar to the inhabitants of mountainous regions. Upon this announcement, the Carlists descended from the platform into the road that ran past one of its extremities, and took their way, with grave and dignified demeanour, to the dwelling of the priest, in which the meeting was to be held. This house, according to custom one of the most spacious and comfortable in the village, was situated at about musket-shot from the church, and a little detached from the other buildings. Annexed to it was a long garden, bordering the road, and divided from it by a low hedge; beyond the garden was a vast and level field, and, on the eastern side of that, a tract of marshy ground, thickly covered with a lofty growth of willow and alder trees, extended to a considerable distance. The Carlists had traversed nearly the whole length of the garden hedge, and the foremost of them were close to the door of the house, when they were startled by the loud blast of a horn, with which the peasant sentry upon the Vittoria road had been furnished, to give the alarm if needful. They simultaneously paused, and anxiously listened for a repetition of the sound. It came; a third and a fourth blast were sounded, and with such hurried vehemence of tone as denoted pressing danger. Yet the peril could scarcely be so imminent as the quick repetition of the signal would seem to denote; for, from the place where the vedette was posted, he would command a view of any advancing troops nearly half an hour before they could reach the village, and those who had aught to fear from them would have ample time to effect their escape. But the horn continued sounding, ever louder and louder,—the Carlists gazed at each other in dismay, and some few made a movement towards their horses, as if to mount and fly. Suddenly a fat and joyous-looking alcalde, whose protuberant paunch and ruby nose were evidence of his love for the wine-skin, although the chalky tint that had overspread his features at the first sound of alarm, did not say much for his intrepidity, burst out into a loud laugh, which caused his companions to stare at him in some wonder and displeasure.
"By the blessed St. Jago!" exclaimed he, "the idiot has mistaken our friends for our enemies. He has been looking over his shoulder instead of before him, and has caught a sight of the Senor Conde and his escort. See yonder."
The Carlists looked in the direction pointed out, and on the top of the hill over which Count Villabuena was expected to approach, they saw three horsemen standing, one of whom was sweeping the village and the adjacent country with a field-glass, apparently seeking the cause and meaning of the violent fanfare that had so much alarmed the respectable Junta. Behind these three men, who were no others than the Count, his cousin, and their guide, the lance-flags of the escort were visible, although the soldiers themselves were still out of sight, having halted just here arriving on the crest of the hill. The countenances of the Carlists, which for a moment had contracted with alarm, were beginning again to expand, as the plausibility of their companion's explanation occurred to them, when suddenly they saw the Count and his companions turn their horses in all haste, and disappear behind the hill. At the same moment, and before they could guess at the meaning of this manoeuvre, a shout was heard, a troop of Christino dragoons debouched from behind the willow wood, deployed upon the field, and charged across it in open order, their lances levelled, and the pennons fluttering above their horses' ears. In less time than it takes to write it, they had crossed the field, dashed into the garden, and, breaking through the hedge, clattered over the rough streets of the village in pursuit, of the unfortunate priests and alcaldes, who, taken entirely by surprise, knew not which way to run to avoid the danger that menaced them. Some few who had time to get on horseback, scampered off, but were pursued and overtaken by the better-mounted dragoons; others crept into houses and stables, or flung themselves into ditches; and the majority, seeing no possibility of escape, threw themselves on their knees, and, in piteous accents, implored mercy. This was not refused.
"Give quarter, and make prisoners," was the command uttered in the clear, sonorous tones of Luis Herrera, who led the party; "they are unarmed—spare their lives."
The order was obeyed, and only one or two of the more desperate, who produced concealed weapons, and endeavoured to defend themselves, received trifling sabre-cuts from the exasperated dragoons.
But although Don Baltasar, on first obtaining a view of the Queen's cavalry, and before he knew what force was approaching the village, had retired behind the brow of the hill. It was by no means his intention to make a precipitate retreat without ascertaining the strength of the enemy, and endeavouring, if possible, to rescue the captive Junta. Whilst the Count and the escort retraced their steps down the hill, and halted in the fields upon its north side, whence they had the option of returning to the mountains by the way they had come, or of striking off into the high-road to Salinas and Onate, which ran at a short distance to their right, Colonel Villabuena and the gipsy, concealed amongst the trees that clothed the summit of the eminence, noted what passed in the village. They at once saw how the surprise had occurred. The Junta had not expected an enemy to approach by any other road than that from Vittoria, and had consequently stationed sentries in no other direction. That such would be the case, had been foreseen by the Christinos, who having received, through their spies, information of the intended meeting had sent out troops upon the Pampeluna road, with orders, after proceeding a certain distance, to strike off to the left, and, availing themselves of the cover afforded by a large tract of wood and swamp, to take Gamboa in rear or flank. The manoeuvre had been rapidly and skilfully executed; and Luis Herrera, who, with his squadron, had been sent upon this duty, arrived with one half of his men within a few hundred yards of the village before he was perceived by the Carlist vedette. His other troop he had detached to his right, in order that, by making a wider sweep, they might get in rear of Gamboa, and prevent the possible escape of any of the rebels. This detachment, ignorant of the country, and puzzled by the numerous lanes and paths which crossed each other in every direction, had lost its way, and was still at some distance from the village when Herrera charged into it.
When Colonel Villabuena had made his observations, and ascertained that the number of the enemy but little exceeded that of his own men, he rode out of the wood and rejoined the escort, resolved to take advantage of the Christinos being dispersed, and, unexpectant of an attack, to make a dash at them, which, he doubted not, would be fully successful. Previously, however, and although the Count had no military rank, it was a matter of common courtesy, not to say of duty, to communicate with him, and ask his consent to dispose of an escort which had been sent for his protection. But here the sullen temper of Don Baltasar, and the rankling irritation left by his recent altercation with his kinsman, showed themselves. Followed by the gipsy, he rode to the front of the lancers, who were drawn up in line, and, without addressing a syllable to the Count, or appearing to notice his presence, gave, in a sharp abrupt tone, the necessary words of command. The men moved off to the left. The Count, highly sensitive on matters of etiquette, and indignant at being treated by Don Baltasar as a person of no importance, unworthy of being consulted, allowed the troop to march away without giving any indication of an intention to follow or accompany it. Don Baltasar looked round, hesitated for a moment, and then seeing that the Count remained motionless, and took no notice of the departure of his escort, he rode back to him.
"The enemy are few," said he, abruptly; "I shall attack them."
Count Villabuena bowed his head coldly.
