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- In Kedar's Tents - 40/47 -

had admirers, and the next best possession--enemies. Ciudad Real was intolerably dull and provincial. A servant knocked at the door.

'General Vincente, your Majesty, craves the favour of a moment.'

'Ah!' exclaimed the Queen, the light returning to her eyes, a faint colour flushing her cheek. 'In five minutes I will receive him.'

And there is no need to say how the Queen spent those minutes.

'Your Majesty,' said the General, bending over her hand, which he touched with his lips, 'I have news of the greatest importance.'

The suggestion of a scornful smile flickered for a moment in the royal eyes. It was surely news enough for any man that she was a woman--beautiful still--possessing still that intangible and fatal gift of pleasing. The woman slowly faded from her eyes as they rested on the great soldier's face, and the Queen it was who, with a gracious gesture, bade him be seated. But the General remained standing. He alone perhaps of all the men who had to deal with her- -of all those military puppets with whom she played her royal game-- had never crossed that vague boundary which many had overstepped to their own inevitable undoing.

'It concerns your Majesty's life,' said Vincente bluntly, and calm in the certainty of his own theory that good blood, whether it flow in the veins of man or woman, assuredly carries a high courage.

'Ah!' said the Queen Regent, whose humour still inclined towards those affairs which interested her before the affairs of State. 'But with men such as you about me, my dear General, what need I fear?'

'Treachery, Madame,' he answered, with his sudden smile and a bow. 'Treachery.'

She frowned. When a Queen stoops to dalliance a subject must not be too practical.

'Ah! What is it that concerns my life? Another plot?' she inquired shortly.

'Another plot, but one of greater importance than those that exist in the republican cafes of every town in your Majesty's kingdom. This is a widespread conspiracy, and I fear that many powerful persons are concerned in it; but that, your Majesty, is not my department nor concern.'

'What is your concern, General?' she asked, looking at him over her fan.

'To save your Majesty's life to-night.'

'To-night!' she echoed, her coquetry gone.


'But how and where?'

'Assassination, Madame, in Toledo. You are three hours late in your journey. But all Toledo will be astir awaiting you, though it be till dawn.'

The Queen Regent closed her fan slowly. She was, as the rapid events of her reign and regency have proved, one of those women who rise to the occasion.

'Then one must act at once,' she said.

The General bowed.

'What have you done?' she asked.

'I have sent to Madrid for a regiment that I know; they are as my own children. I have killed so many of them that the remainder love me. I have travelled from Toledo to meet your Majesty on the road, or here.'

'And what means have you of preventing this thing?'

'I have brought the means with me, Madame.'

'Troops?' asked the Queen doubtfully, knowing where the canker-worm lay hidden.

'A woman and a priest, Madame.'


'And I propose that your Majesty journey to Madrid in my carriage, attended only by my orderlies, by way of Aranjuez. You will be safe in Madrid, where the Queen will require her mother's care.'

'Yes. And the remainder of your plan?'

'I will travel back to Toledo in your Majesty's carriage with the woman and the priest and your bodyguard--just as your Majesty is in the habit of travelling. Toledo wants a fight; nothing else will satisfy them. They shall have it--before dawn. The very best I have to offer them.'

And General Vincente gave a queer, cheery little laugh, as if he were arranging a practical joke.

'But the fight will be round my carriage--'

'Possibly. I would rather that it took place in the Calle de la Ciudad, or around the Casa del Ayuntamiento, where your Majesty is expected to sleep to-night.'

'And these persons--this woman who risks her life to save mine--who is she?'

'My daughter,' answered the General gravely.

'She is here--in the hotel now?'

The General bowed.

'I have heard that she is beautiful,' said the Queen, with a quick glance towards her companion. 'How is it that you have never brought her to Court, you who come so seldom yourself?'

Vincente made no reply.

'However, bring her to me now.'

'She has travelled far, Madame, and is not prepared for presentation to her Queen.'

'This is no time for formalities. She is about to run a great risk for my sake, a greater risk than I could ever ask her to run. Present her as one woman to another, General.'

But General Vincente bowed gravely and made no reply. The colour slowly rose to the Queen Regent's face--a dull red. She opened her fan, closed it again, and sat with furtive downcast eyes. Suddenly she looked up and met his gaze.

'You refuse,' she said, with an insolent air of indifference. 'You think that I am unworthy to--meet your daughter.'

'I think only of the exigency of the moment,' was his reply. 'Every minute we lose is a gain to our enemies. If our trick is discovered Aranjuez will be no safer for your Majesty than is Toledo. You must be safely in Madrid before it is discovered in Toledo that you have taken the other route, and that the person they have mistaken for you is in reality my daughter.'

'But she may be killed,' exclaimed the Queen.

'We may all be killed, Madame,' he replied lightly. 'I beg that you will start at once in my carriage with your chaplain and the holy lady who is doubtless travelling with you.'

The Queen glanced sharply at him. It was known that although her own life was anything but exemplary, she loved to associate with women who, under the cloak of religion and an austere virtue, intrigued with all parties and condoned the Queen's offences.

'I cannot understand you,' she said, with that sudden lapse into familiarity which had led to the undoing of more than one ambitious courtier. 'You seem to worship the crown and despise the head it rests on.'

'So long as I serve your Majesty faithfully--'

'But you have no right to despise me,' she interrupted passionately.

'If I despised you, should I be here now--should I be doing you this service?'

'I do not know. I tell you I do not understand you.'

And the Queen looked hard at the man who, for this very reason, interested one who had all her life dealt and intrigued with men of obvious motive and unblushing ambition.

So strong is a ruling passion that even in sight of death (for the Queen Regent knew that Spain was full of her enemies and rendered callous to bloodshed by a long war) vanity was alert in this woman's breast. Even while General Vincente, that unrivalled strategist, detailed his plans, she kept harking back to the question that puzzled her, and but half listened to his instructions.

Those desirous of travelling without attracting attention in Spain are wise to time their arrival and departure for the afternoon. At this time, while the sun is yet hot, all shutters are closed, and the business of life, the haggling in the market-place, the bustle of the barrack yard, the leisurely labour of the fields, are suspended. It was about four o'clock--indeed, the city clocks were striking that hour--when the two carriages in the inn yard at Ciudad Real were made ready for the road. Father Concha, who never took an active part in passing incidents while his old friend and comrade was near, sat in a shady corner of the patio and smoked a cigarette. An affable ostler had in vain endeavoured to engage him in conversation. Two small children had begged of him, and now he was left in meditative solitude.

'In a short three minutes,' said the ostler, 'and the Excellencies

In Kedar's Tents - 40/47

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