"Mariquita! Thou good-for-nothing, thou art wringing that smock in pieces! Thy senora will beat thee! Holy heaven, but it is hot!"
"For that reason I hurry, old Faquita. Were I as slow as thou, I should cook in my own tallow."
"Aha, thou art very clever! But I have no wish to go back to the rancho and wash for the cooks. Ay, yi! I wonder will La Tulita ever give me her bridal clothes to wash. I have no faith that little flirt will marry the Senor Don Ramon Garcia. He did not well to leave Monterey until after the wedding. And to think--Ay! yi!"
"Thou hast a big letter for the wash-tub mail, Faquita."
"Aha, my Francesca, thou hast interest! I thought thou wast thinking only of the bandits."
Francesca, who was holding a plunging child between her knees, actively inspecting its head, grunted but did not look up, and the oracle of the wash-tubs, provokingly, with slow movements of her knotted coffee-coloured arms, flapped a dainty skirt, half-covered with drawn work, before she condescended to speak further.
Twenty women or more, young and old, dark as pine cones, stooped or sat, knelt or stood, about deep stone tubs sunken in the ground at the foot of a hill on the outskirts of Monterey. The pines cast heavy shadows on the long slope above them, but the sun was overhead. The little white town looked lifeless under its baking red tiles, at this hour of siesta. On the blue bay rode a warship flying the American colours. The atmosphere was so clear, the view so uninterrupted, that the younger women fancied they could read the name on the prow: the town was on the right; between the bay and the tubs lay only the meadow, the road, the lake, and the marsh. A few yards farther down the road rose a hill where white slabs and crosses gleamed beneath the trees. The roar of the surf came refreshingly to their hot ears. It leaped angrily, they fancied, to the old fort on the hill where men in the uniform of the United States moved about with unsleeping vigilance. It was the year 1847. The Americans had come and conquered. War was over, but the invaders guarded their new possessions.
The women about the tubs still bitterly protested against the downfall of California, still took an absorbing interest in all matters, domestic, social, and political. For those old women with grizzled locks escaping from a cotton handkerchief wound bandwise about their heads, their ample forms untrammelled by the flowing garment of calico, those girls in bright skirts and white short-sleeved smock and young hair braided, knew all the news of the country, past and to come, many hours in advance of the dons and donas whose linen they washed in the great stone tubs: the Indians, domestic and roving, were their faithful friends.
"Sainted Mary, but thou art more slow than a gentleman that walks!" cried Mariquita, an impatient-looking girl. "Read us the letter. La Tulita is the prettiest girl in Monterey now that the Senorita Ysabel Herrera lies beneath the rocks, and Benicia Ortega has died of her childing. But she is a flirt--that Tulita! Four of the Gringos are under her little slipper this year, and she turn over the face and roll in the dirt. But Don Ramon, so handsome, so rich--surely she will marry him."
Faquita shook her head slowly and wisely. "There--come --yesterday--from--the--South--a--young--lieutenant--of--America." She paused a moment, then proceeded leisurely, though less provokingly. "He come over the great American deserts with General Kearney last year and help our men to eat the dust in San Diego. He come only yesterday to Monterey, and La Tulita is like a little wild-cat ever since. She box my ears this morning when I tell her that the Americans are bandoleros, and say she never marry a Californian. And never Don Ramon Garcia, ay, yi!"
By this time the fine linen was floating at will upon the water, or lying in great heaps at the bottom of the clear pools. The suffering child scampered up through the pines with whoops of delight. The washing-women were pressed close about Faquita, who stood with thumbs on her broad hips, the fingers contracting and snapping as she spoke, wisps of hair bobbing back and forth about her shrewd black eyes and scolding mouth.
"Who is he? Where she meet him?" cried the audience. "Oh, thou old carreta! Why canst thou not talk faster?"
"If thou hast not more respect, Senorita Mariquita, thou wilt hear nothing. But it is this. There is a ball last night at Dona Maria Ampudia's house for La Tulita. She look handsome, that witch! Holy Mary! When she walk it was like the tule in the river. You know. Why she have that name? She wear white, of course, but that frock--it is like the cobweb, the cloud. She has not the braids like the other girls, but the hair, soft like black feathers, fall down to the feet. And the eyes like blue stars! You know the eyes of La Tulita. The lashes so long, and black like the hair. And the sparkle! No eyes ever sparkle like those. The eyes of Ysabel Herrera look like they want the world and never can get it. Benicia's, pobrecita, just dance like the child's. But La Tulita's! They sparkle like the devil sit behind and strike fire out red-hot iron--"
"Mother of God!" cried Mariquita, impatiently, "we all know thou art daft about that witch! And we know how she looks. Tell us the story."
