"Dona Concepcion had the greatest romance of us all; so she should not chide too bitterly."
"But she has such a sense of her duty! Such a sense of her duty! Ay, Dios de mi alma! Shall we ever grow like that?"
"If we have a Russian lover who is killed in the far North, and we have a convent built for us, and teach troublesome girls. Surely, if one goes through fire, one can become anything--"
"Ay, yi! Look! Look!"
Six dark heads were set in a row along the edge of a secluded corner of the high adobe wall surrounding the Convent of Monterey. They looked for all the world like a row of charming gargoyles--every mouth was open--although there was no blankness in those active mischief-hunting eyes. Their bodies, propped on boxes, were concealed by the wall from the passer-by, and from the sharp eyes of duenas by a group of trees just behind them. Their section of the wall faced the Presidio, which in the early days of the eighteenth century had not lost an adobe, and was full of active life. At one end was the house of the Governor of all the Californias, at another the church, which is all that stands to-day. Under other walls of the square were barracks, quarters for officers and their families, store-rooms for ammunition and general supplies in case of a raid by hostile tribes (when all the town must be accommodated within the security of those four great walls), and a large hall in which many a ball was given. The aristocratic pioneers of California loved play as well as work. Beyond were great green plains alive with cattle, and above all curved the hills dark with pines. Three soldiers had left the Presidio and were sauntering toward the convent.
"It is Enrico Ortega!" whispered Eustaquia Carillo, excitedly.
"And Ramon de Castro!" scarcely breathed Elena Estudillo.
"And Jose Yorba!"
"Not Pepe Gomez? Ay, yi!"
"Nor Manuel Ameste!"
The only girl who did not speak stood at the end of the row. Her eyes were fixed on the church, whose windows were dazzling with the reflected sunlight of the late afternoon.
The officers, who apparently had been absorbed in conversation and their fragrant cigaritos, suddenly looked up and saw the row of handsome and mischievous faces. They ran forward, and dashed their sombreros into the dust before the wall.
"At your feet, senoritas! At your feet!" they cried.
"Have they any?" whispered one. "How unreal they look! How symbolical!"
"The rose in your hair, Senorita Eustaquia, for the love of Heaven!" cried Ortega, in a loud whisper.
She detached the rose, touched it with her lips, and cast it to the officer. He almost swallowed it in the ardour of his caresses.
None of the girls spoke. That would have seemed to them the height of impropriety. But Elena extended her arm over the wall so that her little hand hung just above young Castro's head. He leaped three times in the air, and finally succeeded in brushing his mustache against those coveted finger-tips: rewarded with an approving but tantalizing laugh. Meanwhile, Jose Yorba had torn a silver eagle from his sombrero, and flung it to Lola de Castro, who caught and thrust it in her hair.
"Ay, Dios! Dios! that the cruel wall divides us," cried Yorba.
"We will mount each upon the other's shoulder--"
"We will make a ladder from the limbs of the pines on the mountain--"
The six heads dropped from the wall like so many Humpty-Dumpties. As they flashed about the officers caught a glimpse of horror in twelve expanded eyes. A tall woman, serenely beautiful, clad in a long gray gown fastened at her throat with a cross, stood just within the trees. The six culprits thought of the tragic romance which had given them the honour of being educated by Concepcion de Arguello, and hoped for some small measure of mercy. The girl who had looked over the heads of the officers, letting her gaze rest on the holy walls of the church, alone looked coldly unconcerned, and encountered steadily the sombre eyes of the convent's mistress.
"Was thy lover in the road below, Pilar?" asked Dona Concepcion, with what meaning five of the girls could not divine. For Pilar, the prettiest and most studious girl in the convent, cared for no man.
Pilar's bosom rose once, but she made no reply.
"Come," said Dona Concepcion, and the six followed meekly in her wake. She led them to her private sala, a bare cold room, even in summer. It was uncarpeted; a few religious prints were on the whitewashed walls; there were eight chairs, and a table covered with books and papers. The six shivered. To be invited to this room meant the greatest of honours or a lecture precursory to the severest punishment in the system of the convent. Dona Concepcion seated herself in a large chair, but her guests were not invited to relieve their weakened knees.
"Did you speak--any of you?" she asked in a moment.
Five heads shook emphatically.
Eustaquia, Elena, and Lola drew a long breath, then confessed their misdoings glibly enough.
"And the others?"
"They had no chance," said Eustaquia, with some sarcasm.
"Thou wouldst have found a chance," replied the Lady Superior, coldly. "Thou art the first in all naughtiness, and thy path in life will be stormy if thou dost not curb thy love of adventure and insubordination."
