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


CHAPTER I. KENMUIR.

Some of the most potential episodes of our lives are ushered in by apparently trivial circumstances. A fancy, a whim, a caprice, even a movement without any separate act of volition, an accidental glance across the street, a false step over the stones, are often the foundations upon which some vitally important bridge of our lives has to be constructed.

Trifling incidents not infrequently give birth to the most stupendous events.

Thus the life-drama which I am about to narrate fell out in consequence of the gratification of what might have appeared at the time a very innocent whim.

Caprice had been attributed to me all my life through: as a school-girl, by my companions, and as a woman, by my husband; until I had come to believe it formed a part of my character.

Yet any individual exercise of the propensity never warned me at the time, and it was not until my husband classified my action as a piece of caprice, that I came to regard it in that light.

The very beginning and root of my story grew out of one of these trifling fancies. My husband was a Professor of Geology in a College of California, and much of the pleasantest part of my life was spent in bearing him company in his geological excursions.

We usually spent the vacations in delightful rambles, occasionally accompanied by a few of the more studious and inquiring of his pupils, sometimes by a fellow Professor, and sometimes alone.

I used to long for Commencement Day quite as eagerly as any over-worked student. The city, and everything connected with the city, had by that time become abhorrent to me. I hated the noise, the dirt, the talk, the dress, my household cares, and the dry parched look of every-thing, and longed for the fresh green sward, the music of streams, the song of birds, the sunset rambles and the still hush of moonlight nights; in fine for all the delights of the country.

For, although a most practical body in the matter of shirt buttons, darning, and improvised dishes of unctuous flavor, yet there was a la-tent stratum of romance in my composition which, de temps en temps, would bubble up amid my daily cares and wrestle for a recognition, and enfranchisement of its own.

What then was my disappointment when the Professor announced that he would be detained by business for a week or ten days after the term had closed.

“This is a terrible disappointment to you I know, my dear,” said my husband, who never thwarted me in anything. “But do you not think you could make a start on your own account, and stop at some pretty place for a few days, when I could join you?”

Of the two evils this seemed to be the least objectionable. And so it was settled that I should start for Mariposa alone, where I duly arrived, and was enjoying myself with my usual zest for the country, when the idea, or caprice, seized upon me that it would be a very pleasant thing to go on a little exploring expedition on my own behalf, and prospect for the Professor ere he arrived. I thought if I could secure a horse and guide, I would wander forth in search of that marvelous Valley of Yosemite, so recently discovered by white men, and already exciting so much interest in the world at large, as well as in scientific circles.

I knew my husband had some intention of measuring the colossal trees, reported to be three or four hundred feet in height, and the granite giant, showing a vertical front of four thousand. I thought it would be pleasant to forestall him. Acting upon this freak of fancy, I set out with my guide, Horse-shoe Bill, who, as he informed me, derived his title, like many of the nobility, from having located in, and possessed himself of, a certain Horse-shoe Bay.

We rode from early morn until eve through the most glorious country it had ever been my fate to traverse. Mountain rose above mountain, and tower above tower of rocky peaks; and, away up, mingling with the snowy clouds, peered the no less snowy caps of the distant Sierra Nevadas. Here and there we could see green valleys nestling in among the mountains, and deep cañons filled with dark pines.

“O, them’s nowhar to the Valley whar I’m agoin’ to take you; and we can most see some of it now. Them three peaks as you see a topplin’ over one another, a sort of playin’ leap-frog, the Indians call Pom-pom-pas-us.”

Looking in the direction to which he pointed, I beheld a chaos of mountain tops and deep chasms, all seemingly thrown inextricably together, and apparently inaccessible. My heart began to fail me as to my further progress, when a peculiar looking object foreign to the scenery caught my eye.

“What on earth is that?” I exclaimed, reining up my not unwilling mustang, and pointing to the singular creature extending itself as though about to take wing from the very verge of a pinnacle overhanging a terrific precipice. “Is it a man, or a tree, or a bird?”

“It’s a man, you bet,” replied my guide, chuckling. “No tree or shrub as big as my fist ever found footing there. It’s that darned idiot Kenmuir, and the sooner he dashes out that rum mixture of his he calls brains the sooner his troubles’ll be over, that’s my idee.”

