With an Introduction by
WILLIAM MARION REEDY
A long list of works Gertrude Atherton has to her credit as a writer. She is indisputably a woman of genius. Not that her genius is distinctively feminine, though she is in matters historical a passionate partisan. Most of the critics who approve her work agree that in the main she views life with somewhat of the masculine spirit of liberality. She is as much the realist as one can be who is saturated with the romance that is California, her birthplace and her home, if such a true cosmopolite as she can be said to have a home. In all she has written there is abounding life; her grasp of character is firm; her style has a warm, glowing plasticity, frequently a rhythm variously expressive of all the wide range of feeling which a writer must have to make his or her books living things. She does no less well in the depiction of men than in the portraiture of women. All stand out of their vivid environment distinctly and they are all personalities of power—even, occasionally, of "that strong power called weakness." And they all wear something of a glory imparted to them by the sympathy of their creator and interpreter. High upon any roster of our best American writers we must enroll the name of Mrs. Atherton.
Of all her books I like best this "Rezanov," though I have not found many to agree with me. It is not so pretentious as others more frequently commended. It is a simple story, almost one might say an incident or an anecdote. It is not literally sophisticated. For me that is its unfailing charm. I find in it not a little of the strange, primeval quality that makes me think of "Aucassin and Nicolette." For it is not so much a novel as an historical idyl, not to be read without a persisting suffusion of sympathy and never to be remembered without a recurring tenderness. Remembered, did I say? It is unforgettable. There are few books of American origin that resist so well the passing of the years, that take on more steadily the glamour of "the unimaginable touch of time." "Rezanov" is a classic, or I miss my guess. This, though it was first published so recently as 1906.
The story has the merit of being, to some extent historically, and wholly artistically, true. For the matter-of-facts Mrs. Atherton provides a bibliography of her authorities. Those authorities I have not read, nor should others. Sufficient unto me is the authority of the novel itself splendidly demonstrated and established in the high court of the reader's head and heart by the author's visualizing veritism. Not twenty pages have you turned before you know this Rezanov, privy councilor, grand chamberlain, plenipotentiary of the Russo-American company, imperial inspector of the extreme eastern and northwestern dominions of his imperial majesty Alexander the First, emperor of Russia—all this and more, a man. He comes out of mystery into the softly bright light of California, in strength and shrewdness and dignity and personal splendor. And there is amidst it all a pathos upon him. He commands your affection even while suggesting a doubt whether the man may not be overwhelmed in the diplomat, the intriguer. The year is 1806. The monstrous apparition of Napoleon has loomed an omen of the doom of ancient authority and the shattering of nations in Europe. That faithless, incalculable idealist Alexander, plans he knows not what of imperial glory in the Eastern and Western world. Rezanov is his servant, a man of ambition, perhaps in all favor at court, desirous of doing some great service for his master. He dreams of dominion in this sun-soaked land so lazily held in the lax grasp of Spain. He has come from failure. He had been to Japan with presents to the emperor, was received by minor officials with a hospitality that poorly concealed the fact that he was virtually a prisoner, and then dismissed without admission to the audience he sought with the mikado. He had gone then to bleak, inhospitable Sitka, to find the settlement there in a plague of scurvy and starvation only slightly mitigated by vodka. Down the coast then he sailed to the Spanish settlement for food for the settlement. He comes to that place where in his vision he sees arise that city of the future which we know now as San Francisco. Masterful man that he is, he feels that here some great thing awaits him. The Spaniards are wary of him. They will not trade with him, but they receive him courteously and they are fascinated by his self-possessed, well-poised but withal so gracious personality. The life there at the time is a sort of lotus-eating existence. It is a piece of Spain translated to a more luscious, a lovelier land, overlooking beautiful seas and perilous. Into the dolce far niente Rezanov enters with some surrender to its softening spell, but with the courtier's prudence.
And he meets the girl, Concha Arguello. He sees her in the setting of burning and sweet Castilian roses—a girl who has had the benefit of education, who keeps the graces of old Madrid in this realm beyond sea, a burgeoning bud of womanhood, daughter of the commandante. The doom of both is upon them at once. They have drunk the poisoned cup. Rezanov resists the first approaches of the delightful delirium, remembering Russia, his duty, his ambition, the poor starving men of the Sitka factory. At a party he dances with Concha and they both know that for each there is none other. So in that setting so wild, so strange, so remote, so lovely for the old world grace that is made native there by this bright, deep, fond girl, the high gods proceed to have their will upon the two. The little community life pulses around them the faster because they are there. Their love becomes a motive in the diplomatic drama which has for end, first, the securing of food for those famishing folk at Sitka, and beyond that, possibly the seizing of the region for Russia, lest that new young power of the West, the United States, preempt the rich domain. Concha would help the Russian to those ends immediate which he reveals to her, and succeeds. He tells her of Russia and his mighty position there. He would have her for his wife, his helper in the vast imperial affairs at the Russian capitol, his princess in his palace, augmenting his official and personal distinction. She shares his vision, rising to all the heights it unfolds in a splendid future. Child she is, but she is transformed into a woman by the prospect not of her own pleasure, but of participation in splendid achievement with this man so keen, so supple, yet so firm in high purpose. And as the prospect opens to her desire and his there looms the obstacle. They cannot marry, for Rezanov is a heretic. And now the passion flames. This child woman will go with him. Ah, but the church, the king of Spain, will they permit? And the Czar! Rezanov will see to it that the Czar will clear the way for them through power exercised at Rome and at Madrid. Conditioned upon this, the girl's parents consent.
These lovers prate very little of love. Their desire runs too deep for mere speech. It is a desire made up of as much spiritual as carnal fire. It is fierce but steady in ecstacy and agony, indistinguishable the one from the other. Rezanov, man of the great world, it purifies. Concha it strengthens and makes indomitable. They will abide delay. They will endure in faith and hope—the faith and hope both dimmed by the vague and unshakable intuition or premonition that fate has marked them for derision. Nevertheless, they will endure.
There is a meeting on a path that overlooks where the white seas strike their tents. It is a meeting of little action, of few words. It is tense with the almost inexpressible, but at its end, confronting the doubtful future, realizing that when Rezanov goes he may not return, this girl tells him: "I will give myself to you forever, how much or little that may mean here on earth. Forever!" And then that scene in the moonlight amid the scent of the Castilian roses, when Concha, as signal of her trust in her lover, lifts the little wisps of hair that conceal her ears and shows them to him—it throbs with passionate purity in memory yet.
Rezanov sails away to Sitka with provisions, thence to Siberia, and then begins the long ride over endless versts of land, across streams in icy flood, in rain and cold and snow towards the capitol and the Czar. Delays, disasters to vehicles and horses and the maddening lengthening of time. From drenchings and freezing comes the fever that calls for more speed. Krasnoiarsk is reached. The fever mounts, the traveler must stop and rest and be cared for. His visions commingle his objective and his memories ... CONCHA! ... The snowy steppes and the inky rivers.... His servant enters the room in the inn ... Why ... "Where has Jon found Castilian roses in this barren land?" ... "and his unconquerably sanguine spirit flared high before a vision of eternal and unthinkable happiness" ... Castilian roses! Concha Arguello waits among them, immortal, sainted in her purity and fidelity, ministering to her poor Indians, her face alight with unquenchable memory and with surety of an eventual everlasting tryst. Those Castilian roses! They perfume forever one's memories of this pair, puissant in faith, in this novel that is a poem and a shrine of that love which lives when death itself is dead.
WILLIAM MARION REEDY
As the little ship that had three times raced with death sailed past the gray headlands and into the straits of San Francisco on that brilliant April morning of 1806, Rezanov forgot the bitter humiliations, the mental and physical torments, the deprivations and dangers of the past three years; forgot those harrowing months in the harbor of Nagasaki when the Russian bear had caged his tail in the presence of eyes aslant; his dismay at Kamchatka when he had been forced to send home another to vindicate his failure, and to remain in the Tsar's incontiguous and barbarous northeastern possessions as representative of his Imperial Majesty, and plenipotentiary of the Company his own genius had created; forgot the year of loneliness and hardship and peril in whose jaws the bravest was impotent; forgot even his pitiable crew, diseased when he left Sitka, that had filled the Juno with their groans and laments; and the bells of youth, long still, rang in his soul once more.
"It is the spring in California," he thought, with a sigh that curled at the edge. "However," life had made him philosophical; "the moments of unreasonable happiness are the most enviable no doubt, for there is neither gall nor satiety in the reaction. All this is as enchanting as—well, as a woman's promise. What lies beyond? Illiterate and mercenary Spaniards, vicious natives, and boundless ennui, one may safely wager. But if all California is as beautiful as this, no man that has spent a winter in Sitka should ask for more."
