As young Felipe Arillaga guided his pony out of the last intricacies of Pacheco Pass, he was thinking of Rubia Ytuerate and of the scene he had had with her a few days before. He reconstructed it now very vividly. Rubia had been royally angry, and as she had stood before him, her arms folded and her teeth set, he was forced to admit that she was as handsome a woman as could be found through all California.
There had been a time, three months past, when Felipe found no compulsion in the admission, for though betrothed to Buelna Martiarena he had abruptly conceived a violent infatuation for Rubia, and had remained a guest upon her rancho many weeks longer than he had intended.
For three months he had forgotten Buelna entirely. At the end of that time he had remembered her--had awakened to the fact that his infatuation for Rubia was infatuation, and had resolved to end the affair and go back to Buelna as soon as it was possible.
But Rubia was quick to notice the cooling of his passion. First she fixed him with oblique suspicion from under her long lashes, then avoided him, then kept him at her side for days together. Then at last--his defection unmistakable--turned on him with furious demands for the truth.
Felipe had snatched occasion with one hand and courage with the other.
"Well," he had said, "well, it is not my fault. Yes, it is the truth. It is played out."
He had not thought it necessary to speak of Buelna; but Rubia divined the other woman.
"So you think you are to throw me aside like that. Ah, it is played out, is it, Felipe Arillaga? You listen to me. Do not fancy for one moment you are going back to an old love, or on to a new one. You listen to me," she had cried, her fist over her head. "I do not know who she is, but my curse is on her, Felipe Arillaga. My curse is on her who next kisses you. May that kiss be a blight to her. From that moment may evil cling to her, bad luck follow her; may she love and not be loved; may friends desert her, enemies beset her, her sisters shame her, her brothers disown her, and those whom she has loved abandon her. May her body waste as your love for me has wasted; may her heart be broken as your promises to me have been broken; may her joy be as fleeting as your vows, and her beauty grow as dim as your memory of me. I have said it."
"So be it!" Felipe had retorted with vast nonchalance, and had flung out from her presence to saddle his pony and start back to Buelna.
But Felipe was superstitious. He half believed in curses, had seen two-headed calves born because of them, and sheep stampeded over cliffs for no other reason.
Now, as he drew out of Pacheco Pass and came down into the valley the idea of Rubia and her curse troubled him. At first, when yet three days' journey from Buelna, it had been easy to resolve to brave it out. But now he was already on the Rancho Martiarena (had been traveling over it for the last ten hours, in fact), and in a short time would be at the hacienda of Martiarena, uncle and guardian of Buelna. He would see Buelna, and she, believing always in his fidelity, would expect to kiss him.
"Well, this is to be thought about," murmured Felipe uneasily. He touched up the pony with one of his enormous spurs.
"Now I know what I will do," he thought. "I will go to San Juan Bautista and confess and be absolved, and will buy candles. Then afterward will go to Buelna."
He found the road that led to the Mission and turned into it, pushing forward at a canter. Then suddenly at a sharp turning reined up just in time to avoid colliding with a little cavalcade.
He uttered an exclamation under his breath.
At the head of the cavalcade rode old Martiarena himself, and behind him came a peon or two, then Manuela, the aged housekeeper and--after a fashion--duenna. Then at her side, on a saddle of red leather with silver bosses, which was cinched about the body of a very small white burro, Buelna herself.
She was just turned sixteen, and being of the best blood of the mother kingdom (the strain dating back to the Ostrogothic invasion), was fair. Her hair was blond, her eyes blue-gray, her eyebrows and lashes dark brown, and as he caught sight of her Felipe wondered how he ever could have believed the swarthy Rubia beautiful.
There was a jubilant meeting. Old Martiarena kissed both his cheeks, patting him on the back.
"Oh, ho!" he cried. "Once more back. We have just returned from the feast of the Santa Cruz at the Mission, and Buelna prayed for your safe return. Go to her, boy. She has waited long for this hour."
