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CHAPTER III


When Father Pedro saw the yellow mules vanish under the low
branches of the oaks beside the little graveyard, caught the last
glitter of the morning sun on Pinto's shining headstall, and heard
the last tinkle of Antonio's spurs, something very like a mundane
sigh escaped him. To the simple wonder of the majority of early
worshipers--the half-breed converts who rigorously attended the
spiritual ministrations of the Mission, and ate the temporal
provisions of the reverend fathers--he deputed the functions of the
first mass to a coadjutor, and, breviary in hand, sought the
orchard of venerable pear trees. Whether there was any occult
sympathy in his reflections with the contemplation of their
gnarled, twisted, gouty, and knotty limbs, still bearing gracious
and goodly fruit, I know not, but it was his private retreat, and
under one of the most rheumatic and misshapen trunks there was a
rude seat. Here Father Pedro sank, his face towards the mountain
wall between him and the invisible sea. The relentless, dry,
practical Californian sunlight falling on his face grimly pointed
out a night of vigil and suffering. The snuffy yellow of his eyes
was injected yet burning, his temples were ridged and veined like a
tobacco leaf; the odor of desiccation which his garments always
exhaled was hot and feverish, as if the fire had suddenly awakened
among the ashes.

Of what was Father Pedro thinking?

He was thinking of his youth, a youth spent under the shade of
those pear trees, even then venerable as now. He was thinking of
his youthful dreams of heathen conquest, emulating the sacrifices
and labors of Junipero Serra; a dream cut short by the orders of
the archbishop, that sent his companion, Brother Diego, north on a
mission to strange lands, and condemned him to the isolation of San
Carmel. He was thinking of that fierce struggle with envy of a
fellow creature's better fortune that, conquered by prayer and
penance, left him patient, submissive, and devoted to his humble
work; how he raised up converts to the faith, even taking them from
the breast of heretic mothers.

He recalled how once, with the zeal of propagandism quickening in
the instincts of a childless man, he had dreamed of perpetuating
his work through some sinless creation of his own; of dedicating
some virgin soul, one over whom he could have complete control,
restricted by no human paternal weakness, to the task he had begun.
But how? Of all the boys eagerly offered to the Church by their
parents there seemed none sufficiently pure and free from parental
taint. He remembered how one night, through the intercession of
the Blessed Virgin herself, as he firmly then believed, this dream
was fulfilled. An Indian woman brought him a Waugee child--a baby-
girl that she had picked up on the sea-shore. There were no
parents to divide the responsibility, the child had no past to
confront, except the memory of the ignorant Indian woman, who
deemed her duty done, and whose interest ceased in giving it to the
Padre. The austere conditions of his monkish life compelled him to
the first step in his adoption of it--the concealment of its sex.
This was easy enough, as he constituted himself from that moment
its sole nurse and attendant, and boldly baptized it among the
other children by the name of Francisco. No others knew its
origin, nor cared to know. Father Pedro had taken a muchacho
foundling for adoption; his jealous seclusion of it and his
personal care was doubtless some sacerdotal formula at once high
and necessary.

He remembered with darkening eyes and impeded breath how his close
companionship and daily care of this helpless child had revealed to
him the fascinations of that paternity denied to him; how he had
deemed it his duty to struggle against the thrill of baby fingers
laid upon his yellow cheeks, the pleading of inarticulate words,
the eloquence of wonder-seeing and mutely questioning eyes; how he
had succumbed again and again, and then struggled no more, seeing
only in them the suggestion of childhood made incarnate in the Holy
Babe. And yet, even as he thought, he drew from his gown a little
shoe, and laid it beside his breviary. It was Francisco's baby
slipper, a duplicate to those worn by the miniature waxen figure of
the Holy Virgin herself in her niche in the transept.

