Chapter 30 | An Awkward Position | !Tention

Chapter Thirty.

There was a burst of excitement, hurried ejaculations, and half-a-dozen pistols were rapidly discharged by their holders at the ceiling; while directly after, in obedience to a command uttered by one of the party, a dash was made for the corner door, which was dragged open, and, sword in hand, several of the men climbed to the loft. The boards creaked, there was a hurried scuffle, and first Punch and then Pen were compelled to descend into the room below, dragged before the leader, forced upon their knees, and surrounded by a circle of sword-points, whose bearers gazed at their leader, awaiting his command to strike.

The leader sank back in his seat, nursing the pistol he had accidentally discharged. Then with his eyes half-closed he slowly raised it to take aim at Pen, who gazed at him firmly and without seeming to blench, while Punch uttered a low, growling ejaculation full of rage as he made a struggle to escape, but was forced back upon his knees, to start and wince as he felt the point of a sword touch his neck. Then he cried aloud, “Never mind, comrade! Let ’em see we are Bri’sh soldiers and mean to die game.”

Pen did not withdraw his eyes from the man who held his life in hand, and reached out behind him to grasp Punch’s arm; but his effort was vain.

Just then the seated man seemed to recollect himself, for he threw the empty pistol upon the floor and tugged another from his belt, cocked it, and then swung himself round, directing the pistol at the door, which was dashed open by the old priest, who ran in and stood, panting hard, between the prisoners and the holder of the pistol.

He was too breathless to speak, but he gesticulated violently before grasping Pen’s shoulder with one hand and waving the other round as if to drive back those who held the prisoners upon their knees.

He tried to speak, but the words would not come; and then there was another diversion, for a fresh-comer dashed in through the open door, and, regardless of the swords directed at him, forced his way to where the prisoners were awaiting their fate.

He, too, was breathless with running, for he sank quickly on one knee, caught at the hand which held the pistol and raised it quickly to his lips, as he exclaimed in French:

“No, no, your Majesty! Not that!”

“They are spies,” shouted the tired-looking Spaniard who had given the command which had sent his followers to make the seizure in the loft.

“No spies,” cried the contrabandista. “Our and his Majesty’s friends—wounded English soldiers who had been fighting upon our side.”

There was a burst of ejaculations; swords were sheathed, and the dethroned Spanish monarch uncocked his pistol and thrust it back into his belt.

“They have had a narrow escape,” he said bitterly. “Why were you not here with the friends you promised?”

“They are outside awaiting my orders, your Majesty,” said the smuggler bluntly. “May I remind you that you are not to your time, neither have you come by the pass I promised you to watch.”

“Bah! How could I, when I was driven by these wretched French, who are ten times our number? We had to reach the trysting-place how we could, and it was natural that these boys should be looked upon as spies. Now then, where are you going to take us? The French soldiers cannot be far behind.”

“No, sire; they are very near.”

“And your men—where are they?”

“Out yonder, sire, between you and your pursuers.”

“Then are we to continue our flight to-night?”

“I cannot tell yet, sire. Not if my men can hold the enemy at bay. It may be that they will fall back here, but I cannot say yet. I did intend to lead you through the forest and along a path I know by the mountain-side; but it is possible that the French are there before us.”

“And are these your plans of which you boasted?” cried the King bitterly.

“No, sire,” replied the contrabandista bluntly. “Your Majesty’s delay has upset all those.”

The King made an angry gesticulation.

“How could I help it?” he said bitterly. “Man, we have been hemmed in on all sides. There, I spoke hastily. You are a tried friend. Act as you think best. You must not withdraw your help.”

“Your Majesty trusts me, then, again?”

“Trust you? Of course,” said the King, holding out his hand, which the smuggler took reverently and raised to his lips.

Then dropping it he turned sharply to the priest and the two prisoners.

“All a mistake, my friends. There,” he added, with a smile, “I see you are not afraid;” and noting Punch’s questioning look, he patted him on the shoulder before turning to Pen again. “Where are your guns?” he said.

Pen pointed up to the loft.

“Get them, then, quickly. We shall have to leave here now.”

He had hardly spoken before a murmur arose and swords were drawn, for there was a quick step outside, a voice cried “El rey!” and one of the smuggler’s followers pressed through to whisper a few words.

“Ah!” cried the recipient, who turned and said a few words in Spanish to the King, who rose to his feet, drew his rough cloak around him, and stood as if prepared for anything that might come.

Just then Pen’s voice was heard, and, quite free now, Punch stepped to the door and took the two muskets that were passed down to him. Then Pen descended with the cartouche-boxes and belts, and handed one to Punch in exchange for a musket, and the two lads stood ready.

The smuggler smiled approval as he saw his young friends’ prompt action, and nodded his head.

“Can you walk?” he said.

Pen nodded.

“And can you fire a few shots on our behalf?”

“Try us,” replied Pen. “But it rather goes against the grain after what we have received. You only came in time.”

“Yes, I know,” replied the smuggler. “But there are many mistakes in war, and we are all friends now.”

The contrabandista turned from him sharply and hurried to the door, where another of his followers appeared, who whispered a few words to him, received an order, and stepped back, while his leader turned to the father and said something, which resulted in the old man joining the two lads and pressing their hands, looking at them sadly.

The next minute the smuggler signed to them to join his follower who was waiting by the door, while he stepped to the King, spoke to him firmly for a few minutes, and then led the way out into the darkness, with the two English lads, who were conscious that they were being followed by the royal fugitive and his men, out along the shelf in the direction of the forest-path, which they had just gained when a distant shot rang out, to be repeated by the echoes and followed by another and another, ample indication that there was danger very near at hand.

