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


Often and often I had had long and intimate conversations with Mr. Egremont, for I ever found him intelligent and conversable; but he never let fall a syllable that could enlighten me as to himself, his past career, experience of life, or future projects. He was a moving mystery in every-day life. I once asked him if his mother was still alive. He answered, “No.” But the tone of his voice, the painful rush of color to his face, and the look of concentrated sorrow, made me eschew the subject for the future. Yet now that Zanita was come back to us it was the more dangerous that he should remain an habitué in our house.

The evening passed off pleasantly enough, considering the circumstances, for only myself had conceived alarm in the position. The Professor never could resist enjoying Zanita’s brilliant sallies upon the poor nuns whom she quizzed, and had evidently, according to her own showing, tormented most unmercifully. Egremont strove ill to conceal his admiration; but Zanita made no effort to hide how much he pleased her. I expected her to declare openly every minute in her old backwoods’ fashion, “I like you; I like you better than anybody!” But she said it with her eyes fifty times, and did so much mischief that I felt already in despair of fulfilling my position as guardian of her life’s drama.

“Well, Zanita,” said the Professor, “what was your last piece of mischief?”

And forthwith Zanita, thus encouraged, commenced,—“O, Professor! only fancy, I made all the nuns believe I was the devil got into the chapel right amongst them.”

“I suppose she was the nearest approach to it those good folk have ever had to do with,” said my husband, sotto voce, to me.

“How did you persuade them of that?” he continued, aloud. “I thought you had two vases of holy water at the door of your chapel for the express purpose of keeping him out?”

“So we have,” she laughed, “and I got it thrown all over me for my pains. I first contrived to steal one of the nun’s dresses and veil, leather girdle, and rosary, the whole paraphernalia, and dressed myself up in it. Then we have an old French sister named Xavier; she is terribly afraid of the diable, and is always making the sign of the cross to keep him off. In fact, I think she has a monomania on the point; for when she is sewing she lays her spools in the form of a cross, and when she peels potatoes she puts them cross-shape, all as preservatives against the evil one. She has a limp in her walk, is nearly hump-backed, and always wears a green shade, for she has weak eyes. I used to go behind her and imitate her walk. She has also a curious cracked voice, and speaks broken English. I could imitate her so well as to startle all the girls by crying out in her voice, Voici le diable! So I thought it would be capital fun to frighten all the nuns in chapel, when they got up in the middle of the night to go to matins. O, aunty! if you had seen me dressed you would never have known me, green shade and all; and I colored my face with coffee, and painted it in great wrinkles. The chapel is only lit by one dreary oil-lamp that time in the morning, and when the matin-bell rang I hobbled in the procession with the rest.

“Xavier is just my size, Mr. Egremont!” she said, casting upon him a brilliant glance which instantly produced a richer tint over his hand-some face.

“When all was so still you could have heard a pin drop, and the lamp, swung by four long chains from the arched and groined ceiling, cast flickering, uncertain shadows over the nuns all kneeling and bowed in meditation in their carved oaken stalls, with the caryatides and separations, which, I always fancied, look like spirits in purgatory doomed to bear that weight on their heads, but, by this dim light, seemed like so many demons trying to carry off the stalls, nuns and all. The subject of the meditation, I must tell you, was ‘Death, and the tortures of the damned.’”

“Surely,” cried Egremont, “they do not require you to meditate upon such an awful subject?”

“O no! the girls never attend this service—only nuns; we are all supposed to be asleep in our beds. Just when I thought all their imaginations had become thoroughly inflamed with the horrors of the infernal regions, I gave an awful shriek in the cracked voice of Soeur Xavier, sprang to my feet, and hobbled a pace or two to show off my limp, and threw myself on my face in the most violent contortions. O, you should have heard how they all screamed ‘Mon Dieu! Jesu Mariè! Joseph! Priez pour nous;’ and called on all the patron saints in the calendar before they could stop themselves. How the reverend mother, in that awful sepulchral voice of hers, commanded silence. But I yelled harder than ever, ’Le diable! le diable! he come emporter me! enlever me! yah-hi, yah-hi, I make one big sin; I no confess it, yah-hi! I put too much salt in the butter, the devil he take me. Him there! him here! Cheres soeurs, him blaze you all up on account of my sin!’

