Story type: Literature
It was noon of the 10th of August, 1838. The monotonous coast line between Monterey and San Diego had set its hard outlines against the steady glare of the Californian sky and the metallic glitter of the Pacific Ocean. The weary succession of rounded, dome-like hills obliterated all sense of distance; the rare whaling vessel or still rarer trader, drifting past, saw no change in these rusty undulations, barren of distinguishing peak or headland, and bald of wooded crest or timbered ravine. The withered ranks of wild oats gave a dull procession of uniform color to the hills, unbroken by any relief of shadow in their smooth, round curves. As far as the eye could reach, sea and shore met in one bleak monotony, flecked by no passing cloud, stirred by no sign of life or motion. Even sound was absent; the Angelus, rung from the invisible Mission tower far inland, was driven back again by the steady northwest trades, that for half the year had swept the coast line and left it abraded of all umbrage and color.
But even this monotony soon gave way to a change and another monotony as uniform and depressed. The western horizon, slowly contracting before a wall of vapor, by four o’clock had become a mere cold, steely strip of sea, into which gradually the northern trend of the coast faded and was lost. As the fog stole with soft step southward, all distance, space, character, and locality again vanished; the hills upon which the sun still shone bore the same monotonous outlines as those just wiped into space. Last of all, before the red sun sank like the descending Host, it gleamed upon the sails of a trading vessel close in shore. It was the last object visible. A damp breath breathed upon it, a soft hand passed over the slate, the sharp pencilling of the picture faded and became a confused gray cloud.
The wind and waves, too, went down in the fog; the now invisible and hushed breakers occasionally sent the surf over the sand in a quick whisper, with grave intervals of silence, but with no continuous murmur as before. In a curving bight of the shore the creaking of oars in their rowlocks began to be distinctly heard, but the boat itself, although apparently only its length from the sands, was invisible.
“Steady now; way enough!” The voice came from the sea, and was low, as if unconsciously affected by the fog. “Silence!”
The sound of a keel grating the sand was followed by the order, “Stern all!” from the invisible speaker.
“Shall we beach her?” asked another vague voice.
“Not yet. Hail again, and all together.”
There were four voices, but the hail appeared weak and ineffectual, like a cry in a dream, and seemed hardly to reach beyond the surf before it was suffocated in the creeping cloud. A silence followed, but no response.
“It’s no use to beach her and go ashore until we find the boat,” said the first voice, gravely; “and we’ll do that if the current has brought her here. Are you sure you’ve got the right bearings?”
“As near as a man could off a shore with not a blasted pint to take his bearings by.”
There was a long silence again, broken only by the occasional dip of oars, keeping the invisible boat-head to the sea.
“Take my word for it, lads, it’s the last we’ll see of that boat again, or of Jack Cranch, or the captain’s baby.”
“It does look mighty queer that the painter should slip. Jack Cranch ain’t the man to tie a granny knot.”
“Silence!” said the invisible leader. “Listen.”
A hail, so faint and uncertain that it might have been the long-deferred, far-off echo of their own, came from the sea, abreast of them.
“It’s the captain. He hasn’t found anything, or he couldn’t be so far north. Hark!”
The hail was repeated again faintly, dreamily. To the seamen’s trained ears it seemed to have an intelligent significance, for the first voice gravely responded, “Aye, aye?” and then said softly, “Oars.”
The word was followed by a splash. The oars clicked sharply and simultaneously in the rowlocks, then more faintly, then still fainter, and then passed out into the darkness.
The silence and shadow both fell together; for hours sea and shore were impenetrable. Yet at times the air was softly moved and troubled, the surrounding gloom faintly lightened as with a misty dawn, and then was dark again; or drowsy, far-off cries and confused noises seemed to grow out of the silence, and, when they had attracted the weary ear, sank away as in a mocking dream, and showed themselves unreal. Nebulous gatherings in the fog seemed to indicate stationary objects that, even as one gazed, moved away; the recurring lap and ripple on the shingle sometimes took upon itself the semblance of faint articulate laughter or spoken words. But towards morning a certain monotonous grating on the sand, that had for many minutes alternately cheated and piqued the ear, asserted itself more strongly, and a moving, vacillating shadow in the gloom became an opaque object on the shore.
With the first rays of the morning light the fog lifted. As the undraped hills one by one bared their cold bosoms to the sun, the long line of coast struggled back to life again. Everything was unchanged, except that a stranded boat lay upon the sands, and in its stern sheets a sleeping child.
The 10th of August, 1852, brought little change to the dull monotony of wind, fog, and treeless coast line. Only the sea was occasionally flecked with racing sails that outstripped the old, slow-creeping trader, or was at times streaked and blurred with the trailing smoke of a steamer. There were a few strange footprints on those virgin sands, and a fresh track, that led from the beach over the rounded hills, dropped into the bosky recesses of a hidden valley beyond the coast range.
It was here that the refectory windows of the Mission of San Carmel had for years looked upon the reverse of that monotonous picture presented to the sea. It was here that the trade winds, shorn of their fury and strength in the heated, oven-like air that rose from the valley, lost their weary way in the tangled recesses of the wooded slopes, and breathed their last at the foot of the stone cross before the Mission. It was on the crest of those slopes that the fog halted and walled in the sun-illumined plain below; it was in this plain that limitless fields of grain clothed the flat adobe soil; here the Mission garden smiled over its hedges of fruitful vines, and through the leaves of fig and gnarled pear trees; and it was here that Father Pedro had lived for fifty years, found the prospect good, and had smiled also.
Father Pedro’s smile was rare. He was not a Las Casas, nor a Junipero Serra, but he had the deep seriousness of all disciples laden with the responsible wording of a gospel not their own. And his smile had an ecclesiastical as well as a human significance, the pleasantest object in his prospect being the fair and curly head of his boy acolyte and chorister, Francisco, which appeared among the vines, and his sweetest pastoral music, the high soprano humming of a chant with which the boy accompanied his gardening.
Suddenly the acolyte’s chant changed to a cry of terror. Running rapidly to Father Pedro’s side, he grasped his sotana, and even tried to hide his curls among its folds.
“‘St! ‘st!” said the Padre, disengaging himself with some impatience. “What new alarm is this? Is it Luzbel hiding among our Catalan vines, or one of those heathen Americanos from Monterey? Speak!”
“Neither, holy father,” said the boy, the color struggling back into his pale cheeks, and an apologetic, bashful smile lighting his clear eyes. “Neither; but oh! such a gross, lethargic toad! And it almost leaped upon me.”
“A toad leaped upon thee!” repeated the good father with evident vexation. “What next? I tell thee, child, those foolish fears are most unmeet for thee, and must be overcome, if necessary, with prayer and penance. Frightened by a toad! Blood of the Martyrs! ‘T is like any foolish girl!”
Father Pedro stopped and coughed.
“I am saying that no Christian child should shrink from any of God’s harmless creatures. And only last week thou wast disdainful of poor Murieta’s pig, forgetting that San Antonio himself did elect one his faithful companion, even in glory.”
“Yes, but it was so fat, and so uncleanly, holy father,” replied the young acolyte, “and it smelt so.”
“Smelt so?” echoed the father doubtfully. “Have a care, child, that this is not luxuriousness of the senses. I have noticed of late you gather over-much of roses and syringa, excellent in their way and in moderation, but still not to be compared with the flower of Holy Church, the lily.”
“But lilies don’t look well on the refectory table, and against the adobe wall,” returned the acolyte, with a pout of a spoilt child; “and surely the flowers cannot help being sweet, any more than myrrh or incense. And I am not frightened of the heathen Americanos either, now. There was a small one in the garden yesterday, a boy like me, and he spoke kindly and with a pleasant face.”
“What said he to thee, child?” asked Father Pedro, anxiously.
“Nay, the matter of his speech I could not understand,” laughed the boy, “but the manner was as gentle as thine, holy father.”
“‘St, child,” said the Padre, impatiently. “Thy likings are as unreasonable as thy fears. Besides, have I not told thee it ill becomes a child of Christ to chatter with those sons of Belial? But canst thou not repeat the words–the words he said?” he continued suspiciously.
