The Pearls of Loreto, by Gertrude Atherton
Forties, Stories of Old California
Within memory of the most gnarled and coffee-coloured Montereño never
had there been so exciting a race day. All essential conditions seemed
to have held counsel and agreed to combine. Not a wreath of fog floated
across the bay to dim the sparkling air. Every horse, every vaquero,
was alert and physically perfect. The rains were over; the dust was not
gathered. Pio Pico, Governor of the Californias, was in Monterey on
one of his brief infrequent visits. Clad in black velvet, covered with
jewels and ropes of gold, he sat on his big chestnut horse at the upper
end of the field, with General Castro, Doña Modeste Castro, and other
prominent Montereños, his interest so keen that more than once the
official dignity relaxed, and he shouted "Brava!" with the rest.
And what a brilliant sight it was! The flowers had faded on the hills,
for June was upon them; but gayer than the hills had been was the
race-field of Monterey. Caballeros, with silver on their wide gray hats
and on their saddles of embossed leather, gold and silver embroidery on
their velvet serapes, crimson sashes about their slender waists, silver
spurs and buckskin botas, stood tensely in their stirrups as the racers
flew by, or, during the short intervals, pressed each other with eager
wagers. There was little money in that time. The golden skeleton within
the sleeping body of California had not yet been laid bare. But ranchos
were lost and won; thousands of cattle would pass to other hands at the
next rodeo; many a superbly caparisoned steed would rear and plunge
between the spurs of a new master.
And caballeros were not the only living pictures of that memorable day
of a time for ever gone. Beautiful women in silken fluttering gowns,
bright flowers holding the mantilla from flushed awakened faces, sat
their impatient horses as easily as a gull rides a wave. The sun beat
down, making dark cheeks pink and white cheeks darker, but those great
eyes, strong with their own fires, never faltered. The old women in
attendance grumbled vague remonstrances at all things, from the heat to
intercepted coquetries. But their charges gave the good dueñas little
heed. They shouted until their little throats were hoarse, smashed
their fans, beat the sides of their mounts with their tender hands, in
imitation of the vaqueros.
"It is the gayest, the happiest, the most careless life in the world,"
thought Pio Pico, shutting his teeth, as he looked about him. "But how
long will it last? Curse the Americans! They are coming."
But the bright hot spark that convulsed assembled Monterey shot from no
ordinary condition. A stranger was there, a guest of General Castro, Don
Vicente de la Vega y Arillaga, of Los Angeles. Not that a stranger was
matter for comment in Monterey, capital of California, but this stranger
had brought with him horses which threatened to disgrace the famous
winners of the North. Two races had been won already by the black
"Dios de mi alma!" cried the girls, one to the other, "their coats are
blacker than our hair! Their nostrils pulse like a heart on fire! Their
eyes flash like water in the sun! Ay! the handsome stranger, will he
roll us in the dust? Ay! our golden horses, with the tails and manes of
silver—how beautiful is the contrast with the vaqueros in their black
and silver, their soft white linen! The shame! the shame!—if they are
put to shame! Poor Guido! Will he lose this day, when he has won so
many? But the stranger is so handsome! Dios de mi vida! his eyes are
like dark blue stars. And he is so cold! He alone—he seems not to care.
Madre de Dios! Madre de Dios! he wins again! No! no! no! Yes! Ay! yi!
Guido Cabañares dug his spurs into his horse and dashed to the head of
the field, where Don Vicente sat at the left of General Castro. He was
followed hotly by several friends, sympathetic and indignant. As he
rode, he tore off his serape and flung it to the ground; even his silk
riding-clothes sat heavily upon his fury. Don Vicente smiled, and rode
forward to meet him.
"At your service, señor," he said, lifting his sombrero.
"Take your mustangs back to Los Angeles!" cried Don Guido, beside
himself with rage, the politeness and dignity of his race routed by
passion. "Why do you bring your hideous brutes here to shame me in the
eyes of Monterey? Why—"
"Yes! Why? Why?" demanded his friends, surrounding De la Vega. "This is
not the humiliation of a man, but of the North by the accursed South!
You even would take our capital from us! Los Angeles, the capital of the
"What have politics to do with horse-racing?" asked De la Vega, coldly.
"Other strangers have brought their horses to your field, I suppose."
"Yes, but they have not won. They have not been from the South."
By this time almost every caballero on the field was wheeling about De
la Vega. Some felt with Cabañares, others rejoiced in his defeat, but
all resented the victory of the South over the North.
"Will you run again?" demanded Cabañares.
"Certainly. Do you think of putting your knife into my neck?"
Cabañares drew back, somewhat abashed, the indifference of the other
sputtering like water on his passion.
"It is not a matter for blood," he said sulkily; "but the head is hot
and words are quick when horses run neck to neck. And, by the Mother of
God, you shall not have the last race. My best horse has not run. Viva
"Viva El Rayo!" shouted the caballeros.
"And let the race be between you two alone," cried one. "The North or
the South! Los Angeles or Monterey! It will be the race of our life."
"The North or the South!" cried the caballeros, wheeling and galloping
across the field to the doñas. "Twenty leagues to a real for Guido
"What a pity that Ysabel is not here!" said Doña Modeste Castro to Pio
Pico. "How those green eyes of hers would flash to-day!"
"She would not come," said the Governor. "She said she was tired of the
"Of whom do you speak?" asked De la Vega, who had rejoined them.
"Of Ysabel Herrera, La Favorita of Monterey," answered Pio Pico. "The
most beautiful woman in the Californias, since Chonita Iturbi y Moncada,
my Vicente. It is at her uncle's that I stay. You have heard me speak of
my old friend; and surely you have heard of her."
"Ay!" said De la Vega. "I have heard of her."
"Viva El Rayo!"
"Ay, the ugly brute!"
"What name? Vitriolo? Mother of God! Diablo or Demonio would suit him
better. He looks as if he had been bred in hell. He will not stand the
quirto; and El Rayo is more lightly built. We shall beat by a dozen
The two vaqueros who were to ride the horses had stripped to their soft
linen shirts and black velvet trousers, cast aside their sombreros, and
bound their heads with tightly knotted handkerchiefs. Their spurs were
fastened to bare brown heels; the cruel quirto was in the hand of each;
they rode barebacked, winding their wiry legs in and out of a horse-hair
rope encircling the body of the animal. As they slowly passed the crowd
on their way to the starting-point at the lower end of the field, and
listened to the rattling fire of wagers and comments, they looked
defiant, and alive to the importance of the coming event.
