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Chapter 5

The Russians were to call at the house of the Commandante on their way to the Mission, and Concha herself made the chocolate with which they were to be detained for another hour. It was another sparkling morning, one of the few that came between winter and summer, summer and winter, and made even this bleak peninsula a land of enchantment before the cold winds took the sand hills up by their foundations and drove them down to Yerba Buena, submerging the battery and every green thing by the way; or the great fogs rolled down from the tule lands of the north and in from the sea, making the shivering San Franciscan forget that not ten miles away the sun was as prodigal as youth. For a few weeks San Francisco had her springtime, when the days were warm and the air of a wonderful lightness and brightness, the atmosphere so clear that the flowers might be seen on the islands, when man walked with wings on his feet and a song in his heart; when the past was done with, the future mattered not, the present with its ever changing hues on bay and hill, its cool electrical breezes stirring imagination and pulse, was all in all.

And it was in San Francisco's springtime that Concha Arguello made chocolate for the Russian to whom she was to give a niche in the history of her land; and sang at her task. She whirled the molinillo in each cup as it was filled, whipping the fragrant liquid to froth; pausing only to scold when her servant stained one of the dainty saucers or cups. Poor Rosa did not sing, although the spring attuned her broken spirit to a gentler melancholy than when the winds howled and the fog was cold in her marrow. She had been sentenced by the last Governor, the wise Borica, to eight years of domestic servitude in the house of Don Jose Arguello for abetting her lover in the murder of his wife. Concha, thoughtless in many things, did what she could to exorcise the terror and despair that stared from the eyes of the Indian and puzzled her deeply. Rosa adored her young mistress and exulted even when Concha's voice rose in wrath; for was not she noticed by the loveliest senorita in all the Californias, while others, envious and spiteful to a poor girl no worse than themselves, were ignored?

Concha's cheeks were as pink as the Castilian roses that grew even before the kitchen door and were quivering at the moment under the impassioned carolling of a choir of larks. Her black eyes were full of dancing lights, like the imprisoned sun flecks under the rose bush, and never had indolent Spanish hands moved so quickly.

"Mira! Mira!" she cried to the luckless Rosa. "That is the third time thou hast spilt the chocolate. Thy hands are of wood when they should be of air. A soft bit of linen to clean them, not that coarse rag. Dios de mi alma! I shall send for Malia."

"For the love of Mary, senorita, have pity!" wailed Rosa. "There--see--thanks to the Virgin I have poured three cups without spilling a drop. And this rag is of soft linen. Look, Dona Concha, is it not true?"

"Bueno; take care thou leavest not one drop on a saucer and I will forgive thee--do not kiss my hand now, foolish one! How can I whirl the molinillo? Be always good and I will burn a candle for thee every time I go to the Mission. The Russians go to the Mission this morning. Hast thou seen the Russians, Rosa?"

"I have seen them, senorita. Did I not serve at table yesterday?"

"True; I had forgotten. What didst thou think of them?"

"What matters it to such great folk what a poor Indian girl thinks of them? They are very fair, which may be the fashion in their country; but I am not accustomed to it; and I like not beards."

"His excellency wore no beard--he who sat on my mother's right and opposite to me."

"He is very grand, senorita; more grand than the Governor, who after all has red hair and is old. He is even grander than Don Jose, whom may the saints preserve; or than the padres at the mission. Perhaps he is a king, like our King and natural lord in spain. (El rey nuestro y senor natural.) Is he a king, senorita?"

"No, but he should be. Rosa, thou mayest have my red cloak that came from Mexico--last year. I have a new one and that is too small. I had intended to give it to Ana Paula, but thou art a good girl and should have a gay mantle for Sunday, like the other girls. I have also a red ribbon for thy hair--"

Rosa spilt half the contents of the chocolate pot on the floor and Concha gave her a sound box on the ear. However, she did not dismiss her, a sentence for which the trembling girl prepared herself.

"Make more--quickly!" cried the lady of caprice. "They come. I hear them. But this is enough for the first. Make the rest and beat with the molinillo as I have done, and Malia will bring all to the corridor."