In the extent and variety of his travels Rezanov had seen Nature more awesome of feature but never more fair. On his immediate right as he sailed down the straits toward the narrow entrance to be known as the Golden Gate, there was little to interest save the surf and the masses of outlying rocks where the seals leapt and barked; the shore beyond was sandy and low. But on his left the last of the northern mountains rose straight from the water, the warm red of its deeply indented cliffs rich in harmony with the green of slope and height. There was not a tree; the mountains, the promontories, the hills far down on the right beyond the sand dunes, looked like stupendous waves of lava that had cooled into every gracious line and fold within the art of relenting Nature; granted ages after, a light coat of verdure to clothe the terrible mystery of birth. The great bay, as blue and tranquil as a high mountain lake, as silent as if the planet still slept after the agonies of labor, looked to be broken by a number of promontories, rising from their points far out in the water to the high back of the land; but as the Juno pursued her slanting way down the channel Rezanov saw that the most imposing of these was but the end of a large island, and that scattered near were other islands, masses of rock like the castellated heights that rise abruptly from the plains of Italy and Spain; far away, narrow straits, with a glittering expanse beyond; while bounding the whole eastern rim of this splendid sheet of water was a chain of violet hills, with the pale green mist of new grass here and there, and purple hollows that might mean groves of trees crouching low against the cold winds of summer; in the soft pale blue haze above and beyond, the lofty volcanic peak of a mountain range. Not a human being, not a boat, not even a herd of cattle was to be seen, and Rezanov, for a moment forgetting to exult in the length of Russia's arm, yielded himself to the subtle influence abroad in the air, and felt that he could dream as he had dreamed in a youth when the courts of Europe to the boy were as fabulous as El Dorado in the immensity of ancestral seclusions.
"It is like the approach to paradise, is it not, Excellency?" a deferential voice murmured at his elbow.
The plenipotentiary frowned without turning his head. Dr. Langsdorff, surgeon and naturalist, had accompanied the Embassy to Japan, and although Rezanov had never found any man more of a bore and would willingly have seen the last of him at Kamchatka, a skilful dispenser of drugs and mender of bones was necessary in his hazardous voyages, and he retained him in his suite. Langsdorff returned his polite tolerance with all the hidden resources of his spleen; but his curiosity and scientific enthusiasm would have sustained him through greater trials than the exactions of an autocrat, whom at least he had never ceased to respect in the most trying moments at Nagasaki.
"Yes," said Rezanov. "But I wonder you find anything to admire in such unportable objects as mountains and water. I have not seen a living thing but gulls and seal, and God knows we had enough of both at Sitka."
"Ah, your excellency, in a land as fertile as this, and caressed by a climate that would coax life from a stone, there must be an infinite number of aquatic and aerial treasures that will add materially to the scientific lore of Europe."
"Humph!" said Rezanov, and moved his shoulder in an uncontrollable gesture of dismissal. But the spell of the April morning was broken, although the learned doctor was not to be the only offender.
The Golden Gate is but a mile in width and the swift current carried the Juno toward a low promontory from the base of which a shrill cry suddenly ascended. Rezanov, raising his glass, saw that what he had taken to be a pile of fallen rocks was a fort, and that a group of excited men stood at its gates. Once more the plenipotentiary on a delicate mission, he ordered the two naval officers sailing the ship to come forward, and retired to the dignified isolation of the cabin.
The high-spirited young officers, who would have raised a gay hurrah at the sight of civilized man had it not been for the awe in which they held their chief, saluted the Spaniards formally, then stood in an attitude of extreme respect; the Juno was directly under the guns of the fort.
One of the Spaniards raised a speaking trumpet and shouted:
"Who are you?"
No one on the Juno, save Rezanov, could speak a word of Spanish, but the tone of the query was its own interpreter. The oldest of the lieutenants, through the ship's trumpet, shouted back:
The Spanish officer made a peremptory gesture that the ship come to anchor in the shelter given by an immense angle of the mainland, of which the fort's point was the western extreme. The Russians, as befitted the peaceful nature of their mission, obeyed without delay. Before their resting place, and among the sand hills a mile from the beach, was a quadrangle of buildings some two hundred feet square and surrounded by a wall about fourteen feet high and seven feet thick. This they knew to be the Presidio. They saw the officers that had hailed them gallop over the hill behind the fort to the more ambitious enclosure, and, in the square, confer with another group that seemed to be in a corresponding state of excitement. A few moments later a deputation of officers, accompanied by a priest in the brown habit of the Franciscan order, started on horseback for the beach. Rezanov ordered Lieutenant Davidov and Dr. Langsdorff to the shore as his representatives.
The Spaniards wore the undress uniform of black and scarlet in which they had been surprised, but their peaked straw hats were decorated with cords of gold or silver, the tassels hanging low on the broad brim; their high deer-skin boots were gaily embroidered, and bristled with immense silver spurs. The commanding officer alone had invested himself with a gala serape, a square of red cloth with a bound and embroidered slit for the head. Leading the rapid procession, his left hand resting significantly on his sword, he was a fine specimen of the young California grandee, dark and dashing and reckless, lithe of figure, thoroughbred, ardent. His eyes were sparkling at the prospect of excitement; not only had the Russians, by their nefarious appropriation of the northwestern corner of the continent and a recent piratical excursion in pursuit of otter, inspired the Spanish Government with a profound disapproval and mistrust, but a rumor had run up the coast that made every sea-gull look like the herald of a hostile fleet. This was young Arguello's first taste of command, and life was dull on the northern peninsula; he would have welcomed a declaration of war.
Davidov and Langsdorff had come to shore in one of the JUNO'S canoes. The conversation was held in Latin between the two men of learning.
"Who are you and whence come you?" asked the priest.
Langsdorff, who had been severely drilled by the plenipotentiary as to text, replied with a profound bow: "We are Russians engaged in completing the circumnavigation of the globe. It was our intention to go directly to Monterey and present our official documents, as well as our respects, to your illustrious Governor, but owing to contrary winds and a resultant scarcity of provisions, we were under the necessity of putting into the nearest harbor. The Juno is navigated by Lieutenant Davidov and Lieutenant Khovstov, of the Imperial Navy of Russia; by gracious permission associated with the Marine of the Russo-American Company." He paused a moment, and then swept out his trump card with a magnificent flourish: "Our expedition is in command of His Excellency, Privy Counsellor and Grand Chamberlain Baron Rezanov, late Ambassador to the Court of Japan, Plenipotentiary of the Russo-American Company, Imperial Inspector of the extreme eastern and northwestern American dominions of His Imperial Majesty, Alexander the First, Emperor of all the Russias, whose representatives in these waters he is."
The Spaniards were properly impressed as the priest translated with the glibness of the original; but Arguello, who announced himself as Commandante ad interim of the Presidio of San Francisco during the absence of his father at Monterey, nodded sagely several times, and then held a short conference in Spanish with the interpreter. The priest turned to the Russians with a smile as diplomatic as that which Rezanov had drilled upon the ugly ingenuous countenance of his medicine man.
"Our illustrious Governor, Don Jose Arrillaga, received word from the court of Spain, now quite two years ago, of the sailing in 1803 from Kronstadt of the ships Nadeshda and Neva, in command of Captain Krusenstern and Captain Lisiansky, the former having on board the illustrious Ambassador to Japan, the Privy Counsellor and Chamberlain de Rezanov. It was expected that these ships would touch at more than one of His Most Holy Catholic Majesty's vast dominions, and all viceroys and gobernador proprietarios were alike instructed to receive the exalted representatives of the mighty Emperor of Russia with hospitality and respect. But we cannot understand why his excellency comes to us so late and in so small a ship, rather than in the state with which he sailed from Europe."
"The explanation is simple, my father. The original ships, from a variety of circumstances, were, upon our arrival at Kamchatka, at the conclusion of the embassy to Japan, under the necessity of returning at once to Europe. His Imperial Majesty, Alexander the First, ordered the Chamberlain and plenipotentiary, the representative of imperial power in the Russo-American possessions, to remove to the Juno for the purpose of visiting the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, Kadiak and the northwestern coast of America." The Tsar had never heard of the Juno, but as Rezanov was practically his august self in these far-away waters, there was enough of truth in this statement to appease the conscience of a subordinate.
The Spaniards were satisfied. Lieutenant Arguello begged that the emissaries would return to the ship and invite the Chamberlain and his party to come at once to the Presidio and do it the honor to partake of the poor hospitality it afforded. An officer galloped furiously for horses.
