The winter went, and the hot summer passed pleasantly.
It was about the beginning of October, when one morning, I walked down to Madre Moreno's house. I had become a constant visitor at the witch's cottage, and often dined there. The accident which had so oddly introduced Ysidria to me was not serious, and in a few days she was completely recovered. Ysidria served at the simple meals of Madre Moreno, and no one ever mixed my wine more to my taste than she did, and no one could make better cordial than Ysidria did with the sweet leaves of the yerba buena steeped in the sauternes which I made from my vineyard, and with which I supplied the Madre.
Ysidria grew apparently more beautiful every day, and the brilliancy of her eyes, which had attracted my notice at first, became even more marked.
I had begun reading aloud to her on afternoons, as we sat in the Moreno veranda, for Ysidria's eyes, though strong and of great power for distant vision, often entirely failed her when reading or looking at any near object, so I found great pleasure in my visits, and as the Madre was seldom present to annoy me, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment, as Ysidria had become a necessity to my happiness, and I loved her.
On the morning of which I have spoken, I went to keep a walking engagement, and found Ysidria waiting for me in the garden. As I approached, I noticed that she held her reboso in her hand and was laughing immoderately, while she tripped from one end of the path to the other, singing snatches of songs or impromptu rhymes. As I stood by the gate she did not see me, though she came very near, near enough to have touched me.
I felt a chill pass over me as I looked at the beautiful creature; there was something so unnatural, so weird about her actions, that I felt as if I were gazing upon a being from another world. Her eyes were brighter than ever before, but in them was no sight for what was near her; they seemed fixed upon objects far away. I could not speak, for when I tried to utter her name my voice refused to come, so I turned and went sorrowful and puzzled back to my home.
The suspense I endured was almost unbearable. By the afternoon I went again to the Madre's house, and with strange forebodings knocked at the door, which was answered by Ysidria; she seemed to be completely recovered from her late mysterious attack, nor did she allude to anything having occurred during the morning out of the usual course, excepting that she twitted me for not keeping my engagement with her. She laughed as she took her reboso from the table, saying that she was out of patience, and that I must take the walk with her as punishment.
I, of course said nothing of my morning visit, or what I had witnessed, but it troubled me greatly all the afternoon.
We walked and talked, and now my good friends thank me for not reporting that conversation; it was fascinating, and even now I think there were glintings of common sense in it, but really not enough to warrant the extra type setting, (for which my publishers charge outrageously), required to give it. It was the same sort of thing you talked last summer with Guadaloupe at Catalina Island, Morris, and the same you talked with Vinnie in the Sierras, George, and the same you talked with all the girls in the States last year, Dickey. You don't want to hear it again, and I must cut expenses somewhere.
It is enough to say, that though nothing was said, both Ysidria and I knew that we loved, and we knew whom. When we reached Madre Moreno's house, she came out and invited me to supper; there was a smile, a disagreeable, malicious smile on her face as she spoke, and not caring to alloy the pleasure of my afternoon with Ysidria by enduring the Madre's company, I refused, and walked over to my house.
"Vengeance is mine and I will repay;" such was the text of Padre Arguello's discourse that hot October day, before his little congregation in Bolinas. The good father became as fervid as the day, and mopped his benevolent face many times before his panting audience was allowed to walk out in the open and catch a glimpse of the white ocean gleaming as a mass of melted silver till it met the dull, white horizon. A dozen fig trees before the door gave the only shade about the place excepting where the half ruined walls of the old church sheltered the Father's little garden. The congregation was soon dispersed, most of them riding to their homes in the foothills, while a few, who lived in the neighbourhood of the village, walked quietly down toward the sea, and the bright, cultivated gardens, which were kept green by the ever-flowing arroyo which here spread its rich alluvial deposits over the land in the winter time.
I had ridden over the night before with all my household, and as many from the neighbouring ranchos had joined us on the way, there was as large a cavalcade as the little village had seen since Viscaino's pilot, Francisco Bolanos, christened the spot in 1602.
It was Padre Arguello's farewell, as he was to sail for Acapulco in a few days, and the country people had come for many miles to do him honour. All had been much surprised when old Ambrosia Moreno entered the church and, with Ysidria, knelt through the service. Madre Moreno had not been to service or confession since her father's death, indeed I had heard her once make a blasphemous jest about the most holy Mass, and good Padre Andreas at San Anselmo, in whose flock she was the blackest sheep, gave her up as lost here and hereafter; so there was much surprise at the Madre's action. Catalina was simply indignant at this desecration, as she called it, and wondered that the beads had not burned her fingers.