El Rayo shone like burnished copper, his silver mane and tail glittering
as if powdered with diamond-dust. He was long and graceful of body, thin
of flank, slender of leg. With arched neck and flashing eyes, he walked
with the pride of one who was aware of the admiration he excited.
Vitriolo was black and powerful. His long neck fitted into well-placed
shoulders. He had great depth of girth, immense length from
shoulder-points to hips, big cannon-bones, and elastic pasterns. There
was neither amiability nor pride in his mien; rather a sullen sense of
brute power, such as may have belonged to the knights of the Middle
Ages. Now and again he curled his lips away from the bit and laid his
ears back as if he intended to eat of the elegant Beau Brummel stepping
so daintily beside him. Of the antagonistic crowd he took not the
"The race begins! Holy heaven!" The murmur rose to a shout—a deep
hoarse shout strangely crossed and recrossed by long silver notes; a
thrilling volume of sound rising above a sea of flashing eyes and parted
lips and a vivid moving mass of colour.
Twice the horses scored, and were sent back. The third time they bounded
by the starting-post neck and neck, nose to nose. José Abrigo, treasurer
of Monterey, dashed his sombrero, heavy with silver eagles, to the
ground, and the race was begun.
Almost at once the black began to gain. Inch by inch he fought his way
to the front, and the roar with which the crowd had greeted the start
dropped into the silence of apprehension.
El Rayo was not easily to be shaken off. A third of the distance had
been covered, and his nose was abreast of Vitriolo's flank. The vaqueros
sat as if carved from sun-baked clay, as lightly as if hollowed,
watching each other warily out of the corners of their eyes.
The black continued to gain. Halfway from home light was visible between
the two horses. The pace became terrific, the excitement so intense that
not a sound was heard but that of racing hoofs. The horses swept onward
like projectiles, the same smoothness, the same suggestion of eternal
flight. The bodies were extended until the tense muscles rose under the
satin coats. Vitriolo's eyes flashed viciously; El Rayo's strained with
determination. Vitriolo's nostrils were as red as angry craters; El
Rayo's fluttered like paper in the wind.
Three-quarters of the race was run, and the rider of Vitriolo could tell
by the sound of the hoof-beats behind him that he had a good lead of at
least two lengths over the Northern champion. A smile curled the corners
of his heavy lips; the race was his already.
Suddenly El Rayo's vaquero raised his hand, and down came the maddening
quirto, first on one side, then on the other. The spurs dug; the blood
spurted. The crowd burst into a howl of delight as their favourite
responded. Startled by the sound, Vitriolo's rider darted a glance over
his shoulder, and saw El Rayo bearing down upon him like a thunder-bolt,
regaining the ground that he had lost, not by inches, but by feet. Two
hundred paces from the finish he was at the black's flanks; one hundred
and fifty, he was at his girth; one hundred, and the horses were neck
and neck; and still the quirto whirred down on El Rayo's heaving flanks,
the spurs dug deeper into his quivering flesh.
The vaquero of Vitriolo sat like an image, using neither whip nor spur,
his teeth set, his eyes rolling from the goal ahead to the rider at his
The breathless intensity of the spectators had burst. They had begun to
click their teeth, to mutter hoarsely, then to shout, to gesticulate,
to shake their fists in each other's face, to push and scramble for a
"Holy God!" cried Pio Pico, carried out of himself, "the South is lost!
Vitriolo the magnificent! Ah, who would have thought? The black by the
gold! Ay! What! No! Holy Mary! Holy God!—"
Six strides more and the race is over. With the bark of a coyote the
vaquero of the South leans forward over Vitriolo's neck. The big black
responds like a creature of reason. Down comes the quirto once—only
once. He fairly lifts his horse ahead and shoots into victory, winner by
a neck. The South has vanquished the North.
The crowd yelled and shouted until it was exhausted. But even Cabañares
made no further demonstration toward De la Vega. Not only was he weary
and depressed, but the victory had been nobly won.
It grew late, and they rode to the town, caballeros pushing as close to
doñas as they dared, dueñas in close attendance, one theme on the lips
of all. Anger gave place to respect; moreover, De la Vega was the guest
of General Castro, the best-beloved man in California. They were willing
to extend the hand of friendship; but he rode last, between the General
and Doña Modeste, and seemed to care as little for their good will as
for their ill.
Pio Pico rode ahead, and as the cavalcade entered the town he broke from
it and ascended the hill to carry the news to Ysabel Herrera.
Monterey, rising to her pine-spiked hills, swept like a crescent moon
about the sapphire bay. The surf roared and fought the white sand hills
of the distant horn; on that nearest the town stood the fort, grim
and rude, but pulsating with military life, and alert for American
onslaught. In the valley the red-tiled white adobe houses studded a
little city which was a series of corners radiating from a central
irregular street. A few mansions were on the hillside to the right,
brush-crowded sand banks on the left; the perfect curve of hills, thick
with pine woods and dense green undergrowth, rose high above and around
all, a rampart of splendid symmetry.
"Ay! Ysabel! Ysabel!" cried the young people, as they swept down the
broad street. "Bring her to us, Excellency. Tell her she shall not know
until she comes down. We will tell her. Ay! poor Guido!"
The Governor turned and waved his hand, then continued the ascent of the
hill, toward a long low house which showed no sign of life.
He alighted and glanced into a room opening upon the corridor which
traversed the front. The room was large and dimly lighted by deeply set
windows. The floor was bare, the furniture of horse-hair; saints and
family portraits adorned the white walls; on a chair lay a guitar;
it was a typical Californian sala of that day. The ships brought few
luxuries, beyond raiment and jewels, to even the wealthy of that
"Ysabel," called the Governor, "where art thou? Come down to the town
and hear the fortune of the races. Alvarado Street streams like a comet.
Why should the Star of Monterey withhold her light?"
A girl rose from a sofa and came slowly forward to the corridor.
Discontent marred her face as she gave her hand to the Governor to
kiss, and looked down upon the brilliant town. The Señorita Doña Ysabel
Herrera was poor. Were it not for her uncle she would not have where to
lay her stately head—and she was La Favorita of Monterey, the proudest
beauty in California! Her father had gambled away his last acre, his
horse, his saddle, the serape off his back; then sent his motherless
girl to his brother, and buried himself in Mexico. Don Antonio took the
child to his heart, and sent for a widowed cousin to be her dueña. He
bought her beautiful garments from the ships that touched the port, but
had no inclination to gratify her famous longing to hang ropes of pearls
in her soft black hair, to wind them about her white neck, and band them
above her green resplendent eyes.
