An Historical Romance of Old California
It was at Governor Alvarado's house in Monterey that Chonita first knew of Diego Estenega. I had told him much of her, but had never cared to mention the name of Estenega in the presence of an Iturbi y Moncada.
Chonita came to Monterey to stand godmother to the child of Alvarado and of her friend Dona Martina, his wife. She arrived the morning before the christening, and no one thought to tell her that Estenega was to be godfather. The house was full of girls, relatives of the young mother, gathered for the ceremony and subsequent week of festivities. Benicia, my little one, was at the rancho with Ysabel Herrera, and I was staying with the Alvarados. So many were the guests that Chonita and I slept together. We had not seen each other for a year, and had so much to say that we did not sleep at all. She was ten years younger than I, but we were as close friends as she with her alternate frankness and reserve would permit. But I had spent several months of each year since childhood at her home in Santa Barbara, and I knew her better than she knew herself; when, later, I read her journal, I found little in it to surprise me, but much to fill and cover with shapely form the skeleton of the story which passed in greater part before my eyes.
We were discussing the frivolous mysteries of dress, if I remember aright, when she laid her hand on my mouth suddenly.
"Hush!" she said.
A caballero serenaded his lady at midnight in Monterey.
The tinkle of a guitar, the jingling of spurs, fell among the strong tones of a man's voice.
Chonita had been serenaded until she had fled to the mountains for sleep, but she crept to the foot of the bed and knelt there, her hand at her throat. A door opened, and, one by one, out of the black beyond, five white-robed forms flitted into the room. They looked like puffs of smoke from a burning moon. The heavy wooden shutters were open, and the room was filled with cold light.
The girls waltzed on the bare floor, grouped themselves in mock-dramatic postures, then, overcome by the strange magnetism of the singer, fell into motionless attitudes, listening intently. How well I remember that picture, although I have almost forgotten the names of the girls!
In the middle of the room two slender figures embraced each other, their black hair falling loosely over their white gowns. On the window-step knelt a tall girl, her head pensively supported by her hand, a black shawl draped gracefully about her; at her feet sat a girl with head bowed to her knees. Between the two groups was a solitary figure, kneeling with hand pressed to the wall and face uplifted.
When the voice ceased I struck a match, and five pairs of little hands applauded enthusiastically. He sang them another song, then galloped away.
"It is Don Diego Estenega," said one of the girls. "He rarely sings, but I have heard him before."
"An Estenega!" exclaimed Chonita.
"Yes; of the North, thou knowest. His Excellency thinks there is no man in the Californias like him,—so bold and so smart. Thou rememberest the books that were burned by the priests when the governor was a boy, because he had dared to read them, no? Well, when Diego Estenega heard of that, he made his father send to Boston and Mexico for those books and many more, and took them up to his redwood forests in the north, far away from the priests. And they say he had read other books before, although such a lad; his father had brought them from Spain, and never cared much for the priests. And he has been to Mexico and America and Europe! God of my soul! it is said that he knows more than his Excellency himself,—that his mind works faster. Ay! but there was a time when he was wild,—when the mescal burnt his throat like hornets and the aguardiente was like scorpions in his brain; but that was long ago, before he was twenty; now he is thirty-four. He amuses himself sometimes with the girls,—valgame Dios! he has made hot tears flow,—but I suppose we do not know enough for him, for he marries none. Ay! but he has a charm."
"Like what does he look? A beautiful caballero, I suppose, with eyes that melt and a mouth that trembles like a woman in the palsy."
"Ay, no, my Chonita; thou art wrong. He is not beautiful at all. He is rather haggard, and wears no mustache, and he has the profile of the great man, fine and aquiline and severe, excepting when he smiles, and then sometimes he looks kind and sometimes he looks like a devil. He has not the beauty of color; his hair is brown, I think, and his eyes are gray, and set far back; but how they flash! I think they could burn if they looked too long. He is tall and straight and very strong, not so indolent as most of our men. They call him The American because he moves so quickly and gets so cross when people do not think fast enough. He thinks like lightning strikes. Ay! they all say that he will be governor in his time; that he would have been long ago, but he has been away so much. It must be that he has seen and admired thee, my Chonita, and discovered thy grating. Thou art happy that thou too hast read the books. Thou and he will be great friends, I know!"
"Yes!" exclaimed Chonita, scornfully. "It is likely. Thou hast forgotten—perhaps—the enmity between the Capulets and the Montagues was a sallow flame to the bitter hatred, born of jealousy in love, politics, and social precedence, which exists between the Estenegas and the Iturbi y Moncadas?"
Delfina, the first child of Alvarado, born in the purple at the governor's mansion in Monterey, was about to be baptized with all the pomp and ceremony of the Church and time. Dona Martina, the wife of a year, was unable to go to the church, but lay beneath her lace and satin coverlet, her heavy black hair half covering the other side of the bed. Beside her stood the nurse, a fat, brown, high-beaked old crone, holding a mass of grunting lace. I stood at the foot of the bed, admiring the picture.
"Be careful for the sun, Tomasa," said the mother. "Her eyes must be strong, like the Alvarados',—black and keen and strong."
"And let her not smother, nor yet take cold. She must grow tall and strong,—like the Alvarados."
"Where is his Excellency?"
"I am here." And Alvarado entered the room. He looked amused, and probably had overheard the conversation. He justified, however, the admiration of his young wife. His tall military figure had the perfect poise and suggestion of power natural to a man whose genius had been recognized by the Mexican government before he had entered his twenties. The clean-cut face, with its calm profile and fiery eyes, was not that of the Washington of his emulation, and I never understood why he chose so tame a model. Perhaps because of the meagerness of that early proscribed literature; or did the title "Father of his Country" appeal irresistibly to that lofty and doomed ambition?
He passed his hand over his wife's long white fingers, but did not offer her any other caress in my presence.
"How dost thou feel?"
"Well; but I shall be lonely. Do not stay long at the church, no? How glad I am that Chonita came in time for the christening! What a beautiful comadre she will be! I have just seen her. Ay, poor Diego! he will fall in love with her; and what then?"
"It would have been better had she come too late, I think. To avoid asking Diego to stand for my first child was impossible, for he is the man of men to me. To avoid asking Dona Chonita was equally impossible, I suppose, and it will be painful for both. He serenaded her last night, not knowing who she was, but having seen her at her grating; he only returned yesterday. I hope she plants no thorns in his heart."
"Perhaps they will marry and bind the wounds," suggested the woman.
"An Estenega and an Iturbi y Moncada will not marry. He might forget, for he is passionate and of a nature to break down barriers when a wish is dear; but she has all the wrongs of all the Iturbi y Moncadas on her white shoulders, and all their pride in the carriage of her head; to say nothing of that brother whom she adores. She learned this morning that it was Diego's determined opposition that kept Reinaldo out of the Departmental Junta, and meets him in no tender frame of mind——"
Dona Martina raised her hand. Chonita stood in the door-way. She was quite beautiful enough to plant thorns where she listed. Her tall supple figure was clothed in white, and over her gold hair—lurid and brilliant, but without a tinge of red—she wore a white lace mantilla. Her straight narrow brows and heavy lashes were black; but her skin was more purely white than her gown. Her nose was finely cut, the arch almost indiscernible, and she had the most sculptured mouth I have ever seen. Her long eyes were green, dark, and luminous. Sometimes they had the look of a child, sometimes she allowed them to flash with the fire of an animated spirit. But the expression she chose to cultivate was that associated with crowned head and sceptered hand; and sure no queen had ever looked so calm, so inexorable, so haughty, so terribly clear of vision. She never posed—for any one, at least, but herself. For some reason—a youthful reason probably—the iron in her nature was most admired by her. Wherefore,—also, as she had the power, as twin, to heal and curse,—I had named her the Doomswoman, and by this name she was known far and wide. By the lower class of Santa Barbara she was called The Golden Senorita, on account of her hair and of her father's vast wealth.
"Come," she said, "every one is waiting. Do not you hear the voices?"
The windows were closed, but through them came a murmur like that of a pine forest.
The governor motioned to the nurse to follow Chonita and myself, and she trotted after us, her ugly face beaming with pride of position. Was not in her arms the oldest-born of a new generation of Alvarados? the daughter of the governor of The Californias? Her smock, embroidered with silk, was new, and looked whiter than fog against her bare brown arms and face. Her short red satin skirt, a gift of her happy lady's, was the finest ever worn by exultant nurse. About her stringy old throat was a gold chain, bright red roses were woven in her black reboso. I saw her admire Chonita's stately figure with scornful reserve of the colorless gown.
