"I choose to make my confession standing," she said. "I love you!"
The priest stared at her in consternation.
"You knew it—unless you never think at all. You are the only man I have ever thought it worth while to talk to. You have seen how I have treated others with contempt, and that I have been happy with you—and we have had more than one long talk together. You, too, have been happy—"
"I am a priest!"
"You are a Man and I am a Woman."
"What is it you would have me do?"
"Fling off that hideous garment which becomes you not at all, and fly with me to my father in the City of Mexico. I hear from him constantly, and he is wealthy and will protect us. The barque, Joven Guipuzcoanoa, leaves Monterey within a week after the convent closes for vacation."
The priest raised his clasped hands to heaven. "She is mad! She is mad!" he said. Then he turned on her fiercely. "Go! Go!" he cried. "I hate you!"
"Ay, you love me! you love me!"
The priest slowly set his face. There was no gleam of expression to indicate whether the words that issued through his lips came from his soul or from that section of his brain instinct with self-protection. He spoke slowly:—
"I am a priest, and a priest I shall die. What is more, I shall denounce you to Dona Concepcion, the clergy, and—to your mother. The words that have just violated this chapel were not said under the seal of the confessional, and I shall deal with them as I have said. You shall be punished, that no other man's soul may be imperilled."
Pilar threw out her hands wildly. It was her turn to stare; and her eyes were full of horror and disgust.
"What?" she cried. "You are a coward? A traitor? You not only dare not acknowledge that you love me, but you would betray me—and to my mother? Ah, Madre de Dios!"
"I do not love you. How dare you use such a word to me,—to me, an anointed priest! I shall denounce—and to-night."
"And I loved you!"
He shrank a little under the furious contempt of her eyes. Her whole body quivered with passion. Then, suddenly, she sprang forward and struck him so violent a blow on his cheek that he reeled and clutched the table. But his foot slipped, and he went down with the table on top of him. She laughed into his red unmasked face. "You look what you are down there," she said,—"less than a man, and only fit to be a priest. I hate you! Do your worst."
She rushed out of the chapel and across the hall, flinging open the door of the sala. As she stood there with blazing eyes and cheeks, shaking from head to foot, the girls gave little cries of amazement, and Dona Concepcion, shaking, came forward hastily; but she reached the door too late.
"Go to the priest," cried Pilar. "You will find him on his back squirming under a table, with the mark of my hand on his cheek. He has a tale to tell you." And she flung off the hand of the nun and ran through the halls, striking herself against the walls.
Dona Concepcion did not leave her sala that night. The indignant young aspirant for honours in Mexico had vowed that he would tell Dona Brigida and the clergy before dawn, and all her arguments had entered smarting ears. She had finally ordered him to leave the convent and never darken its doors again. "And the self-righteous shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven," she had exclaimed in conclusion. "Who are you that you should judge and punish this helpless girl and ruin a brilliant future? And why? Because she was so inexperienced in men as to trust you."
"She has committed a deadly sin, and shall suffer," cried the young man, violently. It was evident that his outraged virtue as well as his face was in flames. "Women were born to be good and meek and virtuous, to teach and to rear children. Such creatures as Pilar de la Torre should be kept under lock and key until they are old and hideous."
"And men were made strong, that they might protect women. But I have said enough. Go."
Pilar appeared at the refectory table in the morning, but she exchanged a glance with no one, and ate little. She looked haggard, and it was plain that she had not slept; but her manner was as composed as ever. When Dona Concepcion sent for her to come to the little sala, she went at once.
"Sit down, my child," said the nun. "I said all I could to dissuade him, but he would not listen. I will protect thee if I can. Thou hast made a terrible mistake; but it is too late for reproaches. We must think of the future."
"I have no desire to escape the consequences. I staked all and lost. And nothing can affect me now. He has proved a dog, a cur, a coward, a brute. I can suffer no more than when I made that discovery; and if my mother chooses to kill me, I shall make no resistance."
"Thou art young and clever and will forget him. He is not worth remembering. He shall not go unpunished. I shall use my influence to have him sent to the poorest hamlet in California. He is worthy to do only the meanest work of the Church, and my influence with the clergy is stronger than his. But thou? I shall receive your mother when she comes, and beg her to leave you with me during the vacation. Then, later, when her wrath is appeased, I will suggest that she send you to live for two years with your relatives at Santa Barbara."
Pilar lifted her shoulders and stared out of the window. Suddenly she gave a start and trembled. The bell of the gate was pealing vociferously. Dona Concepcion sprang to her feet.
"Stay here," she said; "I will receive her in the grand sala."
But her interview with Dona Brigida lasted two minutes.
"Give her to me!" cried the terrible old woman, her furious tones ringing through the convent. "Give her to me! I came not here to talk with nuns. Stand aside!"
Dona Concepcion was forced to lead her to the little sala. She strode into the room, big and brown and bony, looking like an avenging Amazon, this mother of thirteen children. Her small eyes were blazing, and the thick wrinkles about them quivered. Her lips twitched, her cheeks burned with a dull dark red. In one hand she carried a greenhide reata. With the other she caught her daughter's long unbound hair, twisted it about her arm like a rope, then brought the reata down on the unprotected shoulders with all her great strength Dona Concepcion fled from the room. Pilar made no sound. She had expected this, and had vowed that it should not unseal her lips. The beating stopped abruptly. Dona Brigida, still with the rope of hair about her arm, pushed Pilar through the door, out of the convent and its gates, then straight down the hill. For the first time the girl faltered.
"Not to the Presidio!" she gasped.
Her mother struck her shoulder with a fist as hard as iron, and Pilar stumbled on. She knew that if she refused to walk, her mother would carry her. They entered the Presidio. Pilar, raising her eyes for one brief terrible moment, saw that Tomaso, her mother's head vaquero, stood in the middle of the square holding two horses, and that every man, woman, and child of the Presidio was outside the buildings. The Commandante and the Alcalde were with the Governor and his staff, and Padre Estudillo. They had the air of being present at an important ceremony.
Amidst a silence so profound that Pilar heard the mingled music of the pines on the hills above the Presidio and of the distant ocean, Dona Brigida marched her to the very middle of the square, then by a dexterous turn of her wrist forced her to her knees. With both hands she shook her daughter's splendid silken hair from the tight rope into which she had coiled it, then stepped back for a moment that all might appreciate the penalty a woman must pay who disgraced her sex. The breeze from the hills lifted the hair of Pilar, and it floated and wreathed upward for a moment—a warm dusky cloud.
Suddenly the intense silence was broken by a loud universal hiss. Pilar, thinking that it was part of her punishment, cowered lower, then, obeying some impulse, looked up, and saw the back of the young priest. He was running. As her dull gaze was about to fall again, it encountered for a moment the indignant blue eyes of a red-haired, hard-featured, but distinguished-looking young man, clad in sober gray. She knew him to be the American, Malcolm Sturges, the guest of the Governor. But her mind rapidly shed all impressions but the wretched horror of her own plight. In another moment she felt the shears at her neck, and knew that her disgrace was passing into the annals of Monterey, and that half her beauty was falling from her. Then she found herself seated on the horse in front of her mother, who encircled her waist with an arm that pressed her vitals like iron. After that there was an interval of unconsciousness.
When she awoke, her first impulse was to raise her head from her mother's bony shoulder, where it bumped uncomfortably. Her listless brain slowly appreciated the fact that she was not on her way to the Rancho Diablo. The mustang was slowly ascending a steep mountain trail. But her head ached, and she dropped her face into her hands. What mattered where she was going? She was shorn, and disgraced, and disillusioned, and unspeakably weary of body and soul.
They travelled through dense forests of redwoods and pine, only the soft footfalls of the unshod mustang or the sudden cry of the wild-cat breaking the primeval silence. It was night when Dona Brigida abruptly dismounted, dragging Pilar with her. They were halfway up a rocky height, surrounded by towering peaks black with rigid trees. Just in front of them was an opening in the ascending wall. Beside it, with his hand on a huge stone, stood the vaquero. Pilar knew that she had nothing to hope from him: her mother had beaten him into submission long since. Dona Brigida, without a word, drove Pilar into the cave, and she and the vaquero, exerting their great strength to the full, pushed the stone into the entrance. There was a narrow rift at the top. The cave was as black as a starless midnight.
Then Dona Brigida spoke for the first time:—
"Once a week I shall come with food and drink. There thou wilt stay until thy teeth fall, the skin bags from thy bones, and thou art so hideous that all men will run from thee. Then thou canst come forth and go and live on the charity of the father to whom thou wouldst have taken a polluted priest."
Pilar heard the retreating footfalls of the mustangs. She was too stunned to think, to realize the horrible fate that had befallen her. She crouched down against the wall of the cave nearest the light, her ear alert for the growl of a panther or the whir of a rattler's tail.
