A forest of willows cut by a forking creek, and held apart here and there by fields of yellow mustard blossoms fluttering in their pale green nests, or meadows carpeted with the tiny white and yellow flowers of early summer. Wide patches of blue where the willows ended, and immense banks of daisies bordering fields of golden grain, bending and shimmering in the wind with the deep even sweep of rising tide. Then the lake, long, irregular, half choked with tules, closed by a marsh. The valley framed by mountains of purplish gray, dull brown, with patches of vivid green and yellow; a solitary gray peak, barren and rocky, in sharp contrast to the rich Californian hills; on one side fawn-coloured slopes, and slopes with groves of crouching oaks in their hollows; opposite and beyond the cold peak, a golden hill rising to a mount of earthy green; still lower, another peak, red and green, mulberry and mould; between and afar, closing the valley, a line of pink-brown mountains splashed with blue.
Such was a fragment of Don Roberto Duncan's vast rancho, Los Quervos, and on a plateau above the willows stood the adobe house, white and red-tiled, shaped like a solid letter H. On the deep veranda, sunken between the short forearms of the H, Dona Jacoba could stand and issue commands in her harsh imperious voice to the Indians in the rancheria among the willows, whilst the long sala behind overflowed with the gay company her famous hospitality had summoned, the bare floor and ugly velvet furniture swept out of thought by beautiful faces and flowered silken gowns.
Behind the sala was an open court, the grass growing close to the great stone fountain. On either side was a long line of rooms, and above the sala was a library opening into the sleeping room of Dona Jacoba on one side, and into that of Elena, her youngest and loveliest daughter, on the other. Beyond the house were a dozen or more buildings: the kitchen; a room in which steers and bullocks, sheep and pigs, were hanging; a storehouse containing provisions enough for a hotel; and the manufactories of the Indians. Somewhat apart was a large building with a billiard-room in its upper story and sleeping rooms below. From her window Elena could look down upon the high-walled corral with its prancing horses always in readiness for the pleasure-loving guests, and upon the broad road curving through the willows and down the valley.
The great house almost shook with life on this brilliant day of the month of June, 1852. Don Roberto Duncan, into whose shrewd Scotch hands California had poured her wealth for forty years, had long ago taken to himself a wife of Castilian blood; to-morrow their eldest remaining daughter was to be married to a young Englishman, whose father had been a merchant in California when San Francisco was Yerba Buena. Not a room was vacant in the house. Young people had come from Monterey and San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Beds had been put up in the library and billiard-room, in the store-rooms and attics. The corral was full of strange horses, and the huts in the willows had their humbler guests.
Francisca sat in her room surrounded by a dozen chattering girls. The floor beneath the feet of the Californian heiress was bare, and the heavy furniture was of uncarved mahogany. But a satin quilt covered the bed, lavish Spanish needlework draped chest and tables, and through the open window came the June sunshine and the sound of the splashing fountain.
Francisca was putting the last stitches in her wedding-gown, and the girls were helping, advising, and commenting.
"Art thou not frightened, Panchita," demanded one of the girls, "to go away and live with a strange man? Just think, thou hast seen him but ten times."
"What of that?" asked Francisca, serenely, holding the rich corded silk at arm's length, and half closing her eyes as she readjusted the deep flounce of Spanish lace. "Remember, we shall ride and dance and play games together for a week with all of you, dear friends, before I go away with him. I shall know him quite well by that time. And did not my father know him when he was a little boy? Surely, he cannot be a cruel man, or my father would not have chosen him for my husband."
"I like the Americans and the Germans and the Russians," said the girl who had spoken, "particularly the Americans. But these English are so stern, so harsh sometimes."
"What of that?" asked Francisca again. "Am I not used to my father?"
She was a singular-looking girl, this compound of Scotch and Spanish. Her face was cast in her father's hard mould, and her frame was large and sturdy, but she had the black luxuriant hair of Spain, and much grace of gesture and expression.
"I would not marry an Englishman," said a soft voice.
Francisca raised her eyebrows and glanced coldly at the speaker, a girl of perfect loveliness, who sat behind a table, her chin resting on her clasped hands.
"Thou wouldst marry whom our father told thee to marry, Elena," said her sister, severely. "What hast thou to say about it?"
"I will marry a Spaniard," said Elena, rebelliously. "A Spaniard, and no other."
"Thou wilt do what?" asked a cold voice from the door. The girls gave a little scream. Elena turned pale, even Francisca's hands twitched.
Dona Jacoba was an impressive figure as she stood in the doorway; a tall unbowed woman with a large face and powerful penetrating eyes. A thin mouth covering white teeth separated the prominent nose and square chin. A braid of thick black hair lay over her fine bust, and a black silk handkerchief made a turban for her lofty head. She wore a skirt of heavy black silk and a shawl of Chinese crepe, one end thrown gracefully over her shoulder.
"What didst thou say?" she demanded again, a sneer on her lips.
Elena made no answer. She stared through the window at the servants laying the table in the dining room on the other side of the court, her breath shortening as if the room had been exhausted of air.
"Let me hear no more of that nonsense," continued her mother. "A strange remark, truly, to come from the lips of a Californian! Thy father has said that his daughters shall marry men of his race--men who belong to that island of the North; and I have agreed, and thy sisters are well married. No women are more virtuous, more industrious, more religious, than ours; but our men--our young men--are a set of drinking gambling vagabonds. Go to thy room and pray there until supper."
Elena ran out of an opposite door, and Dona Jacoba sat down on a high-backed chair and held out her hand for the wedding-gown. She examined it, then smiled brilliantly.
"The lace is beautiful," she said. "There is no richer in California, and I have seen Dona Trinidad Iturbi y Moncada's and Dona Modeste Castro's. Let me see thy mantilla once more."