We were followed in a moment by the governor, adjusting his collar and smoothing his hair. As he reached the door-way at the front of the house he was greeted with a shout from assembled Monterey. The plaza was gay with beaming faces and bright attire. The men, women, and children of the people were on foot, a mass of color on the opposite side of the plaza: the women in gaudy cotton frocks girt with silken sashes, tawdry jewels, and spotless camisas, the coquettish reboso draping with equal grace faces old and brown, faces round and olive; the men in glazed sombreros, short calico jackets and trousers; Indians wound up in gala blankets. In the foreground, on prancing silver-trapped horses, were caballeros and donas, laughing and coquetting, looking down in triumph upon the duenas and parents who rode older and milder mustangs and shook brown knotted fingers at heedless youth. The young men had ribbons twisted in their long black hair, and silver eagles on their soft gray sombreros. Their velvet serapes were embroidered with gold; the velvet knee-breeches were laced with gold or silver cord over fine white linen; long deer-skin botas were gartered with vivid ribbon; flaunting sashes bound their slender waists, knotted over the hip. The girls and young married women wore black or white mantillas, the silken lace of Spain, regardless of the sun which might darken their Castilian fairness. Their gowns were of flowered silk or red or yellow satin, the waist long and pointed, the skirt full; jeweled buckles of tiny slippers flashed beneath the hem. The old people were in rich dress of sober color. A few Americans were there in the ugly garb of their country, a blot on the picture.
At the door, just in front of the cavalcade, stood General Vallejo's carriage, the only one in California, sent from Sonoma for the occasion. Beside it were three superbly-trapped horses.
The governor placed the swelling nurse in the carriage, then glanced about him. "Where is Estenega?—and the Castros?" he asked.
"There are Don Jose and Dona Modeste Castro," said Chonita.
The crowd had parted suddenly, and two men and a woman rode toward the governor. One of the men was tall and dark, and his somber military attire became the stern sadness of his face. Castro was not Comandante-general of the army at that time, but his bearing was as imperious in that year of 1840 as when six years later the American Occupation closed forever the career of a man made in derision for greatness. At his right rode his wife, one of the most queenly beauties of her time, small as she was in stature. Every woman's eye turned to her at once; she was our leader of fashion, and we all copied the gowns that came to her from the city of Mexico.
But Chonita gave no heed to the Castros. She fixed her cold direct regard on the man who rode with them, and whom, she knew, must be Diego Estenega, for he was their guest. She was curious to see this enemy of her house, the political rival of her brother, the owner of the voice which had given her the first thrill of her life. He was dressed as plainly as Castro, and had none of the rich southern beauty of the caballeros. His hair was cut short like Alvarado's, and his face was thin and almost sallow. But the life that was in that face! the passion, the intelligence, the kindness, the humor, the grim determination! And what splendid vitality was in his tall thin figure, and nervous activity under the repose of his carriage! I remember I used to think in those days that Diego Estenega could conquer the world if he wished, although I suspected that he lacked one quality of the great rulers of men,—inexorable cruelty.
From the moment his horse carried him into the plaza he did not remove his eyes from Chonita's face. She lowered hers angrily after a moment. As he reached the house he sprang to the ground, and Alvarado presented the sponsors. He lifted his cap and bowed, but not as low as the caballeros who were wont to prostrate themselves before her. They murmured the usual form of salutation:
"At your feet, senorita."
"I appreciate the honor of your acquaintance."
"It is my duty and pleasure to lift you to your horse." And, still holding his cap in his hand, he led her to one of the three horses which stood beside the carriage; with little assistance she sprang to its back, and he mounted the one reserved for him.
The cavalcade started. First the carriage, then Alvarado and myself, followed by the sponsors, the Castros, the members of the Departmental Junta and their wives, then the caballeros and the donas, the old people and the Americans; the populace trudging gayly in the rear, keeping good pace with the riders, who were held in check by a fragment of pulp too young to be jolted.
"You never have been in Monterey before, senorita, I understand," said Estenega to Chonita. No situation could embarrass him.
"No; once they thought to send me to the convent here,—to Dona Concepcion Arguello,—but it was so far, and my mother does not like to travel. So Dona Concepcion came to us for a year, and, after, I studied with an instructor who came from Mexico to educate my brother and me." She had no intention of being communicative with Diego Estenega, but his keen reflective gaze confused her, and she took refuge in words.
"Dona Eustaquia tells me that, unlike most of our women, you have read many books. Few Californian women care for anything but to look beautiful and to marry,—not, however, being unique in that respect. Would you not rather live in our capital? You are so far away down there, and there are but few of the gente de razon, no?"
"We are well satisfied, senor, and we are gay when we wish. There are ten families in the town, and many rancheros within a hundred leagues. They think nothing of coming to our balls. And we have grand religious processions, and bull-fights, and races. We have beautiful canons for meriendas; and I could dance every night if I wished. We are few, but we are quite as gay and quite as happy as you in your capital." The pride of the Iturbi y Moncadas and of the Barbarina flashed in her eyes, then made way for anger under the amused glance of Estenega.
"Oh, of course," he said, teasingly. "You are to Monterey what Monterey is to the city of Mexico. But, pardon me, senorita; I would not anger you for all the gold which is said to lie like rocks under our Californias,—if it be true that certain padres hold that mighty secret. (God! how I should like to get one by the throat and throttle it out of him!) Pardon me again, senorita; I was going to say that you may be pleased to know that there is little magnificence where my ranchos are,—high on the coast, among the redwoods. I live in a house made of big ugly logs, unpainted. There are no cavalcades in the cold depths of those redwood forests, and the ocean beats against ragged cliffs. Only at Fort Ross, in her log palace, does the beautiful Russian, Princess Helene Rotscheff, strive occasionally to make herself and others forget that the forest is not the Bois of her beloved Paris, that in it the grizzly and the panther hunger for her, and that an Indian Prince, mad with love for the only fair-haired woman he has ever seen, is determined to carry her off——"
"Tell me! tell me!" cried Chonita, eagerly, forgetting her role and her enemy. "What is that? I do not know the princess, although she has sent me word many times to visit her—Did an Indian try to carry her off?"
"It happened only the other day. Prince Solano, perhaps you have heard, is chief of all the tribes of Sonoma, Valley of the Moon. He is a handsome animal, with a strong will and remarkable organizing abilities. One day I was entertaining the Rotscheffs at dinner when Solano suddenly flung the door open and strode into the room: we are old friends, and my servants do not stand on ceremony with him. As he caught sight of the princess he halted abruptly, stared at her for a moment, much as the first man may have stared at the first woman, then turned and left the house, sprang on his mustang and galloped away. The princess, you must know, is as blonde as only a Russian can be, and an extremely pretty woman, small and dainty. No wonder the mighty prince of darkness took fire. She was much amused. So was Rotscheff, and he joked her the rest of the evening. Before he left, however, I had a word with him alone, and warned him not to let the princess stray beyond the walls of the fortress. That same night I sent a courier to General Vallejo—who, fortunately, was at Sonoma—bidding him watch Solano. And, sure enough—the day I left for Monterey the Princess Helene was in hysterics, Rotscheff was swearing like a madman, and a soldier was at every carronade: word had just come from General Vallejo that he had that morning intercepted Solano in his triumphant march, at the head of six tribes, upon Fort Ross, and sent him flying back to his mountain-top in disorder and bitterness of spirit."
"That is very interesting!" cried Chonita. "I like that. What an experience those Russians have had! That terrible tragedy!—Ah, I remember, it was you who were to have aided Natalie Ivanhoff in her escape—"
"Hush!" said Estenega. "Do not speak of that. Here we are. At your service, senorita." He sprang to the whaleboned pavement in front of the little church facing the blue bay and surrounded by the gray ruins of the old Presidio, and lifted her down.
Chonita recalled, and angry with herself for having been beguiled by her enemy, took the infant from the nurse's arms and carried it fearfully up the aisle. Estenega, walking beside her, regarded her meditatively.
"What is she?" he thought, "this Californian woman with her hair of gold and her unmistakable intellect, her marble face crossed now and again by the animation of the clever American woman? What an anomaly to find on the shores of the Pacific! All I had heard of The Doomswoman, The Golden Senorita, gave me no idea of this. What a pity that our houses are at war! She is not maternal, at all events; I never saw a baby held so awkwardly. What a poise of head! She looks better fitted for tragedy than for this little comedy of life in the Californias. A sovereignty would suit her,—were it not for her eyes. They are not quite so calm and just and inexorable as the rest of her face. She would not even make a good household tyrant, like Dona Jacoba Duncan. Unquestionably she is religious, and swaddled in all the traditions of her race; but her eyes,—they are at odds with all the rest of her. They are not lovely eyes; they lack softness and languor and tractability; their expression changes too often, and they mirror too much intelligence for loveliness, but they never will be old eyes, and they never will cease to look. And they are the eyes best worth looking into that I have ever seen. No, a sovereignty would not suit her at all; a salon might. But, like a few of us, she is some years ahead of her sphere. Glory be to the Californias—of the future, when we are dirt, and our children have found the gold!"