She ran to her room and her mirror. Both were small, the room little more luxurious than the cell of a nun. But the roses hung over the window, the birds had built in the eaves, and over the wall the sun shone in. In one corner was an altar and a crucifix. If the walls were rough and white, they were spotless as the hands that shook out and then twisted high the fine dusky masses of hair. When a fold had been drawn over either ear, in the modest fashion of the California maid and wife, and the tall shell comb had fastened the rest, Concha instead of finishing the headdress with her long Spanish pins, divested the stems of two half-blown roses of their thorns and thrust them obliquely through the knot. Her dress was of simple white linen made with a very full skirt and little round jacket, but embroidered by her own deft fingers with the color she loved best. She patted her frock, rolled down her sleeves, and went out to the "corridor" to stand demurely behind her mother as the Russians, escorted by Father Ramon Abella, rode into the square.

Rezanov had intended merely to pay a call of ceremony upon the hospitable Arguellos, but after he had dismounted and kissed the hands of the smiling senora and her beautiful daughter he was nothing loath to linger over a cup of chocolate.

It was served out there in the shade of the vines. Rezanov and Concha sat on the railing, and the man stared over his cup at the girl with the roses touching her cheeks and ruffling her hair.

"Do you like chocolate, senor?" asked Concha, who was not in the intellectual mood of yesterday. "I made it myself--I and my poor Rosa."

"It is the most delectable foam I have ever tasted. I am interested to know that it has the solid foundation of a name. What is the matter with your Rosa?"

"She is an unfortunate. Her lover killed his wife, and it is said that she is not innocent herself. The lover serves in chains for eight years, and she is with us that we may make her repent and keep her from further sin. She is unhappy and will marry the man when his punishment is over. I am very sorry for her."

"Fancy you living close to a woman like that! I find it detestable."

"Why?--if I can do her good--and make her happy, sometimes?"

"Does she ever talk about her life--before she came here?"

"Oh, no; she is far too sad. Once only, when I told her I would pray for her in the Mission Church, she asked me to burn a candle that her lover might serve his sentence more quickly and come out and marry her. Will you light one for her to-day, senor?"

"With the greatest pleasure; if you really want your maid to marry a man who no doubt will murder her for the sake of some other woman."

"Oh, surely not! He loves her. I know that many men love more than once, but when they are punished like that, they must remember."

"Is it true that you are only sixteen? Is that an impertinent question? I cannot help it. Those years are so few, and so much wisdom has gone into that little head."

"Sixteen is quite old." Concha drew herself up with an air of offended dignity. "Elena Castro, who lives on the other side, is but eighteen and she has three little ones. The Virgin brought them in the night and left them in the big rosebush you see before the door--one at a time, of course. Only the old nurse knew; the Virgin whispered it while she was saying a prayer for Elena; and early in the morning she came and found the dear little baby and put it in Elena's arms. I am the godmother of the first--Conchitita. In Santa Barbara, where we lived for some years, Anita Amanda Carillo, the friend of Ana Paula, is married, although she is but twelve and sits on the floor all day and plays with her dolls. She prays every night to the Virgin to bring her a real baby, but she is not old enough to take care of it and must wait. Twelve is too young to marry." Concha shook her head. Her eyes were wise, and Rezanov noted anew that her mouth alone was as young as her years. "My father would not permit such a thing. I am glad he is not anxious we should marry soon. I should love to have the babies, though; they are so sweet to play with and make little dresses for. But my mother says the Virgin does not bring the little ones to good girls--poor Rosa had one but it died--until their parents find them a husband first. I have never wanted a husband--" Concha darted a swift glance over her shoulder, but Santiago was in the clutches of the learned doctor and wishing that he knew no Latin; "so I go every day and play with Elena's babies, which is well enough."

Rezanov listened to this innocent revelation with the utmost gravity, but for the first time in many years he was conscious of a novel fascination in a sex to which he had paid no niggard's tribute. In his world the married woman reigned; it was doubtful if he had ever had ten minutes' conversation with a young girl before, never with one whose face and form were as arresting as her crystal purity. He was fascinated, but more than ever on his guard. As he rode over the sand hills to the Mission she clung fast to his thoughts and he speculated upon the woman hidden away in the depths of that lovely shell like the deep color within the tight Castilian buds that opened so slowly. He recalled the personalities of the young officers that surrounded her. They were charming fellows, gay, kindly, honest; but he felt sure that not one of them was fit to hold the cup of life to the exquisite young lips of Concha Arguello. The very thought disposed him to twist their necks.


Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton

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