"Scant measure of courtesy, colonel," said he. "Angry feelings should not make you forget the conduct of a caballero."
On hearing himself thus rebuked, an expression of anger and deadly hate overspread the sombre countenance of Don Baltasar, and he scowled at the Count as though about to deal him a stab. But his eye sank beneath the calm, cold, contemptuous gaze of Count Villabuena. He said nothing: and again wheeling his charger, galloped furiously back to the head of his men, followed, at a more deliberate pace, by his cousin. Passing swiftly over a few fields, the little troop swept round the base of the hill, dashed across the level, and appeared upon the road at half a mile from the village. On obtaining a view of the latter, Don Baltasar at once saw that he was not likely to have so cheap a bargain of the Christinos as he had anticipated. Herrera had too much experience in this description of warfare to be easily caught; and although, upon first entering Gamboa, the dragoons had unavoidably dispersed in pursuit of the fugitives, he had lost no time in reassembling them; and, whilst a few men kept the prisoners already made, and searched the houses for others, he himself had formed upon the road a party fully equal in number to that commanded by Don Baltasar. Nothing daunted, however, at finding the enemy on his guard, the Carlist colonel drew his sabre and turned to his men.
"A ellos!" he cried. "At them, boys, for Spain and the King!"
The lancers replied to his words by a loud hurra, and the little party advanced, at first at a moderate pace, in order not to blow the horses before the decisive moment should arrive. The Count, forgetting private animosity in the excitement and exhilaration of the moment, rode cheerfully at the side of his cousin, and drew the sword which, although a civilian, the perilous and adventurous life he led induced him invariably to carry. At the same moment Herrera's trumpeter sounded the assembly, and those of the dragoons who had dismounted hurried to their horses. Before, however, the distance between the opposite parties had been diminished by many yards, the blast of the Christino trumpets was replied to by another, and, upon looking back, Don Baltasar saw a fresh party of dragoons just appearing upon the road, about a mile in his rear. It was the second troop of Herrera's squadron coming to the support of their leader.
"Curse and confound them!" cried Baltasar, his face darkening with rage and disappointment. "Halt—files about! And now, boys, legs must do it, for they are three to one."
And he led the way back into the fields, followed by his men at a rapid pace, but in good order.
Without a moment's delay, Herrera, leaving a few dragoons to guard the prisoners, dashed across the country in pursuit of the Carlists. His example was followed by Torres, who commanded the other detachment. The fugitives had a good start, and were soon behind the hill; but the Christino horses were fresher, and although less accustomed to climb the mountains, in the plain they were swifter of foot. Don Baltasar, now riding in rear of his men, cast a glance over his shoulder.
"They gain on us," said he, in a low tone, and as if to himself. "It is impossible to reach the sierra. If we could, we should be safe. There are positions that we could hold on foot with our carbines, where they would not dare attack us."
"We shall never reach them," said the Count. "Let us turn and fight whilst yet there is time."
"The bridge! the bridge!" cried the gipsy, who, notwithstanding the gaunt appearance of his steed, had kept well up with the soldiers. "If we gain that, we are safe. A child could pull it down."
"Right, by God!" cried Baltasar glancing in some surprise at the adviser of an expedient which he had himself overlooked. "Spur, men, spur; but keep together."
Every rowel was struck into the flanks of the straining, panting horses and the Carlists rapidly neared a small river, which, rising in some of the adjacent mountains, flowed in rear of the little hill already referred to, and parallel to the sierra whence Count Villabuena and his companions had recently descended. The land, for some distance on either side of the stream, was uncultivated, covered with furze and yellow broom, and sprinkled with trees and clumps of high bushes. Across the river, only a few months previously, a rude but solid stone bridge had afforded a passage; but the bridge had been broken down soon after the commencement of the war, and the stream, which, although not more than seven or eight yards broad, was deep, and had steep high banks was now traversed by means of four planks, laid side by side, but not fastened together, and barely wide enough to give passage to a bullock cart. Over this imperfect and rickety causeway, the retreating Carlists galloped, the boards bending and creaking beneath their horses' feet. When all had passed, Don Baltasar flung himself from his saddle, and aided by the gipsy and by several of his men who had also dismounted, seized the planks, and strove, by main strength, to tear their extremities from the clay in which they were embedded. The Christinos, who were within a couple of hundred yards of the river, set up a shout of fury when they perceived the intention of their enemies. By the sinewy hands of Baltasar and his soldiers, three of the boards were torn from the earth and flung into the stream. The fourth gave way as Herrera came up, the first man of his party, and, regardless of the narrow footing it afforded, was about to risk the perilous voyage. Violently curbing his horse, he but just escaped falling headlong into the stream. A shout of exultation from the Carlists, and the discharge of several carbines greeted the disappointed Christinos, who promptly returned the fire; whilst, as was usual when they came within earshot, the complimentary epithets of "Sons of Priests," and "Soldados de la Puta," accompanied by volleys of imprecations, were bandied between the soldiers on either side of the stream.
"Is there any bridge or ford at hand?" said Baltasar hastily to the gipsy.
"None within a quarter of a league," was the reply.
"Then we will have a shot at them."
Herrera and Count Villabuena were again opposed to each other, and each acknowledged the other's presence by a brief smile of recognition.
A smart skirmish now began. All was smoke, noise, and confusion. The Count rode up to his cousin, who was on the right of his men.
"Let us retire," said he. "No advantage is to be gained by this idle skirmishing. Infantry may be at hand, and delay will endanger our retreat."
"Not so fast," replied Baltasar; "we will empty a few saddles before we go."
"The escort was sent for my safety," said the Count, haughtily. "You are not doing your duty in thus risking it."
"I have not been twenty years a soldier to learn my duty from you, sir," said Baltasar, fiercely. "Aim at the officers, men. A doubloon for him who picks off the captain."
Stimulated by the promised reward, several of the Carlists directed their fire at Herrera, who was on the left of the dragoons, exactly opposite to, and within sixty paces of, Don Baltasar. The bullets flew thick around Luis, but none touched him, and Baltasar himself drew a pistol from his holster to take aim at his opponent. Disgusted at his cousin's intemperate speech and imprudent conduct, the Count contemptuously turned his back upon him and approached the stream, regardless that by so doing he brought himself into a cross fire of friends and foes.
"This is useless, Herrera," said he, "draw off your men."
The words had scarcely left his lips, when his hand relinquished its hold of the bridle, by a convulsive movement he threw himself back in the saddle, and fell heavily to the ground, struck by a ball. A cry of horror from Luis was echoed by one of consternation from the Carlists, on witnessing the fall of a man whom they all loved and respected.