Felipe, his eyes upon those of his betrothed, advanced. She was looking at him and smiling. As he saw the unmistakable light in her blue eyes, the light he knew she had kept burning for him alone, Felipe could have abased himself to the very hoofs of her burro. Could it be possible he had ever forgotten her for such a one as Rubia--have been unfaithful to this dear girl for so much as the smallest fraction of a minute?
"You are welcome, Felipe," she said. "Oh, very, very welcome." She gave him her hand and turned her face to his. But it was her hand and not her face the young man kissed. Old Martiarena, who looked on, shook with laughter.
"Hoh! a timid lover this," he called. "We managed different when I was a lad. Her lips, Felipe. Must an old man teach a youngster gallantry?"
Buelna blushed and laughed, but yet did not withdraw her hand nor turn her face away.
There was a delicate expectancy in her manner that she nevertheless contrived to make compatible with her native modesty. Felipe had been her acknowledged lover ever since the two were children.
"Well?" cried Martiarena as Felipe hesitated.
Even then, if Felipe could have collected his wits, he might have saved the situation for himself. But no time had been allowed him to think. Confusion seized upon him. All that was clear in his mind were the last words of Rubia. It seemed to him that between his lips he carried a poison deadly to Buelna above all others. Stupidly, brutally he precipitated the catastrophe.
"No," he exclaimed seriously, abruptly drawing his hand from Buelna's, "no. It may not be. I cannot."
Martiarena stared. Then:
"Is this a jest, senor?" he demanded. "An ill-timed one, then."
"No," answered Felipe, "it is not a jest."
"But, Felipe," murmured Buelna. "But--why--I do not understand."
"I think I begin to," cried Martiarena. "Senor, you do not," protested Felipe. "It is not to be explained. I know what you believe. On my honour, I love Buelna."
"Your actions give you the lie, then, young man. Bah! Nonsense. What fool's play is all this? Kiss him, Buelna, and have done with it."
Felipe gnawed his nails.
"Believe me, oh, believe me, Senor Martiarena, it must not be."
"Then an explanation."
For a moment Felipe hesitated. But how could he tell them the truth--the truth that involved Rubia and his disloyalty, temporary though that was. They could neither understand nor forgive. Here, indeed, was an impasse. One thing only was to be said, and he said it. "I can give you no explanation," he murmured.
But Buelna suddenly interposed.
"Oh, please," she said, pushing by Felipe, "uncle, we have talked too long. Please let us go. There is only one explanation. Is it not enough already?"
"By God, it is not!" vociferated the old man, turning upon Felipe. "Tell me what it means. Tell me what this means."
"Then I will tell you!" shouted the old fellow in Felipe's face. "It means that you are a liar and a rascal. That you have played with Buelna, and that you have deceived me, who have trusted you as a father would have trusted a son. I forbid you to answer me. For the sake of what you were I spare you now. But this I will do. Off of my rancho!" he cried. "Off my rancho, and in the future pray your God, or the devil, to whom you are sold, to keep you far from me."
"You do not understand, you do not understand," pleaded Felipe, the tears starting to his eyes. "Oh, believe me, I speak the truth. I love your niece. I love Buelna. Oh, never so truly, never so devoutly as now. Let me speak to her; she will believe me."
But Buelna, weeping, had ridden on.
A fortnight passed. Soon a month had gone by. Felipe gloomed about his rancho, solitary, taciturn, siding the sheep-walks and cattle-ranges for days and nights together, refusing all intercourse with his friends. It seemed as if he had lost Buelna for good and all. At times, as the certainty of this defined itself more clearly, Felipe would fling his hat upon the ground, beat his breast, and then, prone upon his face, his head buried in his folded arms, would lie for hours motionless, while his pony nibbled the sparse alfalfa, and the jack-rabbits limping from the sage peered at him, their noses wrinkling.
But about a month after the meeting and parting with Buelna, word went through all the ranches that a hide-roger had cast anchor in Monterey Bay. At once an abrupt access of activity seized upon the rancheros. Rodeos were held, sheep slaughtered, and the great tallow-pits began to fill up.
