The Doomswoman by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
The next morning we started at an early hour for the Rancho de las Rocas, three leagues from Santa Barbara. The populace remained in the booth, but we were joined by all our friends of the town, and once more were a large party. We were bound for a merienda and a carnesada, where bullocks would be roasted whole on spits over a bed of coals in a deep excavation. It took a Californian only a few hours to sleep off fatigue, and we were as fresh and gay as if we had gone to bed at eight the night before.
Valencia managed to ride beside Estenega, and I wondered if she would win him. Woman's persistence, allied to man's vanity, so often accomplishes the result intended by the woman. It seemed to me the simplest climax for the unfolding drama, although I should have been sorry for Diego.
It was Reinaldo's turn to look black, but he devoted himself ostentatiously to Prudencia, who beamed like a child with a stick of candy. Chonita rode between Don Juan de la Borrasca and Adan. Her face was calm, but it occurred to me that she was growing careless of her sovereignty, for her manner was abstracted and indifferent; she seemed to have discarded those little coquetries which had sat so gracefully upon her. Still, as long as she concealed the light of her mind under a bushel, her beauty and Lorleian fascination would draw men to her feet and keep them there. Every man but Estenega and Alvarado was as gay of color as the wild flowers had been, and the girls, as they cantered, looked like full-blown roses. Chonita wore a dark-blue gown and reboso of thin silk, which became her fairness marvelously well.
"Dona Chonita, light of my eyes," said Don Juan, "thou art not wont to be so quiet when I am by thee."
"Thou usually hast enough to say for two."
"Ay, thou canst appreciate the art of speech. Hast thou ever known any one who could converse with lighter ease than I and thy brother?"
"I never have heard any one use more words."
"Ay! they roll from my tongue--and from Reinaldo's--like wheels downhill."
She turned to Adan: "They will be happy, you think,--Reinaldo and Prudencia?"
"What a beautiful wedding, no?"
"Life is always the same with thee, I suppose,--smoking, riding, swinging in the hammock?"
"Thou wouldst not exchange thy life for another? Thou dost not wish to travel?"
She wheeled suddenly and galloped over to her father and Alvarado, her caballeros staring helplessly after her.
When we arrived at the rancho the bullocks were already swinging in the pits, the smell of roast meat was in the air. We dismounted, throwing our bridles to the vaqueros in waiting; and while Indian servants spread the table, the girls joined hands and danced about the pit, throwing flowers upon the bullocks, singing and laughing. The men watched them, or amused themselves in various ways,--some with cockfights and impromptu races; others began at once to gamble on a large flat stone; a group stood about a greased pole and jeered at two rival vaqueros endeavoring to mount it for the sake of the gold piece on the top. One buried a rooster in the ground, leaving its head alone exposed; others, mounting their horses, dashed by at full speed, snatching at the head as they passed. Reinaldo distinguished himself by twisting it off with facile wrist while urging his horse to the swiftness of the east wind.
"I am going to dare more than Californian has ever dared before," said Estenega to me, as we gathered at length about the table-cloth. "I am going to get Dona Chonita off by herself in that little canon and have a talk with her. Now, do you stand guard."
"I shall not!" I exclaimed. "It is understood that when Dona Trinidad stays at home Chonita is in my charge. I will not permit such a thing."
"Thou wilt, my Eustaquia. Dona Chonita is no pudding-brained girl. She needs no duena."
"I know that; but it is not that I am thinking of. Suppose some one sees you; thou knowest the inflexibility of our conventions."
"You forget that we are comadre and compadre. Our privileges are many." He abruptly dismissed the intimate "thou," with his usual American perversity.
"True; I had forgotten. But whither is all this tending, Diego? She neither will nor can marry you."
"She both can and will. Will you help me, or not? Because if not I shall proceed without you. Only you can make it easier."
I always gave way to him; everybody did.
He was as good as his word. How he managed, Chonita never knew, but not a half-hour after dinner she found herself alone in the canon with him, seated among the huge stones cataclysms had hurled there.
"Why have you brought me here?" she asked.
"To talk with you."
