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Zanita: A Tale of the Yo-semite (1872) by Thérèse Yelverton


Never were two escaped negroes more joyous than we, when we were mounted on our horses to ride to Galen’s Rancho. Fortunately, its most estimable owner was upon his way home, and accompanied us.

He was an old man who had lived the greater part of his life with Nature for his companion; he had lived so true and close to her that her beauty and purity seemed to permeate his entire character. Next to Kenmuir, we could not have found a more interesting companion for such a ride; and as we ascended higher and higher, four thousand feet, until we reached the Rancho, we appeared to be hourly invigorated by the pure mountain air.

The cares, vexations, and anxieties I had experienced in the city seemed to be fading away under the powerful stimulus of horse exercise and the refreshing beauty of Nature. I know of no better antidote for a weary and jaded spirit than a brisk gallop among the hills and by-ways of Nature’s peaceful retreats.

Zanita was in high spirit, and looked radiant in beauty and power, as she always did on horseback. The old mountaineer could not help admiring her and remarking to me,—

“She does credit to you, Mrs. Brown, for although these mountains gave her talent and power, the refined bearing and culture come from you; we could not have given her these graces.”

“You are very good to say so, but I think the nuns deserve the credit of the refinement you notice.”

“It has always been interesting to me to trace,” he said, “how much her birth amidst the stupendous grandeur of this scenery, and her life with it alone for so many years, have had to do with the formation of her character. Those children of Naunton’s have always been a theme for curious speculation, and I am pleased to see such a pleasant result evolved.”

“Yes,” I said, “Zanita has turned out a very brilliant and attractive girl, and sets her own cachet upon whatever she does, but her nature still bears the impress of the wild, untrammeled character of the scenery; she remains the uncurbed child of nature in spite of all we could do to make her conventional.”

We passed the night at Galen’s Hospice, and when about to start the next morning, on our twenty-five miles’ ride into the Valley, Galen himself appeared leading up his own black mule.

“I am going to guide you myself,” he said, “for I find that Bill is off with a stranger, an artist, who has come up to make sketches of the various points of scenery.”

“I am very glad to hear that,” I exclaimed, “because it gives us your company; also because we shall now probably have some fine pictures of this luxe de beaute. Who is he? ”

“I don’t recall his name, but he is a very pleasant gentleman.”

“I wonder if we could have him give Rosalind some lessons? She inherits all her mother’s talent for painting and music, and has accomplished some very creditable pieces with such little instruction as her father and myself could give her.”

“So I understand,” he replied. “She is growing up a very sweet and lovable little creature.”

We were once more winding through the grand mountains, gorgeous in their wonderful atmospheric tints, and through mighty forests of centurian trees, many whose hoary locks denoted thousands of years rather than hundreds. To think of these giant patriarchs dwelling here for centuries, long before this Western Continent was dreamed of by Nor’lander or Spaniard,—when the limits of the toiling, bubbling, surging world of Europe comprised the terra cognita.

“Think of these majestic hosts that have encamped far and wide over this great land welcoming Columbus and Balboa to their mossy corridors and wide-spread leafy chambers, regaling them with their sweet gums and pine nuts, singing them to sleep by the rustling of their great feathery arms. They must have seemed to them like puling infants in contrast to their aged generation. They must have been as much astonished as these voyagers were.”

“Yes,” said Galen, “for I presume they had never seen a white man before.”

“And do you think that the Indians are coeval with the Sequoia and the Pinus ponderosa?” I asked.

“I do. The Red man is a type of race which is gradually fading out from old age and decay in the same manner as the individual dies from the same cause. The Indians have ceased to multiply, yet there is little doubt that they once populated this vast Continent.”

“Do not ride so far ahead!” I called to Zanita. But she was off and soon out of sight.

“I would ride after her,” remarked Galen, “but I do not apprehend the slightest danger for her; still, if you feel alarmed, Mrs. Brown”—

“O no!” I returned, “she will be all right now, but we might as well all have kept together.”

In about a quarter of an hour she came riding back to meet us, looking well pleased and as gay as she ever was. As we turned a point Galen exclaimed, “Ah! there they are!”

