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


We made our way toward the foot of the Falls, over rugged rocks gar-landed profusely with the most exquisite flowers. Kenmuir soon became rapturous in his intense enjoyment of the music of the falling water,—falling as it seemed from the very heaven above us, almost three thousand feet,* [* Twenty-seven hundred feet in one continuous leap.] to where it broke at our feet in a whirlwind of spray.

“It is the most glorious orchestra in the world,” he exclaimed. “Listen to the wondrous harmony! No instrument out of tune, none wiry or reedy; all is pure, rich, full, and resonant. Hark to the trombones! how they boom out their parts; and the delicate, rippling flute, too, is as clear and prominent as any! All the stringed instruments surge through, as if with one bow and set of strings, in a rush of liquid melody. There is no wavering in time or tune. And the fugue is led off by the clarionets (those streams of silver just divided from the main fall) with a precision that is followed up in the allegro, enough to drive an impressario frantic with excitement and delight. Mark you that lyre-like boulder upon which the principal bulk of the water falls; there is no silver kettle-drum to equal it in its full volume of harmonious roar, in perfect accordance with the rest of the instruments. Observe, Mrs. Brown, you who are a musician,—that chromatic scale, executed by the first and tenor violins! Cremona never made such perfect instruments, nor has Paganini executed such perfect performance. It is effected by the wind raising the whole body of water, and switching it over the rocks. O, I love to climb up into that top chamber,—the great Concert Hall,—and hear the liquid roll of music all night long!” cried Kenmuir.

“Of course you cannot sleep,” I said, “with the noise and the damp?”

“O yes; and believe myself in something brighter than what you call Paradise, with angels playing harps and cherubims singing eternal hallelujahs.”

We all laughed at the idea of the Yo-semite Fall making better music than the cherubims and seraphims.

“’Tell me,” cried Kenmuir, a little irritated at our seeming skepticism, “do you believe that hallelujahs and harps could be finer harmony than this water music?”

“Upon my word,” I replied, “from my knowledge of instruments, as you have enumerated them, I do not think any could be finer in the form of natural music than this.”

“Then, why do you set up artificial before natural music? Man’s trumpery inventions, before God’s great works!”

“Heaven forbid that I should! But you premised the harps in heaven, and asked my opinion thereon, which was favorable to your water-music theory.”

“Yes, yes!” replied Kenmuir, pacified; “but since you admit the superiority of this music, will you not also acquiesce in my doctrine, that the Paradise which our preachers are always locating here and there out of reach, and furnishing with harps, and fountains, and jewels, and gold, is often in our very midst, ringing in our ears, flashing under our eyes, if we were not so stupidly deaf and confoundedly blind as not to perceive it. The greatest truism ever written, is,—‘Having eyes and seeing not, having ears and hearing not.’ Man might as well he born without—

‘Eyes which only serve, at most,
To guard their master from ’gainst a post.’

For my part, I would never pray the Lord for a greater display of grandeur than that with whose fulgency my soul is satisfied. Moses was an arrogant ass to ask the Lord to show him his glory! Could he not see it all around, if he opened his eyes?” wound up Kenmuir, in a state of excitement with that biblical autocrat.

“Well, well!” laughed Oswald Naunton, “your Bible reading does not seem conducive to your patience; but let me remind you of one thing in your Eden, which you seem to have forgotten. Where are your angels?”

I believed Kenmuir to be in a dilemma, and came jokingly to the rescue. “Angels are said to be ‘few and far between,’ but here is one,” touching Placida, “and here is a cherubim, as round and fair as ever Guido portrayed on canvas.”

The angel thus indicated suffused a rose-blush very angelic to be-hold, and warbled out, in her luscious voice, the little ditty,—

“‘If I’m an angel, where’s my wings?
Tiral la, tiral li.’

Kenmuir, can you furnish me with flying epaulets?”

The cherub, from the effects of a titillating pinch, trilled out a stave of honeyed laughter, her blue eyes radiating mellow beams of sunny mirth. But our Eden, as of yore, was presently invaded by the unrestful spirit of Zanita, who came flying down over the rocks in hot haste after a squirrel she had unearthed; his bushy tail, like a bright silver spray, was to be seen bounding from rock to rock, in desperate effort to escape his equally erratic pursuer. One bound brought him in the midst of us, and then the plumy tail disappeared altogether.

“O, papa! Kenmuir! shoot him! catch him!” screamed Zanita, her black eyes flashing with eager thirst for her prey. “I want his tail for a broom, to sweep out my stable with!”

“O no, not shoot him!” sobbed the cherub, her soft eyes looking piteously through their humid glow.

