FELIPE MAJADA sat in his chair and cursed the British Government by the length and breadth, and to the depth and height of the Spanish language, while Don Luis del Monte, handsome, reckless, and wearing his shabby clothes with an air, laughed to hear him. April was verging into May, and the weather was irritatingly warm, and to call down maledictions in any profusion requires some amount of energy.
An Englishman of the name of Gevil-Hay had lately been held to ransom by a brigand in the sierras not ten miles away, and the British Government, having been put to some trouble in the matter, had imperiously demanded that the brigand in question should be forthwith caught and punished. Whereupon the authorities at Madrid sent down a strongly-worded remonstrance to Don Felipe, inquiring why Don Q., the brigand in question, had not been plucked from his eyrie and executed long ago.
“Let them send an army corps to do it, then; nothing else will avail,” groaned the Governor, Don Felipe, rubbing his scalp, with its brush of upstanding black hair, despairingly. But since he could not call upon the Ministry for quite so large an order, he cursed the British afresh, because they make such a noise about any individual of their nation who may happen to stray into trouble, although it was clear that the world could make shift to work comfortably round with a tenth of that troublesome race.
Pah! Were they children that they should be coddled and petted more than others? It made one ill. Had he, Don Felipe, then, done anything that he should be twitted with laxity and weakness? For more years than he cared to remember the local administration had lived on what might be described as fraternal terms with the great sequestrador. Live and let live had been their soothing maxim, except on occasion when a company of that staunch little corps, the guardias civiles had been sent up into the mountains to secure the brigand if they could, and shoot him down if they could not.
And this it must be admitted they had tried to do to the best of their ability, but if any single member of the company had ever laid eyes upon Don Q., at any rate he had never returned to tell the story. Those who were left would come back in the fullness of time to the white town that looks across the bay toward Gibraltar, with nothing to show but a tale of the dead who had fallen in the lonely gorges where the cliff cuts black and bare into the hot blue above.
Thus Don Felipe Majada cursed the British, who could not, like other rational peoples, be satisfied with promises. Thrown upon his own resources, and realizing that something must be done which it seemed the ordinary agencies of the law could not effect, he fell back upon the device of employing private enterprise.
Thus it was that he came to journey to Malaga to meet a certain Don Luis del Monte, who appeared to him to be extraordinarily qualified for the task to be performed. In Spain, as in other countries, there is always a sufficiency of broken gentlemen, ready to lend a hand to any well-paid job. Luis del Monte was one of the these. He had an unlovely colonial career behind him, for, after the manner of Spanish officials, he had prospered exceeding in Cuba and come home rich. Among the old haunts of his youth he lost all on the turn of a card, and at the time Don Felipe summoned him he was living in aching poverty above a shop that sold tobacco and stamps.
The evening was falling and all the mingled odors of Malaga rose on the air, but if they reached the balcony where Don Felipe sat and swore, his seasoned nose took no heed of them.
“No, I will not curse them”—and the handsome adventurer laughed in the window opening—“since it is to their pig-headedness I am indebted for—what you are about to give me.”
Don Felipe snarled with the puffy effort of a fat man.
“You have met with losses, my dear Luis?” he said offensively.
“Why, so I have,” replied the other, shrugging his shoulders. “To lose is one mark of a gentleman.”
Don Luis was a beggar, and a beggar has no right to own a biting tongue. The Governor entered into the business with a new zest. To pit Don Luis against Don Q. meant bloodshed, and the sportsman in fat Felipe Majada was awakened.
“Sit down,” he said aloud. “I will explain the plan I have formed.”
Then he told the story of Gevil-Hay’s detention by the brigands, with the matter of the ransom, and added many other details given by former captives until Del Monte felt he was in possession of all the needful facts of the case. Between them stood wine and cigarettes—the short, brown, Spanish cigarettes rolled in sweetened paper and not innocent of saltpeter. Don Luis smoked one after another as he listened, gazing out with absent eyes over the two harbors of Malaga.