The baby was nearly baptized by the time he had finished his soliloquy. She had kicked alarmingly when the salt was laid on her tongue, and squalled under the deluge of water which gave her her name and also wet Chonita's sleeve. The godmother longed for the ceremony to be over; but it was more protracted than usual, owing to the importance of the restless object on the pillow in her weary arms. When the last word was said, she handed pillow and baby to the nurse with a fervent sigh of relief which made her appear girlish and natural.
After Estenega had lifted her to her horse he dried her sleeve with his handkerchief. He lingered over the task; the cavalcade and populace went on without them, and when they started they were in the rearward of the blithesome crowd.
"Do you know what I thought as I stood by you in the church?" he asked.
"No," she said, indifferently. "I hope you prayed for the fortune of the little one."
"I did not; nor did you. You were too afraid you would drop it. I was thinking how unmotherly, I had almost said unwomanly, you looked. You were made for the great world,—the restless world, where people fly faster from monotony than from a tidal wave."
She looked at him with cold dignity, but flushed a little. "I am not unwomanly, senor, although I confess I do not understand babies and do detest to sew. But if I ever marry I shall be a good wife and mother. No Spanish woman was ever otherwise, for every Spanish woman has had a good mother for example."
"You have said exactly what you should have said, voicing the inborn principles and sentiments of the Spanish woman. I should be interested to know what your individual sentiments are. But you misunderstand me. I said that you were too good for the average lot of woman. You are a woman, not a doll; an intelligence, not a bundle of shallow emotions and transient desires. You should have a larger destiny."
She gave him a swift sidelong flash from eyes that suddenly looked childish and eager.
"It is true," she said, frankly, "I have no desire to marry and have many children. My father has never said to me, 'Thou must marry;' and I have sometimes thought I would say 'No' when that time came. For the present I am contented with my books and to ride about the country on a wild horse; but perhaps—I do not know—I may not always be contented with that. Sometimes when reading Shakespeare I have imagined myself each of those women in turn. But generally, of course, I have thought little of being any one but myself. What else could I be here?"
"Nothing; excepting a Joan of Arc when the Americans sweep down upon us. But that would be only for a day; we should be such easy prey. If I could put you to sleep and awaken you fifty years hence, when California was a modern civilization! God speed the Americans: Therein lies our only chance."
"What!" she cried. "You—you would have the Americans? You—a Californian! But you are an Estenega; that explains everything."
"I am a Californian," he said, ignoring the scorn of the last words, "but I hope I have acquired some common-sense in roving about the world. The women of California are admirable in every way,—chaste, strong of character, industrious, devoted wives and mothers, born with sufficient capacity for small pleasures. But what are our men? Idle, thriftless, unambitious, too lazy to walk across the street, but with a horse for every step, sleeping all day in a hammock, gambling and drinking all night. They are the natural followers of a race of men who came here to force fortune out of an unbroken country with little to help them but brains and will. The great effort produced great results; therefore there is nothing for their sons to do, and they luxuriously do nothing. What will the next generation be? Our women will marry Americans,—respect for men who are men will overcome prejudice,—the crossed blood will fight for a generation or two, then a race will be born worthy of California. Why are our few great men so very great to us? What have men of exceptional talent to fight down in the Californias except the barriers to its development? In England or the United States they still would be great men,—Alvarado and Castro, at least,—but they would have to work harder."
Chonita, in spite of her disapproval and her blood, looked at him with interest. His ideas and language were strikingly unlike the sentimental rhetoric of the caballeros.
"It is as you say," she admitted; "but the Californian's highest duty is loyalty to his country. Ours is a double duty, isolated as we are on this far strip of land, away from all other civilization. We should be more contemptible than Indians if we were not true to our flag."
"No wonder that you and that famous patriot of ours, Dona Eustaquia Ortega, are bonded friends. I doubt if you could hate as well as she. You have no such violence in your nature; you could neither love nor hate very hard. You would love (if you loved at all) with majesty and serenity, and hate with chili severity." While he spoke he watched her intently.
She met his gaze unflinchingly. "True, senor; I am no 'bundle of shallow emotions,' nor have I a lion in me, like Eustaquia. I am a creature of deliberation, not of impulse: I love and hate as duty dictates."
"You are by nature the most impulsive woman I ever saw," he said, much amused, "and Eustaquia's lion is a kitten to the one that sleeps in you. You have cold deliberation enough, but it is manufactured, and the result of pretty hard work at that. Like all edifices reared without a foundation, it will fall with a crash some day, and the fragments will be of very little use to you." And there the conversation ended: they had reached the plaza, and a babel of voices surrounded them. Governor Alvarado stood on the upper corridor of his house, throwing handfuls of small gold coins among the people, who were shrieking with delight. The girl guests mingled with them, seeing that no palm went home empty. Beside the governor sat Dona Martina, radiant with pride, and behind her stood the nurse, holding the infant on its pillow.
"We had better go to the house as soon as possible," said Estenega. "It is nearly time for the bull-bear fight, and we must have good seats."
They forced their way through the crowd, dismounted at the door, and went up to the corridor. The Castros and I were already there, with a number of other invited guests. The women sat in chairs, close to the corridor railing; several rows of men stood behind them.
The plaza was a jagged circle surrounded by dwelling-houses, some one story in height, others with overhanging balconies; from it radiated five streets. All corridors were crowded with the elegantly-dressed men and women of the aristocracy; large black fans were waving; every eye was flashing expectantly; the people stood on platforms which had been erected in four of the streets.
Amidst the shouts of the spectators, two vaqueros, dressed in black velvet short-clothes, dazzling linen, and stiff black sombreros, tinkling bells attached to their trappings, jingling spurs on their heels, galloped into the plaza, driving a large aggressive bull. They chased him about in a circle, swinging their reatas, dodging his onslaughts, then rode out, and four others entered, dragging an unwilling bear by a reata tied to each of its legs. By means of a long chain and much dexterity they fastened the two beasts together, freed the legs of the bear, then retired to the entrance to await events. But the bull and the bear would not fight. The latter arose on his haunches and regarded his enemy warily; the bull appeared to disdain the bear as too small game; he but lowered his horns and pawed the ground. The spectators grew impatient. The brave caballeros and dainty donas wanted blood. They tapped their feet and murmured ominously. As for the populace, it howled for slaughter. Governor Alvarado made a sign to one of the vaqueros; the man rushed abruptly upon the bull and hit him a sharp blow across the nose with the cruel quirto. The bull's dignity vanished. With the quadrupedian capacity for measuring distance, he inferred that the blow had been inflicted by the bear, who sat some twenty feet away, mildly licking his paws. He made a savage onset. The bear, with the dexterity of a vaquero, leaped aside and sprang upon the assailant's neck, his teeth meeting argumentatively in the rope-like tendons. The bull roared with pain and rage and attempted to shake him off, but he hung on; both lost their footing and rolled over and over amidst clouds of dust, a mighty noise, and enough blood to satisfy the early thirst of the beholders. Then the bull wrenched himself free; before the mountain visitor could scramble to his feet, he fixed him with his horns and tossed him on high. As the bear came down on his back with a thud and a snap which would have satisfied a bull less anxious to show what a bull could do, the victor rushed upon the corpse, kicked and stamped and bit until the blood spouted into his eyes, and pulp and dust were indistinguishable. Then how the delighted spectators clapped their hands and cried "Brava!" to the bull, who pranced about the plaza, dragging the carcass of the bear after him, his head high, his big eyes red and rolling! The women tore off their rebosos and waved them like banners, smashed their fans, and stamped their little feet; the men whirled their sombreros with supple wrists. But the bull was not satisfied; he pawed the ground with demanding hoofs; and the vaqueros galloped into the ring with another bear. Nor had they time to detach their reatas before the bull was upon the second antagonist; and they were obliged to retire in haste.
Estenega, who stood between Chonita and myself, watched The Doomswoman attentively. Her lips were compressed fiercely: for a moment they bore a strange resemblance to his own as I had seen them at times. Her nostrils were expanded, her lids half covered her eyes. "She has cruelty in her," he murmured to me as the first battle finished; "and it was her imperious wish that the bull should win, because he is the more lordly animal. She has no sympathy for the poor bundle of hair and quivering flesh that bounded on the mountain yesterday. Has she brutality in her?—just enough—"
"Brava! Brava!" The women were on their feet; even Chonita for the moment forgot herself, and beat the railing with her small fist. Another bear had been impaled and tossed and trampled. The bull, panting from his exertions, dashed about the plaza, still dragging his first victim after him. Suddenly he stopped; the blood gushed from his nostrils; he shivered like a skeleton hanging in the wind, then fell in an ignominious heap—dead.
"A warning, Diego," I said, rising and shaking my fan at him. "Be not too ambitious, else wilt thou die of thy victories. And do not love the polar star," I murmured in his ear, "lest thou set fire to it and fall to ashes thyself."
