IF you take a map of Spain and seek out the Mediterranean coast, where, across the narrow seas, the mountains of Europe and the mountains of Africa stand up for ever one against the other, you will find on the Spanish side the broad line of the Andalusian highlands stretching from Jerez to Almeria, and beyond. Here is a wild, houseless country of silent forest and ever-green thicket climbing up towards barren, sun-tortured heights. It is patched with surfaces of smooth rock, and ravines strewn with tumbled boulders; lined by almost untrodden mule tracks, and sparsely dotted with the bottle-shaped chozas of the charcoal-burners and the herdsmen.
The lord of this magnificent desolation was locally, though not officially, acknowledged to be a certain brigand chief, known far and wide as Don Q., an abbreviation of the nickname Quebranta-Huesos, which is, being interpreted, the bone-smasher, a name by which the neophron or bone-breaking vulture goes in these parts. In answer to any question as to where the bandit came from, or when he began to harry the country-side, one was told that he had been there always, which, though manifestly untrue, was, nevertheless, as near an approach to historical accuracy as may be found on many a printed page.
For Don Q., though perhaps not endowed with the sempiternal quality, had many other attributes of mysterious greatness. Few had seen him; but all knew him and feared him, and most had felt his power; he had cognizance of what was said or done, or, indeed, even thought of, throughout the length and the breadth of the wild region over which he held sway. He dealt out reward and punishment with the same unsparing hand. If a goat-herd pleased him, the fellow was made rich for life; but no man lived to bring him false information twice.
From his hidden abiding place in the black rock, a hundred feet above the general camp of his followers, he was to the surrounding country as a poised hawk to a covey of partridges.
The stories of his savageries were brought down to the plains by leather-clad mountaineers, and occasional expeditions were sent up against him by those in authority in the town. But every attempt failed, and the parties of guardias civiles came back fewer in numbers, having built cairns over their dead, leaving them near lonely shrines, amongst the ravens and the big, ragged birds of the sierra.
From all this it will be seen that the brigand chief was not a common brand of cut-throat; in fact, he belonged to that highest class known as sequestradores, or robbers who hold to ransom; and, though his methods were considered unpleasant, he carried through most of his affairs with satisfaction to himself, for he was an exceptionally good man of business.
No doubt, if any individual were to set up in the same line of life within twenty miles of a good-sized English or American town, the chances are that he would end up in a hurry. But in Spain it is always "to-morrow," and the convenience of the system lies in the fact that there is always another to-morrow waiting to take up the deferred responsibilities. If Providence had seen fit to remove that fatal mañana from the Spanish vocabulary and the Spanish mind, the map might be differently colored to-day, and the world a rather worse place than it is.
A party of the civiles had just returned from a particularly unlucky excursion into the mountains, and there was, therefore, the less excuse for the fool-hardiness of Gevil-Hay, who declined to pay any heed to the warnings of H. B. M.'s consul on the seaboard or the deep hints of his host at the little inn under the mountains, but continued to pursue his journey across the sierra. He could not be brought to see why the will of a hill-thief should stand between him and his desire to wander where he liked.
Gevil-Hay's obstinacy sprang from a variety of causes. He was in bad health and worse spirits, and he had for the whole period of his manhood governed a small kingdom of wild and treacherous hill-men in the interests of the British Government, backed only by a handful of native police, and, what is more, had governed it with conspicuous success.
Besides, beneath a quiet exterior, Gevil-Hay was as hard to move as the nether mill-stone. After putting these facts together, it will not be difficult to see that when he started for his long solitary ride across the Boca de Jabili, he only did what a man in his condition and with his temperament and experience would be likely to do.
He carried a revolver, it is true, but he found no use for it on a dim evening when something gripped his neck from behind. Indeed it was only after an interval that he understood vaguely that he was the center of a hustling crowd of silent men who smelled offensively of garlic and leather. He was tied upon his horse and the party set their faces northeast towards the towering bulk of the higher sierra.