I looked in the direction he indicated and had no difficulty in recognizing the brawny shoulders of Horseshoe-Bill planted against a tree, his two hands thrust into the waist of his trousers, with a short pipe in his mouth, in the blissful enjoyment of life; near him was the figure of the artist partly concealed by a large white umbrella used to regulate the shade on his sketch. As my eyes rested on him he arose from his sitting posture and gave me a full view of him; my eyes surely had deceived me.

“Good heavens! Zanita,” I ejaculated. “Zanita, is not that Mr. Egremont?”

“Yes, aunty. I saw him half an hour ago, and rode on to speak to him. He is making a splendid sketch,” she replied, with the utmost nonchalance.

“Nonsense!” I said, angrily, “why has he come to the Valley?” “To make sketches, I suppose, like any other artist.”

“I don’t believe he is an artist; if he is why has he concealed it from us?”

“You are a good judge, you can see for yourself, aunty,” resumed Zanita, curtly.

As we approached Mr. Egremont, he advanced with that easy grace which was peculiar to him, and looked up at me with that unconscious sweetness that was always irresistible.

“Is not this glorious?” he said, surveying nature around us, and cleverly ignoring the awkwardness of our rencontre.

“Very,” I replied, saying within myself, “What a consummate hypocrite you are;” for in the presence of Horseshoe-Bill and Mr. Galen I could not express myself aloud.

“You are right-smart at finding the trail now, Mrs. Brown, I guess,” said Bill. “You remember how you were down on your luck first time as I brought you along; and how you wanted to put Kenmuir in Stockton mad-house.” Here he laughed heartily, hitching up his waistband and enjoying the joke.

“That was your doing, Bill. Did you not tell me that he was an idiot?”

“Ha, ha!” laughed Bill, with an unction; “didn’t he look like one, a moping and a mowing about the rocks? I didn’t suspect as your husband belonged to the same profession.”

“Moping and mowing idiots!” exclaimed Zanita, catching briskly at the blunder with her keen mischievous glance. “It’s well the Professor does not hear you, and that aunty is so good tempered.”

“I’m darned if I am up in the professions,” said Bill, apologetically.

“Never mind; Bill, I understand what you mean.”

We all rode on, Egremont mounting his horse and acting as my cavalier. He was ready with all those delicate attentions, those little easy flowing conventional speeches which entirely exclude any real and earnest conversation however important. Thus, partly owing to the interruptions of Zanita or Bill—Galen having taken his leave and returned when we were in charge of the guide,—and partly owing to Egremont’s adroitness in warding off any special inquiries, I found no opportunity to ask the question which was natural and pertinent.

Long before we reached our destination he had so far insinuated himself into my good graces that I found myself talking to him in the old familiar way, and tacitly admitting his presence amongst us as a matter of course. Strange as it may appear, either by his influence, or the mysteriously soothing effect of the physical nature around me, my anger and annoyance at meeting him subsided. I enjoyed his presence as much as ever without any of the nervousness which had so de-pressed me when leaving San Francisco.

What would the Professor think, could he see me now, absolutely enjoying the very situation I had gone to so much trouble and inconvenience to avoid. My husband, I knew, would call it caprice; but I called it circumstances over which I had no control. What could I do? If I took Zanita back to Oakland they would again carry on their clandestine proceedings; here in the Valley, at least, I could exercise some supervision, and beside, as there was no other society but our own there was no fear of shocking proprieties. I had just to allow affairs to take their course, to permit the stream to flow on, since I was powerless to stem it. Yet how little I dreamed that my last move had opened a fresh dam which would ere long overflow and carry forcibly all along with its flood.

At first I imagined that Egremont could not stay long in the Valley, as there was only Mr. Naunton’s house for accommodation; and unless he approved of his postulate son-in-law, Egremont would be forced to retire. But in the course of conversation it came out that Horseshoe-Bill had seen Kenmuir, who had agreed to receive the young artist into his tiny abode. So here again I was foiled, whilst Zanita had mastered the situation. “So be it,” I said again to myself, for I saw no way out of the dilemma.

But time soon interfered with my philosophy. Rosie had grown quite tall, and looked quite a woman, and a very charming one. She had not lost her childlike, trustful expression, but it was mellowed by the dreamlike dawn of womanhood. Sweetness, resignation, and tenderness were all adolescent on her white brow, over which her little golden curls clustered coquettishly as if well knowing how pretty and privileged they were.