Felipe was not behind his neighbours, and, his tallow once in hand, sent it down to Monterey, and himself rode down to see about disposing of it.
On his return he stopped at the wine shop of one Lopez Catala, on the road between Monterey and his rancho.
It was late afternoon when he reached it, and the wine shop was deserted. Outside, the California August lay withering and suffocating over all the land. The far hills were burnt to dry, hay-like grass and brittle clods. The eucalyptus trees in front of the wine shop (the first trees Felipe had seen all that day) were coated with dust. The plains of sagebrush and the alkali flats shimmered and exhaled pallid mirages, glistening like inland seas. Over all blew the trade-wind; prolonged, insistent, harassing, swooping up the red dust of the road and the white powder of the alkali beds, and flinging it--white-and-red banners in a sky of burnt-out blue--here and there about the landscape.
The wine shop, which was also an inn, was isolated, lonely, but it was comfortable, and Felipe decided to lay over there that night, then in the morning reach his rancho by an easy stage.
He had his supper--an omelet, cheese, tortillas, and a glass of wine--and afterward sat outside on a bench smoking innumerable cigarettes and watching the sun set.
While he sat so a young man of about his own age rode up from the eastward with a great flourish, and giving over his horse to the muchacho, entered the wine shop and ordered dinner and a room for the night. Afterward he came out and stood in front of the inn and watched the muchacho cleaning his horse.
Felipe, looking at him, saw that he was of his own age and about his own build--that is to say, twenty-eight or thirty, and tall and lean. But in other respects the difference was great. The stranger was flamboyantly dressed: skin-tight pantaloons, fastened all up and down the leg with round silver buttons; yellow boots with heels high as a girl's, set off with silver spurs; a very short coat faced with galloons of gold, and a very broad-brimmed and very high-crowned sombrero, on which the silver braid alone was worth the price of a good horse. Even for a Spanish Mexican his face was dark. Swart it was, the cheeks hollow; a tiny, tight mustache with ends truculently pointed and erect helped out the belligerency of the tight-shut lips. The eyes were black as bitumen, and flashed continually under heavy brows.
"Perhaps," thought Felipe, "he is a toreador from Mexico."
The stranger followed his horse to the barn, but, returning in a few moments, stood before Felipe and said:
"Senor, I have taken the liberty to put my horse in the stall occupied by yours. Your beast the muchacho turned into the corrale. Mine is an animal of spirit, and in a corrale would fight with the other horses. I rely upon the senor's indulgence."
At ordinary times he would not have relied in vain. But Felipe's nerves were in a jangle these days, and his temper, since Buelna's dismissal of him, was bitter. His perception of offense was keen. He rose, his eyes upon the stranger's eyes.
"My horse is mine," he observed. "Only my friends permit themselves liberties with what is mine."
The other smiled scornfully and drew from his belt a little pouch of gold dust.
"What I take I pay for," he remarked, and, still smiling, tendered Felipe a few grains of the gold.
Felipe struck the outstretched palm.
"Am I a peon?" he vociferated.
"Probably," retorted the other.
"I will take pay for that word," cried Felipe, his face blazing, "but not in your money, senor."
"In that case I may give you more than you ask."
"No, by God, for I shall take all you have."
But the other checked his retort. A sudden change came over him.
"I ask the senor's pardon," he said, with grave earnestness, "for provoking him. You may not fight with me nor I with you. I speak the truth. I have made oath not to fight till I have killed one whom now I seek."
"Very well; I, too, spoke without reflection. You seek an enemy, then, senor?"
"My sister's, who is therefore mine. An enemy truly. Listen, you shall judge. I am absent from my home a year, and when I return what do I find? My sister betrayed, deceived, flouted by a fellow, a nobody, whom she received a guest in her house, a fit return for kindness, for hospitality! Well, he answers to me for the dishonour."
