It was sheep-shearing time in Southern California, but sheep-shearing was late at the Senora Moreno's. The Fates had seemed to combine to put it off. In the first place, Felipe Moreno had been ill. He was the Senora's eldest son, and since his father's death had been at the head of his mother's house. Without him, nothing could be done on the ranch, the Senora thought. It had been always, "Ask Senor Felipe," "Go to Senor Felipe," "Senor Felipe will attend to it," ever since Felipe had had the dawning of a beard on his handsome face.
In truth, it was not Felipe, but the Senora, who really decided all questions from greatest to least, and managed everything on the place, from the sheep-pastures to the artichoke-patch; but nobody except the Senora herself knew this. An exceedingly clever woman for her day and generation was Senora Gonzaga Moreno,--as for that matter, exceedingly clever for any day and generation; but exceptionally clever for the day and generation to which she belonged. Her life, the mere surface of it, if it had been written, would have made a romance, to grow hot and cold over: sixty years of the best of old Spain, and the wildest of New Spain, Bay of Biscay, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Ocean,--the waves of them all had tossed destinies for the Senora. The Holy Catholic Church had had its arms round her from first to last; and that was what had brought her safe through, she would have said, if she had ever said anything about herself, which she never did,--one of her many wisdoms. So quiet, so reserved, so gentle an exterior never was known to veil such an imperious and passionate nature, brimful of storm, always passing through stress; never thwarted, except at peril of those who did it; adored and hated by turns, and each at the hottest. A tremendous force, wherever she appeared, was Senora Moreno; but no stranger would suspect it, to see her gliding about, in her scanty black gown, with her rosary hanging at her side, her soft dark eyes cast down, and an expression of mingled melancholy and devotion on her face. She looked simply like a sad, spiritual-minded old lady, amiable and indolent, like her race, but sweeter and more thoughtful than their wont. Her voice heightened this mistaken impression. She was never heard to speak either loud or fast. There was at times even a curious hesitancy in her speech, which came near being a stammer, or suggested the measured care with which people speak who have been cured of stammering. It made her often appear as if she did not known her own mind; at which people sometimes took heart; when, if they had only known the truth, they would have known that the speech hesitated solely because the Senora knew her mind so exactly that she was finding it hard to make the words convey it as she desired, or in a way to best attain her ends.
About this very sheep-shearing there had been, between her and the head shepherd, Juan Canito, called Juan Can for short, and to distinguish him from Juan Jose, the upper herdsman of the cattle, some discussions which would have been hot and angry ones in any other hands than the Senora's.
Juan Canito wanted the shearing to begin, even though Senor Felipe were ill in bed, and though that lazy shepherd Luigo had not yet got back with the flock that had been driven up the coast for pasture. "There were plenty of sheep on the place to begin with," he said one morning,--"at least a thousand;" and by the time they were done, Luigo would surely be back with the rest; and as for Senor Felipe's being in bed, had not he, Juan Canito, stood at the packing-bag, and handled the wool, when Senor Felipe was a boy? Why could he not do it again? The Senora did not realize how time was going; there would be no shearers to be hired presently, since the Senora was determined to have none but Indians. Of course, if she would employ Mexicans, as all the other ranches in the valley did, it would be different; but she was resolved upon having Indians,--"God knows why," he interpolated surlily, under his breath.
"I do not quite understand you, Juan," interrupted Senora Moreno at the precise instant the last syllable of this disrespectful ejaculation had escaped Juan's lips; "speak a little louder. I fear I am growing deaf in my old age."
What gentle, suave, courteous tones! and the calm dark eyes rested on Juan Canito with a look to the fathoming of which he was as unequal as one of his own sheep would have been. He could not have told why he instantly and involuntarily said, "Beg your pardon, Senora."
"Oh, you need not ask my pardon, Juan," the Senora replied with exquisite gentleness; "it is not you who are to blame, if I am deaf. I have fancied for a year I did not hear quite as well as I once did. But about the Indians, Juan; did not Senor Felipe tell you that he had positively engaged the same band of shearers we had last autumn, Alessandro's band from Temecula? They will wait until we are ready for them. Senor Felipe will send a messenger for them. He thinks them the best shearers in the country. He will be well enough in a week or two, he thinks, and the poor sheep must bear their loads a few days longer. Are they looking well, do you think, Juan? Will the crop be a good one? General Moreno used to say that you could reckon up the wool-crop to a pound, while it was on the sheep's backs."