When Majada ceased he began.
“I have heard much of Don Q. He appears to be a fine sort of fellow who has made the best use of his opportunities up yonder. I had thoughts of going into the business myself. Meanwhile what do you want me to do?”
A Spaniard has few scruples outside the region of his pride. The Governor of the little white town put his wish plainly, if largely.
“We must rid ourselves of this vulture,” he said.
“It will be worth your while,” added Majada.
“That is as it may be. The risk is great.”
“True. But one does not pay for nothing!”
“What do you propose to pay the man who undertakes it?”
“One thousand pesetas.”
Don Luis del Monte laughed and snapped his fingers in contempt. Then he leaned over the balcony. A girl passing along, under whose black gown a pretty ankle in a striped open-work stocking could be seen, glanced up and laughed back at him.
“By the saints! The prettiest wench in Malaga!” he exclaimed.
“What are you here for?” asked the Governor sourly, “for business or to look at a woman’s eyes?”
“Both,” said the other easily, “I occupy myself now with the girl because you have just ceased to talk business. When you resume, I shall listen.”
“Two thousand pesetas then.”
Don Louis shook his head.
“Dollars,” he said parenthetically.
“Impossible! Would you ruin the country?”
“No, no. You forget I know better, my dear señor. I have already in my time explored her pockets myself! Three thousand dollars.”
The question was not settled in a moment, but eventually Don Louis del Monte’s débonnaire inflexibility on that point prevailed.
“The price of my life,” he said, “and a beggarly bad bargain.”
“For the Government,” amended Don Felipe. “Besides, you will live to enjoy it in Malaga. How, then, do you purpose to get to work?”
“I must be captured, and you will arrange the ransom. They say down here that the brigand recognizes a gentleman and treats him handsomely, pending the arrival of his ransom and the arrangement of his affairs. If he does not—well, I am an old soldier. Meanwhile I shall have five days in his company.”
“By St. Peter! Cold steel and close quarters!” cried Don Felipe with rising excitement. “Señor, you are not a coward.”
“Nor a fool,” rejoined the other coldly.
“Then you have some other design—yes?”
“Certainly I have a design less blaring than yours. I shall start in the early morning.”
“Stay! How will you deal with him?”
“As the goat-herd and the farmer deal with the other quebranta-huesos. I will poison him. He shall share the death of the vultures and the wolves. I shall have five full days with him, I tell you. How can he escape me?”
“I do not know,” Don Felipe said dubiously, as he watched the thin, reckless face opposite him with a smug interest. “But I have heard him called a bad enemy.”
“And I shall conquer him by being a bad friend, which is just twice as formidable.”
“Yet,” and Don Felipe lowered his voice instinctively, “he has other friends. I came hither to Malaga, for if I had had this conversation with you in my own house across the bay, some ear would have heard and some foot have been ready to carry the matter up yonder.”
Don Luis made no answer. He put a handful of the Governor’s cigarettes in his pocket and prepared to go.
“I must have money to-night—money to repair my toilet, to buy a horse and lay the affair in train. It is necessary to be generous, señor. This may be my last night of pleasure, and then, perhaps”—he began the song with which children mimic the clerk’s chant at funerals—“the gorigori comes next. Who knows?”
Don Luis del Monte swaggered gracefully down the dim stone passage, with its high barred windows, and so out into the street. As he went along a woman passed him with a soft Southern laugh. For the rest of the evening she evinced a quite inadequate interest in his movements.
IN the early dawn, before the light broke, a man from the sierras waited in the prosaic shadow of the Malaga railway station, where presently a woman, with her head and shoulders wrapped up against the chill of dawn, came to him—the woman whose cadences of laughter Don Luis had heard for the first time as he bowed to her in the tortuous, ill-smelling Malaga street on the previous evening.
Robeldo was her lover, who had come down from the sierras to see her, with a price upon his head and the light of adventure in his eyes. She liked him for his good looks, though he already was careworn, after the manner of mountaineers, but, for his reckless courage, her heart loved him.
