The Blood of the Conquerors by Harvey Fergusson
New York Alfred . A . Knopf 1921
COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY ALFRED A. KNOPF, INC.
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
CHAPTER I CHAPTER II CHAPTER III CHAPTER IV CHAPTER V CHAPTER VI CHAPTER VII CHAPTER VIII CHAPTER IX CHAPTER X CHAPTER XI CHAPTER XII CHAPTER XIII CHAPTER XIV CHAPTER XV CHAPTER XVI CHAPTER XVII CHAPTER XVIII CHAPTER XIX CHAPTER XX CHAPTER XXI CHAPTER XXII CHAPTER XXIII CHAPTER XXIV CHAPTER XXV CHAPTER XXVI CHAPTER XXVII CHAPTER XXVIII CHAPTER XXIX CHAPTER XXX CHAPTER XXXI CHAPTER XXXII CHAPTER XXXIII CHAPTER XXXIV CHAPTER XXXV CHAPTER XXXVI EXTRA PAGES ERRATA
Whenever Ramon Delcasar boarded a railroad train he indulged a habit, not uncommon among men, of choosing from the women passengers the one whose appearance most pleased him to be the object of his attention during the journey. If the woman were reserved or well-chaperoned, or if she obviously belonged to another man, this attention might amount to no more than an occasional discreet glance in her direction. He never tried to make her acquaintance unless her eyes and mouth unmistakably invited him to do so.
This conservatism on his part was not due to an innate lack of self-confidence. Whenever he felt sure of his social footing, his attitude toward women was bold and assured. But his social footing was a peculiarly uncertain thing for the reason that he was a Mexican. This meant that he faced in every social contact the possibility of a more or less covert prejudice against his blood, and that he faced it with an unduly proud and sensitive spirit concealed beneath a manner of aristocratic indifference. In the little southwestern town where he had lived all his life, except the last three years, his social position was ostensibly of the highest. He was spoken of as belonging to an old and prominent family. Yet he knew of mothers who carefully guarded their daughters from the peril of falling in love with him, and most of his boyhood fights had started when some one called him a "damned Mexican" or a "greaser."
Except to an experienced eye there was little in his appearance or in his manner to suggest his race. His swarthy complexion indicated perhaps a touch of the Moorish blood in his Spanish ancestry, but he was no darker than are many Americans bearing Anglo-Saxon names, and his eyes were grey. His features were aquiline and pleasing, and he had in a high degree that bearing, at once proud and unself-conscious, which is called aristocratic. He spoke English with a very slight Spanish accent.
When he had gone away to a Catholic law school in St. Louis, confident of his speech and manner and appearance, he had believed that he was leaving prejudice behind him; but in this he had been disappointed. The raw spots in his consciousness, if a little less irritated at the college, were by no means healed. Some persons, it is true, seemed to think nothing of his race one way or the other; to some, mostly women, it gave him an added interest; but in the long run it worked against him. It kept him out of a fraternity, and it made his career in football slow and hard.
When he finally won the coveted position of quarterback, in spite of team politics, he made a reputation by the merciless fashion in which he drove his eleven, and by the fury of his own playing.
The same bitter emulative spirit which had impelled him in football drove him to success in his study of the law. Books held no appeal for him, and he had no definite ambitions, but he had a good head and a great desire to show the gringos what he could do. So he had graduated high in his class, thrown his diploma into the bottom of his trunk, and departed from his alma mater without regret.
The limited train upon which he took passage for home afforded specially good opportunity for his habit of mental philandering. The passengers were continually going up and down between the dining car at one end of the train and the observation car at the other, so that all of the women daily passed in review. They were an unusually attractive lot, for most of the passengers were wealthy easterners on their way to California. Ramon had never before seen together so many women of the kind that devotes time and money and good taste to the business of creating charm. Perfectly gowned and groomed, delicately scented, they filled him with desire and with envy for the men who owned them. There were two newly married couples among the passengers, and several intense flirtations were under way before the train reached Kansas City. Ramon felt as though he were a spectator at some delightful carnival. He was lonely and restless, yet fascinated.
For no opportunity of becoming other than a spectator had come to him. He had chosen without difficulty the girl whom he preferred, but had only dared to admire her from afar. She was a little blonde person, not more than twenty, with angelic grey eyes, hair of the colour of ripe wheat and a complexion of perfect pink and white. The number of different costumes which she managed to don in two days filled him with amazement and gave her person an ever-varying charm and interest. She appeared always accompanied by a very placid-looking and portly woman, who was evidently her mother, and a tall, cadaverous sick man, whose indifferent and pettish attitude toward her seemed to indicate that he was either a brother or an uncle, for Ramon felt sure that she was not married. She acquired no male attendants, but sat most of the time very properly, if a little restlessly, with her two companions. Once or twice Ramon felt her look upon him, but she always turned it away when he glanced at her.
Whether because she was really beautiful in her own petite way, or because she seemed so unattainable, or because her small blonde daintiness had a peculiar appeal for him, Ramon soon reached a state of conviction that she interested him more than any other girl he had ever seen. He discreetly followed her about the train, watching for the opportunity that never came, and consoling himself with the fact that no one else seemed more fortunate in winning her favour than he. The only strange male who attained to the privilege of addressing her was a long-winded and elderly gentleman of the British perpetual-travelling type, at least one representative of which is found on every transcontinental train, and it was plain enough that he bored the girl.
Ramon took no interest in landscapes generally, but when he awoke on the last morning of his journey and found himself once more in the wide and desolate country of his birth, he was so deeply stirred and interested that he forgot all about the girl. Devotion to one particular bit of soil is a Mexican characteristic, and in Ramon it was highly developed because he had spent so much of his life close to the earth. Every summer of his boyhood he had been sent to one of the sheep ranches which belonged to the various branches of his numerous family. Each of these ranches was merely a headquarters where the sheep were annually dipped and sheared and from which the herds set out on their long wanderings across the open range. Often Ramon had followed them—across the deserts where the heat shimmered and the yellow dust hung like a great pale plume over the rippling backs of the herd, and up to the summer range in the mountains where they fed above the clouds in lush green pastures crowned with spires of rock and snow. He had shared the beans and mutton and black coffee of the herders and had gone to sleep on a pile of peltries to the evensong of the coyotes that hung on the flanks of the herd. Hunting, fishing, wandering, he had lived like a savage and found the life good.
It was this life of primitive freedom that he had longed for in his exile. He had thought little of his family and less of his native town, but a nostalgia for open spaces and free wanderings had been always with him. He had come to hate the city with its hard walled-in ways and its dirty air, and also the eastern country-side with its little green prettiness surrounded by fences. He longed for a land where one can see for fifty miles, and not a man or a house. He thought that alkaline dust on his lips would taste sweet.
Now he saw again the scorched tawny levels, the red hills dotted with little gnarled pinon trees, the purple mystery of distant mountains. A great friendly warmth filled his body, and his breath came a little quickly with eagerness. When he saw a group of Mexicans jogging along the road on their scrawny mounts he wanted to call out to them: "Como lo va, amigos?" He would have liked to salute this whole country, which was his country, and to tell it how glad he was to see it again. It was the one thing in the world that he loved, and the only thing that had ever given him pleasure without tincture of bitterness.
He heard two men in the seat behind him talking.
"Did you ever see anything so desolate?" one asked.
"I wouldn't live in this country if they gave it to me," said the other.
Ramon turned and looked at them. They were solid, important-looking men, and having visited upon the country their impressive disapproval, they opened newspapers and shut it away from their sight. Dull fools, thought Ramon, who do not know God's country when they see it.
And then he continued to look right over their heads and their newspapers, for tripping down the aisle all by herself at last, came the girl of his fruitless choice. His eyes, deep with dreams, met hers. She smiled upon him, radiantly, blushed a little, and hurried on through the car.
He sat looking after her with a foolish grin on his face. He was pleased and shaken. So she had noticed him after all. She had been waiting for a chance, as well as he. And now that it had come, he was getting off the train in an hour. It was useless to follow her.… He turned to the window again.
Usually in each generation of a large and long-established family there is some one individual who stands out from the rest as a leader and as the most perfect embodiment of the family traditions and characteristics. This was especially true of the Delcasar family. It was established in this country in the year 1790 by Don Eusabio Maria Delcasar y Morales, an officer in the army of the King of Spain, who distinguished himself in the conquest of New Mexico, and especially in certain campaigns against the Navajos. As was customary at that time, the King rewarded his faithful soldier with a grant of land in the new province. This Delcasar estate lay in the Rio Grande Valley and the surrounding mesa lands. By the provisions of the King's grant, its dimensions were each the distance that Don Delcasar could ride in a day. The Don chose good horses and did not spare them, so that he secured to his family more than a thousand square miles of land with a strip of rich valley through the middle and a wilderness of desert and mountain on either side. Much of this principality was never seen by Don Eusabio, and even the four sons who divided the estate upon his death had each more land than he could well use.