Francisca opened a chest nearly as large as her bed, and shook out a long square of superb Spanish lace. It had arrived from the city of Mexico but a few days before. The girls clapped their admiring hands, as if they had not looked at it twenty times, and Dona Jacoba smoothed it tenderly with her strong hands. Then she went over to the chest and lifted the beautiful silk and crepe gowns, one by one, her sharp eyes detecting no flaw. She opened another chest and examined the piles of underclothing and bed linen, all of finest woof, and deeply bordered with the drawn work of Spain.
"All is well," she said, returning to her chair. "I see nothing more to be done. Thy brother will bring the emeralds, and the English plate will come before the week is over."
"Is it sure that Santiago will come in time for the wedding?" asked a half-English granddaughter, whose voice broke suddenly at her own temerity.
But Dona Jacoba was in a gracious mood.
"Surely. Has not Don Roberto gone to meet him? He will be here at four to-day."
"How glad I shall be to see him!" said Francisca. "Just think, my friends, I have not seen him for seven years. Not since he was eleven years old. He has been on that cold dreadful island in the North all this time. I wonder has he changed!"
"Why should he change?" asked Dona Jacoba. "Is he not a Cortez and a Duncan? Is he not a Californian and a Catholic? Can a few years in an English school make him of another race? He is seven years older, that is all."
"True," assented Francisca, threading her needle; "of course he could not change."
Dona Jacoba opened a large fan and wielded it with slow curves of her strong wrist. She had never been cold in her life, and even a June day oppressed her.
"We have another guest," she said in a moment--"a young man, Don Dario Castanares of Los Robles Rancho. He comes to buy cattle of my husband, and must remain with us until the bargain is over."
Several of the girls raised their large black eyes with interest. "Don Dario Castanares," said one; "I have heard of him. He is very rich and very handsome, they say."
"Yes," said Dona Jacoba, indifferently. "He is not ugly, but much too dark. His mother was an Indian. He is no husband, with all his leagues, for any Californian of pure Castilian blood."
Elena had gone up to her room, and would have locked the door had she possessed a key. As it was, she indulged in a burst of tears at the prospect of marrying an Englishman, then consoled herself with the thought that her best-beloved brother would be with her in a few hours.
She bathed her face and wound the long black coils about her shapely head. The flush faded out of her white cheeks, and her eyelids were less heavy. But the sadness did not leave her eyes nor the delicate curves of her mouth. She had the face of the Madonna, stamped with the heritage of suffering; a nature so keenly capable of joy and pain that she drew both like a magnet, and would so long as life stayed in her.
She curled herself in the window-seat, looking down the road for the gray cloud of dust that would herald her brother. But only black flocks of crows mounted screaming from the willows, to dive and rise again. Suddenly she became conscious that she was watched, and her gaze swept downward to the corral. A stranger stood by the gates, giving orders to a vaquero but looking hard at her from beneath his low-dropped sombrero.
He was tall, this stranger, and very slight. His face was nearly as dark as an Indian's, but set with features so perfect that no one but Dona Jacoba had ever found fault with his skin. Below his dreaming ardent eyes was a straight delicate nose; the sensuous mouth was half parted over glistening teeth and but lightly shaded by a silken mustache. About his graceful figure hung a dark red serape embroidered and fringed with gold, and his red velvet trousers were laced, and his yellow riding-boots gartered, with silver.
Elena rose quickly and pulled the curtain across the window; the blood had flown to her hair, and a smile chased the sadness from her mouth. Then she raised her hands and pressed the palms against the slope of the ceiling, her dark upturned eyes full of terror. For many moments she stood so, hardly conscious of what she was doing, seeing only the implacable eyes of her mother. Then down the road came the loud regular hoof-falls of galloping horses, and with an eager cry she flung aside the curtain, forgetting the stranger.
Down the road, half hidden by the willows, came two men. When they reached the rancheria, Elena saw the faces: a sandy-haired hard-faced old Scotsman, with cold blue eyes beneath shaggy red brows, and a dark slim lad, every inch a Californian. Elena waved her handkerchief and the lad his hat. Then the girl ran down the stairs and over to the willows. Santiago sprang from his horse, and the brother and sister clung together kissing and crying, hugging each other until her hair fell down and his hat was in the dust.
"Thou hast come!" cried Elena at last, holding him at arm's length that she might see him better, then clinging to him again with all her strength. "Thou never wilt leave me again--promise me! Promise me, my Santiago! Ay, I have been so lonely."
"Never, my little one. Have I not longed to come home that I might be with you? O my Elena! I know so much. I will teach you everything."
"Ay, I am proud of thee, my Santiago! Thou knowest more than any boy in California--I know."
"Perhaps that would not be much," with fine scorn. "But come, Elena mia, I must go to my mother; she is waiting. She looks as stern as ever; but how I have longed to see her!"
They ran to the house, passing the stranger, who had watched them with folded arms and scowling brows. Santiago rushed impetuously at his mother; but she put out her arm, stiff and straight, and held him back. Then she laid her hand, with its vice-like grip, on his shoulder, and led him down the sala to the chapel at the end. It was arranged for the wedding, with all the pomp of velvet altar-cloth and golden candelabra. He looked at it wonderingly. Why had she brought him to look upon this before giving him a mother's greeting?
"Kneel down," she said, "and repeat the prayers of thy Church--prayers of gratitude for thy safe return."
The boy folded his hands deprecatingly.
"But, mother, remember it is seven long years since I have said the Catholic prayers. Remember I have been educated in an English college, in a Protestant country."
Her tall form curved slowly toward him, the blood blazed in her dark cheeks.
"What!" she screamed incredulously. "Thou hast forgotten the prayers of thy Church--the prayers thou learned at my knee?"
"Yes, mother, I have," he said desperately. "I cannot--"
"God! God! Mother of God! My son says this to me!" She caught him by the shoulder again and almost hurled him from the room. Then she locked her hand about his arm and dragged him down the sala to his father's room. She took a greenhide reata from the table and brought it down upon his back with long sweeps of her powerful arm, but not another word came from her rigid lips. The boy quivered with the shame and pain, but made no resistance--for he was a Californian, and she was his mother.
Joaquin, the eldest son, who had been hunting bear with a number of his guests, returned shortly after his brother's arrival and was met at the door by his mother.
