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Ramona

167

large open chest with broken locks

XI.

When the Señora bade Felipe good-night, she did not go to bed. After closing her door, she sat down to think what should be done about Ramona. It had been a hard task she had set herself, talking all the evening with Felipe without alluding to the topic uppermost in her mind. But Felipe was still nervous and irritable. She would not spoil his night’s rest, she thought, by talking of disagreeable things. Moreover, she was not clear in her own mind what she wished to have done about Alessandro. If Ramona were to be sent away to the nuns, which was the only thing the Señora could think of as yet, there would be no reason for discharging Alessandro. And with him the Señora was by no means ready to part, though in her first anger she had been ready to dismiss him on the spot. As she pursued her reflections, the whole situation cleared itself in her mind; so easily do affairs fall into line, in the plottings and plannings of an arbitrary person, who makes in his formula no allowance for a human element which he cannot control.

Ramona should be sent in disgrace to the Sisters’ School, to be a servant there for the rest of her life. The Señora would wash her hands of her forever. Even Father Salvierderra himself could not expect her any longer to keep such a shameless creature under her roof. Her sister’s written instructions had provided for the possibility of just such a contingency. Going to a secret closet in the wall, behind a life-size statue of Saint Catharine, the Señora took out an 168 iron box, battered and rusty with age, and set it on the bed. The key turned with difficulty in the lock. It was many years since the Señora had opened this box. No one but herself knew of its existence. There had been many times in the history of the Moreno house when the price of the contents of that box would have averted loss and misfortune; but the Señora no more thought of touching the treasure than if it had been guarded by angels with fiery swords. There they lay, brilliant and shining even in the dim light of the one candle,—rubies, emeralds, pearls, and yellow diamonds. The Señora’s lip curled as she looked at them. “Fine dowry, truly, for a creature like this!” she said. “Well I knew in the beginning no good would come of it; base begotten, base born, she has but carried out the instincts of her nature. I suppose I may be grateful that my own son was too pure to be her prey!” “To be given to my adopted daughter, Ramona Ortegna, on her wedding day,”—so the instructions ran,—“if she weds worthily and with your approval. Should such a misfortune occur, which I do not anticipate, as that she should prove unworthy, then these jewels, and all I have left to her of value, shall be the property of the Church.”

“No mention as to what I am to do with the girl herself if she proves unworthy,” thought the Señora, bitterly; “but the Church is the place for her; no other keeping will save her from the lowest depths of disgrace. I recollect my sister said that Angus had at first intended to give the infant to the Church. Would to God he had done so, or left it with its Indian mother!” and the Señora rose, and paced the floor. The paper of her dead sister’s handwriting fell at her feet. As she walked, her long skirt swept it rustling to and fro. She stooped, picked it up, read it again, with increasing bitterness. No softness at the memory of her sister’s love for the little child; no 169 relenting. “Unworthy!” Yes, that was a mild word to apply to Ramona, now. It was all settled; and when the girl was once out of the house, the Señora would breathe easier. She and Felipe would lead their lives together, and Felipe would wed some day. Was there a woman fair enough, good enough, for Felipe to wed? But he must wed; and the place would be gay with children’s voices, and Ramona would be forgotten.

The Señora did not know how late it was. “I will tell her to-night,” she said. “I will lose no time; and now she shall hear who her mother was!”

It was a strange freak of just impulse in the Señora’s angry soul, which made her suddenly remember that Ramona had had no supper, and led her to go to the kitchen, get a jug of milk and some bread, and take them to the room. Turning the key cautiously, that Felipe might not hear, she opened the door and glided in. No voice greeted her; she held her candle high up; no Ramona in sight; the bed was empty. She glanced at the window. It was open. A terror seized the Señora; fresh anger also. “She has run off with Alessandro,” she thought. “What horrible disgrace!” Standing motionless, she heard a faint, regular breathing from the other side of the bed. Hastily crossing the room, she saw a sight which had melted a heart that was only ice; but the Señora’s was stone towards Ramona. There lay Ramona on the floor, her head on a pillow at the feet of the big Madonna which stood in the corner. Her left hand was under her cheek, her right arm flung tight around the base of the statue. She was sound asleep. Her face was wet with tears. Her whole attitude was full of significance. Even helpless in sleep, she was one who had taken refuge in sanctuary. This thought had been distinct in the girl’s mind when she found herself, spite of all her 170 woe and terror, growing sleepy. “She won’t dare to hurt me at the Virgin’s feet,” she had said; “and the window is open. Felipe would hear if I called; and Alessandro will watch.” And with a prayer on her lips she fell asleep.

