It was longer even than the Señora had thought it would be, before Father Salvierderra arrived. The old man had grown feeble during the year that she had not seen him, and it was a very short day’s journey that he could make now without too great fatigue. It was not only his body that had failed. He had lost heart; and the miles which would have been nothing to him, had he walked in the companionship of hopeful and happy thoughts, stretched out wearily as he brooded over sad memories and still sadder anticipations,—the downfall of the Missions, the loss of their vast estates, and the growing power of the ungodly in the land. The final decision of the United States Government in regard to the Mission-lands had been a terrible blow to him. He had devoutly believed that ultimate restoration of these great estates to the Church was inevitable. In the long vigils which he always kept when at home at the Franciscan Monastery in Santa Barbara, kneeling on the stone pavement in the church, and praying ceaselessly from midnight till dawn, he had often had visions vouchsafed him of a new dispensation, in which the Mission establishments should be reinstated in all their old splendor and prosperity, and their Indian converts again numbered by tens of thousands.
Long after every one knew that this was impossible, he would narrate these visions with the faith of an old Bible seer, and declare that they must come 48 true, and that it was a sin to despond. But as year after year he journeyed up and down the country, seeing, at Mission after Mission, the buildings crumbling into ruin, the lands all taken, sold, resold, and settled by greedy speculators; the Indian converts disappearing, driven back to their original wildernesses, the last traces of the noble work of his order being rapidly swept away, his courage faltered, his faith died out. Changes in the manners and customs of his order itself, also, were giving him deep pain. He was a Franciscan of the same type as Francis of Assisi. To wear a shoe in place of a sandal, to take money in a purse for a journey, above all to lay aside the gray gown and cowl for any sort of secular garment, seemed to him wicked. To own comfortable clothes while there were others suffering for want of them—and there were always such—seemed to him a sin for which one might not undeservedly be smitten with sudden and terrible punishment. In vain the Brothers again and again supplied him with a warm cloak; he gave it away to the first beggar he met: and as for food, the refectory would have been left bare, and the whole brotherhood starving, if the supplies had not been carefully hidden and locked, so that Father Salvierderra could not give them all away. He was fast becoming that most tragic yet often sublime sight, a man who has survived, not only his own time, but the ideas and ideals of it. Earth holds no sharper loneliness: the bitterness of exile, the anguish of friendlessness at their utmost, are in it; and yet it is so much greater than they, that even they seem small part of it.
It was with thoughts such as these that Father Salvierderra drew near the home of the Señora Moreno late in the afternoon of one of those midsummer days of which Southern California has so many in spring. The almonds had bloomed and the 49 blossoms fallen; the apricots also, and the peaches and pears; on all the orchards of these fruits had come a filmy tint of green, so light it was hardly more than a shadow on the gray. The willows were vivid light green, and the orange groves dark and glossy like laurel. The billowy hills on either side the valley were covered with verdure and bloom,—myriads of low blossoming plants, so close to the earth that their tints lapped and overlapped on each other, and on the green of the grass, as feathers in fine plumage overlap each other and blend into a changeful color.
The countless curves, hollows, and crests of the coast-hills in Southern California heighten these chameleon effects of the spring verdure; they are like nothing in nature except the glitter of a brilliant lizard in the sun or the iridescent sheen of a peacock’s neck.
Father Salvierderra paused many times to gaze at the beautiful picture. Flowers were always dear to the Franciscans. Saint Francis himself permitted all decorations which could be made of flowers. He classed them with his brothers and sisters, the sun, moon, and stars,—all members of the sacred choir praising God.
It was melancholy to see how, after each one of these pauses, each fresh drinking in of the beauty of the landscape and the balmy air, the old man resumed his slow pace, with a long sigh and his eyes cast down. The fairer this beautiful land, the sadder to know it lost to the Church,—alien hands reaping its fulness, establishing new customs, new laws. All the way down the coast from Santa Barbara he had seen, at every stopping-place, new tokens of the settling up of the country,—farms opening, towns growing; the Americans pouring in, at all points, to reap the advantages of their new possessions. It was this which had 50 made his journey heavy-hearted, and made him feel, in approaching the Señora Moreno’s, as if he were coming to one of the last sure strongholds of the Catholic faith left in the country.
