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


The following morning, as had been agreed, I set out with Mr. Naunton to visit the double fall of the Mercede, where it makes its triumphal entry into the Valley by leaping a precipice of about four thousand feet.

The morning was bright and clear; the air exhilarating and bracing; and we cantered along briskly.

“I must take you,” said Mr. Naunton, “as you are a lover of physiology and psychology, and natural curiosities of all sorts, to see the ‘Man of the Mountain.’ Methuselah we call him; for, according to his recollection, he must have lived a century or so. His real name, I believe, is Methley; and he has lived in this singular formation in the granite mountain for fifteen years, without going outside the Valley; and sometimes has gone a twelvemonth together without speaking.”

“What an extraordinary character! Pray tell me more; he will make a charming study.”

“There are many different stories about him, and his motive for his singular seclusion. The Indians regard him as a great ‘Medicine man,’ and hold him in some awe and veneration for his great prowess and contempt for all danger. When the floods were in the Valley some years ago, and the water swept down from a hundred cataracts, and roared through the plain like a storm-lashed ocean; when immense trees were torn up and floated down like straws; when huge boulders came toppling over with the crash of an iceberg,—this man piloted himself on a log with a long stout sapling for an oar; and picked out from a watery grave some Indian children, and even animals which had been hemmed in by the flood before they could escape up the mountain. Powerful, skilled, and reckless of life, he is a wonderful man in time of danger.”

“And what is the secret of his life, that he hides it away here?—a kind of entombment before life is extinct.”

“Very much like that,” said my host, “for all he sees of humanity he might as well be buried. Disappointment, no doubt, is the poison he has sipped; perhaps in love, perhaps in ambition,—or both. Possibly, but not probably, in grief for some loved one, for a man rarely becomes a hermit in grief for another, but rather in pity and compassion for himself. A woman, like Niobe, may weep herself to stone; but a man shuts up his heart with a bitter resolve that grief shall never more enter there, even though he should exclude all joy with the same iron door.

“But here we are at his castle gate, and I must sound the horn to gain admittance or bring him forth. Do you see those two projecting rocks? between them is a cavern some ten or twenty feet in circumference, and that is his town residence. When he wishes for a change of air he mounts up by that staircase hewn in the rock, and there is another chamber which is fashioned by that huge boulder, which, having rolled so far, has settled upon those two projections, leaving even a loophole for a window, from which it is said that Methuselah shot a score of red men at a battue as they came in Indian file, dressed in their red paint and feathers, to scare him off their territory. They had no means of reaching him except by this path, for the river is deep and forms almost a moat round his castle, so that he could pick off his besiegers one by one, whilst he was inaccessible and his castle impregnable.

“Having established this salutary awe, peace was concluded between himself and the tribe of Payutes. That is many years ago,—before we came to settle in the Valley.”

“Halloa there, Methley!” he cried. “Halloa!” And presently some-thing peered from the aperture.

“Methley, how are you!” called Mr. Naunton.

“How’s your health?” replied a voice; and an object very like a white mop ascended about a yard. Then it rose another piece, repeating, “How’s your health?” and showed a human face lengthened out, and displayed the figure of a man with very white hair, and long beard. Giving himself a jerk, he rose another foot.

“Dear me,” I whispered, “how much higher is he going to rise? Is he a telescope, that shoots out a foot at a time?”

“Something on that principle,” replied my companion, with a merry twinkle in his eyes; “but he has not done yet.”

And the Man of the Mountain continued to hoist himself up in short lengths, hitching up his nether garments along with him, until he had reached the great height of six feet eleven, as I was afterwards told.

“Good-day, madam,” said the giant, coming forward with the air of a grand seigneur, without expressing the smallest surprise or embarrassment at the apparition of a strange lady, perhaps the first who had ever entered his domain.

“May I help you from your horse, and offer you some raspberries, and wine of my own vintage?”

