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


It was about this time that a stranger made his appearance amongst us whose advent was to act upon our ménage and entourage, like acid poured into some alkaline liquid, setting us all into a ferment, fuss, and fume, and keeping our little community in this frothy excitement until each had accomplished his separate destiny in the drama,—until the curtain had fallen over the last act, and all was mute and still.

Yet this individual was in person the reverse of one adapted to fill such a role. He was no fire-eating, fiercely-bearded braggadocio, nor even the irrepressible man of wiry sinews, who never knows lassitude or reaction himself, and never permits any one near him to indulge in them. On the contrary, he was a quiet, elegant, undemonstrative young Englishman, whose femininely beautiful face took me captive from the first moment I beheld him; for in spite of my study of phrenology, physiognomy, and psychology, I am ashamed to say that I am frequently carried away by the more attractive claims of art, and my intense love of the beautiful.

The young stranger gratified these tastes to the full. His figure had reached that perfection of height—five feet ten—leaning more towards the Apollo than the Hercules; yet having withal a strength of grace and movement which was a constant and ever renewed pleasure to me to trace. His face was as fair as a woman’s, with rich clear tints of red and white, which the moist climate of Great Britain alone produces in perfection. His almond-shaped hazel eyes were mellowed by long dark lashes. The contour of the face was a perfect oval, and the mouth and chin rivaled the Autinous. There was just that shade of haughty sweetness that bespoke the English aristocrat,—an unconscious expression of power, with a benign simplicity and gentleness.

“I think he is the most beautiful, but not the handsomest, young man I have ever seen,” I imparted to the Professor, after narrating all these various points.

“Well, what of his phrenological aspect? You have only given me a highly colored picture à la Carlo Dolci.”

I plead guilty at once to having been carried away by his beauty rather than by a study of his mental types. “But I am sure he is amiable and good, he has such a sweet and dignified expression; such a face as makes one think of his mother, and imagine her the perfection of beauty and nobility. I am sure he had a splendid mother,—one of those glorious English gems set in a court frame, such as we saw at the Queen’s Drawing Room. Do you not remember the Duchess of Sutherland and the Hon. Mrs. Norton? Now I am quite certain he has had such a mother as that.”

“And there is no line or curve about him by which you could decipher the character of his grandmother?” said my husband, quizzing me as usual. “Whether, for instance, she was fond of pickles, or took snuff?”

I ought to tell, according to the strict laws of narration, where the individual in question, whom we knew by the name of Egremont, was born, where he came from last, what he came for, and every detail and particular concerning his business and motives. But the reader must remember that we lived in California, where strangers started up like mushrooms in the night, and were recognized next morning as belonging to the state of things: no questions asked, no curiosity excited.

A man might be a dethroned prince, or defaulting clerk,—an East India merchant, or a peddler; no one took the least hit more interest in him whether he was a Professor from Oxford, or a policeman from Ireland. It mattered not; we asked no questions, and wanted no lies.

If the stranger chanced to be too great a villain, and the too could be stretched a long way, Judge Lynch and the Vigilance Committee attended to him; and the same result was arrived at, whether he was born in a palace or a pot-house: too much villainy came to the same end in California.

So beyond hearing that our friend’s name was Egremont, guessing he was English by his complexion, that he was a gentleman by the polished case of his manner, that he had received a classical education from occasional sentences let fall, rather than paraded, in his conversation, we knew absolutely nothing of him: where he had sprung from, where going, or what doing.

But the latter was not very long enveloped in mystery, for it chanced that at this time I was working hard upon a manuscript of my husband’s, recopying it for the press, and for this purpose generally shut myself up in his study, where, one morning, Mr. Egremont, expecting to find the Professor, came suddenly upon me.

Glad of the interruption by so pleasant a visitor, I asked him to remain. In the course of conversation I spoke of the tediousness of copying.

“I quite enjoy it,” he said, “and if you would permit me to assist you it would be conferring a favor upon me, for I have ample leisure.”

He looked so bright and earnest, I could not doubt that his wish was sincere.

“I cannot understand your taste,” I said, “but I can appreciate the effects of it mightily, and shall take you at your word.”

Thus, from thenceforth he became our constant visitor, and worked with an assiduity very surprising. More and more the fascination of his high breeding, and richly stored mind, grew upon me; and if, as the poet says,—

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,”

I may here confess that his beautiful shadowless face was a constantly renewed enjoyment to me. Yet it set my science at naught. I learned nothing from it; it was like guessing at a picture; and no amount of study or scrutiny brought me to a decisive theory.

Then, as usual, I had recourse to my husband, for this is just a case where a husband comes in so useful; he is like a revised and corrected edition of one’s self, to which one can appeal with moderate safety.

