THERE is a criminal in Spain who never enters the dock, yet who has been directly responsible for many a wild quarrel and stabbing affray. That criminal is the east wind. The statistical reports show that the frequently fatal brawls of the Peninsula are doubled in number when the levante blows, galling the nerves of the Andalusians.
On the day of which I write, Don Q., the brigand Chief, was nearing—though he himself had yet felt no symptom of the fact—the end of one of those ill-omened fits of depression which were wont to settle from time to time upon his spirit. Great as his reputation then was, upon that afternoon, when the east wind was moaning and roaring over the rocks about his cave in the hillside, he was upon the brink of a series of events that were destined to dwarf all his previous exploits, and to cast a new light upon his curious character.
Withdrawn in the gloom of his cave, he sat huddled in his cloak over a glimmering fire, his face hidden by his shadowy hat. For days he had brooded thus, hardly moving, like some large, sleepy bird. Sunk in a black depth of despondency, he would mope with his eyes half covered by their strange red lids, and who can guess what dark thoughts and dreams filled his mind at such periods?
The inclosed glade under the cavern was silent also, though round the fires lounged groups of his wild-looking followers, red or yellow handkerchiefs bound about their brows. Surcharged as they were with the nervous irritation produced by the east winds, they stirred and spoke with caution, glancing up apprehensively at the cave, which showed like a dark hole in the cliff above them, and which somehow seemed to be a listening ear, that no whisper could escape. During times like the present they had learned to be very still. So tremendous a hold had the little, vulture-like brigand over his men, that when he appeared among them in one of his black moods they would force tears into their eyes.
“My children,” Don Q. had once said, “will respect my silence. They will always respect what they do not understand. The greed of gold, the love of women, the passion for gambling, these things they understand. My silence they do not understand. Therefore let them walk warily. I am king and chief in the mountains, and my will is that when I am sad my children shall be sad. Let them weep for my sorrows, lest I give them sorrows of their own.”
The picturesque groups about the fires speculated as to the cause of the particular brooding-fit that just now cast its gloom upon them. Some laid it to the credit of the levante, others insisted that it arose on the day that Robledo brought up newspapers from the white town by the sea. Had the Government, by any chance, placed a yet higher price upon their lord's capture? A third party chose to believe it was accounted for by the thefts of El Duques, as he called himself, a “little cat of Madrid,” as the saying goes, one of the dregs of the population, who had lately begun to play the footpad on the confines of Don Q.'s territory.
But to none of these causes was the Chief's dark humor due. Fear played no part in his twisted, self-torturing thoughts. The ill-doings of El Duques (the Duke) had vanished before the storm of wrath evoked by a little paragraph in the paper, which, though insignificant to the ordinary mind, touched him on an old and festering wound.
HERE is its history. A new governor had lately been appointed to the Prison of Castelleno. Don Hugo was, for a Spaniard, a roystering blade, handsome, noted for his gallantries, and early successful in his career. In an ill-advised hour he delivered a speech in public, wherein he observed that Don Q. was a happy nickname for the brigand chief who for so long had terrorized the district. He recounted some of his crimes, and fulminated against him the penalties of the law.
All this Don Q. read in his mountain eyrie with exceeding relish. It flattered his self-esteem, and it might be, moreover, considered in the light of a first-class advertisement. The speech was fully reported in the local journal, which we may call El Mundo, but the sting lay waiting in the last clause: “And yet this reputed king of the mountains,” concluded Don Hugo, “is, after all, a miserable wretch, poorer than the meanest ass in Spain, for he carries but one ear!”
Whatever his other bodily infirmities, the little bandit possessed both his ears, yet the libel was of a nature which could never be forgiven. His diseased vanity dwelt upon it with an ever-growing bitterness. The slumbering devil in him awoke, tormenting him to fury.
UPON this day, which followed an interval of terrified quietness, the robbers' valley was thrilled by an excitement, hot with the double seasoning of novelty and danger. A party scouring the lower hills, according to their practice, had met with a lady—a very great lady she seemed—who, far from objecting after the usual manner to being carried prisoner into the sierras, insistently demanded to be taken into the presence of the dreaded chief.
This was all very well; but, even for a dame of mark, what man among them would dare to disturb his grim hour of melancholy?
Finally, the individual whose misfortune it should be to carry the message to the cave was elected by throwing dice. The lot fell upon Gaspár, a lowering rascal, who sullenly made his way up the winding path on the face of the cliff. He entered the gloomy aperture, and stood motionless, waiting with bowed head for the Chief's notice.
Don Q. was brooding in a niche beside the fire. Afternoon waned. The wind made descents from the Sierra Nevada and gamboled titanically in the lean firs, passing on downward to sweep the fields of asphodel that lie about the foothills.