The outstanding figure of this second generation was Don Solomon Delcasar, who was noted for the magnificence of his establishment, and for his autocratic spirit.
No Borgia or Bourbon ever ruled more absolutely over his own domain than did Don Solomon over the hundreds of square miles which made up his estate. He owned not only lands and herds but also men and women. The peones who worked his lands were his possessions as much as were his horses. He had them beaten when they offended him and their daughters were his for the taking. He could not sell them, but this restriction did not apply to the Navajo and Apache slaves whom he captured in war. These were his to be sold or retained for his own use as he preferred. Adult Indians were seldom taken prisoner, as they were untameable, but boys and girls below the age of fifteen were always taken alive, when possible, and were valued at five hundred pesos each. Don Solomon usually sold the boys, as he had plenty of peones, but he never sold a comely Indian girl.
The Don was a man of proud and irascible temper, but kindly when not crossed. He had been known to kill a peon in a fit of anger, and then afterward to bestow all sorts of benefits upon the man's wife and children.
The life of his home, like that of all the other Mexican gentlemen in his time, was an easy and pleasant one. He owned a great adobe house, built about a square courtyard like a fort, and shaded pleasantly by cottonwood trees. There he dwelt with his numerous family, his peones and his slaves. In the spring and summer every one worked in the fields, though not too hard. In the fall the men went east to the great plains to kill a supply of buffalo meat for the winter, and often after the hunt they travelled south into Sonora and Chihuahua to trade mustangs and buffalo hides for woven goods and luxuries.
There was a pleasant social life among the aristocrats of dances and visits. Marriages, funerals and christenings were occasions of great ceremony and social importance. Indeed everything done by the Dons was characterized by much formality and ceremony, the custom of which had been brought over from Spain. But they were no longer really in touch with Spanish civilization. They never went back to the mother country. They had no books save the Bible and a few other religious works, and many of them never learned to read these. Their lives were made up of fighting, with the Indians and also among themselves, for there were many feuds; of hunting and primitive trade; and of venery upon a generous and patriarchal scale. They were Spanish gentlemen by descent, all for honour and tradition and sentiment; but by circumstance they were barbarian lords, and their lives were full of lust and blood.
Circumstance somewhat modified the vaunted purity of their Spanish blood, too. The Indian slave girls who lived in their houses bore the children of their sons, and some of these half-bred and quarter-bred children were eventually accepted by the gente de razon, as the aristocrats called themselves. In this way a strain of Navajo blood got into the Delcasar family, and doubtless did much good, as all of the Spanish stock was weakened by much marrying of cousins.
Dona Ameliana Delcasar, a sister of Don Solomon, was responsible for another alien infusion which ultimately percolated all through the family, and has been thought by some to be responsible for the unusual mental ability of certain Delcasars. Dona Ameliana, a beautiful but somewhat unruly girl, went into a convent in Durango, Mexico, at the age of fifteen. At the age of eighteen she eloped with a French priest named Raubien, who was a man of unusual intellect and a poet. The errant couple came to New Mexico and took up lands. They were excommunicated, of course, and both of them were buried in unconsecrated ground; but despite their spiritual handicaps they raised a family of eleven comely daughters, all of whom married well, several of them into the Delcasar family. Thus some of the Delcasars who boasted of their pure Castilian blood were really of a mongrel breed, comprising along with the many strains that have mingled in Spain, those of Navajo and French.
Don Solomon Delcasar played a brilliant part in the military activities which marked the winning of Mexican Independence from Spain in the eighteen-twenties, and also in the incessant Indian wars. He was a fighter by necessity, but also by choice. They shed blood with grace and nonchalance in those days, and the Delcasars were always known as dangerous men.
The most curious thing about this ri?1/2gime of the old-time Dons was the way in which it persisted. It received its first serious blow in 1845 when the military forces of the United States took possession of New Mexico. Don Jesus Christo Delcasar, who was then the richest and most powerful of the family, was suspected of being a party to the conspiracy which brought about the Taos massacre—the last organized resistance made to the gringo domination. At this time some of the Delcasars went to Old Mexico to live, as did a good many others among the Dons, feeling that the old ways of life in New Mexico were sure to change, and having the Spanish aversion to any departure from tradition. But their fears were not realized, and life went on as before. In 1865 the peones and Indian slaves were formally set free, but all of them immediately went deeply in debt to their former masters and thus retained in effect the same status as before. So it happened that in the seventies, when New York was growing into a metropolis, and the factory system was fastening itself upon New England, and the middle west was getting fat and populous and tame, life in the Southwest remained much as it had been a century before.
Laws and governments were powerless there to change ways of life, as they have always been, but two parallel bars of steel reaching across the prairies brought change with them, and it was great and sudden. The railroad reached the Rio Grande Valley early in the eighties, and it smashed the colourful barbaric pattern of the old life as the ruthless fist of an infidel might smash a stained glass window. The metropolis of the northern valley in those days was a sleepy little adobe town of a few hundred people, reclining about its dusty plaza near the river. The railroad, scorning to notice it, passed a mile away. Forthwith a new town began growing up between, the old one and the railroad. And this new town was such a town as had never before been seen in all the Southwest. It was built of wood and only half painted. It was ugly, noisy and raw. It was populated largely by real estate agents, lawyers, politicians and barkeepers. It cared little for joy, leisure, beauty or tradition. Its God was money and its occupation was business.
This thing called business was utterly strange to the Delcasars and to all of the other Dons. They were men of the saddle, fighting men, and traders only in a primitive way. Business seemed to them a conspiracy to take their lands and their goods away from them, and a remarkably successful conspiracy. Debt and mortgage and speculation were the names of its weapons. Some of the Dons, including many of the Delcasars, who were now a very numerous family, owning each a comfortable homestead but no more, sold out and went to Old Mexico. Many who stayed lost all they had in a few years, and degenerated into petty politicians or small storekeepers. Some clung to a bit of land and went on farming, making always less and less money, sinking into poverty and insignificance, until some of them were no better off than the men who had once been their peones.
Diego Delcasar and Felipe Delcasar, brothers, were two who owned houses in the Old Town and farms nearby, who stayed in the country and held their own for a time and after a fashion. Diego Delcasar was far the more able of the two, and a true scion of his family. He caught onto the gringo methods to a certain extent. He divided some farm land on the edge of town into lots and sold them for a good price. With the money he bought a great area of mountain land in the northern part of the state, where he raised sheep and ruled with an iron hand, much as his forbears had ruled in the valley. He also went into politics, learned to make a good stump speech and got himself elected to the highly congenial position of sheriff. In this place he made a great reputation for fearlessness and for the ruthless and skilful use of a gun. He once kicked down the locked door of a saloon and arrested ten armed gamblers, who had threatened to kill him. He was known and feared all over the territory and was a tyrant in his own section of it. When a gringo prospector ventured to dispute with him the ownership of a certain mine, the gringo was found dead in the bottom of the shaft. It was reported that he had fallen in and broken his neck and no one dared to look at the bullet hole in his back.
Don Diego's wife died without leaving him any children, but he had numerous children none-the-less. It was said that one could follow his wanderings about the territory by the sporadic occurrence of the unmistakable Delcasar nose among the younger inhabitants. All of his sons and daughters by the left hand he treated with notable generosity. He was a sort of hero to the native people—a great fighter, a great lover—and songs about his adventures were composed and sung around the fires in sheep camps and by gangs of trackworkers.
Don Diego, in a word, was a true Delcasar and a great man. Had he used his opportunities wisely he might have been a millionaire. But at the age of sixty he owned little besides his house and his wild mountain lands. He drank a good deal and played poker almost every night. Once he had been a famous winner, but in these later years he generally lost. He also formed a partnership with a real estate broker named MacDougall, for the development of his wild lands, and it was predicted by some that the leading development would be an ultimate transfer of title to Mr. MacDougall, who was known to be lending the Don money and taking land as security.
Don Felipe's career was far less spectacular than that of his brother. He owned more than Don Diego to start with, and he spent his life slowly losing it, so that when he died he left nothing but a house in Old Town and a single small sheep ranch, which afforded his widow, two daughters and one son a scant living.
