The Doomswoman by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
We sat in the sala the next evening, awaiting the return of the prodigal and his deliverer. The night was cool, and the doors were closed; coals burned in a roof-tile. The room, unlike most Californian salas, boasted a carpet, and the furniture was covered with green rep, instead of the usual black horse-hair.
Don Guillermo patted the table gently with his open palm, accompanying the tinkle of Prudencia's guitar and her light monotonous voice. She sat on the edge of a chair, her solemn eyes fixed on a painting of Reinaldo which hung on the wall. Dona Trinidad was sewing as usual, and dressed as simply as if she looked to her daughter to maintain the state of the Iturbi y Moncadas. Above a black silk skirt she wore a black shawl, one end thrown over her shoulder. About her head was a close black silk turban, concealing, with the exception of two soft gray locks on either side of her face, what little hair she may still have possessed. Her white face was delicately cut: the lines of time indicated spiritual sweetness rather than strength.
Chonita roved between the sala and an adjoining room where four Indian girls embroidered the yellow poppies on the white satin. I was reading one of her books,--the "Vicar of Wakefield."
"Wilt thou be glad to see Reinaldo, my Prudencia?" asked Don Guillermo, as the song finished.
"Ay!" and the girl blushed.
"Thou wouldst make a good wife for Reinaldo, and it is well that he marry. It is true that he has a gay spirit and loves company, but you shall live here in this house, and if he is not a devoted husband he shall have no money to spend. It is time he became a married man and learned that life was not made for dancing and flirting; then, too, would his restless spirit get him into fewer broils. I have heard him speak twice of no other woman, excepting Valencia Menendez, and I would not have her for a daughter; and I think he loves thee."
"Sure!" said Dona Trinidad.
"That is love, I suppose," said Chonita, leaning back in her chair and forgetting the poppies. "With her a placid contented hope, with him a calm preference for a malleable woman. If he left her for another she would cry for a week, then serenely marry whom my father bade her, and forget Reinaldo in the donas of the bridegroom. The birds do almost as well."
Don Guillermo smiled indulgently. Prudencia did not know whether to cry or not. Dona Trinidad, who never thought of replying to her daughter, said,--
"Chonita mia, Liseta and Tomaso wish to marry, and thy father will give them the little house by the creek."
"Yes, mamacita?" said Chonita, absently: she felt no interest in the loves of the Indians.
"We have a new Father in the Mission," continued her mother, remembering that she had not acquainted her daughter with all the important events of her absence. "And Don Rafael Guzman's son was drafted. That was a judgment for not marrying when his father bade him. For that I shall be glad to have Reinaldo marry. I would not have him go to the war to be killed."
"No," said Don Guillermo. "He must be a diputado to Mexico. I would not lose my only son in battle. I am ambitious for him; and so art thou, Chonita, for thy brother? Is it not so?"
"Yes. I have it in me to stab the heart of any man who rolls a stone in his way."
"My daughter," said Don Guillermo, with the accent of duty rather than of reproof, "thou must love without vengeance. Sustain thy brother, but harm not his enemy. I would not have thee hate even an Estenega, although I cannot love them myself. But we will not talk of the Estenegas. Dost thou realize that our Reinaldo will be with us this night? We must all go to confession to-morrow,--thy mother and myself, Eustaquia, Reinaldo, Prudencia, and thyself."
Chonita's face became rigid. "I cannot go to confession," she said. "It may be months before I can: perhaps never."
"Can one go to confession with a hating and an unforgiving heart? Ay! that I never had gone to Monterey! At least I had the consolation of my religion before. Now I fight the darkness by myself. Do not ask me questions, for I shall not answer them. But taunt me no more with confession."
Even Don Guillermo was dumb. In all the twenty-four years of her life she never had betrayed violence of spirit before: even her hatred of the Estenegas had been a religion rather than a personal feeling. It was the first glimpse of her soul that she had accorded them, and they were aghast. What--what had happened to this proud, reserved, careless daughter of the Iturbi y Moncadas?
Dona Trinidad drew down her mouth. Prudencia began to cry. Then, for the moment, Chonita was forgotten. Two horses galloped into the court-yard.
The door had but an inside knob: Don Guillermo threw it open as a young man sprang up the three steps of the corridor, followed by a little man who carefully picked his way.
"Yes, I am here, my father, my mother, my sister, my Prudencia! Ay, Eustaquia, thou too." And the pride of the house kissed each in turn, his dark eyes wandering absently about the room. He was a dashing caballero, and as handsome as any ever born in the Californias. The dust of travel had been removed--at a saloon--from his blue velvet gold-embroidered serape, which he immediately flung on the floor. His short jacket and trousers were also of dark-blue velvet, the former decorated with buttons of silver filigree, the latter laced with silver cord over spotless linen. The front of his shirt was covered with costly lace. His long botas were of soft yellow leather stamped with designs in silver and gartered with blue ribbon. The clanking spurs were of silver inlaid with gold. The sash, knotted gracefully over his hip, was of white silk. His curled black hair was tied with a blue ribbon, and clung, clustering and damp, about a low brow. He bore a strange resemblance to Chonita, in spite of the difference of color, but his eyes were merely large and brilliant: they had no stars in their shallows. His mouth was covered by a heavy silken mustache, and his profile was bold. At first glance he impressed one as a perfect type of manly strength, aggressively decided of character. It was only when he cast aside the wide sombrero--which, when worn a little back, most becomingly framed his face--that one saw the narrow, insignificant head.