"Hush thy voice or thou wilt hear nothing. It is this way. La Tulita have the castanets and just float up and down the sala, while all stand back and no breathe only when they shout. I am in the garden in the middle the house, and I stand on a box and look through the doors. Ay, the roses and the nasturtiums smell so sweet in that little garden! Well! She dance so beautiful, I think the roof go to jump off so she can float up and live on one the gold stars all by herself. Her little feet just twinkle! Well! The door open and Lieutenant Ord come in. He have with him another young man, not so handsome, but so straight, so sharp eye and tight mouth. He look at La Tulita like he think she belong to America and is for him. Lieutenant Ord go up to Dona Maria and say, so polite: 'I take the liberty to bring Lieutenant'--I no can remember that name, so American! 'He come to-day from San Diego and will stay with us for a while.' And Dona Maria, she smile and say, very sweet, 'Very glad when I have met all of our conquerors.' And he turn red and speak very bad Spanish and look, look, at La Tulita. Then Lieutenant Ord speak to him in English and he nod the head, and Lieutenant Ord tell Dona Maria that his friend like be introduced to La Tulita, and she say, 'Very well,' and take him over to her who is now sit down. He ask her to waltz right away, and he waltz very well, and then they dance again, and once more. And then they sit down and talk, talk. God of my soul, but the caballeros are mad! And Dona Maria! By and by she can stand it no more and she go up to La Tulita and take away from the American and say, 'Do you forget--and for a bandolero--that you are engage to my nephew?' And La Tulita toss the head and say: 'How can I remember Ramon Garcia when he is in Yerba Buena? I forget he is alive.' And Dona Maria is very angry. The eyes snap. But just then the little sister of La Tulita run into the sala, the face red like the American flag. 'Ay, Herminia!' she just gasp. 'The donas! The donas! It has come!'"
"The donas!" cried the washing-women, old and young. "Didst thou see it, Faquita? Oh, surely. Tell us, what did he send? Is he a generous bridegroom? Were there jewels? And satins? Of what was the rosary?"
"Hush the voice or you will hear nothing. The girls all jump and clap their hands and they cry: 'Come, Herminia. Come quick! Let us go and see.' Only La Tulita hold the head very high and look like the donas is nothing to her, and the Lieutenant look very surprise, and she talk to him very fast like she no want him to know what they mean. But the girls just take her hands and pull her out the house. I am after. La Tulita look very mad, but she cannot help, and in five minutes we are at the Casa Rivera, and the girls scream and clap the hands in the sala for Dona Carmen she have unpack the donas and the beautiful things are on the tables and the sofas and the chairs, Mother of God!"
"Go on! Go on!" cried a dozen exasperated voices.
"Well! Such a donas. Ay, he is a generous lover. A yellow crepe shawl embroidered with red roses. A white one with embroidery so thick it can stand up. A string of pearls from Baja California. (Ay, poor Ysabel Herrera!) Hoops of gold for the little ears of La Tulita. A big chain of California gold. A set of topaz with pearls all round. A rosary of amethyst--purple like the violets. A big pin painted with the Ascension, and diamonds all round. Silks and satins for gowns. A white lace mantilla, Dios de mi alma! A black one for the visits. And the night-gowns like cobwebs. The petticoats!" She stopped abruptly.
"And the smocks?" cried her listeners, excitedly. "The smocks? They are more beautiful than Blandina's? They were pack in rose-leaves--"
"Ay! yi! yi! yi!" The old woman dropped her head on her breast and waved her arms. She was a study for despair. Even she did not suspect how thoroughly she was enjoying herself.
"What! What! Tell us! Quick, thou old snail. They were not fine? They had not embroidery?"
"Hush the voices. I tell you when I am ready. The girls are like crazy. They look like they go to eat the things. Only La Tulita sit on the chair in the door with her back to all and look at the windows of Dona Maria. They look like a long row of suns, those windows.