Thus four hours passed. The wind had sunk with the setting of the sun. Night was closing in. Still Gaspár stood, not venturing to move hand or foot.
In the dusk Don Q. lifted up his head. “Do not keep me any longer, I pray, Gaspár,” he said in a short, sibilant voice. “What is it?”
“Lord, a señora would speak with you,” stuttered the man.
Don Q. paused. It must be confessed that a lady desiring an interview with him was something of a novelty.
“Good. The señora’s name?”
“The lady would tell you that herself, lord.”
“Let her come.”
Gaspár turned away with relief, but the chief stopped him. “Stay, Gaspár. Make up the fire, and light a torch; fix it up there behind me. I trust, Gaspár, you have not inconvenienced the señora by keeping her waiting? I shall ask her, and if—” the silence was eloquent.
A few minutes later a lady swept into the circle of light within the cave. Her face was hidden by a mantilla, but she moved with the air of acknowledged beauty, audacious and graceful.
Don Q. rose from his seat in the gloom beyond the fire and bowed.
“I am the Chief of the Sequestradores, and the señora’s very humble servant.”
The words, uttered in purest Spanish, with the soft tone of courtesy, almost startled the hearer. She peered across the smoke and flames, but the torch had been set to baffle her vision.
“I have come, señor, to implore your aid,” she said impulsively.
At the same instant she flung back her mantilla, and disclosed her features. Don Q. gazed at her for a moment in silence. She was a golden Spaniard; dark-eyed, with a mouth like a red blossom, her somewhat cruel-looking but extreme beauty enhanced by a skin of exquisite fairness, and crowned with golden hair.
“Señora,” began the soft voice after a pause, which the lady fully appreciated as a tribute to her charms, “am I permitted to ask by what name I may remember such loveliness?”
“Catalina, the Condesa Catalina—” She broke off excitedly; she had an end in view, and wished to gain it without delay. “I was told that you were kind to those in distress, and would help a woman when you could.”
“I rejoice that there are still some speakers of the truth under the mountains. Be at ease, Condesa, my pleasure at the sight of so much beauty is only equaled by my impatience to know in what manner I can show my gratitude for the honor of this visit.”
“Señor, I am the wife of the handsomest caballero in Spain, alas!”
“Ah! And the Condesa dwells——”
“In Castelleno,” she answered.
“In Castelleno?” The fact was pertinent to the moment. "Be seated, señora. You are doubtless acquainted with the Governor of the prison?"
The Condesa started slightly.
“Is he not an ugly, pimple-faced fellow?” questioned Don Q.
She replied hotly, “On the contrary, he is an exceedingly handsome man.”
He cut her short. “Pardon me, but are you sure? I have heard that ladies cried out at the mere sight of his smile.”
“With gratification, perhaps,” she answered, and sighed impatiently.
“No, no, señora; you are surely mistaken.”
“Hardly possible, Don Q. He is my husband!”
“You are then the wife of the Governor, Don Hugo?” The Chief's smooth voice vibrated slightly with some emotion. “I should envy him, if I dared.”
“Of what use is beauty if it does not secure love?” she cried petulantly. “My husband——”
“You love him?”
“Not always,” she said, with a charming pout.
“At this moment?”
“At this moment I hate him!” She leaned forward with a swing of her lithe body, her eyes flashing. “I heard a whisper—I suspected—I set spies—I followed him.” She clasped her hands before her breast, then flung them apart with a vehement gesture of rage. “Oh, at this moment I could kill him!”
“Proceed, Condesa. What have I to do with lovers' quarrels?”
“Everything, if you will help me! Yes, we quarreled. He laughed at my tears. I vowed I would throw myself on your protection. He dared me to do so, and, though I was indeed afraid (for your name is a cause for shuddering in the plains, señor), I came. He must pay a ransom for me. Thus shall he be taught to value his wife.”
“Nay, Condesa; I could not have the heart to deprive him of your charming society. Figure to yourself his anxiety,” was the unexpected reply. “You shall be sent down to Castelleno to-morrow in safety.”
The beautiful face darkened. “I shall not go!” she cried imperiously. “I did not fancy you would be on the side of my husband. Remember,” with a witching glance at the dim figure in the corner, “you promised to help me.”
“I have not forgotten. Yet you must go to-morrow, though your departure will leave the mountains bleak indeed!”
“You are only a man, after all!” she exclaimed angrily. “The sins of one man are not sins in the eyes of another man. Perhaps you would feel less for him, if you knew more of what he says of you. Only last Sunday he vowed you were a coward.”
“Don Hugo takes much upon himself when he says that.” A changed note in the low voice frightened her.
