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Chapter 3

"Santiago!" whispered Concha. "Do not go down to the ship. Take me for a walk. I have much to say."

Santiago, who had not been asked to form one of the escort upon the return of the Russians to the Juno for the night, felt injured and sulky and deigned no reply.

"If you do not, I'll not braid your hair to-morrow," said his sister, giving his arm a little shake; and he succumbed. The luxuriant tresses of the male Arguellos were combed and braided and tied with a ribbon every morning by the women of the family, and Concha's fingers were the gentlest and deftest. And Concha and Santiago were more intimate than even the rest of that united family. They had studied and read together, were equally dissatisfied with their narrow existence, ambitious for a wider experience. Santiago consoled himself with cards and training roosters for battle, and otherwise as a man may. He was but fifteen, this haughty, severe-looking young hidalgo, but while in some respects many years older than his sister, in others he was younger, for he possessed none of her illuminating instinct.

She led him through a postern gate, round the first of the dunes, and they were alone in a waste of sand. She demanded abruptly:

"What do you think of our illustrious visitor?"

"I like him. He would wring your neck if you got in his way, but has a kind heart for those that call him master. I like that sort of a man. I wish he would take me away with him."

"He shall--one of these days. Santiago mio, let me whisper--" She pulled his ear down to her lips. "He will marry me. I feel it. I know it. He has talked to me the whole day. He has told me grave secrets. Not even to you would I reveal them. So many have loved me--why should not he? I shall live in St. Petersburg, and see all Europe!--thousands of people--Dios mio! Dios mio!"

"Indeed!" Santiago, still unamiable, responded to this confidence with a sneer. "You aspire very high for a little girl of the wilderness, without fortune, and only half a coat-of-arms, so to speak. Do you know that this Rezanov--Dr. Langsdorff has told us all about him--is a great noble, one of the ten barons of Russia, and a Chamberlain in accordance with a decree of Peter the Great that court titles should be bestowed as a reward for distinguished services alone? He got a fortune in his youth by marriage with a daughter of Shelikov--that Siberian who founded the Russian colonies in America. The wife died almost immediately, but the Baron's influence remained with Shelikov--for his influence at court was even greater--and after the older man's death, with his mother-in-law, who is uncommonly clever. Shelikov's schemes were but little sketches beside Rezanov's, who from merely a courtier and a gay blood about town developed into a great man of business, with an ambition to correspond. It was he who got the Imperial ukase that gave the Russian-American Company its power to squeeze all the other fur hunters and traders out of the northeast, and made Rezanov and everybody belonging to it so rich your head would swim if I told you the number of doubloons they spend in a year. Nobody has ever been so clever at managing those old beasts of autocrats as he. They think him merely the accomplished courtier, a brilliant dilettante, a condescending patron of art and letters, a devotee of pleasure, and all the time he is pulling their befuddled old brains about to suit himself. The Tsar Paul was a lunatic and they murdered him, but meanwhile he signed the ukase. The Tsar Alexander, who is not so bad nor so silly as the others, thinks there is no man so clever as Rezanov, who addresses him personally when sending home his reports. Do you know what all that means? Your plenipotentiary is not only a Chamberlain at court, a Privy Councillor, and the Tsar himself on this side of the world, but when his inspections and reforms are concluded, and he is one of the wealthiest men in Russia, he will return to St. Petersburg and become so high and mighty that a princess would snap at him. And you aspire! I never heard such nonsense."

"His excellency told me much of this," replied Concha imperturbably. "And I am sure that he cares nothing for princesses and will marry whom he most admires. He would not say, but I know he cared nothing for that poor little wife, dead so long ago. It was a mariage de convenance, such as all the great world is accustomed to. He will love me more than all the fine ladies he has ever seen. I feel it. I know it! And I am quite happy."

"Do you love him?" asked Santiago, looking curiously at his sister's flushed and glowing face. It seemed to him that she had never looked so young. "Many have loved you. I had begun to think you had no heart for men, no wish for anything but admiration. And now you give your heart in a day to this Russian--who must be nearly forty--unasked."

"I have not thought of my heart at all. But I could love him, of course. He is so handsome, so kind, so grand, so gay! But love is for men and wives--has not my mother said so? Now I think only of St. Petersburg! of Paris! of London! of the beautiful gowns and jewels I shall wear at court --a red velvet train as long as a queen's, and all embroidered with gold, a white veil spangled with gold, a head-dress a foot high studded with jewels, ropes of diamonds and pearls--I made him tell me how the great ladies dressed. Ah! there is the pleasure of being a girl--to think and dream of all those beautiful things, not of when the wife must live always for the husband and children. That comes soon enough. And why should I not have all!--there is so little in life for the girl. It seems to me now that I have had nothing. When he asks me to marry him he will tell me of the fine things I shall have and the great sights I shall witness--the ceremonies at court, the winter streets--with snow--snow, Santiago!--where the great nobles drive four horses through the drifts like little hills, and are wrapped in furs like bears! The grand military parades--how I shall laugh when I think of our poor little Presidios with their dozen officers strutting about--" She stopped abruptly and bursting wildly into tears flung herself into her brother's arms. "But I never could leave you! And my father! my mother! all! all! Ay, Dios de mi alma! what an ingrate I am! I should die of homesickness! My Santiago! My Santiago!"

Santiago patted her philosophically. "You are not going to-morrow," he reminded her. "Don't cross your bridges until you come to them. That is a good proverb for maids and men. You might take us all with you, or spend every third year or so in California. No doubt you would need the rest. And meanwhile remember that the high and mighty Chamberlain has not yet asked for the honor of an alliance with the house of Arguello, and that your brother will match his best fighting cock against your new white lace mantilla from Mexico, that he is not meditating any project so detrimental to his fortunes. Console yourself with the reflection that if he were, our father and the priests, and the Governor himself, would die of apoplexy. He is a heretic--a member of the Greek Church! Hast thou lost thy reason, Conchita? Dry your eyes and come home to sleep, and let us hear no more of marriage with a man who is not only a barbarian of the north and a heretic, but so proud he does not think a Californian good enough to wash his decks."


Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton

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