“‘T is a harsh tongue the Americanos speak in their throat,” replied the boy. “But he said ‘Devilishnisse’ and ‘pretty-as-a-girl,’ and looked at me.”
The good father made the boy repeat the words gravely, and as gravely repeated them after him with infinite simplicity. “They are but heretical words,” he replied, in answer to the boy’s inquiring look; “it is well you understand not English. Enough. Run away, child, and be ready for the Angelus. I will commune with myself awhile under the pear trees.”
Glad to escape so easily, the young acolyte disappeared down the alley of fig trees, not without a furtive look at the patches of chickweed around their roots, the possible ambuscade of creeping or saltant vermin. The good priest heaved a sigh and glanced round the darkening prospect. The sun had already disappeared over the mountain wall that lay between him and the sea, rimmed with a faint white line of outlying fog. A cool zephyr fanned his cheek; it was the dying breath of the vientos generales beyond the wall. As Father Pedro’s eyes were raised to this barrier, which seemed to shut out the boisterous world beyond, he fancied he noticed for the first time a slight breach in the parapet, over which an advanced banner of the fog was fluttering. Was it an omen? His speculations were cut short by a voice at his very side.
He turned quickly and beheld one of those “heathens” against whom he had just warned his young acolyte; one of that straggling band of adventurers whom the recent gold discoveries had scattered along the coast. Luckily the fertile alluvium of these valleys, lying parallel with the sea, offered no “indications” to attract the gold-seekers. Nevertheless, to Father Pedro even the infrequent contact with the Americanos was objectionable: they were at once inquisitive and careless; they asked questions with the sharp perspicacity of controversy; they received his grave replies with the frank indifference of utter worldliness. Powerful enough to have been tyrannical oppressors, they were singularly tolerant and gentle, contenting themselves with a playful, good-natured irreverence, which tormented the good father more than opposition. They were felt to be dangerous and subversive.
The Americano, however, who stood before him did not offensively suggest these national qualities. A man of middle height, strongly built, bronzed and slightly gray from the vicissitudes of years and exposure, he had an air of practical seriousness that commended itself to Father Pedro. To his religious mind it suggested self-consciousness; expressed in the dialect of the stranger, it only meant “business.”
“I’m rather glad I found you out here alone,” began the latter; “it saves time. I haven’t got to take my turn with the rest, in there,”–he indicated the church with his thumb,–“and you haven’t got to make an appointment. You have got a clear forty minutes before the Angelus rings,” he added, consulting a large silver chronometer, “and I reckon I kin git through my part of the job inside of twenty, leaving you ten minutes for remarks. I want to confess.”
Father Pedro drew back with a gesture of dignity. The stranger, however, laid his hand upon the Padre’s sleeve with the air of a man anticipating objection, but never refusal, and went on.
“Of course, I know. You want me to come at some other time, and in there. You want it in the reg’lar style. That’s your way and your time. My answer is: it ain’t my way and my time. The main idea of confession, I take it, is gettin’ at the facts. I’m ready to give ’em if you’ll take ’em out here, now. If you’re willing to drop the Church and confessional, and all that sort o’ thing, I, on my side, am willing to give up the absolution, and all that sort o’ thing. You might,” he added, with an unconscious touch of pathos in the suggestion, “heave in a word or two of advice after I get through; for instance, what you’d do in the circumstances, you see! That’s all. But that’s as you please. It ain’t part of the business.”
Irreverent as this speech appeared, there was really no trace of such intention in his manner, and his evident profound conviction that his suggestion was practical, and not at all inconsistent with ecclesiastical dignity, would alone have been enough to touch the Padre, had not the stranger’s dominant personality already overridden him. He hesitated. The stranger seized the opportunity to take his arm, and lead him with the half familiarity of powerful protection to a bench beneath the refectory window. Taking out his watch again, he put it in the passive hands of the astonished priest, saying, “Time me,” cleared his throat, and began:–
“Fourteen years ago there was a ship cruisin’ in the Pacific, jest off this range, that was ez nigh on to a Hell afloat as anything rigged kin be. If a chap managed to dodge the cap’en’s belaying-pin for a time he was bound to be fetched up in the ribs at last by the mate’s boots. There was a chap knocked down the fore hatch with a broken leg in the Gulf, and another jumped overboard off Cape Corrientes, crazy as a loon, along a clip of the head from the cap’en’s trumpet. Them’s facts. The ship was a brigantine, trading along the Mexican coast. The cap’en had his wife aboard, a little timid Mexican woman he’d picked up at Mazatlan. I reckon she didn’t get on with him any better than the men, for she ups and dies one day, leavin’ her baby, a year-old gal. One o’ the crew was fond o’ that baby. He used to get the black nurse to put it in the dingy, and he’d tow it astern, rocking it with the painter like a cradle. He did it–hatin’ the cap’en all the same. One day the black nurse got out of the dingy for a moment, when the baby was asleep, leavin’ him alone with it. An idea took hold on him, jest from cussedness, you’d say, but it was partly from revenge on the cap’en and partly to get away from the ship. The ship was well in shore, and the current settin’ towards it. He slipped the painter–that man–and set himself adrift with the baby. It was a crazy act, you’d reckon, for there was n’t any oars in the boat; but he had a crazy man’s luck, and he contrived, by sculling the boat with one of the seats he tore out, to keep her out of the breakers, till he could find a bight in the shore to run her in. The alarm was given from the ship, but the fog shut down upon him; he could hear the other boats in pursuit. They seemed to close in on him, and by the sound he judged the cap’en was just abreast of him in the gig, bearing down upon him in the fog. He slipped out of the dingy into the water without a splash, and struck out for the breakers. He got ashore after havin’ been knocked down and dragged in four times by the undertow. He had only one idea then, thankfulness that he had not taken the baby with him in the surf. You kin put that down for him; it’s a fact. He got off into the hills, and made his way up to Monterey.”
“And the child?” asked the Padre, with a sudden and strange asperity that boded no good to the penitent; “the child thus ruthlessly abandoned–what became of it?”
“That’s just it, the child,” said the stranger, gravely. “Well, if that man was on his death-bed instead of being here talking to you, he’d swear that he thought the cap’en was sure to come up to it the next minit. That’s a fact. But it wasn’t until one day that he–that’s me–ran across one of that crew in Frisco. ‘Hallo, Cranch,’ sez he to me, ‘so you got away, didn’t you? And how’s the cap’en’s baby? Grown a young gal by this time, ain’t she?’ ‘What are you talking about,’ sez I; ‘how should I know?’ He draws away from me, and sez,’D–it,’ sez he, ‘you don’t mean that you’ … I grabs him by the throat and makes him tell me all. And then it appears that the boat and the baby were never found again, and every man of that crew, cap’en and all, believed I had stolen it.”
He paused. Father Pedro was staring at the prospect with an uncompromising rigidity of head and shoulder.
“It’s a bad lookout for me, ain’t it?” the stranger continued, in serious reflection.
“How do I know,” said the priest harshly, without turning his head, “that you did not make away with this child?”
“That you did not complete your revenge by–by–killing it, as your comrade suspected you? Ah! Holy Trinity,” continued Father Pedro, throwing out his hands with an impatient gesture, as if to take the place of unutterable thought.
“How do you know?” echoed the stranger coldly.
The stranger linked his fingers together and threw them over his knee, drew it up to his chest caressingly, and said quietly, “Because you do know.”
The Padre rose to his feet.
“What mean you?” he said, sternly fixing his eyes upon the speaker. Their eyes met. The stranger’s were gray and persistent, with hanging corner lids that might have concealed even more purpose than they showed. The Padre’s were hollow, open, and the whites slightly brown, as if with tobacco stains. Yet they were the first to turn away.
“I mean,” returned the stranger, with the same practical gravity, “that you know it wouldn’t pay me to come here, if I’d killed the baby, unless I wanted you to fix things right with me up there,” pointing skyward, “and get absolution; and I’ve told you that wasn’t in my line.”
