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


The moon was just at her second rising above the Sentinel; it was a waning moon, which makes the commonest things of earth look unearthly. She cast a weird light over the north dome and royal arches; and the manzanita, which cluster upon it, looked like the cavernous entrance to some enchanted castle or hobgoblin’s cave—every dark archway was deeper and more unfathomable; and the round white dome, shining distinct in the bright light, completed the hallucination that this rock was some vast fortress of midnight ghouls and uncanny spirits.

Now and again we heard the sharp yelp of a wandering coyote as he prowled in search of prey. When we entered on the wooded rocky path, unearthly figures seemed starting out of every projecting rock, or half concealing themselves behind the trunks of trees; so strong was the impression of my dream upon me, that I could not deter myself from riding around the strange objects to ascertain really what they might be. The charred trunks of trees presented the most hideous spectres to my distracted fancy; and when a deep guttural sound reached my ears, I grasped my husband’s arm with fright.

“It is only a bear,” he said; “he will not molest us: do not be alarmed. I have my revolver in case of need.” It was a relief to know it was anything so near humanity as a bear, for they rarely take the offensive, and generally run away when attacked.

I was fast losing my self-control. As we trod the steep rocky trail leading to the miniature lake, it seemed peopled with strange fantastic figures, which the water in the early summer had hidden from view, or only partially revealed, but now were left bare in the dry season: they were grotesque limbs of trees and rocks, scored deeply by the water at its various heights. The horses’ hoofs sounded hollow as though passing over some subterranean world, and sent a dismal reverberation to the vast tower of See-wahlum, which marks the entrance to the Mirror Lake.

As I knew the trail better than my husband, I had gone in advance, it not being wide enough to admit of two abreast. My attention was directed to the careful guiding of my horse down a difficult bit of road over a slope of flat rock, down which he had to slide. As we turned the corner of the great portal into the mighty coliseum of granite mountains, the arena of which is the brightest Mirror Lake, set in, as it were, to reflect the whole, I expected to see it as I had done so often, with the dome of Tis-sa-ack reflected, and the brother peaks of Tocoyae, Hunto, and the smaller tower See-wahlum, communing together deep in the bowels of the earth, all nodding gravely with each ripple, like a state cabinet in solemn conclave on the affairs of the upper world.

As I turned the corner, I raised my eyes, and the whole view of the lake was before me. I uttered a piercing cry, which the five echoes took up, and heralded around; shrieking from cliff to cliff, from tower to dome.

“As though the fiends from heaven that fell
Had pealed their banner cry of hell.”

For there was my dream revealed in stern reality before me; there was the shadow of the great mountains bending their giant heads together, and there lay Zanita stretched on the mirror, the centre figure.

There was scarce a ripple on the lake, the silver sheen of the waning moon played over its surface and mingled with the folds of the white robe which lay floating upon it. The face was like whitest chiseled marble, framed in the dark locks which waved loosely around, and fell in long silky meshes over her bosom. She looked like a lovely picture on a silver disk, set in the depths of some bottomless gulf. Her hands were by her side, and her delicate taper fingers interlaced with the water, as if she were playing with quicksilver. Her eyes were closed, and the penciled eyebrows made a stern line across her Olympian brow. There was an expression of firm endurance about the small mouth which had never deigned to complain.

Long ere my eye had taken in all this, my husband had thrown his strong arm round to support me on my saddle; and we sat together gazing down upon her mute and motionless. All hope and all action were at an end; Death had held her for hours in his icy clasp. Calm, placid, and beautiful, around her the mighty death watchers towered up solemn and mournful in the melancholy moonlight; underneath them, as she floated on the silver sheen, the stars shone out in the deepest blue, and her home seemed bright down there.

The water of the lake had fallen perceptibly, having a broad band of white sand, which gleamed in the pale light like polished ivory, making a framework for the green fringe of willows that bordered the lake.

I felt stupefied and palsied at the discovery, and as though all energy of motion had suddenly left me. I had no wish to touch or move the phantom-like scene. It seemed as though my life and the world were come to an end, and that all was consummated; my whole soul and faculties seemed entranced in my gaze. I felt no poignant grief or violent sorrow. I had no sudden burst of anguish, of dread, of regret, or of horror. It seemed as though I had become perfectly resigned to all that had transpired, and had no aspirations beyond. I was in close unison with the placid melancholy of the waning moon,—still, cold, and death-like.