In the long dining-room, opening upon the large high-walled garden at the back of the Governor's house, a feast was spread for fifty people. Dona Martina sat for a little time at the head of the table, her yellow gown almost hidden by the masses of hair which her small head could not support. Castro was on one side of her, Estenega on the other, Chonita by her arch-enemy. A large bunch of artificial flowers was at each plate, and the table was loaded with yellowed chickens sitting proudly in scarlet gravy, tongues covered with walnut sauce, grilled meats, tamales, mounds of tortillas, and dulces.
Alvarado, at the lower end of the table, sat between Dona Modeste Castro and myself; and between the extremes of the board were faces glowing, beautiful, ugly, but without exception fresh and young. From all, the mantilla and serape had been removed, jewels sparkled in the lace shirts of the men, white throats were encircled by the invariable necklace of Baja Californian pearls. Chonita alone wore a string of black pearls. I never saw her without it.
Dona Martina took little part in the talk and laughter, and after a time slipped away, motioning to Chonita to take her place. The conversation turned upon war and politics, and in its course Estenega, looking from Chonita to Castro with a smile of good-natured irony said,—
"Dona Chonita is of your opinion, coronel, that California was the direct gift of heaven to the Spaniards, and that the Americans cannot have us."
Castro raised his glass to the comadre. "Dona Chonita has the loyal bosom of all Californian women. Our men love better the olive of peace than the flavor of discord; but did the bandoleros dare to approach our peaceful shores with dastardly intent to rob, then, thanks be to God, I know that every man among them would fight for this virgin land. Thou, too, Diego, thou wouldst unsheathe thy sword, in spite of thy pretended admiration of the Americans."
Estenega raised his shoulders. "Possibly. But in American occupation lies the hope of California. What have we done with it in our seventy years of possession? Built a few missions, which are rotting, terrorized or cajoled few thousand worthless Indians into civilized imbecility, and raised a respectable number of horses and cattle. Our hide and tallow trade is only good; the Russians have monopolized the fur trade; we continue to raise cattle and horses because it would be an exertion to suppress them; and meanwhile we dawdle away our lives very pleasurably, whilst a magnificent territory, filled with gold and richer still in soil, lies idle beneath our feet. Nature never works without a plan. She compounded a wonderful country, and she created a wonderful people to develop it. She has allowed us to drone on it for a little time, but it was not made for us; and I am sufficiently interested in California to wish to see her rise from her sleep and feel and live in every part of her." He turned suddenly to Chonita. "If I were a sculptor," he said, "I should use you as a model for a statue of California. I have the somewhat whimsical idea that you are the human embodiment of her."
Before she could muster her startled and angry faculties for reply, before Estenega had finished speaking, in fact, Castro brought his open palm down on the table, his eyes blazing.
"Oh, execrable profanation!" he cried. "Oh, unheard-of perfidy! Is it possible that a man calling himself a Californian could give utterance to such sentiments? Oh, abomination! You would invite, welcome, uphold, the American adventurer? You would tear apart the bosom of your country under pretense of doctoring its evils? You would cast this fair gift of Almighty God at the feet of American swine? Oh, Diego! Diego! This comes of the heretic books thou hast read. It is better to have heart than brain."
"True: the palpitations do not last as long. We have had proof which I need not recapitulate that to preserve California to itself it must be tied fast to Mexico, otherwise would it die of anarchy or fall a prey to the first invader. So far so good. But what has Mexico done for California? Nothing; and she will do less. She is a mother who has forgotten the child she put out to nurse. England and France and Russia would do as little. But the United States, young and ambitious, will give her greedy attention, and out of their greed will California's good be wrought. And although they sweep us from the earth, they will plant fruit where they found weeds."
Don Jose pushed back his chair violently and left the table. Estenega turned to Chonita and found her pallid, her nostrils tense, her eyes flashing.
"Traitor!" she articulated. "I hate you! And it was you—you—who kept my loyal brother from serving his country in the Departmental Junta. He is as full of fire and patriotism as Castro; and yet you, whose blood is ice, could be a member of the Electoral College and defeat the election of a man who is as much an honor to his country as you are a shame."
He smiled a little cruelly, but without anger or shame in his face. "Senorita," he said, "I defeated your brother because I did not believe him to be of any use to his country. He would only have been in the way as a member of the Junta, and an older man wanted the place. Your brother has Don Jose's enthusiasm without his magnetism and remarkable executive power. He is too young to have had experience, and has done neither reading nor thinking. Therefore I did my best to defeat him. Pardon my rudeness, senorita; ascribe it to revenge for calling me a traitor."
"You—you——" she stammered, then bent her head over her plate, her Spanish dignity aghast at the threatening tears. Her hand hung clinched at her side. Diego took it in spite of resistance, and, opening the rigid fingers, bent his head beneath the board and kissed them.
"I believe you are somewhat of a woman, after all," he said.
The party deserted the table for the garden, there to idle until evening should give them the dance. All of the men and most of the women smoked cigaritos, the latter using the gold or silver holder, supporting it between the thumb and finger. The high walls of the garden were covered with the delicate fragrant pink Castilian roses, and the girls plucked them and laid them in their hair.
"Does it look well, Don Diego?" asked one girl, holding her head coquettishly on one side.
"It looked better on its vine," he said, absently. He was looking for Chonita, who had disappeared. "Roses are like women: they lose their subtler fragrance when plucked; but, like women, their heads always droop invitingly."
"I do not understand thee, Don Diego," said the girl, fixing her wide innocent eyes on the young man's inscrutable face. "What dost thou mean?"
"That thou art sweeter than Castilian roses," he said and passed on. "And how is, thy little one?" he asked a young matron whose lithe beauty had won his admiration a year ago, but to whom maternity had been too generous. She raised her soft brown eyes out of which the coquettish sparkle had gone.
"Beautiful! Beautiful!" she cried. "And so smart, Don Diego. He beats the air with his little fists, and—Holy Mary, I swear it!—he winks one eye when I tickle him."
Estenega sauntered down the garden endeavoring to imagine Chonita fat and classified. He could not. He paused beside a woman who did not raise her eyes at once, but coquettishly pretended to be absorbed in the conversation of those about her. She too had been married a year and more, but her figure had not lost its elegance, and she was very handsome. Her coquetry was partly fear. Estenega's power was felt alike by innocent girls and chaste matrons. There were few scandals in those days; the women of the aristocracy were virtuous by instinct and rigid social laws; but, how it would be hard to tell, Estenega had acquired the reputation of being a dangerous man. Perhaps it had followed him back from the city of Mexico, where at one time, he had spent three years as diputado, and whence returned with a brilliant and startling record of gallantry. A woman had followed on the next ship, and, unless I am much mistaken, Diego passed many uneasy hours before he persuaded her to return to Mexico. Then old Don Jose Briones' beautiful young wife was found dead in her bed one morning, and the old women who dressed the body swore that there were marks of hard skinny fingers on her throat. Estenega had made no secret of his admiration of her. At different times girls of the people had left Monterey suddenly, and vague rumors had floated down from the North that they had been seen in the redwood forests where Estenega's ranchos lay. I asked him, point-blank, one day, if these stories were true, prepared to scold him as he deserved; and he remarked coolly that stories of that sort were always exaggerated, as well as a man's success with women. But one had only to look at that face, with its expression of bitter-humorous knowledge, its combination of strength and weakness, to feel sure that there were chapters in his life that no woman outside of them would ever read. I always felt, when with Diego Estenega, that I was in the presence of a man who had little left to learn of life's phases and sensations.
"The sun will freckle thy white neck," he said to the matron who would not raise her eyes.
"Shall I bring thy mantilla, Dona Carmen?"
She looked up with a swift blush, then lowered her soft black eyes suddenly before the penetrating gaze of the man who was so different from the caballeros.
"It is not well to be too vain, senor. We must think less of those things and more of—our Church."
"True; the Church may be a surer road to heaven than a good complexion, if less of a talisman on earth. Still I doubt if a freckled Virgin would have commanded the admiration of the centuries, or even of the Holy Ghost."
"Don Diego! Don Diego!" cried a dozen horrified voices.
"Diego Estenega, if it were any man but thou," I exclaimed, "I would have thee excommunicated. Thou blasphemer! How couldst thou?"
Diego raised my threatening hand to his lips. "My dear Eustaquia, it was merely a way of saying that woman should be without blemish. And is not the Virgin the model for all women?"
"Oh," I exclaimed, impatiently, "thou canst plant an idea in people's minds, then pluck it out before their very eyes and make them believe it never was there. That is thy power,—but not over me. I know thee." We were standing apart, and I had dropped my voice. "But come and talk to me awhile. I cannot stand those babies," and I indicated with a sweep of my fan the graceful, richly-dressed caballeros whose soft drooping eyes and sensuous mouths were more promising of compliments than conversation. "Neither Alvarado nor Castro is here. Thou too wouldst have gone in a moment had I not captured thee."