The night after the close of school the Governor gave a grand ball, which was attended by the older of the convent girls who lived in Monterey or were guests in the capital. The dowagers sat against the wall, a coffee-coloured dado; the girls in white, the caballeros in black silk small-clothes, the officers in their uniforms, danced to the music of the flute and the guitar. When Elena Estudillo was alone in the middle of the room dancing El Son and the young men were clapping and shouting and flinging gold and silver at her feet, Sturges and Eustaquia slipped out into the corridor. It was a dark night, the duenas were thinking of naught but the dance and the days of their youth, and the violators of a stringent social law were safe for the moment. A chance word, dropped by Sturges in the dance, and Eustaquia's eager interrogations, had revealed the American's indignation at the barbarous treatment of Pilar, and his deep interest in the beautiful victim.
"Senor," whispered Eustaquia, excitedly, as soon as they reached the end of the corridor, "if you feel pity and perhaps love for my unhappy friend, go to her rescue for the love of Mary. I have heard to-day that her punishment is far worse than what you saw. It is so terrible that I hardly have dared—"
"Surely, that old fiend could think of nothing else," said Sturges. "What is she made of, anyhow?"
"Ay, yi! Her heart is black like the redwood tree that has been burnt out by fire. Before Don Enrique ran away, she beat him many times; but, after, she was a thousand times worse, for it is said that she loved him in her terrible way, and that her heart burnt up when she was left alone—"
"But Dona Pilar, senorita?"
"Ay, yi! Benito, one of the vaqueros of Dona Erigida, was in town to-day, and he told me (I bribed him with whiskey and cigaritos—the Commandante's, whose guest I am, ay, yi!)—he told me that Dona Erigida did not take my unhappy friend home, but—"
"Well?" exclaimed Sturges, who was a man of few words.
Eustaquia jerked down his ear and whispered, "She took her to a cave in the mountains and pushed her in, and rolled a huge stone as big as a house before the entrance, and there she will leave her till she is thirty—or dead!"
"Good God! Does your civilization, such as you've got, permit such things?"
"The mother may discipline the child as she will. It is not the business of the Alcalde. And no one would dare interfere for poor Pilar, for she has committed a mortal sin against the Church—"
"I'll interfere. Where is the cave?"
"Ay, senor, I knew you would. For that I told you all. I know not where the cave is; but the vaquero—he is in town till to-morrow. But he fears Dona Erigida, senor, as he fears the devil. You must tell him that not only will you give him plenty of whiskey and cigars, but that you will send him to Mexico. Dona Brigida would kill him."
"I'll look out for him."
"Do not falter, senor, for the love of God; for no Californian will go to her rescue. She has been disgraced and none will marry her. But you can take her far away where no one knows—"
"Where is this vaquero to be found?"
"In a little house on the beach, under the fort, where his sweetheart lives."
"Good night!" And he sprang from the corridor and ran toward the nearest gate.
He found the vaquero, and after an hour's argument got his way. The man, who had wormed the secret out of Tomaso, had only a general idea of the situation of the cave; but he confessed to a certain familiarity with the mountains. He was not persuaded to go until Sturges had promised to send not only himself but his sweetheart to Mexico. Dona Brigida was violently opposed to matrimony, and would have none of it on her rancho. Sturges promised to ship them both off on the Joven Guipuzcoanoa, and to keep them comfortably for a year in Mexico. It was not an offer to be refused.
They started at dawn. Sturges, following Benito's advice, bought a long gray cloak with a hood, and filled his saddle-bags with nourishing food. The vaquero sent word to Dona Brigida that the horses he had brought in to sell to the officers had escaped and that he was hastening down the coast in pursuit. In spite of his knowledge of the mountains, it was only after two days of weary search in almost trackless forests, and more than one encounter with wild beasts, that they came upon the cave. They would have passed it then but for the sharp eyes of Sturges, who detected the glint of stone behind the branches which Dona Brigida had piled against it.
He sprang down, tossed the brush aside, and inserted his fingers between the side of the stone and the wall of the cave. But he could not move it alone, and was about to call Benito, who was watering the mustangs at a spring, when he happened to glance upward. A small white hand was hanging over the top of the stone. Sturges was not a Californian, but he sprang to his feet and pressed his lips to that hand. It was cold and nerveless, and clasping it in his he applied his gaze to the rift above the stone. In a moment he distinguished two dark eyes and a gleam of white brow above. Then a faint voice said:—
"Take me out! Take me out, senor, for the love of God!"
"I have come for that. Cheer up," said Sturges, in his best Spanish. "You'll be out in five minutes."
"And then you'll bring me his head," whispered Pilar. "Ay, Dios, what I have suffered! I have been years here, senor, and I am nearly mad."
"Well, I won't promise you his head, but I've thrashed the life out of him, if that will give you any satisfaction. I caught him in the woods, and I laid on my riding-whip until he bit the grass and yelled for mercy."
The eyes in the cave blazed with a light which reminded him uncomfortably of Dona Erigida.
"That was well! That was well!" said Pilar. "But it is not enough. I must have his head. I never shall sleep again till then, senor. Ay, Dios, what I have suffered!"
"Well, we'll see about the head later. To get you out of this is the first thing on the program. Benito!"
Benito ran forward, and together they managed to drag the stone aside. But Pilar retreated into the darkness and covered her face with her hands.
"Ay, Dios! Dios! I cannot go out into the sunlight. I am old and hideous."
"Make some coffee," said Sturges to Benito. He went within and took her hands. "Come," he said. "You have been here a week only. Your brain is a little turned, and no wonder. You've put a lifetime of suffering into that week. But I'm going to take care of you hereafter, and that she-devil will have no more to say about it. I'll either take you to your father, or to my mother in Boston—whichever you like."
Benito brought in the coffee and some fresh bread and dried meat. Pilar ate and drank ravenously. She had found only stale bread and water in the cave. When she had finished, she looked at Sturges with a more intelligent light in her eyes, then thrust her straggling locks behind her ears. She also resumed something of her old dignified composure.
"You are very kind, senor," she said graciously. "It is true that I should have been mad in a few more days. At first I did nothing but run, run, run—the cave is miles in the mountain; but since when I cannot remember I have huddled against that stone, listening—listening; and at last you came."
Sturges thought her more beautiful than ever. The light was streaming upon her now, and although she was white and haggard she looked far less cold and unapproachable than when he had endeavoured in vain to win a glance from her in the church. He put his hand on her tangled hair. "You shall suffer no more," he repeated; "and this will grow again. And that beautiful mane—it is mine. I begged it from the Alcalde, and it is safe in my trunk."
"Ah, you love me!" she said softly.
"Yes, I love you!" And then, as her eyes grew softer and she caught his hand in hers with an exclamation of passionate gratitude for his gallant rescue, he took her in his arms without more ado and kissed her.
"Yes, I could love you," she said in a moment. "For, though you are not handsome, like the men of my race, you are true and good and brave: all I dreamed that a man should be until that creature made all men seem loathsome. But I will not marry you till you bring me his head—"
"Oh! come. So lovely a woman should not be so blood-thirsty. He has been punished enough. Besides what I gave him, he's been sent off to spend the rest of his life in some hole where he'll have neither books nor society—"
"It is not enough! When a man betrays a woman, and causes her to be beaten and publicly disgraced—it will be written in the books of the Alcalde, senor!—and shut up in a cave to suffer the tortures of the damned in hell, he should die."
"Well, I think he should myself, but I'm not the public executioner, and one can't fight a duel with a priest—"
"Senor! Senor! Quick! Pull, for the love of God!"
It was Benito who spoke, and he was pushing with all his might against the stone. "She comes—Dona Brigida!" he cried. "I saw her far off just now. Stay both in there. I will take the mustangs and hide them on the other side of the mountain and return when she is gone. That is the best way."
"We can all go—"
"No, no! She would follow; and then—ay, Dios de mi alma! No, it is best the senorita be there when she comes; then she will go away quietly."
They replaced the stone. Benito piled the brush against it, then made off with the mustangs.
"Go far," whispered Pilar. "Dios, if she sees you!"
"I shall not leave you again. And even if she enter, she need not see me. I can stand in that crevice, and I will keep quiet so long as she does not touch you."
Dona Brigida was a half-hour reaching the cave, and meanwhile Sturges restored the lost illusions of Pilar. Not only did he make love to her without any of the rhetorical nonsense of the caballero, but he was big and strong, and it was evident that he was afraid of nothing, not even of Dona Brigida. The dreams of her silent girlhood swirled in her imagination, but looked vague and shapeless before this vigorous reality. For some moments she forgot everything and was happy. But there was a black spot in her heart, and when Sturges left her for a moment to listen, it ached for the head of the priest. She had much bad as well as much good in her, this innocent Californian maiden; and the last week had forced an already well-developed brain and temperament close to maturity. She vowed that she would make herself so dear to this fiery American that he would deny her nothing. Then, her lust for vengeance satisfied, she would make him the most delightful of wives.
