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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 48 - Cifuentes


The night was approaching, and Ronald, being anxious to reach Los Alduides, Cambo, or any other village on the route for Toulouse, rode as rapidly as the rough and steep nature of the mountain-path would permit. As he descended towards the Lower Pyrenees, the ground became more irregular, and the road at times wound below beetling crags and through narrow gorges, which were scarcely illuminated by the red light from the westward.

Twice or thrice Ronald beheld, or imagined that he beheld, a head, surmounted by a high-crowned and broad-leaved hat, observing his progress from the summit of the rocks skirting a narrow dell, through which he rode. This kept him on the alert, and the threatening words of Don Carlos Avallo recurred to him. He halted, drew his saddle-girths tighter, and looked to his pistols, leaving unstrapped the bearskin which covered the holsters. At the very moment when he was putting his foot in the stirrup to remount, a musket was discharged from the top of a neighbouring cliff, and the ball fell flattened from a rock within a yard of his head. The white smoke was floating upwards through the still air, but no person was visible.

'Banditti, by Heaven!' exclaimed the startled and enraged Highlander, as he sprang on the snorting steed. 'Farewell, Spain! and may all mischief attend you, from the Pillars of Hercules to these infernal Pyrenees!

I wish the Nive rolled between them and me! But if swift hoofs and a stout blade will serve me in peril, I shall be in broad Gascony to-night.'

Onward went Egypt at a full gallop, which was soon brought to a stop on his turning an angle of the rocks. Across the narrow pathway a number of men were busily raising a barricade of turf, branches, and earth; but on Ronald's appearance they snatched up their carbines, and leaping up the rocks with the agility of monkeys, disappeared.

'There is an ambush here,' muttered Stuart. 'Oh! could we but meet on the mountain-side to-night, Senor Availo, I would teach you a sharp lesson for the time to come. On now! on, for death or life!'

He had very little practice in the true scientific mode of clearing a five-barred gate, but he feared not to leap with any man who ever held a rein; and when riding a Highland shelty at home, had leapt from rock to rock, and from cliff to cliff, over roaring linns, yawning chasms, and gloomy corries, which would have caused the heart of a Lowlander even to thrill with fear. Grasping a steel pistol in each hand, he came furiously down the path, with his belted plaid and ostrich feathers streaming far behind him.

'On, Egypt, on! brave and noble horse!' said he, encouraging the fine old trooper with words of cheer, at the same time goring his flanks with the sharp iron rowels. The steed bounded onward to the desperate leap; and when within a few yards of the barrier, straining every sinew and fibre until they became like iron, he bounded into the air with such velocity, that the rider almost lost his breath, yet sat gallantly, with his head up and his reins low. At that very moment a deadly volley—a crossfire from more than a dozen muskets—flashed from the dark rocks around. Several balls pierced the body of the horse, which uttered a snorting cry of pain, and Ronald felt it writhe beneath him in the air. Instead of alighting on its hoofs, down it came, thundering with its forehead on the earth, to the imminent peril of the rider, who adroitly disengaged himself from the stirrups and alighted on his feet, confused, breathless, and almost stunned with the shock, while the noble steed rolled over on its back, and never moved again.

Ronald was now in deadly jeopardy. Headed by Narvaez Cifuentes, a well-armed gang of Spanish desperadoes, nearly forty in number, surrounded him. Although Narvaez took the most active part in their proceedings, he did not appear to be their leader; and Stuart, when he knew that his life was forfeited by his falling into such hands, resolved that they should gain it dearly. He had broken his claymore and lost a pistol in the leap; but with the other he shot dead one assailant, and drawing his long dirk, struck fearlessly amongst them, right and left. He buried the steel claw of his Highland pistol in the head of one fellow, whose only defence was a red cotton montero, or cap ; and he drove his left-handed weapon so far into the shoulder of another, that it remained as fast as if driven into a log of wood. All this was the work of a moment; but he was immediately, after these exploits, beaten to the earth with the butts of their firearms ; and a Portuguese dealt him a blow on the head with a cajado (a long staff, armed with a knob), which deprived him of all sensation.