But Zanita stamped and chafed with the discomfiture and vexation.

“What a subject for an allegorical picture of Pity and Sport,” I said to Kenmuir, as the mother pressed the little tender heart to her own, “and what a contrast between the two sisters.”

“Yes,” he replied, gathering a small plant at his feet. “Do you see the exquisite form and redundance of grace in the petals and lobes of this flower, growing upon the same stem with this other mean, shabby, gnarled, and twisted one, adding lustre to the other by mere force of contrast?—yet, nevertheless, the poor little scraggy fellow contains a fine fruit, which he will develop at the proper time. The Lord is never unjust: it is we who lay down such narrow premises, and draw such puny inferences.”

“By the way,” I said, turning to Mr. Naunton, “that squirrel recalls our moral squirrel conversation, and I want to ask you if this squirrelism is not practiced to a great extent amongst the Indian tribes in and about the Valley?”

“No,” replied he, stroking his white beard thoughtfully. “No, I cannot say it is to a greater extent than in civilized life. It is true that the women carry the heavy burdens, whilst the man walks at his ease, with his bow and arrow, or rifle. But if he were burdened, he could not pursue the game whenever it should appear, which is often the only flesh meat they know. If we consider that the Indians approach the nearest in their practice the pure idea of republicanism,—equality, fraternity, and indivisibility,—we shall see that the squaw is only a detail, and matter of necessity, to the carrying out of the system. They live in tribes with biens en commune, and labor in common, too. The man takes the most arduous portion, procuring the food in the most toilsome and hazardous manner; whether he scours the plains, and risks his life in contact with the horns or deadly hoofs of the buffalo, or scales the frowning cliffs in search of game, or sits with enduring patience by the side of a stream to catch the shy trout; his life has dangers and vicissitudes which many civilized citizens would shrink from.

“But when he has strained his sinews, and torn his flesh in hunting down the deer, his female helpmeet will carry it home, cut it up, and cook it for him. She thus takes her share in the labor of life, yet does not work nearly so hard as the citizen’s wife, who scrubs his house floor, washes his clothes, and tends his offspring, whilst the husband is carrying the hod or using the plane. True, that this difference increases as we emerge into the upper ranks of society; the wife of the citizen who has made wealth, and is able to hold on to it, lounges in her causeuse, and wears lavender kid gloves. But here Republican égalité ceases; for her fellow-citizen scours down her frescoed walls with chapped, bleeding hands, and aching bones; and the lavender kids can write tirades on the Indian’s barbarity to his squaw, because he allows her to carry a funnel-shaped basket filled with household necessaries on her back, or a little coffin-shaped ditto with the papoose. Yet, with the Indian we have no records of the husband beating out the wife’s brains with the iron heel of his hoot, or smoothing her hair with a hot flat-iron, such as the journals often notify us as occurring in civilized lands.

“If the Indians are at war, they thirst for their enemies’ blood, and spill it the first opportunity; taking a savage delight in bespattering his brains to the wild winds or carnivorous animals. We call this atrocious, but we invent machinery for the same purpose; we hate to dabble our white kids in human gore, yet we plant ourselves behind a secure bastion and blow our enemies to fragments, or mangle them by the thou-sand in agonized torments. And our lamentation over the frightful slaughter caused by the chassepot, or revolving cannon, is mere mawkish sentimentality. We do not wish to kill—we only wish to show our strength and conquer.

“Then you argue, why not decide the question by personal combat and individual prowess; why not test the courage and power after the manner of the Horatii and Curatii,—increasing the number to as many hundreds or thousands as each standing army of a nation could muster: this would be consistent and comparatively humane. By this principle the millionth part of the suffering of war would be curtailed. But the fact is, that destruction is the incentive of the white man as it is of the primitive savage, and he carries it out with as much zest though in a different way.

“Furthermore, argues the philanthropist, woman, being the weaker vessel, should be surrounded with care and tenderness, and shielded from the roughs of life like the shorn lambs. But all men are not philanthropists, some partaking more of the nature of grizzly hears, with a taste for devouring lambs who cannot take care of themselves; and society becoming overrun with these helpless creatures, who have to he clothed and fed and lodged, the poor woodpeckers have hard times. Nor does physiology prove that woman, though more graceful and beautiful than man, is so much more fragile, as we are accustomed to think. The Indian women, from constantly exerting their muscles in building their bark or pine-brush wigwams, carrying their goods and chattels, and cutting up the animals for food, are quite as strong as the men in any of these occupations; they can walk as far, and ford rivers with the same ease. She, in truth, plays a more prominent part in life, and is more on an equality with her spouse than a white woman who is entirely dependent on her husband to lace her boots.”