"She is coming!" whispered Sturges, "and she has the big vaquero with her."
"Ay, Dios! If she knows all, what can we do?"
"I've told you that I have no love of killing, but I don't hesitate when there is no alternative. If she sees me and declares war, and I cannot get you away, I shall shoot them both. I don't know that it would keep me awake a night. Now, you do the talking for the present."
Dona Brigida rode up to the cave and dismounted. "Pilar!" she shouted, as if she believed that her daughter was wandering through the heart of the mountain.
Pilar presented her eyes at the rift.
"Ay, take me out! take me out!" she wailed, with sudden diplomacy.
Her mother gave a short laugh, then broke off and sniffed.
"What is this?" she cried. "Coffee? I smell coffee!"
"Yes, I have had coffee," replied Pilar, calmly. "Benito has brought me that, and many dulces."
"Dios!" shouted Dona Brigida. "I will tie him to a tree and beat him till he is as green as my reata—"
"Give me the bread!—quick, quick, for the love of Heaven! It is two days since he has been, and I have nothing left, not even a drop of coffee."
"Then live on the memory of thy dulces and coffee! The bread and water go back with me. Three days from now I bring them again. Meanwhile, thou canst enjoy the fangs at thy vitals."
Pilar breathed freely again, but she cried sharply, "Ay, no! no!"
"Ay, yes! yes!"
Dona Brigida stalked up and down, while Pilar twisted her hands together, and Sturges mused upon his future wife's talent for dramatic invention. Suddenly Dona Brigida shouted: "Tomaso, come here! The spring! A horse has watered here to-day—two horses! I see the little hoof-mark and the big." She ran back to the cave, dragging Tomaso with her. "Quick! It is well I brought my reata. Ten minutes, and I shall have the truth. Pull there; I pull here."
"The game is up," whispered Sturges to Pilar. "And I have another plan." He took a pistol from his hip-pocket and handed it to her. "You have a cool head," he said; "now is the time to use it. As soon as this stone gives way do you point that pistol at the vaquero's head, and don't let your hand tremble or your eye falter as you value your liberty. I'll take care of her."
Pilar nodded. Sturges threw himself against the rock and pushed with all his strength. In a moment it gave, and the long brown talons of Pilar's mother darted in to clasp the curve of the stone. Sturges was tempted to cut them off; but he was a sportsman, and liked fair play. The stone gave again, and this time he encountered two small malignant eyes. Dona Brigida dropped her hands and screamed; but, before she could alter her plans, Sturges gave a final push and rushed out, closely followed by Pilar.
It was his intention to throw the woman and bind her, hand and foot; but he had no mean opponent. Dona Brigida's surprise had not paralyzed her. She could not prevent his exit, for she went back with the stone, but she had sprung to the open before he reached it himself, and was striking at him furiously with her reata. One glance satisfied Sturges that Pilar had covered the vaquero, and he devoted the next few moments to dodging the reata. Finally, a well-directed blow knocked it from her hand, and then he flung himself upon her, intending to bear her to the ground. But she stood like a rock, and closed with him, and they reeled about the little plateau in the hard embrace of two fighting grizzlies. There could be no doubt about the issue, for Sturges was young and wiry and muscular; but Dona Brigida had the strength of three women, and, moreover, was not above employing methods which he could not with dignity resort to and could with difficulty parry. She bit at him. She clawed at his back and shoulders. She got hold of his hair. And she was so nimble that he could not trip her. She even roared in his ears, and once it seemed to him that her bony shoulder was cutting through his garments and skin. But after a struggle of some twenty minutes, little by little her embrace relaxed; she ceased to roar, even to hiss, her breath came in shorter and shorter gasps. Finally, her knees trembled violently, she gave a hard sob, and her arms fell to her sides. Sturges dragged her promptly into the cave and laid her down.
"You are a plucky old lady, and I respect you," he said. "But here you must stay until your daughter is safely out of the country. I shall take her far beyond your reach, and I shall marry her. When we are well out at sea, Tomaso will come back and release you. If he attempts to do so sooner, I shall blow his head off. Meanwhile you can be as comfortable here as you made your daughter; and as you brought a week's supply of bread, you will not starve."
The old woman lay and glared at him, but she made no reply. She might be violent and cruel, but she was indomitable of spirit, and she would sue to no man.
Sturges placed the bread and water beside her, then, aided by Tomaso, pushed the stone into place. As he turned about and wiped his brow, he met the eyes of the vaquero. They were averted hastily, but not before Sturges had surprised a twinkle of satisfaction in those usually impassive orbs. He shouted for Benito, then took the pistol from Pilar, who suddenly looked tired and frightened.
"You are a wonderful woman," he said; "and upon my word, I believe you get a good deal of it from your mother."
Benito came running, leading the mustangs. Sturges wrapped Pilar in the long cloak, lifted her upon one of the mustangs, and sprang to his own. He ordered Tomaso and Benito to precede them by a few paces and to take the shortest cut for Monterey. It was now close upon noon, and it was impossible to reach Monterey before dawn next day, for the mustangs were weary; but the Joven did not sail until ten o'clock.
"These are my plans," said Sturges to Pilar, as they walked their mustangs for a few moments after a hard gallop. "When we reach the foot of the mountain, Benito will leave us, go to your rancho, gather as much of your clothing as he can strap on a horse, and join us at the barque. He will have a good hour to spare, and can get fresh horses at the ranch. We will be married at Mazatlan. Thence we will cross Mexico to the Gulf, and take passage for New Orleans. When we are in the United States, your new life will have really begun."
"And Tomaso will surely bring my mother from that cave, senor? I am afraid—I feel sure he was glad to shut her in there."
"I will leave a note for the Governor. Your mother will be free within three days, and meanwhile a little solitary meditation will do her good."
When night came Sturges lifted Pilar from her horse to his, and pressed her head against his shoulder. "Sleep," he said. "You are worn out."
She flung her hand over his shoulder, made herself comfortable, and was asleep in a moment, oblivious of the dark forest and the echoing cries of wild beasts. The strong arm of Sturges would have inspired confidence even had it done less in her rescue. Once only she shook and cried out, but with rage, not fear, in her tones. Her words were coherent enough:—
"His head! His head! Ay, Dios, what I have suffered!"
An hour before dawn Benito left them, mounted on the rested mustang and leading his own. The others pushed on, over and around the foothills, with what speed they could; for even here the trail was narrow, the pine woods dense. It was just after dawn that Sturges saw Tomaso rein in his mustang and peer into the shrubbery beside the trail. When he reached the spot himself, he saw signs of a struggle. The brush was trampled for some distance into the thicket, and several of the young trees were wrenched almost from their roots.
"It has been a struggle between a man and a wild beast, senor," whispered Tomaso, for Filar still slept. "Shall I go in? The man may breathe yet."
"Go, by all means."
Tomaso dismounted and entered the thicket. He came running back with blinking eyes.
"Madre de Dios!" he exclaimed in a loud whisper. "It is the young priest—Padre Dominguez. It must have been a panther, for they spring at the breast, and his very heart is torn out, senor. Ay, yi!"
"Ah! You must inform the Church as soon as we have gone. Go on."
They had proceeded a few moments in silence, when Sturges suddenly reined in his mustang.
"Tomaso," he whispered, "come here."
The vaquero joined him at once.
"Tomaso," said Sturges, "have you any objection to cutting off a dead man's head?"
"Then go back and cut off that priest's and wrap it in a piece of his cassock, and carry it the best way you can."
Tomaso disappeared, and Sturges pushed back the gray hood and looked upon the pure noble face of the girl he had chosen for wife.
"I believe in gratifying a woman's whims whenever it is practicable," he thought.
But she made him a very good wife.
On her fourteenth birthday they had married her to an old man, and at sixteen she had met and loved a fire-hearted young vaquero. The old husband had twisted his skinny fingers around her arm and dragged her before the Alcalde, who had ordered her beautiful black braids cut close to her neck, and sentenced her to sweep the streets. Carlos, the tempter of that childish unhappy heart, was flung into prison. Such were law and justice in California before the Americans came.
The haughty elegant women of Monterey drew their mantillas more closely about their shocked faces as they passed La Perdida sweeping the dirt into little heaps. The soft-eyed girls, lovely in their white or flowered gowns, peered curiously through the gratings of their homes at the "lost one," whose sin they did not understand, but whose sad face and sorry plight appealed to their youthful sympathies. The caballeros, dashing up and down the street, and dazzling in bright silken jackets, gold embroidered, lace-trimmed, the sun reflected in the silver of their saddles, shot bold admiring glances from beneath their sombreros. No one spoke to her, and she asked no one for sympathy.
