As Rezanov, heading the procession with young Arguello, entered the wide gates of the Presidio, he received an impression memorably different from that which led earlier travelers to describe it inclemently as a large square surrounded by mud houses, thatched with reeds. It is true that the walls were of adobe and the roofs of tule, nor was there a tree on the sand hills encircling the stronghold. But in this early springtime--the summer of the peninsula--the hills showed patches of verdure, and all the low white buildings were covered by a network of soft dull green and archaic pink. The Castilian rose, full and fluted, and of a chaste and penetrating fragrance, hung singly and in clusters on the pillars of the dwellings, on the barracks and chapel, from the very roofs; bloomed upon bushes as high as young trees. The Presidio was as delicately perfumed as a lady's bower, and its cannon faced the ever-changing hues of water and island and hill.
As the party approached, heads of all ages appeared between the vines, and there was a low murmur of irrepressible curiosity and delight.
"We do not see many strangers in this lonely land," said Arguello apologetically. "And never before have we had so distinguished a guest as your excellency. It was always a gala day when ever a Boston skipper came in with a few bales of goods and a complexion like the hides we sold him. Now, alas! they are no longer permitted to enter our ports. Governor Arrillaga will have none of contraband trade and slaying of our otter. And as for Europeans other than Spaniards, save for an English sea captain now and then, they know naught of our existence."
But Rezanov had not come to California on the impulse of a moment. He replied suavely: "There you are mistaken. Your illustrious father, Don Jose Mario de Arguello, is well known to us as the most respected, eminent and influential character in the Californias. It was my intention, after paying a visit of ceremony to his excellency, Governor Arrillaga, to come to San Francisco for the sole purpose of meeting a man whose record has inspired me with the deepest interest. And we have all heard such wonderful tales of your California, of its beauty, its fertility, of the beneficent lives of your missionaries--so different from ours--and of the hospitality and elegance of the Spaniards, that it has been the objective point of my travels, and I have found it difficult to curb my impatience while attending to imperative duties elsewhere."
"Ay! senor!" exclaimed the young Californian. "What you say fills me with a pride I cannot express, and I can only regret that the reports of our poor habitations should be so sadly exaggerated. Such as our possessions are, however, they are yours while you deign to remain in our midst. This is my father's house. I beg that you will regard it as your own. Burn it if you will!" he cried with more enthusiasm than commonly enlivened the phrases of hospitality. "He will be proud to know that a lifetime of severe attention to duty and of devotion to his King have won him fame abroad as well as at home. He has risen to his present position from the ranks, but he is of pure Spanish blood, not a drop of Indian; and my mother was a Moraga, of the best blood of Spain," he added artlessly. "As to the beauty and variety of our country, senor, of course you will visit our opulent south; but--" They had dismounted at the Commandante's house in the southeast corner of the square. Arguello impulsively led Rezanov back to the gates and pointed to the east. "I have crossed those mountains and the mountains beyond, Excellency, and seen fertile and beautiful valleys of a vast extent, watered by five rivers and bound far, far away by mountains covered with snow and gigantic trees. The valley beyond the southern edge of the bay, where the Missions of Santa Clara and San Jose are, is also rich, but those between the ranges is an empire; and one day when the King sends us more colonists, we shall recompense Spain for all she has lost."
"I congratulate you!" Rezanov, indifferent to his host's ancestral tree, had lifted an alert ear. His quick incisive brain was at work. "I should like to stretch my legs over a horse for a week at a time, and even to climb your highest mountains. You may imagine how much exercise a man may get on a vessel of two hundred and six tons, and it is thirty-two days since I left Sitka. To look upon a vast expanse of green--to say nothing of possible sport--after a winter of incessant rain and impenetrable forests--what a prospect! I beg you will take me off into the wilderness as soon as possible."