A few moments later they were still more deeply impressed by the appearance of their distinguished visitor as he stood erect in the boat that brought him to shore. In full uniform of dark green and gold lace, with cocked hat and the splendid order of St. Ann on his breast, Rezanov was by far the finest specimen of a man the Californians, themselves of ampler build than their European ancestors, had ever beheld. Of commanding stature and physique, with an air of highest breeding and repose, he looked both a man of the great world and an intolerant leader of men. His long oval face was thin and somewhat lined, the mouth heavily moulded and closely set, suggestive of sarcasm and humor; the nose long, with arching and flexible nostrils. His eyes, seldom widely opened, were light blue, very keen, usually cold. Like many other men of his position in Europe, he had discarded wig and queue and wore his short fair hair unpowdered.
It was a singularly imposing but hardly attractive presence, thought young Arguello, until Rezanov, after stepping on shore and bowing formally, suddenly smiled and held out his hand. Then the impressionable Spaniard "melted like a woman," as he told his sister, Concha, and would have embraced the stranger on either cheek had not awe lingered to temper his enthusiasm. But Rezanov never made a stauncher friend than Louis Arguello, who vowed to the last of his days that the one man who had fulfilled his ideal of the grand seigneur was he that sailed in from the North on that fateful April morning of 1806.
As Rezanov, heading the procession with young Arguello, entered the wide gates of the Presidio, he received an impression memorably different from that which led earlier travelers to describe it inclemently as a large square surrounded by mud houses, thatched with reeds. It is true that the walls were of adobe and the roofs of tule, nor was there a tree on the sand hills encircling the stronghold. But in this early springtime—the summer of the peninsula—the hills showed patches of verdure, and all the low white buildings were covered by a network of soft dull green and archaic pink. The Castilian rose, full and fluted, and of a chaste and penetrating fragrance, hung singly and in clusters on the pillars of the dwellings, on the barracks and chapel, from the very roofs; bloomed upon bushes as high as young trees. The Presidio was as delicately perfumed as a lady's bower, and its cannon faced the ever-changing hues of water and island and hill.
As the party approached, heads of all ages appeared between the vines, and there was a low murmur of irrepressible curiosity and delight.
"We do not see many strangers in this lonely land," said Arguello apologetically. "And never before have we had so distinguished a guest as your excellency. It was always a gala day when ever a Boston skipper came in with a few bales of goods and a complexion like the hides we sold him. Now, alas! they are no longer permitted to enter our ports. Governor Arrillaga will have none of contraband trade and slaying of our otter. And as for Europeans other than Spaniards, save for an English sea captain now and then, they know naught of our existence."
But Rezanov had not come to California on the impulse of a moment. He replied suavely: "There you are mistaken. Your illustrious father, Don Jose Mario de Arguello, is well known to us as the most respected, eminent and influential character in the Californias. It was my intention, after paying a visit of ceremony to his excellency, Governor Arrillaga, to come to San Francisco for the sole purpose of meeting a man whose record has inspired me with the deepest interest. And we have all heard such wonderful tales of your California, of its beauty, its fertility, of the beneficent lives of your missionaries—so different from ours—and of the hospitality and elegance of the Spaniards, that it has been the objective point of my travels, and I have found it difficult to curb my impatience while attending to imperative duties elsewhere."
"Ay! senor!" exclaimed the young Californian. "What you say fills me with a pride I cannot express, and I can only regret that the reports of our poor habitations should be so sadly exaggerated. Such as our possessions are, however, they are yours while you deign to remain in our midst. This is my father's house. I beg that you will regard it as your own. Burn it if you will!" he cried with more enthusiasm than commonly enlivened the phrases of hospitality. "He will be proud to know that a lifetime of severe attention to duty and of devotion to his King have won him fame abroad as well as at home. He has risen to his present position from the ranks, but he is of pure Spanish blood, not a drop of Indian; and my mother was a Moraga, of the best blood of Spain," he added artlessly. "As to the beauty and variety of our country, senor, of course you will visit our opulent south; but—" They had dismounted at the Commandante's house in the southeast corner of the square. Arguello impulsively led Rezanov back to the gates and pointed to the east. "I have crossed those mountains and the mountains beyond, Excellency, and seen fertile and beautiful valleys of a vast extent, watered by five rivers and bound far, far away by mountains covered with snow and gigantic trees. The valley beyond the southern edge of the bay, where the Missions of Santa Clara and San Jose are, is also rich, but those between the ranges is an empire; and one day when the King sends us more colonists, we shall recompense Spain for all she has lost."
"I congratulate you!" Rezanov, indifferent to his host's ancestral tree, had lifted an alert ear. His quick incisive brain was at work. "I should like to stretch my legs over a horse for a week at a time, and even to climb your highest mountains. You may imagine how much exercise a man may get on a vessel of two hundred and six tons, and it is thirty-two days since I left Sitka. To look upon a vast expanse of green—to say nothing of possible sport—after a winter of incessant rain and impenetrable forests—what a prospect! I beg you will take me off into the wilderness as soon as possible."
"I promise you the Governor shall not withhold his consent—and there are bear and deer—quail, wild duck—your excellency will enjoy that beautiful wild country as I have done." Arguello was enchanted at the prospect of fresh adventure in the company of this fascinating stranger. "But we are once more at our poor abode, senor. I beg you to remember that it is your own."
They ascended the steps of the piazza, suddenly deserted, and it seemed to Rezanov that every sense in his being quivered responsively to the poignant sweetness of the Castilian roses. He throbbed with a sudden exultant premonition that he stood on the threshold of an historic future, with a pagan joy in mere existence, a sudden rush of desire for the keen wild happiness of youth. Such is the elixir of California in the north and the spring.
They entered a long sala typical of its day and of many to come; whitewashed walls hung with colored prints of the Virgin and saints; horsehair furniture, matting, deep window seats; and a perennial coolness. The Chamberlain (his court title and the one commonly attached to his name) made himself as comfortable as the slippery chair would permit, and Arguello went for his mother.
Langsdorff, who had lingered on the piazza with the priest, entered in a moment.
"The good padre tells me that this rose of Castile is the only imported flower in California," he cried, with enthusiasm, for although not a botanist, there was a bump between his eyes as big as a child's fist and he had a nose like the prow of a toy ship. "Many cuttings were brought from Spain—"
"What difference does it make where it came from?" interrupted Rezanov testily. "Is it not enough that it is beautiful, but it must have a pin stuck through it like some poor devil of a butterfly?"
"Your excellency has also the habit to probe into things he deems worthy of his attention," retorted the offended scientist; but he was obliged to closet his wrath. An inner door opened and the host reappeared with his mother and a fair demonstration of her virtues. She was a very large woman dressed loosely in black, but she carried herself with an air of complete, if somewhat sleepy, dignity, and it was evident that her beauty had been great. Her full face had lost its contours, but time had spared the fine Roman nose and the white skin, that birthright of the high-bred Castilian. Arguello presented his family ceremoniously as the guest of honor rose and bowed with formal deference.
"My mother, Dona Ignacia Arguello, your excellency, who unites with me in praying that you will regard our home as yours during your sojourn in the north. My sister, Maria de la Concepcion Marcella Arguello, and my little sisters, Ana Paula and Gertrudis Rudisinda. My brothers: Gervasio—soldado distinguido of the San Francisco Company; Santiago, a cadet in the same company; Francesco and Toribio, whose presence at the table I beg you will overlook, for when we are so fortunate as to be all together, senor, we cannot bear to be separated. My oldest brother, alas—Ignacio—is studying for holy orders in Mexico, and my sister Isabel visits at the Presidio of Santa Barbara. I beg that you will be seated, Excellency." And he continued the introduction to the lesser luminaries, with equal courtesy but fewer periods.
Rezanov exchanged a few pleasant words with his smiling hostess before she returned to her distracted maids preparing the dinner; but his eyes during Arguello's declamation had wandered with a singular fidelity to the beautiful face of the eldest daughter of the house. She had responded with a humorous twinkle in her magnificent black eyes and not a hint of diffidence. As she entered the room his brain had flashed out the thought: "Thank heaven for a pretty girl after these three abominable years!" Possibly his pleasure would have been salted with pique had he guessed that her thought was the twin of his own. He was the first man of any world more considerable than the petty court of the viceroy of Mexico that had visited California in her time, and excellent as she found his tall military figure and pale cold face, the novelty of the circumstance fluttered her more.
Dona "Concha" Arguello was the beauty of California, and although her years were but sixteen her blood was Spanish, and she carried her tall deep figure and fine head with the grace and dignity of an accomplished woman. She had inherited the white skin and delicate Roman-Spanish profile of the Moragas, but there was an intelligent fire in her eyes, a sharp accentuation of nostril, and a full mobility of mouth, childish, half-developed as that feature still was, that betrayed a strong cross-current forcing the placid maternal flow into rugged and unexplored channels, while assimilating its fine qualities of pride and high breeding. Gervasio and Santiago resembled their sister in coloring and profile, but lacked her subtle quality of personality and divine innocence. Luis was more the mother's son than the father's—saving his olive skin; a grandee, modified by the simplicities of a soldier's life, amiable and upright. Dona Ignacia recognized in Concha the quintessence of the two opposing streams, and had long since ceased to impose upon a girl who had little else but her liberties, the conventional restrictions of the Spanish maiden. Concha had already received many offers of marriage and regarded men as mere swingers of incense. Moreover, her cultivated mind was filled with ideals and ideas far beyond anything California would yield in her day.