“He had an argument to back it,” she ran on nervously. “He said that it was easy to terrify a helpless captive up here when you have your men beside you. But he would wager—oh, I cannot go on, señor!”
The flames of the fire had died down in some degree, perhaps Don Q. had slightly changed his position. However that may be, the Condesa Catalina began to see the figure opposite to her more distinctly. The muffling cloak took on the shape of heavy bedraggled plumage; the depressed head, pushed forward between sharp raised shoulders, completed the likeness to a great vulture. And the terror of the dread and mysterious Don Q. struck cold into her very soul.
“Favor me by proceeding, señora.” The tone was as gentle as ever, but the sibilance was more apparent. The Condesa shivered, but she obeyed.
“He wagered that alone, unbacked by your comrades—I mean followers, you would prove yourself—oh, how can I say it?”
She turned her lovely imploring gaze toward that brooding presence.
“But you must, señora. Having gone so far, I regret to insist, but——”
She hesitated; but the brigand Chief's name had for too long scared the countryside to fail in its influence under circumstances such as these.
“Have it then,” she cried desperately. “You would prove yourself as cowardly as you are hideous.”
“Corpse of a scullion!” The ejaculation burst out with violence; then the soft voice resumed, “But even now, Condesa, you have left out one little particular.”
“No, no,” she sobbed, “I recollect no more.”
“Then listen. The Governor of the Prison of Castelleno was good enough to declare in public that I have but one ear. It is a lie, as I mean to show him. To-morrow you will take a message from me to his excellency Don Hugo, your husband.”
“But,” she ventured, “you promised to help me.”
“That will I do also. You must have the goodness to tell him that before the new moon I, alone, without a single follower, will come down into Castelleno. I make myself clear?”
“Tell him I have a little museum up here in the mountains, to which I desire to make a small addition.”
“Yes, señor.” The iterated words were all her dry lips could frame.
“Tell him, further, that when I come down into Castelleno I shall have with me two ears—my own; but that when I depart I shall have four ears, my own and his. Yes, señora, alone and single-handed within fifteen days, I, Don Q., will come down from the mountains and crop the ears of the Governor of the Prison of Castelleno.”
“But,” she cried in horror, “you have deceived me. An earless husband!—how unendurable!”
“Nay, señora, he will be the more faithful, believe me.”
FOR the eighth time the Governor of the Prison of Castelleno muttered an angry oath. Because, for the eighth time that evening, his excellency had found his hand straying nervously to his ears.
The message of Don Q. had been faithfully brought down to him by his wife. In her presence, and indeed to himself during the hours of daylight, he would scoff at the threat as the absurd and empty vaporing of a wretched hill-thief. He was a strong man mentally and physically, yet when evening began to fall, and the wind moaned over sad Spain, his impressionable nature took on a more somber tint. In vain he looked at the high stone walls about him, and called himself a fool of fools; in vain he redoubled the usual precautions of the prison, for always behind his hour-to-hour thoughts crept that unconquerable misgiving. He would start at a footfall, and his hand whisk up to his ears. He cursed his imagination, he cursed Don Q., he cursed his wife; but in his heart of hearts he wished he had let sleeping dogs lie.
His sleep had not been so good of late. In the darkness his mind was haunted by the many stories of the brigand that were rife in Andalusia. He recalled various expeditions, addressed against his foe, that had wound away into the Sierras. He re-called the period of waiting, and then the return of the survivors, broken with hard-ship and the terror inspired by the fate of their comrades.
He remembered a hundred tales of the little chief, each one of which made him shudder. For Don Q. was a man of a strange warped sense of humor, and scarcely one of the legends attached to his name but glowed with lurid manifestations of this quality. Besides, the bandit appeared to be omniscient. None ever lived to carry him false news twice. But true information was paid for with terrific lavishness.
Above all, Don Hugo could not forget that the man's promises were always kept; that he always made his acts coincide scrupulously with his threats. There can be no manner of doubt about the fact that the Governor's ears tingled when he dwelt upon the thought of the immutably vengeful creature he had so mortally offended.
Yet, although this grayness of spirit pervaded the life of Don Hugo, there seemed to be actually no immediate cause for alarm. Up in the Boca de Lobo, the Wolf's Mouth, as the robber's valley was called, all was going on as usual. Don Q. remained in his cave issuing orders and dealing out justice according to his own drastic code. But he was not idle. The task he had set himself was one of enormous magnitude, and any smallest mistake or slip could only end in supreme disaster. Don Hugo embodied the constituted authority of the State, and he was, moreover, forewarned, and on the alert at all points.