"I am the one. Suddenly I say: 'Where are the smocks?' And they all cry: 'Yes, where are the smocks? Let us see if he will be a good husband. Dona Carmen, where are the smocks?'
"Dona Carmen turn over everything in a hurry. 'I did not think of the smocks,' she say. 'But they must be here. Everything was unpack in this room.' She lift all up, piece by piece. The girls help and so do I. La Tulita sit still but begin to look more interested. We search everywhere--everywhere--for twenty minutes. There--are--no--smocks!"
"God of my life! The smocks! He did not forget!"
"He forget the smocks!"
There was an impressive pause. The women were too dumfounded to comment. Never in the history of Monterey had such a thing happened before.
Faquita continued: "The girls sit down on the floor and cry. Dona Carmen turn very white and go in the other room. Then La Tulita jump up and walk across the room. The lashes fall down over the eyes that look like she is California and have conquer America, not the other way. The nostrils just jump. She laugh, laugh, laugh. 'So!' she say, 'my rich and generous and ardent bridegroom, he forget the smocks of the donas. He proclaim as if by a poster on the streets that he will be a bad husband, a thoughtless, careless, indifferent husband. He has vow by the stars that he adore me. He has serenade beneath my window until I have beg for mercy. He persecute my mother. And now he flings the insult of insults in my teeth. And he with six married sisters!'
"The girls just sob. They can say nothing. No woman forgive that. Then she say loud, 'Ana,' and the girl run in. 'Ana,' she say, 'pack this stuff and tell Jose and Marcos take it up to the house of the Senor Don Ramon Garcia. I have no use for it.' Then she say to me: 'Faquita, walk back to Dona Maria's with me, no? I have engagement with the American.' And I go with her, of course; I think I go jump in the bay if she tell me; and she dance all night with that American. He no look at another girl--all have the eyes so red, anyhow. And Dona Maria is crazy that her nephew do such a thing, and La Tulita no go to marry him now. Ay, that witch! She have the excuse and she take it."
For a few moments the din was so great that the crows in a neighbouring grove of willows sped away in fear. The women talked all at once, at the top of their voices and with no falling inflections. So rich an assortment of expletives, secular and religious, such individuality yet sympathy of comment, had not been called upon for duty since the seventh of July, a year before, when Commodore Sloat had run up the American flag on the Custom-house. Finally they paused to recover breath. Mariquita's young lungs being the first to refill, she demanded of Faquita:--
"And Don Ramon--when does he return?"
"In two weeks, no sooner."
Two weeks later they were again gathered about the tubs.
For a time after arrival they forgot La Tulita--now the absorbing topic of Monterey--in a new sensation. Mariquita had appeared with a basket of unmistakable American underwear.
"What!" cried Faquita, shrilly. "Thou wilt defile these tubs with the linen of bandoleros? Hast thou had thy silly head turned with a kiss? Not one shirt shall go in this water."
Mariquita tossed her head defiantly. "Captain Brotherton say the Indian women break his clothes in pieces. They know not how to wash anything but dish-rags. And does he not go to marry our Dona Eustaquia?"
"The Captain is not so bad," admitted Faquita. The indignation of the others also visibly diminished: the Captain had been very kind the year before when gloom lay heavy on the town. "But," continued the autocrat, with an ominous pressing of her lips, "sure he must change three times a day. Is all that Captain Brotherton's?"
"He wear many shirts," began Mariquita, when Faquita pounced upon the basket and shook its contents to the grass.
"Aha! It seems that the Captain has sometimes the short legs and sometimes the long. Sometimes he put the tucks in his arms, I suppose. What meaning has this? Thou monster of hypocrisy!"
The old women scowled and snorted. The girls looked sympathetic: more than one midshipman had found favour in the lower quarter.
"Well," said Mariquita, sullenly, "if thou must know, it is the linen of the Lieutenant of La Tulita. Ana ask me to wash it, and I say I will."
At this announcement Faquita squared her elbows and looked at Mariquita with snapping eyes.
"Oho, senorita, I suppose thou wilt say next that thou knowest what means this flirtation! Has La Tulita lost her heart, perhaps? And Don Ramon--dost thou know why he leaves Monterey one hour after he comes?" Her tone was sarcastic, but in it was a note of apprehension.
Mariquita tossed her head, and all pressed close about the rivals.
