Prepared by David Reed firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
by Helen Hunt Jackson
IT was sheep-shearing time in Southern California, but sheep-shearing was late at the Senora Moreno’s. The Fates had seemed to combine to put it off. In the first place, Felipe Moreno had been ill. He was the Senora’s eldest son, and since his father’s death had been at the head of his mother’s house. Without him, nothing could be done on the ranch, the Senora thought. It had been always, “Ask Senor Felipe,” “Go to Senor Felipe,” “Senor Felipe will attend to it,” ever since Felipe had had the dawning of a beard on his handsome face.
In truth, it was not Felipe, but the Senora, who really decided all questions from greatest to least, and managed everything on the place, from the sheep-pastures to the artichoke-patch; but nobody except the Senora herself knew this. An exceedingly clever woman for her day and generation was Senora Gonzaga Moreno,– as for that matter, exceedingly clever for any day and generation; but exceptionally clever for the day and generation to which she belonged. Her life, the mere surface of it, if it had been written, would have made a romance, to grow hot and cold over: sixty years of the best of old Spain, and the wildest of New Spain, Bay of Biscay, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Ocean,– the waves of them all had tossed destinies for the Senora. The Holy Catholic Church had had its arms round her from first to last; and that was what had brought her safe through, she would have said, if she had ever said anything about herself, which she never did,– one of her many wisdoms. So quiet, so reserved, so gentle an exterior never was known to veil such an imperious and passionate nature, brimful of storm, always passing through stress; never thwarted, except at peril of those who did it; adored and hated by turns, and each at the hottest. A tremendous force, wherever she appeared, was Senora Moreno; but no stranger would suspect it, to see her gliding about, in her scanty black gown, with her rosary hanging at her side, her soft dark eyes cast down, and an expression of mingled melancholy and devotion on her face. She looked simply like a sad, spiritual-minded old lady, amiable and indolent, like her race, but sweeter and more thoughtful than their wont. Her voice heightened this mistaken impression. She was never heard to speak either loud or fast. There was at times even a curious hesitancy in her speech, which came near being a stammer, or suggested the measured care with which people speak who have been cured of stammering. It made her often appear as if she did not known her own mind; at which people sometimes took heart; when, if they had only known the truth, they would have known that the speech hesitated solely because the Senora knew her mind so exactly that she was finding it hard to make the words convey it as she desired, or in a way to best attain her ends.
About this very sheep-shearing there had been, between her and the head shepherd, Juan Canito, called Juan Can for short, and to distinguish him from Juan Jose, the upper herdsman of the cattle, some discussions which would have been hot and angry ones in any other hands than the Senora’s.
Juan Canito wanted the shearing to begin, even though Senor Felipe were ill in bed, and though that lazy shepherd Luigo had not yet got back with the flock that had been driven up the coast for pasture. “There were plenty of sheep on the place to begin with,” he said one morning,– “at least a thousand;” and by the time they were done, Luigo would surely be back with the rest; and as for Senor Felipe’s being in bed, had not he, Juan Canito, stood at the packing-bag, and handled the wool, when Senor Felipe was a boy? Why could he not do it again? The Senora did not realize how time was going; there would be no shearers to be hired presently, since the Senora was determined to have none but Indians. Of course, if she would employ Mexicans, as all the other ranches in the valley did, it would be different; but she was resolved upon having Indians,– “God knows why,” he interpolated surlily, under his breath.
“I do not quite understand you, Juan,” interrupted Senora Moreno at the precise instant the last syllable of this disrespectful ejaculation had escaped Juan’s lips; “speak a little louder. I fear I am growing deaf in my old age.”
What gentle, suave, courteous tones! and the calm dark eyes rested on Juan Canito with a look to the fathoming of which he was as unequal as one of his own sheep would have been. He could not have told why he instantly and involuntarily said, “Beg your pardon, Senora.”
“Oh, you need not ask my pardon, Juan,” the Senora replied with exquisite gentleness; “it is not you who are to blame, if I am deaf. I have fancied for a year I did not hear quite as well as I once did. But about the Indians, Juan; did not Senor Felipe tell you that he had positively engaged the same band of shearers we had last autumn, Alessandro’s band from Temecula? They will wait until we are ready for them. Senor Felipe will send a messenger for them. He thinks them the best shearers in the country. He will be well enough in a week or two, he thinks, and the poor sheep must bear their loads a few days longer. Are they looking well, do you think, Juan? Will the crop be a good one? General Moreno used to say that you could reckon up the wool-crop to a pound, while it was on the sheep’s backs.”
“Yes, Senora,” answered the mollified Juan; “the poor beasts look wonderfully well considering the scant feed they have had all winter. We’ll not come many pounds short of our last year’s crop, if any. Though, to be sure, there is no telling in what case that — Luigo will bring his flock back.”
The Senora smiled, in spite of herself, at the pause and gulp with which Juan had filled in the hiatus where he had longed to set a contemptuous epithet before Luigo’s name.
This was another of the instances where the Senora’s will and Juan Canito’s had clashed and he did not dream of it, having set it all down as usual to the score of young Senor Felipe.
Encouraged by the Senora’s smile, Juan proceeded: “Senor Felipe can see no fault in Luigo, because they were boys together; but I can tell him, he will rue it, one of these mornings, when he finds a flock of sheep worse than dead on his hands, and no thanks to anybody but Luigo. While I can have him under my eye, here in the valley, it is all very well; but he is no more fit to take responsibility of a flock, than one of the very lambs themselves. He’ll drive them off their feet one day, and starve them the next; and I’ve known him to forget to give them water. When he’s in his dreams, the Virgin only knows what he won’t do.”
During this brief and almost unprecedented outburst of Juan’s the Senora’s countenance had been slowly growing stern. Juan had not seen it. His eyes had been turned away from her, looking down into the upturned eager face of his favorite collie, who was leaping and gambolling and barking at his feet.
“Down, Capitan, down!” he said in a fond tone, gently repulsing him; “thou makest such a noise the Senora can hear nothing but thy voice.”
“I heard only too distinctly, Juan Canito,” said the Senora in a sweet but icy tone. “It is not well for one servant to backbite another. It gives me great grief to hear such words; and I hope when Father Salvierderra comes, next month, you will not forget to confess this sin of which you have been guilty in thus seeking to injure a fellow-being. If Senor Felipe listens to you, the poor boy Luigo will be cast out homeless on the world some day; and what sort of a deed would that be, Juan Canito, for one Christian to do to another? I fear the Father will give you penance, when he hears what you have said.”
“Senora, it is not to harm the lad,” Juan began, every fibre of his faithful frame thrilling with a sense of the injustice of her reproach.
But the Senora had turned her back. Evidently she would hear no more from him then. He stood watching her as she walked away, at her usual slow pace, her head slightly bent forward, her rosary lifted in her left hand, and the fingers of the right hand mechanically slipping the beads.
“Prayers, always prayers!” thought Juan to himself, as his eyes followed her. “If they’ll take one to heaven, the Senora’ll go by the straight road, that’s sure! I’m sorry I vexed her. But what’s a man to do, if he’s the interest of the place at heart, I’d like to know. Is he to stand by, and see a lot of idle mooning louts run away with everything? Ah, but it was an ill day for the estate when the General died,– an ill day! an ill day! And they may scold me as much as they please, and set me to confessing my sins to the Father; it’s very well for them, they’ve got me to look after matters. Senor Felipe will do well enough when he’s a man, maybe; but a boy like him! Bah!” And the old man stamped his foot with a not wholly unreasonable irritation, at the false position in which he felt himself put.
“Confess to Father Salvierderra, indeed!” he muttered aloud. “Ay, that will I. He’s a man of sense, if he is a priest,” — at which slip of the tongue the pious Juan hastily crossed himself,– “and I’ll ask him to give me some good advice as to how I’m to manage between this young boy at the head of everything, and a doting mother who thinks he has the wisdom of a dozen grown men. The Father knew the place in the olden time. He knows it’s no child’s play to look after the estate even now, much smaller as it is! An ill day when the old General died, an ill day indeed, the saints rest his soul!” Saying this, Juan shrugged his shoulders, and whistling to Capitan, walked towards the sunny veranda of the south side of the kitchen wing of the house, where it had been for twenty odd years his habit to sit on the long bench and smoke his pipe of a morning. Before he had got half-way across the court-yard, however, a thought struck him. He halted so suddenly that Capitan, with the quick sensitiveness of his breed, thought so sudden a change of purpose could only come from something in connection with sheep; and, true to his instinct of duty, pricked up his ears, poised himself for a full run, and looked up in his master’s face waiting for explanation and signal. But Juan did not observe him.
“Ha!” he said, “Father Salvierderra comes next month, does he? Let’s see. To-day is the 25th. That’s it. The sheep-shearing is not to come off till the Father gets here. Then each morning it will be mass in the chapel, and each night vespers; and the crowd will be here at least two days longer to feed, for the time they will lose by that and by the confessions. That’s what Senor Felipe is up to. He’s a pious lad. I recollect now, it was the same way two years ago. Well, well, it is a good thing for those poor Indian devils to get a bit of religion now and then; and it’s like old times to see the chapel full of them kneeling, and more than can get in at the door; I doubt not it warms the Senora’s heart to see them all there, as if they belonged to the house, as they used to: and now I know when it’s to be, I have only to make my arrangements accordingly. It is always in the first week of the month the Father gets here. Yes; she said, ‘Senor Felipe will be well enough in a week or two, he thinks.’ Ha! ha! It will be nearer two; ten days or thereabouts. I’ll begin the booths next week. A plague on that Luigo for not being back here. He’s the best hand I have to cut the willow boughs for the roofs. He knows the difference between one year’s growth and another’s; I’ll say that much for him, spite of the silly dreaming head he’s got on his shoulders.”
Juan was so pleased with his clearing up in his mind as to Senor Felipe’s purpose about the time of the sheep-shearing, that it put him in good humor for the day,– good humor with everybody, and himself most of all. As he sat on the low bench, his head leaning back against the whitewashed wall, his long legs stretched out nearly across the whole width of the veranda, his pipe firm wedged in the extreme left corner of his mouth, his hands in his pockets, he was the picture of placid content. The troop of youngsters which still swarmed around the kitchen quarters of Senora Moreno’s house, almost as numerous and inexplicable as in the grand old days of the General’s time, ran back and forth across Juan’s legs, fell down between them, and picked themselves up by help of clutches at his leather trousers, all unreproved by Juan, though loudly scolded and warned by their respective mothers from the kitchen.
“What’s come to Juan Can to be so good-natured to-day?” saucily asked Margarita, the youngest and prettiest of the maids, popping her head out of a window, and twitching Juan’s hair. He was so gray and wrinkled that the maids all felt at ease with him. He seemed to them as old as Methuselah; but he was not really so old as they thought, nor they so safe in their tricks. The old man had hot blood in his veins yet, as the under-shepherds could testify.
“The sight of your pretty face, Senorita Margarita,” answered Juan quickly, cocking his eye at her, rising to his feet, and making a mock bow towards the window.
