IN the course of his long and interesting career as chief of sequestradores, brigands who hold to ransom, Don Q. had had dealings with many sorts and conditions of men. Persons of divers callings had passed through his hands—sportsmen, politicians, merchants, a doctor, a couple of English M.P.'s, a high-church parson of the same nationality, the German Count von Squeelalotte, an American newspaper proprietor, and many adventurers. But when his men, patrolling the lower passes, lassoed Garth Lalor, they added to Don Q.'s list a gentleman of a profession with which he had never before come in contact.
Garth Lalor was nearer twenty than he cared to own, full of the irrepressible sap of youth, and of a racial blend that made it difficult for him to take things seriously. It was nearing the end of February when he was captured, and the winter, which was just working itself out in a succession of storms, had been about the worst on record. Even down in hill-sheltered Malaga, its severity had been felt, and up in Boca de Lobo, where Don Q. passed the greater part of it, the winds were roaring off the snows of the Sierra Nevada, tearing the branches from the pine trees, and causing the brigands to regret a vocation which forced them to remain in these bleak altitudes, beyond the reach of the short arm of the Spanish law.
The business of a brigand naturally flourishes best in an open season, which encourages traveling. But this winter not a single capture since November stood to the credit of the band. It therefore warmed the Chief's chilly blood to hear that the saints had vouchsafed them a captive once again.
In the raw morning darkness, Lalor, blind-folded, had been led in the clutches of brown, grimy hands through scrub and between echoing rocky passages into the small inclosed glade, where his eyes were released, and a blaze of torches showed him groups of men, picturesque and dirty as his captors, cooking an early meal around windy fires in the open.
Without much delay Don Q. sent for him. Lalor was distinctly stirred by the romance of the situation. The Chief was a man with a saturnine record, and the captive looked with a good deal of curiosity at the fragile figure muffled in a cloak, that crouched beside the great fire, spreading bloodless hands to the blaze. Was this person the fierce-hearted and terrible character they spoke of in the plains? A wide, soft hat brim of felt hid his features, and he seemed unaware of the entrance of the party, until Lalor stepped suddenly up beside him to the fireside.
“Good-morning, señor. It is precious cold,” he said.
His two guards sprang forward at the word and thrust him back roughly. Don Q. raised his head and looked full at this unusual brand of prisoner. The cruel, pointed, vulture face, with its projecting nose and livid eyelids took Lalor aback, in spite of all that rumor had told him.
“Excuse my taking off my hat, señor,” the Chief spoke at last in smooth, derisive tones, “but, as you say, it is cold. I regret that your visit to us should be made in such unpleasant weather. Still we welcome you; we have been in danger of suffering from dullness lately, and I foresee both pleasure and profit from your society.”
Garth Lalor was a very adaptable young man. “That's all right,” he said good-humoredly.
At a sign from Don Q., the guards retired to the door of the cave.
“Pray be seated, señor,” went on the Chief. “I perceive that you are English. One forgives much to the English.”
Lalor stared. The superabundant courtesies of Spain had passed over his head and left him his old, casual self. Still, some apology appeared to be looked for.
“Sorry,” he said, “if I've done anything wrong.”
Don Q.'s face cleared.
“I feel quite sure we shall enjoy each other's society while you remain with me,” he remarked urbanely. “Let us at once get over the disagreeable business, and then, when we understand the position, we can dismiss all sordid considerations from our minds—for the present. But first I must ask you to reply to a few questions.”
“Quite at your service, señor. I hope I’ll turn out satisfactory.”
The Chief looked him over. Garth Lalor was a strongly built, clean-limbed young fellow, rather over the middle height, with marked features and sleepy gray eyes.
“I trust so,” replied Don Q. with some emphasis. “Señor, you puzzle me. To what profession do you belong? You have the fingers of a man of practical mind and the eyes of a dreamer.”
Lalor smiled. The odd, pleasant smile was by no means lost on the little Chief.
“Well, if I had to sign a census paper, I should write myself novelist, or, anyhow, author.”
To his surprise Don Q. showed symptoms of pleased excitement.
“How interesting! I have never before in the course of my career had the good fortune to meet one of your calling. But of that later. We must, perforce, deal first with the little matter of your ransom.”
“Ransom?” ejaculated Garth Lalor, and he broke into a cheerless fit of laughter. Don Q. looked at him in surprise.
“You are amused, señor. May I be permitted to share your amusement?”