This son, Ramon Delcasar, was the hope of the family. He would inherit the estate of Don Diego, if the old Don died before spending it all, which it did not seem likely that he would do. But Ramon early demonstrated that he had a more important heritage in the sharp intelligence, and the proud, plucky and truculent spirit which had characterized the best of the Delcasars throughout the family history.
As there was no considerable family estate for him to settle upon, he was sent to law school at the age of twenty, and returned three years later to take up the practice of his profession in his native town. Thus he was the first of the Delcasars to face life with his bare hands. And he was also the last of them in a sense, to face the gringos. All the others of his name, save the senile Don, had either died, departed or sunk from sight into the mass of the peasantry.
The year that Ramon returned to his native town the annual fair, which took place at the fair-grounds in Old Town, was an especially gorgeous and throngful event, rich in spectacle and incident. A steer was roped and hog-tied in record time by Clay MacGarnigal of Lincoln County. A seven-mile relay race was won by a buck named Slonny Begay. In the bronco busting contest two men were injured to the huge enjoyment of the crowd. The twenty-seventh cavalry from Fort Bliss performed a sham battle. The home team beat several other teams. Enormous apples raised by irrigation in the Pecos Valley attracted much attention, and a hungry Mexican absconded with a prize Buff Orpington rooster.
Twice a day the single narrow street which connected the neat brick and frame respectability of New Town with the picturesque adobe squalor of Old Town was filled by a curiously varied crowd. The tourist from the East, distinguished by his camera and his unnecessary umbrella, jostled the Pueblo squaw from Isleta, with her latest-born slung over her shoulder in a fold of red blanket. Mexican families from the country marched in single file, the men first, then the women enveloped in huge black shawls, carrying babies and leading older children by the hand. Cowboys, Indians and soldiers raced their horses through the swarming street with reckless skill. Automobiles honked and fretted. The street cars, bulging humanity at every door and window, strove in vain to relieve the situation. Several children and numerous pigs and chickens were run over. From the unpaved street to the cloudless sky rose a vast cloud of dust, such as only a rainless country made of sand can produce. Dust was in every one's eyes and mouth and upon every one's clothing. It was the unofficial badge of the gathering. It turned the green of the cottonwood trees to grey, and lay in wait for unsuspecting teeth between the halves of hamburger sandwiches sold at corner booths.
Ramon, who had obtained a pass to the grounds through the influence of his uncle, went to the fair every day, although he was not really pleased with it. He was assured by every one that it was the greatest fair ever held in the southwest, but to him it seemed smaller, dustier and less exciting than the fairs he had attended in his boyhood.
This impression harmonized with a general feeling of discontent which had possessed him since his return. He had obtained a position in the office of a lawyer at fifty dollars a month, and spent the greater part of each day making out briefs and borrowing books for his employer from other lawyers. It seemed to him a petty and futile occupation, and the way to anything better was long and obscure. The town was full of other young lawyers who were doing the same things and doing them with a better grace than he. They were impelled by a great desire to make money. He, too, would have liked a great deal of money, but he had no taste for piling it up dollar by dollar. The only thing that cheered him was the prospect of inheriting his uncle's wealth, and that was an uncertain prospect. Don Diego seemed to be doing what he could to get rid of his property before he died.
Local society did not please Ramon either. The girls of the gringo families were not nearly as pretty, for the most part, as the ones he had seen in the East. The dryness and the scorching sun had a bad effect on their complexions. The girls of his own race did not much interest him; his liking was for blondes. And besides, girls were relatively scarce in the West because of the great number of men who came from the East. Competition for their favours was keen, and he could not compete successfully because he had so little money.
The fair held but one new experience for him, and that was the Montezuma ball. This took place on the evening of the last day, and was an exclusive invitation event, designed to give elegance to the fair by bringing together prominent persons from all parts of the state. Ramon had never attended a Montezuma ball, as he had been considered a mere boy before his departure for college and had not owned a dress suit. But this lack had now been supplied, and he had obtained an invitation through the Governor of the State, who happened to be a Mexican.
He went to the ball with his mother and his eldest sister in a carriage which had been among the family possessions for about a quarter of a century. It had once been a fine equipage, and had been drawn by a spirited team in the days before Felipe Delcasar lost all his money, but now it had a look of decay, and the team consisted of a couple of rough coated, low-headed brutes, one of which was noticeably smaller than the other. The coachman was a ragged native who did odd jobs about the Delcasar house.
The Montezuma ball took place in the new Eldorado Hotel which had recently been built by the railroad company for the entertainment of its transcontinental passengers. It was not a beautiful building, but it was an apt expression of the town's personality. Designed in the ancient style of the early Spanish missions, long, low and sprawling, with deep verandahs, odd little towers and arched gateways it was made of cement and its service and prices were of the Manhattan school. A little group of Pueblo Indians, lonesomely picturesque in buck-skin and red blankets, with silver and turquoise rings and bracelets, were always seated before its doors, trying to sell fruit and pottery to well-tailored tourists. It had a museum of Southwestern antiquities and curios, where a Navajo squaw sulkily wove blankets on a handloom for the edification of the guilded stranger from the East. On the platform in front of it, perspiring Mexicans smashed baggage and performed the other hard labour of a modern terminal.
Thus the Eldorado Hotel was rich in that contrast between the old and the new which everywhere characterized the town. Generally speaking, the old was on exhibition or at work, while the new was at leisure or in charge.
When the Delcasar carriage reached the hotel, it had to take its place in a long line of crawling vehicles, most of which were motor cars. Ramon felt acutely humiliated to arrive at the ball in a decrepit-looking rig when nearly every one else came in an automobile. He hoped that no one would notice them. But the smaller of the two horses, which had spent most of his life in the country, became frightened, reared, plunged, and finally backed the rig into one of the cars, smashing a headlight, blocking traffic, and making the Delcasars a target for searchlights and oaths. The Dona Delcasar, a ponderous and swarthy woman in voluminous black silk, became excited and stood up in the carriage, shouting shrill and useless directions to the coachman in Spanish. People began to laugh. Ramon roughly seized his mother by the arm and dragged her down. He was trembling with rage and embarassment.
It was an immense relief to him when he had deposited the two women on chairs and was able to wander away by himself. He took up his position in a doorway and watched the opening of the ball with a cold and disapproving eye. The beginning was stiff, for many of those present were unknown to each other and had little in common. Most of them were "Americans," Jews and Mexicans. The men were all a good deal alike in their dress suits, but the women displayed an astonishing variety. There were tall gawky blonde wives of prominent cattlemen; little natty black-eyed Jewesses, best dressed of all; swarthy Mexican mothers of politically important families, resplendent in black silk and diamonds; and pretty dark Mexican girls of the younger generation, who did not look at all like the sei?1/2oritas of romance, but talked, dressed and flirted in a thoroughly American manner.
The affair finally got under way in the form of a grand march, which toured the hall a couple of times and disintegrated into waltzing couples. Ramon watched this proceeding and several other dances without feeling any desire to take part. He was in a state of grand and gloomy discontent, which was not wholly unpleasant, as is often the case with youthful glooms. He even permitted himself to smile at some of the capers cut by prominent citizens. But presently his gaze settled upon one couple with a real sense of resentment and uneasiness. The couple consisted of his uncle, Diego Delcasar, and the wife of James MacDougall, the lawyer and real estate operator with whom the Don had formed a partnership, and whom Ramon believed to be systematically fleecing the old man.
Don Diego was a big, paunchy Mexican with a smooth brown face, strikingly set off by fierce white whiskers. His partner was a tall, tight-lipped, angular woman, who danced painfully, but with determination. The two had nothing to say to each other, but both of them smiled resolutely, and the Don visibly perspired under the effort of steering his inflexible friend.
Although he did not formulate the idea, this couple was to Ramon a symbol of the disgust with which the life of his native town inspired him. Here was the Mexican sedulously currying favour with the gringo, who robbed him for his pains. And here was the specific example of that relation which promised to rob Ramon of his heritage.
For the gringos he felt a cold hostility—a sense of antagonism and difference—but it was his senile and fatuous uncle, the type of his own defeated race, whom he despised.
When the music stopped Ramon left the hall for the hotel lobby, where he soothed his sensibilities with a small brown cigarette of his own making. In one of the swinging benches covered with Navajo blankets two other dress-suited youths were seated, smoking and talking. One of them was a short, plump Jew with a round and gravely good-natured face; the other a tall, slender young fellow with a great mop of curly brown hair, large soft eyes and a sensitive mouth.
"She's good looking, all right," the little fellow assented, as Ramon came up.
"Good looking!" exclaimed the other with enthusiasm. "She's a little queen! Nothing like her ever hit this town before."