“He! he! Senorita, indeed!” chuckled Margarita’s mother, old Marda the cook. “Senor Juan Canito is pleased to be merry at the doors of his betters;” and she flung a copper saucepan full of not over-clean water so deftly past Juan’s head, that not a drop touched him, and yet he had the appearance of having been ducked. At which bit of sleight-of-hand the whole court-yard, young and old, babies, cocks, hens, and turkeys, all set up a shout and a cackle, and dispersed to the four corners of the yard as if scattered by a volley of bird-shot. Hearing the racket, the rest of the maids came running,– Anita and Maria, the twins, women forty years old, born on the place the year after General Moreno brought home his handsome young bride; their two daughters, Rosa and Anita the Little, as she was still called, though she outweighed her mother; old Juanita, the oldest woman in the household, of whom even the Senora was said not to know the exact age or history; and she, poor thing, could tell nothing, having been silly for ten years or more, good for nothing except to shell beans: that she did as fast and well as ever, and was never happy except she was at it. Luckily for her, beans are the one crop never omitted or stinted on a Mexican estate; and for sake of old Juanita they stored every year in the Moreno house, rooms full of beans in the pod (tons of them, one would think), enough to feed an army. But then, it was like a little army even now, the Senora’s household; nobody ever knew exactly how many women were in the kitchen, or how many men in the fields. There were always women cousins, or brother’s wives or widows or daughters, who had come to stay, or men cousins, or sister’s husbands or sons, who were stopping on their way up or down the valley. When it came to the pay-roll, Senor Felipe knew to whom he paid wages; but who were fed and lodged under his roof, that was quite another thing. It could not enter into the head of a Mexican gentleman to make either count or account of that. It would be a disgraceful niggardly thought.
To the Senora it seemed as if there were no longer any people about the place. A beggarly handful, she would have said, hardly enough to do the work of the house, or of the estate, sadly as the latter had dwindled. In the General’s day, it had been a free-handed boast of his that never less than fifty persons, men, women and children, were fed within his gates each day; how many more, he did not care, nor know. But that time had indeed gone, gone forever; and though a stranger, seeing the sudden rush and muster at door and window, which followed on old Marda’s letting fly the water at Juan’s head, would have thought, “Good heavens, do all those women, children, and babies belong in that one house!” the Senora’s sole thought, as she at that moment went past the gate, was, “Poor things! how few there are left of them! I am afraid old Marda has to work too hard. I must spare Margarita more from the house to help her.” And she sighed deeply, and unconsciously held her rosary nearer to her heart, as she went into the house and entered her son’s bedroom. The picture she saw there was one to thrill any mother’s heart; and as it met her eye, she paused on the threshold for a second,– only a second, however; and nothing could have astonished Felipe Moreno so much as to have been told that at the very moment when his mother’s calm voice was saying to him, “Good morning, my son, I hope you have slept well, and are better,” there was welling up in her heart a passionate ejaculation, “O my glorious son! The saints have sent me in him the face of his father! He is fit for a kingdom!”
The truth is, Felipe Moreno was not fit for a kingdom at all. If he had been, he would not have been so ruled by his mother without ever finding it out. But so far as mere physical beauty goes, there never was a king born, whose face, stature, and bearing would set off a crown or a throne, or any of the things of which the outside of royalty is made up, better than would Felipe Moreno’s. And it was true, as the Senora said, whether the saints had anything to do with it or not, that he had the face of his father. So strong a likeness is seldom seen. When Felipe once, on the occasion of a grand celebration and procession, put on the gold-wrought velvet mantle, gayly embroidered short breeches fastened at the knee with red ribbons, and gold-and-silver-trimmed sombrero, which his father had worn twenty-five years before, the Senora fainted at her first look at him,– fainted and fell; and when she opened her eyes, and saw the same splendid, gayly arrayed, dark-bearded man, bending over her in distress, with words of endearment and alarm, she fainted again.
“Mother, mother mia,” cried Felipe, “I will not wear them if it makes you feel like this! Let me take them off. I will not go to their cursed parade;” and he sprang to his feet, and began with trembling fingers to unbuckle the sword-belt.
“No, no, Felipe,” faintly cried the Senora, from the ground. “It is my wish that you wear them;” and staggering to her feet, with a burst of tears, she rebuckled the old sword-belt, which her fingers had so many times — never unkissed — buckled, in the days when her husband had bade her farewell and gone forth to the uncertain fates of war. “Wear them!” she cried, with gathering fire in her tones, and her eyes dry of tears,– “wear them, and let the American hounds see what a Mexican officer and gentleman looked like before they had set their base, usurping feet on our necks!” And she followed him to the gate, and stood erect, bravely waving her handkerchief as he galloped off, till he was out of sight. Then with a changed face and a bent head she crept slowly to her room, locked herself in, fell on her knees before the Madonna at the head of her bed, and spent the greater part of the day praying that she might be forgiven, and that all heretics might be discomfited. From which part of these supplications she derived most comfort is easy to imagine.
Juan Canito had been right in his sudden surmise that it was for Father Salvierderra’s coming that the sheep-shearing was being delayed, and not in consequence of Senor Felipe’s illness, or by the non-appearance of Luigo and his flock of sheep. Juan would have chuckled to himself still more at his perspicacity, had he overheard the conversation going on between the Senora and her son, at the very time when he, half asleep on the veranda, was, as he would have called it, putting two and two together and convincing himself that old Juan was as smart as they were, and not to be kept in the dark by all their reticence and equivocation.
“Juan Can is growing very impatient about the sheep-shearing,” said the Senora. “I suppose you are still of the same mind about it, Felipe,– that it is better to wait till Father Salvierderra comes? As the only chance those Indians have of seeing him is here, it would seem a Christian duty to so arrange it, if it be possible; but Juan is very restive. He is getting old, and chafes a little, I fancy, under your control. He cannot forget that you were a boy on his knee. Now I, for my part, am like to forget that you were ever anything but a man for me to lean on.”
Felipe turned his handsome face toward his mother with a beaming smile of filial affection and gratified manly vanity. “Indeed, my mother, if I can be sufficient for you to lean on, I will ask nothing more of the saints;” and he took his mother’s thin and wasted little hands, both at once, in his own strong right hand, and carried them to his lips as a lover might have done. “You will spoil me, mother,” he said, “you make me so proud.”
“No, Felipe, it is I who am proud,” promptly replied the mother; “and I do not call it being proud, only grateful to God for having given me a son wise enough to take his father’s place, and guide and protect me through the few remaining years I have to live. I shall die content, seeing you at the head of the estate, and living as a Mexican gentleman should; that is, so far as now remains possible in this unfortunate country. But about the sheep-shearing, Felipe. Do you wish to have it begun before the Father is here? Of course, Alessandro is all ready with his band. It is but two days’ journey for a messenger to bring him. Father Salvierderra cannot be here before the 10th of the month. He leaves Santa Barbara on the 1st, and he will walk all the way,– a good six days’ journey, for he is old now and feeble; then he must stop in Ventura for a Sunday, and a day at the Ortega’s ranch, and at the Lopez’s,– there, there is a christening. Yes, the 10th is the very earliest that he can be here,– near two weeks from now. So far as your getting up is concerned, it might perhaps be next week. You will be nearly well by that time.”
“Yes, indeed,” laughed Felipe, stretching himself out in the bed and giving a kick to the bedclothes that made the high bedposts and the fringed canopy roof shake and creak; “I am well now, if it were not for this cursed weakness when I stand on my feet. I believe it would do me good to get out of doors.”
In truth, Felipe had been hankering for the sheep-shearing himself. It was a brisk, busy, holiday sort of time to him, hard as he worked in it; and two weeks looked long to wait.
“It is always thus after a fever,” said his mother. “The weakness lasts many weeks. I am not sure that you will be strong enough even in two weeks to do the packing; but, as Juan Can said this morning, he stood at the packing-bag when you were a boy, and there was no need of waiting for you for that!”
“He said that, did he!” exclaimed Felipe, wrathfully. “The old man is getting insolent. I’ll tell him that nobody will pack the sacks but myself, while I am master here; and I will have the sheep-shearing when I please, and not before.”
“I suppose it would not be wise to say that it is not to take place till the Father comes, would it?” asked the Senora, hesitatingly, as if the thing were evenly balanced in her mind. “The Father has not that hold on the younger men he used to have, and I have thought that even in Juan himself I have detected a remissness. The spirit of unbelief is spreading in the country since the Americans are running up and down everywhere seeking money, like dogs with their noses to the ground! It might vex Juan if he knew that you were waiting only for the Father. What do you think?”
“I think it is enough for him to know that the sheep-shearing waits for my pleasure,” answered Felipe, still wrathful, “and that is the end of it.” And so it was; and, moreover, precisely the end which Senora Moreno had had in her own mind from the beginning; but not even Juan Canito himself suspected its being solely her purpose, and not her son’s. As for Felipe, if any person had suggested to him that it was his mother, and not he, who had decided that the sheep-shearing would be better deferred until the arrival of Father Salvierderra from Santa Barbara, and that nothing should be said on the ranch about this being the real reason of the postponing, Felipe would have stared in astonishment, and have thought that person either crazy or a fool.
To attain one’s ends in this way is the consummate triumph of art. Never to appear as a factor in the situation; to be able to wield other men, as instruments, with the same direct and implicit response to will that one gets from a hand or a foot,– this is to triumph, indeed: to be as nearly controller and conqueror of Fates as fate permits. There have been men prominent in the world’s affairs at one time and another, who have sought and studied such a power and have acquired it to a great degree. By it they have manipulated legislators, ambassadors, sovereigns; and have grasped, held, and played with the destinies of empires. But it is to be questioned whether even in these notable instances there has ever been such marvellous completeness of success as is sometimes seen in the case of a woman in whom the power is an instinct and not an attainment; a passion rather than a purpose. Between the two results, between the two processes, there is just that difference which is always to be seen between the stroke of talent and the stroke of genius.
Senora Moreno’s was the stroke of genius.
THE Senora Moreno’s house was one of the best specimens to be found in California of the representative house of the half barbaric, half elegant, wholly generous and free-handed life led there by Mexican men and women of degree in the early part of this century, under the rule of the Spanish and Mexican viceroys, when the laws of the Indies were still the law of the land, and its old name, “New Spain,” was an ever-present link and stimulus to the warmest memories and deepest patriotisms of its people.
It was a picturesque life, with more of sentiment and gayety in it, more also that was truly dramatic, more romance, than will ever be seen again on those sunny shores. The aroma of it all lingers there still; industries and inventions have not yet slain it; it will last out its century,– in fact, it can never be quite lost, so long as there is left standing one such house as the Senora Moreno’s.