“By all means, such as it is,” said the lad. “You spoke of hoping for a ransom. The idea tickled me—that is all.”
The Chief's livid eyelids flickered ominously.
“I still fail to see the point of the joke,” he remarked.
“All my possessions are before you. The clothes I stand up in, five pounds in English money, and half a pocketful of the coin of the country, of which the delicacy of your followers permitted them to relieve me,” replied Lalor, unable for the life of him to avoid imitating the Chief's elaborate manner of speech.
The brigand waved his emaciated yellow hand airily.
“Your relations—they must cherish you! I can well understand it! Then there is your Government, rich as a dream, and pitiful. I have heard of a public subscription—for a popular author thousands could be raised. Is it not so?”
“I dare say it is.” Lalor's lips took an ironical curve. “But, you see, unluckily I am not a popular author, only an unknown one—yet. Ingham, the Consul, warned me before I started. They have had some experience of ransoms before. Anyhow, Ingham told me plainly they were tired of paying them, and that I must take my chance. As for relations, I haven't one in the world who would give sixpence for me! And now you know how we stand.”
“But this is terribly sad,” exclaimed Don Q. softly. “I hope you have misjudged your relations and friends?” But Lalor shook his head. “It is, alas! nearly always so. I rarely take a fancy to one of our captives; but whenever I do so, it almost inevitably turns out to be one who fails with his ransom. I assure you, señor, this fact forms one of the severest trials of my lot.”
Lalor found nothing to say. Sympathy seemed beside the question.
“On the other hand, it was only last summer that we caught a most objectionable person, the German Count von Squeelalotte. I assessed a ransom of heavy amount upon him, and I admit I was rather in hopes that his friends would decline to raise so much to regain him.”
“But they did?”
“At once. There is no accounting for tastes!” said Don Q. mournfully; “they left me no option but to release him.”
“I'm sorry, señor, but I'm afraid you won't make your fortune out of me.”
Don Q.'s face, peaked and sunken like that of the bird he resembled, was inclined courteously toward his prisoner.
“I will do all I can for you, Señor Lalor,” he said, after a short pause. “I will name but a little ransom, only two thousand dollars. I trust this can be raised—for your sake?”
Garth shook his head. “You won't get it. I'm not worth anything to anybody except myself. What are you going to do with me?”
“Alternatives are usually deplorable, but we shall wait for fifteen days until you have an answer from your Consul,” said the Chief.
“But the alternative?”
Don Q. sighed. “Alas, señor, you are so young to die.”
Lalor was young, and very human. The strong rising life in his veins chilled for the moment, but when he spoke his voice was as casual as before.
“What good will my death be to you?”
“My dear Señor,” there was regret in the soft, sibilant tones that made the lad shudder involuntarily, “it is business. I have a terrible reputation to maintain. You must be aware of the enormous value of such a reputation to one of my profession.”
A stratum of sound sense underlaid Lalor's character. “I see your point of view,” he said judicially; then he laughed again.
Don Q. regarded him with increasing interest. This young man was certainly of a new type. Lalor read the question in his eyes.
“Do you know,” he said, “before I heard the alternative you have so delicately alluded to, I was congratulating myself on having fallen into your hands?”
“Pray proceed, senor.”
“You see I could do your character such justice in a magazine! I know an editor who'd have given me a nice sum for an account of this experience.” He smiled his quaint smile. “It's a trifle hard, after spending a couple of years in collecting rejection forms, that the first really good thing to come in my way should turn out so crookedly.”
“You traveled to gather local color?” inquired Don Q.
“Well, you see,” Lalor looked oddly shy, “I'm not old. If a fellow hasn't age, he has to get experience. Don't you think so?”
The Chief felt his heart quite warm to this ingenuous Britisher.
“I know an author,” he began, “who for years has seldom left his own hearth-stone, yet his transcriptions of humanity are so original, so vitally true, that the world will be shaken with a new knowledge of itself when he publishes them. He has had opportunities of seeing the soul of man naked——”
Lalor pushed back his chair involuntarily. His imagination had divined the truth.
“It is yourself !” he cried, while the thought flashed through him—What sights had not those livid-lidded eyes looked upon?
“You are right. I have occupied my odd moments in compiling an autobiography. It will not be a dull book, and will tend to set me right in the eyes of those who malign me in the plains.”
“They do give you a villainous character down there,” admitted Lalor.