She covered her face with her hand and regarded the floor for some moments in silence. It was the first performance of the kind that had come to her knowledge, and she was at a loss what to do. Finally she said severely: "Go each to your bed and remain there on bread and water for twenty-four hours. Your punishment shall be known at the Presidio. And if it ever happens again, I shall send you home in disgrace. Now go."
The luckless six slunk out of the room. Only Pilar stole a hasty glance at the Lady Superior. Dona Concepcion half rose from her chair, and opened her lips as if to speak again; then sank back with a heavy sigh.
The girls were serenaded that night; but the second song broke abruptly, and a heavy gate clanged just afterward. Concepcion de Arguello was still young, but suffering had matured her character, and she knew how to deal sternly with those who infringed her few but inflexible rules. It was by no means the first serenade she had interrupted, for she educated the flower of California, and it was no simple matter to prevent communication between the girls in her charge and the ardent caballeros. She herself had been serenaded more than once since the sudden death of her Russian lover; for she who had been the belle of California for three years before the coming of Rezanof was not lightly relinquished by the impassioned men of her own race; but both at Casa Grande, in Santa Barbara, where she found seclusion until her convent was built, and after her immolation in Monterey, she turned so cold an ear to all men's ardours that she soon came to be regarded as a part of four gray walls. How long it took her to find actual serenity none but herself and the dead priests know, but the old women who are dying off to-day remember her as consistently placid as she was firm. She was deeply troubled by the escapade of the little wretches on the wall, although she had dealt with it summarily and feared no further outbreak of the sort. But she was haunted by a suspicion that there was more behind, and to come. Pilar de la Torre and Eustaquia Carillo were the two most notable girls in the convent, for they easily took precedence of their more indolent mates and were constantly racing for honours. There the resemblance ended. Eustaquia, with her small brilliant eyes, irregular features, and brilliant colour, was handsome rather than beautiful, but full of fire, fascination, and spirit. Half the Presidio was in love with her, and that she was a shameless coquette she would have been the last to deny. Pilar was beautiful, and although the close long lashes of her eyes hid dreams, rather than fire, and her profile and poise of head expressed all the pride of the purest aristocracy California has had, nothing could divert attention from the beauty of her contours of cheek and figure, and of her rich soft colouring. The officers in church stood up to look at her; and at the balls and meriendas she attended in vacations the homage she received stifled and annoyed her. She was as cold and unresponsive as Concepcion de Arguello. People shrugged their shoulders and said it was as well. Her mother, Dona Brigida de la Torre of the great Rancho Diablo, twenty miles from Monterey, was the sternest old lady in California. It was whispered that she had literally ruled her husband with a greenhide reata, and certain it was that two years after the birth of Pilar (the thirteenth, and only living child) he had taken a trip to Mexico and never returned. It was known that he had sent his wife a deed of the rancho; and that was the last she ever heard of him. Her daughter, according to her imperious decree, was to marry Ygnacio Pina, the heir of the neighbouring rancho. Dona Brigida anticipated no resistance, not only because her will had never been crossed, but because Pilar was the most docile of daughters. Pilar was Dona Concepcion's favourite pupil, and when at home spent her time reading, embroidering, or riding about the rancho, closely attended. She rarely talked, even to her mother. She paid not the slightest attention to Ygnacio's serenades, and greeted him with scant courtesy when he dashed up to the ranch-house in all the bravery of silk and fine lawn, silver and lace. But he knew the value of Dona Brigida as an ally, and was content to amuse himself elsewhere.
The girls passed their twenty-four hours of repressed energy as patiently as necessity compelled. Pilar, alone, lay impassive in her bed, rarely opening her eyes. The others groaned and sighed and rolled and bounced about; but they dared not speak, for stern Sister Augusta was in close attendance. When the last lagging minute had gone and they were bidden to rise, they sprang from the beds, flung on their clothes, and ran noisily down the long corridors to the refectory. Dona Concepcion stood at the door and greeted them with a forgiving smile. Pilar followed some moments later. There was something more than coldness in her eyes as she bent her head to the Lady Superior, who drew a quick breath.
"She feels that she has been humiliated, and she will not forgive," thought Dona Concepcion. "Ay de mi! And she may need my advice and protection. I should have known better than to have treated her like the rest."
After supper the girls went at once to the great sala of the convent, and sat in silence, with bent heads and folded hands and every appearance of prayerful revery.
It was Saturday evening, and the good priest of the Presidio church would come to confess them, that they might commune on the early morrow. They heard the loud bell of the convent gate, then the opening and shutting of several doors; and many a glance flashed up to the ceiling as the brain behind scurried the sins of the week together. It had been arranged that the six leading misdemeanants were to go first and receive much sound advice, before the old priest had begun to feel the fatigue of the confessional. The door opened, and Dona Concepcion stood on the threshold. Her face was whiter than usual, and her manner almost ruffled.