“Why do you seek me, then?” demanded the Padre, suspiciously.
“Because I reckon I thought a man might be allowed to confess something short of a murder. If you’re going to draw the line below that”–
“This is but sacrilegious levity,” interrupted Father Pedro, turning as if to go. But the stranger did not make any movement to detain him.
“Have you implored forgiveness of the father–the man you wronged–before you came here?” asked the priest, lingering.
“Not much. It wouldn’t pay if he was living, and he died four years ago.”
“You are sure of that?”
“There are other relations, perhaps?”
Father Pedro was silent. When he spoke again, it was with a changed voice. “What is your purpose, then?” he asked, with the first indication of priestly sympathy in his manner. “You cannot ask forgiveness of the earthly father you have injured, you refuse the intercession of Holy Church with the Heavenly Father you have disobeyed. Speak, wretched man! What is it you want?”
“I want to find the child.”
“But if it were possible, if she were still living, are you fit to seek her, to even make yourself known to her, to appear before her?”
“Well, if I made it profitable to her, perhaps.”
“Perhaps,” echoed the priest, scornfully. “So be it. But why come here?”
“To ask your advice. To know how to begin my search. You know this country. You were here when that boat drifted ashore beyond that mountain.”
“Ah, indeed. I have much to do with it. It is an affair of the alcalde–the authorities–of your–your police.”
The Padre again met the stranger’s eyes. He stopped, with the snuffbox he had somewhat ostentatiously drawn from his pocket still open in his hand.
“Why is it not, Senor?” he demanded.
“If she lives, she is a young lady by this time, and might not want the details of her life known to any one.”
“And how will you recognize your baby in this young lady?” asked Father Pedro, with a rapid gesture, indicating the comparative heights of a baby and an adult.
“I reckon I’ll know her, and her clothes too; and whoever found her wouldn’t be fool enough to destroy them.”
“After fourteen years! Good! You have faith, Senor”–
“Cranch,” supplied the stranger, consulting his watch. “But time’s up. Business is business. Good-by; don’t let me keep you.”
He extended his hand.
The Padre met it with a dry, unsympathetic palm, as sere and yellow as the hills. When their hands separated, the father still hesitated, looking at Cranch. If he expected further speech or entreaty from him he was mistaken, for the American, without turning his head, walked in the same serious, practical fashion down the avenue of fig trees, and disappeared beyond the hedge of vines. The outlines of the mountain beyond were already lost in the fog. Father Pedro turned into the refectory.
A strong flavor of leather, onions, and stable preceded the entrance of a short, stout vaquero from the little patio.
“Saddle Pinto and thine own mule to accompany Francisco, who will take letters from me to the Father Superior at San Jose to-morrow at daybreak.”
“At daybreak, reverend father?”
“At daybreak. Hark ye, go by the mountain trails and avoid the highway. Stop at no posada nor fonda, but if the child is weary, rest then awhile at Don Juan Briones’ or at the rancho of the Blessed Fisherman. Have no converse with stragglers, least of all those gentile Americanos. So” …
The first strokes of the Angelus came from the nearer tower. With a gesture Father Pedro waved Antonio aside, and opened the door of the sacristy.
“Ad Majorem Dei Gloria.”
The hacienda of Don Juan Briones, nestling in a wooded cleft of the foot-hills, was hidden, as Father Pedro had wisely reflected, from the straying feet of travelers along the dusty highway to San Jose. As Francisco, emerging from the canada, put spurs to his mule at the sight of the whitewashed walls, Antonio grunted:
“Oh aye, little priest! thou wast tired enough a moment ago, and though we are not three leagues from the Blessed Fisherman, thou couldst scarce sit thy saddle longer. Mother of God! and all to see that little mongrel, Juanita.”
“But, good Antonio, Juanita was my playfellow, and I may not soon again chance this way. And Juanita is not a mongrel, no more than I am.”
“She is a mestiza, and thou art a child of the Church, though this following of gypsy wenches does not show it.”
“But Father Pedro does not object,” urged the boy.
“The reverend father has forgotten he was ever young,” replied Antonio, sententiously, “or he wouldn’t set fire and tow together.”
“What sayest thou, good Antonio?” asked Francisco quickly, opening his blue eyes in frank curiosity; “who is fire, and who is tow?”
The worthy muleteer, utterly abashed and confounded by this display of the acolyte’s direct simplicity, contented himself by shrugging his shoulders, and a vague “Quien sabe?”
“Come,” said the boy, gayly, “confess it is only the aguardiente of the Blessed Fisherman thou missest. Never fear, Juanita will find thee some. And see! here she comes.”
There was a flash of white flounces along the dark brown corridor, the twinkle of satin slippers, the flying out of long black braids, and with a cry of joy a young girl threw herself upon Francisco as he entered the patio, and nearly dragged him from his mule.
“Have a care, little sister,” laughed the acolyte, looking at Antonio, “or there will be a conflagration. Am I the fire?” he continued, submitting to the two sounding kisses the young girl placed upon either cheek, but still keeping his mischievous glance upon the muleteer.
“Quien sabe?” repeated Antonio, gruffly, as the young girl blushed under his significant eyes. “It is no affair of mine,” he added to himself, as he led Pinto away. “Perhaps Father Pedro is right, and this young twig of the Church is as dry and sapless as himself. Let the mestiza burn if she likes.”
“Quick, Pancho,” said the young girl, eagerly leading him along the corridor. “This way. I must talk with thee before thou seest Don Juan; that is why I ran to intercept thee, and not as that fool Antonio would signify, to shame thee. Wast thou ashamed, my Pancho?”
The boy threw his arm familiarly round the supple, stayless little waist, accented only by the belt of the light flounced saya, and said, “But why this haste and feverishness, ‘Nita? And now I look at thee, thou hast been crying.”
They had emerged from a door in the corridor into the bright sunlight of a walled garden. The girl dropped her eyes, cast a quick glance around her, and said:
“Not here; to the arroyo;” and half leading, half dragging him, made her way through a copse of manzanita and alder until they heard the faint tinkling of water. “Dost thou remember,” said the girl, “it was here,” pointing to an embayed pool in the dark current, “that I baptized thee, when Father Pedro first brought thee here, when we both played at being monks? They were dear old days, for Father Pedro would trust no one with thee but me, and always kept us near him.”
“Aye, and he said I would be profaned by the touch of any other, and so himself always washed and dressed me, and made my bed near his.”
“And took thee away again, and I saw thee not till thou camest with Antonio, over a year ago, to the cattle branding. And now, my Pancho, I may never see thee again.” She buried her face in her hands and sobbed aloud.
The little acolyte tried to comfort her, but with such abstraction of manner and inadequacy of warmth that she hastily removed his caressing hand.
“But why? What has happened?” he asked eagerly.
The girl’s manner had changed. Her eyes flashed, and she put her brown fist on her waist and began to rock from side to side.
“But I’ll not go,” she said, viciously.
“Go where?” asked the boy.
“Oh, where?” she echoed, impatiently. “Hear me, Francisco. Thou knowest I am, like thee, an orphan; but I have not, like thee, a parent in the Holy Church. For, alas,” she added, bitterly, “I am not a boy, and have not a lovely voice borrowed from the angels. I was, like thee, a foundling, kept, by the charity of the reverend fathers, until Don Juan, a childless widower, adopted me. I was happy, not knowing and caring who were the parents who had abandoned me, happy only in the love of him who became my adopted father. And now”–She paused.
“And now?” echoed Francisco, eagerly.
“And now they say it is discovered who are my parents.”
“And they live?”
“Mother of God! no,” said the girl, with scarcely filial piety. “There is some one, a thing, a mere Don Fulano, who knows it all, it seems, who is to be my guardian.”
“But how? Tell me all, dear Juanita,” said the boy with a feverish interest, that contrasted so strongly with his previous abstraction that Juanita bit her lips with vexation.
