eBooks Cube
 
CHAPTER I


The 10th of August, 1852, brought little change to the dull
monotony of wind, fog, and treeless coast line. Only the sea was
occasionally flecked with racing sails that outstripped the old,
slow-creeping trader, or was at times streaked and blurred with the
trailing smoke of a steamer. There were a few strange footprints
on those virgin sands, and a fresh track, that led from the beach
over the rounded hills, dropped into the bosky recesses of a hidden
valley beyond the coast range.

It was here that the refectory windows of the Mission of San Carmel
had for years looked upon the reverse of that monotonous picture
presented to the sea. It was here that the trade winds, shorn of
their fury and strength in the heated, oven-like air that rose from
the valley, lost their weary way in the tangled recesses of the
wooded slopes, and breathed their last at the foot of the stone
cross before the Mission. It was on the crest of those slopes that
the fog halted and walled in the sun-illumined plain below; it was
in this plain that limitless fields of grain clothed the fat adobe
soil; here the Mission garden smiled over its hedges of fruitful
vines, and through the leaves of fig and gnarled pear trees: and it
was here that Father Pedro had lived for fifty years, found the
prospect good, and had smiled also.

Father Pedro's smile was rare. He was not a Las Casas, nor a
Junipero Serra, but he had the deep seriousness of all disciples
laden with the responsible wording of a gospel not their own. And
his smile had an ecclesiastical as well as a human significance,
the pleasantest object in his prospect being the fair and curly
head of his boy acolyte and chorister, Francisco, which appeared
among the vines, and his sweetest pastoral music, the high soprano
humming of a chant with which the boy accompanied his gardening.

Suddenly the acolyte's chant changed to a cry of terror. Running
rapidly to Father Pedro's side, he grasped his sotana, and even
tried to hide his curls among its folds.

"'St! 'st!" said the Padre, disengaging himself with some
impatience. "What new alarm is this? Is it Luzbel hiding among
our Catalan vines, or one of those heathen Americanos from
Monterey? Speak!"

"Neither, holy father," said the boy, the color struggling back
into his pale cheeks, and an apologetic, bashful smile lighting his
clear eyes. "Neither; but oh! such a gross, lethargic toad! And
it almost leaped upon me."

"A toad leaped upon thee!" repeated the good father with evident
vexation. "What next? I tell thee, child, those foolish fears are
most unmeet for thee, and must be overcome, if necessary, with
prayer and penance. Frightened by a toad! Blood of the Martyrs!
'Tis like any foolish girl!"

Father Pedro stopped and coughed.

"I am saying that no Christian child should shrink from any of
God's harmless creatures. And only last week thou wast disdainful
of poor Murieta's pig, forgetting that San Antonio himself did
elect one his faithful companion, even in glory."

"Yes, but it was so fat, and so uncleanly, holy father," replied
the young acolyte, "and it smelt so."

"Smelt so?" echoed the father doubtfully. "Have a care, child,
that this is not luxuriousness of the senses. I have noticed of
late you gather overmuch of roses and syringa, excellent in their
way and in moderation, but still not to be compared with the flower
of Holy Church, the lily."

"But lilies don't look well on the refectory table, and against the
adobe wall," returned the acolyte, with a pout of a spoilt child;
"and surely the flowers cannot help being sweet, any more than
myrrh or incense. And I am not frightened of the heathen
Americanos either NOW. There was a small one in the garden
yesterday, a boy like me, and he spoke kindly and with a pleasant
face."

"What said he to thee, child?" asked Father Pedro, anxiously.

"Nay, the matter of his speech I could not understand," laughed the
boy, "but the manner was as gentle as thine, holy father."

"'St, child," said the Padre impatiently. "Thy likings are as
unreasonable as thy fears. Besides, have I not told thee it ill
becomes a child of Christ to chatter with those sons of Belial?
But canst thou not repeat the words--the WORDS he said?" he
continued suspiciously.