"Where can we cross the stream?" demanded Herrera of one of his men, who knew the country.
"To our left there is a ford, but at some distance."
"Cease firing," cried Herrera. The trumpet sounded the necessary call, the Christinos hastily formed up and started at a gallop in the direction of the ford. Don Baltasar advanced to the spot where his cousin lay prostrate. Count Villabuena was lying on his back, his teeth set, his eyes wide open and fixed, his clenched hands full of earth and grass. Baltasar turned away with a slight shudder.
"He is dead," said he to the subaltern of the escort. "To take the body with us would but impede our retreat, already difficult enough. The living must not be endangered for the sake of the dead. Forward, men!"
And, without further delay, the Carlists set off at a brisk pace towards the mountains, which they reached before the Christinos had found and passed the distant ford. When the dragoons arrived at the foot of the sierra, Don Baltasar and his men were already out of sight amongst its steep and dangerous paths; and Herrera, compelled to abandon the pursuit, returned mournfully to the river bank, to seek, and, if it could be found, to convey to Vittoria the body of Count Villabuena.
Leaving Herrera to his mournful duty, let us conduct our readers to an apartment in a house on the outskirts of the town of Segura. The interior, which was plainly but commodiously furnished, indicated feminine tastes and occupations, breathing that perfume of elegance which the presence of woman ever communicates. Vases of flowers decked the sideboards; a few books, the works of the best Spanish poets, lay upon the table; and a guitar, unstrung, it is true, was suspended against the wall. Two persons occupied the apartment. One of them, who was seated on a low stool at its inner extremity, near to the folding doors that separated it from an antichamber, was a robust, ruddy-cheeked Navarrese girl, whose abundant hair, of which the jet blackness atoned for the coarse texture, hung in a thick plait down her back, and whose large red fingers were busily engaged in knitting. At the other end of the apartment, close to the open window, through which she intently gazed, was a being of very different mould. On a high-backed elbow-chair of ancient oak sat Rita de Villabuena, pensive and anxious, her fair face and golden tresses seeming fairer and brighter from the contrast with the dark quaint carving against which they reposed. Her cheek was perhaps paler than when first we made her acquaintance; anxiety for her lover, and, latterly, for her father, was the cause; but her beauty had lost nothing by the change, for the shade of melancholy upon her features seemed, by adding to the interest her expressive countenance inspired, rather to enhance than diminish its charm. She was now watching for her father, who had led her to expect his return at about this time. Over the stone balustrade of her balcony, she commanded a view of the road along which he was to approach; and upon the farthest visible point of it, where a bend round a group of trees concealed its continuation, her gaze was riveted. Although the Count had assured her, before his departure, that his journey was unattended with risk, Rita's arrival upon the scene of war was too recent for her to escape uneasiness during his absence. Some hours before the time at which his return could reasonably be looked for, she had taken her post at the window, and although, at the persuasion of her attendant, a simple country girl, recently installed as her doncella, she had more than once endeavoured to fix her attention on a book, or to distract it by some of her usual occupations, the effort had each time been made in vain, and she had again resumed her anxious watch. In every horseman, or muleteer, who turned the angle of the road, she thought she recognised the guide, who, two days previously, had accompanied her father from Segura, and her heart throbbed with a feeling of joyful relief till a nearer approach convinced her of her error.
Could the vision of Rita de Villabuena have penetrated the copse that bounded her view in that direction, she would have perceived, towards four of the afternoon, not her father, alas! but another horseman, attended by the gipsy guide, riding at a rapid pace along the road. On reaching the trees aforesaid, however, they deviated from the track into a lane inclosed between hedges, which led round the town, and again joined the road on its further side. To explain this manoeuvre, it is necessary to retrace our steps, and to follow the movements of Colonel Villabuena after his return to Onate on the preceding evening.
When the first excitement of the skirmish and subsequent flight had subsided, and the detachment of Carlists, after giving their horses a moment's breathing-time upon one of the higher levels of the sierra, resumed their march at a more leisurely pace, the thoughts of Don Baltasar became concentrated on the one grand object of deriving the utmost possible advantage from the death of his cousin. By that event the estates of the Villabuena family were now his own, those, at least, that lay within the Carlist territory. These, however, were comparatively of little value; and although the far more extensive ones, that had been confiscated by the Queen's government, might possibly be redeemed by a prompt abjuration of the cause of Don Carlos, a measure at the adoption of which Don Baltasar was by no means so scrupulous as to hesitate, yet even that would not fully satisfy him. He had other views and wishes. As far as his selfish nature would admit of the existence of such a feeling, he was deeply in love with Rita; the coldness with which she treated him had only served to stimulate his passion; and he was bent upon making her his at any price, and by any means. He was sufficiently acquainted with her character to be convinced that his prospect of obtaining her hand was any thing but improved by her father's death and that to her the wealthy possessor of her family's estates would be as unwelcome a wooer as the needy soldier of fortune. He did not doubt that, after the first violence of her grief should subside, she would return to France, where some of her mother's relatives were resident; and that, when next he heard of her, it would be as the bride of his fortunate rival. The picture thus conjured up caused him to grind his teeth with fury; and he swore to himself a deep oath that she should be his at any risk, and if, by the boldest and most unscrupulous measures, that consummation could be brought about. A plan occurred to him which he thought could not fail of success, and by which the obstinacy of the self-willed girl must, he believed, be overcome. It was a hazardous scheme, even in that unsettled and war-ridden country, where men were too much occupied in party strife to attend to the strict administration of justice; but Baltasar did not lack resolution, and the prize was worth the peril. One thing he wanted; a bold and quick-witted confederate, and him it was not so easy to find. No man had fewer friends in his own class than Don Baltasar, and by his inferiors he was generally detested on account of his harsh and overbearing demeanour. Of this he was aware; and he vainly racked his brain to find a man in whom he could confide. The details of his nefarious project were already arranged in his mind, and only this one difficulty had yet to be overcome; when, at two hours after dark, he entered the streets of Onate. Hopeless of being served for affection's sake, he was meditating whom he could make his own by bribery, when a light from an open window flashed across the street, and illuminated the unprepossessing profile of Jaime the gipsy, who, in his capacity of guide, was riding in front, and a little on one side of Colonel Villabuena. The sight of those sinister features, on which rapacity and cunning had set their stamp, was as a sudden revelation to Don Baltasar, to whom it instantly occurred that the gitano was the very man he sought. The circumstance of his belonging to a race despised, and almost persecuted, by the people amongst whom they dwelt, was an additional guarantee against any compunctious scruples on his part; his occupation of a spy bespoke him at once daring and venal, and Colonel Villabuena doubted not that he should find him a willing and useful instrument.