As Rezanov, upon Dona Ignacia's retreat, walked directly over to her, she smilingly seated herself on a sofa and swept aside her voluminous white skirts. She was not sure that she liked him, but in no doubt whatever of her delight at his advent.
Her manners were very simple and artless, as are the manners of most women whom Nature has gifted with complexity and depth.
"It is now two years and more that we have been excited over the prospect of this visit," she said. "But if you will tell me what you have been doing all this time, I, at least, will forgive you; for you will never be able to imagine, senor, how I long to hear of the great world. I stare at the map, then at the few pictures we have. I know many books of travel by heart; but I am afraid my imagination is a poor one, for I cannot conjure up great cities filled with people—thousands of people! DIOS DE MI ALMA! A world where there is something besides mountains and water, grain fields, orchards, forests, earthquakes, and climate? Will you, senor?"
"For quite as many hours as you will listen to me. I propose a compact. You shall improve my Spanish. I will impart all I know of Europe—and of Asia—if your curiosity reaches that far."
"Even of Japan?" There was a wicked spark in her eye.
"I see you already have some knowledge of the cause of my delay." His voice was even, but a wound smarted. "It is quite true, senorita, that the first embassy to Japan, from which we hoped so much, was a humiliating failure, and that I was played with for six months by a people whom we had regarded as a nation of monkeys. When my health began to suffer from the long confinement on shipboard—we had previously been fourteen months at sea—and I asked to be permitted to live on shore while my claims to an audience were under consideration, I was removed with my suite to a cage on a strip of land nearly surrounded with water, where I had less liberty and exercise than on shipboard. Finally, I had a ridiculous interview with a 'great man,' in which I accomplished nothing but the preservation of what personal dignity a man may while sitting on his heels; the superb presents of the Tsar were returned to me, and I was politely told to leave. Japan wanted neither the friendship of Russia nor her gimcracks. That, senorita, is the history of the first Russian Embassy—for the tentative visit of Adam Lanxmann, twelve years before, can be dignified by no such title—to Oriental waters. It is to be hoped that Count Golofkin, who was to undertake a similar mission to China, has met with a better fate."
Underneath the polished armour of a man who was a courtier when he chose and the dominating spirit always, he was hot and quick of temper. His light cold eyes glowed with resentment at the dancing lights in hers, as he cynically gave her a bald abstract of the unfortunate mission. He reflected that commonly he would have fitted a different mask to the ugly skull of fact, but this young barbarian, as he chose to regard her, excited the elemental truth in him, defying him to appear at his worst. He was astonished to see her eyes suddenly soften and her mouth tremble.
"It must have been a hateful experience—hateful!" Her voice, beginning on its usual low soft note, rose to a hoarse pitch of indignation. "I should have killed somebody! To be a man, and strong, and caressed all one's life by fortune—and to be as helpless as an Indian! Madre de dios!"
"I shall take my revenge," said Rezanov shortly; but the wound closed, and once more he became aware of the poignant sweetness of Castilian roses. Concha wore one in her soft dusky hair, and another where the little round jacket of white linen, gaily embroidered with pink, met on her bosom. But if sentiment tempted him he was quickly poised by her next remarks. She uttered them in a low tone, although the animated conversation of the rest of the party would have permitted the two on the sofa to exchange the vows of love unheard.
"But what a practice for your diplomatic talents, Excellency! Poor California! At least let me be the first to hear what you have come for?" Her voice dropped to a soft cooing note, although her eyes twinkled. "For the love of God, senor! I am so bored in this life on the edge of the world! To see the seams and ravelings of a diplomatic intrigue! I have read and heard of many, but never had I hoped to link my finger in anything subtler than a quarrel between priest and Governor, or the jealousy of Los Angeles for Monterey. I even will help you—if you mean no harm to my father or my country. And I am not a friend to scorn, senor, for my blessed father is as wax in my hands, the dear old Governor adores me, and even Padre Abella, who thinks himself a great diplomat, and is watching us out of the corner of his eye, while I make him believe you pay me so many compliments my poor little head turns round—Bueno senor!" As she raised her voice she plucked the rose from her dress and tossed it to Rezanov. Then she lifted her chin and pouted her childish lips at the ironical smile of the priest.
Rezanov was close to betraying his surprise; but as he cherished a belief that the souls of all pretty women went to school to the devil before entering upon earthly enterprise, he wondered that he had been open to the illusion of complete ingenuousness in a descendant of one of the oldest and subtlest civilizations of earth. Within that luminous shell of youth there were, no doubt, whispering memories of men and women steeped in court intrigue from birth, of triumphant beauties that had lived for love and their power over the passions of men as ardent as himself. It was quite possible that she might be as useful as she desired. But his impulses were in leash. He merely looked and murmured his admiration.
"Better ask, what chance have I, a defenceless man, who has not seen a charming woman for three years, against such practised art? If you can hoodwink a Spanish priest, and manipulate a Governor who has won the confidence of the most suspicious court in Europe, what fortune for a barbarian of the north? Less than with Japan, I should think."
He divested the rose of its thorns and many tight little buds, and thrust the stem underneath the star of St. Ann. She lifted her chin again and tossed her head.
"You do not trust me, but you will. I fancy it will be before long—for it is quite true that the Californians are not so easily outwitted. And—even did I not help you, I would not—I vow, senor!—betray you. Is it true that Russia is at war with Spain?"
"Have you not heard? It was for that we were all so excited this morning. We thought your ship might be the first of a fleet."
"I have heard no such rumor, and you may dismiss it. Russia is too much occupied with Napoleon Bonaparte, who has had himself crowned Emperor, and by this time is probably at war with half Europe—"
She interrupted him with flashing eye. The pink in her cheeks had turned red. The thin nostrils of her pretty Roman nose fluttered like paper. "Ah!" she exclaimed, again with that note of hoarseness in her voice. "There is a great man, not a mere king on a throne his ancestors made for him. Papa hates him because he has seized a throne. AY YI! DIOS, but you should hear the words fly when we go to war together. But I do not care that"—she snapped her firm white fingers—"for all the Bourbons that are in Europe. Bonaparte! Do you know him? Have you seen him?"
"I have seen him insult poor Markov, our ambassador to France, when I can assure you that he looked like neither a demi-god nor a gentleman. When you have improved my Spanish I will tell you many anecdotes of him. Meanwhile, am I to assume that you reserve your admiration for the man that carves his career in defiance of the rusty old machinery?"
"I do! I do! My father was of the people, a poor boy. He has risen to be the most powerful of all Californians, although the King he adores never makes him Gobernador Proprietario. I tell him he should be the first to recognize the genius and the ambitions of a Bonaparte. The mere thought horrifies him. But in me that same strong plebeian blood makes another cry, and if my father had but enough men at his back, and the will to make himself King of the Californias—Madre de Dios! how I should help him!"
"At least I know her better than she knows me," thought Rezanov, as the inner door was thrown open and another bare room with a long table laden with savory food on a superb silver service was revealed. "And if I know anything of women, I can trust her—for as long as she may be necessary, at all events."
"Santiago!" whispered Concha. "Do not go down to the ship. Take me for a walk. I have much to say."
Santiago, who had not been asked to form one of the escort upon the return of the Russians to the Juno for the night, felt injured and sulky and deigned no reply.
"If you do not, I'll not braid your hair to-morrow," said his sister, giving his arm a little shake; and he succumbed. The luxuriant tresses of the male Arguellos were combed and braided and tied with a ribbon every morning by the women of the family, and Concha's fingers were the gentlest and deftest. And Concha and Santiago were more intimate than even the rest of that united family. They had studied and read together, were equally dissatisfied with their narrow existence, ambitious for a wider experience. Santiago consoled himself with cards and training roosters for battle, and otherwise as a man may. He was but fifteen, this haughty, severe-looking young hidalgo, but while in some respects many years older than his sister, in others he was younger, for he possessed none of her illuminating instinct.
She led him through a postern gate, round the first of the dunes, and they were alone in a waste of sand. She demanded abruptly:
"What do you think of our illustrious visitor?"
"I like him. He would wring your neck if you got in his way, but has a kind heart for those that call him master. I like that sort of a man. I wish he would take me away with him."
"He shall—one of these days. Santiago mio, let me whisper—" She pulled his ear down to her lips. "He will marry me. I feel it. I know it. He has talked to me the whole day. He has told me grave secrets. Not even to you would I reveal them. So many have loved me—why should not he? I shall live in St. Petersburg, and see all Europe!—thousands of people—Dios mio! Dios mio!"
