The Doomswoman by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Chonita, clad in a black gown, walked slowly up and down the corridor of Casa Grande. The rain should have dripped from the eaves, beaten with heavy monotony upon the hard clay of the court-yard, to accompany her mood, but it did not. The sky was blue without fleck of cloud, the sun like the open mouth of a furnace of boiling gold, the air as warm and sweet and drowsy as if it never had come in shock with human care. Prudencia sat on the green bench, drawing threads in a fine linen smock, her small face rosy with contentment.
"Why dost thou wear that black gown this beautiful morning?" she demanded, suddenly. "And why dost thou walk when thou canst sit down?"
"I had a dream last night. Dost thou believe in dreams?" She had as much regard for her cousin's opinion as for the twittering of a bird, but she felt the necessity of speech at times, and at least this child never remembered what she said.
"Sure, my Chonita. Did not I dream that the good captain would bring pink silk stockings? and are they not my own this minute?" And she thrust a diminutive foot from beneath the hem of her gown, regarding it with admiration. "And did not I dream that Tomaso and Liseta would marry? What was thy dream, my Chonita?"
"I do not know what the first part was; something very sad. All I remember is the roar of the ocean and another roar like the wind through high trees. Then a moment that shook and frightened me, but sweeter than anything I know of, so I cannot define it. Then a swift awful tragedy--I cannot recall the details of that, either. The whole dream was like a black mass of clouds, cut now and again by a scythe of lightning. But then, like a vision within a dream, I seemed to stand there and see myself, clad in a black gown, walking up and down this corridor, or one like it, up and down, up and down, never resting, never daring to rest, lest I hear the ceaseless clatter of a lonely fugitive's horse. When I awoke I was as cold as if I had received the first shock of the surf. I cannot say why I put on this black gown to-day. I make no haste to feel as I did when I wore it in that dream,--the desolation,--the endlessness; but I did."
"That was a strange dream, my Chonita," said Prudencia, threading her needle. "Thou must have eaten too many dulces for supper: didst thou?"
"No," said Chonita, shortly, "I did not."
She continued her aimless walk, wondering at her depression of spirits. All her life she had felt a certain mental loneliness, but a healthy body rarely harbors an invalid soul, and she had only to spring on a horse and gallop over the hills to feel as happy as a young animal. Moreover, the world--all the world she knew--was at her feet; nor had she ever known the novelty of an ungratified wish. Once in a while her father arose in an obdurate mood, but she had only to coax, or threaten tears,--never had she been seen to shed one,--or stamp her foot, to bring that doting parent to terms. It is true that she had had her morbid moments, an abrupt impatient desire for something that was not all light and pleasure and gold and adulation; but, being a girl of will and sense, she had turned resolutely from the troublous demands of her deeper soul, regarding them as coals fallen from a mind that burned too hotly at times.
This morning, however, she let the blue waters rise, not so much because they were stronger than her will, as because she wished to understand what was the matter with her. She was filled with a dull dislike of every one she had ever known, of every condition which had surrounded her from birth. She felt a deep disgust of placid contentment, of the mere enjoyment of sunshine and air. She recalled drearily the clock-like revolutions of the year which brought bull-fights, races, rodeos, church celebrations; her mother's anecdotes of the Indians; her father's manifold interests, ever the theme of his tongue; Reinaldo's grandiloquent accounts of his exploits and intentions; Prudencia's infinite nothings. She hated the balls of which she was La Favorita, the everlasting serenades, the whole life of pleasure which made that period of California the most perfected Arcadia the modern world has known. Some time during the past few weeks the girl had crossed her hands over her breast and lain down in her eternal tomb. The woman had arisen and come forth, blinded as yet by the light, her hands thrust out gropingly.