"Where is Santiago?" he asked. "I hear he has come."
"Santiago has been sent to bed, where he will remain for the present. We have an unexpected guest, Joaquin. He leans there against the tree--Don Dario Castanares. Thou knowest who he is. He comes to buy cattle of thy father, and will remain some days. Thou must share thy room with him, for there is no other place--even on the billiard-table."
Joaquin liked the privacy of his room, but he had all the hospitality of his race. He went at once to the stranger, walking a little heavily, for he was no longer young and slender, but with a cordial smile on his shrewd warmly coloured face.
"The house is at your service, Don Dario," he said, shaking the newcomer's hand. "We are honoured that you come in time for my sister's wedding. It distresses me that I cannot offer you the best room in the house, but, Dios! we have a company here. I have only the half of my poor bed to offer you, but if you will deign to accept that--"
"I am miserable, wretched, to put you to such inconvenience--"
"Never think of such a thing, my friend. Nothing could give me greater happiness than to try to make you comfortable in my poor room. Will you come now and take a siesta before supper?"
Dario followed him to the house, protesting at every step, and Joaquin threw open the door of one of the porch rooms.
"At your service, senor--everything at your service."
He went to one corner of the room and kicked aside a pile of saddles, displaying a small hillock of gold in ten-and fifty-dollar slugs. "You will find about thirty thousand dollars there. We sold some cattle a days ago. I beg that you will help yourself. It is all at your service. I will now go and send you some aguardiente, for you must be thirsty." And he went out and left his guest alone.
Dario threw himself face downward on the bed. He was in love, and the lady had kissed another man as if she had no love to spare. True, it was but her brother she had kissed, but would she have eyes for any one else during a stranger's brief visit? And how, in this crowded house, could he speak a word with her alone? And that terrible dragon of a mother! He sprang to his feet as an Indian servant entered with a glass of aguardiente. When he had burnt his throat, he felt better. "I will stay until I have won her, if I remain a month," he vowed. "It will be some time before Don Roberto will care to talk business."
But Don Roberto was never too occupied to talk business. After he had taken his bath and siesta, he sent a servant to request Don Dario Castanares to come up to the library, where he spent most of his time, received all his visitors, reprimanded his children, and took his after-dinner naps. It was a luxurious room for the Californian of that day. A thick red English carpet covered the floor; one side of the room was concealed by a crowded bookcase, and the heavy mahogany furniture was handsomely carved, although upholstered with horse-hair.
In an hour every detail of the transaction had been disposed of, and Dario had traded a small rancho for a herd of cattle. The young man's face was very long when the last detail had been arranged, but he had forgotten that his host was as Californian as himself. Don Roberto poured him a brimming glass of angelica and gave him a hearty slap on the back.
"The cattle will keep for a few days, Don Dario," he said, "and you shall not leave this house until the festivities are over. Not until a week from to-morrow--do you hear? I knew your father. We had many a transaction together, and I take pleasure in welcoming his son under my roof. Now get off to the young people, and do not make any excuses."
Dario made none.
The next morning at eight, Francisca stood before the altar in the chapel, looking very handsome in her rich gown and soft mantilla. The bridegroom, a sensible-looking young Englishman, was somewhat nervous, but Francisca might have been married every morning at eight o'clock. Behind them stood Don Roberto in a new suit of English broadcloth, and Dona Jacoba in heavy lilac silk, half covered with priceless lace. The six bridesmaids looked like a huge bouquet, in their wide delicately coloured skirts. Their dark eyes, mischievous, curious, thoughtful, flashed more brilliantly than the jewels they wore.
The sala and Don Roberto's room beyond were so crowded that some of the guests stood in the windows, and many could not enter the doors; every family within a hundred leagues had come to the wedding. The veranda was crowded with girls, the sparkling faces draped in black mantillas or bright rebosos, the full gay gowns fluttering in the breeze. Men in jingling spurs and all the bravery of gold-laced trousers and short embroidered jackets respectfully elbowed their way past brown and stout old women that they might whisper a word into some pretty alert little ear. They had all ridden many leagues that morning, but there was not a trace of fatigue on any face. The court behind the sala was full of Indian servants striving to catch a glimpse of the ceremony.
Dario stood just within the front door, his eyes eagerly fixed upon Elena. She looked like a California lily in her white gown; even her head drooped a little as if a storm had passed. Her eyes were absent and heavy; they mirrored nothing of the solemn gayety of the morning; they saw only the welts on her brother's back.
Dario had not seen her since Santiago's arrival. She had not appeared at supper, and he had slept little in consequence; in fact, he had spent most of the night playing monte with Joaquin and a dozen other young men in the billiard-room.
During the bridal mass the padre gave communion to the young couple, and to those that had made confession the night before. Elena was not of the number, and during the intense silence she drew back and stood and knelt near Dario. They were not close enough to speak, had they dared; but the Californian had other speech than words, and Dario and Elena made their confession that morning.
During breakfast they were at opposite ends of the long table in the dining room, but neither took part in the songs and speeches, the toasts and laughter. Both had done some manoeuvring to get out of sight of the old people, and sit at one of the many other tables in the sala, on the corridor, in the court; but Elena had to go with the bridesmaids, and Joaquin insisted upon doing honour to the uninvited guest. The Indian servants passed the rich and delicate, the plain and peppered, dishes, the wines and the beautiful cakes for which Dona Jacoba and her daughters were famous. The massive plate that had done duty for generations in Spain was on the table; the crystal had been cut in England. It was the banquet of a grandee, and no one noticed the silent lovers.
After breakfast the girls flitted to their rooms and changed their gowns, and wound rebosos or mantillas about their heads; the men put off their jackets for lighter ones of flowered calico, and the whole party, in buggies or on horseback, started for a bull-fight which was to take place in a field about a mile behind the house. Elena went in a buggy with Santiago, who was almost as pale as she. Dario, on horseback, rode as near her as he dared; but when they reached the fence about the field careless riders crowded between, and he could only watch her from afar.