But during that period the human network with which Don Q. swept the countryside for information responded at many points to his manipulation. One well-to-do farmer shut his eyes contentedly, although his most valuable horse disappeared for a while from his stable; a respected citizen of a seaside town procured, with some trouble, a special form of saddle and bridle, and so on. Don Q.'s plan was laid out very subtly, and with a minute precision of detail, for his fierce heart dwelt in a frail body, and he purposed to go down single-handed to smite his enemy.
When all was ready, he called up Robledo and Gaspár to the cave.
“My children,” he said, in his silkiest tones, “there are two under the mountains with whom it is necessary that I should deal—the thief, El Duques, and the Governor of the Prison of Castelleno.”
A flicker of excitement lit up the dark eyes of the men, but the Chief raised his delicate yellow hand.
“I have nothing yet for you to do save to secure the quiet of my musings. You will bring my food as usual day by day. I lay no command of silence upon you, but for no reason whatever—you heed me, Robledo?—for no reason whatever am I to be called forth until you see me again.”
The men touched their tongues and eyes.
“That is well. Keep your oath in mind,” advised Don Q. “For the story of what I am about to carry out will be told in the posadas of Spain by your children's children.”
After this the quiet of death fell upon the cave. The band believed the Chief to be still there, for he certainly had not passed by the sentries, who rigorously kept the only known entrance to the valley.
WHILE these events were going forward in the sierras, El Duques was giving full play to his predatory instincts about the foothills. He was a thief of the meanest sort, drawing his dividends from those who could least afford to pay them. His victims were the very poor. By lonely bridle paths and sheep tracks he lurked, robbing women going to and fro from market. He raided the miserable huts of the charcoal burners, and the wandering herds of men knew not what lentisco bush might disclose the villainous face, the sight of which meant ensuing days of hunger, when their scanty victuals had been rifled at the pistol's mouth. It has been recorded that the behavior of the footpad had long been a source of irritation to that humane person, Don Q.
About the time when the beautiful lady from Castelleno visited the sierras, El Duques put the final pinnacle upon the monument of his sins, when he fell in with a certain Carmelita, the pretty young bride of a peasant, and murdered her for her purse of four pesetas. News of the crime was brought up to the Boca de Lobo by the woman's brother, and Don Q. took the matter into his immediate consideration.
Where the mighty bulwarks of the mountains merge gradually into the plain below, many a lonely valley and ravine lie desolate and empty of human existence. Midway in such a glen huddled a clump of firs, among whose green-black crests the wind was hustling. A mile-track led through the ravine, sometimes plunging into the bed of the torrent under the thickets of laurustinus and oleander, sometimes rising to less difficult ground, such as lay around the little natural terrace on which the fir-wood clung.
Beside the path at this point stood a forsaken ventorrillo, or wayside wine-shop, a poor place built of rush and reed, half hidden in the shadow of the trees. The sun was sinking far over the rim of the forlorn landscape; a wedge of birds flew southwards beneath the darkening sky. Save for the ruined, bottle-shaped choza, where wayfarers could no longer call for a draft of white wine from the skin, no sign of habitation broke the circle of sight.
But in the heart of the wood a man wrapped in a cloak was dismounting, stiff with a long day's travel, from his horse. He saw to the needs of the animal, and taking a small valise from his saddle, hid it in a neighboring thicket. Then he made his way through the trees to the back of the hut, and, having satisfied himself that it was empty, he passed in. A little heap of wood ash and some charred sticks marked the spot where a fire had been kindled. The new-comer stooped and touched the ashes.
“Still warm," he murmured. “Tomas told me truly. He shall have his reward.”
Then taking a small lantern from under his cloak he lit it, shut off the light, and sat down on a stone in the gloom beside the doorway to wait.
Four days earlier Don Q. had left the Boca de Lobo by an entrance known to none but himself. In a lonely gorge he found waiting for him, tied among some high scrub, a horse, saddled and bridled in semi-military fashion. During those four days, whether riding downward by devious and little-known paths, or cooking his meal at sunset, or lurking in a thicket to watch the passing of a couple of guardias civiles, or dozing the dark hours through, rolled in his cloak, the vision always before his eyes took the form of the shapely ears of the Governor of the Prison of Castelleno.
As a rule the Chief lived withdrawn in his fastness, conceiving and directing the operations of his followers, but seldom taking any part in them. Now, however, the taunts of Don Hugo called for personal intervention. The occasion, he felt, was worthy of him.
He was engaged upon a fantastic exploit. The difficulty of entering the Governor's presence might in itself have seemed insurmountable; but almost as Don Q. uttered the words of the threat a plan formed in his mind, and it was in pursuance of this plan that he sat in the darkening, forsaken hut and tasted already the fierce joys of action.
