The Doomswoman by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
We spent the next day at the race-field. Many of the caballeros had brought their finest horses, and Reinaldo's were famous. The vaqueros threw off their black glazed sombreros and black velvet jackets, wearing only the short black trousers laced with silver, a shirt of dazzling whiteness, a silk handkerchief twisted about the head, and huge spurs on their bare brown heels. Some of us stood on a platform, others remained on their horses; all were wild with excitement and screamed themselves hoarse. The great dark eyes of the girls flashed, their red mouths trembled with the flood of eager exclamations; the lace mantilla or flowered reboso fluttered against hot cheeks, to be torn off, perhaps, and waved in the enthusiasm of the moment. They forgot the men, and the men forgot them. Even Chonita was oblivious to all else for the hour. She was a famous horsewoman, and keenly alive to the enchantment of the race-field. The men bet their ranchos, whole caponeras of their finest horses, herds of cattle, their saddles and their jewels. Estenega won largely, and, as it happened, from Reinaldo particularly. Don Guillermo was rather pleased than otherwise, holding his son to be in need of further punishment; but Reinaldo was obliged to call upon all the courtesy of the Spaniard and all the falseness of his nature to help him remember that his enemy was his guest.
We went home to siesta and long gay supper, where the races were the only topic of conversation; then to dance and sing and flirt until midnight, the people in the booths as tireless as ourselves. Valencia's attentions to Estenega were as conspicuous as usual, but he managed to devote most of his time to Chonita.
* * * * *
That night Chonita had a dream. She dreamed that she awoke without a soul. The sense of vacancy was awful, yet there was a singular undercurrent consciousness that no soul ever had been within her,--that it existed, but was yet to be found.
She arose, trembling, and opened her door. Santa Barbara was as quiet as all the world is in the chill last hours of night. She half expected to see something hover before her, a will-o'-the-wisp, alluring her over the rocky valleys and towering mountains until death gave her weary feet rest. She remembered vaguely that she had read legends of that purport.
But there was nothing,--not even the glow of a late cigarito or the flash of a falling star. Still she seemed to know where the soul awaited her. She closed her door softly and walked swiftly down the corridor, her bare feet making no sound on the boards. At a door on the opposite side she paused, shaking violently, but unable to pass it. She opened the door and went in. The room, like all the others in that time of festivity, had more occupants than was its wont; a bed was in each corner. The shutters and windows were open, the moonlight streamed in, and she saw that all were asleep. She crossed the room and looked down upon Diego Estenega. His night garment, low about the throat, made his head, with its sharply-cut profile, look like the heads on old Roman medallions. The pallor of night, the extreme refinement of his face, the deep repose, gave him an unmortal appearance. Chonita bent over him fearfully. Was he dead? His breathing was regular, but very quiet. She stood gazing down upon him, the instinct of seeking vanished. What did it mean? Was this her soul! A man? How could it be? Even in poetry she had never read of a man being a woman's soul,--a man with all his frailties and sins, for the most part unrepented. She felt, rather than knew, that Estenega had trampled many laws, and that he cared too little for any law but his own will to repent. And yet, there he lay, looking, in the gray light and the impersonality of sleep, as sinless as if he had been created within the hour. He looked not like a man but a spirit,--a soul; and the soul was hers.
Again she asked herself, what did it mean? Was the soul but brain? She and he were so alike in rudiments, yet he so immeasurably beyond her in experience and knowledge and the stronger fiber of a man's mind--
He awoke suddenly and saw her. For a moment he stared incredulously, then raised himself on his hand.
"Chonita!" he whispered.
But Chonita, with the long glide of the Californian woman, faded from the room.
When she awoke the next morning she was assailed by a distressing fear. Had she been to Estenega's room the night before? The memory was too vivid, the details too practical, for a sleep-vagary. At breakfast she hardly dared to raise her eyes. She felt that he was watching her; but he often watched her. After breakfast they were alone at one end of the corridor for a moment, and she compelled herself to raise her eyes and look at him steadily. He was regarding her searchingly.
She was not a woman to endure uncertainty.
"Tell me," she cried, trembling from head to foot, the blood rushing over her face, "did I go to your room last night?"
"Dona Chonita!" he exclaimed. "What an extraordinary question! You have been dreaming."