Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton.

The Splendid Idle Forties Stories of Old California online

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mechanically.

"At your feet, señorita," said Don Vicente.

The art of making conversation had not been cultivated among the
Californians, and Ysabel plied her large fan with slow grace, at a loss
for further remark, and wondering if her heart would suffocate her. But
Don Vicente had the gift of words.

"Señorita," he said, "I have stood in the chilling fog and felt the
warmth of your lovely voice at my heart. The emotions I felt my poor
tongue cannot translate. They swarm in my head like a hive of puzzled
bees; but perhaps they look through my eyes," and he fixed his powerful
and penetrating gaze on Ysabel's green depths.

A waltz began, and he took her in his arms without asking her
indulgence, and regardless of the indignation of the mob of men about
her. Ysabel, whose being was filled with tumult, lay passive as he held
her closer than man had ever dared before.

"I love you," he said, in his harsh voice. "I wish you for my wife. At
once. When I saw you to-day standing with a hundred other beautiful
women, I said: 'She is the fairest of them all. I shall have her.' And
I read the future in" - he suddenly dropped the formal "you" - "in thine
eyes, cariña. Thy soul sprang to mine. Thy heart is locked in my heart
closer, closer than my arms are holding thee now."

The strength of his embrace was violent for a moment; but Ysabel might
have been cut from marble. Her body had lost its swaying grace; it
was almost rigid. She did not lift her eyes. But De la Vega was not
discouraged.

The music finished, and Ysabel was at once surrounded by a determined
retinue. This intruding Southerner was welcome to the honours of the
race-field, but the Star of Monterey was not for him. He smiled as he
saw the menace of their eyes.

"I would have her," he thought, "if they were a regiment of
Castros - which they are not." But he had not armed himself against
diplomacy.

"Señor Don Vicente de la Vega y Arillaga," said Don Guido Cabañares, who
had been selected as spokesman, "perhaps you have not learned during
your brief visit to our capital that the Señorita Doña Ysabel Herrera,
La Favorita of Alta California, has sworn by the Holy Virgin, by the
blessed Junipero Serra, that she will wed no man who does not bring her
a lapful of pearls. Can you find those pearls on the sands of the South,
Don Vicente? For, by the holy cross of God, you cannot have her without
them!"

For a moment De la Vega was disconcerted.

"Is this true?" he demanded, turning to Ysabel.

"What, señor?" she asked vaguely. She had not listened to the words of
her protesting admirer.

A sneer bent his mouth. "That you have put a price upon yourself? That
the man who ardently wishes to be your husband, who has even won your
love, must first hang you with pearls like - " He stopped suddenly, the
blood burning his dark face, his eyes opening with an expression of
horrified hope. "Tell me! Tell me!" he exclaimed. "Is this true?"

For the first time since she had spoken with him Ysabel was herself. She
crossed her arms and tapped her elbows with her pointed fingers.

"Yes," she said, "it is true." She raised her eyes to his and regarded
him steadily. They looked like green pools frozen in a marble wall.

The harp, the flute, the guitar, combined again, and once more he swung
her from a furious circle. But he was safe; General Castro had joined
it. He waltzed her down the long room, through one adjoining, then into
another, and, indifferent to the iron conventions of his race, closed
the door behind them. They were in the sleeping-room of Doña Modeste.
The bed with its rich satin coverlet, the bare floor, the simple
furniture, were in semi-darkness; only on the altar in the corner were
candles burning. Above it hung paintings of saints, finely executed by
Mexican hands; an ebony cross spread its black arms against the white
wall; the candles flared to a golden Christ. He caught her hands and led
her over to the altar.

"Listen to me," he said. "I will bring you those pearls. You shall have
such pearls as no queen in Europe possesses. Swear to me here, with your
hands on this altar, that you will wed me when I return, no matter how
or where I find those pearls."

He was holding her hands between the candelabra. She looked at him with
eyes of passionate surrender; the man had conquered worldly ambitions.
But he answered her before she had time to speak.

"You love me, and would withdraw the conditions. But I am ready to do a
daring and a terrible act. Furthermore, I wish to show you that I can
succeed where all other men have failed. I ask only two things now.
First, make me the vow I wish."

"I swear it," she said.

"Now," he said, his voice sinking to a harsh but caressing whisper,
"give me one kiss for courage and hope."

