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Padre Ignacio, Or The Song Of Temptation

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III

Day showed the ocean's surface no longer glassy, but lying like a mirror breathed upon; and there between the short headlands came a sail, gray and plain against the flat water. The priest watched through his glasses, and saw the gradual sun grow strong upon the canvas of the barkentine. The message from his world was at hand, yet to-day he scarcely cared so much. Sitting in his garden yesterday, he could never have imagined such a change. But his heart did not hail the barkentine as usual. Books, music, pale paper, and print—this was all that was coming to him, some of its savor had gone; for the siren voice of Life had been speaking with him face to face, and in his spirit, deep down, the love of the world was restlessly answering it. Young Gaston showed more eagerness than the Padre over this arrival of the vessel that might be bringing Trovatore in the nick of time. Now he would have the chance, before he took his leave, to help rehearse the new music with the choir. He would be a missionary, too: a perfectly new experience.

"And you still forgive Verdi the sins of his youth?" he said to his host. "I wonder if you could forgive mine?"

"Verdi has left his behind him," retorted the Padre.

"But I am only twenty-five!" exclaimed Gaston, pathetically.

"Ah, don't go away soon!" pleaded the exile. It was the first unconcealed complaint that had escaped him, and he felt instant shame.

But Gaston was too much elated with the enjoyment of each new day to comprehend the Padre's soul. The shafts of another's pain might hardly pierce the bright armor of his gaiety. He mistook the priest's entreaty, for anxiety about his own happy spirit.

"Stay here under your care?" he asked. "It would do me no good, Padre. Temptation sticks closer to me than a brother!" and he gave that laugh of his which had disarmed severer judges than his host. "By next week I should have introduced some sin or other into your beautiful Garden of Ignorance here. It will be much safer for your flock if I go and join the other serpents at San Francisco."

Soon after breakfast the Padre had his two mules saddled, and he and his guest set forth down the hills together to the shore. And, beneath the spell and confidence of pleasant, slow riding and the loveliness of everything, the young man talked freely of himself.

"And, seriously," said he, "if I missed nothing else at Santa Ysabel, I should long for—how shall I say it?—for insecurity, for danger, and of all kinds—not merely danger to the body. Within these walls, beneath these sacred bells, you live too safe for a man like me."

"Too safe!" These echoed words upon the lips of the pale Padre were a whisper too light, too deep, for Gaston's heedless ear.

"Why," the young man pursued in a spirit that was but half levity, "though I yield often to temptation, at times I have resisted it, and here I should miss the very chance to resist. Your garden could never be Eden for me, because temptation is absent from it."

"Absent!" Still lighter, still deeper, was this whisper that the Padre breathed.

"I must find life," exclaimed Gaston, "and my fortune at the mines, I hope. I am not a bad fellow, Father. You can easily guess all the things I do. I have never, to my knowledge, harmed any one. I didn't even try to kill my adversary in an affair of honor. I gave him a mere flesh-wound, and by this time he must be quite recovered. He was my friend. But as he came between me—"

Gaston stopped, and the Padre, looking keenly at him, saw the violence that he had noticed in church pass like a flame over the young man's handsome face.

"That's nothing dishonorable," said Gaston, answering the priest's look. And then, because this look made him not quite at his ease: "Perhaps a priest might feel obliged to say it was dishonorable. She and her father were—a man owes no fidelity before he is—but you might say that had been dishonorable."

"I have not said so, my son."

"I did what every gentleman would do." insisted Gaston.

"And that is often wrong!" said the Padre, gently and gravely. "But I'm not your confessor."

"No," said Gaston, looking down. "And it is all over. It will not begin again. Since leaving New Orleans I have traveled an innocent journey straight to you. And when I make my fortune I shall be in a position to return and—"

"Claim the pressed flower?" suggested the Padre. He did not smile.

"Ah, you remember how those things are!" said Gaston: and he laughed and blushed.

"Yes," said the Padre, looking at the anchored barkentine, "I remember how those things are."

For a while the vessel and its cargo and the landed men and various business and conversations occupied them. But the freight for the mission once seen to, there was not much else to detain them.