"It is Padre Dominguez," she said. "Padre Estudillo is ill. If---if--any of you are tired, or do not wish to confess to the strange priest, you may go to bed."
Not a girl moved. Padre Dominguez was twenty-five and as handsome as the marble head of the young Augustus which stood on a shelf in the Governor's sala. During the year of his work in Monterey more than one of the older girls had met and talked with him; for he went into society, as became a priest, and holidays were not unfrequent. But, although he talked agreeably, it was a matter for comment that he loved books and illuminated manuscripts more than the world, and that he was as ambitious as his superior abilities justified.
"Very well," said Dona Concepcion, impatiently. "Eustaquia, go in."
Eustaquia made short work of her confession. She was followed by Elena, Lola, Mariana, and Amanda. When the last appeared for a moment at the door, then courtesied a good night and vanished, Dona Concepcion did not call the expected name, and several of the girls glanced up in surprise. Pilar raised her eyes at last and looked steadily at the Lady Superior. The blood rose slowly up the nun's white face, but she said carelessly:--
"Thou art tired, mijita, no? Wilt thou not go to bed?"
"Not without making my confession, if you will permit me."
"Very well; go."
Pilar left the room and closed the door behind her. Alone in the hall, she shook suddenly and twisted her hands together. But, although she could not conquer her agitation, she opened the door of the chapel resolutely and entered. The little arched whitewashed room was almost dark. A few candles burned on the altar, shadowing the gorgeous images of Virgin and saints. Pilar walked slowly down the narrow body of the chapel until she stood behind a priest who knelt beside a table with his back to the door. He wore the brown robes of the Franciscan, but his lean finely proportioned figure manifested itself through the shapeless garment. He looked less like a priest than a masquerading athlete. His face was hidden in his hands.
Pilar did not kneel. She stood immovable and silent, and in a moment it was evident that she had made her presence felt. The priest stirred uneasily. "Kneel, my daughter," he said. But he did not look up. Pilar caught his hands in hers and forced them down upon the table. The priest, throwing back his head in surprise, met the flaming glance of eyes that dreamed no longer. He sprang to his feet, snatching back his hands. "Dona Pilar!" he exclaimed.
"I choose to make my confession standing," she said. "I love you!"
The priest stared at her in consternation.
"You knew it--unless you never think at all. You are the only man I have ever thought it worth while to talk to. You have seen how I have treated others with contempt, and that I have been happy with you--and we have had more than one long talk together. You, too, have been happy--"
"I am a priest!"
"You are a Man and I am a Woman."
"What is it you would have me do?"
"Fling off that hideous garment which becomes you not at all, and fly with me to my father in the City of Mexico. I hear from him constantly, and he is wealthy and will protect us. The barque, Joven Guipuzcoanoa, leaves Monterey within a week after the convent closes for vacation."
The priest raised his clasped hands to heaven. "She is mad! She is mad!" he said. Then he turned on her fiercely. "Go! Go!" he cried. "I hate you!"
"Ay, you love me! you love me!"
The priest slowly set his face. There was no gleam of expression to indicate whether the words that issued through his lips came from his soul or from that section of his brain instinct with self-protection. He spoke slowly:--
"I am a priest, and a priest I shall die. What is more, I shall denounce you to Dona Concepcion, the clergy, and--to your mother. The words that have just violated this chapel were not said under the seal of the confessional, and I shall deal with them as I have said. You shall be punished, that no other man's soul may be imperilled."
Pilar threw out her hands wildly. It was her turn to stare; and her eyes were full of horror and disgust.
"What?" she cried. "You are a coward? A traitor? You not only dare not acknowledge that you love me, but you would betray me--and to my mother? Ah, Madre de Dios!"
"I do not love you. How dare you use such a word to me,--to me, an anointed priest! I shall denounce--and to-night."
"And I loved you!"
He shrank a little under the furious contempt of her eyes. Her whole body quivered with passion. Then, suddenly, she sprang forward and struck him so violent a blow on his cheek that he reeled and clutched the table. But his foot slipped, and he went down with the table on top of him. She laughed into his red unmasked face. "You look what you are down there," she said,--"less than a man, and only fit to be a priest. I hate you! Do your worst."
She rushed out of the chapel and across the hall, flinging open the door of the sala. As she stood there with blazing eyes and cheeks, shaking from head to foot, the girls gave little cries of amazement, and Dona Concepcion, shaking, came forward hastily; but she reached the door too late.
"Go to the priest," cried Pilar. "You will find him on his back squirming under a table, with the mark of my hand on his cheek. He has a tale to tell you." And she flung off the hand of the nun and ran through the halls, striking herself against the walls.
