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San Gabriel Arcángel
The Bells of San Gabriel
Rather a desolate little spot is the campo santo of San Gabriel; rather desolate, and very dusty. The ramshackle wooden crosses stagger wildly on the shapeless mounds; the dilapidated whitewashed railings, cracked and blistered by the sun, look much as though they might be bleached bones, tossed carelessly about; and the badly painted, misspelled inscriptions yield up their brief announcements only to a very patient reader. On the whole, depressing; but in a sleepy, careless way, like the little tumbledown houses of the Mexicans, across the road; like, also, the old Mission itself, yellowing and crumbling in the warm California sun into early decay.
Walking slowly about among the humble mounds, my mind lazily weaving from the names and dates of Sepúlvedas and Argüellos and Yorbas, with their romantic sound, a half-sad, half-delightful tapestry of fancy, I found myself at one inclosure of an appearance so different that I stopped to regard it particularly. It was the grave of a poor person, clearly, and not in that way noteworthy, for poverty was the air of the whole place. But it was carefully fenced with a high white railing; there were fresh flowers upon it; and it was evident that affectionate hands tended it. The short inscription, translated from its Spanish, recorded -
Ysabel, wife of Ramon Enriquez,
Eighteen years old, married, and dead! a sad strand of color this, to run into my tapestry, gay with silver lace, coquettish fans, and high-heeled Spanish slippers. Eighteen years old, married, and dead; and muy querida, much beloved! My thoughts stayed behind, as I moved on, and the words, with their soft inflection, would recur dreamily to me, again and again - muy querida; alas! muy querida.
In the shade of a high remaining piece of the ancient mudbrick wall, three Mexicans, with cigarettes and sombreros, and gaudy as tulips in their striped serapes, were gambling, sleepily, at cards: from one of the little houses came the sleepy tinkling of a mandolin - muy querida. I wandered over to the edge of the little cemetery, and, sitting down, leaned against the hot wall, under the sleepy, flickering shade of the neglected olives and expiring walnuts of the Mission garden. Sleepily I watched the anxious labors of a hornet, busily building its nest of clay. A dragonfly hung for a moment before me, then alighted on a leaf and was suddenly smitten asleep. Everything drowsed, except the everlasting sun, pouring down ceaselessly his shriveling rays. Again, over and over, my mind dreamily repeated the words - only eighteen, married, and dead: muy querida.
The bells of the Mission are ringing, clear and strong, under the practiced hand of old Gregorio. Who can ring like he? And to-day, of all days, he is doing his best, for it is the fiesta of the blessed San Gabriel himself, and there are people come from all the towns of the valley, to say nothing of Los Angeles, to the fiesta. Not but what the saint has his day every year; but this particular day is a day of days, a fiesta of fiestas: for the Padre has arranged a procession in San Gabriel's honor, and what Mexican would not ride thirty miles to see a procession? So to the hitching-posts all up the long street are tied tired horses that have come that hot morning from San Fernando, and Calabasas, and farther still. And here and there is a wagon that has brought a whole family, all to do honor to San Gabriel, and to see the sight of the day. And that is, preëminently, Ysabel Alvarado, the beauty of the valley, who is to walk at the head of the procession to the church.
The heart of the beautiful Ysabel is in commotion, somewhat like the bells themselves, as she listens to them and to the clamor of the children, who began to gather an hour ago before the cottage, and are now shrilly calling, "Y-sa-bel." And she can hardly stand still while her mother is busily putting the last touches to the wonderful array in which she is to appear. Never before has any girl of the village had clothes so beautiful, entirely of white, yes, even to the shoes and their rosettes and laces, all of white, so dear to the Mexican heart. Moreover, there was the thought of Ramon; Ramon, who she thought loved her: to-day would surely prove it, when he saw her so dressed, like - yes, indeed - like a grand señorita. Ramon had been working in Los Angeles, and there there were so many - she sighed to think how many - girls for him to choose from. But to-day he was to be here: old Marta, her mother, had found out, and told her: and to-day would surely tell. There were others, of course: Ramon's friend, Felipe, for instance: he was clever, and sang well, and she knew he liked her. But it was Ramon's face that would come between her and the little square of looking-glass; and it was Ramon, too, who came into her mind - the saints forgive her! - even when she turned for a moment to her little crucifix, to say a prayer for good fortune, special good fortune, that day.
