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It was a bright autumnal morning in the early part of November,—the season we call our Indian summer, and so richly prized in the Eastern States, partly because it is of a certainty the last bit of pleasant weather we shall have for six months to come, and partly because it is such a charming season in itself, combining all the tonic of invigoration with the pleasant warmth of comfort. It is indeed the perfection of atmospheric combination, as though it were a compromise between the heat of summer and the cold of winter, to produce a short spell of at least respectable weather, in order that humanity might stop grumbling for a while.
I was sitting in my husband’s study in Oakland engaged on some manuscript. The sun’s rays streamed in through the window, transmitting diamond-like lines from every lucent medium. It was now more than two years since we had visited the happy Valley of Ah-wah-nee; for although a correspondence had been kept up amongst us, and the Professor had intended returning there the following, and the present, year, yet his researches elsewhere had monopolized his leisure, and I had not, since my valley escapade, undertaken another solitary journey. The gorgeous coloring of some maples near the study window made my thoughts take a retrospective course to the Valley, and picture how beautiful it would look in its autumnal gala dress. I was interrupted by Martha opening the door, and turning, who should meet my gaze but Kenmuir. There was no mistaking his face anywhere, or I should not have known him in his broadcloth suit and white shirt front; but there, still holding its own, amidst the fashionable city dress, was the little mountain flower in his buttonhole.
I held out my hand with a glad welcome, and his old smile brightened his face; but I noticed that it had faded before he had taken the seat I offered him.
“I have come upon a melancholy errand,” he said; “Mrs. Naunton is seriously ill.”
“I feared so. Do you believe it is really consumption?”
“There can no longer be any doubt,” he answered. “She is wasted to a shadow, and for more than six weeks has not been able to walk about. Naunton keeps on repeating that she only wants strength; but she will never be strong again in this world, and I doubt if she has many weeks to remain with us. I fear she will go, as she often says herself, ‘with the snow-flakes,’ for in the Valley,” continued Kenmuir, running off into his beloved subject, “the snow does not drop down as in other places, but seems to be floating in the air in large flakes, like a cloud of white doves just let loose from the Almighty hand.”
“But when did the malady assume a serious form?” I interrupted.
“It is difficult to say. I presume it was one of those fatal cases from the beginning. She never seemed seriously ill, and never was to say perceptibly worse,—yet she is dying; and my message is, that she would like to see you once more before she goes; and if you can, you must get in before the storms commence, or the Valley will be snowed up, and the trail impassable. I have come to escort you in if you can decide to go without delay.”
“Poor thing!” I said, “it would grieve me deeply to refuse her dying request; and even at the risk of being snowed up in the Valley all win-ter, I must make the attempt to see her.”
Kenmuir held out his hand and shook mine. “God bless you!” he said. “I thought you had courage enough to do a noble act, and she is worthy of your sacrifice.”
“Indeed she is, and of ten times as much. I will go and speak to the Professor at once.”
My husband never exercised any authority over me in his life, and never opposed any project in which I even imagined I had a good object in view.
Thus the evening of the same day saw us en route, and the following morning we lost not a moment in taking horses at Mariposa. But as we ascended the mountain, the wind began to rise, and presently some heavy drops of rain denoted a storm. It was, however, too late to return, and we whipped on our mustangs in order to reach Galen’s Rancho before nightfall. The path was steep and rough, and with our best endeavors and willing animals we made but little way; whereas the storm came on with a rush and a vehemence that left us little hope of escaping its full rigor. Still we struggled on, till a gust of wind and hail nearly bore me from my saddle; and a flash of vivid lightning at the same time caused Kenmuir’s horse to shy, nearly throwing both steed and rider over a declivity some eight hundred feet in depth. We, therefore, decided to take shelter under a mighty hemlock, that would, at least, screen us from the heaviest of the rain and the keenest of the wind. We drew a thick California blanket over our heads and took patience. The roaring of the storm through the forest giants was terrific; the creaking and splitting of the boughs was like the screeching of demons in their agony. The bellowing of the thunder, peal on peal afar, and the mournful reverberation of the mountains, might have well represented the denunciation pronounced upon the fallen spirits.
Our horses quivered and started with every fresh explosion, and shook their heads under every new gust of rain and hail, which rattled on the broad leaves, that still clothed the forest, like rifle balls on a casemated fortress.
Close to us an immense oak was torn up by the roots, and fell with a tremendous crash that shook the mountain like an earthquake, carrying with it two or three handsome pines and spruces. So fearful was the uproar, and the whirl of hail and soil thrown up from the wide-spreading roots, that for a moment I thought the earth had given way beneath us and that we had been hurled into eternity.
I clung tightly to Kenmuir, for our horses swayed to and fro as though unable to keep their feet.
I was nearly terror stricken, but my companion threw up his arms in a paroxysm of enthusiastic reverence. “O, this is grand! this is magnificent! Listen to the voice of the Lord; how He speaks in the sublimity of his power and glory!”
“I declare I am frightened, Kenmuir,” I whispered.
“O, nonsense!” he cried, “there is nothing to be afraid of when the Lord manifests himself in his omnipotence.”
“Well, I don’t know,” I said, a little waggish humor taking possession of me. “Tam O’Shanter thought on such a night as this a child might understand—
“‘The deil had unco business on his hand.’”