When the house was built, General Moreno owned all the land within a radius of forty miles,– forty miles westward, down the valley to the sea; forty miles eastward, into the San Fernando Mountains; and good forty miles more or less along the coast. The boundaries were not very strictly defined; there was no occasion, in those happy days, to reckon land by inches. It might be asked, perhaps, just how General Moreno owned all this land, and the question might not be easy to answer. It was not and could not be answered to the satisfaction of the United States Land Commission, which, after the surrender of California, undertook to sift and adjust Mexican land titles; and that was the way it had come about that the Senora Moreno now called herself a poor woman. Tract after tract, her lands had been taken away from her; it looked for a time as if nothing would be left. Every one of the claims based on deeds of gift from Governor Pio Fico, her husband’s most intimate friend, was disallowed. They all went by the board in one batch, and took away from the Senora in a day the greater part of her best pasture-lands. They were lands which had belonged to the Bonaventura Mission, and lay along the coast at the mouth of the valley down which the little stream which ran past her house went to the sea; and it had been a great pride and delight to the Senora, when she was young, to ride that forty miles by her husband’s side, all the way on their own lands, straight from their house to their own strip of shore. No wonder she believed the Americans thieves, and spoke of them always as hounds. The people of the United States have never in the least realized that the taking possession of California was not only a conquering of Mexico, but a conquering of California as well; that the real bitterness of the surrender was not so much to the empire which gave up the country, as to the country itself which was given up. Provinces passed back and forth in that way, helpless in the hands of great powers, have all the ignominy and humiliation of defeat, with none of the dignities or compensations of the transaction.
Mexico saved much by her treaty, spite of having to acknowledge herself beaten; but California lost all. Words cannot tell the sting of such a transfer. It is a marvel that a Mexican remained in the country; probably none did, except those who were absolutely forced to it.
Luckily for the Senora Moreno, her title to the lands midway in the valley was better than to those lying to the east and the west, which had once belonged to the missions of San Fernando and Bonaventura; and after all the claims, counter-claims, petitions, appeals, and adjudications were ended, she still was left in undisputed possession of what would have been thought by any new-comer into the country to be a handsome estate, but which seemed to the despoiled and indignant Senora a pitiful fragment of one. Moreover, she declared that she should never feel secure of a foot of even this. Any day, she said, the United States Government might send out a new Land Commission to examine the decrees of the first, and revoke such as they saw fit. Once a thief, always a thief. Nobody need feel himself safe under American rule. There was no knowing what might happen any day; and year by year the lines of sadness, resentment, anxiety, and antagonism deepened on the Senora’s fast aging face.
It gave her unspeakable satisfaction, when the Commissioners, laying out a road down the valley, ran it at the back of her house instead of past the front. “It is well,” she said. “Let their travel be where it belongs, behind our kitchens; and no one have sight of the front doors of our houses, except friends who have come to visit us.” Her enjoyment of this never flagged. Whenever she saw, passing the place, wagons or carriages belonging to the hated Americans, it gave her a distinct thrill of pleasure to think that the house turned its back on them. She would like always to be able to do the same herself; but whatever she, by policy or in business, might be forced to do, the old house, at any rate, would always keep the attitude of contempt,– its face turned away.
One other pleasure she provided herself with, soon after this road was opened,– a pleasure in which religious devotion and race antagonism were so closely blended that it would have puzzled the subtlest of priests to decide whether her act were a sin or a virtue. She caused to be set up, upon every one of the soft rounded hills which made the beautiful rolling sides of that part of the valley, a large wooden cross; not a hill in sight of her house left without the sacred emblem of her faith. “That the heretics may know, when they go by, that they are on the estate of a good Catholic,” she said, “and that the faithful may be reminded to pray. There have been miracles of conversion wrought on the most hardened by a sudden sight of the Blessed Cross.”
There they stood, summer and winter, rain and shine, the silent, solemn, outstretched arms, and became landmarks to many a guideless traveller who had been told that his way would be by the first turn to the left or the right, after passing the last one of the Senora Moreno’s crosses, which he couldn’t miss seeing. And who shall say that it did not often happen that the crosses bore a sudden message to some idle heart journeying by, and thus justified the pious half of the Senora’s impulse? Certain it is, that many a good Catholic halted and crossed himself when he first beheld them, in the lonely places, standing out in sudden relief against the blue sky; and if he said a swift short prayer at the sight, was he not so much the better?
The house, was of adobe, low, with a wide veranda on the three sides of the inner court, and a still broader one across the entire front, which looked to the south. These verandas, especially those on the inner court, were supplementary rooms to the house. The greater part of the family life went on in them. Nobody stayed inside the walls, except when it was necessary. All the kitchen work, except the actual cooking, was done here, in front of the kitchen doors and windows. Babies slept, were washed, sat in the dirt, and played, on the veranda. The women said their prayers, took their naps, and wove their lace there. Old Juanita shelled her beans there, and threw the pods down on the tile floor, till towards night they were sometimes piled up high around her, like corn-husks at a husking. The herdsmen and shepherds smoked there, lounged there, trained their dogs there; there the young made love, and the old dozed; the benches, which ran the entire length of the walls, were worn into hollows, and shone like satin; the tiled floors also were broken and sunk in places, making little wells, which filled up in times of hard rains, and were then an invaluable addition to the children’s resources for amusement, and also to the comfort of the dogs, cats, and fowls, who picked about among them, taking sips from each.
The arched veranda along the front was a delightsome place. It must have been eighty feet long, at least, for the doors of five large rooms opened on it. The two westernmost rooms had been added on, and made four steps higher than the others; which gave to that end of the veranda the look of a balcony, or loggia. Here the Senora kept her flowers; great red water-jars, hand-made by the Indians of San Luis Obispo Mission, stood in close rows against the walls, and in them were always growing fine geraniums, carnations, and yellow-flowered musk. The Senora’s passion for musk she had inherited from her mother. It was so strong that she sometimes wondered at it; and one day, as she sat with Father Salvierderra in the veranda, she picked a handful of the blossoms, and giving them to him, said, “I do not know why it is, but it seems to me if I were dead I could be brought to life by the smell of musk.”
“It is in your blood, Senora,” the old monk replied. “When I was last in your father’s house in Seville, your mother sent for me to her room, and under her window was a stone balcony full of growing musk, which so filled the room with its odor that I was like to faint. But she said it cured her of diseases, and without it she fell ill. You were a baby then.”
“Yes,” cried the Senora, “but I recollect that balcony. I recollect being lifted up to a window, and looking down into a bed of blooming yellow flowers; but I did not know what they were. How strange!”
“No. Not strange, daughter,” replied Father Salvierderra. “It would have been stranger if you had not acquired the taste, thus drawing it in with the mother’s milk. It would behoove mothers to remember this far more than they do.”
Besides the geraniums and carnations and musk in the red jars, there were many sorts of climbing vines,– some coming from the ground, and twining around the pillars of the veranda; some growing in great bowls, swung by cords from the roof of the veranda, or set on shelves against the walls. These bowls were of gray stone, hollowed and polished, shining smooth inside and out. They also had been made by the Indians, nobody knew how many ages ago, scooped and polished by the patient creatures, with only stones for tools.
Among these vines, singing from morning till night, hung the Senora’s canaries and finches, half a dozen of each, all of different generations, raised by the Senora. She was never without a young bird-family on hand; and all the way from Bonaventura to Monterey, it was thought a piece of good luck to come into possession of a canary or finch of Senora Moreno’s ‘raising.
Between the veranda and the river meadows, out on which it looked, all was garden, orange grove, and almond orchard; the orange grove always green, never without snowy bloom or golden fruit; the garden never without flowers, summer or winter; and the almond orchard, in early spring, a fluttering canopy of pink and white petals, which, seen from the hills on the opposite side of the river, looked as if rosy sunrise clouds had fallen, and become tangled in the tree-tops. On either hand stretched away other orchards,– peach, apricot, pear, apple pomegranate; and beyond these, vineyards. Nothing was to be seen but verdure or bloom or fruit, at whatever time of year you sat on the Senora’s south veranda.
A wide straight walk shaded by a trellis so knotted and twisted with grapevines that little was to be seen of the trellis wood-work, led straight down from the veranda steps, through the middle of the garden, to a little brook at the foot of it. Across this brook, in the shade of a dozen gnarled old willow-trees, were set the broad flat stone washboards on which was done all the family washing. No long dawdling, and no running away from work on the part of the maids, thus close to the eye of the Senora at the upper end of the garden; and if they had known how picturesque they looked there, kneeling on the grass, lifting the dripping linen out of the water, rubbing it back and forth on the stones, sousing it, wringing it, splashing the clear water in each other’s faces, they would have been content to stay at the washing day in and day out, for there was always somebody to look on from above. Hardly a day passed that the Senora had not visitors. She was still a person of note; her house the natural resting-place for all who journeyed through the valley; and whoever came, spent all of his time, when not eating, sleeping, or walking over the place, sitting with the Senora on the sunny veranda. Few days in winter were cold enough, and in summer the day must be hot indeed to drive the Senora and her friends indoors. There stood on the veranda three carved oaken chairs, and a carved bench, also of oak, which had been brought to the Senora for safe keeping by the faithful old sacristan of San Luis Rey, at the time of the occupation of that Mission by the United States troops, soon after the conquest of California. Aghast at the sacrilegious acts of the soldiers, who were quartered in the very church itself, and amused themselves by making targets of the eyes and noses of the saints’ statues, the sacristan, stealthily, day by day and night after night, bore out of the church all that he dared to remove, burying some articles in cottonwood copses, hiding others in his own poor little hovel, until he had wagon-loads of sacred treasures. Then, still more stealthily, he carried them, a few at a time, concealed in the bottom of a cart, under a load of hay or of brush, to the house of the Senora, who felt herself deeply honored by his confidence, and received everything as a sacred trust, to be given back into the hands of the Church again, whenever the Missions should be restored, of which at that time all Catholics had good hope. And so it had come about that no bedroom in the Senora’s house was without a picture or a statue of a saint or of the Madonna; and some had two; and in the little chapel in the garden the altar was surrounded by a really imposing row of holy and apostolic figures, which had looked down on the splendid ceremonies of the San Luis Rey Mission, in Father Peyri’s time, no more benignly than they now did on the humbler worship of the Senora’s family in its diminished estate. That one had lost an eye, another an arm, that the once brilliant colors of the drapery were now faded and shabby, only enhanced the tender reverence with which the Senora knelt before them, her eyes filling with indignant tears at thought of the heretic hands which had wrought such defilement. Even the crumbling wreaths which had been placed on some of the statues’ heads at the time of the last ceremonial at which they had figured in the Mission, had been brought away with them by the devout sacristan, and the Senora had replaced each one, holding it only a degree less sacred than the statue itself.