"I promise you the Governor shall not withhold his consent--and there are bear and deer--quail, wild duck--your excellency will enjoy that beautiful wild country as I have done." Arguello was enchanted at the prospect of fresh adventure in the company of this fascinating stranger. "But we are once more at our poor abode, senor. I beg you to remember that it is your own."
They ascended the steps of the piazza, suddenly deserted, and it seemed to Rezanov that every sense in his being quivered responsively to the poignant sweetness of the Castilian roses. He throbbed with a sudden exultant premonition that he stood on the threshold of an historic future, with a pagan joy in mere existence, a sudden rush of desire for the keen wild happiness of youth. Such is the elixir of California in the north and the spring.
They entered a long sala typical of its day and of many to come; whitewashed walls hung with colored prints of the Virgin and saints; horsehair furniture, matting, deep window seats; and a perennial coolness. The Chamberlain (his court title and the one commonly attached to his name) made himself as comfortable as the slippery chair would permit, and Arguello went for his mother.
Langsdorff, who had lingered on the piazza with the priest, entered in a moment.
"The good padre tells me that this rose of Castile is the only imported flower in California," he cried, with enthusiasm, for although not a botanist, there was a bump between his eyes as big as a child's fist and he had a nose like the prow of a toy ship. "Many cuttings were brought from Spain--"
"What difference does it make where it came from?" interrupted Rezanov testily. "Is it not enough that it is beautiful, but it must have a pin stuck through it like some poor devil of a butterfly?"
"Your excellency has also the habit to probe into things he deems worthy of his attention," retorted the offended scientist; but he was obliged to closet his wrath. An inner door opened and the host reappeared with his mother and a fair demonstration of her virtues. She was a very large woman dressed loosely in black, but she carried herself with an air of complete, if somewhat sleepy, dignity, and it was evident that her beauty had been great. Her full face had lost its contours, but time had spared the fine Roman nose and the white skin, that birthright of the high-bred Castilian. Arguello presented his family ceremoniously as the guest of honor rose and bowed with formal deference.
"My mother, Dona Ignacia Arguello, your excellency, who unites with me in praying that you will regard our home as yours during your sojourn in the north. My sister, Maria de la Concepcion Marcella Arguello, and my little sisters, Ana Paula and Gertrudis Rudisinda. My brothers: Gervasio--soldado distinguido of the San Francisco Company; Santiago, a cadet in the same company; Francesco and Toribio, whose presence at the table I beg you will overlook, for when we are so fortunate as to be all together, senor, we cannot bear to be separated. My oldest brother, alas--Ignacio--is studying for holy orders in Mexico, and my sister Isabel visits at the Presidio of Santa Barbara. I beg that you will be seated, Excellency." And he continued the introduction to the lesser luminaries, with equal courtesy but fewer periods.
Rezanov exchanged a few pleasant words with his smiling hostess before she returned to her distracted maids preparing the dinner; but his eyes during Arguello's declamation had wandered with a singular fidelity to the beautiful face of the eldest daughter of the house. She had responded with a humorous twinkle in her magnificent black eyes and not a hint of diffidence. As she entered the room his brain had flashed out the thought: "Thank heaven for a pretty girl after these three abominable years!" Possibly his pleasure would have been salted with pique had he guessed that her thought was the twin of his own. He was the first man of any world more considerable than the petty court of the viceroy of Mexico that had visited California in her time, and excellent as she found his tall military figure and pale cold face, the novelty of the circumstance fluttered her more.