"Who's all the excitement about?" Ramon demanded, thrusting himself into the conversation with the easy familiarity which was his right as one of "the bunch."
Sidney Felberg turned to him in mock amazement.
"Good night, Ramon! Where have you been? Asleep? We're talking about Julia Roth, same as everybody else.…"
"Who's she?" Ramon queried coolly, discharging a cloud of smoke from the depths of his lungs. "Never heard of her."
"Well, she's our latest social sensation … sister of some rich lunger that recently hit town; therefore very important. But that's not the only reason. Wait till you see her."
"All right; introduce me to her," Ramon suggested.
"Go on; knock him down to the lady," Sidney proposed to his companion.
"No, you," Conny demurred. "I refuse to take the responsibility. He's too good looking."
"All right," Sidney assented. "Come on. It's the only way I can get a look at her anyway—introducing somebody else. A good-looking girl in this town can start a regular stampede. We ought to import a few hundred.…"
It was during an intermission. They forced their way through a phalanx of men brandishing programs and pencils, each trying to bring himself exclusively to the attention of a small blonde person who seemed to have some such quality of attractiveness for men as spilled honey has for insects.
When Ramon saw her he felt as though something inside of him had bumped up against his diaphragm, taking away his breath for a moment, agitating him strangely. And he saw an answering surprised recognition in her wide grey eyes.
"You … you're the girl on the train," he remarked idiotically, as he took her hand.
She turned pink and laughed.
"You're the man that wouldn't look up," she mocked.
"What's all this about?" demanded Sidney. "You two met before?"
"May I have a dance?" Ramon inquired, suddenly recovering his presence of mind.
"Let me see … you're awfully late." They put their heads close together over her program. He saw her cut out the name of another man who had two dances, and then she held her pencil poised.
"Of course I didn't get your name," she admitted.
"No; I'll write it … Was it Carter? Delcasar? Ramon Delcasar. You must be Spanish. I was wondering … you're so dark. I'm awfully interested in Spanish people.…" She wrote the name in a bold, upright, childish hand.
Ramon found that he had lost his mood of discontent after this, and he entered with zest into the spirit of the dance which was fast losing its stiff and formal character. Punch and music had broken down barriers. The hall was noisy with the ringing, high pitched laughter of excitement. It was warm and filled with an exotic, stimulating odour, compounded of many perfumes and of perspiration. Every one danced. Young folk danced as though inspired, swaying their bodies in time to the tune. The old and the fat danced with pathetic joyful earnestness, going round and round the hall with red and perspiring faces, as though in this measure they might recapture youth and slimness if only they worked hard enough. Now and then a girl sang a snatch of the tune in a clear young voice, full of abandon, and sometimes others took up the song and it rose triumphant above the music of the orchestra for a moment, only to be lost again as the singers danced apart.
Ramon had been looking forward so long and with such intense anticipation to his dance with Julia Roth that he was a little self-conscious at its beginning, but this feeling was abolished by the discovery that they could dance together perfectly. He danced in silence, looking down upon her yellow head and white shoulders, the odour of her hair filling his nostrils, forgetful of everything but the sensuous delight of the moment.
This mood of solemn rapture was evidently not shared by her, for presently the yellow head was thrown back, and she smiled up at him a bit mockingly.
"Just like on the train," she remarked. "Not a thing to say for yourself. Are you always thus silent?"
"No," he countered, "I was just trying to get up the nerve to ask if you'll let me come to see you."
"That doesn't take much nerve," she assured him. "Practically every man I've danced with tonight has asked me that. I never had so many dates before in my life."
"Well; may I follow the crowd, then?"
"You may," she laughed. "Or call me up first, and maybe there won't be any crowd."
His mother and sister had left early, for which fact he was thankful. He walked home alone with his hat in his hand, letting the cold wind of early morning blow on his hot brow. Punch and music and dancing had filled him with a delightful excitement. He felt glad of life and full of power. He could have gone on walking for hours, enjoying the rhythm of his stride and the gorgeous confusion of his thoughts, but in a remarkably short time he had covered the mile to his house in Old Town.
It was a long, low adobe with a paintless and rickety wooden verandah along its front, and with deep-set, iron-barred windows looking upon the square about which Old Town was built. Delcasars had lived in this house for over a century. Once it had been the best in town. Now it was an antiquity pointed out to tourists. Most of the Mexicans who had money had moved away from Old Town and built modern brick houses in New Town. But this was an expensive proceeding. The old adobe houses which they left brought them little. The Delcasars had never been able to afford this removal. They were deeply attached to the old house and also deeply ashamed of it.
Ramon passed through a narrow hallway into a courtyard and across it to his room. The light of the oil lamp which he lit showed a large oblong chamber with a low ceiling supported by heavy timbers, whitewashed walls and heavy old-fashioned walnut furniture. A large coloured print of Mary and the Babe in a gilt frame hung over the wash-stand, and next to it a college pennant was tacked over a photograph of his graduating class. Several Navajo blankets covered most of the floor and a couple of guns stood in a corner.
When he was in bed his overstimulated state of mind became a torment. He rolled and tossed, beset by exciting images and ideas. Every time that a growing confusion of these indicated the approach of sleep, he was brought sharply back to full consciousness by the crowing of a rooster in the backyard. Finally he threw off the covers and sat up, cursing the rooster in two languages and resolving to eat him.
Sleep was out of the question now. Suddenly he remembered that this was Sunday morning, and that he had intended going to the mountains. To start at once would enable him to avoid an argument with his mother concerning the inevitability of damnation for those who miss early Mass. He rose and dressed himself, putting on a cotton shirt, a faded and dirty pair of overalls and coarse leather riding boots; tied a red and white bandana about his neck and stuck on his head an old felt hat minus a band and with a drooping brim. So attired he looked exactly like a Mexican countryman—a poor ranchero or a woodcutter. This masquerade was not intentional nor was he conscious of it. He simply wore for his holiday the kind of clothes he had always worn about the sheep ranches.
Nevertheless he felt almost as different from his usual self as he looked. A good part of his identity as a poor, discontented and somewhat lazy young lawyer was hanging in the closet with his ready-made business suit. He took a long and noisy drink from the pitcher on the wash-stand, picked up his shot-gun and slipped cautiously out of the house, feeling care-free and happy.
Behind the house was a corral with an adobe wall that was ten feet high except where it had fallen down and been patched with boards. A scrub cow and three native horses were kept there. Two of the horses made the ill-matched team that hauled his mother and sister to church and town. The other was a fiery ragged little roan mare which he kept for his own use. None of these horses was worth more than thirty dollars, and they were easily kept on a few tons of alfalfa a year.
The little mare laid back her ears and turned as though to annihilate him with a kick. He quickly stepped right up against the threatening hind legs, after the fashion of experienced horsemen who know that a kick is harmless at short range, and laid his hand on her side. She trembled but dared not move. He walked to her head, sliding his hand along the rough, uncurried belly and talking to her in Spanish. In a moment he had the bridle on her.
The town was impressively empty and still as he galloped through it. Hoof beats rang out like shots, scaring a late-roaming cat, which darted across the street like a runaway shadow.
Near the railroad station he came to a large white van, with a beam of light emerging from its door. This was a local institution of longstanding, known as the chile-wagon, and was the town's only all-night restaurant. Here he aroused a fat, sleepy old Mexican.
"Un tamale y cafe," he ordered, and then had the proprietor make him a couple of sandwiches to put in his pocket. He consumed his breakfast hurriedly, rolled and lit a little brown cigarette, and was off again.
His way led up a long steep street lined with new houses and vacant lots; then out upon the high empty level of the mesa. It was daylight now, of a clear, brilliant morning. He was riding across a level prairie, which was a grey desert most of the year, but which the rainy season of late summer had now touched with rich colours. The grass in many of the hollows was almost high enough to cut with a scythe, and its green expanse was patched with purple-flowered weeds. Meadow larks bugled from the grass; flocks of wild doves rose on whistling wings from the weed patches; a great grey jack-rabbit with jet-tipped ears sprang from his form beside the road and went sailing away in long effortless bounds, like a wind-blown thing. Miles ahead were the mountains—an angular mass of blue distance and purple shadow, rising steep five thousand feet above the mesa, with little round foothills clustering at their feet. A brisk cool wind fanned his face and fluttered the brim of his hat.