Had he felt during these years any qualms of conscience at this
concealment of the child's sex? None. For to him the babe was
sexless, as most befitted one who was to live and die at the foot
of the altar. There was no attempt to deceive God; what mattered
else? Nor was he withholding the child from the ministrations of
the sacred sisters; there was no convent near the Mission, and as
each year passed, the difficulty of restoring her to the position
and duties of her sex became greater and more dangerous. And then
the acolyte's destiny was sealed by what again appeared to Father
Pedro as a direct interposition of Providence. The child developed
a voice of such exquisite sweetness and purity that an angel seemed
to have strayed into the little choir, and kneeling worshipers
below, transported, gazed upwards, half expectant of a heavenly
light breaking through the gloom of the raftered ceiling. The fame
of the little singer filled the valley of San Carmel; it was a
miracle vouchsafed the Mission; Don Jose Peralta remembered, ah
yes, to have heard in old Spain of boy choristers with such voices!

And was this sacred trust to be withdrawn from him? Was this life
which he had brought out of an unknown world of sin, unstained and
pure, consecrated and dedicated to God, just in the dawn of power
and promise for the glory of the Mother Church, to be taken from
his side? And at the word of a self-convicted man of sin--a man
whose tardy repentance was not yet absolved by the Holy Church.
Never! never! Father Pedro dwelt upon the stranger's rejection of
the ministrations of the Church with a pitiable satisfaction; had
he accepted it, he would have had a sacred claim upon Father
Pedro's sympathy and confidence. Yet he rose again, uneasily and
with irregular steps returned to the corridor, passing the door of
the familiar little cell beside his own. The window, the table,
and even the scant toilette utensils were filled with the flowers
of yesterday, some of them withered and dry; the white gown of the
little chorister was hanging emptily against the wall. Father
Pedro started and trembled; it seemed as if the spiritual life of
the child had slipped away with its garments.

In that slight chill, which even in the hottest days in California
always invests any shadow cast in that white sunlight, Father Pedro
shivered in the corridor. Passing again into the garden, he
followed in fancy the wayfaring figure of Francisco, saw the child
arrive at the rancho of Don Juan, and with the fateful blindness of
all dreamers projected a picture most unlike the reality. He
followed the pilgrims even to San Jose, and saw the child deliver
the missive which gave the secret of her sex and condition to the
Father Superior. That the authority at San Jose might dissent with
the Padre of San Carmel, or decline to carry out his designs, did
not occur to the one-idea'd priest. Like all solitary people,
isolated from passing events, he made no allowances for occurrences
outside of his routine. Yet at this moment a sudden thought
whitened his yellow cheek. What if the Father Superior deemed it
necessary to impart the secret to Francisco? Would the child
recoil at the deception, and, perhaps, cease to love him? It was
the first time, in his supreme selfishness, he had taken the
acolyte's feelings into account. He had thought of him only as one
owing implicit obedience to him as a temporal and spiritual guide.

"Reverend Father!"

He turned impatiently. It was his muleteer, Jose. Father Pedro's
sunken eye brightened.

"Ah, Jose! Quickly, then; hast thou found Sanchicha?"

"Truly, your reverence! And I have brought her with me, just as
she is; though if your reverence make more of her than to fill the
six-foot hole and say a prayer over her, I'll give the mule that
brought her here for food for the bull's horns. She neither hears
nor speaks, but whether from weakness or sheer wantonness, I know
not."

"Peace, then! and let thy tongue take example from hers. Bring her
with thee into the sacristy and attend without. Go!"

Father Pedro watched the disappearing figure of the muleteer and
hurriedly swept his thin, dry hand, veined and ribbed like a brown
November leaf, over his stony forehead, with a sound that seemed
almost a rustle. Then he suddenly stiffened his fingers over his
breviary, dropped his arms perpendicularly before him, and with a
rigid step returned to the corridor and passed into the sacristy.

For a moment in the half-darkness the room seemed to be empty.
Tossed carelessly in the corner appeared some blankets topped by a
few straggling black horse tails, like an unstranded riata. A
trembling agitated the mass as Father Pedro approached. He bent
over the heap and distinguished in its midst the glowing black eyes
of Sanchicha, the Indian centenarian of the Mission San Carmel.
Only her eyes lived. Helpless, boneless, and jelly-like, old age
had overtaken her with a mild form of deliquescence.

"Listen, Sanchicha," said the father, gravely. "It is important
that thou shouldst refresh thy memory for a moment. Look back
fourteen years, mother; it is but yesterday to thee. Thou dost
remember the baby--a little muchacha thou broughtest me then--
fourteen years ago?"