“Ah! How? Santa Barbara! An extravaganza for children. A necklace of lies. I am lost from a ship of which my father–Heaven rest him!–is General, and I am picked up among the weeds on the sea-shore, like Moses in the bulrushes. A pretty story, indeed.”
“O how beautiful!” exclaimed Francisco enthusiastically. “Ah, Juanita, would it had been me!”
“Thee!” said the girl bitterly,–“thee! No!–it was a girl wanted. Enough, it was me.”
“And when does the guardian come?” persisted the boy, with sparkling eyes.
“He is here even now, with that pompous fool the American alcalde from Monterey, a wretch who knows nothing of the country or the people, but who helped the other American to claim me. I tell thee, Francisco, like as not it is all a folly, some senseless blunder of those Americanos that imposes upon Don Juan’s simplicity and love for them.”
“How looks he, this Americano who seeks thee?” asked Francisco.
“What care I how he looks,” said Juanita, “or what he is? He may have the four S’s, for all I care. Yet,” she added with a slight touch of coquetry, “he is not bad to look upon, now I recall him.”
“Had he a long mustache and a sad, sweet smile, and a voice so gentle and yet so strong that you felt he ordered you to do things without saying it? And did his eye read your thoughts?–that very thought that you must obey him?”
“Saints preserve thee, Pancho! Of whom dost thou speak?”
“Listen, Juanita. It was a year ago, the eve of Natividad; he was in the church when I sang. Look where I would, I always met his eye. When the canticle was sung and I was slipping into the sacristy, he was beside me. He spoke kindly, but I understood him not. He put into my hand gold for an aguinaldo. I pretended I understood not that also, and put it into the box for the poor. He smiled and went away. Often have I seen him since; and last night, when I left the Mission, he was there again with Father Pedro.”
“And Father Pedro, what said he of him?” asked Juanita.
“Nothing.” The boy hesitated. “Perhaps–because I said nothing of the stranger.”
Juanita laughed. “So thou canst keep a secret from the good father when thou carest. But why dost thou think this stranger is my new guardian?”
“Dost thou not see, little sister? He was even then seeking thee,” said the boy with joyous excitement. “Doubtless he knew we were friends and playmates–maybe the good father has told him thy secret. For it is no idle tale of the alcalde, believe me. I see it all! It is true!”
“Then thou wilt let him take me away,” exclaimed the girl bitterly, withdrawing the little hand he had clasped in his excitement.
“Alas, Juanita, what avails it now? I am sent to San Jose, charged with a letter to the Father Superior, who will give me further orders. What they are, or how long I must stay, I know not. But I know this: the good Father Pedro’s eyes were troubled when he gave me his blessing, and he held me long in his embrace. Pray Heaven I have committed no fault. Still it may be that the reputation of my gift hath reached the Father Superior, and he would advance me;” and Francisco’s eyes lit up with youthful pride at the thought.
Not so Juanita. Her black eyes snapped suddenly with suspicion, she drew in her breath, and closed her little mouth firmly. Then she began a crescendo.
Mother of God! was that all? Was he a child, to be sent away for such time or for such purpose as best pleased the fathers? Was he to know no more than that? With such gifts as God had given him, was he not at least to have some word in disposing of them? Ah! she would not stand it.
The boy gazed admiringly at the piquant energy of the little figure before him, and envied her courage. “It is the mestizo blood,” he murmured to himself. Then aloud, “Thou shouldst have been a man, ‘Nita.”
“And thou a woman.”
“Or a priest. Eh, what is that?”
They had both risen, Juanita defiantly, her black braids flying as she wheeled and suddenly faced the thicket, Francisco clinging to her with trembling hands and whitened lips. A stone, loosened from the hillside, had rolled to their feet; there was a crackling in the alders on the slope above them.
“Is it a bear, or a brigand?” whispered Francisco, hurriedly, sounding the uttermost depths of his terror in the two words.
“It is an eavesdropper,” said Juanita, impetuously; “and who and why, I intend to know,” and she started towards the thicket.
“Do not leave me, good Juanita;” said the young acolyte, grasping the girl’s skirt.
“Nay; run to the hacienda quickly, and leave me to search the thicket. Run!”
The boy did not wait for a second injunction, but scuttled away, his long coat catching in the brambles, while Juanita darted like a kitten into the bushes. Her search was fruitless, however, and she was returning impatiently, when her quick eye fell upon a letter lying amid the dried grass where she and Francisco had been seated the moment before. It had evidently fallen from his breast when he had risen suddenly, and been overlooked in his alarm. It was Father Pedro’s letter to the Father Superior of San Jose.
In an instant she had pounced upon it as viciously as if it had been the interloper she was seeking. She knew that she held in her fingers the secret of Francisco’s sudden banishment. She felt instinctively that this yellowish envelope, with its red string and its blotch of red seal, was his sentence and her own. The little mestizo, had not been brought up to respect the integrity of either locks or seals, both being unknown in the patriarchal life of the hacienda. Yet with a certain feminine instinct she looked furtively around her, and even managed to dislodge the clumsy wax without marring the pretty effigy of the crossed keys impressed upon it. Then she opened the letter and read.
Suddenly she stopped and put back her hair from her brown temples. Then a succession of burning blushes followed each other in waves from her neck up, and died in drops of moisture in her eyes. This continued until she was fairly crying, dropping the letter from her hands and rocking to and fro. In the midst of this she quickly stopped again; the clouds broke, a sunshine of laughter started from her eyes, she laughed shyly, she laughed loudly, she laughed hysterically. Then she stopped again as suddenly, knitted her brows, swooped down once more upon the letter, and turned to fly. But at the same moment the letter was quietly but firmly taken from her hand, and Mr. Jack Cranch stood beside her.
Juanita was crimson, but unconquered. She mechanically held out her hand for the letter; the American took her little fingers, kissed them, and said:
“How are you again?”
“The letter,” replied Juanita, with a strong disposition to stamp her foot.
“But,” said Cranch, with business directness, “you’ve read enough to know it isn’t for you.”
“Nor for you either,” responded Juanita.
“True. It is for the Reverend Father Superior of San Jose Mission. I’ll give it to him.”
Juanita was becoming alarmed, first at this prospect, second at the power the stranger seemed to be gaining over her. She recalled Francisco’s description of him with something like superstitious awe.
“But it concerns Francisco. It contains a secret he should know.”
“Then you can tell him it. Perhaps it would come easier from you.”
Juanita blushed again. “Why?” she asked, half dreading his reply.
“Because,” said the American, quietly, “you are old playmates; you are attached to each other.”
Juanita bit her lips. “Why don’t you read it yourself?” she asked bluntly.
“Because I don’t read other people’s letters, and if it concerns me you’ll tell me.”
“What if I don’t?”
“Then the Father Superior will.”
“I believe you know Francisco’s secret already,” said the girl, boldly.
“Then, Mother of God! Senor Crancho, what do you want?”
“I do not want to separate two such good friends as you and Francisco.”
“Perhaps you’d like to claim us both,” said the girl, with a sneer that was not devoid of coquetry.
“I should be delighted.”
“Then here is your occasion, Senor, for here comes my adopted father, Don Juan, and your friend, Senor Br–r–own, the American alcalde.”
Two men appeared in the garden path below them. The stiff, glazed, broad-brimmed black hat, surmounting a dark face of Quixotic gravity and romantic rectitude, indicated Don Juan Briones. His companion, lazy, specious, and red-faced, was Senor Brown, the American alcalde.
“Well, I reckon we kin about call the thing fixed,” said Senor Brown, with a large wave of the hand, suggesting a sweeping away of all trivial details. “Ez I was saying to the Don yer, when two high-toned gents like you and him come together in a delicate matter of this kind, it ain’t no hoss trade nor sharp practice. The Don is that lofty in principle that he’s willin’ to sacrifice his affections for the good of the gal; and you, on your hand, kalkilate to see all he’s done for her, and go your whole pile better. You’ll make the legal formalities good. I reckon that old Injin woman who can swear to the finding of the baby on the shore will set things all right yet. For the matter o’ that, if you want anything in the way of a certificate, I’m on hand always.”