At last all was ready, even to the final brushing that her mother must give to the glossy hair which, parted by the dark, beautiful face, fell in a rippling shower almost to her knee. It is no wonder that Marta says, as she hovers, brush in hand, about her, "Thou art like the great picture of the blessed Santa Bárbara, child, that I used to see in the Mission where I lived when I was as young as you"; and, to herself, "Ramon had best take care. Such flowers are not to be plucked every day as my Ysabelita." And it is no wonder that when Ysabel appears at the door, carrying carefully upright the waxen, fragrant spire of white lilies for San Gabriel which the Padre has sent to Los Angeles to procure, the excited expectation of the village and its visitors releases itself in a prolonged "Ah!" that nearly makes her laugh outright with happy pride. Least of all is it any wonder that Ramon Enriquez, gazing with all his soul, says, under his breath, "She is like an angel of heaven; yes, truly an angel is she, my Ysabel."
The bells of the Mission ring happily, happily, as the little procession passes into the church: Muy querida, muy querida.
Again the bells are swinging and ringing in the hot, sunny air. But it is not old Gregorio who rings now, one maybe sure, so irregular are the strokes - loud, soft, quick, slow - as if the green old bells were actually out of breath with laughing. No, Gregorio has rung for thirty, yes, nearly forty years, and his ringing is as steady as the pendulum of the Padre's great clock. Ah, it is Juan, young scapegrace! that rings, and out of breath, truly, is he; so that for once he is ready to obey when admonished by the Padre to leave off. "What a noise thou art making, Juanito! I think San Gabriel will be stopping his ears. Run up the choir steps, boy, and call to me if thou seest them coming." Willingly enough the bare-legged urchin raced away, and, perched like an acrobat on the narrow rail, holding by a trailing branch of the pepper tree, shielded his merry black eyes as he gazed up the road. His slender stock of patience was nearly exhausted before the sound of music reached his ears, and started his feet shuffling. "Padre, oh, Padre," he cried, "they are coming. I can hear the violin: it is Pedro that plays, I would bet anything. Ah, be can play! Yes, and Marta is coming first with the holy water."
Down the road comes, again, a procession. One half of the village is in it, and the other half views it with animated admiration from doorways and verandas. Marta, her old black dress for once cast aside, arrayed in yellow and red, leads the van, as she has at every wedding for twenty years. Following her come three musicians; Pedro, in the center, his gray, thin hair straggling over the collar of his well-brushed long black coat, with young Vicente and Arturo, the bridegroom's brothers, one on either side, accompanying Pedro's weird, thin-blooded strain with thrumming mandolins. Next come, by two and two, six little girls, pretty as angels, with little wild sunflowers in their glossy tresses, and carrying, with conscious pride, large bunches of red roses. And here are the bride and bridegroom, Ysabel Alvarado, the flower of San Gabriel, and Ramon Enriquez, to whose proud, dark face hers is often lifted with happy smiles at the words of admiration and friendly wishes that reach their ears.
Now, Juan, ring your loudest, and no one will complain: Muy querida, muy querida . . .
It is the big bell, only, of the Mission, that is ringing now, the one in the top embrasure of the arched campanario. It rings steady and clear, as Gregorio always makes it, but slowly, and the sound that trembles heavily out upon the heat-laden air settles down upon the village like a noonday shadow. Again there are people gathered for a simple procession, and horses are tied to the posts along the street. But this time it is not at old Marta's house that the people are, gathered, but at the new, white cottage that Ramon Enriquez built, a year ago, for his bride. Juan, merry and mischievous as a blue jay generally, is sober as he hovers on the outskirts of the little group of people. Again the six little girls are waiting, two and two, but they carry white flowers, lilies, roses, and jessamine. Presently Marta appears, a creeping, somber figure, black from head to foot.
The straggling group moves up the street, old Marta at the head, talking to herself, and shaking her head. As they near the Mission the great door opens, and the Padre comes out, followed by four young men, who carry - alas! my heart tells me what they carry - the brightness and lightness of the face and form of Ysabel Enriquez: and there lies upon her breast a tiny baby form. Alas! muy querida! Ramon walks behind, and looks neither to right nor left, as they take their place at the head of the little procession. And so they go, up the white, dusty road, to the campo santo.
Muy querida, muy querida, says the great bell: slower and slower, muy querida, muy . . . and so, ceases.
The sun was going down, its warm light dying away up the ancient wall. Far away sounded the faint thrumming of the mandolin in the cottage across the road: the three Mexicans were still silently gambling.
Yes, it is a desolate little spot, the campo santo of San Gabriel.
] The foregoing sketch was written some short time ago, before certain renovations were made about the cemetery which have changed the "atmosphere" of the place. I confess to an unreasonable wish that God's Acre might have been spared by the industrious hand of the whitewasher, when the zeal for "cleaning up" seized upon the village fathers of San Gabriel.