Chapter XXIII.
 

We went to a bull-fight that day, danced that night, meriendaed and danced again; a siesta in the afternoon, a few hours' sleep in the night, refreshing us all. Chonita, alone, looked pale, but I knew that her pallor was not due to weariness. And I knew that she was beginning to fear Estenega; the time was almost come when she would fear herself more. Estenega had several talks apart with her. He managed it without any apparent maneuvering; but he always had the devil's methods. Valencia avenged herself by flirting desperately with Reinaldo, and Prudencia's honeymoon was seasoned with gall.

On Saturday night Chonita stole from her guests, donned a black gown and reboso, and, attended by two Indian servants, went up to the Mission to confession. As she left the church a half-hour later, and came down the steps, Estenega rose from a bench beneath the arches of the corridor and joined her.

"How did you know that I came?" she asked; and it was not the stars that lit her face.

"You do little that I do not know. Have you been to confession?"

"Yes."

They walked slowly down the valley.

"And you forgave and were forgiven?"

"Yes. Ay! but my penance is heavy!"

"But when it is done you will be at rest, I suppose."

"Oh, I hope! I hope!"

"Have you begun to realize that your Church cannot satisfy you?"

"No! I will not say that."

"But you know it. Your intelligence has opened a window somewhere and the truth has crept in."

"Do not take my religion from me, senor!" Her eyes and voice appealed to him, and he accepted her first confession of weakness with a throb of exulting tenderness.

"My love!" he said, "I would give you more than I took from you."

"No! never!--Even if we were not enemies, and I had not made that terrible vow, my religion has been all in all to me. Just now I have many things that torment me; and I have asked so little of religion before--my life has been so calm--that now I hardly know how to ask for so much more. I shall learn. Leave me in peace."

"Do you want me to go?" he asked. "If you did,--if I troubled you by staying here,--I believe I would go. Only I know it would do no good: I should come back."

"No! no! I do not want you to go. I should feel--I will admit to you--like a house without its foundation. And yet sometimes, I pray that you will go. Ay! I do not like life. I used to have pride in my intelligence. Where is my pride now? What good has the wisdom in my books done me, when I confess my dependence upon a man, and that man my enemy--and the acquaintance of a few weeks?" She was speaking incoherently, and Estenega chafed at the restraint of the servants so close behind them. "Tell me," she exclaimed, "what is it in you that I want?--that I need? It is something that belongs to me. Give it to me, and go away."

"Chonita, I give it to you gladly, God knows. But you must take me, too. You want in me what is akin to you and what you will find nowhere else. But I cannot tear my soul out of my body. You must take both or neither."

"Ay! I cannot! You know that I cannot!

"I ignore your reasons."

"But I do not."

"You shall, my beloved. Or if you do not ignore you shall forget them."

"When I am dead--would that I were!" She was excited and trembling. The confession had been an ordeal, and Estenega was never tranquillizing. She wished to cling to him, but was still mistress of herself. He divined her impulse, and drew her arm through his and across his breast. He opened her hand and pressed his lips to the palm. Then he bent his face above hers. She was trembling violently; her face was wild and white. His own was ashen, and the heart beneath her arm beat rapidly.

"I love you devotedly," he said. "You believe that, Chonita?"

"Ah! Mother of God! do not! I cannot listen."

"But you shall listen. Throw off your superstitions and come to me. Keep the part of your religion that is not superstition; I would be the last to take it from you; but I will not permit its petty dogmas to stand between us. As for your traditions, you have not even the excuse of filial duty; your father would not forbid you to become my wife. And I love you very earnestly and passionately. Just how much, I might convey to you if we were alone."

He was obliged to exercise great self-restraint, but there was no mistaking his seriousness. When such scientific triflers do find a woman worth loving, they are too deeply sensible of the fact not to be stirred to their depths; and their depths are apt to be in large disproportion to the lightness of their ordinary mood. "Come to me," he continued. "I need you; and I will be as tender and thoughtful a husband as I will be ardent as a lover. You love me: don't blind yourself any longer. Do you picture, in a life of solitude and cold devotion to phantoms, any happiness equal to what you would find here in my arms?"