“Well, for reasons which I have already mentioned to you, I am sometimes forced to adopt regrettable alternatives——” The Chief stopped and looked resentfully at the door, where one of his men stood, holding a letter.
THE daylight had now grown stronger, and Don Q. went to the terrace outside the cave-mouth to read the communication. An odd sound made Lalor look up. The Chief stood in the center of the cave, shaken visibly by some fierce emotion. He had thrown off his hat, and his bald, wrinkled brow had knotted itself into a penthouse, from under which his eyes gleamed furiously. Tearing the letter to shreds, he stamped upon it, grinding his heel into the ground. Then he turned upon Lalor like a blight.
“You have been to Malaga?” he asked, abruptly. “Who was the chief guest at your hotel?”
“Let me see,” Lalor considered. “A fellow from South America, calling himself Da Costa. He seemed to have any amount of money.”
“That is the animal who has permitted himself to insult me. Da Costa!” The Chief grinned venomously. “You will know him as the Comte de Dieppe, or, as he loves to call himself royally among us Spaniards, General Don Basilio.”
“What? The Carlist general?”
“Yes. Here is a man who writes asking me to become a rebel, who offers me a free pardon at the price of my honor! Corpse of a scullion ! He would overthrow a dynasty! He forgets that between Queen Christina and her enemies lies the sword of Don Q.!”
“You take the side of the Queen Regent?” asked Lalor.
“I remember the Court of Spain as it was. I am proud of the Court of Spain as it is! There are not many good women in the world, Señor Lalor, you will learn that for yourself some day; let us defend and admire those whom we know. This is a moment when all true subjects of Queen Christina should loosen their knives in their belts. It is a mother defending her fatherless child against the plots of powerful and subtle enemies. Well, I have seventy men at her service!”
“Were it not for my misfortune as regards my lack of ransom, you might have seventy-one,” exclaimed Lalor, a little carried away.
The Chief looked him over silently, then he began to pace the floor with a visibly growing excitement. He halted in front of Lalor.
“Señor, are you willing to risk your life for the Queen of Spain?”
Lalor's only reply was his expressive smile.
“The Queen is already on her way to Malaga, where she is to make a progress through the streets on the 15th. Don Basilio's presence means that some infamous plot against her is being prepared. You have heard of this man?”
“He's pretty notorious.”
“You may take my word for it, señor, he is even worse than the world believes him to be. He owed a grudge to the late King; he is never weary of trying to revenge it. What peril threatens the Queen no one knows. The foreigners and scoundrels gathered about him are ignorant of it. Even I have been unable to find it out, but I could soon make myself master of his scheme were it possible for me to reach the man's presence. It is hard to get in touch with him, for he lives surrounded by his adherents. The authorities are slow to move, and can discover nothing. I—I alone could do this thing! It is at the man himself that I must strike!” The Chief paused, and laid a slim yellow forefinger on Lalor's sleeve. “Are you willing, señor, to do a great service to the Queen, and thereby to cause me to remit your ransom?”
“I am willing without the remitting of the ransom, señor.”
“Corpse of a scullion!” exclaimed Don Q. “I see our way into this man's presence!”
“Yes, we two—alone!” The Chief bent forward and whispered for some time into Lalor's ear, breaking off at intervals to give way to terrible, sibilant paroxysms of laughter.
As the young man listened, his face lighted up. Here was adventure.
“Don Basilio's plot is still in the egg; we must crack the shell a little prematurely,” added Don Q. aloud in his usual soft tones. “I foresee that Fate ordains you to hold a hand in a fine game. Should I be forced to kill you later, you will at least have lived to some small purpose.”
DON Basilio was a man of European reputation. His heavy forehead, sarcastic eyes, and intolerant mouth, pouted under a bushy mustache, were well known in that international gallery of portraits which weekly papers publish periodically under such headings as “Rumored Revolution.” His incognito of “Da Costa” at Malaga was a thin one, and meant rather to give the authorities an excuse for wisely ignoring him, than to impose on the public.
Don Basilio's past life had been a tempestuous one. He had given the Old World and the New cause to regret that he had ever been born. And the quality which had carried him so far was his infinite capacity for revenging himself upon all who crossed the steep and tortuous paths above which burned the star of his ambition.
