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Drawing of San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano

The Penance of Magdalena

Slowly, very slowly, the greatest and most beautiful of the Missions of Alta California had risen among the swelling lomas of the valley of the San Juan. Brick by brick and stone by stone the simple Indian laborers, under the tutelage of the Fathers, had reared a structure which, in its way and place, might not unfitly be compared with those great cathedrals of Europe in which we see, as in a parable, how inward love and faith work out in material beauty. Huge timbers of pine and sycamore, hewn on Palomar, the Mountain of Doves, many miles away, had been hauled by oxen over trackless hill and valley, to form the joists and rafters that one sees to-day, after the lapse of more than a century, firm and serviceable, fastened with wooden spikes and stout rawhide lashings.

In all these labors Teófilo had taken a principal part. As a child he had been christened with the name of Lucas, and had carried it through boyhood. But when about fourteen years of age, he had been transferred from the duties of a herder to learn the simple crafts taught in the workshops; and his industry and intelligence had so commended him to the overseers and Padre Josef that one day the latter, praising him for some task especially well performed, had said, half in jest, "Hijo mio, we must christen you over again. You are excelentísimo, as San Lucas said of San Teófilo in the superscription to his holy evangel; so I shall call you Teófilo, excelentísimo Teófilo, instead of Lucas; why not?" And Teófilo the boy became from that day, though Lucas he remained in the record of baptisms kept in the tall sheepskin volume in the Father's closet.

So useful and diligent was the boy that the Father soon took him to be his own body servant, and many an hour did Teófilo pass handling with religious care the sacred vessels and vestments and books in the sacristy and in the Father's rooms. One day the Father noticed with displeasure that on the blank flyleaf of his best illuminated missal, lately sent to him by a friend in his old college at Córdoba, in Spain, there were some rough drawings in red and blue. Evidently the person who had drawn them had tried to obliterate his work, but had only partly succeeded. The Father could not help noticing, however, that, crude as were the formal floral designs and sacred emblems that had been copied by the culprit from the emblazoned letterings and chapter headings of the missal, the work showed undoubted taste and talent; and this gave him an idea. Why should he not adorn with frescoes, in color, the cornices, and perhaps even the dome, of the new church? It would be a notable addition, and would give a finishing touch to the beauty of the building, if it could be done. And here, evidently, was a hand that might be trained to do it - the hand, probably, of his favorite, Teófilo, for he alone had access to the book-shelves in the Father's room.

So when next he saw the boy he asked, "Teófilo, who has been drawing in my new missal?" The boy hung his head, and the Father, taking his silence as an admission of guilt, added, "That was wrong of you, Teófilo, and I must give you some penance to remind you not to do such mischief again. Do you know, boy, what that book is worth? Not less than twenty pesos, Teófilo, or even more. That is one year's wages of Agustín the mayordomo, so you can see such things must be left alone. But come to me this evening after the Doctrina, and I will set you your penance."

When the boy, with downcast look, came to him in his room that evening, the Father said to him, "What made you do it, Teófilo?" And the boy answered "I did not mean to do harm, Padre, but the pictures are so beautiful, and I tried to make some like them. Then I tried to rub them out, but they would not come off." The Father smiled indulgently. "No, my son," he said, "the wrong things we do, even innocently, do not come off. You must remember that in future. But they can be forgiven by the good God, Teófilo, and even so I forgive you for the book. And your penance shall be to come each evening at this time and learn to draw properly. What do you say?"

"Oh, Padre!" cried the boy; and he took the Father's hand and put it, Indian fashion, to his forehead in token of gratitude.