"Indeed!" Santiago, still unamiable, responded to this confidence with a sneer. "You aspire very high for a little girl of the wilderness, without fortune, and only half a coat-of-arms, so to speak. Do you know that this Rezanov—Dr. Langsdorff has told us all about him—is a great noble, one of the ten barons of Russia, and a Chamberlain in accordance with a decree of Peter the Great that court titles should be bestowed as a reward for distinguished services alone? He got a fortune in his youth by marriage with a daughter of Shelikov—that Siberian who founded the Russian colonies in America. The wife died almost immediately, but the Baron's influence remained with Shelikov—for his influence at court was even greater—and after the older man's death, with his mother-in-law, who is uncommonly clever. Shelikov's schemes were but little sketches beside Rezanov's, who from merely a courtier and a gay blood about town developed into a great man of business, with an ambition to correspond. It was he who got the Imperial ukase that gave the Russian-American Company its power to squeeze all the other fur hunters and traders out of the northeast, and made Rezanov and everybody belonging to it so rich your head would swim if I told you the number of doubloons they spend in a year. Nobody has ever been so clever at managing those old beasts of autocrats as he. They think him merely the accomplished courtier, a brilliant dilettante, a condescending patron of art and letters, a devotee of pleasure, and all the time he is pulling their befuddled old brains about to suit himself. The Tsar Paul was a lunatic and they murdered him, but meanwhile he signed the ukase. The Tsar Alexander, who is not so bad nor so silly as the others, thinks there is no man so clever as Rezanov, who addresses him personally when sending home his reports. Do you know what all that means? Your plenipotentiary is not only a Chamberlain at court, a Privy Councillor, and the Tsar himself on this side of the world, but when his inspections and reforms are concluded, and he is one of the wealthiest men in Russia, he will return to St. Petersburg and become so high and mighty that a princess would snap at him. And you aspire! I never heard such nonsense."
"His excellency told me much of this," replied Concha imperturbably. "And I am sure that he cares nothing for princesses and will marry whom he most admires. He would not say, but I know he cared nothing for that poor little wife, dead so long ago. It was a mariage de convenance, such as all the great world is accustomed to. He will love me more than all the fine ladies he has ever seen. I feel it. I know it! And I am quite happy."
"Do you love him?" asked Santiago, looking curiously at his sister's flushed and glowing face. It seemed to him that she had never looked so young. "Many have loved you. I had begun to think you had no heart for men, no wish for anything but admiration. And now you give your heart in a day to this Russian—who must be nearly forty—unasked."
"I have not thought of my heart at all. But I could love him, of course. He is so handsome, so kind, so grand, so gay! But love is for men and wives—has not my mother said so? Now I think only of St. Petersburg! of Paris! of London! of the beautiful gowns and jewels I shall wear at court—a red velvet train as long as a queen's, and all embroidered with gold, a white veil spangled with gold, a head-dress a foot high studded with jewels, ropes of diamonds and pearls—I made him tell me how the great ladies dressed. Ah! there is the pleasure of being a girl—to think and dream of all those beautiful things, not of when the wife must live always for the husband and children. That comes soon enough. And why should I not have all!—there is so little in life for the girl. It seems to me now that I have had nothing. When he asks me to marry him he will tell me of the fine things I shall have and the great sights I shall witness—the ceremonies at court, the winter streets—with snow—snow, Santiago!—where the great nobles drive four horses through the drifts like little hills, and are wrapped in furs like bears! The grand military parades—how I shall laugh when I think of our poor little Presidios with their dozen officers strutting about—" She stopped abruptly and bursting wildly into tears flung herself into her brother's arms. "But I never could leave you! And my father! my mother! all! all! Ay, Dios de mi alma! what an ingrate I am! I should die of homesickness! My Santiago! My Santiago!"
Santiago patted her philosophically. "You are not going to-morrow," he reminded her. "Don't cross your bridges until you come to them. That is a good proverb for maids and men. You might take us all with you, or spend every third year or so in California. No doubt you would need the rest. And meanwhile remember that the high and mighty Chamberlain has not yet asked for the honor of an alliance with the house of Arguello, and that your brother will match his best fighting cock against your new white lace mantilla from Mexico, that he is not meditating any project so detrimental to his fortunes. Console yourself with the reflection that if he were, our father and the priests, and the Governor himself, would die of apoplexy. He is a heretic—a member of the Greek Church! Hast thou lost thy reason, Conchita? Dry your eyes and come home to sleep, and let us hear no more of marriage with a man who is not only a barbarian of the north and a heretic, but so proud he does not think a Californian good enough to wash his decks."
It was long before Rezanov slept that night. The usual chill had come in from the Pacific as the sun went down, and the distinguished visitor had intimated to his hosts that he should like to exercise on shore until ready for his detested quarters; but Arguello dared not, in the absence of his father, invite the foreigner even to sleep in the house so lavishly offered in the morning; although he had sent such an abundance of provisions to the ship that the poor sailors were deep in sleep, gorged like boa-constrictors; and he could safely promise that while the Juno remained in port her larder should never be empty. He shared the evening bowl of punch in the cabin, then went his way lamenting that he could not take his new friends with him.
Rezanov paced the little deck of the Juno to keep his blood in stir. There was no moon. The islands and promontories on the great sheet of water were black save for the occasional glow of an Indian camp-fire. There was not a sound but the lapping of the waves, the roar of distant breakers. The great silver stars and the little green stars looked down upon a solitude that was almost primeval, yet mysteriously disturbed by the restless currents in the brain of a man who had little in common with primal forces.
Rezanov was uneasy on more scores than one. He was annoyed and mortified at the discovery—made over the punch bowl—that the girl he had taken to be twenty was but sixteen. It was by no means his first experience of the quick maturity of southern women—but sixteen! He had never wasted a moment on a chit before, and although he was a man of imagination, and notwithstanding her intelligence and dignity, he could not reconcile properties so conflicting with any sort of feminine ideal.
And the pressing half of his mission he had confided to her! No man knew better than he the value of a tactful and witty woman in the political dilemmas of life; more than one had given him devoted service, nor ever yet had he made a mistake. After several hours spent in the society of this clever, politic, dissatisfied girl he had come to the conclusion that he could trust her, and had told her of the lamentable condition of the creatures in the employ of the Russian-American Company; of their chronic state of semi-starvation, of the scurvy that made them apathetic of brain and body, and eventually would exterminate them unless he could establish reciprocal trade relations with California and obtain regular supplies of farinaceous food; acknowledged that he had brought a cargo of Russian and Boston goods necessary to the well-being of the Missions and Presidios, and that he would not return to the wretched people of Sitka, at least, without a generous exchange of breadstuffs, dried meats, peas, beans, barley and tallow. Not only had he no longer the courage to witness their misery, but his fortune and his career were at stake. His entire capital was invested in the Company he had founded, and he had failed in his embassy to Japan—to the keen mortification of the Tsar and the jubilation of his enemies. If he left the Emperor's northeastern dominions unreclaimed and failed to rescue the Company from its precarious condition, he hardly should care to return to St. Petersburg.
Dona Concha had listened to this eloquent harangue—they sat alone at one end of the long sala while Luis at the other toiled over letters to the Governor and his father advising them of the formidable honor of the Russian's visit—in exactly the temper he would have chosen. Her fine eyes had melted and run over at the moving tale of the sufferings of the servants of the Company—until his own had softened in response and he had impulsively kissed her hand; they had dilated and flashed as he spoke of his personal apprehensions; and when he had given her a practical explanation of his reasons for coming to California she had given him advice as practical in return.
He must withhold from her father and the Governor the fact of his pressing need; they were high officials with an inflexible sense of duty, and did all they could to enforce the law against trading with foreigners. He was to maintain the fiction of belting the globe, but admit that he had indulged in a dream of commercial relations—for a benefit strictly mutual—between neighbors as close as the Spanish and Russians in America. This would interest them—what would not, on the edge of the world?—and they would agree to lay the matter, reinforced by a strong personal plea, before the Viceroy of Mexico; who in turn would send it to the Cabinet and King at Madrid. Meanwhile, he was to confide in the priests at the Mission. Not only would their sympathies be enlisted, but they did much trading under the very nose of the government. Not for personal gain—they were vowed to a life of poverty; but for their Indian converts; and as there were twelve hundred at the Mission of San Francisco, they would wink at many things condemnable in the abstract. He had engaged to visit them on the morrow, and he must take presents to tempt their impersonal cupidity, and invite them to inspect the rest of his wares—which the Governor would be informed his Excellency had been forced to buy with the Juno from the Yankee skipper, D'Wolf, and would rid himself of did opportunity offer.
