The Commandante of the San Francisco Company sat opposite Rezanov with his mouth open, the lines of his strong face elongated and relaxed. It was the hour of siesta, and they were alone in the sala.
"Mother of God!" he exclaimed. "Mother of God! Are you mad, Excellency?"
"No man was ever saner," said Rezanov cheerfully. "What better proof would you have than this final testimony to Dona Concha's perfections?"
"But it cannot be! Surely, Excellency, you realize that? The priests! Ay yi! Ay yi!"
"I think I understand the priests. Persuade the Governor to buy my cargo and they will look upon me as an amicus humani generis to whom common rules do not apply. And I have won their sincere friendship."
"You have won mine, senor. But, though I say it, there is no more devout Catholic in the Californias than Jose Arguello. Do you know what they call me? El santo. God knows I am not, but it is not for want of the wish. Did I give my daughter to a heretic, not only should I become an outcast, a pariah, but I should imperil my everlasting soul and that of my best beloved child. It is impossible, Excellency--unless, indeed, you embrace our faith."
"That is so impossible that the subject is not worth the waste of a moment. But surely, Commandante, in your excitement at this perfectly natural issue you are misrepresenting yourself. I do not believe, devout Catholic as you are, that your soul is steeped in fanaticism. You are known far and wide as the first and most intelligent of His Catholic Majesty's subjects in New Spain. When you have my word of honor that your daughter's faith shall never be disturbed, it is impossible you should believe that marriage with me would ruin her chances of happiness in the next world. But I doubt if your soul and conscience will have the peace you desire if you ruin her happiness in this. What pleasure do you find in the thought of an old age companioned by a heart-broken daughter?"
Don Jose turned pale and hitched his chair. "Other maids have been balked when young, and have forgotten. Concha is but sixteen--"
"She is also unique. She will marry me or no one. Of that I am as certain as that she is the woman of women for me."
"How can you be so certain?" asked the Commandante sharply. "Surely you have had little talk alone with her?"
"The heart has a language of its own. Recall your own youth, senor."
"It is true," said Don Jose, with a heavy sigh, as he had a fleeting vision of Dona Ignacia, slim and lovely, at the grating, with a rose in her hair. "But this tremendous passion of the heart--it passes, senor, it passes. We love the good wife, but we sometimes realize that we could have loved another good wife as well."
"That is a bit of philosophy I should have uttered myself, Commandante--yesterday. But there are women and women, and your daughter is one of the chosen few who take from the years what the years take from others. I am not rushing into matrimony for the sake of a pair of black eyes and a fine figure. I have outlived the possibility of making a fool of myself if I would. Before I realized how deeply I loved your daughter I had deliberately chosen her out of all the women I have known, as my friend and companion for the various and difficult ways of life which I shall be called upon to follow. Your daughter will have a high place at the Russian Court, and she will occupy it as naturally as if I had found her in Madrid and you in the great position to which your attainments and services entitle you."
Don Jose, despite his consternation, titillated agreeably. He privately thought no one in New Spain good enough for his daughter, and his weather-beaten self was not yet insensible to the rare visitation of winged darts tipped with honey. But the situation was one of the most embarrassing he had ever been called upon to face, and perhaps for the first time in his direct and honest life his resolution was shaken in a crisis.
"Believe me, your excellency, I appreciate the honor you have done my house, and I will add with all my heart that never have I liked a man more. But--Mother of God! Mother of God!"
Rezanov took out his cigarette case, a superb bit of Russian enamel, graven with the Imperial arms, and a parting gift from his Tsar. He passed it to his host, who had developed a preference for Russian cigarettes.
"There are other things to consider besides the happiness of your daughter and myself," he remarked. "This alliance would mean the consolidation of Spanish and Russian interests on the Pacific coast. It would mean the protection of California in the almost certain event of 'American' aggression. And I hear that a courier brought word again yesterday that the Russian and the Spanish fleets had sailed for these waters. I do not believe a word of it; but should it be true, I would remind you of two things: that I have the powers of the Tsar himself in this part of the world, and that the Russian fleet is likely to arrive first."
Again the Commandante moved uneasily. The news from Mexico had kept himself and the Governor awake the better part of the night. He fully appreciated the importance of this powerful Russian's friendship. Nothing would bind and commit him like taking a Californian to wife. If only he had fallen in love with Carolina Xime'no or Delfina Rivera! Don Jose had an uneasy suspicion that his scruples as a Catholic might have gone down before his sense of duty to this poor California. But a heretic in his own family! He was justly renowned for his piety. Aside from the wrath of the church, the mere thought of one of his offspring in matrimonial community beyond its pale made him sick with repugnance. And yet--California! And he would have selected Rezanov for his daughter out of all men had he been of their faith. And he was deeply conscious of the honor that had descended, however unfruitfully, upon his house. Madre de Dios! How would it end? Suddenly he felt himself inspired. In blissful ignorance of her subtle feminine rule, he reminded himself that Concha's mind was the child of his own. When she saw his embarrassment, filial duty and woman's wit would extricate them both with grace and avert the enmity of the Russian even though the latter's more personal interest in California must die in his disappointment. He would make her feel the weight of the stern paternal hand, and then indicate the part she had to play.