He brooded and listened. Evening became night, and when the bell-shaped opening which marked the door of the choza grew into a faintly luminous picture of the night sky framing seven stars, a quiet foot-fall told that El Duques was approaching his temporary lair. He walked moodily, for, although he had been fairly lucky in some petty pilferings, he had heard ill news.
He had received a final warning that, as he persisted in his discreditable habits, the “King Brigand” was about to make an example of him. El Duques spat out some venomous words against the higher power, but promised himself at the same time that to-morrow's sun should find him many miles away.
With an angry grunt he entered the choza and bent to search for some dry sticks to rekindle the fire, wholly unaware of that other human presence.
A light suddenly suffused the hut. El Duques started erect; but the oath froze on his lips, for, seated beside the door, was a cloaked figure that bore a frightful resemblance to one of the great carrion birds of the mountains. Moreover, a pistol, with a delicate finger hooked on the trigger, showed menacingly.
El Duques tried to pull himself together. “Who are you? What’s your business here?” he asked roughly.
“I imagine, my excellent El Duques, that you already know who I am; and, perhaps, if my messengers are as sure as I believe them to be, you can also guess my business.”
Don Q. was very urbane. The manner deceived his hearer.
“I don’t mind listening to you, Señor Don Q.; but cut it short. A few minutes can settle all that lies between two gentlemen like you and me,” said El Duques jauntily
“You are altogether mistaken,” replied Don Q., with a terrible softness; “the remainder of your life will hardly suffice for an interview such as ours. Stop!” At the volcanic, sibilant word, El Duques' hand dropped from his belt. “Bring your weapons and lay them on the ground at my feet.”
There was no disobeying the command. “How do I know,” grumbled the thief, “who you are? A cloak and a sombrero, and I could play at being the Quebrantahuesos myself.”
The Chief pulled off his hat and stretched his face toward the other. The wedge-shaped head, entirely bald and covered with thickened skin, the hooked peak of the nose, and, above all,the red-lidded, malevolent stare, seemed to paralyze El Duques. He stood dumb, shaking from head to foot.
“I should much like to see your permission to rob and kill in the foothills. There appears to be some trifling misunderstanding,” went on Don Q., evenly.
“I was poor and starving,” began El Duques.
“Therefore you filch from other poor and starving folk. Shame on you! You have brought dishonor and discredit upon a very noble profession. You have degraded a great calling by mean and thievish methods. The poor are sacred, El Duques, yet you have preyed upon the helpless; you have slain those kindly-hearted ones, who out of their poverty would give food to the stranger in his need. Such are our peasants. But you, offscouring of a vile city, lost to the sense of mercy——”
“It is said that my lord is not too merciful when his captives fail to find a ransom,” whined the other.
“Pray remember, good El Duques, I am not a thief, I am a sequestradore—one who holds to ransom, a very different thing. I force my living from those who selfishly spend money on themselves, or who as selfishly hoard it. But I came not to argue. I came to remind you that already you have had two warnings of my displeasure at your methods, and to ask you whether you ever heard of the fate of a certain Antonio, who was—as—you—are?”
El Duques shivered again. He remembered well enough the dreadful tale of that other petty thief, who had robbed and ill-treated a poor woman. The brigand of high degree had spared the civil guards the trouble of catching him. Sending half-a-dozen of his followers to fetch Antonio to his presence, Don Q. had reproached him with his crime, then blind-folded him and ordered him to hop forward thirteen paces. The thirteenth hop was seventeen hundred feet deep, and those in authority, who found the remains, were never quite sure whether one man or two had perished.
El Duques fell upon his knees. “I appeal to you, lord of the sierras. I am, in truth, but a petty cutpurse, and unworthy to be named in the same breath with your mighty lordship; but”—the scoundrel in his panic hit upon a fatal plea—“wolf does not devour wolf; highwayman does not rob highwayman; bandit spares bandit.”
For answer Don Q. struck him murderously in the face with the hilt of his dagger.
“Corpse of a scullion!” he cried furiously. “You deserve death for this alone! Are we equals, that I should spare you? What has a gutter-born thief to do with a sequestradore? Would you declare Napoleon a murderer because he won battles? Learn once and forever the immeasurable gulf that divides you and such as you from Don Q.!”
IT was evening. On the roof of the prison, beside a cluster of potted palms, a couple of reclining chairs had been placed in the best position to catch the cool air from the mountains.
In one Doña Catalina yawned and fanned herself languidly, while the Governor sat smoking cigarettes in the moody silence that day by day was growing upon him. Now and again he lifted his eyes and gazed across the white town and the tillage surrounding it, to the tracery of peak and pinnacle which beyond them climbed into the pink evening sky. He had manifestly lost flesh, and the frown upon his handsome brows told of ruffled nerves.
