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


For some weeks after this all went on quietly at our home. We neither saw nor heard anything of Mr. Egremont. We decided that as the nuns had done all they could for Zanita she was to remain at home and study for the stage: first by reading with me, and afterwards with some tragedian.

She commenced the study well, and soon delighted me with the vivid conception she took of each character, old or young,—from Polonius, Ophelia’s father, to Emilia, Iago’s wife. She was skillful in seizing the identity, and where she could not personify she could mimic to perfection.

The saddle-horse she so much coveted had been procured, and she was such a fearless and skilled horsewoman that I permitted her to ride out alone, accompanied only by Beppo as groom, in the secluded park-like roads of Oakland. Sometimes she would visit her old schoolmistress,—the matter of the expelling having been quite forgotten,—and would enchant that highly cultivated lady with her recitations from the poets. Mrs. Martinette made a point of calling upon me to express her strong conviction that Zanita was destined to become one of our greatest actresses; and that whenever I felt disposed to let her essay in a private rehearsal, her magnificent class-room would be placed at my disposal.

I was beginning to breathe afresh and see my future course clearly, when one morning Martha opened the parlor door with unusual pre-caution, and peering round stealthily closed it behind her standing with her back against it.

“Are you alone, ma’am?” she said in a sepulchral whisper.

“Why of course I am, Martha; what on earth is the matter with you?” “Well, then, ma’am, I thought Miss Zanita might be around, for she is such a flipperty thing you never know rightly where she is; and I wanted just to say, ma’am, as Mr. Egremont’s not visiting the house lately—is he?”

“Why no, Martha! How can you ask such foolish questions? I told you that as the young people did not care for each other the matter was at an end.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Martha, wiping down her two red bare arms with her apron as though she had just come out of the wash-tub,—“yes, ma’am, you told me so; but it beats me if them two ain’t a keepin’ company right straight on.”

“O, nonsense! Martha. What reason have you for supposing such a thing?”

“Where does Miss Zanita ride to?” she asked, briskly setting her arms akimbo.

“She rides about the roads and sometimes to the Academy.”

“Pish!” ejaculated Martha, disdainfully; “no sir’ee, she do not!” she cried, forgetful of my sex in her vehemence. “She rides somewheres direct, and back same way, and brings that mare home in a sweat. ‘Where’s this you’ve been?’ sez I to Beppo, ‘to bring them horses all home in a sweat, sez I.’ ‘Them’s not in a sweat, sez he.’ ‘Them is in a sweat, sez I,’—and I just wiped it off with my hand and threw it in his face to teach him to lie to me. And moresomever, ma’am, just you ask Beppo where they’ve went just after they’ve been, and you’ll see the roundabout rigmarole he’ll be telling you of nowheres at all.”

“The next time they go out I will ask Miss Zanita,” I said, “for I think you must he wrong in your suspicions. She had only to express the wish and Mr. Egremont could visit her as much as she desires.”

“Bless you, ma’am! that’s just her contraryness. She won’t take what she can have, and will have what she can’t get.”

Having delivered herself of this lucid explanation, Martha wiped her arms again and returned to her kitchen, leaving me full of uneasiness; for although I could scarcely believe that Zanita had any rendezvous with Mr. Egremont, there was the danger that she had formed some other acquaintance; for discretion formed no part of her character, and to carry on anything on the sly was so much the negro propensity that Beppo would make only too ready an ally.

Satisfied that if there was any foundation for Martha’s fear I should not elicit anything from Zanita, I resolved upon a strategem.

The following day, when the two horses were standing ready at the door and Zanita just preparing to mount, I suddenly notified my intention of riding with her instead of Beppo, and bade him change the saddle. Beppo was no master of the art of dissimulation, though an apt scholar; and his great wide open eyes, protruding to their utmost, showed how terribly he was disconcerted by this change of the programme. He cast an appealing look toward his young mistress, who stood carelessly switching her habit with her riding whip.

“Why, aunty! will you not be very tired? And you have company coming this evening.”

“True, I had forgotten that; but I will go all the same.”

Directly we turned into the main road both horses tried to break into a canter. Zanita checked her’s, but I gave mine the rein and let him go. The animal shook his mane and went off as though intent upon doing his duty.

“O, aunty!” cried Zanita, “how fast you are riding; you will be quite tired.”

But I never touched my rein determined to let my horse have his head and see where he would take me to.

After riding in this way for some time Zanita suddenly shot past me, for her mare was much fleeter than mine, which we used as a buggy horse, and presently I saw she was urging her mare to full gallop.