She leaned slowly forward, the blood pulsing in her lips; but she had
been brought up behind grated windows, and she drew back. "No," she
said, "not now."

For a moment he looked rebellious; then he laid his hands on her
shoulders and pressed her to her knees. He knelt behind her, and
together they told a rosary for his safe return.

He left her there and went to his room. From his saddle-bag he took
a long letter from an intimate friend, one of the younger Franciscan
priests of the Mission of Santa Barbara, where he had been educated. He
sought this paragraph: -

"Thou knowest, of course, my Vicente, of the pearl fisheries of Baja
California. It is whispered - between ourselves, indeed, it is
quite true - that a short while ago the Indian divers discovered an
extravagantly rich bed of pearls. Instead of reporting to any of the
companies, they have hung them all upon our Most Sacred Lady of Loreto,
in the Mission of Loreto; and there, by the grace of God, they will
remain. They are worth the ransom of a king, my Vicente, and the Church
has come to her own again."


III

The fog lay thick on the bay at dawn next morning. The white waves hid
the blue, muffled the roar of the surf. Now and again a whale threw a
volume of spray high in the air, a geyser from a phantom sea. Above the
white sands straggled the white town, ghostly, prophetic.

De la Vega, a dark sombrero pulled over his eyes, a dark serape
enveloping his tall figure, rode, unattended and watchful, out of the
town. Not until he reached the narrow road through the brush forest
beyond did he give his horse rein. The indolence of the Californian was
no longer in his carriage; it looked alert and muscular; recklessness
accentuated the sternness of his face.

As he rode, the fog receded slowly. He left the chaparral and rode by
green marshes cut with sloughs and stained with vivid patches of
orange. The frogs in the tules chanted their hoarse matins. Through
brush-covered plains once more, with sparsely wooded hills in the
distance, and again the tules, the marsh, the patches of orange. He rode
through a field of mustard; the pale yellow petals brushed his dark
face, the delicate green leaves won his eyes from the hot glare of the
ascending sun, the slender stalks, rebounding, smote his horse's flanks.
He climbed hills to avoid the wide marshes, and descended into willow
groves and fields of daisies. Before noon he was in the San Juan
Mountains, thick with sturdy oaks, bending their heads before the
madroño, that belle of the forest, with her robes of scarlet and her
crown of bronze. The yellow lilies clung to her skirts, and the buckeye
flung his flowers at her feet. The last redwoods were there, piercing
the blue air with their thin inflexible arms, gray as a dusty band of
friars. Out by the willows, whereunder crept the sluggish river, then
between the hills curving about the valley of San Juan Bautista.

At no time is California so beautiful as in the month of June. De la
Vega's wild spirit and savage purpose were dormant for the moment as he
rode down the valley toward the mission. The hills were like gold, like
mammoth fawns veiled with violet mist, like rich tan velvet. Afar, bare
blue steeps were pink in their chasms, brown on their spurs. The dark
yellow fields were as if thick with gold-dust; the pale mustard was a
waving yellow sea. Not a tree marred the smooth hills. The earth sent
forth a perfume of its own. Below the plateau from which rose the white
walls of the mission was a wide field of bright green corn rising
against the blue sky.

The padres in their brown hooded robes came out upon the long corridor
of the mission and welcomed the traveller. Their lands had gone from
them, their mission was crumbling, but the spirit of hospitality
lingered there still. They laid meat and fruit and drink on a table
beneath the arches, then sat about him and asked him eagerly for news of
the day. Was it true that the United States of America were at war with
Mexico, or about to be? True that their beloved flag might fall, and
the stars and stripes of an insolent invader rise above the fort of
Monterey?

De la Vega recounted the meagre and conflicting rumours which had
reached California, but, not being a prophet, could not tell them that
they would be the first to see the red-white-and-blue fluttering on the
mountain before them. He refused to rest more than an hour, but mounted
the fresh horse the padres gave him and went his way, riding hard and
relentlessly, like all Californians.

He sped onward, through the long hot day, leaving the hills for the
marshes and a long stretch of ugly country, traversing the beautiful San
Antonio Valley in the night, reaching the Mission of San Miguel at dawn,
resting there for a few hours. That night he slept at a hospitable
ranch-house in the park-like valley of Paso des Robles, a grim silent
figure amongst gay-hearted people who delighted to welcome him. The
early morning found him among the chrome hills; and at the Mission of
San Luis Obispo the good padres gave him breakfast. The little valley,
round as a well, its bare hills red and brown, gray and pink, violet and
black, from fire, sloping steeply from a dizzy height, impressed him
with a sense of being prisoned in an enchanted vale where no message of
the outer world could come, and he hastened on his way.

