The schoolmaster of Chestnut Ridge was interrupted in his after-school solitude by the click of hoof and sound of voices on the little bridle path that led to the scant clearing in which his schoolhouse stood. He laid down his pen as the figures of a man and woman on horseback passed the windows and dismounted before the porch. He recognized the complacent, good-humored faces of Mr. and Mrs. Hoover, who owned a neighboring ranch of some importance and who were accounted well to do people by the community. Being a childless couple, however, while they generously contributed to the support of the little school, they had not added to its flock, and it was with some curiosity that the young schoolmaster greeted them and awaited the purport of their visit. This was protracted in delivery through a certain polite dalliance with the real subject characteristic of the Southwestern pioneer.
“Well, Almiry,” said Mr. Hoover, turning to his wife after the first greeting with the schoolmaster was over, “this makes me feel like old times, you bet! Why, I ain’t bin inside a schoolhouse since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Thar’s the benches, and the desks, and the books and all them ‘a b, abs,’ jest like the old days. Dear! Dear! But the teacher in those days was ez old and grizzled ez I be—and some o’ the scholars—no offense to you, Mr. Brooks—was older and bigger nor you. But times is changed: yet look, Almiry, if thar ain’t a hunk o’ stale gingerbread in that desk jest as it uster be! Lord! how it all comes back! Ez I was sayin’ only t’other day, we can’t be too grateful to our parents for givin’ us an eddication in our youth;” and Mr. Hoover, with the air of recalling an alma mater of sequestered gloom and cloistered erudition, gazed reverently around the new pine walls.
But Mrs. Hoover here intervened with a gracious appreciation of the schoolmaster’s youth after her usual kindly fashion. “And don’t you forget it, Hiram Hoover, that these young folks of to-day kin teach the old schoolmasters of ‘way back more’n you and I dream of. We’ve heard of your book larnin’, Mr. Brooks, afore this, and we’re proud to hev you here, even if the Lord has not pleased to give us the children to send to ye. But we’ve always paid our share in keeping up the school for others that was more favored, and now it looks as if He had not forgotten us, and ez if”—with a significant, half-shy glance at her husband and a corroborating nod from that gentleman—“ez if, reelly, we might be reckonin’ to send you a scholar ourselves.”
The young schoolmaster, sympathetic and sensitive, felt somewhat embarrassed. The allusion to his extreme youth, mollified though it was by the salve of praise from the tactful Mrs. Hoover, had annoyed him, and perhaps added to his slight confusion over the information she vouchsafed. He had not heard of any late addition to the Hoover family, he would not have been likely to, in his secluded habits; and although he was accustomed to the naive and direct simplicity of the pioneer, he could scarcely believe that this good lady was announcing a maternal expectation. He smiled vaguely and begged them to be seated.
“Ye see,” said Mr. Hoover, dropping upon a low bench, “the way the thing pans out is this. Almiry’s brother is a pow’ful preacher down the coast at San Antonio and hez settled down thar with a big Free Will Baptist Church congregation and a heap o’ land got from them Mexicans. Thar’s a lot o’ poor Spanish and Injin trash that belong to the land, and Almiry’s brother hez set about convertin’ ’em, givin’ ’em convickshion and religion, though the most of ’em is Papists and followers of the Scarlet Woman. Thar was an orphan, a little girl that he got outer the hands o’ them priests, kinder snatched as a brand from the burnin’, and he sent her to us to be brought up in the ways o’ the Lord, knowin’ that we had no children of our own. But we thought she oughter get the benefit o’ schoolin’ too, besides our own care, and we reckoned to bring her here reg’lar to school.”
Relieved and pleased to help the good-natured couple in the care of the homeless waif, albeit somewhat doubtful of their religious methods, the schoolmaster said he would be delighted to number her among his little flock. Had she already received any tuition?
