The Bells of San Gabriel, by Gertrude Atherton

Splendid Idle Forties, Stories of Old California

I

The Señor Capitan Don Luis de la Torre walked impatiently up and down before the grist-mill wherein were quartered the soldiers sent by Mexico to protect the building of the Mission of San Gabriel. The Indian workmen were slugs; California, a vast region inhabited only by savages and a few priests, offered slender attractions to a young officer craving the gay pleasures of his capital and the presence of the woman he was to marry. For months he had watched the mission church mount slowly from foundation to towers, then spread into pillared corridors and rooms for the clergy. He could have mapped in his mind every acre of the wide beautiful valley girt by mountains snowed on their crest. He had thought it all very lovely at first: the yellow atmosphere, the soft abiding warmth, the blue reflecting lake; but the green on mountain and flat had waxed to gold, then waned to tan and brown, and he was tired. Not even a hostile Indian had come to be killed.

He was very good-looking, this tall young Spaniard, with his impatient eyes and haughty intelligent face, and it is possible that the lady in Mexico had added to his burden by doleful prayers to return. He took a letter from his pocket, read it half through, then walked rapidly over to the mission, seeking interest in the work of the Indians. Under the keen merciless supervision of the padres,—the cleverest body of men who ever set foot in America,—they were mixing and laying the adobes, making nails and tiles, hewing aqueducts, fashioning great stone fonts and fountains. De la Torre speculated, after his habit, upon the future of a country so beautiful and so fertile, which a dozen priests had made their own. Would these Indians, the poorest apologies for human beings he had ever seen, the laziest and the dirtiest, be Christianized and terrified into worthy citizens of this fair land? Could the clear white flame that burned in the brains of the padres strike fire in their neophytes' narrow skulls, create a soul in those grovelling bodies? He dismissed the question.

Would men of race, tempted by the loveliness of this great gold-haired houri sleeping on the Pacific, come from old and new Spain and dream away a life of pleasure? What grapes would grow out of this rich soil to be crushed by Indian slaves into red wine! And did gold vein those velvet hills? How all fruits, all grains, would thrive! what superb beasts would fatten on the thick spring grass! Ay! it was a magnificent discovery for the Church, and great would be the power that could wrest it from her.

There was a new people, somewhere north of Mexico, in the United States of America. Would they ever covet and strive to rob? The worse for them if they molested the fire-blooded Spaniard. How he should like to fight them!

That night the sentinel gave a sudden piercing shout of warning, then dropped dead with a poisoned arrow in his brain. Another moment, and the soldiers had leaped from their swinging beds of hide, and headed by their captain had reached the church they were there to defend. Through plaza and corridors sped and shrieked the savage tribe, whose invasion had been made with the swiftness and cunning of their race. The doors had not been hung in the church, and the naked figures ran in upon the heels of the soldiers, waving torches and yelling like the soulless fiends they were. The few neophytes who retained spirit enough to fight after the bleaching process that had chilled their native fire and produced a result which was neither man nor beast, but a sort of barnyard fowl, hopped about under the weight of their blankets and were promptly despatched.

The brunt of the battle fell upon the small detachment of troops, and at the outset they were overwhelmed by numbers, dazzled by the glare of torches that waved and leaped in the cavern-like darkness of the church. But they fought like Spaniards, hacking blindly with their swords, cleaving dusky skulls with furious maledictions, using their fists, their feet, their teeth—wrenching torches from malignant hands and hurling them upon distorted faces. Curses and wild yells intermingled. De la Torre fought at the head of his men until men and savages, dead and living, were an indivisible mass, then thrust back and front, himself unhurt. The only silent clear-brained man among them, he could reason as he assaulted and defended, and he knew that the Spaniards had little chance of victory—and he less of looking again upon the treasures of Mexico. The Indians swarmed like ants over the great nave and transept. Those who were not fighting smashed the altar and slashed the walls. The callous stars looked through the apertures left for windows, and shed a pallid light upon the writhing mass. The padres had defended their altar, behind the chancel rail; they lay trampled, with arrows vibrating in their hard old muscles.

