Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 15

The Chamberlain was in a towering bad humor. As he made his appearance at least two hours earlier than he was expected, he found the decks of the Juno covered with the skins of sea-dogs, foxes, and birds. He had heard Langsdorff go to his cabin later than usual the night before, and that his pet aversion was the cause of a fresh grievance, but hastened the eruption of his smouldering resentment toward life in general.

"What does this mean?" he roared to the sailor on watch. "Clear them off--overboard, every one of them. What are you staring at?"

The sailor, who was a "Bostonian," an inheritance with the ship, opened his mouth in favor of the unfortunate professor, but like his mates, he stood in much awe of a master whose indulgence demanded implicit obedience in return. Without further ado, he flung the skins into the sea.

Rezanov, to do him justice, would not have acted otherwise had he risen in the best of tempers. He had inflicted himself with the society of the learned doctor that he might always have a physician and surgeon at hand, as well as an interpreter where Latin was the one door of communication. He should pay him handsomely, make him a present in addition to the sum agreed upon, but he had not the least intention of giving up any of the Juno's precious space to the vagaries of a scientist, nor to submit to the pollution of her atmosphere. Langsdorff was his creature, and the sooner he realized the fact the better.

"Remember," he said to the sailor, "no more of this, or it will be the worse for you--What is this?" He had come upon a pile of ducks, gulls, pelicans, and other aquatic birds. "Are these the cook's or the professor's?"

"The professor's, Excellency."

"Overboard." And the birds followed the skins.

Rezanov turned to confront the white and trembling Langsdorff. The naturalist was enfolded in a gorgeous Japanese dressing-gown, purple brocade embroidered with gold, that he had surreptitiously bought in the harbor of Nagasaki. To Rezanov it was like a red rag to a bull; but the professor was oblivious at the moment of the tactless garment. His eyes were glaring and the extended tip of his nose worked like a knife trying to leap from its sheath. But although he occasionally ventured upon a retort when goaded too far in conversation, he was able to curb his just indignation when the Chamberlain was in a bad temper. In that vague gray under winking stars in their last watch, Rezanov seemed to tower six feet above him.

"Excellency," he murmured.

"Well?"

"My--my specimens."

"Your what?"

"The cause of science is very dear to me, Excellency."

"So it is to me--in its proper place. Were those skins yours?" His voice became very suave. "I am sorry you should have fatigued yourself for nothing, but I am forced to remind you that this is not an expedition undertaken for the promotion of natural history. I am not violating my part in the contract, I believe. Upon our arrival at Sitka you are at liberty to remain as my guest and make use of the first boat that sails for this colony; but for the present I beg that you will limit yourself to the requirements of your position on my staff."

He turned his back and ordered a canoe to be lowered. Since the arrival of the Governor and Commandante, now three days ago, all restrictions on his liberty had been removed, and the phrases of hospitality were a trifle less meaningless. He had been asked to give his word to keep away from the fortifications, and as he knew quite as much of the military resources of the country as he desired, he had merely suppressed a smile and given his promise.

This morning he wanted nothing but a walk. He had slept badly, the blood was in his head, his nerves were on edge. He went rapidly along the beach and over the steep hills that led to the northeastern point of the peninsula. But he had taken the walk before and did not turn his head to look at the great natural amphitheater formed by the inner slopes of those barren heights, so uninteresting of outline from the water. Once when Luis had left him to go down with an order to the Battery of Yerba Buena, he had examined it critically and concluded that never had there been so fine a site for a great city. Nor a more beautiful, with the broken line of the San Bruno mountains in the distance and a glimpse of the Mission valley just beyond this vast colosseum, whose steep imposing lines were destined by nature to be set with palaces and bazaars, minarets and towers and churches, with a thousand gilded domes and slender crosses glittering in the crystal air and sunlight. If not another Moscow, then an Irkutsk in his day, at least.

But he did not give the chosen site of his city a glance to-day, although in this gray air before dawn when mystery and imagination most closely embrace, he might at another time have forgotten himself in one of those fits of dreaming that slipped him out of touch with realities, and sometimes precipitated action in a manner highly gratifying to his enemies.

But much as he loved Russia, there were times when he loved his own way more, and since the arrival of Governor Arrillaga he was beginning to feel as he had felt in the harbor of Nagasaki. Not a word since that first interview had been said of his cargo; nor even of the treaty, although nothing could have been more natural than the discussion of details. Whenever he had delicately broached either subject, he had been met with a polite indifference, that had little in common with the cordiality otherwise shown him. He foresaw that he might be obliged to reveal the more pressing object of his visit without further diplomacy, and the thought irritated him beyond endurance.