Dona "Concha" Arguello was the beauty of California, and although her years were but sixteen her blood was Spanish, and she carried her tall deep figure and fine head with the grace and dignity of an accomplished woman. She had inherited the white skin and delicate Roman-Spanish profile of the Moragas, but there was an intelligent fire in her eyes, a sharp accentuation of nostril, and a full mobility of mouth, childish, half-developed as that feature still was, that betrayed a strong cross-current forcing the placid maternal flow into rugged and unexplored channels, while assimilating its fine qualities of pride and high breeding. Gervasio and Santiago resembled their sister in coloring and profile, but lacked her subtle quality of personality and divine innocence. Luis was more the mother's son than the father's--saving his olive skin; a grandee, modified by the simplicities of a soldier's life, amiable and upright. Dona Ignacia recognized in Concha the quintessence of the two opposing streams, and had long since ceased to impose upon a girl who had little else but her liberties, the conventional restrictions of the Spanish maiden. Concha had already received many offers of marriage and regarded men as mere swingers of incense. Moreover, her cultivated mind was filled with ideals and ideas far beyond anything California would yield in her day.
As Rezanov, upon Dona Ignacia's retreat, walked directly over to her, she smilingly seated herself on a sofa and swept aside her voluminous white skirts. She was not sure that she liked him, but in no doubt whatever of her delight at his advent.
Her manners were very simple and artless, as are the manners of most women whom Nature has gifted with complexity and depth.
"It is now two years and more that we have been excited over the prospect of this visit," she said. "But if you will tell me what you have been doing all this time, I, at least, will forgive you; for you will never be able to imagine, senor, how I long to hear of the great world. I stare at the map, then at the few pictures we have. I know many books of travel by heart; but I am afraid my imagination is a poor one, for I cannot conjure up great cities filled with people--thousands of people! DIOS DE MI ALMA! A world where there is something besides mountains and water, grain fields, orchards, forests, earthquakes, and climate? Will you, senor?"
"For quite as many hours as you will listen to me. I propose a compact. You shall improve my Spanish. I will impart all I know of Europe--and of Asia--if your curiosity reaches that far."
"Even of Japan?" There was a wicked spark in her eye.
"I see you already have some knowledge of the cause of my delay." His voice was even, but a wound smarted. "It is quite true, senorita, that the first embassy to Japan, from which we hoped so much, was a humiliating failure, and that I was played with for six months by a people whom we had regarded as a nation of monkeys. When my health began to suffer from the long confinement on shipboard--we had previously been fourteen months at sea--and I asked to be permitted to live on shore while my claims to an audience were under consideration, I was removed with my suite to a cage on a strip of land nearly surrounded with water, where I had less liberty and exercise than on shipboard. Finally, I had a ridiculous interview with a 'great man,' in which I accomplished nothing but the preservation of what personal dignity a man may while sitting on his heels; the superb presents of the Tsar were returned to me, and I was politely told to leave. Japan wanted neither the friendship of Russia nor her gimcracks. That, senorita, is the history of the first Russian Embassy--for the tentative visit of Adam Lanxmann, twelve years before, can be dignified by no such title--to Oriental waters. It is to be hoped that Count Golofkin, who was to undertake a similar mission to China, has met with a better fate."
Underneath the polished armour of a man who was a courtier when he chose and the dominating spirit always, he was hot and quick of temper. His light cold eyes glowed with resentment at the dancing lights in hers, as he cynically gave her a bald abstract of the unfortunate mission. He reflected that commonly he would have fitted a different mask to the ugly skull of fact, but this young barbarian, as he chose to regard her, excited the elemental truth in him, defying him to appear at his worst. He was astonished to see her eyes suddenly soften and her mouth tremble.
"It must have been a hateful experience--hateful!" Her voice, beginning on its usual low soft note, rose to a hoarse pitch of indignation. "I should have killed somebody! To be a man, and strong, and caressed all one's life by fortune--and to be as helpless as an Indian! Madre de dios!"
"I shall take my revenge," said Rezanov shortly; but the wound closed, and once more he became aware of the poignant sweetness of Castilian roses. Concha wore one in her soft dusky hair, and another where the little round jacket of white linen, gaily embroidered with pink, met on her bosom. But if sentiment tempted him he was quickly poised by her next remarks. She uttered them in a low tone, although the animated conversation of the rest of the party would have permitted the two on the sofa to exchange the vows of love unheard.
