"The sash, Excellency?" Jon longed to see his master in full regalia once more, and after all, was not this an embassy of a sort? But Rezanov, who already regarded his reflection with some humor, shook his head.
"I'll go as far as decency permits, for no one is so impressed by external magnificence as the Spaniard. But full dress uniform and orders are enough; an ambassador's sash and they might suspect I took them for the children they are. Children are not always fools. My stock is too tight. Remember that I am to dance, and am too tall for most wommen's pretty little ears. And I doubt if an ear is less thirsty for being so provocatively screened."
Jon, a "prince" whose family had fallen upon evil days long since, but whose thin, clever fingers were no mean inheritance, unwound and readjusted the folds of soft batiste, that most becoming neck vesture man has ever worn. He fain would have pressed the matter of the sash, but Rezanov, most indulgent of masters to this devoted servant, was never patient of insistence. Jon also regretted the powdered wig and queue, which he privately thought more befitting a fine gentleman than his own hair, even though the latter were thick and bright. He said tentatively:
"I notice these Californians still wear the hair long; and with their gay ribbons and showy hats look much better no doubt than if they followed a fashion of which it would seem they had not heard --and perhaps do not admire. I ventured to pack two of your excellency's wigs when we were leaving St. Petersburg--"
"Good heavens, no!" cried Rezanov, rising to his feet and casting a last impatient glance at the mirror. "When a man has escaped from a furnace does he run back of his own accord? My brain would cook under a wig in this climate, and I need all my wits--for more reasons than one." And he went up on deck.
There, while awaiting his horses and escort, he had another glimpse of the happy Arcadian life of the Californians. Over the sand hills through which he had floundered twice that day rode young men in gala attire, a maiden, her attire as brilliant as the sunset along the western summits, on the saddle before them. These saddles were heavy with silver, the blanket beneath was embroidered with both silver and gold. Gay light laughter floated out on the cool evening breeze to the little ship in the harbor.
"It has been a good day," thought Rezanov, lowering his glass. "It is like her to arrange so charming a finale."
When he arrived at the Presidio the guitars were tinkling and the sala was full of eager and somber faces. The Californians had come early, determined to witness the arrival of the Russians. Very pretty most of the girls were, and by no means a bevy of brunettes. There was hair of every shade of brown, looped over the ears, drawn high and confined by the high comb and the long pins; and Rafaella Sal, with her red hair and gray eyes, was still celebrated as a beauty, although no longer in her first youth--she was twenty-two, and should have been a matron and mother long since! But she looked very handsome and coquettish in her daring yellow frock that no other red head would have dared to wear, and she displayed three ropes of Baja California pearls; one strand being the common possession. The matrons, young and old, wore heavy satins or brocades, either red or yellow, but the maids were in flowered silks, sometimes with coquettish little jacket, generally with long pointed bodice and full flowing skirt. Concha's frock was made in this fashion, but quite different otherwise; an aunt in the City of Mexico being mindful at whiles of the cravings of relatives in exile. It was of a soft shimmering white stuff covered with gold spangles and cut to reveal her young neck and arms. She stood at the head of the room with her mother as Rezanov entered, and he noticed for the first time how tall she was. She held herself proudly; mischievous twinkle, nor child-like trust, nor flashing coquetry possessed her eyes; these, even more starlike than usual, nevertheless looked upon her guests with a dignified composure. Her lips, her skin, were luminous. In this well-cut evening gown he saw that her figure was superb; and that she could command stateliness as well as vivacity moved her toward a pedestal in his regard that had been occupied by few and never for long.
Rezanov, in his splendid uniform and blazing orders, filled the sala with his presence as he walked past the rows of bright critical eyes toward his hostesses. The young lips of the maids parted with delight and the men frowned. For the first time William Sturgis felt the sickness of jealousy instead of its not unagreeable pain. Davidov and Khostov, both handsome and well-bred young men, were also in full naval uniform, and by no means ignored; while Langsdorff, in the severe black of the scholar, was an admirable foil.
