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- In Kedar's Tents - 20/47 -
and a patient tolerance. True to his cloth, he was the enemy of all progress and distrusted every innovation.
'The Padre,' said the barber, who was a talker and a radical, 'would have the world stand still.'
'The Padre,' replied Concha, tenderly drying his chin with a towel, 'would have all barbers attend to their razors. Many are so busy shouting "Advance!" that they have no breath to ask whither they are going.'
On the whole, perhaps, his autocratic rule was a beneficent one, and contributed to the happiness of the little northern suburb of Ronda over which it extended. At all events, he was a watchful guardian of his flock, and knew every face in his parish.
It thus happened one morning that a strange woman, who had come quietly into church to pray, attracted his attention as he passed out after matins. She was a mere peasant and ill clad. The child seated on a chair by her side and staring with wondering eyes at the simple altar and stained-glass window had a hungry look.
Concha sat down on the low wall without the doors and awaited the exit of this devotee who was not of his flock. For though, as he often said, the good God had intended him for a soldier, his own strong will and simple faith had in time produced a very passable priest who, with a grim face, went about doing good.
The woman presently lifted the heavy leathern curtain and let out into the sunlight a breath of cool, incense-laden air.
She curtsied and paused as if expecting recognition. Concha threw away his cigarette and raised his hand to his hat. He had not lifted it except to ladies of the highest quality for some years, out of regard to symptoms of senile decay which had manifested themselves at the junction of the brim and the crown.
'Have I not seen your face before, my child?' he said.
'Yes, reverendo. I am of Ronda but have been living in Xeres.'
'Ah! then your husband is no doubt a malcontent?'
The woman burst into tears, burying her face in her hands and leaning against the wall in an attitude that was still girlish. She had probably been married at fifteen.
'No, reverendo! He is a thief.'
Concha merely nodded his head. He never had been a man to betray much pious horror when he heard of ill-doing.
'The two are almost identical,' he said quietly. 'One does what the other fears to do. And is your husband in prison? Is that why you have come back? Ah! you women--in foolishness you almost equal the men!'
'No, reverendo. I am come back because he has left me. Sebastian has run away, and has stolen all his master's property. It was the Colonel Monreal of Xeres--a good man, reverendo, but a politician.'
'Yes, and he was murdered, as your reverence has no doubt seen in the newspapers. A week ago it was--the day that the Englishman came with a letter.'
'What Englishman was that?' inquired Father Concha, brushing some grains of snuff from his sleeve. 'What Englishman was that, my child?'
'Oh, I do not know! His name is unknown to me, but I could tell he was English from his manner of speaking. The Colonel had an English friend who spoke so--one engaged in the sherry in Xeres.'
'Ah yes! And this Englishman, what was he like?'
'He was very tall and straight, like a soldier, and had a moustache quite light in colour, like straw.'
'Ah yes. The English are so. And he left a letter?'
'A rose-coloured letter--?'
'Yes,' said the woman, looking at him with surprise.
'And tell me what happened afterwards. I may perhaps be able to help you, my child, if you tell me all you know.'
'And then, reverendo, the police brought back the Colonel who had been murdered in the streets--and I who had his Excellency's dinner on the table waiting for him!'
'And Sebastian ate the dinner, reverendo.'
'Your husband appears to be a man of action,' said Concha with a queer smile. 'And then--'
'Sebastian sent me on a message to the town, and when I came back he was gone and all his Excellency's possessions were gone--his papers and valuables.'
'Including the letter which the Englishman had left for the Colonel?'
'Yes, reverendo. Sebastian knew that in these times the papers of a politician may perhaps be sold for money.'
Concha nodded his head reflectively and took a pinch of snuff with infinite deliberation and enjoyment.
'Yes--assuredly, Sebastian is one of those men who get on in the world--up to a certain point--and at that point they get hanged. There is in the universe a particular spot for each man--where we all think we should like to go if we had the money. For me it is Rome. Doubtless Sebastian had some such spot, of which he spoke when he was intoxicated. Where is Sebastian's earthly paradise, think you, my child?'
'He always spoke of Madrid, reverendo.'
'Yes--yes, I can imagine he would.'
'And I have no money to follow him,' sobbed the woman, breaking into tears again. 'So I came to Ronda, where I am known, to seek it.'
'Ah, foolish woman!' exclaimed the priest severely, and shaking his finger at her. 'Foolish woman to think of following such a person. More foolish still is it to weep for a worthless husband, especially in public, thus, on the church steps, where all may see. All the other women will be so pleased. It is their greatest happiness to think that their neighbour's husband is worse than their own. Failure is the royal road to popularity. Dry your tears, foolish one, before you make too many friends.'
The woman obeyed him mechanically with a sort of dumb hopelessness.
At this moment a horseman clattered past, coming from Ronda and hastening in the direction of Bobadilla or perhaps to the Casa Barenna. He wore his flat-brimmed hat well forward over the eyes, and kept his gaze fixed upon the road in front. There was a faint suggestion of assumed absorption in his attitude, as if he knew that the priest was usually at the church door at this hour, and had no desire to meet his eye. It was Larralde.
A few minutes later Julia Barenna, who was sitting at her window watching and waiting--her attitude in life--suddenly rose with eyes that gleamed and trembling hands. She stood and gazed down into the valley below, her attention fixed on the form of a horseman slowly making his way through the olive groves. Then breathlessly she turned to her mirror.
'At last!' she whispered, her fingers busy with her hair and mantilla, a thousand thoughts flying through her brain, her heart throbbing in her breast. In a moment the aspect of the whole world had changed--in a moment Julia herself was another woman. Ten years seemed to have rolled away from her heart, leaving her young and girlish and hopeful again. She gave one last look at herself and hurried to the door.
It was yet early in the day, and the air beneath the gnarled and ancient olive trees was cool and fresh as Julia passed under them to meet her lover. He threw himself out of the saddle when he saw her, and, leaving his horse loose, ran to meet her. He took her hands and raised her fingers to his lips with a certain fervour which was sincere enough. For Larralde loved Julia according to his lights, though he had another mistress, Ambition, who was with him always and filled his thoughts, sleeping or waking. Julia, her face all flushed, her eyes aglow, received his gallant greeting with a sort of breathless eagerness. She knew she had not Larralde's whole heart, and, woman-like, was not content with half.
'I have not seen you for nearly a fortnight,' she said.
'Ah!' answered Larralde, who had apparently not kept so strict an account of the days. 'Ah! yes--I know. But, dearest, I have been burning the high-roads. I have been almost to Madrid. Ah! Julia, why did you make such a mistake?'
'What mistake?' she asked with a sudden light of coquetry in her eyes. She thought he was about to ask her why she loved him. In former days he had had a pretty turn for such questions.
'In giving the letter to that scoundrel Conyngham--he has betrayed us, and Spain is no longer safe for me.'
'Are you sure of this?' asked Julia, alert. Had she possessed Larralde's whole heart she would have been happy enough to take part in his pursuits.
Larralde gave a short laugh and shrugged his shoulders.
'Heaven only knows where the letter is now,' he answered. Julia unfolded a note and handed it to him. She had received it three weeks earlier from Concepcion Vara, and it was from Conyngham, saying that he had left her note at the house of the Colonel.
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