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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 26 - The Matador

Ronald rode at a rapid gallop along the wild mountain-path which I have already described. The evening was growing dark, and in that solitary place the sound of the horse's hoofs alone broke the death-like stillness, and awoke the echoes of the frowning rocks.

In one place lay dead a poor soldier of the 50th Regiment. His wife and three little children were clinging to his corse, and lamenting bitterly. Night was closing around them, and the desolate creatures seemed terrified at its approach in such a wild spot, and called to Ronald loudly as he rode past ; but he was too eager to overtake Catalina and her dangerous companion to waste time unnecessarily. But he made an involuntary stop a little farther on, where a soldier of his own company, a smart young fellow, named Archibald Logan, lay writhing in agony across the road, with the dust of which his blood was mixing as it oozed in heavy drops from a wound in the breast,—a musket-shot having passed through his left shoulder-belt. Ronald reined in the animal he rode, to stay for a moment and gaze upon him. He was the same young soldier whose aged mother had accompanied him with such sorrow to the beach at Leith, on the morning Major Campbell's detachment embarked, and Ronald (under whose notice this circumstance had brought him) had always admired his soldier-like smartness and steadiness. He was dying now, and evidently in a state of delirium ; broken sentences and wild observations fell from his clammy lips. Ronald spoke to him: ' He heard it, but he heeded not; his eyes Were with his heart, and that was far away.'

'Oh, mother! mother!' said he, in piercing accents, 'dinna upbraid me wi' enlisting and leaving ye. Ye ken weel for what I did it,—to pay my puir auld faither's debt to Peter Grippy, and to free him frae the tolbooth o' Edinburgh. But he wadna allow me, and ca'ed the bounty his bairn's bluid siller. Put yer face close to mine, mother ; for I hear yer greetin' and moanin', but I canna see the face I fain would look on. Tell my faither to lay me in the sunny side o' the kirk-yard,—ye ken the place weel. I aye loed to pu' the gowans and bluebells that grew there in simmer. Menie Ormelie lies there, amang the lang green deid grass; lay me—lay me close to her. Oh, mother! ye ken I loed her weel; we herded the same kye, and------' His voice sunk away into a whisper, and Ronald became deeply affected. After a pause, he continued in the same tone of agony, 'Bonnie Menie,—Menie wi ' gowden hair! She lies between the muckle deid-stane o' the lairds o Glencorse, and the vault o' the auld folk o' Castle-Outer. Lay me close by her side, and plant some o' the broon heather frae the bonnie Pentlands—the Pent-lands I loe sae weel—on the heavy howme that covers me.' This was the last effort. A gush of blood spouted from the wound, and he died without a groan.

Stuart could scarce refrain from tears at witnessing the fate of this poor private soldier. Death, amidst the fierce excitement and tumult of battle, where ' the very magnitude of the slaughter throws a softening disguise over its cruelties and horrors,' is nothing to death when it comes stealing over a human being thus, slowly and gradually, having in it something at once awful and terribly impressive ; and Ronald Stuart, blunted and deadened as his feelings were by campaigning, felt this acutely, as he turned away from the corse of his comrade and countryman. His attention was next arrested by a monstrous raven, or corbie, which sat on a fragment of rock, watching attentively the scene, as if awaiting his coming banquet; but Ronald compelled it to take to flight, by uttering a loud holloa, which reverberated among the rocks of the mountain wilderness. It was now night ; but the moon arose above the summits of the hills, glowing through openings in the thin clouds like a shield of polished silver, and pouring a flood of pale light along the pass of Miravete, casting into yet deeper shadow the rifted rocks which overhung it. The speed at which he rode soon left the mountains far behind him, and about midnight brought him close to the gloomy wood of Jarciejo; but on all that line of road he had discovered no trace of Donna Catalina, or the ruffian who had deceived her ; and as the country thereabouts was totally uninhabited, he met no one who could give him the slightest information, and his mind became a prey to fear and apprehension that some act of blood or treachery might be perpetrated before he came up with them.

'There they are! Now, then, Heaven be thanked !' he exclaimed, on seeing figures on horseback standing at Saint Mary's well, a rude fountain at the cross-road leading from Truxillo to Lacorchuela, which intersects that from Almarez to Jarciejo. He loosened his sword in the scabbard, but on advancing found that he was mistaken. He met a stout cavalier of Lacorchuela escorting two ladies, whose singular equipage would have inclined him to laugh, had he been in a merrier mood. They were seated on two armchairs, slung across the back of a strong mule, and facing outwards, rode back to back. They were enveloped in large mantillas, and their bright eyes flashed in the moonlight, as they each withdrew the antifaz, or mask of black silk, which covered their faces to protect them from the dust, the heat of the sun, or the chill night-air when travelling.