"Unbend thy brows," said Pio Pico. "Wrinkles were not made for youth."
Ysabel moved her brows apart, but the clouds still lay in her eyes.
"Thou dost not ask of the races, O thou indifferent one! What is the
trouble, my Ysabel? Will no one bring the pearls? The loveliest girl in
all the Californias has said, 'I will wed no man who does not bring me
a lapful of pearls,' and no one has filled the front of that pretty
flowered gown. But have reason, niña. Remember that our Alta California
has no pearls on its shores, and that even the pearl fisheries of the
terrible lower country are almost worn out. Will nothing less content
"Dios de mi alma! Thou hast ambition. No woman has had more offered her
than thou. But thou art worthy of the most that man could give. Had I
not a wife myself, I believe I should throw my jewels and my ugly old
head at thy little feet."
Ysabel glanced with some envy at the magnificent jewels with which the
Governor of the Californias was hung, but did not covet the owner. An
uglier man than Pio Pico rarely had entered this world. The upper lip of
his enormous mouth dipped at the middle; the broad thick underlip hung
down with its own weight. The nose was big and coarse, although
there was a certain spirited suggestion in the cavernous nostrils.
Intelligence and reflectiveness were also in his little eyes, and they
were far apart. A small white mustache grew above his mouth; about his
chin, from ear to ear, was a short stubby beard, whiter by contrast with
his copper-coloured skin. He looked much like an intellectual bear.
And Ysabel? In truth, she had reason for her pride. Her black hair,
unblemished by gloss or tinge of blue, fell waving to her feet.
California, haughty, passionate, restless, pleasure-loving, looked from
her dark green eyes; the soft black lashes dropped quickly when they
became too expressive. Her full mouth was deeply red, but only a faint
pink lay in her white cheeks; the nose curved at bridge and nostrils.
About her low shoulders she held a blue reboso, the finger-tips of each
slim hand resting on the opposite elbow. She held her head a little
back, and Pio Pico laughed as he looked at her.
"Dios!" he said, "but thou might be an Estenega or an Iturbi y Moncada.
Surely that lofty head better suits old Spain than the republic of
Mexico. Draw the reboso about thy head now, and let us go down. They
She lifted the scarf above her hair, and walked down the steep rutted
hill with the Governor, her flowered gown floating with a silken rustle
about her. In a few moments she was listening to the tale of the races.
"Ay, Ysabel! Dios de mi alma! What a day! A young señor from Los Angeles
won the race—almost all the races—the Señor Don Vicente de la Vega y
Arillaga. He has never been here, before. His horses! Madre de Dios!
They ran like hares. Poor Guido! Válgame Dios! Even thou wouldst have
been moved to pity. But he is so handsome! Look! Look! He comes now,
side by side with General Castro. Dios! his serape is as stiff with gold
as the vestments of the padre."
Ysabel looked up as a man rode past. His bold profile and thin face were
passionate and severe; his dark blue eyes were full of power. Such a
face was rare among the languid shallow men of her race.
"He rides with General Castro," whispered Benicia Ortega. "He stays with
him. We shall see him at the ball to-night."
As Don Vicente passed Ysabel their eyes met for a moment. His opened
suddenly with a bold eager flash, his arched nostrils twitching. The
colour left her face, and her eyes dropped heavily.
Love needed no kindling in the heart of the Californian.
The people of Monterey danced every night of their lives, and went
nowhere so promptly as to the great sala of Doña Modeste Castro, their
leader of fashion, whose gowns were made for her in the city of Mexico.
Ysabel envied her bitterly. Not because the Doña Modeste's skin was
whiter than her own, for it could not be, nor her eyes greener, for they
were not; but because her jewels were richer than Pio Pico's, and
upon all grand occasions a string of wonderful pearls gleamed in her
storm-black hair. But one feminine compensation had Ysabel: she was
taller; Doña Modeste's slight elegant figure lacked Ysabel's graceful
inches, and perhaps she too felt a pang sometimes as the girl undulated
above her like a snake about to strike.
At the fashionable hour of ten Monterey was gathered for the dance. All
the men except the officers wore black velvet or broadcloth coats and
white trousers. All the women wore white, the waist long and pointed,
the skirt full. Ysabel's gown was of embroidered crêpe. Her hair was
coiled about her head, and held by a tortoise comb framed with a narrow
band of gold. Pio Pico, splendid with stars and crescents and rings and
pins, led her in, and with his unique ugliness enhanced her beauty.
She glanced eagerly about the room whilst replying absently to the
caballeros who surrounded her. Don Vicente de la Vega was not there. The
thick circle about her parted, and General Castro bent over her hand,
begging the honour of the contradanza. She sighed, and for the moment
forgot the Southerner who had flashed and gone like the beginning of a
dream. Here was a man—the only man of her knowledge whom she could have
loved, and who would have found her those pearls. Californians had so
little ambition! Then she gave a light audacious laugh. Governor Pico
was shaking hands cordially with General Castro, the man he hated best
No two men could have contrasted more sharply than José Castro and
Pio Pico—with the exception of Alvarado the most famous men of their
country. The gold trimmings of the general's uniform were his only
jewels. His hair and beard—the latter worn à la Basca, a narrow strip
curving from upper lip to ear—were as black as Pio Pico's once had
been. The handsomest man in California, he had less consciousness than
the least of the caballeros. His deep gray eyes were luminous with
enthusiasm; his nose was sharp and bold; his firm sensitive mouth was
cut above a resolute chin. He looked what he was, the ardent patriot of
a doomed cause.
"Señorita," he said, as he led Ysabel out to the sweet monotonous music
of the contradanza, "did you see the caballero who rode with me to-day?"
A red light rose to Ysabel's cheek. "Which one, commandante? Many rode
"I mean him who rode at my right, the winner of the races, Vicente, son
of my old friend Juan Bautista de la Vega y Arillaga, of Los Angeles."
"It may be. I think I saw a strange face."
"He saw yours, Doña Ysabel, and is looking upon you now from the
corridor without, although the fog is heavy about him. Cannot you see
him—that dark shadow by the pillar?"