"What dost thou know, this time?" inquired the girl, provokingly. "Hast thou any letter to read today? Thou dost forget, old Faquita, that Ana is my friend--"
"Throw the clothes in the tubs," cried Faquita, furiously. "Do we come here to idle and gossip? Mariquita, thou hussy, go over to that tub by thyself and wash the impertinent American rags. Quick. No more talk. The sun goes high."
No one dared to disobey the queen of the tubs, and in a moment the women were kneeling in irregular rows, tumbling their linen into the water, the brown faces and bright attire making a picture in the colorous landscape which some native artist would have done well to preserve. For a time no sound was heard but the distant roar of the surf, the sighing of the wind through the pines on the hill, the less romantic grunts of the women and the swish of the linen in the water. Suddenly Mariquita, the proscribed, exclaimed from her segregated tub:--
Heads flew up or twisted on their necks. A party of young people, attended by a duena, was crossing the meadow to the road. At the head of the procession were a girl and a man, to whom every gaze which should have been intent upon washing-tubs alone was directed. The girl wore a pink gown and a reboso. Her extraordinary grace made her look taller than she was; the slender figure swayed with every step. Her pink lips were parted, her blue starlike eyes looked upward into the keen cold eyes of a young man wearing the uniform of a lieutenant of the United States army.
The dominant characteristics of the young man's face, even then, were ambition and determination, and perhaps the remarkable future was foreshadowed in the restless scheming mind. But to-day his deep-set eyes were glowing with a light more peculiar to youth, and whenever bulging stones afforded excuse he grasped the girl's hand and held it as long as he dared. The procession wound past the tubs and crossing the road climbed up the hill to the little wooded cemetery of the early fathers, the cemetery where so many of those bright heads were to lie forgotten beneath the wild oats and thistles.
"They go to the grave of Benicia Ortega and her little one," said Francesca. "Holy Mary! La Tulita never look in a man's eyes like that before."
"But she have in his," said Mariquita, wisely.
"No more talk!" cried Faquita, and once more silence came to her own. But fate was stronger than Faquita. An hour later a little girl came running down, calling to the old woman that her grandchild, the consolation of her age, had been taken ill. After she had hurried away the women fairly leaped over one another in their efforts to reach Mariquita's tub.
"Tell us, tell us, chiquita," they cried, fearful lest Faquita's snubbing should have turned her sulky, "what dost thou know?"
But Mariquita, who had been biting her lips to keep back her story, opened them and spoke fluently.
"Ay, my friends! Dona Eustaquia and Benicia Ortega are not the only ones to wed Americans. Listen! La Tulita is mad for this man, who is no more handsome than the palm of my hand when it has all day been in the water. Yesterday morning came Don Ramon. I am in the back garden of the Casa Rivera with Ana, and La Tulita is in the front garden sitting under the wall. I can look through the doors of the sala and see and hear all. Such a handsome caballero, my friends! The gold six inches deep on the serape. Silver eagles on the sombrero. And the botas! Stamp with birds and leaves, ay, yi! He fling open the gates so bold, and when he see La Tulita he look like the sun is behind his face. (Such curls, my friends, tied with a blue ribbon!) But listen!
"'Mi querida!' he cry, 'mi alma!' (Ay, my heart jump in my throat like he speak to me.) Then he fall on one knee and try to kiss her hand. But she throw herself back like she hate him. Her eyes are like the bay in winter. And then she laugh. When she do that, he stand up and say with the voice that shake:--
"'What is the matter, Herminia? Do you not love me any longer?'
"'I never love you,' she say. 'They give me no peace until I say I marry you, and as I love no one else--I do not care much. But now that you have insult me, I have the best excuse to break the engagement, and I do it.'
"'I insult you?' He hardly can speak, my friends, he is so surprised and unhappy.
"'Yes; did you not forget the smocks?'
"'The--smocks!' he stammer, like that. 'The smocks?'
"'No one can be blame but you,' she say. 'And you know that no bride forgive that. You know all that it means.'
"'Herminia!' he say. 'Surely you will not put me; away for a little thing like that!'