The soldiers filed off to their quarters; and Baltasar, after desiring the gipsy to come to him in an hour's time, betook himself to the posada. When Jaime had given his horse an ample feed, and groomed him with a care that showed the value he set upon his services, he made a hasty meal in a neighbouring taberna, and repaired to the Colonel's quarters. His stealthy tap at the door was replied to by an impatient "adelante," and he entered the room.
A scarcely tasted supper was upon the table, and Don Baltasar was pacing the apartment, his brow knit and apparently deep in thought. On beholding the gipsy, he arranged his features into their most amiable expression, and advanced towards him with an assumed air of frank good-humour.
"I have to thank you, Jaime," said he, "for your promptness and presence of mind this morning. Had you not thought of what we all forgot, and suggested the pulling down of the bridge, few, if any of us, would have seen Onate to-night. I shall report your conduct most favourably to the General, who will doubtless reward it."
The esquilador slightly bowed his head, but, with the exception of that movement, made no reply; nor did any expression of satisfaction at the praise bestowed upon him light up his dark countenance.
"Meanwhile," continued Don Baltasar, "I will discharge my personal obligation to you in a more solid manner than by mere thanks."
And he held out a handful of dollars, which, the next instant, disappeared in one of Jaime's capacious pockets. This time a muttered word or two of thanks escaped the lips of the taciturn esquilador.
"Whither do you now proceed?" enquired Baltasar. "Are you to rejoin the General? What are your orders?"
"I am no man's servant," replied the gipsy, "and have no orders to obey. When your General requires my services, we make a bargain, I to act, he to pay. I risk my life for his gold, and if I deceive him I know the penalty. But the service once rendered, I am my own man again."
"So then," said Baltasar, "you are not bound to Zumalacarregui; and should any other offer you better pay for lighter service, you are free to take it?"
"That's it," replied the gipsy.
There was a short pause, during which Colonel Villabuena attentively scanned the countenance of Jaime, who remained impassive, and with eyes fixed upon the ground, as though to prevent their expression from being read. Baltasar resumed—
"Say then that I were to ensure you a large reward for the performance of services far less dangerous than those you daily render at a less price, would you accept or refuse the offer?"
"I must know what I am to do, and what to get," said the gipsy, this time raising his eyes to Don Baltasar's face.
"Can you be silent?" said Baltasar.
"When I am paid for it—as the grave," was the reply.
"In short, if I understand you rightly," said the Colonel with an easy smile, "you will do any thing at a price."
"Any thing," returned the unabashed gipsy. "It is not a small risk that will frighten me, if the reward is proportionate."
"We shall suit one another charmingly," said Baltasar; "for what I require will expose you to little danger, and your reward shall be of your own fixing."
And, without further preamble, he proceeded to unfold to the gipsy the outline of a scheme requiring his cooperation, the nature of which will best be made known to the reader by the march of subsequent events.
The sinking sun and rapidly lengthening shadows proclaimed the approach of evening, and Rita de Villabuena, still seated at her window, watched for her father's arrival, when the trot of a horse, which stopped at the door of the house, caused her to start from her seat, and hurry to the balcony. Her anxiety was converted into the most lively alarm when she saw the Count's gipsy guide alighting alone from his horse; a presentiment of evil came over her, she staggered back into the room, and sank almost fainting upon a chair. Recovering herself, however, she was hurrying to the door of the apartment, when it opened, and Paco the muleteer, who had lately been attached to her father as orderly, and whom the Count had left as a protection to his daughter, made his appearance.
"The gipsy is here, Senora," said he; "he brings news of his Excellency the Conde."
"Admit him instantly," cried Rita, impatiently. "Where did you leave my father?" she enquired, as the esquilador entered the room. "Is he well? Why does he not return?"
"I left the Senor Conde at a convent near Lecumberri," replied the gipsy.
"Near Lecumberri?" repeated Rita; "it was not in that direction he went. He left this for the plains of Vittoria."
"He did so, Senora," answered the gipsy; "but before we were half-way to Onate, we were met by a courier with despatches for the Senor Conde, who immediately turned bridle, and ordered the escort to do the same. It was past midnight when we again reached Segura; and, not to cause alarm, we marched round the town, and continued our route without stopping.
"And your errand now?" exclaimed Rita. The gipsy seemed to hesitate before replying.
"The Senor Conde is wounded," said he, at last.
"Wounded!" repeated Rita, in the shrill accents of alarm. "You are not telling truth—they have killed him! Oh, tell me all! Say, is my father still alive?"
And, clasping her hands together, she seemed about to throw herself at the feet of Jaime, whilst her anxious glance strove to read the truth upon his countenance. It was a strange contrast presented by that lovely and elegant creature and the squalid, tawny gipsy; an angel supplicating some evil spirit, into whose power she had temporarily fallen, might so have looked.
"The Senor Conde's wound is severe," said Jaime. "On his way yesterday afternoon to attend a meeting of the Navarrese Junta in the valley of Lanz, he fell in with a party of Christino cavalry, and, although his escort repulsed them, he himself received a hurt in the skirmish."
"My father wounded and suffering!" exclaimed Rita in extreme agitation, passing her hand over her forehead in the manner of one bewildered by some stunning and terrible intelligence. "I will go to him instantly. Quick, Paco, the mules! Micaela, my mantilla! We must set out at once."
The servants hurried away to obey the orders of their mistress, and prepare for instant departure, and the gipsy was about to follow, when Rita detained him, and overwhelmed him with questions concerning her father's state, to all of which Jaime replied in a manner that somewhat tranquillized her alarm, although it produced no change in her resolution to set off immediately to join him. This, indeed, the esquilador informed her, was her father's wish, as he found that he should be detained some time in his present quarters by the consequences of his wound.
