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CHAPTER IV


That night Father Pedro dreamed a strange dream. How much of it
was reality, how long it lasted, or when he awoke from it, he could
not tell. The morbid excitement of the previous day culminated in
a febrile exaltation in which he lived and moved as in a separate
existence.

This is what he remembered. He thought he had risen at night in a
sudden horror of remorse, and making his way to the darkened church
had fallen upon his knees before the high altar, when all at once
the acolyte's voice broke from the choir, but in accents so
dissonant and unnatural that it seemed a sacrilege, and he
trembled. He thought he had confessed the secret of the child's
sex to Cranch, but whether the next morning or a week later he did
not know. He fancied, too, that Cranch had also confessed some
trifling deception to him, but what, or why, he could not remember;
so much greater seemed the enormity of his own transgression. He
thought Cranch had put in his hands the letter he had written to
the Father Superior, saying that his secret was still safe, and
that he had been spared the avowal and the scandal that might have
ensued. But through all, and above all, he was conscious of one
fixed idea: to seek the seashore with Sanchicha, and upon the spot
where she had found Francisco, meet the young girl who had taken
his place, and so part from her forever. He had a dim recollection
that this was necessary to some legal identification of her, as
arranged by Cranch, but how or why he did not understand; enough
that it was a part of his penance.

It was early morning when the faithful Antonio, accompanied by
Sanchicha and Jose, rode forth with him from the Mission of San
Carmel. Except on the expressionless features of the old woman,
there was anxiety and gloom upon the faces of the little cavalcade.
He did not know how heavily his strange abstraction and
hallucinations weighed upon their honest hearts. As they wound up
the ascent of the mountain he noticed that Antonio and Jose
conversed with bated breath and many pious crossings of themselves,
but with eyes always wistfully fixed upon him. He wondered if, as
part of his penance, he ought not to proclaim his sin and abase
himself before them; but he knew that his devoted followers would
insist upon sharing his punishment; and he remembered his promise
to Cranch, that for HER sake he would say nothing. Before they
reached the summit he turned once or twice to look back upon the
Mission. How small it looked, lying there in the peaceful valley,
contrasted with the broad sweep of the landscape beyond, stopped at
the further east only by the dim, ghost-like outlines of the
Sierras. But the strong breath of the sea was beginning to be
felt; in a few moments more they were facing it with lowered
sombreros and flying serapes, and the vast, glittering, illimitable
Pacific opened out beneath them.

Dazed and blinded, as it seemed to him, by the shining, restless
expanse, Father Pedro rode forward as if still in a dream.
Suddenly he halted, and called Antonio to his side.

"Tell me, child, didst thou not say that this coast was wild and
desolate of man, beast, and habitation?"

"Truly I did, reverend father."

"Then what is that?" pointing to the shore.

Almost at their feet nestled a cluster of houses, at the head of an
arroyo reaching up from the beach. They looked down upon the smoke
of a manufactory chimney, upon strange heaps of material and
curious engines scattered along the sands, with here and there
moving specks of human figures. In a little bay a schooner swung
at her cables.

The vaquero crossed himself in stupefied alarm. "I know not, your
reverence; it is only two years ago, before the rodeo, that I was
here for strayed colts, and I swear by the blessed bones of San
Antonio that it was as I said."

"Ah! it is like these Americanos," responded the muleteer. "I have
it from my brother Diego that he went from San Jose to Pescadero
two months ago, across the plains, with never a hut nor fonda to
halt at all the way. He returned in seven days, and in the midst
of the plain there were three houses and a mill, and many people.
and why was it? Ah! Mother of God! one had picked up in the creek
where he drank that much of gold;" and the muleteer tapped one of
the silver coins that fringed his jacket sleeves in place of
buttons.

"And they are washing the sands for gold there now," said Antonio,
eagerly pointing to some men gathered round a machine like an
enormous cradle. "Let us hasten on."

Father Pedro's momentary interest had passed. The words of his
companions fell dull and meaningless upon his dreaming ears. He
was conscious only that the child was more a stranger to him as an
outcome of this hard, bustling life, than when he believed her
borne to him over the mysterious sea. It perplexed his dazed,
disturbed mind to think that if such an antagonistic element could
exist within a dozen miles of the Mission, and he not know it,
could not such an atmosphere have been around him, even in his
monastic isolation, and he remain blind to it? Had he really lived
in the world without knowing it? Had it been in his blood? Had it
impelled him to-- He shuddered and rode on.

They were at the last slope of the zigzag descent to the shore,
when he saw the figures of a man and woman moving slowly through a
field of wild oats, not far from the trail. It seemed to his
distorted fancy that the man was Cranch. The woman! His heart
stopped beating. Ah! could it be? He had never seen her in her
proper garb: would she look like that? Would she be as tall? He
thought he bade Jose and Antonio go on slowly before with
Sanchicha, and dismounted, walking slowly between the high stalks
of grain, lest he should disturb them. They evidently did not hear
his approach, but were talking earnestly. It seemed to Father
Pedro that they had taken each other's hands, and as he looked
Cranch slipped his arm round her waist. With only a blind instinct
of some dreadful sacrilege in this act, Father Pedro would have
rushed forward, when the girl's voice struck his ear. He stopped,
breathless. It was not Francisco, but Juanita, the little mestiza.

