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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 50 - The Torre de Los Frayles


When Ronald found himself helplessly, and, as he thought irrecoverably immured in the Torre de los Frayles, and surrounded by a band of the most merciless and desperate ruffians conceivable,—defenceless, in their power, and secluded among the wildest fastnesses of the Spanish Pyrenees, his heart sickened at the hopelessness of his prospects. His life depended entirely on the will and pleasure of his captors, and he felt all that acute agony of spirit of which a brave man is susceptible when reflecting that he might perish like a child in their hands, helpless and unrevenged. He was conducted to a desolate apartment, to which light was admitted by a couple of loopholes, which, being destitute of glass, gave free admittance to the cold air of the mountains.

Excepting an antique table and chair, the room was destitute of furniture, and Ronald was compelled to repose on the stone-flagged floor, with no other couch than a large ragged mantle, which a renegade priest, one of thousands whom the war had unfrocked, lent him, offering, at the same time, indulgently to hear his confession. Ronald glanced at the long dagger and brass-barrelled pistols which garnished the belt of the ci-devant padre, and smiling sourly, begged to be excused, saying that he had nothing to confess, saving his disgust for his captors, and the sense he felt of Spanish ingratitude.

'Morte de Dios!' swore the incensed priest as he departed, 'you are an incorrigible heretic. Feeding you is feeding what ought to be burned; and I would roast you like a kid, but for that meddling ape, Caspar!'

By order of the last-named worthy, who appeared to be the acknowledged leader, a sentinel was placed at the door of the apartment, which was well secured on the outside to prevent Ronald's escape. At the same time Alosegui, who said he wished to be friendly to a brother capitan, gave him a screw of a peculiar construction, with which he could strongly secure his door on the inside—a necessary precaution when so formidable an enemy as Narvaez Cifuentes was within a few feet of him. Having secured the entrance as directed, he rolled himself up in the cloak of the pious father,—but not to sleep, for dawn of day found him yet awake, cursing his untoward fortune, and revolving, forming, and rejecting a thousand desperate plans to escape. Even when, at last, he did drop into an uneasy sleep or dreamy doze, he was quickly aroused by the twanging of guitars and uproar of a drunken chorus in the next apartment, where the padre was trolling forth a ditty, which, a few years before, would have procured him a lodging for life in the dungeons of the terrible Inquisition.

To Stuart, his present situation appeared now almost insupportable. He sprang to the narrow loopholes, and made a long and acute reconnaissance of the country round about, especially in the neighbourhood of the robbers' den, and he became aware that escape, without the concurrence of Alosegui or some of his followers, was utterly impracticable. The tower was perched, like an eagle's nest, on the very verge of a perpendicular cliff, some hundred yards in height, and a chasm, dark and apparently bottomless, separated the tower from the other parts of the mountain, or, I may say, the land, as it hung almost in the air. At every pass of the hills leading to the narrow varle where it was situated, a well-armed and keen-eyed scout kept watchful guard, for the double purpose of giving an alarm in case of danger, or warning when any booty appeared in sight. The bottom of the valley which the tower overlooked was covered with rich copse-wood, among which wound, like a narrow strip of crystal, a mountain stream, a tributary of the Bidassoa,—the way to the West.

About noon he was visited by Gaspar Alosegui, with whom he was ceremoniously invited to take breakfast; and yielding to the cravings of appetite, he unhesitatingly accepted the proposal, and sat down at the same table with four fellows, who, Gaspar told him, were the greatest cutthroats and most expert bravoes in Spain. The apartment in which they sat was a dilapidated hall, which bore no distant resemblance to the one at Lochisla, save that its roof was covered with carved stone pendants and grim Gothic faces, among which hung branches of grapes or raisins, nets of Portugal onions, bags of Indian corn, and other provender; and the floor was strewed with mule-pannels, saddles, arms of all sorts, towards which Ronald glanced furtively from time to time, and countless bales, barrels, wine-skins, etc., like a merchant's storehouse.

Ronald got through his repast without offending any of the dagger-grasping rogues ; but he was so much disgusted with their language and brutality of manner, that in future he resolved to eat by himself, at all risks. Narvaez, with a strong party under his command, was absent, to watch for a train of mules, in the neighbourhood of Roncesvalles, and Ronald was therefore relieved from his hateful presence. Gaspar assembled the remainder of the band in solemn conclave, to consult about the ransom of Stuart. When the latter, who stood near Alosegui's chair, looked around him upon the ruffian assemblage, and beheld so many dark, ferocious, and black-bearded faces, he felt that, among such men, his life was not worth a quarto.