"On the contrary, I should have captured you. If we were not too old friends for flirting I should say that your handsome-ugly face is the most attractive in the garden. It is a pretty picture, though," he went on, meditatively,—"those women in their gay soft gowns, coquetting demurely with the caballeros. Their eyes and mouths are like flowers; and their skins are so white, and their hair so black. The high wall, covered with green and Castilian roses, was purposely designed by Nature for them. Sometimes I have a passing regret that it is all doomed, and a half-century hence will have passed out of memory."
"What do you mean?" I asked, sharply.
"Oh, we will not discuss the question of the future. I sent Castro away from the table in a towering rage, and it is too hot to excite you. Even the impassive Doomswoman became so angry that she could not eat her dinner."
"It is your old wish for American occupation—the bandoleros! No; I will not discuss it with you: I have gone to bed with my head bursting when we have talked of it before. You might have spared poor Jose. But let us talk of something else—Chonita. What do you think of her?"
"A thousand things more than one usually thinks of a woman after the first interview."
"But do you think her beautiful?"
"She is better than beautiful. She is original."
"I often wonder if she would be La Favorita of the South if it were not for her father's great wealth and position. The men who profess to be her slaves must have absorbed the knowledge that she has the brains they have not, although she conceals her superiority from them admirably: her pride and love of power demand that she shall be La Favorita, although her caballeros must weary her. If she made them feel their insignificance for a moment they would fly to the standard of her rival, Valencia Menendez, and her regalities would be gone forever. A few men have gone honestly wild over her, but I doubt if any one has ever really loved her. Such women receive a surfeit of admiration, but little love. If she were an unintellectual woman she would have an extraordinary power over men, with her beauty and her subtle charm; but now she is isolated. What a pity that your houses are at war!"
He had been looking away from me. As I finished speaking he turned his face slowly toward me, first the profile, which looked as if cut rapidly with a sharp knife out of ivory, then the full face, with its eyes set so deeply under the scraggy brows, its mouth grimly humorous. He looked somewhat sardonic and decidedly selfish. Well I knew what that expression meant. He had the kindest heart I had ever known, but it never interfered with a most self-indulgent nature. Many times I had begged him to be considerate of some girl who I knew charmed him for the moment only; but one secret of his success with women was his unfeigned if brief enthusiasm.
"Let her alone!" I exclaimed. "You cannot marry her. She would go into a convent before she would sacrifice the traditions of her house. And if you were not at war, and she married you, you would only make her miserably happy."
He merely smiled and continued to look me straight in the eyes.
I went upstairs and found Chonita reading Landor's "Imaginary Conversations." (When Chonita was eighteen,—she was now twenty-four—Don Alfredo Robinson, one of the American residents, had at her father's request sent to Boston for a library of several hundred books, a birthday gift for the ambitious daughter of the Iturbi y Moncadas. The selection was an admirable one, and a rancho would not have pleased her as well. She read English and French with ease, although she spoke both languages brokenly.) As I entered she laid down the book and clasped her hands behind her head. She looked tranquil, but less amiable than was her wont.
"Thou hast been far away from the caballeros and the donas of Monterey," I said.
"Not even among Spanish ghosts."
"I think thou carest at heart for nothing but thy books."
"And a few people, and my religion."
"But they come second, although thou wilt not acknowledge it even to thyself. Suppose thou hadst to sacrifice thy religion or thy books, never to read another? Which wouldst thou choose?"
"God of my soul! what a question! No Spanish woman was ever a truer Catholic; but to read is my happiness, the only happiness I want on earth."
"Art thou sure that to train the intellect means happiness?"
"Sure. Does it not give us the power to abstract ourselves from life when we are tired of it?"
"True, but there is another result you have not thought of. The more the intellect is developed, the more acute and aggressive is the nervous system; the more tenacious is the memory, the more has one to live with, and the higher the ideals. When the time comes for you to live you will suffer with double the intensity and depth of the woman whose nerves are dull or stunted."
"To suffer you must love, and I never shall love. Who is there to love? Books always suffice me, and I suppose there are enough in the world to make the time pass as long as I live."
I did not continue the argument, knowing the placid superiority of inexperience.
"But thou hast not yet told me which thou wouldst give up."
"The books, of course. I hope I know my duty. I would sacrifice all things to my religion. But the priests do not interfere now as they did in the last generation."
I was very religious in those days, and my heart beat with approval. "I have always said that the Church may let women read what they choose. The good principles they are born with they will adhere to."
"We are by nature conservatives, that is all. And we have need of religion. We must have something to lean on, and men are poor props, as far as I have observed. Sometimes after having read a long while in an absorbing book, particularly one that seemed to put something with a living hand into my brain and make it feel larger, I find that I am miles away from the Church; I have forgotten its existence. I always run back."
"Dios! I should think so. Yes, it is well we do need our religion. Men do not; for that reason they drop it the moment the wings on their minds grow fast—as they would, when the warm sun came out, drop the thick blanket of the Indian, borrowed and gratefully worn in dark uncertain weather. I do not dare ask Diego Estenega what he believes, lest he tell me he believes nothing and I should have to hear it. How dost thou like my friend, Chonita?"
"Art thou asking me how I like the enemy of my house? I hate him."
"If he goes to Santa Barbara with Alvarado this summer wilt thou ask him to be thy guest?"
"Of course. The enmity has always been veiled with much courtesy; and I would have him see that we know how to entertain."
I watched her covertly; I could detect no sign of interest. Presently she took up the volume of Landor and read aloud to me, the stately English sounding oddly with her Spanish accent.
At ten o'clock the large sala of the Governor's house was thronged with guests, and the music of the flute, harp, and guitar floated through the open windows: the musicians sat on the corridor. How harmonious was the Monterey ball-room of that day!—the women in their white gowns of every rich material, the men in white trousers, black silk jackets, and low morocco shoes; no color except in the jewels and the rich Southern faces. The bare ugly sala, from which the uglier furniture had been removed, needed no ornaments with that moving beauty; and even the coffee-colored, high-stomached old people were picturesque. I wander through those deserted salas sometimes, and, as the tears blister my eyes, imagination and memory people the cold rooms, and I forget that the dashing caballeros and lovely donas who once called Monterey their own and made it a living picture-book are dust beneath the wild oats and thistles of the deserted cemetery on the hill. The Americans hardly know that such a people once existed.
Chonita entered the sala at eleven o'clock, looking like a snow queen. Her gold hair, which always glittered like metal, was arranged to simulate a crown; she wore a gown of Spanish lace, and no jewels but the string of black pearls. I never had seen her look so cold and so regal.
Estenega stepped out upon the corridor. "Play El Son," he said, peremptorily. Then as the vivacious music began he walked over to Chonita and clapped his hands in front of her as authoritatively as he had bidden the musicians. What he did was of frequent occurrence in the Californian ball-room, but she looked haughtily rebellious. He continued to strike his hands together, and looked down upon her with an amused smile which brought the angry color to her face. Her hesitation aroused the eagerness of the other men, and they cried loudly—
"El Son! El Son! senorita."
She could no longer refuse, and, passing Estenega with head erect, she bent it slightly to the caballeros and passed to the middle of the room, the other guests retreating to the wall. She stood for a moment, swaying her body slightly; then, raising her gown high enough for the lace to sweep the instep of her small arched feet, she tapped the floor in exact time to the music for a few moments, then glided dreamily along the sala, her willowy body falling in lovely lines, unfolding every detail of El Son, unheeding the low ripple of approval. Then, dropping her gown, she spun the length of the room like a white cloud caught in a cyclone; her garments whirred, her heels clicked, her motion grew faster and swifter, until the spectators panted for breath. Then, unmindful of the lively melody, she drifted slowly down, swaying languidly, her long round arms now lolling in the lace of her gown, now lifted to graceful sweep and curve. The caballeros shouted their appreciation, flinging gold and silver at her feet; never had El Son been given with such variations before. Never did I see greater enthusiasm until the night which culminated the tragedy of Ysabel Herrera. Estenega stood enraptured, watching every motion of her body, every expression of her face. The blood blazed in her cheeks, her eyes were like green stars and sparkled wickedly. The cold curves of her statuesque mouth were warm and soft, her chin was saucily uplifted, her heavy waving hair fell over her shoulders to her knees, a glittering veil. Where had The Doomswoman, the proud daughter of the Iturbi y Moncadas, gone?
The girls were a little frightened: this was not the Son to which they were accustomed. The young matrons frowned. The old people exclaimed, "Caramba!" "Mother of God!" "Holy Mary!" I was aghast; well as I knew her, this was a piece of audacity for which I was unprepared.
As the dance went on and she grew more and more like an untamed wood-nymph, even the caballeros became vaguely uneasy, hotly as they admired the beautiful wild thing enchaining their gaze. I looked again at Estenega and knew that his heart beat in passionate sympathy.
"I have found her," he murmured, exultantly. "She is California, magnificent, audacious, incomprehensible, a creature of storms and convulsions and impregnable calm; the germs of all good and all bad in her; a woman sublimated. Every husk of tradition has fallen from her."