Dona Concepcion did not leave her sala that night. The indignant young aspirant for honours in Mexico had vowed that he would tell Dona Brigida and the clergy before dawn, and all her arguments had entered smarting ears. She had finally ordered him to leave the convent and never darken its doors again. "And the self-righteous shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven," she had exclaimed in conclusion. "Who are you that you should judge and punish this helpless girl and ruin a brilliant future? And why? Because she was so inexperienced in men as to trust you."
"She has committed a deadly sin, and shall suffer," cried the young man, violently. It was evident that his outraged virtue as well as his face was in flames. "Women were born to be good and meek and virtuous, to teach and to rear children. Such creatures as Pilar de la Torre should be kept under lock and key until they are old and hideous."
"And men were made strong, that they might protect women. But I have said enough. Go."
Pilar appeared at the refectory table in the morning, but she exchanged a glance with no one, and ate little. She looked haggard, and it was plain that she had not slept; but her manner was as composed as ever. When Dona Concepcion sent for her to come to the little sala, she went at once.
"Sit down, my child," said the nun. "I said all I could to dissuade him, but he would not listen. I will protect thee if I can. Thou hast made a terrible mistake; but it is too late for reproaches. We must think of the future."
"I have no desire to escape the consequences. I staked all and lost. And nothing can affect me now. He has proved a dog, a cur, a coward, a brute. I can suffer no more than when I made that discovery; and if my mother chooses to kill me, I shall make no resistance."
"Thou art young and clever and will forget him. He is not worth remembering. He shall not go unpunished. I shall use my influence to have him sent to the poorest hamlet in California. He is worthy to do only the meanest work of the Church, and my influence with the clergy is stronger than his. But thou? I shall receive your mother when she comes, and beg her to leave you with me during the vacation. Then, later, when her wrath is appeased, I will suggest that she send you to live for two years with your relatives at Santa Barbara."
Pilar lifted her shoulders and stared out of the window. Suddenly she gave a start and trembled. The bell of the gate was pealing vociferously. Dona Concepcion sprang to her feet.
"Stay here," she said; "I will receive her in the grand sala."
But her interview with Dona Brigida lasted two minutes.
"Give her to me!" cried the terrible old woman, her furious tones ringing through the convent. "Give her to me! I came not here to talk with nuns. Stand aside!"
Dona Concepcion was forced to lead her to the little sala. She strode into the room, big and brown and bony, looking like an avenging Amazon, this mother of thirteen children. Her small eyes were blazing, and the thick wrinkles about them quivered. Her lips twitched, her cheeks burned with a dull dark red. In one hand she carried a greenhide reata. With the other she caught her daughter's long unbound hair, twisted it about her arm like a rope, then brought the reata down on the unprotected shoulders with all her great strength Dona Concepcion fled from the room. Pilar made no sound. She had expected this, and had vowed that it should not unseal her lips. The beating stopped abruptly. Dona Brigida, still with the rope of hair about her arm, pushed Pilar through the door, out of the convent and its gates, then straight down the hill. For the first time the girl faltered.
"Not to the Presidio!" she gasped.
Her mother struck her shoulder with a fist as hard as iron, and Pilar stumbled on. She knew that if she refused to walk, her mother would carry her. They entered the Presidio. Pilar, raising her eyes for one brief terrible moment, saw that Tomaso, her mother's head vaquero, stood in the middle of the square holding two horses, and that every man, woman, and child of the Presidio was outside the buildings. The Commandante and the Alcalde were with the Governor and his staff, and Padre Estudillo. They had the air of being present at an important ceremony.
Amidst a silence so profound that Pilar heard the mingled music of the pines on the hills above the Presidio and of the distant ocean, Dona Brigida marched her to the very middle of the square, then by a dexterous turn of her wrist forced her to her knees. With both hands she shook her daughter's splendid silken hair from the tight rope into which she had coiled it, then stepped back for a moment that all might appreciate the penalty a woman must pay who disgraced her sex. The breeze from the hills lifted the hair of Pilar, and it floated and wreathed upward for a moment--a warm dusky cloud.
Suddenly the intense silence was broken by a loud universal hiss. Pilar, thinking that it was part of her punishment, cowered lower, then, obeying some impulse, looked up, and saw the back of the young priest. He was running. As her dull gaze was about to fall again, it encountered for a moment the indignant blue eyes of a red-haired, hard-featured, but distinguished-looking young man, clad in sober gray. She knew him to be the American, Malcolm Sturges, the guest of the Governor. But her mind rapidly shed all impressions but the wretched horror of her own plight. In another moment she felt the shears at her neck, and knew that her disgrace was passing into the annals of Monterey, and that half her beauty was falling from her. Then she found herself seated on the horse in front of her mother, who encircled her waist with an arm that pressed her vitals like iron. After that there was an interval of unconsciousness.