“It’s not mine though,” I said decisively, “for if he is really crazy we are the more bound to take care of him. Suppose you give a shrill whistle to attract his attention.”

“He’ll not bother for that, he’ll know it’s me; but if you ride around this here point he’ll see you belike; that’ll be a novel sight for him,” said the guide, who was by no means an ill-natured man: only thoroughly imbued with a recklessness of human life, which years spent in the wildwood seems to engender in the most humane.

Adopting his suggestion, we quickly rounded the point, when the singular figure was seen swaying to and fro with extended arms as if moved by the wind, the head thrown back as in swimming, and the long brown hair falling wildly about his face and neck.

The point on which he stood was a smooth jutting rock only a few inches in width, and a stone thrown over it would fall vertically into the valley five thousand feet below. My heart heat fast with horrible dread as my guide coolly explained this fact to me. I hardly dared to fix my eyes upon the figure lest I should see it disappear, or remove them, lest it should be gone when I looked again. In my desperation, I exerted that power of will which is said to convey itself through space without material aid. I strove to communicate with him by intangible force. The charm seemed to work well. He turned quickly towards me, and, with a spring like an antelope, was presently on terra firma and approaching us.

“There, you’ll have plenty on him now,” said Horse-shoe Bill. “He loafs about this here valley gatherin’ stocks and stones, as I may say, to be Scriptural, and praisin’ the Lord for makin’ of him sech a born fool. Well some folks is easy satisfied!”

As the lithe figure approached, skipping over the rough boulders, poising with the balance of an athlete, or skirting a shelf of rock with the cautious activity of a goat, never losing for a moment the rhythmic motion of his flexile form, I began to think that his attitude on the over-hanging rock might not, after all, have been so chimerical; and my resolve, as to how I should treat this phase of insanity, began to waver very sensibly, and I fell back on that mental rear-guard—good intentions; but when he stood before me with a pleasant “Good day, madam,” my perplexity increased ten-fold, for his bright intelligent face revealed no trace of insanity, and his open blue eyes of honest questioning, and glorious auburn hair might have stood as a portrait of the angel Raphael. His figure was about five feet nine, well knit, and bespoke that active grace which only trained muscles can assume.

The guide increased my confusion by exclaiming, “Hallo, Kenmuir! the lady wants to speak to you.”

I wished the guide at Jericho for giving me such false notions. Why had he induced me to believe this man a raving maniac, only to compel me, like old Dogberry, to write myself down an ass. I could have as soon reproached one of the clouds gyrating round the crest of the mountain with running into danger.

“Can I do anything for you?” asked Kenmuir gently.

“She wants to know what you were doing out on that bloody knob overhanging eternity?”

“Praising God,” solemnly replied Kenmuir.

“Thought that would start him,” interrupted the guide.

“Praising God, madam, for his mighty works, his glorious earth, and the sublimity of these fleecy clouds, the majesty of that great roaring torrent,” pointing to the Nevada, “that leaps from rock to rock in exultant joy, and laves them, and kisses them with caresses of downiest foam. O, no mother ever pressed her child in tenderer embrace, or sung to it in more harmonious melody; and my soul joins in with all this shout of triumphant gladness, this burst of glorious life; this eternity of truth and beauty and joy; rejoices in the gorgeous canopy above us, in the exquisite carpet with which the valley is spread of living, palpitating, breathing splendor. Hearken to the hymn of praise which re-sounds upwards from every tiny sedge, every petal and calyx of myriads and myriads of flowers, all perfect, all replete with the divine impress of Omnipotent power. Shall man alone be silent and callous? Come, madam, let me lead you to Pal-li-li-ma, the point I have just left, where you can have a more complete view of this miracle of nature, for I am sure you also can worship in this temple of our Lord.”

Here was a pretty fix for a Professor’s wife, and a sensible woman! I was about to put myself in the identical situation which but a few moments before had induced me to consider the man who occupied it a lunatic.

Horse-shoe Bill remarked my puzzled expression, and laughed, “Ho, he’ll guide you right enough; he knows every inch of the road as well as I do. You needn’t be afeard; he’ll take you to the shanty I told you of, where you can locate for the night, and I’ll make tracks back again, if so be you don’t want me.”