"But this would be severely censured."
"Do you care?"
She looked at him with a curious feeling she had had before; there was something inside of his head that she wanted to get at,--something that baffled and teased and allured her. She wanted to understand him, and she was oppressed by the weight of her ignorance; she had no key to unlock a man like that. With one of her swift impulses she told him of what she was thinking.
He smiled, his eyes lighting. "I am more than willing you should know all that you would be curious about," he said. "Ask me a hundred questions; I will answer them."
She meditated a moment. She never had taken sufficient interest in a man before to desire to fathom him, and the arts of the Californian belle were not those of the tactfully and impartially interested woman of to-day. She did not know how to begin.
"What have you read?" she asked, at length.
He gave her some account of his library,--a large one,--and mentioned many books of many nations, of which she had never heard.
"You have read all those books?"
"There are many long winter nights and days in the redwood forests of the northern coast."
"That does not tell me much,--what you have read. I feel that it is but one of the many items which went to the making up of you. You have traveled everywhere, no? Was it like living over again the books of travel?"
"Not in the least. Each man travels for himself."
"Madame de Stael said that traveling was sad. Is it so?"
"To the lover of history it is like food without salt: imagination has painted an historical city with the panorama of a great time; it has been to us a stage for great events. We find it a stage with familiar paraphernalia, and actors as commonplace as ourselves."
"It is more satisfactory to stay at home and read about it?"
"Infinitely, though less expanding."
"Then is anything worth while except reading?
"Several things; the pursuit of glory, for one thing, and the active occupied life necessary for its achievement."
She leaned forward a little; she felt that she had stumbled nearer to him. "Are you ambitious?" she asked.
"For what it compels life to yield; abstractly, not. Ambition is the looting of hell in chase of biting flames swirling above a desert of ashes. As for posthumous fame, it must be about as satisfactory as a draught of ice-water poured down the throat of a man who has died on Sahara. And yet, even if in the end it all means nothing, if 'from hour to hour we ripe and ripe and then from hour to hour we rot and rot,' still for a quarter-century or so the nettle of ambition flagellating our brain may serve to make life less uninteresting and more satisfactory. The abstraction and absorption of the fight, the stinging fear of rivals, the murmur of acknowledgment, the shout of compelled applause,--they fill the blanks."
"Tell me," she said, imperiously, "what do you want?"
"Shall I tell you? I never have spoken of it to a living soul but Alvarado. Shall I tell it to a woman,--and an Iturbi y Moncada? Could the folly of man further go?"
"If I am a woman I am an Iturbi y Moncada, and if I am an Iturbi y Moncada I have the honor of its generations in my veins."
"Very good. I believe you would not betray me, even in the interest of your house. Would you?"
"And I love to talk to you, to tell you what I would tell no other. Listen, then. An envoy goes to Mexico next week with letters from Alvarado, desiring that I be the next governor of the Californias, and containing the assurance that the Departmental Junta will endorse me. I shall follow next month to see Santa Ana personally; I know him well, and he was a friend of my father's. I wish to be invested with peculiar powers; that is to say, I wish California to be practically overlooked while I am governor and I wish it understood that I shall be governor as long as I please. Alvarado will hold no office under the Americans, and is as ready to retire now as a few years later. Of course my predilection for the Americans must be carefully concealed both from the Mexican government and the mass of the people here: Santa Ana and Alvarado know what is bound to come; the Mexicans, generally, retain enough interest in the Californias to wish to keep them. I shall be the last governor of the Department, and I shall employ that period to amalgamate the native population so closely that they will make a strong contingent in the new order of things and be completely under my domination. I shall establish a college with American professors, so that our youth will be taught to think, and to think in English. Alvarado has done something for education, but not enough; he has not enforced it, and the methods are very primitive. I intend to be virtually dictator. With as little delay as possible I shall establish a newspaper,--a powerful weapon in the hands of a ruler, as well as a factor of development. Then I shall organize a superior court for the punishment of capital crimes. Not that I do not recognize the right of a man to kill if his reasons satisfy himself, but there can be no subservience to authority in a country where murder is practically licensed. American immigration will be more than encouraged, and it shall be distinctly understood by the Americans that I encourage it. Everything, of course, will be done to promote good-will between the Californians and the new-comers. Then, when the United States make up their mind to take possession of us, I shall waste no blood, but hand over a country worthy of capture. In the meantime it will have been carefully drilled into the Californian mind that American occupation will be for their ultimate good, and that I shall go to Washington to protect their interests. There will then be no foolish insurrections. Do you care to hear more?"