When she awoke, her first impulse was to raise her head from her mother's bony shoulder, where it bumped uncomfortably. Her listless brain slowly appreciated the fact that she was not on her way to the Rancho Diablo. The mustang was slowly ascending a steep mountain trail. But her head ached, and she dropped her face into her hands. What mattered where she was going? She was shorn, and disgraced, and disillusioned, and unspeakably weary of body and soul.
They travelled through dense forests of redwoods and pine, only the soft footfalls of the unshod mustang or the sudden cry of the wild-cat breaking the primeval silence. It was night when Dona Brigida abruptly dismounted, dragging Pilar with her. They were halfway up a rocky height, surrounded by towering peaks black with rigid trees. Just in front of them was an opening in the ascending wall. Beside it, with his hand on a huge stone, stood the vaquero. Pilar knew that she had nothing to hope from him: her mother had beaten him into submission long since. Dona Brigida, without a word, drove Pilar into the cave, and she and the vaquero, exerting their great strength to the full, pushed the stone into the entrance. There was a narrow rift at the top. The cave was as black as a starless midnight.
Then Dona Brigida spoke for the first time:--
"Once a week I shall come with food and drink. There thou wilt stay until thy teeth fall, the skin bags from thy bones, and thou art so hideous that all men will run from thee. Then thou canst come forth and go and live on the charity of the father to whom thou wouldst have taken a polluted priest."
Pilar heard the retreating footfalls of the mustangs. She was too stunned to think, to realize the horrible fate that had befallen her. She crouched down against the wall of the cave nearest the light, her ear alert for the growl of a panther or the whir of a rattler's tail.
The night after the close of school the Governor gave a grand ball, which was attended by the older of the convent girls who lived in Monterey or were guests in the capital. The dowagers sat against the wall, a coffee-coloured dado; the girls in white, the caballeros in black silk small-clothes, the officers in their uniforms, danced to the music of the flute and the guitar. When Elena Estudillo was alone in the middle of the room dancing El Son and the young men were clapping and shouting and flinging gold and silver at her feet, Sturges and Eustaquia slipped out into the corridor. It was a dark night, the duenas were thinking of naught but the dance and the days of their youth, and the violators of a stringent social law were safe for the moment. A chance word, dropped by Sturges in the dance, and Eustaquia's eager interrogations, had revealed the American's indignation at the barbarous treatment of Pilar, and his deep interest in the beautiful victim.
"Senor," whispered Eustaquia, excitedly, as soon as they reached the end of the corridor, "if you feel pity and perhaps love for my unhappy friend, go to her rescue for the love of Mary. I have heard to-day that her punishment is far worse than what you saw. It is so terrible that I hardly have dared--"
"Surely, that old fiend could think of nothing else," said Sturges. "What is she made of, anyhow?"
"Ay, yi! Her heart is black like the redwood tree that has been burnt out by fire. Before Don Enrique ran away, she beat him many times; but, after, she was a thousand times worse, for it is said that she loved him in her terrible way, and that her heart burnt up when she was left alone--"
"But Dona Pilar, senorita?"
"Ay, yi! Benito, one of the vaqueros of Dona Erigida, was in town to-day, and he told me (I bribed him with whiskey and cigaritos--the Commandante's, whose guest I am, ay, yi!)--he told me that Dona Erigida did not take my unhappy friend home, but--"
"Well?" exclaimed Sturges, who was a man of few words.
Eustaquia jerked down his ear and whispered, "She took her to a cave in the mountains and pushed her in, and rolled a huge stone as big as a house before the entrance, and there she will leave her till she is thirty--or dead!"
"Good God! Does your civilization, such as you've got, permit such things?"
"The mother may discipline the child as she will. It is not the business of the Alcalde. And no one would dare interfere for poor Pilar, for she has committed a mortal sin against the Church--"
"I'll interfere. Where is the cave?"
"Ay, senor, I knew you would. For that I told you all. I know not where the cave is; but the vaquero--he is in town till to-morrow. But he fears Dona Erigida, senor, as he fears the devil. You must tell him that not only will you give him plenty of whiskey and cigars, but that you will send him to Mexico. Dona Brigida would kill him."
"I'll look out for him."
"Do not falter, senor, for the love of God; for no Californian will go to her rescue. She has been disgraced and none will marry her. But you can take her far away where no one knows--"
"Where is this vaquero to be found?"
"In a little house on the beach, under the fort, where his sweetheart lives."