This chapel was dearer to the Senora than her house. It had been built by the General in the second year of their married life. In it her four children had been christened, and from it all but one, her handsome Felipe, had been buried while they were yet infants. In the General’s time, while the estate was at its best, and hundreds of Indians living within its borders, there was many a Sunday when the scene to be witnessed there was like the scenes at the Missions,– the chapel full of kneeling men and women; those who could not find room inside kneeling on the garden walks outside; Father Salvierderra, in gorgeous vestments, coming, at close of the services, slowly down the aisle, the close-packed rows of worshippers parting to right and left to let him through, all looking up eagerly for his blessing, women giving him offerings of fruit or flowers, and holding up their babies that he might lay his hands on their heads. No one but Father Salvierderra had ever officiated in the Moreno chapel, or heard the confession of a Moreno. He was a Franciscan, one of the few now left in the country; so revered and beloved by all who had come under his influence, that they would wait long months without the offices of the Church, rather than confess their sins or confide their perplexities to any one else. From this deep-seated attachment on the part of the Indians and the older Mexican families in the country to the Franciscan Order, there had grown up, not unnaturally, some jealousy of them in the minds of the later-come secular priests, and the position of the few monks left was not wholly a pleasant one. It had even been rumored that they were to be forbidden to continue longer their practice of going up and down the country, ministering everywhere; were to be compelled to restrict their labors to their own colleges at Santa Barbara and Santa Inez. When something to this effect was one day said in the Senora Moreno’s presence, two scarlet spots sprang on her cheeks, and before she bethought herself, she exclaimed, “That day, I burn down my chapel!”
Luckily, nobody but Felipe heard the rash threat, and his exclamation of unbounded astonishment recalled the Senora to herself.
“I spoke rashly, my son,” she said. “The Church is to be obeyed always; but the Franciscan Fathers are responsible to no one but the Superior of their own order; and there is no one in this land who has the authority to forbid their journeying and ministering to whoever desires their offices. As for these Catalan priests who are coming in here, I cannot abide them. No Catalan but has bad blood in his veins!”
There was every reason in the world why the Senora should be thus warmly attached to the Franciscan Order. From her earliest recollections the gray gown and cowl had been familiar to her eyes, and had represented the things which she was taught to hold most sacred and dear. Father Salvierderra himself had come from Mexico to Monterey in the same ship which had brought her father to be the commandante of the Santa Barbara Presidio; and her best-beloved uncle, her father’s eldest brother, was at that time the Superior of the Santa Barbara Mission. The sentiment and romance of her youth were almost equally divided between the gayeties, excitements, adornments of the life at the Presidio, and the ceremonies and devotions of the life at the Mission. She was famed as the most beautiful girl in the country. Men of the army, men of the navy, and men of the Church, alike adored her. Her name was a toast from Monterey to San Diego. When at last she was wooed and won by Felipe Moreno, one of the most distinguished of the Mexican Generals, her wedding ceremonies were the most splendid ever seen in the country. The right tower of the Mission church at Santa Barbara had been just completed, and it was arranged that the consecration of this tower should take place at the time of her wedding, and that her wedding feast should be spread in the long outside corridor of the Mission building. The whole country, far and near, was bid. The feast lasted three days; open tables to everybody; singing, dancing, eating, drinking, and making merry. At that time there were long streets of Indian houses stretching eastward from the Mission; before each of these houses was built a booth of green boughs. The Indians, as well as the Fathers from all the other Missions, were invited to come. The Indians came in bands, singing songs and bringing gifts. As they appeared, the Santa Barbara Indians went out to meet them, also singing, bearing gifts, and strewing seeds on the ground, in token of welcome. The young Senora and her bridegroom, splendidly clothed, were seen of all, and greeted, whenever they appeared, by showers of seeds and grains and blossoms. On the third day, still in their wedding attire, and bearing lighted candles in their hands, they walked with the monks in a procession, round and round the new tower, the monks chanting, and sprinkling incense and holy water on its walls, the ceremony seeming to all devout beholders to give a blessed consecration to the union of the young pair as well as to the newly completed tower. After this they journeyed in state, accompanied by several of the General’s aids and officers, and by two Franciscan Fathers, up to Monterey, stopping on their way at all the Missions, and being warmly welcomed and entertained at each.
General Moreno was much beloved by both army and Church. In many of the frequent clashings between the military and the ecclesiastical powers he, being as devout and enthusiastic a Catholic as he was zealous and enthusiastic a soldier, had had the good fortune to be of material assistance to each party. The Indians also knew his name well, having heard it many times mentioned with public thanksgivings in the Mission churches, after some signal service he had rendered to the Fathers either in Mexico or Monterey. And now, by taking as his bride the daughter of a distinguished officer, and the niece of the Santa Barbara Superior, he had linked himself anew to the two dominant powers and interests of the country.
When they reached San Luis Obispo, the whole Indian population turned out to meet them, the Padre walking at the head. As they approached the Mission doors the Indians swarmed closer and closer and still closer, took the General’s horse by the head, and finally almost by actual force compelled him to allow himself to be lifted into a blanket, held high up by twenty strong men; and thus he was borne up the steps, across the corridor, and into the Padre’s room. It was a position ludicrously undignified in itself, but the General submitted to it good-naturedly.
“Oh, let them do it, if they like,” he cried, laughingly, to Padre Martinez, who was endeavoring to quiet the Indians and hold them back. “Let them do it. It pleases the poor creatures.”
On the morning of their departure, the good Padre, having exhausted all his resources for entertaining his distinguished guests, caused to be driven past the corridors, for their inspection, all the poultry belonging to the Mission. The procession took an hour to pass. For music, there was the squeaking, cackling, hissing, gobbling, crowing, quacking of the fowls, combined with the screaming, scolding, and whip-cracking of the excited Indian marshals of the lines. First came the turkeys, then the roosters, then the white hens, then the black, and then the yellow, next the ducks, and at the tail of the spectacle long files of geese, some strutting, some half flying and hissing in resentment and terror at the unwonted coercions to which they were subjected. The Indians had been hard at work all night capturing, sorting, assorting, and guarding the rank and file of their novel pageant. It would be safe to say that a droller sight never was seen, and never will be, on the Pacific coast or any other. Before it was done with, the General and his bride had nearly died with laughter; and the General could never allude to it without laughing almost as heartily again.
At Monterey they were more magnificently feted; at the Presidio, at the Mission, on board Spanish, Mexican, and Russian ships lying in harbor, balls, dances, bull-fights, dinners, all that the country knew of festivity, was lavished on the beautiful and winning young bride. The belles of the coast, from San Diego up, had all gathered at Monterey for these gayeties, but not one of them could be for a moment compared to her. This was the beginning of the Senora’s life as a married woman. She was then just twenty. A close observer would have seen even then, underneath the joyous smile, the laughing eye, the merry voice, a look thoughtful, tender, earnest, at times enthusiastic. This look was the reflection of those qualities in her, then hardly aroused, which made her, as years developed her character and stormy fates thickened around her life, the unflinching comrade of her soldier husband, the passionate adherent of the Church. Through wars, insurrections, revolutions, downfalls, Spanish, Mexican, civil, ecclesiastical, her standpoint, her poise, remained the same. She simply grew more and more proudly, passionately, a Spaniard and a Moreno; more and more stanchly and fierily a Catholic, and a lover of the Franciscans.
During the height of the despoiling and plundering of the Missions, under the Secularization Act, she was for a few years almost beside herself. More than once she journeyed alone, when the journey was by no means without danger, to Monterey, to stir up the Prefect of the Missions to more energetic action, to implore the governmental authorities to interfere, and protect the Church’s property. It was largely in consequence of her eloquent entreaties that Governor Micheltorena issued his bootless order, restoring to the Church all the Missions south of San Luis Obispo. But this order cost Micheltorena his political head, and General Moreno was severely wounded in one of the skirmishes of the insurrection which drove Micheltorena out of the country.
In silence and bitter humiliation the Senora nursed her husband back to health again, and resolved to meddle no more in the affairs of her unhappy country and still more unhappy Church. As year by year she saw the ruin of the Missions steadily going on, their vast properties melting away, like dew before the sun, in the hands of dishonest administrators and politicians, the Church powerless to contend with the unprincipled greed in high places, her beloved Franciscan Fathers driven from the country or dying of starvation at their posts, she submitted herself to what, she was forced to admit, seemed to be the inscrutable will of God for the discipline and humiliation of the Church. In a sort of bewildered resignation she waited to see what further sufferings were to come, to fill up the measure of the punishment which, for some mysterious purpose, the faithful must endure. But when close upon all this discomfiture and humiliation of her Church followed the discomfiture and humiliation of her country in war, and the near and evident danger of an English-speaking people’s possessing the land, all the smothered fire of the Senora’s nature broke out afresh. With unfaltering hands she buckled on her husband’s sword, and with dry eyes saw him go forth to fight. She had but one regret, that she was not the mother of sons to fight also.
“Would thou wert a man, Felipe,” she exclaimed again and again in tones the child never forgot. “Would thou wert a man, that thou might go also to fight these foreigners!”
Any race under the sun would have been to the Senora less hateful than the American. She had scorned them in her girlhood, when they came trading to post after post. She scorned them still. The idea of being forced to wage a war with pedlers was to her too monstrous to be believed. In the outset she had no doubt that the Mexicans would win in the contest.
“What!” she cried, “shall we who won independence from Spain, be beaten by these traders? It is impossible!”
When her husband was brought home to her dead, killed in the last fight the Mexican forces made, she said icily, “He would have chosen to die rather than to have been forced to see his country in the hands of the enemy.” And she was almost frightened at herself to see how this thought, as it dwelt in her mind, slew the grief in her heart. She had believed she could not live if her husband were to be taken away from her; but she found herself often glad that he was dead,– glad that he was spared the sight and the knowledge of the things which happened; and even the yearning tenderness with which her imagination pictured him among the saints, was often turned into a fierce wondering whether indignation did not fill his soul, even in heaven, at the way things were going in the land for whose sake he had died.
Out of such throes as these had been born the second nature which made Senora Moreno the silent, reserved, stern, implacable woman they knew, who knew her first when she was sixty. Of the gay, tender, sentimental girl, who danced and laughed with the officers, and prayed and confessed with the Fathers, forty years before, there was small trace left now, in the low-voiced, white-haired, aged woman, silent, unsmiling, placid-faced, who manoeuvred with her son and her head shepherd alike, to bring it about that a handful of Indians might once more confess their sins to a Franciscan monk in the Moreno chapel.
JUAN CANITO and Senor Felipe were not the only members of the Senora’s family who were impatient for the sheep-shearing. There was also Ramona. Ramona was, to the world at large, a far more important person than the Senora herself. The Senora was of the past; Ramona was of the present. For one eye that could see the significant, at times solemn, beauty of the Senora’s pale and shadowed countenance, there were a hundred that flashed with eager pleasure at the barest glimpse of Ramona’s face; the shepherds, the herdsmen, the maids, the babies, the dogs, the poultry, all loved the sight of Ramona; all loved her, except the Senora. The Senora loved her not; never had loved her, never could love her; and yet she had stood in the place of mother to the girl ever since her childhood, and never once during the whole sixteen years of her life had shown her any unkindness in act. She had promised to be a mother to her; and with all the inalienable stanchness of her nature she fulfilled the letter of her promise. More than the bond lay in the bond; but that was not the Senora’s fault.
The story of Ramona the Senora never told. To most of the Senora’s acquaintances now, Ramona was a mystery. They did not know — and no one ever asked a prying question of the Senora Moreno — who Ramona’s parents were, whether they were living or dead, or why Ramona, her name not being Moreno, lived always in the Senora’s house as a daughter, tended and attended equally with the adored Felipe. A few gray-haired men and women here and there in the country could have told the strange story of Ramona; but its beginning was more than a half-century back, and much had happened since then. They seldom thought of the child. They knew she was in the Senora Moreno’s keeping, and that was enough. The affairs of the generation just going out were not the business of the young people coming in. They would have tragedies enough of their own presently; what was the use of passing down the old ones? Yet the story was not one to be forgotten; and now and then it was told in the twilight of a summer evening, or in the shadows of vines on a lingering afternoon, and all young men and maidens thrilled who heard it.