The old woman's eyes became intelligent, and turned with a quick
look towards the open door of the church, and thence towards the
choir.

The Padre made a motion of irritation. "No, no! Thou dost not
understand; thou dost not attend me. Knowest thou of any mark of
clothing, trinket, or amulet found upon the babe?"

The light of the old woman's eyes went out. She might have been
dead. Father Pedro waited a moment, and then laid his hand
impatiently on her shoulder.

"Dost thou mean there are none?"

A ray of light struggled back into her eyes.

"None."

"And thou hast kept back or put away no sign nor mark of her
parentage? Tell me, on this crucifix."

The eyes caught the crucifix, and became as empty as the orbits of
the carven Christ upon it.

Father Pedro waited patiently. A moment passed; only the sound of
the muleteer's spurs was heard in the courtyard.

"It is well," he said at last, with a sigh of relief. "Pepita
shall give thee some refreshment, and Jose will bring thee back
again. I will summon him."

He passed out of the sacristy door, leaving it open. A ray of
sunlight darted eagerly in, and fell upon the grotesque heap in the
corner. Sanchicha's eyes lived again; more than that, a singular
movement came over her face. The hideous caverns of her toothless
mouth opened--she laughed. The step of Jose was heard in the
corridor, and she became again inert.

The third day, which should have brought the return of Antonio, was
nearly spent. Father Pedro was impatient but not alarmed. The
good fathers at San Jose might naturally detain Antonio for the
answer, which might require deliberation. If any mischance had
occurred to Francisco, Antonio would have returned or sent a
special messenger. At sunset he was in his accustomed seat in the
orchard, his hands clasped over the breviary in his listless lap,
his eyes fixed upon the mountain between him and that mysterious
sea that had brought so much into his life. He was filled with a
strange desire to see it, a vague curiosity hitherto unknown to his
preoccupied life; he wished to gaze upon that strand, perhaps the
very spot where she had been found; he doubted not his questioning
eyes would discover some forgotten trace of her; under his
persistent will and aided by the Holy Virgin, the sea would give up
its secret. He looked at the fog creeping along the summit, and
recalled the latest gossip of San Carmel; how that since the advent
of the Americanos it was gradually encroaching on the Mission. The
hated name vividly recalled to him the features of the stranger as
he had stood before him three nights ago, in this very garden; so
vividly that he sprang to his feet with an exclamation. It was no
fancy, but Senor Cranch himself advancing from under the shadow of
a pear tree.

"I reckoned I'd catch you here," said Mr. Cranch, with the same
dry, practical business fashion, as if he was only resuming an
interrupted conversation, "and I reckon I ain't going to keep you a
minit longer than I did t'other day." He mutely referred to his
watch, which he already held in his hand, and then put it back in
his pocket. "Well! we found her!"

"Francisco," interrupted the priest with a single stride, laying
his hand upon Cranch's arm, and staring into his eyes.

Mr. Cranch quietly removed Father Pedro's hand. "I reckon that
wasn't the name as I caught it," he returned dryly. "Hadn't you
better sit down?"

"Pardon me--pardon me, Senor," said the priest, hastily sinking
back upon his bench, "I was thinking of other things. You--you--
came upon me suddenly. I thought it was the acolyte. Go on,
Senor! I am interested."

"I thought you'd be," said Cranch, quietly. "That's why I came.
And then you might be of service too."

"True, true," said the priest, with rapid accents; "and this girl,
Senor, this girl is--"

"Juanita, the mestiza, adopted daughter of Don Juan Briones, over
on the Santa Clare Valley," replied Cranch, jerking his thumb over
his shoulder, and then sitting down upon the bench beside Father
Pedro.

The priest turned his feverish eyes piercingly upon his companion
for a few seconds, and then doggedly fixed them upon the ground.
Cranch drew a plug of tobacco from his pocket, cut off a portion,
placed it in his cheek, and then quietly began to strap the blade
of his jack-knife upon his boot. Father Pedro saw it from under
his eyelids, and even in his preoccupation despised him.

"Then you are certain she is the babe you seek?" said the father,
without looking up.