“Only from them padres, ye know, things about saints, Virgin Marys, visions, and miracles,” put in Mrs. Hoover; “and we kinder thought ez you know Spanish you might be able to get rid o’ them in exchange for ‘conviction o’ sins’ and ‘justification by faith,’ ye know.”
“I’m afraid,” said Mr. Brooks, smiling at the thought of displacing the Church’s “mysteries” for certain corybantic displays and thaumaturgical exhibitions he had witnessed at the Dissenters’ camp meeting, “that I must leave all that to you, and I must caution you to be careful what you do lest you also shake her faith in the alphabet and the multiplication table.”
“Mebbee you’re right,” said Mrs. Hoover, mystified but good-natured; “but thar’s one thing more we oughter tell ye. She’s—she’s a trifle dark complected.”
The schoolmaster smiled. “Well?” he said patiently.
“She isn’t a nigger nor an Injin, ye know, but she’s kinder a half-Spanish, half-Mexican Injin, what they call ‘mes—mes’”—
“Mestiza,” suggested Mr. Brooks; “a half-breed or mongrel.”
“I reckon. Now thar wouldn’t be any objection to that, eh?” said Mr. Hoover a little uneasily.
“Not by me,” returned the schoolmaster cheerfully. “And although this school is state-aided it’s not a ‘public school’ in the eye of the law, so you have only the foolish prejudices of your neighbors to deal with.” He had recognized the reason of their hesitation and knew the strong racial antagonism held towards the negro and Indian by Mr. Hoover’s Southwestern compatriots, and he could not refrain from “rubbing it in.”
“They kin see,” interposed Mrs. Hoover, “that she’s not a nigger, for her hair don’t ‘kink,’ and a furrin Injin, of course, is different from one o’ our own.”
“If they hear her speak Spanish, and you simply say she is a foreigner, as she is, it will be all right,” said the schoolmaster smilingly. “Let her come, I’ll look after her.”
Much relieved, after a few more words the couple took their departure, the schoolmaster promising to call the next afternoon at the Hoovers’ ranch and meet his new scholar. “Ye might give us a hint or two how she oughter be fixed up afore she joins the school.”
The ranch was about four miles from the schoolhouse, and as Mr. Brooks drew rein before the Hoovers’ gate he appreciated the devotion of the couple who were willing to send the child that distance twice a day. The house, with its outbuildings, was on a more liberal scale than its neighbors, and showed few of the makeshifts and half-hearted advances towards permanent occupation common to the Southwestern pioneers, who were more or less nomads in instinct and circumstance. He was ushered into a well-furnished sitting room, whose glaring freshness was subdued and repressed by black-framed engravings of scriptural subjects. As Mr. Brooks glanced at them and recalled the schoolrooms of the old missions, with their monastic shadows which half hid the gaudy, tinseled saints and flaming or ensanguined hearts upon the walls, he feared that the little waif of Mother Church had not gained any cheerfulness in the exchange.
As she entered the room with Mrs. Hoover, her large dark eyes—the most notable feature in her small face—seemed to sustain the schoolmaster’s fanciful fear in their half-frightened wonder. She was clinging closely to Mrs. Hoover’s side, as if recognizing the good woman’s maternal kindness even while doubtful of her purpose; but on the schoolmaster addressing her in Spanish, a singular change took place in their relative positions. A quick look of intelligence came into her melancholy eyes, and with it a slight consciousness of superiority to her protectors that was embarrassing to him. For the rest he observed merely that she was small and slightly built, although her figure was hidden in a long “check apron” or calico pinafore with sleeves—a local garment—which was utterly incongruous with her originality. Her skin was olive, inclining to yellow, or rather to that exquisite shade of buff to be seen in the new bark of the madrono. Her face was oval, and her mouth small and childlike, with little to suggest the aboriginal type in her other features.