He was irritably reflecting that he was a fool to dwell upon the menace of a small, deformed, and probably crippled demon, who, although a source of terror in those distant sierras, would be impotent and harmless enough, even were he able to bring himself face to face (a highly improbable achievement, by the way) with—the Governor stretched out his legs before him and approvingly felt their muscles.
Yet—Don Hugo relit his cigarette and fell back into his chair—only that very morning he had found the beak of a vulture lying on the table of his private room, and nobody appeared to know how it got there. It might, of course, mean nothing; but it was the beak of an Egyptian vulture, a neophron—of, in fact, the bone-smashing carrion bird known in Spain as the quebrantahuesos. Such an incident might have no connection, after all, with the man whose shadow lay like a blight across his gay life, but—the hand of the Governor, nevertheless, crept unconsciously to his ears.
A sweet, low laugh brought him to his feet. He glanced angrily at his wife.
“Again! Oh, my Hugo, you stare at the mountains and finger your ears as if Don Q. could stretch his long talons across from his cave and pull them off!” She laughed again with an abandon of enjoyment that came near to breaking down the restraint Don Hugo had placed upon his temper.
“Not precisely. But I admit that the sierras reminded me of your foolish visit up there, and naturally of that robber's most insolent message,” he replied with an air of lofty reproof. "This has forced me to take special steps with a view to setting an end to his career. A conclave of the principal personages of Castelleno and the neighborhood is to be held in the great hall presently. An extraordinary expedition will then be sent up against him. I will probably lead it myself—”
The señora rose from her seat and curtsied deeply and derisively.
“I shall be doubly anxious about your ears then, my beloved! Don Q. is a man of his word. But, see, your guests begin to arrive.”
Spaniards, in spite of their reserve, are moved to heady excitement upon any subject which touches them nearly. The caballeros of the district, no less than the citizens of the town, appeared to find in Don Q. a topic far from conducive to calmness. However his reputation stood with the poor, the rich, whom he sent empty away, bore him much ill-will. The room resounded with tales of the little brigand. Each man could supply a different anecdote of his annoying, if not terrible, exploits, some of which dated back a score of years, some to yesterday, but almost all stamped with that distorted humor which commonly bit too deep for laughter.
The Count de Bermeja had told the story of Antonio's punishment by the brigand, and another of the hidalgos had spoken of a report that Don Q. hoped eventually to publish a book, which should take the form of an autobiography, and be enriched by a couple of appendices, the first setting forth the names of all his captives who had been ransomed, the dates of capture, amount of ransom demanded and received, and date of release; the second appendix, to be set within a suitable border of black, should contain a complete list of those whose money value had failed to arrive, with a little note below each name detailing in what manner death had met with them.
Then Don Hugo, rising in his place, referred to the crowning offense of which the brigand had been guilty. He told, in fact, with certain expedient deviations from historic accuracy, the tale of his wife's journey into the mountains. That so beautiful a woman should have been kidnapped and half frightened to death stirred the ready Spanish chivalry, and when Don Hugo declared himself willing to administer an oath of membership to a Society of Vengeance, the idea was greeted with acclamation, and was about to be carried into effect when an orderly disturbed the meeting.
A captain of the civil guard was in waiting below, charged to speak without delay to the Governor on a matter of the highest importance.
“You will be good enough to request Captain del Pino to rest himself for a few minutes,” returned Don Hugo impatiently.
“Pardon, excellency, he bade me present this.” The man held out a card upon which some sentences were written.
The Governor glanced at it and uttered an exclamation.
“Señores, Captain del Pino comes from Madrid upon business connected with Don Quebrantahuesos.”
“We can enroll him in our membership,” suggested one of those present. “As he is of the guardia civil, he will, without doubt, be a useful addition to our counsels.”
A short man in the uniform of the civil guard was already bowing in the doorway. His long blue cloak hung behind his shoulders, and as he raised his head, covered with dark curling hair, the assembly saw that he bore stains, not only of travel, but of misadventure by the way. His brow was bandaged, and a spatter of blood showed on his cheek.
The Governor spoke a few words of introduction. Del Pino bowed again with an air of distinction, and cast a slow glance through his eye-glasses round upon the circle. Refreshments and cigarettes were pressed upon him, but he declined them with a courteous reserve.
“My business is pressing, excellency. Can I see you alone?” he said, in a low tone, which, however, carried an imperious echo.
“You have a mission connected with—” began the Governor pleasantly.
“Pardon me,” interrupted the courtly captain, “a secret mission, intrusted to me by the highest authority in Madrid.”
“As to that, you will never guess the purpose for which we are gathered here to-night.”
