Chapter XX.
 

While we were eating supper, a dozen Indian girls were gathered about a table in one of the large rooms behind the house, busily engaged in blowing out the contents of several hundred eggs and filling the hollowed shells with cologne, flour, tinsel, bright scraps of paper. Each egg-was then sealed with white wax, and ready for the cascaron frolic of the evening.

We had been dancing, singing, and talking for an hour after rosario, when the eggs were brought in. In an instant every girl's hair was unbound, a wild dive was made for the great trays, and eggs flew in every direction. Dancing was forgotten. The girls and men chased each other about the room, the air was filled with perfume and glittering particles, the latter looking very pretty on black floating hair. Etiquette demanded that only one egg should be thrown by the same hand at a time, but quick turns of supple wrists followed each other very rapidly. To really accomplish a feat the egg must crash on the back of the head, and each occupied in attack was easy prey.

Chonita was like a child. Two priests were of our party, and she made a target of their shaven crowns, shrieking with delight. They vowed revenge, and chased her all over the house; but not an egg had broken on that golden mane. She was surrounded at one time by caballeros, but she whirled and doubled so swiftly that every cascaron flew afield.

The pelting grew faster and more furious; every room was invaded; we chased each other up and down the corridors. The people in the court had their cascarones also, and the noise must have been heard at the Mission. Don Guillermo hobbled about delightedly, covered with tinsel and flour. Estenega had tried a dozen times to hit Chonita, but as if by instinct she faced him each time before the egg could leave his hand. Finally he pursued her down the corridor to her library, where I, fortunately, happened to be resting, and both threw themselves into chairs, breathless.

"Let us stay here," he said. "We have had enough of this."

"Very well," she said. She bent her head to lift a book which had fallen from a shelf, and felt the soft blow of the cascaron.

"At last!" said Estenega, contentedly. "I was determined to conquer, if I waited until morning."

Chonita looked vexed for a moment,--she did not like to be vanquished,--then shrugged her shoulders and leaned back in her chair. The little room was plainly furnished. Shelves covered three sides, and the window-seat and the table were littered with books. There were no curtains, no ornaments; but Chonita's hair, billowing to the floor, her slender voluptuous form, her white skin and green irradiating eyes, the candlelight half revealing, half concealing, made a picture requiring no background. I caught the expression of Estenega's face, and determined to remain if he murdered me.

Peals of laughter, joyous shrieks, screams of mock terror, floated in to us. I broke a silence which was growing awkward:

"How happy they are! Creatures of air and sunshine! Life in this Arcadia is an idyl."

"They are not happy," said Estenega, contemptuously; "they are gay. They are light of heart through absence of material cares and endless sources of enjoyment, which in turn have bred a careless order of mind. But did each pause long enough to look into his own heart, would he not find a stone somewhere in its depths?--perhaps a skull graven on the stone,--who knows?"

"Oh, Diego!" I exclaimed, impatiently, "this is a party, not a funeral."

"Then is no one happy?" asked Chonita, wistfully.

"How can he be, when in each moment of attainment he is pricked by the knowledge that it must soon be over? The youth is not happy, because the shadow of the future is on him. The man is not happy, because the knowledge of life's incompleteness is with him."

"Then of what use to live at all?"

"No use. It is no use to die, neither, so we live. I will grant that there may be ten completely happy moments in life,--the ten conscious moments preceding certain death--and oblivion."

"I will not discuss the beautiful hope of our religion with you, because you do not believe, and I should only get angry. But what are we to do with this life? You say nothing is wrong nor right. What would you have the stumbling and unanchored do with what has been thrust upon him?"

"Man, in his gropings down through the centuries, has concocted, shivered, and patched certain social conditions well enough calculated to develop the best and the worst that is in us, making it easier for us to be bad than good, that good might be the standard. We feel a deeper satisfaction if we have conquered an evil impulse and done what is accepted as right, because we have groaned and stumbled in the doing,--that is all. Temptation is sweet only because the impulse comes from the depths of our being, not because it is difficult to be tempted. If we overcome, the satisfaction is deep and enduring,--which only goes to show that man is but a petty egotist, always drawing pictures of himself on a pedestal. The man who emancipates himself from traditions and yields to his impulses is debarred from happiness by the blunders of the blindfolded generations preceding him, which arranged that to yield was easy and to resist difficult. Had they reversed the conditions and conclusions, the majority of the human race would have fought each other to death, but the selected remnant would have had a better time of it.

"Let us suppose a case as conditions now exist. Assume, for the sake of argument, that you loved me and that you plucked from your nature your religion, your fidelity to your house, your love for your brother, and gave yourself to me. You would stand appalled at the sacrifice until you realized that you had come to me only because it would have been more difficult to stay away. You conquer the passionate cry of love,--the strongest the human compound has ever voiced,--and you are miserably happy for the rest of your life no attitude being so pleasing to the soul as the attitude of martyrdom. Many a man and woman looks with some impatience for the last good-bye to be said, so sweet is the prospect of sadness, of suffering, of resignation."

I was aghast at his audacity, but I saw that Chonita was fascinated. Her egotism was caressed, and her womanhood thrilled. "Are we all such shams as that?" was what she said. "You make me despise myself."