It was Felipe’s nearness more than the Madonna’s, which saved her from being roused to hear her doom. The Señora stood for some moments looking at her, and at the open window. With a hot rush of disgraceful suspicions, she noted what she had never before thought of, that Alessandro, through all his watching with Felipe, had had close access to Ramona’s window. “Shameful creature!” she repeated to herself. “And she can sleep! It is well she prayed, if the Virgin will hear such!” and she turned away, first setting down the jug of milk and the bread on a table. Then, with a sudden and still more curious mingling of justness in her wrath, she returned, and lifting the coverlet from the bed, spread it over Ramona, covering her carefully from head to foot. Then she went out and again locked the door.

Felipe, from his bed, heard and divined all, but made no sound. “Thank God, the poor child is asleep!” he said; “and my poor dear mother feared to awake me by speaking to her! What will become of us all to-morrow!” And Felipe tossed and turned, and had barely fallen into an uneasy sleep, when his mother’s window opened, and she sang the first line of the sunrise hymn. Instantly Ramona joined, evidently awake and ready; and no sooner did the watching Alessandro hear the first note of her voice, than he struck in; and Margarita, who had been up for an hour, prowling, listening, peering, wondering, her soul racked between her jealousy and her fears,—even Margarita delayed not to unite; and Felipe, too, sang feebly; and the volume of the song went up as rounded and melodious as if all hearts were at peace 171 and in harmony, instead of being all full of sorrow, confusion, or hatred. But there was no one of them all who was not the better for the singing; Ramona and Alessandro most of all.

“The saints be praised,” said Alessandro. “There is my wood-dove’s voice. She can sing!” And, “Alessandro was near. He watched all night. I am glad he loves me,” said Ramona.

“To hear those two voices!” said the Señora; “would one suppose they could sing like that? Perhaps it is not so bad as I think.”

As soon as the song was done, Alessandro ran to the sheepfold, where Felipe had said he would see him. The minutes would be like years to Alessandro till he had seen Felipe.

Ramona, when she waked and found herself carefully covered, and bread and milk standing on the table, felt much reassured. Only the Señora’s own hand had done this, she felt sure, for she had heard her the previous evening turn the key in the lock, then violently take it out; and Ramona knew well that the fact of her being thus a prisoner would be known to none but the Señora herself. The Señora would not set servants to gossiping. She ate her bread and milk thankfully, for she was very hungry. Then she set her room in order, said her prayers, and sat down to wait. For what? She could not imagine; in truth, she did not much try. Ramona had passed now into a country where the Señora did not rule. She felt little fear. Felipe would not see her harmed, and she was going away presently with Alessandro. It was wonderful what peace and freedom lay in the very thought. The radiance on her face of these two new-born emotions was the first thing the Señora observed as she opened the door, and slowly, very slowly, eying Ramona with a steady look, entered the room. This joyous composure on 172 Ramona’s face angered the Señora, as it had done before, when she was dragging her up the garden-walk. It seemed to her like nothing less than brazen effrontery, and it changed the whole tone and manner of her address.

Seating herself opposite Ramona, but at the farthest side of the room, she said, in a tone scornful and insulting, “What have you to say for yourself?”

Returning the Señora’s gaze with one no less steady, Ramona spoke in the same calm tone in which she had twice the evening before attempted to stay the Señora’s wrath. This time, she was not interrupted.

“Señora,” she said slowly, “I tried to tell you last night, but you would not hear me. If you had listened, you would not have been so angry. Neither Alessandro nor I have done anything wrong, and we were not ashamed. We love each other, and we are going to be married, and go away. I thank you, Señora, for all you have done for me; I am sure you will be a great deal happier when I am away;” and Ramona looked wistfully, with no shade of resentment, into the Señora’s dark, shrunken face. “You have been very good to do so much for a girl you did not love. Thank you for the bread and milk last night. Perhaps I can go away with Alessandro to-day. I do not know what he will wish. We had only just that minute spoken of being married, when you found us last night.”

The Señora’s face was a study during the few moments that it took to say these words. She was dumb with amazement. Instanta­neously, on the first sense of relief that the disgrace had not been what she supposed, followed a new wrath, if possible hotter than the first; not so much scorn, but a bitterer anger. “Marry! Marry that Indian!” she cried, as soon as she found voice. “You marry an Indian? Never! Are you mad? I will never permit it.”

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Ramona looked anxiously at her. “I have never disobeyed you, Señora,” she said, “but this is different from all other things; you are not my mother. I have promised to marry Alessandro.”

The girl’s gentleness deceived the Señora.