The master’s questions elicited from the child the fact that she could read and write, that she knew her “Hail Mary” and creed (happily the Protestant Mrs. Hoover was unable to follow this questioning), but he also elicited the more disturbing fact that her replies and confidences suggested a certain familiarity and equality of condition which he could only set down to his own youthfulness of appearance. He was apprehensive that she might even make some remark regarding Mrs. Hoover, and was not sorry that the latter did not understand Spanish. But before he left he managed to speak with Mrs. Hoover alone and suggested a change in the costume of the pupil when she came to school. “The better she is dressed,” suggested the wily young diplomat, “the less likely is she to awaken any suspicion of her race.”
“Now that’s jest what’s botherin’ me, Mr. Brooks,” returned Mrs. Hoover, with a troubled face, “for you see she is a growin’ girl,” and she concluded, with some embarrassment, “I can’t quite make up my mind how to dress her.”
“How old is she?” asked the master abruptly.
“Goin’ on twelve, but,”—and Mrs. Hoover again hesitated.
“Why, two of my scholars, the Bromly girls, are over fourteen,” said the master, “and you know how they are dressed;” but here he hesitated in his turn. It had just occurred to him that the little waif was from the extreme South, and the precocious maturity of the mixed races there was well known. He even remembered, to his alarm, to have seen brides of twelve and mothers of fourteen among the native villagers. This might also account for the suggestion of equality in her manner, and even for a slight coquettishness which he thought he had noticed in her when he had addressed her playfully as a muchacha. “I should dress her in something Spanish,” he said hurriedly, “something white, you know, with plenty of flounces and a little black lace, or a black silk skirt and a lace scarf, you know. She’ll be all right if you don’t make her look like a servant or a dependent,” he added, with a show of confidence he was far from feeling. “But you haven’t told me her name,” he concluded.
“As we’re reckonin’ to adopt her,” said Mrs. Hoover gravely, “you’ll give her ours.”
“But I can’t call her ‘Miss Hoover,’” suggested the master; “what’s her first name?”
“We was thinkin’ o’ ‘Serafina Ann,’” said Mrs. Hoover with more gravity.
“But what is her name?” persisted the master.
“Well,” returned Mrs. Hoover, with a troubled look, “me and Hiram consider it’s a heathenish sort of name for a young gal, but you’ll find it in my brother’s letter.” She took a letter from under the lid of a large Bible on the table and pointed to a passage in it.
“The child was christened ‘Concepcion,’” read the master. “Why, that’s one of the Marys!”
“The which?” asked Mrs. Hoover severely.
“One of the titles of the Virgin Mary; ‘Maria de la Concepcion,’” said Mr. Brooks glibly.
“It don’t sound much like anythin’ so Christian and decent as ‘Maria’ or ‘Mary,’” returned Mrs. Hoover suspiciously.
“But the abbreviation, ‘Concha,’ is very pretty. In fact it’s just the thing, it’s so very Spanish,” returned the master decisively. “And you know that the squaw who hangs about the mining camp is called ‘Reservation Ann,’ and old Mrs. Parkins’s negro cook is called ‘Aunt Serafina,’ so ‘Serafina Ann’ is too suggestive. ‘Concha Hoover’ ‘s the name.”
“P’r’aps you’re right,” said Mrs. Hoover meditatively.
“And dress her so she’ll look like her name and you’ll be all right,” said the master gayly as he took his departure.
Nevertheless, it was with some anxiety the next morning he heard the sound of hoofs on the rocky bridle path leading to the schoolhouse. He had already informed his little flock of the probable addition to their numbers and their breathless curiosity now accented the appearance of Mr. Hoover riding past the window, followed by a little figure on horseback, half hidden in the graceful folds of a serape. The next moment they dismounted at the porch, the serape was cast aside, and the new scholar entered.