Her father had attended seriously to her education, and I was gratified to find her very little behind her sister in general information and cultivation. She quite excelled her in music and painting, and showed marked ability. She took a heartfelt interest in Mr. Egremont from the first; partly because he was really the first handsome stranger she had ever seen,—poor little bird!—in this secluded Valley; and eventually because he was an artist; her admiration was excited by his fine pictures.

“Ah, aunty!” she exclaimed, a few days after our arrival, her bright young face all aglow, “how nice it would be if I could go with Mr. Egremont and copy the same scene. I should observe how he composed his subject, and have all the benefit of his good taste.”

My original idea of her taking lessons from the artist returned to me.

“If Mr. Egremont is agreeable,” I replied, “I can see no objection; perhaps Zanita would like to amuse herself that way, and I feel inclined myself to do a little sketching; we could all go out in a party, each of us drawing our own conception, you only being under the tutelage of Mr. Egremont.”

On being consulted the artist expressed himself quite charmed with the idea of helping Rosalind, always provided it was not to be considered professionally.

A fair day saw us all busy with frames and canvas,—Horseshoe-Bill displaying a talent for carpentering we had not expected.

“Wall! I guess I could make a right-smart pile of money if stuck at the trade; but I feel somehow like enjoying life backward and forward around these here diggins; it’s mighty salubresome, I tell you.”

“Why, Bill, I should not have supposed that you had to study your health,” said I, laughing, as I surveyed his herculean limbs.

“I guess I am not to call sickly-like,” grunted Bill, as he heaved a blow in chopping up a log that would have felled an ox, “ ‘but there’s nothin’ like preserving the Lord’s blessings,’—as Kenmuir says. Bein’ tied to one mill, ain’t exactly to my fancy. I like to go where the Lord sends me,” winking at Kenmuir.

“It’s a long day since the Lord sent you on a message,” quoth Kenmuir; “but if you’ll come and help me to heave in a log at the saw-mill, I believe He will lead you to do that.”

“All right! I’m your man,” said Bill.

The sketching party came off quite a success. We turned out in full force, and selected “El Capitan” as a subject, viewed from a pile of débris on the opposite side under the Cathedral Rocks, as we called them.

Egremont sketched with the bold dash of an experienced artist, and the few first outlines gave promise of a powerful picture. Rosalind closely imitated, insensibly throwing in a sweet pathos of her own, for pictures, like music, imbibe the nature of the composer. I selected my own position, and drew as I had been taught at school. Zanita’s foreground was filled in with a very ferocious grizzly bear, and the height of Tu-tock-a-nu-lah decorated with an eagle, which, according to the perspective, vied with “El Capitan” himself in dimensions. The face of the “Wandering Jew,” which stands out upon that mighty rock, she was very particular to make distinct.

But soon finding herself eclipsed by the superior skill of the whole party, she threw down her impromptu easel and commenced painting a little smooth-haired white terrier, the property of Horseshoe-Bill, with bright patches of cobalt blue, the tip of his tail scarlet, which caused its master to exclaim when he saw the performance,—

“Wall! you’re a rum ’un, I tell you!”

Kenmuir belonged to the pre-Raphaelite school, and drew and painted every flower and blade of grass and every feathery sedge just as it was in nature.

“A fig for your foreground!” he cried to Egremont and Rosie. “Those beautiful decayed silvery logs you have there, are a mile and a half away, and you can’t seem them from your stand-point.”

“But we have made a composition of them,” said Egremont.

“Then do you think you can compose nature better than the Almighty? Man is the most arrogant biped that ever walked the earth.”

“Why, Kenmuir!” exclaimed Rosie, “how bare your foreground looks.”

“Bare!” echoed Kenmuir. “Bare with all those flowers in it?”

“They look like ten cents’ worth of mixed glass heads, such as I used to buy in Oakland,” cried Zanita, mischievously. “Look at my hog,” she said, as she resumed her sketch. “There is only one pig in the Valley, and he ought to have his portrait taken just as he is engaged in grunting his opinion of the geological structure of El Capitan. Aunty, can you confer upon him the honorary degree of Valley worshipper? I’m sure he fully appreciates the beauties of nature from the expression of his sapient countenance.”

