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- In Kedar's Tents - 5/47 -
content with mere earthly aid in lieu of that heavenly intervention which ladies of her species summon at every turn of life.
'I wish I could help you,' said the younger woman presently, in a voice and manner suggestive of an energy unusual to her countrywomen. She spoke in French, but with an accent somewhat round and full, like an English accent, and Conyngham divined that she was Spanish. He thought also that under their outer wraps the ladies wore the mantilla, and had that graceful carriage of the head which is only seen in the Peninsula.
'Thank you, mademoiselle, but I am making good progress now. Can you see the ship?'
She rose and stood peering into the darkness ahead--a graceful, swaying figure. A faint scent as of some flower was wafted on the keen wind to Conyngham, who had already decided with characteristic haste that this young person was as beautiful as she was intrepid.
'Yes,' she answered, 'it is quite close. They are also showing lights to guide us.'
She stood looking apparently over his head towards the 'Granville,' but when she spoke it would seem that her thoughts had not been fixed on that vessel.
'Is monsieur a sailor?'
'No, but I fortunately have a little knowledge of such matters-- fortunate, since I have been able to turn it to the use of these ladies.'
'But you are travelling in the "Granville."'
'Yes; I am travelling in the "Granville."'
Over his oars Conyngham looked hard at his interlocutrice, but could discern nothing of her features. Her voice interested him, however, and he wondered whether there were ever calms on the coast of Spain at this time of the year.
'Our sailors,' said the young lady, 'in Spain are brave, but they are very cautious. I think none of them would have done such a thing as you have just done for us. We were in danger. I knew it. Was it not so?'
'The boat might have drifted against some ship at anchor and been upset. You might also have been driven out to sea. They had no boat on board the "Granville" ready to put out and follow you.'
'Yes; and you saved us. But you English are of a great courage. And my mother, instead of thanking you, is offering her gratitude to James and John the sons of Zebedee, as if they had done it.'
'I am no relation to Zebedee,' said Conyngham with a gay laugh. 'Madame may rest assured of that.'
'Julia,' said the elder lady severely, and in a voice that seemed to emanate from a chest as deep and hollow as an octave cask, 'I shall tell Father Concha, who will assuredly reprove you. The saints upon whom I called were fishermen, and therefore the more capable of understanding our great danger. As for monsieur, he knows that he shall always be in my prayers.'
'Thank you, madame,' said Conyngham gravely.
'And at a fitter time I hope to be able to tender him my thanks.'
At this moment a voice from the 'Granville' hailed the boat, asking whether all was well and Mr. Conyngham on board. Being reassured on this point, the mate apparently attended to another matter requiring his attention, the mingled cries and expostulations of the cabin boy sufficiently indicating its nature.
The boat, under Conyngham's strong and steady strokes, now came slowly and without mishap alongside the great black hull of the vessel, and it soon became manifest that, although all danger was past, there yet remained difficulty ahead; for when the boat was made fast and the ladder lowered, the elder of the two ladies firmly and emphatically denied her ability to make the ascent. The French boatman, shivering in a borrowed great coat, and with a vociferation which flavoured the air with cognac, added his entreaties to those of the mate and steward. In the small boat Conyngham, in French, and the lady's daughter, in Spanish, represented that at least half of the heavenly host, having intervened to save her from so great a peril as that safely passed through, could surely accomplish this smaller feat with ease. But the lady still hesitated, and the mate, having clambered down into the boat, grabbed Conyngham's arm with a large and not unkindly hand, and pushed him forcibly towards the ladder.
'You hadn't got no business, Mr. Conyngham,' he said gruffly, 'to leave the ship like that, and like as not you've got your death of cold. Just you get aboard and leave these women to me. You get to your bunk, mister, and stooard'll bring you something hot.'
There was nought but obedience in the matter, and Conyngham was soon between the blankets, alternately shivering and burning in the first stages of a severe chill.
