Friday, September 16, 2016

The Beautiful Eyes of Ysidria - by CHARLES A. GUNNISON. ( Part one)



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I

Have you seen the magnificent slope of our beloved Tamalpais, as it curves from the changing colour of the bay, till touching the fleecy fog rolling in from the Pacific, it passes from day to rest? If you have not, I hope you may, for the sooner you have this glorious picture on your memory's walls, the brighter will be your future, and you will have a bit of beauty which need not be forgotten even in heaven itself.

There is one who, though passing his life beneath its shadow, enjoying the scented wind from its forests and the music of its birds and waterfalls and sighing madroños, does not see it, yet calls it his God, and believes it to be the Giver of all good, as we who have never seen our God feel that One who bestows blessings so bountiful must be beautiful beyond words.

Many walks, miles in extent, have my Quito and I taken. I say my Quito, for he is my son, my only son; and beneath the thick shade of laurels, beside the roadside troughs, we have rested and spoken, he to me of the unheard, I to him of the unseen.

Come back with me to the days of my youth, those merry days of California before the gold was about her dear form like prisoner's chains; before the greed of the States and England had forced us into the weary drudgery of the earth, and made us the slaves of misbegotten progress.

We had our church then and dear old Padre Andreas at San Anselmo, and, my dear friends from the States, we also had cockles from Tomales, which were eaten with relish on the beach at Sausalito, just where George the Greek's is now, though then there was only a little hut kept by a man whom we called Victor—and we had feasts and fasts so well arranged, that dyspepsia was unknown.

One day when I had been on a long tramp through the woods, gathering mushrooms, I came home tired and hungry, and found our old housekeeper, Catalina, smiling complacently, as she sat on the stepping block by the kitchen door, rolling tamales for supper. "Oh! Master Carlos," she cried, "we have had much to worry us to-day. Look at those poor, little ducks all dead and the mother hen also."

"Who killed them, Catalina ?" I asked in astonishment, as I saw my pet brood of ducks and their over careful mother lying dead in the grass.

"I did," she replied, "and it was time that something was done. Madre Moreno has been busy again. The cows gave bloody milk last Friday, and to-day, while I was sorting some herbs, the hen and her brood began to act mysteriously, to tumble about as Victor might, after too much wine. All at once I saw the cause, Madre Moreno had bewitched them, and in three minutes I had cut all their throats and have given the wicked woman a lesson."

"Catalina! Catalina!" I cried, "how can you be so cruel and superstitious?" Her face lighted up with supreme contempt for me, but she said nothing more. On the ground about her were bits of leaves which I recognized as nightshade and henbane, which could well account for the actions of the late hen and ducklings.

"What are these ?" I asked.

"Little Pablo brought them for dinner; he thought they were mustard, but they were not, so I threw them away."

"Poor ducks and poor Catalina," was all that I could say, and went laughing into the house, while she muttered to herself about the ignorance of the new generation.

My home was, and is a beautiful one, low and long, with all the rooms opening on the broad veranda; it is part of adobe and part of wood, the sides being covered with a network of fuchsia, heliotrope and jasmine reaching to the eaves of the brown tile roof; a broad, branching fig tree is in the little court before it, and a clump of yuccas and fan palms to the right, while down to the road and along the front stretches a broken hedge of Castilian roses, which we Californians love as the gift of old Spain, our first good nurse, we must always have a nurse it seems, England, Spain, Mexico and our present, very dry one—but let us be content, our majority will come. There is a pretty stream from the mountains, brought through hollow logs, and two good wells to water the place, which is green in the hottest summer when all the hills and meadows are yellow and brown from drought; before it rise slopes of manzanita, and higher hills covered with redwoods, and then the sharply cut peak of Tamalpais, from which on clear days we not only may see the good St. Helena, but alas, as in all the world, Diablo, himself, is in view, black and barren, though we do sometimes call him San Diablo, as the old Greeks did the Eumenides, in propitiatory compliment.

Madre Moreno was indeed a strange woman, and feared by the country people, before whom she lost no opportunity of playing her role of witch, and she was known by all for her remarkable skill in extracting the virtues of herbs, and brewing such efficacious drinks that even Pedirpozzo, the famous physician of the Alameda side, had been willing to consult with her.