It was an elder sister of the Senora’s,– a sister old enough to be wooed and won while the Senora was yet at play,– who had been promised in marriage to a young Scotchman named Angus Phail. She was a beautiful woman; and Angus Phail, from the day that he first saw her standing in the Presidio gate, became so madly her lover, that he was like a man bereft of his senses. This was the only excuse ever to be made for Ramona Gonzaga’s deed. It could never be denied, by her bitterest accusers, that, at the first, and indeed for many months, she told Angus she did not love him, and could not marry him; and that it was only after his stormy and ceaseless entreaties, that she did finally promise to become his wife. Then, almost immediately, she went away to Monterey, and Angus set sail for San Blas. He was the owner of the richest line of ships which traded along the coast at that time; the richest stuffs, carvings, woods, pearls, and jewels, which came into the country, came in his ships. The arrival of one of them was always an event; and Angus himself, having been well-born in Scotland, and being wonderfully well-mannered for a seafaring man, was made welcome in all the best houses, wherever his ships went into harbor, from Monterey to San Diego.
The Senorita Ramona Gonzaga sailed for Monterey the same day and hour her lover sailed for San Blas. They stood on the decks waving signals to each other as one sailed away to the south, the other to the north. It was remembered afterward by those who were in the ship with the Senorita, that she ceased to wave her signals, and had turned her face away, long before her lover’s ship was out of sight. But the men of the “San Jose” said that Angus Phail stood immovable, gazing northward, till nightfall shut from his sight even the horizon line at which the Monterey ship had long before disappeared from view.
This was to be his last voyage. He went on this only because his honor was pledged to do so. Also, he comforted himself by thinking that he would bring back for his bride, and for the home he meant to give her, treasures of all sorts, which none could select so well as he. Through the long weeks of the voyage he sat on deck, gazing dreamily at the waves, and letting his imagination feed on pictures of jewels, satins, velvets, laces, which would best deck his wife’s form and face. When he could not longer bear the vivid fancies’ heat in his blood, he would pace the deck, swifter and swifter, till his steps were like those of one flying in fear; at such times the men heard him muttering and whispering to himself, “Ramona! Ramona!” Mad with love from the first to the last was Angus Phail; and there were many who believed that if he had ever seen the hour when he called Ramona Gonzaga his own, his reason would have fled forever at that moment, and he would have killed either her or himself, as men thus mad have been known to do. But that hour never came. When, eight months later, the “San Jose” sailed into the Santa Barbara harbor, and Angus Phail leaped breathless on shore, the second man he met, no friend of his, looking him maliciously in the face, said. “So, ho! You’re just too late for the wedding! Your sweetheart, the handsome Gonzaga girl, was married here, yesterday, to a fine young officer of the Monterey Presidio!”
Angus reeled, struck the man a blow full in the face, and fell on the ground, foaming at the mouth. He was lifted and carried into a house, and, speedily recovering, burst with the strength of a giant from the hands of those who were holding him, sprang out of the door, and ran bareheaded up the road toward the Presidio. At the gate he was stopped by the guard, who knew him.
“Is it true?” gasped Angus.
“Yes, Senor,” replied the man, who said afterward that his knees shook under him with terror at the look on the Scotchman’s face. He feared he would strike him dead for his reply. But, instead, Angus burst into a maudlin laugh, and, turning away, went staggering down the street, singing and laughing.
The next that was known of him was in a low drinking-place, where he was seen lying on the floor, dead drunk; and from that day he sank lower and lower, till one of the commonest sights to be seen in Santa Barbara was Angus Phail reeling about, tipsy, coarse, loud, profane, dangerous.
“See what the Senorita escaped!” said the thoughtless. “She was quite right not to have married such. a drunken wretch.”
In the rare intervals when he was partially sober, he sold all he possessed,– ship after ship sold for a song, and the proceeds squandered in drinking or worse. He never had a sight of his lost bride. He did not seek it; and she, terrified, took every precaution to avoid it, and soon returned with her husband to Monterey,
Finally Angus disappeared, and after a time the news came up from Los Angeles that he was there, had gone out to the San Gabriel Mission, and was living with the Indians. Some years later came the still more surprising news that he had married a squaw,– a squaw with several Indian children, — had been legally married by the priest in the San Gabriel Mission Church. And that was the last that the faithless Ramona Gonzaga ever heard of her lover, until twenty-five years after her marriage, when one day he suddenly appeared in her presence. How he had gained admittance to the house was never known; but there he stood before her, bearing in his arms a beautiful babe, asleep. Drawing himself up to the utmost of his six feet of height, and looking at her sternly, with eyes blue like steel, he said: “Senora Ortegna, you once did me a great wrong. You sinned, and the Lord has punished you. He has denied you children. I also have done a wrong; I have sinned, and the Lord has punished me. He has given me a child. I ask once more at your hands a boon. Will you take this child of mine, and bring it up as a child of yours, or of mine, ought to be brought up?”
The tears were rolling down the Senora Ortegna’s cheeks. The Lord had indeed punished her in more ways than Angus Phail knew. Her childlessness, bitter as that had been, was the least of them. Speechless, she rose, and stretched out her arms for the child. He placed it in them. Still the child slept on, undisturbed.
“I do not know if I will be permitted,” she said falteringly; “my husband –“
“Father Salvierderra will command it. I have seen him,” replied Angus.
The Senora’s face brightened. “If that be so, I hope it can be as you wish,” she said. Then a strange embarrassment came upon her, and looking down upon the infant, she said inquiringly, “But the child’s mother?”
Angus’s face turned swarthy red. Perhaps, face to face with this gentle and still lovely woman he had once so loved, he first realized to the full how wickedly he had thrown away his life. With a quick wave of his hand, which spoke volumes, he said: “That is nothing. She has other children, of her own blood. This is mine, my only one, my daughter. I wish her to be yours; otherwise, she will be taken by the Church.”
With each second that she felt the little warm body’s tender weight in her arms, Ramona Ortegna’s heart had more and more yearned towards the infant. At these words she bent her face down and kissed its cheek. “Oh, no! not to the Church! I will love it as my own,” she said.
Angus Phail’s face quivered. Feelings long dead within him stirred in their graves. He gazed at the sad and altered face, once so beautiful, so dear. “I should hardly have known you, Senora!” burst from him involuntarily.
She smiled piteously, with no resentment. “That is not strange. I hardly know myself,” she whispered. “Life has dealt very hardly with me. I should not have known you either — Angus.” She pronounced his name hesitatingly, half appealingly. At the sound of the familiar syllables, so long unheard, the man’s heart broke down. He buried his face in his hands, and sobbed out: “O Ramona, forgive me! I brought the child here, not wholly in love; partly in vengeance. But I am melted now. Are you sure you wish to keep her? I will take her away if you are not.”
“Never, so long as I live, Angus,” replied Senora Ortegna. “Already I feel that she is a mercy from the Lord. If my husband sees no offence in her presence, she will be a joy in my life. Has she been christened?”
Angus cast his eyes down. A sudden fear smote him. “Before I had thought of bringing her to you,” he stammered, “at first I had only the thought of giving her to the Church. I had had her christened by” — the words refused to leave his lips — “the name — Can you not guess, Senora, what name she bears?”
The Senora knew. “My own?” she said.
Angus bowed his head. “The only woman’s name that my lips ever spoke with love,” he said, reassured, “was the name my daughter should bear.”
“It is well,” replied the Senora. Then a great silence fell between them. Each studied the other’s face, tenderly, bewilderedly. Then by a simultaneous impulse they drew nearer. Angus stretched out both his arms with a gesture of infinite love and despair, bent down and kissed the hands which lovingly held his sleeping child.
“God bless you, Ramona! Farewell! You will never see me more,” he cried, and was gone.
In a moment more he reappeared on the threshold of the door, but only to say in a low tone, “There is no need to be alarmed if the child does not wake for some hours yet. She has had a safe sleeping-potion given her. It will not harm her.”
One more long lingering look into each other’s faces, and the two lovers, so strangely parted, still more strangely met, had parted again, forever. The quarter of a century which had lain between them had been bridged in both their hearts as if it were but a day. In the heart of the man it was the old passionate adoring love reawakening; a resurrection of the buried dead, to full life, with lineaments unchanged. In the woman it was not that; there was no buried love to come to such resurrection in her heart, for she had never loved Angus Phail. But, long unloved, ill-treated, heartbroken, she woke at that moment to the realization of what manner of love it had been which she had thrown away in her youth; her whole being yearned for it now, and Angus was avenged.
When Francis Ortegna, late that night, reeled, half-tipsy, into his wife’s room, he was suddenly sobered by the sight which met his eyes,– his wife kneeling by the side of the cradle, in which lay, smiling in its sleep, a beautiful infant.
“What in the devil’s name,” he began; then recollecting, he muttered: “Oh, the Indian brat! I see! I wish you joy, Senora Ortegna, of your first child!” and with a mock bow, and cruel sneer, he staggered by, giving the cradle an angry thrust with his foot as he passed.
The brutal taunt did not much wound the Senora. The time had long since passed when unkind words from her husband could give her keen pain. But it was a warning not lost upon her new-born mother instinct, and from that day the little Ramona was carefully kept and tended in apartments where there was no danger of her being seen by the man to whom the sight of her baby face was only a signal for anger and indecency.
Hitherto Ramona Ortegna had, so far as was possible, carefully concealed from her family the unhappiness of her married life. Ortegna’s character was indeed well known; his neglect of his wife, his shameful dissipations of all sorts, were notorious in every port in the country. But from the wife herself no one had even heard so much as a syllable of complaint. She was a Gonzaga, and she knew how to suffer in silence, But now she saw a reason for taking her sister into her confidence. It was plain to her that she had not many years to live; and what then would become of the child? Left to the tender mercies of Ortegna, it was only too certain what would become of her. Long sad hours of perplexity the lonely woman passed, with the little laughing babe in her arms, vainly endeavoring to forecast her future. The near chance of her own death had not occurred to her mind when she accepted the trust.
Before the little Ramona was a year old, Angus Phail died. An Indian messenger from San Gabriel brought the news to Senora Ortegna. He brought her also a box and a letter, given to him by Angus the day before his death. The box contained jewels of value, of fashions a quarter of a century old. They were the jewels which Angus had bought for his bride. These alone remained of all his fortune. Even in the lowest depths of his degradation, a certain sentiment had restrained him from parting with them. The letter contained only these words: “I send you all I have to leave my daughter. I meant to bring them myself this year. I wished to kiss your hands and hers once more. But I am dying. Farewell.”