The captain having come on board, the 'Granville' presently weighed anchor, and on the bosom of an ebbing tide turned her blunt prow towards the winter sea. The waves out there beat high, and before the lights of Pauillac, then a mere cluster of fishers' huts, had passed away astern, the good ship was lifting her bow with a sense of anticipation, while her great wooden beams and knees began to strain and creak.
During the following days, while the sense of spring and warmth slowly gave life to those who could breathe the air on deck, Conyngham lay in his little cabin and heeded nothing; for when the fever left him he was only conscious of a great lassitude, and scarce could raise himself to take such nourishment as the steward, with a rough but kindly skill, prepared for him.
'Why the deuce I ever came--why the deuce I ever went overboard after a couple of senoras--I don't know,' he repeated to himself during the hours of that long watch below.
Why, indeed? except that youth must needs go forth into the world and play the only stake it owns there. Nor is Frederick Conyngham the first who, having no knowledge of the game of life, throws all upon the board to wait upon the hazard of a die.
CHAPTER IV. LE PREMIER PAS.
'Be as one that knoweth and yet holdeth his tongue.'
The little town of Algeciras lies, as many know, within sight of Gibraltar, and separated from that stronghold by a broad bay. It is on the mainland of Spain, and in direct communication by road with the great port of Cadiz. Another road, little better than a bridle- path, runs northward to Ximena and through the corkwood forests of that plain towards the mountain ranges that rise between Ronda and the sea.
By this bridle-path, it is whispered, a vast smuggled commerce has ever found passage to the mainland, and scarce a boatman or passenger lands at Algeciras from Gibraltar but carries somewhere on his person as much tobacco as he may hope to conceal with safety. Algeciras, with its fair white houses, its prim church, and sleepy quay, where the blue waters lap and sparkle in innocent sunlight, is, it is to be feared, a town of small virtue and the habitation of scoundrels. For this is the stronghold of those contrabandistas whom song and legend have praised as the boldest, the merriest, and most romantic of law-breakers. Indeed, in this country the man who can boast of a smuggling ancestry holds high his head and looks down on honest folk.
The 'Granville' having dropped anchor to the north of the rough stone pier, was soon disburdened of her passengers--the ladies going ashore with undisguised delight, and leaving behind them many gracious messages of thanks to the gentleman whose gallantry had resulted so disastrously; for Conyngham was still in bed, though now nearly recovered. Truth to tell, he did not hurry to make his appearance in the general cabin, and came on deck a few hours after the departure of the ladies, whose gratitude he desired to avoid.
Two days of the peerless sunshine of these southern waters completely restored him to health, and he prepared to go ashore. It was afternoon when his boat touched the beach, and the idlers, without whom no Mediterranean seaboard is complete, having passed the heat of the day in a philosophic apathy amounting in many cases to a siesta, now roused themselves sufficiently to take a dignified and indifferent interest in the new arrival. A number of boys, an old soldier, several artillerymen from the pretty and absolutely useless fort, a priest and a female vendor of oranges put themselves out so much as to congregate in a little knot at the spot where Conyngham landed.
'Body of Bacchus!' said the priest, with a pinch of snuff poised before his long nose, 'an Englishman--see his gold watch chain.'
This remark called forth several monosyllabic sounds, and the onlookers watched the safe discharge of Conyngham's personal effects with a characteristic placidity of demeanour which was at once tolerant and gently surprised. That any one should have the energy to come ashore when he was comfortable on board, or leave the shore when amply provided there with sunshine, elbowroom, and other necessaries of life, presented itself to them as a fact worthy of note but not of emulation. The happiest man is he who has reduced the necessities of life to a minimum.
No one offered to assist Conyngham. In Spain the onlooker keeps his hands in his pockets.
'The English, see you, travel for pleasure,' said the old soldier, nodding his head in the direction of Gibraltar, pink and shimmering across the bay.
The priest brushed some stray grains of snuff from the front of his faded cassock--once black, but now of a greeny brown. He was a singularly tall man, gaunt and grey, with deep lines drawn downwards from eye to chin. His mouth was large and tender, with a humorous corner ever awaiting a jest. His eyes were sombre and deeply shaded by grey brows, but one of them had a twinkle lurking and waiting, as
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