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Chapter 17

The muscles in Dona Ignacia's cheeks fell an inch as she listened, dumbfounded, to the tale her husband poured out. To her simple aristocratic soul Rezanov had loomed too great a personage to dream of mating with a Californian; and as her sharp maternal instinct had recognized his personal probity, even his gallantries had seemed to her no more consequent than the more catholic trifling of his officers.

"Holy Mary!" she whimpered, when her voice came back. "Holy Mary! A heretic! And he would take our Concha from us! And she would go! To St. Petersburg! Ten thousand miles! To the priests with her--now--this very day!"

Concha had thrown herself on her bed in belated hope of siesta, when Malia (Rosa had been sent to the house of Don Mario Sal in the valley) entered with the message that she was to accompany her parents to the Mission at once. She rose sullenly, but in the manifold essentials of a girl's life she had always yielded the implicit obedience exacted by the Californian parent. In a few moments she was riding out of the Presidio beside her father. Dona Ignacia jolted behind in her carreta, a low and clumsy vehicle, on solid wheels and springless, drawn by oxen, and driven by a stable-boy on a mustang. The journey was made in complete silence save for the maledictions addressed to the oxen by the boy, and an occasional "Ay yi!" "Madre de Dios!" "Sainted Mary, but the sun bores a hole in the head," from Dona Ignacia, whose increasing discomfort banished wrath and apprehension for the hour.

Don Jose did not even look at his daughter, but his face was ten years older than in the morning. He had begun dimly to appreciate that she was suffering, and in a manner vastly different from the passionate resentment he had seen her display when the contents of a box from Mexico disappointed her, or she was denied a visit to Monterey. That his best-loved child should suffer tore his own heart, but he merely cursed Rezanov and resolved to do his best to persuade the Governor to yield to his other demands, that California might be rid of him the sooner.

Father Abella was walking down the long outer corridor of the Mission reading his breviary, and praying he might not be diverted from righteousness by the comforting touch of his new habit, when he looked up and saw the party from the presidio floundering over the last of the sand hills. He shuffled off to order refreshments, and returned in time to disburden the carreta of Dona Ignacia--no mean feat--volubly delighted in the visit and the gossip it portended. But as he offered his arm to lead her into the sala, she pushed him aside and pointed to Concha, who had sprung to the ground unassisted.

"She has come to confess, padre!" she exclaimed, her mind, under the deep tiled roof of the corridor, readjusting itself to tragedy. "I beg that you will take her at once. Padre Landaeta can give us chocolate and we will tell our terrible news to him and receive advice and consolation."

Father Abella, not without a glimmering of the truth, for better than any one he understood the girl he had confessed many times, besides himself having succumbed to the Russian, led the way to the confessional in some perturbation of spirit. He walked slowly, hoping that the long, cool church, its narrow high windows admitting so scant a meed of sunlight that no one of its worshippers had ever read the legends on the walls, and even the stations were but deeper bits of shade, would attune her mind to holy things, and throw a mantle of unreality over those of the world.

He covered his face with his hand as she told her story. This she did in a few words, disjointed, for she was both tired and seething. For a few moments afterward there was a silence; the good priest was increasingly disturbed and by no means certain of his course. He was astonished to feel a tug at his sleeve. Before he could reprove this impenitent child for audacity she had raised herself that she might approach her lips more closely to his ear.

"Mi padre!" she whispered hoarsely, "you will take my part! You will not condemn me to a life of misery! I am too proud to speak openly to others --but I love this man more than my soul--more than my immortal soul. Do you hear? I am in danger of mortal sin. Perhaps I am already in that state. You cannot save me if he goes. I will not pray. I will not come to the church. I will be an outcast. If I marry him, I will be a good Catholic to the end of my days. If I marry him I can think of other things besides--of my church, my father, my mother, my sisters, brothers. If he goes, I shall pass my life thinking of nothing but him, and if it be true that heretics are doomed to hell, then I will live so that I may go to hell with him."

In spite of his horror the priest was thrilled by the intense passion in the voice so close to his ear. Moreover, he knew women well, this good padre, for even in California they differed little from those that played ball with the world. So he dismissed the horror and spoke soothingly.