When he was within two miles of the house, he struck off from the highway into a narrow path that he recollected led by a short-cut through the hills, and saved nearly a third of the distance. It was more than a year since he had trod this path, and as he found it growing fainter and fainter, and more and more overgrown with the wild mustard, he said to himself, “I think no one can have passed through here this year.”
As he proceeded he found the mustard thicker and thicker. The wild mustard in Southern California is like that spoken of in the New Testament, in the branches of which the birds of the air may rest. Coming up out of the earth, so slender a stem that dozens can find starting-point in an inch, it darts up, a slender straight shoot, five, ten, twenty feet, with hundreds of fine feathery branches locking and interlocking with all the other hundreds around it, till it is an inextricable network like lace. Then it bursts into yellow bloom still finer, more feathery and lace-like. The stems are so infinitesimally small, and of so dark a green, that at a short distance they do not show, and the cloud of blossom seems floating in the air; at times it looks like golden dust. With a clear blue sky behind it, as it is often seen, it looks like a golden snow-storm. The plant is a tyrant and a nuisance,—the terror of the farmer; it takes riotous possession of a whole field in a season; once in, never out; for one plant this year, a million the next; but it is impossible to wish that the land were freed from it. Its gold is as distinct a value to the eye as the nugget gold is in the pocket.
Father Salvierderra soon found himself in a veritable 51 thicket of these delicate branches, high above his head, and so interlaced that he could make headway only by slowly and patiently disentangling them, as one would disentangle a skein of silk. It was a fantastic sort of dilemma, and not unpleasing. Except that the Father was in haste to reach his journey’s end, he would have enjoyed threading his way through the golden meshes. Suddenly he heard faint notes of singing. He paused,—listened. It was the voice of a woman. It was slowly drawing nearer, apparently from the direction in which he was going. At intervals it ceased abruptly, then began again; as if by a sudden but brief interruption, like that made by question and answer. Then, peering ahead through the mustard blossoms, he saw them waving and bending, and heard sounds as if they were being broken. Evidently some one entering on the path from the opposite end had been caught in the fragrant thicket as he was. The notes grew clearer, though still low and sweet as the twilight notes of the thrush; the mustard branches waved more and more violently; light steps were now to be heard. Father Salvierderra stood still as one in a dream, his eyes straining forward into the golden mist of blossoms. In a moment more came, distinct and clear to his ear, the beautiful words of the second stanza of Saint Francis’s inimitable lyric, “The Canticle of the Sun:”
“Praise be to thee, O Lord, for all thy creatures, and especially for our brother the Sun,—who illuminates the day, and by his beauty and splendor shadows forth unto us thine.”
“Ramona!” exclaimed the Father, his thin cheeks flushing with pleasure. “The blessed child!” And as he spoke, her face came into sight, set in a swaying frame of the blossoms, as she parted them lightly to right and left with her hands, and half crept, half danced through the loop-hole openings thus made. Father 52 Salvierderra was past eighty, but his blood was not too old to move quicker at the sight of this picture. A man must be dead not to thrill at it. Ramona’s beauty was of the sort to be best enhanced by the waving gold which now framed her face. She had just enough of olive tint in her complexion to underlie and enrich her skin without making it swarthy. Her hair was like her Indian mother’s, heavy and black, but her eyes were like her father’s, steel-blue. Only those who came very near to Ramona knew, however, that her eyes were blue, for the heavy black eyebrows and long black lashes so shaded and shadowed them that they looked black as night. At the same instant that Father Salvierderra first caught sight of her face, Ramona also saw him, and crying out joyfully, “Ah, Father, I knew you would come by this path, and something told me you were near!” she sprang forward, and sank on her knees before him, bowing her head for his blessing. In silence he laid his hands on her brow. It would not have been easy for him to speak to her at that first moment. She had looked to the devout old monk, as she sprang through the cloud of golden flowers, the sun falling on her bared head, her cheeks flushed, her eyes shining, more like an apparition of an angel or saint, than like the flesh-and-blood maiden whom he had carried in his arms when she was a babe.
“We have been waiting, waiting, oh, so long for you, Father!” she said, rising. “We began to fear that you might be ill. The shearers have been sent for, and will be here to-night, and that was the reason I felt so sure you would come. I knew the Virgin would bring you in time for mass in the chapel on the first morning.”