"But what a practice for your diplomatic talents, Excellency! Poor California! At least let me be the first to hear what you have come for?" Her voice dropped to a soft cooing note, although her eyes twinkled. "For the love of God, senor! I am so bored in this life on the edge of the world! To see the seams and ravelings of a diplomatic intrigue! I have read and heard of many, but never had I hoped to link my finger in anything subtler than a quarrel between priest and Governor, or the jealousy of Los Angeles for Monterey. I even will help you--if you mean no harm to my father or my country. And I am not a friend to scorn, senor, for my blessed father is as wax in my hands, the dear old Governor adores me, and even Padre Abella, who thinks himself a great diplomat, and is watching us out of the corner of his eye, while I make him believe you pay me so many compliments my poor little head turns round--Bueno senor!" As she raised her voice she plucked the rose from her dress and tossed it to Rezanov. Then she lifted her chin and pouted her childish lips at the ironical smile of the priest.
Rezanov was close to betraying his surprise; but as he cherished a belief that the souls of all pretty women went to school to the devil before entering upon earthly enterprise, he wondered that he had been open to the illusion of complete ingenuousness in a descendant of one of the oldest and subtlest civilizations of earth. Within that luminous shell of youth there were, no doubt, whispering memories of men and women steeped in court intrigue from birth, of triumphant beauties that had lived for love and their power over the passions of men as ardent as himself. It was quite possible that she might be as useful as she desired. But his impulses were in leash. He merely looked and murmured his admiration.
"Better ask, what chance have I, a defenceless man, who has not seen a charming woman for three years, against such practised art? If you can hoodwink a Spanish priest, and manipulate a Governor who has won the confidence of the most suspicious court in Europe, what fortune for a barbarian of the north? Less than with Japan, I should think."
He divested the rose of its thorns and many tight little buds, and thrust the stem underneath the star of St. Ann. She lifted her chin again and tossed her head.
"You do not trust me, but you will. I fancy it will be before long--for it is quite true that the Californians are not so easily outwitted. And--even did I not help you, I would not--I vow, senor!--betray you. Is it true that Russia is at war with Spain?"
"Have you not heard? It was for that we were all so excited this morning. We thought your ship might be the first of a fleet."
"I have heard no such rumor, and you may dismiss it. Russia is too much occupied with Napoleon Bonaparte, who has had himself crowned Emperor, and by this time is probably at war with half Europe--"
She interrupted him with flashing eye. The pink in her cheeks had turned red. The thin nostrils of her pretty Roman nose fluttered like paper. "Ah!" she exclaimed, again with that note of hoarseness in her voice. "There is a great man, not a mere king on a throne his ancestors made for him. Papa hates him because he has seized a throne. AY YI! DIOS, but you should hear the words fly when we go to war together. But I do not care that"--she snapped her firm white fingers--"for all the Bourbons that are in Europe. Bonaparte! Do you know him? Have you seen him?"
"I have seen him insult poor Markov, our ambassador to France, when I can assure you that he looked like neither a demi-god nor a gentleman. When you have improved my Spanish I will tell you many anecdotes of him. Meanwhile, am I to as- sume that you reserve your admiration for the man that carves his career in defiance of the rusty old machinery?"
"I do! I do! My father was of the people, a poor boy. He has risen to be the most powerful of all Californians, although the King he adores never makes him Gobernador Proprietario. I tell him he should be the first to recognize the genius and the ambitions of a Bonaparte. The mere thought horrifies him. But in me that same strong plebeian blood makes another cry, and if my father had but enough men at his back, and the will to make himself King of the Californias--Madre de Dios! how I should help him!"
"At least I know her better than she knows me," thought Rezanov, as the inner door was thrown open and another bare room with a long table laden with savory food on a superb silver service was revealed. "And if I know anything of women, I can trust her--for as long as she may be necessary, at all events."
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