"Wait. Stop!" interposed Felipe. "Your name, senor."
"Unzar Ytuerate, and my enemy is called Arillaga. Him I seek and----"
"Then you shall seek no farther!" shouted Felipe. "It is to Rubia Ytuerate, your sister, whom I owe all my unhappiness, all my suffering. She has hurt not me only, but one--but----Mother of God, we waste words!" he cried. "Knife to knife, Unzar Ytuerate. I am Felipe Arillaga, and may God be thanked for the chance that brings this quarrel to my hand."
"You! You!" gasped Unzar. Fury choked him; his hands clutched and unclutched--now fists, now claws. His teeth grated sharply while a quivering sensation as of a chill crisped his flesh. "Then the sooner the better," he muttered between his set teeth, and the knives flashed in the hands of the two men so suddenly that the gleam of one seemed only the reflection of the other.
Unzar held out his left wrist.
"Are you willing?" he demanded, with a significant glance.
"And ready," returned the other, baring his forearm.
Catala, keeper of the inn, was called.
"Love of the Virgin, not here, senors. My house--the alcalde--"
"You have a strap there." Unzar pointed to a bridle hanging from a peg by the doorway. "No words; quick; do as you are told."
The two men held out their left arms till wrist touched wrist, and Catala, trembling and protesting, lashed them together with a strap.
"Tighter," commanded Felipe; "put all your strength to it."
The strap was drawn up to another hole.
"Now, Catala, stand back," commanded Unzar, "and count three slowly. At the word 'three,' Senor Arillaga, we begin. You understand."
Felipe and Unzar each put his right hand grasping the knife behind his back as etiquette demanded.
They strained back from each other, the full length of their left arms, till the nails grew bloodless.
"Three!" called Lopez Catala in a shaking voice.
When Felipe regained consciousness he found that he lay in an upper chamber of Catala's inn upon a bed. His shoulder, the right one, was bandaged, and so was his head. He felt no pain, only a little weak, but there was a comfortable sense of brandy at his lips, an arm supported his head, and the voice of Rubia Ytuerate spoke his name. He sat up on a sudden.
"Rubia, you!" he cried. "What is it? What happened? Oh, I remember, Unzar--we fought. Oh, my God, how we fought! But you----What brought you here?"
"Thank Heaven," she murmured, "you are better. You are not so badly wounded. As he fell he must have dragged you with him, and your head struck the threshold of the doorway."
"Is he badly hurt? Will he recover?"
"I hope so. But you are safe."
"But what brought you here?"
"Love," she cried; "my love for you. What I suffered after you had gone! Felipe, I have fought, too. Pride was strong at first, and it was pride that made me send Unzar after you. I told him what had happened. I hounded him to hunt you down. Then when he had gone my battle began. Ah, dearest, dearest, it all came back, our days together, the life we led, knowing no other word but love, thinking no thoughts that were not of each other. And love conquered. Unzar was not a week gone before I followed him--to call him back, to shield you, to save you from his fury. I came all but too late, and found you both half dead. My brother and my lover, your body across his, your blood mingling with his own. But not too late to love you back to life again. Your life is mine now, Felipe. I love you, I love you." She clasped her hands together and pressed them to her cheek. "Ah, if you knew," she cried; "if you could only look into my heart. Pride is nothing; good name is nothing; friends are nothing. Oh, it is a glory to give them all for love, to give up everything; to surrender, to submit, to cry to one's heart: 'Take me; I am as wax. Take me; conquer me; lead me wherever you will. All is well lost so only that love remains.' And I have heard all that has happened--this other one, the Senorita Buelna, how that she for bade you her lands. Let her go; she is not worthy of your love, cold, selfish----"
"Stop!" cried Felipe, "you shall say no more evil of her. It is enough."
"Felipe, you love her yet?"
"And always, always will."
"She who has cast you off; she who disdains you, who will not suffer you on her lands? And have you come to be so low, so base and mean as that?"