Agustín the mayordomo was, next to the Father, the most important man about the Mission. He it was who, under the priest's supervision, had charge not only of the labors and general governance of the Indians, but also of the business affairs of the establishment, even to the care and sale of the cattle, hides, and tallow, which, produced in enormous quantity, were almost the only, but a quite considerable, source of revenue to all the California Missions. Agustín was a half-breed, or mestizo, the son of one of the Spanish soldiers who had come to Alta California with Serra and Portolá. His mother was an Indian woman, to whom his father had been married by Father Serra himself. That was in 1776, the year of the establishment of the Mission, and Agustín, the oldest son of the marriage, had risen before the age of thirty-five to his important post, partly by natural ability, and partly by the fact of his mixed Spanish blood, which of itself gave him prestige and authority with the Indians. He had quarters adjoining those of the Father, on the main corridor of the cuadro.

His family consisted of his wife, Juana, chief of the lavanderas, or washwomen, and several children, the oldest of whom, Magdalena, was now growing into the fresh and early womanhood of these Southern races. Already she had lovers, who took such opportunities as the strict discipline of the Mission life allowed (and they were rare) to endeavor to awake a response in her heart. But she held herself aloof from all. Proud of the Spanish blood in her veins, though that blood was but that of a common soldier, she counted herself to be of the gente de razon, far above the level of the mere Indians, her mother's people. And, indeed, in her finer features, quick glance, and more spirited bearing, the difference of strain was manifest: the Latin admixture, though only fractional, justified itself in evident supremacy over the aborigine.

This proud element in Magdalena's nature had the unfortunate effect of bringing her into conflict with the Father and the Church. Not that she would, out of mere perverseness, have refused obedience, but the Father, himself a Spaniard, viewed all who were not of the sangre pura as Indians, all alike. This the girl felt and resented, and her resentment, though unexpressed, showed in numberless ways; while the Father, on his part, viewed her only as an obstinate Indian child, naturally averse to good influences.

It chanced one day that Agustín, overlooking the making of adobe bricks at the clay pits a mile from the Mission, needed to send a message to the Father on some point concerning the work; and, Magdalena having been sent to carry their midday meal to the brick-makers, he entrusted her with the errand. Failing to find the Father in his private room, she went to the next door of the corridor. It was half open, and she glanced in. The Father was not there, but she saw, bending over a table set against the window, a young man. His back was turned to her, and he was so intent upon his occupation that he had not heard her step. She should have turned and gone, for the rules were strict, and forbade conversation between the girls and young men of the Mission: but her curiosity was keen to know what the Indian boy (as she knew he must be) was doing in the Father's quarters, and what it could be that kept him so absorbed. Moreover, a spirit of defiance was in her. If the Father found her loitering there he would reprimand her. Well, she would break the rules: she was no Indian; and if he caught her there she would tell him so. Yes, she would see what the young man was doing; she wanted to know, and she would know. Quietly she stole into the room and edged round to one side go that she could see partly across the table. The young man was painting, in wonderful colors, on a sheet of parchment, painting wonderful things - beasts, and birds, and flowers, and even angels, a wonder of wonders to the simple girl.

At some involuntary sound that she made, the young man - it was Teófilo - turned and saw her. Her eyes were fixed upon him, wide with wonder, and her hands half raised in childlike rapture, while her slender figure, so different from the heavier forms of the Indian girls, gave her, to his eyes, the look and bearing of one of the very angels he had been copying. It was a marvel on his side, too; and for a few moments the two regarded each other, while love (that is born so often of sudden wonder in innocent hearts) awoke and stirred in both their breasts. They had often met before, but it had been casually, and the hour had not been ripe. Now he saw her and loved her; she saw him, an Indian, indeed, but transfigured, for he was an Indian who worked wonders. And the Spaniard in her gave way, that moment, to the Indian, and she loved an Indian, as her father had done.

