The Beautiful Eyes of Ysidria

Charles A. Gunnison

Preview: Issue 1 of 5


Have you seen the magnificent slope of our beloved Tamalpais, as it curves from the changing colour of the bay, till touching the fleecy fog rolling in from the Pacific, it passes from day to rest? If you have not, I hope you may, for the sooner you have this glorious picture on your memory's walls, the brighter will be your future, and you will have a bit of beauty which need not be forgotten even in heaven itself.

There is one who, though passing his life beneath its shadow, enjoying the scented wind from its forests and the music of its birds and waterfalls and sighing madroños, does not see it, yet calls it his God, and believes it to be the Giver of all good, as we who have never seen our God feel that One who bestows blessings so bountiful must be beautiful beyond words.

Many walks, miles in extent, have my Quito and I taken. I say my Quito, for he is my son, my only son; and beneath the thick shade of laurels, beside the roadside troughs, we have rested and spoken, he to me of the unheard, I to him of the unseen.

Come back with me to the days of my youth, those merry days of California before the gold was about her dear form like prisoner's chains; before the greed of the States and England had forced us into the weary drudgery of the earth, and made us the slaves of misbegotten progress.

We had our church then and dear old Padre Andreas at San Anselmo, and, my dear friends from the States, we also had cockles from Tomales, which were eaten with relish on the beach at Sausalito, just where George the Greek's is now, though then there was only a little hut kept by a man whom we called Victor--and we had feasts and fasts so well arranged, that dyspepsia was unknown.

One day when I had been on a long tramp through the woods, gathering mushrooms, I came home tired and hungry, and found our old housekeeper, Catalina, smiling complacently, as she sat on the stepping block by the kitchen door, rolling tamales for supper. "Oh! Master Carlos," she cried, "we have had much to worry us to-day. Look at those poor, little ducks all dead and the mother hen also."

"Who killed them, Catalina?" I asked in astonishment, as I saw my pet brood of ducks and their over careful mother lying dead in the grass.

"I did," she replied, "and it was time that something was done. Madre Moreno has been busy again. The cows gave bloody milk last Friday, and to-day, while I was sorting some herbs, the hen and her brood began to act mysteriously, to tumble about as Victor might, after too much wine. All at once I saw the cause, Madre Moreno had bewitched them, and in three minutes I had cut all their throats and have given the wicked woman a lesson."

"Catalina! Catalina!" I cried, "how can you be so cruel and superstitious?" Her face lighted up with supreme contempt for me, but she said nothing more. On the ground about her were bits of leaves which I recognized as nightshade and henbane, which could well account for the actions of the late hen and ducklings.

"What are these?" I asked.

"Little Pablo brought them for dinner; he thought they were mustard, but they were not, so I threw them away."

"Poor ducks and poor Catalina," was all that I could say, and went laughing into the house, while she muttered to herself about the ignorance of the new generation.

My home was, and is a beautiful one, low and long, with all the rooms opening on the broad veranda; it is part of adobe and part of wood, the sides being covered with a network of fuchsia, heliotrope and jasmine reaching to the eaves of the brown tile roof; a broad, branching fig tree is in the little court before it, and a clump of yuccas and fan palms to the right, while down to the road and along the front stretches a broken hedge of Castilian roses, which we Californians love as the gift of old Spain, our first good nurse, we must always have a nurse it seems, England, Spain, Mexico and our present, very dry one--but let us be content, our majority will come. There is a pretty stream from the mountains, brought through hollow logs, and two good wells to water the place, which is green in the hottest summer when all the hills and meadows are yellow and brown from drought; before it rise slopes of manzanita, and higher hills covered with redwoods, and then the sharply cut peak of Tamalpais, from which on clear days we not only may see the good St. Helena, but alas, as in all the world, Diablo, himself, is in view, black and barren, though we do sometimes call him San Diablo, as the old Greeks did the Eumenides, in propitiatory compliment.

Madre Moreno was indeed a strange woman, and feared by the country people, before whom she lost no opportunity of playing her role of witch, and she was known by all for her remarkable skill in extracting the virtues of herbs, and brewing such efficacious drinks that even Pedirpozzo, the famous physician of the Alameda side, had been willing to consult with her.