"'Tis a harsh tongue the Americanos speak in their throat," replied
the boy. "But he said 'Devilishnisse' and 'pretty-as-a-girl,' and
looked at me."

The good father made the boy repeat the words gravely, and as
gravely repeated them after him with infinite simplicity. "They
are but heretical words," he replied in answer to the boy's
inquiring look; "it is well you understand not English. Enough.
Run away, child, and be ready for the Angelus. I will commune with
myself awhile under the pear trees."

Glad to escape so easily, the young acolyte disappeared down the
alley of fig trees, not without a furtive look at the patches of
chickweed around their roots, the possible ambuscade of creeping or
saltant vermin. The good priest heaved a sigh and glanced round
the darkening prospect. The sun had already disappeared over the
mountain wall that lay between him and the sea, rimmed with a faint
white line of outlying fog. A cool zephyr fanned his cheek; it was
the dying breath of the vientos generales beyond the wall. As
Father Pedro's eyes were raised to this barrier, which seemed to
shut out the boisterous world beyond, he fancied he noticed for the
first time a slight breach in the parapet, over which an advanced
banner of the fog was fluttering. Was it an omen? His speculations
were cut short by a voice at his very side.

He turned quickly and beheld one of those "heathens" against whom
he had just warned his young acolyte; one of that straggling band
of adventurers whom the recent gold discoveries had scattered along
the coast. Luckily the fertile alluvium of these valleys, lying
parallel with the sea, offered no "indications" to attract the gold
seekers. Nevertheless to Father Pedro even the infrequent contact
with the Americanos was objectionable; they were at once
inquisitive and careless; they asked questions with the sharp
perspicacity of controversy; they received his grave replies with
the frank indifference of utter worldliness. Powerful enough to
have been tyrannical oppressors, they were singularly tolerant and
gentle, contenting themselves with a playful, good-natured
irreverence, which tormented the good father more than opposition.
They were felt to be dangerous and subversive.

The Americano, however, who stood before him did not offensively
suggest these national qualities. A man of middle height, strongly
built, bronzed and slightly gray from the vicissitudes of years and
exposure, he had an air of practical seriousness that commended
itself to Father Pedro. To his religious mind it suggested self-
consciousness; expressed in the dialect of the stranger it only
meant "business."

"I'm rather glad I found you out here alone," began the latter; "it
saves time. I haven't got to take my turn with the rest, in
there"--he indicated the church with his thumb--"and you haven't
got to make an appointment. You have got a clear forty minutes
before the Angelus rings," he added, consulting a large silver
chronometer, "and I reckon I kin git through my part of the job
inside of twenty, leaving you ten minutes for remarks. I want to
confess."

Father Pedro drew back with a gesture of dignity. The stranger,
however, laid his hand upon the Padre's sleeve with the air of a
man anticipating objection, but never refusal, and went on.

"Of course, I know. You want me to come at some other time, and in
THERE. You want it in the reg'lar style. That's your way and your
time. My answer is: it ain't MY way and MY time. The main idea of
confession, I take it, is gettin' at the facts. I'm ready to give
'em if you'll take 'em out here, now. If you're willing to drop
the Church and confessional, and all that sort o' thing, I, on my
side, am willing to give up the absolution, and all that sort o'
thing. You might," he added, with an unconscious touch of pathos
in the suggestion, "heave in a word or two of advice after I get
through; for instance, what YOU'D do in the circumstances, you see!
That's all. But that's as you please. It ain't part of the
business."

