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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 8 - An Adventure

It was almost dusk when they entered the vast and gloomy ruins of the amphitheatre, the appearance of which was rendered doubly impressive by the sombre light in which it was viewed. The broad arena where once the bold gladiator contended for honour, or the wretched malefactor for his life, straining every desperate energy in battle with the fiercest animals of the wilderness, was now overgrown with grass, as were also the wide circles of seats rising from it; and from the arcades of arches, from the mouldered cornices, the shattered columns, and empty niches, waved weeds and nettles, showing how vain was the pride of the founder and the architect, and telling that time was too powerful for the mightiest work of human hands, — that man's labours, like himself, are perishable.

In some places great masses of masonry had fallen down, where the clamps of iron and brass had mouldered away, and ponderous architraves and fragments of friezes, bearing ornaments and Roman inscriptions, ware lying in the centre of the arena, half buried in the soil. All was silence and ruinous desolation now in the place where once the beautiful, the brave, and the noble had witnessed and applauded soul-stirring deeds of martial prowess, manly strength, and unequalled cruelty and ferocity. Its vast arcades and empty galleries rang no more with the flourish of the trumpet, the clash of cymbals, the shout which greeted the triumphant victor in the lists, the yell or the dying groan of his vanquished opponent.

From the grass-covered arena, around which appeared the dark dens where lions, tigers, and other savage animals had been confined, Ronald and his friend clambered up the stone seats, which rose one above another like a flight of broad steps, until they gained the uppermost corridor or gallery, which ran round the whole fabric on the outside. From this eminence they obtained a view of the scenery below and around them. Night had now set in, and darkness reigned in the streets of Merida. Towering above the low roofs appeared the other remains of Roman greatness, — the noble arch which had rung so often to the tread of their martial legions, and the shattered temple where marble gods had received the fervent adoration of idolaters.

A thousand watch-fires cast their lurid glare on the silent waters of the Guadiana, on the dark groves of olive overhanging its glassy surface, on the lofty outline of the Roman bridge, and on the black buildings of the adjacent town, from the bivouac of Sir Rowland's division. The piles of burnished arms glittered in the light, which was reflected by the bayonets of the sentries at the river-side, and by the sabres of the far-off cavalry videttes, and of the advanced pickets on its opposite side, keeping watch and ward on the road to Almendralejo. A low hum of many mingled voices rose from the place where the soldiers lay, mingled with the occasional neigh of a horse, the sharper sound of the cavalry trumpet turning out the pickets, or the roll of a distant infantry drum recalling stragglers echoing among the granite crags, and dying away in the thickets by the water-side ; and nearer rang the more discordant noise of laughter and reckless military merriment from the wine-house in the neighbouring street.

'Yonder is the evening star glimmering above the summit of the dark mountain to the southward of us,' observed Ronald, in a low tone ; ' it rises twinkling just as I have seen it rising above the noble Benmore, in Perthshire; and while I view its well-known appearance, my heart fills with strange emotions. I can almost fancy myself at home in the Highlands, — at home in my father's house.'

' I am animated by similar feelings,' replied Macdonald, in the same subdued voice. 'Many that love us dearly may at this moment be watching it and thinking of us. Many a summer gloaming, in my dismal moods, I have watched it rising amid the white breakers, and shining above the ruined spire of Iona, while the empty arches of the cathedral were illumined with the red flush of the setting sun. Ah, Stuart! I know these places well ; my father dwells in Inch-kenneth, in the wild and surf-beaten western isles. It is a sweet little place the Inch, with dark foliage hanging from the tall rocks over the boiling ocean. These ruins around us are all very well in their way, but I would not give the Runic cross and the Culdee's cell, which cover the graves of my ancestors, even for all the rains of Rome ! But let us not begin to muse thus ; I shall become too melancholy to feel agreeable. We must retrace our steps to the bivouac, for both fighting and hard marching are before us in the morning, over the hills yonder,' said he, pointing in the direction of Almendralejo, where a faint crimson streak illumined the dark sky, caused probably by the watch-fires of D'Erlon's troops.