But Zanita soon renounced the sketching expeditions; they were not sufficiently exciting for her busy brain, or her muscular activity. She renewed her horseback exercise, and easily induced Mr. Egremont to join her. Sometimes Rosie and myself or her father accompanied them; but Rosie was not fond of the actual exercise of horsemanship; but rather for the opportunity it afforded of compassing easily different coup d’oeils of the landscape—this to me, also, was one of the greatest charms of riding in the Valley.

Every four yards on horseback brought new varieties of light and shade, and novelties of form, which we had not anticipated; hundreds of new sites for sketching subjects were ever presenting themselves: there was a luxe de choix perfectly bewildering.

“It is difficult to know where to begin,” said Egremont, “and quite impossible to know where to leave off.”

Every rock had a score of splendid forms, as seen from as many points of view; every mountain had fifty different shades and colors, as seen at different times of the day, or in peculiar phases of atmosphere,—all beautiful, all alike enchanting.

But this was not Zanita’s pleasure. If there was a swampy piece to be found in the river, into that swamp she was sure to flounder, up to her horse’s girth; and then she would whip and spur to get him out.

“O,” she would exclaim, as she rode up to us bespattered with mud, “I had a terrible time to get Jeroboam out of that mud-hole.”

“But Zani,” replied Rosie, laughing, “why did you put him in? You know that is swampy land.”

“O, I thought I could have got through on the edge,” persisted Zanita.

She would ride full gallop under the low outspreading boughs of the oak-trees, her long silky hair flying loose, and catching round the leaves; Zanita with a jerk of her head carrying away the spray, or leaving a lock of hair suspended on the branch.

“You will share the fate of Absalom, some day, Zanita,” I remonstrated. “Why must you needs ride through a place when there is not actually space, when you have the whole Valley to choose from?”

At other times she would throw me into a cold perspiration, by forcing Jeroboam over some brink of rock where there seemed not footing for a chipmunk—the sage beast carefully selecting his footing, while she would be shaking the reins, and calling,—

“Ho! Jerry, look lively; what are you stopping for?”

It came to be a jest before we started, to select a ride where Zanita could not get into mischief. To which she would retort,

“Do let us find a place so secure that aunty can’t get into a fright. Papa, let me have Mu-wah to lead my horse.”

This was sure to provoke a laugh from Oswald Naunton.

Gradually the excursions became divided. I found more and more occupations in the house which required a woman’s handiwork,—chairs wanting new chintz, windows needing new hangings, new sheets wanting hemming, and carpets renovating, table-cloths darning, and a thousand and one trifles which denoted a too young housewife.

In all these labors Rosie was only too anxious to assist me; patiently waiting to go sketching as the treat for her leisure. In the mean time Zanita, who could never be induced to sew ten minutes at a time, was away among the mountains, shooting with Mu-wah, or her father,—more frequently riding with Mr. Egremont.

Thus our family circle seemed to be flowing on as smoothly as the soft-flowing Mercede, meandering through the Valley,—so resembled it, alas! in other respects, when it dashes its foamy billows over the defiant rocks, hurling every weaker thing in its course to destruction and ruin. But now all was peace and summer sunshine; and, like the humming-bird trumpet flowers hanging over the cascade, we were all happy on the verge of a precipice.

True it was that I pondered inwardly upon the actual state of affairs between Zanita and Egremont. Whether they had come to any definite understanding as to their future, or whether they had agreed to sip the rosy minutes as they flew, and to let the future tell its own tale, I could not decide. To surprise a secret from either of them was hopeless, and their conduct offered no elucidation. Mr. Egremont acted with impartial gallantry to both the girls; he sketched with one and rode with the other, and was in every circumstance the pink of gentlemanly good-breeding.

Whatever tenderness he might feel toward Zanita, he was the last one to display it for the criticism and amusement of others. She alone would know the depth of his love, while outsiders, however observant, could only guess at it. Yet I had noticed that his gaze lingered over the peach-like face of Rosie—as she would lift her great blue eyes to his with an expression of baby-wonder,—with something more than artistic admiration of her beauty.

“But a man can’t love two women at the same time,” I said to myself, “and Cozy is but a baby, after all.” I had faithfully narrated every circumstance relating to Mr. Egremont to Mr. Naunton, upon our arrival; but he had in his usual philosophic way laughed me to scorn, as I may say,—regarding it all a very good joke on the part of his favorite Zanita, unable to realize the smallest anxiety concerning her, and expressing absolute indifference toward Egremont.