For a time there was no conversation, only a series of exclamations. Chonita alone was calm, smiling a loving welcome. In the excitement of the first moments little notice was taken of the devoted bailer, who ardently regarded Chonita.
Don Juan de la Borrasca was flouting his sixties, fighting for his youth as a parent fights for its young. His withered little face wore the complacent smile of vanity; his arched brows furnished him with a supercilious expression which atoned for his lack of inches,--he was barely five feet two. His large curved nose was also a compensating gift from the godmother of dignity, and he carried himself so erectly that he looked like a toy general. His small black eyes were bright as glass beads, and his hair was ribboned as bravely as Reinaldo's. He was clad in silk attire,--red silk embroidered with butterflies. His little hands were laden with rings; carbuncles glowed in the lace of his shirt. He was moderately wealthy, but a stanch retainer of the house of Iturbi y Moncada, the devoted slave of Chonita.
She was the first to remember him, and held out her hand for him to kiss. "Thou hast the gratitude of my heart, dear friend," she said, as the little dandy curved over it. "I thank thee a thousand times for bringing my brother back to me."
"Ay, Dona Chonita, thanks be to God and Mary that I was enabled so to do. Had my mission proved unsuccessful I should have committed a crime and gone to prison with him. Never would I have returned here. Dueno adorado, ever at thy feet."
Chonita smiled kindly, but she was listening to her brother, who was now expatiating upon his wrongs to a sympathetic audience.
"Holy heaven!" he exclaimed, striding up and down the room, "that an Iturbi y Moncada, the descendant of twenty generations, should be put to shame, to disgrace and humiliation, by being cast into a common prison! That an ardent patriot, a loyal subject of Mexico, should be accused of conspiring against the judgment of an Alvarado! Carillo was my friend, and had his cause been a just one I had gone with him to the gates of death or the chair of state. But could I, I, conspire against a wise and great man like Juan Bautista Alvarado? No! not even if Carillo had asked me so to do. But, by the stars of heaven, he did not. I had been but the guest of his bounty for a month; and the suspicious rascals who spied upon us, the poor brains who compose the Departmental Junta, took it for granted that an Iturbi y Moncada could not be blind to Carillo's plots and plans and intrigues, that, having been the intimate of his house and table, I must perforce aid and abet whatever schemes engrossed him. Ay, more often than frequently did a dark surmise cross my mind, but I brushed it aside as one does the prompting of evil desires. I would not believe that a Carillo would plot, conspire, and rise again, after the terrible lesson he had received in 1838. Alvarado holds California to his heart; Castro, the Mars of the nineteenth century, hovers menacingly on the horizon. Who, who, in sober reason, would defy that brace of frowning gods?"
His eloquence was cut short by respiratory interference, but he continued to stride from one end of the room to the other, his face flushed with excitement. Prudencia's large eyes followed him, admiration paralyzing her tongue. Dona Trinidad smiled upward with the self-approval of the modest barn-yard lady who has raised a magnificent bantam. Don Guillermo applauded loudly. Only Chonita turned away, the truth smiting her for the first time.
"Words! words!" she thought, bitterly. "He would have said all that in two sentences. Is it true--ay, triste de mi!--what he said of my brother? I hate him, yet his brain has cut mine and wedged there. My head bows to him, even while all the Iturbi y Moncada in me arises to curse him. But my brother! my brother! he is so much younger. And if he had had the same advantages--those years in Mexico and America and Europe--would he not know as much as Diego Estenega? Oh, sure! sure!"
"My son," Don Guillermo was saying, "God be thanked that thou didst not merit thy imprisonment. I should have beaten thee with my cane and locked thee in thy room for a month hadst thou disgraced my name. But, as it happily is, thou must have compensation for unjust treatment.--Prudencia, give me thy hand."
The girl rose, trembling and blushing, but crossed the room with stately step and stood beside her uncle. Don Guillermo took her hand and placed it in Reinaldo's. "Thou shalt have her, my son," he said. "I have divined thy wishes."
Reinaldo kissed the small fingers fluttering in his, making a great flourish. He was quite ready to marry, and his pliant little cousin suited him better than any one he knew. "Day-star of my eyes!" he exclaimed, "consolation of my soul! Memories of injustice, discomfort, and sadness fall into the waters of oblivion rolling at thy feet. I see neither past nor future. The rose-hued curtain of youth and hope falls behind and before us."
"Yes, yes," assented Prudencia, delightedly. "My Reinaldo! my Reinaldo!"
We congratulated them severally and collectively, and, when the ceremony was over, Reinaldo cried, with even more enthusiasm than he had yet shown, "My mother, for the love of Mary give me something to eat,--tamales, salad, chicken, dulces. Don Juan and I are as empty as hides."
Dona Trinidad smiled with the pride of the Californian housewife. "It is ready, my son. Come to the dining-room, no?"
She led the way, followed by the family, Reinaldo and Prudencia lingering. As the others crossed the threshold he drew her back.
"A lump of tallow, dost thou hear, my Prudencia?" he whispered, hurriedly. "Put it under the green bench. I must have it to-night."
"Do not refuse, my Prudencia, if thou lovest me. Wilt thou do it?"
"Sure, my Reinaldo."