How long we sat our horses in this way I know not, my husband holding me softly to his breast. He knew well the condition of my over-wrought system and brain, and knew best what to do. Presently I was roused by his saying,—

“Isn’t that Kenmuir and Naunton?”

I lifted my eyes for the first time from the scene; and followed where he pointed to the sloping shoulder of Tis-sa-ack. We could descry the figures. The Professor waved his handkerchief, and they returned the signal; but they could hardly have discovered what lay in the lake.

“He had better see her thus,” I said; and my husband raised his voice, and shouted, “Come here!”

The echo answered in sepulchral tone, “Here!” and a second cried pitifully, “Here!” and a third more mournfully, “Here!” and a mocking sigh, as from distant regions, echoed, “Here!”

I shuddered, and looked again in the lake, where the tall bowing heads of the mountains pointed to the figure that floated on the centre. “Here!” they seemed to say,—“here is our child, the daughter of Ahwah-nee, returned to her native home.” Again I shuddered, and looked up to Tis-sa-ack. They had seen it all. Naunton stood with his face buried in his hands; he was not fascinated as I was: the grandeur and immensity of death overcame him. Kenmuir was urging the descent; a few yards before him, my practiced woman’s eye lit upon something that was not a shimmering moonbeam playing on pulverized granite; it was a strip of soft mull muslin; it hung and fluttered from a contorted bough of chaparral, and then I knew how it had happened: from thence she had fallen, and was dead before she reached the water. All this I knew, but said it not; we sat still again for another half hour, till the crackling of the branches announced the arrival of the two men, when I heard the convulsed sob of Mr. Naunton. It seemed to nerve me into life again, and an acute sympathetic pain grappled my heart. I jumped from my horse and approached him.

“Ah! don’t leave her thus,” he moaned.

“See,” I said, “look how beautiful she is; this is not death as we regard it; it is only a change as the oak-leaves change, and the ferns are golden, and the water dried into silver sand. The child of the mountain! See how she sleeps in her cradle of glory.”

But he could not raise his head then, and never more, for the mountain tops never again saw his brilliant eyes, or the heavens his upturned face.

“Come away, then, and they will bring her.” I led him by the arm, and we mounted our horses and rode away.

Kenmuir had not spoken; but I noticed that the fixed dark expression was still on his face, which the dusky light made almost ghastly.

We paced home slowly and in silence; dumbness seemed to possess us all, and reign over every other emotion. It might have been the shock, or the peculiarity of the circumstances, or that the tenderest passion of love was not awakened by the elf-like child. It was more a mystic entrancement than tender affection. No heart-wrung cry of sorrow was heard from any one, and I felt that the scene was too appalling and grand to weep over. I thought Rosie would be the one to cry aloud.

As we passed Kenmuir’s cabin I noticed Ah Chow sitting on the step almost smothered in a whole bolt of white calico which I had brought from San Francisco for sheeting. I gazed with stolid wonderment upon him. Surely, I was getting light headed! What could the man mean by unfolding my bolt of calico? Uncertain if I saw aright, I jumped off my horse and approached him. He pointed mysteriously toward the door with his thumb.

“Missy Rossy muchee sorry!”

By degrees I comprehended that it required “muchee” calico to make mourning according to Chinese fashion. Somewhat relieved as to my own state of mind I stepped into the hut, and there lay our Rosie half seated, half extended on the bier, her long fair curls bestrewing the cold immovable face of the dead. I put my arms around her.

“Come, dear little one, come home with me!”

She arose mechanically without uttering a sound, and passed out with me. Ah Chow stood aside hesitating with the funeral calico. I shook my head to forbid any demonstration, and he submitted with that patience peculiar to Asiatics.

As Rosie did not make any inquiries as to our success in finding her sister, I resolved to withhold the terrible truth from her as long as possible. When she arrived at the house she threw herself upon the divan and buried her face as before.

I went in search of Horseshoe-Bill to send him to meet my husband and Kenmuir. I soon heard his voice in high confabulation with Mrs. Nell and Mophead, who were helping him with his joinering.

“I can’t see no manner of use in putting of him in two coffins: he can’t want a Sunday and a week-day suit. He has nothin’ to do but lie there until the trumpet rouses him up at the last day, and I suppose the Almighty’ll attend to finding his missing pieces, as He does for other folks. I don’t see no difference with this.”