The vaqueros in their broad black hats shining with varnish, their black velvet jackets, their crimson sashes, and short, black velvet trousers laced with silver cord over spotless linen, looked very picturesque as they dashed about the field jingling their spurs and shouting at each other. When the bulls trotted in and greeted each other pleasantly, the vaqueros swung their hissing reatas and yelled until the maddened animals wreaked their vengeance on each other, and the serious work of the day began.
Elena leaned back with her fan before her eyes, but Santiago looked on eagerly in spite of his English training.
"Caramba!" he cried, "but that old bull is tough. Look, Elena! The little one is down. No, no! He has the big one. Ay! yi, yi! By Jove! he is gone--no, he has run off--he is on him again! He has ripped him up! Brava! brava!"
A cheer as from one throat made the mountains echo, but Elena still held her fan before the field.
"How canst thou like such bloody sport?" she asked disgustedly. "The poor animals! What pleasure canst thou take to see a fine brute kicking in his death-agony, his bowels trailing on the ground?"
"Fie, Elena! Art thou not a Californian? Dost thou not love the sport of thy country? Why, look at the other girls! They are mad with excitement. By Jove! I never saw so many bright eyes. I wonder if I shall be too stiff to dance to-night. Elena, she gave me a beating! But tell me, little one, why dost thou not like the bull-fight? I feel like another man since I have seen it."
"I cannot be pleased with cruelty. I shall never get used to see beasts killed for amusement. And Don Dario Castanares does not like it either. He never smiled once, nor said 'Brava!'"
"Aha! And how dost thou know whether he did or not? I thought thy face was behind that big black fan."
"I saw him through the sticks. What does 'By Jove' mean, my Santiago?"
He enlightened her, then stood up eagerly. Another bull had been brought in, and one of the vaqueros was to fight him. During the next two hours Santiago gave little thought to his sister, and sometimes her long black lashes swept above the top of her fan. When five or six bulls had stamped and roared and gored and died, the guests of Los Quervos went home to chocolate and siesta, the others returned to their various ranchos.
But Dario took no nap that day. Twice he had seen an Indian girl at Elena's window, and as the house settled down to temporary calm, he saw the girl go to the rancheria among the willows. He wrote a note, and followed her as soon as he dared. She wore a calico frock, exactly like a hundred others, and her stiff black hair cut close to her neck in the style enforced by Dona Jacoba; but Dario recognized her imitation of Elena's walk and carriage. He was very nervous, but he managed to stroll about and make his visit appear one of curiosity. As he passed the girl he told her to follow him, and in a few moments they were alone in a thicket. He had hard work to persuade her to take the note to her mistress, for she stood in abject awe of Dona Jacoba; but love of Elena and sympathy for the handsome stranger prevailed, and the girl went off with the missive.
The staircase led from Don Roberto's room to Dona Jacoba's; but the lady's all-seeing eyes were closed, and the master was snoring in his library. Malia tiptoed by both, and Elena, who had been half asleep, sat up, trembling with excitement, and read the impassioned request for an interview. She lifted her head and listened, panting a little. Then she ran to the door and looked into the library. Her father was sound asleep; there could he no doubt of that. She dared not write an answer, but she closed the door and put her lips to the girl's ear.
"Tell him," she murmured, horrified at her own boldness--"tell him to take me out for the contradanza tonight. There is no other chance." And the girl went back and delivered the message.
The guests and family met again at supper; but yards of linen and mounds of plate, spirited, quickly turning heads, flowered muslin gowns and silken jackets, again separated Dario and Elena. He caught a glimpse now and again of her graceful head turning on its white throat, or of her sad pure profile shining before her mother's stern old face.
Immediately after supper the bride and groom led the way to the sala, the musicians tuned their violins and guitars, and after an hour's excited comment upon the events of the day the dancing began. Dona Jacoba could be very gracious when she chose, and she moved among her guests like a queen to-night, begging them to be happy, and electrifying them with her brilliant smile. She dispelled their awe of her with magical tact, and when she laid her hand on one young beauty's shoulder, and told her that her eyes put out the poor candles of Los Quervos, the girl was ready to fling herself on the floor and kiss the tyrant's feet. Elena watched her anxiously. Her father petted her in his harsh abrupt way. If she had ever received a kiss from her mother, she did not remember it; but she worshipped the blinding personality of the woman, although she shook before the relentless will. But that her mother was pleased to be gracious tonight was beyond question, and she gave Dario a glance of timid encouragement, which brought him to her side at once.
"At your feet, senorita," he said; "may I dare to beg the honour of the contradanza?"
She bent her slender body in a pretty courtesy. "It is a small favour to grant a guest who deigns to honour us with his presence."
He led her out, and when he was not gazing enraptured at the graceful swaying and gliding of her body, he managed to make a few conventional remarks.
"You did not like bull-fighting, senorita?"
"He watched me," she thought. "No, senor. I like nothing that is cruel."
"Those soft eyes could never be cruel. Ay, you are so beautiful, senorita."
"I am but a little country girl, senor. You must have seen far more beautiful women in the cities. Have you ever been in Monterey?"
"Yes, senorita, many times. I have seen all the beauties, even Dona Modeste Castro. Once, too--that was before the Americans came--I saw the Senorita Ysabel Herrera, a woman so beautiful that a man robbed a church and murdered a priest for her sake. But she was not so beautiful as you, senorita."
The blood throbbed in the girl's fair cheeks. "He must love me," she told herself, "to think me more beautiful than Ysabel Herrera. Joaquin says she was the handsomest woman that ever was seen."
"You compliment me, senor," she answered vaguely. "She had wonderful green eyes. So has the Senora Castro. Mine are only brown, like so many other girls'."
"They are the most beautiful eyes in California. They are like the Madonna's. I do not care for green eyes." His black ones flashed their language to hers, and Elena wondered if she had ever been unhappy. She barely remembered where she was, forgot that she was a helpless bird in a golden cage. Her mate had flown through the open door.