But for once in a way, the spiders of Don Q. had taken a captive in their net of whom they could make nothing. In the dawn when they got him out of the cane-built hut in which they had passed the latter part of the night, they saw that he was tall and thin and rather stooped, with a statuesque face of extreme pallor. So far he was not so altogether uncommon. But the brigands were accustomed to see character come out strongly under similar circumstances, yet Gevil-Hay asked no questions, he evinced no trace of curiosity as to where they were taking him. He showed nothing but a cold indifference. A man in his position who asked no questions was a man of mark. He puzzled them.
The truth was that Gevil-Hay despised his warnings and took his ill-fortune in the same spirit of fatalism. He had been an Indian civil servant of good prospects and bad health. In the end the bad health proved the stronger, and his country retired him on a narrow competence. He was unemotionally heartbroken. There was a woman somewhere in the past, a woman to whom the man's lonely heart had clung steadfastly through the years while health slowly and surely deserted him. "Love me little, love me long" has its corresponding lines set deep throughout the character, and if Gevil-Hay was incapable of a passion of love or sorrow, he was not ignorant of the pang of a long renunciation and an enduring regret.
Don Q.'s men were no respecters of persons. The prisoner's reserve they finally put down to his being poor, probably deadly poor, for poverty is the commonest of all evils in Spain, and they treated him accordingly.
Rough handling and the keen winds of the upper sierra are not wholesome for a fever-shaken frame, but Gevil-Hay occupied himself with himself until he was brought into the presence of Don Q.
"SEÑOR," Don Q. was saying, "we have spoken about the ransom. You are a poor man you say, and you are lucky in that I believe you. I will name but a moderate sum, and after this conversation there will be no more to say about it. We will omit the subject while you remain my guest."
Gevil-Hay fixed his eye-glass and glanced round the glen, which was inclosed on all sides by steep cliffs, and then back at the little personage seated opposite to him on the terrace before the cave that served the chief for a home.
Don Q. was sitting in the sunshine, huddled in a folded cloak and with a felt hat drawn down over his brows. He was a small man, and Gevil-Hay saw nothing vulture-like but one lean hand, like a delicate yellow claw, that held the cloak about his neck.
"Perhaps you will be good enough to give me some idea of your career, and we can go into the question of the ransom at the end of it,” resumed Don Q., in his courteous manner, as the other did not speak.
Gevil-Hay answered briefly in good Spanish, for an Indian civilian starts in life equipped with a knowledge of every language under the sun.
"Ah, then you have retired—well, been forced to retire—but with a pension? Yes!"
Don Q., like all other foreigners, entertained extravagant ideas as to the lavishness of the English Government. Perhaps by comparison it is lavish.
"How much?" he asked.
"£300 a year."
"Ah," the little brigand hesitated while he made a mental calculation. "Your ransom, señor——" he stopped. He understood how to make a judicious use of suspense.
In the pause a shot reëchoed through the ravine, followed by a sound of loud, sudden brawling immediately below.
The Spaniard snatched off his hat and peered out over the end of the terrace. His cloak lay about him like a vulture's tumbled plumage, as he turned his face over his shoulder to listen with outstretched neck.
Then for the first time Gevil-Hay saw his face clearly, the livid, wrinkled eyelids, the white, wedge-shaped bald head narrowing down to the hooked nose, the lean neck, the cruel aspect, all the distinctive features of the quebranta-huesos transmuted into human likeness.
A few sharp, sibilant words hissed down the cliff, and the two swarthy quarrelers below fell apart with a simultaneous upward look of apprehension.
"Your punishment waits, my children," said the chief gently. "Go!"
The ruffians slunk away. They were curiously cowed, and by a word. It was an object lesson to Gevil-Hay, and perhaps the brigand watched him covertly to see how he would take it.
But the Englishman"s calm face gave no sign.
"As I said, when once the question of the ransom is settled, you remain as my guest.” The soft speech grew softer.
"There is no need to give my position a false name," answered Gevil-Hay, "I am your prisoner. Misfortune introduced us."