When consciousness returned, he found himself lying on the same spot where he had fallen; but the moon was shining brightly, and the banditti were still grouped around him. He had been rifled of his epaulettes, his gold cross, and everything of value, save the miniature of Alice Lisle, which, being concealed, had escaped their hands. The contents of the portmanteau lay strewed about, and a Spaniard, in whom he recognised the ferocious young Juan de la Roca, once Mina's follower, was busily occupied in relieving poor Egypt of the encumbrance of his hide, which he did in a most scientific and tanner-like manner. Ronald had presence of mind enough to lie still, fearing that they might destroy him at once if he stirred ; but, from what passed among them, he soon discovered that they were well aware he was only stunned when stricken down. Gaspar Alosegui, the powerful Spaniard who had been vanquished in feats of dexterity at Aranjuez by Campbell and Dugald Mhor, was present among the banditti, and, by the deference which was paid to everything he said, appeared to be their capitan.

He wore several feathers in his hat, a costly mantle hung on his left shoulder, and several rich daggers and pistols glittered in his sash. His followers were variously attired and armed, but all had their strong muscular feet nearly bare, while their tawny legs, destitute of hose, were exposed to the knee.

Ronald gazed on the detestable Cifuentes with a fiery eye. He remembered all that Catalina had suffered from his barbarity; he remembered, too, the vow he had sworn to Alvaro to revenge her, and his heart beat quick, while he longed to fall upon him and slay him on the instant, and in the midst of his companions in crime.

'I will not now permit him to be slain, since he has fallen alive into our hands,' said Alosegui, addressing Narvaez in a decided tone. 'He is a gallant soldier, and truly he has fought well for Spain. We have done enough for the doubloons of Avallo; so stand back, Micer Narvaez! He who would smite at the stranger, must do so only through my body!'

'Angeles y Demonios!' exclaimed the desperado hoarsely; 'I tell you I will have his blood,—ay, and drink it too, even as I would water! We have long been enemies; and 'tis not Gaspar Alosegui that shall rob me of the revenge so dear to every true Spaniard.'

'A mad borrico, by our Lady del Pilar!' exclaimed Gaspar, interposing his bulky form. 'Speak softly, Cifuentes; and remember that you have proved the weight of my hand, which has been thrice on your throat ere now, I believe.'

The robber shrunk back, and grasping his stiletto, gave one of those formidable scowls of rage and malice which so well became his villainous front, his beetling brows and matted hair.

'Vincentio, the cripple, lies shot in the ditch yonder,' said Juan de la Roca. 'He fell by the hand of the Briton; his crooked joints will no longer afford us a laugh in our den among the cliffs. We have lost our prime fool, senores, and I say blood for blood.'

'Viva'! shouted the banditti; 'blood for blood! 'Tis guerilla law : his life for Vincentio's.'

'To the dogs with the cripple!' exclaimed Gaspar. 'I tell you, comrades, that while I can strike a blow in his defence, he shall not die! By the beard of Satanas, the first man that whispers aught of this again shall feel my knife between his ribs. Look you, senores camarados: we have all more to gain by his life than his death. Narvaez tells us that the cavalier is a very great friend of Alvaro of Villa Franca, whom the new government have raised to the rank of count, and to whom they have granted doubloons enough to pave the highway from Zagala to Merida. Don Alvaro will ransom his friend, and a fair sum will thus fall into our pockets. If not, the laws we have formed shall take their course, and the stranger must die.'