"Yes, Senora," answered the mollified Juan; "the poor beasts look wonderfully well considering the scant feed they have had all winter. We'll not come many pounds short of our last year's crop, if any. Though, to be sure, there is no telling in what case that--Luigo will bring his flock back."
The Senora smiled, in spite of herself, at the pause and gulp with which Juan had filled in the hiatus where he had longed to set a contemptuous epithet before Luigo's name.
This was another of the instances where the Senora's will and Juan Canito's had clashed and he did not dream of it, having set it all down as usual to the score of young Senor Felipe.
Encouraged by the Senora's smile, Juan proceeded: "Senor Felipe can see no fault in Luigo, because they were boys together; but I can tell him, he will rue it, one of these mornings, when he finds a flock of sheep worse than dead on his hands, and no thanks to anybody but Luigo. While I can have him under my eye, here in the valley, it is all very well; but he is no more fit to take responsibility of a flock, than one of the very lambs themselves. He'll drive them off their feet one day, and starve them the next; and I've known him to forget to give them water. When he's in his dreams, the Virgin only knows what he won't do."
During this brief and almost unprecedented outburst of Juan's the Senora's countenance had been slowly growing stern. Juan had not seen it. His eyes had been turned away from her, looking down into the upturned eager face of his favorite collie, who was leaping and gambolling and barking at his feet.
"Down, Capitan, down!" he said in a fond tone, gently repulsing him; "thou makest such a noise the Senora can hear nothing but thy voice."
"I heard only too distinctly, Juan Canito," said the Senora in a sweet but icy tone. "It is not well for one servant to backbite another. It gives me great grief to hear such words; and I hope when Father Salvierderra comes, next month, you will not forget to confess this sin of which you have been guilty in thus seeking to injure a fellow-being. If Senor Felipe listens to you, the poor boy Luigo will be cast out homeless on the world some day; and what sort of a deed would that be, Juan Canito, for one Christian to do to another? I fear the Father will give you penance, when he hears what you have said."
"Senora, it is not to harm the lad," Juan began, every fibre of his faithful frame thrilling with a sense of the injustice of her reproach.
But the Senora had turned her back. Evidently she would hear no more from him then. He stood watching her as she walked away, at her usual slow pace, her head slightly bent forward, her rosary lifted in her left hand, and the fingers of the right hand mechanically slipping the beads.
"Prayers, always prayers!" thought Juan to himself, as his eyes followed her. "If they'll take one to heaven, the Senora'll go by the straight road, that's sure! I'm sorry I vexed her. But what's a man to do, if he's the interest of the place at heart, I'd like to know. Is he to stand by, and see a lot of idle mooning louts run away with everything? Ah, but it was an ill day for the estate when the General died,--an ill day! an ill day! And they may scold me as much as they please, and set me to confessing my sins to the Father; it's very well for them, they've got me to look after matters. Senor Felipe will do well enough when he's a man, maybe; but a boy like him! Bah!" And the old man stamped his foot with a not wholly unreasonable irritation, at the false position in which he felt himself put.
"Confess to Father Salvierderra, indeed!" he muttered aloud. "Ay, that will I. He's a man of sense, if he is a priest,"--at which slip of the tongue the pious Juan hastily crossed himself,--"and I'll ask him to give me some good advice as to how I'm to manage between this young boy at the head of everything, and a doting mother who thinks he has the wisdom of a dozen grown men. The Father knew the place in the olden time. He knows it's no child's play to look after the estate even now, much smaller as it is! An ill day when the old General died, an ill day indeed, the saints rest his soul!" Saying this, Juan shrugged his shoulders, and whistling to Capitan, walked towards the sunny veranda of the south side of the kitchen wing of the house, where it had been for twenty odd years his habit to sit on the long bench and smoke his pipe of a morning. Before he had got half-way across the court-yard, however, a thought struck him. He halted so suddenly that Capitan, with the quick sensitiveness of his breed, thought so sudden a change of purpose could only come from something in connection with sheep; and, true to his instinct of duty, pricked up his ears, poised himself for a full run, and looked up in his master's face waiting for explanation and signal. But Juan did not observe him.