I was about twenty years old at this time and had but recently returned from the City of Mexico, where I had been graduated in the law, having also made a thorough study of botany, and was happily and lucratively employed in collecting specimens of the Californian flora for the old college, as well as for one in the States, and two in Europe. This pleasurable employment gave me an income, more than supplying the few wants of the primitive life at the little rancho, the herds of which were alone a good source of revenue.

Just beyond my home, to the west, over the first hill, was a ruined adobe, surrounded by a great number of fig and olive trees; there had never been any windows in the house, but the arches for the doors were still standing, where ivy, poison oak and wild honey-suckle hung in profusion; the cellar, which was quite filled with stones, was overgrown with Solomon's seal, eschscholtzia and yerba santa, while a white rose and a shapeless clump of half wild artichokes grew where the garden had once been, also many flowers, hardly distinguishable from the weeds, having lost all they had ever gained by cultivation; a winding bed of ranunculus, or little frog, as Linnaeus wittily calls these water lovers, marked the course of a narrow stream which had long ago broken away from its former wooden trough. Among the stones and decaying beams were enormous bushes of nightshade, which seemed to poison the plants about them, all of which had a sickly green wherever they grew under its shadow.

This place, with its surrounding acres, was my property, and had been before the fire which had destroyed the adobe house, one of the prettiest spots in the country.

There had long been a spirited contest between my grandfather and the father of Madre Moreno over this bit of property, a strife which had caused much bad feeling in both families, and when it was at last settled in favour of our side, old Juan Moreno lost all control of his feelings, and in a fit of anger dropped dead at the very door of the court. Though the anger and chagrin at the loss of his case hastened his death, he had always been subject to a trouble of the heart which was liable to prove fatal at any moment under undue excitement. Ambrosia Moreno, who was called Madre, when she grew older, held our family to blame for this affliction, and made a vow that every generation of the Sotos should suffer through this plot of ground as long as she lived.

This curse was first felt in the time of Ignacio de Soto, my grandfather, when the fig trees failed to put forth fruit and the olives were all blighted. By this, Ambrosia Moreno established her reputation in the country as a witch, and was never omitted from a christening or wedding or from any auspicious event where her ill will might, in any possible way, cause misfortune.

In time Madre Moreno grew proud of this distinction awarded to her, dressing and acting so as to lead the people to believe her to have supernatural assistance, and when in the time of the next generation, the night of the marriage of my father with Neves Arguello, (to which celebration Madre Moreno was uninvited), the adobe house in the grove of figs, which had stood untenanted for years, was burned to the ground, her reputation as a witch was firmly established throughout the country; many a good woman after that event, when the wind carried off the clothes drying on the hedges, or the soot fell down the chimney into the kitchen at night, knew that the Madre was about, playing her mischievous pranks.

One day Mercedes Dana, a girl whom we rather felt sorry for, (her mother, who was a de los Santos, having married an American from Boston), having less faith in Madre Moreno's power than the rest of her neighbours had tried that never-failing test for witchcraft, and placed a piece of steel under the chair where the Madre was sitting, but she, too, was at once converted from her skepticism, for when the Madre wanted to leave she was unable to move until the bit of steel was taken away.

It was considered a dangerous experiment, and even Mercedes' little spark of Yankee "devil-may-care" burned very low after it, although the only thing that went wrong at the Dana's that year was that the hens laid soft-shelled eggs, which trouble was soon remedied by mixing a powder with their feed, which powder Madre Moreno herself supplied, and I strongly suspect that it was made of burned cockle shells.

Madre Moreno dressed peculiarly; she wore when I first remember her, a short black skirt and waist; a little cape of red woolen cloth hung over her shoulders, about her neck was a white ruff which set off her peaked face and made it look even more withered and yellow; her hair was short, and over a silk skull cap was drawn a black reboso, the ends of which were embroidered in colour with odd designs. Her whole person was the perfection of neatness, and she was welcome from Bolinas to San Rafael for the good she did, as her knowledge of herb and even mineral medicines was extensive.

At my christening it was thought that the curse would be removed, as Madre Moreno was invited to the ceremonies, and from that time was a constant visitor at the rancho for some years, always received with a welcome, mingled, perhaps, with a little fear, by all save Catalina, who, despite her dread of the queer woman, never could conceal her hatred for her, and when the sudden death of my father was closely followed by that of my mother, she forbade Madre Moreno the house. To this I could say nothing, as I have always a reverence for the woman who rules at home, and Catalina now was my housekeeper, in charge of broom and wash tub, and grand almoner of my dinners and luncheons.

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