Her face was flushed, her chest was rising rapidly.
"I hardly know what to think,--how I feel. You interest me so much as you talk that I wish you to succeed: I picture your success. And yet it maddens me to hear you talk of the Americans in that way,--also to know that your house will be greater than ours,--that we will be forgotten. But--yes, tell me all. What will you do then?"
"I shall have California, in the first place, scratched for the gold that I believe lies somewhere within her. When that great resource is located and developed I shall publish in every American newspaper the extraordinary agricultural advantages of the country. In a word, my object is to make California a great State and its name synonymous with my own. As I told you before, for fame as fame I care nothing; I do not care if I am forgotten on my death-bed; but with my blood biting my veins I must have action while living. Shall I say that I have a worthier motive in wishing to aid in the development of civilization? But why worthier? Merely a higher form of selfishness. The best and the worst of motives are prompted by the same instinct."
"I would advise you," she said, slowly, "never to marry. Your wife would be very unhappy."
"But no one has greater scorn than you for the man who spends his life with his lips at the chalice of the poppy."
"True, I had forgotten them." She rose abruptly. "Let us go back," she said. "It is better not to stay too long."
As they walked down the canon she looked at him furtively. The men of her race were almost all tall and finely-proportioned, but they did not suggest strength as this man did. And his face,--it was so grimly determined at times that she shrank from it, then drew near, fascinated. It had no beauty at all--according to Californian standards; she could not know that it represented all that intellect, refinement and civilization, generally, would do for the human race for a century to come,--but it had a subtle power, an absolute audacity, an almost contemptuous fearlessness in its bold, fine outline, a dominating intelligence in the keen deeply-set eyes, and a hint of weakness, where and what she could not determine, that mystified and magnetized her.
"I know you a little better," she said, "just a little,--enough to make my curiosity ache and jump. At the same time, I know now what I did not before,--that I might climb and mine and study and watch, and you would always be beyond me. There is something subtle and evasive about you--something I seem to be close to always, yet never can see or grasp."
"It is merely the barrier of sex. A man can know a woman fairly well, because her life, consequently the interests which mould her mind and conceive her thoughts, are more or less simple. A man's life is so complex, his nature so inevitably the sum and work of it of it lies so far outside of woman's sphere, his mind spiked with a thousand magnets, each pointing to a different possibility,--that she would need divine wisdom to comprehend him in his entirety, even if he made her a diagram of every cell in his brain,--which he never would, out of consideration for both her and his own vanity. But within certain restrictions there can be a magnificent sense of comradeship."
"But a woman, I think, would never be happy with that something in the man always beyond her grasp,--that something which she could be nothing to. She would be more jealous of that independence of her in man than of another woman."
"That was pure insight," he said. "You could not know that."
"No," she said, "I had not thought of it before."
I had made a martyr of myself on a three-cornered stone at the entrance of the canon, waiting to duena them out. "Never will I do this again!" I exclaimed, with that virtue born of discomfort, as they came in sight.
"My dearest Eustaquia," said Diego, kissing my hand gallantly, "thou hast given me pleasure so often, most charming and clever of women, thou hast but added one new art to thy overflowing store."
We mounted almost immediately upon returning, and I was alone with Chonita for a moment. "Do you realize that you are playing with fire?" I said, warningly. "Estenega is a dangerous man; the most successful man with women I have ever known."
"I do not deny his power," she said. "But I am safe, for the many reasons thou knowest of. And, being safe, why should I deny myself the pleasure of talking to him? I shall never meet his like again. Let me live for a little while."
"Ay, but do not live too hard! It hurts down into the core and marrow."