I was about twenty years old at this time and had but recently returned from the City of Mexico, where I had been graduated in the law, having also made a thorough study of botany, and was happily and lucratively employed in collecting specimens of the Californian flora for the old college, as well as for one in the States, and two in Europe. This pleasurable employment gave me an income, more than supplying the few wants of the primitive life at the little rancho, the herds of which were alone a good source of revenue.

Just beyond my home, to the west, over the first hill, was a ruined adobe, surrounded by a great number of fig and olive trees; there had never been any windows in the house, but the arches for the doors were still standing, where ivy, poison oak and wild honey-suckle hung in profusion; the cellar, which was quite filled with stones, was overgrown with Solomon's seal, eschscholtzia and yerba santa, while a white rose and a shapeless clump of half wild artichokes grew where the garden had once been, also many flowers, hardly distinguishable from the weeds, having lost all they had ever gained by cultivation; a winding bed of ranunculus, or little frog, as Linnaeus wittily calls these water lovers, marked the course of a narrow stream which had long ago broken away from its former wooden trough. Among the stones and decaying beams were enormous bushes of nightshade, which seemed to poison the plants about them, all of which had a sickly green wherever they grew under its shadow.

This place, with its surrounding acres, was my property, and had been before the fire which had destroyed the adobe house, one of the prettiest spots in the country.

There had long been a spirited contest between my grandfather and the father of Madre Moreno over this bit of property, a strife which had caused much bad feeling in both families, and when it was at last settled in favour of our side, old Juan Moreno lost all control of his feelings, and in a fit of anger dropped dead at the very door of the court. Though the anger and chagrin at the loss of his case hastened his death, he had always been subject to a trouble of the heart which was liable to prove fatal at any moment under undue excitement. Ambrosia Moreno, who was called Madre, when she grew older, held our family to blame for this affliction, and made a vow that every generation of the Sotos should suffer through this plot of ground as long as she lived.

This curse was first felt in the time of Ignacio de Soto, my grandfather, when the fig trees failed to put forth fruit and the olives were all blighted. By this, Ambrosia Moreno established her reputation in the country as a witch, and was never omitted from a christening or wedding or from any auspicious event where her ill will might, in any possible way, cause misfortune.

In time Madre Moreno grew proud of this distinction awarded to her, dressing and acting so as to lead the people to believe her to have supernatural assistance, and when in the time of the next generation, the night of the marriage of my father with Neves Arguello, (to which celebration Madre Moreno was uninvited), the adobe house in the grove of figs, which had stood untenanted for years, was burned to the ground, her reputation as a witch was firmly established throughout the country; many a good woman after that event, when the wind carried off the clothes drying on the hedges, or the soot fell down the chimney into the kitchen at night, knew that the Madre was about, playing her mischievous pranks.

One day Mercedes Dana, a girl whom we rather felt sorry for, (her mother, who was a de los Santos, having married an American from Boston), having less faith in Madre Moreno's power than the rest of her neighbours had tried that never-failing test for witchcraft, and placed a piece of steel under the chair where the Madre was sitting, but she, too, was at once converted from her skepticism, for when the Madre wanted to leave she was unable to move until the bit of steel was taken away.

It was considered a dangerous experiment, and even Mercedes' little spark of Yankee "devil-may-care" burned very low after it, although the only thing that went wrong at the Dana's that year was that the hens laid soft-shelled eggs, which trouble was soon remedied by mixing a powder with their feed, which powder Madre Moreno herself supplied, and I strongly suspect that it was made of burned cockle shells.

Madre Moreno dressed peculiarly; she wore when I first remember her, a short black skirt and waist; a little cape of red woolen cloth hung over her shoulders, about her neck was a white ruff which set off her peaked face and made it look even more withered and yellow; her hair was short, and over a silk skull cap was drawn a black reboso, the ends of which were embroidered in colour with odd designs. Her whole person was the perfection of neatness, and she was welcome from Bolinas to San Rafael for the good she did, as her knowledge of herb and even mineral medicines was extensive.

At my christening it was thought that the curse would be removed, as Madre Moreno was invited to the ceremonies, and from that time was a constant visitor at the rancho for some years, always received with a welcome, mingled, perhaps, with a little fear, by all save Catalina, who, despite her dread of the queer woman, never could conceal her hatred for her, and when the sudden death of my father was closely followed by that of my mother, she forbade Madre Moreno the house. To this I could say nothing, as I have always a reverence for the woman who rules at home, and Catalina now was my housekeeper, in charge of broom and wash tub, and grand almoner of my dinners and luncheons.