For some years past he had chosen to identify himself with the troubles in Spain. He it was who at once raised that dangerous little bodyguard of mercenaries, that fought sudden skirmishes and engagements, and was to be the nucleus of an army that never took the field, but which for months was reported to be upon the point of doing so.
In the hotel at Malaga, Don Basilio was surrounded by the remnant of this body-guard, for there were loyalists in Spain whose faces burned at the mention of his name, and who recognized in him the enemy of their country. He moved from place to place with his little court, an ill-tempered, intolerant personality, spiced with a sort of bullying humor, which commended him even less to strangers than his brusqueries.
The Carlist general, in writing to Don Q., had taken a high tone, and had promised him a pardon for his “many crimes” if he would place himself and his men at the disposal of the revolutionists. Little did Don Basilio think, as he dashed his sprawling signature at the end of this letter, into what a strange grapple of fate he was drawing himself, or what manner of man he addressed with so much of condescension.
THE bleak evening had fallen and the lights of La Bien Venida at Malaga were twinkling out upon the chilling air, when a hooded carriage drove into the courtyard of the hotel. From it Lalor descended and, standing upon the marble step before the lofty main door, carefully assisted an elderly man to get out of the vehicle. This latter was a very fragile and thin personage, attired in the severe costume of a bishop of the English Church. Under his greatcoat could be seen his apron and puny gaitered legs, but between the white tab at his throat and the curly-brimmed hat a bird-like beak of nose and a pair of fierce, livid-lidded eyes peered forth to arrest the attention of any onlooker.
“Come, dear uncle,” said Lalor, “we have arrived at last at the end of our long journey.”
The only onlooker, who happened to be a porter lounging near by, glanced at the Bishop's inadequate calves and smiled. In a second the Bishop was upon him.
“What are you laughing at, imbecile?” he cried in a sibilant high voice and excellent Spanish. “Be careful, dog, or I will cut the grin from your lips.”
So appalling was the intensity with which the little figure attacked him that the porter fell back stammering apologies and denials.
“Allow me to pray you to enter the house,” interposed Lalor, who felt the joke was better than even he had hoped for. “This excitement is bad for your health, my dear uncle.”
“True, dear nephew, true,” piped the thin, soft voice, “I am cold, I wish I had never allowed you to persuade me to come to this abominable country.”
At this moment the innkeeper appeared to meet them.
“I am desolated, señores, but my house is full,” he began.
“Te, te, te,” cried the Bishop irritably, “I am here, and here I stay. Do you know who I am? I am the Reverend Dionysius Bellingham, Lord Bishop of Britain.”
The landlord hesitated. English visitors paid well, and were not from the point of view of Don Basilio dangerous, still——
“I have but one room, excellency.”
“So? Put two beds into it. Be quick!”
The landlord turned to Lalor.
“Señor,” he said in a low voice, with a glance over his shoulder at the masterful Bishop, “can you not persuade his holiness to try another hotel? There are many in the city.” Lalor looked gloomily into the man's eyes.
“No power on earth could persuade him,” he replied with tragic conviction.
“Come, come, lead, the way! lead the way!” piped the Bishop, peremptorily, in spite of his now halting Spanish.
The guest rooms of La Bien Venida are built round an inner court, paved in marble, roofed in glass, and decorated with many lofty palms. Into this the Bishop advanced with his mincing step, followed by the reluctant hotel-keeper. The sharp, sibilant tones were sufficiently raised to attract the attention of a tall and stout man who had been smoking a cigarette in one of the adjoining rooms. He came striding out.
“What is this noise about?” he asked angrily of the hotel-keeper. “Who is this? Did I not order you to keep the place clear of your pestilential clients?”
In an instant the Bishop had stepped up in front of him. “Pardon, señor, my coat is black, but it can be pulled off! Also I can borrow a sword!”
The hotel-keeper stood aghast that any one should address the great General Don Basilio. That truculent personage seemed a good deal surprised himself.
“I do not fight with gnats!” he answered rudely. “Get rid of him,” he added, turning away.
But the Bishop's active figure was again before him.
“Yet I will not be brushed away,” he cried with sibilant imperiousness, “more especially by an animal like you!”
Lalor, who was enjoying himself hugely, felt it was time for him to interfere.
“I think, my dear uncle,” he said, laying his hand on the Bishop's shoulder, “that presently you will deplore having permitted your prominent virtue of Christian patience to desert you.”