De la Torre forced his way to the door and stood for a moment, solitary, against the pale light of the open, then turned his face swiftly to the night air as he fell over the threshold of the mission he had so gallantly defended.

II

Delfina de Capalleja, after months of deferred hope, stood with the crowd at the dock, awaiting the return of the troop which had gone to defend the Mission of San Gabriel in its building. There was no flutter of colour beneath her white skin, and the heavy lids almost concealed the impatient depths of her eyes; the proud repose of her head indicated a profound reserve and self-control. Over her white gown and black dense hair she wore a black lace mantilla, fastened below the throat with a large yellow rose.

The ship swung to anchor and answered the salute from the fort. Boats were lowered, but neither officers nor soldiers descended. The murmur of disappointment on shore rose to a shout of execration. Then, as the ship's captain and passengers landed, a whisper ran through the crowd, a wail, and wild sobbing. They flung themselves to the earth, beating their heads and breasts,—all but Delfina de Capalleja, who drew her mantilla about her face and walked away.

The authorities of the city of Mexico yielded to public clamour and determined to cast a silver bell in honour of the slaughtered captain and his men. The casting was to take place in the great plaza before the cathedral, that all might attend: it was long since any episode of war had caused such excitement and sorrow. The wild character and remoteness of the scene of the tragedy, the meagreness of detail which stung every imagination into action, the brilliancy and popularity of De la Torre, above all, the passionate sympathy felt for Delfina de Capalleja, served to shake society from peak to base, and no event had ever been anticipated with more enthusiasm than the casting of that silver bell.

No one had seen Delfina since the arrival of the news had broken so many hearts, and great was the curiosity regarding her possible presence at the ceremony. Universal belief was against her ever again appearing in public; some said that she was dead, others that she had gone into a convent, but a few maintained that she would be high priestess at the making of the bell which was to be the symbol and monument of her lover's gallantry and death.

The hot sun beat upon the white adobe houses of the stately city. At the upper end of the plaza, bending and swaying, coquetting and languishing, were women clad in rich and vivid satins, their graceful heads and shoulders draped with the black or white mantilla; caballeros, gay in velvet trousers laced with gold, and serape embroidered with silver. Eyes green and black and blue sparkled above the edge of large black fans; fiery eyes responded from beneath silver-laden sombreros. The populace, in gala attire, crowded the rest of the plaza and adjacent streets, chattering and gesticulating. But all looked in vain for Delfina de Capalleja.

Much ceremony attended the melting of the bell. Priests in white robes stiff with gold chanted prayers above the silver bubbling in the caldron. A full-robed choir sang the Te Deum; the regiment to which De la Torre had belonged fired salutes at intervals; the crowd sobbed and shouted.

Thunder of cannon, passionate swell of voices: the molten silver was about to be poured into the mould. The crowd hushed and parted. Down the way made for her came Delfina de Capalleja. Her black hair hung over her long white gown. Her body bent under the weight of jewels—the jewels of generations and the jewels of troth. Her arms hung at her sides. In her eyes was the peace of the dead.

She walked to the caldron, and taking a heavy gold chain from her neck flung it into the silver. It swirled like a snake, then disappeared. One by one, amidst quivering silence, the magnificent jewels followed the chain. Then, as she took the last bracelet from her arm, madness possessed the breathless crowd. The indifferent self-conscious men, the lanquid coquetting women, the fat drowsy old dowagers, all rushed, scrambling and screaming, to the caldron, tore from their heads and bodies the superb jewels and ropes of gold with which they were bedecked, and flung them into the molten mass, which rose like a tide. The electric current sprang to the people; their baubles sped like hail through the air. So great was the excitement that a sudden convulsing of the earth was unfelt. When not a jewel was left to sacrifice, the caldron held enough element for five bells—the five sweet-voiced bells which rang in the Mission of San Gabriel for more than a century.

Exhausted with shouting, the multitude was silent. Delfina de Capalleja, who had stood with panting chest and dilating nostrils, turned from the sacrificial caldron, the crowd parting for her again, the Laudate Dominum swelling. As she reached the cathedral, a man who loved her, noting a change in her face, sprang to her side. She raised her bewildered eyes to his and thrust out her hands blankly, then fell dead across the threshold.