Above all things created, a man who defied him was abhorrent to the brigand, but now he saw opposite to him one who looked him in the eyes without either fear or curiosity. Gevil-Hay interested him, but rather as a frog interests a vivisector.
"On one thing I pride myself, señor," he said presently. "When I speak, the thing which I say is unalterable. I am about to tell you the amount of your ransom. I will contrive to send down your message."
"You will have to give me time if you wish to get the money," said the other. "I have only my pension, and I must see if they will commute that."
"Your Government will pay," asserted Don Q., suavely. "They will not lose so valuable a servant."
"Do you care for a worn-out coat?" asked Gevil-Hay with a mirthless laugh. "Besides, I came here in spite of warnings that the roads were unsafe. I must bear the consequences."
Don Q.'s wrinkled eyelids quivered.
"Shall we say twenty thousand dollars?" he asked, as if deferring to his prisoner's opinion.
"You have said it, and that's the end," returned Gevil-Hay; "though," he added, "I don't think you are ever likely to see it. They will commute my pension on the scale of the probable duration of my life, and that will give no satisfactory average, I am afraid. I hope you may get fifteen thousand dollars. I doubt if you will get more."
"I trust for your sake I may get twenty thousand," replied the Spaniard, "otherwise a disappointment might lead to consequences—regrettable consequences."
He shook his head and blinked as he withdrew into the cave.
Meanwhile Gevil-Hay wrote out his appeal and a request to Ingham, the consul at the seaport under the mountains, that he would urge the matter forward. Then he sat and drearily watched the evening wind in the pines above the gorge, and wished vainly that he could do anything—anything but watch and wait.
It is a bad moment when a man believes that his days of action are past, while his brain works strong and resolute as ever! He longed to beat the little chief at his own game, for he fancied he was a man worth beating.
In the gloom, when the fire was lit outside the cave, Don Q. returned. He took the sealed letter that Gevil-Hay held ready.
"And now, señor, I regard you as my guest," said he; "and in all things but one you may command me. I assure you I will do my best to play the host well, and to make your stay among us pleasant to you. I have your parole, señor?"
Gevil-Hay hesitated. The fever had laid its hand upon him, he shivered as he stood in the breeze, and the joints of his knees were unloosed with a creeping weakness. Not so many years ago the world seemed at his feet; he had striven hard for his position and won it—won more than that. He had tasted much of life's sweetness and the joy of power and growing success, yet to-day——
"Yes," he answered.
AS the days went on Gevil-Hay found he something in common with the chief, who proved himself an attentive host. There was something kindred between the two men, and yet Gevil-Hay was alternately attracted and repelled.
Yielding to the charm of Don Q.'s fine courtesy, he was led on to talk of many things, and he talked well, while the chilly, thin hearer, crouching in his cloak over the fire, listened with interest to a later view of the great world than lay within his own remembrance. Also the Englishman had been a wanderer in far countries; he was one who spoke with authority, who understood the craft of administration and high affairs. So it was that he could converse on the level of actual knowledge and experience with one who held himself also to be also a ruler and a law giver to no contemptible portion of mankind.
To Gevil-Hay Don Q. was a study. He watched him as a snake might be watched by an imaginative rabbit. He was always following the livid-lidded, inflamed eyes, always speculating on the thoughts which worked in the ill-balanced brain. For Don Q. was a Spaniard of the Spaniards, having the qualities of his race in excess. He was quite fearless, proud to distraction, unsurpassed in the kindly courtesy of a nation of aristocrats, and cruel beyond belief. As this character developed itself, Gevil-Hay, like many another man who has thought himself tired of life, clung to his chances of escape as they hourly grew less before his eyes. For one thing was apparent—Don Q.'s peculiarities did not lean to the side of mercy.
A couple of days after his arrival in the glen he asked the brigand chief what had been done with the two young brawlers who had drawn knives upon each other under the terrace.
Don Q. removed his cigarette to answer.