Absorbed as he was, he felt the beauty he fled past. A line of golden
hills lay against sharp blue peaks. A towering mass of gray rocks had
been cut and lashed by wind and water, earthquake and fire, into the
semblance of a massive castle, still warlike in its ruin. He slept for a
few hours that night in the Mission of Santa Ynes, and was high in the
Santa Barbara Mountains at the next noon. For brief whiles he forgot
his journey's purpose as his horse climbed slowly up the steep trails,
knocking the loose stones down a thousand feet and more upon a roof of
tree-tops which looked like stunted brush. Those gigantic masses of
immense stones, each wearing a semblance to the face of man or beast;
those awful chasms and stupendous heights, densely wooded, bare, and
many-hued, rising above, beyond, peak upon peak, cutting through the
visible atmosphere - was there no end? He turned in his saddle and looked
over low peaks and cañons, rivers and abysms, black peaks smiting the
fiery blue, far, far, to the dim azure mountains on the horizon.

"Mother of God!" he thought. "No wonder California still shakes! I would
I could have stood upon a star and beheld the awful throes of this
country's birth." And then his horse reared between the sharp spurs and
galloped on.

He avoided the Mission of Santa Barbara, resting at a rancho outside
the town. In the morning, supplied as usual with a fresh horse, he fled
onward, with the ocean at his right, its splendid roar in his ears. The
cliffs towered high above him; he saw no man's face for hours together;
but his thoughts companioned him, savage and sinister shapes whirling
about the figure of a woman. On, on, sleeping at ranchos or missions,
meeting hospitality everywhere, avoiding Los Angeles, keeping close to
the ponderous ocean, he left civilization behind him at last, and
with an Indian guide entered upon that desert of mountain-tops, Baja
California.

Rapid travelling was not possible here. There were no valleys worthy the
name. The sharp peaks, multiplying mile after mile, were like teeth of
gigantic rakes, black and bare. A wilderness of mountain-tops, desolate
as eternity, arid, parched, baked by the awful heat, the silence never
broken by the cry of a bird, a hut rarely breaking the barren monotony,
only an infrequent spring to save from death. It was almost impossible
to get food or fresh horses. Many a night De la Vega and his stoical
guide slept beneath a cactus, or in the mocking bed of a creek. The
mustangs he managed to lasso were almost unridable, and would have
bucked to death any but a Californian. Sometimes he lived on cactus
fruit and the dried meat he had brought with him; occasionally he shot
a rabbit. Again he had but the flesh of the rattlesnake roasted over
coals. But honey-dew was on the leaves.

He avoided the beaten trail, and cut his way through naked bushes spiked
with thorns, and through groves of cacti miles in length. When the thick
fog rolled up from the ocean he had to sit inactive on the rocks, or
lose his way. A furious storm dashed him against a boulder, breaking his
mustang's leg; then a torrent, rising like a tidal wave, thundered down
the gulch, and catching him on its crest, flung him upon a tree of
thorns. When dawn came he found his guide dead. He cursed his luck, and
went on.

Lassoing another mustang, he pushed on, having a general idea of the
direction he should take. It was a week before he reached Loreto, a week
of loneliness, hunger, thirst, and torrid monotony. A week, too, of
thought and bitterness of spirit. In spite of his love, which never
cooled, and his courage, which never quailed, Nature, in her guise of
foul and crooked hag, mocked at earthly happiness, at human hope, at
youth and passion.

If he had not spent his life in the saddle, he would have been worn out
when he finally reached Loreto, late one night. As it was, he slept in a
hut until the following afternoon. Then he took a long swim in the bay,
and, later, sauntered through the town.

The forlorn little city was hardly more than a collection of Indians'
huts about a church in a sandy waste. No longer the capital, even the
barracks were toppling. When De la Vega entered the mission, not a white
man but the padre and his assistant was in it; the building was thronged
with Indian worshippers. The mission, although the first built in
California, was in a fair state of preservation. The Stations in their
battered frames were mellow and distinct. The gold still gleamed in the
vestments of the padre.

For a few moments De la Vega dared not raise his eyes to the Lady of
Loreto, standing aloft in the dull blaze of adamantine candles. When he
did, he rose suddenly from his knees and left the mission. The pearls
were there.