“A matter of some responsibility and difficulty?” Del Pino's tone and gracious movement of the head was in the nature of a general compliment to the ability and position of those present.
“Truly a man of breeding,” observed one gentleman in an aside to another.
“You may speak freely. We—my friends and I—are agreed on that subject.” Don Hugo waved his hand largely. “Your mission then concerns——“
“A certain gentleman, well known not only in these parts, but throughout the whole of Spain, a certain Don Quebrantahuesos,” added the captain quietly.
“Come, come, señor capitán! We have less respect for the one-eared brigand of the Boca de Lobo,” laughed the Governor, too busy in lighting a cigarette to notice a sudden contraction of Del Pino's features. “That little vulture of the rocks has troubled us too long. We were, precisely when you arrived, arranging to make an end of him.”
“No doubt your plan would be successful, though it was said in Madrid that he had defied capture for some twenty years already, and that a score or so expeditions sent out against him had failed,” observed Del Pino with a shrug of his shoulders. “He must be a remarkable personage. I am the more gratified, therefore, at receiving orders from headquarters to come down and deal specially with a man of such interesting antecedents.”
“Interesting?” It seemed as if the whole room echoed the word, and a flood of general eloquence broke forth in various details and incidents of the brigand's career. Indeed, Del Pino gathered that, if the Castelleno folk were unable to cope with the vulture of the sierras, they feared him exceedingly, not to mention the fact that they felt a considerable pride in his achievements, and were not displeased to parade them in the eyes of a stranger.
“Can you bring yourself to conceive the last crime the fellow has committed, señor?” Don Hugo took advantage of a pause. “He had the arrogance to kidnap my own wife in the last fortnight!”
Del Pino made a gesture of horrified surprise. “She must at once be rescued!” he declared.
“Make your mind easy, I pray. She is at this moment within these walls.”
“I trust he treated her as a gentleman should?” Captain del Pino asked in his soft drawl.
“On the contrary, he behaved like a monster!”
“He held her for ransom, of course?”
“No, no; not precisely,” stuttered Don Hugo. “He released her—after a few hours.”
“That was surely considerate?”
“Far from it! The reason of his action is obvious. I wonder it does not strike you, señor.”
Del Pino gazed for an instant at the Governor's air of self-complacent ruffling, and shook his head.
“You must forgive my dullness, excellency. I cannot imagine the reason.”
“The ruffian was afraid to do otherwise! Naturally, on discovering the Condesa's identity, he permitted her to return home. He knows my reputation, señor capitán! But”—with a frown—“I cannot forgive his treatment of my wife; he terrified her with shocking threats.”
Del Pino's face altered. A twist, it might have been of derision or incredulity, deepened the corners of his mouth. “Of personal ill-treatment? Surely not!”
Up to this moment Don Hugo had kept the message sent down to him by the brigand absolutely secret. Prudence had suggested that, although to the person chiefly concerned such a menace might give serious cause for uneasiness, it undoubtedly also contained an element of the ludicrous, and, if generally known, would give rise to some amusement and mockery at his expense. But now, carried away by the tide of his own words and anxious to convince Del Pino, he disclosed it
“His threat was directed against me. I must explain. It is well known that the brute has but one ear. I mentioned the fact openly. He appears to resent this, and swore to be revenged on me by depriving me of both of mine.”
“Horrible!” Del Pino caressed his own ears meditatively. “Horrible!” he murmured. “To be without one ear would be a sufficient humiliation; but to lose both, and by the hand of an enemy, would be a mortification scarcely to be survived.”
“Fortunately, none of us need fear anything of the kind,” interrupted Don Hugo brusquely. “We have decided to make away with this miserable hill-thief. He has been too long at large. I myself am about to lead an expedition into the sierras with that object.”
“It is now hardly necessary,” observed Del Pino, with an accentuation of his gentle politeness.
“What? do you propose to replace me, señor?” asked Don Hugo, with heat.
Captain del Pino held up a deprecating hand. “Replace you? No, excellency; that would be impossible! But, by good luck, I may have forestalled you.”
There was a simultaneous craning forward of every head. An excited quiver ran over the assembly. What, under heaven, was this captain of the civil guard about to say?
“I fail to catch your meaning, señor," said Don Hugo, but half mollified.
“It is that I had the honor yesterday to kill Don Quebrantahuesos!”
A profound silence of a few seconds followed this announcement.
“You killed Don Q. yesterday?” the Governor almost shouted.
“Yes, excellency, and I shall be glad to have a receipt for the body,” went on Del Pino immovably, “according to the regulations.”
The tension of the last couple of weeks was lifted from the spirit of Don Hugo. In the enthusiasm of his relief, he flung his arms round the stonily unresponsive Del Pino, and embraced him effusively on both cheeks.