The captain said a few words to his follower, and then turned to Pen.

“Keep with this man,” he said, “when I am not here. I must go back and see what is going on.”

The lads heard his steps for a minute amongst the crackling husks of the past year’s chestnuts and parched twigs. Then they were merged with those of the party following.

“I say,” whispered Punch, “how’s your leg?”

“I had almost forgotten it,” replied Pen in a whisper.

“That’s good, comrade. But, I say, all that set a fellow thinking.”

“Yes; don’t talk about it,” replied Pen.

“All right. But I say, isn’t this lovely—on the march again with a loaded gun over your shoulder? If I had got my bugle back, and one’s officer alongside, I should be just happy. Think we shall have a chance of a shot or two?”

The smuggler, who was leading the way, stopped short and turned upon Punch with a deep, low growl.

“Eh?” replied Punch. “It’s no good, comrade; I can’t understand a word.”

The man growled again, and laid his hand sharply upon the boy’s lips.

“Here, don’t do that!” cried Punch. “How do I know when you washed that last?”

“Be quiet, Punch. The man means we may be nearing the enemy.”

“Why don’t he say so, then?” grumbled Punch; and their guide grunted as if satisfied with the effect of Pen’s words, and led on again in and out a rugged, winding path, sometimes ascending, sometimes descending, but never at fault in spite of the darkness.

Sometimes he stopped short to listen as if to find out how near the King’s party were behind, and when satisfied he led on again, giving the two lads a friendly tap or two upon the shoulder after finding that any attempt at other communication was in vain.

At last after what must have been about a couple of hours’ tramp along the extremely rugged path, made profoundly dark by the overhanging low, gnarled trees, he stopped short again and laid his hand in turn upon the lips of the boys, and then touched Pen’s musket, which he made him ground, took hold of his hands in turn and laid them on the muzzle, and then stood still.

“What’s he up to now?” whispered Punch, with his lips close to his comrade’s ear.

“I think he means we are to halt and keep guard.”

“Oh, that’s it, is it?” muttered Punch; and he stood fast, while the smuggler patted him on the shoulder and went off quickly, leaving the boys alone, with Punch muttering and fuming in his intense desire to speak. But he mastered himself and stood firm, listening as the steps of the party behind came nearer and nearer till they were close at hand. This was too much for Punch.

“Lookye here,” he whispered; “they will be ready to march over us directly. How are we going to tell them to halt?”

“Be silent. Perhaps they will have the sense to see that they ought to stop. Most likely there are some amongst them who understand French.”

Pen proved to be right in his surmise, for directly after a portion of the following party were close to them, and the foremost asked a question in Spanish. “Halte!” said Pen sharply, and at a venture; but it proved sufficient. And as he stood in the dim, shadowy, overhung path the word was passed along to the rear, and the dull sound of footsteps died out. “Bravo!” whispered Punch. “They are beginning to understand English after all. I say, ain’t that our chaps coming back?”

Pen heard nothing for a few moments. Then there was the faint crack of a twig breaking beneath some one’s feet, and the smuggler who was acting as their guide rejoined them.

Los Francéses,” said the man, in a whisper; and he dropped the carbine he carried with its butt upon the stony earth, rested his hands upon the muzzle, and stood in silence gazing right away, and evidently listening and keenly on the alert, for he turned sharply upon Punch, who could not keep his tongue quiet.

“Oh, bother! All right,” growled the boy. “Here, comrade,” he whispered to Pen; “aren’t these ’ere cork-trees?”

“Perhaps. I’m not sure,” whispered his companion impatiently. “Why do you ask? What does it matter now?”

“Lots. Just you cut one of them. Cut a good big bung off and stuff it into my mouth; for I can’t help it, I feel as if I must talk.”

“Urrrrrrr!” growled the guide; and then, “Hist! hist!” for there was a whispering behind, and directly after the contrabandista captain joined them, to ask a low question in Spanish.

“The enemy are in front. They are before us,” said the smuggler in French to Pen.

Then he spoke to his follower, who immediately began to retrace his steps, while the leader followed him with the two lads, who were led back to where the King was waiting in the midst of his followers; and now a short colloquy took place which resulted in all facing round and following the two smugglers, who retraced their path for the next half-hour, and then suddenly struck off along a rugged track whose difficulty was such that it was quite plain to the two lads that they were striking off right up into the mountains.

It was a wearisome route that was only followed with great difficulty, and now it was that Pen’s wounded leg began to give him such intense pain that there were moments when he felt that he must break down.

But it came to an end at last, just before daybreak, in the midst of what seemed to be an amphitheatre of stones, or what might have been some quarry or place where prospecting had taken place in search of some one or other of the minerals which abounded in parts of the sterile land.

And now a halt was made, the smuggler picking out a spot which was rough with bushes; and here he signed to the two lads to lie down and rest, a silent command so welcome that Pen sank at full length at once, the rugged couch seeming to him so welcome that it felt to him like down.

A few specks of orange light high up in the sky told that sunrise was very near at hand, and for a few minutes Pen gazed upwards, rapt in wonder by the beauty of the sight. But as he lay and listened to the low murmur of voices, these gradually grew fainter and apparently more distant, while the ruddy specks of light paled and there seemed to be nothing more, for pain and exhaustion had had their way. Thoughts of Spaniards, officers and men, and the contrabandistas with their arms of knife and carbine, were quite as naught, danger non-existent, and for the time being sleep was lord of all.