I at once accepted the courteous invitation, and was led by my singular host into a very fine fruit garden, trim and in order, as any market gardener’s. Here were peaches, and gooseberries, and apples, and pears, and raspberries, all on the same gigantic scale as the proprietor.

“These are all my family,” he said, pointing to them. “These raspberries,” gathering me a large vine-leaf full, “are red Antwerps,—the best stock grown in New England. These gooseberries came from Old England, brought over by my ancestor. These strawberries were first cultivated by Martha Washington. This was Lafayette’s favorite pear, the Duchess d’Angoulême. They are not ripe yet, or I would ask you to pass your opinion upon them.”

Thus he chatted on, piling up fresh fruit before me, his conversation underlying two thirds of a century, which seemed to him but as yesterday.

“I should like to see the Duke of Wellington, if he should ever come over to this country. I should like to make his acquaintance.”

“He has been dead at least twenty years,” I exclaimed, involuntarily.

“I’m sorry to hear that; he is a man I have the greatest respect for. Lord Chatham is also a great man; if you have been in Europe, madam, you have doubtless met him.”

“I think,” I said, laughing, “he died some twenty years before I was born.”

“How very singular,” he observed. “How do you account for these great men dying so young?”

“The Duke of Wellington must have been over seventy,” I hazarded.

“Just so,” he answered; “the prime of life—the prime of life.” “They had not found the elixir for keeping young like you, Methley,” said Mr. Naunton.

“Now, Naunton, none of your jokes; you know I am growing old. I feel that my youth is past, madam, and age fast creeping on. I have to take care of myself, in fact, and indulge in certain luxuries which the young had better avoid.”

I looked at his raiment, and at his habitation, and could not help exchanging looks with Mr. Naunton, who seemed to relish the joke amazingly.

After we had satisfied ourselves with fruit, he conducted us to his castle. It consisted of a spacious apartment, if I may use the word for a place that could not be called a dungeon, not being underground, and scarcely a cavern; but yet I could believe that a grizzly bear, in good circumstances, might have a more comfortable lair. In one corner was heaped together on some logs a quantity of spruce branches, which formed his bed, the covering consisting of a wretched old cinnamon bear-skin. An old chair constructed from unhewn boughs of trees, and covered with sheep-skin for a seat; a tin plate and cup, a large jack-knife, a two-pronged fork, cut from Manzanita bush, a kettle, and a frying-pan, seemed to constitute the whole of the furniture of the room. The fireplace was outside, on account of there being no fissure in the rock to admit of a chimney; in a large iron pot he was baking a loaf, which he regretted was not sufficiently cooked for us to partake of with our wine,—which, I ought to have mentioned, was drawn from a large barrel which stood in the corner, and which was presented to me in a goblet without a foot, so that it had to be drained ere it could be set down. To think of a human being, much less an educated man like Methley, living for fifteen years alone in a crevice of the rock such as this, was to me the most melancholy thing conceivable; and my heart ached as I looked at the gaunt old Methuselah, with his still handsome features, and daring eye. I wondered what terrible misfortune, or cruel fatality, had driven him to this fifteen years of practical despair. I yearned to pour out sympathy over that poor white head, though it did look so like a mop!

Mr. Naunton noticing my pained expression, led the way to a conversation which he knew would bring the old man out in a humorous light. “When you have leisure, Methley, you must come up and see us whilst Mrs. Brown and the Professor are with us; you might step in on your way to the East.”

“I shall certainly make time for that visit,” he said, brightening up. “I am trying to make a holiday for myself to go to the East, madam; at a certain time of life, a man begins to want change.”

“That’s right,” put in Naunton; “and you are going to bring home that young lady with you. Well, give us timely warning, and we will meet you with wreaths of syringa, a good substitute for orange blossom, to deck the bride.”

“We shall see, we shall see,” rubbing his hands, like two old gnarled branches, together, and chuckling with delight; which goes to prove that even in this rugged old rock of humanity the sweet well of love could still spring up, and refresh the dried up ruin with a bliss fit for angels.