II

Madre Moreno never came again to my house, but always seemed to take an interest in me, who, when I reached an age when I could be trusted away from the garden, would wander with her through the woods while she was gathering her herbs, and from her I learned much that was of great benefit to me in after years. After my return from Mexico, we greeted in friendly manner, and she seemed to take great pleasure in my company.

I never approached the ruin without a strange foreboding of something terrible about to happen, which always disappeared after I had been there a while and the charming beauty of the quiet spot had turned my thoughts into pleasanter channels; perhaps the feeling of fear was attributable to the stories I had heard during childhood, and had never outgrown.

One day I saw Madre Moreno's red cloak showing out brightly from behind the rank growths of nightshade, the tenderer leaves of which she seemed to be carefully gathering. She was muttering to herself words unintelligible to me, and did not seem to notice me, although I stood for a long time very near where she was at work.

"Good morning, Madre; you are very busy to-day," I said, after a while. She looked up, nodding in a friendly way, but not answering, while she continued her jargon as she carefully laid in the basket the oval-shaped, pointed leaves. As I drew nearer I noticed for the first time that it was not the common nightshade, which grew wild about the country, but was the atropa, a plant not indigenous to California. It was in flower; the bell-shaped blossoms, of a dead, violet-brown colour, with the green leaves about them, made a disagreeable combination seldom seen in any of nature's pictures.

When she had completely filled her basket she turned to me and spoke: "I am glad to see thee, Carlos, for it has been long since we have met, and I began to think that thou hadst forgotten thy old friend, or, perhaps, hadst learned all about flowers and herbs, so that she could teach thee no more."

"No, Madre; I shall never know so much about them as you do. I can learn their names and values only, while you put them all to so many good uses," I answered. "What do you do with the leaves you have just gathered? They are very poisonous, and you should wash your hands well after touching them, and especially after getting the juice on your fingers !"

"But thou knowest poison makes little difference with one like me, who hath a charmed life," replied Madre Moreno, as she handed me the basket to carry while she nimbly stepped from stone to stone and climbed out of the hollow, here and there startling a snake or lizard that lay in the sunshine.

"It is well done!" she abruptly said, and looking at me, burst into a fit of laughter which was so spontaneous and hearty that I joined with her, though I knew not at what I was laughing. My own laugh sounded strangely, however, and seemed to me to echo with another tone from the vine-covered walls as if some one were there, and like Madre Moreno, were also laughing at me. I stopped suddenly, and I felt my face change colour, and the same awe which I so often felt when about the ruined house came upon me with a force I had never known before; I trembled as I stood there beside this strange woman, who laughed louder and louder, striking her little hands together in seeming ecstacy, while the sounds echoed and re-echoed among the fig trees and heaps of stones, yet seeming all the time less like echoes than like the voices of innumerable, invisible creatures darting everywhere about the grove. The place grew darker, for clouds just then obscured the sun and covered the hills beyond Tamalpais. Madre Moreno came nearer to me and touched my forehead. . . . . . . . . Suddenly the sun shown bright as ever upon the fig and olive trees and gleamed from thousands of silver drops hanging from every leaf; the snakes and lizards lay quietly upon the steaming rocks and half burnt beams, while the rank vegetation sent forth a sweet scent of green life.

"Why do you laugh at me, Madre ?" I asked.

"Only, Carlos," she answered, "because it is so odd to see thee carrying the old witch's basket with all the charms and thou knowing nothing about it all; oh it is very odd!" and the Madre laughed again. "The storm has gone over," she continued, "I feared it would last long, but winter is almost gone, and it passed without much rain falling here."

"What storm ?" I asked.

"The storm which has just passed, hast thou not noted it ?"

"I saw no storm, you must be dreaming Madre, or trying some of your spells upon me. There has been no storm for the sun has been shining brightly, except when that cloud passed for a moment," I answered as I handed her the basket.

"Whence came the drops of water which lie upon the leaves, Señor Carlos, if not from the clouds which thou canst still see passing over the hills toward San Anselmo? Thou knowest not all the power Ambrosia Moreno, thy little madre, hath. So thou hast held the basket with the flat green leaves."

