The Splendid Idle Forties - Stories of Old California
by Gertrude Atherton
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The poor things stumbled to their feet, and Andreo caught Pilar in a last embrace.

"Now bear your incarceration with fortitude, my children; and if you do not beat the air with your groans, I will let you out in a week. Do not hate your old father, for love alone makes him severe, but pray, pray, pray."

And then he locked them both in the same cell.



The Senor Capitan Don Luis de la Torre walked impatiently up and down before the grist-mill wherein were quartered the soldiers sent by Mexico to protect the building of the Mission of San Gabriel. The Indian workmen were slugs; California, a vast region inhabited only by savages and a few priests, offered slender attractions to a young officer craving the gay pleasures of his capital and the presence of the woman he was to marry. For months he had watched the mission church mount slowly from foundation to towers, then spread into pillared corridors and rooms for the clergy. He could have mapped in his mind every acre of the wide beautiful valley girt by mountains snowed on their crest. He had thought it all very lovely at first: the yellow atmosphere, the soft abiding warmth, the blue reflecting lake; but the green on mountain and flat had waxed to gold, then waned to tan and brown, and he was tired. Not even a hostile Indian had come to be killed.

He was very good-looking, this tall young Spaniard, with his impatient eyes and haughty intelligent face, and it is possible that the lady in Mexico had added to his burden by doleful prayers to return. He took a letter from his pocket, read it half through, then walked rapidly over to the mission, seeking interest in the work of the Indians. Under the keen merciless supervision of the padres,—the cleverest body of men who ever set foot in America,—they were mixing and laying the adobes, making nails and tiles, hewing aqueducts, fashioning great stone fonts and fountains. De la Torre speculated, after his habit, upon the future of a country so beautiful and so fertile, which a dozen priests had made their own. Would these Indians, the poorest apologies for human beings he had ever seen, the laziest and the dirtiest, be Christianized and terrified into worthy citizens of this fair land? Could the clear white flame that burned in the brains of the padres strike fire in their neophytes' narrow skulls, create a soul in those grovelling bodies? He dismissed the question.

Would men of race, tempted by the loveliness of this great gold-haired houri sleeping on the Pacific, come from old and new Spain and dream away a life of pleasure? What grapes would grow out of this rich soil to be crushed by Indian slaves into red wine! And did gold vein those velvet hills? How all fruits, all grains, would thrive! what superb beasts would fatten on the thick spring grass! Ay! it was a magnificent discovery for the Church, and great would be the power that could wrest it from her.

There was a new people, somewhere north of Mexico, in the United States of America. Would they ever covet and strive to rob? The worse for them if they molested the fire-blooded Spaniard. How he should like to fight them!

That night the sentinel gave a sudden piercing shout of warning, then dropped dead with a poisoned arrow in his brain. Another moment, and the soldiers had leaped from their swinging beds of hide, and headed by their captain had reached the church they were there to defend. Through plaza and corridors sped and shrieked the savage tribe, whose invasion had been made with the swiftness and cunning of their race. The doors had not been hung in the church, and the naked figures ran in upon the heels of the soldiers, waving torches and yelling like the soulless fiends they were. The few neophytes who retained spirit enough to fight after the bleaching process that had chilled their native fire and produced a result which was neither man nor beast, but a sort of barnyard fowl, hopped about under the weight of their blankets and were promptly despatched.

The brunt of the battle fell upon the small detachment of troops, and at the outset they were overwhelmed by numbers, dazzled by the glare of torches that waved and leaped in the cavern-like darkness of the church. But they fought like Spaniards, hacking blindly with their swords, cleaving dusky skulls with furious maledictions, using their fists, their feet, their teeth—wrenching torches from malignant hands and hurling them upon distorted faces. Curses and wild yells intermingled. De la Torre fought at the head of his men until men and savages, dead and living, were an indivisible mass, then thrust back and front, himself unhurt. The only silent clear-brained man among them, he could reason as he assaulted and defended, and he knew that the Spaniards had little chance of victory—and he less of looking again upon the treasures of Mexico. The Indians swarmed like ants over the great nave and transept. Those who were not fighting smashed the altar and slashed the walls. The callous stars looked through the apertures left for windows, and shed a pallid light upon the writhing mass. The padres had defended their altar, behind the chancel rail; they lay trampled, with arrows vibrating in their hard old muscles.

De la Torre forced his way to the door and stood for a moment, solitary, against the pale light of the open, then turned his face swiftly to the night air as he fell over the threshold of the mission he had so gallantly defended.


Delfina de Capalleja, after months of deferred hope, stood with the crowd at the dock, awaiting the return of the troop which had gone to defend the Mission of San Gabriel in its building. There was no flutter of colour beneath her white skin, and the heavy lids almost concealed the impatient depths of her eyes; the proud repose of her head indicated a profound reserve and self-control. Over her white gown and black dense hair she wore a black lace mantilla, fastened below the throat with a large yellow rose.

