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It was evident that the two strangers represented some exalted military and ecclesiastical authority. This was shown in their dress--a long-forgotten, half mediaeval costume, that to the imaginative spectator was perfectly in keeping with their mysterious advent, and to the more practical as startling as a masquerade. The foremost figure wore a broad-brimmed hat of soft felt, with tarnished gold lace, and a dark feather tucked in its recurved flap; a short cloak of fine black cloth thrown over one shoulder left a buff leathern jacket and breeches, ornamented with large round silver buttons, exposed until they were met by high boots of untanned yellow buckskin that reached halfway up the thigh. A broad baldric of green silk hung from his shoulder across his breast, and supported at his side a long sword with an enormous basket hilt, through which somewhat coquettishly peeped a white lace handkerchief. Tall and erect, in spite of the grizzled hair and iron-gray moustaches and wrinkled face of a man of sixty, he suddenly halted on the deck with a military precision that made the jingling chains and bits of silver on his enormous spurs ring again. He was followed by an ecclesiastic of apparently his own age, but smoothly shaven, clad in a black silk sotana and sash, and wearing the old-fashioned oblong, curl-brimmed hat sacred to "Don Basilo," of the modern opera. Behind him appeared the genial face of Senor Perkins, shining with the benignant courtesy of a master of ceremonies.
"If this is a fair sample of the circus ashore, I'll take two tickets," whispered Crosby, who had recovered his audacity.
"I have the inexpressible honor," said Senor Perkins to Captain Bunker, with a gracious wave of his hand towards the extraordinary figures, "to present you to the illustrious Don Miguel Briones, Comandante of the Presidio of Todos Santos, at present hidden in the fog, and the very reverend and pious Padre Esteban, of the Mission of Todos Santos, likewise invisible. When I state to you," he continued, with a slight lifting of his voice, so as to include the curious passengers in his explanation, "that, with very few exceptions, this is the usual condition of the atmosphere at the entrance to the Mission and Presidio of Todos Santos, and that the last exception took place thirty-five years ago, when a ship entered the harbor, you will understand why these distinguished gentlemen have been willing to waive the formality of your waiting upon them first, and have taken the initiative. The illustrious Comandante has been generous to exempt you from the usual port regulations, and to permit you to wood and to water"--
"What port regulation is he talking of?" asked Captain Bunker testily.
"The Mexican regulations forbidding any foreign vessel to communicate with the shore," returned Senor Perkins deprecatingly.
"Never heard of 'em. When were they given?"
The Senor turned and addressed a few words to the commander, who stood apart in silent dignity.
"In what?--Is he mad?" said Bunker. "Does he know what year this is?"
"The illustrious commander believes it to be the year of grace 1854," answered Senor Perkins quietly. "In the case of the only two vessels who have touched here since 1792 the order was not carried out because they were Mexican coasters. The illustrious Comandante explains that the order he speaks of as on record distinctly referred to the ship 'Columbia, which belonged to the General Washington.'"
"General Washington!" echoed Bunker, angrily staring at the Senor. "What's this stuff? Do you mean to say they don't know any history later than our old Revolutionary War? Haven't they heard of the United States among them? Nor California--that we took from them during the late war?"
"Nor how we licked 'em out of their boots, and that's saying a good deal," whispered Crosby, glancing at the Comandante's feet.
Senor Perkins raised a gentle, deprecating hand.
"For fifty years the Presidio and the Mission of Todos Santos have had but this communication with the outer world," he said blandly. "Hidden by impenetrable fogs from the ocean pathway at their door, cut off by burning and sterile deserts from the surrounding country, they have preserved a trust and propagated a faith in enforced but not unhappy seclusion. The wars that have shaken mankind, the dissensions that have even disturbed the serenity of their own nation on the mainland, have never reached them here. Left to themselves, they have created a blameless Arcadia and an ideal community within an extent of twenty square leagues. Why should we disturb their innocent complacency and tranquil enjoyment by information which cannot increase and might impair their present felicity? Why should we dwell upon a late political and international episode which, while it has been a benefit to us, has been a humiliation to them as a nation, and which might not only imperil our position as guests, but interrupt our practical relations to the wood and water, with which the country abounds?"
He paused, and before the captain could speak, turned to the silent Commander, addressed him in a dozen phrases of fluent and courteous Spanish, and once more turned to Captain Bunker.
"I have told him you are touched to the heart with his courtesy, which you recognize as coming from the fit representative of the great Mexican nation. He reciprocates your fraternal emotion, and begs you to consider the Presidio and all that it contains, at your disposition and the disposition of your friends--the passengers, particularly those fair ladies," said Senor Perkins, turning with graceful promptitude towards the group of lady passengers, and slightly elevating himself on the tips of his neat boots, "whose white hands he kisses, and at whose feet he lays the devotion of a Mexican caballero and officer."