Any account of their conversation would be superfluous. Robledo went away in the earliest train that left the city. Thus it came to pass that when Don Luis del Monte arrived by a round-about route at the foothills, the news of his coming and his errand had already been thoroughly handled in the remote glen where Don Q. lived in his solitary greatness, like the vulture whose name he bore.
Robledo had made extraordinary haste to carry the chief intelligence of the danger that threatened, for rumors of Don Felipe Majada’s instructions from Madrid, and his anger thereat, with his perplexity as to how they should be carried out, had afforded the last week’s talk in the mountain gorge.
Evening was once more drawing on when Robledo sprang up the narrow, winding path to the mouth of the cave in the rock-face, where Don Q. chose to house himself apart from his followers. The young fellow, although he was aware that he carried information of the first importance, felt diffident enough as he stood before the little, fierce chief. Don Q. possessed in the highest degree the faculty for ruling.
The chief sat moodily in the cave, with his concentrated livid-lidded glare upon the young robber. And, although Robledo was a brave man, he crossed himself furtively.
Then the chief put a question or two, and Robledo told his story at full length. He had followed the Governor to Malaga; after that so much was known, so much was guessed, but the plot was fairly understood and hung well together. For Don Luis had told nothing, he was far too experienced for that, but something had been overhead, and a good deal inferred from the purchases he had made, and, in fact, Robledo had proved himself a very creditable detective. As he grew more excited with his story, he gave way to those picturesque exclamations and gestures which the Andalusian loves. And Don Q. listened, laughing here and there as a man laughs who sees a subtle and hidden humor. When the tale was finished and the last low laugh had died away, the chief fell into thought; when he looked up he asked——
“And what is your counsel, Robledo?”
But Robledo knew his master too well.
“My lord orders,” he answered glibly. “There is no knowledge or will in the sierras but my lord’s.”
Don Q. closed his small, claw-like hand.
“That is well, Robledo my child, for if there were it would die.”
Robledo crossed himself again, suddenly and involuntarily, and the chief caught the motion.
“And why that, Robledo?” said he.
“I was thinking of the soul of this Don Luis del Monte,” replied Robledo with ready untruthfulness.
“Ah, then bring Gáspar and Andrés.”
In a very few moments the three men stood in a silent line before him.
“Robledo,” he said, “you will go down beyond the valley of the cork trees, and wait on the southern track to Ronda. Take men with you, for it may be that Don Luis will come by that way. And you will deal gently with him. You, Andrés, will go toward the passes, for it, also, is a travelers’ path through the sierras. You will bring this caballero to me very safely. And listen, Robledo.”
“We share a secret between us and——”
“When it ceases to be a secret you will cease to be a man. Now go!”
The two men turned away from the terrace, and Don Q. watched the lean, sinewy figures with their scarlet fajas disappear down the slope; then, seeming to forget the presence of the third, his head drooped upon his breast, and he remained still and mute like some big sleeping bird for half an hour. Meantime Gáspar stood and waited, without moving hand or foot.
“And for you, Gáspar,” said Don Q. abruptly, but in the same tone, as if he had just finished speaking, “and for you, Gáspar, a peaceful errand—to the shrine of San Pedro. You will see the Fathers.”
“Take with you this bag of pesetas and ask them to say masses, beginning next Friday, for——”
Don Q. paused; Gáspar stood in the same patient, uneager attitude.
“The soul of Don Luis del Monte.”
Meanwhile Don Luis rode on unknowing. On the second morning he had left the open stretches of heath and palmetto behind him, and was mounting the lower spurs of the sierras, where in the hot air the hood-winged vultures soared about him. A strange, forgotten land this, with little broken shrines hid in the shuddering woods, and forsaken mule-tracks winding ever deeper into the gloomy gorges. Don Luis rode lingering beneath the languorous forests, camping at night in open places and inviting capture by the long column of wood-smoke that drifted up toward the sky. He had no guide, but Don Q.’s net swept a wide circle about the Boca de Jabili, and capture was equally probable anywhere upon the sierras. In the lining of his hat Del Monte had secured the means whereby he hoped to take Don Q.’s life. Beyond that one resolution his plans were in the clouds, but he relied, as he had had reason to do in many other crises of his career, on chance, treachery, and a good wit.