"Oh, hush! hush! You could make me do what you wished, I have no will. I feel no longer myself. What is this terrible power?"

"It is the magnetism of love; that is all. I am not exercising any diabolical power over you. Listen: I will not trouble you any more now. I am obliged to go to Los Angeles the day after to-morrow, and on my way back to Monterey--in about two weeks--I shall come here again. Then we will talk together; but I warn you, I will accept only one answer. You are mine, and I shall have you."

They reached Casa Grande a moment later, and she escaped from him and ran to her room. But she dared not remain alone. Hastily changing her black gown for the first her hand touched,--it happened to be vivid red and made her look as white as wax,--she returned to the sala; not to dance even the square contradanza, but to stand surrounded by worshiping caballeros with curling hair tied with gay ribbons, and jewels in their laces. Valencia regarded her with a bitter jealousy that was rising from red heat to white. How dared a woman with hair of gold wear the color of the brunette? It was a theft. It was the last indignity. And once more she chained Reinaldo, in default of Estenega, to her side. And deep in Prudencia's heart wove a scheme of vengeance; the loom and warp had been presented unwittingly by her chivalrous father-in-law.

Estenega remained in the sala a few moments after Chonita's reappearance, then left the house and wandered through the booth in the court, where the people were dancing and singing and eating and gambling as if with the morrow an eternal Lent would come, and thence through the silent town to the pleasure-grounds of Casa Grande, which lay about half a mile from the house. He had been there but a short while when he heard a rustle, a light footfall; and, turning, he saw Chonita, unattended, her bare neck and gold hair gleaming against the dark, her train dragging. She was advancing swiftly toward him. His pulses bounded, and he sprang toward her, his arms outstretched; but she waved him back.

"Have mercy," she said. "I am alone. I brought no one, because I have that to tell you which no one else must hear."

He stepped back and looked at the ground.

"Listen," she said. "I could not wait until to-morrow, because a moment lost might mean--might mean the ruin of your career, and you say your envoy has not gone yet. Just now--I will tell you the other first. Mother of God! that I should betray my brother to my enemy! But it seems to me right, because you placed your confidence in me, and I should feel that I betrayed you if I did not warn you. I do not know--oh, Mary!--I do not know--but this seems to me right. The other night my brother came to me and asked me--ay! do not look at me--to marry you, that you would balk his ambition no further. He wishes to go as diputado to Mexico, and he knows that you will not let him. I thought my brain would crack,--an Iturbi y Moncada!--I made him no answer,--there was no answer to a demand like that,--and he went from me in a fury, vowing vengeance upon you. To-night, a few moments ago, he whispered to me that he knew of your plans, your intentions regarding the Americans: he had overheard a conversation between you and Alvarado. He says that he will send letters to Mexico to-morrow, warning the government against you. Then their suspicions will be roused, and they will inquire--Ay, Mary!"

Estenega brought his teeth together. "God!" he exclaimed.

She saw that he had forgotten her. She turned and went back more swiftly than she had come.

Estenega was a man whose resources never failed him. He returned to the house and asked Reinaldo to smoke a cigarito and drink a bottle of wine in his room. Then, without a promise or a compromising word, he so flattered that shallow youth, so allured his ambition and pampered his vanity and watered his hopes, that fear and hatred wondered at their existence, closed their eyes, and went to sleep. Reinaldo poured forth his aspirations, which under the influence of the truth-provoking vine proved to be an honest yearning for the pleasures of Mexico. As he rose to go he threw his arm about Estenega's neck.

"Ay! my friend! my friend!" he cried, "thou art all-powerful. Thou alone canst give me what I want."

"Why did you never ask me for what you wanted?" asked Estenega. And he thought, "If it were not for Her, you would be on your way to Los Angeles to-night under charge of high treason. I would not have taken this much trouble with you."