I screamed to her not to gallop, but keep with me; but she heeded me not, and was soon racing with the wind. The road was almost straight to the beach. She was a fearless rider and sat her horse so well that I felt no alarm. She looked so bright and beautiful as she flew on, that every passenger turned to look at her, and must have thought her the personification of a Die Vernon. Unwilling to lose sight of her I had now to urge my buggy charger, and he, nothing loth, did his best. But we had lost time, and just before we came in sight of the beach a curve in the road hid the runaway from my sight.

I rounded the point in time to see Zanita raised in her stirrup and waving her handkerchief, fastened to the end of her whip, like a flag of truce. She then turned her horse’s head and was back at my side immediately.

“I wanted to get a glimpse of the beach,” she said, “and you do not want to ride so far, I know.”

“I am going on,” I replied, without drawing my rein.

When we neared the beach a little skiff was putting off manned by a single sailor.

Could I be mistaken in that lithe, graceful figure! It was too far off to be very certain, but my emotions told me it was Egremont.

“Who is that in yonder boat?” I asked, turning to Zanita.

She shaded her eyes with her hand as if to take a better view.

“Which boat, aunty? You call all manner of craft boats. Is it the schooner, the cutter, the row-boat, or the man-of-war’s boat with the captain in it? Sure enough!” cried Zanita, as if overjoyed with the discovery.

But the solitary boatman was now hidden by the sail, and the little skiff was bounding with joyous springs over the blue bay toward San Francisco. Zanita kept on chatting about the visit we had been asked to pay on board the English man-of-war lying off Buena Yerba. I made no reply, but turned homewards with a heavier heart than I had come. Both horses stretched out to take the same pace back. They had done their work, and evidently knew what was expected of them. If they could have spoken they could have told me how often Zanita had sped along that road at lightning pace. How often their spurning hoofs had struck the light from the flints as they tore up the stony road; how they had been running this race, poor beasts! for days and weeks, and were ever ready to do it again and again. No wonder they came home covered with foam. How often had that tiny white sail glided into the little cove or bay; and Zanita’s genet could have told too, how often the handsome sailor had sprang ashore to lift the lady from its back, and afterwards stood stroking its soft nose and call it brave little mare. For he was always kind and affable and gentle to animals. But the dumb brutes are man’s servants and his slaves; they do his work and keep his secret.

I needed no further enlightenment. I had seen enough. Zanita was keeping up her flirtation with Egremont, and the secrecy she was practicing could arise from no other cause than her contraryness, as Martha called it.

When I informed the Professor of my discovery he was more disturbed than was his wont.

“If she commences a practice of deceiving you, my dear, there is no knowing where it will end; and suspicion and distrust will keep you in continual anxiety.”

“I should have expected more honorable conduct from Egremont. He must see what a wild thoughtless child she is, and he is taking advantage of it to amuse himself, not at hers, but our expense, for he knows that we should be the greatest sufferers from any esclandre.”

Thus the amount of pain endured should be measured by the substance upon which it falls, not by the weight of the blow given. The organization, and the nervous system, regulate the proportion of suffering. A person of delicate sensitive temperament endures an excess of pain, both mental and physical, over the phlegmatic, obtuse person. Hence a public disgrace has killed many a man; whilst others seek only how they can best turn it to account. One man endures an agony from the amputation of a limb, whilst another could almost dictate a letter whilst the operation was going on.

“I fear we should never induce any dread in Zanita of what evil tongues might say of her proceedings. Whereas you, my dear, will never be free from pain for a single instant, until such contingency is put beyond all risk. Is it not so?”

“Indeed it is. “Io have my adopted child the talk of the place would utterly destroy my peace of mind; and to avoid this I must never lose sight of her; for her propensity to be in mischief is just as prominent as when she was a child.”

“I think,” said my husband, “you had better put an end to this affair by taking her home to the Valley for a time. It would change the current of her ideas, and probably turn them in the channel you wish.”

“That would be the very best thing,” I exclaimed. “But what will become of you left here by yourself?”

“O, I shall get on splendidly; hang the broom out, and have a good time generally with my bachelor friends.”

I shook my head dolefully. I knew he was the last man in the world to be merry when left alone; that he would mope and grow sick; wear two odd stockings,—even if he were fortunate enough to find two; never have a handkerchief, and appear in a disreputable neck-tie; that all his linen would take the opportunity of my absence to go astray at the laundry. But he insisted upon sacrificing himself and his socks for the general good, —c’est a dire for Zanita’s and mine. So it was decided we should start for the Valley immediately.

Zanita heard the news joyfully, and I was happy to think that no regrets for the handsome gondolier lingered in her mind. Our preparations were soon completed, and the Professor accompanied us to Stockton, partly to see a friend, and partly for the pleasure of a sail over the Bay of San Francisco, than which there is scarcely another to exceed it in beauty.