“True, true, dear nephew,” said the Bishop sadly, pressing his thin finger upon his lips. “Your pardon, good señor,” he went on. “My excuse must be that, although I have strong hopes of ultimately succeeding, I have not yet entirely mortified the flesh. My fiery temper has ever been a thorn in my side.” Then seeing that Don Basilio was about to vent his rage in words, he added, “Forget all I have said—I earnestly trust I have not frightened you!” The churchman's livid eyelids flickered up at Don Basilio's puffy face, and before that gentleman could recover his speech, he was trotting up the stairs, followed by his nephew and the hotel-keeper.
Don Basilio stood still, uncertain how to act. Just then the Bishop's piping tones floated down from above. “Te, te, te! I will remain! I am ill. And if you refuse me entertainment, I shall be obliged to appeal to the authorities. Send at once for——”
Don Basilio went back to his cigarette.
SO it happened that the Bishop of Britain, or the man who masqueraded under that name, planted his camp well within the lines of the enemy, in other words obtained lodging at the headquarters of Don Basilio.
The latter worthy for a time did not know what to do. Should he insist on the departure of the peppery English cleric, or would it be wiser to let sleeping dogs lie? After half an hour's cogitation, he decided that, awkward as was the presence of the two strangers in the hotel, it might be still more awkward to bring himself and his people into prominent notice at the moment. Nothing, in fact, could be more fatal to his plans, and the English Bishop was manifestly a man not to be browbeaten lightly. Besides, if annoyed, he would be sure to write to his English Times, and anything that appeared over the signature of a bishop would attract attention.
So Don Basilio cursed the Bishop in two languages, rated the hotel-keeper, and finally dispatched a little note of apology to the Bishop of Britain that caused the man who received it to shake it from his fingers with contempt.
“So you see, señor, after all no harm has come of taking my own part,” he said to Lalor. “I knew my man. Had I allowed him to rough-ride over me he would, at that moment, have had us turned out of the hotel.”
“That is so,” admitted the young man. He was profoundly interested in the development of the situation. He had not the remotest notion of Don Q.'s design, for even with him the brigand was as secretive as ever. Lalor was, it must be owned, a romantic young man, and here he was watching at close quarters, and personally aiding and abetting one of those grotesque exploits which had given the Chief his European reputation.
“It will have occurred to you already why I chose to come down into the plains as a Bishop of England? The English are, pardon me, a mad nation. They do as they please; no one is surprised. And then their respectability——” he shrugged his pointed shoulders.
“Respectability is a pretty useful asset,” laughed Lalor.
“True. At this moment I have no other, and I find it all-sufficient. As to a bishop, a bishop is of all things created the most crassly respectable. Is it not so? I trust, my dear nephew, that I support the part to your satisfaction?”
Lalor pictured a certain ponderous uncle in England, who, in truth, happened to be a bishop, and hoped that the doings of his double would never come to his ears. But aloud he expressed an opinion that the stage had lost a remarkable ornament when Don Q. turned his attention to the profession of brigandage.
“Ah, my son,” argued the Chief gravely, “I followed my vocation. Almost any dullard can shine as a bishop, but for brigandage—it is another matter. Not one man in a generation is really fitted to rise to the highest rank of a calling requiring so numerous and brilliant a combination of qualities.”
Lalor agreed, and added his appreciation of the luck that had brought him into contact with the single individual of his own generation.
“Te, te, te,” broke in Don Q. in the peevish tone he chose to attribute to the part he was playing. “Now, can you suggest a suitable illness for a bishop? I am about to go to bed for two days.”
“Go to bed?”
“Yes, it is an essential part of my plan. And, indeed, happily so. Don Basilio is no doubt meditating whether he should leave the hotel. If I cross his path too often he may do so. That would be a misfortune, and ruin our hopes. But if I give out that I am very ill, he will simply indulge in pious prayers for my death, and thank the saints that my powers of interference have been providentially spoiled. I once had an English captive,” he continued thoughtfully, “who developed chicken-pox. Is that a disease adapted to the highest ranks of the princes of the English Church?”
“Gout would be more dignified,” suggested Lalor.
“Then gout it shall be. And tell them that I have no faith in the medical profession of this country, and that if a doctor presumes to enter my room I will cut off his ears.”
“That would hardly be in keeping with your character,” remonstrated the young man; “but if you will allow me, I will say that we have telegraphed to the great gout specialist in London, Sir Charles Jenkinson, and that until he comes you will trust to your own knowledge rather than to local talent.”