“It is my opinion,” said Methley, “that he ought to be buried with military honor; for the decoration I found is similar to those I saw worn by high officers on board the Bellerophon.

“O, you dry up with your millingtary blesserings. He’s just one of your British adventurers as come over here a-swindling of honest folk with their titles and foldermirigs. I make no count on ’em, nohow! I’d jest bury him like other folks. Wall! I reckon he’ll have to be sent home to his folks in England, and he’ll need more nor one coffin to keep him all there. I reckon he’s a right to that, for he forked me out ten dollars when I brought him in here,” said Bill.

“Ah, I guess you know which side your bread is buttered; but I guess it’s as likely he’s not left directions for the superior ’commodation o’ two coffins to be paid for.”

“You bet your life he has!” responded Bill.

I notified my presence, and explained in a few brief words the misfortune which had befallen Zanita.

“Well, well!” cried Bill, passing his sleeve over his face ostensibly to dry the perspiration, but really to wipe the tears from his eyes,—“I’d a backed that young’un against a thousand dollars never to have missed her footing. What could have ailed her? She must have been off her feet.”

‘There!” broke in Nell, triumphantly projecting her front tooth,—“there! did I tell you or did I not? I guess I don’t say much as isn’t gospel! When I see her ghost come a-flyin’ and a-callin’ for help through the Upper Valley, I knew how as she was burglariously murdered, and I’d as lief bet a cinnamon bear-skin against a cent that this here Britisher, with his jewels and hifalutin airs and ’commodation of two coffins, is at the bottom of it.”

We all stared at Nell in horrified silence. I felt the tight grip on my heart again and my breath coming heavily. More horrors! never to cease accumulating in this memorable twenty-four hours.

“I did hear ’em a pitchin’ into each other right smart one day when I was fishin’ down below the Po-ho-no Falls,” said Bill. “Darn me! if he didn’t jest rear and tear like a real lunatic; and she kept on a jeering and a spiting him. Then I thought I’d better he on hand to see fair play for Miss Zany, if he should think o’ layin’ hands on a woman. There’s no tellin’ what them furriners ’ill do. Now I wish I’d been on hand day ’fore yesterday. I don’t believe in her falling down there.”

I turned away faint with this new suspicion. Old Methley followed me sympathetically, and shaking his great mop like a good-natured lion tried to console me.

“We must not lightly cast suspicion upon a distinguished member of a friendly power like Great Britain. Of course if he had survived we should doubtless have been under the necessity of confining him in my castle, and I should have posted myself as honorary guard until everything had been cleared up—as it was thought fit to do with the Great Napoleon at St. Helena, just to keep him out of mischief. But now that he is dead I would not dishonor his grave.”

“But supposing he were alive,” I said faintly, “would you think he had something to do with Zanita’s death?”

“I should say that he pushed her over the shoulder of Tis-sa-ack in a fit of passion.”

“Good God!” I ejaculated. “How, then, do you now account for his death?”

“Suicide,” replied my companion, deliberately; “suicide, madam. You remember some little time ago,” continued Methuselah, falling back on his memory some fifty years,—“the British Prime Minister, Lord Castlereagh, whom Byron satirized as ‘Carotid Artery-cutting Castlereagh?’”—

My heart was too riven with anguish to enter into the discussion, and he continued,— “But I would bury him with honors if he cannot be sent home to his friends.”

“What!” I said, anxious to put to the test he suspicion he had expressed,—“would you confer honor upon one whom you believe to be a murderer and a suicide?”

“We do not know for certain that he is, madam; but the suppositions are strong, that having been seen last together alive and found dead apart, that they did not each fall from a separate rock by accident. And no mountaineer will believe that our young Vestal of Tis-sa-ack fell from her high altar, or that she flung up her young life willingly. Her father, for one, will never believe she fell by accident. On the other hand, this British stranger going alone to such a narrow slip of projecting rock as ‘Glacier Point,’ and falling therefrom, after parting with his sweet-heart, indicates suicide. You know best, madam, if he had any motive for committing this damned deed?” cried the old man, excitedly.

I dared not answer the question. The uncontrollable vehemence Egremont had shown when last speaking of Zanita rose to my memory and kept me silent.

Methuselah, with delicate perception, changed the subject.

“How is poor Naunton?” he said. “How does he bear it?”