'What! do you think of returning to the den where we cooked our splendid repast?'

'We should be eaten up by rats and the Spanish mosquitoes before morning ; better the bivouac where our comrades stretch their bare legs on the cold sod. Fassifern would ill like us seeking even the shelter of a kennel, while he sleeps as usual under the heels of his horse, with the pommel of his saddle for a pillow.'

'You speak of a kennel; I assure you, Macdonald, that last night I envied the old barrel in which our household dog at Lochisla takes his repose in the barbican. But we shall lose ourselves here, the streets are so dark and strange.' As he spoke, they had quitted the ruins of the amphitheatre, and entered a dark and silent street leading towards the Plaza. It was empty, and its stillness was broken only by the ripple of the Guadiana, chafing against the stone quay at one end, past which its broad and rapid current flowed unceasingly.

' Have Sir Rowland and his staff quarters in Merida?' ' I have not heard that they have. But hush ! we have something here that savours of romance,' replied Macdonald, as they heard the notes of a guitar sounding as if struck by a bold and firm hand ; and immediately (the prelude being over) a fine, clear, and manly voice sang a song, which, being in Spanish, was not understood by his listeners, excepting the burden which he repeated at the end of every verse:

'Yo acuerdo de te, querida —
Adios! adios!'

'What cavaliero is this?' whispered Macdonald. 'I thought that these days of serenading had passed away, even in Spain.'

'I know him; it is Alvaro de Villa Franca, a captain of the Spanish cavalry. I see the tall outline of his figure now, and I well know his helmet with the red horse-hair on its crest.'

'Keep under the shadow of the houses, Stuart ; perhaps he may sing again. But he surely hears us; he is looking round.'

The form of the Spanish officer, the outline of his high helmet, and his large bullion epaulettes, were now distinctly visible. When his song ceased, a window above opened, a light flashed through the shutters, and a lady appeared on the iron balcony; she clapped her hands, and the dragoon drew near, when a conversation, carried on in low and earnest tones, ensued. The don had placed his hand on the lower part of the balcony, preparatory to swinging himself up, when a noise in the street caused the lady to start away, and close the shutters of the window with the utmost precipitation.

'Caramba! cried the Spaniard, fiercely turning round and endeavouring to pierce the darkness which enveloped the stradi; but nothing could be discovered. After a vain attempt again to obtain a hearing from the lady, he took his guitar under his arm, and proceeded leisurely down the street on the darkest side, as if to elude observation, still humming the burden of his ditty, 'Adios guerida,' while his heavy spurs and long steel scabbard clattered in accompaniment. The two British officers had turned to pursue their way towards the Plaza, when a cry of 'Diavolo! Ah, perros—ladrones! Carajo!' burst from the Spaniard, followed immediately by a clashing of steel blades, the noise of which drew Ronald and Alister hastily to the spot. Here they found Don Alvaro, with his back to the wall, contending fiercely with his single weapon against six armed men, from whose swords and poniards he made the fire fly at every stroke he dealt, keeping them at bay with admirable courage and skill.

'One, two, three — six to one! the rascally cowards ! Draw, Alister, — draw and strike in,' cried Ronald, unsheathing his sword — an example which his companion was not slow in following, and all three were soon engaged, two to one, against the assailants of Alvaro, who were surprised at this unexpected attack, and fought with double desperation to escape. The whole of Ronald's long-nourished love of tumult, his fiery spirit and inherent fierceness, broke forth in this martial fray, and indeed he was put to his mettle. No fewer than three of the ruffians fell upon him pell-mell, cutting and thrusting with their long blades, while they watched every opportunity to use the sharper stilettoes which armed their left hands. Ronald's regimental gorget saved him from one deadly thrust at his throat, and the thick folds of his plaid, where they crossed the iron plate of his left epaulette-strap, saved him from more than one downright blow. Sweeping his long claymore round him, with both his hands clenched in its basket-hilt, he fought with the utmost energy, but only on the defensive, and was compelled to retire backwards step by step towards the quay of the Guadiana, where he must have been inevitably drowned or slain, but for the timely interference of a fourth sword, which, mingling its strokes with theirs, struck the three Spanish blades to shivers. Two of the fellows immediately fled, and plunging into the river swam to the opposite bank ; the third would have followed, but Ronald, grasping him by the throat, adroitly struck the poniard from his hand, and pinning him to the earth, placed his foot upon his neck. At the same moment Alister Macdonald passed his long claymore through the body of the fourth, who fell shrieking — 'Santa Maria! O Dios! O Dios! and almost instantly expired. The other two, who had been driven far off by the Spanish officer, now fled, and the brawl was ended.

