Frontier Stories

At the Mission of San Carmel


Bret Harte

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 toward 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 José 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 rejections 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 José, 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 José 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 allowance 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, José. Father Pedro’s sunken eye brightened.

“Ah, José! 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 horsetails, 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 José 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 José 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 José 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 Señor 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 were 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, Señor,” 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, Señor! 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, Señor, 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 Señor 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, Señor 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 for 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, Señor?”

“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, Señor 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!”

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