“The sisters had all rushed round me terrified, believing Soeur Xavier was at least possessed by the devil; some begging me to make an act of contrition; some saying the litany for the requiscent for me, and the few with presence of mind trying to quiet me and hold me still. One, thoroughly convinced of the satanic presence, rushed to the holy water and deluged me all over with it. I was terribly afraid my wrinkles would be washed off.”

“I wonder the devil didn’t really carry you off!” burst in Martha, who was coming to and fro in the room with the tea during the narration. “Sure, to be playing such a trick on them pious nuns as gets out of their warm beds to say prayers for such sinful minx as you, Miss Zanita! Why that’s worse nor choking the kitten and tickling my nose with its tail.”

Here Zanita gave one of her old sidelong glances of elfish delight. I verily believe the accomplishment of some torture to others was the only enjoyment she knew.

“Well, how did it end?” said the Professor, delighted with the vim of the story and the artistic talent with which it was narrated.

“Well,” continued Zanita, “in spite of all the writhing and floundering I could do, they carried me to Soeur Xavier’s cell.”

“Should a’ carried you to the pump,” ejaculated Martha, who was a devout Catholic.

“And,” continued Zanita, “they were putting me to bed when poor Xavier meekly put in, pray you please not put him in my bed; O, take him out pray, please!’ All turned to look at the real Xavier, who now made herself heard in her own meek person, when they had thought she was kicking in fits before them. I do not know what would have happened next; perhaps, taking me for the imp of darkness assuming poor Xavier’s form, they might have taken me to the pump or thrown me out of window.”

“Sarve you right,” said Martha.

“But the string gave way with which I had fastened on veil, bandeau, and green shade; and there I was, face and head exposed, with nothing but my coffee wrinkles left. I suppose I looked so odd that all the novices burst out laughing. Even Notre Mère, the lady superioress, you know, Mr. Egremont, who had been to the pharmacy for sal volatile, could scarcely keep a solemn face, and said, as she took me by the shoulder and marched me off to my own room, ‘Mademoiselle, vous repondrez au moi.’”

“Did you not get fearfully punished?” asked Mr. Egremont, whilst the Professor indulged in a loud laugh.

“O no,” replied Zanita, “they never punish there; that is the best of the dear old nuns. But I tell you, aunty, Soeur Dulcima talked to me about one thing, not scolding exactly or lecturing, until I felt as near like wishing I had not done it as I ever did in my life.”

“That must have been a feat of Soeur Dulcima,” I responded, dryly. “But if you can only personate Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, and Juliet as well as you did Sister Xavier, I shall forgive you as they did.”

“I would rather play Romeo a great deal. I never could be so mawkish as Juliet and Ophelia.”

“Do you think loving Romeo or Hamlet so absurd then?” said Egremont, making a desperate effort to look indifferent.

“No,” replied the girl with perfect sang-froid,—considering that this was her début conversation on love with any young man,—“but the manner of it is ridiculous.”

“Romeo, why art thou Romeo!” she mimicked to Egremont, whilst we none of us could restrain our laughter. I hastened to change the subject, not wishing her to enlighten him as to how she could make love after her own fashion.

After that evening Mr. Egremont rarely called; and my fears had partly given place to a pensive regret that I had been obliged to banish him from our society, and wishing on the whole that Zanita had not displayed such a decided fancy for him, or that she could be induced to restrain it within maidenly bounds, which I knew she would not. But, one day driving in Oakland, turning over these thoughts, the subject of them passed on the road before me. He did not perceive me, for there was a gloomy, wearied look on his face which never changed. There was something so graceful yet haughty about his carriage, that if I had seen him for the first time I must inevitably have fallen into speculation about him,—as I then did. The old conundrum proposed itself for solution. What could he be doing here? What brought him here? Did he really care about Zanita, and was he trying to live down the feeling without making any attempt to win her? I concluded that the latter was the case, for unless he had been self-conscious I had not said enough to drive him away in that sudden manner. Even the novelty of so beautiful and brilliant a girl as Zanita would naturally have been attractive to him. I was on my road to the ferry-boat to attend one of the Professor’s lectures in San Francisco. I had vainly urged Zanita to accompany me. She did not like lectures on scientific subjects,—the geology of the cañons least of all.

“I know it off by heart, aunty,” she pleaded. “Didn’t we go with the Professor when he found it all out?”