The barkentine was only a coaster like many others which had begun to fill the sea a little more of late years, and presently host and guest were riding homeward. Side by side they rode, companions to the eye, but wide apart in mood; within the turbulent young figure of Gaston dwelt a spirit that could not be more at ease, while revolt was steadily kindling beneath the schooled and placid mask of the Padre.

Yet still the strangeness of his situation in such a remote, resourceless place came back as a marvel into the young man's lively mind. Twenty years in prison, he thought, and hardly aware of it! And he glanced at the silent priest. A man so evidently fond of music, of theaters, of the world, to whom pressed flowers had meant something once—and now contented to bleach upon these wastes! Not even desirous of a brief holiday, but finding an old organ and some old operas enough recreation! "It is his age, I suppose," thought Gaston. And then the notion of himself when he should be sixty occurred to him, and he spoke.

"Do you know, I do not believe," said he, "that I should ever reach such contentment as yours."

"Perhaps you will," said Padre Ignacio, in a low voice.

"Never!" declared the youth. "It comes only to the few, I am sure."

"Yes. Only to the few," murmured the Padre.

"I am certain that it must be a great possession," Gaston continued; "and yet—and yet—dear me! life is a splendid thing!"

"There are several ways to live it," said the Padre.

"Only one for me!" cried Gaston. "Action, men, women, things—to be there, to be known, to play a part, to sit in the front seats; to have people tell one another, 'There goes Gaston Villere!' and to deserve one's prominence. Why, if I was Padre of Santa Ysabel del Mar for twenty years—no! for one year—do you know what I should have done? Some day it would have been too much for me. I should have left these savages to a pastor nearer their own level, and I should have ridden down this canyon upon my mule, and stepped on board the barkentine, and gone back to my proper sphere. You will understand, sir, that I am far from venturing to make any personal comment. I am only thinking what a world of difference lies between natures that can feel as alike as we do upon so many subjects. Why, not since leaving New Orleans have I met any one with whom I could talk, except of the weather and the brute interests common to us all. That such a one as you should be here is like a dream."

"But it is not a dream," said the Padre.

"And, sir—pardon me if I do say this—are you not wasted at Santa Ysabel del Mar? I have seen the priests at the other missions. They are—the sort of good men that I expected. But are you needed to save such souls as these?"

"There is no aristocracy of souls," said the Padre, again whispering.

"But the body and the mind!" cried Gaston. "My God, are they nothing? Do you think that they are given to us for nothing but a trap? You cannot teach such a doctrine with your library there. And how about all the cultivated men and women away from whose quickening society the brightest of us grow numb? You have held out. But will it be for long? Are you never to save any souls of your own kind? Are not twenty years of mesclados enough? No, no!" finished young Gaston, hot with his unforeseen eloquence; "I should ride down some morning and take the barkentine."

Padre Ignacio was silent for a space.

"I have not offended you?" asked the young man.

"No. Anything but that. You are surprised that I should—choose—to stay here. Perhaps you may have wondered how I came to be here at all?"

"I had not intended any impertinent—"

"Oh no. Put such an idea out of your head, my son. You may remember that I was going to make you a confession about my operas. Let us sit down in this shade."

So they picketed the mules near the stream and sat down.