"I have sunk no lower than a woman who could follow after a lover who had grown manifestly cold."
"Ah," she answered sadly, "if I could so forget my pride as to follow you, do not think your reproaches can touch me now." Then suddenly she sank at the bedside and clasped his hand in both of hers. Her beautiful hair, unbound, tumbled about her shoulders; her eyes, swimming with tears, were turned up to his; her lips trembled with the intensity of her passion. In a voice low, husky, sweet as a dove's, she addressed him. "Oh, dearest, come back to me; come back to me. Let me love you again. Don't you see my heart is breaking? There is only you in all the world for me. I was a proud woman once. See now what I have brought myself to. Don't let it all be in vain. If you fail me now, think how it will be for me afterward--to know that I--I, Rubia Ytuerate, have begged the love of a man and begged in vain. Do you think I could live knowing that?" Abruptly she lost control of herself. She caught him about the neck with both her arms. Almost incoherently her words rushed from her tight-shut teeth.
"Ah, I can make you love me. I can make you love me," she cried. "You shall come back to me. You are mine, and you cannot help but come back."
"Por Dios, Rubia," he ejaculated, "remember yourself. You are out of your head."
"Come back to me; love me."
"Come back to me."
"You cannot push me from you," she cried, for, one hand upon her shoulder, he had sought to disengage himself. "No, I shall not let you go. You shall not push me from you! Thrust me off and I will embrace you all the closer. Yes, strike me if you will, and I will kiss you."
And with the words she suddenly pressed her lips to his.
Abruptly Felipe freed himself. A new thought suddenly leaped to his brain.
"Let your own curse return upon you," he cried. "You yourself have freed me; you yourself have broken the barrier you raised between me and my betrothed. You cursed her whose lips should next touch mine, and you are poisoned with your own venom."
He sprang from off the bed, and catching up his serape, flung it about his shoulders.
"Felipe," she cried, "Felipe, where are you going?"
"Back to Buelna," he shouted, and with the words rushed from the room. Her strength seemed suddenly to leave her. She sank lower to the floor, burying her face deep upon the pillows that yet retained the impress of him she loved so deeply, so recklessly.
Footsteps in the passage and a knocking at the door aroused her. A woman, one of the escort who had accompanied her, entered hurriedly.
"Senorita," cried this one, "your brother, the Senor Unzar, he is dying."
Rubia hurried to an adjoining room, where upon a mattress on the floor lay her brother.
"Put that woman out," he gasped as his glance met hers. "I never sent for her," he went on. "You are no longer sister of mine. It was you who drove me to this quarrel, and when I have vindicated you what do you do? Your brother you leave to be tended by hirelings, while all your thought and care are lavished on your paramour. Go back to him. I know how to die alone, but as you go remember that in dying I hated and disowned you."
He fell back upon the pillows, livid, dead.
Rubia started forward with a cry.
"It is you who have killed him," cried the woman who had summoned her. The rest of Rubia's escort, vaqueros, peons, and the old alcalde of her native village, stood about with bared heads.
"That is true. That is true," they murmured. The old alcalde stepped forward.
"Who dishonours my friend dishonours me," he said. "From this day, Senorita Ytuerate, you and I are strangers." He went out, and one by one, with sullen looks and hostile demeanour, Rubia's escort followed. Their manner was unmistakable; they were deserting her.
Rubia clasped her hands over her eyes.
"Madre de Dios, Madre de Dios," she moaned over and over again. Then in a low voice she repeated her own words: "May it be a blight to her. From that moment may evil cling to her, bad luck follow her; may she love and not be loved; may friends desert her, her sisters shame her, her brothers disown her----"
There was a clatter of horse's hoofs in the courtyard.
"It is your lover," said her woman coldly from the doorway. "He is riding away from you."
"----and those," added Rubia, "whom she has loved abandon her."
Meanwhile Felipe, hatless, bloody, was galloping through the night, his pony's head turned toward the hacienda of Martiarena. The Rancho Martiarena lay between his own rancho and the inn where he had met Rubia, so that this distance was not great. He reached it in about an hour of vigorous spurring.
