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- Tomaso's Fortune and Other Stories - 6/41 -
the Venta, affording a much needed shade in this the sunniest spot in all Majorca, and the fierce sun beat down upon his face, which was tanned a deep, healthy brown. He was clad almost in white; for his trousers were of canvas, his shirt of spotless linen. Round his waist he wore the usual Spanish faja or bright red cloth. He was consciously picturesque, and withal so natural, so good-natured, so astonishingly optimistic, as to be quite inoffensive in his child- like conceit.
The Venta of the Moor's Mill stands, as many know, at the northern end of the Val D'Erraha, looking down upon the broader valley, through which runs the high road from Palma to Valdemosa. The city of Palma, itself, is only a few miles away, for such as know the mountain path. Few customers come this way, and the actual trade of the Venta is small. Some day a German doctor will start a nerve- healing establishment here, with a table d'hote at six o'clock, and every opportunity for practising the minor virtues--and the Valley of Repose will be the Valley of Repose no longer.
"Ah! It is a good omelette," said the host of the Venta, as Miss Cheyne took up her fork. "Though I have not always been a cook, nor yet an innkeeper."
He raised one finger, shook it from side to side in an emphatic negation, and laughed. Then he turned suddenly, and looked down into the valley with a grave face and almost a sigh.
The man had a history it appeared--and, rarer still, was willing to tell it.
She knew too much of the Spanish race, or perhaps of all men, to ask questions.
"Yes," she said pleasantly, "it is a good omelette." And the man turned sharply and looked at her as if she had said something startling. She noticed his action, and showed surprise.
"It is nothing," he said with a laugh, "only a coincidence--a mere accident. It is said by the peasants that the mind of a friend has wings. Perhaps it is so. As I looked down into the valley I was thinking of a man--a friend. Yes--name of a Saint--he was a friend of mine, although a gentleman! Educated? Yes, many languages, and Latin. And I--what am I? You see, Senorita, a peasant, who wears no coat."
And he laughed heartily, only to change again suddenly to gravity.
"And as I looked down into the valley I was thinking of my friend-- and, believe me, you spoke at that moment with something in your voice--in your manner--who knows?--which was like the voice and manner of my friend. Perhaps, Senorita, the peasants are right, and the mind of my friend, having wings, flew to us at that moment."
The lady laughed, and said that it might be so.
"It is not that you are English," the innkeeper continued, with easy volubility. "For I know you belong to no other nation. I said so to myself the moment I saw you, riding up here on horseback alone. I called upstairs to Juanita that there was an English Senorita coming on a horse, and Juanita replied with a malediction, that I should raise my voice when the nino was asleep. She said that if it was the Pope of Rome who came on a horse he must not wake the child. 'No,' I answered, 'but he would have to go upstairs to see it;' and Juanita did not laugh. She sees no cause to laugh at anything connected with the nino--oh, no! it is a serious matter."
He was looking towards the house as he spoke.
"Juanita is your wife?" said the Englishwoman.
"Yes. We have been married a year, and I am still sure that she is the most beautiful woman in the world. Is it not wonderful? And she will be jealous if she hears me talking all this while with the Senorita."
"You can tell her that the Senorita has grey hair," said Miss Cheyne, practically.
"That may be," said the innkeeper, looking at her with his head on one side, and a gravely critical air. "But you still have the air"- -he shrugged his shoulders, and spread out his hands--"the air that takes a man's fancy. Who knows?"
Miss Cheyne, who had dealt much with a simple people, accustomed to the statement of simple facts in plain language, only laughed. There is a certain rough purity of thought which vanishes at the advance of civilisation. And cheap journalism, cheap fiction, cheap prudery have not yet reached Spain.
"I know nothing," went on the man, with a shrewd, upward nod of the head. "But the Senorita has a lover. He may be faithless, he may be absent, he may be dead--but he is there--the God be thanked!"
He touched his broad chest in that part where a deadly experience told him that the heart was to be found, and looked up to Heaven, all with a change of expression and momentary gravity quite incomprehensible to men of northern breed.