After these jewels were in her possession, Senora Ortegna rested not till she had persuaded Senora Moreno to journey to Monterey, and had put the box into her keeping as a sacred trust. She also won from her a solemn promise that at her own death she would adopt the little Ramona. This promise came hard from Senora Moreno. Except for Father Salvierderra’s influence, she had not given it. She did not wish any dealings with such alien and mongrel blood, “If the child were pure Indian, I would like it better,” she said. “I like not these crosses. It is the worst, and not the best of each, that remains.”
But the promise once given, Senora Ortegna was content. Well she knew that her sister would not lie, nor evade a trust. The little Ramona’s future was assured. During the last years of the unhappy woman’s life the child was her only comfort. Ortegna’s conduct had become so openly and defiantly infamous, that he even flaunted his illegitimate relations in his wife’s presence; subjecting her to gross insults, spite of her helpless invalidism. This last outrage was too much for the Gonzaga blood to endure; the Senora never afterward left her apartment, or spoke to her husband. Once more she sent for her sister to come; this time, to see her die. Every valuable she possessed, jewels, laces, brocades, and damasks, she gave into her sister’s charge, to save them from falling into the hands of the base creature that she knew only too well would stand in her place as soon as the funeral services had been said over her dead body.
Stealthily, as if she had been a thief, the sorrowing Senora Moreno conveyed her sister’s wardrobe, article by article, out of the house, to be sent to her own home. It was the wardrobe of a princess. The Ortegnas lavished money always on the women whose hearts they broke; and never ceased to demand of them that they should sit superbly arrayed in their lonely wretchedness.
One hour after the funeral, with a scant and icy ceremony of farewell to her dead sister’s husband, Senora Moreno, leading the little four-year-old Ramona by the hand, left the house, and early the next morning set sail for home.
When Ortegna discovered that his wife’s jewels and valuables of all kinds were gone, he fell into a great rage, and sent a messenger off, post-haste, with an insulting letter to the Senora Moreno, demanding their return. For answer, he got a copy of his wife’s memoranda of instructions to her sister, giving all the said valuables to her in trust for Ramona; also a letter from Father Salvierderra, upon reading which he sank into a fit of despondency that lasted a day or two, and gave his infamous associates considerable alarm, lest they had lost their comrade. But he soon shook off the influence, whatever it was, and settled back into his old gait on the same old high-road to the devil. Father Salvierderra could alarm him, but not save him.
And this was the mystery of Ramona. No wonder the Senora Moreno never told the story. No wonder, perhaps, that she never loved the child. It was a sad legacy, indissolubly linked with memories which had in them nothing but bitterness, shame, and sorrow from first to last.
How much of all this the young Ramona knew or suspected, was locked in her own breast. Her Indian blood had as much proud reserve in it as was ever infused into the haughtiest Gonzaga’s veins. While she was yet a little child, she had one day said to the Senora Moreno, “Senora, why did my mother give me to the Senora Ortegna?”
Taken unawares, the Senora replied hastily: “Your mother had nothing whatever to do with it. It was your father.”
“Was my mother dead?” continued the child.
Too late the Senora saw her mistake. “I do not know,” she replied; which was literally true, but had the spirit of a lie in it. “I never saw your mother.”
“Did the Senora Ortegna ever see her?” persisted Ramona.
“No, never,” answered the Senora, coldly, the old wounds burning at the innocent child’s unconscious touch.
Ramona felt the chill, and was silent for a time, her face sad, and her eyes tearful. At last she said, “I wish I knew if my mother was dead.”
“Why?” asked the Senora.
“Because if she is not dead I would ask her why she did not want me to stay with her.”
The gentle piteousness of this reply smote the Senora’s conscience. Taking the child in her arms, she said, “Who has been talking to you of these things, Ramona?”
“Juan Can,” she replied.
“What did he say?” asked the Senora, with a look in her eye which boded no good to Juan Canito.
“It was not to me he said it, it was to Luigo; but I heard him,” answered Ramona, speaking slowly, as if collecting her various reminiscences on the subject. “Twice I heard him. He said that my mother was no good, and that my father was bad too.” And the tears rolled down the child’s cheeks.
The Senora’s sense of justice stood her well in place of tenderness, now. Caressing the little orphan as she had never before done, she said, with an earnestness which sank deep into the child’s mind, “Ramona must not believe any such thing as that. Juan Can is a bad man to say it. He never saw either your father or your mother, and so he could know nothing about them. I knew your father very well. He was not a bad man. He was my friend, and the friend of the Senora Ortegna; and that was the reason he gave you to the Senora Ortegna, because she had no child of her own. And I think your mother had a good many.”
“Oh!” said Ramona, relieved, for the moment, at this new view of the situation,– that the gift had been not as a charity to her, but to the Senora Ortegna. “Did the Senora Ortegna want a little daughter very much?”
“Yes, very much indeed,” said the Senora, heartily and with fervor. “She had grieved many years because she had no child.”
Silence again for a brief space, during which the little lonely heart, grappling with its vague instinct of loss and wrong, made wide thrusts into the perplexities hedging it about, and presently electrified the Senora by saying in a half-whisper, “Why did not my father bring me to you first? Did he know you did not want any daughter?”
The Senora was dumb for a second; then recovering herself, she said: “Your father was the Senora Ortegna’s friend more than he was mine. I was only a child, then.”
“Of course you did not need any daughter when you had Felipe,” continued Ramona, pursuing her original line of inquiry and reflection without noticing the Senora’s reply. “A son is more than a daughter; but most people have both,” eying the Senora keenly, to see what response this would bring.
But the Senora was weary and uncomfortable with the talk. At the very mention of Felipe, a swift flash of consciousness of her inability to love Ramona had swept through her mind. “Ramona,” she said firmly, “while you are a little girl, you cannot understand any of these things. When you are a woman, I will tell you all that I know myself about your father and your mother. It is very little. Your father died when you were only two years old. All that you have to do is to be a good child, and say your prayers, and when Father Salvierderra comes he will be pleased with you. And he will not be pleased if you ask troublesome questions. Don’t ever speak to me again about this. When the proper time comes I will tell you myself.”
This was when Ramona was ten. She was now nineteen. She had never again asked the Senora a question bearing on the forbidden subject. She had been a good child and said her prayers, and Father Salvierderra had been always pleased with her, growing more and more deeply attached to her year by year. But the proper time had not yet come for the Senora to tell her anything more about her father and mother. There were few mornings on which the girl did not think, “Perhaps it may be to-day that she will tell me.” But she would not ask. Every word of that conversation was as vivid in her mind as it had been the day it occurred; and it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that during every day of the whole nine years had deepened in her heart the conviction which had prompted the child’s question, “Did he know that you did not want any daughter?”
A nature less gentle than Ramona’s would have been embittered, or at least hardened, by this consciousness. But Ramona’s was not. She never put it in words to herself. She accepted it, as those born deformed seem sometimes to accept the pain and isolation caused by their deformity, with an unquestioning acceptance, which is as far above resignation, as resignation is above rebellious repining.
No one would have known, from Ramona’s face, manner, or habitual conduct, that she had ever experienced a sorrow or had a care. Her face was sunny, she had a joyous voice, and never was seen to pass a human being without a cheerful greeting, to highest and lowest the same. Her industry was tireless. She had had two years at school, in the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Los Angeles, where the Senora had placed her at much personal sacrifice, during one of the hardest times the Moreno estate had ever seen. Here she had won the affection of all the Sisters, who spoke of her habitually as the “blessed child.” They had taught her all the dainty arts of lace-weaving, embroidery, and simple fashions of painting and drawing, which they knew; not overmuch learning out of books, but enough to make her a passionate lover of verse and romance. For serious study or for deep thought she had no vocation. She was a simple, joyous, gentle, clinging, faithful nature, like a clear brook rippling along in the sun,– a nature as unlike as possible to the Senora’s, with its mysterious depths and stormy, hidden currents.
Of these Ramona was dimly conscious, and at times had a tender, sorrowful pity for the Senora, which she dared not show, and could only express by renewed industry, and tireless endeavor to fulfil every duty possible in the house. This gentle faithfulness was not wholly lost on Senora Moreno, though its source she never suspected; and it won no new recognition from her for Ramona, no increase of love.
But there was one on whom not an act, not a look, not a smile of all this graciousness was thrown away. That one was Felipe. Daily more and more he wondered at his mother’s lack of affection for Ramona. Nobody knew so well as he how far short she stopped of loving her. Felipe knew what it meant, how it felt, to be loved by the Senora Moreno. But Felipe had learned while he was a boy that one sure way to displease his mother was to appear to be aware that she did not treat Ramona as she treated him. And long before he had become a man he had acquired the habit of keeping to himself most of the things he thought and felt about his little playmate sister,– a dangerous habit, out of which were slowly ripening bitter fruits for the Senora’s gathering in later years.
IT was longer even than the Senora had thought it would be, before Father Salvierderra arrived. The old man had grown feeble during the year that she had not seen him, and it was a very short day’s journey that he could make now without too great fatigue. It was not only his body that had failed. He had lost heart; and the miles which would have been nothing to him, had he walked in the companionship of hopeful and happy thoughts, stretched out wearily as he brooded over sad memories and still sadder anticipations,– the downfall of the Missions, the loss of their vast estates, and the growing power of the ungodly in the land. The final decision of the United States Government in regard to the Mission-lands had been a terrible blow to him. He had devoutly believed that ultimate restoration of these great estates to the Church was inevitable. In the long vigils which he always kept when at home at the Franciscan Monastery in Santa Barbara, kneeling on the stone pavement in the church, and praying ceaselessly from midnight till dawn, he had often had visions vouchsafed him of a new dispensation, in which the Mission establishments should be reinstated in all their old splendor and prosperity, and their Indian converts again numbered by tens of thousands.
Long after every one knew that this was impossible, he would narrate these visions with the faith of an old Bible seer, and declare that they must come true, and that it was a sin to despond. But as year after year he journeyed up and down the country, seeing, at Mission after Mission, the buildings crumbling into ruin, the lands all taken, sold, resold, and settled by greedy speculators; the Indian converts disappearing, driven back to their original wildernesses, the last traces of the noble work of his order being rapidly swept away, his courage faltered, his faith died out. Changes in the manners and customs of his order itself, also, were giving him deep pain. He was a Franciscan of the same type as Francis of Assisi. To wear a shoe in place of a sandal, to take money in a purse for a journey, above all to lay aside the gray gown and cowl for any sort of secular garment, seemed to him wicked. To own comfortable clothes while there were others suffering for want of them — and there were always such — seemed to him a sin for which one might not undeservedly be smitten with sudden and terrible punishment. In vain the Brothers again and again supplied him with a warm cloak; he gave it away to the first beggar he met: and as for food, the refectory would have been left bare, and the whole brotherhood starving, if the supplies had not been carefully hidden and locked, so that Father Salvierderra could not give them all away. He was fast becoming that most tragic yet often sublime sight, a man who has survived, not only his own time, but the ideas and ideals of it. Earth holds no sharper loneliness: the bitterness of exile, the anguish of friendlessness at their utmost, are in it; and yet it is so much greater than they, that even they seem small part of it.