A little alarmed even in his admiration, the master nevertheless thought he had never seen a more dainty figure. Her heavily flounced white skirt stopped short just above her white-stockinged ankles and little feet, hidden in white satin, low-quartered slippers. Her black silk, shell-like jacket half clasped her stayless bust clad in an under-bodice of soft muslin that faintly outlined a contour which struck him as already womanly. A black lace veil which had protected her head, she had on entering slipped down to her shoulders with a graceful gesture, leaving one end of it pinned to her hair by a rose above her little yellow ear. The whole figure was so inconsistent with its present setting that the master inwardly resolved to suggest a modification of it to Mrs. Hoover as he, with great gravity, however, led the girl to the seat he had prepared for her. Mr. Hoover, who had been assisting discipline as he conscientiously believed by gazing with hushed, reverent reminiscence on the walls, here whispered behind his large hand that he would call for her at “four o’clock” and tiptoed out of the schoolroom. The master, who felt that everything would depend upon his repressing the children’s exuberant curiosity and maintaining the discipline of the school for the next few minutes, with supernatural gravity addressed the young girl in Spanish and placed before her a few slight elementary tasks. Perhaps the strangeness of the language, perhaps the unwonted seriousness of the master, perhaps also the impassibility of the young stranger herself, all contributed to arrest the expanding smiles on little faces, to check their wandering eyes, and hush their eager whispers. By degrees heads were again lowered over their tasks, the scratching of pencils on slates, and the far-off rapping of Woodpeckers again indicated the normal quiet of the schoolroom, and the master knew he had triumphed, and the ordeal was past.
But not as regarded himself, for although the new pupil had accepted his instructions with childlike submissiveness, and even as it seemed to him with childlike comprehension, he could not help noticing that she occasionally glanced at him with a demure suggestion of some understanding between them, or as if they were playing at master and pupil. This naturally annoyed him and perhaps added a severer dignity to his manner, which did not appear to be effective, however, and which he fancied secretly amused her. Was she covertly laughing at him? Yet against this, once or twice, as her big eyes wandered from her task over the room, they encountered the curious gaze of the other children, and he fancied he saw an exchange of that freemasonry of intelligence common to children in the presence of their elders even when strangers to each other. He looked forward to recess to see how she would get on with her companions; he knew that this would settle her status in the school, and perhaps elsewhere. Even her limited English vocabulary would not in any way affect that instinctive, childlike test of superiority, but he was surprised when the hour of recess came and he had explained to her in Spanish and English its purpose, to see her quietly put her arm around the waist of Matilda Bromly, the tallest girl in the school, as the two whisked themselves off to the playground. She was a mere child after all!
Other things seemed to confirm this opinion. Later, when the children returned from recess, the young stranger had instantly become a popular idol, and had evidently dispensed her favors and patronage generously. The elder Bromly girl was wearing her lace veil, another had possession of her handkerchief, and a third displayed the rose which had adorned her left ear, things of which the master was obliged to take note with a view of returning them to the prodigal little barbarian at the close of school. Later he was, however, much perplexed by the mysterious passage under the desks of some unknown object which apparently was making the circuit of the school. With the annoyed consciousness that he was perhaps unwittingly participating in some game, he finally “nailed it” in the possession of Demosthenes Walker, aged six, to the spontaneous outcry of “Cotched!” from the whole school. When produced from Master Walker’s desk in company with a horned toad and a piece of gingerbread, it was found to be Concha’s white satin slipper, the young girl herself, meanwhile, bending demurely over her task with the bereft foot tucked up like a bird’s under her skirt. The master, reserving reproof of this and other enormities until later, contented himself with commanding the slipper to be brought to him, when he took it to her with the satirical remark in Spanish that the schoolroom was not a dressing room—Camara para vestirse. To his surprise, however, she smilingly held out the tiny stockinged foot with a singular combination of the spoiled child and the coquettish senorita, and remained with it extended as if waiting for him to kneel and replace the slipper. But he laid it carefully on her desk.
“Put it on at once,” he said in English.