“Well, come and see us any way,” reiterated Mr. Naunton, and we rose to resume our journey.

“I wish some one would come and take care of him,” I said to my companion as we rode on.

“I question,” replied he meditatively, “whether any reality would now be as pleasant to him as the ideal he has cherished for the last sixty or seventy years. Once he did leave the Valley, giving us to understand that he should not return alone. However, when he resumed his old life he evinced no disappointment, and explained that he had seen so many ladies who more or less reached his beau ideal that he was obliged to take twelve months to decide amongst them. The ladies’ ages varied from sixteen to twenty.”

“But,” I argued, “he might be taken ill and die all alone without a creature to help him.”

“That, in all probability, he will do,” resumed Mr. Naunton philosophically. “But is that a misfortune? or is it worth while to regret the inevitable? A wife could not prevent his death, and at his time of life he is not likely to have a long sickness. For my part I think those who die alone are better off than such as have their death-beds surrounded by weeping and wailing friends.”

“How do you maintain that hypothesis,” I exclaimed.

“Firstly, because there are few who at the hour of death realize from their own sensations that they are dying, unless well versed in the symptoms, and die as they would go to sleep; whereas in long and fatal maladies persons are given frequent warnings by their friends in order that they may prepare themselves, as it is called, though how they are to prepare for the great unknown future is difficult to say; but in default of knowing how, the mind plunges into the vaguest unrealities of horrors and fears and intangible miseries. Their lives, if evil, rise like avenging furies goading them to coward words of repentance, which they feel comes too late, for deeds of restitution are rarely executed if life should be prolonged; whilst on the other hand those whose lives do not rise in judgment before them have their last moments harassed by the misery of those relatives who mourn their loss, which like all emotion is infectious, and the acuteness of sorrow is increased tenfold by the communicated sympathy of both parties. Death is very much what we choose to consider it. A dead child looks as sweet and pleasant as when asleep. I have seen scores of men shot through the heart or brain who suffered nothing in death, and it is so with most diseases. They suffer from the disease which carries death upon its fatal wings, but the death itself is painless; and except in a very few cases, the disease abates some hours before dissolution, and the parting of body and soul is calm and even pleasant. I have often seen persons pass away with a smile on their lips.”

“There is a great deal of truth in what you say,” I observed, “for I have often seen persons hastened out of the world by the agonizing thoughts suggested to them by injudicious and timorous friends, and the appalling thought of the mystic future kept constantly before their minds. Yet we remain in the hands of the Creator whether in the flesh or out of it, and his mercy is not of to-day or yesterday but endureth forever.”

“Therefore,” interrupted Mr. Naunton, resuming a gayer tone, “if no wife turns up, let the old man die in peace when the Lord shall call him.”

We had for some time been riding in the open meadows over a mosaic of nature’s choicest labors; but we now arrived where the river was fordable, and our horses made a decided halt to enjoy a cool draught of the limpid stream.

What rider has not known the pleasure of sitting on horseback in the midst of a clear stream or river watching the eddies over the rounded pebbles, calculating the amount of treasure it maybe hurrying down to the all absorbing ocean, and listened to the rich mellow sound of the horse drinking—slew-eesh, slew-eesh, slew-eesh? Whether it is sympathy with the dumb beast thus made happy for a moment and communicated back to me through his medium, or whether there is some intrinsic pleasure in the thing itself, I know not, but I never could urge my jennet across a stream without stopping to let her drink, if she wanted so to do.

After crossing we skirted the river as close as its serpentine course would admit,—the valley becoming every mile narrower until it merged into a ravine on whose rugged side a horse trail had been cut. The rock rose in gigantic tiers, bunch after bunch, crowned with the richest verdure, and tall pines, which nevertheless looked like mere twigs when seen from above or below, so exalted are the heights that sustain them. Masses of rock and huge boulders, some of them worn round by the action of the water, lay in chaotic confusion, as though the Titans had been at war across the ravine, or had playfully been trying to stone out the course of the river, which, just below so placid and tranquil, came roaring and foaming with a crash and a bound incredible in that erst meek and gentle stream. By degrees, as we ascended, the mountains interlaced, forming a deep dark cañon, through which only the silver thread of the Mercede caught the light; and now we could hear the thunder of the great Py-wy-ack echoed a thousand times from each separate niche and cavernous hollow, till the whole blent in a solemn roar like hoarse waves booming to the ocean’s shore.