It was with thoughts such as these that Father Salvierderra drew near the home of the Senora Moreno late in the afternoon of one of those midsummer days of which Southern California has so many in spring. The almonds had bloomed and the blossoms fallen; the apricots also, and the peaches and pears; on all the orchards of these fruits had come a filmy tint of green, so light it was hardly more than a shadow on the gray. The willows were vivid light green, and the orange groves dark and glossy like laurel. The billowy hills on either side the valley were covered with verdure and bloom,– myriads of low blossoming plants, so close to the earth that their tints lapped and overlapped on each other, and on the green of the grass, as feathers in fine plumage overlap each other and blend into a changeful color.
The countless curves, hollows, and crests of the coast-hills in Southern California heighten these chameleon effects of the spring verdure; they are like nothing in nature except the glitter of a brilliant lizard in the sun or the iridescent sheen of a peacock’s neck.
Father Salvierderra paused many times to gaze at the beautiful picture. Flowers were always dear to the Franciscans. Saint Francis himself permitted all decorations which could be made of flowers. He classed them with his brothers and sisters, the sun, moon, and stars,– all members of the sacred choir praising God.
It was melancholy to see how, after each one of these pauses, each fresh drinking in of the beauty of the landscape and the balmy air, the old man resumed his slow pace, with a long sigh and his eyes cast down. The fairer this beautiful land, the sadder to know it lost to the Church, — alien hands reaping its fulness, establishing new customs, new laws. All the way down the coast from Santa Barbara he had seen, at every stopping-place, new tokens of the settling up of the country,– farms opening, towns growing; the Americans pouring in, at all points, to reap the advantages of their new possessions. It was this which had made his journey heavy-hearted, and made him feel, in approaching the Senora Moreno’s, as if he were coming to one of the last sure strongholds of the Catholic faith left in the country.
When he was within two miles of the house, he struck off from the highway into a narrow path that he recollected led by a short-cut through the hills, and saved nearly a third of the distance. It was more than a year since he had trod this path, and as he found it growing fainter and fainter, and more and more overgrown with the wild mustard, he said to himself, “I think no one can have passed through here this year.”
As he proceeded he found the mustard thicker and thicker. The wild mustard in Southern California is like that spoken of in the New Testament, in the branches of which the birds of the air may rest. Coming up out of the earth, so slender a stem that dozens can find starting-point in an inch, it darts up, a slender straight shoot, five, ten, twenty feet, with hundreds of fine feathery branches locking and interlocking with all the other hundreds around it, till it is an inextricable network like lace. Then it bursts into yellow bloom still finer, more feathery and lacelike. The stems are so infinitesimally small, and of so dark a green, that at a short distance they do not show, and the cloud of blossom seems floating in the air; at times it looks like golden dust. With a clear blue sky behind it, as it is often seen, it looks like a golden snow-storm. The plant is a tyrant and a nuisance,– the terror of the farmer; it takes riotous possession of a whole field in a season; once in, never out; for one plant this year, a million the next; but it is impossible to wish that the land were freed from it. Its gold is as distinct a value to the eye as the nugget gold is in the pocket.
Father Salvierderra soon found himself in a veritable thicket of these delicate branches, high above his head, and so interlaced that he could make headway only by slowly and patiently disentangling them, as one would disentangle a skein of silk. It was a fantastic sort of dilemma, and not unpleasing. Except that the Father was in haste to reach his journey’s end, he would have enjoyed threading his way through the golden meshes. Suddenly he heard faint notes of singing. He paused,– listened. It was the voice of a woman. It was slowly drawing nearer, apparently from the direction in which he was going. At intervals it ceased abruptly, then began again; as if by a sudden but brief interruption, like that made by question and answer. Then, peering ahead through the mustard blossoms, he saw them waving and bending, and heard sounds as if they were being broken. Evidently some one entering on the path from the opposite end had been caught in the fragrant thicket as he was. The notes grew clearer, though still low and sweet as the twilight notes of the thrush; the mustard branches waved more and more violently; light steps were now to be heard. Father Salvierderra stood still as one in a dream, his eyes straining forward into the golden mist of blossoms. In a moment more came, distinct and clear to his ear, the beautiful words of the second stanza of Saint Francis’s inimitable lyric, “The Canticle of the Sun:”
“Praise be to thee, O Lord, for all thy creatures, and especially for our brother the Sun,– who illuminates the day, and by his beauty and splendor shadows forth unto us thine.”
“Ramona!” exclaimed the Father, his thin cheeks flushing with pleasure. “The blessed child!” And as he spoke, her face came into sight, set in a swaying frame of the blossoms, as she parted them lightly to right and left with her hands, and half crept, half danced through the loop-hole openings thus made. Father Salvierderra was past eighty, but his blood was not too old to move quicker at the sight of this picture. A man must be dead not to thrill at it. Ramona’s beauty was of the sort to be best enhanced by the waving gold which now framed her face. She had just enough of olive tint in her complexion to underlie and enrich her skin without making it swarthy. Her hair was like her Indian mother’s, heavy and black, but her eyes were like her father’s, steel-blue. Only those who came very near to Ramona knew, however, that her eyes were blue, for the heavy black eyebrows and long black lashes so shaded and shadowed them that they looked black as night. At the same instant that Father Salvierderra first caught sight of her face, Ramona also saw him, and crying out joyfully, “Ah, Father, I knew you would come by this path, and something told me you were near!” she sprang forward, and sank on her knees before him, bowing her head for his blessing. In silence he laid his hands on her brow. It would not have been easy for him to speak to her at that first moment. She had looked to the devout old monk, as she sprang through the cloud of golden flowers, the sun falling on her bared head, her cheeks flushed, her eyes shining, more like an apparition of an angel or saint, than like the flesh-and-blood maiden whom he had carried in his arms when she was a babe.
“We have been waiting, waiting, oh, so long for you, Father!” she said, rising. “We began to fear that you might be ill. The shearers have been sent for, and will be here tonight, and that was the reason I felt so sure you would come. I knew the Virgin would bring you in time for mass in the chapel on the first morning.”
The monk smiled half sadly. “Would there were more with such faith as yours, daughter,” he said. “Are all well on the place?”
“Yes, Father, all well,” she answered. “Felipe has been ill with a fever; but he is out now, these ten days, and fretting for — for your coming.”
Ramona had like to have said the literal truth,– “fretting for the sheep-shearing,” but recollected herself in time.
“And the Senora?” said the Father.
“She is well,” answered Ramona, gently, but with a slight change of tone,– so slight as to be almost imperceptible; but an acute observer would have always detected it in the girl’s tone whenever she spoke of the Senora Moreno. “And you,– are you well yourself, Father?” she asked affectionately, noting with her quick, loving eye how feebly the old man walked, and that he carried what she had never before seen in his hand,– a stout staff to steady his steps. “You must be very tired with the long journey on foot.”
“Ay, Ramona, I am tired,” he replied. “Old age is conquering me. It will not be many times more that I shall see this place.”
“Oh, do not say that, Father,” cried Ramona; “you can ride, when it tires you too much to walk. The Senora said, only the other day, that she wished you would let her give you a horse; that it was not right for you to take these long journeys on foot. You know we have hundreds of horses. It is nothing, one horse,” she added, seeing the Father slowly shake his head.
“No;” he said, “it is not that. I could not refuse anything at the hands of the Senora. But it was the rule of our order to go on foot. We must deny the flesh. Look at our beloved master in this land, Father Junipero, when he was past eighty, walking from San Diego to Monterey, and all the while a running ulcer in one of his legs, for which most men would have taken to a bed, to be healed. It is a sinful fashion that is coming in, for monks to take their ease doing God’s work. I can no longer walk swiftly, but I must walk all the more diligently.”
While they were talking, they had been slowly moving forward, Ramona slightly in advance, gracefully bending the mustard branches, and holding them down till the Father had followed in her steps. As they came out from the thicket, she exclaimed, laughing, “There is Felipe, in the willows. I told him I was coming to meet you, and he laughed at me. Now he will see I was right.”
Astonished enough, Felipe, hearing voices, looked up, and saw Ramona and the Father approaching. Throwing down the knife with which he had been cutting the willows, he hastened to meet them, and dropped on his knees, as Ramona had done, for the monk’s blessing. As he knelt there, the wind blowing his hair loosely off his brow, his large brown eyes lifted in gentle reverence to the Father’s face, and his face full of affectionate welcome, Ramona thought to herself, as she had thought hundreds of times since she became a woman, “How beautiful Felipe is! No wonder the Senora loves him so much! If I had been beautiful like that she would have liked me better.” Never was a little child more unconscious of her own beauty than Ramona still was. All the admiration which was expressed to her in word and look she took for simple kindness and good-will. Her face, as she herself saw it in her glass, did not please her. She compared her straight, massive black eyebrows with Felipe’s, arched and delicately pencilled, and found her own ugly. The expression of gentle repose which her countenance wore, seemed to her an expression of stupidity. “Felipe looks so bright!” she thought, as she noted his mobile changing face, never for two successive seconds the same. “There is nobody like Felipe.” And when his brown eyes were fixed on her, as they so often were, in a long lingering gaze, she looked steadily back into their velvet depths with an abstracted sort of intensity which profoundly puzzled Felipe. It was this look, more than any other one thing, which had for two years held Felipe’s tongue in leash, as it were, and made it impossible for him to say to Ramona any of the loving things of which his heart had been full ever since he could remember. The boy had spoken them unhesitatingly, unconsciously; but the man found himself suddenly afraid. “What is it she thinks when she looks into my eyes so?” he wondered. If he had known that the thing she was usually thinking was simply, “How much handsomer brown eyes are than blue! I wish my eyes were the color of Felipe’s!” he would have perceived, perhaps, what would have saved him sorrow, if he had known it, that a girl who looked at a man thus, would be hard to win to look at him as a lover. But being a lover, he could not see this. He saw only enough to perplex and deter him.
As they drew near the house, Ramona saw Margarita standing at the gate of the garden. She was holding something white in her hands, looking down at it, and crying piteously. As she perceived Ramona, she made an eager leap forward, and then shrank back again, making dumb signals of distress to her. Her whole attitude was one of misery and entreaty. Margarita was, of all the maids, most beloved by Ramona. Though they were nearly of the same age, it had been Margarita who first had charge of Ramona; the nurse and her charge had played together, grown up together, become women together, and were now, although Margarita never presumed on the relation, or forgot to address Ramona as Senorita, more like friends than like mistress and maid.
“Pardon me, Father,” said Ramona. “I see that Margarita there is in trouble. I will leave Felipe to go with you to the house. I will be with you again in a few moments.” And kissing his hand, she flew rather than ran across the field to the foot of the garden.
Before she reached the spot, Margarita had dropped on the ground and buried her face in her hands. A mass of crumpled and stained linen lay at her feet.
“What is it? What has happened, Margarita mia?” cried Ramona, in the affectionate Spanish phrase. For answer, Margarita removed one wet hand from her eyes, and pointed with a gesture of despair to the crumpled linen. Sobs choked her voice, and she buried her face again in her hands.