The monk smiled half sadly. “Would there were more with such faith as yours, daughter,” he said. “Are all well on the place?”53
“Yes, Father, all well,” she answered. “Felipe has been ill with a fever; but he is out now, these ten days, and fretting for—for your coming.”
Ramona had like to have said the literal truth,—“fretting for the sheep-shearing,” but recollected herself in time.
“And the Señora?” said the Father.
“She is well,” answered Ramona, gently, but with a slight change of tone,—so slight as to be almost imperceptible; but an acute observer would have always detected it in the girl’s tone whenever she spoke of the Señora Moreno. “And you,—are you well yourself, Father?” she asked affectionately, noting with her quick, loving eye how feebly the old man walked, and that he carried what she had never before seen in his hand,—a stout staff to steady his steps. “You must be very tired with the long journey on foot.”
“Ay, Ramona, I am tired,” he replied. “Old age is conquering me. It will not be many times more that I shall see this place.”
“Oh, do not say that, Father,” cried Ramona; “you can ride, when it tires you too much to walk. The Señora said, only the other day, that she wished you would let her give you a horse; that it was not right for you to take these long journeys on foot. You know we have hundreds of horses. It is nothing, one horse,” she added, seeing the Father slowly shake his head.
“No;” he said, “it is not that. I could not refuse anything at the hands of the Señora. But it was the rule of our order to go on foot. We must deny the flesh. Look at our beloved master in this land, Father Junipero, when he was past eighty, walking from San Diego to Monterey, and all the while a running ulcer in one of his legs, for which most men would have taken to a bed, to be healed. It is a sinful 54 fashion that is coming in, for monks to take their ease doing God’s work. I can no longer walk swiftly, but I must walk all the more diligently.”
While they were talking, they had been slowly moving forward, Ramona slightly in advance, gracefully bending the mustard branches, and holding them down till the Father had followed in her steps. As they came out from the thicket, she exclaimed, laughing, “There is Felipe, in the willows. I told him I was coming to meet you, and he laughed at me. Now he will see I was right.”
Astonished enough, Felipe, hearing voices, looked up, and saw Ramona and the Father approaching. Throwing down the knife with which he had been cutting the willows, he hastened to meet them, and dropped on his knees, as Ramona had done, for the monk’s blessing. As he knelt there, the wind blowing his hair loosely off his brow, his large brown eyes lifted in gentle reverence to the Father’s face, and his face full of affectionate welcome, Ramona thought to herself, as she had thought hundreds of times since she became a woman, “How beautiful Felipe is! No wonder the Señora loves him so much! If I had been beautiful like that she would have liked me better.” Never was a little child more unconscious of her own beauty than Ramona still was. All the admiration which was expressed to her in word and look she took for simple kindness and good-will. Her face, as she herself saw it in her glass, did not please her. She compared her straight, massive black eyebrows with Felipe’s, arched and delicately pencilled, and found her own ugly. The expression of gentle repose which her countenance wore, seemed to her an expression of stupidity. “Felipe looks so bright!” she thought, as she noted his mobile changing face, never for two successive seconds the same. “There is nobody like Felipe.” And when his brown eyes were fixed on her, as they 55 so often were, in a long lingering gaze, she looked steadily back into their velvet depths with an abstracted sort of intensity which profoundly puzzled Felipe. It was this look, more than any other one thing, which had for two years held Felipe’s tongue in leash, as it were, and made it impossible for him to say to Ramona any of the loving things of which his heart had been full ever since he could remember. The boy had spoken them unhesitatingly, unconsciously; but the man found himself suddenly afraid. “What is it she thinks when she looks into my eyes so?” he wondered. If he had known that the thing she was usually thinking was simply, “How much handsomer brown eyes are than blue! I wish my eyes were the color of Felipe’s!” he would have perceived, perhaps, what would have saved him sorrow, if he had known it, that a girl who looked at a man thus, would be hard to win to look at him as a lover. But being a lover, he could not see this. He saw only enough to perplex and deter him.
