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Chapter 19

It was ten o'clock when Rezanov, who had supped on the Juno, met Santiago in a sandy valley half a mile from the Presidio and mounted the horse his young friend himself had saddled and brought. The long ride was a silent one. The youth was not talkative at any time, and Rezanov was conscious of little else save an overwhelming desire to see Concha again. One secret of his success in life was his gift of yielding to one energy at a time, oblivious at the moment to aught that might distract or enfeeble the will. To-night, as he rode toward the Mission on as romantic a quest as ever came the way of a lover, the diplomat, the anxious director of a great Company, the representative of one of the mighty potentates of earth, were submerged, forgotten, in the thrilling anticipation of his hour with the woman for whom every fiber of his being yearned.

Nor ever was there more appropriate a setting for one of those inaugural chapters in mating, half appreciated at the time, that glimmer as a sort of morning twilight on mountain tops over the mild undulations of matrimony. The moon rode without a masking cloud across the ambiguous night blue of the California sky, a blue that looks like the fire of strange elements, where the stars glow like silver coals, and out of whose depths intense shadows of blue and black fall; shadows in which all the terrestrial world seems to float and recombine, where houses are ghosts of ancient selves and men but the eidola of forgotten dust. To-night the little estate of Juan Moraga, the most isolated and eastern of the settlement, surrounded by its high white wall, looked as unreal and formless as the blue oval of water and black trees behind it, but Rezanov knew that it enfolded warm and palpitating womanhood and was steeped in the sweetness of Castilian roses.

The riders, who had taken a path far to the east of the Mission dismounted and tied their horses among the willows, then, in their dark cloaks but a part of the shadows, stole toward the wall designed to impress hostile tribes rather than to resist onslaught; at the first warning the settlement invariably fled to the church, where walls were massive and windows high.

In three of Moraga's four walls was a grille, or wicket of slender iron bars, whence the open could be swept with glass, or gun at a pinch; and toward the grille looking eastward went Rezanov as swiftly as the uneven ground would permit. As Concha watched him gather form in the moonlight and saw him jerk his cloak off impatiently, she flung her soft body against the wall and shook the bars with her strong little hands. But when he faced her she was erect and smiling; in a sudden uprush of spirits, almost indifferent. She wore a white gown and a rose in her hair. A rosebush as dense as an arbor spread its prickly arms between herself and the windows of the house.

"Good-evening," she whispered.

Rezanov gave the grill an angry shake. (Santiago had considerately retired.) "Come out," he said peremptorily, "or let me in."

"There is but one gate, senor, and that is directly in front of the house door, that stands open--"

"Then I shall get over the wall--"

"Madre de Dios! You would leave your fine clothes and more on the thorns. My cousin planted those roses not for ornament, but to let the blood of defiant lovers. Not one has come twice--"

"Do you think I came here to talk to you through a grating? I am no serenading Spaniard."

His eyes were blazing. Adobe is not stone. Rezanov took the light bars in both hands and wrenched them out; then, as Concha, divided between laughter and a sudden timidity, would have retreated, he dexterously clasped her neck and drew her head through the embrasure. As Santiago, who had watched Rezanov from a distance with some curiosity, saw his sister's beautiful face emerge from the wall to disappear at once behind another rampart, he turned abruptly on his heel and could have wept as he thought of Pilar Ortego of Santa Barbara. But there was a hope that he would be a cadet of the Southern Company before the year was out, and his parents and hers were indulgent. Even as he sighed, his own impending happiness infused him with an almost patronizing sympathy for the twain with the wall between, and he concealed himself among the willows that they might feel to the full the blessed isolation of lovers. His Pilar presented him with twenty-two hostages, and he lived to enjoy an honorable and prosperous career, but he never forgot that night and the part he had played in one of the poignant and happy hours of his sister's life.

Day and night a great silence reigned in the Mission valley, broken only by the hoot of the owl, the singing of birds, the flight of horses across the plain. Even the low huddle of Mission buildings and the few homes beyond looked an anomaly in that vast quiet valley asleep and unknown for so many centuries in the wide embrace of the hills. Its jewel oasis alone made it acceptable to the Spaniard, but to Rezanov the sandy desert, with its close companionable silences, its cool night air sweet with the light chaste fragrance of the roses, the simple, almost primitive, conditions environing the girl, possessed a power to stir the depths of his emotions as no artful reinforcement to passion had ever done. He forgot the wall. His ego melted in a sense of complete union and happiness. Even when they returned to earth and discussed the dubious future, he was conscious of an odd resignation, very alien in his nature, not only to the barrier but to all the strange conditions of his wooing. He had felt something of this before, although less definitely, and to-night he concluded that she had the gift of clothing the inevitable with the semblance and the sweetness of choice; and wondered how long it would be able to skirt the arid steppes of philosophy.

She told him that she had talked daily with Father Abella. "He will say nothing to admit he is weakening, but I feel sure he has realized not only that our marriage will be for the best interests of California, but that to forbid it would wreck my life; and from this responsibility he shrinks. I can see it in his kind, shrewd, perplexed eyes, in the hesitating inflections of his voice, to say nothing of the poor arguments he advances to mine. What of my father and mother?"

"They look troubled, almost ill, but nothing could exceed their kindness to me, although they have pointedly given me no opportunity to introduce the subject of our marriage again. The Governor makes no sign that he knows of any aspiration of mine above corn, but he informed me to-day that California is doomed to abandonment, that the Indians are hopeless, that Spain will withdraw troops before she will send others, and that the country will either revert to savagery or fall a prey to the first enterprising outsider. As he was in comparison cheerful before, I fancy he apprehends the irresistible appeal of your father's surrender."

Concha nodded. "If my father yields he will see that you have everything else that you wish. He may have advocated meeting your wishes in other respects in order to leave you without excuse to linger, but that argument is not strong enough for the Governor, whereas if he made up his mind to accept you as a son he would throw the whole force of his character and will into the scale; and when he reaches that pitch he wins--with men. I must, must bring you good fortune," she added anxiously. "Marriage with a little California girl--are you sure it will not ruin your career?"

"I can think of nothing that would advantage it more. What are you going to call me?"

"I cannot say Petrovich or Nicolai--my Spanish tongue rebels. I shall call you Pedro. That is a very pretty name with us."

"My own harsh names suit my battered self rather better, but the more Californian you are and remain the happier I shall be. When am I to see your ears? Are they deformed, pointed and furry like a fawn's? Do they stand out? Were all the women of California tattooed in some Indian raid--"

Concha glanced about apprehensively, but not even Santiago was there to see the dreadful deed. With a defiant sweep of her hands she lifted both loops of hair, and two little ears, rosy even in the moonlight, commanded amends and more from penitent lips.

"No man has ever seen them before--since I was a baby; not even my father and brothers," said Concha, trembling between horror and rapture at the tremendous surrender. "You will never remind me of it. Ay yi! promise--Pedro mio!"

"On condition that you promise not to confess it. I should like to be sure that your mind belonged as much to me and as little to others as possible. I do not object to confession--we have it in our church; but remember that there are other things as sacred as your religion."

She nodded. "I understand--better than you understand Romanism. I must confess that I met you to-night, but Father Abella is too discreet to ask for more. It is such blessed memories that feed the soul, and they would fly away on a whisper."


Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton

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