"They will annoy you no more, señor," he said, with the anxiety of hospitality, "no more."
"What? Have you sent them away to some of your out-lying detachments?" asked Gevil-Hay, for he had learned by this time that the robbers were posted at many points in the mountains.
Don Q. laughed, a venomous, sibilant laugh.
"They are gone—yes, with other carrion—the vultures alone know where!"
The chief was in one of his black moods of intense and brooding melancholy. They were common with him, but it was the first that Gevil-Hay had seen.
It suddenly struck him that some leaven of insanity might lurk behind the fierce, bird-like aspect. No wonder his followers obeyed him on the run. His generosity and his vengeance were out of all proportion to the deserving.
"Some day," said Gevil-Hay abruptly, " they will resent — this kind of thing. There are many ways; they might betray you, and then——"
Don Q. gave him a poisonous glance.
"I have made provision for that also; but no, señor, when I die, it shall be in my own manner and of my own will," and he relapsed again into musing.
It was then that Gevil-Hay found himself wishing his ransom might arrive in full, and wishing it with fervor. In a few minutes Don Q. spoke again.
"If you own a dog, he may love you; but a pack of hounds are kept in order with the lash. These," he waved his hand towards the gleaming camp-fires in the hollow, “are wolves. Also many men desire to join us—many more than I care to take. So you perceive, señor, I can afford to lose a few who offend me."
He rose as he spoke, and, going back into the cave, brought forth his guitar.
"After all, what is life, that we should prize it so?" he asked, as his thin fingers touched the strings. “I live up here, feared and obeyed to satiety. Sometimes I have the honor of a gentleman's companionship, as I now have the honor of yours, señor. At other times I grow weary of life, and my restlessness drives me down the mountains; but— at all times I love music."
Gevil-Hay looked askance at the guitar. Music was not one of the things for which he could declare any special fancy.
Don Q. placed his open palm across the twanging notes.
"If it displeases you," he said apologetically.
Gevil-Hay hastened to assure him to the contrary. And, indeed, if the listener had had the power of appreciation, he must have been touched and charmed, for Don Q.'s was a master hand. He lingered over mournful Andalusian melodies, and even sang in his strange sibilant voice long, sad songs of old Spain and forgotten deeds and men.
So the days wore on, but one evening there was a new development.
GEVIL-HAY, secured only by his parole, was allowed to wander at large about the glen, and on this occasion, after an ugly climb, he arrived at the head of a deep and narrow cleft in the higher rocks, along the bottom of which a faint track was visible. As he stood and surveyed it with an involuntary thought of escape, he heard his name spoken. Of course it was some hidden sentinel, but he was surprised when the man repeated his call, in the same low voice, for Don Q.'s men were usually sullen. In their eyes a prisoner had but two uses. First he was salable; second, if unsalable, it was amusing to see him die.
"What do you want?" asked Gevil-Hay after a little hesitation.
"The thing I say must be forever between us two alone. You can help us, we can help you. That is the reason of my speaking. No, señor, stay where you are. If you promise, I will show you my face."
"I promise nothing."
"Ah, that is because you have not yet heard! Is it not true that el señor capitán is taking from you all your riches?"
"And you, like the rest of us, would do something to save them? Is not that also so?"
"It may be."
"Then do it. It is but a little thing, and in the doing should taste sweet. You will not betray me?"
"As I have not seen you I cannot."
"But you will not?"
"Then take it, señor. Here, look up towards the lentisco."
In the warm gloom of the lentisco shrub something cold and ominous passed from hand to hand, and Gevil-Hay's fingers closed on the butt of a revolver.
"You mean me to kill him?" he said slowly.
A laugh was the answer, and words followed the laugh.
"Yes, for you have opportunity. Then you shall go free, for we hate him."
There was another laugh.
"A pardon and the blood-money between us. Now go."