"'I have no more to say,' she reply, and then she get up and go in the house and shut the door so I cannot see how he feel, but I am very sorry for him if he did forget the smocks. Well! That evening I help Ana water the flowers in the front garden, and every once in the while we look through the windows at La Tulita and the Lieutenant. They talk, talk, talk. He look so earnest and she--she look so beautiful. Not like a devil, as when she talk to Don Ramon in the morning, but like an angel. Sure, a woman can be both! It depends upon the man. By and by Ana go away, but I stay there, for I like look at them. After a while they get up and come out. It is dark in the garden, the walls so high, and the trees throw the shadows, so they cannot see me. They walk up and down, and by and by the Lieutenant take out his knife and cut a shoot from the rose-bush that climb up the house.
"'These Castilian roses,' he say, very soft, but in very bad Spanish, 'they are very beautiful and a part of Monterey--a part of you. Look, I am going to plant this here, and long before it grow to be a big bush I come back and you will wear its buds in your hair when we are married in that lovely old church. Now help me,' and then they kneel down and he stick it in the ground, and all their fingers push the earth around it. Then she give a little sob and say, 'You must go?'
"He lift her up and put his arms around her tight. 'I must go,' he say. 'I am not my own master, you know, and the orders have come. But my heart is here, in this old garden, and I come back for it.' And then she put her arms around him and he kiss her, and she love him so I forget to be sorry for Don Ramon. After all, it is the woman who should be happy. He hold her a long time, so long I am afraid Dona Carmen come out to look for her. I lift up on my knees (I am sit down before) and look in the window and I see she is asleep, and I am glad. Well! After a while they walk up and down again, and he tell her all about his home far away, and about some money he go to get when the law get ready, and how he cannot marry on his pay. Then he say how he go to be a great general some day and how she will be the more beautiful woman in--how you call it?--Washington, I think. And she cry and say she does not care, she only want him. And he tell her water the rose-bush every day and think of him, and he will come back before it is large, and every time a bud come out she can know he is thinking of her very hard."
"Ay, pobrecita!" said Francesca, "I wonder will he come back. These men!"
"Surely. Are not all men mad for La Tulita?"
"Yes--yes, but he go far away. To America! Dios de mi alma! And men, they forget." Francesca heaved a deep sigh. Her youth was far behind her, but she remembered many things.
"He return," said Mariquita, the young and romantic.
"When does he go?"
Mariquita pointed to the bay. A schooner rode at anchor. "He go to Yerba Buena on that to-morrow morning. From there to the land of the American. Ay, yi! Poor La Tulita! But his linen is dry. I must take it to iron for I have it promised for six in the morning." And she hastily gathered the articles from the low bushes and hurried away.
That evening as the women returned to town, talking gayly, despite the great baskets on their heads, they passed the hut of Faquita and paused at the window to inquire for the child. The little one lay gasping on the bed. Faquita sat beside her with bowed head. An aged crone brewed herbs over a stove. The dingy little house faced the hills and was dimly lighted by the fading rays of the sun struggling through the dark pine woods.
"Holy Mary, Faquita!" said Francesca, in a loud whisper. "Does Liseta die?"
Faquita sprang to her feet. Her cross old face was drawn with misery. "Go, go!" she said, waving her arms, "I want none of you."
The next evening she sat in the same position, her eyes fixed upon the shrinking features of the child. The crone had gone. She heard the door open, and turned with a scowl. But it was La Tulita that entered and came rapidly to the head of the bed. The girl's eyes were swollen, her dress and hair disordered.
"I have come to you because you are in trouble," she said. "I, too, am in trouble. Ay, my Faquita!"
The old woman put up her arms and drew the girl down to her lap. She had never touched her idol before, but sorrow levels even social barriers.
"Pobrecita!" she said, and the girl cried softly on her shoulder.
"Will he come back, Faquita?"
"Surely, ninita. No man could forget you."
"But it is so far."
"Think of what Don Vicente do for Dona Ysabel, mijita."
"But he is an American. Oh, no, it is not that I doubt him. He loves me! It is so far, like another world. And the ocean is so big and cruel."
"We ask the priest to say a mass."
"Ah, my Faquita! I will go to the church to-morrow morning. How glad I am that I came to thee." She kissed the old woman warmly, and for the moment Faquita forgot her trouble.
But the child threw out its arms and moaned. La Tulita pushed the hair out of her eyes and brought the medicine from the stove, where it simmered unsavourily. The child swallowed it painfully, and Faquita shook her head in despair. At the dawn it died. As La Tulita laid her white fingers on the gaping eyelids, Faquita rose to her feet. Her ugly old face was transfigured. Even the grief had gone out of it. For a moment she was no longer a woman, but one of the most subtle creations of the Catholic religion conjoined with racial superstitions.
