Concha boxed Rosa's ears twice while being dressed for the ball that evening. It was true that excitement had reigned throughout the Presidio all day, for never had a ball been so hastily planned. Don Luis had demurred when Concha proposed it at breakfast; officially to entertain strangers not yet officially received exceeded his authority. Concha, waxing stubborn with opposition, vowed that she would give the ball herself if he did not. Business immediately afterward took the Commandante ad. in. down to the Battery at Yerba Buena. Before he left he gave orders that the large hall in the barracks, where balls usually were held, should be locked and the key given up to no one but himself. He returned in the afternoon to find that Concha had outwitted him. The sala of the Commandante's house was very large. The furniture had been removed and the walls hung with flags, those of Spain on three sides, the Russian, borrowed by Santiago from the ship, at the head of the room. Concha laughed gaily as Luis stormed about the sala rasping his spurs on the bare floor.
"Whitewashed walls for guests from St. Petersburg!" she jeered, as Luis menaced the flags. "We have little enough to offer. Besides--what more wise than to flaunt our flag in the face of the Russian bear? Their flag, of course, is a mere idle compliment. Let me tell you two things, Luis mio: this morning I invited the Russians to dance tonight, and told Padre Abella to ask all our neighbors of the Mission besides; and Rafaella Sal helped me to drape every one of those flags. When I told her you might tear them down, she vowed that if you did she would dance all night with the Bostonian."
Luis lifted his shoulders and mustache to express an attitude of contemptuous resignation, but his face darkened, and a moment later he left the room and strolled up the square to the grating of Rafaella Sal.
Concha well knew that the frank gray eyes of the Bostonian--all citizens of the United States were Bostonians in that part of the world, for only Boston skippers had the enterprise to venture so far--were for no one but herself. But his face was bony and freckled, and his figure less in height and vigor than her own. He was rich and well-born, but shy and very modest. Concha Arguello, La Favorita of California, was for some such dashing caballero as Don Antonio Castro of Monterey, or Ignacio Sal, the most adventurous rider of the north. Meanwhile he could look at her and adore her in secret, and Dona Rafaella Sal was very kind and danced as well as himself. He never dreamed that he was being used as a stalking horse to keep alive in the best match in the Californias the jealous desire for exclusive possession that had animated him in 1800 when he had applied through the Viceroy of Mexico for royal consent to his marriage with the Favorita of her year. That was six years ago and never a word had come from Madrid. Luis was faithful, but men were men, and girls grew older every day. So the wise Rafaella was alternately indifferent and alluring, the object of more admiration than a maid could always repel, yet with wells of sentiment that only one man could discover. And the American was patient, and even had he known, would not in the least have minded the use she made of him. He still could look at Concha Arguello.
William Sturgis had sailed in one of his father's ships, now six years ago, from Boston in search of health. The ship in a dense fog had gone on the rocks in the straits between the Farallones and the Bay of San Francisco. He alone, and after long hours of struggle with the wicked currents, not even knowing in what direction land might be, was flung, senseless, on the shore below the Fort. For the next month he was an invalid in the house of the Commandante. Fortunately, his papers and money were sewn in an oilskin belt and his father's name was well known in California. Moreover, there never was a more likable youth. His illness interested all the matrons and maids of the Presidio in his fate; when he recovered, his good dancing and unselfishness gave him a permanent place in the regard of the women, while his entire absence of beauty, and his ability to hold his own in the mess room, established his position with the men.
In due course word of his plight reached Boston, and a ship was immediately despatched, not only to bring the castaway home, but with the fine ward- robe necessary to a young gentleman of his station. But the same ship brought word of his father's death--his mother had gone long since--and as there were brothers enamored of the business he hated, he decided to remain in the country that had won his heart and given him health. For some time there was demur on the part of the authorities; Spain welcomed no foreigners in her colonies. But Sturgis swore a mighty oath that he would never despatch a letter uninspected by the Commandante, that he would make no excursions into the heart of the country, that he would neither engage in traffic nor interfere in politics. Then having already won the affections of the Governor, he was permitted to remain, even to rent an acre of land from the Church in the sheltered Mission valley, and build himself a house. Here he raised fruit and vegetables for his own hospitable table, chickens and game cocks. Books and other luxuries came by every ship from Boston; until for a long interval ships came no more. One of these days, when the power of the priests had abated, and the jealousy which would keep all Californians landless but themselves was counterbalanced by a great increase in population, he meant to have a ranch down in the south where the sun shone all the year round and he could ride half the day with his vaqueros after the finest cattle in the country. He should never marry because he could not marry Concha Arguello, but he could think of her, see her sometimes; and in a land where a man was neither frozen in winter nor grilled in summer, where life could be led in the open, and the tendency was to idle and dream, domestic happiness called on a feebler note than in less equable climes. In his heart he was desperately jealous of Concha's favored cavaliers, but it was a jealousy without hatred, and his kind, earnest, often humorous eyes, were always assuring his lady of an imperishable desire to serve her without reward. Of course Concha treated him with as little consideration as so humble a swain deserved; but in her heart she liked him better than either Castro or Sal, for he talked to her of something besides rodeos and balls, racing and cock-fights; he had taught her English and lent her many books. Moreover, he neither sighed nor languished, nor ever had sung at her grating. But she regarded him merely as an intelligence, a well of refreshment in her stagnant life, never as a man.
