Frontier Stories

At the Mission of San Carmel


Bret Harte

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 sea-shore 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 José, 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 José 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 farther 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 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 José 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 José 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, Señor,” 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!”


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 backward and forward. 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 José’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, Señor 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 José 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 José 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 the 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, moldy 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, of 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 in-shore, 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 José 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.”

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