As they drew near the house, Ramona saw Margarita standing at the gate of the garden. She was holding something white in her hands, looking down at it, and crying piteously. As she perceived Ramona, she made an eager leap forward, and then shrank back again, making dumb signals of distress to her. Her whole attitude was one of misery and entreaty. Margarita was, of all the maids, most beloved by Ramona. Though they were nearly of the same age, it had been Margarita who first had charge of Ramona; the nurse and her charge had played together, grown up together, become women together, and were now, although Margarita never presumed on the relation, or forgot to address Ramona as Señorita, more like friends than like mistress and maid.
“Pardon me, Father,” said Ramona. “I see that Margarita there is in trouble. I will leave Felipe to 56 go with you to the house. I will be with you again in a few moments.” And kissing his hand, she flew rather than ran across the field to the foot of the garden.
Before she reached the spot, Margarita had dropped on the ground and buried her face in her hands. A mass of crumpled and stained linen lay at her feet.
“What is it? What has happened, Margarita mia?” cried Ramona, in the affectionate Spanish phrase. For answer, Margarita removed one wet hand from her eyes, and pointed with a gesture of despair to the crumpled linen. Sobs choked her voice, and she buried her face again in her hands.
Ramona stooped, and lifted one corner of the linen. An involuntary cry of dismay broke from her, at which Margarita’s sobs redoubled, and she gasped out, “Yes, Señorita, it is totally ruined! It can never be mended, and it will be needed for the mass to-morrow morning. When I saw the Father coming by your side, I prayed to the Virgin to let me die. The Señora will never forgive me.”
It was indeed a sorry sight. The white linen altar-cloth, the cloth which the Señora Moreno had with her own hands made into one solid front of beautiful lace of the Mexican fashion, by drawing out part of the threads and sewing the remainder into intricate patterns, the cloth which had always been on the altar, when mass was said, since Margarita’s and Ramona’s earliest recollections,—there it lay, torn, stained, as if it had been dragged through muddy brambles. In silence, aghast, Ramona opened it out and held it up. “How did it happen, Margarita?” she whispered, glancing in terror up towards the house.
“Oh, that is the worst of it, Señorita!” sobbed the girl. “That is the worst of it! If it were not for 57 that, I would not be so afraid. If it had happened any other way, the Señora might have forgiven me; but she never will. I would rather die than tell her;” and she shook from head to foot.
“Stop crying, Margarita!” said Ramona, firmly, “and tell me all about it. It isn’t so bad as it looks; I think I can mend it.”
“Oh, the saints bless you!” cried Margarita, looking up for the first time. “Do you really think you can mend it, Señorita? If you will mend that lace, I’ll go on my knees for you all the rest of my life!”
Ramona laughed in spite of herself. “You’ll serve me better by keeping on your feet,” she said merrily; at which Margarita laughed too, through her tears. They were both young.
“Oh, but Señorita,” Margarita began again in a tone of anguish, her tears flowing afresh, “there is not time! It must be washed and ironed to-night, for the mass to-morrow morning, and I have to help at the supper. Anita and Rosa are both ill in bed, you know, and Maria has gone away for a week. The Señora said if the Father came to-night I must help mother, and must wait on table. It cannot be done. I was just going to iron it now, and I found it—so— It was in the artichoke-patch, and Capitan, the beast, had been tossing it among the sharp pricks of the old last year’s seeds.”
“In the artichoke-patch!” ejaculated Ramona. “How under heavens did it get there?”
“Oh, that was what I meant, Señorita, when I said she never would forgive me. She has forbidden me many times to hang anything to dry on the fence there; and if I had only washed it when she first told me, two days ago, all would have been well. But I forgot it till this afternoon, and there was no sun in the court to dry it, and you know how the sun lies on the artichoke-patch, and I put a 58 strong cloth over the fence, so that the wood should not pierce the lace, and I did not leave it more than half an hour, just while I said a few words to Luigo, and there was no wind; and I believe the saints must have fetched it down to the ground to punish me for my disobedience.”
Ramona had been all this time carefully smoothing out the torn places. “It is not so bad as it looks,” she said; “if it were not for the hurry, there would be no trouble in mending it. But I will do it the best I can, so that it will not show, for to-morrow, and then, after the Father is gone, I can repair it at leisure, and make it just as good as new. I think I can mend it and wash it before dark,” and she glanced at the sun. “Oh, yes, there are good three hours of daylight yet. I can do it. You put irons on the fire, to have them hot, to iron it as soon as it is partly dried. You will see it will not show that anything has happened to it.”
