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