The sermon was long and dull, but I did not mind these defects, or rather thought them virtues, for my mind was not interrupted in the contemplation of Ysidria.
I felt like laughing with delight all the day, and wore far from what is called now-a-days, a "Sunday face."
There was a bull and bear fight in the afternoon, but Ysidria and I preferred a walk on the bluffs; of course, Madre Moreno went with us, but she considerately, or by chance, kept by herself. Madre Moreno had allowed her niece and myself a freedom of intercourse not at all in keeping with Californian customs, but she took upon her the duties of dueña at Bolinas, so that the many visitors should find no chance for wonder or remark. Catalina and the others of my household, went to the fight.
There were not many at vespers, and Madre Moreno and Ysidria had started early for home with the Danas, so I had to myself the pleasure of kneeling in the spot where Ysidria had worshipped in the forenoon.
Catalina and the servants were very gay, and her mind was so full of the entertainment, that she never spoke of the morning's wonder, but talked during all the moonlight homeward ride, about the tactics of the bull, which it seemed had been the victor.
Catalina must have noticed a change in me, but she could not discover the cause, as she did not know where I had spent most of my time, thinking, that I as formerly, went out in the woods botanizing, though she must have wondered at the scarcity of my collections.
Thus the wet season began and all the country grew green and the streams were filled, and the plants which had died or withered in the heat of summer, began to show new leaves, and the nightshade shot up tender green sprigs before the old growth had fairly died.
Mercedes Dana, who never having had a love episode of her own, spent most of her time in ferreting out those of others and spreading the news with such exaggerations and embellishments as she thought needed, informed Catalina of the state of affairs which had already become the talk of the country.
Catalina was astonished, for her thoughts were so occupied within the little circle of the rancho that she noted little of outside occurrences. She felt hurt, but, as she afterwards told me, she plainly saw why it was that I had never spoken to her on the subject, and she was grateful for the thoughtfulness which had so long kept from her the annoyance which the knowledge would have caused. She was grieved only at the relationship existing between Madre Moreno and Ysidria, and felt that in some way it was part of the curse. She said nothing to me of her discovery, acting as usual, only speaking often of the old family trouble between the Morenos and the Sotos, saying that she hoped the curse might pass over one generation, if not depart forever.
The green December hills, with flaming spots of toyones, had long been inviting me to make a stroll among them to renew old acquaintanceship, and many a day I felt like starting out from the rancho and throwing myself into their great arms. The care of the flocks needed much of my attention in winter, and I had been greatly alarmed at the news of the terrible influx of "Yankees," as well as of the plots of the English, and the future of my beloved California was dark enough to cast my life in shadow.
One day, however, I broke away. Gentle breezes from the purple canoñs floated by me laden with the scent of redwoods, and by the roadside the clumps of laurel gave out their vigourous perfume as their branches were stirred; then in the quietness of the air between these breaths, the steaming earth yielded to my grateful sense its own peculiar and rich odour. Few wild flowers were out, but on the gay manzanitas hung millions of little pink and white bells, so delicate that they seemed more like the bloom of some rare exotic than the winter gift of so hardy and rugged a shrub.
I did not stop to rest until I had reached a high point of the path where a sudden turn along the edge of a precipice threw open the whole view of the valley. It was yet early morning, and I watched the floating bits of mist drifting above the dark canoñs, canoñs so narrow that the sun never reached their beds. Through clumps of leafless oaks the noisy arroyo could be seen hidden here and there by the thick foliage of some glistening madroño, with its red branches, or by dark, lustrous laurels. Bunches of mistletoe upon the dry branches of the oaks smiled fresh and green from their stolen perches like little oases in a desert of gray. Sometimes an early bee flew by me with hungry humming, and the sharp call of the jay would rise from the depths to mingle with the steady sighing of the wind through the giant redwoods. I had taken my favourite little mare, who never needed the bridle, being guided by my voice or slightest motion, and as I sat with arms akimbo under my poncho I felt as I were free again from all the trouble of life and could not but halloa for very exuberance of joy. Presently there came an answer from the cliffs above, and looking up I beheld Ysidria, mounted on the black horse I had some months before given to Madre Moreno, to be used by her niece, who was not so strong as she had been, and unable to walk so much as formerly.
"Wait, and I will come down," she called and disappeared among the shrubs.
Ysidria was much changed, she had grown thin and nervous during the year; yet, failing as she did in body, her eyes seemed every day to become more beautiful, as if they absorbed all her life. With the growing brilliancy of her eyes, increased also their defective sight, and she was quite unable to read, yet her power of extended vision was wonderful.