But with the rising of the sun the wind dropped, it became warm and he felt dull and sleepy. When he came to a little juniper bush which spread its bit of shadow beside the road, he dismounted, pulled the saddle off his sweating mare, and sat down in the shade to eat his lunch. When he had finished he wished for a drink of water and philosophically took a smoke instead. Then he lay down, using his saddle for a pillow, puffing luxuriously at his cigarette. It was cool in his bit of shadow, though all the world about him swam in waves of heat.… Cool and very quiet. He felt drowsily content. This sunny desolation was to him neither lonely nor beautiful; it was just his own country, the soil from which he had sprung.… Colours and outlines blurred as his eyelids grew heavy. Sleep conquered him in a sudden black rush.
It was late afternoon when he awakened. He had meant to shoot doves, but it was too late now to do any hunting if he was to reach Archulera's place before dark. He saddled his mare hurriedly and went forward at a hard gallop.
Archulera's place was typical of the little Mexican ranches that dot the Southwest wherever there is water enough to irrigate a few acres. The brown block of adobe house stood on an arid, rocky hillside, and looked like a part of it, save for the white door, and a few bright scarlet strings of chile hung over the rafter ends to dry. Down in the arroyo was the little fenced patch where corn and chile and beans were raised, and behind the house was a round goat corral of wattled brush. The skyward rocky waste of the mountain lifted behind the house, and the empty reach of the mesa lay before—an immense and arid loneliness, now softened and beautified by many shadows.
Ramon could see old man Archulera far up the mountainside, rounding up his goats for evening milking, and he could faintly hear the bleating of the animals and the old man's shouts and imprecations. He whistled loudly through his fingers and waved his hat.
"Como lo va primo!" he shouted, and he saw Archulera stop and look, and heard faintly his answering, "Como la va!"
Soon Archulera had his goats penned, and Ramon joined him while he milked half a dozen ewes.
"I'm glad you came," Archulera told him, "I haven't seen a man in a month except one gringo that said he was a prospector and stole a kid from me.… How was the fair?"
When the milking was over, the old man selected a fat kid, caught it by the hind leg and dragged it, bleating in wild terror, to a gallows behind the house, where he hung it up and skilfully cut its throat, leaving it to bleat and bleed to death while he wiped his knife and went on talking volubly with his guest. The occasional visits of Ramon were the most interesting events in his life, and he always killed a kid to express his appreciation. Ramon reciprocated with gifts of tobacco and whisky. They were great friends.
Archulera was a short, muscular Mexican with a swarthy, wrinkled face, broad but well-cut. His big, thin-lipped mouth showed an amazing disarray of strong yellow teeth when he smiled. His little black eyes were shrewd and full of fire. Although he was sixty years old, there was little grey in the thick black hair that hung almost to his shoulders. He wore a cheap print shirt and a faded pair of overalls, belted at the waist with a strip of red wool. His foot-gear consisted of the uppers of a pair of old shoes with soles of rawhide sewed on moccasin-fashion.
With no more disguise than a red blanket and a grunt Archulera could have passed for an Indian anywhere, but he made it clear to all that he regarded himself as a Spanish gentleman. He was descended, like Ramon, from one of the old families, which had received occasional infusions of native blood. There was probably more Indian in him than in the young man, but the chief difference between the two was due to the fact that the Archuleras had lost most of their wealth a couple of generations before, so that the old man had come down in the social scale to the condition of an ordinary goat-herding pelado. There are many such fallen aristocrats among the New Mexican peasantry. Most of them, like Archulera, are distinguished by their remarkably choice and fluent use of the Spanish language, and by the formal, eighteenth-century perfection of their manners, which contrast strangely with the barbaric way of their lives.
The old man was now skinning and butchering the goat with speed and skill. Nothing was wasted. The hide was flung over a rafter end to dry. The head was washed and put in a pan, as were the smaller entrails with bits of fat clinging to them, and the liver and heart. The meat was too fresh to be eaten tonight, but these things would serve well enough for supper, and he called to his daughter, Catalina, to come and get them.
The two men soon joined her in the low, whitewashed room, which had hard mud for a floor, and was furnished with a bare table and a few chairs. It was clean, but having only one window and that always closed, it had a pronounced and individual odour. In one corner was a little fireplace, which had long served both for cooking and to furnish heat, but as a concession to modern ideas Archulera had lately supplemented it with a cheap range in the opposite corner. There Catalina was noisily distilling an aroma from goat liver and onions. The entrails she threaded on little sticks and broiled them to a delicate brown over the coals, while the head she placed whole in the oven. Later this was cracked open and the brains taken out with a spoon, piping hot and very savoury. These viands were supplemented by a pan of large pale biscuits, and a big tin pot of coffee. Catalina served the two men, saying nothing, not even raising her eyes, while they talked and paid no attention to her. After eating her own supper and washing the dishes she disappeared into the next room.
This self-effacing behaviour on the part of the girl accorded with the highest standards of Mexican etiquette, and showed her good breeding. The fact that old Archulera paid no more attention to her than to a chair did not indicate that he was indifferent to her. On the contrary, as Ramon had long ago discovered, she was one of the chief concerns of his life. He could not forget that in her veins flowed some of the very best of Spanish blood, and he considered her altogether too good for the common sheep-herders and wood-cutters who aspired to woo her. These he summarily warned away, and brought his big Winchester rifle into the argument whenever it became warm. When he left the girl alone, in order to guard her from temptation he locked her into the house together with his dog. Catalina had led a starved and isolated existence.
After the meal, Archulera became reminiscent of his youth. Some thirty-five years before he had been one of the young bloods of the country, having fought against the Navajos and Apaches. He had made a reputation, long since forgotten by every one but himself, for ruthless courage and straight shooting, and many a man had he killed. In his early life, as he had often told Ramon, he had been a boon companion of old Diego Delcasar. The two had been associated in some mining venture, and Archulera claimed that Delcasar had cheated him out of his share of the proceeds, and so doomed him to his present life of poverty. When properly stimulated by food and drink Archulera never failed to tell this story, and to express his hatred for the man who had deprived him of wealth and social position. He had at first approached the subject diffidently, not knowing how Ramon would regard an attack on the good name of his uncle, and being anxious not to offend the young man. But finding that Ramon listened tolerantly, if not sympathetically, he had told the story over and over, each time with more detail and more abundant and picturesque denunciation of Diego Delcasar, but with substantial uniformity as to the facts. As he spoke he watched the face of Ramon narrowly. Always the recital ended about the same way.
"You are not like your uncle," he assured the young man earnestly, in his formal Spanish. "You are generous, honourable. When your uncle is dead, you will repay me for the wrongs that I have suffered—no?"
Ramon would always laugh at this. This night, in order to humour the old man, he asked him how much he thought the Delcasar estate owed him for his ancient wrong.
"Five thousand dollars!" Archulera replied with slow emphasis. He probably had no idea how much he had lost, but five thousand dollars was his conception of a great deal of money.
Ramon again laughed and refused to commit himself. He certainly had no idea of giving Archulera five thousand dollars, but he thought that if he ever did come into his own he would certainly take care of the old man—and of Catalina.
Soon after this Archulera went off to sleep in the other end of the house, after trying in vain to persuade Ramon to occupy his bed. Ramon, as always, refused. He would sleep on a pile of sheep skins in the corner. He really preferred this, because the sheep skins were both cleaner and softer than Archulera's bed, and also for another reason.
After the old man had gone, he stretched out on his pallet, and lit another cigarette. He could hear his host thumping around for a few minutes; then it was very still, save for a faint moan of wind and the ticking of a cheap clock. This late still hour had always been to him one of the most delightful parts of his visits to Archulera's house. For some reason he got a sense of peace and freedom out of this far-away quiet place. And he knew that in the next room Catalina was waiting for him—Catalina with the strong, shapely brown body which her formless calico smock concealed by day, with the eager, blind desire bred of her long loneliness.
During his first few visits to Archulera, he had scarcely noticed the girl. That was doubtless one reason why the old man had welcomed him. He had come here simply to go deer-hunting with Archulera, to eat his goat meat and chile, to get away from the annoyance and boredom of his life in town, and into the crude, primitive atmosphere which he had loved as a boy. Catalina had been to him just the usual slovenly figure of a Mexican woman, a self-effacing drudge.
He had felt her eyes upon him several times, had not looked up quickly enough to meet them, but had noticed the pretty soft curve of her cheek. Then one night when he was stretched out on his sheep skins after Archulera had gone to bed, the girl came into the room and began pottering about the stove. He had watched her, wondering what she was doing. As she knelt on the floor he noticed the curve of her hip, the droop of her breast against her frock, the surprising round perfection of her outstretched arm. It struck him suddenly that she was a woman to be desired, and one who might be taken with ease. At the same time, with a quickening of the blood, he realized that she was doing nothing, and had merely come into the room to attract his attention. Then she glanced at him, daring but shy, with great brown eyes, like the eyes of a gentle animal. When she went back to her own room a moment later, he confidently followed.