"Not yourself, but a great structure--of which you are but a grain--with a faulty foundation. Don't despise yourself. Curse the builders who shoveled those stones together."

He left her then, and she told me to go to bed; she wanted to sit a while and think.

"He makes you think too much," I said. "Better forget what he says as soon as you can. He is a very disturbing influence."

But she made me no reply, and sat there staring at the floor. She began to feel a sense of helplessness, like a creature caught in a net. It was more the man's personality than his words which made her feel as if he were pouring himself throughout her, taking possession of brain and every sense, as though he were a sort of intellectual drug.

"I believe I was made from his rib," she thought, angrily, "else why can he have this extraordinary power over me? I do not love him. I have read somewhat of love, and seen more. This is different, quite. I only feel that there is something in him that I want. Sometimes I feel that I must dig my nails into him and tear him apart until I find what I want,--something that belongs to me. Sometimes it is as if he promised it, at others as if he were unconscious of its existence; always it is evanescent. Is he going to make my mind his own?--and yet he always seems to leave mine free. He has never snubbed me. He makes me think: there is the danger."

An hour later there was a tap on her door. Casa Grande was asleep. She sat upright, her heart beating rapidly. Estenega was audacious enough for anything. But it was her brother who entered.

"Reinaldo!" she exclaimed, horrified to feel an unmistakable stab of disappointment.

"Yes, it is I. Art thou alone?"

"Sure."

"I have something to say to thee."

He drew a chair close to her and sat down "Thou knowest, my sister," he began, haltingly, "how I hate the house of Estenega. My hatred is as loyal as thine: every drop of blood in my veins is true to the honor of the house of Iturbi y Moncada. But, my sister, is it not so that one can sacrifice himself, his mere personal feelings, upon the altar of his country? Is it not so, my sister?"

"What is it thou wishest me to understand, Reinaldo?"

"Do not look so stern, my Chonita. Thou hast not yet heard me; and, although thou mayest be angry then, thou wilt reason later. Thou art devoted to thy house, no?"

"Thou hast come here in the night to ask me such a question as that?"

"And thou lovest thy brother?"

"Reinaldo, thou hast drunken more mescal than Angelica. Go back to thy bride." But, although she spoke lightly, she was uneasy.

"My sister, I never drank a drop of mescal in my life! Listen. It is our father's wish, thy wish, my wish, that I become a great and distinguished man, an ornament to the house of Iturbi y Moncada, a star on the brow of California. How can I accomplish this great and desirable end? By the medium of politics only; our wars are so insignificant. I have been debarred from the Departmental Junta by the enemy of our house, else would it have rung with my eloquence, and Mexico have known me to-day. Yet I care little for the Junta. I wish to go as diputado to Mexico; it is a grander arena. Moreover, in that great capital I shall become a man of the world,--which is necessary to control men. That is his power,--curse him! And he--he will not let me go there. Even Alvarado listens to him. The Departmental Junta is under his thumb. I will never be anything but a caballero of Santa Barbara--I, an Iturbi y Moncada, the last scion of a line illustrious in war, in diplomacy, in politics--until he is either dead--do not jump, my sister; it is not my intention to murder him and ruin my career--or becomes my friend."

"Canst thou not put thy meaning in fewer words?"

"My sister, he loves thee, and thou lovest thy brother and thy house."

Chonita rose to her full height, and although he rose too, and was taller, she seemed to look down upon him.

"Thou wouldst have me marry him? Is that thy meaning?"

"Ay." His voice trembled. Under his swagger he was always a little afraid of the Doomswoman.

"Thou askest perjury and disloyalty and dishonor of an Iturbi y Moncada?"

"An Iturbi y Moncada asks it of an Iturbi y Moncada. If the man is ready to bend his neck in sacrifice to the glory of his house, is it for the woman to think?"

Chonita stood grasping the back of her chair convulsively; it was the only sign of emotion she betrayed. She knew that what he said was true: that Estenega, for public and personal reasons, never would let him go to Mexico; he would permit no enemy at court. But this knowledge drifted through her mind and out of it at the moment; she was struggling to hold down a hot wave of contempt rushing upward within her. She clung to her traditions as frantically as she clung to her religion.

"Go," she said, after a moment.

"Thou wilt think of what I have said?"

"I shall pray to forget it."

"Chonita!" his voice rang out so loud that she placed her hand on his mouth. He dashed it away. "Thou wilt!" he cried, like a spoilt child. "Thou wilt! I shall go to the city of Mexico, and only thou canst send me there. All my father's gold and leagues will not buy me a seat in the Mexican Congress, unless this accursed Estenega lifts his hand and says, 'Thou shalt.' Holy God! how I hate him! Would that I had the chance to murder him! I would cut his heart out to-morrow. And my father likes him, and has outlived rancor. And thou--thou art not indifferent."

"Go!"

He threw his arms about her, kissing and caressing her. "My sister! My sister! Thou wilt! Say that thou wilt!" But she flung him off as if he were a snake.

"Wilt thou go?" she asked.

"Ay! I go. But he shall suffer. I swear it! I swear it!" And he rushed from the room.

Chonita sat there, staring more fixedly at the floor than when Estenega had left her.