Lately, I had cherished the thought of having Ysidria go to Santa Clara, or even to Mexico, to be under the care of some experienced occulist, and the fear of her becoming blind, when it might be too late to have anything done, made me very anxious, and Pedirpozza, whom I might have called, had gone for a time to the Colorado country.
The day before this, on which I met Ysidria in the mountains, I had spoken to Madre Moreno of the subject nearest my heart. I had spoken but a few words when she said:
"Thou needst not go any further, Señor Carlos, I know thy thoughts and have read them for a long time. Thou hast no one to ask for Ysidria but herself and the old witch, who is her only relative. I give my consent."
I was so delighted that I could only express myself by kissing the forehead of Madre Moreno.
"Be careful my Señorito!" she cried starting back and then laughing, "be careful how thou kissest the love of el bueno Diablo, or he may be jealous and play thee a bad trick."
I always hated the Madre when she laughed, and I hurried away.
In about ten minutes Ysidria reached the path where I was waiting, it having been necessary for her to come by a circuitous trail.
"You are out early," I exclaimed.
"Yes, Aunt Ambrosia's kindness often seems unbearable, and I fly from it; it is curious for one to run from kindness."
"Your aunt is a strange creature, I can never understand her; sometimes I love her much, and then, without any apparent cause, I shun her as if she bore a plague."
"I too feel so toward her, and scarcely know whether she loves me devotedly or hates me; her laugh though is unbearable, to me, there seems to be wickedness in it," replied Ysidria, "though I should not talk ill of her, for she is very kind, making me many little sweets and pasties, and there is one sweet drop of which she is very choice, never giving me more than one at a time. I have nearly grown into the habit of taking them each morning before breakfast, and I feel very wretched if I miss one. You must try them, and shall, if I can persuade Aunt Ambrosia for an extra drop; I think she will for you though."
"We have been talking, Madre Moreno and I, and I have proposed that you shall go to Mexico or Santa Clara to have an oculist examine your eyes, for indeed I fear there is something which should be looked to at once. We would all hate to have your beautiful eyes, Ysidria, never reflect our faces more."
We had by this time reached the old ruin, and turned, as if of one accord, toward the spot.
"Yes, Señor Carlos," said Ysidria, as we dismounted, "every word of praise I hear about my eyes, seems like mockery to me; I, myself, am frightened at their strange changes, and fear that I shall soon be blind."
"Then why not go at once to Santa Clara? It is your only hope. Why not go to-morrow?" I asked, as I took her hand in mine.
"That cannot be; I am not able, nor is Aunt Ambrosia, to allow of the expense. I must be content to see while I may, and then live on with the remembrance of your kind faces ever before me."
"Ysidria, do not despond; let me help you; it has been my dream for the past year. Will you be my wife?"
I caught her in my arms, for she seemed as if about to fall.
"Ah, Carlos, I am too happy," she murmured. "I love you, but I cannot be your wife with my infirmity. No, I cannot be so selfish; I will not put upon you a burden. I love you, but let us live as we do now, for you must never tire of me and still feel bound to me for life. I shall be blind. I love you too well."
"Ysidria, I love you for your own dear self. Nor fear so for your sight. The trouble is, I trust, nothing but temporary; the loss for a time of the accommodation; it can easily be remedied when Pedirpozzo returns. So do not let the fear of being a burden, which you can never be to me, deter you from giving me the promise I so desire. Say you will be my wife, Ysidria."
"I will," she replied, and then I took a ring of my mother's and placed it on her finger.
"Let us go over to the wall and sit where I first saw you, Ysidria," I said, "and begin the world with hope."
We started to cross the hollow, passing the atropa, which was just sending out its early shoots. I crushed it with my foot, and ground down each stem till not a bit of green was left, and then I placed some stones upon it; some way I enjoyed this little act, and Ysidria joined me in trampling down the plant.
"It is an ill-favoured thing," I said, "and does more harm than good, but Madre Moreno, I scarcely think will thank me for destroying it, for she always gathered its leaves for some of her medicines."
"Yes, she will, Señorito Carlos; she will thank thee," said a voice behind us, and turning we saw Madre Moreno.
"I had come to do the same thing myself, and thou hast saved me the labour. Why didst thou not kill it before to-day? This is a strange day on which to kill the old plant!"
The Madre had some chips of pine in her basket; these she placed above the plant and pouring a flask of turpentine over them, set it all afire; then piling up chunks of hard wood, she stood back to watch the blaze.