She slept alone in a little hut on the outskirts of the town. With the dawn she rose, put on her coarse smock and black skirt, made herself a tortilla, then went forth and swept the streets. The children mocked her sometimes, and she looked at them in wonder. Why should she be mocked or punished? She felt no repentance; neither the Alcalde nor her husband had convinced her of her sin's enormity; she felt only bitter resentment that it should have been so brief. Her husband, a blear-eyed crippled old man, loathsome to all the youth and imagination in her, had beaten her and made her work. A man, young, strong, and good to look upon, had come and kissed her with passionate tenderness. Love had meant to her the glorification of a wretched sordid life; a green spot and a patch of blue sky in the desert. If punishment followed upon such happiness, must not the Catholic religion be all wrong in its teachings? Must not purgatory follow heaven, instead of heaven purgatory?
She watched the graceful girls of the wealthy class flit to and fro on the long corridors of the houses, or sweep the strings of the guitar behind their gratings as the caballeros passed. Watchful old women were always near them, their ears alert for every word. La Perdida thanked God that she had had no duena.
One night, on her way home, she passed the long low prison where her lover was confined. The large crystal moon flooded the red-tiled roof projecting over the deep windows and the shallow cells. The light sweet music of a guitar floated through iron bars, and a warm voice sang:—
"Adios, adios, de ti al ausentarme, Para ir en poz de mi fatal estrella, Yo llevo grabada tu imagen bella, Aqui en mi palpitante corazon.
"Pero aunque lejos de tu lado me halle No olvides, no, que por tu amor deliro Enviame siquiera un suspiro, Que de consuelo, a mi alma en su dolor.
"Y de tu pecho la emocion sentida Llegue hasta herir mi lacerado oido, Y arranque de mi pecho dolorido Un eco que repita, adios! adios!"
La Perdida's blood leaped through her body. Her aimless hands struck the spiked surface of a cactus-bush, but she never knew it. When the song finished, she crept to the grating and looked in.
"Carlos!" she whispered.
A man who lay on the straw at the back of the cell sprang to his feet and came forward.
"My little one!" he said. "I knew that song would bring thee. I begged them for a guitar, then to be put into a front cell." He forced his hands through the bars and gave her life again with his strong warm clasp.
"Come out," she said.
"Ay! they have me fast. But when they do let me out, nina, I will take thee in my arms; and whosoever tries to tear thee away again will have a dagger in his heart. Dios de mi vida! I could tear their flesh from their bones for the shame and the pain they have given thee, thou poor little innocent girl!"
"But thou lovest me, Carlos?"
"There is not an hour I am not mad for thee, not a corner of my heart that does not ache for thee! Ay, little one, never mind; life is long, and we are young."
She pressed nearer and laid his hand on her heart.
"Ay!" she said, "life is long."
"Holy Mary!" he cried. "The hills are on fire!"
A shout went up in the town. A flame, midway on the curving hills, leaped to the sky, narrow as a ribbon, then swept out like a fan. The moon grew dark behind a rolling pillar of smoke. The upcurved arms of the pines were burnt into a wall of liquid shifting red. The caballeros sprang to their horses, and driving the Indians before them, fled to the hills to save the town. The indolent women of Monterey mingled their screams with the shrill cries of the populace and the hoarse shouts of their men. The prison sentries stood to their posts for a few moments; then the panic claimed them, and they threw down their guns and ran with the rest to the hills.
Carlos gave a cry of derision and triumph. "My little one, our hour has come! Run and find the keys."
The big bunch of keys had been flung hastily into a corner. A moment later Carlos held the shaking form of the girl in his powerful arms. Slender and delicate as she was, she made no protest against the fierceness of that embrace.
"But come," he said. "We have only this hour for escape. When we are safe in the mountains—Come!"
He lifted her in his arms and ran down the crooked street to a corral where an hidalgo kept his finest horses. Carlos had been the vaquero of the band. The iron bars of the great doors were down—only one horse was in the corral; the others had carried the hidalgo and his friends to the fire. The brute neighed with delight as Carlos flung saddle and aquera into place, then, with La Perdida in his arms, sprang upon its back. The vaquero dug his spurs into the shining flanks, the mustang reared, shook his small head and silver mane, and bounded through the doors.
A lean, bent, and wiry thing darted from the shadows and hung upon the horse's neck. It was the husband of La Perdida, and his little brown face looked like an old walnut.
"Take me with thee!" he cried. "I will give thee the old man's blessing," and, clinging like a crab to the neck of the galloping mustang, he drove a knife toward the heart of La Perdida. The blade turned upon itself as lightning sometimes does, and went through stringy tissues instead of fresh young blood.
Carlos plucked the limp body from the neck of the horse and flung it upon a cactus-bush, where it sprawled and stiffened among the spikes and the blood-red flowers. But the mustang never paused; and as the fires died on the hills, the mountains opened their great arms and sheltered the happiness of two wayward hearts.
"Ay, senor! So terreeblay thing! It is many years before—1837, I theenk, is the year; the Americanos no have come to take California; but I remember like it is yesterday.
"You see, I living with her—Dona Juana Ybarra her name is—ever since I am little girl, and she too. It is like this: the padres make me Christian in the mission, and her family take me to work in the house; I no living on the rancheria like the Indians who work outside. Bime by Dona Juana marrying and I go live with her. Bime by I marrying too, and she is comadre—godmother, you call, no?—to my little one, and steel I living with her, and in few years my husband and little one die and I love her children like they are my own, and her too; we grow old together.
"You never see the San Ysidro rancho? It is near to San Diego and have many, many leagues. Don Carlos Ybarra, the husband de my senora, is very reech and very brave and proud—too brave and proud, ay, yi! We have a beeg adobe house with more than twenty rooms, and a corridor for the front more than one hundred feets. Ou'side are plenty other houses where make all the things was need for eat and wear: all but the fine closes. They come from far,—from Boston and Mejico. All stand away from the hills and trees, right in the middle the valley, so can see the bad Indians when coming. Far off, a mile I theenk, is the rancheria; no can see from the house. No so far is the corral, where keeping the fine horses.
"Ay, we have plenty to eat and no much to do in those days. Don Carlos and Dona Juana are very devot the one to the other, so the family living very happy, and I am in the house like before and take care the little ones. Every night I braid my senora's long black hair and tuck her in bed like she is a baby. She no grow stout when she grow more old, like others, but always is muy elegante.
"Bime by the childrens grow up; and the two firs boys, Roldan and Enrique, marrying and living in San Diego. Then are left only the senor and the senora, one little boy, Carlos, and my two beautiful senoritas, Beatriz and Ester. Ay! How pretty they are. Dios de mi alma! Where they are now?
"Dona Beatriz is tall like the mother, and sway when she walk, like you see the tules in the little wind. She have the eyes very black and long, and look like she feel sleep till she get mad; then, Madre de Dios! they opa wide and look like she is on fire inside and go to burn you too. She have the skin very white, but I see it hot like the blood go to burst out. Once she get furioso cause one the vaqueros hurch her horse, and she wheep him till he yell like he is in purgatory and no have no one say mass and get him out. But she have the disposition very sweet, and after, she is sorry and make him a cake hersel; and we all loving her like she is a queen, and she can do it all whatte she want.
"Dona Ester have the eyes more brown and soft, and the disposition more mild, but very feerm, and she having her own way more often than Dona Beatriz. She no is so tall, but very gracerful too, and walk like she think she is tall. All the Spanish so dignify, no? She maka very kind with the Indians when they are seek, and all loving her, but no so much like Dona Beatriz.
"Both girls very industrioso, sewing and make the broidery; make beautiful closes to wear at the ball. Ay, the balls! No have balls like those in California now. Sometimes have one fifty miles away, but they no care; jump on the horse and go, dance till the sun wake up and no feel tire at all. Sometimes when is wedding, or rodeo, dance for one week, then ride home like nothing have happen. In the winter the family living in San Diego; have big house there and dance every night, horseback in day when no rain, and have so many races and games. Ay, yi! All the girls so pretty. No wear hats then; the reboso, no more, or the mantilla; fix it so gracerful; and the dresses so bright colours, sometimes with flowers all over; the skirt make very fule, and the waist have the point. And the closes de mens! Madre de Dios! The beautiful velvet and silk closes, broider by silver and gold! And the saddles so fine! But you think I never go to tell you the story.
"One summer we are more gay than ever. So many caballeros love my senoritas, but I think they never love any one, and never go to marry at all. For a month we have the house fule; meriendas—peek-neeks, you call, no? And races every day, dance in the night. Then all go to stay at another rancho; it is costumbre to visit the one to the other. I feel very sorry for two so handsome caballeros, who are more devot than any. They looking very sad when they go, and I am sure they propose and no was accep.