'Hot work this, gentlemen,' said Campbell, in his usual jocular tone. It was his sword which had intervened so opportunely between Ronald and destruction. 'The fray has been bravely fought and gallantly finished.'

You have drawn your sword to-night for the first time, Stuart, and proved yourself a lad of the proper stuff. Keep your foot tight upon the growling scoundrel, and if he dares to stir, pin him to the pavement. This affair beats hollow my brawl at Grand Cairo, when we were in Egypt with Sir Ralph. By-the-bye, what did the fray begin about?'

'I am sure I cannot say,' replied Ronald, panting with his late exertion; 'but for your prompt assistance, major, it might have ended otherwise. Alister, I am glad you have disposed of your opponent in so secure a manner, — yet his horrid death-cry rings strangely in my ears.' A grim smile curled the handsome features of Macdonald, who wiped his sword in his tartan plaid, and jerked it into the sheath in silence.

'Senores—officiates, I thank you for the good service you have rendered me to-night,' said the Spanish officer in good English while he made a low obeisance, 'and am happy that you have all escaped unharmed; but we must dispose of this remaining villain. Be pleased to stand aside, senor, that I may run him through the heart. A fair thrust from the blade of a noble cavaliero is too good a death for such a fellow.'

'Sir, I should be sorry to thwart you in your pleasure, but have a little patience, pray,' replied the major, laughing at the coolness of the don's request, and parrying with his stick a thrust made at the bravo, who lay prostrate under Ronald's foot. 'As this fellow's skin is whole, he may be inclined to let you know his employer, or what all this row began about.'

'Right, senor; I had forgotten that. Dog!' cried Don Alvaro, fiercely dashing his guitar into a thousand fragments on the head of the bravo, ' tell me who employed your rascal hands against my person ! You will not answer ? Well, we must prove what materials your skin is made of. By Santiago ! I will have it flayed off you with a red-hot sabre, if you do not confess! The tortures of the Inquisition will be as nothing to what I will inflict on your miserable body, if you are stubborn. Aid me, noble senors, in taking this wretch to the Convento de San Juan de Merida, in the Plaza ; my troop is quartered there. 'Tis but a pistol-shot from here.'

It was impossible to refuse. Don Alvaro tied tightly with his silk sash the hands of the captive, who was dragged without ceremony from street to street, to the entrance of a narrow dark alley leading to the convent of Saint John, the front of which looked towards the Plaza.

'Quien vive?' challenged, the Spanish trooper on sentry with his carbine in the Gothic porch.

'Espana' returned the don, as they passed into the gloomy body of the building,in the vast extent of which their footsteps awoke a thousand echoes.

'Ho ! there, sargentos y soldados!' cried Alvaro. 'Pedro Gomez, a light — a light! Rouse — do you hear me?'

A strange bustle immediately rose around them, and a sargento appeared bearing a lamp, the light of which revealed his brown uniform and browner features. They found themselves in the chapel of the convent, and the red glare of the blazing lamp was cast on its fluted columns, groined arches, and Gothic ornaments, giving a wild and romantic appearance to the scene, which was heightened by the presence of Don Alvaro's troop. About sixty fine Spanish steeds, with flowing tails and manes, stood ranged on each side of the nave of the building, saddled and bridled, bearing the carbines, holsters, and valises of their riders, who, muffled in their long brown cloaks, with their swords and helmets beside them, were sleeping among the horse-litter, or looking up surprised at the interruption. Every man lay beside his horse, and their tall lances were reared against the shafted pillars, from which military accoutrements, curry-combs, horse-brushes, etc., were suspended from the necks of angels and other effigies that adorned them.