Rezanov had never received sounder advice, and had promptly accepted it. Now, as he reflected that it had been given by a girl of sixteen, he was divided between admiration of her precocity and fear lest she prove to be too young to keep a secret. Moreover, there were other considerations.
Rezanov, although in his earlier years he had so far sacrificed his interests and played into the hands of his enemies, in avoiding the too embarrassing partiality of Catherine the Great, had nevertheless held a high place at court by right of birth, and been a man of the world always; rarely absent from St. Petersburg during the last and least susceptible part of the imperial courtesan's life, the brief reign of Paul, and the two years between the accession of Alexander and the sailing of the Nadeshda. Moreover, there was hardly another court of importance in Europe with which he was not familiar, and few men had had a more complete experience of life. And the life of a courtier, a diplomat, a traveller, noble, wealthy, agreeable to women by divine right, with active enemies and a horde of flatterers, in daily contact with the meaner and more disingenuous corners of human nature, is not conducive to a broad optimism and a sweet and immutable Christianity. Rezanov inevitably was more or less cynical and blase', and too long versed in the ways of courts and courtiers to retain more than a whimsical tolerance of the naked truth and an appreciation of its excellence as a diplomatic manoeuvre. Nevertheless, he was by nature too impetuous ever to become under any provocation a dishonest man, and too normally a gentleman to deviate from a certain personal code of honor. He might come to California with fair words and a very definite intention of annexing it to Russia at the first opportunity, but he was incapable of abusing the hospitality of the Arguellos by making love to their sixteen-year-old daughter. Had she been of the years he had assumed, he would have had less scruple in embarking upon a flirtation, both for the pastime and the use he might make of her. A Spanish beauty of twenty, still unmarried, would be more than his match. But a child, however precocious, inevitably would fall in love with the first uncommon stranger she met; and Rezanov, less vain than most men of his kind, and with a fundamental humanity that was the chief cause in his efforts to improve the condition of his wretched promuschleniki, had no taste for the role of heart-breaker.
But the girl had proved her timeliness; would, if trustworthy, be of further use in inclining her father and the Governor toward such of his designs as he had any intentions of revealing; and, weighing carefully his conversations with her, he was disposed to believe that she would screen and abet him through vanity and love of intrigue. After the dinner, in the seclusion of the sala, he had taken pains to explore for the causes of her mental maturity. Concha had told him of Don Jose Arguello's ambition that his children in their youth should have the education he had been forced to acquire in his manhood; he had taught them himself, and notwithstanding his piety and the disapproval of the priests, had permitted them to read the histories, travels, and biographies he received once a year from the City of Mexico. Rezanov had met Madame de Stael and other bas bleus, and given them no more of his society than politeness demanded, but although astonished at the amount of information this young girl had assimilated, he found nothing in her manner of wearing her intellectual crown to offend his fastidious taste. She was wholly artless in her love of books and of discussing them; and nothing in their contents had disturbed the sweetest innocence he had ever met. Of the little arts of coquetry she was mistress by inheritance and much provocation, but her unawakened inner life breathed the simplicity and purity of the elemental roses that hovered about her in his thoughts. Her very unsusceptibility made the game more dangerous; if it piqued him—and he aspired to be no more than human—he either should have to marry her, or nurse a sore spot in his conscience for the rest of his life; and for neither alternative had he the least relish.
He dismissed the subject at last with an impatient shrug. Perhaps he was a conceited ass, as his English friends would say; perhaps the Governor would be more amenable than she had represented. No man could forecast events. It was enough to be forearmed.
But his thoughts swung to a theme as little disburdening. His needs, as he had confided to Concha, were very pressing. The dry or frozen fish, the sea dogs, the fat of whales, upon which the employees of the Company were forced to subsist in the least hospitable of climes, had ravaged them with scorbutic diseases until their numbers were so reduced by death and desertion that there was danger of depopulation and the consequent bankruptcy of the Company. Since June of the preceding year until his departure from New Archangel in the previous month, he had been actively engaged in inspection of the Company's holdings from Kamchatka to Sitka: reforming abuses, establishing schools and libraries, conceiving measures to protect the fur-bearing animals from reckless slaughter both by the promuschleniki and marauding foreigners; punishing and banishing the worst offenders against the Company's laws; encouraging the faithful, and sharing hardships with them that sent memories of former luxuries and pleasures scurrying off to the realms of fantasy. But his rule would be incomplete and his efforts end in failure if the miserable Russians and natives in the employ of the Company were not vitalized by proper food and cheered with the hope of its permanence.
In Santiago's story of the Russian visitor's achievements and status there was the common mingling of truth and fiction the exalted never fail to inspire. Rezanov, although he had accomplished great ends against greater odds, was too little of a courtier at heart ever to have been a prime favorite in St. Petersburg until the accession of a ruler with whom he had something in common. A dissolute woman and a crack-brained despot were the last to appreciate an original and independent mind, and the seclusion of Alexander had been so complete during the lifetime of his father that Rezanov barely had known him by sight. But the Tsarovitz, enthusiastic for reform and a passionate admirer of enterprise, knew of Rezanov, and no sooner did he mount his gory throne than he confirmed the Chamberlain in his enterprise, and two years later made him a Privy Counsellor, invested him with the order of St. Ann, and chose him for the critical embassy to the verdant realm with the blind and gateless walls.
Rezanov had conquered so far in life even less by address than by the demonstration of abilities very singular in a man of his birth and education. When he met Shelikov, during the Siberian merchant-trader's visit to St. Petersburg in 1788, he was a young man with little interest in life outside of its pleasures, and a patrimony that enabled him to command them to no great extent and barely to maintain the dignity of his rank. Shelikov's plan to obtain a monopoly of the fur trade in the islands and territories added by his Company to Russia, possibly throughout the entire possession, thus preventing the destruction of sables, seals, otters, and foxes by small traders and foreigners, interested him at once; or possibly he was merely fascinated at first by the shrewd and dauntless representative of a class with which he had never before come in contact. The accidental acquaintance ripened into intimacy, Rezanov became a partner in the Shelikov-Golikov Company, and married the daughter of his new friend. After the death of his father-in-law, in 1795, his ambitions and business abilities, now fully awake, prompted him to obtain for himself and his partners rights analogous to those granted by England to the East India Company. Shelikov had won little more than half the power and privileges he had solicited of Catherine, although he had amalgamated the two leading companies, drawn in several others, and built ships and factories and forts to protect them. And if the regnant merchants made large fortunes, the enterprise in general suffered from the rivalries between the various companies, and above all from lack of imperial support.
Rezanov, his plans made, brought to bear all the considerable influence he was able to command, called upon all his resources of brain and address, and brought Catherine to the point of consenting to sign the charter he needed. Before it was ready for the imperial signature she died. Rezanov was forced to begin again with her ill-balanced and intractable son. Natalie Shelikov, his famous mother-in-law, the old shareholders of the Company, and the many new ones that had subscribed to Rezanov's ambitious project, gave themselves up to despair. For a time the outlook was dark. The personal enemies of Rezanov and the bitter and persistent opponents of the companies threw themselves eagerly into the scale with tales of brutality of the merchants and the threatened extirpation of the fur-bearing animals. Paul announced his attention to abolish all the companies and close the colonies to traders big and little.
But the enemy had a very subtle antagonist in Rezanov. Apparently dismissing the subject, he applied himself to gaining a personal ascendancy over the erratic but impressionable Tsar. No one in the opposing camp could compare with him in that fine balance of charm and brain which was his peculiar gift, or in the adroit manipulation of a mind propelled mainly by vanity. He studied Paul's moods and character, discovered that after some senseless act of oppression he suffered from a corresponding remorse, and was susceptible to any plan that would increase his power and add lustre to his name. The commercial and historic advantages of prosperous northeastern possessions were artfully instilled. At the opportune moment Rezanov laid before him a scheme, mature in every detail, for a great company that would add to the wealth of Russia, and convince Europe of the sound commercial sense and immortal wisdom of its sovereign. Without more ado he obtained his charter.
This momentous instrument granted to the "Russian-American Company under our Highest Protection," "full privileges, for a period of twenty years on the coast of northwestern America, beginning from latitude 55 degrees north, and including the chain of islands extending from Kamchatka northward, and southward to Japan; the exclusive right to all enterprises, whether hunting, trading, or building, and to new discoveries; with strict prohibition from profiting from any of these pursuits, not only to all parties who might engage in them on their own responsibility, but also to those who formerly had ships and establishments there, except those who have united with the new Company." All private traders who refused to join the Company were to be allowed to sell their property and depart in peace.
Thus was formed the first of the Trusts in America; and the United States never has had so formidable a menace to her territorial greatness as this Russian nobleman who paced that night the wretched deck of the little ship he had bought from one of her skippers. Perturbed in mind at his recent failures and immediate prospects, he was no less determined to take California from the Spaniards either by absorption or force.