The contradanza ends with a waltz, and as Dario held her in his arms his last remnant of prudence gave way.
"Elena, Elena," he murmured passionately, "I love thee. Dost thou not know it? Dost thou not love me a little? Ay, Elena! I have not slept one hour since I saw thee."
She raised her eyes to his face. The sadness still dwelt in their depths, but above floated the soft flame of love and trust. She had no coquetry in her straightforward and simple nature.
"Yes," she whispered, "I love thee."
"And thou art happy, querida mia? Thou art happy here in my arms?"
She let her cheek rest for a moment against his shoulder. "Yes, I am very happy."
"And thou wilt marry me?"
The words brought her back to reality, and the light left her face.
"Ay," she said, "why did you say that? It cannot ever be."
"But it shall be! Why not? I will speak with Don Roberto in the morning."
The hand that lay on his shoulder clutched him suddenly. "No, no," she said hurriedly; "promise me that you will not speak to him for two or three days at least. My father wants us all to marry Englishmen. He is kind, and he loves me, but he is mad for Englishmen. And we can be happy meanwhile."
The music stopped, and he could only murmur his promises before leading her back to her mother.
He dared not take her out again, but he danced with no one else in spite of many inviting eyes, and spent the rest of the night on the corridor, where he could watch her unobserved. The walls were so thick at Los Quervos that each window had a deep seat within and without. Dario ensconced himself, and was comfortable, if tumultuous.
With dawn the dancing ended, and quiet fell upon Los Quervos. But at twelve gay voices and laughter came through every window. The family and guests were taking their cold bath, ready for another eighteen hours of pleasure.
Shortly after the long dinner, the iron-barred gates of the corral were thrown open and a band of horses, golden bronze in colour, with silvern mane and tail, silken embroidered saddles on their slender backs, trotted up to the door. The beautiful creatures shone in the sun like burnished armour; they arched their haughty necks and lifted their small feet as if they were Californian beauties about to dance El Son.
The girls wore short riding-skirts, gay sashes, and little round hats. The men wore thin jackets of brightly coloured silk, gold-laced knee-breeches, and silver spurs. They tossed the girls upon their saddles, vaulted into their own, and all started on a wild gallop for the races.
Dario, with much manoeuvring, managed to ride by Elena's side. It was impossible to exchange a word with her, for keen and mischievous ears were about them; but they were close together, and a kind of ecstasy possessed them both. The sunshine was so golden, the quivering visible air so full of soft intoxication! They were filled with a reckless animal joy of living--the divine right of youth to exist and be happy. The bars of Elena's cage sank into the warm resounding earth; she wanted to cry aloud her joy to the birds, to hold and kiss the air as it passed. Her face sparkled, her mouth grew full. She looked at Dario, and he dug his spurs into his horse's flanks.
The representatives of many ranchos, their wives and daughters, awaited the party from Los Quervos. But none pushed his way between Dario and Elena that day. And they both enjoyed the races; they were in a mood to enjoy anything. They became excited and shouted with the rest as the vaqueros flew down the field. Dario bet and lost a ranchita, then bet and won another. He won a herd of cattle, a band of horses, a saddle-bag of golden slugs. Surely, fortune smiled on him from the eyes of Elena. When the races were over they galloped down to the ocean and over the cliffs and sands, watching the ponderous waves fling themselves on the rocks, then retreat and rear their crests, to thunder on again.
"The fog!" cried some one. "The fog!" And with shrieks of mock terror they turned their horses' heads and raced down the valley, the fog after them like a phantom tidal wave; but they outstripped it, and sprang from their horses at the corridor of Los Quervos with shouts of triumph and lightly blown kisses to the enemy.
After supper they found eggs piled upon silver dishes in the sala, and with cries of "Cascaron! Cascaron!" they flung them at each other, the cologne and flour and tinsel with which the shells were filled deluging and decorating them.
Dona Jacoba again was in a most gracious mood, and leaned against the wall, an amused smile on her strong serene face. Her husband stood by her, and she indicated Elena by a motion of her fan.
"Is she not beautiful to-night, our little one?" she asked proudly. "See how pink her cheeks are! Her eyes shine like stars. She is the handsomest of all our children, viejo."
"Yes," he said, something like tenderness in his cold blue eyes, "there is no prettier girl on twenty ranchos. She shall marry the finest Englishman of them all."
Elena threw a cascaron directly into Dario's mouth, and although the cologne scalded his throat, he heroically swallowed it, and revenged himself by covering her black locks with flour. The guests, like the children they were, chased each other all over the house, up and down the stairs; the men hid under tables, only to have a sly hand break a cascaron on the back of their heads, and to receive a deluge down the spinal column. The bride chased her dignified groom out into the yard, and a dozen followed. Then Dario found his chance.
Elena was after him, and as they passed beneath a tree he turned like a flash and caught her in his arms and kissed her. For a second she tried to free herself, mindful that her sisters had not kissed their lovers until they stood with them in the chapel; but she was made for love, and in a moment her white arms were clinging about his neck. People were shouting around them; there was time for but few of the words Dario wished to say.
"Thou must write me a little note every day," he commanded. "Thy brother's coat, one that he does not wear, hangs behind the door in my room. To-morrow morning thou wilt find a letter from me in the pocket. Let me find one there, too. Kiss me again, consuelo de mi alma!" and they separated suddenly, to speak no more that night.
The next morning, when Elena went to Joaquin's room to make the bed, she found Dario's note in the pocket of the coat, but she had had no opportunity to write one herself. Nor did she have time to read his until after dinner, although it burned her neck and took away her appetite. When the meal was over, she ran down to the willows and read it there, then went straight to the favourite lounging-place of an old vaquero who had adored her from the days when she used to trot about the rancho holding his forefinger, or perch herself upon his shoulder and command him to gallop.
He was smoking his pipe, and he looked up in some wonder as she stood before him, flushed and panting, her eyes-darting apprehensive glances.
"Pedro," she said imperiously, "get down on thy hands and knees."