Ysabel never went through the graceful evolutions of the contradanza
as she did that night. Her supple slender body curved and swayed and
glided; her round arms were like lazy snakes uncoiling; her exquisitely
poised head moved in perfect concord with her undulating hips. Her eyes
grew brighter, her lips redder. The young men who stood near gave as
loud a vent to their admiration as if she had been dancing El Son alone
on the floor. But the man without made no sign.
After the dance was over, General Castro led her to her dueña, and
handing her a guitar, begged a song.
She began a light love-ballad, singing with the grace and style of her
Spanish blood; a little mocking thing, but with a wild break now and
again. As she sang, she fixed her eyes coquettishly on the adoring face
of Guido Cabañares, who stood beside her, but saw every movement of the
form beyond the window. Don Guido kept his ardent eyes riveted upon
her but detected no wandering in her glances. His lips trembled as he
listened, and once he brushed the tears from his eyes. She gave him
a little cynical smile, then broke her song in two. The man on the
corridor had vaulted through the window.
Ysabel, clinching her hands the better to control her jumping nerves,
turned quickly to Cabañares, who had pressed behind her, and was pouring
words into her ear.
"Ysabel! Ysabel! hast thou no pity? Dost thou not see that I am fit to
set the world on fire for love of thee? The very water boils as I drink
She interrupted him with a scornful laugh, the sharper that her voice
might not tremble. "Bring me my pearls. What is love worth when it will
not grant one little desire?"
He groaned. "I have found a vein of gold on my rancho. I can pick the
little shining pieces out with my fingers. I will have them beaten into
a saddle for thee—"
But she had turned her back flat upon him, and was making a deep
courtesy to the man whom General Castro presented.
"I appreciate the honour of your acquaintance," she murmured
"At your feet, señorita," said Don Vicente.
The art of making conversation had not been cultivated among the
Californians, and Ysabel plied her large fan with slow grace, at a loss
for further remark, and wondering if her heart would suffocate her. But
Don Vicente had the gift of words.
"Señorita," he said, "I have stood in the chilling fog and felt the
warmth of your lovely voice at my heart. The emotions I felt my poor
tongue cannot translate. They swarm in my head like a hive of puzzled
bees; but perhaps they look through my eyes," and he fixed his powerful
and penetrating gaze on Ysabel's green depths.
A waltz began, and he took her in his arms without asking her
indulgence, and regardless of the indignation of the mob of men about
her. Ysabel, whose being was filled with tumult, lay passive as he held
her closer than man had ever dared before.
"I love you," he said, in his harsh voice. "I wish you for my wife. At
once. When I saw you to-day standing with a hundred other beautiful
women, I said: 'She is the fairest of them all. I shall have her.' And
I read the future in"—he suddenly dropped the formal "you"—"in thine
eyes, cariña. Thy soul sprang to mine. Thy heart is locked in my heart
closer, closer than my arms are holding thee now."
The strength of his embrace was violent for a moment; but Ysabel might
have been cut from marble. Her body had lost its swaying grace; it
was almost rigid. She did not lift her eyes. But De la Vega was not
The music finished, and Ysabel was at once surrounded by a determined
retinue. This intruding Southerner was welcome to the honours of the
race-field, but the Star of Monterey was not for him. He smiled as he
saw the menace of their eyes.
"I would have her," he thought, "if they were a regiment of
Castros—which they are not." But he had not armed himself against
"Señor Don Vicente de la Vega y Arillaga," said Don Guido Cabañares, who
had been selected as spokesman, "perhaps you have not learned during
your brief visit to our capital that the Señorita Doña Ysabel Herrera,
La Favorita of Alta California, has sworn by the Holy Virgin, by the
blessed Junipero Serra, that she will wed no man who does not bring her
a lapful of pearls. Can you find those pearls on the sands of the South,
Don Vicente? For, by the holy cross of God, you cannot have her without
For a moment De la Vega was disconcerted.
"Is this true?" he demanded, turning to Ysabel.
"What, señor?" she asked vaguely. She had not listened to the words of
her protesting admirer.
A sneer bent his mouth. "That you have put a price upon yourself? That
the man who ardently wishes to be your husband, who has even won your
love, must first hang you with pearls like—" He stopped suddenly, the
blood burning his dark face, his eyes opening with an expression of
horrified hope. "Tell me! Tell me!" he exclaimed. "Is this true?"
For the first time since she had spoken with him Ysabel was herself. She
crossed her arms and tapped her elbows with her pointed fingers.
"Yes," she said, "it is true." She raised her eyes to his and regarded
him steadily. They looked like green pools frozen in a marble wall.
The harp, the flute, the guitar, combined again, and once more he swung
her from a furious circle. But he was safe; General Castro had joined
it. He waltzed her down the long room, through one adjoining, then into
another, and, indifferent to the iron conventions of his race, closed
the door behind them. They were in the sleeping-room of Doña Modeste.
The bed with its rich satin coverlet, the bare floor, the simple
furniture, were in semi-darkness; only on the altar in the corner were
candles burning. Above it hung paintings of saints, finely executed by
Mexican hands; an ebony cross spread its black arms against the white
wall; the candles flared to a golden Christ. He caught her hands and led
her over to the altar.
"Listen to me," he said. "I will bring you those pearls. You shall have
such pearls as no queen in Europe possesses. Swear to me here, with your
hands on this altar, that you will wed me when I return, no matter how
or where I find those pearls."
He was holding her hands between the candelabra. She looked at him with
eyes of passionate surrender; the man had conquered worldly ambitions.
But he answered her before she had time to speak.
"You love me, and would withdraw the conditions. But I am ready to do a
daring and a terrible act. Furthermore, I wish to show you that I can
succeed where all other men have failed. I ask only two things now.
First, make me the vow I wish."
"I swear it," she said.
"Now," he said, his voice sinking to a harsh but caressing whisper,
"give me one kiss for courage and hope."
She leaned slowly forward, the blood pulsing in her lips; but she had
been brought up behind grated windows, and she drew back. "No," she
said, "not now."
For a moment he looked rebellious; then he laid his hands on her
shoulders and pressed her to her knees. He knelt behind her, and
together they told a rosary for his safe return.