At length he entered upon a wide valley of cork wood and ilex trees, where he rested during the heat of the day, and as the cooler airs of evening blew over the ridges from the sea, he mounted again and pushed upward. The first dew was beginning to fall when he halted under a white, out-lying, limestone crag to look around.
On every side, range beyond range, the sierras rose gray, stony, and sinister. The utter loneliness of the scene, the fact that he was bound on a desperate errand, that there was no help possible against the bloodthirsty men into whose power he was about to give himself, might well have made him pause, but Del Monte’s single thought at that moment was of success, and the supply of money it promised him for another fling at the tables.
A stone rolled down from the perpendicular face of the crag and fell at his horse’s feet, but Don Luis was lighting a cigarette and seemed too busy to look up. Then a shot whizzed past his head, ripping a shred of felt from his broad-brimmed hat, but he finished with his cigarette, threw away the match, and was about to raise his eyes, when a loop of rope fell sharply over him and he was jerked from his saddle upward.
Perhaps Robledo had a twinge of ill-feeling in the back of his mind against the handsome caballero who had bowed so deeply to the girl in the streets of Malaga. However that may be, the indignity of his position as he was hauled up the face of the cliff amid the jeers of the bandits, roused Del Monte, who passed a bad quarter of an hour dangling, furious, at the rope’s end until exhaustion compelled him to allow himself to be secured without resistance.
Nearly all that night the men drove him, stumbling wearily, through the higher mountain-tracks. Robledo dared not indulge in any overt acts to the hurt of his prisoner, but he comforted himself with dreams of the vengeance of Don Q.
At the end of his journey Don Luis was blindfolded, and led by winding turns and through the chill of an underground passage into the inclosed glen where the brigand chief waited for his coming.
While Robledo went up into the cave to make his report, Del Monte was left with a couple of sullen guards in the valley. One happened to be Gaspár, whose errand to the Fathers had been happily concluded.
“My friend,” began Don Luis presently, “is this captain of yours all one hears of him down there in the plains? Is it true that he buries his prisoners alive?”
“When he does not crucify them!” replied Gaspár shortly. “It is often too great a labor to dig holes in our rocks.”
“And you? Do not some of you taste death slowly—in a like manner?” asked Don Luis insolently.
“It has been heard of,” was the imperturbable reply.
“And you love him better afterward?”
“In the mountains love and fear are one,” said the robber.
AT length Robledo led the captive into the presence of Don Q. The cave was warm, yet the chief was muffled in his cloak; but he bared his head in greeting as Del Monte entered. The two men stood face to face and surveyed each other silently, before Don Q spoke.
“Your mother, señor, was of the family of the De Caselos?” he asked with entire courtesy.
The strangeness of the question startled Don Luis as much as the appearance of the man who put it.
“I did not think you would be likely to interest yourself in these matters,” he replied haughtily.
“And why not?” returned Don Q. with extreme softness.
Yet Don Luis only by an extreme effort kept up the manner in which he had begun the conversations.
“A gentleman of your profession——” he began.
“A gentleman is still a gentleman, whatever he may choose to connect himself with. Answer my question, señor, if you please.”
The other shrugged his shoulders.
“You knew her then, Señor Don Q., that you ask me this question?
Don Q.’s thickened eyelids quivered; he raised his head with a fine gesture.
“That pleasure was mine. I knew her very well,” he answered simply. “You have her eyes, beautiful exceedingly; but you cannot look another in the face any more than she could. It was a very little defect——”
“Of nature?” put in Del Monte, half laughing as the other hesitated.
