Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton.

The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories online

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Buena - San Francisco you call him now, no? I go this morning to meet my
friends who make for the Rancho de los Olivos so great an honor. Si you
permit me I introduce you, for you are the friend de my cousin, Padre
Ortega."

The company had scattered down the stream to refresh their horses,
making a long banner of color in the dark cañon. Don Enrique led John
along the line, and presented him solemnly to each in turn. The
caballeros protested eternal friendship with vehement insincerity, and
the girls flashed their eyes and teeth at the blue-eyed young American
without descending from their unconscious pride of sex and race. They
had the best blood of Spain in them, and an American was an American, be
he never so agreeable to contemplate.

The girls looked much alike in the rebosos which framed their faces so
closely, and John promptly fell in love with all of them at once.
Selection could take place later; he was too happy to think of anything
so serious as immediate marriage. But one of them he determined to have.

He rode out of the cañon with them, and they were gracious, and
chattered of the pleasures to come at the Rancho de los Olivos.

John noticed that Enrique kept persistently at the side of one maiden,
and rode a little ahead with her. She was very tall and slim, and so
graceful that she swayed almost to her horse's neck when branches
drooped too low. John began to wish for a glimpse of her face.

"That is Delfina Carillo," said the girl beside him, following his gaze.
"She go to marry with Enrique, I theenk. He is very devot, and I think
she like him, but no will say."

Perhaps it was merely the fact that this dainty flower hung a little
higher than the others that caused John's thoughts to concentrate upon
her, and roused his curiosity to such an extent that he drew his
companion on to talk of the girl who was favored by Enrique Ortega. He
learned that she was the daughter of a great rancher near Santa Barbara,
and was La Favorita of all the country round.

"She have the place that Chonita Iturbi y Moncada have before, and many
caballeros want to marry with her, but she no pay much attention; only
now I think like Enrique. Ay, he sing so beautiful, Señor, no wonder si
she loving him. Serenade her every night, and she love the musica."

"It certainly must be that," thought John, "for he hasn't an idea in his
head."

He did not see her until that night. The priest wore the brown robe of
his order to the ball, and John his claw-hammer. They both looked out of
place among those birds of brilliant plumage.

Doña Martina, large and coffee-colored, with a mustache and many
jewels, sat against the wall with other señoras of her kind. They wore
heavy red and yellow satins, but the girls wore light silks that
fluttered as they walked.

Doña Martina gave him a sleepy welcome, and he turned his attention to
the dancing, in which he could take no part. He knew that his manners
were good and his carriage easy, but the lighter graces had not come his
way.

At the moment a girl was dancing alone in the middle of the _sala_, and
John knew instinctively that she was Delfina Carillo. Like the other
girls, she wore her hair high under a tall comb, but her gown was white
and trimmed with the lace of Spain. Her feet, of course, were tiny, and
showed plainly beneath her slightly lifted skirts; and she danced with
no perceptible effort, rather as if swayed by a light wind, like the
pendent moss in the woods. She had just begun to dance when John
entered, and the company was standing against the wall in silence; but
in a few moments the young men began to mutter, then to clap and stamp,
then to shout, and finally they plunged their hands wildly into their
pockets and flung gold and silver at her feet. But she took no notice
beyond a flutter of nostril, and continued to dance like a thing of
light and air.

Her beauty was very great. John, young as he was, knew that it was
hardly likely he should ever see beauty in such perfection again. It was
not an intellectual face, but it was faultless of line and delicate of
coloring. The eyes were not only very large and black, but the lashes
were so long and soft the wonder was they did not tangle. Her skin was
white, her cheeks and lips were pink, her mouth was curved and flexible;
and her figure, her arms and hands and feet had the expression in their
perfect lines that her face lacked. John noticed that she had a short
upper lip, a haughty nostril, and a carriage that expressed pride both
latent and active. It was with an effort that she bent her head
graciously as she glided from the floor, taking no notice of the
offerings that had been flung at her feet.

And John loved her once and for all. She was the sublimation of every
dream that his romantic heart had conceived. He felt faint for a moment
at the difficulties which bristled between himself and this superlative
being, but he was a youthful conqueror, and life had been very amiable
to him. He shook courage into his spirit and asked to be presented to
her at once.