"But are you sure you are not pretending to love me now, as you
pretended to think I was the muchacha you had run away with and
lost? Are you sure it is not pity for the deceit you practiced
upon me--upon Don Juan--upon poor Father Pedro?"

It seemed as if Cranch had tried to answer with a kiss, for the
girl drew suddenly away from him with a coquettish fling of the
black braids, and whipped her little brown hands behind her.

"Well, look here," said Cranch, with the same easy, good-natured,
practical directness which the priest remembered, and which would
have passed for philosophy in a more thoughtful man, "put it
squarely, then. In the first place, it was Don Juan and the
alcalde who first suggested you might be the child."

"But you have said you knew it was Francisco all the time,"
interrupted Juanita.

"I did; but when I found the priest would not assist me at first,
and admit that the acolyte was a girl, I preferred to let him think
I was deceived in giving a fortune to another, and leave it to his
own conscience to permit it or frustrate it. I was right. I
reckon it was pretty hard on the old man, at his time of life, and
wrapped up as he was in the girl; but at the moment he came up to
the scratch like a man."

"And to save him you have deceived me? Thank you, Senor," said the
girl with a mock curtsey.

"I reckon I preferred to have you for a wife than a daughter," said
Cranch, "if that's what you mean. When you know me better,
Juanita," he continued, gravely, "you'll know that I would never
have let you believe I sought in you the one if I had not hoped to
find in you the other."

"Bueno! And when did you have that pretty hope?"

"When I first saw you."

"And that was--two weeks ago."

"A year ago, Juanita. When Francisco visited you at the rancho. I
followed and saw you."

Juanita looked at him a moment, and then suddenly darted at him,
caught him by the lapels of his coat and shook him like a terrier.

"Are you sure that you did not love that Francisco? Speak!" (She
shook him again.) "Swear that you did not follow her!"

"But--I did," said Cranch, laughing and shaking between the
clenching of the little hands.

"Judas Iscariot! Swear you do not love her all this while."

"But, Juanita!"

"Swear!"

Cranch swore. Then to Father Pedro's intense astonishment she drew
the American's face towards her own by the ears and kissed him.

"But you might have loved her, and married a fortune," said
Juanita, after a pause.

"Where would have been my reparation--my duty?" returned Cranch,
with a laugh.

"Reparation enough for her to have had you," said Juanita, with
that rapid disloyalty of one loving woman to another in an
emergency. This provoked another kiss from Cranch, and then
Juanita said demurely,--

"But we are far from the trail. Let us return, or we shall miss
Father Pedro. Are you sure he will come?"

"A week ago he promised to be here to see the proofs to-day."

The voices were growing fainter and fainter; they were returning to
the trail.

Father Pedro remained motionless. A week ago! Was it a week ago
since--since what? And what had he been doing here? Listening!
He! Father Pedro, listening like an idle peon to the confidences of
two lovers. But they had talked of him, of his crime, and the man
had pitied him. Why did he not speak? Why did he not call after
them? He tried to raise his voice. It sank in his throat with a
horrible choking sensation. The nearest heads of oats began to nod
to him, he felt himself swaying backwards and forwards. He fell--
heavily, down, down, down, from the summit of the mountain to the
floor of the Mission chapel, and there he lay in the dark.

. . . . . .

"He moves."

"Blessed Saint Anthony preserve him!"

It was Antonio's voice, it was Jose's arm, it was the field of wild
oats, the sky above his head,--all unchanged.

"What has happened?" said the priest feebly.

"A giddiness seized your reverence just now, as we were coming to
seek you."

"And you met no one?"

"No one, your reverence."

Father Pedro passed his hand across his forehead.

"But who are these?" he said, pointing to two figures who now
appeared upon the trail.

Antonio turned.

"It is the Americano, Senor Cranch, and his adopted daughter, the
mestiza Juanita, seeking your reverence, methinks."

"Ah!" said Father Pedro.

Cranch came forward and greeted the priest cordially. "It was kind
of you, Father Pedro," he said, meaningly, with a significant
glance at Jose and Antonio, "to come so far to bid me and my
adopted daughter farewell. We depart when the tide serves, but not
before you partake of our hospitality in yonder cottage."

Father Pedro gazed at Cranch and then at Juanita.

"I see," he stammered. "But she goes not alone. She will be
strange at first. She takes some friend, perhaps--some companion?"
he continued, tremulously.

"A very old and dear one, Father Pedro, who is waiting for us now."