The ship swung to anchor and answered the salute from the fort. Boats were lowered, but neither officers nor soldiers descended. The murmur of disappointment on shore rose to a shout of execration. Then, as the ship's captain and passengers landed, a whisper ran through the crowd, a wail, and wild sobbing. They flung themselves to the earth, beating their heads and breasts,—all but Delfina de Capalleja, who drew her mantilla about her face and walked away.

The authorities of the city of Mexico yielded to public clamour and determined to cast a silver bell in honour of the slaughtered captain and his men. The casting was to take place in the great plaza before the cathedral, that all might attend: it was long since any episode of war had caused such excitement and sorrow. The wild character and remoteness of the scene of the tragedy, the meagreness of detail which stung every imagination into action, the brilliancy and popularity of De la Torre, above all, the passionate sympathy felt for Delfina de Capalleja, served to shake society from peak to base, and no event had ever been anticipated with more enthusiasm than the casting of that silver bell.

No one had seen Delfina since the arrival of the news had broken so many hearts, and great was the curiosity regarding her possible presence at the ceremony. Universal belief was against her ever again appearing in public; some said that she was dead, others that she had gone into a convent, but a few maintained that she would be high priestess at the making of the bell which was to be the symbol and monument of her lover's gallantry and death.

The hot sun beat upon the white adobe houses of the stately city. At the upper end of the plaza, bending and swaying, coquetting and languishing, were women clad in rich and vivid satins, their graceful heads and shoulders draped with the black or white mantilla; caballeros, gay in velvet trousers laced with gold, and serape embroidered with silver. Eyes green and black and blue sparkled above the edge of large black fans; fiery eyes responded from beneath silver-laden sombreros. The populace, in gala attire, crowded the rest of the plaza and adjacent streets, chattering and gesticulating. But all looked in vain for Delfina de Capalleja.

Much ceremony attended the melting of the bell. Priests in white robes stiff with gold chanted prayers above the silver bubbling in the caldron. A full-robed choir sang the Te Deum; the regiment to which De la Torre had belonged fired salutes at intervals; the crowd sobbed and shouted.

Thunder of cannon, passionate swell of voices: the molten silver was about to be poured into the mould. The crowd hushed and parted. Down the way made for her came Delfina de Capalleja. Her black hair hung over her long white gown. Her body bent under the weight of jewels—the jewels of generations and the jewels of troth. Her arms hung at her sides. In her eyes was the peace of the dead.

She walked to the caldron, and taking a heavy gold chain from her neck flung it into the silver. It swirled like a snake, then disappeared. One by one, amidst quivering silence, the magnificent jewels followed the chain. Then, as she took the last bracelet from her arm, madness possessed the breathless crowd. The indifferent self-conscious men, the lanquid coquetting women, the fat drowsy old dowagers, all rushed, scrambling and screaming, to the caldron, tore from their heads and bodies the superb jewels and ropes of gold with which they were bedecked, and flung them into the molten mass, which rose like a tide. The electric current sprang to the people; their baubles sped like hail through the air. So great was the excitement that a sudden convulsing of the earth was unfelt. When not a jewel was left to sacrifice, the caldron held enough element for five bells—the five sweet-voiced bells which rang in the Mission of San Gabriel for more than a century.

Exhausted with shouting, the multitude was silent. Delfina de Capalleja, who had stood with panting chest and dilating nostrils, turned from the sacrificial caldron, the crowd parting for her again, the Laudate Dominum swelling. As she reached the cathedral, a man who loved her, noting a change in her face, sprang to her side. She raised her bewildered eyes to his and thrust out her hands blankly, then fell dead across the threshold.


The Devil locked the copper gates of Hell one night, and sauntered down a Spacian pathway. The later arrivals from the planet Earth had been of a distressingly commonplace character to his Majesty—a gentleman of originality and attainments, whatever his disagreements with the conventions. He was become seriously disturbed about the moral condition of the sensational little twinkler.

"What are my own about?" he thought, as he drifted past planets which yielded up their tributes with monotonous regularity. "What a squeezed old orange would Earth become did I forsake it! I must not neglect it so long again; my debt of gratitude is too great. Let me see. Where shall I begin? It is some years since I have visited America in person, and unquestionably she has most need of my attention; Europe is in magnificent running order. This is a section of her, if my geography does not fail me; but what? I do not recall it."