There was no mistaking the tone of his voice, whatever his language. Concha darted a quick look at him like the momentary resentment of an animal, but almost as quickly her eyes became suffused, and with a hurried movement she put on the slipper.
“Please, sir, it dropped off and Jimmy Snyder passed it on,” said a small explanatory voice among the benches.
“Silence!” said the master.
Nevertheless, he was glad to see that the school had not noticed the girl’s familiarity even though they thought him “hard.” He was not sure upon reflection but that he had magnified her offense and had been unnecessarily severe, and this feeling was augmented by his occasionally finding her looking at him with the melancholy, wondering eyes of a chidden animal. Later, as he was moving among the desks’ overlooking the tasks of the individual pupils, he observed from a distance that her head was bent over her desk while her lips were moving as if repeating to herself her lesson, and that afterwards, with a swift look around the room to assure herself that she was unobserved, she made a hurried sign of the cross. It occurred to him that this might have followed some penitential prayer of the child, and remembering her tuition by the padres it gave him an idea. He dismissed school a few moments earlier in order that he might speak to her alone before Mr. Hoover arrived.
Referring to the slipper incident and receiving her assurances that “she” (the slipper) was much too large and fell often “so,” a fact really established by demonstration, he seized his opportunity. “But tell me, when you were with the padre and your slipper fell off, you did not expect him to put it on for you?”
Concha looked at him coyly and then said triumphantly, “Ah, no! but he was a priest, and you are a young caballero.”
Yet even after this audacity Mr. Brooks found he could only recommend to Mr. Hoover a change in the young girl’s slippers, the absence of the rose-pinned veil, and the substitution of a sunbonnet. For the rest he must trust to circumstances. As Mr. Hoover—who with large paternal optimism had professed to see already an improvement in her—helped her into the saddle, the schoolmaster could not help noticing that she had evidently expected him to perform that act of courtesy, and that she looked correspondingly reproachful.
“The holy fathers used sometimes to let me ride with them on their mules,” said Concha, leaning over her saddle towards the schoolmaster.
“Eh, what, missy?” said the Protestant Mr. Hoover, pricking up his ears. “Now you just listen to Mr. Brooks’s doctrines, and never mind them Papists,” he added as he rode away, with the firm conviction that the master had already commenced the task of her spiritual conversion.
The next day the master awoke to find his little school famous. Whatever were the exaggerations or whatever the fancies carried home to their parents by the children, the result was an overwhelming interest in the proceedings and personnel of the school by the whole district. People had already called at the Hoover ranch to see Mrs. Hoover’s pretty adopted daughter. The master, on his way to the schoolroom that morning, had found a few woodmen and charcoal burners lounging on the bridle path that led from the main road. Two or three parents accompanied their children to school, asserting they had just dropped in to see how “Aramanta” or “Tommy” were “gettin’ on.” As the school began to assemble several unfamiliar faces passed the windows or were boldly flattened against the glass. The little schoolhouse had not seen such a gathering since it had been borrowed for a political meeting in the previous autumn. And the master noticed with some concern that many of the faces were the same which he had seen uplifted to the glittering periods of Colonel Starbottle, “the war horse of the Democracy.”