He left her there and went to his room. From his saddle-bag he took
a long letter from an intimate friend, one of the younger Franciscan
priests of the Mission of Santa Barbara, where he had been educated. He
sought this paragraph:—
"Thou knowest, of course, my Vicente, of the pearl fisheries of Baja
California. It is whispered—between ourselves, indeed, it is
quite true—that a short while ago the Indian divers discovered an
extravagantly rich bed of pearls. Instead of reporting to any of the
companies, they have hung them all upon our Most Sacred Lady of Loreto,
in the Mission of Loreto; and there, by the grace of God, they will
remain. They are worth the ransom of a king, my Vicente, and the Church
has come to her own again."
The fog lay thick on the bay at dawn next morning. The white waves hid
the blue, muffled the roar of the surf. Now and again a whale threw a
volume of spray high in the air, a geyser from a phantom sea. Above the
white sands straggled the white town, ghostly, prophetic.
De la Vega, a dark sombrero pulled over his eyes, a dark serape
enveloping his tall figure, rode, unattended and watchful, out of the
town. Not until he reached the narrow road through the brush forest
beyond did he give his horse rein. The indolence of the Californian was
no longer in his carriage; it looked alert and muscular; recklessness
accentuated the sternness of his face.
As he rode, the fog receded slowly. He left the chaparral and rode by
green marshes cut with sloughs and stained with vivid patches of
orange. The frogs in the tules chanted their hoarse matins. Through
brush-covered plains once more, with sparsely wooded hills in the
distance, and again the tules, the marsh, the patches of orange. He rode
through a field of mustard; the pale yellow petals brushed his dark
face, the delicate green leaves won his eyes from the hot glare of the
ascending sun, the slender stalks, rebounding, smote his horse's flanks.
He climbed hills to avoid the wide marshes, and descended into willow
groves and fields of daisies. Before noon he was in the San Juan
Mountains, thick with sturdy oaks, bending their heads before the
madroño, that belle of the forest, with her robes of scarlet and her
crown of bronze. The yellow lilies clung to her skirts, and the buckeye
flung his flowers at her feet. The last redwoods were there, piercing
the blue air with their thin inflexible arms, gray as a dusty band of
friars. Out by the willows, whereunder crept the sluggish river, then
between the hills curving about the valley of San Juan Bautista.
At no time is California so beautiful as in the month of June. De la
Vega's wild spirit and savage purpose were dormant for the moment as he
rode down the valley toward the mission. The hills were like gold, like
mammoth fawns veiled with violet mist, like rich tan velvet. Afar, bare
blue steeps were pink in their chasms, brown on their spurs. The dark
yellow fields were as if thick with gold-dust; the pale mustard was a
waving yellow sea. Not a tree marred the smooth hills. The earth sent
forth a perfume of its own. Below the plateau from which rose the white
walls of the mission was a wide field of bright green corn rising
against the blue sky.
The padres in their brown hooded robes came out upon the long corridor
of the mission and welcomed the traveller. Their lands had gone from
them, their mission was crumbling, but the spirit of hospitality
lingered there still. They laid meat and fruit and drink on a table
beneath the arches, then sat about him and asked him eagerly for news of
the day. Was it true that the United States of America were at war with
Mexico, or about to be? True that their beloved flag might fall, and
the stars and stripes of an insolent invader rise above the fort of
De la Vega recounted the meagre and conflicting rumours which had
reached California, but, not being a prophet, could not tell them that
they would be the first to see the red-white-and-blue fluttering on the
mountain before them. He refused to rest more than an hour, but mounted
the fresh horse the padres gave him and went his way, riding hard and
relentlessly, like all Californians.
He sped onward, through the long hot day, leaving the hills for the
marshes and a long stretch of ugly country, traversing the beautiful San
Antonio Valley in the night, reaching the Mission of San Miguel at dawn,
resting there for a few hours. That night he slept at a hospitable
ranch-house in the park-like valley of Paso des Robles, a grim silent
figure amongst gay-hearted people who delighted to welcome him. The
early morning found him among the chrome hills; and at the Mission of
San Luis Obispo the good padres gave him breakfast. The little valley,
round as a well, its bare hills red and brown, gray and pink, violet and
black, from fire, sloping steeply from a dizzy height, impressed him
with a sense of being prisoned in an enchanted vale where no message of
the outer world could come, and he hastened on his way.
Absorbed as he was, he felt the beauty he fled past. A line of golden
hills lay against sharp blue peaks. A towering mass of gray rocks had
been cut and lashed by wind and water, earthquake and fire, into the
semblance of a massive castle, still warlike in its ruin. He slept for a
few hours that night in the Mission of Santa Ynes, and was high in the
Santa Barbara Mountains at the next noon. For brief whiles he forgot
his journey's purpose as his horse climbed slowly up the steep trails,
knocking the loose stones down a thousand feet and more upon a roof of
tree-tops which looked like stunted brush. Those gigantic masses of
immense stones, each wearing a semblance to the face of man or beast;
those awful chasms and stupendous heights, densely wooded, bare, and
many-hued, rising above, beyond, peak upon peak, cutting through the
visible atmosphere—was there no end? He turned in his saddle and looked
over low peaks and cañons, rivers and abysms, black peaks smiting the
fiery blue, far, far, to the dim azure mountains on the horizon.
"Mother of God!" he thought. "No wonder California still shakes! I would
I could have stood upon a star and beheld the awful throes of this
country's birth." And then his horse reared between the sharp spurs and
He avoided the Mission of Santa Barbara, resting at a rancho outside
the town. In the morning, supplied as usual with a fresh horse, he fled
onward, with the ocean at his right, its splendid roar in his ears. The
cliffs towered high above him; he saw no man's face for hours together;
but his thoughts companioned him, savage and sinister shapes whirling
about the figure of a woman. On, on, sleeping at ranchos or missions,
meeting hospitality everywhere, avoiding Los Angeles, keeping close to
the ponderous ocean, he left civilization behind him at last, and
with an Indian guide entered upon that desert of mountain-tops, Baja
Rapid travelling was not possible here. There were no valleys worthy the
name. The sharp peaks, multiplying mile after mile, were like teeth of
gigantic rakes, black and bare. A wilderness of mountain-tops, desolate
as eternity, arid, parched, baked by the awful heat, the silence never
broken by the cry of a bird, a hut rarely breaking the barren monotony,
only an infrequent spring to save from death. It was almost impossible
to get food or fresh horses. Many a night De la Vega and his stoical
guide slept beneath a cactus, or in the mocking bed of a creek. The
mustangs he managed to lasso were almost unridable, and would have
bucked to death any but a Californian. Sometimes he lived on cactus
fruit and the dried meat he had brought with him; occasionally he shot
a rabbit. Again he had but the flesh of the rattlesnake roasted over
coals. But honey-dew was on the leaves.