“Juanita and myself are at your disposition, caballeros,” said Don Juan, with a grave exaltation. “Never let it be said that the Mexican nation was outdone by the great Americanos in deeds of courtesy and affection. Let it rather stand that Juanita was a sacred trust put into my hands years ago by the goddess of American liberty, and nurtured in the Mexican eagle’s nest. Is it not so, my soul?” he added, more humanly, to the girl, when he had quite recovered from the intoxication of his own speech. “We love thee, little one, but we keep our honor.”
“There’s nothing mean about the old man,” said Brown, admiringly, with a slight dropping of his left eyelid; “his head is level, and he goes with his party.”
“Thou takest my daughter, Senor Cranch,” continued the old man, carried away by his emotion; “but the American nation gives me a son.”
“You know not what you say, father,” said the young girl, angrily, exasperated by a slight twinkle in the American’s eye.
“Not so,” said Cranch. “Perhaps one of the American nation may take him at his word.”
“Then, caballeros, you will, for the moment at least, possess yourselves of the house and its poor hospitality,” said Don Juan, with time-honored courtesy, producing the rustic key of the gate of the patio. “It is at your disposition, caballeros,” he repeated, leading the way as his guests passed into the corridor.
Two hours passed. The hills were darkening on their eastern slopes; the shadows of the few poplars that sparsedly dotted the dusty highway were falling in long black lines that looked like ditches on the dead level of the tawny fields; the shadows of slowly moving cattle were mingling with their own silhouettes, and becoming more and more grotesque. A keen wind rising in the hills was already creeping from the canada as from the mouth of a funnel, and sweeping the plains. Antonio had forgathered with the servants, had pinched the ears of the maids, had partaken of aguardiente, had saddled the mules,–Antonio was becoming impatient.
And then a singular commotion disturbed the peaceful monotony of the patriarchal household of Don Juan Briones. The stagnant courtyard was suddenly alive with peons and servants, running hither and thither. The alleys and gardens were filled with retainers. A confusion of questions, orders, and outcrys rent the air, the plains shook with the galloping of a dozen horsemen. For the acolyte Francisco, of the Mission San Carmel, had disappeared and vanished, and from that day the hacienda of Don Juan Briones knew him no more.
When Father Pedro saw the yellow mules vanish under the low branches of the oaks beside the little graveyard, caught the last glitter of the morning sun on Pinto’s shining headstall, and heard the last tinkle of Antonio’s spurs, something very like a mundane sigh escaped him. To the simple wonder of the majority of early worshipers–the half-breed converts who rigorously attended the spiritual ministrations of the Mission, and ate the temporal provisions of the reverend fathers–he deputed the functions of the first mass to a coadjutor, and, breviary in hand, sought the orchard of venerable pear trees. Whether there was any occult sympathy in his reflections with the contemplation of their gnarled, twisted, gouty, and knotty limbs, still bearing gracious and goodly fruit, I know not, but it was his private retreat, and under one of the most rheumatic and misshapen trunks there was a rude seat. Here Father Pedro sank, his face toward the mountain wall between him and the invisible sea. The relentless, dry, practical Californian sunlight falling on his face grimly pointed out a night of vigil and suffering. The snuffy yellow of his eyes was injected yet burning, his temples were ridged and veined like a tobacco leaf; the odor of desiccation which his garments always exhaled was hot and feverish, as if the fire had suddenly awakened among the ashes.
Of what was Father Pedro thinking?
He was thinking of his youth, a youth spent under the shade of those pear trees, even then venerable as now. He was thinking of his youthful dreams of heathen conquest, emulating the sacrifices and labors of Junipero Serra; a dream cut short by the orders of the archbishop, that sent his companion, Brother Diego, north on a mission to strange lands, and condemned him to the isolation of San Carmel. He was thinking of that fierce struggle with envy of a fellow-creature’s better fortune, that, conquered by prayer and penance, left him patient, submissive, and devoted to his humble work; how he raised up converts to the faith, even taking them from the breast of heretic mothers.
He recalled how once, with the zeal of propagandism quickening in the instincts of a childless man, he had dreamed of perpetuating his work through some sinless creation of his own; of dedicating some virgin soul, one over whom he could have complete control, restricted by no human paternal weakness, to the task he had begun. But how? Of all the boys eagerly offered to the Church by their parents there seemed none sufficiently pure and free from parental taint. He remembered how one night, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin herself, as he firmly then believed, this dream was fulfilled. An Indian woman brought him a Waugee child–a baby-girl that she had picked up on the sea-shore. There were no parents to divide the responsibility, the child had no past to confront, except the memory of the ignorant Indian woman, who deemed her duty done, and whose interest ceased in giving it to the Padre. The austere conditions of his monkish life compelled him to the first step in his adoption of it–the concealment of its sex. This was easy enough, as he constituted himself from that moment its sole nurse and attendant, and boldly baptized it among the other children by the name of Francisco. No others knew its origin, nor cared to know. Father Pedro had taken a muchacho foundling for adoption; his jealous seclusion of it and his personal care was doubtless some sacerdotal formula at once high and necessary.
He remembered with darkening eyes and impeded breath how his close companionship and daily care of this helpless child had revealed to him the fascinations of that paternity denied to him; how he had deemed it his duty to struggle against the thrill of baby fingers laid upon his yellow cheeks, the pleading of inarticulate words, the eloquence of wonder-seeing and mutely questioning eyes; how he had succumbed again and again, and then struggled no more, seeing only in them the suggestion of childhood made incarnate in the Holy Babe. And yet, even as he thought, he drew from his gown a little shoe, and laid it beside his breviary. It was Francisco’s baby slipper, a duplicate to those worn by the miniature waxen figure of the Holy Virgin herself in her niche in the transept.
Had he felt during these years any qualms of conscience at this concealment of the child’s sex? None. For to him the babe was sexless, as most befitted one who was to live and die at the foot of the altar. There was no attempt to deceive God; what mattered else? Nor was he withholding the child from the ministrations of the sacred sisters. There was no convent near the Mission, and as each year passed, the difficulty of restoring her to the position and duties of her sex became greater and more dangerous. And then the acolyte’s destiny was sealed by what again appeared to Father Pedro as a direct interposition of Providence. The child developed a voice of such exquisite sweetness and purity that an angel seemed to have strayed into the little choir, and kneeling worshipers below, transported, gazed upwards, half expectant of a heavenly light breaking through the gloom of the raftered ceiling. The fame of the little singer filled the valley of San Carmel; it was a miracle vouchsafed the Mission; Don Jose Peralta remembered, ah yes, to have heard in old Spain of boy choristers with such voices!
And was this sacred trust to be withdrawn from him? Was this life, which he had brought out of an unknown world of sin, unstained and pure, consecrated and dedicated to God, just in the dawn of power and promise for the glory of the Mother Church, to be taken from his side? And at the word of a self-convicted man of sin–a man whose tardy repentance was not yet absolved by the Holy Church? Never! never! Father Pedro dwelt upon the stranger’s rejections of the ministrations of the Church with a pitiable satisfaction; had he accepted it, he would have had a sacred claim upon Father Pedro’s sympathy and confidence. Yet he rose again, uneasily and with irregular steps returned to the corridor, passing the door of the familiar little cell beside his own. The window, the table, and even the scant toilette utensils were filled with the flowers of yesterday, some of them withered and dry; the white gown of the little chorister was hanging emptily against the wall. Father Pedro started and trembled; it seemed as if the spiritual life of the child had slipped away with its garments.
