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- ON THE FRONTIER - 6/26 -
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And was this sacred trust to be withdrawn from him?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.
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.
"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?"
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