"In the evening it is very quiet, and I am sweep the corridor when I hear two horses gallop down the valley. I fix my hand—so—like the barrel de gun, and look, and I see, riding very hard, Don Carmelo Pelajo and Don Rafael Arguello. The firs, he loving Dona Beatriz, the other, he want Dona Ester. I go queeck and tell the girls, and Beatriz toss her head and look very scornfule, but Ester blushing and the eyes look very happy. The young mens come in in few minutes and are well treat by Don Carlos and Dona Juana, for like them very much and are glad si the girls marry with them.
"After supper I am turn down the bed in my senora's room when I hear somebody spik very low ou'side on the corridor. I kneel on the window-seat and look out, and there I see Don Rafael have his arms roun Dona Ester and kissing her and she no mine at all. I wonder how they get out there by themselfs, for the Spanish very streect with the girls and no 'low that. But the young peoples always very—how you say it?—smart, no? After while all go to bed, and I braid Dona Juana's hair and she tell me Ester go to marry Don Rafael, and she feel very happy and I no say one word. Then I go to Dona Beatriz's bedroom; always I fix her for the bed, too. Ester have other woman take care her, but Beatriz love me. She keeck me when she is little, and pull my hair, when I no give her the dulces; but I no mine, for she have the good heart and so sweet spression when she no is mad and always maka very kind with me. I comb her hair and I see she look very cross and I ask her why, and she say she hate mens, they are fools, and womens too. I ask her why she think that, and she say she no can be spect have reason for all whatte she think; and she throw her head aroun so I no can comb at all and keeck out her little foot.
"'You no go to marry with Don Carlos?' I asking.
"'No!' she say, and youbetcherlife her eyes flash. 'You think I marrying a singing, sighing, gambling, sleepy caballero? Si no can marry man I no marry at all. Madre de Dios!' (She spik beautiful; but I no spik good Eenglish, and you no ondrestan the Spanish.)
"'But all are very much like,' I say; 'and you no want die old maid, no?'
"'I no care!' and then she fling hersel roun on the chair and throw her arms roun me and cry and sob on my estomac. 'Ay, my Lukari!' she cry when she can spik,' I hate everybody! I am tire out to exista! I want to live! I am tire stay all alone! Oh, I want—I no know what I want! Life is terreeblay thing, macheppa!'
"I no know at all whatte she mean, for have plenty peoples all the time, and she never walk, so I no can think why she feel tire; but I kissing her and smoothe her hair, for I jus love her, and tell her no cry. Bime by she fine it some one she loving, and she is very young yet,—twenty, no more.
"'I no stay here any longer,' she say. 'I go to ask my father take me to Mejico, where can see something cept hills and trees and missions and forts, and where perhaps—ay, Dios de mi alma!' Then she jump up and take me by the shoulders and just throw me out the room and lock the door; but I no mine, for I am use to her.
"Bueno, I think I go for walk, and bime by I come to the rancheria, and while I am there I hear terreeblay thing from old Pepe. He say he hear for sure that the bad Indians—who was no make Christian by the padres and living very wild in the mountains—come killing all the white peoples on the ranchos. He say he know sure it is true, and tell me beg Don Carlos send to San Diego for the soldiers come take care us. I feel so fright I hardly can walk back to the house, and I no sleep that night. In the morning firs thing I telling Don Carlos, but he say is nonsense and no will lissen. He is very brave and no care for nothing; fight the Indians and killing them plenty times. The two caballeros go away after breakfas, and when they are gone I can see my senora alone, and I telling her. She feel very fright and beg Don Carlos send for the soldiers, but he no will. Ay, yi! Ester is fright too; but Beatriz laugh and say she like have some excite and killing the Indians hersel. After while old Pepe come up to the house and tell he hear 'gain, but Don Carlos no will ask him even where he hear, and tell him to go back to the rancheria where belong, and make the reatas; he is so old he no can make anything else.
"Bueno! The nex morning—bout nine o'clock—Don Carlos is at the corral with two vaqueros and I am in the keetchen with the cook and one Indian boy, call Franco. Never I like that boy. Something so sneak, and he steal the dulces plenty times and walk so soffit. I am help the cook—very good woman, but no have much sense—fry lard, when I hear terreeblay noise—horses gallop like they jump out the earth near the house, and many mens yell and scream and shout.
"I run to the window and whatte I see?—Indians, Indians, Indians, thick like black ants on hill, jus race for the house, yelling like the horses' backs been fule de pins; and Don Carlos and the two vaqueros run like they have wings for the kitchen door, so can get in and get the guns and fight from the windows. I know whatte they want, so I run to the door to throw wide, and whatte I see but that devil Franco lock it and stan in front. I jump on him so can scratch his eyes out, but he keeck me in the estomac and for few minutes I no know it nothing.
"When I opa my eyes, the room is fule de Indians, and in the iron the house I hear my senora and Dona Ester scream, scream, scream. I crawl up by the window-seat and look out, and there—ay, Madre de Dios!—see on the groun my senor dead, stuck fule de arrows; and the vaqueros, too, of course. That maka me crazy and I run among the Indians, hitting them with my fists, to my senora and my senoritas. Jus as I run into the sala they go to killing my senora, but I snatch the knife and fall down on my knees and beg and cry they no hurcha her, and bime by they say all right. But—santa Dios!—whatte you think they do it? They tear all the closes offa her till she is naked like my ban, and drive her out the house with the reatas. They no letting me follow and I look out the window and see her reel like she is drunk down the valley and scream, scream!—Ay, Dios!
"Ester, she faint and no know it nothing. Beatriz, she have kill one Indian with her pistol, but they take way from her, and she stan look like the dead woman with eyes that have been in hell, in front the chief, who looka her very hard. He is very fine look, that chief, so tall and strong, like he can kill by sweep his arm roun, and he have fierce black eyes and no bad nose for Indian, with nostrils that jump. His mouth no is cruel like mos the bad Indians, nor the forehead so low. He wear the crown de feathers, and botas, and scrape de goaskin; the others no wear much at all. In a minute he pick up Beatriz and fling her over his shoulder like she is the dead deer, and he tell other do the same by Ester, and he stalk out and ride away hard. The others set fire everything, then ride after him. They no care for me and I stand there shriek after my senoritas and the beautiful housses burn up.
"Then I think de my senora and I run after the way she going. Bime by I find her in a wheat field, kissing and hugging little Carlos, who go out early and no meet the Indians; and he no ondrestan what is the matter and dance up and down he is so fright. I tell him run fas to San Diego and tell Don Roldan and Don Enrique whatte have happen, and he run like he is glad to get away. Then I take off my closes and put them on my senora and drag her along, and, bime by, we coming to a little house, and a good woman give me some closes and in the night we coming to San Diego. Ay! but was excite, everybody. Carlos been there two or three hours before, and Don Roldan and Don Enrique go with the soldiers to the hills. Everybody do it all whatte they can for my poor senora, but she no want to speak by anybody, and go shut hersel up in a room in Don Enrique's house and jus moan and I sit ou'side the door and moan too.
"Of course, I no am with the soldiers, but many times I hear all and I tell you.
"The Indians have good start, and the white peoples no even see them, but they fine the trail and follow hard. Bime by they coming to the mountains. You ever been in the mountains back de San Diego? No the hills, but the mountains. Ay! So bare and rofe and sharp, and the canons so narrow and the trails so steep! No is safe to go in at all, for the Indians can hide on the rocks, and jus shoot the white peoples down one at the time, si they like it, when climb the gorges. The soldiers say they no go in, for it is the duty de them to living and protec California from the Americanos; but Don Enrique and Don Roldan say they go, and they ride right in and no one ever spect see them any more. It is night, so they have good chancacum to look and no be seen si Indians no watch.
"Bime by they meet one Indian, who belong to the tribe they want, and 'fore he can shoot they point the pistol and tell him he mus show them where are the girls. He say he taking them, and on the way he telling them the chief and nother chief make the girls their wives. This make them wild, and they tie up the horses so can climb more fast. But it is no till late the nex morning when they come sudden out of a gorge and look right into a place, very flat like a plaza, where is the pueblo de the Indians they want. For moment no one see them, and they see the girls—Dios de mi alma! Have been big feast, I theenk, and right where are all the things no been clear away, Ester, she lie on the groun on the face, and cry and sob and shake. But Beatriz, she stan very straight in the middle, 'fore the door the big wigwam, and never look more hansome. She never take her eyes off the chief who taking her away, and no look discontent at all. Then the Indians see the brothers and yell and run to get the bows and arrows. Don Enrique and Don Roldan fire the pistols, but after all they have to run, for no can do it nothing. They get out live but have arrows in them. And that is the las we ever hear de my senoritas. Many time plenty white peoples watch the mountains and sometimes go in, but no can find nothing and always are wound.