Rezanov, wondering at the subtle change in Concha, bowed ceremoniously and murmured: "You will give me the first dance, senorita?"
"Certainly, Excellency. Are you not the guest of honor?"
She motioned to the Indian musicians, fiddles and guitars fairly leaped to position, and in a moment Rezanov enjoyed the novel delusion of encircling a girl's floating wraith.
"We can waltz, you see! Are you not surprised?"
"It is but one accomplishment the more. I feared a preference for your native dances, but ventured to hope you would teach me."
"They are easy to learn. You will watch us dance the contra-danza after this."
"With whom do you dance it?"
Her black eyelashes were very thick; he barely caught the glance she shot him.
"The Russian bear growls," she said lightly. "Did you expect to dance every dance with me?"
"I came for no other purpose."
"You would have several duels to fight to-morrow."
"I have no objection."
"You have fought others, then?" Her voice was the softer with the effort to turn its edge.
"No more than most men, I suppose. May I ask how many have been fought for you?"
"My memory is no better than yours. Why should I burden it with trifles?"
"True. It doubtless is charged with matters far more serious than the desires of mere men. Tell me, senorita, what is your dearest wish?" He had bent his head and fixed his powerful gaze on her stubborn lashes. As he hoped, she raised startled eyes in which an angry glitter dawned.
"My dearest wish? If I had one should I tell you? Why do you ask me such a question?"
"Because I lit a candle at the Mission to-day that you might realize it," he answered, smiling.
To his surprise he saw a flash of terror in her eyes before she dropped them, and felt her shiver. But she answered coldly:
"You have wasted a candle, senor. I have never had a wish that was not instantly gratified. But I thank you for the kind thought. Will you finish this waltz with my friend, and the fiancee of Luis, Rafaella Sal? She has quarrelled with Luis, I see; Don Weeliam is dancing with Carolina Xime'no, and she cares to waltz with no one else. Pardon me if I say that no one has ever waltzed as well as your excellency, and I must not be selfish."
"I will release you if you are tired, but otherwise I shall do myself the honor to waltz with your friend later."
"I must look after my other guests," she said coldly; and he was led with what grace he could summon to the fair but sulky Rafaella.
"How am I to help flirting with that girl?" he thought as he mechanically guided another light and graceful partner through the crowded room. "If she were one girl I might resist. But since eleven o'clock yesterday morning she has been three. And if she was twenty yesterday, twelve this morning, she is twenty-eight to-night, and this might be a court ball in Madrid. I shall leave the day after I bring the Governor to terms."
He sat beside Dona Ignacia during the contradanza and found the scene remarkably brilliant and animated considering the primitive conditions. In addition to the bright flags on the wall and the vivid colors of the women, the officers of the Presidio and forts wore full dress uniform, either white coats with red velvet vest, red pantaloons and sash, or white trousers and scarlet coat and waistcoat faced with green. The young men from the Mission wore small clothes of a black silk, fastened at the knee with silver buckles, and white silk stockings; two gentlemen from Monterey wore the evening costume of the capital, dove-colored small clothes, with white silk waistcoat and stockings, and much fine lawn and lace. The room was well lighted by many wicks stuck in lumps of tallow. The Indian musicians, soldiers recruited from a superior tribe in the Santa Clara valley, were clad almost entirely in scarlet, and danced sometimes as they played; and Indian girls, in short red skirts and snow-white smocks open at the throat, their long hair decorated with flowers and ribbons, already passed about wine and dulces. The windows were open. The sweet night air blew in.
The contra-danza was not unlike the square dances of England except that it was far more graceful, and the men rivalled the women in their supple glidings and bendings, doublings and swayings. Concha danced with Ignacio Sal, Rafaella with William Sturgis; their pliant grace, as facile as grain rippling before the wind, would have put the best ballet in Europe to the blush. Concha's skirts swept Rezanov's feet, her little slippers twinkled before his admiring eyes, and he lost no sinuous turn or undulation of her beautiful figure; but she never vouchsafed him a glance.