"As the moon dieth and cometh to life again," she repeated with a sort of chanting cadence, "so man, though he die, will live again. Is it not better that she will wander forever through forests where crystal streams roll over golden sands, than grow into wickedness, and go out into the dark unrepenting, perhaps, to be bitten by serpents and scorched by lightning and plunged down cataracts?" She turned to La Tulita. "Will you stay here, senorita, while I go to bid them make merry?"
The girl nodded, and the woman went out. La Tulita watched the proud head and erect carriage for a moment, then bound up the fallen jaw of the little corpse, crossed its hands and placed weights on the eyelids. She pushed the few pieces of furniture against the wall, striving to forget the one trouble that had come into her triumphant young life. But there was little to do, and after a time she knelt by the window and looked up at the dark forest upon which long shafts of light were striking, routing the fog that crouched in the hollows. The town was as quiet as a necropolis. The white houses, under the black shadows of the hills, lay like tombs. Suddenly the roar of the surf came to her ears, and she threw out her arms with a cry, dropping her head upon them and sobbing convulsively. She heard the ponderous waves of the Pacific lashing the keel of a ship.
She was aroused by shouting and sounds of merriment. She raised her head dully, but remembered in a moment what Faquita had left her to await. The dawn lay rosily on the town. The shimmering light in the pine woods was crossed and recrossed by the glare of rockets. Down the street came the sound of singing voices, the words of the song heralding the flight of a child-spirit to a better world. La Tulita slipped out of the back door and went to her home without meeting the procession. But before she shut herself in her room she awakened Ana, and giving her a purse of gold, bade her buy a little coffin draped with white and garlanded with white flowers.
"Tell us, tell us, Mariquita, does she water the rose-tree every night?"
"Every night, ay, yi!"
"And is it big yet? Ay, but that wall is high! Not a twig can I see!"
"Yes, it grows!"
"And he comes not?"
"He write. I see the letters."
"But what does he say?"
"How can I know?"
"And she goes to the balls and meriendas no more. Surely, they will forget her. It is more than a year now. Some one else will be La Favorita."
"She does not care."
"Hush the voices," cried Faquita, scrubbing diligently. "It is well that she stay at home and does not dance away her beauty before he come. She is like a lily."
"But lilies turn brown, old Faquita, when the wind blow on them too long. Dost thou think he will return?"
"Surely," said Faquita, stoutly. "Could any one forget that angel?"
"Ay, these men, these men!" said Francesca, with a sigh.
"Oh, thou old raven!" cried Mariquita. "But truly--truly--she has had no letter for three months."
"Aha, senorita, thou didst not tell us that just now."
"Nor did I intend to. The words just fell from my teeth."
"He is ill," cried Faquita, angrily. "Ay, my probrecita! Sometimes I think Ysabel is more happy under the rocks."
"How dost thou know he is ill? Will he die?" The wash-tub mail had made too few mistakes in its history to admit of doubt being cast upon the assertion of one of its officials.
"I hear Captain Brotherton read from a letter to Dona Eustaquia. Ay, they are happy!"
"Two hours ago."
"Then we know before the town--like always."
"Surely. Do we not know all things first? Hist!"
The women dropped their heads and fumbled at the linen in the water. La Tulita was approaching.
She came across the meadow with all her old swinging grace, the blue gown waving about her like the leaves of a California lily when the wind rustled the forest. But the reboso framed a face thin and pale, and the sparkle was gone from her eyes. She passed the tubs and greeted the old women pleasantly, walked a few steps up the hill, then turned as if in obedience to an afterthought, and sat down on a stone in the shade of a willow.
"It is cool here," she said.
"Yes, senorita." They were not deceived, but they dared not stare at her, with Faquita's scowl upon them.
"What news has the wash-tub mail to-day?" asked the girl, with an attempt at lightness. "Did an enemy invade the South this morning, and have you heard it already, as when General Kearney came? Is General Castro still in Baja California, or has he fled to Mexico? Has Dona Prudencia Iturbi y Moncada given a ball this week at Santa Barbara? Have Don Diego and Dona Chonita--?"
"The young Lieutenant is ill," blurted out one of the old women, then cowered until she almost fell into her tub. Faquita sprang forward and caught the girl in her arms.