He waved his hand towards the Comandante, who, stepping forward, swept the deck with his plumed hat before each of the ladies in solemn succession. Recovering himself, he bowed more stiffly to the male passengers, picked his handkerchief out of the hilt of his sword, gracefully wiped his lips, pulled the end of his long gray moustache, and became again rigid.
"The reverend father," continued Senor Perkins, turning towards the priest, "regrets that the rules of his order prevent his extending the same courtesy to these ladies at the Mission. But he hopes to meet them at the Presidio, and they will avail themselves of his aid and counsel there and everywhere."
Father Esteban, following the speaker's words with a gracious and ready smile, at once moved forward among the passengers, offering an antique snuff-box to the gentlemen, or passing before the ladies with slightly uplifted benedictory palms and a caressing paternal gesture. Mrs. Brimmer, having essayed a French sentence, was delighted and half frightened to receive a response from the ecclesiastic, and speedily monopolized him until he was summoned by the Commander to the returning boat.
"A most accomplished man, my dear," said Mrs. Brimmer, as the Excelsior's cannon again thundered after the retiring oars, "like all of his order. He says, although Don Miguel does not speak French, that his secretary does; and we shall have no difficulty in making ourselves understood."
"Then you really intend to go ashore?" said Miss Keene timidly.
"Decidedly," returned Mrs. Brimmer potentially. "It would be most unpolite, not to say insulting, if we did not accept the invitation. You have no idea of the strictness of Spanish etiquette. Besides, he may have heard of Mr. Brimmer."
"As his last information was only up to 1792, he might have forgotten it," said Crosby gravely. "So perhaps it would be safer to go on the general invitation."
"As Mr. Brimmer's ancestors came over on the Mayflower, long before 1792, it doesn't seem so very impossible, if it comes to that," said Mrs. Brimmer, with her usual unanswerable naivete; "provided always that you are not joking, Mr. Crosby. One never knows when you are serious."
"Mrs. Brimmer is quite right; we must all go. This is no mere formality," said Senor Perkins, who had returned to the ladies. "Indeed, I have myself promised the Comandante to bring YOU," he turned towards Miss Keene, "if you will permit Mrs. Markham and myself to act as your escort. It was Don Miguel's express request."
A slight flush of pride suffused the cheek of the young girl, but the next moment she turned diffidently towards Mrs. Brimmer.
"We must all go together," she said; "shall we not?"
"You see your triumphs have begun already," said Brace, with a nervous smile. "You need no longer laugh at me for predicting your fate in San Francisco."
Miss Keene cast a hurried glance around her, in the faint hope--she scarcely knew why--that Mr. Hurlstone had overheard the Senor's invitation; nor could she tell why she was disappointed at not seeing him. But he had not appeared on deck during the presence of their strange visitors; nor was he in the boat which half an hour later conveyed her to the shore. He must have either gone in one of the other boats, or fulfilled his strange threat of remaining on the ship.
The boats pulled away together towards the invisible shore, piloted by Captain Bunker, the first officer, and Senor Perkins in the foremost boat. It had grown warmer, and the fog that stole softly over them touched their faces with the tenderness of caressing fingers. Miss Keene, wrapped up in the stern sheets of the boat, gave way to the dreamy influence of this weird procession through the water, retaining only perception enough to be conscious of the singular illusions of the mist that alternately thickened and lightened before their bow. At times it seemed as if they were driving full upon a vast pier or breakwater of cold gray granite, that, opening to let the foremost boat pass, closed again before them; at times it seemed as if they had diverged from their course, and were once more upon the open sea, the horizon a far-off line of vanishing color; at times, faint lights seemed to pierce the gathering darkness, or to move like will-o'-wisps across the smooth surface, when suddenly the keel grated on the sand. A narrow but perfectly well defined strip of palpable strand appeared before them; they could faintly discern the moving lower limbs of figures whose bodies were still hidden in the mist; then they were lifted from the boats; the first few steps on dry land carried them out of the fog that seemed to rise like a sloping roof from the water's edge, leaving them under its canopy in the full light of actual torches held by a group of picturesquely dressed people before the vista of a faintly lit, narrow, ascending street. The dim twilight of the closing day lingered under this roof of fog, which seemed to hang scarcely a hundred feet above them, and showed a wall or rampart of brown adobe on their right that extended nearly to the water; to the left, at the distance of a few hundred yards, another low brown wall appeared; above it rose a fringe of foliage, and, more distant and indistinct, two white towers, that were lost in the nebulous gray.