“I was about to say of the heart. But these things belong to the past, and only concern us to-day in that they prove you to be of gentle blood on both sides.”
“I cannot perceive the advantage to me just now.”
Don Q. continued gravely.
“Because I may on that account offer you my hospitality,” he said, “in return for your parole. It is thus when one deals with equals. Last year I was deceived into offering hospitality to a merchant who sold dried fruits and flour. I assure you the man’s manner of breathing offended me so much that I had to rid myself of him before the arrival of his ransom. You will therefore comprehend my reasons for troubling you. And if you will now give me your parole we may have a pleasant time pending the arrangement of your affairs.”
“I give it,” answered Del Monte, with a very present thought that death would soon free him from his word; “I forsee that I shall enjoy my visit to the sierras, señor, although I hope you will not be very severe in the matter of a ransom.”
“It is unfortunately one of the exigencies of my position that I have my children to maintain!” Don Q. indicated the figures of Robledo and Gaspár in the aperture of the cave. “We must have our demands in full or——”
“Or?” repeated Don Luis.
“No, no,” said the little chief, with a sympathetic geniality, “we will not spoil our first meeting with dismal considerations. I can recommend these cigarettes; you will find them passable.”
“I must congratulate you on the discipline of your com—your men,” Don Luis said, fingering a cigarette thoughtfully.
“Many others have complimented me also upon that; I assure you, señor, it always gratifies me.”
But it must be owned that Don Luis del Monte, from the moment he was brought into the presence of Don Q., began to like his errand less. There was a suggestion in the appearance of the little, pale, bald man that upset him. Not that he shrank at all from his own treachery, but it was borne in on him that the brigand was not the easiest sort of man to kill, and the consequences of failure would not bear consideration. Nevertheless, he neglected no point that might assist him in his design; he observed, he bridled his natural insolence, he went cautiously. He quite understood that he was dealing with one who would strike before he spoke.
On a single occasion only he forgot his self-control for a moment. They had been talking of former days, and Don Q. was relating stories, with reserve indeed, but also with force and a fine power of detail.
He told of an incident of the bull-ring in some town to which he gave no name.
“Ah, you have seen it a hundred times, senor!” he was saying. “And in the hot sunshine, to the blare of the trumpets and the bravas of the garish crowd, I passed to the president’s chair—”
“You?” asked Don Luis with a quick, impatient incredulity.
“Certainly,” answered Don Q. “And why not?”
“They draw the line high where the presidents are concerned,” replied the other, braving out his first exclamation.
The sweat stood out in sudden beads upon the robber’s forehead.
“Let me assure you, señor, that no line could be drawn too high to exclude, not Don Q.—in those days, but——”
“But can you not trust me with that most interesting name, señor?” asked Del Monte, his sneer obscured by a smile.
“Do you wish to know the name I bore before I covered it with the title by which I am known today?” Don Q. looked at him with a significance which he words did not contain.
“Yes, by your favor.”
The brigand laughed very softly, but with an intensity of amusement that sent a chill of misgiving down Del Monte’s spine.
“But yes, senor, since we are—friends,” added he, almost nervously.
“True, I had forgotten that. I can promise you shall know—some day.”
The promise, however, failed to convey any distinct impression of pleasure to the Governor’s emissary.
At length the ransom arrived. Don Luis had by this time conceived his plot in detail. As soon as his captor actually held the ransom in possession, the assassin determined to make away with him. Once rid of Don Q., he believed himself equal to dealing with the remainder of the band.
The fierce little chief was openly contemptuous of his followers. He lived apart; all authority was concentrated within himself; he confided in none, he took counsel of none, and among the gang, as among every other collection of men, were various ambitious spirits whom Del Monte felt that he should know how to make good use of, as soon as the living fear of Don Q. was removed.
He had handled similar material before, and with the ransom in his hand and a facility for making promises, he was ready to face the situation, when it presented itself.