"It is that man," she told herself, with angry frankness. "I had not talked with him ten minutes before I felt as I do when the scene changes suddenly in one of Shakespeare's plays,--as if I had been flung like a meteor into a new world. I felt the necessity for mental alertness for the first time in my life; always, before, I had striven to conceal what I knew. The natural consequences, of course, were first the desire to feel that stimulation again and again, then to realize the littleness of everything but mental companionship. I have read that people who begin with hate sometimes end with love; and if I were a book woman I suppose I should in time love this man whom I now so hate, even while I admire. But I am no lump of wax in the hands of a writer of dreams. I am Chonita Iturbi y Moncada, and he is Diego Estenega. I could no more love him than could the equator kiss the poles. Only, much as I hate him, I wish I could see him again. He knows so much more than any one else. I should like to talk to him, to ask him many things. He has sworn to marry me." Her lip curled scornfully, but a sudden glow rushed over her. "Had he not been an Estenega,--yes, I could have loved him,--that calm, clear-sighted love that is born of regard; not a whirlwind and a collapse, like most love. I should like to sit with my hands in my lap and hear him talk forever. And we cannot even be friends. It is a pity."
The girl's mind was like a splendid castle only one wing of which had ever been illuminated. By the light of the books she had read, and of acute observation in a little sphere, she strove to penetrate the thick walls and carry the torch into broader halls and lofty towers. But superstition, prejudice, bitter pride, inexperience of life, conjoined their shoulders and barred the way. As Diego Estenega had discerned, under the thick Old-World shell of inherited impressions was a plastic being of all womanly possibilities. But so little did she know of herself, so futile was her struggle in the dark with only sudden flashes to blind her and distort all she saw, that with nothing to shape that moulding kernel it would shrink and wither, and in a few years she would be but a polished shell, perfect of proportion, hollow at the core.
But if strong intellectual juices sank into that sweet, pliant kernel, developing it into the perfected form of woman, establishing the current between the brain and the passions, finishing the work, or leaving it half completed, as Circumstance vouchsafed?--what then?
"Ay, Senor!" exclaimed Prudencia, as two people, mounted on horses glistening with silver, galloped into the court-yard. "Valencia and Adan!"
I came out of the sala at that moment and watched them alight: Adan, that faithful, dog-like adorer, of whose kind every beautiful woman has a half-dozen or more, Valencia the bitter-hearted rival of Chonita. She was a tall, dazzling creature, with flaming black eyes large and heavily lashed, and a figure so lithe that she seemed to sweep downward from her horse rather than spring to the ground. She had the dark rich skin of Mexico--another source of envy and hatred, for the Iturbi y Moncadas, like most of the aristocracy of the country, were of pure Castilian blood and as white as porcelain in consequence--and a red full mouth.
"Welcome, my Chonita!" she cried. "Valgame Dios! but I am glad to see thee back!" She kissed Chonita effusively. "Ay, my poor brother!" she whispered, hurriedly. "Tell him that thou art glad to see him." And then she welcomed me with words that fell as softly as rose-leaves in a zephyr, and patted Prudencia's head.
Chonita, with a faint flush on her cheek, gave Adan her hand to kiss. She had given this faithful suitor little encouragement, but his unswerving and honest devotion had wrung from her a sort of careless affection; and she told me that first night in Monterey that if she ever made up her mind to marry she thought she would select Adan: he was more tolerable than any one she knew. It is doubtful if he had crossed her mind since; and now, with all a woman's unreason, she conceived a sudden and violent dislike for him because she had treated him too kindly in her thoughts. I liked Adan Menendez; there was something manly and sure about him,--the latter a restful if not a fascinating quality. And I liked his appearance. His clear brown eyes had a kind direct regard. His chin was round, and his profile a little thick; but the gray hair brushed up and away from his low forehead gave dignity to his face. His figure was pervaded with the indolence of the Californian.
"At your feet, senorita mia," he murmured, his voice trembling.
"It gives me pleasure to see thee again, Adan. Hast thou been well and happy since I left?"
It was a careless question, and he looked at her reproachfully.
"I have been well, Chonita," he said.
At this moment our attention was startled by a sharp exclamation from Valencia. Prudencia had announced her engagement. Valencia had refused many suitors, but she had intended to marry Reinaldo Iturbi y Moncada. Not that she loved him: he was the most brilliant match in three hundred leagues. Within the last year he had bent the knee to the famous coquette; but she had lost her temper one day,--or, rather, it had found her,--and after a violent quarrel he had galloped away, and gone almost immediately to Los Angeles, there to remain until Don Juan went after him with a bushel of gold. She controlled herself in a moment, and swayed her graceful body over Prudencia, kissing her lightly on the cheek.
"Thou baby, to marry!" she said, softly. "Thou didst take away my breath. Thou dost look no more than fourteen years. I had forgotten the grand merienda of thy eighteenth birthday."