"And my poor senora! For whole year she jus sit in one room and cry so loud all the peoples in San Diego hear her. No can do it nothing with her. Ay, she love the husband so, and the two beautiful girls! Then she die, and I am glad. Much better die than suffer like that. And Don Rafael and Don Carmelo? Oh, they marrying other girls, course."
NATALIE IVANHOFF: A MEMORY OF FORT ROSS
At Fort Ross, on the northern coast of California, it is told that an astonishing sight may be witnessed in the midnight of the twenty-third of August. The present settlement vanishes. In its place the Fort appears as it was when the Russians abandoned it in 1841. The quadrilateral stockade of redwood beams, pierced with embrasures for carronades, is compact and formidable once more. The ramparts are paced by watchful sentries; mounted cannon are behind the iron-barred gates and in the graceful bastions. Within the enclosure are the low log buildings occupied by the Governor and his officers, the barracks of the soldiers, the arsenal, and storehouses. In one corner stands the Greek chapel, with its cupola and cross-surmounted belfry. The silver chimes have rung this night. The Governor, his beautiful wife, and their guest, Natalie Ivanhoff, have knelt at the jewelled altar.
At the right of the Fort is a small "town" of rude huts which accommodates some eight hundred Indians and Siberian convicts, the working-men of the company. Above the "town," on a high knoll, is a large grist-mill. Describing an arc of perfect proportions, its midmost depression a mile behind the Fort, a great mountain forms a natural rampart. At either extreme it tapers to the jagged cliffs. On its three lower tables the mountain is green and bare; then abruptly rises a forest of redwoods, tall, rigid, tenebrious.
The mountain is visible but a moment. An immense white fog-bank which has been crouching on the horizon rears suddenly and rushes across the ocean, whose low mutter rises to a roar. It sweeps like a tidal wave across cliffs and Fort. It halts abruptly against the face of the mountain. In the same moment the ocean stills. It would almost seem that Nature held her breath, awaiting some awful event.
Suddenly, in the very middle of the fog-bank, appears the shadowy figure of a woman. She is gliding—to the right—rapidly and stealthily. Youth is in her slender grace, her delicate profile, dimly outlined. Her long silver-blond hair is unbound and luminously distinct from the white fog. She walks swiftly across the lower table of the mountain, then disappears. One sees, vaguely, a dark figure crouching along the lower fringe of the fog. That, too, disappears.
For a moment the silence seems intensified. Then, suddenly, it is crossed by a low whir—a strange sound in the midnight. Then a shriek whose like is never heard save when a soul is wrenched without warning in frightfullest torture from its body. Then another and another and another in rapid succession, each fainter and more horrible in suggestion than the last. With them has mingled the single frenzied cry of a man. A moment later a confused hubbub arises from the Fort and town, followed by the flashes of many lights and the report of musketry. Then the fog presses downward on the scene. All sound but that of the ocean, which seems to have drawn into its loud dull voice all the angers of all the dead, ceases as though muffled. The fog lingers a moment, then drifts back as it came, and Fort Ross is the Fort Ross of to-day.
And this is the story:—
When the Princess Helene de Gagarin married Alexander Rotscheff, she little anticipated that she would spend her honeymoon in the northern wilds of the Californias. Nevertheless, when her husband was appointed Governor of the Fort Ross and Bodega branch of the great Alaskan Fur Company, she volunteered at once to go with him—being in that stage of devotion which may be termed the emotionally heroic as distinguished from the later of non-resistance. As the exile would last but a few years, and as she was a lady of a somewhat adventurous spirit, to say nothing of the fact that she was deeply in love, her interpretation of wifely duty hardly wore the hue of martyrdom even to herself.
Notwithstanding, and although she had caused to be prepared a large case of books and eight trunks of ravishing raiment, she decided that life in a fort hidden between the mountains and the sea, miles away from even the primitive Spanish civilization, might hang burdensomely at such whiles as her husband's duties claimed him and books ceased to amuse. So she determined to ask the friend of her twenty-three years, the Countess Natalie Ivanhoff, to accompany her. She had, also, an unselfish motive in so doing. Not only did she cherish for the Countess Natalie a real affection, but her friend was as deeply wretched as she was happy.
Two years before, the Prince Alexis Mikhailof, betrothed of Natalie Ivanhoff, had been, without explanation or chance of parting word, banished to Siberia under sentence of perpetual exile. Later had come rumour of his escape, then of death, then of recapture. Nothing definite could be learned. When the Princess Helene made her invitation, it was accepted gratefully, hope suggesting that in the New World might be found relief from the torture that was relived in every vibration of the invisible wires that held memory fast to the surroundings in which the terrible impressions, etchers of memory, had their genesis.
They arrived in summer, and found the long log house, with its low ceilings and rude finish, admirably comfortable within. By aid of the great case of things Rotscheff had brought, it quickly became an abode of luxury. Thick carpets covered every floor; arras hid the rough walls; books and pictures and handsome ornaments crowded each other; every chair had been designed for comfort as well as elegance; the dining table was hidden beneath finest damask, and glittered with silver and crystal. It was an unwritten law that every one should dress for dinner; and with the rich curtains hiding the gloomy mountain and the long sweep of cliffs intersected by gorge and gulch, it was easy for the gay congenial band of exiles to forget that they were not eating the delicacies of their French cook and drinking their costly wines in the Old World.
In the daytime the women—several of the officers' wives had braved the wilderness—found much diversion in riding through the dark forests or along the barren cliffs, attended always by an armed guard. Diego Estenega, the Spanish magnate of the North, whose ranchos adjoined Fort Ross, and who was financially interested in the Russian fur trade, soon became an intimate of the Rotscheff household. A Californian by birth, he was, nevertheless, a man of modern civilization, travelled, a student, and a keen lover of masculine sports. Although the most powerful man in the politics of his conservative country, he was an American in appearance and dress. His cloth or tweed suggested the colorous magnificence of the caballeros as little as did his thin nervous figure and grim pallid intellectual face. Rotscheff liked him better than any man he had ever met; with the Princess he usually waged war, that lady being clever, quick, and wedded to her own opinions. For Natalie he felt a sincere friendship at once. Being a man of keen sympathies and strong impulses, he divined her trouble before he heard her story, and desired to help her.
The Countess Natalie, despite the Governor's prohibition, was addicted to roving over the cliffs by herself, finding kinship in the sterile crags and futile restlessness of the ocean. She had learned that although change of scene lightened the burden, only death would release her from herself.
"She will get over it," said the Princess Helene to Estenega. "I was in love twice before I met Alex, so I know. Natalie is so beautiful that some day some man, who will not look in the least like poor Alexis, will make her forget."
Estenega, being a man of the world and having consequently outgrown the cynicism of youth, also knowing women better than this fair Minerva would know them in twenty lifetimes, thought differently, and a battle ensued.
Natalie, meanwhile, wandered along the cliffs. She passed the town hurriedly. Several times when in its vicinity before, the magnetism of an intense gaze had given her a thrill of alarm, and once or twice she had met face to face the miller's son—a forbidding youth with the skull of the Tartar and the coarse black hair and furtive eyes of the Indian—whose admiration of her beauty had been annoyingly apparent. She was not conscious of observation to-day, however, and skirted the cliffs rapidly, drawing her gray mantle about her as the wind howled by, but did not lift the hood; the massive coils of silver-blond hair kept her head warm.
As the Princess Helene, despite her own faultless blondinity, had pronounced, Natalie Ivanhoff was a beautiful woman. Her profile had the delicate effect produced by the chisel. Her white skin was transparent and untinted, but the mouth was scarlet. The large long eyes of a changeful blue-gray, although limpid of surface, were heavy with the sadness of a sad spirit. Their natural fire was quenched just as the slight compression of her lips had lessened the sensuous fulness of their curves.
But she had suffered so bitterly and so variously that the points had been broken off her nerves, she told herself, and, excepting when her trouble mounted suddenly like a wave within her, her mind was tranquil. Grief with her had expressed itself in all its forms. She had known what it was to be crushed into semi-insensibility; she had thrilled as the tears rushed and the sobs shook her until every nerve ached and her very fingers cramped; and she had gone wild at other times, burying her head, that her screams might not be heard: the last, as imagination pictured her lover's certain physical suffering. But of all agonies, none could approximate to that induced by Death. When that rumour reached her, she realized that hope had given her some measure of support, and how insignificant all other trouble is beside that awful blank, that mystery, whose single revelation is the houseless soul's unreturning flight from the only world we are sure of. When the contradicting rumour came, she clutched at hope and clung to it.
"It is the only reason I do not kill myself," she thought, as she stood on the jutting brow of the cliff and looked down on the masses of huge stones which, with the gaunt outlying rocks, had once hung on the face of the crags. The great breakers boiled over them with the ponderosity peculiar to the waters of the Pacific. The least of those breakers would carry her far into the hospitable ocean.