“No,” she said icily, “I am not your mother; but I stand in a mother’s place to you. You were my sister’s adopted child, and she gave you to me. You cannot marry without my permission, and I forbid you ever to speak again of marrying this Indian.”

The moment had come for the Señora Moreno to find out, to her surprise and cost, of what stuff this girl was made,—this girl, who had for fourteen years lived by her side, docile, gentle, sunny, and uncomplaining in her loneliness. Springing to her feet, and walking swiftly till she stood close face to face with the Señora, who, herself startled by the girl’s swift motion, had also risen to her feet, Ramona said, in a louder, firmer voice: “Señora Moreno, you may forbid me as much as you please. The whole world cannot keep me from marrying Alessandro. I love him. I have promised, and I shall keep my word.” And with her young lithe arms straight down at her sides, her head thrown back, Ramona flashed full in the Señora’s face a look of proud defiance. It was the first free moment her soul had ever known. She felt herself buoyed up as by wings in air. Her old terror of the Señora fell from her like a garment thrown off.

“Pshaw!” said the Señora, contemptuously, half amused, in spite of her wrath, by the girl’s, as she thought, bootless vehemence, “you talk like a fool. Do you not know that I can shut you up in the nunnery to-morrow, if I choose?”

“No, you cannot!” replied Ramona.

“Who, then, is to hinder me?” said the Señora, insolently.

“Alessandro!” answered Ramona, proudly.

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“Alessandro!” the Señora sneered. “Alessandro! Ha! a beggarly Indian, on whom my servants will set the dogs, if I bid them! Ha, ha!”

The Señora’s sneering tone but roused Ramona more. “You would never dare!” she cried; “Felipe would not permit it!” A most unwise retort for Ramona.

“Felipe!” cried the Señora, in a shrill voice. “How dare you pronounce his name! He will none of you, from this hour! I will forbid him to speak to you. Indeed, he will never desire to set eyes on you when he hears the truth.”

“You are mistaken, Señora,” answered Ramona, more gently. “Felipe is Alessandro’s friend, and—mine,” she added, after a second’s pause.

“So, ho! the Señorita thinks she is all-powerful in the house of Moreno!” cried the Señora. “We will see! we will see! Follow me, Señorita Ramona!” And throwing open the door, the Señora strode out, looking back over her shoulder.

“Follow me!” she cried again sharply, seeing that Ramona hesitated; and Ramona went; across the passage-way leading to the dining-room, out into the veranda, down the entire length of it, to the Señora’s room,—the Señora walking with a quick, agitated step, strangely unlike her usual gait; Ramona walking far slower than was her habit, and with her eyes bent on the ground. As they passed the dining-room door, Margarita, standing just inside, shot at Ramona a vengeful, malignant glance.

“She would help the Señora against me in anything,” thought Ramona; and she felt a thrill of fear, such as the Señora with all her threats had not stirred.

The Señora’s windows were open. She closed them both, and drew the curtains tight. Then she locked the door, Ramona watching her every movement.

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“Sit down in that chair,” said the Señora, pointing to one near the fireplace. A sudden nervous terror seized Ramona.

“I would rather stand, Señora,” she said.

“Do as I bid you!” said the Señora, in a husky tone; and Ramona obeyed. It was a low, broad armchair, and as she sank back into it, her senses seemed leaving her. She leaned her head against the back and closed her eyes. The room swam. She was roused by the Señora’s strong smelling-salts held for her to breathe, and a mocking taunt from the Señora’s iciest voice: “The Señorita does not seem so over-strong as she did a few moments back!”

Ramona tried to reason with herself; surely no ill could happen to her, in this room, within call of the whole house. But an inexplicable terror had got possession of her; and when the Señora, with a sneer on her face, took hold of the Saint Catharine statue, and wheeling it half around, brought into view a door in the wall, with a big iron key in the keyhole, which she proceeded to turn, Ramona shook with fright. She had read of persons who had been shut up alive in cells in the wall, and starved to death. With dilating eyes she watched the Señora, who, all unaware of her terror, was prolonging it and intensifying it by her every act. First she took out the small iron box, and set it on a table. Then, kneeling, she drew out from an inner recess in the closet a large leather-covered box, and pulled it, grating and scraping along the floor, till it stood in front of Ramona. All this time she spoke no word, and the cruel expression of her countenance deepened each moment. The fiends had possession of the Señora Moreno this morning, and no mistake. A braver heart than Ramona’s might have indeed been fearful, at being locked up alone with a woman who looked like that.

Finally, she locked the door and wheeled the statue 176 back into its place. Ramona breathed freer. She was not, after all, to be thrust into the wall closet and left to starve. She gazed with wonder at the old battered boxes. What could it all mean?