Ronald hastily saluted them, and asked their escort if a priest and twa females had passed that way. The cavalier, who was mounted on a fine Spanish horse, raised his broad beaver, throwing back his heavy brown cloak as he did so, as if to show that he was well armed by displaying the glittering mountings of the pistols, long stiletto, and massive Toledo sabre, which for protection he carried in the leathern baldric encircling his waist He said that when he had first stopped at the fountain to rest, about an hour ago, a priest and two ladies had passed, and taken the road directly for the forest of Jarciejo.

Ronald waited to hear no more, but hurriedly muttering his thanks, urged the good animal he rode to a gallop in the direction pointed out, regardless as to whether or not the whole band of desperadoes recognising Narvaez Cifuentes as their leader might be in the wood. He had not ridden half a mile further, when the horse of D'Estouville passed him at a rapid trot, with his bridle-rein trailing on the ground and the saddle reversed, hanging under its belly, girths uppermost. Some terrible catastrophe must have happened! A groan broke from Ronald; and in an agony of apprehension for the fate of the fair rider, he madly goaded onward the horse he rode, using the point of his sword as a substitute for spurs, which as a regimental infantry officer he did not wear.

The mules of the priest and paisana, grazing the herbage at the entrance of the wood, next met his view. The light-coloured garments of a female form lying on the road caused him to spring from the saddle in dismay. It was not Catalina, but the poor peasant-girl of Almarez; her gilt crucifix, which she had worn ostentatiously on her bare bosom, was gone, as was likewise the trunk-mail which she had carried. She was lying dead, stabbed by a dagger in the throat, where a ghastly wound appeared. The feathers and veil of Catalina's hat lay fluttering near, and the bruised and torn appearance of the grass and bushes bore evidence that some desperate struggle had taken place here. These outrages seemed to have been committed recently, as the cheek of the dead girl was yet warm and soft when Ronald touched it.

'God help you, Catalina! My thoughtlessness has destroyed you; 'tis I that have done all this!' he exclaimed, as he struck his hand passionately upon his forehead, and reeled against a tree.

'O gracios caballero!' said a decrepit and wrinkled old man, arrayed in the garb of some religious order, emerging as if from concealment among the trees; 'a most horrible scene has been acted here. I saw it from among the olive-bushes, where I lay sleeping till the noise awoke me.' 'The donna, mi amigo,—the young lady, where is she? Tell me, for the love of that Virgin you adore so much!'

'O los infidelos! and dost not thou adore her?' asked the old man querulously, while his sunken and bleared eyes kindled and lighted up.

'Trifle not, old man, but tell me instantly!' cried Stuart, in a hoarse and furious voice.

''Twas done in a moment,—en quitam alla essas pajas, as the proverb says.'

'Curse on your proverb-----'

'''Tis no business of mine, senor soldado, and I will have naught to do with it. A otro perro con esse huesso, says the proverb.'

'Wretch! you will drive me distracted! Tell me what you have seen, or, in despite of your gray hairs, I will cleave you to the teeth. The senora—'

'Was dragged into the forest about an hour ago, and horrible roses have come from it ever since, disturbing me and keeping me from sleep. 'Tis hard for an old man to be annoyed : the proverb says------'

'Silence!' replied the other, placing his hand on the toothless mouth of the poor dotard. 'Surely I heard something!'

At that moment a despairing cry, such as it is seldom one's lot to hear, arose from the dingles of the wood, and seemingly at no great distance. Stuart waited to hear no more, but rushed with his drawn weapon towards the spot, making the forest ring with threats, cries, and the bold holloa with which he had learned to awake the echoes of his native hills and rocks. His Highland habits as a forester and huntsman, acquired under the tuition of Donald Iverach, when tracking the fox and the deer, gave him good aid now, and unerringly he followed the direction of that terrible cry.

He had not penetrated above a hundred yards among the beeches and cork-wood, when, on breaking into a narrow pathway, he found lying motionless on the sod and bedabbled with blood, from a wound in her bosom, the unfortunate of whom he was in search.

'Catalina de Villa Franca! Adored Catalina!' he exclaimed, in accents of horror and affection, as he tossed his sword from him and sunk down beside her on his knees; 'this—this is all my doing. I have brought you to destruction by intrusting you, in an evil hour, to a bandit and matador!' He had no idea of pursuing the assassin. His whole soul was wrapt up in the sad spectacle before him, and he thought only of endeavouring to save her, if possible, before she perished from loss of blood, which was flowing freely from a deep dagger-wound in her pure and beautiful neck, evidently from the same weapon which had struck Major Campbell, and slain the paisana by a blow in the same part of the frame. Her bosom was exposed and covered with the red current, which stained the moonlit leaves and petals of the forest flowers where she lay. Unflinchingly had Ronald that morning beheld men weltering and wallowing in blood; but he shrunk in agony at the sight of Catalina's.

'Catalina de Villa Franca! dearest, hear my voice ! Speak to me. Never until this moment of horror and woe did I know how much I loved you.' He rent the silk sash from his shoulder and endeavoured to stanch the blood, while the unfortunate girl opened her lustrous eyes, and gazed upon him with a look which, while it told of exquisite pain—of love and delight, too surely convinced him, by its terrible expression, that she was—dying.