He avoided the beaten trail, and cut his way through naked bushes spiked
with thorns, and through groves of cacti miles in length. When the thick
fog rolled up from the ocean he had to sit inactive on the rocks, or
lose his way. A furious storm dashed him against a boulder, breaking his
mustang's leg; then a torrent, rising like a tidal wave, thundered down
the gulch, and catching him on its crest, flung him upon a tree of
thorns. When dawn came he found his guide dead. He cursed his luck, and
Lassoing another mustang, he pushed on, having a general idea of the
direction he should take. It was a week before he reached Loreto, a week
of loneliness, hunger, thirst, and torrid monotony. A week, too, of
thought and bitterness of spirit. In spite of his love, which never
cooled, and his courage, which never quailed, Nature, in her guise of
foul and crooked hag, mocked at earthly happiness, at human hope, at
youth and passion.
If he had not spent his life in the saddle, he would have been worn out
when he finally reached Loreto, late one night. As it was, he slept in a
hut until the following afternoon. Then he took a long swim in the bay,
and, later, sauntered through the town.
The forlorn little city was hardly more than a collection of Indians'
huts about a church in a sandy waste. No longer the capital, even the
barracks were toppling. When De la Vega entered the mission, not a white
man but the padre and his assistant was in it; the building was thronged
with Indian worshippers. The mission, although the first built in
California, was in a fair state of preservation. The Stations in their
battered frames were mellow and distinct. The gold still gleamed in the
vestments of the padre.
For a few moments De la Vega dared not raise his eyes to the Lady of
Loreto, standing aloft in the dull blaze of adamantine candles. When he
did, he rose suddenly from his knees and left the mission. The pearls
It took him but a short time to gain the confidence of the priest and
the little population. He offered no explanation for his coming, beyond
the curiosity of the traveller. The padre gave him a room in the
mission, and spent every hour he could spare with the brilliant
stranger. At night he thanked God for the sudden oasis in his life's
desolation. The Indians soon grew accustomed to the lonely figure
wandering about the sand plains, or kneeling for hours together before
the altar in the church. And whom their padre trusted was to them as
sacred and impersonal as the wooden saints of their religion.
The midnight stars watched over the mission. Framed by the cross-shaped
window sunk deep in the adobe wall above the entrance, a mass of them
assumed the form of the crucifix, throwing a golden trail full upon the
Lady of Loreto, proud in her shining pearls. The long narrow body of the
church seemed to have swallowed the shadows of the ages, and to yawn for
De la Vega, booted and spurred, his serape folded about him, his
sombrero on his head, opened the sacristy door and entered the church.
In one hand he held a sack; in the other, a candle sputtering in a
bottle. He walked deliberately to the foot of the altar. In spite of
his intrepid spirit, he stood appalled for a moment as he saw the dim
radiance enveloping the Lady of Loreto. He scowled over his shoulder at
the menacing emblem of redemption and crossed himself. But had it been
the finger of God, the face of Ysabel would have shone between. He
extinguished his candle, and swinging himself to the top of the altar
plucked the pearls from the Virgin's gown and dropped them into the
sack. His hand trembled a little, but he held his will between his
How quiet it was! The waves flung themselves upon the shore with
the sullen wrath of impotence. A seagull screamed now and again, an
exclamation-point in the silence above the waters. Suddenly De la Vega
shook from head to foot, and snatched the knife from his belt. A faint
creaking echoed through the hollow church. He strained his ears, holding
his breath until his chest collapsed with the shock of outrushing air.
But the sound was not repeated, and he concluded that it had been but a
vibration of his nerves. He glanced to the window above the doors. The
stars in it were no longer visible; they had melted into bars of flame.
The sweat stood cold on his face, but he went on with his work.
A rope of pearls, cunningly strung together with strands of sea-weed,
was wound about the Virgin's right arm. De la Vega was too nervous to
uncoil it; he held the sack beneath, and severed the strands with his
knife. As he finished, and was about to stoop and cut loose the pearls
from the hem of the Virgin's gown, he uttered a hoarse cry and stood
rigid. A cowled head, with thin lips drawn over yellow teeth, furious
eyes burning deep in withered sockets, projected on its long neck from
the Virgin's right and confronted him. The body was unseen.
"Thief!" hissed the priest. "Dog! Thou wouldst rob the Church? Accursed!
There was not one moment for hesitation, one alternative. Before the
priest could complete his malediction, De la Vega's knife had flashed
through the fire of the cross. The priest leaped, screeching, then
rolled over and down, and rebounded from the railing of the sanctuary.
Ysabel sat in the low window-seat of her bedroom, pretending to draw the
threads of a cambric handkerchief. But her fingers twitched, and her
eyes looked oftener down the hill than upon the delicate work which
required such attention. She wore a black gown flowered with yellow
roses, and a slender ivory cross at her throat. Her hair hung in two
loose braids, sweeping the floor. She was very pale, and her pallor was
not due to the nightly entertainments of Monterey.
Her dueña sat beside her. The old woman was the colour of strong coffee;
but she, too, looked as if she had not slept, and her straight old lips
curved tenderly whenever she raised her eyes to the girl's face.
There was no carpet on the floor of the bedroom of La Favorita of
Monterey, the heiress of Don Antonio Herrera, and the little bedstead
in the corner was of iron, although a heavy satin coverlet trimmed with
lace was on it. A few saints looked down from the walls; the furniture
was of native wood, square and ugly; but it was almost hidden under fine
linen elaborately worked with the deshalados of Spain.
The supper hour was over, and the light grew dim. Ysabel tossed the
handkerchief into Doña Juana's lap, and stared through the grating.
Against the faded sky a huge cloud, shaped like a fire-breathing dragon,
was heavily outlined. The smoky shadows gathered in the woods. The
hoarse boom of the surf came from the beach; the bay was uneasy, and the
tide was high: the earth had quaked in the morning, and a wind-storm
fought the ocean. The gay bright laughter of women floated up from the
town. Monterey had taken her siesta, enjoyed her supper, and was ready
to dance through the night once more.
"He is dead," said Ysabel.
"True," said the old woman.
"He would have come back to me before this."
"He was so strong and so different, mamita."
"I never forget his eyes. Very bold eyes."