And it cannot be denied that in the soft southern dusk Charles Gerald Gevil-Hay was horribly tempted. He stood there in the silence and wrestled with the temptation. Arguments came to him freely. By firing that shot he would be serving his kind as well as himself. Tormented with thoughts he slid back into the glen and walked across the short, hard grass towards the terrace. He passed by the fires round which the men were gambling. Lean columns of smoke rose slowly into the higher air, strange cries filled the glen, for the sequestradores played high, and each voice rose and fell with its possessor's luck.
He mounted the sloping path to the terrace. Don Q., unsuspecting, was within the cave reading letters beside a cheap lamp. How easy—Gevil-Hay stood outside in the herb-scented darkness and watched him. On the one side, the prisoner could look forward to a life of comfort at the least; and who could tell what else the future held? On the other hand, a hideous beggary in smoky, fish-scented lodgings, an existence worse than death! And in the night the man's honor wrestled with the man's temptations of expediency.
Presently he went in. Don Q. scowled at him and threw him an English newspaper. It was fourteen days old, and not one which Gevil-Hay was wont to buy when at home; but in the whirl of his thoughts he fled to it as to a refuge. He was about to open it, holding it at arm's length for the purpose, when his glance lit upon a notice in the obituary column.
"Hertford. — On March 10th, suddenly, at Frane Hall, Franebridge, George Chigwell Aberstone Hertford, eldest son of the late——"
He folded the paper with mathematical precision and read two columns of advertisements without seeing a word of what he read.
So George Hertford was dead at last! And Katherine——
Don Q. looked furtively at him under the shadow of his wide hat, and saw that el Palido, as the men called him, was sitting there more white and more statuesque than ever. His eyes were blank and set. By his tense attitude Don Q. knew that some struggle was going on within the Englishman's mind, and his own face filled with an ominous light as he glanced at one of his letters.
"Señor," he said aloud, in a changed voice, "news of your ransom has come. Eighteen thousand dollars. I said twenty thousand."
Gevil-Hay started slightly, controlled himself, and said unconcernedly.
"And so, señor, I am prepared to stand by my side of the bargain," replied the chief with a poisonous politeness. "At the rising of the moon nine-tenths of you shall go free from the head of our glen!"
There was a silence, broken only by the noises in the camp.
Free? Gevil-Hay's thoughts were racing through his brain. Yes, free, and—Katherine was free! Her husband was dead. Then he took in the force of Don Q.'s words, and, rising, stood up and leaned against the rocky wall.
"Am I to be grateful ?" he asked frigidly.
Don Q. smiled with a suave acquiescence.
"And because your conversation has interested me, señor, you shall have the privilege of choosing which tenth of yourself you will leave behind for us to remember you by."
"In fact, not content with making me a beggar, you will take from me all chance of regaining my losses?"
Don Q. bowed again and spoke with exceeding gentleness.
"It comes to that. I am very much afraid it comes to that," he said. "It is terribly unfortunate, I admit, but I do not see how it can be avoided. But you are a comparatively heavy man, señor; I think I should advise you to leave a limb behind you. One can yet live without a limb."
The brigand's callousness startled Gevil-Hay, well as he fancied he knew him. And in the breast of the slow-moving, phlegmatic man the temptation arose again with accumulated strength. A loaded revolver was under his hand, practical impunity waited upon the deed, and beyond that life —and Katherine! What stood between him and all this? Why, a scruple, a scruple that should not hold good for a moment against such counteracting motives. It occurred to him with much force that the thin, bald-browed, malignant wretch opposite, would be much more wholesome of contemplation were his lips closed forever.
But he had passed his word, given his parole, and a man occasionally finds his honor an inconvenient possession.
Had it been a question of another man's life or person, Gevil-Hay would have had no hesitation in sending Don Q. to his own appointed place. Moreover, he would have been delighted of the excuse for sending him there. As it was, he held his hand.
In another hour he would be given over to the band for mutilation, and his talk in the dark with the sentinel, joined to his failure in making use of the opportunity offered him, would assuredly not lighten the manner of paying the penalty.
