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- In Kedar's Tents - 30/47 -


'Take that to headquarters,' he said, handing the papers to Concepcion, 'and in less than half an hour your men will be ready. Mr. Conyngham is a friend of mine, as you know, and any expenses incurred on his behalf will be defrayed by myself--'

Concepcion held up his hand.

'It is unnecessary, Excellency,' he said. 'At present Mr. Conyngham has funds. Only yesterday he gave me money. He liquidated my little account. It has always been a jest between us--that little account.'

He laughed pleasantly, and moved towards the door.

'Vara,' said Father Concha.

'Yes, reverendo.'

'If I meet your wife in Madrid, what shall I say to her?'

Concepcion turned and looked into the smiling face of the old priest.

'In Madrid, reverendo? How can you think of such a thing? My wife lives in Algeciras, and at times, see you--' he stopped, casting his eyes up to the ceiling and fetching an exaggerated sigh, 'at times my heart aches. But now I must get to the saddle. What a thing is Duty, reverendo! Duty! God be with your Excellencies.'

And he hurried out of the room.

'If you would make a thief honest, trust him,' said Concha, when the door was closed.

In less than an hour Concepcion was on the road accompanied by two troopers, who were ready enough to travel in company with a man of his reputation. For in Spain, if one cannot be a bull-fighter it is good to be a smuggler. At sunset the great heat culminated in a thunderstorm, which drew a veil of heavy cloud across the sky, and night fell before its time.

The horsemen had covered two-thirds of their journey when he whom they followed came in sight of the lights of Toledo, set upon a rock like the jewels in a lady's ring, and almost surrounded by the swift Tagus. Conyngham's horse was tired, and stumbled more than once on the hill by which the traveller descends to the great bridge and the gate that Wamba built thirteen hundred years ago.

Through this gate he passed into the city, which was a city of the dead, with its hundred ruined churches, its empty palaces and silent streets. Ichabod is written large over all these tokens of a bygone glory; where the Jews flying from Jerusalem first set foot; where the Moor reigned unmolested for nearly four hundred years; where the Goth and the Roman and the great Spaniard of the middle ages have trod on each other's heels. Truly these worn stones have seen the greatness of the greatest nations of the world.

A single lamp hung slowly swinging in the arch of Wamba's Gate, and the streets were but ill lighted with an oil lantern at an occasional corner. Conyngham had been in Toledo before, and knew his way to the inn under the shadow of the great Alcazar, now burnt and ruined. Here he left his horse; for the streets of Toledo are so narrow and tortuous, so ill-paved and steep, that wheel traffic is almost unknown, while a horse can with difficulty keep his feet on the rounded cobble stones. In this city men go about their business on foot, which makes the streets as silent as the deserted houses.

Julia had selected a spot which was easy enough to find, and Conyngham, having supped, made his way thither without asking for directions.

'It is at all events worth trying,' he said to himself, 'and she can scarcely have forgotten that I saved her life on the Garonne as well as at Ronda.'

But there is often in a woman's life one man who can make her forget all. The streets were deserted, for it was a cold night, and the cafes were carefully closed against the damp air. No one stirred in the Calle Pedro Martir, and Conyngham peered into the shadow of the high wall of the Church of San Tome in vain. Then he heard the soft tread of muffled feet, and turning on his heel realised Julia's treachery in a flash of thought. He charged to meet the charge of his assailants. Two of them went down like felled trees, but there were others--four others--who fell on him silently like hounds upon a fox, and in a few moments all was quiet again in the Calle Pedro Martir.

CHAPTER XX. ON THE TALAVERA ROAD.

'Les barrieres servent a indiquer ou il faut passer.'

An hour's ride to the west of Toledo, on the road to Torrijos and Talavera, and in the immediate neighbourhood of the village of Galvez, two men sat in the shadow of a great rock, and played cards. They played quietly and without vociferation, illustrating the advantages of a minute coinage. They had gambled with varying fortune since the hour of the siesta, and a sprinkling of cigarette ends on the bare rocks around them testified to the indulgence in a kindred vice.

The elder of the two men glanced from time to time over his shoulder, and down towards the dusty high road which lay across the arid plain beneath them like a tape. The country here is barren and stone-ridden, but to the west, where Torrijos gleamed whitely on the plain, the earth was green with lush corn and heavy blades of maize, now springing into ear. Where the two soldiers sat the herbage was scant and of an aromatic scent, as it mostly is in hot countries and in rocky places. That these men belonged to a mounted branch of the service was evident from their equipment, and notably from the great rusty spurs at their heels. They were clad in cotton--dusky white breeches, dusky blue tunics--a sort of undress, tempered by the vicissitudes of a long war and the laxity of discipline engendered by political trouble at home.

They had left their horses in the stable of a venta, hidden among ilex trees by the roadside, and had clambered to this point of vantage above the highway, to pass the afternoon after the manner of their race. For the Spaniard will be found playing cards amid the wreck of the world and in the intervals between the stupendous events of the last day.

'He comes,' said the elder man at length, as he leisurely shuffled the greasy cards. 'I hear his horse's hoofs.'

And, indeed, the great silence which seems to brood over the uplands of Spain--the silence, as it were, of an historic past and a dead present--was broken by the distant regular beat of hoofs.

The trooper who had spoken was a bullet-headed Castilian, with square jaw and close-set eyes. His companion, a younger man, merely nodded his head, and studied the cards which had just been dealt to him. The game progressed, and Concepcion Vara, on the Toledo road, approached at a steady trot. This man showed to greater advantage on horseback and beneath God's open sky than in the streets of a city. Here, in the open and among the mountains, he held his head erect and faced the world, ready to hold his own against it. In the streets he wore a furtive air, and glanced from left to right fearing recognition.

He now took his tired horse to the stable of the little venta, where, with his usual gallantry, he assisted a hideous old hag to find a place in the stalls. While uttering a gay compliment, he deftly secured for his mount a feed of corn which was much in excess of that usually provided for the money.

'Ah!' he said, as he tipped the measure; 'I can always tell when a woman has been pretty; but with you, senora, no such knowledge is required. You will have your beauty for many years yet.'

Thus Vara and his horse fared ever well upon the road. He lingered at the stable door, knowing perhaps that corn poured into the manger may yet find its way back to the bin, and then turned his steps towards the mountain.

The cards were still falling with a whispering sound upon the rock selected as a table, and, with the spirit of a true sportsman, Concepcion waited until the hand was played out before imparting his news.

'It is well,' he said at length. 'A carriage has been ordered from a friend of mine in Toledo to take the road to-night to Talavera-- and Talavera is on the way to Lisbon. What did I tell you?'

The two soldiers nodded. One was counting his gains, which amounted to almost threepence. The loser wore a brave air of indifference, as behoved a reckless soldier taking loss or gain in a Spartan spirit.

'There will be six men,' continued Concepcion. 'Two on horseback, two on the box, two inside the carriage with their prisoner--my friend.'

'Ah!' said the younger soldier thoughtfully.

Concepcion looked at him.

'What have you in your mind?' he asked.

'I was wondering how three men could best kill six.'

'Out of six,' said the older man, 'there is always one who runs away. I have found it so in my experience.'

'And of five there is always one who cannot use his knife,' added Concepcion.

Still the younger soldier, who had medals all across his chest, shook his head.

'I am afraid,' he said. 'I am always afraid before I fight.'

Concepcion looked at the man whom General Vincente had selected from a brigade of tried soldiers, and gave a little upward jerk of the head.


In Kedar's Tents - 30/47

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