Prudencia's little bosom swelled with pride at the discomfiture of the haughty beauty who had rarely remembered to notice her. Prudencia was not poor; she owned a goodly rancho; but it was an hacienda to the state of a Menendez.
"Thou wilt be one of my bridesmaids, no, Dona Valencia?" she asked.
"That will be the proud day of my life," said Valencia, graciously.
"We have a ball to-night," said Chonita.
"Thou wouldst have had word to-day. Thou wilt stay now, no? and not ride those five leagues twice again? I will send for thy gown."
"Truly, I will stay, my Chonita. And thou wilt tell me all about thy visit to Monterey, no?"
"All? Ay! sure!"
Adan kissed both Prudencia's little hands in earnest congratulation. As he did so, the door of Reinaldo's room opened, and the heir of the Iturbi y Moncadas stepped forth, gorgeous in black silk embroidered with gold. He had slept off the effects of the night's debauch, and cold water had restored his freshness. He kissed Prudencia's hand, his own to us, then bent over Valencia's with exaggerated homage.
"At thy feet, O loveliest of California's daughters. In the immensity of thought, going to and coming from Los Angeles, my imagination has spread its wings like an eagle. Thou hast been a beautiful day-dream, posing or reclining, dancing, or swaying with grace superlative on thy restive steed. I have not greeted my good friend Adan. I can but look and look and keep on looking at his incomparable sister, the rose of roses, the queen of queens."
"Thy tongue carols as easily as a lark's," said Valencia, with but half-concealed bitterness. "Thou couldst sing all day,--and the next forget."
"I forget nothing, beautiful senorita,--neither the fair days of spring nor the ugly storms of winter. And I love the sunshine and flee from the tempest. Adan, brother of my heart, welcome as ever to Casa Grande--Ay! here is my father. He looks like Sancho Panza."
Don Guillermo's sturdy little mustang bore him into the court-yard, shaking his stout master not a little. The old gentleman's black silk handkerchief had fallen to his shoulders: his face was red, but covered with a broad smile.
"I have letters from Monterey," he said, as Reinaldo and Adan ran down the steps to help him alight. "Alvarado goes by sea to Los Angeles this month, but returns by land in the next, and will honor us with a visit of a week. I shall write to him to arrive in time for the wedding. Several members of the Junta come with him,--and of their number is Diego Estenega."
"Who?" cried Reinaldo. "An Estenega? Thou wilt not ask him to cross the threshold of Casa Grande?"
"I always liked Diego," said the old man, somewhat confusedly. "And he is the friend of Alvarado. How can I avoid to ask him, when he is of the party?"
"Let him come," cried Reinaldo. "God of my life!--I am glad that he comes, this lord of redwood forests and fog-bound cliffs. It is well that he see the splendor of the Iturbi y Moncadas,--our pageants and our gay diversions, our cavalcades of beauty and elegance under a canopy of smiling blue. Glad I am that he comes. Once for all shall he learn that, although his accursed family has beaten ours in war and politics, he can never hope to rival our pomp and state."
"Ah!" said Valencia to Chonita, "I have heard of this Diego Estenega. I too am glad that he comes. I have the advantage of thee this time, my friend. Thou and he must hate each other, and for once I am without a rival. He shall be my slave." And she tossed her spirited head.
"He shall not!" cried Chonita, then checked herself abruptly, the blood rushing to her hair. "I hate him so," she continued hurriedly to the astonished Valencia, "that I would see no woman show him favor. Thou wilt not like him, Valencia. He is not handsome at all,--no color in his skin, not even white, and eyes in the back of his head. No mustache, no curls, and a mouth that looks,--oh, that mouth, so grim, so hard!--no, it is not to be described. No one could; it makes you hate him. And he has no respect for women; he thinks they were made to please the eye, no more. I do not think he would look ten seconds at an ugly woman. Thou wilt not like him, Valencia, sure."
"Ay, but I think I shall. What thou hast said makes me wish to see him the more. God of my life! but he must be different from the men of the South. And I shall like that."
"Perhaps," said Chonita, coldly. "At least he will not break thy heart, for no woman could love him. But come and take thy siesta, no? and refresh thyself for the dance. I will send thee a cup of chocolate." And, bending her head to Adan, she swept down the corridor, followed by Valencia.