“Will the Señora know?” asked poor Margarita, calmed and reassured, but still in mortal terror.
Ramona turned her steady glance full on Margarita’s face. “You would not be any happier if she were deceived, do you think?” she said gravely.
“O Señorita, after it is mended? If it really does not show?” pleaded the girl.
“I will tell her myself, and not till after it is mended,” said Ramona; but she did not smile.
“Ah, Señorita,” said Margarita, deprecatingly, “you do not know what it is to have the Señora displeased with one.”
“Nothing can be so bad as to be displeased with one’s self,” retorted Ramona, as she walked swiftly away to her room with the linen rolled up under her arm. Luckily for Margarita’s cause, she met no one on the way. The Señora had welcomed Father Salvierderra at the foot of the veranda steps, and 59 had immediately closeted herself with him. She had much to say to him,—much about which she wished his help and counsel, and much which she wished to learn from him as to affairs in the Church and in the country generally.
Felipe had gone off at once to find Juan Canito, to see if everything were ready for the sheep-shearing to begin on the next day, if the shearers arrived in time; and there was very good chance of their coming in by sundown this day, Felipe thought, for he had privately instructed his messenger to make all possible haste, and to impress on the Indians the urgent need of their losing no time on the road.
It had been a great concession on the Señora’s part to allow the messenger to be sent off before she had positive intelligence as to the Father’s movements. But as day after day passed and no news came, even she perceived that it would not do to put off the sheep-shearing much longer, or, as Juan Canito said, “forever.” The Father might have fallen ill; and if that were so, it might very easily be weeks before they heard of it, so scanty were the means of communication between the remote places on his route of visitation. The messenger had therefore been sent to summon the Temecula shearers, and the Señora had resigned herself to the inevitable; piously praying, however, morning and night, and at odd moments in the day, that the Father might arrive before the Indians did. When she saw him coming up the garden-walk, leaning on the arm of her Felipe, on the afternoon of the very day which was the earliest possible day for the Indians to arrive, it was not strange that she felt, mingled with the joy of her greeting to her long-loved friend and confessor, a triumphant exultation that the saints had heard her prayers.
In the kitchen all was bustle and stir. The coming of any guest into the house was a signal for 60 unwonted activities there,—even the coming of Father Salvierderra, who never knew whether the soup had forcemeat balls in it or not, old Marda said; and that was to her the last extreme of indifference to good things of the flesh. “But if he will not eat, he can see,” she said; and her pride for herself and for the house was enlisted in setting forth as goodly an array of viands as her larder afforded. She grew suddenly fastidious over the size and color of the cabbages to go into the beef-pot, and threw away one whole saucepan full of rice, because Margarita had put only one onion in instead of two.
“Have I not told you again and again that for the Father it is always two onions?” she exclaimed. “It is the dish he most favors of all; and it is a pity too, old as he is. It makes him no blood. It is good beef he should take now.”
The dining-room was on the opposite side of the court-yard from the kitchen, and there was a perpetual procession of small messengers going back and forth between the rooms. It was the highest ambition of each child to be allowed to fetch and carry dishes in the preparation of the meals at all times; but when by so doing they could perchance get a glimpse through the dining-room door, open on the veranda, of strangers and guests, their restless rivalry became unmanageable. Poor Margarita, between her own private anxieties and her multiplied duties of helping in the kitchen, and setting the table, restraining and overseeing her army of infant volunteers, was nearly distraught; not so distraught, however, but that she remembered and found time to seize a lighted candle in the kitchen, run and set it before the statue of Saint Francis of Paula in her bedroom, hurriedly whispering a prayer that the lace might be made whole like new. Several times before the afternoon had waned she snatched a moment to fling herself 61 down at the statue’s feet and pray her foolish little prayer over again. We think we are quite sure that it is a foolish little prayer, when people pray to have torn lace made whole. But it would be hard to show the odds between asking that, and asking that it may rain, or that the sick may get well. As the grand old Russian says, what men usually ask for, when they pray to God, is, that two and two may not make four. All the same he is to be pitied who prays not. It was only the thought of that candle at Saint Francis’s feet, which enabled Margarita to struggle through this anxious and unhappy afternoon and evening.