"Good night!" And he sprang from the corridor and ran toward the nearest gate.
He found the vaquero, and after an hour's argument got his way. The man, who had wormed the secret out of Tomaso, had only a general idea of the situation of the cave; but he confessed to a certain familiarity with the mountains. He was not persuaded to go until Sturges had promised to send not only himself but his sweetheart to Mexico. Dona Brigida was violently opposed to matrimony, and would have none of it on her rancho. Sturges promised to ship them both off on the Joven Guipuzcoanoa, and to keep them comfortably for a year in Mexico. It was not an offer to be refused.
They started at dawn. Sturges, following Benito's advice, bought a long gray cloak with a hood, and filled his saddle-bags with nourishing food. The vaquero sent word to Dona Brigida that the horses he had brought in to sell to the officers had escaped and that he was hastening down the coast in pursuit. In spite of his knowledge of the mountains, it was only after two days of weary search in almost trackless forests, and more than one encounter with wild beasts, that they came upon the cave. They would have passed it then but for the sharp eyes of Sturges, who detected the glint of stone behind the branches which Dona Brigida had piled against it.
He sprang down, tossed the brush aside, and inserted his fingers between the side of the stone and the wall of the cave. But he could not move it alone, and was about to call Benito, who was watering the mustangs at a spring, when he happened to glance upward. A small white hand was hanging over the top of the stone. Sturges was not a Californian, but he sprang to his feet and pressed his lips to that hand. It was cold and nerveless, and clasping it in his he applied his gaze to the rift above the stone. In a moment he distinguished two dark eyes and a gleam of white brow above. Then a faint voice said:--
"Take me out! Take me out, senor, for the love of God!"
"I have come for that. Cheer up," said Sturges, in his best Spanish. "You'll be out in five minutes."
"And then you'll bring me his head," whispered Pilar. "Ay, Dios, what I have suffered! I have been years here, senor, and I am nearly mad."
"Well, I won't promise you his head, but I've thrashed the life out of him, if that will give you any satisfaction. I caught him in the woods, and I laid on my riding-whip until he bit the grass and yelled for mercy."
The eyes in the cave blazed with a light which reminded him uncomfortably of Dona Erigida.
"That was well! That was well!" said Pilar. "But it is not enough. I must have his head. I never shall sleep again till then, senor. Ay, Dios, what I have suffered!"
"Well, we'll see about the head later. To get you out of this is the first thing on the program. Benito!"
Benito ran forward, and together they managed to drag the stone aside. But Pilar retreated into the darkness and covered her face with her hands.
"Ay, Dios! Dios! I cannot go out into the sunlight. I am old and hideous."
"Make some coffee," said Sturges to Benito. He went within and took her hands. "Come," he said. "You have been here a week only. Your brain is a little turned, and no wonder. You've put a lifetime of suffering into that week. But I'm going to take care of you hereafter, and that she-devil will have no more to say about it. I'll either take you to your father, or to my mother in Boston--whichever you like."
Benito brought in the coffee and some fresh bread and dried meat. Pilar ate and drank ravenously. She had found only stale bread and water in the cave. When she had finished, she looked at Sturges with a more intelligent light in her eyes, then thrust her straggling locks behind her ears. She also resumed something of her old dignified composure.
"You are very kind, senor," she said graciously. "It is true that I should have been mad in a few more days. At first I did nothing but run, run, run--the cave is miles in the mountain; but since when I cannot remember I have huddled against that stone, listening--listening; and at last you came."
Sturges thought her more beautiful than ever. The light was streaming upon her now, and although she was white and haggard she looked far less cold and unapproachable than when he had endeavoured in vain to win a glance from her in the church. He put his hand on her tangled hair. "You shall suffer no more," he repeated; "and this will grow again. And that beautiful mane--it is mine. I begged it from the Alcalde, and it is safe in my trunk."
"Ah, you love me!" she said softly.
"Yes, I love you!" And then, as her eyes grew softer and she caught his hand in hers with an exclamation of passionate gratitude for his gallant rescue, he took her in his arms without more ado and kissed her.
"Yes, I could love you," she said in a moment. "For, though you are not handsome, like the men of my race, you are true and good and brave: all I dreamed that a man should be until that creature made all men seem loathsome. But I will not marry you till you bring me his head--"
"Oh! come. So lovely a woman should not be so blood-thirsty. He has been punished enough. Besides what I gave him, he's been sent off to spend the rest of his life in some hole where he'll have neither books nor society--"
"It is not enough! When a man betrays a woman, and causes her to be beaten and publicly disgraced--it will be written in the books of the Alcalde, senor!--and shut up in a cave to suffer the tortures of the damned in hell, he should die."
