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- In Kedar's Tents - 6/47 -
in the corner of his mouth.
'Everyone stretches his legs according to the length of his coverlet,' he said, and, turning, he courteously raised his hat to Conyngham, who passed at that moment on his way to the hotel. The little knot of onlookers broke up, and the boys wandered towards the fort, before the gate of which a game at bowls was in progress.
'The Padre has a hungry look,' reflected Conyngham. 'Think I'll invite him to dinner.'
For Geoffrey Horner had succeeded in conveying more money to the man who had taken his sins upon himself, and while Conyngham possessed money he usually had the desire to spend it.
Conyngham went to the Fonda de la Marina, which stands to-day--a house of small comfort and no great outward cleanliness; but, as in most Spanish inns, the performance was better than the promise, and the bedroom offered to the traveller was nothing worse than bare and ill furnished. With what Spanish he at this time possessed the Englishman made known his wants, and inquired of the means of prosecuting his journey to Ronda.
'You know the Captain-General Vincente of Ronda?' he asked.
'But. . . yes--by reputation. Who does not in Andalusia?' replied the host, a stout man, who had once cooked for a military mess at Gibraltar, and professed himself acquainted with the requirements of English gentlemen.
'I have a letter to General Vincente, and must go to Ronda as soon as possible. These are stirring times in Spain.'
The man's bland face suddenly assumed an air of cunning, and he glanced over his shoulder to see that none overheard.
'Your Excellency is right,' he answered. 'But for such as myself one side is as good as another--is it not so? Carlist or Christino- -the money is the same.'
'But here in the South there are no Carlists.'
'Who knows?' said the innkeeper with outspread hands. 'Anything that his Excellency requires shall be forthcoming,' he added grandiosely. 'This is the dining-room, and here at the side a little saloon where the ladies sit. But at present we have only gentlemen in the hotel--it being the winter time.'
'Then you have other guests?' inquired Conyngham.
'But. . . yes--always. In Algeciras there are always travellers. Noblemen--like his Excellency--for pleasure. Others--for commerce, the Government--the politics.'
'No flies enter a shut mouth, my friend,' said a voice at the door, and both turned to see standing in the doorway the priest who had witnessed Conyngham's arrival.
'Pardon, senor,' said the old man, coming forward with his shabby hat in his hand. 'Pardon my interruption. I came at an opportune moment, for I heard the word politics.'
He turned and shook a lean finger at the innkeeper, who was backing towards the door with many bows.
'Ah, bad Miguel,' he said, 'will you make it impossible for gentlemen to put up at your execrable inn? The man's cooking is superior to his discretion, senor. I, too, am a traveller, and for the moment a guest here. I have the honour. My name is Concha--the Padre Concha--a priest, as you see.'
Conyngham nodded, and laughed frankly.
'Glad to meet you,' he said. 'I saw you as I came along. My name is Conyngham, and I am an Englishman, as you hear. I know very little Spanish.'
'That will come--that will come,' said the priest, moving towards the window. 'Perhaps too soon, if you are going to stay any length of time in this country. Let me advise you--do not learn our language too quickly.'
He shook his head and moved towards the open window.
'See to your girths before you mount, eh? Here is the verandah, where it is pleasant in the afternoon. Shall we be seated? That chair has but three legs--allow me! this one is better.'
He spoke with the grave courtesy of his countrymen. For every Spaniard, even the lowest muleteer, esteems himself a gentleman, and knows how to act as such. The Padre Concha had a pleasant voice, and a habit of gesticulating slowly with one large and not too clean hand, that suggested the pulpit. He had led the way to a spacious verandah, where there were small tables and chairs, and at the outer corners orange trees in square green boxes.
'We will have a bottle of wine--is it not so?--yes,' he said, and gravely clapped his hands together to summon the waiter--an Oriental custom still in use in the Peninsula.
The wine was brought and duly uncorked, during which ceremony the priest waited and watched with the preoccupied air of a host careful for the entertainment of his guest. He tasted the wine critically.
'It might be worse,' he said. 'I beg you to excuse it not being better.'
There was something simple in the old man's manner that won Conyngham's regard.
'The wine is excellent,' he said. 'It is my welcome to Spain.'
'Ah! Then this is your first visit to this country,' the priest said indifferently, his eyes wandering to the open sea, where a few feluccas lay becalmed.
Conyngham turned and looked towards the sea also. It was late in the afternoon, and a certain drowsiness of the atmosphere made conversation, even between comparative strangers, a slower, easier matter than with us in the brisk North. After a moment the Englishman turned with, perhaps, the intention of studying his companion's face, only to find the deep grey eyes fixed on his own.
'Spain,' said the Padre, 'is a wonderful country, rich, beautiful, with a climate like none in Europe; but God and the devil come to closer quarters here than elsewhere. Still for a traveller, for pleasure, I think this country is second to none.'
'I am not exactly a traveller for pleasure, my father.'
'Ah!' and Concha drummed idly on the table with his fingers.
'I left England in haste,' added Conyngham lightly.
'And it will be inexpedient for me to return for some months to come. I thought of taking service in the army, and have a letter to General Vincente, who lives at Ronda, as I understand, sixty miles from here across the mountains.'
'Yes,' said the priest thoughtfully, 'Ronda is sixty miles from here--across the mountains.'
He was watching a boat which approached the shore from the direction of Gibraltar. The wind having dropped, the boatmen had lowered the sail and were now rowing, giving voice to a song which floated across the smooth sea sleepily. It was an ordinary Algeciras wherry built to carry a little cargo, and perhaps a dozen passengers, a fishing boat that smelt strongly of tobacco. The shore was soon reached, and the passengers, numbering half a dozen, stepped over the gunwale on to a small landing stage. One of them was better dressed than his companions, a smart man with a bright flower in the buttonhole of his jacket, carrying the flowing cloak brightly lined with coloured velvet without which no Spaniard goes abroad at sunset. He looked towards the hotel, and was evidently speaking of it with a boatman whose attitude was full of promise and assurance.
The priest rose and emptied his glass.
'I must ask you to excuse me. Vespers wait for no man, and I hear the bell,' he said with a grave bow, and went indoors.
Left to himself, Conyngham lapsed into the easy reflections of a man whose habit it is to live for the present, leaving the future and the past to take care of themselves. Perhaps he thought, as some do, that the past dies--which is a mistake. The past only sleeps, and we carry it with us through life, slumbering. Those are wise who bear it gently so that it may never be aroused.
The sun had set, and Gibraltar, a huge couchant lion across the bay, was fading into the twilight of the East when a footstep in the dining-room made Conyngham turn his head, half expecting the return of Father Concha. But in the doorway, and with the evident intention of coming towards himself, Conyngham perceived a handsome dark-faced man of medium height, with a smart moustache brushed upward, clever eyes, and the carriage of a soldier. This stranger unfolded his cloak, for in Spain it is considered ill-mannered to address a stranger and remain cloaked.
'Senor,' he said, with a gesture of the hat, courteous and yet manly enough to savour more of the camp than the court, 'senor, I understand you are journeying to Ronda.'
'I, too, intended to go across the mountains, and hoped to arrive here in time to accompany friends who I learn have already started on their journey. But I have received letters which necessitate my return to Malaga. You have already divined that I come to ask a favour.'
He brought forward a chair and sat down, drawing from his pocket a silver cigarette case, which he offered to the Englishman. There was a certain picturesqueness in the man's attitude and manner. His face and movements possessed a suggestion of energy which seemed out of place here in the sleepy South, and stamped him as a native not of dreamy Andalusia, but of La Mancha perhaps, where the wit of
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