“Señorita Ramona Ortegna,” began the Señora, drawing up a chair, and seating herself by the table on which stood the iron box, “I will now explain to you why you will not marry the Indian Alessandro.”

At these words, this name, Ramona was herself again,—not her old self, her new self, Alessandro’s promised wife. The very sound of his name, even on an enemy’s tongue, gave her strength. The terrors fled away. She looked up, first at the Señora, then at the nearest window. She was young and strong; at one bound, if worst came to worst, she could leap through the window, and fly for her life, calling on Alessandro.

“I shall marry the Indian Alessandro, Señora Moreno,” she said, in a tone as defiant, and now almost as insolent, as the Señora’s own.

The Señora paid no heed to the words, except to say, “Do not interrupt me again. I have much to tell you;” and opening the box, she lifted out and placed on the table tray after tray of jewels. The sheet of written paper lay at the bottom of the box.

“Do you see this paper, Señorita Ramona?” she asked, holding it up. Ramona bowed her head. “This was written by my sister, the Señora Ortegna, who adopted you and gave you her name. These were her final instructions to me, in regard to the disposition to be made of the property she left to you.”

Ramona’s lips parted. She leaned forward, breathless, listening, while the Señora read sentence after sentence. All the pent-up pain, wonder, fear of her childhood and her girlhood, as to the mystery of her birth, swept over her anew, now. Like one hearkening 177 for life or death, she listened. She forgot Alessandro. She did not look at the jewels. Her eyes never left the Señora’s face. At the close of the reading, the Señora said sternly, “You see, now, that my sister left to me the entire disposition of everything belonging to you.”

“But it hasn’t said who was my mother,” cried Ramona. “Is that all there is in the paper?”

The Señora looked stupefied. Was the girl feigning? Did she care nothing that all these jewels, almost a little fortune, were to be lost to her forever?

“Who was your mother?” she exclaimed, scornfully. “There was no need to write that down. Your mother was an Indian. Everybody knew that!”

At the word “Indian,” Ramona gave a low cry.

The Señora misunderstood it. “Ay,” she said, “a low, common Indian. I told my sister, when she took you, the Indian blood in your veins would show some day; and now it has come true.”

Ramona’s cheeks were scarlet. Her eyes flashed. “Yes, Señora Moreno,” she said, springing to her feet; “the Indian blood in my veins shows to-day. I understand many things I never understood before. Was it because I was an Indian that you have always hated me?”

“You are not an Indian, and I have never hated you,” interrupted the Señora.

Ramona heeded her not, but went on, more and more impetuously. “And if I am an Indian, why do you object to my marrying Alessandro? Oh, I am glad I am an Indian! I am of his people. He will be glad!” The words poured like a torrent out of her lips. In her excitement she came closer and closer to the Señora. “You are a cruel woman,” she said. “I did not know it before; but now I do. If you knew I was an Indian, you had no reason to treat 178 me so shamefully as you did last night, when you saw me with Alessandro. You have always hated me. Is my mother alive? Where does she live? Tell me; and I will go to her to-day. Tell me! She will be glad that Alessandro loves me!”

It was a cruel look, indeed, and a crueller tone, with which the Señora answered: “I have not the least idea who your mother was, or if she is still alive. Nobody ever knew anything about her,—some low, vicious creature, that your father married when he was out of his senses, as you are now, when you talk of marrying Alessandro!”

“He married her, then?” asked Ramona, with emphasis. “How know you that, Señora Moreno?”

“He told my sister so,” replied the Señora, reluctantly. She grudged the girl even this much of consolation.

“What was his name?” asked Ramona.

“Phail; Angus Phail,” the Señora replied almost mechanically. She found herself strangely constrained by Ramona’s imperious earnestness, and she chafed under it. The tables were being turned on her, she hardly knew how. Ramona seemed to tower in stature, and to have the bearing of the one in authority, as she stood before her pouring out passionate question after question. The Señora turned to the larger box, and opened it. With unsteady hands she lifted out the garments which for so many years had rarely seen the light. Shawls and ribosos of damask, laces, gowns of satin, of velvet. As the Señora flung one after another on the chairs, it was a glittering pile of shining, costly stuffs. Ramona’s eyes rested on them dreamily.

“Did my adopted mother wear all these?” she asked, lifting in her hand a fold of lace, and holding it up to the light, in evident admiration.

Again the Señora misconceived her. The girl 179 seemed not insensible to the value and beauty of this costly raiment. Perhaps she would be lured by it.

“All these are yours, Ramona, you understand, on your wedding day, if you marry worthily, with my permission,” said the Señora, in a voice a shade less cold than had hitherto come from her lips. “Did you understand what I read you?”