Her eyes swept his face indifferently, but something in his intense
regard compelled her attention, and although she appeared to scorn
conversation, she smiled once or twice; and when she smiled her face
was dazzling.

"That was very wonderful, that dance, señorita; but does it not tire
you?"

"No."

"You are glad to give such great pleasure, I suppose?"

"Si - "

"You are so used to compliments - I know how the caballeros go on - you
won't mind my saying it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw - and I
have been about the world a bit."

"Si?"

"I wish I could dance, if only to dance with you."

"You no dance?" Her tone expressed polite scorn, although her voice was
scarcely audible.

"Would - would - you talk out a dance with me?"

"Oh no." She looked as astonished as if John had asked her to shut
herself up alone in her room for the rest of the evening, and she swayed
her back slowly upon him and lifted her hand to the shoulder of Enrique.
In another moment she was gliding down the room in his arm, and John
noted that the color in her cheek was deeper.

"It is impossible that she can care for that doll," he thought;
"impossible."

But in the days that followed he realized that the race was to be a hot
one. He was included in all the festivities, and they went to
_meriendas_ among the cotton-woods by the river and in the hills, danced
every night, were entertained by the priests at the Mission, and had
bull-fights, horse-races, and many games of skill. Upon one occasion
John was the happy host of a moonlight dance among his olive-trees.

Enrique's attentions to his beautiful guest were persistent and
unmistakable, and, moreover, he serenaded her nightly. John, riding
about the ranch late, too restless to sleep, heard those dulcet tones
raining compliments and vows upon Delfina's casement, and swore so
furiously that he terrified the night birds.

But he, too, managed to keep close to Delfina, in spite of an occasional
scowl from Enrique, who, however, held all Americans in too lofty a
contempt to fear one. John had several little talks apart with her, and
it was not long before he discovered that nature had done little for the
interior of that beautiful shell. She had read nothing, and thought
almost as little. What intelligence she had was occupied with her
regalities, and although sweet in spite of her hauteur, and unselfish
notwithstanding her good-fortune, as a companion she would mean little
to any man. John, however, was in the throes of his first passion, and
his nature was ardent and thorough. Had she been a fool, simpering
instead of dignified, he would not have cared. She was beautiful and
magnetic, and she embodied an ideal. The ideal, however, or rather the
ambition that was its other half, played no part in his mind as his love
deepened. He wanted the woman, and had he suddenly discovered that she
was a changeling born among the people, his love and his determination
to marry her would have abated not a tittle.

His olive-trees were neglected, and he spent the hours of their
separations riding about the country with as little mercy on his horses
as had he been a Californian born. Sometimes, touched by the youthful
fervor in his eyes, Delfina would melt perceptibly and ask him a
question or two about himself, a dazzling favor in one who held that
words were made to rust. And once, when he lifted her off her horse
under the heavy shadow of the trees, she gave him a glance which sent
John far from her side, lest he make a fool of himself before the entire
company. Meanwhile he was not unhappy, in spite of the wildness in his
blood, for he found the tremors of love and hope and fear as sweet as
they were extraordinary.

One evening the climax came.

Delfina expressed a wish to see the lake on the summit of the solitary
peak. It had been discovered by the Indians, but was unknown to the
luxurious Californians. The company was assembled on the long corridor
traversing the front of the Casa Ortega when Delfina startled Enrique by
a command to take them all to the summit that night.

"But, _señorita mia_," exclaimed Enrique, turning pale at the thought of
offending his goddess, "there is no path. I do not know the way. And it
is as steep as the tower of the Mission - "

John came forward. "There is an Indian trail," he said, "and I have
climbed it more than once. But it is very narrow - and steep, certainly."

Delfina's eyes, which had flashed disdain upon Enrique, smiled upon
John. "We go with you," she announced; "to-night, for is moon. And I
ride in front with you."