Although all haste was used in the necessary preparations, the sun was close to the horizon before Rita and her attendants left Segura, and took the road to Lecumberri, at about two leagues from which, as Jaime told them, and in the heart of the sierra, was situated the convent that was their destination. The distance was not great; but, owing to the mountains, the travellers could hardly expect to reach the end of their journey much before daybreak. Paco, who viewed this hasty departure with any thing but a well-pleased countenance, urged Rita to postpone setting off till the following morning, alleging the difficult nature of the roads they must traverse, and which led for a considerable part of the way over a steep and almost trackless sierra. But Rita's anxiety would brook no delay, and the little cavalcade set out. It consisted of Rita and her waiting-maid, mounted upon mules, and of the gipsy and Paco upon their horses; Paco leading a third mule, upon which, by the care of Micaela, a hastily packed portmanteau had been strapped. The gipsy rode in front; thirty paces behind him came the women, and the muleteer brought up the rear. Jaime had betrayed some surprise, and even discomposure, when he found that Paco was to accompany them; but he did not venture to make any objection to so natural an arrangement.
Taking advantage of the goodness of the road, which for the first league or two was tolerably smooth and level, the travellers pushed on for nearly two hours at a steady amble, which, had the nature of the ground allowed them to sustain it, would have brought them to their journey's end much sooner than was really to be the case. The sun had set, the moon had not yet risen, and the night was very dark. Jaime, who continued to maintain a short interval between his horse and the mules of Rita and her attendant, kept shifting his restless glances from one side of the road to the other, as though he would fain have penetrated the surrounding gloom. He was passing a thicket that skirted the road, when a cautious "Hist!" inaudible to his companions, arrested his attention. He immediately pulled up his horse, and, dismounting, unstrapped the surcingle of his saddle. On perceiving this, Rita stopped to enquire the cause of the delay, but the gipsy requested her to proceed.
"My horse's girths are loose, Senora," said he in explanation. "Be good enough to ride on, and I will overtake you immediately."
Rita rode on, and Paco followed, without paying any attention to so common an occurrence as the slackening of a girth. Scarcely, however, had he passed the gipsy some fifty paces, when the latter left his horse, who remained standing motionless in the middle of the road, and approached the thicket. Just within the shadow of the foremost trees, a man on horseback, muffled in a cloak, was waiting. It was Colonel Villabuena.
"All is well," said the gipsy; "and you have only to ride forward and prepare for our reception."
"Who is with you?" said Don Baltasar, in a dissatisfied tone.
"The lady and her doncella, and Paco, her father's orderly."
"Fool!" cried Baltasar; "why did you let him come? His presence may ruin my plan."
"How could I help it?" retorted Jaime. "If I had objected he would have suspected me. He's as cunning as a fox, and did not swallow the story half as well as his mistress. But her impatience decided it. Nothing would serve her but setting out immediately."
"He must be disposed of," said Baltasar. "There's many a mountain precipice between this and our destination," he added meaningly.
Jaime shook his head.
"I might do it," said he; "but if I failed, and he is a wary and active fellow, the chances are that he would do the same kind office for me, and return with the lady."
"Humph!" said Baltasar. "Well, he shall be cared for. And now ride on. I shall be at the convent an hour before you. Remember to take the longest road."
The gipsy nodded, returned to his horse, and, springing lightly into the saddle, galloped after his companions. Don Baltasar remained a short time longer in the thicket, and then emerging upon the road, followed Rita and her party at a deliberate pace. From time to time he stopped, and listened for the sound of their horses' footsteps. If he could hear it, he halted till it became inaudible, and then again moved on. His object evidently was to keep as near to the travellers as he could without allowing his proximity to be suspected.
It was nearly midnight, and Rita and her companions had been for some time amongst the mountains, when they reached a place where the road, or rather track, they followed, split and branched off in two different directions. Jaime, who, since they had entered the sierra, had abridged the distance between himself and his companions, and now rode just in front of Rita's mule, was taking the right hand path, when Paco called out to him that the left was the shortest and best.
"You are mistaken," said Jaime abruptly, continuing in the direction he had first taken.
But Paco would not be put off in so unceremonious a manner, and he rode up to the gipsy. "I tell you," said he, "that I know this country well, and the left hand road is the one to take."
"How long is it since you travelled it?" inquired Jaime.
"Only last autumn," was the reply, "and then for the twentieth time."
"Well," said the esquilador, "it may be the shortest; but if you had ridden along it this morning, as I did, you would hardly call it the best. The winter rains have washed away the path, and left the bare rocks so slippery and uneven, that I could scarcely get my horse over them in daylight, and by night I should make sure of breaking his legs and my own neck."
"I know nothing of this convent you are taking us to," said Paco, in a sulky tone; "but if it stands, as you tell me, to the north of Lecumberri, this road will lengthen our journey an hour or more."
"Scarcely so much," said Jaime. "At any rate," added he doggedly, "it is I who answer to the Count for the Senora's safety, and I shall therefore take the road I think best."
Paco was about to make an angry reply, but Rita interfered, and the discussion terminated in the gipsy having his own way. Three minutes later Don Baltasar arrived at the division of the roads, paused, listened, and heard the faint echo of the horses' hoofs upon the right hand path. With an exclamation of satisfaction, he struck his spurs into the flanks of his steed, and at as rapid a pace as the uneven ground would permit, ascended the contrary road, the shortest, and, as Paco had truly asserted, by far the best to the convent whither Rita de Villabuena was proceeding.
Over rocks and through ravines, and along the margin of precipices, Don Baltasar rode, threading, in spite of the darkness, the difficult and often dangerous mountain-paths, with all the confidence of one well acquainted with their intricacies. At last, after a long descent, he entered a narrow valley, or rather a mountain-gorge, which extended in the form of nearly a semicircle, and for a distance of about three miles, between two steep and rugged lines of hill. Upon finding himself on level ground, he spurred his horse, and passing rapidly over the dew-steeped grass of a few fields, entered a beaten track that ran along the centre of the valley. The moon was now up, silvering the summits of the groups of trees with which the narrow plain was sprinkled, and defining the gloomy peaks of the sierra against the star-spangled sky. By its light Don Baltasar rode swiftly along, until, arriving near the further end of the valley, he came in sight of an extensive edifice, beautifully situated on the platform of a low hill, and sheltered to the north and east by lofty mountains. The building was of grey stone, and formed three sides of a square; the side that was at right angles with the two others being considerably the longest, and the wings connected by a wall of solid masonry, in the centre of which was an arched portal. In front, and on one side of the convent, for such, as a single glance was sufficient to determine, was the purpose to which the roomy structure was appropriated, the ground was bare and open, until the platform began to sink towards the plain; and then the sunny southern slope had been turned to the best account. Luxuriant vineyards, a plantation of olive-trees, and a large and well-stocked orchard covered it, whilst the level at its foot was laid out in pasture and corn-fields. The space between the back of the convent and the mountains was filled up by a thick wood, affording materials for the blazing fires which, in the winter months, the keen airs from the hills would render highly acceptable. The forest also extended round and close up to the walls of the right wing of the building. From the roof of the left wing rose a lofty open tower, where was seen hanging the ponderous mass of bronze by whose sonorous peal the pious inmates were summoned to their devotions.