"Well, I think he should myself, but I'm not the public executioner, and one can't fight a duel with a priest--"
"Senor! Senor! Quick! Pull, for the love of God!"
It was Benito who spoke, and he was pushing with all his might against the stone. "She comes--Dona Brigida!" he cried. "I saw her far off just now. Stay both in there. I will take the mustangs and hide them on the other side of the mountain and return when she is gone. That is the best way."
"We can all go--"
"No, no! She would follow; and then--ay, Dios de mi alma! No, it is best the senorita be there when she comes; then she will go away quietly."
They replaced the stone. Benito piled the brush against it, then made off with the mustangs.
"Go far," whispered Pilar. "Dios, if she sees you!"
"I shall not leave you again. And even if she enter, she need not see me. I can stand in that crevice, and I will keep quiet so long as she does not touch you."
Dona Brigida was a half-hour reaching the cave, and meanwhile Sturges restored the lost illusions of Pilar. Not only did he make love to her without any of the rhetorical nonsense of the caballero, but he was big and strong, and it was evident that he was afraid of nothing, not even of Dona Brigida. The dreams of her silent girlhood swirled in her imagination, but looked vague and shapeless before this vigorous reality. For some moments she forgot everything and was happy. But there was a black spot in her heart, and when Sturges left her for a moment to listen, it ached for the head of the priest. She had much bad as well as much good in her, this innocent Californian maiden; and the last week had forced an already well-developed brain and temperament close to maturity. She vowed that she would make herself so dear to this fiery American that he would deny her nothing. Then, her lust for vengeance satisfied, she would make him the most delightful of wives.
"She is coming!" whispered Sturges, "and she has the big vaquero with her."
"Ay, Dios! If she knows all, what can we do?"
"I've told you that I have no love of killing, but I don't hesitate when there is no alternative. If she sees me and declares war, and I cannot get you away, I shall shoot them both. I don't know that it would keep me awake a night. Now, you do the talking for the present."
Dona Brigida rode up to the cave and dismounted. "Pilar!" she shouted, as if she believed that her daughter was wandering through the heart of the mountain.
Pilar presented her eyes at the rift.
"Ay, take me out! take me out!" she wailed, with sudden diplomacy.
Her mother gave a short laugh, then broke off and sniffed.
"What is this?" she cried. "Coffee? I smell coffee!"
"Yes, I have had coffee," replied Pilar, calmly. "Benito has brought me that, and many dulces."
"Dios!" shouted Dona Brigida. "I will tie him to a tree and beat him till he is as green as my reata--"
"Give me the bread!--quick, quick, for the love of Heaven! It is two days since he has been, and I have nothing left, not even a drop of coffee."
"Then live on the memory of thy dulces and coffee! The bread and water go back with me. Three days from now I bring them again. Meanwhile, thou canst enjoy the fangs at thy vitals."
Pilar breathed freely again, but she cried sharply, "Ay, no! no!"
"Ay, yes! yes!"
Dona Brigida stalked up and down, while Pilar twisted her hands together, and Sturges mused upon his future wife's talent for dramatic invention. Suddenly Dona Brigida shouted: "Tomaso, come here! The spring! A horse has watered here to-day--two horses! I see the little hoof-mark and the big." She ran back to the cave, dragging Tomaso with her. "Quick! It is well I brought my reata. Ten minutes, and I shall have the truth. Pull there; I pull here."
"The game is up," whispered Sturges to Pilar. "And I have another plan." He took a pistol from his hip-pocket and handed it to her. "You have a cool head," he said; "now is the time to use it. As soon as this stone gives way do you point that pistol at the vaquero's head, and don't let your hand tremble or your eye falter as you value your liberty. I'll take care of her."
Pilar nodded. Sturges threw himself against the rock and pushed with all his strength. In a moment it gave, and the long brown talons of Pilar's mother darted in to clasp the curve of the stone. Sturges was tempted to cut them off; but he was a sportsman, and liked fair play. The stone gave again, and this time he encountered two small malignant eyes. Dona Brigida dropped her hands and screamed; but, before she could alter her plans, Sturges gave a final push and rushed out, closely followed by Pilar.