One thought of the maniac shot through my mind, not as a fear, but a souvenir. I looked on the face of Kenmuir, shining with a pure and holy enthusiasm, and it reminded me of the face of a Christ I had seen years ago in some little old Italian village; not a picture of any note, but possessing such a tender, loving, benignant expression, that I had never forgotten it; and had then thought that the artist must have intended it for the Salvator Mundi before he became the Man of Sorrows.

With this picture brought forcibly to my mind, I resigned myself cheerfully, and followed his lead to the great projecting rock called the Glacier Point, or Pal-li-li-ma, where I had first seen him, and where there are still traces of ancient glaciers, which he said “are no doubt the instruments the Almighty used in the formation of this valley.”

As we proceeded slowly and carefully, my thoughts dwelt with deep interest on the individual in advance of me. Truly his garments had the tatterdemalion style of a Mad Tom. The waist of his trousers was eked out with a grass band; a long flowing sedge rush stuck in the solitary button-hole of his shirt, the sleeves of which were ragged and forlorn, and his shoes appeared to have known hard and troublous times. What if he had been, at some previous period, insane, and still retained the curious mania of believing that human beings might through righteousness float in ambient air? What if he should insist on our making the experiment this evening together? What would my husband say if he knew all, and saw me here committed to the sole care of this man with the beautiful countenance, and with no other guarantee, in a wilderness of mighty rocks, gigantic trees, and awful precipices, a hundred miles from anywhere! This was a very awkward thought to deal with, and there was no justification I could think of. What inconvenient but useful creatures husbands are sometimes! If we should go over the rocks together, of course there would he an “end of everything,” as Sir Peter Teazle says; but in case I should survive, and recount the whole matter to him, as I could not help doing, then he would upbraid me with riding off at the risk of my neck, on my favorite hobby-horse, Physiognomy.

But, in the course of conversation with my cicerone, I soon divined that his refinement was innate, his education collegiate, not only from his scientific treatment of his subject, but his correct English. Kenmuir, I decided in my mind, was a gentleman; and behind this bold rampart I resolved to intrench myself against the sarcastic tiltings of the Professor.

As we approached the point, Kenmuir said, with a gleeful laugh, “I do not intend to take you out on the overhanging rock, where I was standing, but to a very nice little corner, where you can sit your horse comfortably, unless you really want to dismount.”

I thanked him, and, smiling at the arch allusion, said I would remain seated. The scene from Pal-li-li-ma was a marvel of grandeur and sublimity, and fully warranted the lavish enthusiasm of my new friend. Around us vast mountains of granite arose one above another in stupendous proportions, and over them leaped the mighty cataracts with majestic sweep.

“These are the Lord’s fountains,” said Kenmuir, clasping his hands in the intensity of his delight, “and away up above, elevated amid clouds, are the crests of the God-like peaks covered with eternal snows. “These are the reservoirs whence He pours his floods to cheer the earth, to refresh man and beast, to lave every sedge and tiny moss; from those exalted pinnacles flow the source of life, and joy, and supreme bliss to millions of breathing things below; to the dreamy-eyed cattle that you see four thousand feet in the valley beneath us, standing knee-deep in the limpid pool; to the tiny insects that are skimming in ecstatic merriment around every glistening ribbon of water as it falls. Look! and see these silvery threads of water all hurrying down so swiftly, yet so gracefully, to bathe the upturned face of nature, and varnish with new brilliancy her enameled breast. Beyond is the Lord’s workshop. With these resistless glaciers he formed a royal road,—from the heights of the topmost Sierras which you now see covered with snow, roseate from the sun’s last beams,—into the valley at our feet. Yet all is lovely in form, and harmonious in color. Look at that ledge of rock—the hardest of granite—how exquisitely it is tapestried with helianthemum. Would you like a hunch?”

And before I could reply, the rash man had leapt down, and alighted like a bird on a perch, and grasped a bunch of ferns, which he stroked affectionately, and carefully stowed away in the grass cincture, whilst there was but a half foot of rock between him and “etarnity,” as the guide expressed it.


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