The place was dark though it was as yet early in the night, and an ominous gloom seemed to hang about the house. Felipe, his heart sinking, pounded at the door, and at last aroused the aged superintendent, who was also a sort of major-domo in the household, and who in Felipe's boyhood had often ridden him on his knee.
"Ah, it is you, Arillaga," he said very sadly, as the moonlight struck across Felipe's face. "I had hoped never to see you again."
"Buelna," demanded Felipe. "I have something to say to her, and to the padron."
"Too late, senor."
"My God, dead?"
"As good as dead."
"Rafael, tell me all. I have come to set everything straight again. On my honour, I have been misjudged. Is Buelna well?"
"Listen. You know your own heart best, senor. When you left her our little lady was as one half dead; her heart died within her. Ah, she loved you, Arillaga, far more than you deserved. She drooped swiftly, and one night all but passed away. Then it was that she made a vow that if God spared her life she would become the bride of the church--would forever renounce the world. Well, she recovered, became almost well again, but not the same as before. She never will be that. So soon as she was able to obtain Martiarena's consent she made all the preparations--signed away all her lands and possessions, and spent the days and nights in prayer and purifications. The Mother Superior of the Convent of Santa Teresa has been a guest at the hacienda this fortnight past. Only to-day the party--that is to say, Martiarena, the Mother Superior and Buelna--left for Santa Teresa, and at midnight of this very night Buelna takes the veil. You know your own heart, Senor Felipe. Go your way."
"But not till midnight!" cried Felipe.
"What? I do not understand."
"She will not take the veil till midnight."
"No, not till then."
"Rafael," cried Felipe, "ask me no questions now. Only believe me. I always have and always will love Buelna. I swear it. I can stop this yet; only once let me reach her in time. Trust me. Ah, for this once trust me, you who have known me since I was a lad."
He held out his hand. The other for a moment hesitated, then impulsively clasped it in his own.
"Bueno, I trust you then. Yet I warn you not to fool me twice."
"Good," returned Felipe. "And now adios. Unless I bring her back with me you'll never see me again."
"But, Felipe, lad, where away now?"
"To Santa Teresa."
"You are mad. Do you fancy you can reach it before midnight?" insisted the major-domo.
"I will, Rafael; I will."
"Then Heaven be with you."
But the old fellow's words were lost in a wild clatter of hoofs, as Felipe swung his pony around and drove home the spurs. Through the night came back a cry already faint:
"Adios, Felipe," murmured the old man as he stood bewildered in the doorway, "and your good angel speed you now."
When Felipe began his ride it was already a little after nine. Could he reach Santa Teresa before midnight? The question loomed grim before him, but he answered only with the spur. Pepe was hardy, and, as Felipe well knew, of indomitable pluck. But what a task now lay before the little animal. He might do it, but oh! it was a chance!
In a quarter of a mile Pepe had settled to his stride, the dogged, even gallop that Felipe knew so well, and at half-past ten swung through the main street of Piedras Blancas--silent, somnolent, dark.
"Steady, little Pepe," said Felipe; "steady, little one. Soh, soh. There."
The little horse flung back an ear, and Felipe could feel along the lines how he felt for the bit, trying to get a grip of it to ease the strain on his mouth.
The De Profundis bell was sounding from the church tower as Felipe galloped through San Anselmo, the next village, but by the time he raised the lights of Arcata it was black night in very earnest. He set his teeth. Terra Bella lay eight miles farther ahead, and here from the town-hall clock that looked down upon the plaza he would be able to know the time.
"Hoopa, Pepe; pronto!" he shouted.
The pony responded gallantly. His head was low; his ears in constant movement, twitched restlessly back and forth, now laid flat on his neck, now cocked to catch the rustle of the wind in the chaparral, the scurrying of a rabbit or ground-owl through the sage.