"Oh! Madre Moreno, I can never understand you, but you must be careful of the leaves you have just gathered, for they contain a most powerful poison. I am more afraid, since the plant is rare or even unknown in the Californias, that you do not know its power; you surely can never have found it before, and how it came to be growing here is incomprehensible to me."

The witch bent her head and looking into my face from under her overhanging reboso, raised her finger and shook it before me saying as she did so, "Thou art a learned señorito, Carlos Sotos, but although Ambrosia Moreno hath never been in the college, she knows more of the little flowers and bright leaves of this plant thou speakest of than all the Jesuits or thy people shall ever learn. The very plant growing here among these fallen stones is as old as thou art, Carlos Sotos, and that almost to a year. It has ever grown on, season after season, and shall live until its duty is performed, then let it wither when it shall no longer be needed here. Thou must come down and see me, Carlos," she continued in an altered voice, "for I have some new flowers which thou shalt have; come for I am lonely and like young company, though I be a witch as they say. Where goest thou to-day?"

"Above on the divide where I hope to find some of the Indian pinks for my new collection."

"When doest thou return, before sundown?" asked Madre Moreno as she prepared to go.

"Before that, surely," I answered, "I shall be back here at the ruin by four o'clock, though I had no idea that the time had gone so fast, it is almost noon; I must hurry or I shall have Catalina very hot waiting with a cold supper. By the way Madre, she sent her best respects to you and hopes that you will not bewitch any more of her poultry, for if you do, they will be a headless lot in a short time."

Madre Moreno nodded knowingly, and closed one eye slyly as she answered, "Thou art the cleverest señorito in these parts, but little as thou believest in my influence with el bueno Diablo, as the old women call him, I could disclose to thee many strange events which shall come after this day, and from this meeting thou shall date thy future." She started but turned and said, "My son, I have learned to love thee, yet I have a duty beyond love; say that thou believest that my sainted father was unjustly treated, and thy life shall be blessed."

"I cannot, Madre Moreno, I am sorry for the sad result of the case at court, but as you know, it was only justice."

She said no more, but with a laugh, half broken by a sigh, the little woman walked briskly under the olives and down over the brow of the hill.

The grass and trees were all wet, the great laurels by the path shown as if varnished, the huge madroño leaves each held a jewel on its tip; all evidences of a heavy rain were about me, yet I had not been aware of it falling. In a short time I was deep in the redwood forest, away from the world in companionship with God.



III

It was nearly five o'clock when I approached the ruin on my return; the sun was now low enough to throw long shadows over the place, and made an effect of gloom which formed a good setting for the wall, with its green drapery standing out shining and warm in a glorious flood of golden sunshine.

As I sat down to enjoy the picture, I became aware of some one walking behind the great clumps of nightshade, and presently a young woman stepped from behind the atropa where Madre Moreno had that morning been picking the poisonous leaves, and walked across the hollow, stepping gracefully from stone to stone till she came to the bright spot where the sun was shining, and seating herself at the foot of the wall, opened a book and began to read aloud. Beautiful as the scene had been before, it was now enhanced, and I did not stir, lest I should dispel the lovely vision.

For fully half an hour I must have remained there before she became aware of my presence; when she saw me, she started a little, but regaining her composure quickly, closed her book, and rose to leave the place. In crossing the hollow she stumbled and fell, uttering a sharp cry of pain; I ran immediately to her assistance. Supporting the fainting girl, I helped, or rather carried, her to the bank where I had been sitting. By the time I reached the place, she had recovered consciousness, and in answer to my inquiry said that her ankle had been sprained by the fall, and that the pain was severe. As she spoke the tears came to her eyes, and she gave a cry when she tried to rise.

"Do you live near here?" I asked, for she was a stranger to me, though I knew all the people for many miles around.

"I should not call it far, under usual circumstances," she answered, "but now it is a long way. I live with my aunt, Ambrosia Moreno. Oh, I can never get there."

"You must bathe the ankle here; there is a pool, and the rock beside it makes a good seat," and gently lifting her, I placed her beside the stream, which ran clear and cold from under the broad leaves. Without any show of false modesty, she did as I directed, and having saturated my handkerchief, I bound it about the sprain, and wrapping her long cloak of wool around her, put her shoe and stocking in my pocket, and then lifting her to my shoulder, started down the road to Madre Moreno's cottage.