The amount of the ransom had been fixed on the preceding evening. When Alosegui inquired where the Condé de Villa Franca then resided, no one could say anything with certainty about it, but all supposed him to be at Madrid. In support of this supposition, the soi disant padre produced, from the crown of his sugarloaf hat, a ragged number of 'El Espanol,' at least three months old, well worn and frayed, and which he carried about him for gun-wadding. In one of the columns, the arrival of Don Alvaro and his countess appeared among the fashionable intelligence. To Madrid, therefore, it was resolved that Ronald should despatch a letter, the bearer of which should be Juan de la Roca, who, for cunning and knavery, was equal, if not infinitely superior, to Lazarillo de Tormes, of happy memory. His travelling expenses were also to be defrayed, fully and amply, before the captive would be released. To save time, for it was a long way to Madrid, Ronald proposed to communicate with the British consuls at Passages or Bayonne; but the proposition was at once negatived by a storm of curses and a yell of dissatisfaction from the banditti, while, waving his hand, Alosegui acquainted him sternly that it was inconsistent with their safety or intentions to permit his corresponding with the consul at either of those places, as some strenuous and unpleasant means might be taken to release him unransomed. And before they would proceed farther in the business, the wily bandidos compelled him to pledge his solemn word of honour as a cavalier and soldier, that he would not attempt to escape,—a pledge which, it may be imagined, he gave with the utmost reluctance. While his bosom was swelling with rage and regret, Ronald seated himself at the table and wrote to Alvaro, praying that he would lend him the sum the thieves required, and setting forth that his life was forfeited in case of refusal. Seldom has a letter been indited under such circumstances. While he wrote, a Babel of tongues resounded in his ear,—all swearing and quarrelling about the delay, and proposing that cold steel or a swing over the rocks should cut the matter short, as it was very doubtful whether the Count de Villa Franca would ever send so large a sum of money. But Gaspar's voice of thunder silenced their murmurs.

'I will drink the heart's blood of any man who opposes or disobeys my orders!' cried he, striking the rude table with his mighty fist. 'I am a man of honour, and must keep my word, par Dzez! Hark you, my comrades; again I tell you, that for three months the life of the prisoner is as sacred as if he were an abbot.'

'Three months!' thought Ronald bitterly. 'In three months, but for this cursed misfortune, I might have been the husband of Alice Lisle.'

The letter to Don Alvaro was sealed by Ronald's own seal (which one of the band was so obliging as to lend him for the occasion), and placed in the hand of Juan de la Roca.

'Adios, senor! adios, vaga!' said the young thief with an impudent leer, and presenting his hand to Ronald at his departure. 'Remember, senor, that for your sake, I lose the chance of winning one of the sweetest prizes in Spain.'

'How, Senor Juan?' replied Stuart, bestowing on him a keen glance of contempt.

'A girl, to be sure, a fair girl we captured near Maya,' said Juan sulkily; 'and I am half tempted to cast your despatch to the winds.'

'Come, Juan, we must part friends at least,' said Ronald, willing to dissemble, when he remembered how much his fate lay in the power of this young rascal. He gave him his hand, and they parted with a show of urbanity, which was probably affected on both sides.

In a few minutes he beheld him quit the Friars' Tower, and depart on his journey mounted on a stout mule, and so much disguised that he scarcely knew him. His ragged apparel had been replaced by the smart attire of a student, and was all of becoming black velvet. A large portfolio was slung on his back, to disguise him the more, and support the character which he resolved to bear as a travelling artista. He was a very handsome young fellow, and his features were set off by his broad sombrero and the black feathers which vanity had prompted him to don. A black silk mantle dangled for ornament from his shoulders, while one more coarse and ample was strapped to the bow of his mule's pannel. He had a pair of holsters before him, and wore a long poniard in his sash ; altogether, he had very much the air of a smart student of Salamanca or Alcala. From a window Ronald anxiously watched the lessening form of this messenger of his fate, as he urged his mule down the steep windings of the pathway to the valley; and a thousand anxieties and alternate hopes and doubts distracted him, as he thought of the dangers that beset the path of his ambassador, of the lengthened duration and possible result of his expedition.