I therefore left her at home reading the life of Rachel, whom I al-ways fancied she resembled.

There was to be a late boat that evening, and the Professor and myself were to return by it after the lecture, which went off pleasantly,—as my husband’s lectures always did. Afterwards we went to the hotel with some friends, took some refreshments—as I had told Martha not to wait up,—and then returned all together by the ferry.

The moon shone brightly on the bay, drawing its wavelets in rippled silver, and performing marvels of masonry on Yerba Buena Island, in shadowy towers, and castles, and cathedrals, which seemed traceable like embers in a fire.

“I feel strangely nervous and almost superstitious to-night,” I said, passing my arm through my husband’s. “I fancy I can see the figure of Zanita clearly defined in the moonlight standing on that pinnacle of rock, just as I have seen her stand at the very brink of Eagle’s Nest or Pom-pom-passa.”

“I see it too, and it is something like her,” said the Professor.

“And there is Egremont rising up behind her,” I said, tracing out the figure, “and about to push her over.”

“I guess she’ll be first with him, there!” laughed the Professor. “But there, they have both disappeared,” as the boat veered round.

We parted with our friends at our own door. The Professor turned the key in the latch and pushed it open, and the whole passage was instantly flooded with moonlight. I lit the lamp, which had been left for us. I noticed the parlor door was partly open and the moonbeams slanting in. I went to close it, intending to go straight up-stairs to our room. I never can recall what impulse tempted me to look in, but my eyes rested upon a sight which instantly paralyzed my lips beyond the power to utter an exclamation. There, on the sofa, sat Zanita and Mr. Egremont encircled in each other’s arms, like two statues carved in stone. The moon’s rays, lying still over their placid faces, tinged them with the unearthly hue of two corpses, and showed their eyes, slightly open staring glassily. At this moment my husband appeared with the light: the vision changed at once and made them appear very much as though they had fallen comfortably asleep.

“Good heavens!” I exclaimed, recovering my breath. “What is the meaning of this, Mr. Egremont? Zanita, I am ashamed of you!”

But neither moved, though in my excitement I had spoken loud enough to rouse the “Seven Sleepers.” I was about to rush upon Zanita and remove her forcibly from her position when the Professor laid his hand on my shoulder.

“Stop! my dear. Be careful; there is something very curious about this. It is not ordinary sleep.” And he advanced and passed the light before their eyes. The lids never quivered, neither did the pupils move.

“My God!” I cried, with an awful dread stealing over me, “are they dead? My darling Zanita, speak one word!”

“They are not dead,” said my husband, “nor is it even a case of suspended animation,” feeling each pulse in turn. “Not sick,” he muttered, “either, for their color is quite fresh and natural.”

“Nor asleep,” I said, “unless they are both somnambulists!”

“They must be under the effect of some strong narcotic,” said my husband, “opium or hasheesh. Perhaps Martha can throw some light upon the matter. Where is she?” I ran up-stairs and awakened Martha.

“Do you know anything of Miss Zanita?”

“No, ma’am, unless she is asleep in bed. Why, is she lost again! Up in some other china closet, you bet!” suggested Martha, rubbing her eyes.

“Did you know Mr. Egremont was here?”

“No, I guess he’s not, leastwise not of my letting in; for he called soon after you was gone, and said as he would not come in, which he needn’t have troubled to, for I held the door in my hand and never budged an inch to let him pass; for I guess if I had Miss Zanita and he would soon have been up at some marlicks or other.”

“Martha, dress quickly and come down-stairs! Something very strange has happened to Miss Zanita.”

“I’d be more puzzled if it hadn’t,” responded Martha, hurrying on her things.

We found the Professor still experimenting upon the two statues, who sat rigid as though they had been frozen.

“Had we not better send for a doctor?” I suggested.

“I do not think it is a case for medical skill,” replied my husband; and he added, “it might cause a great deal of scandal.”

Martha declared she knew nothing of the event whatever. Until she had gone to bed at ten o’clock, Miss Zanita had not been moving about. No glass, cup, or spoon had been asked for, nor could we discover any pill-box, powder-paper, or glass, from which any mixture or drug had been taken. Mr. Egremont had his walking-cane in one hand, and Zanita had a lovely camelia in her right hand, their right and left arms lay loosely round each other.