Ever since then Catalina had been the chief object of his week-end journeys, and his hunting largely an excuse. She had completed this life which he led in the mountains, and which was so pleasantly different from his life in town. For a part of the week he was a poor, young lawyer, watchful, worried, careful; then for a couple of days he was a ragged young Mexican and the lover of Catalina—a different man. He was the product of a transition, and two beings warred in him. In town he was dominated by the desire to be like the Americans, and to gain a foothold in their life of law, greed and respectability; in the mountains he relapsed unconsciously into the easy barbarous ways of his fathers. Incidentally, this periodical change of personality was refreshing and a source of strength. Catalina had been an important part of it.… As he lay now sleepily puffing a last cigarette, he wondered why it was that he had suddenly lost interest in the girl.
At ten o'clock in the morning Ramon was hard at work in the office of James B. Green. He worked efficiently and with zest as he always did after one of his trips to the mountains. He got out of these ventures into another environment about what some men get out of sprees—a complete change of the state of mind. Archulera and his daughter were now completely forgotten, and all of his usual worries and plans were creeping back into his consciousness.
But this day he had a feeling of pleasant anticipation. At first he could not account for it. And then he remembered the girl—the one he had seen on the train and had met again at the Montezuma ball. It seemed as though the thought of her had been in the back of his mind all the time, and now suddenly came forward, claiming all his attention, stirring him to a quick, unwonted excitement. She had said he might come to see her. He was to 'phone first. Maybe she would be alone.…
In this latter hope he was disappointed. She gave him the appointment, and she herself admitted him. He thought he had never seen such a dainty bit of fragrant perfection, all in pink that matched the pink of her strange little crinkled mouth.
"I'm awfully glad you came," she told him. (Her gladness was always awful.) She led him into the sitting room and presented him to the tall emaciated sick man and the large placid woman who had watched over her so carefully on the train.
Gordon Roth greeted him with a cool and formal manner into which he evidently tried to infuse something of cordiality, as though a desire to be just and broad-minded struggled with prejudice. Mrs. Roth looked at him with curiosity, and gave him a still more restrained greeting. The conversation was a weak and painful affair, kept barely alive, now by one and now by another. The atmosphere was heavy with disapproval. If their greetings had left Ramon in any doubt as to the attitude of the girl's family toward him, that doubt was removed by the fact that neither Mrs. Roth nor her son showed any intention of leaving the room. This would have been not unusual if he had called on a Mexican girl, especially if she belonged to one of the more old-fashioned families; but he knew that American girls are left alone with their suitors if the suitor is at all welcome.
He knew a little about this family from hear-say. They came from one of the larger factory towns in northern New York, and were supposed to be moderately wealthy. They used a very broad "a" and served tea at four o'clock in the afternoon. Gordon Roth was a Harvard graduate and did not conceal the fact. Neither did he conceal his hatred for this sandy little western town, where ill-health had doomed him to spend many of his days and perhaps to end them.
The girl was strangely different from her mother and brother. Whereas their expressions were stiff and solemn, her eyes showed an irrepressible gleam of humour, and her fascinating little mouth was mobile with mirth. She fidgeted around in her chair a good deal, as a child does when bored.
Mrs. Roth decorously turned the conversation toward the safe and reliable subjects of literature and art.
"What do you think of Maeterlinck, Mr. Delcasar?" she enquired in an innocent manner that must have concealed malice.
"I don't know him," Ramon admitted, "Who is he?"
Mrs. Roth permitted herself to smile. Gordon Roth came graciously to the rescue.
"Maeterlinck is a great Belgian writer," he explained. "We are all very much interested in him.…"
Julia gave a little flounce in her chair, and crossed her legs with a defiant look at her mother.
"I'm not interested in him," she announced with decision. "I think he's a bore. Listen, Mr. Delcasar. You know Conny Masters? Well, he was telling me the most thrilling tale the other day. He said that the country Mexicans have a sort of secret religious fraternity that most of the men belong to, and that they meet every Good Friday and beat themselves with whips and sit down on cactus and crucify a man on a cross and all sorts of horrible things … for penance you know, just like the monks and things in the Middle Ages.… He claims he saw them once and that they had blood running down to their heels. Is that all true? I've forgotten what he called them.…"
"Sure. The penitentes. I've seen them lots of times."
"O, do tell us about them. I love to hear about horrible things."
"Well, I've seen lots of penitente processions, but the best one I ever saw was a long time ago, when I was a little kid. There are not so many of them now, and they don't do as much as they used to. The church is down on them, you know, and they're afraid. Ten years ago if you tried to look at them, they would shoot at you, but now tourists take pictures of them."
Gordon Roth's curiosity had been aroused.
"Tell me," he broke in. "What is the meaning of this thing? How did it get started?"
"I don't know exactly," Ramon admitted. "My grandfather told me that they brought it over from Spain centuries ago, and the Indians here had a sort of whipping fraternity, and the two got mixed up, I guess. The church used to tolerate it; it was a regular religious festival. But now it's outlawed. They still have a lot of political power. They all vote the same way. One man that was elected to Congress—they say that the penitente stripes on his back carried him there. And he was a gringo too. But I don't know. It may be a lie.…"
"But tell us about that procession you saw when you were a little boy," Julia broke in. She was leaning forward with her chin in her hand, and her big grey eyes, wide with interest, fixed upon his face.
"Well, I was only about ten years old, and I was riding home from one of our ranches with my father. We were coming through Tijeras canyon. It was March, and there was snow on the ground in patches, and the mountains were cold and bare, and I remember I thought I was going to freeze. Every little while we would get off and set fire to a tumble-weed by the road, and warm our hands and then go on again.…
"Anyway, pretty soon I heard a lot of men singing, all together, in deep voices, and the noise echoed around the canyon and sounded awful solemn. And I could hear, too, the slap of the big wide whips coming down on the bare backs, wet with blood, like slapping a man with a wet towel, only louder. I didn't know what it was, but my father did, and he called to me and we spurred our horses right up the mountain, and hid in a clump of cedar up there. Then they came around a bend in the road, and I began to cry because they were all covered with blood, and one of them fell down.… My father slapped me and told me to shut up, or they would come and shoot us."
"But what did they look like? What were they doing?" Julia demanded frowning at him, impatient with his rambling narrative.
"Well, in front there was un carreta del muerto. That means a wagon of death. I don't think you would ever see one any more. It was just an ordinary wagon drawn by six men, naked to the waist and bleeding, with other men walking beside them and beating them with blacksnake whips, just like they were mules. In the wagon they had a big bed of stones, covered with cactus, and a man sitting in the cactus, who was supposed to represent death. And then they had a Virgin Mary, too. Four penitentes just like the others, with nothing on but bloody pants and black bandages around their eyes, carried the image on a litter raised up over their heads, and they had swords fastened to their elbows and stuck between their ribs, so that if they let down, the swords would stick into their hearts and kill them. And behind that came the Cristo—the man that represented Jesus, you know, dragging a big cross. Behind him came twenty or thirty more penitentes, the most I ever saw at once, some of them whipping themselves with big broad whips made out of amole. One was too weak to whip himself, so two others walked behind him and whipped him. Pretty soon he fell down and they walked over him and stepped on his stomach.…"
"But did they crucify the man, the whatever-you-call-him?" Gordon demanded.
"The Cristo. Sure. They crucify one every year. They used to nail him. Now they generally do it with ropes, but that's bad enough, because it makes him swell up and turn blue.… Sometimes he dies."
Julia was listening with lips parted and eyes wide, horrified and yet fascinated, as are so many women by what is cruel and bloody. But Gordon, who had become equally interested, was cool and inquisitive.
"And you mean to tell me that at one time nearly all the—er—native people belonged to this barbaric organization, and that many of them do yet?"
"Nearly all the common pelados," Ramon hastened to explain. "They are nearly all Indian or part Indian, you know. Not the educated people." Here a note of pride came into his voice. "We are descended from officers of the Spanish army—the men who conquered this country. In the old days, before the Americans came, all these common people were our slaves."
"I see," said Gordon Roth in a dry and judicial tone.
The penitentes, as a subject of conversation, seemed exhausted for the time being and Ramon had given up all hope of being alone with Julia. He rose and took his leave. To his delight Julia followed him to the door. In the hall she gave him her hand and looked up at him, and neither of them found anything to say. For some reason the pressure of her hand and the look of her eyes flustered and confused him more than had all the coldness and disapproval of her family. At last he said good-bye and got away, with his hat on wrong side before and the blood pounding in his temples.