Ramona stooped, and lifted one corner of the linen. An involuntary cry of dismay broke from her, at which Margarita’s sobs redoubled, and she gasped out, “Yes, Senorita, it is totally ruined! It can never be mended, and it will be needed for the mass to-morrow morning. When I saw the Father coming by your side, I prayed to the Virgin to let me die. The Senora will never forgive me.”
It was indeed a sorry sight. The white linen altar-cloth, the cloth which the Senora Moreno had with her own hands made into one solid front of beautiful lace of the Mexican fashion, by drawing out part of the threads and sewing the remainder into intricate patterns, the cloth which had always been on the altar, when mass was said, since Margarita’s and Ramona’s earliest recollections,– there it lay, torn, stained, as if it had been dragged through muddy brambles. In silence, aghast, Ramona opened it out and held it up. “How did it happen, Margarita?” she whispered, glancing in terror up towards the house.
“Oh, that is the worst of it, Senorita!” sobbed the girl. “That is the worst of it! If it were not for that, I would not be so afraid. If it had happened any other way, the Senora might have forgiven me; but she never will. I would rather die than tell her;” and she shook from head to foot.
“Stop crying, Margarita!” said Ramona, firmly, “and tell me all about it. It isn’t so bad as it looks. I think I can mend it.”
“Oh, the saints bless you!” cried Margarita, looking up for the first time. “Do you really think you can mend it, Senorita? If you will mend that lace, I’ll go on my knees for you all the rest of my life!”
Ramona laughed in spite of herself. “You’ll serve me better by keeping on your feet,” she said merrily; at which Margarita laughed too, through her tears. They were both young.
“Oh, but Senorita,” Margarita began again in a tone of anguish, her tears flowing afresh, “there is not time! It must be washed and ironed to-night, for the mass to-morrow morning, and I have to help at the supper. Anita and Rosa are both ill in bed, you know, and Maria has gone away for a week. The Senora said if the Father came to-night I must help mother, and must wait on table. It cannot be done. I was just going to iron it now, and I found it — so — It was in the artichoke-patch, and Capitan, the beast, had been tossing it among the sharp pricks of the old last year’s seeds.”
“In the artichoke-patch!” ejaculated Ramona. “How under heavens did it get there?”
“Oh, that was what I meant, Senorita, when I said she never would forgive me. She has forbidden me many times to hang anything to dry on the fence there; and if I had only washed it when she first told me, two days ago, all would have been well. But I forgot it till this afternoon, and there was no sun in the court to dry it, and you know how the sun lies on the artichoke-patch, and I put a strong cloth over the fence, so that the wood should not pierce the lace, and I did not leave it more than half an hour, just while I said a few words to Luigo, and there was no wind; and I believe the saints must have fetched it down to the ground to punish me for my disobedience.”
Ramona had been all this time carefully smoothing out the torn places, “It is not so bad as it looks,” she said; “if it were not for the hurry, there would be no trouble in mending it. But I will do it the best I can, so that it will not show, for to-morrow, and then, after the Father is gone, I can repair it at leisure, and make it just as good as new. I think I can mend it and wash it before dark,” and she glanced at the sun. “Oh, yes, there are good three hours of daylight yet. I can do it. You put the irons on the fire, to have them hot, to iron it as soon as it is partly dried. You will see it will not show that anything has happened to it.”
“Will the Senora know?” asked poor Margarita, calmed and reassured, but still in mortal terror.
Ramona turned her steady glance full on Margarita’s face. “You would not be any happier if she were deceived, do you think?” she said gravely.
“O Senorita, after it is mended? If it really does not show?” pleaded the girl.
“I will tell her myself, and not till after it is mended,” said Ramona; but she did not smile.
“Ah, Senorita,” said Margarita, deprecatingly, “you do not know what it is to have the Senora displeased with one.”
“Nothing can be so bad as to be displeased with one’s self,” retorted Ramona, as she walked swiftly away to her room with the linen rolled up under her arm. Luckily for Margarita’s cause, she met no one on the way. The Senora had welcomed Father Salvierderra at the foot of the veranda steps, and had immediately closeted herself with him. She had much to say to him,– much about which she wished his help and counsel, and much which she wished to learn from him as to affairs in the Church and in the country generally.
Felipe had gone off at once to find Juan Canito, to see if everything were ready for the sheep-shearing to begin on the next day, if the shearers arrived in time; and there was very good chance of their coming in by sundown this day, Felipe thought, for he had privately instructed his messenger to make all possible haste, and to impress on the Indians the urgent need of their losing no time on the road.
It had been a great concession on the Senora’s part to allow the messenger to be sent off before she had positive intelligence as to the Father’s movements. But as day after day passed and no news came, even she perceived that it would not do to put off the sheep-shearing much longer, or, as Juan Canito said, “forever.” The Father might have fallen ill; and if that were so, it might very easily be weeks before they heard of it, so scanty were the means of communication between the remote places on his route of visitation. The messenger had therefore been sent to summon the Temecula shearers, and Senora had resigned herself to the inevitable; piously praying, however, morning and night, and at odd moments in the day, that the Father might arrive before the Indians did. When she saw him coming up the garden-walk, leaning on the arm of her Felipe, on the afternoon of the very day which was the earliest possible day for the Indians to arrive, it was not strange that she felt, mingled with the joy of her greeting to her long-loved friend and confessor, a triumphant exultation that the saints had heard her prayers.
In the kitchen all was bustle and stir. The coming of any guest into the house was a signal for unwonted activities there,– even the coming of Father Salvierderra, who never knew whether the soup had force-meat balls in it or not, old Marda said; and that was to her the last extreme of indifference to good things of the flesh. “But if he will not eat, he can see,” she said; and her pride for herself and for the house was enlisted in setting forth as goodly an array of viands as her larder afforded, She grew suddenly fastidious over the size and color of the cabbages to go into the beef-pot, and threw away one whole saucepan full of rice, because Margarita had put only one onion in instead of two.
“Have I not told you again and again that for the Father it is always two onions?” she exclaimed. “It is the dish he most favors of all; and it is a pity too, old as he is. It makes him no blood. It is good beef he should take now.”
The dining-room was on the opposite side of the courtyard from the kitchen, and there was a perpetual procession of small messengers going back and forth between the rooms. It was the highest ambition of each child to be allowed to fetch and carry dishes in the preparation of the meals at all times; but when by so doing they could perchance get a glimpse through the dining-room door, open on the veranda, of strangers and guests, their restless rivalry became unmanageable. Poor Margarita, between her own private anxieties and her multiplied duties of helping in the kitchen, and setting the table, restraining and overseeing her army of infant volunteers, was nearly distraught; not so distraught, however, but that she remembered and found time to seize a lighted candle in the kitchen, run and set it before the statue of Saint Francis of Paula in her bedroom, hurriedly whispering a prayer that the lace might be made whole like new. Several times before the afternoon had waned she snatched a moment to fling herself down at the statue’s feet and pray her foolish little prayer over again. We think we are quite sure that it is a foolish little prayer, when people pray to have torn lace made whole. But it would be hard to show the odds between asking that, and asking that it may rain, or that the sick may get well. As the grand old Russian says, what men usually ask for, when they pray to God, is, that two and two may not make four. All the same he is to be pitied who prays not. It was only the thought of that candle at Saint Francis’s feet, which enabled Margarita to struggle through this anxious and unhappy afternoon and evening.
At last supper was ready,– a great dish of spiced beef and cabbage in the centre of the table; a tureen of thick soup, with force-meat balls and red peppers in it; two red earthen platters heaped, one with the boiled rice and onions, the other with the delicious frijoles (beans) so dear to all Mexican hearts; cut-glass dishes filled with hot stewed pears, or preserved quinces, or grape jelly; plates of frosted cakes of various sorts; and a steaming silver teakettle, from which went up an aroma of tea such as had never been bought or sold in all California, the Senora’s one extravagance and passion.
“Where is Ramona?” asked the Senora, surprised and displeased, as she entered the dining-room, “Margarita, go tell the Senorita that we are waiting for her.”
Margarita started tremblingly, with flushed face, towards the door. What would happen now! “O Saint Francis,” she inwardly prayed, “help us this once!”
“Stay,” said Felipe. “Do not call Senorita Ramona.” Then, turning to his mother, “Ramona cannot come. She is not in the house. She has a duty to perform for to-morrow,” he said; and he looked meaningly at his mother, adding, “we will not wait for her.”
Much bewildered, the Senora took her seat at the head of the table in a mechanical way, and began, “But –” Felipe, seeing that questions were to follow, interrupted her: “I have just spoken with her. It is impossible for her to come;” and turning to Father Salvierderra, he at once engaged him in conversation, and left the baffled Senora to bear her unsatisfied curiosity as best she could.
Margarita looked at Felipe with an expression of profound gratitude, which he did not observe, and would not in the least have understood; for Ramona had not confided to him any details of the disaster. Seeing him under her window, she had called cautiously to him, and said: “Dear Felipe, do you think you can save me from having to come to supper? A dreadful accident has happened to the altar-cloth, and I must mend it and wash it, and there is barely time before dark. Don’t let them call me; I shall be down at the brook, and they will not find me, and your mother will be displeased.”
This wise precaution of Ramona’s was the salvation of everything, so far as the altar-cloth was concerned. The rents had proved far less serious than she had feared; the daylight held out till the last of them was skilfully mended; and just as the red beams of the sinking sun came streaming through the willow-trees at the foot of the garden, Ramona, darting down the garden, had reached the brook, and kneeling on the grass, had dipped the linen into the water.
Her hurried working over the lace, and her anxiety, had made her cheeks scarlet. As she ran down the garden, her comb had loosened and her hair fallen to her waist. Stopping only to pick up the comb and thrust it in her pocket, she had sped on, as it would soon be too dark for her to see the stains on the linen, and it was going to be no small trouble to get them out without fraying the lace.
Her hair in disorder, her sleeves pinned loosely on her shoulders, her whole face aglow with the earnestness of her task, she bent low over the stones, rinsing the altar-cloth up and down in the water, anxiously scanning it, then plunging it in again.
The sunset beams played around her hair like a halo; the whole place was aglow with red light, and her face was kindled into transcendent beauty. A sound arrested her attention. She looked up. Forms, dusky black against the fiery western sky, were coming down the valley. It was the band of Indian shearers. They turned to the left, and went towards the sheep sheds and booths. But there was one of them that Ramona did not see. He had been standing for some minutes concealed behind a large willow-tree a few rods from the place where Ramona was kneeling. It was Alessandro, son of Pablo Assis, captain of the shearing band. Walking slowly along in advance of his men, he had felt a light, as from a mirror held in the sun, smite his eyes. It was the red sunbeam on the glittering water where Ramona knelt. In the same second he saw Ramona.
He halted, as wild creatures of the forest halt at a sound; gazed; walked abruptly away from his men, who kept on, not noticing his disappearance. Cautiously he moved a few steps nearer, into the shelter of a gnarled old willow, from behind which he could gaze unperceived on the beautiful vision,– for so it seemed to him.
As he gazed, his senses seemed leaving him, and unconsciously he spoke aloud; “Christ! What shall I do!”