Urging his horse up the steep and winding path that led to the front of the convent, Don Baltasar seized and pulled a chain that hung beside the gate. The clank of a bell immediately followed, and Baltasar, receding a little from the door, looked up at the windows. No light was visible at any of them, and the most profound stillness reigned. After waiting for about a minute, the Carlist colonel again rang, and he was about to repeat the summons for a third time, when a faint gleam of light in the court warned him that some one was afoot. Presently a small wicket in the centre of the gate was opened, and the pinched and crabbed features of the lay-sister who acted as portress showed themselves at the aperture. In a voice rendered unusually shrill and querulous by vexation at having her rest broken, she demanded who it was thus disturbing the slumbers of the sisterhood.
"I come," said Baltasar, "to speak with your lady abbess, Dona Carmen de Forcadell, upon matters of the utmost importance. Admit me instantly, for my business presses."
"The lady abbess," peevishly returned the portress, "cannot be disturbed before matins. If you choose to wait till then, I will tell her you are here, and she will perhaps see you."
"I must see her at once," replied Baltasar, waxing wroth at this delay, when every moment was of importance to his projects. "Tell her that Don Baltasar is here, and she will give orders to admit me."
Whilst he spoke, the lay sister raised her glimmering lantern to the wicket, in order to take a survey of this peremptory applicant for admission. The view thus obtained of his features apparently did not greatly impress her in his favour, or at any rate did not render her more disposed to open the solid barrier between them.
"Baltasar or Benito," cried she, "it is all one to Mariquita. You may wait till the matin bell rings. Fine times, indeed, when every thieving guerilla thinks he may find free quarters where he pleases! No, no, senor, stay where you are; the fresh air will cool your impatience. It will be daybreak in an hour, and that will be time enough for your errand, whatever it is."
It was with no small difficulty that Don Baltasar restrained his spleen during the old woman's harangue. When it came to a close, however, and he saw that she persisted in leaving him on the outside of the gate till the usual hour for opening it, he lost all patience. Before the portress could shut the wicket, close to which she was standing, he thrust his hand and arm through it, and grasped her by her skinny throat. The lay sister set up a yell of alarm and pain.
"Jesus Maria! Al socorro! Help, help!" screamed she; the last words dying away in a gurgling sound, as Don Baltasar tightened his hold upon her windpipe.
"Silence, you old jade!" cried the fierce soldier in a suppressed tone, "you will alarm the whole convent. You have the keys in your hand—I heard them clank. Open the gate instantly, or by all the saints in heaven, I throttle you where you stand."
The increased pressure of his fingers warned the old woman that he would keep his word; and, yielding to so novel and convincing a mode of argument, she made use of the keys whose jingle she had imprudently allowed to be heard. Two heavy locks shot back, and a massive bar was withdrawn; and when, by pushing against it, Don Baltasar had convinced himself that the gate was open, he released the gullet of the trembling sister, and entered the paved court. In grievous trepidation the portress was retreating to her lodge, which stood just within the gate, when an upper window of the convent opened, and a female voice enquired, in commanding tones, the cause of the uproar. Don Baltasar seemed to recognise the voice, and he rode up beneath the window whence it proceeded.
"Carmen," said he, "is it you?"
"Who is that?" was the rejoinder, in accents which surprise or alarm rendered slightly tremulous.
"Baltasar," replied the officer. "I must see you instantly, on a matter of life or death."
There was a moment's pause. "Remain where you are," said the person at the window; "I will come down to you."
The portress, finding that the intruder was known to the lady abbess, for she it was whom Baltasar had addressed as Carmen, now refastened the gate, and crept grumbling to her cell. Don Baltasar waited. Presently a door in the right wing of the convent was opened, a tall female form, clothed in flowing drapery, and carrying a taper in her hand, appeared at it and beckoned him to enter. Tying his horse to a ring in the wall, he obeyed the signal.
The room into which, after passing through a corridor, Colonel Villabuena was now introduced, was one of those appropriated to the reception of guests and visitors to the convent. The apartment was plainly furnished with a table and a few wooden chairs; and in a recess hung a large ebony crucifix, before which was placed a hassock, its cloth envelope worn threadbare by the knees of the devout. But if the room of itself offered little worthy of note, the case was far different with the person who now ushered Don Baltasar into it. This was a woman about forty years old, possessed of one of those marked and characteristic physiognomies which painters are fond of attributing to the inhabitants of southern Europe. Her age was scarcely to be read upon her face, whose slight furrows seemed traced by violent passions rather than by the hand of time: she had the remains of great beauty, although wanting in the intellectual; and the expression of her face, her compressed lips, and the fixed look of her eyes, went far to neutralize the charm which her regular features, and the classical oval of her physiognomy, would otherwise have possessed. The outline of her tall figure was veiled, but not concealed, by her monastic robe, from the loose sleeves of which protruded her long thin white hands. After closing the door, she seated herself beside a table, upon which she reposed her elbow, and motioned her visiter to a chair. A slight degree of agitation was perceptible in her manner, as she waited in silence for Don Baltasar to communicate the motive of his unseasonable arrival. This he speedily did.
"You must do me a service, Carmen," said he. "My cousin Rita is now within an hour's ride of this place. She comes hither expecting to find her father. She must be detained captive."
"What!" exclaimed the abbess, "is your suit so hopeless as to render such hazardous measures adviseable? What is to be gained by such an act of violence? Her father will inevitably seek and discover her, and disgrace and disappointment will be the sole result of your mad scheme."
"Her father," replied Baltasar gloomily, "will give us no trouble."
"How?—no trouble! If all be true that I have heard of Count Villabuena, and of his affection for his only surviving child, he is capable of devoting his life to the search for her."
"Count Villabuena," said Baltasar, "now stands before you. The father of Rita is dead."
"Dead!" exclaimed the abbess with a start. "How and when did he die?"
"He was shot in a skirmish."
"In a skirmish!" repeated Dona Carmen. "He held no military command."
"I was escorting him with a few men to attend a junta. We were attacked by a superior force, from which we escaped, thanks to an intervening river. A few shots were exchanged, the Count thrust himself into the fire, and fell."
