Chapter XVI.
 

The evening before the wedding Prudencia covered her demure self with black gown and reboso, and, accompanied by Chonita, went to the Mission to make her last maiden confession. Chonita did not go with her into the church, but paced up and down the long corridor of the wing, gazing absently upon the deep wild valley and peaceful ocean, seeing little beyond the images in her own mind.

That morning Alvarado and several members of the Junta had arrived, but not Estenega. He had come as far as the Rancho Temblor, Alvarado explained, and there, meeting some old friends, had decided to remain over night and accompany them the next day to the ceremony. As Chonita had stood on the corridor and watched the approach of the Governor's cavalcade her heart had beaten violently, and she had angrily acknowledged that her nervousness was due to the fact that she was about to meet Diego Estenega again. When she discovered that he was not of the party, she turned to me with pique, resentment, and disappointment in her face.

"Even if I cannot ever like him," she said, "at least I might have the pleasure of hearing him talk. There is no harm in that, even if he is an Estenega, a renegade, and the enemy of my brother. I can hate him with my heart and like him with my mind. And he must have cared little to see us again, that he could linger for another day."

"I am mad to see Don Diego Estenega," said Valencia, her red lips pouting. "Why did he, of all others, tarry?"

"He is fickle and perverse," I said,--"the most uncertain man I know."

"Perhaps he thought to make us wish to see him the more," suggested Valencia.

"No," I said: "he has no ridiculous vanities."

Chonita wandered back and forth behind the arches, waiting for Prudencia's long confession of sinless errors to conclude.

"What has a baby like that to confess?" she thought, impatiently. "She could not sin if she tried. She knows nothing of the dark storms of rage and hatred and revenge which can gather in the breasts of stronger and weaker beings. I never knew, either, until lately; but the storm is so black I dare not face it and carry it to the priest. I am a sort of human chaos, and I wish I were dead. I thought to forget him, and I see him as plainly as on that morning when he told me that it was he who would send my brother to prison----"

She stopped short with a little cry. Diego Estenega stood before the Mission in the broad swath of moonlight. She had heard a horse gallop up the valley, but had paid no attention to the familiar sound. Estenega had appeared as suddenly as if he had arisen from the earth.

"It is I, senorita." He ascended the Mission steps. "Do not fear. May I kiss your hand?"

She gave him her hand, but withdrew it hurriedly. Of the tremendous mystery of sex she knew almost nothing. Girls were brought up in such ignorance in those days that many a bride ran home to her mother on her wedding night; and books teach Innocence little. But she was fully conscious that there was something in the touch of Estenega's lips and hand that startled while it thrilled and enthralled.

"I thought you stayed with the Ortegas to-night," she said. Oh, blessed conventions!

"I did,--for a few hours. Then I wanted to see you, and I left them and came on. At Casa Grande I found no one but Eustaquia; every one else had gone to the gardens; and she told me that you were here."

Chonita's heart was beating as fast as it had beaten that morning; even her hands shook a little. A glad wave of warmth rushed over her. She turned to him impetuously. "Tell me?" she exclaimed. "Why do I feel like this for you? I hate you: you know that. There are many reasons,--five; you counted them. And yet I feel excited, almost glad, at your coming. This morning I was disappointed when you did not. Tell me,--you know everything, and I so little,--why is it?"

Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes terrified and appealing. She looked very lovely and natural. Probably for the first time in his life Estenega resisted a temptation. He passionately wished to take her in his arms and tell her the truth. But he was too clever a man; there was too much at stake; if he frightened her now he might never even see her again. Moreover, she appealed to his chivalry. And it suddenly occurred to him that so sweet a heart would be warped in its waking if passion bewildered and controlled her first.

"Dona Chonita," he said, "like all women,--all beautiful and spoiled women,--you demand variety. I happen to be made of harder stuff than your caballeros, and you have not seen me for two months; that is all."

"And if I saw you every day for two months would I no longer care whether you came or went?"

"Undoubtedly.

"Is it sweet or terrible to feel this way?" thought the girl. "Would I regret if he no longer made me tremble, or would I go on my knees and thank the Blessed Virgin?" Aloud she said, "It was strange for me to ask you such questions; but it is as if you had something in your mind separate from yourself, and that it would tell me, and you could not prevent its being truthful. I do not believe in you; you look as if nothing were worth the while to lie or tell the truth about; but your mind is quite different. It seems to me that it knows all things, that it is as cold and clear as ice."

"What a whimsical creature you are! My mind, like myself,--I feel as if I were twins,--is at your service. Forget that I am Diego Estenega. Regard me as a sort of archive of impressions which may amuse or serve you as the poorest of your books do. That they happen to be catalogued under the general title of Diego Estenega is a mere detail; an accident, for that matter; they might be pigeon-holed in the skull of a Bandini or a Pico. I happen to be the magnet, that is all."

"If I could forget that you were an Estenega,--just for a week, while you are here," she said, wistfully.

"You are a woman of will and imagination,--also of variety. Make an experiment; it will interest you. Of course there will be times when you will be bitterly conscious that I am the enemy of your house; it would be idle to expect otherwise; but when we happen to be apart from disturbing influences, let us agree to forget that we are anything but two human beings, deeply congenial. As for what I said in the garden at Monterey, the last time we spoke together,--I shall not bother you."

"You no longer care?" she exclaimed.

"I did not say that. I said I should not bother you,--recognizing your hostility and your reasons. Be faithful to your traditions, my beautiful doomswoman. No man is worth the sacrifice of those dear old comrades. What presumption for a man to require you to abandon the cause of your house, give up your brother, sacrifice one or more of your religious principles; one, too, who would open his doors to the Americans you hate! No man is worth such a sacrifice as that."

"No," she said, "no man." But she said it without enthusiasm.

"A man is but one; traditions are fivefold, and multiplied by duty. Poor grain of sand--what can he give, comparable to the cold serene happiness of fidelity to self? Love is sweet,--horribly sweet,--but so common a madness can give but a tithe of the satisfaction of duty to pure and lofty ideals."

"I do not believe that." The woman in her arose in resentment. "A life of duty must be empty, cold, and wrong. It was not that we were made for."

"Let us talk little of love, senorita: it is a dangerous subject."

"But it interests me, and I should like to understand it."

"I will explain the subject to you fully, some day. I have a fancy to do that on my own territory,--up in the redwoods--"

"Here is Prudencia."

A small black figure swept down the steps of the church. She bowed low to Estenega when he was presented, but uttered no word. The Indian servants brought the horses to the door, and they rode down the valley to Casa Grande.