In no country save Spain could the dreadful atrocities perpetrated by the wretches into whose hands Ronald had fallen have been permitted in the nineteenth century. A day never passed without the occurrence of some new outrage, and many were acted under his own observation. On one occasion, the band captured an aged syndic of Maya, who had made himself particularly obnoxious by executing some of the gang. His captors, to refine on cruelty, tore out his eyes and turned him away on the mountains in a tempestuous night, desiring him to return to his magistracy, and be more merciful to cavaliers of fortune in future.

An unfortunate medico of Huarte, who was journeying on a mule across the mountains from St. Juan de Luz, where he had been purchasing a store of medicines, fell into their clutches somewhere near the rock of Maya. He could procure no ransom : many who owed him long bills, and whom he rescued from the jaws of death by the exercise of his art, and to whom his messenger applied, would send him no answer, being very well pleased, probably, to be rid of a troublesome creditor. One of the band being seriously ill, the life of the medico was to be spared if he cured him. The bandit unluckily died, and the doom of his physician was sealed. It was abruptly announced to him that he must die, and by his own weapons, as Caspar informed him. The unhappy son of Escu-lapius prayed hard that his life might be spared, and promised that he would dwell for the remainder of his days in the Torre de los Frayles, - to spare him, for he was a very old man, and had many things to repent of. But his tyrants were inexorable. After being confessed with mock religious solemnity by Gorgoza de la Puente, he was compelled to swallow every one of his own drugs, which he did with hideous grimaces and trembling limbs, amidst the uproarious laughter and cruel jests of his destroyers, who beheld him expire almost immediately after finishing the nauseous dose they had compounded, and then consigned his body to that charnel-house, the chasm before the doorway of their pandemonium. Several months elapsed—months which to Ronald appeared like so many centuries, for he had awaited in almost hourly expectation the arrival of some intelligence from Madrid; but the dreary days lagged on, and his heart began to lose hope. Juan de la Roca appeared to have travelled slowly. Letters were received from him by Alosegui, at different times, by the hands of certain muleteers and contrabandistas, who, on passing the mountains, always paid a regular sum as toll to the banditti, whom, for their own sakes, they were glad to conciliate so easily. These despatches informed the thieves of Juan's progress ; but they often cursed the young rascal, and threatened vengeance for his tardiness and delay. But Juan, by exercising his ingenuity as a cut-purse, pickpocket, cloak-snatcher, and gambler, contrived to keep himself in a constant supply of cash ; and he seemed determined to enjoy to the utmost the short term of liberty allowed him. At last he disappeared. His companions in crime heard of him no more ; but whether he had been poniarded in some brawl, sent to the galleys, or made off with Stuart's ransom money, remained a mystery. The last appeared to the banditti to be the most probable cause for his non-appearance, and their curses were loud and deep.

Stuart now found that his life was in greater jeopardy than before. Alosegui proposed to him to take the vows, and join the banditti as a volunteer in their next marauding expedition; and added, that if he would take pains to conciliate the good-will of the lieutenant, the Senor Narvaez, and distinguish himself, he might be promoted in the band. Alosegui made this proposal with his usual dry sarcastic manner; and although Ronald, who was in no humour to be trifled with, rejected the strange offer of service with as much scorn and contempt as he could muster, he saw, on second thoughts, that for his own safety a little duplicity was absolutely necessary. He affected to have doubts, and craved time to think of the matter, intending, if once well armed, free of the tower, and with his feet on the free mountain-side, to fight his way off, or to die sword in hand.

But he was saved from the dishonour of even pretending to be their comrade for a single hour, because, in a very short space of time, a most unlooked-for change of politics took place at Torre de los Frayles.

A train of muleteers about to depart from Elizondo for France or the lower part of the Pyrenees, sent forward one of their number to the robbers' den to pay the toll. The mule-driver was made right welcome. The banditti found it necessary to cultivate to the utmost the friendship of these travelling merchants, with whom they trafficked and bartered, ex- changing goods and valuables for money, clothing, arms, and ammunition, supplies of which were regularly brought them, and accounts were balanced in the most exact and business-like manner.

The envoy from Elizondo had transacted his business, and been furnished with Alosegui's receipt and pass, formally signed and marked with a cross; but he seemed in no hurry to depart, and remaining, drank, and played at chess and dominoes for some hours with the thieves, who were, scouts excepted, generally all within their garrison in the daytime.