The girl did not answer. She had taken up in her hand a ragged, crimson silk handkerchief, which, tied in many knots, lay in one corner of the jewel-box.

“There are pearls in that,” said the Señora; “that came with the things your father sent to my sister when he died.”

Ramona’s eyes gleamed. She began untying the knots. The handkerchief was old, the knots tied tight, and undisturbed for years. As she reached the last knot, and felt the hard stones, she paused. “This was my father’s, then?” she said.

“Yes,” said the Señora, scornfully. She thought she had detected a new baseness in the girl. She was going to set up a claim to all which had been her father’s property. “They were your father’s, and all these rubies, and these yellow diamonds;” and she pushed the tray towards her.

Ramona had untied the last knot. Holding the handkerchief carefully above the tray, she shook the pearls out. A strange, spicy fragrance came from the silk. The pearls fell in among the rubies, rolling right and left, making the rubies look still redder by contrast with their snowy whiteness.

“I will keep this handkerchief,” she said, thrusting it, as she spoke, by a swift resolute movement into her bosom. “I am very glad to have one thing that belonged to my father. The jewels, Señora, you can give to the Church, if Father Salvierderra thinks that is right. I shall marry Alessandro;” and still keeping one hand in her bosom where she had thrust the 180 handkerchief, she walked away and seated herself again in her chair.

Father Salvierderra! The name smote the Señora like a spear-thrust. There could be no stronger evidence of the abnormal excitement under which she had been laboring for the last twenty-four hours, than the fact that she had not once, during all this time, thought to ask herself what Father Salvierderra would say, or might command, in this crisis. Her religion and the long habit of its outward bonds had alike gone from her in her sudden wrath against Ramona. It was with a real terror that she became conscious of this.

“Father Salvierderra?” she stammered; “he has nothing to do with it.”

But Ramona saw the change in the Señora’s face, at the word, and followed up her advantage. “Father Salvierderra has to do with everything,” she said boldly. “He knows Alessandro. He will not forbid me to marry him, and if he did—” Ramona stopped. She also was smitten with a sudden terror at the vista opening before her,—of a disobedience to Father Salvierderra.

“And if he did,” repeated the Señora, eying Ramona keenly, “would you disobey him?”

“Yes,” said Ramona.

“I will tell Father Salvierderra what you say,” retorted the Señora, sarcastically, “that he may spare himself the humiliation of laying any commands on you, to be thus disobeyed.”

Ramona’s lip quivered, and her eyes filled with the tears which no other of the Señora’s taunts had been strong enough to bring. Dearly she loved the old monk; had loved him since her earliest recollection. His displeasure would be far more dreadful to her than the Señora’s. His would give her grief; the Señora’s, at utmost, only terror.

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Clasping her hands, she said: “Oh, Señora, have mercy! Do not say that to the Father!”

“It is my duty to tell the Father everything that happens in my family,” answered the Señora, chillingly. “He will agree with me, that if you persist in this disobedience you will deserve the severest punishment. I shall tell him all;” and she began putting the trays back in the box.

“You will not tell him as it really is, Señora,” persisted Ramona. “I will tell him myself.”

“You shall not see him! I will take care of that!” cried the Señora, so vindictively that Ramona shuddered.

“I will give you one more chance,” said the Señora, pausing in the act of folding up one of the damask gowns. “Will you obey me? Will you promise to have nothing more to do with this Indian?”

“Never, Señora,” replied Ramona; “never!”

“Then the consequences be on your own head!” cried the Señora. “Go to your room! And, hark! I forbid you to speak of all this to Señor Felipe. Do you hear?”

Ramona bowed her head. “I hear,” she said; and gliding out of the room, closed the door behind her, and instead of going to her room, sped like a hunted creature down the veranda steps, across the garden, calling in a low tone, “Felipe! Felipe! Where are you, Felipe?”

Notes and Corrections: Chapter XI

“Is my mother alive? Where does she live?”
[Spoiler alert: From the moment Ramona leaves Rancho Moreno and is free to make any inquiries she likes, she never again evinces the slightest interest in her mother.]

Do you not know that I can shut you up in the nunnery to-morrow, if I choose?
[Either our author or the Señora herself seems to have confused convent with prison. Judging by further dialogue in Chapter XII, Felipe shares this belief.]


It came. And when it came, it fell out worse for Ramona than Margarita’s most malicious hopes


The little sheepfold, or corral, was beyond the artichoke-patch

Ramona:
Introduction and Contents

 

The original of this text is in the public domain—at least in the U.S.
My notes are copyright, as are all under-the-hood elements.
If in doubt, ask.