'You have come, Ronald. I expected you many—many months ago,' she whispered in broken accents, while her wild black eyes were fixed on his with an expression of tenderness. 'Hold me up, dearest—hold me up, that I may look upon you for the last time,—on the face that I have loved so long, and used to dream about in the long nights at Merida and Almarez. Oh that my brother, Alvaro, was here too! Holy—holy Mother of God! look on me—I am dying!'

'Ah, Catalina! speak not thus: every word sinks like a sword into my heart. Dying! oh, it cannot be! You shall live if the aid of art and affection can preserve you. You shall live,' he added franticly, 'and for me.' 'Oh no—never—not for you!' she said bitterly, in tones gradually becoming more hollow;. 'it may not be. Alas! I am not what I was an hour ago. I cannot—I cannot now be yours, even should I escape death, whose cold hand is passing over my heart.'

'Almighty Power, preserve my senses! What is this you say?' he replied, raising her head upon his knee, and gathering in his hand the soft dishevelled curls which streamed freely upon the turf. 'What mean these terrible words, Catalina?'

Before she replied, a shudder convulsed her frame, and drops of white froth fell from her lips. A strange light sparkled in her eyes; there was something singularly fearful and beautiful in the expression of her pale countenance at that moment.

'I need not shrink from telling you the dreadful truth,—I need not deceive you,' she added, speaking more fluently as a passionate flow of tears relieved her. ' I feel in my heart a sensation which announces that the moment of dissolution is at hand. I hail it with joy,—I wish not to live. The wretch who deceived us has robbed me of that which is most precious to a woman, and then with his dagger------'

A moan escaped the lips of Ronald, and he gnashed his teeth with absolute fury, while big drops, glittering in the moonlight, stood upon his pale forehead, and his throat became so swollen that he was almost choked. He snatched up his sword, and with difficulty restrained the inclination he felt to rush deeper into the wood, in search of Cifuentes.

But how could he leave Catalina, the torn and disordered condition of whose garments, together with the wounds and bruises on her delicate hands and arms, bore evidence that a desperate struggle had taken place before the first outrage was accomplished. Stuart reeled as if a ball had passed through his brain, and the forest-trees seemed to rock around him as if shaken by an earthquake. The fierce emotion passed away, and was succeeded by a horrible calmness,—a feeling of settled and morbid desperation. He passed his hand once or twice over his brow, as if to clear his thoughts and arrange them before he again knelt beside Catalina, who had closed her eyes and lay still, as if in a deep slumber. He thought that the spirit had passed from her; but the faint beating of her heart, as he laid his cheek on her soft breast, convinced him that she yet lived. Raising her from the ground, he endeavoured to make his way through the wood to where he had left the aged priest, to the end that some means might be procured to save her life if it was yet possible to do so. But he had not borne her a dozen yards when the branch of a tree tore off the sash with which he had hastily bound up the wound, and the blood gushed forth with greater violence than before.

'Mother Mary, be gracious unto me! and forgive me if I think of aught else than Heaven in this awful moment!' murmured Catalina in a soft and plaintive voice. 'Ah, the pangs, the torments I endure! Oh, mi querida, carry me no farther; 'tis useless,—I am dying. Alas ! dishonoured as I am, I would not wish to live. Lay me down here, where the grass is soft and green. Ronald, here ends our love and my hope together!'

In Stuart's face there was an expression which pen can never describe, as he laid her down gently on the turf, and sustaining her head upon his arm. bent over her in silent sorrow and misery.

'Are you near me still, mi querida?' she murmured tremulously.

'Catalina, I am yet with you,—my arm is around you.' 'Alas! the light has left my eyes; death is darkening my vision.' 'Mercy of Heaven! it cannot be thus,—they are bright as ever; but a cloud has overshadowed the moon.' 'Ronald, it is the hand of death; I see you no longer. Are you near me?' 'My hands are pressing yours,—alas ! they are very cold and clammy.' 'I feel them not: the numbness of my limbs will soon extend to my breast. When I am gone, let twelve masses be said for my soul. Alas, you will think them of no use! But promise me this, that I may die more easily and peacefully? 'I do, Catalina, I do.'

'Oh that Alvaro were here, that I might hear the sound of his voice,— that he might hear mine for the last time before I pass to the world of shadows ! He will be lonely in the world without me. Alvaro is the last of his race,—the last of a long line of illustrious hidalgos. Holy Lady of Majorga,—sweet San Juan de Dios, intercede for me! Dearest Ronald, kiss me—kiss me for the last time, while I have yet feeling, for death is chilling my whole frame.'

In an agony of love and sorrow, he passionately pressed his lips to those of the dying girl. She never spoke again. It almost seemed as if he had intercepted her last breath, for at the moment their lips met, a slight tremor passed over her whole form, and the pure spirit of the beautiful donna had fled for ever.

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