He led the way to a little white cottage, so little and white and
recent, that it seemed a mere fleck of sea foam cast on the sands.
Disposing of Jose and Antonio in the neighboring workshop and
outbuildings, he assisted the venerable Sanchicha to dismount, and,
together with Father Pedro and Juanita, entered a white palisaded
enclosure beside the cottage, and halted before what appeared to be
a large, folding trap-door, covering a slight, sandy mound. It was
locked with a padlock; beside it stood the American alcalde and Don
Juan Briones. Father Pedro looked hastily around for another
figure, but it was not there.

"Gentlemen," began Cranch, in his practical business way, "I reckon
you all know we've come here to identify a young lady, who"--he
hesitated--"was lately under the care of Father Pedro, with a
foundling picked up on this shore fifteen years ago by an Indian
woman. How this foundling came here, and how I was concerned in
it, you all know. I've told everybody here how I scrambled ashore,
leaving that baby in the dingy, supposing it would be picked up by
the boat pursuing me. I've told some of you," he looked at Father
Pedro, "how I first discovered, from one of the men, three years
ago, that the child was not found by its father. But I have never
told any one, before now, I KNEW it was picked up here.

"I never could tell the exact locality where I came ashore, for the
fog was coming on as it is now. But two years ago I came up with a
party of gold hunters to work these sands. One day, digging near
this creek, I struck something embedded deep below the surface.
Well, gentlemen, it wasn't gold, but something worth more to me
than gold or silver. Here it is."

At a sign the alcalde unlocked the doors and threw them open. They
disclosed an irregular trench, in which, filled with sand, lay the
half-excavated stern of a boat.

"It was the dingy of the Trinidad, gentlemen; you can still read
her name. I found hidden away, tucked under the stern sheets,
mouldy and water-worn, some clothes that I recognized to be the
baby's. I knew then that the child had been taken away alive for
some purpose, and the clothes were left so that she should carry no
trace with her. I recognized the hand of an Indian. I set to work
quietly. I found Sanchicha here, she confessed to finding a baby,
but what she had done with it she would not at first say. But
since then she has declared before the alcalde that she gave it to
Father Pedro, of San Carmel, and that here it stands--Francisco
that was! Francisca that it is!"

He stepped aside to make way for a tall girl, who had approached
from the cottage.

Father Pedro had neither noticed the concluding words nor the
movement of Cranch. His eyes were fixed upon the imbecile
Sanchicha,--Sanchicha, on whom, to render his rebuke more complete,
the Deity seemed to have worked a miracle, and restored intelligence
to eye and lip. He passed his hand tremblingly across his forehead,
and turned away, when his eye fell upon the last comer.

It was she. The moment he had longed for and dreaded had come.
She stood there, animated, handsome, filled with a hurtful
consciousness in her new charms, her fresh finery, and the pitiable
trinkets that had supplanted her scapulary, and which played under
her foolish fingers. The past had no place in her preoccupied
mind; her bright eyes were full of eager anticipation of a
substantial future. The incarnation of a frivolous world, even as
she extended one hand to him in half-coquettish embarrassment she
arranged the folds of her dress with the other. At the touch of
her fingers, he felt himself growing old and cold. Even the
penance of parting, which he had looked forward to, was denied him;
there was no longer sympathy enough for sorrow. He thought of the
empty chorister's robe in the little cell, but not now with regret.
He only trembled to think of the flesh that he had once caused to
inhabit it.

"That's all, gentlemen," broke in the practical voice of Cranch.
"Whether there are proofs enough to make Francisca the heiress of
her father's wealth, the lawyers must say. I reckon it's enough
for me that they give me the chance of repairing a wrong by taking
her father's place. After all, it was a mere chance."

"It was the will of God," said Father Pedro, solemnly.

They were the last words he addressed them. For when the fog had
begun to creep inshore, hastening their departure, he only answered
their farewells by a silent pressure of the hand, mute lips, and
far-off eyes.

When the sound of their laboring oars grew fainter, he told Antonio
to lead him and Sanchicha again to the buried boat. There he bade
her kneel beside him. "We will do penance here, thou and I,
daughter," he said gravely. When the fog had drawn its curtain
gently around the strange pair, and sea and shore were blotted out,
he whispered, "Tell me, it was even so, was it not, daughter, on
the night she came?" When the distant clatter of blocks and rattle
of cordage came from the unseen vessel, now standing out to sea, he
whispered again, "So, this is what thou didst hear, even then."
And so during the night he marked, more or less audibly to the
half-conscious woman at his side, the low whisper of the waves, the
murmur of the far-off breakers, the lightening and thickening of
the fog, the phantoms of moving shapes, and the slow coming of the
dawn. And when the morning sun had rent the veil over land and
sea, Antonio and Jose found him, haggard, but erect, beside the
trembling old woman, with a blessing on his lips, pointing to the
horizon where a single sail still glimmered:--

"Va Usted con Dios."





On the Frontier by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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