Whether Concha were giving him her promised aid he had no means of discovering, and herein lay another cause of his general vexation. He had dined every day at the Commandante's, danced there every night. Concha had been vivacious, friendly--impersonal. Not so much as a coquettish lift of the brow betrayed that the distinguished stranger eclipsed the caballeros for the moment; nor a whispered word that he retained the friendship she had offered him on the day of their meeting. He had not, indeed, had a word with her alone. But his interest and admiration had deepened. It was evident that her father and the Governor adored her, would deny her little. Her attitude to them was alternately that of the petted child and the chosen companion. As her mother was indisposed, she occupied her place at the table, presiding with dignity, guiding the conversation, revealing the rare gift of making everyone appear at his best. In the evening she had sometimes danced alone for a few moments, but more often with her Russian guests, and readily learning the English country dances they were anxious to teach. Rezanov would have found the gay informality of these evenings delightful had his mind been at ease about his Sitkans, and Concha a trifle more personal. He had begun by suspecting that she was maneuvering for his scalp, but he was forced to acquit her; for not only did she show no provocative favor to another, but she seemed to have gained in dignity and pride since his arrival, actually to have kissed her hand in farewell to the childhood he had been so slow in divining; grown--he felt rather than analyzed--above the pettiness of coquetry. Once more she had stirred the dormant ideals of his early manhood; there were moments when she floated before his inner vision as the embodiment of the world's beauty. Nor ever had there been a woman born more elaborately equipped for the position of a public man's mate; nor more ingenerate, perhaps, with the power to turn earth into heaven.

He had wondered humorously if he were fallen in love, but, although he retained little faith in the activities of the heart after youth, he was beginning seriously to consider the expedience of marrying Concha Arguello. He had not intended to marry again, and it was this old and passionate love of personal freedom that alone held him back, for nothing would be so advantageous to the Russian colonies in their present crisis as a strong individual alliance with California. Concha Arguello was the famous daughter of its first subject, and with the powerful friends she would bring to her husband, the consummation of ends dearer to his heart than aught on earth would be a matter of months instead of years. And he thrilled with pride as he thought of Concha in St. Petersburg. Two years of court life and she would be one of the greatest ladies in Europe. That he could win her he believed, and without undue vanity. He had much to offer an ambitious girl conscious of her superiority to the men of this province of Spain, and chafing at the prospect of a lifetime in a bountiful desert. His only hesitation lay in his own doubt if she were worth the loss of his freedom, and all that word involved to a man of his position and adventurous spirit.

He shrugged his shoulders at this argument; he had walked off some of his ill-humor, and reverted willingly to a theme that alone had given him satisfaction during the past few days. At the same time he made a motion as if flinging aside an old burden.

"It is time for such nonsense to end," he thought contemptuously. "And in truth these three years should have wrought such changes in me I doubt I should have patience for an hour of the old trifling. My greatest need from this time on, I fancy, is work. I could never be idle a month again. And when a man is in love with work--and power--and has passed forty--does he want a constant companion? That is the point. At my time of life power exercises the most irresistible and lasting of all fascinations. A man that wins it has little left for a woman."

He had reached the summit of the rocky outpost; the highest of the hills where the peninsula turned abruptly to the south, and, scrupulously refraining from a downward glance at the Battery of Yerba Buena, stood looking out over the bay to the eastern mountains: dark, almost formless, wrapped in the intense and menacing mystery of that last hour before dawn.

"Senor!" called a low cautious voice.

Rezanov stepped hastily back from the point of the bluff and glanced about in wonder, his pulses suddenly astir. But he could see no one.

This time the direction was unmistakable, and he went to the edge of the plateau facing the south and looked over. Halfway down a shallow and almost perpendicular gully, he saw a girl forcing a mustang up the harsh, loose path. The girl's white and oval face looked from the folds of a black reboso like the moon emerging from clouds, and its young beauty was out of place in that wild and forbidding setting. She reined in her horse as she caught his eye and beckoned superfluously; then guided her mustang to a little ledge where he could plant his feet firmly, permitting her to reassume her usual pride of carriage and averting the danger of a sudden scramble or need of assistance.

As Rezanov reached her side, she gave him a grave and friendly smile, but no opportunity to kiss her hand.

"I have followed your excellency," she said. "I saw you leave the Juno, and as I am often up at this hour, and as no one else ever is, my father ignores the fact that I sometimes ride alone. I have never come as far as this before, but there is something I wish to say to you, and there is no opportunity at home. I asked Santiago to find me one last night, but he was in a bad temper and would not. Men! However--I suppose you have heard nothing of the cargo?"

"I have not," said Rezanov grimly, although acutely sensible that the subject suited neither his mood nor the hour.