Don Q. looked up from the buckled shoe he was removing. “Excellent,” he commented. “I foresee, Señor Lalor, that you will one day become a very great writer indeed.”
Lalor carried out his part of the program, and everything fell out as Don Q. had foreseen. Lalor proved himself a good ally; he not only sent a bogus telegram, but he brought a good deal of information up to the sick-room, where a meager, delicately limbed figure lay patiently in the blankets.
ONCE or twice Don Basilio condescended to inquire after the health of the Bishop. Lalor shook his head at the big, lowering man, and observed that it was a sad case, for his uncle's pain was such that when a door banged in the hotel, the sweat stood out upon the sufferer's brow, and he was driven to repeat very long devotions to keep his tongue from transgressing.
Don Basilio smiled sourly, and afterward it was noticeable how many doors banged about the region of Don Q.'s bed-room, a fact which Lalor duly commented on to Don Q.
“Let them bang,” replied the Chief, as he arranged the black skullcap of velvet, which he wore apparently as a concession to the peculiar habits of British church dignitaries. “It may not be long before the door of this world bangs on the heels of our very good friend.”
Lalor felt conspiracy in the air, though there was nothing tangible to fix on in either the words or acts of his fellow guests. Don Basilio's sneering and violent temper seemed to grow worse day by day.
“The Queen enters Malaga this afternoon,” observed Lalor, sitting down on the edge of the pallet he occupied in the Bishop's room. “The royal progress through the streets takes place as arranged, early to-morrow.”
“Ah, then we must act,” replied Don Q., raising himself from his pillow. “This delay has been wearisome, señor. It has been in my mind to go down to breakfast, and pistol Don Basilio where he sat.”
Lalor grinned appreciatively. He had no doubt at all as to the temptation visiting his reverend uncle, for the brigand appeared to give little heed to the personal consequences of his actions.
“I'm afraid you would have been disappointed, for Don Basilio always remains in his own room for breakfast, though he sometimes joins us at dinner in the evening.”
Don Q. was out of bed in a twinkling, and wrapped in his dressing gown. He was already bandaging his foot with a towel before he spoke.
“It is midday,” he said, “a waiter has brought my invalid soup. Every person in the hotel is at this moment engaged in devouring food. The time has come, dear nephew.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Lalor.
“First we will concern ourselves with what you are to do,” returned the Chief serenely. “When you leave me you will descend and partake of breakfast, and do not forget, my dear nephew, to give evidence of anxiety at the increasing indisposition of your cherished uncle. I can no longer move—I—but you are gifted with an imagination; I can leave this matter in your hands. Afterwards you will go toward the stables, and there you will find a ragged fellow assisting with the horses. I venture to believe you will recognize a black-eyed scoundrel you have seen before in the Sierra. When you catch his eye, be so good as to place the forefinger of your left hand, thus, upon your chin.”
“I understand,” said Lalor. The affair was becoming engrossing once more. He waited eagerly for Don Q.'s next words. “As for me, my dear señor,” resumed the Chief, “you tell me that Don Basilio has been good enough to inquire of my health. It is very well, for I am now about to pay him a visit to thank him. He will not be afraid of a bishop with the gout, and once I am alone with my good friend I shall arrange everything most charmingly. Come, dear nephew, fasten this bandage that I may be able to use my foot if necessary, and then take me on your back, and we will pay our respects to General Don Basilio, who is in the habit of enjoying his breakfast alone in his rooms. Good!”
Don Q. perched himself actively on Lalor's shoulders, and they passed out into the empty passages of the hotel on their way to the quarters of the Carlist leader. Don Basilio sat alone at his meal, and was in the act of raising a glass of wine to his lips when Lalor, bearing his strange burden, paused in the doorway.
“That will do, dear nephew,” piped the Bishop, “place me in a chair by my good friend Don Basilio, and go at once to your breakfast.”
“What does this mean—this unwarrantable intrusion?” shouted Don Basilio.
Don Q. raised his pallid claw-fingered hand in deprecation.
“Not at all, not at all, señor,” Lalor heard him say as he closed the door upon the couple, “I have come to thank you for the kind inquiries you have been making after me, and to have a little talk with you.”