“I greatly fear it maybe his death,” I said. “He does not seem able to endure deep grief.”

“Some of us are not,” he replied. “It kills the soul if not the body. Seventy-five years ago I was a young man and wooed a young girl. We kept company in New England fashion,—became one life, one heart, and one soul. Well! she died. She went away, and took with her that part of my soul which she alone possessed; and here I stand alone, and have never been the same man since and never shall be again!” sighed old Mophead, “for I am getting old. I’ve never been the same man this seventy-five years.”

Mr. Naunton was still in his room, and as I received no answer to my knock I judged it better to leave him to himself.

Fortunately when the sad cortège arrived we were able to bear the poor girl to her own little room without the knowledge of father or daughter.

“I guess I’ll fix her up an elegant corpse!” cried Nell. “It would be real mean to bury her as you did her mother!”

“I don’t think her father will allow her to be touched, but you can ask him.”

“What! bury her in them sink-rags? Well, if he isn’t a queer cuss, you bet your life! He’s as contrairy as Dick’s hatband, as went nine times round and wouldn’t tic! I guess we’ll have a right-smart time with him afore we get her buried, anyhow! As to t’other,” she continued, wagging her head in the direction of the cabin,—“I make no account of fixin’ a corpse that’s mashed up like hog’s head cheese. He’ll he all right if he gets his two coffins. It’s all them Britishers cares for!”

The “smart time” prophesied by Nell soon came about, for al-though Oswald Naunton was not violent as he had been at the death of his wife, yet grief had transformed him into a different man. He remained shut up in his own room, refusing sympathy, and food, and conversation on any point.

I was anxious to know where he would like his child buried, and if Egremont was to be laid alongside,—awaiting instructions from his friends. After many ineffectual efforts, I succeeded in procuring the laconic direction,—

“Bury her with her mother!”

“And Mr. Egremont—shall we lay him by her side?”

“No! Curse him!” thundered Naunton, rising and pacing the room with long strides. “Pitch him into the deepest pool in the river! Burn him on the top of the highest mountain, and cast his ashes to the winds! Fling him over the Po-ho-no Fall! Cast him into hellfire forever!” shrieked the wretched father. “My child! my beautiful child!”—and he covered his face with his hands and moaned aloud.

It was useless to offer words of consolation. The conclusion his mind had arrived at was evidently that of Nell and Methley,—the terrible one that his child had been murdered by the English stranger, and the anguish and horror of the thought was driving him mad. There was no comfort for him but time.

From the father I went to the daughter, and, to my surprise, found her in eager conversation with Kenmuir, the latter half supporting her with his arm. They were gazing into each other’s eyes with the same appalled expression of dismay I had noticed from the first, as though they had seen some fearful spectre which froze up every other emotion. They became silent as I approached, as though they had resolved to spare me the vision, whatever it might he. It could not be the same idea as the father’s, or Rosie would never have spent the night by her dead lover, had she believed him to be the murderer of her sister.

I next sought my husband, my refuge under every emergency; for I was fast losing my presence of mind in this rush of inscrutable events.

“Dear John,” I said, “is not the mystery of this tragedy terribly crushing? I feel almost overpowered by it. What is the suspicion which is transfixing poor Rosie and Kenmuir with horror? Do you know?”

“Yes,” he replied; “and if you feel that you can bear it, I will tell you all about it. But mind I do not agree with the hypothesis, nor still less with that of Mr. Naunton. I do not agree with any of them. I take a different view altogether.” He always did take a different view of every-thing from every one.

“We met the two Indians,” continued the Professor, “whom Radd was bringing in. Mu-wah is nearly out of his senses with some great fear which has seized upon him, and is altogether incoherent. His companion corroborates with a nod and a grunt every incongruity that Muwah asserts.”

“What do they say?” I broke in impatiently.

“I am coming to that, my dear. In substance nothing more than that they saw Zanita and a white man out on Palel-lima, or Glacier Point. ‘They muchee talkee,’ which means they were disputing, I suppose.”

“Good heavens,” I exclaimed, “surely she never pushed him over?” And I seized my husband by both arms, in my eagerness to bring out the fatal secret.

“Be calm, my dear. I made that stipulation with you, you know. Rosie and Kenmuir suspect what you have just intimated. Of course without premeditation, but they think that she gave him a push in her impulsive, fierce, bitter way. A very slight push would send a man backwards from that point.”

