Chapter 29 | The Royal Visitor | !Tention

Chapter Twenty Nine.

The two lads grasped hands as they listened in the intense darkness to what seemed to be a scene of extreme excitement, the actors in it having evidently been hurrying to reach the cottage, which they had gained in a state of exhaustion; for those who spoke gave utterance to their words as if panting and breathless with their exertions, while from their whispering it seemed evident that they were afraid of being overheard.

The two listeners dared not stir, for the least movement would have betrayed them to those below, and before many minutes had elapsed they felt certain that the present invaders of the cottage were strangers.

All at once some one gave vent to a piteous sigh and an ejaculation or two as if of pain; and this was followed by what sounded to be words that were full of pity and compassion, mingled with great deference, towards the sufferer.

Pen could make out nothing more in the hurried and whispered conversation than that it was in Spanish, and for the time being he felt somewhat dazed as to who the new-comers were. He was too much startled to try and puzzle out matters calmly, and for a while he devoted himself to the preservation of utter silence.

At last, though, a few more utterances below, spoken in a deferential tone, followed by a sharp, angry command or two, sent a flash through his brain, and he pressed Punch’s arm with greater energy in an effort to try and convey to his companion the thought that he knew who the fresh-comers must be.

“If they would only strike a light,” he thought to himself, “I might get a peep through the knot-hole”—which was always carefully kept clear for inspection of what took place below—“and I could see then at a glance whether this was the expected King with his followers.”

But the darkness remained profound.

“If it is the escaped Spanish King,” he said to himself, “it will be plain to see. It must be, and they have been pursued by the French, or they wouldn’t be afraid to speak aloud.”

Then he began to doubt again, for the Spanish King and his followers, who needed a guide to lead them through the intricate passes of the mountains, would not have known their way to the cottage.

“Nonsense!” he thought to himself, as fresh doubts arose. “The old priest or the captain must have met them and brought them here.”

Then all was silent for a time, till it was evident that some one was moving by the fireplace; and then there was the sound of some one blowing.

This was followed by a faint glow of light; the blowing sound increased, and it was evident that the wood-ashes possessed sufficient life to be fanned into flame, which increased as the embers were evidently being drawn together by a piece of metal; and before another minute had elapsed Pen made out through the knot-hole that the instrument used for reviving the fire was the blade of a sword.

Then some one sighed deeply and uttered a few words in an imperious tone whose effect was to set some one fanning the fire with more energy, when the cracks in the boarded floor began to show, and the watcher above began to get glimpses of those below him.

A few minutes later the embers began to crackle, the members of the party below grew more visible, and some one uttered a few words in an eager tone—words which evoked an ejaculation or two of satisfaction, followed by an eager conversation that sounded like a dispute.

This was followed by an angry, imperious command, and this again by what sounded to Pen like a word or two of protest. Then the sharp, commanding voice beat down the respectful objection, one of the flaming brands seemed to rise from the hearth, and directly after the smoky wick of the padre’s lamp flamed up.

And now Pen had a view of the crowded room which completely dashed his belief in the party being the Spanish King and his followers, for he was looking down upon the heads of a gathering of rough-looking, unshorn, peasant-like men, for the most part in cloaks. Some wore the regular handkerchief tied round their heads and had their sombrero hats held in hand or laid by their sides. All, too, were well armed, wearing swords and rough scarves or belts which contained pistols.

This scene was enough to sweep away all thought of this being a king and his courtiers, for nothing could have been less suggestive thereof, and the lad looked in vain for one of them who might have been wounded or so wearied out that he had been carried in.

Then for a moment Pen let his thoughts run in another direction, but only for a few moments. These were evidently not any of the smuggler’s men. He had seen too many of them during his sojourn at the priest’s hut not to know what they were like—that is to say, men accustomed to the mountains; for they were all in their way jaunty of mien. Their arms, too, were different, and once more the thought began to gain entrance that his former surmise was right, and that these bearers of swords who had spoken in such deferential tones to one of their party were after all faithful followers or courtiers who had assumed disguises that would enable them to pass over the mountains unnoticed. Which then was the King?

“If some of them would speak,” said Pen to himself, “it would be easier to tell.”

But the silence, save for a faint crack or two from the burning wood, remained profound.

At last the watcher was beginning to come to a conclusion and settle in his own mind that one of the party who was bending forward towards the fire with his cloak drawn about his face might be the King; and his belief grew stronger as a flickering flame from the tiny fire played upon this man’s high boots, one of which displayed a rusty spur.

The next minute all doubt was at an end, for one of the men nearest the door uttered a sharp ejaculation which resulted in the occupants of the padre’s dwelling springing to their feet. Swords leapt from their scabbards, and some of the men drew their cloaks about their left arms, while others snatched pistols from their belts, and there followed the sharp clicking of their locks.

It was evident they were on the alert for anticipated danger, and Pen’s eyes glistened, for he could hear no sound. But he noted one thing, and that was that the booted and spurred individual in the cloak did not stir from where he was seated upon the priest’s stool by the fire.

Then, with a gesture of impatience, Pen saw him throw back his cloak and put his hand to his belt to draw forth a pistol which refused to come. Then with an angry word he gave a fierce tug, with the result that the weapon came out so suddenly that its holder’s arm flew up, the pistol exploded with a loud crash, the bullet with which it was loaded passed upward through the boarded ceiling, and Pen started and made a snatch at the spot where his musket was propped up against the wall, while Punch leaped from where he had crouched and came down again upon the ill-fitting boards, which cracked loudly as if the boy were going through.