In that slight chill, which even in the hottest days in California always invests any shadow cast in that white sunlight, Father Pedro shivered in the corridor. Passing again into the garden, he followed in fancy the wayfaring figure of Francisco, saw the child arrive at the rancho of Don Juan, and with the fateful blindness of all dreamers projected a picture most unlike the reality. He followed the pilgrims even to San Jose, and saw the child deliver the missive which gave the secret of her sex and condition to the Father Superior. That the authority at San Jose might dissent with the Padre of San Carmel, or decline to carry out his designs, did not occur to the one-idea’d priest. Like all solitary people, isolated from passing events, he made no allowance for occurrences outside of his routine. Yet at this moment a sudden thought whitened his yellow cheek. What if the Father Superior deemed it necessary to impart the secret to Francisco? Would the child recoil at the deception, and, perhaps, cease to love him? It was the first time, in his supreme selfishness, he had taken the acolyte’s feelings into account. He had thought of him only as one owing implicit obedience to him as a temporal and spiritual guide.
He turned impatiently. It was his muleteer, Jose. Father Pedro’s sunken eye brightened.
“Ah, Jose! Quickly, then; hast thou found Sanchicha?”
“Truly, your reverence! And I have brought her with me, just as she is; though if your reverence make more of her than to fill the six-foot hole and say a prayer over her, I’ll give the mule that brought her here for food for the bull’s horns. She neither hears nor speaks, but whether from weakness or sheer wantonness, I know not.”
“Peace, then! and let thy tongue take example from hers. Bring her with thee into the sacristy and attend without. Go!”
Father Pedro watched the disappearing figure of the muleteer and hurriedly swept his thin, dry hand, veined and ribbed like a brown November leaf, over his stony forehead, with a sound that seemed almost a rustle. Then he suddenly stiffened his fingers over his breviary, dropped his arms perpendicularly before him, and with a rigid step returned to the corridor and passed into the sacristy.
For a moment in the half-darkness the room seemed to be empty. Tossed carelessly in the corner appeared some blankets topped by a few straggling black horsetails, like an unstranded riata. A trembling agitated the mass as Father Pedro approached. He bent over the heap and distinguished in its midst the glowing black eyes of Sanchicha, the Indian centenarian of the Mission San Carmel. Only her eyes lived. Helpless, boneless, and jelly-like, old age had overtaken her with a mild form of deliquescence.
“Listen, Sanchicha,” said the father, gravely. “It is important that thou shouldst refresh thy memory for a moment. Look back fourteen years, mother; it is but yesterday to thee. Thou dost remember the baby–a little muchacha thou broughtest me then–fourteen years ago?”
The old woman’s eyes became intelligent, and turned with a quick look towards the open door of the church, and thence towards the choir.
The Padre made a motion of irritation. “No, no! Thou dost not understand; thou dost not attend me. Knowest thou of any mark of clothing, trinket, or amulet found upon the babe?”
The light of the old woman’s eyes went out. She might have been dead. Father Pedro waited a moment, and then laid his hand impatiently on her shoulder.
“Dost thou mean there are none?”
A ray of light struggled back into her eyes.
“And thou hast kept back or put away no sign nor mark of her parentage? Tell me, on this crucifix.”
The eyes caught the crucifix, and became as empty as the orbits of the carven Christ upon it.
Father Pedro waited patiently. A moment passed; only the sound of the muleteer’s spurs was heard in the courtyard.
“It is well,” he said at last, with a sigh of relief. “Pepita shall give thee some refreshment, and Jose will bring thee back again. I will summon him.”
He passed out of the sacristy door, leaving it open. A ray of sunlight darted eagerly in, and fell upon the grotesque heap in the corner. Sanchicha’s eyes lived again; more than that, a singular movement came over her face. The hideous caverns of her toothless mouth opened–she laughed. The step of Jose was heard in the corridor, and she became again inert.
The third day, which should have brought the return of Antonio, was nearly spent. Father Pedro was impatient but not alarmed. The good fathers at San Jose might naturally detain Antonio for the answer, which might require deliberation. If any mischance had occurred to Francisco, Antonio would have returned or sent a special messenger. At sunset he was in his accustomed seat in the orchard, his hands clasped over the breviary in his listless lap, his eyes fixed upon the mountain between him and that mysterious sea that had brought so much into his life. He was filled with a strange desire to see it, a vague curiosity hitherto unknown to his preoccupied life; he wished to gaze upon that strand, perhaps the very spot where she had been found; he doubted not his questioning eyes would discover some forgotten trace of her; under his persistent will and aided by the Holy Virgin, the sea would give up its secret. He looked at the fog creeping along the summit, and recalled the latest gossip of San Carmel; how that since the advent of the Americanos it was gradually encroaching on the Mission. The hated name vividly recalled to him the features of the stranger as he had stood before him three nights ago, in this very garden; so vividly that he sprang to his feet with an exclamation. It was no fancy, but Senor Cranch himself advancing from under the shadow of a pear tree.
“I reckoned I’d catch you here,” said Mr. Cranch, with the same dry, practical business fashion, as if he were only resuming an interrupted conversation, “and I reckon I ain’t going to keep you a minit longer than I did t’other day.” He mutely referred to his watch, which he already held in his hand, and then put it back in his pocket. “Well! we found her!”
“Francisco,” interrupted the priest with a single stride, laying his hand upon Cranch’s arm, and staring into his eyes.
Mr. Cranch quietly removed Father Pedro’s hand. “I reckon that wasn’t the name as I caught it,” he returned dryly. “Hadn’t you better sit down?”
“Pardon me–pardon me, Senor,” said the priest, hastily sinking back upon his bench, “I was thinking of other things. You–you–came upon me suddenly. I thought it was the acolyte. Go on, Senor! I am interested.”
“I thought you’d be,” said Cranch, quietly. “That’s why I came. And then you might be of service too.”
“True, true,” said the priest, with rapid accents; “and this girl, Senor, this girl is”–
“Juanita, the mestiza, adopted daughter of Don Juan Briones, over on the Santa Clare Valley,” replied Cranch, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, and then sitting down upon the bench beside Father Pedro.
The priest turned his feverish eyes piercingly upon his companion for a few seconds, and then doggedly fixed them upon the ground. Cranch drew a plug of tobacco from his pocket, cut off a portion, placed it in his cheek, and then quietly began to strap the blade of his jack-knife upon his boot. Father Pedro saw it from under his eyelids, and even in his preoccupation despised him.
“Then you are certain she is the babe you seek?” said the father, without looking up.
“I reckon as near as you can be certain of anything. Her age tallies; she was the only foundling girl baby baptized by you, you know,”–he partly turned round appealingly to the Padre,–“that year. Injin woman says she picked up a baby. Looks like a pretty clear case, don’t it?”
“And the clothes, friend Cranch?” said the priest, with his eyes still on the ground, and a slight assumption of easy indifference.
“They will be forthcoming, like enough, when the time comes,” said Cranch. “The main thing at first was to find the girl; that was my job; the lawyers, I reckon, can fit the proofs and say what’s wanted, later on.”
“But why lawyers,” continued Padre Pedro, with a slight sneer he could not repress, “if the child is found and Senor Cranch is satisfied?”
“On account of the property. Business is business!”
Mr. Cranch pressed the back of his knife-blade on his boot, shut it up with a click, and putting it in his pocket said calmly:
“Well, I reckon the million of dollars that her father left when he died, which naturally belongs to her, will require some proof that she is his daughter.”
He had placed both his hands in his pockets, and turned his eyes full upon Father Pedro. The priest arose hurriedly.
“But you said nothing of this before, Senor Cranch,” said he, with a gesture of indignation, turning his back quite upon Cranch, and taking a step towards the refectory.
“Why should I? I was looking after the girl, not the property,” returned Cranch, following the Padre with watchful eyes, but still keeping his careless, easy attitude.
“Ah, well! Will it be said so, think you? Eh! Bueno. What will the world think of your sacred quest, eh?” continued the Padre Pedro, forgetting himself in his excitement, but still averting his face from his companion.
“The world will look after the proofs, and I reckon not bother if the proofs are all right,” replied Cranch, carelessly; “and the girl won’t think the worse for me for helping her to a fortune. Hallo! you’ve dropped something.” He leaped to his feet, picked up the breviary which had fallen from the Padre’s fingers, and returned it to him with a slight touch of gentleness that was unsuspected in the man.
The priest’s dry, tremulous hand grasped the volume without acknowledgment.
“But these proofs?” he said hastily; “these proofs, Senor?”