On his way from New Archangel to San Francisco he had met with his second failure since leaving St. Petersburg. It was his intention to move the Sitkan colony down to the mouth of the Columbia River; not only pressed by the need of a more beneficent soil, but as a first insidious advance upon San Francisco Bay. Upon this trip it would be enough to make a survey of the ground and bury a copper plate inscribed: "Possession of the Russian Empire." The Juno had encountered terrific storms. After three desperate attempts to reach the mouth of the river, Rezanov had been forced to relinquish the enterprise for the moment and hasten with his diseased and almost useless crew to the nearest port. It was true that the attempt could be made again later, but Rezanov, sanguine of temperament, was correspondingly depressed by failure and disposed to regard it as an ill-omen.
An ambassador inspired by heaven could have accomplished no more with the Japanese at that mediaeval stage of their development than he had done, and the most indomitable of men cannot yet control the winds of heaven; but sovereigns are rarely governed by logic, and frequently by the favorite at hand. The privilege of writing personally to the Tsar, in his case, meant more and less than appeared on the surface. It was a measure to keep the reports of the Company out of the hands of the Admiralty College, its bitterest enemy, and always jealous of the Civil Service. Nevertheless, Rezanov knew that he had no immediate reason to apprehend the loss of Alexander's friendship and esteem; and if he placed the Company, in which all the imperial family had bought shares, on a sounder basis than ever before, and doubled its earnings by insuring the health of its employees, he would meet, when in St. Petersburg again, with practically no opposition to his highest ambitions. These ambitions he deliberately kept in a fluid state for the present. Whether he should aspire to great authority in the government, or choose to rule with the absolute powers of the Tsar himself these already vast possessions on the Pacific—to be extended indefinitely—would be decided by events. All his inherited and cultivated instincts yearned for the brilliant and complex civilizations of Europe, but the new world had taken a firm hold upon his humaner and appealed more insidiously to his despotic. Moreover, Europe, torn up by that human earthquake, Napoleon Bonaparte, must lose the greater half of its sweetness and savor. All that, however, could be determined upon his return to St. Petersburg in the autumn.
But meanwhile he must succeed with these Californians, or they might prove, toy soldiers as they were, more perilous to his fortunes than enemies at court. He could not afford another failure; and news of this attempt and an exposition of all that depended upon it were already on the road to the capital of Russia.
He had known, of course, of the law that forbade the Spanish colonies to trade with foreign ships, but he had relied partly upon the use he could make of the orders given by the Spanish King at the request of the Tsar regarding the expedition under Krusenstern, partly upon his own wit and address. But although the royal order had insured him immediate hospitality and saved him many wearisome formalities, he had already discovered that the Spanish on the far rim of their empire had lost nothing of their connate suspicion. Rather, their isolation made them the more wary. Although they little appreciated the richness and variousness of California's soil, and not at all this wonderful bay that would accommodate the combined navies of the world, pocketing several, the pious zeal of the clergy in behalf of the Indians, and the general policy of Spain to hold all of the western hemisphere that disintegrating forces would permit, made her as tenacious of this vast territory she had so sparsely populated as had she been aware that its foundations were of gold, conceived that its climate and soil were a more enduring source of wealth than ever she would command again. If Rezanov was not gifted with the prospector's sense for ores—although he had taken note of Arguello's casual reference to a vein of silver and lead in the Monterey hills—no man ever more thoroughly appreciated the visible resources of California than he. Baranhov, chief-manager of the Company, had talked with American and British skippers for twenty years, and every item he had accumulated Rezanov had extracted. To-day he had drawn further information from Concha and her brothers; and their artless descriptions as well as this incomparable bay had filled him with enthusiasm. What a gift to Russia! What an achievement to his immortal credit! The fog rolled in from the Pacific in great white waves and stealthily enfolded him, obliterated the sea and the land. But he did not see it. Apprehension left him. Once more he fell to dreaming. In the course of a few years the Company would attract a large population to the mouth of the Columbia River, be strong enough to make use of any favorable turn in European politics and sweep down upon California. The geographical position of Mexico, the arid and desolate, herbless and waterless wastes intervening, would prohibit her sending any considerable assistance overland; and, all powerful at court by that time, he would take care that the Russian navy inspired Spain with a distaste for remote Pacific waters. He had long since recovered from the disappointment induced by the orders compelling him to remain in the colonies. The great Company he had heretofore regarded merely as a source of income and a means of advancing his ambitions, he now loved as his child. Even during the marches over frozen swamps and mountains, during the terrible winter in Sitka when he had become familiar with illness and even with hunger, his ardor had grown, as well as his determination to force Russia into the front rank of Commercial Europe. The United States he barely considered. He respected the new country for the independent spirit and military genius that had routed so powerful a nation as Great Britain, but he thought of her only as a new and tentative civilization on the far shores of the Atlantic. After some experience of travel in Siberia, and knowing the immensity and primeval conditions of north-western America, he did not think it probable that the little cluster of states, barely able to walk alone, would indulge in dreams of expansion for many years to come. He had heard of the projected expedition of Lewis and Clarke to the mouth of the Columbia, but—perhaps he was too Russian—he did not take any adventure seriously that had not a mighty nation at its back. And as it was almost the half of a century from that night before the American flag flew over the Custom House of Monterey, there is reason to believe that Russian aggression under the leadership of so energetic and resourceful a spirit as Nicolai Petrovich de Rezanov was in a fair way to make history first in the New Albion of Drake and the California of the incompetent Spaniard.
The Russians were to call at the house of the Commandante on their way to the Mission, and Concha herself made the chocolate with which they were to be detained for another hour. It was another sparkling morning, one of the few that came between winter and summer, summer and winter, and made even this bleak peninsula a land of enchantment before the cold winds took the sand hills up by their foundations and drove them down to Yerba Buena, submerging the battery and every green thing by the way; or the great fogs rolled down from the tule lands of the north and in from the sea, making the shivering San Franciscan forget that not ten miles away the sun was as prodigal as youth. For a few weeks San Francisco had her springtime, when the days were warm and the air of a wonderful lightness and brightness, the atmosphere so clear that the flowers might be seen on the islands, when man walked with wings on his feet and a song in his heart; when the past was done with, the future mattered not, the present with its ever changing hues on bay and hill, its cool electrical breezes stirring imagination and pulse, was all in all.
And it was in San Francisco's springtime that Concha Arguello made chocolate for the Russian to whom she was to give a niche in the history of her land; and sang at her task. She whirled the molinillo in each cup as it was filled, whipping the fragrant liquid to froth; pausing only to scold when her servant stained one of the dainty saucers or cups. Poor Rosa did not sing, although the spring attuned her broken spirit to a gentler melancholy than when the winds howled and the fog was cold in her marrow. She had been sentenced by the last Governor, the wise Borica, to eight years of domestic servitude in the house of Don Jose Arguello for abetting her lover in the murder of his wife. Concha, thoughtless in many things, did what she could to exorcise the terror and despair that stared from the eyes of the Indian and puzzled her deeply. Rosa adored her young mistress and exulted even when Concha's voice rose in wrath; for was not she noticed by the loveliest senorita in all the Californias, while others, envious and spiteful to a poor girl no worse than themselves, were ignored?
Concha's cheeks were as pink as the Castilian roses that grew even before the kitchen door and were quivering at the moment under the impassioned carolling of a choir of larks. Her black eyes were full of dancing lights, like the imprisoned sun-flecks under the rose bush, and never had indolent Spanish hands moved so quickly.
"Mira! Mira!" she cried to the luckless Rosa. "That is the third time thou hast spilt the chocolate. Thy hands are of wood when they should be of air. A soft bit of linen to clean them, not that coarse rag. Dios de mi alma! I shall send for Malia."
"For the love of Mary, senorita, have pity!" wailed Rosa. "There—see—thanks to the Virgin I have poured three cups without spilling a drop. And this rag is of soft linen. Look, Dona Concha, is it not true?"
"Bueno; take care thou leavest not one drop on a saucer and I will forgive thee—do not kiss my hand now, foolish one! How can I whirl the molinillo? Be always good and I will burn a candle for thee every time I go to the Mission. The Russians go to the Mission this morning. Hast thou seen the Russians, Rosa?"
"I have seen them, senorita. Did I not serve at table yesterday?"
"True; I had forgotten. What didst thou think of them?"
"What matters it to such great folk what a poor Indian girl thinks of them? They are very fair, which may be the fashion in their country; but I am not accustomed to it; and I like not beards."
"His excellency wore no beard—he who sat on my mother's right and opposite to me."