"They could be soft, macheppa."
"True. It is time thou dressed for the ball at the Custom-house,
Ysabel leaned forward, her lips parting. A man was coming up the hill.
He was gaunt; he was burnt almost black. Something bulged beneath his
Doña Juana found herself suddenly in the middle of the room. Ysabel
darted through the only door, locking it behind her. The indignant dueña
also recognized the man, and her position. She trotted to the door and
thumped angrily on the panel; sympathetic she was, but she never could
so far forget herself as to permit a young girl to talk with a man
"Thou shalt not go to the ball to-night," she cried shrilly. "Thou shalt
be locked in the dark room. Thou shalt be sent to the rancho. Open!
open! thou wicked one. Madre de Dios! I will beat thee with my own
But she was a prisoner, and Ysabel paid no attention to her threats. The
girl was in the sala, and the doors were open. As De la Vega crossed the
corridor and entered the room she sank upon a chair, covering her face
with her hands.
He strode over to her, and flinging his serape from his shoulder opened
the mouth of a sack and poured its contents into her lap. Pearls of all
sizes and shapes—pearls black and pearls white, pearls pink and pearls
faintly blue, pearls like globes and pearls like pears, pearls as big
as the lobe of Pio Pico's ear, pearls as dainty as bubbles of frost—a
lapful of gleaming luminous pearls, the like of which caballero had
never brought to doña before.
For a moment Ysabel forgot her love and her lover. The dream of a
lifetime was reality. She was the child who had cried for the moon and
seen it tossed into her lap.
She ran her slim white fingers through the jewels. She took up handfuls
and let them run slowly back to her lap. She pressed them to her face;
she kissed them with little rapturous cries. She laid them against her
breast and watched them chase each other down her black gown. Then at
last she raised her head and met the fierce sneering eyes of De la Vega.
"So it is as I might have known. It was only the pearls you wanted. It
might have been an Indian slave who brought them to you."
She took the sack from his hand and poured back the pearls. Then she
laid the sack on the floor and stood up. She was no longer pale, and her
eyes shone brilliantly in the darkening room.
"Yes," she said; "I forgot for a moment. But during many terrible weeks,
señor, my tears have not been for the pearls."
The sudden light that was De la Vega's chiefest charm sprang to his
eyes. He took her hands and kissed them passionately.
"That sack of pearls would be a poor reward for one tear. But thou hast
shed them for me? Say that again. Mi alma! mi alma!"
"I never thought of the pearls—at least not often. At last, not at all.
I have been very unhappy, señor. Ay!"
The maiden reserve which had been knit like steel about her plastic
years burst wide. "Thou art ill! What has happened to thee? Ay, Dios!
what it is to be a woman and to suffer! Thou wilt die! Oh, Mother of
"I shall not die. Kiss me, Ysabel. Surely it is time now."
But she drew back and shook her head.
He exclaimed impatiently, but would not release her hand. "Thou meanest
"We shall be married soon—wait."
"I had hoped you would grant me that. For when I tell you where I got
those pearls you may drive me from you in spite of your promise—drive
me from you with the curse of the devout woman on your lips. I might
invent some excuse to persuade you to fly with me from California
to-night, and you would never know. But I am a man—a Spaniard—and a De
la Vega. I shall not lie to you."
She looked at him with wide eyes, not understanding, and he went on, his
face savage again, his voice harsh. He told her the whole story of
that night in the mission. He omitted nothing—the menacing cross, the
sacrilegious theft, the deliberate murder; the pictures were painted
with blood and fire. She did not interrupt him with cry or gasp, but her
expression changed many times. Horror held her eyes for a time, then
slowly retreated, and his own fierce pride looked back at him. She
lifted her head when he had finished, her throat throbbing, her nostrils
"Thou hast done that—for me?"
"Thou hast murdered thy immortal soul—for me?"
"Thou lovest me like that! O God, in what likeness hast thou made me? In
whatsoever image it may have been, I thank Thee—and repudiate Thee!"
She took the cross from her throat and broke it in two pieces with her
strong white fingers.
"Thou art lost, eternally damned: but I will go down to hell with thee."
And she threw herself upon him and kissed him on the mouth.
For a moment he forgot the lesson thrust into his brain by the hideous
fingers of the desert. He was almost happy. He put his hands about her
warm face after a time. "We must go to-night," he said. "I went to
General Castro's to change my clothes, and learned that a ship sails
for the United States to-night. We will go on that. I dare not delay
twenty-four hours. It may be that they are upon my heels now. How can we
Her thoughts had travelled faster than his words, and she answered at
once: "There is a ball at the Custom-house to-night. I will go. You will
have a boat below the rocks. You know that the Custom-house is on the
rocks at the end of the town, near the fort. No? It will be easier for
me to slip from the ball-room than from this house. Only tell me where
you will meet me."
"The ship sails at midnight. I too will go to the ball; for with me you
can escape more easily. Have you a maid you can trust?"
"My Luisa is faithful."
"Then tell her to be on the beach between the rocks of the Custom-house
and the Fort with what you must take with you."
Again he kissed her many times, but softly. "Wear thy pearls to-night. I
wish to see thy triumphant hour in Monterey."
"Yes," she said, "I shall wear the pearls."
The corridor of the Custom-house had been enclosed to protect the
musicians and supper table from the wind and fog. The store-room had
been cleared, the floor scrubbed, the walls hung with the colours of
Mexico. All in honour of Pio Pico, again in brief exile from his beloved
Los Angeles. The Governor, blazing with diamonds, stood at the upper end
of the room by Doña Modeste Castro's side. About them were Castro and
other prominent men of Monterey, all talking of the rumoured war between
the United States and Mexico and prophesying various results. Neither
Pico nor Castro looked amiable. The Governor had arrived in the morning
to find that the General had allowed pasquinades representing his
Excellency in no complimentary light to disfigure the streets of
Monterey. Castro, when taken to task, had replied haughtily that it
was the Governor's place to look after his own dignity; he, the
Commandante-General of the army of the Californias, had more important
matters to attend to. The result had been a furious war of words, ending
in a lame peace.
"Tell us, Excellency," said José Abrigo, "what will be the outcome?"
"The Americans can have us if they wish," said Pio Pico, bitterly. "We
"Never!" cried Castro. "What? We cannot protect ourselves against the
invasion of bandoleros? Do you forget what blood stings the veins of
the Californian? A Spaniard stand with folded arms and see his country
plucked from him! Oh, sacrilege! They will never have our Californias
while a Californian lives to cut them down!"