“Oh, well, you’ll testify to the baptism, you know.”
“But if I refuse; if I will have nothing to do with this thing! If I will not give my word that there is not some mistake,” said the priest, working himself into a feverish indignation. “That there are not slips of memory, eh? Of so many children baptized, is it possible for me to know which, eh? And if this Juanita is not your girl, eh?”
“Then you’ll help me to find who is,” said Cranch, coolly.
Father Pedro turned furiously on his tormentor. Overcome by his vigil and anxiety, he was oblivious of everything but the presence of the man who seemed to usurp the functions of his own conscience. “Who are you, who speak thus?” he said hoarsely, advancing upon Cranch with outstretched and anathematizing fingers. “Who are you, Senor Heathen, who dare to dictate to me, a Father of Holy Church? I tell you, I will have none of this. Never! I will not! From this moment, you understand–nothing. I will never” …
He stopped. The first stroke of the Angelus rang from the little tower. The first stroke of that bell before whose magic exorcism all human passions fled, the peaceful bell that had for fifty years lulled the little fold of San Carmel to prayer and rest, came to his throbbing ear. His trembling hands groped for the crucifix, carried it to his left breast; his lips moved in prayer. His eyes were turned to the cold, passionless sky, where a few faint, far-spaced stars had silently stolen to their places. The Angelus still rang, his trembling ceased, he remained motionless and rigid.
The American, who had uncovered in deference to the worshiper rather than the rite, waited patiently. The eyes of Father Pedro returned to the earth, moist as if with dew caught from above. He looked half absently at Cranch.
“Forgive me, my son,” he said, in a changed voice. “I am only a worn old man. I must talk with thee more of this–but not to-night–not to-night;–to-morrow–to-morrow–to-morrow.”
He turned slowly and appeared to glide rather than move under the trees, until the dark shadow of the Mission tower met and encompassed him. Cranch followed him with anxious eyes. Then he removed the quid of tobacco from his cheek.
“Just as I reckoned,” remarked he, quite audibly. “He’s clean gold on the bed rock after all!”
That night Father Pedro dreamed a strange dream. How much of it was reality, how long it lasted, or when he awoke from it, he could not tell. The morbid excitement of the previous day culminated in a febrile exaltation in which he lived and moved as in a separate existence.
This is what he remembered. He thought he had risen at night in a sudden horror of remorse, and making his way to the darkened church had fallen upon his knees before the high altar, when all at once the acolyte’s voice broke from the choir, but in accents so dissonant and unnatural that it seemed a sacrilege, and he trembled. He thought he had confessed the secret of the child’s sex to Cranch, but whether the next morning or a week later he did not know. He fancied, too, that Cranch had also confessed some trifling deception to him, but what, or why, he could not remember; so much greater seemed the enormity of his own transgression. He thought Cranch had put in his hands the letter he had written to the Father Superior, saying that his secret was still safe, and that he had been spared the avowal and the scandal that might have ensued. But through all, and above all, he was conscious of one fixed idea: to seek the sea-shore with Sanchicha, and upon the spot where she had found Francisco, meet the young girl who had taken his place, and so part from her forever. He had a dim recollection that this was necessary to some legal identification of her, as arranged by Cranch, but how or why he did not understand; enough that it was a part of his penance.
It was early morning when the faithful Antonio, accompanied by Sanchicha and Jose, rode forth with him from the Mission of San Carmel. Except on the expressionless features of the old woman, there was anxiety and gloom upon the faces of the little cavalcade. He did not know how heavily his strange abstraction and hallucinations weighed upon their honest hearts. As they wound up the ascent of the mountain he noticed that Antonio and Jose conversed with bated breath and many pious crossings of themselves, but with eyes always wistfully fixed upon him. He wondered if, as part of his penance, he ought not to proclaim his sin and abase himself before them; but he knew that his devoted followers would insist upon sharing his punishment; and he remembered his promise to Cranch, that for her sake he would say nothing. Before they reached the summit he turned once or twice to look back upon the Mission. How small it looked, lying there in the peaceful valley, contrasted with the broad sweep of the landscape beyond, stopped at the farther east only by the dim, ghost-like outlines of the Sierras. But the strong breath of the sea was beginning to be felt; in a few moments more they were facing it with lowered sombreros and flying serapes, and the vast, glittering, illimitable Pacific opened out beneath them.
Dazed and blinded, as it seemed to him, by the shining, restless expanse, Father Pedro rode forward as if still in a dream. Suddenly he halted, and called Antonio to his side.
“Tell me, child, didst thou say that this coast was wild and desolate of man, beast, and habitation?”
“Truly I did, reverend father.”
“Then what is that?” pointing to the shore.
Almost at their feet nestled a cluster of houses, at the head of an arroyo reaching up from the beach. They looked down upon the smoke of a manufactory chimney, upon strange heaps of material and curious engines scattered along the sands, with here and there moving specks of human figures. In a little bay a schooner swung at her cables.
The vaquero crossed himself in stupefied alarm. “I know not, your reverence; it is only two years ago, before the rodeo, that I was here for strayed colts, and I swear by the blessed bones of San Antonio that it was as I said.”
“Ah! it is like these Americanos,” responded the muleteer. “I have it from my brother Diego that he went from San Jose to Pescadero two months ago across the plains, with never a hut nor fonda to halt at all the way. He returned in seven days, and in the midst of the plain there were three houses and a mill and many people. And why was it? Ah! Mother of God! one had picked up in the creek where he drank that much of gold;” and the muleteer tapped one of the silver coins that fringed his jacket sleeves in place of buttons.
“And they are washing the sands for gold there now,” said Antonio, eagerly pointing to some men gathered round a machine like an enormous cradle. “Let us hasten on.”
Father Pedro’s momentary interest had passed. The words of his companions fell dull and meaningless upon his dreaming ears. He was conscious only that the child was more a stranger to him as an outcome of this hard, bustling life, than when he believed her borne to him over the mysterious sea. It perplexed his dazed, disturbed mind to think that if such an antagonistic element could exist within a dozen miles of the Mission, and he not know it, could not such an atmosphere have been around him, even in his monastic isolation, and he remain blind to it? Had he really lived in the world without knowing it? Had it been in his blood? Had it impelled him to–He shuddered and rode on.
They were at the last slope of the zigzag descent to the shore, when he saw the figures of a man and woman moving slowly through a field of wild oats, not far from the trail. It seemed to his distorted fancy that the man was Cranch. The woman! His heart stopped beating. Ah! could it be? He had never seen her in her proper garb: would she look like that? Would she be as tall? He thought he bade Jose and Antonio go on slowly before with Sanchicha, and dismounted, walking slowly between the high stalks of grain lest he should disturb them. They evidently did not hear his approach, but were talking earnestly. It seemed to Father Pedro that they had taken each other’s hands, and as he looked Cranch slipped his arm round her waist. With only a blind instinct of some dreadful sacrilege in this act, Father Pedro would have rushed forward, when the girl’s voice struck his ear. He stopped, breathless. It was not Francisco, but Juanita, the little mestiza.
“But are you sure you are not pretending to love me now, as you pretended to think I was the muchacha you had run away with and lost? Are you sure it is not pity for the deceit you practiced upon me–upon Don Juan–upon poor Father Pedro?”
It seemed as if Cranch had tried to answer with a kiss, for the girl drew suddenly away from him with a coquettish fling of the black braids, and whipped her little brown hands behind her.
“Well, look here,” said Cranch, with the same easy, good-natured, practical directness which the priest remembered, and which would have passed for philosophy in a more thoughtful man, “put it squarely, then. In the first place, it was Don Juan and the alcalde who first suggested you might be the child.”
“But you have said you knew it was Francisco all the time,” interrupted Juanita.
“I did; but when I found the priest would not assist me at first, and admit that the acolyte was a girl, I preferred to let him think I was deceived in giving a fortune to another, and leave it to his own conscience to permit it or frustrate it. I was right. I reckon it was pretty hard on the old man, at his time of life, and wrapped up as he was in the girl; but at the moment he came up to the scratch like a man.”
