Fragrance in Literature-Rezanov, by Gertrude Atherton

Rezanov, by Gertrude Atherton


As Rezanov, heading the procession with young Arguello, entered the wide gates of the Presidio, he received an impression memorably different from that which led earlier travelers to describe it inclemently as a large square surrounded by mud houses, thatched with reeds. It is true that the walls were of adobe and the roofs of tule, nor was there a tree on the sand hills encircling the stronghold. But in this early springtime—the summer of the peninsula—the hills showed patches of verdure, and all the low white buildings were covered by a network of soft dull green and archaic pink. The Castilian rose, full and fluted, and of a chaste and penetrating fragrance, hung singly and in clusters on the pillars of the dwellings, on the barracks and chapel, from the very roofs; bloomed upon bushes as high as young trees. The Presidio was as delicately perfumed as a lady's bower, and its cannon faced the ever-changing hues of water and island and hill.

And it was in San Francisco's springtime that Concha Arguello made chocolate for the Russian to whom she was to give a niche in the history of her land; and sang at her task. She whirled the molinillo in each cup as it was filled, whipping the fragrant liquid to froth; pausing only to scold when her servant stained one of the dainty saucers or cups. Poor Rosa did not sing, although the spring attuned her broken spirit to a gentler melancholy than when the winds howled and the fog was cold in her marrow. She had been sentenced by the last Governor, the wise Borica, to eight years of domestic servitude in the house of Don Jose Arguello for abetting her lover in the murder of his wife. Concha, thoughtless in many things, did what she could to exorcise the terror and despair that stared from the eyes of the Indian and puzzled her deeply. Rosa adored her young mistress and exulted even when Concha's voice rose in wrath; for was not she noticed by the loveliest senorita in all the Californias, while others, envious and spiteful to a poor girl no worse than themselves, were ignored?

Day and night a great silence reigned in the Mission valley, broken only by the hoot of the owl, the singing of birds, the flight of horses across the plain. Even the low huddle of Mission buildings and the few homes beyond looked an anomaly in that vast quiet valley asleep and unknown for so many centuries in the wide embrace of the hills. Its jewel oasis alone made it acceptable to the Spaniard, but to Rezanov the sandy desert, with its close companionable silences, its cool night air sweet with the light chaste fragrance of the roses, the simple, almost primitive, conditions environing the girl, possessed a power to stir the depths of his emotions as no artful reinforcement to passion had ever done. He forgot the wall. His ego melted in a sense of complete union and happiness. Even when they returned to earth and discussed the dubious future, he was conscious of an odd resignation, very alien in his nature, not only to the barrier but to all the strange conditions of his wooing. He had felt something of this before, although less definitely, and to-night he concluded that she had the gift of clothing the inevitable with the semblance and the sweetness of choice; and wondered how long it would be able to skirt the arid steppes of philosophy.

He crossed the clearing and entered the forest. The warlike tribes themselves had trodden paths through the dense undergrowth of young trees and ferns. Rezanov, despite Baranhov's warning, had tramped the forest many times. It was the one thing that reconciled him to Sitka, for there are few woods more beautiful. In spite or because of the incessant rains, it is pervaded by a rich golden gloom, the result of the constant rotting of the brown and yellow bark, not only of the prostrate trees, but of the many killed by crowding and unable to seek the earth with the natural instinct of death. And above, the green of hemlock and spruce was perennially fresh and young, glistening and fragrant. Here and there was a small clearing where the clans had erected their ingenious and hideous totem poles, out of place in the ancient beauty of the wood.

How unlike was life to the old Greek tragedies! He recalled his prophetic sense of impending happiness, success, triumph, as he entered California, the rejuvenescence of his spirit in the renewal of his wasted forces even before he loved the woman. Every event of the past year, in spite of the obstacles that mortal must expect, had marched with his ambitions and desires, and straight toward a future that would have given him the most coveted of all destinies, a station in history. There had not been a hint that his brain, so meaningly and consummately equipped, would perish in the ruins of his body in less than a twelvemonth from that fragrant morning when he had entered the home of Concha Arguello tingling with a pagan joy in mere existence, a sudden rush of desire for the keen, wild happiness of youth—

The priests and their guests of honor sat on the long corridor beside the church; the soldiers, sailors, and Indians of Presidio and Mission forming the other three sides of a hollow square. The Indian women were a blaze of color. The ladies on the corridor wore their mantillas, jewels, and the gayest of artificial flowers. There were as many fans as women. Rezanov sat between Father Abella and the Commandante, and not being in the best of tempers had never looked more imposing and remote. Concha, leaning against one of the pillars, stole a glance at him and wondered miserably if this haughty European had really sought her hand, if it were not a girl's foolish dream. But Concha's humble moments at this period of her life were rare, and she drew herself up proudly, the blood of the proudest race in Europe shaking angrily in her veins. A moment later, in response to a power greater than any within herself, she turned again. The attention of the hosts and guests was riveted upon the preliminary antics of the Indian dancers, and Rezanov seized the opportunity to lean forward unobserved and gaze at the girl whom it seemed to him he saw for the first time in the full splendor of her beauty. She wore a large mantilla of white Spanish lace. In the fashion of the day it rose at the back almost from the hem of her gown to descend in a point over the high comb to her eyes. The two points of the width were gathered at her breast, defining the outlines of her superb figure, and fastened with one large Castilian rose surrounded by its mass of tiny sharp buds and dull green leaves. As the familiar scent assailed Rezanov's nostrils they tingled and expanded. His lids were lifted and his eyes glowing as he finally compelled her glance, and her own eyes opened with an eager flash; her lips parted and her shoulders lost their haughty poise. For a moment their gaze lingered in a perfect understanding; his ill-humor vanished, and he leaned back with a complimentary remark as Father Abella directed his attention to the most agile of the Indians.