He was the first to recover his self-possession. "The Father is not here," he said. "He will be back soon, for he set me my task until he should return, and I have almost done it." "Is that your task?" she asked. "How beautiful! How wonderful!" And she stepped nearer the table. "Show me, how do you make them? I never thought that Indians could make such things. I have heard my father say that holy men in Spain could make angels, but you are an Indian: how can you do it?" "I cannot tell you," he said slowly: then "Yes, I will tell you," and a flush came on his dark face, and a light into his eyes, as he looked at her. "I do not make them, these angels; they come to me because the Father has taught me to love them. He says the angels come to those who love them, and any one can love them. And when I saw you," he went on, his eyes upon her eager face, "I thought you were the angel I was painting, for you are like an angel, too; and now I shall always love you, and it will be easy to paint. Listen! the Father is coming. You must go quickly, but now I have seen you I must see you again. You are Magdalena, Agustín's daughter. I shall find you to-morrow when I take the orders for the work to your father."

Magdalena slipped away, and thus was begun the short but happy love of Teófilo and Magdalena short, like the history of the beautiful Mission itself; happy, as all love is happy, let its end be what it may. Many a time they met in secret, for sweet interviews or even a hurried word or glance; but love grows best in the shade. And meanwhile, the great church had been growing too, and now it was Teófilo's proud task to paint the frescoes on the walls and dome, as the Father had hoped. Simple designs they were to be at first, - floral emblems and the symbols used for ages by the Church, but later Teófilo was to essay much more ambitious things, perhaps even the archangels, and San Juan, the soldier-saint, himself.

It was the winter of 1812, and Teófilo and Magdalena had loved each other for over a year, when Teófilo one day spoke to the Father of Magdalena, and said that he wished to marry her. For months Magdalena had tried to be dutiful and to engage the Father's interest, on her side, in their favor, in preparation for Teófilo's broaching of the subject to him. But she felt always that he remembered her old hostility, and that he still considered her a mere disaffected Indian of his flock. They had often talked of this, but Teófilo, who loved the Father for the special kindness he had always shown him, believed that he would agree to the marriage. Why should he not? he said. It would make no difference to him, and he, Teófilo, would work better than ever, to show his gratitude.

When at last he spoke of the matter, the Father peremptorily denied his request. Agustín's daughter was an obstinate, perverse child, and would only lead Teófilo away too. He would give thought to the matter, and would see what girl there was suitable for him, and then, if he wished to marry, well and good. He would give them two rooms in the corridor, near his own, and would allow him pay as his body servant and for his work, and perhaps other privileges as well. And that was all; for Teófilo knew that he would not be moved from his decision. Good man as the Father was, he had the Spaniard's failing in dealing with a subject race a certain hardness arising from a position of authority not allied with responsibility - except to God, and that, indeed, the Father felt, but he conceived that his duty to his Indians, apart from his spiritual ministrations, was entirely comprised in the teaching, feeding, and just governing of them.

When Teófilo told Magdalena, at their next meeting, what the Father had said, the girl was enraged. "So he thinks I am not good enough for you!" she cried: "And I have done everything to please him. But he is only a priest, and has no heart. Ah! those Spaniards, I hate them!" And then, with a woman's illogical turn - "Well, he shall see that I am Spanish too. We will go away to the Mission at San Diego, Teófilo. My father's brother is there, and I have heard my father say that he has influence with the priest. He will marry us, and you can work there as well as here."

But Teófilo was in doubt. His love for Magdalena and his love and reverence for the Father contended. He was a simple, guileless soul, and the thought of ingratitude to his benefactor was a misery to him. Some other way must be found: the saints would help them; he would pray to San Lucas, who, the Father had told him, was his patron, for he had been born on his day and christened by his name: and Magdalena must pray, too.

Magdalena, however, took up now an attitude of open rebellion, and absented herself entirely from the services of the Church. This was another trouble to Teófilo, and daily over his work he prayed to San Lucas, and pondered what was best to do. But days and weeks went on, and his inward disquiet began to take effect in his appearance and behavior. The Father, busy with the multitudinous affairs of the Mission, had entirely forgotten the matter of Teófilo's request: but one day he chanced to notice his favorite's listless air, and it recalled the affair to his mind. A day or two afterwards he said to Teófilo, as the latter was with him in the sacristy, "Teófilo, you are dull and not yourself. You were right, it is time you were married, and I have the very one for you. It is Ana, the daughter of Manuel, who works in the smith's shop. She is a good girl. I will speak of it to her father."

