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Chapter 23

Life was very gay for a fortnight. An hour after the Commandante's surrender he had despatched invitations to all the young folk of the gente de razon of Monterey, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and to such of the older as would brave the long journeys. The Monterenos had arrived for the Mission entertainment, and during the next few days the rest poured over the hills: De la Guerras, Xime'nos, Estudillos, Carrillos, Este'negas, Morenos, Cotas, Estradas, Picos, Pachecos, Lugos, Orte'gas, Alvarados, Bandinis, Peraltas, members of the Luis, Rodriguez, Lopez families, all of gentle blood, that made up the society of Old California; as gay, arcadian, irresponsible, yet moral a society as ever fluttered over this planet. Every house in the Presidio and valley, every spare room at the Mission, opened to them with the exuberant hospitality of the country. The caballeros had their finest wardrobes of collored silks and embroidered botas, sombreros laden with silver, fine lawn and lace, jewel and sash, velvet serape for the chill of the late afternoon. The matrons brought their stiff robes of red and yellow satin, the girls as many flowered silks and lawns, mantillas and rebosos, as the family carretas would hold. The square of the Presidio was crowded from morning until midnight with the spirited horses of the country, prancing impatiently under the heavy Mexican saddle, heavier with silver, made a trifle more endurable by the blanket of velvet or cloth. No Californian walked a dozen rods when he had a horse to carry him.

But the horses were not always champing in the square. There was more than one bull-bear fight, and twice a week at least they carried their owners to the hills of the Mission ranch, or the rocky cliffs and gorges above Yerba Buena, the Indian servants following with great baskets of luncheon, perhaps roasting an ox whole in a trench. This the Californians called barbecue and the picnic merienda.

There was dancing day and night, the tinkling of guitars, flirting of fans. Rezanov vowed he would not have believed there were so many fans and guitars in the world, and suddenly remembered he had never seen Concha with either. The lady of his choice reigned supreme. Many had taken the long blistering journey for no other purpose than to see the famous beauty and her Russian; the engagement was as well known as if cried from the Mission top. The girls were surprised and delighted to find Concha sweet rather than proud and envied her with amiable enthusiasm. The caballeros, fewer in number, for most of the men in California at that period before a freer distribution of land were on duty in the army, artfully ignored the unavowed bond, but liked Rezanov when he took the trouble to charm them.

Khostov and Davidov watched the loading of the Juno with a lively regret. Never had they enjoyed themselves more, nor seen so many pretty girls in one place. Both had begun by falling in love with Concha, and although they rebounded swiftly from the blow to their hopes, it happily saved them from a more serious dilemma; unwealthed and graceless as they were, they would have been regarded with little favor by the practical California father. As it was, their pleasures were unpoisoned by regrets or rebuffs. When they were not flirting in the dance or in front of a lattice, receiving a lesson in Spanish behind the portly back of a duena, or clasping brown little fingers under cover of a fan when all eyes were riveted on the death struggle of a bull and a bear, they were playing cards and drinking in the officers' quarters; which they liked almost as well. It is true they sometimes paid the price in a cutting rebuke from their chief, but the rebukes were not as frequent as in less toward circumstances, and were generally followed by some fresh indulgence. This, they uneasily guessed, was not only the result of the equable state of his excellency's temper, but because he had a signal unpleasantness in store, and would not hazard their resignation. They had taken advantage of an imperial ukase to enter the service of the Russian-American Company temporarily, and they knew that if they evaded any behest of Rezanov's their adventurous life in the Pacific would be over. Therefore, although they re- sented his implacable will, they pulled with him in outward amity; and indeed there were few of the Juno's human freight that did not look back upon that California springtime as the episode of their lives, commonly stormy or monotonous, in which the golden tide flowed with least alloy. Even Langsdorff, although impervious to female charms and with scientific thirst unslaked, enjoyed the Spanish fare and the society of the priests. The sailors received many privileges, attended bull-fights and fandangos, loved and pledged; and were only restrained from emigration to the interior of this enchanted land of pretty girls and plentiful food by the knowledge of the sure and merciless vengeance of their chief. Had the rumor of war still held it might have been otherwise, but that raven had flown off to the limbo of its kind, and the Commandante let it be known that deserters would be summarily captured and sent in irons to the Juno.

In the mind of Concha Arguello there was never a lingering doubt of the quality of that fortnight between the days of torturing doubts and acute emotional upheaval, and the sailing away of Rezanov. It was true that what he banteringly termed her romantic sadness possessed her at times, but it served as a shadow to throw into sharper relief an almost incredible happiness. If she seldom saw Rezanov alone there was the less to disturb her, and at least he was never far from her side. There were always the delight of unexpected moments unseen, whispered words in the crowd, the sense of complete understanding, broken now and again by poignant attacks of unreasoning jealousy, not only on her part but his; quite worth the reconciliation at the lattice, while Elena Castro, gentle duena, pitched her voice high and amused her husband so well he sought no opportunity for response.

Then there was more than one excursion about the bay on the Juno, dinner on La Bellissima or Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, a long return after sundown that the southerners might appreciate the splendor of the afterglow when the blue of the water was reflected in the lower sky, to melt into the pink fire above, and all the land swam in a pearly mist.

Once the Commandante took twenty of his guests, a gay cavalcade, to his rancho, El Pilar, thirty miles to the south: a long valley flanked by the bay and the eastern mountains on the one hand, and a high range dense with forests of tall thin trees on the other. But the valley itself was less Californian than any part of the country Rezanov had seen. Smooth and flat and free of undergrowth and set with at least ten thousand oaks, it looked more like a splendid English park, long preserved, than the recent haunt of naked savages. There were deer and quail in abundance, here and there an open field of grain. Long beards of pale green moss waved from the white oaks, wild flowers, golden red and pale blue, burst underfoot. There were hedges of sweet briar, acres of lupins, purple and yellow. Altogether the ideal estate of a nobleman; and Rezanov, who had liked nothing in California so well, gave his imagination rein and saw the counterpart of the castle of his ancestors rise in the deep shade of the trees.