"It is needed no more," she said, "so we will leave no vestige of it, for it must never spring up again." We looked at the witch in silence and wonder.
"Art thou happy, Carlos Sotos, with thy love? Thank old Madre Moreno for it." She laughed aloud, and the wall echoed back the laugh mockingly.
When I parted from Ysidria at Madre Moreno's that evening, after the destruction of the plant, I looked into her blue eyes, and suddenly the pupil spread over the entire iris.
"Oh! Ysidria, your eyes are beautiful," and I pressed a kiss upon them, "good-bye, till we meet to-morrow. I am happy."
"Good night," she answered, "I shall see you in the morning. I will rise as the first rays of the sun, come through my window, and my first thought will be of you."
We parted, and I watched her graceful form as she walked up the path to the door; she turned and waved her hand to me as she passed from sight.
"Her eyes, alas, are all the light I know!" I said aloud, and, with an indefinable feeling of sadness, walked briskly home.
I told Catalina all, that evening, but the good woman said nothing to sadden me, but I could see sorrow in her face.
There were clouds in the sky at sunset, and every prospect of a storm; the wind howled through the trees and rattled the doors of the old house. I sat till late watching the collecting clouds which were rolling on in turbulent masses, and very low, till all was dark, as the last rent was filled, through which the moon had been shining. It was a terrible storm, the worst I had ever known, and Catalina came to my door at about two o'clock, in great fright, saying that she had seen a figure like Madre Mareno, going by the house as if floating in the air, and had heard a loud report as if there had been thunder in the distance, coming from Tamalpais. I could hear the rumbling and could not tell what it was; but I laughed at her fears and told her that it must have been a shadow, for no human being even a witch, would be out in such a night, if they could help it.
Catalina went back to her room, but was far from reassured, and sat the rest of the night with her beads in her hand, praying by candle light.
The next morning the storm was over, though through the sky the clouds were driving fast, but the rising sun touched them with gold and all the trees looked bright and new. Early, after breakfast, I gathered some flowers, and, mounting my mare, rode down to Madre Moreno's cottage.
The storm seemed to have been more severe here than at the rancho, for the garden was destroyed and the vines by the house were hanging, torn from the trellises.
Knocking at the half open door, I waited some minutes, but receiving no answer, stepped into the room. Upon the table lay a sheet of paper, I took it up to read what was written on it, thinking it would tell where the Madre and Ysidria had gone.
All that was upon it was my name, but under the sheet was an envelope addressed to me. I hurriedly broke the seal and spread the sheets before me; they read
My dear Carlos:
Scarcely do I know how to begin this letter to you, whom I love so much. My aunt, Ambrosia, came to me last night, soon after you left me at the gate; she was smiling and very happy, and resting her hand on my shoulder said:
"Ysidria thou hast done well, thou couldst not have done better had I trained thee to it." I was surprised at her manner, and asked her to explain. She sat down beside me and taking my hand in hers began:
"I know thou art willing to do much for thy old aunt, and I have made thee, unknowingly, do it, though then wilt not blame me when I tell the why I have." She then related to me a tale of her father's time, when he had some trouble with your grandfather, and of the curse which she had pronounced upon each generation of de Sotos; you know all this. I listened in surprise and disgust, for she seemed to gloat over the thought of avenging the fancied wrong.
"I have had revenge upon two generations through that plot of ground, and now I must have it from the present, from their child, Carlos de Sotos, through that same plot and through thee."
"Do you expect me to deceive him?" I cried in horror, "I will rather leave your house than that." She laughed loudly at this, and said: "It is too late now, Ysidria, the deed is already done." And then she related to me a story so full of scheming and horror that I can but write it in outline. She planned the terrible revenge many years ago, and would alas, have made you the victim.
There is a plant called the atropa belladonna, a very poisonous shrub, which is rare in this country, but Ambrosia obtained one and planted it beside the little stream which runs by the ruined house. It was that which we destroyed. From this she extracted the juices as she well knows how. Now begins the awful scheme. She sent for me, who was living at the Convent de Santa Clara, to come and be her companion, as she was growing old. She knew that I was beautiful, and thinking to gain your love for me, tried in every way to bring us together. We met, and heaven knows we truly loved. Ever since my arrival she has given me a sweetmeat, of which I once told you. In this confection was the smallest quantity of the extract of the poisonous atropa, and some Chinese drug unknown to me, the taking of which in time became a necessity of my being, but not till to-night did I know the contents of these drops or the awful power to which I am a slave. The extract affected my eyes, causing their unnatural brilliancy and impaired vision. Having fixed this terrible habit upon me, she would wed me to you, and thus make your future life miserable, for in a few years the drug would ruin me in soul and body, and its only substitute could be found in the fatal opium. The revenge is the height of cruelty, and alas, I was to be the helpless medium. She thought that I should be proud of the use to which she had put me, for she said it was as much my duty to avenge the death of my grandfather as for her that of her father. I know not what I said, but my anger gave me words. I told her of the enormity of her crime, the inhumanity she had shown, and that I would do no more nor longer remain with her.