'Pedro Gomez, raise the light,' said Alvaro, 'and let us see the face of this fellow, who to-night raised his hand against the life of your captain.'

'Dios mio/' cried Pedro, placing the lamp within an inch of the prisoner's nose.

'The villain Narvaez, by heavens!' exclaimed Ronald, recoiling at the expression of indescribable hatred and ferocity legible in the ruffian's countenance, while his eyes shone with the sparkle of a demon's as the sullen glare of the lamp fell on their black balls.

'How d'ye do, Senor Cifuentes? Speak up, man. You are the very prince of rascals,' said the major, giving him a prod in the stomach with his stick.

'What!' exclaimed Macdonald, scrutinizing him with disgust and curiosity, ' is this the fellow you told us about? the keeper of the wine-house at Albuquerque?'

'Ay, the same,' answered Ronald; 'a wretch who slew in cold blood the French officers. But he shall not escape us now.'

'If I should, you shall live to repent it, — you shall, by the holy mother of God !' said the bold ruffian, with a scornful smile.

A few words made Don Alvaro acquainted with the story of Narvaez.

'Fellow!' said he sternly, 'I might almost forgive you the slaughter of the four Frenchmen, — I wish, however, that it had been done less treacherously; but for this attempt on my own life you shall hang, and that instantly, by San Juan of Merida! as a warning to all low-born knaves to beware ere they draw their weapons on a noble hidalgo. Diego de la Zarza, Pedro Gomez ! bring hither a horse-halter, some of you,' cried he to the astonished troopers who crowded round. 'Run this fellow up to the roof. Santos ! do you hear?'

He had scarcely spoken, before Pedro Gomez cast his horse's halter over the neck of a gigantic stone angel, whose extended wings, carved on a corbelled stone, supported one of the oak beams of the roof, and prepared with ready hands a noose with a slip-knot to encircle the neck of Narvaez, who beheld these summary preparations with considerable trepidation ; and he would soon have swung a corse, but for the interference of the three British officers, who, natives of a clime where the passions are less violent than in Spain, revolted at the idea of so sudden an execution.

'Stay, Don Alvaro, and put off his exit until to-morrow,' said Campbell. 'I do not admire such quick despatch, although I have seen a Turk's head fly off like a thistle's top, when I was in Egypt with Sir Ralph.'

'It would be losing time in the morning, as we march by daybreak,' replied the don; 'but worthless as the villain is, I may alter my decree if he gives me the name of his base employer.'

'The husband of her whom you serenaded this night in the Calle de San Juan,' answered Narvaez, in a guttural tone.

'What, the guerilla chief, Don Salvador Xavier de Zagala? cried Alvaro furiously, his eyes flashing fire. 'Base coward! ignoble hidalgo!

But my sword shall reach him ere long, if he is to be found on this side of the Pyrenees, — it shall, by the bones of the Cid! Your five rascal comrades were guerillas of his band. I thought I knew the scarlet caps of the vagabonds.'

'Noble cavalier! do not forget your promise,' said Narvaez suppli-catingly. 'What is now your decree?'

'That you shall be shot in the morning instead of being hanged tonight! Sargento Gomez, see this carried into execution punctually, before the trumpets sound "to horse," as you value your life.'

With all the indifference that he assumed at first, Cifuentes was a coward at heart, and piteous were the entreaties he made for mercy, and the promises he gave of reformation for the future, if the cavalier would spare his life ; but they were unheeded. The dragoons thrust him into a narrow dormitory adjoining the chapel, and a sentinel, with his carbine loaded, was placed at the door.

'Send for the Padre, Alvarez; and let him make his peace with Heaven.'

'Noble senor, it will be difficult to find the reverend Padre in his sober senses at this hour,' replied Gomez.