It grew darker, colder, the trade-wind lapsed away. Low in the sky upon the right a pale, dim belt foretold the rising of the moon. The incessant galloping of the pony was the only sound.
The convent toward which he rode was just outside the few scattered huts in the valley of the Rio Esparto that by charity had been invested with the name of Caliente. From Piedras Blancas to Caliente between twilight and midnight! What a riding! Could he do it? Would Pepe last under him?
"Steady, little one. Steady, Pepe."
Thus he spoke again and again, measuring the miles in his mind, husbanding the little fellow's strength.
Lights! Cart lanterns? No, Terra Bella. A great dog charged out at him from a dobe, filling the night with outcry; a hayrick loomed by like a ship careening through fog; there was a smell of chickens and farmyards. Then a paved street, an open square, a solitary pedestrian dodging just in time from under Pepe's hoofs. All flashed by. The open country again, unbroken darkness again, and solitude of the fields again. Terra Bella past.
But through the confusion Felipe retained one picture, that of the moon-faced clock with hands marking the hour of ten. On again with Pepe leaping from the touch of the spur. On again up the long, shallow slope that rose for miles to form the divide that overlooked the valley of the Esparto.
"Hold, there! Madman to ride thus. Mad or drunk. Only desperadoes gallop at night. Halt and speak!"
The pony had swerved barely in time, and behind him the Monterey stage lay all but ditched on the roadside, the driver fulminating oaths. But Felipe gave him but an instant's thought. Dobe huts once more abruptly ranged up on either side the roadway, staggering and dim under the night. Then a wine shop noisy with carousing peons darted by. Pavements again. A shop-front or two. A pig snoring in the gutter, a dog howling in a yard, a cat lamenting on a rooftop. Then the smell of fields again. Then darkness again. Then the solitude of the open country. Cadenassa past.
But now the country changed. The slope grew steeper; it was the last lift of land to the divide. The road was sown with stones and scored with ruts. Pepe began to blow; once he groaned. Perforce his speed diminished. The villages were no longer so thickly spread now. The crest of the divide was wild, desolate, forsaken. Felipe again and again searched the darkness for lights, but the night was black.
Then abruptly the moon rose. By that Felipe could guess the time. His heart sank. He halted, recinched the saddle, washed the pony's mouth with brandy from his flask, then mounted and spurred on.
Another half-hour went by. He could see that Pepe was in distress; his speed was by degrees slacking. Would he last! Would he last? Would the minutes that raced at his side win in that hard race?
Houses again. Plastered fronts. All dark and gray. No soul stirring. Sightless windows stared out upon emptiness. The plaza bared its desolation to the pitiless moonlight. Only from an unseen window a guitar hummed and tinkled. All vanished. Open country again. The solitude of the fields again; the moonlight sleeping on the vast sweep of the ranchos. Calpella past.
Felipe rose in his stirrups with a great shout.
At Calpella he knew he had crossed the divide. The valley lay beneath him, and the moon was turning to silver the winding courses of the Rio Esparto, now in plain sight.
It was between Calpella and Proberta that Pepe stumbled first. Felipe pulled him up and ceased to urge him to his topmost speed. But five hundred yards farther he stumbled again. The spume-flakes he tossed from the bit were bloody. His breath came in labouring gasps.
But by now Felipe could feel the rising valley-mists; he could hear the piping of the frogs in the marshes. The ground for miles had sloped downward. He was not far from the river, not far from Caliente, not far from the Convent of Santa Teresa and Buelna.
But the way to Caliente was roundabout, distant. If he should follow the road thither he would lose a long half-hour. By going directly across the country from where he now was, avoiding Proberta, he could save much distance and precious time. But in this case Pepe, exhausted, stumbling, weak, would have to swim the river. If he failed to do this Felipe would probably drown. If he succeeded, Caliente and the convent would be close at hand.
For a moment Felipe hesitated, then suddenly made up his mind. He wheeled Pepe from the road, and calling upon his last remaining strength, struck off across the country.