"Padre," said Teófilo, "I cannot marry Ana, nor any one else but Magdalena, for I love her. Oh, Padre," - and he dropped on his knees before the priest, - "let us be married. You do not know, she has tried hard to be good, and to please you. And I will work for you all my life. I have been praying to San Lucas ever since I told you, but he has not done anything."

The priest was moved by the earnestness of the boy - for boy he had always considered him, and indeed he was little more in age. "Well, hijo mio," he said, "I do not know about that. The saints always hear us, as I have told you, and perhaps - who knows? - San Lucas may do something yet. Or, perhaps," he added with a smile, "it is because we changed your name, and he does not look on you as his son. Well, that was my fault. But you say that Magdalena has tried to please me? Good, then we will see. I will set her a penance, for she has not behaved well; then I shall see if she wishes to please me. To-morrow will be a day of observance, and there will be early mass in the church. Tell Magdalena, Teófilo, that she must come to mass and carry a penitent's candle. Let her be in the front row of the women. If I see her there I shall know she is obedient, and perhaps, yes, perhaps, - well, we will see about the rest."

"Oh, Padre," Teófilo exclaimed, "you are my padre, indeed;" and he put the priest's hand to his forehead. "I know she will come, and I know she wishes to please you. And Padre," he said, "I have made a picture of the angels of La Navidad. I did it to please you" (he was about to add, "and Magdalena," but prudence stopped him in time). "I thought - I thought - "

"Well, what did you think, hijo mio?" asked the priest.

"I thought, Padre, that if you liked it, and said it was done well, it would be fine on the high roof, Padre, the angels, four of them, in the middle of the roof: like this, Padre, see!" An he raised his hands in the attitude in which he had seen Magdalena when she met him in the Father's room. "I could do it, Padre, if you like it."

"Angels, Teófilo!" said the Father. "Hm! I do not know. It is hard to paint the holy angels, and diligent as you have been, I hardly think you are an Angelico. But go and bring what you have done, and I will see. Indeed, it is just what I would have, but it must be well done, or it will spoil the rest."

The boy ran off, and returned quickly with a large sheepskin on which he had drawn in colors a really fine design: four angels in attitudes of worship, with uplifted hands, and eyes that expressed, crudely yet well, the wonder that the Holy Ones might well feel at the Miracle of the Manger.

"Ah, and did you really draw this?" asked the priest. "It is excellent, Teófilo; we must make a painter of you in earnest; perhaps we might even send you to Mexico to be taught by a good artist. There is one of the Brothers at the College of San Fernando who would train you well. I think this is what San Lucas has been doing for you, after all. But how did you do it, Teófilo? What did you draw from?"

"Padre," said Teófilo tremblingly, "I will tell you, but do not be angry. It was Magdalena. I saw her once, at first, and she was like that, yes, exactly like that, with her hands up, so. She was like one of the angels in your new missal, and I remembered, and drew it many times over, and do you really think it will do for the church, Padre?" he finished eagerly, his face aflush with excitement.

"Yes, it is certainly good enough, Teófilo," said the Father. "We will have gold round the heads and golden stars on the robes, and San Juan's church shall be the finest in California. Though how it comes that the girl Magdalena can have been your model passes my understanding. Indeed, I think it is the good San Lucas, or San Juan himself, who has helped you. Well, you deserve praise, Teófilo, and perhaps some reward. But go now, and tell Magdalena to come to first mass to-morrow, as I said. You may take a candle from the sacristy and give it to her."