Irreverent as this speech appeared, there was really no trace of
such intention in his manner, and his evident profound conviction
that his suggestion was practical, and not at all inconsistent with
ecclesiastical dignity, would alone have been enough to touch the
Padre, had not the stranger's dominant personality already
overridden him. He hesitated. The stranger seized the opportunity
to take his arm, and lead him with the half familiarity of powerful
protection to a bench beneath the refectory window. Taking out his
watch again, he put it in the passive hands of the astonished
priest, saying, "Time me," cleared his throat, and began:--

"Fourteen years ago there was a ship cruisin' in the Pacific, jest
off this range, that was ez nigh on to a Hell afloat as anything
rigged kin be. If a chap managed to dodge the cap'en's belayin-pin
for a time, he was bound to be fetched up in the ribs at last by
the mate's boots. There was a chap knocked down the fore hatch
with a broken leg in the Gulf, and another jumped overboard off
Cape Corrientes, crazy as a loon, along a clip of the head from the
cap'en's trumpet. Them's facts. The ship was a brigantine,
trading along the Mexican coast. The cap'en had his wife aboard, a
little timid Mexican woman he'd picked up at Mazatlan. I reckon
she didn't get on with him any better than the men, for she ups and
dies one day, leavin' her baby, a year-old gal. One of the crew
was fond o' that baby. He used to get the black nurse to put it in
the dingy, and he'd tow it astern, rocking it with the painter like
a cradle. He did it--hatin' the cap'en all the same. One day the
black nurse got out of the dingy for a moment, when the baby was
asleep, leavin' him alone with it. An idea took hold on him, jest
from cussedness, you'd say, but it was partly from revenge on the
cap'en and partly to get away from the ship. The ship was well
inshore, and the current settin' towards it. He slipped the
painter--that man--and set himself adrift with the baby. It was a
crazy act, you'd reckon, for there wasn't any oars in the boat; but
he had a crazy man's luck, and he contrived, by sculling the boat
with one of the seats he tore out, to keep her out of the breakers,
till he could find a bight in the shore to run her in. The alarm
was given from the ship, but the fog shut down upon him; he could
hear the other boats in pursuit. They seemed to close in on him,
and by the sound he judged the cap'en was just abreast of him in
the gig, bearing down upon him in the fog. He slipped out of the
dingy into the water without a splash, and struck out for the
breakers. He got ashore after havin' been knocked down and dragged
in four times by the undertow. He had only one idea then,
thankfulness that he had not taken the baby with him in the surf.
You kin put that down for him: it's a fact. He got off into the
hills, and made his way up to Monterey."

"And the child?" asked the Padre, with a sudden and strange
asperity that boded no good to the penitent; "the child thus
ruthlessly abandoned--what became of it?"

"That's just it, the child," assented the stranger, gravely.
"Well, if that man was on his death-bed instead of being here
talking to you, he'd swear that he thought the cap'en was sure to
come up to it the next minit. That's a fact. But it wasn't until
one day that he--that's me--ran across one of that crew in Frisco.
'Hallo, Cranch,' sez he to me, 'so you got away, didn't you? And
how's the cap'en's baby? Grown a young gal by this time, ain't
she?' 'What are you talkin about,' ez I; 'how should I know?' He
draws away from me, and sez, 'D--- it,' sez he, 'you don't mean
that you' . . . I grabs him by the throat and makes him tell me
all. And then it appears that the boat and the baby were never
found again, and every man of that crew, cap'en and all, believed I
had stolen it."

He paused. Father Pedro was staring at the prospect with an
uncompromising rigidity of head and shoulder.

"It's a bad lookout for me, ain't it?" the stranger continued, in
serious reflection.

"How do I know," said the priest harshly, without turning his head,
"that you did not make away with this child?"

"Beg pardon."

"That you did not complete your revenge by--by--killing it, as your
comrade suspected you? Ah! Holy Trinity," continued Father Pedro,
throwing out his hands with an impatient gesture, as if to take the
place of unutterable thought.

"How do YOU know?" echoed the stranger coldly.

"Yes."

The stranger linked his fingers together and threw them over his
knee, drew it up to his chest caressingly, and said quietly,
"Because you DO know."

The Padre rose to his feet.