Pedro was the colour of tanned leather and very hairy, but his face beamed with good-nature. He put his pipe between his teeth and did as he was bidden. Elena produced the pencil and paper she had managed to purloin from her father's table, and kneeling beside her faithful vaquero, wrote a note on his back. It took her a long time to coin that simple epistle, for she never had written a love-letter before. But Pedro knelt like a rock, although his old knees ached. When the note was finished she thrust it into her gown, and patted Pedro on the head.
"I love thee, my old man. I will make thee a new salve for thy rheumatism, and a big cake."
As she approached the house her mother stood on the corridor watching the young people mount, and Elena shivered as she met a fiery and watchful eye. Yesterday had been a perfect day, but the chill of fear touched this. She sprang on her horse and went with the rest to the games. Her brother Joaquin kept persistently by her side, and Dario thought it best not to approach her. She took little interest in the games. The young men climbed the greased pole amidst soft derisive laughter. The greased pig was captured by his tail in a tumult of excitement, which rivalled the death of the bull, but Elena paid no attention. It was not until Dario, restive with inaction, entered the lists for the buried rooster, and by its head twisted it from the ground as his horse flew by, that she was roused to interest; and as many had failed, and as his was the signal victory of the day, he rode home somewhat consoled.
That night, as Dario and Elena danced the contradanza together, they felt the eyes of Dona Jacoba upon them, but he dared to whisper:--
"To-morrow morning I speak with thy father. Our wedding-day must be set before another sun goes down."
"No, no!" gasped Elena; but for once Dario would not listen.
As soon as Elena had left his room next morning, Dario returned and read the note she had put in her brother's pocket. It gave him courage, his dreamy eyes flashed, his sensitive mouth curved proudly. As soon as dinner was over he followed Don Roberto up to the library. The old man stretched himself out in the long brass and leather chair which had been imported from England for his comfort, and did not look overjoyed when his guest begged a few moments' indulgence.
"I am half asleep," he said. "Is it about those cattle? Joaquin knows as much about them as I do."
Dario had not been asked to sit down, and he stood before Don Roberto feeling a little nervous, and pressing his hand against the mantelpiece.
"I do not wish to speak of cattle, senor."
"No? What then?" The old man's face was flushed with wine, and his shaggy brows were drooping heavily.
"It is--it is about Elena."
The brows lifted a little.
"Yes, senor. We love each other very much. I wish to ask your permission that we may be married."
The brows went up with a rush; the stiff hairs stood out like a roof above the cold angry eyes. For a moment Don Roberto stared at the speaker as if he had not heard; then he sprang to his feet, his red face purple.
"Get out of my house, you damned vagabond!" he shouted. "Go as fast as God Almighty'll let you. You marry my daughter,--you damned Indian! I wouldn't give her to you if you were pure-blooded Castilian, much less to a half-breed whelp. And you have dared to make love to her. Go! Do you hear? Or I'll kick you down the stairs!"
Dario drew himself up and looked back at his furious host with a pride that matched his own. The blood was smarting in his veins, but he made no sign and walked down the stair.
Don Roberto went at once in search of his wife. Failing to find her, he walked straight into the sala, and taking Elena by the arm before the assembled guests, marched her upstairs and into her room, and locked the door with his key.
Elena fell upon the floor and sobbed with rebellious mortification and terror. Her father had not uttered a word, but she knew the meaning of his summary act, and other feelings soon gave way to despair. That she should never see Dario Castanares again was certain, and she wept and prayed with all the abandon of her Spanish nature. A picture of the Virgin hung over the bed, and she raised herself on her knees and lifted her clasped hands to it beseechingly. With her tumbled hair and white face, her streaming upturned eyes and drawn mouth, she looked more like the Mater Dolorosa than the expressionless print she prayed to.
"Mary! Mother!" she whispered, "have mercy on thy poor little daughter. Give him to me. I ask for nothing else in this world. I do not care for gold or ranchos, only to be his wife. I am so lonely, my mother, for even Santiago thinks of so many other things than of me. I only want to be loved, and no one else will ever love me who can make me love him. Ay! give him to me! give him to me!" And she threw herself on her face once more, and sobbed until her tears were exhausted. Then she dragged herself to the window and leaned over the deep seat. Perhaps she might have one glimpse of him as he rode away.
She gave a little cry of agony and pleasure. He was standing by the gates of the corral whilst the vaqueros rounded up the cattle he had bought. His arms were folded, his head hung forward. As he heard her cry, he lifted his face, and Elena saw the tears in his eyes. For the moment they gazed at each other, those lovers of California's long-ago, while the very atmosphere quivering between them seemed a palpable barrier. Elena flung out her arms with a sudden passionate gesture; he gave a hoarse cry, and paced up and down like a race-horse curbed with a Spanish bit. How to have one last word with her? If she were behind the walls of the fort of Monterey it would be as easy. He dared not speak from where he was. Already the horses were at the door to carry the eager company to a fight between a bull and a bear. But he could write a note if only he had the materials. It was useless to return to his room, for Joaquin was there; and he hoped never to see that library again. But was there ever a lover in whom necessity did not develop the genius of invention? Dario flashed upward a glance of hope, then took from his pocket a slip of the rice-paper used for making cigaritos. He burnt a match, and with the charred stump scrawled a few lines.
"Elena! Mine! Star of my life! My sweet! Beautiful and idolized. Farewell! Farewell, my darling! My heart is sad. God be with thee.
He wrapped the paper about a stone, and tied it with a wisp of grass. With a sudden flexile turn of a wrist that had thrown many a reata, he flung it straight through the open window. Elena read the meaningless phrases, then fell insensible to the floor.
It was the custom of Dona Jacoba personally to oversee her entire establishment every day, and she always went at a different hour, that laziness might never feel sure of her back. To-day she visited the rancheria immediately after dinner, and looked through every hut with her piercing eyes. If the children were dirty, she peremptorily ordered their stout mammas to put them into the clean clothes which her bounty had provided. If a bed was unmade, she boxed the ears of the owner and sent her spinning across the room to her task. But she found little to scold about; her discipline was too rigid. When she was satisfied that the huts were in order, she went down to the great stone tubs sunken in the ground, where the women were washing in the heavy shade of the willows. In their calico gowns they made bright bits of colour against the drooping green of the trees.