For he could not shut his eyes to the fact that they came from no mere curiosity to see the novel and bizarre; no appreciation of mere picturesqueness or beauty; and alas! from no enthusiasm for the progression of education. He knew the people among whom he had lived, and he realized the fatal question of “color” had been raised in some mysterious way by those Southwestern emigrants who had carried into this “free state” their inherited prejudices. A few words convinced him that the unhappy children had variously described the complexion of their new fellow pupil, and it was believed that the “No’th’n” schoolmaster, aided and abetted by “capital” in the person of Hiram Hoover, had introduced either a “nigger wench,” a “Chinese girl,” or an “Injin baby” to the same educational privileges as the “pure whites,” and so contaminated the sons of freemen in their very nests. He was able to reassure many that the child was of Spanish origin, but a majority preferred the evidence of their own senses, and lingered for that purpose. As the hour for her appearance drew near and passed, he was seized with a sudden fear that she might not come, that Mr. Hoover had been prevailed upon by his compatriots, in view of the excitement, to withdraw her from the school. But a faint cheer from the bridle path satisfied him, and the next moment a little retinue swept by the window, and he understood. The Hoovers had evidently determined to accent the Spanish character of their little charge. Concha, with a black riding skirt over her flounces, was now mounted on a handsome pinto mustang glittering with silver trappings, accompanied by a vaquero in a velvet jacket, Mr. Hoover bringing up the rear. He, as he informed the master, had merely come to show the way to the vaquero, who hereafter would always accompany the child to and from school. Whether or not he had been induced to this display by the excitement did not transpire. Enough that the effect was a success. The riding skirt and her mustang’s fripperies had added to Concha’s piquancy, and if her origin was still doubted by some, the child herself was accepted with enthusiasm. The parents who were spectators were proud of this distinguished accession to their children’s playmates, and when she dismounted amid the acclaim of her little companions, it was with the aplomb of a queen.
The master alone foresaw trouble in this encouragement of her precocious manner. He received her quietly, and when she had removed her riding skirt, glancing at her feet, said approvingly, “I am glad to see you have changed your slippers; I hope they fit you more firmly than the others.”
The child shrugged her shoulders. “Quien sabe. But Pedro (the vaquero) will help me now on my horse when he comes for me.”
The master understood the characteristic non sequitur as an allusion to his want of gallantry on the previous day, but took no notice of it. Nevertheless, he was pleased to see during the day that she was paying more attention to her studies, although they were generally rehearsed with the languid indifference to all mental accomplishment which belonged to her race. Once he thought to stimulate her activity through her personal vanity.
“Why can you not learn as quickly as Matilda Bromly? She is only two years older than you,” he suggested.
“Ah! Mother of God!—why does she then try to wear roses like me? And with that hair. It becomes her not.”
The master became thus aware for the first time that the elder Bromly girl, in “the sincerest form of flattery” to her idol, was wearing a yellow rose in her tawny locks, and, further, that Master Bromly with exquisite humor had burlesqued his sister’s imitation with a very small carrot stuck above his left ear. This the master promptly removed, adding an additional sum to the humorist’s already overflowing slate by way of penance, and returned to Concha. “But wouldn’t you like to be as clever as she?—you can if you will only learn.”
“What for should I? Look you; she has a devotion for the tall one—the boy Brown! Ah! I want him not.”
Yet, notwithstanding this lack of noble ambition, Concha seemed to have absorbed the “devotion” of the boys, big and little, and as the master presently discovered even that of many of the adult population. There were always loungers on the bridle path at the opening and closing of school, and the vaquero, who now always accompanied her, became an object of envy. Possibly this caused the master to observe him closely. He was tall and thin, with a smooth complexionless face, but to the master’s astonishment he had the blue gray eye of the higher or Castilian type of native Californian. Further inquiry proved that he was a son of one of the old impoverished Spanish grant holders whose leagues and cattle had been mortgaged to the Hoovers, who now retained the son to control the live stock “on shares.” “It looks kinder ez ef he might hev an eye on that poorty little gal when she’s an age to marry,” suggested a jealous swain. For several days the girl submitted to her school tasks with her usual languid indifference and did not again transgress the ordinary rules. Nor did Mr. Brooks again refer to their hopeless conversation. But one afternoon he noticed that in the silence and preoccupation of the class she had substituted another volume for her text-book and was perusing it with the articulating lips of the unpracticed reader. He demanded it from her. With blazing eyes and both hands thrust into her desk she refused and defied him. Mr. Brooks slipped his arms around her waist, quietly lifted her from the bench—feeling her little teeth pierce the back of his hand as he did so, but secured the book. Two of the elder boys and girls had risen with excited faces.