"He is very grand, senorita; more grand than the Governor, who after all has red hair and is old. He is even grander than Don Jose, whom may the saints preserve; or than the padres at the mission. Perhaps he is a king, like our King and natural lord in spain. (El rey nuestro y senor natural.) Is he a king, senorita?"
"No, but he should be. Rosa, thou mayest have my red cloak that came from Mexico—last year. I have a new one and that is too small. I had intended to give it to Ana Paula, but thou art a good girl and should have a gay mantle for Sunday, like the other girls. I have also a red ribbon for thy hair—"
Rosa spilt half the contents of the chocolate pot on the floor and Concha gave her a sound box on the ear. However, she did not dismiss her, a sentence for which the trembling girl prepared herself.
"Make more—quickly!" cried the lady of caprice. "They come. I hear them. But this is enough for the first. Make the rest and beat with the molinillo as I have done, and Malia will bring all to the corridor."
She ran to her room and her mirror. Both were small, the room little more luxurious than the cell of a nun. But the roses hung over the window, the birds had built in the eaves, and over the wall the sun shone in. In one corner was an altar and a crucifix. If the walls were rough and white, they were spotless as the hands that shook out and then twisted high the fine dusky masses of hair. When a fold had been drawn over either ear, in the modest fashion of the California maid and wife, and the tall shell comb had fastened the rest, Concha instead of finishing the headdress with her long Spanish pins, divested the stems of two half-blown roses of their thorns and thrust them obliquely through the knot. Her dress was of simple white linen made with a very full skirt and little round jacket, but embroidered by her own deft fingers with the color she loved best. She patted her frock, rolled down her sleeves, and went out to the "corridor" to stand demurely behind her mother as the Russians, escorted by Father Ramon Abella, rode into the square.
Rezanov had intended merely to pay a call of ceremony upon the hospitable Arguellos, but after he had dismounted and kissed the hands of the smiling senora and her beautiful daughter he was nothing loath to linger over a cup of chocolate.
It was served out there in the shade of the vines. Rezanov and Concha sat on the railing, and the man stared over his cup at the girl with the roses touching her cheeks and ruffling her hair.
"Do you like chocolate, senor?" asked Concha, who was not in the intellectual mood of yesterday. "I made it myself—I and my poor Rosa."
"It is the most delectable foam I have ever tasted. I am interested to know that it has the solid foundation of a name. What is the matter with your Rosa?"
"She is an unfortunate. Her lover killed his wife, and it is said that she is not innocent herself. The lover serves in chains for eight years, and she is with us that we may make her repent and keep her from further sin. She is unhappy and will marry the man when his punishment is over. I am very sorry for her."
"Fancy you living close to a woman like that! I find it detestable."
"Why?—if I can do her good—and make her happy, sometimes?"
"Does she ever talk about her life—before she came here?"
"Oh, no; she is far too sad. Once only, when I told her I would pray for her in the Mission Church, she asked me to burn a candle that her lover might serve his sentence more quickly and come out and marry her. Will you light one for her to-day, senor?"
"With the greatest pleasure; if you really want your maid to marry a man who no doubt will murder her for the sake of some other woman."
"Oh, surely not! He loves her. I know that many men love more than once, but when they are punished like that, they must remember."
"Is it true that you are only sixteen? Is that an impertinent question? I cannot help it. Those years are so few, and so much wisdom has gone into that little head."
"Sixteen is quite old." Concha drew herself up with an air of offended dignity. "Elena Castro, who lives on the other side, is but eighteen and she has three little ones. The Virgin brought them in the night and left them in the big rosebush you see before the door—one at a time, of course. Only the old nurse knew; the Virgin whispered it while she was saying a prayer for Elena; and early in the morning she came and found the dear little baby and put it in Elena's arms. I am the godmother of the first—Conchitita. In Santa Barbara, where we lived for some years, Anita Amanda Carillo, the friend of Ana Paula, is married, although she is but twelve and sits on the floor all day and plays with her dolls. She prays every night to the Virgin to bring her a real baby, but she is not old enough to take care of it and must wait. Twelve is too young to marry." Concha shook her head. Her eyes were wise, and Rezanov noted anew that her mouth alone was as young as her years. "My father would not permit such a thing. I am glad he is not anxious we should marry soon. I should love to have the babies, though; they are so sweet to play with and make little dresses for. But my mother says the Virgin does not bring the little ones to good girls—poor Rosa had one but it died—until their parents find them a husband first. I have never wanted a husband—" Concha darted a swift glance over her shoulder, but Santiago was in the clutches of the learned doctor and wishing that he knew no Latin; "so I go every day and play with Elena's babies, which is well enough."
Rezanov listened to this innocent revelation with the utmost gravity, but for the first time in many years he was conscious of a novel fascination in a sex to which he had paid no niggard's tribute. In his world the married woman reigned; it was doubtful if he had ever had ten minutes' conversation with a young girl before, never with one whose face and form were as arresting as her crystal purity. He was fascinated, but more than ever on his guard. As he rode over the sand hills to the Mission she clung fast to his thoughts and he speculated upon the woman hidden away in the depths of that lovely shell like the deep color within the tight Castilian buds that opened so slowly. He recalled the personalities of the young officers that surrounded her. They were charming fellows, gay, kindly, honest; but he felt sure that not one of them was fit to hold the cup of life to the exquisite young lips of Concha Arguello. The very thought disposed him to twist their necks.
The Mission San Francisco de Assisi stood at the head of a great valley about a league from the Presidio and facing the eastern hills. Behind it, yet not too close, for the priests were ever on their guard against Indians more lustful of loot than salvation, was a long irregular chain of hills, breaking into twin peaks on its highest ridge, with a lone mountain outstanding. It was an imposing but forbidding mass, as steep and bare as the walls of a fortress; but in the distance, north and south, as the range curved in a tapering arc that gave the valley the appearance of a colossal stadium, the outlines were soft in a haze of pale color. The sheltered valley between the western heights and the sand hills far down the bay where it turned to the south, was green with wheat fields, and a small herd of cattle grazed on the lower slopes. The beauty of this superbly proportioned valley was further enhanced by groves of oaks and bay trees, and by a lagoon, communicating with an arm of the bay, which the priests had named for their Lady of Sorrows—Nuestra Senora de los Dolores. The little sheet of water was almost round, very green and set in a thicket of willows that were green, too, in the springtime, and golden in summer. Near its banks, or closer to the protecting Mission—on whose land grant they were built—were the comfortable adobe homes of the few Spanish pioneers that preferred the bracing north to the monotonous warmth of the south. Some of these houses were long and rambling, others built about a court; all were surrounded by a high wall, enclosing a garden where the Castilian roses grew even more luxuriantly than at the Presidio. The walls, like the houses, were white, and on those of Don Juan Moraga, a cousin of Dona Ignacia Arguello, the roses had been trained to form a border along the top in a fashion that reminded Rezanov of the pink edged walls of Fiesole.
The white red-tiled church and the long line of rooms adjoining were built of adobe with no effort at grandeur, but with a certain noble simplicity of outline that harmonized not only with the lofty reserve of the hills but with the innocent hope of creating a soul in the lowest of human bipeds. The Indians of San Francisco were as immedicable as they were hideous; but the fathers belabored them with sticks and heaven with prayer, and had so far succeeded that if as yet they had sown piety no higher than the knees, they had trained some twelve hundred pairs of hands to useful service.
On the right was a graveyard, with little in it as yet but rose trees; behind the church and the many spacious rooms built for the consolation of virtue in the wilderness was a large building surrounding a court. Girls and young widows occupied the cells on the north side, and the work rooms on the east, while the youths, under the sharp eye of a lay brother, were opposite. All lived a life of unwilling industry: cleaning and combing wool, spinning, weaving, manufacturing chocolate, grinding corn between stones, making shoes, fashioning the simple garments worn by priest and Indian. Between the main group of buildings and the natural rampart of the "San Bruno Mountains" was the Rancheria, where the Indian families lived in eight long rows of isolated huts.
In spite of vigilance an Indian escaped now and again to the mountains, where he could lie naked in the sun and curse the fetich of civilization. As the Russians approached, a friar, with deer-skin armor over his cassock, was tugging at a recalcitrant mule, while a body-guard of four Indians stood ready to attend him down the coast in search of an enviable brother. The mule, as if in sympathy with the fugitive, had planted his four feet in the earth and lifted his voice in derision, while the young friar, a recruit at the Mission, and far from enamored of his task, strained at the rope, and an Indian pelted the hindquarters with stones. Suddenly, the mule flung out his heels, the enemy in the rear sprawled, the rope flew loose, the beast with a loud bray fled toward the willows of Dolores. But the young priest was both agile and angry. With a flying leap he reached the heaving back. The mule acknowledged himself conquered. The body-guard trotted on their own feet, and the party disappeared round a bend of the hills.