"What you have said would be mortal sin, my daughter, were it not that you are laboring under strong and natural excitement; and I shall absolve you freely when you have done the penance I must impose. You have always been such a good child that I am able to forgive you even in this terrible moment. But, my daughter, surely you know that this marriage can never take place--"

"It shall! It shall!"

"Control yourself, my daughter. You cannot bring this man into the true church. His character is long since formed and cast--it is iron. Even love will not melt it. Were he younger--"

"I should hate him. All young men are insufferable to me--always have been. I have found my mate, and have him I will if I have to hide in the hold of his ship. Ah, padre mio, I know not what I say. But you will help me. Only you can. My father thinks you as wise as a saint. And there are other things--my head turns round--I can hardly think--but you dare not lose the friendship of this Russian. And my marriage to him would be as much for the good of the Missions as for California herself. Champion our course, point out that not only would it be a great match for me, but that many ends would be lost by ruining my life. The Governor will find himself in a position to grant your prayers for the cargo, particularly if you first persuaded my father--so long they have been friends, the Governor could not resist if he joined our forces. What is one girl that she should be held of greater account than the welfare of this country to which you are devoting your life? The happier are your converts, the more kindly will they take to Christianity--which they do not love as yet!--the more faithful and contented will they be, in the prospect of the luxuries and the toys and the trinkets of the Russian north. What is one girl against the friendship of Russia for Spain? Who am I that I should weigh a peseta in the scale?"

"You are Concha Arguello, the flower of all the maidens in California, and the daughter of the best of our men," replied Father Abella musingly. "And until to-day there has been no Catholic more devout--"

"It lies with you, mi padre, whether I continue to be the best of Catholics or become the most abandoned of heretics. You know me better than anyone. You know that I will not weaken and bend and submit, like a thousand other women. I could be bad--bad--bad--and I will be! Do you hear?" And she shook his arm violently, while her hoarse voice filled the church.

"My child! My child! I have always believed that you had it in you to become a saint. Yes, yes, I feel the strength and maturity of your nature, I know the lengths to which it might lead another; but you could not be bad, Conchita. I have known many women. In you alone have I perceived the capacity for spiritual exaltation. You are the stuff of which saints and martyrs are made. The violent will, the transcendent passions--they have existed in the greatest of our saints, and been conquered."

"I will not conquer. I--Oh, padre--for the love of heaven--"

He left the box hastily and lifted her where she had fallen and carried her into the room adjoining the church. He laid her on the floor, and ran for Dona Ignacia, who, refreshed with wine and chocolate, came swiftly. But when Concha, under practical administrations and maternal endearments, finally opened her eyes, she pushed her mother coldly aside, rose and steadied herself against the wall for a moment, then returned to the church, closing the door behind her.

When a woman has borne thirteen children in the lost corners of the world, with scarce a thought in thirty years for aught else save the husband and his comforts, it is not to be expected that her wits should be rapiers or her vocabulary distinguished. But Dona Ignacia's unresting heart had an intelligence of its own, and no inner convulsion could alter the superb dignity of mien which Nature had granted her. As she rose and confronted Father Abella he moved forward with the instinct to kiss her hand, as he had seen Rezanov do.

"Mi padre," she said, "Concha is the first of my children to push me aside, and it is like a blow on the heart; but I have neither anger nor resentment, for it was not the act of a child to its parent, but of one woman to another. Alas! this Russian, what has he done, when her own mother can give her no comfort? We all love when young, but this is more. I loved Jose so much I thought I should die when they would have compelled me to marry another. But this is more. She will not die, nor even go to bed and weep for days, but it is more. I should not have died, I know that now, and in time I should have married another, and been as happy as a woman can be when the man is kind. Concha will love but once, and she will suffer--suffer--She may be more than I, but I bore her and I know. And she cannot marry him. A heretic! I no longer think of the terrible separation. Were he a Catholic I should not think of myself again. But it cannot be. Oh, padre, what shall we do?"

They talked for a long while, and after further consultation with Don Jose and Father Landaeta, it was decided that Concha should remain for the present in the house of Juan Moraga, where she could receive the daily counsels of the priests, and be beyond the reach of Rezanov. Meanwhile, all influence would be brought to bear upon the Governor that the Russian might be placated even while made to realize that to loiter longer in California waters would be but a waste of precious time.


Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton

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