“I wonder who he is, and where he comes from, and how he got here?” I said, stopping my husband between two strata of feldspar and granite, which he was marking out on a map.

“Who, where, my dear—the feldspar? I’ll tell you.” And he was going to commence three millions of years before the Biblical date of the Deluge; when I cut him short with a shake; for I knew if I allowed him to start on that explanation, the history would last on and off for three weeks.

“No, no,” I said, “I mean Mr. Egremont.”

“I really do not know, my dear, who he is, or where he comes from. Why do you ask especially? Do you know where any of your California friends come from, or who they are at home?”

“No,” I replied, “I should not trouble myself to inquire, but this young man seems very different.”

“I find them all different. There is scarcely a place in the world where you meet more unique specialties of humanity than in California. Every man has his own individuality, his own history, his own experience, more distinctly than in older countries, where men have been bred and born more in classes, and have lived under the same influences. Here, also, we have draughted to us the more peculiar characters, for it is not the commonplace, jog-trot people of any community who launch themselves into the terra incognita of California: it is the adventurous spirit, the energetic enterprising man, who believes in putting things through,—himself included; the robust, healthy individual of thews and sinews, who feels he has strength to move mountains, or groove under them; the reckless class that make a dash at anything; the exploring mind, ever seeking for new wonders in nature;”—

“That’s you,” I interrupted.

“The desperado to whom any new country is a neutral ground, for a time at least, where he cannot mar if he cannot make a fortune; the unfortunate, who have tried everything and succeeded in nothing, who have a positive faculty for failing in whatever they touch. Then there are the wretched, who fly

‘Anywhere, anywhere, out of the world!’

To them it is a refugium afflictorum, or they fancy so, which amounts to the same thing. Now when we have all these specialties forming an aggregate called society, I am surprised, my dear, that you should evince curiosity about any individual in particular.”

“O yes; but he does not belong to any class you have mentioned, and his character is no less a puzzle to me than his face.”

“Very well; then you find yourself right at home in your own sciences; you will have to make an analytical study of him.”

I have often wished that phrenology could be reduced to a positive test, like astronomy or geometry; that we could put the human brain into a crucible, as we would a metal, and weigh the residuum of pure gold from the dross; a cow has a large brain, but it is not fine working matter; or that we could determine the workings of the brain as we do the movements of the comets and heavenly bodies in time and space; or, as in chemistry, analyze the component parts of the vegetable kingdom, and determine how much poison lies hidden in the sweetest scents and most delicate colors of flowers. In mechanics we are still further advanced. We can make a piston work in a cylinder, and a crank to turn a wheel, with the greatest precision. We know what work it will produce, what pressure it will bear, and how long it will carry out its function. But of ourselves or neighbors, of psychology, phrenology, ethics, or metaphysics we know comparatively little. If we put a new screw to a bolt, we know it will work until it becomes worn and old. But we know nothing of whether the machinery of an infant will work until it is a grown man. We speculate and ponder over ourselves, and grope about in semi-twilight. We feel sick or what is called out of sorts,—a vague, indefinite, wretched suffering, we know not where it begins or ends. We attribute it, or some sapient friend does, to iced lemonade, or clam chowder. But how often have we experienced this miserable malaise when nothing of the sort has passed our lips.

Thus a man becomes depressed and melancholy, and is said to be in love,—how, or why, or wherefore, he knows not, nor does any one else. He swears truthfully, no doubt, that he must inevitably worship Lavinia to the last moment of his life, and feels sure he shall meet her in a blessed land after death. He does, or does not, marry Lavinia; it is not material, for in three months he is entirely cured,—Heaven knows how, for no one else knows; he does not himself, the psychologist does not, the moral philosopher can give no better reason than the veriest old granny.

If we know little about our interior selves, we know scarcely more about our exterior developments. Phrenology and physiognomy di-vide the head, leaving us floundering vaguely. Lines and rules, and excellent theories have been laid down and duly studied; but yet we have not reached the first practical principle of singling out a murderer from a martyr, a sinner from a saint. True, when a great criminal is arraigned at the bar of justice, we all go to look at him, and express our conviction that we should have easily divined what he was—that he bears it upon his countenance. Yet every day we trust our goods with those who rob us, and our affections with those who trample them under foot, and toss them adrift in scorn.

“Why did not Providence,” I said to my husband, “shape a man’s nose so that a woman could tell if he were true or false, as we can tell the breed of cattle by the shape of their horns, or the quality of a puppy-dog by the strength of his tail?”

“Obviously an oversight in the design of Providence, my dear,” said the Professor, gravely going on with his stratums.