When the dance finished his host introduced him to the prettiest of the girls and he paid them as many compliments as their heads would stand. He even took some trouble to talk to them, if only to fathom the sources of their unlikeness to Concha Arguello. He concluded that the gulf that separated her from these charming, vivacious, shallow young girls was not dug by education alone. Individualities were rare enough in Europe; out here, in earthly, but sparsely settled paradises, they must be rarer still; but that one had wandered into the lovely shell of Concha Arguello he no longer doubted. The fact that it had developed haphazardly, with little or no help from her sentience, and was still fluid and uncertain, but multiplied her in interest and charm. The women to whom he was accustomed knew themselves, consequently were no riddle to a man of his experience, but here he had an odd sense of having entered into a compact in the dark with a girl who might one day symbolize some high and impassioned ideal he had cherished in the days before ideals had been cast aside with the negative virtues that bred them.
As he coolly studied the good looks of the young caballeros and the plain intellectual face and slight little figure of the Bostonian, noted the utter indifference with which they were treated by the Favorita of Presidio and Mission, he felt a sudden rush of arrogance, a youthful tingling of nerves, the same prophetic sense of imminent happiness and power that his first contact with the light electrical air and the beauty of the country had induced. After all, he was but forty-two. Life on the whole had been very kind to him. And, although he did not realize it as yet, his frame, blighted by the rigors of the past three years, was already sensible to a renewal of juice and sap. He admitted that he was more interested than he had been for many years, and that if he was not in love, he tingled with a very natural masculine desire for an adventure with a pretty girl.
But he was by no means a weak man, and his mind counted the cost even while his imagination hummed. He had almost decided to bid Dona Ignacia an abrupt good-night, pleading fatigue, which his pallor indorsed, when the door of the dining-room was thrown open to the liveliest of fiddling, and a white hand with a singular suggestion of tenacity both in appearance and clasp took possession of his arm.
"My mother has gone to Gertrudis Rudisinda, who is crying," said Concha. "It is my pleasure to lead your excellency in to supper."
They sat side by side at the head of the long table almost covered by the massive service of silver and loaded with evidences of Dona Ignacia's generosity and skill; chickens in red rice and gravy, oysters, tamales, dulces, pastries, fruits and pleasant drinks. Luis, with Rafaella Sal dimpling and sparkling at his side, and now quite resigned to the semi-official nature of the ball, rose and drank the health of the distinguished guest in long and flowery praises. Rezanov responded in briefer but no less felicitous vein, and concluded by remarking that the only rift in the lute of his present enchanting experience was the fear that whereas he had nearly died of starvation several times during the past three years, he was now threatened with a far more ignominious end, so delicious and irresistible were the temptations that beset the wayfarer in this most hospitable land. Both speeches were gaily applauded, the conversation became animated and gen- eral, and Concha dropped her voice to the attentive ear beside her.
"You were very successful to-day at the Mission, Excellency."
"May I ask how you know?"
"I never saw anything so serenely--arrogantly, perhaps would be a truer description--triumphant as your bearing when you walked down our humble sala to-night. You looked like Caesar returned from Gaul; but I suppose that all great conquests are merely the sum of many small ones."
"I do not regard the friendship of so shrewd a man as Father Abella a trifling conquest. And according to yourself, dear senorita, it is essential to the success of a mission upon which many lives and my own honor depend."
"Is it really so serious?" she asked with a faint sneer.
He drew himself up stiffly and his light eyes glowed with anger. "It is a subject I never should have thought of introducing at a festivity like this," he said suavely. "May I be permitted to compliment you, senorita, upon your marvellous grace in the contra-danza? It quite turned my head, and I am delighted to hear that you will dance alone after supper."