"Ha!" he said, "Father Salvierderra comes next month, does he? Let's see. To-day is the 25th. That's it. The sheep-shearing is not to come off till the Father gets here. Then each morning it will be mass in the chapel, and each night vespers; and the crowd will be here at least two days longer to feed, for the time they will lose by that and by the confessions. That's what Senor Felipe is up to. He's a pious lad. I recollect now, it was the same way two years ago. Well, well, it is a good thing for those poor Indian devils to get a bit of religion now and then; and it's like old times to see the chapel full of them kneeling, and more than can get in at the door; I doubt not it warms the Senora's heart to see them all there, as if they belonged to the house, as they used to: and now I know when it's to be, I have only to make my arrangements accordingly. It is always in the first week of the month the Father gets here. Yes; she said, 'Senor Felipe will be well enough in a week or two, he thinks.' Ha! ha! It will be nearer two; ten days or thereabouts. I'll begin the booths next week. A plague on that Luigo for not being back here. He's the best hand I have to cut the willow boughs for the roofs. He knows the difference between one year's growth and another's; I'll say that much for him, spite of the silly dreaming head he's got on his shoulders."
Juan was so pleased with his clearing up in his mind as to Senor Felipe's purpose about the time of the sheep-shearing, that it put him in good humor for the day,--good humor with everybody, and himself most of all. As he sat on the low bench, his head leaning back against the whitewashed wall, his long legs stretched out nearly across the whole width of the veranda, his pipe firm wedged in the extreme left corner of his mouth, his hands in his pockets, he was the picture of placid content. The troop of youngsters which still swarmed around the kitchen quarters of Senora Moreno's house, almost as numerous and inexplicable as in the grand old days of the General's time, ran back and forth across Juan's legs, fell down between them, and picked themselves up by help of clutches at his leather trousers, all unreproved by Juan, though loudly scolded and warned by their respective mothers from the kitchen.
"What's come to Juan Can to be so good-natured to-day?" saucily asked Margarita, the youngest and prettiest of the maids, popping her head out of a window, and twitching Juan's hair. He was so gray and wrinkled that the maids all felt at ease with him. He seemed to them as old as Methuselah; but he was not really so old as they thought, nor they so safe in their tricks. The old man had hot blood in his veins yet, as the under-shepherds could testify.
"The sight of your pretty face, Senorita Margarita," answered Juan quickly, cocking his eye at her, rising to his feet, and making a mock bow towards the window.
"He! he! Senorita, indeed!" chuckled Margarita's mother, old Marda the cook. "Senor Juan Canito is pleased to be merry at the doors of his betters;" and she flung a copper saucepan full of not over-clean water so deftly past Juan's head, that not a drop touched him, and yet he had the appearance of having been ducked. At which bit of sleight-of-hand the whole court-yard, young and old, babies, cocks, hens, and turkeys, all set up a shout and a cackle, and dispersed to the four corners of the yard as if scattered by a volley of bird-shot. Hearing the racket, the rest of the maids came running,--Anita and Maria, the twins, women forty years old, born on the place the year after General Moreno brought home his handsome young bride; their two daughters, Rosa and Anita the Little, as she was still called, though she outweighed her mother; old Juanita, the oldest woman in the household, of whom even the Senora was said not to know the exact age or history; and she, poor thing, could tell nothing, having been silly for ten years or more, good for nothing except to shell beans: that she did as fast and well as ever, and was never happy except she was at it. Luckily for her, beans are the one crop never omitted or stinted on a Mexican estate; and for sake of old Juanita they stored every year in the Moreno house, rooms full of beans in the pod (tons of them, one would think), enough to feed an army. But then, it was like a little army even now, the Senora's household; nobody ever knew exactly how many women were in the kitchen, or how many men in the fields. There were always women cousins, or brother's wives or widows or daughters, who had come to stay, or men cousins, or sister's husbands or sons, who were stopping on their way up or down the valley. When it came to the pay-roll, Senor Felipe knew to whom he paid wages; but who were fed and lodged under his roof, that was quite another thing. It could not enter into the head of a Mexican gentleman to make either count or account of that. It would be a disgraceful niggardly thought.