LALOR, in obedience to orders—no one ever disobeyed Don Q.—went down to breakfast, and sat through the meal full of excited anxiety as to what might be passing in that upper room between the burly, bull-necked General and his fragile-looking opponent. But no noise was heard, the routine of the meal went through its courses without interruption, and, as soon as he could leave the table without remark, Lalor made his way to the stables, where, sure enough, he at once caught sight of the handsome, laughing face of Robledo, who was lounging at the door with a bucket in his hand.
Lalor gave the signal, and, receiving an angelic smile of intelligence in return, strolled back to the bedroom of the Bishop. What, he wondered, could have happened during his absence?
Don Q. lay panting in the bed, his ivory face even paler than its wont. Lalor noticed also that the attenuated figure was trembling, and marveled once again at the mighty spirit which vitalized and upheld it to such extraordinary issues.
“Hullo, señor, what is the matter? You are ill?” The real concern on the young Englishman's face may have touched the Chief. He smiled faintly.
“No, I am not ill, dear nephew. Pleasurable emotions arising from the interview I have been enjoying and the unusual effort of walking have intensified the action of my heart—no more.”
“I hope that brute Basilio—” began Lalor.
“No, no. On the contrary, I am deeply gratified at the outcome of our little meeting.” Don Q. had recovered his breath and was readjusting his skullcap, which had been cocked in a rakish manner over one ear.
“Can you get at him, then?”
“At any moment,” the Chief assured him, with peculiar urbanity.
“But how, and where? The royal party has arrived, and—”
“My dear nephew, if you will trouble yourself to go down upon your knees, and look under my bed, I think you will find our excellent friend there.”
“Don Basilio?” exclaimed Lalor.
He noticed that the coverlet of the bed now swept the floor. Stooping, he raised it, to be confronted by the savage glare of Don Basilio's eyes as he lay on his back, gagged and bound. The great bulk of the man, his furious purple visage, his exasperation and violent temper, gave him, even though helpless, a formidable aspect. It appeared incredible that the slight figure in the bed could have overcome such resistance as Don Basilio was capable of offering.
Lalor raised himself and looked down at Don Q. with a new admiration. “How in the world did you manage it?”
“In the most simple manner, my son. I gave him the choice of coming quietly with me and submitting to my wishes, or having his brains blown out over his breakfast table.”
“And he came with you?”
“But certainly. He did not even hesitate. I had no time to spare, and told him so.”
“But what in the world are you going to do with him? We can't carry him away in our waistcoat pockets!” exclaimed Lalor, entering very much into the spirit of the adventure.
“Let him remain where he is,” said Don Q. “To-night, when all is quiet, we shall have a trial.”
“In my country we include a judge and jury in our notion of fair trial.” Lalor felt bound to say as much.
“Do not trouble yourself, my dear señor, I will myself undertake the duties of both, and indeed you may believe in me that justice shall be done.”
THE disappearance of Don Basilio made an immense sensation in the hotel, and every corner of it was searched, excepting only the chamber of the poor Bishop, who was suffering so acutely from gout.
When a waiter brought the news to that good-hearted personage, he ordered his bedroom door to be thrown wide open, and with feeble words and gestures urged on the searchers to fresh effort.
Evening drew on without any hint being found to clear up the mystery of Don Basilio's whereabouts. The plotters were in confusion, it even became among them a question of flight to save themselves, for rumor had it that the Government must have received an inkling of the conspiracy.
After dark the search was abandoned by the Carlists for the night. The hotel assumed its usual quietude as the night deepened.
The chamber of the Bishop was luckily somewhat isolated, in consideration of his illness. About two o'clock, Don Q. rose and dressed himself in his ordinary attire, packing his bishop's costume in his valise, while he requested Lalor to be so good as to drag Don Basilio out from under the bed. It seemed from the appearance of the prisoner that, if unbound, his passion would overpower him. But a few piping words from the Chief had their usual effect.
“Take off the gag, my dear nephew,” gently commanded Don Q. “I feel sure that the señor will understand that at a word or cry my sword will pierce his throat.”
Don Basilio replied by a rumble of terrible curses. Don Q. raised a warning hand.
“Te—te—te, your excellency, before a churchman, too, of rigid views!” Don Q. resumed for the moment his bishop's voice and manner.
Lalor half expected the Carlist's swollen aspect to explode bodily.
“If you are not Satan, who are you?” Basilio humped his shoulders and looked sideways at Don Q.
“You desire to hear? Then I will tell you my name.” The brigand bent to the other's ear, and whispered something. Lalor saw a look of stupefaction and incredulity pass across the purple face.