The sound of the river at last came to his ears.
"Now, then, Pepe," he cried.
For the last time the little horse leaped to the sound of his voice. Still at a gallop, Felipe cut the cinches of the heavy saddle, shook his feet clear of the stirrups, and let it fall to the ground; his coat, belt and boots followed. Bareback, with but the headstall and bridle left upon the pony, he rode at the river.
Before he was ready for it Pepe's hoofs splashed on the banks. Then the water swirled about his fetlocks; then it wet Felipe's bare ankles. In another moment Felipe could tell by the pony's motion that his feet had left the ground and that he was swimming in the middle of the current.
He was carried down the stream more than one hundred yards. Once Pepe's leg became entangled in a sunken root. Freed from that, his hoofs caught in grasses and thick weeds. Felipe's knee was cut against a rock; but at length the pony touched ground. He rose out of the river trembling, gasping and dripping. Felipe put him at the steep bank. He took it bravely, scrambled his way--almost on his knees--to the top, then stumbled badly and fell prone upon the ground. Felipe twisted from under him as he fell and regained his feet unhurt. He ran to the brave little fellow's head.
"Up, up, my Pepe. Soh, soh."
Suddenly he paused, listening. Across the level fields there came to his ears the sound of the bell of the convent of Santa Teresa tolling for midnight.
* * * * *
Upon the first stroke of midnight the procession of nuns entered the nave of the church. There were some thirty in the procession. The first ranks swung censers; those in the rear carried lighted candles. The Mother Superior and Buelna, the latter wearing a white veil, walked together. The youngest nun followed these two, carrying upon her outspread palms the black veil.
Arrived before the altar the procession divided into halves, fifteen upon the east side of the chancel, fifteen upon the west. The organ began to drone and murmur, the censers swung and smoked, the candle-flames flared and attracted the bats that lived among the rafters overhead. Buelna knelt before the Mother Superior. She was pale and a little thin from fasting and the seclusion of the cells. But, try as she would, she could not keep her thoughts upon the solemn office in which she was so important a figure. Other days came back to her. A little girl gay and free once more, she romped through the hallways and kitchen of the old hacienda Martiarena with her playmate, the young Felipe; a young schoolgirl, she rode with him to the Mission to the instruction of the padre; a young woman, she danced with him at the fete of All Saints at Monterey. Why had it not been possible that her romance should run its appointed course to a happy end? That last time she had seen him how strangely he had deported himself. Untrue to her! Felipe! Her Felipe; her more than brother! How vividly she recalled the day. They were returning from the Mission, where she had prayed for his safe and speedy return. Long before she had seen him she heard the gallop of a horse's hoofs around the turn of the road. Yes, she remembered that--the gallop of a horse. Ah! how he rode--how vivid it was in her fancy. Almost she heard the rhythmic beat of the hoofs. They came nearer, nearer. Fast, furiously fast hoof-beats. How swift he rode. Gallop, gallop--nearer, on they came. They were close by. They swept swiftly nearer, nearer. What--what was this? No fancy. Nearer, nearer. No fancy this. Nearer, nearer. These--ah, Mother of God--are real hoof-beats. They are coming; they are at hand; they are at the door of the church; they are here!
She sprang up, facing around. The ceremony was interrupted. The frightened nuns were gathering about the Mother Superior. The organ ceased, and in the stillness that followed all could hear that furious gallop. On it came, up the hill, into the courtyard. Then a shout, hurried footsteps, the door swung in, and Felipe Arillaga, ragged, dripping, half fainting, hatless and stained with mud, sprang toward Buelna. Forgetting all else, she ran to meet him, and, clasped in each other's arms, they kissed one another upon the lips again and again.
The bells of Santa Teresa that Felipe had heard that night on the blanks of the Esparto rang for a wedding the next day.
Two days after they tolled as passing bells. A beautiful woman had been found drowned in a river not far from the house of Lopez Catala, on the high road to Monterey.