"But the Governor has! Madre de Dios! all the women of the Presidio and the Mission have pestered him. They are sick with jealousy at the shawls you gave us that day--those that did not go to the ship. How clever of your excellency to give us just enough for ourselves and nothing for our friends! And those that went want more and more. They have called upon him--one, two, four, and alone. They have wept and scolded and pleaded. I did not know until yesterday that your commissary had also shown the things to the priests from San Jose--Father Jose Uria and Father Pedro de la Cueva. They and the priests of San Francisco have argued with the Governor not once but three times. Dios! how his poor excellency swore yesterday. He threatened to return at once to Monterey. I flew into a great rage and threatened in turn to follow with all the other girls and all the priests--vowed he should not have one moment of peace until that cargo was ours."

"Well?" asked Rezanov sharply, in spite of his amusement.

Concha shook her head. "When he does not swear, he answers only: 'Buy if you have the money. I have never broken a law of Spain, and I shall not begin in my old age.' He knows well that we have no money to send out of New Spain; but I have conceived a plan, senor. It is for you, not for me, to suggest it. You will never betray that I have been your friend, Excellency?"

"I will swear it if you wish," said Rezanov frigidly.

"Pardon, senor. If I thought you could I should not be here. One often says such things. This is the plan: You shall suggest that we buy your wares, and that you buy again with our money. The dear Governor only wants to save his conscience an ache, for we have driven him nearly distracted. I am sure he will consent, for you will know how to put it to him very diplomatically."

"But if he refused to understand, or his conscience remained obdurate? I should then have neither cargo nor ballast."

"He would never trick a guest, nor would he let the money go out of the country. And he knows well how much we need your cargo and longs to be able to state in his reports that he sold you a hold full of breadstuffs. Moreover, I think the time has come to tell him of the distress at Sitka. He is very soft-hearted and is now in that distracted state of mind when only one more argument is required. I hope I have given you good advice, Excellency. It is the best I can think of. I have given it much thought, and the terrible state of those miserable creatures has kept me awake many nights. I must return now. Will your excellency kindly remain here until I am well on my way?--and then return by the beach? I shall go as I came, through the valley. Neither of us can be seen from the Battery."

"I will obey all your instructions," said Rezanov. But he did not move, nor could the mustang. Concha smiled and pointed to the other side of the cleft, which was about as wide as a narrow street.

"Pardon, senor, I cannot turn."

For a moment Rezanov stared at her, through her. Then his heavy eyes opened and flashed. It seemed to him that for the first time he saw how beautiful, how desirable she was, set in that gray volcanic rock with the heavens gray above her, and the stars fading out. It was not the bower he would have imagined for the wooing of a mate, but neither moonlight nor the romantic glades of La Bellissima could have awakened in him a passion so sudden and final. Her face between the black folds turned whiter and she shrank back against the jagged wall: and when his eyes flashed again with a wild eager hope she involuntarily crossed herself. He threw himself against the horse and snatched her down and kissed her as he had kissed no woman yet, recognizing her once for all.

When he finally held her at arm's length for a moment he laughed confusedly.

"The Russian bear is no longer a figure of speech," he said. "Forgive me. I forgot that you are as tender as you are strong."

Her hands were tightly clasped against her breast and the breath was short in her throat, but she made no protest. Her eyes were radiant, her mouth was the only color in that gray dawn. In a moment she too laughed.

"Dios de mi alma! What will they say? A heretic! If Tamalpais fell into the sea it would not make so great a sensation in this California of ours where civilized man exists but to drive heathen souls into the one true church."

"Will it matter to you? Are you strong enough? It will be only a question of time to win them over, if you are."

She nodded emphatically. "I was born with strength. Now--Dios!--now I can be stronger than the King of Spain himself, than the Governor, my parents and all the priests--You would not become a Catholic?" she asked abruptly.

He shook his head, although he still smiled at her. "Not even for you."

"No," she said thoughtfully. "I will confess--what matters it?--I often dreamed that this would come just because I believed it would not. But why should one control the imagination when it alone can give us happiness for a little while? I gave it rein, for I thought that one-half of my life was to be passed in that unreal but by no means niggardly world. And I thought of everything. To change your religion would mean the ruin of your career; moreover, it is not a possibility of your character. Were it I think I should not love you so much. Nor could I bear to think of any change in you. Only it will be harder--longer." Then she stretched out her hand, and closed and opened it slowly. The most obtuse could not have failed to read the old simile of the steel in the velvet. "I shall win because it is my nature--and my power--to hold what I grasp."

"But if they persistently refuse--"

"Dios!" she interrupted him. "Do you think that your love is greater than mine? I was born with a thousand years of love in me and had you not come I should have gone alone with my dreams to the grave. I am all women in one, not merely Concha Arguello, a girl of sixteen." She clasped her hands high above her head, lifting her eyes to the ashen vault so soon to yield to the gay brush of dawn.

"Before all that great mystery," she said solemnly, "I give myself to you forever, how much or how little that may mean here on earth. Forever."


Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton

Sorry, no summary available yet.