On the whole, thought Talbot, glancing towards the great peak whose
wilderness was still unrifled, that was the happiest night of his life.
They outdistanced the others by a few yards, and they were obliged to
ride so close that their shoulders touched. It was the full of the moon,
but in the forest there was only an occasional splash of silver. They
might have fancied themselves alone in primeval solitude had it not
been for the gay voices behind them. And never had Delfina been so
enchanting. She even talked a little, but her accomplished coquetry
needed few words. She could express more by a bend of the head or an
inflection of the voice than other women could accomplish with
vocabularies and brains. John felt his head turning, but retained wisdom
enough to wait for a moment when they should be quite alone.

The lake looked like a large reflection of the moon itself, for the
black trees shadowed but the edge of the waters. So great was the beauty
of the scene that for a few moments the company gazed at it silently,
and the mountain-top remained as still as during its centuries of
loneliness. But, finally, some one exclaimed, "_Ay, yi!_" and then rose
a chorus, "_Dios de mi alma!_" "_Dios de mi vida!_" "_Ay_, California!
California!" "_Ay, de mi, de mi, de mi!_"

Everybody, even Enrique, was occupied. John caught the bridle of
Delfina's horse, and forced it back into the forest. And then his words
tumbled one over the other.

"I must, I must!" he said wildly, keeping down his voice with
difficulty. "I've scarcely had a chance to make you love me, but I can't
wait to tell you - I love you. I love you! I want to marry you! Oh - I am
choking!" He wrenched at his collar, and in truth he felt as if the very
mountain were trembling.

Delfina had thrown back her head. "Ay!" she remarked. Then she laughed.

She had no desire to be cruel, but her manifest amusement brought the
blood down from John's head, and he shook from head to foot. His white
face showed plainly in this fringe of the forest, and she ceased
laughing and spoke kindly.

"Poor boy, I am sorry si I hurt you, but I no can marry you. Never I can
love the Americano; no is like our men, so handsome, so graceful, so
splendid. I like you, for are very nice boy, but I go to marry with
Enrique. So no theenk more about it." Then as he continued to stare, the
youthful agony in his face touched her, and she leaned forward and said
softly, "Can kiss me once si you like. You are boy to me, no more, so I
no mind." And he kissed her with a violence of despair and passion which
caused her maiden mind to wonder, and which she never experienced again.

He went no more to the Casa Ortega, and hid among his olive-trees when
the company clattered by the Mission. At the end of another week she
returned to her home, and three months later she returned as the bride
of Enrique Ortega.

Talbot smiled slightly as he recalled the sufferings of the boy long
dead. There had been months when he had felt half mad; then had
succeeded several years of melancholy and a distaste for everything in
life but work. He could not bring himself to sell the ranch and flee
from the scene of his disappointment, for he was young enough to take a
morbid pleasure in the very theatre of his failure.

He did not see Delfina again for three years. By that time she had three
children and had begun to grow stout. But she was still very beautiful,
and John kept out of her way for several years more.

But the years rolled round very swiftly. Doña Martina died. So did six
of the ten children Delfina bore. Then Enrique died, leaving his
diminished estates, his wife, and his four little girls to the care of
John Talbot.

This was after fourteen years of matrimony and six years of intimacy
between Talbot and the family of Los Olivos. One day Enrique, in
desperation at the encroachments of certain squatters, had bethought
himself of the American, now the most influential man in the county, and
gone to him for advice. Talbot had found him a good lawyer, lent him the
necessary money, and the squatters were dispossessed. Enrique's
gratitude for Talbot knew no bounds; he pressed the hospitality of Los
Olivos upon him, and in time the two became fast friends.

Ortega and Delfina had jogged along very comfortably. She was an
exemplary wife, a devoted mother, and as excellent a housekeeper as
became her traditions. He made a kind and indulgent husband, and if
neither found much to say to the other, their brief conversations were
amiable. Enrique developed no wit with the years, but he was always a
courteous host and played a good game of billiards, besides taking a
mild interest in the affairs of the nation. John soon fell into the
habit of spending two nights a week at the Rancho de los Olivos, and
never failed to fill his pockets with sweets for the little girls, who
preferred him to their father.

And his love! He used to fancy it was buried somewhere in the mausoleum
of flesh which had built itself about Delfina Carillo. She weighed two
hundred pounds, and her black hair and fine teeth were the only remnants
of her splendid beauty. Her face was large and brown, and although she
retained her dignity of carriage and moved with the old slow grace, she
looked what she was, the Spanish mother of many children.