“It is impossible!” he snarled.
“I am also known to a few intimates as Don Q.,” added the Chief suavely.
“Don Q.? Why, you must have had my message?”
“It brought me here,” replied Don Q. “I came to look upon the man who mistook me for a traitor.”
“But you are a—”
“Sequestrador. True. Of the noblest rank of brigand. But it is now your turn to reply to questions.”
AND so the trial opened. The whole of it cannot be described here. Don Q. proved himself a past master in cross-examination, and as he supplemented his questions with a revolver, replies were forthcoming. Suffice it to say that in an hour the plot against the Throne of Spain was laid bare in all its atrocity. Lalor understood that few men had ever deserved that death penalty more absolutely than Don Basilio on his own showing.
“And now, señor, I have heard enough,” Don Q. spoke slowly. “I will not kill you like a dog, although you have earned such a death. I will give you a chance for life. I have told you my name. You are the only man living who knows it. Twice before, since I took to the mountains, have I revealed that old name of mine, and in neither case did the hearer live an hour after. Take this pistol, my son, and unfasten his bonds. If he attempts to escape blow out his brains.”
Don Q. handed the revolver to Lalor. Then from a corner of the room he brought out two duelling rapiers, and courteously begged Don Basilio to make choice of one.
“We will fight, señor, you for your life, I for my name. Clear a little place in the center of the room, my dear nephew. I am about to honor this animal by running him through the body.”
The swords crossed, and Lalor had another of his many surprises when he saw how Don Q. handled his weapon. He was as quick as a fencing-master, and his style, though that of a bygone day, left nothing to be desired. Don Basilio, on the other hand, panted as he fought with a heavy, bullying rattle of steel.
“For the Queen!” cried Don Q. as he pierced his antagonist's arm.
Don Basilio, stung with the pain, made a fierce onslaught, and Don Q. holding his sword straightly, passed it through the fleshy body, which subsided with a horrible leaning movement to the floor.
Don Q. cleaned both rapiers with some care upon the sheets, then, looking down upon the dead man, he said softly:
“Through the heart. That is the end of a very dirty scoundrel!”
Lalor stood silent, staring across the corpse at the terrible Chief.
“We had better be going,” said Don Q. after a musing pause, “but first I would arrange that our friend should be in a position to greet her majesty from my balcony when she passes in the morning. I should desire to be present myself, but I daresay you will agree with me, Seseñoror Lalor, that upon the whole, Don Basilio will very well replace me in testifying to my loyal devotion!”
With a strength of which the young man would not have believed him capable, Don Q. bent down, and raising the body, placed it in a chair. Then, helped by Lalor, he bound him in a sitting posture, and carried the chair into the balcony outside their window. A few moments later they had reached the street, and hurried along it. Before turning the corner Lalor stopped to look back. Over the edge of the balcony was visible the great blank face of the Carlist, sustained there on his high seat of mockery to do honor to her between whom and himself had lain the sword of Don Q.
LALOR stopped at the door of the carriage which was awaiting the brigand in a narrow old lane.
“How about our bargain now, señor?” he questioned.
Don Q. took his foot from the step, bowed punctiliously to the young fellow, and answered:
“You are free, Señor Lalor. Your ransom is remitted for the good service you have rendered to her majesty—and to me. I thank you in her name and my own. What do you now desire to do?”
“I cannot return to England—very easily,” he said in a dubious tone.
“Not yet, I am afraid, señor.”
“And if I remain here I shall be put into prison.”
“Then, obviously, you must return with me to the mountains. I have conceived a liking for you, señor. Your companionship will be a boon to a lonely man.”
There was nothing for it but to accept. Lalor thanked Don Q., and they drove away.
After a time, from the darkness the brigand's suave tones issued clearly.
“Believe me, you are fortunate, Señor Lalor,” Don Q. was saying; “your ambition was to become a great writer. Now Fate has thrown in your way the chance of something still higher. Listen to me. I trust you, I have formed a curious liking for you, I need a lieutenant in my band. With diligence—“
Lalor attempted to speak.
“Te—te—te, my dear nephew, be patient,” the Bishop's pipe stopped him. “As I was saying—with diligence you may become a great brigand! May I add one word of advice? Never be in a hurry to refuse a good offer.”
(The next Chronicle of Don Q. will be that of the Dark Brothers of the Civil Guard.)