He poised above a country that looked as if it still hung upon the edge of chaos: wild, fertile, massive, barren, luxuriant, crouching on the ragged line of the Pacific. From his point of vantage he saw long ranges of stupendous mountains, some but masses of scowling crags, some green with forests of mammoth trees projecting their gaunt rigid arms above a carpet of violets; indolent valleys and swirling rivers; snow on the black peaks of the North; the riotous colour of eternal summer in the South. Suddenly he uttered a sharp exclamation and swept downward, halting but a mile above the ground. He frowned heavily, then smiled—a long, placid, sardonic smile. There appeared to be but few inhabitants in this country, and those few seemed to live either in great white irregular buildings, surmounted by crosses, in little brown huts near by, in the caves, or in hollowed trees on the mountains. The large buildings were situated about sixty miles apart, in chosen valleys; they were imposing and rambling, built about a plaza. They boasted pillared corridors and bright red tiles on their roofs. Within the belfries were massive silver bells, and the crosses could be seen to the furthermost end of the valley and from the tops of the loftiest mountain.

"California!" exclaimed the Devil. "I know of her. Her scant history is outlined in the Scarlet Book. I remember the points: Climate, the finest, theoretically, in the world; satanically, simply magnificent. I have waited impatiently for the stream of humanity to deflect thitherward, but priests will answer my present purpose exactly—unless they are all too tough. To continue, gold under that grass in chunks—aha! I shall have to throw out an extra wing in Hell! Parched deserts where men will die cursing; fruitful valleys, more gratifying to my genius; about as much of one as of the other, but the latter will get all the advertising, and the former be carefully kept out of sight. Everything in the way of animal life, from grizzly bears to fleas. A very remarkable State! Well, I will begin on the priests."

He shot downward, and alighted in a valley whose proportions pleased his eye. Its shape was oval; the bare hills enclosing it were as yellow and as bright as hammered gold; the grass was bronze-coloured, baking in the intense heat; but the placid cows and shining horses nibbled it with the contentment of those that know not of better things. A river, almost concealed by bending willows and slender erect cottonwoods, wound capriciously across the valley. The mission, simpler than some of the others, was as neatly kept as the farm of older civilizations. Peace, order, reigned everywhere; all things drowsed under the relentless outpouring of the midsummer sun.

"It is well I do not mind the heat," thought his Majesty; "but I am sensible of this. I will go within."

He drew a boot on his cloven foot, thus rendering himself invisible, and entered a room of the long wing that opened upon the corridor. Here the temperature was almost wintry, so thick were the adobe walls.

Two priests sat before a table, one reading aloud from a bulky manuscript, the other staring absently out of the window. The reader was an old man; his face was pale and spiritual; no fires burned in his sunken eyes; his mouth was stern with the lines of self-repression. The Devil lost all interest in him at once, and turned to the younger man. His face was pale also, but his pallor was that of fasting and the hair shirt; the mouth expressed the determination of the spirit to conquer the restless longing of the eyes; his nostrils were spirited; his figure was lean and nervous; he moved his feet occasionally, and clutched at the brown Franciscan habit.

"Paulo," said the older priest, reprovingly, as he lifted his eyes and noted the unbowed head, "thou art not listening to the holy counsel of our glorious Master, our saint who has so lately ascended into heaven."

"I know Junipero Serra by heart," said Paulo, a little pettishly. "I wish it were not too hot to go out; I should like to take a walk. Surely, San Miguel is the hottest spot on earth. The very fleas are gasping between the bricks."

"The Lord grant that they may die before the night! Not a wink have I slept for two! But thou shouldest not long for recreation until the hour comes, my son. Do thy duty and think not of when it will be over, for it is a blessed privilege to perform it—far more so than any idle pleasure—just as it is more blessed to give than to receive—"

Here the Devil snorted audibly, and both priests turned with a jump.

"Did you hear that, my father?"

"It is the walls cracking with the intense heat. I will resume my reading, and do thou pay attention, my son."

"I will, my father."

And for three hours the Devil was obliged to listen to the droning voice of the old man. He avenged himself by planting wayward and alarming desires in Paulo's fertile soul.

Suddenly the mission was filled with the sound of clamorous silver: the bells were ringing for vespers—a vast, rapid, unrhythmical, sweet volume of sound which made the Devil stamp his hoofs and gnash his teeth. The priests crossed themselves and hurried to their evening duties, Satan following, furious, but not daring to let them out of his sight.

The church was crowded with dusky half-clothed forms, prostrate before the altar. The Devil, during the long service, wandered amongst them, giving a vicious kick with his cloven foot here, pricking with the sharp point of his tail there, breeding a fine discord and routing devotion. When vespers were over he was obliged to follow the priests to the refectory, but found compensation in noting that Paulo displayed a keen relish for his meat and wine. The older man put his supper away morsel by morsel, as if he were stuffing a tobacco-pouch.

The meal finished, Paulo sallied forth for his evening walk. The Devil had his chance.

He was a wise Devil—a Devil of an experience so vast that the world would go crashing through space under its weight in print. He wasted no time with the preliminary temptations—pride, ambition, avarice. He brought out the woman at once.