"It is so easy to die and be at peace; the only thing which makes life supportable is the knowledge of Death's quick obedience. And the tragedy of life is not that we cannot forget, but that we can. Think of being an old woman with not so much as a connecting current between the memory and the heart, the long interval blocked with ten thousand petty events and trials! It must be worse than this. I shall have gone over the cliff long before that time comes. I would go to-day, but I cannot leave the world while he is in it."
She drew a case from her pocket, and opened it. It showed the portrait of a young man with the sombre eyes and cynical mouth of the northern European, a face revealing intellect, will, passion, and much recklessness. Eyes and hair were dark, the face smooth but for a slight mustache.
Natalie burst into wild tears, revelling in the solitude that gave her freedom. She pressed the picture against her face, and cried her agony aloud to the ocean. Thrilling memories rushed through her, and she lived again the first ecstasy of grief. She did not fling herself upon the ground, or otherwise indulge in the acrobatics of woe, but she shook from head to foot. Between the heavy sobs her breath came in hard gasps, and tears poured, hiding the gray desolation of the scene.
Suddenly, through it all, she became conscious that some one was watching her. Instinctively she knew that it was the same gaze which so often had alarmed her. Fear routed every other passion. She realized that she was unprotected, a mile from the Fort, out of the line of its vision. The brutal head of the miller's son seemed to thrust itself before her face. Overwhelmed with terror, she turned swiftly and ran, striking blindly among the low bushes, her glance darting from right to left. No one was to be seen for a moment; then she turned the corner of a boulder and came upon a man. She shrieked and covered her face with her hands, now too frightened to move. The man neither stirred nor spoke; and, despite this alarming circumstance, her disordered brain, in the course of a moment, conceived the thought that no subject of Rotscheff would dare to harm her.
Moreover, her brief glance had informed her that this was not the miller's son; which fact, illogically, somewhat tempered her fear. She removed her hands and compelled herself to look sternly at the creature who had dared to raise his eyes to the Countess Natalie Ivanhoff. She was puzzled to find something familiar about him. His grizzled hair was long, but not unkempt. The lower part of his face was covered by a beard. He was almost fleshless; but in his sunken eyes burned unquenchable fire, and there was a determined vigour in his gaunt figure. He might have been any age. Assuredly, the outward seeming of youth was not there, but its suggestion still lingered tenaciously in the spirit which glowed through the worn husk. And about him, in spite of the rough garb and blackened skin, was an unmistakable air of breeding.
Natalie, as she looked, grew rigid. Then she uttered a cry of rapturous horror, staggered, and was caught in a fierce embrace. Her stunned senses awoke in a moment, and she clung to him, crying wildly, holding him with straining arms, filled with bitter happiness.
In a few moments he pushed her from him and regarded her sadly.
"You are as beautiful as ever," he said; "but I—look at me! Old, hideous, ragged! I am not fit to touch you; I never meant to. Go! I shall never blame you."
For answer she sprang to him again.
"What difference is it how you look?" she cried, still sobbing. "Is it not you? Are not you in here just the same? What matter? What matter? No matter what you looked through, you would be the same. Listen," she continued rapidly, after a moment. "We are in a new country; there is hope for us. If we can reach the Spanish towns of the South, we are safe. I will ask Don Diego Estenega to help us, and he is not the man to refuse. He stays with us to-night, and I will speak alone with him. Meet me to-morrow night—where? At the grist-mill at midnight. We had better not meet by day again. Perhaps we can go then. You will be there?"
"Will I be there? God! Of course I will be there."
And, the brief details of their flight concluded, they forgot it and all else for the hour.
Natalie could not obtain speech alone with Estenega that evening; but the next morning the Princess Helene commanded her household and guest to accompany her up the hill to the orchard at the foot of the forest; and there, while the others wandered over the knolls of the shadowy enclosure, Natalie managed to tell her story. Estenega offered his help spontaneously.
"At twelve to-night," he said, "I will wait for you in the forest with horses, and will guide you myself to Monterey. I have a house there, and you can leave on the first barque for Boston."
As soon as the party returned to the Fort, Estenega excused himself and left for his home. The day passed with maddening slowness to Natalie. She spent the greater part of it walking up and down the immediate cliffs, idly watching the men capturing the seals and otters, the ship-builders across the gulch. As she returned at sunset to the enclosure, she saw the miller's son standing by the gates, gazing at her with hungry admiration. He inspired her with sudden fury.
"Never presume to look at me again," she said harshly. "If you do, I shall report you to the Governor."
And without waiting to note how he accepted the mandate, she swept by him and entered the Fort, the gates clashing behind her.
The inmates of Fort Ross were always in bed by eleven o'clock. At that hour not a sound was to be heard but the roar of the ocean, the soft pacing of the sentry on the ramparts, the cry of the panther in the forest. On the evening in question, after the others had retired, Natalie, trembling with excitement, made a hasty toilet, changing her evening gown for a gray travelling frock. Her heavy hair came unbound, and her shaking hands refused to adjust the close coils. As it fell over her gray mantle it looked so lovely, enveloping her with the silver sheen of mist, that she smiled in sad vanity, remembering happier days, and decided to let her lover see her so. She could braid her hair at the mill.
A moment or two before twelve she raised the window and swung herself to the ground. The sentry was on the rampart opposite: she could not make her exit by that gate. She walked softly around the buildings, keeping in their shadow, and reached the gates facing the forest. They were not difficult to unbar, and in a moment she stood without, free. She could not see the mountain; a heavy bank of white fog lay against it, resting, after its long flight over the ocean, before it returned, or swept onward to ingulf the redwoods.
She went with noiseless step up the path, then turned and walked swiftly toward the mill. She was very nervous; mingling with the low voice of the ocean she imagined she heard the moans with which beheaded convicts were said to haunt the night. Once she thought she heard a footstep behind her, and paused, her heart beating audibly. But the sound ceased with her own soft footfalls, and the fog was so dense that she could see nothing. The ground was soft, and she was beyond the sentry's earshot; she ran at full speed across the field, down the gorge, and up the steep knoll. As she reached the top, she was taken in Mikhailof's arms. For a few moments she was too breathless to speak; then she told him her plans.
"Let me braid my hair," she said finally, "and we will go."
He drew her within the mill, then lit a lantern and held it above her head, his eyes dwelling passionately on her beauty, enhanced by the colour of excitement and rapid exercise.
"You look like the moon queen," he said. "I missed your hair, apart from yourself."
She lifted her chin with a movement of coquetry most graceful in spite of long disuse, and the answering fire sprang into her eyes. She looked very piquant and a trifle diabolical. He pressed his lips suddenly on hers. A moment later something tugged at the long locks his hand caressed, and at the same time he became conscious that the silence which had fallen between them was shaken by a loud whir. He glanced upward. Natalie was standing with her back to one of the band-wheels. It had begun to revolve; in the moment it increased its speed; and he saw a glittering web on its surface. With an exclamation of horror, he pulled her toward him; but he was too late. The wheel, spinning now with the velocity of midday, caught the whole silver cloud in its spokes, and Natalie was swept suddenly upward. Her feet hit the low rafters, and she was whirled round and round, screams of torture torn from her rather than uttered, her body describing a circular right angle to the shaft, the bones breaking as they struck the opposite one; then, in swift finality, she was sucked between belt and wheel. Mikhailof managed to get into the next room and reverse the lever. The machinery stopped as abruptly as it had started; but Natalie was out of her agony.
Her lover flung himself over the cliffs, shattering bones and skull on the stones at their base. They made her a coffin out of the copper plates used for their ships, and laid her in the straggling unpopulous cemetery on the knoll across the gulch beyond the chapel.
"When we go, we will take her," said Rotscheff to his distracted wife.
But when they went, a year or two after, in the hurry of departure they forgot her until too late. They promised to return. But they never came, and she sleeps there still, on the lonely knoll between the sunless forest and the desolate ocean.
THE VENGEANCE OF PADRE ARROYO
Pilar, from her little window just above the high wall surrounding the big adobe house set apart for the women neophytes of the Mission of Santa Ines, watched, morning and evening, for Andreo, as he came and went from the rancheria. The old women kept the girls busy, spinning, weaving, sewing; but age nods and youth is crafty. The tall young Indian who was renowned as the best huntsman of all the neophytes, and who supplied Padre Arroyo's table with deer and quail, never failed to keep his ardent eyes fixed upon the grating so long as it lay within the line of his vision. One day he went to Padre Arroyo and told him that Pilar was the prettiest girl behind the wall—the prettiest girl in all the Californias—and that she should be his wife. But the kind stern old padre shook his head.