Through it all, the bandit sat and watched him with blinking eyelids in the lamplight. The bandit’s sight was not very good, but it served to show him what he wanted to see. He had broken down the indifference of Gevil-Hay.
But Gevil-Hay had not held himself well in hand for so many years of his life for nothing. He conquered now in the grimmest fight he had ever fought. But his soul rose at the ruffian before him.
"I should certainly advise you to leave a limb," repeated Don Q. at last.
"You little beast! You unutterable little beast!"
Don Q.'s hand fell to his knife as he sprang to his feet and faced his captive.
"The one fact for which I am really sorry at this moment," went on Gevil-Hay, "is that I should have allowed such a thing as you to associate with me on equal terms! If I had guessed to what genus you belonged I would never have talked with you or remained near you, except I had been held there by force! Now you know what I think of you, and I assure you, although I can guess the price I shall have to pay for the pleasure of saying so, it is cheap!"
Don Q.'s angled face was yellow. His figure shook. It must be remembered that Gevil-Hay had an exhaustive vocabulary of Spanish terms, and knew the exact value of every word he distilled from the contempt within him. Also he had delivered his attack well, and each word told.
The chief's livid eyelids were quivering.
"Señor, you have spoken as no man has ever spoken to me before," said Don Q., at last. "There are many ways of conducting those little scenes which lie between this moment and your departure. By the time the moon has risen it will be hard to recognize el Palido!"
There was a fierce significance in the last few words that at any other time might well have made Gevil-Hay's heart turn cold. But now with his blood up and the hopelessness of his position apparent, he merely turned his back with a stinging gesture of repulsion.
“You little loathsome beast!" he repeated, " as long as I am not annoyed by the sight of your deformities, I can bear anything!"
So Gevil-Hay turned his back and stared out into the night. The noises below were hushed. The encampment was waiting for him —waiting—and for a third time temptation leaped upon him. And that was the worst spasm of all. When it left him, it left him exhausted. His mouth felt dry, his brow clammy.
He was still standing facing the opening of the cave, and after a pause a voice broke the silence.
"As you have a loaded revolver in your pocket, why do you not use it? Why do you not shoot me down, señor?"
"You know I could not," replied Gevil-Hay comprehensively.
"And are you not afraid of what is coming?"
Gevil-Hay turned and held out the revolver. Don Q.'s face was a study. He took no notice of the other's action, but asked:
" Because of your parole?"
He was answered by another question.
"How did you know about the revolver?"
"I instructed the man who gave it to you. I wished to see whether I had read you aright. Yet your inability to shoot me hurt you. Is not that so?"
"I wish I could do it now! At least there is no necessity for more talk between us. Maim me and let me go, or kill me! Only take away this revolver from me before I——"
Don Q. took the pistol, and laid it with deliberation upon the table beside him. Then he spoke.
"Señor," said he, "when I find one like you, I do not spoil the good God's work in him. You are not the type of man who comes to harm at my hands. A man who can keep his honor as you have done is worthy of life. Had you shot me, or rather had you attempted to do so, for I bear the charmed life of him who cares not whether he lives or dies, then the story of your death would have been related in the posadas of Andalusia for generations. But now, take your life. Yes, take it from my hands.
"After to-night we shall see each other no more; but when you look back over your life, señor, you will always remember one man, who, like yourself, was afraid of nothing; a man worthy to stand beside you, Don Q., once of the noblest blood in Spain. A man——" The brigand checked himself in his flood of florid rhapsody and Spanish feeling. "Adiós, señor."
TWO hours later Gevil-Hay was alone upon the sierras. When he reached Gibraltar, which he did in due course, he was surprised to find himself almost sorry to hear that the Spanish Government, goaded on by ponderous British representations, had determined to cleanse the land of the presence of Don Q. Since then Gevil-Hay 's life has not been a failure. And sometimes in the midst of his work a thought comes back to him of the proud, unscrupulous, gallant little brigand, whose respect he had once been lucky enough to win.
(The second chronicle will tell how Don Q. outwitted Don Luis)