From my babyhood my organ of causalty had been keenly engaged upon the human front divine. I used to take my little stool, and deliberately plant myself before every new visitor, and examine him with the widest eyes I could open. I noted with great exactitude the soft summer eyes, the cold wintry ones, and neutral eyes that said nothing at all; that one man had pink transparent nostrils, and another coarse hairy ditto. But my chances of kisses or bonbons rarely turned out ac-cording to my small theories.

Beautiful faces are the least to be relied on in man or woman. Whether the blaze of beauty acts like the sun, and dazzles the be-holder, or that we naturally associate truth and beauty together, it is certain that this problem leads the physiognomist astray as well as the rest of the world.

The most tender and beautiful eyes that ever looked on this earth were those of Beatrice Cenci, the parricide. Eugene Aram had an exquisitely refined and gentle countenance. Auburn hair is thought to denote jealousy, yet Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots were both sandy complexioned. The former was historically jealous, whilst the other displayed no such passion. Nero had a well-shaped face until he became too obese.

The beautiful face is therefore the most contradictory and bewitching to the student; like a “will-o’-the-wisp,” it lures but to betray. The lines falling into the perfection of beauty, what should they represent but the perfection of worth? And we most of us plunge headlong into this supposition, and scramble out at our leisure, with most of our theories fractured.

The rose-bud mouth, the “wee bit mou,” may close over a shameless frailty, as well as in the Fornarina. Is not that Adonis’ moulded chin the symmetrical exponent of a noble, delicate, susceptible character, the exterior model of a youthful chivalric soul? Look at those bluish-gray eyes, the perfection of color and shape, with their long silken lashes veiling their fire and sweetness: a seraph could not look more tender, and on his coral lip hangs the divine afflatus of a higher sphere; dignity is enthroned on his marble brow. The phrenologist and physiognomist mark him down as little inferior to the Angel Gabriel. “Possibly,” says the non-believer in science; “but I know that he is in the 10th Royal Lancers, and I’ll back him for consummate deviltry against any number of ‘ologies.’ “And nine times out of ten the man of the world is right, and science is wrong.

Thus, in spite of my savoir, I was as much at sea as regarded my new amanuensis as I always declared my husband to be about his antediluvian oceans which rolled over the tops of the highest sierras, and from whence the present volcanic cones poured forth their fiery breath like Vesuvius and Etna from the blue bosom of the Mediterranean.

I am rather fond of a standing mystery upon which I can turn the sluices of imagination when I am at leisure. It is pleasant to have some inscrutable thing to ponder over; but of leisure I did not long have the enjoyment, for Zanita was to return from the convent for the holidays, and, if we found her sufficiently tamed, she was then to remain at home and study for the stage, should the early promise she had given of marked dramatic talent still evince itself.

Thus it fell out that one morning, while engaged with Mr. Egremont in my husband’s study, the door was flung open with a bang, and Zanita presented herself backward, leading by the hook of her parasol two of my prime Muscovy ducks yoked together by her rosary twisted around their handsome green throats. Leda and her swans might have been sublime, but Zanita with her qua’-qua’-ing ducks was essentially ridiculous.

“Zanita!” I exclaimed, “you will strangle my pets; how can you be so mischievous?”

She turned and beheld a stranger, and for once I think regretted her freak. She would rather have appeared well to the handsome visitor; for a look flashed between them, as I introduced them, of undisguised, startled admiration.

Their eyes met with that glorious inter-commingling of soul which makes or mars in the hereafter either or both. I trembled as I witnessed this unexpected result, and my mouth became dry, as if preceding some imminent peril. The laugh caused by the ducks, which, poor things, still went waddling about the study, held together by the rosary, vanished; speech died away on my lips; a sensation of terrible anguish heightened the pulsation of my heart, and I was glad to send Zanita to take off her things, and Mr. Egremont to carry away the ducks to the yard whence Zanita had purloined them.

She had grown more beautiful than ever; her features had retained all their delicate symmetry, and her eyes were almost of unearthly splendor under the emotion; besides she had the beauté du liable, with all its indescribable loveliness, and I felt that unless I could turn her ambition and her beauty into some channel where it might have legitimate exercise, there was no calculating the calamities it might bring upon her.

Here was a commencement before she had been five minutes in the house. Those two, if thrown together, would inevitably make love to each other, and although he was charming, yet he might be a murderer for all we knew.

I concluded to drop my copying for the present; I was the more satisfied of the wisdom of this decision when I regarded how much I would be engaged with Zanita.

When I explained this intention to Egremont, thanking him warmly for the great assistance he had rendered me, the hot color mounted to his face in wave after wave, as though he had clearly divined every thought of my mind for the last half hour, and was ineffably pained by it.