The abbess seemed to reflect a moment, and then fixed a keen and searching look upon the countenance of Baltasar.
"Was your loss in men severe?" said she abruptly.
"No—yes—" replied Baltasar, slightly confused. "I believe there were several wounded. Why do you ask?"
"And the Count's death gives you the Villabuena estates?"
"It does so," answered Baltasar.
The dark penetrating eyes of the abbess still remained fixed, with a peculiar expression of enquiry and suspicion, upon the countenance of Colonel Villabuena. He tried at first to sustain their gaze, but was unable to do so. He looked down, and a slight paleness came over his features.
"I have no time to answer questions," said he, with a rough brutality of manner which seemed assumed to veil embarrassment. "My plan is arranged, but promptness of execution is essential to its success. Rita must be detained here, where none will think of seeking her, till she becomes my wife. Your power in this place is unlimited, and your word law; you will have no difficulty in secluding her in some corner where none shall see her but those in whom you can fully confide. Make the necessary preparations. Each moment she may arrive."
Whilst Baltasar was speaking, Dona Carmen remained with her brow supported on her hand, silent and sunk in reflection. She now sprang impetuously from her chair.
"I will have naught to do with it," cried she; "you would entangle me in a labyrinth of crime, whence the only issue would be ignominy and punishment. You must find others to aid you in your machinations."
In his turn Baltasar rose from his seat, and, approaching the abbess, led her back to her chair.
"Carmen," said he, in a suppressed voice, and from between his set teeth, "is it to me that you say 'I will not?'—Carmen," he continued, speaking low, and with his face very near to hers, "there was a time when, for love of you and to do your bidding, I feared no punishment here or hereafter. Have you already forgotten it? 'I hate him,' were your words, as I sat at your feet in yon sunny Andalusian bower—'I hate him, and in proportion to my hatred should be my gratitude to him who rid me of his odious presence.' That night the serenos found the body of Don Fernando de Forcadell stiff and cold upon the steps of his villa. He had had a dispute at the monte table, and two men were sent to Ceuta on suspicion of the deed. Only two persons knew who had really done it. Ha! Carmen, only two persons!"
During this terrible recapitulation, the abbess sat motionless as a statue, for which indeed, in her white robe and with her marble pale complexion, she might almost have been taken. She covered her face with her hands, and her bosom heaved so violently, that the loose folds of drapery which shrouded it rose and fell like the waves of a troubled ocean. When Baltasar ceased speaking she removed her hands, and exhibited a countenance livid as that of a corpse. Her almost preternatural paleness, the dark furrows under her eyes, and the tension of every feature, added ten years to her apparent age.
"Is that all?" she said, in a hollow voice, to her tormentor.
"And one of those persons," resumed the pitiless Baltasar, without replying to her question, "swore by earth and by heaven, and by the God who made them both, never to forget the service that I—that the other person, I would say—had rendered her, and to be ready to requite it whenever he should point out the way. Years have flown by since that day, and the feelings that united those two persons have long since changed; but a promise made as that one was—a promise sealed with blood—can never pass away till it has been redeemed. Carmen, I claim its fulfilment."
Baltasar paused. "Fiend!" exclaimed the abbess, "what would you of me?"
"I have already told you," said Villabuena. "It is no crime, nothing that need alarm your conscience, recently grown so tender; but a good deed, rather, since it will prevent the daughter of a noble house from throwing herself away on an adventurer and a rebel, and give her hand to him for whom her father destined it. She is as yet unaware of the Count's death. She will learn it here, and no place fitter. Your pious consolations will soothe her grief. I shall leave her in your guardianship, and, when the first violence of her sorrow is over, return, to find means of overcoming her puerile objections to my suit. But I am a fool," exclaimed he, interrupting himself, "to lose in idle talk time that is so precious! They must already be in sight of the convent. Lead me to a window whence we may observe their approach, and whilst watching for it we can make our final arrangements."
He took the hand of the abbess, and she led the way, mechanically, to the door of an inner room. Passing through two other apartments, they reached one at the extremity of the wing, from the window of which a view was obtained for a considerable distance down the valley. The prospect that presented itself to them on pausing before this window, was so enchantingly beautiful, that it seemed to produce an effect, and to exercise a softening influence, even upon the depraved and vicious nature of Don Baltasar. At any rate, a full minute elapsed during which he stood in silence and contemplation.
The view afforded by the valley in question, upon that pleasant May morning, was indeed of almost unparalleled loveliness. The sun, which had already risen behind the eastern hills, but not yet surmounted them, threw its first rays across their summits, and illuminated the opposite mountains, bathing their pinnacles in a golden glow, whilst their lower steeps remained in comparative darkness. In the depths of the valley the last shades of twilight still seemed to linger, and masses of thin grey vapour rolled in billows over the rich vegetation and vivid verdure of the fields. The most fantastic variety of form was exhibited by the surrounding mountain wall; here it rose in turrets and towers, there spread out into crags, then again fell in blank abrupt precipices, their edges fringed with shrubs, the recesses of their sides sheltering wild-flowers of the most varied hues, whose sprays and blossoms waved in the sweet breath of morning. Equally varied, and as delicately beautiful, were the ethereal tints of the mountain tops, to which the cloudless sky seemed to impart a tinge of its azure. On the edge of a ravine, midway up a mountain, were seen a few crumbling walls, and a fragment of a broken tower, sole remains of some ancient stronghold, which, centuries before, had frowned over the vale. The hut of a goatherd or charcoal-burner, here and there dotted the hill-side; and at the southern limit of the valley, just before its change of direction took it out of sight of the convent, were visible the houses of a small hamlet, surrounded by plantations, and half buried amidst blossoms of the tenderest rose-colour and most dazzling white. Masses of beech and ilex clothed the lower slopes of the mountains, and from out of their dark setting of foliage the grey walls of the Dominican convent arose like a pale and shadowy spectre. The fresh brightness of spring was the characteristic of the whole scene; the year seemed rejoicing in its youthful vigour, and to express its delight by millions of mute voices, which spoke out of each leaf and twig that danced in the breeze. Nor were other and audible voices wanting. The lark was singing in the sky, the grasshopper had begun its chirp, the rills and rivulets that splashed or trickled from the hills, gave out their indistinct murmur; whilst, heard far above these voices of nature, the toll of the matin bell resounded through the valley, calling the devoutly disposed to their morning thanksgiving.