But Cifuentes was still clamorous for his blood, and insisted on slaying him with his own hand. The rising storm increased, when Ronald staggered up and stood among them. Many of the banditti began to prime and handle their fire-arms; and Stuart felt considerable anxiety for the end of the matter. He endeavoured to second the efforts of Alosegui by a long and bitter address, in which he upbraided them for their ingratitude in thus maltreating one who had served Spain so well, and had so often faced her enemies. He tore open his jacket and displayed his scars, but he appealed to them in vain. His voice was drowned in peals of savage laughter, with groans and yells, which roused his rage to an almost ungovernable pitch. His cheek burned with indignation as if a flame was scorching it, and his blood came and went through his pulses like lightning. How he longed to behold the effect of a sweeping volley of grape among these brutal desperadoes, could such have been discharged upon them at that moment! He watched eagerly the war of words carried on between Narvaez, Gaspar, and their adherents, and he earnestly hoped that blows would soon follow ; to the end that, by arming himself, he might slay some more, perhaps cut his way through them and escape, or perishing, sell his life dearly as ever a brave man did who died sword in hand. Eyes began to kindle, and poniards were drawn,—oaths and invectives were used unsparingly on both sides, and a sharp conflict would probably have decided the matter, had not Juan de la Roca proposed to end the contest quietly by two throws of dice,—producing, while he spoke, a box and dice from his pocket. This motion was at once acceeded to. Indeed, these wretches seemed to have no mind of their own, but to be swayed by the opinions of others, as the wind agitates the boughs of a tree.

Brows were smoothed, and weapons sheathed; the oath and threat gave place to the equally brutal jest, and the gang crowded about their tall leader and his amiable lieutenant.

The fate of Ronald Stuart was to be in the power of him who should throw the highest number; and all swore on their crucifixes, or on the cross guard of their poniards, to abide by the decision so obtained. Ronald, with sensations almost amounting to frenzy, beheld Gaspar and his opponent retire to a flat stone, and rattle the fatal dice-box which was to determine whether or not he should be a living man in ten minutes. What a moment was this! Rage and hatred, mingled with sorrow, and bitterness, dread and regret,—the regret that a brave man feels who finds himself at the mercy of those whom he despises. Almost trembling with the feelings of malice and fury which agitated him, Cifuentes unsheathed his poniard, and after carefully examining the point and edge, laid it on the stone, to be ready for instant use if he won.

The moon was now shining in all her silver splendour down the narrow dell, and the stars, gleaming in the studded firmament, like diamonds and rubies, sparkled as they do in the skies of Spain alone when the atmosphere is pure and calm. Stuart beheld the blade of a arvaez glancing in the moonlight, and never had he looked with such dread on a weapon as he did upon that deadly stiletto : yet he had never shrunk from a line of charged bayonets,—which, as the reader knows, he had faced fearlessly more than once; but it is another affair to be slaughtered like a lamb or a child. The green swelling mountains and the dark defile were silent ; no aid was near, and in every eye he read the glance of a foe. Narvaez rattled the box aloft, and cast down the dice on the stone, and his adherents bent over him earnestly.

'Four and five—nine!' cried the ruffian. 'Nine onzas out of my first plunder will be laid on the shrine of our Lady of the Rock if I win. Throw, Gaspar,—and may the devil so direct, that you throw less!' He took up his poniard with a very decided air, while Gaspar in turn quietly rattled the box.

'Five and five—ten!' said he with cool triumph, looking around him; 'one has saved him.'

'Stay! let us look at them,' cried Cifuentes, in a voice almost amounting to a shriek. 'Ten, indeed! Par Diez! He has escaped me just now. But a time may yet come----'

'Silence!' roared Gaspar. 'Senor,' said he, advancing towards Ronald, who now began to breathe more freely, 'I have saved your life, —for this time at least. You are now to consider yourself as our prisoner. We seldom keep any unless they are likely to pay well: for the rest we generally find a stab six inches below the shoulder the best method for getting rid of them. But remember, senor, that we are not people to be trifled with ; therefore, attempt not to escape unransomed, for death would be the penalty; you have heard our oaths. If you have any interest here in Spain, your captivity will not be of long duration ; and if you choose to take a turn of service with us among the mountains, we may be inclined to treat you as if you had the honour of being our comrade. We shall part friends, I trust. Many an alcalde and padre we have had whose ransom has made us merry for months. I tell you the truth, senor; we are men of courage and honour, in spite of slander and unpleasant appearances. We are true cavaliers of fortune, and are wont to be somewhat delicate on points of honour; therefore you must neither use threat nor taunt while among us, as our daggers lie somewhat loosely in their scabbards. And I must add, senor oficial, that if the Condé de Villa Franca refuses to ransom you for the sum we name, the laws of our society,—laws we have formed and solemnly sworn to,— must take their course.'