In appearance, the young woman was of small figure, delicately formed and graceful; her face full of life, with finely marked eyebrows of the same brown shade as her hair; her eyes were blue—a rare colour among us Californians—unusually full and brilliant, and to-day suffused with tears. I noticed that the pupils were remarkably large, sometimes covering the greater part, if not all, of the iris.

Small and light as she was, I had to rest often, for the distance was nearly a mile, and the surface of the road was much broken. When reaching the top of the last rise of the road before arriving at Madre Moreno's I rested for the last time.

"I am very sorry that this accident has occurred, and I can never thank you sufficiently for the kindness you have shown me; had you not come to the ruin I could never have reached home, and the thought of spending a night there makes me shudder even now," she said as she sat by the roadside.

"I am sorry that we have to delay so long on the way, for your aunt will be much worried," I replied.

"Aunt Ambrosia ought surely to make some use of her power and come out and carry me home on her broomstick steed," she answered, looking up at me with a smile.

"I was much surprised to see you at the ruins this afternoon, and indeed almost thought that you were some spirit of the place, for I have never seen any woman but Madre Moreno there, as they are so afraid of the snakes and lizards which abound, and they also say that there is a curse upon the spot which is liable to affect any one who may stop there long enough. How did you find the ruin? It is so hidden from view by the trees that a stranger could scarcely have found it except by the merest chance."

"Aunt Ambrosia told me of it, and said that the sun effects were beautiful there in the afternoon, and that I had better go to-day between four and five, as it was at the best then, when half of the ruin would be in shadow and the one standing wall receive the full sunlight. I was pleased with the picture, but had I known of the snakes this accident never could have happened. You were looking so intently at me when I discovered your presence that I was startled and even thought of Aunt Ambrosia's skill in the black art, and that you might be some supernatural friend of hers, hence my hasty retreat and consequent disaster."

"It is a pity that I should have been the cause of the mishap," I answered; though truthfully I was much pleased at our novel meeting, and I knew the sprain was but slight. I again took her in my arms and started off at a brisk walk down the hill. It was dusk when we approached the house, and passed along the narrow path, and knocked at the open door of Madre Moreno's little house.

I placed my fair burden in an arm chair, which stood on the veranda and, while waiting for an answer to my knock, looked into her beautiful face which was turned partly away from me, but even in the shadow where she was sitting, the wonderful brilliancy of her eyes was noticeable and seemed to illumine her whole face.

Madre Moreno came to the door; she held a lighted candle, and as she recognized me, looked surprised and said, "Hast thou seen no one on the road Carlos? I have been waiting long for my niece, she went to the ruin this afternoon and has not yet returned; she must have lost her way, for she surely would not stay so late otherwise. I shall go out to search for her; I hope she has met with no accident. Help me search, Carlos."

Madre Moreno seemed very anxious, and to have lost all the happy spirits and buoyancy she had shown in the morning.

"I am here, Aunt Ambrosia, and thanks to this gentleman or I should still be out on the hill, in the moonlight with all the lizards and snakes, and perhaps some of your good friends also," spoke out the girl in a laughing voice.

"That is good, good, good!" exclaimed Madre Moreno. "How didst thou, Ysidria, come to find our friend Carlos de Soto and he to take thee home?" and the Madre began to laugh boisterously. "Stay to sup with us Carlos," she said, when she had enough recovered from her fit of laughter to speak, "or perhaps thou art afraid of the old witch."

In as few words as possible the accident was explained to Madre Moreno, and I again lifted her niece and placed her on a lounge in the house. "The Madre can bring you out all right, if anyone can," I said as I left the room, "I will take the liberty of inquiring for you in the morning."

As I walked down the path to the gate, I spoke aloud, "What beautiful, beautiful eyes !"

"Yes, that they are, Master Carlos !" said a voice seemingly beside me. I turned, the voice sounded like that of the Madre, but no one was to be seen, however, the large black cat which had followed me, put up her back to be stroked and purred and rubbed against my leg. As I closed the gate the same voice sounded again but more faintly. "Beautiful eyes hath Ysidria; beautiful eyes !"


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