But, although he was watchful throughout the day, no opportunity occurred for using the poison. Don Q., even in his most morose and absorbed moments, always showed the unsleeping vigilance of a wild bird. The blinking gaze always opened upon Del Monte if he stirred, and though time after time his hand fell upon the vial of poison in his pocket, he never found the few minutes’ grace to do the deed.
By night this failure began to work upon his nerves. Without, only the cold scent of the wind, and the red-colored fires that burned below them in the darkness of the glen; within that terrible companion, whose bleared eyes seemed never to close.
BUT at length the chance came of itself, when a robber, hoarse and diffident, appeared in the mouth of the cave, and Quebranta went out with him, leaving Del Monte alone.
With a rapid movement he unstoppered the bottle and poured its contents liberally into the brigand’s wine. Then he sank back with a great sigh. The tension was broken; Don Q. was practically dead.
A chill wind, bearing the smell of rain, whistled sadly about the cave, the air was full of reverberations of the mountains, long ponderous tumults backed by a slow silence. The dark green plants that stood on the table shivered. For six minutes that appeared sixty Don Luis sat alone.
Presently Don Q. came back and resumed his seat opposite.
“Señor,” he said, “in the old days it used to be the custom here in the sierras for guests and hosts to exchange glasses. Let us follow the custom and do so.”
He filled his own glass with the poisoned wine and passed it over to Don Luis, who accepted it with a bow. Then pouring out half the wine into his own glass, Don Luis handled that to Don Q.
“We will drink to our friendship and mutual prosperity, señor,” said he, using the words heartily.
“To the first drinker be the best wish,” quoted Don Q. with much urbanity. “Drink, then, my friend; I do not grudge you a better fortune, alas, than mine.”
“But, no, senor,” declared Don Luis gallantly, “then I must urge that your need is greater than mine. Drink, and may all befall as one would desire!”
How long this pretended struggle of generosity might have been maintained it is impossible to tell, had not the chief brought the scene to an end. He would take no refusal, while the other desperately declined.
“Why do you not drink?” cried the brigand, “I do not poison my guests!”
But a saving thought had by this time come to Don Luis’s help.
“They call this the parting cup, señor,” he replied, “therefore I will not drink it with you. You are alone here; you need a gentleman whom you can trust. If you want a lieutenant, why, you see before you a man who has dealt with the difficulties of life and whose courage needs no testing. I have a liking for you, señor; let me keep you company up here in the sierras!”
Don Q. seemed to pause for consideration.
“Then it shall be as you say,” he said at last; “You shall keep me company up here in the sierras—eternal company! I may follow five years hence or to-morrow, but you—go to-night!”
Don Q. was more courteous, more soft-spoken than ever; and Del Monte stared at him. Then he cleared his throat, for something rose in it that choked him.
“I do not think I quite take your meaning,” he said.
“It is plain, nevertheless, Luis del Monte. What passed between you and that gross fool, Felipe Majada, on the balcony at Malaga? What errand brought you into the mountains but that which is held together by a few drops of poison at the one end and three thousand dollars at the other. I know it all! And if I have sinned against Heaven my punishment has come to me now—that the hand of your mother’s son should be raised to seek my life.”
“Señor, hear me!”
But rough fingers were clapped upon his mouth, and in a moment he was pinioned at the door of the cave.
THE glen was painted in upon the darkness. The picturesque ladrones, yellow handkerchiefs tied across their brows, were playing cards beside the fires. Behind them rose the rocky walls of the valley.
When Don Q. spoke again he delivered sentence in cold tones.
“I was at some trouble,” he said, “to allow you time enough to poison my wine. You did so. And now it still wants five minutes to seven, and at seven and nine two things are going to happen. They both concern you intimately. Can you guess? At nine the priests of San Pedro, the little church you passed on your way here, will begin to sing masses for a soul. Yours, Don Luis! At seven you will begin to die. If you have not completed the operation by nine o’clock, why, you will, of course, lose some of the good the kind Fathers are trying to do for you.”
(The next Chronicle will tell of the Ears of the Governor of Castelleno.)