No longer grassy green or silvery sheen in the moonlight enwrapping the glistening trout or caressing the smooth, white sand. It now bids defiance to the sternest scaurs and cliffs, strikes them as with an anvil, cleaves them apart in its headlong course, moulds their jagged points into polished roundness, dashes through the smallest fissures, and upheaves great mountains with its mighty strength; boils over from bottomless pits, and flings itself wildly from crag to crag, with a whoop and a clang that startle the stillness in the unsearched dome of Tis-sa-ack. Here it wrestles in a chasm of dark granite, and seems well-nigh overpowered and inclosed, never to sing its wild song again but in rumbling depths of the earth. But anon it has sent up a column of fleecy white foam, curving over the boundary wall, and is off again in its mad career to the valley below, where virgin lilies are awaiting its murmuring ripple, and merry buttercups its laughing kiss.

All the granite walls in the world cannot hinder it any more than wise saws can stay the youth in love. Days and weeks, and months and years, and centuries, aye, millions of centuries it has leaped those iron barriers, battering them with diamond spray of liquid hail, sharp and strong, and torn down the adamantine wall.

All this is only the prelude to the sweep of the huge cataract of the Py-wy-ack, which, seven hundred feet above, takes its triumphal leap, spurning the rocks behind it, and, spreading like a vast fan, casts itself over in a million tons of dazzling spray.

As we escaladed the dizzy height to the hanging head of the cataract, tethering our horses some distance below, a thin mist, like illusion tulle, enveloped us, together with the surrounding scenery,—like the nuptial veil suspended over the high altar whilst the sacred hymeneal rite is performed,—and when we emerged from its folds at the top, the whole scene was changed. A brilliant sunlight illumined the very depths of our emerald lake, without a ripple or movement upon its surface. Nevertheless, it silently fed that fierce Py-wy-ack, and was the mute cause of all this clamor and tumult. We approached the very brink of the fall and looked down upon the avalanche, leaning on a stone balustrade. We needed Kenmuir here to dilate upon the sumptuous glory of all around which steeped my every sense in silent beatitude: the music of the waters, the coloring of the sunset, the perfume of the syringa.

In rival towers on either side rose the lofty Tis-sa-ack and cone-shaped Tah-mah; and leaning its spiral head against the blue heavens loomed the Clouds’ Rest, well named by the Indians from the nebula which makes its home about it.

At our feet the cascade of diamonds gradually melted into a chain of twinkling gems, as it wound through the stern and rugged ravine we had just traversed; and the narrow opening was graced with the blood-red disk of the setting sun, looking in as through an oriel window of rock to take his evening farewell of the earth.

Then we turned, and through the gnarled boughs of the oak and cypress we could see the second cascade, the Nevada Fall, nine hundred feet above us, pouring out of a white fleecy cloud which hung right above and seemed to form a part of it, as though it fell from the very heavens an avalanche of eider-down clouds: so pure, so silky white was the gossamer foam which rolled in soft cadences with slow and graceful motion like the silver stars of rockets. So exquisitely symmetrical were the figures, descending in a single span from heaven to earth, that it might have been the realization of Jacob’s dream,—

“The ladder of light,
Which, crowded by angels unnumbered,
By Jacob was seen as he slumbered
Alone in the desert at night.”

There was so much of beauty above, below, and around that I said:—

“I shall feel quite bewildered unless I can have longer opportunity of gazing upon it and examining it at my leisure. A coup d’oeil is very unsatisfactory to me. To see a beautiful object once and away is nearly as bad as not seeing it at all.”

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