"Bravo! bravo!" cried many voices.
"I tell you—" began Pio Pico, but Doña Modeste interrupted him. "No
more talk of war to-night," she said peremptorily. "Where is Ysabel?"
"She sent me word by Doña Juana that she could not make herself ready in
time to come with me, but would follow with my good friend, Don Antonio,
who of course had to wait for her. Her gown was not finished, I believe.
I think she had done something naughty, and Doña Juana had tried to
punish her, but had not succeeded. The old lady looked very sad.
Ah, here is Doña Ysabel now!"
"How lovely she is!" said Doña Modeste. "I think—What! what!—"
"Dios de mi Alma!" exclaimed Pio Pico, "where did she get those pearls?"
The crowd near the door had parted, and Ysabel entered on the arm of her
uncle. Don Antonio's form was bent, and she looked taller by contrast.
His thin sharp profile was outlined against her white neck, bared for
the first time to the eyes of Monterey. Her shawl had just been laid
aside, and he was near-sighted and did not notice the pearls.
She had sewn them all over the front of her white silk gown. She had
wound them in the black coils of her hair. They wreathed her neck and
roped her arms. Never had she looked so beautiful. Her great green eyes
were as radiant as spring. Her lips were redder than blood. A pink flame
burned in her oval cheeks. Her head moved like a Californian lily on its
stalk. No Montereño would ever forget her.
"El Son!" cried the young men, with one accord. Her magnificent beauty
extinguished every other woman in the room. She must not hide her light
in the contradanza. She must madden all eyes at once.
Ysabel bent her head and glided to the middle of the room. The other
women moved back, their white gowns like a snowbank against the garish
walls. The thin sweet music of the instruments rose above the boom of
the tide. Ysabel lifted her dress with curving arms, displaying arched
feet clad in flesh-coloured stockings and white slippers, and danced El
Her little feet tapped time to the music; she whirled her body with
utmost grace, holding her head so motionless that she could have
balanced a glass of water upon it. She was inspired that night; and
when, in the midst of the dance, De la Vega entered the room, a sort of
madness possessed her. She invented new figures. She glided back and
forth, bending and swaying and doubling until to the eyes of her
bewildered admirers the outlines of her lovely body were gone. Even the
women shouted their approval, and the men went wild. They pulled their
pockets inside out and flung handfuls of gold at her feet. Those who
had only silver cursed their fate, but snatched the watches from their
pockets, the rings from their fingers, and hurled them at her with
shouts and cheers. They tore the lace ruffles from their shirts; they
rushed to the next room and ripped the silver eagles from their hats.
Even Pio Pico flung one of his golden ropes at her feet, a hot blaze in
his old ugly face, as he cried:—
"Brava! brava! thou Star of Monterey!"
Guido Cabañares, desperate at having nothing more to sacrifice to his
idol, sprang upon a chair, and was about to tear down the Mexican flag,
when the music stopped with a crash, as if musicians and instruments had
been overturned, and a figure leaped into the room.
The women uttered a loud cry and crossed themselves. Even the men fell
back. Ysabel's swaying body trembled and became rigid. De la Vega, who
had watched her with folded arms, too entranced to offer her anything
but the love that shook him, turned livid to his throat. A friar, his
hood fallen back from his stubbled head, his brown habit stiff with
dirt, smelling, reeling with fatigue, stood amongst them. His eyes were
deep in his ashen face. They rolled about the room until they met De la
General Castro came hastily forward. "What does this mean?" he asked.
"What do you wish?"
The friar raised his arm, and pointed his shaking finger at De la Vega.
"Kill him!" he said, in a loud hoarse whisper. "He has desecrated the
Mother of God!"
Every caballero in the room turned upon De la Vega with furious
satisfaction. Ysabel had quickened their blood, and they were willing
to cool it in vengeance on the man of whom they still were jealous, and
whom they suspected of having brought the wondrous pearls which covered
their Favorita to-night.
"What? What?" they cried eagerly. "Has he done this thing?"
"He has robbed the Church. He has stripped the Blessed Virgin of her
jewels. He—has—murdered—a—priest of the Holy Catholic Church."
Horror stayed them for a moment, and then they rushed at De la Vega. "He
does not deny it!" they cried. "Is it true? Is it true?" and they surged
about him hot with menace.
"It is quite true," said De la Vega, coldly. "I plundered the shrine of
Loreto and murdered its priest."
The women panted and gasped; for a moment even the men were stunned,
and in that moment an ominous sound mingled with the roar of the surf.
Before the respite was over Ysabel had reached his side.
"He did it for me!" she cried, in her clear triumphant voice. "For
me! And although you kill us both, I am the proudest woman in all the
Californias, and I love him."
"Good!" cried Castro, and he placed himself before them. "Stand back,
every one of you. What? are you barbarians, Indians, that you would do
violence to a guest in your town? What if he has committed a crime? Is
he not one of you, then, that you offer him blood instead of protection?
Where is your pride of caste? your hospitality? Oh, perfidy! Fall
back, and leave the guest of your capital to those who are compelled to
The caballeros shrank back, sullen but abashed. He had touched the quick
of their pride.
"Never mind!" cried the friar. "You cannot protect him from that.
Had the bay risen about the Custom-house?
"What is that?" demanded Castro, sharply.
"The poor of Monterey; those who love their Cross better than the
aristocrats love their caste. They know."
De la Vega caught Ysabel in his arms and dashed across the room and
corridor. His knife cut a long rift in the canvas, and in a moment they
stood upon the rocks. The shrieking crowd was on the other side of the
"Marcos!" he called to his boatman, "Marcos!"
No answer came but the waves tugging at the rocks not two feet below
them. He could see nothing. The fog was thick as night.
"He is not here, Ysabel. We must swim. Anything but to be torn to pieces
by those wild-cats. Are you afraid?"
"No," she said.
He folded her closely with one arm, and felt with his foot for the edge
of the rocks. A wild roar came from behind. A dozen pistols were fired
into the air. De la Vega reeled suddenly. "I am shot, Ysabel," he said,
his knees bending. "Not in this world, my love!"
She wound her arms about him, and dragging him to the brow of the rocks,
hurled herself outward, carrying him with her. The waves tossed them on
high, flung them against the rocks and ground them there, playing with
them like a lion with its victim, then buried them.