The change was gradual, and brought no pang with it. John's memory was a
good one, and sometimes when it turned to his youth and the one passion
of his life, he felt something like a sob in his soul, a momentary echo
of the old agony. But it was only an echo; he had outgrown it all long
since. He sometimes wondered that he loved no other woman, why his
ambition to have an aristocratic wife had died with his first passion;
and concluded that the intensity of his nature had worn itself out in
that period of prolonged suffering, and that he was incapable of loving
again. And the experience had satisfied him that marriage without love
would be a poor affair. Once in a while, after leaving the plain
coffee-colored dame who filled the doorway as she waved him good-bye, he
sighed as he recalled the exquisite creature of his youth. But these
sighs grew less and less frequent, for not only was the grass high above
that old grave in his heart and he a busy and practical man, but the
Señora Ortega had become the most necessary of his friends. What she
lacked in brain she made up in sympathy, and she had developed a certain
amount of intelligence with the years. It became his habit to talk to
her of all his ambitions and plans, particularly after the death of
Enrique, when they had many uninterrupted hours together.

Upon Ortega's death Talbot took charge of the estate at once, and into
the particulars of her handsome income it never occurred to the widow to
inquire. One by one the girls married, and Talbot dowered them all. They
were pretty creatures, and John loved them, for each had in her face a
morsel of Delfina Carillo's lost beauty; and if they recalled the pain
of his youth they recalled its sweetness too. The Señora recalled
neither.

For the last year she had been quite alone. Two of her daughters lived
in the city of Mexico. One had married a Spanish Consul and returned
with him to Spain. The other lived in San Francisco, and as soon as
domestic affairs would permit intended to visit her sisters. Talbot,
when at home, called on the Señora once a week and always carried a
novel or an illustrated paper in his saddle-bag.

"Is the tragedy at this end or the other?" thought Talbot, as he walked
up and down the Mission corridor on his fortieth birthday - "that I could
not have her when I was mad about her, or that I can have her now and
don't want her?"

He knew that the Señora was lonesome in her big house and would have
welcomed a companion, but he knew also that the desire moved sluggishly
in the depths of her lazy mind. If he were willing, well and good. If
otherwise, it mattered not much.

His Indian servant cantered up with his horse, he gave a last regretful
glance at the cool corridor of the Mission, and then went out into the
hot sun.

He was only a stone heavier than in the old days, but he rode more
slowly, for this his favorite mare was no longer young. His day for
breaking in bucking mustangs was over, and he liked an animal that would
behave itself as became the four-footed companion of his years.

The road through the pale green cotton-woods and willows that wooded the
banks of the river - as dry as the heavens - was almost cold, and
refreshingly dim; but when the bed and its fringe turned abruptly to the
south his way led for five sweltering miles through sun-burned fields
and over hills as yellow as polished gold. The sky looked like dark-blue
metal in which a hole had been cut for a lake of fire. The heat it
emptied quivered visibly in the parched fields, and the mountains swam
in a purple haze. Talbot had a grape-leaf in his hat, and the suns of
California had baked his complexion long since, but he wished that his
birthday occurred in winter, as he had wished many a time before.

It was an hour and a half before he rode into the grounds surrounding
Casa Ortega. Then he spurred his horse, for here were many old oak-trees
and the atmosphere was twenty degrees cooler. A Mexican servant met him,
and he dismounted and walked the few remaining yards to the house. He
sighed as he remembered that Herminia, the last of the girls to marry,
had been there to kiss him on his last birthday. He would gladly have
had all four back again, and now they had passed out of his life
forever.

The Casa Ortega was a very long adobe house one story in height and one
room deep, except in an ell where a number of rooms were bunched
together. The Señora had it whitewashed every year, and the red tiles on
the roof renewed when necessary; therefore it had none of the pathetic
look of old age peculiar to the adobe mansions of the dead grandees.

A long veranda traversed the front, supported by pillars and furnished
with gayly painted chairs; but it was empty, and Talbot entered the
_sala_ at once. It was a long room, severely furnished in the old style,
and facing the door was a painting of Delfina Carillo. Talbot rarely
allowed his eyes to wander to this portrait. Had he dared he would have
asked for its removal. The grass was long above the grave, but there
were such things as ghosts.