A sad, pitiful look of reproach came into his eyes as of a child that had been wrongfully blamed. I felt my heart relenting, and a strong desire to trust him arising. Could I have spoken openly to him, and told him exactly my fears, I felt that I might have relied upon his honor, not to make or take any advance to or from Zanita. But what had I to rest my observations upon,—a single glance,—for not a word had passed between them.

I begged him to stay and dine with us as usual, and added that he must not believe that because I did not accept his further services that I should not be happy to see him at any moment of leisure.

I took him somewhat into my confidence, however, as regarded Zanita, her singular character, and my anxiety that she would turn out a genius for tragedy.

“Would you not fear the exposure of so much beauty to the temptations of a stage life?” he asked, keeping his eyes fixed upon the manuscript.

“No,” I replied, “not if the love of her art became the ruling passion, as I think it would if she adopted it at all. I think she would glory in taking a leading position, and swaying a mimic world. I do not think that Zanita would be tempted out of her own course, whatever that might be. She is possessed of a super-abundance of power and talent, which I am anxious to throw into some safe channel; or she will assuredly fritter it away in an unworthy one. I would rather have her a Lady Macbeth on the boards than play the character in actual life. Her vivid imagination and vehement will must have a vent and course to deploy themselves, or they will revert upon herself and prove her destruction. Had she been brought up like her sister in the Valley, I am convinced that ere this she would have broken her own neck, or some one’s else, for she was no respecter or life in man or beast, and least of all her own. I believe the good nuns have done all that is possible to do for her in guiding and training her wild and brilliant nature. But no education can fully subdue a spirit as recklessly daring, as wily and defiant as hers. Force of example, and propitious circumstances have done more than any amount of argument, reasoning, threatening, or coaxing could do; and yet you see her first impulse is not of affection to run to me, her only mother, and caress me, but to capture my pet poultry and torment them.”

I noticed the color mounting in Mr. Egremont’s clear complexion, as though the recurrence to the opening scene affected him unpleasantly, and the impression dawned upon him that she was not the most amiable character in the world. A mental resolve seemed to register itself, that he would not yield to the fierce fascination which had just beset him, as he intuitively perceived that it would be a laiser magesté toward me.

I felt inclined to stroke the beautiful soft face, and say, “Pray keep that resolution for my sake, for your own, for hers.” But the words remained on my lips unspoken. Alas, why we do not follow our impulses! Half of them, at least, if attended to would save us many an hour’s sorrow, and often avert fearful catastrophes. Children listen to their instinctive feelings, and rarely break their little necks, though a thousand dangers beset them. Animals follow their natural impulses and rarely go astray. What is that second self in us, which is swifter than our reason, and wiser than our educated faculties,—that sees without knowledge, and hears without a sound?

But the time went by, and the lost opportunity never returns. Resuming the conversation, I said,—

“The danger for a woman on the stage, I apprehend, arises from three causes: her poverty and isolation from her family and natural protectors; her heart sensibilities more exposed to be excited; and the temptation to her vanity,—the latter being the most perilous perhaps of any. Most actresses succumb from their inability to sustain the ordeal of hard work, poverty, and disappointment, which usually attends their early career on the stage. These Zanita would not have to submit to, as I should never leave her, and she would only appear as a prima donna débutante. As to her affections, I do not think she possesses enough of them to be under their control. Love, I do not believe will ever be her passion; nor vanity, the great yawning gulf which swallows up the fairest and brightest of womankind. She cares neither for dress nor gew-gaws, nor parade nor display. She would as soon go to a fête in her old garden hat as in the finest feathers of San Francisco. Frequently I have to leave her at home at the last minute, when she appears with her ink-soiled dress all in tatters as usual, thinking to accompany me down Montgomery Street, where she would hold up her head among all the overdressed belles, without an idea that she was not as comely as they.”

“And perhaps she is right,” said Egremont; “‘beauty unadorned,’ you know.”

“There is some truth in that, but I do not think beauty disheveled in dirt, quite applies. And yet I have seen ‘Mad Tom’ played when the actor looked much handsomer in his rags than in his velvet and satin robes.”

But few women believe that, and however prepossessing one is, she will endeavor to improve herself by certain fixings; and falls into the error that the more expensive those “fixings” are the more they improve her appearance. She cannot understand that rubies are not more becoming than roses, or pearls than lilies; and thus to gratify her vanity she will sacrifice the real gems of her nature. But such a girl is not Zanita. If she were given a diamond necklace as a temptation, the donor would probably have the mortification of seeing her wear it wrong side out by mistake.

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