“I am sure they were not speaking or moving around before I went to bed,” persisted Martha, “and when I went to see the front door was all right on the latch, I noticed the parlor door ajar, and concluded Miss Zanita was abed.”

“My lamb, my pet!” moaned Martha, terrified by the strange sight, throwing her arms round the still form of Zanita and stroking the pale Grecian brow, which, with its slight frown, seemed sculptured in white marble. “You shall tickle me with the cat’s tail, or anything else you like, if you will only speak one word to your own Martha!” But poor Martha uttered a shriek of dismay, as this appeal was suddenly answered by Zanita, and Mr. Egremont simultaneously rising from their seat and looking upon us with a bewildered gaze.

Instantly the feeling of the impropriety of the situation flashed upon us all, and my indignation began to boil over and first found vent.

“Mr. Egremont!” I said, severely, “can you give any explanation of this?”

“None, madam,” he replied, the words oozing from his blue lips as though they were thrust forth in agony. He had turned perfectly white in fact, almost a livid green, since he had awoke, and the miserable expression in his eyes seemed to appeal to the ceiling to fall and crush him. Shame, remorse, despair, complete self-abasement, were depicted upon every line of his person.

Not so Zanita; after the first stare of astonishment, she had fallen into that peculiar furtive look of hers when caught or arrested in any piece of mischief. The defiant, elfish smile was on her face, and, I must say, provoked me more than anything.

“Zanita!” I exclaimed, “how could you think of going to sleep on the sofa with Mr. Egremont?”

“Aunty,” replied the invincible child, no more moved than if I had asked her where she had put a spool of thread, “I don’t think I did go to sleep on the sofa with Mr. Egremont; at least I don’t recollect it, if I did.”

“My dear!” said my husband, coming to the rescue, “don’t you think we had better postpone this investigation until to-morrow? Mr. Egremont”—he said, indicating that individual, who stood like a criminal listening to his death-warrant—“will no doubt be anxious to answer any and every question, and to-night will be glad of rest.”

“Whatever you wish,” responded the latter, “but I should feel grateful to have my explanations, few as they are, postponed until to-morrow.” He advanced toward me and half held out his hand, but I was too angry to give any sign of being propitiated. “Be pitiful,” he murmured; “do not judge me too harshly,”—and he walked out of the room bowing to us all, like the ghost in a magic lantern.

Zanita took up a candle. “Good-night, aunty!” she said, with a mischievous smirk; “good-night, Professor,—Martha!” and she skipped up-stairs with a bound.

“Wall!” exclaimed Martha, “if she ain’t the little imperintest, audacious minx. I never did! she ain’t afraid of man or devil!”

“No,” commented my husband, “she has not a particle of fear in her composition!”—and we all retired to our chambers.

When the door was shut and the lamp set down, I put my two hands on my husband’s shoulders. I needed his quiet strength very much that night.

“John!” I said, “tell me what is it? Tell me what you think?” He clasped his strong arms round my waist.

“My dear,” he said, “I am not thoroughly satisfied myself what it is. I thought it might be some soporific, such as chloroform, which Zanita had chanced upon, and experimented with. But she, at least, has none of the symptoms of having taken such a poison, and I am inclined to think that it may be some singular effect of animal magnetism called mesmerism. The greater part of the phenomena exhibited, I am inclined to regard as a gross humbug. But there is no doubt that muscular insensibility can be produced by one person over another, the same as by inhaling ether; and that such coma may last for a certain length of time.”

“But how could they have both fallen into this condition?” I exclaimed. “How could they both have been mesmerized? Who could have operated upon them?”

“There is the mystery,” said my husband. “I do not believe any one has been in the house; and yet I never heard of a case of mutual magnetic influence. I earnestly wish those two had never met, my dear.”

“That thought has tormented me from the first moment they saw each other,” I replied. “But what is to be done now that the evil has occurred?”

“As to that you must be guided by circumstances. That they met this evening by any appointment or evil intention, I cannot be induced to believe. And perhaps the best thing would be to give our sanction to their intimacy and thus denude it of that dangerous charm of secrecy.”

“You had better question them separately, and I think, you will elicit more from either of them than I could. Egremont will speak more frankly to you, for a woman has a knack of arriving at the truth quicker than all the cross-questioning a man can put.”

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