“That,” I said, “is a very strong argument for woman’s rights,—that in the primitive state a woman should be more equal than in the position in which civilization has placed her. Have they a vote, do you know?” I asked laughingly.

“I believe,” he rejoined, “that some of the older and wiser squaws have ‘a say’ in the ‘big talk,’ and according to their capacities and superiorities exercise a great sway in their tribe. With these tribes it is a more even division of labor, and the man, in fact, takes the most dangerous and active part, although combined with intervals of case and leisure. Yet I have heard white women complain that their work was never done. Now two Indians whom I have in my employment per-form any and every work indifferently, and seem to recognize no distinction between a man’s and a woman’s work; and, in fact, the nineteenth century ought to blush to have to learn a woman’s rightful sphere from a wild Indian.

“There are a few occupations that I can call to mind that a woman would not fulfill as well as a man if she were trained to it as early and assiduously as a man. In farm-houses, women born and bred there tend the cattle as well as man. Milkmaids are proverbial. Welsh farmers’ wives and daughters harness their own horses, ride on them to market, and transact the business of the farm. In Europe, in the provinces, women take their turn with the men in the field, especially at time of harvesting and haymaking. In France women hold their position in the country house and office public and private, can keep any description of store,—even take charge of tailoring and clothing stores. As in the case of the Indians, there is no reason why labor should not be shared between the sexes without making one a slave and the other a drone.”

“This world affords suitable occupation for all if they would only at-tend to it,” said Kenmuir.

“But, although there is a great outcry about the Indian’s distaste for work, I know a good many white folk who labor under the same indisposition.”

“If they were cleaner I should feel more attraction to them,” I remarked.

“All barbarous nations wallow in dirt,” said Mr. Naunton, rising to his full height with a peculiar jerk, as if to emphasize his remark,—“unless, like the Mohammedans’ frequent ablutions, it is part of their religion to be clean. Cleanliness is a very modern virtue, and one which we should no more expect these uncivilized foresters to possess than the art of printing or photographing.”

“The Jews could not have been very clean camping out so long,” laughed Kenmuir, “and yet they are said to have been God’s chosen people. Clean linen becomes an unknown luxury after many days of mountaineering; men and ducks are the only creatures whom I know to be seriously given to washing operations.”

“And I do not think it is nature to the former,” cried Mr. Naunton; “for I can recollect when no such thing as a bath, public or private, was in vogue, and when a washhand-basin was about as large as a saucer.”

“Which dimension it remains in many parts of France to the present day,” I ejaculated. “Clothes’ washing is an operation indulged in once in six months.”

“Which naturally circumscribes the soiling of them; whereas,” said Placida, “in this country ladies of leisure and fashion vie with each other in how much bathing they can perform in the day; and how many dozens of soiled clothes they can send to the laundress. Laundries are quite an institution of this country, and a large population is engaged in rumpling and soiling, whilst an equal proportion are laboring to straighten and whiten; if the statistics were taken as to the number of people employed in this way, the figures would astonish all.”

We all smiled at this original view of the case. The very clear view of such a virtue carried to a mania made me regard its laxity with less distaste.

Zanita having become impatient of a conversation she could not understand, tugged away at my hand until she started us all en route for the cottage.

“For,” she kept on chattering, “we have everything to pack up: flour, and tea, and sugar, and potatoes, and a frying-pan, and a tea-urn, and bacon; and we must start a good hour before sunrise, as we shall be scorched going up that cliff right exposed to the sun without a bit of shade. Now when I get to that bit of rock I can build a fire, and you can go wrap yourself up in your blanket and go to sleep, while I take care no rattlesnakes come to you.”

Thus she continued to rattle on, her imagination working and contriving, and fretting, and torturing itself over the difficulties and untoward accidents of her perilous exploits and dangers; whilst the little one would toddle along rejoicing in some flower, nursing it tenderly, smiling upon it, and looking up with deep delight in her heaven-lit eyes, exclaiming, “So pretty, so pretty!”

Thus unconsciously, and without effort, had I drifted into this family, and become absorbed into their whole existence, like a chip washed into a narrow cleft of rock. Here I had floated without helm or sail; here landed high and dry, never to sail out again, never to be distinct from those lives and fortunes until mother earth had taken them to her bosom and wrapt them in her softest bed, and laid a mossy pillow over them.

And yet we persist in believing that we are guiding our own destinies, working out our own ends, and bearing our own responsibilities.

Next: Fall of MercedeContentsPrevious: Day’s Pleasure

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