"What mean you?" he said, sternly fixing his eyes upon the speaker.
Their eyes met. The stranger's were gray and persistent, with
hanging corner lids that might have concealed even more purpose
than they showed. The Padre's were hollow, open, and the whites
slightly brown, as if with tobacco stains. Yet they were the first
to turn away.

"I mean," returned the stranger, with the same practical gravity,
"that you know it wouldn't pay me to come here, if I'd killed the
baby, unless I wanted you to fix things right with me up there,"
pointing skywards, "and get absolution; and I've told you THAT
wasn't in my line."

"Why do you seek me, then?" demanded the Padre, suspiciously.

"Because I reckon I thought a man might be allowed to confess
something short of a murder. If you're going to draw the line
below that--"

"This is but sacrilegious levity," interrupted Father Pedro,
turning as if to go. But the stranger did not make any movement to
detain him.

"Have you implored forgiveness of the father--the man you wronged--
before you came here?" asked the priest, lingering.

"Not much. It wouldn't pay if he was living, and he died four
years ago."

"You are sure of that?"

"I am."

"There are other relations, perhaps?"

"None."

Father Pedro was silent. When he spoke again, it was with a
changed voice. "What is your purpose, then?" he asked, with the
first indication of priestly sympathy in his manner. "You cannot
ask forgiveness of the earthly father you have injured, you refuse
the intercession of holy Church with the Heavenly Father you have
disobeyed. Speak, wretched man! What is it you want?"

"I want to find the child."

"But if it were possible, if she were still living, are you fit to
seek her, to even make yourself known to her, to appear before
her?"

"Well, if I made it profitable to her, perhaps."

"Perhaps," echoed the priest, scornfully. "So be it. But why come
here?"

"To ask your advice. To know how to begin my search. You know
this country. You were here when that boat drifted ashore beyond
that mountain."

"Ah, indeed. I have much to do with it. It is an affair of the
alcalde--the authorities--of your--your police."

"Is it?"

The Padre again met the stranger's eyes. He stopped, with the
snuff box he had somewhat ostentatiously drawn from his pocket
still open in his hand.

"Why is it not, Senor?" he demanded.

"If she lives, she is a young lady by this time, and might not want
the details of her life known to any one."

"And how will you recognize your baby in this young lady?" asked
Father Pedro, with a rapid gesture, indicating the comparative
heights of a baby and an adult.

"I reckon I'll know her, and her clothes too; and whoever found her
wouldn't be fool enough to destroy them."

"After fourteen years! Good! you have faith, Senor--"

"Cranch," supplied the stranger, consulting his watch. "But time's
up. Business is business. Good-by; don't let me keep you."

He extended his hand.

The Padre met it with a dry, unsympathetic palm, as sere and yellow
as the hills. When their hands separated, the father still
hesitated, looking at Cranch. If he expected further speech or
entreaty from him he was mistaken, for the American, without
turning his head, walked in the same serious, practical fashion
down the avenue of fig trees, and disappeared beyond the hedge of
vines. The outlines of the mountain beyond were already lost in
the fog. Father Pedro turned into the refectory.

"Antonio."

A strong flavor of leather, onions, and stable preceded the
entrance of a short, stout vaquero from the little patio.

"Saddle Pinto and thine own mule to accompany Francisco, who will
take letters from me to the Father Superior at San Jose to-morrow
at daybreak."

"At daybreak, reverend father?"

"At daybreak. Hark ye, go by the mountain trails and avoid the
highway. Stop at no posada nor fonda, but if the child is weary,
rest then awhile at Don Juan Briones' or at the rancho of the
Blessed Fisherman. Have no converse with stragglers, least of all
those gentile Americanos. So . . ."

The first strokes of the Angelus came from the nearer tower. With
a gesture Father Pedro waved Antonio aside, and opened the door of
the sacristy.

"Ad Majorem Dei Gloria."




On the Frontier by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
Nabou.com: the big site