Once, as she passed Estenega, her eyes met his. They lit with a glance of recognition, then the lids drooped and she floated on. He left the room; and when he returned she sat on a window-seat, surrounded by caballeros, as calm and as pale as when he had commanded her to dance. He did not approach her, but, joined me at the upper end of the sala, where I stood with Alvarado, the Castros, Don Thomas Larkin, the United States Consul, and a half-dozen others. We were discussing Chonita's interpretation of El Son.
"That was a strange outbreak for a Spanish girl," said Senor Larkin.
"She is Chonita Iturbi y Moncada," said Castro, severely. "She is like no other woman, and what she does is right."
The consul bowed. "True, coronel. I have seen no one here like Dona Chonita. There is a delicious uniformity about the Californian women: so reserved, shrinking yet dignified, ever on their guard. Dona Chonita changed so swiftly from the typical woman of her race to an houri, almost a bacchante,—only an extraordinary refinement of nature kept her this side of the line,—that an American would be tempted to call her eccentric."
Alvarado lifted his hand and pointed through the window to the stars. "The golden coals in the blue fire of heaven are not higher above censure," he said.
Dona Modeste raised her eyebrows. "Coals are safest when burned on the domestic hearth and carefully watched; safer still when they have fallen to ashes."
"What is this rumor of pirates on the coast?" demanded Alvarado, abruptly.
I put my hand through Estenega's arm and drew him aside. The music of the contradanza was playing, and we stood against the wall.
"Well, you know Chonita better since that dance," I said to him. "Polar stars are not unlikely to have volcanoes. Better let the deeps alone, my friend; the lava might scorch you badly. Women of complex natures are interesting studies, but dangerous to love. They wear the nerves to a point, and the tired brain and heart turn gratefully to the crystalline, idle-minded woman. She is too much like yourself, Diego. And you,—how long could you love anybody? Love with you means curiosity."
His face looked like chalk for a moment, an indication with him of suppressed and violent emotion. Then he turned his head and regarded me with a slight smile. "Not altogether. You forget that the most faithless men have been the most faithful when they have found the one woman. Curiosity and fickleness are merely parts of a restless seeking,—nothing more."
"I was sure you would acquit yourself with credit! But you have an unholy charm, and you never hesitate to exert it."
He laughed outright. "One would think I was a rattlesnake. My unholy charm consists of a reasonable amount of address born of a great weakness for women and some personal magnetism,—the latter the offspring of the habit of mental concentration—"
"And an inexorable will—"
"Perhaps. As to the exercise of it—why not? Vive la bagatelle!"
"It is useless to argue with you. Are you going to let that girl alone?"
"She is the only girl in the Californias whom I shall not let alone."
I could have shaken him. "To what end? And her brother? I have often wondered which would rule you in a crisis, your head or your passions."
"It would depend upon the crisis. I am afraid you are right,—that altiloquent Reinaldo will give trouble."
"Is it true that he has been conspiring with Carillo, and that an extraordinary and secret session of the Departmental Junta has been called?"
He looked down upon me with his grimmest smile. "You curious little woman! You must not put your white fingers into the Departmental pie. If you had been a man, with as good a brain as you have for a woman, you would have been an ornament to our politics. But as it is—pardon me—the better for our balancing country the less you have to do with it."
I could feel my eyes snap. "You respect no woman's mind," I said, savagely; "nothing but the woman in her. But I will not quarrel with you. Tell that baby over there to come and waltz with me."
At dawn, as we entered our room, I seized Chonita by the shoulders and shook her. "What did you mean by such a performance?" I demanded. "It was unprecedented!"
She threw back her head and laughed. "I could not help it," she said. "First I felt an irresistible desire to show Monterey that I dared do anything I chose. And then I have a wild something in me which has often threatened to break loose before; and to-night it did. It was that man. He made me."
"Ay, Dios!" I thought, "it has begun already."
The festivities were to last a week, every one taking part but Alvarado and Dona Martina. The latter was not strong enough, the governor cared more for duty than for pleasure.
The next day we had a merienda on the hills behind the town. The green pine woods were gay with the bright colors of the young people. Here and there a caballero dashed up and down to show his horsemanship and the silver and embroidered silk of his saddle. Silver, too, were his jingling spurs, the eagles on his sombrero, the buttons on his colorous silken jacket. Horses, without exception handsomely trapped, were tethered everywhere, pawing the ground or nibbling the grass. The girls wore white or flowered silk or muslin gowns, and rebosos about their heads; the brown ugly duenas, ever at their sides, were foils they would gladly have dispensed with. The tinkle of the guitar never ceased, and the sweet voices of the girls and the rich voices of the men broke forth with the joyous spontaneity of the birds' songs about them.
Chonita wore a white silk gown, I remember flowered with blue,—large blue lilies. The reboso matched the gown. As soon as we arrived—we were a little late—she was surrounded by caballeros who hardly knew whether to like her or not, but who adhered to the knowledge that she was Chonita Iturbi y Moncada, the most famous beauty of the South.
"Dios! but thou art beautiful," murmured one, his dreamy eyes dwelling on her shining hair.
"Gracias, senor." She whispered it as bashfully as the maidens to whom he was accustomed, her eyes fixed upon a rose she held.
"Wilt thou not stay with us here in Monterey?"
She raised her eyes slowly,—he could not but feel the effort,—gave him one bewildering glance, half appealing, half protesting, then dropped them suddenly.
"Wilt thou stay with me?" panted the caballero.
"Ay, senor! thou must not speak like that. Some one will hear thee."
"I care not! God of my life! I care not! Wilt thou marry me?"
"Thou must not speak to me of marriage, senor. It is to my father thou must speak. Would I, a Californian maiden, betroth myself without his knowledge?"
"Holy heaven! I will! But give me one word that thou lovest me,—one word!"
She lifted her chin saucily and turned to another caballero, who, I doubt not, proposed also. Estenega, who had watched her, laughed.
"She acts the part to perfection," he said to me. "Either natural or acquired coquetry has more to do with saving her from the solitary plane of the intellectual woman than her beauty or her father's wealth. I am inclined to think that it is acquired. I do not believe that she is a coquette at heart, any more than that she is the marble doomswoman she fondly believes herself."
"You will tell her that," I exclaimed, angrily; "and she will end by loving you because you understand her; all women want to be understood. Why don't you go to Paris again? You have not been there for a long time."
Not deeming this suggestion worthy of answer, he left me and walked to Chonita, who was glancing over the top of her fan into the ardent eyes of a third caballero.
"You will step on a bunch of nettles in a moment," he said, practically. "Your slippers are very thin; you had better stand over here on the path." And he dexterously separated her from the other men. "Will you walk to that opening over there with me? I want to show you a better view of Monterey."
His manner had not a touch of gallantry, and she was tired of the caballeros.
"Very well," she said. "I will look at the view."
As she followed him she noted that he led her where the bushes were thinnest, and kicked the stones from her path. She also remarked the nervous energy of his thin figure. "It comes from his love of the Americans," she thought, angrily. "He must even walk like them. The Americans!" And she brought her teeth together with a sharp click.
He turned, smiling. "You look very disapproving," he said. "What have I done?"
"You look like an American! You even wear their clothes, and they are the color of smoke; and you wear no lace. How cold and uninteresting a scene would this be if all the men were dressed as you are!"
"We cannot all be made for decorative purposes. And you are as unlike those girls, in all but your dress, as I am unlike the men. I will not incur your wrath by saying that you are American: but you are modern. Our lovely compatriots were the same three hundred years ago. Will Dona California be pleased to observe that whale spouting in the bay? There is the tree beneath which Junipero Serra said his first mass in this part of the country. What a sanctimonious old fraud he must have been, if he looked anything like his pictures! Did you ever see bay bluer than that? or sand whiter? or a more perfect semicircle of hills than this? or a more straggling town? There is the Custom-house on the rocks. You will go to a ball there to-night, and hear the boom of the surf as you dance." He turned with one of his sudden impatient motions. "Suppose we ride. The air is too sharp to lie about under the trees. This white horse mates your gown. Let us go over to Carmelo."
"I should like to go," she said, doubtfully; he had made her throb with indignation once or twice, but his conversation interested her and her free spirit approved of a ride over the hills unattended by duena. "But—you know—I do not like you."
"Oh, never mind that; the ride will interest you just the same." And he lifted her to the horse, sprang on another, caught her bridle, lest she should rebel, and galloped up the road. When they were on the other side of hill he slackened speed and looked at her with a smile. She was inclined to be angry, but found herself watching the varying expressions of his mouth, which diverted her mind. It was a baffling mouth, even to experienced women, and Chonita could make nothing of it. It had neither sweetness nor softness, but she had never felt impelled to study the mouth of a caballero. And then she wondered how a man with a mouth like that could have manners so gentle.
"Are you aware," he said, abruptly, "that your brother is accused of conspiracy?"