“My good madam, you are too philanthropic by half. Zanita is all right; surely you cannot suppose her to be an object of compassion. She is as brilliant as a bluebird, and as frisky as a young kid. As to the artist, you acknowledge that you know so little about him, and are not even certain that he has a heart to lose; and if he has, he’s big enough to look after himself. Don’t trouble about them, Mrs. Brown; you are too good.”

And Oswald Naunton went off, singing,—

“Weep when you must, but now be gay;
Life is too short to be sighing on.”

Kenmuir took a different view of the case; but persisted in treating it as a good joke.

“He’s in for it, as sure as death,” he said, using his Scotch asseveration, as he usually did when excited. “I would not stand in his shoes for a hundred thousand dollars. Not I!” he continued; “for if he marries her, and you say he has offered himself, he will assuredly wish he had not before twenty-four hours are over; and the first journey he’ll wish to take will be to Chicago. If he refuses to marry her, and thinks he’d like some one else,—my certis! but I wouldn’t be in his shoes, that’s all!” cried Kenmuir, enjoying the dilemma.

“I am not so sure about that,” I retorted, a little piqued; “she is really not a disagreeable girl to live with. The Professor and myself never have any annoyance with her socially, and we are deeply attached to her.”

“That may be; but you are not her husband. Why!” exclaimed Kenmuir, throwing himself back with his two hands grasping his waistband,—“why I’d as ’lief be exposed to a female Puck, a Medusa, a banshee, an Ariel, a witch of Endor, all tied up in a bundle, as to be wedded to Zanita.”

I laughed outright, as Kenmuir shook himself like Rollo, as if to get rid from any particle of chance of such an event happening to him.

“Very well, Kenmuir,” I said; “nobody asks you to take up this bothersome bundle of confused natures. I am sure Mr. Egremont does not care to have you for a rival.”

“I hope not,” answered Kenmuir, suddenly becoming serious, and looking me in the face with an expression that made my color rise with an undefined consciousness of coming evil.

“Mrs. Brown,” he said, earnestly, “I would move earth and heaven, and the powers of evil, if such there be, to secure the woman I loved from that beautiful specimen of humanity you have brought down here.”

“I never brought him; but now that he is here, living with you, try to find out the good in him.”

“The pure blossom opens to the sun,” he replied, “and reveals its beauties to the day; it is only the bud that has a canker at its core that remains closed and secretes its imperfection.”

These conversations had occurred the first few days after our arrival at the Valley; and weeks passed on over our lives, floating on as tranquilly, as peacefully as the web of yarn from cotton-wood trees, lying placidly on the breezeless air.

Sometimes, Sundays especially, Kenmuir would go botanizing, and occasionally Rosie would accompany him, returning laden with choice specimens and ferns culled from the high peaks around. These she would tastefully arrange into bouquets with her mother’s skill, though not as yet with her mother’s science.

Returning from one of these excursions we all met together in the meadows at sunset: Mr. Egremont with his paint-box on his shoulder, Kenmuir and Rosie laden with tall fern branches, and Zanita careering with Mu-wah, fetching the cattle home, for she still delighted in her childish freaks. She would spring on her horse, with a piece of scarlet braid for a bridle, without hat or habit, and fly around with the Indian to drive the cattle to the milking corral.

“What a subject for an artist!” I exclaimed, as she approached us, her hair streaming on the wind, and her rich vermilion color dazzling over the white of her transparent skin, her dark eyes shooting back the golden rays of the sun. “She is magnificent!”

“As an Amazon, if she were large enough,” replied Egremont with a slight sneer. “As a woman, or lady, she does not convey the type. But I know where I could find the model for a Ceres, or a Hebe, or a pure woman, if I wanted one,” he continued, his almond eyes melting with a glance toward Rosie.

Kenmuir spun round on one heel, and whistled a stave of “Captain Jinks,” commencing in the middle. Zanita rode up, jumped off, and threw the bridle to Egremont, whilst she walked on with Rosie, admiring the gigantic size of the ferns, making inquiries as to the exact spot where they grew.

Why should a thunderbolt have fallen amidst that pleasant group—why should each and all have been stricken down! I have seen a group of luxuriant oaks and pines embedded in sylvan grottoes of moss, and perfumed with violets, shriveled by a streak of lightning, and turned to ashes.

Why, why? But the answer cometh not.

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