IV

"You have seen," began Padre Ignacio, "what sort of a man I—was once. Indeed, it seems very strange to myself that you should have been here not twenty-four hours yet, and know so much of me. For there has come no one else at all"—the Padre paused a moment and mastered the unsteadiness that he had felt approaching in his voice—"there has been no one else to whom I have talked so freely. In my early days I had no thought of being a priest. By parents destined me for a diplomatic career. There was plenty of money and—and all the rest of it; for by inheritance came to me the acquaintance of many people whose names you would be likely to have heard of. Cities, people of fashion, artists—the whole of it was my element and my choice; and by-and-by I married, not only where it was desirable, but where I loved. Then for the first time Death laid his staff upon my enchantment, and I understood many things that had been only words to me hitherto. To have been a husband for a year, and a father for a moment, and in that moment to lose all—this unblinded me. Looking back, it seemed to me that I had never done anything except for myself all my days. I left the world. In due time I became a priest and lived in my own country. But my worldly experience and my secular education had given to my opinions a turn too liberal for the place where my work was laid. I was soon advised concerning this by those in authority over me. And since they could not change me and I could them, yet wished to work and to teach, the New World was suggested, and I volunteered to give the rest of my life to missions. It was soon found that some one was needed here, and for this little place I sailed, and to these humble people I have dedicated my service. They are pastoral creatures of the soil. Their vineyard and cattle days are apt to be like the sun and storm around them—strong alike in their evil and in their good. All their years they live as children—children with men's passions given to them like deadly weapons, unable to measure the harm their impulses may bring. Hence, even in their crimes, their hearts will generally open soon to the one great key of love, while civilization makes locks which that key cannot always fit at the first turn. And coming to know this," said Padre Ignacio, fixing his eyes steadily upon Gaston, "you will understand how great a privilege it is to help such people, and how the sense of something accomplished—under God—should bring Contentment with Renunciation."

"Yes," said Gaston Villere. Then, thinking of himself, "I can understand it in a man like you."

"Do not speak of me at all!" exclaimed the Padre, almost passionately. "But pray Heaven that you may find the thing yourself some day—Contentment with Renunciation—and never let it go."

"Amen!" said Gaston, strangely moved.

"That is the whole of my story," the priest continued, with no more of the recent stress in his voice. "And now I have talked to you about myself quite enough. But you must have my confession." He had now resumed entirely his half-playful tone. "I was just a little mistaken, you see—too self-reliant, perhaps—when I supposed, in my first missionary ardor, that I could get on without any remembrance of the world at all. I found that I could not. And so I have taught the old operas to my choir—such parts of them as are within our compass and suitable for worship. And certain of my friends still alive at home are good enough to remember this taste of mine and to send me each year some of the new music that I should never hear of otherwise. Then we study these things also. And although our organ is a miserable affair, Felipe manages very cleverly to make it do. And while the voices are singing these operas, especially the old ones, what harm is there if sometimes the priest is thinking of something else? So there's my confession! And now, whether Trovatore is come or not, I shall not allow you to leave us until you have taught all you know of it to Felipe."

The new opera, however, had duly arrived. And as he turned its pages Padre Ignacio was quick to seize at once upon the music that could be taken into his church. Some of it was ready fitted. By that afternoon Felipe and his choir could have rendered "Ah! se l' error t' ingombra" without slip or falter.

Those were strange rehearsals of Il Trovatore upon this California shore. For the Padre looked to Gaston to say when they went too fast or too slow, and to correct their emphasis. And since it was hot, the little Erard piano was carried each day out into the mission garden. There, in the cloisters among the jessamine, the orange blossoms, the oleanders, in the presence of the round yellow hills and the blue triangle of sea, the Miserere was slowly learned. The Mexicans and Indians gathered, swarthy and black-haired, around the tinkling instrument that Felipe played; and presiding over them were young Gaston and the pale Padre, walking up and down the paths, beating time or singing now one part and now another. And so it was that the wild cattle on the uplands would hear Trovatore hummed by a passing vaquero, while the same melody was filling the streets of the far-off world.

For three days Gaston Villere remained at Santa Ysabel del Mar; and though not a word of restlessness came from him, his host could read San Francisco and the gold-mines in his countenance. No, the young man could not have stayed here for twenty years! And the Padre forbore urging his guest to extend his visit.

"But the world is small," the guest declared at parting. "Some day it will not be able to spare you any longer. And then we are sure to meet. But you shall hear from me soon, at any rate."

Again, as upon the first evening, the two exchanged a few courtesies, more graceful and particular than we, who have not time, and fight no duels, find worth a man's while at the present day. For duels are gone, which is a very good thing, and with them a certain careful politeness, which is a pity; but that is the way in the eternal profit and loss. So young Gaston rode northward out of the mission, back to the world and his fortune; and the Padre stood watching the dust after the rider had passed from sight. Then he went into his room with a drawn face. But appearances at least had been kept up to the end; the youth would never know of the elder man's unrest.

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