“That was a drunken man’s fancy,” cried Kenmuir impatiently,—“the result of false teaching. If they would leave the devil out of their Sunday-school tracts they would make many a wiser and better man. By cultivating a fear of the devil they excite the lower faculties instead of the higher ones. They blind the young mind to the grandeur of the Lord by arousing his terrors of the prince of darkness. For my part I would not have missed seeing this marvelous physical phenomenon, this wondrous handling of these clashing elements in harmonial splendor: though I had to die next week, I should thank the Lord for permitting me to adore this new display of his universality.”
Presently the rain abated, and although the lightning flashed from pole to pole, and the thunder rolled like a mighty bombardment, the wind was not so fierce.
“We had better try and move on,” said Kenmuir, “lest you get a chill from standing in the cold.”
The horses went willingly, foreseeing a speedy termination to their troubles.
We had proceeded about a quarter of a mile when both horses backed and sprang round.
My heart stood still with fright.
A most unearthly wail rent the air and mingled with the rumble of distant thunder.
“That,” I cried, “is not the voice of the Lord. What under heaven is it? There it is again,” I added, growing cold with terror.
It was not the crash of trees, nor the yell of savage animals, but sounded like the wail of human creatures in anguish.
“Do not be alarmed,” cried Kenmuir, catching my bridle and turning my mustang round. “It is something human, for there is a fire ahead of us. Let us go on and see. It must be the Macbethian witches, or else ‘Auld Nick, in shape o’ beast, playing his pipes to the warlock dance.’ ”
We advanced two or three hundred yards on the road and turning a corner, we suddenly came upon a small plateau of greensward and pine straw, when a scene met our astonished gaze which might have dazed Tam O’Shanter. A number of semi-nude figures were dancing, and shrieking, and waving old rags, skins of animals, and eagles’ wings around an enormous blazing pyre, on which was a human body tied up in a bundle with knees and arms bound tightly above the breast; and as the motley group danced around they uttered the fearful wail which had so appalled us. As my eyes took in the diabolical scene I wondered if I still had my senses, or if, like poor Tam, my brain was playing me some wild phantasmagorical trick, so fearful was the sound and awful the sight. But Kenmuir pressed my arm and whispered,—
“It is an Indian funeral. They burn their dead, and this is the funeral coronach. They believe that the heart is the immortal part, and that when the body is consumed the heart wings its way to the everlasting hunting-grounds. There is, however, a peril of the evil spirit intercepting its journey, and the friends are therefore doing all in their power to distract his attention in order that the heart may effect its escape. And you observe they are casting on the pyre all his worldly goods, and many of their own most precious ornaments, as tributes of affection to their departed friend or relative; on the same principle as we, more civilized people, put fine clothes and jewels upon our dead,” continued Kenmuir with a slight sneer. “When the body is entirely consumed they will gather the ashes, and, mixing them with pine pitch, daub them over their faces and bodies as mourning, and wear them until they gradually drop off in the course of weeks or months.”
“How very dirty!” I exclaimed, involuntarily. “Do they never wash during that time?”
“Did the Jewish people not mourn in sackcloth and ashes?” asked Kenmuir, “and do you not cherish a lock of hair in your bosom, cut from a head that lies mouldering in some damp, beautiful nook, and helps to manure the flowers you plant upon it?”
“O, Kenmuir! how very matter of fact you are; in some things of earth earthy, whilst in others you are exalted to the seventh heaven.”
Feeling my nerves quite thrilled by the painful minor tones of the death-dirge which, savage or civilized, breaks from the over-charged human heart, I begged Kenmuir to proceed or we should be belated reaching Galen’s Rancho.
The rencontre with the burial of the poor Indian struck us both as ominous of the future we were about to meet.
Our thoughts brooded sadly over the gentle spirit fluttering on the verge of her funeral pyre in the once happy cottage of the Valley.
“You do not anticipate any immediate danger for Placida?” I asked fearfully.
“No, not within a few weeks, I hope; but hers is the only death I cannot bring myself to look upon with philosophy. Her life has been such a beautiful calm picture, like her name, without turbulence or disorder. She is the only person I ever knew who seemed to be ever with God and to lean upon Him. She reflected the purity and simplicity of celestial things, and truth and beauty are mirrored in her heart. She is the living soul of Naunton, and the spiritual life of his children.”
“What a blank, what a dearth she will leave behind her!”
“I should like to know why the Lord takes her,” resumed Kenmuir reflectively, as a humid glistening came over his clear blue eyes.
“He bath need of that delicate flower elsewhere,” I suggested.
“Yes,” said Kenmuir, grasping eagerly at the congenial idea; “He wants to plant her in a brighter vineyard even than this. The Lord has gardens of light of which these are mere reflections. He will not sacrifice so pure a blossom for the benefit of any of us: we are not worth it. I can easily understand that.”
“Poor little Cozy!” I said, “my compassion is most excited for her.” “And probably you will have to exercise it, as Placida will no doubt leave her to you as a legacy.”
Here we overtook Galen on the road; he, too, had been enjoying the storm, he said. He was carrying home on his sturdy black mule a fine deer he had just shot.
Next: Ah-wah-nee • Contents • Previous: Episode of a Kiss