“And to save him you have deceived me? Thank you, Senor,” said the girl with a mock curtsey.
“I reckon I preferred to have you for a wife than a daughter,” said Cranch, “if that’s what you mean. When you know me better, Juanita,” he continued, gravely, “you’ll know that I would never have let you believe I sought in you the one if I had not hoped to find in you the other.”
“Bueno! And when did you have that pretty hope?”
“When I first saw you.”
“And that was–two weeks ago.”
“A year ago, Juanita. When Francisco visited you at the rancho. I followed and saw you.”
Juanita looked at him a moment, and then suddenly darted at him, caught him by the lapels of his coat and shook him like a terrier.
“Are you sure that you did not love that Francisco? Speak!” (She shook him again.) “Swear that you did not follow her!”
“But–I did,” said Cranch, laughing and shaking between the clenching of the little hands.
“Judas Iscariot! Swear you do not love her all this while.”
Cranch swore. Then to Father Pedro’s intense astonishment she drew the American’s face towards her own by the ears and kissed him.
“But you might have loved her, and married a fortune,” said Juanita, after a pause.
“Where would have been my reparation–my duty?” returned Cranch, with a laugh.
“Reparation enough for her to have had you,” said Juanita, with that rapid disloyalty of one loving woman to another in an emergency. This provoked another kiss from Cranch, and then Juanita said demurely:
“But we are far from the trail. Let us return, or we shall miss Father Pedro. Are you sure he will come?”
“A week ago he promised to be here to see the proofs to-day.”
The voices were growing fainter and fainter; they were returning to the trail.
Father Pedro remained motionless. A week ago! Was it a week ago since–since what? And what had he been doing here? Listening! He! Father Pedro, listening like an idle peon to the confidences of two lovers. But they had talked of him, of his crime, and the man had pitied him. Why did he not speak? Why did he not call after them? He tried to raise his voice. It sank in his throat with a horrible choking sensation. The nearest heads of oats began to nod to him, he felt himself swaying backward and forward. He fell–heavily, down, down, down, from the summit of the mountain to the floor of the Mission chapel, and there he lay in the dark.
* * * * *
“Blessed Saint Anthony preserve him!”
It was Antonio’s voice, it was Jose’s arm, it was the field of wild oats, the sky above his head,–all unchanged.
“What has happened?” said the priest feebly.
“A giddiness seized your reverence just now, as we were coming to seek you.”
“And you met no one?”
“No one, your reverence.”
Father Pedro passed his hand across his forehead.
“But who are these?” he said, pointing to two figures who now appeared upon the trail.
“It is the Americano, Senor Cranch, and his adopted daughter, the mestiza Juanita, seeking your reverence, methinks.”
“Ah!” said Father Pedro.
Cranch came forward and greeted the priest cordially.
“It was kind of you, Father Pedro,” he said, meaningly, with a significant glance at Jose and Antonio, “to come so far to bid me and my adopted daughter farewell. We depart when the tide serves, but not before you partake of our hospitality in yonder cottage.”
Father Pedro gazed at Cranch and then at Juanita.
“I see,” he stammered. “But she goes not alone. She will be strange at first. She takes some friend, perhaps–some companion?” he continued, tremulously.
“A very old and dear one, Father Pedro, who is waiting for us now.”
He led the way to a little white cottage, so little and white and recent, that it seemed a mere fleck of sea-foam cast on the sands. Disposing of Jose and Antonio in the neighboring workshop and outbuildings, he assisted the venerable Sanchicha to dismount, and, together with Father Pedro and Juanita, entered a white palisaded enclosure beside the cottage, and halted before what appeared to be a large folding trap-door, covering a slight sandy mound. It was locked with a padlock; beside it stood the American alcalde and Don Juan Briones. Father Pedro looked hastily around for another figure, but it was not there.
“Gentlemen,” began Cranch, in his practical business way, “I reckon you all know we’ve come here to identify a young lady, who”–he hesitated–“was lately under the care of Father Pedro, with a foundling picked up on this shore fifteen years ago by an Indian woman. How this foundling came here, and how I was concerned in it, you all know. I’ve told everybody here how I scrambled ashore, leaving the baby in the dingy, supposing it would be picked up by the boat pursuing me. I’ve told some of you,” he looked at Father Pedro, “how I first discovered, from one of the men, three years ago, that the child was not found by its father. But I have never told any one, before now, I knew it was picked up here.
“I never could tell the exact locality where I came ashore, for the fog was coming on as it is now. But two years ago I came up with a party of gold hunters to work these sands. One day, digging near this creek, I struck something embedded deep below the surface. Well, gentlemen, it wasn’t gold, but something worth more to me than gold or silver. Here it is.”
At a sign the alcalde unlocked the doors and threw them open. They disclosed an irregular trench, in which, filled with sand, lay the half-excavated stern of a boat.
“It was the dingy of the Trinidad, gentlemen; you can still read her name. I found hidden away, tucked under the stern sheets, moldy and water-worn, some clothes that I recognized to be the baby’s. I knew then that the child had been taken away alive for some purpose, and the clothes were left so that she should carry no trace with her. I recognized the hand of an Indian. I set to work quietly. I found Sanchicha here, she confessed to finding a baby, but what she had done with it she would not at first say. But since then she has declared before the alcalde that she gave it to Father Pedro of San Carmel, and that here it stands–Francisco that was! Francisca that it is!”
He stepped aside to make way for a tall girl, who had approached from the cottage.
Father Pedro had neither noticed the concluding words nor the movement of Cranch. His eyes were fixed upon the imbecile Sanchicha,–Sanchicha, of whom, to render his rebuke more complete, the Deity seemed to have worked a miracle, and restored intelligence to eye and lip. He passed his hand tremblingly across his forehead, and turned away, when his eye fell upon the last comer.
It was she. The moment he had longed for and dreaded had come. She stood there, animated, handsome, filled with a hurtful consciousness in her new charms, her fresh finery, and the pitiable trinkets that had supplanted her scapulary, and which played under her foolish fingers. The past had no place in her preoccupied mind; her bright eyes were full of eager anticipation of a substantial future. The incarnation of a frivolous world, even as she extended one hand to him in half-coquettish embarrassment she arranged the folds of her dress with the other. At the touch of her fingers he felt himself growing old and cold. Even the penance of parting, which he had looked forward to, was denied him; there was no longer sympathy enough for sorrow. He thought of the empty chorister’s robe in the little cell, but not now with regret. He only trembled to think of the flesh that he had once caused to inhabit it.
“That’s all, gentlemen,” broke in the practical voice of Cranch. “Whether there are proofs enough to make Francisca the heiress of her father’s wealth, the lawyers must say. I reckon it’s enough for me that they give me the chance of repairing a wrong by taking her father’s place. After all, it was a mere chance.”
“It was the will of God,” said Father Pedro, solemnly.
They were the last words he addressed them. For when the fog had begun to creep in-shore, hastening their departure, he only answered their farewells by a silent pressure of the hand, mute lips, and far-off eyes.
When the sound of their laboring oars grew fainter, he told Antonio to lead him and Sanchicha again to the buried boat. There he bade her kneel beside him. “We will do penance here, thou and I, daughter,” he said, gravely. When the fog had drawn its curtain gently around the strange pair, and sea and shore were blotted out, he whispered, “Tell me, it was even so, was it not, daughter, on the night she came?” When the distant clatter of blocks and rattle of cordage came from the unseen vessel, now standing out to sea, he whispered again, “So, this is what thou didst hear, even then.” And so during the night he marked, more or less audibly to the half-conscious woman at his side, the low whisper of the waves, the murmur of the far-off breakers, the lightening and thickening of the fog, the phantoms of moving shapes, and the slow coming of the dawn. And when the morning sun had rent the veil over land and sea, Antonio and Jose found him, haggard but erect, beside the trembling old woman, with a blessing on his lips, pointing to the horizon where a single sail still glimmered:–
“Va Usted con Dios.”