It took him but a short time to gain the confidence of the priest and
the little population. He offered no explanation for his coming, beyond
the curiosity of the traveller. The padre gave him a room in the
mission, and spent every hour he could spare with the brilliant
stranger. At night he thanked God for the sudden oasis in his life's
desolation. The Indians soon grew accustomed to the lonely figure
wandering about the sand plains, or kneeling for hours together before
the altar in the church. And whom their padre trusted was to them as
sacred and impersonal as the wooden saints of their religion.


IV

The midnight stars watched over the mission. Framed by the cross-shaped
window sunk deep in the adobe wall above the entrance, a mass of them
assumed the form of the crucifix, throwing a golden trail full upon the
Lady of Loreto, proud in her shining pearls. The long narrow body of the
church seemed to have swallowed the shadows of the ages, and to yawn for
more.

De la Vega, booted and spurred, his serape folded about him, his
sombrero on his head, opened the sacristy door and entered the church.
In one hand he held a sack; in the other, a candle sputtering in a
bottle. He walked deliberately to the foot of the altar. In spite of
his intrepid spirit, he stood appalled for a moment as he saw the dim
radiance enveloping the Lady of Loreto. He scowled over his shoulder at
the menacing emblem of redemption and crossed himself. But had it been
the finger of God, the face of Ysabel would have shone between. He
extinguished his candle, and swinging himself to the top of the altar
plucked the pearls from the Virgin's gown and dropped them into the
sack. His hand trembled a little, but he held his will between his
teeth.

How quiet it was! The waves flung themselves upon the shore with
the sullen wrath of impotence. A seagull screamed now and again, an
exclamation-point in the silence above the waters. Suddenly De la Vega
shook from head to foot, and snatched the knife from his belt. A faint
creaking echoed through the hollow church. He strained his ears, holding
his breath until his chest collapsed with the shock of outrushing air.
But the sound was not repeated, and he concluded that it had been but a
vibration of his nerves. He glanced to the window above the doors. The
stars in it were no longer visible; they had melted into bars of flame.
The sweat stood cold on his face, but he went on with his work.

A rope of pearls, cunningly strung together with strands of sea-weed,
was wound about the Virgin's right arm. De la Vega was too nervous to
uncoil it; he held the sack beneath, and severed the strands with his
knife. As he finished, and was about to stoop and cut loose the pearls
from the hem of the Virgin's gown, he uttered a hoarse cry and stood
rigid. A cowled head, with thin lips drawn over yellow teeth, furious
eyes burning deep in withered sockets, projected on its long neck from
the Virgin's right and confronted him. The body was unseen.

"Thief!" hissed the priest. "Dog! Thou wouldst rob the Church? Accursed!
accursed!"

There was not one moment for hesitation, one alternative. Before the
priest could complete his malediction, De la Vega's knife had flashed
through the fire of the cross. The priest leaped, screeching, then
rolled over and down, and rebounded from the railing of the sanctuary.


V

Ysabel sat in the low window-seat of her bedroom, pretending to draw the
threads of a cambric handkerchief. But her fingers twitched, and her
eyes looked oftener down the hill than upon the delicate work which
required such attention. She wore a black gown flowered with yellow
roses, and a slender ivory cross at her throat. Her hair hung in two
loose braids, sweeping the floor. She was very pale, and her pallor was
not due to the nightly entertainments of Monterey.

Her dueña sat beside her. The old woman was the colour of strong coffee;
but she, too, looked as if she had not slept, and her straight old lips
curved tenderly whenever she raised her eyes to the girl's face.

There was no carpet on the floor of the bedroom of La Favorita of
Monterey, the heiress of Don Antonio Herrera, and the little bedstead
in the corner was of iron, although a heavy satin coverlet trimmed with
lace was on it. A few saints looked down from the walls; the furniture
was of native wood, square and ugly; but it was almost hidden under fine
linen elaborately worked with the deshalados of Spain.

The supper hour was over, and the light grew dim. Ysabel tossed the
handkerchief into Doña Juana's lap, and stared through the grating.
Against the faded sky a huge cloud, shaped like a fire-breathing dragon,
was heavily outlined. The smoky shadows gathered in the woods. The
hoarse boom of the surf came from the beach; the bay was uneasy, and the
tide was high: the earth had quaked in the morning, and a wind-storm
fought the ocean. The gay bright laughter of women floated up from the
town. Monterey had taken her siesta, enjoyed her supper, and was ready
to dance through the night once more.