The city on its seven hills, like Rome, is more picturesque to look at from the water than pleasant to traverse: the beautiful coast-range of mountains, forming a wall to the golden gate, where alone the glorious sunlight seemed to be admitted; the soft green hills sloping like velvet to the very verge of the blue bay, and rising majestically to the two thousand feet of Tamel Pais and Mount Diablo; the pretty little towns and villages nestled in the cañons of the mountains, overshadowed by luxuriant mandrona and quercus-virens; the deep intense blue of the water, with the pink and gold glow of sunset; the sweet west breeze so fresh and pure,—

“For of all the ways the wind may blow,
I dearly love the West,”

all these combined make a sail on the Bay of San Francisco at sunset a dream of glorious beauty and delight.

“I never can decide,” I communicated to my husband, “whether I like this or the Bay of Naples the best. To be sure the latter has Vesuvius, Capri, and Sorrento, which might be likened to Saneileto,—”

“Without the oranges,” said my husband; “and I think there is a magical shade of light over Naples, which creates such enthusiasm, and which we lack here, though the sunsets are very fine.”

“Yes, I remember what you mean: the after-glow,—the very poetry of nature. Do look at Zanita; she is nearly asleep, she cares no more for scenery than science.”

“She has no poetry in her soul, obviously,” said the Professor.

“I think it is very sad. I should pity a person more in being bereft of the faculty of drawing pleasure from the glory of God’s works, than for being either deaf or blind. For nature to the appreciative is like sleep to the wakeful: it steals over us in our moments of bitter trial and harassing care, and wraps us in downy oblivion, and with imperceptible tonic opens the deadened senses to new delight and exhilaration. But this poor child would never know this balm in her extremis.

“Poor little child,” mused the Professor.

“John,” I whispered, moving near to him, as I always did when I wanted to gain my point,—“John, I wish you would try and exercise some of your kindly wisdom upon the child; for I feel she is beyond my control.”

The Professor pressed my hand softly under my shawl, and replied,—

“My dear, I will do whatever you suggest to help you with your protégé; but I think in her management she more needs tact than wisdom; and of the former you have more than I; and in interfering I might only make mischief. Try the Valley first, and then when she returns we shall see if anything further is necessary.”

“I have a sad presentiment or foreboding about her. I feel as regards her morally now, as I used to do physically, when she was a little girl in the Valley. She was always verging on some danger; always hazarding the brink of some precipice. If she was out of sight for a minute she was generally discovered hanging by her frock in some tree, or being carried down some gulch by the surging torrent. And now, if it is not the peril of Mr. Egremont, it will be something else. It seems a strange dispensation of Providence, that she cannot lead a smooth and natural life like other people!”

“Well, my dear, let us at least anticipate that once in the Valley of Ah-wah-nee, your lives will flow on as peacefully as the Mercede, when rippling between the banks of azaleas and lilies.”

We remained in Stockton two days, and then having parted with the Professor, with much misgiving as to the state of his personal appearance when I should next see him, we resumed our journey, via Hornitas,—the Little Oven, so called in Spanish, from its intense heat, lying in the mountains very much like one. Or as Zanita called it, “via purgatory to Paradise, the Valley.”

To ride behind four well-conditioned horses would seem, in the abstract, the most pleasurable way of travelling through a beautiful country. But practically this ride is one of the worst tortures that can be inflicted upon persons guilty of no crime recognizable by law as punishable. This coach is so constructed, that at every pebble as large as a nut, or hole to accommodate a taw, it rolls and pitches worse than a narrow screw-steamer in a chopping sea. You are jigged, and tossed, and bounced up to the ceiling, tumbled on the floor, wedged against the window, and scattered generally in all directions; churned up in the corner, or sent sprawling into your neighbors on the middle seat, and scratch your nose against a watch-chain, or lady’s shawl pin. As this alternate beating and hanging continues from twelve to sixteen hours, according to the road, you have very little definite idea of yourself whether you are a living, bruised, and crushed human being, or a palpitating mass of hogshead cheese. The only remedy for this is the alternative of having the stage crammed with nine stout inside passengers, a few children, and a baby or two to stop up the crevices; then you travel in the same style as poultry going to market promiscuously in a bag. You must either sit upon your neighbor, or he will make a cushion of you. You find some one’s head pillowed on your shoulder, and a stray arm round your waist. Feet in general are in inextricable pell-mell, and woe to the wearer of thin hoots troubled with corns. It is no use frowning at your vis-à-vis for making you a footstool, for it may be the individual in the farthest corner of the coach who has succeeded in intersecting his long limbs over the way. What canned lobsters must feel is easy to be realized by mortals travelling per stage on a hot dusty day in California.

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