“Accept our congratulations, señor. Gentlemen, let us drink to the health of this paladin, Captain del Pino!”
Which was forthwith done with many “bravas” and a hubbub of excited talk. Del Pino's glass was filled; no one observed that he left it untouched. But he professed himself overwhelmed by their approbation; his success, he begged them to believe, was a mere matter of luck. He explained that, wishing to see the region of Don Q.’s exploits, he had left the train when approaching the mountains, and ridden the remainder of the way. Thus he came by chance upon the brigand and shot him down.
“And now I would request his excellency to come down with me to the cell in which the body has been placed, for the purpose of identifying it,” he wound up.
“By all means. Let us go without delay.” Don Hugo could hardly yet credit his good fortune in thus being rid of his haunting foe. He longed to behold with his own eyes the dead face.
“I have never yet seen Don Q., but they tell me the vulture is unmistakable,” he added.
“Absolutely unmistakable,” commented Del Pino.
Don Hugo begged the company to excuse him, and led the way from the room.
“You say the body is in a cell, señor? Why put a dead body in a cell?” he asked laughingly as they went down the corridor together.
The captain of the civil guard smiled slightly.
“From all that is said of Don Q., excellency, I thought it well to turn the key even on his corpse.”
The Governor stopped as they passed a stairway leading upwards.
“My wife is on the roof—I will tell her.”
Del Pino restrained him.
“Pardon, excellency, make sure of him first.”
They descended to the level of the ordinary cells, then lower, to those more remote and secure dungeons reserved for the worst criminals.
“No, no, excellency, allow me to show you the way. The cell is already lit,” Del Pino's voice was heard to say as the door shut behind them.
A quarter of an hour passed, but the effervescence of excitement had not yet subsided in the assembly-room, when the door opened and a figure stood upon the threshold. It was not that of the Governor nor of Del Pino. A sombrero and a cloak concealed the actual features, but the attitude and the huddled folds of the cloak bore the uncouth outlines of a vulture's plumage; so striking was the suggested resemblance that it leaped to the eye.
“The quebrantahuesos!” a shout of astonishment went up.
“At your service, señores. Be silent, I pray you”—a small, commanding hand rose from the cloak. “Be silent and remain seated. Remember, you have to deal with a man who is equally ready to die to-night or ten years hence. Also, if I may remind you, of a man who has never been known to neglect a precaution.”
“Where is the Governor?” demanded a voice, in which anger was beginning to conquer the first shock.
“Safe, señores, in a cell of his own prison, and with him is the body of a vile footpad, nicknamed El Duques, whose methods have brought discredit upon my profession, and whom I have at length punished. I undertook the function properly appertaining to the helpless executive. Late yesterday I killed El Duques.”
“But Del Pino—have you killed him also?”
“He is no more, señores, I regret to inform you.” Don Q. laughed sibilantly. “But do not deplore his loss, for, with the exception of his well-curled wig and his hat of the civil guard, he survives in me.”
“You passed yourself off as Captain del Pino of the civil guard? But how could you impose upon any one with the body? It was, you tell us, that of El Duques.”
“I will explain, señores. A razor passed over the skull, a little coloring on the eyelids, the refinement bestowed by the purging hand of death, converted it into a poor caricature of—myself.” Don Q. raised his sombrero, and from the doublings of the cloak shot up the lean, scraggy neck, the bald-browed, malignant face—the aspect of a vulture paraphrased into human likeness. And every man there sat and looked with dumb curiosity upon the mysterious, unconquerable man whose will had dragooned the countryside for more than twenty years.
“One word more, señores. This Don Hugo committed a crime. It became necessary that I should come down from my sierras to deal with him. He made before you this evening a statement. He said that Don Q. was poorer than the meanest ass in Spain. I give you his exact words, señores —for he carried but one ear. Sit still! Behold!” he touched his ears one after the other with the hand that was not engaged in holding a pistol. “You can now bear witness that you have yourselves counted the ears of Don Q., and that he possesses both.”
The door was softly and suddenly shut, and the lock clicked. Immediately an indescribable uproar broke out.
THE Condesa, from her chair on the house-top, heard it and sprang to her feet; before her stood a figure she had seen dimly half a month earlier across the smoke and flame of a fire.
“Fear nothing, beautiful Condesa,” said the soft, hissing voice, “I come to tell you that I have had a little interview with Don Hugo, whom I have treated with most unmerited gentleness.”
The lady shrieked. “His ears?”
“Will decorate my modest museum up in the mountains. But he will be, believe me, for a time at least, a better husband.”
(The next Chronicle is of how Don Q.'s sword was drawn for the Queen.)