'You are right, Pedro; he has no longer the Holy Inquisition, of terrible memory, to scare him from his cups. This fellow may die easily enough, without the help of Latin. Should he make the slightest attempt to escape, remember, Diego de la Zarza, to shoot him dead without fail. And now, senors, let us retire, and leave my troopers to repose, as we must be all in our saddles at crow of the cock.'

'What will be done with the fellow who lies dead in the street?' asked Ronald, as they stumbled down the dark alley leading from the convent.

'What could we do with him, senor?' replied the don, with surprise. 'The carcass will be found in the morning, and the finder will bury it for the sake of the clothes, perhaps. To find a man stabbed in the street is no marvellous matter in our Spanish towns. You saw how little notice the clash of our swords attracted: scarcely a window opened, and no person approached. We take these affairs coolly here, senor.'

'So it seems, Don Alvaro,' said the major. 'But there is the clock of the town-house striking the hour of eleven, and we have a weary route before us in the morning; so the sooner we seek some place to roost in the better. I left Colonel Cameron and the rest of ours preparing for repose, under the bieldy side of a granite craig, — but I fear you don't understand me, — at the confounded bivouac yonder; and the sooner we join them, the longer rest we shall have.'

'You shall have no bivouacking to-night, senors. One gets quite enough of it in these times; and when a good billet comes in the way, it should be accepted. I reside in Merida; my family mansion is at the corner of the Plaza: you shall pass the night with me there. My sister, Donna Catalina, will be most happy to entertain the preservers of her brother, — three cavaliers who draw their swords for the freedom of Spain.'

'Certainly, Don Alvaro, we should be sorry to slight your offer,' said the major. ' A comfortable quarter is a scarce matter in Spain just now; and if Donna Catalina will not be incommoded, by three soldados billeting themselves upon her mansion without notice, we are very much at your service. When I was in Egypt in 1801, I remember an adventure just such as------'

'Take care of the curb, major,' cried Ronald, as the bulky field-officer tripped against the side of the pavement.

'Just such as this. We were quartered at------'

'Grand Cairo,' interrupted Ronald ruthlessly; for he disliked the repetition of long stories, which was a failing of the worthy major's, who lugged in Egypt and Sir Ralph Abercrombie on all occasions. 'Ay, I remember the story, and a capital one it is! But here is Don Alvaro's house.'

As he spoke, they halted before a large mansion, ornamented with lofty columns and broad balconies, upon which the tall windows opened : through the curtains bright rays of light streamed into the dark street. Alvaro applied his hand to the large knocker hanging on the entrance door, which appeared more like the portal of a prison than that of an hidalgo's residence, being low, arched, and studded with iron nails.

'Quien es? said a voice within.

'Gente de paz!' replied Alvaro, while the light from the passage flashed through a little panel which was drawn aside, and through which they were cautiously scrutinized.

The door was immediately opened by an aged and wrinkled female servant, whose bright black eyes contrasted strangely with her skin, which was shrivelled and yellow as an old drumhead. Old Dame Agnes, lamp in hand, led them along a passage, up a broad wooden staircase, and into a noble and spacious apartment, which displayed the usual combination of elegance and discomfort, so common in the houses of Spanish nobles. The ceiling presented beautifully painted panels, and a gorgeous cornice of gilt stucco, supported by pilasters of the Corinthian order ; while the floor from which they rose was composed of large square red tiles. Four large casements looked towards the Plaza; they were glazed with glass, — a luxury in Spain, — but their shutters were rough deal boards, which were barely concealed by the rich white curtains overhanging them : the furniture was oak, — massive, clumsy, and old as the days of Don Quixote. Upon the panels of the ceiling, the bases of the pillars, and other places, appeared the blazonry of coats armorial, displaying the alliances of the family of Villa Franca.

On the table, beside a guitar, castanets, music-books, etc., stood a large silver candelabrum, bearing four tall candles, the flames of which flickered in the currents of air flowing through many a chink and cranny, as if to remind the three British officers that it was at home only that true comfort was to be found. Heat was diffused through the room by means of a pan of glowing charcoal placed in the centre of the floor, and a lady, who sat with her feet resting upon it in the Spanish manner, rose at their entrance.

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