"Thou old fool!" she cried furiously. "Thou devil! Mayst thou find a tarantula in thy bed to-night. Mayst thou dream thou art roasting in hell." She carried La Tulita rapidly across the meadow.
"Ah, I thought I should hear there," said the girl, with a laugh. "Thank heaven for the wash-tub mail."
Faquita nursed her through a long illness. She recovered both health and reason, and one day the old woman brought her word that the young Lieutenant was well again--and that his illness had been brief and slight.
"Ay, but the years go quick!" said Mariquita, as she flapped a piece of linen after taking it from the water. "I wonder do all towns sleep like this. Who can believe that once it is so gay? The balls! The grand caballeros! The serenades! The meriendas! No more! No more! Almost I forget the excitement when the Americanos coming. I no am young any more. Ay, yi!"
"Poor Faquita, she just died of old age," said a woman who had been young with Mariquita, spreading an article of underwear on a bush. "Her life just drop out like her teeth. No one of the old women that taught us to wash is here now, Mariquita. We are the old ones now, and we teach the young, ay, yi!"
"Well, it is a comfort that the great grow old like the low people. High birth cannot keep the skin white and the body slim. Ay, look! Who can think she is so beautiful before?"
A woman was coming down the road from the town. A woman, whom passing years had browned, although leaving the fine strong features uncoarsened. She was dressed simply in black, and wore a small American bonnet. The figure had not lost the slimness of its youth, but the walk was stiff and precise. The carriage evinced a determined will.
"Ay, who can think that once she sway like the tule!" said Mariquita, with a sigh. "Well, when she come to-day I have some news. A letter, we used to call it, dost thou remember, Brigida? Who care for the wash-tub mail now? These Americanos never hear of it, and our people--triste de mi--have no more the interest in anything."
"Tell us thy news," cried many voices. The older women had never lost their interest in La Tulita. The younger ones had heard her story many times, and rarely passed the wall before her house without looking at the tall rose-bush which had all the pride of a young tree.
"No, you can hear when she come. She will come to-day. Six months ago to-day she come. Ay, yi, to think she come once in six months all these years! And never until to-day has the wash-tub mail a letter for her."
"Very strange she did not forget a Gringo and marry with a caballero," said one of the girls, scornfully. "They say the caballeros were so beautiful, so magnificent. The Americans have all the money now, but she been rich for a little while."
"All women are not alike. Sometimes I think she is more happy with the memory." And Mariquita, who had a fat lazy husband and a swarm of brown children, sighed heavily. "She live happy in the old house and is not so poor. And always she have the rose-bush. She smile, now, sometimes, when she water it."
"Well, it is many years," said the girl, philosophically. "Here she come."
La Tulita, or Dona Herminia, as she now was called, walked briskly across the meadow and sat down on the stone which had come to be called for her. She spoke to each in turn, but did not ask for news. She had ceased long since to do that. She still came because the habit held her, and because she liked the women.
"Ah, Mariquita," she said, "the linen is not as fine as when we were young. And thou art glad to get the shirts of the Americans now. My poor Faquita!"
"Coarse things," said Mariquita, disdainfully. Then a silence fell, so sudden and so suggestive that Dona Herminia felt it and turned instinctively to Mariquita.
"What is it?" she asked rapidly. "Is there news to-day? Of what?"
Mariquita's honest face was grave and important.
"There is news, senorita," she said.
"What is it?"
The washing-women had dropped back from the tubs and were listening intently.
"Ay!" The oracle drew a long breath. "There is war over there, you know, senorita," she said, making a vague gesture toward the Atlantic states.
"Yes, I know. Is it decided? Is the North or the South victorious? I am glad that the wash-tub mail has not--"
"It is not that, senorita."
"The Lieutenant--he is a great general now."
"He has won a great battle--And--they speak of his wife, senorita."
Dona Herminia closed her eyes for a moment. Then she opened them and glanced slowly about her. The blue bay, the solemn pines, the golden atmosphere, the cemetery on the hill, the women washing at the stone tubs--all was unchanged. Only the flimsy wooden houses of the Americans scattered among the adobes of the town and the aging faces of the women who had been young in her brief girlhood marked the lapse of years. There was a smile on her lips. Her monotonous life must have given her insanity or infinite peace, and peace had been her portion. In a few minutes she said good-by to the women and went home. She never went to the tubs again.