"You are both too young. Wait another year, my son, and if thou art still in the same mind, thou shalt have her."
Andreo dared to make no protest, but he asked permission to prepare a home for his bride. The padre gave it willingly, and the young Indian began to make the big adobes, the bright red tiles. At the end of a month he had built him a cabin among the willows of the rancheria, a little apart from the others: he was in love, and association with his fellows was distasteful. When the cabin was builded his impatience slipped from its curb, and once more he besought the priest to allow him to marry.
Padre Arroyo was sunning himself on the corridor of the mission, shivering in his heavy brown robes, for the day was cold.
"Orion," he said sternly—he called all his neophytes after the celebrities of earlier days, regardless of the names given them at the font—"have I not told thee thou must wait a year? Do not be impatient, my son. She will keep. Women are like apples: when they are too young, they set the teeth on edge; when ripe and mellow, they please every sense; when they wither and turn brown, it is time to fall from the tree into a hole. Now go and shoot a deer for Sunday: the good padres from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara are coming to dine with me."
Andreo, dejected, left the padre. As he passed Pilar's window and saw a pair of wistful black eyes behind the grating, his heart took fire. No one was within sight. By a series of signs he made his lady understand that he would place a note beneath a certain adobe in the wall.
Pilar, as she went to and fro under the fruit trees in the garden, or sat on the long corridor weaving baskets, watched that adobe with fascinated eyes. She knew that Andreo was tunnelling it, and one day a tiny hole proclaimed that his work was accomplished. But how to get the note? The old women's eyes were very sharp when the girls were in front of the gratings. Then the civilizing development of Christianity upon the heathen intellect triumphantly asserted itself. Pilar, too, conceived a brilliant scheme. That night the padre, who encouraged any evidence of industry, no matter how eccentric, gave her a little garden of her own—a patch where she could raise sweet peas and Castilian roses.
"That is well, that is well, my Nausicaa," he said, stroking her smoky braids. "Go cut the slips and plant them where thou wilt. I will send thee a package of sweet pea seeds."
Pilar spent every spare hour bending over her "patch"; and the hole, at first no bigger than a pin's point, was larger at each setting of the sun behind the mountain. The old women, scolding on the corridor, called to her not to forget vespers.
On the third evening, kneeling on the damp ground, she drew from the little tunnel in the adobe a thin slip of wood covered with the labour of sleepless nights. She hid it in her smock—that first of California's love-letters—then ran with shaking knees and prostrated herself before the altar. That night the moon streamed through her grating, and she deciphered the fact that Andreo had loosened eight adobes above her garden, and would await her every midnight.
Pilar sat up in bed and glanced about the room with terrified delight. It took her but a moment to decide the question; love had kept her awake too many nights. The neophytes were asleep; as they turned now and again, their narrow beds of hide, suspended from the ceiling, swung too gently to awaken them. The old women snored loudly. Pilar slipped from her bed and looked through the grating. Andreo was there, the dignity and repose of primeval man in his bearing. She waved her hand and pointed downward to the wall; then, throwing on the long coarse gray smock that was her only garment, crept from the room and down the stair. The door was protected against hostile tribes by a heavy iron bar, but Pilar's small hands were hard and strong, and in a moment she stood over the adobes which had crushed her roses and sweet peas.
As she crawled through the opening, Andreo took her hand bashfully, for they never had spoken. "Come," he said; "we must be far away before dawn."
They stole past the long mission, crossing themselves as they glanced askance at the ghostly row of pillars; past the guard-house, where the sentries slept at their post; past the rancheria; then, springing upon a waiting mustang, dashed down the valley. Pilar had never been on a horse before, and she clung in terror to Andreo, who bestrode the unsaddled beast as easily as a cloud rides the wind. His arm held her closely, fear vanished, and she enjoyed the novel sensation. Glancing over Andreo's shoulder she watched the mass of brown and white buildings, the winding river, fade into the mountain. Then they began to ascend an almost perpendicular steep. The horse followed a narrow trail; the crowding trees and shrubs clutched the blankets and smocks of the riders; after a time trail and scene grew white: the snow lay on the heights.
"Where do we go?" she asked.
"To Zaca Lake, on the very top of the mountain, miles above us. No one has ever been there but myself. Often I have shot deer and birds beside it. They never will find us there."
The red sun rose over the mountains of the east. The crystal moon sank in the west. Andreo sprang from the weary mustang and carried Pilar to the lake.
A sheet of water, round as a whirlpool but calm and silver, lay amidst the sweeping willows and pine-forested peaks. The snow glittered beneath the trees, but a canoe was on the lake, a hut on the marge.
Padre Arroyo tramped up and down the corridor, smiting his hands together. The Indians bowed lower than usual, as they passed, and hastened their steps. The soldiers scoured the country for the bold violators of mission law. No one asked Padre Arroyo what he would do with the sinners, but all knew that punishment would be sharp and summary: the men hoped that Andreo's mustang had carried him beyond its reach; the girls, horrified as they were, wept and prayed in secret for Pilar.
A week later, in the early morning, Padre Arroyo sat on the corridor. The mission stood on a plateau overlooking a long valley forked and sparkled by the broad river. The valley was planted thick with olive trees, and their silver leaves glittered in the rising sun. The mountain peaks about and beyond were white with snow, but the great red poppies blossomed at their feet. The padre, exiled from the luxury and society of his dear Spain, never tired of the prospect: he loved his mission children, but he loved Nature more.
Suddenly he leaned forward on his staff and lifted the heavy brown hood of his habit from his ear. Down the road winding from the eastern mountains came the echo of galloping footfalls. He rose expectantly and waddled out upon the plaza, shading his eyes with his hand. A half-dozen soldiers, riding closely about a horse bestridden by a stalwart young Indian supporting a woman, were rapidly approaching the mission. The padre returned to his seat and awaited their coming.
The soldiers escorted the culprits to the corridor; two held the horse while they descended, then led it away, and Andreo and Pilar were alone with the priest. The bridegroom placed his arm about the bride and looked defiantly at Padre Arroyo, but Pilar drew her long hair about her face and locked her hands together.
Padre Arroyo folded his arms and regarded them with lowered brows, a sneer on his mouth.
"I have new names for you both," he said, in his thickest voice. "Antony, I hope thou hast enjoyed thy honeymoon. Cleopatra, I hope thy little toes did not get frost-bitten. You both look as if food had been scarce. And your garments have gone in good part to clothe the brambles, I infer. It is too bad you could not wait a year and love in your cabin at the rancheria, by a good fire, and with plenty of frijoles and tortillas in your stomachs." He dropped his sarcastic tone, and, rising to his feet, extended his right arm with a gesture of malediction. "Do you comprehend the enormity of your sin?" he shouted. "Have you not learned on your knees that the fires of hell are the rewards of unlawful love? Do you not know that even the year of sackcloth and ashes I shall impose here on earth will not save you from those flames a million times hotter than the mountain fire, than the roaring pits in which evil Indians torture one another? A hundred years of their scorching breath, of roasting flesh, for a week of love! Oh, God of my soul!"
Andreo looked somewhat staggered, but unrepentant. Pilar burst into loud sobs of terror.
The padre stared long and gloomily at the flags of the corridor. Then he raised his head and looked sadly at his lost sheep.
"My children," he said solemnly, "my heart is wrung for you. You have broken the laws of God and of the Holy Catholic Church, and the punishments thereof are awful. Can I do anything for you, excepting to pray? You shall have my prayers, my children. But that is not enough; I cannot—ay! I cannot endure the thought that you shall be damned. Perhaps"—again he stared meditatively at the stones, then, after an impressive silence, raised his eyes. "Heaven vouchsafes me an idea, my children. I will make your punishment here so bitter that Almighty God in His mercy will give you but a few years of purgatory after death. Come with me."
He turned and led the way slowly to the rear of the mission buildings. Andreo shuddered for the first time, and tightened his arm about Pilar's shaking body. He knew that they were to be locked in the dungeons. Pilar, almost fainting, shrank back as they reached the narrow spiral stair which led downward to the cells. "Ay! I shall die, my Andreo!" she cried. "Ay! my father, have mercy!"
"I cannot, my children," said the padre, sadly. "It is for the salvation of your souls."
"Mother of God! When shall I see thee again, my Pilar?" whispered Andreo. "But, ay! the memory of that week on the mountain will keep us both alive."
Padre Arroyo descended the stair and awaited them at its foot. Separating them, and taking each by the hand, he pushed Andreo ahead and dragged Pilar down the narrow passage. At its end he took a great bunch of keys from his pocket, and raising both hands commanded them to kneel. He said a long prayer in a loud monotonous voice which echoed and reechoed down the dark hall and made Pilar shriek with terror. Then he fairly hurled the marriage ceremony at them, and made the couple repeat after him the responses. When it was over, "Arise," he said.