Ronald knew that a messenger from a train of mules was in his place of confinement, but as visits of this kind in no way concerned him, he had ascended to the summit of the tower, and there paced to and fro, watching anxiously as usual the long dim vista of the valley, with the expectation of seeing Juan de la Roca, on his gray mule, wending his way towards the Tower of the Friars. He would have hailed with joy the return of this young rogue as a delivering angel ; but such a length of time had now elapsed since his disappearance, that, in Ronald's breast, hope began gradually to give way to despair ; and when he remembered Alice, his home, and his forfeited commission, his brain almost reeled with madness. Shading his eyes from the hot glare of the noonday sun, he was looking intently down the long misty vale which stretched away to the westward, when he was roused by some one touching him on the shoulder.

He turned about, and beheld the round and good-humoured face of Lazaro Gomez, fringed, as of old, with its matted whiskers and thick scrub beard.

'Lazaro Gomez, my trusty muleteer of Merida! how sorry I am to see you in this devil's den.'

'Senor, indeed you have much reason to be very happy if you knew all.'

'How, Gomez?

'Hush, senor! Speak softly! you will know all in good time. I came here to pay the toll for my comrades, who at present keep themselves close in Elizondo, for fear of our friends in this damnable tower, and there they must remain till I return. By our Lady of Majorga, but I am glad to see you, senor! As I say now to my brother Pedro, senor caballero, allow me to have the honour of shaking hands with you.'

Stuart grasped the huge horny hand of the honest muleteer and shook it heartily, feeling a sensation so closely akin to rapture and delight, that he could almost have shed tears. It was long since he had shaken the hand of an honest man, or looked on other visages than those of dogged, sullen, and scowling ruffians. At that moment Stuart felt happy; it was so agreeable to have kind intercourse, even with so humble a friend, after the five months he had passed in the dreary abode of brutality and crime.

'And why, Lazaro, do you address your brother, the sergeant, so formally?'

'Ah, senor! Pedro is a great man now! He is no longer a humble trooper, to pipe-clay his belts and hold his captain's bridle. By his sword he has carved out a fair name for himself, and a fair fortune likewise. He led three assaults against Pampeluna, like a very valiant fool as he is, and was three times shot through the body for his trouble. Don Carlos de Espana, a right noble cavalier, embraced him before the whole line of the Spanish army, and appointed him a cornet in Don Alvaro's troop of lancers. The next skirmish with the enemy made him a lieutenant, knight of Santiago, and of the most valiant order of 'the Band.' Don Alvaro has also procured him a patent of nobility, which he always carries in his sash, lest anyone should unpleasantly remind his nobleness that he is the eldest son of old Sancho Gomez, the alguazil, who dwelt by the bridge of Merida.'

'I rejoice at his good fortune.'

'But I have not told you all, senor,' continued the gossiping muleteer. 'A rich young widow of Aranjuez, the Condesa de Estramera, fell in love with him, when one day he commanded a guard at the palace of Madrid. An old duenna was employed,—letters were carried to and fro,—meetings held in solitary places; and the upshot was, that the condesa bestowed her fair hand, with a fortune of—-of—the holy Virgin knows how many thousand ducats, upon my most happy rogue of a brother, Lieutenant Don Pedro Gomez, of the lancers of Merida, and now they live like a prince and princess.'

'Happy Pedro! The condesa is beautiful; I have seen her, Lazaro.'

'Plump Ignesa, the chambermaid at the posada of Majorga, is more to my mind. I never could relish your stately donnas, with their high combs and long trains. This condesa is niece of that prince of rogues, the Duke of Alba de T-----, who was killed in the service of Buonaparte; but Pedro cares not for that.'

'In the history of his good fortune, you see the advantage of being a soldier, Lazaro.'

'With all due respect to your honourable uniform, which I am sorry to see so tattered, senor, I can perceive no advantage in being a soldier, —none at all, par Diez! I envy Pedro not the value of a maravedi. He has served and toiled, and starved and bled, in the war of independence, like any slave, rather than a soldier.'

'So have I, Lazaro,' said Stuart; 'and these rags and confinement here for five months have been my reward.'

The muleteer snapped his fingers, then gave a very knowing wink, and was about to whisper something; but, observing one of the banditti watching, he continued talking about his brother.