That evening Teófilo told Magdalena all that had happened. But her Spanish blood was in hot rebellion, and in spite of her love and Teófilo's entreaties, she would not give in. To carry a candle, as if she were one of the Indian girls, caught in disgrace! No, it was too much. Why, the whole pueblo would see her, and laugh (which, indeed, was true for she had held herself above the girls of the Mission, and was not loved by them). In vain Teófilo told her of the Father's words about sending him to Mexico to become a real painter. No, it would be a victory for the Father if she gave in, and he should see that she was Spanish as well as he. And contemptuously she tossed the candle aside into the chia bushes in the courtyard, where they talked in the shadow of the arches.

It was with a heavy heart that Teófilo left her, yet with a faint hope that she might repent and come to mass in the morning. It was a dull, oppressive night, such as comes rarely in California, even in the summer heats. Teófilo slept but little, and twice during the night he got up from his bench bed and prayed to San Lucas, for this seemed to be the final chance for his and Magdalena's happiness, and after his interview with the Father all had seemed so bright that it was hard now to give up hope. Magdalena, on her part, slept not at all, but she did not pray. Instead, she lay with wide-open eyes in the darkness of her little windowless room, looking up at the low ceiling and fighting over in her heart the old battle of love and pride. One might say that love stood for the Indian and pride for the Spaniard in her, and that it was an incident in the old feud that began with Cortés and Malinche. And then she thought of what Teófilo had told her, how he had told the Father about painting the angels for the church because he had seen her standing with upraised hands, like an angel, that day. Poor Teófilo! how he loved her! and how she loved him, too! It was hard, very hard, that there was so much trouble. How happy they might be! And he was so clever, and might be a real painter, not working in the fields or at the workshops, but only painting angels and beautiful things. And she was the cause, in a way, of his being so clever she was proud of that, and the thought made her glow, simple Indian girl as she was, with a woman's sweetest thrill - he was clever because of her! Yet now she must spoil it all, and all for the Father's hardness.

But then, must she? - for she knew that it lay with her, after all. She could make all so happy why not? Ah, but the humiliation! No, she could not. But could she not? The humiliation would soon be over, and the prize was so great. They might be married, and even at once. Yes and no, yes and no - so the fight went on, as the hours dragged past and the heavy air pressed upon her restless nerves and forbade sleep.

It would soon be dawn, and now she must decide. Then the thought came to her, should she pray to San Lucas, as Teófilo had been doing? Perhaps after all he would help them. She got up, and creeping quietly into the adjoining room, where her father and mother were asleep, she knelt at the little crucifix that hung on the wall, and tried to pray. But no words would come, and she was about to rise and go back to her bed when it seemed as if words were whispered in her ear, echoes carried in the brain from something she had once heard, no doubt, in the church - ". . . levantó á los humildes . . . raised up the humble. . ." She had noticed the words, because they were so averse to her ways of thought: the humble, why, that was like the Indians whom she had always despised. But, after all, perhaps that was San Lucas's answer; for she saw that it would settle all her trouble. Well, be it so she would be humble, if San Lucas told her; and she would obey the Father, and then, at last, all would be well.

She rose, and, remembering the hateful candle, went into the quadrangle and searched for it. There it lay among the chias, and she picked it up and carried it to her room. Light was dawning in the east, and she did not lie down again, but stood in her door, making up her mind to the humiliation she was to undergo for the sake of Teófilo and their love. She did not waver now; indeed, in her young, strong passion she gloried in the sacrifice she would make for love's sake. She dressed herself with care. They ate no meal that day before mass, which was to be at six in the morning. If only, she thought, she could tell Teófilo that she had resolved to do the penance, it would make it so much easier; but there would be no way of seeing him until they were at the service, and then the men would be on one side and the women on the other; so he would not know until he saw her, and perhaps he would not look, for she had said she would not go. Then a thought came to her with delicious joy: she would make up to him, and punish herself, for having refused, by waiting till the people were all in the church, and then going in alone, so that everybody would see her, and Teófilo would see what she could do for him.