“Fearful, fearful!” and a rush of tears came to my relief.

“But,” continued the Professor, “Radd says that there are man’s foot-prints leaving the point; and the Indians are rather confused in a statement that they saw them upon the Mono trail. Now my impression is, that Zanita had been in one of her aggravating moods; that she had taken him to Glacier Point to show him the ‘kingdom of the earth,’ which he might possess if he wedded her, and subsequently carried him on to Tis-sa-ack; that there she ventured to the very brink for the sole purpose of tormenting him; that he, under terrible fear, had at-tempted to withhold her,—the most fatal thing he could do under the circumstances; that she, in defiance, and scorning his help, had missed her footing and pitched headlong over the brow of Tis-sa-ack. The piece of her dress hanging on the bushes denotes she has fallen, and I do not for one moment entertain the idea that Egremont has murdered her. If you will think of it, my dear, such a thing is not at all compatible with his character.”

“Well, then, who has murdered him?” I said, repeating the word inadvertently.

“I do not see any grounds for the supposition that he was murdered,” reasoned the Professor; “that is where all draw illogical deductions. It in no way follows as an inevitable sequence that because a man is found dead in the cleft of a rock a few thousand feet below a platform, upon which he was last seen alive, that he has been murdered.”

“Then you think, like Methley, that he committed suicide?” I cried, becoming every moment more confused in my ideas.

“No! certainly not: why suicide? He had sought Rosie’s affection, and obtained it. He did not care for Zanita, who was the obstacle, and she is suddenly removed from his path. Why should he destroy himself? The thing is preposterous. Why is it that human nature ever de-lights to duplicate horrors? Don’t you see, my dear, that when the rash girl fell from his grasp he could not follow her; but had to retrace his steps at his greatest speed, under the utmost excitement and anguish, to seek for help in the Valley. Mechanically he would retrace the track she had brought him. He would come round that sharp curve onto that dizzy height unexpectedly, and at a random speed; would suddenly perceive the danger of his position, launched, as it were, between earth and heaven. His brain would reel, vertigo would ensue; he would over-balance, and have passed into eternity in less space of time than it has taken me to describe it. Few mountaineers would walk out upon that narrow projection of rock without nerving themselves for the feat; even Kenmuir would not run out upon it; and for a person unaccustomed to mountain heights to rush upon it without warning, and in a great state of mental excitement, every nerve and muscle strained to the highest tension of haste and suspense, would obviously result in certain destruction.”

“Then you believe it to be a series of accidents happening in a sort of sequence?”

“Unquestionably, to my mind accident is the solution of the whole terrible affair,” replied the Professor.

I cannot say that this view of the matter thoroughly convinced me; or that I quite coincided with Kenmuir or Methley; my mind remained in an undecided neutral condition, more painful to the nerves than any positive conviction. For the mind accustoms itself to the most painful catastrophes; but uncertainty goads like an open sore that heals not.

My poor Zanita, without being “fixed up,” was laid, embalmed only in our pity, beside her mother,—her father, Rosie, and Kenmuir declining to attend the funeral, although, as I well knew, from different motives: the former, because he could not bear to look upon his grief; and the other two, because they did not dare that others should witness their want of it.

Poor Rosie shut up her gentle soul within herself, and seemed to have no confidence to impart the dreadful secret that had darkened her young life to any one but Kenmuir, who shared it with her. Mr. Naunton kept his room, and was unapproachable to my husband, myself, or any one, and after the funeral I felt that I had no longer any mission in the Valley. Old Methuselah had taken possession of the double coffin with the remains of the mysterious Egremont, and had hidden it away from the father’s vengeance in one of the moss-clad grottoes in the rocks, a natural mausoleum, where it may remain to the present day, for we never were able to discover his relatives, or any one who knew him more than casually.

He had appeared as a mystery, and so remained to the end, and was one of a class of the extraordinary characters which may be met every day in California. He might have been a prince who had forfeited his principality, or the son of a princess who had made disgrace his portion, or a murderer, or an escaped felon: we never knew more than that. He had the manners, breeding, and education of a gentleman, if not the principles.

But now the end had come, the past was irrevocable, and my husband sought by every means to divert my thoughts from dwelling upon it. We soon, therefore, took our farewell of the Valley of Ah-wah-nee forever.

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