'Ay, like any poor slave, senor; and has more shot-holes in his skin than I have bell-buttons on my jacket. And now, when the war is over, he has still a troublesome game to play in striving to please his hotheaded commanding officer and lady wife, whom it would be considered a mortal sin to baste with a buff strap, as I may do Ignesa, when she becomes my helpmate and better half. Pedro's honours weigh heavily upon him, and he has many folks to please ; whereas I have none to humour save myself, and perhaps that stubborn jade Capitana, my leading mule, or Ignesa of Majorga, who gets restive, too, sometimes, and refuses to obey either spur or bridle. But my long whip, and a smart rap from my cajado, soothe the mule, and my sweet guitar and merry madrigal, the maiden. I am a thousand times happier than Pedro! I never could endure either domestic or military control; and would rather be Lazaro Gomez, with his whip and his mules, than the stately king of the Spanish nation. I have the bright sun, the purple wine, my cigar, and the red-cheeked peasant-girls to kiss and dance with,—and what would mortal man have more? Bueno!'

He concluded by throwing himself into an attitude, and flourishing his sombrero round his head with a theatrical air. Ronald smiled ; but he thought that, notwithstanding all this display, and Lazaro's frequent assertions that he was happier than Pedro, a little envy continued to lurk in a corner of his merry and honest heart.

'But has Pedro never done aught for you, Lazaro, in all his good fortune?' asked Ronald.

'Oh, senor! his lady wife, disliking that her brother-in-law should be treading afoot over sierra and plain at a mule's tale, gave me the post of Escrivano del Numero at Truxillo, which I kept for somewhere about eight weeks. But I always grew sad when I heard the merry jangle of mules' bells; and one morning, unable to restrain myself longer, I tossed my escrivano's cope and rod to Satanas, seized my whip and sombrero, and once more took to the road as a merry-hearted muleteer of Merida, and neither Pedro nor the condessa have been able to catch me since.'

'I am happy to find you are such a philosopher,' said Ronald, with a sigh, which was not unnoticed by the muleteer.

'I could say that, senor caballero, which would make you far happier,' said he, with a glance of deep meaning. 'But,' he added, pointing to the armed bandit, who kept a look-out on the bartizan near them, 'but there are unfriendly ears near us.'

'Speak fearlessly, Lazaro!' said Ronald eagerly, while his heart bounded with expectation. I know that rascal to be a Guipuscoan, who understands as little of pure Castilian as of Greek. In Heaven's name, Lazaro, what have you to tell me? I implore you to speak!'

'Senor,' said the muleteer, lowering his voice to a whisper, ' you have thrice asked me about Don Alvaro, and I have thrice delayed to tell you what I know : good news should be divulged cautiously. Well, senor, the famous cavalier of Estremadura has encamped three hundred horse and foot among the mountains near Elizondo. He comes armed with a commission from the king, and his minister Don Diego de Avallo, to root out and utterly destroy this nest of wasps, or cientipedoros. The place is to be assailed about midnight; so look well to yourself, senor, that the villains do not poniard you in the fray ; and if you have any opportunity to aid us, I need not ask you to do so. I am to be Don Alvaro's guide, as I know every foot of ground hereabout as well as I do at Merida, having paid toll here twenty times. But this will be my last visit of the kind ; and I came hither only to reconnoitre and learn their password, in case it should be needed. Keep a brave spirit in your breast for a few hours longer, senor, and perhaps, when the morning sun shines down the long valley yonder, Alosegui and his comrades will be hanging round the battlement, like beads on a chaplet. I pray to the Santa Gadea of Burgos that the night be dark, that we may the more easily take the rogues by surprise.'

Ronald's astonishment and joy at the sudden prospect of liberation revealed to him by Lazaro Gomez deprived him of the power of utterance for a time. He was about to display some extravagant signs of pleasure, and to embrace the muleteer, when the keen cold glance of the Guipuscoan bandit, who was watching them narrowly, recalled him to a sense of his danger. He almost doubted the reality of the story, and narrowly examined the broad countenance of the burly muleteer ; but truth and honesty were stamped on every line of it. The horizon of Ronald's fortune was about to clear up again. He felt giddy—almost stunned with the suddenness of the intelligence, and his heart bounded with the wildest exultation at the prospect of speedy liberty, and of vengeance for the thousands of insults to which he had been subjected while a prisoner in the Torre de los Frayles.

When Lazaro departed, Stuart gave him the only token he could send to Don Alvaro,—a button of his coat, bearing a thistle and the number '92.' He desired him to acquaint the cavalier that it would be requisite to provide planks to cross the chasm before the tower, otherwise the troops would fail to take its inmates by surprise.

This advice was the means of saving Stuart's life at a very critical juncture.


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