The young priest, wandering through a grove of cottonwoods, his hands clasped listlessly behind him, his chin sunken dejectedly upon his breast, suddenly raised his eyes and beheld a beautiful woman standing not ten paces away. She was not a girl like her whom he had renounced for the Church, but a woman about whose delicate warm face and slender palpitating bosom hung the vague shadow of maturity. Her hair was the hot brown of copper, thick and rich; her eyes were like the meeting of flame and alcohol. The emotion she inspired was not the pure glow which once had encouraged rather than deprecated renunciation; but at the moment he thought it sweeter.

He sprang forward with arms outstretched, instinct conquering vows in a manner highly satisfactory to the Devil; then, with a bitter imprecation, turned and fled. But he heard light footfalls behind him; he was conscious of a faint perfume, born of no earthly flower, felt a soft panting breath. A light hand touched his face. He flung his vows to anxious Satan, and turned to clasp the woman in his arms. But she coyly retreated, half-resentfully, half-invitingly, wholly lovely. Satan closed his iron hand about the vows, and the priest ran toward the woman, the lines of repression on his face gone, the eyes conquering the mouth. But again she retreated. He quickened his steps; she accelerated hers; his legs were long and agile; but she was fleet of foot. Finally she ran at full speed, her warm bright hair lifted and spreading, her tender passionate face turned and shining through it.

They left the cottonwoods, and raced down the wide silent valley, the cows staring with stolid disapproval, the stars pulsing in sympathy. The priest felt no fatigue; he forgot the Church behind him, the future of reward or torment. He wanted the woman, and was determined to have her. He was wholly lost; and the Devil, satisfied, returned to the mission.

"Now," thought he, "for revenge on that old fool for defying me for sixty years!"

He raised his index finger and pointed it straight at the planet Hell. Instantly the sky darkened, the air vibrated with the rushing sound of many forms. A moment later he was surrounded by a regiment of abbreviated demons—a flock as thick as a grasshopper plague, twisted, grinning, leering, hideous. He raised his finger again and they leaped to the roofs of the mission, wrenched the tiles from their place and sent them clattering to the pavement. They danced and wrestled on the naked roof, yelling with their hoarse unhuman voices, singing awful chants.

The Devil passed within, and found the good old priest on his knees, a crucifix clasped to his breast, his white face upturned, shouting ave marias and pater nosters at the top of his aged voice as if fearful they would not ascend above the saturnalia on the roof. The Devil added to his distraction by loud bursts of ribald laughter; but the father, revolving his head as if it were on a pivot, continued to pray. Satan began to curse like a pirate.

Suddenly, above the crashing of tiles, the hideous voices of Devil and demon, the prayers of the padre, sounded the silver music of the bells. Not the irregular clash which was the daily result of Indian manipulation, but long rhythmic peals, as sweet and clear and true as the singing of angels. The Devil and his minions, with one long, baffled, infuriated howl, shot upward into space. Simultaneously a great wind came roaring down the valley, uprooting trees, shaking the sturdy mission. Thunder detonated, lightning cut its zigzag way through black clouds like moving mountains; hail rattled to the earth; water fell as from an overturned ocean. And through all the bells pealed and the priest prayed.

Morning dawned so calm and clear that but for the swimming ground and the broken tiles bestrewing it, the priest would have thought he had dreamed a terrible nightmare. He opened the door and looked anxiously forth for Paulo. Paulo was not to be seen. He called, but his tired voice would not carry. Clasping his crucifix to his breast, he tottered forth in search of his beloved young colleague. He passed the rancheria of the Indians, and found them all asleep, worn out from a night of terror.

He was too kind to awaken them, and pursued his way alone down the valley, peering fearfully to right and left. The ground was ploughed, dented, and strewn with fallen trees; the river roared like a tidal wave. Shuddering, and crossing himself repeatedly, he passed between the hills and entered a forest, following a path which the storm had blasted. After a time he came to an open glade where he and Paulo had loved to pray whilst the spring and the birds made music. To his surprise he saw a large stone lying along the open. He wondered if some meteor had fallen. Mortal hands—Indian hands, at least—were not strong enough to have brought so heavy a bulk, and he had not seen it in forest or valley before.

He approached and regarded it; then began mumbling aves and paters, running them together as he had not done during the visitation and storm. The stone was outlined with the shape of a man, long, young, and slender. The face was sharply cut, refined, impassioned, and intellectual. A smile of cynical contentment dwelt on the strong mouth. The eyes were fixed on something before him. Involuntarily the priest's followed them, and lingered. A tree also broke the open—one which never had been there before—and it bore an intoxicating similitude to the features and form of a surpassingly beautiful woman.

"Paulo! Paulo!" murmured the old man, with tears in his eyes, "would that I had been thou!"


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