Miss Cheyne laughed again without self-consciousness. Uneducated people have a way of arriving at once at those matters that interest rich and poor alike, which is rather refreshing, even to the highly educated.
"But I, who talk like a washerwoman, forget that I am an innkeeper," said the man, with a truer tact than is often found under fine linen. And he proceeded to wait on her with a grand air, as if she were a queen and he a nobleman.
"If Juanita were about it would be different," he said, whipping the cloth from the table and shaking the crumbs to the four winds. "And the Senorita would be properly served. But--what will you? the nino is but a fortnight old, and I--I am new at my trade. The Senorita takes coffee?"
Miss Cheyne intimated that she did take coffee.
"And you, perhaps, will take a cup also," she added, whereupon the man bowed in his best manner. He had that perfect savoir-faire--a certain innate gentlemanliness--which is the characteristic of all Spaniards. His manner indicated an appreciation of the honour, and conveyed at the same time the intimation that he knew quite well how to behave under the circumstances.
He went into the house from which--all the doors and windows being open--came the sound of his conversation with Juanita, while he prepared the coffee. It was quite a frank and open conversation, having Miss Cheyne for its object, and stating that she had not only found the omelette good, but had eaten it all.
Presently he returned with the coffee-pot, two cups, and a small jug of cream on a tray. He turned the handle of the coffee-pot towards Miss Cheyne, and conveyed in one inimitable gesture that he would take his coffee from no other hand.
"The Senorita is staying in Palma?" he asked, pleasantly.
The innkeeper laughed gaily and deprecatingly, as if between persons of their station business was a word only to be mentioned as a sort of jest.
"I am the owner of a small property in the island--over in that direction--towards Soller. It is held on the 'rotas' system by a good farmer, who has frequently come to see me where I live at Monistrol, near Barcelona. He has often begged me to come to Majorca to see the property, and now I have come. I am staying a few days at Palma."
"Farming is good in Majorca," said the man, shrewdly. "You should receive a large sum for your share of the harvest. I, too, shall buy land presently when I see my chance, for I have the money. Ah, yes: I was not always an innkeeper!"
He sipped his coffee pensively.
"That reminds me again of my friend," he said, after a pause. "Why do I think of him this afternoon? It is a strange story; shall I tell it?"
"I shall be glad to hear it," replied Miss Cheyne, in her energetic way. She was stirring her coffee slowly and thoughtfully.
"I knew him in his own country--in America; and then in Cuba--"
Miss Cheyne ceased stirring her coffee suddenly, as if she had come against some object in the cup. A keen observer might have guessed that she had become interested at that moment in this idle tale.
"Ah! You know Cuba?" she said, indifferently interrogative.
"If I know Cuba?" he laughed, and spread out his hands in mute appeal to the gods. "If I know Cuba! When Cuba is an independent republic, Senorita--when the history of all this trouble comes to be written, you will find two names mentioned in its pages. The one name is Antonio. When you are an old woman, Senorita, you can tell your children--or perhaps your grandchildren, if the good God is kind to you--that you once knew Antonio, and took a cup of coffee with him. But you must not say it now--never--never. And the other name is Mateo. You can tell your children, Senorita, when your hair is white, that you once spoke to a man who was a friend to this Mateo."
He finished with his gay laugh, as if he were fully alive to his own fine conceit, and begged indulgence.
"He has been here--sitting where you sit now," he continued, with impressive gravity. "He came to me: 'Antonio,' he said, 'There are five thousand men out there who want you.' 'Amigo,' replied I, 'there is one woman here who does the same'--and I bowed, and Mateo went away without me. I thought he had gone back there to conduct affairs--to fight in his careless way, with his tongue in his cheek, as it were. He did all with his tongue in his cheek--that queer Mateo. And then came a message from Barcelona, saying that he wanted me. Name of a dog, I went--for his letter was unmistakable. He had, it appeared, had an accident. I found him with his arm in a
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