'Well, Senor Caspar,' said Stuart, who had listened coolly to all this preamble with folded arms, 'and your law—what is it on that particular head?'

'Death!'

'And the ransom?'

'Why, senor, we must arrange that. A cavalier is well worth a prior, or four alcaldes; but, as you are a soldier, and soldiers are seldom overburdened by the weight of their purses, we will not be severe.'

'But Don Alvaro is rich,' said Juan de la Roca. 'Remember, my friends, that he married a rich dame of Truxillo, whose estates, when joined to his own, will be ample enough for a princedom,—ay, for a kingdom larger than ever was Algarve.'

'And bethink ye of the rich ores,' said Narvaez; 'ores dug for him from the bowels of the mountains at Alcocer, at Guadalcanal, and Cazella in Estremadura; dug for him by the hands of wretched slaves condemned to his service for petty or pretended crimes by the accursed regidores, the escrivanos del numero, the alcaldes, the syndics, the military commanders, and the devil knows who more!'

'Cazella?' observed Gaspar; 'right! silver and gold are dug there.'

'Yes, and have been so ever since the days of the infidel Moors,' said Juan. 'And Alvaro has mines of silver and copper at Logrosen, and in the Sierra de Guadaloupe. Diavolo! senores, a heavy fine! The cavalier of Estremadura is rich, and will redeem his friend from death. He has but to dig when he wants gold.'

'Carajo!' said a robber; 'I well know that. I was condemned to dig in the mine of Logrosen for robbing a priest of his mule, and I slaved away in those horrible pits until my bones well-nigh parted company, and my back was flayed with the thongs of the cursed overseer. But one day I dashed out his brains with a shovel, and fled to the guerillas of Salvador de Zagala. A heavy ransom from Alvaro!'

'Two hundred golden onzas!' cried Juan de la Roca; 'and if Villa Franca refuses, give his friend the Briton to feast the wolf and the raven!'

'Viva! Juan has spoken like a prince!' cried the banditti, while they made hill and valley ring with their boisterous applause.

Two, with their muskets loaded, had particular orders to escort Stuart, and to shoot him dead if he attempted to escape: after which the whole band got in motion and advanced up the mountains, seeking the most steep and dangerous paths, which often wound along the edge of beetling and precipitous cliffs, where Stuart, although a Scotsman and a mountaineer, had considerable trouble in threading his way.

Their journey ended when they reached a little square tower, which in size and form was not unlike the old fortalice of a lesser Scottish baron. It was perched on the summit of a steep rock, amid a wild and savage solitude, which appeared more dreary, at the time that Ronald viewed it, by the light of the waning moon.

This mountain fortress had been for centuries a ruin ; and the little village, which had once been clustered near it (according to the usual fashion in Spain), had ages ago disappeared. But the outlaws, whom the feeble and crippled power of the Spanish authorities could not suppress, had thoroughly repaired it, and made it their principal stronghold; and from it, as their headquarters, their lines and posts of communication were maintained through all the Basque provinces. Tradition said that it was erected by a petty prince of Navarre, and that the origin of its name was the murder of a prince within its walls. It was called the Torre de los Frayles (or Friars' Tower); and the Guipuzcoan muleteer was careful to time his journey so that this ill-omened spot should be a few leagues in his rear before night fell.

On entering, a temporary drawbridge, crossing a deep fosse or chasm in the rocks, and forming the sole communication with the cliff, on a projection of which the tower was perched, was withdrawn, and Stuart, for the first time, felt his heart sink as he entered the walls of the dreary abode of crime, and heard the strong door shut and barricaded behind him.


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