She laughed and left the room. Presently returning, she handed me a packet of the confections and with a mocking smile said: "Make thy husband happy while these sweets last; they are my wedding present to thee." She left me. I know the terrible power this drug has over me, and nothing can ever cure. Even if the habit be not indulged in, I have gone so far that my existence would be worse than death. I will not make your life miserable; the dread of being blind is nothing to this. May the Holy Mother forgive me for all I have been the cause, innocent as I am, of bringing upon you. I love you too, too well, and it is thus that I destroy Ambrosia Moreno's curse. No more shall misfortune come upon you or yours, for with my life I have bought your freedom, I have gone to the old adobe, and this wedding gift of Ambrosia shall be my means of saving you. May good St. Joseph shield you and all the Saints bless you. I will meet you in the morning, Carlos, as I promised. Thank you deeply, heartily, for your love, and when some time you are happily wedded, think of Ysidria, and teach your wife to bless her for her love for you. One last request. Give whatever I have to the good sisters in the convent to take care of the statue of Our Lady of Santa Clara, and ask them to keep me in their prayers.
I quickly mounted my mare and galloped down the road and over the hill to the adobe, and there, the morning sun shining full upon her face, lay my love, my Ysidria. By her side was a packet open and white pellets scattered on the grass.
I bent and kissed the white face, and took the cold hand in mine, praying to the Blessed Virgin to give me strength to bear this killing trial. "Yes, Ysidria," I cried, as tears rolled down my cheeks, "we will meet again in the morning beneath the sunlight of God's love."
My words were scarcely uttered when I noted a throb of her pulse, and then I felt as it were a dream, the beautiful eyes of Ysidria opened and gazed at me but did not seem to see me. I did not care then if it were a dream; swiftly I mounted my mare, bearing the light body of my love before me, and hurried back to the house of Madre Moreno. Near the house I met the frightened Catalina and, the Saints be praised, behind her my dear, old friend, Pedirpozzo, who had that morning returned. They had read Ysidria's letter which I had left on the table. Hot coffee was ready. The doctor took my all too light burden from me, and then for the first time I broke down and for a week knew nothing, waking one afternoon to find the ever faithful Catalina sitting at my bedside. Soon I learned from Pedirpozza that Ysidria was better and would recover, not only her normal eyesight, but also be easily cured of the craving for the fatal pellets. It seemed that she had fainted just as she was about to take the poison and my timely arrival had saved her life.
Ambrosia, Madre Moreno, was never seen after the night of the great storm, and no one knew what became of her, though some years after, news came from the Rancho Laguna de la Merced, on the San Francisco side, that an old woman, answering to the description of the witch, had suddenly appeared there, and was living alone in a hut in one of the innumerable gullies, destitute and shunned by all. Catalina and the good women of the place never gave up the idea that the Evil One carried her off in the great storm, which left its lasting mark on the face of Mount Tamalpais.
A year passed, and Ysidria, under the care of the good Pedirpozzo, completely recovered her health, and one happy day in Easter Week we were wedded by Padre Andreas, at San Rafael, and we went to live at the rancho, with Catalina still as housekeeper, all of us feeling like people saved from a wreck and hoping never to suffer such sorrow again.
By the next Easter there was great rejoicing at the rancho, and from all the country came my friends with their households to the christening of our son. The day was spent in games and feasting, and in the evening Henrico, or Quito, as we called him, was brought out to be toasted. There were many pretty speeches made, and Catalina carried them all to the happy mother.
After all the guests had gone, Pedirpozzo led me aside and in his gentle way, so full of sympathy, he told me what his experienced eye had noted when little Quito was held before the company in the candle-light—he told me what you already know from the first of my story, Quito was hopelessly blind.
Yet we have lived to be all happy and to bless God, and my dear wife so mercifully spared to me, clasps my hand in love and sympathy, when I think, but do not say aloud, "Our Quito has the beautiful eyes of Ysidria."