"He is dead," said Ysabel.

"True," said the old woman.

"He would have come back to me before this."

"True."

"He was so strong and so different, mamita."

"I never forget his eyes. Very bold eyes."

"They could be soft, macheppa."

"True. It is time thou dressed for the ball at the Custom-house,
niñita."

Ysabel leaned forward, her lips parting. A man was coming up the hill.
He was gaunt; he was burnt almost black. Something bulged beneath his
serape.

Doña Juana found herself suddenly in the middle of the room. Ysabel
darted through the only door, locking it behind her. The indignant dueña
also recognized the man, and her position. She trotted to the door and
thumped angrily on the panel; sympathetic she was, but she never could
so far forget herself as to permit a young girl to talk with a man
unattended.

"Thou shalt not go to the ball to-night," she cried shrilly. "Thou shalt
be locked in the dark room. Thou shalt be sent to the rancho. Open!
open! thou wicked one. Madre de Dios! I will beat thee with my own
hands."

But she was a prisoner, and Ysabel paid no attention to her threats. The
girl was in the sala, and the doors were open. As De la Vega crossed the
corridor and entered the room she sank upon a chair, covering her face
with her hands.

He strode over to her, and flinging his serape from his shoulder opened
the mouth of a sack and poured its contents into her lap. Pearls of all
sizes and shapes - pearls black and pearls white, pearls pink and pearls
faintly blue, pearls like globes and pearls like pears, pearls as big
as the lobe of Pio Pico's ear, pearls as dainty as bubbles of frost - a
lapful of gleaming luminous pearls, the like of which caballero had
never brought to doña before.

For a moment Ysabel forgot her love and her lover. The dream of a
lifetime was reality. She was the child who had cried for the moon and
seen it tossed into her lap.

She ran her slim white fingers through the jewels. She took up handfuls
and let them run slowly back to her lap. She pressed them to her face;
she kissed them with little rapturous cries. She laid them against her
breast and watched them chase each other down her black gown. Then at
last she raised her head and met the fierce sneering eyes of De la Vega.

"So it is as I might have known. It was only the pearls you wanted. It
might have been an Indian slave who brought them to you."

She took the sack from his hand and poured back the pearls. Then she
laid the sack on the floor and stood up. She was no longer pale, and her
eyes shone brilliantly in the darkening room.

"Yes," she said; "I forgot for a moment. But during many terrible weeks,
señor, my tears have not been for the pearls."

The sudden light that was De la Vega's chiefest charm sprang to his
eyes. He took her hands and kissed them passionately.

"That sack of pearls would be a poor reward for one tear. But thou hast
shed them for me? Say that again. Mi alma! mi alma!"

"I never thought of the pearls - at least not often. At last, not at all.
I have been very unhappy, señor. Ay!"

The maiden reserve which had been knit like steel about her plastic
years burst wide. "Thou art ill! What has happened to thee? Ay, Dios!
what it is to be a woman and to suffer! Thou wilt die! Oh, Mother of
God!"

"I shall not die. Kiss me, Ysabel. Surely it is time now."

But she drew back and shook her head.

He exclaimed impatiently, but would not release her hand. "Thou meanest
that, Ysabel?"

"We shall be married soon - wait."

"I had hoped you would grant me that. For when I tell you where I got
those pearls you may drive me from you in spite of your promise - drive
me from you with the curse of the devout woman on your lips. I might
invent some excuse to persuade you to fly with me from California
to-night, and you would never know. But I am a man - a Spaniard - and a De
la Vega. I shall not lie to you."

She looked at him with wide eyes, not understanding, and he went on, his
face savage again, his voice harsh. He told her the whole story of
that night in the mission. He omitted nothing - the menacing cross, the
sacrilegious theft, the deliberate murder; the pictures were painted
with blood and fire. She did not interrupt him with cry or gasp, but her
expression changed many times. Horror held her eyes for a time, then
slowly retreated, and his own fierce pride looked back at him. She
lifted her head when he had finished, her throat throbbing, her nostrils
twitching.

"Thou hast done that - for me?"

"Ay, Ysabel!"

"Thou hast murdered thy immortal soul - for me?"

"Ysabel!"

"Thou lovest me like that! O God, in what likeness hast thou made me? In


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