"What?" She looked at him as if she inferred that this was the order of badinage that an Iturbi y Moncada might expect from an Estenega.
"I am not joking. It is quite true."
"It is not true! Reinaldo conspire against his government? Some one has lied. And you are ready to believe!"
"I hope some one has lied. The news is very direct, however." He looked at her speculatively. "The more obstacles the better," he thought; "and we may as well declare war on this question at once. Besides, it is no use to begin as a hypocrite, when every act would tell her what I thought of him. Moreover, he will have more or less influence over her until her eyes are opened to his true worth. She will not believe me, of course, but she is a woman who only needs an impetus to do a good deal of thinking and noting." "I am going to make you angry," he said. "I am going to tell you that I do not share your admiration of your brother. He has ten thousand words for every idea, and although, God knows, we have more time than anything else in this land of the poppy where only the horses run, still there are more profitable ways of employing it than to listen to meaningless and bombastic words. Moreover, your brother is a dangerous man. No man is so safe in seclusion as the one of large vanities and small ambitions. He is not big enough to conceive a revolution, but is ready to be the tool of any unscrupulous man who is, and, having too much egotism to follow orders, will ruin a project at the last moment by attempting to think for himself. I do not say these things to wantonly insult you, senorita, only to let you know at once how I regard your brother, that you may not accuse me of treachery or hypocrisy later."
He had expected and hoped that she would turn upon him with a burst of fury; but she had drawn herself up to her most stately height, and was looking at him with cold hauteur. Her mouth was as hard as a pink jewel, and her eyes had the glitter of ice in them.
"Senor," she said, "it seems to me that you, too, waste many words—in speaking of my brother; for what you say of him cannot interest me. I have known him for twenty-two years; you have seen him four or six times. What can you tell me of him? Not only is he my brother and the natural object of my love and devotion, but he is Reinaldo Iturbi y Moncada, the last male descendant of his house, and as such I hold him in a regard only second to that which I bear to my father. And with the blood in him he could not be otherwise than a great and good man."
Estenega looked at her with the first stab of doubt he had felt. "She is Spanish in her marrow," he thought,—"the steadfast unreasoning child of traditions. I could not well be at greater disadvantage. But she is magnificent."
"Another thing which was unnecessary," she added, "was to defend yourself to me or to tell me how you felt toward my brother, and why. We are enemies by tradition and instinct. We shall rarely meet, and shall probably never talk together again."
"We shall talk together more times than you will care to count. I have much to say to you, and you shall listen. But we will discuss the matter no further at present. Shall we gallop?"
He spurred his horse, and once more they fled through the pine woods. Before long they entered the valley of Carmelo. The mountains were massive and gloomy, the little bay was blue and quiet, the surf of the ocean roared about Point Lobos, Carmelo River crawled beneath its willows. In the middle of the valley stood the impressive yellow church, with its Roman tower and rose-window; about it were the crumbling brown hovels of the deserted Mission. Once as they rode Estenega thought he heard voices, but could not be sure, so loud was the clatter of the horses' hoofs. As they reached the square they drew rein swiftly, the horses standing upright at the sudden halt. Then strange sounds came to them through the open doors of the church: ribald shouts and loud laughter, curses and noise of smashing glass, such songs as never were sung in Carmelo before; an infernal clash of sound which mingled incongruously with the solemn mass of the surf. Chonita's eyes flashed. Even Estenega's face darkened: the traditions planted in plastic youth arose and rebelled at the desecration.
"Some drunken sailors," he said. "There—do you see that?" A craft rounded Point Lobos. "Pirates!"
"Holy Mary!" exclaimed Chonita.
"Let down your hair," he said, peremptorily; "and follow all that I suggest. We will drive them out."
She obeyed him without question, excited and interested. Then they rode to the doors and threw them wide.
The upper end of the long church was swarming with pirates; there was no mistaking those bold, cruel faces, blackened by sun and wind, half covered with ragged hair. They stood on the benches, they bestrode the railing, they swarmed over the altar, shouting and carousing in riotous wassail. Their coarse red shirts were flung back from hairy chests, their faces were distorted with rum and sacrilegious delight. Every station, every candlestick, had been hurled to the floor and trampled upon. The crucifix stood on its head. Sitting high on the altar, reeling and waving a communion goblet, was the drunken chief, singing a blasphemous song of the pirate seas. The voices rumbled strangely down the hollow body of the church; to perfect the scene flames should have leaped among the swinging arms and bounding forms.
"Come," said Estenega. He spurred his horse, and together they galloped down the stone pavement of the edifice. The men turned at the loud sound of horses' hoofs; but the riders were in their midst, scattering them right and left, before they realized what was happening.
The horses were brought to sudden halt. Estenega rose in his stirrups, his fine bold face looking down impassively upon the demoniacal gang who could have rent him apart, but who stood silent and startled, gazing from him to the beautiful woman, whose white gown looked part of the white horse she rode. Estenega raised his hand and pointed to Chonita.
"The Virgin," he said, in a hollow, impressive voice. "The Mother of God. She has come to defend her church. Go."
Chonita's face blanched to the lips, but she looked at the sacrilegists sternly. Fortune favored the audacity of Estenega. The sunlight, drifting through the star-window above the doors at the lower end of the church, smote the uplifted golden head of Chonita, wreathing it with a halo, gifting the face with unearthly beauty.
"Go!" repeated Estenega, "lest she weep. With every tear a heart will cease to beat."
The chief scrambled down from the altar and ran like a rat past Chonita, his swollen mouth dropping. The others crouched and followed, stumbling one over the other, their dark evil faces bloodless, their knees knocking together with superstitious terror. They fled from the church and down to the bay, and swam to their craft. Estenega and Chonita rode out. They watched the ugly vessel scurry around Point Lobos; then Chonita spoke for the first time.
"Blasphemer!" she exclaimed. "Mother of God, wilt thou ever forgive me?"
"Why not call me a Jesuit? It was a case where mind or matter must triumph. And you can confess your enforced sin, say a hundred aves or so, and be whiter than snow again; whereas, had our Mission of Carmelo been razed to the ground, as it was in a fair way to be, California would have lost an historical monument."
"And Junipero Serra's bones are there, and it was his favorite Mission," said the girl, unwillingly.
"Exactly. And now that you are reasonably sure of being forgiven, will not you forgive me? I shall ask no priest's forgiveness."
She looked at him a moment, then shook her head. "No: I cannot forgive you for having made me commit what may be a mortal sin. But, Holy Heaven!—I cannot help saying it—you are very quick!"
"For each idea is a moment born. Upon whether we wed the two or think too late depends the success or the failure of our lives."
"Suppose," she said, suddenly,—"suppose you had failed, and those men had seized me and made me captive: what then?"
"I should have killed you. Not one of them should have touched you. But I had no doubts, or I should not have made the attempt. I know the superstitious nature of sailors, especially when they are drunk. Shall we gallop back? They will have eaten all the dulces."
Monterey danced every night and all night of that week, either at Alvarado's or at the Custom-house, and every afternoon met at the races, the bull-fight, a merienda, or to climb the greased pole, catch the greased pig by its tail as it ran, or exhibit skill in horsemanship. Chonita, at times an imperious coquette, at others, indifferent, perverse, or coy, was La Favorita without appeal, and the girls alternately worshipped her—she was abstractedly kind to them—or heartily wished her back in Santa Barbara. Estenega rarely attended the socialities, being closeted with Alvarado and Castro most of the time, and when he did she avoided him if she could. The pirates had fled and were seen no more; but their abrupt retreat, as described by Chonita, continued to be an exciting topic of discussion. There were few of us who did not openly or secretly approve of Estenega's Jesuitism and admire the nimbleness of his mind. The clergy did not express itself.
On the last night of the festivities, when the women, weary with the unusually late hours of the past week, had left the ball-room early and sought their beds, and the men, being at loss for other amusement, had gone in a body to a saloon, there to drink and gamble and set fire to each other's curls and trouser-seats, the Departmental Junta met in secret session. The night was warm, the plaza deserted; all who were not in the saloon at the other end of the town were asleep; and after the preliminary words in Alvarado's office the Junta picked up their chairs and went forth to hold conclave where bulls and bears had fought and the large indulgent moon gave clearer light than adamantine candles. They drew close together, and, after rolling the cigarito, solemnly regarded the sky for a few moments without speaking. Their purpose was a grave one. They met to try Pio Pico for contempt of government and annoying insistence in behalf of his pet project to remove the capital from Monterey to Los Angeles; Jose Antonio Carillo and Reinaldo Iturbi y Moncada for conspiracy; and General Vallejo for evil disposition and unwarrantable comments upon the policy of the administration. None of the offenders was present.
With the exception of Alvarado, Castro, and Estenega, the members of the Junta were men of middle age, and represented the talent of California,—Jimeno, Gonzales, Arguello, Requena, Del Valle. Their dark, bearded faces, upturned to the stars, made a striking set of profiles, but the effect was marred by the silk handkerchiefs they had tied about their heads.