"Rose," she said, as she caught her hair into a high golden comb that had been worn in Spain by many a beauty of the house of Moraga, and spiked the knot with two long pins globed at the end with gold, while the maid fastened her slippers and smoothed the pink silk stockings over the thin instep above; "what is a lover like? Is it like meeting one of the saints of heaven?"
"Like what, then?"
"Like--like nothing but himself, senorita. You would not have him otherwise."
"Oh, stupid one! Hast thou no imagination? Fancy any man being well enough as he is! For instance, there is Don Antonio, who is so handsome and fiery, and Don Ignacio, who can sing and dance and ride as no one else in all the Californias, and Don Weeliam Sturgis, who is very clever and true. If I could roll them into one--a tamale of corn and chicken and peppers--there would be a man almost to my liking. But even then--not quite. And one man--what nonsense! I have too much color to-night, Rosa."
"No, senorita, you have never been so beautiful. When the lover comes and you love him, senorita, you will think him greater than our natural king and lord, and all other men poor Indians."
"But how shall I know?"
"Your heart will tell you, senorita."
"My heart? My father and my mother will choose for me a husband whom I shall love as all other women love their husbands--just enough and no more. Then--I suppose--I shall never know?"
"Would you marry at your parents' bidding, like a child, senorita? I do not think you would."
Concha looked at the girl in astonishment, but with a greater astonishment she suddenly realized that she would not. Even her little fingers stiffened in a rush of personality, of passionate resentment against the shackles bound by the ages about the feminine ego. Her individuality, long budding, burst into flower; her eyes gazed far beyond her radiant image in the mirror with a look of terrified but dauntless insight; then moved slowly to the girl that sat weeping on the floor.
"I know not what thy sin was," she said musingly. "But I have heard it said thou didst obey no law but thine own will--and his. Why should the punishment have been so terrible? Thou hast sworn to me thou didst not help to murder the woman."
"I cannot tell you, senorita. You will never know anything of sin; but of love--yes, I think you will know that, and before very long."
"Before long?" Concha's lips parted and the nervous color she had deprecated left her cheeks. "What meanest thou, Rosa?" Her voice rose hoarsely.
And the Indian, with the insight of her own tragedy, replied: "The Russian has come for you, senorita. You will go with him, far away to the north and the snow. These others never could win your heart; but this man who looks like a king, and as if many women had loved him, and he had cared little--Oh, senorita, Carlos was only a poor Indian, but the men that women love all have something that makes them brothers--the Great Russian and the poor man who goes mad for a moment and kills one woman that he may live with another forever. The great Russian is free, but he is the same, senorita--he too could kill for love, and such are the men we women die for!"
Concha, ambitious and romantic, eager for the brilliant life the advent of this Russian nobleman seemed to herald, had assured Santiago that he would love her; but they had been the empty words of the Favorita of many conquests; of love and passion she had known, suspected, nothing. As she watched Rosa, huddled and convulsed, little pointed arrows flew into her brain. Girls in those old Spanish days went to the altar with a serene faith in miracles, and it was a matter of honor among those that preceded their friends to abet the parents in a custom which assuredly did not err on the side of ugliness. Concha had a larger vocabulary than other Californians of her sex, for she had read many books, and if never a novel, she knew something of poetry. Sturgis had filled the sala with the sonorous roll of his favorite masters and it had pleased her ear; but the language of passion had been so many beautiful words, neither vibrating nor lingering in her consciousness. But the rude expression of the miserable woman at her feet, whose sobs grew more uncontrollable every moment, made it forever impossible that she should prattle again as she had to Santiago and Rezanov in the last day and night; and although she felt as if straining her eyes in the dark, her cheeks burned once more, and she rose uneasily and walked to the window.
She returned in a moment and stood over Rosa, but her voice when she spoke had lost its hoarseness and was cold and irritated.
"Control thyself," she said. "And go and bathe thine eyes. Wouldst look like a tomato when it is time to pass the dulces and wines? And think no more of thy lover until he can come out of prison and marry thee." She drew herself away as the woman attempted to clutch her skirts. "Go," she said. "The musicians are tuning."
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