Don Jose's house was a long rambling adobe, red tiled, with many bedrooms and one immense hall. Beyond were a chapel and a dozen outbuildings. Dinner was served in patriarchal style in the hall, the Commandante--or El padrone as he was known here--and his guests at the upper end of the table; below the salt, the vaqueros, their wives and children, and the humble friar who drove them to prayer night and morning. The friar wore his brown robes, the vaqueros their black and silver and red in honor of the company, their women glaring handkerchiefs of green or red or yellow about their necks, even pinned back and front on their shapeless garments; and affording a fine vegetable garden contrast to the delicate flower bed surrounding the padrone.

There was a race track on the ranch and many fine horses. After siesta the company mounted fresh steeds and rode off to applaud the feats of the vaqueros, who, not content with climbing the greased pole, wrenching the head of an unfortunate rooster from his buried body as they galloped by, submitting the tail of an oiled pig in full flight to the same indignity, gave when these and other native diversions were exhausted, such exhibitions of riding and racing as have never been seen out of California. As lithe as willow wands, on slender horses as graceful as themselves, they looked like meteors springing through space, and there was no trick of the circus they did not know by instinct, and translate from gymnastics into poetry. Even Rezanov shared the excitement of the shouting, clapping Californians, and Concha laughed delightedly when his cap waved with the sombreros.

"I think you will make a good Californian in time," she said as they rode homeward.

"Perhaps," said Rezanov musingly. His eyes roved over the magnificent estate and at the moment they entered a portion of it that deepened to woods, so dense was the undergrowth, so thick the oak trees. Here there was but a glimpse, now and again, of the mountains swimming in the dark blue mist of the late afternoon, the moss waved thickly from the ancient trees; over even the higher branches of many rolled a cascade of small brittle leaves, with the tempting opulence of its poisonous sap. The path was very abrupt, cut where the immense spreading trees permitted, and Rezanov and Concha had no difficulty in falling away from the chattering, excited company.

"Tell me your ultimate plans, Pedro mio," said Concha softly. "You are dreaming of something this moment beyond corn and treaties."

"Do you want that final proof?" he asked, smiling. "Well, if I could not trust you that would be the end of everything, and I know that I can. I have long regarded California as an absolutely necessary field of supplies, and since I have come here I will frankly say that could I, as the representative of the Tsar in all this part of the world, make it practically my own, I should be content in even a permanent exile from St. Petersburg. I could attract an immense colony here and in time import libraries and works of art, laying the foundation of a great and important city on that fine site about Yerba Buena. But now that these kind people have practically adopted me I cannot repay their hospitality by any overt act of hostility. I must be content either slowly to absorb the country, in which case I shall see no great result in my lifetime, or--and for this I hope--what with the mess Bonaparte is making of Europe, every state may be at the others' throat before long, including Russia and Spain. At all events, a cause for rupture would not be far to seek, and it would need no instigation of mine to despatch a fleet to these shores. In that case I should be sent with it to take possession in the name of the Tsar, and to deal with these simple, kind--and inefficient people, my dear girl--as no other Russian could. They cannot hold this country. Spain could not--would not, at all events, for she has not troops enough here to protect a territory half its size--hold it against even the 'Americans,' should they in time feel strong enough to push their way across the western wilderness. It is the destiny of this charming Arcadia to disappear; and did Russia forego an opportunity to appropriate a domain that offers her literally everything except civilization, she would be unworthy of her place among nations. Moreover--a beneficent triumph impossible to us otherwise--with a powerful and flourishing colony up and down this coast, and sending breadstuffs regularly to our other possessions in these waters until the natives, immigrants, and exiles were healthy, vitalized beings, it would be but a question of a few years before we should force open the doors of China and Japan." He caught Concha from her horse and strained her to him in the mounting ardor of his plunge down the future. "You must resent nothing!" he cried. "You must cease to be a Spanish woman when you become my wife, and help me as only you can in those inevitable years I have mapped out; and not so much for myself as for Russia. My enemies have sought to persuade three sovereigns that I am a visionary, but I have already accomplished much that met with resentment and ridicule when I broached it. And I know my powers! I tingle with the knowledge of my ability to carry to a conclusion every plan I have thought worth the holding when the ardor of conception was over. I swear to you that death alone--and I believe that nothing is further aloof--shall prevent my giving this country to Russia before five years have passed, and within another brief span the trade of China and Japan. It is a glorious destiny for a man--one man!--to pass into history as the Russian of his century who has done most to add to the extent and the wealth and the power of his empire! Does that sound vainglorious, and do you resent it? You must not, I tell you, you must not!"

Concha had never seen him in such a mood. Although he held her so closely that the horses were angrily biting each other, she felt that for once there was nothing personal in his ardor. His eyes were blazing, but they stared as if a great and prophetic panorama had risen in this silent wood, where the long faded moss hung as motionless as if by those quiet waters that even the most ardent must cross in his time. She felt his heart beat as she had felt it before against her soft breast, but she knew that if he thought of her at all it was but as a part of himself, not as the woman he impatiently desired. But she was sensible of no resentment, either for herself or her race, which, indeed, she knew to be but a wayfarer in the wilderness engaged in a brief chimerical enterprise. For the first time she felt her individuality melt into, commingle with his: and when he lowered his gaze, still with that intensity of vision piercing the future, her own eyes reflected the impersonalities of his; and in time he saw it.


Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton

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