One of the figures dressed in green jackets, who seemed to be in authority, now advanced, and, after a moment's parley with Senor Perkins while the Excelsior's passengers were being collected from the different boats, courteously led the way along the wall of the fortification. Presently a low opening or gateway appeared, followed by the challenge of a green-jacketed sentry, and the sentence, "Dios y Libertad" It was repeated in the interior of a dusky courtyard, surrounded by a low corridor, where a dozen green-jacketed men of aboriginal type and complexion, carrying antique flintlocks, were drawn up as a guard of honor.
"The Comandante," said Senor Perkins, "directs me to extend his apologies to the Senor Capitano Bunker for withholding the salute which is due alike to his country, himself, and his fair company; but fifty years of uninterrupted peace and fog have left his cannon inadequate to polite emergencies, and firmly fixed the tampion of his saluting gun. But he places the Presidio at your disposition; you will be pleased to make its acquaintance while it is still light; and he will await you in the guard-room."
Left to themselves, the party dispersed like dismissed school-children through the courtyard and corridors, and in the enjoyment of their release from a month's confinement on shipboard stretched their cramped limbs over the ditches, walls, and parapets, to the edge of the glacis.
Everywhere a ruin that was picturesque, a decay that was refined and gentle, a neglect that was graceful, met the eye; the sharp exterior and reentering angles were softly rounded and obliterated by overgrowths of semitropical creepers; the abatis was filled by a natural brake of scrub-oak and manzanita; the clematis flung its long scaling ladders over the escarpment, until Nature, slowly but securely investing the doomed fortress, had lifted a victorious banner of palm from the conquered summit of the citadel! Some strange convulsions of the earth had completed the victory; the barbette guns of carved and antique bronze commemorating fruitless and long-forgotten triumphs were dismounted; one turned in the cheeks of its carriage had a trunnion raised piteously in the air like an amputated stump; another, sinking through its rotting chassis, had buried itself to its chase in the crumbling adobe wall. But above and beyond this gentle chaos of defense stretched the real ramparts and escarpments of Todos Santos--the impenetrable and unassailable fog! Corroding its brass and iron with saline breath, rotting its wood with unending shadow, sapping its adobe walls with perpetual moisture, and nourishing the obliterating vegetation with its quickening blood, as if laughing to scorn the puny embattlements of men--it still bent around the crumbling ruins the tender grace of an invisible but all-encompassing arm.
Senor Perkins, who had acted as cicerone to the party, pointed out these various mutations with no change from his usual optimism.
"Protected by their peculiar isolation during the late war, there was no necessity for any real fortification of the place. Nevertheless, it affords some occupation and position for our kind friend, Don Miguel, and so serves a beneficial purpose. This little gun," he continued, stopping to attentively examine a small but beautifully carved bronze six-pounder, which showed indications of better care than the others, "seems to be the saluting-gun Don Miguel spoke of. For the last fifty years it has spoken only the language of politeness and courtesy, and yet through want of care the tampion, as you see, has become swollen and choked in its mouth."
"How true in a larger sense," murmured Mrs. Markham, "the habit of courtesy alone preserves the fluency of the heart."
"I know you two are saying something very clever," said Mrs. Brimmer, whose small French slippers and silk stockings were beginning to show their inadequacy to a twilight ramble in the fog; "but I am so slow, and I never catch the point. Do repeat it slowly."
"The Senor was only showing us how they managed to shut up a smooth bore in this country," said Crosby gravely. "I wonder when we're going to have dinner. I suppose old Don Quixote will trot out some of his Senoritas. I want to see those choir girls that sang so stunningly a while ago."
"I suppose you mean the boys--for they're all boys in the Catholic choirs--but then, perhaps you are joking again. Do tell me if you are, for this is really amusing. I may laugh--mayn't I?" As the discomfited humorist fell again to the rear amidst the laughter of the others, Mrs. Brimmer continued naively to Senor Perkins,--"Of course, as Don Miguel is a widower, there must be daughters or sisters-in-law who will meet us. Why, the priest, you know--even he--must have nieces. Really, it's a serious question--if we are to accept his hospitality in a social way. Why don't you ask HIM?" she said, pointing to the green-jacketed subaltern who was accompanying them.
Senor Perkins looked half embarrassed.
"Repeat your question, my dear lady, and I will translate it."
"Ask him if there are any women at the Presidio."
Senor Perkins drew the subaltern aside. Presently he turned to Mrs. Brimmer.
"He says there are four: the wife of the baker, the wife of the saddler, the daughter of the trumpeter, and the niece of the cook."
"Good heavens! we can't meet THEM," said Mrs. Brimmer.
Senor Perkins hesitated.
"Perhaps I ought to have told you," he said blandly, "that the old Spanish notions of etiquette are very strict. The wives of the officials and higher classes do not meet strangers on a first visit, unless they are well known."