During the following weeks Ramon worked even less than was his custom. He also neglected his trips to the mountains and most of his other amusements. They seemed to have lost their interest for him. But he was a regular attendant upon the weekly dances which were held at the country club, and to which he had never gone before.
The country club was a recent acquisition of the town, backed by a number of local business men. It consisted of a picturesque little frame lodge far out upon the mesa, and a nine-hole golf course, made of sand and haunted by lizards and rattlesnakes. It had become a centre of local society, although there was a more exclusive organization known as the Forty Club, which gave a formal ball once a month. Ramon had never been invited to join the Forty Club, but the political importance of his family had procured him a membership in the country club and it served his present purpose very well, for he found Julia Roth there every Saturday night. This fact was the sole reason for his going. His dances with her were now the one thing in life to which he looked forward with pleasure, and his highest hope was that he might be alone with her.
In this he was disappointed for a long time because Julia was the belle of the town. Her dainty, provocative presence seemed always to be the centre of the gathering. Women envied her and studied her frocks, which were easily the most stylish in town. Men flocked about her and guffawed at her elfin stabs of humour. Her program was always crowded with names, and when she went for a stroll between dances she was generally accompanied by at least three men of whom Ramon was often one. And while the others made her laugh at their jokes or thrilled her with accounts of their adventures, he was always silent and worried—an utter bore, he thought.
This girl was a new experience to him. With the egotism of twenty-four, he had regarded himself as a finished man of the world, especially with regard to women. They had always liked him. He was good to look at and his silent, self-possessed manner touched the feminine imagination. He had had his share of the amorous adventures that come to most men, and his attitude toward women had changed from the hesitancy of adolesence to the purposeful, confident and somewhat selfish attitude of the male accustomed to easy conquest.
This girl, by a smile and touch of her hand, seemed to have changed him. She filled him with a mighty yearning. He desired her, and yet there was a puzzling element in his feeling that seemed to transcend desire. And he was utterly without his usual confidence and purpose. He had reason enough to doubt his success, but aside from that she loomed in his imagination as something high and unattainable. He had no plan. His strength seemed to have oozed out of him. He pursued her persistently enough—in fact too persistently—but he did it because he could not help it.
The longer he followed in her wake, the more marked his weakness became. When he approached her to claim a dance he was often aware of a faint tremble in his knees, and was embarrassed by the fact that the palms of his hands were sweating. He felt that he was a fool and swore at himself. And he was wholly unable to believe that he was making any impression upon her. True, she was quite willing to flirt with him. She looked up at him with an arch, almost enquiring glance when he came to claim her for a dance, but he seldom found much to say at such times, being too wholly absorbed in the sacred occupation of dancing with her. And it seemed to him that she flirted with every one else, too. This did not in the least mitigate his devotion, but it made him acutely uncomfortable to watch her dance with other men, and especially with Conny Masters.
Masters was the son of a man who had made a moderate fortune in the tin-plate business. He had come West with his mother who had a weak throat, had fallen in love with the country, and scandalized his family by resolutely refusing to go back to Indiana and tin cans. He spent most of his time riding about the country, equipped with a note book and a camera, studying the Mexicans and Indians, and taking pictures of the scenery. He said that he was going to make a literary career, but the net product of his effort for two years had been a few sonnets of lofty tone but vague meaning, and a great many photographs, mostly of sunsets.
Conny was not a definite success as a writer, but he was unquestionably a gifted talker, and he knew the country better than did most of the natives. He made real to Julia the romance which she craved to find in the West. And her watchful and suspicious family seemed to tolerate if not to welcome him. Ramon knew that he went to the Roth's regularly. He began to feel something like hatred for Conny whom he had formerly liked.
This feeling was deepened by the fact that Conny seemed to be specially bent on defeating Ramon's ambition to be alone with the girl. If no one else joined them at the end of a dance, Conny was almost sure to do so, and to occupy the intermission with one of his ever-ready monologues, while Ramon sat silent and angry, wondering what Julia saw to admire in this windy fool, and occasionally daring to wonder whether she really saw anything in him after all.
But a sufficiently devoted lover is seldom wholly without a reward. There came an evening when Ramon found himself alone with her. And he was aware with a thrill that she had evaded not only Conny, but two other men. Her smile was friendly and encouraging, too, and yet he could not find anything to say which in the least expressed his feelings.
"Are you going to stay in this country long?" he began. The question sounded supremely casual, but it meant a great deal to him. He was haunted by a fear that she would depart suddenly, and he would never see her again. She smiled and looked away for a moment before replying, as though perhaps this was not exactly what she had expected him to say.
"I don't know. Gordon wants mother and me to go back East this fall, but I don't want to go and mother doesn't want to leave Gordon alone.… We haven't decided. Maybe I won't go till next year."
"I suppose you'll go to college won't you?"
"No; I wanted to go to Vassar and then study art, but mother says college spoils a girl for society. She thinks the way the Vassar girls walk is perfectly dreadful. I offered to go right on walking the same way, but she said anyway college makes girls so frightfully broad-minded.…"
"What will you do then?"
"I'll come out."
"Out of what?"
"Make my di?1/2but, don't you know?"
"In New York. I have an aunt there. She knows all the best people, mother says."
"What happens after you come out?"
"You get married if anybody will have you. If not, you sort of fade away and finally go into uplift work about your fourth season."
"But of course, you'll get married. I bet you'll marry a millionaire."
"I don't know. Mother wants me to marry a broker. She says the big financial houses in New York are conducted by the very best people. But Gordon thinks I ought to marry a professional man—a doctor or something. He thinks brokers are vulgar. He says money isn't everything."
"What do you think?"
"I haven't a thought to my name. All my thinking has been done for me since infancy. I don't know what I want, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't get it if I did.… Come on. They've been dancing for ten minutes. If we stay here any longer it'll be a scandal."
She rose and started for the hall. He suddenly realized that his long-sought opportunity was slipping away from him. He caught her by the hand.
"Don't go, please. I want to tell you something."
She met his hand with a fair grip, and pulled him after her with a laugh.
"Some other time," she promised.
In most of their social diversions the town folk tended always more and more to ape the ways of the East. Local colour, they thought, was all right in its place, which was a curio store or a museum, but they desired their town to be modern and citified, so that the wealthy eastern health-seeker would find it a congenial home. The scenery and the historic past were recognized as assets, but they should be the background for a life of "culture, refinement and modern convenience" as the president of the Chamber of Commerce was fond of saying.
Hence the riding parties and picnics of a few years before had given way to aggressively formal balls and receptions; but one form of entertainment that was indigenous had survived. This was known as a "mesa supper." It might take place anywhere in the surrounding wilderness of mountain and desert. Several auto-loads of young folk would motor out, suitably chaperoned and laden with provisions. Beside some water hole or mountain stream fires would be built, steaks broiled and coffee brewed. Afterward there would be singing and story-telling about the fire, and romantic strolls by couples.
It was one of these expeditions that furnished Ramon with his second opportunity in three weeks to be alone with Julia Roth. The party had journeyed to Los Ojuellos, where a spring of clear water bubbled up in the centre of the mesa. A grove of cottonwood trees shadowed the place, and there was an ancient adobe ruin which looked especially effective by moonlight.
The persistent Conny Masters was a member of the party, but he was handicapped by the fact that he knew more about camp cookery than anyone else present. He had made a special study of Mexican dishes and had written an article about them which had been rejected by no less than twenty-seven magazines. He made a specialty of the enchilada, which is a delightful concoction of corn meal, eggs and chile, and he had perfected a recipe of his own for this dish which he had named the Conny Masters junior.
As soon as the baskets were unpacked and the chaperones were safely anchored on rugs and blankets with their backs against trees, there was a general demand, strongly backed by Ramon, that Conny should cook supper. He was soon absorbed in the process, volubly explaining every step, while the others gathered about him and offered encouragement and humorous suggestion. But there was soon a gradual dispersion of the group, some going for wood and some for water, and others on errands unstated.
Ramon found himself strolling under the cottonwoods with Julia. Neither of them had said anything. It was almost as though the tryst had been agreed upon before. She picked her way slowly among the tussocks of dried grass, her skirt daintily kilted. A faint but potent perfume from her hair and dress blew over him. He ventured to support her elbow with a reverent touch. Never had she seemed more desirable, nor yet, for some reason, more remote.
Suddenly she stopped and looked up at the great desert stars.
"Isn't it big and beautiful?" she demanded. "And doesn't it make you feel free? It's never like this at home, somehow."
"What is it like where you live?" he enquired. He had a persistent desire to see into her life and understand it, but everything she told him only made her more than ever to him a being of mysterious origin and destiny.