At last supper was ready,—a great dish of spiced beef and cabbage in the centre of the table; a tureen of thick soup, with forcemeat balls and red peppers in it; two red earthen platters heaped, one with the boiled rice and onions, the other with the delicious frijoles (beans) so dear to all Mexican hearts; cut-glass dishes filled with hot stewed pears, or preserved quinces, or grape jelly; plates of frosted cakes of various sorts; and a steaming silver teakettle, from which went up an aroma of tea such as had never been bought or sold in all California, the Señora’s one extravagance and passion.
“Where is Ramona?” asked the Señora, surprised and displeased, as she entered the dining-room. “Margarita, go tell the Señorita that we are waiting for her.”
Margarita started tremblingly, with flushed face, towards the door. What would happen now! “O Saint Francis,” she inwardly prayed, “help us this once!”
“Stay,” said Felipe. “Do not call Señorita Ramona.” Then, turning to his mother, “Ramona cannot come. She is not in the house. She has a duty to perform for to-morrow,” he said; and he looked meaningly at his mother, adding, “we will not wait for her.”
Much bewildered, the Señora took her seat at the 62 head of the table in a mechanical way, and began, “But—” Felipe, seeing that questions were to follow, interrupted her: “I have just spoken with her. It is impossible for her to come;” and turning to Father Salvierderra, he at once engaged him in conversation, and left the baffled Señora to bear her unsatisfied curiosity as best she could.
Margarita looked at Felipe with an expression of profound gratitude, which he did not observe, and would not in the least have understood; for Ramona had not confided to him any details of the disaster. Seeing him under her window, she had called cautiously to him, and said: “Dear Felipe, do you think you can save me from having to come to supper? A dreadful accident has happened to the altar-cloth, and I must mend it and wash it, and there is barely time before dark. Don’t let them call me; I shall be down at the brook, and they will not find me, and your mother will be displeased.”
This wise precaution of Ramona’s was the salvation of everything, so far as the altar-cloth was concerned. The rents had proved far less serious than she had feared; the daylight held out till the last of them was skilfully mended; and just as the red beams of the sinking sun came streaming through the willow-trees at the foot of the garden, Ramona, darting down the garden, had reached the brook, and kneeling on the grass, had dipped the linen into the water.
Her hurried working over the lace, and her anxiety, had made her cheeks scarlet. As she ran down the garden, her comb had loosened and her hair fallen to her waist. Stopping only to pick up the comb and thrust it in her pocket, she had sped on, as it would soon be too dark for her to see the stains on the linen, and it was going to be no small trouble to get them out without fraying the lace.63
Her hair in disorder, her sleeves pinned loosely on her shoulders, her whole face aglow with the earnestness of her task, she bent low over the stones, rinsing the altar-cloth up and down in the water, anxiously scanning it, then plunging it in again.
The sunset beams played around her hair like a halo; the whole place was aglow with red light, and her face was kindled into transcendent beauty. A sound arrested her attention. She looked up. Forms, dusky black against the fiery western sky, were coming down the valley. It was the band of Indian shearers. They turned to the left, and went towards the sheep sheds and booths. But there was one of them that Ramona did not see. He had been standing for some minutes concealed behind a large willow-tree a few rods from the place where Ramona was kneeling. It was Alessandro, son of Pablo Assis, captain of the shearing band. Walking slowly along in advance of his men, he had felt a light, as from a mirror held in the sun, smite his eyes. It was the red sunbeam on the glittering water where Ramona knelt. In the same second he saw Ramona.
He halted, as wild creatures of the forest halt at a sound; gazed; walked abruptly away from his men, who kept on, not noticing his disappearance. Cautiously he moved a few steps nearer, into the shelter of a gnarled old willow, from behind which he could gaze unperceived on the beautiful vision,—for so it seemed to him.
As he gazed, his senses seemed leaving him, and unconsciously he spoke aloud: “Christ! What shall I do!”
Notes and Corrections: Chapter IV
As the grand old Russian says
[I thought this would turn out to be some specific “grand old Russian”—Tolstoy, say—but in fact it’s simply a Russian proverb.]