"I reckon as near as you can be certain of anything. Her age
tallies; she was the only foundling girl baby baptized by you, you
know,"--he partly turned round appealingly to the Padre,--"that
year. Injin woman says she picked up a baby. Looks like a pretty
clear case, don't it?"

"And the clothes, friend Cranch?" said the priest, with his eyes
still on the ground, and a slight assumption of easy indifference.

"They will be forthcoming, like enough, when the time comes," said
Cranch; "the main thing at first was to find the girl; that was MY
job; the lawyers, I reckon, can fit the proofs and say what's
wanted, later on."

"But why lawyers," continued Padre Pedro, with a slight sneer he
could not repress, "if the child is found and Senor Cranch is
satisfied?"

"On account of the property. Business is business!"

"The property?"

Mr. Cranch pressed the back of his knife-blade on his boot, shut it
up with a click, and putting it in his pocket said calmly,--

"Well, I reckon the million of dollars that her father left when he
died, which naturally belongs to her, will require some proof that
she is his daughter."

He had placed both his hands in his pockets, and turned his eyes
full upon Father Pedro. The priest arose hurriedly.

"But you said nothing of this before, Senor Cranch," said he, with
a gesture of indignation, turning his back quite upon Cranch, and
taking a step towards the refectory.

"Why should I? I was looking after the girl, not the property,"
returned Cranch, following the Padre with watchful eyes, but still
keeping his careless, easy attitude.

"Ah, well! Will it be said so, think you? Eh! Bueno. What will
the world think of your sacred quest, eh?" continued the Padre
Pedro, forgetting himself in his excitement, but still averting his
face from his companion.

"The world will look after the proofs, and I reckon not bother if
the proofs are all right," replied Cranch, carelessly; "and the
girl won't think the worse of me for helping her to a fortune.
Hallo! you've dropped something." He leaped to his feet, picked up
the breviary which had fallen from the Padre's fingers, and
returned it to him with a slight touch of gentleness that was
unsuspected in the man.

The priest's dry, tremulous hand grasped the volume without
acknowledgment.

"But these proofs?" he said hastily; "these proofs, Senor?"

"Oh, well, you'll testify to the baptism, you know."

"But if I refuse; if I will have nothing to do with this thing! If
I will not give my word that there is not some mistake," said the
priest, working himself into a feverish indignation. "That there
are not slips of memory, eh? Of so many children baptized, is it
possible for me to know which, eh? And if this Juanita is not your
girl, eh?"

"Then you'll help me to find who is," said Cranch, coolly.

Father Pedro turned furiously on his tormentor. Overcome by his
vigil and anxiety. He was oblivious of everything but the presence
of the man who seemed to usurp the functions of his own conscience.
"Who are you, who speak thus?" he said hoarsely, advancing upon
Cranch with outstretched and anathematizing fingers. "Who are you,
Senor Heathen, who dare to dictate to me, a Father of Holy Church?
I tell you, I will have none of this. Never! I will not. From
this moment, you understand--nothing. I will never . . ."

He stopped. The first stroke of the Angelus rang from the little
tower. The first stroke of that bell before whose magic exorcism
all human passions fled, the peaceful bell that had for fifty years
lulled the little fold of San Carmel to prayer and rest, came to
his throbbing ear. His trembling hands groped for the crucifix,
carried it to his left breast; his lips moved in prayer. His eyes
were turned to the cold, passionless sky, where a few faint, far-
spaced stars had silently stolen to their places. The Angelus
still rang, his trembling ceased, he remained motionless and rigid.

The American, who had uncovered in deference to the worshiper
rather than the rite, waited patiently. The eyes of Father Pedro
returned to the earth, moist as if with dew caught from above. He
looked half absently at Cranch.

"Forgive me, my son," he said, in a changed voice. "I am only a
worn old man. I must talk with thee more of this--but not to-
night--not to-night;--to-morrow--to-morrow--to-morrow."

He turned slowly and appeared to glide rather than move under the
trees, until the dark shadow of the Mission tower met and
encompassed him. Cranch followed him with anxious eyes. Then he
removed the quid of tobacco from his cheek.

"Just as I reckoned," remarked he, quite audibly. "He's clean gold
on the bed rock after all!"




On the Frontier by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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