It was his intention to throw the woman and bind her, hand and foot; but he had no mean opponent. Dona Brigida's surprise had not paralyzed her. She could not prevent his exit, for she went back with the stone, but she had sprung to the open before he reached it himself, and was striking at him furiously with her reata. One glance satisfied Sturges that Pilar had covered the vaquero, and he devoted the next few moments to dodging the reata. Finally, a well-directed blow knocked it from her hand, and then he flung himself upon her, intending to bear her to the ground. But she stood like a rock, and closed with him, and they reeled about the little plateau in the hard embrace of two fighting grizzlies. There could be no doubt about the issue, for Sturges was young and wiry and muscular; but Dona Brigida had the strength of three women, and, moreover, was not above employing methods which he could not with dignity resort to and could with difficulty parry. She bit at him. She clawed at his back and shoulders. She got hold of his hair. And she was so nimble that he could not trip her. She even roared in his ears, and once it seemed to him that her bony shoulder was cutting through his garments and skin. But after a struggle of some twenty minutes, little by little her embrace relaxed; she ceased to roar, even to hiss, her breath came in shorter and shorter gasps. Finally, her knees trembled violently, she gave a hard sob, and her arms fell to her sides. Sturges dragged her promptly into the cave and laid her down.
"You are a plucky old lady, and I respect you," he said. "But here you must stay until your daughter is safely out of the country. I shall take her far beyond your reach, and I shall marry her. When we are well out at sea, Tomaso will come back and release you. If he attempts to do so sooner, I shall blow his head off. Meanwhile you can be as comfortable here as you made your daughter; and as you brought a week's supply of bread, you will not starve."
The old woman lay and glared at him, but she made no reply. She might be violent and cruel, but she was indomitable of spirit, and she would sue to no man.
Sturges placed the bread and water beside her, then, aided by Tomaso, pushed the stone into place. As he turned about and wiped his brow, he met the eyes of the vaquero. They were averted hastily, but not before Sturges had surprised a twinkle of satisfaction in those usually impassive orbs. He shouted for Benito, then took the pistol from Pilar, who suddenly looked tired and frightened.
"You are a wonderful woman," he said; "and upon my word, I believe you get a good deal of it from your mother."
Benito came running, leading the mustangs. Sturges wrapped Pilar in the long cloak, lifted her upon one of the mustangs, and sprang to his own. He ordered Tomaso and Benito to precede them by a few paces and to take the shortest cut for Monterey. It was now close upon noon, and it was impossible to reach Monterey before dawn next day, for the mustangs were weary; but the Joven did not sail until ten o'clock.
"These are my plans," said Sturges to Pilar, as they walked their mustangs for a few moments after a hard gallop. "When we reach the foot of the mountain, Benito will leave us, go to your rancho, gather as much of your clothing as he can strap on a horse, and join us at the barque. He will have a good hour to spare, and can get fresh horses at the ranch. We will be married at Mazatlan. Thence we will cross Mexico to the Gulf, and take passage for New Orleans. When we are in the United States, your new life will have really begun."
"And Tomaso will surely bring my mother from that cave, senor? I am afraid--I feel sure he was glad to shut her in there."
"I will leave a note for the Governor. Your mother will be free within three days, and meanwhile a little solitary meditation will do her good."
When night came Sturges lifted Pilar from her horse to his, and pressed her head against his shoulder. "Sleep," he said. "You are worn out."
She flung her hand over his shoulder, made herself comfortable, and was asleep in a moment, oblivious of the dark forest and the echoing cries of wild beasts. The strong arm of Sturges would have inspired confidence even had it done less in her rescue. Once only she shook and cried out, but with rage, not fear, in her tones. Her words were coherent enough:--
"His head! His head! Ay, Dios, what I have suffered!"
An hour before dawn Benito left them, mounted on the rested mustang and leading his own. The others pushed on, over and around the foothills, with what speed they could; for even here the trail was narrow, the pine woods dense. It was just after dawn that Sturges saw Tomaso rein in his mustang and peer into the shrubbery beside the trail. When he reached the spot himself, he saw signs of a struggle. The brush was trampled for some distance into the thicket, and several of the young trees were wrenched almost from their roots.
"It has been a struggle between a man and a wild beast, senor," whispered Tomaso, for Filar still slept. "Shall I go in? The man may breathe yet."
"Go, by all means."
Tomaso dismounted and entered the thicket. He came running back with blinking eyes.
"Madre de Dios!" he exclaimed in a loud whisper. "It is the young priest--Padre Dominguez. It must have been a panther, for they spring at the breast, and his very heart is torn out, senor. Ay, yi!"
"Ah! You must inform the Church as soon as we have gone. Go on."
They had proceeded a few moments in silence, when Sturges suddenly reined in his mustang.
"Tomaso," he whispered, "come here."
The vaquero joined him at once.
"Tomaso," said Sturges, "have you any objection to cutting off a dead man's head?"
"Then go back and cut off that priest's and wrap it in a piece of his cassock, and carry it the best way you can."
Tomaso disappeared, and Sturges pushed back the gray hood and looked upon the pure noble face of the girl he had chosen for wife.
"I believe in gratifying a woman's whims whenever it is practicable," he thought.
But she made him a very good wife.