“Sit down!” said the master sternly.
They resumed their places with awed looks. The master examined the book. It was a little Spanish prayer book. “You were reading this?” he said in her own tongue.
“Yes. You shall not prevent me!” she burst out. “Mother of God! THEY will not let me read it at the ranch. They would take it from me. And now YOU!”
“You may read it when and where you like, except when you should be studying your lessons,” returned the master quietly. “You may keep it here in your desk and peruse it at recess. Come to me for it then. You are not fit to read it now.”
The girl looked up with astounded eyes, which in the capriciousness of her passionate nature the next moment filled with tears. Then dropping on her knees she caught the master’s bitten hand and covered it with tears and kisses. But he quietly disengaged it and lifted her to her seat. There was a sniffling sound among the benches, which, however, quickly subsided as he glanced around the room, and the incident ended.
Regularly thereafter she took her prayer book back at recess and disappeared with the children, finding, as he afterwards learned, a seat under a secluded buckeye tree, where she was not disturbed by them until her orisons were concluded. The children must have remained loyal to some command of hers, for the incident and this custom were never told out of school, and the master did not consider it his duty to inform Mr. or Mrs. Hoover. If the child could recognize some check—even if it were deemed by some a superstitious one—over her capricious and precocious nature, why should he interfere?
One day at recess he presently became conscious of the ceasing of those small voices in the woods around the schoolhouse, which were always as familiar and pleasant to him in his seclusion as the song of their playfellows—the birds themselves. The continued silence at last awakened his concern and curiosity. He had seldom intruded upon or participated in their games or amusements, remembering when a boy himself the heavy incompatibility of the best intentioned adult intruder to even the most hypocritically polite child at such a moment. A sense of duty, however, impelled him to step beyond the schoolhouse, where to his astonishment he found the adjacent woods empty and soundless. He was relieved, however, after penetrating its recesses, to hear the distant sound of small applause and the unmistakable choking gasps of Johnny Stidger’s pocket accordion. Following the sound he came at last upon a little hollow among the sycamores, where the children were disposed in a ring, in the centre of which, with a handkerchief in each hand, Concha the melancholy!—Concha the devout!—was dancing that most extravagant feat of the fandango—the audacious sembicuaca!
Yet, in spite of her rude and uncertain accompaniment, she was dancing it with a grace, precision, and lightness that was wonderful; in spite of its doubtful poses and seductive languors she was dancing it with the artless gayety and innocence—perhaps from the suggestion of her tiny figure—of a mere child among an audience of children. Dancing it alone she assumed the parts of the man and woman; advancing, retreating, coquetting, rejecting, coyly bewitching, and at last yielding as lightly and as immaterially as the flickering shadows that fell upon them from the waving trees overhead. The master was fascinated yet troubled. What if there had been older spectators? Would the parents take the performance as innocently as the performer and her little audience? He thought it necessary later to suggest this delicately to the child. Her temper rose, her eyes flashed.
“Ah, the slipper, she is forbidden. The prayer book—she must not. The dance, it is not good. Truly, there is nothing.”
For several days she sulked. One morning she did not come to school, nor the next. At the close of the third day the master called at the Hoovers’ ranch.
Mrs. Hoover met him embarrassedly in the hall. “I was sayin’ to Hiram he ought to tell ye, but he didn’t like to till it was certain. Concha’s gone.”
“Gone?” echoed the master.
“Yes. Run off with Pedro. Married to him yesterday by the Popish priest at the mission.”
“Married! That child?”
“She wasn’t no child, Mr. Brooks. We were deceived. My brother was a fool, and men don’t understand these things. She was a grown woman—accordin’ to these folks’ ways and ages—when she kem here. And that’s what bothered me.”
There was a week’s excitement at Chestnut Ridge, but it pleased the master to know that while the children grieved for the loss of Concha they never seemed to understand why she had gone.