"That isn't it," said Winslow, joining them excitedly. "I've heard the whole story. It's a good joke. Banks has been bragging about us all, and saying that these ladies had husbands who were great merchants, and, as these chaps consider that all trade is vulgar, you know, they believe we are not fit to associate with their women, don't you see? All, except one--Miss Keene. She's considered all right. She's to be introduced to the Commander's women, and to the sister of the Alcalde."
"She will do nothing of the kind," said Miss Keene indignantly. "If these ladies are not to be received with me, we'll all go back to the ship together."
She spoke with a quick and perfectly unexpected resolution and independence, so foreign to her usual childlike half dependent character, that her hearers were astounded. Senor Perkins gazed at her thoughtfully; Brace, Crosby, and Winslow admiringly; her sister passengers with doubt and apprehension.
"There must be some mistake," said Senor Perkins gently. "I will inquire."
He was absent but a few moments. When he returned, his face was beaming.
"It's a ridiculous misapprehension. Our practical friend Banks, in his zealous attempts to impress the Comandante's secretary, who knows a little English, with the importance of Mr. Brimmer's position as a large commission merchant, has, I fear, conveyed only the idea that he was a kind of pawnbroker; while Mr. Markham's trade in hides has established him as a tanner; and Mr. Banks' own flour speculations, of which he is justly proud, have been misinterpreted by him as the work of a successful baker!"
"And what idea did he convey about YOU?" asked Crosby audaciously; "it might be interesting to us to know, for our own satisfaction."
"I fear they did not do me the honor to inquire," replied Senor Perkins, with imperturbable good-humor; "there are some persons, you know, who carry all their worldly possessions palpably about with them. I am one of them. Call me a citizen of the world, with a strong leniency towards young and struggling nationalities; a traveler, at home anywhere; a delighted observer of all things, an admirer of brave men, the devoted slave of charming women--and you have, in one word, a passenger of the good ship Excelsior."
For the first time, Miss Keene noticed a slight irony in Senor Perkins' superabundant fluency, and that he did not conceal his preoccupation over the silent saluting gun he was still admiring. The approach of Don Miguel and Padre Esteban with a small bevy of ladies, however, quickly changed her thoughts, and detached the Senor from her side. Her first swift feminine impression of the fair strangers was that they were plain and dowdy, an impression fully shared by the other lady passengers. But her second observation, that they were more gentle, fascinating, child-like, and feminine than her own countrywomen, was purely her own. Their loose, undulating figures, guiltless of stays; their extravagance of short, white, heavily flounced skirt, which looked like a petticoat; their lightly wrapped, formless, and hooded shoulders and heads, lent a suggestion of dishabille that Mrs. Brimmer at once resented.
"They might, at least, have dressed themselves," she whispered to Mrs. Markham.
"I really believe," returned Mrs. Markham, "they've got no bodices on!"
The introductions over, a polyglot conversation ensued in French by the Padre and Mrs. Brimmer, and in broken English by Miss Chubb, Miss Keene, and the other passengers with the Commander's secretary, varied by occasional scraps of college Latin from Mr. Crosby, the whole aided by occasional appeals to Senor Perkins. The darkness increasing, the party reentered the courtyard, and, passing through the low-studded guard-room, entered another corridor, which looked upon a second court, enclosed on three sides, the fourth opening upon a broad plaza, evidently the public resort of the little town. Encompassing this open space, a few red-tiled roofs could be faintly seen in the gathering gloom. Chocolate and thin spiced cakes were served in the veranda, pending the preparations for a more formal banquet. Already Miss Keene had been singled out from her companions for the special attentions of her hosts, male and female, to her embarrassment and confusion. Already Dona Isabel, the sister of the Alcalde, had drawn her aside, and, with caressing frankness, had begun to question her in broken English,--
"But Miss Keene is no name. The Dona Keene is of nothing."
"Well, you may call me Eleanor, if you like," said Miss Keene, smiling.
"Dona Leonor--so; that is good," said Dona Isabel, clapping her hands like a child. "But how are you?"
"I beg your pardon," said Miss Keene, greatly amused, "but I don't understand."
"Ah, Caramba! What are you, little one?" Seeing that her guest still looked puzzled, she continued,--"Ah! Mother of God! Why are your friends so polite to you? Why does every one love you so?"
"Do they? Well," stammered Miss Keene, with one of her rare, dazzling smiles, and her cheeks girlishly rosy with naive embarrassment, "I suppose they think I am pretty."
"Pretty! Ah, yes, you are!" said Dona Isabel, gazing at her curiously. "But it is not all that."
"What is it, then?" asked Miss Keene demurely.
"You are a--a--Dama de Grandeza!"
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