Alvarado spoke, finally, and, after presenting the charges in due form, continued:
"The individual enemy to the government is like the fly to the lion; it cannot harm, but it can annoy. We must brush away the fly as a vindication of our dignity, and take precaution that he does not return, even if we have to bend our heads to tie his little legs. I do not purpose to be annoyed by these blistering midgets we are met to consider, nor to have my term of administration spotted with their gall. I leave it to you, my compatriots and friends, to advise me what is best to do."
Jimeno put his feet on the side rung of Castro's chair, puffed a large gray cloud, and half closed his eyes. He then, for three-quarters of an hour, in a low, musical voice, discoursed upon the dignity of the administration and the depravity of the offenders. When his brethren were beginning to drop their heads and breathe heavily, Alvarado politely interrupted him and referred the matter to Castro.
"Imprison them!" exclaimed the impetuous General, suddenly alert. "With such a Governor and such a people, this should be a land white as the mountain-tops, unblemished by the tracks of mean ambitions and sinful revolutions. Let us be summary, although not cruel; let no man's blood flow while there are prisons in the Californias; but we must pluck up the roots of conspiracy and disquiet, lest a thousand suckers grow about them, as about the half-cut trunks of our redwood-trees, and our Californias be no better than any degenerate country of the Old World. Let us cast them into prison without further debate."
"The law, my dear Jose, gives them a trial," drawled Gonzales. And then for a half-hour he quoted such law as was known in the country. When he finished, the impatient and suppressed members of the Junta delivered their opinions simultaneously; only Estenega had nothing to say. They argued and suggested, cited evidence, defended and denounced, lashing themselves into a mighty excitement. At length they were all on their feet, gesticulating and prancing.
"Mother of God!" cried Requena. "Let us give Vallejo a taste of his own cruelty. Let us put him in a temascal and set those of his Indian victims who are still alive to roast him out—"
"No! no! Vallejo is maligned. He had no hand in that massacre. His heart is whiter than an angel's——"
"It is his liver that is white. His heart is black as a black snake's. To the devil with him!"
"Make a law that Pio Pico can never put foot out of Los Angeles again, since he loves it so well—"
"His ugly face would spoil the next generation—"
"Death to Carillo and Iturbi y Moncada! Death to all! Let the poison out of the veins of California!"
"No! no! As little blood in California as possible. Put them in prison, and keep them on frijoles and water for a year. That will cure rebellion: no chickens, no dulces, no aguardiente—"
Alvarado brought his staff of office down sharply upon a board he had provided for the purpose.
"Gentlemen," he said, "will you not sit down and smoke another cigarito? We must be calm."
The Junta took to its chairs at once. Alvarado never failed to command respect.
"Don Diego Estenega," said the Governor, "will you tell us what you have thought whilst the others have talked?"
Estenega, who had been star-gazing, turned to Alvarado, ignoring the Junta. His keen brilliant eyes gave the Governor a thrill of relief; his mouth expressed a mind made up and intolerant of argument.
"Vallejo," he said, "is like a horse that will neither run nor back into his stall: he merely stands still and kicks. His kicking makes a noise and raises a dust, but does no harm. In other words, he will irritate, but never take a responsibility. Send him an official notice that if he does not keep quiet an armed force will march upon Sonoma and imprison him in his own house, humiliating him before the eyes of his soldiers and retainers.
"As for Pio Pico, threaten to fine and punish him. He will apologize at once and be quiet for six months, when you can call another secret session and issue another threat. It would prolong the term of his submission to order him to appear before the Junta and make it an apology with due humility.
"Now for Carillo and Reinaldo Iturbi y Moncada." He paused a moment and glanced at Chonita's grating. He had the proofs of her brother's rascality in his pocket; no one but himself had seen them. He hesitated the fraction of another moment, then smiled grimly. "Oh, Helen!" he thought, "the same old story."
"That Carillo is guilty," he said aloud, "is proven to us beyond doubt. He has incited rebellion against the government in behalf of Carlos Carillo. He is dangerous to the peace of the country. Iturbi y Moncada is young and heedless, hardly to be considered seriously; furthermore, it is impossible to obtain proof of his complicity. His intimacy with Carillo gives him the appearance of guilt. It would be well to frighten him a little by a short term of imprisonment. He is restless and easily led; a lesson in time may save his honored house from disaster. But to Carillo no quarter." He rose and stood over them. "The best thing in Machiavelli's 'Prince,'" he said, "is the author's advice to Caesar Borgia to exterminate every member of the reigning house of a conquered country, in order to avoid future revolutions and their infinitely greater number of dead. Do not let the water in your blood whimper for mercy. You are not here to protect an individual, but a country."
"You are right," said Alvarado.
The others looked at the young man who had merely given them the practical advice of statecraft as if he had opened his chest and displayed the lamp of wisdom burning. His freedom from excitement in all ordeals which animated them to madness had long ago inspired the suspicion that he was rather more than human. They uttered not a protest. Alvarado's one-eyed secretary made notes of their approval; and the Junta, after another friendly smoke, adjourned, well pleased with itself.
"Would I sacrifice my country for her a year hence?" thought Estenega, as he sauntered home. "But, after all, little harm is done. He is not worth killing, and fright and discomfort will probably cure him."
Chonita and Estenega faced each other among the Castilian roses of the garden behind the Governor's house. The duena was nodding in a corner; the first-born of the Alvarados, screaming within, absorbed the attention of every member of the household, from the frantic young mother to the practical nurse.
"My brother is to be arrested, you say?"
"And at your suggestion?"
"And he may die?"
"Nothing would have been done if it had not been for you?"
"God of my life! Mother of God! how I hate you!"
"It is war, then?"
"I would kill you if I were not a Catholic."
"I will make you forget that you are a Catholic."
"You have made me remember it to my bitterest sorrow. I hate you so mortally that I cannot go to confession: I cannot forgive."
"I hope you will continue to hate for a time. Now listen to me. You have several reasons for hating me. My house is the enemy of yours. I am to all intents and purposes an American; you can consider me as such. I have that indifference for religious superstition and intolerance for religion's thraldom which all minds larger of circumference than a napkin-ring must come to in time. I have endangered the life of your brother, and I have opposed and shall oppose him in his political aspirations; he has my unequivocal contempt. Nevertheless, I tell you here that I should marry you were there five hundred reasons for your hatred of me instead of a paltry five. I shall take pleasure in demonstrating to you that there is a force in the universe a good deal stronger than traditions, religion, or even family ties."
His eyes were not those of a lover; they shone like steel. His mouth was forbidding. She drew back from him in terror, then struck her hands together passionately.
"I marry you!" she cried. "An Estenega! A renegade? May God cast me out of heaven if I do! There, I have sworn! I have sworn! Do you think a Catholic would break that vow? I swear it by the Church,—and I put the whole Church between us!"
"I told you just now that I would make you forget your Church." He caught her hand and held it firmly. "A last word," he said "Your brother's life is safe: I promise you that."
"Let me go!" she said. "Let me go! I fear you." She was trembling; his warmth and magnetism had sprung to her shoulder.
He gave her back her hand. "Go," he said: "so ends the first chapter."
Casa Grande,[A] the mansion of the Iturbi y Moncadas in Santa Barbara, stood at the right of the Presidio, facing the channel. A mile behind, under the shadow of the gaunt rocky hills curving about the valley, was the long white Mission, with its double towers, corridor of many arches, and sloping roof covered with red tiles. Between was the wild valley where cattle grazed among the trees and the massive bowlders. The red-tiled white adobe houses of the Presidio and of the little town clustered under its wing, the brown mud huts of the Indians, were grouped in the foreground of the deep valley.
The great house of the Iturbi y Moncadas, erected in the first years of the century, was built about three sides of a court, measuring one hundred feet each way. Like most of the adobes of its time, it had but one story. A wide pillared corridor, protected by a sloping roof, faced the court, which was as bare and hard as the floor of a ball-room. Behind the dwelling were the manufactories and huts of the Indian retainers. Don Guillermo Iturbi y Moncada was the magnate of the South. His ranchos covered four hundred thousand acres; his horses and cattle were unnumbered. His Indians, carpenters, coopers, saddlers, shoemakers, weavers, manufacturers of household staples, supplied the garrison and town with the necessaries of life; he also did a large trading business in hides and tallow. Rumor had it that in the wooden tower built against the back of the house he kept gold by the bushel-basketful; but no one called him miser, for he gave the poor of the town all they ate and wore, and kept a supply of drugs for their sick. So beloved and revered was he that when earthquakes shook the town, or fires threatened it from the hills, the poor ran in a body to the court-yard of Casa Grande and besought his protection. They never passed him without saluting to the ground, nor his house without bending their heads. And yet they feared him, for he was an irascible old gentleman at times, and thumped unmercifully when in a temper. Chonita, alone, could manage him always.