"Maria," she cried sharply, "thou art wringing that fine linen too harshly. Dost thou wish to break in pieces the bridal clothes of thy senorita? Be careful, or I will lay the whip across thy shoulders."
She walked slowly through the willows, enjoying the shade. Her fine old head was held sternly back, and her shoulders were as square as her youngest son's; but she sighed a little, and pressed a willow branch to her face with a caressing motion. She looked up to the gray peak standing above its fellows, bare, ugly, gaunt. She was not an imaginative woman, but she always had felt in closer kinship with that solitary peak than with her own blood. As she left the wood and saw the gay cavalcade about to start--the burnished horses, the dashing caballeros, the girls with their radiant faces and jaunty habits--she sighed again. Long ago she had been the bride of a brilliant young Mexican officer for a few brief years; her youth had gone with his life.
She avoided the company and went round to the buildings at the back of the house. Approving here, reproaching there, she walked leisurely through the various rooms where the Indians were making lard, shoes, flour, candles. She was in the chocolate manufactory when her husband found her.
"Come--come at once," he said. "I have good news for thee."
She followed him to his room, knowing by his face that tragedy had visited them. But she was not prepared for the tale he poured forth with violent interjections of English and Spanish oaths. She had detected a flirtation between her daughter and the uninvited guest, and not approving of flirtations, had told Joaquin to keep his eyes upon them when hers were absent; but that the man should dare and the girl should stoop to think of marriage wrought in her a passion to which her husband's seemed the calm flame of a sperm-candle.
"What!" she cried, her hoarse voice breaking. "What! A half-breed aspire to a Cortez!" She forgot her husband's separateness with true Californian pride. "My daughter and the son of an Indian! Holy God! And she has dared!--she has dared! The little imbecile! The little--But," and she gave a furious laugh, "she will not forget again."
She caught the greenhide reata from the nail and went up the stair. Crossing the library with heavy tread, as if she would stamp her rage through the floor, she turned the key in the door of her daughter's room and strode in. The girl still lay on the floor, although consciousness had returned. As Elena saw her mother's face she cowered pitifully. That terrible temper seldom dominated the iron will of the woman, but Santiago had shaken it a few days ago, and Elena knew that her turn had come.
Dona Jacoba shut the door and towered above her daughter, red spots on her face, her small eyes blazing, an icy sneer on her mouth. She did not speak a word. She caught the girl by her delicate shoulder, jerked her to her feet, and lashed her with the heavy whip until screams mingled with the gay laughter of the parting guests. When she had beaten her until her own arm ached, she flung her on the bed and went out and locked the door.
Elena was insensible again for a while, then lay dull and inert for hours. She had a passive longing for death. After the suffering and the hideous mortification of that day there seemed no other climax. The cavalcade rode beneath her windows once more, with their untired laughter, their splendid vitality. They scattered to their rooms to don their bright evening gowns, then went to the dining room and feasted.
After supper Francisca unlocked Elena's door and entered with a little tray on her hand. Elena refused to eat, but her sister's presence roused her, and she turned her face to the wall and burst into tears.
"Nonsense!" said Francisca, kindly. "Do not cry, my sister. What is a lover? The end of a little flirtation? My father will find thee a husband--a strong fair English husband like mine. Dost thou not prefer blondes to brunettes, my sister? I am sorry my mother beat thee, but she has such a sense of her duty. She did it for thy good, my Elena. Let me dress thee in thy new gown, the white silk with the pale blue flowers. It is high in the neck and long in the sleeves, and will hide the marks of the whip. Come down and play cascarones and dance until dawn and forget all about it."
But Elena only wept on, and Francisca left her for more imperative duties.
The next day the girl still refused to eat, although Dona Jacoba opened her mouth and poured a cup of chocolate down her throat. Late in the afternoon Santiago slipped into the room and bent over her.
"Elena," he whispered hurriedly. "Look! I have a note for thee."
Elena sat upright on the bed, and he thrust a piece of folded paper into her hand. "Here it is. He is in San Luis Obispo and says he will stay there. Remember it is but a few miles away. My--"
Elena sank back with a cry, and Santiago blasphemed in English. Dona Jacoba unlocked her daughter's hand, took the note, and led Santiago from the room. When she reached her own, she opened a drawer and handed him a canvas bag full of gold.
"Go to San Francisco and enjoy yourself," she said. "Interfere no farther between your sister and your parents, unless you prefer that reata to gold. Your craft cannot outwit mine, and she will read no notes. You are a foolish boy to set your sense against your mother's. I may seem harsh to my children, but I strive on my knees for their good. And when I have made up my mind that a thing is right to do, you know that my nature is of iron. No child of mine shall marry a lazy vagabond who can do nothing but lie in a hammock and bet and gamble and make love. And a half-breed! Mother of God! Now go to San Francisco, and send for more money when this is gone."
Santiago obeyed. There was nothing else for him to do.
Elena lay in her bed, scarcely touching food. Poor child! her nature demanded nothing of life but love, and that denied her, she could find no reason for living. She was not sport-loving like Joaquin, nor practical like Francisca, nor learned like Santiago, nor ambitious to dance through life like her many nieces. She was but a clinging unreasoning creature, with warm blood and a great heart. But she no longer prayed to have Dario given her. It seemed to her that after such suffering her saddened and broken spirit would cast its shadows over her happiest moments, and she longed only for death.
Her mother, becoming alarmed at her increasing weakness, called in an old woman who had been midwife and doctor of the county for half a century. She came, a bent and bony woman who must have been majestic in her youth. Her front teeth were gone, her face was stained with dark splashes like the imprint of a pre-natal hand. Over her head she wore a black shawl; and she looked enough like a witch to frighten her patients into eternity had they not been so well used to her. She prodded Elena all over as if the girl were a loaf of bread and her knotted fingers sought a lump of flour in the dough.