Her face had flushed hotly. She dropped her eyes and her voice trembled as she replied: "You humiliate me, senor, and I deserve it. I--my poor Rosa told me something of her great tragedy while dressing me, and for the moment other things seemed unimportant. What is hunger and court favor beside a broken heart and a desolate life? But that of course is the attitude of an ignorant girl." She raised her eyes. They were soft, and her voice was softer. "I beg that you will forgive me, senor. And be sure that I take an even deeper interest in your great mission than yesterday. I have thought much about it, and while I have told my mother nothing, I have expressed certain peevish hopes that a ship would not come all the way from Sitka without taking a hint more than one Boston skipper must have given, and brought us many things we need. She is quite excited over the prospect of a new shawl for herself, and of sending several as presents to the south; besides many other things: cotton, shoes, kitchen utensils. Have you any of these things, Excellency?"
Rezanov stared at her face, barely tinted with color, dully wondering why it should be so different from the one roguish, pathetically innocent, that had haunted him all day. He asked abruptly:
"Which is the friend whose little ones you envy? You have made me wish to see them and her?"
"That is Elena--beside Gervasio." She indicated a young woman with soft, patient, brown eyes, the dignity of her race and the sweetness of young motherhood, who would have looked little older than herself had it not been for an already shapeless figure. "I can take you to-morrow to see them if you wish."
She had cast down her eyes and her face was white. Still he groped on.
"Pardon me if I say that I am surprised your parents should permit such a woman as this Rosa to attend you. Why should your happy life be disturbed by the lamentations of an abandoned creature--who can do you no good, and possibly much harm?"
Still Concha did not raise her eyes. "I do not think poor Rosa would do anyone harm. But perhaps it were as well she went elsewhere. We have had her long enough. I have taken a dislike to her. I reproach myself bitterly, but I cannot help it. I should like never to see her again."
"What has she told you?" Concha glanced up swiftly. His eyes were blazing. She felt quite certain that he rolled a Russian oath under his tongue, and she made a slight involuntary motion toward him, her lips trembling apart.
"Nothing," she murmured. "I do not know--I do not know. But I no longer wish her near me. She--life is very strange and terrible, senor. You know it well--I, so little."
Rezanov felt his breath short and his hands cold. For a moment he made no reply. Then he smiled charmingly and said in the conventional tone that was ever at his command: "Of course you know little of life in this Arcadia. One who hopes to be numbered among the best of your friends prays that you never may. Yes, senorita, life is strange --strangely commonplace and disillusionizing--but sometimes picturesque. Believe me when I say that nothing stranger has ever befallen me than to find out here on the lonely brink of a continent nearly twenty thousand versts from Europe, a girl of six-teen with the grand manner, and an intellect with- out the detestable idiosyncrasies of the fashionable bas bleus I have hitherto had the misfortune to encounter."
She was tapping the table slowly with her fork, and he noted that her soft, childish mouth was set. "No doubt you are quite right to put me off," she said finally, and in a voice as even as his own. "And my intellect would do me little good if it did not teach me to ignore mysteries I can never hope to fathom. There is no such thing as life in your sense in this forgotten corner of the world, nor ever will be in my time. If you come back and visit us twenty years hence you will find me fat and worn like Elena, and busy every minute like my mother --unless, indeed, I marry Don Weeliam Sturgis and become a great lady in Boston. It would not be so mean a fate."
Rezanov darted a look of angry contempt at the pale young man who was eating little and miserably watching the handsome pair at the head of the table. "You will not marry him!" he said briefly.
"I could do far worse." Concha's lashes framed an adorable glance that sent the blood to the hair of the sensitive youth. "You have no idea how clever and good he is. And--Madre de Dios!--I am so tired of California."
"But you are a part of it--the very symbol of its future, it seems to me. I wish I had a sculptor in my suite. I should make him model you, label the statue 'California,' and erect it on the peak of that big island out there."
"That is very poetical, but after all, you are only saying that I am a pretty savage with an education that will be more common in the next generation. It is little consolation for an existence where the most exciting event in a lifetime is the arrival of a foreign ship or the inauguration of a governor." And once more she smiled at Sturgis. He raised his glass impulsively, and she hers in gay response. A moment later she gave the signal to leave the table. Rezanov followed her back to the sala chewing the cud of many reflections.
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