"It's a funny little New York factory city with very staid ways," she said. "You go to a dance at the country club every Saturday night and to tea parties and things in between. You fight, bleed and die for your social position and once in a while you stop and wonder why.… It's a bore. You can see yourself going on doing the same thing till the day of your death.…"
Her discontent with things as they are found ready sympathy.
"That's just the way it is here," he said with conviction. "You can't see anything ahead."
"Oh, I don't think its the same here at all," she protested. "This country's so big and interesting. It's different."
"Tell me how," he demanded. "I haven't seen anything interesting here since I got back,—except you."
She ignored the exception.
"I can't express it exactly. The people here are just like people everywhere else—most of them. But the country looks so big and unoccupied. And blue mountains are so alluring. There might be anything beyond them … adventures, opportunities.…"
This idea was a bit too rarefied for Ramon, but he could agree about the mountains.
"It's a fine country," he assented. "For those that own it."
"It's just a feeling I have about it," she went on, trying to express her own half-formulated idea. "But then I have that feeling about life in general, and there doesn't seem to be anything in it. I mean the feeling that it's full of thrilling things, but somehow you miss them all."
"I have felt something like that," he admitted. "But I never could say it."
This discovery of an idea in common seemed somehow to bring them closer together. His hand tightened gently about her arm; almost unconsciously he drew her toward him. But she seemed to be all absorbed in the discussion.
"You have no right to complain," she told him. "A man can do something about it."
"Yes," he agreed, speaking a reflection without stopping to put it in conventional language. "It must be hell to be a woman … excuse me … I mean.…"
"Don't apologize. It is—just that. A man at least has a fighting chance to escape boredom. But they won't even let a woman fight. I wish I were a man."
"Well; I don't," he asserted with warmth, unconsciously tightening his hold upon her arm. "I can't tell you how glad I am that you're a woman."
"Oh, are you?" She looked up at him with challenging, provocative eyes.
For an instant a kiss was imminent. It hovered between them like an invisible fairy presence of which they both were sweetly aware, and no one else.
"Hey there! all you spooners!" came a jovial and irreverent voice from the vicinity of the camp fire. "Come and eat."
The moment was lost; the fairy presence gone. She turned with a little laugh, and they went in silence back to the fire. They were last to enter the circle of ruddy light, and all eyes were upon them. She was pink and self-conscious, looking at her feet and picking her way with exaggerated care. He was proud and elated. This, he knew, would couple their names in gossip, would make her partly his.
He wanted to call on her again, but he felt that he had been insulted and rejected by the Roths, and his pride fought against it. Unable to think for long of anything but Julia he fell into the habit of walking by her house at night, looking at its lighted windows and wondering what she was doing. Often he could see the moving figures and hear the laughter of some gay group about her, but he could not bring himself to go in and face the chilly disapproval of her family. At such times he felt an utter outcast, and sounded depths of misery he had never known before. For this was his first real love, and he loved in the helpless, desperate way of the Latin, without calculation or humour.
One evening there was a gathering on the porch of the Roth house. She was there, sitting on the steps with three men about her. He could see the white blur of her frock and hear her funny little bubbling laugh above the deeper voices of the men. Having ascertained that neither Gordon Roth nor his mother was there, he summoned his courage and went in. She could not see who he was until he stood almost over her.
"O, it's you! I'm awfully glad.…" Their hands met and clung for a moment in the darkness. He sat down on the steps at her feet, and the conversation moved on without any assistance from him. He was now just as happy as he had been miserable a few minutes before.
Presently two of the other men went away, but the third, who was Conny Masters, stayed. He talked volubly as ever, telling wonderful and sometimes incredible stories of things he had seen and done in his wanderings. Ramon said nothing. Julia responded less and less. Once she moved to drop the wrap from about her shoulders, and the alert Conny hastened to assist her. Ramon watched and envied with a thumping heart as he saw the gleam of her bare white shoulders, and realized that his rival might have touched them.
Conny went on talking for half an hour with astonishing endurance and resourcefulness, but it became always more apparent that he was not captivating his audience. He had to laugh at his own humour and expatiate on his own thrills. Finally a silence fell upon the three, broken only by occasional commonplace remarks.
"Well, I guess it's time to drift," Conny observed at last, looking cautiously at his watch.
This suggestion was neither seconded by Ramon nor opposed by Julia. The silence literally pushed Conny to his feet.
"Going, Ramon? No? Well, Good night." And he retired whistling in a way which showed his irritation more plainly than if he had sworn.
The two impolite ones sat silent for a long moment. Ramon was trying to think of what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. Finally without looking at her he said in a low husky voice.
"You know … I love you."
There was more silence. At last he looked up and met her eyes. They were serious for the first time in his experience, and so was her usually mocking little mouth. Her face was transformed and dignified. More than ever she seemed a strange, high being. And yet he knew that now she was within his reach.… That he could kiss her lips … incredible.… And yet he did, and the kiss poured flame over them and welded them into each others' arms.
They heard Gordon Roth in the house coughing, the cough coming closer.
She pushed him gently away.
"Go now," she whispered. "I love you … Ramon."
His conquest was far from giving him peace. Her kiss had transformed his high vague yearning into hot relentless desire. He wanted her. That became the one clear thing in life to him. Reflections and doubts were alien to his young and primitive spirit. He did not try to look far into the future. He only knew that to have her would be delight almost unimaginable and to lose her would be to lose everything.
His attitude toward her changed. He claimed her more and more at dances. She did not want to dance with him so much because "people would talk," but his will was harder than hers and to a great extent he had his way. He now called on her regularly too. He knew that she had fought hard for him against her family, and had won the privilege for him of calling "not too often."
"I've lied for you frightfully," she confessed. "I told them I didn't really care for you in the least, but I want to see you because you can tell such wonderful things about the country. So talk about the country whenever they're listening. And don't look at me the way you do.…"
Mother and brother were alert and suspicious despite her assurance, and manoeuvred with cool skill to keep the pair from being alone. Only rarely did he get the chance to kiss her—once when her brother, who was standing guard over the family treasure, was seized with a fit of coughing and had to leave the room, and again when her mother was called to the telephone. At such times she shrank away from him at first as though frightened by the intensity of the emotion she had created, but she never resisted. To him these brief and stolen embraces were almost intolerably sweet, like insufficient sips of water to a man burned up with thirst.
She puzzled him as much as ever. When he was with her he felt as sure of her love as of his own existence. And yet she often sought to elude him. When he called up for engagements she objected and put him off. And she surrounded herself with other men as much as ever, and flirted gracefully with all of them, so that he was always feeling the sharp physical pangs of jealousy. Sometimes he felt egotistically sure that she was merely trying by these devices to provoke his desire the more, but at other times he thought her voice over the phone sounded doubtful and afraid, and he became wildly eager to get to her and make sure of her again.
Just as her kiss had crystallized his feeling for her into driving desire, so it had focussed and intensified his discontent. Before he had been more or less resigned to wait for his fortune and the power he meant to make of it; now it seemed to him that unless he could achieve these things at once, they would never mean anything to him. For money was the one thing that would give him even a chance to win her. It was obviously useless to ask her to marry him poor. He would have nothing to bring against the certain opposition of her family. He could not run away with her. And indeed he was altogether too poor to support a wife if he had one, least of all a wife who had been carefully groomed and trained to capture a fortune.
There was only one way. If he could go to her strong and rich, he felt sure that he could persuade her to go away with him, for he knew that she belonged to him when he was with her. He pictured himself going to her in a great motor car. Such a car had always been in his imagination the symbol of material strength. He felt sure he could destroy her doubts and hesitations. He would carry her away and she would be all and irrevocably his before any one could interfere or object.
This dream filled and tortured his imagination. Its realization would mean not only fulfilment of his desire, but also revenge upon the Roths for the humiliations they had made him feel. It pushed everything else out of his mind—all consideration of other and possibly more feasible methods of pushing his suit. He came of a race of men who had dared and dominated, who had loved and fought, but had never learned how to work or to endure.
When he gave himself up to his dream he was almost elated, but when he came to contemplate his actual circumstances, he fell into depths of discouragement and melancholy. His uncle stood like a rock between him and his desire. He thought of trying to borrow a few thousand dollars from old Diego, and of leaving the future to luck, but he was too intelligent long to entertain such a scheme. The Don would likely have provided him with the money, and he would have done it by hypothecating more of the Delcasar lands to MacDougall. Then Ramon would have had to borrow more, and so on, until the lands upon which all his hopes and dreams were based had passed forever out of his reach.