"The heart," she said to Dona Jacoba with sharp emphasis, her back teeth meeting with a click, as if to proclaim their existence. "I have no herbs for that," and she went back to her cabin by the ocean.
That night Elena lifted her head suddenly. From the hill opposite her window came the sweet reverberation of a guitar: then a voice, which, though never heard by her in song before, was as unmistakable as if it had serenaded beneath her window every night since she had known Dario Castanares.
EL ULTIMO ADIOS "Si dos con el alma Se amaron en vida, Y al fin se separan En vida las dos; Sabeis que es tan grande Le pena sentida Que con esa palabra Se dicen adios. Y en esa palabra Que breve murmura, Ni verse prometen Niamarse se juran; Que en esa palabra Se dicen adios. No hay queja mas honda, Suspiro mas largo; Que aquellas palabras Que dicen adios. Al fin ha llegado, La muerte en la vida; Al fin para entrambos Muramos los dos: Al fin ha llegado La hora cumplida, Del ultimo adios. Ya nunca en la vida, Gentil companera Ya nunca volveremos A vernos los dos: Por eso es tan triste Mi acento postrere, Por eso es tan triste El ultimo adios."--
They were dancing downstairs; laughter floated through the open windows. Francisca sang a song of the bull-fight, in her strong high voice; the frogs chanted their midnight mass by the creek in the willows; the coyotes wailed; the owls hooted. But nothing could drown that message of love. Elena lit a candle and held it at arm's length before the window. She knew that its ray went straight through the curtains to the singer on the hill, for his voice broke suddenly, then swelled forth in passionate answer. He sat there until dawn singing to her; but the next night he did not come, and Elena knew that she had not been his only audience.
The week of festivity was over; the bridal pair, the relatives, the friends went away. Quiet would have taken temporary possession of Los Quervos had it not been for the many passing guests lavishly entertained by Don Roberto.
And still Elena lay in her little iron bed, refusing to get out of it, barely eating, growing weaker and thinner every day. At the end of three weeks Dona Jacoba was thoroughly alarmed, and Don Roberto sent Joaquin to San Francisco for a physician.
The man of science came at the end of a week. He asked many questions, and had a long talk with his patient. When he left the sick-room, he found Don Roberto and Dona Jacoba awaiting him in the library. They were ready to accept his word as law, for he was an Englishman, and had won high reputation during his short stay in the new country.
He spoke with curt directness. "My dear sir, your child is dying because she does not wish to live. People who write novels call it dying of a broken heart; but it does not make much difference about the name. Your child is acutely sensitive, and has an extremely delicate constitution--predisposition to consumption. Separation from the young man she desires to marry has prostrated her to such an extent that she is practically dying. Under existing circumstances she will not live two months, and, to be brutally frank, you will have killed her. I understand that the young man is well-born on his father's side, and possessed of great wealth. I see no reason why she should not marry him. I shall leave her a tonic, but you can throw it out of the window unless you send for the young man," and he walked down the stair and made ready for his departure.
Don Roberto translated the verdict to his wife. She turned very gray, and her thin lips pressed each other. But she bent her head. "So be it," she said; "I cannot do murder. Send for Dario Castanares."
"And tell him to take her to perdition," roared the old man. "Never let me see her again."
He went down the stair, filled a small bag with gold, and gave it to the doctor. He found Joaquin and bade him go for Dario, then shut himself in a remote room, and did not emerge until late that day.
Dona Jacoba sent for the maid, Malia.
"Bring me one of your frocks," she said, "a set of your undergarments, a pair of your shoes and stockings." She walked about the room until the girl's return, her face terrible in its repressed wrath, its gray consciousness of defeat. When Malia came with the garments she told her to follow, and went into Elena's room and stood beside the bed.
"Get up," she said. "Dress thyself in thy bridal clothes. Thou art going to marry Dario Castanares to-day."
The girl looked up incredulously, then closed her eyes wearily.
"Get up," said her mother. "The doctor has said that we must let our daughter marry the half-breed or answer to God for her murder." She turned to the maid: "Malia, go downstairs and make a cup of chocolate and bring it up. Bring, too, a glass of angelica."
But Elena needed neither. She forgot her desire for death, her misgivings of the future; she slipped out of bed, and would have taken a pair of silk stockings from the chest, but her mother stopped her with an imperious gesture, and handed her the coarse shoes and stockings the maid had brought. Elena raised her eyes wonderingly, but drew them on her tender feet without complaint. Then her mother gave her the shapeless undergarments, the gaudy calico frock, and she put them on. When the maid returned with the chocolate and wine, she drank both. They gave her colour and strength; and as she stood up and faced her mother, she had never looked more beautiful nor more stately in the silken gowns that were hers no longer.
"There are horses' hoofs," said Dona Jacoba. "Leave thy father's house and go to thy lover."
Elena followed her from the room, walking steadily, although she was beginning to tremble a little. As she passed the table in the library, she picked up an old silk handkerchief of her father's and tied it about her head and face. A smile was on her lips, but no joy could crowd the sadness from her eyes again. Her spirit was shadowed; her nature had come to its own.
They walked through the silent house, and to Elena's memory came the picture of that other bridal, when the very air shook with pleasure and the rooms were jewelled with beautiful faces; but she would not have exchanged her own nuptials for her sister's calm acceptance.
When she reached the veranda she drew herself up and turned to her mother with all that strange old woman's implacable bearing.
"I demand one wedding present," she said. "The greenhide reata. I wish it as a memento of my mother."
Dona Jacoba, without the quiver of a muscle, walked into her husband's room and returned with the reata and handed it to her. Then Elena turned her back upon her father's house and walked down the road through the willows. Dario did not notice the calico frock or the old handkerchief about her head. He bent down and caught her in his arms and kissed her, then lifting her to his saddle, galloped down the road to San Luis Obispo. Dona Jacoba turned her hard old face to the wall.