The Señora was sitting in a corner of the dim cool room, and rose at
once to greet him. She came forward with a grace and dignity of carriage
that still had the power to prick his admiration. But she was very dark,
and the old enchanting smile had lost its way long since in the large
cheeks and heavy chin. Even her eyes no longer looked big, and the
famous lashes had been worn down by many tears; for there were six
little graves in the Ortega corner of the Mission church-yard, and she
had loved her children devotedly. She carried her two hundred pounds as
unconsciously as she had once carried her willowy inches, and she wore
soft black cashmere in winter and lawn in summer, fastened at the throat
with a miniature of the husband of her youth. She was only thirty-nine,
but there was not a vestige of youth about her anywhere, and her whole
being expressed a life lived, and a sleepy contentment with the fact.
Talbot often wondered if she had no hours of insupportable loneliness;
but she gave no sign, and he concluded that novels and religion
sufficed.

"So hot it is, no?" she said in her soft hardly audible tones, that,
like her carriage and manner, were unchanged. "You have the face very
red, but feel better in a little while. Very cool here, no?"

"I feel ten years younger than I did a quarter of an hour ago. There
was a time - alas! - when I could stand the suns of California for six
hours at a stretch, but - "

"Ay, yes, we grow more old every year. Is twenty now since we _merienda_
all day and dance all night - when I am a visitor here, no more; and you
are the thin boy with the long arms, and legs, and try to grow the
mustache."

It was the first time she had ever referred to their youth, and he
stared at her. But her face was as placid as if she had been helping him
to chicken with Chile-sauce, and he wondered if it could change.
Involuntarily he glanced at the portrait. It seemed alive with
expression, and - the room was almost dark - he fancied the eyes were
tragic.

"How can she stand it?" he thought. "How _can_ she?"

"You are improve," she continued politely. "The American mens no grow
old like the Spanish - or like the women that have ten children and get
so stout and have the troubles - "

"You have retained much, Señora," exclaimed Talbot, blundering over the
first compliment he he had paid her in twenty years.

She smiled placidly and moved her head gently; the word "shake" could
never apply to any of her movements. "I have the mirror - and the
picture. And I no mind, Don Juan. When the woman bury the six children,
no care si she grow old. The more soon grow old the more soon die and
see the little ones - am always very fond of Enrique also," she added,
"but when am young love more. He is very good man always, but he grow
old like myself and very fat. Only you are improve, my friend. That one
reason why always I am so glad to see you. Remind me of that time when
all are young and happy."

Old Marcia announced dinner, and Talbot sprang to his feet with a
sensation of relief and offered the Señora his arm. She made no further
references to their youth during the excellent and highly seasoned
repast, but discussed the possibilities of the crops and listened with
deep attention to the political forecast. She knew that politics were
becoming the absorbing interest in the life of her friend, and although
she also knew that they would one day put a continent between herself
and him, she had long since ceased to live for self, and never failed to
encourage him.

When the last _dulce_ had been eaten they went out upon the veranda and
talked drowsily of minor matters until both nodded in their comfortable
chairs, and finally fell asleep.

For a time the heavy dinner locked Talbot's brain, but finally he began
to dream of his youth, and the scenes of which Delfina Carillo had been
the heroine were flung from their rusty frames into the hot light of his
memory, until he lived again the ecstasy and the anguish of that time.
The morning's reminiscences had moved coldly in his mind, but so intense
was his vision of the woman he had worshipped that she seemed bathed in
light.

He awoke suddenly. The Señora still slept, and her face was as placid as
in consciousness. It was slightly relaxed, but the time had not yet come
for the pathetic loss of muscular control. Still, she looked so large
and brown and stout that Talbot rose abruptly with an echo of the agony
that had returned in sleep, and entered the _sala_ and stood
deliberately before the portrait. It had been painted by an artist of
much ability. There was atmosphere behind it, which in the dim room


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Online LibraryGertrude Franklin Horn AthertonThe Bell in the Fog and Other Stories → online text (page 13 of 14)