He rang a bell and directed the servant to summon his daughter, drew himself up to his full height, and set his rugged face in hard lines. As Concha entered he looked the Commandante, the stern disciplinarian, every inch of him.
There was no trace of the siesta in Concha's cheeks. They were very white, but her eyes were steady and her mouth indomitable as she walked down the sala and took the chair Rezanov placed for her. Except for her Castilian fairness, she looked very like the martinet sitting on the other side of the table. The Commandante regarded her silently with brows drawn together. Dimly, he felt apprehension, wondered, in a flash of insight, if girls held fast to the parental recipe, or recombined with tongue in cheek. The bare possibility of resistance almost threw him into panic, but he controlled his features until the effort injected his eyes and drew in his nostrils. Concha regarded him calmly, although her heart beat unevenly, for she dreaded the long strain she foresaw.
"My daughter," said Don Jose finally, his tones harsh with repressed misgiving, "do you suspect why I have sent for you?"
"I think that his excellency wishes to marry me," replied Concha; and the Commandante was so staggered by the calm assurance of her tone and manner that his pent-up emotion exploded.
"Dios!" he roared. "What right have you to know when a man wishes to marry you? What manner of Spanish girl is this? Truly has his excellency said that you are not as other women. The place for you is your room, with bread and water for a week. Sixteen!"
"Ignacio was born when my mother was sixteen," said Concha coolly.
"What of that? She married whom and when she was told to marry."
"I have heard that you serenaded nightly beneath her grating--"
"So did others."
"I have heard that when of all her suitors her father chose one more highly born, a gentleman of the Viceroy's court, she pined until they gave their consent to her marriage with you, lest she die."
"But I was a Catholic! The prejudice against my birth was an unworthy one. I had distinguished myself. And she had the support of the priests."
"It is my misfortune that M. de Rezanov is not a Catholic, but it will make no difference. I shall not fall ill, for I am like you, not like my dear mother--and the education you have given me is very different from hers. But I shall marry his excellency or no one, and whether I marry him or live alone with the thought of him until the end of my mortal days, I do not believe that my soul will be imperilled in the least."
"You do not!" shouted the irate Spaniard. "How dare you presume to decide such a question for yourself? What does a woman know of love until she marries? It is nothing but a sickening imagination before; and if the man goes, the doctor soon comes."
"You may not have intended--but you have taught me to think for myself. And I have seen others besides M. de Rezanov--the flower of California and more than one fine gentleman from Mexico. I will have none of them. I will marry the man of my choice or no one. It may be that I know naught of love. If you wish, you may think that my choice of a husband is determined by ambition, that I am dazzled with the thought of court life in St. Petersburg, of being the consort of a great and wealthy noble. It matters not. Love or ambition, I shall marry this Russian or I shall never marry at all."
"Mother of God! Mother of God!" Don Jose's face was purple. The veins swelled in his neck. He was the more wroth because he recognized his own daughter and his own handiwork, because he saw that he confronted a Toledo blade, not a woman's brittle will. Concha regarded him calmly.
"If you refuse your consent you will lose me in another way. I may not be able to marry as I wish, but I will have no worldly alternative. I shall join the Third Order of the Franciscans, and enter a convent as soon as one is built in California. To that you cannot withhold your consent, or they no longer would call you El santo."
Don Jose leaped from his chair. "Go to your room!" he thundered. "And do not dare to leave it without my permission--"
But Concha sprang forward and flung herself upon his neck. She rubbed her warm elastic cheek against his own in the manner he loved, and softened her voice. "Papacito mio, papacito mio," she pleaded. "Thou wilt not refuse thy Concha the only thing she has ever begged of thee. And I beg! I beg! Papa mio! I love him! I love him!" And she broke into wild weeping and kissed him frantically, while Rezanov who had followed her plan of attack and resistance in silent admiration, did not know whether he should himself be moved to tears or further admire.
Don Jose pushed her from him with a heavy sob and hastily left the room, oblivious in the confusion of his faculties of the boon he conferred on the lovers. Concha dried her eyes, but her face was deathly pale. It had not been all acting, by any means, and she was beginning to feel the tyranny of sleepless nights; and the joy and wonder of the morning had left her with but a remnant of endurance for the domestic battleground.
"Go," she whispered, as he took her in his arms. "Return for the dance to-night as if nothing had happened--I forgot, there is to be a bull-bear fight in the square. So much the better, for it is in your honor, and you could not well remain away. There is much trouble to come, but in the end we shall win."
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