The angelus had ceased to ring when Rita and her party came in sight of the Dominican convent, their horses and mules giving evidence, by their jaded appearance, of having been ridden far, and over rough and painful roads. The gipsy rode in front, vigilant and unfatigued—although he had now been in the saddle, with little intermission, for a whole day and night—and was followed by Rita, to whose delicate frame the long ride had been an exertion as unusual as it was trying. But a resolute spirit had compensated for physical weakness, and, uncomplaining, she had borne up against the hardships of the preceding ten hours. She was pale and harassed; her hair, uncurled by the night fogs, hung in dank masses round her face, and her fragile form was unable to maintain its upright position. Micaela, the waiting-maid, yawned incessantly, and audibly groaned at each rough stumble or uncomfortable movement of her mule. Several times during the drowsy morning hours, she had nearly fallen from her saddle, and had to thank Paco, who had taken his station beside her, for saving her from more than one tumble. Paco, either out of respect to the presence of Rita, or concern for the Count's misfortune, rode along, contrary to his custom, in profound silence, and without indulging in any of those snatches of muleteers' songs with which it was his wont to beguile the tedium of a march.
Upon nearing the place where she expected to find her father, Rita's impatience to behold him, and to ascertain for herself the exact extent of the injury he had received, increased to a feverish degree, and on reaching the convent gate, already open for her reception, she sprang from her mule without assistance. But she had over-rated her strength; her limbs, stiffened by the long ride and the cold night air, refused their service, and she would have fallen to the ground had not Paco, who was already off his horse, given her the support of his arm. The portress and another old lay sister were the only persons visible in the court, and the last of these invited Rita to accompany her into the convent. Paco held out his horse's bridle and those of the mules to Jaime, intending to follow his young mistress, but the gipsy hesitated to take them, and the lay sister, perceiving Paco's intention, interposed to prevent its execution.
"You must remain here," said she; "I have no orders to admit men into the convent, nor can I, without express orders from the lady abbess."
Paco obeyed the injunction, and the three women disappeared through a door of the right wing of the building. They had been gone less than a minute, when the lay sister again came forth, and, approaching the gipsy, desired him to follow her. He did so, and Paco remained alone with the horses.
With eager step, and a heart palpitating with anxiety, Rita followed her guide into the convent, making, as she went, anxious enquiries concerning her father's health. To her first question the old woman replied by an inarticulate mumble; and upon its repetition, a brief "I do not know; the lady abbess will see you,"—checked any further attempt upon a person who either could not or would not give the much wished-for information. Passing through a corridor and up a staircase, the lay sister ushered Rita into an apartment of comfortable appearance.
"I will inform the abbess of your arrival," said she, as she went out and closed the door.
Five minutes elapsed, and Rita, to whom this delay was as inexplicable as her impatience to see her father was great, was about to leave the room and seek or enquire the way to his apartment, when the abbess made her appearance.
"Holy mother!" exclaimed Rita, advancing to meet her with clasped hands and tearful eyes, "is my father doing well? Conduct me to him, I beseech you."
Struck by the beauty of the fair creature who thus implored her, and touched, perhaps, by the painful anxiety expressed in her trembling voice, and pale and interesting countenance, Dona Carmen almost hesitated to communicate her fatal tidings.
"I have painful intelligence for you, Senora," said she. "The Count, your father"—
"He is wounded; I know it," interrupted Rita. "Is he worse? Oh, let me see him!—This instant see him!"
"It is impossible," said the abbess. "The bullet that struck him was too surely aimed. Your father is dead!"
For an instant Rita gazed at the speaker as though unable fully to comprehend the terrible announcement, and then, with one shriek of heartfelt agony, she sank senseless to the ground.
The shrill and thrilling scream uttered by the bereaved daughter, rang through the chambers and corridors of the convent, and reached the ears of Paco, who had remained in the court, waiting with some impatience for the return of the gipsy, and for intelligence concerning the health of the Count. Abandoning his horse, he rushed instinctively to the door by which Rita had entered the building. It was closed, but not fastened, and passing through it he found himself in a long corridor, traversed by two shorter ones, and at whose extremity, through a grated window, was visible the foliage of the forest surrounding that side of the convent. Not a living creature was to be seen; and Paco paused, uncertain in what direction to proceed. He listened for a repetition of the cry, but none came. Suddenly a door, close to which he stood, was opened, and before he could turn his head to ascertain by whom, he was seized from behind, and thrown violently upon the paved floor of the corridor. The attack had been so vigorous and unexpected, that Paco had no time for resistance before he found himself stretched upon his back; but then he struggled furiously against his assailants, who were no others than Don Baltasar and the gipsy. So violent were his efforts, that he got the gipsy under him, and was on the point of regaining his feet, when Colonel Villabuena drew a pistol from the breast of his coat, and with its but-end dealt him a severe blow on the head. The unlucky muleteer again fell stunned upon the ground. In another minute his hands were tightly bound, and Don Baltasar and his companion carried him swiftly down one of the transversal corridors. Descending a flight of stone steps, the two men with their burthen entered a range of subterranean cloisters, at whose extremity was a low and massive door, which Don Baltasar opened, and they entered a narrow cell, having a straw pallet and earthen water-jug for sole furniture. Close to the roof of this dismal dungeon was an aperture in the wall, through which a strong iron grating, and the rank grass that grew close up to it, allowed but a faint glimmer of daylight to enter. Placing their prisoner upon the straw bed, Don Baltasar and Jaime took away his sabre and the large knife habitually carried by Spaniards of his class. They then unbound his hands, and, carefully securing the door behind them, left him to the gloom and solitude of his dungeon.
 From an early period of the war, the Spanish dragoon regiments, both light and heavy, were armed with the lance, that weapon being considered the most efficient for the mountain warfare in which they were frequently engaged.
SOMETHING MORE ABOUT MUSIC.
We mused on music some while ago; and as the subject still haunts us—very much after the manner of an obstinate ghost that refuses to be laid, even by the choicest Latin—we are strongly disposed to try the effect of giving it full swing for once; and in idle mood, too idle to oppose ourselves to its tyranny, letting it carry us whither it will, in the hope that, in return for our complacence, it may in future suffer us to conduct our meditations according to our own pleasure, and give that sad and serious thought, which their merits demand, to the gravities of this life—to corn-laws and poor-laws, (of all sorts!) and the Irish question, and the debates to which all these give occasion, in reading which we have already worn out we know not how many pairs of spectacles, and one pair of excellent eyes; and last, not least, to the marchings and counter-marchings of the House of Commons, in which we are deeply interested.