Solemnly the great bell sounded out the summons to prayer. It was a special day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and all were expected to come to mass, old and young. The morning was heavy and airless, and the people, rising from sleepless or restless beds, moved languidly and in hardly broken silence toward the church, and, entering, ranged themselves, men and women separately, on either side of the building, facing the altar. Teófilo was in his usual place, near the front, and on the margin of the open aisle that divided the sexes. All had gathered before the bell ceased to sound, but Magdalena was not there. With a sinking heart Teófilo had watched, hoping against hope that she would repent and come. He saw Agustín and Juana come in, and Agustín go to the place near the altar which he held as mayordomo, while Juana merged in the crowd of undistinguished Indian women. So Magdalena was obstinate, and the prospect of happiness that had looked so bright yesterday was all over and spoiled. But he must not blame her: she was not just an Indian, like him. And with a sigh he ceased to watch the doorway and turned to face the altar.

The Father entered, and bent the knee before the altar in view of the congregation, who also had knelt on his appearing. The church was in darkness but for the illumination of candles about the altar and a gray and sickly daylight that came in at the open door. As the Father turned to the people there was a stir among the women who had taken places near the entrance, and a figure appeared, carrying a lighted candle. It was Magdalena. She walked steadily up the passageway between the men and the women toward the priest, who stood facing her. A black shawl was thrown over her head, and her face, pale with sleeplessness and trouble, and lighted by the candle she carried, seemed to glow against its dark background as if illuminated from within. Teófilo had turned at the sound of her entrance, and watched her as if fascinated during her passage up the aisle. She did not see him, for her eyes were on the ground: but she knew his place, for he had often told her; and as she came near to where he was kneeling she turned a little toward him, and murmured, so that only he should understand, "It is for thee, Teófilo."

As she came close to the altar step, the Father's eyes rested on her with a glance that seemed to say, "It is well, my daughter." Then he began the service, while Magdalena knelt in the front row of the women. There was an unusual stillness among the people, for the incident of Magdalena's penance had not been known, and had taken all but Teófilo and the Father by surprise; while the sultry half darkness and the stagnant air seemed to add to the feeling of awe. So the service proceeded.

Suddenly, without warning, at the offertory, destruction broke. There came a shock; a pause of terror; another shock, that made the solid walls rock to and fro; a terrible cry, "El temblor!" and in panic the people rose from their knees and rushed toward the door. A third shock came, heavier than the other two; and cornices and masses of plaster began to fall.

At the first cry of the frightened people Teófilo had risen to his feet. He looked to where Magdalena had been kneeling, and saw her standing, still holding her penitent's candle alight in her hand. As the people rushed toward the door both he and Magdalena were almost carried away by the panic-stricken throng; but he made his way to her, and they two were for a few moments alone, but for the priest, near the altar. When the third shock came he threw his arms about her. She seemed to have no fear, nor had he. The spirits of both had been under strain, and one thing only had been in their thoughts for hours before, so that they were in great degree oblivious to the general terror. As Teófilo put his arms about her, a bright smile came on her white face, and she said, pointing to the candle, "It was hard, but I prayed to San Lucas, and he told me to do it, and now we can be married." The shock continued, and became more violent. Pointing to the candle she said again, "I did it for thee, Teófilo mio." As she spoke, there came a terrifying sound from above: the great stone dome above them parted, and looking up they saw for a moment the calm face of the sky through a jagged rent in the roof; then the ponderous structure crashed down in ruin upon them and the huddled crowd of Indians that still struggled for escape.

They were found the next day, their bodies crushed together. In her hand was still the penitent's candle.

In one grave the Father, who escaped the death that fell that day upon twoscore of his flock, buried Teófilo and Magdalena; for, said he, making over them the Holy Sign, they were married, indeed, though in death. Still may be seen on the shattered walls and roof of the Mission church some faded, simple frescoings, the unfinished task and the memorial of Teófilo, the painter-neophyte of San Juan Capistrano.

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